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Tag: wittgenstein (page 2 of 8)

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.

Ernst Cassirer, Heidegger, and the Pitfall of Being Reasonable (or: Fashionable Radicalism)

What of Ernst Cassirer? Hans Sluga wrote a few months ago:

Cassirer does not get close in stature to the much more problematic Heidegger, and he certainly also lacks the philosophical radicalism of a Wittgenstein, Foucault, or Derrida and the incisive scientific acumen of a Russell, Quine, or Rawls. Attempts to revive his fortunes are, I am afraid, doomed to failure.

Hans Sluga, Review of Peter E. Gordon’s Continental Divide: Heidegger, Cassirer, Davos

The two words “stature” and “radicalism” should awaken suspicion at the terms of the judgment. They also hint at one possible reason why so much of the recent press on Cassirer has been lukewarm or dismissive: He is too reasonable.

First, a little context: hyper-learned philosophy scholar Frederick Beiser, who is also an avowed exponent of the cultural-historical tradition of which Cassirer was a part, recently criticized a history of 19th century continental philosophy for being, essentially, a dictionary of received ideas, an anthology of current trends and little else:

The editors might grumble here that in chiding them for not including Trendelenburg, Lotze and the neo-Kantians I have not judged them by their own criteria. For their volume is meant to describe “revolutionary responses to the existing order“, and Trendelenburg, Lotze and the neo-Kantians were not revolutionary; indeed, they represented the establishment and existing order, given their opposition to materialism and given their ensconced place in German university life.

It is precisely here, however, that it is necessary to raise questions about the editors’ criteria and their guiding themes of “revolutionary responses to the existing order.” That theme is so vague and equivocal that it signifies contradictory viewpoints. The revolutionary response to the existing order can mean the revolution on behalf of modern values by Feuerbach, Marx and the German materialists; or it can also mean the reaction against modern values by Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche. The existing order can be pre-secular, non-liberal and monarchical society prior to 1848, the remaining traces of the ancien régime; and it can also be the more secular, liberal and democratic order circa 1870. The editors never spell out this ambiguity; they simply exploit it, so that they have a convenient device for including everyone according to the exigencies of the standard curriculum. 

Behind the editors’ theme of “revolutionary responses to the existing order” there lies an old myth, one that the editors have scarcely articulated yet tacitly adopted: namely, that the important philosophy of the nineteenth century came not from “academic philosophers” but from the radical individual thinkers outside the university, viz., from such solitary thinkers as Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.

Not the least troublesome aspect of this myth is that some of these so-called revolutionary thinkers were themselves deeply reactionary. It is only by turning a blind eye to Nietzsche’s reactionary politics and to Kierkegaard’s and Dostoyevsky’s fundamentalist Christianity that it is possible to make them relevant to us today. Any impartial contemporary student of nineteenth-century philosophy who knows the movement in all its breadth will find Cohen, Simmel and Weber more sympathetic company than Kierkegaard, Nietzsche or Dostoyevsky.

Frederick Beiser, Review of Alan D. Schrift and Daniel Conway (eds.), Nineteenth Century Philosophy: Revolutionary Responses to the Existing Order

Behind this chronologically localized criticism is a larger specter haunting the history of philosophy, which is the extent to which the history of philosophy is chronicled as a history of radicalism. There is a persistent urge to reject any uniformitarian or gradualist model of philosophy in favor of a history of wild, epochal thinkers making fundamental changes to the ways that we see the world.

Not only does this provide for a more exciting model of punctuated equilibrium, but it also makes for a much simpler and more teachable one, as we can leap from Descartes to Hume to Kant to Hegel without bothering to examine the secondary, non-epochal thinkers in between them.

And the insidious nature of this assumption goes beyond Beiser’s specific criticisms. The criticism of Cassirer reinforces the more general problem at work. I’m not interested in defending Cassirer here per se, but in showing that many of the criticisms seem to be made in bad faith.

