WE CALL IT READING A BOOK: What could be gained from reading this book?

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 21, 2021

Absolutely nothing: Full and complete disclosure! Nothing will be gained, at this point, from anyone's attempt to read this (most important) book.

It's much too late for some such outcome. The culture is too far gone at this point; most likely, it always was. Also, you have to consider the raw material out of which the culture was formed, or so anthropologists say.

We refer to Philosophical Investigations, the 1953 book which was chosen as "the most important philosophy book of the 20th century" in a 1999 survey of philosophy professors

It was the most important such book of the century, but no one has the slightest idea what its author, Ludwig Wittgenstein, demonstrated, claimed, alleged, suggested or even attempted to say. 

In part for that reason, the book has had zero effect on the western world's discourse. Nor is that going to change.

If we were going to teach this book, we'd start by advancing such gloomy points to a roomful of eager readers. These gloomy thoughts came to mind early today when we perused the New York Times, alighting on the latest "great repartee" between Gail Collins and Bret Stephens.

The new weekly feature in question is called The Conversation. In today's print editions, it eats three-fifths of page A20, filling the space which would otherwise belong to this newspaper's editorials.

"Great repartee," the first commenter said. Where once the culture had Tracy and Hepburn, or possibly Ozzie and Harriett, the Times now gives us Gail and Bret, with such sparkling repartee as that shown below.

Below, you see the repartee which opened today's Conversation. In a hundred words or less, the bon vivants tell us how to feel about last weekend's major D.C. event, The Capitol Rally Which Failed:

Bret Stephens: I can’t say I’m surprised that the rally fizzled: Donald Trump wasn’t there to light a fire, and Mike Pence wasn’t there to get burned by it. Plus, all of the arrests and guilty pleas from Jan. 6 are probably having a deterrent effect.

On the other hand, the fact that Trump is publicly supporting the Jan. 6 rioters who, he says, are “being persecuted so unfairly relating to the Jan. 6 protest concerning the Rigged Presidential Election” is a bad sign. The movement may be in remission, but it isn’t going away. It’s like knowing that a deadly virus, capable of infecting millions of people and wrecking the country, is being handled by a mad scientist at an unsafe facility. You might even call it the “Mar-a-Lago virus.”

Gail [Collins]: I do kind of like the idea of D.J.T. surrounded by beakers of deadly bacteria, with wild frizzy hair, laughing maniacally. But only for about 30 seconds. Let’s move on to a cheerier topic. Any further thoughts about the pandemic? Vaccine musings?

"You might even call it the Mar-a-Lago virus," Bret says, showcasing the failed attempts at wit with which he litters these conversations.

In response, Gail says she does "kind of like" a certain image, an image drawn straight out of The Simpsons and other cartoon fare. With that, it's on to a (tongue in cheek) "cheerier topic," as the Times gives readers one last way to pretend that the journalistic vapidity of the past several decades can still, somehow, be maintained as the world falls apart around us—that this can still be fun.

Stephens would do a whole lot better if he'd stop trying to showcase his wit. There's no reason why a journalist has to feel that he has to possess some such skill.

In our view, Collins defined herself for all time with her endless attempts to convey the impression that Mitt Romney, as a young parent, once drove hundreds of miles to a summer vacation with Seamus, his family's Irish setter, "strapped to the roof of his car." That's how vapid our upper-end discourse can get, and Collins seemed eager to prove it.

During the 2012 campaign, Collins inserted that grossly misleading claim into more than fifty (50) of her columns.  Her editors allowed this nonsense to unspool; overwhelmingly, commenters loved it. 

This is the world in which reading that book will do no good at all.

By the way, if Philosophical Investigations was the most important philosophy book of the 20th century, why haven't philosophy professors made its contents better known?

On its face, you're asking a very good question! In fact, those professors walked away from the real events of the actual world a very long time ago.

