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Wittgenstein: A Wonderful Life

Tim Madigan on logic, language and mysticism in the life of one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century.

One of the foremost philosophers of the Twentieth Century and the scion of one of the wealthiest families in Austria, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) went to Cambridge in 1911 specifically to study with Bertrand Russell, the best-known logician of the time. At first a protégé of Russell’s, he later broke with him over the claim that mathematics can be firmly grounded in logic. The two for a time shared an interest in mysticism, but Russell seemed to ignore the underlying mystical nature of Wittgenstein’s first book, and the only one published in Wittgenstein’s lifetime, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), for which Russell wrote an introduction. Russell was not the only one so blinkered. The Vienna Circle movement likewise interpreted Wittgenstein’s work to be saying that all of nature could be reduced to propositions. “A proposition”, Wittgenstein wrote, “is a picture of reality. A proposition is a model of reality as we think it to be.” The Vienna Circle interpreted this to mean that all metaphysical statements were strictly nonsense, since to them they were non-propositional – and if any claim could not be expressed in terms that were verifiable, then such a claim is meaningless and should be ignored. Followers of this view became known as Logical Positivists, and credited their origin to Wittgenstein’s writings. A. J. Ayer, one of the Circle’s most prominent members, used this verification argument to show that all claims about God were meaningless, and could also thus be ignored. After all, Wittgenstein himself had written: “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”

Wittgenstein disappeared shortly after publishing the Tractatus. He felt he had solved all the problems of philosophy in this short work, and could move on to other pursuits, such as teaching elementary school, designing buildings, and working as a gardener for a monastery. But he was horrified to learn that his book was being used to justify a materialistic, even atheistic, philosophical movement. His thinking was that just because you could not express a concept did not mean the concept itself was nonsensical: it could simply be ineffable. He therefore left his worldly pursuits to return to philosophy, teaching for a time at Cambridge (becoming a professor in 1939), and subsequently repudiating much of what he had earlier written.

Russell was to say of Wittgenstein that he resembled Blaise Pascal, who had likewise abandoned mathematics for piety. There was a distinctive mystical air around Wittgenstein, and many of his students treated him like a guru. After his return to Cambrige he spent the remainder of his life pursuing the question of the role which language plays in human affairs and the limitations it places on expressing ideas. These observations were published posthumously as the Philosophical Investigations (1953). Later, several of his students’ notebooks and other dispersed and miscellaneous writings were published as well. This would have infuriated a man so careful with his views that he agonized over every word.

The question of Wittgenstein’s own religious beliefs, like so much else about him, remains a mystery. His paternal grandfather, the founder of the vast Wittgenstein fortune, was a convert from Judaism to Protestantism. This did not protect the Wittgenstein family in Vienna when the Nazis came to power. Wittgenstein’s brother Paul paid a huge sum of money to the Hitler regime to arrange for the safe escape of his sisters from Austria. Wittgenstein’s mother was Roman Catholic, and he himself was baptized in that faith. He manifested a strong ascetic streak throughout his life, as well as a proneness for depression. Three of his brothers committed suicide, and when Ludwig several times expressed the desire to end his life, his family took this desire seriously. Once, upon seeing Wittgenstein pacing the room in apparent agony, Russell jocularly asked him, “Are you thinking about logic or your sins?” to which Wittgenstein replied “Both.” While Wittgenstein seemed to have no conventional religious views, and was considered to be an atheist by some, he often expressed great sympathy for religious figures, particularly those of a contemplative nature. Although he was always loath to admit any influence upon him from previous philosophers, he did admit a fondness for certain aspects of Saint Augustine’s writings. It is also clear that he was familiar with Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, and seemed to agree with that atheist’s claim that human beings are metaphysical by nature.

Perhaps what most marked Wittgenstein’s character was his often-professed desire to be perfect. This high – indeed impossible – standard had a major impact upon all who came to know him. His tormented nature, his unceasing search for truth, his inability to suffer fools gladly, and his apparent lack of humor all attest to a modern-day mystic. He died of cancer in 1951. Surprisingly enough, given how unsatisfied he seemed with the mundane world around him, according to his friend Norman Malcolm his last words were: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life!”

© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2006

Tim Madigan is a US editor of Philosophy Now. He teaches philosophy at St John Fisher College in Rochester, NY.

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