Bertrand Russell on His Student Ludwig Wittgenstein: Man of Genius or Merely an Eccentric?

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.

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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.

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Comments (9)
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  • Any discussion of Russell and Wittgenstein would benefit from reference to The World As I Found It, Bruce Duffy’s 1987 novel about Wittgenstein, Russell and G.E.Moore. It’s a beautifully written, 550 page philosophical novel that’s hard to put down. I hope that it will not fade from memory.


  • Steevithak says:

    And don’t forget about Logicomix, the graphic novel about Russell’s life and philosophy. It describes the interactions between Russell and Wittgenstein too. I’ve not read “The World as I Found It” but it’s now on my reading list.

  • Uwe says:

    A curious anecdote: Russell and Whitehead approved Wittgenstein’s PhD thesis (the Tractatus) despite the fact that they were not smart enough to understand it. But to their credit– they were not so obtuse as to deny him tenure!

  • infidel says:

    Uwe, can you tell me where you got that anecdote from? Did russell say he was too stupid to understand Wittgenstein or is that just what you think?

  • ravi shankar says:

    About the curious anecdote …. seems W.’s TLP was recommended for PhD by MOORE & Russell

  • jones volonte says:

    “they were not smart enough to understand it” Stupid comment….you understand it and therefore believe that you’re smarter than Whitehead and Russell?

  • Jared Wood says:

    Actually, Wittgenstein himself believed that the original introduction written by Russell showed that Russell didn’t understand the Tractatus. You can’t ALWAYS assume the philosophical innovator is the ultimate authority when it comes to the meaning of what he’s written, but it’s probably a safe bet here. That said, it’s not at all insane to say that I might have a better grasp on the Tractatus than, say, Russell, given the fact that I have several generations worth of secondary literature to fall back on which Russell lacked.

  • Jared Wood says:

    I tried to let it go, but as s Ravi says, it was Russell and Moore who were examining Wittgenstein’s Tractatus; Wittgenstein jovially told them both not to stress because he knew they’d never understand it. Whitehead comes into the picture because Wittgenstein’s work called the common project of Russell and Whitehead, the one that resulted in 300 editions over 500 years of Principia Mathematica, into radical question or even incoherence. Russell acknowledged very early on that he could no longer hope to do serious philosophy because he lacked Wittgenstein’s genius. He largely turned to writing more popularized books.

  • david david says:

    sorry , just checking, this is the work that Wittgenstein himself repudiated? Also, are you sure you mean tenure ?

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