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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Pho­tog­ra­phy of Lud­wig Wittgen­stein Released by Archives at Cam­bridge

Lis­ten to ‘Why I Am Not a Chris­t­ian,’ Bertrand Russell’s Pow­er­ful Cri­tique of Reli­gion (1927)

Bryan Magee’s In-Depth, Uncut TV Con­ver­sa­tions With Famous Philoso­phers (1978–87)

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 (10)
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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 ?

  • Harold Kulungiang says:

    Wittgen­stein could not have been seek­ing tenure, but only a PhD, with the Trac­ta­tus. He got his teach­ing appoint­ments renewed reg­u­lar­ly.

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