That history is directly connected to the contents of this most important book. But before we tried to approach its text, we'd also tell readers this:

The book in question is so peculiar that the reader, no matter how determined, shouldn't expect to "understand" it in any conventional sense. 

Do the professors understand the book? We wouldn't assume that they do. But new readers, no matter how hard they may try, aren't going to understand it in the way they might "understand" some other valuable book. 

That doesn't mean that its contents, jumbled and puzzling as they may be, can't be highly instructive.

In theory, the book can be highly instructive. For our money, Professor Horwich was pointing us in the right direction when he offered this, in the pixels of the New York Times no less:

HORWICH (3/3/13): Philosophy is respected, even exalted, for its promise to provide fundamental insights into the human condition and the ultimate character of the universe, leading to vital conclusions about how we are to arrange our lives. It’s taken for granted that there is deep understanding to be obtained of the nature of consciousness, of how knowledge of the external world is possible, of whether our decisions can be truly free, of the structure of any just society, and so on — and that philosophy’s job is to provide such understanding. Isn’t that why we are so fascinated by it?

If so, then we are duped and bound to be disappointed, says Wittgenstein. For these are mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking. So it should be entirely unsurprising that the “philosophy” aiming to solve them has been marked by perennial controversy and lack of decisive progress—by an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues.

Say what? (Academic) philosophy's (traditional) "problems" have always been "mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking?" 

College freshmen have always suspected as much. But can it really be true?

We would suspect that it can be true, and that some such understanding can be wrung from the general incoherence of Philosophical Investigations. For our own less lofty purposes, we'll suggest that something else is true:

This book can be used as a brilliant primer in clearer thinking. The dumbness of the public discourse is the sea in which we've all been swimming. Maddening though it may be, Philosophical Investigations points to ways to avoid our ocean of muddled thinking—but given the ways we humans are wired, are we really inclined to long for any such service?

We'd start by telling the new reader that she probably won't understand this book in any conventional sense. We'd also note that it's much too late for the book to do any good.

In that case, why proceed with our effort at all? Borrowing from Tara Westover, we call our effort "reading a book," but also "an education."

Tomorrow: Back to Wittgenstein's preface


21 comments:

  1. "Nothing will be gained, at this point, from anyone's attempt to read this (most important) book." Not even for philosophers? That seems unlikely to be true.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And later Somerby says:

      "That doesn't mean that its contents, jumbled and puzzling as they may be, can't be highly nstructive."

      Somerby needs to go home and make up his mind.

      Delete
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  2. "...but no one has the slightest idea what its author, Ludwig Wittgenstein, demonstrated, claimed, alleged, suggested or even attempted to say."

    This is manifestly untrue given that Somerby himself took a course on this book taught by a professor at Harvard, and they don't teach courses without knowing their material.

    Somerby is perhaps not the best person to evaluate what others know about Wittgenstein, given his self-reported grade in that course.

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  3. "The new weekly feature in question is called The Conversation."

    This supposedly new feature has been running since at least 2018. Not exactly new, in my opinion.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "Where once the culture had Tracy and Hepburn, or possibly Ozzie and Harriett..."

    Harriet spelled her name without two t's. Tracy and Hepburn were paired in films but not married, nor did they live together since Tracy was married to someone else. Ozzie and Harriet were married in real life and portrayed a married couple on screen, largely TV. Their banter focused on home life. Tracy and Hepburn made all sorts of films about all sorts of topics, some serious. There is no equivalence between them and Ozzie and Harriet.

    And no equivalence between either pair and these two op-ed columnists. False equivalence is a propaganda tactic, not a rhetorical device. Somerby's superficiality and lack of understanding of basic things is on full display with this empty sequence.

