Alice Ambrose and Life Unfettered by Philosophy in Wittgenstein’s Cambridge

by guest contributor David Loner

As the first and only official post-graduate advisee of the celebrated Austrian thinker and Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alice Ambrose (1906-2001) typified in her 1932-38 Ph.D. course the complex social experience interwar upper-middle-class women underwent as unofficial members of the University of Cambridge. Compelling yet reserved, Ambrose toed a line between subordination and originality which Cambridge dons often expected their female pupils to exhibit in the years following the Cambridge University Senate’s 1921 university ordinance on “title of degree,” or unofficial courses for women students (women were not made full university members until 1948). Yet, despite this carefully-negotiated and normative gender performance, Wittgenstein ultimately denounced his protégée and her work as morally “indecent”—precipitating a contest between the Austrian thinker and his fellow dons over the place of women and high academic distinction in mid-twentieth-century Cambridge philosophy.

As an American graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison after the First World War, Alice Ambrose’s initial research focused on the work of the Dutch logician L.E.J. Brouwer and his conjecture that intuition, not metaphysics, best served as the epistemic foundation to all mathematical thought. Forming the basis of her first Ph.D. dissertation, this work would enable Ambrose to successfully apply in 1932 for Wellesley College’s one-year post-doctoral fellowship with the University of Cambridge (what would a year later become a second fully-fledged PhD course). Cambridge may have been male-dominated, but Ambrose’s choice was intentional. For, as she claimed in correspondence with her Madison advisor E.B. McGilvary, only through discourse with the renowned Cambridge junior fellow and author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, would her future employment as a lecturer in philosophy be assured (October 16, 1932, MS Add.9938 Box 2, Folio 2, Cambridge University Library).

Having previously stunned interwar readers in its provocative albeit bewildering analysis of the metaphysics of logic, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus—written during his four-year service as an infantry soldier for Austria-Hungary in the First World War—was a blatant departure from the technical program of his one-time prewar Cambridge supervisor Bertrand Russell and their forerunner Gottlob Frege. The Tractatus argued that, while capable of depicting the world within a coherent symbolism, “logical pictures” nevertheless indicate a greater ethical realm, inaccessible to humans (not just scholars) by symbolic speech acts. It uncompromisingly declared that “what we cannot think, that we cannot think: what we cannot therefore say what we cannot think” (TLP 5.61). For, as Wittgenstein posited, “in fact what solipsism means is quite correct, only it cannot be said, but it show itself.” (5.62). “The sense of the world,” then, Wittgenstein argued, must lie outside the world (6.41), in a moral reality composed not of propositions but instead of silence (7).

Immediately conceding their debt to Wittgenstein in both private letters and published reviews, scholars like Russell and the Cambridge mathematician Frank P. Ramsey praised the Austrian thinker’s remarks on solipsism and the tautological nature of logical propositions as indispensable. Even so, for these highly-trained professional men, as well as for their more neophyte pupils, the ethical import of Wittgenstein’s emphasis on the sense of the world as somehow outside the world (and within silence) would remain largely ineffectual in combating the greater problems of philosophy. Ambrose was no exception to this. Writing to McGilvary on October 16, 1932, a week after the start of her course at Cambridge, Ambrose would confirm that while “there’s no doubt his thoughts are original,” Wittgenstein’s mode of conveying ideas in his course lectures left one wanting. “He is extremely hard to follow,” she wrote; “he forgets what he set out to say, rears ahead of himself—says Whoa!…settles down rigidly then and thinks with his head in his hands, stammers, says ‘Poor Miss Ambrose’, swears, and ends up with ‘It is very diff-i-cult’” (MS Add.9938 Box 2, Folio 2, CUL).

Letter from Ambrose to McGilvary, MS Add.9938 Box 2, Folio 2, Cambridge University Library. By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

Letter from Ambrose to McGilvary, MS Add.9938 Box 2, Folio 2, Cambridge University Library. By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

