Bernard Francis (Brian) McGuinness (1927-2019)

Obituary and a Short Memoir

by Allan Janik

Brian McGuinness (Queen’s College, Oxford University, History of Scientific Thought, Università degli studi di Siena) was for several decades the world’s leading authority on the life and writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the 20th century’s most influential philosopher.

Professor McGuinness’ pre-eminence among Wittgenstein scholars was the result of nearly sixty years of acribic research into every aspect of Wittgenstein’s life and work as well as the social and philosophical context in which he developed his highly distinctive mode of philosophizing. In that period he translated Wittgenstein’s most famous work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus with David Pears, edited the so-called Prototractatus and a number of publications from the Nachlass of the (then) young Viennese philosopher Friedrich Waismann, Wittgenstein’s most important interlocutor during the gestation of his mature philosophy in the Philosophical Investigations, and an important philosopher in his own right despite undeserved neglect in the philosophical community at large.

In addition Professor McGuinness edited several sets of correspondence that are crucial for understanding Wittgenstein’s philosophical and personal development. These include his correspondence with Paul Engelmann, Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, G.E. Moore and his other Cambridge acquaintances in particular Frank Ramsey and Piero Sraffa, who exerted a particularly strong influence on Wittgenstein, as well as his extensive correspondence with his family. McGuinness has commented extensively and with great refinement and subtlety upon the most central philosophical themes in Wittgenstein’s oeuvre such as mysticism, solipsism, nonsense and the status of science as well as delicate matters in his personal background such as his (and his family’s) relation to Judaism. His crowning achievements are his (still) unsurpassed account of Wittgenstein’s life up to the publication of the Tractatus in 1922, Young Ludwig, winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for the year’s best biography in 1988 and his collected papers, Approaches to Wittgenstein, in 2002. The intention behind the biography was nothing less than to give an account of Wittgenstein’s life as he saw it himself. That is a challenge of the first order and Brian McGuinness rose admirably to meet its demands. The book was, and remains, an absolute delight to read and, having read, to dip into for information about this or that episode in Wittgenstein’s life, pausing to admire the elegance of expression.

Brian McGuinness also deeply enriched international understanding of the philosophical atmosphere in Austria from the late 19th century to World War II that stands in the background to Wittgenstein’s philosophizing, which has frequently been treated superficially or misunderstood outright, in his capacity as general editor of the Boston University Center for the Philosophy and History of Science’s Vienna Circle Collection. He has insured that the two most prominent Viennese philosophers of science in Wittgenstein’s youth – Ernst Mach and Ludwig Boltzmann – have reached the English speaking philosophical community in reliable, well edited scholarly editions. He himself edited volumes in that series dedicated to Josef Schächter, Otto Neurath, Hans Hahn and Karl Menger. He has also edited English editions of philosophical papers and correspondence by Gottlob Frege, the most important influence upon Wittgenstein’s philosophizing.

In short, Brian McGuinness left no stone unturned in supplying the international community of scholars with materials of all sorts that have profoundly deepened our understanding and appreciation of this difficult philosopher and the tasks that he set himself. No one has more fully and profoundly documented Wittgenstein’s Denkbewegung than Brian McGuinness.

In all of this Brian McGuinness had a long-standing relationship to Innsbruck and an increasingly close relationship with its university. He first made the acquaintance of Walter Methlagl, the founder of the Brenner Archives, in Vienna in the mid-sixties when he was doing his early research at the National Library where Methlagl was learning the archivist’s métier. The meeting led to a visit to Innsbruck to interview Ludwig von Ficker. I myself made the acquaintance of Brian McGuinness in Vienna in 1969 when I was doing research on my doctoral dissertation. Contact with the Brenner Archives continued regularly up to 1997 when Professor McGuinness became an active partner with the Brenner Archives in matters of historical and biographical background to Wittgenstein’s thought. He contributed copies of numerous rare documents in his possession and his own unparalleled knowledge about Wittgenstein correspondents to a number of editorial projects culminating in the Institute’s electronic publication of Wittgenstein’s complete correspondence in 2004 of which he was editor. In 2016 the Brenner Archives acquired the McGuinness Nachlass, which is arguably the most extensive, best organized collection of materials relating to Wittgenstein in private hands anywhere. These materials will provide a cornerstone for further state-of-the-art historical research into the genesis and reception of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. We have much to remember Prof. McGuinness today and our reasons for remembering him will not diminish in the future.

His eloquence and mastery of languages (perfect French and Italian as well as German as well as in classical Latin, Greek and Arabic and high degree of competence in a number of other modern languages) have made him a welcome guest at universities and seminars throughout Europe and the United States. Moreover, his willingness to assist and to co-operate other scholars have also contributed to the deep impact that his work has internationally during more than half a century.

