Was Wittgenstein a spiritual as well as a philosophical genius? Ray Monk’s exceptionally fine and fat biography puts us in a better position to answer this question than we have been hitherto.
Perhaps the best place to begin trying to understand Wittgenstein’s character is with the photographs that exist of his face. He himself advised friends to pay more attention to people’s faces and often passed remarks about the faces of others, saying (according to Theodore Redpath) of Locke that he had ‘a nice face’, of Descartes that he had ‘the face of a murderer’, of T. S. Eliot that he had ‘a modern face’ (meant disapprovingly). I recommend, in particular, a striking picture of Wittgenstein, reproduced in Monk’s book, which was taken in Swansea in 1945 by Ben Richards – a young man almost forty years Wittgenstein’s junior with whom he was then despairingly in love.
Even at this distance of time, and in two-dimensional monochrome, it is hard to meet Wittgenstein’s gaze full-on for very long. The eyes engage you immediately: they are imploring eyes yet with an intense rage flaring just behind the iris, sending off an unnerving blend of supplication and admonition – your own eyes reflexively rebound from them. Framing the scalding ice of these eyes are the sharply scored facial lines of the orbits and brow, which have the informal exactitude of the numbered paragraphs that make up his books. The exclamatory shock of hair brings an incongruous boyishness into the face. There is a scornful lift to the finely sculpted nose. The mouth is distancingly tight and yet minutely puckered, as if sensually restrained, bleakly kissless. A slight tilt of the head warns of a denunciatory access in the offing. The look is simultaneously delicate and military, tender and ferocious. If you stare hard at the face, it seems to shift aspect from one of these poles to the other, much as his famous duck-rabbit drawing does: from saintly to demonic and back again. You feel the excitement and peril of an encounter with the man. He seems both harsh and gentle, one of these traits replacing the other with no change of underlying form, as if an ‘ambiguous soul’ informs the face. It is a face that sends a spear of doubt into the core of your own integrity: yet it sternly repels all incursions from outside. You might say that it is the face of an executioner – though an executioner of a very special kind.
The bare facts of Wittgenstein’s life are by now fairly well known; the difficulty has been to discern in them an intelligible human being. Born into a rich and richly cultured Viennese family in 1889, a family of achievers and suicides, he took up the study of engineering, which brought him to Manchester to do research on kites. This led him to more purely mathematical interests, and thence to the foundations of mathematics, when he came across Russell’s Principles of Mathematics. Philosophy surged through him and, at Frege’s suggestion, he went to Cambridge to study with Russell. With phenomenal speed he impressed Russell with his logical talents: indeed, he virtually destroyed Russell’s own philosophical confidence. The spiritual torment that marked his life was already much in evidence at this time, as was his power over others.
Abruptly he decided to go and live alone in Norway for two years so that he could work on logic in complete isolation. This plan was thwarted by World War One, which saw Wittgenstein, first, behind the lines and then, voluntarily, at the front. He was decorated for conspicuous bravery, having chosen the most dangerous position available to him, the observation post; and he also worked fitfully on the Tractatus. He finished that searing book soon after the war ended, but he could not find a publisher; neither was it well understood by Russell and Frege, his two great mentors. Eventually, however, Russell’s influence led to its publication in German and English.
Wittgenstein then became an elementary schoolteacher in rural Austria, living in extreme poverty and declining the help of his aristocratic family. He quit this job when his punitive disciplinary methods got him into trouble with his pupils’ parents, and he eventually found his way back to Cambridge, after spending a year designing a house for his sister. The Tractatus was by now celebrated by the logical positivists, who contrived to ignore its mystical thrust. His own attitude toward the book was one of growing retraction, and he began to work out a new philosophy.
He next made efforts to secure manual work in Russia but the authorities there would only allow him to teach philosophy, so he gave up the idea of emigration. He considered training as a doctor instead, but carried on working out his new philosophical ideas. In 1939 he was elected G.E. Moore’s successor in Cambridge, which helped him avoid Nazi persecution, but he found the post stifling. He wanted to contribute to the war effort, in due course exchanging his professorial duties for those of a dispensary porter at Guy’s Hospital.
