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Ludwig Wittgenstein’s war on philosophy He preferred the 'rough ground' of everyday existence

"Tell them it’s been a wonderful life". A still from Derek Jarman's 'Wittgenstein' (BFI)

"Tell them it’s been a wonderful life". A still from Derek Jarman's 'Wittgenstein' (BFI)


May 16, 2022   6 mins

My Cambridge tutor would refuse to shake hands with colleagues out of term because of some medieval university statute which nobody else had ever heard of. I wrote about it for UnHerd and an outraged reader from South Carolina writes to reprove me for my callousness. Can’t I see that the man was clearly the victim of some kind of trauma?

Well, no. Unless being an arch-traditionalist counts as a mental illness. It’s true that he had been through a gruelling process — prep school, private school — which has permanently broken others, but he was perfectly serene. Who wouldn’t be with a Cambridge fellowship, a private income and a maid and butler waiting for him at home?

I was sitting in his study one day when it started to get cold. “Let’s put the heater on, should we?” he said with an air of suppressed excitement. (He didn’t get out much.) There was a small heater at his feet, but instead of reaching down to flick the switch he rose, crossed the room, lifted a phone and summoned a college servant. A burly man in a neat white jacket entered after a moment or two, and went down on his knees as though in worship in front of the heater. My tutor thanked him courteously. He was not at all arrogant; indeed he was the very model of decency and civility. It’s just that he would no more have thought of switching on his own heater than he would have thought of extracting his own wisdom teeth. All this may look like trauma from the standpoint of South Carolina. I think we call it privilege over here.

This man’s problem was not that something appalling had happened to him, but that nothing had happened to him at all. The same can’t be said about one of his closest friends, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, about whom my tutor wrote a rather stiff little memoir. In the course of the book he dismisses as “lurid” rumours that Wittgenstein was gay, though he was indeed gay and seemed to feel little guilt about it.

A lot more had happened to him than sleeping with other men, however. 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. “I’m not the first to ask you about him, am I?” I inquired. “You’re neither the first nor the 41st,” he replied. Mary Robinson, who was President of Ireland at the time, unveiled a plaque to the eccentric foreigner at the cottage, and I gave a brief address to a small audience of Irish philosophers and Irish-speaking fishermen.

Probably the finest English-speaking philosopher of the modern age, Wittgenstein didn’t think much of philosophy. In fact, he advised his disciples to give it up. One of the brightest of them did so and spent some years working in a factory, much to Wittgenstein’s approval. Instead of teaching from notes, he simply sat before his students and thought, writhing at times in what seemed like physical agony until an insight struggled its way out of his body.

He hadn’t read all that much philosophy himself, and seemed to prefer cowboy movies and detective stories. Philosophical problems, he believed, mostly sprang from certain duplicities of language, but these delusions were built so deeply into our grammar that to be free of them, we had to change our form of life. In this sense, his work is a long way from so-called linguistic philosophy, one of whose exponents claimed to have talked a student out of suicide by pointing out to him that the grammar of “nothing matters” differs from that of “nothing chatters”. Wittgenstein had good reason to believe that suicide went rather deeper than this. Indeed, he frequently contemplated it himself.

Despite his personal austerity, Wittgenstein’s later writing is full of jokes, anecdotes, enigmas, wonderings aloud, snatches of dialogue and homespun images. His Philosophical Investigations, put together by his colleagues after his death, compares the idea of a private language to a man passing money from one of his hands to the other and thinking he has made a financial transaction. Or alternatively, to someone who exclaims “But I know how tall I am!” and places his hand on top of his head. Is it true that I know that I’m in pain but can only guess that you are? Nonsense, Wittgenstein retorts. It makes no sense to say “I know I am in pain”, because the words “I know” have force only in a situation where you might not know, and not knowing you’re in pain isn’t possible.

In this and other ways, Wittgenstein’s thought steadily undermines middle-class individualism. We are not isolated beings sealed within our own private, incommunicable experience. On the contrary, the way in which I come to know you is pretty much the way in which I come to know myself. How can I know that what I am feeling is jealousy unless I have been reared within a language which contains the concept? And language is nobody’s private property. Behind this distaste for the cult of the individual one can feel the disdain of aristocratic Vienna for the stout burgher.

