Ludwig Wittgenstein was an Austrian philosopher who inspired two great philosophical movements of the 20th century — logical positivism and ordinary language philosophy. Though born in one of the richest families in Vienna, he was deeply influenced by philosophy and pursued a career in the same, going against his father’s wish, who wanted Wittgenstein to join family business. Greatly influenced by famous philosophers like Bertrand Russell and by Gottlob Frege, Wittgenstein applied modern logic to metaphysics, providing new definition to the relations between world, thought and language, thereby explaining the nature of philosophy. He was a highly sensitive and nervous person who often got annoyed and disturbed by things around him. Beyond doubt, he was a great philosopher of 20th century and continues to influence current philosophical thoughts in many areas like logic and language, perception and intention, ethics and religion, aesthetics and culture and such more. Read on to learn more about the life and career of this legend.
Wittgenstein's paternal great-grandfather, Moses Meier was a Jewish land agent who lived in Wittgenstein with his wife Brendel Simon. They took up the surname Wittgenstein upon a decree issued by Napoleon in 1808. His son, Hermann Christian Wittgenstein married Fanny Figdor. They had 11 children and all of them were forbidden to marry Jews. Karl, one of their children married Leopoldine Kalmus and was one of the richest men in Vienna, with a good fortune in iron and steel business.
Ludwig Wittgenstein Childhood & Personal Life
Wittgenstein was born in a rich family in Vienna, as the youngest son of Karl and his wife, Leopoldine Kalmus, on 26 April 1889. He had eight siblings — four sisters and four brothers. The family being in the hub of Austrian culture, all the children were brought up in an intense cultural environment. Ludwig’s father, Mr. Karl, wanted his sons to manage his industry. Though Wittgenstein and his brothers were not sent to school as his father didn’t want his children to acquire bad habits from other children, all of them were educated at home in such a way that they become good enough to manage their family business. It is said that the family had a strenuous temperament with little freedom and happiness. Wittgenstein’s father was a harsh perfectionist who totally lacked empathy. Some sort of strain always existed between the family relationships. Out of his four brothers, three committed suicide, and the only bother left was Paul, who became a piano player. Wittgenstein took up a career with engineering and later on, switched over to philosophy. His elder brother, Hans suffered from autism but had a great taste for music. He died in 1902, under mysterious circumstances. Wittgenstein lost another brother Rudolf (Rudi) the next year. In 1918 Ludwig’s another brother Kurt committed suicide.
The death of two children made Karl relent and he allowed Paul and Wittgenstein to attend school. However, Wittgenstein could not pass the entrance examination conducted by the academic Gymnasium in Wiener Neustadt. After taking up an extra tuition, however, Wittgenstein managed to qualify for the admission test for K.u.k. Realschule in Linz, in 1903, which was a technical oriented, small state school with 300 pupils. He spent three years there and stayed with Dr. Srigl and his family, who gave him a pet name, Luki. Though allowed to attend school, both Wittgenstein and his brother were absent very often. Wittgenstein was much bullied by other children, as he was an elegantly dressed, unsocial boy, who spoke unusually pure form of High German. He insisted that other children should address him formally, using the word “Sie”. It is said that Wittgenstein and Hitler were contemporaries in school. Whether they had met or hated each other because Ludwig had a Jewish background is debatable. “Mein Kampf”, written by Adolf Hitler had given some reference to a Jewish boy in their school, whom Hitler and his companions disliked. There are differences of opinion on whether this boy is Ludwig or not.
It was during his days in Realschule, that he acknowledged that he had lost faith in god and could not get along well with all those beliefs that he was supposed to believe in, as a Christian. However, he accepted the idea of confession and practiced it throughout his life. He had confessed many times to his friends and family, especially to his elder sister Hermine. He discussed about the loss of faith with another sister Gretl and she directed him to Arthur Schopenhauer's “The World as Will and Representation” which is another version of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy. Wittgenstein was impressed with this view and he followed it until he began to study Gottlob Frege and logic.
