WITTGENSTEIN IN THE WORLD: The sixth greatest book arrived in the mail!

MONDAY, AUGUST 23, 2021

We hungrily fell upon it: Near the end of the week, our new book arrived in the mail. Hungrily, we fell upon it.

It was the sixth most important philosophy book of the twentieth century—and not only that! It had been written by the fifth most important philosopher of the past two hundred years!

The book in question was Word and Object. The philosopher was Willard Van Orman Quine, a Harvard professor of long standing and of unquestioned academic renown.

Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations had been published in 1953. In the surveys to which we've referred, it was rated the most important philosophy book of the twentieth century—and Wittgenstein himself had been rated the most important philosopher of those two hundred years.

Hungrily, though, we fell upon Word and Object, which appeared in 1960. At the beginning of Chapter One, this is what we found:

Chapter I. Language and Truth

1. Beginning with Ordinary Things

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 this there is little cause for wonder. Each of us learns his language from other people, through the observable mouthing of words under conspicuously intersubjective circumstances. Linguistically, and hence conceptually, the things in sharpest focus are the things that are public enough to be talked of publicly, common and conspicuous enough to be talked of often, and near enough to sense to be quickly identified and learned by name; it is to these that words apply first and foremost.

Talk of subjective sense qualities comes mainly as a derivative idiom. When one tries to describe a particular sensory quality, he typically resorts to reference to public things—describing a color as orange or heliotrope, a smell as like that of rotten eggs. Just as one sees his nose best in a mirror, removed to half the optimum focal distance, so also he best identifies his sense data by reflecting them in external objects. 

Reader, when's the last time you saw an account of the way "entification" begins? For us, it's been quite a while!

At any rate, so begins the sixth most important philosophy text of the twentieth century. By the end of paragraph 2 (and then again in paragraph 3), the reader has encountered a technical term—"sense data." 

Perhaps for that reason, a general reader will possibly feel that he or she has no idea what is under discussion at this point. That doesn't necessarily mean that this isn't a valuable book. 

Still, we'll offer this:

"Linguistically, and hence conceptually, the things in sharpest focus are the things that are public enough to be talked of publicly, common and conspicuous enough to be talked of often, and near enough to sense to be quickly identified and learned by name?" 

Dreaming a little, that general reader may start to "feel the dark encroachment of that old catastrophe," the tyranny of the scholastics. The pungent oranges and bright, green wings may seem things in some procession of the dead as Quine's language causes her to flash upon her Cummings:

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me, 
or which i cannot touch because they are too near 

For us, the opening of this book came as a bit of a surprise, but also brought a rush of unpleasant associations and memories. Inevitably, though, we struggled to be thoughtful and fair!

Because we felt ourselves to be somewhat distanced from the start of Chapter I,  it occurred to us that we probably should have started with Quine's preface. 

After flipping backward several pages, we found that it started like this:

Preface 

Language is a social art. In acquiring it we have to depend entirely on intersubjectively available cues as to what to say and when. Hence there is no justification for collating linguistic meanings, unless in terms of men's dispositions to respond overtly to socially observable stimulations. An effect of recognizing this limitation is that the enterprise of translation is found to be involved in a certain systematic indeterminacy; and this is the main theme of Chapter II. 

The indeterminacy of translation invests even the question what objects to construe a term as true of. Studies of the semantics of reference consequently turn out to make sense only when directed upon substantially our language, from within. But we do remain free to reflect, thus parochially, on the development and structure of our own referential apparatus; and this I do in ensuing chapters. In so doing one encounters various anomalies and conflicts that are implicit in this apparatus (Chapter IV), and is moved to adopt remedies in the spirit of modern logic (Chapters V and VI). ...

"The indeterminacy of translation invests even the question what objects to construe a term as true of?" That's what it actually says.  Meanwhile, we only made you skim that far to reach the reference to "the spirit of modern logic." 

It is that spirit, it seems to us, which may be in question here.

For unknown reasons, Quine started his preface by describing his theme for Chapter II. As the preface continues, Chapter I is never addressed. 

But in the first paragraph of the preface, it's clear that this is not a book for general readers. Meanwhile, the first two sentences of that second paragraph are hard to recognize as conventional English. 

Even earlier, in paragraph 1, we've been offered this:

"There is no justification for collating linguistic meanings, unless in terms of men's dispositions to respond overtly to socially observable stimulations." 

