Unconquerable mind

Print edition : March 17, 2017

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). Photo: Moritz Nahr/Austrian National Library

Lord Bertrand Russell, British writer and philosopher and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950. On February 1, 1912, Wittgenstein was admitted as a member of Trinity College, Cambridge, with Russell as his Supervisor. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The book questions primarily the ultimate validity of "logic" as a foolproof discipline.

The book comprises some papers Wittgenstein brought out while he was in Norway.

In "The Blue Book", Wittgenstein voiced his protest against the "scientific" approach to philosophy.

In 1939, Wittgenstein conducted a lecture series on "The Foundations of Mathematics", which Alan Turing attended.

In the last two months of his life, Wittgenstein produced his last precious quantum of 376 paragraphs of "On Certainity".

A look at Ludwig Wittgenstein, the redoubtable genius of freethinking and fearless challenger of blinkered theoreticians.

LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN, a contraction of Ludwig Joseph Johan Wittgenstein, was born on April 26, 1889, in Hapsburg, Vienna (Austria), the eighth and last son of Karl Wittgenstein. His great-grandfather Moses Meier served the wealthy family of Seyn Wittgenstein and had to take the master’s surname “Wittgenstein” in pursuance of the Napoleonic diktat that Jews had to adopt a surname. That racial stigma is still hanging over the Jewish community. Hermann, Maier’s son, strove desperately to wriggle free of the racial opprobrium. Fanny Figdor, of eminent Jewish stock, espoused the Protestant faith before she married Hermann. Ludwig in later life was harassed by the Nazi regime and had to face ostracism and banishment. It is thanks to some Englishmen of letters that the genius escaped the Holocaust.

At the time of Ludwig’s birth, the family was at the acme of its splendour and glory. His father, an audacious entrepreneur, despised and abjured his father’s classical tradition and fled home to lead a precarious existence as a waiter, a musician and even a music teacher. Between 1867 and 1898, his fortunes rocketed sky high, equivalent in status to tycoons such as the Krupps, the Carnegies and the Rothschilds. In Vienna and the countryside, he amassed enviable properties, the most notable of which were Allegrasse, or the Palais Wittgenstein; New Waldgasse in Vienna; and the Hochreit in the countryside.

Prima facie the environment was propitious to the growth and efflorescence of any family. But at home, Karl’s sons, except for Ludwig, were gripped by a suicidal instinct or a rage for self-destruction. The social and cultural climate in Austria then was becoming progressively susceptive of such behaviour, and the national sentiment became intolerant of old customs, social mores and even of the age-old decrepit rules and lines of music, art and architecture. Thus, the general ethos was surcharged with the dualities of repression and revolt. But in Ludwig’s family it struck a more tragic note. His two elder brothers, Hans and Rudolf, fled home and committed suicide. Apart from the father’s regimen, Austria itself, and Vienna in particular, suffered its worst cultural debacle. The great Hapsburg dynasty split into the five national states (Austria, Hungary, Poland, Yugoslovia and Czechoslovakia) and its age-old traditional values in music, architecture and social mores steadily yielded to a new movement: Sigmund Freud and Georg W.F. Hegel on the social, national and psychological platform, Arnold Schoenberg in music and Adolf Loos in architecture.

Meeting Bertrand Russell

Baulked of his passions with Gottlob Frege (in Austria), Wittgenstein appeared before Bertrand Russell, a circumstance that may be dramatised as the confrontation between a seasoned philosopher celebrity and a soul-searching youth in his twenties who would ride roughshod over philosophical half-truths and “pseudological” assertions. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus questions primarily the validity of “logic” as a foolproof discipline. Russell’s first encounter with “my German engineer” was while taking tea with C.K. Ogden (the first translator of the above book). To Ottoline, his wife, he wrote: “[A]n unknown German appeared, speaking very little English, but refusing to speak German. He turned out to be a man who had learned engineering at Charlottenburg, but during his course had acquired, by himself, a passion for the philosophy of mathematics and has now come to Cambridge on purpose to hear me.”

But this first encounter proved non-fructuous; Russell’s snappy, yet categorical, remarks about Wittgenstein bear out the fundamental opposition: “My German engineer, I think, is a fool. He thinks nothing empirical is knowable—I asked him to admit that there was no rhinoceros in the room, but he couldn’t…. [Wittgenstein] was refusing to admit the existence of anything except asserted proposition…. He is armour-plated against all assaults of reasoning. It is really a rather waste of time talking with him.”

