Wittgenstein and Dostoyevsky

A great many, perhaps most, of the books I choose to read are a consequence of something I’ve just read, or an intriguing comment on social media. Kaufmann’s The Faith of a Heretic led me to Norman Malcolm’s delightful Wittgenstein memoir, which in turn fixed my resolve to read The Brothers Karamazov. Malcolm’s contention that Wittgenstein considered The House of the Dead Dostoyevsky’s greatest work is unusual in that it is not one of his ‘big four’ novels.

Once when we were conversing Wittgenstein was delighted to learn that I knew Tolstoy’s Twenty-three Tales. He’d had an extremely high opinion of these stories. He questioned me closely to find out whether I had understood the moral of the one entitled ‘How Much Land Does A Man Need?’ Wittgenstein had been stiff with me at the beginning of the conversation because he was displeased with me for a reason I have forgotten. But when he discovered that I had read, understood, and valued Tolstoy’s stories, he became friendly and animated. Wittgenstein also admired the writings of Dostoevsky. He read The Brothers Karamazov and extraordinary number of times, but he once said that The House of the Dead was Dostoevsky’s greatest work.

Memoirs from the House of the Dead is therefore what I’ll read next, in the Jesse Coulson translation.

When it’s Nasty Then it’s Most Important

Yet another sighting of E. R. Dodds’ The Greeks and the Irrational in Walter Kaufmann’s The Faith of a Heretic. Coming across a mention of Dodd’s book has a talismanic aspect; though I’ve never read what Kaufmann refers to as a ‘splendid book’ its presence always implies a text that transcends traditional categories.

Kaufmann’s book is misleadingly titled. Rather than another contribution to that ocean of gibberish in which boorish windbags peddle atheism with all the charm of pavement charity chuggers, Kaufmann’s beautifully elegant, witty book is his very personal critique of philosophy and religion. As with any Kaufmann study, you follow as he discourses freely, peppering his work with anecdotes like this of Wittgenstein, a writer whose voluptuously textured philosophy I’ve failed to understand for three decades:

[..]in his very interesting and moving little book, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, Norman Malcolm tells us how a casual remark he once made in a conversation in the fall of 1939 about the British “national character” vexed Wittgenstein; and he quotes a letter Wittgenstein wrote to him five years later: “Whenever I thought of you I couldn’t help thinking of a particular incident which seemed to me very important. You & I were walking along the river towards the railway bridge & we had a heated discussion in which you made a remark about ‘national character’ that shocked me by its primitiveness. I then thought: what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions in logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious . . . . You see, I know that its difficult to think well about ‘certainty,’ ‘probability,’ ‘perception,’ etc. But it is, if possible, still more difficult to think, or try to think, really honestly about your life & other people’s lives. And the trouble is that thinking about these things is not thrilling, but often downright nasty. And when it’s nasty then it’s most important.