Part of the kuden – the oral history – of Aikido revolves around a story that during the US occupation of Japan some of O’Sensei’s students would test their progress through a practical application of the art – i.e., they would get into fights – (Sadateru) Arikawa comes to mind.  O’Sensei would admonish them that they should not fight but would pointedly ask “Who won?” and reportedly became furious if his students lost.

O sensei kiai

Clearly O’Sensei retained a martial spirit – and wanted it to be an effective art.  And while competition in the dojo was forbidden, that should not be taken to mean avoiding all conflict.  When conflict is unavoidable, what skills are necessary to prevail?

  • situational awareness
  • adequate preparation
  • the ability to quickly take whatever actions are appropriate to the situation.

Why the focus on winning?  First and foremost – being able to win is the only indication of skill.  Aikido attracts the losers because everyone is a winner – a ramification of the ‘every participant gets a trophy’ mentality.  It takes more than showing up and it takes more than days on the mat – it takes productive time where you try to leave better than you were when you came in.  I have seen people with decades of practice time and they still could barely execute basic movements: clearly they had experienced the same single day of practice, every day for the last decade.  Time does not equal experience.  So winning here isn’t competition to establish some juvenile sense of achievement or hierarchy, but rather winning to ensure progress.  A crucible of honesty so that we do not become enamored with what may be a naive understanding of our ability.

But your description of winning seems crude, perhaps brutal, certainly not very refined like good Aikido should be.  Perhaps: I would brand what I aspire to a “fighting science” rather than a spiritual path.   I know nothing of Oomoto-kyo and kotodama so I demure to say nothing – following Wittgenstein’s* conclusion in the Tractatus.

Social confrontations, disagreements and conflicts seldom need to escalate to violence. But the very nature of our practice necessitates physical violence – or more specifically the ability to control physical violence.  You must first be able to win to be able to choose how to win.

Situational Awareness

A simple term – much loved in the self-defense world – Boyd’s OODA loop, Cooper’s color codes – for we Aikidoka: zanshin (relaxed awareness).  Mushin (no mind), Shizentai (natural posture) and zanshin are commonplace phrases – but they are really aspirational states – meaning nothing is father from a “natural” reaction in a violent encounter than a “relaxed” awareness or a “natural” posture.  Idealized stories like those of Yamoaka Tesshu (Sword of No Sword) provide a historical reminder – but I think a more recent exemplar in Aikido is Seigo Yamaguchi – see his demonstration at Meiji University.

The physiological reality is diametrically opposite of these aspirational goals.  In violent encounters the brain focuses on the threat (tunnel vision) and the senses shut down (auditory exclusion is common).  The muscles tense and fine motor skills diminish and grip strength increases.  So clearly training is an attempt to overcome our physiological baseline – we are attempting to move beyond mere biology.

There are a number of tricks to employ here.  First is simple exposure to startling or confrontational situations.  The more exposure the more familiarity – the challenge is to learn to have increasing control over your own actions with every encounter.  Notice the focus on the self-awareness and the self-control.  We need control ourselves first and foremost before we can control others.  Try building an ever expanding level of awareness – meaning in each situation on the mat start with being aware of what you are doing (when training I try to accelerate the learning curve by closing my eyes – get rid of the extraneous visual information and feel what is happening).  Then once you feel confident you know how you are acting/moving/reacting then try expand your awareness as to what your partner is doing.  The next level is expand to what/who is acting in close proximity to you.  Keep expanding.  There is nothing mystical about situational awareness but it takes work.  Paying attention to the details – noticing that which doesn’t belong, what is different?  An oft cited example of developing awareness is “Kim’s Game” from Rudyard Kipling’s 1901 novel Kim during his training as a spy.  James Bond is another easy example – his savoir faire results from hard won experience and great observational skills.  Pay attention to your “6th sense” it ain’t BS – we all take in more information than we can process so when your subconscious starts signaling – listen.  Better yet, be more actively aware – zanshin – than to “trust your gut.”

