WITTGENSTEIN MADE EASY: Wittgenstein tops a second list!


But first, our own brush with greatness: Yesterday, we learned of another survey.

We'd checked in with the leading authority of the life and work of the late Willard Van Orman Quine, a Harvard philosophy professor of long standing, and also of high renown.

In the street-fighting fall of 1967, we took, or largely pretended to take, Quine's one-semester course, Phil 140: Deductive Logic. We'll only tell you this:

The grade we were unaccountably given kept us out of Vietnam. Disaffection could carry a hefty price back in those street-fighting days!

In 1999, Professor Lackey asked 4,000 philosophy professors to identify the most important philosophy texts of the 20th century. As we showed you yesterday, Professor Quine's 1960 book, Word and Object, earned sixth spot on that survey's list, with you-know-which book ranking first and described as "a runaway winner:"

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

It occurred to us that we knew almost nothing about Professor Quine's life and work—and so, we decided to check with the leading authority on the subject. We were struck by a certain aspect of that authority's overview—but for now, let's just consider this statement:

"A 2009 poll conducted among analytic philosophers named Quine as the fifth most important philosopher of the past two centuries."

Another survey had been taken, this time in 2009! As it turns out, this second survey was conducted by Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog.

We can't find an account of this second survey's methodology. Based on what we've been able to discover, we aren't sure that this survey was actually restricted to "analytic philosophers" (a subset of the larger group), or even to philosophy professors at all.  

That said, the survey was conducted by Professor Leiter, and sure enough! When we checked, we saw that Professor Quine had been ranked fifth—and that you-know-who had triumphed again:

The most important philosophers of the past 200 years:
1. Ludwig Wittgenstein
2. Gottlob Frege
3. Bertrand Russell 
4. John Stuart Mill
5. W.V.O. Quine
6. G.W.F. Hegel
7. Saul Kripke
8. Friedrich Nietzsche
9. Karl Marx 
10. Soren Kierkegaard

As best we can tell, Professor Leiter had made no attempt to ensure that his respondents were a representative sample of some larger group. Still, there we see  a second survey, conducted within the world of academic philosophy, in which respondents, whoever they may have been, named Wittgenstein as king of the roost—in this case, as the most important philosopher of the past two hundred years!

This survey was taken in 2009. Coupled with Lackey's earlier effort, it seems to call Professor Horwich onto the carpet.

Four years later, in 2013, Horwich would claim that the philosophy academy had largely thrown the later Wittgenstein under the bus. He made his claim in this essay at the The Stone, the New York Times' philosophy blog.

We've cited Horwich' intriguing essay on several occasions in the past. Within the next few days, or perhaps within the next week, we expect to do so again.

Basically, Horwich said that the later Wittgenstein's work undermined much of the traditional philosophy canon. As such, it undermined much of the work favored by philosophy professors. For that reason, Horwich said, professors had begin to disregard, even perhaps to mock, Wittgenstein's later work.

By the time we saw Horwich's essay, we'd been wondering about that possibility for several decades. We persist in thinking that, at least in theory, his thesis makes good sense.

That said, here were two surveys in which large numbers of philosophy professors placed Wittgenstein at the top of the pile! Setting Horwich's claims to the side for now, we return to the capsule summary of Professor Quine's highly-regarded work.

Without any question, Professor Quine was seen as a giant in the field. Even as we acknowledge that fact, we think the overview of his work has a slight sideways feel:

Willard Van Orman Quine (June 25, 1908 – December 25, 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. In philosophy of mathematics, he and his Harvard colleague Hilary Putnam developed the Quine–Putnam indispensability argument, an argument for the reality of mathematical entities. However, he was the main proponent of the view that philosophy is not conceptual analysis, but continuous with science; the abstract branch of the empirical sciences. This led to his famous quip that "philosophy of science is philosophy enough."...

His major writings include the papers "On What There Is," which elucidated Bertrand Russell's theory of descriptions and contains Quine's famous dictum of ontological commitment, "To be is to be the value of a variable," and "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" (1951) which attacked the traditional analytic-synthetic distinction and reductionism, undermining the then-popular logical positivism, advocating instead a form of semantic holism. They also include the books The Web of Belief, which advocates a kind of coherentism, and Word and Object (1960), which further developed these positions and introduced Quine's famous indeterminacy of translation thesis, advocating a behaviorist theory of meaning.

