Who Was Ludwig Wittgenstein?

Ludwig Wittgenstein pioneered several bold new approaches to philosophy during the 20th century. We take a brief look at his legacy.

Jul 9, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art


Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. His work focuses on questions of logic, language and knowledge, but has been widely understood to have implications for more or less every branch of philosophy – especially as more and better understandings of his vast unpublished material have come to light. Wittgenstein’s effect on philosophy, especially in the English speaking world, was so profound that its ultimate influence is still being worked out over three quarters of a century after his death. This article hopes to explain how Ludwig Wittgenstein revolutionized our understanding of philosophy not once, but twice. 

Early Life and Philosophical Development

ludwig wittgenstein photo portrait
Photo-portrait of Ludwig Wittgenstein, before 1951


Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in 1889, to a fabulously wealthy family in Austria. The Wittgensteins were one of the wealthiest families in Austria, and a major part of the highest Viennese social circles. Wittgenstein was initially interested in studying aeronautics. However, the mathematical work he undertook led him to become interested in questions to do with language and logic, which were becoming far better understood due to the work of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell. Having asked to learn under the supervision of the former, Wittgenstein was sent to Cambridge, to study with the latter. Russell and Wittgenstein developed a close relationship in Cambridge before the First World War. 


The Tractatus and the Limits of Understanding 

paul klee limits of reason
The Limits of Reason, Paul Klee, 1927, via Christopher Guerin


Wittgenstein fought for Austria in that war, on the opposing side to Britain, and afterwards published the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. This was a short book which nonetheless claimed to have solved all philosophical problems, or at least designated those which it could not be used to solve as nonsensical. This urge – to find that all the problems which have troubled your predecessors are either quite solvable or not worth worrying about – is a profound temptation in philosophy.


After publishing the Tractatus, which met a kind of bemused acclaim in philosophical circles, Wittgenstein spent some time as a teacher, where he was not very successful. He was eventually persuaded to return to Cambridge, partly because the account of meaning he gave in the Tractatus started to bother him. He was especially troubled by certain issues it had accounting for the semantics of colour. When Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge, his philosophy substantially changed. How much it changed, and whether we ought to see Wittgenstein’s change as neatly dividing into a before and after, an ‘early’ and ‘later’ Wittgenstein, is a matter of debate. 


The Investigations and the Limits of Language 

tower of babel peter breughel the elder
The Tower of Babel (Vienna version), Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1563, via Art History Museum Vienna

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Nonetheless, if his early work culminated in the Tractatus, then his later work culminated in the Philosophical Investigations. This latter work was, in a sense, concerned with disarming certain philosophical problems, just as the Tractatus had been. However, whereas the Tractatus attempted to distinguishing sense from nonsense, sound speech from unsound, the Investigations are less dogmatic still. Indeed, the purpose of philosophy in the Investigations is meant to be therapeutic: to reassure is that the temptation to pursue unresolvable questions which torment us is worth ignoring, and that once we have understood the parameters of linguistic use, their relationship to other parts of life, and the difficulties posed by attempting to use language in the way philosophers do, we will be free (or at least, less bound) by these problems.


There are a number of ideas in the Philosophical Investigations which many subsequent philosophers have found to be of first rate importance. These include, in no particular order: the idea that the meaning of proposition is just the way it is used in a language, the idea of the ‘language game’, the idea of the ‘form of life’, and the idea of a ‘private language’. Many of these concepts are too difficult to summarize succinctly, but what the Investigations certainly succeeds in doing with them is forcing us to look again at two things which we might easily take for granted: namely, language and philosophy. For many philosophers since Wittgenstein, looking again means seeing for the first time. 

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.