Serendipity, what a lovely word, and it immediately came to mind when I stepped on one of the 20th century’s greatest philosophers. Well, I didn’t actually stand on him, but I did put my foot, accidentally of course, on a plaque in his honour in the National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin. It was quite a surprise, completely unexpected as far as I was concerned, as I never knew that the great Austrian thinker, Ludwig Wittgenstein, had lived in Dublin, and spent many hours upon a step in the Palm House whiling away his time in quiet, warm contemplation. What a surprise!
Wittgenstein was born in Vienna in 1889, the youngest of nine children, into a family that was one of the richest in Europe. His father, Karl, was a shrewd and successful businessman who by the late 1880s had a virtual monopoly of the Austrian steel industry. The family owned numerous properties, 13 ‘palaces’ in Vienna alone, and Karl was a sponsor of the arts with Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler regularly giving concerts in the family’s various music rooms. In 1905 Gustav Klimt painted his sister Margaret’s wedding portrait.
After private schooling he joined a local school where he was ridiculed by classmates for his elegant clothes and unfortunate stammer. For someone who later in life became such an original thinker specialising in, among other things, the philosophy of language, the irony of his early speech impediment would not have been lost on him. He studied and then lectured in Trinity College, Cambridge before returning to enlist in the German Army at the start of WW1. He saw action on both the Eastern and Western fronts and won numerous medals for bravery.
After numerous teaching posts he returned to Cambridge at the encouragement of Bertrand Russell, the eminent British philosopher. It was here that he became friends with Maurice O’Connor Drury who was one of his students and who invited him to Ireland. He visited many times and in the autumn of 1948 Drury arranged for him to stay in Ross’s Hotel on Parkgate Street (now Ashling Hotel). Drury had not continued with philosophy and was now working as a psychiatrist in St Patrick’s Hospital, directly across the Liffey from the hotel. The two men met most days and often spent time in the Phoenix Park discussing the great philosophers and, no doubt, other serious issues. A plaque on the Ashling Hotel says that ‘Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosopher, lived and worked here November 1948-June 1949.’ Now, as to what ‘worked’ means in this context is something the great man would be interested in. If he was working I like to picture him pulling a pint and, watching the dark liquid roll and tumble in the cold glass, consider its rhythm and place in the world before declaring in a eureka-like moment ‘It is done.’ Oh, to have been there!
And as the winter of his stay in Dublin was particularly cold, it is no surprise that he went to the Palm House in the Botanic Gardens, the warmest place in Dublin to sit and write. At this time he had begun writing his Philosophical Investigations (which was published in 1953, two years after his death) a book that is considered by many as one of the most important philosophical works of the 20th century. So, the next time you are in the Botanic Gardens mind that you don’t stand on the Philosopher, he might just be writing something really important!
LW: The limits of my language means the limits of my world – now there’s something to think about!