Wittgenstein: A Memoir

Carl Elliott reads Norman Malcolm’s slim yet riveting account of his friendship with the Austrian philosopher
Ludwig Wittgenstein
Ludwig Wittgenstein

“I first saw Wittgenstein in the Michaelmas term of 1938, my first term at Cambridge. At a meeting of the Moral Science Club, after the paper for the evening was read and the discussion started, someone began to stammer a remark. He had extreme difficulty in expressing himself and his words were unintelligible to me. I whispered to my neighbor: ‘Who is that?’: he replied, ‘Wittgenstein.’”

So begins Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, by Norman Malcolm, a student of Wittgenstein’s at Cambridge and his lifelong friend. It is a small book, published over half a century ago, but its influence would be hard to overstate. Not many philosophical books have created as many disciples. If philosophers were evangelists (and some are), Malcolm’s memoir would be the Gospel of John, a strange, beautiful little book that you leave in hotel rooms and hand out door to door. I read it again this week for the first time in many years, and it was still as gripping as I remembered it. What accounts for its lasting appeal?

It is not just Wittgenstein himself, although it is true that Malcolm’s memoir has contributed as much as any other book to the legend of Wittgenstein as a tortured philosophical genius. Its brilliance also comes from Malcolm’s talent as a writer, which is ideally matched to his subject. Malcolm’s voice has the same earnest, austere sensibility that Wittgenstein admired, with just enough humility to make both the writer and his subject feel endearingly human. Unlike J.L. Austin, another Wittgenstein-inspired philosopher with a literary gift, Malcolm never seems to be showing off. His words are simple and carefully chosen. Even when the writing is inelegant or awkward, it has a certain beauty.

Many memoirists feel free to embellish stories to make them more entertaining. Malcolm seems intent on sticking as closely to the facts as possible, of making a reliable record even when it makes the narrative cumbersome. Occasionally he will add a footnote to a story, pointing out that someone else remembers it differently, and he will go on to give their version. There are long passages where Malcolm quotes from his own notes on Wittgenstein’s discussions or lectures. Many are arcane passages that, without any context, only readers with a serious interest in Wittgenstein’s work would be capable of understanding.

And yet the book is riveting. “Primarily, what made him an awesome and even terrible person, both as a teacher and in personal relationships, was his ruthless integrity, which did not spare himself or anyone else,” Malcolm writes. Wittgenstein despised mere philosophical cleverness; for him, philosophy was a deadly serious affair. After his lectures he would often rush off to the movies, sitting in the front row to let the experience wash over him like a bath. Malcolm says the movies freed Wittgenstein from the torture of his philosophical thoughts. (Wittgenstein liked American films, and hated English films so much that he felt that there could not possibly be a good one.) [Read More]

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