Teaching Wittgenstein And Making The Familiar Unfamiliar

I’m teaching Wittgenstein this semester–for the first time ever–to my Twentieth-Century Philosophy class. My syllabus requires my students to read two long excerpts from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations; bizarrely enough, in my original version of that exalted contract with my students, I had allotted one class meeting to a discussion of the section from the Tractatus. Three classes later, we are still not done; as you can tell, it has been an interesting challenge thus far.

The style of the Tractatus is notorious for the difficulties it can create for the unprepared. Many students find it its terseness, its statement in quasi-mathematical form as a series of seeming definitions, lemmas, theorems and corollaries–as part of a presentation of a grand total of seven propositions–off-putting and abstruse. Yet others find in it a curious beauty, a poetic statement, stark and austere, pregnant with meaning and suggestion. The content of the Tractatus can be forbidding too. Many philosophical doctrines–the picture theory of language, the truth-functional account of propositions, logical atomism and the correspondence theory of truth, the verification theory of meaning, the ‘no-sense’ theory of ethical and emotive statements–may be found here, varying in their level of implicit or explicit statement. A special vocabulary is employed, and the meanings of many of the special terms of art employed–‘facts’ for instance–has to be unpacked carefully.

I have read Wittgenstein before, and indeed, did my dissertation with a logician, Rohit Parikh, who doubled as a Wittgenstein scholar. (This excellent paper by Juliet Floyd explores the several dimensions of his appropriation of Wittgensteinian themes in his work.) For several years during graduate school I attended a discussion and reading group, conducted by Parikh, which often veered off into conversations on Wittgensteinian themes. Years after I completed my dissertation, I realized that many of its fundamental presuppositions and descriptions bore a similar stamp. But, I never taught Wittgenstein.

Now I have. And so, yet again, I’ve been reminded of how radically different my relationship to a philosophical text or doctrine becomes once I’ve had occasion to teach the material. I read differently; I critique differently, trying to anticipate the ambiguities my students might encounter; I notice more in the text, I seize on more. And then, in the classroom, as I work directly through the reading with my students my relationship with it changes yet again.

Sometimes, my teaching has consisted of making a few opening statements, previewing the theories and theses to be presented, and then turning to the text to find their statements within. I invite students to point me to particular propositions that they have found thought-provoking and/or difficult. At times, I have read aloud sections in class, stopping to offer and receive–along with the class–explications and exegesis. I’ve used the ‘reading-aloud-in-class’ method before; in that case, for Leibniz and Kant. What I wrote then about that particular method of approaching a philosophical text still holds:

First, more careful exegesis becomes possible, and little subtle shadings of meaning which could be brushed over in a high-level synoptic discussion are noticed and paid attention to (by both myself and my students). Second, students become aware that reading the text closely pays dividends; when one sentence in the text becomes the topic of an involved discussion, they become aware of how pregnant with meanings these texts can be. Third, the literary quality of the writing, (more evident in Leibniz and Freud than in Kant) becomes more visible; I often stop and flag portions of the text as having been particularly well-expressed or framed. The students become aware that these arguments can be evaluated in more than one dimension: analytical and artistic perhaps.

This method is exhausting, and that is an understatement. There is the obvious physical strain, of course, but doing this kind of close reading is also intellectually taxing. There is more to explain, more to place in context.

Now, with Wittgenstein and Tractatus, I am struck again, by how the seemingly familiar takes on a little of its older novelty.

Movies on Philosophers: Rare, Hard to Make, Desirable

Having viewed the rather disappointing Chopin: Desire for Love over the weekend, I’m struck again by how difficult it seems to be to make movies about artists, writers, or perhaps creators of all kinds. My viewing also served to remind me that movies about philosophers’ lives are exceedingly rare, and the few that have been made–or rather, that I am aware of–haven’t exactly sent cinemaphiles or students of philosophy running to the nearest box-office e.g., Derek Jarman‘s Wittgenstein was a disappointment, and the less said about the atrocious and unwatchable When Nietzsche Wept, the better.

