Wittgenstein, Arendt, Popper & Kuhn, and the Hitch

Today in CoPhi it’s Wittgenstein (and Barry Smith on Wittgenstein),ArendtPopper & Kuhn in LH, and the infamous Christopher (“God is not great“) Hitchens, among others in AtP.

We’re also reading Hitchens in A&P, his incredibly inspiring Mortality. No atheists in foxholes or cancer wards? Hitch was here.

But before I forget: the Earth Day debate with Rabbi Rami was terrific, at least from my spot in the circle. We need to do thatmore often, get together with our students and exchange ideas. Too many of the gatherings on the 3d floor of our building, lately, are about things like copy machines and future schedules. For what it’s worth.

Wittgenstein is said to have favored American westerns, but didn’t admit to enjoying them. “I don’t know why we’re here, but I’m pretty sure it’s not to enjoy ourselves.” Was he responding to Santayana (“no cure for birth and death, save to enjoy the interval”) or just being his own morose self? I’ll bet he never took or offered a Happiness class. (In fairness, his family historywas less than cheering.)

But I always try to accentuate the positive, when introducing philosophers. Wittgenstein, to his credit, laudably walked away from the academic profession of philosophy when he thought he’d said everything wherof he could meaningfully speak. Changed his mind later, of course, just in time for the posthumous publication of Philosophical Investigations. But good for him. I think he was moving in the right direction, away from a futile preoccupation with how language might “capture reality” and toward a more constructive inquiry into “the relationship between language and us.”

We must still always remind ourselves, when discussing this most rare and eccentric of modern philosophers: beware the temptation to “explain” Wittgenstein: Barry Smith says he diagnosed “our problem in philosophy as the search for explanations where none can be given.” That’s what it means to be stuck in a fly-bottle, and what he meant by aiming to show us how to get unstuck.


Wittgenstein the former engineer came to view philosophy not as an abstract quasi-mathematical, scholarly-dispassionate discipline, but as a form of therapy. It’s supposed to be helpful, even if his way of tapping its “meaning-as-use” was often mysteriously cryptic.

But for a would-be therapist, Freeman Dyson reports, he was not really a very nice man. As a young student at Cambridge in 1950 the future physicist Dyson (himself no stranger to eccentricity, check out his performance in a symposium of philosophers called “Glorious Accident“) tried to compliment the philosopher and asked if (as then rumored, and now widely accepted) his views had altererd or evolved in the decades since Tractatus came out in 1922. Wittgenstein churlishly asked what publication the young man worked for. When Dyson said he was a student, not a reporter, Wittgenstein wheeled and walked away.
Wittgenstein’s response to me was humiliating, and his response to female students who tried to attend his lectures was even worse. If a woman appeared in the audience, he would remain standing silent until she left the room. I decided that he was a charlatan using outrageous behavior to attract attention. I hated him for his rudeness.


A new word is like a fresh seed sewn on the ground of the discussion,” it says he said on the wall in Vandy’s Buttrick Hall. It doesn’t say where or when (1929) he said it. It’s in the posthumous collection Culture and Valueright below “Each morning you have to break through the dead rubble afresh so as to reach the living warm seed.” Tell me about it, Ludwig.  But, a “fresh seed”? Sounds more like a nipped bud.

Later in life Dyson, a scientist who “recognize[s] other sources of human wisdom going beyond science” (he names literature, art, history, religion, and philosophy), found himself respecting the permanently-silenced Wittgenstein’s legacy of eloquent inarticulation. He now blames contemporary philosophy’s marginalized place in the larger culture on its dearth of “mystics” like Wittgenstein. He evidently hasn’t read James on vagueness [or Tim Williamson, or Bill Gavin]. “It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words.” Consider the conceptual shotgun.
Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. No one knows this as well as the philosopher. He must fire his volley of new vocables out of his conceptual shotgun, for his profession condemns him to this industry; but he secretly knows the hollowness and irrelevancy.

A  ”dumb region of the heart” may well be, as James said, our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things.” Lay down your conceptual shotgun, pick up your POV gun. (That’s from Douglas Adams, but curiously it’s also referenced, sort of, by Wittgenstein’s biographerRay Monk when he says Wittgenstein didn’t give arguments so much as acknowledge alternative points of view.)

Wittgenstein agreed with James about the frequent hollowness and irrelevancy of words and explanations: there’s much we ought to shut up about. Or at least restrict ourselves to pointing at. Show, don’t say. Stop wasting time trying to eff the ineffable. “Explaining,” says novelist Richard Ford, “is where we all get into trouble.”

But also try to be respectful of the points of view and the feelings of other people, and don’t be rude, Ludwig. Impoliteness and incivility are trouble, too.

But was he finally right, there at the end of the Tractatus? Must we maintain a studied silence, in the face of the unspeakable? I think I prefer wise young Kacey Musgraves‘ counsel to “make some noise.” Eternal silence comes soon enough.


Well, at least Wittgenstein wasn’t a Nazi. Nor did he sleep with one, or hold his tongue in face of horrific evil.

