BREAKING: What we read on our autumn vacation!


The latest academic hoax v. the western canon:
What did we read on our autumn vacation? At long last, thank you for asking!

Good lord! We dug out of a musty old box our copy—actual, our two copies—of Norman Malcolm's slender yet once definitive volume, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir With a Biographical Sketch by Georg Hendrik Von Wright.

(This slender volume is still on sale through the Oxford University Press.)

Memories came flooding back, especially memories of NAME WITHHELD. Did Proust ever scarf down a whole sack of madeleines? If so, that's what it was like.

Malcolm met Wittgenstein in 1938, across the pond, at Cambridge. Malcolm was a graduate student on loan from god-like Harvard. Wittgenstein was developing the puzzling, admittedly muddled work which would eventually define "the later Wittgenstein" in his 1953 book, Philosophical Investigations.

Malcolm's memoir was first published in 1958. In Von Wright's biographical sketch of Wittgenstein, we encountered a peculiar passage concerning the definitive work of the early Wittgenstein, the catchily titled Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921).

Quickly, a bit of background:

Wittgenstein wrote the Tractatus when he was still in his twenties. As Von Wright explains. "The author of the Tractatus thought he had solved all philosophical problems. It was consistent with this view that he should give up philosophy."

Had the early Wittgenstein really solved all philosophical problems? In accord with that somewhat peculiar idea, Wittgenstein quit philosophy after writing the Tractatus. Later, though, he returned to the field, throwing the work of "the early Wittgenstein" pretty much under the bus.

He was involved in this re-evaluation when he met Malcolm.

Whatever! As we read Von Wright's biographical sketch, we were struck by an almost comical passage rather early on. In this passage, Von Wright describes the way the early Wittgenstein hit upon one of his most seminal ideas while serving in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I:
VON WRIGHT (page 7): The oldest parts of the Tractatus are those dealing with logic. Wittgenstein had formed his principal thoughts on these matters before the outbreak of the war in 1914, and thus before his twenty-sixth year. Later he became engrossed in a new problem. It was the question of the nature of the significant proposition. Wittgenstein told me how the idea of language as a picture of reality occurred to him. It was in the autumn of 1914, on the East front. Wittgenstein was reading a magazine in which there was a schematic picture depicting the possible sequence of events in an automobile accident. The picture there served as a proposition; that is, as a description of a possible state of affairs. It had this function owing to a correspondence between the parts of the picture and things in reality. It now occurred to Wittgenstein that one might reverse the analogy and say that a proposition serves as a picture, by virtue of a similar correspondence between its parts and the world. The way in which the parts of the proposition are combined—the structure of the proposition—depicts a possible combination of elements in reality, a possible state of affairs.

Wittgenstein's Tractatus may be called a synthesis of the theory of truth-functions and the idea that language is a picture of reality. Out of this synthesis arises a third main ingredient of the book, its doctrine of that which cannot be said, only shown.
In that passage, Von Wright describes "how the idea of language as a picture of reality occurred to [Wittgenstein]." We're told that this idea—the idea that language is a picture of reality—formed a basic part of the book which made its author a famous part of the philosophical establishment of the day.

Here's why that passage strikes us as almost comical, in an all-too-familiar, perhaps instructive way:

First, Von Wright pictures Wittgenstein making an observation any 6-year-old could have made. While serving on the Eastern front, Wittgenstein suddenly realizes that the various parts of a schematic picture of an automobile accident "serve as a proposition; that is, as a description of a possible state of affairs."

This observation or insight is so obvious that any child could make it. The pictures of two cars in an accident serve as a description of the accident itself!

This observation, thought or idea seems to be blindingly obvious. From there, we move directly to a claim which is so vaguely described that it has no particular meaning at all, at least as Von Wright presents it:

"It now occurred to Wittgenstein that one might...say that a proposition serves as a picture, by virtue of a similar correspondence between its parts and the world. The way in which the parts of the proposition are combined—the structure of the proposition—depicts a possible combination of elements in reality, a possible state of affairs."

Might a proposition "depict a possible state of affairs?" Since something like that happens all day long every single day of the year, this seems fairly obvious too, if perhaps a bit hazily defined.

Let's move on! Might "the way in which the parts of [a] proposition are combined—the structure of the proposition—depict a possible combination of elements in reality, a possible state of affairs?"

Presumably, yes, that could happen! But from this extremely hazy account, do you have any idea why this isn't the most fatuous idea in all of human history? Do you have any idea how this idea—"the idea that language is a picture of reality"—could possibly lay at the heart of a celebrated book, one whose author thought he had solved all philosophical problems?

