Ludwig Wittgenstein had a mad, mad life. Behind his austere face and penetrating glare, one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable minds endured a harrowing life of upheaval and dissatisfaction, all while over-turning the philosophical world not once but twice.
Born into Viennese high-society in the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s pomp, the Wittgenstein family was brought up in extreme wealth, and an apparent complete lack of empathy, by their steel magnate father Karl. Three of Ludwig’s brothers (Hans, Rudi and Kurt) committed suicide in their early twenties while Ludwig himself dealt with depression and self-doubt throughout his life, guilty over his then-taboo homosexuality, while also having to arrange for his family to escape persecution on account of their Judaic roots during the Anschluss, led by – somewhat unbelievably – former schoolmate Adolf Hitler.
Wittgenstein studied engineering and ended up in Manchester, where a fascination with the fundamentals of mathematics led him to Cambridge. He became a protégé of renowned philosopher Bertrand Russell, right up until he signed up to fight in WWI for the Kaiser, winning medals for bravery. While in a P.O.W. camp in Italy, he finished his first book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The Tractatus is a concise, axiomatic work discussing how language and logic operate. Wittgenstein considered his work to have finished the problems of philosophy, the most famous line of which is its final seventh proposition, often translated as “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
Wittgenstein retired from philosophy, considering it all wrapped up in a neat little package, leaving prominent philosophers such as the “Vienna Circle” to become enthralled by his work. He tried his hand at teaching schoolchildren (a disaster) and architecture (where his aloof intensity fared much better), designing the Adolf Loos-inspired Haus Wittgenstein in Vienna.
Having decided that, in actual fact, he’d gotten it all wrong, he found his way back to philosophy, and, returning to Cambridge, used the Tractatus (which he himself then refuted) as a doctoral submission to become a professor there. Wittgenstein spent his later years constantly warring with himself and the academic philosophical establishment, moving from place to place, including a remote Norwegian cabin and the Wicklow mountains (where his legacy is being celebrated by the Mermaid Art Centre’s Wittgenstein Project this summer.) He engaged in Platonic, longing relationships with adoring male acolytes, worked in wartime hospitals and, most importantly, recorded his thoughts on the nature of language, the mind and many other areas.
Though he didn’t publish the major work of his late career, Philosophical Investigations, while alive, its appearance two years after his death provided the summation of much of his thought throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Since its publication in 1953, the influence of his thought has been felt both within and beyond the philosophical world.
Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein (Blackwell Publishing, 1953)
Philosophical Investigations is written aphoristically, in numbered paragraphs-statements that are at turns lucid, poetic and frowningly dense. Wittgenstein claims that language is a tool shaped by use and context (within ‘Language Games’) rather than having an essential connection to the world-in-and-of-itself, thus dissolving rather than solving philosophical problems. Obviously.
The Duty Of Genius by Ray Monk (Penguin Books, 1991)
While I have attempted to scrub through a timeline of his lot here, Ray Monk’s thorough and thoroughly readable biography gives rich detail of the trying times of Wittgenstein’s fascinating life, both as a philosopher and a troubled mind.
Proverb by Steve Reich (1995)
Reich wrote an undergraduate thesis on Wittgenstein, and a musical manifesto in a similarly aphoristic style, “Music as a Gradual Process.” The piece Proverb used a line from Wittgenstein’s writings – “How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life!” – as its lyrical inspiration.