It was during these days that Viennese philosopher Otto Weininger published his book “Geschlecht und Charakter” (Sex and Character), which became a big hit. This, combined with his suicide, made Otto Weininger a cultural hero and Ludwig started admiring him.
Wittgenstein moved to Technische Hochschule, Berlin to pursue mechanical engineering in 1906 where he completed three semesters and got a diploma. He stayed with the family of Dr. Jolles, who was a professor there. Influenced by the interest in aeronautics, Wittgenstein joined Victoria University of Manchester in 1908 to pursue doctorate degree. He was passionate about aeronautics and wanted to learn about designing and flying aeroplanes. He researched about the behavior of kites in the upper atmosphere. He conducted experiments regarding this, at a meteorological observation site near Glossop. There he lived along with a Mr. Rimmer. He got research studentship from the Victoria University of Manchester in 1908. With the aid of his research, he successfully developed a design of a propeller with small jet engines on the end of its blades and he patented the same in 1911.
He developed an interest towards mathematics after he read Bertrand Russell's “The Principles of Mathematics”. Another book, “Grundgesetze der Arithmetik”, vol. 1 (1893) and vol. 2 (1903), written by Gottlob Frege also evoked his interest towards mathematics. He was deeply into that subject and was greatly obsessed with that and lost interest in aeronautics. He went to University of Jena to meet Mr. Frege, taking bits of philosophies written by him. Though it was not enough to impress Mr. Frege, it helped him to build a healthy relationship with him. He visited Mr. Frege several times and discussed about logic and mathematics, which was the only thread of interest that joined them both.
Though Wittgenstein wanted to go along with Mr. Frege, he joined the University of Cambridge, following Mr. Frege’s advice. There he attended Mr. Russell’s lectures and in the course, Mr.Russell became impressed by Ludwig and later accepted him as a genius. Wittgenstein joined Cambridge Moral Sciences Club, a discussion forum formed by philosophy fraternity and students and delivered his first paper on November 29 that year, presenting philosophy as "all those primitive propositions which are assumed as true without proof by the various sciences." This impressive presentation helped him to dominate the club from there on and this went on up to 1930 after which he had to stop attending the discussions, as there was a wide disagreement with his domination, without giving chances to any other person to talk.
Participation In World War I
Wittgenstein volunteered to join Austro-Hungarian Army during World War I, serving both in ship and in artillery workshop. On 1916, he was posted in Russian Army on the frontline and won many bravery medals including the Silver Medal for Valor. He was promoted to reserve officer (lieutenant) in 1918 and served artillery regiment in Northern Italy. He was recommended for Gold Medal for Valor, the highest honor in the Austrian army, for his service in Austrian Offensive. He was awarded with the “Band of the Military Service Medal” with Swords. Wittgenstein did not stay away from his passion – philosophy even during war. He noted down his thoughts and reflection in notebooks.
During 1918, Wittgenstein took a break from military activities, went to his family-owned summer-home in Vienna, and engaged in completion of ‘Tractatus’. Unfortunately, he faced the worst days of his life during this vacation. The mishaps started with the death of his Uncle Paul, followed by the information that the publishers had decided not to publish his work ‘Tractatus’, which he looked forward with great expectation. Added to his deep despair, his third brother Kurt killed himself. This was not the end; he literally broke down when he came to know that he lost his friend Pinsent in a plane crash. Due to utter hopelessness from life, he was in the verge of committing suicide. However, he joined back military services and was captured and sent to prison. Upon his release in 1919, physically and mentally exhausted Ludwig returned to his hometown. He decided to be trained as an elementary school teacher. It was during this period that he divided his wealth among his siblings.
Ludwig joined a teacher’s training college (Lehrerbildungsanstalt) at Vienna, though his family did not like that. However, his family did not interfere with his decision. Ludwig allegedly engaged in homosexual relationship.
