Book reviews, Comments, Culture, In Focus

Reading about Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein was as astonishingly original in his thinking as he was in his personal life and a new publication makes this abundantly and endearingly clear.


Wittgenstein Gravestone Photograph © Andrew Dunn

Sean Sheehan


A two-volume “Portraits of Wittgenstein” was first published in 1999 but at a price that only libraries could afford. There is now a new abridged and paperback edition and anyone curious to know more about the life of Ludwig Wittgenstein needs to read it.

The book brings together all the important recollections of Wittgenstein written by people who encountered him during his lifetime.

They range from important philosophers, scholars and students at Cambridge where he taught for two periods of time and friends and work colleagues who made his acquaintance and never forgot the impression he made on them.

Wittgenstein was intensely earnest about what mattered to him and mostly indifferent to everything else; he was a genius, a secular saint, but difficult to get close to. He held to certain principles with the conviction of a prophet but in his personal life was riven with anxieties, doubts and self-accusations.

He was lonely but craved isolation, abandoning his early studies – and later the prestigious post of Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge, to go and live in remote locations in Norway and Ireland.

His first visit to Ireland was with friends and they rowed across a harbour when a family on the shore was observed making hay in nearby fields.

Wittgenstein was embarrassed and insisted on turning back: “These people are working and it is not right that we should be holidaying in front of them”.

Several of his friends were Marxists and he had many discussions with a number of them. In the 1930s, he was strongly attracted to the Soviet way of life and applied to the Soviet Embassy in London to go and live there – not as an academic but as a manual worker or perhaps to take up medicine.

Later, he was moved by the resistance the Red Army was mounting against Hitler on the eastern front: “The Russians may be defeated”, he remarked in 1942-3, ‘but they have set an example to the world which will never be forgotten’.

During the Second World War, he served as a hospital porter in Guy’s Hospital and there are two letters that he wrote to someone there that he came to like.


They are affectionate in tone and reflect the straightforwardness that he warmed to in others.

One of the many insightful memoirs is that of the woman who taught him Russian, someone who sensed his extraordinary character and commitment: “He gave up trying to fit in, except in the most perfunctory form, with existing ways of life, customs and trends. He discarded everything inessential and trivial, all the material things that make for comfort or relief, all pretence and adaptation…”

What comes across so strongly in these recollections and reminiscences is how loved and admired he was by those who from many different walks of life, had opportunities to get to know him. This book is a tribute to his life and character.

“Portraits of Wittgenstein”, edited by F. A. Flowers and Ian Ground, is published by Bloomsbury.

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