Reason as the Leading Motive

Notes on Wittgenstein

Posted by Jerry on January 4, 2007

I’ve just started reading Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein titled Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius.


I’ve also read other works on Wittgenstein, such as the Philosophy Now edition dedicated to briefly exploring his life and works, The Essential Wittgenstein, Incompleteness, and Wittgenstein’s Poker. In all my readings of him, the man has come out to be far short of a genius; in fact, much worse, the man comes off being terribly confused, paranoid, self-loathing, and often, a charlatan disguised as a philosophizer.


The man’s deep-seated psychological confusion was apparent even from his younger years. According to Monk, Wittgenstein was ashamed of the fact that he had not killed himself–that he was not daring enough to commit suicide. Monk says that this feeling of shame and self-loathing lasted for nine years!


Well, Wittgenstein did achieve a different kind of suicide–a philosophical one. He set out to burn down entire philosophical edifices, reduce everything to mere linguistic dilemmas; and in so doing, he was–insofar as he regarded himself as a philosopher–engaging in self-immolation.


From his childhood, Wittgenstein suffered from an inadequacy of being. He never was quite comfortable with who he was–for example, he was eager to deny his Jewish heritage while his brother refused to do the same. He consciously made the effort to “[say] what was untrue because I was afraid of the bad opinion of those around me.”


Monk relates that Wittgenstein was a fairly poor student through most of his schooling. He was weakest in the “scientific and technical subjects,” which makes the extent of the man’s dishonesty even more persuasive because–in his later years as a philosophizer–he engaged in aggressive, vociferous, and adamant argumentation against Kurt Godel’s discoveries in technical and theoretical Mathematics only to be proved logically and irrevocably wrong.


All of this notwithstanding, I have found great amusement in reading about Wittgenstein and his cultish, adulating disciples from the Vienna Circle. This is the way I see it: sometimes, even a fool’s imagination can be very captivating. And admittedly, Wittgenstein had one very active imagination! Of course, I’m open to being proved wrong about the shallowness of Wittgenstein’s main ideas, and I am eager to read more from his sympathizers. As I move along in the book, I expect to resurrect this post with periodic updates on my thoughts.


“Given Wittgenstein’s theory of sense and nonsense, that very theory turns out to be meaningless! This is not an unforeseen consequence of Wittgenstein’s theory, something he realized at a later date. By the time we get to the end of the Tractatus it appears that Wittgenstein intended all along to show that what he had written is nonsense.”

Mark Jago looks at Wittgenstein’s first theory of language, in the Tractatus. One of the conclusions of this theory is that the theory in the Tractatus is nonsense. [From Philosophy Now, Issue 58]


Added: As I read further into Wittgenstein’s biography, it becomes increasingly apparent that the man had a severely fractured soul. His life–at least as far as I have read–is so filled with internal and emotional turmoil, intellectual doubt, low self-esteem, and spiritual self-loathing. So intense is the depressive and melancholic mood that emanates from the biography that at one point I simply wanted to quit reading the book; it was ruining my own mood.

I will not quit the book, however. There is very little, almost nothing at all, about the Wittgenstein that I have read thus far that strikes me as evidence of an unusually intelligent or brilliant mind. Indeed, what is revealed is a man who is a chronic misanthrope, who exhibited extreme violence against some of his female pupils, was often dishonest—in short, a man of very weak character.



8 Responses to “Notes on Wittgenstein”

  1. Ergo said

    To clarify, “Incompleteness” is NOT about Wittgenstein. It is about Kurt Godel. However, it devotes a good amount to Wittgenstein’s reaction to Godel’s revolutionary proofs. And in that, one can get some insight into the character of Wittgenstein himself.

  2. Luis said

    You know, I used to be a lot like Wittgenstein. I used to think that everything I or anyone else said was nonsense. My aim was usually to show that what I or anyone else was saying, was nonsense. I would go around in circles. I think you got a bit of that when you met me. Remember when I told you that I believed there were no morals?

