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Month: September 2011 (page 1 of 2)

Ernest Gellner and The Psychoanalytic Movement: The Cunning of Unreason and the Cunning of Freud

The best cover of The Psychoanalytic Movement

Finishing off the examination of Ernest Gellner and his well-meaning but somewhat pig-headed Enlightenment Fundamentalist Rationalism, we come to his attack on psychoanalysis, The Psychoanlaytic Movement: The Cunning of Unreason. This book was published in 1985, 35 years after Words and Things, his attack on Wittgenstein and ordinary language philosophy.

Like Words and Things, it is a centaur, half-sociology and half-philosophical critique, and just as ill-tempered. It is a better book than Words and Things, because the game is much bigger. Here, Gellner is going after an intellectual and social movement a million times more successful, and at least several times more dubious.

The attack is successful, but as with Words and Things, the centaur form of the book makes it a mixed success. I will try to separate the threads and pick out the book’s vital core from the sometimes shaky surrounding membrane.

Because it is so much more an inviting sociological target, and because the sociology of psychoanalysis is that much more mixed in with its underlying philosophy (i.e., the patient-therapist relationship), psychoanalysis is in many ways the perfect subject for Gellner, ripe for the sort of attack that ordinary language philosophy didn’t seem to merit.

The danger is his being too obvious or unoriginal. Adolf Grunbaum has carefully critiqued the theoretical work of psychoanalysis, while George Makari’s Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis showed the bizarre evolution and personal flaws of the movement’s leaders. Both are books Gellner would not have bothered to write. Gellner’s task rather is to place a quicker critique of that sort into a larger sociological framework.

Consequently, there is a sense at times that Gellner is struggling to make more out of the material than there is. Having identified the endless flaws of psychoanalytic theory and how they yielded a hegemonic power structure in the psychoanalytic community, Gellner has to walk a line between the dangers of (a) restricting his critique to Freud and his direct scions and thus letting the larger societal trend get away, and (b) extending his critique to psychotherapy in general and thus reducing the theory to mere therapeutic practice in all its myriad forms.

Gellner’s solution is to approach things genealogically. By showing how Freud’s initial paradigm caught fire and appealed to the bourgeois masses, he can indict both Freudian psychoanalytic theory as well as its less-direct consequences today, which are the polluted offspring of a manipulative intellectual charlatan. This is his goal, anyway. Ultimately, the minute particulars of psychoanalytic theory and practice seem to fall away in favor of a sociological exploration of psychotherapy in general, which is still heavily influenced, as are we all, by Freud’s ideas.

In some ways Freud is an easier target than a more obscure thinker like Austin or Ryle because a good chunk of his thinking has been absorbed into the common argot. His tripartite psyche, repression, the unconscious, and assorted other concepts have become ubiquitous cultural abstractions even if they aren’t metaphysical entities. So what’s left over seems even more objectionable because we take the less objectionable stuff for granted.

And yet just as Wittgenstein eluded Gellner’s grasp, Freud dodges Gellner’s shots better than the rest of the psychoanalytic community. This is not because Freud’s theory is so very defensible, but because Gellner is attacking it on grounds on which it has never been seriously judged. By 1985 psychoanalysis was definitely not seen as the sort of science that you’d find in the DSM (however dubious that might be), yet its therapeutic children continued unabated.

The story that George Makari tells in Revolution in Mind  is that of psychoanalysis emancipating itself from the empirical sciences and going into pure speculation and mythology, often excessively so. Yet if anything this probably aided in its success. As Gellner says:

A purely hermeneutic psychoanalysis would not sound like science, confer no power, and few men would turn to it in distress; a purely physicalist or biological psychoanalysis would have been too much like a science, and no fun. But the plausible-sounding fusion of both is very different, and most attractive.

Ernest Gellner, The Psychoanalytic Movement

Yet as the “science” is quite loose, it’s rather pointless to attack the ideas for not being scientifically grounded, at least in 1985. It’s akin to criticizing Hegel for misunderstanding Sophocles or, indeed, criticizing Freud for misunderstanding Sophocles. It doesn’t teach us anything about their success.

No matter what ridiculous claims Freud made for his theory being “scientific,” psychoanalysis was never even provisionally held to the sort of rigorous standard to which Wittgenstein held his own thoughts, or else it would have collapsed. The scientific rhetoric was necessary, as Freud well knew, to getting his project off the ground and initially accepted in the medical and psychological community, but it became secondary once success was assured. The interesting story is not psychoanalysis pretending to be a science, but psychotherapy’s underlying Freudian groundwork surviving the debunking of those scientific claims.

