WITTGENSTEIN IN THE WORLD: "Even the best" were still at Cambridge...


...during the street-fighting '60s: When our near-neighbor Thoreau went into the woods, he found himself part of a vast interactive congress of sympathy. 

"Sympathy with the fluttering alder and poplar leaves almost takes away my breath," he claimed at one point in the famous book he produced. 

As presented, that was a sympathy with, rather than a sympathy for. But whatever he may have meant by the term, the sympathy to which he referred seemed to move in two directions:

"Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me," he wrote in that same chapter, Solitude. But he also asked this: 

"Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?" 

He also offered the following view, speaking of "the indescribable innocence and beneficence of Nature,—of sun and wind and rain, of summer and winter:"

"Such sympathy have they ever with our race, that all Nature would be affected, and the sun’s brightness fade, and the winds would sigh humanely, and the clouds rain tears, and the woods shed their leaves and put on mourning in midsummer, if any man should ever for a just cause grieve."

That was his measure of the sympathy the sun and wind and the rain had with our (human) race.

In the presence of such sympathy, the seer said he never felt lonely. Eventually, he decided to take a type of sidelong shot at "Cambridge College," fair Harvard:

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men [sic] than when we stay in our chambers. A man [sic] thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man [sic] and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert.

The diligent student in a crowded hive was every bit as solitary as Thoreau in his hut. At any rate, he found it tiresome to be in company, "even with the best."

To what type of "sympathy" was Thoreau referring in these various passages? Possibly not to the type of sympathy we felt this morning as we read these letters to the New York Times—letters from exhausted, badly overworked nurses during this trying time. 

With those letters, we take our leave of Thoreau and think instead of Louisa May Alcott, bravely nursing in D.C. during the Civil War. One current-day nurse, "betrayed and disrespected," offers this thought in the Times:

"Get your vaccines, wear a mask, wash your hands, stay home. Is it really so hard? I never realized how selfish Americans are until this pandemic."

She doesn't attempt to explain her use of the term "selfish." That said, we're all alive at a staggering time—at a time when the non-rational impulses of our species have been put on display in a way rarely seen in the past.

Thoreau's book has been remembered. The ten shown below have been lost:

The most important philosophy books of the 20th century:
1) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
2) Martin Heidegger, Being and Time 
3) John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
4) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
5) Bertrand Russell and A. N. Whitehead, Principia Mathematica
6) W. V. O. Quine, Word and Object
7) Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity
8) Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
9) Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness
10) A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality

No one knows what Professor Quine said. No one has ever heard of Kripke. 

Some will claim that Rawls' book—it appeared in 1971—has had some effect on the public discourse. This merely shows the vast extent to which we're willing to go as we deceive ourselves.

For what it's worth, there's a certain slightly inbred quality to that list. In 1924, Whitehead came to Harvard, where he spent the rest of his career. While there, he wrote the tenth most important book of the century. Also, he served at doctoral dissertation supervisor to Quine, who wrote the sixth most important. 

Kripke and Kuhn were also Harvard guys, along with Professor Rawls. Kripke's remarkable capsule biography runs exactly like this:

Kripke began his important work on the semantics of modal logic (the logic of modal notions such as necessity and possibility) while he was still a high-school student in Omaha, Nebraska. A groundbreaking paper from this period, “A Completeness Theorem for Modal Logic,” was published in the Journal of Symbolic Logic in 1959, during Kripke’s freshman year at Harvard University. 

In 1962 he graduated from Harvard with the only non-honorary degree he ever received, a B.S. in mathematics. He remained at Harvard until 1968, first as a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and then as a lecturer. During those years he continued a series of publications extending his original results in modal logic; he also published important papers in intuitionistic logic (the logic underlying the mathematical intuitionism of L.E.J. Brouwer), set theory, and the theory of transfinite recursion (see recursive function). 

Kripke taught logic and philosophy at Rockefeller University from 1968 to 1976 and at Princeton University, as McCosh Professor of Philosophy, from 1976 until his retirement in 1998.

When we were in college, our graduate student friends—they'd both served as Rhodes Scholars, after graduating in 1960 and 1964—used to talk about Kripke. Or are we thinking of Dreben? Given how way has led on to way, it's hard to be totally sure.

The Cambridge College connections hardly end at that point. Kuhn took his undergraduate and doctoral degrees at Harvard, then taught there until 1956. We studied his book—quite likely the sanest of the lot—when we took Philosophy of Science from Professor Putnam in the street-fighting year of 1967-68.

