Ludwig Wittgenstein

By: Mark Kingwell
April 26, 2010

The thought of Austrian-English philosopher LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN (1889-1951) is typically broken into two distinct periods. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1929), his early masterpiece of numbered propositions, includes famously gnomic statements such as “The world is all that is the case” and “Whereof we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence.” The air of mystery around this book, written during the First World War, has led some to see the Tractarian Wittgenstein as a kind of mystic. He was not; but he was certainly a brilliantly imaginative philosopher, perhaps the most vivid mind to enter the field since Spinoza. The major text of his late period, Philosophical Investigations, rejects the views of “the author of the Tractatus” even as it deepens the problems of language and meaning. Published just after Wittgenstein’s death, this loopy sui generis book is the most significant single work of philosophy in the twentieth century. Every central problem of thought is addressed, aided by (among other things) primitive builders, talking lions, people learning to count, people crying out in pain, and the profound insight that we play language as a series of games. A cult of personality developed around Wittgenstein at Cambridge, with disciples who jealously protected his image and posthumous publications. But he didn’t need the shielding, for his thought transcends his life. As he might have said himself, A picture held them captive.

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  1. Thanks guys! One thing I did not mention is Derek Jarman’s sorta-biopic of LW, which I personally like but which has a divisive effect on philosophers. Jarman mixes the early and late periods, for one thing. BUT the guy who plays LW bears an uncanny resemblance to the philosopher. Worth a look for Jarman fans anyway…

  2. Re: the Jarman flick – that actor did look like LW. But honestly, did we really need a blue Martian to emphasize how weird constructing and understanding a philosophy of language, with that language, was? I remember being pretty angry after that movie (still am, some 15 yrs later) at what an appalling job they did explaining *any aspect of LW’s thought or life.

    The work is *not unexplainable, as you have so admirably shown in 200 words or less! Further, the man himself was an alembic of 19th and 20th century thought and social trends, and he felt both the agony and the promise that such an intersection entails as a personal, outrageous, unbearable, yet necessary, demand: “…wrestling to say, to cut loose / from the high unimaginable hook…”

    If a director is going to back off from philosophy as too hard, or at least “too hard to explain to you lot,” he could at least have delved into the real Romance-with-a-capital-R of LW’s life, which was ridiculously cinematic: industrialist family, high society Vienna, the tortured artistic brothers and sisters, writing the Tractatus in WWI trenches, giving away the fortune, golden boy of Cambridge, “I’ve always wanted to pretend to be an architect,” scolding his boyfriends for reading books, turning his own work inside-out, the ascetic huts on ragged coasts, and folding an ethics into his pedagogy with his almost mineralogical expectations: his students weren’t just supposed to think with an ice-cold clarity, they were supposed to do it with a red-hot passion. Island-mountain-glacier, indeed!

    But Jarman just put a guy in shirtsleeves in front of a blackboard, wheeled in a Martian, and left it at that. Bergman! Godard! Merchant and Ivory! Or even, I don’t know, maybe Lars von Trier?

  3. Wow, awesome comment Peggy!

    And yes, I understand how the blue martian can be a deal-breaker for a lot of people…

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