Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Longfellow of Philosophy

Ludwig Wittgenstein

I’ve been dipping into what must be one of the loopiest and most sensational festschrifts ever set to paper, Kreiseliana: about and around Georg Kreisel, edited by Piergiorgio Odifreddi (A.K. Peters, 1996), concerning the ferociously brilliant and witty mathematical logician who was one of Wittgenstein’s favorite students and whom Wittgenstein called the most able philosopher he had ever met who was also a mathematician.

Among other things of interest (at least to people who knew him or knew his penchant for infamy) the book contains the extraordinary and strangely affecting reminiscences of mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson, who left her husband, the renowned physicist and writer, Freeman Dyson, for Kreisel. Following those are Freeman Dyson’s own brief and somewhat sniffy comments, including the observation that he “never felt [himself] to be in competition with [Kreisel].”

Kreisel was also the likely model for the wicked Julius King in Iris Murdoch’s A Fairly Honourable Defeat (although she denied it in a way that seems rather to confirm it) and, according to Iris Murdoch: A Life by Peter J. Conradi, “one model for Marcus Vallar in [Murdoch’s] The Message to the Planet, who is brilliant and solitary to the point of near-autism, and given to bouts of random cruelty that devastate its victims.” (She also dedicated An Accidental Man to him.)

More on the looking-glass world of Kreiseliana later, perhaps, but the book reminded me of a story recounted by my husband, Jussi Ketonen, who knew Kreisel when they were colleagues at Stanford. Kreisel had a habit of inviting Jussi over to his then-home on Forest Avenue in Palo Alto for conversations which Jussi describes as among the funniest and most intellectually arresting of his life.

In one of these conversations, Kreisel described Wittgenstein as worrying, in the years before his death, that he would be remembered as “the Longfellow of philosophy.”

For obvious reasons, this amused and intrigued me, and I’ve always wondered whether there were mentions of Wittgenstein’s Longfellow-anxieties elsewhere. I’d never been able to find one until a couple of weeks ago — although I’m certainly not a Wittgenstein scholar, and would be very happy to be enlightened by such.

When time permits, probably by Friday, I’ll pass on my small discovery.


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Rachel - I've nothing to add to this, beyond my own amusement, but I did want to tell you that this is a wonderful blog!

Rachel Loden said...

Alison, thanks! So glad you were amused. Sometimes I think I might be certifiable, translating my private mutterings into pixels.

Btw is anybody having trouble accessing this blog? I've just had a report that someone can't see anything but the picture of Witt.

Patrick said...

Have you read Harry Frankfurt's _On Bullshit_? I think there's a Longfellow_Wittgenstein connection made in there though I recall nothing about this specific "worry." Wittgenstein had some pedantic attachments about language earlier in his life that he equated with Longfellow's old-fashioned sense of craft and maybe that's what he worried about in later years?

Rachel Loden said...

Patrick, I think this worry of W's is somewhat different -- at least as reflected in my new discovery. Will type in an excerpt tomorrow.

But I'll look for the Frankfurt book as well, because that should complicate things in an interesting way. Thanks so much for mentioning it.

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