Portraits of Wittgenstein

Tim Crane (TLS) reflects on the life and work of the enigmatic Austrian philosopher
Ludwig Wittgenstein

Among all twentieth-century thinkers, Ludwig Wittgenstein stands out as the one whose life fascinates almost as much as his work does. Even the life of Martin Heidegger, with his controversial Nazi connections and his later attempt to live the authentic life of a peasant, looks dull and suburban by comparison. Wittgenstein was born in 1889 into one of Austria’s richest families. His father was a self-made industrialist who built his fortune in iron and steel; his mother came from a Prague Jewish family. Ludwig was the youngest of eight siblings – he had three sisters and four brothers. Tragedy hit the family again and again. Three of Ludwig’s brothers committed suicide. The fourth, Paul, was a concert pianist who lost his right arm in the First World War and later commissioned works for the left hand from Ravel, Prokofiev, Paul Hindemith and Erich Korngold. (Music figured significantly in the family’s life: Brahms, Mahler and Richard Strauss were among the composers who heard their works performed at the Wittgenstein house in Vienna.) Ludwig originally studied engineering, first in Berlin and then in Manchester, where he became interested in the design of aeroplane propellors. At this time he developed a deep interest in mathematics and its foundations. Having studied the ground-breaking works of philosophy of mathematics by Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege, he visited Frege in Jena who advised him to study with Russell in Cambridge. Wittgenstein turned up, unannounced, at Russell’s rooms in Trinity College in October 1911, and discussed philosophy with Russell regularly over the next few months. Russell wrote to Ottoline Morrell that his “Austrian engineer” was “rather good” but “very argumentative and tiresome”. But Russell was sufficiently impressed to accept Wittgenstein as a student at Cambridge in 1912. Wittgenstein had a huge impact on the intellectual scene there, but throughout his life he claimed to dislike Cambridge and preferred to spend time writing and thinking in remote, isolated places (Norway and Ireland were favourites).

After the death of his father in 1913, Wittgenstein inherited a huge fortune, and in the next few years he gave it all away. When war broke out he enlisted in the Austrian Imperial army, and fought on the Eastern front in Galicia and in Italy, where he was captured and spent time in a POW camp. During the war he worked on the book that was to become the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the only philosophical book he published in his lifetime (it was published in German in 1921 and the English translation appeared in 1922). Believing that this short and lapidary work had solved the remaining problems of philosophy, Wittgenstein abandoned the subject and trained as a primary schoolteacher in Vienna. He then taught for some years in a small rural village in Lower Austria. While there, he was visited by the brilliant young Cambridge philosopher Frank Ramsey, and they discussed philosophy constantly. He left his teaching post under something of a cloud – he had hit one of his pupils so hard that she lost consciousness – and returned to Vienna in 1926, where he designed a house for one of his sisters, Margarete Stonborough. The house, a modernist masterpiece, is now owned by the Bulgarian government (they allow visitors; it is well worth seeing). The philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright wrote that “its beauty is of the same simple and static kind that belongs to the sentences of the Tractatus”.

Partly as a result of the conversations with Ramsey, Wittgenstein found himself drawn back into philosophy and returned to Cambridge in 1929. Needing a qualification in order to work there, he submitted the Tractatus – now a famous work which had already influenced the direction of twentieth-century philosophy – as a PhD thesis. One of the examiners, G. E. Moore, wrote in his report, “It is my personal opinion that Mr Wittgenstein’s thesis is a work of genius but, even if it is not, it is well above the standard required for the Cambridge degree of Doctor of Philosophy”. Wittgenstein began teaching at Cambridge in his unorthodox way – from contemporary accounts, Jarman’s representation of it, deckchairs included, is quite accurate – and he produced in the next twenty years a wholly new body of work which superseded and replaced the doctrines of the Tractatus. This work was finally published after his death as the Philosophical Investigations (1953). During the war, Wittgenstein worked in various jobs at Guy’s Hospital in London, and at a hospital in Newcastle. Wittgenstein did not find academic life in Cambridge to his taste, and made frequent trips to Swansea to visit friends, and to Ireland, where he worked constantly in remote parts of the countryside. He eventually resigned his professorship at Cambridge in 1947. In 1949 he was diagnosed with cancer, and he died in 1951 in the house of his doctor, Edward Bevan, aged sixty-two. His last words, according to Mrs Bevan, were “tell them I’ve had a wonderful life”.




Derek Jarman’s film [Wittgenstein] may have been an artistic success, but from a commercial perspective it seems to have been a missed opportunity. Imagine what Peter Jackson or Steven Spielberg would have made of Wittgenstein’s life: the high culture of imperial Vienna, the war scenes, the remote and beautiful parts of Ireland, Norway and the Austrian Alps, the Bloomsbury culture of early twentiethcentury Cambridge, the wit and chit-chat of Maynard Keynes and Russell, the stark and impressive house in Vienna, Wittgenstein’s passionate devotion to a number of younger men, and his own very public struggle to find contentment. A high-budget movie of the life of Wittgenstein practically writes itself. Perhaps one day someone will make it.

