Exploring Wittgenstein: The Early Years

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein

I have recently begun reading Ray Monk’s biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951), described by his great teacher Bertrand Russell as “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.” I was introduced to Wittgenstein via my own teacher of philosophy Henri Bortoft (1938 – 2012), who himself was described by his colleague Stephan Harding “as like having Wittgenstein in the room”. But before moving into this article fully, I thought I would mention a few other philosophical explorations of mine which I have experienced since writing my previous six-part series of articles Exploring Gadamer’s Truth and Method.

Philosophical Books

Martin Heidegger was a great friend of Hans-Georg Gadamer, but I had previously struggled to even read the first few chapters of his most famous work Being and Time, and it was Henri who had recommended History of the Concept of Time as a more suitable starting point. However this too I found quite turgid, and so I fell back on Mark Wrathall’s How to Read Heidgger which was brilliantly lucid in just 10 short chapters. Owen Barfield’s work Saving the Appearances has clear parallels with Henri’s final work Taking Appearance Seriously, and is an ambitious attempt to map out the evolution of consciousness across the history of mankind. Alfred Whitehead North was a friend and contemporary of Wittgenstein, and I decided to start in the safety of Donald Serburne’s A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality, but to be honest I really failed to connected in the early chapters with Sherburne’s attempt to clarify Whitehead’s philosophy. The greatest disappointment for me though was Merleu-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception. The edition you see above is a recently published 2012 new translation by Donald Landes, greatly anticipated by many due to the many flaws and shortcomings in previous English translations. By like Heidegger I felt defeated in my first reading with the density of the opaque and insanely fine-tuned prose, and the major insights were lost on me, despite me battling to the end.

Ray Monk on Wittgenstein

And so after these disappointments and huge frustrations in my own philosophical explorations, I finally came to Wittgenstein, a philosopher who famously published very few works due his reluctance to write out his ideas in imperfect form. Wittgenstein, like the other philosophers I have just mentioned, is also one of the most difficult thinkers to comprehend, hence my cautious start with Ray Monk’s acclaimed biography. I have been hugely inspired by even the first opening electrifying chapters, especially with the discovery that Wittgenstein, initially as a student and protégé of Bertrand Russell, spent many insane nights of violent quarrel as Bertrand frequently failed to grasp Wittgenstein’s insights. It would be fair to ask ourselves what chance we have of understanding Wittgenstein if Russell, one of the world’s greatest philosophers, couldn’t. My wife Maria, who studied Wittgenstein at university, and she also has a great interest in Indian philosophy too. Last night she said that she found Wittgenstein pretty easy to follow, since it was just a matter of trying to connect with what he is trying to say. There is something in his philosophy which is not just about pure Western Euclidean logic and geometry, there is something deeper in there that Wittgenstein felt he had comprehended. As I continue with my reading, I certainly hope to find out.

In this biography we read many different letters to and from Wittgenstein, and it is clear to me that it would be quite possibly a master stroke of understatement to describe Wittgenstein as a tortured genius. “I wish to God that I were more intelligent and everything become clear to me – or else that I needn’t live much longer.” In 1911 he went to Cambridge to study philosophy under Russell, who declared that Wittgenstein “has more passion about philosophy than I have. His avalanches make mine seem like mere snowballs.” His passion for philosophy “burned within him.” This passion combined with both monumental intellect but also a great inability to suffer fools, including most of his fellow students and teachers it seems, as well as a raging depression which resulted in many long nights for Russell who had to put up with Wittgenstein’s marathon sessions of narcissistically self-absorbed  self-analysis, raging at his own imperfections and character flaws. The conversations on philosophy it seemed soon became monologues, with Wittgenstein talking at Russell, one of the few men able to withstand this level of intellectual onslaught, including many dissections of his own work, in which Wittgenstein found many errors, inconsistencies and flaws.

By 1913 Wittgenstein has developed a morbid fear that he will die in the coming years, and here we discover a great dilemma. He does not want to commit any imperfect works to paper, and yet his life is fraught with the worry that it will have been worth nothing if no works of his ever are understood. To resolve this crisis, Wittgenstein moved to a remote location in Norway where he discovered he could work without having to worry about any social niceties or pressures to conform, pressures which would have been immense given that he was from the upper bourgeoise class in Austria, and was persuaded to join The Apostles, the elite secret society of the Cambridge intellectual elite.

Even if you do not have a formal interest in philosophy, Monk’s biography is hugely engaging. We encounter the contradiction in Wittgenstein’s early years, in first his desire to develop the perfect theory of logic and also language, but also his great inability to make himself understood. His circle of friends saw in Wittgenstein a great value not only in his philosophical discoveries, but also in his methods which they implored him to write down. Philosophers are seeking answers to many great questions such as what is reality? Can we ever know reality? What is the relationship between thought and language? Although Wittgenstein sought answers to these questions, it is quite striking his inability to engage in a humane level of dialogue with his contemporaries, many of whom he thought were idiots it seems.

There is another way to view languages, different to viewing language in pure logical terms, and that is to study the role creativity plays in the apprehension of meaning. Some extremely interesting work has been carried out in this area by the late Brian Goodwin (on whom I have written a recent article The Intuitive Way of Knowing – A Tribute to Brian Goodwin).

