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10 thoughts on “Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius

  1. Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont Anastasia Fitzgerald-Beaumont says:

    Portrait of the Thinker as a Man

    If you want to understand Ludwig Wittgenstein, the thinker and the man, turn to the very last page of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the only philosophical work published in his lifetime. There you will find in all of its gnomic beauty one of the best remembered and most quoted propositions of all: Whereof we cannot speak thereof we must be silent.

    That’s just the thing: he wasn’t silent. Most of his life after the publication of the Tractatus was a pursuit of the very things that could not be touched on in a work of uncompromising logic, whether it be the nature of language, the way language is used in practical terms, the nature of thought, of ethics, of psychology, of the relationship of philosophy to the wider world of human experience.

    “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him”, he wrote in the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations. Wittgenstein spoke. Most who followed, particularly the Vienna School of Logical Positivists, which had as good a claim as any to be the apostles of the text, could not understand him.

    Bertrand Russell, who wrote a preface for the Tractatus, could not understand his brilliant protégée. The truly remarkable thing is that when the two met at Cambridge before the First World War Wittgenstein was a novice, Russell a mature and respected professor of philosophy, the author with A. N. Whitehead of Principia Mathematica, a seminal work of mathematical logic.

    But Wittgenstein quickly established complete intellectual dominance, so much so that by 1912 Russell told his sister that he expected the next big step in philosophy to be taken by her brother. It’s salutary to remember that he was still only a twenty-three-year old undergraduate!

    Ray Monk understands the man, the thought and the life in thought, enough to write Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. I came to this lately, in the paperback edition, determined to get to grips with one of the great thinkers of the last century.

    He is one of the people I have long admired for his clarity of expression, for those parts of his work that are accessible to me, those parts that are not too deep in an ethereal and mathematical mode of expression. Admired, yes, but from afar, like some intimidating demigod. Monk has brought me far closer to the man in what is a surprisingly readable and at points gripping biography.

    Surprising? It’s just that I did not expect so difficult a thinker to be reducible to such ordinary human terms. This is the key, in fact, to this book: in its own brilliant and lucid way it humanises the idol, if that makes sense, painting a detailed and comprehensive portrait. Monk has a commendable grasp of the material to hand, quoting liberally from letters, diaries, notebooks and interviews, coming close to understanding the thinker as a whole. There is Wittgenstein, uncompromising in his self-critical brilliance, relentless in the pursuit of ideas and of people, full of self-assurance at some points, and at others full of the most crushing and debilitating forms of self-doubt.

    As usual, given that this is the paperback edition, the cover is replete with laudatory praise. I have no argument here; it’s richly deserved. It is, as the Observer says, a book that is much to be recommended. The Guardian adds that Monk’s biography is deeply intelligent and generous to the ordinary reader, statements with which I fully concur. But the reviewer goes that one step further, saying that it’s a beautiful portrait of a beautiful life. Hmm…a beautiful portrait? Well, yes. I suppose, though I think the expression just a tad hyperbolic. But was it a ‘beautiful life’? I’m not sure. It was an important one, yes, but that’s quite different.

    Ecce homo; behold in whole. The fact is the more I delved into the thinker the less I began to like the man. He was far too intense, far too opinionated, far too wearing. This is genius, and supposedly everything is excused, all normal standards suspended. But I still came away with a feeling that, for all his brilliance, this was a man better not to know; better for some of the less able children in the Austrian elementary schools he taught not to know; better not to know a man rather too free with his fists.

    He was a huge influence on the young men who came his way, turning some away from academic philosophy and Cambridge, both of which he paradoxically despised, towards more ‘practical’ endeavours. He embraced a kind of Tolstoyan view of life, encouraging others to work alongside ‘ordinary’ people in preference to academia. I could not help but feel that Francis Skinner, a brilliant mathematical scholar, Wittgenstein’s disciple and sometimes lover, might have been happier if he had never met him. In his pursuit of a bogus authenticity he went to work in screw factory at the behest of his mentor, a place where he was deeply unhappy. Earlier on he and Skinner had planed to go to Soviet Russia in the mid-1930s to work as labourers. Fortunately for them, at least fortunately for Skinner, the harebrained project failed to mature.

