Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Chronology of his Life & Work

Ex-philosopher, Schoolteacher, Gardener, Architect, 1919-1926

Monday 25th August, 1919: LW arrives back in Vienna. ‘There he was reunited with his brother Paul, who had lost his right arm on the Eastern Front’ (Gilbert 1994, p.520).

LW opens a letter from Vienna to his friend Paul Engelmann ‘As you see I am here!’. He tells Engelmann that there is no end of things he wants to talk to him about. But he also reports that he is not very well as far as his state of mind goes. (McGuinness (p.277) counts LW’s return as a crisis in his life). He asks Engelmann to come to him soon, and to give his ‘sincere and humble regards to your revered mother’ (Engelmann, p.17).

Late August or early September, 1919: Probably during a short stay at Neuwaldegg, LW gives his entire inheritance to his sisters Helen and Hermine, and his brother Paul (McGuinness, p.278; Monk, p.171; Kanterian, p.90; Waugh, pp.140-1). (McGuinness explains that ‘He had gone into the army to suffer with the people: he could not now return to privilege’ (p.277). ‘At first he simply came to the bank and announced, to general consternation, that he did not want his money. Long discussions with the family lawyers were necessary before they could be brought to realize, as one put it, that he wanted to commit financial suicide’ (p.278)).

Late August or early September, 1919: LW briefly contemplates becoming a priest (McGuinness, p.279; Kanterian, p.90)

Monday 1st September, 1919: LW’s sister Hermine writes a letter to him from their family house at Neuwaldegg, beginning by saying she was shocked not to find him there when she arrived. She says she would not have gone to the Hochreith with her sons had she known that these were going to be her last few days with LW.

Hermine then expresses regret that she was not around when LW spoke to their siblings about giving away his inheritance, and says she does not understand why he passed over their sister Gretl (Margaret). She deeems this ‘an enormous slight – not because of the money, but because it’s wounding to be “disinherited”’. She asks LW to consider the matter from this perspective, unless he is pursuing some purpose in this. She explains that all he had to do was to write Gretl a few lines ‘saying you’re not trying to slight her here and that you’re doing it because we shall lose a large part of our money, which won’t happen with her’. Hermine closes by noting that she will see LW this evening ‘at Max’s’, but that she didn’t want to say any of this to him in front of the men (WFL, p.67).

Tuesday 2nd September, 1919: LW writes to Paul Engelmann, thanking him for his latest letter (which is now lost), but explaining that he cannot come to Olmütz in the near future. He says that tomorrow he will be going to the Hochreith for 8-10 days, ‘to find something of myself again if I can. And after that I shall embark on a career. What career? You have time to guess till you come and visit me’. LW then says that a few days ago he looked up their mutual acquaintance, the architect Adolf Loos, but that he was horrified and nauseated, since Loos ‘has become infected with the most virulent and bogus intellectualism!’ Loos had given LW a pamphlet (Der Staat und die Kunst) about a proposed ‘fine arts office’, in which he spoke about ‘a sin against the Holy Ghost’ (McGuinness explains that Loos had said that it would be a sin against the Holy Ghost for the State, as opposed to an individual, to fail to recognise a true artist). LW exclaims that he had been a bit depressed when he went to see Loos, but that this was the limit, the last straw. He then tells Engelmann that there is very much that he wants to talk to him about. A few days ago he had given a copy of his Abhandlung to the Vienna publisher Braumüller (the publisher of Otto Weininger’s book Sex and Character (1903)), but Braumüller has not yet made up his mind whether to accept it.

LW closes by asking Engelmann to give his sincere thanks to his mother for some kind lines she had written to LW, and says he is looking forward to seeing Engelmann again. (Engelmann, p.17-19, McGuinness, pp.277, 291).

Early to mid-September 1919:LW enrols in the Lehrerbildungsanstalt (a teacher-training college for elementary school teachers) in Vienna’s third district, ‘just across the street from where he and Engelmann would one day build a house for Mrs. Stonborough’ (McGuinness, pp.280-282; Monk, p.171).

Mid-September 1919: LW moves out of his family’s lavish homes, and begins to live in lodgings near the teacher-training college at 9, Untere Viaduktgasse, Vienna (McGuinness, p.278; Monk, p.171; Luckhardt, p.94). (But he stays there only for just over one month (ibid., p.283)). 


