Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius
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119 of 123 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 8, 2000
Ray Monk's biography of Wittgenstein has correctly been called 'definitive'. In the introduction he states as his goal the writing of a biography which neglects neither the humanity of the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, nor his philosophical views, complicated though they may be. He succeeds brilliantly. The result is that the reader is treated to two books at once: one on 'the man', and one on his thought.
Monk's is a tough job. If you know anything about Wittgenstein, you know he is enigmatic - both in terms of his personality and lifestyle, and also his perplexing, yet genius, philosophical views. Yet Monk presents both in as transparent a manner as is perhaps possible, given the nature of his subject. The book is eminently readable, which makes it length a ~positive~ feature. For example, I read the book a chapter at a time, to savour it. The readability comes in large part through Monk's extensive quotations from Wittgenstein's own diary and letters, and the letters of those who corresponded with him. This means that one is transported back to Wittgenstein's world, instead of reading just the dry prose of a biographer (Monk's own writing, of course, is anything but dry).
Most importantly, though, Monk presents Wittgenstein in such a way that many people will be able to befriend this incredible and mysterious man. Wittgenstein was driven by passions - his need to express his thought in a way intelligible and meaningful to others drove him close to suicide on several occasions. He was a man deeply in need of feeling that he was 'understood' - both philosophically and humanly - which were the same for him. (Thus his mentor for a time Bertrand Russell failed on both accounts, as Monk finely illustrates). He loved his friends and detested all things which he considered base. He was a logician who broke down logic, a philosopher who wanted to put an end to much of philosophy, a hermit, a mystic.
There is a mystique about Wittgenstein, and rightfully so. Those who read this book will either find him an eccentric, or they will in a way fall in love with this man. Either way, you will walk away with insight into one of the most startling, influential and powerful minds of our time.
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65 of 65 people found the following review helpful
Everything Wittgenstein scholars had been hoping that Brian McGuinness's biography was going to be but wasn't. Valuable both for the philosopher and for the layperson who would perhaps like a better understanding of one of the century's most important philosophers.
Contrary to the one reviewer below, the Bartley biography is one of the most notorious and irresponsible biographies of any philosopher of the 20th century. It is a travesty of scholarship, and an embarrassment to anyone with an critical eye. It is no secret that Wittgenstein was gay, but Bartley tries to prove (with no proof existing to this effect) that Wittgenstein engaged in a kind of sexual activity of the most promiscuous kind. His proof is of the sort: some guy I ran into in a gay bar in Manchester said he knew a guy who looked like Wittgenstein who liked to take rough boys out for a bit of fun. In short, we are not told who these sources were, which means that they cannot be further assessed as to reliability and veracity, not to mention the fact that his depiction of Wittgenstein contrasts markedly with what we know of Wittgenstein from well-documented sources. Not exactly the kind of evidence that scholars like to utilize in making their assertions. The Bartley biography suffers in equal parts from a lack of philosophical understanding on the part of Bartley and a willingness to credit the flimsiest sort of hearsay.
The Toulmin and Janik book is much better than the Bartley (I am somewhat biased as I took two seminars with Toulmin), but it is an attempt to articulate Wittgenstein's intellectual and cultural background, and is more of a supplement to a biography rather than actually being a biography.
The Monk biography is wonderfully human biography, which makes Wittgenstein come alive as a flesh and bone individual. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Wittgenstein or in 20th century philosophy.
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64 of 67 people found the following review helpful
on July 29, 2000
Ray Monk has written an excellent book about Wittgenstein. I can say without doubt that this is one of the best books I have ever read.
Ray Monk is professor of philosophy at the University of Southampton in England. He studied Wittgenstein at Oxford University, and has also written an extensive biography about Russell. In an interview I did with Monk for a Norwegian newspaper, Monk emphasized that he admired Wittgenstein's intensity, and that he sees two important traits in Wittgenstein's personality: (1) his demand for intellectual clarity, (2) his demand for ethical perfection.
The book gives you insight into the person and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. One learns that Wittgenstein's life and philosophy are intimately connected, and one may wonder whether it is possible to understand Wittgenstein's work without knowing something about his life. Monk describes how the young Wittgenstein came into philosophy from engineering and mathematics. Wittgenstein showed an intense interest in philosophical problems, as Betrand Russell said "he had to understand or die". Wittgenstein studied in Cambridge, lived as a hermit in Norway, was a soldier under the first world war, a school teacher in Austria and professor in Cambridge. Monk describes Wittgenstein's life, and one may see how his life and philosophy are connected - for instance how the last part of Tractatus may be understood in light of the fact that Wittgenstein devloped a religious attitude to life and read Tolstoy intensively during the first world war.
Wittgenstein was a true philosopher. He gave himself to the problems, and he truly struggled with them. The book may be very inspiring for serious scholars in many fields, as well as writers, poets, philosophy students and many others.
Philosophy is more than a game of the name. Although Wittgenstein is very important to analytic philoophy, he must be understood as a thinker with a deep existential motivation. Althoug Wittgenstein was must be seen in relation to Frege and Russell, there are many other important writer that are important in relation to Wittgenstein, for instance Kant, Schopenhauer, Weininger, Kierkegaard and St. Augustine and others.
Monk's biography helps to see Wittgenstein's approach to both life and philosophy.
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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on September 2, 2004
Even for those not acquainted with analytical philosophy or the subject of philosophy in general, the name Ludwig Wittgenstein will sound familiar. He is known in some circles as the "tortured genius" as his life was a passionate and agonizing battle to be true to his nature and to discover `real' philosophy with the intent of putting an end to the subject all together. Some believed he achieved this end - the man certainly re-directed philosophical enquiry in our modern times. The problem with most of us lesser creatures, understanding Wittgenstein's thought and work is a momentous task. If you have had the pleasure or tormenting experience of reading or studying his Tractatus Logico-philosophicus or Philosophical Investigations, or one or two of the literarily thousands of commentaries and secondary sources on his work, you will comprehend or at least relate to the complexity of his thought. The Duty of Genius is a great philosophical biography because the author has managed to elegantly connect Wittgenstein the man, his spiritual concerns and emotional preoccupations, with his philosophy, in one flowing, well-written narrative. I came away from this book with greater insight into analytical philosophy and a deep appreciation of the man himself.

