March 4, 2013

On Wittgenstein's philosophies
"No one capable of recognizing profound philosophy can open the Philosophical Investigations without perceiving that it is a work of genius"
-- Michael Dummett (not my opinion - MM)


1.  On Horwich on Wittgenstein
About ME/CFS


I still do not sleep enough because I get woken up by painful eyes -  keratoconjunctivitis sicca - and therefore, like yesterday, this is only a brief Nederlog.

1. On Horwich on Wittgenstein

My subject is - the first part of - an article by Paul Horwich, who is an academic philosopher, who wrote an article called

that you find under the link, in the Opinionator blogs of the New York Times, dated March 3, 2013. I will only discuss the first half, since the second half presumes a peculiar understanding and reading of Wittgenstein that I do not share and that my readers probably do not know and are not interested in - as it belongs to what professor Horwich calls "Wittgenstein's metaphilosophy", about which he also wrote a book with that title.

Horwich's article starts as follows - possibly somewhat in irony:

The singular achievement of the controversial early 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was to have discerned the true nature of Western philosophy — what is special about its problems, where they come from, how they should and should not be addressed, and what can and cannot be accomplished by grappling with them. The uniquely insightful answers provided to these meta-questions are what give his treatments of specific issues within the subject — concerning language, experience, knowledge, mathematics, art and religion among them — a power of illumination that cannot be found in the work of others.

That is indeed what many have claimed, especially between 1930 and 1970, and about what often has been called Wittgenstein II, that is, about what may be called his linguistic philosophy, expressed in his "Philosophical Investigations", which was posthumously published with his consent, and also some other books, such as "On Certainty", "The Blue and Brown Books" and "Remarks on the foundations of mathematics", that were also posthumously published, but not with his explicit consent.

There also is Wittgenstein I, the writer of the "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus", about what may be called his logical philosophy, that he himself gave up around 1930, perhaps - in part - in consequence of hearing L.E.J. Brouwer lecture.

Horwich continues:

Admittedly, few would agree with this rosy assessment — certainly not many professional philosophers. Apart from a small and ignored clique of hard-core supporters the usual view these days is that his writing is self-indulgently obscure and that behind the catchy slogans there is little of intellectual value.

Indeed, and I agree, although I am not "a professional" - academically tenured - philosopher. Then again, I am the only person removed from a Dutch university since 1945, briefly before taking my M.A. in philosophy, namely "because of your publicly outspoken ideas" - specifically: These 39 questions about the decline of education and government in Holland - as the Board of Directors of the University of Amsterdam informed me "in spite of your illness, that we take quite serious", for one should not think such worthy members of the Dutch Labour Party could possibly be sadists.

But let that be: I agree with Horwich's second statement, as did the writer of Wittgenstein's vita, it seems:

In fact, this is a nice bit of fun, well worth reading if you are interested in or impressed by Wittgenstein - and as it happens, I wrote about it in Nederlog in 2010, where you also find more of my own view of this thinker:

I skip a bit and arrive at Horwich's description of what Wittgenstein claimed:

Wittgenstein claims that there are no realms of phenomena whose study is the special business of a philosopher, and about which he or she should devise profound a priori theories and sophisticated supporting arguments. There are no startling discoveries to be made of facts, not open to the methods of science, yet accessible “from the armchair” through some blend of intuition, pure reason and conceptual analysis. Indeed the whole idea of a subject that could yield such results is based on confusion and wishful thinking.

This is more or less correct as stated - except for two points, neither of which is minor.

The first is that Horwich does not distinguish between Wittgenstein I and Wittgenstein II, aka the earlier and later Wittgenstein, though the two differ, and what Horwich says is more correct about II than about I, who thought that he had a number of important discoveries about logic (logical truths are tautologies); about meaning (language represents reality like pictures do); and about philosophy (its kernel is mystical and cannot be expressed in language).

I do not know why Horwich does not make the distinction between W I and W II, but it may be - who knows? - a matter of available space.

The second is that, completely apart from Wittgenstein's teachings, in whatever shape or period, one of the major facts about modern philosophy, roughly since Galileo and Newton, is that much of what was traditionally called "philosophy" - Newton considered himself "a natural philosopher", for example, meaning something like "natural scientist" or "physicist" - has been moved to special sciences, like physics, chemistry, and biology.

Hence what remains for philosophy are questions that cannot be properly answered within the context and conceptual framework of some specific science, and presumably mostly consists of very general questions about what science is, what meaning is, what are good and bad, how we can know and know that we can know, and what we should and should not do, and why, and perhaps also what are the intellectual foundations of the sciences, mathematics, religion and human society.