So you are aware of the threat – how do you respond?  There are many great postures, kamae, or guards to take and each art will advocate for one over another.  Aikido advocates, shizentai – a natural posture which is effectively, no guard.  The theory is that by taking no kamae there is no opening, no one specific avenue for the opponent to attack, seemingly all of you is open, therefore nothing is available.  OK, enough mysticism.  (But there is the perversely brilliant logic – Okomoto sensei once told me: “If there is no solution, then there is no problem.”)  However, I believe that it really works more like this: we deceive our opponent into an avenue we select.  A guard or kamae telegraphs, we aspire to “lead the spirit” to the appropriate target.  How is leading the spirit a scientific understanding of combat?  Here is “leading the spirit” in action from the Tombstone shootout scene – watch Val Kilmer as Doc at about 1:25 forward.  Brilliant scene, great movie – admit it!  Point is, when playing on the level of human psychology, deception becomes more than mere physical movements.  We do this to each other all the time – presenting the wrist to encourage the engagement, a shift of the head to indicate which side to strike yokomen, the obsessive focus on which foot is forward.  All of this conditioning will result in an “artifact of training” (meaning bad combat habits) if you allow yourself to be blindly conditioned, but if you are paying better attention, you can start to minimize your motions, and start to project intent, to “psych-out” your opponent.  Need other examples?  Sympathetic reactions, like matching thoracic breathing rates to first match then slow the breathing rate in another, contagious yawning, or simply looking quickly askance to direct another’s attention.  Misdirection.  Using psy-ops so that you call the shots.

Another way to convey the same principles.  Old story of a tea-master and samurai.  Tea-master bumps samurai, gets challenged to a duel.  Tea-master frantically goes to a samurai buddy to get some training and is told to simply go into the duel with the same mindset as he would approach a tea ceremony.  At the day of the duel, the opposing samurai notices the change in demeanor, apologizes and calls it off.  Why?  Mumbo-jumbo aside – its fake it ‘till you make it.  We all bluff and deceive and it’s what we must do against any adversary.  A kamae is just one form of deception – creating the illusion of an opening.  In Aikido – we are aspiring to pull off the ultimate bluff – of being ultimately vulnerable so as to become impenetrable.  A bit of poetic treacle – but by staying calm, controlling our emotions and our body we retain the upper hand.  A more “active” version is give no signal as to intent except to provide the indication that it would be a mistake for our adversary to resort to violence.  Anyone who remembers trying to approach or attack Chiba sensei can appreciate that demeanor.

Being prepared to do whatever is required

This is the single most difficult principal to teach.  During training, often Aikido “doesn’t work” because uke fails to attack with sufficient intention (or targeting accuracy) so the entire encounter fails and looks silly.  It only took me a few years to realize that uke’s pathetic attacks were a reflection of the beauty of the human condition: most of us are unwilling to try to harm each other.  It takes conditioning to overcome that reluctance.  So doing whatever it takes is broad from necessity – because you never know and cannot chose where, when, how, by whom or by how many you will be attacked and therefore must defend against.  But having a winning mindset involves being prepared to do what is necessary.

When Mulligan and Okamoto sensei were living in Portland, I was often at their house and once Chris was watching Michael Jordan and admiring his “winning spirit” something that made no sense to me primarily because I have no love or appreciation for basketball.  However, Chris extolled his drive to persevere and prevail and to do it with physical aplomb.   More recently, I was watching my older son play in a “friendly” tournament.  It was Thanksgiving morning – it was miserably cold and with a blustery and unnaturally heavy rain – but a group of kids playing in a 3v3 format on quarter fields.  It was just for fun but a minor prize was up for grabs to the winning team.  My son’s team mates were not at their best and Adin was getting frustrated, they had been up in the first half but the game was now tied.  Adin asked the coach how long before the end of the 2nd half and was told 1 minute, so when he challenged the next player he booted the ball a full field length to ensure the other team could not gain possession and possibly score.  Brilliant strategy – a bit overzealous I thought – but it showed me his determination to prevail.  Do what it takes even if it is simply denying an opportunity.

