Category: Wittgenstein biographies

A Wittgenstein biography, my thoughts on it, and a tangent (that is, a rant)

I realized something yesterday while browsing at Barnes and Noble:  for being so interested in Wittgenstein, I know little about his life, what sort of person he was to his friends/peers/colleagues, or what his mind might have been occupied with when it wasn’t too busy attending to philosophical problems and/or language games.

I looked at a Wittgenstein biography for probably the first time yesterday, too.  Now, before moving on, let me point out that had I started out the post with:

p: I realized yesterday while at Barnes and Noble that I hadn’t ever read a Wittgenstein biography, so I decided to pick one up.

Then it would have seemed that the realization (that I hadn’t known much about Wittgenstein (the actual person)) somehow caused, or was an intention of the expressed action of actually viewing a Wittgenstein biography.

Now, getting back to the biography–yes, it’s stellar.  I am referring now to Ray Monk’s Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius

Monk apparently had a lot of access to Wittgenstein’s personal writings.  Appropriately, Ludwig’s personal writings, which seemed to be mostly about his failing–and to some extent, delusional–romances, did little to give sense to his philosophical concerns.  More significant, however, is the sort of person they illustrated:  a cynical, depressed, but often witty individual who also didn’t exactly reserve his sense of philosophical pride. 

That is to say, Wittgenstein knew what others thought about him, why they did, and above all else, Wittgenstein seemed(at least later in life, according to my interpretation of the provided personal writings) to have little doubt that he was a ‘true’ philosopher and that academia could go to hell.

Of particular interest to me was Monk’s commentary on the failing relationship between Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein.  Despite the fact that Wittgenstein came to appall Russell’s popular writings (e.g. those that he wrote while studying in America during the 1940’s), he never lost a sense of respect for Russell’s capacity for logical reasoning.  Russell also seemed to maintain respect for Wittgenstein’s logical insights. 

Anyway, clearly I did not read a majority of the book, for had that been the case, I would have probably mentioned the circumstances of his death (well, I know some of the basics) and/or the sort of life he led while he came to articulate and expand on key philosphical insights. 

AND GO RANT, GO (if you are particulary offended by spontaneous rants about interpretations of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy that pack little in the way of textual citations, then continue to read on assuming that’s what you want to do!)

Then again, I suppose I may have been a bit tired of summarized information about his philosophical attitude(s): Wittgenstein’s later philosophy (I qualify with “later” because I don’t feel exactly qualified to comment on his earlier philosophy–I adore the logical integrity of the Tractatacus but haven’t spent enough time with it) is better appreciated through primary (not secondary) resources. 

One of these days I’ll take the time to dig up some of my own notes about the bizarre, if not grossly convenient or”straightforward” reconstructions of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy (i.e. anything after the realization that “we play games with language”) provided by analytic and post-analytic thinkers.  When I say “grossly convenient” I mean providing an interpretation that explicitly coheres with some philosophical remark being argued for by the interpretor.  Off the top of my head, it might go like this:

1.  We should think about language and meaning in terms of social naturalism, because social naturalism is true, or useful, or something akin to either true or useful.

2. Oh, and see here’s a passage of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy (note: it would most likely be one of the top 20 most quoted passages of the PI) that is consistent with social naturalism (further note: “consistent with social naturalism” would mean here “the quoted passage constains the words “natural” or “social” and the relevant terms of expressed in a way intelligible to the theory “social naturalism” as explicated by the author)

Anyway, I’m sure I’m being too harsh.  I just don’t think that its at all helpful to say something like:

Wittgenstein was a social naturalist because he thought language, meaning, and intentionality were determined via social forces.

In an uninsightful way, I suppose that much is intelligible if not (to some extent) true.  But you could say also that “President Bush is not a proponent of continental philosophy because he said he doesn’t appreciate history for fear of the effect of “knowing” history: it would change his policy/mind about things he doesn’t want to change.” 

The analogy, while obviously bizarre, is meant to express the fact that in both cases, the interpretation is providing an intention to a thinker in virtue of the convenient use of a term.  In the first, the term is “social naturalism” while in the second, the term is “continental philosophy”.  Social naturalism could be explained in many, many, ways depending on how one is accustomed to the use of the term, and the same is DEFINITELY true of the term “continental philosophy” (e.g. the term “continental philosophy” means something VERY different to “analytic” philosophers as compared to “non-analytic” philosophers–it’s a political matter that many students of philosophy are completely naive of, so I won’t go into it here).


I spontaneously decided to end my rant because I have grossly expired the time I intended to expend on this pursuit! 

Haha, anyway, moral of the post: if you want a really interesting and well-informed biography about the Life (in Wittgenstein’s sense of the term) of Mr. Wittgenstein, in particular his delusional romances and overly-critical (but quite hilarious) autobiographical ramblings about his peers (in particular, Russell and Mill’s wife) then definitely check it out. 

Disclaimer: no, I’m neither an amazon affiliate nor a barnes and noble affiliate (assuming the latter is actually possible…I’m assuming it is!)