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Two Philosophers Found Purpose in the World of Work

By Robert Zaretsky and George Alliger: Wall Street Journal

Photo by Andrew Itaga / Unsplash

In 1943, two of the century’s most original thinkers—Ludwig Wittgenstein and Simone Weil—found themselves in bomb-battered London, looking for medical work to help the war effort. Though they never met, they were remarkably similar. Both were foreigners by birth, and both struck others as foreigners by their behavior.

Crucially, both were also foreigners to the traditional way of doing philosophy, their profession of choice. The Austrian-born Wittgenstein and French-born Weil insisted that philosophy must be lived—or, as academics have it, “embodied”—and they shunned the academy to live and work in the real world. While many of us take a break from work on Labor Day, we might spare a moment to consider these abstract thinkers who gave nearly as much of themselves to labor as to contemplation.

For Wittgenstein, the draw of the physical world came first. He had intended to become a mechanical engineer. As a graduate student in aeronautics at Manchester, he built an engine that aided in the development of helicopters, and during a brief stint as an architect, he helped to design for his sister, down to its doorknobs, a house whose severe lines made Bauhaus look positively Baroque.

Upon discovering Bertrand Russell’s writings, however, Wittgenstein turned to philosophy. The book that served as his doctoral thesis at Cambridge, “The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” has both intimidated and inspired generations of philosophers (as well as artists and musicians). Written while serving in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, it offers a series of terse propositions on the nature of the world and limits of language. These propositions, he announced confidently, were like rungs: Upon scaling them, the reader could “throw away the ladder.”

The metaphors for building in Wittgenstein’s work aren’t accidental. He brought a hammer to philosophy, not just to destroy assumptions but also to build an understanding of how we function in the world. That world was one that people made and came to understand through their work. And for Wittgenstein, work wasn’t only sitting in a cabin pondering big questions but also, as he did himself, collaborating with the laborers who constructed that cabin.

Having given away the great wealth he inherited from his father, Wittgenstein helped build crates to finance a vacation. Twice he labored as a gardener at monasteries, in one case living in the gardening shed, and he took great pride in repairing a colleague’s toilet. His workmanship was always meticulous, exemplified by his stint as a lab technician during the war, when he perfected a medicinal cream of extraordinarily high quality.

Wittgenstein’s posthumously published “Philosophical Investigations” includes notable examples culled from his experiences in the world of manual labor. The book presents a series of “language games” meant to jar the reader’s reflexive assumptions about language. In one, he presents builder A, who obtains desired actions from assistant B via single words. For example, in response to the command “Slab!” from A, B retrieves a slab from a pile of slabs.

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