    If Somerby were being paid by the word, there might be some justification for this tripe, but his stream of consciousness linking of pairs (why not Tom & Jerry or Abbott & Costello or does Somerby think gender matters in this conversation?) just takes up space with no info conveyed and no entertainment value. Just an embarrassing meandering of associations reminiscent of doddering old age.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. One other nice thing about Ozzie and Harriet: the two boys in the show were their sons in real life. They of course resembled their parents and each other, so they looked like a real family. Usually families are portrayed by unrelated actors, but the Nelsons were special.

      If you want to consider Tom & Jerry, I'd suggest the great popular musicians Tom Graph and Jerry Landis.

      Delete
  5. ""You might even call it the Mar-a-Lago virus," Bret says, showcasing the failed attempts at wit with which he litters these conversations."

    Well, the conservatives have been calling it the Wuhan virus, so why not Mar a Lago, given its status as a superspreading site while Trump was President?

    ReplyDelete
  6. "Stephens would do a whole lot better if he'd stop trying to showcase his wit. There's no reason why a journalist has to feel that he has to possess some such skill."

    Spoken like the jealous comedian he is.

    ReplyDelete
  7. "Borrowing from Tara Westover,"

    Somerby has no idea what Tara Westover would think about reading Wittgenstein, but that doesn't stop him from yanking her words out of her contect and applying them however he wishes. I doubt she would endorse anything about Somerby's essays, but by lifting her words he gives his own thoughts an implied endorsement that is not a fair use of her writing.

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  8. Wow people... if it's that god-awful stop reading and let the blog fade away into complete irrelevance.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You could post this in response to any comment on any blog on the internet.

      Why should any blog escape feedback from readers? Why would you want to stifle discussion?

      Delete
    2. I'm not seeking to stifle discussion. Can you call this discussion though? The incessant nit-picking does not appear to ever cross into the actual realm of discussion. But people can do as they wish! And I remain curious about why anyone would read something that they never, ever find anything of value in.

      Delete
    3. Anonymouse 2:06pm, the reason why was pointed out by the Mouse Queen the other day.

      180+ unique visitors.

      That drives them nuts!

      Delete
    4. Most of today's essay was just personal attacks. What is there to discuss?

      Delete
  9. Let us leave philosophy to philosophers, dear Bob. Clearly, they aren't going to do any honest work anyway, so why not let them philosophize. Preferably quietly, in an attic somewhere.

    Otherwise, thank you again for documenting liberal atrocities.

    We're confident that no one is reading the New York Times shit you quote, dear Bob. And it is, it really is so admirable that you're sacrificing your brain cells (whatever's left there) en masse to read and quote it for us. Respect, man.

    ReplyDelete
  10. 1.The Wall Street Journal is read by the people who run the country.

    2.The Washington Post is read by people who think they run the country.

    3.The New York Times is read by people who think they should run the country, and who are very good at crossword puzzles.

    4.USA Today is read by people who think they ought to run the country but don't really understand The New York Times.

    5.The Los Angeles Times is read by people who wouldn't mind running the country, if they could find the time and if they didn't have to leave Southern California to do it.

    6. The Boston Globe is read by people whose parents used to run the country.

    7. The New York Daily News is read by people who aren't too sure who's running the country and don't really care as long as they can get a seat on the train.

    8.The New York Post is read by people who don't care who is running the country as long as they do something really scandalous, preferably while intoxicated.

    9.The Chicago Tribune is read by people that are in prison that used to run the state, & would like to do so again, as would their constituents that are currently free on bail.

    10.The Miami Herald is read by people who are running another country, but need the baseball scores.

    11.The San Francisco Chronicle is read by people who aren't sure if there is a country or that anyone is running it; but if so, they oppose all that they stand for. There are occasional exceptions if the leaders are gay, handicapped, minority, feminist, atheists, and those who also happen to be illegal aliens from any other country or galaxy, provided of course, that they are not Republicans.

    12.The National Enquirer is read by people trapped in line at the grocery store.

    13.The Seattle Times is read by people who have recently caught a fish and need something to wrap it in.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And the other 90% of Americans don't read anything.

      Delete
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