Drawing from his biographies of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell and J.Robert Oppenheimer, Ray Monk discusses the role and limitations of biographies in understanding philosophers and scientists.
How Can I Be a Logician Before I'm a Human Being? The Role of Biography in the Understanding of Intellectuals
Location: National Library of Australia
On behalf of the Council of the National Library and all of my colleagues welcome to the National Library of Australia and to the Seymour Biography Lecture for 2014. I’m Anne-Marie Schwirtlich and I’m the Director-General of the National Library.
As we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, I thank their Elders past and present for caring for this land that we are now privileged to call home.
The Seymour Biography Lecture is a celebration of the tradition of telling stories, particularly of telling true stories about people’s lives. It is also an opportunity to explore the craft of life writing in all its forms and how biography can play an important role in helping us to understand a person and his or her work.
It is a pleasure to have your company for this year’s Seymour Biography Lecture. The lecture is named in honour of John and Heather Seymour, who are both with us this evening, and without whose support the lecture would not be possible.
John and Heather are devoted and discerning readers of the literary forms that we call biography, autobiography and memoire, of course many of us share that passion. But John and Heather have chosen to express their interest in life writing through their support for the lecture and also for an annual scholarship. They support a summer scholarship in biography as part of the Library’s summer program for young scholars, and in so doing they are helping to develop the life writers of the future.
Heather and John you are wonderful and loved friends of the National Library and we thank you for your generosity and support. It is a rare treat and it is a privilege this evening to have Professor Ray Monk with us to deliver the 2014 Seymour Biography Lecture.
Ray Monk is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Hampton in the United Kingdom, and as of today it is still United, where he has taught since 1992. His interests lie in the philosophy of mathematics, the history of analytic philosophy and philosophical aspects of biographical writing. He is an acclaimed biographer of the award winning – having written the award winning Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, a two volume biography of Bertrand Russell and the more recent and universally lorded Inside the Centre, the Life of J Robert Oppenheimer.
Ray we note from your Twitter page that you are also an unashamed Dr Who fan, and a ukulele player and we are all going to be alert to see if you can weave the new Dr Who or the ukulele into your lecture tonight.
In 2012, in the Guardian, Stewart Jefferies wrote “Monk is surely one of the heroes of the golden age of British biographical writing”. His lecture is titled “How can I be a logician before I am a human being the role of biography in the understanding of intellectuals”. Please welcome Professor Ray Monk to present the 2014 Seymour Biography Lecture.
Thank you Ann-Marie and I would also like to thank the Seymour’s for their generosity in making this possible. This is my third time in Australia and I’m always glad to be here and it’s an honour and a privilege to give this lecture, and thank you all for coming.
Yes my theme today is the understanding of intellectuals, I’ve written three biographies as Ann-Marie said of Wittgenstein, of Russell and then a slight departure of a physicist J Robert Oppenheimer. And my interest in all three biographies has been to interweave an account of their thought with an account of their lives and I thought I’d begin really with an account of how I got into biography.
My background is not in biography, my background is in philosophy and a branch of philosophy that you might think is as removed from biography as possible, the philosophy of mathematics. And I want to begin with an account of how I got from there to biography.
I started to specialise in Wittgenstein’s philosophy of mathematics and that involved, this was in the 1980s, and that involved looking at some of the dominant interpretations of Wittgenstein on mathematics. And the two most dominant interpretations by [Michael Dunnett] and [Chris Binright], it seemed to me misunderstand Wittgenstein’s work but misunderstood Wittgenstein’s work in a particular kind of way, which was it struck me that they’d misunderstood Wittgenstein. If I was to say that the interpreter, Michael Dunnett interpreted Wittgenstein’s philosophy of mathematics as being what he called full blooded Bolshevism and Chris Binwright interpreted as what he called strict finitism and both of these positions are positions in the philosophy of mathematics. But they’re not positions it seemed to me that Wittgenstein could possibly have taken and that in order to attribute those positions to Wittgenstein it’s not a case of misunderstanding as it were the words on the page, it’s a case of misunderstanding the spirit in which Wittgenstein was writing, it’s a question of misunderstanding Wittgenstein.
