Table of Contents


Series page

Title page

Copyright page



chapter 1 the situated thinker

A Man at the Crossroads

From Vienna to Cambridge

The Two Sides of the Tractatus

The Return to Vienna

The Vienna Circle

Back to Cambridge

Sketches of Landscapes

The Last Years

The Alienated Thinker

Wittgenstein’s Standing

chapter 2 the world and its structure

“The world is everything that is the case”

The Substance of the World

Logical Atomism

“The proposition only asserts something, in so far as it is a picture”

A Very Short History of Logical Atomism

Wittgenstein’s Motivations

The Critique of Logical Atomism


chapter 3 the limits of language

How to Read the Tractatus

Recognizing Metaphysics as Senseless

Logic as Mirror of the World

The Self, the Subject, the I


chapter 4 the prodigious diversity of language games

Meaning as Use

Language Games

Mind and Matter

Mathematics and Other Sciences

Science, Myth, and Religion

Seeing Aspects

World Pictures

The Inner and the Outer

A Field of Diversity

chapter 5 families and resemblances

Games Form a Family

What Is Common to All These Leaves?

Expressions Constructed on Analogical Patterns

The Human Form of Life

Clusters and Families

A Case for Methodological Pluralism

chapter 6 our unsurveyable grammar

From the Synoptic View to the Album

“I don’t know my way about”

The Problem of Grammar

Essential Complexity

The Practice of Language


chapter 7 visible rails invisibly laid to infinity

Proceeding According to Rules

Rules and Regularities

The Uses of Rules

Three Questions about Rules

Rules and Interpretations

Rules and Intentions

Contested Rules

chapter 8 what is the use of studying philosophy?

A Political Moment

Action, Words, and Concepts

The Pluralism of the Political

Natural Affinities

Words and Their Contexts

Rules, Decisions, Authority

The Unpredictability of Behavior

Vision and Choice in Politics


blackwell great minds

edited by Steven Nadler

The Blackwell Great Minds series gives readers a strong sense of the fundamental views of the great western thinkers and captures the relevance of these figures to the way we think and live today.

1 Kant by Allen W. Wood

2 Augustine by Gareth B. Matthews

3 Descartes by André Gombay

4 Sartre by Katherine J. Morris

5 Charles Darwin by Michael Ruse

6 Schopenhauer by Robert Wicks

7 Shakespeare’s Ideas by David Bevington

8 Camus by David Sherman

9 Kierkegaard by M. Jamie Ferreira

10 Mill by Wendy Donner and Richard Fumerton

11 Socrates by George H. Rudebusch

12 Maimonides by T.M. Rudavsky

13 Wittgenstein by Hans Sluga

Title page


Ludwig Wittgenstein is, without doubt, a decisive figure in twentieth-century philosophy. In the radicalness of his questioning, in his determination to reshape the philosophical landscape, and in the power of his thinking and language he can be compared only to Martin Heidegger, who was his exact contemporary and came from an adjoining region of Europe. Why the two most original philosophical thinkers of the last century stemmed from related backgrounds can be understood only when we realize that all great philosophizing originates from a context of (social, political, cultural) endangerment. Plato and Aristotle shared such a context and so did Descartes and Hobbes, and so did, finally, our two twentieth-century thinkers.

