Ludwig Wittgenstein : the duty of genius

by Ray Monk

Hardcover, 1990




New York : Free Press : Maxwell Macmillan International, 1990.


'Monk's energetic enterprise is remarkable for the interleaving of the philosophical and the emotional aspects of Wittgenstein's life' Sunday Times 'Ray Monk's reconnection of Wittgenstein's philosophy with his life triumphantly carries out the Wittgensteinian task of "changing the aspect" of Wittgenstein's work, getting us to see it in a new way' Sunday Telegraph 'This biography transforms Wittgenstein into a human being' Independent on Sunday 'It is much to be recommended' Observer 'Monk's biography is deeply intelligent, generous to the ordinary reader... It is a beautiful portrait of a beautiful life' Guardian

Media reviews

This is a wholly admirable biography. It is not easy to combine a continuous and intelligible story of a man’s life with a succinct account of his changing philosophical doctrines. Ray Monk succeeds both with the life and with the doctrines and he is the first person to make entirely clear the substantial interaction between them

User reviews

LibraryThing member McCaine
The positivist, analytical tradition in philosophy is what most people would associate Wittgenstein with in the first instance, provided they had heard of him in the first place. Because of his, and because of his philosophical attacks on the meaningfulness of the concepts of metaphysics, theology, spirituality and even most of logic, he is often depicted as some sort of cold, unfeeling Grand Master sitting on a pinnacle of Genius of Philosophy. But as Ray Monk's biography shows with much vigour, he was in reality a very troubled, confused, unhappy, spiritual, and above all very human person.

Making use of all the manuscripts available as well as the many correspondences of Wittgenstein, Ray Monk, a philosopher at the U of Southampton, is able to show the Wittgenstein we know as a person that one could not only sympathize with, but even pity. Because as it appears from the biography, Wittgenstein was a deeply unhappy man. His relationships were, from early life on, troubled - not as often supposed because of their bisexual nature, but rather because of his general revulsion to what he calls "sensuality" on the whole, and his tendency to flee from the people he loved. His friendships fared no better, since Wittgenstein was both fickle and dominating, unable to deal with disagreement and very strong in his views even on very minor things of daily life - which leads to repeated diary notes and comments by everyone, from Keynes to Russell, on how talking to Wittgenstein was simply too exhausting. Add to this a constant wrestling with the fact that Wittgenstein was very religious, yet thought all religious theory meaningless babble, and you have a recipe for depression.

Monk of course also pays attention to the content of his philosophical views, and makes sure that these are, in broad outlines, accessible and useful to a general public. For specialists and professional philosophers this will rather be a tantalizing overview than a sufficient working out of Wittgenstein's philosophical views, but fortunately Monk has also written several works of secondary literature on the subject, so that people can read those if they enjoy this biography (which I would certainly read first): "How to Read Wittgenstein". What Monk does best is to integrate these philosophical viewpoints into the larger narrative of his life, precisely as a good biography of a philosopher requires. The only thing I found somewhat unsatisfying was why Wittgenstein changed his views so strongly after the Tractatus, more or less rejecting the entire foundation this work was based on. One would have expected something personal to reflect as radically the change in philosophy, but either it isn't there, or Monk doesn't bring it out.

The style of writing Monk uses is very pleasant, and he avoids being opinionated either way (though he seems to sympathize with Wittgenstein's spiritual problematic a lot more than I would). An appendix to the book also deals with the (in)famous Bartley's commentaries on Wittgenstein, in particular those parts dealing with his sex life. Ray Monk very sensibly here chooses the middle road - it is quite beyond any doubt that Wittgenstein had homosexual relations, but the idea of him prowling the Prater in search for rentboys belongs firmly in the domain of fantasy.

