The Wittgenstein Illusion

Michael Nedo
The Wittgenstein family in Vienna, summer 1917. From left, siblings Kurt, Paul, and Hermine Wittgenstein; their brother-in-law, Max Salzer; their mother, Leopoldine Wittgenstein; Helene Wittgenstein Salzer; and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

We are inclined to think that there must be something in common to all games, say, and that this common property is the justification for applying the general term “game” to the various games; whereas games form a family the members of which have family likenesses. Some of them have the same nose, others the same eyebrows and others again the same way of walking; and these likenesses overlap.

So said Ludwig Wittgenstein in The Blue Book ; but none of the students who pored over that collection of lecture notes, which circulated samizdat -style in the Cambridge of the 1930s, could have guessed at the autobiographical bearing of Wittgenstein’s metaphor. For as Alexander Waugh shows in The House of Wittgenstein, the resemblances that united the philosopher with his own family were more than just physical. It was, above all, the ways they suffered that made the Wittgensteins one.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s background was something of an enigma to his colleagues. F.R. Leavis, hearing him mention that he had grown up in a house with seven pianos, concluded that he must be related to Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, who was the lifelong mistress of Franz Liszt. It was “widely believed in Cambridge that he was of the princely German family,” writes Ray Monk in his biography Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius.*

In fact, his name did come from that family, but not because he was their descendant. Rather, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s great-grandfather, Moses Meyer, was the land agent for the Sayn-Wittgensteins. In 1808, when Germany was under Napoleonic rule, Jews were compelled by law to adopt a fixed surname, instead of identifying themselves by patronymic, and Moses Meyer took his employers’ name as his own. His son, Hirsch Moses Meyer, six years old at the time, was henceforth known as Hermann Wittgenstein; when he converted to Protestantism, in his thirties, he added the middle name Christian.

It is by the echt -German name Hermann Christian Wittgenstein that the patriarch of the family is introduced by Alexander Waugh in The House of Wittgenstein. There is no hint, in the opening pages where the family’s genealogy is laid out, that Hermann was Jewish; on the contrary, Waugh mentions “his Protestant ethic and his anti-Semitic sensibility,” which tend to give rather the opposite impression. Both ethic and sensibility, Waugh writes, were offended by the decision of Hermann’s son Karl, the philosopher’s father, to marry a half-Jewish woman, Leopoldine Kalmus. “My son Karl,” Hermann wrote gruffly to his future daughter-in-law, “unlike his brothers and sisters, has always, from his earliest youth, chosen to follow his own direction.” He was, in fact, the only one of Hermann’s eleven children to take…

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