While sardonic – Schopenhauer’s The Art of Being Right shows us that the point of public argument is not to be right but rather to win.   Frighteningly, while I think Schopenhauer wrote this as satire, his 38 ways to win now seem to be a training manual for political discourse: “Dialectic, then, need have nothing to do with truth, as little as the fencing master considers who is in the right when a dispute leads to a duel. Thrust and parry is the whole business.”

Diverse examples, but meant to show a range in responses that sum to the determination to prevail.  And is an impolite truth to remember that we are all progeny of winners.

Sound too polemical? Darwin in the dojo?  How can this be a truth of Aikido?  I have focused on winning because you should never train to lose.  If your goal isn’t to win then de facto you lose.  You don’t train to miss (but in everyday practice all too often that is all I see).  You must train to target vital area.  If your motions do not lead to your opponent’s incapacitation, then your actions have no purpose.  Ah, you may say, but my Aikido leads to my opponent’s salvation.  Remember O’Sensei dueling with the kendo master, you may say, and how O’Sensei defeated him without violence?  And I reply, and he could do so only because at any time O’Sensei could have resorted to violence.  He had the skill and the skill to choose how to win.  And it is precisely at the level of choice that the path to self-mastery begins.





*As a diversion – more on Wittgenstein:

A Nervous Splendor

“The Wittgenstein family had a genius for misery.”

The family of Karl Wittgenstein, who was one of Austria’s richest men when he died, in 1913, may deserve some gloomy sort of prize, the Palm of Atreus, perhaps. His youngest child, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, once asked a pupil if he had ever had any tragedies in his life. The pupil, evidently well trained, inquired what he meant by “tragedy.” “I mean suicides, madness, or quarrels,” replied Ludwig, three of whose four brothers committed suicide, two of them (Rudi and Hans) in their early twenties, and the third (Kurt) at the age of forty. Ludwig often thought of doing so, as did his surviving brother, Paul. A budding concert pianist when he lost his right arm to a Russian bullet, in 1914, Paul was imprisoned for a time in the infamous Siberian fortress where Dostoyevsky had set his novel “The House of the Dead.” Ludwig later claimed to have first entertained thoughts of suicide at around the age of ten, before any of his brothers had died. There were three sisters: Gretl, Helene, and Hermine. Hermine, the eldest child (she was born in 1874; Ludwig, the youngest, arrived fifteen years later), and the guardian of her father’s flame, never married. Helene was highly neurotic, and had a husband who suffered from dementia. Gretl was regarded as irritating by most people, including her unpleasant husband, who committed suicide, as did his father and one of his aunts. Bad temper and extreme nervous tension were endemic in the family. One day, when Paul was practicing at one of the seven grand pianos in their winter home, the Palais Wittgenstein, he leaped up and shouted at his brother Ludwig in the room next door, “I cannot play when you are in the house, as I feel your skepticism seeping towards me from under the door!”

All of this was before the Nazis got to work. The Wittgenstein children were brought up as Christians, but they counted as full Jews under the Nuremberg racial laws because three of their grandparents had been born Jewish and did not convert to Christianity until they reached adulthood. (The fourth, their maternal grandmother, had no Jewish ancestry.) After Germany annexed Austria, in 1938, the family money bought the lives of the three sisters—Paul had escaped, and Ludwig was safe in England—but at the cost of estranging several of the surviving siblings from one another. A few days before the invasion of Poland, in 1939, Hitler found the time to issue an order granting half-breed status to the Wittgenstein children, on the pretext that their paternal grandfather had been the bastard son of a German prince. Nobody believed this tale, but the arrangement enabled the German Reichsbank to claim all the gold and much of the foreign currency and stocks held in Switzerland by a Wittgenstein trust. The negotiations for this exchange seem to have involved a secret pact in which Gretl and Hermine sided with Nazi officials against Paul. After the war, Paul performed with his single hand at a concert in Vienna but did not visit Hermine, who was dying there; Ludwig and Paul had no contact after 1939; nor did Paul and Gretl. This was not a happy family.

