Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius
By Ray Monk.
The Free Press: New York, 1990,
646 pp., $29.95.

Ludwig Wittgenstein is perhaps the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, and certainly one of the most original in the entire Western tradition. Given the inaccessibility of his work, it is remarkable that he has inspired poems, paintings, films, musical compositions, titles of books—and even novels. In his splendid biography, Ray Monk has made this very compelling human being come alive in a way that perfectly explains the fascination he has evoked.

Wittgenstein’s life was one of great moral and spiritual depth. Although his work addresses problems of logic, language, mind, and knowledge, he often described it as having an ethical point, and once said that he “could not help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.” In successfully bridging the gap assumed by many to exist between Wittgenstein’s life and his work, Monk’s biography helps to explain the interest in Wittgenstein’s later philosophy on the part of Buddhist scholars.

Wittgenstein was born in Vienna in 1889, the youngest child in a large, highly cultured, and exceedingly wealthy family. After being educated at home, Wittgenstein chose to study engineering, eventually ending up in England where he did research in aeronautics. Here he began to pursue an interest in mathematics which led to study with Bertrand Russell at Trinity College, Cambridge. Out of these years at Cambridge came the themes that inspired his first major work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Even though it is a work on logic and the relationship of language to the world, it ends with statements such as, “There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.” It may come as no surprise that this conclusion was written while its author was on active duty during World War I.

When war broke out Wittgenstein enlisted in the Austrian army in spite of a medical exemption from military service. He wanted to risk his life not for patriotic reasons but for spiritual and moral reasons and insisted on being sent to the front. In constant danger of losing his life, he reported, “From time to time I was afraid. This is the fault of a false view of life.” Decorated for bravery he was also transformed.

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