Exploring Wittgenstein: Transition

This article is Part 2 of my series on Wittgenstein and Ray Monk’s biography Ludwig Wittgenstein – The Duty of Genius from which most of the quotes from this article come. You may wish to read part one first – Exploring Wittgenstein: The Early Years.

In June of 1914 we find Wittgenstein planning a holiday with his English companion David Pinsent. The outbreak of war later that year would see the two separated, and Wittgenstein would never see Pinsent again, who died towards the end of the war in an accident. It is interesting to note how Bertrand Russell observed how many of the British in London seemed to be celebrating the oncoming conflict, with George Trevelyan and Alfred Whitehead North getting caught up in the enthusiasm and becoming “savagely warlike”. Although exempt from joining the army due to a rupture, Wittgenstein volunteered, but not out of a patriotic duty. His desire was to change himself. Now I have the chance to be a decent human being for I’m standing eye-to-eye with death” he wrote in his diaries.


It is quite remarkable to read of the trials and tribulations of a mind with such genius but also such turbulent depression. Wittgenstein could not stand the working class soldiers he joined, and of course in the winter months there were times when physical conditions were perishingly cold. It was not until March of 1916 that Wittgenstein received his wishes to be posted to the front lines, and so he prepared himself psychologically and spiritually for death. Wittgenstein also showed great bravery, constantly being shot at and staying at his look out post when he could have withdrawn, and he was awarded one of the top honours for a soldier. There were many times when he felt unable to do his philosophical work, but as he moved from one position to another, in these dire conditions he managed to write Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Monk notes that this interesting section stands out from Wittgenstein’s treatment on logic, his observations on the “modern view of the world”:

6.371 At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.

6.372 So people stop short at natural laws as at something unassailable, as did the ancients at God and Fate. And they both are right and wrong. But the ancients were clearer, in so far as they recognized one clear conclusion, whereas in the modern system it should appear as though everything were explained.

After many rejections, the Tractatus would not eventually find a publisher until 1921, a task not exactly helped with Wittgenstein’s claim that the most important aspects of his work were what was not said. Wittgenstein had been convinced he would find a publisher quickly as he saw his work as providing “a definitive and unassailably true solution to the problem of philosophy.” However, while many ethical and religious truths could not be said, they did manifest themselves in life”

The solution to the problem of life is to be seen in the disappearance of the problem. Isn’t this the reason why men to whom the meaning of life had become clear after long doubting could not say what this meaning consisted in?

Monk writes that

Just as to understand logical form one must see language as a whole, so, to understand ethics, one must see the world as a whole. When one tries to explain what one sees from such a view, one talks nonsense.

We shall come back to the philosophy shortly, but as we are mainly talking about Wittgenstein’s great transitional period, we need to mention his three years following the war where he qualified as a teacher and left the comforts of life in the city to teach primary school children in rural Austria.

Wittgenstein and school children

Wittgenstein’s aims it seems was not to improve their external conditions but to develop their inner selves, and this would be done by giving these unsuspecting humble children a thorough grounding in mathematics, the great classics of the German language and study of the Bible. As you will recall from my previous article, Wittgenstein in a matter of months before the war had given away all of his monumental inherited wealth to his siblings, and he refused to received financial help from anyone, with his desire only to receive money from genuine work. However, can you imagine this aristocratic and often suicidal and tormented person suddenly turing up to a tiny village school in the mountains, and imposing on his pupils impossibly high expectations and standards of achievement?

Wittgenstein may have had an over idealised concept of hat he would expect, but in a short period of time he would be describing the people there as “not human at all but loathsome worms” and “not really people at all, more one quarter animal and three-quarters human.” On the other hand, parents seemed to be right anxious and questioned the motives of this mad man who had come to teach their children, many, including girls, who suffered from the corporal punishments dished out from an impossible Wittgenstein frustrated when they failed to understand his attempts to teach algebra and logic.After three years, Wittgenstein perhaps inflicted a slap too forceful on one unlucky boy who then passed out. Wittgenstein disappeared quickly, never to return, and although he was cleared of any blame in a small trial, this episode and his moral failings would weight heavily on his mind for the next ten years.

Henri Bortoft at Schumacher College

Henri Bortoft at Schumacher College

Following these wilderness years, Wittgenstein would eventually be persuaded to return to Cambridge University, and allowed to submit Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus as his PhD thesis. He had been through a most remarkable personal transition, and on his return to Cambridge he noted how it seemed to have been trapped as he had left it in the pre-war years. But there is also a transition in Wittgenstein’s philosophy too, and to examine this I would now like to look at a footnote in Henri Bortoft’s The Wholeness of Nature Goethe’s Way of Science. As I know many of you know, I was taught by Henri in 2009, and this classic work of his is so immense (not in length but in content), that since finishing my own masters degree I am now working through the footnotes, and have come to Wittgenstein. In footnote 281 Henri writes that:

What has now become clear is that Wittgenstein’s transition to a new approach was a result of his encounter with Goethe… From that first encounter Wittgenstein went on enthusiastically to embrace Goethe’s morphological approach as is exemplified in The Metamorphosis of Plants. He followed this in his own investigation of language, and he grasped the key point that this did not provide an alternative theory, but the means to escape from any need for a theory. the “understanding that consists in seeing connections” replaces theory and explanation, and this is why many (including Bertrand Russell, for example) who had been filled with admiration for his earlier work could not follow his later work and considered it to be trivial… What is important is that about his way is that it introduced a new method into philosophy based explicitly on Goethe’s way of seeing, and it is this way of seeing that replaces metaphysics… What is particularly remarkable is that this is not just a matter of an alternative in an intellectual sense, but entails the concrete experience of a new kind of seeing.

