Monday, July 14, 2014

Hostility to Wittgenstein

There have been some heartening calls for niceness in philosophy lately (here and here, for instance). Which is perhaps why I'm so struck by the apparent animus in some of Charles Pigden's remarks on Wittgenstein here and here. Pigden does not just disagree with Wittgenstein, he characterizes his "polemical practices" as "dishonest and authoritarian." I don't know which practices he has in mind, but he does mention Wittgenstein's interactions with Turing at one point. The only record we have of those, however, is notes taken by students, so they are hardly a reliable basis for making accusations of this kind. What I recall of these notes doesn't seem all that polemical, either. It certainly doesn't seem dishonest and authoritarian. Pigden is too young to have seen Wittgenstein in action, and Wittgenstein's work generally does not seem polemical. I don't know where the accusation of dishonesty comes from either. It's odd. But Pigden is by no means alone. Tom Hurka's "Wittgenwanker" moment comes to mind, which I remembered as occurring after dinner but which is time stamped as 8:05 a.m. Not enough coffee rather than too much wine, perhaps. (There's a nice response here.) Someone once told me that Peter Hacker's combative style had put people at Oxford off Wittgenstein. I don't know whether that's true, but I wonder whether Pigden is perhaps reacting in part against one or more followers of Wittgenstein rather than Wittgenstein himself.

Michael Kremer provides some good responses, but he hasn't yet answered Pigden's last move, which begins like this:
Like Wittgenstein himself, you have a wonderful way of insulating yourself from refutation. I say Wittgenstein employs implicit criteria for what is and is not meaningful, a claim I could back up by quoting chapter and verse. You say that he often says things which suggest this, but that if we look at the Investigations as a whole we see that this is not so. I recommend this hermeneutical tactic to any interpreter whose interpretation might be falsified by inconvenient quotes.
But you don't falsify an interpretation by quoting remarks out of context, as Pigden surely knows. And all Kremer said was that the context, the book as a whole, needs to be taken into account. Pigden continues:
My real point however is that unless Wittgenstein has such a set of criteria and unless they are correct his therapeutic procedures are simply a set of rhetorical tricks designed to impose a restricted Oldspeak in which the ideas that Wittgenstein disapproves of cannot be expressed. Your defense make him far less honest and much more of an authoritarian than his positivist contemporaries who at least had a theory to back their prohibitions.
According to you, Wittgenstein presumes to tell his interlocutors what is and is not meaningful even though
1) he does not have a theory about what makes utterances meaningful or otherwise (because he does not have ANY theories) 
2) he has no criteria (not even vague ones) to determine whether something is meaningful or not.
If there is no theory or criterion for what is and is not meaningful then it seems to me we have two possibilities with respect to Wittgenstein’s therapeutic procedures.  
These two possibilities, of course, turn out to be bad for Wittgenstein.

And equally of course it is not the case that according to Kremer Wittgenstein presumes to tell his interlocutors what is and is not meaningful . What Kremer says is that:  
As for Wittgenstein, I do not think he employs even a vague set of criteria designed to rule out what he doesn't like. What he does is to use a series of methods for trying to bring his interlocutor to see the meaninglessness of his or her words, when the use of those words leads to seemingly intractable problems. Insofar as these methods do not persuade the interlocutor (lead the fly out of the fly-bottle), they are not successful by Wittgenstein's own lights
So Kremer's Wittgenstein does not presume to tell anybody anything. He presumes to try to bring people to see that their words are meaningless. And if they cannot be so brought then the Wittgensteinian either keeps trying or admits defeat. Agreement is essential to the method, which is why there is no telling and no authoritarianism. Nor does Wittgenstein have any criteria because so far as criteria of meaningfulness are needed these must be shared with the interlocutor, who might be anybody, so they can't be criteria specific to Wittgenstein.