As the Freudians are still fond of quoting:

if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd,
to us he is no more a person
now but a whole climate of opinion

under whom we conduct our different lives . . .

W. H. Auden, In Memory of Sigmund Freud

Freud was an incisively creative mind, which Gellner acknowledges, and in conjunction with his brilliant self-marketing, he managed to gain an astonishing amount of traction for some of his psychological metaphors and models. That his theories were held to be science among several influential groups for quite some time is one depressing measure of his success.

Gellner succeeds, however, when he tries to understand the success rather than attacking the theory.

Two stories emerge, related but distinct. First there is Freud the empire-builder, who keeps reins on psychoanalysis and jealously guards the keys to his process and movement. Freud was indeed autocratic, though not quite the tyrant Gellner makes out. Makari shows Freud as a self-doubting genius (albeit one who is careerist, unethical, narcissistic, and a plagiarist) who had good reason to keep control, as most of his followers are far from his intellectual equal. Of the Freudians, Ferenczi and Melanie Klein acquit themselves without too much damage but do not impress, while Carl Jung and Anna Freud come off very badly indeed.

Makari’s book is far more successful than Gellner’s in showing the poison that went around in these circles, and his lack of a blatant axe to grind allows the twisted process to emerge organically. Gellner is right to see Freud as a demagogue of a sort, but he really can’t be bothered to do the background.

Yet this does not prove fatal to Gellner. The second story, and the one Gellner is more effective in telling, is the large scale story of the success of psychoanalysis and consequently psychotherapy in general. Here Gellner can deal with the received ideas of psychoanalysis in general and try to figure out its place in society.

Somewhat ironically, Gellner must consequently credit Freud with having pulled off something amazing in selling his wares to the public. But what did he sell? A secular mythos and practice.

One way of seeing the ideological achievement of Sigmund Freud is to understand that he has constructed a solid, non-conjectural, support-providing world, something that had disappeared from our life; that he invented a technique for supplying this commodity made-to-measure for individual consumers; and that he had erected it using exclusively modern, intellectually acceptable bricks.

Ernest Gellner, The Psychoanalytic Movement

Freud’s achievement, then, was appealing to a societal neurosis (I use that term ironically) in an instinctive, brilliant way, and offering a solution that was less an idea than a ritual. It is a cutting of the Gordian knot of modernism, of God-is-Deadism, as Gellner points out in a fairly compelling comparison with Nietzsche.

Gellner sometimes puts it as the need for an authority (the therapist), but the better way to put it is the need to find a stable, validated frame narrative for one’s existence. The accomplishment of psychoanalysis is to turn this process not into a one-time fix (which would never work), but into a repeated ritual to shore up the authority.

Again, the irony. By identifying a neurosis that requires ritual treatment, Gellner very nearly excuses the psychoanalytic requirement for potentially unending treatment. He points out a number of problems of modernity which Freudian practice claims to solve, two of which are particularly spot-on:

  • The Weberian problem of a ‘disenchanted’, cold, impersonal world. The modern world is in fact bound to be such: cognitive growth goes jointly with specialised, single-strand cognitive inquiry, which inevitably separates the intellectual exploration of the world from personal relations, values, and the hierarchical ordering of society. Freud restored a form of cognition which, while articulated in an impeccably modern idiom, and seemingly part of medicine and science, was firmly locked in with a hierarchical and comforting personal relation, and with values and the hope of personal salvation. Thus a reality is reenchanted, and its enchantment is permanently serviced, albeit at a price.
  • The Durkheimian problem of reuniting cognition, ritual, and social order. Psychoanalysis has or is an astoundingly effective ritual, adapted to an individualist age, engendering all those affective consequences which Durkheim associated with ritual, and indeed separating the sacred and profane with all the neatness which that theory postulated.

To offer a persuasive solution to so fundamental a set of problems, and to offer them in a way that the solution is lived out rather than merely thought, ratified by both ritual and an intense personal relationship, and generally not consciously thought out at all, is an astonishing achievement.

I find this extremely compelling, not least  because it seems so obvious after reading it that Freud provided one very dominant mythos of our age. (Others helped out too, as did amorphous cultural processes.) Foucault and others had already been here, but this is the best summation I have read, and a testament to Gellner’s intuitive thinking.