Wittgenstein was an intriguing combination of monk, mystic and mechanic. He was a high European intellectual who yearned for a Tolstoyan holiness and simplicity of life, a man who could never decide whether he was a Brahmin or an Untouchable. He turned away from what he called the pure ice of the intellect to the “rough ground” of everyday existence. However abstruse the problems we set ourselves, their roots are to be found in our routine practices. It is what we do, he comments, which lies at the bottom of our language-games. As one who hailed from an empire populated by Germans, Slovaks, Romanians, Serbs, Slovenes and a good many other quarrelsome ethnic groups, he came to see human culture as inherently diverse. The simple English phrase “it takes all kinds to make a world” struck his semi-outsider’s ears as “a very kindly and beautiful saying”.

Yet he was also an irascible autocrat with the haughtiness of his social class, as well as a man who lived for much of the time in spiritual torment. “Tell them it’s been a wonderful life,” he said on his deathbed, though quite in what sense is one of the many enigmas of his life and work. He was, he felt, a sinner in search of redemption, though he believed neither in sin nor redemption. My tutor had a wonderful life too, at least judging from the outside, but in one sense this was exactly his problem. To be a great artist or thinker you have to live, and decent chap though he was, he never quite got round to doing much of that.


Terry Eagleton is a critic, literary theorist, and UnHerd columnist.


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Clive Mitchell
Clive Mitchell
2 years ago

Just what has the attached photo got to do with anything?

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Clive Mitchell

Ah, but it catches the eye of someone who might not want to read about Wittgenstein. Although, I can’t understand why anyone would not want to read about Wittgenstein; I have a great admiation for his, and Spinoza’s, work. I know, two very different philosophers with two very different ontological view-points, but Wittgenstein was more interested in epistemology anyway.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Weren’t Hitler & Wittgenstein at school together in Linz?

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Apparently they were. I doubt they were they bestest buddies, though.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Somebody, I forget who, has claimed that their meeting was the catalyst for Adolph’s anti-semitism, I gather it is even mentioned in MK.
As a disciple of Wittgenstein, do you know if he ever mentioned his schooldays with Hitler?
It is a quite extraordinary coincidence that two of the most enigmatic figures of the 20th century should have been at school together is it not?

Joe Donovan
Joe Donovan
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

I think that he did not, but I can’t say for sure.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

I’ve read all his written work, Hitler never came up in them.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Thanks. Extraordinary, perhaps they never met after all.

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
1 year ago

Popper might think: two peas in a pod.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Did my O Level language exchange with an Austrian boy. Went to his school for the day: the Linz Gymnasium. Very very odd place even in the 70s.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
2 years ago

I’m not sure they are so different, until you get to the frontier of metaphysics, where they of course part company rather radically. Until then I should have thought Spinoza would readily agree with Wittgenstein’s ideas about language.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
2 years ago
Reply to  Clive Mitchell

it’s a still from the film ‘Wittgenstein’ mentioned in the article

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago

Thanks. I looks like a strange film.

Jonathan Smith
Jonathan Smith
2 years ago
Reply to  Clive Mitchell

It’s the poster picture for Derek Jarman’s 1993 film “Wittgenstein”.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Smith

Derek Jarman: that would account for its strangeness.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

Not half as strange as a TV crime series, a ‘thriller’ or almost all daytime TV. That stuff is so strange I fail to make it past the first few minutes before thinking this is completely bonkers.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  Clive Mitchell

I’m pretty sure it’s a still from Derek Jarman’s film about Wittgenstein.

Jon Shallcross
Jon Shallcross
1 year ago
Reply to  Clive Mitchell

It looks like a still from the Jarman movie.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
2 years ago

I’m not sure what to make of this. It’s a short summary of the life of LW, all of which is quite well known – I knew everything narrated here and I am just a “general reader”. Still, nice to be reminded of the great man for a few minutes in the morning, I suppose.

Alan Groff
Alan Groff
2 years ago

Reading CG Jung’s “Psychological Types,” I was struck by how shamelessly he stole his idea from the structure of philosophy. What was remarkable was how well it worked. Anyone who examined the subject would absolutely observe the same declared Jung! Human types split into thinking, feeling, sense and intuition.  

Jung’s conclusion, “rationality is a vice where sensation and intuition should be trusted,” is echoed in the author’s conclusion on Wittgenstein, “to be a great artist or thinker, you have to live,” the central idea of Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf and the arc of Dostoevsky’s oeuvre.

Wittgenstein’s Aspect Perception is the distinction between the world as you subjectively perceive and the world as objectively construed and the role you play in the constitution of the former. Thinking narrows perception creating blindness.

The insight is fundamental to our struggle. The Power Elite’s worship of the Goddess of reason belongs in a Dostoevsky novel. Like the Grand Inquisitor, their blindness is their undoing. Trumpism is perception without thought.  

