What were Wittgenstein's greatest contributions?


from: Issue 2/2009, pp. 14-23

Impulse generator for the philosophy of language analysis

Formulations that Wittgenstein is one of the leading philosophers of the 20th century and has decisively shaped the philosophical thinking of the western world in recent decades have now become a matter of course. It is not quite so natural to find access to one's thoughts; for his philosophical work does not contain a definitive doctrine in the usual sense, but consists of sketches of ideas (“philosophical remarks”), which are often dialogue-like and only suggestive in character. They have also been redesigned again and again, and their originality makes it difficult to place them in the philosophical tradition. The passion of the ingenious way of thinking often requires a generosity of terminology, and finally the inner compulsion to create only perfect things does not allow him to stand still; in the struggle for a final version much remains open.

In a way, his style of thinking predestined him to become a philosophical classic, that is, the ambiguous wealth of thoughts of the work can be explored anew in every epoch, drawn on as a stimulus and interpreted in ever new interpretations as confirmation of the zeitgeist. At the beginning the name "Wittgenstein" stands for the linguistic turn of the 20th century. This has become more concrete in completely different traditions - be it in the linguistics of de Saussure or Weisgerber, be it in the so-called "continental" philosophy of Heidegger and Gadamer - but in Wittgenstein's environment the linguistic change achieved its greatest impact in terms of history. So this initially became the impetus for the philosophy of language analysis. But it was only the fact that his thinking, even after the boom of language-related philosophy concepts, repeatedly served as a point of contact for projects of new philosophical developments, made him a time-independent classic. The new interpretations in the age of open, intercultural and pluralistic thinking consciously oppose the Wittgenstein image of the analytical tradition and discover in his work above all reflections on the dissolution of thinking habits not only in philosophy, but in all areas of culture. At the same time, they focus on the often brief and cryptic contributions to the fundamental questions of showing oneself and the unthinkable, so that many contributions relate to ethics, art and religion.

First interpretations

However, a brief look at the first Wittgenstein interpretations reveals an astonishing variety of aspects, which is difficult to reconcile with reducing the work to the above-mentioned initiator function. The fact that the early Tractatus logico-philosophicus (tract for short) was Wittgenstein's only known work for a long time encouraged its classification in the positivism guided by the principles of empirical science. In this “Bible of logical positivism” one ignored the meaning of the “logical form” of the world, language and thoughts, which can by no means be verified empirically, and above all the role of the unspeakable, which comes to the fore at the end of the treatise. Already at this time experts were advocating a logical-semantic interpretation in addition to the positivistic one, which referred to Russell's examination of the fundamentals of logic and mathematics. Proponents of this interpretation saw the treatise as an attempt to explain the conditions that a logically perfect or "ideal" language must meet in order to avoid the widespread abuse of the language. By leaving the clear, cleared of misunderstandings by philosophical reflection, to the natural sciences, philosophy turns into language criticism.

With the spread of the ideas of the late work, the Philosophical Investigations (PU for short), and Wittgenstein's distancing from some of the basic assumptions of early writing, the positivist interpretation lost its weight. The logical-semantic interpretation, on the other hand, underwent a transformation to a transcendental-pragmatic interpretation after the turn to colloquial language and the inclusion of pragmatic elements. The late philosophy is therefore shaped by the discovery of the action character of language, according to which language is realized in rule-based complexes of action (“language games”) in certain speech situations (“life forms”). Wittgenstein's original question about the possibility of language was no longer based on words with a fixed, exact meaning that acquire a relation to reality by means of the mapping function; Instead, the use of words is part of a changeable life process, so that the meaning of a word is determined by the use in the individual language games and so the one-dimensionality of the ideal language has been broken.

While the further development of the positivistic view by Quine favored a naturalistic-scientistic paradigm in which the epistemological and language-philosophical analyzes are delegated entirely to the field of empirical science, the discovered action aspect of language led to a general discussion of theories of meaning, in which Wittgenstein's Ge needed thesis learned concrete forms. The development of speech act theories (Austin, Searle), which soon became an integral part of modern linguistics, played a special role. The use of language analyzed in the other theories of meaning also had to take linguistic facts into account, so that the boundary between philosophy and linguistics threatened to disappear.

This dilemma in language-analytical interpretation, according to which Wittgenstein demands a clear presentation of the use of language in order to remove philosophical confusion, soon moved into the center of criticism of analytical philosophy in general and of Wittgenstein as its main representative in particular. In "pure research", in which only the differentiations and subtleties of empirical use of language, the enumeration of conceptual distinguishing features and the determination of the correct use of language elements, in the eyes of the critics not only dissolved philosophical confusions, but philosophy itself evaporated .

