Wright on Wittgenstein

Book Review
Title: Wittgenstein
Author: Georg Henrik von Wright
Published: University of Minnesota Press 1982

 Ludwig Wittgenstein and G. H. von Wright

Ludwig Wittgenstein was G. H. von Wright’s professor, mentor, and friend. After Wittgenstein died in 1951, Wright became literary executor and spent thirty years collecting, compiling, editing, and publishing the works. Wittgenstein wrote a lot, but published very little during his lifetime, so the task of the literary executor was long and painstaking. Upon publishing the complete works in various editions from 1951 to 1981, Wright wrote the present book as a tribute to his friend and mentor.

The present book, Wittgenstein, focuses on geistige Erscheinung, the overall personality and spiritual makeup of the man. Many people know Wittgenstein as the most influential and brilliant philosopher of logic, language, mathematics, and epistemology of the twentieth century. He invented the philosophical notions of language-games, picture theory and family resemblance. But he had an interesting variety of paths in life.

Wittgenstein, a native of Austria, was an engineer and held a patent for jet propeller design and created a sewing machine design and built it himself. He was also an architect. He played clarinet and considered becoming a conductor. He spoke fluent German, English, and Norwegian. He was an elementary school teacher in remote Austrian villages for several years, and a gardener at a monastery near Vienna. He also studied the psychology of music, rhythm, and aesthetics in the Cambridge Psychological Laboratory. He fought in WWI, was decorated and spent a year in an Italian prison camp. Between battles, and while in the prison camp, he wrote his famous first breakthrough work in the philosophy of language, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (luckily he had the manuscript in his bag when he was captured).

Wright spends a lot of time on Wittgenstein’s views of logic and language. He also delves into the character. Wittgenstein inherited a vast fortune from his father, but felt that wealth corrupted intellectual activity and integrity. So he gave all his money away. To avoid corrupting the virtuous poor, he gave it to his already-wealthy sister.

Ludwig Wittgenstein believed a correct understanding of language-games might even solve most of the day’s social problems. He lived through two world wars, and feared civilization would become a heap of rubble and ashes, with spirits hovering over it. He rigorously studied the Gospels and his spiritual life was influenced by Tolstoy.

Wittgenstein was never at peace with society. He found it “alien and uncongenial.” Before the war, Wittgenstein retreated from society and lived in a hut in Norway for about a year. He said he could not find a home for his work, nor a home for himself.

About ten years after WWI, he became a professor at Cambridge University in England on the strength of the Tractatus. He explained to a potential publisher when shopping the manuscript, that the work “consists of two parts: 1) the one presented here, plus 2) all that I have not written…this second part is the important one.” This publisher and many others declined the honor of publishing the book, which took many years to finally get in print.

Wittgenstein partly inspired the founding principles and creation of the famous Vienna Circle of logical positivists (via Moritz Schlick) in the 1920s and 1930s, then typical for him, declined to be part of it and largely disagreed with them. In many other cases, he expressed dislike for the views of people who claimed to be “followers of Wittgenstein.”

One follower, or at least student, was the author of the present book, G. H. von Wright, who remained lifelong friends with Wittgenstein, and proved to be most well equipped to articulate his mentor’s thinking.

Professor Jaakko Hintikka

Later, G. H. von Wright himself was mentor to the next generation’s most famous philosopher in language and logic, Professor Jaakko Hintikka (both natives of Finland). Hintikka is the founder of formal epistemic logic and game semantics for logic.

In turn, as a side note, Jaakko Hintikka became the major professor of a younger philosophy-of-language student from 1981 to 1985, Robert Rose-Coutré (me).

Abstract Objects, Ideal Forms, and Works of Art

Professor Hintikka’s epistemology, language, and logic courses (over a dozen), our many after-class conversations in his office, along with Hintikka’s crystalline in-depth explications on Wittgenstein, inspired my epistemic study of language games on aesthetic theory, published as Abstract Objects, Ideal Forms, and Works of Art: An Epistemic and Aesthetic Analysis.

