January 7, 2010


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Having trouble sleeping? Read Wittgenstein’s book

This is a story about Ludwig Wittgenstein.

“I never heard of him before,” I said to my husband.

“He’s one of the most-read 20th-century philosophers,” he said.

“So that would mean about nine or 10 readers?”

“Probably not that many…”

Anyway, if you see me around The Hill and my hair looks a little thin and dry, it’s because I fell asleep under the hair dryer three times while trying to read “Ludwig Wittgenstein: Duty of Genius,” a 654-page biography by the obviously very smart Ray Monk. (Wittgenstein, who lived from 1889 to 1951, was a Viennese philosopher whose seminal work was “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.”)

My husband woke me at 4 a.m. and asked if I was toast yet.

I read the book partly because I’ve always admired people who could go deep with philosophers. At college, I loved parties where I got to hear the words “Spinoza” or “Leibniz” until the small hours of the morning, especially if the nachos had enough cheese on them and the beer flowed like wine.

The problem was, I never really felt I understood philosophy. I asked the right questions, like, “Just what did Kant mean when he said we should follow the Categorical Imperative?” or “Was Plato’s Cave a real place, and could you make shadow puppets on the wall there?” but I didn’t grasp the answers.

It was always a male person who tried to explain these heavy philosophical thoughts to me. At sentence #2, my eyes would glaze over, I looked longingly at the refreshment table and began to get sleepy, ver-r-y sleeepy.

That’s when I developed the “Janet Philosophical Depth Test.” If a guy started to explain something to me and I became heavy-lidded, he must be super-intelligent. In fact, the sleepier I got, the more brilliant I assumed him to be.

“Wait until you meet this guy,” I’d tell friends. “He’s a genius – I don’t understand a word he says.”

But, you know, life isn’t all fun and games. I grew up, got a job, got married, became a mother and was forced by circumstances to put aside the quest for philosophical understanding.

Then, one night, not too long ago, we had 23 inches of snow.

“Well, you know,” I thought, “I have to dry my hair anyway; I might as well learn some philosophy on my own.”

For some mysterious reason, Wittgenstein’s biography had been lying on the floor of our basement for about two weeks. I couldn’t bring myself to pick it up and try to read it. I am what philosophers call “leery” of new ideas. But I thought, “What the heck, I’m trapped under the hairdryer, and I have to read something. Why not try some Wittgenstein?”

 Truth be told, I tried to read all of “Ludwig Wittgenstein: Duty of Genius,” but I kept falling asleep at the philosophy bits.

Some of the words I did not understand were: crudescence, pelmanism and anti-metaphysician. I also did not understand: “Nc’x^(x = x) ≥  n will be a tautology,  Nc’x^(x = x) ≥  n + 1 a contradiction.” Words I did understand were: “the,” “and” and “Good day, Herr Wittgenstein.”

Well, I don’t really believe in philosophy, anyway.

Nevertheless, I know more about Wittgenstein now than I did before. Certainly enough to be scintillating at any party to which I might be invited. Here’s what I know:

1. He was born in Vienna, the youngest of eight children. He was a cute kid (the book is illustrated), but obviously the kind of teacher’s pet kid who had his hand in the air the minute the teacher asked a question. He had few friends. As a grownup, Wittgenstein often invited people to be his houseguests for a week or two, which they tried desperately to avoid, but couldn’t always find a plausible excuse.

2. He offered his guests meals of hard-boiled eggs, bread, butter and milk, after which he took them for long walks in the woods, during which he talked incessantly about philosophy. His house was in Middle-of-Nowhere, Norway, so guests couldn’t escape. They adopted a philosophical attitude, and consoled themselves with thoughts of decent food when they returned to their homes.

3. He had one girlfriend. She was not very intelligent, but smart enough to head for the hills when he proposed Platonic, childless marriage to her. She later married someone else and used to tell her grandchildren laughingly about “that weird guy she dated in 1931.”

4. He taught elementary school for one year, but resigned after he smacked a student in the head and knocked him unconscious (something involving algebra). The parents in the village thought he was “odd.” There is no record of what the school administration thought, nor whether the incident was written up and put into Wittgenstein’s permanent record.

5. He hated being asked direct questions. A simple “How are you today, Ludwig?” was likely to produce a screaming blue fit, lasting up to a minute.

6. When his girlfriend asked him, “Ludwig, Ludwig, do you love me?” which is a direct question, he screamed for a minute and a half, then proposed that Platonic marriage. He much preferred questions that required very long, philosophical answers that no one understood. In that way, he was proclaimed a genius.

I would have stopped reading about Wittgenstein after 50 pages, but I was snowed in and the library was closed. Being snowed in for a few days with the people you love is one of the best reasons for always having something good to read at all times.

And, honestly, I don’t understand more about philosophy now, after 419 pages of Wittgenstein, than I did before. I have 235 more pages to go. I intend to finish, just for a sense of completion. Oh, wait — I did learn something. That if I don’t understand someone, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he/she is brilliant. There are too many people I don’t understand in the least. They can’t all be geniuses; can they? Can they?


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