Private Notebooks, 1914–1916 by Ludwig Wittgenstein (Edited and translated from German by Marjorie Perloff) - review by Tom Stern

Tom Stern

Philosopher in Arms

Private Notebooks, 1914–1916


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It took Ludwig Wittgenstein less than seven years to transform himself. In 1911, he was merely the obstinate ‘unknown German’ depicted in one of Bertrand Russell’s letters (and yes, Wittgenstein was Viennese). By August 1918, he had finished the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, widely seen as a masterpiece of 20th-century philosophy. For four of those seven years, he was a soldier serving in the First World War. During this time of astonishing philosophical creativity, under extremely harsh conditions, he wrote in notebooks. Three of them survive. The first begins in August 1914 and the last ends on 1 January 1917.

Wittgenstein was making two kinds of entries: notes for a philosophy book he was writing, which eventually turned into the Tractatus, and private, journal-style confessions. He wrote the confessional notes in code on the left side of the notebooks and the philosophical passages on the right, not in code. Private Notebooks, 1914–1916 is the first English-language version of the coded, personal entries (the decoded German is helpfully placed on each facing page). Scholars and biographers have long made use of this material, but publication and translation now make it available to a wider audience.

The Wittgenstein of these notebooks has four major preoccupations. First, how much ‘work’ he is getting done. He does not mean military work, though there was plenty of that (he served on a patrol ship, in an artillery workshop and, most dangerously, at an observation post). He means philosophical work. When he writes, ‘At the office all day. Didn’t work,’ he doesn’t mean that he was playing Wordle. He means he was kept from doing philosophy because he was doing his job. At the start of the war, his favourite duty is peeling potatoes, because he can ‘work’ while doing it.

Wittgenstein’s second concern lies in where and how he will serve in the war. Generally, he disdains those around him, though he occasionally shows respect for one or two of his superiors. Wittgenstein had chosen to serve as a regular soldier, when he could have drawn on his wealth, class and connections to obtain a higher rank. Not for the last time, he put himself among ordinary people and then complained bitterly of having nobody his equal to talk to. As the editor and translator of the notebooks, Marjorie Perloff, comments, Wittgenstein shows almost no interest in the war as a political event. It is a personal ordeal, a trial in which he must prove himself. There are mortal dangers to confront, but the daily struggle is the challenge of maintaining rectitude while serving with debased fellow soldiers.

Wittgenstein does note his sorrow regarding the foreseen defeat of the ‘German race’ by the English. But he continues his correspondence with those he met in England. He hears from Keynes and Russell. Most importantly, though, there are precious letters from ‘David’ – that is, from David Pinsent, a mathematics student he met in Cambridge before the war. Wittgenstein longs for David, whom, the reader knows, he will never see again – Pinsent died in 1918. Wittgenstein was serving in a war against the British while treasuring his occasional correspondence with the Englishman he loved. No wonder he wrote in code. Indeed, the third preoccupation of the diaries is sex: ‘Yesterday for the first time in 3 weeks, masturbated. I am almost entirely free of sexual desire.’ The fourth is God. These are the notes of a profoundly religious man. Wittgenstein often ends them with a religious exhortation: ‘God be with me!’ or ‘As God wills it!’

The notebooks cannot help raising the question of where the line falls between a philosopher’s life and work. The divisions Wittgenstein himself made – left and right; coded and uncoded – may offer some sense of where and how he drew it. That is, rather sharply between ‘work’ and everything else. The editor makes a different proposal. She thinks that the personal and the philosophical ‘begin to correspond to one another’ as the notebooks progress. Her edition alone makes it hard to judge, principally because the philosophical notes are mostly omitted. (They have been available in translation for decades, published as Notebooks, 1914–16.) But she tips the balance in favour of her argument by selectively including, and in some cases only partially reproducing, philosophical material that fits her theory. There is certainly one private, coded note which prefigures a famous philosophical remark: ‘what cannot be said, cannot be said.’ But, to my mind, what is striking is just how infrequently we find any meaningful correspondence between the private thoughts of the philosopher and his philosophy. He is, on the same day, getting shot at and writing about the nature of ethics. Getting shot at impedes the work and does not appear to provide any inspiration for it. This is no criticism of Wittgenstein. It merely marks a point of disagreement between me and Perloff. Wittgenstein’s philosophical notes do move from more technical subjects to reflections on art, God and the meaning of life; it is of the nature of the last three things that we find it easier to relate them to the sufferings of a soldier than the first. But part of the interest of the Tractatus lies in how Wittgenstein thinks his views on logic and language alone produce his views on ethics and religion.


Perloff undertook the translation and editorial work ‘in the dark spring of the 2020 pandemic’ while ‘recovering from back surgery’. As post-surgical lockdown craft projects go, producing this edition is quite high-end. But precisely because it is the only in-print English (and German) edition, it deserves to be assessed independently of the conditions in which it was produced. The editorial material is helpful in setting the scene and in explaining the decisions that have been taken. Perloff makes little attempt to outline the philosophical problems with which Wittgenstein was preoccupied, but those have been explored elsewhere, at length and many times over. There are certainly some errors. Words, even entire phrases, appear in one language but not in the other, leaving us uncertain which version is correct. In one case, neither is: on 17 August 1914, Wittgenstein wrote a mysterious ‘G S’ in his notebook. This is omitted from the German decoding here, but in the English translation it appears unaccountably as ‘God be with me’. Elsewhere, Wittgenstein speaks of the expectation of a Russian siege of Kraków in 1914, but this becomes, first, an attack from Kraków and then an attack in Kraków. Most translators would operate on the principle that the same German word, used in the same way, should be translated with the same English word. When it comes to Wittgenstein’s descriptions of his fellow soldiers, Perloff does not so much break this rule as troll it. Her Wittgenstein complains of their insolence, villainy, insensitivity, boorishness, infamy, brutality, nastiness, meanness and viciousness. All these are derived from a single German word, Gemeinheit, giving us a florid Wittgenstein rather than the terse, repetitive figure of the original. Wittgenstein hears gunfire ‘from the workshop’, ‘from the enemy positions’ and ‘from the fortifications’ – likewise, all versions of the same German phrase. On balance, though, these are rather small, low-level gripes which most readers won’t notice or bother with.

It is sometimes said that great works, like the Tractatus, reveal different aspects in different historical eras. Perhaps the same is true, on a smaller scale, of these notes. One can readily imagine, in spring 2020, taking inspiration from a writer producing a masterpiece in a radically altered world. By 2022, however, another aspect of Wittgenstein’s life appears more salient. In 1916, he was fighting the Russians in what is now Ukraine. Almost nobody, I suspect, will come to the Private Notebooks without some quite specific idea of what they want from them. Read as a stand-alone book, however, they drill home the extraordinary circumstances in which Wittgenstein undertook his first major project and the strange forcefulness of the man himself. I have read innumerable times that Wittgenstein wrote the Tractatus while serving in the First World War. But I always managed to forget that when reading it. For better or worse, such forgetfulness just got much harder.

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