WHERE HAS ALL THE LOGIC GONE: Acolytes aped Wittgenstein!

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 6, 2018

Years later, The Horwich Conjecture:
At the start of his 1973 book, Professor Kenny offered a quick overview of his subject.

Kenny was a ranking player in the world of academic philosophy. His book, which bore a one-word title, was published by Harvard University Press.

The book was simply called Wittgenstein. In his opening paragraph, Kenny offered this:
KENNY (page 1): "The philosopher," wrote Wittgenstein, "is not a citizen of any community of ideas. That is what makes him a philosopher." Throughout his life Wittgenstein stood outside philosophical schools and despised contemporary fashions of thought; by his own work, whether he wished to or not, he created a new community of ideas. He published very little and avoided any kind of publicity; but the problems he discussed with a small group of pupils are now aired in universities throughout the world. "Philosophers who never met him," Gilbert Ryle wrote at the time of his death in 1951, "can be heard talking philosophy in his tone of voice; and students who can barely spell his name now wrinkle up their noses at things which had a bad smell for him." In the two decades since 1951 nine posthumous volumes of writings have been published, and the bibliography of studies of them contains well over a thousand titles.
We'll call attention to several parts of that thumbnail portrait.

On the one hand, Kenny is presenting Wittgenstein as a highly influential figure—and yes, Wittgenstein is often called a "logician," including by Kenny himself.

Wittgenstein "created a new community of ideas," Professor Kenny said. In the years since Wittgenstein's death in 1951, nine new volumes of his writing had been published. Well over a thousand studies of his works had appeared.

In our experience, Wittgenstein was very hot at this general point in time. When we ourselves were a college student, we took the undergraduate Wittgenstein course as a junior, in the spring of 1968.

We took the graduate seminar on Wittgenstein as a senior. We did our senior thesis on one part of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations that same year.

Philosophical Investigations was the one volume the later Wittgenstein had agreed to publish before his death from cancer. As of the general time in question, Wittgenstein was very hot within the world we knew.

That said, had Wittgenstein really "created a new community of ideas?" We'd be reluctant to say that.

For the most part, the later Wittgenstein's published work was puzzling and hard to explain. Before his death, he himself seemed to feel that his ideas were constantly misunderstood.

("I should have liked to produce a good book," he wrote in his introduction to Philosophical Investigations. "This has not come about, but the time is past in which I could improve it.")

That said, if Wittgenstein hadn't produced a truly "good book" or a set of ideas which others could parse, he did seem to have produced a world of imitators. Professor Kenny suggested as much with the quote from Ryle which refers to the many "philosophers" who could "be heard talking philosophy in [Wittgenstein's] tone of voice."

Ryle published that observation in 1971. By then, or so it's said, Wittgenstein's tortured, eccentric mannerisms were being widely aped all around the somewhat unimpressive world of philosophy graduate students.

We ourselves were struck, in the graduate seminar we took, by how little the Harvard graduate students brought to the study of Wittgenstein as of 1969. On the other hand, it's widely said that acolytes were widely imitating his behaviors. In her 2005 book, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel, Rebecca Goldstein offers many amusing accounts of this cultish behavior.

Such conduct is hardly unknown. At one point in the early 1990s, the comedy world was full of young male performers who sounded exactly like Jerry Seinfeld—but Ryle was describing the cultish conduct of the world's allegedly brightest minds.

Should the western world's future logicians conduct themselves like aspiring comedians? As a basic anthropological point, is it possible that our sharpest minds have never been all that sharp?

At any rate, Kenny gave the clear impression that Wittgenstein had been highly influential. At the start of his 1958 "Biographical Sketch" of Wittgenstein, Professor Georg Hendrik Von Wright voiced the same idea:
VON WRIGHT: On 20 April 1951 there died at Cambridge, England, one of the greatest and most influential philosophers of our time, Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Kenny used Von Wright's essay as the primary source for his own opening chapter. Von Wright said Wittgenstein was highly influential. Kenny said the same thing.

That said, was Wittgenstein influential in some significant way? When we look around at our failing, deeply dangerous discourse, we'd say he plainly was not.

Philosophical Investigations, his definitive later text, is a highly opaque piece of work. That said, it contains techniques of clarification which have gone almost wholly unexplored and unapplied, even as the public discourse has disintegrated around us.

