A Biographical Sketch of Ludwig Wittgenstein

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein was born in Vienna on 26th April, 1889 to Karl and Leopoldine Wittgenstein. He was the youngest of five brothers and three sisters. Thanks to his father’s intelligence and forceful nature, the family had become the second wealthiest in Austria-Hungary after the Rothschilds. His family had Jewish roots and had converted to Christianity only a few generations before Ludwig’s birth.

Although he was born in a Jewish turned Christian family, Ludwig was never a ‘religious’ person. While he was at home he did participate in religious activities along with his family but while he was away, at school, he began to lose his faith. His older sister, in whom he confided, introduced him to Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation. Ludwig was taken up with Schopenhauer’s ideas and even adopted the epistemological idealism he proposed. After finishing his schooling he interested himself in the study of engineering and his studies took him from Berlin to Manchester. Through a friend, he was introduced to Bertrand Russell’s work namely The Principle of Mathematics (1903). This launched him on his philosophical career. He became interested in the philosophical foundations of the mathematics on which his professional work relied.

In the course of reading the book, he came across the name of Gottlob Frege and felt inclined to meet him in person and become a disciple. As he progressed in his studies he began to realize the shallowness of Schopenhauer’s ideas and abandoned them for Gottlob Frege’s conceptual realism. Frege however had aged and felt that he could not guide the young seeker in an optimal manner. So he urged him to go back to England and to get in touch with Russell. Following Frege’s advice Wittgenstein appeared one day in Russell’s office and with that began a decisive period of collaboration between them.

When World War I broke out, Ludwig felt bound by a sense of duty to enroll himself in the army. Two days after he had been assigned to a regiment in Krakow, he began a philosophical diary that starts with the anxious question: “Will I be able to work now?” His notebooks from the period reveal that he could, in fact, work even under the most demanding conditions. This only reveals the intellectual capacity of the man. These notebooks contained reflections that began where his discussions with Russell concluded. It was from these notebooks that he extracted the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus while he was in an Italian prisoner of war camp.

When the war was over, Wittgenstein did not return to Cambridge. The war had severely scarred him. During the course of the war, he came across a volume of Tolstoy on the Gospels. This book made an impact on his mind and personality. In 1928, he heard a lecture on the foundations of mathematics delivered by L. E. J. Brouwer, a famous Dutch mathematician. This stirred him up once again to return to academics and he went back to Cambridge in 1929. He received his Ph.D. degree in the same year for the Tractatus and the following year he was made Fellow of Trinity College.

When his fellowship at Trinity expired he returned to one his houses in Norway. There, in 1936, he began to write Part I of the Philosophical Investigations. By the time he had finished the book in 1948 his health had begun to decline. On returning to England, his sickness was diagnosed as cancer. Thereafter, he was unable to do any serious intellectual work. He spent his last days with his family in Vienna but refused to reveal the nature of his sickness to them. On April 29, 1951, he died in Cambridge at the house of his doctor.

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