Posts Tagged ‘Wittgenstein’

Unspeakably silent

November 6, 2012

I always try to accentuate the positive, when introducing philosophers. Wittgenstein, for instance, 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.

On the other hand, Freeman Dyson reports, he was not really a very nice man. As a young student at Cambridge in 1950 he tried to compliment the philosopher and asked if (as is now widely acknowledged) he’d changed his views in the nearly three decades since the publication of his Tractatus in 1922. Wittgenstein asked what paper he worked for. When Dyson said he was a student, not a reporter, Wittgenstein simply 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 “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. “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.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein agreed: 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.

But also try to be respectful of the points of view and the feelings of other people, and don’t be rude.

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

I don’t imagine he’d have had much to say about today’s election, though. I should join him, maybe. On the other hand, lasting silence will come soon enough.

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The POV gun glimmers & twinkles too.

April 16, 2011

“It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words.” Those were William James’s own words.

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.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein agreed: 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.

Russell Goodman has written at length about the James-Wittgenstein connection, and shown that the younger philosopher held his elder in much greater regard than is commonly assumed. Wittgenstein liked James’s “nuanced and broad-minded” vision, and confessed to Bertrand Russell:

Whenever I have time now I read James’s Varieties of Religious Experience [and Principles of Psychology], it does me a lot of good.

I’ll bet Witty (as one of my clever former students dubbed him) would have benefited as well from occasionally swapping James’s conceptual shotgun for Douglas Adams’ Point of View gun. Most guys would. “Give me that thing.”

Wittgenstein wanted to free us from the “fly bottle.”

April 15, 2011

When Stewart Brand said we are as gods, I don’t think he had Ludwig Wittgenstein in mind. But others did.

There is little doubt that Wittgenstein was a towering figure of the twentieth century; on his return to Cambridge in 1929 Maynard Keynes wrote, “Well, God has arrived. I met him on the 5:15 train”.

Wittgenstein is credited with being the greatest philosopher of the modern age, a thinker who left not one but two philosophies for his descendents to argue over… his purpose was to finally free humanity from the pointless and neurotic philosophical questing that plagues us all. As he put it, “To show the fly the way out of the fly bottle”… “In Our Time

And there’s lots more philosophy with Melvyn Bragg on the BBC.

“The world is everything that is the case.” And then some.

April 14, 2011

The practical, non-ideological, “pragmatic” sensibility of traditional (“classic”) American philosophy has little use for inherited doctrinaire ideas. Its focus is always on what will come of what we’re doing, and how we can do it better next time.

And that’s why the American pragmatic movement threw off the puritan shackles of Jonathan Edwards. If you’ve already decided that you’re a fallen wretch unworthy of redemption, you’ll be less likely to go boldly and experimentally into an unlit but open and beckoning future. (This is part of what James meant when he said he personally rejected “vicarious salvation” and preferred a “continuously evolutionary” approach.)

We’re a young nation so we’ve not had that many original thinkers yet. Our thinkers have tended to be doers, like Franklin and Jefferson. Pragmatists think that’s a good thing. But the American public at large has tended routinely to reject philosophy and the life of the mind. Anti-intellectualism, Richard Hofstadter called it.

More recently Susan Jacoby has noted the prevalence of “unreason” and “junk thought” in our civic discourse, rooted fundamentally in a disinterest in proportioning belief to supportive evidence. Maybe we can still hope to grow out of that. Not quickly enough, though,  if you’ve been following the deliberations of our elected representatives lately in Washington, Madison, Nashville… [“Dumb and Dumber: Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?“]

Thoreau was an intellectual, but he was also an “anarchist” who earned his stripes as an inspirational contrarian individualist. Emerson is widely quoted (“build a better mousetrap” etc.) but little recognized amongst those who quote him most as an authentic American intellectual. He defies easy labeling (as should we all), but it would be a stretch to call him non-metaphysical. What makes him a founding father of American philosophy is his emphasis on Nature and Experience, and of course on Self-reliance.

Beliefs ought to be actionable, said Peirce, without quite clarifying what counts as “action”. He was pretty clear, though, about Cartesian-style meditation not measuring up.

His old classmate James was more liberal about that, saying beliefs pass the action test when they put us into satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience. But what works for you may not work for me, and that’s ok: that’s pluralism, and it’s the perfect philosophy for a melting pot society like ours. (Pluralism is not quite the same thing as radical empiricism, but they’re definitely related.)

