The Wittgenstein Archive

Bob Plant and Peter Baumann relate some lesser-known anecdotes about the great man and his acolytes.

As we crossed the bridge near Malcolm’s house, I asked Wittgenstein what he thought the nature of ethics was. He looked displeased with my question and stopped in his tracks. Then, after a few moments, he turned to me and said: “If I was a bird I would build a nest far from the ground. But I am a human being and so must live down here amongst the filth and litter.” What a mind he has! How much I value our discussions! (Perhaps I am not strong enough to do real philosophical work.) (BP)

One day Malcolm, Wittgenstein and I went out for dinner. Wittgenstein ate three and a half portions – and he ate like a pig. When someone at the next table looked at him with indignation, Wittgenstein exploded: “Don’t you know that the most important part is the one I did not eat? No wonder civilisation makes me sick.” When the waiter remarked that if he is sick, he should go to the bathroom, Wittgenstein calmed down and responded with a smile: “As if advice like that could ever help the sick man.” Then he stormed out waving a menu. He was later found talking to a traffic sign. (PB)

One afternoon when taking our customary walk across the nearby fields, Wittgenstein, Malcolm and I came across a windmill, gently turning in the breeze. W was much impressed by its austere efficiency, and insisted that we inspect its workings more closely. (He never ceased to be an engineer at heart!) Later on, when returning home, W asked Malcolm why a child should not believe that windmills were responsible for PRODUCING the wind? W went on: “How could we persuade him otherwise? By reasons given after the fact? Or rather, would we not here find ourselves floundering? All we could do is shew him by means of examples – or perhaps force.” To this Malcolm could only concede defeat. What a remarkable mind W has! (Perhaps I should become a postman.) (BP)

One day a dachshund followed Wittgenstein and bit him in the left ankle. Without grimacing Ludwig responded by saying “If only it knew how to continue!” When I asked him whether it hurt he got angry and yelled at me “You of all people should not ask such a stupid question – see what philosophy has done to you!” Wittgenstein then demonstratively threw some mud at a traffic sign and added “Think about this!” Later he mellowed down and offered me some soup. He never spoke of dogs again. If only I were courageous enough to learn more from him. (PB)

One morning when Wittgenstein appeared for breakfast I noticed he was not clean-shaven. (This was unusual as W was always so well presented.) “Ludwig,” I asked, “are you growing a beard?” At this he looked angry and replied: “Not shaving isn’t the same thing as growing a beard!” He paused for a moment then continued: “…though to grow a beard certainly requires one to not shave.” I must think carefully about this remark. (BP)

One day Wittgenstein helped Malcolm to paint his house. Malcolm wondered how to paint the upper floor when Wittgenstein had an idea: “We need a ladder!” There was huge applause amongst neighbours and friends and general rejoicing. But Wittgenstein was too modest to enjoy all the praising and hugging. He rather went and got the ladder. Despite his deep wisdom he was always a practical man. He then encouraged Malcolm to climb up. Malcolm, of course, obliged, and went up to the third floor where he could comfortably stand without help of the ladder. Later, when he was finished, he wanted to get down to have soup with Wittgenstein but the ladder was gone. “Hey, where is the ladder, Lu?” Wittgenstein shook his head in disbelief “I’ve thrown it away. That is what you do after someone has climbed up on it. Don’t you know even that? How often have I told you? You are a most unworthy pupil.” Malcolm was, of course, deeply embarrassed. And so were we. How could anyone hurt the feelings of our great master? So, we decided to try to console Wittgenstein with some of our soup. He reluctantly came along. (Malcolm was rescued from the third floor two and a half hours later: the sounds he made were just unbearable. Some people never grow up.) (PB)

One day Wittgenstein slept in late. When he arrived at the kitchen table (I think it was around 10am), I had already cleared away the breakfast things. I offered him some toast and tea but he asked only for two hard-boiled eggs. He seemed deep in thought and I wondered what he could be pondering. “Wittgenstein”, I finally asked, “are you thinking about logic?” “No” he curtly replied, “I was trying to imagine the form of life in which egg-laying caused neither shame nor embarrassment.” He continued to eat his eggs and I reflected on his remarks. (I wonder whether he really liked poultry?) (BP)

I met Waismann one day and he told me a lot about the olden days when Wittgenstein forced him to visit him in the countryside. They would take long walks. Ludwig had an obsession with donkeys in those days. He would always say “Let us follow the mule, if only I were fast enough!” Waismann got so bored and annoyed that one day he mentioned to his girlfriend in Vienna that he was sick and tired of Ludwig’s problem of mule-following. Waismann’s girlfriend misheard and told Schlick and Carnap about Wittgenstein´s famous problem of rule-following. That was how the famous problem was born. Later when Wittgenstein read the proofs he noticed the mistake but thought they were misusing language anyway and that he should immigrate to Mongolia to raise chickens. (PB)

