The 20th Century’s Greatest Philosopher’s Struggle with Suicide

How Bertrand Russell Saved Ludwig Wittgenstein

- 15 min read
Wittgenstein (image via Wikimedia: Public Domain)

Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the most brilliant geniuses of the 20th century and has been claimed by many as the greatest philosopher of his century. To those who knew him he was a lightning storm of impulsive intensity.

He was far from the Apollonian mould of controlled rigorous philosophy; he was a Dionysian powerhouse that was more possessed by his philosophy than directing it. As his biographer Ray Monk has put it:

“Philosophy, one might say, came to him, not he to philosophy. Its dilemmas were experienced by him as unwelcome intrusions, enigmas, which forced themselves upon him and held him captive, unable to get on with everyday life until he could dispel them with a satisfactory solution.”

The intensity of Wittgenstein’s personality was not limited to philosophy. He struggled with crippling doubts about the value of his own life and there were stretches of years where he struggled with the shadow of suicide.

Bertrand Russell was in his own right one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century and an incredibly influential thinker who established the paradigm of analytic philosophy.

In today’s article we are going to explore how Russell’s reception of Wittgenstein saved the Austrian philosopher from his suicidal predicament. This is all the more poignant given that three of Wittgenstein’s four brothers committed suicide.

As we will see this fortuitous reception was not based on Russell’s personality alone. Wittgenstein showed up in Russell’s life at a perfect moment; had he shown up earlier or later it is possible that the reception might have been otherwise and the fragile Wittgenstein might not have survived to become the philosophical luminary that he did.


Bertrand Russell (image via Wikimedia: Public Domain)

The timing of Wittgenstein’s arrival in Russell’s life was destined for the best possible reception. As Ray Monk noted in his biography of Wittgenstein “at the very time when Wittgenstein needed a mentor, Russell needed a protégé.”

There were three major events at play in Russell’s life that made him retreat from the frontlines of philosophy and thus paved the way for his embrace of his eccentric protégé.

Firstly he and Alfred North Whitehead had a year earlier finished the Principia Mathematica — a work that had taken them a decade to complete. The Principia is one of the pinnacles of 20th century philosophy and while it has become largely redundant, it had a major impact in shaping the intellectual landscape of 20th century philosophy mathematics and most significantly on computers and programming.

As Bernard Linksky and Andrew David Irvine have noted in their article on the Principia:

“it popularized modern mathematical logic to an extent undreamt of by its authors.”

The work of Russell and White made Frege’s great leaps forward in formalising logic infinitely more accessible. Another consequence of this was that the clarity of their exposition showed the power of the new logic. All of this contributed to forming the new paradigm of Analytic philosophy.

But the work was also influential beyond philosophy. As Linksky and Irvine note, it

“set the stage for the discovery of crucial metatheoretic results (including those of Kurt Gödel, Alonzo Church, Alan Turing and others). Just as importantly, it initiated a tradition of common technical work in fields as diverse as philosophy, mathematics, linguistics, economics and computer science.”

This monolithic achievement took its toll on Russell. In the first volume of his autobiography published in 1951 he notes that:

“my intellect never quite recovered from the strain. I have been ever since definitely less capable of dealing with difficult abstractions than I was before. This is part, though by no means the whole, of the reason for the change in the nature of my work.”

So the first major event that paved the way for Wittgenstein’s entry into Russell’s life was that Russell was burned out by the energy he has spent on birthing the Principia. He had made his monumental contribution to philosophy and was spent after it.

The second major event was his love affair with Lady Ottoline Morrell, the aristocratic wife of the Liberal MP Philip Morrell. This affair began just six months before Wittgenstein’s arrival in Cambridge in October 1911.

Between the burnout from the Principia’s completion and the influence of Ottoline, Russell’s work began to gravitate away from his formerly technical philosophical concerns.

The Principia was followed by The Problems of Philosophy — a popular philosophical work meant for general consumption — a ‘shilling shocker’ as Russell describes it. It was his first foray into the popularising writing that was to become the mainstay for the rest of his working life.

At this time he also took up a post as a lecturer in mathematical logic at Trinity College. The combination of his Principia burnout, the Lady Ottoline influence and this new teaching post came together in Russell’s conviction that his chief task now lay in the development of the Principia not by his own work but by encouraging others to take up where he had left off.

At the end of this year he writes to Ottoline

“I did think the technical philosophy that remains for me to do very important indeed [but now] I have an uneasiness about philosophy altogether; what remains for me to do in philosophy (I mean in technical philosophy) does not seem of first-rate importance. The shilling shocker really seems to me better worth doing … I think really the important thing is to make the ideas I have intelligible.”

It is with this combination of events in 1911 that we find the soil of Russell’s soul already ploughed and ready to welcome and cultivate a protégé who might even go beyond him. And it was at this exact moment that Wittgenstein arrived on the scene.


Wittgenstein family (Ludwig front right) circa 1917 (image via Wikimedia: Public Domain)

On the 26th of April 1889 Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in Vienna — six days after his onetime schoolmate Adolf Hitler was born on the other side of Austria.

