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Simon Blackburn

  • Wittgenstein in Cambridge: Letters and Documents 1911-51 edited by Brian McGuinness
    Blackwell, 498 pp, £75.00, March 2008, ISBN 978 1 4051 4701 9

Brian McGuinness has edited and compiled many collections of writings by Wittgenstein and about him, and his 1988 biography, reissued a few years ago as Young Ludwig, as well as being a fascinating account of Wittgenstein’s life up until 1921, also provides one of the best short introductions to the ideas and the style of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. In Wittgenstein in Cambridge, a beautifully produced and immaculately edited volume, he collects together a rich mass of letters and other documents. Of particular interest are the letters to and from Piero Sraffa, the Italian economist whose influence Wittgenstein, unusually, was prepared to acknowledge in his later work. There have been previous volumes of this kind (Ludwig Wittgenstein: Cambridge Letters and Letters to Russell, Keynes and Moore), and there is some repetition, but it is a tribute to McGuinness’s extraordinary industry and enthusiasm that he discovers interesting new material. He writes in his introduction:

Another major change and addition to the volume is that I have now included minutes of meetings and discussions that Wittgenstein attended or led and also documents concerning his official status from time to time. Will future generations know the joy of archives? It is touching to think of the young secretaries of the Trinity Mathematical Society writing their proceedings and Wittgenstein’s words into those leather-bound volumes, before going off to calculate the effect of tides off the invasion coast of France.

McGuinness is not alone in his fascinated quest. Wittgenstein was a celebrity as soon as he arrived in Cambridge, dazzling, puzzling and irritating people in about equal measure. Almost everyone who knew him felt the shock of his extraordinary personality, and many were moved to write memoirs and accounts of their experience. One exception was my own supervisor at Cambridge in the 1960s, Casimir Lewy, who had attended Wittgenstein’s legendary classes in the 1930s and 1940s but remained sceptical of the magic, and spent a good deal of energy warning his students against being seduced by it. Yet he once told me that when Wittgenstein died, ‘I, Lewy, had a dream. And the content of this dream was: Wittgenstein cannot possibly be dead!’ He waited for this to sink in, then continued with a mischievous cackle: ‘And you know, I thought this cast considerable light on the phenomenon of the resurrection.’ The comparison had been made before: when Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge in 1929, Keynes wrote to his wife: ‘Well, God has arrived. I met him on the 5.15 train.’

It is possible to take very different views about the relation between the biography of philosophers, or indeed authors in general, and their work. Thomas Nagel, for instance, has suggested that they have practically nothing to do with one another. Philosophical work is autonomous: it stands on its own feet, and interpretation of it should be based on what it contains. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, on the other hand, believed that ‘what kind of philosophy one chooses thus depends on what kind of man one is: for a philosophical system is not a dead stick of furniture that one can lay aside or select; rather it animates the very soul of the man who has it.’ And is animated by that soul, one might add. There is no easy resolution to this issue, for much depends on how the biography is done. It does not help with the interpretation of Kant’s first Critique to know that in his youth he hustled in billiard saloons, but it would be profligate to throw away what is known about Wittgenstein’s soul.

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