Alexander Waugh, the author of “The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War” (Doubleday; $28.95), is no stranger to family sagas. He belongs to the fourth generation of an English literary dynasty that includes the novelist Evelyn Waugh, who was his grandfather; his previous book, “Fathers and Sons,” is a memoir of the Waughs. The publishers of “The House of Wittgenstein” compare the “novelistic richness” of its style to Thomas Mann’s first novel, “Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family,” which was published in 1901. In fact, there are more than stylistic similarities between the Wittgensteins of Vienna and Mann’s invented north-German merchant dynasty. In Mann’s novel, the vitality and the solid businesslike virtues of the Buddenbrook family are sapped by introspection, homosexuality, loss of interest in commerce, overindulgence in art, and illness. If Karl Wittgenstein ever read it, he must have nodded in recognition. In a memoir that Hermine wrote in the nineteen-forties, she noted the “lack of vitality and will for life” that set her brothers apart from their father, and described his bitter disappointment that none of them wanted to continue his work in business. Like his wife and his children, Karl was highly musical, but he found his son Hans’s obsession with music to be morbid and strictly limited the amount of time the boy was allowed to play. Hans was a prodigy whose extraordinary musical perception became evident at the age of four; Gustav Mahler’s teacher, Julius Epstein, called him a genius. But Karl insisted that he follow a career in industry or finance. Rudi and Ludwig were homosexual, and Hans may have been, too.

There the parallels end. Thomas Mann traced the decline of the Buddenbrooks through four generations, but the Wittgensteins rose and fell within the span of two. Karl more or less built the family fortune himself. He was no stolid merchant but an audacious risk-taker, and something of a rebel in early life. At the age of seventeen, he absconded to New York, where he arrived in the spring of 1865 with a violin and no money. He worked as a waiter, then, among other things, he played in a minstrel band, a gig that came to an abrupt end when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in a theatre and musical performances were banned. Karl was too ashamed to write to his family or answer their letters. It was only when he got a steady job as a teacher at a college in upstate New York that he recovered enough pride to agree to return.

His father was a land agent and a trader, and at first Karl was put to work on one of his rented farms. Then he briefly enrolled in Vienna’s Technical University. After dropping out, he took a series of engineering jobs. Energy and intelligence got him into management, audacious deal-making took him higher, and some capital from his wife (he married in 1874) provided the first grains of powder for an explosive entrepreneurial rampage. Waugh says that Karl Wittgenstein was a chancer, whose enormous fortune owed as much to the favorable outcomes of his gambles as to his hard work and his skills. That is implausible; nobody has quite such a consistent run of good luck. Karl was adept at swinging the odds in his own favor, and he knew exactly which chances to take—in particular, he appreciated the significance of technology more keenly than his competitors did. Announcing his death, in 1913, The Economist wrote that “the Austrian iron and steel trade owes its rapid growth and development solely to him.”

Newspaper articles by Karl Wittgenstein show that he believed in unfettered capitalism (though not in free trade) and was opposed to any legislation aimed at protecting consumers from cartels or fraud. Such laws, in his opinion, would interfere with the crucial work of vigorous entrepreneurs, who would ultimately raise the standard of living for everybody. An early master of the leveraged buyout, he no doubt cut some corners while assembling his ingeniously integrated empire of mines, iron- and steelworks, and hardware factories. He certainly reaped the benefits of monopoly wherever he could find them. In February of 1900, The Economists Austria-Hungary correspondent reported from Vienna that Herr Wittgenstein would “soon have the power of fixing iron prices in Hungary also, as he fixes them in Austria.”

Karl was no philanthropist on the scale of his American friend Andrew Carnegie. He was more of a patron—one of the main supporters of the Secession, Vienna’s Art Nouveau movement led by Gustav Klimt (who painted a portrait of Gretl, which she did not like). But the family’s cultural life really centered on the grand Musiksaal on the first floor of their main house. Brahms was a family friend. He dedicated his violin concerto to Karl’s first cousin Joseph Joachim, whose famous quartet played in the Musiksaal several times each year. Richard Strauss came and performed duets with the young Paul. Schoenberg attended the soirées several times; Mahler, whose music Ludwig later dismissed as “worthless,” once attended but was not invited again after he left before the end of the evening’s entertainment.