Exemplifying what Stefan Collini has referred to as the “absent-mindedness” of the twentieth-century British intellectual, Wittgenstein at once appeared to Ambrose in her initial course lectures and supervisions as “as good as a babe in arms at advising one about any practical matters.” “It is true he is not English,” she wrote in the same letter to McGilvary, “not enough dignity, not proper enough”; “he lectures without a gown and doesn’t insist on students wearing theirs; and he goes with his shirt open at his throat.” Yet in his absent-mindedness as a Cambridge junior lecturer, Wittgenstein would go far beyond the pale of Collini’s characterization. For, as Ambrose indicates elsewhere in her notes on Wittgenstein’s lectures, Wittgenstein now not only denied that there were any intellectuals in Cambridge, but refuted the entire project of philosophy as sheer nonsense. “Nonsense is produced by trying to express in a proposition something which belongs to the grammar of our language”—a practice all too common among scholars. “The verification of my having toothache is having it,” Wittgenstein remarked; “[i]t makes no sense for me to answer the question, ‘How do you know you have a toothache?’, by ‘I know it because I feel it’. In fact there is something wrong with the question; and the answer is absurd.”

For the anti-intellectual Wittgenstein, then, scholarly inquiry in philosophy, be it at Cambridge or elsewhere was, much like a toothache, a disease—in need of constant therapeutic relief. This alleviation of nonsense, he argued, was possible only through the disappearance of obsession (98) or a life unfettered by disciplinary philosophy, engaged in full duty to oneself. For Ambrose, however, her status as a woman student in need of employment as a university lecturer prohibited her from such thinking. Indeed, despite Wittgenstein’s insistence that his students apply his adversarial ethos to their study of philosophy, interwar female pupils like Ambrose would by and large continue in their courses to affirm the same Cantabridgian virtues of industry, conviviality and hierarchy which the Austrian thinker disparaged as absurd. The result, then, as Paul R. Deslandes has elsewhere detailed, was a “highly gendered little world” of “intense institutional loyalty” which rewarded only the most subordinate, if original, of women students—a paradoxical imbalance which Ambrose attempted to maintain in her own work on finite logical propositions.

When not helping Wittgenstein to record his latest research (what eventually would be published in 1961 as The Blue and Brown Books), Ambrose thus pursued quite separately in her postdoctoral research an investigation into the epistemic purchase of Wittgenstein’s concept of grammar in philosophy. In particular, her April 1935 article “Finitism in Mathematics [I],” the first published exposition of Wittgenstein’s post-Tractarian philosophy, situated his denunciation of philosophical “nonsense” within a much broader scholarly conversation on the intuitively finite nature of logical operations in mathematics or “verbal forms.” Referencing Wittgenstein’s own turn of phrase throughout her article, Ambrose argued that “what the finitist can justifiably claim” can be “in many cases…a statement of what he should claim as opposite of what he does claim” (188). That is, logical dilemmas stifling scholars’ findings were more often than not expositional confusions regarding the grammar of intuition, brought about by the inexactness of the philosopher’s language. Guided, then, by the same remarks her supervisor offered in his 1932-35 Cambridge lectures, Ambrose’s article presented Wittgenstein’s absent-minded posture not an affront to academic philosophers, but rather as a bulwark in their continued acquiescence to male-dominated high academic distinction. Yet despite her initiative in re-imagining Wittgenstein’s new philosophy as a boon for postwar scholars’ ongoing investigations in the philosophy of mathematics, Ambrose’s citation would prompt the full wrath of the Cambridge junior fellow.

On May 16, 1935, in a letter to Ambrose, Wittgenstein decried his protégée’s publication as “indecent,” refusing any further cooperation on his part with her. Only two days later, he reiterated this point, denigrating Ambrose’s behavior to his Cambridge colleague, professor of philosophy G.E. Moore. “I think you have no idea in what a serious situation she is,” he wrote. “I don’t mean serious, because of the difficulty to find a job; but serious because she is now actually standing at a crossroad. One road leading to perpetual misjudging of her intellectual powers and thereby to hurt pride and vanity etc. etc. The other would lead her to a knowledge of her own capacities and that always has good consequences.” To Moore, who would subsequently chair Ambrose’s 1938 Cambridge Ph.D. viva, this assessment was clearly misguided. As her supervisor, he knew Ambrose to be a competent scholar, despite the double standard imposed on her as a women student. Yet unlike Moore, Wittgenstein continued to feel no obligation to assist Ambrose in her quest to maintain the careful balance between humility and assertion necessary to advance one’s career in academic philosophy. For, as he would later argue during his disastrous postwar tenure as chairman of the Cambridge Moral Sciences Club, logical perspicacity required but one thing from the serious philosopher, whether man or woman: the full denial of disciplinary philosophy as a worthwhile life.


David Loner is a second-year PhD student in history at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on the milieu of students and scholars associated with the twentieth-century Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

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