FRIDAY, AUGUST 20, 2021
Wittgenstein in the world: "Your concerns are my concerns," one character said to the other.
At the time, the critical world took the statement in stride. Later, the character's statement began to seem possibly somewhat odd.
The film was Manhattan (1979). The character as Tracy, a 17-year-old high school kid—though in fairness, a student at Dalton.
When Tracy made the statement in question, she was addressing her 42-year-old, twice-divorced, television comedy writer boyfriend, Isaac Davis. In the free-living late 1970s, her statement, memorably delivered, had actually seemed to make sense.
Later, noting the difference in age, some people began to wonder if her concerns really could have been his.
In the last few days, we've been asking about academic philosophy's concerns. More specifically, have its concerns been our concerns in any discernible way? Have they been the public's concerns?
Yesterday, we attempted to list the concerns of the late, extremely highly regarded Professor Willard Van Orman Quine. Professor Quine was very highly regarded, presumably with good reason:
In a 1999 survey of philosophy professors, his otherwise unknown 1960 book, Word and Object, was rated the sixth most important philosophy text of the 20th century.
Ten years later, he topped even that. Another survey of specialists rated him the fifth most important philosopher of the past two hundred years!
Professor Quine was very highly regarded, presumably for good reason. But what exactly were his concerns, and to what extent were his concerns ours?
Yesterday, we tried to puzzle those questions out. We met with little success.
Speaking more broadly, what exactly have been the concerns of modern academic philosophy? We ask this question to set the stage for our effort to make Wittgenstein easy, an undertaking we've postponed until next week.
Professor Horwich has said, we think correctly, that the later Wittgenstein's work undermined the traditional work being done in this field. That said, what were the methods and the concerns of the field as Wittgenstein found it?
Today, we apologize in advance for the way we'll tackle that question. We apologized in advance on Wednesday, and now we do so again.
We apologize because we're going to discuss the work of another extremely high-ranking professor. That would be the late David Lewis, whose name we met, three days ago, in the following context:
Willard Van Orman Quine (1908 – 2000) was an American philosopher and logician in the analytic tradition, recognized as "one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century." From 1930 until his death 70 years later, Quine was continually affiliated with Harvard University in one way or another, first as a student, then as a professor. He filled the Edgar Pierce Chair of Philosophy at Harvard from 1956 to 1978.
Quine was a teacher of logic and set theory. Quine was famous for his position that first order logic is the only kind worthy of the name, and developed his own system of mathematics and set theory, known as New Foundations...
At Harvard, Quine helped supervise the Harvard graduate theses of, among others, David Lewis, Gilbert Harman, Dagfinn Føllesdal, Hao Wang, Hugues LeBlanc, Henry Hiz and George Myro.
We're skipping a lot of content today about Quine's many achievements and concerns. On the whole, that's the material we reviewed in yesterday's report. Today, we'll discuss a further bit of research we conducted, within the past week, when we first perused this material:
When we first perused this material, we were struck by the list of scholars whose graduate work Quine had supervised. Which concerns were their concerns? We found ourselves asking that question, and so we decided to click.
We clicked on (the late) David Lewis first. By all accounts, he was a thoroughly good, decent person—but what were his academic concerns? When we clicked, here's the thumbnail account we found:
David Kellogg Lewis (1941 – 2001) was an American philosopher who is widely regarded as one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. Lewis taught briefly at UCLA and then at Princeton University from 1970 until his death. He is closely associated with Australia, whose philosophical community he visited almost annually for more than 30 years.
Lewis made significant contributions in philosophy of mind, philosophy of probability, epistemology, philosophical logic, aesthetics, philosophy of mathematics, philosophy of time and philosophy of science. In most of these fields he is considered among the most important figures of recent decades. But Lewis is most famous for his work in metaphysics, philosophy of language and semantics, in which his books On the Plurality of Worlds (1986) and Counterfactuals (1973) are considered classics. His works on the logic and semantics of counterfactual conditionals are broadly used by philosophers and linguists along with a competing account from Robert Stalnaker; together the Stalnaker-Lewis theory of counterfactuals has become perhaps the most pervasive and influential account of its type in the philosophical and linguistic literature. His metaphysics incorporated seminal contributions to quantified modal logic, the development of counterpart theory, counterfactual causation, and the position called "Humean supervenience." Most comprehensively in On the Plurality of Worlds, Lewis defended modal realism: the view that possible worlds exist as concrete entities in logical space, and that our world is one among many equally real possible ones.
That was the start of what we found. We had several reactions.
As before, so too here! For starters, we were struck by the fact that Professor Lewis "is widely regarded as one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century."
We were struck by that fact for the following reason. As with the major philosophers on the lists to which we've referred, no one outside the field of academic philosophy has ever heard of Professor Lewis, despite his high rank within the field.
That isn't meant as a comment on the quality of his work, which by all accounts was very high. That said, it may be a comment on the nature of his concerns.
As a graduate student pursuing his doctorate, Quine was supervised by Alfred North Whitehead, who wrote the fifth and tenth most important philosophy books of the 20th century. Maintaining the tradition of excellence, Lewis was supervised by Quine, who wrote the sixth most important book.