Wittgenstein was one of the most opinionated men I have ever read about. In fact he had an opinion on just about everything, particularly music. He believed that no other music after Brahms was worth listening to and Mozart and Beethoven are the true "son's of God". He loved reading American detective stories and believed our so-called modern age is a dark age in all respects. Similar to a good pragmatist, he believed that knowledge and doing, action, were intimately connected. He had a privileged up bringing in pre WW1 Vienna, a fascinating, tumultuous and highly creative period before the fall of the Austrian Hungarian Empire. He was a neighbour of Sigmund Freud and went to the same Primary school as Adolph Hitler. (Both remembered each other later in life during WW2.) He inherited a large fortune and ended up giving most of it away. He wrote his first major work, The Tractatus, while a prisoner of war in Italy. All of these things are wonderfully described in the biography, but Monk has managed to convey something about the man that is hard to define, and that was his magnetic personality. Wittgenstein's magical presence is legendary and the numerous anecdotes described by Monk, I believe, truly gives the reader a vivid sense of this presence, his genius comes through loud and clear in this book. And this is what makes this biography so moving and interesting.

This biography will not give the reader a full comprehension of Wittgenstein's philosophy, however, as an introduction, putting the man and his work into their proper historical context, the clouds begin to dissipate and a glimmer of understanding begins to appear - extremely engaging, informative, well-written and entertaining.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on March 11, 2005
Wittgenstein's philosophical writings are very difficult, not only in content but also in presentation. He was always unhappy about committing his ideas to paper, and when he did so, he would set them down in a highly compressed form as numbered notes, sometimes in the form of aphorisms. When he sent the manuscript of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell, neither of these considerable intellects could understand it (which didn't stop Russell from writing a foreword when it was eventually published.)

The 650 pages of Monk's magnificent biography are of course anything but compressed, and allow us to understand how Wittgenstein arrived at his conclusions. Monk writes beautifully, and he sets out the intellectual processes with the utmost clarity; but an additional and very special merit of this book is the skilful interweaving of Wittgenstein's thought and his personality.

