Wittgenstein mini-bio of sorts provided by a book review

Wittgenstein’s Family Letters: Corresponding with Ludwig: (edited by Brian McGuinness): Amazon ... Bloomsbury (UK)


EXCERPT (Jonathan Rée): In November 1910 a Jewish engineer ... obtained a patent for a new kind of aeronautical propeller. He was just 21, and well on the way to achieving his childhood dream of becoming the greatest aviator [...] But he hesitated. He had been reading Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell in his spare time, and believed that their inquiries into the foundations of logic heralded a revolution even more exciting than the invention of powered flight. ... The following year he was knocking on Russell’s door ... and the great man was sufficiently impressed to let him enroll at once as an undergraduate student. After a while Russell regretted his decision, writing in letters ... that his ‘German engineer’ was a ‘fool’ who kept pestering him with stupid questions. But then he changed his mind, saying that the ‘ferocious German (who is an Austrian I find)’ appeared to be ‘really intelligent’ after all.

A few weeks more and Russell was completely won over, treating Ludwig Wittgenstein as a brilliant colleague rather than a tiresome student, and as living proof that ‘making machines’ is a better preparation for work in philosophy than a British classical education. On the other hand he didn’t want to accept Wittgenstein’s main contention: that logic is concerned with ‘forms’ rather than ‘objects’ – specifically, the forms of human thought and language rather than timeless objects located in some ideal world. Russell’s friend G.E. Moore had already wowed the gilded youth of Cambridge with his doctrine that ‘goodness’ and ‘beauty’ are supernatural entities accessible only to first-class minds, and Russell was trying to do something similar for logic, maintaining that anyone clever enough to understand it gains access to a realm of intellectual perfection beyond the hurly-burly of earthly existence. Wittgenstein’s scepticism about logical ‘objects’ was an affront to all that Russell held dear, and he resisted it fiercely...

Wittgenstein wasn’t particularly impressed by Russell’s adoration. If his philosophical capacities were as exceptional as Russell seemed to think, then this was a curious fact – like having beautiful ears or excellent eyesight – but not an occasion for pride, still less for boasting. [...] Then there was war. Wittgenstein served for five years in the Austrian army – an experience he never regretted – while Russell threw himself into campaigning for peace. They lost touch but continued to work separately on the problems they had clashed over before the war: the nature of logic and its relation to eternal truths on the one hand and human experience on the other. ... It wasn’t until 1919 that he received a postcard from Wittgenstein, now a prisoner of war in Italy, saying that he had ‘done lots of logical work’ and, in his next message, that he had completed a book, in German, which ‘solved our problems finally’. (‘This may sound arrogant,’ he said, ‘but I can’t help believing it.’)

The working title of the book was Der Satz ... It combined philosophical boldness, of a kind that Russell appreciated, with ingenious literary experimentation, which Russell didn’t like at all. [...] As with the propeller he had invented ten years before, he [Wittgenstein] decided to forget about his book and move on. ... After six years he gave up teaching and returned to Vienna, where he resumed his original vocation as an engineer ... Wittgenstein may have forgotten about the philosophical world, but it had not forgotten about him. Russell had taken pity on his abandoned book and got it published in 1922, though with a rebarbative title – Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus – and a ponderous introduction in which he claimed that Wittgenstein’s aim was to ‘prevent nonsense’ by constructing a ‘logically perfect language’. This may be what Russell would have liked Wittgenstein to say, but it was a spectacular misrepresentation of what he had actually written.

In the first place, Wittgenstein had never said anything about replacing the ordinary statements of ordinary people with some artificial logical language; he had argued, on the contrary, that they are – despite the antics of conceited philosophers – ‘logically completely in order, just as they are’. Second, he wanted to praise nonsense rather than bury it: he thought that the best things in life – not only philosophical insights, but also religious, moral, musical or artistic experiences – confounded any attempt to articulate them, and he had indeed sent a letter to Russell telling him that the ‘main point’ of his book was to create a philosophical safe haven for those things that ‘can not be expressed … but only shown’. But Wittgenstein’s efforts were wasted: Russell had clearly fallen out of love with him, and he concluded his introduction by sniping at his former pupil for relapsing into ‘mysticism’, joking with supreme self-satisfaction that ‘Mr Wittgenstein manages to say a good deal about what cannot be said.’

Despite Wittgenstein’s indifference, the Tractatus quickly found its way to readers all around the world, accompanied by Russell’s obtuse and unhelpful introduction. Many of them drew inspiration from it, in one way or another, and started to practise philosophy in a more or less Wittgensteinian style, not as a ‘theory’ that articulates esoteric truths, but an ‘activity’ that explores the rich and surprising logics of natural languages. Wittgenstein allowed himself to be gratified when he got wind of these developments, but only up to a point. He took issue with a group of self-appointed disciples in Vienna who, like Russell, insisted on treating religion as a meaningless relic of an unenlightened age – an attitude that Wittgenstein regarded as brash, incurious and mean-spirited. (‘I am not a religious man,’ he once explained to a friend, ‘but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.’) When he returned to Cambridge in 1929 – he had intended the trip as a brief holiday, but ended up teaching there, on and off, for almost twenty years – he was appalled to discover a band of philosophical enthusiasts for something called ‘scientific method’. They seemed to believe that the Tractatus justified them in treating religion as a joke and morality as no more than an expression of raw emotion.

Self-styled Wittgensteinians in the ‘Vienna Circle’ and the ‘Cambridge School’ were of course taken aback when Wittgenstein repudiated their dogmas, and many retaliated not with reasoned argument but with speculative gossip, suggesting that there were two different Wittgensteins, and that after the incisive youthful brilliance of the Tractatus he had declined into doddering incoherence. [...] When Wittgenstein started teaching undergraduates in Cambridge, he put into practice the precepts of the Tractatus. Instead of delivering lectures he simply posed disarming questions. Is pain really the opposite of pleasure? Is our awareness of pain more like listening, or hearing? When you imagine a red rose, how do you know it’s really red, and why might we think that blue is closer to green than red? ‘Say what you really think,’ he told his students, and ‘don’t try to be intelligent.’ ...

By the 1940s the British philosophical establishment was more or less united in seeing Wittgenstein as a burnt-out wreck and a disgrace to the professiom [...] The gossip did not cease with Wittgenstein’s death (in 1951, at the age of 62) and it has since taken a neuroscientific turn, with speculative talk about autism and Asperger’s. [...] Another matter on which Wittgenstein shared his intellectual concerns with his family was that of sainthood. The fact that he had once told Russell he was interested in becoming a saint was perfect fuel for the Cambridge gossip-machine, but Wittgenstein’s siblings knew what his detractors apparently did not: that he was referring not to canonisation by some church but to a favourite theme from one of his favourite books [...] That was the spirit in which Wittgenstein committed himself ... to the project of becoming ... ‘a decent human being’. She worried for him, because she knew he would always chastise himself for falling short of this seemingly modest goal; but she also knew – as readers of this book will too – that he often came very close. (MORE - details)

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