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Perspectives on Science 10.3 (2002) 356-384

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Another New Wittgenstein:
The Scientific and Engineering Background of the Tractatus

Alfred Nordmann
Department of Philosophy Technische Universität Darmstadt


In recent years an entirely "New Wittgenstein" 1 has grown up around the idea that the Tractatus should be read as a critical engagement with Frege's notion of 'elucidation' and thus with a particular conception of philosophy. This is supposed to solve the puzzle of how Wittgenstein's sentences can really be nonsensical while there is yet a way to understand their author and learn to see the world right (TLP 6.54). 2

Less conspicuously than this "American" school of interpretation,3 Wittgenstein. This one brings together rather heterogeneous strands of investigation. They help solve a puzzle that has been declared to be unsolvable by Brian McGuinness: How did Wittgenstein become a philosopher rather than an engineer? McGuinness argues that looking for a cause here, e.g., for the question or intellectual problem that prompted the transition, is a misguided attempt to construct a kind of teleology:

We may of course try to say what particularly interested him about it, but there will come a point at which no explanation can be given of why he was interested in this or that (McGuinness 1988, pp. 76f.). [End Page 356]

Such questions are "the expressions of a confused feeling that not everything fits" and McGuinness elaborates this puzzling lack of fit:

We can assume that he had no mentor [during his years devoted to engineering]—and it is indeed difficult to trace a probable one at Charlottenburg or Manchester. We can point to the books he knew well and the passages he later quoted. But what it was that first caught his eye seems to be a fruitless conjecture. Yet there is a certain puzzle to be resolved. [ . . . ] His mathematical education and sophistication barely qualified him to discuss the foundations of mathematics the way he did. So it was not by difficulties or obscurities in his everyday work that he was led to his problems. . . . [And as for Russell, Frege and the paradoxes that inform so much of the Tractatus] [t]hese problems were not only unconnected with his technical concerns as an engineer; at first sight they also seem to be quite different from his other preoccupations [such as music and literature] (McGuinness 1988, p. 76).

The puzzling lack of fit does not even arise, however, if one inverts the perspective. Perhaps, Wittgenstein never became a philosopher but was always a scientist or engineer. After all, not only did he patent in 1911 a jet-fuelled propeller but invented as late as 1943 an apparatus for recording blood-pressure (Hamilton 2001b; Nedo 1983, pp. 313, 359). 4 While growing up to become an engineer in Vienna, Berlin, and Manchester, he developed powerful philosophical intuitions and when he finally encountered Russell and Frege, he brought these intuitions along with his engineering approach to their philosophical problems. 5 [End Page 357]

This inversion of the problem has considerable implications for our understanding of the Tractatus. Rather than an enterprise internal to questions of language, logic, and mathematics, it now appears driven by epistemological, metaphysical, and ontological intuitions that had been cultivated throughout the nineteenth century by philosophically minded scientists and engineers. Gerd Graßhoff refers to this as a replacement of a "logicist" by a "metaphysical" interpretation of the Tractatus (1998, p. 254).6 In particular, three claims have been advanced in support of this interpretation. This review will treat each of them in turn. Since they don't quite work in tandem they deserve not just to be debated but to be debated especially among those who advance them.

(1) Though Wittgenstein was not led to philosophical problems "by difficulties and obscurities in his everyday work" as an engineer, those difficulties and obscurities gave shape to the problems and the manner of their resolution.

(2) When Wittgenstein requires that a proposition be completely analyzable in order to unambiguously afford truth conditions and thus to be meaningful, the most...


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