Wittgenstein was a tortured and difficult man: intense, introspective, uncompromising, ruthlessly honest with himself and with others. He was torn between his need for solitude and his need for philosophical discussion. There was within him an immense tension between logic and mysticism. He feared madness and was frequently uncertain about the value of philosophy: he gave it up altogether for a few years after the First World War and taught for six years at elementary schools in backward rural areas of Austria. In later life he was a practising but ashamed homosexual, and for this and other reasons often felt "indecent" and suicidal. He found friendship and even elementary courtesies difficult unless there was a total identity of philosophical ideals. But his charisma was such that a number of people were devoted to him, forgave his often savage moods and harsh outbursts, and helped him: transcribing his ideas; securing him a Fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1930 and a Professorship in 1939; giving him a home in his last illness.

Monk handles with particular skill the transition between Wittgenstein's two philosophies. The Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus laid down the foundations of what would become Logical Positivism, though Wittgenstein felt, from his first contact with the Vienna Logical Positivists, that his concerns were different from theirs. They were primarily concerned with the verification of propositions; but in the Tractatus Wittgenstein held that the only task for which philosophy was equipped was that of clarifying what we say by analyzing the language we use. This means examining the logical structure of language; but at the end of the process we have not said anything about the validity of the propositions that have been clarified. Whether a proposition is true or false is not ascertained by logical deductions but by whether it pictures the world as it actually is. Religious, ethical or aesthetic propositions cannot, said Wittgenstein, picture the world as it is, and it is therefore not possible for such topics to be meaningfully discussed. Therefore, in the famous last sentence of the Tractatus: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

The Vienna School and the Logical Positivists were perfectly happy to have the realm of philosophy thus circumscribed; they felt no regret about the exclusion of religion and ethics from meaningful philosophical discourse. But Wittgenstein did suffer from this loss, and felt that the Vienna School had misunderstood him. He had already told his publishers that what the Tractatus did not contain was more important than what it did contain. He had to say more about those areas which he had felt forced to pass over in silence. Religious utterance could contain a truth and a meaning which did not depend on words having a very precise meaning, but on an understanding of how religious language is used; and this understanding is gained from the experience of living a religious life.

Indeed, in the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein shifted his attention from the relationship between meaning and truth to that between meaning and use. Language, in other words, is not a picture, but a tool; and it is the way we use it that shows the meaning we ascribe to it. "Don't ask for the meaning; ask for the use", Wittgenstein now proclaimed; that, he thought, would at last "showing the fly a way out of the fly-bottle." Though it is still descriptive rather than deductive, the task of philosophy is now to clarify the way words are used in different situations rather than to pin down the absolute meaning of a word to some unchanging fact in reality. To my mind it is a much richer and less arid philosophy than his earlier one; and Wittgenstein worked out all kinds of fascinating implications of his new insight: it enabled him to see how, for example, music or humour or body language can be meaningful discourse which can be understood once you know how those particular languages are being used. The second philosophy is also much easier to understand than his first - so much so, in fact, that Russell accused him of having "grown tired of serious thinking". It certainly resulted in building a bridge between the perceptions of the philosopher and the "common sense" perceptions of the ordinary man; and if in his earlier years it was the sheer abstruseness of his philosophy which made him doubt the value of what he was doing, he now worried about what at the end of the day might be the difference between philosophy and common sense. But in the end he did find a humble use for philosophy. He writes, "'What we find out in philosophy is trivial; it does not teach us new facts, only science does that. But the proper synopsis of these trivialities is enormously difficult, and has immense importance. Philosophy is in fact the synopsis of trivialities.' In philosophy we are not, like the scientist, building a house. Nor are we even laying the foundations of a house. We are merely 'tidying up a room'". (Monk, pp.298/299.)
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on January 27, 2011
The book is about 600 pages long, but very readable. It does a decent job of explaining the main tenets of Wittgenstein's philosophy (think very high level) while presenting his biography. My understanding from my university seminar is that compared to other biographies, this book actually talks about his philosophical views and is therefore more helpful for phil majors. I gave the book only 3 stars for two reasons.