Ludwig was born into the second richest family in the Austro-Hungarian Empire — second only to the conspiracy theorists’ favourite family the Rothschilds.

His father Karl was the Austrian equivalent of Andrew Carnegie (with whom he was good friends); he was an industrial tycoon with an effective monopoly on Austria’s steel cartel.

For Ludwig, the youngest of the nine Wittgenstein children, this meant an incredibly privileged upbringing. They were at the top of the Austrian food-chain — Karl commissioned paintings by Auguste Rodin; Gustav Klimt painted Wittgenstein’s sister for her wedding portrait and Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler were regular performers in the family’s mansions.

Wittgenstein was a veritable aristocrat.

After school, Ludwig went to study mechanical engineering in Berlin and in this time became interested in aeronautics. With that in mind he embarked on a doctorate at the Victoria University of Manchester in England with an eye to building and flying his own airplane — this was in 1908, just 5 years after the Wright brothers had flown the first ever aircraft.

Wittgenstein however became frustrated with his inadequacy when it came to the craftsmanship of engineering and so turned to the theoretical side of engineering and this was to be the fateful turn in his life.

He began working on an innovative propeller design — something he received a patent for in 1911 and a research studentship from the university for in 1908. This required complicated mathematics and it was in this time that he became interested in the foundations of mathematics. He read the works of Russell and of Gottlob Frege and he quickly became obsessed.

His interest in aeronautics began to fade as he became more and more fixated on logic and the foundations of maths. This fixation became an obsession that he described to his sister as a “constant, indescribable, almost pathological state of agitation.”

In 1911 he decided to visit the great German master and showed up at the University of Jena to show Frege some work he had been doing on the philosophy of mathematics and logic. Frege blew him out of the water:

“I was shown into Frege’s study. Frege was a small, neat man with a pointed beard who bounced around the room as he talked. He absolutely wiped the floor with me, and I felt very depressed; but at the end he said ‘You must come again’, so I cheered up. I had several discussions with him after that. Frege would never talk about anything but logic and mathematics, if I started on some other subject, he would say something polite and then plunge back into logic and mathematics.”

Ludwig wanted to study with Frege but Frege suggested he’d be better off studying in Cambridge under Russell and so Wittgenstein set off and showed up unannounced one evening at Russell’s rooms in Trinity College, Cambridge.

When Ludwig met Bertrand

This was to be the first episode in the comical opening chapter to Russell’s and Wittgenstein’s relationship. As Russell describes it he was having tea with C.K. Ogden (who would later become the first translator of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus) when:

“an unknown German appeared, speaking very little English but refusing to speak German. He turned out to be a man who had learned engineering at Charlottenburg, but during this course had acquired, by himself, a passion for the philosophy of mathematics & has now come to Cambridge on purpose to hear me.”

At this time Russell was writing multiple times a day to his lover Lady Ottoline Morrell and Wittgenstein makes regular appearances in these letters. At first Russell was delighted to find Wittgenstein attending and engaged in his poorly attended lectures

“I am much interested in my German, & shall hope to see a lot of him.”

This impression was to fade quickly as Wittgenstein latched onto Russell like a dog onto a bone. He dominated discussions in the lectures and followed him back to his rooms afterwards continuing to discuss the problems.

Russell’s oscillating reception of this attention in the course of this first month makes for amusing reading:

My German friend threatens to be an infliction, he came back with me after my lecture & argued till dinner-time — obstinate & perverse, but I think not stupid. [19.10.11]

My German engineer very argumentative & tiresome. He wouldn’t admit that it was certain that there was not a rhinoceros in the room … [He] came back and argued all the time I was dressing. [1.11.11 ]

My German engineer, I think, is a fool. He thinks nothing empirical is knowable — I asked him to admit that there was not a rhinoceros in the room, but he wouldn’t. [2.11.11]

My ferocious German came and argued at me after my lecture. He is armour-plated against all assaults of reasoning. It is really rather a waste of time talking with him. [16.11.11]

Ray Monk puts this initial comedy of the two philosophers’ relationship down to the nervousness of Wittgenstein. As Monk notes, Wittgenstein was still enrolled in the graduate program at the University of Manchester. He had became increasingly obsessed with the philosophies of Frege and Russell but he still had no idea whether this interest hid any talent or if he was merely a dilettante.

This time in Cambridge was his way of settling this question once and for all.

After six weeks of this treatment, Wittgenstein opened up to Russell about his dilemma.

“My German is hesitating between philosophy and aviation; he asked me today whether I thought he was utterly hopeless at philosophy, and I told him I didn’t know but I thought not. I asked him to bring me something written to help me judge. He has money, and is quite passionately interested in philosophy, but he feels he ought not to give his life to it unless he is some good. I feel the responsibility rather as I really don’t know what to think of his ability”. [27.11.11]

During the vacation period at the end of term, Wittgenstein crafted this something written that Russell was seeking. It was to be a turning point in both Russell and Wittgenstein’s lives. It transformed Russell’s view of his student. He described it to Lady Ottoline as:

“very good, much better than my English pupils do … I shall certainly encourage him. Perhaps he will do great things.”

