WITTGENSTEIN MADE EASY: It was the century's "most important book!"


Or has it been discarded?: We were surprised to learn the news, but sure enough—there it was!

Dating to early 1968, we've spent more time with the book in question than with any other book. Still and all, who knew?

The book in question is Philosophical Investigations, the imprecisely-titled, definitive text of "the later Wittgenstein." And good lord! According to the leading authority on such matters, it was once named the most important philosophy text of the 20th century!

From 1929 to 1947, Wittgenstein taught at the University of Cambridge. In spite of his position, during his entire life only one book of his philosophy was published, the relatively slim 75-page [work] which appeared...in 1922 under the Latin title, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus...

His voluminous manuscripts were edited and published posthumously. The first and best-known of this posthumous series is the 1953 book Philosophical Investigations. A survey among American university and college teachers ranked the Investigations as the most important book of 20th-century philosophy...

In a survey taken in 1999, Philosophical Investigations was rated "the most important book of 20th-century philosophy!" Seriously, though:

Who knew? 

As it turns out, Professor Lackey of Baruch College devised and administered the survey. In his estimation, Wittgenstein's posthumous text emerged from the survey as "the one crossover masterpiece in twentieth-century philosophy, appealing across diverse specializations and philosophical orientations."

That's how Wittgenstein's text was viewed. Or at least, so the survey said.

Just for the record, how extensive was the survey which produced this result? Each observer can judge for himself, but the basic info is this:

In Lackey's detailed account of his survey, he says he received "a good response rate" to his emailed questionnaire—a questionnaire which was received by 4,000 philosophy professors. To our mind, the total number of responses—414—seems a bit underwhelming. 

It's hard to know what would have occurred had Lackey received more responses. But it's worth recording his fuller account of the reaction to Wittgenstein's famously difficult text:

We asked respondents to name the five most important books in philosophy in the twentieth century, and also the five most important articles. Giving five choices permits discretion, but five is a small enough number to force voters to choose their selections carefully. Since we were interested in judgments of quality, we instructed respondents to make their choices on the basic of intrinsic merit, not on the basis of causal influence.


The immediate, indisputable, and unexpected result is that there is a runaway winner in first place. Wittgenstein’s Investigations was cited far more frequently than any other book and was listed first on more ballots than any other book. The Investigations was cited by persons whose other selections were all logic books, by persons whose other selections were all phenomenology books, by persons whose other selections were all Asian books. It is the one crossover masterpiece in twentieth-century philosophy, appealing across diverse specializations and philosophical orientations.

Philosophical Investigations was "a runaway winner," Lackey said. It "was cited far more frequently than any other book."

"At the same time," Lackey acknowledged, "it was only cited on 43% of all ballots. There is, apparently, no book that a majority of American and Canadian philosophers will put on a short list of five."

Inevitably, so it goes.

On the merits, how about it? Was Philosophical Investigations "the most important book in philosophy in the twentieth century?" 

Obviously, that's a matter of judgment—and the vast majority of philosophy professors didn't respond to Lackey's emailed questionnaire.

That said, the Investigations did outdistance all other books by a substantial margin. It should be noted that Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, the definite text of "the early Wittgenstein," was named the fourth most important book of the century on Professor Lackey's survey. As such, this survey of the past century's philosophy texts made Wittgenstein a big winner all around.

We first learned about this 21-year-old survey in just the past few weeks. We were surprised to learn about its result for a particular reason—a reason we've discussed in the past. 

We first studied Wittgenstein back in the late 1960s. He was extremely hot at that time, but it had long been our impression that Wittgenstein had been losing favor within the academy as the century ground to a close. 

That had long been our impression—and then, sure enough! In 2013, Professor Horwich of NYU made that direct assertion in this challenging post for The Stone, the New York Times' "forum for contemporary philosophers." 

According to Horwich, the academy had thrown Wittgenstein under the bus because his later work undermined so much of the traditional canon—and with it, so much of the academy's ongoing work. Tomorrow, we'll review Horwich's thesis in more detail, but we'd been wondering about that possibility for several decades by the time we saw his fascinating post. 

For that reason, we were surprised to see that Philosophical Investigation had been named as the century's most important philosophy text, even in a survey with only 414 responses. We were surprised, but we were also pleased—we regard the Investigations as almost impossibly murky, but also as a deeply instructive book.