No general reader will have any idea what the professor is talking about. It's sometimes said that the work of the later Wittgenstein, which began being published in 1953, raised a larger question:

Can people like the writer of Word and Object justify the claim that they know what they're talking about—or the claim that they're talking about anything at all? In the end, we won't be trying to settle that question, but we'll note that the question's been raised.

At any rate, what on earth—what in the world—is Word and Object about? It was the sixth most important book of the century. But what was it talking about?

As that "old catastrophe" crawled up through our souls, we decided to seek an overview from the leading authority on this book. At that site, this is the overview we found, referred to as a synopsis:

Synopsis

Quine emphasizes his naturalism, the doctrine that philosophy should be pursued as part of natural science. He argues in favor of naturalizing epistemology, supports physicalism over phenomenalism and mind-body dualism, and extensionality over intensionality, develops a behavioristic conception of sentence-meaning, theorizes about language learning, speculates on the ontogenesis of reference, explains various forms of ambiguity and vagueness, recommends measures for regimenting language to eliminate ambiguity and vagueness as well as to make perspicuous the logic and ontic commitments of theories, argues against quantified modal logic and the essentialism it presupposes, argues for Platonic realism in mathematics, rejects instrumentalism in favor of scientific realism, develops a view of philosophical analysis as explication, argues against analyticity and for holism, against countenancing propositions, and tries to show that the meanings of theoretical sentences are indeterminate and that the reference of terms is inscrutable.

Say what? That synopsis may make the book seem unnecessarily arch. 

With that in mind, we turned to Penguin Random House, a publisher of the book. When we did, we found this account of a 2013 edition:

ABOUT WORD AND OBJECT, NEW EDITION

A new edition of Quine’s most important work.

Willard Van Orman Quine begins this influential work by declaring, “Language is a social art. In acquiring it we have to depend entirely on intersubjectively available cues as to what to say and when.” As Patricia Smith Churchland notes in her foreword to this new edition, with Word and Object Quine challenged the tradition of conceptual analysis as a way of advancing knowledge. The book signaled twentieth-century philosophy’s turn away from metaphysics and what Churchland calls the “phony precision” of conceptual analysis.

In the course of his discussion of meaning and the linguistic mechanisms of objective reference, Quine considers the indeterminacy of translation, brings to light the anomalies and conflicts implicit in our language’s referential apparatus, clarifies semantic problems connected with the imputation of existence, and marshals reasons for admitting or repudiating each of various categories of supposed objects. In addition to Churchland’s foreword, this edition offers a new preface by Quine’s student and colleague Dagfinn Follesdal that describes the never-realized plans for a second edition of Word and Object, in which Quine would offer a more unified treatment of the public nature of meaning, modalities, and propositional attitudes.

The edition we purchased didn't include that foreword by Churchland—and surely, no one wants to encourage some sort of "phony precision." But we offer you this question:

Friend, do you feel that our failing public discourse has been suffering, down through the years, from the indeterminacy of translation, from the anomalies and conflicts implicit in our language’s referential apparatus, from a need to clarify semantic problems connected with the imputation of existence, and has been in need of reasons for admitting or repudiating each of various categories of supposed objects?

Is that what's been ailing our discourse, friend? Is that where it's gone so wrong?

In the rumination we've begun in the past few months, we're basically considering "the flight of the logicians"—the failure of our high academic class to speak to the problems which ail us and our failed discourse.

(We're able to see no obvious way to recover from that failure.)

It's always possible that Quine's book—the sixth most important of the past century—actually performed that function, or something equally valuable. But we'll suggest that, ar least on its face, the allegedly "influential" book may carry a different feel.

The later Wittgenstein was bad enough; his work was extremely opaque. But at least it's said that he pushed back against this general sort of thing—and at some point, most likely next week, we're going to make Wittgenstein easy.

This week, let's consider Wittgenstein's place in the wider failing world. Let's consider the world within which the twentieth century's most important philosophy book was written, was fated to take its largely inscrutable form.

