Wittgenstein’s self-isolation

“Complete solitude” in a remote Norwegian village led to the most productive time of his life

Ray Monk

At the start of the Cambridge Michaelmas Term in October 1913, Bertrand Russell was sitting in his rooms in Trinity College, when, as he put it to his friend Lucy Donnelly, “my Austrian, Wittgenstein, burst in like a whirlwind, just back from Norway, and determined to return there at once to live in complete solitude”. Russell tried to argue Wittgenstein out of it: “I said it would be dark & he said he hated daylight. I said it would be lonely & he said he prostituted his mind talking to intelligent people. I said he was mad & he said God preserve him from sanity. (God certainly will.)”

Despite all Russell’s protestations, Wittgenstein did go to Norway to live alone. He found rooms in a village called Skjolden at the end of the Sognefjord, a very remote spot indeed, where he remained until the summer of 1914. He remembered those eight months of solitude as, philosophically, the most productive time of his life. “Then, my mind was on fire,” he would later say to friends.

As emerges from the letters he wrote to Russell, Wittgenstein spent his time in Norway thinking about two things: philosophical problems, especially those that arose from logic, and himself. For Wittgenstein, these were not separate subjects; they were two sides of the same coin. One of his earliest intellectual influences had been Otto Weininger’s Sex and Character, in which Weininger says: “logic and ethics are fundamentally the same, they are no more than duty to oneself.” Throughout his life, Wittgenstein focused—with a remarkable intensity—on two things: thinking clearly and being a decent human being. Russell remembers that Wittgenstein would “pace up and down my room like a wild beast for three hours in agitated silence”. Once, Russell asked: “Are you thinking about logic or your sins?” “Both,” Wittgenstein replied, and continued his pacing.

A view that Wittgenstein seems to have acquired from Weininger is that the only worthwhile goal in life is to devote oneself to producing works of genius. He once told Russell an anecdote about Beethoven: how a friend described going to Beethoven’s door and hearing him “cursing, howling and singing” over his new fugue. After an hour, Beethoven came to the door, “looking as if he had been fighting the devil, and having eaten nothing for 36 hours because his cook and parlour-maid had been away from his rage”. That, Wittgenstein told Russell, is the sort of man to be.

In Wittgenstein’s case, the great work in question was not a piece of music but a work of philosophy, one that would solve all philosophical problems. When Wittgenstein met Russell, he had not undertaken any formal study of philosophy. He was a student at Manchester, pursuing research in aeronautics, having previously studied engineering at Berlin. After reading Russell’s book, The Principles of Mathematics, however, philosophical problems, in the words of his sister Hermine, “became such an obsession with him, and took hold of him so completely against his will, that he suffered terribly, feeling torn between conflicting vocations”. Finally in October 1911, apparently on the spur of the moment, he caught the train to Cambridge and went straight to Russell’s rooms. Russell was at the time having tea with his friend C.K. Ogden, when, as he put it in a letter to his lover Ottoline Morrell, “an unknown German appeared, speaking very little English but refusing to speak German. He turned out to be a man who had learned engineering at Charlottenburg, but during his course had acquired, by himself, a passion for the philosophy of mathematics & has now come to Cambridge on purpose to hear me.”

To begin with, Russell was unsure whether Wittgenstein was a genius or a lunatic; but by the New Year of 1912, he was convinced he was the former. In the summer of that year, Hermine came to Cambridge and was told by Russell: “We expect the next big step in philosophy to be taken by your brother.”

At the age of 23, Wittgenstein had a mission, a duty, to produce a work of philosophy that would redirect the entire subject. With this went a parallel mission: to perfect himself. Weininger had written that it was a duty of a genius to realise his highest self: “Not his empirical self, not the weaknesses and vulgarities, not the failings and smallnesses which outwardly exhibits; but all that he wants to be, all that he ought to be, his truest, deepest, intelligible nature.”

Wittgenstein once said that, though he had no religious beliefs, he couldn’t help approaching problems “from a religious point of view”. At the centre of that point of view was the importance of not losing one’s soul. “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” was one of his favourite texts. He once remarked to Russell how few people there are who do not lose their soul. Russell replied that, in his view, it depended on “having a large purpose that one is true to”. Wittgenstein responded that it rather depended more on suffering and the power to endure it. In Vienna he had seen a play called Die Kreuzelschreiber by Ludwig Anzengruber in which a character expressed a thought that had made a deep impression on him. The thought was that, no matter what happened in the world, nothing could happen to him. He was independent of fate and circumstances.

This provides a clue as to why solitude was important to Wittgenstein. It was a way of ensuring that he did not lose his soul, that he remained free from and independent of the pettiness, meanness and bad faith of which the world is full. Wittgenstein, like a medieval saint, took great steps to keep his life unencumbered by material things. He inherited a vast fortune from his father, but he gave it away. He never owned a house and for most of his life lived in sparsely furnished, small, but exceptionally clean rooms.