Those philosophers today who ask for a reenchantment of reality to brighten our supposedly cold, industrialized world do not realize that we have already reenchanted our mental frameworks as much as any past culture, albeit in a more tenuous and somewhat neurotic way. But any further reenchantment would require religious dogmatism, so I’m not complaining.

I think Paul Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy does a good job of explaining in depth what Freud contributed in this direction. If Freud was a philosopher, he is best thought of as hermeneutic.

Gellner’s statements about the analyst as shaman, the analyst as mystic, the analyst as deity, are interesting and sometimes compelling, but they detract from his more powerful point that the raw practice itself is what’s successful, not the particulars of the relationship. Hence why psychotherapy continues even as classical psychoanalysis has waned.

Core elements of the original framework remain, of course, which is why Freud survives even if psychoanalysis mostly does not. Gellner points out that one key technique is providing a safe space for the externalization of one’s inner demons: that is, treating them as demons, not one’s conscious self.

 The flaw of the Freudian Unconscious is not that it constitutes a scandalous inversion of conscious proprieties, but that it remains far, far too close to them. Freudianism is a kind of animism. It projects (rightly or wrongly), on to forces outside our consciousness, the kind of trait or attribute which our culture had habitually attributed to our conscious activity. As in other forms of animism, this is combined with the claim that these spirits of the deep can be understood, conjured up, appeased and rendered harmless only by certain practitioners of mysteries, members of a restrictive guild with specialised initiation rites.

Yet the guild has opened up now, and the process remains, with whatever bits of the theory have been appropriated by the collective societal consciousness. Not surprisingly, most of these do come from Freud himself rather than his less brilliant followers.

Consequently, Gellner’s position is weakened a bit. Because psychoanalysis qua theory proves to be a bit of a red herring (you don’t need the Oedipus Complex and the Death-Instinct for psychotherapy to be successful), the therapist doesn’t come out looking too bad. An expensive luxury? Certainly. A disingenuous practitioner? Perhaps. But having acknowledged the contemporary human’s unstinting desire for a healthier structure/mythos for understanding–or perhaps more accurately, simplifyingone’s own life, Gellner is too quick to assess that the result is unavoidably meaningless.

There is a pragmatic evaluative process, albeit not a terribly scientific one, which is the practical terms of the individual patient’s life. This was the process that slowly killed off psychoanalysis proper. Today, in the absence of a proper theory, evaluations are now performed ad hoc. Such case-by-case evaluations guarantee mixed results at best and gross abuses of power at worst, but psychotherapy is not the self-validating closed system that psychoanalysis-the-theory was. Such systems survive only by opening up, and I think that Freud laid the groundwork for that himself by reversing and revising his positions over the course of his life.

So oddly, Gellner makes the case that psychotherapy was more or less an inevitable coping mechanism that needed to arise given the conditions of modernity. If Freud had not existed, society would have had to invent him. (And, indeed, society did invent its version of him, throwing out the psychosexual and anthropological esoterica it could not use and keeping the basic model and method.) Gellner would like it if we could shrug off those needs and abandon the enchantments that psychotherapy and psychotherapeutic metaphors provide, but since he’s made such a powerful case for why they’re so appealing, it doesn’t seem very likely. Genuine science is never enough. Something always gets piled on top, and frequently it’s called science too.

The grave issue remains that Freud’s absolutist claim to truth for his theory was necessary if psychoanalysis were to gain purchase, so that it could then, under some duress, shrug off its claims to absolute knowledge in favor of a more humble, pragmatic stance and then live on more deftly as psychotherapy. Alas, though, this is the paradox of all of the human “sciences”: we only ever hear about the ones that started with absurd hubris.


On the topic of uncharitability, here’s a pretty good example from mythology expert G.S. Kirk:

If I am right, then, the belief in mythical thinking directed to visual and figurative objects is a hangover from the crude psychology of the late eighteenth century and the unworldly epistemology of the early nineteenth.

The detailed understanding of myths and their possible relations to philosophy has been seriously distorted by those learned Hegelian speculations–as well, of course, as by the primitivism of Sir Edward Tylor and Lucien Levy-Bruhl, the naive comparatism of Sir James Frazer, the sociological exaggerations of Durkheim, Jane Harrison, and the early Cornford, the ponderous neo-Kantian epistemology of Cassirer and the romantic functionalism of Levi-Strauss. Deprived of support from dreams (not a form of thought) and primitive mentality (a chimaera), ‘mythical thinking’ can be clearly seen for what it is: the unnatural offspring of a psychological anachronism, an epistemological confusion and a historical red herring.

