BREAKING: Wittgenstein quotes the Theaeteus!

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 7, 2021

But what were his books about?: According to an array of experts, the later Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations was the most important philosophy book of the 20th century.  

For better or worse, it's hard to tell what Wittgenstein was talking about in the puzzling book (link below). For this and at least one other reason, this most important philosophy book of the century plays exactly zero role in our primitive public discourse.

According to those same experts, Wittgenstein's earlier book, the nimbly-named Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), was the fourth most important philosophy book of the 20th century. For non-specialists, it's impossible to know what he was talking about in that earlier book.

(A bit of chronology: Wittgenstein died of cancer in 1951, at age 62. Philosophical Investigations was published two years later.)

Last week, we spent some time discussing the Theaetetus. Right on through the 20th century, academic philosophers still belonged to warring schools of thought concerning Plato's unreadable text.

Fairly early in Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein quotes the Theaetetus. The passage in question helps explain why Wittgenstein's books are so hard to understand.

For the record, Philosophical Investigations isn't divided into chapters. For whatever reason, it's divided into numbered passages. These passages are routinely referred to as "paragraphs," even though the passages routinely contain several standard paragraphs. 

At any rate, in this, the 46th numbered passage, Wittgenstein quotes the Theaetetus. As he does, he includes a reference to his own first book:

46. What lies behind the idea that names really signify simples?—

Socrates says in the Theaetetus: "If I make no mistake, I have heard some people say this: there is no definition of the primary elements—so to speak—out of which we and everything else are composed; for everything that exists in its own right can only be named, no other determination is possible, neither that it is nor that it is not...But what exists in its own right has to be...named without any other determination. In consequence it is impossible to give an account of any primary element; for it, nothing is possible but the bare name; its name is all it has. But just as what consists of these primary elements is itself complex, so the names of the elements become descriptive language by being compounded together. For the essence of speech is the composition of names."

Both Russell's "individuals" and my "objects" (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) were such primary elements.

Deletions by Wittgenstein. "Russell" is Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein's early mentor. 

That passage helps explain something about this most important book:

A great deal of the most important book is a rolling critique of the fourth most important book. This is never stated in a straightforward way, a fact which adds to the maddening obscurity of the most important text.

In effect, Wittgenstein was rejecting the approach to "philosophy" which he had accepted when he wrote the Tractatus as a very young hombre. In effect, he was walking away from an addled tradition which had persisted for several thousand years—the classic "duffer" tradition which led Whitehead to say that all of western academic philosophy was "a series of footnotes to Plato."

As we noted again this morning, Professor Horwich has offered a bone-crushing account of Wittgenstein's work in Philosophical Investigations. According to Horwich, Wittgenstein was now saying that that the prevailing academic tradition had long (unknowingly) concerned itself with "mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking." 

It seems to us that Horwich is right. That said, Wittgenstein was such an obscure writer that it's hard to discern what he's talking about through the bulk of the last century's most important philosophy book.

Ironically, some highly useful rules for the road emerge from this bewildering jumble—approaches which help us avoid certain types of conceptual confusion. (In Horwich's terms, certain types of "linguistic illusion and muddled thinking.")

Philosophy professors have thoroughly failed to bring such information forward. We'll guess that, as  a general matter, they haven't noticed that these rules for the road exist.

We'll discuss those rules for the road in the weeks and month ahead. For today, you can see the passage where Wittgenstein finally quit the Theaetetus, several thousand years later. 

As patriots, we're going to call it the spirit of 46!


14 comments:

  1. "As patriots, we're going to call it the spirit of 46!"

    Ah, the spirit of a vegetable. Makes sense...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Are you referring to V8 in the 46 oz can?

      Delete
  2. Something else Somerby might consider unnecessary, like removing derogatory racist names from geographical features:

    https://www.theroot.com/alabama-set-to-cut-racist-language-from-state-constitut-1847628146?utm_source=theroot_newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2021-09-07

    ReplyDelete
  3. "For this and at least one other reason, this most important philosophy book of the century plays exactly zero role in our primitive public discourse."

