Wittgenstein at war

From The New Statesman:

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) appears to be the only major work of philosophy to have been composed while the author was an active military combatant. René Descartes was serving in the Thirty Years War as a volunteer with the Dutch and then Bavarian armies when he first developed his philosophical ideas, but we don’t know whether he saw combat. Wittgenstein enlisted as an infantryman in the Austro-Hungarian army on 7 August 1914, about a week after the outbreak of the First World War. He was 25. From the start of the conflict he was intent on continuing the work on logic and philosophy that had occupied him for the past few years, growing out of his collaboration with Bertrand Russell at Cambridge. It held him together under outward circumstances that he found hard to bear.

People are fascinated by the hidden lives of creative geniuses, the more sordid the better. Wittgenstein’s Private Notebooks, 1914-1916 appeals to that interest by allowing the reader to eavesdrop on his agonised emotional life in two of those years of military service, during which he produced one of the most influential philosophical works of the 20th century. The Tractatus is a founding document of the analytic tradition in philosophy. It set out a theory of logic, language and the limits of meaning which revealed, Wittgenstein argued, that traditional philosophical problems were based on linguistic confusion. The two tracks of his life – the emotional and the intellectual – can be followed in some notebooks Wittgenstein kept during that period. On the right-hand pages he entered his philosophical thoughts, in legible German. On the left-hand pages, in code, he entered his personal feelings – hopes, fears, prayers, despair, loathing of himself and other people, and gratitude when he was able to work.

Some of the notebooks were either lost or destroyed by Wittgenstein, but three from 1914-16 survive because they were left in his sister’s house in Vienna. After her brother’s death in 1951 she made them available to his literary executors, who in 1961 published the right hand pages (the philosophical material) as Notebooks 1914-16. The left-hand pages were not mentioned. They have since been deciphered (the code is a simple inversion of the alphabet: a=z, b=y… z=a),  and there was an unauthorised publication of those pages in 1991, but this book is the first translation into English of Wittgenstein’s private remarks.

Wittgenstein had been dead for only ten years when the philosophical notebooks were published, and it is hardly surprising that the literary executors, who were his close friends, omitted the personal material: they knew he would be appalled at its coming to light. And though he has been dead for 70 years, it still feels intrusive to read these monotonously repetitive and self-absorbed effusions. As Marjorie Perloff, the distinguished American literary scholar who has translated the notebooks, observes, Wittgenstein’s project was himself – self-creation and self-maintenance in a form that he would be able to bear. He isn’t interested in the war or the people he encounters, only in his own responses and feelings, and overcoming their inadequacy.

Link to the rest at The New Statesman