Music was more than entertainment for the Wittgensteins, though, and more than art. For one thing, it became a store of value. Pages from the Wittgenstein collection of autographed musical manuscripts flutter through this wonderfully told story. Scores by Brahms, Schubert, Wagner, and Bruckner are stuffed in a potting shed by a quick-thinking servant while an art historian from the Gestapo rummages through Gretl’s house. A Bach cantata, two Mozart piano concertos, a Haydn symphony, and one of Beethoven’s last piano sonatas are smuggled to Ludwig in Cambridge, where he places them in a bank safe-deposit box. Gretl’s younger son hides Schubert’s “Die Forelle,” Brahms’s “Handel Variations,” some Beethoven letters, Wagner’s sketches for “Die Walküre,” and more, under a pile of socks in his suitcase, and heads for the Vienna railway station. Music was also, Waugh writes, the only effective way in which the Wittgenstein children could communicate with their shy, nervous, and intensely musical mother. And music provided consolation and distraction from the tragedies of the family, about which they were mostly required to remain silent.

Sometime in 1901, Hans fled from his father and went to America, much as his own father had done thirty-six years earlier. In 1902, he disappeared, by most accounts, from a boat, which may have been in the Chesapeake Bay, perhaps on the Orinoco River in Venezuela, or in several other places. Wherever it was, no one doubted that he had committed suicide. Hans’s disappearance was a banned topic. Rudi was a twenty-two-year-old chemistry student in Berlin when he walked into a bar on a May evening in 1904, requested a sentimental song from the pianist, and then mixed potassium cyanide into a glass of milk and died in agony. The suicide note left for his parents said that he had been grieving over the death of a friend. A more likely explanation is that he thought he was identifiable as the subject of a published case study about homosexuality. After Rudi’s funeral, Karl forbade the family to mention him ever again. Waugh thinks that this enforced silence, which the dutiful Mrs.Wittgenstein supported, created a permanent rift between parents and children. The exact circumstances of Kurt’s suicide, which took place on the Italian front in 1918, are unknown. He was generally regarded as cheerful, but Hermine recorded that he seemed to carry “the germ of disgust for life within himself.”

Perhaps it was because Paul, after he lost his right arm, had the most tangible affliction in the family that he found the focus to remake himself. His determination to succeed on the concert stage was, in part, inspired by the example of Josef Labor, a blind organist and composer who was a favorite of the Wittgenstein family. Géza Zichy, a one-armed Hungarian count whose pianism had enthralled Liszt, was another encouraging model. Zichy wrote a self-help book for amputees, which explained, among other things, how to eat a crayfish and remove one’s underpants with only one arm. Paul worked furiously and ingeniously to develop techniques that would enable him to perform. The training began while he was still recovering from the amputation in a Russian prison hospital, tapping on a dummy keyboard that he had etched in charcoal on a crate. Later, on a real piano, he often practiced for up to seven hours at a sitting.

At the peak of his career, in the late nineteen-twenties and early thirties, Paul’s concerts drew wildly enthusiastic reviews from respected critics; the Grove Dictionary of Music describes Paul as having had “an amazing virtuosity which enabled him to overcome difficulties formidable even for a two-handed pianist.” During Ludwig’s lifetime, the pianist brother—his elder by just two years—was much the more famous of the two. It’s also true that Paul continued to perform after his abilities had declined, and his reputation declined accordingly. He made few recordings, and Waugh, who is also a composer and a music critic, remarks that most of them are bad.

His most lasting significance comes from having commissioned one-handed works from at least a dozen composers, including Richard Strauss, Sergei Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith, and Maurice Ravel, whose Piano Concerto for the Left Hand remains widely performed. Strauss extracted a particularly large fee, and Britten, at least, affected to be in it just for the money. (“I have been commissioned by a man called Wittgenstein,” Britten wrote to his sister. “He pays gold so I’ll do it.”) Paul often insisted on changes to the music, especially when he thought that the orchestra had been overscored and would drown out his playing. (Britten groused, “The man really is an old sour puss.”) There was also a colorful dispute with Ravel, who complained for the rest of his life about his dealings with Paul. There was worse in store for poor Hindemith, who wrote his concerto in 1923: Paul couldn’t understand the composition, so he filed it away. It was discovered eight decades later, in a Pennsylvania farmhouse that had belonged to Paul’s widow, and given a belated world première by Leon Fleisher in Berlin in 2004. Paul couldn’t fathom Prokofiev’s concerto, either, and he shelved that, too. In 1950, Siegfried Rapp, a pianist who had lost his right arm in the Second World War, asked for permission to perform some of these works, many of which had been written a quarter of a century earlier. Paul usually bought exclusive performing rights for his commissions, and he said no. A few years later, Rapp obtained a copy of Prokofiev’s concerto from his widow and went ahead, anyway, infuriating Paul.

