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.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.
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.
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 scholars...read 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?"