Ludwig Wittgenstein and Philosophy at Swansea

by Alan Sandry

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s association with Swansea University came about through his relationship with Rush Rhees, his former student, confidant, and literary executor, who worked in a full time capacity at the Department of Philosophy from 1940-1966.

Between the years 1942-1947 Wittgenstein was a regular visitor to Swansea. In this period his perpetual dialogue with Rhees led to the development of many of his strands of thought which would appear in his posthumously published work Philosophical Investigations, which was co-edited by Rhees and another ex-student of Wittgenstein, G.E.M. Anscombe.

While an ostensibly peripheral figure in Swansea University’s history, Wittgenstein nevertheless instigated the Swansea School of Wittgensteinians, who were to dominate the university’s post-war philosophical output. Furthermore, one of the most notable photographs of Wittgenstein, by his partner Ben Richards, was taken in Swansea during this time, and Wittgenstein and Rush Rhees exchanged postcards of the bays of Gower, which clearly influenced Wittgenstein’s reflections on the natural world.

This essay will outline Wittgenstein’s time at Swansea, and place him in the context of Swansea University during that epoch.

Rush Rhees and the 1940’s

Even among his acolytes and biographers, Wittgenstein’s time at Swansea in the 1940’s is somewhat underemphasised and rarely discussed; though it undoubtedly played an extremely significant part in his later thought and writings. The reason why Wittgenstein came to Swansea was his desire to see his friend, and former student, Rush Rhees, who secured a position at the university’s Department of Philosophy in 1940. Rush Rhees was born in Rochester, New York, USA on 19th March 1905. He died in Swansea in 1989 and is buried at Oystermouth Cemetery. Rhees had Welsh ancestry as his great-great-grandfather was Morgan John Rhys, a radical Baptist Minister, who was one of the founders of Cambria, the Welsh colony in Pennsylvania. His family maintained it radical traditions in the course of the American Revolution. The Rheeses were particularly friendly with the progressive medical doctor among the revolutionaries, Benjamin Rush. In fact, Wittgenstein’s friend and pupil’s full name was Benjamin Rush Rhees, so proud were they of that connection still.

Rhees studied in the first instance at the University of Rochester, where his father, Benjamin Rhees, was President. He then graduated with a first-class honours’ degree in Philosophy from the University of Edinburgh. Rush Rhees lectured at Swansea University from 1940-1966, and continued his association with the university in an Emeritus capacity. He co-edited Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953), and would later produce Without Answers (1969); Discussions of Wittgenstein (1970); and Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections (1981).

Whilst at Swansea, Wittgenstein discussed a vast range of topics with Rhees, including psychology and contradiction, and the works of Freud, Aquinas and Heidegger. Also under the spotlight were Wittgenstein’s developing concern with the Philosophy of Mathematics, and his theories on Private Language arguments. He carried in his ever-present satchel the notebooks that become a substantial part of Philosophical Investigations.

Rush Rhees, as Wittgenstein’s interlocutor, was fundamental to this cognitive process. Rhees had been a postgraduate student under Wittgenstein at Cambridge from February 1936 to 1940, and they had bonded during that time. Wittgenstein spotted Rhees’s academic potential, and encouraged him in all of his ventures. Wittgenstein noted that ‘Rhees is an excellent man & has real talent for philosophy, too’.

Indeed, it was Rhees who acted as translator for the earliest incarnation of Philosophical Investigations. He laboured throughout 1938 to convert Wittgenstein’s German notebooks into English. Little did he know, at that time, that it would be his destiny to spend the next half century as one of the foremost scholars and interpreters of Wittgenstein’s sublime ideas.

Wittgenstein’s time and experiences at Swansea in the 1940’s contributed greatly to his epistemological journey. This was an intellectual break, similar to that experienced by Karl Marx a century earlier in the 1840’s. As Marx’s theoretical conversion, and his growing politicisation, led to the production of The Communist Manifesto, so Wittgenstein’s transformative era ensured that the final draft of his Philosophical Investigations provided a lucid account of his second-wave thinking

Swansea: A Cultural and Bohemian Heartland

Some of his Trinity College associates may have questioned his intentions and rationale when he departed from the spires of Cambridge for his sojourns in Wales, but Wittgenstein was hardly entering into a cultural or literary wasteland when he arrived at Swansea. In fact, he would have been inserting himself into an environment that was rich in both spheres.

From the 1930’s, and into the 1940’s, Swansea was home to the Kardomah Gang. These were an influential artistic coterie who would meet in the Kardomah Café, in its original setting of Castle Street. The Gang comprised of, inter alia, the poet Vernon Watkins, the composer Daniel Jones, and the painters Alfred Janes and Mervyn Levy. The most famous of the Kardomah Gang, though, was Dylan Thomas, arguably the greatest Welch poet and playwright in the twentieth century…

In his Return Journey, Thomas explains what they discussed over their coffees: ‘Music and poetry and paintings and politics. Einstein and Epstein, Stravinsky and Greta Garbo, death and religion. Picasso and girls.’ This, incidentally, was composed in 1947, which was the same year that Wittgenstein said adieu to Swansea.

