Saturday, January 30, 2010

How to Read Wittgenstein

I'm reading (among other things) How to Read Wittgenstein (2005) by Ray Monk, author of Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (1991). The Duty of Genius is still the best biography available on Wittgenstein. It is a fascinating and beautifully written account of the life of a fascinating man who, in Monk's words, "was by universal agreement one of the greatest and one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century." And yet, if you asked the proverbial man on the street what Wittgenstein's ideas are: (a) he probably wouldn't know who you're talking about; and, (b) if he did happen to know of or about Wittgenstein, he would probably be quite hazy on the substance of Wittgenstein's ideas. The Duty of Genius solves the first problem; How to Read Wittgenstein solves the second. To get a full and accurate picture of Wittgenstein, both books should be read together.

It is a surprising fact that Wittgenstein's published output during his lifetime consisted of just three works: one book review (1913), one book (1921), and one article (1929).

Monk has also written a two-volume biography of Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein's philosophical "mentor". (The reason for using inverted commas around the word mentor should be readily apparent if you are acquainted with the facts of the relationship between Wittgenstein and Russell. If you're not, read this.) I found Monk's biography of Russell hugely disappointing. However, this may well be a consequence of (unfairly) comparing those two books with the brilliantly executed The Duty of Genius.

Monk is currently working on a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. It will be interesting to see how he fares with that task.


Justin said...

Or instead of reading about Wittgenstein, people could actually read Wittgenstein. As Bloom said, every strong reading is a misreading. In order to do a poet/philosopher justice, you've gotta go straight to the source.

Mjumo said...

Or better still, do both, read and read about. Wittgenstein, as you are no doubt aware, is notoriously difficult to read, not least because he repudiated a great many of his own ideas and ultimately arrived at the paradoxical conclusion that it (philosophy) was all meaningless anyway. As for Professor Bloom's remark, and this may be a strong misreading on my part, surely the good Professor wasn't suggesting that a misreading, however strong, was better than a correct reading, however weak?