Wittgenstein in Swansea

Am I Glad To Be Here!

Ludwig Wittgenstein and Philosophy at Swansea [1]

by Alan Sandry

Table of Contents



Ludwig Wittgenstein’s association with Swansea University came about through his relationship with Rush Rhees, his former student, confidant, and literary executor, who worked in a full time capacity at the Department of Philosophy from 1940-1966.

Between the years 1942-1947 Wittgenstein was a regular visitor to Swansea. In this period his perpetual dialogue with Rhees led to the development of many of his strands of thought which would appear in his posthumously published work Philosophical Investigations,[2] which was co-edited by Rhees and another ex-student of Wittgenstein, G.E.M. Anscombe.

While an ostensibly peripheral figure in Swansea University's history, Wittgenstein nevertheless instigated the Swansea School of Wittgensteinians, who were to dominate the university’s post-war philosophical output. Furthermore, one of the most notable photographs of Wittgenstein, by his partner Ben Richards, was taken in Swansea during this time, and Wittgenstein and Rush Rhees exchanged postcards of the bays of Gower, which clearly influenced Wittgenstein’s speculation on the natural world.

This essay will outline Wittgenstein's time at Swansea, and place him in the context of Swansea University during that epoch.

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Academic and Intellectual Journey

Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the foremost philosophers of the Twentieth Century, and one of the finest and most influential thinkers of all time.

Wittgenstein was born in Vienna, on 26th April 1889, into one of the wealthiest families in Austria. His father, Karl Wittgenstein, was an iron and steel magnate with a substantial property portfolio. After initial schooling in Vienna, Wittgenstein was sent to the Realschule in Linz to receive a technical and industrial education. This was to lead him into studying Mechanical Engineering at the Technical University, Berlin, and then onwards to Manchester to research Aeronautics.

Wittgenstein was to lead a nomadic lifestyle in which he immersed himself into a wide variety of roles from soldier to teacher to gardener to amateur architect. His academic reputation in philosophy, though, has as its starting point his unannounced arrival at Cambridge University in 1911, where he sought out his soon-to-be mentor, Bertrand Russell.

Russell, man of Monmouthshire, Wales’s greatest mind, and eminent Analytical Philosopher, would become Wittgenstein’s tutor at Cambridge from 1912, a year after their first encounter. As a result, Wales, as shall be seen, intertwined itself with the philosophy and life story of the adult Wittgenstein. It was Russell, indeed, who commented of Wittgenstein that he was ‘the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense, and dominating’.[3]

Wittgenstein was a silent disruptor; a man who, remarkably, created two diverse, ground-breaking philosophies over his lifetime. His Early Philosophy is evident in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus[4], and his Later Philosophy was posthumously published in Philosophical Investigations. These tomes are rightly considered to be theoretical masterpieces. Both had, and continue to have, an enormous impact on the intellectual world, and to this day have shaped the debates on the Philosophy of Language and Analytical Philosophy.

We certainly would not be contemplating the application of Artificial Intelligence, or advanced communication systems, if it were not for the spur in understanding and advancing the fields of Language, Science and Technology, which emanated from Wittgenstein’s teaching and writing. It can be incontrovertibly stated that Wittgenstein provided a framework for reasoning and human progress.

Rush Rhees and the 1940’s

Even among his acolytes and biographers, Wittgenstein’s time at Swansea in the 1940’s is somewhat underemphasised and rarely discussed; though it undoubtedly played an extremely significant part in his later thought and writings. The reason why Wittgenstein came to Swansea was his desire to see his friend, and former student, Rush Rhees, who secured a position at the university’s Department of Philosophy in 1940. Rush Rhees was born in Rochester, New York, USA on 19th March 1905. He died in Swansea in 1989 and is buried at Oystermouth Cemetery. Rhees had Welsh ancestry as his great-great-grandfather was Morgan John Rhys, a radical Baptist Minister, who was one of the founders of Cambria, the Welsh colony in Pennsylvania.

