Wittgenstein’s Family Letters: Corresponding with Ludwig, edited by Brian McGuinness

Constantine Sandis praises a superbly translated volume of epistles that swings seamlessly between mundane trivialities and profound insights

March 7, 2019
Source: iStock

Ludwig Wittgenstein, arguably the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, was the youngest of nine children born into one of Europe’s richest families. The Wittgensteins stood at the centre of Viennese cultural life: Benjamin Britten, Sergei Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel and Richard Strauss all wrote music for Ludwig’s pianist brother Paul. Gustav Klimt painted the wedding portrait of his sister Margaret; and Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler gave regular concerts in their music rooms (Wittgenstein heard “the noise of machinery” in the former’s music and considered the latter’s to be “inauthentic”). Amid all this culture and glamour the family was also beset with tragedy: Ludwig’s sister Dora died as a baby, Paul lost his arm during the First World War, his brothers Rudolf and Konrad both committed suicide – as most probably did his brother Johannes, who disappeared aged 24.

With such a backdrop, one might reasonably expect this book to be bursting with sensationalist gossip, but the Wittgensteins had little time for such things. Instead, this meticulously edited and superbly translated volume of letters written between 1908 and weeks before Ludwig’s death in 1951 swings seamlessly between mundane trivialities and profound insights. Wittgenstein – variously addressed as “dear”, “dearest”, “darling” and “good” “Luckerl”, “Lukas”, “Luki”, “Lucky” and on occasion “Ludwig” – is constantly being sent “copious amounts of chocolate” he gives away, ever-requested books by Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard, and even a bottle of “kola”. “When are you coming to Vienna?” family members ask, but his visits are rare and brief: “I am coming to Vienna next Saturday…at approximately 6:00 pm and returning on Sunday.” On a couple of occasions, he arrives “with about 15 children”.

The letters offer incredible insight into Wittgenstein as, among other things, teenage engineering student in Manchester, philosophical protégé of Bertrand Russell, prisoner of war in Italy, elementary school teacher in lower Austria, technical assistant in London and Newcastle hospitals, and professor of philosophy at Cambridge. He is obsessed throughout with understanding others and figuring out “the right and decent thing to do”. When his father dies, he gives away his share of the inherited fortune to his surviving siblings, with the exception of Margaret, whose “situation seemed more secure at the time”. While admitting he was “on bad terms with her”, he protests that “this had nothing to do with it” and asks his sister Hermione to give her “the portion of the money that she would then have received from your share” when she eventually finds herself in need. Come Christmas, he refuses to spend it with his siblings alone because “it is impossible to see how we can be expected to do something we are incapable of doing and do not want to do the whole year through”.

Wittgenstein’s sternness is intertwined with an equally characteristic playfulness. He exchanges “nonsense” cuttings with his brother Paul, including a picture of a New York cathedral with a statue of Einstein as a saint. A 1923 letter to his sister Helene jokingly begins: “Since my publisher wants to publish my correspondence with you and it would be desirable to put a handsome little volume together, I hereby want to resume our recently interrupted correspondence.” Almost a century later, the joke appears to be on him.

Constantine Sandis is professor of philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire and the author of The Things We Do and Why We Do Them (2012) and Character and Causation: Hume’s Philosophy of Action (2019).

Wittgenstein’s Family Letters: Corresponding with Ludwig
Edited by Brian McGuinness; translated by Peter Winslow
Bloomsbury Academic 336pp, £24.99
ISBN 9781474298131
Published 29 November 2018

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