Wittgenstein’s thought is divided into early and late Wittgenstein. There was a radical break between them.
The early W. said that statements, unless they are of logic or maths, only have meaning if they refer to facts. This stimulated other philosophers into Logical Positivism which said just about the same thing: ‘Facts’ have to be verifiable.
But the later W. then did an about-turn and said that words mean what you use them for within the context you share with your audience; i.e. words are in a ‘language-game’, and may not refer to entities at all!
For me, Philosophy constantly and from the beginning has always consisted of some kinds of obvious mistakes in the use of language. This was so from starting one’s studies in today’s classroom as well as in Ancient Greece. These mistakes are so obvious and basic, at the very roots of thinking what to say before one even opens one’s mouth, that I couldn’t work them out.
Wittgenstein, firstly on the shoulders of Bertrand Russell, was the first philosopher who conceived of first one mistake, then another, in Philosophy’s use of language. He felt he had abolished Philosophy as it had always been practised!
(I haven’t read the original words of Wittgenstein, or even tried the on-line Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on him. They are lectures from inside the world-wide department of Philosophy which has been going since before 500 BC. One would need to have a mind like theirs. I have gone to sites that explain him to other kinds of mind, even ostensibly to kids or dummies.)
(I tried initially to refer each of my statements to the site I derived it from, but found it impossibly laborious. I have made mistakes in attributing my statements to exactly where I got them from. Many sites say many of the same things. I occasionally quote almost verbatim.)
Some biography of W. to understand his mind:
He and his family were very musical.
He studied mechanical engineering in Berlin and then at the University of Manchester for his doctorate. He became a research student in an engineering laboratory and did research on the behaviour of kites in the upper atmosphere. He did aeronautical research on a propeller with small jet engines on the end of its blades; he designed and tested a prototype.
But he had also studied in Germany briefly under mathematician-philosopher Gottlob Frege who urged him to read Bertrand Russell. He read Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica (1913) which explained, to put it crudely, that mathematics was just logic; and went to Cambridge in 1912 to study philosophy under G.E. Moore. He was also tutored by Russell (most of this from here and here.)
His major interests were philosophy, music and travelling (from here). He became a passionate, though troubled and doubting, convert to Christianity. His family had been Jewish for 4000 years but had converted a generation or two earlier. He served on the Russian front in the Austro-Hungarian Army in WWI where he devoured Tolstoy’s commentary on the Gospels.
Music, engineering, aeronautical research, mathematics, logic, Christianity and Tolstoy! That was the background to his philosophical mind.
He was of the Left but not Marxist. He went to Russia in the 1930s but left after a short time (from here).
Wittgenstein’s Early Philosophy: This was published in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) which consisted of points numbered in stages, sub-stages and sub-sub-stages, such as 1, 1.1, and 1.12.! Oi!
It was mainly a Logical Atomism which extended Russell’s original ideas on the subject which latter I summarized here. The next eight of my paragraphs will repeat in slightly different words what Logical Atomism is:
The meaningfulness of language comes from their reference to facts in the world. But these atomic statements of atomic facts tend not to be explicitly stated, but are assumed and hidden within the actual statements we make.
Like Russell, W. thought that the surface grammar of statements disguised their logical form.
The philosopher’s job is therefore to break down, to analyse, each statement into the unstated constituent atoms within it. Some of these will refer to facts and are therefore meaningful; and some apparently will not refer to facts and are therefore meaningless.
A true statement would be shown to consist of elementary particles which pictured the world (as well as logical operators like ‘if’, ‘not’, ‘and’ and ‘or’).
A sentence, which did not picture the world, was devoid of meaning. ‘Picture-theory’ is used by W. for his idea that the world is composed of atomic facts which can be pictured in one’s thoughts and then expressed in atomic statements. Sentences, if they are to mean anything, must picture the world, i.e. must mirror reality. (To me, this sounds like commonsense.)
Once we break statements down into these hidden logical atoms picturing atomic facts, the age-old philosophical puzzling about many statements falls away. (It would be nice if I could give an example but I can’t presently find one!) So, W. came to believe at this stage already that the philosopher’s job was to clear up linguistic misunderstandings.
Metaphysics and ethics are meaningless because they don’t picture objective facts (i.e. sensed reality) and therefore can’t be proved true or false! But to W., the statements of logic and of mathematics are meaningful, even though they are only symbolic tautologies, and only true by virtue of the meaning of their terms, and don’t picture facts in the world!
Sentences, in order to picture reality, contain names referring to objects or states of affairs in the world (from here on the Tractatus). (I think this business of naming was important to W. as well as to Russell.)
From here: Aesthetic judgments about what is beautiful, and ethical judgments about what is good, also cannot be expressed within W.s logical language because they aren’t facts. So W. said, presumably of all metaphysics, aesthetics and ethics : “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” A properly logical language, Wittgenstein said, deals only with facts, with what is true.
To put it in different words: W.’s basic atoms of speech refer to facts in the world that our senses recognize and that includes those given to us by scientific method. This excludes metaphysics because the latter derives from concepts in the mind rather than sensorily recognized facts in the world. An example of the latter is Plato working out that there are ‘particulars’ (objects in the world) plus the universal concepts they fall under such as ‘cat’ or ‘blackness’. These ‘universals’, said Plato or Socrates, are actually perfect entities existing in some kind of heaven, of which the particular objects on Earth are imperfect copies! That is an example of Metaphysics! (derived from James Mannion on Wittgenstein in netplaces, which may no longer be available.)
As well as excluding metaphysics, logical atomism was an exposé of the false mystery of many words and statements that had set philosophers to philosophizing for 2500 years. They should first have analysed them down into their constituent logical atoms referring to facts in the world, and there would have been no need for ‘philosophizing’!
Ancient philosophical problems can be solved using logically perfect language without the confusing and muddying effects of everyday contexts, but W. apparently saw that that such language would be sterile and do no useful work, from here. (What does he mean by ‘no useful work’?)
Much if not all of the abovet wo paragraphs have been understood from this website here (in its post on Analytic Philosophy where it is concerned with Wittgenstein’s Tractatus ):
So the early Wittgestein in his Tractatus came to the conclusion that the only proper method for philosophy is to abandon philosophy for the natural sciences and for linguistic analysis.
Bertrand Russell wrote the introduction to W.’s Tractatus, but W. said at some moment in his life that BR had shown fundamental misunderstandings of it (from here).
W.seems to have pointed out against himself that his own propositions of Logical Atomism in the Tractatus are meaningless because they do not express basic data of sense-experience, or of logic or maths either.
Inferring a little further from Logical Atomism, W. had the idea that the meaning of a statement lay in its empirical verification i.e. verification by the senses, often by way of scientific method. This was taken up by the Logical Positivists of the Vienna Circle in the 1920s to be the last word on a large proportion of Philosophy, certainly in Meaning and Epistemology. They too rejected metaphysics because it revealed ‘facts’ by deriving them logically from axioms in the head, not by grounding them on the senses. And these ‘facts’ were things like God, Truth, Beauty, the Good.
[Here is a paragraph that takes us nowhere and then back again, but that I didn’t want to leave out: Did I read somewhere that W. derived the atomism of the world in its individual facts from the atomism of language. That seems to me surely the wrong way round. ‘Language, thought, and reality share a common structure, fully expressible in logical terms’ as one of my sources says and which sounds unexceptional. And, according to here, W. thought that the structure of language is determined by the structure of reality (which sounds the right way round). We can talk about reality because we have words that stand for things (OK!), and because the words in a sentence have a relationship to each other that corresponds to the relationship things have to each other in the world. (OK!)]