Wittgenstein later told his lover David Pinsent that Russell’s words of encouragement had been his salvation and put an end to nine years of loneliness and suffering in the constant shadow of suicide.

With this recognition from Russell, Wittgenstein gave up engineering and set aside ‘a hint that he was de trop in this world’. This fearful hint that he was a waste of space on the earth had previously made him feel ashamed he had not killed himself.

In the course of the following term, Wittgenstein’s intensity did not wane. By the end of the semester, Russell said that Wittgenstein had learned all he had to teach and had begun to go beyond him. In a letter to Ottoline he wrote:

“Yes, Wittgenstein has been a great event in my life — whatever may come of it I love him & feel he will solve the problems I am too old to solve — all kinds of problems that are raised by my work, but want a fresh mind and the vigour of youth. He is the young man one hopes for.”

In Wittgenstein, Russell had found his successor.

Wittgenstein (image via Wikimedia: Public Domain)

From Student to Master

Over the coming months and years, Russell’s admiration began to bloat as he was progressively eclipsed by his student. It was in many ways a smooth transition of power.

Russell saw in Wittgenstein the ‘ideal pupil’ covered with all the traces of genius. Wittgenstein was

“full of boiling passion which may drive him anywhere.”

He saw in him ‘a pure intellectual passion’ that he had ‘in the highest degree’; ‘it makes me love him’. This importance of passion recurs again and again in Russell’s correspondence about Wittgenstein.

“It is a rare passion and one is glad to find it.”

“he has more passion about philosophy than I have; his avalanches make mine seem mere snowballs”.

“His disposition is that of an artist, intuitive and moody. He says every morning he begins his work with hope, and every evening he ends in despair — he has just the sort of rage when he can’t understand things that I have.” [16.3.12]

“I have the most perfect intellectual sympathy with him — the same passion and vehemence, the same feeling that one must understand or die, the sudden jokes breaking down the frightful tension of thought.” [17.3.12]

And most strikingly

“… perhaps the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense, and dominating”

It is hard to imagine that this praise of Wittgenstein and his acceptance of the Austrian’s eclipsing genius could have proceeded so smoothly but at this time. As Monk muses:

“perhaps [Wittgenstein’s] acceptance as a philosophical genius owes something to the influence exerted by Ottoline over Russell. If Russell had not been going through such a sentimental phase, he may not have taken to Wittgenstein in the way that he did: ‘Wittgenstein brought me the most lovely roses today. He is a treasure’ (23.4.12); ‘I love him as if he were my son’ (22.8.12). And, perhaps, if he had not lost faith and interest in his own contribution to mathematical logic, he might not have been quite so prepared to hand the subject over to Wittgenstein.”

But this is exactly what we see Russell doing. Already by the end of his first year, Wittgenstein was able to tell Russell what he liked and disliked about his work. This becomes explicit for Russell

“He gives me such a delightful lazy feeling that I can leave a whole department of difficult thought to him, which used to depend on me alone. It makes it easier for me to give up technical work.”

Or as he puts this same move away from technical philosophy in another letter to Ottoline:

‘I don’t feel the subject neglected by my abandoning it, as long as he takes it up’,

By the end of the year, when Wittgenstein’s sister Hermine visited Cambridge and was introduced to Russell she was taken aback to hear him say:

‘We expect the next big step in philosophy to be taken by your brother.’

By 1913, Russell was working on the creation of his ‘new science’ and was fully prepared to concede the analysis of logic field to his brilliant student. When Wittgenstein confronted Russell about some of the early proofs in the Principia being wrong, Russell wrote to Ottoline saying:

‘fortunately it is his business to put them right, not mine’

(image via Wikimedia: Public Domain)

Given the tender mental state of Wittgenstein when he first came to Cambridge, it is quite possible that a more jealous and protective incumbent philosopher would have been threatened by the incessant intensity of Wittgenstein and would have rebuffed him. Perhaps as Monk argues, even Russell in another phase of life may not have been so welcoming. The result of such a rejection could have meant not just a fourth suicide among the Wittgenstein brothers but an incalculable and devastating loss for the field of philosophy.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a creature of impulse; he was operating at the borderlands between intellectual intensity and lunacy. With the nurturing support of Frege and Russell, this intensity was canalised into one of the towering minds in the history of philosophy. Before the decade of his arrival in Cambridge was finished, Wittgenstein had finished the only philosophical book he published in his lifetime — the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus — in which he claimed to have dissolved all the problems of philosophy. With that he quit the field and became a schoolteacher and a gardener and though he later revisited this conviction with very fruitful results, it is a testament to his genius that for a time he had convinced many of philosophy’s most brilliant minds that he was correct and that philosophy was finished.

The towering attainments of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s career however could not have been without the support of his predecessors. In the case of the fragile Viennese philosopher we find that Isaac Newton’s words ring particularly true that

“If I have seen further than others it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.”

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