Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Review of Introducing Wittgenstein

For those of you who don’t know, the “Introducing” series published by Toten Books is a graphic novel presentation of big ideas and their thinkers. They are fun to read and a huge help for visual learners. It’s true there isn’t as much information as could fit onto a fully-worded page, but it makes up in mnemonic assistance what it lacks in exhaustive content. Also, because there isn’t as much emphasis placed on written content as pictorial interpretation, the effort to highlight central concepts is predominant. It almost felt in parts that this was Wittgensteinian philosophy in outline form, which definitely has its perks. Though, I won’t lie, it did at times teeter on the edge of skimming ideas that really require much more explanation, for the most part it provided an adequate amount. The worst part of it all is that some of the illustrations were entirely gratuitous, obviously designed to fill up space, and had very little to do with the topic; but even then they help you to remember what you learned on that page even if by their utter pointlessness. Which brings me back to my point that this book  is extremely helpful as a memory tool for primary principles, and since I read it in conjunction with excerpts from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations (which I highly recommend), it served as a very enjoyable reinforcement for my understanding. 

Wittgenstein was a genius, no doubt. This guy was raised in one of the wealthiest families in Vienna. He was seriously rich. His family had popular composers and artists over to the house all the time. After the war, the family increased in wealth as a result of smart stock investments in the U.S. But none of that is interesting in and of itself; what is interesting is that none of this determined Ludwig as a sybarite and dandy. When WWI broke out, he volunteered to fight on the frone lines, and even then, when first seeing the enemy on the battlefield, he wrote, “Now I have a chance to be a decent human being, for I am standing eye to eye with death.” When he was finally taken as a prisoner of war, he refused to accept his release until the men under his command were released with him. He even requested to be transferred from his camp to another to assist his countrymen who had contracted typhoid. Now here’s a man who, when he has something to say, makes one listen.

Wittgenstein began his education and career path as an engineer, with a penchant for mathematics. His love of solving problems led him ultimately into philosophy. Many big philosophers back in the day were wealthy aristocrats, as large fortunes and prestige bring with them ample opportunities for educational advancement, recognition, and easy publication of their ideas. Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein’s mentor, was a very good example of this. But although Wittgenstein was probably one of the more wealthy philosophers in the pool of contenders across the ages, he determined not to think from the comfort of his couch. His Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Latin for "Logical-Philosophical Treatise"), his first opus for which he was awarded a doctorate, was written while he was fighting on the front lines! His later work, Philosophical Investigations, was published posthumously from his lectures, and is quintessentially the heroic Wittgenstein to its core in that it unsparingly and unflinchingly debunked his own first work!

I have a lot of respect for this man, even though he made some really dumb mistakes. While he was teaching in a poor village in Austria, supposedly out of the goodness of his heart, he apparently caned boys and pulled girls’ hair for wrong answers. That is most definitely NOT cool, even though the word caning makes me laugh. He was described by Russell as an intense, volatile, and “domineering” genius. Russell was often seriously concerned about Wittgenstein’s mental physical health due to his obsessive compulsiveness and distress over thought-problems. Biographers of Wittgenstein’s famous disagreement with Karl Popper (see my review of Wittgenstein’s Poker at http://bookburningservice.blogspot.com/2014/02/review-of-wittgensteins-poker.html) have him wielding a hot poker at Popper for frustrating him during a routine classroom debate at the Moral Science Club, which meetings Wittgenstein was famous for crashing. But, despite losing face at the poker-debate, Wittgenstein didn’t commit suicide like his other three brothers, so… Point—Wittgenstein (Ludwig).

His non-corporeal teaching methods and views on academia were the most intriguing part of his life for me. His students described his style as discursive and spontaneous. He would wrestle with questions out-loud, and invite his students into working towards the answers with him right then and there. He wanted learning to be organic and hands-on as much as possible, which probably stemmed from his engineering background. He loathed the artifice and hubris of academic atmospheres, and believed that they often encouraged hypotheticals, tautologies, and specious reasoning which diverged widely from a real world with real problems. His style was the kind in which thought and language experiments (games) teased new solutions out of his mind and the minds of his students. He endeavored to work in concert with the brain, instead of bridling the mind’s full potential within the confines of formalities and structures designed to impress other people and build an institution’s reputation. He preferred real learning in the face of paper degrees, professorial bluster, and servile gpa-performance.

As I mentioned before, in tandem with reading Introducing Wittgenstein I also read selections from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations. The difficulty of a layman comprehending these texts is evidenced in the first few sentences of Wittgenstein’s preface to the Tractatus which included the quasi-caution, “Perhaps this book will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it—or at least similar thoughts…Its purpose would be achieved if it gave pleasure to one person who read and understood it”; but his obvious lack of confidence in anyone being able to perfectly accomplish that feat was demonstrated as he patted his examiners G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell on the back the moment after they awarded him a PhD for it, saying to them, “Don’t worry, I know you’ll never understand it.”

One of the things I came across in this my second reading of the excerpts of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations is his defense of common parlance against academic definitions. He attacks again and again the dissection of life for the sake of science. Life is best known when it is lived, and language is best studied as it is spoken and used, although there is some limited value in specification and definition. 

