Overrated: Ludwig Wittgenstein

The Austrian philosopher and 20th-century genius disabled others and inspired decades of needless self-destruction among his disciples

Overrated
Ludwig Josef Johan Wittgenstein (1889-1951) (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)

In the preface to his Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein says: “I should like to have produced a good book. This has not come about.” Which goes to show that false modesty can unwittingly reveal the truth. He mounted a similar display of ostentatious humility in a letter to Bertrand Russell accompanying a typescript of the remarks that were eventually published as The Blue Book: “If you don’t read them it doesn’t matter at all.” I hope that Russell rolled his eyes, and not from the mesmeric effect Wittgenstein had induced in him early in their acquaintance, a quarter of a century earlier.

When he first met Wittgenstein, Russell called him “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius,” despite or perhaps because he couldn’t understand what young Ludwig was saying. Writing to his lover Ottoline Morrell in 1913 about Wittgenstein’s attack on one of his logical doctrines, Russell confessed: “I couldn’t understand his objection—in fact he was very inarticulate—but I felt in my bones that he must be right.” He added: “I saw that I could not hope ever again to do fundamental work in philosophy.”

That Wittgenstein’s mysterious charisma disabled a philosopher and logician as brilliant as Russell was among the first of its baleful effects, and Russell did in fact largely abandon logic at that moment. For a while, instead, he concentrated on spreading the Wittgenstein miasma, and his admiration turned Wittgenstein into an intellectual superstar. Ever since, Wittgenstein has been more of a cult than an argument, an irrationalist movement in a supposedly rational discipline. Like Russell, Wittgenstein’s followers know he is right; the only difficulty is knowing what he meant.

Had Russell chosen to respond in detail to The Blue Book, Wittgenstein would have flown into a rage. According to Wittgenstein, no one ever understood Wittgenstein, Russell least of all. No paraphrase is adequate; no definite interpretation captures the true intentions of the Genius. He slips through the fingers like sand. No blow can land, for the real Wittgenstein is always elsewhere.

Ludwig even had trouble interpreting himself plausibly. Not long after Russell’s bones were crumbling under the weight of Wittgenstein’s uncomprehended critique, the seer’s friends had him placed under hypnosis so that he could clearly express his views about logic. About logic!

Wittgenstein’s reputation for genius did not depend on incomprehensibility alone. He was also “tortured”, rude and unreliable. He had an intense gaze. He spent months in cold places like Norway to isolate himself. He temporarily quit philosophy, because he believed that he had solved all its problems in his 1922 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and worked as a gardener. He gave away his family fortune. And, of course, he was Austrian, as so many of the best geniuses are.

He intimidated and disabled very smart people besides Russell. Wittgenstein convinced G.E. Moore that he’d been using the wrong philosophical method, and that he had a much better one. The new method had only one drawback for Moore: “I’ve never been able to understand it clearly enough to use it.”

Famously, Wittgenstein’s ideas about language and logic had been transformed by the time he returned to a fellowship in Trinity College, Cambridge in 1929. Or perhaps not: the point is controversial, as is all interpretation of his work. Early Wittgenstein was replaced by the Late Wittgenstein, whose views are most fully expressed in his Philosophical Investigations, and who is the Wittgenstein beloved of most Wittgensteinians.

This new Wittgenstein believed the meaning of words is shown not by the laws of logic but by the ways language is ordinarily used. Philosophy was nonsense, and we needed to let the fly out of the fly-bottle. And though it produced many interesting moments, this movement failed overall to make Wittgenstein’s own language more comprehensible.

Consider On Certainty, a collection of remarks from the last years of his life, largely devoted to Moore’s “proof of the external world”. Moore had given a common-sense argument against the idealism of Berkeley, Kant and Hegel. In lectures, Moore would make the argument by holding his hands up and waving them around. “Here is a hand,” he would say, “and here is another.” Voila: things that exist outside a mind that perceives them.

Now, you may think that is a good argument or you may not. But you can’t think it is both good and bad—unless, of course, you are a genius. Wittgenstein argues that Moore and the rest of us do indeed know that here is a hand, because that is the sort of case that gives the word “know” its meaning. And also that we don’t know it, because it is a linguistic rule, not an empirical assertion. On Certainty drags the reader around in circles, and leaves them none the wiser.

All philosophy is nonsense, he was quite possibly saying, again. His many followers, philosophy professors though they were, spent decades visiting destruction upon their own subject-matter, for reasons that remain awfully elusive. As Ludwig Wittgenstein disabled Russell and Moore, he succeeded to some extent in disabling a whole discipline.