‘A Wonderful Life’

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius

by Ray Monk
Free Press, 654 pp., $29.95

This is a wholly admirable biography. It is not easy to combine a continuous and intelligible story of a man’s life with a succinct account of his changing philosophical doctrines. Ray Monk succeeds both with the life and with the doctrines and he is the first person to make entirely clear the substantial interaction between them. He reports that he has had the full cooperation of Wittgenstein’s literary executors and he quotes freely from the more intimate and unphilosophical parts of Wittgenstein’s unpublished manuscripts. It is an odd fact about Wittgenstein that his peculiar nature as a person, and his true ambitions as a philosopher, have only been gradually revealed to an inquiring public, who for many years were provoked to ever-increasing curiosity by the mysteries and rumors surrounding his reputation, mysteries that even extended to the name itself. The step-by-step unraveling of the mysteries over the years has certainly contributed to his fame and perhaps also to the continuing enchantments of his philosophy.

Wittgenstein was the youngest child of an immensely rich industrialist in Vienna, whose grandfather had been the originally Jewish land agent of the princely family of Seyn-Wittgenstein; the agent took his employer’s name. It is reported that the eight Wittgenstein children, of whom Ludwig was the youngest, enjoyed the services of twenty-four private tutors at one time. From the middle of the nineteenth century onward the Wittgensteins no longer regarded themselves as Jewish. Ludwig was later to say that he was “German through and through,” and he quite naturally joined the Austrian Army at the outbreak of the Great War without any sense of divided loyalties. In Britain after the war, he was sometimes happy and at ease in Wales and staying in Ireland, where he found that people in the street smiled in an acceptable way. He disliked England, and particularly Cambridge, where people could be heard saying “Oh, really” in a quite unacceptable way.

Ray Monk makes clear by quotation how intensely Wittgenstein despised formality, artifice, and stiffness in social relations, and he found English academia particularly repellent. He thought English culture was entirely deplorable and degenerate. He liked to eat in eating places without table cloths, and if possible always the same food. He gave much of his considerable fortune to his family and the rest to assist writers, including the poet Trakl, and later, if he was not being paid by Cambridge, he sometimes did not have the money needed for his simple life. These tastes and predilections emerge as his biographer tells the story which begins with Wittgenstein’s arrival in England to work in Cambridge with Russell on logic before the First World War, and which continues after the war when he finally returns to Cambridge and then becomes, rather unhappily, professor of philosophy there. After the Nazis invaded Austria, he applied for and finally received a British passport.

Wittgenstein’s upbringing in the Vienna of Karl Kraus, Mahler, Schoenberg, Freud, and the avant-garde architect Adolf Loos, his close friend, has…

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