It is important to note that Henri did not consider Wittgenstein to have fully understand Goethe, in that Goethe was not offering an alternative to science, but in fact a new kind of science to mainstream science. This was Henri’s aim for his book The Wholeness of Nature, to to show that Goethe did offer an alternative to metaphysics which was not at the same time an alternative to science, but an expansion of it. if you can understand that Wittgenstein, like Goethe are entering into a different way of seeing, you can then understand why the vast majority of his contemporaries could not comprehend his work, but why people like Maria feel more than able to connect with his movement of thinking (see Part One).

Studying the dynamic growth of the tree with Margaret Colquhoun at Schumacher College

Studying the dynamic growth of the tree with Margaret Colquhoun at Schumacher College

At Schumacher College where I studied for my masters degree, as well as studying economics from an ecological perspective, and chaos and complexity theory, we also study Goethe’s way of science. While Henri taught the philosophy of Goethe (as well as hermeneutics and phenomenology) the emphasis is also on the practical and experiential side of science, and we were also taught by Goethian scientist Margaret Colquhoun who really took us deep into Goethe’s way of seeing the dynamics of organic plants. This way of seeing is fundamental and as I hope I have showed in this article, is applicable to all dynamic phenomena in life, be it plants or language, colour or architecture. Once this way of seeing has been entered into, it therefore fundamentally changes our whole experience of dialogue, true dialogue of which I have been writing about recently. This is why philosophical investigations of this kind are so important. If we do not know that it is possible to see differently, and enter into a different way of seeing, how can we ever see differently ourselves? This way of seeing goes way beyond words, so maybe Wittgenstein was right. We must focus on our own inner transitions, and the rest will follow.

Related Articles

Exploring Wittgenstein: The Early Years

Encountering Henri Bortoft

A Sense of Place: Pishwanton (Margaret Colquhoun’s Goethian Science centre).

6 responses to “Exploring Wittgenstein: Transition

  1. Pingback: Exploring Wittgenstein: The Early Years | Transition Consciousness·

  2. I wasn’t aware there was such a thing as Goethian philosophy or science. He didn’t found these himself presumably, they have been extrapolated from the thrust of his poetry by others?

  3. Here are some more of my own notes on Wittgenstein’s life:

    Wittgenstein’s journal from war-time shows he always knew his side would lose, but he wrongly expected to die early on –and did not seem troubled by this prospect– on his first glimpse of the enemy he wrote: “Now I have the chance to be a decent human being for I am standing eye to eye with death.”

    Having successfully requested a move to the front line in 1916 he won medals for bravery and was made an officer. Finding solace in Leo Tolstoy’s ‘The Gospel In Brief’, he became more interested in religion and ethics and applied his thought on logic to these areas. In 1918 his regiment was captured by the Italian army (who had then changed sides, as always) so the final touches to the Tractatus were made as a prisoner of war.

    Even when the book was published with Russell’s help in 1922 he received no royalties. Not, of course, that this mattered, as he had become a millionaire by his inheritance from his father in 1913. He was especially lucky because his father had shrewdly pulled out of the Austrian steel industry and invested his fortune in the markets of the Allied countries. With the money Wittgenstein immediately made generous donations to struggling artists in Vienna and later gave everything to his sisters, determined that he should live on only what he had earned himself, perhaps as a reflection of traditional Christian beliefs about usury.

    After his stint as an elementary school teacher ended in disgrace, he spent much of the next two years designing a house in Vienna for his sister Gretl, inspired by the architecture of Adolf Loos. In 1929 after conversations with Frank Ramsey and others about potential problems with the Tractatus (members of the Vienna Circle famously misinterpreted it as a manifesto for a scientistic philosophy where anything non-scientific should be dismissed as pointless) Wittgenstein decided to return to Cambridge. He was quickly admitted to the philosophy faculty of Trinity College and to his horror he was met by a crowd of England’s greatest intellectuals. John Maynard-Keynes, in a letter to his wife, wrote: “Well, God has arrived. I met him on the 5.15 train.”

    Wittgenstein soon began to depart further from his early philosophy than he intended to; the first realisation pertained to his work on colour. If one point was a particular colour at a particular time, how could it be that we can meaningly assert to each other that a particular point is two different colours if the facts of the world cannot exclude one another and the only meaningful language is that which corresponds with the structure of the world? A second was an encounter with the Italian Marxist Piero Sraffa, who convinced him that gestures can be meaningful although they may not have the same logical form as that which they describe.

  4. Monk’s biography has the virtue of pointing out the otherwise little recognized influence of Otto Weininger on Wittgenstein’s thought, but I think the biography by Brian McGuinness is better and more deeply researched.

    Best wishes,


  5. Pingback: What can Gadamer and Wittgenstein teach us about Big Data? | Transition Consciousness·

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

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