Wittgenstein's day at the sales: Are there values in the world? At Sotheby's there are. Yesterday, abstruse documents were lotted up and sold for pounds 145,000. In Ray Monk this gave rise to philosophical doubt

Click to follow
The Independent Online
LUDWIG Wittgenstein occupies a unique and enigmatic place in contemporary culture. Though comparatively few can understand his philosophical work, there is an enormous fascination with him as a character. The reasons for this are complicated, but they centre on Wittgenstein's peculiar purity: his uncompromising striving for personal integrity mirrored by his relentless search for philosophical clarity.

He was not an entirely likeable or admirable man - he was too often domineering and severe and too rarely tolerant of other people's weaknesses (or, indeed, of his own). But precisely these faults made him compelling and charismatic, and everybody who knew him at all found him intensely memorable. This is why, perhaps, the merest scrap of personal information about him - including, for example, an interview with the man who delivered peat to his cottage in Ireland - finds a ready publisher and a large readership. In Austria a museum dedicated to his memory proudly displays, among other things, his walking stick and the sock in which he kept his clarinet.

Wittgenstein memorabilia is one thing, his philosophical work is another. But the sale yesterday by Sotheby's of some of Wittgenstein's papers suggests that the two might be in danger of being confused, and, further, that there is money to be made in that confusion.

Sotheby's sold a collection of documents relating to the proof-reading of Wittgenstein's dense and (to most readers) impenetrable work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Proof-reading is a dull business, accepted by most authors as a necessary evil that has to be borne if their work is to be properly published. The opportunity to study another author's proof-reading might appear an unexciting prospect. What makes these documents so valuable, in various senses of the word?

The answer has to do with the kind of acquisitive fetishism that one normally associates with, say, the guitars once owned by John Lennon or the jumpsuits worn by Elvis Presley than with the complicated and interesting publishing history of the Tractatus. By breaking up the collection into 15 lots, Sotheby's seemed to be going for the fetishist market.

But to students of the Tractatus, this piece of proof-reading does indeed offer much valuable information.

When Wittgenstein returned to Vienna after the First World War, he brought back with him the manuscript of a book which he considered solved all the problems of philosophy. One of the lessons of this, he thought, was how little was achieved once those problems had been solved. Nevertheless, he had no doubt that if philosophy itself was in any way important, then so was his book. The trouble was that the work was expressed with the density and compression of a poem and yet required for its understanding some knowledge of the abstruse and technical work of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell. It was, then, doubly difficult to understand. Those capable of appreciating its poetic form found its subject matter alien, while those familiar with mathematical logic (such as Frege himself) found its form of expression obscure. The result was that - so Wittgenstein came to believe - no one in the world understood it, least of all the five publishers to whom he offered it. Each of them, for various reasons, turned it down.

In desperation, Wittgenstein handed the manuscript over to his erstwhile teacher Bertrand Russell with instructions to do with it as he wished. Russell studied it and wrote an introduction to it, which - though Wittgenstein hated it - made the book a viable proposition for prospective publishers. The first to accept was Wilhelm Ostwald, the publisher of a little-known journal called Annalen der Naturphilosophie. Like all the other publishers who had seen it, Ostwald could make nothing of the Tractatus and made it clear that he would accept it only because he considered the sacrifice worth making in order to publish something by Russell. He paid little attention to the detail of Wittgenstein's work, never once thinking to contact him, or send him a copy. When Wittgenstein saw the edition for the first time, four months later, he was horrified at the lack of care that had gone into its production and always maintained that it was a 'pirate' copy.

As far as Wittgenstein was concerned, the first real publication of his book was the joint German and English edition published by Kegan Paul in 1922. The editor for this edition was the Cambridge linguist and philosopher C K Ogden. The documents offered by Sotheby's consisted mainly of the various manuscripts, typescripts, proofs and accompanying letters that were exchanged between Ogden and Wittgenstein in the preparation of the Kegan Paul edition.

Chief among the items offered for sale were three documents that have never been published in their entirety and which are fascinating to students of the Tractatus. These are: (1) the copy of Ostwald's German edition that Ogden sent Wittgenstein and which Wittgenstein marked and corrected; (2) the copy of the first English translation of the Tractatus (made by Ogden with the brilliant young Cambridge mathematician Frank Ramsey) again heavily annotated by Wittgenstein; (3) Wittgenstein's copy of the page proofs sent to him by Kegan Paul and returned by him with extensive alterations. All of these should one day be published in full. Until then, it is vital that they should be made available to scholars.

Yesterday these went to one UK dealer; it remains to be seen whether they will be kept together.

For the most part, the rest of the collection has been published already. Its chief interest is to show that some of the things changed by the later translators of the book, Brian McGuinness and David Pears, were not the result of Ogden's philosophical navety (as had previously been supposed), but were, in fact, explicitly endorsed by Wittgenstein.

The material used for this book was, unfortunately, broken up by Sotheby's into nine different lots, even though it only really makes sense when seen as a whole. Apart from lot 439, which brings together six rather trivial short letters, each letter from Wittgenstein to Ogden was being sold as a separate lot. Who knows, perhaps a fashion may start in which the letters are framed and hung on the walls of restaurants or pubs or boardrooms.

Perhaps it is only a matter of time before the sock in which he carried his clarinet is displayed on the walls of a Wittgenstein burger bar.

Ray Monk is the author of 'Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius' (Jonathan Cape, 1990).

(Photograph omitted)