Edward Skidelsky wrote a recent book on Cassirer, Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture, in which he opened with a confession that Cassirer had let him down, and declares a lowered estimation of Cassirer:

I now saw that the problems facing Cassirer’s enterprise were far more serious than I had initially supposed. It was not just that many individual aspects of his system had fallen into disrepair, but that the whole thing was no longer obviously philosophy at all. Cassirer’s thought is inductive, not deductive in its method. Setting out from the variety of human culture, it attempts to comprehend it as an organic whole. But most twentieth-century philosophy, analytic and continental, has sought a standpoint beyond the variety of culture—an absolute conception of consciousness, meaning, or the world. Viewed from this angle, Cassirer does not so much mediate between analytic and continental traditions as fall foul of them both. His “reconciliation” is on terms that neither can accept.

There is, of course, no reason to accept as final the conception of philosophy prevailing in modern philosophy departments. But there are reasons to doubt whether Cassirer’s inductivist conception of the discipline could readily be revived. Cassirer was able to conceive of philosophy as the interpretation of culture only because he shared with most of his generation a conception of culture itself as an essentially liberating force.

The twentieth century was not kind to that idea. The cancerous growth of bureaucracy, the murderous perversion of science, the self-prostitution of the humanities—none of this portended liberation. The younger generation accordingly sought a standard of truth over and above culture’s shifting tides. The logical positivists found it in the verification principle, Heidegger in authentic existence. Others turned to the Bible or the wisdom of ancient Greece. All agreed that the humanism of the past two centuries had failed. “We encountered situations,” wrote Karl Jaspers in 1948, “in which we no longer had any inclination to read Goethe, but seized on Shakespeare, the Bible or Aeschylus, if indeed we could still read at all.”

We have inherited Cassirer’s liberal political attitudes, but not the cultural sensibility that underlay them. With our skepticism toward progress, our distaste for “bourgeois” formalities, our fascination with charisma, and our endless talk of commitment, authenticity, and roots, we remain, consciously or not, Heidegger’s children. We are politically liberal, spiritually illiberal. Is this combination a stable one? And if not, how long can it last? These are questions that this book raises, but cannot answer.

Edward Skidelsky, Ernst Cassirer: The Last Philosopher of Culture

Skidelsky berates Cassirer for working from a conception that he thinks unrecoverable. Yet consider how he describes the alternative conceptions: “a standard of truth over and above culture’s shifting tides.” An absolutist, acultural view of truth. This is bizarre, partly because Cassirer hardly held to cultural relativism, but also because Heidegger’s influence has been primarily shunted through cultural relativism. (I’ll get to the logical positivists later.)

As evidence, I present David Simpson’s equally odd review of Skidelsky’s book from the London Review of Books, in which he doesn’t seem to realize he’s attacking Cassirer from the opposite side that Skidelsky is:

While we should not slavishly follow Heidegger’s every move, we can’t really get behind Cassirer, however benign his intentions, however serene his demeanour. Standing between us and him are the massive intellectual forces of Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Adorno and many others; not all of them Heidegger’s children, all of the time, but none of them relatives of Cassirer’s. These forces are not just intellectual or ‘authentically philosophical’; they articulate a profound scepticism about the project of progressive culture in the light of world events that are not at all comfortably consigned to a vanished past.

To return to the question with which I began: are these books the sign of a return to Cassirer? I doubt it, and so do most of these authors. Heidegger, Benjamin, Adorno, Blumenberg and Carnap all found Cassirer wanting, and those who attend conferences about him are also unable to convince themselves that he can be reinvented for the 21st century.

David Simpson, A Positive Future

How did the opposing attacks get so confused? I contend it is because their essence is identical: Cassirer was not a radical. Whether the radicalism was in the form of metaphysical absolutism or cultural relativism, what matters is that the position was radical.

Meanwhile, there is the trendy criterion that a thinker must be able to be “reinvented for the 21st century” in order to merit study. What does that even mean? I suspect it is just another way of saying that a thinker must be radical. (If Carl Schmitt can be “reinvented” for the 21st century, I daresay there’s nothing stopping Cassirer.)

