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Brilliant philosopher or nutty professor?
on 20 November 2011
Writing a life of Ludwig Wittgenstein would be a challenge to anyone.
Not only was he a strange kind of man with none of the ambitions most people share - a spouse, children, home, career etc. - but most people had no idea what he was talking about. He comes over a deep thinker one moment and a nutty professor the next.
On top of that, he kept changing his views - rejecting and modifying them - dithering one minute and being dogmatic the next.
He was a very rich Austrian of Jewish descent but he eventually gave all his money away and then spent the rest of his life living modestly in places as different as Cambridge, Norway, Wales and Ireland.
He was a soldier on the Austrian side in the First World War, a hospital porter in England in the Second World War, a student of engineering in Manchester, a lecturer at Cambridge, and one of the most prominent philosophers of his time, a friend of people like Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore and John Maynard Keynes.
He was engaged to be married once but nothing came of it and he appears to have been a homosexual although the writer takes a rather discreet approach to this part of his life.
There is plenty of material for a biographer and Monk has done a fairly good job of chronicling it but the reader should be aware that this book gives as much weight to Wittgenstein's philosophy as to his private life.
This makes it tough going at times and, despite the pages spent on trying to assess Wittgenstein's philosophy, Monk fails to explain what Wittgenstein actually believed in or why he was so important as a philosopher or as a mathematician.
Even some of Wittgenstein's students had no idea what he was talking about. One of his American devotees says it took him 10 years to understand.