Criticism of the naturalistic and language-analytical interpretation

It is precisely these last two developments - the naturalistic and the language-analytical - that are the focus of criticism in many new Wittgenstein interpretations. They represent “analytical philosophy” in general and Wittgenstein's thinking is to be removed from their surroundings, which pursues completely different goals than drafting language-philosophical or naturalistic theories. In this simple comparison, however, it is overlooked that the developments of logics, semantics and language theories that took place in the initial phase, due to their content-related fixation, had to lead to arguments with the then prevailing philosophical teachings and were taken into account in the older interpretations. That is, the philosophical appreciation showed much more differentiated features from the start. This was the time of phenomenology, hermeneutics and existential philosophers. The insights of these schools were used in the numerous Wittgenstein interpretations in order to understand Wittgenstein's ambivalent and cryptic statements and to confront them with what had been thought up to now (Lübbe, Ricoeur, Apel, Zimmermann, etc.). With this opening, the interest in Wittgenstein shifted beyond the logical-semantic to the cultural environment and to biographical data (Janik, Toulmin). The significance of the dichotomy of saying and showing was recognized and its implications for the self-supersession of philosophy were discussed.

This brief outline of the previous interpretations shows the abundance of aspects raised there, which is difficult to bring to the common concept of an analytical narrowing, which appears again and again in the justification of more recent interpretations.

The new tendencies of the Wittgenstein reception

At a time in which it is hardly possible to speak of schools of philosophy, in which theoretical philosophy is viewed as a metaphysical luxury and philosophy, worried about its right to exist, seeks to legitimize itself through practical relevance, the new tendencies in the Wittgenstein Interpretation mainly three complexes:

- the radicalization of Wittgenstein's idea of ​​therapy,

- the upgrading of the personal and the biographical while at the same time marginalizing the philosophical work
- as well as the shift of the main interest from language problems to ethics, aesthetics and general cultural phenomena.

The radicalization of the therapeutic idea

From the beginning the question was whether it was still possible to practice philosophy in the successor to Wittgenstein. In the first Wittgenstein interpretations one often finds the answer in the form of a moderate therapy interpretation. It was emphasized that in a conception that sees itself as a criticism of language, it can make no sense to speak of philosophy in the traditional sense. Because with this expression one generally associates certain problem solutions and objective statements on theoretical and practical topics of human life. Wittgenstein's intention, however, concerns the process of clearing thoughts. The rejection of a philosophy as an accumulation of knowledge and wisdom of life allows one to speak of philosophizing. This means the individual state of reflection from which philosophical problems arise and are exposed as pseudo-problems. The answers of the present, on the other hand, often lead in a radical therapeutic interpretation to an explicit cultural criticism in which this philosophizing also loses its meaning. Just as the role of society in Marx, the cultural-critical revaluations in Nietzsche, the memory of being in the late Heidegger or the différance in Derrida can no longer be classified in traditional philosophical thinking, so Wittgenstein's achievement as the destruction of Western thought par excellence also becomes interpreted (Rorty, Cavell, Sloterdijk).

By identifying the forms of life with the cultural phenomena in general, therapeutically refined reflection means an "educational" conversation that is kept going again and again and that does not require any superordinate objective standards, philosophical teachings, technical terms and methods. Such a therapy is based on Wittgenstein's late philosophy. The radicalization of the language criticism of the therapy thesis received massive support through the attempt to interpret early philosophy therapeutically, as it was z. This happens, for example, with Cora Diamond and Alice Crary (3). The old evaluation of the so-called standard interpretation (Hintikka), according to which the metaphysical standpoint of the treatise with regard to the representation of the connection between language and the world in the late work is criticized and abandoned, is countered with the thesis that Wittgenstein's entire philosophy is any kind of external The point of view questioned (including the one in the PU, which Hintikka still takes), because it is precisely this that leads to confusion. Wittgenstein does not want to prove that the gaze, as described in the treatise, has to be corrected and replaced by a better one. It is a radical therapy: strictly speaking, we cannot articulate a single thought about the complex of issues because such sentences would always be formulated from an external point of view. So it is not acceptable to define certain impermissible thoughts about boundaries and the like as meaningless sentences. The texts of the treatise, which took shape from numerous conversations and controversies with Russell and other opponents and which were later artfully put together into a systematic complete work, remain meaningless in a very strict sense of the word because of the central therapeutic goal. Diamond emphasizes that it is not the argumentative power of the sentences in the treatise that leads to the self-abolition of what has been said, but the personal experience of the author of these sentences, insofar as Wittgenstein later saw through their illusory character.