Youngsters who study "philosophy" are expected to swallow this type of guff on a regular basis. Many are willing to do so. Others will occasionally note that the work of upper-end practitioners in the field may often seem to make no earthly sense.

Many metaphorical madeleines died as we reread Von Wright's biographical sketch and Malcolm's memoir. Upon our return to our sprawling campus, we reviewed our musty copy of Professor Kenny's 1973 book, Wittgenstein, in which the professor explains, or attempts or pretends to explain, "the famous picture theory of meaning," which he describes as "the central doctrine" of the Tractatus.

(Needless to say, the dust jacket says this: "Dr. Kenny's book will be of value not only to students of philosophy but also to general readers with no special knowledge of the subject." According to the publisher, Kenny made Wittgenstein easy!)

Alas! Kenny's explanation of "the famous picture theory of meaning" reads like something The Onion discarded as too absurdly fatuous to serve as winning satire. That said, this is the sort of thing the philosophy student is asked to dunk in tea and swallow whole, preferably without any chewing, pretty much all the time.

So it goes with the highest level work of the otherwise absent logicians of us, Aristotle's rational animal. We expect to return to such ruminations in the weeks to come.

Meanwhile, ponder this:

Just before our autumn vacation, we read Professor Egginton's New York Times column about the recent academic hoax. Lustily, the analysts cheered as Egginton lamented the way "overly specialized and exchange ideas in hermetic academic bubbles, in very much the same way that the public has increasingly tended to read and exchange ideas in hermetic news bubbles."

The analysts cheered Egginton on. "Hang on, though, professor," one of the youngsters thoughtfully cried. "Is it possible that the history of western philosophy is a long, perhaps slightly dumb example of this very phenomenon?"

That youngster spoke out of turn, and was suitably punished. Still, our logicians have completely, totally failed us over the course of the past thirty years.

People are dead all over the world because of the silence of these highly specialized lambs. Did this youngster perhaps come close to explaining how we all got to our current degraded and dangerous place?

We recommend Egginton's column! On Monday, though, we'll be forced to continue our current rumination, to the all-too-familiar tune of The Baby Elephant Walk.

Michelle Cottle was working on dating issues, then moved to the Times editorial board! Last week, she sounded off on the only topic these hopelessly cosseted, hermetically sealed life-forms care about.

People are read all over the world because the children have endlessly played it this way. If we might borrow from sacred Hawthorne:

"Rappaccini! Rappaccini! And is this the upshot of your experiment?"


  1. Western philosophy plays a modest role in the western intellectual tradition. But it has very little to do with the dead people all over the world, Bob. You sound like grumpy old man.

  2. "our logicians have completely, totally failed us over the course of the past thirty years."

    First and foremost, the main question has to be: how have logicians failed us? What specifically is wrong, according to Somerby? I don't want to presume to know precisely what he is talking about. Somerby can be quite vague. Yes, "people are dead all over the world." But in what historical age has that not been true? Have the most recent 30 years been especially deadly? And how specifically would "logicians" hinder the deaths?

  3. "Lustily, the analysts cheered as Egginton lamented the way "overly specialized and exchange ideas in hermetic academic bubbles, in very much the same way that the public has increasingly tended to read and exchange ideas in hermetic news bubbles."

    There is no law against anyone reading academic journals, but they won't understand them without being training in the specific discipline. Somerby bemoans that, as if there were a way to learn highly technical material without jargon. Jargon is invented because everyday language doesn't convey the necessary meanings required to talk about technical subjects. You go to school to learn what the words mean -- it is the core content of introductory courses in any discipline. But Somerby believes everything must be accessible to him without effort, or it is a waste of time, a means of locking professors into hermetically sealed bubbles.

    This is nonsense. Whoever game him the idea that learning comes without effort?

    Then he goes on the castigate professors because they haven't applied their efforts to stopping war instead of doing their own work. Does he similar castigate waiters and clerks and uber drivers and everyone else who carries on in our economy without addressing world peace? That would be ridiculous on its face. Why isn't it ridiculous to expect teachers at the college level, professors, knowledge workers, to solve world peace?

    If someone out there knows Somerby personally, can you please call him up and tell him to stop this silliness? It is tiresome having to address the same stupid complaints over and over.

    1. "You go to school to learn what the words mean"

      And you come out offended that a male who wears dresses is identified as "male" and resentful that there are two sexes, and a word for each that identifies what exists in reality. Academia is corrupted and worthy of all the ridicule it draws.