We were struck by something else as we read Professor Lackey's account of his survey. We were struck by the absence of a single book on the survey's Top 25 which has influenced the American public discourse in any significant way.

There are well-known books in other fields which have deeply affected the discourse. We see no such title on Lackey's list—a list which includes this Top Ten:

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

We're not saying there's anything "wrong" with any of those books, though almost surely there is. We're saying that none of those books has affected the public discourse in the manner of a Silent Spring or a Feminine Mystique.

No title came to be well-known within the public discourse, in the manner of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Black Like Me or Unsafe at Any Speed. In the manner of The Diary of a Young Girl, or in the manner of any number of widely-known novels. 

None of those titles has entered the public consciousness in a way which reflects the reach and influence of its contents. With the possible exception of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, the same is true of the rest of the books on Professor Lackey's full list.

We regard Philosophical Investigations as a maddening text. For that reason, we'd be slow to call it "a masterpiece."

That said, we'd list it as a book of logic—and we'd describe it as a book which, in spite of its maddening difficulty, is also deeply instructive, if only in potential.

According to Professor Lackey's survey, a cross-section of philosophy professors regarded Philosophical Investigations as the most important book in their field of the previous century. At the same time, the book has had exactly zero effect on this struggling nation's failing public discourse—and according to Professor Horwich, the academy, by and large, had decided to throw it under the bus as of 2013.

Rachel Carson? Betty Friedan? Ralph Nader? Dee Brown and so many others? Many such people have written books which turned them into household names while helping expand the horizons of public knowledge and driving the public debate.

By way of contrast, no one has the slightest idea who Ludwig Wittgenstein was, or what he may have said in the most important philosophy text of the previous century. Nor has any other logician—more generally, any other "philosopher"—exerted any comparable influence on public understanding and debate.

Here at this site, we often think of Wittgenstein's text when we puzzle over explanations we encounter in "Einstein made easy" books. The people who author these explanations are often, by any measure, among the brightest people in the world—but due to our logicians' retreat, they've been deprived of access to the cogency / clarity skills explored in Wittgenstein's admittedly maddening text.

This week, we're going to make Wittgenstein easy. Along the way, we'll discuss the way the nation's logicians have long since abandoned their posts.

Tomorrow: Is Horwich allowed to say that?


  1. During "Wittgenstein week", I would dearly appreciate you, or anyone, to summarize the content of Philosophical Investigations in 3-5 paragraphs that makes it so important to anyone who is not studying Logic, a mere technical sub-specie of "Philosophy," as I think of it, i.e. as wisdom literature.

  2. ‘we regard the Investigations as almost impossibly murky, but also as a deeply instructive book.’

    How can something be impossibly murky yet simultaneously deeply instructive? Being instructive means that the reader clearly understands the material.

    Somerby has spent years crediting Wittgenstein with supposedly seeing through the nonsensical ‘word games’ of philosophy and Somerby has spent years taking the ‘academy’ to task for being offended by that and deliberately throwing Wittgenstein under the bus.

    And now he tells us that maybe the academy didn’t throw him under the bus after all, and that no one has written any Wittgenstein made easy books so that Wittgenstein’s impossibly murky writing can be poorly explained to the layman and Wittgenstein will finally be a household name alongside Einstein and ... Ralph Nader?

  3. At that time the orthodoxy best described as linguistic philosophy, inspired by Wittgenstein, was crystallizing and seemed to me totally and utterly misguided. Wittgenstein's basic idea was that there is no general solution to issues other than the custom of the community. Communities are ultimate. He didn't put it this way, but that was what it amounted to. And this doesn't make sense in a world in which communities are not stable and are not clearly isolated from each other. Nevertheless, Wittgenstein managed to sell this idea, and it was enthusiastically adopted as an unquestionable revelation. It is very hard nowadays for people to understand what the atmosphere was like then. This was the Revelation. It wasn't doubted. But it was quite obvious to me it was wrong. It was obvious to me the moment I came across it, although initially, if your entire environment, and all the bright people in it, hold something to be true, you assume you must be wrong, not understanding it properly, and they must be right. And so I explored it further and finally came to the conclusion that I did understand it right, and it was rubbish, which indeed it is.


    1. "It was obvious to me the moment I came across it, although initially, if your entire environment, and all the bright people in it, hold something to be true, you assume you must be wrong, not understanding it properly"

      With his diatribes about Einstein and Godel, Somerby has been refusing to go along with this idea, saying that he believes the consensus about the effectiveness of such books is wrong because he doesn't understand them. Unfortunately, this is not what Wittgenstein has said.

