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Ludwig Wittgenstein, Swansea, Wales, September 1947

“At the outbreak of World War I, Wittgenstein volunteered for the Austro-Hungarian army. His friend Pinsent enlisted with the British army and thus was on the opposing side. Wittgenstein volunteered not because he particularly believed in the cause of the German powers but because he felt it was his duty. As a Wittgenstein he could easily have become an officer, but he chose to remain in the ranks – an extremely dangerous decision… Throughout his service Wittgenstein continued to write down his philosophical ideas in notebooks. He was doing original philosophy, but he also remained constantly on the brink of suicide. Despite these distractions, Wittgenstein was an utterly fearless soldier, and his exemplary bravery won him two medals. (Among the soldiering philosophers, his only rival was Socrates.)

Wittgenstein was a parody of the driven personality. Characteristically he saw no reason to try to alleviate this condition by searching for its cause in his own psychological makeup. On the contrary, if only everyone were true to his nature, he thought, everyone could be like this. Wittgenstein rationalized his condition to himself by claiming that life was ‘an intellectual problem and a moral duty.’ The intellectual and moral aspects of his personality had so far remained distinct entities, each spurring the other on. It was only during the war that they fused.

World War One Trenches

Under constant intellectual pressure (from himself) and the persistent threat of death (from both the enemy and himself), Wittgenstein once again found himself in familiar territory, on the brink of insanity. One day, during a lull in the fighting in Galicia, he came across a bookshop. Here he found Tolstoy’s Gospels in Brief, which he bought for the simple reason that there was no other book in the shop. Wittgenstein had been against Christianity – he associated it with Vienna, his family, lack of a logical foundation, meek and mild behavior, and other anathemas. But reading through Tolstoy’s book was to bring the light of religion into Wittgenstein’s life. Within days he had become a convinced Christian – though his conversion had a distinctly Wittgensteinian tenor. With typical rigor he set about integrating his beliefs into his intellectual life.

Religious remarks now began appearing in the pages of his notebooks, alongside those on logic. And it soon becomes clear that these two topics have more than intellectual rigor in common. The spirit of one informs the other in compelling fashion. Even Wittgenstein’s religion had to assume a logical force and clarity: ‘I know that this world exists. That I am placed in it like an eye in its visual field.’ There was something problematic about the world, and this we call its meaning. But this meaning did not lie within the world, it lay outside it. ‘The meaning of life, i.e., the meaning of the world, we can call God.’ According to Wittgenstein, to pray was to think about the meaning of life. (Which meant that he had been praying all his life, even when he didn’t believe there was a God or meaning to life. Wittgenstein couldn’t bear to be wrong – ever.)…

World War: Parade through Ruins

In 1918 Wittgenstein was promoted to officer and transferred to the Italian front…

When Wittgenstein was taken prisoner by the Italians, he had in his rucksack the only manuscript of the philosophical work he had been writing throughout the war. This was eventually to be called Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and is the first great philosophical work of the modern era. Right from its opening sentences it becomes obvious that philosophy has entered a new stage.

‘1 The world is all that is the case’
‘1.1 The world is the totality of facts, not of things.’
One clear, ringing assertion follows another, linked by the absolute minimum of justification or argument:
‘1.13 The facts in logical space are the world.’
‘1.2 The world divides into facts.’
The book’s conclusion is even more memorable:
‘7 What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.’

Few others have altered the course of philosophy in quite so striking a fashion. Such succinct perspicacity is surpassed only by Socrates (‘Know thyself’), Descartes (‘I think, therefore I am’), and Nietzsche (‘God is dead’). In those parts where it is not too technical (in the logical sense), Wittgenstein’s Tractatus is the most exciting work of philosophy ever written.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein


From Paul Strathern’s entertaining biographical sketch Wittgenstein: Philosophy in an Hour.

On a somewhat random recommendation, I bought this short book ($1.99 on Amazon) and read it two nights ago. I had parsed some of Wittgenstein’s nearly impenetrable philosophy before and knew he’d been a pupil of Bertrand Russell, but my knowledge of the man extended barely beyond that. Now having read Strathern’s introduction to him, I’m convinced Wittgenstein is one of the more singular and compelling people of the 20th century.

Don’t take my word for it…

Russell called Wittgenstein, “The most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense, and dominating”.

John Maynard Keynes, after meeting with Wittgenstein at his arrival in Cambridge, wrote in a 1929 letter to his wife: “Well, God has arrived. I met him on the 5:15 train. He has a plan to stay in Cambridge permanently.”

Georg Henrik von Wright, Wittgenstein’s friend and colleague, claimed that, “He was of the opinion… that his ideas were generally misunderstood and distorted even by those who professed to be his disciples. He doubted he would be better understood in the future. He once said he felt as though he were writing for people who would think in a different way, breathe a different air of life, from that of present-day men.”

Rudolph Carnap, the German-born philosopher, noted about Wittgenstein that, “The impression he made on us was as if insight came to him as through divine inspiration, so that we could not help feeling that any sober rational comment of analysis of it would be a profanation.”

W.A. Hijab, a former pupil of Wittgenstein’s, said, “He was like an atomic bomb, a tornado — people don’t appreciate that.”

Sir Colin St. John Wilson is quoted in Autism and Creativity as saying, “[He was] a magician and had qualities of magic in his relations with people.”

I’ve cited Wittgenstein a half dozen times on this blog, and have directly quoted a passage from his Philosophical Investigations. Find that selection below:

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein on God and Belief