Ludwig Wittgenstein was so influential a philosopher that, back when I was in college, Philosophy instructors on both sides of the Atlantic were notoriously prone to imitate his very mannerisms.
I’d say myself that Wittgenstein’s fame, influence, and popularity were ultimately based not so much on either the logical force of his arguments or his definitive contributions to Philosophy, but rather upon his eccentric personality, his striking good looks, and the literary appeal of his aphoristic statements.
Wittgenstein was a tremendously Romantic figure, who wrote the Tractatus, the work he asserted at the time that resolved all the questions of Philosophy, while fighting as an artillery officer in the trenches of WWI.
Born to a fabulously wealthy and conspicuously talented noble family (of Jewish origin), Ludwig Wittgenstein renounced all his inherited wealth and lived a famously tormented, eremitical life of the greatest simplicity and abstemiousness. (He was presumably simultaneously battling against his homosexuality and atoning for his rare and reluctant surrenders to those impulses.)
Having, in his own view, solved all the main issues of Philosophy, he simply walked away from a prestigious teaching position at Cambridge, and the comradeship of Bertrand Russell and G.E Moore, to work as a primary schoolteacher in a primitive rural village.
He concluded that he had been mistaken, and that he had not actually solved all of Philosophy’s problems, so he returned reluctantly to Cambridge, where he endeavored to “cure” people of Philosophy, trying to persuade his students to do something useful instead.
His engagement with ideas was intense and passionate, and he could be seen to be struggling passionately with his own thoughts as he conducted his classes. However ultimately inconclusive his results, his prose was poetical and aphoristic, yet also compelling, and attempts to follow, or merely imitate, his mode of philosophizing became the dominant academical approach throughout the English-speaking world.
I like Wittgenstein myself every bit as much as the next fellow, and I normally buy any book about him at all, but I was dismayed last night to come upon (Gawd help us!) the abridged reprint edition of F.A. Flowers III and Ian Ground’s Portraits of Wittgenstein, a collection of 50 portraits of, and reflections upon, dear old Ludwig, going for $255 in hardcover and $37 in stinking paperback.
The 2016 original two-volume hardcover edition (obviously the one you want) goes these days at the lowest for around 500 clams.
You can picture Wittgenstein shaking his head, and launching into a condemnatory rant.
Frank Freeman’s review here.
Wittgenstein took philosophy personally; it was a struggle of intellectual integrity, clear thinking, sincerity. And because Wittgenstein was such a charismatic figure, this meant that his philosophy was inextricable from his life. It was as if he was all alone in the world and everyone else witnesses of his struggle.
This is why a book such as Portraits of Wittgenstein makes such compelling reading. First published in 2016 in two volumes (1138 pages), the book has now been cut in half by its editors, making it more accessible. It is a collection of essays written by people who knew or came into contact with Wittgenstein over the years. Most people who did so either hated him or loved him; almost all feared him. John Maynard Keynes, a friend, wrote about Wittgenstein, â€œGod has arrived. I met him on the 5:15 train.â€ Even someone, such as this writer, who thinks there are philosophical problems, can find himself fascinated by, even rapt in this kaleidoscopic portrait of a genius, a saint-like holy fool of philosophy who lived his philosophy to the uttermost.