Here it becomes clear how in this new Wittgenstein picture it is not the texts but the biography and emotional life of the author that determine. To support the therapy idea, the dichotomy of saying and showing or of the sayable and the unspeakable is often pointed out. Developments within the more recent French philosophy are also used. One discovers a connection between their basic idea of ​​the destruction of traditional philosophical thought and the consequences of the aforementioned dichotomy. The boundaries between philosophy, linguistics, literature and art are falling, old ways of thinking dissolve and the liberation from the constraints of the logical-exact opens up new dimensions in metaphorical thinking (Blumenberg, Kroß, see 4, 5).

One often starts from conceptual ambivalences and equivocations. Dieter Mersch, for example, interprets the dichotomy as the difference between being and nothing and speaks of the “contours of a philosophy of difference”. In this, the objectless showing oneself, “from which everything saying and thus also meaning arises”, functions as an explanation of both the “logical form” and the principle of use. When Mersch replaces the clear concept of function used by Wittgenstein with a further concept of functionality, which in addition to the legal and structural elements also contains an operative element, structurality reveals itself through its performance, a third party "that steps between structure and meaning" (5, P. 127). Both early and late philosophy are understood from a rather vague principle of the general character of a sign, namely from the “difference in the symbolic”, which indicates itself. The thought method used here and also in the metaphorical concepts (3) reminds in many cases of Heidegger's destructive scheme: questioning what has been thought up to now - digging one dimension deeper - naming and renaming what is deeper as a necessary condition of the previous one - what is indispensably new in his Leaving the incomprehensibility standing - Call this procedure actual philosophizing and let it work rhetorically in the pathos of repetition.

The upgrading of the personal and the biographical while at the same time marginalizing the philosophical work.

The radicalization of the therapy idea generally favors the avoidance of intensive work interpretations and promotes two tendencies, namely the sporadic quoting from the "classical" works to confirm one's own ideas and the preoccupation with the character and biography of the author. Wittgenstein appears as an artistic genius, as a representative of an intellectual elite that distances itself from the mediocrity of others, as a hermit and magician who stands outside “the great stream of European and American civilization”, as the planned foreword to the Philosophical Remarks says . Reports from contemporaries, letters and, above all, the personal mixed-up comments that Wittgenstein repeatedly noted down, without however allowing them to flow into his dialogue-like trains of thought, serve as sources. The voices against a general mystification of Wittgenstein (for example in Hintikka or Haller) have fallen silent here; conversely, the investigations tie in with what is mysterious, unclear and critical of tradition. This new, personal Wittgenstein picture is most clearly drawn by Thomas Macho and Peter Sloterdijk. The former writes about Wittgenstein: "A star, a mythogenic exceptional event, a good person, a saint, a genius ..." (1, p.11). And further: “Wittgenstein embodied the idea of ​​genius, as it could not have been more perfectly imagined in the 19th century: an ascetic, a mystic, an eccentric intellectual, in short: an abysmally modern spirit who lived his own life as a myth, as an experiment , tried to stage a singular, always endangered project. ”For Sloterdijk, Wittgenstein is predestined to“ bring the patchwork of local life games and their rules to light ”- mind you the life games, not the language games. Accordingly, Wittgenstein conveys images of the game of life, not arguments. And this happens entirely in keeping with the spirit of the times, as it expressly says: "In their radical modernity, his writings testify to the disruption of the analogy between the round cosmos and flowing prose" (1, p.8). All more or less known details of the curriculum vitae, sporadic comments and succinct statements are sounded out. It is no coincidence that the development towards something that can be grasped graphically suits the interests of the media of our time; because résumés and characters are easier to portray in the media than thoughts.It is above all the aesthetic-cultural aspects that dominate the biographical. The artist, the stylist of that “flowing prose”, is interested in Wittgenstein; the wise man who intuitively sees through modernity - the philosopher is not mentioned, or only in second place. Not only the person, but also his work is viewed from an artistic point of view. In the essay “Aspects of musical composition at L.W.” (in Neumer 8, p.199ff.) Peter Keicher interprets the style of thought as a compositional process and suggests a musical reading of all of Wittgenstein's writings. The estate manuscripts are less about improvements and clarifications than about artistic compositions of variations on a specific theme.