My next meeting with Brian McGuinness was at the 2nd International Wittgenstein symposium in Kirchberg am Wechsel in Lower Austria in 1977, adjacent to the villages where Wittgenstein was active as a primary school teacher in the early and mid-twenties. This was the first large-scale meeting devoted exclusively to Wittgenstein with world-wide participation. I remember Brian McGuinness posing a question about the appropriate greeting in Italian upon meeting a man working in a field. I remembered it because it struck me as so unusual. I subsequently came to realize that awareness of the mot juste on a given occasion was central to his way of looking at the world. I came to realize also that as he corrected my English over the years (something that miffed me a bit in the early days), it was more matter of deep concern, and deeply genuine, concern for linguistic nicety than it was a mere assertion of superiority and something I came to appreciate as a sign of friendship. One of the first things I was told about Brian McGuinness by an old Oxonian was that he was one of a kind, “the sort of tutor, who might take off his shoes and cut his toenails during the tutorial.” My esteemed colleague was something of a character, an Origineller, as we say in German. But he can be complemented also with other stories, if we want an accurate picture of this extraordinary scholar. For example, a former student of his who told me that Brian McGuinness’s tutorial on Wittgenstein’s Notebooks 1914-1916 was the most extraordinary intellectual experience in the course of his Oxford education. Brian McGuinness was not the sort of person that you easily forget.

We also met on a number of occasions as the wave of interest in Vienna 1900 swelled into Austria’s capital itself and interest in Wittgenstein’s philosophy mounted in the mid 1980s and 1990s.

From 1977 up to 1982, we would encounter one another in Boston at the Boston University Center for the Philosophy and History of Science. Brian McGuinness was a respected editor of the Vienna Circle Collection, which made important texts from that group available in reliable translations to the English-speaking public; whereas I was but a lowly research associate of that very exciting institution. By this time, it was clear that Wittgenstein and matters Austrian would bring us together regularly.

Other encounters between us over the years have taken place in Paris, where we both were frequently invited by Antonia Soulez and other French Wittgenstein scholars as well as researchers into Vienna 1900, who arranged meeting in collaboration with Dr. Rudolf Altmüller, the legendary director of the Austrian Cultural Institute there. In the course of one such Parisian encounter in the spring of 1979 we arranged to continue our private discussion of Wittgenstein in Oxford that summer. In the event that meeting turned out to be absolutely unforgettable. I arrived in Oxford in the later morning and proceeded to Queen’s College, where Professor McGuinness invited me for lunch. Being outside of term time, the meal was served in a small refectory where there were only a few people and a modest meal was served. Brian McGuinness began by apologizing profusely for the mediocre quality of the food before springing into a discussion of some topic or other with his colleagues a good part of which took place in classical Greek. That made to me completely clear, if I had to be reminded, that I was no longer in Kansas, as Dorothy says in The Wizard of Oz. Then our conversation turned to the Boston University Center for the Philosophy and History of Science and its two directors, Robert Cohen and Marx Wartofsky. “Imagine being named after Karl Marx,” Professor McGuinness remarked loudly and with certain incredulity. “If he had been born five years later, they would have called him Stalin!” he exclaimed. Upon my relating the anecdote to him a couple of months later, Marx, who counted among the most respected and admired philosophers in America those days, simply shrugged his shoulders and sighed, “absolutely right!” Towards the end of the meal, after many more apologies for the quality of the food, McGuinness said, “Well at least we have an excellent desert,” as he showed me a large bowl of berries. “These strawberries are the best strawberries that you can get in these parts. They were picked just this morning very close to here. They are really superior strawberries and continued to praise the fruit. Do have some of these wonderful strawberries…actually they are raspberries!” So I experienced a little touch of Monty Python in the early afternoon air at Queen’s College that day!

Cordial as our relationship was in those early days, it was only with our encounter at the new quarters of the Brenner Archives in the context of a small symposium on Wittgenstein’s friend, the architect Paul Engelmann in 1997, when Brian McGuinness got to see our digitalized version of Wittgenstein’s correspondence, which was then a work-in-progress, that it became clear that close collaboration between us would provide many mutual advantages. So we entered into a sort of partnership, which entailed increasingly close contacts. Those meetings transformed collegial co-operation into a friendship that I have grown to cherish deeply over time. As we got to work more closely I began to learn how to learn from this extraordinary scholar, something that had a deep effect upon my scholarship.

For example, in commenting upon the huge literature that had developed searching for key figures in Wittgenstein’s background, who might help to explain the idiosyncratic character of his thought, the “Wittgenstein and…” literature, if you will, he once simply remarked that most of it was beside the point simply because Wittgenstein himself made clear who the figures were who had the played the most important role in forming his mind. The problem was that readers did not take his verba ipsissima seriously enough. That meant taking seriously not simply the bare facts of what he’d said but the precise nature of his mode of expression. These hints opened my eyes to a number of things that were of crucial importance to my basic project of chronicling the development of Wittgenstein’s concept of philosophy, which I’d been working on for over thirty years at that point.

Having learned how to learn from McGuinness made the subsequent contacts between us increasingly profitable and pleasurable occasions that I always looked forward to with delight. In recent years as we both have battled with various sicknesses and old-age in general we have had only sparse contacts with one another, which has certainly been a source of great regret to me. Like the members of the Wittgenstein family that were closest to him, I am deeply saddened to be deprived to his wit and wisdom. The international scholarly community too has suffered an irreplaceable loss with his passing.