Ludwig Wittgenstein

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My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them... He must so to speak throw away the ladder...

Ludwig Wittgenstein (26 April 1889 - 29 April 1951) was an Austrian-born philosopher who spent much of his life in England.


Notebooks 1914-1916

2nd ed., trans. by GEM Anscombe (Chicago: University Press, 1984)

  • My difficulty is only an — enormous — difficulty of expression. (p. 40)
  • I cannot get from the nature of the proposition to the individual logical operations!!! That is, I cannot bring out how far the proposition is the picture of the situation. I am almost inclined to give up all my efforts. (p. 41)
  • One of the most difficult of the philosopher's tasks is to find out where the shoe pinches. (p. 60)
  • Certainly it is correct to say: Conscience is the voice of God. (p. 75)
  • What do I know about God and the purpose of life?
    I know that this world exists.
  • The meaning of life, i.e. the meaning of the world, we can call God.
  • To pray is to think about the meaning of life.
  • To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter.
    To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.
  • Man is the microcosm: I am my world.
  • Ethics and Aesthetics are one.

Notes and Letters of 1919

  • That all elementary props are given is SHOWN by there being none having an elementary sense which is not given.
  • I once wanted to give a few words in the foreword which now actually are not in it, which, however, I'll write to you now because they might be a key for you: I wanted to write that my work consists of two parts: of the one which is here, and of everything which I have not written. And precisely this second part is the important one.
    • Letter to Ludwig von Ficker, 1919

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922)

  • The whole sense of the book might be summed up the following words: what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.
    • Introduction
  • The world is all that is the case. (1)
  • The world is the totality of facts, not things. (1.1)
  • What is the case, the fact, is the existence of atomic facts. (2)
  • The logical picture of the facts is the thought. (3)
  • The thought is the significant proposition. (4)
  • Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. Philosophy does not result in 'philosophical propositions', but rather in the clarification of propositions. Without philosophy thoughts are, as it were, cloudy and indistinct: its task is to make them clear and to give them sharp boundaries. (4.112)
  • It is quite impossible for a proposition to state that it itself is true. (4.442)
  • A tautology's truth is certain, a proposition's possible, a contradiction's impossible. (Certain, possible, impossible: here we have the first indication of the scale that we need in the theory of probability.) (4.464)
  • Propositions are truth-functions of elementary propositions. (An elementary proposition is a truth-function of itself.) (5)
  • If I cannot say a priori what elementary propositions there are, then the attempt to do so must lead to obvious nonsense. (5.5571)
  • The limits of my language mean the limits of my world. (5.6)
    • also: "The limits of my language stand for the limits of my world."
  • Logic pervades the world: the limits of the world are also its limits. So we cannot say in logic, "The world has this in it, and this, but not that." For that would appear to presuppose that we were excluding certain possibilities, and this cannot be the case, since it would require that logic should go beyond the limits of the world; for only in that way could it view those limits from the other side as well. We cannot think what we cannot think; so what we cannot think we cannot say either. (5.61)
  • This remark provides the key to the problem, how much truth there is in solipsism. For what the solipsist means is quite correct; only it cannot be said, but makes itself manifest. The world is my world: this is manifest in the fact that the limits of language (of that language which alone I understand) mean the limits of my world. (5.62)
  • The world and life are one. (5.621)
  • I am my world. (The microcosm.) (5.63)
  • The world of the happy is quite different from the world of the unhappy. (6.43)
  • Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits. (6.4311)
  • It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists. (6.44)
  • There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical. (6.522)
  • My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) (6.54)
  • Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.
    • Translated: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. (7)

Philosophical Remarks (1930)

  • A proposition is completely logically analyzed if its grammar is made clear in no matter what idiom. Part I(1)

The Blue Book

(New York: Harper & Row, 1965)

  • The idea that in order to get clear about the meaning of a general term one had to find the common element in all its applications has shackled philosophical investigation; for it has not only led to no result, but also made the philosopher dismiss as irrelevant the concrete cases, which alone could have helped him understand the usage of the general term. (p. 19)
  • For remember that in general we don't use language according to strict rules — it hasn't been taught us by means of strict rules, either. (p. 25)
  • What should we gain by a definition, as it can only lead us to other undefined terms? (p. 26)
  • But ordinary language is all right. (p. 28)
  • The difficulty in philosophy is to say no more than we know. (p. 45)

Notes of 1946

  • What I give is the morphology of the use of an expression. I show that it has kinds of uses of which you had not dreamed. In philosophy one feels forced to look at a concept in a certain way. What I do is suggest, or even invent, other ways of looking at it. I suggest possibilities of which you had not previously thought. You thought that there was one possibility, or only two at most. But I made you think of others. Furthermore, I made you see that it was absurd to expect the concept to conform to those narrow possibilities.
  • A good guide will take you through the more important streets more often than he takes you down side streets; a bad guide will do the opposite. In philosophy I'm a rather bad guide.

