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15 September 2021

Ludwig Wittgenstein: a mind on fire

A century after its publication, the philosopher’s Tractatus remains as radical as ever.

By Ray Monk

In 1920, after failing five times to find a publisher for his newly finished book, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, the Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein consoled himself in a letter to Bertrand Russell:

Either my piece is a work of the highest rank, or it is not a work of the highest rank. In the latter (and more probable) case I myself am in favour of it not being printed. And in the former case it’s a matter of indifference whether it’s printed twenty or a hundred years sooner or later. After all, who asks whether the Critique of Pure Reason… was written in 17x or y.

The following year the book finally found a publisher. The 100th anniversary of its publication this year is being celebrated all over the world by exhibitions, conferences, radio programmes and articles, all of which attest to its recognition as “a work of the highest rank”.

Despite being one of the most celebrated works of philosophy ever written, the Tractatus is also one of the most gnomic – even now there is no consensus about how it should be interpreted. It has nevertheless exerted a fascination that extends beyond the confines of academic philosophy. Conceptual artists, poets, film-makers and novelists have all cited it as an influence, and it has been set to music by more than one composer. In that respect, the book reflects its charismatic author, who exerted a magnetism over those with whom he came into contact. Russell called him “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense and dominating”.

Wittgenstein was born in Vienna in 1889 into immense wealth. His father Karl was an iron and steel magnate, “the Austrian Carnegie”. The family owned several homes, including the grand “Palais Wittgenstein” in Vienna. The families of both Karl and his wife Leopoldine had Jewish origins, but by the time Ludwig was born they did not consider themselves Jewish and he was raised a Catholic.

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The Wittgensteins were at the heart of Viennese cultural life. Ludwig’s sister Margaret was a friend – and client – of Sigmund Freud’s. His father paid for the Secession Building that exhibited the works of, most notably, Klimt and Schiele. Brahms was a regular visitor to the Wittgenstein Palais, in which a number of his works had their first performance. The standards of musical talent in the family were so high that, although Ludwig’s brother Paul became a concert pianist, his playing was considered inferior to that of some of his siblings.

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But despite abundant wealth and talent, the family was also marked by tragedy. When Wittgenstein was a young boy, two of his elder brothers, Hans and Rudolf, took their own lives. After these suicides, Karl took a less overbearing attitude to the career choices of his children and Paul was allowed to pursue his musical bent. The sisters, Hermine, Helene and Margaret, too, devoted themselves to music and literature.

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Unlike his siblings, Ludwig developed an interest in machinery. At the age of ten, he built a working model of a sewing machine out of bits of wood and wire. No doubt because of his practical leanings, he was not sent to grammar school but to the less academic, more technical Realschule in Linz. Adolf Hitler, who was almost exactly the same age as Wittgenstein (they were born within a few days of each other), attended the same school, which in 1998 prompted the writer Kimberley Cornish to speculate that Wittgenstein was the original cause of Hitler’s anti-Semitism. But there is no evidence of this or even of them having met.

During his teenage years, and guided by his sister Margaret, Wittgenstein developed wide intellectual interests. Several of the writers Margaret introduced him to remained an influence on him for the rest of his life. Among these was the satirist Karl Kraus, who used his journal the Torch to highlight the lies and hypocrisies of the Austrian establishment. Kraus’s high standards of moral rectitude and linguistic precision made a profound impression on Wittgenstein, who regarded him as a model writer. Margaret also introduced him to the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, the influence of whose magnum opus, The World as Will and Representation (1818), is evident in Tractatus.

