Wittgenstein’s cottage, Wicklow, Ireland, 1948  

From the Independent, February 17, 2008

Sometimes I remember, and not without affection, the two men in a play by Moliere who were delighted to discover that they had been speaking prose all their lives.

I suspect that many people would be surprised to discover that they had been philosophers all their lives. The very word ‘philosophy’ disturbs some minds. They see it as confined to great thoughts.

And they associate it with men with lofty brows, and living far above what Scott Fitzgerald called “the hot struggles of the poor”.

All children are philosophers: they need to be. They are following their instinct for self-preservation. Later, when they need to be less acutely aware, they tend to speculate: philosophy is essentially a questioning, a quest for truth.

I have felt philosophy in all kinds of situations, in the bog and in the meadow and in the pub, before and after hours. Much pub talk is about sport but often it deviates into philosophy. You begin wondering about the value of sport, especially after your team have lost.

When I went to University College Cork, I intended taking up philosophy — but when I read the curriculum I discovered that all the philosophers were Catholic. To me, the idea of Catholic Philosophy was about as sensible as Catholic Mathematics.

And so I studied philosophy in my own amateur way, by reading the great philosophers of the day who were totally ignored in the course in Cork University.

They included Albert Camus and A J Ayre and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein was the most influential of the three, or perhaps only the most popular. He was born in Austria in 1889 of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. He came to Manchester University to study aeronautics, but after a few years there he discovered a book that changed his whole life. It was a book that contained essays by different philosophers: one of them, Bertrand Russell, had a profound influence on Wittgenstein and for the rest of his life he was devoted passionately to philosophy.

He had one great ambition: he hoped to find a place where he would be utterly free from distraction and give his whole time to study. He was told by a friend that in Connemara he would find peace of mind and freedom from care.

He rented a house in Connemara and settled down there looking forward to producing as pure a work as thought and study could. He looked forward to his solitude. He found a simple life, apart from having to go to the well three miles away and for groceries about five miles away and to get milk and turf from his next-door neighbours. That was the easy part.

The word had got around that he was a very important man and had great influence with the government in Dublin. Almost every day, he had people coming to him about getting money for disability and for various disorders. It dawned on him that he had come to live in a place where most of the people were in very poor health, even though most of them looked extremely healthy. He did what he could. He wrote to various departments, sometimes with success. The people liked him and he liked them, but he wondered why such fine-looking men and women always seemed to be sick.

Then one day a truth dawned on him. Often as he walked by the local lake he used to stop and watch a middle-aged man, and admire his skill in casting flies. That was all right until one day that same man came to him and asked him could he get him the blind pension.

And so next day Wittgenstein settled his affairs and took the bus to Galway and the train to Dublin. It was night when he arrived at Kingsbridge Station; across the river he saw a bright sign that said Aisling. He decided it was a hotel and he crossed the bridge and took up residence there. And in that hotel and in the greenhouse in the Botanic Gardens he did some of his greatest work.

Entire article here.

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