Letters to Russell, Keynes and Moore Ludwig Wittgenstein

ISBN: 9780801408229



190 pages


Letters to Russell, Keynes and Moore  by  Ludwig Wittgenstein

Letters to Russell, Keynes and Moore by Ludwig Wittgenstein
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Wittgenstein never did much to encourage the fossicking of amateurs, & in particular loathed phrase-making dilettantes. Yet people of a literary turn with no training in or indeed capacity for rigorous philosophy will probably go on finding himMoreWittgenstein never did much to encourage the fossicking of amateurs, & in particular loathed phrase-making dilettantes. Yet people of a literary turn with no training in or indeed capacity for rigorous philosophy will probably go on finding him of high interest.

He said we shouldn’t be seduced by language—-an admonition which will continue being useful to those whose business it is to be seduced by language every day of the week. Hes The Cure. Hes a rhetorician’s way of going on the wagon.This new volume of letters to Russell, Keynes & Moore is a companion piece for the slim collection of letters to Ogden & Ramsay. Those, being mainly technical, are stiff going for the nonprofessional.

These—-especially the substantial sheaf of letters to Russell—-are of more various interest. The reader will find himself drawn to speculate about all aspects of Wittgenstein’s strange life. The problem of his personality is eventually insoluble, but that doesn’t mean people are going to stop trying.Most of the letters to Russell stem from the years 1912-21—-i.e., from the 1st Cambridge period up until the publication of the Tractatus. In 22 came a break in their relationship, of the same kind that severed Wittgenstein from G.B.

Moore in Norway in 14. (Apparently he also quarrelled with Russell in 14, but Russell’s part of that exchange isnt available.) All the intensity of Wittgenstein’s focused intellect is there from the 1st moment: ‘There is nothing more wonderful in the world than the true problems of Philosophy.’ Engelmann was quite right in saying that thinking was Wittgenstein’s poetry. ‘I feel like mad.’ He accuses himself of having ‘half a talent’ for thought.Fearing hell die before being able to publish his ideas, he begs Russell to meet him so he can explain.

But explanation is difficult (its always encouraging for those of us puzzled by the Tractatus to find that Russell found it hard reading as well) & he has the poet’s reluctance to explicate: ‘It bores me BEYOND WORDS to explain...it is INTOLERABLE for me to repeat a written explanation which even the 1st time I gave only with the utmost repugnance.’A letter from Norway evokes the identikit Wittgenstein whose components everybody knows from Norman Malcolm’s excellent memoir.

‘My day passes between logic, whistling, going for walks & being depressed.’ Angst is a continuing theme, screwed to fever pitch by the suspicion his fellow thinkers don’t find him clear: ‘I find it inconceivable that Moore wasn’t able to explain my ideas to you.’ (Letters written in German are given in the original as well as in translation, & like all his German writings are so transparent they flatter the reader into believing he knows that language quite well.) In 12/19 Russell met him in The Hague & discussed the Tractatus with him for a week.

Theres a useful quotation from a hitherto unedited letter to Ottoline Morrell: ‘I told him I could not refute it, & that I was sure it was either all right or all wrong.’ It was difficult to get the book published—-a frustration treated more fully in the letters to Engelmann than here. An introduction by Russell was meant to smooth the book’s path to publication, but he didnt like what Russell wrote & characteristically didnt forbear to say so.

Once the elegance of Russell’s style had been lost in translation, only ‘superficiality & misunderstanding’ were left.Wittgenstein was incapable of diplomatic flattery, as of any form of give & take: he was, to that extent, antisocial. Its useful, on this point, to look up the letters to Ogden & see how he found himself unable to say the merest of kind words about The Meaning of Meaning, even after Ogden had knocked himself out translating the Tractatus.

Friendship with him was almost impossibly difficult, the demands were so heavy. (‘What a maniac you are!’ wrote Keynes) But he could be generous with his mental treasure, as long as you submitted. He was one of those mentors a pupil has to knuckle under to & eventually break free from. But even the proudest could temporarily forgo their liberty if it meant gaining access to a mind like his.There are many reminders here of a great truth about Wittgenstein which has taken a long time to emerge.