Rhees studied in the first instance at the University of Rochester, where his father, Benjamin Rhees, was President. He then graduated with a first-class honours degree in Philosophy from the University of Edinburgh. Rush Rhees lectured at Swansea University from 1940-1966, and continued his association with the university in an Emeritus capacity. He co-edited Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953), and would later produce Without Answers (1969); Discussions of Wittgenstein (1970); and Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections (1981).

Whilst at Swansea, Wittgenstein discussed a vast range of topics with Rhees, including psychology and contradiction, and the works of Freud, Aquinas and Heidegger. Also under the spotlight were Wittgenstein’s developing attachment to the Philosophy of Mathematics, and his theories on Private Language arguments. He carried in his ever present satchel the notebooks that become a substantial part of Philosophical Investigations.

Rush Rhees, as Wittgenstein’s interlocutor, was fundamental to this cognitive process. Rhees had been a postgraduate student under Wittgenstein at Cambridge from February 1936, and they had bonded during that time. Wittgenstein spotted Rhees’s academic potential, and encouraged him in all of his ventures. Wittgenstein noted that ‘Rhees is an excellent man & has real talent for philosophy, too’.[5]

Indeed, it was Rhees who acted as translator for the earliest incarnation of Philosophical Investigations. He laboured throughout 1938 to convert Wittgenstein’s German notebooks into English. Little did he know, at that time, that it would be his destiny to spend the next half century as one of the foremost scholars and interpreters of Wittgenstein’s sublime ideas.

Wittgenstein’s time and experiences at Swansea in the 1940’s contributed greatly to his epistemological journey. This was an intellectual break, similar to that experienced by Karl Marx a century earlier in the 1840’s. As Marx’s theoretical conversion, and his growing politicisation, led to the production of The Communist Manifesto[6], so Wittgenstein’s transformative era ensured that the final draft of his Philosophical Investigations provided a lucid account of his second-wave thinking

Swansea: A Cultural and Bohemian Heartland

Some of his Trinity College associates may have questioned his intentions and rationale when he departed from the spires of Cambridge for his sojourns in Wales, but Wittgenstein was hardly entering into a cultural or literary wasteland when he arrived at Swansea. In fact, he would have been inserting himself into an environment that was rich in both spheres.

From the 1930’s, and into the ‘40’s, Swansea was home to the Kardomah Gang. These were an influential artistic coterie who would meet in the Kardomah Café, in its original setting of Castle Street. The Gang comprised of, inter alia, the poet Vernon Watkins, the composer Daniel Jones, and the painters Alfred Janes and Mervyn Levy. The most famous of the Kardomah Gang, though, was Dylan Thomas.

In his Return Journey, Thomas explains what they discussed over their coffees: ‘Music and poetry and paintings and politics. Einstein and Epstein, Stravinsky and Greta Garbo, death and religion. Picasso and girls.’[7] This, incidentally, was composed in 1947, which was the same year that Wittgenstein said adieu to Swansea.

So there was a creative spirit to Swansea that would have been gracefully absorbed by Wittgenstein, and also by the Swansea University academics from that period. This would support the statement by contemporary Swansea University Wittgenstein scholar, and seminal investigator of Wittgenstein’s time at Swansea, Mario Von Der Ruhr, who wrote: ‘Wittgenstein found the intellectual atmosphere at Swansea more congenial than the philosophical milieu at Cambridge’[8]

Wartime Reality

Tragically, Swansea underwent a Three Day Blitz from 19-21 February 1941. 230 lives were lost and the town centre was devastated. So, Wittgenstein’s arrival in 1942, shortly after a gall-stone operation at Guy’s Hospital, London, would have been into an urban landscape that was slowly recovering from this bombardment, and that was still in a state of tension and apprehension. This uneasy, grey air may have actually suited Wittgenstein’s contemplative mood. But there was still brightness, in terms of the people and the wider environment and hinterland.

