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Wittgenstein family at the dinner table. From left to right: the housemaid Rosalie Hermann, Hermine Wittgenstein, grandmother Kalmus, Paul Wittgenstein, Margarete Wittgenstein, Ludwig Wittgenstein

The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War
By Alexander Waugh
Bloomsbury, 384 pages


The House of Wittgenstein

By Terry Eagleton
The Guardian, November 8, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

Despite being one of the premier families of the Austro-Hungarian empire, most of the Wittgensteins were spiritual outlaws and adventurers. They combined the aristocrat's cavalier disdain for convention with the underdog's suspicion of authority.

The sons of the household had a distressing habit of doing away with themselves. Handsome, intelligent, homosexual Rudolf strolled into a Berlin bar, dissolved potassium cyanide into his glass of milk and died in agony on the spot. Two years earlier, Hans Karl had disappeared without trace and is thought to have killed himself at sea. He was a shy, ungainly, possibly autistic child with a prodigious gift for maths and music. Kurt seems to have shot himself "without visible reason" while serving as a soldier in the first world war.

Paul, a classmate of Adolf Hitler, became an outstanding concert pianist. The Wittgenstein ménage was more like a conservatoire than a family home: Brahms, Mahler and Richard Strauss dropped in regularly, while Ravel wrote his "Concerto for the Left Hand" specially for Paul, who had lost an arm in the first world war. Paul thought his brother Ludwig's philosophy was "trash", while Ludwig took a dim view of Paul's musical abilities.

Ludwig inherited a sizeable amount of money, but gave it all away to three of his siblings. His rooms in Trinity College, Cambridge, were almost bare of furniture. He is said to have remarked that he didn't mind at all what he ate, as long as it was always the same thing.

Ludwig fled from Cambridge to become an assistant gardener in an Austrian monastery, sleeping in a potting shed. He also lived for a while in a remote cottage in the west of Ireland, shacked up on the edge of a Norwegian fjord, and taught as a schoolmaster in several Austrian villages. In one village school, he hit a girl so hard that she bled behind the ears, and then belaboured a boy about the head until he slumped unconscious to the floor.

Alexander Waugh's account of the Wittgenstein madhouse casts some light on Ludwig's extraordinary contradictions. Haughty, imperious and impossibly exacting, driven by a fatiguing zeal for moral perfection and contemptuous of most of those around him, he was a true son of patrician Vienna.

Wittgenstein was a high European intellectual who yearned for a Tolstoyan holiness and simplicity of life, a philosophical giant with scant respect for philosophy. He was haunted by a lofty, lethal vision of purity: "the pure ice".

The House of Wittgenstein

By Peter Lewis
Daily Mail, October 24, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

The Palais Wittgenstein in Vienna was a classical palace 50 yards long, with a colossal fountain in the forecourt, statuary by Rodin, servants in Austrian hunting livery and a big marble staircase leading to a music saloon, where Brahms, Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler sat in the audience to hear their own music played.

The family was stupendously rich, thanks to the fortune in steel and mining made by Karl, an autocratic 19th-century industrialist, who happened to be a fine violinist. Most of his eight children were musically gifted, and one, Paul became an international pianist.

Karl's three eldest sons all committed suicide in their 20s. One disappeared in America in a canoe. One shot himself on the Italian front in 1918, rather than be taken prisoner. The third went to a Berlin cafe and ordered a glass of milk, poured crystals of cyanide into it, and drank it. Each of these brothers was probably homosexual.

This left two sons, Paul and Ludwig, both decorated for bravery fighting for Austria against the Russians and Italians respectively. Paul's shattered right arm was amputated, but he continued his career as a one-handed pianist.

Ludwig went to Cambridge in 1911 to ask Bertrand Russell whether he was "an idiot" or should become a philosopher. Russell decided he was "the most perfect example of a traditional genius that I have ever known — passionate, profound, intense and dominating."

While serving in the war, he wrote his first revolutionary book on philosophy, the Tractatus, which became a sacred academic text for the next 50 years. Russell, who spent a week with him trying to elucidate its subject — the limits that language places on our thinking — wrote: "I can only understand Wittgenstein when I am in good health."

