His work transformed the nature of philosophy and pushed followers toward the edge of comprehension. But his own nature, too, has long challenged comprehension.
No one expects contemporary philosophers to be more than mildly eccentric. Creatures of the modern academy, they have careers, not vocations. Some mixture of incentive and professional obligation keeps them productive. They can cultivate the odd quirk—elbow patches or, naughtily, a cigar habit—but more outlandish idiosyncrasies are ruled out by the institutions that discipline them into tameness.
Of course, the archetypal Western philosopher, Socrates, lived before there was an academy to tame him. And he was seen, even in his time, to be—using the word advisedly—queer. Undoubtedly, that was the case in the modern, pejorative-not-pejorative sense: he was attracted to men. But he was also queer in ways that are harder to define.
The Greek word often applied to him was atopos, literally, “out of place.” His out-of-placeness consisted in what the scholar Martha Nussbaum has called a “deeper impenetrability of spirit.” Socrates simply could not be counted on to say what one expected him to say.
He was also queer in how he managed to combine rationality with the most abject unreasonableness. No one can really desire what’s bad, he said. It is worse to do wrong than to be wronged. The just man is happier than the unjust man, even when he is being tortured on the rack. What was it like to be in the presence of someone who believed such things?
There is only one canonical philosopher of the twentieth century with anything resembling these traits: Ludwig Wittgenstein. He was one of the founders of a tradition—the “analytic”—that has come to dominate academic philosophy in much of the world. But he has not been afforded the cloak of impersonality that shrouds most analytic philosophers.
Wittgenstein belongs, rather, with figures like Socrates, Jesus, and Gandhi, in that seemingly everybody who met him felt moved to record the encounter. How many people in the history of philosophy are the subject of a two-volume tome of anecdotes? What explains the fascination with the ephemera of one man’s life, including among people who claim that the work was the thing?
Even for those who know the facts of that life well, “the difficulty has been to discern in them an intelligible human being,” as a reviewer of Ray Monk’s definitive biography, “Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius,” from 1990, wrote. A young man from a fabulously wealthy and cultivated Viennese family arrives in Cambridge, in 1911, to study with Bertrand Russell, the preëminent logician of his age. He is evidently a tormented soul, and he makes little effort to be liked. He is rude and a bit arrogant but in another way without vanity. He hates the social world of Cambridge, with its gossipy gays and sardonic dons. He quickly shows talent enough to convince Russell that he is no charlatan, and charisma enough to convince Russell that, even if he were, acquaintance might be worth the bother.
On the verge of a radical breakthrough, he decides to live alone in rural Norway, to think about logic in absolute solitude. But that plan is interrupted by the First World War. He enlists in the Army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire despite being eligible for a medical exemption and serves as an ordinary soldier even though someone of his class could have joined as an officer. The war and soldiering evidently mean something to him, but nothing about his decision is obvious. Neither before nor after the war does he show much interest in workaday politics.
In his free moments as a soldier, he scribbles in notebooks that are divided between remarks destined for an ambitious philosophical manuscript and personal remarks on religion, masturbation, and the quotidian business of being at war. He repeatedly volunteers for the most dangerous posting available to him. Along the way, his manuscript on logic is transformed almost beyond recognition.
The original project seems to have been one that Russell initiated—to show that behind the messy outward “clothing” of language lies a lean body of thought, austere and simple. That aim, to reveal the order behind the disorder, survives the war. But there is now something new. The meaningful use of language, Wittgenstein says, gives us a picture of the world: there’s a tree by your house; there’s an apple on that tree. These are ways that the world is or could be. But he admits that his account of language and thought, by design, leaves out the aesthetic and the ethical: the tree is beautiful; stealing that apple would be wrong. Such propositions do not state facts; they are, in his view, nonsensical, even mystical. He is equally forthright about admitting that his strictures apply to his own words: propositions about the nature of propositions don’t specify states of the world, either; they, too, lack sense.
After the war, the manuscript is published on Russell’s recommendation, although Russell is dubious about its contents. Meanwhile, Wittgenstein surprises everyone by forswearing philosophy (whose central problems he thinks he has now solved) and going off to rural Austria to teach schoolchildren; he clouts one student on the head so hard that the boy collapses to the ground. Under scrutiny for his disciplinary methods, and lately convinced that he hasn’t, in fact, solved all the problems of philosophy, he returns to Cambridge, slowly making his way to a new, and equally radical, philosophical outlook.