A century ago Ludwig Wittgenstein changed his philosophy forever

OF ALL innovations from the trenches of the First World War – the zipper, the tea bag, the tank – the “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” must be among the most elegant and human. When the conflict began, this short treatise was a jumble of ideas in the mind of a young Austrian soldier and former philosophy student called Ludwig Wittgenstein. By the time he was released from a POW camp during the Versailles peace conference, he had taken shape on a few dozen mud-spattered pages in his backpack. In 1921 Wittgenstein found a publisher and the philosophy changed forever.

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That the book had ever been printed was miraculous. Before the war, as a student at Cambridge, Wittgenstein’s talent was clear to his contemporaries, who begged him to put his many thoughts in writing. He refused, fearing that a flawed work of philosophy was worth nothing. His mentor, Bertrand Russell, made a habit of taking notes when the two spoke, lest his protégé’s genius be lost in memory. Wittgenstein himself had other concerns, primarily suicide.

He was in Vienna visiting his family when the conflict erupted. Then 25 years old, Wittgenstein answered the call for troops and was sent to the Eastern Front to fight for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Largely cut off from his British friends, he remained with his own thoughts and a copy of “The Gospel in Brief” by Leo Tolstoy, he would emulate its clean, staccato structure in the “Tractatus”. “If I don’t live to see the end of this war,” he told a friend, “I have to be prepared that all my work ends up nowhere”. He finally resolved to write.

Tricks and nonsense

He was inspired by the work of Gottlob Frege, a German logician. Yet the “Tractatus” was revolutionary in its naivety. What is tongue, Wittgenstein asked simply? Why and how do a person’s screams, and the scribbles they draw, evoke all that is in the world? Anthony Quinton, a British philosopher, compared his instincts to those of Sir Isaac Newton, who had bothered to wonder why stones were falling to the ground while others had just said, “They are doing it.” .

Wittgenstein’s answer was Image Theory of Language, a crisp demonstration of the relationship between words and the real world. He argued that all meaningful thoughts people have are arrangements of images which, when expressed in language as “propositions”, can be communicated to others. This is what “the cat sitting on the carpet” has in common with sophisticated phrases. At least in the case of tangible things like felines, it might seem obvious. But Wittgenstein was innovating. The idea came to him while reading a report on a court case involving a car accident (still a relatively new event). Learning that a lawyer had used toy cars and dolls to explain the crash, he grasped the pictorial basis of the language.

He applied this point of view to the central issues that had embarrassed philosophers for millennia: God, morality, beauty. He concluded that since philosophy largely deals with things that are not demonstrable in the world and therefore cannot be represented, many of its propositions are meaningless. Instead, most of the philosophy is “nonsense.” He preferred to focus on the few areas that could be meaningfully discussed with the language. This leads him to a final and definitive proposition: “What we cannot talk about, we must be silent”. Or, as he said elsewhere in the “Tractatus”, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. In his preface, Wittgenstein claims to have found “the final solution to the problems” of philosophy.

Readers have been dazzled and intrigued by this outrageousness for a century. The appeal is not only the originality of ideas, but their direct expression. Less than a hundred pages long, the book is structured around seven enigmatic main statements, starting with: “The world is all that is.” These are followed by additional points arranged in a decimal sequence. Wittgenstein offers little justification and almost no proof. He wanted his statements to be indisputable.

It is perhaps no coincidence that the “Tractatus” was published a year before three seminal works of modernist literature: “The Waste Land” by TS Eliot, “Jacob’s Room” by Virginia Woolf and “Ulysses” by James Joyce. Initial critics appreciated Wittgenstein’s literary flair while often misinterpreting his philosophy. Even Frege, one of his heroes, considered the thin book “an artistic achievement rather than a scientific one.”

For Wittgenstein, convinced of his brilliance, this was not enough. He felt that Frege, along with his mentor Russell, had missed the ramifications of the “Tractatus”. He retired from academia in rural Austria where he taught at a primary school for most of the 1920s. For the brightest children, his influence shaped lives. He ignored the less able, unless he was so irritated by their ignorance to canon them.

While Wittgenstein was away, the importation of the “Tractatus” sank. Upon his return to Cambridge in 1929, he was the most vaunted philosopher in the world. John Maynard Keynes ran into him on his way to London. “God has arrived,” Keynes wrote to a friend, “I met him on the 5.15 train.” A young Alan Turing attended his lectures. Like his writing, Wittgenstein’s teaching flouted tradition. He sat down among his students, asking questions on the lines of “Why would we think blue is closer to green than red?”

As in primary school, the slower pupils floundered; the quick-witted adored him. Claiming to have “solved” philosophy to its logical end, a disciple left Cambridge to work in a cannery. Another went into tool making. Ray Monk, Wittgenstein’s biographer, believes no other university would have allowed him to teach undergraduate students.

Life after the death of God

Yet he has had enough of what he calls “the stiffness, the artificiality, the self-satisfaction” of university life. After a few years he rediscovered the iconoclasm of the “Tractatus” and began to pooh-pooh his own ideas. The extent to which he repudiated the book is disputed. After his death in 1951, some of his later thoughts were collected under the title “Philosophical Inquiries,” but he never published another book during his lifetime. The “Tractatus”, considers Constantine Sandis of the British Wittgenstein Society, “contains the seeds of a philosophical vision which has informed all his thought throughout his life”.

To mark its centenary, the company is hosting an international symposium of philosophers. The Wittgenstein Initiative in Vienna is organizing a virtual exhibition of his life and work. Luciano Bazzocchi, a researcher from Wittgenstein, edited new editions in German and English. But the influence of the “Tractatus” extends beyond academia. Admirers of its author include Jasper Johns, an American abstract painter; Iris Murdoch, whose first novel centered on one line of the book; Derek Jarman, who produced a biopic of Wittgenstein; and the Coen brothers, filmmakers. Modern readers have spotted new resonances. “Wittgenstein literally wrote his books as a tweet,” one fan joked on Twitter recently.

In philosophy itself, the legacy of the “Tractatus” is complex. In the mid-20th century, it was a lodestar for philosophy professors in English-speaking universities; a band of dedicated Wittgensteinians still carry the torch. But over the decades, Wittgenstein’s statements about the end of philosophy and the meaninglessness of many of its debates have become less convincing. “All the branches of philosophy that Wittgenstein said would be closed have flourished,” Monk admits. Advances in philosophy of mind and political theory, and in the emerging field of “public philosophy,” have undermined its claims.

The enigmatic man himself might not have given too much importance to these developments. “Wittgenstein had a complete contempt for academic philosophers,” says Monk. “Their esteem didn’t matter much to him.”

This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the print edition under the title “Le rest est silence”

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