After his return to Cambridge after the Michaelmas term in 1911, say by January 1912, Wittgenstein gave positive proof of his genius to the great philosopher when he presented him with his manuscript. Russell made a remarkable turnaround: “I love him and feel he will solve the problem I am too old to solve…. He is the young man one hopes for.” Russell was forced to admit that more fundamental to human knowledge was not the “logical principles of mathematics” ( Principia Mathematica) but to understand (not “define”) “what is logic?” And on February 1, 1912, Wittgenstein was admitted as a member of Trinity College (Cambridge) with Russell as his Supervisor.

If one is to conjure up a picture, Wittgenstein’s interests were essentially pitched on a kind of “experimentalism” that sought to absorb within its ken human psychology, patient pathology and the role of rhythm in musical appreciation apart from philosophy, which was his chief concern. He firmly held the view that music sometimes did have accents that were not there in the given “notes”. C.S. Myers, the Cambridge psychologist, demonstrated it to the British Society of Psychology. “The chief result obtained from them,” attested Ray Monk, Wittgenstein’s biographer, “was that, in some circumstances, subjects heard an accent on certain notes that was not in fact there” ( Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. page 50). The “result” confirmed his assertions when he firmly opposed Russell’s contention about the “rhinoceros in the room” adduced earlier.

Russell’s logical theories were facing a cul-de-sac, especially his theory of types. This phase of Wittgenstein’s controversy with Russell was marred and scarred intermittently with the political crisis in Austria on the eve of the First World War: the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the disintegration of the Hapsburg dynasty. However, he challenged Russell’s theory of types (in logic) with his symbolic logic around the atomic proposition “Socrates is mortal”, which splits into a “complex” made up of two “things”: Socrates and Mortality. Russell, in pursuance of the Platonic assumption that there exists not only individuals but also abstract entities, propounded his theory of types in which “Socrates” and “mortality” are not to be equated as they belong to two different “types”.

In his counter comment, Wittgenstein wrote to Russell from Vienna: “I think that there cannot be different Types of things! ….Every theory of types must be rendered superfluous by a proper theory of symbolism.” He contended that “Socrates” and “Mortality”, being types, lent themselves to being interchangeable “because if I treat ‘Mortality’ as a proper noun… there is nothing to prevent me to make the substitution the wrong way round”. Wittgenstein propounded, as a corollary, that the theory left a scope wherein the “abstract entity” (“mortality”) could easily be interchanged with the “individual” (“Socrates”), which was tantamount to preposterousness like the nostrum a square peg in a round hole. He proved that type-concept was too hidebound a philosophy for such a complex phenomenon as this creation. On the contrary, symbols were supple, significant and variegated; he affirmed that “all theories of types must be done away with by a theory of symbolism showing that what seems to be different kinds of things are symbolised by different kinds of symbols which cannot possibly be substituted in one another’s places”.

Symbols are powerful and pliant as well as a protean entity. Thus, virtually from the beginning of 1913, Russell and Wittgenstein parted ways. David Hume Pinsent described an occasion at the beginning of 1913 when Russell entered their room to inform them about some reshuffling of lecture hours. In the course of their discussion, Pinsent noticed Wittgenstein “explaining one of his latest discoveries in the Fundamentals of Logic—a discovery which, I gather, only occurred to him this morning, and which appears to be quite important and was very interesting. Russell acquiesced in what he said without a murmur.”

Nationality question

Our episode resumes with the Anschluss. Adolf Hitler’s mandate to Austria that Nazi Ministers should be in charge of the police, the army and finance was reinforced by a peremptory threat: “You will either fulfil my demands within three days or I will order the march into Austria.” Two of Wittgenstein’s sisters, Gretl and Hermaine, and his brother Paul were branded Jews; their Hochreit was commandeered. The Times, of February 15, 1938, drew the fatal conclusion: “If Herr Hitler’s suggestion that Dr [Arthur] Von Seyss-Inquart should be made Austrian Minister of the Interior with control of the Austrian police were granted, it would in the general view of anti-Nazis in Austria mean that before long the words ‘finis Austriae’ would be written across the map of Europe.”

In Wittgenstein’s diary entry of February 16, the very day of the Minister’s appointment, we read: “Can’t work. Think a great deal of a possible change of my nationality. Read in today’s paper that a further compulsory rapproachement between Austria and Germany has taken place, etc.” Piero Straffa advised him not to land in Austria as, being branded a German after the Anschluss, his Austrian passport would be seized. So, he marked time in an utter state of anxiety and concern for his sisters.