Dewey was an “evangelical” Hegelian, until he concluded that Hegel’s ideas were too abstract. In the name of concreteness Dewey set up an experimental school. He was all about “hands on” experimental philosophy, and (as noted last time) about the “influence of Darwinism on philosophy.”


Freud‘s philosophical credentials are challenged by some, but he expressed a forceful alternative to Cartesian rationalism and said we don’t know ourselves or our minds well at all. He liked to ponder the symbolism of cigars, too.

St. Louis Hegelians.” I’m from St. Louis, and the only Hegelians I encountered there were down in Columbia at Michael’s Pub. They weren’t all that deep, but at least one of them thought he was free and tried to give us a demonstration. A very predictable demonstration, in retrospect. Didn’t know what to make of it at the time, though. And that’s really the thing about freedom, isn’t it? It’s hard to fathom, when it’s happening, and impossible to prove. Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

But again, it was a different story back in the day. Even Dewey was a member of the tribe, though he was no midwesterner.

And now for something completely different in philosophy, at least in tone and point of origin:

Gottlob Frege said philosophy had been putting Descartes before the horse all these years, as it were, by asking what we could know for certain, and how we could know it, without first clarifying the logical nature and status of our knowledge tools. Hence, his focus on the twinned roots of math and logic and his quest for a perspicuous language free of the imprecision of ordinary words. They’re ambiguous, their “sense” is sometimes hidden in the minds of speakers. Tighter analysis should lay bare their referential meaning, finally making reality reveal her secrets.

Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead (who said William James was America’s Plato) wanted to “tidy up” math , but were stymied by Cantor‘s unfinished set theory and Godel‘s incompleteness theorem.

Whitehead, the “process philosopher” who thought too highly of Platonic, eternal ideals but who made compensatory sense by shifting to talk of events coming into being through patternsinstead of eternal, unchanging objects as most real. Nature itself is continuously creative, novel, imaginative so philosophy should be correspondingly and poetically flexible.

Enter Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Vienna Circle, logical positivism and atomism and logicism… and eventually the resurgence of ordinary language.

Wittgenstein (part I) modestly claimed to have “solved all the problems of philosophy,” in his terse and cryptic Tractatus. He was the Joe Friday of philosophy (“Just the facts, M’am”). Every picture tells a story.

Wittgenstein II, to return later (Phil Investigations) in the guise of therapist, is to me the more compelling figure. He apparently materialized while Wittgenstein the temporarily- ex-philosopher was busy doing other things including, to his credit, still philosophizing. [Bio & phil]

“The world is everything that is the case,” begins his portentous(pretentious?) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.On young Wittgenstein’s view, our words should aim to picture the world structurally and isomorphically. What we can’t faithfully replicate of the world in words or their logical surrogates, we should shut up about. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” He really thought he’d said it all, that is, all that could be meaningfully said. So he stopped philosophizing in public, for quite some time. But he didn’t stop thinking. Wittgenstein II would re-surface years later with the posthumous Philosophical Investigations.

He was not really separated at birth from Lyle Lovett.  But my old Vandy Prof Michael Hodges did report that (although he was not from Texas, “that’s right”) he loved American western films. He may have been a Frank Capra fan, too: his last words, in 1951, were “tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

Carnap and the Vienna Circle Positivists said all philosophical problems are really about the syntactical structure of language, not about ultimate meaning or Reason or Truth. They despised Hegel, who was not careful with his syntax at all. Ver-i-fy, they insisted. Fal-si-fyKarl 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.

DuBoisWhiteheadHusserlWeber

Next week, STUDENTS: Logicomix, two chapters per class. (This is what I mean by “intellectual biography,” for those pursuing that option for your final report. But I won’t hold you to high standards of graphic art. Or even low standards. Just write some good words. If you’re doing a presentation instead, be ready on Thursday.)

logicomix

November 30, 2010

“I am lying to you now.”

That’s a self-referential statement, and a paradox. [“Paradoxical Truth“]

Russell is about to discover, in the second half of Logicomix— which is itself also self-referential, it tells us in a footnote– the paradoxical trouble self-reference can make for his and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica project of re-establishing mathematics on a foundation of transparently-demonstrated logic.