I devoured the 600-page biography of this neurotic genius in one weekend, owing to the fascinating nature of the subject as well as Monk's effective and lively portrayal of him. Very much recommended to a wide public.
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LibraryThing member m.a.harding
How can you talk about Wittgenstein without descending into silly caricature? Ray Monk does it. Having re-read it recently I was struck bu the skillful way Monk relates LW the man to his philospohical interests. And most importantly, how Monk shows how 'the child is the father of the man.' A great job of humanising LW - making him less scarey by unpacking some of the myth - but also making him more admirable. It is easy to accept LW as 'a great man' (having talked to someone who knew him) but Monk's book also shows LW as an admirable man.… (more)
LibraryThing member JimmyChanga
A book that illuminates Wittgenstein’s ideas by showing us his life. Alternately, it illuminates his life by showing us his ideas. Flip-flop, mish-mosh, two sides of the same coin. His ideas grew organically from his life, in the same way that his Picture Theory claims that a picture is not a mental representation of a fact but is a fact itself, so that understanding comes immediately from seeing (not through abstraction and representation). This method of illumination works more for Wittgenstein than it would for other philosophers because for Wittgenstein, philosophy was not a mere game (perhaps that’s one of the reasons he despised academic philosophers so much, and called them un-serious), philosophy was a way of living and thinking rightly in the real world, by stripping oneself of all the comforts of illusion. If it didn’t do that (and he doubted if it did many times) then what good was it? Perhaps that's why he was intent on destroying philosophy as it was known then, uprooting it from its illusions of logic by exposing it to the sun. In life too, he was obsessed with questions of honesty and self deception, and tortured himself terribly over moral questions.

At times he seemed less like a philosopher and more like a religious figure with his ascetic lifestyle and exacting standards for his inner life. At other times, he was more like an artist with his severe judgements and social outbursts, and his tendency for perfectionism in his writings. Obviously, he was not always likeable, but he was always so much himself, a singularity whose contradictions made him even more who he was.


Most of my reading falls into two categories. First are the books that I actively seek out because someone recommended it to me, or I’ve been thinking about certain topics. These constitute the majority of my reading. The second category are books that seek me out. These are happy accidents that happen to fall along my path so that I could not ignore them. This book belongs to this second category.

I've never read any Wittgenstein before this, and I rarely read any philosophy either, but I came across this book at just the right time: I had finished the first book of The Man Without Qualities and was awaiting the second book’s arrival via Amazon. So I picked this up and just started reading, thinking I’d put it down after just a taste, but it wouldn’t let me stop! I read it compulsively. What’s odd about the timing of this book (between the Musil volumes) is that as I read it, I inevitably began to draw parallels between Wittgenstein and Musil.

I've also noticed that for the last few months my Goodreads reviews have become increasingly Reviews Without Books... as the Man Without Qualities is necessarily a man possessing all qualities, my reviews have increasingly tried to incorporate all my recent readings (Walter Benjamin, Hopscotch, and Man Without Qualities have crept up most often) to swallow them in a shameful act of gluttony. But hopefully (I hoped) out of it will come some kind of a larger picture, where colors complement each other, yet differences in shape are still preserved, even appearing more distinguished instead of falling into a big mush. It seems to me that reviewing one book in isolation is rather like taking a photograph of someone against a blank background: useful only for official documents and passports.

(This recent urge is also similar to a striving for context that both men (Musil and Wittgenstein) incorporated into their visions, with one big difference, this context is completely contrived internally. These books don’t really have anything to do with each other per se, other than the fact that I read them together, so in this way contextually weaving them together can only give the reader an idea of my mind, as if each book were a spider’s web I can only free myself from by stumbling into another one)

So I will talk about Musil here, and I will not be apologetic about it. First comes the superficial resemblances: both Musil and Wittgenstein were born in Austria, both were trained as engineers, and studied mathematics and philosophy. Both were around at the same time, and they both fought in the war, though there was no indication from this biography that they ever met.

But it is only when thinking about Wittgenstein’s philosophy that I found deeper resemblances.


