The start of a meta-discussion: And so it begins—our award-winning examination of the problems infesting human reason, such as it is.
Over the past twenty years, we've sometimes thought that we'd like to attempt a page-by-page reading of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations. In the fall of 1965, when we entered the lair of the rational animal—the Harvard philosophy department—it was the hottest text of them all.
We were 17 at the time, and a college freshman. We started with a young professor's introductory course—Phil 3, Problems in Philosophy—a course which convinced most of us freshmen to major in something else.
After a year in the History and Literature department, we realized that we didn't care about history or about literature. On the basis of this insight, we decided to double back and major in philosophy after all.
As a junior, we took the undergraduate Wittgenstein course. It was taught by department chair, the later Rogers Albritton. As a senior, we took the graduate seminar in Wittgenstein, taught by the late Stanley Cavell.
After graduating, we moved to Baltimore, where we taught fifth grade in the Baltimore City Schools. More than forty years after graduation, we encountered this short essay by Paul Horwich, a professor of philosophy at NYU.
The short essay had appeared in a New York Times web site in 2013. We stumbled upon it several years later, when it was reprinted in a book.
In his essay, Professor Horwich advanced a claim we'd wondered about for decades. Headline included, he started his essay like this:
HORWICH (3/3/13): Was Wittgenstein Right?For decades, it had been our impression that Wittgenstein had been severely downgraded within the academy. A peculiar thought had popped into our heads—the possibility that Wittgenstein had been cast aside because, if you follow his argument to its logical conclusion, he was saying that most of the traditional philosophy canon was in fact a species of nonsense, a product of "grammatical confusion."
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’être.
Had Wittgenstein been cast aside for this reason? Had he been cast side because, if you believe the conclusions which lurk inside his (admittedly obscure) later work, you're forced to see that professors should be rejecting the bulk of the material they had traditionally taught?
In late 1999, we spent a few evenings with a friend from undergraduate days who was now a professor of literature at a major university. We asked her if Wittgenstein had been cast aside for this reason—because his work implies that the bulk of the traditional canon was a form of nonsense.
She said she didn't know. Fourteen years later, along came Horwich, saying our somewhat whimsical suspicion had actually been correct:
HORWICH (continuing directly): 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."Who likes to be told that his or her life’s work is confused and pointless?" Presumably, no one does!
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....Therefore traditional philosophical theorizing must give way to a painstaking identification of its tempting but misguided presuppositions and an understanding of how we ever came to regard them as legitimate. But in that case, he asks, “[w]here does [our] investigation get its importance from, since it seems only to destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great and important? (As it were all the buildings, leaving behind only bits of stone and rubble)”—and answers that “(w)hat we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stand.”
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, this is why the later Wittgenstein's work had been discarded, thrown under the bus. He told the academy that their work was the product of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking. The academy told him where to place it.
Thus spake Horwich, answering our somewhat whimsical question quite a few years later. Wittgenstein had been discarded, Horwich said, because he'd said that the ordinary stuff of western philosophy was, at its heart, a sprawling neighborhood featuring only "houses of cards."
Needless to say, Professor Horwich saying it doesn't make it so! But our new exploration will start here, with the assumption that there is a powerful clarity in the work of the later Wittgenstein which has largely been discarded.
Does this have anything to do with our previous topic, the haplessness and the poverty of modern journalistic performance? Well actually, yes it does.
Our society has reached its current state after decades of high-end journalistic clowning. Our journalists have gamboled and played. As they have, our professors, especially our logicians, have stared off into the air.
The disinterest of the professoriate has enabled the haplessness of the press corps. Eventually, that haplessness gave us Donald J. Trump, and now it gives us our plague.
When the plague struck London in 1665, the young Newton fled to "a small cabin" in the countryside, "of clay and wattles made." Or that may have been Yeats! We're not entirely sure.
At any rate, Newton retreated to Woolsthorpe Manor, described as the family estate. During his two-year sojourn in the countryside, he began inventing calculus as part of his so-called "miracle year.". Later, he spent a fair amount of time trying to turn lead into gold.
Now, as our own society faces its plague, we plan to follow Newton down these time-honored paths. In our main post each day, we'll be exploring the topics we first encountered when we entered the lair of the rational animal in 1965.
Eventually, this will let us describe the analytical tools we should have drawn from the admittedly jumbled work of the later Wittgenstein. Or at least, so it says here.
That's what we'll do in the mornings. Ideally, some kid who's nine years old today will put this material to good use in the future, assuming a future exists.
In the mornings, we'll be examining the big meta issues. In the afternoons, we'll look at examples of human reasoning as seen in our press corps today.
What can be taken from Philosophical Investigations, the later Wittgenstein's seminal text? That's our ultimate topic.
Some 9-year-old kid, at some future date, will apply the material we develop. If our society is still functioning, the applications that kid provides may rescue us from a world in which we encounter the relentless inanity which now dominates our national discourse through the work of our under-skilled, massively scripted press.
According to Horwich, the professional philosophers kicked Wittgenstein to the curb. It seems to us they shouldn't have done that. Over the course of the next many weeks, we hope to show you why.
Tomorrow: Who is Mario Livio? (Key point—he's very smart.)