Although he detested people on the whole, Ludwig had immense charisma and the body of an Apollo, who looked 20 when he was 40. He attracted a coterie of Cambridge disciples who hung on his words like the gospel. Heavily influenced by Tolstoy, he gave away his fortune to his siblings.

When Austria was annexed by the Nazis, the Wittgensteins, though Catholic, were found to have three Jewish grandparents. Ludwig was safe in England, and Paul escaped to Switzerland, where the family fortune was banked. But the sisters remained in peril in Vienna.

The family was declared "half-breed" in return for the Reichsbank acquiring a large chunk of their fortune. The decree was signed by Hitler himself — he and Ludwig had been at school together in Linz.

Alexander Waugh leaves the reader with the question: when people seem to have everything, what goes wrong? In Ludwig's most famous words: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must keep silent."

The House of Wittgenstein

By Frank McLynn
The Independent, September 26, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

The multi-millionaire Karl Wittgenstein, an iron and steel magnate, fathered nine children, one of whom died in her first month. The eight survivors were singularly unhappy, prone to cancers, and all neurotic or psychotic.

Hermine was a repressed spinster. Gretl fell prey to an American wastrel who married her for money and lost it all in the 1929 Wall Street crash. The most normal was Helene, who married a civil servant.

But it is the brothers who really fascinate Waugh. Three committed suicide, leaving the concert pianist Paul and the philosopher Ludwig as the core of his book.

Paul lost his right arm in the First World War and survived the horrors of Siberia as a prisoner of war until his influential family pulled strings to get him repatriated. He spent the vast fortune inherited from Karl in payment to famous composers to write concerti for the left hand.

Waugh claims that Paul was a first-rate pianist. His narrative of Paul's struggles with the Nazis in 1930s Austria is a genuine page-turner. By sheer cussedness Paul managed to safeguard his sisters, while ceding to the Nazis only a small portion of his fortune.

For most people, the name Wittgenstein invariably denotes the philosopher Ludwig, a mad loner even in his relations with his family. Paul despised his philosophical speculations and felt uneasy about his homosexuality (the erratic Paul was a great womaniser).

Ludwig was deeply influenced by Tolstoy and his gospel of Christian renunciation. As a result, he abandoned the philosophy of analysis (as in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) in favour of the insipid and desiccated banality of "ordinary language philosophy" (in his late work Philosophical Investigations).

Waugh does not seek to discover why the charlatanry of the late Wittgenstein was embraced by a whole generation of linguistic philosophers. But his book is marvellous, with a wonderful eye for absurdity.

The House of Wittgenstein

By Kevin Jackson
The Sunday Times, September 14, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

Ludwig Wittgenstein's contemporaries at Cambridge used sometimes to call him "God". They were joking, but only just. It would be hard to exaggerate the awe in which the Austrian-born philosopher was held by his disciples, especially those who had the privilege of sitting with him in his Trinity rooms, hushed and clenched with anxiety, waiting for him to drag some gnomic phrase from deep in his soul.

Since his premature death in 1951, his work has inspired a vast quantity of exposition. He fascinates people who otherwise have no particular relish for modern philosophy. Heideggereans, Sartreans, Derrideans and their gregarious like will sneer at the proposition, but he was probably the greatest philosopher of the last century.

In his lifetime, Ludwig's fame was as nothing compared to that of his elder brother, the pianist Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961). Paul, a passionate and gifted musician, lost his right arm when serving in the Austrian army in the first world war. Instead of giving in to self-pity, he rigorously retrained himself to play the piano with one hand, and then commissioned a number of composers to write pieces suitable for his new talent.

Other members of the affluent Wittgenstein clan also inhabit these pages. Rudolf, a guilty homosexual, killed himself with a glass of milk and cyanide at the age of 22. Hans, a mathematical idiot savant, vanished without trace in 1902. Margaret, or Gretl, as a teenager embroidered a cushion with a heart — the actual, blood-swollen organ. She might have felt at home in the Addams family.

But it is Paul and Ludwig who dominate the book. When the children came into enormous fortunes on the death of their father in 1913, Ludwig gave almost everything away, living most of his years in poverty. Paul was also generous with his money, though most of his cash gifts went to anti-communist and anti-anarchist associations. Ludwig perversely approved of the Soviet regime.

