Russell on Wittgenstein

quotations from Russell's writings

My friend Wittgenstein was elected to the Society, but thought it a waste of time, so he imitated john henry roby1 and was cursed. I think he did quite right, though I tried to dissuade him. He is much the most apostolic and the ablest person I have come across since Moore.
In a letter to Lowes Dickinson, 1913

We were both cross from the heat. I showed him a crucial part of what I had been writing. He said it was all wrong, not realizing the difficulties - that he had tried my view and knew it wouldn't work. I couldn't understand his objection - in fact he was very inarticulate - but I feel in my bones that he must be right, and that he has seen something that I have missed. If I could see it too I shouldn't mind, but as it is, it is worrying, and has rather destroyed the pleasure in my writing - I can only go on with what I see, and yet I feel it is probably all wrong and that Wittgenstein will think me a dishonest scoundrel for going on with it. Well, well - it is the younger generation knocking at the door - I must make room for him when I can, or I shall become an incubus. But at the moment I was rather cross.

In a letter to Ottoline Morel, 1915

Do you remember that at the time when you were seeing Vittoz I wrote a lot of stuff about the theory of knowledge which Wittgenstein criticised with the greatest severity? His criticism, tho' I don't think you realised it at the time, was an event of first rate importance in my life, and affected everything I have done since. I saw that he was right, and I saw that I could not hope ever again to do fundamental work in philosophy. My impulse was shattered, like a wave dashed to pieces against a breakwater. I became filled with utter despair, and tried to turn to you for consolation.

In a letter to Ottoline Morel, 1916

He was perhaps the most perfect example I known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense, and dominating. He had a kind of purity which I have never known equalled except by G.E.Moore.

He used to come to see me every evening at midnight, and pace up and down the room like a wild beast for three hours in agitated silence. Once I said to him: 'Are you thinking about logic, or about your sins?' 'Both', he replied, and continued his pacing. I did not like to suggest it was time for bed, for it seemed probable both to him and to me that on leaving me he would commit suicide.

Autobiography, Chapter 9, 1959

A final word?

There are two great men in history whom he somewhat resembles. One was Pascal, the other was Tolstoy. Pascal was a mathematician of genius, but abandoned mathematics for piety. Tolstoy sacrificed his genius as a writer to a kind of bogus humility which made him prefer peasants to educated men and Uncle Tom's Cabin to all other works of fiction. Wittgenstein, who could play with metaphysical intricacies as cleverly as Pascal with hexagons or Tolstoy with emperors, threw away this talent and debased himself before common sense as Tolstoy debased himself before the peasants - in each case from an impulse of pride. I admired Wittgenstein's Tractatus, but not his later work, which seemed to me to involve an abnegation of his own best talent very similar to those of Pascal and Tolstoy.
My philosophical Development, Chapter 18, 1959


1 On election to the Cambridge University Moral Sciences Society (aka The Society or The Apostles) Roby wrote to say that he was too busy to attend the meetings. For this he was ritualistically cursed.

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