Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.- Ludwig Wittgenstein
Let me just start off by saying that Ludwig Wittgenstein is one of the smartest men that has ever lived. His work has helped define philosophy of the 20th century in many categories, most notable in the philosophy of mathematics and the philosophy of language. Thus, it seems almost useless to evaluate his work because time and history have proven that his writings are valid and important. Nonetheless, I will endeavor to let you know what I thought of this particular collection of Wittgenstein’s writings.
Major Works includes four of Wittgenstein’s writings, each showing a different point in his career. Included is his breakthrough work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, to studies for his magnum opus Philosophical Investigations and one of his later works entitled On Certainty. I will look at each one of them separately.
Tractatus is a fascinating work. It is sparse and calculating in providing a look on what logic and philosophy means in our life. Basically, Wittgenstein’s philosophy is that mathematics can describe an empirical reality. Thus, Wittgenstein sees mathematics as a tool in order to explain reality and one of only two sources of valid knowledge (the other being sensory experience.) Whether or not you agree with that assessment is up to you (I personal prefer Godel’s view of mathematics as representing an abstract reality) but whatever your opinion, Tractatus is an enjoyable and fascinating read. Even though Wittgenstein ended up revising (or refuting) a lot of these ideas in his later book Philosophical Investigations, it is interesting to read his first foray into the field of philosophy, and there are enough solid ideas to make Tractatus worth it.
The next two works included in Major Works is the Blue Book and Brown Book. Both of these works were used as a study for Philosophical Investigations and thus have a sense of incompleteness to them. I would classify them as works only for those Wittgenstein’s fanboys. I found myself a little bored reading them and frustrated by a certain lack of direction. The ideas themselves are interesting, but they never really seem to have the punch of Tractatus and On Certainty. I would only read them if you are really interested in Wittgenstein’s work.
The last work is On Certainty, which was published posthumously. Like the title suggests, On Certainty is concerned with how we become aware and certain of facts. This book has a lot of really interesting ideas and is the easiest to read out of all the works in Major Works. It does not have the same divisive logical prose style as Tractatus but seems more human in many ways. It’s well worth the read.
Now as a word of warning, Wittgenstein is not very easy to read. He expects you to be operating close to his level and does not take the time to explain some of the fundamentals that back his theories. In fact in the foreword to Tractatus he essentially says that if you haven’t already been exposed to the ideas he will present you probably won’t understand any of them. That is a little intimidating, and probably a bit of an over exaggeration, but the warning is a valid one. Major Works is not an easy read. It’s not armchair philosophy. It is a challenging read that stretches your understanding of mathematics and language and requires a certain aptitude in those two fields. I don’t think that I could recommend Major Works to a general audience, but for those interested in Wittgenstein or in his theories, it is worth the time and energy spent.