Kremer quotes this passage from the Big Typescript to illustrate Wittgenstein's view and method:
One of the most important tasks is to express all false thought processes so characteristically that the reader says, 'Yes, that’s exactly the way I meant it'. To make a tracing of the physiognomy of every error. 
Indeed we can only convict someone else of a mistake if he acknowledges that this really is the expression of his feeling. [if he (really) acknowledges this expression as the correct expression of his feeling.]
For only if he acknowledges it as such, is it the correct expression. (Psychoanalysis.)
What the other person acknowledges is the analogy I am proposing to him as the source of his thought.
How this could seem authoritarian is beyond me. I can only think that Pigden is talking about something, and perhaps someone, else. This someone else, though, appears to have treated people so badly that talk of Wittgenstein now raises a red mist before some people's eyes. Which is perhaps another reason why philosophers should try to be nice. 


  1. Do you think perhaps the temptations for Wittgensteinians to less than nice are greater? If so, is there something about the philosophy of Wittgenstein that creates the temptation?

    Or perhaps the very terms that the Wittgensteinian is using in criticism (especially "nonsense") are enough to declare them less than nice?

    Or perhaps there is something potentially stronger about the Wittgensteinian criticism, which is harder to stomach, and is therefore more prone to generate a dismissive reaction?

    I mean, how much is this issue about the psychology of the discussion and how much of it about the philosophy?

    1. I think saying, "That's nonsense" is not nice, but I'm not sure how often this happens. Without, at least, some explanation of why it's nonsense, unless it's a case where just pointing it out makes it immediately obvious. And then it isn't really a nasty thing to do or say (although the context matters for this, of course).

      Wittgensteinian criticism might be harder to stomach partly because it's alien to many philosophers, so they don't understand what's going on except that they are being criticized. That might lead to defensiveness, frustration, and possibly anger.

      But I can't think of many times when I've witnessed a non-Wittgensteinian be subjected to a Wittgensteinian critique, so I don't have much idea how it goes. Attempts at therapy that lead to angry rejection of the attempts are probably not going to be successful (unless they eat away despite the will of the patient). So done right I think Wittgensteinian philosophy would not lead to hostility. Which makes me think it's a matter of psychology, not philosophy, or individuals not methodology. But I don't know.

      What I do have a strong sense of is hostility toward Wittgenstein. This goes beyond mere disagreement and is not like the casual dismissiveness that many people go in for with regard to continental philosophy (although there is also disagreement with and dismissiveness of Wittgenstein). But I don't know where it comes from. It feels like a mystery. Perhaps it's only Hurka and Pigden who feel this way, but my (unreliable) sense is that it's more widespread than that.

    2. It is probably not just Hurka and Pigden. While at Oxford, there was this student who took a course on the Tractatus. She was a promising student, and someone told me he heard Tim Williamson saying that he was worried this student might want to go beyond the Tractatus, and study Later Wittgenstein as well. Apparently, he thought the Tractatus was less dangerous.

      I am more combative by nature than you are, and sometimes I think I'm glad Wittgenstein somehow manages to remain a thorn in the side of mainstream analytic philosophy. But I think it's not just a matter of temperament. The issue--the mystery--is deeper than that.

      Actually, there are probably many sources for this hostility in so far as Wittgenstein is concerned, and so there is a potential for many discussions here. Let me focus on one abstract question: To what extent do you think it is possible to do philosophy in general without being annoying (also to oneself)?

    3. I agree that there are probably multiple sources for the hostility. Can philosophy be done without being annoying? I suspect not. Especially in terms of being annoying to oneself. But it seems more to start in annoyance, or irritation, than to end there. (Although it also never seems to end.) If nothing bothered us in a way that we didn't know how to fix then there would be no need to do philosophy.

    4. Is this the only annoyance of doing philosophy, though? I have in mind the annoyance of having to recognize an intellectual fault, like being the captives of a picture. This is different from just having a problem that we don't know how to solve--the kind of annoyance you mention. It is more like not recognizing that we have a problem in the first place, or like misidentifying our difficulty.

      Is philosophy for you more about the first or of the second kind of annoyance?

