by Mark English
Ludwig Wittgenstein was – and remains – not just a well-known thinker but an intellectual celebrity. He generated far more than his fair share of personal speculation and gossip as well as serious scholarly attention.
I’m not claiming that he was an attention-seeker in a simple or crass sense. It’s undeniable, however, that his eccentric ways, his often outlandish and provocative remarks, his extremely wealthy and highly-cultured background, his friendships with the likes of Bertrand Russell and Moritz Schlick, and of course his often enigmatic writings, created a perfect storm of attention which shows no sign of abating 65 years after his death.
I find the Wittgenstein phenomenon intriguing and would like to mention a few speculative ideas, some serious, some not so much. 
On the serious side are the conjectures put forward by Kimberley Cornish in his controversial book, The Jew of Linz.  Cornish speculates that Wittgenstein attracted attention even in his early teens, and that Hitler’s attitude toward Jews was influenced his by interactions with Wittgenstein when they were 14 or 15 year old students at the Linz Realschule (a state school of about 300 students) in 1903-04. Cornish argues that Hitler’s unflattering account of a Jewish boy in Mein Kampf was based on recollections of Wittgenstein. Though it’s doubtful whether the question of the identity of the Jewish boy mentioned by Hitler can ever be definitively resolved, the case Cornish makes seems not implausible. 
Some of the other claims which Cornish makes in his book seem to lack substance entirely. These include suggestions not only that Wittgenstein was associated with the Comintern, but that he played a central role in setting up the Cambridge spy ring (recruiting Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and Donald Maclean to the Soviet cause). Many scholars and reviewers have looked at these claims and found them wanting. Paul Monk, for example, points out that the KGB archives appear to undermine Cornish’s claim that Wittgenstein played a central role. 
Wittgenstein was certainly a Soviet sympathizer, however, and was certainly moving in the same intellectual and social circles as members (or future members) of the spy ring. It’s also well-known that he wanted to live and work in Russia, and had made attempts to organize this.
There are all sorts of questions relating to Wittgenstein’s social and political views (including his consciousness of, and attitude toward, his Jewish ancestry) on which there is abundant evidence and which I am interested in exploring. But my focus here is not politics but theatrics ; as well as the distortions which the cult of celebrity inevitably creates.
There is no single or easy answer to the question of why certain thinkers are talked about and others ignored. But it seems reasonable to think that self-presentation or self-promotion strategies on the part of intellectuals – especially when associated with implicit claims to deep or esoteric knowledge – might often have a lot to do with it. As does the name-recognition factor, of course: fame feeds on itself. (This latter factor always was important and arguably is becoming increasingly important in publishing, politics and entertainment.)
Whatever the causes, the implications of this narrowing of historical focus are not trivial. For one thing, it distorts the true history of ideas if the ‘minor’ players are left out. Furthermore, celebrities are often credited with ideas which they may have got from others.
Take the ‘family resemblance’ approach to concepts, which is always credited to Wittgenstein. I came across a reference to the idea in a book published some years before Wittgenstein talked about it, a book he may well have read. It was by a leading thinker of the time who is now virtually forgotten.
I won’t deal with this question now, however, because I want to stay with the general subject of philosophical theatrics and talk about something which may seem rather light and trivial. But don’t be deceived (as Groucho Marx might have said) – it is light and trivial.
So on to the topic of Wittgensteinian head-clutching. Here is a description of the philosopher in full flight in 1946:
“[Wittgenstein] wrestles visibly with his ideas, holding his head in his hands, occasionally throwing out staccato remarks, as though each word were as painful as plucking thorns, and muttering, “God I am stupid today” or shouting “Damn my bloody soul! … Help me someone!”” 
Now here is a scene from the story ‘The Secret Garden’ by G.K. Chesterton (published as the second story in The Innocence of Father Brown in 1911, three years after Wittgenstein’s first arrival in England):
“… Father Brown, who had sprung swiftly to his feet, […] was holding his temples tight like a man in sudden and violent pain.
“Stop, stop, stop!” he cried; “stop talking a minute, for I see half. Will God give me strength? Will my brain make the one jump and see all? Heaven help me! I used to be fairly good at thinking… Will my head split – or will it see? I see half – I only see half.”
He buried his head in his hands, and stood in a sort of rigid torture of thought or prayer …”
In 1936 Wittgenstein tried to distance himself from the Father Brown stories (which had been recommended to him by a friend): “… Wittgenstein turned up his nose. “Oh no, I couldn’t stand the idea of a Roman Catholic priest playing the part of a detective. I don’t want that.”” 
And yet it almost seems as if, in playing the part of a philosopher ten years later, he might have been mimicking that fictional Roman Catholic priest playing the part of a detective!
I know, I know, head-clutching has a long history and I am drawing a very long bow here. Take it as a wild speculation if you like. My point is merely that there is a striking parallel between the descriptions, and if Wittgenstein had read the story then it could have had some kind of (subconscious or unconscious?) influence on his behavior.
We will probably never know for sure whether – or, if so, when – Wittgenstein had read this particular story. He was known to be an avid reader of detective fiction, including English exponents of the genre such as Agatha Christie whom he greatly admired. So he must have known about the Father Brown stories. Everybody knew about them, especially in the circles in which Wittgenstein moved. (A quote from one of the stories plays a crucial role in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, by the way. ) And, if he knew about them, it would be very surprising if he hadn’t read at least one or two, probably well before 1936.
