Tuesday 9 June 2009

Wittgenstein at Cambridge

There are still stories circulating in Cambridge about Wittgenstein's time. There was a bizarre, almost Monty Python-like quality to his lectures. His students were obliged to bring along deck-chairs, on which they all sat in absolute silence while the professor remained immersed in thought. Every so often this silence would be punctuated as Wittgenstein, in the midst of deep labours, would deliver some idea! He would on occasions turn on one of his students and start a rigorous intellectual interrogation, a process that has been likened to being under examination by the Spanish Inquisition.

He had the capacity, by sheer strength of his intellect, and his relentlessness in pursuit of a point, to reduce his audience to a state of terror. The only person with sufficient courage to stand up to him was Alan Turing. Wittgenstein maintained in one of his lectures that a system-such as logic or mathematics-could remain valid even if it contained a contradiction. Turing rejected this, saying there was no point in building a bridge with mathematics that contained a hidden contradiction, otherwise the structure might collapse. Wittgenstein responded by saying that such empirical considerations had no place in logic, but Turing persisted. How I would love to have been present!


  1. I once tried reading Wittgenstein and he put me to sleep. I'm not surprised he wasn't one of the philosophers that Alain de Botton tried to popularise in his book.

  2. Yes, he can have that effect. But there are still passages of simple, almost poetic beauty in the Tractatus. Hmmm, I'm in the mood to add a little more on Wittgenstein, which may help explain why he does not fit easily into any popular scheme of things.

  3. Now I understand just how daringly irreverent the Monty Python team were being in The Philosophers Song:

    And Wittgenstein
    Was a beery swine
    Who was just as sloshed as Schlegel.

    Exorcising a few ghosts, were they?