Don't even bother to ask: Wittgenstein arrived in Cambridge in 1911 at the age of 22.
Ten years later, he published his first book, the nimbly-titled Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
The book was impossible to understand. For that reason, it made Wittgenstein one of the leading figures in the world of English-language academic philosophy.
During the 1920s, Wittgenstein lived in his native Austria again. He returned to Cambridge in 1929, and began to work on new approaches to his prior work.
In 1945, he wrote the preface to Philosophical Investigations, a book which wouldn't be published until 1953. At the start of his preface, Wittgenstein explains, or seems to explain or attempts to explain, what this new book is about:
PREFACEIn that passage, Wittgenstein says that he has been working on this new book since 1929. He lists some of the "subjects" the book examines.
The thoughts which I publish in what follows are the precipitate of philosophical investigations which have occupied me for the last sixteen years. They concern many subjects: the concepts of meaning, of understanding, of a proposition, of logic, the foundations of mathematics, states of consciousness, and other things. I have written down all these thoughts as remarks, short paragraphs, of which there is sometimes a fairly long chain about the same subject, while I sometimes make a sudden change, jumping from one topic to another...
What subject does this book examine? Perhaps a bit obscurely, Wittgenstein lists these:
"The concepts of meaning, of understanding, of a proposition, of logic, the foundations of mathematics, states of consciousness, and other things."
Warning! Do you know what it means when someone says that he has been investigating such subjects as "the concept of meaning" and "the concept of understanding?" Do you know what it means to investigate "the concept of a proposition?"
So far, this is a fairly murky stew. As he continues, Wittgenstein seems to say that he had a lot of trouble crafting this new text:
—It was my intention at first to bring all this together in a book whose form I pictured differently at different times. But the essential thing was that the thoughts should proceed from one subject to another in a natural order and without breaks.Wittgenstein says he originally hoped that "the thoughts" in his book "should proceed from one subject to another in a natural order and without breaks." It isn't entirely clear what that means, but Wittgenstein then says that he wasn't able to realize this goal.
After several unsuccessful attempts to weld my results together into such a whole, I realized that I should never succeed. The best that I could write would never be more than philosophical remarks; my thoughts were soon crippled if I tried to force them on in any single direction against their natural inclination.—And this was, of course, connected with the very nature of the investigation. For this compels us to travel over a wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction.—The philosophical remarks in this book are, as it were, a number of sketches of landscapes which were made in the course of these long and involved journeyings.
He says he eventually realized that his thoughts "were soon crippled if [he] tried to force them on in any single direction against their natural inclination." To our ear, that sounds almost exactly like what he said he hadn't been trying to do. Like much of Wittgenstein's work, this preface is somewhat opaque.
As he continues, Wittgenstein says that, over the course of those sixteen years, "I could not but recognize grave mistakes in what I set out in that first book." As such, he was renouncing "grave mistakes" in Tractatus Logico-Philophicus. But he also says this at the end of his preface:
I make [these remarks] public with misgivings. It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this work, in its poverty and in the darkness of this time, to bring light into one brain or another a but, of course, it is not likely.Wittgenstein had recognized grave mistakes in his original book. In publishing the fruit of his new investigations, he could have liked to produce a good book, but it hadn't turned out that way.
I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own.
I should have liked to produce a good book. It has not turned out that way, but the time is past in which I could improve it.
Cambridge, January 1945
Indeed, Philosophical investigations is a very obscure text. AS our current 9-year-olds try to rebuild our nation's stumblebum intellectual culture, we don't suggest that they try to puzzle their way through Wittgenstein's later book.
We do think a highly useful method emerges from the pages of that book. We'll explore that method in the weeks ahead, thinking it may be helpful to today's kids in the task which awaits them. If we might borrow from President Lincoln, those kids have "a task before them greater than that which rested upon Washington."
Do not try to read this book! Having offered that advice before, we'll flirt with disobedience in our next post.
In that next missive to our 9-year-old kids, w'll look at the first few pages of Philosophical Investigations. We regard the book as hugely obscure, but also as deeply instructive.
The book in question was very hot, if hard to parse, back when we ourselves were 19. We hear that it's largely been discarded. We regard that as a mistake.