Returning to Wittgenstein, Wright’s expansive and generous tribute to Wittgenstein highlights the intensity of Wittgenstein’s sincere belief in his work. The typical intellectual’s “label of ‘Cool Objectivity’ did not fit Wittgenstein. He put his whole soul into everything he did.”

It is obvious that Wright himself put his whole soul into the work as literary executor. Wright spent thirty years searching Europe and the United States for manuscripts, notes, fragments, all scattered across universities, publishers, former students, and other archives. He pieced together timelines, versions, revisions, margin notes, with endless collations. The present book is called a Tribute to Ludwig Wittgenstein, and it is an admirable one. But the real tribute was Wright’s thirty years’ labor ensuring the great mind’s output could be shared with everyone.

Some of the works I read in preparation for writing my book Abstract Objects, Ideal Forms, and Works of Art:

  • Ayer, A. J., “Construction of Our Theory of the Physical World”. Philosophy As It Is. Eds. Ted Honderich and Myles Burnyeat. London: Penguin, 1979: 311–347.
  • Ayer, A. J., “One’s Knowledge of Other Minds”. Essays in Philosophical Psychology. Ed. Gustafson, Donald F. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1964: 346–364.
  • Carnap, Rudolf. “Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology”. Modern Philosophy of Language. Ed. Maria Baghramian. Washington, D. C.: Counterpoint, 1999: 68–85.
  • Ingarden, Roman. “Aesthetic Experience and Aesthetic Object”. Selected Papers in Aesthetics. Ed. Peter J. McCormick. Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1985: 107–132.
  • Kripke, Saul. “Identity and Necessity”. Philosophy As It Is. Eds. Ted Honderich and Myles Burnyeat. London: Penguin, 1979: 467–513.
  • Madison, G. B. The Hermeneutics of Postmodernity. Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana University Press: 1990.
  • McCormick, Peter J. “On Ingarden’s Selected Papers in Aesthetics”. Selected Papers in Aesthetics. Roman Ingarden. Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1985: 7–16.
  • Pepper, Steven. “The Aesthetic Work of Art”. Art and Philosophy: Readings in Aesthetics. Ed. W. E. Kennick. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1964: 108–125.
  • Plato. “Phaedo”. Collected Dialogues. Trans. Hugh Tredennick. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989: 40–98.
  • Plato. “Republic”. Collected Dialogues. Trans. Paul Shorey. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989: 75–844.
  • Putnam, Hilary. “The Meaning of ‘Meaning’”. Mind, Language, and Reality: Philosophical Papers, Vol. 2. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997: 215–271.
  • Ryle, Gilbert. “Imagination”. Essays in Philosophical Psychology. Ed. Gustafson, Donald F. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1964: 117–153.
  • Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Trans. Wade Baskin. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959.
  • Schopenhauer. “The Platonic Idea as the Object of Art”. The Works of Schopenhauer. Ed. Will Durant. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1929: 93–158.
  • Sheriff, John K. The Fate of Meaning. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.
  • Stalnaker, Robert C. “Possible Worlds”. Philosophy As It Is. Eds. Ted Honderich and Myles Burnyeat. London: Penguin, 1979: 447–465.
  • Strawson, P. F. Skepticism and Naturalism: Some Varieties. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
  • Strawson, P. F. “Persons”. Essays in Philosophical Psychology. Ed. Gustafson, Donald F. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1964: 377–403.
  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Blue and Brown Books. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1965.
  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Notebooks 1914–1916. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1961 (a slightly different version of Tractatus).
  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. New York: Prentice Hall, 1999.
  • Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Trans. Frank P. Ramsey and C.K. Ogden. Abingdon: Routledge, 1981.
  • Wollheim, Richard. “Art as a Form of Life”. Philosophy As It Is. Eds. Ted Honderich and Myles Burnyeat. London: Penguin, 1979: 131–159.

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