Wittgenstein took up teaching in 1920 by joining a school in Trattenbach as a primary school teacher. However, it was difficult for Wittgenstein to get along well with other staff members. His eccentric behavior made him a noticeable figure in that small village. He enjoyed teaching with great enthusiasm and offered late-night tuitions for students. Wittgenstein used to punish his students, both girls and boys and this, combined with his incompatibility with the other activities in the school, made him quite unpopular among the villagers.
In 1922, Wittgenstein and Kegan Paul agreed with each other to publish a bilingual edition of ‘Tractatus’, with Russell’s introduction explaining its importance. Frank Ramsay did the English translation. The book ‘Tractatus’ explained the relationship between language and the world. Wittgenstein moved to a secondary school in Hassbach in 1922. It was ironical that this born-rich man lived in a small room with basic furniture refusing to accept any help from family. Being a village, it was not a good place for him to move forward with his interests in philosophy as there was not even a single person in that village, with whom Wittgenstein could discuss philosophy.
The incident at the school in Otterthal in 1924 put an end to Wittgenstein’s teaching career. Having a habit of punishing students, Wittgenstein punished one of his students, Josef Haidbauer, a single-parent child brought up by his mother. Wittgenstein hit him 2-3 times on head, which caused the boy to collapse. Wittgenstein left the school following this incident and decided to put an end to his teaching career.
To distract Wittgenstein from the Haidbauer incident, his sister called him to help her with the designing the new town house, Haus Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein knew the architect Paul Engelmann from his army days. Wittgenstein had differences of opinion with Paul, the architect and the result was not as impressive as it was expected to be. However, this effort earned him a title “ architect” as he was listed as an architect in Vienna City Dictionary from 1933-1938.
Back in Cambridge
Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge in 1929 and tried to work there, but that didn’t happen as he did not have a degree with him. Therefore, Wittgenstein enrolled for an advanced undergraduate. He offered ‘Tractatus’ as his thesis for his Ph.D. and his work impressed Mr. Russell much and he declared that the thesis is much above the standard of a Ph.D. degree. This helped Wittgenstein to be appointed as a lecturer and a fellow at Trinity College.
Wittgenstein went once again to Norway, between 1936 and 1937 to work on Philosophical Investigations. It was during this time that Germany annexed Austria in the Anschluss and thus Wittgenstein became a citizen of extended Germany. Under the Nuremberg Racial Laws, Wittgenstein, with three Jew grandparents, was also considered as Jews and thus there were restriction upon who they could marry and have relationship with, where they could work, etc. Wittgenstein went to England and then to USA and there he had a relationship with Hilde Schania, who was daughter of a brewer. Wittgenstein had to serve racial defilement for engaging in relationship with a non-Jew woman.
During World War II, Wittgenstein chose to work as a dispensary porter in Guy’s Hospital delivering medicines to patients. In 1947, he resigned from the post of Professor at Cambridge in order to concentrate more on his works on philosophy. To be in a peaceful and productive atmosphere, he chose to stay in a farmhouse in Wicklow. Wittgenstein was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which later spread to his bone marrow. He returned to London with a failing health condition and died on 27 April 1951.
- “A collection of Ludwig Wittgenstein's manuscripts is held by Trinity College”, Cambridge.
- “Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung, Annalen der Naturphilosophie”, 14, (1921)
- “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus”, (1922)
- “Philosophische Untersuchungen”, (1953)
- “Philosophical Investigations”, (1953)
- “Bemerkungen über die Grundlagen der Mathematik”, (1956)
- A collection of Wittgenstein’s work on the philosophy of logic and mathematics between 1937 -1944.
- “Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics”, (1978)
- “Bemerkungen über die Philosophie der Psychologie”, (1980)
- “Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology”, Vols. 1 and 2, (1980)
- “The Blue and Brown Books”, (1958)
- Wittgenstein’s notes to Cambridge students in 1933–1935.
- “Philosophische Bemerkungen”, (1964)
- “Philosophical Remarks”, (1975)
- “Philosophical Grammar”, (1978)
- “Bemerkungen über die Farben”, (1977)