HUMAN REASON AND ITS DISCONTENTS: Give us this day our daily bread...

FRIDAY, MARCH 20, 2020

...but also our daily logic:
As noted earlier, Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations was published in 1953.

Wittgenstein had died of cancer in 1951, at age 62. But within the world of English language academic philosophy, he'd been a type of cult figure for roughly thirty years.

Upon publication, Philosophical Investigations became the definitive text of Wittgenstein's "later" period. But alas:

Sixty years after the book's publication, Professor Horwich said that "professional philosophers" had thrown the later Wittgenstein under the bus. (See the first report in this week's series.)

According to Horwich, professional philosophers had rejected the fellow who claimed that the bulk of their "life's work" was "confused and pointless"—was based on "linguistic illusion and muddled thinking" (we're quoting Horwich here). In part for that reason, muddled thinking and confused, pointless work may perhaps still be widespread in the world of academic philosophy, right to the present day.

Elsewhere, extremely smart astrophysicists are praised for texts in which they discuss the "fairyland" in which "you will find the number 1." That text appeared in 2006, 53 years after Philosophical Investigations was published. One year earlier, a professional philosopher—not an astrophysicist—had also offered this, within her own well-received general interest book:
GOLDSTEIN (pages 44-45): [Kurt Godel's] commitment to the objective existence of mathematical reality is the view known as conceptual, or mathematical, realism. It is also known as mathematical Platonism, in honor of the ancient Greek philosopher...

Platonism is the view that the truths of mathematics are independent of any human activities...The truths of mathematics are determined, according to Platonism, by the reality of mathematics, by the nature of the real, though abstract, entities (numbers, sets, etc.) which make up that reality.
The truths of mathematics are determined by the reality of mathematics? According to this high-end philosophy professor, that's what a Platonist holds!

Meanwhile, could anyone ever make sense of the claim that Godel (or anyone else) was committed to "the objective existence of mathematical reality?" Or is that just another example of high-end mumbo-jumbo, part of the web of "linguistic illusion" Wittgenstein aimed to reveal as a "house of cards?"

We'll discuss Professor Goldstein's book in more detail later in our ongoing series of meta-reports. As a general matter, we'd say that, for better or worse, her well-received book seems to display the type of disregard for Wittgenstein's work which Horwich said was widespread within the academy.

According to Horwich, philosophy professors who wanted to muddle along in traditional ways threw Wittgenstein under the bus. As we noted in an earlier post, we marvel, when we read texts like the ones we've cited, at the thought that such writing was still being offered, and was even being hailed, more than fifty years after Philosophical Investigations appeared.

In fairness, Philosophical Investigations was, and remains, a highly obscure text. Just consider:

Its title could hardly have been less specific. On the whole, the title only tells us that we aren't reading a biology text.

Things get even less clear inside. Philosophical Investigations has no chapters. For that reason, there are no chapter titles to offer hints about what topics are being discussed. Routinely, it's hard to know what Wittgenstein's topic is, yet alone what's being asserted.

The book is very obscure. In a preface he wrote all the way back in 1945, Wittgenstein seemed to acknowledge as much.

"I should have liked to produce a good book," he wrote at the end of his gloomy overview. "That has not come about, but the time is part in which I could improve it."

(To peruse the whole Preface, click here.)

So said Wittgenstein, as he offered the world the seminal text which would be discarded.

Fifty-three years after that text appeared, major figures were writing abut the mystical fairyland in which you could find the number 1, along with Newton's laws of motion. Academic philosophers had perhaps returned to fairylands of their own.

When the public badly needed help with its floundering daily logic, our logicians never spoke. Wittgenstein had been thrown away. Our logicians muddled ahead in worlds very much all their own.

For today, we thought it might be worth returning to a somewhat earlier time—to the early Winter of 68, when the later Wittgenstein's seminal text was still just fifteen years old.

We were an undergraduate at the time, a junior in the Harvard philosophy department, the lair of the rational animal. At that time, and in that place, the later Wittgenstein was very, very hot.

We were about to take the undergraduate Wittgenstein course. The course would be taught by the late Rogers Albritton, the chairman of the department.

