The House of Wittgenstein
A Family at War
Doubleday, $28.95, 352 pp.
The mystery, glamour, and romance that surround the name Ludwig Wittgenstein are now part of our intellectual heritage. There were arguably a dozen other thinkers in the twentieth century who were as original and influential, but few of them have as much mystique. This Viennese eccentric—who published only one book in his lifetime—has captured the imagination of people who hardly know what he is talking about. Alexander Waugh appears to be one of these, and that is no putdown. Bertrand Russell and his Cambridge colleague G. E. Moore, who had both been close to Wittgenstein, professed to be baffled by, but also in awe of, his ideas. He had little time for the history of philosophy. As for his own philosophy, he began his career by describing language as the logical representation or “picturing” of the world, which he understood as a collection of facts; but he later came to think of language more as a set of related practices than as a picture. Wittgenstein was a bundle of paradoxes: a philosopher who rejected much of what we usually think of as philosophy, a rigorous logician who was also a mystic.
In The House of Wittgenstein, Alexander Waugh doesn’t give pride of place to the greatest member of the Wittgenstein family. Instead, he takes the approach of the social and cultural historian and presents a meticulous, scrupulously researched account of what it was like to be a member of an exclusive Hapsburg clan...