G.S. Kirk, The Nature of Greek Myths

Jung and Snell also get criticized, though Vernant shockingly gets a pass.

Now, I like Kirk and he has a lot of great stuff to say on the subject, but it’s hard not to be put off a bit by a sweeping dismissal like this, as well as the implication that finally, with Kirk, we have got it right. There’s a place for his grouchy English empiricism that refuses all blatant superstructures, but that’s its own sort of superstructure. Walter Burkert, of whom Kirk approves, is far more charitable to even the most dubious of his predecessors.

On the other hand, Cassirer, Snell, and Levi-Strauss make it into Kirk’s Suggestions for Further Reading, as does, inexplicably, Jung and Kerenyi’s Introduction to a Science of Mythology. (I can just imagine Kirk putting “[sic]” after every noun in that title.)

Forces at Work in Wittgenstein

I’ve generally been impressed by David G. Stern‘s careful and extensively-researched work on Wittgenstein. In responding to a comment from T.P. Uschanov, I mentioned Stern’s paper on the debate over the transitions in Wittgenstein’s philosophy, “How Many Wittgensteins?” In addition to making the intriguing case that the Philosophical Investigations have a distinctly more Pyrrhonic flavor than Wittgenstein’s other later writings, Stern also gives this general summation of what really is shared across Wittgenstein’s work, as well as a comment on how the technique of the Philosophical Investigations goes about achieving it.

What is really interesting about both the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations is neither a metaphysical system, nor a supposedly definitive answer to system-building, but the unresolved tension between two forces: one aims at a definitive answer to the problems of philosophy, the other aims at doing away with them altogether. While they are not diametrically opposed to one another, there is a great tension between them, and most readers have tried to resolve this tension by arguing, not only that one of them is the clear victor, but also that this is what the author intended. Here I am indebted to the wording of the conclusion of David Pears’ Wittgenstein: “Each of the two forces without the other would have produced results of much less interest. … But together they produced something truly great”.  However Pears, a leading exponent of the “two-Wittgensteins” interpretation, and the author of one of the canonical metaphysical readings of the Tractatus, only attributes this to the later philosophy. In the case of the Tractatus, this tension is clearest in the foreword and conclusion, where the author explicitly addresses the issue; in the Investigations, it is at work throughout the book.

The Investigations is best understood as inviting the reader to engage in a philosophical dialogue, a dialogue that is ultimately about whether philosophy is possible, about the impossibility and necessity of philosophy, rather than as advocating either a Pyrrhonian or a non-Pyrrhonian answer. This result is best understood, I believe, as emerging out of the reader’s involvement in the dialogue of the Philosophical Investigations, our temptation into, attraction toward, philosophical theorizing, and our coming to see that it doesn’t work in particular cases, rather than as the message that any one voice in the dialogue is conveying.

David G. Stern, How Many Wittgensteins?

I am still fairly enamored of the metaphysical reading of the Tractatus, but as a pithy statement of Wittgenstein’s overall philosophical character, I find this pretty compelling.

As a footnote, here is David Pears’ excellent and very different original context for the phrasing Stern uses above, which also goes a way to summing up the distinction between Wittgenstein and the Ordinary Language Philosophers like Austin and Ryle:

But it is only one half of the truth to say that his resistance to science produced his later view of philoso­phy. There was also his linguistic naturalism, which played an equally important role. These two tendencies, one of them anti positivistic and the other in a more subtle way positivistic , are not diametrically opposed to one another. But there is great tension between them, and his later philosophy is an expression of this tension. Each of the two forces without the other would have produced results of much less interest. The linguistic naturalism by itself would have been a dreary kind of philosophy done under a low and leaden sky. The resistance to science by itself might have led to almost any kind of nonsense. But together they produced something truly great.

David Pears, Ludwig Wittgenstein

And not only great, but far more wide-ranging than many of those who have picked up on either of the two elements in isolation.

Ernest Gellner on Words and Things: Wittgenstein and Ordinary Language

(Gellner is the bowling ball. Wittgenstein is the 7-10 split.)

Ernest Gellner’s Words and Things was Gellner’s scathing attack on ordinary language philosophy. It caused a fuss in 1959 and made Gellner’s name after Gilbert Ryle refused to review it and Bertrand Russell angrily defended it. How valid was the critique?