An interesting thing happened to me when I was writing this book review. At this point in my sure-to-be-phenomenal study of the two men, I was overcome with a case of severe reviewer’s block. I had so many good points to make, about Wittgenstein’s interest in bridging distances between the utterable and the unutterable and even a brief mention in this book of imaginary numbers (Musil territory); about the two men’s similar love/hate relationships to science, pushing it away, yet inevitably using its exactness for their very own purposes; of their resistance to systematization, that tendency to boil things down to some kind of essence. Wittgenstein’s emphasis on context that creates meaning, context which is the antidote for science’s constant ‘craving for generality’, and Musil’s obsession with the same which he showed in his novel by playing with each character’s myopic extremes, while showing them completely unaware of the larger society’s constant vacillations between ideas that tend to wipe out all traces of the previous idea. And the concept of ‘genius’ that Wittgenstein was so obsessed about, seeing greatness as a justification for living the way he wanted, and that Musil talked about as the ‘genius of the racehorse’, an elegy to an antiquated idea. No longer do we have real geniuses, now even a racehorse can be a genius. Wittgenstein similarly laments when he sees photos of scientists in a store window instead of Beethoven. But not to stop there, because there are differences too, major differences, how one loved music for example and the other (Musil) hated it. These men also had different ideas about action, where one took the route of ideas, the other man (Wittgenstein) sought to purge all ideas from ideas, to escape from philosophy and into the purity of living (though he was unsuccessful) as Geothe said: in the beginning was the deed. But both courses were, I wanted to show, like two roads around the same block.

I had pages of similar notes not only because I wanted to write this review so badly, but also because I genuinely thought these little things could bring me closer to an understanding of these two men. Afterall, as Basil Reeve, a young doctor and one of Wittgenstein’s friends said years after they worked together, he was influenced by Wittgenstein in two ways:

first, to keep in mind that things are as they are; and secondly, to seek illuminating comparisons to get an understanding of how they are.

But what constituted an illuminating comparison? Things are as they are, and as soon as you compare them, even that comparison becomes an egregious generalization, a way of smoothing over complicated differences, and it would not live up to the original ‘thing as it was’ until you put so many qualifications and exceptions to your comparisons between the subtleties of one thing verses the subtleties of another thing that you might as well not make any comparisons to begin with! This is essentially the crux of the problem of writer's block: being confronted with the unutterable, feeling your irrelevance in the face of it, and not being able to capture that which overcomes one without reducing it to something obscene. Essentially the only way to write about a book would be to include the entire text of the book, and nothing else:

And this is how it is: if only you do not try to utter what is unutterable then nothing gets lost. But the unutterable will be -- unutterably -- contained in what has been uttered!

Maybe that was why it was so difficult for me to continue writing where I had stopped for weeks, looking over my notes in cafes and reading over lines I had underlined twice, three times, with exclamation marks penciled in the margins. I wanted so much to capture something inexpressible about this book, this life. I found myself emphatically in agreement with many of Wittgenstein’s points, but I had to admit to myself that afterall I had not really read any of Wittgenstein’s own writings. I had to admit that I was slightly intimidated by the logical propositions, and the rigorous uncompromising language. So that in the end what I had were only a collection of loose inexpressible feelings arising from the man’s life (as portrayed in this book) that I felt vaguely good about, and Wittgenstein’s own quiet insistence that "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."
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LibraryThing member heinous-eli
I would not have done quite so well in my Introduction to Metaphysics course, of which the Tractatus was a great part, had I not read this biography. It explains the odd verbiage and starkness of Wittgenstein's short yet influential work more than any explanation of the actual philosophy of the Tractatus could. Its accessibility makes it a great introductory work to Wittgenstein.… (more)
LibraryThing member michaelbartley
A very readable biography of a very interesting man. Wittgenstein was a man of great pradoxs, he wanted to be a saint and at times was a real jerk. I liked Wittgenstein's courage to challage his own beliefs.
LibraryThing member djalchemi
I've been meaning to read this book for 20 years or so since I first heard of it and its strong reputation. It's easy to put off reading about Wittgenstein because it feels like it's going to be hard work. If I'd realised how long the book was, I might never have started. But I dipped into the Kindle 'free sample' version on a whim, and was hooked -- even when I downloaded the full version, I had no idea that it was 670 pages worth. Happily the book keeps pulling you forward, weaving together a man, his times and his ideas, all clearly and expertly portrayed. And what a man, what times, what ideas! I cannot think of a better biography I've read, and it's given me both strength and desire to want to tackle Wittgenstein's original writings, which have been taunting me from my shelves for many a year.… (more)
LibraryThing member bwdiederich
This is one of the best biographies I've ever read. Monk does a great job combining personal history with an accurate general overview of Wittgenstein's intellectual evolution. It sort of destroyed me in college for a bit, but I'd highly highly recommend this book.
LibraryThing member Bmortime
This book is a sober account of a person who had a charismatic pull over many of the people that he influenced. I was interested in reading this biography to see how a philosopher's decisions in life may compare to his professed philosophical ideas. Two turning points in W's life appear to be his displays of physical courage during the First War and the later renunciation of his large inheritance. Both these factors may have assisted him in taking a spiritual path rather than a purely philosophical path.