After the war he reluctantly returned to Cambridge, where he worked on the material that was to become Philosophical Investigations, dominating the philosophical scene there. His dissatisfaction with Cambridge, academic life and England generally (‘the disintegrating and putrefying English civilisation’) culminated in his resigning his chair and going to live and work in solitude in Ireland. The last two years of his life he spent living as the guest of various friends, having no income and no home of his own. He died in 1951 of cancer of the prostate, not living to see the publication of the work that had occupied the second half of his life.
What kind of character was it that carved out this exceptional life? Three episodes in it are particularly telling. First, there are his acts of military valour during the First World War, which are easily misconstrued. It was not a matter of patriotism or comradely solidarity – in fact, he detested and despised the other soldiers; it was rather an exercise in self-purification, a proof to himself that he could live in the right spirit. The war, he said, saved him from suicide by effecting a transformation of his soul: it enabled him to achieve the state of ethical seriousness he sought. It was in the same spirit that he gave away his vast inherited wealth to already rich members of his family. This had nothing to do with a sense of economic injustice or compassion for the poor: it was purely a matter of expelling from his life anything that might compromise the integrity of his spirit – an act more of pride than of generosity.
The third notable incident is that of his brutal treatment of the children at the school in Otterthal and the court case at which he lied about the extent of the corporal punishment he administered; and, years later, the return there to apologise to the children for his violence. It should be noted here that the hair-pulling and ear-boxing were more often the result of Wittgenstein’s impatience with some of his dimmer pupils’ slowness to make progress in algebra than they were punishment for ordinary bad behaviour. In this episode we see overt violence centring on intellectual impatience, accompanied by dishonesty about this violence. This incident was, it appears, the chief subject of the tortured confessions he later made to friends – again as a means to self-purgation.
Monk narrates this life with understanding, care, industry and exemplary impartiality. He has had full access to the material in the possession of Wittgenstein’s literary executors, his knowledge of the philosophical and cultural background is deep and extensive, and he possesses exactly the right combination of censure and sympathy. After reading his book I felt that I had finally begun to grasp what kind of man Wittgenstein was, as well as learning a good deal about the relation between his life and his work. I hope the book is widely read both inside and outside academic philosophy, especially outside. It is a considerable achievement.
Russell wrote darkly of Wittgenstein: ‘He was a very singular man, and I doubt whether his disciples knew what manner of a man he was.’ Those disciples, by the way, who are said to mimic Wittgenstein’s manner, might be interested to learn from Redpath that Wittgenstein told him that he had picked up mannerisms of speech and gesture from Frege – the arch-enemy as far as some of these disciples are concerned. Out of what ingredients was this singular man composed? Here is a summary list: he was vain, self-absorbed, emotionally solipsistic; he hated the artificiality and pretentiousness of university life, favouring the company of ‘ordinary people’; he had a deep love of music and rudely rigorous standards of musical quality; he relished hard-boiled American detective stories, as well as Hollywood Westerns and musicals; his sense of humour could be surprisingly puerile, though oddly endearing; he was passionate and demanding in personal relations yet often capriciously cold; he held (at least at one time) that Jews were incapable of genuine originality, here following the weird theories of Otto Weininger; and he had a difficult time dealing with his sexuality. What are we to make of these disparate ingredients? How do they hang together?