It is hard to warm to Paul’s refusal to let anyone else perform pieces that he wouldn’t play himself. (He even felt betrayed by composers who wanted to rearrange his commissions to produce two-handed versions.) And, despite giving evidence of Paul’s kindness and generosity to friends, pupils, and old retainers, Waugh makes no effort to conceal his hero’s estrangement from the compromises that lubricate everyday life. Bertrand Russell once wrote of Ludwig that no one could be more “destitute of the false politeness that interferes with truth.” This was at a time when Russell was still enraptured by the young Ludwig. Russell later grew less indulgent toward his erstwhile pupil, but he had identified a family characteristic: when they believed that an important principle was at stake—which, for them, was often—the Wittgensteins were not inclined to be nice.

Most of Paul’s eccentricities were perhaps the normal ones for a loner who had been brought up amid vast wealth. He was a fiercely private man who liked to book entire railway carriages for himself, even when travelling with his family. His wife, Hilde, who was half blind and had been his pupil, bore him two children in Vienna before their marriage; the elder child had been conceived shortly after their first piano lesson, when Hilde was eighteen years old and Paul was forty-seven. Because Hilde was not Jewish, Paul was open to charges of “racial defilement,” and in 1938 he fled Austria. When his wife and children arrived in the United States, in 1941, he set them up in a house on Long Island, which he visited on weekends from his apartment on Riverside Drive. Arriving in New York without a valet, he soon ran into trouble. When his clothes were stolen from a hotel—he had left them outside his room, presuming that someone would wash them—he sat around in bedsheets until a candidate for the post of personal assistant came up with the suggestion that more clothes be bought from a shop. She was hired. Another anecdote has him sallying forth into the street wearing a hat that was still attached to its box.

In the Wittgenstein family, it was not the philosopher who was the unworldly one. Ever since childhood, the last-born Ludwig had had a passion and a facility for mechanical things. At the age of ten, he constructed a working model of a sewing machine out of bits of wood and wire; while serving in the Austrian Army, he demonstrated a more dangerous practicality by improvising his own mortar in the field. After leaving school, Ludwig studied engineering in Berlin, specializing in hot-air balloons, and then moved to Manchester to work on aeronautical engines; in 1910, he patented an improvement in propeller technology. It was then that he heard of Bertrand Russell’s work on logic and decided to study with him in Cambridge.

Russell found him to be a tormented soul, unsure of his own abilities and unsure whether to be an engineer or a philosopher. Russell soon decided that Ludwig was the most perfect example of genius he had ever known, and persuaded him not to continue with engineering. “We expect the next big step in philosophy to be taken by your brother,” Russell told Hermine. But he feared that his new pupil was on the brink of suicide, as he explained in a letter to his mistress, Lady Ottoline Morrell. Ottoline wrote back that hot chocolate would calm Ludwig’s nerves, and enclosed a packet of cocoa tablets for Russell to give him.

If they ever reached Ludwig they did not do the trick. He continued to work with a feverish intensity on the problems of logic that he was discussing with Russell and to agonize about his life. The way those two topics were entangled in Ludwig’s mind can be seen from his “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” a gnomic masterpiece that he completed as a soldier in 1918. The “Tractatus” is a mixture of logical symbols and mystical remarks in which Ludwig attempted to delineate the limits of language. Certain things could be expressed in language, and these were best understood in terms of the logical techniques developed by Russell, he maintained. But others—and these were the most important things in life—could not be expressed in language at all. Hence the book’s famous closing line: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” The problems of philosophy could thus be dispatched by being divided into those that could be perspicuously rendered into Russellian logic, and thereby answered fairly easily, and those about which nothing could be said.

