MONDAY, AUGUST 16, 2021
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:
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?