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