“Whenever I thought of you I couldn’t help thinking of a particular incident which seemed to me very important. You & I were walking along the river towards the railway bridge & we had a heated discussion in which you made a remark about ‘national character’ that shocked me by its primitiveness. I then thought: what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious than any… journalist in the use of the dangerous phrases such people use for their own ends. You see, I know it’s difficult to think well about ‘certainty’, ‘probability’, ‘perception’, etc. But it is, if possible, still more difficult to think, or try to think, really honestly about your life & other peoples lives. And the trouble is that thinking about these things is not thrilling, but often downright nasty. And when it’s nasty then it’s most important…”
Ludwig Wittgenstein, writing in a note to his friend Norman Malcolm on November 16th, 1944. You’ll find it in Malcolm’s Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir as well as Wittgenstein in Cambridge: Letters and Documents 1911-1951.
The context of this note, which can be found in Malcolm’s intimate biography of his Cambridge advisor, is rooted in a casual interaction between the men which had taken place five years earlier, in 1939. That autumn, Malcolm and Wittgenstein were walking along the Cam river when they saw a newspaper vendor’s sign plastered with the headline “Germans accuse Brits of trying to assassinate Hitler!”. Wittgenstein shrugged, saying he wouldn’t be surprised if the accusation were true. Malcolm bristled, claiming such a scheme would be against the “national character” of England. “The British [are] too civilized and decent to attempt anything so underhand,” he remarked. Even years later, Wittgenstein thought the remark an enormous betrayal of logic which, to his mind, we owe loyalty above all else — especially something as dubious as nationalism.
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