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Wittgenstein Books

Reviewed by Ralph Blumenau.

Ray MonkLudwig Wittgenstein – The Duty of Genius. Vintage Paperback edition 1991, 654 pp., £9.99 and Bruce DuffyThe World As I Found It. Penguin edition 1991, 547 pp., £6.99

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophical writings are very difficult, not only in content but also in presentation. He was always unhappy about committing his ideas to paper, and when he did so, he would set them down in a highly compressed form as numbered notes, sometimes in the form of aphorisms. He would then struggle for ages rearranging the notes, and was never really satisfied that they were ready for publication. When he sent the manuscript of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell, neither of these considerable intellects could understand it (which didn’t stop Russell from writing a foreword when it was eventually published.) So amateur students of philosophy like your reviewer might be excused for having had only a very imperfect grasp of his ideas, and indeed for having found books about Wittgenstein very hard work – until, that is, the appearance of Ray Monk’s magnificent biography. Its 650 pages are of course anything but compressed, and allow us to understand how Wittgenstein arrived at his conclusions. Monk writes beautifully, and he sets out the intellectual processes with the utmost clarity; but an additional and very special merit of this book is the skillful inter-weaving of Wittgenstein’s thought and his personality.

Wittgenstein was a tortured and difficult man: intense, introspective, uncompromising, ruthlessly honest with himself and with others. He was torn between his need for solitude (he stayed frequently and for long periods in a remote area of Norway and, towards the end of his life, of Ireland) and his need for philosophical discussion. There was within him an immense tension between logic and mysticism. He feared madness and was frequently uncertain about the value of philosophy: he gave it up altogether for a few years after the First World War and taught for six years at elementary schools in backward rural areas of Austria. In later life he was a practising but ashamed homosexual, and for this and other reasons often felt ‘indecent’ and suicidal. He found friendship and even elementary courtesies difficult unless there was a total identity of philosophical ideals. But his charisma was such that a number of people were devoted to him, forgave his often savage moods and harsh outbursts, and helped him: transcribing his ideas; securing him a Fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1930 and a Professorship in 1939; giving him a home in his last illness.

Monk handles with particular skill the transition between Wittgenstein’s two philosophies. The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus laid down the foundations of what would become Logical Positivism, though Wittgenstein felt, from his first contact with the Vienna School, where Logical Positivism originated, that his concerns were different from theirs. They were primarily concerned with the verification of propositions; but in the Tractatus Wittgenstein held that the only task for which philosophy was equipped was that of clarifying what we say by analysing the language we use. This means examining the logical structure of language, and in order to do this, we may need to go beyond traditional logic and employ mathematical or symbolic logic, on which subject Russell had already done important work. But at the end of the process we have not said anything about the validity of the propositions that have been clarified. Whether a proposition is true or false is not ascertained by logical deductions but by whether it pictures the world as it actually is. Religious, ethical or aesthetic propositions cannot, said Wittgenstein, picture the world as it is, and it is therefore not possible for such topics to be meaningfully discussed. Therefore, in the famous last sentence of the Tractatus: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”

The Vienna School and the Logical Positivists were perfectly happy to have the realm of philosophy thus circumscribed; they felt no regret about the exclusion of religion and ethics from meaningful philosophical discourse. But Wittgenstein did suffer from this loss, and felt that the Vienna School had misunderstood him. He had already told his publishers that what the Tractatus did not contain was more important than what it did contain. Even while working on it, he had been reading St Augustine, Kierkegaard and Heidegger; and they had led him to conclude that he would have to say more about those areas which he had felt forced to pass over in silence. Religious utterance could contain a truth and a meaning which did not depend on words having a very precise meaning, but on an understanding of how religious language is used; and this understanding is gained from the experience of living a religious life.

