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Book review: Ludwig Wittgenstein, by Ray Monk

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Monk tells us in his introduction that people interested in Wittgenstein fall into two groups. Professional philosophers generally study his work without reference to his life, while the many readers who are fascinated by his life and personality find his philosophy unintelligible. Monk's aim is to bridge the gap between his life and his work and to show 'the unity of his philosophical concerns with his emotional and spiritual life'.

To accomplish this, he needed both to present a full account of the man and also to explain the main ideas of his philosophy. I should say he succeeds admirably in the first aim; as for the second, his success is perhaps only partial, but that was probably inevitable, because the difficulty of Wittgenstein's philosophy is different in kind from what is the case with most philosophers. The particular value of Monk's book is that he explains exactly where this difficulty lies. In fact, it has at least two roots.

First, philosophers' writing may be difficult either because they express themselves obscurely or because their ideas are intrinsically difficult to understand. Wittgenstein's difficulty is not exactly from either of these causes. He expresses himself very clearly, often in quite short sentences that are, in a sense, easy to understand; but he nearly always leaves you without the reference points you would expect. In particular, he completely refuses to announce any general conclusions, and this makes it hard to see the point of his remarks. 'As he himself once explained at the beginning of a series of lectures: "What we say will be easy but to know why we say it will be very difficult."'_(p.338)

Many non-professional readers probably get no further than dipping into the Tractatus, which is Wittgenstein's first published work and the only one to appear in his lifetime. It largely achieved its final form when Wittgenstein was a prisoner-of-war of the Italians at the end of the First World War. I found Monk's short paragraph describing this work to be illuminating (p.155).

In its final form, the book is a formidably compressed distillation of the work Wittgenstein had written since he first came to Cambridge in 1911. The remarks in it, selected from a series of perhaps seven manuscript volumes, are numbered to establish a hierarchy in which, say, remark 2.151 is an elaboration of 2.15, which in turn elaborates the point made in remark 2.1, and so on. Very few of the remarks are justified with an argument; each proposition is put forward, as Russell once put it, 'as if it were a Czar's ukase'. … [The propositions] are all allotted a place within the crystalline structure, and are each stated with the kind of finality that suggests they are all part of the same incontrovertible truth.


This exemplifies the difficulty described above. But there is a second kind of difficulty as well. To understand Wittgenstein seems to require a kind of moral seriousness on the part of the reader, particular in the case of his later work, the Philosophical Investigations, published posthumously.

Philosophical Investigations—more, perhaps, then any other philosophical classic—makes demands, not just on the reader's intelligence, but on his involvement. Other great philosophers' works—Schopenhauer's World and Representation, say—can be read with interest and entertainment by someone who 'wants to know what Schopenhauer said'. But if Philosophical Investigations is read in this spirit it will very quickly become boring and a chore to read, not because it is intellectually difficult but because it will be practically impossible to gather what Wittgenstein is 'saying'. For in truth he is not saying anything; he is presenting a technique for the unravelling of confusions. Unless these are your confusions the book will be of very little interest. (p.366)


Given this, there may be a temptation to wonder whether Wittgenstein's importance as a philosopher has been overstated. But this idea is hard to sustain in view of the impact that his ideas have had.

By 1939 he was recognised as the foremost philosophical genius of his time. 'To refuse the chair [of philosophy at Cambridge] to Wittgenstein', said C.D. Broad, 'would be like refusing Einstein a chair of physics.' Broad himself was no great admirer of Wittgenstein's work; he was simply stating a fact (p.414).

Long before this, Wittgenstein had had 'a decisive influence on Bertrand Russell's development as a philosopher—chiefly by undermining his faith in his own judgement.' (p.80) Their first encounter occurred in 1911, when Wittgenstein, then a student in aeronautical engineering at Manchester University, arrived unannounced at Russell's rooms in Trinity College, Cambridge. Russell later reported that '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 & has now come to Cambridge on purpose to hear me.' (p.38) Russell initially thought him a crank but later decided he was a genius. Looking back on their meeting three years later, Russell described it as 'an event of first-class importance in my life', which had 'affected everything I have done since'. (p.80)

Wittgenstein was at first 'passionately devoted' to Russell but later considered him to be 'not serious', which, for Wittgenstein, was a damning indictment that reflects a profound difference in temperament. Wittgenstein, unlike Russell, was fundamentally religious. As Monk makes abundantly clear, this theme runs through all Wittgenstein's philosophy. It appears as early as the Tractatus, where the concluding remarks are explicitly mystical and the book ends with the famous line: 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.' Before reading Monk's book I had been aware of this mystical element, but I hadn't realised the extent to which it pervades practically everything Wittgenstein wrote.

