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He was born Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein on 26 April 1889, the eighth and youngest child of one of the wealthiest families in Hapsburg Vienna. His father Karl (1847-1913) was of Jewish descent (Karl's father had converted to Protestantism). His mother Lepoldine Kalmus (1850-1926), known as "Poldy", was a Catholic. Ludwig was baptized in the Catholic Church.
The father's immense wealth as a leading figure in the iron and steel industry, known as "The Carnegie of Austria", enabled the family to live in the style of the aristocracy. Their home in Vienna, in the Alleegasse (now Argentinergasse), was known as the Palais Wittgenstein. In addition, they had a house on the outskirts of Vienna and a large estate in the country.
The Wittgensteins were at the centre of the cultural life of fin de siècle Vienna.
Vienna, the birthplace of psychoanalysis...
of atonal music...
and modern functional architecture!
But also Zionism...
In short, the research laboratory for world destruction!
Three out of Ludwig's four brothers were to commit suicide...
Ludwig was brought up in a house of music. There were seven grand pianos in his childhood home. The composers Brahms and Mahler were frequent visitors to the musical evenings, and young PabloCasals played there. A brother became a very well-known concert pianist. When Karl retired from industry, he became a great patron of the visual arts. Aided by a daughter, a gifted painter, he collected works of Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka and Rodin.
Ludwig, like his brothers and sisters, was educated privately by tutors and governesses. He was quiet and obedient but had considerable practical talent.
At the age of fourteen, he was sent to a rather unacademic school at Linz. Adolf Hitler, who was almost exactly the same age as Ludwig, was also there.
When he was seventeen and a half, Ludwig went to study mechanical engineering in Berlin at the Technische Hochschule, the most renowned of German engineering schools, where he completed his diploma course. During this time he started writing down thoughts about his own life, a practice he continued for most of his life.
If my notebook is to be in order, I must, as it were, step straight out of doors from it into life and not have to climb up into the light as if from a cellar or to jump down onto the earth again from a higher level.
ENGINEERING IN MANCHESTER, ENGLAND
In 1908 Wittgenstein went to Manchester as a research student in Engineering. He stayed there for three years.
He was interested in aeronautics. He began his research by experimenting with kites. Little was known then about conditions in the atmosphere.
He went on to do experiments on the combustion of high pressure gases and then he became interested in the design of propellers. This requires mathematical treatment and so he got involved in the study of the foundations of mathematics.
He was soon writing a book on the foundations of logic and mathematics. He showed it to Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) the great German philosopher-mathematician.
So Wittgenstein went to Trinity College, Cambridge, to study under Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) who was a lecturer in mathematical logic. This was to lead to a passionate intellectual friendship between these two great philosophers in which both were transformed. Russell came from a distinguished aristocratic family. He was now forty and had finished Principia Mathematica, one of the most difficult and important philosophical books of the 20th century and was world famous amongst philosophers. Wittgenstein was twenty-two and completely unknown, although very wealthy.
It was soon recognized that Wittgenstein was exceptional. G.E. Moore (1873- 1958), a lecturer in philosophy at Trinity, noted that during his lectures ...
"Wittgenstein always looks so puzzled, unlike any other student."
At the end of his first term, Wittgenstein went to Russell.
"Do you think I'm an idiot?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Because if I am, I'll become an aeronaut. But if I'm not, I shall become a philosopher."
Russell suggested he write an essay during the vacation on any philosophical subject. He did so, and when Russell had read the first sentence, he was persuaded that Wittgenstein was a man of genius. Russell later wrote ...
"He was perhaps the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense and domineering."
He would visit Russell at midnight, pace up and down like a wild beast for hours in agitated silence, wrestling with problems of logic and with his sins.
"I feared to suggest it was time for bed because if I did, I felt he might blow out his brains!"
Russell came to love Wittgenstein "as if he were my son" and had to reassure his mistress, Lady Ottoline Morrell ...
"Of course, Otto darling, I love you more!"
Wittgenstein moved swiftly from being a protégé to being Russell's master, for he made phenomenal progress. Russell was writing a huge work on the Theory of Knowledge which he showed Wittgenstein.
"He made such a radical criticism of it that I gave it up, felt suicidal, and took up a bit of philandering instead..."
He decided to leave work on the fundamentals of logic to Wittgenstein.
Although Wittgenstein was obviously a difficult man to get on with, he made some good friends at Cambridge. One of his closest was David Pinsent, a man of his age who could calm him down, play music and go on holidays with him.