Lewis emerged as one of the last century's most important philosophers. But what did he write and speak about? What were his concerns?
For starters, we were struck by the vast array of fields in which it's said that Professor Lewis excelled. As the summary of his work begins, we're told that he made significant contributions in the following fields:
Philosophy of mind
Philosophy of probability
Philosophy of mathematics
Philosophy of time
Philosophy of science
He made significant contributions in those eight fields, but no one in the general public has ever heard his name!
That doesn't mean that there was anything "wrong" with his work. But it may have something to say about his discipline's ongoing concerns.
Meanwhile, we're told that those significant contributions aren't what Professor Lewis is "most famous for." He's most famous for his work in three other fields (metaphysics, philosophy of language and semantics), we're told—and we're also told this:
His works on the logic and semantics of counterfactual conditionals are broadly used by philosophers and linguists along with a competing account from Robert Stalnaker; together the Stalnaker-Lewis theory of counterfactuals has become perhaps the most pervasive and influential account of its type in the philosophical and linguistic literature. His metaphysics incorporated seminal contributions to quantified modal logic, the development of counterpart theory, counterfactual causation, and the position called "Humean supervenience."
The account continues from there. We offer the following comments:
According to this account, Professor Lewis' works on the logic and semantics of counterfactual conditionals are broadly used by philosophers and linguists.
He also made seminal contributions to quantified modal logic, the development of counterpart theory, counterfactual causation, and the position called "Humean supervenience." But let's focus on the material we've set in bold.
Professor Lewis, a good, decent person, studied under the fifth most important philosopher of the past two hundred years. He himself is widely regarded as one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, and he's principally famous—though only within the academy—for "his works on the logic and semantics of counterfactual conditionals."
At this point, we offer a confession. We have no idea what "counterfactual conditionals" are. We don't think we've ever heard the term. Neither has anyone else.
For that reason, our clicking continued. When we clicked again, here's part of what we found:
Counterfactual conditionals (also subjunctive or X-marked) are conditional sentences which discuss what would have been true under different circumstances, e.g. "If Peter believed in ghosts, he would be afraid to be here." Counterfactuals are contrasted with indicatives, which are generally restricted to discussing open possibilities. Counterfactuals are characterized grammatically by their use of fake tense morphology, which some languages use in combination with other kinds of morphology including aspect and mood.
Counterfactuals are one of the most studied phenomena in philosophical logic, formal semantics, and philosophy of language. They were first discussed as a problem for the material conditional analysis of conditionals, which treats them all as trivially true. Starting in the 1960s, philosophers and linguists developed the now-classic possible world approach, in which a counterfactual's truth hinges on its consequent holding at certain possible worlds where its antecedent holds. More recent formal analyses have treated them using tools such as causal models and dynamic semantics. Other research has addressed their metaphysical, psychological, and grammatical underpinnings, while applying some of the resultant insights to fields including history, marketing, and epidemiology.
Counterfactuals were first discussed as a problem for the material conditional analysis of conditionals. They're one of the most studied phenomena in philosophical logic.
We're reminded of a question we often ask concerning a set of concerns sometimes referred to, in course titles, as "Problems in Philosophy."
The question we sometimes ask is this:
Who exactly are these "problems" problems for? (With the proper delivery, it works.)
Let's say it again! We aren't attempting to doubt that quality of Lewis' work in these various fields. We aren't even saying that these problems have no particular utility, although we'll admit that we may have our doubts.
It may be that these pursuits have some significant social utility of which we're unaware. But no one in the general public has any idea what that overview means, and our society's crying need for help with our clownish "daily logic" has been wholly ignored by the giants who have patrolled this larger field.
Were Tracy's concerns really Isaac's concerns? Manhattan was a work of fiction. In the end, there's no way to answer that question.
But how about the general field of academic philosophy? Have its concerns been our concerns? It should be possible to answer that alternate question.
Professor Quine was a giant in the field. Professor Lewis was widely regarded as a very important philosopher.
Out here where the people live, no one has ever heard their names. No one has the slightest idea what they spent their lives discussing and exploring.
Did their concerns have real utility, or were they the highly particular pseudo-concerns of a cosseted elite? It ought to be possible to answer that question, but this is the field the early Wittgenstein encountered when he journeyed to Cambridge and conquered Bertrand Russell—and this is the field he's sometimes said to have undermined with his later work.
Next week, we plan to make Wittgenstein easy. At some point, we'll even explain why such an undertaking might matter in the wider world.
For today, we'll end with one more brush with greatness, one involving Professor Putnam, he of "the Quine–Putnam indispensability argument, an argument for the reality of mathematical entities" (whatever that might mean).
In the street-fighting autumn of '67, we took, or perhaps pretended to take, Professor Quine's course, Deductive Logic. Though in truth we earned an F, we were given a D.
We also took Professor Putnam's course, Philosophy of Science. In that 2009 survey, he was rated the 18th most important philosopher of the past two hundred years, with Wittgenstein ranked number one.
There was no sign of that from Hilary Putnam. His concerns were our concerns. He gave us the standard straight A!
Monday: Bertrand Russell, very first page, "The Problems of Philosophy"