    I suppose it’s another measure of Monk’s skill as a biographer that he gives us a cogent warts and all portrait. I’m probably far too conscious of the warts, but it’s comforting to see that while Wittgenstein could be a mystic he was no saint! He is a man whom I would both loved and hated to have known, with the latter perhaps now a little more pronounced than the former. If I had met him I would have one question to ask: who could anyone, least of all a man with your degree of insight and sensitivity, have been taken in by Otto Weiniger’s bizarre, misogynist and self-hating monograph Sex and Character? It’s complete trash! I’m glad to say that Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius is not. Rather, in itself, it’s a biography of genius.


  2. howl of minerva howl of minerva says:

    Most surprising for me was the religious-mystical-spiritual thread that runs through Wittgenstein’s life and work. He was very far from the coldly rational uber-logician that he’s often presented as being. As his friend Drury put it: commentators have made it appear that Wittgenstein’s writings ‘were now easily assimilable into the very intellectual milieu they were largely a warning against’. He’s talking of course of the Vienna Circle, technical analytic philosophy, logical positivism…

    A few quotations:

    “My whole tendency and I believe the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk on Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language. This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics… can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it.” p277

    “I am honestly disgusted with […] a kind of idol worship, the idol being Science and the Scientist.” p405

    One can imagine the contempt he would have had for the likes of Dawkins and Sam Harris…

    “An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it really is possible to walk on it.” p464

    “It isn’t absurd, e.g., to believe that the age of science and technology is the beginning of the end for humanity; that the idea of great progress is a delusion, along with the idea that the truth will ultimately be known; that there is nothing good or desirable about scientific knowledge and that mankind, in seeking it, is falling into a trap. It is by no means obvious that this is not how things are.” p485

    Wonderfully:

    “A picture that intruded upon him, he wrote, was of our civilization, ‘cheaply wrapped in cellophane, and isolated from everything great, from God, as it were’.” p489

    And a personal favourite that gives some insight into Wittgenstein's sense of humour:

    "I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again ‘I know that that’s a tree’, pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell them: ‘This fellow isn’t insane. We are only doing philosophy.’" p578


  3. Jimmy Jimmy says:

    A book that illuminates Wittgenstein’s ideas by showing us his life. Alternately, it illuminates his life by showing us his ideas. Flip-flop, mish-mosh, two sides of the same coin. His ideas grew organically from his life, in the same way that his Picture Theory claims that a picture is not a mental representation of a fact but is a fact itself, so that understanding comes immediately from seeing (not through abstraction and representation). This method of illumination works more for Wittgenstein than it would for other philosophers because for Wittgenstein, philosophy was not a mere game (perhaps that’s one of the reasons he despised academic philosophers so much, and called them un-serious), philosophy was a way of living and thinking rightly in the real world, by stripping oneself of all the comforts of illusion. If it didn’t do that (and he doubted if it did many times) then what good was it? Perhaps that's why he was intent on destroying philosophy as it was known then, uprooting it from its illusions of logic by exposing it to the sun. In life too, he was obsessed with questions of honesty and self deception, and tortured himself terribly over moral questions.

    At times he seemed less like a philosopher and more like a religious figure with his ascetic lifestyle and exacting standards for his inner life. At other times, he was more like an artist with his severe judgements and social outbursts, and his tendency for perfectionism in his writings. Obviously, he was not always likeable, but he was always so much himself, a singularity whose contradictions made him even more who he was.

    ***

    Most of my reading falls into two categories. First are the books that I actively seek out because someone recommended it to me, or I’ve been thinking about certain topics. These constitute the majority of my reading. The second category are books that seek me out. These are happy accidents that happen to fall along my path so that I could not ignore them. This book belongs to this second category.

    I've never read any Wittgenstein before this, and I rarely read any philosophy either, but I came across this book at just the right time: I had finished the first book of The Man Without Qualities and was awaiting the second book’s arrival via Amazon. So I picked this up and just started reading, thinking I’d put it down after just a taste, but it wouldn’t let me stop! I read it compulsively. What’s odd about the timing of this book (between the Musil volumes) is that as I read it, I inevitably began to draw parallels between Wittgenstein and Musil.