Simplicity (a la Occam) and “artificial stupidity” are Russell’s guides, in this project. A non-mathematician may have difficulty detecting either.

Turtles all the way down” is easier to grasp: they’re standing on no discernible foundation. Perhaps they don’t need one, and neither do we? But Russell and Whitehead are not ready to admit that. Wittgenstein seems to be trending that way in his own thought, but he’ll need some battlefield seasoning before he’s ready to draw out and point at (though not quite say) what is staring him– us– in the face, about doubt and certainty.

The map analogy is key. The Greek tragedian Aeschylus, with his “Oresteia,”  suggests to Apostolos the reflection that we must beware confusing our maps (be they verbal, mathematical, or logical) with the real terrain we constantly “pass over.”

Young Wittgenstein tells Russell (at their first meeting) “we can only know for sure the results of logical operations.” Empirical facts don’t measure up. Mathematical reality doesn’t either: it has no “independent existence.”

Much like Hume before him in the British tradition, Russell seems usually capable of closing the door on such inconvenient conclusions and finding reality enough in everyday encounters. He finds  “redemption” from the terrors of mortality, for instance, in other-directed compassion and love.

Nearly losing Evelyn Whitehead, and helping Eric Whitehead face the prospect of her death, gave him “a newfound sense of responsibility” and “showed me a way out of  my despair.” Eric, tragically, would become one of the casualites of the mockingly mislabeled War to end all Wars.

What “immunized” Russell against nationalistic war-mongering? Logic, he claims; sane and (implicitly) skeptical, experientially-derived common sense, I’d say. War taught him to be wary of words. Eventually it would teach Wittgenstein to trust them less, too. His claim to have solved all of philosophy’s problems was insistently not a claim to have said it all.

Russell’s abhorrence of irrationalism (as exemplified by Dada-ist absurdity)  in the wake of the war was mirrored by the mockery he felt in Wittgenstein’s seeming reduction of logic to a set of tautologies. There are Nietzschean overtones, too. The absence of order threatened nihilism.

Still, he was a hero to the Vienna Circle despite his self-ascribed “failure”– even if there must  “always be unanswered questions.” Wittgenstein was sure the Circle misunderstood him about what was “truly important”: religion, metaphysics, ethics, personal meaning.  Moritz Schlick‘s tragic end punctuated his point.

Russell’s long career was, as he notes, a trip from doubt to certainty and home again, as he woke at last from “Leibniz’s dream.” Definitely a “cautionary tale” for our time, too. “No royal road to truth,” indeed. But the road has to pass through experience, and through what we’ve already learned about getting around. The trouble with Zeno’s paradoxical challenge to the possibility of motion, for example, is that it ignores the two legs (and the road!)  Zeno walked in on.

Christos draws the moral of Russell’s and Wittgenstein’s convergence: “answers to really important questions are to be contemplated ‘beyond words’…” Paradox in language just shows that language won’t let us say everything. I’m glad about that. As William James said: “what an awful universe it would be if everything could be converted to words words words!”

And, Christos teases us with  “our prime hope for peace, democracy, and freedom”– the Internet?!

Has he been reading Bill McKibben, too?

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Last class is a week from today. Essays are due then, as well as your three favorite journal entries. We’ll begin final presentations Thursday (or today, if you want to volunteer).


Wittgenstein, Russell

November 23, 2010

Gottlob Frege said philosophy had been putting Descartes before the horse all these years, as it were, by asking what we could know for certain, and how we could know it, without first clarifying the logical nature and status of our knowledge tools. Hence, his focus on the twinned roots of math and logic and his quest for a perspicuous language free of the imprecision of ordinary words. They’re ambiguous, their “sense” is sometimes hidden in the minds of speakers. Tighter analysis should lay bare their referential meaning, finally making reality reveal her secrets.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: I know you can’t wait to commence your Thanksgiving break, but you don’t want to miss class today. We’ll catch up on old quizzes, sign up for final presentations, discuss final essays, and begin trying to understand the dominant 20th century movement of “analytic philosophy.” And we’ll do course evaluations. Many of your midterm essays are ready to return, too.

Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead (who said William James was America’s Plato) wanted to “tidy up” math , but were stymied by Cantor‘s unfinished set theory and Godel‘s incompleteness theorem.

