Roots of German Philosophy, Part Ten: Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)
November 24, 2008
Ludwig Wittgenstein, the last philosopher in our series, was actually Austrian, but he deserves to be included with German philosophers because Hitler was also Austrian. In fact, for a brief time they attended the same school. Now, some people have tried to make something out of this, but it amounts to nothing. I was at the University of Michigan for a brief time when Ted Kaczynski, the Unibomber, was there, but does that mean we knew each other? No. At any rate, no one can prove we did. And even more far-fetched is the alleged connection between me and Madonna, just because we lived in the same apartment building, University Towers. She was there ten years after me, okay? Wittgenstein came from a genius family, although some of them were mental cases. Three of his brothers committed suicide. One of them shot himself in the head twice — a mystery that medical science has never been able to figure out. Ludwig was interested in music, mathematics, and science. At the age of 17, he went to Berlin to study mechanical engineering. The year after that, he was studying in Manchester, England. While there, he designed numerous ingenious weapons that were later developed by the Nazis. These included the wind cannon, the sound cannon, the sun cannon, the acoustic bomb, and the U-boat rotorkite. In 1911 he went to Cambridge University to study philosophy under Bertrand Russell. Russell was a poker expert, and he taught the game to Wittgenstein, who soon became the best poker player ever known at Cambridge. He was inducted into a secret society known as the Cambridge Apostles, which has been linked to the famous secret society, the Illuminati. Wittgenstein’s father, Karl, a wealthy steel and aluminum pie plate magnate, was a member. Current members include Steve Wilkos, David Letterman, Alexander McQueen, Leonard Nimoy, and Conrad Black. Wittgenstein got bored with the academic life, and when World War I broke out, he enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian army. He was captured by the Italians, but when he demonstrated his talents for poker and playing the clarinet, they were nice to him. It was during this time that he wrote his first book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). In this book he said that the world consisted of “atomic facts.” This is undoubtedly what gave Einstein the idea of atomic energy and the atomic bomb. The similarity of the names “Wittgenstein” and “Einstein” is too eerie a coincidence to overlook. Moreover, in later life, Wittgenstein endorsed the atomic bomb as a way to cleanse the earth. Therefore, I hereby declare Ludwig Wittgenstein to be the Uncle of the Atomic Bomb. Also in this book, Wittgenstein said that every proposition was either sense or nonsense, and if you weren’t sure which, you should keep your mouth shut about it. He said that philosophy was an activity, not a doctrine. That’s rather peculiar, I think. If a philosopher and an idiot are sitting next to each other in a waiting room, and the philosopher is thinking about a philosophical problem, and the idiot is thinking about hockey, can you say the philosopher is being active and the idiot isn’t? I don’t think so, but never mind. Wittgenstein urged philosophers and tradespeople to think of the Tractatus as a ladder. For instance, a roofer needs to climb a ladder to get to the roof; but once he’s on the roof, he should throw the ladder away and contemplate the world (or at least the neighborhood). How does he get down? His assistant stays on the ground, of course. It doesn’t matter when the roofing job gets done, because the homeowner has already made a substantial down-payment and can’t fire the roofer in the middle of the job. (Many contractors have obviously read the Tractatus.) Cambridge University eventually awarded Wittgenstein a Doctorate for the Tractatus, even though nobody understood it. After the war, Wittgenstein took a break from philosophy and went back to Austria to work as a schoolteacher in several backward villages. He routinely smacked students who were stupid — an example that should be emulated today. But parents complained, and he got fed up trying to educate stupid hillbillies, so he quit. Then he went to work as a gardener at a monastery, which he enjoyed much better. He created several hybrid vegetables that are known today, including the Delicata squash, the Purple Blush eggplant, and the Little Chicago beet. This monastery also cultivated hemp for its oil and fiber, and some writers have suggested that Wittgenstein and the monks got stoned on marijuana. However, the only marijuana that was known in Austria at the time was very weak because of all the shale-argillite clastic sediments in the soil. Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge in 1929, surprised to learn that he had become a famous philosopher while he was away. He was appointed lecturer and also agreed to coach the rowing team. During the 1930’s, he began writing his second book, Philosophical Investigations, which was published two years after his death. In this book he said basically that philosophers indulged in language games that took ordinary words out of any real-world context and treated them as metaphysical abstractions. Questions like “What is truth?” could never be answered, because they were never intended to be answered. They were intended to make work for philosophers so they could spend their entire careers as academics pretending to search for answers. It was a racket, but the universities didn’t mind, because liberal arts students needed credits in humanities anyway. (And as I said in a previous essay, it’s much safer to keep the philosophers tucked away in universities than to turn them loose on the world, where they can only get into trouble.) Obviously, Wittgenstein didn’t want to publish this book while he was still alive, or it would piss off a lot of people. Today, Philosophical Investigations is considered an important book, and pretentious writers like to refer to it in their writing because it makes them sound smarter than they really are. There is no doubt that Wittgenstein is the trendiest of all dead philosophers. In fact, the Yorkdale Shopping Centre, in suburban Toronto, is to be renamed the Ludwig Wittgenstein Shopping Centre in 2009. Wittgenstein liked western movies and detective novels, which I give him bonus points for. I’m willing to overlook the fact that he was gay, because he wasn’t like the flaming fairies over at Church and Wellesley, who hold hands and kiss on the street and whose heads I’d like to smash. He sure as hell wouldn’t be marching in the Gay Pride Parade. He would regard it as vulgar and degenerate. If he lived here today, he’d probably be working as a gardener for Toronto Parks. His co-workers would dislike him for being aloof and intellectual. They’d play tricks on him and call him names like “Sour Kraut” and “Wiggy Wits.” And he’d just look up from his flower bed and say, “That’s Doctor Wittgenstein to you. Now fuck off and die.”
1. German Secret Weapons of World War II, by Christof Friedrich, 1978, Samisdat Publishing.
2. From Dogma to Delray Beach, and Beyond, by Jack Saunders, 2002, Doinky Books.
3. Analytic Philosophy and Its Therapeutic Applications, by Ethel Mertz, 1986, Univ. of Toronto Press.
Copyright@ 2008 by Crad Kilodney, Toronto, Canada. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.