In the summer of 1913, he took a holiday in Norway with his friend David Pinsent. From the diary that Pinsent kept at the time, it appears that Wittgenstein spent most of his time working on philosophy, determined to live up to Russell’s exalted expectations of him. He became haunted by the thought that his work would come to nothing. “I very often now,” he wrote to Russell, “have the indescribable feeling as though my work was all sure to be lost entirely in some way or other.” Pinsent describes him as being “morbidly afraid” of dying before he could finish his work. He made Russell promise to publish what he had written if he should die.

It was on his return to Cambridge from this holiday that he announced to Russell his plan of returning to Norway alone to finish his work. Before he departed, Russell made him dictate what he had done so far to a typist. This has now been published as “Notes on Logic”, the earliest surviving piece of writing by Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein believed that all philosophical problems arose from a misunderstanding of logic, and that, therefore, a correct understanding of logic would clear up the entire subject. Achieving such an understanding was what he devoted himself to in his Norwegian solitude.

His letters to Russell from Norway are full of detailed and technical remarks about his developing thoughts on logic, and also expressions of personal angst. “Deep inside me,” he wrote, “there’s a perpetual seething, like the bottom of a geyser, and I keep hoping that things will come to an eruption once and for all, so that I can turn into a different person . . . Perhaps you regard this thinking about myself as a waste of time—but how can I be a logician before I’m a human being! Far the most important thing is to settle accounts with myself!”

In March 1914, the Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore came to Skjolden to visit Wittgenstein. The latter had told him that his work on logic was “very nearly done” and was evidently keen to discuss it. Moore stayed for two weeks, during which Wittgenstein dictated a new set of notes which expressed his new ideas. At the centre of these was a distinction between saying and showing that Wittgenstein considered the key idea of his work, the one that finally revealed the nature of logic. Logical propositions, such as tautologies (which are necessarily true) and contradictions (which are necessarily false) do not say anything, but they show something, namely, “the logical properties of language and therefore of the Universe”. The breakthrough, then, consists of seeing that logic is “ineffable”. It cannot be put into words. To understand why not, one needs to understand the nature of language, which is what Wittgenstein set out to do in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Towards the end of his stay in Skjolden, Wittgenstein, evidently craving even greater solitude, made arrangements for a house to be built for him in an extraordinary position, high up on a hillside overlooking the village. The site was inaccessible by road. To get to it, one had to row from Skjolden across Lake Eidsvatnet. It was, Wittgenstein told Russell gleefully, “miles from anyone”.

It was there that he hoped to finish his book, but, in the summer of 1914, before the house was finished, he returned to Vienna. The outbreak of the First World War prevented him from returning to Norway and instead he volunteered for the Austrian army. His motive for doing so seems to be connected with his desire to “turn into a different person”. In 1912, he had read The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, which, he told Russell, “does me a lot of good”. In the book, James discusses the spiritual value of facing death. “No matter what a man’s frailties otherwise may be,” he writes, “if he be willing to face death, and still more if he suffer it in the service he has chosen, the fact consecrates him forever.” From the diaries that he kept during the war, we can see that Wittgenstein yearned for such consecration. The first time he glimpsed the Russian enemy, he wrote, “Now I have the chance to be a decent human being, for I’m standing eye to eye with death.”

As it happened, Wittgenstein did undergo a “variety of religious experience” during the war. In Galicia, he entered a bookshop, where he could find only one book: Leo Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief. He bought it and read it over and over again. To his comrades he became known as “the man with the gospels”. It provided him with the inspiration he needed to adopt the attitude of the character in Die Kreuzelschreiber that had so impressed him. “Don’t be dependent on the external world,” he urged himself in his diary, “and then you have no fear of what happens in it.” He also urged himself to be independent of people. Salvation would come through solitude.

He carried on writing philosophy during the war. For the first two years, he wrote almost entirely on logic, but then in 1916, when he was serving on the Russian Front, his technical reflections are interrupted by the questions about God. The distinction he had made between saying and showing was now extended by him to religion, aesthetics, ethics, and the meaning of life. All of these subjects, like logic, lay beyond the sayable.

Wittgenstein finished Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus towards the end of the First World War, and it was finally published in 1921. It is unusual in both form and content. It is written, not in consecutive prose but in numbered propositions, and it contains a unique blend of technical logic and mysticism. In its preface Wittgenstein announces that the book “finally solves” the problems of philosophy, a view he was to abandon a few years later. Nobody else has been tempted to adopt that view, but it is generally acknowledged to be one of the most important works of philosophy ever published. It is, however, difficult to interpret and has been understood in a wide variety of different ways. Bearing in mind its genesis in self-imposed isolation, perhaps the most poignant way of characterising it lies in Ernest Gellner’s description, “a poem to solitude”.


This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.

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