Tuesday 16th September, 1919: LW begins his teacher-training (WFL, p.66 note 19).

He also writes to Gottlob Frege, acknowledging receipt of an offprint of ‘Der Gedanke’, which Frege had published in the journal Beiträgen zur Philosophie des Deutschen Idealismus, and asks Frege whether he might help getting the Abhandlung published in that journal (Monk, pp.174-5; Künne 2009, pp.31-2).

Frege writes his fourth known letter to LW, querying his description of the purpose of the Abhandlung (Janik 1989, pp.21-22, Künne 2009, p.31).

Thursday 25th September, 1919: LW writes to Paul Engelmann, noting that a few days ago Max Zweig, a friend of theirs from the Olmütz circle, had written to say that he was expectingLW in Olmütz, and therefore that Zweig had gathered from LW’s latest letter to Engelmann exactly the opposite of what it had said. He wonders whether Engelmann had done the same, but explains that he really cannot come, because he has taken up a career. Not wanting to keep Engelmann guessing any more, LW reveals that he is attending a teachers’ training college in order to become a schoolmaster. ‘So once again I sit in a schoolroom, and this sounds funnier than it is. In fact I find it terribly hard; I can no longer behave like a grammar-school boy, and – funny as it sounds – the humiliation is so great for me that often I think I can hardly bear it!’ Although a trip to Olmütz now is out of the question, LW says he very much wants to see Engelmann, and asks him ‘if at all possible’ to come to Vienna. He also entreats Engelmann to write to him at once, and sends his new address (Flat III, 9, Untere Viaduktgasse, c/o Frau Wonicek). Finally, he parenthetically remarks that his circumstances have changed in general, ‘except that I am no wiser than I was’. (Engelmann, p.19; McGuinness, p.282).

Tuesday 30th September, 1919: Gottlob Frege responds to LW in his fifth known letter to him, with editorial advice about where to publish the Abdhandlung (Janik 1989, pp.23-24, Künne 2009, p.32, Dreben & Floyd, pp.60-3). Frege suggests that he might contact a Professor Bauch, in Jena, in order to facilitate its publication in the Beiträgen zur Philosophie des Deutschen Idealismus. (This was the German neo-Kantian philosopher Bruno Bauch: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruno_Bauch ). He says: ‘I could write to him that I have come to know you as a thinker to be taken rather seriously. About the treatise itself I can render no judgment, not because I am not in agreement with the content, but because the content is not sufficiently clear to me. If we were only able to reach agreement about the use of words perhaps we would find that we do not differ with one another substantially’. Frege does worry, too, that the manuscript would take up an entire issue of the journal, and he suggests that it should therefore be split into parts. ‘You write in your Preface that that the truth of the thoughts communicated seems to you unassailable and definitive. Could not then one of these thoughts, in which the solution of a philosophical problem is contained, be taken as the object of a treatise, so that the whole would be divided into so many parts, just as philosophical problems are treated?’. He also worries that in theAbhandlung’s first propositions instead of finding a question or a problem, one is confronted with what appear to be assertions, ‘in urgent need of justification, but given with none’. He closes by asking LW not to take offence at his remarks, which are made with good intentions.

LW writes, from Vienna, to Ludwig von Ficker, explaining that about a year ago he finished writing a philosophical work, detailing some of his attempts to get it published, and asking von Ficker whether Der Brenner might publish it (Luckhardt, pp.92-4; Kanterian, p.85; Monk, p.176). He reports to von Ficker that the editor of Beiträgen zur Philosophie des Deutschen Idealismus had proposed publishing the Abhandlung but only in a form that LW regarded as mutilated ‘from beginning to end’ (Luckhardt, p.93; Künne 2009, p.32). LW also mentions that he is going to the Teacher’s College in Vienna (Luckhardt, p.94).

Wednesday 1st October, 1919: P.E.B.Jourdain, whom LW had consulted in Cambridge between 1909 and 1914, dies. Jourdain had suffered from and had been disabled by Friedreich’s ataxia.

