Skip to main content

Book review: The Duty of Genius

Summary: this biography by Ray Monk is a brilliant work about a fascinating and tortured soul. Highly recommended.

Up today: Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, by Ray Monk. As a biography, it is truly excellent, and the subject is both hugely important and interesting. Monk's portrait of Wittgenstein is simultaneously deeply sympathetic yet clear-eyed and unsparing. This is especially praiseworthy as Wittgenstein is the type of person that tends to inspire either hero worship or withering scorn.

Wittgenstein seems like the kind of person it would be easy to admire from afar. He reminded me of Thomas More in his unceasing dedication to do and feel as he thought was right, though compromise would have made him happier. Actually interacting with the man would probably have been a nightmare for most people. He was deeply needy, yet so moody and tempestuous he was beastly to practically everyone he knew at one point or another and drove many of them away. His idea of love, an irritating, Puritanical sort of concept that viewed love as something best pondered from a distance, almost ruling out physical contact, was inspiring in his dedication to it but astonishingly cruel. The case of Francis Skinner, a young man who fell head-over-heels for Wittgenstein and continued to love him unquestioningly for the rest of his short life is heartbreaking to contemplate. Wittgenstein's dedication to these impossible ideals made his life almost wholly miserable.

Monk also gives surprisingly deep and clear explanations of Wittgenstein's philosophy as it evolved, particularly in his later years (though I of course have little understanding as yet). I can easily see how he is so famous—his Philosophical Investigations is like no other philosophy book I am aware of. In it, he does not present a system or a set of ideas he defends, rather he lays out a technique for solving problems, to "show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle" as he put it. Monk says that it is fruitless to try and to understand what Wittgenstein "said," as one might do with Schopenhauer, "for in truth he is not saying anything; he is presenting a technique for the unraveling of confusions. Unless these are your confusions, the book will be of very little interest." This has some head-spinning implications. He seems to be attacking the very roots of philosophy.

Though I suspect Wittgenstein is one of those writers who I will find impossible to read, I've got some super-pretentious books lined up and I might have a crack at some of his easier works. We'll see how that goes.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Why Did Reality Winner Leak to the Intercept?

So Reality Winner, former NSA contractor, is in federal prison for leaking classified information — for five years and three months, the longest sentence of any whistleblower in history. She gave documents on how Russia had attempted to hack vendors of election machinery and software to The Intercept , which completely bungled basic security procedures (according to a recent New York Times piece from Ben Smith, the main fault lay with Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito ), leading to her capture within hours. Winner recently contracted COVID-19 in prison, and is reportedly suffering some lingering aftereffects. Glenn Greenwald has been furiously denying that he had anything at all to do with the Winner clusterfuck, and I recently got in an argument with him about it on Twitter. I read a New York story about Winner, which clearly implies that she was listening to the Intercepted podcast of March 22, 2017 , where Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill expressed skepticism about Russia actually b

Varanus albigularis albigularis

That is the Latin name for the white-throated monitor lizard , a large reptile native to southern Africa that can grow up to two meters long (see pictures of one at the Oakland Zoo here ). In Setswana, it's called a "gopane." I saw one of these in my village yesterday on the way back from my run. Some kids from school found it in the riverbed and tortured it to death, stabbing out its eyes, cutting off its tail, and gutting it which finally killed it. It seemed to be a female as there were a bunch of round white things I can only imagine were eggs amongst the guts. I only arrived after it was already dead, but they described what had happened with much hilarity and re-enactment. When I asked why they killed it, they said it was because it would eat their chickens and eggs, which is probably true, and because it sucks blood from people, which is completely ridiculous. It might bite a person, but not unless threatened. It seems roughly the same as killing wolves tha

Caffeine Is Not a Bioweapon

I got into a discussion with Yves Smith about caffeine here , and somehow my comment got eaten, so I'd like to finish it up here. She said about this Raw Story piece about a girl who allegedly died from drinking two Monster drinks in two days, "The FDA lapse here is terrible. Caffeine is extremely toxic. We just happen to get highly diluted doses in coffee and tea." I commented: Yves, your implication about caffeine is incorrect on several levels. Most Monster drinks have about 10 mg of caffeine per fluid ounce, which is much less than even drip coffee (18 mg/oz) and WAY less than espresso (51 mg/oz). ( Source ) The whole idea of dilution is misguided in any case. The relevant measurement for caffeine intoxication (and most poisoning generally) is the total amount taken, not the concentration. Concentration is something to worry about, as it can make a lethal dose easier to take on, but the main concern there is pure caffeine pills, not energy drinks which are mostl