What does Wittgenstein mean by this sentence:

The less somebody knows and understand himself the less great he is, however great may be his talent. For this reason our scientists are not great. (Culture and Value, p. 51e)

How does he know about personal lives, views, and attitudes of scientists that he simply judge other people that they do not understand themselves?

  • 4
    What is the context, is that from Culture and Value? It well recorded that Wittgenstein had a very critical attitude towards the prevailing intellectual culture.
    – Johannes
    May 6, 2015 at 10:32
  • "he simply judge other people that they do not understand themselves?" You realize that we are talking about an arrogant @$$ who beat up schoolchildren he didn't deem intelligent enough to understand his lessons? May 6, 2015 at 11:38
  • @king: he also declined to inherit his huge inheritance; perhaps that takes huge arrogance as well. May 6, 2015 at 13:20
  • 1
    Can you source the quotation? May 6, 2015 at 13:21
  • 2
    Arrogance aside, he had enough traffic with those scientists personally enough to know them. Are you being even more arrogant in refusing to let him draw his own conclusions about them? As for beating schoolchildren, consider the period. All the nuns in my father's Catholic school beat him at some point, it was just what was done at the time.
    – user9166
    May 6, 2015 at 14:19

4 Answers 4


This quote does not mean that for Wittgenstein academic philosophers were doing better than scientists. It is important to notice that Wittgenstein had a deeply pessimistic attitude towards the 20th century western culture, von Wrigh (one of his closest students) wrote that this "deepened to a hatred of our decaying civilization and a wish for its destruction". In 1939 von Wright asked him "Do you really think that Europe needs another war?" and Wittgenstein replied "Not one but two or three."

In the preface of Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein writes about his ideas:

"I make them public with doubtful feelings. 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 - but, of course, it is not likely."

Why was he so pessimistic is a good question. One should notice that he was not alone, similar attitudes towards the post enlightenment culture had been expressed by others like Nietzsche and Spengler. But unlike they Wittgenstein didn't explicitly write much about his attitudes, his philosophically important work is at least on the surface about "theoretical" issues in philosophy (though explicitly anti-theoretical), and not about practical issues in political philosophy or ethics.

There is probably no single explanation. Partly his attitudes derive from his personality, he had in some sense strict standards of morality and passion for intellectual integrity. This can be seen in the way he lived. In his writing he tried to debunk the half-truths and sloppy thinking he found in philosophy, and he didn't publish his writings even though doing so would have increased his fame during his lifetime.

Is it hard to see how a person with a temperament like that might see our culture as degraded in many obvious ways, even the intellectual culture?
It's also probably true that like Tolstoi, whose writings Wittgenstein admired, he had a nostalgia for a simpler more authentic way of life, perhaps a religious way of life (though he was not a religious person).

Von Wright says that Wittgenstein saw the idea of progress as a trap. It's not right to say that he was against science, but as von Wright writes he was critical to the influence of science outside its proper domain. And as we know this is a trademark of our culture. If you are familiar with his philosophy, you know how this is related to the substance of his philosophical thinking. The result of this influence of science in philosophy, for example, is from a Wittgensteinian point of view often a conceptual muddle. What is disguised as progress by quasi-technical language, is actually obscure metaphysics.

This is how I interpret that quote, as a rejection of the idea of progress separate from ethical goals or clarity.

"It is all one to me whether the typical western scientist understands or appreciates my work since in any case he does not understand the spirit in which I write. [...] Our civilization is characterized by the word progress. [...] Typically it constructs. Its activity is to construct a more and more complicated structure. And even clarity is only a means to this end & not an end in itself" (Culture and Value p.9)

(The von Wright paper I quoted was "Wittgenstein and the Twentieth Century" in Wittgenstein: Mind and Language (Synthese Library), by chance the whole article in the Kindle edition can be read on Amazon.)


This conveys to me that Wittgenstein judged the subjects of philosophy (including knowledge of self) ultimately more important than the subjects of science (the mechanics of matter, etc.).

Remember that his initial training was as an mechanics engineer, so to the degree engineering is close to science the statement perhaps is a reflection on his own turn in life, viewed from a subjective (and just perhaps a bit bitter) angle.


It's appears to be related to the notion of self-knowledge; this is difficult if not impossible to capture scientifically; but this isn't what the quote (if it is one ) is suggesting; it appears to suggest either the scientific and objective spirit attracts those who lack self-knowledge, or it positively hides that knowledge; or even removes it.

In the preface of the Tractatus wrote that Wittgenstein had solved the problems that he had set out to solve but that 'the questions of life' remain; it gives the impression that the philosophy or rather logicism he expounded in it didn't touch these problems.

The notion of self-knowledge is important in philosophy.

For example, jihad, in Islamic Philosophy means struggle towards self-understanding; which emphasises that it isn't a simple matter of introspection; in the sense that what can be nearer the self than the self.

In European Philosophy; after Sartre - there is the notion of Becoming; and Unger talks about different kinds of Over-coming.


To me, it's impossible to know without more context by reading the book, but I took it to mean this:

  • scientists know that they know little about themselves
  • therefore they are not 'great' as in having a small ego

I'm inclined to believe that this might be the case given Wittgenstein's track record with anti-philosophy, but it's hard to know for sure.

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