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The Early and Later Philosophy of Wittgenstein

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WittgensteinAnalytic philosophy has had an incredible influence on Western philosophy in the twentieth century up til the present day. Its origins begin with a rejection of the Hegelian absolute idealism that was the prevailing philosophy in the nineteenth century in Europe and Britain. This rejection resulted in a renaissance of philosophy in language. Gottlob Frege, G.E. Moore, and Bertrand Russell were a few of the early philosophers in the analytic tradition. Their philosophy focused on language and logical analysis. Russell saw that this new philosophy was a clear rejection and abandonment of idealism (Redding). The focus on propositions, meaning, and logic was important because it let them analyze all discourse and statements in a very concise way. Aaron Preston, writer for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, explains that “on the traditional view, analytic philosophy was born in this linguistic turn.” This linguistic turn in philosophy would change the history of how philosophy was done in the West. A key thinker in the analytic tradition was Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein studied under Russell at the University of Cambridge in the early twentieth century. Russell saw much potential in him early on. Ludwig developed a philosophy of language that would have an impact on future philosophy in the mid twentieth century. Wittgenstein would later abandon his view and create a completely new philosophy. His important early work is in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and his later philosophy comes in his book Philosophical Investigations. This paper will explain and analyze Wittgenstein’s early philosophy, how it influenced the logical positivists of the mid-nineteenth century, and how it compares and contrasts with his later philosophy.


Wittgenstein’s early philosophy as seen in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus sought to explain what language is comprised of, how it has meaning, and how it relates to the world. Wittgenstein was focused on language itself. He thought that understanding language would help one understand philosophical problems. He opens up his book with the following propositions: “The world is everything that is the case. The world is the totality of facts, not of things.” Wittgenstein’s whole philosophy is founded upon these two propositions. What he means by these two statements is that the world is inherently fact-based. It isn’t merely just things but a structure of things. The facts are the structure the world. He says “an atomic fact is a combination of objects (entities, things).” What are the things or more rightly objects that Wittgenstein is speaking of? He says in 2.02 that the object is simple. The object is so simple that is has no parts. It is the base fundamentals of the world. He goes on to say that they form the substance of the world and also that they are colorless. Wittgenstein now uses an analogy to help understand how the world relates to our language. His analogy is that of a picture. Philosophers call this the picture theory of meaning. Any picture presents a state of affairs and “presents the facts in logical space, the existence and nonexistence of atomic facts (Wittgenstein 9).” The picture shows the facts of the objects. For example, when one thinks of a picture of a cat lying on a mat, that picture inherently explains the facts of what is and what is not the case. The cat is not under the mat or to the side of the mat, but rather is lying on the mat. Wittgenstein uses this picture theory to explain how our language relates to the world. Our language works in the same way a picture works. Language gives us the states of affairs in the world. The structure of language is determined by the structure of reality. He didn’t mean ordinary language but rather elementary language that is derived from an analysis of ordinary language. Our elementary language pictures the world. In 2.223 he says that “in order to discover whether the picture is true of false we must compare it with reality.” He explains how this comparison works by giving us a rule of representation. In 4.0141 Wittgenstein again gives us a different analogy for how this representation takes place. He uses the example of a symphony and how it can be replicated or how a gramophone can replicate the sounds from the music. This second analogy helps one understand how this representation takes place. Embedded in language itself is this rule of projection and representation. It is the mechanism which makes sense of the meaning of the picture and allows the logical form of the proposition to mirror that picture. A musician can replicate a sheet of music because of its inherent rules within the structure. Wittgenstein’s final philosophical idea in the Tractatus is that of the unsayable. At the end of his work at proposition 7 he says “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” If we cannot speak about a fact – if there is nothing that we can verify – we must remain silent about it. Wittgenstein says at proposition 6.42 “there can be no ethical propositions. Propositions cannot express anything higher.” For him, all claims about metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics are in the realm of the unsayable. They are plainly meaningless because they do not refer to anything in the world. Wittgenstein ironically thought these were the most important things even though they are devoid of meaning. The realms of what can be said and unsayable would influence the philosophers known as the logical positivists who were influenced by Russell and in particular Wittgenstein.


Logical positivism was a movement of the 1930s and 1940s that came out of the early analytic tradition of Russell and Wittgenstein in particular. The movement was comprised of thinkers such as A.J. Ayer, Rudolph Carnap, and Moritz Schlick to name a few (Creath). The positivists wanted to know what statements were meaningful and what statements were meaningless. They had two categories of meaningful statements. The first category was statements which were analytic. These are statements which are tautologies or contradictions. A tautology is a proposition true by the definition such as all bachelors are unmarried men. An example of a contradiction would be that a zebra is not a zebra. The second category of meaningful statements is empirically verifiable statements. The statement that the moon exists is meaningful because it can be empirically verified. The positivists adopted a view what they called the verification theory of meaning. This view encapsulated their two categories of meaningful statements. If a statement was not a tautology or verifiable then it was considered meaningless. This motivation was influenced by Wittgenstein. The positivists were against all forms of metaphysics and religious talk. They believed all of it to not be true or false but rather meaningless – on par with gibberish. Ayer held to the ethical view of emotivism. Under this view all ethical statements are merely statements of feeling. When one says that it is good to help the poor, one is merely expressing their feelings toward the poor (Macdonald). There really is no morally right and wrong under this view. It is just feelings of emotion towards one thing or another. The verification theory of meaning is clearly influenced by Wittgenstein perhaps unintentionally. Wittgenstein had a very similar view to that of the positivists which came after his publishing of the Tractatus. The positivist’s project has many problems, though. The verification theory is itself not a tautology nor can the theory be verified in nature. The whole theory is therefore meaningless and self-defeating. This view would eventually be abandoned by most philosophers and Wittgenstein himself would come up with an entirely new and revolutionary philosophy that attacks his earlier work.


