Wittgenstein’s last remark

Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote his last philosophical remark on the 27th of April 1951, two days before his death. He was staying at the house of his physician Dr. Bevan, whose wife, though at first frightened of Wittgenstein, had become devoted to him. In this house he finally managed to work again after a long period of intellectual dullness. After more than two years, he wrote, the curtain in his brain had lifted. I'm going to work now as I have never worked before!

In his memoir of Wittgenstein, his friend and student Norman Malcolm records this about the day of his last remark:

On Friday, April 27th, he took a walk in the afternoon. That night he fell violently ill. He remained conscious and when informed by the doctor that he could live only a few days, he exclaimed Good! Before losing consciousness he said to Mrs. Bevan (who was with him throughout the night) Tell them I've had a wonderful life!

If Wittgenstein fell ill in the afternoon, and died two days later, he must have recorded the remark in the morning, before taking his last walk. But I'm tempted to suppose he wrote it while still sleeping, or the next day in the feverish state between life and death.

I cannot seriously suppose that I am at this moment dreaming. Someone who, dreaming, says I am dreaming, even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if in his dream he had said it is raining, while it was in fact raining. Even if his dream were actually connected with the noise of the rain.

It's true: if in my dream I think, It's raining outside, the window is open, my books will get wet, then I still have to wake up in order to see for myself, for my waking self. So in a sense I wasn't thinking, I was only dreaming that I was thinking. Conversely, if I'm thinking (not merely dreaming that I'm thinking) that I'm currently dreaming, then I must be thinking falsely. But what is that assurance worth to me if I might, though it seems otherwise, not be thinking anything because, after all, I'm dreaming?

© 2009–2024, Martijn Wallage