Ludwig Wittgenstein: the Veteran as Philosopher

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Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, was also a veteran. At the start of WWI, he left Cambridge to return home to join the Austrian army. I enjoyed auditing a graduate philosophy course on Wittgenstein while an English doctoral student at Boston University, and I’ve retained an interest in him. As with other great philosophers, it is the life that fascinates as much as the work. Wittgenstein is obviously an exceptional, even an extraordinary figure, but he is in some ways representative of many veterans, perhaps especially those returning from war. Wittgenstein’s life and work illustrate a turn towards questions of ethics that is often experienced by veterans.  Prior to his military service, Wittgenstein had been primarily interested in logic. In Ludwig Wittgenstein: the Duty of Genius, biographer Ray Monk identifies a change in Wittgenstein’s thinking at the point when his unit took heavy casualties under a Russian assault.  Wittgenstein did not surrender his involvement in logic, but his wartime service led him outwards to a greater interest in the world of real things and people. Logic itself acquired for Wittgenstein an ethical basis, as it became clear to him that the accuracy of statements reflecting the conditions of the world was not only a logical requirement, but an ethical imperative.  The army put the somewhat sheltered young man into contact  with a broad cross-section of humanity, and as an NCO and officer he was responsible for the men in his charge.  He found that service on the front lines, with its dangers, lack of rest, and harsh living conditions, was actually more productive of his philosophical thought than the safer, more comfortable and leisurely service in the rear.  The nearness of danger and the high-stakes environment lent a seriousness to one’s thinking that was often absent in ordinary times.  Along with the famous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, another post-war product was his “Lecture on Ethics.” In it, he describes two states of mind he sees as ethically desirable: that of wonder at the world’s existence, and of feeling completely safe. We can see how these ideas might be inspired by wartime, which sometimes seems to grant glimpses of eternity through the smoke and fire; feelings of invulnerability, of essential safety even in danger; and wonder along with fear.

Perhaps the veteran returns home not just an ethicist but also a metaphysician, an ontologist laying out the boundaries of human selfhood because her experience has given her an insight into the nature of humanity sometimes pared down to the bare essentials, and also of people at their most selfless and willing to merge their identity with that of a community of souls.  Another soldier-philosopher, J.Glenn Gray regrets the hardening and coarsening that can accompany war and military service, their tendency to turn the individual into a functionary of limited concerns and sympathies, but he concludes that the war did not change him enough. He regrets that it may require the nearness of death, the violence, dislocation and sharp contrasts of war to provide the setting for certain kinds of wisdom. Finally, at the conclusion of his important philosophical work, War and Existence, Michael Gelven has this to say,

“…often it is in our darkest and most wretched ways that we find what is most precious, like the jewel in the mud: things like truth for its own sake and esteem for who we are, regardless of how grim the truth and how frail our efforts. Perhaps Plato is right: the lovers of truth must be selected only from those who first manifest the sacrificial spirit of the warrior.”


In addition to the works named, I should acknowledge J. Glenn Gray’s The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle.  Gray received the notice of his Columbia philosophy Ph.D. and induction into the U.S. Army on the same day in 1941.   


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