Analytic Philosophy Anti-Philosophy

‘Philosophy’ has always been bunk: chapter 17: Wittgenstein, early and late.

Wittgenstein’s thought is divided into early and late. There was a radical break between them.

The early Wittgenstein, extending Russell’s original ideas (which I summarized here), said that statements, unless they are of logic or maths, are meaningless unless they refer to facts!  The thing about ‘facts’ is that they are verifiable entities or happenings in sensed reality; they can be proved true or false.  The important thing is verifiability.

Their theory of Logical Atomism was that that our statements tend to obscure the logical atoms of meaning they are actually composed of.  One has to isolate these atoms and see whether they refer to facts or not. 

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’!

Inferring a little further, W. said that the meaning of a statement lay in its empirical verification, the senses, often by 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.

Russell and Wittgenstein were the first philosophers who conceived of a mistake in Philosophy’s use of language.

The later W. did an about-turn and said that meaningful statements don’t always refer to verifiable facts.  They may only 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!

Bertrand Russell, probably at this stage, complained (according to here) that W. had “grown tired of serious thinking and invented a doctrine which would make [it] unnecessary.”  Wittgenstein came to think of Russell as “superficial and glib.” (from here).

 W. felt he had abolished Philosophy as it had always been practised!


Wittgenstein’s Early Philosophy was published in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921).  It consisted of points numbered in stages, sub-stages and sub-sub-stages, such as 1, 1.1, and 1.1.2   Oi!

It was mainly a Logical Atomism.  The next eight paragraphs, in slightly different words from what is in the chapter on Russell here ,will add to what Logical Atomism is: 

1. Like Russell, W. thought that the surface grammar of statements disguised their logical form, the arguments they actually consisted of. 

2. The philosopher’s job is to break down each statement into its unstated atoms.  Some of these will refer to facts and are therefore meaningful; and some will not refer to facts and are therefore meaningless. 

4. A true statement would be shown to consist of elementary particles which truly pictured the world (as well of course as ‘logical operators’ like the words ‘if’, ‘not’, ‘and’ and ‘or’).

5. A sentence, which did not picture the world, had no meaning. ‘Picture-theory’ was used by W. for his idea that the world is composed of atomic facts which can be pictured in thoughts and then expressed in atomic statements.  

[Sentences, in order to picture reality, contain names referring to objects or states of affairs in the world (from here on the Tractatus). I include this because I think this business of naming was important to W. as well as to Russell.]

6. 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 as is usual with my unphilosophic mind, 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.  

7. Aesthetic judgments about what is beautiful, and ethical judgments about what is good, don’t picture objective facts in sensed reality, and can’t therefore be proved true or false.  This goes for metaphysics too.  They cannot be expressed within W.s logical language of meaningfulness because they aren’t facts.  They fall into the category of meaninglessness! (from here).  ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’, spoke Wittgenstein: a properly logical language, deals only with facts, with what is true.

8.To W., the statements of logic and of mathematics are only symbolic tautologies, and true only by virtue of the meaning of their terms, and don’t picture facts in the world.  But he thought they were meaningful!  (I’ve lapsed by not taking in how he argued this exception to his rule.)  


W.’s  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 from sensorily recognized facts in the world. (from here in its post on Analytic Philosophy where it is concerned with Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.)

Ancient philosophical problems can be solved by Logical Atomism translating them into a logically clarified language.  But W. apparently saw that that such language would be sterile and do no useful work, from here.  (But I don’t see what  he means now by ‘no useful work’, after thinking he had revolutionized Philosophy!)  

The early Wittgestein in his Tractatus came to the conclusion that philosophy should abandon philosophy for the natural sciences and for linguistic analysis.

Bertrand Russell wrote the introduction to the Tractatus, but W. said at some moment 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.

[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!)]

For me, Philosophy constantly and from the beginning has always consisted of  obvious misunderstandings  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 seem 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.  I wanted to say to them, ‘Just stop, stop, when you feel yourself slipping down this path, just break through and use language for what it was invented for!’  Language was created by Homo sapiens on the savannahs, and in the cave by the fire, and later in the streets and market-places.  Language had already taken these problems of its own imperfections into account with a nod and a wink.  Language has always been just a rough attempt to express what comes to us in our senses and in our feelings.  Language already contained some wisdom before philosophers wiped it away with contempt and started logicking from the beginning using language.


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).  

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