      He has been asserting that just because critics say books have made their theories easy to understand, one need not believe it if they themselves cannot understand such books.

      This demonstrates Wittgenstein's idea rather than contradicting it because understanding a book depends not only on the author's efforts but also the reader's. This is the reason why meaning must be a shared endeavor among more than just the speaker but also the receivers of language, as Wittgenstein proposed. And "shared" means that the meaning of words depends on the efforts of both speaker and listener, who constitute a minimum community. Somerby shows that when one of the parties refuses to cooperate in constructing shared meaning, the result is a failure of communication, e.g., nonsense.

      I doubt this was Somerby's intention. I believe he thinks that Wittgenstein has given him permission to call the words of any and all authors senseless, at will, because Wittgenstein has undermined all meaning. Wittgenstein cannot have intended that when there is evidence of people successfully communicating all around him, without great difficulty.

  4. "Rachel Carson? Betty Friedan? Ralph Nader?"

    Meh. May we suggest Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, dear Bob?

    Or at least John Pilger, Julian Assange, Noam Chomsky, Matt Taibbi. But these public intellectuals, along with the names you suggested, are mostly in politics, not philosophy. A category mistake, dear Bob.

    1. It's okay to having reading comprehension issues, just try not to couple it with overconfidence - it's an ugly look.

    2. Marx & Engels & Chomsky, Orangeman & the GOP's favorites! And all the proles out there with all that common sense.

    3. You too, dear dembot, could use some common sense and recognize the miraculous ascension of Orange Man as a working class rebellion.

    4. Don't expect Mao to bad mouth Orange Man. Orange Man gave Mao's BFFs in the Establishment HUGE tax breaks.

    5. Mao, you darling Trumpbot - Matt Taibbi characterizes Trump as a "pig." (See his latest unflattering Obama post). Not a word I've ever used to characterize orangeman (a/k/a the greatest negotiator in world history) but that's what someone who we both agree is worth listening to says.

    6. We haven't seen Matt Taibbi characterizing The Commander as a "pig", dear dembot, and thus we are unable to discuss this alleged -- completely irrelevant and inconsequential -- incident.

      But hypothetically, if Matt Taibbi did characterize The Commander as a "pig", what of it? Does it contradict anything we said here? Sorry, but we don't see how.

      Other than your compulsive parroting of the standard liberal Bad Orange Man mantra, what's in it, dear dembot? We already know that you are a vulgar dembot; this isn't new.

    7. Mao,
      Which of Donald Trump's many, many bankruptcies is your favorite, and why?

    8. Mao, I haven't parroted anything, I don't agree with either side. Taibbi did characterize him as a "pig." Does that mean anything?- nothing more than that Taibbi thinks that way for whatever that's worth - but it seems to have got under your skin. It certainly does contradict your insipid adulatory attitude toward the purported "commander/greatest negotiator in the history of the world." (I suppose when you call him "the Commander" that is your euphemism for "der Fuehrer.")

    9. Yeah, we know, any attempt to communicate with a dembot inevitably results in the dembot eventually replying with a completely incomprehensible word-salad.

      And here we are, dear dembot, at the point where your drivel has become indistinguishable from that of any of your anon comrades.

    10. Mao,
      If it's too hard to choose just one of Trump's bankruptcies, choose your top 3.

    11. Taibbi knows "pigs". He's currently being blackmailed by Russia for being one.

  5. America has systemic bigotry and hatred against people who have little or no money. This systemic class bias rules America and is growing. Billionaire-owned mass media teach people not to care about this problem that cruelly degrades the life of millions and is growing worse daily. They deliberately train people to ignore it and minimize it even though it affects far more people than do acts of racism or sexism. People of all races and genders are victims of this massive class hatred. The wealthiest spread their ideology of hate and callousness towards the un-moneyed. These hoarders have turned their addiction into a religion, broadly known as capitalism, which all must serve and obey. They have the wealth to buy everything, especially the politicians and the mass media, which gives them control of public policy and the public mind and the power to rig the entire society in their favor.

    Many of the greatest minds of the last century, such as Albert Einstein and George Orwell, warned that allowing these wealth hoarders to rule all of humanity would lead to disaster. In Somerby's survey of most important books, Bertrand Russell and John Rawls are in the top five. Both advocated for the ending of systemic wealth hoarding and the ideology of hatred of the poor. Why does Somerby not talk about what these greatest minds said was so important?

