Philosophers With Strange Personalities and Theories, Part 1

(This is the third post in this series on Philosophers. The second post focused on the long history of philosophers as mathematicians and their many accomplishments. This post focuses on some of the unusual personalities involved in this vocation and the theories they advocated. . The first post focused on philosophy as a set of standard puzzles or conceptual problems. It should be acknowledged that the “Western” tradition of philosophy is our focus; men such as Confucius and Lao Tsu are sadly excluded due to my limited capacities.)

Diogenes by John William Waterhouse. Diogenes rejected the customs of his time and reportedly lived in a ceramic jar.

Socrates is one of the originators of western philosophy. He reportedly took his own theory so seriously that he was willing to drink a cup of poison hemlock and die, in response to a death sentence for his beliefs trumped up as charges of corruption of the youth and disrespect for the gods. He could have escaped but refused to run from the verdict of his peers.

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1787). In his final lesson to his pupils, Socrates accepts the verdict of the polis and takes the cup of hemlock.

Most known for his method of question and answer, Socrates believed that truth could only be attained through a probing dialogue of the opinions of the community. These Socratic Dialogues are displayed in the works of Plato where Socrates guides his rhetorical partners to the discovery of the truth contained in their beliefs. Therefore, a man with no community was fatally incomplete. In this sense, Socrates accepted the verdict of his community and willingly participated in his own death, declining the option of exile.

Diogenes Searches for an Honest Man by J.H.W. Tischbein (1780). He roamed the streets of Athens with a lamp in the daytime to demonstrate his belief that most “appropriate behavior” was motivated only by a fear of retribution and a fear of the adverse opinion of others. Sincerity was hard to find, believed The Cynic.

With Socrates’ death, Plato rose to prominence, but his authority was not accepted by Diogenes and several other Athenian thinkers. He, and Antisthenes, reacted to the Socratic Method by regarding it as having proven the emptiness of common opinion and custom. They founded the school of philosophical Cynicism, and coached indifference to life and to the opinion of others. Diogenes accepted poverty and shocked his fellow Athenians by urinating on them, and defecating and masturbating in public. The Cynic defended all these behaviors with argumentation and snide comments about the shallowness of common society. At Plato’s lectures, Diogenes was present merely to heckle.

In Modern Philosophy, Ludwig Wittgenstein is not only known for his philosophical accomplishments but also his personality. “Enigmatic” and “herculean” seem to be words well suited to him. Twice he thought he had solved all the problems of philosophy, and each time from a basically different perspective. After the first triumph, he gave up philosophy and taught grade school in a rural area of Austria. (It should be noted that this idyllic tale of a return to the simplicity of the rural school teacher ended when Wittgenstein apparently whacked a dull-minded student who then passed out and filed charges.)

Looking more like a mug shot, this is Wittgenstein’s portrait taken upon his return to Trinity College, Cambridge England in 1929.

Personally, he was very difficult to know. Wittgenstein had a very disarming approach toward people; disdaining the “pleasantries of common conversation,” he often spoke without any pretense and was uncomfortably direct. At Oxford, he commanded great respect from persons such as Bertrand Russell who became his mentor, initially. Among these people, Wittgenstein was a dominant presence and influence, this included his students and colleagues. A friend and philosopher said, “Each conversation with (him) was like living through the day of judgment. It was terrible. Everything had constantly to be dug up anew, questioned and subjected to the test of truthfulness.” It is as if he had to penetrate to the essence of everything, felt novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, for whom Ludwig apparently served as the inspiration for several of her fictional characters.

So, he had highly accomplished friends and acquaintances, and he made a deep impact on many of them. It bordered on something like a cult, some commentators have suggested.

Wittgenstein’s Poker is an entire book written around an incident that occurred in 1946 at a meeting of the Moral Science Club at Oxford where another prominent philosopher of the time, Karl Popper, was to deliver a paper. That book is the source of much of this material and a worthy read. Popper and Wittgenstein were from Vienna, Jewish, and of the same era, but had little else in common. The book describes their lives, philosophies and then this eventual encounter in which Ludwig gave Popper all of about five minutes into the paper before he burst in with several questions, lost his temper in response to Popper’s answers, and then grabbed a fireplace poker. He brandished the poker in the air and at Popper for affect, until disarmed; at which point he stormed from the room.

By the way, Wittgenstein’s father was one of the richest men in Europe. He was the Andrew Carnegie of Austria, in other words—steel. He was a brilliant businessman and highly demanding of all those around him, especially his sons. Two of his sons eventually committed suicide and Ludwig was haunted by phobias and a death-wish through much of his life. In possible defense of the father, it should be said that post WWI Europe was a time and place where many men took their own lives. One of Ludwig’s brothers did so in the shame caused when his Austrian soldiers mutinied and refused to follow him into battle. When his father died, Ludwig became terribly rich, but he put most of his money into a trust to be managed by his sisters and brother, and proceeded to live very modestly.

The Grand Staircase of “The Wittgenstein House” as the father, Karl, preferred to call it. Most people referred to it as the Palais Wittgenstein, The Palace of Wittgenstein.
One of the Salons of the Palais, grand piano at left. A pianist playing at the ‘house’ could chose between six grand pianos.

As Ludwig grew up, The Wittgenstein House was one of the most prominent in Vienna. His father was active in many progressive political causes and his mother was a patron of the arts. Musicians, politicians, artists and activists flocked there in search of patronage, conversation and dazzling personal performances and social affairs. Ludwig’s brother, Paul, was himself a concert pianist until the First World War deprived him of his right arm, at which point two Concertos For the Left Hand where written for him, one by Ravel (the most famous) and one by Prokofiev.

In 1925, Wittgenstein’s sister commissioned the design and construction of a thoroughly modern townhouse. She hired her friend, architect Paul Engelmann, with the assistance of Ludwig, to accomplish this project.

The Haus Wittgenstein in Vienna is a series of interconnected boxes. The more I look at it and learn about it, the more I like it.

It is not clear who did what, but the attention to detail and precision in much of the house is characteristically Ludwig. The house seems to me to be remarkable in its clean and classic symmetry, but strikingly modern. The stories abound concerning these features. Steam radiators designed and cast as no others before or since. Each radiator as if an art object. Craftsmen furious and screaming concerning Wittgenstein’s concern for every millimeter. The house was nearly complete, one story goes, when Ludwig insisted the ceiling in a main room be torn out and raised three (3!) centimeters. Upon completion, all agreed the adjustment was beneficial.

The house’s design is “Stark and stripped back to its bare bones, it eschews all forms of decoration,” and this is in line with the beliefs of Alfred Loos, leading modernist architect of the time and Engelmann’s mentor. Ludwig thoroughly agreed with these principles and declared that architecture was more difficult than philosophy.

(The Margarethe Stonborough-Wittgenstein House: An interior staircase, a doorway-window combination and its multiple options, one of the specially designed and cast steam radiators. Thanks to The London List site for all photos of house and above quote.)

Wittgenstein accepted Engelmann’s basic structure of the house, reportedly; but made major alterations to the interior floor plan and details.

(Stay tuned, Part II to be published Tomorrow Morning! Part II: What did this strange and ingenious man –Ludwig Wittgenstein — think about the THE SHAPE OF REALITY???)



2 thoughts on “Philosophers With Strange Personalities and Theories, Part 1

    1. Thanks Hetty, it seems that Witt was someone that influenced other philosophers more than he was generally known. There is a good short book on him by David Pears that I am now motivated to read again. He was a fascinating personality, and I was going to publish Part II today, on his philosophy, but got behind. Oh well, watch for it next week! Greg


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