Wittgenstein, A Life

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

In Wittgenstein, A Life: Young Ludwig, 1889-1921, Brian McGuinness has produced the first half of a biography of the philosopher such as has not been written before and cannot be written again. McGuinness, one of the translators of the now-standard 1961 English version of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), spent decades interviewing and corresponding with members of Wittgenstein’s family and acquaintances, most of whom had died before the work appeared. This close contact with a group of people with whom no subsequent biographer will be able to communicate produced, as McGuinness says, the feeling that he had been “transported to an earlier age,” a feeling that his careful, circumspect prose manages to communicate admirably to the reader. Few intellectual biographies of any figure, in fact, attain the degree of success that this one does in making clear the relations that exist between the thinker’s personal and mental lives, without at the same time making one dependent on the other.

In its basic outlines, the pattern of Wittgenstein’s life that emerges from the present volume is essentially that given by previous works. Yet McGuinness fills in details, brings out relevant facts, and in general gives a much more finely drawn, close-textured picture than any of these. Ludwig was the youngest of eight children born to the man known in his time as “the Carnegie of Austria,” Karl Wittgenstein, central (so McGuinness says) to the philosopher’s development. As a young man, Karl had spent some years in the United States, where he was deeply influenced by the still-unfettered capitalism of the end of the nineteenth century. Once again in Europe, he moved with his family to Austria, where he rose to be one of the most powerful rail and steel magnates in the Habsburg dual monarchy. The house in which Ludwig grew up was filled (in McGuinness’ words) “with the best, though not always the lightest, of furniture and tapestry and bronzes.” His father financed the celebrated Sezession building in downtown Vienna and patronized some of the most well-known artists and musicians of his age. Johannes Brahms visited the family, and Ludwig’s sister sat for a portrait, now in Munich, by Gustav Klimt.

Karl Wittgenstein’s assumption that the best was only barely good enough, however, made life difficult for his children, for whom he served as both model and unattainable goal. McGuinness suggests that it was somehow fear of inadequacy or not living up to the standards set by their father that led to the suicides (certain in two cases, probable in another) of three of Ludwig’s brothers, as well as to Ludwig’s own recurring thoughts of suicide and feelings of failure. (Another brother, Paul, however, became a concert pianist of some renown and, having lost an arm in World War I, commissioned a number of piano concerti for the left hand alone, among them the celebrated one of Maurice Ravel.)

McGuinness titles the first chapter of his book dealing with these matters “Family Resemblances”; his attempt is to suggest that many of the qualities that are known from Wittgenstein’s early writings (including his first published work, the Tractatus), were somehow inherited from the high bourgeois family situation in which he matured. Linked to this is the fact that Wittgenstein was a quintessentially Austrian writer and thinker: Many pages in subsequent chapters are spent tracing the effects of the writings of the Viennese Karl Kraus and the Austrian philosopher Otto Weininger on Ludwig’s early development.

Yet the author stops short of offering a deterministic theory of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. He diverges, for example, from the view put forth by Allan Janik and Stephen Towlmin in Wittgenstein’s Vienna (1973) that, in McGuinness’ words, “no man can express more than his own historical situation” and thus that Wittgenstein is most correctly seen as a quintessential product of fin de siècle Vienna. His intention in giving the methodical, thorough family history for the period of Wittgenstein’s pre-Cambridge years is merely to suggest that there existed some relation, though not a causal one, between the philosopher and his immediate surroundings.

This reasonable, balanced view of things extends to McGuinness’ analysis of the philosopher’s works as well. The author finds in the record of Wittgenstein’s mental development pre-echoes of doctrines familiar to readers from the printed works. Yet his intention is not to suggest that Wittgenstein never developed or...

(The entire section is 1880 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

British Book News. September, 1987, p. 586.

Library Journal. CXIII, September 15, 1988, p. 76.

Listener. CXIX, June 23, 1988, p. 30.

London Review of Books. X, June 23, 1988, p. 15.

The Observer. May 22, 1988, p. 43.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 2, 1988, p. 947.