And it occurred to me that nobody who understood him, who understood the man, could possibly think that he espoused this or that position. And so I got interested in the idea of writing a biography of Wittgenstein that would seek to make clear the spirit in which he wrote, and that’s quite a subtle sort of thing to attempt to do.
It seemed to me that just like with ordinary human intercourse, when you understand somebody you’re better placed to understand the tone of their voice for example. That one of the marks of understanding somebody is that you can tell when they’re being sarcastic or you can interpret the facial expressions that they’re making, and it seemed to me that’s what was required here for the interpretation of Wittgenstein, it wasn’t an explanation of Wittgenstein’s work, it wasn’t that I sought to explain what he wrote in terms of his life, it was more that I was hoping to give an account of what kind of person Wittgenstein was, so as to enable people to as it were understand the tone of voice, the spirit in which he wrote.
And so I conceived this project of writing a biography of Wittgenstein now at that time I didn’t know anything about biography as a form and so I started to look at biography as a form, going right back to the beginning, going right back to Plutarch with his lives of the Roman Emperors, Life of Alexander, Life of Caesar. And you’ll notice that all those lives are lives of people with political and military importance. So what Plutarch set himself to do was to write biography as it were in the service of history, so what was – why was Plutarch writing about Alexander or Caesar, well in order to understand that particular period of Greek or Roman history.
The narrative was not driven by thoughts but by events, by decisions, by actions. The first person that I know of to write biography of thinkers is Diogenes Laertius with his lives and opinions of eminent philosophers, multi volumed work. On the whole quite short biographies of thinkers, giving an account of their lives and very brief in most cases account of their thought, and with no real attempt to integrate the two and with some quite sort of randomly chosen details about the lives of these people. One detail that sticks in my mind is in his biography of Zeno, Diogenes writes that “they say he was fond of lying in the sun and eating figs” which is quite a nice thing to know about Zeno I think. Whether it’s going to help in interpreting his work I don’t know and Diogenes doesn’t do much of that except in his much more extended treatment of the Life of Plato where he is trying to give an account of Plato’s thought as well as his life, what he’s not trying to do is integrate the two.
What I discovered and I didn’t know this until I did some research into biography, is that there’s an enormous hiatus in biographical writing between the ancient period and the relatively modern period. Throughout the Medieval period there’s very little biographical writing. There’s the lives of the saints, there’s the lives of this or that important Emperor or King or Prince or whatever, but these are not really biographies, for the most part they’re hagiographies, for the most part they’re written in order to achieve a certain purpose, the purpose being to present a person as an exemplification of a certain virtue or of a certain kind of type, personality type. In terms of biography the first person who really, I felt, had something to teach me was James Boswell and his marvellous Life of Johnson. And if you haven’t read Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson I really urge you to do so it is a fantastic piece of literature, and remains to this day I think one of the best biographies ever written and Virginia Woolf who wrote entertainingly and insightfully on biography captured I think what was great about Boswell’s Life of Johnson, when she said this “So Boswell spoke, so we hear booming out from Boswell’s page the voice of Samuel Johnson, no sir, stark in sensibility we hear him say. Once we have heard those words we’re aware that there is an incalculable presence among us which will go on ringing and reverberating in widening circles however times may change and ourselves. All the drapers and descents of biography fall to the ground, we can no longer maintain that life consists in actions only or in works it consists in personality.”
I think in those words Virginia Woolf has captured what – what’s great about Boswell’s Life of Johnson, and what was instructive for me you know having made this decision to write a biography of Wittgenstein one of the great eye openers was the value of direct quotation. One of the things, the thing I think that makes Boswell’s Life of Johnson the great work that it is, is that on every page you hear as Virginia Woolf said the voice of Johnson himself, Johnson comes to life and he comes to life because Boswell spent so long with him, and Boswell recorded his conversations with Samuel Johnson and reproduced those conversations. So you have in Boswell’s Life of Johnson the words of Johnson himself, the voice of Johnson himself, so you hear that voice as Virginia Woolf says booming out.