Whitehead, the “process philosopher” who thought too highly of Platonic, eternal ideals but who made compensatory sense by shifting to talk of events coming into being through patternsinstead of eternal, unchanging objects as most real. Nature itself is continuously creative, novel, imaginative so philosophy should be correspondingly and poetically flexible.

Enter Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Vienna Circle, logical positivism and atomism and logicism… and eventually the resurgence of ordinary language.

Wittgenstein (part I) modestly claimed to have “solved all the problems of philosophy,” in his terse and cryptic Tractatus. He was the Joe Friday of philosophy (“Just the facts, M’am”). Every picture tells a story.

Wittgenstein II, to return later (Phil Investigations) in the guise of therapist, is to me the more compelling figure. He apparently materialized while Wittgenstein the temporarily- ex-philosopher was busy doing other things including, to his credit, still philosophizing. [Bio & phil]

“The world is everything that is the case,” begins his portentous (pretentious?) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. On young Wittgenstein’s view, our words should aim to picture the world structurally and isomorphically. What we can’t faithfully replicate of the world in words or their logical surrogates, we should shut up about. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” He really thought he’d said it all, that is, all that could be meaningfully said. So he stopped philosophizing in public, for quite some time. But he didn’t stop thinking. Wittgenstein II would re-surface years later with the posthumous Philosophical Investigations.

He was not really separated at birth from Lyle Lovett.  But my old Vandy Prof Michael Hodges did report that (although he was not from Texas, “that’s right”) he loved American western films. He may have been a Frank Capra fan, too: his last words, in 1951, were “tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

Carnap and the Vienna Circle Positivists said all philosophical problems are really about the syntactical structure of language, not about ultimate meaning or Reason or Truth. They despised Hegel, who was not careful with his syntax at all. Ver-i-fy, they insisted. Fal-si-fyKarl Popper rejoindered. [Wittgenstein’s Poker]

And now we turn to Logicomix, an epic search for truth in the form of a graphic novel. [Skeptic review]

It begins in 1939, with Russell the pacifist speaking before an academic audience in New York and comparing America’s prospective participation in WWII to being “your brother’s keeper.”

The story then leaps back to the previous century, when young Bertie was introduced to the forbidden fruit of books and learning by his famous grandfather Lord John.

Eventually Bertie declares his intent to seek reality through science, logic, and mathematics. The discovery that math is sometimes circular and always reliant on unproven axioms gave him his project, to articulate a transparently self-justifying logical language.

For that he drew inspiration from, of all possible predecessors, Leibniz. The wildly-speculative rationalist metaphysician did indeed possess an impressive mathematical/logical side, which he– unlike Russell– did not consider it necessary always to display.

“We shall not know” would not suffice for Bertie Russell.

Neither would it for the intense young Austrian he’ll soon be meeting.

==

P.S. It’s rare to flip on the radio in America and hear an excited conversation about a centuries-dead philosopher, but they were talking about Montaigne– the anti-certainty philosopher– on “On Point” yesterday. His new biographer Sarah Bakewell tells his story in 20 questions. For example:

How to live? A. Don’t worry about death; Pay attention; Question everything; Reflect on everything; regret nothing; be ordinary and imperfect; Let life be its own answer

For some of us, that’s a good answer to Wittgenstein and Russell too.

Heroes & villainsno man’s landvalue of philConquest of Happinessaction herobdayfresh seedOpinionator blog

inundated

October 13, 2010

Another smorgasbord of bite-sized speculations on the amazing world of tomorrow, in FoL…

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers said talent is mainly the residue of hard work, preparation, circumstance, and “the contributions of lots of different people.”

Howard Gardner (Five Minds for the Future, Multiple Intelligences) says let’s look into that, in a multidisciplinary way, and see if we can’t get to the bottom of what makes creative people tick. But do we really want to know? I’d love to understand more about the psychology of motivation, especially my own. But how much close inspection of genetic profiles and neural signatures can we indulge, without damping the spark of our own spontaneity and killing the magic? Are we too fragile to gaze into that mirror?

Still thinking about radiotelepathy: what if Wittgenstein was right, and we literally can’t think what we can’t say? Can we, must we, “draw a limit to thought”? (Tractatus) Maybe we’d better keep things strictly verbal, lest we lose our facility for stringing sequential thoughts entirely.

And doesn’t the language-thought equation also subvert the possibility of significant cross-species telepathy? Conversely, would that possibility subvert Wittgensteinian linguistics?

