Ludwig, Phoney?


Again, on with my crank-curmudgeon cap! As a young man, I was intensely interested in philosophy, particularly what is called “analytical” philosophy, i.e. the brand favored by the Anglo-American coven of cogitators. Of course, Ludwig Wittgenstein is a major figure among them, despite the fact that he seemed rather cool to them at many times in his tortured life. These days, I am inclined to agree with a tutor I had during a semester abroad in the UK who thought that LW was a bit of a fraud. I was shocked at the time – was my Oxford tutor’s opinion influenced by oxbridge rivalry?  (Witt was a Cambridge man.)

He came from a Viennese family of incredible wealth and accomplishment in fields of the intellect, the arts, and business. His was also a tormented family – three of his four brothers committed suicide. Do we need to be disciples of the man Nabokov calls the “Viennese witchdoctor” to be convinced that this must have had a tremendous effect on Ludwig? Should we be surprised at his life of never ending searching for…truth, a home, an identity? Raised in a family of converted Jews in a society rife with Jew-haters, a family of suicides and neurotics…should we expect that he would have been normal? And, of course, he too was brilliant.

Wittgenstein hardly wrote anything. Okay, neither did Socrates, but things were different then. There is his Tractatus, for which he was belatedly granted a doctorate, and which he later repudiated, and there is a manual for grammar school instruction during his stint as a schoolteacher.  All of his “works” are books compiled from lecture notes taken by his students. He never developed a coherent philosophical system, or any system, but he excelled at logical analysis of a wide variety of philosophical “puzzles.” He also did time as a religious recluse, dabbled seriously in architecture, was a closeted homosexual, and he was extremely unpredictable socially.

Ludwig once remarked that he saw no use for philosophy if it did not answer the questions of how one is to live. I agree, but his Oxbridge friends did not. What the heck do logical positivists care about spiritual issues of life? They are just “badly formed” propositions! Logical analysis will show all those anxious gropings to be simply metaphysical fluff. To say that a question was metaphysical, well, that was the ultimate put-down for those fellows. I mean Bertrand Russell, A.J. Ayer, G.E. Moore, etc.

But Ludwig was right, I think, and that’s what he was doing. Trying to answer those questions of how to live, because he did not know how to. Eccentric, erotically different, brilliant, reclusive, tortured, compassionate and arrogant, displaced by war, his native milieu destroyed by WWI and then Hitler, he was alone and searching. I think he was near mad. When he asks questions about how we know anything, he’s not coming at the question from the academic point of view of a sceptically inclined epistemologist – he’s asking it as a person on the edge of mental disintegration. It’s a REAL question for him.

I once read of a tragic case of a brilliant young man who was felled by serious schizophrenia and was lost in a world of paranoid delusions and fantasy. His father, distraught of course, could never rid himself of the hope that his genius-son would find a way to “think himself out of this.” Alas, he never did. I think this is what Wittgenstein was trying to do. It doesn’t invalidate his philosophical work, such as it is, but it sure puts a different spin on it. And then, of course, there is the objection of Popper that philosophy should not be about “solving puzzles” in the first place.  To see it that way one must feel one is trapped and that the “philosophical solution” is the only way out, or be the type that doesn’t take it very seriously to begin with.

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2 Responses to Ludwig, Phoney?

  1. elberry says:

    He was indeed close to madness; his work has the intensity of psychic brinksmanship. i don’t think he could really manage ordinary living. He was like a sports car jammed in the highest gear, unable to simply get on with things without analysing them & demanding perfection; which, however, made him a good engineer.

    i think his philosophy did help him live, inasmuch as he probably would have gone over the edge without the self-imposed strain of his speculations. Did it help other people? The Tractatus helped me a great deal, not in the details of how to make breakfast or buy shoelaces, but in how to think about thought; which was a valuable insight in many, very earthy ways.

    An odd chap, all said.

  2. Guy Savage says:

    I decided to read a book about his family. They sound like a fascinating, seriously disturbed lot.

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