When we read Goldstein's 2005 book, we were amazed to think that a ranking philosophy professor could adopt some of the approaches she took some 52 years after the Investigations appeared. To our eye, it wasn't that Wittgenstein's techniques of clarification hadn't entered the general culture. These important tools didn't seem to have penetrated the philosophy world itself.

Then too, there's what Professor Horwich said. We'll call it The Horwich Conjecture.

He spoke in 2013, in an essay for the New York Times "philosophy" blog, The Stone. By now, we'd wondered about this point for decades. Below, you see the start of what the professor said:
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’ĂȘtre.

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...
Oof! According to Horwich, Wittgenstein was "influential" no more, not even within the business.

Uh-oh! According to Horwich, Wittgenstein held that classic philosophical problems "are mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking." In fairness, this echoes the suspicions of college freshmen down through the annals of time. But within the industry, Horwich said, Wittgenstein's work is now regarded with contempt because of the way he rejected its age-old standard practices.

Presumably, "philosophers" were imitating his mannerisms no more! According to Horwich, the thrust of his thinking had sunk in at some point, producing this general outlook:
HORWICH: 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? Thus, even Bertrand Russell, his early teacher and enthusiastic supporter, was eventually led to complain peevishly that Wittgenstein seems to have “grown tired of serious thinking and invented a doctrine which would make such an activity unnecessary.”
Is Professor Horwich allowed to say that? Along the way, he even took an undisguised shot at Lord Russell!

According to Horwich, the industry has rejected the man who challenged its foundations. By that time, we'd been wondering about this possibility for a long time. We'd even tried to bring this premise onto the comedy stage, quickly discarding it as too complex for the medium.

Now, a major professor had risen to say that Wittgenstein had been discarded so that other professors could just keep teaching their conceptually muddled old courses. When people respond to clarification this way, its potential benefits are unlikely to spread.

Back in the day, they'd aped his mannerisms. According to Professor Horwich, they ended up throwing him under the bus.

This leaves us where we are today. For at least the past three decades "the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking" have come to rule the childish work of the upper-end mainstream press corps.

Our upper-end press corps just isn't real sharp. Again and again, then again and again, we've needed the help of the nation's logicians.

But alas! Like "the greatest logician since Aristotle," some of these unhelpful players are still working on 2 + 2. Horwich says the rest of the gang decided to save their careers.

Tomorrow: But why did they want to do that?

14 comments:

  1. “Now, a major professor had risen to say that Wittgenstein had been discarded so that other professors could just keep teaching their conceptually muddled old courses. When people respond to clarification this way, its potential benefits are unlikely to spread.”

    Perhaps Wittgenstein was wrong.

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  2. Somerby portrays the field of philosophy as if it were a soap opera, without ever grappling with a single idea. It is all about people rejecting criticism or embracing aping and posturing, never about thinking. Phooey. I don't believe he understood anything about Wittgenstein in his college classes, nor does he now. He is mired in negativity that ruins anything he touches.

    Perhaps Somerby is wrong.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Philosophical problems are “mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking”, according to Horwich’s rendition of Wittgenstein.

    But Somerby applies this description of **philosophical** problems to the work of the press corps: "the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking" have come to rule the childish work of the upper-end mainstream press corps”

    He is just using a description of philosophical problems and applying it in an unrelated way to the press. The press doesn’t engage in philosophical problems. They report stuff. How many of them were even philosophy majors?

    The ultimate conclusion is “Our upper-end press corps just isn't real sharp.”

    It isn’t clear how that specifically relates to philosophy, Wittgenstein, Horwich, and Harvard undergraduate majors in philosophy.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Somerby seems to be obsessed by the fact that he encountered ideas at Harvard that he was unable to satisfactorily grapple with.

    Wittgenstein ran from philosophy and became an elementary school teacher (among other endeavors). He was kicked out for hitting children when they had difficulty learning math. He later went back in order to apologize to those children. Wittgenstein's had three brothers who committed suicide and he himself was depressed at various points in his life, giving away his inherited fortune at one point.

    Did Somerby identify with Wittgenstein? Did he find solace in Wittgenstein's often contradictory statements, his posturing, his depression and his flight from intellectual pursuits? Did Somerby emulate him? Now, is he sniping from the sidelines in the same manner as Wittgenstein?

