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Hans Sluga

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Hans Sluga

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"Sluga draws a fascinating picture of Wittgenstein as a situated thinker: brilliant insights into the cultural background mesh with an often original and always profound understanding of Wittgenstein's work, yielding an accessible and illuminating account of his thought."
Joachim Schulte, University of Zurich

"Concise, clear, and accessible, this sophisticated introduction covers an unusually wide range of central topics, including Wittgenstein's historical and intellectual context, his philosophical development, and the ethical and political implications of his work."
David Stern, University of Iowa

For his radical questioning, original thinking, and determination to reshape the philosophical landscape, Ludwig Wittgenstein is widely hailed as a giant in twentieth-century philosophy. Wittgenstein presents a concise, comprehensive, and systematic treatment of the Austrian-born philosopher's thought from his early work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to the posthumous publication of On Certainty, notes written just prior to his death. Renowned Wittgenstein scholar Hans Sluga first recounts events in Wittgenstein's life in order to illuminate the historical, political, and personal conditions from which his philosophical work emerged. After identifying some of the philosopher's key concepts and ideas in subsequent chapters, Sluga then reveals how the cultural and political changes that Wittgenstein and his contemporaries lived through mirror many of the dramatic events now happening in the twenty-first century. Sluga's original analysis goes on to illustrate vividly how Wittgenstein's thought may help us to face the peculiar problems of our own contemporary social and political existence. Illuminating and thought provoking, Wittgenstein offers ground-breaking new insights into the mind of one of the most original and influential thinkers of the twentieth century.