  4. Isn't it the job of doctors to prevent people from dying all over the world? When did philosophers get medical training?

  5. A lot has happened in reference philosophy since Wittgenstein. Shouldn't Somerby try reading someone more current, if he insists on reading philosophy during his vacation.

    Why is he going back to his childhood for his reading material? Maybe a therapist could explore that with him.

  6. "Rappaccini's Daughter" would be classified as science fiction today. Who knew that Hawthorne had written science fiction?

    1. How can it be science fiction when doctors of that time period grew herbs and made potions to treat their patients? There was a famous garden at the University of Padua for that purpose. Poison was not new or futuristic. Dying of it or acquiring some immunity to it through exposure were not new either.

  7. What's missing from this thread? A Mozart piano sonata? How about two Mozart piano sonatas! Here's Friedrich Gulda playing #9 in D major K 311, and #12 in F major K332.

  8. I had a couple of chuckles reading the first four sentences. Bob can always make me laugh, and being as I am, challenge me to think, whilst exposing me to things I’d never encountered.

    No problem can be solved by logic and reason alone, because they are twined together with emotion in the human animal. The concept of a perfect circle does nothing to advance our evolution, except as a fascinating mathematical discovery, which itself is a human construct. How can mathematics explain a gentle touch?

    Logic and reason are the evolutionary products of the human mind, and we all posses them, to varying degrees. Reasoning is achieved through logic. But logic, literally, needs to be taught, and then reason will follow.

    But if we are constantly fed bullshit by the msm, we’re unable to reason logically, because the facts required for logical reasoning are absent.

    However, if I were a Yemeni, I would kick my own ass for writing this.


    1. Leroy, you are wrong that mathematics cannot explain a gentle touch. Robotic arms and prosthetics must define a gentle touch in order to function properly, and they do.

      Second, reasoning and logic are not synonymous. Logic involves proofs and syllogisms. Reasoning can also use heuristics, which are outside formal logic. Reasoning also involves choice under conditions of uncertainty, which involves probability. Humans do this when thinking outside conscious awareness. That is reasoning too. So equating reasoning and logic excludes different kinds of reasoning. People like Herbert Simon (who won a Nobel prize) discovered cognitive heuristics such as satisficing, which allows people to weigh and combine different priorities in a complex, multi-faceted decision-making situation. That isn't logic, it is heuristic. And it isn't taught, it is learned by experience and maybe partly innate.

      But you are on the right track, in my opinion.

      Bob never makes me laugh. He makes me sad.

    2. Reason is the slave of passion. When you numb nuts gonna learn it and stop losing?

    3. @ 8:12 - responding to the voices in his/her/its head.

  9. Mr Trump says Russia has been violating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreement, and so he will withdraw from it. John Bolton, Mr Trump's national security adviser, will warn Uncle Vova in Moscow next week.

    1. Defense spending = "entitlements".

  10. "Rappaccini! Rappaccini! And is this the upshot of your experiment?"

    Somerby is ambivalent about science. On one hand, he wants it to save us but on the other, he fears it. Stories like Hawthorne's and Shelley's Frankenstein, both written in the 1800's, expressed the same ambivalence about meddling with nature and the consequences of science in the hands of men who do not care for humanity, reason without the control of emotion.

    But what bothers me more about the story is that Beatrice is female. She is the victim of her father's meddling. She dies, not Giovanni and not her father, and she dies for love (as women must).

    Is Somerby such a Luddite? Such a misogynist? This old story has the excuse of being written in a different time. What is Somerby's excuse? Or did he read it so superficially that he thinks it is just about blaming professors for walling up their poisons in gardens that do no one any good?

    Anyway, I find this an ugly story told with overwrought language and little thought to its implications. Wikipedia says it is derived from much older versions that appear to be cautionary tales designed to keep women in their place, out of worldly things that men deal with. A woman who is given knowledge is once again dangerous, as eve was to adam and Hawthorne explicitly states at the beginning of his own story.


  11. Reason and emotion are not opposites, as Aristotle and later, Descartes, thought. They work together.

    Emotion is a biological system for placing value on our experience. Feelings provide immediate feedback on whether something is good or bad for us in terms of survival-related needs. It is a fast system that is connected to physiology to permit immediate response. We need it to survive and there is no one without it, even if one is not consciously aware of one's emotions. Emotion biases thinking of all kinds, from perception to reason.

