Commentary Magazine


To the Editor:

Although there is much that William Barrett [“Wittgenstein the Pilgrim,” August] has to say about Wittgenstein’s philosophy that I would want to take issue with, here I want only to point out a number of factual errors in his remarks about Wittgenstein’s life.

  1. Mr. Barrett says that “all of Wittgenstein’s brothers ended their lives in suicide.” Three of his four brothers took their own lives, but his brother Paul, the pianist, did not.
  2. Mr. Barrett says that Wittgenstein completed the Tractatus while he was in an Italian prison camp. In fact, the work was completed some three months before he was taken prisoner.
  3. Mr. Barrett states that the Philosophical Investigations “finally appeared posthumously, in 1956.” It first appeared in 1953.
  4. Mr. Barrett states that Wittgenstein renounced his fortune sometime in the 1920’s. He renounced his fortune in 1919.
  5. Mr. Barrett states that Wittgenstein first went to England in 1911. He first went there in 1908.
  6. Mr. Barrett writes: “Russell had no word of Wittgenstein during the war [i.e., World War I].” In fact, Russell received a letter from Wittgenstein in January 1915, and also two letters written in May and October 1915.
  7. Mr. Barrett states that Wittgenstein’s father, besides being an important industrialist, was a minister of state. In all my reading about Wittgenstein, I have never seen any mention of the fact that Wittgenstein’s father was a minister of state. I would be interested to hear where Mr. Barrett got his information.
  8. Mr. Barrett states that “there is no indication that Wittgenstein ever thought of himself particularly as a Jew.” I’m not sure I know exactly what that means; but readers of COMMENTARY might be interested in the following incident reported by Fania Pascal (in “Wittgenstein: A Personal Memoir,” Encounter, August 1973). In the summer of 1937, Wittgenstein visited Pascal with the announcement that he had come to make a confession. One of his confessions was this: “He understood that most people who knew him, including his friends, took him to be three-quarters Aryan and one-quarter Jewish. In fact the proportion was the reverse, and he had done nothing to prevent this misapprehension.”

George Pitcher
Department of Philosophy
Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey



William Barrett writes:

I am thankful to George Pitcher for the points he brings forward, though none of them, except possibly the last, would lead me to alter the portrait of Wittgenstein I tried to sketch; and some of them seem to me to reinforce what I said. I suspect that what really bothers Mr. Pitcher is my interpretation as a whole, and this would be a more profitable subject to discuss; but the present is not the occasion, and that discussion would be better carried out in the fuller context of my book, The Illusion of Technique (Doubleday), which has since appeared. I confine myself therefore as briefly as possible to the items he mentions.

  1. That three of his four brothers committed suicide would still seem to suggest that Wittgenstein’s family background was troubled—and that was my point.
  2. That Wittgenstein finished theTractatus three months earlier than I say rather increases one’s awe at the concentration of the man who could complete such a work amid the life of the trenches. That was my point.
  3. 1956 for 1953 as the date of Investigations was a plain typo on my part, which I’m sorry not to have caught; but the earlier date still leaves the work posthumous. When we consider the ego of the usual writer in its clamor to get published, the author who guards his masterwork to himself, even when substantially completed, is a rare and complex personality.
  4. That Wittgenstein divested himself of his fortune earlier than I say could indicate even more markedly the unworldly and dedicated side of his personality—the “Alyosha” streak in him, as his sister called it.
  5. My concern (as will be seen more clearly from my book) is with the intellectual chapter in Wittgenstein’s life that begins with his entry into Cambridge and his relation with Russell. The earlier visit to England in 1908 is not a part of this.
  6. On Wittgenstein’s being cut off from Russell during World War I, I was following Russell’s own poignant words: “I do not know whether he has solved it [the problem of tautology], or even whether he is alive or dead” (Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, p. 205n). The years 1916, 1917, 1918 would be a separation by the war. Russell evidently thought so.
  7. As a powerful industrialist, Wittgenstein’s father had a considerable voice in Austrian state councils, with or without portfolio. The point is that he was not merely rich but a powerful figure in every way. The combination of a powerful father image and three sons who committed suicide would seem to be a not insignificant element in the psychological background of the family.
  8. In view of his mixed background, of the Vienna ambience generally, and of the fact that he listed himself as a Catholic, it makes sense to ask in what ways and how deeply Wittgenstein was conscious of himself as a Jew. And on this question my remarks were entirely tentative and exploratory. The conversation to which Mr. Pitcher refers can be read to confirm my conjecture. Wittgenstein was forty-eight at the time it took place. It could very well be argued that a man who has reached that age—particularly a man of high moral principle like Wittgenstein who would not be motivated by petty concerns of snobbery or caste—without correcting the impression about his background held by those who knew him, was indeed someone who did not think it important whether a person were Jewish or not.

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