We didn't know Professor Albritton, though we did have a mutual friend, even at that time. We only spoke with him once, in a highly flattering, slightly puzzling conversation which occurred at his request at the end of that course.

Rogers Albritton was never anything but exceptionally nice to us. That said, we're going to report a humorous remark made by our mutual friend before that course got started.

First, though, let's establish a brief overview of Albritton's long and distinguished career.

As far as we know, Rogers Albritton was a superlative person. Beyond that, he had a long and distinguished, and very unusual, academic career.

He was chairman of the Harvard philosophy department from 1963 until 1970. He spent the rest of his career at UCLA, where he served as department chair from 1972 until 1981.

According to the leading authority on such matters, Albritton was "considered by his peers to be one of the finest philosophical minds of the 20th century." We know of no reason to dispute that assessment, though we also think that the philosophy establishment of that century badly failed to serve the public, and continues to function in broadly "illusory" ways.

Professor Albritton died in 2002 at the age of 78. His obituary in the Los Angeles Times spoke to the high regard in which he was held by his peers.

We offer one word of warning. In our view, the article may have presented the world of philosophy as it can be imagined, or novelized, by other ranking elites. It may offer a somewhat "Pleasantville" rendering of a less simple world.

That said, the obituary was highly flattering. Headline included, we offer some relevant excerpts:
WOO (6/3/02): Rogers Albritton, 78; Philosopher Known for His Brilliance

Rogers Albritton, a charismatic philosopher who rarely published his work yet dazzled colleagues of diverse persuasions with his lucid analyses
of fundamental human dilemmas, has died. He was 78.

[...]

Called a philosopher’s philosopher, he was considered one of the most formidable intellects in his field. His legendary stature, however, stemmed not from his writings, but from what philosopher and film critic Stanley Cavell called “the charisma of ... conversation alone.”

[..]

Famously nondoctrinaire, even though he was an expert on the Greeks and Ludwig Wittgenstein, he was averse to ever declaring that a problem was solved. He could argue that a person had no way of knowing whether he was asleep or awake, then conclude the opposite after more hours of laughter-filled discussion.

[...]

“He was a kind of philosophical conscience,” said philosopher Thomas Nagel, an Albritton student who now teaches at New York University. “Almost all of the rest of us ... fall back on the stuff we think we’ve established.... Rogers was a reminder that you can never dispense with the obligation to actively think whatever you’re thinking and be prepared to think it through from the beginning.”

“Back about 25 years ago ... Peter Strawson [an eminent British philosopher] said Rogers was one of the 10 best philosophers in the world,” said Hilary Putnam, a past president of the American Philosophical Assn. and emeritus professor at Harvard. “Many would agree, including myself. He was quite unique.

“He gave me the feeling for what Socrates must have been like. Socrates didn’t publish much either. Like Socrates, he had a lot of impact on lots of philosophers.”
Albritton almost never published. According to a later New York Times obituary, "he published only four papers over his 36-year career."

That seems like an astonishing fact. It also seems that Albritton was very highly regarded.

Was he really "one of the ten best philosophers in the world?" We don't know how to answer that question, except to say that, whoever the top ten may be judged to be, you've never heard of any of them. We would say that this is the case for deeply unfortunate reasons.

At any rate, we were poised, having just turned twenty, to take the Wittgenstein course from Albritton, our department's chair. At that point, our friend, Jack WITHHELD, told us what would happen as the course proceeded.

Who was Jack WITHHELD, you ask. You're asking a sensible question. He'd graduated from Harvard in 1960, then had gone to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar.

He'd returned to Harvard as a graduate student. For reasons he couldn't seem to explain, he couldn't seem to get his doctoral dissertation done.

During our freshman year (1965-66), he'd been our teaching assistant in a massive cattle-call course in which Professors Albritton and Cavell surveyed the sweep of western philosophy.

At the end of that year, WITHHELD became a good friend. Two years later, he told us how the Wittgenstein course would go.

What he said wasn't meant as derision. Nor was it meant as snark, a literary form which hadn't yet been invented.

WITHHELD had been in the philosophy department for roughly ten years by this time. He regarded Professor Albritton as a personal friend. What he said wasn't meant as derision.