And indeed, Simpson cites four problematic thinkers as “massive intellectual forces,” who have little in common besides being indisputably radical: Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, and Adorno.

Derrida and Lacan lead nowhere but back to themselves, solipsists far less successful than Freud, makers of minor metaphors that will hang on through their cults but slowly dissipate from cultural memory, their best arguments returned to the sources from whom they were borrowed.

I have far more patience for Foucault and Adorno, who are serious and durable thinkers, but as Habermas among many others have pointed out, both of their systems offer no escape, rational or otherwise. Their critique can only be used in part, or else it is simply so self-negating as to be pointless. It is no insult to say that they reject Cassirer, because they reject everyone.

But when taken in part, Foucault and Adorno can only be used to argue for reform of a Cassirer-like project of intellectual rationalism, not an indisputable indictment of it. I suppose this is a good thing as it permits scholarship to continue.

Meanwhile, Simpson bizarrely lists Blumenberg as a detractor from Cassirer; I suppose when evidence is not at issue, you might as well pile on the names. Blumenberg does convincingly criticize Cassirer’s terminus ad quem view of myth as uniformly directed to one ideal outcome, but that hardly is an indictment of the man’s whole work.

Yet in looking at Heidegger, Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, and Adorno, one is struck ultimately by their comparative inconsequentiality. These “massive intellectual forces” simply have not dominated intellectual discourse outside of their disciplines: Habermas and Sartre loomed far larger in public life. (Indeed, Sartre’s disappearance over the last 30 years should serve as a warning to all never to trust the current canon.)

Instead, consider this sample of hugely influential intellectual forces of the 20th century: Albert Einstein, Gandhi, Alan Turing, John Von Neumann, Kurt Godel, Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, Sigmund Freud, Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, and Martin Luther King.

Yes, many of them made their mark through practical action, but that does not disqualify their influence. All of them, without exception, fall closer philosophically to Carnap and Cassirer than to Heidegger or any of the other names Simpson or Skidelsky cites. Simpson is using a rather parochial measure of massiveness.

Which brings us to Carnap. The logical positivist view is certainly one that has held greater sway Cassirer’s cultural view. Contra Skidelsky, we are vastly more Carnap’s children than we are Heidegger’s, and thank goodness for that. So the charge of Cassirer’s irrelevance relative to Carnap is at least plausible.

Yet Skidelsky and Simpson have it wrong in opposing Carnap and Cassirer. As Michael Friedman points out, Cassirer had already moved toward admitting a logical absolutism into his philosophy, undercutting Skidelsky’s attack:

By sharply distinguishing between intuitive or representative meaning and the purely formal or significative meaning characteristic of modern abstract mathematics, in the tradition of Leibniz’s “universal characteristic,” Helmholtz’s theory of signs, and Hilbert’s axiomatic conception of geometry, Cassirer has clearly moved out of the Kantian camp and has come extremely close, in fact, to the position of Carnap and the logical positivists.

Michael Friedman, A Parting of the Ways: Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger (2000)

And as was recently demonstrated in these pages, logical positivism was hardly as absolutist as its most extreme exponents and detractors made it out to be: in Carnap’s own words, “The fabric of life can never quite be comprehended.” Logical positivism does not exclude Cassirer’s empirical philosophy of culture from the world.

Friedman, who has argued in the past with Sluga over Cassirer, makes the following case for Cassirer’s relevance, which I cite simply in order to contrast its rhetoric with that of Cassirer’s critics above:

The essence of Cassirer’s approach is to employ the most sophisticated and comprehensive resources of conceptual intellectual history (and thus the resources of a paradigmatic Geisteswissenschaft) in attempting to craft a new philosophical orientation appropriate to the problems and predicaments of the present.

