WITTGENSTEIN IN THE WORLD: As Bertrand Russell sat at his table...


...he couldn't quite name its color: When the sixth most important book arrived, we greedily fell upon it. 

As you may recall from yesterday's session, the start of that book—Word and Object—finds its author, Professor Quine, sitting at a "familiar desk."

The desk was manifesting its presence. As we noted yesterday, the sixth most important philosophy book of the 20th century begins in the manner shown:

This familiar desk manifests its presence by resisting my pressures and by deflecting light to my eyes. Physical things generally, however remote, become known to us only through the effects which they help to induce at our sensory surfaces. Yet our common-sense talk of physical things goes forward without benefit of explanations in more intimately sensory terms. Entification begins at arm's length; the points of condensation in the primordial conceptual scheme are things glimpsed, not glimpses... 

In the opening sentence of Word and Object, Professor Quine was at his familiar desk, discussing entification. 

The book was published in 1960. Forty-four years earlier, Bertrand Russell had been positioned in a similar way at the start of an earlier book.

That book was called The Problems of Philosophy. We've occasionally been moved to ask who such "problems" are problems for, but back in 1916, they were problems for Russell, an extraordinarily high-IQ person who was also deeply involved in the affairs of the world.

In 2009, Professor Quine was named in a survey as the fifth most important philosopher of the previous two hundred years. Russell, a bit of a polymath, was listed as third most important.

At the start of his earlier book, Russell seems to be sitting at a table rather than at a desk. But, before we learn that fact, he teases us with this, the start of his second paragraph:

In daily life, we assume as certain many things which, on a closer scrutiny, are found to be so full of apparent contradictions that only a great amount of thought enables us to know what it is that we really may believe. In the search for certainty, it is natural to begin with our present experiences, and in some sense, no doubt, knowledge is to be derived from them. But any statement as to what it is that our immediate experiences make us know is very likely to be wrong...

We're "very likely to be wrong," Russell seems to say, even about our own immediate experiences! Only after a great amount of thought should we feel entitled to say that we actually know the things we're inclined to believe. 

In some sense, something like that could even be true. But then, as this paragraph continues, we learn where Russell is as he makes these claims.

Rather, we learn where it seems to him that he is:

...It seems to me that I am now sitting in a chair, at a table of a certain shape, on which I see sheets of paper with writing or print. By turning my head I see out of the window buildings and clouds and the sun. I believe that the sun is about ninety-three million miles from the earth; that it is a hot globe many times bigger than the earth; that, owing to the earth's rotation, it rises every morning, and will continue to do so for an indefinite time in the future. I believe that, if any other normal person comes into my room, he will see the same chairs and tables and books and papers as I see, and that the table which I see is the same as the table which I feel pressing against my arm. All this seems to be so evident as to be hardly worth stating, except in answer to a man who doubts whether I know anything. Yet all this may be reasonably doubted, and all of it requires much careful discussion before we can be sure that we have stated it in a form that is wholly true.

We've now seen the whole of Russell's second paragraph. The specific example we've been asked to consider is this:

As Russell writes this early paragraph, it seems to him that he's sitting in a chair, positioned in front of a table. It seems to him that it's a table of a certain shape. 

He even believes that other people will see that same table and that same chair should they venture into his room. Presumably, this assumes that Russell is actually in his room.

It seems to Russell that he's in that chair and is perched in front of that table. But based upon this paragraph, much careful discussion will be required before he or we can be sure that he has stated these claims "in a form that is wholly true." It almost seems that statements like these are "very likely to be wrong!"

Is there anything "wrong" with this sort of thing? Not necessarily, no. In fairness, though, we have to say this:

By the time we get to paragraph 3, the third most important philosopher of the past two hundred years may almost seem to be pushing things, if only a tiny bit. Returning to the aforementioned table, Russell offers this about the table's color:

To return to the table. It is evident from what we have found, that there is no colour which pre-eminently appears to be the colour of the table, or even of any one particular part of the table—it appears to be of different colours from different points of view, and there is no reason for regarding some of these as more really its colour than others. And we know that even from a given point of view the colour will seem different by artificial light, or to a colour-blind man, or to a man wearing blue spectacles, while in the dark there will be no colour at all, though to touch and hearing the table will be unchanged. This colour is not something which is inherent in the table, but something depending upon the table and the spectator and the way the light falls on the table. When, in ordinary life, we speak of the colour of the table, we only mean the sort of colour which it will seem to have to a normal spectator from an ordinary point of view under usual conditions of light. But the other colours which appear under other conditions have just as good a right to be considered real; and therefore, to avoid favouritism, we are compelled to deny that, in itself, the table has any one particular colour.

