Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) has always been my bathtub buddy. I can’t imagine why else he’s been on my mind ever since I first learned of him in Grade 12. I’ve certainly never been able to make much sense of his philosophy.
But then, it’s hard to say. He’s one of those thinkers you read and think is fairly straightforward but about whom people are always saying, “He’s so complicated, so complex, so hard to grasp,” and you start to doubt whether you really understand — if he’s so friggin’ complicated, how could you?
In 1920, after finishing his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1922) — which, in his mind, solved all the problems of philosophy — Wittgenstein gave away his inheritance (his family was fantastically wealthy), abandoned his studies at the University of Cambridge and went off to teach elementary school in a small Austrian village. He terrorized his students with two hours of math every morning, often caning them and boxing their ears when they made mistakes. When I first studied him, I read somewhere that he spent his nights lying in a scalding bath contemplating suicide.
I’ve never been suicidal, but I have always loved baths, and when I first encountered him I was a gay teenager (bisexual, but calling myself gay) with some intense anxiety issues. I’d always been a loner, and nothing sounded quite so sweet to me as quitting everything and taking off to a remote village where I could lie in a tub, getting out now and then only to smack Austrian children.
That still sounds pretty sweet.
Before finishing the Tractatus and visiting his wrath on innocent schoolchildren, Wittgenstein was an intense, nervous and domineering young student at Cambridge.
There is a famous story from about 1911 about his early relationship with philosopher Bertrand Russell, who was teaching at Cambridge at the time. Russell once asked Wittgenstein to consider the proposition “There is not a hippopotamus in this room at present.” They were in a classroom at the time, and even though Russell peered under all the desks to make his case, Wittgenstein refused to admit there was no hippopotamus there. However, Russell soon decided that Wittgenstein was “the most perfect example I have ever known of a genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense and dominating.”
While there is considerable disagreement on the subject, many people think Wittgenstein was attracted to both men and women. William W Bartley was probably the first to broach the subject, when, in his 1973 biography, he claimed that Wittgenstein used to cruise parks in Austria and England.
In 1912, while at Cambridge, he probably had a relationship with David Hume Pinsent, who was a descendant of philosopher David Hume (the empiricist and skeptic famous for arguing that “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions”) and a math student. They travelled together to Iceland, where Wittgenstein paid for everything, including a private train. They later visited Norway together. They last saw each other in 1913, just before Wittgenstein, deciding his peers lacked intellectual depth, took off to Skjolden, Norway, to philosophize in seclusion.
Wittgenstein returned to England in 1929, a while after leaving his job at the remote Austrian school. He decided he probably hadn’t fixed (or done away with?) philosophy and returned to Cambridge to continue his work. He taught there until 1947. The same year he returned to Cambridge he is thought to have started a romantic relationship with philosopher Frank Ramsey; he started another the next year with architect Francis Skinner. He also probably had a relationship with a man named Ben Richards in the late 1940s.
After his retirement in 1947, Wittgenstein moved to the isolated west coast of Ireland to work on his second treatise, Philosophical Investigations. It was published in 1953, two years after he died.
Many consider Wittgenstein a great philosopher. For me, he’s a crank lying in a scalding bath — the epitome of reclusiveness, whom I strangely admire for it. Maybe from now on, as a memorial as bizarre as Wittgenstein himself was, whenever I take a bath I’ll insist to any passing Austrian schoolchildren that there’s an elephant in the tub with me.