These stories were, of course, very unlike the newer, hard-boiled American stories that Wittgenstein got a taste for in the 1930s. And this may explain (at least in part) why he pooh-poohed them and tried to distance himself from them as he did, implicitly suggesting that he had never read them. But it was a very curious reaction nonetheless.
Now you may be surprised to learn that the antics of philosophers – including head-clutching – have been much discussed in recent years. And I flatter myself that I may have played a small, indirect role in helping to bring the philosophical head-clutch to the attention of the world’s scholars.
Six years ago (when blogging – as distinct from microblogging and Facebooking, etc. – was in its glory days and any literate Thomasina, Dick or Harry could still attract a respectable audience just by saying whatever it was they had to say) I did a blog post about this Wittgenstein/Father Brown theory of mine. My piece prompted a friend to send me links to a couple of photos of head-clutching philosophers which he had come across and which I also posted, with the suggestion that Wittgenstein may have precipitated something like a head-clutching epidemic. These posts of mine were seen by the political theorist and commentator Norman Geras who posted links on his site to my blog and to my two photographs of head-clutching philosophers, Karl Popper and Michel Foucault. (The Foucault picture in particular is a real doozy.)
It was his topic now: I was very happy to pass it on to someone who commanded a far larger and more influential audience. Geras took the head-clutching ball and ran with it.
“What’s going on there?” he wondered. “Are they trying to guide the inner processes? Or to contain the thoughts that might otherwise burst through their skulls?”
Geras continued: “I looked around for other examples of the mode, but was unable to find anything quite the same. A.J. Ayer, P.F. Strawson, Jean-Paul Sartre and John Dewey are all one-handed exponents – content, perhaps, merely to touch the sanctum of thought. Can readers add to this gallery? Further instances of full head-clutching would be welcome.”
He wrote two subsequent posts on the topic, reporting on what his readers had sent him. A lot of stuff, but there were only a few good examples of proper head-clutching. Leszek Kolakowski was probably the best of them.
What brought all this back was coming across a more recent – and much more serious – piece on the topic of philosophical antics (apparently written by Brendan Larvor).  It includes this reference to head-clutching:
“Post-war philosophy developed a new repertoire of physical tropes, most notably the head-clutching and stuttering that ordinary language philosophers used to indicate how very hard they were thinking about the most ordinary of phrases.”
Wittgenstein’s putative influence on, or contribution to, these practices is not directly discussed in this piece which, though it includes an embedded YouTube video of Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller sending up the philosophical manners of their time, is fundamentally a serious and even scathing analysis of what lies behind such antics.
“The common thread in all this theatrical business is that these devices silence the victim. From [G.E.] Moore’s incredulity onwards, the purpose is to dissuade an opponent from pursuing a criticism of the speaker’s claim. Only the boldest spirit will press on with a point when a famous great mind reacts to its first expression with apparent bewilderment, contempt or nausea.”
Larvor speculates as to why we see so much of this sort of thing in philosophy and suggests it is related to the extent to which philosophy is based on intuitions:
“Since my intuitions have no special authority over yours, I might be tempted to gain credibility for mine by performing incredulity or disgust at the expression of alternatives. Indeed, one should expect exactly what we see…”
Head-clutching is clearly a part of this behavioral arms-race, sometimes inner-directed and merely ego-asserting; sometimes reactive and directed outwards, exhibiting hostility towards, or frustration at, interlocutors; or a mix of these.
In the scheme of things, the head-clutch is relatively harmless and funny (or at least easy to laugh at). But there is a serious point here about the way ideas are communicated. It goes beyond physical gestures. Larvor himself makes the point that similar strategies are employed in text-based contexts. And it goes well beyond philosophy.
Whether we like it or not – and whether we like to admit it or not – we all too often find ourselves on a communicational battlefield where the performance of bewilderment, contempt and nausea combine with other forms of shaming and ostracism to play a major role in determining who prevails.
 This is intended as the first in an occasional series of pieces on Wittgenstein. The intention is to deal with a number of the questions raised here in future essays.
 Random House, 1998.
 Wittgenstein, who was enrolled as a Roman Catholic and thought of himself as such, may well have been perceived by others as Jewish (and was in fact on an official list of halachically Jewish boys who attended the school). Cornish quotes a recollection of a former classmate of Wittgenstein’s who later visited Hitler in Munich: “Once Adolf shouted at another boy, “Du Saujud!” The boy concerned was staggered. He knew nothing of his Jewish ancestry at the time and only discovered it years later…” Wittgenstein was the only boy on the list of halachically Jewish students for 1903-04 who was enrolled as a Christian. This is the starting-point for Cornish’s argument.
 In an article in Quadrant (September 1998). The Wikipedia entry on The Jew of Linz erroneously attributes Paul Monk’s comments to Ray Monk.
 In a strange comment in one of his notebooks, Wittgenstein claims that ‘masked theatre’ has a special attraction to Jews. I have yet to figure out exactly what he was trying to say here and this is a topic I might look at in the future.
 This description, based on an account given by Peter Munz of a famous seminar, is from the book Wittgenstein’s Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidinow (Harper Collins, 2001).
 In the Granada TV adaptation, Lady Marchmain (played by Claire Bloom) reads the passage aloud: a reading of the stories was part of the regular evening entertainment at Sebastian’s rather grand home.