You get to know Johnson, you get to know his tone of voice, you get to know what kind of things he says, what kind of things he likes, what kind of person he is, and so as Virginia Woolf says now we’ve got a new kind of biography, a biography the point of which is to give us the personality to give us the person.
It’s not an account any longer of what he did, it’s giving you an understanding of him, that’s the wonderful thing about Boswell’s Life of Johnson that when you read it having read it, you feel that you understand Samuel Johnson in something like the way that you might understand your brother or your wife or your husband or your lover. You feel as if you’re close to Samuel Johnson, that you sort of can predict how he’s going to react to something. You can – and then when you read Samuel Johnson himself you’re better placed to understand what he’s written.
Now Johnson of course himself was a biographer, he wrote a biography of his friend Richard Savage, he wrote a collection of lives of the poets, but more to the point from my point of view, because Johnson is a biography is much less important to me than Boswell as a biographer. But Johnson is one of the first people to reflect on biography and he did so to great effect I think in these two papers written for – in the 18th century you had these literary journals with names like The Rambler, The Idler and The Spectator and so on, and Johnson wrote for most of them. And these are very short essays that he wrote on biography, but they’ve really set the tone for subsequent reflection on biography as a genre. Johnson identified five questions to ask about biography, and they remain I think five of the most important questions to raise about biography.
So the first is what’s the relation of biography to other genres in particular to history and fiction. And remember this is the 18th century, this is as well as being the time when biography in the form – in the persons of Johnson and Boswell, biography was making its mark, so was fiction, this was the age when the great foundational works of novel writing were produced; Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders and so on. And I’ve seen it suggested that these two forms, fiction and biography have a common origin, which has much to do with the coffee house funnily enough.
You’ve got people sitting there drinking coffee and so what do they talk about, well they talk about people, they gossip and biography is a kind of higher form of gossip, and so is novel writing, because most of the novels that were produced were fictitious accounts of people. And so you have this tripartite development, people meeting in coffee houses, discussing other people, discussing literature, which involves discussing Moll Flanders, Robinson Crusoe, and then discussing biography. So you have this great flowering of biographical and fictional literature, and one of the questions that Samuel Johnson asked was “what is the relation of biography to on the one hand fiction and on the other hand history?” And his answer I think retains a certain kind of truth which is this, what biography shares with history, importantly, is a concern with fact. You can’t as a biographer just make things up; you are responsible to documentation to the truth, what you say in a biography like what you say in a work of history has to be true. But, like a work of fiction what you say in a biography has to have a kind of narrative drive, the biographer has to develop some of the skills of the novelist, the skill of holding your attention and particularly Johnson emphasised, the emphasis which a historian doesn’t have on the lives, the opinions, the experiences, the emotions, of an individual, that’s what biography is all about, it’s all about the individual in a way that history is not.
So Samuel Johnson said that biography holds this unique place between on the one hand history where you have to be answerable to the truth, to the facts, on the other hand to fiction where you’re compelled to construct an engrossing and engaging narrative centred on an individual.
His second question was who deserves a biography? Who should we write biographies about? And in particular under this heading Johnson was concerned to, like Virginia Woolf was, to counter the idea that only those people who’ve achieved great deeds, who’ve been involved in great actions or great works, you know the Alexanders, the Caesars, those people should have biographies written of them. Johnson says no, we can also have biographies of literary people, of intellectuals, of philosophers, of poets, of people whose claim to our attention is not that they’ve led a campaign, a military campaign, not that they’ve been in charge of a country, but they’ve written an interesting poem, that they’ve written a great novel, that they’ve had great thoughts. In other words like Virginia Woolf says about Boswell and Johnson, now we see a kind of narrative that’s driven by personality, by what we would call, but Johnson didn’t the inner life.