Wittgenstein spoke fondly of Swansea on many occasions, covering the period from his first visit to his last. In one letter to his close friend Norman Malcom, he commented, “I know quite a number of people here whom I like. I seem to find it more easy to get along with them here than in England. I feel much more often like smiling, e.g. when I walk in the street. Or when I see children, etc.”[9]

Wittgenstein’s lodgings

In 1944 Wittgenstein was in Swansea from March until September; a visit in which he managed to undertake an intense period of work on his manuscripts. During this semester, Wittgenstein decided he needed to take a room, so as not to overburden Rush Rhees. Wittgenstein discovered, through an advertisement, that Mrs Mann had a vacancy at 10 Langland Road, Mumbles.

She turned out to be a fine hostess, and cared for Wittgenstein on those occasions that his health faltered. She provided him with maldod (pampering), which had been hitherto in short supply in Wittgenstein’s adult life. Wittgenstein then met, and briefly stayed with, Reverend Wynford Morgan, a Methodist Minister who lived at 2 Cwmdonkin Terrace, Uplands. Morgan and Wittgenstein would engage in lengthy theological dialogues, and Wittgenstein took great pleasure in challenging the cleric’s religious certitude. When Morgan asked Wittgenstein if he believed in God, he replied; ‘Yes I do, but the difference between what you believe and what I believe may be infinite’.[10]

Reverend Morgan introduced Wittgenstein to his neighbours, the Clements family, who resided at 1 Cwmdonkin Terrace. Albert and Mary Clements immediately took to Wittgenstein, and he liked them. Albert was a caulker at Swansea Docks, and Mary worked sporadically in canteens around Swansea. Wittgenstein was an advocate for manual, proletariat professions, and so would have had genuine respect for the Clements. He especially savoured the hearty meals that came out of Mary Clements’ kitchen, above all on a Sunday. Wittgenstein also enjoyed the company of the Clements’ daughters, 12 year old Joan and 10 year old Barbara.

Somewhat surprisingly, Wittgenstein joined in with family activities, and showed interest in the education of the girls. Joan and Barbara called him ‘Vicky’, which apparently led to an embarrassing incident one day on Swansea beach when someone was calling for their daughter and he thought they meant him. As a lover of games, Wittgenstein regularly engaged in Snakes and Ladders with the family. In particular, he would play this with Joan for hours on end. He also provided the girls with tennis balls, which, being wartime, were in short supply due to rationing.

Wittgenstein’s eccentricities and idiosyncrasies would amuse the family. Barbara recalled that he would drink a mix of coffee and cocoa, and remembered how he had a fit one day when he found a slug in his cup. Similarly, Wittgenstein took cod liver oil tablets but on more than one occasion he bit the capsule releasing the oil. This resulted in a fit of pique with Wittgenstein shouting ‘bloody bugger’. Obviously, this amused the young girls no end![11]

When you consider these human stories you can see how Wittgenstein appreciated his interaction with people in Swansea. It is also fascinating to note that photographs of the Reverend Morgan and Mary Clements can be found in the Wittgenstein Archive at Cambridge.[12]

The Environment

Wittgenstein had a proclivity for self-isolation, and an almost transcendental approach to finding himself, and to working through his Weltanschauung, via his meditations. From 1912 onwards he occasionally retreated to the fjord of Skjolden, Norway, where he built a hut for himself. This solitude and asceticism, only broken at times with visits from intimate friends, proved an integral part of the process for his philosophical advancement.

For Wittgenstein, ‘work on philosophy is really more work on oneself. On one’s own conception. On how one sees things (And what one expects of them)’[13] Whilst at Swansea he had daily access to the Swansea Bay and Gower shorelines; with some of the quieter clifftop locations undoubtedly providing him with memories of Skjolden. Water has dualistic characteristics. It can be a symbol of movement and flow, but also an emblem of a constant, calming presence. This drawing towards water, and its adjoining topography, was a leitmotif that ran through Wittgenstein’s adult life.