    I've also noticed that for the last few months my Goodreads reviews have become increasingly Reviews Without Books... as the Man Without Qualities is necessarily a man possessing all qualities, my reviews have increasingly tried to incorporate all my recent readings (Walter Benjamin, Hopscotch, and Man Without Qualities have crept up most often) to swallow them in a shameful act of gluttony. But hopefully (I hoped) out of it will come some kind of a larger picture, where colors complement each other, yet differences in shape are still preserved, even appearing more distinguished instead of falling into a big mush. It seems to me that reviewing one book in isolation is rather like taking a photograph of someone against a blank background: useful only for official documents and passports.

    (This recent urge is also similar to a striving for context that both men (Musil and Wittgenstein) incorporated into their visions, with one big difference, this context is completely contrived internally. These books don’t really have anything to do with each other per se, other than the fact that I read them together, so in this way contextually weaving them together can only give the reader an idea of my mind, as if each book were a spider’s web I can only free myself from by stumbling into another one)

    So I will talk about Musil here, and I will not be apologetic about it. First comes the superficial resemblances: both Musil and Wittgenstein were born in Austria, both were trained as engineers, and studied mathematics and philosophy. Both were around at the same time, and they both fought in the war, though there was no indication from this biography that they ever met.

    But it is only when thinking about Wittgenstein’s philosophy that I found deeper resemblances.

    ***

    An interesting thing happened to me when I was writing this book review. At this point in my sure-to-be-phenomenal study of the two men, I was overcome with a case of severe reviewer’s block. I had so many good points to make, about Wittgenstein’s interest in bridging distances between the utterable and the unutterable and even a brief mention in this book of imaginary numbers (Musil territory); about the two men’s similar love/hate relationships to science, pushing it away, yet inevitably using its exactness for their very own purposes; of their resistance to systematization, that tendency to boil things down to some kind of essence. Wittgenstein’s emphasis on context that creates meaning, context which is the antidote for science’s constant ‘craving for generality’, and Musil’s obsession with the same which he showed in his novel by playing with each character’s myopic extremes, while showing them completely unaware of the larger society’s constant vacillations between ideas that tend to wipe out all traces of the previous idea. And the concept of ‘genius’ that Wittgenstein was so obsessed about, seeing greatness as a justification for living the way he wanted, and that Musil talked about as the ‘genius of the racehorse’, an elegy to an antiquated idea. No longer do we have real geniuses, now even a racehorse can be a genius. Wittgenstein similarly laments when he sees photos of scientists in a store window instead of Beethoven. But not to stop there, because there are differences too, major differences, how one loved music for example and the other (Musil) hated it. These men also had different ideas about action, where one took the route of ideas, the other man (Wittgenstein) sought to purge all ideas from ideas, to escape from philosophy and into the purity of living (though he was unsuccessful) as Geothe said: in the beginning was the deed. But both courses were, I wanted to show, like two roads around the same block.

    I had pages of similar notes not only because I wanted to write this review so badly, but also because I genuinely thought these little things could bring me closer to an understanding of these two men. Afterall, as Basil Reeve, a young doctor and one of Wittgenstein’s friends said years after they worked together, he was influenced by Wittgenstein in two ways:

    first, to keep in mind that things are as they are; and secondly, to seek illuminating comparisons to get an understanding of how they are.
    But what constituted an illuminating comparison? Things are as they are, and as soon as you compare them, even that comparison becomes an egregious generalization, a way of smoothing over complicated differences, and it would not live up to the original ‘thing as it was’ until you put so many qualifications and exceptions to your comparisons between the subtleties of one thing verses the subtleties of another thing that you might as well not make any comparisons to begin with! This is essentially the crux of the problem of writer's block: being confronted with the unutterable, feeling your irrelevance in the face of it, and not being able to capture that which overcomes one without reducing it to something obscene. Essentially the only way to write about a book would be to include the entire text of the book, and nothing else:
    And this is how it is: if only you do not try to utter what is unutterable then nothing gets lost. But the unutterable will be -- unutterably -- contained in what has been uttered!
    Maybe that was why it was so difficult for me to continue writing where I had stopped for weeks, looking over my notes in cafes and reading over lines I had underlined twice, three times, with exclamation marks penciled in the margins. I wanted so much to capture something inexpressible about this book, this life. I found myself emphatically in agreement with many of Wittgenstein’s points, but I had to admit to myself that afterall I had not really read any of Wittgenstein’s own writings. I had to admit that I was slightly intimidated by the logical propositions, and the rigorous uncompromising language. So that in the end what I had were only a collection of loose inexpressible feelings arising from the man’s life (as portrayed in this book) that I felt vaguely good about, and Wittgenstein’s own quiet insistence that "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."


