Influential pws: Ludwig Wittgenstein

Written by Jurjen

Ludwig Wittgenstein, born in 1889 in Wittgenstein, is known to us as a famous philosopher who contributed much to the foundation of mathematics and philosophy. However, he focused also much on the philosophy of language of communication and language, which was possibly inspired by the fact that he stuttered.

As a little boy, Ludwig had homeschooling until he was 14 years old. After that, he went to a ‘normal’ school. However, he was not ‘normal’ for his classmates, as he was the son of a famous businessman and most of his classmates were from working-class families. Besides, he was very shy and stuttered and didn’t feel understood by his fellow classmates. One of the children in his school was Adolf Hitler. Even though they were born 6 days apart, they weren’t in the same class because Adolf was held back one year and Ludwig moved forward one year. Ludwig was 3/4th Jewish, but even though some people have thought that young Adolf hated Ludwig because of his Jewishness, stutter, and high-class descent, there is no evidence for this.

After secondary school, Ludwig went to study engineering at the university. He was very talented but he wanted to know more about the foundation of mathematics and started to study the work from Bertrand Russell (a famous polymath), which inspired him to specialize more in mathematical logic. He got recognition from Russell and was making the first steps to become a great mathematician and started working at Cambridge.

To Norway
His father passed away and already three of his four brothers committed suicide. During the 30s and 40s, there was a lot of suicide because of antisemitism. Ludwig also became depressed and obtained suicidal thoughts as well. He wanted to change things around. He gave away most of his fortune to poor artists and a few of his other siblings and changed Cambridge for a mountain hut in Skjolden (Norway). Here he lived in isolation and could work on his ideas about logic and language. It was also where he wrote Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which describes the importance of words and communication.

Ludwig’s philosophy
Ludwig explained that words were representations of objects and by combining them you get propositions, which describe ‘pictures of reality’. So, during communication people are Exchanging pictures with each other. Communication goes wrong when one gets the wrong picture. Ludwig also says that in language people often use meaningless sentences, such as ‘I love fairness’, ‘I am a spiritual kind of person’. These sentences are too vague and in most cases don’t give the right picture to the other person. Another danger is that people might interpret things wrongly, when the wrong words are used, or too much meaning is given to words. His take-away message is that we have to think more carefully about what we say.

Influence from stuttering
It is very interesting if you consider that he stuttered, and therefore understood the power of words very well. Think for example about when someone finishes your sentence when you are blocking. When the wrong or different words are chosen, it could give the wrong picture to both you and the listener. This might also be the reason why Ludwig was known for taking long breaks within his sentences.

First world war
He still had depressive thoughts and in 1914 he went back to Austria to join the army for the first world war because he said: “Now I should have the chance to be a decent human being, for I’m standing eye to eye with death.” After the war, he ended up in a prison in Cassino. During this time, he wrote his philosophical work Tractatus. He thought that this would end his philosophical career. After being released from prison, he became a teacher in a mountain village of Wiener Neustadt. However, even though he did his best to be a good teacher, he didn’t fit in there. This brought back his suicidal thoughts and he gave up teaching in 1925.

From Cambridge to Ireland
He stayed at Cambridge until 1947, with a break when he worked in a hospital in London, during the second world war. He spent the rest of his life in an isolated cottage on the coast of Ireland. When he was diagnosed with cancer, he was fine with that, as he wished to not live any longer. 

Two years after his death in 1953, his second work Philosophical Investigations was published. Here he describes words as tools from a toolbox.

Wittgenstein’s impact
Although Wittgenstein can be seen as a lonely person, who never fitted as a leader in front of a group, he was arguably the most important philosopher of the 20th century. He made an impact on our society and way of thinking. And I believe that for people who stutter he could be an inspiration in the way he was so dedicated to explain the world the power of words.