Professor Putnam, a very nice person, was the 18th most important philosopher of the last two hundred years, according to this survey. He was also the man who joined with Professor Quine to formulate the Quine–Putnam indispensability argument, "an argument for the reality of mathematical entities," whatever that might mean.

This was the "Cambridge College" of the 1960s. Most remarkably, we were just two or three degrees of separation from Heidegger himself, depending on how you want to score it.

We only remember the heart-shaped pool. But why go into that?

We're trying to pose a question here as we offer these bits:

In a very famous book, Thoreau engaged in a type of sympathy with everything that lives. His book is still remembered, as is the most famous book of his neighbor, Alcott. 

By way of contrast, no one has ever heard of Word and Object, let alone of Naming and Necessity And no one has the slightest idea what "model logic" is.

The authors of those most important books form a branch of the best and the brightest; most are described as logicians The world they defined and inhabited is the world Wittgenstein entered in 1911, when he appeared unannounced at Russell's rooms, over there in the other Cambridge.

They're a branch of even the best and the brightest. Their raw intellectual brilliance can't sanely be questioned.

But what in the world were they talking about? Were they talking about anything at all? Also, could a different application of their skills have defeated the current insanity?

The current insanity is quite widespread. We see no obvious route of escape. 

How many of even our best logicians have ever even tried to address it? Go ahead! Until the Greenland ice sheet goes, you can take as much time as you need!

Tomorrow: Professor Nozick's theory


  1. Watching Republican politicians sacrificing the lives of Republican voters to score political points, really exposes Somerby's theory--that it's liberals who don't respect Republican voters--as 100% nonsense.

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  2. "Thoreau's book has been remembered. The ten shown below have been lost:"

    This is, of course, untrue. Those top ten philosophy books have hardly been lost to the field of philosophy. Thoreau isn't even on that list.

    Somerby may imagine that Thoreau is being read by the general reader these days. He isn't. He may be assigned to an infrequent high school or college class, but few students finish reading him. The book does not resonate with anyone today, especially not in any sense that it did in the 1960s. Thoreau is lost.

    Thoreau represents a romantic perspective opposing the Englightenment views of the 18th century. He embodies an opposition to analytical thinking, and especially "a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature".

    Today, no one thinks of the appreciation of nature as conflicting with an understanding of science. They are two ways of appreciating our world. Only some idiot like Somerby, intent on disparaging science, along with factual knowledge, truth and reality, would place these in opposition again.

  3. "No one has ever heard of Kripke."

    I had "heard of" Kripke long before Somerby mentioned him. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the naming of emotion.

    Somerby wishes to portray philosophy as a dead field but it is very much alive, even if some aspects of philosophy have been superseded by the sciences. My theory paper on naming as a cognitive process appeared in a journal called Philosophical Psychology. The subfield of philosophy of language is alive and well.

    How is naming important in the real world? The assignment of names to subjective emotional states is one way of controlling the intensity of feeling. This is one basis for the effectiveness of talking therapies in which clients are taught how to identify and name their emotions. Freud and others discovered this long before researchers at UCLA observed inhibition of the amygdala during emotion labeling:


  4. "This was the "Cambridge College" of the 1960s."

    Although Thoreau was likely referring to Harvard when he mentioned Cambridge College in Walden, no one refers to Harvard that way. For one thing, it would cause confusion with Cambridge University in the UK and with another Cambridge College in Massachusetts. Somerby is being "cute" with this reference, but it is confusing and because only Walden used it, why do this? It is not only precious but annoying, and of course, disrespectful to ignore Harvard's actual name. Kind of like the way Trump assigns demeaning nicknames to the people he dislikes.

  5. "In a very famous book, Thoreau engaged in a type of sympathy with everything that lives. His book is still remembered, as is the most famous book of his neighbor, Alcott. "

    Arguably, Walden II is more famous these days than Walden.

    We all remember the disparaging things Somerby had to say about Little Women (Alcott's famous book).

  6. "And no one has the slightest idea what "model logic" is."

    That's because it is spelled modal, not model.