To peruse the whole of Russell's book, you can just click here

Returning to the table. In the dark, we can't see it at all. So how can we say that it's brown? 

Also, the table might even appear to be red if we see it under a bright red light—and some people are "color-blind." To avoid favoritism, we're thereby compelled to deny that, "in itself," the table has any one particular color at all!

How can we say a table is brown when it can't be seen in the dark? Russell, the third most important philosopher of the past two hundred years, opened this book as shown. Forty-four years later, the fifth most important philosopher opened his most influential book in a similar manner.

Is there anything "wrong" with such musings? We're willing to tell you no. Meanwhile, though, children are drowning in the sea, or are being trampled to death on their way to an airport in Kabul. Many events will be taking place as we instruct teen-aged college students to reason, or to consider reasoning. in the somewhat peculiar way shown.

By any measure, Bertrand Russell was a brilliant scholar. He was also a devoted participant in the affairs of the wider world. Tomorrow, we'll offer an example—an example drawn from the last few weeks in Albert Einstein's remarkable life.

Russell was a brilliant scholar. But all through the last century, various toffs were arrayed at various tables and desks, comfortably seated in chairs at the club,  making claims as silly as those which appear at the start of Russell's book.

We refer to claims in which a table has no specific color because it can't be seen in the dark, or in which a quarter isn't really round because it looks a different way if you hold it on an angle. There's nothing "wrong" with musings like these—unless we think about the questions which go unexplored as these explorations take place.

That said:

Throughout the bulk of the twentieth century, scholars sat in comfortable chairs at the club and engaged in elaborate musings—elaborate musings which might seem somewhat odd. In 1916, Russell sat in front of a table whose color he couldn't necessarily state. 

Forty-four years later, Quine sat at a familiar desk and was soon discussing "sense data," whatever they are or were.

Viewed from one angle, this is the world Wittgenstein entered in October 1911, when he journeyed from his native Vienna to Trinity College in Cambridge and presented himself, unannounced, at Russell's rooms. 

We'd say there was, and still is, fault to be found with the world Wittgenstein entered. For today, we'll make our statement in the form of a question:

Have the logicians fled our world? Borrowing from Mariel Hemingway, how often are their concerns ours?

Tomorrow: Sitting at a familiar desk, Quine's thoughts turned to "sense data"


  1. "Have the logicians fled our world?"

    May we rephrase the question, dear Bob: have you liberals fled the world of logic? of logic and common sense?

    We're sorry to say, the answer is resounding yes. You have, dear Bob. Long time ago.

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  2. This was amusing... I for one am enjoying this series.

    Now let's get on with the hollow, repetitive innuendo and straw men from the illustrious daily commentators.

    1. I’m enjoying it and learning from it. Nice to see Somerby enjoying himself.

    2. What exactly are you learning? Just out of curiosity.

      You think Somerby is enjoying himself, but he sounds like someone in pain to me.

    3. Groundhog Day- The Sequel

      Every day Anonymices yet again learn that Somerby is anti-Semitic, misogynistic, and hates black.

      Every day they learn that he is not a liberal.

    4. It would be impossible not to.

    5. And every day, psuedonymouse Cecelia thinks that Somerby is some sort of genius and spends her (doubtless valueless) time defending him.

    6. Somerby seems to hate both his mother and Harvard because she forces him to attend there. He seems to have been determined to take the most useless (in his eyes) major he could find, to spite her, and he obviously has no respect for what he was offered there or for his professors, despite their eminence. He does seem to have enjoyed his social relationship with Al Gore, but that seems unrequited. Now he has only his pear tree for solace.