An important friend was J.M. Keynes (1883-1946), the economist, who quickly recognized Wittgenstein's ability.
In 1913, Wittgenstein decided to live for two years in Norway on his own to meditate and work on logic. Russell tried to dissuade him.
"It will be dark"
"I hate daylight"
"You'll be lonely"
"I prostitute my mind talking to intelligent people."
"God preserve me from sanity!"
"God certainly will!"
So he went to live by the side of Sogne fjord, north of Bergen.
But Wittgenstein had not got his B.A. degree. So Moore, who was now a friend, visited him in Norway and took down a series of notes on logic that Wittgenstein dictated.
Moore, on returning to Cambridge, found out that the regulations required that the thesis contain a preface and references, and he wrote to tell Wittgenstein this.
Your letter annoyed me. When I wrote Logic I didn't consult the regulations, and therefore I think it would only be fair if you gave me my degree without consulting them so much either!.... If I am not worth making an exception for even in some STUPID details then I may as well go to HELL directly; and if I am worth it and you don't do it then by GOD you might go there.
Moore understandably was furious and did not reply, so Wittgenstein did not get his degree.
THE FIRST WORLD WAR
Soon after the 1914-18 war broke out, Wittgenstein joined the Austrian army as a volunteer gunner and was sent to the Eastern Front.
Since his adolescence, Wittgenstein had often thought of death. He had a morbid conviction that he would die soon and had no right to live unless he created some great work.
On his first glimpse of the enemy he wrote ...
Now I have a chance to be decent human being for I am standing eye to eye with death.
For the first two years of the war, he did not see much action, although he suffered from the harshness of the conditions and the brutality and futility of the war.
"I knew from the start that our side would lose!"
In between his duties, he continued his thoughts on logic which he put down in his notebook, together with thoughts about his spiritual state. He read Leo Tolstoy's The Gospel in Brief and was deeply influenced by it.
His father had died in 1913, leaving him a large fortune. He had given much of this away to Austrian poets and artists in need of money. These included Georg Trakl, Rainer Maria Rilke and Theodor Haecker, the translator of Kierkegaard. In the winter of 1914, Wittgenstein received a note from Trakl (1887-1914), one of the greatest of Austrian poets, to visit him in Krakow where he was in a military hospital as a psychiatric patient.
"I rushed there but Trakl had already killed himself."
At nightfall the autumn woods cry out
With deadly weapons and the golden plains,
The deep blue lakes, above which more darkly
Rolls the sun; the night embraces
Dying warriors, the wild lament
Of their broken mouths.
But quietly there in the pastureland
Red clouds in which an angry god resides,
The shed blood gathers, lunar coolness.
All the roads lead to blackest carrion.
(from "Grodek" by Trakl)
Winter is settling in... Once again no clarity of vision. Yet I am obviously on the point of solving the most profound problems, so much so that the solution is practically under my nose!!! The thing is, my mind is simply blind to it just at this moment. I feel that I am at the very gate but cannot see it clearly enough to be able to open it. This is an extremely remarkable state which I have never experienced so clearly as at present.
In March 1916, Wittgenstein was posted to a fighting unit on the Russian front as an ordinary soldier. In June, Russia launched its major assault, and so began some of the heaviest fighting in the war. Wittgenstein's regiment faced the brunt of the attack and suffered enormous casualties. He, by his own request, was posted to the place where he was in most danger, the observation post ahead of the front line where he could survey the enemy guns.
"If I lose heart or flinch when I hear shots that's a sure sign of a false view of life..."
Perhaps the nearness of death will bring me the light of life. May God enlighten me. I am a worm, but through God I become a man. God be with me. Amen.
He was awarded the first of several medals for bravery. His notes indicate that a radical change had occurred in his thinking. He began to grasp how his thoughts on logic connected with his concern to live rightly.
Yes my work has broadened out from the foundations of logic to the essence of the world.
He was made an officer and was involved in more heavy fighting. At the end of the war, he and 300,000 Austrian troops were made prisoners by the Italians, and 30,000 were to die in captivity of disease and starvation. Both his family and Keynes worked to obtain his release, but he refused to go until the last of his men were released.
But he had finished his Tractatus, the culmination of his thoughts on logic and ethics.
Wittgenstein sent the Tractatus to several publishers who rejected it, including his own university press Cambridge, which was to distinguish itself by rejecting all his writing. His later work was published by an Oxford publisher. In 1922, he at last got it published with Russell's help, but was paid nothing for the rights of the book and entitled to no royalties from its sales. It soon became a classic.