    5. I think I usually like recognizing my intellectual faults, at least as long as I recognize them in the process of coming to a greater understanding of something.

  2. The problem probably lies, at least partly, in the term "nonsense" itself. "Nonsense" often has a pejorative sense in common parlance, but as "non-sense" (as the positivists used it and certainly as the early Wittgenstein sometimes did) it seems to have a more technical implication, namely unintelligibility because it fails to carry meaning in the use under consideration. The application of "nonsense" in this sense is meant to unmask that peculiar status of lacking intelligibility.

    Of course there are, in ordinary language, many kinds of nonsense, from the doggerel of poets like Lewis Carroll (which has a musical feel that pleases the ears and makes a point on its own terms by showing something) to the nonsense of straight out grammatical misuse (a blunder in linguistic behavior). And then there's the nonsense we think of as the expression of patently wrong views which any reasonably intelligent, schooled thinker would know to be wrong.

    When we mean this last by the label, it's natural enough for the person who used the term pronounced "nonsensical" to feel as if he or she is being condescended to, rudely dismissed, etc. Wittgenstein was often guilty of this attitude towards others' claims, himself, though it's not the technical use he seems to have employed in his writings.

    My own experience is that the pejorative is way more common than the technical in many quarters so perhaps, given the ambiguities, it's a term best avoided. Certainly one can argue that even the technical usage (nonsense as non-sense) isn't cut and dried. A term, phrase or claim may be non-sense either because it's logically unsound or because it diverges from appropriate application(s), i.e., it's an instance of language on holiday! Moreover, a logical mistake can occur in the case of even very smart folks conversant with logical usages. I've seen John Searle, no slouch in the logic department, make repeated syllogistic mistakes by failing to notice his own introduction of equivocal elements in premises he relies on. The point of calling something like that to someone's attention is not to say they are dumb but to use logic as it ought to be used: to clarify arguments and reach reliable conclusions.

    Perhaps one of the most insidious affects of reliance on characterizing others' statements and terms as "nonsense" is that users of this approach alienate their interlocutors and undermine their own positions. To the extent that Wittgenstein pursued philosophy as a practice of making pronouncements, the dismissive use of "nonsense" for others' claims he wished to discount creates the impression that he was not playing the same kind of game they were, that, he was, in effect, cheating. This certainly has led to a great deal of hostility toward Wittgenstein in some quarters, a hostility I've always wondered at for its vehemence. Although it probably wasn't suited to his personality, perhaps he'd done better to be more tolerant towards positions he strongly disagreed with. But then would he have been the same charismatic figure we recall today who so influenced philosophy during his lifetime and after?

    1. I agree with a lot of this, but I'm curious about examples. You say: "When we mean this last by the label, it's natural enough for the person who used the term pronounced "nonsensical" to feel as if he or she is being condescended to, rudely dismissed, etc. Wittgenstein was often guilty of this attitude towards others' claims, himself," and "To the extent that Wittgenstein pursued philosophy as a practice of making pronouncements, the dismissive use of "nonsense" for others' claims he wished to discount creates the impression that he was not playing the same kind of game they were, that, he was, in effect, cheating." But what is the evidence that Wittgenstein did, or believed in doing, this? It's not as if the Investigations is full of accusations that this or that person has talked nonsense. The kind of method (or methods) that Wittgenstein describes and advocates is not combative or dismissive in this way. One example that comes to mind, but just about the only one, is in the conversations with Bouwsma (p. 12) when Wittgenstein says of 'cogito ergo sum' that if [name retracted] said that to him he would say "Rubbish!" but that he is not inclined to respond that way to Descartes. No doubt he was rude to people sometimes, but a) how often?, and b) why should we, who never met him, care about this rather than his published work? If Descartes were a murderer this would not discredit his philosophical work. If Wittgenstein was sometimes (or always) nasty to people why should this make people angry today and reject his approach as dishonest and authoritarian? It doesn't add up.

