Wittgenstein in Cambridge

I posted earlier in the week on a museum that you can visit only by appointment, and it seems therefore appropriate to something to say now about a graveyard more out of the way than most Cambridge sights, but which is interesting nonetheless and its small way a place of pilgrimage.

The Ascension Parish Burial Ground has, since its foundation in 1869, become the burial place of a great many Cambridge dons, not least among them Ludwig Wittgenstein, who from 1929 until 1941 occupied various posts, the last of them professorial, at Cambridge University.

Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 19 December 2004.

Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 19 December 2004.

Wittgenstein was a scion of an immoderately wealthy Austrian family, who took up philosophy in a dilettantish sort of way, and in between writing the Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus and the Philosophical Investigations, the twin pillars of his philosophical reputation, had jobs as various as a gardener, a primary school teacher, a soldier (in the Great War, where he was in the artillery) an architect and an engineer.

It is pleasant to think of Wittgenstein settling in Cambridge into a donnish sort of life, but in truth his was a very peripatetic existence; he spent long tracts of time in Norway (where he had a hut) and Ireland, not to mention several years schoolmastering at various primary schools in his native Austria; he was also registered for two years at the University of Manchester to study engineering, but spent little time there. His only formal qualification, in fact, apart from his primary school teaching certificate, was his Cambridge Ph.D, gained at the age of forty. Accounts of his teaching there in his rooms in Whewell’s Court (off Trinity Street, more or less opposite the gates of the college) involving him sitting in a deckchair, arguing with and slowly repudiating his own early book (the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the only book he published in his lifetime apart from a dictionary of reading sounds for small children). Apparently he spoke English perfectly, with ‘the accent of an educated Englishman’.

Wittgenstein died not far from the Ascension Parish Burial Ground, in a house on Storey’s Way (there is a blue plaque, marking the house), after spending his last couple of years of life shuttling between Oxford and Cambridge. His last words are reputed to have been, ‘Telll them I’ve had a wonderful life’ – a surprising sentiment for one seemingly so tortured and monkish (he contemplated becoming a monk on at least three occasions, despite his apparent lack of any orthodox religious belief).

The plaque on the house on Storey’s Way reads as follows:

“Do not agree with me in particular opinions, but investigate the matter in the right way. To notice the interesting things…that serve as keys if you use them properly.”


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