Ludwig Wittgenstein: I’ve Had a Wonderful Life

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Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (26 April 1889 – 29 April 1951) was an Austrian philosopher who worked primarily in logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language.

The Wittgenstein family in Vienna, 1917. From left to right; father Kurt, Paul, Hermine, Max Salzer (Husband of Helene), mother Leopoldine, Helene and Ludwig.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was born on 26 April 1889 in the ‘Wittgenstein Palace’ in Vienna, Austria. His parents had nine children, Ludwig being the youngest. The family was at the centre of Vienna’s cultural life and his father, Karl Wittgenstein was a leading patron of the arts, commissioning works by Auguste Rodin and financing the city’s exhibition hall and art gallery. Bruno Walter, pianist and composer and widely considered to be one of the great conductors of the 20th century, described life at the Wittgenstein’s Palace as an “all-pervading atmosphere of humanity and culture.”

Margaret Wittgenstein

Gustav Klimt painted Wittgenstein’s sister for her wedding portrait, and Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler gave regular concerts in the family’s numerous music rooms. Wittgenstein was taught by private tutors at home until he was fourteen years old after which he attended a school for three years. He received formal instruction in Catholic doctrine as a child and it was while he was at the Realschule that he decided he had lost his faith in God. Wittgenstein’s faith would undergo developmental transformations over time, much like his philosophical ideas.

He began his studies in mechanical engineering at the Technische Hochschule in Charlottenburg, Berlin, in October 1906. After attending for three semesters, he was awarded a diploma in 1908. It was at this time that he became interested in the foundations of mathematics, particularly after reading Bertrand Russell’s The Principles of Mathematics (1903). He decided that he needed to study logic and the foundations of mathematics, describing himself as in a “constant, indescribable, almost pathological state of agitation.”

In October 1911 Wittgenstein arrived unannounced at Russell’s rooms in Trinity College, Cambridge, England. Russell was having tea when, according to him, “an unknown German appeared, speaking very little English but refusing to speak German. He turned out to be a man who had learned engineering at Charlottenburg, but during this course had acquired, by himself, a passion for the philosophy of mathematics and has now come to Cambridge on purpose to hear me.”

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Wittgenstein was soon not only attending Russell’s lectures, but dominating them and he started following him after lectures back to his rooms to discuss more philosophy, until it was time for the evening meal in the Hall.

Russell soon came to believe that Wittgenstein was a genius, especially after he had examined Wittgenstein’s written work. He wrote in November 1911 that he had at first thought Wittgenstein might be a crank, but soon decided he was brilliant.

In 1912 Wittgenstein joined the Cambridge Moral Sciences Club, an influential discussion group for philosophy dons and students, delivering his first paper there in November that year, a four-minute talk defining philosophy as “all those primitive propositions which are assumed as true without proof by the various sciences.” He dominated the society and stopped attending entirely in the early 1930s after complaints that he gave no one else a chance to speak.

Wittgenstein’s father Karl died in January 1913 and after receiving his inheritance became one of the wealthiest men in Europe. He donated some of his money, at first anonymously, to Austrian artists and writers.

Sjkolden house

Wittgenstein came to feel that he could not get to the heart of his most fundamental questions while surrounded by other academics, and so in 1913 he retreated to the village of Skjolden in Norway, where he rented the second floor of a house for the winter. He later saw this as one of the most productive periods of his life, writing Logik (Notes on Logic), learning Norwegian to converse with the local villagers, and Danish to read the works of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

World War I

id-card-ww-1On the outbreak of World War I, Wittgenstein immediately volunteered for the Austro-Hungarian Army, despite being eligible for medical exemption. He was wounded in an accidental explosion, and hospitalised to Kraków in Poland. In March 1916, he was posted to a fighting unit on the front line of the Russian front where his unit was involved in some of the heaviest fighting. In action against British troops, he was decorated and commended by the army for his “exceptionally courageous behaviour, calmness, sang-froid, and heroism,” which “won the total admiration of the troops.” In January 1917, he was sent as a member of a howitzer regiment to the Russian front, where he won several more medals for bravery; he was promoted to lieutenant in 1918 and sent to the Italian front as part of an artillery regiment. As a result of the defeat of the Austrian army, was captured by Allied forces on 3rd November in Trentino and spent nine months in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp. For his part in the final Austrian offensive of June 1918 Ludwig was awarded the Band of the Military Service Medal with Swords.

Ludwig W.

In the summer of 1918 Wittgenstein took military leave and went to stay in one of his family’s Vienna summer houses in Neuwaldegg. A series of events around this time left him deeply upset: in August, his uncle Paul died, in October, he learned that his publisher had decided not to publish the Tractatus, and later that month his brother Kurt killed himself, the third of his brothers to commit suicide. It was around this time he received a letter from the mother of his close friend David Pinsent to say that he had been killed in a plane crash on 8th May. Wittgenstein was distraught to the point of being suicidal.

David Pinsent

Wittgenstein had romantic relations with both men and women. He is generally believed to have fallen in love with at least three men: David Hume Pinsent in 1912, Francis Skinner in 1930, and Ben Richards in the late 1940s.

