The Oxford historians' discovery of Vienna

An Austrian Philosopher at Cambridge: Wittgenstein’s Tolstoyan Ethics

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, was born in Vienna in an extremely wealthy and highly cultured Jewish family. He spent part of his academic career in Cambridge, where he worked with the British philosopher Bertrand Russell. The result was a slim, but hugely influential book that Wittgenstein wrote in 1921, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

The young Wittgenstein

Both in Vienna and in Cambridge, Wittgenstein’s behaviour might have struck those around him as quite peculiar. Almost immediately after inheriting an enormous fortune, he took steps to divest himself of most of it as soon as possible. Before and after his stay in Cambridge he would pick up careers that were most unusual for a professional philosopher. At one point, he was a gardener, then re-trained for a school teacher, while, during the war, his chosen métier was an orderly in a hospital. Wittgenstein’s plan to work as a labourer on a collective farm in Soviet Russia in the 1930s didn’t materialize not for lack of trying. After studying Russian for two years, he pulled strings to be issued with a Russian visa and actually showed up in Moscow, asking to be sent to a farm. For one reason or another, the Russians weren’t so delighted with the idea, so Wittgenstein had to leave.

While at Cambridge, he refused to sit at High Table in his college, Trinity. High Table, i.e., the place in a Cambridge or Oxford dining-hall, where the Master of the college, the Fellows, and their guests have their meals, physically elevated above the students, is a whole ritual. It was and still is a glamorous affair, especially at Trinity dining-hall, which is housed in a building dating back to c.1350. Even these days, it is rare indeed for someone to refuse an invitation to High Table.

Trinity College, Cambridge, the dining hall

Wittgenstein managed also to attract attention by trying to dissuade his students from pursuing philosophy – not because they weren’t good students, but because there were much more worthy things to do. As Wittgenstein tried to convey, study something which is at least useful. The belief that philosophy or intellectual work is a waste of time is widely held, as one cannot escape noticing these days. However, you don’t expect someone like Wittgenstein to hold it.

What might be bizarre behaviour for a Cambridge scholar, is entirely consistent for a committed Tolstoyan. As a soldier during the First World War, Wittgenstein discovered, by chance, Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief. He would later say that the book had “kept him alive”, he had it with him at all times and had memorized whole passages from Tolstoy. For Wittgenstein, Tolstoyan ethics was one of the most important influences in his life. The whole concept of High Table, though, was not created with an ethics that glorifies the simple life in mind. As Wittgenstein discovered, if you had a liking for asceticism, you might just stop taking your dinners at Trinity dining-hall altogether – which is what he did.

An obvious moral to draw from all this seems that if Wittgenstein could work as an orderly, surely so could anybody else. The thought kept crossing my mind while, as a student at Oxford, I worked as a part-time porter at one of the libraries. Porters are generally elderly men, not female students - in fact, not students of any gender. So I was often asked, several times in case I didn’t understand, for the “poootaaa” (British for “porter”). I would assure people that, contrary to appearances, I was indeed the “poootaaa.” If I could show just a bit less enthusiasm for lunch and dinner at High Table, I would be moving in the right direction, I expect.

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