Wittgenstein, Hayek, and a Biography Never Finished

Friedrich August von Hayek and Ludwig Wittgenstein are undoubtedly two of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century.

Friedrich August von Hayek’s Draft Biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Text and its History, by Friedrich August von Hayek (edited by Christian Erbacher, 2019, mentis, pp. 88)

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.

Friedrich August von Hayek and Ludwig Wittgenstein are undoubtedly two of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. The professed-economist-turned-interdisciplinary in Hayek and the philosopher and logician in Wittgenstein are still seen as heroes and geniuses by many today. Yet, largely forgotten is that the two were related. Hayek’s great grandfather and Wittgenstein’s grandmother were siblings, and thus, the two were remote cousins.

They shared a similar life trajectory beyond this familial bond. Both were born at the end of the 19th century in Vienna to wealthy families (though Wittgenstein’s more so than Hayek’s). Both served in World War I. Both emigrated to the UK in the 1930s. And both, again and again, rather accidentally stumbled upon each other. The first time they had met was recollected, as at the beginning of this article, by Hayek many decades after. Their path would cross many more times, despite never being close, as Hayek admitted himself: “Though I have met him many times over an interval of nearly thirty years, I have never known him well.” They disagreed quite starkly on politics – they both realized this – and so it is apt to say that, as Christian Erbacher does, that “Wittgenstein and Hayek often traveled in the same geographic direction, but they were on different intellectual journeys.”

Even less known is that Hayek intended to write a biography of Wittgenstein after the latter’s death in 1951. However, his work was halted by the abject opposition of Wittgenstein’s family members to release such a biography. Now, in 2019, the final draft written by Hayek in 1953, has been published for the first time under the auspices of Erbacher.

Hayek’s biography of Wittgenstein is peculiar in that it sheds light on the early life of Wittgenstein, full of the social and spiritual difficulties his cousin encountered. As Erbacher writes, the sketch “is free from any worship of Wittgenstein’s genius. The philosopher is rather presented as a very rich young man, with afflictions and shortcomings and – first and foremost – struggling to find his intellectual way.” In a sense, if we see Wittgenstein as the archetype of the “Eccentric Genius,” this biography focuses more on the eccentric side.

The Wittgenstein we meet in Hayek’s account is one unsure in his youth what to do with his life. Studying mechanical engineering and aeronautics at first, he went through “a period of acute unhappiness and spiritual loneliness.” Even as he found his fate in the fields of philosophy and logic, he remained a quiet companion. He would find a handful of people he would want to spend time with throughout the years – most prominently perhaps, Bertrand Russell – but in general, he disliked other people and “attempts to bring Wittgenstein together with other contemporaries were usually not a success.”

The eccentric side was surfacing early on as well. Russell, in his first meeting with Wittgenstein “was in doubt whether he was a man of genius or a crank,” though he eventually “decided in favour of the former alternative.” In that first meeting, as Allan Janik mentions in the afterword of the biographical sketch, Wittgenstein was adamantly insisting there could be a hippopotamus in the room with them. Nothing Russell said could convince him otherwise, because the fact for Wittgenstein was that there could be one present, because we couldn’t see one. It led Russell “to think that the young man did not believe in anything at all.”

As is reported by several people close to him as well as through his own letters, he regularly thought of committing suicide. And yet, at the same time he was in an “awful neurotic state,” in the words of David Pinsent, his “only friend,” being in fear that he would die before he had written down everything he thinks: “He is morbidly afraid he may die. … He is certain he will die within four years.” In a letter to Russell, he felt close to becoming insane and added a doubtful “let’s hope for the best.” In general, he considered his life little more than a great “Schweinerei,” i.e. a great mess.

After living in Norway for a while as a proto-hermit, and subsequently serving in World War I, he became a schoolteacher in several small villages around Austria, where he became, in the words of Hayek, “an object of curiosity and gossip.” And yet, upon his eventual return to real life, first to Vienna and later to Cambridge, there seems to have been hope in Wittgenstein’s life. His famous Tractatus, which was released in 1922, elevated him to the status of a hero. The book also “made a great impression” on Hayek when he first read it, as eager philosophers-turned-pilgrims did their best to get a hold of him. When he returned to the philosophical realm and eventually moved to the UK, a great admirer – and famously, a great nemesis of Hayek – John Maynard Keynes, a professor of economics in Cambridge, announced: “Well, God has arrived. I met him on the 5.15 train.”

Solitude seemed to improve Wittgenstein’s temper, and the writings of Leo Tolstoy, St. Augustine, and Fyodor Dostoevsky influenced him greatly, as he seemingly was on the search for something Greater, at one point contemplating whether he should become a monk. This search for the Truth and courage to find it can also be seen in his actions during World War I, when he would have been released from a prisoner camp in Italy but refused to leave before everyone else would be freed. It is these few positive glimpses in which Hayek’s sketch abruptly ends, the project stopped by Wittgenstein’s sister, who considered Hayek as nothing more than a “Mistfratz,” a gruesome brat.

And yet, one can feel that it was Wittgenstein’s intellectual rigor, his pursuit to find the truth – or, in Hayek’s words, his “radical passion for truthfulness in everything” – which possibly ignited him in the first place to write this biography. The result is, naturally, incomplete, and keeps one guessing for more. What we see in Hayek’s biography of his cousin is, indeed, an Eccentric Genius, a profound thinker who throughout his life had to fight with existential angst and depression. In the end, one wished that Hayek would have been allowed to finish the work. At least, we now have the draft.


  • Kai Weiss

    Kai Weiss is the Research Coordinator of the Austrian Economics Center, a board member at the Friedrich A. v. Hayek Institute, and a graduate student in politics at Hillsdale College.

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The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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