Ian Mulvany

December 30, 2021

Book review - The duty of genius.

Earlier this year I  finished Ray Monk’s outstanding Ludwig Wittgenstein - the duty of genius - the comprehensive biography of the philosopher. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ludwig-Wittgenstein-Genius-Ray-Monk/dp/0099883708. The below review was written at the time, and I clearly ran out of time to complete the review, but as the year draws to a close here is an incomplete reflection on that book. 

I got the book after reading The murder of professor Schlick - the rise and fall of the Vienna circle by David Edmond https://www.amazon.co.uk/Murder-Professor-Schlick-Vienna-Circle/dp/0691164908

Ray Monk had extensive access to Wittgenstein’s papers and friends, and the it less that he writes Wittgenstein’s biography than allow Wittgenstein to walk us through his own life in his own words. If Wittgenstein was concerned though his work to help the fly work out a way out of the bottle, this book provides a route into the the bottle of Wittgenstein’s life, so to speak. 

I learnt so much from this book, and I thought I knew the story of Wittgenstein pretty well. 

The book has helped to demystify Wittgenstein for me, it shows many of his flaws, and is also very sympathetic to what he seems to be trying to achieve in his life. 

I can't recall clearly where I first came across Wittgenstein, but I remember getting a copy of the Tractatus as an undergraduate. I spent a long time studying science,  physics in particular. I took a number of philosophy of science courses, and was introduced to the Vienna Circle, the verification principle of meaning, and the odd relationship between the logical positivists and it was probably around that time - circa 1995 - that I started to work my way through it. 

I remember sitting on a bench at Waverley station in Edinburgh on a bright spring morning and finishing it, after any number of times of having started it. The book elicited in me a sense of something wondrous. I thought that I understood the ethical nature of it, that in a way, though we might speak of the world, being in the world - our experience of  being in the world, is more important, and indeed that experience delimits the language that we can have about our reality. I'd wanted to hold on to science as some kind of absolute truth, had thought when I was younger that a pursuit of phyical truths could be carried out in an ethically unambiguous way, ensuring that any such activity would by its nature be good. I liked the ideas behind a mathematicians apology. But many of those ideas by this stage had long since given over to much more doubt. The Tractatus seems to have something to say to me, and I was enamoured of it. Episodes from Wittgenstein's life have also become mythologised and I bought into that somewhat as well. 

What Ray Monk's book brings to the table is just a deep analysis of his life and work. After reading though it, it  entirely reshaped my understanding of who he was, what his work is about, and for the first time gave me a good insight into his post Tractatus work. The book is unflinching in showing us his human side, with all its frailties and fears. I came away with the understanding the Wittgenstein was not a kind man, most especially to himself. 

I may be wrong here, but one thing I feel is common in both phases of his work is the sense that understanding is embedded in context, and thought cannot escape its context to look back inside upon itself. It must build itself up from within, and indeed the very boundaries are not even attainable to itself. What we cannot speak of, we cannot even perforce that we can speak of. The games we co-construct to create the signifiers of meaning are built up from within our experience of the world, indeed though our experience.

Thus: ‘Physical objects exist’ is not an empirical proposition, for its contrary is not false but incomprehensible. Similarly, if Moore holds up two hands and our reaction is to say: ‘Moore’s hands don’t exist’, our statement could not be regarded as false but as unintelligible. But if this is so, then these ‘framework propositions’ do not describe a body of knowledge; they describe the way in which we understand the world. In this case, it makes no sense to claim, as Moore does, that you know them with certainty to be true. 


Well, that was as much as I got written, a few other interesting links that rummaged up while I was writing this include the following: 

About Ian Mulvany

Hi, I'm Ian - I work on academic publishing systems. You can find out more about me at mulvany.net. I'm always interested in engaging with folk on these topics, if you have made your way here don't hesitate to reach out if there is anything you want to share, discuss, or ask for help with!