Waugh seems happy to share Paul's view that Ludwig Wittgenstein's linguistic philosophy was "pure nonsense". And this is unfair. To brood upon the Philosophical Investigations (Ludwig's posthumous masterpiece) is to have glimpses of what can still feel like a divine revelation.

The House of Wittgenstein

By Noel Malcolm
The Sunday Telegraph, September 7, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

Karl Wittgenstein was one of the richest men in Austria, having built up an industrial empire of mines, steel mills and factories.

By the time that Ludwig (the youngest of eight children) was born, in 1889, the Wittgensteins were living in grand style, enjoying the best of everything, especially music. Their musical soirées, attended sometimes by Brahms, Strauss or Mahler, were among the best in Vienna.

Ludwig Wittgenstein is the one member of the family who is world-famous today. But for most of Ludwig's life, there was only one really famous member of the family: his brother Paul.

Alexander Waugh's study weaves together the stories of many of Ludwig's siblings and other relatives, but at its core is the biography of the pianist Paul Wittgenstein.

Paul, the closest sibling in age to Ludwig, had some of his younger brother's qualities: asceticism, an iron will, an inability to dissemble, and a sometimes comical unawareness of how the world worked.

He gave his debut concert in Vienna in December 1913. Eight months later, during his first week on the Eastern Front, he was hit in the right elbow by a Russian bullet. Surgeons at a field hospital amputated most of his right arm, and he was taken off to Siberia as a prisoner of war, eventually returning to Vienna after more than a year of atrocious ill-treatment.

Wittgenstein made up his mind to continue his career as a pianist. Realising that the repertoire for the left hand was extremely limited, he commissioned concertos and other pieces from a number of leading composers, including Strauss, Hindemith, Prokofiev, Ravel and, later, Benjamin Britten. The fees he offered were huge, but almost every composer fell out with him sooner or later.

But these disputes were as nothing compared with the complex feud that developed between him and his sister Gretl over the family fortune. It had been placed in a Swiss trust fund but the Nazis were determined to get their hands on it. They played a vicious game of cat-and-mouse with Gretl and her sisters, registering the family as Jewish and then offering concessions in return for the family gold.

The story of these negotiations is grim and fascinating. Waugh has done a masterly job.

The House of Wittgenstein

By Simon Heffer
Literary Review, September 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

Ludwig Wittgenstein made a substantial career at Cambridge under the patronage of Bertrand Russell. His Tractatus is considered one of the finest works of 20th-century thought. His brother Paul, a gifted concert pianist, lost his right arm in 1914 and then commissioned the most famous composers of the day to write works purely for the left hand. Yet these were only the tip of the Wittgenstein iceberg.

The head of the family was Karl Wittgenstein. He failed at school and ran away from home in 1865, to New York, where he piloted a canal boat and served whiskies for six months in what he termed a "nigger bar". He returned home in some disgrace in the spring of 1866. By the time of his apparently quite horrible death from tongue cancer (he was a cigar addict) in 1913, he had built up the family fortune and become a steel magnate.

Karl owned mines and mills all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and filled his vast houses with art treasures. Always a superb violinist, Karl would play music with his wife, and they would use their salon to give concerts. At his death he was "stupendously rich". He had also been predeceased by two of his eight children, both sons who had committed suicide. Another son killed himself in 1918.

Waugh makes Paul the centre of his story. Ludwig had the interesting distinction of being a schoolmate of Adolf Hitler's in Linz. Like his elder brother, Ludwig was eccentric to the point of offensiveness. He was also rigidly idealistic, and gave his money away. Paul too was free with his riches. He sent a fortune to alleviate the suffering of Austrian prisoners in Russian camps during the Great War.

Paul got out of Austria just as the Nazis were coming in. He took an immense amount of gold with him, which the Reichsbank wanted. The authorities decided that there were enough Jews in the family for it to count as Jewish. This meant penal taxation and an emigration levy. An attempt by the sisters to escape on false passports was foiled, meriting the attentions of the Gestapo. Waugh tells the story brilliantly.

Ludwig was plagued by ill-health and was dead at 62. His relationship with his celebrated brother flared into hatred. Paul made a career as a concert pianist, but without his wealth and social position he might have sunk into oblivion. It is clichéd to call the Wittgensteins an ill-fated family, but that is what they were.

