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11 July 2022updated 12 Oct 2023 10:41am

Wittgenstein at war

The philosopher’s First World War notebooks reveal a soul in torment, but was fighting on the front line really the making of one of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers?

By Thomas Nagel

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) appears to be the only major work of philosophy to have been composed while the author was an active military combatant. René Descartes was serving in the Thirty Years War as a volunteer with the Dutch and then Bavarian armies when he first developed his philosophical ideas, but we don’t know whether he saw combat. Wittgenstein enlisted as an infantryman in the Austro-Hungarian army on 7 August 1914, about a week after the outbreak of the First World War. He was 25. From the start of the conflict he was intent on continuing the work on logic and philosophy that had occupied him for the past few years, growing out of his collaboration with Bertrand Russell at Cambridge. It held him together under outward circumstances that he found hard to bear.

People are fascinated by the hidden lives of creative geniuses, the more sordid the better. Wittgenstein’s Private Notebooks, 1914-1916 appeals to that interest by allowing the reader to eavesdrop on his agonised emotional life in two of those years of military service, during which he produced one of the most influential philosophical works of the 20th century. The Tractatus is a founding document of the analytic tradition in philosophy. It set out a theory of logic, language and the limits of meaning which revealed, Wittgenstein argued, that traditional philosophical problems were based on linguistic confusion. The two tracks of his life – the emotional and the intellectual – can be followed in some notebooks Wittgenstein kept during that period. On the right-hand pages he entered his philosophical thoughts, in legible German. On the left-hand pages, in code, he entered his personal feelings – hopes, fears, prayers, despair, loathing of himself and other people, and gratitude when he was able to work.

[see also: Ludwig Wittgenstein: a mind on fire]

Some of the notebooks were either lost or destroyed by Wittgenstein, but three from 1914-16 survive because they were left in his sister’s house in Vienna. After her brother’s death in 1951 she made them available to his literary executors, who in 1961 published the right hand pages (the philosophical material) as Notebooks 1914-16. The left-hand pages were not mentioned. They have since been deciphered (the code is a simple inversion of the alphabet: a=z, b=y… z=a), and there was an unauthorised publication of those pages in 1991, but this book is the first translation into English of Wittgenstein’s private remarks.

Wittgenstein had been dead for only ten years when the philosophical notebooks were published, and it is hardly surprising that the literary executors, who were his close friends, omitted the personal material: they knew he would be appalled at its coming to light. And though he has been dead for 70 years, it still feels intrusive to read these monotonously repetitive and self-absorbed effusions. As Marjorie Perloff, the distinguished American literary scholar who has translated the notebooks, observes, Wittgenstein’s project was himself – self-creation and self-maintenance in a form that he would be able to bear. He isn’t interested in the war or the people he encounters, only in his own responses and feelings, and overcoming their inadequacy.

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At the beginning he expresses anxiety about how he will react to danger:

“Probably we will be attacked. How will I behave when it comes to being shot at? I am afraid, not of being killed but of not fulfilling my duty properly before that moment. God give me strength. Amen. Amen. Amen.

He needn’t have worried: serving on the Eastern Front against Russia, he behaved with consistent courage under fire, volunteered for dangerous assignments (such as manning a highly exposed forward observation post), and was decorated for valour. Again and again in moments of danger he writes “God be with me,” “God is with me,” “Thy will be done,” “Everything is in God’s hands.” These utterances seem to express hope that he will accept whatever fate brings. “Now would be my chance to become a decent human being since I am face-to-face with death. May the spirit enlighten me.”

One thing Wittgenstein doesn’t agonise about is sex. He records the highs and lows of his sexual desire, and frequency of masturbation. Sometimes he doesn’t masturbate for weeks, sometimes every day. There are a few mentions of visiting the baths when he is in a city, and Perloff takes this to imply sexual encounters. She is intent on breaking with the general distaste of biographers for recognising Wittgenstein as a carnally active homosexual. Anyway, the notebook entries don’t suggest that his sexual drive and its release are a matter for guilt or anxiety: they are just a recurring and central part of life.

Where he really can’t take command of himself is in his relations to the other soldiers serving with him. In the beginning they are manning a gunboat on the Vistula.

“My shipmates are a bunch of swine: No enthusiasm for anything, unbelievable crudity, stupidity & malice!”

They apparently feel as much contempt for him as he does for them, and he struggles to find a strategy to avoid being consumed by anger.

“Being tortured by most of my shipmates, now as before. I still haven’t found the proper mode of behaviour that would be satisfactory. I have not yet opted for complete passivity. And perhaps this is folly; since I am powerless against all these fellows. I overexcite myself for nothing if I resist.”

Throughout his life Wittgenstein was a notoriously difficult character: proud, irascible, intolerant, arrogant, and insulting – convinced of his genius and recognising almost no one as an equal. He could be hard to take even when surrounded by admirers. In these circumstances he must have been impossible. He came from one of the richest, most cultivated families in Austria (his father was a steel tycoon) and was a close associate of some of the most brilliant thinkers in England. Now, for the first time in his life, he was living and working side by side with a bunch of illiterate peasants and proletarians, and he found it hard to keep his disgust in check.

