The following essay is adapted from Clive James' Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.
Philosophy, as we use the word, is a fight against the fascination which forms of expression exert on us.
—Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books
Born into a wealthy Viennese family, Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein (1889–1951) was the glamour boy of English philosophy in the 20th century, and in the new millennium his influence continues to be potent. If there are still English philosophers who seem to prefer it when nothing is discussed except the means of discussion, their memories of Wittgenstein are probably the reason. Before World War I, there was a period when only Bertrand Russell knew who Wittgenstein was. After valuable false starts as a student of engineering in Berlin and Manchester, Wittgenstein had come to Cambridge to study mathematical logic under Russell, who had the humility (a virtue of Russell's that offset many of his vices) to spot an intellect potentially superior to his own. During the Great War, Wittgenstein fought for Austria as an artillery officer. Captured by the Italians, in the prison camp at Monte Cassino he completed the work we now know as the Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus, a set of aphorisms based on the principle that language is a combination of propositions picturing the facts of which the world is composed. Under the impression that he had brought philosophy to an end, Wittgenstein gave away his money and took up the simple life in Austria as a schoolteacher, a gardener's assistant, and an amateur architect.
He resembled T.E. Lawrence both in his homosexuality and in his recurring desire to retreat from a stage whose center he seemed born to occupy. Realizing, however, that philosophy was not over after all, he returned to Cambridge in 1929. First as a research fellow and then as a full professor, he developed a second philosophical phase, or emphasis, in which his original concept of language as a set of pictures was, if not repudiated, certainly elaborated into something more subtle—infinitely more subtle, because he now saw communication as a whole family of language games in which the meanings of words depended on their use. Usage, however, was not everything. A given line of argument could be outright wrong, especially if it sought obsessively for a unity that could not exist. Wittgenstein had thus constructed an instrument for discussing the totalitarian mentality, but he never used it.
During World War II, he voluntarily served as a hospital porter in London and a lab assistant in Newcastle, but he never said anything in print about the Nazis. Apart from the Tractatus, all his books, collected from notes made from his lectures, were published posthumously. No student should miss the key work of his second phase, Philosophical Investigations (1953), but not even in that otherwise electrifying book is there any sense of current events. His silence might not have been an act of will. It could have been that words failed him. There is evidence, however, that when he finally saw photographs of the hideous aftermath in the concentration camps, he forgot his famous rule about being silent on issues of which one cannot speak and broke down in tears. But in the few years left to him before his death from cancer, he still resolutely declined to say anything specific about the era he had lived through. He had helped to shape it, but only by ignoring it.