Wittgenstein Surprise

The Guardian, April 26, 2011

Edited by Andy Ross

Cambridge Professor Arthur Gibson has revealed an archive of Ludwig Wittgenstein material that disappeared in World War II. The archive of ca 170K words sheds new light on Wittgenstein and his relationship to his amanuensis and male lover Francis Skinner.

Wittgenstein dictated most of the archive to Skinner, who died in 1941 aged 29. Skinner was ill with polio and taken into hospital in Cambridge soon after heavy bombing on a nearby RAF base. He was ignored in the confusion and died days later with Wittgenstein by his side.

Skinner's death "provoked just about a nervous breakdown" in Wittgenstein, said Gibson. They had lived together, holidayed together, and at one stage learned Russian together with the grand plan of emigrating to the Soviet Union and becoming farmers or medics.

The philosopher posted the archive to one of his students, where it stayed untouched for decades. It includes the only known handwritten version of Wittgenstein's Brown Book, a pinkish booklet that may be the long-sought Pink Book or Yellow Book, and a mass of mathematical calculations concerning Fermat's little theorem.

The archive was given to the Mathematical Association by its former president Reuben Goodstein in 1976 but ignored for years. Then it was handed to Trinity College and hence to Gibson. As an undergraduate at Cambridge, Gibson was taught by two of Wittgenstein's most distinguished students, Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Geach.

A Later House of Wittgenstein

Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein
The Wittgenstein House, Kundmanngasse, Vienna
Ludwig designed this house for his sister Gretl.
It was built between 1926 and 1928.

Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein (Gretl)

Painting by Gustav Klimt, 1905

The house that Ludwig built was not cosy. Wittgenstein forbade carpets and curtains. Rooms were to be lit by naked bulbs, and door handles and radiators were left unpainted. The floors were of grey-black polished stone, the walls of light ochre. He took a year to design the door handles, and another year to design the radiators. Instead of curtains, each window was shaded by metal screens each weighing about 150 kg, but easily moved by a pulley system designed by Wittgenstein. When the house was nearly complete, he insisted that a ceiling be raised 30 mm so that the proportions he wanted (3:1, 3:2, 2:1) were perfectly executed. "Tell me," asked a locksmith, "does a millimetre here or there really matter to you?" "Yes!" roared Wittgenstein.
Stuart Jeffries, The Guardian

The Legacy

Ludwig Wittgenstein
1889-04-26 — 1951-04-29

He began by trying to reduce all mathematics to logic and
ended by finding most metaphysics to be nonsense
Daniel Dennett

AR  My first serious acquaintance with Ludwig was in 1971 when I decided to study how Bertrand Russell and others proposed to reduce mathematics to logic. Having read Russell's works and parts of Principia Mathematica, I devoted some effort to studying the Tractatus and wrote a few essays on its foundational role for Anglo-American analytic philosophy.

Essentially, the "logicists" (following Frege, who had been inspired to the enterprise by Kant) reduced mathematics to set theory, but the ontological presuppositions of set theory extend beyond what most people are prepared to accept as "pure" logic. In my version of the story, most people fail to understand the radical nature of the "ontico-epistemic" (my bad) dynamic behind a satisfactory logic. I made brave efforts to formalize this dynamic in set theory — in three volumes of a work called Dialectical Logic (1975, 1977, 1979) — but finally decided that the main ideas were being more coherently formalized in a rival tradition stemming from the intuitionists (Brouwer and others) and continued by the modal logicians (such as Saul Kripke), which now forms a discipline called constructive logic that we can regard as the philosophical underpinning of computer science.

On the side, I read Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. This is an insightful treatise.
It moved me to read his other writings, compiled in many volumes by others after his death. Among these, his extensive notes on the philosophy of mathematics I found quite intriguing. My graduate research supervisor at the time, a young All Souls fellow called Crispin Wright, wrote a heavy book on Wittgenstein's philosophy of mathematics, but this failed to offer the insights I would have needed to push on with my dialectical constructivism.

Looking back, I see the logicist enterprise of Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein as based on a prescientific view of logic. Scientifically speaking, logic is an enabling discipline for computer science and formal language theory. It was not Wittgenstein but Alan Turing who built on the work of Frege, Russell, Gödel, and others to create computer science.