  4. Jeff Jackson Jeff Jackson says:

    I'd enjoyed "Wittgenstein's Mistress" and "Wittgenstein's Nephew," so I figured it was time to find out something about the man himself. Ray Monk's book turned out to be one of the best bios I've ever read. A compelling recounting of Wittgenstein's extraordinary life (hails from Europe's wealthiest and most talented family with numerous sibling suicides, insists on serving in WWI trenches, went from Cambridge professor to day laborer) that also makes his philosophy more comprehensible, tracing his tumultuous metamorphosis from mathematical logician to metaphysical cobweb clearer. His true talent was for stripping down arguments and perceptions to their useful essence.

    I also learned a number of endearing tidbits: (1) Wittgenstein loved pulpy crime stories, but only from Street & Smith's "Detective Story Magazine." No substitutes! (2) He was a remarkably adept whistler. And would correct the pitch of those who whistled around him. (3) He loved to go to the movies, especially westerns. (4) His favorite movie performer was Carmen Miranda. Next was Betty Hutton. (5) In his early days, he was so entrenched in the Viennese aristocracy that he despised the lower classes and was against suffrage for women. Later, he gave away all his money and tried to work as a menial laborer in the Soviet Union. (6) He trained the birds near his cottage to eat from his hands. (7) His last words were: "Tell my friends I've had a wonderful life."


  5. Veronica Veronica says:

    “Normal human beings are a balm to me…and a torment at the same time.”

    Notes:

    Drury added that he hoped Wittgenstein would make lots of friends. Wittgenstein replied: "‘It is obvious to me that you are becoming thoughtless and stupid. How could you imagine I would ever have ‘lots of friends?’"

    This is officially my favorite book ever.

    Exhaustion, loneliness, madness—these were his lot, and he had to accept them: ‘Only nothing theatrical. Of that you must guard against.’

    He would, according to Russell, ‘pace up and down like a wild beast for three hours in agitated silence.’ Once, Russell asked: ‘Are you thinking about logic or your sins?’ ‘Both’, Wittgenstein replied, and continued his pacing.

    They ridiculed him by chanting an alliterative jingle that made play of his unhappiness and of the distance between him and the rest of the school: _‘Wittgenstein wndelt wehmütig widriger Winde wegen Wienwärts_.’ (‘Wittgenstein wends his woeful windy way towards Vienna.’) In his efforts to make friends, he felt, he later said, ‘betrayed and sold’ by his schoolmates.

    “The great problem round which everything I write turns is: Is there an order in the world a priori, and if so what does it consist in?”

    "I must UNFORTUNATELY go to Vienna. There was no way out of it…The thought of going home appals me…Being here does me no end of good and I do not think I could now bear life among people."

    “From time to time I was afraid [of dying]. That is the fault of a false view of life.”


  6. R. R. says:

    For non-philosophers, this is probably the book to read if you are curious about who that Wittgenstein fellow was. For philosophers, I noted three things. First, I did not experience any professional winces (an example of a professional wince--once, when I was taking a literature class in graduate school, the professor commented in lecture that the most important philosophical event of the 20th century was Wittgenstein's suicide, to which I replied patiently that perhaps it would be, except that Wittgenstein died of prostate cancer). That's good. Second, the cultural agenda of his thought is far clearer when he is encountered biographically--his affinities with Heidegger jumped out at me, and never would have done so if I had I not read this. I was unaware of his reading of Spengler for example. Third, without especially trying to, the "Wittgenstein was a saint" is deftly punctured by the endless supply of anecdotes illustrating his social insufferability. It looks more like Keynes, Moore, Russell et. al. were the saints... for putting up with him!


