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Customer Review

on 11 May 2009
The positivist, analytical tradition in philosophy is what most people would associate Wittgenstein with in the first instance, provided they had heard of him in the first place. Because of his, and because of his philosophical attacks on the meaningfulness of the concepts of metaphysics, theology, spirituality and even most of logic, he is often depicted as some sort of cold, unfeeling Grand Master sitting on a pinnacle of Genius of Philosophy. But as Ray Monk's biography shows with much vigour, he was in reality a very troubled, confused, unhappy, spiritual, and above all very human person.

Making use of all the manuscripts available as well as the many correspondences of Wittgenstein, Ray Monk, a philosopher at the U of Southampton, is able to show the Wittgenstein we know as a person that one could not only sympathize with, but even pity. Because as it appears from the biography, Wittgenstein was a deeply unhappy man. His relationships were, from early life on, troubled - not as often supposed because of their bisexual nature, but rather because of his general revulsion to what he calls "sensuality" on the whole, and his tendency to flee from the people he loved. His friendships fared no better, since Wittgenstein was both fickle and dominating, unable to deal with disagreement and very strong in his views even on very minor things of daily life - which leads to repeated diary notes and comments by everyone, from Keynes to Russell, on how talking to Wittgenstein was simply too exhausting. Add to this a constant wrestling with the fact that Wittgenstein was very religious, yet thought all religious theory meaningless babble, and you have a recipe for depression.

Monk of course also pays attention to the content of his philosophical views, and makes sure that these are, in broad outlines, accessible and useful to a general public. For specialists and professional philosophers this will rather be a tantalizing overview than a sufficient working out of Wittgenstein's philosophical views, but fortunately Monk has also written several works of secondary literature on the subject, so that people can read those if they enjoy this biography (which I would certainly read first): How to Read Wittgenstein. What Monk does best is to integrate these philosophical viewpoints into the larger narrative of his life, precisely as a good biography of a philosopher requires. The only thing I found somewhat unsatisfying was why Wittgenstein changed his views so strongly after the Tractatus, more or less rejecting the entire foundation this work was based on. One would have expected something personal to reflect as radically the change in philosophy, but either it isn't there, or Monk doesn't bring it out.

The style of writing Monk uses is very pleasant, and he avoids being opinionated either way (though he seems to sympathize with Wittgenstein's spiritual problematic a lot more than I would). An appendix to the book also deals with the (in)famous Bartley's commentaries on Wittgenstein (Wittgenstein (Open Court Paperbacks)), in particular those parts dealing with his sex life. Ray Monk very sensibly here chooses the middle road - it is quite beyond any doubt that Wittgenstein had homosexual relations, but the idea of him prowling the Prater in search for rentboys belongs firmly in the domain of fantasy.
I devoured the 600-page biography of this neurotic genius in one weekend, owing to the fascinating nature of the subject as well as Monk's effective and lively portrayal of him. Very much recommended to a wide public.
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