Another book that Wittgenstein read as a schoolboy was Otto Weininger’s Sex and Character (1903). Weininger was a cult figure in fin de siècle Vienna and Sex and Character was widely read among the city’s intelligentsia. What established the cult was as much the manner of Weininger’s death as the book itself. Less than six months after the book was published, Weininger took a room in the former home of Ludwig van Beethoven and shot himself. To many, Weininger’s suicide seemed to be the logical outcome of the argument in Sex and Character, which provides an intellectual justification for the most extreme forms of misogyny and anti-Semitism. Man and woman are discussed by Weininger not as biological categories but as psychological types, something like Platonic ideals. The distinctions overlap, however, in the sense that all biologically female people are also psychologically female, but not all biologically male people are psychologically male. Women, according to Weininger, have just one interest: sex. Men, on the other hand, are interested in war, sport, social affairs, philosophy, science and much else. Women have no sense of the difference between right or wrong or between truth and falsity. They have no soul and do not enter the moral realm. Jews and homosexuals are all, in this sense, women, and so morally a lost cause. Weininger himself was both of Jewish heritage and thought to be homosexual, which is why his suicide was seen as the natural upshot of his views.

There is little sign that Wittgenstein was influenced by Weininger’s psychology of woman. Rather, it was Weininger’s psychology of man that he appreciated. There, Weininger argued that every man owes it to himself to develop the genius inside him. He does that by refining as far as possible his ability to distinguish truth from falsity and right from wrong. “Logic and ethics are fundamentally the same,” Weininger writes, “they are no more than duty to oneself.” Given the relentlessness with which Wittgenstein dedicated himself to the obligations of thinking clearly and living decently, there is reason to believe that, of all the books he read as an adolescent, Weininger’s is the one that had the deepest impact on him.

Despite his interest in philosophy, after graduating from the Linz Realschule in 1906, Wittgenstein chose to devote himself to technical subjects and enrolled at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin to study mechanical engineering. After two years, he decided to specialise in aeronautical engineering and in 1908 moved to Manchester to do research that, he hoped, would lead to the design of a jet engine. It was this research that, in a way, would lead to the thoughts on logic and language that received their final expression in Tractatus.

In order to design his engine, Wittgenstein had to design the propellers, which was an exercise in applied mathematics. He began attending the lectures given in Manchester by the celebrated mathematician JE Littlewood. He also met with other research students, and at one of these meetings, the philosophical question about the nature of mathematics and its foundations was raised and someone mentioned Russell’s book The Principles of Mathematics (1903). There, Russell argued that the foundations of mathematics lay in logic. Shortly before publishing the book, Russell discovered an apparently insoluble problem to its thesis, namely that the theory of logic upon which he had hoped to build mathematics was fundamentally inconsistent. There was at the heart of it a contradiction, now known as “Russell’s paradox”.

Russell published his book, but added a chapter on the contradiction in which he confessed that he had no satisfactory solution to it. “What the complete solution of the difficulty may be,” Russell wrote, “I have not succeeded in discovering; but as it affects the very foundations of reasoning, I earnestly commend the study of it to the attention of all students of logic.”

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This was the bait that hooked Wittgenstein. According to his sister Hermine, reflection on philosophical problems “suddenly became such an obsession with him, and took hold of him so completely against his will, that he suffered terribly, feeling torn between conflicting vocations”. In 1909 Wittgenstein attempted to solve Russell’s paradox, and sent his workings to Russell’s friend Philip EB Jourdain. The “solution” has not survived, but an entry in Jourdain’s correspondence book for 20 April reads: “Russell said that the views I gave in reply to Wittgenstein (who had ‘solved’ Russell’s contradiction) agree with his own.” It seems that neither was inclined to accept it.

Wittgenstein returned to his jet engine, but he could not shake off his obsession with philosophy. In the summer of 1911, when he was, according to Hermine, in an “almost pathological state of agitation”, he drew up a plan for a projected book on philosophy and travelled to Jena in Germany to discuss it with the philosopher Gottlob Frege. Wittgenstein later told several friends that Frege “wiped the floor” with him during these discussions, but encouraged Wittgenstein to go to Cambridge to study with Russell.