In August 1949 Wittgenstein wrote to Rush Rhees from Ithaca, New York: ‘There are some nice walks here though nothing compared with the Gower coast. Nature here doesn’t look as natural as in Wales’.[14] Correspondingly, there would be a similar scenario, this time on terra firma, when Wittgenstein stayed in Uplands at the tip of Cwmdonkin Park. Whilst lodging at Cwmdonkin Terrace, Wittgenstein would have looked directly across at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, birthplace of the aforementioned Dylan Thomas. Uplands was Thomas’s initial physical and mental notepad and Wittgenstein would have retraced the steps of the young Dylan through Cwmdonkin Park. As Thomas wrote, ‘the ball I threw while playing in the park has not yet reached the ground.’[15] Wittgenstein would have appreciated this reflection on our actions and their consequences, and its personification of eternal youth. Seascapes and landscapes, therefore, were influencers for the productive Wittgenstein.

Swansea Considerations (A Language Game)

As someone for whom the etymology and precision of language was vitally important, Wittgenstein must have often pondered the structure and meaning of the bilingual place names of Swansea, and the vernacular of its inhabitants. This arena throws up some fascinating conundrums, which could be analysed using a Wittgensteinian approach, Language and Langland, for example, both commence with Lan. So it is worth ruminating upon the Lan in Lan(guage).

Originally, for language, we had lingua (Latin) which equates with tongue. Language, in its Old French guise, means speech. Language, in Middle English can be interpreted as dialects. But what of Lan(gland)? A different origin comes into play here as Lan, in Welsh, means shore. Glan, in Welsh, is a hillock. An early modern name for the area was Llan y Llan, which translates as houses (glebe) by the shore. If, following Wittgenstein’s Early Philosophy, we attempt to construct a picture of the place or subject - to grasp the frame through which we look - then the Welsh explanation provides us with a clearer picture than any English translation. The Welsh language, precisely and visually, describes the place.

So Langland, described as hillock by the shore, makes perfect sense. It is logical and observable. Abertawe, similarly, proves to be far more linguistically functional than Swansea. Aber – the mouth of the – Tawe – the river that flows through the city – immediately burns a picture in our mind. Swansea, with its questionable etymology of Sveinsey, or Sweyn’s Ey – an appellation claimed to have derived from Sweyn Forkbeard, a Viking king – does not have the same natural imagery.

So, adopting a Wittgensteinian perspective, the Welsh name Abertawe should be prioritised over the unpersuasive Norse version Sveinsey, or even its Late Old English designation, and more recognisable, Swan-sea. Every language has its own tune, texture and context, so Abertawe, or Swansea, or Sveinsey, provide us with very different impressions and panoramas.[16] The phonetic personality of Welsh, with its descriptive qualities, is perfect for Wittgensteinian interpretation. However, Wittgenstein did not have Welsh in his locker, as he spoke German and English. Hence, to use his famous gnomic aphorism ‘the limits of my language means the limits of my world’.[17]

The iconic Swansea photograph

Two memorable photographs of Wittgenstein hold more attraction than all of the others taken throughout his lifetime.

The first is an infamous school photograph that allegedly shows Wittgenstein pictured close to the other global figure who attended his junior school in Linz; none other than Adolf Hitler. The two were born just six days apart. Despite the closeness in their birth dates, they did not attend the same class, as Hitler was two years behind at school, before he was eventually expelled for his poor record. The relationship between the two young men divides opinion. Kimberley Cornish, who wrote a book on the pair, contends that Wittgenstein had a profound effect on Hitler, which instigated his anti-Semitism.[18] Cornish also cites Hitler’s reference in Mein Kampf to his wariness towards a Jewish boy at his school.[19] Ray Monk, on the other hand, concluded that “there is no evidence that they had anything to do with one another.”[20] If we accept Monk’s version, which most scholars do, then the photograph of Wittgenstein and Hitler in the same group would appear to be something of an anomaly. That said, whichever account is true, the photograph nevertheless might be a fascinating snapshot of two very famous people at a specific moment in their formative years.

The second photograph was taken in Swansea in September 1947.[21] Captured by his partner Ben Richards, Wittgenstein appears relaxed and in a seemingly playful mood. It was taken in the, now demolished, Mumbles Train shelter on Swansea promenade, at the bottom of Brynmill Lane. The graffiti that has been scratched on the wall behind Wittgenstein has sometimes been mistaken for chalk scribbles on a board. These are not scholarly workings, however, but rather they are the marks which represent the declarations of the non-academic citizens of Swansea; language and writing used in their conventional, everyday sense. 

