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Wittgenstein by William Warren Bartley
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Wittgenstein

by William Warren Bartley

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Cheekily Controversial, but an excellent introductory primer

This is a short and very accessible biography. Wittgenstein tends to be widely and divergently interpreted - which goes with the territory, I suppose: with all that talk about language games, you can't really say he's "misunderstood", but there is little consensus as to what his philosophy really means. Not helped, also, by his later work (encapsulated in the Philosophical Investigations) effectively recanting on the logical formalism of his earlier Tractatus Logico Philosophicus.

Bartley's life does the extremely valuable service of distilling down the central tenets of Wittgenstein to manageable nuggets rendered at a sufficiently remote level of abstraction that a lay reader should be able to digest them comfortably. Much more entertaining than Marie McGinn's rather humourless Guidebook to Wittgenstein and the Philosophical Investigations, for example.

However, this is no dry exposition of the Philosophical Investigations. It is a true biography, covering Wittgenstein's period as an Austrian schoolteacher. Bartley paints a plausible picture of the Philosopher as hermit auteur. He is also obstreporously controversial in writing colourfully of Wittgenstein's taste for a bit of Vienese rough trade in a section which (as Bartley defensively notes in the afterword) occupies just five pages (but it is pretty much the first five!) which appears to have gained this volume some not insignificant literary notoriety on publication in 1973.

These days, a spot of Tyrolian cottaging seems almost somewhat tame, if gratuitous, stuff (tame in that it has almost become more controversial to claim a lifetime literary bachelor was *straight* and gratuitous in that, despite a salutary attempt late on, Bartley makes no real effort to link said saucy tendencies to anything more significant in Wittgenstein's life or work, and in fact in a studiously defensive afterword, explicitly rejects the validity of doing just that. Much of the afterword is written with the air of an author-as-fullback looking suspiciously quizzical and innocent while the subject-as-winger writhes in agony on the ground just inside the penalty box, it never being clear who is more deserving of a booking.

Nonetheless, it's a quick, clear, entertaining read and will be of particular value for those (like me) seeking an overview and context to this important 20th century philosopher, having discovered that an uncontextualised approach on the north face of the Philosophical Investigations without an experienced sherpa and some preparatory reading oxygen, was a bit of a tall order.

Olly Buxton ( )
1 vote ElectricRay | Oct 6, 2008 |
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