Wittgenstein tackles the giants: On Thursday morning, the New York Times reported a tulip craze.
Michael Powell filed the report from somewhere near Oran. As we noted yesterday, he had spotted rather clear evidence of the widespread outbreak:
POWELL (7/16/20): The linguists’ letter also accused the professor of engaging in racial dog whistles when he used the words “urban crime” and “urban violence” in other tweets.The loopy linguists wanted Professor Pinker stripped of academic honors. You see, Pinker had used the term "urban crime" in a tweet on some occasion. (Over the years, the professor's offending tweets numbered six in all.)
As we noted yesterday, you simply can't get dumber than that. This does look like a tulip craze, and the Times was correct to report it.
Indications of this craze have been widespread in recent years. That said, Powell reported that "more than 550 academics" have now been seized by the virus.
Even before this report appeared, we'd been thinking about the later Wittgenstein last week. Here's why:
Understandably, we the people are inclined to assume that top professors are much sharper than the average bear—that their sweeping assessments are likely to be correct.
Understandably, but very mistakenly, we the people may tend to make the same assumption about our leading journalists.
Many went to the finest schools. They may work for the news orgs which boast the finest branding; some may be sold as Rhodes scholars.
When they stage one of their stampedes, we may be inclined to assume that the assessments on which the stampede is based are, in fact, well-founded. It's understandable that we the people may be inclined to think this way, but that doesn't mean that it's right.
In truth, how sharp are our leading journalists, not to mention our leading linguists? Are they models of cool, clear rational thought? Should their assessments be trusted?
As our journalists spread signs of a craze last week, we pondered this presumption. Even before Powell reported the tulip craze among those professors, we thought of the later Wittgenstein's critique—his critique of deeply flawed, deeply impure, upper-end human reason.
Wittgenstein's critique was loosed on the world in his posthumous 1953 book, Philosophical Investigations. As of the late 1960s, it may have been the hottest text in this nation's philosophy departments.
We took Professor Albritton's course on that text in the spring semester of the street-fighting year of 1968. The following year, as college seniors, we took Professor Cavell's graduate seminar on the same deeply jumbled book.
The text is extremely obscure. As Wittgenstein said in a mournful preface written in 1945, Philosophical Investigations can't really be called a "good" book:
I should have liked to produce a good book. This has not come about, but the time is past in which I could improve it.The text is extremely hard to parse, but it does deliver a bombshell. As Professor Horwich explained in 2013 in a blog post for the New York Times, the book diagnoses a type of flawed thinking which has characterized the work of the western world's allegedly greatest minds:
HORWICH (3/3/13): [T]he traditional view...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...Isn’t that why we are so fascinated by it?Say what? According to Horwich, the later Wittgenstein said the western world's greatest historical thinkers have trafficked in "linguistic illusion and muddled thinking?"
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. So it should be entirely unsurprising that the “philosophy” aiming to solve them has been marked by perennial controversy and lack of decisive progress—by an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues.
This has led them to chase down rabbit-holes in the pursuit of "pseudo-problems?"
As if that isn't bad enough, Horwich then quotes Wittgenstein saying this (Philosophical Investigations, passage 118):
Where does our investigation get its importance from, since it seems only to destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great and important?...What we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stand.Was Wittgenstein allowed to say that? According to Horwich, the answer is in, and the answer turns out to be no.
According to Horwich, the academy has thrown the later Wittgenstein under the bus, for fairly obvious reasons:
According to Horwich, Wittgenstein claimed that philosophy's exalted work "is nothing but houses of cards." It's "confused work," built on the sands of muddled thinking and linguistic illusion.
Did Wittgenstein actually say such things? If we might borrow from Jack McNees, "In a sense, but not as such!"
Wittgenstein almost never made straightforward claims, but Horwich's aim is true. Within the maddening jumble of Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein describes a type of faulty reasoning which is widely observed within the realms of highest western world thought.
Back in the 1930s, Wittgenstein had tended to call it "grammatical confusion." Briefly, we'll explain the nature of this bungled reasoning, noting that it may have been Professor Cavell who stressed the usefulness of the terms "surface grammar" and "depth grammar," terms which make a fleeting appearance in the later Wittgenstein's book.
With how much clarity have our greatest thinkers tended to reason? Consider a trio of statements which may be said to share a surface grammar:
A trio of look-alike statements:At a glance—on the surface—those statements may look alike. However:
Statement 1: It's now 3 o'clock in Los Angeles.
Statement 2: It's now 3 o'clock in Moscow.
Statement 3: It's now 3 o'clock on the moon.
We can all imagine various contexts in which statements like Statements 1 and 2 make perfect everyday sense.
As a general matter, everyone knows what people mean when they tell us what time it is in some distant city. Such statements may be right or may be wrong, but we understand what's being said.
Statement 3 isn't like that! It may share a surface appearance with Statements 1 and 2, but it's hard to think of a context in which a statement like that would actually seem to make sense.
Given human life as it's currently lived, Statement 3 won't ever be "right." Nor can it quite be said to be "wrong" in the way Statements 1 and 2 can be.
Given human life as it's currently lived, Statement 3 simply doesn't make sense. Absent further explanation from the person making the statement, others will have no way of knowing what he could be talking about.
That said, here's the kicker:
According to the later Wittgenstein, "philosophy" is larded with statements like Statement 3. But due to our badly flawed powers of insight, these statements are (mistakenly) taken to be fully coherent, like Statements 1 and 2!
These philosophical statements will share a "surface grammar" with other statements which are fully coherent. More simply put, these statements will sound like other statements which do make perfect sense.
But alas! These statements aren't really coherent at all, any more than Statement 3 is.
According to the later Wittgenstein, our greatest thinkers have spent centuries trafficking in claims about what time it is on the moon! College freshmen have always suspected as much, but the later Wittgenstein (almost) came right out and said it!
To the youngsters out there, we'll say this, with the help of our own youthful analysts:
Accept this premise, and apply it to the "complex" material you may find within our world's "great books!" If you find yourself puzzled by a "complex" statement, analyze that complex statement in the following way:
Think of various fully coherent statements which, at least on the surface, resemble the puzzling statement. Then, ask yourself how the complex statement differs, beneath the surface, from the coherent statements which it seems to resemble.
If you're diligent, you may make a discovery. You may find that much of the higher thinking to which you're exposed may start to seem like a claim about what time it is on the moon.
In the type of meditation engineered by the later Wittgenstein, the greatest thinkers are challenged to explain the meaning of their complex statements. In the end, they're forced to admit that they can't explain what their complex statement was supposed to mean.
In Philosophical Investigations, the later Wittgenstein directs this type of meditation at the widely-lauded statements of the early Wittgenstein. What was I thinking, what did I mean, the later Wittgenstein now asks.
The later Wittgenstein can be said to have said that human reasoning on the highest level has always been bedeviled by this type of linguistic illusion. We humans are routinely fooled by optical illusions, and by these linguistic illusions as well.
By inference, he was saying that the world of our allegedly greatest thinkers had been nothing but houses of cards. We'd thought of this, in the past week, even before the linguists lapsed into their tulip craze. The moral to the story is clear:
You shouldn't assume that our upper-end journalists are thinking and reporting clearly. That's even true if they work for the New York Times and went to the finest schools, possibly getting good grades.
Meanwhile, why haven't our loftiest academics stepped forward to challenge the horrible work of our leading journalists?
Try to remember what Wittgenstein said about the badly flawed skills of our greatest thinkers. If our greatest thinkers floundered that way, should we be surprised if other scholars fail to protect and serve?
Next week: Our endless embellished tales