Updated Monday 21st November 2005

Jonathan Rée introduces the life and work of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Trinity College, Cambridge Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

by Jonathan Rée

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy is usually portrayed as a thing of two halves. In the first, exemplified in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, seeking to fit human existence into a narrow logical strait-jacket; in the second, expressed in the Philosophical Investigations, rejecting earlier formulations and recognising the inexhaustible variousness of both language and life.

Making this programme convinced me that this conception is wide of the mark. Wittgenstein’s leading thought was always the same: that when we try to think about deep issues, language is apt to mislead us. It is consequently very easy to talk nonsense whilst convincing yourself and other people that what you say is brilliant and profound; and there is no remedy apart from paying close attention to the way language works. Those who have felt his influence are impressed not so much by any particular arguments, as by his exemplary wariness about grand theories of all kinds.

Wittgenstein found it hard to combine his philosophical work with ordinary sociability. He drew his early inspiration partly from the notoriously austere German logician Gottlob Frege (1848-1925), and partly from Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) – a man whose cleverness impressed him, but whom he suspected of moral and intellectual dishonesty. He liked to seek solitude, quiet, and darkness in faraway places – in his native Austria, in Norway on several occasions, and also in Ireland. He came to Rosroe in Connemara after resigning his professorship at Cambridge in 1947, and he hoped he would be able to bring a great work to completion – the Philosophical Investigations. But it was not to be.


1889 26 April - Ludwig Wittgenstein born and baptised in Vienna

1906 to Berlin to study engineering

1908 to Manchester to conduct aeronautical research

1910 first trip to Ireland (Coleraine)

1911 to Cambridge to study with Bertrand Russell

1914 volunteers for service in Austrian Army

1918 completes Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (published 1921-2); decides to become a schoolmaster in an elementary school in Austria
1926 gives up school teaching

1929 returns to Cambridge; accepts fellowship at Trinity College

1934 summer holiday in Ireland (Rosroe)

1936 extended stay in Dublin

1938 further extended stay in Dublin

1939 appointed Professor at Cambridge

1947 gives up Cambridge Professorship, decides to move to Ireland and attempt to bring his Philosophical Investigations to completion

1949 leaves Ireland; prostate cancer diagnosed

1951 29 April - dies

1953 publication of Philosophical Investigations


Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, translated by C.K. Ogden, Routledge paperback

The Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein, edited by Hans D. Sluga and David G. Stern, Cambridge University Press paperback


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