Friday, April 03, 2009

Meet the Wittgensteins

This is a fascinating read at the New Yorker. Cross posting from Phronesisaical:

In the New Yorker, a review of Alexander Waugh's new book on the Wittgenstein family. More Wittgenstein biography here.
[Karl Wittgenstein's] youngest child, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, once asked a pupil if he had ever had any tragedies in his life. The pupil, evidently well trained, inquired what he meant by “tragedy.” “I mean suicides, madness, or quarrels,” replied Ludwig, three of whose four brothers committed suicide, two of them (Rudi and Hans) in their early twenties, and the third (Kurt) at the age of forty. Ludwig often thought of doing so, as did his surviving brother, Paul. A budding concert pianist when he lost his right arm to a Russian bullet, in 1914, Paul was imprisoned for a time in the infamous Siberian fortress where Dostoyevsky had set his novel “The House of the Dead.” Ludwig later claimed to have first entertained thoughts of suicide at around the age of ten, before any of his brothers had died. There were three sisters: Gretl, Helene, and Hermine. Hermine, the eldest child (she was born in 1874; Ludwig, the youngest, arrived fifteen years later), and the guardian of her father’s flame, never married. Helene was highly neurotic, and had a husband who suffered from dementia. Gretl was regarded as irritating by most people, including her unpleasant husband, who committed suicide, as did his father and one of his aunts. Bad temper and extreme nervous tension were endemic in the family. One day, when Paul was practicing at one of the seven grand pianos in their winter home, the Palais Wittgenstein, he leaped up and shouted at his brother Ludwig in the room next door, “I cannot play when you are in the house, as I feel your skepticism seeping towards me from under the door!”...

In the Wittgenstein family, it was not the philosopher who was the unworldly one. Ever since childhood, the last-born Ludwig had had a passion and a facility for mechanical things. At the age of ten, he constructed a working model of a sewing machine out of bits of wood and wire; while serving in the Austrian Army, he demonstrated a more dangerous practicality by improvising his own mortar in the field. After leaving school, Ludwig studied engineering in Berlin, specializing in hot-air balloons, and then moved to Manchester to work on aeronautical engines; in 1910, he patented an improvement in propeller technology. It was then that he heard of Bertrand Russell’s work on logic and decided to study with him in Cambridge.

Russell found him to be a tormented soul, unsure of his own abilities and unsure whether to be an engineer or a philosopher. Russell soon decided that Ludwig was the most perfect example of genius he had ever known, and persuaded him not to continue with engineering. “We expect the next big step in philosophy to be taken by your brother,” Russell told Hermine. But he feared that his new pupil was on the brink of suicide, as he explained in a letter to his mistress, Lady Ottoline Morrell. Ottoline wrote back that hot chocolate would calm Ludwig’s nerves, and enclosed a packet of cocoa tablets for Russell to give him....

1 comment:

Sell Art said...

I had never known that Wittgenstein's brothers committed suicide. No wonder he was so inquisitive.