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Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius

Nancy Baker

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius
By Ray Monk.
The Free Press: New York, 1990,
646 pp., $29.95.

Ludwig Wittgenstein is perhaps the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, and certainly one of the most original in the entire Western tradition. Given the inaccessibility of his work, it is remarkable that he has inspired poems, paintings, films, musical compositions, titles of books—and even novels. In his splendid biography, Ray Monk has made this very compelling human being come alive in a way that perfectly explains the fascination he has evoked.

Wittgenstein's life was one of great moral and spiritual depth. Although his work addresses problems of logic, language, mind, and knowledge, he often described it as having an ethical point, and once said that he "could not help seeing every problem from a religious point of view." In successfully bridging the gap assumed by many to exist between Wittgenstein's life and his work, Monk's biography helps to explain the interest in Wittgenstein's later philosophy on the part of Buddhist scholars.

Wittgenstein was born in Vienna in 1889, the youngest child in a large, highly cultured, and exceedingly wealthy family. After being educated at home, Wittgenstein chose to study engineering, eventually ending up in England where he did research in aeronautics. Here he began to pursue an interest in mathematics which led to study with Bertrand Russell at Trinity College, Cambridge. Out of these years at Cambridge came the themes that inspired his first major work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Even though it is a work on logic and the relationship of language to the world, it ends with statements such as, "There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical." It may come as no surprise that this conclusion was written while its author was on active duty during World War I.

When war broke out Wittgenstein enlisted in the Austrian army in spite of a medical exemption from military service. He wanted to risk his life not for patriotic reasons but for spiritual and moral reasons and insisted on being sent to the front. In constant danger of losing his life, he reported, "From time to time I was afraid. This is the fault of a false view of life." Decorated for bravery he was also transformed.

For ten years after the war Wittgenstein remained in Austria where he became an elementary school teacher among the rural poor. It never occurred to him that he would have anything else to do with philosophy, but in 1929 he returned to philosophy and to England where he remained—aside from short hermit-like stays in Ireland and Norway—until his death in 1951. Out of this period came his Philosophical Investigations which forms the basis of later work.

Wittgenstein is unique in the history of Western philosophy for having produced two classics that in certain respects repudiate each other. A major theme of the later work is that philosophy should be therapy not theory. This antitheoretical stance echoes his views on religion and morality. In the case of religion, for example, he wrote, "I believe that one of the things Christianity says is that sound doctrines are all useless. That you have to change your life. (Or the direction of your life.)" In the case of philosophy, its job is not to add to our knowledge or to provide grounds for our knowledge, but to relieve us of conceptual confusion: "The philosopher's treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness." Philosophy "destroys nothing but houses of cards." It has as its goal nothing more than freedom from the need to philosophize. Throughout the biography, Monk demonstrates how the moral struggle to be totally true to one's self dominated Wittgensteins's life and work. He was acutely aware of the temptation to be dishonest when the impression he made on others was at stake, and several times in his life arranged to make a formal confession to a usually reluctant listener. Philosophically, the temptation of dishonesty to which we are prone is that of generalizing, resisting "an examination of details," resisting examining and breaking free of "the pictures that hold us captive," and thus avoiding the fact that the act of philosophizing is a moral act involving the will and not simply a cognitive act of conceptual understanding. Philosophy itself was a form of confession for Wittgenstein. His was a morality based on deep personal integrity and as Monk says, was one "that came from inside one's self rather than one imposed from outside by rules, principles and duties,"—another expression of his anti-theoretical stance. Of his character in this regard Iris Murdoch said of him:

His extraordinary directness of approach and the absence of any sort of paraphernalia were the things that unnerved people ... with most people, you meet them in a framework, and there are certain conventions about how you talk to them and so on. There isn't a naked confrontation of personalities. But Wittgenstein always imposed this confrontation on all his relationships. I met him only twice and I didn't know him well and perhaps that's why I always thought of him, as a person, with awe and alarm.

Wittgenstein's honesty also comes across in the biography in his striking lack of justification, explanation, or defense of himself. The same integrity can be seen in his style of writing not only in its purity of language but also in its lack of argument. 

"The duty of genius"—the subtitle of Monk's book—was for Wittgenstein the duty of full self-expression whether as philosopher, soldier, elementary school teacher, architect, writer, war-time hospital volunteer, confessor or friend. Early on he wondered whether his life was "de trop." He seemed not to be asking whether life was worth living, as if it were something general and external to him, but rather to be asking what would make his life worth living. On being told on his deathbed that his friends were on their way, his well-known last words were, "Tell them I've had a wonderful life." Given the fact that he seemed to suffer so much—emotionally, morally, and intellectually—these last words are surprising. What Monk's well-written and engrossing biography makes clear however, is that Wittgenstein's suffering was due to his having had the courage to push himself into places where most human beings are reluctant to go. His was a wonderful life, not in spite of this fact, but because of it. 

Nancy Baker is a professor of philosophy at Sarah Lawrence College and a coordinator of study programs at the Zen Community of New York.

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