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A Philosopher's `Why?'

I LOVED this book. It helps explain me to myself. Many years ago I caught the interrogative spirit from reading Ludwig Wittgenstein. But reading Ray Monk's superb new biography of the philosopher brings back more than memories. The way Monk tells the story it's as if a minor figure in a Dostoyevsky novel haunted the landscape of 20th-century thought. In his own eyes, Wittgenstein was something of a failed saint, even a failed human being. Throughout his life, he tortured himself with thoughts of failure - failure of courage, moral and physical.

Intellectually he was superior, although as a young man at Cambridge University, he made his teacher, Bertrand Russell, doubt his cleverness at first.

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Later in life, Wittgenstein wrote: ```Wisdom is cold and to that extent stupid. (Faith on the other hand is a passion.)''' And also: ```Wisdom is grey.' Life on the other hand and religion are full of colour.''

Born in 1889 into one of the wealthiest families in Europe - a house built on big business and culture; Brahms and Mahler were frequent guests - Wittgenstein gave his inheritance to his sister after serving with distinction in World War I.

In the trenches, he tested his courage and wrote what would remain his only real book, a 20,000-word opus known as the ``Tractatus.'' It was a book that seemed to say that only the verifiable exists, a book that he himself would push off from to go in new directions.

In this short work, he changed the focus of thought from the truth of propositions to the relationship between language and the world. His habits of concision and precision give an aphoristic power to his writing. He would later speak of the ``granite'' that he was working with.

Wittgenstein was an atomist: In his early philosophy, the atoms were the irreducible propositions of philosophical statements; in his later life, the atoms were the life forms embedded in what he would call ``language games,'' the tool kits of words that go with a certain point of view.

After the war he became a teacher, but not a good one, for he would lose his temper and strike his students. Memories of this haunted him for the rest of his life. Then he became a monastery gardener and later helped design a house for his sister.

In 1929, he returned to Cambridge and submitted his ``Tractatus'' as his dissertation for a PhD degree. If the ``Tractatus'' was a doctoral dissertation in philosophy, Arthur Danto has said, the Sistine Chapel would be required for a doctorate in art!

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At Cambridge, Wittgenstein would collect a small, enthusiastic group of students to whom he would speak spontaneously and who would take notes (contrary to his instructions) and publish them after his death (as he feared they would).

His lifestyle was nomadic; when not in Cambridge he lived in cabins in Norway and the west of Ireland. To take a break from the tedium of Cambridge, he'd go to the movies - he loved Westerns - or read American hard-boiled detective stories. Monk says that Wittgenstein didn't like the deductive methods of British detectives but preferred the ``hardworking, plugging sort of guy'' in pages of the pulps.

Wittgenstein infuriated other philosophers. He attacked some of their most sacred formulas. If a bridge collapsed, he once argued, don't try to find a contradiction in the calculations that guided the engineers; it's a problem of physics, not math.

Another time he pooh-poohed the liar's paradox (All cretins are liars, I am a cretin) by making it sound trivial, which it is. Monk says Wittgenstein's method of using everyday language was aimed at those who have fallen for the ``charm'' of mathematical logic (including, for example, himself in 1911).

MONK'S portrait is of a philosopher who forced himself and others to turn from the ``how'' and ``what'' questions (those science would answer with precision) to the ``why'' questions: Why is there something, rather than nothing? For Wittgenstein, after science is done, the deep problems remain.

Since Wittgenstein is often presented as a solipsist par excellence - someone who doubts everything and everyone outside themselves - Monk's work will be seen as revisionist.

Beyond his personal progress, there is this: Wittgenstein's method of asking simple vernacular questions about philosophy gradually created a space for new problems to appear. Only these weren't problems so much as mysteries.

Monk's Wittgenstein wanted to change not only philosophy, but society. He worked in behalf of a future culture ``which treated music, poetry, art and religion with the same respect and seriousness with which our present society treats science.''

The mature Wittgenstein was dazzled not by his own brainy thoughts but by ``life's irreducible variety.'' He once told a friend: ``I am not a religious man, but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.''

A perfectionist, Wittgenstein was never satisfied with his writing; everything he wrote after his dissertation was published posthumously. Reading these writings today can change you. Sometimes the effect is that of a koan (it's obscurity forces spontaneous and perhaps unrelated insights), sometimes the effect is more musical. In any event, Wittgenstein's work shows us a person thinking through very difficult problems with a mixture of grace, precision, and foolhardy daring. As Wittgenstein said of William James: ``That is what makes him a good philosopher; he was a real human being.''

Great philosophical biographies - say, Peter Brown's ``Augustine'' - can be counted on one hand. Monk's life of Wittgenstein is such a one. It's a probing, moving experience.

Without obscuring or simplifying either, it reveals the work in the man and the man in the work. Above all, it looks at Wittgenstein from the best perspective, the one revealed in one of his last remarks. ``Bach wrote on the title page of his Orgelbuchlein, `To the glory of the most high God, and that my neighbor may be benefited thereby.' That is what I would have liked to say about my work,'' he said to a friend.

It appears now that Wittgenstein's long, tortured life produced work that serves, even glorifies, both God and man.