“Perhaps the best place to begin trying to understand Wittgenstein’s character,” the British philosopher Colin McGinn once remarked, “is with the photographs that exist of his face.” Looking into Wittgenstein’s eyes, McGinn went on, it is hard to meet his gaze for very long:
They are imploring eyes yet with an intense rage flaring just behind the iris, sending off an unnerving blend of supplication and admonition…. The look is simultaneously delicate and military, tender and ferocious. If you stare hard at the face, it seems to shift aspect from one of these poles to the other…. You feel the excitement and peril of an encounter with the man.
It is possible to be fairly sure which pictures McGinn has in mind here, since there are relatively few surviving photographs of the great philosopher and, of those, only a handful show him looking straight into the camera. Because so many books on Wittgenstein have been published since his death in 1951, most of these pictures have been reproduced many times and have thus become very familiar. Best known, perhaps, is the one taken in Swansea in 1947, which shows Wittgenstein, then fifty-eight years old, standing in front of a graffiti-laden wall, his lined face gazing into the camera with precisely the combination of tenderness and ferocity McGinn describes.
That image forms the cover of Ludwig Wittgenstein: Ein biographisches Album, a handsome, beautifully produced book that contains just about every surviving photograph of Wittgenstein, together with many others of his friends, his family, and the places where he lived and worked. What is unusual about this book is that there is almost no text linking the photographs or attempting to explain their background. In place of such commentary, we have extracts (usually in German, but sometimes in English) from Wittgenstein’s letters, his journals, and his philosophical writings, together with extracts from the writings of his family members and friends.
The book is the direct descendent of the 1983 volume Ludwig Wittgenstein—Sein Leben in Bildern und Texten, edited by Michael Nedo together with Michele Ranchetti, an Italian poet, historian, and all-around intellectual who died in 2008. Indeed, so large is the overlap between the two books (I would say roughly 90 percent of the pictures and texts in this new book were also in the old one) that it might be more natural to regard this book as merely a second edition of its predecessor, except that that is not how it bills itself. The earlier book is not mentioned anywhere on the cover, the title page, or among the bibliographic details of this new volume. In fact, as far as I can see, the only mention of it is in Nedo’s acknowledgments, in which he thanks his erstwhile coeditor, “with whom I edited the 1983 Suhrkamp biography, Ludwig Wittgenstein—Sein Leben in…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.