The key seems to lie in the pride for which he ceaselessly berated himself. Everything in his life seemed either to bolster this pride or to consist in an effort to dismantle it. Philosophy, essentially a prideful subject, and so a potentially humiliating one, was a chief source of the conceit he strove constantly to extirpate: hence the self-cancelling metaphilosophy of both the Tractatus and the Investigations. The ruthless domination of others, so numbingly applied to young acolytes, sprang from his conviction of his intellectual and moral superiority, and so had to be accompanied by declarations of his own lack of ‘decency’. Even the difficulty he had in staying physically close to those he loved shows his inability to give himself up to another: nothing must encroach on the charmed region of his own spirit. Sex felt like a fall from this exalted state, as if his own body were an affront to his pride of soul. His life was thus an insoluble alternation between self-celebration and self-condemnation. The corny humour and taste for popular culture function like outposts of his psyche to which he could flee to escape his pride and the self-loathing it inevitably produced. This explains the sense one has that these pockets of his personality are curiously remote from the centre of the man: they are peripheral bolt holes from that molten core of fierce self-devotion. In this light it comes as no surprise that he found masturbating at the same timé exhilarating and distressing. The image of him starchily and painfully confessing his transgressions, some major, some risibly minor, intentionally wounding his pride while simultaneously fuelling it, perfectly sums him up. The idea that humour might play a role in holding his pride in check seems not to have been a possibility for him: to let jockey self-ridicule into the inner temple was more than his pride could take – too much like laughing in church. Where would the nobility of self-abasement be then?
This lifelong struggle with his pride took a form that ought to have seemed to him more doomed than it did. His method was that of direct assault: fierce self-scrutiny, merciless self-condemnation, exposure to experiences calculated to chasten and humiliate. He approached his own soul like a kind of moral engineer: there was a fault in the design and it had to be dismantled, tinkered with, reconstructed, possibly scrapped altogether. Gazing inward, poking around inside, was the way to rid the spiritual machine of its imperfections. Such directness of approach to a problem was quite alien to his announced philosophical method: for obliqueness and indirection were to be the essence of philosophical advancement. The obvious flaw in this approach to himself was that it inevitably ran the very risk it was supposed to eliminate – the narcissistic absorption in his own being that stood between himself and the outer world. Another method – if method there must be – would be to try turning a bored eye and ear away from one’s own soul and towards the lives and feelings of others, hoping that one’s own moral improvement will occur while one is, as it were, otherwise engaged.
One of the most shocking and revealing of Wittgenstein’s remarks occurs late in his life when he is reflecting on his love for Ben Richards, which struck me as the most outward-directed affection of his life. In his late fifties now, he writes, as though the thought were new to him: ‘It is the mark of a true love that one thinks of what the other suffers. For he suffers too, is also a poor devil.’ What alarms here is the very banality of the thought, and indeed one looks in vain for any similar sentiment in his earlier romantic attachments. ‘Perhaps the fly had at last found its way out of the fly-bottle,’ Monk remarks, trenchantly and rather tragically. Not that Wittgenstein managed even in this case to translate his strong feelings into an ordinary romantic relationship with the young man in question.
This bears on the disputed question of Wittgenstein’s alleged period of homosexual promiscuity, reported by William Bartley III. In a finely-judged appendix Monk addresses himself to Bartley’s claim that Wittgenstein used to avail himself of the sexual favours of ‘rough young men’ in a certain park in Vienna, casting considerable doubt on the veracity of this claim. As Monk argues, Wittgenstein’s obvious discomfort with his sexual nature, hetero or homosexual, makes the idea of such freewheeling promiscuity seem quite incredible. It would, moreover, be extremely surprising if such activities had been confined to a single, short period of his life, never to resurface. Often, in the course of reading about Wittgenstein’s romantic involvements, I found myself heartily wishing that he had been homosexually promiscuous.
That would certainly have eased the lot of the unlucky Francis Skinner, whose love for Wittgenstein clearly included a desire for sexual contact that Wittgenstein apparently did his best to avoid – though, happily, he was not totally successful in this. One such ‘lapse’ is reported in Wittgenstein’s notebooks, and incidentally shows Redpath to be wrong in his belief that there was nothing more ‘lurid’ between Skinner and Wittgenstein than a close male friendship. The two were vacationing together in Norway and Wittgenstein reports himself as being ‘sensual, susceptible, indecent’ with Skinner: ‘Lay with him two or three times. Always at first with the feeling that there was nothing wrong in it, then with shame. Have also been unjust, edgy and insincere towards him, and also cruel.’ These are disturbing words in more ways than one. Were cruelty and lovelessness his only possible response to actual human intimacy? Did his need for the affection of another always have to turn into a refusal or incapacity to lay his own heart on the line?
