But does my comment come across as friendly banter or as condescending and insulting? I think I got away with it, but it can be hard to know. And if philosophers are autistic then I might never know. (You can take a 'fun quiz' here to find out whether you might be autistic. The average score is about 16, problem scores seem to start at 32, and I got a worrying 28.)
I wasn't going to blog about any of this (perhaps for obvious reasons--it's Twitter-worthy at best), but then I read Mohan Matthen quoting Wittgenstein and commenting as follows:
How can an intelligent and philosophically sophisticated person misread so badly? It's true that the first sentence here suggests that Wittgenstein might be open to the possibility that there might not be something going on in one's mind when one understands the word 'plant'. (And that does sound odd, though not necessarily wrong.) But he doesn't say this. What he says (or implies) is that there is a problem if we go from this thought to saying (or thinking) that what we mean by understanding a word is a process in the mind. And he suggests a cure for this problem.We think there must be something going on in one's mind for one to understand the word 'plant'. We are inclined to say that what we mean by one's understanding the word is a process in the mind. ... There is a way out of the difficulty of explaining what understanding is if we take 'understanding a word' to mean, roughly, being able to use it. The point of this explanation is to replace 'understanding a word' by 'being able to use a word', which is not so easily thought of as denoting an [inner] activity.Apparently, according to him, there is nothing going on in one’s mind when one comes to understand a word.
The problem, I take it, is that any 'process in the mind' that is supposedly what we mean when we talk about understanding would be very obscure. What is the mind? What might a process in it be? How have we managed to refer to such a process without knowing what it is or ever experiencing it? I have experienced understanding, but not as an internal process. Wittgenstein proposes that we focus less on what we apparently must be talking about and more on what we actually do. Matthen resists doing this, instead relying on appeal to standard views and rhetorical questions ("Such a categorical change must be a mental change—what else could it be?"), along with an apparent presupposition that "understanding a word" must refer to this mental change. All very odd.
My point is not that Matthen is wrong. Several people have already pointed that out. What's interesting is the way he has gone wrong, which appears to involve taking several specific ideas for granted but also a general kind of approach to reading an unfamiliar text. I'm not sure that I could characterize that approach, but I'm reminded of it when I read Denis McManus's new book on Heidegger (which, as far as I can tell, being neither an expert nor farther in than p. 30, is excellent) and his discussion of the Theoretical Attitude. It's an approach that takes an awful lot for granted: Wittgenstein, like anyone else, can be understood easily enough even when quoted out of context; there is no need to read sentences carefully because it's obvious what kinds of things someone might say; it is also obvious what questions matter and what don't; it's obvious what kind of thing might be true (the range is limited by science and the current consensus among philosophers); of course there is no point in thinking about whether what seemingly must be true really is true; and so on. In a word: science. And in two words: not philosophy. When continental philosophers talk as if analytic philosophy has not really moved on from logical positivism I suspect it is this kind of thing they have in mind. Not that this is logical positivism, but the scientistic spirit seems much the same. (I don't mean that continental philosophy is better than analytic philosophy, if that needs to be said.) The desire to get on, to make progress (e.g. to figure out what understanding is, and to be impatient with people like Wittgenstein who seem to want to obstruct your project), works against the desire to stop and think. It strikes me as both unphilosophical and characteristic of a mentality that is dangerous. It's easy to think you're making progress just because you keep moving. (And easy, too, to think you are benign just because you are too inert to be malignant.)