You might have heard of Ludwig Wittgenstein, but then, like me, you might not have. Lo lament the ignorant souls of the Twitter age!
Anyway, you probably have heard of Bertrand Russell. Russell is a scion of British highbrow goings on; a philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist and indeed a Nobel laureate. You don’t get the sense that Russell would have lost much sleep over his GCSEs. But then given the grade inflation and dumbing down of GCSEs, courtesy of commercially minded modern day exam boards, GCSEs are not what they once were. Cs are today’s Bs, Bs today’s As. Or so we’re lead to believe by the more wet-lipped of the mainstream press.
Russell, though, had heard of Wittgenstein.
That is because on the 18th October 1911, as Russell took tea in his rooms in Trinity College, Cambridge, Wittgenstein knocked on his door and announced that he would like to sign up for lectures. No UCAS form or sticky personal mission statement for Wittgenstein, leaving many a sixth form careers adviser spitting Duke of Edinburgh awards. Russell agreed. Soon Wittgenstein was not only attending his lectures, but dominating them. That not many students bothered to attend Russell’s lectures was not the point. Russell was to later describe Wittgenstein as “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense and dominating.” Words today that are more likely used to describe Christian Grey. He of a bit of slap and tickle with a rubber hose in the garden shed, fame.
How times change.
Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in Austria. His father, Karl Otto, was an industrial tycoon and one of Europe’s wealthiest men. He was also, by the sound of things, a complete bastard. His mother was not, she was a lovely lady, born a Bohemian Jew. Her side of the family were a bit more friendly; indeed she was the aunt of Friedrich Hayek another clever man best known for his lucid defense of classical liberalism. Wittgenstein, our Ludwig, was born on 26th April 1889, the same year Preston North End beat Wolves in the F.A Cup, completing the double no less.
Ludwig was one of nine.
Karl Otto though, was not a pleasant man. He was rich, but cruel. A disciplinarian. He deplored contemporary music. You can assume he wanted his sons to grow up like him. Which he did. He wanted them to be titans of industry and were held back from school lest they pick up bad habits. For Ludwig and his brothers there would be no whoopee cushions on the teacher’s chair. They were educated at home to prepare them for running Karl Otto’s empire. It was a tense household, Ludwig’s mother being unable to stand up to her husband. His brother, Hans was by all accounts a musical prodigy who, aged five, had a public meltdown at a carnival because two brass bands played the same tune in different keys. As you do. Hans later ran away to America and jumped off a boat in Chesapeake Bay and drowned. Ludwig’s elder brother Rudi also committed suicide. He walked into a bar in Berlin and asked the band to play Thomas Koschat’s Verlassen, Verlassen, Verlassen, before taking to a corner booth where he mixed himself a cocktail of milk and potassium cyanide. And, curtains. Ludwig’s other brother Kurt, also sadly shot himself at the end of World War I, when his troops refused to obey his orders. Karl Otto was perhaps a lesson for all fathers to chill their onions and let their children find their own way.
It was whilst Wittgenstein was studying mechanical engineering at the Technical University of Berlin that he started getting hot for mathematics, specifically logic. He was, he wrote in his diary, in a near “constant, indescribable, almost pathological state of agitation”. Mathematics not being the most obvious place to turn to in such a state, unless perhaps you happen to be a genius. If you turn to five pints and a curry to take the sting out of one’s agitation, you can take comfort from the fact – if it was not obvious – you are unlikely to be a genius. You are thus less likely to have depression, albeit you will need toil for many years in an office in order to pay off the mortgage. You are also unlikely to win a Nobel Prize. Still, swings and roundabouts.
It was by embracing logic that Wittgenstein ended up knocking on Russell’s door.
As with many a genius, Russell first thought Wittgenstein was a nut job. In an early lecture Wittgenstein argued that all existential propositions were meaningless. This happened in a lecture room. Russell stroked his moustache and asked Wittgenstein to consider the proposition that there was no hippopotamus in the room. Wittgenstein refused to agree. So Russell looked under all the desks and announced that he could not find one. Wittgenstein shook his head, and remained unconvinced. So that’s cleared that up then. Suffice to say, were we in the lecture, you and I would have been well into the Sun crossword by the time they finished their intellectual pow-wow. 6 down, 5 letters – Davina McCall’s eldest child.
