Monday, March 4, 2013

“Was Wittgenstein Right?”

The philosopher Paul Horwich on Ludwig Wittgenstein:

[T]he usual view these days is that his writing is self-indulgently obscure and that behind the catchy slogans there is little of intellectual value. But this dismissal disguises what is pretty clearly the real cause of Wittgenstein’s unpopularity within departments of philosophy: namely, his thoroughgoing rejection of the subject as traditionally and currently practiced; his insistence that it can’t give us the kind of knowledge generally regarded as its raison d’être.

Was Wittgenstein Right? (New York Times)
[It must be a good thing I didn’t go to graduate school in philosophy: Wittgenstein is one of the key figures in the life of my mind.]

comments: 5

MK said...

I am sure that this is not the reason (nor even any of the reasons). If it were, then Kant or Nietzsche, whose works are just aa much attempts to show that the kind of knowledge sought by most philosophers is impossible, would not be taught either.

Michael Leddy said...

Is there another reason you would suggest?

MK said...

Intellectual fashions change just as much as hem lines. What is not popular today may be popular again tomorrow and vice versa.

I don't know anyone who considers Wittgenstein self-indulgent, which does not mean of course that there are people who feel that way.

The paper strikes me as rather naive and self-indulgent, in any case. I cannot take seriously someone who says in all seriousness: "The singular achievement of the controversial early 20th century philosopher X was to have discerned the true nature of Western philosophy."

On a less serious note, when I was a graduate student in the early seventies, some people would make the following observation: "Wittgenstein advised all his students to abandon philosophy. All the good ones took his advice." This can be turned into a second reason. There is a lack of good and exciting work on Wittgenstein today. That's why he fell out of fashion.

In my judgment, the article in the New York Times reconfirms this in its naiveté.

MK said...

To use a Wittgensteinian distinction: it's one thing to tell people that Wittgenstein is more important than he is taken to be and quite another to show that he is. Horwich succeeds in showing only that he seems to have nothing important to contribute on the latter.

Sorry ... But I could not resist.

Michael Leddy said...

For me, Wittgenstein is a great model of intellectual inquiry. Concepts with blurred edges, family resemblances, language games, meaning as use — those ideas have been tremendously useful to me.

Your observations remind me of what happens in English departments, as writers and their works come in and out of focus.