A 2009 poll conducted among analytic philosophers named Quine as the fifth most important philosopher of the past two centuries...

Quine received his B.A. summa cum laude in mathematics from Oberlin College in 1930, and his Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University in 1932. His thesis supervisor was Alfred North Whitehead. He was then appointed a Harvard Junior Fellow, which excused him from having to teach for four years.


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.

Quine's thesis supervisor was Alfred North Whitehead! Whitehead finished fifth and tenth on the "most important books" list, but let's set that to the side.

As we read that overview, we had a certain reaction. We were struck by the fact that, while Quine seems to be viewed, within the academy, as one of the most important philosophers of the past two centuries, a general reader will have no idea what any part of that overview might mean.

Quine is said to have offered "a famous quip"—a quip the average person won't likely be able to recognize as a quip of any kind. He's said to have offered a famous thesis—a famous "indeterminacy of translation thesis," in which he "advocated a behaviorist theory of meaning."

In a passage which sounds almost Onionesque, Quine is even said to have advocated a position or belief referred to as "coherentism." Rather, he's said to have "advocated a kind of coherentism," an almost Onionseque construction which seems to suggest the existence of several varieties of this comically-named philosophical mystery meat.

Quine "was famous for his position that first order logic is the only kind worthy of the name," this overview said. Presumably, he was famous for that only within the academy. Elsewhere, would anyone have any idea what such a position entails?

Outside the academy, does anyone have any idea what any of that overview means? Meanwhile, there sits Wittgenstein once again, listed as king of all he surveyed. Does anyone outside the academy have even the slightest idea what he may have said or done to merit his high rank?

In the coming weeks and months, we'll be advocating a certain alternate view. We'll advocate the view that there's a highly worthwhile type of logic known as "Daily Logic"—a type of logic largely honored in the breach. We'll also advocate for this view:

It's in part for lack of this daily logic that our failing nation has long been miserably failing, as it continues to do today.

To appearances, the world of academic philosophy walked away from the world of daily affairs many years ago. Tomorrow, we'll click one link in the Quine overview, allowing us to offer more thoughts on this unfortunate subject.

We suspect that Professor Horwich is right. But for now, as the surveys keep rolling in, his thesis will just have to wait.

Tomorrow: An astonishing list of specialties, plus additional brushes with greatness


  1. "...was an American philosopher and logician..."

    American philosopher? Sorry, dear Bob, but that's an oxymoron. Chinese, German, British, French, Russian -- sure. But American? Meh.

  2. In this piece Bob Somerby comes to the realization that no one reads or cares about philosophy or philosophers. It won't be long now, I suppose before he comes to the shocking realization that no one reads poetry nowadays.

    1. Yes, philosophy today is pretty much useless, except to hone's one skills in logic and rigorous thought or whatever you want to call it. But there are many other ways to do that.

      Philosophy asks such pointless questions as what is the nature of reality and do things exist. Excruciating amounts of time are poured into this, and then into the commentary on it, and the moving of philosophers around into different camps. Like keeping score at some kind of football match.

      Reality is simply the observable universe. Things exist if they can be directly or indirectly observed. We have Physics, Astronomy and other sciences to help us understand how these things work.

      For language and the brain, we have linguistics. We also have social science etc.

      The notion that there are "influential" philosophers is itself pretty strange. Influential to whom? Other philosophers? Nothing useful ever seems to surface out of philosophy, except perhaps on a personal level if one is looking for meaning in life. Basically any other question can be answered better using the scientific method.

    2. Since the scientific method is derived from principles of logic, which is a subset of philosophy, it’s not quite possible to separate the two completely. The question of the validity of the scientific method itself falls under a set of philosophical considerations.

      Also, many important human concerns are not answerable by the scientific method, and most people don’t live their lives based on it. Why do I like certain kinds of music? Why am I here? Is there a god? Is there life after death? What is love? Should I be a vegetarian?

      Not even questions of politics or public policy can necessarily be resolved using the scientific method. It often comes down to preference. Should government intervene to help citizens or should it practice benign neglect? I don’t see how the scientific method can be employed to provide any definitive answer.

