The Turn

“There are two great men in history whom he [Wittgenstein] somewhat resembles. One was Pascal, the other was Tolstoy. Pascal was a mathematician of genius, but abandoned mathematics for piety. Tolstoy sacrificed his genius as a writer to a kind of bogus humility which made him prefer peasants to educated men and Uncle Tom’s Cabin to all other works of fiction. Wittgenstein, who could play with metaphysical intricacies as cleverly as Pascal with hexagons or Tolstoy with emperors, threw away this talent and debased himself before common sense as Tolstoy debased himself before the peasants – in each case from an impulse of pride. I admired Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, but not his later work, which seemed to me to involve an abnegation of his own best talent very similar to those of Pascal and Tolstoy.” -Russell

Really interesting. I think a lot of academia feels the same way, though not in the same words, as Russell does. I wonder if Russell ever thought deeply about why Wittgenstein “debased himself before common sense” instead of just “impulse of pride”. He writes the Tractatus, then rejects it for the common. Russell recognized Wittgenstein as a genius. Did he recant that claim?

What I would give to see a conversation between these two after the Investigations was written. I feel like it would represent Wittgenstein’s conversation with the academy as a whole, who have mostly written off his later work as something which came forth inexplicably and never should have seen the light of day.


~ by Marcus Todd on February 26, 2013.

2 Responses to “The Turn”

  1. Sunday before last I presented a set of essays at my Creative Writing group. One of the most poignant and poignantly painful comments ran, “You can’t but follow the bent of your mind.” Tautological, uncontroversial, obvious . . . and yet: a whole theory of will wrapped up in it. By what criteria do we proclaim that this person or that has betrayed her own best thought? (That Wittgenstein, Pascal, Tolstoy went astray?) Surely one CAN betray oneself, live in-authentically, go prodigal. But what a strange possibility, right? I think the reason it hurt so bad to be told what I can’t not know–that I’ll write as myself, and not as somebody else–is just that it showed me up in all of my limited-ness, my finitude. Like when as a girl I felt (out of piety!) I had to confess myself a non-Christian: “if I am the Devil’s child, I will live then from the Devil.” If I’ve abandoned my life’s spring, somebody else will have to call me home.

  2. That quote by Russell puzzles me. I’m inclined to think of Wittgenstein’s later work as simply better, more impressive. But yet Russell knew Wittgenstein quite closely, and Wittgenstein did seem to respect Russell.

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