One, I think it spends too much time on biographical details at the expense of Wittgenstein's phil views. I think that the author could have gone more in depth without losing the layman. I don't think he did a very good job of explaining why some of Wittgenstein's phil views were so novel, or why he became so famous so quickly, or why everyone ended up reading the Tractatus. In contemporary philosophy W is considered one of the greatest modern philosophers, but I think the book does not adequately explain why this is so. All you get from the book is that he was eccentric, refuted the views of his old mentor Russell and argued with some famous profs at Cambridge. At the same time though, he was a recluse and didn't really publish. Interestingly, there is a lot of emphasis on his childhood which gets tedious, but no discussion whatsover of what mental illness W might have had, or whether there was some other hereditary condition (most of his brothers were geniuses who committed suicide). Was he autistic for example? I would like to know.

Second, I think as a literary piece the book is not that well balanced. This is purely an aesthetic point of view, and I appreciate that in a biography it's difficult to balance details with broader sketches. However, I feel like the author often belabored some point, citing many different letters, but then would start on another point and end very abruptly. The author also concludes sections with sweeping statements about how certain events connect up in W's life, without really discussing why he came to that conclusion. Anyway, you have to read it for yourself, but I found bits of the book jarring. It could have been a smoother read.

If you are interested in turn of the century Vienna, you might enjoy reading Stefan Zweig's "The World of Yesterday." It is beautifully written and paints a very good picture of what it was like to live in Europe from 1890-1940 or so, in the midst of some of the most famous scientists, philosophers and literati. If you don't know about Zweig, in the 1920s-30s he was considered one of the best writers in Europe. He wrote some excellent novellas and biographies. His book is also interesting because it discusses turn of the century attitudes to intimacy, which is relevant to the Wittgenstein biography - Monk includes a postscript where he discusses Wittgenstein's personal life as particularly influenced by contemporary views on the subject. The World Of Yesterday

Finally, I really hate this edition of the book - it's a thick paperback, but printed on very flimsy paper. I treat my books well, but this one already has dog ears and the cover has started to split in several places. It is easy to tear the pages. I wish a more high quality version, or hardback, were available. Unfortunately the UK Amazon seems to sell the same version.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on February 16, 2005
Ray Monk's biography of Wittgenstein is both very detailed and very revealing.

He shows us perfectly Wittgenstein's apparent evolution from the logical-philosophical themes of the Tractatus over language-games to the philosophy of psychology.

At first sight, the later Wittgenstein denied completely his Tractatus work and cursed 'the wretched effect that the worship of science and the scientific method had upon our whole culture'.

But that is only apparently so, because the famous last sentence of the Tractatus - 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent' - means that nothing can be said about the realm that was more important for him than logical theory: ethics.

The Tractatus is only a theory to preserve the purity of language.

Wittgenstein didn't sink into the morass of language. He was immediately drowned in it.

At the end of his life, Freud's work became his obsession and his comments on that work constituted an attempt to say something about what cannot be said.

The members of the 'Wiener Kreis' were completely astonished to discover that Wittgenstein was in no way a positivist like themselves.

Ray Monk gives us also a clear picture of Wittgenstein's complex and difficult character: his egotism, extreme possessiveness of his friends, fear of becoming loveless, difficulty to communicate, irascibility, mental instability ('see the madman in yourself'), his ambivalence about sexuality (a continuous battle between shame, sex and love) and his culpability. He was continuously seeking redemption for his sins, especially his pride and vanity.

This monumental biography is a very deep digging and extremely clear portrait of a controversial philosopher.

I also recommend Derek Jarman's feature film 'Wittgenstein'.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2001
Not only is Ludwig Wittgenstein one of the most fascinating and influential philosophers of the 20th century, but he is also one of the most interesting persons too.
Ray Monk does an incredible job of probing into Wittgenstein's psyche, and the result is an extremely intimate, gripping tale of a man possessed with a unique mind and similarly original attitude towards life. Wittgenstein reminds me of what a 7th century monk might have been like.
Monk handles Wittgenstein's complex philosophy well sithout over simplifying it. Moreover, he never tries to separate W's philosophy from his personality. Since they are so closely linked, it would be a big mistake to do so, and Monk deftly avoids doing so.
Finally, I particularly liked the dozens and dozens of personal letters we have from W. and how Monk interpret's W's often bizarre behavior (he had a penchant for American detective stories...). Just a great book about a great mind which will no doubt leave its mark.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on February 6, 2007
I read this book because I had a very basic idea of LW's life and philosophy but really didn't feel that I understood them in any meaningful sense. I wasn't sure if my interest in either would withstand a 600 page biography, but thanks to both the author and the subject it was a pleasure to read.