The Swansea School

From the 1950 onwards Swansea University witnessed the growth and flourishing of what became known as the “Swansea School” of Philosophy. Within a short space of time, Swansea University became highly regarded, across the globe, as a centre for Wittgensteinian thought and academic discourse.

With Rush Rhees in situ, and overseeing developments, many erudite, and innovative, philosophers peregrinated around the Singleton campus. Among them, with their dates at Swansea University and prominent works alongside, were: Roy Holland, 1950-1967: Against Empiricism; Peter Winch, 1951-1964: The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy; J R Jones, 1952-1970: Yr Argyfwng Gwacter Ysbryd (The Crisis of Meaninglessness); Ilham Dilman, 1961-1997: Philosophy as Criticism; Dewi Zephaniah (DZ) Philips, 1965-2006: Religion and the Hermeneutics of Contemplation; R.W Beardsmore, 1969-1997: Art and Morality; Howard Mounce, 1969-1999: Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: An Introduction.

Traits and characteristics of the Swansea School were numerous, but their prominent features were: Learning and teaching through exegesis; Small group discussions; No fixed ideological positions; Scepticism towards metanarratives and catch all solutions. It is also possible to identify similitudes that were present within the Swansea School: Ecological concern; Stripping down the complexity of arguments, using Occam’s razor; Exploration of hidden meanings; Search for perspicuity within texts; Protean approaches and versatility; Reconsideration and reflection.

Rush Rhees held a weekly post-graduate seminar from 1983. He would occasionally invite a small number of students to his home for informal conversations. Wittgenstein was often the subject-matter and Rhees really pushed the students during these sessions.

Wittgenstein’s legacy at Swansea University was substantial, and long lasting. When it is considered that Wittgenstein was never employed at Swansea, his influence on its scholarly activities was remarkable. He never lectured on a course, but he did address the University’s Philosophical Society, created by Rhees in 1940.

Wittgenstein’s status as one of the all-time great minds guarantees that his gift endures. Swansea University is honoured to have had him over its threshold, and, particularly through Rush Rhees, to have played such an important part in proclaiming and disseminating Wittgenstein’s philosophical wisdom through the writing, research and pedagogy of the Swansea School.

Wittgenstein and Contemporary Swansea

Regrettably, Wittgenstein has never really been celebrated, or embraced, across the city; possibly due to his not being seen as a fully-fledged ‘Jack’. But, more realistically, it is probably because he has been perceived as a transient addition to Swansea life, who, even today, sadly receives minimal public recognition.

One rather unusual visible sign of Wittgenstein’s heritage, nevertheless, manifests itself at Swansea Marina. The Hexagonal building, located parallel with the Observatory on the seafront, has a fascinating inscription. It is taken from the only book that Wittgenstein published in his lifetime, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus from 1921. It reads thus:

NET. N. AN INTELLIGIBLE ARTICULATION. The form is optional, since I could have achieved the same result by using a NET with a triangular or hexagonal mesh.

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 6.341

One can only imagine that the anonymous architect or designer of the Hexagonal was inspired as much by Wittgenstein’s technological interventions, as his philosophical oeuvre. Whatever the reason, it does at least embed Wittgenstein within Swansea; his second, or is that his third or fourth home? Seeing it, reading it, makes us think!  

Celebrating Wittgenstein at Swansea

Notwithstanding the Hexagonal Hut, Ludwig Wittgenstein requires more to reflect his time in Swansea, and at Swansea University. Swansea should deliver it.