Hannah Arendt was not one to get stuck, to bog down in logic or hair-splitting. She did seem to get stuck defending the object of her old student infatuation, Martin Heidegger. But mostly she was concerned with big questions about birth and death, good and evil, and our vital stake in the “common world”:
The common world is made up of all institutions, all cities, nations, and other communities, and all works of fabrication, art, thought, and science, and it survives the death of every individual. It encompasses not only the present but all past and future generations. “The common world is what we enter when we are born and what we leave behind when we die,” Hannah Arendt writes. “It transcends our life-span into past and future alike; it was there before we came and will outlast our brief sojourn in it…” 
The foundation of a common world is an exclusively human achievement, and to live in a common world–to speak and listen to one another, to read, to write, to know about the past  and look ahead to the future, to receive the achievements of past generations, and to pass them on, together with achievements of our own, to future generations, and otherwise to participate in human enterprises that outlast any individual life–is part of what it means to be human…” -Jonathan Schell, Fate of the Earth


She also said, more pithily:
The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.  
Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it… 
Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history.


Arendt was briefly Heidegger’s lover (talk about “banality of evil”!), but is still widely regarded as a philosopher of integrity who was quite right to notice that “natality” has been too long neglected. The symmetry of death and birth is obvious. Who will write The Book of Newborn Philosophers? Alison Gopnik’s Philosophical Baby is a start. [Evil of Banality] If we want to avoid repeating the evils of history we must stop raising unthinking bureaucrats and formalists “brought up to obey the law and trained to follow orders” without reflection. There’s nothing more dangerous than an unthinking man or woman.

Verify, insisted the logical positivists (especially Freddie Ayer). FalsifyKarl Popper rejoindered. And with that, an infamous and potentially violent little confrontation was drawn. Wittgenstein’s Poker gives the odd escapade more ink than it’s due, but on the other hand it’s good (if also a bit preposterous) to see philosophers being so passionate about their ideas. Best Popper quote:
True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it.


“Paradigm shift” is one of those catch-phrases everybody thinks they have a handle on, but almost nobody knows in its original incarnation. That would be Thomas Kuhn, in his 1962 Structure of Scientific RevolutionsHis view was that big new theories bring change, but not necessarily “progress”… depending, as always, on how we define our terms.
I do not doubt, for example, that Newton’s mechanics improves on Aristotle’s and that Einstein’s improves on Newton’s as instruments for puzzle-solving. But I can see in their succession no coherent direction of ontological development. On the contrary, in some important respects, though by no means in all, Einstein’s general theory of relativity is closer to Aristotle’s than either of them is to Newton’s.

Well, “ontological development” or not, greater insight into how our theories actually reorganize intellectual life is still a kind of progress. Whether Kuhn’s own theories shed such light is still being debated, but there’s little doubt as to his fundamental claim: shift happens.

Max Lerner published America as a Civilization in 1957, setting the stage for AtP. He “started as an impressive scholar,” at Harvard and elsewhere, before taking up journalism. His big book of America, oddly described as the intellectual history John Dewey would have written had he been Max Lerner, spotlighted its “special capacity for innovation and adaptation.” Some think that was always an overblown form of jingoistic exceptionalism, others think it’s the mojo that got Apollo to the moon and that we need badly to recover.  

I.F. (“Izzy”) Stone, “radical journalist turned classicist,” turned late attention to Socrates/Plato (it’s a deficiency of his Trial of Socrates that he made no attempt to separate their views) and concluded that the great gadfly – whose pestiferous social role, ironically, was not unlike Stone’s own – was a conceited snob who “didn’t give a damn about democracy.” That seems excessive.

British-born Christopher Hitchens chose to become an American, and no American ever exercised his freedom of expression to greater effect. He wasn’t afraid to change his mind in public, but through all his changes remained faithful to his hero Orwell’s hatred of dictatorship and servility. 

He was verbally pugnacious, loquacious, frequently outrageous, and is much missed even by many of his religious and political opponents. Francis Collins, head of the NIH, pioneering geneticist, and unabashed convert to Christianity, became his friend and medical consultant. Unlike fellow “horseman” Dan Dennett, facing his own health crisis, Hitch did not bat away the solicitous prayers offered (sincerely or sardonically) by the faithful on his behalf. (“Did you also sacrifice a goat?”) But he never retracted his position on religion – that it’s poisonous, harmful, “irreducibly servile and masochistic” and infantile. 

“One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody—not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms—had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as for comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs). Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion, and one would like to think—though the connection is not a fully demonstrable one—that this is why they seem so uninterested in sending fellow humans to hell.”   God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything… 92Y… wfb

As noted, we’re reading his incredible deathbed testament, Mortality, in A&P. It’s a pretty eloquent rebuttal of the charge that atheists somehow duck or fail the question of meaning. Not even his strongest critics would deny that Hitch’s life was full of it. Meaning, that is.

“A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called ‘meaningless’ except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so. It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one’s everyday life as if this were so.”

Finally balded by chemo but still vital and defiant and inspiring, he wrote and debated (here with creationist Dembski) right to the end of a rich life cut short by cancer. His “closing remarks” deserve to last. The view from this atheist’s “foxhole” was anything but servile.


“Take the risk of thinking for yourself…” 

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