That said, WITHHELD had a superb sense of the humor and the irony found throughout the world. Chuckling, as he typically did, he told us what would happen:

It's the same with Rogers every year, he told us (or words to that effect). He always starts out with the idea that this is going to be the year when he'll figure Wittgenstein out.

(In retrospect, this aligns with the description of Albritton as someone who always thought on his feet, even as a lecture or a course was proceeding.)

He always starts out with the idea that this is the year when he's going to figure it out, WITHHELD said, chuckling as he did. He'll be full of energy for the first few lectures, then the whole thing will slowly come undone as the semester proceeds.

We can't recall WITHHELD's exact words, but we very clearly recall the gist of what he said. He didn't mean what he said as derision. He meant it as a statement that the world is an amusing place, and that no one understood Wittgenstein yet, at that point in time.

At any rate, the semester proceeded along much as WITHHELD had predicted. We had a long conversation with Albritton at the end of the course.

The next year, we took the graduate seminar in Wittgenstein under Professor Cavell. We mainly recall being surprised by the fact that the graduate students didn't seem all that sharp.

At that time, we didn't realize that fifteen years isn't a very long time. We didn't understand what we understand now; we didn't understand that Philosophical Investigations is a deeply obscure text—that Wittgenstein wasn't being falsely modest when he said that he hadn't been able to "produce a good book."

That said, Wittgenstein's difficult text is built around a fascinating analysis of the way human reasoning frequently goes astray.

It does suggest that much of the work of traditional philosophy concerns itself, in Horwich's words, with "mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking." Setting that awkwardness aside, the book offers a fairly simple-minded way to untangle the endless webs of confusion which characterize our wider pubic discussions.

According to Horwich, our modern logicians have thrown this work away. They've also stood silent as an array of jugglers and clowns have made a joke of our broader public discourse over the past many years.

As the jugglers and clowns have gamboled and played, our professors have sat on the sidelines. In fairness, if their own work is built on "houses of cards," why would anyone expect them to notice, or comment on, the houses of cards and the muddled thinking which prevails all over cable and all through our major newspapers as our floundering nation slides toward the sea?

"Give us this day our daily bread." It may be the world's most basic prayer. But in a complex global world, we need daily logic too.

As matters currently stand, our professors aren't able to help us.

Fifteen years after publication, our professors hadn't yet puzzled out Wittgenstein's text. Fifty years after the text appeared, they'd allegedly thrown the book away, Meanwhile, within the wider national discourse, mugging and clowning had replaced daily logic.

Eventually, this unchallenged mugging and clowning gave us our Donald J. Trump. We're guessing that some 9-year-old kid may read the weeks of work which follow and will know, in future years, how to restore our daily logic along with our daily bread.

Next week: 7 + 5 = 12

46 comments:

  1. “Routinely, it's hard to know what Wittgenstein's topic is, yet alone what's being asserted.”

    From this description, it sounds as though Wittgenstein was just as guilty of “high-end mumbo-jumbo” as anyone.

    Why should later philosophers credit his work at all?

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  2. “According to Horwich, professional philosophers had rejected the fellow who claimed that the bulk of their "life's work" was "confused and pointless"—was based on "linguistic illusion and muddled thinking"”

    It should be noted that Horwich, Wittgenstein notwithstanding, is still pursuing his life’s work, philosophy, at a major academic institution.

    Also, his assertion about “Wittgenstein’s unpopularity within departments of philosophy” doesn’t seem to be borne out by the facts. Fifty years after Somerby took a course in Wittgenstein, there are still courses specifically devoted to Wittgenstein.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Why does Somerby never entertain the idea that Horwich might be wrong?

    Somerby gives us lengthy background about grad students but nothing about Horwich's background.

    Somerby's comments about both Albritton and WITHHELD raise an interesting point. Somerby didn't think the grad students were that bright. His own friend, WITHHELD, for some reason couldn't complete his dissertation. Albritton only published four papers. WITHHELD gives Somerby a rundown on the upcoming class that sounds a lot like most classes, lots of energy at the beginning, not so much as the course drags on, especially with 16-week semesters.

    In a field such as philosophy, thinking on your feet isn't the way you solve weighty problems. Quickness is only worth much in conversation, not when it comes to writing either a dissertation or a paper for publication. It seems to me that Somerby is judging these remembered figures by his own standards which apply more to standup comedians than to scholars. And yes, the obituary is not an objective evaluation.