At one point, he is reminded of the single earlier occasion when he was thrust out of his nest of privilege and had to fend for himself. After being tutored at home until the age of 14 Wittgenstein was sent to a technical Realschule (not a classical Gymnasium whose students would have been more upper-class) and suffered because he did not fit in.

It will now be an enormously difficult time for me because I have literally been sold & betrayed again just as I was years ago when I was at school in Linz. Only one thing is necessary: to maintain one’s distance from everything that happens; to collect oneself! God help me!”

The phrase “sold and betrayed” is puzzling: presumably, with his level of education he could have chosen to be an officer. But these difficult circumstances presented him with the test that occupied him throughout the war – that of maintaining his self-possession through “distance from everything that happens”. That became the core of his spiritual ambition, and it is inseparable from his philosophical ambition.

“Over and over again I say to myself the words of Tolstoy, ’Man is helpless in the flesh but free in the spirit.’ May the spirit be within me!”

“The grace I’ve been given to think & work now is indescribable. I must acquire indifference to the hardships of the external life.

It is a constant struggle:

Life is a form of torture from which there is only temporary reprieve until one can be subjected to further torments. A terrible assortment of torments. An exhausting march, a cough-filled night, a company of drunks, a company of mean and stupid people. Do good and be happy about your virtue. I am sick and lead a bad life. God help me. I am a poor unlucky being. God deliver me and grant me peace! Amen.”

“Just keep working so that you will become good.

“Not in the best of health and sick to my soul as a result of the bigotry and meanness of my compatriots. God give me power, the inner strength, to defy this soul-sickness. God maintain me in good spirits.

He managed to summon the inner strength to finish the Tractatus by the time the Italians took him prisoner in 1918. For four years he had led a double life.

There are rare mentions of the rest of the world in the notebooks. Remarkably, Wittgenstein was in occasional correspondence with English friends throughout the war. He records letters from Russell, John Maynard Keynes, and especially David Pinsent, a Cambridge contemporary whom he loved and thought of constantly. In 1918 Pinsent died in a flying accident serving as a test pilot, and the Tractatus is dedicated to his memory.

David Pinsent. Photo by The History Collection / Alamy

In 1914 Wittgenstein also received the crushing news that his older brother Paul, a pianist, had been wounded in battle and lost his right arm: he had “suddenly been deprived of his vocation! How terrible! What philosophical outlook would it take to overcome such a thing? Can it even happen except through suicide!!” Far from it: after the war Paul Wittgenstein commissioned for his own performance a number of piano compositions for the left hand, by Ravel, Prokofiev, Hindemith, and Richard Strauss among others.

The Notebooks will interest those who want to know about the unusual circumstances in which Wittgenstein composed the Tractatus. But Perloff suggests that they also shed light on the development of Wittgenstein’s ideas – that although there is no connection between the left- and right-hand pages for most of the first two notebooks, in the course of the third, a correspondence appears. Perloff intersperses the private remarks, especially towards the end, with what she calls “some of the most striking and beautiful passages from the philosophical side” (printed in italics to distinguish them) that are dated around the same time. Perloff seems to think these passages are in part a response to what he is enduring.

It is true that as the philosophical notebooks progress, instead of technical material about logic and language, we increasingly find remarks that sound more like this:

If to will good or evil has an effect on the world, it can only have one on the boundaries of the world, not on the facts, on what cannot be portrayed by language but can only be shown in language.

“There are two godheads: the world and my independent I. I am either happy or unhappy, that’s all. One can say: good or evil do not exist. Death is not an event in life. We do not live through it in the world. If eternity is understood not as infinite temporal duration, but as non-temporality, then one can say that he lives eternally who lives in the present.”

And it is true, Wittgenstein was under fire and in danger of death when in July 1916 he wrote early versions of those striking and enigmatic remarks about God, ethics, death, and the meaning of life that appear near the end of the Tractatus. But if you read the passages Perloff selects, and even more if you read them in their fuller philosophical context, the idea that they have something to do with what he was experiencing at the time seems far-fetched. Wittgenstein was always death-obsessed and spiritually ambitious, and my guess is that he would have come to these topics even if the book had been written in peacetime.

According to the austere theory of language laid down in the Tractatus, they are all matters about which nothing can be said. Wittgenstein held that a statement is meaningful only if it could be either true or false, depending on how the world is. That excludes not only tautologies, which cannot be false, and contradictions, which cannot be true, but other things people seem to want to talk about besides the contingent state of the world – such as philosophy and religion.

[See also: How did Netflix’s Persuasion get the novel so wrong?]

Wittgenstein insisted that attempted statements of these kinds are all strictly speaking senseless, but instead of dismissing them as gibberish, he made room for what was behind them with a theory of what can be shown, even though it cannot be said. This gives us the “mystical” passages at the end of the Tractatus, and the reverential flavour of the book, which distinguishes it markedly from the tone of logical positivists such as Rudolf Carnap and AJ Ayer, who were in some respects his followers.

These notebooks do reveal that in a sense Wittgenstein’s philosophy was a response to his circumstances: but only by providing him with the vital means to escape from them into his own mind – an extraordinary achievement.

Private Notebooks, 1914-1916
Ludwig Wittgenstein, edited and translated by Marjorie Perloff
WW Norton, 240pp, £18.99

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This article appears in the 20 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Broken Party