Harmonious societies built on reason fail tragically. So, as Wittgenstein said of philosophy’s need for the rough ground, our civilization requires that same integration of perception and reasoning; neither may have the upper hand. Fragmentation and disharmony are essential for liberty and progress.

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan Groff

Is there no subject that can be addressed without a reference to Trump?

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
1 year ago
Reply to  Jerry Carroll

Perhaps there is a Godwin’s Law for that?

Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
1 year ago
Reply to  Alan Groff

What civilisation is built on reason? Certainly not one with a multitude of genders.

AC Harper
AC Harper
2 years ago

I am old enough to say (with some surprise) that I was born just before Wittgenstein died. I’m pretty certain that neither of us was aware of this minute fact.
It would be interesting to make a list of all the intellectuals that spent time in the poorer jobs and communities. I wonder if there is some impulse to try on sackcloth and ashes to validate the rarified nature of intellectual thought?

Joe Donovan
Joe Donovan
2 years ago
Reply to  AC Harper

Orwell of course.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Joe Donovan

And spent some their final months on the very edge of the British Isles. Jura and Connemara in this case.

D Wright
D Wright
2 years ago

Wittgenstein’s interest in Catholicism, especially on his death bed, seems rather conspicuous by its absence. Especially given the passing reference to the ‘mania of Protestantism’.

Emre 0
Emre 0
2 years ago

Great article, but also I very much enjoyed reading the comments.

János Klein
János Klein
2 years ago

A fascinating essay of Wittgenstein gossip from Terry Eagleton which leaves me curious to know more about the man who was apparently a major 20th century philosopher – God knows why.

Robert Quark
Robert Quark
2 years ago
Reply to  János Klein

The older I get, the less interested I become in what philosophers thought and said and the more interested I become in how they lived. Absolutely barking, the lot of em.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
2 years ago
Reply to  János Klein

He missed my favourite Wittgenstein story, concerning the occasion shortly after WW1 when Ludwig returned to England to meet up with all his old Bloomsbury friends. At a garden party he was introduced to Lydia Lopokova, Keynes’ new bride, who tried to make conversation with the gambit:
“I think those trees over there are lovely”.
“WHAT DO YOU MEAN???” was Ludwig’s response.
Poor Lopokova burst into tears.

János Klein
János Klein
2 years ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

Oh, it’s not so funny really.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
2 years ago
Reply to  János Klein

A somewhat ungenerous response, but in any event if you really do want to know more about LW’s life and philosophy I recommend the biography by Ray Monk, which is excellent.

Kevin Jones
Kevin Jones
2 years ago

Either we have to be grateful to Vienna for an awful lot or Vienna has an awful lot to answer for.

Tony Sandy
Tony Sandy
2 years ago

I think Tractus is a joke book in the same way that Zen Koans are. I think he thought all of this is like David Byrne’s statement ‘stop making sense.’ A lot of philosophy is either pretentious waffle or to be more charitable with some cases, a struggle to make sense of reality

Tony Sandy
Tony Sandy
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Sandy

The way I look at it Tractus was subjective and absolutism as is maths because it is perfectionism. As my wife says paper will accept anything, from absolute drivel, lies to straight fiction. Investigations was more objective as it was about the real world (mixed up and chaotic, through several different sources existing and trying to get attention).
With regards to his attitude towards time, I would say it is down to how you define it. To me it is a measurement of change, solely and simply. Without transition, it wouldn’t exist. Every time you move or speak, reality changes / moves on as thought or action. E-motion can slow down perception or speed up this awareness (negative as in depression or boredom / positive as in elation or excitement). We can artificially speed up growth or decay as well, through our actions – demolishing a house that was falling down anyway or replacing it with a new building as nature feeds on decay and death , plus reproduces to fill gaps in its ranks. That’s how I think of it anyway.

peter barker
peter barker
2 years ago

As alluded to in the article’s 5th para -the family that Ludwig was born into was a real basket case. I started to research this family after hearing the song Wittgenstein’s Arm (by Neil Halstead) which references Ludwig’s brother Paul who was a concert pianist, lost his arm in army service then devoted himself to redesigning piano pieces so they could be played just by his remaining left arm.
Another brother, Rudolf (Rudi), committed suicide (by poison) in public in a bar; evidently after asking the pianist to play “Verlassen, verlassen, verlassen bin ich”. Yet another brother, Kurt, shot himself towards the end of WW1 after his troops mutinied/refused to obey his orders.
The eldest brother Hans, a musical prodigy, ran off to the USA and disappeared from a boat in Chesapeake Bay; either a suicide or a disappearance as he was never heard of again.

