“Well, God has arrived. I met him on the 5.15 train” (quoting Keynes, 255).
“Then the startling words; said Black, ‘I wonder if you would be so kind, Professor Wittgenstein…’ Well, when Black said ‘Wittgenstein’ a loud and instantaneous gasp went up from the assembled students. You must remember: ‘Wittgenstein’ was a mysterious and awesome name in the philosophical world of 1949, at Cornell in particular. The gasp that went up was just the gasp that would have gone up if Black had said ‘I wonder if you would be so kind, Plato…'” (quoting Nelson, 558).
Ludwig Wittgenstein was, as the above quotations betray, a towering philosophical giant in the 20th century — possibly, the greatest of his generation. In this fine, magisterial biography, Ray Monk details this illustrious yet tortured life.
Born into an lucrative family of immense wealth in Austria, young Ludwig displayed no early signs of “genius,” unlike his older siblings. Eventually, though, Ludwig would be possessed by his own “genius,” not of musical talent but of intellectual rigor. One could say that the impetus of Wittgenstein’s philosophical career is to learn how to say something clearly. Clarity was his obsession: “What can be said, can be said clearly” (credits to Michael Pierce’s YouTube, “Wittgenstein in a Nutshell”). This will be the extend of my summary of Wittgenstein’s thought (to be honest, this was the most arduous task of Monk’s book, personally speaking, not because Monk was unclear but the concepts were quite difficult to grasp).
Wittgenstein had a long list of friends-become-“fri-enemies.” This is due partly to his passionate, self-assertive nature and his incredulous reaction when learned people (e.g., professors of philosophy) cannot understand or grasp his self-proclaimed clear reasonings. On more than one occasion, Wittgenstein would storm out in frustration if he sensed his audience or interlocutor misunderstand and misappropriate his words and sentences. Yet, this is not to mean that Wittgenstein did not cherish friendships — but the very opposite. Yes, he would dominate most conversations about his own philosophical inquiries. Yes, he would, at times, escape the lurid, egoistic life of London to be isolated in Norway. But he would also regularly mail impassioned letters to old and new friends, watch movies (Westerns were his favorite), attend concerts, and go on long walks coupled with intimate conversations. Moments before he lost consciousness, he told his host-friend, Mrs Bevan (the wife of the doctor who treated during Wittgenstein’s last years), to tell his friends: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”