What gives?  Have philosophers lived particularly dull lives–devoid of dramatic involvement in world affairs, the cultural history of their times, or matters of the heart? Does the philosopher’s life, supposedly all inwardly directed contemplation,  need plenty of faux external action to make it palatable for the screen? I don’t think so. Both the philosophers named above serve as immediate counterexamples to any such facile generalization. And certainly, movies on Enlightenment philosophers would make for some rather spectacular story-telling and serve as grand historical dramas as well. I suspect the problem lies elsewhere.

Most prominently, it seems to me the subject matter, while not intractably resistant to cinematic adaptation, does pose special challenges to directors, screenwriters and actors: the centerpieces of a philosopher’s life are philosophical doctrines after all, and if the movie is to do justice to that life, then the doctrines have to be woven skillfully into both the form and the content of the movie. By this I mean it is not enough that the philosopher merely mouth off a selection of the greatest lines from his oeuvre. This would be an utter disaster. The doctrines have to, instead, be shown in their historical context; the problems they tackle have to be shown to be relevant to ordinary mortals; their poetic content needs to be made visible; and their philosophical content made comprehensible by showing its resonance with larger human themes. This would be easier obviously in the case of those considered political or moral philosophers and much harder with those writing on metaphysical or epistemological themes. (I wonder how Leibnizian  or Hegelian metaphysics would be brought to the big screen; but Descartes‘ epistemological doctrines in the Meditations seem amenable to an adaptation featuring a dialog with fictional interlocutors.)

The screenwriter and director have to find a way too, to incorporate a didactic or expository flavor that doesn’t overpower the story-telling they have in mind. Jarman’s Wittgenstein was never intended as a guide to Wittgenstein’s philosophizing but the minor flirtations it engaged in in that dimension, were, I think, utter failures. In this regard, I’m curious whether Louis Menand‘s The Metaphysical Club could serve as the basis for a cinematic introduction to the American pragmatists.

That last point leads me to cast a quick vote for a movie I’d love to see: the life and times of the brilliant, tortured and singularly unfortunate Charles Sanders Peirce. Any movie-maker willing to take that task on will have a sympathetic, thoughtful biography–that written by Joseph Brent–to draw on. I doubt any directors read this blog, but if you’re one, think about it. It’s a great story, one worth bringing to the screen.

Teaching Philosophy By Reading Out Loud

This semester, while teaching my two classes (Freud and Psychoanalysis; Modern Philosophy), I’ve relied at times on reading out loud my assigned texts in class. In particular, I’ve read out, often at great length, Leibniz’s Discourses on Metaphysics and The Mondadology, portions from The Critique of Pure Reason, and in the Freud class, portions of Civilization and its Discontents. I’ve followed this strategy for a variety of reasons.

First, more careful exegesis becomes possible, and little subtle shadings of meaning which could be brushed over in a high-level synoptic discussion are noticed and paid attention to (by both myself and my students). Second, students become aware that reading the text closely pays dividends; when one sentence in the text becomes the topic of an involved discussion, they become aware of how pregnant with meanings these texts can be. Third, the literary quality of the writing, (more evident in Leibniz and Freud than in Kant) becomes more visible; I often stop and flag portions of the text as having been particularly well-expressed or framed. The students become aware that these arguments can be evaluated in more than one dimension: analytical and artistic perhaps.

This method is exhausting, and that is an understatement. There is the obvious physical strain, of course, but doing this kind of close reading is also intellectually taxing. There is more to explain, more to place in context. I could not, and will not, do this for all the material that I teach. Indeed, I have only done this once before: once again, while teaching Leibniz and Kant in the same class some six years ago. (I’m not counting the various instances where I make students consult the text in class).

But most fundamentally, what this method does for the students (I think) and for me, is that it reminds us all that there simply is no substitute for close, critical engagement with material that is intellectually challenging.