Sunday, 1 March 2020

Deflating Wittgenstein: With Daniel Kaufman and Crispin Sartwell [A commentary on a YouTube Video]

[The following paragraph is a standard introduction to my commentaries on various science- and philosophy-based YouTube videos.]
When it comes to my commentaries on particular videos, only the content of — or the words within — the video itself will be discussed. (There are a few minor exceptions to this in each piece.) That is, the commentaries aren’t cases of detailed research on the subjects discussed or the persons interviewed.
This is a commentary on a one hour 48 minutes video discussion between Daniel A. Kaufman and Crispin Sartwell on the subject of Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Despite the aforementioned subject matter, Kaufman (at one point) states the following:
“Wittgenstein has almost zero influence in analytic philosophy today. The interesting thing is that your experience [i.e., Crispin Sartwell’s negative experience] represented the last gasp of that tradition.”
Kaufman also says (ironically, I presume) that there are only “three Wittgensteinians around today”. (He mentions P.M.S. Hacker as one of them.) Kaufman continues by saying that “analytic philosophy went completely beyond [Wittgenstein]”. He cites the influence of cognitive science as an example of this. Kaufman claims that the “whole point of [cognitive science] is doing exactly what Wittgenstein believed that you shouldn’t do”. Despite that, Kaufman is also against what he calls the “cognitive science revolution” in philosophy. He also believes in “bringing Wittgenstein back” in order to fight a counter-revolution against that cognitive science hegemony (at least within philosophy).
Kaufman admits that Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations would still come out as a “number one” book in many polls of analytic philosophers. In addition, it’s ironic that Kaufman says that Wittgenstein today is a “dead parrot” when one considers the fact that only recently there were as many as 1000 publications on Wittgenstein in one year alone. (As of today in ResearchGate, there are 22, 934 publications which both mention and are about Wittgenstein.)
But perhaps all this entirely depends on whether Wittgenstein is a dead parrot to analytic philosophers (as a whole) alone or whether he’s a dead parrot to intellectual culture generally.

Stop Getting Wittgenstein Wrong!

Sartwell (whom Kaufman interviews on this subject) points out that Wittgenstein worship was still prevalent in the 1980s. That’s some 40 years or more after Wittgenstein worship had first kicked in (if within very small circles). Sartwell mentions Cora Diamond, who was teaching at the university he was a student at. Sartwell says “it felt like a cult” at the time. And that’s exactly something that Gilbert Ryle (an admirer of Wittgenstein) noted some 40 years before the 1980s. (Read Ryle’s article from 1951.)
In terms of one fairly recent example of Wittgenstein veneration, it’s worth citing the 2012 book Groundless Ground: A Study of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, by Lee Braver. This book 239 pages long and it doesn’t contain a single criticism of Wittgenstein or his ideas. What’s more, Lee Braver doesn’t even quote any critical words (against Wittgenstein) of any other philosophers or commentators.
Along with Wittgenstein worship (“Bible study”, as the Guardian’s Giles Fraser put it) comes the Wittgenstein Interpretation Industry (mentioned earlier). That is, Wittgenstein worship generates the Wittgenstein Interpretation Industry.
The Wittgenstein Interpretation Industry is primarily driven by the following question (or variations thereon):
What did Wittgenstein really mean by x?
Sartwell picks up on this when he states the following:
“The only thing that mattered to them [the Wittgenstein “cult”] was the question: ‘What did Wittgenstein really mean?’… There wasn’t a question as to what’s the best position here… but what did Wittgenstein really mean?”
That’s what you find with many Wittgenstein acolytes. That is, they’ll shout you down for getting Wittgenstein wrong. They may (sometimes) be right about this. (Who knows?) But whether one is right or wrong, Wittgenstein’s ideas or positions (as they can be agreed upon by all the parties concerned) are rarely discussed . Instead the primary question is usually the following: “What did Wittgenstein mean by y?” Either that, or one becomes a victim of the exclamation: “Stop getting Wittgenstein wrong!”
Yet, ironically, Sartwell immediately says that he “rebelled against Rorty as he read Wittgenstein”. So here again we have an example of the Wittgenstein Interpretation Industry. It gets worse. Kaufman then asks Sartwell this question: “Do you believe that Rorty read Wittgenstein correctly?” And Sartwell answers: “Yes and no. He read him tendentiously.” Sartwell continues:
“His basic premise was not to get Wittgenstein right; but to annex him for his own project.”
Isn’t that what most — or even all — philosophers have done when they’ve discussed the works of other philosophers?
All this raises the question:
Is there such a thing as Wittgenstein’s Wittgenstein?
Or is Wittgenstein’s Wittgenstein simply Sartwell’s (or add some other name here) Wittgenstein? And if Jacques Derrida was correct when he said that “there is no outside-text”, then perhaps it doesn’t matter what Wittgenstein really meant!
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*) Read Crispin Sartwell’s article on Wittgenstein here.

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