Friedrich Hayek’s recollection of Ludwig Wittgenstein

Today is F.A. Hayek’s birthday, and if he would have been alive he would have been 117 years old now. Hayek is one of the most seminal economists and social philosophers of the 20th century. His works have left a deep impression on me when I first encountered them at the age of 20. The first three works of Hayek that I read were: 1. The Constitution of Liberty; 2. The Road to Serfdom; and 3. an essay entitled The Use Of Knowledge In Society. They have greatly influenced my views on political philosophy and the social sciences.

However, it was not so long ago that another illustrious philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein who was a second cousin and 10 years senior to Hayek, was born 127 years ago. In the same year that I became acquainted with Hayek, I also read Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus or to put it more precisely: I attempted to read it. The work is incredibly dense and until today I still don’t feel confident that I have a sensible understanding of the book. Nonetheless, as a small tribute to both of them, I thought it would be nice to post a memoir that Hayek wrote of Wittgenstein.

Wittgenstein
Wittgenstein

F.A. Hayek – Remembering My Cousin, Ludwig Wittgenstein

BETWEEN THE RAILS and the building of the railway station of Bad Ischl there used to be ample space where, sixty years ago, in the season, a regular promenade used to develop before the departure of the night train to Vienna.

I believe it was on the last day of August 1918 that here, among a boisterous crowd of young officers returning to the front after visiting their families on furlough in the Salzkammergut district, two artillery ensigns became vaguely aware that they ought to know one another. I am not sure whether it was a resemblance to other members of our families or because we had actually met before that led us to ask the other, “Aren’t you a Wittgenstein?” (or, perhaps, “Aren’t you a Hayek?”). At any rate it led to our travelling together through the night to Vienna, and even though most of the time we naturally tried to sleep we did manage to converse a little.

Some parts of this conversation made a strong impression on me. He was not only much irritated by the high spirits of the noisy and probably half-drunk party of fellow-officers with which we shared the carriage without in the least concealing his contempt for mankind in general, but he also took it for granted that any relation of his no matter how distantly connected must have the same standards as himself. He was not so very wrong! I was then very young and inexperienced, barely nineteen and the product of what would now be called a puritanical education: the kind in which the ice-cold bath my father took every morning was the much admired (though rarely imitated) standard of discipline for body and mind. And Ludwig Wittgenstein was just ten years my senior.

What struck me most in this conversation was a radical passion for truthfulness in everything (which I came to know as a characteristic vogue among the young Viennese intellectuals of the generation immediately preceding mine only in the following university years). This truthfulness became almost a fashion in that border group between the purely Jewish and the purely Gentile parts of the intelligentsia in which I came so much to move. It meant much more than truth in speech. One had to “live” truth and not tolerate any pretence in oneself or others. It sometimes produced outright rudeness and, certainly, unpleasantness. Every convention was dissected and every conventional form exposed as fraud. Wittgenstein merely carried this further in applying it to himself. I sometimes felt that he took a perverse pleasure in discovering falsehood in his own feelings and that he was constantly trying to purge himself of all fraud.

THAT HE WAS VERY highly strung even at that time cannot be doubted. Among the remoter relatives he was thought of (though hardly known by them) as the maddest member of a rather extraordinary family, all of whom were exceptionally gifted and both ready and in a position to live for what they most cared for. Before 1914 I had heard much of (though being too young to attend) their famous musical soirees at the “Palais Wittgenstein”, which ceased to be a social centre after 1914. For many years the name meant to me chiefly the kind old lady who, when I was six years old, had taken me for my first car-ride—in an open electromobile round the Ringstrasse.

Apart from an even earlier memory of being taken to the luxurious apartment of an extremely old lady and being made to understand that she was the sister of my maternal great-grandfather— and, as I now know, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s maternal grandmother—I have no direct knowledge of the Wittgenstein family at the height of their social position at Vienna. The tragedy of the three elder sons apparently all ending their lives by suicide had attenuated it even more than the death of the great industrialist at its head would otherwise have done. I am afraid that my earliest recollection of the name of Wittgenstein is connected with the shocked account of one of my Styrian maiden great-aunts, surely inspired by envy rather than malice, that their grandfather “sold his daughter to a rich Jewish banker. . . .” This was the kind old lady I still remember—just.

I DID NOT MEET Ludwig Wittgenstein again for ten years; but I heard from him from time to time through his eldest sister who was a second cousin, an exact contemporary and a close friend of my mother. The regular visiting had made “Aunt Minning” a familiar figure to me (actually, she spelt her name, which is an abbreviation of Hermine, with a single “n”, but this would sound odd to English ears), and she remained a frequent visitor. Her youngest brother’s problems evidently occupied her much, and though she deprecated all talk about the “Sonderling”, the crank, and strongly defended him when occasional and undoubtedly often much-distorted accounts of his doings circulated, we did soon learn of them. The public eye did not take notice of him while his brother Paul Wittgenstein, a one-armed pianist, became a well-known figure.

But I did, through these connections, become probably one of the first readers of Tractatus when it appeared in 1922. Since, like most philosophically interested people of our generation I was, like Wittgenstein, much influenced by Ernst Mach, it made a great impression on me.