This is not just a historical exegesis, but an object lesson in the hopes that older disputes no longer quite so relevant to us can guide us to principles useful in current debates where we lack the benefit of distance. In short, Gellner is right on sociology and wrong on the philosophy, especially Wittgenstein. But the reasons for that are complicated.

Ordinary language philosophy was the mid-century movement represented nowadays by J.L. Austin and Gilbert Ryle, though it’s telling that Gellner quotes some of the lesser-known lights of that scene to make his most scathing attacks. In addition to Austin and Ryle, he rips on the far more obscure G.J. Warnock and John Wisdom, who do give Gellner some of his juiciest material. I haven’t read either of the latter two, but it seems entirely possible they were strident, less than brilliant exponents of the linguistic turn.

Ryle doesn’t offer up such foolish statements, so Gellner’s critique is broader there: Ryle has drawn the focus away from science and toward trivialities by wanting to analyze the concept of mind rather than mind itself. And Austin is simply a knight-errant whose obsession with the most quotidian of conversational gambits is theological angel-counting.

Gellner has generally kind words for logical positivism and A.J. Ayer and Bertrand Russell, who wrote the preface, again putting him dangerously close to the movement he is attacking. And he ignores perhaps the strongest and most wide-ranging mind to be associated with the movement, P.F. Strawson, as well as Americans like Quine. So it is a bit of a chimera that Gellner is attacking, in that he attributes to a collective a dogma that perhaps even its most strident members didn’t fully adhere to.

One could accuse Gellner of cherry-picking, and I think it’s a fair charge, but I think it’s more enlightening to see that Gellner was criticizing a culture, not a philosophy, one that existed at Oxford in the 1950s and that Gellner experienced first hand. Gellner was a social scientist more than he was a classical philosopher, and his rage is less about ideas per se than about the people who hold them and how they hold him. As an avowed disciple of what he termed Enlightenment Fundamentalist Rationalism, he was guided, more than anything else, by the idea of fallibility and the need for constant doubt:

There are no privileged Sources or Affirmations, and all of them can be queried. In inquiry, all facts and all features are separable: it is always proper to inquire whether combinations could not be other than what had previously been supposed. In other words, the world does not arrive as a package-deal—which is the customary manner in which it appears in traditional cultures—but piecemeal. Strictly speaking, though it arrives as a package-deal, it is dismembered by thought.

Cultures are package-deal worlds; scientific inquiry, by contrast, requires atomization of evidence. No linkages escape scrutiny. Empiricist theory of knowledge claimed that information actually arrives in tiny packages (which is false as a descriptive account); but the lesson learnt was that it should be treated as if it was so broken up. Such breaking up of clusters fosters critical revaluation of world-pictures.

This reexamination of all associations destabilizes all cognitive anciens règimes. Moreover, the laws to which this world is subject are symmetrical. This levels out the world, and thereby ‘disenchants’ it, in the famous Weberian expression. This is the vision. Note again, it desacralizes, disestablishes, disenchants everything substantive: no privileged facts, occasions, individuals, institutions or associations. In other words, no miracles, no divine interventions and conjuring performances and press conferences, no saviours, no sacred churches or sacramental communities. All hypotheses are subject to scrutiny, all facts open to novel interpretations, and all facts subject to symmetrical laws which preclude the miraculous, the sacred occasion, the intrusion of the Other into the Mundane.

But what is perhaps absolutized and made exempt is the method itself. And the method leaves its shadow on the world: it engenders an orderly, symmetrical Nature. The orderliness of inquiry leaves its shadow, and appears as an orderly, unique nature. This is the proper sense which is to be attributed to the Kantian doctrine that we ‘make’ our world: an orderly, systematic, law-bound Nature is really the shadow of our cognitive procedure.

Ernest Gellner, Postmodernism, Reason, and Religion: I Choose You, Bachelorette #2

[Okay, I made up the subtitle.]