Shifting the main interest from language problems to ethics, aesthetics and general cultural phenomena

In certain more recent interpretations, the linguistic turn is worded like a catchphrase, and the Wittgenstein interpretations become Wittgenstein images with ethical and aesthetic components. Wittgenstein's thousands of pages of articles on logic, semantics, mathematics or language-specific problems are not of interest; these topics may be the subject of academic specialists, but do not concern Wittgenstein's basic concerns. Matthias Kroß, for example, claims that Wittgenstein has been increasingly discovered in recent decades as a “continental” philosopher, “for whom the questions of ethics, religion and art were obviously of greater importance than the solution of internal problems of academic philosophy” ( 7, p.113).

Let's start with ethics. There are two main ideas of Wittgenstein that are repeatedly referred to in many interpretations, namely the impossibility of explicitly formulating a philosophical ethics (see T 6.421), and the central idea of ​​the late philosophy that by clarifying the role of (ethical) Language games human actions cannot be justified philosophically, but must be accepted in the respective context (ethics leaves everything as it is). In the treatise, Wittgenstein's ethical remarks are counted among the nonsensical sentences because they do not represent any facts because of their relation to the limits of the illustration. Although this characterization was inferred from image theory and can be questioned with its subsequent suspension, the pointlessness thesis is usually generalized to any ethical theories (continuity thesis). The plurality of incommensurable modes of action is justified by the linguistic analysis, which at the same time reveals the nonsensical confusion of language. On the other hand, the renouncement of argumentation means that the creative individual persuasion becomes decisive. Kroß explicitly invokes the power of rhetoric and therefore speaks of a rhetoric turn that replaces the linguistic turn. Occasionally, such considerations are also used as evidence for the impossibility of a global ethic and the global ethic is understood as a family of similar ethnoethics (Wohlfart (6, p.77ff.)).

As far as aesthetics are concerned, it has already been pointed out that not only the person but also Wittgenstein's philosophical work is viewed from the artistic point of view. It is claimed that he succeeded in creating harmony between the literary form and the philosophical content of his texts. These are discussed in close connection with Wittgenstein's style. It is overlooked that this term has a very general meaning in Wittgenstein and means the “general necessity sub specie eterni”. Style is therefore a paraphrase of the former “logical form” and what gives structure to clarity in the late work. Whoever lets everything be as it is, follows this necessity, which is shown in style. Therefore z. B. "Style" the running against the limits of language and the kind of opening for the multiplicity of language games (Majetschak, 2). So it's not about the way artists express themselves, but about the necessary style of thinking of every person who tries to free himself from the agonizing linguistic misunderstandings.

Another feature of the aesthetic approach concerns the upgrading of the pictorial in the age of the media, in which a general move away from the written and conceptual towards the image and the iconically indicated can be ascertained. Nyíri's thesis is characteristic that the inclusion of the entire handwritten estate justifies the claim that Wittgenstein's late work "can be interpreted as a philosophy of post-literacy". In his essay “Wittgenstein's Philosophy of Images” he discovers Wittgenstein as a potential forerunner of animation and his work as a dynamic alternative to static representation through images. While one generally assumes that with the late Wittgenstein the pictures are not independent carriers of meaning and only become meaningful in linguistic usage, for Nyíri "pictures ... are instruments of communication in the same way as written texts." (In: 9, p .147 / 48).

On the subject of religion, it is noticeable that the religious experience of Wittgenstein as a private person (namely amazement about the existence of the world / personal guilt / universal security) serves as a philosophical reason for understanding a certain type of skeptical religiosity (e.g. Sommavilla in 6, p. 239), although Wittgenstein expressly writes: "This is ... a personal matter, and others will find other examples striking". Since interest in religious-philosophical topics has waned, Wittgenstein's sparse culturally critical utterances, none of which was intended for publication, are being explored all the more. As a criticism of this approach one finds the hint that one is suppressing Wittgenstein's occasionally banal remarks about the zeitgeist, about peoples and races (Habermas).

