Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”

Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius

by Ray Monk

Good biographies of philosophers are a rarity.  The reason is that philosophers, more than other people, take ideas and the whole realm of thought terribly seriously.  Just as we would expect a biographer whose subject was a musician to have some affinity for music, so we’d hope that someone writing up the life of a philosopher would be able to visualize a life whose mainspring and motivator is thought.  Since our age tends to deny the possibility of such a life, this may be a case where

you have to be one

to see one.

My Intro students used to opine that Socrates submitted to the death penalty, rather than escape when he had the chance, because “he had a martyr complex.”  For them it was beyond conceiving that he was led step by step to the death he died by the logic of his argument.  The duties of citizenship, Socrates argued, mandated the life he had lived and the same duties required him to abide by a sentence lawfully arrived at, even if in this case the sentence happened to be unjust.

I take the philosophic vocation to be: to try to think truthfully and to live as one thinks.  The responsibility all of us bear —

 to get real –

weighs heavier for the philosopher who takes this vocation to heart.

Though some of my best collegial friends have been Wittgensteinians, I’d never felt particularly curious about the man.  But when a friend whom I particularly esteem recommended this biography, I decided to take a look.

For the first few chapters, I disliked Wittgenstein intensely.  In his youth, the writer who had the greatest influence on him was a character named Otto Weininger who maintained that only geniuses, whose every deed and word were honest, had lives that stood high above the worthless herd.  A disgustingly anti-Jewish Jew, Weininger eventually enacted the familiar waltz of Old Vienna by committing suicide in a place frequented by the most fashionable society.  Although a lot of people in Alt Wein killed themselves, for myself I am not an admirer of Viennese customs.  That said, Weininger did impress upon the young Wittgenstein the importance of keeping one’s every word and deed honest if one was to be a good steward of one’s genius.

Being a genius was one of Wittgenstein’s main burdens in life.  I can recognize this aspect of him, because my father was often described by people who knew him as “a genius.”  The person who senses that quality in him or herself has a responsibility that cannot be dodged: to keep an inner flame burning and protect it against anything that would douse or cut it down to more ordinary size.  It’s a kind of vulnerability not well understood even by those who want to be supportive.  It puts the person who has that vulnerability in the position of surviving by the thinnest of margins.

Eventually, Wittgenstein goes off to War, the First World War, where he fights on the side of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and is repeatedly cited for valor in combat.  Meanwhile, he is completing his first major work: the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.  This is a supreme effort to lay out the necessities of the world – what must be true if something else is true — the logic of its infrastructure, to which high intelligence self-adjusts by articulating a corresponding language.

He has an almost comically difficult time getting it published.  Genius repels, as much as it attracts, and it probably repels publishers most of all.

Slowly the work will come to be recognized as one of the masterpieces of the philosophic enterprise.  But before that happens, and before Wittgenstein changes his mind about what philosophy should be doing, he does something almost unheard of.

He was raised as one of the heirs to a sizable fortune, with all the privileges that go with it.  When he returns from the experience of combat, these privileges seem to him somehow false, unreal, not a credible part of himself.  He decides to get legally severed from his inheritance, retaining a lawyer who will render his disinheritance so final and irreversible that no well-meaning relative will be able to undo it.  Henceforth, he will stride into the future —


For the first time, Wittgenstein got my full attention.  All the money?

You’re giving away all the money?

I have a friend who, as a child, survived the Nazi occupation of France, hiding with her mother in the countryside.

“The French peasants were sympathetic?”  I asked her.

“Oh no.  We paid them.”

For a Jew who knows, from the deepest unspoken instinct, that a border guard will need to be bribed, it is shocking – almost unthinkable – to give away all one’s means of doing that.  To do what, then?  Rely on the secret hearts of one’s neighbors?  Are you making a joke?

I haven’t finished the further story, but it is long and philosophically interesting.  He was quite an eccentric guy.  But the chief challenge of his philosophical life – to try to get real – Wittgenstein has already mastered, so far as I can see.

For whatever he thinks

and whatever he is

he will pay as he goes.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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