War Cemetery of the Austro-Hungarian Army: It could have been Wittgenstein's destiny
Ludwig Wittgenstein is one of my favourite philosophers. I think that only Montaigne is mentioned more often in my blogs. Moreover, I am interested in the First World War (1914-1918), especially in the human side of this war. Since I have read already many books about World War One (WW I), including novels and diaries, it is obvious that I should read Wittgenstein’s Notebooks 1914-1916 as well. So I ordered the book and a few days ago I received it.
You’ll not be surprised that I haven’t finished yet the Notebooks so I’ll talk not about its contents. Maybe I’ll do it later or maybe never. But I have browsed the book a bit. It is a book on logic, and the notes that Wittgenstein wrote down during his years at the front and behind the front as a soldier laid the groundwork for his world-famous Tractatus logico-philosophicus. What surprises me is that Wittgenstein wrote no word about the war and his life as a soldier in any of his notes. I may be mistaken, for I have only leafed through the book, but I discovered no word about the war and his fighting. It’s remarkable for Wittgenstein made the notes not at home on leave in his study but as a soldier in active service. I do not know much about the circumstances on the Eastern Front during WW I, but I guess that they were not fundamentally different from those on the Western Front in France and Belgium. There life was dreadful, difficult and dangerous, also during so-called “quiet” periods, when there was not much fighting. Sometimes, also during these quiet intervals or behind the front, soldiers had time for themselves. Most spent it relaxing, talking with their comrades, writing letters to those who stayed at home, and writing diaries and sometimes books about their war experiences. Not Wittgenstein. He wrote about logic.
On the outbreak of the war, Wittgenstein did not hesitate to volunteer in the Austro-Hungarian Army. He served with the artillery but he has also been involved in some of the heaviest fighting directly at the front with Russia. Wittgenstein received several decorations for his courage. It is clear that he run a serious risk to be killed. Later he fought at the Italian front with his Tractatus in his knapsack. There he was taken prisoner.
War cannot pass without having big effects on life and society. Bertrand Russell said that Wittgenstein returned from the war as a changed man. Paul, Ludwig’s elder brother, lost his right arm during the war and asked Ravel to write his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (so it wouldn’t have been composed without WW I). Others, including many soldiers, wrote novels and books with the war as the central theme in order to let the world know what happened or in order to come to terms with their misery. Henri Barbusse published his well-known Le Feu (Under Fire) with his war experiences already in 1916. Others expressed their experiences in paintings. And so on. That’s only in the cultural field. Also in other areas of social life and in politics examples abound.
But what about what we have lost by war so, in this case, by the First World War? Maybe – although it seems unlikely to me – Wittgenstein would never have put down the thoughts that led him to the Tractatus without WW I. However, I think that the risk was much bigger that he would have been shot during these years and that philosophy would have developed into a significantly different direction. One can wonder how many brilliant young men and not so young men have been killed in this war who would have pushed culture, science, politics and other fields of human interests into another directions, if they had survived. We’ll never know. History would have followed another path, but things do not work that way. Wilfred Owen, the great British war poem who was killed one week before the end of WW I wrote in his poem “To Eros”: “War broke: and now the Winter of the world With perishing great darkness closes in.” It was then true and it is still true. Winter brings much what is flourishing in nature to an end and so does war in life.It seems that Wittgenstein kept the world of thought apart from the world of “real” life. He started his Notebooks 1914-1916 with the words “Logic must look after itself”. Of course, he gives it a philosophical interpretation in the notes that follow. But in view of the circumstances in which the Notebooks were written it is as if he wants to say: “I am here as a soldier and I am here as a philosopher”. The former refers to life, and I’ll be silent about it. I have nothing to say about it, but all the more so about what counts for the latter, even if what follows doesn’t refer to real problems.