The Ludwig Wittgenstein Reading Club

24 February 2010


Last night I watched The Jane Austen Reading Club on DVD. As a film, there certainly isn’t much to recommend it. Most the characters are two-dimensional and uninteresting. There are a few good lines of dialogue here and there, but not enough to rescue this effort. Nevertheless, watching these scripted book “discussions” among the protagonists, a small circle of devoted Jane Austen readers, made me think of the origins of the Vienna Circle, which we could as well call The Ludwig Wittgenstein Reading Club.

The Vienna Circle began as a reading club, essentially, and the book they were reading was Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, one of the great philosophical works of the twentieth century. At once compressed and fragmented, studied and capricious, it is like a philosophical version of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. In short, the Tractatus was a work to be reckoned with, and the Vienna Circle reckoned as best they could. Members of the circle read other books as well, but it was Wittgenstein’s Tractatus that was the game-changer, and Wittgenstein only published this single work during his lifetime (though he wrote much more that was posthumously published), so the Vienna Circle couldn’t choose from among a body of work (like the six Austen novels that members of the book club in the film could distribute to appropriate individuals).

Wittgenstein, on the left, wrote one of the masterpieces of twentieth century philosophy, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

Just as the members of the Jane Austen Book Club disagreed with each other and had interpretations of Austen that probably would have shocked if not saddened the author, so too the members of the Vienna Circle had interpretations of Wittgenstein that would have probably enraged Wittgenstein — and I say “enraged” in the light of many testimonials regarding his character by those who knew him well. While the Tractatus has much in it that would have appealed directly to the founders of logical positivism, there is much in the Tractatus that would have been utterly opaque to them. It is almost amusing to imagine Carnap, Neurath, and Waismann trying to elucidate the visionary and mystical sections of the book.

Wittgenstein was, by all accounts, a difficult character. There is a lot of biographical material that has been published, and it is worth reading. He was also a difficult author. It is incomprehensible to try to imagine Wittgenstein on the contemporary talk show circuit discussing the Tractatus (as amusing as the image above of Carnap discussing Wittgenstein’s mysticism). Members of the Vienna Circle tried to persuade Wittgenstein to join in discussions, mostly to no effect. Wittgenstein at one point isolated himself in the Austrian village of Trattenbach, worked as a village schoolmaster, wrote despairing letters to Bertrand Russell, and was eventually visited by Frank Ramsey, who made the pilgrimage to Trattenbach in order to discuss the Tractatus with Wittgenstein line-by-line. By that time Wittgenstein had forgotten a good deal of the context of his ideas while writing the Tractatus, and frequently had to tell the doomed Ramsey (who died young in a mountain climbing accident) that he didn’t know what he meant by a given line in the text.

Wittgenstein's philosophical manifesto: brevity is the soul of ratiocination.

When Wittgenstein returned to the world after his self-imposed exile in Trattenbach, some philosophical friends persuaded him to come to Vienna to hear a couple of lectures by Brouwer, the founder of intuitionism (one of the influential philosophies of mathematics of the period). The lectures left an impression on Wittgenstein, and the careful reader can discern Brouwer’s influence in the later Wittgenstein. Brouwer, too, was reputedly a difficult man; it seems appropriate that, among Wittgenstein’s very few influences, Brouwer should be among their number.

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12 Responses to “The Ludwig Wittgenstein Reading Club”

  1. Justin said

    William James was also a major influence on Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein confesses admiration for James’s work in his personal letters, and in Philosophical Investigations even borrows the phrase ‘language on holiday’ from Pragmatism (by James).

    In fact, there is a deep relationship between the ideas of Philosophical Investigations and pragmatism. Though James lacks Wittgenstein’s poetic knack for exploring the nooks and crannies of everyday language, they both insist upon the primacy of experience and take a broader, dynamic view of its relationship to language.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Justin,

      Thanks for your note. I was aware of James’ influence on Wittgenstein, but I thought that it was primarily James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience which, along with Tolstoy’s devotional works, left such a mark on Wittgenstein’s mystical interest in renunciation and denial. I didn’t even know that Wittgenstein had read James’ Pragmatism. Thanks for the information.

      Best wishes,


  2. Gordon Cogger said

    interesting and perceptive… a small detail though, in the first photo Wittgenstein is on the right, not the left… his friend Ben Richards is on the left…

    GC, always on the left

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Cogger,

      Thanks for your comment!

      If you’re right about this, then I have repeatedly mis-identified Wittgenstein in this photograph.

      Best wishes,


    • The Russian said

      Hello, were in Saskatoon for a number of years?

      • geopolicraticus said

        Are you asking if Gordon Cogger, above, was in Saskatoon for a number of years, or if I was, or something else?



  3. Ralph Dratman said

    Neither of those two men look convincingly like Wittgenstein to me. But the man on the right is hidden under his hat, so he could be almost anyone — possibly, say,Marlene Deitrich.

  4. William Lyons said

    Club members might like to know of the following drama production about Wittgenstein:


    by William Lyons

    Difficult to know and impossible to forget, Wittgenstein
    is remembered as the greatest philosopher of the
    twentieth century. Marking sixty years since his death,
    we present the world premiere of an unusual and
    experimental production using live and filmed actors.

    Fleet Productions – Supported by the Austrian Cultural
    Forum and the American Philosophical Association.

    World Premiere directed by Nick Blackburn.

    Crisp Road, Hammersmith, London W6.
    19th April – 7th May 2011 (Previews 19, 20 April)
    Tues – Sat. 7.30 p.m.

    Prices £15 (£10 concs.) Previews £10.
    Book online or by telephone (020 8237 1111).

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Mr. Lyons,

      Thanks for the information about your theatrical production. If you’d like to share any more information, or any of your reviews, I’m sure there would be a significant interest in it here.

      Best wishes,


      • William Lyons said

        Dear NICK,

        I shall indeed try and provide feed-back from the London production. There will be a Q&A discussion, post-performance, with the audience on 28th April – that should give me some idea of the audience’s reaction to the production.

        Thank you very much for your interest.
        With my best wishes, sincerely,
        William Lyons.

  5. Ralph Dratman said

    As I probably cannot get to London for this, I hope a recording of some kind will be made. I would be happy to pay £15 for a copy of same.

  6. William Lyons said

    Dear Mr Ralph Dratman,

    Thank you for your comment.

    I hope to persuade Fleet Productions to make some recording of the Wittgenstein production but, as they (like most theatrical companies) operate on the proverbial shoe-string budget, I do not know whether or not they will agree to this.

    But thank you so much for your enthusiastic interest.
    With my best wishes, sincerely, William Lyons.

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