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Friday, May 20, 2011

A Review of Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius by Ray Monk

Ludwig Wittgenstein is easily the most captivating character among the great 20th Century philosophers. Here was a man with little to no formal training in the subject and who really didn't want any formal training in it above and beyond the bare minimum. The general consensus is that he had some Schopenhauer and some Plato. But, the thing that got Wittgenstein involved in philosophy in the first place was reading Bertrand Russell's Principia. I think that, for Wittgenstein, the Principia was the basic text book for future philosophical work. What an enigma Wittgenstein was and still is. Here was a man who wrote on logic and philosophy of mathematics--needless to say, highly technical fields--but who never seems to have taken an actual logic course. When Russell tried to set him up with a tutor, the tutor quit in frustration. During his lifetime and afterwards, Wittgenstein was heralded as a genius.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius by Ray Monk is an excellent biography on this captivating philosopher, written by a man who has both expert knowledge on Wittgenstein's life and his philosophy. The book is full of hidden gems from Wittgenstein's life. At center stage is the complex relationship between Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein's one time mentor and patron. Other characters of Cambridge and elsewhere make appearances, too, such as Maynard Keynes, Gottlob Frege, and the young geniuses Frank Ramsey and Alan Turing. Monk also treats Wittgenstein's complex and often tormented relationships with men and women, and treats these relations with the delicacy and honesty that they deserve. A highlight for me was Monk's treatment of Wittgenstein's views on religion. Wittgenstein was in some ways a simple Christian, who cherished and was greatly influenced by his copies of Tolstoy's Gospel in Brief and The Confessions of Augustine. Understanding how a sophisticated view of epistemology can combine with a rather simple view of religion in the same strenuous mind takes one far in understanding the character of Wittgenstein.

To cite but one of hundreds of incidents related in the book. Wittgenstein was taking a trip to some place or another, and a friend wrote him a note wishing well, and telling him that he hopes that he makes "a lot of friends." Wittgenstein's response: "How stupid to think that I would ever have a lot of friends."

Monk's biography is not an easy read, and it is not the sort of thing that everyone would enjoy because, unless you already come to the table with some understanding of 20th Century philosophy and intellectual history, a lot of the highlights will be missed. Still, I wouldn't discourage anyone from picking up a copy of this book that afforded me a great deal of intellectual pleasure.

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