    If we have learned anything about philosophy from Somerby, it is that he seems to be disappointed that they are not suitable role models. How scary it must be for Somerby to face his own end-of-life issues about accomplishment and the lack of it, with only the descent into dementia of Godel and Wittgenstein to guide him.

    One almost feels sorry for Somerby -- emphasis on the word "almost." It is hard to like someone as relentlessly negative as Somerby.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Learning takes work. Understanding stuff is like wrestling, you work hard to find a hand-hold and you leverage the weighty stuff to the ground and throw yourself on top of it. Then you wait until a professor pounds the mat and awards you a grade. Somerby never got the hang of it.

      Here is what first-rate analysis looks like:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4LqZdkkBDas

      Somerby is an ass.

      Delete
    2. You think Bob's "negative"? Read Wittgenstein!

      Delete
  5. Somerby complains that Horwich has taken a shot at Wittgenstein by quoting Russell's negative views of him. Horwich didn't do anything except faithfully report what Russell said. Here is the whole thing:

    "I have not found in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations anything that seemed to me interesting and I do not understand why a whole school finds important wisdom in its pages. Psychologically this is surprising. The earlier Wittgenstein, whom I knew intimately, was a man addicted to passionately intense thinking, profoundly aware of difficult problems of which I, like him, felt the importance, and possessed (or at least so I thought) of true philosophical genius. The later Wittgenstein, on the contrary, seems to have grown tired of serious thinking and to have invented a doctrine which would make such an activity unnecessary. I do not for one moment believe that the doctrine which has these lazy consequences is true. I realize, however, that I have an overpoweringly strong bias against it, for, if it is true, philosophy is, at best, a slight help to lexicographers, and at worst, an idle tea-table amusement."

    If anything, Horwich has softened Russell's views.

    ReplyDelete
  6. "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"

    Hooray! ever since Herakleitos and Plato the difference between real philosophy and sophism has been clear, and "modern" academic philosophy, by presenting itself as source of actual knowledge ("science"), is squarely in the sophistic court. But for real ("dialectical") philosophy, it is the sciences themselves that produce knowledge--philosophy when it tries can only picture the world as "grey on grey" (Hegel). For the dialectician, philosophy is always an open dialogue (which is why Plato's dialogues always end in an *aporia*). The essence of real philosophy is dialogue on *how to think about* each and every positive science. Philosophy of aesthetics is the study of *how to think about beauty*, philosophy of physics is the study of *how to think about the physical world*, philosophy of psychology is the study of *how to think about thought itself*, etc. etc. Which is why real philosophy is always necessarily open to new facts and discoveries from the practical applications of scientific research in every field. Philosophy is unending dialogue, not petifogging dogmatics.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Several decades ago, at the beginning of the rebirth of AI, I worked on a project to endow virtual agents with emotion. To come up to speed, I looked at what others were doing. Most were implementing models of emotion derived from philosophy. No one was trying to model human emotion in machines. Marvin Minsky was toying with writing a book on emotion but based it on introspection and common sense ideas coupled with philosophy, not the psychological literature. The rationale for this was that machines don't have to function like people do and the philosophy of emotion was better defined than that of psychology, where definition follows fact-finding via empirical study. In contrast, philosophy, which wandered far from human reality, was ungrounded and did not need to conform to reality, although all the philosophers claimed it was doing so. But if philosophy was based in science, why did its formulations diverge so much from psychological theory?

    From this experience, I conclude that those who seek definition, absolutes, certainty, are drawn to philosophy. Those who can tolerate uncertainty, lack of closure, absence of clear-cut answers to questions, delayed gratification of knowledge, are drawn to science. Philosophy is about mental construction. Science (including psychology) is about knowledge of the real world (and yes, reality does exist separate from human understanding of it).

    Somerby doesn't understand much about himself or his own motivations. Now he seems to be stuck, rereading books of his own past, searching for what? The feeling of certainty about something once "known" in a childhood Harvard essay? How sad is that?

    ReplyDelete
  8. “But if philosophy was based in science, why did its formulations diverge so much from psychological theory?”

    When was philosophy ever based [in] (sic) science? Not until science came along, well after philosophy emerged. Science informs philosophy, philosophy incorporates the findings to achieve new understanding.

    “Psychological theory”? Is that a form of philosophy? I’m guessing you’re a Turing machine, and you’ve failed miserably. Perhaps you’re the dembot Mao, and by extension, DinC.

    Leroy

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