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Ludwig Wittgenstein — The cricketing connection of the great philosopher

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the greatest analytical philosophers © Getty Images

 Ludwig Wittgenstein, born April 26, 1889, one of the greatest analytical philosophers and one of the most fascinating personas of the last century, was also a keen cricket fan. Arunabha Sengupta recounts the way cricket actually crept into his own work and the works about him.

 

In 2001, after visiting India, Matthew Hayden made his famed observation. His words are now almost immortal:“I have seen God. He bats at No 4 for India.”

However, in 1929, four and a half decades prior to the birth of Sachin Tendulkar, the celebrated economist John Maynard Keynes expressed similar sentiments in a letter to his wife: “Well, God has arrived. I met him on the 5:15 train.”

Keynes was referring to the one and only Ludwig Wittgenstein, the then 40-year-old macabre genius who was returning to his academic home at the Cambridge University after a 16-year absence. He was already a phenomenon, author of the monumental Tractatus — known as one of the most brilliant minds in history, with a considerable repute as a madman.

In the later years, he would go on to write voluminous manuscripts — that were edited and published posthumously as his second great work Philosophical Investigations. In this, he would reject many of the assumptions of Tractatus and formulate a path breaking school of thought. There is perhaps no domain of humanities and social sciences where his influence has not been felt down the years — although he himself believed that his ideas were misunderstood and almost always distorted.

“The most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense, and dominating,” observed the great Bertrand Russell about his protégé.

However, apart from radical, original and often disturbing concepts, Wittgenstein was a remarkable man in many different dimensions. Born in Vienna to one of the richest families of Europe he inherited a fortune and distributed considerable amounts among poor artists of the city. He served as an officer in the frontline during World War I and was decorated for valour. And when he suffered from depression after the War, he gave away his inheritance to his brothers and sisters.

Having authored Tractatus he wondered whether philosophy was his real way of life. He taught in schools in remote villages in Austria for a while. Later, he worked as a gardener in a monastery and as a hospital porter in London during the Second World War. Not always were his ways exemplary. As a school teacher, he was known to hit children when they failed to solve mathematical problems and in the hospital later on he often asked patients not to take the prescribed drugs. He also wrote a dictionary for children, and spent a couple of years designing door handles and radiators.

He was a remarkable man in many ways, not least in being a homosexual and singularly uneasy in the famed gay community of Cambridge. The uneasiness was mutual.

All this made him a superstar in the curious but rather sedate world of philosophers, and he still remains one. No one can really say for certain whether he threateningly really picked up a red-hot poker while engaged in a logical discourse with Karl Popper. However, that incident forms the subject matter of a full length book, Wittgenstein’s Poker. He arouses immense interest even now, 63 years after his death.

Among some of his lesser known, and unexpected, characteristics were a fascination for the books of PG Wodehouse, a weakness for gangster movies and genuine love for the game of cricket.

Wittgenstein was not really noted for playing the game. However, this German speaking Austrian genius watched with interest and was attracted to the endeavours of the men in white in the wide expanses of the green fields. The English game won him over.

Of course, much of the Philosophical Investigations deal with the concept of Sprachspiel —  a German word meaning ‘the language game’. To put it very simply, ‘the language game’ states that meanings of words are best understood as used within a game similar to chess. To drive home this point, much of his Investigations were full of analogies to games. And although there is no specific definition of his concept of ‘game’ he gave examples of various games, and mostly favoured cricket and tennis.

In Tractatus the young Wittgenstein claimed that the entirety of meaningful language is the totality of the propositions of natural science. However, his concepts in the Investigations argued otherwise. In his An Introduction to Wittgenstein’s Philosophy of Religion, Brian Clack uses Wittginstein’s own favourite way of refuting this particular claim of Tractatus saying that it was as mistaken an idea as saying that ‘cricket is not a game because it is not played on the board’.

Cricket analogies are littered through many expositions of Wittgenstein’s works.

Shortly after his return to Cambridge, the University was faced with a dilemma. They wanted to make this gifted man a don, but he had no PhD. They hit upon the idea that his famed Tractatus could be considered as his doctoral thesis. Two giants of philosophy, Bertrand Russell and George Edward Moore, were approached and the duo agreed to be the judges. When these two intellectual behemoths asked Wittgenstein questions about his work, the Viennese philosopher simply said, “Don’t worry, I know you’ll never understand it.” However, Russell and Moore passed a positive verdict.

“I know you’ll never understand it,” is often the claim of Englishmen about the Germans when it concerns the game of cricket. There had been even a famed argument that the World Wars could have been avoided if only the Germans played the noble game.

But, one German speaking Austrian philosopher definitely followed the game. Perhaps like Russell and Moore’s comprehension of Tractatus it is debatable whether he understood it fully. But, he did love the game. Perhaps he found following the game to be, as is often claimed by the connoisseurs, the most fascinating amalgam of logical reasoning and philosophical contemplation.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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