WHERE HAS ALL THE LOGIC GONE: He built on the logic of Frege and Russell!


But what kind of logic was that?
In yesterday's report, we reintroduced The Horwich Conjecture—a naughty claim by Professor Horwich, he of NYU.

Oof! According to Horwich, Wittgenstein has fallen into disfavor among "professional philosophers" (Horwich's term) because of the inconvenient conclusions he reached.

According to Horwich, Wittgenstein voiced "extreme pessimism about the potential of philosophy—perhaps tantamount to a denial that there is such a subject" at all.

According to Horwich, Wittgenstein came to believe that "the whole idea of" philosophy, as traditionally practiced and understood, was "based on confusion and wishful thinking."

The field's traditional problems were actually "mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking." Or so Wittgenstein is said to have said.

According to Professor Horwich, Wittgenstein basically said that the traditional field had never really existed at all, except inside the muddled minds of its traditional giants, a group which included an earlier version of himself. In the passage shown below, Horwich completes his conjecture:
HORWICH (3/3/13): 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?
According to Horwich, Wittgenstein said their work was confused and pointless. And so they turned him out.

Horwich lives inside the academy; here on our own sprawling campus, we don't have that type of access. That said, we'd long wondered if some such syndrome helped explain Wittgenstein's apparent declining visibility and influence within the professional guild.

More significantly, we think Horwich is basically right in his account of what Wittgenstein came to allege. And we're inclined to think that Wittgenstein was basically right in saying goodbye to all that in the way Horwich describes.

Key point! Horwich is speaking here of "the later Wittgenstein," the author of the posthumous Philosophical Investigations (1953). He isn't speaking of "the early Wittgenstein, author of the briskly titled Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the 1921 text which established him as an international star when he was still quite young.

(By most accounts, Wittgenstein finished writing the Tractatus in 1918, the year he turned 29.)

If Horwich is right, it's the later Wittgenstein the academy has dispatched, not the early version. Meanwhile, concerning that lone text by the earlier Wittgenstein, we'll offer a possibly comical point:

When Professor Kenny wrote his 1973 book, Wittgenstein, it had been twenty years since the appearance of Philosophical Investigations. That was the later Wittgenstein's definitive text--but as he started his book, Kenny described the way Wittgenstein's views were being aired in philosophy departments worldwide.

Through a quote by Professor Ryle, Kenny even alluded to the comical way Wittgenstein's eccentric mannerisms were being widely aped by acolytes within the field. The later Wittgenstein was still very hot. Today, Horwich says that has all changed.

Today, we want to call your attention to a tiny, possibly comical paradox concerning the early Wittgenstein's famous book. We'll start with some of the eccentric conduct which always set Wittgenstein apart.

In the first chapter of his 1973 text, Kenny notes that the early Wittgenstein thought he had solved all philosophical problems when he published the Tractatus in 1921. This seems like a peculiar idea, but it seems fairly clear that that's what Wittgenstein thought.

"With perfect consistency, once he had completed the book he gave up philosophy," Kenny notes, echoing what Professor Von Wright had written in his 1958 Biographical Sketch.

(Von Wright: "The author of the Tractatus thought he had solved all philosophical problems. It was consistent with this idea that he should give up philosophy.")

Wittgenstein gave up philosophy. Kenny writes that, after leaving Cambridge, Wittgenstein gave away his (very) large inheritance and worked as a village schoolteacher for six years. After that, he "gave up schoolteaching to work for a while as a monastery gardener."

He then spent two years designing a house for his sister in Vienna. (Apparently, she hadn't given away her inheritance.) But uh-oh! Here's what happened next:
KENNY (page 9): During this period he was introduced to Moritz Schlick, Professor of Philosophy at the University [in Vienna] and future founder of the Vienna Circle. With him, and with Rudolf Carnap, Friedrich Waismann and Herbert Feigl, he began once again to discuss philosophy...

Wittgenstein had by now grown dissatisfied with some of the doctrines of the Tractatus, and in 1929 he returned to Cambridge to continue his philosophical work as a research student. He submitted the Tractatus–already internationally recognized as a classic–as a Ph.D. dissertation; and after a unique viva voce examination conducted by Russell and Moore he was awarded the degree.
As of 1929, the Tractatus was "already internationally recognized as a classic." This could perhaps be seen as odd because of something Kenny had already said about the book:
KENNY (page 4): The twenty thousand words of the Tractatus can be read in an afternoon, but few would claim to understand them thoroughly even after years of study. The book is not divided into chapters in the normal way, but consists of a series of numbered paragraphs, often containing no more than a single sentence. The two most famous are the first ("The world is all that is the case") and the last ("Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent"). Some of them have proved easier to set to music, or to illustrate in sculpture, than to paraphrase. The style of the paragraphs is concise and economical, devoid of decoration, sparing in examples. By comparing the text with the Notebooks and the Prototractatus we can see how Wittgenstein refined and refined his thought to the essential elements. The result is austerely beautiful, but uncommonly difficult to comprehend.
As of 1929, the book had already been recognized as a classic. But as of 1973, when Kenny wrote his book about Wittgenstein, the Tractatus was still "uncommonly difficult to comprehend."

Even in 1973, some parts of the Tractatus were still "easier to set to music...than to paraphrase," Kenny said. But so what? Forty-four years earlier, the world of professional philosophy had agreed on the greatness of the text. This might suggest the possibility that there's a tiny kernel of truth to the naughty things Horwich has said.

In fairness, we're proceeding from two characterizations by Professor Kenny. That said, Kenny goes on to say that "the central doctrine [the Tractatus] conveys is the famous picture theory of meaning"—a famous doctrine he proceeds to describe in a manner which takes us several leagues beyond the realm of complete total incoherence. Within the realm which Horwich describes, this is how the greats tend to roll.