      Like you, I wonder at the vehemence of the hostility. But perhaps there is no solving the mystery without speculating unhealthily about other people's psychology or collecting gossip about Wittgensteinians behaving badly.

    2. No evidence I would say, but many people seem to read Wittgenstein that way. I've exchanged comments with philosophically inclined posters for more than a decade now and it has always struck me as odd just how hostile some of my interlocutors were to Wittgenstein. It's like it was almost personal with many of them.

      I understand this when it's coming from Popper's devotees, for instance (Popper had his own axes to grind with Wittgenstein and the grudge seems to have carried over), and sometimes from more mainstream analytical philosophers who admire the Tractarian Wittgenstein but find his later self perplexing because of his seeming rejection of the traditional analytical approach. Then there are those who decry the Tractatus, too, of course, as mere mystical mumbo jumbo. There's little of the principle of "charity" to be found in any of that. But that principle is often not apparent among such discussants in any case.

      Many self-avowed Wittgensteinians aren't much better though. I suppose it has to do with the idea that being philosophical makes a person smarter than your average bear and they want to show it!

      I have found, in discussing some issues with folks given to argumentation (a mostly non-Wittgensteinian approach to philosophizing), that suggesting that some things can be seen, if you just "look" at them in a certain way is often challenged as cheating, i.e., that, in making such a claim you are, in essence, saying 'I see it and you don't so you are wrong,' which closes off the possibility of refutation (anathema to Popper partisans and to many others).

      Personally I think a good deal of philosophical inquiry is about seeing things a little differently, about changing one's perspective so that what first looked strange and perplexing (and maybe wrong) suddenly looks okay. But as you say, this sort of thing doesn't work unless there is good will and a willingness to try to see the point of view proposed, on both sides.

      But those who see philosophy as argumentation, as a process of debating, with answers to be obtained by producing better reasoning, just can't (won't?) see this. I suspect it's finally a matter of temperament (which informs one's attitude toward this kind of inquiry) and not something which can be definitively proven to be one way instead of another.

      I think Wittgenstein's approach, to invoke the notion of seeing things in a different way, is in fact the real gain to be sought for in the game of doing philosophy. But that will never sit well with folks enamored of other kinds of games. Nor do I think hoping to get people who aren't naturally nice to play nice is a promising strategy either. In the end it's probably more to do with personality than doctrine.

    3. It's like it was almost personal with many of them.

      Yes, this is what seems most strange. Wittgenstein did say that he was working against the will, and I guess some people are very strong-willed (and fight back). But this would (seem to) mean engaging with Wittgenstein's work more than I thought most philosophers these days do.

    4. There seems to be strong antipathy among some partisans of traditional analytic approaches which I have never quite understood. Something about the latter day Wittgenstein's approach just bothers many, who take this view, deeply. Yet I have seen many of these folks evidence what I take to be a sincere respect for the Tractatus, too. I suppose it's because, despite its divergence from a classical discursive approach and its rejection of theorizing (and so arguing for one's claims), the Tractatus can be seen as fitting within the set of accounts that the early analytical philosophers concerned themselves with.

      The later work, which seems to walk away from concerns for developing a comprehensive metaphysical account of how everything is, and/or how knowledge about things, and its expressions, works, in favor of emphasizing example over theory, doesn't resonate as much with the traditional analytical approach though the more serious among traditional analytical thinkers surely respect the later work, too (while still rejecting the general approach which seems to have underwritten the later stuff). They recognize and embrace the insightfulness, if not the full narrative which the insights support (the idea that philosophy is about dissolving, not solving, problems; that there's a therapeutic element to it; that theorizing along the lines of science is outside the scope of the philosophical enterprise, etc.).

      I guess what I have never been able to quite fathom, though, is the harsh vehemence that sometimes accompanies their rejection of the man's later approach. But as others have said here, perhaps it's a function of the philosophical game, itself. Perhaps such vehemence is common whether Wittgenstein is the issue or not. Perhaps people who play the philosophical game do so because they are already prone to certain kinds of rhetorical excesses. Or perhaps, as you've suggested, maybe there's just a vested interest in preserving the terrain which the later Wittgensteinian approach seems to put at risk. Job security then?

