Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Riches to Rags Story

So many of us dream of acquiring enough wealth to never need to work again. How wonderful would it be to have the resources to stay above the mundane fray of earning a living? To pursue the higher arts without having to worry about work or life or stress.

Many others dream of writing a great paper or book, so great that they will be offered a professorship at a prestigious university. To teach the brightest minds and to immerse one’s self in the culture of intellectual stimulation. That’s the ideal.

The greatest philosopher of the 20th century had both of these things. He was born the youngest son of Karl Wittgenstein, an Austrian iron and steel magnate. And by the age of 35, he had already written one of the most influential books in philosophy of the early 20th century, the Tractatus Logico-Philsophicus.

But that’s not why I admire Ludwig Wittgenstein.


I admire him, because he gave it all up to live a life of simplicity. And I admire him because of his willingness to change.

By 22, Wittgenstein had already proved himself as a skilled craftsman in aeronautical engineering at Manchester University. But he was searching for something more. He then progressed from engineering to math to logic to philosophy, and in 1911, he arrived at Cambridge, where he smashed into the school’s philosophy department like a bowling ball. Luminaries such as G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell weren’t quite sure what to make of him at first, but they soon recognized him for his genius, to the degree that the greatest minds in the greatest philosophy department in the world soon began to defer to his intellect.

Then, in 1914, World War I erupted, and as an Austrian in England, Wittgenstein found himself on the wrong side of enemy lines. He returned to Austria, and in spite of his family wealth and connections, sought out a series of dangerous and humble posts in the Austrian military. As a sentry during the war and in prison after being captured in 1918, he wrote the bulk of the Tractatus. It was an enormous and powerful work, heavily influential on the Vienna Circle and spawning a movement called “logical empiricism,” whose influence extends from philosophy to concepts in quantum physics.

But Wittgenstein was not content. Three of his brothers had already committed suicide, and he had considered it, too.

Strange, how so often the ones whom we think have it all feel as though they have nothing.

Wittgenstein decided to give it all up to live a simple life. He gave his share of his family fortune to his siblings. And rather than seek out a position at Cambridge or Oxford, he chose to teach poor schoolchildren in the Alps. For the next ten years, he largely disappeared from prominent intellectual circles. But over that time, his philosophy evolved. So much so, that he openly began to repudiate his earlier philosophy.

In 1920, when he finished the Tractatus, Wittgenstein had abandoned philosophy, largely believing that he had already completed the task. His earlier writing presented a full, complete, coherent view of the universe. But the older he got, the more he realized that his earlier philosophy, and indeed all of philosophy, was often undermined by the inherent imperfection in language.

So few have the courage to change even small things, if the change forces them to admit that they are wrong. Wittgenstein performed a complete reversal of everything that had allowed him to rise to prominence.

Wittgenstein’s earlier philosophy tried to capture the whole of logic, math, and philosophy in 75 pages. In his later years, he wrote thousands of pages explaining how philosophy was impossible to capture. But his observations in those pages continue to influence philosophers and entrepreneurs and cutting-edge computer scientists today.

Wittgenstein was not perfect. From what I’ve read, he was often deeply unhappy. He alienated almost everyone who knew him and respected him. By most accounts, he wasn’t very nice. But he was sincere, and he lived consistent with his most deeply held beliefs. It’s hard to imagine what’s more meaningful than that.

His last words were, supposedly, “tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” For me, that’s hard to argue.