Karl Otto curled up his cold fingers for the last time on 13th January 1913 and with one final rasping breath, Ludwig became one of the wealthiest men in Europe. As you might expect, he started giving it away to Austrian artist and writers. He then retreated to Norway. He rented a small house in Skjolden for the winter and started getting into the thick weeds of some philosophical questions. It was a productive period, the outcome was Logik, as you might suss, a book that is to be found down at the chewy end of the book shelf.
On the outbreak of World War I Wittgenstein signed up, full bore, for the Austro-Hungarian army. He soon found himself on the front line, covered in mud, fighting tooth and claw against the Russians. Wittgenstein soon won the admiration of the troops by taking up position in an observation post in no man’s land and unloading his ammunition on the Allied troops. He was noted for his courage and sang-froid. Medals got pinned to his breast. For his part in the final Austrian offensive in June 1918 he was recommended for the Gold Medal of Valour, one of the highest honours in the Austrian army. He spent the war with Leo Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief recommending it to anyone in distress and became known amongst his fellow soldiers as the “man with the gospels.”
In the summer of 1918 he took leave of the army and rolled out his sleeping bag in one of his Summer houses and penned Tractatus, a philosophical work that aimed to identify the relationship between language and reality, and to define the limits of science. If you are yawning, stop it. Tractatus is widely recognized as one of the most significant philosophical works of the twentieth century.
After the war Wittgenstein trained to be a teacher. He spent a summer working as a gardener in a monastery and eventually got a job in a school in a remote village. He soon took the title of village odd ball. The students though, as is often the case, loved him. His sister wrote that his pupils “literally crawled over each other in their desire to be chosen for answers or demonstrations”. If you were thick, though, he was a tyrant. And not averse to yelling, caning, boxing ears and pulling hair. Violence aside he was held up as a village legend. He would yell “krautsalat” whenever the headmaster played the piano to the delight of the pupils. Krautsalat, as you might guess, means coleslaw. Hero.
Or not. Wittgenstein left teaching after punching a pupil who then collapsed unconscious. Wittgenstein fled the village. He later returned to hand in his resignation and in a turn on modern day teaching regulations, the headmaster tried to persuade Wittgenstein to stay. He didn’t. His teaching days were done and Wittgenstein returned to Vienna. By now Tractatus had been published to international acclaim and Wittgenstein was a man to have at your dinner party. Only Wittgenstein didn’t care much for dinner parties and looked into becoming a monk. He didn’t don the robes but worked in the gardens a bit, before being persuaded by friends to return to Cambridge to turn the collar down on a PhD. John Maynard Keynes wrote in a letter to his wife “Well, God has arrived. I met him on the 5.15pm train”.
Ironically, Wittgenstein couldn’t work at Cambridge as he didn’t have a degree. His previous residency was though sufficient to fulfill the eligibility requirements for a PhD and it was suggested that he submit Tractatus as his thesis, which was examined by Russell and the distinguished philosopher G.E. Moore. At the end of his thesis defence Wittgenstein clapped his examiners on the shoulder, and showing the sort of chutzpah not recommended by nervy sixth form careers advisers, said “don’t worry, I know you’ll never understand.” Moore wrote it was a work of genius and Wittgenstein was quickly made a Fellow of Trinity College.
Wittgenstein was teaching at Cambridge when World War II broke out. Unable to tolerate the thought of doing nothing, he got a manual job at Guy’s Hospital in London as a dispensary porter, delivering drugs from the pharmacy to the ward where he would then advise patients not to take them. Staff were not told that the man pushing the trolley around was one of the world’s most famous philosophers. To them he was plain Ludwig.
Wittgenstein resigned from Cambridge in 1948 to concentrate on writing and spent some time in Ireland and the US. Shortly after returning to London he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He died the day after his sixty second birthday on the 28th April 1951 leaving a voluminous archive of unpublished papers. Wittgenstein’s influence has been felt in almost every field of humanities and social sciences since.
So that’s Ludwig Wittgenstein then.
Now you know.
“Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits.” – Wittgenstein, Tractatus.
Time for a gin.