In the years since his death, many of those who knew Wittgenstein have written memoirs or descriptions of their encounters with him. These range from a few paragraphs describing the briefest meeting, to full and often insightful analyses of his character by close friends. Many of these memoirs have been published, in a wide variety of places, some more obscure than others. In 1999 F. A. Flowers edited a collection of some of these writings in a volume called Portraits of Wittgenstein. Greatly expanded with much additional material, the book has now been republished in two volumes by Bloomsbury, with Ian Ground as co-editor. It is a wonderful project – endlessly fascinating for philosophers, but it will also appeal to anyone with the most casual interest in twentieth-century intellectual history. This is the work everyone who is interested in Wittgenstein the man needs.



Many of the contributors are philosophers – including such eminent names as G. E. M. Anscombe, A. J. Ayer, Peter Geach, G. E. Moore and Karl Popper – and others are intellectuals or academics of other kinds – Freeman Dyson, F. R. Leavis and Iris Murdoch, for example. All testify to the sheer force of Wittgenstein’s personality. “The strongest impression any man ever made on me”, von Wright recorded in his diary in 1939 after meeting Wittgenstein. The poignant memoir by Norman Malcolm – one of Wittgenstein’s students who had a successful career teaching at Cornell University – is already well known to philosophers. As in many of these pieces, one thing that comes across in Malcolm’s memoir is how incredibly difficult Wittgenstein was. “It was always a strain to be with Wittgenstein”, Malcolm writes; “not only were the intellectual demands of his conversation very great, but there was also his severity, his ruthless judgements, his tendency to be censorious, and his depression.” Von Wright concurs: “each conversation with Wittgenstein was living through the day of judgement. It was terrible”. Wittgenstein’s dismissal of other philosophers was well known. He once remarked to Leavis that G. E. Moore “shows how far a man can go who has absolutely no intelligence whatever”. Fania Pascal, a Ukrainian Jewish émigrée who lived in Cambridge and taught Wittgenstein Russian, comments in her memoir that “Wittgenstein had a great capacity to wound” but “he could not possibly be aware of the harshness, amounting to cruelty, with which he hit out, never pulling his punches. Nor would he know the fear he inspired in people”.

Wittgenstein’s influence on his students’ lives went beyond that of the usual committed teacher. He himself had doubts about the value of the academic life and conveyed these to his students, often persuading them to give up their studies to do something he saw as more worthwhile. Francis Skinner, a shy, intense young man who according to Pascal was “the constant companion of Wittgenstein throughout most of the 1930s”, was a brilliant mathematician. Wittgenstein persuaded Skinner to give up mathematics and become an apprentice in a scientific instruments company. Skinner “would never be happy in academic life”, Wittgenstein told Pascal; she, on the other hand, wondered whether Wittgenstein had the right to interfere in the lives of his friends and students to such an extent. And yet despite his overbearing and judgemental personality, Wittgenstein inspired love, loyalty and devotion among his students and friends, philosophers and non-philosophers alike.

What, if anything, do these portraits tell us about Wittgenstein’s philosophy? It is normal in academic philosophy to separate a philosopher’s life sharply from his or her work. Where the lives of philosophers are thought to be philosophically relevant, this is usually because there is thought to be some connection between one part of their world view and another. So, to take a striking example from the twentieth century: the worry about Heidegger’s Nazism arises because his philosophy is thought to appeal to ideas like Volk (for example) which resonate with the Nazi ideology. By contrast, the anti-Semitic remarks in Frege’s personal correspondence are not relevant to understanding his ideas about logic and truth, since (unwholesome as they may be) they have no real connection with these ideas.



The situation with Wittgenstein is different. Here the question that fascinates people is not that of the relationship between his different views on various subjects – philosophical and non-philosophical – but the relationship between his philosophy and his life. In 2001 a volume of scholarly essays was published by Cambridge University Press on the very question of the relationship between philosophy and biography, with special reference to Wittgenstein. One theme which was explored in depth in Ray Monk’s classic biography, published in 1991, is how naturally Wittgenstein falls into the category of “genius”, how he aspired to this category himself, and how this influenced his philosophical development. Ramsey wrote in 1929 that “Mr Wittgenstein is a philosophic genius of a different order from any one else I know”; and according to Leavis, Wittgenstein’s arrogance was “a manifestation of the essential quality of genius”. This palpable impression of genius may go some way to explain how Wittgenstein’s charisma shaped the responses of those who knew him. The philosopher J. N. Findlay commented that “the personal impact of Wittgenstein is indispensable to the understanding of his influence . . . his personality, like his writing, made an immense aesthetic impact, so great indeed that one was tempted to confuse beauty with clarity and strangely luminous expression with perspicuous truth”.

But it seems to me that there is another, deeper way in which Wittgenstein’s life connects with his work, which has to do with the way he dramatized his personal struggle with philosophy in his later writings. The Philosophical Investigations is written in a personal, at times almost confessional, mode. Much of it has the form of a dialogue with an imaginary interlocutor (not entirely unlike the Martian in Jarman’s film). Wittgenstein talks about what his own aim is in philosophy and presents himself as almost emotionally engaged with the problems he is discussing. “The real discovery”, he writes, “is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to. The one which brings philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself into question.” The proper way to deal with such “torment” is to undergo a kind of therapy; and it is this therapeutic conception of philosophy which is sometimes seen as one of Wittgenstein’s principal intellectual legacies. Philosophy is not a straightforwardly intellectual endeavour in pursuit of the truth, but a struggle with the confusions that our language and thinking throw up. It is comparable to the treatment of an intellectual “disease”; or, in one of Wittgenstein’s famous phrases, philosophy is a battle against the “bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language”. [Read the Full Article]


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