Even if you cultivate only a casual appreciation for philosophy, you’ll have realized that professional opinions differ about Ludwig Wittgenstein, and starkly. Philosophers don’t just argue about his work; they also seem to argue about his attitude, his conduct, his very person. Above, you can hear Betrand Russell, a somewhat less controversial philosophical personage, briefly give his impressions of the lad who would write the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. (Find a copy in our Free eBooks collection.) You see, before landing in the philosophy track—or, in any case, his own crooked version of the philosophy track—Wittgenstein studied aerodynamics at England’s University of Manchester. An assignment in propeller design got him fascinated with mathematics, which led him to philosophy at Cambridge. There, in 1912 and 1913, he studied under Russell.
“He was queer, and his notions seemed to me odd,” Russell says, surely using queer in its archaic sense. (Though others do apply; in 1993, Derek Jarman made a gay-themed biographical film about the philosopher.) “For a whole term, I could not make up my mind whether he was a man of genius or merely an eccentric.” But at the end of this term, the young Wittgenstein brought to his instructor a pressing question: “Will you please tell me whether I am a complete idiot or not? If I am a complete idiot, I shall become an aeronaut; but, if not, I shall become a philosopher.” Russell issued a challenge to write about a philosophical subject over the school break, and Wittgenstein handed him the result as soon as the next term began. “After reading only one sentence,” recalls Russell, “I said to him, “No, you must not become an aeronaut.” And he didn’t.” One imagines his unrealized career in aeronautics wouldn’t have given us quite so much to debate.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.