HUMAN REASON AND ITS DISCONTENTS: What Horwich said!

MONDAY, MARCH 16, 2020

The start of a meta-discussion:
And so it begins—our award-winning examination of the problems infesting human reason, such as it is.

Over the past twenty years, we've sometimes thought that we'd like to attempt a page-by-page reading of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. In the fall of 1965, when we entered the lair of the rational animal—the Harvard philosophy department—it was the hottest text of them all.

We were 17 at the time, and a college freshman. We started with a young professor's introductory course—Phil 3, Problems in Philosophy—a course which convinced most of us freshmen to major in something else.

After a year in the History and Literature department, we realized that we didn't care about history or about literature. On the basis of this insight, we decided to double back and major in philosophy after all.

As a junior, we took the undergraduate Wittgenstein course. It was taught by department chair, the later Rogers Albritton. As a senior, we took the graduate seminar in Wittgenstein, taught by the late Stanley Cavell.

After graduating, we moved to Baltimore, where we taught fifth grade in the Baltimore City Schools. More than forty years after graduation, we encountered this short essay by Paul Horwich, a professor of philosophy at NYU.

The short essay had appeared in a New York Times web site in 2013. We stumbled upon it several years later, when it was reprinted in a book.

In his essay, Professor Horwich advanced a claim we'd wondered about for decades. Headline included, he started his essay like this:
HORWICH (3/3/13): Was Wittgenstein Right?

The singular achievement of the controversial early 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was to have discerned the true nature of Western philosophy
—what is special about its problems, where they come from, how they should and should not be addressed, and what can and cannot be accomplished by grappling with them. The uniquely insightful answers provided to these meta-questions are what give his treatments of specific issues within the subject—concerning language, experience, knowledge, mathematics, art and religion among them—a power of illumination that cannot be found in the work of others.

Admittedly, few would agree with this rosy assessment—certainly not many professional philosophers.
Apart from a small and ignored clique of hard-core supporters the usual view these days is that his writing is self-indulgently obscure and that behind the catchy slogans there is little of intellectual value. But this dismissal disguises what is pretty clearly the real cause of Wittgenstein’s unpopularity within departments of philosophy: namely, his thoroughgoing rejection of the subject as traditionally and currently practiced; his insistence that it can’t give us the kind of knowledge generally regarded as its raison d’être.
For decades, it had been our impression that Wittgenstein had been severely downgraded within the academy. A peculiar thought had popped into our heads—the possibility that Wittgenstein had been cast aside because, if you follow his argument to its logical conclusion, he was saying that most of the traditional philosophy canon was in fact a species of nonsense, a product of "grammatical confusion."

Had Wittgenstein been cast aside for this reason? Had he been cast side because, if you believe the conclusions which lurk inside his (admittedly obscure) later work, you're forced to see that professors should be rejecting the bulk of the material they had traditionally taught?

In late 1999, we spent a few evenings with a friend from undergraduate days who was now a professor of literature at a major university. We asked her if Wittgenstein had been cast aside for this reason—because his work implies that the bulk of the traditional canon was a form of nonsense.

She said she didn't know. Fourteen years later, along came Horwich, saying our somewhat whimsical suspicion had actually been correct:
HORWICH (continuing directly): Wittgenstein claims that there are no realms of phenomena whose study is the special business of a philosopher, and about which he or she should devise profound a priori theories and sophisticated supporting arguments. There are no startling discoveries to be made of facts, not open to the methods of science, yet accessible “from the armchair” through some blend of intuition, pure reason and conceptual analysis. Indeed the whole idea of a subject that could yield such results is based on confusion and wishful thinking.

This attitude is in stark opposition to the traditional view, which continues to prevail.
Philosophy is respected, even exalted, for its promise to provide fundamental insights into the human condition and the ultimate character of the universe, leading to vital conclusions about how we are to arrange our lives. It’s taken for granted that there is deep understanding to be obtained of the nature of consciousness, of how knowledge of the external world is possible, of whether our decisions can be truly free, of the structure of any just society, and so on—and that philosophy’s job is to provide such understanding. Isn’t that why we are so fascinated by it?

If so, then we are duped and bound to be disappointed, says Wittgenstein. For these are mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking....Therefore traditional philosophical theorizing must give way to a painstaking identification of its tempting but misguided presuppositions and an understanding of how we ever came to regard them as legitimate. But in that case, he asks, “[w]here does [our] investigation get its importance from, since it seems only to destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great and important? (As it were all the buildings, leaving behind only bits of stone and rubble)”—and answers that “(w)hat we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stand.”