    "A modal is an expression (like ‘necessarily’ or ‘possibly’) that is used to qualify the truth of a judgement. Modal logic is, strictly speaking, the study of the deductive behavior of the expressions ‘it is necessary that’ and ‘it is possible that’. However, the term ‘modal logic’ may be used more broadly for a family of related systems. These include logics for belief, for tense and other temporal expressions, for the deontic (moral) expressions such as ‘it is obligatory that’ and ‘it is permitted that’, and many others. An understanding of modal logic is particularly valuable in the formal analysis of philosophical argument, where expressions from the modal family are both common and confusing. Modal logic also has important applications in computer science."

    As I have been saying here forever, Somerby refuses to engage in any sort of probabilistic thinking. He thus asserts that "anything is possible" for events so unlikely as to never occur, for all intents and purposes. That makes Somerby's reasoning specious and his conclusions ridiculous.

    People reason probabilistically in everyday life. Modal logic is the attempt to catch up with what people actually do, as opposed to what formal logic suggests is correct (but which people do not do in real world settings).

    It baffles me that Somerby was apparently able to read and be graded on such books back in his college days, but makes such huge errors in reasoning and other thinking these days. His rejection of what he learned borders on self destructive. His pretense that all knowledge acquired at Harvard is useless in the real world is very wrong. Any number of examples contradict Somerby's rants.

  7. "The world they defined and inhabited is the world Wittgenstein entered in 1911..."

    No, most of the authors listed came after Wittgenstein, several in the 1950s-60s or later. Most of the listed books were published after Wittgenstein's death. His own final book was published posthumously too.

  8. "How many of even our best logicians have ever even tried to address it?"

    How many accountants have ever tried to address it either? How many cabinet makers, brew pub owners, plumbers? How many bank tellers, horse race jockeys, nurses and doctors?

    This is how Somerby reasons today. He thinks that if a field doesn't address global climate change (or some other current problem) then that field is worthless. A kindergarten child should be able to see the flaw in that logic.

  9. In the 1960s, college students were reading Kahlil Gibrahn's The Prophet. Somerby wouldn't dare quote from that because he knows he would sound fatuous, almost as fatuous as when he quotes e.e. cummings, another 60s college sophomore favorite.

  10. "The current insanity is quite widespread. We see no obvious route of escape. "

    Meh. See the errors of your ways, dear Bob, and get out of your liberal cult. Ordinary people live meaningful lives, as they always have.

    1. Those who listen to Republican politicians die of COVID.
      Deeservedly so.

    2. This country needs more Right+wingers to die from COVID to own the libs.

  11. "In 1962 he graduated from Harvard with the only non-honorary degree he ever received, a B.S. in mathematics. "

    Kripke was publishing during his freshman year and continued publishing important work thereafter. It makes no sense for someone who has that level of expertise to go through the formality of completing graduate training. That is why he didn't have earned advanced degrees, despite being appointed to prestigious academic positions. He was working at a level to justify those appointments.

    For many others, honorary degrees are not considered equivalent to earned degrees. Kripke's appointment to jobs normally requiring an earned doctorate is equivalent to a bright child being skipped a few grades because they are already working at a higher level of accomplishment.

    Yet Somerby's tone is disdainful as he quotes the dimly remembered reaction of a few grad students. There are other examples from that time period of scholars who didn't have doctorates but were teaching on the strength of their achievements in a field. Some were refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, amid the influx of academic refugees fleeing Hitler's destruction of the German university system. They were all our country's gain.

    There is something ugly about Somerby's know-nothing's derision of people who were so brilliant that he cannot read and understand their work. Sour grapes, envy, bitterness? None of that is becoming for a guy like Somerby who seems to have largely wasted whatever talent he has, perhaps because he quits when he gets to the first confusing statement in complex material.

  12. Well, there was Chomsky. Doubt he will ever be forgotten, despite his absence from the MSM.


  13. "Thoreau engaged in a type of sympathy with everything that lives."

    In those days, Melville and Thoreau were writing against the current of the dominant attitude of runaway greed, which is far stronger today. The Greenland ice sheet doesn't stand a chance.

  14. While Somerby uses drowning children to attack liberals, Hillary Clinton has been quietly helping Afghan women:

    "After warning of the “huge consequences” of withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Hillary Clinton has reportedly been chartering flights out of Afghanistan for the country’s at-risk women."

    Somerby has never had a good thing to say about Hillary Clinton and I doubt he will now, even though she is not just expressing concern but actively working to help Afghan women and children and refugee families using her own private funds.

    This is exactly what Somerby advocates while sitting in his backyard contemplating his pear tree and gushing over Thoreau.

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