A dispiriting find

26 Jul

This image caused a bit of a stir when I put it up on Twitter the other day, so I thought I might make it available here in a wild stab at posterity.

I was working in the Manuscripts Room at Cambridge’s University Library during the week, and I decided to amuse myself with a ruffle through the card catalogue, which documents the Ph.D theses approved by the university from 1921 (when a specially written work became a requirement to gain the degree) up to, give or take, 1970.

Doctoral students sometimes consult older dissertations not just because they’re of interest for our own research, but also in an attempt to get some idea of what a successful Ph.D should look like. In that spirit, it was deeply dispiriting for this Ph.D wannabe to come across the following card among the others.


Yep, that’s Wittgenstein’s Ph.D dissertation. With the snappy title of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (and the handy addition of an introduction by none other than Bertrand Russell – that’ll help with the viva), it had been published in German in 1921 and in English translation in 1922. Already famous by the time it was examined at Cambridge, the Tractatus is one of the most important works of philosophy of the twentieth century.

The dissertation was only examined in 1929 when Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge from Austria and sought a teaching position; Russell persuaded him to put the Tractatus forward and (helpfully) acted as one of his examiners. The other, G.E. Moore, reportedly a sceptic when it came to what he saw as the American fad of the Ph.D qualification (although I can’t find any good reference for this), said in his examiner’s comments that ‘I myself consider that this is a work of genius; but, even if I am completely mistaken and it is nothing of the sort, it is well above the standard required for the Ph.D. degree’.

Impressive? Certainly. Inspiring, perhaps. But all in all, hardly the kind of thing a daydreaming Ph.D student wants to come across on a sunny afternoon.


5 Responses to “A dispiriting find”

  1. Peter Parkes July 26, 2012 at 11:07 am #

    Neat handwriting.

  2. DrGBH July 26, 2012 at 5:42 pm #

    It’s interesting to note that Wittgenstein’s *Tractatus* would not today be acceptable to the Philosophy Faculty at Cambridge, whose current regulations stipulate a minimum word count of 50,000!

    • earlymodernjohn July 26, 2012 at 9:54 pm #

      I like this – it reminds me of reading Joyce at school and trying to annoy the teacher by asking whether bits of Ulysses would get a good mark from a state examiner…

  3. Thomas July 26, 2012 at 9:49 pm #

    I don’t believe for a moment your spiel about “a ruffle through the card catalogue”: why not just admit that you were actively looking for precisely this card? I’d still have enjoyed seeing the picture and reading your reflections.

    • earlymodernjohn July 26, 2012 at 9:51 pm #

      It might seem far-fetched, but I’m afraid it’s true – I was looking for another Ph.D in the W drawer and this jumped out at me. If I’m honest, I didn’t even know the Tractatus had been submitted as a doctorate. And that’s the god’s honest truth!

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