Wittgenstein's style of thinking

Finally, a critical remark on Wittgenstein's style of thinking. J. and A.-M. Hintikka suspect in "Wittgenstein - the Be witched Writer" (in 10, p.131 ff) that Wittgenstein suffered from dyslexia, which could explain several peculiarities of his style (but in no way anything about his philosophical statements). Dyslexics report their difficulty in drawing conclusions from verbal linear step-by-step arguments or in following conscious rules, and they are often unable to deal verbally with complex structures, i.e. they torment themselves over the spoken or written expression . Despite such obstacles, Wittgenstein managed to present the problem structure in a medium other than linear, by summarizing his ingenious visions in individual images, metaphors or longer parables and thus creating a personal, quite unusual, holistic argumentative basic structure. In order to recognize Wittgenstein's real concern, one should avoid any esoteric reading and devote oneself to the parts intended for publication.

The highlighting of conspicuous new tendencies in the Wittgenstein interpretation, which is at issue here, should not obscure the fact that, beyond personality cults, "artistic exploration of the world" and culturally critical speculations, numerous philosophers continue to strive to analyze the difficult texts of the classic Wittgenstein and in this way to make their treasures fruitful for thought (see e.g. 2). Also interesting are the attempts to incorporate Wittgenstein's core ideas into his own theories, which then see themselves as elements of the “great philosophical narratives” that have always shaped philosophy. Brandom, for example, argues (in Expressive Reason) no longer against, but with tradition. Like many others, he is not interested in a philosophical revolution, but in an attempt to continue Wittgenstein's philosophy under new conditions.

Literature on the subject

(1) Macho, Thomas (Ed.): Wittgenstein. Selected texts; with a foreword by P. Sloterdijk, in his series “Philosophy now!” Munich 2001 (out of print in bookshops). Intended as an introduction to Wittgenstein.

(2) Majetschak, Stefan: Ludwig Wittgenstein's path of thought. 408 S., Ln., € 51.—, 2000, Alber, Freiburg / Munich. One of the recently rare representations of Wittgenstein's overall philosophy that continues to be strongly based on the text.

(3) Diamond, Cora: Ethics, Imagination and the Method of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. In: A. Crary / R. Read (Ed.): The New Wittgenstein. 416 S., Ln., 2000, € 13.—, Routledge, London / New York. Contains essays on a re-evaluation of Wittgenstein, which consider the therapy idea as the key to the overall work.

(4) Arnswald, Ulrich / Kertscher, Jens / Kroß, Matthias (eds.): Wittgenstein and the metaphor. 422 pp., Kt., € 29.80, 2004, Parerga, Berlin. Various contributions to the fundamental role of non-discursive language elements.

(5) Mersch, Dieter: The sayable and the showable. Wittgenstein's early theory of a duplicity in the symbolic. In: J. Villers and others: Ludwig Wittgenstein. Cuxhaven / Dartford 1998 (no longer available in bookshops). The thoughts are further elaborated in “What is revealed”, Munich 2002.

(6) Lütterfelds, Wilhelm / Mohrs, Thomas (eds.): Globales Ethos. Wittgenstein's language games of intercultural morality and religion. 222 pp., Kt., € 25.—, 2000, Königshausen and Neumann, Würzburg. Does Welfare Contain: Global Morality? (P. 77ff.)

(7) Arnswald, Ulrich / Weiberg, Anja (ed.): The thinker as a tightrope walker. L. Wittgenstein on religion, mysticism and ethics. 230 pp., Kt., € 19.80, 2001, Parerga, Berlin. Contains Kroß: The grammar of "natural history" and the task of philosophy. Furthermore Sommavilla: Religion and Art in Wittgenstein's Philosophy.

(8) Neumer, Katalin (ed.): Understanding the other. 259 pp., Kt., € 46.—, 2000, Lang, Bern / Frankfurt. Some essays illustrate the attempts at a mystical-artistic exploration of the world.

(9) Lütterfelds, W. (Ed.): Memories of Wittgenstein - “No seeing into the past”? 235 p., Kt., € 42.50, 2004, Wittgenstein Studies Volume 7, Lang, Bern / Frankfurt a. M. 2004. Essays on the concept of philosophy, on mathematics and others.

(10) Haller, R. / Puhl, K. (Ed.): Wittgenstein and the future of philosophy. A reassessment after 50 years. Files of the 24th Int. Wittgenstein Symposium, 476 pp., € 76.—, 2002, öbvhpt, Vienna. Contains numerous posts on our topic.


Kurt Wuchterl was Professor of Philosophy at the University of Stuttgart until his retirement. On the subject are from him inter alia. published:

Structure and language game in Wittgenstein. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt 1969

Handbook of analytical philosophy and basic research - From Frege to Wittgenstein. 682 pp., Kt., € 14.90, 2002, Haupt, Bern.