Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wittgenstein: life

Here's a draft of the slightly revised section of my IEP article on Wittgenstein's life:
Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein, born on April 26th 1889 in Vienna, Austria, was a charismatic enigma. He has been something of a cult figure but shunned publicity and even built an isolated house in Norway to live in complete seclusion. His life seems to have been dominated by an obsession with moral and philosophical perfection, summed up in the subtitle of Ray Monk’s excellent biography Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius.
The Wittgenstein family was large and wealthy. Karl Wittgenstein was one of the most successful businessmen in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, leading the iron and steel industry there. The Wittgensteins’ home attracted people of culture, especially musicians, including the composer Johannes Brahms, who was a friend of the family. Music remained important to Wittgenstein throughout his life. So did darker matters. Ludwig was the youngest of eight children, and of his four brothers, three committed suicide. He had no children of his own and never married. He did propose marriage once, to Marguerite Respinger in 1931, but nothing came of it. Apart from this relationship he appears to have been gay, how actively so being a matter of dispute.

His concern with moral perfection led Wittgenstein at one point to insist on confessing to several people various sins, including that of allowing others to underestimate the extent of his ‘Jewishness’. His father Karl Wittgenstein’s parents were born Jewish but converted to Protestantism and his mother Leopoldine (nee Kalmus) was Catholic, but her father was of Jewish descent. Wittgenstein himself was baptized in a Catholic church and was given a Catholic burial, although between baptism and burial he was neither a practicing nor a believing Catholic.
Wittgenstein studied mechanical engineering in Berlin and in 1908 went to Manchester, England to do research in aeronautics, experimenting with kites. His interest in engineering led to an interest in mathematics which in turn got him thinking about philosophical questions about the foundations of mathematics. He visited the mathematician and philosopher Gottlob Frege (1848-1925), who recommended that he study with Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) in Cambridge. At Cambridge Wittgenstein greatly impressed Russell and G.E. Moore (1873- 1958), and began work on logic.
When his father died in 1913 Wittgenstein inherited a fortune, which he quickly gave away. Most of the money went to other members of his family, whom he thought would not be corrupted by it. The rest went to various writers and artists. When war broke out the next year, he volunteered for the Austrian army. He continued his philosophical work and won several medals for bravery during the war. The result of his thinking on logic was the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus which was eventually published in English in 1922 with Russell’s help. This was the only book Wittgenstein published during his lifetime (apart from a spelling dictionary for schoolchildren). Having thus, in his opinion, solved all the problems of philosophy, Wittgenstein became an elementary school teacher in rural Austria, where his approach was strict and unpopular, but apparently effective. He spent 1926-28 meticulously designing and building an austere house in Vienna for his sister Gretl.
In 1929 he returned to Cambridge to teach at Trinity College, recognizing that in fact he had more work to do in philosophy. This is the beginning of what is known as his middle period, a time of transition in which he revisited his earlier thinking and paved the way for his mature, late period. The best known of his middle works are the “Blue Book” and the “Brown Book,” which he dictated to students in 1933-1935. These are preliminary studies for the Philosophical Investigations.
He became Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge in 1939. During World War II he worked as a hospital porter in London and as a research technician in Newcastle. After the war he returned to university teaching but resigned his professorship in 1947 to concentrate on writing. Much of this he did in Ireland, preferring isolated rural places for his work. By 1949 he had written all the material that was published after his death as Philosophical Investigations, arguably his most important work. He spent the last two years of his life in Vienna, Oxford and Cambridge. A selection from his work in these last years has been published as On Certainty. This book is regarded by some as giving us a “third Wittgenstein,” in addition to the early Wittgenstein of the Tractatus and the late Wittgenstein of the Investigations. He died of prostate cancer in Cambridge in April 1951. His last words were, “Tell them [i.e., his friends] I’ve had a wonderful life.”


  1. I recommend a complete reconception of the opening paragraph. Its first two sentences seem to me badly formulated, and the purport of the whole is unclear. The first sentence awkwardly combines a plain fact, W.'s date of birth, with the assessment of him as a "charismatic enigma," a phrase that is itself a jarring combination of words. W. was charismatic (in life) and is enigmatic (as a figure in the history of philosophy), but "charismatic enigma" seems to me to make poor sense. It is qua human being, not qua enigma, that he was charismatic. The second sentence mixes tenses in a fashion that fails to be either parallel or contrastive: W. has been something of a cult figure but shunned publicity. The mismatch of tenses here derives, I think, from a deeper conceptual slippage: In life, the human being W. attracted a cultish following by direct personal influence, despite (really, despite? not partly because of?) his aversion to publicity; alive or dead, he has attracted a cultish following by the influence of his writings. These are obviously related but nonetheless distinct phenomena.

    A detail in paragraph 4: "in 1908 went to Manchester, England to do research," etc. The appositive part of the place-name, "England," should have commas both before and after; however, as Manchester is a major city and is the original bearer of that name (as contrasted with, say, Manchester, New Hampshire), I don't think that it is in order to specify the country in which it is located. (If I didn't know that you are English, I would have taken that for a bit of American provincialism!)

  2. I think I was trying to write like an American! Must try harder.

    It hadn't struck me before, but now that you mention it I agree that the first paragraph should be redone. His time in Norway, for instance, is not important enough to deserve a mention here. I'm not so sure that his charisma was not at all due to his being an enigma, but I agree that it's a bit obscure of me to use these words. The whole thing should be much more straightforward.


  3. ha, yeah, you make him sound like salinger.

  4. i read a lot in monk and mcguinness about the 'return' period last year, and the impression i got was that it would much more accurate to say that wittgenstein had trouble finding any peace or satisfaction in the various other activities he sought it in (the teaching, the gardening at the monastery, living in vienna), and the possibility of being supported (after giving away the family wealth) and having something to do upon a return to cambridge came to look like perhaps the only thing to do. perhaps that can't be separated from the more legitimate-sounding reason of 'having more to do in philosophy', but it seems like a nice thing to keep in mind so that the biography isn't determined by the needs of philosophical problems / progress in separation from life.

  5. Salinger is not what I was going for, so a change is needed. And I'll look into the return--thanks!