Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most original and influential philosophers of the 20th century, was born in Vienna, the youngest of eight children in a wealthy family headed by a stern steel tycoon who attempted to train his sons for careers in industry. At the age of 14, Wittgenstein was sent to a school in Linz that emphasized physical sciences and mathematics. He later moved to Berlin where he studied mechanical engineering, and then England to do research in experimental aeronautics. While there, Wittgenstein read Bertrand Russell’s Principles of Mathematics, the book that galvanized his interests in philosophy and logic and led him to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied under Russell. In 1913, Wittgenstein abruptly left for Norway, where he worked in solitude on his Notes on Logic, posthumously edited and published first in 1957. Throughout his life, Wittgenstein continually sought solitude in bucolic settings, a lifestyle that he considered authentic and “pure.” When World War I began, Wittgenstein served in the Austro-Hungarian army in Russia, where he was awarded multiple medals for bravery. At the end of 1918, he was one of many captured and imprisoned in Italy. While in an Italian prison camp, Wittgenstein completed the only philosophical book to be published in his lifetime, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (German, 1921; English, 1922), a work that Wittgenstein felt solved all philosophical problems. After the war, he gave up his fortune to his siblings and retired from philosophy, preferring to work as a teacher at several rural Austrian elementary schools, where he was unpopular. He also worked as a gardener, and, for two years, as the architect and designer of his sister’s modernist house. In 1929, Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge to teach, but he became increasingly dissatisfied with academics and, in 1936, again sought seclusion in Norway. For the next 15 years, he continued his philosophical work while travelling and working in a variety of capacities; he died of cancer in England in 1951.
In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein attempted to define the philosophical problems that could be meaningfully addressed through language; he believed that his work definitively established the boundaries between the expressible and the nonsensical. In his early thought, he understood language as representing or “picturing”; later, however, he rejected his earlier view and came to see that absolute clarity of meaning was impossible and that the significance of words depended instead on the specific context of their use; language was to be seen in terms of doing, of participating in various “language games.” Much of his later thought was published posthumously in The Philosophical Investigations (1952).
Wittgenstein was no stranger to suicide. Wittgenstein, like his brothers, is known to have been plagued by a suicidal imagination throughout his life. At least two and perhaps three of Wittgenstein’s brothers took their own lives. His brother Hans, a musical prodigy, fled to America to pursue a life immersed in music; in 1903, his family was informed that he had disappeared from a boat a year earlier, evidently a suicide. His brother Rudolf sought a career in the theater, but ended his life in a bar with a dramatic self-inflicted cyanide poisoning in 1904. Only six months earlier, Wittgenstein had learned of the suicide of young Otto Weininger, the author of Sex and Character (1903), a work that influenced Wittgenstein’s later thought. At the end of World War I, troops under the command of Wittgenstein’s second oldest brother, Kurt, rebelled against his orders, and Kurt became the third brother to commit suicide.
Wittgenstein friend and collaborator David Hume Pinsent, with whom he traveled on holidays together, describes Wittgenstein’s frequent thoughts of suicide at numerous places in his own diary. In Pinsent’s entry for June 1, 1912, he notes that Wittgenstein told him that he had suffered from terrific loneliness for the past nine years, that he had thought of suicide then, and that he felt ashamed of never daring to kill himself; according to Pinsent, Wittgenstein thought that he had had “a hint that he was de trop in this world.” In his entry for September 4, 1913, when they were traveling in Norway, Pinsent describes Wittgenstein as “really in an awful neurotic state: this evening he blamed himself violently and expressed the most piteous disgust with himself…it is obvious he is quite incapable of helping these fits. I only hope that an out of doors life here will make him better: at present it is no exaggeration to say he is as bad–(in that nervous sensibility)–as people like Beethoven were. He even talks of having at times contemplated suicide.” In his entry for September 25, 1913, Pinsent reports that “This evening we got talking together about suicide–not that Ludwig was depressed or anything of the sort–he was quite cheerful all today. But he told me that all his life there had hardly been a day, in which he had not at one time or other thought of suicide as a possibility. He was really surprised when I said I never thought of suicide like that–and that given the chance I would not mind living my life so far–over again! He would not for anything.”
In these selections from the Notebooks 1914–16 (which include a few entries, like the one presented here, from January 1917) and the letters of May 30 and June 21, 1920, to “Mr. E” (his friend Paul Engelmann, who subsequently edited the letters, as well as a letter of July 7, 1920 to Bertrand Russell), Wittgenstein discusses his confrontation with thoughts of suicide. In the Notebooks, he suggests the fundamental role in ethics of the issue of suicide, and whether suicide is “the elementary sin” or is “neither good nor evil.” In the letters, which he wrote while in a suicidal state himself, Wittgenstein describes suicide as “a dirty thing to do” and insists that one cannot will one’s own destruction; it can only happen as a “rushing of one’s defenses.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Notebooks 1914-1916, eds. G. H. von Wright and G.E. M. Anscombe, tr. G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1961), p. 91e. Paul Engelmann, Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein, with a Memoir, tr. L. Furtmuller (Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1967, no pagination, letters no. 32, 33. David Pinsent, A Portrait of Wittgenstein as a Young Man: From the Diary of David Hume Pinsent, 1912-14, ed. GH von Wright, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, pp. 68-69, 80-81; Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ludwig Wittgenstein: Public and Private Occasions, ed. & trans. James C Klagge and Alfred Nordmann, Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002, pp. 125-7.
from NOTEBOOKS, 1914-1916
January 10, 1917
If suicide is allowed then everything is allowed.