What Gellner could not stand were closed systems of thought that were not vulnerable to evidentiary invalidation: religion, Marxism, and psychoanalysis being three popular forms. Behind Gellner’s sociological description of the maneuvers employed by his nemeses lies his true frustration:

There is an undeniable element of truth in Polymorphism, both logically and empirically. As a matter of simple fact it is true that languages are complicated and consist of a variety of activities. It is also, perhaps, a necessary truth that any language that does anything worth while has to contain elements or tools of radically different types, and so cannot be internally entirely homogeneous and simple. Nevertheless, the exaggerated use of Polymorphism * by Linguistic Philosophy is disastrous and unjustifiable. Its weaknesses are similar to those of the three fallacies outlined previously with which it is closely associated. It is an attempt to undermine and paralyse one of the most important kinds of thinking, and one of the main agents of progress, namely intellectual advance through consistency and unification, through the attainment of coherence, the elimination of exceptions, arbitrarinesses, and unnecessary idiosyncracies. It in effect tends to underwrite all current concepts, however useless, anachronistic, inconsistent. For linguistic philosophers conceive their philosophical thought to be the undermining of general models and of models as such, as models-only the actual ungeneral description of an usage is philosophically “aseptic”, and commendable.

*The “57 Varieties” way of doing philosophy, as it has been wittily described by Professor S. Kömer.

Ernest Gellner, Words and Things

He no doubt saw ordinary language philosophy as another, as it “dissolved” one problem after another as linguistic rather than real. This for Gellner is cowardice. Making G.E. Moore into a Chance the Gardener figure, he compares him to Wittgenstein’s ideal:

Some philosophers have considered the deliberate suspension of belief, of the natural attitude, to be of the essence of philosophy. Husserl called it the epoche, a kind of putting-of-the-world-in-brackets and suspending judgment so that one could have a better look.

The essence of Moore is a kind of inverted epoché. He refused to put the world in any brackets.

Moore’s inverted epoché, his conviction or principle that things in general were substantially as they seemed, reappears in Wittgenstein and in Linguistic Philosophy proper with a rationale –namely, that assertions to the effect that things are radically other than they seem are always misuses of language. In brief, Moore displayed many of the characteristics of Linguistic Philosophers, without being led to them by the ways and reasoning of Wittgensteinianism. He did by nature that for which Wittgenstein’s Revelation found reasons.

One might say that G.E. Moore is the one and only known example of Wittgensteinian man: unpuzzled by the world or science, puzzled only by the oddity of the sayings of philosophers, and sensibly reacting to that alleged oddity by very carefully, painstakingly and interminably examining their use of words. . . .The philosophical job is to persuade us of the adequacy of ordinary conceptualisations. It is the story of Plato over again–only this time it is the philosopher’s job to lead us back into the cave.

Ernest Gellner, Words and Things

For Gellner, this “adequacy” is synonymous with complacency and cultural conservatism. I.e., it is the attempt of the Oxford don to keep the world as the comfortable place that it is.

I am a bit sympathetic to this critique, as I suspect the ordinary language orthodoxy of the 1950s genuinely was overbearing and vexing to those upstarts who wished to pursue a less linguistic direction. Yet of course anything can serve as a closed system, if its believers are sufficiently recalcitrant, and any orthodoxy can be and often is overbearing and vexing to upstarts. You don’t need Duhem, Quine, and Kuhn in order to believe that people generally are hesitant to lose faith in the systems to which they have pledged themselves. People are apt to overextend their systems as well. (See C.D. Darlington and, time and again, David Hume and xkcd.)

Nevertheless, Marxism and psychoanalysis, among others, have attracted somewhat more cult-like followings than other systems. It’s probably a good thing Gellner didn’t spend too much time around Heideggerians, otherwise we would have gotten a book on them. Gellner limits himself to a single dismissive remark:

On the side of Continental philosophy, a greater and greater cult of paradox and obscurity, an appetite which feeds on what it consumes and, as with a galloping illness, hardly allows the imagination to conceive its end: who can outdo Heidegger?

Ernest Gellner, Words and Things

The issue is to what extent this cult-like environment is entailed by the system at hand. The criterion that Gellner uses to judge the level of closure of philosophical systems, which I think is a good one, is that of mysticism. At one end is the scientific method by which everything is (supposedly) falsifiable; at the other end is wholly unjustified religion. These two quotes, both of which invoke the phrase “curiously reminiscent,” should give some idea of where ordinary language philosophy stands for Gellner on that spectrum:

The doctrine that philosophy must wither away as we become acquainted with the patterns of our use of words is curiously reminiscent of the Marxist view that the State will wither away.

This main fallacy of Wittgenstein’s which remained with him throughout his life can indeed be expressed more dramatically as the notion that there is such a thing as “seeing the world rightly”. Thus Linguistic Philosophy, the doctrine that philosophy is an activity, is a spiritual exercise that confirms the faith which calls for the exercise to begin with. It is in this respect, as in others, curiously reminiscent of psychoanalysis.

