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).
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.
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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