WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 18, 2021
...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