Given this extreme pessimism about the potential of philosophy—perhaps tantamount to a denial that there is such a subject—it is hardly surprising that “Wittgenstein” is uttered with a curl of the lip in most philosophical circles.
For who likes to be told that his or her life’s work is confused and pointless?
"Who likes to be told that his or her life’s work is confused and pointless?" Presumably, no one does!

According to Horwich, this is why the later Wittgenstein's work had been discarded, thrown under the bus. He told the academy that their work was the product of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking. The academy told him where to place it.

Thus spake Horwich, answering our somewhat whimsical question quite a few years later. Wittgenstein had been discarded, Horwich said, because he'd said that the ordinary stuff of western philosophy was, at its heart, a sprawling neighborhood featuring only "houses of cards."

Needless to say, Professor Horwich saying it doesn't make it so! But our new exploration will start here, with the assumption that there is a powerful clarity in the work of the later Wittgenstein which has largely been discarded.

Does this have anything to do with our previous topic, the haplessness and the poverty of modern journalistic performance? Well actually, yes it does.

Our society has reached its current state after decades of high-end journalistic clowning. Our journalists have gamboled and played. As they have, our professors, especially our logicians, have stared off into the air.

The disinterest of the professoriate has enabled the haplessness of the press corps. Eventually, that haplessness gave us Donald J. Trump, and now it gives us our plague.

When the plague struck London in 1665, the young Newton fled to "a small cabin" in the countryside, "of clay and wattles made." Or that may have been Yeats! We're not entirely sure.

At any rate, Newton retreated to Woolsthorpe Manor, described as the family estate. During his two-year sojourn in the countryside, he began inventing calculus as part of his so-called "miracle year.". Later, he spent a fair amount of time trying to turn lead into gold.

Now, as our own society faces its plague, we plan to follow Newton down these time-honored paths. In our main post each day, we'll be exploring the topics we first encountered when we entered the lair of the rational animal in 1965.

Eventually, this will let us describe the analytical tools we should have drawn from the admittedly jumbled work of the later Wittgenstein. Or at least, so it says here.

That's what we'll do in the mornings. Ideally, some kid who's nine years old today will put this material to good use in the future, assuming a future exists.

In the mornings, we'll be examining the big meta issues. In the afternoons, we'll look at examples of human reasoning as seen in our press corps today.

What can be taken from Philosophical Investigations, the later Wittgenstein's seminal text? That's our ultimate topic.

Some 9-year-old kid, at some future date, will apply the material we develop. If our society is still functioning, the applications that kid provides may rescue us from a world in which we encounter the relentless inanity which now dominates our national discourse through the work of our under-skilled, massively scripted press.

According to Horwich, the professional philosophers kicked Wittgenstein to the curb. It seems to us they shouldn't have done that. Over the course of the next many weeks, we hope to show you why.

Tomorrow: Who is Mario Livio? (Key point—he's very smart.)

31 comments:

  1. “For decades, it had been our impression that Wittgenstein had been severely downgraded within the academy.”

    The following, courses specifically devoted to Wittgenstein, does not bear this out.

    Currently on offer at the Harvard Department of Philosophy:

    Philosophy 137
    The Later Wittgenstein (113573)
    taught by Warren Goldfarb

    Primarily for Undergraduate Students

    Description: A close reading of Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, focusing on its treatments of the topics of meaning, reference, rule-following, cognition, perception, "the private mental realm" knowledge, skepticism, and the nature of philosophy. Attention to Wittgenstein's philosophical methodology, with its claim to dissolve philosophical problems rather than propose solutions to them.

    At Yale University:

    “PHIL 685b, Wittgenstein  Kenneth Winkler
    Study and discussion of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Philosophical Investigations, and On Certainty, with some attention to their background in writings by Frege, Russell, and Moore. Consideration of Wittgenstein’s influence on more recent philosophers, among them Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe, Saul Kripke, and Cora Diamond. Prerequisite: permission of the instructor.”

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Other courses at Yale:

      “PHIL 687b, The Philosophy of the Ordinary and the Extraordinary  Paul Franks
      An investigation of the significance of ordinary life for philosophy, and of the relevance of the extraordinary – the philosophical, the religious, the aesthetic – to the everyday.  Attention will be paid to the supposed refutation of skepticism by appeals to ordinary language; the politics of speech-acts and of claims to ordinariness or extraordinariness; the aesthetics of film in relation to the everyday; modernist aspirations to transfigure the everyday and post-modernist attempts to debunk the extraordinary.  Authors to be studied include J. L. Austin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Stanley Cavell, Michael Fried, and Toril Moi, among others.  Films will also be analysed.”

