THE PERILS OF SKILL-FREE LIVING: What ever happened to basic skills?

MONDAY, JULY 10, 2017

Part 1—Professor Horwich's post:
For the past year or two, we've been looking for ways to discuss Professor Horwich's essay.

The essay first appeared, in March 2013, as a post at the New York Times' Opinionator site. On that occasion, the post was credited to a sub-site called The Stone, the New York Times' site for questions from the world of academic philosophy.

We didn't see the professor's post when it first appeared. We saw it perhaps in 2015, when the New York Times got a snootful and published The Stone Reader, a compilation of 133 different posts from The Stone.

Surprised by the book at a local book store, we scanned its table of contents. The title on Horwich's essay said this:

"Was Wittgenstein right?"

Lustily, we turned to page 133 (sic), where the essay began. We've been looking for ways to get to that essay ever since that day.

Professor Horwich, a Brit, was at NYU, and apparently still is. We think his essay helps explain our failing society's love affair with low-IQ, skill-free living.

The perils of skill-free living are many. That said, this love affair is just as strong in our own liberal tents as it is Over There, among Those People.

You're going to we're stretching as we make that award-winning statement. In thinking that, though, you'll be wrong.

As noted, Professor Horwich's essay entered the world as a post. He sought to explain why the world of academic philosophy has largely soured on Wittgenstein.

We expect to return to Horwich's text at some time to review his thinking in detail. For today, all you really need to do is read his first six paragraphs (excerpt below).

For today, we'll simplify the claim Horwich makes in those first six grafs. Essentially, he says something we've occasionally joked about on the world's most illustrious comedy stages.

This is what he says:

He says philosophy professors quit Wittgenstein because, if they accepted what Wittgenstein said, they'd have to stop teaching the carbuncle-laden courses upon which they've based their careers.

Let's spell that out a bit:

Wittgenstein said that most academic philosophy was based upon "grammatical confusion." He said the statements which define the field aren't actually wrong.

He said those statements don't rise to the level of being wrong! Wittgenstein said that these philosophical statements are actually incoherent.

If you accept this general claim, you pretty much may have to stop teaching your Critique of Pure Reason course. In a simplified nutshell, so says Horwich, explaining why Wittgenstein has lost favor, bigly, in the halls of academe:
HORWICH (3/3/13): 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.


Given [Wittgenstein's] 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?
Is that analysis correct? In the past, we've often wondered if Wittgenstein lost favor within the academy because his work invalidates the work which comprises the canon. In his essay, Professor Horwich was basically trying to say that we had been right all along!

Whatever! For today, we'll only note that Horwich says that Wittgenstein hugely lost favor in professional circles. We think that helps explain why we live within a rapidly failing, remarkably skill-free national culture.

This is why we say that:

Horwich is talking about the "later" Wittgenstein, the fellow whose famous text, Philosophical Investigations, was published, posthumously, in 1953.

As Wittgenstein noted in his Preface, the book is very hard to follow, define, summarize, explain, dance to or discuss. "I should have liked to produce a good book," Wittgenstein gloomily wrote. "It has not turned out that way, but the time is past in which I could improve it."

Still, the book introduces analytical techniques which facilitate clear expression in a wide array of areas. The professors who have quit this book are the same people who have proven to be of so little use as incoherence, dissembling and demagoguery have come to define our political and journalistic culture in the past (let's say) thirty years.

The most elementary basic skills are mainly notable by their absence from our political journalism. As we've sunk beneath the waves from this experience in skill-free living, our philosophy professors have hung back, providing no help, offering no guidance or instruction.

Our logicians have thoroughly failed us. In his essay, Professor Horwich says they walked off the job because they wanted to make their professional lives easier to maintain.

Out logicians have thoroughly failed us. We'll invite you to connect this point to another fact:

Again and again, we've asked you to notice an highly improbable state of affairs. Our highest journalistic elites are almost completely unskilled.

Again and again and again and again, the most basic skills of their trade have proven to be beyond their reach. When the professors quit Wittgenstein, they threw in their lot with this corrosive state of affairs.

What does skill-free journalism look like? We plan to explore that question all week, reviewing the work of several journalists who exist at the top of the professional heap.

We'll focus on Masha Gessen's recent lecture/interview at the 2017 PEN World Voices Festival. To watch the event, click here.

We'll also focus on David Leonhardt, one of the New York Times' best and brightest.

Gessen is unusually bright and extremely sincere. Her personal history gives her a unique perspective on many contemporary issues.

By the norms of American journalism, Gessen is unusually bright. That said: in its most significant and most lauded passages, her lecture at the PEN event was strikingly skill-free.

Skill-free living? It's been the norm within our journalism for the past quite a few years. Plainly, this skill-free living has been leading our nation to ruin.

We'll explore the peculiar practice all week. In our view, Professor Horwich has helped describe one part of the story—the unfortunate process in which the guardians decided to walk off their posts.

Tomorrow: Leonhardt emotes


  1. Gessen lectured that gay marriage should be embraced, but only because it is a useful tool in destroying the institution of marriage and family, both of which she despises due to her sexual orientation.

  2. Somerby is not the arbiter of journalistic skill nor of philosophical logic. He is a Harvard alum with a B.A. in philosophy who failed some of his courses for reasons no doubt related to either interest or reasoning ability or writing skill. Now he has attitudes lingering from that earlier experience which motivate him to attack grads of elite colleges while he pretends to think deeply and understand all that stuff in the basic philosophy courses he didn't exactly pass (by his own admission). This is no pursuit for a grown man.

  3. And meanwhile, my local TV station is now owned by Sinclair Media, which is forcing its affiliates to run right-wing-slanted pro-Trump stories. It's like TASS...And Maddow is the problem?

  4. I'll be interested to see if you wind up replicating the problems that Wittigenstein complained about in his Investigations... :)

  5. Somerby writes, “You're going to we’re stretching as we make that award-winning statement.”

    This does not even rise to the level of being wrong.

  6. OK, I have no idea if you read the comments section, Mr. Sommerby, but let me put a bit of flesh on that claim at #4. Truth is a trivial concept that is self-reinforcing and situational. From the Op Ed you admire so much:

    "Wittgenstein’s conceptual pluralism positions us to recognize that notion’s idiosyncratic function, and to infer that truth itself will not be reducible to anything more basic. More specifically, we can see that the concept’s function in our cognitive economy is merely to serve as a device of generalization. ... Thus possession of the concept of truth appears to consist in an appreciation of that triviality, rather than a mastery of any explicit definition. ... Philosophical problems typically arise from the clash between the inevitably idiosyncratic features of special-purpose concepts —true, good, object, person, now, necessary — and the scientistically driven insistence upon uniformity. Moreover, the various kinds of theoretical move designed to resolve such conflicts (forms of skepticism, revisionism, mysterianism and conservative systematization) are not only irrational, but unmotivated."

    Can you please explain to me how you have not--yourself--fallen into this trap? By offering us a definition of "lying" which in your post on Tuesday your commenters can't even agree on? And how do they resolve it? Or you for that matter? By using the very tools that Wittgenstein condemns?

    So, how about it? If we can't agree about what constitutes a "lie" what concepts can we agree on? And I think that is probably a place to start in thinking about Wittgenstein's limitations... Cheers.


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