Ernest Gellner, Words and Things

The ultimate bounty of Words and Things is Wittgenstein, whom Gellner would go after in other books as well. There is no question that Wittgenstein is an arch-enemy for Gellner just as much as Russell is a comrade-in-arms. I think Gellner saw Wittgenstein’s abandonment of the semi-reasonable (yet still too mystical) logical atomism of the Tractatus as a betrayal of the human obligations of doubt and secular progress, in effect a turn to religion.

Wittgenstein and his ordinary language followers represent, to Gellner:

  1. The abandonment of serious, relevant issues for conjured, spurious ones.
  2. The unquestioning faith of a mystic and the corresponding influence on blind followers.

These are two different charges, which I’ll call Charge (1) and Charge (2). Gellner co-mingles them but especially with Wittgenstein they need to be separated. My own view is that the first charge is ungrounded but that the second one is at least somewhat legitimate.

As to Charge (1) of spuriousness, Gellner overlooks the internal developments within logical positivism, and the difficulties that Carnap’s Aufbau and other attempts to regiment the world had faced. In fact, he does attack logical atomism as an early example of Wittgenstein’s faith-based reasoning, with Wittgenstein assuming that there are logical simples out there but not needing to go to the trouble of finding any. But Gellner doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge the implications of the failure of logical positivism and verificationism.

In addition, Gellner gets Wittgenstein wrong on a number of points, a problem that persists when he treats Wittgenstein’s later work. This is probably the most damning aspect of the book and the one that still causes people to dismiss it. I can’t defend Gellner here: he felt the need to go after the substance as well as the context, and he couldn’t be bothered to give it a fair shot. To be fair, Wittgenstein is seriously difficult and many of his adherents got him wrong too, and many still aren’t sure if they’re even right; but in general, the closer Gellner gets to Wittgenstein’s philosophy, the less convincing he is.

But in separating language philosophy from all other philosophical problems, Gellner also ignores the more general continuum that was being set up. Language, reality, and logic were not coalescing in the way that was promised, and it was not producing an “orderly, unique nature.” Godel’s blow to systems of logic showing them to be necessarily incomplete was perhaps the most crushing inner defeat, but language itself was refusing to conform as well. In this way Gellner was very similar to Russell, who saw the problems Wittgenstein raised with his Theory of Knowledge, but could not bring himself to reject the general empiricist basis behind them. (See David Pears’ The False Prison for more on this.)

Because syntactic or indeed semantic theories of language haven’t really worked out, and pragmatics have become more and more important, you can call Austin et al. naive, dogmatic, boring, or just plain sloppy, but you can’t quite call them wrong, at least not in the way one would call logical positivism wrong.

The problem is that Gellner’s Enlightenment Fundamentalist Rationalism sets up very strict criteria by which one can make sweeping statements about things like the worthlessness of a school of philosophy, and human languge is such a mess that Gellner’s attempt to hold the fort on reasonably simple, naive theories of meaning cannot clear the bar that his own principles have set for him.

That leaves Gellner other avenue of attack for Charge (1), his objection to Pyrrhonistic and therapeutic attitudes of ordinary language philosophy. I do not see this attack as sufficiently grounded either, as science has offered similar prescriptions. The healing of our “folk psychological” ideas is just one of the more prominent recent examples of “seeing the world rightly.” Hence why Dennett’s Consciousness Explained was dubbed Consciousness Explained Away, Consciousness Ignored, etc. These attitudes may be better grounded scientifically, but the attitudes remain similar.

And Pyrrhonic and therapeutic attitudes are hardly new: Epicurus, Nagarjuna, Sextus Empiricus, Lucretius, and many others have always offered the claim that truth would set us free from at least some of our worries and obsessions. These attitudes, when deployed pathologically, are an offense to knowledge and curiosity, but Gellner simply slams the attitudes in toto without allowing for their inevitable presence in all domains. They can never be stamped out. I’m sure Gellner knew this, but his enthusiasm got the better of him.

Onto Charge (2), of the mythification of Wittgenstein. Everything I have read suggests a strong degree of truth to the veneration and almost deification of Wittgenstein. He had an aura of remote brilliance about him and people speak of attending his classes as they would of attending the speeches of a prophet. I think Gellner is very psychologically keen about Wittgenstein.

This main fallacy of Wittgenstein’s which remained with him throughout his life can indeed be expressed more dramatically as the notion that there is such a thing as “seeing the world rightly.”