Frank Ramsey, one of Ludwig’s most brilliant friends, who had reviewed the “Tractatus” in Britain’s main philosophical journal as an undergraduate, quipped that “what we can’t say we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either.” Ramsey meant that Ludwig seemed to be cheating by trying to specify exactly what cannot be said. As it happens, Ludwig—who, unusually for a Wittgenstein, seems not to have mastered any musical instrument as a child—impressed his musical friends with displays of virtuoso whistling. Several Cambridge dons recalled hearing him whistle the solo part of an entire concerto while a pianist played the orchestral part. Whether or not Ramsey had this curious feat in mind, the Wittgensteins were certainly in the habit of using music to express what they couldn’t say in words.

After the “Tractatus,” having thus exhausted all philosophical problems, and been exhausted by them, Ludwig took a break. He worked as a schoolmaster for six years and then as an architect, designing and obsessively supervising the building of a house in Vienna for his sister Gretl. During the First World War, he had read Tolstoy’s “The Gospel in Brief” and other writings that extolled the wisdom of peasants. Resolving to lead a simple life, he gave his share of the family money to three of his siblings; since they were very rich already, he believed they could not be corrupted further by receiving his portion. Then, in 1927, his interest in philosophy was rekindled. This time, his view of language changed—the emphasis on Russellian logic was gone—but one key idea remained the same. Both his old and his new philosophy shared an inspiration that he had come across as a teen-ager in “The Principles of Mechanics,” by Heinrich Hertz, a German physicist. Hertz had suggested a novel way to deal with the puzzling concept of force in Newtonian physics: the best approach was not to try to define it but to restate Newton’s theory in a way that eliminates any reference to force. Once this was done, according to Hertz, “the question as to the nature of force will not have been answered; but our minds, no longer vexed, will cease to ask illegitimate questions.”

Ludwig’s big idea was to apply this method to philosophical problems. In his “Tractatus,” he had tried to show that some philosophical questions were illegitimate because they tried to say the unsayable. The new approach was gentler and more therapeutic. By painstakingly examining how language works in everyday life, Ludwig now believed that one could be cured of the misconceptions that give rise to philosophical puzzles, and thus stop worrying about them. That is what he toiled on, mostly in Cambridge, until his death, in 1951.

Does this actually work? Curiously, it is hard to say, because Ludwig seldom dealt explicitly with classical philosophical problems. His writings hardly ever mention the great philosophers of days gone by, except in passing. So one has to work out for oneself what, if any, bearing his explorations of the workings of language have on the ideas of Plato, Descartes, or Kant. Ludwig intended his technique to be revolutionary: “Why should philosophy in the age of airplanes and automobiles be the same as in the age when people travelled by coach or on foot?” the former aeronautical engineer asked. It remains a point of contention whether he really found an honest way to dispose of philosophical questions or merely succeeded in changing the subject of conversation by the sheer force of his personality.

There’s a telling description of genius by Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher of romantic pessimism, whose work was well known to Ludwig, Paul, Gretl, and Hans: “Talent is like the marksman who hits a target which others cannot reach; genius is like the marksman who hits a target, as far as which others cannot even see.” That seems to have been the Wittgenstein way: trying to hit targets that others could not see. But if ordinary mortals cannot spot the bull’s-eye, how do they know whether it has been hit? According to Schopenhauer, they just have to accept the evidence of genius on faith, which is what Ludwig’s admirers often did. When Ludwig attacked some of Russell’s ideas, Russell wrote to Ottoline Morrell, “I couldn’t understand his objection—in fact he was very inarticulate—but I feel in my bones that he must be right.” Other philosophers who met Ludwig reported the same feeling.

It’s tempting to come away from the Wittgenstein saga with the thought that Karl, if only he had lived long enough, would have acknowledged the iron-willed independence of Paul and Ludwig as a reflection of his own, and given them his blessing. But that would probably be expecting too much of him. Tragic or not, no family has room for more than one Wittgenstein.



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