If anything is not allowed then suicide is not allowed.
This throws a light on the nature of ethics, for suicide is, so to speak, the elementary sin.
And when one investigates it it is like investigating mercury vapour in order to comprehend the nature of vapours.
Or is even suicide in itself neither good nor evil?
May 30, 1920
D. Mr. E., – Why don’t I hear from you any more?! (Presumably because you don’t write to me.) I feel like completely emptying myself again; I have had a most miserable time lately. Of course only as a result of my own baseness and rottenness. I have continually thought of taking my own life, and the idea still haunts me sometimes. I have sunk to the lowest point. May you never be in that position! Shall I ever be able to raise myself up again? Well, we shall see.–Reclam will not have my book. I don’t care any more, and that is a good thing.
June 21, 1920
D. Mr. E., – Many thanks for your kind letter, which has given me much pleasure and thereby perhaps helped me a little, although as far as the merits of my case are concerned I am beyond any outside help. – In fact I am in a state of mind that is terrible to me. I have been through it several times before: it is the state of not being able to get over a particular fact. It is a pitiable state, I know. But there is only one remedy that I can see, and this is of course to come to terms with that fact. But this is just like what happens when a man who can’t swim has fallen into the water and flails about with his hands and feet and feels that he cannot keep his head above water. That is the position I am in now. I know that to kill oneself is always a dirty thing to do. Surely one cannot will one’s own destruction, and anybody who has visualized what is in practice involved in the act of suicide knows that suicide is always a rushing of one’s own defenses. But nothing is worse than to be forced to take oneself by surprise.
Of course it all boils down to the fact that I have no faith! Well, we shall see!–Please thank your revered mother in my name for her kind letter. I will certainly come to Olmütz, but I don’t know when. I do hope I can make it soon.
July 7, 1920
Dear [Bertrand] Russell:
Very many thanks for your kind letter, Reclam has, naturally, not accepted my book and for the moment I won’t take any further steps to have it published. But if you feel like getting it printed, it is entirely at your disposal and you can do what you like with it. (Only, if you change anything in the text, indicate that the change was made by you.) Today I got my certificate, and I can now become a teacher. How things will go for me–how I’ll endure life–God only knows. The best for me, perhaps, would be if I could like down one evening and not wake up again. (But perhaps there is something better left for me.) We shall see.
Warmest regards from your devoted friend,
from KODER DIARIES
Nov/Dec 7, 1931
I now have the feeling as if I would have to join a monastery (inwardly) were I to lose Marguerite. / The thought of a bourgeouis engagement for Marguerite makes me nauseous. No in this case there is nothing I could do for her & would have to treat her as I would if she had gotten drunk, namely: not talk to her until she slept off her stupor. / It is true that one may be able to live also on the field of rubble from the houses in which one was once accustomed to live. But it is difficult. One had derived one’s joy from the warmth & coziness of the rooms, after all, even if one didn’t know it. But now, as one wanders aimlessly on the rubble, one knows it. / One knows that only the mind can provide warmth now & that one is not at all accustomed to being warmed by the mind. / (When one is chilled it hurts to wash & when one is sick in the mind it hurts to think.) / I cannot (that is, do not want to) give up enjoyment. I don’t want to give up enjoying & don’t want to be a hero. I therefore suffer the piercing & shameful pain of forlornness. / Despair has no end & suicide does not end it, unless one puts an end to it by pulling oneself together. / The person who despairs is like a stubborn child who wants to have the apple. But one usually doesn’t know what it means to break stubbornness. It means to break a bone in the body (and make a joint where there wasn’t one before). / Old lumps of thought which a long time ago had already been pressing in the upper intestines come out later on some occasion. Then one notices a part of a sentence & sees: that’s what I had always been meaning to say a few days ago. / The bourgeois odor of the Marguerite-Talla relationship I find so gruesome, unbearable that I could flee from it out of this world. / Every defilement I can tolerate except the one that is bourgeois. Isn’t that strange? / I don’t know whether my mind is sick in me or whether it is the body. I do the experiment & imagine some things different from how they are, & I feel that my condition would then return to normal right away. So it is the mind; & when I am sitting there listless & dull, my thoughts as if in a thick fog & feel a sort of mild headache, then this is supposed to come from perhaps—or probably—losing Marguerite’s love! / When stuck in excrement, there is only one thing to do: March. It is better to drop dead from exertion than to die in a whimper.”