    In academia, even (or perhaps especially) at places like Harvard, those who enter the administration as Dept Chair or Dean, have hung up their spurs. They no longer to do scholarly work in their field. They teach a token class that is a residual honor, a nod to their former role, but they don't put the same kind work into it as a regular faculty member would. In lesser universities (don't know about Harvard), faculty jockey to avoid serving as Dept Chair (often an elected position). No one wants that job. So it goes to someone well-liked who has stopped productive work and has an interest in building the department.

    That doesn't make Albritton a high authority on Wittgenstein and it doesn't make him truly one of the top 10 philosophers, since he is producing nothing that makes a lasting contribution to his field -- so few papers. Now maybe one of those four papers was so important that it secured his name in philosophy afterward, but at the point Somerby encountered him, he seems unlikely to have been at the top of his game.

    Attrition in grad programs is around 50%. It isn't talent that determines success, since all are admitted because of their previous high grades and test scores, plus written recommendations. It is the ability to define a novel problem and apply consistent effort toward it to complete research of the type that they will do in a career as a professor. It is difficult, discouraging, painstaking and requires not simply brains but also character. But Somerby thinks the grad students he encountered were not that bright. As he sits at his vanity blog with an unfinished manuscript that he abandoned when he got discouraged. The review comments you get back during peer review are brutal. If you quit when discouraged, you never get even 1 paper published. But Somerby disparages the students in his grad course and instead admires WITHHELD and Albritton who don't seem to have the qualities he might have needed, but reflect the ones he perhaps believes he has.

    Why is it considered a virtue to be so obscure that no one else understands what you are talking about? The quality Somerby dislikes in the trade books he complains about, seem to be the quality he admires in Wittgenstein. Why? By Somerby's logic, it shouldn't take a course that a top-10 philosopher cannot teach to explain what Wittgenstein meant, if Wittgenstein wrote (and thought) clearly.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "Albert A. Michelson, who in 1894 stated: "… it seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established … An eminent physicist remarked that the future truths of physical science are to be looked for in the sixth place of decimals."[4]

    Every once in a while academics declare that all of the important ideas are gone in a field. Then a change in methods makes possible a variety of unanticipated findings and new directions for research.

    When one of these curmudgeons makes his pronouncement, everyone else just goes on with their work, ignoring the futility someone else sees in their efforts. It says more about the person making the statement, than the field itself.

    Wittgenstein may have been discouraged and depressed by the time he wrote a book that reflected his own muddled state of mind -- which Somerby now proposes to explore.

    ReplyDelete
  5. From Political Wire (Taegan Goddard:

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    — Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R), announcing his state’s first death from the coronavirus pandemic."

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  8. Will Somerby comment on this (from Political Wire):

    "Rachel Maddow suggested President Trump should be taken off the air during the coronavirus pandemic.

    Said Maddow: “I know we ought to be getting used to this kind of thing by now, but I’m not. President Trump today, again, just flat-out wrong in public about this malaria drug that has gotten stuck in his mind, quite some distance from the facts.”

    She added: “If the president does end up saying anything true, you can run it as tape but if he keeps lying like this every day on stuff this important, all of us should stop broadcasting it. Honestly, it’s gonna cost lives.”"

    ReplyDelete
  9. And there is this (from Palmer Report):

    "That’s right, Donald Trump was telling us that the coronavirus thing was going to blow over because Chinese President Xi Jinping lied to him about the severity of it, and Trump decided to believe Xi instead of believing the United States intelligence community. This is according to a jaw dropping, yet perhaps not surprising, new report from the Washington Post tonight."

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Where all the free-market libertarians at?

      Delete
  10. Somerby has named this series "Human Reason and Its Discontents" but his essays have nothing to do with Freud's book, "Civilization and Its Discontents". It seems like an allusion to that famous work, but the content doesn't deliver.

    This isn't the first time -- he does this often. This kind of thing would only be clever if the title somehow referred to a parallel he was drawing with something in the original book.

