Reading Ray Monk’s biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein put me in mind of Tom Lerher’s quip about the “people who make you realize how little you’ve accomplished.” Lerher said it was sobering to contemplate that “when Mozart was my age… he had been dead for two years.” Well, when Wittgenstein was about my age, he was reading for an undergraduate degree at Cambridge, where Ã©minence grise of analytic philosophy Bertrand Russell had already pronounced the young Austrian his successor and superior in the field of technical logic. He was widely expected, by some of the era’s most impressive philosophical minds, to produce earthshattering things. G.E. Moore took his dictation when he squirelled himself away in Norway to think about propositions.
The case of Wittgenstein is a little worrying. I’m beginning to get increasingly interested in the philosophy of logic and mathematics, and had thought I might turn fuller attention to them when I eventually returned to school. Now I wonder whether I mightn’t be too old to make a go of it. Probably not — Russell was well on in years before he felt himself no longer able to make fundamental progress in logic. Still, Wittgenstein’s mania, his compulsion to unearth the structure of logic and unravel the deep puzzles at its core, is sublime and awesome, in the strict senses of the words. It is both beautiful and frightening. He was like a suicide bomber inverted: totally, and perhaps self-destructively, absorbed in creation as an all-consuming, all-transforming way of life. I find myself wondering, not only whether I’m capable of that kind of frenzied commitment to an intellectual problem, but whether I’d be willling to make it if I were, given the toll it seemed to take on him. He was heir to one of the largest fortunes in Europe and gave it away so as to be free of distractions. He burned out at one point and left philosophy to teach elementary school in rural Austria for a decade. I wonder how good I’m willing to settle for being.