His options were clear-cut: either he could opt to be a German Jew or he could be a British university lecturer. “I must say,” he said, “that the idea of becoming (or being) a German citizen, even apart from all the nasty consequences, is APPALLING to me (This may be foolish, but it just is so).”

Thus he addressed John Maynard Keynes, the eminent Cambridge economist: Since he had served as an “assistant faculty lecturer” in Cambridge for five years, he claimed that he was eligible to apply for the post as there was no other vacant job. He persuaded Keynes that the job would throw open to him two ways to wriggle out of the present impasse: “a) it would help me in becoming naturalised and b) if I failed in this and had to become a German I would have more chance to be allowed out of Austria again on visiting my people if I had a JOB in England.”

Cambridge years

Wittgenstein’s equanimity and composure in Cambridge in the 1930s onwards can only be explained by the fact that he never allowed his redoubtable personality to be swayed by mean compromises. The odds were overwhelming. The post of professor of philosophy at G.E. Moore’s resignation had become a bone of contention; John Wisdom stood a fair chance as R.G. Collingwood, the Oxford historian, he knew, would be sure to disapprove of his work that was tabled in the format of Rush Rhee’s English translation of his original work in German. But by 1939, Wittgenstein (jocularly pronounced wittygitty by mocker-snobs) had established himself as the foremost philosophical genius of his time. To top all adverse currents, the great Keynes was enough to tilt the balance in his favour. C.D. Broad’s asseveration: “To refuse the chair to Wittgenstein would be like refusing Einstein a chair of physics” was no idle boast. “He was simply stating a fact,” said Monk.

Wittgenstein’s own reaction was shorn of any tinge of vanity and self-congratulation; flattered or not, he was happy to get a tangible proof to bypass his “Austrian” opprobrium. He wrote to his close associate Norman Eccles: “Having got the professorship is very flattering and all that, but it might have been very much better for me to have got a job opening and closing crossing gates. I don’t get any kick out of my position (except what my vanity and stupidity sometimes gets).” The fret and fume that underlay this confession pointed to his need to obtain a British passport. However, the labyrinthine controversy was clinched when he, on his application for British citizenship, was given a British passport on June 2, 1939. His biographer said: “No matter how illiberal their policy on the admission of Austrian Jews, the British government could hardly refuse citizenship to the Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge” (Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, page 45).

Wittgenstein’s Cambridge career consisted of a desperate effort to break new ground in the field of philosophy. In actual fact, Cambridge was then a battleground where interrelated disciplines strove to establish the truth in their respective fields without bias, rigidity or authoritarianism. F.R. Leavis and L.C. Knights in literature, Russell and G.E. Moore in philosophy and Keynes, among others, in economics disinterred their disciplines from their graves of scholasticism and placed them in the clear light of reason, human wisdom and clear sensibility.

Wittgenstein attacked the scientism that encumbered philosophy. Russell’s “type” theory was dislodged from its pedestal. In his Blue Book, Wittgenstein voiced his protest against the “scientific” approach to philosophy as a curse that infected the philosopher’s wisdom as they “see the method of science before their eyes and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer questions in the way that science does”. He even threw a rider apropos of James Jean’s The Mysterious Universe: “Jean has written a book called The Mysterious Universe and I loathe it and call it misleading. Take the title…. I might say the title The Mysterious Universe includes a kind of idol worship, the idol being science and the scientist.” He once forbade his student to authenticate or take down his words when he spoke impromptu, for he said his views were continually modified by life and experience. His latest concept “change of aspect” (gestalt) established that truth revealed itself in its multiple variety depending on the “aspect” from which it was explored.

Tagore’s play

Of the graphs he drew to prove his concept, the “duck-and-rabbit” one is significant: turned reverse the long parted beak of the duck becomes the rabbit’s long ears. He cited his own experience of Rabindranath Tagore’s play The King of the Dark Chamber as an instance of this “aspect” theory. He seldom or never went by commendations: The King of the Dark Chamber did not appeal to him at first; it, however, induced him to go to it time and again until he fell plumb to the poet’s characterisations of Sudarshana and Surangama. He narrated his experience of the great poet Friedrich Klopstock: “I had read this kind of stuff and had been moderately bored… (but) I smiled, said: ‘This is grand, etc…. The important fact was that I read it again and again. When I read these poems I made gestures and facial expressions which were what would be called gestures of approval, etc. etc.”