Wittgenstein and Heidegger lived through a particularly turbulent age in which European world domination came to an end in a series of painful contractions; they were born as Europe’s cultural crisis (the crisis of modernity) was becoming acute, and grew up in an area particularly exposed to its disruptions. These developments affected the two philosophers, however, in somewhat different ways. In a previous book I have sought to characterize Heidegger’s philosophizing in the historical and political context of his time. Here I am looking at Wittgenstein’s philosophical thought with an eye to our political realities. The circumstances of Wittgenstein’s life are, certainly, of the greatest interest in this respect. The philosopher belonged to a talented and successful family that occupied a pivotal place in the Austro-Jewish culture of late imperial Vienna – at a moment of last flourishing and incipient disintegration. Many of Austria’s cultural elite were associated with the Wittgenstein family and with the philosopher himself (Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Klimt, Adolf Loos, Karl Kraus). When he took up philosophy, Wittgenstein also came to know some of the most creative philosophical thinkers of the age, men like Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore, Moritz Schlick, and Rudolf Carnap. In England, where he spent large parts of his adult life, he became in addition acquainted with leading intellectuals like John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, and Alan Turing. This glittering background stands, however, in sharp relief to Wittgenstein’s foreboding sense of the darkness of his time and to his feeling of alienation from European and American civilization. While his work incorporates all the impulses he had received from this civilization he sought at the same time to overcome it in his thinking. An heir to the rich heritage of modern European philosophy and culture, he saw himself nonetheless as a man alone at the crossroads.

My primary goal in this book is to make Wittgenstein’s thought transparent for readers who have as yet little or no familiarity with it. I begin with an account of Wittgenstein’s life in order to illuminate the historical, political, and personal conditions from which his philosophical work emerged. The chapters that follow seek to identify some of the key concepts and ideas in Wittgenstein’s work. Given the scope of that work, I will have to omit much detail. My exposition will also more or less bypass what the experts have said about Wittgenstein’s thought. I will seek to present Wittgenstein’s thought, instead, predominantly in my own words. Knowledgeable readers will come to understand very quickly that the selection of topics and the emphases I have chosen in this book are very much my own. Philosophical texts are, after all, like the puzzle pictures that interested Wittgenstein so much. They can always be seen in more than one way. I will argue in Chapter 8 that because of the cultural and political changes that Wittgenstein and his contemporaries lived through, and in consequence of the no less dramatic changes in the way we live now, our deepest and most pressing problems must concern the conditions and the possibility of our human social and political existence. In examining Wittgenstein’s ideas and concepts I am therefore particularly interested in asking how they relate to the historical and political context in which they arose and how they might be used in understanding that context. In the last chapter I will try to summarize these observations by asking how Wittgenstein’s thought may help us to face the peculiar problems of our contemporary social and political existence.

Wittgenstein is best known for two of his writings. The first is the dazzling and precocious Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus – a work he composed while serving as a soldier in World War I. Written in short, numbered propositions that range from technical discussions of logic to reflections on the meaning of life, the book represents a challenge even to readers trained in philosophy. After completion of that work, Wittgenstein abandoned the active pursuit of philosophy for almost 10 years. When he returned to the subject, he began to revise his earlier assumptions and this new work eventually crystallized into his Philosophical Investigations, composed between 1936 and 1947 but published only in 1951 after Wittgenstein’s death. Since then, a large body of other writings has come to light such as the Blue and Brown Books of the early 1930s as well as Wittgenstein’s philosophical notes from the last years of his life, published now under the title On Certainty. Other volumes range from philosophical Notebooks written during World War I through the Philosophical Remarks, the Philosophical Grammar, the Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, and Zettel containing material from the 1930s, to extensive writings on the philosophy of psychology from the 1940s.

The development of philosophy in the twentieth century would, certainly, have taken another course without that work. Wittgenstein influenced, in the first instance, two generations of philosophers. In the 1920s he was of particular importance to thinkers like Bertrand Russell and F.P. Ramsey in England and to the philosophers of the Vienna Circle for whom the Tractatus became a handbook of logical positivism. Interpreters working in this tradition see Wittgenstein still primarily as a logician and as a theorizer about language, and as someone who seeks to resolve philosophical problems systematically through such investigations. After World War II, Wittgenstein and his Philosophical Investigations inspired a new generation of English and American philosophers who, in contrast to this first group, resisted large-scale and formal theorizing and who sought to solve philosophical problems, instead, piecemeal by attending to common sense and ordinary language. A third wave of thinkers has drawn more recently on the skeptical strands in Wittgenstein’s thinking. Yet others have sought to understand him as first and foremost engaged in questions concerning the human mind. Some have gone so far as to call him primarily an ethical thinker.