Tomorrow: Bertrand Russell, 1916, at that same "familiar desk"


18 comments:

  1. Where are the stories of maskers assaulting those who don't mask?
    I was promised "both sides"!

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  2. "By the end of paragraph 2 (and then again in paragraph 3), the reader has encountered a technical term—"sense data." "

    This is a ridiculous remark. Aristotle and other Greek philosophers talked about the mediation of experience by the senses and the British empiricists such as Locke and Hume discussed how sensory information becomes thought, how it is mentally represented and combined to form more complex concepts. This is taught in every introductory philosophy course. Somerby himself would have encountered this many times in his own major studies.

    Even without such a background, the general reader should know from common sense that we do not directly experience the world except through our senses. Beyond that, one cannot talk about how babies acquire language without considering this. The concept of object permanence depends on a separation between the sensory experience of an object and its mental representation.

    But why are we back to the General Reader again? Somerby titles this essay: "The sixth greatest book arrived in the mail!" But this isn't the sixth greatest book at all. It is the sixth greatest book IN PHILOSOPHY. There is no reason for the general reader to ever approach this book. The book is written by a philosopher for philosophers.

    Would Somerby expect a book on TV repair to leave out all technical terms? Do books on biology get a bye because they use terms invented to describe phenomena not previously named in everyday language, even though its terms too are largely technical? Petal and leaf are technical terms to botanists. Should not botany book ever mention them?

    Why does Somerby write this stuff?

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  3. "somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
    any experience, your eyes have their silence:
    in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
    or which i cannot touch because they are too near "

    This has nothing to do with what Quine wrote or Somerby's criticism of it. I was reminded, however, of the many criticisms of ee cummings, favorite of college sophomores because it calls to their hearts in a readily accessible manner without requiring much in the way of mental effort.

    cummings says that words can spoil a tender moment. Duh!

    That is hardly a cogent argument against Quine, who is trying to put some order into Wittgenstein's thoughts. Somerby doesn't get that far. He is too put off by the most basic explanation in the first few pages of the book. I'll bet he doesn't get much father either, and he will blame that on Quine, not his own inability to think about what these writers were saying.

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  4. "Because we felt ourselves to be somewhat distanced from the start of Chapter I, it occurred to us that we probably should have started with Quine's preface. "

    Somerby was apparently never taught how to read a book. He seems to think that you can catch up on introductory material omitted from Chapter 1, by reading the preface. But that is not the purpose of a preface. In some books, there may be such material in an Appendix, but the purpose of a preface is to place the book in a historical context and explain why the book was written, sometimes giving the author's qualifications for writing the book. It might then also address methodological issues and obstacles overcome in the writing of the book. The purpose of a preface lies outside the content of the book, including the material introduced in Chapter 1. It is about the making of the book.

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  5. "Can people like the writer of Word and Object justify the claim that they know what they're talking about—or the claim that they're talking about anything at all? In the end, we won't be trying to settle that question, but we'll note that the question's been raised."

    There is no evidence that Somerby's interpretation of Wittgenstein is anywhere close to what that philosopher intended. Quine's statement about collating linguistic definitions is very much in accord with Wittgenstein and the remainder of the sentence only refers to doing something because that is what people expect socially. It is a throw-away quip that says that people who collate linguistic definitions are wasting their time in terms of understanding his topic, meaning and reference. Somerby is too obtuse to even recognize Quine's wryness, which most scholars will appreciate.

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  6. "Say what? That synopsis may make the book seem unnecessarily arch."

    It is time for Somerby to stop referring to Wikipedia as "the leading authority" when it is merely the most convenient source of overview info on a topic one knows little about. The best source for technical material is most likely something else entirely, especially given the way in which Wikipedia articles are created.

    If Somerby has no idea what Quine is talking about, even in Chapter 1, how can he call his book "arch"? What does that even mean coming from someone like Somerby?

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  7. "Friend, do you feel that our failing public discourse has been suffering, down through the years, from the indeterminacy of translation, from the anomalies and conflicts implicit in our language’s referential apparatus, from a need to clarify semantic problems connected with the imputation of existence, and has been in need of reasons for admitting or repudiating each of various categories of supposed objects?"

    Quine is only tangentially talking about our "failed public discourse." He is mostly talking about the manner in which theories are generated in the sciences. Somerby's attempt to generalize to politics is akin to trying to apply Quine's thinking to use of American slang among teenagers. There may be some relevance because it is all language, but there are also specifics that have little to do with Quine's thinking, because subsets of language have specific purposes not shared among all forms of language or theories and the way concepts are defined in them.