The attempt to understand the thoughts and feelings of another human being. Then his third question was what details should a biographer include? And from my point of view interestingly he responds to that by saying well we can’t give a general answer to that, we can’t as it were give a theory of biography about what you should include and what you shouldn’t. It will vary from case to case, and this – so his answer to question three brings into play his answer to question one which was that biography shares with the novelist the concern with an individual human being and because it’s an individual human being there is no general answer to question three, what details should the biography include. It will vary from person to person, should you describe how they walked? Should you describe what they ate? Should you describe their voice, their height, how they related to other people. It will depend on the person, it may be that how somebody walks, this is an example that Samuel Johnson himself gives, it may be that if somebody walks in a brisk, inpatient kind of manner, that that’s worth including in a biography because that might be indicative, expressive, of a certain kind of personality. So the question is you’re trying to get across a personality, a character, and character can be expressed in any number of ways and those ways are so varied and so multiple that no general account of them can be given.
And so Johnson says well you know what details should be included will be dependent upon those details that give us some idea of the personality of the person involved.
Then a different kind of consideration, the moral responsibilities of the biographer towards first of all the subject, and then the public, and then the truth. And Johnson here directs his readers attention to attention, particularly between the first and the third; it may be that as a biography you have access to truths to facts about your subject which will not do them any credit. And so which moral responsibility should take precedence, your responsibility to the good name, the good reputation of your subject or your responsibility to the truth, and on this question Samuel Johnson says the moral responsibility to the truth overrides that of other responsibilities.
And I had this issue myself with Russell and my biography of Russell was criticised by a lot of people because they felt that I was putting Russell in a bad light, that I was showing him to be reprehensible in all sorts of ways, and I was aware of that when I was writing this biography, it was huge, it was a two volume biography, I spent 10 years writing this biography and I read 40,000 letters of Russell’s that he – Russell didn’t throw away anything he kept everything and then he left it all to McMaster University in Canada, and I spent a lot of time at McMaster weeding through these documents. And some of them are heartbreaking the way he treated other people and then as part of my research I went to meet people who were close to Russell and this is a strange thing about biography that unlike other kinds of research it involves – it involves one’s own emotional engagement and so I became a good friend of Russell’s daughter and of his granddaughter, and they became family friends of my family, they came and they got to know my kids and so on, and I got to know them very well and what struck me in this research was to get to know the people who were close to Russell was to pick one’s way through a kind of history of emotional wreckage. Russell had a disastrous effect on a lot of people who were close to him, and it followed a certain kind of pattern which was that he would withdraw from the people close to him, often with disastrous effects, his son had a nervous breakdown, two of his granddaughters whom he took charge of ended up in psychiatric institutions, his daughter disowned him, he married four times and two of his wives suffered from acute mental problems. And I think in many of these cases it’s to do with this fact that he withdrew what they had become dependent upon, which was the emotional support that he gave them.
I’ll give you one detail that I found particularly distressing when I was reading through these letters, because he kept all his legal correspondence too. In the context – in the course of divorcing his second wife, Dora, it was a particularly nasty divorce and they argued bitterly about the custody of their kids, and Dora and they had an open marriage and so you know while they were married, even while they were happily married, they had affairs with other people and they were quite open about it. And in the course of the divorce Dora had an affair with a man called Paul Gillard and she became totally besotted with this man and completely in love with him who then died in very mysterious circumstances, and Dora was utterly distraught. And she wrote a very long rambling heart felt letter to Bertrand Russell, explaining the history of her relationship with Paul Gillard and how his death had affected her, and she said in this letter, look I know this is strange, we’re divorcing and here I am writing you this intimate letter but I feel that you are the one person in the world who will understand how I feel about Paul and what I’m going through at the moment. Heartbreaking letter to read, when he received this letter Russell sent it on to his solicitor with a very short note saying, “please look through this letter to see if there’s anything that could be used to our advantage in the coming court case.”
And it’s that kind of attitude, it’s not – it’s not that Russell is the worst person in the world, it’s not that he’s Hitler, he’s not Goebbels, but it’s the strange ability he had to emotionally distance himself to those close to him, that I felt going back to Johnson’s question about the duties one has to the truth and the subject, it seemed to me I had a greater obligation to portray and describe this because it was true and because it was an important facet of Russell’s biography than I did to preserving the image of Russell as a benign and cheerful soul.
Then the fifth question is a different question altogether because this question has got a general philosophical question, it’s a version of what philosophers call the other mind’s question.