For all his influence, Wittgenstein remains an unsettling presence in philosophy. His way of thinking and writing have proved too personal to be fully incorporated into the academic practice of philosophy. Wittgenstein himself maintained, moreover, a peculiar ambivalence not only to his own work but to philosophy as a whole. This attitude manifests itself already in the Tractatus, which concludes with the words that anyone who has understood his book will set its propositions aside as senseless. This dismissive gesture is repeated in Wittgenstein’s later writings when he declares it to be his goal to free himself from philosophical puzzlement and not to construct any kind of theory.

Wittgenstein’s philosophical writings are by no means easy to read and their study calls for much patience and persistence. Their author makes few concessions to his readers. While he writes an admirably lucid and simple prose, only rarely using technical terms, the course of his thinking is often difficult to follow. He seldom prepares the reader for what is ahead and he never provides introductions or summaries. His writings are characterized almost everywhere by their lack of descriptive titles and chapter headings. They consist typically of sequences of numbered propositions and paragraphs in which a variety of topics is examined in an intricately interwoven fashion. Those who are willing to take on the burden of seriously studying these texts will, however, discover in them an intense preoccupation with some of the most pressing issues of modern philosophy. The world and its structure, language and meaning, the character of the human self, the function of rules, the nature of necessity, mathematical truth, the diversity of world-views, questions of ethics and the meaning of life are among the many themes that concern him. Wittgenstein writes about these matters, moreover, in an almost hypnotic manner that returns to the same issues again and again in ever-new formulations, thus forcing the reader to become increasingly sensitized to the complexity of the problems under discussion.

In discussing Wittgenstein’s thought I will often cite his words. In doing so my primary purpose is to provide supporting evidence for my particular reading of his texts. But I also hope to give the reader a sense of Wittgenstein’s tone of voice and the beauty of his prose. Though Wittgenstein did much of his philosophical work in England, he almost always wrote in German. Practically all his work has been published in translation. Though these translations are adequate for most purposes, I have found it preferable to revise them at many points or even to replace them with my own.

In writing this book I have drawn on the help of many others. Rupert Read, David Stern, Andrew Norris, and Michael Hymers deserve particular credit for having read much or all of my manuscript and their comments have proved immensely helpful in finishing my work. I am also grateful to the participants in a seminar on Wittgenstein which I conducted at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in the spring of 2010.


The three most frequently cited Wittgenstein texts:


Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, translated by C.K. Ogden (London: Routledge, 1922);

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, translated by D.F. Pears and B.F. McGuinness (London: Routledge, 1961)

References are to the numbered propositions of the text, unless otherwise indicated.


The Blue and Brown Books (New York: Harper & Row, 1960)


Philosophical Investigations, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell 1958). References are to the numbered sections of the text unless otherwise indicated.

Other Wittgenstein texts cited:


Culture and Value, edited by G.H. von Wright, translated by Peter Winch (Oxford: Blackwell, 1980)


Geheime Tagebücher. 19141916, edited by W. Baum (Vienna: Turia & Kant, 1991)


Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, edited by Cyrill Barrett (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972)


“Lecture on Ethics,” in Philosophical Occasions by James Klagge and Alfred Nordmann (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1993)


Notebooks, 1914–1916, edited by G.H. von Wright and G.E.M. Anscombe, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe, second ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979)


On Certainty, edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright, translated by Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1969). References are to numbered sections.


Philosophical Remarks, translated by Raymond Hargreaves and Roger White (University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1975)


Remarks on Colour, edited by G.E.M. Anscombe, translated by Linda McAlister and Margaret Schättle (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1978). References are to numbered sections.


“Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough,” in Philosophical Occasions by James Klagge and Alfred Nordmann (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1993)


Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, translated by G.E.M Anscombe, revised edition (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA: 1983)


Zettel, edited by G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H. von Wright, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967). References are to numbered sections.