In November 1949, having returned to England from the United States, he was diagnosed with cancer of the prostate. The original diagnosis was optimistic. It was thought that with modern hormone therapy he could live in reasonably good health for another five or six years. But, as sometimes happens with this disease, he deteriorated rapidly and died on 29 April 1951. His sixty second birthday had fallen on the previous day. Before going into a coma he said to those attending him: “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”
It has seemed odd to me that Wittgenstein would make this statement. I wondered if he might have thought about what others were thinking about him, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Maybe he supposed, “He gave up his riches. He lived alone. He seemingly denied his roots. He struck little defenseless boys. He must have had a miserable life.” And to this he wanted to defend himself. He wanted them, these faceless critics, to know that no, he wasn’t miserable. He had a wonderful life…
Or, maybe he didn’t care to put up much of an argument about the worth of his life. He didn’t want to go into the evidence that, in fact, he had a worthwhile fulfilling life. He didn’t much care about the evidence. But, he wanted people to know that it was, in his opinion, a wonderful life. He did what he wanted, after all. He had no responsibilities. No one was going to tell him what to do. He was the captain of his own ship and he could sail it wherever he wanted.
I don’t think Wittgenstein was trying to defend his choices about his personal or professional life. Rather than be miserable, he didn’t want to make the claim that his life was “wonderful.” And, I don’t believe he wanted to advocate the idea that he or anyone else should just be a self directed man, unfettered by responsibilities or concerns.
Instead, I think Wittgenstein was referring to the Jimmy Stewart film, It’s a Wonderful Life. He was saying, “…my life is like the life of George Bailey’s.” He thought he wanted to make a difference to his community, and thought that when things got rough, he had failed. And because of his failure, he considered suicide. He thought of doing what many in his family had already done. Yet, he reconsidered ending his life because he saw that what he was doing did, or would, make a difference.
One might say that Wittgenstein was not one to pay any attention to his community. Stroll tells us,
It tells us something about his personality that the deteriorating condition of the country seems hardly to have affected him. Like many geniuses, his concentration was upon himself and/or his work. The outside world was peripheral to the mental world he inhabited. Economically, as I pointed out earlier, his family was enormously wealthy thanks to the strategic economic arrangements his father had made two decades earlier. In that ambience there was no scarcity and no need for British or American relief. The turmoil he felt was apolitical. It was internal and personal, and much of it arose from homosexual impulses and actions, about which he felt guilty and at times suicidal.” (Wittgenstein, page 21)
So, for Stroll, Wittgenstein was a reclusive academic from the beginning, driven by his insatiable homosexuality, always fighting his internal demons.
This does not seem to square with many of the facts of Wittgenstein’s life.
He was so concerned about his country that he joined its army to fight during the first world war.
He left his academic job to serve on England’s side during the second world war.
His concerns about his Jewish origins may have been because he felt some responsibility to protect or advocate for Jews at a time when that was difficult, and when he thought he could do more for them in less overt, more covert, ways.
Perhaps he saw that his family’s riches would cloud his ability to see the answers to the questions he was devoted to answering. The rich seem to be mostly concerned about protecting their wealth, and he may have wanted to be concerned about other things.
However, Stroll assumes that Wittgenstein’s concerns about philosophy, and the kind of philosophy focused on questions about ontology, language, epistemology, skepticism, and so on, are personal internal concerns and not at all relevant to anyone’s community. So, philosophers who spend their time on the nature of language and reality, for Stroll, are not like George Bailey, concerned about the economy of Bedford Falls and the fate of its people.
I think Wittgenstein disagrees. I think he’s saying that he returned to philosophy again and again not because it was what he would do as an unfettered captain of his own command, but because, as Bailey is shown, what he does in philosophy stands to make a difference in people’s lives. The promise that he saw in philosophy is what kept him from wishing he had never been born.
He had a “…wonderful life…” not because he had the kind of life that George Bailey had at one time hoped for where he was free to do anything he wanted, without responsibilities and cares, but because he saw that what he did in philosophy helped people and that is what gave his life purpose. Where George worked in a bank to free people from the clutches of the evil Potter, Wittgenstein worked in his writings and his classes to free people from the clutches of bad philosophical dogma.
Well, here is some of Capra’s film…something Wittgenstein could have seen when he was visiting Malcolm in the United States.
The Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was a passionate moviegoer. He preferred American to British cinema and was particularly fond of musicals and westerns. Fred Astaire and Carmen Miranda were two of his idols. He invariably sat in the first row and thought of a trip to the cinema after his lectures a relaxing „shower“.