One time when we were walking along the river we saw a newsvendor’s sign which announced that German government accused the British government of instigating a recent attempt to assassinate Hitler with a bomb. This was in the autumn of 1939.Wittgenstein said of the German claim: It would not surprise me at all if it were true. I retorted that I could not believe that the top people in the British government would do such a thing. I meant that the British were too civilized and decent to attempt anything so underhand; and I added that such an act was incompatible with the British ‘national character’. My remark made Wittgenstein extremely angry. He considered it to be a great stupidity and also an indication that I was not learning anything from the philosophical training that he was trying to give me. He said these things very vehemently, and when I refused to admit that my remark was stupid he would not talk to me anymore, and soon after we parted. He had been in the habit of coming to my lodging in Chesterton Road to take me on a short walk with him before his bi-weekly lectures. After this incident he stopped that practice. As will be seen, he kept the episode in mind for several years.
Thanks for your letter, dated Nov.12th, which arrived this morning. I was glad to get it. I thought you had almost forgotten me, or perhaps wished to forget me. I had a particular reason for thinking this. Whenever I thought of you I couldn’t help thinking of a particular incident which seemed to me very important. You & I were walking along the river toward the railway bridge & we had a heated discussion in which you made remark about ‘national character’ that shocked me by it’s primitiveness. I then thought : what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse question of logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about the important question of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious than any …journalist in the use of the DANGEROUS phrases such people use for their own ends. You see, I know that it’s difficult to think, well about ‘certainty’, ‘probability’, ‘perception’,etc. But it is, if possible, still more difficult to think, or try to think, really honestly about your life & other people lives. And the trouble is that thinking about these things is not thrilling, but often downright nasty. And when it’s nasty then it’s most important._ Let me stop preaching. What I wanted to say was this: I’ld very much like to see you again; but if we meet it would be wrong to avoid talking about serious non-philosophical things. Being timid I don’t like clashes, & particularly not with people I like. But I’ld rather have a clash than mere superficial talk._ Well, I thought that when you gradually ceased writing to me it was because you felt that if we were to dig down deep enough we wouldn’t be able to see eye to eye in very serious matters. Perhaps I was quite wrong. But anyway, if we live to see each other again let’s not shirk digging. You can’t think decently if you don’t want to hurt yourself. I know all about it because I’m a shirker…. Read this letter in a good spirit! Good luck!
NORMAN ⅯALCOLM “LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN A MEMOIR”