Monday 6th October, 1919: LW writes to Bertrand Russell, frustrated that Frege apparently hadn’t understood a word of his work (Künne 2009, p.32). He starts by thanking Russell for his letter of mid-September, and notes that his publisher received Russell’s testimonial long ago but ‘still has not written to me to say whether and under what conditions he will take my book (the swine!)’. LW says he thinks he will be able to come to The Hague to meet Russell at Christmas time. He tells Russell he has made up his mind to become a teacher and so must return to school ‘at a so-called Teachers’ Training College’. ‘The benches are full of boys of 17 or 18 and I’ve reached 30. ‘That leads to some very funny situations – and many very unpleasant ones too. I often feel miserable!’. LW ends by noting that he is in corresponence with Frege, who ‘doesn’t understand a single word of my work’, and that he is thoroughly exhausted from giving what are purely and simply explanations. Finally he asks after Alfred North Whitehead and W.E.Johnson (Wittgenstein in Cambrdige, p.103).

November, 1919: LW leaves his lodgings near the treacher-training college to move in with some family-friends, the Sjögren family (Mima Sjögren and her two sons Talla and Arvid) in St. Veitgasse, Hietzing, Vienna (Monk, p.180). There he befriends Arvid Sjögren (Monk, p.181).

Early November, 1919: LW again writes, from the Sjögrens, to Ludwig von Ficker, for the first time in four years, sending him a copy of the manuscript of the Abhandlung. ‘Why didn’t I immediately think of you?’, he wonders, then recalling that he did think of von Ficker, but that that had been at a time when his book wasn’t yet finished, and the war was still on. He remarks that he is now pinning his hopes on von Ficker for its publication.

LW then feels it will be helpful if he says a few words about his book, since he expects that von Ficker will not get much out of reading it, since he won’t understand it, the content being strange to him. ‘In reality it isn’t strange to you, for the point of the book is ethical. I once wanted to give a few words in the foreword which now actually are not in it, which, however, I’ll write to you now because they might be a key for you: I wanted to write that my work consists of two parts: of the one which is here, and of everything which I have notwritten. And precisely this second part is the important one. For the Ethical is delimited from within, as it were, by my book; and I’m convinced that, strictly speaking, it can ONLY be delimited in this way. In brief, I think: All of that which many are babbling today, I have defined in my book by remaining silent about it. Therefore the book will, unless I’m quite wrong, have much to say which you want to say yourself, but perhaps you won’t notice that it is said in it. For the time being, I’d recommendd that you read the foreword and the conclusion since these express the point most directly’.

LW then explains that the manuscript he is sending is not the corrected version, only a hastily corrected copy, but that the properly corrected version is in England with Russell, who will be sending it back shortly.

In a postscript to this letter, he gives his address as ‘XIII, St. Veitgasse 17, c/o Mrs. Sjögren (Luckhardt, pp.94-5).

Tuesday 11th November, 1919: Bertrand Russell posts the properly-corrected copy of the manuscript of LW’s Abhandlung back to him. 

Thursday 13th November, 1919: Bertrand Russell writes to LW, from Battersea, noting first that he was only able to post the manuscript of the Abhandlung back to LW two days ago, since there had been difficulties at the post office. He says he is looking forward to seeing LW more than he can say, but warns that it is possible that he may be refused a passport (because of his wartime incarceration).

Russell then records that he has written to the Cambridge furniture dealers LW had in mind, B. Jolley & Son, saying he has LW’s authority to have his things sold. But Russell is concerned that they may refuse to accept his authority, so he asks LW to write to them to the same effect, too. If the sale of LW’s goods is not completed when Russell comes to Holland, he undertakes to give LW in advance whatever sum the books and furniture are judged to be worth, and he notes that their sale ought easily to pay LW’s expenses (Wittgenstein in Cambridge, p.107).

Sunday 16th November, 1919:LW writes a letter to Paul Engelmann, in which he starts by saying that a few days ago he received a letter Engelmann had sent him (a letter which has not survived), and thanking him for that. He empathises with Engelmann, saying that his own state of mind has been similar since his return from the prisoner-of-war camp. ‘What happens, I believe, is this: we do not advance towards our goal by the direct road – for this we (or at any rate I) have not got the strength. Instead we walk up all sorts of tracks and byways, and so long as we are making some headway we are in reasonably good shape. But whenever such a track comes to an end we are up against it; only then do we realise that we are not at all where we ought to be. – This, at least, is how the matter looks to me’.