    5. the more serious among traditional analytical thinkers surely respect the later work

      You can't say that! Well, you can, and it's probably true, but this is likely to be fuel to the fires of antipathy.

      Job security then?

      Yes. Worries about status too, perhaps. A lot of philosophy takes the form of debate, as J.Z. points out, and if you're used to winning then the idea that you are not just wrong on this point or that but barking up the wrong tree completely (foolishly) threatens you with embarrassment. But I'm speculating about psychology again.

  3. Agree with much of the above. There's perhaps also a historical aspect to this. In the 50s ordinary language philosophy ruled the roost (in the UK at least) and "traditional" philosophy seemed to have been routed. But of course it regrouped and returned, and suddenly it was the Wittgensteinians who were considered yesterday's news. But they didn't go away either - if anything, they seem to be gaining ground. So now both sides feel slighted or dismissed by the other. That can easily lead to bad feeling. The fact that this is not like (eg) functionalists arguing with epiphenomenalists, but an attack on a whole tradition, only makes things worse.

    That said, philosophy has always struggled with niceness. I can remember Mary Midgeley arguing this was in part because of its male-dominated, macho atmosphere. She certainly had a point, but I couldn't help smiling when she managed to instigate an EXTREMELY bitter row with Richard Dawkins over The Selfish Gene. Ah well - we all have room for improvement in this area...

    1. Yes, I wonder if it isn't more some ordinary language philosophers than Wittgenstein himself at the root of this, although it's probably all of the above really. To the extent that philosophy is a competition to show off how clever you are it is never likely to be very nice. And if Wittgenstein is the paradigm of cleverness (even anti-Wittgensteinians talk about "the next Wittgenstein" where Wittgenstein means genius) then competitive non-Wittgensteinians might feel envious of his reputation. But then that kind of competition is a waste of time. Niceness itself is not the goal, but the attempt to be nice while philosophizing might help counteract the temptation to score points. And, of course, nice things are nicer than nasty ones.

  4. 'Professional philosophy is to a great extent a huge factory for the manufacture of necessities—only necessities give us mental peace It is no wonder that Wittgenstein arouses a certain hatred among us. He’s out to deprive us of our factory jobs.' (Elizabeth Anscombe, ‘Wittgenstein’s “two cuts” in the history of philosophy’)

    1. Thank you, Cora. Yes, this must be at least part of the explanation.

  5. Reading through that entire exchange is bound to depress. What Novaes objects to and is addressing is not Wittgenstein's use, actually she commends the latter toward the end of the piece: "...the ‘this is nonsense!’ objection is permissible only if the objector takes it upon herself to show why the position is nonsensical. It is not enough to say ‘it is nonsensical because I don’t understand it’; in fact, to truly establish that a position is nonsensical, arguably one must first understand it quite well. In other words, I submit that the burden of proof is on the objector to show that the position is nonsensical, not on the proponent of the position to show that it is not."

    And near the end of the comments she says: "As some people have pointed out, there's nothing wrong with showing to someone that their views are nonsensical -- this is the very idea of Socratic elenchus, and in a sense also an aspect of Wittgenstein's conception of philosophy as therapy. The point was simply to question 'nonsense' objections that are *not* accompanied by this process of exposure."

    Pigden seems deaf to this. One wonders what he would make of, say, TLP 6.54 where Wittgenstein says his own words are nonsense, including the very criteria of (non)sense that Pigden finds commendable in the TLP?

    So, the Wittgenstein Pigden thinks is OK is foreshadowing the Wittgenstein he thinks is not OK in the book of his Pigden thinks is OK (approved and permissible).

