8. Wittgenstein's Distancing

November 28, 2023

When asked to name the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, no one can refute Ludwig Wittgenstein. He was undoubtedly a prominent figure, deserving to be called the Einstein of the philosophical world. But was his life as brilliant? Not at all.

Wittgenstein was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1889. His family, who ran a steel company, was tremendously wealthy. They were wealthy enough to invite musicians like Brahms or Schumann for concerts in their palace. However, a significant darkness crept into his household - depression. Wittgenstein had four older brothers. The eldest brother committed suicide due to disputes with his father, the second brother also committed suicide in the army, and the third brother ingested poison at a bar. Medically speaking, if one family member commits suicide, the suicide rate of other family members can increase significantly. Since three of his brothers committed suicide, Wittgenstein could not be free from this issue.

Wittgenstein spent his life confronting suicide impulses and the fear of death. But did he commit suicide? No, he did not. Wittgenstein had a deep affection for and commitment to philosophy. He briefly studied philosophy under the famous philosopher of his time, Russell, then devoted himself to philosophy in a cottage in the countryside. During this time, World War I broke out, and Wittgenstein, who had faced death his entire life, voluntarily joined the Austrian army. He always carried a notebook while volunteering for the most dangerous positions and moving through the battlefield, for the purpose of studying philosophy. Ultimately, he completed one study in an Italian prisoner of war camp, which was his 'Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus'.

After the war, Wittgenstein inherited a substantial fortune. During the war, the price of the U.S. bonds his family held had increased, accumulating a massive wealth. However, Wittgenstein, who did not place much value on money, distributed all his assets to his siblings and artists. His value was in philosophy.

The 'Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus' is a very short book of only 100 pages, but it subdued the philosophical world upon its publication. He himself stated, "I have ultimately solved all philosophical problems," and concluded his philosophical research. Then he descended to the countryside and worked as an elementary school teacher. After discovering several problems with his claims, he spent his life studying philosophy again, and again voluntarily joined the army during World War II.

In the midst of this, at the age of 62, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and informed by his doctor that he did not have much time left. Wittgenstein, who had suffered from suicidal impulses his entire life, replied, "That's very good." And before he died, Wittgenstein left the following last words: "Tell them I've had a wonderful life."

Can you understand why a man who spent his whole life struggling with suicidal impulses would say "I had a wonderful life" as his last words? To anyone, Wittgenstein's life was filled with death and tragedy. Medically, his suicide risk would be several times higher than the general population. But he did not commit suicide. Even if he felt suicidal impulses, even though he awaited death by responding favorably to the diagnosis of prostate cancer, he clearly defined the value he wanted in life and devoted himself to it.

Despite being potentially a world-famous rich man, even amidst imminent death in war, Wittgenstein tenaciously maintained his value of 'exploring the truth of the world', devoting himself entirely to that value. Distancing oneself from negative thoughts that arise in the mind, clarifying one's values, and devoting oneself to the values one wants. Perhaps the reason why Wittgenstein didn't end his life by suicide, and achieved significant results that could revolutionize the philosophical world, was because he practiced 'distancing' more clearly and assertively than anyone else?

"Tell them I've had a wonderful life." is a phrase worth engraving in our hearts.

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