Samuel Johnson asked “can one know the inner life of another person?” And he answered this question by saying by conjecture only can one man judge of another’s motives or sentiments, by conjecture only can one man judge of another’s motives or sentiments. And so he says the autobiography is at an advantage to biography because if you’re describing your own motives or sentiments, if you’re describing why you did something, or how you felt about something, you’re in a privileged position compared to somebody who’s not you.
Now it seems to me I’m very sympathetic to Samuel Johnson’s answers to one, two, three and four, but more or less totally unsympathetic to his answer to number five. And it seems to me the one thing that biography has to teach us is that Samuel Johnson’s answer to number five is not true, it’s not true that we have to rely on conjecture when we attribute a motive or a sentiment or feeling to another person. And this is something that Wittgenstein actually discusses in his – in his later work. And Wittgenstein says this “just try in a real case to doubt the feelings of another person”. For example when faced with the crying of a baby, is it possible to say in a Johnsonion spirit I don’t really know that this baby’s upset, I have to guess it, I have to conjecture it. No you know that that baby’s upset as well as you know anything else at all, and in fact this distinction that Johnson wants to make between the motives and sentiments of other people and as it were the external, the actions, the appearances of other people.
This distinction it’s a natural one to make and all sorts of people made it; Virginia Woolf makes it in her – in her novels and in her writings on biography. But if you reflect in a Wittgenstein sort of way about how we describe other people, we often describe somebody’s appearance, somebody’s external aspect, by attributing to them an internal view. So somebody might say to me how did your daughter look on her first day of school? And I would say she looked apprehensive. How did your son look when he’d finished the computer game that he’s been playing for the last month? He looked triumphant. We habitually describe how somebody looks by attributing to them what Johnson would call a sentiment, and this is important I think both for novel writing and for biography, that if you want to get across what somebody’s feeling you don’t have to do it in a kind of Virginia Woolf kind of way, you don’t need what the philosopher Gilbert Ryle called privileged access to somebody’s thinking, in order to describe what they’re feeling.
You can describe what they look like, and this is the genius of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, that Boswell doesn’t have to have access to Johnson’s as it were interior monolog. We sometimes think that in order – Virginia Woolf thought that in order to understand somebody really you would need to get inside their minds, but we don’t. We can quote them, we can describe them, we can give instances of how they react to things, and this in itself tells us you know cumulatively what kind of person they are and something about their inner life and also it seems to me it’s a mistake to think that access to somebody’s internal monologue would necessarily give you a better understanding of them, that assumes that they understand themselves and it’s as common as anything I think to understand something about one’s self through one’s relations with other people, it’s – it happens very often I think that you’re brought to understand why you reacted in a certain kind of way because somebody else has some insight into you, this happens all the time with me and my wife, my wife will say to me look you don’t really mean that, you know.
Because – because she understands me because she can see what I blind myself too various motives and reactions and so on. And this also happens of course in therapy and analysis, the person that we’re speaking to has insight into our motives, our thoughts that we ourselves don’t have. So it seems to me that Johnson’s answer to question five is not only wrong it’s at the heart of a lot of mistaken thinking, not only about biography but also about what it is to understand one’s self and what it is to understand other people.
And one of the great merits of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy is that he tried to turn this on its head because in philosophy this takes the form of privileging as it were the egocentric as opposed to the public. So in philosophy we’re taught often that modern philosophy begins with Descartes in mediations, doubting everything, doubting everything about the external world and trying to come up with something he can’t doubt, and what can’t he doubt well his own existence, Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, that according to Descartes is where you hit certainty, where you hit something that you cannot doubt. And so Descartes in the mediations begins with that, begins with the certainty of his own existence and then starts thinking about well does he now have reason to – to accept the existence of other people and accept the existence of the external world.
