How weird was Ludwig Wittgenstein?
Once he had hoped to x-ray language and expose the hidden solidities of meaning and logic; now he is interested in the meaning of surfaces – he wants to explore how ordinary language is used in ordinary contexts. The results of his investigations do not lend themselves to a slim volume, and he fails to complete another book in his lifetime. He died in 1951, at the age of sixty-two, of prostate cancer, leaving behind him dozens of respectful students and several thousand pages of unpublished manuscripts.
Such, in any case, are the fundamental facts of Wittgenstein’s life. To get an idea of what he was, we must turn to anecdotes. These give an idea of the presence of the man, with his flannel shirts, leather jackets and tweed caps, his resounding tenor voice. They also give an idea of the environment – the spartan rooms with their canvas chairs and iron stove – where he staged his terrifying performances of thought.
The American philosopher Norman Malcolm, who was a pupil of Wittgenstein, wrote of the “frequent and prolonged periods of silence” in his lectures, how sometimes, “when he tried to draw a thought from himself, he forbade , with a peremptory wave of the hand, questions or remarks. Malcolm continues: “His gaze was focused; his face was alive; his hands made startling movements; his expression was stern. We knew that we were in the presence of extreme seriousness, absorption and force of intelligence. . . . Wittgenstein was a scary person in these classes. He was very impatient and easily angered.
A lot of things made him angry: someone who didn’t take care of one of his houseplants, a student who couldn’t form a thought. (“I might as well be talking to that stove!”) But he could only sustain the intensity for so long. A few hours of that, and he’d be ready for a trip to the “movies.”
He hated British films and generally insisted on American films, being a particular fan of Carmen Miranda. (He was also a fan of the pulpy murder mysteries served up in the magazine detective story.) He sat in the front row to see nothing but the screen, perhaps fearing the memories of the exhausting lecture. Woe to any companion who tries to talk to him. There was only the movie on the screen, and Wittgenstein, delighted in his seat, munching on a cold pork pie.
Of the students who still turn up every year for introductory lessons at Wittgenstein, some of them are there for the genius logician, the inspiration behind both something called “logical positivism” and something that s opposes it, called “philosophy of ordinary language”. But other students are there for Wittgenstein the wise, the magician, the diviner – the man who left Russell baffled by a turn to mysticism at the end of a book supposedly about logic.
The book in question, the “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus”, bears the imprint of the two Wittgensteins. The work was composed during a period of military leave in the summer of 1918, from these notebooks. It was published in 1921 in German and in English the following year. Whether anyone understood it then or since is an open question.
One of the few things it’s safe to say about the “Tractatus” is that it’s concerned with the line between the effable and the ineffable. What, if anything, is beyond language? Some of Wittgenstein’s earliest readers – the so-called logical positivists of interwar Vienna – saw in him a kindred spirit, someone tracing the “boundaries of meaning”, as they did, around the proposals of the natural sciences. Almost everyone now rejects this interpretation of the “Tractatus”, but without agreeing on another.
It’s hard to know what to make of a book that begins with “The world is all that is” and ends with “What you can’t talk about, you must be silent about.” The numbering of propositions (from 1 to 7, with countless nested propositions – 5,251 and so on), the use of symbols and a special idiolect, all suggest the kind of work a mathematician should understand. But then we come up against verses – allusive, enigmatic – which would not be out of place in a piece of modernist poetry. A queer book, therefore, by a queer man.
The strangest thing of all in the “Tractatus” is its notorious proposition 6.54, near the end of the text, which states, among its propositions, “he who understands me finally recognizes them as nonsense”. The reader must “overcome these propositions; then he sees the world correctly. The lines inspired heated debate about how Wittgenstein intended his book to be read, and how seriously that remark itself should be taken. But it has been recognized as significant that Wittgenstein spoke of “understanding me” rather than “understanding my propositions”.
Clever students can eventually make sense of logic and produce elegant little essays on “meaning picture theory”, “logical atomism” and “the telling/showing distinction”. But intelligence seems the wrong virtue to employ to understand a man who tells us, mysteriously, that “the world of the happy man is quite different from that of the unhappy man” (6.43). Or that “he who lives in the present lives forever” (6.4311). Taken out of context, the apparent mysticism comes dangerously close to kitsch. Some smart people (starting with Russell) have concluded that we better not care.
But others see in these remarks an appeal to a rarer virtue than skill. A virtue that could be described as depth. Wittgenstein, Malcolm recalls, compared philosophical thought to swimming: “Just as the body has a natural tendency to the surface and one has to make a effort To arrive at low— so it is with thought. Whatever the depth, Wittgenstein is one of the few 20th-century canon philosophers to lay claim to it. This is the real basis of its place in the canon, and it manifests itself in the voice of the “Tractatus”, which can switch without warning from the technical to the confessional. This unprecedented mixing of registers is another aspect of the queerness of the text. The challenge of understanding the “Tractatus” is therefore not easily separable from the challenge of understanding the man who wrote it.
The interpretative industry around Wittgenstein did not lack material. Bootlegs (samizdat copies of lecture notes, coded notebooks, correspondence) would fill the shelves of a small library. Even now, after his grip on his discipline has loosened – few people walk around calling themselves Wittgensteinians – his life and personality continue to provide fertile ground for speculation.
Yet the overabundance of hardware makes the task, if anything, more difficult. Wittgenstein seems to have written and lived in a way trapped against performers. Elizabeth Anscombe, translator of much of his later work and the most brilliant of his devoted disciples, argued that what made Wittgenstein’s thought so difficult to interpret was that “he was constantly searching”. His philosophy was never “a finished thing”.
The formidable challenge of making sense of the things Wittgenstein said was not made easier by the periodic announcement of the discovery of yet another trove of hitherto little-known material. The final volume, of what appears to be a growing Nachlass, is an edition of Wittgenstein’s surviving notebooks from the first half of World War I, “Private Notebooks: 1914-1916” (Liveright). The right (recto) pages contained remarks which are clearly an embryonic form of the “Tractatus”. These pages have been widely available, with Anscombe’s English translation, since 1961, and Tractatus scholars have made extensive use of them. The left pages (back) were written in numbers.
Committed Wittgensteinians have had access to the full notebooks for some time now. German readers have known them by the somewhat tendentious title “Geheime Tagebücher” (“Diary”) since the beleaguered publication of this volume in 1991. Marjorie Perloff, the editor and translator of this new edition, the first to contain a facing -page English translation, clarifies that the back of the text was not especially secret. After all, the cipher used by Wittgenstein was both basic and known to his siblings, who used it as children (z is a, there is betc.).
Why did it take so long for there to be an edition widely available? Answering that question involves delving into the motivations of a wide range of colorful characters, and Perloff’s afterword provides a helpfully succinct summary of the deliberations. The “Tractatus” and a short article were about all Wittgenstein published during his lifetime. But he wrote abundantly, and he shared his thoughts, from the beginning of the 1930s, in conferences or discussion groups with selected gatherings of amazed students. At his death some twenty thousand manuscript and typewritten pages remained to his executors (Anscombe, Rush Rhees and Georg Henrik von Wright); the material belonged to them, according to his will, “to dispose of it as they saw best”.