Dates: 1889-1951

Nationality: Austrian-British

Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (April 26, 1889 –  April 29, 1951) was an Austrian-British philosopher who worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language.

Described by Bertrand Russell as “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense, and dominating,” Wittgenstein is considered by many to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century.Helping to inspire two of the century’s principal philosophical movements, the Vienna Circle and Oxford ordinary language philosophy, he is considered one of the most important figures in analytic philosophy. According to an end of the century poll, professional philosophers in Canada and the U.S. rank both his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (TLP) and Philosophical Investigations among the top five most important books in twentieth-century philosophy, the latter standing out as “…the one crossover masterpiece in twentieth-century philosophy, appealing across diverse specializations and philosophical orientations.” Wittgenstein’s influence has been felt in nearly every field of the humanities and social sciences, yet there are widely diverging interpretations of his thought.

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Ludwig Wittgenstein’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 13 December 2010, 18:24 UTC, <>

Near the end of his lectures Wittgenstein turns to the question of the attitude we take toward the work of art. He employs the case of seeing the very slight change in the depiction of a smile within a picture of a monk looking at a vision of the Virgin Mary. Where the slight and subtle change of line yields a transformation of the smile of the monk from a kindly to an ironic one, our attitude in viewing might similarly change from one in which for some we are almost in prayer to one that would for some be blasphemous, where we are almost leering. He then gives voice to his imagined reductive interlocutor, who says, “Well there you are. It is all in the attitude” (Wittgenstein 1966, 35), where we would then focus, to the exclusion of all of the rest of the intricate, layered, and complex human dimensions of our reactions to works, solely on an analysis of the attitude of the spectator and the isolable causal elements in the work that determine it. But that, again, is only to give voice to a reductive impulse, and in the brief ensuing discussion he shows, once again, that in some cases, an attitude of this kind may emerge as particularly salient. But in other cases, not. And he shows, here intertwining a number of his themes from these lectures, that the very idea of “a description of an attitude” is itself no simple thing. Full-blooded human beings, and not stimulus-response-governed automata, have aesthetic experience, and that experience is as complex a part of our natural history as any other.

Wittgenstein ends the lectures discussing a simple heading: “the craving for simplicity” (Wittgenstein 1966, 36). To such a mind, he says, if an explanation is complicated, it is disagreeable for that very reason. A certain kind of mind will insist on seeking out the single, unitary essence of the matter, where—much like Russell’s atomistic search for the essence of the logic of language beneath what he regarded as its misleadingly and distractingly variegated surface—the reductive impulse would be given free reign. Wittgenstein’s early work in the Tractatus (1961) followed in that vein. But in these lectures, given in 1938, we see a mind well into a transition away from those simplifying templates, those conceptual pictures. Here, examples themselves do a good deal of philosophical work, and their significance is that they give, rather than merely illustrate, the philosophical point at hand. He said, earlier in the lectures, that he is trying to teach a new way of thinking about aesthetics (and indeed about philosophy itself).

Hagberg, Garry, “Wittgenstein’s Aesthetics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>

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