    I still speak nonsense sometimes, but now I’m usually able to tell that I am, and shut myself up.


  3. Ergo said

    Yea, I remember you saying that there were no morals. The funny thing about making such a statement is, at some deep level, one hopes that others don’t believe the same thing! 🙂 Of course, no one wants their stuff stolen, or to be mugged, or–worse–to be killed!

    The thing about Witty boy, however, is that he could never quite verbalize sufficiently (to himself or anyone else) any kind of moral proposition or “ought” statement. Nevertheless, he always had a moral “gut” so to speak. This is roughly why he felt moral propositions are essentially meaningless (undescribable, inexplicable), and therefore should be passed off in silence. He came to regard such feelings as uncapaturable in words. I wouldn’t say he simply lacked any moral sense.

  4. Luis said

    I think the reason I was able to make such a statements was that everyone else around me did in fact believe in morals. Nietzsche really did a number on me; I thought I was an über mensch, above all the “lowly moral people!” And then Wi-Stein just kinda added fuel to the fire, with his language games…

    “464. My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense ” Wi-Stein.

    I was more of an über drunken drama than anything else… Oh, those were the days! lol!


  5. John Enright said

    If you haven’t read it, you might enjoy “Wittgenstein’s Poker”, which is centered on a night in which Wittgenstein and Karl Popper got into a big argument in public. It turns into a sort of extended contrast with Karl Popper. It’s not a great book, but I found it fun and interesting.

    The book acknowledges that Wittgenstein was gay, but seems to skate over this factor in discussing his internal conflicts. I have wondered if some of his self-loathing came from not accepting this aspect of his person.

  6. Luis said

    You read that, didn’t you Jer. So did I… it was good.

  7. Ergo said

    Yea, I read Witty’s Poker. In terms of its writing style, I didn’t like it very much. It managed to exasperate me on several occassions. I remember being annoyed at how the authors were slack in eliminating ambiguous references several times. And somewhere towards the middle–when they dwelled on the jewishness of Witty boy–I got slightly bored.

    But I enjoyed reading the story, the DRAMA surrounding Queen Witty, and hullabaloo it all created! 😉

    Regarding his self-loathing as perhaps due to being gay, I think there might be some truth to that argument. Though, reading Monk’s biography of Witty boy, I get the impression that the fellow had several internal conflicts, including his desire to please others, live up to an image in society, imitate lives and mannerisms of people he admired–like Beethoven and Weininger, attempt to exhibit a brilliance that was perhaps above his reach, etc.

    Wittgenstein claims that a person’s approach to philosophy (or doing philosophy) should be entirely modest and devoid of any pride. He equates the honest approach with the modest and humble approach to finding the truth. I find this rather peculiar. I wonder if it is a veiled confession of sorts–as in, his admission to having false facades of unjustified pride that he realizes needs to be shed in order to be ruthlessly honest with one’s self.

    Ofcourse, I subscribe to the Randian approach wherein one’s own sense of pride and integrity does not permit self-deceit. The honesty at seeking the truth stems from the immense self-confidence in knowing that one has the capacity (the tool, reason) to arrive at the truth, and that nothing less than the truth is good enough for a man who is truly and legitimately proud.

  8. Trey said

    How can one determine a person’s genius by his mannerisms?

    Also, Wittgenstein had an engine (airplane) patented and it was produced and used for some time.

    So one cannot appeal to a lack of “technical” prowess.

    Ad hominem attacks don’t really get us anywhere.

    One must consider the ideas.

    Plus “Incompleteness” is a terrible book.

    It says “you can’t argue with a proof”.

    It reeks of dogma and the need to provide a sufficient antagonist (Wittgenstein) for Godel.

    “Given the theory of sense and nonsense…”

    That is such a weak line (it completely misses the point of the sense/nonsense distinction (i.e. natural language “analogue” of well formed formulas in logic)).

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