PHIL 4150: Analytic Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Thursday October 4, 2012



[5.] Wittgenstein and Logical Positivism.[1]


[5.1.] The Early Wittgenstein.


[5.1.1.] Wittgenstein’s Life.


·         He was born 1889 in Vienna, Austria, to parents of Jewish origin. He was one of nine children.

·         The Wittgenstein family was extremely wealthy, comparable to the Carnegies and the Rockefellers in the United States; Ludwig’s father was an industrialist (a steel magnate).

·         1908: enrolled at Manchester University as a student of aeronautical engineering, and while there designed a jet-reaction airplane engine.

·         At Manchester, he became interested in mathematics and then in the philosophy of mathematics. He read Russell’s Principles of Mathematics, and through that work he learned of Frege.

·         In 1911, he traveled to Jena to meet Frege, who recommended that he go to Cambridge to study with Russell, which he did, from 1911-1913. While there he developed intense relationships with Russell and other important figures. Russell wrote the following about an early encounter with Wittgenstein:


At the end of his first term at Cambridge he came to me and said ‘Will you please tell me whether I am a complete idiot or not?’ I replied ‘My dear fellow, I don’t know. Why are you asking me?’ He said, ‘Because if I am a complete idiot, I shall become an aeronaut; but, if not, I shall become a philosopher.’ I told him to write me something during the vacation on some philosophical subject and I would then tell him whether he was a complete idiot or not. At the beginning of the following term he brought me the fulfilment of this suggestion. After reading only one sentence, I said to him ‘No, you must not become an aeronaut.’[2]


·         Leaving Cambridge, he built for himself an isolated hut in Norway where he worked on his philosophical ideas.

·         In 1914, he joined the Austrian army. He fought in WWI but never stopped taking notes to record his philosophical thinking.

·         He was taken as a prisoner of war by the Italians in 1918. While a prisoner, he completed the notes out of which he would construct his first book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. It was published in German in 1921, and shortly thereafter published in English, with an introduction by Russell. It is the only book by Wittgenstein published in his lifetime. The main topic of the book is the relation between language and the world, and in this work he put forward his picture theory of meaning, a version of the correspondence theory of truth (which we will discuss soon).

·         After the war and the completion of the Tractatus, he stopped doing philosophy. He thought he had solved the problems he had been working on and that he had nothing else to say. He gave away his inheritance and worked around Vienna at a number of jobs (gardener, teacher) for almost a decade. During much of this period he was depressed to the point of contemplating suicide.

·         In the mid- to late-1920s, while still in Vienna, he became associated with a group of philosophers called the Vienna Circle (whose members included Rudolf Carnap), who were concerned with issues in philosophy of language, mathematics and science. He never became an ongoing member of this group, but his work influenced them tremendously in their development of a view called logical positivism. (We will study this doctrine soon.)

·         This inspired him to return to philosophy. In 1929, he moved back to Cambridge as a research student. He submitted the Tractatus (which had already gained an international reputation) as a doctoral dissertation and was awarded the Ph.D.

·         He gave seminars at Cambridge through the 1930s and 40s, developing his later philosophy. This involved a rejection of his earlier work, as well as of traditional philosophy as a whole.

·         In 1935, he returned to his hut in Norway for about a year. There he began work on another book, Philosophical Investigations.

·         He returned to Cambridge in 1937, and two years later was made Professor of Philosophy. But then WWII began, and (having already become a British citizen) he served as a medical orderly.

·         After the war, he returned to teaching, but only for a couple of years:


After the war he returned to his duties as professor, but as always he was unhappy in a formal academic routine. He thought university life led to hysterical artificiality. Writing to a pupil to congratulate him on his doctorate of philosophy, he said ‘May you make good use of it! By that I mean: may you not cheat either yourself or your students. Because, unless I’m very much mistaken, that’s what will be expected from you.’ He described the life of a professor of philosophy as ‘a living death’ and after acting as a professor for only two years he resigned in 1947.[3]


·         He moved to Ireland, and there he completed Philosophical Investigations in 1948, but refused to publish it; he did, however, give permission for it to be published after he died.

·         He died in England in 1951, from cancer, and Philosophical Investigations was published in 1953.

·         He is buried in Cambridge, at the Ascension Perish Burial Ground.

·         In addition to the Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations, there is quite a bit more of his work in print, material taken from his own notebooks and from lecture notes transcribed by his students.

·         His work in the later period of his life touches on lots of different areas of philosophy in addition to the philosophy of language, including philosophy of mind, aesthetics, and philosophy of religion.


Most historians of analytic philosophy split Wittgenstein’s work into two periods and treat the work of those periods almost as if it was written by two different philosophers:

·         the earlier Wittgenstein, exemplified by Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus [ch.10 of your textbook, our first reading from Wittgenstein, is a selection of passages from this book]

·         the later Wittgenstein, exemplified by Philosophical Investigations



[5.1.2.] The Metaphysics of the Tractatus.


Wittgenstein wanted to achieve an explanation of how linguistic meaning is possible and of how instances of language can be true or false.


Although he greatly admired Frege, he wanted to do this without using Frege’s distinction between sense and reference.


The theory of meaning he developed in the Tractatus is known as the picture theory of meaning. Its core idea is that a sentence is meaningful when it pictures the world.


Before we look at that theory of meaning, we have to look at the metaphysics on which it is based.


In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein made the following metaphysical claims (the bold claims A through E are my summaries of Wittgenstein’s views; the blue claims are quotations from the Tractatus):


(A) The world consists of facts.


1.             The world is everything that is the case.

1.1          The world is the totality of facts, not things.

1.11        The world is determined by the facts, and by these being all the facts.

1.2          The world divides into facts.

1.21        For the totality of facts determines both what is the case, and also all that is not the case. (p.118)




(B) A fact is the existence of states of affairs, i.e., of atomic facts.


2.             What is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts. [in German: the existence of Sachverhalten] (p.118)



·         Claim (B) reflects his logical atomism:


logical atomism (df.): language and/or the world consists of ultimate logical “parts” that cannot be broken down any further.


Note, however, that Wittgenstein himself never used the phrase “logical atomism” to describe his theory.



(C) An atomic fact (a state of affairs) consists of objects arranged in some specific way.


2.01        An atomic fact [state of affairs] is a combination of objects (entities, things). (p.118)




Stopping point for Thursday October 4. For next time, finish reading ch.10 (the remainder of your textbook’s excerpt from the Tractatus, pp.122-128).




[1] For more on Wittgenstein, see Anat Biletzki and Anat Matar, “Ludwig Wittgenstein,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < >.


[2] Bertrand Russell, Portraits from Memory, Allen & Unwin, 1957, pp.26-7. Quoted in Anthony Kenny, Wittgenstein, Penguin Books, 1973, p.2.

[3] Anthony Kenny, Wittgenstein, p.12.


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