Indeed, in the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein shifted his attention from the relationship between meaning and truth to that between meaning and use, an idea somewhat in agreement with the approach of Wittgenstein’s contemporary at Cambridge, G.E.Moore. Language, in other words, is not a picture, but a tool; and it is the way we use it that shows the meaning we ascribe to it. “Don’t ask for the meaning; ask for the use”, Wittgenstein now proclaimed; that, he thought, would at last be “showing the fly a way out of the fly-bottle.” Though it is still descriptive rather than deductive, the task of philosophy is now to clarify the way words are used in different situations rather than to pin down the absolute meaning of a word to some unchanging fact in reality. To my mind it is a much richer and less arid philosophy than his earlier one; and Wittgenstein worked out all kinds of fascinating implications of his new insight: it enabled him to see, without recourse to Symbolic Logic, how, for example, music or humour or body language can be meaningful discourse which can be understood once you know how those particular languages are being used. The second philosophy is also much easier to understand than his first – so much so, in fact, that Russell accused him of having “grown tired of serious thinking”. It certainly resulted in building a bridge between the perceptions of the philosopher and the ‘common sense’ perceptions of the ordinary man: Wittgenstein, like G.E.Moore, thought that the ordinary man sometimes understands things better than the professional philosopher; and if in his earlier years it was the sheer abstruseness of his philosophy which made him doubt the value of what he was doing, he now worried about what at the end of the day might be the difference between philosophy and common sense. But in the end he did find a humble use for philosophy. He writes, “‘What we find out in philosophy is trivial; it does not teach us new facts, only science does that. But the proper synopsis of these trivialities is enormously difficult, and has immense importance. Philosophy is in fact the synopsis of trivialities.’ In philosophy we are not, like the scientist, building a house. Nor are we even laying the foundations of a house. We are merely ‘tidying up a room’”. (Monk, pp.298/299.)

In Bruce Duffy’s book we will not learn more about Wittgenstein’s philosophy than we do in Monk’s magisterial survey, nor does Duffy greatly add to Monk’s picture of Wittgenstein’s personality. But it is still a very great pleasure to read Duffy after Monk (or instead of Monk if the reader is not primarily interested in the philosophy.) Duffy states firmly in his Preface that his “is a work of fiction: it is not history, philosophy or biography, though it may seem at times to trespass on those domains.” He admits that he has taken some liberties with dates, and even that he has given Wittgenstein two sisters rather than three. On the other hand, one does recognize actual quotations from letters, as well as incidents which certainly did happen. When an author describes what type of book he is writing, it is not for a reviewer to say that he should have written a different type of book; but I must say that, whilst I do not regret that he has invented dialogue and thought processes, I found the mixture of distorted and actual facts a little unsettling, and, I venture to say, artistically unnecessary. Nevertheless, the book is very well written and immensely enjoyable. Although its title comes from a sentence in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and Wittgenstein is the central character of the book, Bertrand Russell and G.E.Moore figure in it as characters in their own right and of almost equal weight with Wittgenstein’s. So we have not only an imaginative filling out of the personality of Wittgenstein as we find it in Monk’s biography, but an equally vivid and well researched picture of the personalities and incidents in the lives of the other two philosophers. The backgrounds against which these lives are lived are beautifully described: the Vienna into which Wittgenstein was born; the oppressive atmosphere in the home of his immensely wealthy father; the horrific battlefields in Poland where Wittgenstein distinguished himself during the First World War; the coarse villagers whose children Wittgenstein taught in Austria; the spartan Norwegian settings; and then the introverted Cambridge of the Apostles. We are invited to Garsington and enter into the relationship between Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell. There is an excellent description of the atmosphere of the school at Beacon Hill in Sussex where Russell’s lofty educational theories rub shoulders with his seedy sexual antics. One of the special delights of Duffy’s book is how he brings alive the less well known third member of the trio, G.E.Moore – described as a mild, ungainly man who had little confidence in himself until he was, as it were, Surprised by Joy when he sank into the placid bliss of a happy marriage.

According to Duffy, Wittgenstein, too, was in the end Surprised by Joy. Duffy is exceptionally good on death scenes – not morbid or mawkish, but with the sense that a death is a moment of truth and tells us a good deal about the life that preceded it. Wittgenstein met his death of cancer with the honesty that he had always practised, and there were no regrets for his tormented past. This is how Duffy’s novel ends:

“Just before he died, Wittgenstein said to Mrs. Bevens, Tell everyone that I have had a wonderful life. Of course, it wasn’t like him to exaggerate, and his friends found it troubling that he would say this. To them, Wittgenstein’s life seemed many things, but not wonderful, and in the end they did not know if he had merely been trying to put them at ease or if in fact he had found his troubled life wonderful. But this, in any case, is what he said.”

© Ralph Blumenau 1993

Ralph Blumenau teaches philosophy at the University of the Third Age, in London

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