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chapter 1
the situated thinker
The movement of thought in my philosophizing should be discernible in the history of my mind, its moral concepts, and in the understanding of my situation.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Denkbewegungen
Some while ago a friend at Cambridge took me to the ancient graveyard of St Giles where Ludwig Wittgenstein lies buried. The place was deserted except for some birds in the untended bushes. After a little searching we found the grave in the wild grass. A plain slab in the ground records Wittgenstein’s name and the years of his birth and death (1889–1951) – nothing else. A nearby tree had shed leaves on the stone. Someone had scattered flowers on it, a couple of coins, and, surprisingly, the stub of a pencil. It all struck me as right. All the complexities of Wittgenstein’s life and thought, so it appeared to me at the time, had been folded here into complete simplicity.
What reason is there now to drag the philosopher from the anonymous peace he has sought in that Cambridge graveyard? After all, he “purposely lived in obscurity, discouraging all attempts to make him into a celebrity or public figure,”1 so why should we now dwell on Wittgenstein’s life, if our concern is really to bring his thought to bear on our own pressing problems? It is true that the man himself and the circumstances of his life have provoked the curiosity of biographers, cultural historians, and literary authors. But what do we have to know about the man and his life in order to understand his thought? Every thought is, admittedly, someone’s thought. But every utterance also stands apart from its author and may have uses and meanings that the author never intended. A written text, in particular, is capable of leading a fertile life apart from its author, and to tie it too closely to its author may diminish its vitality and importance. Still, some biographical facts prove useful when we try to decipher Wittgenstein’s writings.
A Man at the Crossroads
Perhaps the most important thing to know about Wittgenstein is that he lived his life at a number of crossroads – some personal, some cultural and historical in character. It is this, above all, which makes his work crucial to us since his crossroads are also very much ours.
One of these crossroads is that of secular and religious culture. Wittgenstein’s family had thrown off its Jewish past and become Christianized at some time in the mid-nineteenth century.2 His great-grandfather had taken the first step by changing the family name from the Jewish-sounding “Mayer” to the German (and aristocratic) “Wittgenstein.” His grandfather, who moved the family from Saxony to Vienna, had become a Protestant and reputedly also an anti-Semite. The philosopher was, in turn, baptized a Catholic but grew up in a largely secular household. During World War I he became inspired, however, by a non-dogmatic version of Christianity which he discovered with the help of Tolstoy, and this outlook was to mold his ethical thinking from now on to the end of his life. “I am not a religious man,” he would say later on to his friend Drury, “but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.”3 Much of this view was focused on the Christian and, specifically, the Catholic tradition. To Drury he said accordingly also: “The symbolisms of Catholicism are wonderful beyond words.” But then he said, characteristically, that “any attempt to make it into a philosophical system is offensive.”4 By contrast he looked at his Jewish background with deep ambivalence. “Judaism is most problematic [hochproblematisch],” he wrote in his diary in 1930,5 and “even the greatest of Jewish thinkers is no more than talented.”6 When he said to a friend in 1949, “My thoughts are one hundred percent Hebraic,”7 he meant, in any case, to include the Christian in the Hebraic as maintaining, in contrast to the “Greek” view of things, that good and evil cannot in the end be reconciled. If we are to classify him at all, we would certainly have to call Wittgenstein a religious thinker within the Christian tradition. But that characterization is not easy to reconcile with the content of Wittgenstein’s actual philosophical work, where religious issues are never directly apparent. That aspect of Wittgenstein’s thought has therefore been understandably ignored by most interpreters. Still, we cannot doubt that Wittgenstein considered questions of ethics and religion with utter seriousness and that this attitude expressed an abiding distrust of modern secular culture. While this may not affect Wittgenstein’s particular views on language or the mind, it will certainly bear on the question of what his work can mean for political thinking.
A second crossroad for Wittgenstein, related to the first, was that of scientific/technological and philosophical culture. His father, Karl Wittgenstein, had made himself a rich man in the Austrian steel industry and he expected his sons to follow him in this career. Ludwig, the youngest, who showed some mechanical aptitude, was sent to the technical high school in Linz. After completing his high school education, Wittgenstein enrolled in the Technical University of Berlin and later on in the University of Manchester to study engineering. But in Manchester he developed an unexpected fascination with the foundations of mathematics, which made him turn to philosophy in 1911 (just as his father lay dying). The move was not altogether surprising given Wittgenstein’s early immersion in the culture of fin de siècle Vienna.8 We are told that he had, in fact, early on read Arthur Schopenhauer, who was widely admired in late nineteenth-century Vienna. Traces of Schopenhauer’s thought can certainly be found throughout Wittgenstein’s philosophical work. His earliest writings also reveal, moreover, familiarity with such figures as the physicist Rudolf Boltzmann, the philosopher of science Ernst Mach, his student, the philosopher of language Fritz Mauthner, the philosopher of sexuality Otto Weininger, the cultural critic and satirist Karl Kraus, and the modernist architect Adolf Loos.
Robert Musil and Hermann Broch – two of Wittgenstein’s contemporaries with a similar outlook and development – depict Vienna in their writings as a world steeped in the pessimism of Schopenhauer that curiously combined deep nostalgia for the old with a curiosity for the new and modern.9 The same duality is manifest in Wittgenstein’s work, which combines an interest in the study of language, mathematics, and the mind characteristic of the new currents in Viennese thinking with an exceedingly somber view of life. His doubts about secular culture and about the promises of our scientific and technological civilization combine ultimately into a devastating assessment of where we are today. To his friend Drury he could summarize his – and our – situation by saying in 1936, “The dark ages are coming again.”10
From Vienna to Cambridge
It is not enough, however, to think of Wittgenstein in terms of his Viennese background. He is just as intimately linked to England and the Cambridge of the first half of the twentieth century, and we can speak here therefore of yet another crossroad in Wittgenstein’s life.
When he was at Manchester as a student in engineering, Wittgenstein’s attention had been drawn to Russell’s Principles of Mathematics of 1903, a book that had sought to deduce the entire body of mathematics from an enlarged logic. Wittgenstein found himself particularly intrigued by Russell’s account of the post-Aristotelian logic of the German mathematician, logician, and philosopher Gottlob Frege. On the strength of this he decided to visit Frege in Jena, who advised him, in turn, to go to Cambridge and work with Russell.11