Such instances of his pasturage are numerous. He had an impatience of theoretical abstractions and abstruse arguments. In his lecture series “Foundations of Mathematics, Wittgenstein controverted Alan Turing’s terminology “foundations”: “There is such a branch, dealt with in Principia Mathematica, etc. I am not going to lecture on this. I know nothing about it—I practically only know the first volume of Principia Mathematica…. The mathematical [emphasis as in original] problems of what is called foundations are no more the foundations of mathematics for us than the painted rock is the support of the pointed tower.” It shows his impatience with loose phraseology. He even entered into a fray with Turing over the concept of “hidden contradiction” in mathematics, but the debate petered out as Turing withdrew, complaining that his opponent resorted too much to linguistic twists.

Between 1939, the year he was elected professor, and 1945, the end of the Second World War, Wittgenstein passed through unprecedented polemical battles, some of which have been traced above. Concurrently, he brought out some papers while in Norway, later published as Philosophical Investigations. He held that no research was complete as a dead end; it evolved into ever new manifestations.

In the summer of 1947, he decided to resign his professorship. He feared that post-War Vienna would be a wreck. His resolve to resign was a fait accompli, yet he said: “I haven’t told the Cambridge authorities anything about it so far, as it’s not absolutely certain. (Though just now I can’t see how it can be avoided, I mean, my leaving Cambridge).”

To Georg Henrik von Wright, his executor, he wrote: “My mind just now is in great disorder. It’s partly due to this: that I dread seeing Vienna again after all that’s happened and, in a way, also dread chucking my job at Cambridge. But I’ll get over it.” He did: “I am in no way optimistic about my future, but as soon as I had resigned I felt that it was the only natural thing to have done.” In his last visit to Vienna, he witnessed a dismal scene. The city was occupied by the Russian army as was the Kundmanngasse house, which he had built for Gretl. Its keeper, a loyal servant of Gretl, was exposed to the slovenly behaviour of the army.

To Wittgenstein, the experience was not only nerve shattering but signified a total collapse of values. He handed in his resignation right on return. The Cambridge authorities granted him sabbatical leave for the Michaelmas term, which was their last act of commiseration; he remained a professor until the end of 1947 without being bound to any lecturing or having to live in Cambridge.

‘A wonderful life’

From Norway he went to Ireland, where the Wicklow countryside soothed his refractory senses. Even this shelter proved incompatible with his state of mind, and he shifted to Rosro in the west of Ireland. It was a lovely cottage in Connemara that had been used to hide prisoners of the Irish Republican Army and had, eventually, fallen into disuse. The brother of his friend Maurice Drury had owned it and used it as a holiday cottage. Wittgenstein lived in the kitchen (which became spare as he lived only on tinned food) with Thomas Mulkerrin, the keeper, who was instructed to look after his guest with care and sympathy as he was a “nervous” patient.

This period forms an idyllic segment of love, amity and natural community for Wittgenstein.

The thinner end of the spectrum of this redoubtable genius of freethinking and fearless challenger of blinkered theoreticians takes us to Storey’s End, Dr Edward Bevan’s home. Wittgenstein’s fatal cancer coursed through him like a monstrous alligator lapping up an animal, slowly but surely. He used to say that his body must never outlive his soul. X-ray and hormone treatment ceased; in his last letter to Roy Fouracre, whom he remembered exclusively from his days at the Guy’s Hospital, he did not tell him that he had cancer.

Medical intervention having stopped, he breathed a sigh of relief, telling Joan Bevan, Dr Bevan’s wife: “I am going to work now as I have never worked before.” During these two months, he produced his last precious quantum of 376 paragraphs of On Certainty. Before he lost consciousness on February 28, 1951, Joan Bevan told him that his Cambridge friends would be coming the next day to which he replied: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

His friends Ben Elizabeth Anscombe, Yorick Smythies and Drury arrived at his death the next day. He was given a Catholic burial at St. Giles’ Church, Cambridge.

As an epitaph and coup de finis to the genius of such an “unconquerable mind”, I append these memorable words of his biographer, Monk: “And in other ways, too, he was dependent on other people in a way that he had not been since before the First World War. He had no income, no home of his own, and little taste for the solitariness and fierce independence that before he had craved” ( Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, page 551).

Asim Kumar Mukherjee is a retired professor of English based in Kolkata.


1. Monk, Ray (1991): Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, Vintage (paperback).

2. Craig, Gordon A. (1978): Germany: 1866-1945, Clarendon Press, Oxford, (hardback).