    Pigden might want to take up condemning Wittgenstein for being authoritarian toward his own bad self even before he became authoritarian and prove to us with utterly open and transparent criteria of even better a theory as to why it is morally wrong to do so. Work some Terminator time travel theory plus James Cameron and The Matrix into it to get the punters in.—Would that be real philosophy?

    And the later Wittgenstein, whoop!

    "Socrates keeps reducing the sophist to silence,—but does he have the right on his side when he does this? Well, it is true that the sophist does not know what he thinks he knows, but that is no triumph for Socrates. It can't be a case of 'You see! You don't know it!'—nor yet, triumphantly, of 'So none of us knows anything!' " (CV p. 56)

    Substitute Wittgenstein for Socrates and see how that scans.

    "Don't for heaven's sake be afraid of talking nonsense! But you must pay attention to your nonsense."

    That last remark sounds like he never gave up the TLP criteria (not a theory). (CV p. 56)

    I know. JZ, be nice.

    1. Yes, I wondered whether my own call for niceness was straying toward the not-nice, but I don't think it really does, and niceness is not the real point anyway. I am in favor of niceness, but not niceness without philosophy, and philosophy requires criticism. Pigden, who is no fool, just seems to be too angry to be able to think straight on this issue. I'm sure that Anscombe's point, quoted by Cora Diamond above, is part of the reason for this. But can Wittgenstein be perceived as such a personal threat still? Perhaps he can.

    2. How do you understand the quotation from Anscombe? Is it a version of the idea that in philosophy theories are pointless? and if so, why does that of all things create so much animosity? And how if at all is that connected to the "nonsense" issue? Is it the same issue or a different one?

      And by the way, is it worthwhile using the animosity towards Socrates here as an object of comparison?

    3. I suppose theories and necessities are not the same thing, but they are surely related via arguments intended to prove that this or that theory is correct. So far as philosophers see their job as being the creation and defense (by argument) of theories, then Wittgenstein threatens their jobs. Either literally or at least in the sense that what they do is pointless (or at least misguided) if he is right. I can see that creating animosity.

      This is not the same as the "nonsense" issue, but if people regard criticisms of "nonsense" as Wittgensteinian, and they hate Wittgenstein because he threatens their jobs, then the two are (perhaps very closely) related.

      Socrates and Wittgenstein, and the animosity towards them, are both like and unlike, it seems to me. It's a comparison that comes to mind. Whether it's worth making it depends on what you do with it, I would think.

    4. @DR: I'm not so sure, but then I move in circles where W is not perceived at all, it seems to me. I went trought my MA getting in touch with people outside my U and outside the country just to get to talk W for more than a 100 minutes a term. So, in a way that entire take on W as found on that thread comes as a bit of a surprise to me. And seems overly exaggerated, a bit like the Red Scare. Ma, there's Wittgensteinians everywhere! Look, under the bed!

      Then again, I'd like to echo j. below and say that much of what I'd been told about W turns out to be charicature. I had the same experience with Descartes. (Didn't find him confused at all, though, quite the opposite.). Not to toot my own horn but my MA thesis is a comparison of the Tractatus and the Meditations. It took me two years to get someone to supervise it. It took me six months of hard work to get him to see what I was trying to do but he got it. And agreed. I might never have made it out of U otherwise.

      This goes to the niceness thing because this hard core analytic prof although in complete disagreement at the beginning was nice enough to give a lost cause the opportunity to make my case. It's no big deal in the greater scheme of things but if I ever get a job I'll make sure to follow his example.

      As for the nonsense issue I want to say that W's use is very specific and it's rarely, if ever, a putdown, so already there I don't get where Pigden is coming from. As a genealogical explanation of the use in philosophical circles today it makes no sense. (Am I allowed to say that?) That W talked about nonsense in a book doesn't legitimate, explain, nor cause the usage Pigden disparages. It's a different usage. Holding W responsible for what goes in in US academia today is just over the top, also, as I know US "debate culture" and how combative it is, especially online. I'd place it there. Squarely.