Wittgenstein was indeed driven by a need for certainty, for clarity, for indisputable assertions. There is no doubt this was a pathological need, and it informs the less attractive aspects of his philosophy: a general arrogance and an unwillingness to accept, even momentarily, provisional or partial measures in explanations and analyses. Both of these are present in his demand to see the world rightly.

Wittgenstein’s brilliance and integrity prevented him from taking easy solutions, however, and Gellner does not seem to have realized this, presumably because he did not take Wittgenstein’s project seriously. Wittgenstein’s stubbornness and general refusal to accept criticism except from within does not make it any easier, but the fact remains that Wittgenstein could not allow himself to do what he continually said he wanted to do, which is give up philosophy. He wouldn’t stop until he knew he saw the world rightly, and I’m pretty sure he never would have believed he did. Gellner has made an accurate diagnosis but has misstated the symptoms.

Yet Wittgenstein’s personality did engender a more rigid orthodoxy, which was not helped by the stridency of Ryle. Again, however, Gellner goes too far in conflating philosophy and culture. The orthodoxy of computational linguistics was just as strong for many years, yet it did not arise from any particular mysticism of beliefs, just from a remarkably charismatic and brilliant founder.

Wittgenstein was an exceptional case, however, and the combination of his gnomic discourse and his yearning, spiritual frustration was captivating to some and toxic to people like Gellner. (I don’t believe Gellner ever met Wittgenstein, but that he formed an idea of him based on interacting with his acolytes, an idea perhaps even more mythic and titanic than the reality.) It is right to be wary of any such elevation, and it is here that Gellner gets closest to explaining the cultural etiology of the more mediocre language philosophy he is attacking, and the blind faith that does play a part in it.

It’s a curious error to conflate ideas (Charge (1)) and culture (Charge (2)), and particularly curious when a keen social scientist like Gellner makes it. It’s not the only time he did it: The Psychoanalytic Movement: The Cunning of Unreason  indicts Freud and his followers on similar grounds, though with far more success. Freud, like Wittgenstein, was a near-demagogic bringer of truth who also suffered from acute self-doubt and revised his own theories repeatedly, while bridling at the slightest criticism from others. In both cases, Gellner ties the figures and their followers too rigidly to the ideas in play, as though there was an exact parallel correspondence between the sociological power dynamics at work and the underlying theories themselves.

It produces a peculiar sort of alienation: people are expressing and asserting themselves through ideological systems and forms of argument rather than through emotional dynamics. My own belief has generall been that this gets it the wrong way round: ideological reconstructions are post hoc justifications for personal and emotional conflicts that owe little (but not nothing) to the intellectual matters at hand. The ideas coyuld have easily been different; the emotions and games of power are so often the same.

The Accident by Mihail Sebastian

I have a new review up at the Quarterly Conversation about Mihail Sebastian’s first novel to be translated into English, The Accident. Sebastian’s remarkable Journal 1935-1944 was published in English ten years ago. His novel, which bears some resemblance to contemporaneous works by the Hungarian writers Antal Szerb and Sandor Marai, is significant when compared against his journal entries of the same period.

The Accident by Mihail Sebastian

The Accident arrives as something of an appendix to the massive Journal of Mihail Sebastian (1907-1945), a record of his life as a Romanian Jewish writer from 1935 to 1944. Though Sebastian is known in Romania for his plays and, to a lesser extent, his novels, to my knowledge nothing of his appeared in English until his Journal was published in 2000, chronicling the horrors and fears of life in Romania during World War II. The Accident is his first translated work of fiction.

Next to the immediacy of the JournalThe Accident initially disappoints….

The greater import of The Accident reveals itself only against the background of Sebastian’s Journal, which described in some detail his writing of the novel. But the greater context is crucial as well. The Journal was not published until 1996 (it was translated into in English in 2000), when its portrayal of Romanian complicity in the Holocaust caused controversy. Over 300,000 Romanian Jews died during World War II, a large percentage by death squads set up by Romania’s own aggressively anti-Semitic government. Sebastian was fortunate to live in Bucharest, which was spared the worst of Romania’s policies, but he witnessed the virulent anti-Semitism and deportations and heard firsthand accounts of the government’s massacres carried out on the orders of Prime Minister Ion Antonescu. Sebastian sensitively, painfully chronicled details of the Holocaust as it was happening that many would not know until after the war. Sebastian survived the war, only to be killed in an auto accident in 1945.


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