Radiotelepathy: too weird. Bring back “good old-fashioned nanotech,” like it was back when Eric Drexler (“The Incredible Shrinking Man“) was cool. I want my replicator, so I can order up my tea (“Earl Grey, hot”) and my replacement parts for whatever breaks. Let the “magical molecular assemblers” work their wonders. Would they really leave us with nothing to do but stagnate? That didn’t seem to be a problem on the Enterprise.

And if that’s not weird enough: “honey, I shrank the planet.” Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s pulling our legs, right?

Marc Hauser’s in hot water over questionable research practices, and we’d all be in it if we really answered his invitation to “let your imagination run wild” and went crazy with genetic manipulation experiments. Einstein plus Bach? What?

Same for Lewis Wolpert’s proposal to program fertilized human eggs “to develop into any shape we desire.”

Juan Enriquez seems excited about our new ability to store everything digitally, but much of everything is highly forgettable. We don’t need to archive everything. Why do some of us want to? I’m still not interested in tweeting my breakfast menu.

Stuart Kauffman says the world’s wide open and we don’t know what can happen. “We do not know the space of possibilities.” Has he read his Pluralistic Universe?

Gregory Benford notes those 5,000 year old Bristlecone pines, so symbolic to the Long Now crowd but whose decline was lately noted. Hope that’s not a harbinger.

Is it just me, or are Marcelo Gleiser‘s thoughts on cloning and storage strange even from an edge perspective? Anyway, don’t we already know how to “migrate to a new copy of ourselves when the current one gets old and rusty”? The self-help shelves are full of instructions on how to do it.

Less out there, but no less unsettling: Smith & Calvin on climate change. Strange how we got to the point of really needing to make contingency plans in case the world– the world— gets flooded.

heroes & villains

April 7, 2010

We read about most of these guys for Monday’s class…

Edmund Husserl, besides being the founding phenomenologist— a radical empiricist on steroids, I called him on Monday– was also Heidegger’s teacher. The contrast between them couldn’t be sharper. Heidegger, succeeding Husserl at Freiburg, denied his former mentor library privileges. That’s low!

For Husserl, philosophy is the freedom of absolute self-responsibility and the philosopher is “the civil servant of humanity.” That first phrase sounds Sartrean. The second doesn’t at all, to Husserl’s credit. He “died as a philosopher”– no foxhole conversions for him.

George Santayana, James’s student and then colleague in the glory days of Harvard philosophy, died in a convent during the Second World War. He professed to take no interest in the event (of the war), however. “I know nothing, I live in the Eternal.”  But he was no Roman Catholic, either.  Mostly he was a man of the margins, a keen spectator of the passing “genteel” American scene but not an active participant. American philosophers sometimes lay claim to some aspects of his elegantly-composed philosophy as representative of the American grain, but he was no pragmatist. He was an inspiration to his students, some of whom– Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens– became our greatest poets. As Stevens would write, he did indeed live in two worlds… but mostly, as time went by, in the eternity of his own mind.  He was a wise man by any measure. My favorite Santayana line: “To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.” These last several glorious spring days in middle Tennessee remind me that I’m hopeless, in these terms. But as Older Daughter likes to say, I’m working on it.

Despite a reputation for austerity, there was a strong Epicurean side to him, too. He said “there’s no cure for birth and death, save to enjoy the interval.” And I love Critchley’s wine anecdote, next time I have more than I can swallow, I’ll douse my cake just like George.

I think my favorite Santayana book, and the one that brings him closest to the American tradition in philosophy, is Scepticism & Animal Faith. How wonderfully it begins

A recent reviewer notes:

Santayana is most remembered today for a single, painfully overquoted sentence: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But in his lifetime he achieved stature as a philosopher for a whole series of books about the nature of human reason, the sense of beauty and the value of religion. His greatest subject was perhaps his adopted homeland. His writings about America still have the freshness of new discoveries, and they are enlivened—like nearly everything he wrote—by sharp turns of phrase and pungent judgments.

And he thought his adopted homeland was full of secretly-unhappy people whose false cheer made them superficial and unserious. But he seems to have liked it here well enough. I recall reading somewhere that one of his favorite diversions was to take in a Harvard baseball game from time to time. He enjoyed being an observer of spectators, even further removed from the action.