      None of this has anything to do with philosophy or politics.

  3. ‘children are drowning in the sea, or are being trampled to death on their way to an airport in Kabul. Many events will be taking place as we instruct teen-aged college students to reason, or to consider reasoning. in the somewhat peculiar way shown.’

    It’s terrible that students who choose to study philosophy are being taught philosophy by philosophy professors.

  4. ‘Russell was a brilliant scholar. But all through the last century, various toffs were arrayed at various tables and desks, comfortably seated in chairs at the club,  making claims as silly as those which appear at the start of Russell's book.’

    Anyone who refers to Russell as an effete snob or ‘toff’ sitting around engaged in decadent academic puffery knows absolutely nothing about Russell.

  5. ‘Many events will be taking place as we instruct teen-aged college students to reason’

    Somerby’s radical approach to teaching students to reason, apparently learned from the master Wittgenstein:

    ‘Those students aren’t my children. I will always defer to the parents, and I believe we should continue to teach the lies that we all used to agree with.’

  6. Russell's discussion of color appearances of the table is consistent with the psychophysics of the perception of color. Color is not an inherent property of any object but the result of cognitive processing of sensory input as light stimulates photoreceptors in the eyeball and sends signals to the brain via the optic nerves. As a result of that higher order processing in the visual cortex and adjacent areas in the temporal lobes, we identify objects, detect features such as texture and color, and form the concept of color constancy, which means that a sweater that looks black in the closet without light and red under bright sunlight but darker red in shadow is thought of as a permanent and fixed shade of red no matter what the viewing conditions. Those who have achromaticity (inability to see color) or color-blindness (inability to see certain colors) nevertheless learn the names of colors and color concepts (such as that green and red are opposites) from everyday language usage, despite being unable to see such colors themselves.

    This is reality. In real life, people produce and sell red sweaters to people seeking them. And if Somerby thinks the color red has no significance, what would the Stars and Stripes be without it? Or how would a stop light work as a signal? Color has its purposes in our real world.

    Understanding how people perceive color has both practical and theoretical significance. If Somerby is trying to argue that only applied science matters and theory doesn't, then he is wrong because application depends on theoretical advances and the better we understand how mind and body work, the more we can do to make our lives better, even for those children trying to leave Kabul. Presumably, they wouldn't want to be attempting to board the wrong plane, and color serves to identify things in our culture. Even Somerby should understand that you don't wear red when rooting for the Bears at a Stanford-Cal football game.

    Quine conceived of philosophy as related to science and his focus was on constructing sound theories. That has real world consequence because science is about discovering the properties of the real world. Logic, of course, is applied by computer and cognitive scientists, mathematicians, and perhaps an occasional lawyer. It has plenty of applications. But the job of a professor is to develop new knowledge and teach students. That is the application of their expertise. As I noted a few days ago, one expanding application of a philosophy degree (typically an M.A.) is bioethics. Hospitals hire trained bioethicists to make decisions about difficult cases involving competing needs or interests. This is most relevant today in deciding which covid patients receive scarce resources in today's ICUs, which means who lives and who dies in those parts of our country where people are waiting in emergency rooms for ICU beds which are insufficient to meet needs during this surge.

    What are the ethics of declaring that dying children in Europe are more important than understanding how the visual system works with the brain to produce color constancy?

    Somerby sets a poor example for students when he mocks the things he does not understand. This is anti-intellectualism at its worst. And that is a hallmark of Trump's party, led by a man with no curiosity, an inability to read, and an unwillingness to learn anything about our world.

    Epistomology is the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. That is what Russell was discussing -- how we know for sure that what we believe is real. It is more important today, in a time of disinformation, than it has ever been. Why would Somerby discourage college students from pursuing this important work? I cannot imagine that he was ever much of a teacher with this attitude toward knowledge -- that only what can be directly applied in every day life matters. What a waste of space he must have been in his classrooms.

  7. Somerby does say that the color blind are less important than drowning children. I'd like to know how he came to that judgment. It may be that he is an ableist (someone prejudiced against those with disabilities).

  8. Some interesting stats on who has been vaccinated and who has not:


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