Skip to content

Wittgenstein

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.

Timeline

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

Reading

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

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Journeys In Thought - Wittgenstein In Ireland Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

Journeys In Thought - Wittgenstein In Ireland

In the spring of 1948, Ludwig Wittgenstein abandoned his post as Chair of Philosophy at Trinity College Cambridge in search of solitude and simplicity.

Article
Sandel on Aristotle's thoughts on the good life Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University video icon

History & The Arts 

Sandel on Aristotle's thoughts on the good life

Sandel asks if there are many different kinds of the good life

Video
5 mins
Appearance and reality: in conversation with Derren Brown  Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Open University video icon

History & The Arts 

Appearance and reality: in conversation with Derren Brown

Nigel Warburton talks to psychological illusionist Derren Brown about appearance and reality, and what kind of people are most gullible.

Video
10 mins
Copyright Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team audio icon

History & The Arts 

Copyright

One person’s inspiration is another’s plagiarism. Richard Posner guides us through the world of copyright

Audio
15 mins
Hindu Creation Stories Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

History & The Arts 

Hindu Creation Stories

Our animation shares a Hindu view of creation.

Article
Does it matter if an octopus has consciousness? Creative commons image Icon Opencage under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

Does it matter if an octopus has consciousness?

Are cephalopods self-aware? More to the point, does it even matter? The Cephalover Mike Lisieski explains just why it's important.

Article
Organ transplants Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC audio icon

History & The Arts 

Organ transplants

I need money. He needs a kidney. It should be win-win. Is there a case for allowing paid organ transplants?

Audio
15 mins
Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804) Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Controlled article icon

History & The Arts 

Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804)

Introducing the 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant

Article
At the centre of things: Rebekah Ley Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Rebekah Ley audio icon

History & The Arts 

At the centre of things: Rebekah Ley

The Open University's Derek Matravers talks to Rebekah Ley, Convenor of the clinical ethics committee for Addenbrookes Hospital

Audio
5 mins