Friday, August 10, 2012

Groundless Grounds

Lee Braver has written a book that I think was crying out to be written, comparing Wittgenstein and Heidegger. The subject needs to be addressed, and Braver writes with real charm. Here's the beginning of his acknowledgments page:

I think that's pretty funny, and he makes similarly lighthearted comments throughout the book, without straying from his task. That task is both to present an introductory overview of the work of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, and to argue that they have similarities that are numerous, significant, and illuminating of each other's work. His knowledge of the two bodies of work is impressive (I suspect he has a method for doing his homework, and I wish I could copy it), and he writes with admirable clarity.

It's possible that he is too clear. His previous book, remarkable in similar ways to this new one, begins with a list of six kinds or aspects of realism and six of anti-realism, plus five other ideas that come up often in the book. These are then referred to throughout as R1-R6 (for realist ideas), A1-A6 (for anti-realism), and various acronyms such as ED (the Empirical Directive, not erectile dysfunction, although it does refer (Freudianly?) to "this ... he or it (the thing) which thinks..."), HPO (Historical Phenomenological Ontology), and so on. It's like trying to read Spinoza when his arguments consist entirely of references to previous sections of his book, or a long blog post full of links that you are expected to click on and more or less memorize. There's nothing absolutely wrong with this kind of thing, and it is clear in the sense of being precise: we know exactly what is being claimed. But books like this are made for studying rather than reading in the normal or casual sense. Clarity of this kind is not the lazy reader's friend.

Groundless Grounds is not like that, but it is still arguably too clear in two ways. Most obviously, if this is really what Wittgenstein and Heidegger meant then why didn't they say so? It's tempting to think that that's a devastating objection, but I'm not so sure. There is a place, and perhaps even a need, for simplification in an introduction. One of the things I think Braver wants to do is to start a dialogue, and there is no need to get everything exactly right at the start of a dialogue. His simplified versions of Wittgenstein and Heidegger are strongly suggestive of connections worth investigating further, and if further investigations occur as a result then Braver will have been (at least partly) successful. Of course such connections have been suggested before by Cavell, Rorty, Mulhall, and others, but not in such an accessible and programmatic way (as far as I know). 

Another problem with Braver's easy style is that you don't always know what he is claiming. I'll give just one example, and I should note that not many others come to mind. On p. 234 Braver says that both Heidegger and Wittgenstein aim to "help us return to where we already are." He links this with a rejection of nihilism, which he suggests results from an artificial understanding of the world that overlooks the meaning already inherent in it. "We don't need to figure out how to inject values into a gray landscape; our lives are flooded with Technicolor." I take this to mean that our lives and the world we live in are full of, or at least contain significant amounts of, value, and that it is both a metaphysical error and a kind of moral or spiritual mistake to deny this. Yet on the next page Braver writes about Wittgenstein as a kind of Stoic, seeking independence from the world through apatheia. This sounds like a very different idea to me. If the world is flooded with value then why would it be good to seek independence from it? How could I be apathetic towards it? Perhaps the tension is only apparent, but Braver does not explain it away. Or perhaps he means to point out a difference between Heidegger's view (which is more obviously what he has in mind when he makes his Technicolor comment) and that of the early Wittgenstein, but he doesn't say so. He writes as if there simply is no tension here. (Maybe he is counting on better readers than me.) Sometimes clarity comes from overlooking problems, and that can leave the reader confused.

