Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (26 April 1889 – 29 April 1951) was an Austrian-born philosopher who held the professorship in philosophy at the University of Cambridge from 1939 until 1947.[1]

Described by Bertrand Russell as "the most perfect example I have known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense, and dominating," Wittgenstein inspired two of the century's principal philosophical movements, logical positivism and ordinary language philosophy, though in his lifetime he published just one book review, one article, a children's dictionary, and the 75-page Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921)—25,000 words of philosophical writing published when he was alive, and three million unpublished. In 1999 professional philosophers ranked his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations (1953) as the most important book of 20th-century philosophy.[2]

Born into one of Austria-Hungary's wealthiest families in Vienna at the turn of the century, he gave away his massive inheritance and worked as a teacher and gardener, serving on the front-lines during the First World War and being commended by the Austrian army for his courage. He was homosexual, as was at least one of his brothers, three of whom committed suicide, with Wittgenstein and the remaining brother contemplating it too. Those who knew him described him as tortured and domineering: Richard Rorty writes that he took out his intense self-loathing on everyone he met. He grew angry when any of his students wanted to pursue philosophy, and famously embraced the wife of philosopher G.E. Moore when he learned she was working in a jam factory—doing something useful, in Wittgenstein's eyes.[3]

His work is usually divided between his early period, exemplified by the Tractatus, and his later period, articulated in the Investigations. The early Wittgenstein was concerned with the relationship between propositions and the world, and saw the aim of philosophy as correcting misconceptions about language through logical abstraction. The later Wittgenstein rejected many of the conclusions of the Tractatus, and provided a detailed account of the many possible uses of ordinary language, calling language a series of interchangeable language-games in which the meaning of words is derived from their public use. Despite these differences, similarities between the early and later periods include a conception of philosophy as a kind of therapy, a concern for ethical and religious issues, and a literary style often described as poetic. Terry Eagleton called him the philosopher of poets and composers, playwrights and novelists.[4]


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