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Philosophy Then

Wittgenstein & The War

Peter Adamson says one good thing came out of WW1.

World War One has a lot to answer for, including World War Two – or at least that’s what I was taught in school. Paradoxically, given its transformative effects, I was also taught in school that World War One was pointless. Our image of that war is of literally entrenched soldiers perishing in droves as the battle lines refuse to budge. Yet at least one worthwhile thing did emerge from this tragic conflict: Ludwig Wittgenstein’s first book, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, which was composed during the war while its author was serving in the Austrian army and then detained as a prisoner of war in Italy.

Wittgenstein was one of the many Europeans who greeted the outbreak of war with excitement as well as trepidation. He wrote in one of the notebooks he kept during the war that “only death gives life its meaning.” Accordingly, he welcomed the opportunity to look death in the face. He voluntarily enlisted in his native country’s armed forces in 1914, but it was only after two years as a soldier that Wittgenstein would see front line service. He volunteered for the most dangerous possible duty: being stationed at an observation post at the front edge of the Austrian line in no man’s land, with shells crashing around him through the night. In his notebooks he chastized himself for the terror he felt: to fear death comes from a “false view of life.”

Whatever fear he felt within, his outward conduct could not have been more courageous. He was awarded several medals and promoted to the officer class by the end of the war. At the end of 1918 he was captured and placed in Italian prisoner of war camps until the summer of 1919. Here he wrote about philosophy, as he had done during lulls in military action. The result was the Tractatus.

Wittgenstein grew up in Vienna, the son of a fabulously wealthy steel magnate. To give you some idea of the circles in which his family moved, while he was at the prisoner-of-war camp a fellow detainee heard Ludwig refer casually to the fact that Gustav Klimt had painted his sister, and only then realized that this must be one of the famous Wittgensteins. However, Ludwig’s family was beset by psychological troubles: two of his brothers killed themselves before the war, another during it, and Ludwig himself frequently contemplated suicide. But the Wittgensteins were also a prodigiously talented family, especially musically. His brother Paul lost his arm in the war, but was still able to pursue a concert career playing pieces written for the left hand alone. As for Ludwig, he went abroad to study engineering in Manchester, but his interest in mathematics led him to Cambridge in 1911.

Wittgenstein went to Cambridge on the advice of Gottlob Frege, and once there he met Bertrand Russell. Frege and Russell were themselves great philosophers, both engaged in ambitious projects devoted to the relationship between mathematics and logic. Wittgenstein at first impressed Russell, then began to argue with him, and finally went on to surpass him, producing new ideas about logic, language, and philosophy more generally. Wittgenstein concluded with despair that Russell would never grasp what he was trying to say. His wartime notebooks and correspondence with Russell and others constantly lament that even if he should survive the war and manage to publish the theories that would eventually be set down in the Tractatus, his work might still come to nothing, since no one would be able to grasp its importance.

Given that even Frege and Russell had a hard time getting Wittgenstein’s ideas straight, I don’t have much hope of explaining them in this short space, but here’s a taste of the sort of thing he wanted to say. In the Tractatus, he argued that if we analyze our everyday language we discover underpinning it a set of propositions that describe reality. The simplest propositions express what Wittgenstein called ‘facts’: for instance, the proposition ‘the giraffe is tall’ just represents the fact that the giraffe is tall. Departing from Russell’s ideas of how propositions like this work, Wittgenstein went on to argue that these basic propositions are like ‘logical pictures’ of reality: the logical structure of the proposition is supposed to ‘show’ the logical structure of reality. Finally, the facts pictured in these simple propositions always deal with physical reality. That is to say, they express things we can learn empirically, in other words by going out into the world and looking around it, or more ambitiously, by engaging in natural science. As Wittgenstein admitted towards the end of the Tractatus, this means that the most important things in life – abstractions such as morality and beauty – cannot be shown in language. From his beginning the Tractatus’s philosophical project in technical issues about logic and language, Wittgenstein ends it in a kind of mysticism, dismissing the theory of the Tractatus itself as a ladder that must be thrown away once one has climbed up it. The book finishes with the famous line, “That whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.”

Did the First World War influence the ideas of the Tractatus? A positive answer to that question is given by Ray Monk, the author of an entertaining and philosophically rich biography of Wittgenstein. He points out that wartime experience seems to have pushed Wittgenstein to broaden his philosophical interests beyond mathematics, logic, and language, to the whole range of topics traditionally studied by philosophy. As Monk puts it, “if Wittgenstein had spent the entire war behind the lines, the Tractatus would have remained what it almost certainly was in its first inception of 1915: a treatise on the nature of logic.” It’s somehow appropriate that a war that has so often been deemed meaningless pushed Wittgenstein to write a philosophical work that rigorously defines the very boundary between what does, and does not, have meaning.

© Prof. Peter Adamson 2018

Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1, 2 & 3, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.

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