Connected with this is the fact that Braver's interpretation is sometimes questionable. That's always going to be the case with writers like Wittgenstein and Heidegger, so Braver should get some slack here. But not endless amounts. I don't feel qualified to question his reading of Heidegger, but here are a few points in the book that made me reach for an imaginary red pen:
  • on p. 41 Braver summarizes the ethics of the early Wittgenstein and writes that "hanging my happiness on getting what I desire and avoiding what I do not is a sucker's game. The dice are loaded--determined, even--and the house always wins in the end." This seems wrong in two ways. For one thing, Wittgenstein was surely not looking to win in this sense. The Epicureans believed that the way to maximize happiness is to minimize misery, and the way to do that is to withdraw from the world. That is not Wittgenstein's position at all. He never was any kind of hedonist. Secondly, neither was he a determinist. "Superstition is belief in the causal nexus," he wrote. (Incidentally--and this is probably either unoriginal or wrong--thinking about this led me to these thoughts: determinism is not something we find to be true but a requirement we place on reality ("Well it had to be caused by something. Things don't just happen.") and so it makes no sense (or little sense at best) to call it true; whether we should make this requirement is an ethical question, not one that the facts can settle; it does not follow that we have free will, as Hume pointed out, because free will is not the denial of determinism; libertarianism (of the free will, not the political, kind) is dubious because it regards me as an uncaused cause, or uninfluenced influence at least, which seems hubristic as well as undemonstrable; which seems to leave us with some kind of compatibilism, which, though not provably correct, might be unavoidable anyway.)
  • Braver seems to think that the later Wittgenstein thought that philosophy was just a bad mistake, to be gotten rid of by whatever means prove necessary. On p. 51 he considers an objection to this interpretation, but quickly (inside one paragraph) dismisses it as not fitting with the rest of what Wittgenstein says. I must say I think he should have paid more attention to the objection. Wittgenstein, it seems to me, clearly thought of philosophy as important in a way that Braver appears not to see (despite his later comments to the effect that the moral point of philosophy as Wittgenstein saw it is much the same as the moral point that Heidegger sees in it--not that Heidegger would like that way of putting things).
  • on p. 77 Braver suggests that what Wittgenstein liked about Westerns is their lack of moral ambiguity. We discussed this a little here (see comments), and I suspect that seanwilsonorg is right that what Wittgenstein wanted was a temporary mental captivation, not moral simplicity. After all, he praised detective stories for sometimes containing wisdom (in contrast to the articles in Mind). There is little wisdom in the idea that good guys wear white hats and bad guys wear black. The hero of Rendezvous with Fear (a detective story set in the American West) is far from being unambiguously good, and this was one of Wittgenstein's favorites.
  • at the very end of the book, p. 239, the last page before the notes, etc., Braver writes: "Wittgenstein wants to eradicate wonder, it is true..." News for Gordon Bearn. Let me just say this: it is not true. 
Still, the world is a better place for having this book in it. May many others correct whatever faults it might contain. It aims to stimulate, and it succeeds delightfully.


  1. ... libertarianism (of the free will, not the political, kind) is dubious because it regards me as an uncaused cause, or uninfluenced influence at least, which seems hubristic as well as undemonstrable; which seems to leave us with some kind of compatibilism, which, though not provably correct, might be unavoidable anyway.

    I think this is a something of a regression from the understanding I succeeded in helping you to reach in our previous discussion of determinism a year ago. I made two points there:

    1) Speculation on what would be the right attitude to take to the truth of determinism is already stacking the deck against determinism – because if determinism is true, it follows that we cannot choose anything, including the attitude we take to the truth of determinism.

    2) In the sense of a lack of belief in uncaused events, determinism seems to be an On Certainty-type certainty for psychologically ordinary human beings. So arguing for or against determinism would seem to be pointless (or at least queer) in the sense in which arguments for or against Moore's proof of an external world are pointless (or at least queer). Nothing ethical about hubris, etc., needs to enter into it at all.

    I don't think you've kept these two considerations in mind here in your new comment on determinism.

    Still, the world is a better place for having this book in it.

    It's interesting that this is the upshot of your reading of the book. Because the account you give of all the book's faults was already more than enough, by itself, to kill my own interest in it completely.

  2. You're right, I do slide around on determinism, sometimes backwards, no doubt. The main thing I wanted to express here was a bad taste I got in my mouth when thinking about libertarianism. Not only does it not seem true, it seems like bad thing to want to be true.

    Braver's book won't be for everyone. But I can imagine various people taking him to task on this or that, and that's something I'd like to see. In a constructive way, of course, not in the sense of Braver being kicked by Wittgensteinians and Heideggerians. I think that is almost what he sets out to achieve, although presumably he has tried to get things as right as possible.