Wittgenstein's work offers context: These linguistics professors today!
That's what one of the analysts said after reading Michael Powell's lengthy report in Thursday's New York Times.
Powell's report reads like an Onion parody, but the events it describes have apparently actually happened in the real world—"out among them English," to borrow the final line of the 1985 film, Witness. Online, Powell's stranger-than-fiction report appears beneath this headline:
How a Famous Harvard Professor Became a Target Over His TweetsAccording to Powell, the famous Harvard professor in question has been targeted by more than 550 linguists. Powell's report captures the lunacy of the times, in a way which could be quite instructive..
These linguistics professors today! Beneath that headline about those tweets, Powell's report starts like this:
POWELL (7/16/20): Steven Pinker occupies a role that is rare in American life: the celebrity intellectual. The Harvard professor pops up on outlets from PBS to the Joe Rogan podcast, translating dense subjects into accessible ideas with enthusiasm. Bill Gates called his most recent book “my new favorite book of all time.”Is there life after being dropped as a “distinguished fellow” of the Linguistic Society? More than 550 academics are hoping that the arch-racist Pinker will be forced to find out.
So when more than 550 academics recently signed a letter seeking to remove him from the list of “distinguished fellows” of the Linguistic Society of America, it drew attention to their provocative charge: that Professor Pinker minimizes racial injustices and drowns out the voices of those who suffer sexist and racist indignities.
Linguists are frequently said to be cunning, but this collection of same may not be super-sharp. As Powell continued, he may have rolled his eyes a bit at the scholars' list of charges:
"[T]he letter was striking for another reason," Powell wrote. "It took aim not at Professor Pinker’s scholarly work but at six of his tweets dating back to 2014, and at a two-word phrase he used in a 2011 book about a centuries-long decline in violence."
We'll recommend that you read the full report. But what was the offending "two-word phrase" to which Powell refers?
That isn't entirely clear from Powell's report> But concerning Pinker's six (6) tweets, more than 550 linguists are also upset about this:
POWELL: 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 linguists are exercised because Pinker used the term "urban crime" in a tweet! Truly, you can't get dumber than this. It isn't humanly possible.
A tangle of similar strands of linguini clogs the professors' complaint. Pitiful though their effort may be, it invites us to examine a general notion which surrounds our discourse with a haze which makes clear vision impossible.
That general notion is this:
Can more than 550 linguists be wrong? Many will find that hard to believe. After all, they're professors!
It's natural to have respect for academic authority. It's natural to assume that professors at leading universities are actually sharper than the average bear.
A similar assumption may affect our assessments of our upper-end press corps. After all, t he major journalists in question work for our most famous news orgs. Many went to the finest schools and they've been on television!
The branding of these news orgs and schools gives these journalists and pundits a certain authority. It's natural for readers to assume that their viewpoints, and their front-page "stories," just can't be crazily wrong.
Presuppositions of this type lead us to swallow the things we get told. Our professors and journalists just can't be crazily wrong!
It's natural to react that way. But that's a faulty assumption.
We've decided to stop our rumination right here, with a follow-up report on the morrow. That report will concern the work of the later Wittgenstein.
Wittgenstein's later work ruled the day in the philosophy departments of the 1960s. Since then, it has been cast aside by the "professional philosophers" we're inclined to trust, or so said Professor Horwich back in 2013.
(For ourselves, we'd been inquirjng about that possibility at least since 1999.)
According to Howwich, his colleagues cast Wittgenstein's later work aside because it blows the whistle on centuries of their own bungled work. According to Horwich, Wittgenstein said that the western world's alleged greatest thinkers had been persistently muddled, a version of being wrong.
Our greatest thinkers had been muddled, confused? Could any such claim be correct?
We thought of the later Wittgenstein's work when we read Powell's report about the loopy linguists. For today, let's get clear on what these linguists have said:
Professor Pinker once used the term "urban crime in a tweet. On that basis, more than 550 linguists want him stripped of high honors!
You simply can't get dumber than that; it isn't humanly possible. On the bright side, this lunacy lets us examine some basic assumptions.
Can professors and journalists be crazily wrong, even when they propound as a group?
We're going to say that they can be and frequently are! Tomorrow, we'll race through Wittgenstein's claim that our greatest philosophers have pretty much been wrong all the time.
As we do so, we'll be trying to break a spell. "A picture held us captive," Wittgenstein wrote, and if we can say this without being offensive, being held captive is wrong.
Tomorrow: Instinctive pathway to error