The book is very thoroughly researched, with a ton of quoted material from Wittgenstein's letters and journals, much of it apparently not published elsewhere. This gives the book the considerable virtue of showing us what Wittgenstein was feeling/thinking rather than telling us (a distinction which LW would approve of).

The other thing I liked about it was that Monk gives us a thorough treatment (for a biography, that is) of his philosophical views and their evolution. The fact that the author comes from a philosophical background really helps here. He does an admirable job of placing many of Wittgenstein's difficult quotes and ideas into the larger context of his system of thought. Of course, I'm not knowledgeable enough to know whether Monk is wrong in any part of his interpretation, but if he happens to be, it's not because he doesn't know what he's talking about.

Overall, I thought the book had the perfect balance of biography and philosophical explanation. The philosophical parts were almost always linked with the portrait of Wittgenstein as a person, so they didn't weigh the book down or break up the narrative flow. Maybe the best way to sum things up is that although the book made Wittgenstein a lot less mysterious to me, I don't find him or his ideas any less fascinating after reading it.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on December 12, 2003
Aside from a quickly abandoned attempt to read the Tractatus as a pretentious freshman in college, I didn't know anything about Wittgenstein other than a few random facts. The ones that fascinated me were that, after finished his first book, he went off to teach in a rural primary school; that he had been commended for bravery several times in WWI; and that among his last words, when his friends were arriving too late to see him on his deathbed, were "tell them I've had a wonderful life."
There was something fascinating about all of this existing in one man, so when a philosophy professor I ran into at a wedding recommended this book as the place to start, I rushed to pick it up.
Loosely speaking, great men have two types of lives: the ones devoted to an ethical or aesthetic mission, and the ones whose lives are less streamlined, more variegated. For the former, their lives slip naturally into a type of narrative with a few basic themes: you can see them make progress towards the goal that they have set for themselves. Biographies of people like Gandhi, for example, can be slim and focused. For the others, whose lives are messy and not motivated by a few basic concerns, I prefer baggy biographies, that revel in small details: Ellman's Joyce, for example, or The Life of Johnson.
Wittgenstein is a curious combination of the two, because he is almost obsessively motivated by a goal of religious and moral purity that directs his entire life; and yet, his actions (and choice of partners) are so cyclical that occasionally you start losing track of people, and feeling like you've read the chapter before: the same suicidal streak, another timid, gentle male partner.
Monk handles this well: he writes beautifully (and colloquially, in the best possible sense) and isn't afraid of passionate engagement. The book is beautifully structured, and the themes that surface continually in Wittgenstein's life are brought up gracefully and juggled with consummate skill. I only occasionally felt like Monk tried too hard to fit Wittgenstein's life into the framework he created. Wittgenstein's love of pulp detective fiction, for example, is supposed to indicate how much he valued intuition instead of a deductive style of reasoning, and connects to the philosophy of the later years? Maybe he just liked detective stories: lots of people have.
Monk's desire for a coherent narrative also makes him leave out parts that I thought would be fascinating. He mentions a thank you note of Rilke's that Wittgenstein really liked, but he doesn't quote it; Wittgenstein discusses a poem that he loves with his friend for a whole letter, but the poem is never quoted - it's those kinds of technically unnecessary little bits that might have illuminated a great deal (or just been interesting). But Monk also has an eye for the wonderful detail - and he has clearly dug up almost everything that can be found on W. - like the diary of a 14-year boy whose father he visited.
This is also a good introduction to W's work, although not really an in-depth exploration. I disagree with the reviewer who said that this book was a deflation of genius. At the end of this book, I still admired the demands that Wittgenstein made on himself, his honesty, his determination, and his generosity, but I was further convinced that a genius should not be trusted for opinions on any subject but his own narrow discipline. Anyway, read this book; I enjoyed it a lot.
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