    1. Glaucon, this isn't something new - e.g., there was a book more than 100 years ago, the History of the Great American Fortunes - are you familiar with it? There is one direct way to level things off somewhat - by the estate tax. In the 1990's, the tax was over 50% on the amount of an estate over $750,000. Now, for a married couple, $20,000,000 is exempt and the rates are lower (and there a lot of other ways around it - there's always been a step up in basis on death for stocks and real estate. Yet, the GOP salivated over abolishing the estate (a/k/a death) tax. Under Trump, they weren't able to do that - only doubled the exemption. A number of years ago, Sen. Max Cleland, who lost some of his limbs in Vietnam, was running for reelection, I think in Georgia, and was attacked by his GOP opponent for being pro Osama bin Laden, or something similar; and Cleland, in an effort to counter that, and appeal to his voters, boasted that he opposed the estate tax! - the one tax that literally would reduce the wealth of the super rich. Anyway, I suppose we should strive to make things better, but there's always a struggle between opposing forces, and it's not clear that your vision will ever be realized, and not clear how it could be accomplished. I don't know if we've reached a state of total dystopia, though maybe it seems that way for those who aren't doing so well. It's not just the billionaire masters of the universe who are doing well; lots of people are at varying levels of the scale.

  6. "Whereof one cannot speak, therefore one must be silent."

    An imperative, according to Wittgenstein, after surmounting a mound of words and ideas, not before then. Somerby should take heed.

  7. "Don't for heaven's sake be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense."

    Somerby is ignoring the second part of that exhortation.

  8. When I was in college, almost as long ago as TDH, I took some philosophy courses, and as I recall I was assigned the Wittgenstein's Tractatus and Whitehead's Process & Reality, among other texts. I couldn't make hide nor hair out of them then. One thing, I don't think that either, or any of the books on the "Top 10" list have anything to do with politics or the real world except maybe the Rawls book. There is such a thing as political philosophy, see Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes, Marx, Gustav LeBon, Machiavelli etc, etc. Marx had a huge effect on the world. Maybe TDH missed all of these thinkers. Wittgenstein's concern about what words mean isn't a very useful tool in analyzing the failures of the current popular political discussion (which can be likened to an amalgam consisting of the Kafkaesque, Marshall McLuhan and Alice in Wonderland).

    1. One tactic the right has used all along is to redefine positive terms used by the left as negatives. Woke is a good example. Wittgenstein has something to say about that, in my opinion.

  9. "In Lackey's detailed account of his survey, he says he received "a good response rate" to his emailed questionnaire—a questionnaire which was received by 4,000 philosophy professors. To our mind, the total number of responses—414—seems a bit underwhelming. "

    Somerby knows very little about survey research and sampling. He doesn't understand the concept of bias. He thinks there is some magic number of respondents necessary to make the results more valid. This is a misunderstanding he shares with Kevin Drum (who doesn't understand the differences in sampling between surveys and experiments).

    That 414 is slightly more than 10%. The average respondents is 10 to 30%. So, 35% would be excellent. When there is little incentive for anyone to complete a survey, then 10% is fine. And that's what the researchers said. But Somerby thinks he knows better and has to call that response "underwhelming," as if there would be any different result if there were twice as many respondents.

    Somerby, again, shows no hesitation in showing his ignorance. He doesn't understand anything about social science or psychology, and thus cannot evaluate research because he knows so little about the tools and methodology of such research. He has no respect for other people's work and apparently no awareness of his own ignorance, and that makes him a buffoon.

  10. ‘This week, we're going to make Wittgenstein easy.’

    Too little, too late. If Somerby understood the importance of Wittgenstein as early as 1968, what was stopping him from letting the world know? He was a Harvard philosophy grad who was rather well-acquainted with Al Gore, unlike the rest of us. He could have written the book that explained it all and possibly prevented our society from sliding into the sea, rather than blaming all the elite logicians besides himself for their failure to explain Wittgenstein.

  11. Dozens of scientific disciplines have incorporated Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions into their ongoing work. Public intellectuals refer to it constantly -- whenever they talk of "paradigm shift," for one thing. Bob Somerby doesn't acknowledge this, because he doesn't know many scientific ideas.

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