WITTGENSTEIN MADE EASY: The most important book of the 20th century...


...leaves observers befuddled: If memory serves, this was the week when we were going to make Wittgenstein easy. 

We often think of Wittgenstein's later work when we read books, or watch PBS programs, designed to make Einstein (or Gödel) easy. We thought we'd just go ahead and make Wittgenstein easy, thereby facilitating a later approach to the Einstein-made-easy books.

A bit later on, we would explain why normal people might imaginably care about any of this. This would have involved, and still will involve, a discussion of "the flight of the logicians"—the process by which our failing nation's many logicians have walked away from their posts. 

As it turns out, we're not going to make Wittgenstein easy until this time next week. As described in our past two reports, our attention has been waylaid by a pair of surveys in which groups of philosophy professors, or their near approximations, have identified Wittgenstein as the most important philosopher of the past several centuries.

In the first of these surveys, 414 philosophy teachers responded to a questionnaire which asked them to name the most important philosophy text of the 20th century. As you may recall, this top ten list emerged:

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

There you see the ten most important books. As you may recall, we had a certain reaction to that list. 

Those volumes had been selected as the most important philosophy texts of the 20th century. We were struck by the fact that very few "general readers" would have any idea who those authors were, or would know what they had said in their important books.

We see no Silent Spring on that list—no book which affected the public discussion in a way many people could (at least broadly) describe. In the main, we see a list of books which originated inside the academy and basically managed to stay there.

That doesn't mean that something is "wrong" with those books, although, in many cases, something most likely is. For example, the book which was chosen as most important is spectacularly opaque—is very hard to read and understand.

In his preface to Philosophical Investigation, Wittgenstein apologizes for his failure to produce a more readable book. The beginning and end of that preface can be seen right here:

The thoughts which I publish in what follows are the precipitate of philosophical investigations which have occupied me for the last sixteen years. They concern many subjects: the concepts of meaning, of understanding, of a proposition, of logic, the foundations of mathematics, states of consciousness, and other things. I have written down all these thoughts as remarks, short paragraphs, of which there is sometimes a fairly long chain about the same subject, while I sometimes make a sudden change, jumping from one topic to another.—It was my intention at first to bring all this together in a book whose form I pictured differently at different times. But the essential thing was that the thoughts should proceed from one subject to another in a natural order and without breaks.

After several unsuccessful attempts to weld my results together into such a whole, I realized that I should never succeed. The best that I could write would never be more than philosophical remarks; my thoughts were soon crippled if I tried to force them on in any single direction against their natural inclination.——And this was, of course, connected with the very nature of the investigation. For this compels us to travel over a wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction.—The philosophical remarks in this book are, as it were, a number of sketches of landscapes which were made in the course of these long and involved journeyings.


I make [my remarks] public with misgivings. It is not impossible that it should fall to the lot of this work, in its poverty and in the darkness of this time, to bring light into one brain or another—but, of course, it is not likely.

I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own.

I should have liked to produce a good book. It has not turned out that way, but the time is past in which I could improve it.

Cambridge, January 1945

From that account, it isn't clear  how the format of the published text differs from the format its author had originally pictured. 

But as he closes, the author says that he hasn't "produced a good book." He says he would have liked to produce a better result, but that the time was past in which he could hope to do so.

Was that merely the modesty of an intellectual giant? Everything is possible, but for various reasons, this most important book of the century is quite hard to read. 

Given the way these matters work, commenters will insist that they understand the book perfectly. They will suggest that we should find an easier book, one so simple that even we can understand it.

With that in mind, we'll offer a passage from Professor Klagge's 2020 book, Simply Wittgenstein—a passage in which Klagge explains that the book in question is just intrinsically hard:

Wittgenstein’s writings create a certain fascination among readers or would-be readers. The one book that he published in his lifetime, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, was cryptic, oracular, and obscure; thus, it seems profound even if it is not understood. A second book, the Philosophical Investigations, which was published shortly after his death, was more extensive and wide-ranging, but without a clear point. It could be, and was, put to a wide range of uses, both inside philosophy and outside. Figures as diverse as Stanley Hauerwas in theology, Marjorie Perloff in literary criticism, Steve Reich in music composition, and the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth, have drawn on Wittgenstein’s work for guidance or inspiration.

But as important as Wittgenstein is taken to be, I have not met a person who has tried to read either of his two great books and come away without a feeling of deep frustration. This is especially true of readers with little background in philosophy, but it is even true of those with a good deal of background and experience in philosophy. Invariably, the problem is that the context is missing.

It is most common to put the book down after several pages and wonder what Wittgenstein could be talking about. Unfortunately, he gives us almost no guidance, and it is difficult to guess for ourselves. So, it is best to read the books in the company of a guide. That is the purpose of Simply Wittgenstein...

According to Professor Klagge, he's never met anyone who tried to read Philosophical Investigations "without a feeling of deep frustration."  