Antonio Gramsci, the greatest communist philosopher in Italy or arguably anywhere (aren’t you embarrassed to know so little of him?), is important if only because he shows that a Marxist does not have to be a narrow historical determinist, explaining all events strictly in terms of their economic causes.

Bertrand Russell we already know a lot about. His words as he approached the end of a very long, very un-religious road that spurned the solace of any “divine plan,” are spine-stiffening:

I am not young and I love life. But I should scorn to shiver with terror at the thought of annihilation. Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to and end…

I cringe to speak of Moritz Schlick, he reminds me of the crazed woman in Huntsville who couldn’t handle not being tenured a few weeks ago. The Vienna Circle positivist was murdered by a mentally deranged student… Serious stuff, but Critchley still finds a funny angle. Schlick said, before he died (as Yogi Berra might point out), that he could imagine witnessing his own funeral. It is not known whether Schlick was able to empirically verify this remark. Ha! So it might be meaningless.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (who didn’t really look this much like Lyle Lovett) famously echoed Epicurus’ view that “death is not an event in life.” Sounds good, doesn’t play so well in practice for most of us. But it’s not a bad place to set the bar, most of the time.

Same for his statement, when he knew his cancer had  nearly run its course, that my interest is still all in this life. Critchley may be thinking of William Blake when he says this attitude bought Wittgenstein an eternity in those waning days:

To see a world in a grain of sand

And a heaven in a wild flower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour

Reminds me of the late sci-fi author Isaac Asimov, who said if he was told he had an hour to live he’d “just type faster.” Me too, I hope. (Unless the loved ones were less than an hour away, of course.)

Wittgenstein was a model conversationalist, to judge from his view that a discussion shoyuld not be broken off until it had reached its proper end. “Model” for philosophers, anyway. Socrates felt the same way, and many of his interlocutors were only too happy to break it off.

The single factoid I’ve learned from Critchley that I love the most: Wittgenstein’s alleged last (or nearly last) words, “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.” May we all have the opportunity and the impulse to make that our parting instruction too.

When Wittgenstein survived Russian attack in the First World War it left him with such a desire to live.

Heidegger, by contrast, steered clear of the shooting but thought a lot about death. Being and Time is a meditation on death, and time. Authentic living requires us to project our lives onto the horizon of our death. Grasp your finitude, consider your own life-and-death more important than others’. But this is “morally pernicious.” Insulating oneself from grief and mourning for the loss of others is inhuman. [A pilgrimage to Heidegger’s hutHeil HeideggerDoes A Nazi deserve a place?]

A recent review notes: Emmanuel Faye has done both history and philosophy a valuable service, digging up documentary proof of Heidegger’s real sympathies: “Only where leader and led together bind each other in one destiny, and fight for the realisation of one idea, does true order grow. Then spiritual superiority and freedom respond in the form of deep dedication of all powers to the people, to the state, in the form of the most rigid training, as commitment, resistance, solitude, and love. The existence and the superiority of the Fuhrer sink down into being, into the soul of the people and thus bind it authentically and passionately to the task.”

unspent passion

April 5, 2010

First, I have to say: some of you thought Good Friday should have been a university holiday. I think today should be. It’s Opening Day! (Opening Night in Boston last night didn’t really count, though it was a terrific game– 9-7 Sox.) But, barring viral relapse, I’ll see you in class.

Today we officially finish reading– though probably not talking about– the philosophers and ideas canvassed in Passion for Wisdom. Bertrand Russell, for one. Jennifer Hecht* notes that when Russell read Mill, the scales fell. [Value of PhilosophyNot-good Fridayaction herobday]

(*NOTE TO INTRO STUDENTS: check out Hecht’s Doubt and give me your feedback. Would this be a useful supplementary text in future Intro courses?)

And Ludwig Wittgenstein. “The world is everything that is the case,” begins his portentous (pretentious?)Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. On young Wittgenstein’s view, our words should aim to picture the world semantically and structurally. What we can’t faithfully replicate of the world in words, we should shut up about. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” He really thought he’d said it all, that is, all that could be meaningfully said. So he stopped philosophizing in public, for quite some time. But he didn’t stop thinking. Wittgenstein II would re-surface years later with the posthumous Philosophical Investigations.

And too many others to discuss adequately in a single class, including

Freud, who questioned our ability to fulfill the Socratic challenge (“Know Thyself”) without significant help from psychoanalysis and (by implication) neuroscience with his belief that the mind (brain) is analyzable in terms of neurology, energy circuits, and the language of physics (along with lots of couch-time and therapeuic delving into personal history).