    When Somerby makes a reference to Freud, while steadfastly denying anything psychological or anthropological in his own essay, it is more than annoying -- it is dishonest. When he makes a reference to a book I actually like and care about, it is doubly annoying. I wish he would stop this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The question that Freud confronts in Civilization and its Discontents (Unbehagen in der Kulture, literally discomfort in civilization) is why we’re so unhappy with the strictures of society given that they provide us so much benefit. On the plus side, Freud lists technology that lets us control our environment, beauty, order, and cleanliness, but notes that

      [n]o feature … seems better to characterize civilization than its esteem and encouragement of man’s higher mental activities … and the leading role that it assigns to ideas in human life. Foremost among those ideas are the religious systems…. Next come the speculations of philosophy;…. (Emphasis mine.)

      All this and civilization makes us unhappy. TDH focuses on “the speculations of philosophy” and asks a parallel question, namely why an endeavor designed to provide clarity in intellectual investigation should instead provide only obfuscation.

      So TDH’s reference to Freud’s book is entirely apt. Now you may disagree with TDH’s conclusion about philosophy, but that’s a different matter. So I have to ask, professor, have you actually read the book you claim to like and care about? Because if you had, it seems that it would be hard for you to miss the parallel that TDH draws.

      Your comment reveals again that unpleasant thread that runs through your contributions here: your quick accusation of dishonesty. Your failure to understand what you read is not evidence of the dishonesty of the writer.

      Delete
    2. Thank you, Deadrat, for that. And further, tempting as it is to take TDH's bait and argue the fine points of Wittgenstein versus Western-philosophy-after-Plato, the overall point of all the posts regarding Platonism - going back to the very first, is overtly Socratic in intent. TDH is playing the gadfly to get people to recognize that they don't know what they think they know. The books and their reviewers throw around platitudes that they cannot fathom, much less defend. It's all a version of "The Emperor's New Clothes." No one is willing (or able) to say they just don't get it. And as TDH is wont to say: that's how our intelligentsia rolls, right on into matters of life and death in current affairs. In this context, the references to a young nine year old who might (one hopes) read this and learn from it is a giveaway to the Platonic framing of the series: start teaching the young to reason better than the Sophists currently running the world.

      Delete
    3. Deadrat, you may be able to tie that title into Somerby's essay, in a very broad sense, but Somerby didn't do it, and THAT was my point.

      Delete
    4. Deadrat, you may be able to tie that title into Somerby's essay, in a very broad sense, but Somerby didn't do it, and THAT was my point.

      I don’t know what point you thought you were making, professor, because I can’t read your mind. But the point you now claim you were making isn’t the point you wrote, which was

      Somerby has named this series "Human Reason and Its Discontents" but his essays have nothing to do with Freud's book, "Civilization and Its Discontents".

      You have changed your complaint from a statement of fact (“nothing to do with Freud’s book”) to a statement of opinion (TDH didn’t “tie” the titles closely enough). First, your claim of fact is demonstrably false as I have demonstrably showed in my last comment. Freud says that civilization gives humans, among other things, the chance to delve into the questions of philosophy. But that fails to make us happy. TDH says that our philosophers in their delving actually make things worse by entangling us in “endless webs of confusion.”

      Second, your statement of opinion is ill-founded. TDH needn’t explicitly “tie” his own title “into” Freud’s. It’s an allusion, a connection that anyone familiar with Freud’s book should be able to make.

      You say CAID is one of your favorite books, and yet this connection apparently escaped you entirely. Please take a moment to note that 1) I don’t accuse you of intellectual dishonesty because of your failure to grasp an obvious point, and 2) you do accuse TDH of dishonesty because of your failure.

      Draw your own lessons about the three of us.

      (And just checking: do you regard my comments on this matter ad hominems?)

      Delete
    5. "Freud says that civilization gives humans, among other things, the chance to delve into the questions of philosophy. But that fails to make us happy. TDH says that our philosophers in their delving actually make things worse by entangling us in “endless webs of confusion.”

      Somerby didn't make this contrast, you did.

      Delete
    6. TDH didn’t explicitly state the contrast, but he didn’t have to. His title is an allusion to Freud, an indirect reference. Anyone with a passing familiarity with CAID would pick it up. I did, and I”m not even a professor of psychology.

