...but also our daily logic: As noted earlier, Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations was published in 1953.
Wittgenstein had died of cancer in 1951, at age 62. But within the world of English language academic philosophy, he'd been a type of cult figure for roughly thirty years.
Upon publication, Philosophical Investigations became the definitive text of Wittgenstein's "later" period. But alas:
Sixty years after the book's publication, Professor Horwich said that "professional philosophers" had thrown the later Wittgenstein under the bus. (See the first report in this week's series.)
According to Horwich, professional philosophers had rejected the fellow who claimed that the bulk of their "life's work" was "confused and pointless"—was based on "linguistic illusion and muddled thinking" (we're quoting Horwich here). In part for that reason, muddled thinking and confused, pointless work may perhaps still be widespread in the world of academic philosophy, right to the present day.
Elsewhere, extremely smart astrophysicists are praised for texts in which they discuss the "fairyland" in which "you will find the number 1." That text appeared in 2006, 53 years after Philosophical Investigations was published. One year earlier, a professional philosopher—not an astrophysicist—had also offered this, within her own well-received general interest book:
GOLDSTEIN (pages 44-45): [Kurt Godel's] commitment to the objective existence of mathematical reality is the view known as conceptual, or mathematical, realism. It is also known as mathematical Platonism, in honor of the ancient Greek philosopher...The truths of mathematics are determined by the reality of mathematics? According to this high-end philosophy professor, that's what a Platonist holds!
Platonism is the view that the truths of mathematics are independent of any human activities...The truths of mathematics are determined, according to Platonism, by the reality of mathematics, by the nature of the real, though abstract, entities (numbers, sets, etc.) which make up that reality.
Meanwhile, could anyone ever make sense of the claim that Godel (or anyone else) was committed to "the objective existence of mathematical reality?" Or is that just another example of high-end mumbo-jumbo, part of the web of "linguistic illusion" Wittgenstein aimed to reveal as a "house of cards?"
We'll discuss Professor Goldstein's book in more detail later in our ongoing series of meta-reports. As a general matter, we'd say that, for better or worse, her well-received book seems to display the type of disregard for Wittgenstein's work which Horwich said was widespread within the academy.
According to Horwich, philosophy professors who wanted to muddle along in traditional ways threw Wittgenstein under the bus. As we noted in an earlier post, we marvel, when we read texts like the ones we've cited, at the thought that such writing was still being offered, and was even being hailed, more than fifty years after Philosophical Investigations appeared.
In fairness, Philosophical Investigations was, and remains, a highly obscure text. Just consider:
Its title could hardly have been less specific. On the whole, the title only tells us that we aren't reading a biology text.
Things get even less clear inside. Philosophical Investigations has no chapters. For that reason, there are no chapter titles to offer hints about what topics are being discussed. Routinely, it's hard to know what Wittgenstein's topic is, yet alone what's being asserted.
The book is very obscure. In a preface he wrote all the way back in 1945, Wittgenstein seemed to acknowledge as much.
"I should have liked to produce a good book," he wrote at the end of his gloomy overview. "That has not come about, but the time is part in which I could improve it."
(To peruse the whole Preface, click here.)
So said Wittgenstein, as he offered the world the seminal text which would be discarded.
Fifty-three years after that text appeared, major figures were writing abut the mystical fairyland in which you could find the number 1, along with Newton's laws of motion. Academic philosophers had perhaps returned to fairylands of their own.
When the public badly needed help with its floundering daily logic, our logicians never spoke. Wittgenstein had been thrown away. Our logicians muddled ahead in worlds very much all their own.
For today, we thought it might be worth returning to a somewhat earlier time—to the early Winter of 68, when the later Wittgenstein's seminal text was still just fifteen years old.
We were an undergraduate at the time, a junior in the Harvard philosophy department, the lair of the rational animal. At that time, and in that place, the later Wittgenstein was very, very hot.
We were about to take the undergraduate Wittgenstein course. The course would be taught by the late Rogers Albritton, the chairman of the department.
We didn't know Professor Albritton, though we did have a mutual friend, even at that time. We only spoke with him once, in a highly flattering, slightly puzzling conversation which occurred at his request at the end of that course.
Rogers Albritton was never anything but exceptionally nice to us. That said, we're going to report a humorous remark made by our mutual friend before that course got started.
First, though, let's establish a brief overview of Albritton's long and distinguished career.
As far as we know, Rogers Albritton was a superlative person. Beyond that, he had a long and distinguished, and very unusual, academic career.
He was chairman of the Harvard philosophy department from 1963 until 1970. He spent the rest of his career at UCLA, where he served as department chair from 1972 until 1981.
According to the leading authority on such matters, Albritton was "considered by his peers to be one of the finest philosophical minds of the 20th century." We know of no reason to dispute that assessment, though we also think that the philosophy establishment of that century badly failed to serve the public, and continues to function in broadly "illusory" ways.
Professor Albritton died in 2002 at the age of 78. His obituary in the Los Angeles Times spoke to the high regard in which he was held by his peers.
We offer one word of warning. In our view, the article may have presented the world of philosophy as it can be imagined, or novelized, by other ranking elites. It may offer a somewhat "Pleasantville" rendering of a less simple world.
That said, the obituary was highly flattering. Headline included, we offer some relevant excerpts:
WOO (6/3/02): Rogers Albritton, 78; Philosopher Known for His BrillianceAlbritton almost never published. According to a later New York Times obituary, "he published only four papers over his 36-year career."