Bergson, who said concepts and language are static and one-sided… we distort and deform the world when we use them to try and arrest its inexorable movement.

Whitehead, the “process philosopher” who thought too highly of Platonic, eternal ideals but who made compensatory sense by shifting to talk of events coming into being through patterns instead of eternal, unchanging objects as most real. Nature itself is continuously creative, novel, imaginative so philosophy should be correspondingly and poetically flexible.

Heidegger, linguistic innovator (Dasein, Being-in-the-World, das Man) and (it turns out) Nazi fellow-traveler who nonetheless spoke truly when he defined personal authenticity in terms of the acknowledgement not only that people die but that I will. Nothing shameful in that.

Sartre, who said it’s “bad faith” to shirk your freedom… and his friend de Beauvoir, who led a procession of feminist thinkers appalled by philosophy’s (and everyone else’s) neglect of the so-called “second sex.” Feminism raises the question: are there masculine and feminine styles and concerns? In any case, shouldn’t we all be paying more attention to family and interpersonal issues?

Camus, who said we must consider Sisyphus happy…

Finally we come to Postmodernism‘s strange claim that there is no truth, only discourse; and to New Age philosophy’s various “loony-tunes” attempts to feed a nonetheless-encouraging hunger for philosophy in our time. [What the [bleep’]The SecretOprahreviewWhy People Believe Weird ThingsShermer @TED]

Our authors get it right at the end: We need to be not more clever (or weird) but, rather, better listeners. May the conversations and the examination of life continue.

And, today: play ball!

Postscript: Mom‘s been gone for two whole years today. We miss her terribly, but no longer so painfully. Her memory glows and warms.

sourpuss

October 2, 2009
“Life is so short, questionable and evanescent that it is not worth the trouble of any major effort… no man is ever very far from [suicide]… Life has no genuine intrinsic worth… Human life must be a kind of error, [as is] the notion that we exist in order to be happy.”

“Life is so short, questionable and evanescent that it is not worth the trouble of any major effort… no man is ever very far from [suicide]… Life has no genuine intrinsic worth… Human life must be a kind of error, [as is] the notion that we exist in order to be happy.” Thus spake Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), a man of many antipathies and little affection for the world.

young SchopYoung Schopenhauer became a hero to the youthful “romantics” of his time who were so committed to feeling (as opposed to reason), championing “the whole person” against pure and abstract reason, emphasizing the importance of the irrational and thus foreshadowing Kierkegaard (1813-1855), “the melancholy Dane”. Nietzsche (1844-1900), not a contemporary or party pal, was briefly smitten with him. He was one of Wittgenstein‘s (1889-1951) favorite philosophers.

He fell in love but “had no wish to formalize the arrangement”– a classic case of reluctance to commit. Alain de Botton calls him “Dr. Love,” but “his refusal to marry his mistress and mother of his child at a time when this would deeply damage her social and economic status is hardly the behavior of a loving spirit.” It’s not a stretch, though, to imagine his metaphysics being very different if his early interpersonal encounters had gone differently.

Schopenhauer admired his countryman Goethe for turning so many of the pains of love into knowledge. But Goethe‘s weltanschauung was very different: “If you wish to draw pleasure out of life you must attach value to the world.”

Schopenhauer did attach some value to some parts of the world, such as his succession of dogs. He also (reports de Botton) loved Venetian salami, theatre, the opera, the concert hall, novels, philosophy, poetry, and at least one or two women.

So: why didn’t he have a more positive experience of life? Or did he, after all, enjoy living– and complaining about it? Would he have had a better life if he had learned to be more optimistic, more grateful, and less critical? Or is he one of those people whose temperament thrives, somehow, under conditions of self-imposed adversity?