For Cassirer this meant, in particular, that we attempt to trace the conceptual evolution of both modern science and modern philosophy – and the conceptual interactions between them – within the framework of an historicized (and to this extent Hegelian) version of a broadly Kantian theory of the most general forms and categories of human thought, and this approach was later generalized and extended, in the philosophy of symbolic forms, to embrace what we might call the conceptual history of all of human culture as a whole.

Now this last step, as I have said, is one that I myself am not prepared to take. But Cassirer’s earlier approach, exemplified in his more narrowly scientific works, makes particularly good sense, I believe, within our present, post-logical-empiricist and post-Kuhnian situation in philosophy of science and scientific epistemology.

Michael Friedman, “Carnap, Cassirer, and Heidegger” (2002)

And this all seems very reasonable and sensible, and indeed not so far off from the realms which many subsequent thinkers, from Quine to Sellars to Kuhn to Blumenberg to Apel to Habermas, have explored.

If anything, the bashing of Cassirer seems to be an outgrowth of his being too reasonable, too sensible, too down-to-earth, as though admitting the tenability of his position would put the more abstruse theorists out of a job. The embrace of radicalism appears to be a desperate stab at relevancy for areas of the profession feeling increasingly at risk of complete inconsequentiality. I believe this tendency to be self-defeating.

Embracing radicalism is an understandable reaction to the actual victory of science and the problems that it has brought, but it is not a particularly credible or respectable one. It does explain, though, the phenomenon of someone like Slavoj Zizek, who offers all of the radicalism of a Foucault with none of the content.

Beiser, who is something of an iconoclastic establishmentarian, seems far more heterodox by prescribing the truly deviant step of deep research, something that he follows Cassirer in practicing:

There are two kinds of philosophical historians: derivative and original. While the derivative follow the standard curriculum, the original have the powers to reform and create a new curriculum. It is the ideal and obligation of every genuine philosophical historian to be original, to get beyond the standard curriculum, to resist the pressure of pedagogical interests and intellectual fashions, so that he can give an accurate account of the depth and breadth of an historical period. No period of the philosophical past stands in more need of an original historian than nineteenth century philosophy. The standard tropes and figures do no justice to its depths, riches and powers. The ultimate purpose of this review is to give the reader some indication of how we must strive to get beyond them.

Frederick Beiser, Review of Alan D. Schrift and Daniel Conway (eds.), Nineteenth Century Philosophy: Revolutionary Responses to the Existing Order

The derivative historians are that much more harmful when they dismiss unfashionable thinkers as unrecoverable. When Skidelsky calls Cassirer “old Europe’s answer to Francis Fukuyama,” he only sounds small and myopic.

To answer Skidelsky’s implied question from earlier: Is culture an essentially liberating force? Not necessarily. Does it have the potential to be? Yes. That is sufficient.

Jacob Bronowski, William Empson, Wittgenstein, and Ambiguity

Most of human sentences are in fact aimed at getting rid of the ambiguity which one has unfortunately left trailing in the previous sentence. Now I believe this to be absolutely inherent in the relation between the symbolism of language (that is, an exact symbolism) and the brain processes that it stands for. It is not possible to get rid of ambiguity in our statements, because that would press symbolism beyond its capabilities. And it is not possible to get rid of ambiguity because the number of responses that the brain could make never has a sharp edge because the thing is not a digital machine. So we have to work with the ambiguities. And nearly all discussions about Turing’s theorem or about poetry always come back to the central point about ambiguity. One of my fellow mathematicians, William Empson, who did mathematics with me at Cambridge, turned to poetry and at once published a book called Seven Types of Ambiguity–it is still a kind of minor bible, but a bible written by a mathematician, never forget that.

Ambiguity, multivalence, the fact that language simply cannot be regarded as a clear and final exposition of what it says, is central both to science, and, of course, to literature.

Jacob Bronowski, The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination

Bronowski carved out a niche for himself a bit like that of C.P. Snow, but I think he was more sensitive to, well, ambiguity.