I was impressed at the extent to which other philosophers helped and encouraged him when he could be so dismissive of their endeavors. At times I slightly wished that the author would talk about his own relationship with W's ideas. However this would be to the detriment of an even handed treatment of a complicated subject. My favourite line of Wittgenstein's quoted in the book was, "...keeping magic out has itself the character of magic".
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LibraryThing member antao
Why read books about great thinkers? Why not try and read what these "great thinkers" have written? Or maybe read both...?

Because a lot of times the context is just as interesting and sometimes more interesting than just the ideas standing alone. Origin of Species is well worth the read, but no one can argue it isn’t more interesting in context, from Malthus and Lyell to Wallace to Spencer, as well as a consideration of the very good challenges to Darwin’s theory of natural selection thrown up by both exiled Russian biologists and amateur women naturalists in the United States.

And biographies remind us that works of ideas and works of art are made by actual individual human beings, rather than being an agglomeration of “texts”, with the human agency of their existence being disregarded as at best an irrelevance. This kind of reductive approach has had a good innings, but I have never subscribed to it. I follow the line taken by – among many others – the American poet Robert Duncan, who said, “I in no way believe that there is such a thing as ‘just language’, any more than there is ‘just footprints’. I mean, it is human life that prints itself everywhere in it and that’s what we read when we’re really reading.” On this view, the literary theoreticians who viewed language as a structure that preceded, and even superseded, the individual subject, were getting it precisely backwards.

A roundabout way of saying that no matter how elevated the subject of a biography, I always start with the index to find out who they were sleeping with and what they liked doing on their days off. I wouldn't otherwise have known that, for example, Wittgenstein spent many afternoons sitting in the very front row of the cinema watching westerns and sometimes eating fish and chips.

There I go thinking inside and outside 'the box' all at once again. If one were a neurally integrated octopus, one's box would do the pondering perhaps, from the murky depths within! Using the mind to think about the mind... contaminates the process from the beginning, doesn't it? It inserts the end of the experiment in the procedure.' A great book from a fine mind. You've never steered me wrong!

Sorry, went just a touch over the top above; it's my nature when seriously engaged in a thing I can go too far. Far too far, my innate enthusiasm takes over, and my normally rather downbeat personality gets limitless energy and drive. Add in "autistic powers" of concentration and no disability gets in my way, it helps to be a touch crazy. My eyes do hate me of course, but I am fed up with them as well. Limitations are merely challenges, and difficulty does not mean a thing cannot be overcome.

Off to float on fluffy clouds, cher, good night.
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LibraryThing member MSarki
I found the going a little too long and just not worth my time, although the book gets high marks from most anybody I know and respect who have actually read it, or said they did.




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