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Ludwig Wittgenstein

Words and sentences don’t make much sense when they aren’t entangled with each other. They all can carry wildly different meanings depending on the context and the speaker’s intent. This is a “language game.”

This is one of the many contributions that garnered intellectual celebrity for Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), an Austrian logician and philosopher. He is a philosophy student’s favorite philosopher, but A. C. Grayling argued in his 2001 aptly named “Wittgenstein : a very short introduction” that his academic celebrity may be unwarranted.

Grayling says Wittgenstein is primarily adored by “aphorism hunters.” I read Grayling’s short book because I wanted to ease my way into Wittgenstein as part of a philosophical exploration I had earlier this year. Pandemic, am I right?

The book was a helpful text, and I still appreciated playing with Wittgenstein’s evolution, from his iconic 1921 Tractatus and his Philosophical Investigations, which was published posthumously and seemed to contradict many of his arguments from his first book.

Find my notes below


  • His main aim with Tractatus was to “solve philosophy” by arguing the point of language is to help communicate ideas (not solve complex problems). He thought he’d solve philosophy. He didn’t.
  • Philosophy then exists to discuss what is unsayable and therefore in his argument unthinkable
  • His famous line “What can be said at all can be said clearly; and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.”
  • The limits of thought and language are the same, he argued
  • Wittgenstein was brought to the center of intellectual thought by his mentor and eventual thought partner Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)
  • “The king of France is wise” is actually saying three things Bertrand Russell argued: 1) that there is a king of France, 2) that there is only one and 3) that that king is wise. If anyone of them proved false they’re all false. So that’s the logical breakdown (otherwise how could we say the sentence is false, If both there is no king of France and that king is not wise)
  • Ludwig: “All philosophy is a critique of language.”
  • Gottlob Frege and his 1879 book Concept Script was modern logic addition to Aristotle’s foundation
  • Logicians use the phrase “valid and sound.” Valid means if the premise is true, it is true; sound means that they are true
  • Ludwig’s “truth tables” became standard to dissect the veracity of prepositions (or the meaning of a sentence)
  • Schopenhauers discardable ladder metaphor
  • Ethical and religious matters are serious but the words to describe them are useless, he argues
  • Good will gives its own reward in happiness; it is the opposite of bad will
  • “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical but that it exists”
  • The famous last sentence of the Tractatus “Whereof that we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent”
  • Wittingenstein later rejected this first work, especially his oversimplification of the role of language. In this first work he primarily focuses on declarative sentences that are being pictures from one brain to the next, but of course so much of language goes beyond that
  • Ramsey criticized Wittgenstein for describing philosophy as “nonsense but important nonsense”
  • This author argues that the impact he had on the famed Vienna Circle, like Tractatus itself, generally has been overstated. This period helped shape Wittgenstein but it wasn’t his primary output
  • What gives a word life? What is it to explain what a word means? He asks in The Blue Book
  • In Tractatus he argued language had one true picture orientated reason but in his later work Investigations he argues it is multifaceted. He evolved his thinking.
  • “The philosophers treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness.”
  • “Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.”
  • His “language games” in Investigations is in contrast to Tractatus. Games is used to because many uses of language are related but Have different rules
  • “I am in pain” is not a description but part of the more primitive ways we express pain (shouts and groans)
  • “Our talk gets its meaning from the rest of our proceedings.” Once we ask about whether we have hands we must know we have them
  • “Doubt comes after belief”
  • Some beliefs are the hinges on which our thought swings to have doubts about anything (ie we believe that we can think rationally)
  • Meaning and use are separate for words though Wittingenstein connects them closely
  • Cultural vs cognitive relativism (Wittgenstein often appears to be in the later when he said “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.”)
  • Author’s criticism of cognitive relativism is basically “if life forms have different realities how do we even recognize them as other life forms?”
  • His main thrust that philosophy arises from disagreements in language is just not widely accepted. He is instead celebrated by “aphorism hunters”
  • This author claims Wittgenstein is not as influential as some claim. He is surely one of philosophy’s “great personalities”