Ludwig Wittgenstein and the First World War

Hand-written notebook
A page of Wittgenstein’s notes for the Tractatus, dated 16 August, 1916. (Wittgenstein 103, f.46)

Of course, not all Trinity men were from Britain or the Commonwealth and so found their wartime loyalties lay elsewhere. Bertrand Russell’s most famous student at Trinity College was Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), an Austrian philosopher. After arriving at Trinity in 1911, Wittgenstein had progressed so quickly in his work with logic that Russell declared after only a year that he had nothing left to teach his pupil.

Wittgenstein’s work came to a halt at the outbreak of World War I when he immediately volunteered for the Austro-Hungarian army, serving variously on a ship, in an artillery workshop and on the front lines. Decorated for valour for his service on the Eastern front and against the British army, Wittgenstein became a Lieutenant and was sent to the Italian front with an artillery unit. He was captured in 1918 and spent the end of the War as a prisoner of the Italian army.

Wittgenstein compiled the notes (on display) for his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, or “Logical-Philosophical Treatise” while serving as a soldier, and completed the writing while he was in Italian P.O.W. camps at Como and Cassino. This ambitious project was the only book-length philosophical work Wittgenstein published in his lifetime. Though the Tractatus had a huge influence on 20th century philosophy, Wittgenstein himself later criticised some of the ideas in it.

Unlike Russell’s battle of principles against the War and especially against conscription, Wittgenstein’s role in the War seems to have derived from intellectual curiosity as well as a desire to prove his spiritual mettle through hardship. Despite occupying such opposing viewpoints – Allies vs. Central Powers, pacifist vs. combatant, not to mention their differing philosophical tastes – Russell and Wittgenstein remained friends and Russell wrote the introduction to the Tractatus.


David Hume Pinsent

David Hume Pinsent was admitted to Trinity in 1912 and was friends with his classmate R.Q. Gilson. He gained a first-class honours degree in mathematics and then studied Law. Pinsent met Wittgenstein in his first year at Trinity and the two struck up a relationship based on shared interests in music and mathematics. He was Wittgenstein’s collaborator, test subject, friend and lover, and the pair traveled together to Iceland and Norway.

The War broke out while the pair were in Norway, and while Wittgenstein quickly signed up for the Austro-Hungarian military, Pinsent was deemed unsuitable for active military service. Instead, he trained as a test pilot, flying prototype aircraft at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough. On 8 May, 1918 Pinsent was co-piloting an Airco D.H.4 (A7671) – a two-seat biplane bomber piloted by Lt. L.F.D. Lutyens – when the aircraft broke apart mid-air, killing both men. Pinsent’s body was not recovered. Wittgenstein dedicated the Tractatus to Pinsent’s memory.

See also our interactive timeline of World War I for a look at some of the events that shaped Trinity’s wartime experience.

3 thoughts on “Ludwig Wittgenstein and the First World War

  1. Pingback: Trinity and the First World War | Trinity College Library, Cambridge

  2. Pingback: W is for Wittgenstein | Brigid, Fox, and Buddha

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