LW then says he has a great urge to see and speak with Engelmann. He warns Englemann, though, that he will see just how far LW has gone downhill from the fact that he has ‘on several occasions’ thought about taking his own life. ‘Not from my despair about my own badness but for purely purely external reasons. Whether a talk with you would help me to some extent is doubtful, but not impossible’. So he asks Englemann to come to see him soon (Engelmann, p.21; McGuinness, p.281).

Friday 21st November, 1919: LW writes to Bertrand Russell, thanking him for returning the manuscript of the Abhandlung, which he received today. He notes that he has as yet only leafed through it and found two remarks in Russell’s handwriting, and he expresses his intention of talking about everything when they meet in The Hague. LW says he has his passport ready, that he also hopes to get an entrance-permit to Holland, and that he cannot wait to see Russell. He asks Russell whether he received his last letter (of November 1st), in which he asked Russell to sell his things in Cambridge, ‘if they still exist’, and to bring the proceeds to Holland, since he has some difficulties with money.

He closes by asking Russell to write soon, giving him (again) his new address in the Veitgasse, and signs off ‘Warmest regards from your devoted friend’ (Wittgenstein in Cambridge, p.108).

Saturday 22nd November, 1919: LW, having received a letter from Ludwig von Ficker which must have been pessimistic about the prospects for publishing the Abhandlung, replies (von Ficker’s letter has not survived). He begins by saying that von Ficker’s letter wasn’t pleasant for him, although he wasn’t really surprised by its answer. LW says that he, too, doesn’t know where he can get his work accepted and remarks ‘If I myself were only somewhere else than in this lousy world!’.

LW tells von Ficker that although he can if he wishes show the manuscript to a philosophy professor, that would be to cast pearls before swine, and ‘he won’t understand a word of it’.

Finally, LW asks von Ficker ‘only one more request: Make it short and sweet with me. Tell me “no” quickly, rather than too slowly’, explaining that his nerves are not strong enough at the moment to bear such Austrian sensitivity (Luckhardt, p.95).

Monday 24th November, 1919: Russell writes to LW, from Battersea, saying he now has his passport but is having great difficulties getting a Dutch visa. He contemplates the possibility that they may not both be able to get visas, and says that in that case their meeting will have to wait until Easter, when they might meet in Switzerland. Russell says he will be very sorry if that happens, but he has found out that it is much easier to get to Switzerland than to Holland.

Russell then tells LW that Jolley & Son, the Cambridge furniture dealers, are offering £80 for his furniture, not including his books. He says that if he goes back to Cambridge, which he may, he would be glad to take LW’s furniture, or part of it. So he asks LW if it would suit him if he was to pay him £100 for the furniture and the books (not including any special books he might want returned). Russell says he doesn’t know whether it is legally possible to pay LW yet, but that he will find out. He advises LW that he would have to write to Jolley & Sons to say that he had sold the furniture and books to Russell.

Russell closes his letter by asking LW to let him know as son as possible whether he can get his visa, and says that it would be a great disappointment if they do have to put off their meeting until the spring (Wittgenstein in Cambridge, p.109).

Thursday 27th November, 1919: LW writes to Paul Engelmann, who is planning to visit Vienna to see him (as LW entreated him to do in his letter of 16th November). LW explains first that because he goes to a school in town every morning, and it will be best for Engelmann to eat lunch time and evening meals at the Wittgenstein family home in the Alleegasse, he is not going to book a room for Engelmann in Hietzing (where LW is living), but one in the IVth District (in which the Alleegasse is located). Because he doesn’t yet know where this will be, he asks Engelmann to come straight from the rail station to the Alleegasse house, where he will be given further details. LW says he is looking forward ‘with joy’ to Engelmann’s arrival, and that he has troubles with his book which give him no joy at all (Engelmann, pp.21, 23).

LW writes to Bertrand Russell, thanking him for his letter (the one from 13th November, not the more recent one from the 24th), and wishing ‘If only you are able to come to The Hague!’. He asks Russell to wire him immediately he knows, since he has his own passport ready and has stated his intention of being in The Hague from December 13th to 20th. A new change of date would give rise to great difficulties, he declares, so he asks Russell not to keep him waiting for news.

LW agrees with Russell that the Cambridge furniture dealer he meant is Jolley, but thinks they will be satisfied with Russell’s authority (!).

He then notes that the difficulties with his book have started up again, nobody wanting to publish it. He recalls times when Russell was always pressing him to publish something, ‘And now when I should like to, it can’t be managed. The devil take it!’.