His spiritual life was extraordinarily rich. When he said you had to be silent about what you couldn’t speak of he didn’t mean that it wasn’t important-—only that it wasn’t philosophical. He himself made the point very clearly in one of his Briefe an Ludwig von Ficker (Salzburg, 69), when he said that his work (i.e., the book that was later to be the Tractatus) fell into two parts, what was there & what wasnt-—& that the 2nd part was the important one.

In English, he devoured pulp fiction & worshipped Carmen Miranda & Betty Hutton, two of the most off-putting stars ever to burden Hollywood. This kind of slumming—-quite common among people who do intellectual work at high intensity—-tends to obscure the profundity of his culture. But we need only to hear him conducting Russell thru the major German poets (‘if you’ve really enjoyed Mörike, you should see the light about GOETHE’) to see how poetry—-& he meant the poetry where the words used didnt exceed the thing said—-bulked large in his mind & formed the touchstone for his thought.Poetry, & of course music.

Moore was a musician as Russell wasnt, so the most enchanting moment in this volume occurs in a letter to Moore, when hes instructed to purchase an arrangement of the Brahms Schicksalslied for four hands & bring it to Norway. The picture of the two philosophers tickling the ivories side by side is one to be filed with the image of Chopin & Delacroix discussing counterpoint or Dr Johnson & Baretti running their footrace in Paris.

To Russell in 12 Wittgenstein said Mozart & Beethoven were ‘the actual sons of god’ & to Moore in 45 he said that the Schubert C Major Quintet had ‘a fantastic kind of greatness’. Insofar as he could find solace, he seems to have found it in music, but it would probably be a mistake to cut him down to size-—to make him human-—by pointing to a source of consolation.

For the unsentimental reader, its the inhuman element in him which is likely to remain the most striking. He had, for example, the depressive’s knack of doing a quick fade. The Trattenbach episode, which Wm Warren Bartley found the key to his sexuality, seems to me more interesting when linked to his other disappearing tricks, such as his late-flowering career as a WWII hospital orderly.

The Aircraftman Shaw aspect of Wittgenstein is a clear indication he suffered from a periodic inability to detect his own personality. If he was homosexual (& there are plenty of hints to support this) then he was Michelangelesque rather than Leonardian—-guilty rather than serene. But I don’t see how guilt covers the case. I think protean depressives should recognize one of their kind.Wittgenstein is turning into a myth.

People now bandy his name about who once would have been tinkering with Gurdjieff & Ouspensky. For what grappling with him on a professional level actually involves, its informative to look into Understanding Wittgenstein, Vol 7 of the Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures, where professionals are to be seen worrying at the problems: a cold douche for dabblers.

Obviously its a vocation to read work like his at the level of its writing. But for those of us whose propensities lie in other directions, or who are just not clever enough, its still legitimate to find his career instructive. We need to be careful, tho, not to turn his incidental remarks into slogans. In a recent tv play about a producer making a film on him, the bemused hero was to be heard muttering ‘Death is not an event in life’ as if it were an edifying insight.

Wittgenstein himself would have been quick enough to point out that Augustine goes into the subject more deeply in The City of God, or to recommend the texts of Tolstoy & Dostoevsky which helped sustain him during WWI. Wittgenstein isnt a substitute for the culture from which he grew, & a poet would do well to regard him as an enemy, not a friend.

But hes the necessary enemy. There is something about his mental landscape, its tungsten outcrops & cryogenic lakes, which quenches one’s thirst for austerity. Seven Types of Ambiguity & The Structure of Complex Words will do more for a poet’s understanding of how language works than anything written by Wittgenstein: we read those books & feel that anything is possible.

We read Wittgenstein & feel that nothing is-—so little can be said. A salutary disenchantment, out of which his finely honed lyricism rings with uncanny beauty. ‘We are asleep. Our life is like a dream,’ he wrote to Engelmann, ‘But in our better hours we wake up just enough to realise that we are dreaming.’--New Statesman, 10/18/74 (edited)

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