The "Big Typescript"

Published in L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Occasions 1912-1951 (Cambridge: Hackett, 1993)

  • The problems are dissolved in the actual sense of the word — like a lump of sugar in water. (p.183)
    • An important sentence regarding his method, often misunderstood because of the ambiguity in the first clause; if you change "actual" to "lexical," the ambiguity disappears, but the sentence loses its charm a bit.
  • The aim of philosophy is to erect a wall at the point where language stops anyway. (p.187)
  • Philosophers are often like little children, who first scribble random lines on a piece of paper with their pencils, and now ask an adult "What is that?" (p.193)

Philosophical Investigations

  • Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination. #6
  • Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language. #109
  • What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use. #116
  • What we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stood. #118
  • Your questions refer to words; so I have to talk about words. #120
  • If I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: "This is simply what I do." (217)
  • The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something - because it is always before one's eyes.) The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all. Unless that fact has at some time struck him. — And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful. (129)
  • "Everything is already there in...." How does it come about that [an] arrow points ? Doesn't it seem to carry in it something besides itself? — "No, not the dead line on paper; only the psychical thing, the meaning, can do that." — That is both true and false. The arrow points only in the application that a living being makes of it. (454)
  • My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense. (464)
  • But if you say: "How am I to know what he means, when I see nothing but the signs he gives?" then I say: "How is he to know what he means, when he has nothing but the signs either?" (504)
  • What has to be accepted, the given, is — so one could say — forms of life.
  • Does man think because he has found that thinking pays?
    Does he bring his children up because he has found it pays? (467)
  • So we do sometimes think because it has been found to pay. (470)
  • If a lion could talk, we could not understand him (II, xi; p. 223 of the 1968 English edn.)

On Certainty

On Certainty (Über Gewissheit), J. & J. Harper Editions, New York, 1969

  • 1. If you do know that here is one hand, we'll grant you all the rest.
  • 94. But I did not get my picture of the world by satisfying myself of its correctness; nor do I have it because I am satisfied of its correctness. No: it is the inherited background against which I distinguish between true and false.
  • 144. The child learns to believe a host of things. I.e. it learns to act according to these beliefs. Bit by bit there forms a system of what is believed, and in that system some things stand unshakeably fast and some are more or less liable to shift. What stands fast does so, not because it is intrinsically obvious or convincing; it is rather held fast by what lies around it.
  • 205. If the true is what is grounded, then the ground is not true, nor yet false.
  • 206. If someone asked us 'but is that true?' we might say 'yes' to him; and if he demanded grounds we might say 'I can't give you any grounds, but if you learn more you too will think the same.'
  • 225. What I hold fast to is not one proposition but a nest of propositions.
  • 253. At the core of all well-founded belief, lies belief that is unfounded.
  • 310. A pupil and a teacher. The pupil will not let anything be explained to him, for he continually interrupts with doubts, for instance as to the existence of things, the meaning for words, etc. The teacher says 'Stop interrupting me and do as I tell you. So far your doubts don't make sense at all.'
  • 370. But more correctly: The fact that I use the word 'hand' and all the other words in my sentence without a second thought, indeed that I should stand before the abyss if I wanted so much as to try doubting their meanings — shows that absence of doubt belongs to the essence of the language-game, that the question "How do I know..." drags out the language-game, or else does away with it.
  • 378. Knowledge is in the end based on acknowledgement.

Culture and Value

(Chicago: University Press, 1984)

  • Man has to awaken to wonder — and so perhaps do peoples. Science is a way of sending him to sleep again. (p. 5e)
  • If someone is merely ahead of his time, it will catch up to him one day. (p. 8e)
  • Reading the Socratic dialogues one has the feeling: what a frightful waste of time! What's the point of these arguments that prove nothing and clarify nothing? (p. 14e)
  • I read: "philosophers are no nearer to the meaning of 'Reality' than Plato got,...". What a strange situation. How extraordinary that Plato could have got even as far as he did! Or that we could not get any further! Was it because Plato was so extremely clever? (p. 15e)
  • Philosophers often behave like little children who scribble some marks on a piece of paper at random and then ask the grown-up "What's that?" — It happened like this: the grown-up had drawn pictures for the child several times and said "this is a man," "this is a house," etc. And then the child makes some marks too and asks: what's this then? (p. 17e)
  • A confession has to be part of your new life. (p. 18e)
  • If you use a trick in logic, whom can you be tricking other than yourself? (p. 24e)
  • Kierkegaard writes: If Christianity were so easy and cozy, why should God in his Scriptures have set Heaven and Earth in motion and threatened eternal punishments? — Question: But then in that case why is this Scriptures so unclear? (p. 31e)
  • Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself. (p. 34e)
  • Resting on your laurels is as dangerous as resting when you are walking in the snow. You doze off and die in your sleep. (p. 35e)
  • I sit astride life like a bad rider on a horse. I only owe it to the horse's good nature that I am not thrown off at this very moment. (p. 36e)
  • One might say: Genius is talent exercised with courage. (p. 38e)
  • Aim at being loved without being admired. (p. 38e)
  • Our greatest stupidities may be very wise. (p. 39e)
  • A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that's unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push it. (p. 42e)
  • Wisdom is passionless. But faith by contrast is what Kierkegaard calls a passion. (p. 53e)
  • [From Kierkegaard]: "I never believed in God before." — that I understand. But not: "I never really believed in Him before." (p. 53e)
  • Don't for heaven's sake, be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense. (p. 56e)
  • Animals come when their names are called. Just like human beings. (p. 67e)
  • It's only by thinking even more crazily than philosophers do that you can solve their problems. (p. 75e)
  • Never stay up on the barren heights of cleverness, but come down into the green valleys of silliness. (p. 76e)
  • Ambition is the death of thought. (p. 77e)

Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough

Published in L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Occasions 1912-1951 (Cambridge: Hackett, 1993)

  • To convince someone of the truth, it is not enough to state it, but rather one must find the path from error to truth. (p. 119)
  • Frazer's account of the magical and religious views of mankind is unsatisfactory; it makes these views look like errors. (p. 119)
  • Every explanation is after all an hypothesis. (p. 123)
  • A religious symbol does not rest on any opinion. And error belongs only with opinion. One would like to say: This is what took place here; laugh, if you can. (p. 123)
  • Burning in effigy. Kissing the picture of one's beloved... it aims at nothing at all; we just behave this way and then we feel satisfied. (p. 123)
  • The ceremonial (hot or cold) as opposed to the haphazard (lukewarm) characterizes piety. (p. 127)
  • His explanations of primitive practices are much cruder than the meaning of these practices themselves. (p. 131)
  • When I am furious about something, I sometimes beat the ground or a tree with my walking stick. But I certainly do not believe that the ground is to blame or that my beating can help anything... And all rites are of this kind. (p. 137)

L. Wittgenstein: A Memoir by Norman Malcolm

(New York: Oxford, 1975)

  • Hot Ziggety!
    • p. 85
      • When Malcolm's wife put bread and cheese before Wittgenstein at the dinner table — humorously mocking Malcolm's excitement over her cooking. Ludwig was learning the language game at Malcolm's house.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius by Ray Monk

  • I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again 'I know that that's a tree', pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell them: 'This fellow isn't insane. We are only doing philosophy.' (p. 578)
    • On Certainty
  • "Tell them I've had a wonderful life" (p. 579)
    • Last words


  • The sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language.
  • A man's thinking goes on within his consciousness in a seclusion in comparison with which any physical seclusion is an exhibition to public view.
  • A new word is like a fresh seed sown on the ground of the discussion.
  • A philosopher who is not taking part in discussions is like a boxer who never goes into the ring.
  • A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.
  • At the end of reasons comes persuasion.
  • Don't get involved in partial problems, but always take flight to where there is a free view over the whole single great problem, even if this view is still not a clear one.
  • For a large class of cases — though not for all — in which we employ the word meaning it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.
  • For a truly religious man nothing is tragic.
  • I don't know why we are here, but I'm pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.
  • If a person tells me he has been to the worst places I have no reason to judge him; but if he tells me it was his superior wisdom that enabled him to go there, then I know he is a fraud.
  • If people did not sometimes do silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done.
    • Variant: If people never did silly things nothing intelligent would ever get done.
  • If there were a verb meaning "to believe falsely," it would not have any significant first person, present indicative.
  • If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.
  • In order to be able to set a limit to thought, we should have to find both sides of the limit thinkable (i.e. we should have to be able to think what cannot be thought). (preface, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus)
  • It is one of the chief skills of the philosopher not to occupy himself with questions which do not concern him.
  • It is so characteristic, that just when the mechanics of reproduction are so vastly improved, there are fewer and fewer people who know how the music should be played.
  • It seems to me that, in every culture, I come across a chapter headed Wisdom. And then I know exactly what is going to follow: Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
  • Language is a part of our organism and no less complicated than it.
  • Like everything metaphysical the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language.
  • Logic takes care of itself; all we have to do is to look and see how it does it.
  • Not every religion has to have St. Augustine's attitude to sex. Why even in our culture marriages are celebrated in a church, everyone present knows what is going to happen that night, but that doesn't prevent it being a religious ceremony.
  • One often makes a remark and only later sees how true it is.
  • Philosophy is like trying to open a safe with a combination lock: each little adjustment of the dials seems to achieve nothing, only when everything is in place does the door open.
  • Philosophy is not a theory but an activity.
  • Someone who knows too much finds it hard not to lie.
  • The human body is the best picture of the human soul.
  • The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.
  • The logic of the world is prior to all truth and falsehood.
  • The mystical is not how the world is, but that it is.
  • The real discovery is the one which enables me to stop doing philosophy when I want to. The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself into question.
  • There are remarks that sow and remarks that reap.
  • What is troubling us is the tendency to believe that the mind is like a little man within.
  • You get tragedy where the tree, instead of bending, breaks.
  • You must always be puzzled by mental illness. The thing I would dread most, if I became mentally ill, would be your adopting a common sense attitude; that you could take it for granted that I was deluded.

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