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William Warren Bartley (1934–1990)

Author of Werner Erhard: The Transformation of a Man: The Founding of EST

7+ Works 295 Members 5 Reviews

About the Author

Works by William Warren Bartley

Associated Works

The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (1988) — Editor — 663 copies
Lewis Carroll's Symbolic Logic (1896) — Editor, some editions — 161 copies


Common Knowledge



This biography covers the life of Ludwig Wittgenstein in a vivid and interesting manner. Both his early life and later philosophical career are written with a reasonable style and approach that conveys the uniqueness of both the man and his philosophy.
jwhenderson | 2 other reviews | Aug 22, 2022 |
William Warren Bartley III has done a valuable work of biographical research by going to the villages where Wittgenstein 'retired' to do primary school teaching between his 'early' period and his 'late' period and interviewing the people of the village. He uncovers a lot of anecdotes and fills out what was somewhat of a hole in the previous knowledge of Wittgensteins life.

Philosophically, he also gives part of the explanation to what may have caused the change of Wittgensteins philosopy between the early and the late period, by setting it in context to the ideas and principles of the Austrian reform-pedagogy that he was part of. And, implicitly, to the practical work of teaching. This is an important contribution to the biography of Wittgenstein and to the understanding of the development of his philosophy and may help us better interpret his philosophy.

The book is very accessible, but I would not recommend it as an introduction to Wittgenstein, as Bartley is simply not the best of Wittgenstein scholars and it is hard to give a proper account of Wittgensteins philosophy when your focus is a period of his life when he was not active as a philosopher. I do find that his comments on how Wittgensteins philosopy differs from Kant were clear and insightful, though.

But no review of this book without a mention of his description of Wittgensteins homosexual activities. This is what has made this book famous and is probably also the reason, I decided to read it in the first place. This is the first chapter and it seems to be tagged in front of the rest of the book, which has its own progression of argument. It seems to me that the criticism of this part of the book is valid. He uses anonymous sources who not only gives an account of Wittgenstein that conflicts with all other known sources, but you also ask yourself what exactly it is that this source (or these sources) have told Bartley: is it a Viennese male prostitute who clearly recognizes a picture of one of his clients 50 years later and is able to tell about his habitual actions? If not, what then? And the other supporting arguments are even more shaky. I do not think we should base an account on who did what when and where on Freudian dream-analysis and the argument from his coded remarks is, as far as can understand, marred by the fact that Bartley did not himself actually read these and what his second-hand sources told him, caused him to misrepresent them, There is no doubt that Wittgenstein was homosexual and that he himself (and his surroundings) may have been inclined feel 'awkward' about this, as he belonged to the elite of the Austrian society and the world was not as liberal then as now. But I agree with Monk in his discussion of Bartleys book in his Wittgenstein ("The Duty of Genius") that it seems that Wittgensteins sexual life to an extraordinary extent went on in his imagination and that the idea that all of the elite of Austro-Hungary and the English universities would be so conservative as to want to pull the wool over the eyes of the world (not mentioning succeeding) seems to me a little daft. I think we are witnessing a piece of 'fake history'
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sharder | 2 other reviews | Aug 3, 2017 |
I read this book years ago when it first came out and it changed my life. Bartley extends Popper's critical rationalism to what he calls 'Pancritical Rationalism'. Justficationists, as opposed to falsificationists, ultimately hold to some kind of presuppositionalism. However, the presuppositions are held for non-rational reasons. They justify this by claiming that everyone supposedly has to do this -- their defense is 'to quoque...you too'. Bartley claims a way out is to hold these presuppositons heuristically and non-dogmatically. If they are open to revision and lead to interesting claims that can be disconfirmed by experience ( modus tollens ) then you can claim to be rational. If your persuppositions can never be revised and you will go to your grave defending them, then you are not a rational person.
Bartley uses the history of Protestant Christianity ( Catholicism has never claimed to be rational ) as an example of a rational scientific world-view that turned itself into an irrational ideology in order to defend( save ) itself against modern science. This is the section that had the greatest impact on my life ( for the best ). I realized in order to be rational I had to give up my faith based ideas or forever resort to irrationally ( and dogmatically) held first principles to to defend my position.
No longer can religionists retreat back to 'faith' as a defense of their position. Notable examples of presuppositionalists who still ignore this critique are Alvin Platinga, Karl Barth ( any of the neo-orthodox really ) and the Reformed theologians following in the footsteps of Cornelius Van Til. Pannenberg and some others claim to take this critique seriously, but when you read them, they provide no strong evidence but instead, resort back to faith in the end.
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1 vote
PedrBran | 1 other review | Nov 17, 2014 |
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
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1 vote
JollyContrarian | 2 other reviews | Oct 6, 2008 |


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