L Wittgenstein

University of Chicago Press, 1977; quarter bound in vellum, with ‘Wittgenstein’ blocked in red, and fancy paper on boards.

The father of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s father was a wealthy Jewish wool merchant from Hesse.   He converted to Christianity – of the Protestant variety – and married the daughter of a Viennese banker.  Their son Karl was well educated but he took off for America while still a youth.  He returned to Vienna, studied engineering, made a fortune and became one of the leading industrialists of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.  His wife Leopoldine was also the daughter of a banker. She loved music, as her son Ludwig was to do.  Brahms and Mahler regularly visited the family.  She was Catholic, and Ludwig was brought up as a Catholic.

Karl had the children taught at home until they were fourteen.  When Ludwig left school he was not qualified to go to university.  He was sent to a technical school in Berlin.  He did not like it there, but he got an interest in aeronautical engineering which he decided to pursue at Manchester University. This is not blue ribbon stuff for high scholarship.

Wittgenstein actually played with the beginnings of jet engines, but his interest in engineering led to mathematics and then to philosophy.   Wittgenstein read the Principia Mathematica of Bertrand Russell and in 1907 Wittgenstein went to Cambridge to study with Russell. He spent only five terms there, but that was enough. Wittgenstein enlisted for the Army of Austria in World War I.  At the end of the war, he gave his share of the family fortune to his brothers and sisters.  They were able to use their wealth to escape being murdered by the Nazis. 

Wittgenstein appears to have remained deeply spiritual all his life.  Such a war as the one he fought in must have etched all kinds of things on a mind like Wittgenstein’s.  He was taken prisoner for a time and he had in his kit the manuscript of what would be his first book, Tractatus – Logico Politicus.   He taught at a school for a while and again thought of becoming a monk.  He tried his hand at building design before returning to Cambridge in 1929. He got a Ph.D. – which Oxford and Cambridge looked down on then – for his Tractatus.  He did not enjoy university life.  His rooms at Cambridge were like barracks.  He did not have a single book, painting, photo, or reading lamp.  He sat on a wooden chair and he wrote on a card table.  There were two canvas chairs and a fire-safe for his manuscripts.  This room served as study and class-room.  He kept a cotton stretcher in the second room. 

People were rarely neutral about Wittgenstein. They either loved him or they seriously disliked him.  He was about five feet six inches tall, had given up wearing a tie long ago, and had a gaze with the same transfixing power as that of one of his primary school classmates, Adolf Hitler.

Wittgenstein served his acquired home in the Second World War in hospitals – he had become a British national  After it, he developed what would now be called a cult following.   After a short visit to the United States in 1949 he learned that he had cancer.  He lived with various friends in Oxford or Cambridge until he died in 1951.  He was at peace with himself when he left us.  It says a lot for his character that the lodging in which he stayed at the time that he died was looked after by a landlady. Wittgenstein was in the habit of walking to the pub with her each night.  Wittgenstein would be about the most un-pub sort of person that God ever put on this earth, but he went out with his landlady for the walk and, moreover, would order two sherries.  He would give one to her and, since he did not drink, he would pour his over the flowers. That is not the conduct of a man bereft of humanity. 

Wittgenstein believed that the essence of religion lay in feelings and action rather than beliefs.  The book called Culture and Value is a collection of notes kept as a form of Commonplace Book by Wittgenstein from 1914 to 1951.  It contains observations on music and on the limitation of thought as well as religion.

What is good is also divine.  Queer as it sounds, that sums up my ethics.  Only something supernatural can express the Supernatural.

You cannot lead people to what is good; you can only lead them to some place or other.  The good is outside the space of facts.

This book [Philosophical Remarks] is written for those who are in sympathy with the spirit in which it is written.  This is not, I believe, the spirit of the main current of European and American civilisation.  The spirit of this civilisation makes itself manifest in the industry, architecture and music of our time, in its fascism and socialism, and it is alien and uncongenial to the author.

