Ludwig Wittgenstein and Adolf Hitler were born in 1889, and attended the same primary school in Linz, Austria. Hitler’s image is captured on film over and over again, gesticulating histrionically as he speaks at rallies, presiding over the Olympic Games in Berlin, greeting world leaders at the Berghof, or peering at a map through a magnifying glass. He smiles and waves to children at pageants, stands in an open top car in a motorcade, signs the surrender of France. But the image of his contemporary, Wittgenstein, we can know only through photographs. We can hear Hitler’s voice in a multitude of recordings. Wittgenstein is silent.
Wittgenstein wrote only one book in his life time, The Tractatus. Yet it is his profound effect on his students that seems to be his greatest legacy. Many were overwhelmed by his lectures, the intensity of his presentation, some even spoke of watching, in reverence, as he sat and thought. Wittgenstein thinking was a spectacle.
When those same students were asked what it was Wittgenstein was trying to say, none could encapsulate it. They don’t doubt he said something of enormous significance, but what it was, exactly, remained somehow nebulous.
One of the those students was author William Gass, who described watching Wittgenstein as ‘the total naked absorption of the mind in its problem.’
Hitler pollutes the cultural consciousness. He is everywhere: his sinister image, the iconography of his regime, the horrific barbarity of the holocaust. His legacy is a terrifying white noise, a bleak static. What Wittgenstein leaves us, however, is a curious absence, as if somehow he knew that something not said is even more meaningful than what is. In The Tractatus Wittgenstein wants to show that language corresponds to the world of facts, but in its preface writes ‘My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognises them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.) He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.’ True understanding of his work, then, means climbing the ladder of his propositions into silence.