      “PHIL 688a, Meaning, Paradox, and Methodology  Michael Della Rocca
      An exploration of the inadequacies of a vast swath of theories of meaning (or content or aboutness) in contemporary and recent philosophy. The initial focus is on the challenges raised by the Kripke-Wittgenstein paradox with regard to meaning. We discuss the metaphysical underpinnings of this paradox as they are to be found in Bradley’s paradox concerning relations, in Parmenides’s arguments for a strict monism, and in Lewis Carroll’s paradox concerning logical inference or modus ponens. We consider responses to Kripke-Wittgenstein, Bradley, Parmenides, and Carroll—all of which fail, of course. Throughout, there is attention to methodological presuppositions in metaphysics that prevent philosophers from appreciating the force of these paradoxes, and we take up the potentially pernicious political implications of these presuppositions.”

      “PHIL 719a, Faith and the Will  John Pittard
      An investigation of questions concerning the nature of religious faith, the relationship of faith to the will and to desire, and the merits of various prudential, moral, and existential arguments for and against religious faith. Questions to be treated include: Is faith in some sense “meritorious” (to use Aquinas’s language)? Do the commitments of faith essentially involve believing propositions? Can belief be voluntary? Can trust or hope be voluntary? Should we hold religious beliefs to the same epistemic standards that apply to more mundane beliefs? Or should we persist in faith even if these beliefs do not meet conventional rational standards? We explore these questions through writings by Aquinas, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, James, Freud, Wittgenstein, and various contemporary philosophers.”

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  2. Could it be that Horwich’s essay was timed to coincide with the publication of his 2012 book “Wittgenstein’s Metaphilosophy”, in which he “develops an interpretation of Ludwig Wittgenstein's later writings that differs in substantial respects from what can already be found in the literature.”

    Perhaps an analysis of Horwich on Wittgenstein is at least as advisable as the endless one Somerby did on Goldstein’s Gödel book “Incompleteness.”

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A seventeen-year-old at Harvard. Sounds horrifying.

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  3. "We asked her if Wittgenstein had been cast aside for this reason—because his work implies that the bulk of the traditional canon was a form of nonsense."

    Here, Somerby broadens the idea of casting aside the bulk of philosophical investigation to encompass the traditional canon (a term that generally refers to everything taught at a liberal arts university). Note that he asks a literature professor about Horwich's statement about philosophy.

    Literature majors read early works such as Beowulf and the Decameron. They read more recent works by Thomas Hardy and Theodore Dreiser. It wouldn't make sense to abandon all of literature because Wittgenstein says that words don't have definite meanings.

    How quickly Somerby drifts into nihilism.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
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  4. Somerby is exploring his own past with this examination of Wittgenstein, nothing more. If he had any interest in the philosophical questions, he would consider how more modern philosophers dealt with the challenges raised by Wittgenstein. One of the course descriptions suggests not well, and yet philosophy continues. What are current philosophers doing and what is its worth? You can't figure that out by re-reading Wittgenstein. You would have to read the modern philosophers.

    Some of my own research resulted in a paper on how people map words onto objects in a meaning-space (or names onto referents). As psychologists, we studied the cognitive process of naming. Our paper was published in the Journal of Philosophical Psychology, because we dealt with the philosophers who followed Wittgenstein, examining his ideas about the impreciseness of language. People talked about Quine when I was in grad school, and Hilary Putnam. Concepts of consensual meaning and linguistic charity were proposed, and studied empirically by psycholinguists who produced evidence for the fuzziness of definition, existence of mental prototypes and category membership. There is a large literature on this stuff, arising not from philosophy, which is neither a science nor empirical in its focus on knowledge, but from cognitive science and anthropology. There has been a great deal of work done on how people assign meaning and create shared knowledge within a culture. Wittgenstein is rarely quoted and there is certainly no shortage of useful investigation. That's because, despite Wittgenstein's proposals, people obviously do communicate and there is not the widespread futility among members of any group that Wittgenstein predicts. The continued existence of philosophy contradicts his contention as well as any other evidence.

    The small handful of Wittgenstein admirers may be small because few people eschew empiricism these days. Philosophy has spun off fields that have replaced prior philosophizing with scientific approaches. You have to ignore too much current thinking to find Wittgenstein useful, in my opinion. But new academics need to find some controversy to make a name for themselves, and reviving an old one is as good a way as any. (In my field, you acquire a name by attacking some elderly famous researcher with an experiment that challenges his body of work.) That's much easier than finding something truly new in your field.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
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      Delete
  5. Tristero on Digby's blog suggests that the attempt to corner the market on an incipient vaccine from a German company was a publicity stunt cooked up to show Trump's base that Trump has America's interests at heart:

    "A few seconds of thought makes it clear that of course, the Trumpists were fairly certain a German company would never give Americans exclusive access to their vaccine, regardless of the cost. But if the Trump administration could leak to the press that “at least we tried,” it would appear to their base like they were actually doing something rather than flailing about (which is the truth).