In Wittgenstein’s later philosophy he turns that round on its head in a rather beautiful kind of way, through what’s called the private language argument. Wittgenstein says no it can’t be that one starts with the individual and goes out to the public; it must be that one starts with the public. Why must that be? Because in order to use a language one has to be part of a community, so when for example we’re describing our inner life, when we’re describing let’s say our dreams, nobody has access to our dreams other than us. But when we’re describing our dreams we use words and those words are words of a public language, and we’ve learned those words in a public context. So I might – you know I might have a dream, okay I might chose not to describe it to anybody in which case it remains private, that’s – that’s perfectly possible. But after all we have a word dream, and that word is a public word, it’s part of a public institution, how did we learn that word? It can’t be that we learnt that word from our own experience and then we applied it to other people that can’t be right. We must have learned it from other people and then applied it to ourselves, the private can’t be prior to the public, the public must be prior to the private. It must be that we are able to describe our dreams and then it’s intelligible that we can have a dream and we don’t describe it.
Okay so can we know the inner life of another person? Yes. Right so I was thinking about biography and I was looking ancient biographers, I was looking at Boswell and Johnson, but a great sort of epiphany for me when I was thinking about what, how I was going to write a biography of Wittgenstein was reading Ellmann, Richard Ellmann, who I think is one of the greatest modern biographers; the two that I admire mostly are his biography of James Joyce and his biography of Oscar Wilde. And is biography of Oscar Wilde is particularly good and it shares with Boswell’s Life of Johnson this point that absolutely central of the narrative is quotation. And this is something that as an academic I had to unlearn, I had to unlearn a kind of academic attitude which is this. When you write as an academic what you tend to do when you quote somebody, is you quote somebody and as it were, I mean often literally in academic literature, the quotations are in a smaller font than the rest of it. It’s as if well you can gloss over this bit if you want. And then as an academic you quote something and then you describe what it is that you’ve just quoted as if it was in a foreign language or something. The worst example of this I can think of is a biography that I was sent to review of Virginia Woolf of all people, by a Professor, and people think I make this up, this actually true, he quoted Virginia Woolf a letter that Virginia Woolf wrote to Leonard Woolf in which she says “I feel no sexual attraction towards you”. And this man then began his next paragraph by saying “here Virginia Woolf is saying she feels no sexual attraction towards Leonard”.
What I learned from Richard Ellmann on Wilde is quote your subject, move on, you don’t need to explain what it is that you’ve just quoted, what you just quoted is not something to be analysed and discussed and so on, it is part of the narrative, that’s what you get in Boswell on Johnson and that’s pre-eminently what you get on Ellmann on Wilde. Of course it helps if you’re writing a biography of a subject like Oscar Wilde who is just incapable of saying or writing anything dull.
So anything that Oscar Wilde says is worth quoting. And Richard Ellmann understands that all too well and his biography is structured around that and it’s a beautiful piece of work.
But a particular model for me for writing a biography of Wittgenstein where after all I’m interested in his – in trying to get across Wittgenstein as a thinker, as an intellectual. A particular model was this rather great biography by Andrew Hodges of Alan Turing, which came out about a year before I started work on my Wittgenstein book, and was a huge influence on me. I remember telling my publisher what I really want to do is I want to write a book on Wittgenstein that does for Wittgenstein what Andrew Hodges has done for Alan Turing.
Until Hodges wrote this book on Alan Turing, Turing would seem to be a very unlikely subject for a biography. He was a reclusive man, he wrote some extremely difficult work on mathematical logic and then he did some impenetrable and secret work in decoding the Nazi code in the Second World War, and then he was prosecuted for immorality, just as Oscar Wilde was, because he was gay and he ended up committing suicide. Now Andrew Hodges is a perfect fit as a biographer for the subject, Andrew Hodges is a mathematician, he’s gay, and he’s been actively involved in the politics of the gay movement. And Hodges brought all that beautifully to bear on this book about Turing and what Hodges did in this book that was such a revelation for me is he didn’t shirk from describing Turing’s mathematical work, his work on computable functions, which is not easy.
And Hodges did a great job of explaining that work and explaining what it had to do with the building of computers and therefore one is ready for Turing’s computerised solution to the decipherment of the Nazi code. But interweaving with that Turing described – Hodges described Turing’s love life, his love for another man, his – his emotional suffering from having to hide that love for the other man and then his persecution by the authorities because of being gay and the horrible thing that happened to Turing which is when he was prosecuted for being gay, he was forced to undergo hormone treatment, it’s a very weird thing about 1950s British life which was that forcibly injecting people – men with female hormones was supposed to be some kind of solution to being gay, and Hodges describes all that and then describes the extraordinary suicide of Turing. Turing committed suicide by injecting an apple with cyanide and then – and then biting the apple. And Hodges is very good on the symbolic significance of that and the evocation of various fairy tales and so on.