(How incoherent is Kenny's account? For details, just click here. After that, just click this.)


What kind of establishment hails as a "classic" a text which no one can understand or paraphrase even some forty years later? Based upon the pair of portraits offered by Professor Kenny, a skeptic might suggest there's a hint of truth to the picture Professor Horwich painted in 2013, in which the world of professional philosophy is built upon "the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking"—and is willing to settle for "classic" texts it can neither paraphrase nor comprehend.

Is it true, what Horwich says? Have the bulk of professional philosophers come to regard the later Wittgenstein as a bit of a joke? Have they adopted this view because he wanted to throw their work away? Because he renounced his own earlier work, puzzling work the philosophy world had seen as a "classic" text?

Answers to these questions lurk in Rebecca Goldstein's 2005 book, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel. Justifiably, Goldstein mocks the Wittgenstein acolytes who began imitating his eccentric mannerism as early as the 1930s.

That said, Goldstein seems to adopt a lightly mocking tone toward Wittgenstein himself. As she does, she frequently buys into the puzzling types of work his later efforts tended to undermine.

That early work was built upon the efforts of Frege and Russell. But dear lord, we have a question:

What kind of "logic" were they constructing? Was there ever any good reason to build upon Frege and Russell?

We're telling this story with a sigh many years hence in the age of Trump. For thirty years or more, we've badly needed the help of logicians as our mainstream journalists have cavorted and played and created a reign of misstatement, confusion, inanity.

Our discourse has been sliding toward the sea, but here have all the logicians been? Out here in the public realm, we've badly needed the help of such figures. But they've been off in their own tiny worlds, discussing "the set of all sets" and the logic of 2 plus 2 magically equaling 4.

Where have all the logicians been as we've slid into the era of Trump? And when we consider the muddled work from which the later Wittgenstein finally departed, is it possible that our greatest logicians were never especially sharp?

Coming: "The set of all sets not members of themselves" and other peculiar concerns


  1. "Where have all the logicians been as we've slid into the era of Trump? "

    Donald The Super-Logical is the Greatest Logician evah, Bob.

  2. There is a difference between a text being "uncommonly difficult to understand" and saying that "no one can understand or paraphrase" it. Somerby takes Kenny's statement and exaggerates it for his own purposes -- to make philosophers sound stupid.

    Somerby also confuses the aping of Wittgenstein's eccentricity with approval of his writing. Kenny suggests that Wittgenstein left academia because he was finished with his major work, not because he was depressed and despaired of accomplishing his own goals. He reportedly left teaching because he hit his students when they didn't understand his teaching. He gave away his money to his siblings, not to strangers.
    But Wittgenstein's tragedies are Somerby's stick to beat academia with. His purpose is to make academics look foolish, not to talk about logic or about Wittgenstein's contribution to philosophy.

    And then he blames those academics for our current suffering under Trump, someone who was elected to office by a bunch of people who should have known better, who Somerby will never criticize. The idiots who actually put Trump into office will never be blamed by Somerby.

    What is wrong with Somerby?

  3. As with Gödel, so with Wittgenstein. Somerby uses Kenny’s description and paraphrase of the “early” Wittgenstein as a stand-in for Somerby actually examining the early Wittgenstein himself. It is like pretending to discuss Shakespeare by only discussing reviewers or critics of Shakespeare. Critic A says “Hamlet is about x”. Blogger uses critic A’s statement to wonder if or prove that Hamlet is about x. And there is Hamlet, sitting there unread by Blogger.

    Does Somerby understand the early Wittgenstein? If not, does that mean that no one understands it?

    And Somerby is inclined, by his own nature or prejudices, to reject the early Wittgenstein and approve the “later.” Well, then perhaps Somerby should have imitated Wittgenstein back at Harvard and left the field of philosophy, rather than majoring in a subject he obviously despises. At any rate, such a deep-seated anti-philosophy bias, whatever its origin, isn’t likely to lead one to conduct a fair discussion on the subject.

  4. I decided to see what Kung had said about Wittgenstein. He makes the early Wittgenstein sound a lot like the later Wittgenstein.

    The early book, he wrote "defended the thesis that only propositions of mathematics and logic, together with those of the empirical sciences, can be meaningful: propositions that go beyond these must be described a priori as senseless." (p. 93)

    According to the first work, then, the work of philosophers is nonsense. Nothing meaningful can be said about ethics or metaphysics or theology. Other than the branch of logic, all philosophy is meaningless.

    Rather than rejecting his earlier work, he may have just refined it. But that does not explain the complaint of Russell.

  5. “But that does not explain the complaint of Russell.”

    Which complaint of Russell? Apparently Russell accepted Wittgenstein’s dissertation.

    I myself think Wittgenstein was just a slow thinker. He was right the first time. If philosophy can be defined as figuring out how to maximize well-being for everyone, including the “non-sentient” inhabitants of this planet – seemingly missing from Wittgenstein’s work – then philosophy really is dead, unless it informs human solidarity, not just within the human realm, but the entire natural world.

    Philosophy ended with the advent of humanism:

    “(secular) Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality.”

    The only thing next to do is to figure out how to implement these ideas. And they won’t be philosophical, but political, if they’re ever implemented at all. Every time we take a step forward, capitalists and religionists take us two steps back.

    Philosophy will plod along, until it realizes that philosophy is unimportant, except to the extent that it informs us that there is nothing but us to decide our fate, as a species, and as caretakers of the planet we inhabit, for our own good.


    1. "(secular) Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance"

      And extremely pleased with itself, it sounds like. It's almost as if its primary purpose was virtue signaling...

  6. Which logician does Bob hope to see on MSNBC in place of Rachel?

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