Rogers Albritton, a charismatic philosopher who rarely published his work yet dazzled colleagues of diverse persuasions with his lucid analyses of fundamental human dilemmas, has died. He was 78.
Called a philosopher’s philosopher, he was considered one of the most formidable intellects in his field. His legendary stature, however, stemmed not from his writings, but from what philosopher and film critic Stanley Cavell called “the charisma of ... conversation alone.”
Famously nondoctrinaire, even though he was an expert on the Greeks and Ludwig Wittgenstein, he was averse to ever declaring that a problem was solved. He could argue that a person had no way of knowing whether he was asleep or awake, then conclude the opposite after more hours of laughter-filled discussion.
“He was a kind of philosophical conscience,” said philosopher Thomas Nagel, an Albritton student who now teaches at New York University. “Almost all of the rest of us ... fall back on the stuff we think we’ve established.... Rogers was a reminder that you can never dispense with the obligation to actively think whatever you’re thinking and be prepared to think it through from the beginning.”
“Back about 25 years ago ... Peter Strawson [an eminent British philosopher] said Rogers was one of the 10 best philosophers in the world,” said Hilary Putnam, a past president of the American Philosophical Assn. and emeritus professor at Harvard. “Many would agree, including myself. He was quite unique.
“He gave me the feeling for what Socrates must have been like. Socrates didn’t publish much either. Like Socrates, he had a lot of impact on lots of philosophers.”
That seems like an astonishing fact. It also seems that Albritton was very highly regarded.
Was he really "one of the ten best philosophers in the world?" We don't know how to answer that question, except to say that, whoever the top ten may be judged to be, you've never heard of any of them. We would say that this is the case for deeply unfortunate reasons.
At any rate, we were poised, having just turned twenty, to take the Wittgenstein course from Albritton, our department's chair. At that point, our friend, Jack WITHHELD, told us what would happen as the course proceeded.
Who was Jack WITHHELD, you ask. You're asking a sensible question. He'd graduated from Harvard in 1960, then had gone to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar.
He'd returned to Harvard as a graduate student. For reasons he couldn't seem to explain, he couldn't seem to get his doctoral dissertation done.
During our freshman year (1965-66), he'd been our teaching assistant in a massive cattle-call course in which Professors Albritton and Cavell surveyed the sweep of western philosophy.
At the end of that year, WITHHELD became a good friend. Two years later, he told us how the Wittgenstein course would go.
What he said wasn't meant as derision. Nor was it meant as snark, a literary form which hadn't yet been invented.
WITHHELD had been in the philosophy department for roughly ten years by this time. He regarded Professor Albritton as a personal friend. What he said wasn't meant as derision.
That said, WITHHELD had a superb sense of the humor and the irony found throughout the world. Chuckling, as he typically did, he told us what would happen:
It's the same with Rogers every year, he told us (or words to that effect). He always starts out with the idea that this is going to be the year when he'll figure Wittgenstein out.
(In retrospect, this aligns with the description of Albritton as someone who always thought on his feet, even as a lecture or a course was proceeding.)
He always starts out with the idea that this is the year when he's going to figure it out, WITHHELD said, chuckling as he did. He'll be full of energy for the first few lectures, then the whole thing will slowly come undone as the semester proceeds.
We can't recall WITHHELD's exact words, but we very clearly recall the gist of what he said. He didn't mean what he said as derision. He meant it as a statement that the world is an amusing place, and that no one understood Wittgenstein yet, at that point in time.
At any rate, the semester proceeded along much as WITHHELD had predicted. We had a long conversation with Albritton at the end of the course.
The next year, we took the graduate seminar in Wittgenstein under Professor Cavell. We mainly recall being surprised by the fact that the graduate students didn't seem all that sharp.
At that time, we didn't realize that fifteen years isn't a very long time. We didn't understand what we understand now; we didn't understand that Philosophical Investigations is a deeply obscure text—that Wittgenstein wasn't being falsely modest when he said that he hadn't been able to "produce a good book."
That said, Wittgenstein's difficult text is built around a fascinating analysis of the way human reasoning frequently goes astray.
It does suggest that much of the work of traditional philosophy concerns itself, in Horwich's words, with "mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking." Setting that awkwardness aside, the book offers a fairly simple-minded way to untangle the endless webs of confusion which characterize our wider pubic discussions.
According to Horwich, our modern logicians have thrown this work away. They've also stood silent as an array of jugglers and clowns have made a joke of our broader public discourse over the past many years.
As the jugglers and clowns have gamboled and played, our professors have sat on the sidelines. In fairness, if their own work is built on "houses of cards," why would anyone expect them to notice, or comment on, the houses of cards and the muddled thinking which prevails all over cable and all through our major newspapers as our floundering nation slides toward the sea?
"Give us this day our daily bread." It may be the world's most basic prayer. But in a complex global world, we need daily logic too.
As matters currently stand, our professors aren't able to help us.
Fifteen years after publication, our professors hadn't yet puzzled out Wittgenstein's text. Fifty years after the text appeared, they'd allegedly thrown the book away, Meanwhile, within the wider national discourse, mugging and clowning had replaced daily logic.
Eventually, this unchallenged mugging and clowning gave us our Donald J. Trump. We're guessing that some 9-year-old kid may read the weeks of work which follow and will know, in future years, how to restore our daily logic along with our daily bread.
Next week: 7 + 5 = 12