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The Philosopher Kings: How friendship with young prodigy changed one of the most brilliant minds of modern thinking

The Philosopher Kings: How friendship with young prodigy changed one of the most brilliant minds of modern thinking
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In the long-running annual series “ Oh, The Humanities! ” National Post reporters survey academic scholarship at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, with an eye to the curious, the preposterous, and the hilarious. But this year it was cancelled due to COVID-19. Undeterred, a few sessions went virtual, including reflections by Irish-Canadian novelist Emma Donoghue on writing characters much older or younger than herself.

Today, the first biography of a philosophical giant solves the mystery of his death after falling into the River Cam, in the first instalment of “Oh, The Humanities! — Pandemic Edition”

Ludwig Wittgenstein did not come by his reputation as the most striking figure in modern philosophy just because he was a tortured genius from Vienna in Cambridge, so handsome he could have played himself in the biopic.

It was not simply because, as a young man, he gave away his massive inheritance of his father’s steel-making fortune, some of it anonymously to artists including Rainer Maria Rilke, then retreated to a fjordside cottage in morose nordic isolation, thinking his way down to the very roots of human understanding.

It was not that he crossed paths at boarding school with Adolf Hitler, or that he quit Cambridge University to teach in Austrian primary schools and write a children’s dictionary.

No. Wittgenstein has always been the coolest because, while serving on the front lines of the Great War as a young officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, he wrote a short book that seemed to solve every problem in philosophy. All it took was 75 pages, known as the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He hardly published anything ever again.

One of the last photographs taken of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wikipedia

However, as he grew older and wiser, he realized he was wrong, and wrote down the diverse reasons why. So by the time he died in 1951, or at least by the time his Philosophical Investigations were published two years later, he had revolutionized philosophy twice, both times to lasting effect. In university classrooms, they still talk about two Wittgensteins, early and late, as different as Plato and Aristotle.

What they do not talk about half as much is the central role in the life of these two Wittgensteins of Frank Ramsey, the teenaged prodigy who was chosen to translate the Tractatus from German to English, in a process that Wittgenstein himself acknowledged improved the book so much that the English version is better.

A new biography of Ramsey describes how this work led to a friendship, a bitter fallout, and eventually a bond so intimate that Wittgenstein briefly moved in with Ramsey and his wife in Cambridge, shortly before Ramsey’s untimely death aged 26 in 1930.

In addition to Ramsey’s pioneering work in mathematics and economics, the biography shows one of his greatest achievements was to steer Wittgenstein’s thinking away from the pure, austere logic of his early philosophy, back toward the ambiguities of real life.

It began when Ramsey was not yet 20, when he was chosen for what some of the best minds at Cambridge felt was an impossible task of translation, of a theory that few of them understood in the first place.

“Ramsey’s a kid, an undergraduate, but he’s really, really clever,” said Cheryl Misak, University of Toronto philosophy professor and author of Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers.

She describes how Ramsey took the German typescript to the university typing office, and read it off in English to a typist. “Absolutely remarkable,” she said. “He translates it on the spot.”

Her view is that, after the translation was complete, Ramsey’s continued criticism of the ideas in the Tractatus spurred Wittgenstein toward the central theme of his later work, that language is more like a public practice than a private calculation.

The key to this shift was Ramsey’s pragmatism, his view that philosophy must be relevant to human practices, the way things are actually done.

British philosopher Frank Ramsey. “An undergraduate, but he’s really, really clever.” Courtesy of Family

“It’s a bad approach to search for logical purity because all the important stuff gets left out,” Misak said, quoting Ramsey’s description of the “multitude of performances” people engage in when they communicate with language.

The reason Wittgenstein thought he had solved all philosophy with the Tractatus was that the felt he had figured out how logic relates to the world.

He did not say there were no other questions, just that, if you want to think logically, as language allows philosophers to do, there are limits to what can be said.

By laying out in the Tractatus a set of rules for what could be said, he thought he had shown all the rest of philosophy was nonsense. It is a coldly technical vision of language that is most at home in the sciences.

But it is not the only way people use language. Children, for example, offer adults a special perspective on rules, their definitions, and the subtleties of what constitutes obedience. As a schoolteacher, Wittgenstein surely knew this.

It’s a bad approach to search for logical purity because all the important stuff gets left out

So when Wittgenstein’s theory pointed out all these things that cannot logically be said, it fell to Ramsey to joke that Wittgenstein is like a young child at the breakfast table, being encouraged by his parents to say the name of his meal, but claiming that he “can’t say ‘breakfast.’”

In short, the child proves himself wrong. Ramsey was like that, as the biography details, jovial, extroverted and fun, and able to bring that attitude to his philosophy.

For example, there is a famous line that concludes the Tractatus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

Ramsey turned that on its head with a cheery witticism about Wittgenstein’s habit of walking around Cambridge whistling operas: “What we can’t say we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either.”

One newsworthy aspect of the biography is Misak’s research that strengthens the theory Ramsey died from a bacterial illness he caught in the River Cam, where he liked to swim. She tracked this down with medical experts and even historical weather records that support the theory of Leptospirosis, known as Weil’s disease.

Ludwig Wittgenstein Wikipedia

Wittgenstein is not mentioned in accounts of Ramsey’s funeral, and as Misak writes, his presence is normally noted, so he probably was not there. “His emotions were perhaps too extreme,” she wrote.

Ramsey had changed him.

Soon after Ramsey’s death, Wittgenstein gave a major lecture on the ideas of the Tractatus, then went home to his diary, where he wrote positively for the first time about Ramsey’s pragmatism. As Misak put it, he started writing about how propositions are expectations for the future, not logical operators stuck on to the world.

The later Wittgenstein had arrived.

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