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Ray Monk may be a genius in the art of biographical writing!
on June 15, 2015
Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (1990), by Ray Monk, is a superb biography that illuminates both the life and the work of a modern genius. A critic writing for The Christian Science Monitor states: "Great philosophical biographies can be counted on one hand. Monk's life of Wittgenstein is such a one. It's a probing, moving experience."
Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein was born on April 27, 1889, in Vienna, Austria-Hungary. He died at the age of 62 on April 29, 1951, in Cambridge, England. Many academic professionals rate him as the most important and most influential philosopher of the 20th century.
Wittgenstein had two completely different careers: the “early" Wittgenstein, author of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), a work which many critics believed (incorrectly) that Wittgenstein was a logical positivist, and the “late” Wittgenstein, author of Philosophical Investigations (published posthumously in 1953) in which he argued that all philosophical "problems" are merely linguistic confusions--misunderstandings of the proper use of language.
In Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein wrote: "Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts. Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations. Philosophy does not result in 'philosophical propositions,' but rather in the clarification of propositions. Without philosophy, thoughts are, as it were, cloudy and indistinct: its task is to make them clear and to give them sharp boundaries."
A person who is only passingly familiar with Wittgenstein and his philosophy probably has heard at least of Wittgenstein's explication of "language games," a method which, he affirms shows that the words and concepts of our various "languages" are rooted in our idiosyncratic "life-stream" and are formed by the particular culture which we inherited and inhabit. Wittgenstein's explanation of how "language games" work (and often don't work) is one of the most fascinating and intriguing aspects of his philosophy, especially as found in his Philosophical Investigations.
Wittgenstein also stated, "Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language." The aim in philosophy is to dispel the fog of confusion, or to use another metaphor, "to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle."
At Trinity College, Cambridge, Wittgenstein was a protégé, and later the "master," of another world-famous philosopher, Bertrand Russell, who described Wittgenstein's philosophy as "a curious kind of logical mysticism." A troubled and tortured individual, Wittgenstein is portrayed by Ray Monk as a relentless truth-seeker who struggled to live with ethical seriousness, honesty, and integrity.
Was Wittgenstein a genius? Dictionary.com provides this definition: "genius.--[a person] having an exceptional natural capacity of intellect, especially as shown in creative and original work in science, art, music, etc.: the genius of Mozart." One's evaluation and assessment of Wittgenstein's ostensible genius depends not only upon one's level of intelligence and culture, but also upon one's own philosophical stance, including the ability, or inability, to "see" life and the world from a perspective akin to Wittgenstein's.
Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius is a brilliant work that presents an embarrassment of riches defying the ability of reviewers to do it justice. If it is legitimate to make such a claim, Ray Monk shows in this volume that in the genre of writing biographies, he is himself a genius!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ray Monk is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southampton, England, where he has taught since 1992. His interests lie in the philosophy of mathematics, the history of analytic philosophy, and philosophical aspects of biographical writing. His works include Bertrand Russell: The Spirit of Solitude, 1872-1921 (1996); Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness, 1921-1970 (2001); and Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center (2014).