In language, the power law distribution of words is a necessary condition for a deeper and highly significant property of natural languages: the ambiguity of meaning in utterances. Machine languages aim to remove this ambiguity by strict one-to-one assignments of ‘words’ to ‘objects’. The result is a form of communication which is mechanical and unambiguous, but utterly lacking in creativity. The creativity of natural languages resides in the multiple meanings that can be assigned to the same sentence because of ambiguities, arising from a non-mechanical or fluid relationship between words and objects in the world.

Brian Goodwin (2007) Nature’s Due, Floris Books

If we accept that language is ambiguous, it changes entirely our approach to dialogue. In dialogue we realise that as well as just discussing our ideas, we also have to explore the ways in which we experience reality, and if this ground of reality is different, we will never make ourselves understood. It also means that we may have a blind spot, and fail to truly reach our creative potential by failing to notice how creativity arises out of the whole meaning of a dialogue, meaning constructed from the contributions of all, as opposed to reaching a decision or conclusion by means of those who have the ability to win and dominate.

I’ll finish this article here as I am keen to crack on with the biography. Wittgenstein has volunteered as a soldier in the Austrian army, something he relished not for the opportunity to serve his country, but as a catalyst for his personal transformation. I do not know what his transition will be like, but at some point later in this book I’ll report back with a few more personal reflections from an amazing book about an incredible soul.

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This series continues with:

Exploring Wittgenstein: Transition

6 responses to “Exploring Wittgenstein: The Early Years

  1. Hi Simon,
    I began to be drawn to Wittgenstein through the writings of a scolar named Jon Shotter. He has been here at the college and has written a lot on language and different ways of seeing, very in tune with what Bortoff writes about. A lots of his papers are available on his website: http://www.johnshotter.com/. My favourite is: More than cool reason: ‘Withness-thinking’ or ‘systemic thinking’ and ‘thinking about systems’. Abraços, Juliana

  2. Pingback: Exploring Wittgenstein: Transition | Transition Consciousness·

  3. If you don’t mind Simon, I’d like to share some of my own notes on Wittgenstein’s early life:

    Wittgenstein had a very privileged childhood; the composers Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler were frequent visitors to his family’s mansion in Vienna (one of three they owned in total), a mansion with seven grand pianos! The Nobel laureate political philosopher Friedrich von Hayek was his cousin on the maternal side. Ludwig was quiet and appeared to be less bright than his siblings. Consequently he was sent to a not particularly academic elementary school, the same one as Adolf Hitler, who was the same age. Like Hitler, he had quite a strict Catholic upbringing (his mother had converted from Judaism).

    Although he was probably always a ‘philosophical’ boy, his interests were always more practical than his more artistic siblings. Yet he did acquire influences in his early life that were to affect his later thought on language- principally the writer Karl Krauss and the architect Adolf Loos. Both these men advocated a form of sterilisation or cleanliness in their field, and viewed this as a moral project. That is, they viewed ornament and clutter as not only unnecessary, but wrong. Likewise, Wittgenstein endeavoured to clean up philosophy in line with what could be meaningfully proposed. He was also influenced by the ‘moral solipsism’ of Otto Weininger, who thought that one’s only duties are to oneself. This was a combination of non-cognitivist ethics with a highly individualistic view of the moral life, one without impartial prescriptions.i

    It did, however, look as though he was embarking on a career in engineering when he took a diploma in mechanics in Berlin in 1906, and in 1908 he was involved in research on aeroplane propellers at the Victoria University of Manchester, England. This research required him to study mathematics, which via reading both the work of Gottlob Frege, and Bertrand Russell and A. N. Whitehead’s then recently-published Principia Mathematica, lead to his work on the logical side of philosophy.

    Visiting the continent in the summer of 1911, Wittgenstein showed his work on logic to Frege, who thought that it was of little importance in itself but showed promise enough that he advised Wittgenstein to study under Bertrand Russell at Trinity College, Cambridge. He did so, turning up unannounced for the start of the Autumn term. Russell quickly recognised Wittgenstein’s genius and even halted his work on epistemology and logic because of the latter’s criticism and mastery. The friendship that endured between the two was so productive as to have a firm place in the history of philosophy. At Cambridge Wittgenstein also became a life-long friend of the monumental economist John Maynard-Keynes.

    On a visit to Wittgenstein in his Norwegian seclusion, Professor G. E. Moore advised him that his notes would be enough to grant him his BA Philosophy, but he found on returning that this was not the case (red-tape: he needed references and a preface). Wittgenstein did not get his degree and was very angry and depressed. Intense self-criticism and anxiety ran in his family: three of his four brothers committed suicide at young ages (he still had a brother –the famous one-handed concert pianist– Paul Wittgenstein, and two sisters). With the outbreak of war in 1914 he joined the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (fighting against Whitehead!- while Russell was imprisoned in Britain as a conscientious objector), applying his skill with mechanics to artillery.

    • Hi Peter Thanks for adding this and your other comments. Monks book is indeed extraordinary, and I had to try and just choose a few episodes to write about. Your own extensive notes really add a lot to my articles so thank you so much for spending the time to write them.

  4. Pingback: Culture Eats Ontology For Breakfast | Transition Consciousness·

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