      And that is a good quote from Anscombe but does it apply today? I don;t know. That would be like saying all Wittgensteinians actually fit Wittgenstein to a t, i.e. are not academic philosophers or are dismissive of academic philosophy. I'm not sure the latter is the case. I'm not even sure it was the case with W's best students.

      But niceness, I agree, there's a case to be made for it. I just think I'd call it decency or common courtesy as being nice seems to rule out criticism. So a call for common decency would be good. It takes in how you treat other but also how you treat their thinking. The onus is always on us, we, I, me. Personally. Less debate, more discussion would be nice.

      So, re my quip at the end of my last post. I conceded to you. You're right. I ought to be nice.

    5. I didn't think Wittgenstein was noticed much here either, which is part of what I find odd.

      That W talked about nonsense in a book doesn't legitimate, explain, nor cause the usage Pigden disparages.


      Less debate, more discussion would be nice.

      Yes, decency and common courtesy are probably better terms. I just like the "Nice things are nicer than nasty ones" quote from Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim.

  6. ”austrophobia” = def. Irrational fear of or hostility towards the ideas of a certain Austrian philosopher.

    It seems a strange historical quirk that Wittgenstein should have come to be identified with the “nonsense” move, which to my understanding was originally introduced, and made famous, by the logical positivists from which today’s mainstream analytic philosophers usually trace their ancestry. Anyway, as I see it, the later Wittgenstein’s aim was not to put up fences against so-called nonsense but to engage with his interlocutor to help her see that what she wanted to say wasn’t there to be said.

    1. Yes, that's exactly how I see it. It is a strange quirk indeed. I suspect that the root of the hostility is some combination of a sense of Wittgenstein as representing a genuine threat and hurtful criticisms made by various philosophers who aligned themselves with Wittgenstein. If Wittgenstein threatens people then he is still taken seriously, even by those who claim otherwise or ignore him. Which seems like good news.

  7. i think many philosophers think of W as having a deleterious effect on the discipline, in the sense that people will waste their time muddling through him (i recall a line about ALL OF CHICAGO still being 'mired' in the later W, maybe from a school-ranking list from long ago), their argumentative acuity will be dulled, they won't be working on the important things there are to get done, they'll detract from philosophy's reputation and its credibility as the critical gatekeeper or watchman or decider or whatever the metaphor is.

    perhaps W is felt to be particularly disturbing because his work poses challenges to individual and professional efforts to assimilation. while teaching descartes, who i had never read carefully enough because i hated him, i eventually got to the point where i had to read very carefully and was appalled by the large distance between the text (the difficulty of extracting a straightforward argument from it) and the coffee-room conceptions of the text that are passed around in philosophy. it seemed to me that there was a sense in which you could do without the former, and get by with the latter in most contexts, except perhaps hashing things out with descartes scholars. with other colleagues, difficulties could be categorized under the heading, 'descartes is confused'. with students, a kind of benevolent simplification can be substituted for a more accurate understanding of the text, with the rationale that as long as they're basically getting a sensible first look at the text and flexing their argumentative muscles, they can better later, and anyway descartes is confused.

    W's work has not afforded that kind of social convenience, a good-enough inaccurate-but-who-cares account of what he's up to that can serve the various routine functions that keep us, as a discipline, moving along. (there are accounts, but they don't serve those functions well enough.) how that plays out in various individual or disciplinary ways i won't say, except that they do seem to me to make W generally an object of (to speak only of the negatives) fear, aversion, distaste, disgust, and those attitudes could clearly be traced back to possible individual reactions to the difficulty of figuring out what he's up to. (it's HARD.)

    1. Yes, I remember someone saying that Chicago was not a good place to study philosophy because the department had been taken over by Wittgensteinians. The same person also did not rate Chicago as a good place to study Wittgenstein. I thought this was odd and said so, but he didn't agree. Anyway...

