Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Wittgenstein in Swansea

In Wales Swansea is the locale most readily associated with philosophy. It’s fair to say that for a while it was Philosophy Central – the place where all the sharpest thinkers hung out. Based at the city’s University, the Swansea School, as they became known, were an inspirational group of academic philosophers hugely influenced by Austrian egg-head Ludwig Wittgenstein.

The main figure behind the Swansea School was Rush Rhees, an American philosopher, who taught at the University from 1940 – 1966. He had been a pupil of Ludwig Wittgenstein at Cambridge during the 1930s and later became his close friend and literary executor. Rees’s books included Without Answers (1969); Discussions of Wittgenstein (1970); and Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections (1981).

Wittgenstein himself, arguably the most important philosopher of the twentieth century, was a regular visitor to Swansea. Between 1942 -7 he used to holiday there every summer, visiting old chum Rush Rhees and spending precious time working on his manuscripts. Much of this holiday writing would turn up in his posthumously published and massively influential Philosophical Investigations (1953). According to Rhees Wittgenstein would arrive in Swansea from Cambridge (which he disliked) and exclaim: “Am I glad to be here!”

During his 1947 vacation in Swansea he brought with him his young lover Ben Richards. Under Wittgenstein’s instruction Richards took the remarkable photograph above which shows him against a heavily scratched and graffitied wall. By nature notoriously prickly and austere, this is a rare glimpse of a happy, relaxed and presumably in love Wittgenstein. The Swansea snapshot is probably one of the two most famous pictures of the philosopher in existence. The other being the school photograph in which he is shown in the same class, allegedly, as Adolf Hitler.

Other members of the Swansea School were Peter Winch, JR Jones, RF Holland, and DZ Phillips (they do like their initials in the world of philosophy). Of these D(ewi) Z(ephaniah) Phillips has come to be regarded by many as Wales’s foremost philosopher of the twentieth century. He specialised in the philosophy of morals and religion. One of his works was a study of RS Thomas. Phillips became head of the philosophy department in 1971 and under his stewardship it became an international centre for Wittgenstein studies. Scandalously the philosophy department at Swansea University was shut down in 2004.