According to Klagge, it's hard to discern what Wittgenstein is talking about, and he gives readers almost no guidance! Borrowing from an old joke, this is what philosophers say about the books in their field which are most important! 

As a general matter, we agree with Professor Klagge's assessment of the maddening inscrutability of Wittgenstein's book. Oddly enough, we also think that Philosophical Investigations can serve an invaluable source of badly needed cogency / clarity skills—types of skills which are badly needed "in the darkness of this time."

Still and all, we return to our point. Very few people have any idea who Ludwig Wittgenstein was. Very few people have any idea what he said in his two major books—in the two books which were chosen as the first and fourth most important philosophy texts of the 20th century!

As with Wittgenstein, so with the others on that list. In its face, this strikes us as a peculiar state of affairs. 

Next week, we'll go ahead and make Wittgenstein easy. In the last two days of this week, we'll undertake an uncomfortable task, one for which we apologize in advance:

We'll suggest that something may be slightly odd about the work of several major figures in 20th century philosophy.

Stating the obvious, these major figures are enormously bright. It may even be that their work in the field had or has some sort of public utility.

That said, we're going to suggest that, viewed from the outside, there's a bit of an Onionesque quality to standard descriptions of their work. 

Has philosophy left daily conerns behind? With apologies for our tone, we'll consider that question in the days ahead.

Tomorrow: In essence, a private language


  1. TDH's blog thru the years has been about politics, how the so called liberal media has covered politics (also education). These analytical philosophers like Wittgenstein, quine etc really don't have anything to say relevant to politics. Maybe what they say is interesting from a mental challenge standpoint, but TDH seems to have read the wrong philosophers if he wants to look at politics from a political standpoint.

    1. Maybe the connection is actually with the media and not the politics they report.

      We see the lack of logic within media pointed out here consistently. We also see the failure to challenge the status quo; once introduced, ideas that back the agenda and follow the script go unchallenged even if there are flaws.

      Perhaps it all does boil down to poor critical thinking and intellectual laziness, and conformity to same. Just produce the message your tribe wants to hear.

    2. It comes down to the media giving a microphone to, or repeating whatever bullshit Republican operatives say, because the media fears losing access more than they care about reporting facts.

    3. AC/MA

      "TDH's blog thru the years has been about politics, how the so called liberal media has covered politics (also education)"

      For a lot of the Trump era though, the blog has devoted itself to defending the likes of Donald Trump, Roy Moore, Ron Johnson, Devin Nunes and other assorted Trumbots. Somerby demonstrating his ignorance of relativity is a step up from Trumptardism !

    4. Somerby is coy with his agenda; those on the right abhor relativity with it's attendant notions of context and nuance.

    5. Anon, 8:24, Somerby is not coy about his agenda. Given that he spends 95% of his political posts in the last 4 years defending Donald Trump, Roy Moore et al. and attacking anyone who criticizes them, it's clear that he is a Trumptard

  2. "Has philosophy left daily concerns behind?"

    Art, classical music, economics, even history and politics at the academic level have all left daily concerns behind. They are the now merely conversations between a few insular specialists. They are pretending be scientists doing cutting edge research. Academic research strives for originality which means researching some tiny trivial part of a subject. It's not aimed at looking at the problems people or the direction of society. It's well-paid navel gazing.

    1. Unfortunately this is largely correct.

    2. "Art, classical music, economics, even history and politics at the academic level have all left daily concerns behind. "
      This is true because the Republican party, which more and more represents a bunch of old, white men and the billionaire class has determined that if regular people actually understand and appreciate art and classical music and understand economics, history and politics that it will be very bad for the future .
      The arts, including visual arts, drama and music have always pushed the envelope against the status quo – not good if you are an old, white man who appreciates things just the way they are.
      If regular people actually learned to think a little bit about economics and began to wonder why deficits caused by huge tax cuts and lack of tax enforcement on billionaires and military spending is good for the economy, but deficits for providing health care, support for the needy and families and infrastructure spending that might fight global warming, it would be very bad for the billionaires and huge corporations.
      If regular people were actually taught in school about the impact slavery and its ongoing ramifications on this country, it would be very bad for the old white man power structure. Why do you think they are fighting so hard about the bogeyman of Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project?
      If politics in schools was really taught and kids learned how truly unrepresentative the U.S. Senate and the Electoral College really are, that would not be good for a political party that is relying more and more on a declining base of support.
      As long as one of the major political parties relies on keeping their supporters to be uninformed and ignorant, I guess all of those people trying to teach appreciation for the arts, economics, history and politics will be "navel gazing."

    3. bad for the future of their party.

    4. This is a misunderstanding of how science works. Science is divorced from practical problems of everyday life (addressed by applied fields such as engineering) because science intends to generate knowledge and not solve problems of living. Science builds on previous learning to extend what is known in various disciplines. It isn't random inquiry but develops theory in order to generate hypotheses to test and thereby test explanatory theories.