Wittgenstein’s studentship at Manchester had been renewed for the year 1911-12 and he returned there with the intention of continuing his aeronautical research. But then, on 18 October, he travelled to Cambridge and appeared unannounced at Russell’s study in Trinity College. In the weeks that followed, Wittgenstein not only attended Russell’s lectures but also followed him back to his rooms, all the time arguing about logic, sometimes even while Russell dressed for dinner. At the end of term, Wittgenstein asked Russell whether he thought that he was “utterly hopeless” at philosophy or not. Russell asked him to write something so that he could judge. When Wittgenstein returned in January with the piece he had written, Russell pronounced it “very good, much better than my English pupils do”. “Perhaps,” he wrote to his lover Ottoline Morrell, “he will do great things.” During the next two terms at Cambridge, Russell and Wittgenstein developed a close friendship and Russell began to regard Wittgenstein as his natural successor. When Hermine visited Cambridge in the summer of 1912, she was amazed to hear Russell say, “We expect the next big step in philosophy to be taken by your brother.”

Wittgenstein was single-minded in his efforts to live up to this responsibility. In 1913 he announced to Russell that he intended to leave Cambridge and move to a remote part of Norway so that he would not be distracted from his work. As Russell told a friend at the time: “I said it would be dark, & he said he hated daylight. I said it would be lonely, & he said he prostituted his mind talking to intelligent people. I said he was mad & he said God preserve him from sanity. (God certainly will.)”

For the rest of his life, Wittgenstein regarded the time he spent alone in Norway between 1913 and 1914 as the most philosophically productive of his life. “Then, my mind was on fire,” he later said.

It was in Norway that he devised what he considered the most important idea of the Tractatus, namely the distinction between saying and showing. Logic, he insisted, was “ineffable”; its truths cannot be said, they have to be shown. The reason Frege and Russell kept finding themselves in paradoxes when trying to set out a system of logic is that they were trying to do what cannot be done. They were trying to say what cannot be said.

Wittgenstein spent almost as much time in Norway thinking about himself as he did thinking about logic. Russell remembers that at Cambridge Wittgenstein would “pace up and down my room 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. From Norway, Wittgenstein wrote to Russell: “Deep inside me, there’s a perpetual seething, like the bottom of a geyser, and I keep hoping that things will come to an eruption once and for all, so that I can turn into a different person.” “Perhaps,” he added, “you regard this thinking about myself as a waste of time – but how can I be a logician before I’m a human being! Far the most important thing is to settle accounts with myself!”

Wittgenstein hoped that he would be able to finish his book on logic in Norway, but when he went home to Austria in 1914, the outbreak of the First World War prevented him from returning. He volunteered for the Austrian army as a private in the artillery.

His motivation for enlisting came largely from his desire to “turn into a different person”. In 1912 he had read and been impressed by William James’s book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, which highlighted the transformative effect of facing death. At the Eastern Front, when he first caught sight of the Russian enemy, Wittgenstein wrote: “Now I have the chance to be a decent human being, for I’m standing eye to eye with death.” For the first two years of the war, Wittgenstein was posted far away from the front line and saw little of the enemy. But in March 1916 he was moved to the front, where, particularly after the Russians launched the Brusilov offensive in June, facing death would have been a daily occurrence.

While he was still behind the lines, Wittgenstein had bought Leo Tolstoy’s retelling of the life of Christ, The Gospel in Brief (first published in English in 1885). At the front, the influence of Tolstoy began to be felt, not only in Wittgenstein’s endeavours to become a better person, but also in his philosophy. It was as if, at last, the two had become fused into one. Throughout the war, Wittgenstein wrote remarks into notebooks. Philosophical remarks were written in ordinary German, and personal remarks in a code he had used as a child. But, then, on 11 June, among his reflections on logic, he asks himself, “What do I know about God and the purpose of life?” and answers with a series of pronouncements about good, evil, the will, God and the meaning of life. These remarks are not written in code, but presented as if they were part of his philosophical work.

