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Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius Paperback – 5 Sept. 1991
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Ray Monk's reconnection of Wittengenstein's philosophy with his life triumphantly carries out the Wittengensteinian task of "changing the aspect" of Wittgenstein's work, getting us to see it in a new way, Sunday Telegraph
This biography transforms Wittengenstein into a human being, Independent on Sunday
It is much to be recommended, Observer
Monk's biography is deeply intelligent, generous to the ordinary reader... It is a beautiful portrait of a beautiful life, Guardian
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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 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)
"In the beginning was the deed", an expression of Geothe's that Wittgenstein approved of, and Ray Monk claims was very much indicative of his later philosophical viewpoint. Which also supports one thought that came to me during my reading of this book :- that the other human beings we see, and meet, if we wish to have true communion with them, must be SEEN first as unique/singular, prior to imposing our generalizations or whatever else upon them. What is such "seeing"? How can it come to be? Wittgenstein's answer to this would seem to be that nothing at all can be said, that of such a question we can only be silent. Which is little help for the inquisitive, let alone the logical, or those seeking a comfortable doctrine.
Anyway, I have approached much of what I see to be Wittgenstein's thought from the "eastern" side, but as he seemed to have no knowledge of Zen, Dogen, the Tao et al, I really have no idea if I am another who totally fails to grasp just what Ludwig was talking about - or rather, NOT talking about.
But an excellent biography from Ray Monk, the first half more light and enjoyable than the second, but really the actual events of Wittgenstein's life would dictate that such would be so.
I expected rather more on the famous 'poker' incident - what was at stake psychologically and philosophically when Popper and LW had their famous row in Cambridge. Likewise I would have liked a final chapter attempting to sum it all up. As it is, LW lives then dies and that's it. Given LW's apparent sympathies with Soviet revolutionary ideas, more on how LW saw WW2 and the degeneration of Soviet Russia would have been interesting - the war and purges and famines rumble on in the background.
Quibbles. Any biography is at best a tiny snapshot. And this one is a towering, readable and engrossing effort.
Top international reviews
個人的には、第一次大戦に志願し前線で戦う彼が幾度となく手記に書き記す言葉に鳥肌が立ちました。Thy will be done!…「御心が成就されますことを」
“Then the startling words; said Black, ‘I wonder if you would be so kind, Professor Wittgenstein…’ Well, when Black said ‘Wittgenstein’ a loud and instantaneous gasp went up from the assembled students. You must remember: ‘Wittgenstein’ was a mysterious and awesome name in the philosophical world of 1949, at Cornell in particular. The gasp that went up was just the gasp that would have gone up if Black had said ‘I wonder if you would be so kind, Plato…'” (quoting Nelson, 558).
Ludwig Wittgenstein was, as the above quotations betray, a towering philosophical giant in the 20th century — possibly, the greatest of his generation. In this fine, magisterial biography, Ray Monk details this illustrious yet tortured life.
Born into an lucrative family of immense wealth in Austria, young Ludwig displayed no early signs of “genius,” unlike his older siblings. Eventually, though, Ludwig would be possessed by his own “genius,” not of musical talent but of intellectual rigor. One could say that the impetus of Wittgenstein’s philosophical career is to learn how to say something clearly. Clarity was his obsession: “What can be said, can be said clearly” (credits to Michael Pierce’s YouTube, “Wittgenstein in a Nutshell”). This will be the extend of my summary of Wittgenstein’s thought (to be honest, this was the most arduous task of Monk’s book, personally speaking, not because Monk was unclear but the concepts were quite difficult to grasp).
Wittgenstein had a long list of friends-become-“fri-enemies.” This is due partly to his passionate, self-assertive nature and his incredulous reaction when learned people (e.g., professors of philosophy) cannot understand or grasp his self-proclaimed clear reasonings. On more than one occasion, Wittgenstein would storm out in frustration if he sensed his audience or interlocutor misunderstand and misappropriate his words and sentences. Yet, this is not to mean that Wittgenstein did not cherish friendships — but the very opposite. Yes, he would dominate most conversations about his own philosophical inquiries. Yes, he would, at times, escape the lurid, egoistic life of London to be isolated in Norway. But he would also regularly mail impassioned letters to old and new friends, watch movies (Westerns were his favorite), attend concerts, and go on long walks coupled with intimate conversations. Moments before he lost consciousness, he told his host-friend, Mrs Bevan (the wife of the doctor who treated during Wittgenstein’s last years), to tell his friends: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”
What did I conclude? One, that a lot of his reputation is based on a cult of personality, based on some of these factors: as a rising philosopher, he was young, attractive, informally dressed; in lecture he was demanding, with the speed of flow of his ideas making him hard to follow, making him mysterious. His personal eccentricities added to interest in him. Some quotes:
. . . the fervent allegiance to W that was given by most of the young Cambridge philosophers as this time. Ryle was disturbed to find that veneration for W was so incontinent that mentions of any other philosophers were greeted with jeers.
. . . W himself often felt that he had a bad influence on his students, People imitated his gestures, adopted his expressions, even wrote philosophy in a way that made use of his techniques – all, it seems, without understanding the point of his work.
The second thing that I concluded was that his concepts were so difficult to understand that it’s questionable that there will be a continuing interest in his published works. He wrote two major books. The first, the Tractatus, he later decided that it was full of faults, and his philosophy went off in another direction, finally ending up as what was published in Philosophical Investigations. of which Monk writes:
. . .Other great philosophical works can be read with interest and entertainment by someone who wants to know “what the philosopher said”. But if Philosophical Investigations is read in this spirit it will quickly become boring and a chore to read, not because it is intellectually difficult, but because it will be practically impossible to gather what W is saying.