The next time I met Ludwig Wittgenstein was in the spring of 1928 when the economist Dennis Robertson, who was taking me for a walk through the Fellows’ Gardens of Trinity College, Cambridge, suddenly decided to change course because on the top of a little rise he perceived the form of the philosopher draped over a deckchair. He evidently stood rather in awe of him, and he did not wish to disturb him. Naturally, I walked up to him, was greeted with surprising friendliness, and we engaged in a pleasant but uninteresting conversation (in German) about home and family to which Robertson soon left us. Before long Wittgenstein’s interest flagged, and evident signs of his not knowing what to do with me made me leave him after a while.

IT MUST HAVE BEEN almost twelve years later that the first of the only real series of meetings I had with him took place. When I went to Cambridge in 1939 with the London School of Economics I soon learned that he was away working at some war hospital. But a year or two later I encountered him most unexpectedly. John Maynard Keynes had arranged for me to have rooms in the Gibbs building of King’s College, and after a while I was asked by Richard Braithwaite to take part in the meetings of the Moral Science Club (I think that was the name) which took place in his rooms just below those I occupied.

It was at the end of one of these meetings that Wittgenstein quite suddenly and rather dramatically emerged. It concerned a paper which had not particularly interested me and of the subject of which I have no recollection. Suddenly Wittgenstein leapt to his feet, poker in hand, indignant in the highest degree, and he proceeded to demonstrate with the implement how simple and obvious Matter really was. Seeing this rampant man in the middle of the room swinging a poker was certainly rather alarming, and one felt inclined to escape into a safe corner. Frankly, my impression at that time was that he had gone mad!

It was some time later, probably a year or two, that I took courage to go and see him, after having learnt that he was again in Cambridge. He then lived (as always, I think) in rooms several flights up in a building outside the College. The bare room with the iron stove, to which he had to bring a chair for me from his bedroom, has often been described. We talked pleasantly on a variety of topics outside philosophy and politics (we knew that we disagreed politically), and he seemed to like the very fact that I strictly avoided “talking shop”, not unlike one or two other curious figures I have met in Cambridge. But, though these visits were quite pleasant and he seemed to encourage their repetition, they were also rather uninteresting and I went along only two or three times more.

After the end of the War, when I had already returned to London, a new kind of contact by letter began when the possibility arose, first to send food parcels, and later to visit our relatives in Vienna. This involved all kinds of complicated contacts with bureaucratic organisations about which, he rightly assumed, I had found out details before he did. In this he showed a curious combination of impracticability and meticulous attention to detail which must have made all contacts with the ordinary business of life highly unsettling for him. However, he did manage to get to Vienna fairly soon after me (I had succeeded for the first time in 1946), and I believe he went there once or twice again.

I THINK IT WAS in the course of his return from his last visit to Vienna that we met for the last time. He had gone to see his dying sister Minning once more, and he was (though I did not know it) himself already mortally ill. I had interrupted the usual railway journey from Vienna via Switzerland and France at Basel and had boarded there the sleeping-car at midnight the next day. Since my fellow occupant of the compartment seemed to be already asleep I undressed in semi-darkness. As I prepared to mount to the upper berth a tousled head shot out from the lower one and almost shouted at me, “You are Professor Hayek!” Before I had recovered sufficiently to realise that it was Wittgenstein and to register my assent, he had turned to the wall again.

When I woke up next morning he had disappeared, presumably to the restaurant car. When I returned I found him deeply engrossed in a detective story and apparently unwilling to talk. This lasted only until he had finished his paperback. He then engaged me in the most lively conversation, beginning with his impressions of the Russians at Vienna, an experience which evidently had shaken him to his depth and destroyed certain long-cherished illusions. Gradually we were led to more general questions of moral philosophy, but just as it was getting really exciting we arrived at the port (in Boulogne, I believe). Wittgenstein seemed very anxious to continue our discussion, and indeed he said that we must do so on board ship.

But I simply could not find him. Whether he regretted having become so deeply engaged, or had discovered that, after all, I was just another Philistine, I do not know. At any rate, I never saw him again.

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7 thoughts on “Friedrich Hayek’s recollection of Ludwig Wittgenstein

  1. I found the Tractus to be incredibly dense too. What I could understand of it, and what I have gleaned out of it from secondary sources, I generally don’t agree with.

    But Philisophical Investigations is one of my favorite works in philosophy ever written, particularly analytic philosophy. The three analytic philosophy works I recommend for everyone are Wittgenstein’s Investigations, Sellar’s Empiricism and Philosophy of Mind, and Quine’s Two Dogmas.

  2. The paragraph “But I did, through these connections, become probably one of the first readers of Tractatus when it appeared in 1922. Since, like most philosophically interested people of our generation I was, like Wittgenstein, much influenced by Ernst Mach, it made a great impression on me.” is the clue to F. A. Hayek’s early works.

  3. Fascinating. Many thanks for sharing. The two most interesting parts for me were

    a) “What struck me most in this conversation was a radical passion for truthfulness in everything”; and

    b) “Suddenly Wittgenstein leapt to his feet, poker in hand, indignant in the highest degree, and he proceeded to demonstrate with the implement how simple and obvious Matter really was. Seeing this rampant man in the middle of the room swinging a poker was certainly rather alarming, and one felt inclined to escape into a safe corner. Frankly, my impression at that time was that he had gone mad!”

    The first, because it is so frequently commented upon and, the second, because it seems to support the evidence that Popper really was simply unfamiliar with Wittenstein’s mannerisms nearly ten years later.

Please keep it civil (unless it relates to Jacques)

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