I am sure Bruckner composed just by imagining the sound of the orchestra in his head, Brahms with pen on paper.  Of course this is an over-simplification.  But it does highlight one feature.

What would it feel like not to have heard of Christ?

Religion as madness is a madness springing from irreligiousness.

Reading the Socratic Dialogues one has the feeling, what a frightful waste of time!  What’s the point of these arguments that prove nothing and clarify nothing?

Amongst ‘Jews’, ‘genius’ is found only in the holy man.  Even the greatest of Jewish thinkers is no more than talented.  (Myself for instance.)

The strength of the thoughts in Brahms’ music.

The spring which flows gently and limpidly in the Gospel seems to have froth on it in Paul’s Epistles.  Or that is how it seems to me.  Perhaps it is just my own impurity ….  But to me it’s as though I saw human passion here, something like pride or anger, which is not in tune with the humility of the Gospels.   All I want to ask – and may this be no blasphemy:  what might Christ have said to Paul? A fair rejoinder to that would be:  what business is that of yours?  In the Gospels – as it seems to me – everything is less pretentious, humbler, simpler.  There you find huts, and poor [the poor in] church. There all men are equal and God himself was a man; in Paul there is already something like a hierarchy;  honours and official positions – that is, as it were, what my ‘nose’ tells me.

For instance, at my level the Pauline doctrine of predestination is ugly nonsense, irreligiousness.

Christianity is not based on a historical truth; rather, it offers us a (historical) narrative and says:  now believe!  But not believe this narrative with the belief appropriate to a historical narrative, but rather:  believe, through thick and thin, which you can only do as the result of a life.  Here you have a narrative, don’t take the same attitude to it as you take to other historical narratives!  Make a quite different place in your life for it.  There is nothing paradoxical about that!

Queer as it sounds:  the historical accounts in the Gospels might, historically speaking, be demonstrably false and yet belief would lose nothing by this:  not, however, because it concerns ‘universal truths of reason’!  Rather, because historical proof (the historical proof-game) is irrelevant to belief.  This message (the Gospels) is seized on by men believing it (i.e. lovingly).  That is the certainty characterising this particular acceptance – as true, not something else.

One might say:  ‘Genius is talent exercised with courage’.

We could also say:  ‘Hate between men comes from cutting ourselves off from each other.  Because we don’t want anyone else to look inside us, since it’s not a pretty sight in there.

I do not believe that Shakespeare can be set alongside any other poet.  Was he perhaps a ‘creator of language’ rather than a poet?  I can only stare in wonder at Shakespeare; never do anything with him.

If Christianity is the truth, then all the philosophy that is written about it is false.

A proof of God’s existence ought really to be something by means of which one could convince oneself that God exists.  But I think that what believers who have furnished such proofs have wanted to do is give their ‘belief’ an intellectual analysis and foundation, although they themselves would never have come to believe as a result of such proofs.  Perhaps one could ‘convince someone that God exists’ by means of a certain kind of upbringing, by shaping his life in such and such a way.  So, if you want to stay within the religious sphere you must struggle.

These are the limits that a great thinker put on the power of his mind when it comes to God (and music). These jottings of Wittgenstein may remind many people of the thinking of God of another great German, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.   What we have here is not just the humility of knowledge, but its distilled wisdom.  In his Commonplace Book, Bonhoeffer had written: ‘Spinoza:  Emotions are not expelled by reason, but only by stronger emotions.’


  1. Thank you Geoff.
    One marvellous passage reminded me of a section in Alex Miller’s recent memoir of Max Blatt. You would enjoy this book. I was reading it for my biography book group and the discussion is next week. Really looking forward to it. And the dinner afterwards!

    • Thanks, Leigh. Tell me more about the book. I am writing to the Age and Guardian asking them to get their commentators to prepare a draft terms of reference that deals with the questions I raised about any inquiry.

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