Other quotes regarding difficulty:
(Regarding a series of debates with Alan Turing) , . . many of those who attended did not grasp what was at stake between the two. They were on the whole more interested in W than in mathematics. Malcolm, although he was aware that W was doing something important, understood almost nothing of the lectures until ten years later.
. . . she asked him how many people he thought understood his philosophy. He pondered the question for a long time before he replied, Two”.
All the above comments may be criticized by professional philosophers who will say that I can’t even follow the basic arguments that are currently interesting in philosophy. That’s probably true, but that’s largely because those arguments have little value for me.
I want to add, as sort of an analogy, my reaction to a biography of Willem de Kooning, read for the same reason: why is he important? I found the same cult of personality and, on my part, the same lack of understanding of his works. People who will pay millions for one of his paintings will claim that they understand what he is saying. It’s always cool to say you understand something that you can’t have the slightest knowledge about. For me it’s true of de Kooning, and I end up wondering how true it may be of Wittgenstein.
The book is highly recommended. Whether you agree with my ideas of W’s importance or not, this is a superb biography, clearly written and always interesting.
An extremely good introduction to Wittgenstein’s philosophy ( or anti-philosophy ) showing the ‘logical’ progression from the Tractatus to later works.
A deep study of his life, thoughts and motivations. No doubt a tortured, troubled, and confused individual. But so what. Aren’t we all.
I won’t justify here why I think he was ultimately stupid and dishonest except to say that like Popper I would have felt like hitting him.
( never would have - of course violence is unacceptable. )
His views on the foundations of mathematics - just to take one example - were infantile. According to him Godel’s results were trivial and irrelevant and it is not at all clear that he even understood them. This is the point of view of an arrogant poser who doesn’t know sh** from clay.
On the personal level imagine a Cambridge professor who tells all of his impressionable students that the academic life is not real or genuine and that they should drop out and find something meaningful. How many of them took him seriously and did so!? But for a long long time he didn’t do it himself. He didn’t need too, he could generate his own oxygen. Bullsh**. Hypocritical and harmful.
His accounts of language use in later works are of some value.
It’s all a lot more sophisticated than was generally thought. Researchers into AI, automated language processing, Machine Learning may find useful and interesting ideas. And how deeply Wittgenstein would have detested such an application.
For him it was all part of his life long moralistic anti-philosophical crusade - which for a few decades was fashionably top of the pops but has since then dwindled. Mercifully for us all.
Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein was born on April 27, 1889, in Vienna, Austria-Hungary. He died at the age of 62 on April 29, 1951, in Cambridge, England. Many academic professionals rate him as the most important and most influential philosopher of the 20th century.
Wittgenstein had two completely different careers: the “early" Wittgenstein, author of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), a work which many critics believed (incorrectly) that Wittgenstein was a logical positivist, and the “late” Wittgenstein, author of Philosophical Investigations (published posthumously in 1953) in which he argued that all philosophical "problems" are merely linguistic confusions--misunderstandings of the proper use of language.
In Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein wrote: "Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. Philosophy does not result in 'philosophical propositions,' but rather in the clarification of propositions. Without philosophy, thoughts are, as it were, cloudy and indistinct: its task is to make them clear and to give them sharp boundaries."
A person who is only passingly familiar with Wittgenstein and his philosophy probably has heard at least of Wittgenstein's explication of "language games," a method which, he affirms shows that the words and concepts of our various "languages" are rooted in our idiosyncratic "life-stream" and are formed by the particular culture which we inherited and inhabit. Wittgenstein's explanation of how "language games" work (and often don't work) is one of the most fascinating and intriguing aspects of his philosophy, especially as found in his Philosophical Investigations.
Wittgenstein also stated, "Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language." The aim in philosophy is to dispel the fog of confusion, or to use another metaphor, "to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle."
At Trinity College, Cambridge, Wittgenstein was a protégé, and later the "master," of another world-famous philosopher, Bertrand Russell, who described Wittgenstein's philosophy as "a curious kind of logical mysticism." A troubled and tortured individual, Wittgenstein is portrayed by Ray Monk as a relentless truth-seeker who struggled to live with ethical seriousness, honesty, and integrity.
Was Wittgenstein a genius? Dictionary.com provides this definition: "genius.--[a person] having an exceptional natural capacity of intellect, especially as shown in creative and original work in science, art, music, etc.: the genius of Mozart." One's evaluation and assessment of Wittgenstein's ostensible genius depends not only upon one's level of intelligence and culture, but also upon one's own philosophical stance, including the ability, or inability, to "see" life and the world from a perspective akin to Wittgenstein's.
Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius is a brilliant work that presents an embarrassment of riches defying the ability of reviewers to do it justice. If it is legitimate to make such a claim, Ray Monk shows in this volume that in the genre of writing biographies, he is himself a genius!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ray Monk is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southampton, England, where he has taught since 1992. His interests lie in the philosophy of mathematics, the history of analytic philosophy, and philosophical aspects of biographical writing. His works include Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921 (1996); Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness, 1921-1970 (2001); and Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center (2014).
Monk sheds light on Wittgenstein so we can relate to him and see his struggles behind his greatest published achievements.
The life of Wittgenstein was certainly surprising and even more astounded he could get that much work done with everything going on in his life.
This was recommended to me by a High School critical thinking professor - good choice of author (Monk).
As far as the book itself - arrived quickly, no damage or wear to be seen.
I have been taking a great deal of intellectual pleasure in reading this book. Granted, philosophers and those interested in philosophy will always be a minority, but for a few special types this is the perfect book. It is the best biography I've read since Morris' volumes on Theodore Roosavelt. I'm VERY GLAD to have found it.