    Excluding The Tao of Pooh, name a philosophy book that does play a role in our public discourse (which I do not consider to be primitive).

    Primitive and uneducated do not mean the same thing.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "For whatever reason, it's divided into numbered passages."

    The most likely reason is that he hadn't yet compiled his thoughts into a book before he got sick and died. Does Somerby really wonder about that?

    ReplyDelete
  5. "A great deal of the most important book is a rolling critique of the fourth most important book."

    Somerby calls it a critique, but that may not be the purpose of it. It seems more likely to be a self-reference to his other work in order to place what he is saying in some context, to note what has changed about his thinking or to expand on previous ideas.

    It makes no sense that Wittgenstein would be critiquing his prior work instead of referring to it for other purposes. He may even be addressing prior criticisms of his previous work made by other thinkers (in the intervening years).

    ReplyDelete
  6. "That said, Wittgenstein was such an obscure writer that it's hard to discern what he's talking about through the bulk of the last century's most important philosophy book."

    In the passage Somerby quotes, Wittgenstein is saying that primary elements are those elements which cannot be broken down into smaller parts. Many philosophers believed that complex thinking arose from the combination of primary elements. Wittgenstein just says that they can be named but not defined in terms of constituent elements. That is not very controversial, nor is it original, except for the part about attaching names even to basic, primary elements.

    Measurement is the assignment of numbers to things in the world. Naming is the assignment of identifying, referential words to things in the world. It is difficult to think about things without using names because the names permit language to be used in thinking. Otherwise thinking is limited to visualizing the object and that makes it more difficult to manipulate that object.

    ReplyDelete
  7. ‘According to Horwich, Wittgenstein was now saying that that the prevailing academic tradition had long (unknowingly) concerned itself with "mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking."’

    So, every philosopher prior to Wittgenstein was going about it wrong? Then there wouldn’t be much point in studying them. Philosophy departments ought to transform into ‘(The Later) Wittgenstein Departments.’ Presumably, they would teach racism something something word games.

    And...problem solved, if you’re a crackpot.

    ReplyDelete
  8. ‘For better or worse, it's hard to tell what Wittgenstein was talking about in the puzzling book’

    Then how the hell does Somerby know? Isn’t a lack of clarity supposed to indicate a lack of understanding?

    Where is that ‘Wittgenstein Made Easy’ we were promised?

    ReplyDelete
  9. Wouldn’t it be more logical and sensible to go after journalism departments, or law schools, or even economics or political science or hell, business? These are fields whose graduates have quite a bit more influence than philosophy majors, for christ’s sake.

    ReplyDelete
  10. From Robert Harrington at Palmer Report:

    "A favored bromide of the coronavirus conspiracy claque is “Do your own research,” or “I did my own research.” While you’re at it, do your own brain surgery. There is nothing easy or banal about research. Research is done by scientists in labs or PhDs writing peer-reviewed papers or white-coated clinicians conducting double blind clinical trials, not by some lout sitting on a toilet watching YouTube on his phone. I wouldn’t know how to begin “researching” coronavirus. We have people who do that kind of thing already. They’re called “experts.”

    The idea that some platitude-parroting mediocrity could do research is a fatuous conceit, an outlandish mistake of Dunning-Kruger proportions. But it’s claimed so often and with such insouciance on the internet that people get away with it every day.

    I recall an online debate from several months ago. A person with actual scientific credentials was debating some proton-brained, Dunning-Kruger poster child who didn’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re” and began a sentence with, “I don’t care what scientists say” — and he wasn’t called out on it. “Wait a second, what?” I wanted to write. But I was otherwise engaged and stayed out of it. Instead of challenging the cretin the scientist replied, “I respect that.” Well I don’t. And it’s time for us to stop letting people get away with such risible, irresponsible claptrap."

    When Somerby considers experts more important to listen to than crackpots, I will consider his opinions about who is competent to save the country.

    ReplyDelete
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