Russell was at the height of his philosophical career at the time. He had just finished his monumental treatment of logic in Principia Mathematica (written in collaboration with A.N. Whitehead) and was keen to apply himself to new things. He wanted to use his logic, in particular, to deal with some of the fundamental problems of metaphysics and epistemology. Once settled in Cambridge, Wittgenstein quickly became Russell’s student, collaborator, and critic in pursuing this project. Accordingly, Russell could write to his mistress,: “Wittgenstein has been a great event in my life … He is the young man one hopes for.”12 Russell’s influence is evident in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, where its author pays homage to both “Frege’s magnificent work and … the writings of my friend Mr. Bertrand Russell” (TLP, p. 3). But even in that work, written only a few years after his encounter with Russell, Wittgenstein was already moving decisively beyond the ideas of his mentor. In later life his admiration for Russell turned cold, when he called Russell’s thought in a somewhat vengeful mood “immeasurably shallow and trivial” (Z, 456). Russell, in turn, became convinced that the later Wittgenstein had abandoned serious thinking in philosophy.13
In retrospect we can see that the philosophical movement we now know by the name of “Analytic Philosophy” began its life in the interactions between Frege, Russell, and the young Wittgenstein. United in the project of building a new logic that could solve (or resolve) important philosophical problems, each of them contributed a distinctive set of ideas to this evolving philosophical movement. Frege introduced essentially Kantian assumptions about different kinds of truth and the foundational organization of human knowledge into the analytic debate; Russell added ontological concerns with the nature and structure of reality to it; Wittgenstein, finally, contributed a positivistic conception of science and philosophy, a preoccupation with language, a wariness toward theoretical constructions, and a yearning for a simple, unmediated existence to this mixture – ideas that all derived from his Viennese background. “Analytic philosophy” was thus constructed from a mélange of ideas drawn from various strands of the European tradition.
Historically, the rise of analytic tradition marks, however, first and foremost a point of transition away from the cultural dominance of German and Continental European philosophy to Anglo-American thought. The common distinction between “Continental” and “Analytic” philosophy reflects the upheavals of the twentieth century in which Anglo-American civilization became increasingly more powerful. The distinction is, however, not as sharp as it is often made out to be. In his life and work Wittgenstein sought to bridge that divide again and again, and it is in this sense also that we can call him a man at the crossroads.
The Two Sides of the Tractatus
Wittgenstein’s collaboration with Russell in the period between 1911 and 1914 was intimate, stormy, and immensely productive. World War I, however, was to bring this period to an unanticipated close since Wittgenstein, as an enemy alien, was now forced to return to Austria. There he considered it his duty to enroll as a soldier. But he remained, at the same time, determined to continue with his philosophical work. Two days after he had been assigned to his regiment, therefore, he began to keep a philosophical diary that he continued throughout the war. It opens with the anxious question, “Will I be able to work now?” (GT, p. 13),14 but it turned out that he could do so even under the most daunting conditions. In December 1914 he noted, for instance, the “heaviest thunder of canons from all sides – gun fire, conflagrations, etc.,” adding laconically: “Worked much and with success.” (GT, pp. 48–49)
Quite naturally, the diary begins where his discussions with Russell had left off. But as the war dragged on, new themes appear in it that are far removed from this initial agenda. Where concerns with logic had preoccupied Wittgenstein in the first period of the war, we find him suddenly writing in June 1916: “What do I know about God and the purpose of life?” (NB, p. 72). And soon after: “The I, the I is what is deeply mysterious” (p. 80). Deeply traumatized by the war and increasingly pessimistic about its outcome, Wittgenstein addressed himself now to questions of ethics and aesthetics, to the distinction between the good and the bad conscience, the nature of happiness and the problem of suicide and sin. To his friend Paul Engelmann he wrote at the time: “My relationship with my fellow men has strangely changed. What was all right when we met is now all wrong, and I am in complete despair.”15
The book Wittgenstein extracted from his wartime notebooks, the famed Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, reflects the entire course of his thinking from his initial reflections on logic to his later ethical and mystical musings. In large part it can be read as an attempt to reconcile Russell’s metaphysical atomism with Frege’s epistemological apriorism. When the work was published, Russell could thus rightly praise it as an important contribution to the theory of logic.16 But the book is equally moved by moral and metaphysical considerations – which Russell largely ignored, to Wittgenstein’s irritation. Angrily, he wrote to his former teacher: “Now I’m afraid you haven’t really got hold of my main contention … The main point is the theory of what can be said in propositions – i.e. by language – (and, which comes to the same, what can be thought) and what cannot be said in propositions, but only shown [gezeigt]; which, I believe is the cardinal problem of philosophy.”17 In the same letter Wittgenstein complained that Frege had also failed to understand his book. Mournfully, he conceded: “It is very hard not to be understood by a single soul.”
The Tractatus has, indeed, proved to be a baffling piece of work. Composed in an exceedingly severe and compressed style, and organized by means of an elaborate numbering system borrowed from Principia Mathematica, the book meant to show that traditional philosophy rests on a radical misunderstanding of “the logic of our language.” Much of the work is concerned with spelling out Wittgenstein’s conception of the logical structure of language and the world and these sections of the book have understandably drawn most of the attention of philosophers within the analytic tradition. But for Wittgenstein himself the decisive part of the book lay in his conclusions concerning the limits of language, which are reached only in the last pages of the work. He argues there that all sentences which are not pictures of concatenations of objects or logical composites of such pictures are, strictly speaking, sens...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Series page
  3. Title page
  4. Copyright page
  5. preface
  6. abbreviations
  7. chapter 1 the situated thinker
  8. chapter 2 the world and its structure
  9. chapter 3 the limits of language
  10. chapter 4 the prodigious diversity of language games
  11. chapter 5 families and resemblances
  12. chapter 6 our unsurveyable grammar
  13. chapter 7 visible rails invisibly laid to infinity
  14. chapter 8 what is the use of studying philosophy?
  15. Index
Citation styles for Wittgenstein

APA 6 Citation

Sluga, H. (2011). Wittgenstein (1st ed.). Wiley. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1014362/wittgenstein-pdf (Original work published 2011)

Chicago Citation

Sluga, Hans. (2011) 2011. Wittgenstein. 1st ed. Wiley. https://www.perlego.com/book/1014362/wittgenstein-pdf.

Harvard Citation

Sluga, H. (2011) Wittgenstein. 1st edn. Wiley. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1014362/wittgenstein-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Sluga, Hans. Wittgenstein. 1st ed. Wiley, 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.