      The perception among the public that science is random curiosity indulging petty whims of people who do no useful work, is based on ignorance.

      While it is generally not known how science will benefit society, because utility comes in the future, past applications of scientific knowledge that originally had no practical intention, shows us that science is much more useful than anyone could have known. Science done for its own sake ALWAYS turns out to be much more useful than anyone would have thought. We just don't know how any given line of research will pay off, or when.

      It is frustrating that children do not learn this in school. The idea that scientists are just fooling around in labs while others do the real work in our society is harmful to science funding and to our culture, such as when people decide someone like Fauci doesn't know what he is talking about.

      For example, Danish Astronomer Tycho Brahe made very precise, painstaking measurements of the stars using instruments he developed and kept records. He did this around 1572. Later, German mathematician Kepler used those records to develop the laws of planetary motion, work out the orbit of the moon and show that the Earth rotates around the sun. Thus Kepler built upon the investigations of Brahe.

      Modern neuroscience rests on the use of a creature called the aplysia (a sea slug) because it has a simple neural system whose neurons are large enough to be seen with the naked eye. The aplysia was studied by biologist in the 1800s who had no idea who might find his research useful. Later, Kandel used it as the basis for his studies of the neural substrate of memory. It should be obvious why and how memory research is useful in daily life.

      Radar was a serendipitous outcome for work being done for other purposes. Ditto the development of nylon. These were outcomes of experiments, not attempts to solve problems. WD-40 came out of the space program (that wasteful boondoggle) as a water displacement substance which everyone now uses as a lubricant. There is a long list of similar examples.

    5. "Art, classical music, economics, even history and politics at the academic level have all left daily concerns behind."

      These fields are not about "daily concerns" except that art, social science, history, economics (micro) often do focus on daily concerns, even today. The idea that they do not seems to be based on a narrow or limited exposure to such fields.

      I went to an art exhibition at an art museum this weekend that focused on problems of immigrants, for example. One of my favorite economists is Amartya Sen, who won a nobel prize for demonstrating that when a country invests in the education of girls, its economy benefits in many ways and life improves for everyone.

      How is Wilkerson's recent history book, Caste, not about everyday concerns?

  3. ...why don't you read Sokal's Fashionable Nonsense, dear Bob? It might be right up your alley.

    "If the texts seem incomprehensible, it is for the excellent reason that they mean precisely nothing."

    1. Bob says, "Our failing nation's many logicians have walked away from their posts."

      Do successful nations rely on logicians? You may be able to help us here, Mao. Do logicians help Vladimir Vladimirovich formulate coherent policies? Do these logicians help the Russian people understand the resulting policies?

  4. "The most important book of the 20th century..."

    No, this was actually described as the most important philosophical book of the 20th century. That's a big difference.

  5. "In the first of these surveys, 414 philosophy teachers responded to a questionnaire..."

    No, the 414 respondents were not philosophy teachers. They were philosophy professors, which means they were philosophers. There is a distinction between those who teach about something and those who add to knowledge in a field, those who practice.

  6. "We see no Silent Spring on that list—no book which affected the public discussion in a way many people could (at least broadly) describe. In the main, we see a list of books which originated inside the academy and basically managed to stay there.

    That doesn't mean that something is "wrong" with those books, although, in many cases, something most likely is. For example, the book which was chosen as most important is spectacularly opaque—is very hard to read and understand."

    Somerby utterly ignores the purpose of a written work, and its intended audience. Philosophy books are written about philosophy, not ecology or self-help or how to invest money or how to fix your car, and they are not fiction either, so they are not romance novels or thrillers. They are books about philosophy, intended to communicate ideas about philosophy with other philosophers. Of course they are "opaque" to non-philosophers, just as a cookbook would be "opaque" to someone who doesn't cook, or a car-repair manual to a non-mechanic.

    How can Somerby ignore this important aspect of communication? Books have a purpose and they have an audience. No books is all things to all people. And if he cannot understand a philosophy book, after graduating from Harvard with a philosophy major and purportedly getting a good grade from Quine in a deductive logic course, that says something about his education, not the state-of-the-art in the field of philsophy.

    What is wrong with Somerby?

    1. To answer your question, in all likelihood Somerby is getting paid to attack the left and defend the right.

    2. If Somerby were paid on the basis of results, he'd earn $0 because he wasn't able to get Roy Moore elected or DJT re-elected despite trying very hard to defend them.

  7. Somerby notes that Wittgenstein apologizes for the organization of his book. Somerby fails to mention that Wittgenstein did not publish his last book. It was published posthumously. It may be that he would have better organized his thoughts in a book he actually published himself, prior to his death.

  8. "Has philosophy left daily conerns behind? "

    Did Aristotle, Plato or Socrates ever focus on the everyday concerns of people during their times? I doubt it.

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