But what was – what was a revelation for me was the way Hodges he didn’t try to reduce Turing’s intellectual work to various facts of his biography. But neither did he gloss over the intellectual work and in some kind of subtle way he brought all those things in, Turing’s political work, his intellectual work, his emotional life, his homosexuality, brought all those things in to a single narrative, that was what was important to me, that it was a single narrative. It wasn’t reductive.
A friend of mine James [Conant] a philosopher has written on the relationship between philosophy and biography, and he’s distinguished two different positions, reductivism which seeks to explain a person’s philosophical work in terms of their biography and compartmentalism which says that the details of somebody’s life have nothing at all to do with what they thought. And Conant to my mind quite rightly says, one has to resist both of those positions and it seemed to me that that’s what Hodges did in his biography of Turing. He didn’t reduce Turing’s intellectual life to the details of his biography, neither did he keep the two apart, in a very skilful and insightful way he brought them altogether in a single narrative.
So that’s what I tried to do in my biography of Wittgenstein. And I was also helped by a notion of another biographer Lytton Strachey. Lytton Strachey you may know was the inaugurator of the movement called New Biography, which is a reaction against Victorian biography the two – the two tones that Strachey derided that were you know detailed and laborious and respectful. Strachey said this that the qualities that make a good historian or biography are a capacity for absorbing facts, a capacity for stating them and a point of view – and a point of view. And that’s – that was the – for me the key in Strachey’s view of biography that what a biographer does is present a way of seeing somebody, which isn’t – it isn’t just an accumulation of facts, what Strachey was reacting against was the Victoria kind of view of biography where the biographer just accumulates the facts and puts them before the reader. And Strachey quite rightly you know derided that because it doesn’t lead to any insight, it doesn’t lead to you understanding the person involved.
Boswell sometimes Boswell’s method look haphazard or random, you don’t know why he’s suddenly talking about you know Samuel Johnson talking about actresses or whatever, but there’s a method to his madness and you realise at the end of the book, that what you’ve been given is not just a haphazard collection of facts, you’ve been given a way of looking at Samuel Johnson, a point of view of him. Samuel Johnson now makes sense, and that making sense is not just an accumulation of facts, it’s an arrangement of those facts and that it seems to me is the art of the biographer, the art of the biographer is to arrange the facts without –without theorising, without you know analysing but arranging them so as to present not just what happened but a way of seeing a point of view of what happened.
And this relates to something in Wittgenstein’s later philosophy which he – he discusses in part two of Philosophical Investigations. The duck rabbit, you see it’s an ambiguous figure, you can see this as a duck with you know what’s going on, on the right hand side of the picture, as the beak of the duck, or you could see that bit of the picture as the ears of the rabbit. And you can at will switch between one and the other; you can see it now as a duck and now as a rabbit. But now ask yourself well what changes? What changes when you see it now as a duck and now as a rabbit? This doesn’t change. You might be tempted to think well okay that doesn’t change, but something in here does change, and Wittgenstein says no that can’t be right either, because whatever is in here is going to be just as ambiguous as what’s out here. It’s not something that is different in each of those cases, it’s the way you look at it, you’re looking at it now as a duck and now as a rabbit. In some sense you’re seeing the same thing, in another more subtle sense you’re seeing something different, or rather you’re looking at it differently. And that Wittgenstein says is what the philosopher is trying to achieve, the philosopher is trying to get you to see things differently. And that leads him to this notion of the understanding that consists in seeing connections, which was a crucial notion for Wittgenstein.