To repeat, we can draw a boundary—for a special purpose. Does it take that to make the concept usable? Not at all! (Except for that special purpose.) No more than it took the definition: 1 pace = 75 cm. to make the measure of length ‘one pace’ usable. And if you want to say “But still, before that it wasn’t an exact measure”, then I reply: very well, it was an exact one. –Though you still owe me a definition of exactness…Is it even always an advantage to replace an indistinct picture by a sharp one? Isn’t the indistinct one often exactly what we need? (Philosophical Investigations)

However, Wittgenstein didn’t believe vagueness was always our only option, just that it was often true to the world we find ourselves in. Responding to the very real need of discovering and formulating more precise definitions at times, Wittgenstein says that there are very workable “family resemblances” between words and ideas, long before an artificial definition is set up as a warden to prevent meaning from leaking out. Consider words like ‘good’. He says that “there is no one common property which the word good refers to. But there are resemblances between the various meanings of the term—like family resemblances” (Introducing Wittgenstein). These ‘family resemblances’ are the foundation for any definition we might come up with, and it’s best we get comfortable with this notion, because it’s the way cognition operates fundamentally. “We give examples of similarities and do not attempt to define them, as there are no sharp boundaries” (IW).

It may sound profound to some, or like linguistic sacrilege to others, but really, how could anyone have missed the simple truism of everyday life that every word in every mouth means something a bit different? If twenty different people use supposedly the same word to indicate twenty slightly different things, with twenty different reasons to use it, and hundreds of unique personal experiences to help define it, which passed through thousands of different meanings from different people and their own personal experiences, then why would we think a dead dictionary or an isolated professor at his lonely desk in a quiet room would ever know enough about that word and its myriad meanings to tell a person what they meant when they used it in that one unrepeatable instant? We now see the problem Wittgenstein was highlighting, for he was always keen on turning “latent nonsense into patent nonsense.”

No doubt some good ole’ professor can arrive some original sense in our word. “[Oftentimes] the kinship [between two somewhat ‘vague’ categories like color] is just as undeniable as the difference. (PI)”, but let our esteemed lexicographers take care how they go about measuring something that’s still alive, moving, and growing.

Imagine having to sketch a sharply defined picture ‘corresponding’ to a blurred one…In such a difficulty always ask yourself: How did we learn the meaning of this word (“good” for instance)? From what sort of examples? In what language-games [unique word-play and personal communication scenarios]? Then it will be easier for you to see that the word must have a family of meanings. (PI)

The language idea basically boils down to the simple problem of thinking and ideas: thinking does not constitute reality. Our internal models of the universe are not the universe. The most complete and explicit data to be had about the universe...IS the universe. You’re welcome.

Wittgenstein, along with writers/thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre, were the anti-academic, anti-elitist voices who challenged the high thinking and low living of many of their aristocratic contemporaries. He was unwieldy, but probably in a way that kept those around him honest and, well, caught. He was the people’s man in high places, and many will never know how successfully he may have grounded the intelligentsia from a tyrannical control of ideas which belong to the instinctual rabble as much as anyone. Who knows where fascist, top-down oppression and manipulation would occur next if not for representatives of the common man acting as saboteurs and ‘inside men’ to disrupt the haughty detachment that often infects the privileged. Wittgenstein was a hero. When he wasn’t teaching in remote villages in Austria. Or wielding hot pokers at visiting lecturers.

Review of Wittgenstein's Poker

A beginner-friendly and amusing introduction to 20th century philosophy, the study of which can often be so abstruse, and eventually so specialized, that pursuing this subject often only interests the most diehard of academics. However, the setting for this book’s approachable overview of that era’s central philosophical perspectives is the legendary clash between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper. When these two intellectual behemoths tangled, the concussion was enough to stun, enrage, and embitter those in attendance at was supposed to be an ordinary night of lecture and debate at the Moral Science Club at Cambridge. It is amazing to read the near-thespian pettiness of the fallout in the form of letters written years later by witnesses that attempt to vindicate the reputation of one rival or the other, and the first-hand accounts that were later censured for their own colorful version of the episode keep it sweet, scandalous, and still-around to be circulated for another hilarious century or two.

Wittgenstein, the rival that attracts most people to the debate, as the title suggests, is probably the most-renowned name in all of modern philosophy and has been placed by many in the pantheon of the most powerful wizards of all time. Oops, I mean ‘philosophers’. His ideas are often hard to comprehend by the uninitiated. He was often harshly criticized by his colleagues and philosophical “equals” (my quotations added to expose their mommas’ assurances that Wittgenstein “was just jealous”) as esoteric, so if they had a hard time understanding him, one can understand why, for the rest of us, trying to learn his philosophy is daunting at first. This book, however, was a cordial welcome to understand the man behind the ideas, and it offered a chewed up (and digested I’m sure) version of his contributions to philosophy that a layman can appreciate. Concepts positing language as a labyrinthine fly bottle, a linguistic puzzle that must be solved to get at a basic understanding of life, become quickly interesting when employed as veritable hoots and hollers fomenting a schoolyard brawl between two champions while readers like myself circle around and prevent any escape.

Karl Popper was the challenger. Popper is almost a no-name in philosophy today, especially when sized next to Wittgenstein’s titanic presence as probably the greatest revolutionary since Immanuel Kant. Popper's primary achievements were countering the methods of logical positivism which were much in vogue at the time, though his philosophy may look to some as the same. He contended that philosophical problems do indeed exist, as opposed to Wittgensteinian language ‘puzzles’ that he felt keeps one from committing to some sense of reality. Wittgenstein would say, rather, that he was “turning latent nonsense into patent nonsense’.

In my estimation, it seemed like both of the philosophers were jerks, as corroborated by the testimony of those closest to them! My final verdict, though, is that Popper appeared more resentful and angry than Wittgenstein (as limned by the authors), while Wittgenstein’s egoism seems to have been provoked by the insouciant philosophy and aloof, self-righteous inaction of higher academics. It may not have been detrimental in all cases that Wittgenstein viewed himself as a hero succoring philosophy from the hands of crooked and careless masters, validating the common man who needs practical understanding, hope, and some amount of genuine trust in himself to make better choices.

Fascinating story, and immensely helpful in broaching big ideas.