Wittgenstein, bewitched

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.

.. 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).

.. During the war he worked on the book that was to become the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the only philosophical book he published in his lifetime (it was published in German in 1921 and the English translation appeared in 1922). Believing that this short and lapidary work had solved the remaining problems of philosophy, Wittgenstein abandoned the subject and trained as a primary schoolteacher in Vienna.

.. He left his teaching post under something of a cloud – he had hit one of his pupils so hard that she lost consciousness ..

..  One of the examiners, G. E. Moore, wrote in his report, “It is my personal opinion that Mr Wittgenstein’s thesis is a work of genius but, even if it is not, it is well above the standard required for the Cambridge degree of Doctor of Philosophy”.

.. All testify to the sheer force of Wittgenstein’s personality.

.. . As in many of these pieces, one thing that comes across in Malcolm’s memoir is how incredibly difficult Wittgenstein was. “It was always a strain to be with Wittgenstein”, Malcolm writes; “not only were the intellectual demands of his conversation very great, but there was also his severity, his ruthless judgements, his tendency to be censorious, and his depression.” Von Wright concurs: “each conversation with Wittgenstein was living through the day of judgement. It was terrible”. Wittgenstein’s dismissal of other philosophers was well known. He once remarked to Leavis that G. E. Moore “shows how far a man can go who has absolutely no intelligence whatever”. Fania Pascal, a Ukrainian Jewish émigrée who lived in Cambridge and taught Wittgenstein Russian, comments in her memoir that “Wittgenstein had a great capacity to wound” but “he could not possibly be aware of the harshness, amounting to cruelty, with which he hit out, never pulling his punches. Nor would he know the fear he inspired in people”.

..  “The real discovery”, he writes, “is the one that makes me capable of stopping doing philosophy when I want to. The one which brings philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself into question.” The proper way to deal with such “torment” is to undergo a kind of therapy; and it is this therapeutic conception of philosophy which is sometimes seen as one of Wittgenstein’s principal intellectual legacies. Philosophy is not a straightforwardly intellectual endeavour in pursuit of the truth, but a struggle with the confusions that our language and thinking throw up. It is comparable to the treatment of an intellectual “disease”; or, in one of Wittgenstein’s famous phrases, philosophy is a battle against the “bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language”.

..  the only real achievement in philosophy is to show how you no longer need it.

.. Wittgenstein himself would tell people – even with something that seemed like pride – how few of the great philosophers of the past he had read. “Wittgenstein assured me (laughing) that no assistant lecturer in philosophy in the country had read fewer books on philosophy than he had” ..

.. the fundamentally Romantic conception of philosophy at its heart – that of a personal struggle, demanding a kind of therapy against the perversion of the intellect by language – ignores by its very nature the historical conditions that bring philosophy into being.