Monday, June 26, 2017

First encounters

Ludwig Wittgenstein and Georg Henrik von Wright (right)

Sometimes first encounters are quite dramatic. Take for example the first encounter between the Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright and Ludwig Wittgenstein. When von Wright arrived in Cambridge, UK, early May 1939, in order to prepare his dissertation, he heard that Wittgenstein was giving lectures. Of course, he wanted to attend these lectures, although the running class had already almost finished. Let’s see what von Wright tells us about it:

 “My first encounter with Wittgenstein was rather dramatic. I went to his lecture ..., introduced myself when he entered, and said that I had the chairman’s permission to attend lectures in the faculty. Wittgenstein murmured something in reply which I did not understand, and I seated myself among the audience. He started to lecture and I became at once fascinated. ... At the end of the lecture, however, Wittgenstein expressed his great annoyance at the presence of ‘visitors’ in his class. He seemed furious. Then he left the room without waiting for an apology or explanation. I was hurt and shocked. My first impulse was to give up efforts to approach this strange man. But I also wanted a straightforward answer as to whether I could come to his lectures or not. So I wrote him a letter [not expecting an answer. However,] a few days later I got a friendly reply from the man whom I had so angered.” (pp. 10-11) This led to a personal encounter between them, and although Wittgenstein didn’t like von Wright’s presence in this class, he was welcome to visit the next series of lectures.

This first rather dramatic meeting between two outstanding philosophers – one who had already established his fame; the other would soon do so – became the start of a long lasting friendship. After Wittgenstein’s death von Wright became his successor in Cambridge and moreover he became one of the executors of Wittgenstein’s literary legacy. What would have happened if von Wright had not sent a letter to Wittgenstein after his rejection? Actually, I am a bit surprised about the good relationship between Wittgenstein and von Wright, for to my mind it was difficult to become befriended with “this trange man”. It’s true that Wittgenstein had also some other good friends, like his student Elizabeth Anscombe. However, his at first good relationship with Russell finally broke up, especially because Wittgenstein couldn’t accept Russell’s different philosophical views.
“First encounter stories are generally fascinating and frequently bloody”, as H.T.R. Williams writes on But then he thinks of more or less political meetings, like those between the Romans and the Gauls or between the Europeans and people outside Europe. Often such encounters are dramatic if not tragic, indeed. Nevertheless, I think that we forget most of our own first personal meetings, since they are usually routine and nothing special. Of all personal encounters we experience in life, we remember only a few, like the first time we met our future partner. Although first encounters can have a big impact, most of them are far from dramatic. And really, in view of the world events that followed from many first meetings in the political field, also the one between Wittgenstein and von Wright was only a little bit dramatic; almost melodramatic. Even so, what would have been the consequences for philosophy, if von Wright had not sent a letter to Wittgenstein?
Actually, it would be nice if I could meet yet Georg Henrik von Wright, since I have devoted a big part of my Ph.D. thesis to his action philosophy. Alas, it will not be possible anymore, for the philosopher died in 2003 in Finland, where he had returned after his professorship in Cambridge. 2003 happened also to be the first time I was in Finland, but then I visited only shortly a strip of land in the extreme north of the country, far away from where von Wright lived.
First encounters are often underrated, I think. The problem is that we have so many of them and often it will be difficult to foresee their consequences. Most of them are only brief and casual. Also explicit appointments are usually hardly different. Maybe we should give our first encounters more attention, even if it is from some kind of autobiographical curiosity. They say so much about the way we live and the persons we are.

Georg Henrik von Wright, “Intellectual autobiography”, in Paul Arthur Schillp and Lewis Edwin Hahn (eds.), The Philosophy of Georg Henrik von Wright. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1989.

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