The other figure lurking in this passage is that other Cambridge mathematician and logician who turned to the mysteries of language: Ludwig Wittgenstein. F.R. Leavis, who was not a genius, talks about Empson and Wittgenstein (who were geniuses) as near-polar opposites. One was protean, the other was anything but protean.

It may seem ironic that Wittgenstein would be the one to completely reject the system he created, but it’s actually entirely fitting, for it’s the most immutable among us who are sometimes forced into such complete renunciations when they finally change their minds.

Wittgenstein’s Lectures on Aesthetics

Aesthetics as self-defeating enterprise: how theories of aesthetics make it their goal to exclude the aesthetic from consideration.

7. A characteristic thing about our language is that a large number of words used under these circumstances are adjectives -‘fine’, ‘lovely’, etc. But you see that this is by no means necessary. You saw that they were first used as interjections. Would it matter if instead of saying “This is lovely”, I just said “Ah!” and smiled, or just rubbed my stomach? As far as these primitive languages go, problems about what these words are about, what their real subject is, [which is called ‘beautiful’ or ‘good’.-R.] don’t come up at all.

8. It is remarkable that in real life, when aesthetic judgements are made, aesthetic adjectives such as ‘beautiful’, ‘fine’, etc., play hardly any role at all. Are aesthetic adjectives used in a musical criticism? You say: “Look at this transition”,Z or [Rhees] “The passage here is incoherent”. Or you say, in a poetical criticism, [Taylor]: “His use of images is precise”. The words you use are more akin to ‘right’ and ‘correct’ (as these words are used in ordinary speech) than to ‘beautiful’ and’lovely’.

23.    We talked of correctness. A good cutter won’t use  any words except words like ‘Too long’, ‘All right’.  When we talk of a Symphony of Beethoven we don’t talk of correctness. Entirely different things enter. One wouldn’t talk of appreciating the tremendous things in Art. In certain styles in Architecture a door is correct, and the thing is you appreciate it. But in the case of a Gothic Cathedral what we do is not at all to find it correct-it plays an entirely diferent role with us. The entire game is different. It is as different as to judge a human being and on the one hand to say ‘He behaves well’ and on the other hand ‘He made a great impression on me’.

24. ‘Correctly’, ‘charmingly’, ‘finely’ , etc. play an entirely diferent role. Cf. the famous address of Buffon-a terrific man -on style in writing; making ever so many distinctions which I only understand vaguely but which he didn’t mean vaguely-all kinds of nuances like ‘grand’, ‘charming’, ‘nice’.

25. The words we call expressions of aesthetic judgement play a very complicated role, but a very definite role, in what we call  a culture of a period. To describe their use or to describe what you mean by a cultured taste, you have to describe a culture. What we now call a cultured taste perhaps didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. An entirely different game is played in different ages.

26. What belongs to a language game is a whole culture. In describing musical taste you have to describe whether children give concerts, whether women do or whether men only give them, etc., etc.’ In aristocratic circles in Vienna people had [such and such] a taste, then it came into bourgeois circles and women joined choirs, etc. This is an example of tradition in music.

35. In order to get clear about aesthetic words you have to describe ways of living. We think we have to talk about aesthetic judgements like ‘This is beautiful’, but we find that if we have to talk about aesthetic judgements we don’t find these words at all, but a word used something like a gesture, accompanying a complicated activity.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures on Aesthetics (1938)

What Wittgenstein seems to elide, mostly, is the modern emphasis on deviancy, aka creativity. Application of positive aesthetic terms today requires a certain sense of originality or integrity in the work, some way in which a new work is not a recapitulation of extant instantiations of the positive aesthetic terms, but an elaboration on them or new development of them. This is not to say that these terms are qualitatively any different from “correct” and “nice” and “lovely,” or that there actually is a sense in which these “original” works are original in any substantive way, just that these terms make the sort of game that Wittgenstein is talking about considerably more neurotic.

[See also F.R. Leavis Remembers Wittgenstein for Wittgenstein interpreting William Empson’s poetry.]

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