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Wittgenstein is a notoriously difficult philosopher, and anyone approaching his work will inevitably ask themselves the question: Is it going to be worthwhile?  It’s a common problem, of course. Do I really want to set aside the enormous amount of time and effort that it will take to understand Heidegger, or Derrida, or Deleuze?  Often the answer is no (and for good reason).  Part of what convinced me early on that Wittgenstein would be worth the effort was the portrait of Wittgenstein that emerges in Malcolm’s memoir: a man of fierce, extraordinary intelligence who was driven by the very deepest questions of human life.”

— Carl Elliot, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Tim Crane (TLS) reflects on the life and work of the enigmatic Austrian philosopher
ludwig-wittgenstein
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).

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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? (more…)