Schopenhauer on love. “The conscious mind is a partially sighted servant of a dominant, child-obsessed will-to-life… we would not reliably assent to reproduce unless we first had lost our minds.” And we would not be sexually or romantically attracted to another person if we weren’t under the domination of that inexorable, insatiable Will… “Love is nothing but the conscious manifestation of the will-to-life’s discovery of an ideal co-parent…”

In other words, nature’s willful agenda is all about biology and procreativity. Nothing more. What’s love got to do with it? Not much, it’s all just so much romantic window-dressing concealing the inexorable, impersonal, driving will of the universe and its progeny to self-replicate, ad nauseum. As Arthur saw it, this is a function that finds us on all fours with all the beasts of creation.  Our sentimental soft-core re-framing of sex in the language of love and affection does nothing to blunt its hard-core reality:  “An animal is born. It struggles to survive. It mates, reproduces, and dies. Its offspring do the same, and the cycle repeats itself generation after generation. What could be the point of all this?” (Passion for Wisdom) Simply, says A.S., the continuation of the race. Period.

The spectacle of it all may be entertaining, for those who like to watch as well as participate. But it’s not ennobling or elevating or ultimately happy-making, just because we write songs and poems and Hallmark cards and dirty books about it. It’s merely, as Isabella Rossellini says, Green Porno. But what makes mechanistic sex between snails and whales and worms (et al) titillating here is the presence of Isabella in a cheesy snail/whale/worm costume. The human presence, specifically the participation in such acts of a consciousness we can relate to, raises the stakes and changes the game. Schopenhauer seems not to have appreciated that, reducing love, romance, and affection to impersonal fecundity. Sad. Stupid.

“The pursuit of personal happiness and the production of healthy children are two radically contrasting projects. We pursue love affairs, chat in cafes with prospective partners and have children with as much choice in the matter as moles and ants – and are rarely any happier.”

So: those of us who think our marriages and the subsequent births of our children were transcendently-joyous events are just deluded.

The World as Will and Idea (1819) contended that the sole essential reality in the universe is the will, and all visible and tangible phenomena are merely subjective representations of that ‘will which is the only thing-in-itself’ that actually exists. ( Squashed Ph’ers)

Like the Buddhists, he recommended asceticism and the blunting of desire. Like Nietzsche, he thought art and aesthetic

nietz head

experience were redemptive. “The essence of art is that its one case applies to thousands…no longer one man suffering  alone, he is part of the vast body of human beings who have throughout time fallen in love in the agonizing drive to propagate the species” and just maybe, in the process, find love and meaning and purpose.

schop dogHe may have been a grinch, a sourpuss, a misanthrope, and a misogynist, but as W.C. Fields said: no one who loves children or animals is all bad. Schopenhauer loved dogs and loathed the restriction of their freedom by man.

“You would think that a philosopher who named his pet poodle “Atman” would have the ability to see the Self in all beings; yet Arthur Schopenhauer’s love of wisdom did not seem to extend to a general love of humanity. In fact whenever the poodle misbehaved Schopenhauer would refer to it as “You Human”. -R.Udovicich, The Poodle Named Atman

“The pursuit of personal happiness and the production of healthy children are two radially contrasting projects.” This from a life-long, childless bachelor.  He literally did not know whereof he spoke.

“An inborn error: the notion that we exist in order to be happy… the erroneous notion that the world has a great deal to offer.” And yet… Schopenhauer finally transcends pessimism, at least on paper. By assigning the absurdities of existence to an implacable, impersonal force of will, he comes to look less at his own individual lot than at that of humanity as a whole. He conducts himself more as a knower than as a sufferer.

But of course we can’t really know that the world is nothing but will. That’s Schopenhauer’s peculiar interpretation and perspective. In an odd way, though, it reconciled him to a life he claimed to find intolerable – and seems even to have made it worth living, from that perspective.

If I could sit down with old Arthur I’d like to share a poem with him. Sometimesby David Budbill, begins:

Sometimes when day after day we have cloudless blue skies,

warm temperatures, colorful trees and brilliant sun, when

it seems like all this will go on forever…

And continues:

when I am so happy I am afraid I might explode or disappear

or somehow be taken away from all this,

at those times when I feel so happy, so good, so alive, so in love

with the world, with my own sensuous, beautiful life, suddenly

I think about all the suffering and pain in the world, the agony

and dying. I think about all those people being tortured, right now,

in my name.

And concludes:

But I still feel happy and good, alive and in love with

the world and with my lucky, guilty, sensuous, beautiful life because,

I know in the next minute or tomorrow all this may be

taken from me, and therefore I’ve got to say, right now,

what I feel and know and see, I’ve got to say, right now,

how beautiful and sweet this world can be.

Arthur would probably hate it. He’d love hating it, and he’d love writing big dense fat books about how much he hated it.

“Sweet,” indeed.