My impression is that sexual promiscuity was about the last thing Wittgenstein could tolerate – and also that ethically, it would have been a definite step in the right direction. Unfortunately, he didn’t see it that way. A story is told that a close friend of his once said of him that ‘he never had a good fuck in his life.’ I cannot vouch for the truth of this story but it seems to me infinitely more probable, and infinitely more woeful, than the idea that he once indulged a taste for rough trade. It marks a real lack in his conception of the spiritual life of a human being, as well as being sad in itself.
This is of a piece with the story that is told, amusing in its way, about the one female love of his life, Marguerite Respinger, whom he at one time wished to marry and, with a proposal in mind, invited on a holiday with him. She turned up in remotest Norway only to find that her suitor’s idea of a pre-nuptial vacation was that they should see very little of each other and spend the two weeks in prayer and meditation, for which purpose Wittgenstein had left a marked Bible in the room in which she was to stay. She decided, amazingly, that Ludwig was not the man for her. In any case, his wish was for a childless platonic marriage – though, oddly enough, he enjoyed kissing her for hours on end.
And what of the philosophy? Monk handles this expertly, seamlessly weaving it into the narrative, showing the intimate relationship between the ethical concerns of Wittgenstein’s life and his philosophical ideas. There is much interesting scholarly material about Wittgenstein’s reading and intellectual influences, and about the composition of his two major works. Perhaps the most striking item, from a biographical point of view, is Wittgenstein’s late remark: ‘Nearly all my writings are private conversations with myself. Things that I say to myself tête-à-tête.’ Here his personal solipsism finds its natural counterpart in his philosophical style: always a turning inwards, as if only his own thoughts are ultimately worth heeding. And this, of course, is part of the strength and charm of his philosophical writing, and of him as a personality: an enclosed world of numbered paragraphs, both poetic and mathematical, where no alien voice intrudes. There is beauty but also desolation in this ideal.
I began by asking whether Wittgenstein was a spiritual genius. That question really has two parts: was he the spiritually sublime individual – the ‘saint’ – people often said he was? And did he know how to be such an individual, whether or not he was one himself? I think the answer must be no to both questions. His vanity, emotional solipsism and coldness put him well outside the category of the saint; and his engineering (or surgical) approach to his spiritual condition seems to me wrongly conceived, embodying as it does a deep mistake of ethical attention. But a better question might be this: given his nature, did he live a noble and ethically distinguished life? (He clearly lived an impressive and remarkable one.) Here I think we must do him the courtesy of taking him at his word and not allow our natural sentimentality about great men to get in the way of hearing what he actually says about himself. Of Moore’s reputation for saintly childlike innocence, Wittgenstein remarked: ‘I can’t understand that, unless it’s also to a child’s credit. For you aren’t talking of the innocence a man has fought for, but of an innocence which comes from a natural absence of temptation.’ If we take seriously Wittgenstein’s own repeated assessment of himself as ‘rotten’ and ‘indecent’, as having a ‘wicked heart’ – in whatever way these epithets were meant – then it becomes clear why he regarded his life as a mighty struggle with himself, and what he had to overcome to achieve the moral standing he did. His peculiar greatness comes from that agonising battle between his natural hubris and the humility he craved, between his compulsive devotion to himself and his willed concern for others. The singularity of his spiritual achievement consists in this strained amalgamation of aggressive megalomania and abject self-mortification. Somehow this battle brought something spiritually valuable into the world that had not been there before: an ability, we might say, to attend religiously to the face of another human being – but to do so as if this were the strangest and most impossible thing in the world to achieve.