He asks Russell to leave his address at the Austrian Legation when he does arrive in The Hague, so that he can find it there. Again he closes ‘Warmest regards from your devoted friend’ (Wittgenstein in Cambridge, p.110).

On this same day, Russell writes to LW, saying he now has his passport and visa, and that he informed the authorities that his business was to see LW. He suggests that LW should arrive on December 11th, since he is not sure what day he will be able to get away.

Russell tells LW that he will buy his furniture from him, to pay his expenses. He doesn’t yet know where he will stay in The Hague, but will leave a letter at Poste Restante addressed to him, to say where he is staying if LW arrives after him. If LW arrives before him, though, Russell asks him to do likewise. Russell says he can’t tell LW how much he is looking forward to seeing him; ‘you have been in my thoughts so much through this long time’ (Wittgenstein in Cambridge, p.111).

Late November or (more probably) early December 1919: LW’s friend Paul Engelmann visits him, in Vienna, for a short meeting.

Thursday 4th December, 1919: LW writes to Ludwig von Ficker, who had that same day answered LW’s ‘threatening letter’ (of 22nd November) with a friendly telegram. He expresses the hope that von Ficker would publish the book because he considers it to be worthwhile, rather than just in order to do LW a favour. How can he recommend his work to von Ficker, LW asks? ‘I think in all such cases it is so: A book, even when it is written completely honestly, is always worthless from one standpoint: for no-one would really need to write a book because there are quite other things to do in this world. On the other hand, I think I can say that if you print Dallago(https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Dallago ), Haecker (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodor_Haecker ), et al., then you can also print my book. And that is also everything that I can say as a justification of my wish, because if one measures my book with an absolute measure, then God only knows where it will come to be’ (Luckhardt, p.96).

Friday 5th December, 1919: LW writes again to von Ficker, having received his letter of November 28th, in which von Ficker must have agreed to publish the Abhandlung and to bear the costs if its publication was a failure. LW declines this offer. ‘The sacrifice which you want to chance for me, if everything goes wrong, I can, of course, not accept. I couldn’t accept the responsibility of a person’s (whoever’s) livelihood being placed in jeopardy by publishing my book’ (Luckhardt, p.96). LW says he doesn’t quite understand the situation, since others have written and published books which didn’t agree with the common jargon, and the publishers hadn’t been ruined by them. He assures von Ficker that he is not deceiving LW’s trust, for his hope had merely been directed to von Ficker’s perspicacity that the treatise is not junk.

LW then says he would be very grateful to von Ficker if he could try to secure publication through Rainer Maria Rilke (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rainer_Maria_Rilke ), but that if that isn’t possible, they should just forget about it. He notes parenthetically that the decimal numbers should be printed along with the sentences of the work, since ‘they alone give the book lucidity and clarity and it would be an incomprehensible jumble without this numeration’. He closes his letter by assuring von Ficker that everything will turn out all right (Luckhardt, p.97).

(LW didn’t post his letter on this day though since, as we will see tomorrow, he adds a postscript on the following day).

Saturday 6th December, 1919: In a postscript to his letter, written the following day, LW wonders to von Ficker whether there is a Krampus (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krampus ) who deals with evil publishers (Luckhardt, p.97).

von Ficker duly approaches Rilke about finding a publisher (Monk, p.179), and Rilke approaches his own publisher, Insel Verlag, but discovers that they do not handle philosophical texts (Janik in Luckhardt, p.187).

Mid-December 1919: Bertrand Russell arrives in The Hague. He is accompanied by Dora Black, with whom he has been having a relationship since the Summer (and who is later to become his second wife: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dora_Russell ). Dora came from Paris to discuss their future together.

Having arrived, Russell writes to LW from the Hotel de Twee Steden (Hotel des deux Villes) (https://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Path%C3%A9_Buitenhof ), where he is staying, to give him his address (this being the letter that would be deposited at the Poste Restante). He asks LW to come to that hotel as quickly as he can after his arrival in The Hague, since he is impatient to see him. He also undertakes to find some way to get LW’s book published in England if necessary (Wittgenstein in Cambridge, p.112).

Thursday 11th December, 1919: LW arrives in The Hague bringing with him his young friend Arvid Sjögren (one of the sons of his current landlady) (McGuinness, p.290).