  7. Geoff Geoff says:

    I'm not going to have any time in the next couple of weeks to write something proper about this great book and this insanely intriguing, captivating, gloriously flawed & brilliant man, Wittgenstein, so I'll direct you to Jimmy's review of this book, which sparked my interest in it, and is full of great stuff about Witt, Robert Musil, Vienna, writer's block, among myriad other things. Jimmy is a real treasure on Goodreads so give his lovely review some much deserved votes:
    http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...


  8. David M David M says:

    I'm afraid I've never been able to get much out of either the Tractatus or the Investigations (aside from the extremely quotable line here and there), but there's no question their author had an incredibly captivating personality. The agony of thought, the unintentional humor of purity. Ray Monk's portrait is masterful & highly entertaining.


  9. Taka Taka says:

    Exhaustive & Exhausting--

    Maybe that's the nature of biographies—you get everything, or everything known about the person, and it flatly goes against our narrative preference to read only what's interesting and skip what's not (a strategy fiction adopts to keep us interested). We learn so much about Wittgenstein that, yes, he does become human, and yes, you feel like you understand his philosophy a lot better, but at the same time, there are so many instances of his life that are just not interesting at all (his advice to his friends about their job situations during the war, or his political delusions and trip to Soviet Russia to find, unsuccessfully, a menial job, or his peripatetic existence toward the end of his life and where he was staying and so forth).

    What was fascinating was anything that touched on his philosophy, especially—for me—his later philosophy (which is something I'm planning on studying). Also fascinating was his spiritual life that led him to fulminate against Scientism, and it is this spiritual side of his personality in Culture and Value that attracted me to his philosophy to begin with. As Monk himself puts it: "For, in a way that is centrally important but difficult to define, he had lived a devoutly religious life" (580).

    Apart from his spiritual and philosophical strivings, we get a portrait of an intense, stubborn man very difficult to get along with. His insecurity is written everywhere. When he was young, he wanted others to recognize him as a genius and tried everything in his powers to get the recognition. A sensitive and hopelessly awkward soul, he'd take offense at nothing and break off even long-standing friendships. A lonely man, he'd demand HOURS of friends' undivided attention about philosophical and personal problems he wanted to discuss. Or confess what he deemed were his "sins" to his friends at a cafe in a loud voice, making the listeners uncomfortable to say the least. In short, someone you'd try to avoid if you come across him in your life.

    And yet, I came away with the feeling that he lived his life in the only way he could: passionately. And that's something. Despite all his psychological baggage, despite his loneliness, internal struggles, self-loathing (at his own sexual desires and philosophical work), he lived, really lived. And for that I admire him and his work.

    Onto Philosophical Investigations and On Certainty!


  10. Anton Anton says:

    As introspective and bookish as you might expect a philosopher as head-spinning as Wittgenstein to be, his actual day-to-day life is pretty interesting. Two anecdotes that most immediately come to mind: 1. After fighting in World War I (throughout which he was hellbent on fighting on the front-lines), Wittgenstein, by inheritance one of the richest men in Austria at the time, gave away ALL of his money to become a country school teacher, believing that he could not live authentically otherwise. 2. When explaining his meticulous designs for his sister's house, which included the size and shape to the tiniest millimeter of every door knob and window, Wittgenstein drove one of the house-builders to tears because of his implacable exactitude. Both these anecdotes exemplify qualities of character that cannot but make a life compelling: a passion for ideals at once admirable and profoundly alienating. Ray Monk renders the narrative well, making, for instance, the publication history of Wittgenstein's "Tractatus" a thing of page-turning drama (at least for this reader). While knowing about Wittgenstein's life and times in general does serve to contextualize Wittgenstein's ideas, I was a bit disappointed overall in Monk's explication of his writings. Monk's treatment of the philosophy at times seemed piecemeal and inconsistent: he'd explain simple points at length, but gloss over more esoteric ideas as if they were obvious. His discussions of Wittgenstein's reading early on in the book were very illuminating, however, and I will say that the book as a whole succeeds in humanizing and making more approachable this philosopher's demanding and enigmatic texts.