Wittgenstein’s relationship with David Pinsent occurred during an intellectually formative period; Bertrand Russell introduced Wittgenstein to Pinsent in the summer of 1912 and he soon became Wittgenstein’s closest friend. The men worked together on experiments in the psychology laboratory about the role of rhythm in the appreciation of music, and Wittgenstein delivered a paper on the subject to the British Psychological Association in Cambridge in 1912.

Skinner and Wittgenstein

They also travelled together, including to Iceland in September 1912, and later to Norway. Pinsent’s diaries provide valuable insights into Wittgenstein’s personality – sensitive, nervous and attuned to the tiniest slight or change in mood from Pinsent. He wrote in May 1912 that Wittgenstein had just begun to study the history of philosophy: “He expresses the most naive surprise that all the philosophers he once worshipped in ignorance are after all stupid and dishonest and make disgusting mistakes!”

The last time they saw each other was on 8th October 1913 at Lordswood House in Birmingham, then residence of the Pinsent family: “I got up at 6.15 am to see Ludwig off. He had to go very early – back to Cambridge – as he has lots to do there. I saw him off from the house in a taxi at 7.00 am – to catch a 7.30 am train from New Street Station. It was sad parting from him.” Wittgenstein left to live in Norway.

M. Respinger

Wittgenstein later revealed that, as a teenager in Vienna, he had had an affair with a woman. Additionally, in the 1920s Wittgenstein became infatuated with a young Swiss woman, Marguerite Respinger, modelling a sculpture of her and proposing marriage, albeit on condition that they did not have children.

When he returned to his family in Vienna on 25th August 1919, he was by all accounts physically and mentally spent. He apparently talked incessantly about suicide, terrifying his sisters and brother Paul. He decided to do two things: to enrol in teacher training college as an elementary school teacher, and to get rid of his fortune. In 1914, it had been providing him with an income of 300,000 Kronen a year, but by 1919 was worth a great deal more, with a sizable portfolio of investments in the United States and the Netherlands. He divided it among his siblings.

Ludwig and Paul Wittgenstein

In September 1919 he enrolled in the teacher training college in Vienna. His sister Hermine said that Wittgenstein working as an elementary teacher was like using a precision instrument to open crates, but the family decided not to interfere. In the summer of 1920, Wittgenstein worked as a gardener for a monastery and later that year was given his first job as a primary school teacher in Trattenbach, a remote village of a few hundred people. His first letters describe it as beautiful, but in October 1921, he wrote to Russell: “I am still at Trattenbach, surrounded, as ever, by odiousness and baseness. I know that human beings on the average are not worth much anywhere, but here they are much more good-for-nothing and irresponsible than elsewhere.”

He was soon the object of gossip among the villagers, who found him eccentric at best. Although he did not get on well with the other teachers he was enthusiastic offering late-night extra tuition to several of the students, something that did not endear him to the parents, though some of them came to adore him; his sister Hermine occasionally watched him teach and said the students “literally crawled over each other in their desire to be chosen for answers or demonstrations.”

tractacusWhile Wittgenstein was living in isolation in rural Austria, the Tractatus was published to considerable interest, first in German in 1921 as Logisch-Philosophische Abhandlung, part of Wilhelm Ostwald’s journal Annalen der Naturphilosophie, though Wittgenstein was not happy with the result and called it a pirate edition. Russell had agreed to write an introduction to explain why it was important, because it was otherwise unlikely to have been published: it was difficult if not impossible to understand, and Wittgenstein was unknown in philosophy.

An aim of the Tractatus is to reveal the relationship between language and the world: what can be said about it, and what can only be shown. Wittgenstein argues that language has an underlying logical structure, a structure that provides the limits of what can be said meaningfully, and therefore the limits of what can be thought. The limits of language, for Wittgenstein, are the limits of philosophy. Much of philosophy involves attempts to say the unsayable: “What we can say at all can be said clearly,” he argues. Anything beyond that – religion, ethics, aesthetics, the mystical – cannot be discussed. They are not in themselves nonsensical, but any statement about them must be. He wrote in the preface: “The book will, therefore, draw a limit to thinking, or rather – not to thinking, but to the expression of thoughts; for, in order to draw a limit to thinking we should have to be able to think both sides of this limit (we should therefore have to be able to think what cannot be thought).”

Otterthal school

He moved schools again in September 1924, this time to Otterthal. While he was there, he wrote a 42-page pronunciation and spelling dictionary for children, Wörterbuch für Volksschulen, published in Vienna in 1926, the only book of his apart from Tractatus that was published in his lifetime. (A first edition of the dictionary sold in 2005 for £75,000.)

An incident occurred in April 1926 and became known as Der Vorfall Haidbauer (the Haidbauer Incident). Josef Haidbauer was an 11-year-old pupil whose father had died and mother worked as a local maid. He was a slow learner, and one day Wittgenstein hit him two or three times on the head, causing him to collapse. Wittgenstein carried him to the headmaster’s office, then quickly left the school, bumping into a parent, Herr Piribauer, on the way out. Piribauer had been sent for by the children when they saw the boy collapse; Wittgenstein had previously pulled Piribauer’s daughter, Hermine, so hard by the ears that her ears had bled. Piribauer said that when he met Wittgenstein in the hall that day: “I called him all the names under the sun. I told him he wasn’t a teacher, he was an animal-trainer! And that I was going to fetch the police right away!”