Wittgenstein’s later philosophy would attack and revise ideas in his earlier work. His later philosophy is in his posthumous book Philosophical Investigations. In this work, he wants to get away from the seemingly necessary and logical claims of the Tractatus and get into ordinary language. He moved away from a philosophical explanation of how language worked and dealt with how ordinary language works in our society. In the Philosophical Investigations his most famous quote that describes his point of view is “for a large class of cases of the employment of the word ‘meaning’ – though not for all – this word can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” This later view no longer subscribes to the picture theory of meaning but rather sees language in a looser way. Language and the meaning of language are determined by its use. Language becomes a tool that we use to communicate to other people. Societies each have their own language game and there are language games within broader language games. These games are ways of using certain words. Philosophy uses words differently than psychology for example. Scientific explanations of things use different language from theological language. Wittgenstein says that “to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life.” Languages are forms of life because they come out of societies and relations among people. There is no precise essence to language games. The boundaries of the game are culturally defined and they are also blurry. They are not absolute but rather are relative to regions.


Early Wittgenstein and Later Wittgenstein are radically different but they do have some things in common with one another. Both want to analyze language as a whole and its meaning. They want to discover what language actually is and how it works. Both views think that philosophy cannot add anything new to our knowledge but philosophy can help clarify our concepts. Philosophy refines other disciplines such as science or mathematics. It is not its own discipline but acts as a handmaiden for others. The differences between the two philosophies are staggering though. The Tractarian concepts try to understand the metaphysical framework of the world and our language. The later philosophy wants to make philosophy normal. Philosophy as done in the Tractatus gets nowhere and muddles our thinking and our language. This kind of philosophy seeks to find the essences of words and their relation or connection to the respective objects. Wittgenstein says that the correct philosophy is one that explains the usage of our terms. For him, philosophy should be seen as a therapy rather than a systematic explanation of lofty ideas. Our language is ordinary, common, and does not need further confusion. In Philosophical Investigations he says that “philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.” What he means by this is that philosophical problems are more abundant when philosophers try to think of the word and how it is related to the object itself. They do not focus on how the word is used but rather its essence with the object it names. They focus on the mental connection of the word with the object. This seems to directly attack his previous work. Since the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus seems deeply flawed and contradictory are the ideas presented in the Philosophical Investigations true? On a surface level it seems that Wittgenstein is correct in saying that language is use. Societies use language in different ways. Also, different spheres of discourse talk differently. Religious talk and scientific talk are different because they are using language in different ways. They are different games of language. He is opening up the door for meaning in metaphysics and religion, something that his earlier philosophy and the philosophy of the logical positivists did not allow for. It does seem that this later view has problems as well, though. In his book Language Learning in Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy Charles Hardwick lays out some of the problems with the Philosophical Investigations. He says that Wittgenstein’s phrase “the meaning of a word is its use in the language” is vague and the word meaning can have many definitions which could undermine his philosophy. Charles lists three different uses of the word mean all which are viable options. It is unclear as to what Wittgenstein meant by his phrase (Hardwick 33-34). He also shows that there are problems with the concept of language games. Wittgenstein posits language games as separate systems but there is no inherent unifying factor in any of them. Thus, they become a convoluted mess and a plurality as opposed to any type of unity between them. Ferdinand De Saussure says that “language [as opposed to speech], is a self-contained whole and a principle of classification. As soon as we give language a place among the facts of speech, we introduce a natural order into a mass that lends itself to no other classification” (Hardwick 47-48). Language needs to have some form of unity in order to work. It has to have order and structure to it. It cannot just be a plurality of games being played. This is seemingly problematic for Wittgenstein’s later view and undermines his ideas.


Wittgenstein is an important figure in analytic philosophy because of his influence on logical positivism and because of his influential later philosophy. Wittgenstein influenced Russell, the logical positivists, and nearly everyone in the analytic tradition after that. His later philosophy, the ordinary language philosophy, influenced the Oxford school of thought. And it is interesting that Wittgenstein might even have an influence on continental philosophy. There seems to be a common theme between Wittgenstein’s later work and the French post-modern philosopher Jacques Derrida (Richter). A.C. Grayling sees his influence as being much more minimal than people make it out to be. If every philosopher accepted Wittgenstein’s views then there would be no more problems in philosophy. Graying sees that reason why Ludwig gets so much attention is because philosophers have been trying to clarify what he said and meant in his works (Grayling 126-128). Whatever the case may be Ludwig Wittgenstein’s impact on analytic philosophy and philosophy as a whole will forever remain.


Works Cited

Creath, Richard. “Logical Empiricism.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 04 Apr. 2011. Web. 13 June 2014. <;.

Grayling, A. C. Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001. Print.

Hardwick, Charles S. Language Learning in Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy. The Hague: Mouton, 1971. Print.

“John Searle on Ludwig Wittgenstein: Section 1.” YouTube. YouTube, 17 Feb. 2008. Web. 12 June 2014. <;.

Macdonald, Graham. “Alfred Jules Ayer.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 07 May 2005. Web. 13 June 2014. <;.

Preston, Aaron. “Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Analytic Philosophy. Web. 12 June 2014. <;.

Redding, Paul. “Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 13 Feb. 1997. Web. 12 June 2014. <;.

Richter, Duncan J. “Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Wittgenstein, Ludwig . Web. 13 June 2014. <;.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Gertrude E. M. Anscombe, Peter M. S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte. Philosophical Investigations. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Major Works: Selected Philosophical Writings. New York: HarperPerennial, 2009. Print.


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