Several of them were incorporated into the Tractatus, which Wittgenstein completed at the end of the war. The distinction he had earlier made between saying and showing, which he had then applied to logic, was now applied to ethics, aesthetics, religion, the meaning of life and philosophy itself. The truth about all of these things lies beyond the sayable. As he puts it in the book’s preface: “The aim of the book is to draw a limit to thought, or rather – not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts: for in order to able to draw a limit to thought, we should have to find both sides of the limit thinkable (ie we should have to be able to think what cannot be thought).”

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But, just as we cannot think what cannot be thought, so we cannot say what cannot be said. Wittgenstein acknowledges that this means that his own sentences are themselves meaningless. “My propositions,” he wrote, “serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognises them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)”

That “ladder” is a theory of language called the “picture theory of meaning”. Every meaningful proposition, Wittgenstein maintains, pictures a possible state of affairs in the world, and is either true or false depending on whether that state of affairs does or does not obtain in the world. Thus, “My shirt is red” is meaningful because the state of affairs it pictures is at least possible, and it is, as it turns out, true. On the other hand, “My shirt is blue” is meaningful but false. “God is great” is neither true nor false because it lacks meaning; it does not picture a possible state of affairs in the world.

The same is true of Wittgenstein’s own propositions expressing this theory. They do not picture possible states of affairs in the world and therefore lack meaning, which is why they must be discarded.

Nevertheless, the logical and linguistic truths they show are, as he puts it, “unassailable and definitive”. What enables us to show truths about logic and language is what Wittgenstein calls “logical form”, which he likens to pictorial form. In order for a painting or photograph to represent a scene, it must have something in common with it. That something is pictorial form. A painting can picture, say, a hay wain, but it cannot picture the pictorial form that allows it to do so. Likewise, a sentence can say something true about the hay wain, but it cannot say anything about the logical form that enables it to do so.

The picture theory of meaning has had an enormous influence on the development of philosophy. Its influence began in Vienna, where it inspired the logical positivists to advance their own “verification principle”, which declared that any proposition that could not be verified as true or false was meaningless, and soon spread to Cambridge and then Oxford, where it shaped the analytical tradition, which came to dominate English-speaking philosophy. The remarks in the Tractatus about God, religion, ethics, aesthetics and the meaning of life have had little influence within analytical philosophy but have intrigued a wide variety of creative people.

Wittgenstein, believing that he had solved all philosophical problems, gave up philosophy after the book was published, and became an elementary schoolteacher in a series of villages in lower Austria. In one of them, Puchberg, he was tracked down by a young admirer, the astonishingly brilliant Frank Ramsey. Though he died in 1930 at the age of 26, Ramsey made important contributions to logic, mathematics, economics and philosophy. He also translated the Tractatus into English and reviewed it for the philosophy journal Mind – it remains one of the most perceptive assessments of its strengths and weaknesses. One of the things Ramsey made clear is that Wittgenstein’s theory of logical form was beset with fundamental problems which threatened to dismantle the whole edifice.

In 1929 Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge to discuss these matters with Ramsey (officially he was Ramsey’s PhD student). When Ramsey died the following year, Wittgenstein stayed at Cambridge, where he developed an entirely new philosophy of language. He not only abandoned his earlier notion of logical form, he insisted that it was a perfect example of the kind of thinking that leads philosophers astray.

Philosophers want to impose a single form on a multitude of phenomena; they want to, like Socrates in Plato’s dialogues, find the “essence” of a concept. Instead, Wittgenstein now thought, philosophers should accept the irreducible variety of language. Instead of trying to identify its formal structure, they should look at how it is interwoven in our practices.

Wittgenstein never succeeded in codifying this later philosophy in a book that satisfied him. Instead, in 1953, two years after his death, it was published as Philosophical Investigations. Strikingly, Wittgenstein had wanted the Tractatus to be published alongside his new thoughts. It is as if he believed that his new thinking could be understood only in the context of his older work. One did not have to kick away the ladder, but rather realise that the ladder had been, all along, an illusion.

Ray Monk is professor emeritus of philosophy at Southampton University and the author of “Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius” (1990)

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This article appears in the 15 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Fateful Chancellor