Also, there are a number of philosophies and philosophers - such as Marx and Nietzsche, and communism and nazism, and less importantly, Heidegger and Sartre - whatever their intellectual or moral merits have had very important social and political consequences, which justifies their academic study.

I think that second answer - the last two paragraphs - is more or less correct. Horwich does not explicitly raise it, though he touches upon it, since he continues thus:

This attitude is in stark opposition to the traditional view, which continues to prevail. 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?

What Horwich calls "the traditional view" is not quite what I meant, especially since I hold that many "fundamental insights" sought by philosophy and philosophers until the 19th Century, have been answered by the sciences and scientists that arose since the 17th Century, and not by the teachings and books by academic philosophers - though these have often disagreed.

Horwich continues

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.

As I suggested: The reason Wittgenstein is somewhat right is not that his teachings are correct, but rather that many of the traditional philosophical questions - what are the constituents of matter? what is life? what is consciousness? what is a valid argument? - have been moved to special sciences - physics, chemistry, biology, psychology - that have succeeded in providing far better answers than philosophy, thus called, did before those sciences developed, with their own methods, techniques, and fields of study.

What is embarrassing, rather, is that the term "philosophy" has been used so ambiguously - as if what it meant in (say) 1550 was roughly the same as what it meant in (say) 1950.

There is considerably more, though most of it is a bit more specific and about Wittgenstein, which is why I will not quote nor discuss it, also because it seems to me mostly misleading and mistaken, as is this:

Given this extreme pessimism about the potential of philosophy — perhaps tantamount to a denial that there is such a subject — it is hardly surprising that “Wittgenstein” is uttered with a curl of the lip in most philosophical circles. For who likes to be told that his or her life’s work is confused and pointless?

Horwich does not quote statistical evidence, and neither will I, but it is certainly true that from the fifties till the seventies or eighties hordes of academically tenured philosophers - in the US, England, Scandinavia, Holland, Germany, Austria - made a very fine living teaching quite a few generations of students of philosophy that Wittgenstein (II, specifically) had shown that all philosophical problems reside in confusions of language. See: Ordinary language philosophy, once a considerable academic industry, with many publications, books, congresses, and very well paid academic teachers of it.

I think they were wrong - both intellectually and morally - but for some thirty or forty years Wittgenstein's name was not spoken of in disdain or with "a curl of the lip in most philosophical circles": In fact hundreds of academically employed academic philosophers had well-paid lives mouthing and "explaining" Wittgenstein II's stances to quite a few generations of students of philosophy, who indeed got none the wiser, but were for the most part bluffed into submission by his obscurities and pretenses. [2]


[1] As I indicated, this is a pdf. In the latest Firefox I used, numbered 19.0, there is supposed to be a new facility to display pdf's in tabs, but as it happens on my Ubuntu, it gets displayed, but in an unreadable way. (One can still download it, and it is a nice bit of fun.)
[2] An interesting polemical take down of Wittgenstein II and his followers is "Words and Things" by Ernest Gellner, with a foreword by Bertrand Russell. I quote Gellner from Wikipedia:

[A]t that time the orthodoxy best described as linguistic philosophy, inspired by Wittgenstein, was crystallizing and seemed to me totally and utterly misguided. Wittgenstein's basic idea was that there is no general solution to issues other than the custom of the community. Communities are ultimate. He didn't put it this way, but that was what it amounted to. And this doesn't make sense in a world in which communities are not stable and are not clearly isolated from each other. Nevertheless, Wittgenstein managed to sell this idea, and it was enthusiastically adopted as an unquestionable revelation. It is very hard nowadays for people to understand what the atmosphere was like then. This was the Revelation. It wasn't doubted. But it was quite obvious to me it was wrong. It was obvious to me the moment I came across it, although initially, if your entire environment, and all the bright people in it, hold something to be true, you assume you must be wrong, not understanding it properly, and they must be right. And so I explored it further and finally came to the conclusion that I did understand it right, and it was rubbish, which indeed it is.

About ME/CF (that I prefer to call M.E.: The "/CFS" is added to facilitate search machines) which is a disease I have since 1.1.1979:
1. Anthony Komaroff

Ten discoveries about the biology of CFS(pdf)

3. Hillary Johnson

The Why  (currently not available)

4. Consensus (many M.D.s) Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf - version 2003)
5. Consensus (many M.D.s) Canadian Consensus Government Report on ME (pdf - version 2011)
6. Eleanor Stein

Clinical Guidelines for Psychiatrists (pdf)

7. William Clifford The Ethics of Belief
8. Malcolm Hooper Magical Medicine (pdf)
Maarten Maartensz
Resources about ME/CFS
(more resources, by many)

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