"My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands them eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them -- as steps -- to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)" -- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus
The first time I met Wittgenstein, I was late. "The traffic was murder," I explained. He spent the next forty-five minutes analyzing this sentence. Then he was silent. I wondered why he had chosen a water tower for our meeting. I also wondered how I would leave, since the ladder I had used to climb up here had fallen to the ground.
Wittgenstein served as a machine-gunner in the Austrian Army in World War I. Before the war he studied logic in Cambridge with Bertrand Russell. Having inherited his father's fortune (iron and steel), he gave away his money, not to the poor, whom it would corrupt, but to relations so rich it would not thus affect them.
On leave in Vienna in August 1918 he assembled his notebook entries into the Tractatus, Since it provided the definitive solution to all the problems of philosophy, he decided to broaden his interests. He became a schoolteacher, then a gardener's assistant at a monastery near Vienna. He dabbled in architecture.
He returned to Cambridge in 1929, receiving his doctorate for the Tractatus, "a work of genius," in G. E. Moore's opinion. Starting in 1930 he gave a weekly lecture and led a weekly discussion group. He spoke without notes amid long periods of silence. Afterwards, exhausted, he went to the movies and sat in the front row. He liked Carmen Miranda.
He would visit Russell's rooms at midnight and pace back and forth "like a caged tiger. On arrival, he would announce that when he left he would commit suicide. So, in spite of getting sleepy, I did not like to turn him out." On such a night, after hours of dead silence, Russell said, "Wittgenstein, are you thinking about logic or about yours sins?" "Both," he said, and resumed his silence.
Philosophy was an activity, not a doctrine. "Solipsism, when its implications are followed out strictly, coincides with pure realism," he wrote. Dozens of dons wondered what he meant. Asked how he knew that "this color is red," he smiled and said, "because I have learnt English." There were no other questions. Wittgenstein let the silence gather. Then he said, "this itself is the answer."
Religion went beyond the boundaries of language, yet the impulse to run against "the walls of our cage," though "perfectly, absolutely useless," was not to be dismissed. A. J. Ayer, one of Oxford's ablest minds, was puzzled. If logic cannot prove a nonsensical conclusion, why didn't Wittgenstein abandon it, "along with the rest of metaphysics, as not worth serious attention, except perhaps for sociologists"?
Because God does not reveal himself in this world, and "the value of this work," Wittgenstein wrote, "is that it shows how little is achieved when these problems are solved." When I quoted Gertrude Stein's line about Oakland, "there's no there there," he nodded. Was there a there, I persisted. His answer: Yes and No. It was as impossible to feel another's person's pain as to suffer another person's toothache.
At Cambridge the dons quoted him reverently. I asked them what they thought was his biggest contribution to philosophy. "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent," one said. Others spoke of his conception of important nonsense. But I liked best the answer John Wisdom gave: "His asking of the question `Can one play chess without the queen?'"
Wittgenstein preferred American detective stories to British philosophy. He liked lunch and didn't care what it was, "so long as it was always the same," noted Professor Malcolm of Cornell, a former student, in whose house in Ithaca Wittgenstein spent hours doing handyman chores. He was happy then. There was no need to say a word.