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25th Anniversary Booklet (2007)

A Memorable Meeting

Paul Taylor

One particularly memorable evening at the Philosophy Society – at least for me – was when we presented members with a short play written by Laurence Goldstein, who was then teaching in the Philosophy Department. Not long before Laurence left UCT he was asked to make a final presentation to the Society. Laurence was a recognized expert on Wittgenstein and said he’d talk about the Tractatus. He raised the idea of turning the occasion into the opening night of a play he’d written. It was agreed that he’d give a short paper on theTractatus, followed by his play. 

It was called Wittgenstein’s Viva, based on Wittgenstein’s oral examination for his Ph.D at Cambridge in 1929, after Bertrand Russell had arranged for him to submit the Tractatus as his Ph.D “thesis”. Russell may have thought he should have a Ph.D so that it would be easier to get him elected to a fellowship at Trinity College, where Russell – himself a Trinity fellow – was championing his cause.

Cambridge arranged for Russell and G.E. Moore to be Wittgenstein’s examiners. Laurence’s play consisted of just one act featuring Wittgenstein’s oral examination from the moment Wittgenstein entered the examination room, where Russell and Moore were waiting for him, until he left the room and the examiners reached their verdict. For our production Laurence cast Richard Jamieson, a Philosophy student, in the role of Wittgenstein, got Peter Collins to do Bertrand Russell, and asked me to be Moore. I wasn’t that keen to act, but said yes – perhaps because I’ve always liked G.E. Moore as a philosopher. I recall the play only vaguely now, but as I remember it Russell (played with verve by Peter Collins, a natural actor) treated the viva as a mere formality, while Moore with typical conscientiousness actually had the temerity to test some of Wittgenstein’s claims in theTractatus with questions that Wittgenstein (played to a “t” by Richard) treated with pained exasperation.

Having to endure Wittgenstein’s irritation wasn’t easy, and my role was made more difficult by the fact that I’d never acted in a play before, so I had the added humiliation afterwards of being told I’d overacted – too much scratching of the head to indicate puzzlement, closing of my eyes to suggest deep thought, and so on. But I think the audience enjoyed it, even if some of the comedy was unintentional. I might add that the play itself was very funny, though the only details I remember are the opening lines, which went something like this. Wittgenstein is about to enter the room, and Russell says to Moore: “This viva – I’ve never known anything so absurd in my life”, to which Moore replies, “Neither have I Russell, but I believe I have!” Those who have read Moore on the difference between knowing and believing will know his reply is not as contradictory as it sounds. 

Dr Paul Taylor was a member of the Philosophy Department at UCT from 1977 to 1999. He was Head of Department from 1988 to 1991 and from 1997 to 1999, and Chairman of the Philosophy Society from c1994 to August 1995. 

Professor Goldstein’s play, to which Dr Taylor refers, was published as 'Wittgenstein's Ph.D. Viva – A Re-Creation’, Philosophy 74 (1999), pp.499-513 and is available, free, at http://www.editor.net/BWS/docs/WittViva.pdf