Wittgenstein rarely talked of his family. I always got the impression that the untimely death of his brothers caused him great anguish. But one day when we were walking in the forest, he turned to me and said: “Did you know that my brother had only one arm?”. “Yes”, I replied, “and he was also a great pianist wasn’t he?” W seemed aggravated by what I had said: “Yes he was a pianist,” he retorted, “but his having only one arm was not a talent!” I immediately understood why W was punishing me. I really must be more careful with ordinary language. (BP)

One weekend we went out with Wittgenstein for a meal. As soon as the waiter came to take our orders Ludwig asked him all kinds of questions about the language-game of ordering. The waiter insisted that that’s not on the menu and that he wouldn’t encourage guests to play games with the sandwiches. When Ludwig responded that menus are logically ill-formed and don’t even exist, the waiter stormed out. Wittgenstein was the first to see that his help was needed in the kitchen. He went in and cracked quite a number of eggs. Two hours later we all left, hungry but much wiser. Ludwig added that we should try to learn the lesson from this – if we were not too brutish to do so. Such a mind is only born every other 160 years. (PB)

Wittgenstein’s relationship with animals was somewhat fraught. At that time my wife and I had a spaniel named Ralph. One morning (it was very early) I found Wittgenstein in the garden trying to teach Ralph by means of ostensive definition. “Look,” he was saying, “that’s a stick and that’s a tree.” Of course poor Ralph didn’t understand and simply wagged his tail. Wittgenstein repeated himself over and over again for what must have been around thirty minutes. I was struck by his patience. Eventually Ralph wandered off leaving Wittgenstein staring at the tip of his own finger. (Some hours later I saw Wittgenstein with a stick in his mouth. I never mentioned this to him.) (BP)

One day strange visitors appeared in Malcolm’s house. (It was at the time Wittgenstein was staying with Malcolm.) They demanded to speak to ‘Louis’ because they wanted to make him an offer. An offer, they added, he couldn’t refuse. Wittgenstein, who was in the next room repairing Malcolm’s poker, stormed into the entrance hall and, pointing to the visitors’ violin cases, said “This is clearly a grammatical confusion. It gives you a bumb in the head”. The visitors laughed with dangerous grins on their faces and then suddenly looked confused. A short time later they left without further ado. Wittgenstein commented that “this is what Beethoven, the only true composer ever, can do for you,” and left for a long walk in the suburbs. One could hear dogs barking far away. (PB)

One morning I found Wittgenstein standing on a stool in our kitchen. His arms were outstretched above his head, and his hands placed firmly on the ceiling. W looked exhausted – as though he had been there for some hours. “Ludwig! What on earth are you doing?” I enquired. “I am holding up your house,” he calmly replied. At this point W climbed down from the stool and turned to me to explain: “I was merely demonstrating the deep confusion of Moore’s claims to ‘know’.” He went on: “If your house fell down then I would be crushed and no amount of huffing and puffing would alter that fact. So too are Moore’s propositions not in need of his ‘knowledge’, for without these foundations he too would be crushed.” W then retired to the garden while I searched frantically for my notebook. (BP)

One day, Wittgenstein prepared to make carrot-soup. “Soup is the beginning of all philosophy” said Bertie when he stormed into the room, ready to challenge Ludwig. “Why don’t you bring the members of the intersection of the set of all your carrots and the set of all the vegetables in this room into an incomplete order such that no member of the set is neither bigger nor smaller than its right hand neighbor where ‘right hand’ is defined in a usual Ludwig-centred way, why don’t you?” Bertie added. Wittgenstein looked pained. The crystal clear purity of his early vegetables was a long gone illusion. He stomped his feet for a minute and then his fist landed on the potatoes: “None of these carrots,” he said, “deserves to be ranked first. I deal with rubbish and try to build a palace of soup out of it. You better listen to what the milkman is telling us. All that recent culture, Freud, Einstein and Homer, is nothing against the milkman.” It was only hours later that Wittgenstein responded again to human speech. (PB)

Wittgenstein was once asked by my seven year old son: “Which came first; the chicken or the egg?” W responded thus: “The person who asks this question is not looking for an empirical answer. Rather, he is expressing his attitude to chickens and eggs.” My son did not seem satisfied with this response, but Malcolm and I saw its sense. Some weeks later, I recall, my son asked W the same question. This time his response was as follows: “The grammar governing ‘chicken’ and ‘egg’ does not permit this sort of question.” It was around this time that my son gave up asking W anything at all. (How shallow he is! I sometimes worry that he will grow up to become a lawyer.) (BP)

© Bob Plant & Peter Baumann 2006

Peter Baumann is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen. Bob Plant is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen. Both share a fascination with dogs, although neither of them own one. Peter has produced a performance of Heideggar’s essay ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ complete with orchestration, grunting and sound effects. Copies of this are available on audio tape on request.

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