      And remember that you have moved the goalposts: your original complaints were that the essays had nothing to do with each other and that TDH was dishonest to have echoed Freud’s title.

      Do you have some insight into yourself as to why you simply can’t say, “OK, I missed it. I shouldn’t have been so dismissive of TDH’s writing style and his integrity”?

      There seems to be some deflection here with a dollop of literal mindedness, but you tell me.

      Delete
  11. Roxanna Elden's new novel, "Adequate Yearly Progress," is pretty good. Maybe we can talk about that instead of Wittgenstein?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Great idea. Why don't you start a blog dedicated to the discussion of books you find "petty good"?

      Delete
    2. The book is about K-12 education, but that isn't mainstream media, so you score half a point.

      Delete
    3. Aristotle said that the prerequisite to philosophy is leisure.

      Boy howdy.

      Delete
    4. Can I get another half point for noting that commenters, including you, don't get to tell TDH what to write about?

      I don't know what the score is, but you should probably invoke the mercy rule for yourself.

      Delete
    5. Don't be such a kidder. You have no mercy.

      Delete
    6. Of course commenters get to tell Somerby what he should write about. It’s a free comment section. (Remember Somerby the movie critic?) He just doesn’t have to abide by their suggestions.

      Delete
    7. True, Anonymous12:15pm.

      It’s an unmoderated blog and we do live in a democracy.

      Anonymices are free to sound like squeak toys.

      Delete
    8. Oh, good. A stupid semantic quibble. Now, nobody likes a stupid semantic quibble more than I do... except perhaps my wife and some of her friends... oh yes and Captain Johnston. Come to think of it most people like a stupid semantic quibble more than I do.

      The word tell has two connotations in English — relate and dictate. The former as in “Let me tell you a story”; the latter as in “Let me tell you how its gonna be.”

      Yes, Anonymous @12:15P, anybody can relate anything they want on this comment section. But, no, they can’t dictate to the blog owner what he should write.

      Now get some air into your lungs. Ten, nine, eight and all that.

      Delete
    9. "Come to think of it most people like a stupid semantic quibble more than I do."

      You lie like a Republican.

      Delete
    10. Isn't dwadrat the idiot who didn't know what tone was? Argued it was only for speech or something totally idiotic. Wouldn't let it go even after it was obvious he was oblivious and made a mistake. What a dick.

      Delete
    11. Lie like a Republican? Really, even on an unmoderated comment section there should be some limits on abusive postings.

      Go here, you numpty: https://www.quotes.net/mquote/802259

      Delete
    12. “ Lie like a Republican?”

      We’re worse than rugs?

      Ouch!

      Delete
  12. Ooof, another round of "Sets that do not belong to themselves"

    For better or worse, The American Healthcare "System" has been asked to step up to the plate. As TDH has often observed, it is overpriced, opportunistic, and generally a mess. Couldn't that be a theme?

    ReplyDelete
  13. To remind TDH readers, this is what Somerby had to say about Bertrand Russell and his paradox back in 2014:

    “As the ecstasy and the abstraction spread, Professor Goldstein continues to discuss “the set all of sets not members of themselves.” She goes on about the so-called “liar’s paradox,” and about other nonsensical wastes of time devised by Lord Russell so long ago.”

    He is not just criticizing those who attempt to explain Russell’s paradox; he is mocking Russell as well.

    Somerby constantly mocks Russell’s statement “the set of all sets not members of themselves” as if it is meaningless drivel, when it is not. It is easy enough to understand it, if one tries to. And Somerby has had 50 years to make the attempt. Somerby seems not to understand how Russell’s paradox arises from the rules of naive set theory as derived by Cantor (and others). In other words, Russell was pointing out a flaw or a mistake in this theory, which necessitated a re-thinking about set theory. Essentially, Russell was pointing out nonsense himself.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I, Ludwig Wittgenstein, went to the shoe store the other day and the clerk asked me if I would like to try another pair on. But surely shoes go around my feet and not on my feet. The laces wouldn't hold with no foot to wrap around.

    So I replied to him that I should like to wear the shoes around. And he said sure you could take them on a walk if you would like.

    I smiled to myself as I walked around, with my shoes around my feet, smiling at the sublime profoundness of language.

    ReplyDelete
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