      Something I see in my students from time to time is certainty that they disagree with, or reject, something combined with no idea how to go about justifying this rejection. They try out various arguments until they find one that sounds OK to them, then they all agree with it, often claiming that it was what they meant and had been trying to say all along. I think many philosophers are certain that they don't like whatever it is that Wittgenstein is saying, either because it's hard or because they don't like the implications (or both), and they want a coffee-room version that they can reject. Kripke's Wittgenstein was presented to me in pretty much this way: Wittgenstein says that what's right is what we agree on, but we don't agree that this is what is right, so Wittgenstein is wrong. It's hard to come up with a plausible-but-conveniently-wrong version of Wittgenstein though. Which could lead to resentment. I was going to say that the anti-Wittgenstein sentiment seems different from the anti-Derrida, for instance, sentiment, even though he's also hard to summarize conveniently, but perhaps it's not so different after all.

  8. W liked his Kierkegaard and I think his criticisms tended to have existential force, i.e. you were leading a bad life if you espoused rubbish philosophy.

    About nonsense specifically: Even a child can speak sensically, so a person who is speaking nonsense isn't even up to that standard. If you are an adult and failing at a childrens' standard, then you have a pitiable life.

    1. Yes (or perhaps), but only in a limited sense, I would think. At the end of the Lecture on Ethics Wittgenstein says that everyone who ever talked ethics or religion spoke nonsense, but he respects this tendency (and he can hardly be believed to have thought that all of these people had pitiable lives in any pejorative, superior sense (and I doubt he thought they were all pitiable in any sense at all)).

      Espousing rubbish philosophy is certainly a bad sign (in Wittgenstein's book), but everyone who does philosophy is going to speak nonsense sometimes. And that is not something he thinks we should be afraid of. It's chickening out of facing up to one's nonsense that is the real moral failing in philosophy. At least this is worse than occasionally speaking nonsense, which is a professional hazard.

    2. Agreed. Let me then refine my nonsense:

      I think the problem lies in the distinction between owning up to one's nonsense and not owning up to it. It is not so easy to own up to nonsense. Not owning up to something is a moral issue, a weakness.

      Again, this is more of an ethical, existential issue that underlies the criticism.

    3. Yes, I agree. Which is why I would think that people should be helped, encouraged to own up to it, rather than being accused of nonsense in a way that is likely to make them defensive. Although cases will vary, of course. If I know someone well I might say, "That's rubbish! You know better than to say things like that." And to an emperor with no clothes it might be best to speak bluntly. But generally moralism seems likely to get in the way of effective therapy.

    4. >You know better than to say things like that.

      This could be taken as patronizing, which might be mistaken for authoritarian.

    5. Yes, that's why you would need to know the person well. That way you would be able to judge how it would go over, and they would be less likely to take offence. No guarantees, of course.

    6. I was thinking of this sort of criticism with respect to the complaints you referenced in the original post. Since everyone has unique problems, else we would (hopefully) already have a stock solution, every Wittegensteinian therapy is a unique prescription to rehabilitate the problem. This give me the feel that Wittgensteinian criticism is like doctoring, which is authoritarian. A feeling that 'Moral Doctoring' was going on could cause the nasty reactions found.

    7. I see. Yes, that's a good point. It could come across as authoritarian or patronizing. It calls for a diplomatic touch, I think, and perhaps slightly thick skin on the part of the patient. In a real discussion or conversation, of course, each party would be both patient and therapist, which might help reduce the sense of authoritarianism.

    8. >each party would be both patient and therapist

      Really good suggestion. This may lead back to a dialectic style of philosophy.

      >In a real discussion

      As opposed to *real* discussion, I prefer AFK (away from keyboard) discussion. Ok, that's a bit of a joke. But the point is that it is significantly harder to act like both patient and therapist in text, either online or in print.

  9. A quick update on the subject of niceness (or at least respectfulness) in philosophy.

    David Chalmers has had a go at drawing up some rules for respectfulness in philosophical debates, which I think are worth a look.

    A version tailored to online debates might be even more useful!

    1. Those sound like good rules. No doubt philosophers will manage to find objections to them.