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