Piribauer tried to have Wittgenstein arrested, but the village’s police station was empty, and by the next day Wittgenstein had disappeared. On 28th April 1926, Wittgenstein handed his resignation to Wilhelm Kundt, a local school inspector, who tried to persuade him to stay; however, Wittgenstein was adamant that his days as a schoolteacher were over. Ten years later, in 1936, as part of a series of “confessions” he engaged in that year, Wittgenstein appeared without warning at the village saying he wanted to confess personally and ask for pardon from the children he had hit.

Wittgensteinhaus, Vienna

In 1926, his sister Margaret invited him to help with the design of her new townhouse in Vienna. Wittgenstein and a team of architects developed a spare modernist house. In particular, Wittgenstein focused on the windows, doors, and radiators, demanding that every detail be exactly as he specified. When the house was nearly finished Wittgenstein had an entire ceiling raised 30mm so that the room had the exact proportions he wanted. It took him a year to design the door handles and another to design the radiators. The house was finished by December 1928.

Cambridge University

Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge in 1929. Despite this fame, he could not initially work at Cambridge as he did not have a degree, so he applied as an advanced undergraduate. Russell noted that his previous residency was sufficient for a Ph.D., and urged him to offer the Tractatus as his thesis. It was examined in 1929 by Russell and Moore; at the end of the thesis defence, Wittgenstein clapped the two examiners on the shoulder and said, “Don’t worry; I know you’ll never understand it.” Moore wrote in the examiner’s report: “I myself consider that this is a work of genius; but, even if I am completely mistaken and it is nothing of the sort, it is well above the standard required for the Ph.D. degree.” Wittgenstein was appointed as a lecturer and was made a fellow of Trinity College.

World War II

While he was in Ireland in March 1938, Germany annexed Austria in the Anschluss; the Viennese Wittgenstein was now a citizen of the enlarged Germany and a Jew under the 1935 Nuremberg racial laws, because three of his grandparents had been born as Jews. The Nuremberg Laws classified people as Jews (Volljuden) if they had three or four Jewish grandparents, and as Mischling (mixed blood) if they had one or two. It meant inter alia that the Wittgensteins were restricted in whom they could marry or have sex with, and where they could work. A few days before the invasion of Poland, Hitler personally granted Mischling status to the Wittgenstein siblings. The pretext was that their paternal grandfather had been the bastard son of a German prince, which allowed the Reichsbank to claim the gold, foreign currency, and stocks held in Switzerland by a Wittgenstein trust.

After G. E. Moore resigned the chair in philosophy in 1939, Wittgenstein was elected, and acquired British citizenship soon afterwards. In July 1939 he travelled to Vienna to assist Margaret and his other sisters, and visited Berlin for one day to meet an official of the Reichsbank. After this, he travelled to New York to persuade Paul, whose agreement was required, to back the scheme. The required “Befreiung” was granted in August 1939. The unknown amount signed over to the Nazis by the Wittgenstein family, a week or so before the outbreak of war, included amongst many other assets, 1700 kg of gold.

Guy’s Hospital

In September 1941 he asked John Ryle, brother of philosopher Gilbert Ryle, professor of medicine at Cambridge, if he could get a manual job at Guy’s Hospital in London. Wittgenstein told Ryle he would die slowly if left at Cambridge, and he would rather die quickly. He started working at Guy’s shortly afterwards as a dispensary porter, meaning that he delivered drugs from the pharmacy to the wards – where he apparently advised the patients not to take them.

The hospital staff were not told he was one of the world’s most famous philosophers, though some of the medical staff did recognize him – at least one had attended Moral Sciences Club meetings—but they were discreet. “Good God, don’t tell anybody who I am!” Wittgenstein begged one of them. Some of them nevertheless called him Professor Wittgenstein, and he was allowed to dine with the doctors.

Final years

He resigned the professorship at Cambridge in 1947 to concentrate on his writing, and in 1947 and 1948 travelled to Ireland. He also accepted an invitation from Norman Malcolm, then professor at Cornell University, to stay with him and his wife for several months at Ithaca, New York. He made the trip in April 1949, although he told Malcolm he was too unwell to do philosophical work. He returned to London, where he was diagnosed with an inoperable prostate cancer, which had spread to his bone marrow. He spent the next two months in Vienna, where his sister Hermine died in February 1950.

wittgenstein-1951By the beginning of 1951, it was clear that he had little time left. On 27th April he became very ill; when his doctor told him he might live only a few days, he reportedly replied, “Good!” Just before losing consciousness for the last time on 28th April, he said: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

Death is not an event in life:
we do not live to experience death.
If we take eternity to mean not infinite
temporal duration but timelessness,
then eternal life belongs to those
who live in the present.
Our life has no end in the way
in which our visual field has no limits.

Tractatus, 6.431

Credit source: Wikipedia and various online sites

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