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The Smart Squad : LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN; The Duty of Genius By Ray Monk (The Free Press, a division of Macmillan: $29.95; 654 pp.)

November 11, 1990|Judith Gingold | Gingold, a journalist, has studied philosophy with students of Wittgenstein

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein may be the most famous obscure intellectual of the century. It's hard to imagine a more unwilling celebrity than this profoundly serious man who shunned publicity and devoted his life to the pursuit of clarity. Since his death in 1951, however, he has emerged as one of the best known and least comprehended contemporary thinkers.

He's the "Mad Genius" as sent by Central (European) Casting, the savior of British philosophy or its trivializer. He is passionate, tormented, misunderstood, a man so singular that virtually everyone who ever knew him, from Bertrand Russell to the man who delivered peat to his cottage in Ireland, remembered and wrote about him. He reminded one student of "the Norse God Baldur, blue-eyed and fair-haired, with a beauty that had nothing sensual about it." Others were less enthusiastic. One young boy told his diary: "Witkinstein (sic) is an impossible person everytime you say anything he says 'No No that's not the point.' "

He was equally hard on himself, a master of self-laceration who often contemplated suicide. Though baptized a Catholic, he was of Jewish descent, a heritage he sometimes blamed for his moral and mental inadequacies in language reminiscent of "Mein Kampf." (Curiously, Hitler and Wittgenstein attended the same school for a year; there's no evidence that they met.)

Though he wrote constantly, he revised constantly too; most of his work has been posthumously published, and generates hundreds of scholarly books and articles each year. A recent bibliography lists nearly 6,000 items.

Outside the academy, Wittgenstein is a cultural presence to many who know him only as a name, or the inspiration for a sizable body of music, art and writing. His words have been rendered in dance and neon; there's even a poem about his lecturing style. He's a character in several novels and is mentioned in plays, on public television and by Woody Allen.

For those who want to learn more about his fascinating figure, Ray Monk's thoughtful and accessible biography, intended for the general reader, encompasses the life and work in a single narrative, illuminating the values implicit in both.

The book's subtitle, "The Duty of Genius," is taken from Otto Weininger's "Sex and Character," which Monk believes is the source of many of Wittgenstein's attitudes toward life and love. Weininger, a misogynist and anti-Semite, believed it was man's duty to conquer the flesh and to discover and realize his genius--or to kill himself. A Jew and a homosexual, Weininger shot himself at 23, in the house where Beethoven, his hero, died. Suicide greatly increased both Weininger's moral prestige and the sales of his book, which Wittgenstein read as an adolescent.

Though Monk's is not the authorized biography, he enjoyed the complete cooperation of Wittgenstein's literary executors, who permitted him to quote from previously unpublished material, including diary entries written by Wittgenstein in code about his homosexuality, which has been the subject of an unseemly, irresistible debate. Much of Monk's research will be new to even avid readers of Wittgensteiniana; those unacquainted with Wittgenstein's philosophy will find Monk's explanations helpful and unforbidding, if not exactly a piece of Sacher torte.

Wittgenstein was born in Vienna in 1889, the eighth child of an extremely rich, cultivated and ill-fated family. His father was a steel magnate on the order of Andrew Carnegie, his mother a musically gifted patron of the arts. Three of the brothers committed suicide; the fourth, Paul, continued his career as a concert pianist despite the loss of an arm in World War I.

The world is fin de siecle Vienna, the city Karl Kraus called "the research laboratory for world destruction"; the birthplace of Nazism and Zionism; the Vienna of Sigmund Freud, Arnold Shoenberg and Adolph Loos. Like these contemporaries, Wittgenstein broke away from the historical outlook in his field: His linguistic analysis is a radical departure in philosophy, analogous to psychoanalysis in psychiatry, atonality in music and functionalism in design.

Wittgenstein's originality seemed especially pronounced in the alien culture of England, where he spent much of his working life. He went to Manchester as a young man to study engineering, then took up aeronautics and, finally, mathematical logic at Cambridge with Bertrand Russell, who introduced him to G. E. Moore, John Maynard Keynes and other Apostles of Bloomsbury.

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