“after all, he seems to have a lot to say about what can’t be said.” Bertrand Russell.
Ludwig Wittgenstein came from a very wealthy and talented family of Vienna, in the time before WW I, a family of musicians, professors, and suicides. He went to grammar school with Adolf Hitler. His sister helped Sigmund Freud escape the Nazis. He fought in WWI, reading Tolstoy’s Gospel in Brief while voluntarily manning the very dangerous point, on the front. Beethoven was his hero. He was precocious in math, and was fascinated by logic. This led him to Bertrand Russell and Cambridge University.
Intensely introspective, he would scrutinize his own mental processes to find the unacknowledged assumptions that underlie our thinking and the subtle ways that logic fails. He would puzzle over nuances in words and speech, things subconscious to most of us, and search for hidden patterns in mathematics, and in language, all to learn the limits of human reason and communication. He wanted to know how we know what we know, to ultimately know what can be known. . . the whole point of philosophy.
He was tortured by the riddles in logic that arise with self reference, the great stumbling block in Bertrand Russell’s attempt, in Principia Mathematica, to derive all knowledge from first principles of logic. Is the set of all sets that don’t include themselves, also a set? Yes and No.
With his spooky certitude, mesmerizing stare and relentless argumentation, Wittgenstein was considered brilliant. He became sure that philosophical questions were merely linguistic puzzles, and that language, with its confusions of perceptions and conceptions, hopelessly impaired thought. Truth can only be known by experience, not with thinking, and only shown, with art, but not with description. Thought and speech are mere ‘social games’ for living a social human life, something, sadly, he himself was not much able to do.
For a time, he side-lined all of conventional philosophy.
He was lionized. “I have met God, he arrived on the 4:30 train.” John Maynard Keynes
Give up on philosophy!
“Whereof one can not speak, thereof one must remain silent”.
He lived an eccentric, solitary life, spending much of his time in a remote cabin in Norway. At one point he gave away all of his enormous wealth, and lived in near poverty. He feared going mad, that he might commit suicide. Two of his siblings did.
Here, in Ludwig Wittgenstein, are the tell-tale signs of schizophrenia, a condition of constant and oppressive self consciousness, with a frightening confusion of ideas and reality. A loss of one’s sense of self connection, a disorder of self reference, like the paradoxes of logic that so obsessed him. Is my thinking about myself, also my self?
“Sometimes my ideas come so quickly that I feel as if my pen was being guided.”
Mental illness and genius aren’t the same thing.
“He has penetrated deep into mystical ways of thought and feeling, but I think (though he wouldn’t agree) that what he likes best in mysticism is its power to make him stop thinking.” Bertrand Russell.
In his time, there was no treatment. He was trying, with philosophy, to think his way out of thinking too much. He didn’t succeed.