      Some questions might be resolved by use of logical reasoning, but that isn’t quite the same thing as the scientific method.

    3. Careful, with your argument you seem to be alternately defining philosophy as everything but science, or as all thought.

      Just because Science can't answer certain questions (Why do I like certain kinds of music?) does not mean we immediately turn to Philosophy. How are people that have never studied Philosophy identifying their favorite music? Quite easily.

      Philosophy may have given birth to logic but it's long since moved on into the realm of Science. Ethics is moving into Science. We have Political Science for questions of government.

      Should government intervene to help citizens or should it practice benign neglect? Define your measures of success and gather data.

  3. When are you going to resume coverage of the press, the stated purpose of this blog? Who cares about Wittgenstein and Einstein?

  4. "In a passage which sounds almost Onionesque, Quine is even said to have advocated a position or belief referred to as "coherentism." Rather, he's said to have "advocated a kind of coherentism," an almost Onionseque construction which seems to suggest the existence of several varieties of this comically-named philosophical mystery meat."

    Mocking things you don't understand is a longstanding American tradition, given the Onionesque name of "Know-Nothingism," also known as anti-intellectualism. I think that expertise has earned its position of respect by improving the quality of life on our planet way beyond reasonable expectations. Somerby demonstrates only his own foolishness when he writes stuff like this.

    I've been suggesting that Somerby glance at both Quine and Putnam for months now. But Somerby purportedly doesn't read his comments. That's another example of how know-nothings navigate their environment. When they are given hints, they ignore them.

    Nature often has a way of taking care of buffoons like Somerby. An acknowledgement of this fact is called The Darwin Award.

  5. >I think that expertise has earned its position of respect by improving the quality of life on our planet way beyond reasonable expectations.

    What expertise?

    1. All forms of expertise. That is what expertise is for. People who scoff at knowledge are ignoring the good that knowing things has done in improving our lives.

  6. Hell man, the general reader _can't_ understand high philosophy - the terms are like a form of mathematics. You only 'get it' if you understand the concepts that dive deeper and deeper into "deep thought." Which somehow fails itself.

    But dang, science is even worse, or the same. I mean, look up mRNA, or just RNA, and you have to literally say to yourself, "WTF?" The only reason I can read it with the slightest understanding is because I had a decent education. And, of course, because I believe the science is correct, for no other reason than that I trust in science.

    Like I've said before - if you don't understand it, you won't believe it. Unless you inhabit the rarefied air of academia, of which we're not a part mostly. So I agree with Bob on that point.

    I guess that's why philosophy departments exist - to satisfy the philosophers. What the fuck more do you really need, beside caring about your fellow humans and our planet at large, and the logical conclusions of being alive itself? Anything else is just fluff.


  7. "One of their gurus is Nick Bostrom, an Oxford University philosopher, who has contributed an academic gloss to this new religion masquerading as rationalism. He argues that, seen from tens of thousands of years in the future, the looming climate catastrophe won’t seem such a big deal — it will look as important as the crimes of the Roman empire or Genghis Khan appear to us today.

    The imminent suffering of millions or even billions of human beings from rising seawaters, wildfires, droughts and food shortages pales when compared to the survival of the few who will reseed the planet and wider universe with conscious life. With the expansion of technologies already under development (by the billionaires), there will be many, many trillions of future biological humans colonizing the universe or digital equivalents living in a post-human world."



    1. "the crimes of the Roman empire or Genghis Khan"

      Crimes? With all due respect to Mr Cook's work in the past, he sounds like a fool.

      As for "the imminent suffering of millions or even billions of human beings from rising seawaters", somehow it didn't stop Demigod Barry from buying a $12 million sea-level mansion on Martha's Vineyard.

      Demigod Barry might be many things, but he ain't no fool. So, forgive us for being skeptical, but something's fishy with the "rising seawaters" panic.

    2. "Demigod Barry might be many things,..."

      Black seems to be the one that bothers the Right.

    3. We don’t appreciate Biden’s skin color either.

    4. Personally, we only appreciate orange skin. No other skin color will do.

  8. "We don’t appreciate Biden’s skin color either."

    "American citizen" isn't a skin color.

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