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Ludwig Wittgenstein’s war on philosophy

Wittgenstein was an intriguing combination of monk, mystic and mechanic. . . . He preferred cowboy movies and detective stories

Photo by Jacek Dylag / Unsplash

He was born into a patrician Viennese family in 1889, the son of the wealthiest industrialist in the Habsburg empire. Karl Wittgenstein was a fabulously rich steel magnate and high-class crook who rigged prices, bled his workers dry and did much the same to his timorous wife Leopoldine. The whole family was a seething cauldron of psychosomatic disorders. Three of Ludwig’s brothers committed suicide, including one whose first spoken word was “Oedipus”. (Sigmund Freud lived just round the corner.) Almost all of the children were prodigiously talented. The family home was like a conservatoire, with Brahms, Mahler and Richard Strauss dropping in for tea.

After designing a new kind of aircraft propeller at Manchester university, Ludwig became a student at Cambridge but detested academia and ran away to live by himself in a hut on a Norwegian fjord. Scarpering was one of his most habitual practices. He fought for the Austrian army in the First World War, and puzzled his superiors by asking to be assigned to more and more dangerous postings. In his rucksack he carried the manuscript of the only book he ever published, the snappily titled Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. This work, he thought, solved all problems of philosophy, leaving one free to attend to what really mattered: ethics, music, religion and the like. When the book won him a Cambridge doctorate, one of his examiners drily remarked that it fulfilled the usual conditions of the degree apart from being a work of genius.

After the war, Witter-Gitter (as some called him) inherited a slice of his father’s fortune and promptly gave it away to three of his siblings and various down-at-heel artists. “It’s better to go barefoot,” he remarked. He was austere, intense, imperious, intimidating and impossibly exacting. Though he wasn’t conventionally religious, he was afflicted by that strange mania known as Protestantism, for which one must attend to the slightest detail of one’s existence with unwavering seriousness. His college room contained almost nothing but a card table and a few deck chairs, very different from the Vienna of cream cakes, waltzes and ornate architecture which had produced him. He once said that he didn’t care what he ate as long as it was always the same. He was an accomplished architect and engineer who could design a house down to the last detail. He could also sculpt, play the clarinet superbly, conduct an orchestra and whistle whole symphonies. He is among the classic writers of German prose, and there are probably more works of art about him than about any other philosopher.

Wittgenstein did another runner after a while, this time to work as a village schoolmaster in the Austrian countryside. Driven out by the local people for clouting a child, he served as an assistant gardener in a monastery near Vienna before returning to Cambridge. During the Second World War he served as a porter at Guy’s hospital and worked in a medical laboratory in Newcastle. Then he ran away again, this time to Stalinist Russia, where he demanded to be trained as a physician and was packed off home in short order. He was known in Cambridge as a Communist fellow traveller, but his politics were more Tolstoyan than Marxist.

His final flight from the academic life, a few years before his death in 1951, was to the west of Ireland, where he lived by himself in a cottage, again on a fjord, and was reputed to be able to tame the birds. A young man called Tom Mulkerrins brought him his turf and helped about the house. I met Mulkerrins many years later, when I was writing the screenplay for Derek Jarman’s film Wittgenstein, and listened aghast to his tale of burning piles of (no doubt priceless) manuscripts on his master’s orders.

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