A blue plaque, sited in avant-garde Uplands possibly, would be suitable. A Wittgenstein Trail may also be feasible, as the creation of one would invariably attract visitors with an interest in this outstanding and enigmatic intellectual. To have such a genius as part of our history needs to be fervently celebrated. An annual Wittgenstein Prize, possibly? Or perhaps something like a 1940’s themed Wittgenstein Day, a la Bloomsday in Dublin, which celebrates James Joyce? That may sound a silly way to commemorate a serious-minded philosopher but, as one of the anchors of the Swansea School, Peter Winch, reminded us, it was Wittgenstein himself who remarked that:

‘If people did not sometimes do silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done.’[22]




Dr Alan Sandry is Senior Lecturer at the School of Management, Swansea University. He is a Political Philosopher who has published widely on political theory, ideologies, identities, and Welsh and European politics. In 2017, he was invited to lecture on Ludwig Wittgenstein at the Kepler Salon, Linz, Austria, He has just completed a play about Wittgenstein’s time at Swansea: From Linz to Langland


[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein’s comment on arriving in Swansea from Cambridge in 1944. Rush Rhees, Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections, Oxford University Press, 1981

[2] Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations, Macmilan Publishing Company, 1953

[3] Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, Vintage Books, 1991, p.46

[4] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus, Cambridge University Press, 1921

[5] Gabriel Citron (ed.), Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Conversations with Rush Rhees (1939-50): From the Notes of Rush Rhees, Mind, volume 124, 493, January 2015

[6] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Workers Educational Association, 1848.

[7] Dylan Thomas, Return Journey, BBC Home Service, 1947

[8] Mario Von der Ruhr, Rhees, Wittgenstein and the Swansea School. Publications of the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society, 2009, vol. 10, chapter 9, p.226

[9] Ray Monk, 1991, p459

[10] ibid.; p463

[11] Letter to author from Jamie Bill (son of Barbara Bill nee Clements), 14th January, 2019

[12] The Wittgenstein Archive at Cambridge: http://www.wittgen-cam.ac.uk/

[13] Mario Von der Ruhr, 2009, vol. 10, chapter 9, p.220

[14] Brian McGuinness et al (eds.) Wittgenstein: Complete Correspondence, Innsbruck: Intelex, 2011

[15] Dylan Thomas, Should lanterns shine, in The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas; The New Centenary Edition, Edited by John Goodby, Weidenfield & Nicolson, 2014

[16] Adapted from Mererid Hopwood, What’s Wales in Welsh, The Anthea Bell Lecture, Hay Festival, 25th May 2020

[17] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus, 1921, Section 5.6

[18] Kimberley Cornish, The Jew of Linz: Hitler, Wittgenstein and The Meeting Between Them That Changed The Course of History, Century Books, 1998

[19] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, 1925

[20] Ray Monk, 1991, p.15

[21] The Wittgenstein Archives at Cambridge has the original photograph, along with one of Ben Richards at the same location. Photographs of Mrs Clements and Rev Morgan, from 1947, also feature, as do two black and white postcards exchanged between Wittgenstein and Rush Rhees. One shows Rhossili Bay, the other is of Pwll Du and Caswell Bay

[22] Peter Winch, Culture and Value, Blackwell, 1980, p.50

Image References

Cover Image: see item [i8]

[i1] Ludwig Wittgenstein as a child in Austria Wikimedia

[i2] Rush Rhees (c)Michael Nedo, The Wittgenstein Archive, Cambridge

[i3] The Kardomah Boys (c)Jeff Phillips

[i4] Swansea Bay and Mumbles (c)Steve Williams CC-BY-NC

[i5] Cwmdonkin Park (c)Steve Williams CC-BY-NC

[i6] The hut that Wittgenstein built at Skjolden, Norway in 1914 (c)Ben Richards October 1950

[i7] Hitler in School: Original copies held at the Bundesarchiv and Library of Congress

[i8] Wittgenstein in Swansea September 1947 (c)Ben Richards, Wittgenstein Archive, Cambridge

[i9] Swansea School of Philosophy stained glass window by Tim Lewis, commemorating Peter Winch

[i10] The Hexagonal Hut on Swansea Bay (c)Steve Williams CC-BY-NC

[i11] Wittgenstein's Grave, Ascension Parish Burial Ground, Cambridge, May 2020. Used with the kind permission of Nick Smith, Cambridge University