As part of my project to learn about the lives of the greats, I recently finished reading Ray Monk’s excellent biography of Wittgenstein, entitled Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius.
First, a quite primer: Wittgenstein helped to usher philosophy into the twentieth century by dispelling the continental tradition and defining the role of analytic philosophy. He produced two monumental works in his lifetime: Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus, which he wrote in his twenties, and Philosophical Investigations, which he wrote in his forties and fifties. The Tractacus set the foundation for the analytic tradition by classifying most of what had been written about philosophy as nonsense. He set up a rigid doctrine for making sensible utterances based on adhering to basic logical truths (i.e. tautological propositions). He delineated a foundational scope of thought and science, and as for everything else, he famously wrote, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
Despite the massive influence this work had on the philosophical tradition, including the steering of the Vienna Circle and the logical positivism movement, in his later work Wittgenstein renounced the majority of the assertions in the Tractatus. His later work frames philosophy as primarily a linguistic challenge, breaking down many classic problems in the philosophy of mathematics and philosophy of psychology. One of his most notable ideas is that of “language games” – exercises that one performs to avoid the nonsensical and implicit beliefs that we attach to words, choosing instead to build language from the ground up. It is essentially what Less Wrongers call “rationalist taboo”, the game where one tries to explain one’s ideas without relying on heavily packed words (such as intelligence, complexity, morality).
Of course, my project is not to study more philosophy. As Wittgenstein said, philosophy is useless – people do it when they are compelled to do it because they are confused on some philosophical questions. He staunchly advocated that his disciples pursue careers other than academic philosophy. My goal in reading biographies and autobiographies is to learn about how people who accomplish great things live their lives day to day, and their attitudes towards their work and their progress.
Wittgenstein was famously spiritual, which was highly surprising for me (and to many that met him) given that he pioneered strict, formal philosophy. He was a religious Christian, or perhaps a Deist, his whole life, though he never agreed with Church doctrines. When he taught primary school in his thirties, he insisted on daily prayer and frequently read the Bible to his class. Part of the reason he broke ties with many of his fellow philosophers, notably Bertrand Russell, was that he was upset by their lack of faith. Wittgenstein strongly believed in purity of soul. He was close to suicide in his youth for fear that he would not live up to the standard of the genius he believed he possessed (two of his brothers committed suicide in their early twenties). In his later life, he delivered excruciating confessions to all who would listen, full of forgotten lies and inconsequential transgressions that haunted him.
His life was profound evidence that one’s sentiments and attitude can be completely disjoint from one’s intellectual beliefs and work. It is hard not to contrast him with Bertrand Russell, his first teacher, whose intense skepticism led him to campaign for his whole life for atheism and science. The two were inseparable for more than half a decade around 1910-1915, working in tandem on logic, while maintaining worldviews in such discord that they eventually broke ties for life. Wittgenstein, in fact, fought for the Central Powers in World War I, while Russell sacrificed much of his prestige and career in England to promote pacifism during World War II. Russell was practical, working tirelessly to usher modernism into the antiquated halls of Oxford. Wittgenstein was a perfectionist, and produced publishable material only through the tireless dedication of his peers.
Wittgenstein was also known for his dominating, uncompromising personality. He was fiercely stubborn, to the point of driving away most of his friends and even his most fanatically devoted disciples over time. He spoke his mind in the most detrimental circumstances. His biting remarks and fierceness profoundly upset and drove away, among others, Russell, G. E. Moore, and Keynes. He despised academic culture, especially at Oxford and Cambridge, and took up a brief professorship only when forced to get a British passport to escape the increasingly anti-Semitic Austria. Luckily for Wittgenstein, for most of his life there were people who, out of respect, were able to tolerate and take care of him. But there were periods where this was not the case, and he was deeply lonely.
A third notable aspect of his life is that Wittgenstein, while a worker of furious intensity at times, spent many years of his 62-year life away from philosophy. He trained as an engineer in college before approaching Russell with his philosophical ideas. He wrote much of the Tractatus while serving as an Austrian officer in World War I. After he published the Tractatus, he took off several years to teach primary school in rural villages in Austria. During World War II he served as an assistant in an army hospital in Britain and spent some time designing medical devices. In the later stages of his life, isolated in a rural part of Norway, he spent many months at a time simply gardening and performing housework duties. He never advocated a life of philosophy, and took the burden as a simple necessity of his way of thinking. The Tractatus was the only book on philosophy he published – Philosophical Investigation, the Brown Book, and the Blue Book were all assembled and published after his death. His duty to philosophy, and his extreme perfectionism, exhausted and strained him so much that it was simply not possible for him to work continuously throughout his life.
Certainly part of Wittgenstein’s perspective, lifestyle, his sense of duty, and his severe self-criticism were driven in part by his homosexuality and his Judaism in a time where both were so detrimental. Monk makes a strong case for the influence these factors had on him, especially given the perverse literature that he grew up with. But regardless, it is remarkable to see the incredible influence a great thinker can have, even despite a taxing, aggressive personality, a pervasive sense of purity and duty (along the lines of Haidt’s “third dimension” of emotion), and decades spent away from his area of expertise. Wittgenstein was simply so drawn to his work that he could not stay away for too long. Strange how such clearheaded philosophy can come from someone so moved by temper.