Monday, October 22, 2012

Philosophical journalism

If you saw Brian Leiter's take on it then you might have avoided Freeman Dyson's review of Why Does the World Exist?, as I did. But then you would have missed some gems. Dyson tells us that he read the Tractatus when he was in high school, and that:
Wittgenstein, unlike Heidegger, did not establish an ism. He wrote very little, and everything that he wrote was simple and clear.
Books don't get much simpler than the Tractatus!

He also tells this story:
Finally, toward the end of my time in Cambridge, I ventured to speak to him. I told him I had enjoyed reading the Tractatus, and I asked him whether he still held the same views that he had expressed twenty-eight years earlier. He remained silent for a long time and then said, “Which newspaper do you represent?” I told him I was a student and not a journalist, but he never answered my question.
I hope that's true.

(Incidentally, searching for Wittgenstein on philosophical journalism led me to this essay by Esa Saarinen and T. P. Uschanov, which I don't remember seeing before. Looks interesting.)


  1. Interesting. Why didn't Wittgenstein answer? I guess could be different reasons...

  2. Yes, there could be. My guess is that he disliked the question though. Coming from someone he didn't know it might seem impertinent. After all, the question is about him, not anything directly philosophical. I suspect he would have taken a serious question seriously, but this seems like idle curiosity.

  3. write the headlines:

    'famous philosopher still believes in theories of first book!'

    'famous philosopher has changed mind after all these years!'

  4. Replies
    1. That was obscure of me. I meant both that your comment is funny and (sarcastically) that the story would be journalistic gold.

  5. Saarinen was my mentor in my very early undergraduate days in the mid-'90s. He started out in logic, as the star pupil of Hintikka, but later made a somewhat bizarre turn into a media talking head and well-paid business coach, whose run-of-the-mill business-coach teachings are adorned with a thin veneer of references to (standard textbook interpretations of) the history of Western philosophy.

    He was to have supervised my graduate studies at one point, and I co-authored a high school philosophy textbook with him and another of his students, but even before it came out, we had a falling-out to end all falling-outs. That whole portion of my life feels thoroughly unreal in retrospect. I'd forgotten completely that our joint paper was still on my now largely defunct web site. More than anything else it's an attempt by me to convert him away from his excesses by dragging in Wittgenstein, which did not work at all. I wanted to help him find the Wittgenstein in him, but ended up playing the Wittgenstein to his Russell.