Book Review: The Duty of Genius

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: the inexhaustible pursuit of clarity | Photo: Illustration: Katharina Klein

Assessing the life of a philosopher may be a writer’s greatest challenge – with few individuals do the spiritual and emotional realms play such a prominent role in moulding professional consequences. With that in mind, author Ray Monk sets off on a very specific quest in Ludwig Wittgenstein: Duty of Genius – to draw, where countless others have failed, an unbroken line between the work of the philosopher and the man himself.

In a sense, the peculiar life of Ludwig Wittgenstein invites exactly this kind of work. With only one book, one article and one book review published during his lifetime, it’s safe to say there’s much more to the man than what he put on paper. Not that Monk shies from confronting the imponderables in Wittgenstein’s theories; he describes just enough of the philosopher’s ideas on atomic propositions and tautology to trouble any layman.

But to discover the fertile grounds that gave birth to Wittgenstein’s ruthless search for truth, one has to dig deeper. His personal struggles may have found roots in a family who buried its own identity, trading Jewish heritage for membership in the Viennese bourgeoisie.

Wittgenstein was an inconspicuous intellectual in a house of musical and technical genius, and struggled to reconcile his passion for philosophy with demands that he become an engineer and businessman. That his passion prevailed is remarkable in itself; three of Wittgenstein’s four brothers committed suicide under the weight of their father’s expectations.


Early days at Cambridge

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: the inexhaustible pursuit of clarity | Photo: Illustration: Katharina Klein

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: the inexhaustible pursuit of clarity | Photo: Illustration: Katharina Klein

The young Wittgenstein seemed to possess a mind trapped in a pressure cooker.

Monk displays a variety of correspondence from students and faculty during the philosopher’s first days in Cambridge under Bertrand Russell’s tutelage, each elucidating a character who paced floors in silence, pursued professors after lectures to defend theories and argued with anyone at hand over just about anything.

Few could put up with him, although his flowering brilliance did attract the attention of the Cambridge elites, among them economist John Maynard Keynes. Wittgenstein’s friends were few, but those he had, he clung to feverishly (see World of Books, this page).

Monk resists the temptation to draw connections to the era and perceives Wittgenstein’s life and work as largely removed from the intellectual movements erupting in the philosopher’s hometown.

And although just as significant, bringing to philosophy what Sigmund Freud, Gustav Klimt and Adolf Loos did for their respective disciplines (to name just a few who transformed fin de siècle Vienna) – Wittgenstein’s self-absorption left him fairly detached.

Certain metaphors, though, are too obvious to ignore: His “perpetual seething” was quite in tune with the European sentiment before World War I.

“The whole world,” Monk writes, “shared Wittgenstein’s madness of 1914.” Having struggled with logic in solitude for several years on the unpublished Logik (Notes on Logic) and battling with bouts of suicidal depression, he volunteered to go to war.

One is left with few emotions after getting to know the younger Wittgenstein, aside from a subtle sense of pity. This morphs quickly into respect during his time at war, where he willingly put himself in positions of utmost danger – always in pursuit of the strength of soul he would earn by looking death in the face.

He returned from war a decorated soldier, a zealous Christian, and an author of what would later be known as the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. While on the frontlines, he had somehow found the time to write a book that would influence philosophy for the rest of the century; when he returned, he felt the necessity, or found the courage, to give up every cent of his family fortune.

Monk displays a knack for taking the reader unsuspectingly from biographical narrative to the depths of philosophical reflection at breakneck speed. While at war, Wittgenstein became obsessed with the connection between faith, logic, language, the world as a whole and an individual’s place within it – something Monk consistently refers to as “mysticism”. Logic, as with religion, could not be stated in language, but only shown, according to Wittgenstein.

These thoughts culminate in the famous last words of the Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” With the finality of this proposition, Wittgenstein felt he had said all that could be said about philosophy. He left the city to pursue a life as an elementary school teacher in rural Austria.

But in that final line of the Tractatus, the philosopher had cut out his own work for the future: If logic could not be explained in words, than the Tractatus itself had no point in being written. Being convinced of its holes, Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge in 1929 to continue where he had left off. Thanks to the widespread respect for the Tractatus, Wittgenstein was received in England as a god. He became the most respected professor of philosophy in England and would go on to write a mass of papers – none of which would reach the outside world aside from the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations.

He found spurts of philosophical ingenuity until the day he died of prostate cancer at age 62.


Understood by few

VR_13_5_p7_cover_duty of geniusMonk depicts a man whose work was understood by few – his peers, his students and even those, like Russell, who inspired him as a younger man. While Wittgenstein’s capacity for logic in the scientific sphere seemed boundless, his aptitude for solving earthly logical problems imprisoned in sexism, racism and a conviction of the inferiority of less privileged classes. He was against women’s suffrage, thought Slavs were heathen, and claimed that the peasants of rural Austria were only partially human.

One explanation, at least for his sexism (Freeman Dyson remembers him at Cambridge as refusing to lecture if a woman were present), was his early exposure to Otto Weininger’s book Sex and Character. In a few infuriating paragraphs, Monk outlines Weininger’s theory on the inherent inferiority of women, their incompatibility with consciousness, and utter lack of a soul, along with the Jews’ tendency to similar weakness.

Monk’s explanation of the young philosopher’s fascination with the book is rooted not in its failed explanation of gender differences, but in its quest to explain the highest cause of man: to be free of mental obscurities and possess the most cultured sense of consciousness and ethics. The quest, in Wittgenstein’s mind, was to be a genius.

The story of Ludwig Wittgenstein is one of a mind plagued by torment, craving enlightenment and obsessed by the inexhaustible pursuit of clarity. While this tale differs little from those of other so-called geniuses, Monk’s work achieves something more real than others: It allows the reader to share a room with its subject – and provokes as much thought. Monk weaves philosophy, history and spiritual struggle so seamlessly together that it’s easy to forget where one theme ends and another begins.

Even more  effortlessly, Monk allows himself to be lost, calmly concealed behind a spirited narrative and the powerful personality of the man to whom this book really belongs. And he does so without being bland, impartial or dispassionate.

This is a book of genius about the nature of genius, and thus opens doors of biographical writing that won’t easily be closed.

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