So there was a creative spirit to Swansea that would have been gracefully absorbed by Wittgenstein, and also by the Swansea University academics from that period. This would support the statement by contemporary Swansea University Wittgenstein scholar, and seminal investigator of Wittgenstein’s time at Swansea, Mario Von Der Ruhr, who wrote: ‘Wittgenstein found the intellectual atmosphere at Swansea more congenial than the philosophical milieu at Cambridge’

Wartime Reality

Tragically, Swansea underwent a Three-Day Blitz from 19-21 February 1941. 230 lives were lost and the town centre was devastated. So, Wittgenstein’s arrival in 1942, shortly after a gall-stone operation at Guy’s Hospital, London, would have been into an urban landscape that was slowly recovering from this bombardment, and that was still in a state of tension and apprehension. This uneasy, grey air may have actually suited Wittgenstein’s contemplative mood. But there was still brightness, in terms of the people and the wider environment and hinterland.

Wittgenstein spoke fondly of Swansea on many occasions, covering the period from his first visit to his last. In one letter to his close friend Norman Malcom, he commented, “I know quite a number of people here whom I like. I seem to find it more easy to get along with them here than in England. I feel much more often like smiling, e.g. when I walk in the street. Or when I see children, etc.”

Wittgenstein’s lodgings

In 1944 Wittgenstein was in Swansea from March until September; a visit in which he managed to undertake an intense period of work on his manuscripts. During this semester, Wittgenstein decided he needed to take a room, so as not to overburden Rush Rhees. Wittgenstein discovered, through an advertisement, that Mrs Mann had a vacancy at 10 Langland Road, Mumbles.

She turned out to be a fine hostess, and cared for Wittgenstein on those occasions that his health faltered. She provided him with maldod (pampering), which had been hitherto in short supply in Wittgenstein’s adult life. Wittgenstein then met, and briefly stayed with, Reverend Wynford Morgan, a Methodist Minister who lived at 2 Cwmdonkin Terrace, Uplands. Morgan and Wittgenstein would engage in lengthy theological dialogues, and Wittgenstein took great pleasure in challenging the cleric’s religious certitude. When Morgan asked Wittgenstein if he believed in God, he replied; ‘Yes I do, but the difference between what you believe and what I believe may be infinite’.

Reverend Morgan introduced Wittgenstein to his neighbours, the Clements family, who resided at 1 Cwmdonkin Terrace. Albert and Mary Clements immediately took to Wittgenstein, and he liked them. Albert was a caulker at Swansea Docks, and Mary worked sporadically in canteens around Swansea. Wittgenstein was an advocate for manual, proletariat professions, and so would have had genuine respect for the Clements. He especially savoured the hearty meals that came out of Mary Clements’ kitchen, above all on a Sunday. Wittgenstein also enjoyed the company of the Clements’ daughters, 12-year-old Joan and 10-year-old Barbara.

Somewhat surprisingly, Wittgenstein joined in with family activities, and showed interest in the education of the girls. Joan and Barbara called him ‘Vicky’, which apparently led to an embarrassing incident one day on Swansea beach when someone was calling for their daughter and he thought they meant him. As a lover of games, Wittgenstein regularly engaged in Snakes and Ladders with the family. In particular, he would play this with Joan for hours on end. He also provided the girls with tennis balls, which, being wartime, were in short supply due to rationing.

Wittgenstein’s eccentricities and idiosyncrasies would amuse the family. Barbara recalled that he would drink a mix of coffee and cocoa, and remembered how he had a fit one day when he found a slug in his cup. Similarly, Wittgenstein took cod liver oil tablets but on more than one occasion he bit the capsule releasing the oil. This resulted in a fit of pique with Wittgenstein shouting ‘bloody bugger’. Obviously, this amused the young girls no end!

When you consider these human stories, you can see how Wittgenstein appreciated his interaction with people in Swansea. It is also fascinating to note that photographs of the Reverend Morgan and Mary Clements can be found in the Wittgenstein Archives at Cambridge.

The Environment

Wittgenstein had a proclivity for self-isolation, and an almost transcendental approach to finding himself, and to working through his Weltanschauung, via his meditations. From 1912 onwards he occasionally retreated to the fjord of Skjolden, Norway, where he built a hut for himself. This solitude and asceticism, only broken at times with visits from intimate friends, proved an integral part of the process for his philosophical advancement.

For Wittgenstein, ‘work on philosophy is really more work on oneself. On one’s own conception. On how one sees things (And what one expects of them)’. Whilst at Swansea he had daily access to the Swansea Bay and Gower shorelines; with some of the quieter clifftop locations undoubtedly providing him with memories of Skjolden. Water has dualistic characteristics. It can be a symbol of movement and flow, but also an emblem of a constant, calming presence. This drawing towards water, and its adjoining topography, was a leitmotif that ran through Wittgenstein’s adult life.