Religion first appears in the account of Wittgenstein's experiences during the First World War, when he volunteered to serve in the Austrian army in order to experience suffering. This, not surprisingly, altered his outlook on life permanently. At one point he came near to suicide (three of his brothers did kill themselves) but was saved by reading the only book he could find in a bookshop he visited: Tolstoy's Gospel in Brief. This brought about a religious conversion, albeit of a special kind.

One might expect that Wittgenstein, as a philosopher, would discuss intellectual arguments for God's existence, but that is something he very definitely rejected. Towards the end of his life he heard a radio discussion between A.J. Ayer and Father Copleston on 'The Existence of God'. His reaction was not what one might have anticipated.

Ayer, Wittgenstein said, 'has something to say but he is incredibly shallow'. Copleston, on the other hand, 'contributed nothing at all to the discussion'. To attempt to justify the beliefs of Christianity with philosophical arguments was entirely to miss the point. (p.543).


For Wittgenstein, religious belief is psychological: 'he does not see it as a question of whether Christianity is true but of whether it offers some help in dealing with an otherwise unbearable and meaningless existence. … And the "it" here is not a "belief" but a practice, a way of living.' (p.122)

Wittgenstein himself puts it like this:

Life can educate one to a belief in God. And experiences too are what bring this about; but I don't mean visions and other forms of experience which show us the 'existence of this being', but, e.g., suffering of various sorts. These neither show us an object, nor do they give rise to conjectures about him. Experiences, thoughts,—life can force this concept on us. (p.572)


Deciding how to live, and feelings of guilt at when he failed to live 'decently', preoccupied Wittgenstein throughout his life. At one point he insisted on making a formal 'Confession' to a number of his acutely embarrassed friends, although there is little information about what he actually confessed. He had a strong tendency to asceticism. As a young man he inherited vast wealth from his father but he gave it all away. He was attracted by the idea of becoming a monk at various times in his life and tried to do so on one occasion, but was told by 'an obviously perceptive Father Superior' that he was unsuited to this. He spent long periods living in semi-isolation in Norway, which no doubt reflects this side of his character.

A friend remarked on Wittgenstein's 'Hebraic' conception of religion, meaning the sense of awe which one feels throughout the Bible (p.540). I can see this, but it also occurs to me that Wittgenstein might have found Buddhism, at least its Theravada form, sympathetic, given its lack of emphasis on belief. So far as I know this didn't occur to him, which is perhaps surprising in view of his fondness for Schopenhauer, who was much attracted to Buddhism.

Although Wittgenstein was nominally a Roman Catholic, since that was his family religion, it seems to have left little trace in him; he was actually quite surprised to be told of the traditional Catholic belief in Transsubstantiation (the doctrine that the Host literally becomes the body and blood of Christ during the Mass). Two of his friends converted to Catholicism and he worried that he might have been partly responsible for this, unwittingly, by encouraging one of them to read Kierkegaard.

He has a brilliant simile to describe the difficulty of sustaining religious beliefs of this kind.

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. (p.463).


He had the greatest respect for those who could perform this feat but he did not think he could emulate it himself. He also had a lot of respect for primitive magic, of the kind reported by anthropologists from remote parts of the world, saying: 'All religions are wonderful … even those of the most primitive tribes. The ways in which people express their religious feelings differ enormously.'

On the other hand, he had a profound distrust of science and he disliked books of popular science, such as Sir James Jeans's The Mysterious Universe, which he thought inculcated a kind of idol-worship of science and scientists. (I can imagine what he would have said about Richard Dawkins.) A fascinating sidelight on this comes from a series of lectures on mathematics which he gave at Cambridge, with the specific aim of countering the adulation of science. Among those who attended, at least for a time, was Alan Turing, who himself was lecturing on 'The Foundations of Mathematics' at the time. (p.417)

The lectures often developed into a dialogue between Wittgenstein and Turing, with the former attacking and the latter defending the importance of mathematical logic. Indeed, the presence of Turing became so essential to the theme of the discussion that when he announced he would not be attending a certain lecture, Wittgenstein told the class that, therefore, that lecture would have to be 'somewhat parenthetical'. (p.417)


There seems to have been no true meeting of minds between the two participants in these discussions, and ultimately Turing ceased attending.

When told by his doctor that he had only a few days to live, he replied: 'Good'. But his last recorded utterance was: 'Tell them I've had a wonderful life.'

In spite of his rejection of Catholic beliefs, his friends arranged for him to have a Catholic funeral. Monk thinks this may have been appropriate, 'for, in a way that is centrally important but difficult to define, he had lived a devoutly religious life.' (p.591)

03-09-2018
%T Ludwig Wittgenstein
%S The Duty of Genius
%A Monk, Ray
%I Vintage
%C London
%G Epub ISBN 97811448112678
%P 582pp
%K biography
%O kindle version, downloaded from www.amazon.co.uk 2018

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