    Yes, the Trump administration really is that calculating. And yes, the MAGA-ts really are that gullible.

    And yes, the media really are that naive to fall for such an obvious set-up."

    https://digbysblog.net/2020/03/flacking-maga-for-free/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If Tristero isn’t working in the American media, he could!

      Delete
    2. Tristero doesn't provide any evidence or even a basis for his claim. Tristero's post is insane.

      Delete
    3. The first participant in a clinical trial for a vaccine to protect against the new coronavirus will receive an experimental dose on Monday, according to a government official.

      The National Institutes of Health is funding the trial, which is taking place at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle. The official who disclosed plans for the first participant spoke on condition of anonymity because the move has not been publicly announced.

      Public health officials say it will take a year to 18 months to fully validate any potential vaccine.

      https://apnews.com/8089a3d0ec8f9fde971bddd7b3aa2ba1

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    4. “Tristero doesn't provide any evidence or even a basis for his claim. Tristero's post is insane.”

      I know. His media colleagues would be giving Tristero a Cronkite Award within a month.

      Delete
    5. I'm sure once they told President Deadbeat they wanted the money upfront, the deal fell through.

      Delete
    6. Typical deranged conspiracy theory. Sounds like it was cooked up in Biden's addled brain.

      Delete
  6. “"Who likes to be told that his or her life’s work is confused and pointless?" Presumably, no one does!”

    Is Horwich right? Is that really what Wittgenstein is saying?

    And there’s little evidence that he has been “kicked to the curb.”

    ReplyDelete
  7. "Does this have anything to do with our previous topic, the haplessness and the poverty of modern journalistic performance? Well actually, yes it does."

    Indeed it does, dear Bob, but only in a very general sense.

    As one of those useless philosophers said, every communication is an attempt at manipulation.

    So, yes, philosophers are trying to manipulate their audience, and your liberal zombie hacks manipulate you and your fellow zombies.

    But of course it doesn't mean that philosophy and dembottery are the same thing, or even similar phenomena, dear Bob.

    This is like sayifng that what the knives do is cutting. But hey, some are cutting bread and others are cutting throats...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're going to get your wish, Mao
      Trump is embracing socialism, socialism, socialism.

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    Email: priestazibasolutioncenter@gmail.com
    WhatsApp : +2348100368288























    Some ladies are just so heartless and wicked, Gratitude to Priest Aziba who broke the black magic spell that was placed on my man over 5 months ago, my Man started acting so arrogant,rude and shows no more love and care to neither me nor the kids, so i took to the internet to get a review of what went wrong and how i could put an end to all the dramas with him and i saw a review about a Love Dr who is specific in FAMILY REUNIONS by name PRIEST AZIBA who then discovered that my Man was placed under a black magic spell (VOODOO) by his Ex so PRIEST AZIBA broke the black magic spell (VOODOO) out from him within 48Hours and made a love spell for us to Restore the lost love we once had and over some few days ago he did the spell all has been so cool and lovely like it was from the beginning so i know lots of women has lost there home or losing it already, seat up its not too late get that divorced Marriage or broken relationship back again, fight for your home and take the step i took and i will equally write down his direct contacts so y'all who's having same issues in your home or Relationship can do like i did to fight for what's yours.
    CONTACT PRIEST AZIBA ON
    Email: priestazibasolutioncenter@gmail.com
    WhatsApp : +2348100368288

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  11. Greetings to every one that is reading this testimony. I had been rejected by my husband after five(5) years of marriage just because another woman had cast a spell on him and he left me with 2 kids to suffer. One day when i was reading through the web, i saw a post on how he help a woman to get back her husband and i gave him a chance he told me that my husband is under spell, he said that he will help me and after 7 days that i will have my husband back. i believed he and today i am glad to let you all know that this spell caster has the power to bring lovers back now my husband is back with after 7 days . he also gave me a financial magic ring to boost my business and removed bad luck. i am now happy with my husband. Thanks you Dr. love please contact him at (lovespelldoctor0@gmail.com)

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  12. i want to tell the world about the great and mighty spell caster called Dr .osofo my husband was cheating on me and no longer committed to me and our kids when i asked him what the problem was he told me he has fell out of love for me and wanted a divorce i was so heart broken i cried all day and night but he left home i was looking for something online when i saw an article how the great and powerful Dr osofo have helped so many in similar situation like mine he email address was there so i sent him an email telling him about my problem he told me he shall return back to me within 48hrs i did everything he asked me to do the nest day to my greatest surprise my husband came back home and was crying and begging for me to forgive and accept him back he can also help you contact him on Email ( osofo.48hoursolutioncenter@gmail.com ) whasAPP him +2349065749952

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