    One function is reason is emotional control. It is possible override emotional response using cognition. That is one of the functions of consciousness -- to be aware of emotions and to override their impulses to produce a different behavior. So, people can override fear to act against flight responses, or they can override hunger to refrain from eating something bad for you, or override personal comfort to sacrifice for a child. More often, emotion tells us what we want and what is good for us while reason helps us attain our goals.

    This idea that emotion is the domain of women while reason is the domain of men is total nonsense and reflects the split between men as godly and women as animalistic, ruled by passions, unable to think. This comes from Descartes, not Aristotle. But it is reflected in Hawthorne's story in a truly ugly way.

    People have been engaging in science and modifying nature since they evolved sufficiently to create fire, set traps for animals, raise animals, tend crops. Today, who argues against these things? Lots of folks still do. Including Somerby, it appears, and Bill Maher who opposes modern medicine, and those who oppose GMOs, vaccines, want to do nothing about global warming, think scientists are frauds who should be stopping war but are instead walled in their garden along with their poisons which are too dangerous to let out into the world.

    Yes, the world is scary and so is science. But berating professors for being too trivial while begging them to solve our problems for us isn't going to help anything. And women need to be kept out of every garden, because they exist only to be beautiful and attract men's love.


    1. Reason and emotion are not the exclusive domains of men and women respectively, but men are better able to override emotion in service of reason. See the Kavanaugh hearings, in which women attempted to discard the presumption of innocence and due process in favor of how women feel. See support for Stormy Daniels violating a contract because women feel angry at Bad Man Trump. This is why historically women were not permitted to enter into contracts without a man's co-signature. See safe spaces. See shifting the burden of proof on campus to the accused male. Women are capable of understanding principles enough to pass a final exam but not adhering to them. Caprice and lack of reason define their mode of behavior once emotions and personal preferences intervene.

      With exceptions.

    2. "See the Kavanaugh hearings, in which women attempted to discard the presumption of innocence and due process in favor of how women feel."

      But it wasn't women who did this. It's the scumbag leaders (both genders) of the lib-zombie death-cult. And it's perfectly rational: using demagoguery, pushing emotional buttons, in order to gain power and get paid for advancing economic interests of their globalist sponsors.

  12. "The latest academic hoax v. the western canon"

    On Saturday, Somerby argued that the latest hoax articles are no different than the legitimate works contained in the Western canon. Why? Because he cannot understand them. Even though others are accepting statements from such works, Somerby thinks those same statements make no sense, so he sees that the emperor wears no clothes and thinks it is all a giant waste of time pursuing nothing useful.

    In comments, readers complain that Somerby lodges no actual criticism of anything he rejects. To do that, he would have to understand it and propose alternative ways of thinking. But if the problem is that Somerby cannot think well enough to understand, he certainly cannot think well enough to create new ideas. He is a slow child, not an iconoclast.

    Given his age, my suggestion is that he stop trying to read things that are over his head. Maybe he is stuck in his college days because he never understood this stuff, but is doggedly still trying. In that case, he has our permission to let it go, give it up and move on. Let others do the heavy lifting.

    But he doesn't get to call philosophy, science, all academic endeavor, bunk. To do that, he needs to discredit it and he hasn't come close to that. Not only does he not understand the content of his degree, but he doesn't understand what professors do and how academia works.

    For example, those fraudulent papers never came close to entering the "Western canon". When a paper is bad, people ignore it and it fades away from lack of citation. These frauds put out a press release and every know-nothing and know-nothing-wannabee attacked academia. Including Somerby. But it is impossible to pollute a knowledge-based field with garbage because nonsense papers have no impact on the work of others. That is part of the self-correcting aspect of how science is done. So the last laugh is on the folks who wasted their time and resources writing fraudulent articles instead of doing useful work.

    Somerby should read beach fiction on his vacations, like everyone else. He isn't special because he reads Wittgenstein but doesn't understand it.

    1. The bigger problem is when good research produces a result that supports an unpopular proposition, "people ignore it and it fades from lack of citation." Academia is polluted and getting worse.

  13. t now occurred to Wittgenstein that one might...say that a proposition serves as a picture, by virtue of a similar correspondence between its parts and the world. The way in which the parts of the proposition are combined—the structure of the proposition—depicts a possible combination of elements in reality, a possible state of affairs."

  14. No post yet. I pray that Somerby has died.

  15. People often sort others into two piles, the smart and the stupid. I would like to see a third pile: the dull.

    Sure you should have a compelling hook for the reader, but there's no reason to study language through war metaphors unless you are such a dull person that it's the only way you have any excitement in your life.

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