What we’ve got on the left here is a composite picture, what’s called a Galtonian photograph, it’s made up of four photographs, those Ludwig Wittgenstein the bottom right, on the right, and there are his three sisters, Gretel, top left, Helena next to her, bottom left is Hermina, Mini. And Wittgenstein had this photograph made which superimposed those four pictures on one another, and so – and now you can see that this picture, you look at it to begin with and it looks like one person, rather strange looking person of in determent sex, but then you look at – then you see look you can see – you can see the necklace and also you can see the open neck shirt. The point that Wittgenstein had in mind in making this picture was to see the connections between himself and his sisters, in superimposing one on another you can in a quite literal sense see the connections. You can see the family resemblances.
Between their eyes, between their noses, the structure of their faces, the notion of a family resemblance plays a key role in Wittgenstein later philosopher in this way. Wittgenstein says traditional philosophy like Plato’s works, in a typical Plato dialogue what happens? Socrates asks a question, and it’s usually kind of what is question, what is truth? What is justice? What is knowledge? And then the people that he asks this question to will give examples of knowledge or truth or whatever, and then Socrates will say no I don’t want examples, I want to know what is the essence of truth or of knowledge whatever. And at that point Wittgenstein would say no resist that as it were examples are all you’ve got, and if you want to understand our concept of truth or knowledge or whatever, look at the examples and see the connections between them. It’s not that – and Wittgenstein says this is a common source of philosophical confusion, it’s not that there is one single thing that is in common with all the instances of knowledge or truth or whatever, rather there is a multiplicity of things that we call truth, a multiplicity of things that we call knowledge that we call piety, an acquisition of that concept involves seeing the connections between them. And just like with the members of the family it may not be that there’s one single thing that all family members have in common, rather there will be a series of overlapping similarities and dissimilarities. You take all the members of the family together, some of them will have the same eyes, some of them will have the same nose, some of them will have the same chin, there won’t be as it were an essence of you know that every member of the family has in common. Rather there will be this series of similarities and dissimilarities and to see the family connection is to see those connections.
Right so what does this have to do with biography, well it struck me that in my quest to write a biography of Wittgenstein that would get across what kind of person he was, so as to enable people to read him as it were in the right spirit, what I had to do in a – in a way that harks back to Boswell on Johnson, Ellmann on Wilde, Hodges on Turing and Wittgenstein’s own later philosophy with the importance of seeing connections, was not to theorise about Wittgenstein but to describe various things that he wrote and that he said and the art of the biography is to structure those things, so the reader now can see the connections, just like somebody looking at that composite photograph can see the connections.
When shall I stop? Now, yeah okay right, so a revelation for me was Otto Weininger and his book Sex and Character. Which is a terrible book, it argues that – that women are not really people and neither are Jews because Jews are a kind of woman, and neither are homosexuals, because homosexuals are a kind of woman, now Weininger himself was both Jewish and homosexual and so when he finished publishing this book he committed suicide as it were to say well this is the conclusion of the book. Absolutely balmy book, but Wittgenstein cited it to various people as an influence, and he used to give it to people in Cambridge and they used to be very puzzled as to why he was giving them this balmy book. And I read this book and it seemed to me that one thing that was really important was not all this nonsense about women and Jews and homosexuals but this, the idea he says that logic and ethics are fundamentally the same, they are no more than duty to one’s self.
This is why I called my biography of Wittgenstein The Duty of Genius. The duty of genius is to realise the duty to one’s self and to see that this has two aspects, logic and ethics. And what I tried to do in my biography of Wittgenstein was to draw together the extraordinary personality of Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein’s life is dominated by two things one is the determination to be as you put it anständig decent, to be a decent person and the other thing was to think honestly and deeply and at the heart of my attempt to get across Wittgenstein spirit was to show that those two were two sides of the same coin, and so here I had as it were what Strachey would call my point of view, that logic and ethics are no more – are fundamentally the same they are two aspects of the single duty, the duty of genius.
And so this is how I try to describe Wittgenstein in all his manifestations, in all his thinking and his relations to each other, to other people, to show that his concern to be a decent person was the other side of the coin to his concern to think clearly, and this is how I try to draw together his logic, even his mathematical logic with his personality. Okay thank you very much. [clapping] I’m sorry – I’m sorry to go on this is what happens when you invite me to speak.