In August 1949 Wittgenstein wrote to Rush Rhees from Ithaca, New York: ‘There are some nice walks here though nothing compared with the Gower coast. Nature here doesn’t look as natural as in Wales’. Correspondingly, there would be a similar scenario, this time on terra firma, when Wittgenstein stayed in Uplands at the tip of Cwmdonkin Park. Whilst lodging at Cwmdonkin Terrace, Wittgenstein would have looked directly across at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, birthplace of the aforementioned Dylan Thomas. Uplands was Thomas’s initial physical and mental notepad and Wittgenstein would have retraced the steps of the young Dylan through Cwmdonkin Park. As Thomas wrote, ‘the ball I threw while playing in the park has not yet reached the ground.’ Wittgenstein would have appreciated this reflection on our actions and their consequences, and its personification of eternal youth. Seascapes and landscapes, therefore, were influencers for the productive Wittgenstein.

The Swansea School

From the 1950 onwards Swansea University witnessed the growth and flourishing of what became known as the “Swansea School” of Philosophy. Within a short space of time, Swansea University became highly regarded, across the globe, as a centre for Wittgensteinian thought and academic discourse.

With Rush Rhees in situ, and overseeing developments, many erudite, and innovative, philosophers peregrinated around the Singleton campus. Among them, with their dates at Swansea University and prominent works alongside, were: Roy Holland, 1950-1967: Against Empiricism; Peter Winch, 1951-1964: The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy; J R Jones, 1952-1970: Yr Argyfwng Gwacter Ysbryd (The Crisis of Meaninglessness); Ilham Dilman, 1961-1997: Philosophy as Criticism; Dewi Zephaniah (DZ) Philips, 1965-2006: Religion and the Hermeneutics of Contemplation; R.W Beardsmore, 1969-1997: Art and Morality; Howard Mounce, 1969-1999: Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: An Introduction.

Traits and characteristics of the Swansea School were numerous, but their prominent features were: Learning and teaching through exegesis; Small group discussions; No fixed ideological positions; Scepticism towards metanarratives and catch all solutions. It is also possible to identify similitudes that were present within the Swansea School: Ecological concern; Stripping down the complexity of arguments, using Occam’s razor; Exploration of hidden meanings; Search for perspicuity within texts; Protean approaches and versatility; Reconsideration and reflection.

Rush Rhees held a weekly post-graduate seminar from 1983. He would occasionally invite a small number of students to his home for informal conversations. Wittgenstein was often the subject-matter and Rhees really pushed the students during these sessions.

Wittgenstein’s legacy at Swansea University was substantial, and long lasting. When it is considered that Wittgenstein was never employed at Swansea, his influence on its scholarly activities was remarkable. He never lectured on a course, but he did address the University’s Philosophical Society, created by Rhees in 1940.

Wittgenstein’s status as one of the all-time great minds guarantees that his gift endures. Swansea University is honoured to have had him over its threshold, and, particularly through Rush Rhees, to have played such an important part in proclaiming and disseminating Wittgenstein’s philosophical wisdom through the writing, research and pedagogy of the Swansea School.

Wittgenstein and Contemporary Swansea

Regrettably, Wittgenstein has never really been celebrated, or embraced, across the city; possibly due to his not being seen as a fully-fledged ‘Jack’ as natives of Swansea are sometimes called… But, more realistically, it is probably because he has been perceived as a transient addition to Swansea life, who, even today, sadly receives minimal public recognition.

One rather unusual visible sign of Wittgenstein’s heritage, nevertheless, manifests itself at Swansea Marina. The Hexagonal building, located parallel with the Observatory on the seafront, has a fascinating inscription. It is taken from the only book that Wittgenstein published in his lifetime, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus from 1921. It reads thus:

NET. N. AN INTELLIGIBLE ARTICULATION. The form is optional, since I could have achieved the same result by using a NET with a triangular or hexagonal mesh.

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 6.341

One can only imagine that the anonymous architect or designer of the Hexagonal was inspired as much by Wittgenstein’s technological interventions, as his philosophical oeuvre. Whatever the reason, it does at least embed Wittgenstein within Swansea; his second, or is that his third or fourth home? Seeing it, reading it, makes us think!

Celebrating Wittgenstein at Swansea

Notwithstanding the Hexagonal Hut, Ludwig Wittgenstein requires more to reflect his time in Swansea, and at Swansea University. Swansea should deliver it.

A blue plaque, sited in avant-garde Uplands possibly, would be suitable. A Wittgenstein Trail may also be feasible, as the creation of one would invariably attract visitors with an interest in this outstanding and enigmatic intellectual. To have such a genius as part of our history needs to be fervently celebrated. An annual Wittgenstein Prize, possibly? Or perhaps something like a 1940’s themed Wittgenstein Day, a la Bloomsday in Dublin, which celebrates James Joyce? That may sound a silly way to commemorate a serious-minded philosopher but, as one of the anchors of the Swansea School, Peter Winch, reminded us, it was Wittgenstein himself who remarked that:

‘If people did not sometimes do silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done.’

Dr Alan Sandry is Senior Lecturer at the School of Management, Swansea University. He is a Political Philosopher who has published widely on political theory, ideologies, identities, and Welsh and European politics. In 2017, he was invited to lecture on Ludwig Wittgenstein at the Kepler Salon, Linz, Austria, He has just completed a play about Wittgenstein’s time at Swansea: From Linz to Langland