As far as I know he was doing engineering and became interested in the foundations of mathematics and went to Frege and upon his advice he went to study logic from Russell.

So what happened which caused him to change his interests? Is there any historical statement supporting his conversion?

  • Wittgenstein was "involved" with Phil of Language exactly because he was interested into the foundations of math and log. See the post What is the subject of Tractatus by Wittgenstein? Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 15:21
  • Did Wittgenstein invented Philosophy of Language? Or was it existing before him? Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 16:39
  • Obviously already existed. From Plato and Aristotle to Frege. Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 17:04
  • When one digs deep down into philosophy one finds logic, and when one digs deep down into logic, one finds language. Early LW was interested in logic, and later LW in language. Ask yourself, why does A(B), B(C) -> A(C) work to describe a gift in a box in wrapping paper, particularly if all of the symbols { A, B, C, ",", "->", "(", ")"} are arbitrary symbolic conventions? What is reference? What is existence? What is reason? What is the relationship between meaning and symbols? These are the questions LW was interested in.
    – J D
    Commented Mar 11, 2020 at 16:05

3 Answers 3


There were not "conversion" at all, but a progressive involvment with logic and language.

For historical evidence, see e.g. Letter to B.Russell [Nov.1913], with refernce to Bedeutung [reference] (a key-term of Frege's Philosophy of language) in relation to facts and proposition.

For W's philosophy of language in the Tractatus (1921), you can see Wittgenstein's Logical Atomism.

For early philosopical interests of Wittgenstein, we can see : Notes on Logic (1913); for details, see Michael Potter, Wittgenstein's Notes on Logic, a book fully dedicated to the first (unpublished) W's work, deeply involved with Russell's and Frege's philosophies about logic and language.

  • Thank you, your answer always helps me. Sometimes I feel, if feel is the word I want, that language expresses your thoughts and until you express your thoughts you can’t work or I should use it logically and so therefore language must give birth to philosophy. Even blind and deaf think in terms of pictures means expressing thoughts is most important thing. Am I correct? Commented Nov 24, 2018 at 7:57

I believe it is because he noticed while studying engineering that mathematics, despite its usefulness, beauty and clarity avoids state, context, and justifiably limits its expression to its own domain and as a result does not provide us with a sufficient medium in regards to communicating with the world around us in most aspects of life. The point of mathematics is then limited to providing us with a way of measuring a non state-conscious representation of our conceptual models of the world. This is not a failure of mathematicians or Mathematics as a field, simply a recognition that Mathematics is not a sufficient language for many aspects of life, nor do Mathematicians at large appear to make any such claims to the contrary. Mathematicians are the best we have at providing those aspects of that necessary tool and we need to focus on how to best utilize the tool provided.

Language is in turn our primary tool of communication. Being our primary tool of communication, it is simultaneously both the most liberating as well as the most limiting aspect of our existences. If I can't express myself, I remain trapped inside myself.

In my opinion, we should strive to develop the most clear and efficient tools for all of us to use when interacting with each other and trying to express ourselves.

  • Thank you for your answer. Was his main field maths or logic? It seems that he went for logic due to the works of Russell and Frege as @MauroALLEGRANZA has pointed out. Commented Mar 11, 2020 at 8:45
  • His work was mostly on logic. He was a student of Bertrand Russell and was influenced by him, although he disagreed with him somewhat from what I understand. Today, he is also remembered for his influence on the Logical Positivists, even though he never identified as one. Commented Mar 12, 2020 at 2:25
  • To be clear, I do not believe that Ludwig Wittgenstein was a mathematician, merely that he studied a fair amount of mathematics as an engineering and analytical philosophy student and realized that he had to step outside of mathematics for expression despite the fact that analytic philosophy relies so much on verifiable entities. Commented Mar 15, 2020 at 2:38

To get at this question, we have to reflect on the goals of the analytical philosophy movement that Wittgenstein was drawn into. Analytic philosophy of Bertrand Russell's day was trying to find a grounding for philosophy in the empirical world, mostly by constructing a math-based system of logic that he thought mirrored the kind of logic used in the natural sciences. The movement was targeted against rationalist philosophy — the kind of deeply inner-reflective argumentation we see in European philosophers, like Hegel, Heidegger or Sartre — and with that in mind it tried hard to establish clear relationships between statements of logic or philosophy and real-world objects or contexts that the statements refer to, or denote. And so we find Wittgenstein, at the end of the Tractatus, saying:

6.53 The right method of philosophy would be this. To say nothing except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science, i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying to the other — he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy — but it would be the only strictly correct method.


7 Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

So at this stage in his thinking, Wittgenstein has reduced philosophical language to statements that can be expressed in the form — the language — of the natural sciences, and rejects every other kind of statement as non-philosophical.

As you can see, the entire analytical philosophy perspective was inherently linguistic from the get-go, but the intention was to provide what Popper would later call 'demarkation': a systematic way of pushing off statements that were not considered properly philosophical, i.e., those that are irreducible to mathematical logic. However, this approach produced a number of now-famous paradoxes: Russell's paradox, the morning-star/evening-star paradox, etc. These paradoxes pointed out a weakness in the analytical philosophy approach, in that it assumed (and in fact insisted on) clear one-to-one denotation. Ambiguous denotation — referents in statements that had unclear, abstract, or variable objects — create problems for the underlying mathematical models that the movement wanted to invoke.

Russell and most of his cohort kept trying to dig into math and logic to shore up or resolve this difficulty — you can see that in Wittgenstein's quote above, which comes from his earlier work — but Wittgenstein eventually embraced this not as a problem of math, but as a problem of language itself. He decided to reconstruct the act of denoting as a functional convention of human interaction, not an objective feature of the world, and that drew him straight down the rabbit hole into deep language theory.

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