Ray Monk’s Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius is a masterful biography of one of the most important and influential philosophers of the 20th century. Written over 30 years ago, it remains one of the finest works ever written on Wittgenstein and his contributions to fields such as philosophy, mathematics, computer science, and linguistics. Wittgenstein’s work has had a profound impact on contemporary thinking and Monk’s book does an excellent job of bringing his life and thought to life for a general audience.
Born in 1889 into a wealthy and influential Austrian family, Ludwig Wittgenstein was a prodigy who excelled in a variety of fields from an early age. He received an advanced education at home, studying subjects such as mathematics, science, and literature with private tutors. In 1906, he began studying engineering and architecture at the University of Manchester, where he became interested in the foundations of mathematics and the nature of logic.
It was during this time that Wittgenstein first encountered the work of Bertrand Russell and the logical positivists, who were working to establish a logical foundation for mathematics and to eliminate metaphysics from philosophy. Wittgenstein was deeply influenced by this work, and began to develop his own ideas about the nature of language and thought.
After serving in World War I, Wittgenstein returned to academia and began work on what would become his most famous work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. This highly influential and controversial work attempted to establish a foundation for all of mathematics and logic, and to solve the problems of philosophy once and for all. Wittgenstein argued that the nature of language and thought could be understood by examining the logical structure of propositions, and that this structure was ultimately grounded in the nature of the world itself.
Despite the importance of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein was deeply dissatisfied with the reception of his work and the direction of his own thinking. He became increasingly disillusioned with the idea that philosophy could provide definitive answers to the fundamental questions of human existence, and began to focus on the ways in which language and thought were shaped by the contexts in which they were used.
This shift in focus is reflected in Wittgenstein’s later philosophy, which is known as “ordinary language philosophy.” In works such as the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein argued that the meaning of words and concepts was not fixed or objective, but rather was determined by the ways in which they were used in everyday life. This emphasis on the role of language and context has had a profound impact on a wide range of fields, and continues to be a major influence on contemporary philosophers.
For instance, Wittgenstein’s insights into the ways in which language shapes our understanding of the world have influenced the field of linguistics, leading to a greater focus on the ways in which language varies across different cultures and communities. His ideas about the relationship between language and thought have also had a significant impact on the field of psychology, influencing the development of approaches such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, which seek to change problematic thought patterns and behaviors by altering the way in which an individual thinks about and describes their experiences.
In addition, Wittgenstein’s work has had a profound impact on the field of computer science. His ideas about the ways in which language and thought are shaped by context have led to the development of programming languages and tools that are more expressive and flexible, and have helped to lay the foundations for the development of artificial intelligence.
Overall, Wittgenstein’s emphasis on the role of language and context in shaping our understanding of the world has had a far-reaching and enduring impact, and continues to shape and influence contemporary thinking in a wide range of fields.
One of the strengths of Monk’s biography is the way in which he is able to contextualize Wittgenstein’s philosophy within the broader intellectual and cultural movements of the 20th century. Monk is particularly good at explaining the ways in which Wittgenstein’s work was influenced by, and in turn influenced, the thinking of other philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and John Maynard Keynes.
In addition to his philosophical work, Wittgenstein was also an interesting and complex character in his own right. Monk does an excellent job of bringing Wittgenstein’s personality and relationships to life, and of depicting the various factors that shaped his life and thought. Wittgenstein was a deeply private and enigmatic figure, and Monk’s book is able to provide insight into his motivations and inner life in a way that is both respectful and compelling.
One of the more controversial aspects of Wittgenstein’s life is the question of his alleged homosexuality. Monk handles this topic with sensitivity and nuance, discussing the various rumors and allegations that have circulated over the years without sensationalizing or oversimplifying the issue. He also puts Wittgenstein’s alleged homosexuality into the context of the social and cultural mores of the time, and considers the possible impact it may have had on Wittgenstein’s relationships and life choices.
Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius is a thoroughly engaging and informative read that will appeal to anyone interested in the life and work of one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. Whether you are a seasoned philosopher or a newcomer to the field, Monk’s book is a valuable resource that provides a rich and nuanced understanding of Wittgenstein’s thought and its significance.