    What's gone wrong with our public discourse is the lack of good faith on the right, including the distortion of truth and deliberate redefinition of existing words in order to use them against the left. The right's emphasis on emotions such as rage and outrage dictate the manner in which the right uses language to inflame followers and obscure meaning, something that breaks the rules of discourse as discussed by Quine (and others).

    Somerby's maligning of Quine and his attribution of Quine's work (which is to identify linguistic problems, not create them) as the source of what is wrong in our society, is a gambit to portray those who attempt to clarify truth as elitists who don't make sense -- and if you don't understand them it is because learning is a useless sham and others are trying to manipulate you.

    Somerby's dislike of higher education, expertise, intellectual pursuits (including philosophy) seems to arise from his own failures as a student at Harvard. Somerby's D in logic wasn't Quine's fault. There is something seriously wrong with Somerby, whether he is seriously attempting to grapple with any of this, or whether he is cynically attacking any and all sources of knowledge in our society. I don't know what is wrong with him, but I do know that it isn't Quine's fault.

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    1. Anon 8:23, you think it's only the 'right' that's responsible for what's wring with 'our public discourse?' Sadly, not true. But what's your beef with TDH dissing Quine" After all, Quine was a right winger.

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    2. Yes, I think it is pretty much only the right, but I am speaking about our public discourse (as Somerby puts it), not philosophy.

      Quine is welcome to whatever political views he wishes to hold. Being conservative doesn't negate his work in philosophy, which stands or falls on its own merits.

      My beef with Somerby is that he has quite clearly not read Quine (other than the first few pages of Chapter 1) and has not stated a clear view of Quine's contribution to sorting out the muddle made by Wittgenstein.

      When discussing philosophy, Quine deserves to be judged by his work, not his politics. That said, Tucker Carlson and others engage in propagandizing Fox viewers by explicitly violating rules that Quine and other philosophers set forth. That isn't Quine's fault either.

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  8. "But at least it's said that he pushed back against this general sort of thing—and at some point, most likely next week, we're going to make Wittgenstein easy."

    Wittgenstein didn't "push back" against Quine (who was his successor). Quine followed in Wittgenstein's footsteps, as did Hillary Putnam.

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  9. Way less than 1% of college students major in philosophy. A majority of them major in business and the rest (mostly women) major in education or nursing. So most American college students spend four years learning the arts of ripping-off workers and consumers and dreaming up marketing and financial scams. That's the goal of education in the USA.

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    1. At my polytechnic, the most popular major was engineering and psychology was the 2nd most popular major.

      The most popular major nationwide was business but that accounted for 19% of degrees. The health sciences were second with 15%. The social sciences and history were third. Not including psychology.
      Engineering was fourth. Biological and biomedical sciences were fifth. Psychology was 6th. Communication and journalism was 7th. Visual and performing arts was 8th. Education was 9th. Computer and information sciences were 10th.

      You should be more careful about stereotyping women like that. All women do not go into teaching or nursing, as you suggested. And no more than 19% go into ripping people off (your term for business).

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  10. I minored in philosophy as an undergrad. This was several decades ago. My recollection is that there were and maybe still are two branches of philosophy: 'analytic' philosophy which was in vogue in England and the US; and European (maybe another name for it) more in vogue elsewhere. Quine, Putnam et al. are who TDH seems to have been exposed to. Frankly, their type of philosophy isn't what I always thought was what philosophy was about. Going into whether statements have meaning, a lot of math - all beyond what most anyone cares about. There is such a thing a political philosophy (among other kinds). I don't think Wittgenstein, Quine, Putnam et al have anything to say relevant to how our public discourse has gone of the rails (it probably has always been in large measure off the rails, by the way.) TDH seems to be possessed with an obsession on his present tack. I don't know if he qualifies as "mentally disordered" on this topic, but he is all into it, but at least his obsession is unlikely to lead to the start of any nuclear wars.

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    1. AC/MA, Somerby never mentioned Quine or Putnam until this month, despite my pointing him that direction in comments several times over the past few years. Somerby appears to be largely ignorant about philosophy other than to occasionally blather about Aristotle.

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    2. 'I don't know if he qualifies as "mentally disordered" on this topic,'

      AC/MA - we're in near agreement -- I think TDH qualifies as mentally disordered period, without the qualification 'on this topic'. There is no other possible explanation for his being a Trumptard and defending Trump, Roy Moore et al.

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