Stephen Brady
Stephen Brady
2 years ago

When he demolished the Cartesian Dualism (through the Private Language argument) he did everyone a favour….

Jerry Carroll
Jerry Carroll
2 years ago

Very nice article. There was no understanding Wittgenstein’s work, not even by the other great minds of his time including Betrand Russell. I read somewhere that the second book he wrote contradicted the first at every point. It also was unreadable. What interest remains in the man are in his bizarre eccentricities. In this he is rather like another great genius, John Nash, a Nobel Prize winner in mathematician and economics who suffered from schizophrenia. Also a homosexual, he was the subject of “A Beautiful Mind” (2001) starring Russell Crowe..

Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
1 year ago

Thank you Terry for your interesting and informative article. I see Wittgenstein was impossibly exacting and fascinated with language and its usage. So, I am emboldened to gently point out that you have misspelled the word ‘scarpering’. Many people do this, it has become my life’s work to correct the spelling. In June 1919 the German fleet scuttled itself (I think thats the right way to put it) in the bleak waters known as Scapa Flow to the north of Scotland (at the time Wittgenstein was in a POW camp in Trentino, having been captured fighting for the Austrian army). Cockneys in the East End of London adopted the words Scapa Flow into rhyming slang – to Scapa Flow meant to go or to run away, it was shortened to ‘Scapa’ – ‘here comes a copper, we better scapa.’. The correcting spelling, I assume Liudwig would agree, is ‘Scapaing’. All is quiet in the green valley of silliness.

matthew feig
matthew feig
2 years ago

Excellent article but overlooks a significant detail , Wittgenstein was an atheist Jew from a society that anhilliated its Jews, who had a profound but complex relationship with God (sort of joining a Catholic monastery at one point ) that he explicitly references in his work. He struggled with the spirit as well as with the mind.

Last edited 2 years ago by matthew feig
János Klein
János Klein
2 years ago
Reply to  matthew feig

He might have had a hard time proving his Christian roots during the Nazi years, but that doesn’t mean he either was or considered himself to be an atheist Jew.

Ian Gribbin
Ian Gribbin
2 years ago

Next one on the man who Wittgenstein considered a greater genius than he: Piero Sraffa.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ian Gribbin
gary.frank
gary.frank
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Gribbin

How Piero first enlightened Ludwig:comment image

kirby olson
kirby olson
2 years ago

His cousin was Friedrich Hayek. Hayek makes far more sense, but isn’t as kooky or as full of exasperating conundrums. Reagan liked Hayek. Not Salma Hayek, mind you, although I am sure that even she was not as exasperating as poor mad Ludwig.

gary.frank
gary.frank
1 year ago
Reply to  kirby olson

Hayek’s economic theories are quite kooky! Maynard Keynes (with whom, coincidentally, W. spent much time at Cambridge) makes far more sense.

Last edited 1 year ago by gary.frank
Graham Willis
Graham Willis
2 years ago

I think the Tractatus is an abstract work of art. I could be wrong; I don’t understand it in the slightest.

Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
Mr Sketerzen Bhoto
1 year ago
Reply to  Graham Willis

I joined a philosophy forum to go through it. They didn’t get it either.

Christian Cantos
Christian Cantos
1 year ago

Talking about Wittgenstein with style. This is an outstabding and philosophically inspired paper written on the subject

Andrew Langridge
Andrew Langridge
1 year ago

Wittgenstein’s ‘private language argument’ has been very influential, but I’m convinced is wrong and a misunderstanding of artistic practice in particular. What was Cezanne doing when painting Mont St.Victoire over and over again in an attempt to ‘get it right’? He considered this inner work to be immensely valuable despite the outer scene remaining unchanged.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Langridge
Nicky Hamlyn
Nicky Hamlyn
1 year ago

It’s easy to mock, but philosophers, like artists, have to be prepared to make fools of themselves, and for a sustained and scathing dismissal of philosophy, Paul Valery is recommended.

john zac
john zac
2 years ago

Thank you so much for sharing. Ludwig may have tried to hard.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
2 years ago

What i also find fascinating is the way in which so many of his contemporaries seemed to be in thrall to him. Why should this be so? I’d expect him to be rather contemptuous of it, but i’m not so sure? I won’t think about it for long though, since i’ve a meal to prepare.

Bill W
Bill W
2 years ago

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Last edited 2 years ago by Bill W
David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago

As always, thank you for that

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago

Erm, I’m pretty sure there needs to be more than one individual to qualify as a cult.