Not too long ago, we had a brief post on the website here looking at the brilliant statue of Socrates (the philosopher, not the footballer) which stands proudly in the grounds of the Botanic Gardens. This raised the issue of another philosopher who is remembered in the Botanic Gardens, albeit for very different reasons. While Socrates never walked through Dublin city, Ludwig Wittgenstein did. Indeed, the Vienna-born philosopher, considered one of the greatest minds of his time, actually lived and worked in the city.
Wittgenstein had chosen Dublin because of his friendship with a consultant psychiatric at St. Patrick’s Hospital in James’ Street, Maurice O’Connor Drury. Before taking up medicine, Drury had been a philosophy student of Wittgenstein’s at Cambridge. But, in 1947, at the height of his fame, Wittgenstein had decided to resign his Cambridge Professorship and settle in Ireland.
Wittgenstein spent two years of his life writing in Dublin, and indeed these were among the most productive years of his life, as it was during this time he wrote much of his most influential work, Philosophical Investigations. From November 1948 into the summer of 1949, he lived in a small modest room at Ross’s Hotel, today known to Dubliners as the Ashling Hotel. A small plaque on the front of this hotel marks the fact that Wittgenstein boarded here. This plaque was unveiled in 1988, by John Wilson, who was then Minister for Transport and Tourism.
Interestingly, he had visited Ireland and Dublin prior to this for short periods, with the first visit occurring in 1934. It was during his extended stay at the Ross’s Hotel in the late 1940s however that he truly familiarised himself with the city, and as Brian Fallon has noted he was frequently to be found “walking in the Phoenix Park, lunching in Bewley’s or in the Members Dining Rooms at the Zoo, and sometimes, during the winter, sitting on the parapet in the Palm House of the Botanic Gardens, writing.”
Richard Wall’s study Wittgenstein in Ireland provides good detail of his time here. His love for Bewley’s is evidently clear from his own correspondence. He would always enjoy the same lunch of an omelette and coffee, and was said to be delighted by the fact the staff there would always remember his order without even needing to place it. Wall notes that while we know for certain he frequently visited Bewley’s, the question of whether the great intellect ever stepped inside a Dublin pub remains unanswered. We know on one occasion that Wittgenstein and his friend Drury bought cheap cameras in Woolworth’s and then photographed the city from the top of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s Pillar!
Another plaque to Wittgenstein is found in the Botanic Gardens, a place he was said to find not alone relaxing but ideal for the purpose of writing. So close to the monument to Socrates, it’s interesting to think that one of the great philosophical thinkers of human history sat deep in thought.
Interestingly, one thing Wittgenstein admired about Dublin was the bilingual nature of the city, and he remarked about signage here that:
One thing is achieved by putting these notices in Irish. It makes one realise that one is in a foreign country. Dublin is not just another English provincial town, it has the air of a real capital city.
Wittgenstein died in April 1951, and at that time in life he was once more living in Cambridge. On death, he famously wrote that:
Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits.
So, what of the Dublin he knew? The Ross’s Hotel has since been replaced, the Pillar he climbed has been transformed into the Spire, Bewley’s on Grafton Street proudly remains despite its sister-branch on Westmoreland Street being transformed into a hideous Starbucks, and the Botanic Gardens have changed little.