Ayer On Wittgenstein As Pragmatist

In Wittgenstein (Random House, New York, 1985), A. J. Ayer writes:

[Wittgenstein] never adopted the phenomenalist thesis that physical theories can be translated into the set of propositions describing the observable states of affairs that would confirm them…he declared the confirmation of a hypothesis is never completed. In the same set of remarks he characterized a hypothesis as ‘a law for forming propositions’ or alternatively as ‘a law for forming expectations.’ I think he can most fairly be said to have treated the experiences which would fulfil these expectations as constituting the ‘cash-value’ of the hypothesis. ‘Cash-value’ is a term employed for this purpose by William James, a philosopher whom I believe Wittgenstein respected. At any rate, his dicta of this period fit easily into the pragmatist tradition….The pragmatic tenor of Wittgenstein’s thinking at this period is again in evidence in the early part of The Blue Book. We are advised at the outset to substitute for the question ‘What is the meaning of the word?’, the question ‘What is an explanation of the meaning of the word?’ or ‘What does the explanation of a word look like?’ One immediate benefit of this approach is that it diminishes the temptation to think of meanings as a special category of objects, or that of being satisfied with any general set of answers conforming to the pattern of the assertion that predicates stand for properties. Wittgenstein sees that the fundamental problem is that of explaining how a series of noises or written marks acquires what he calls a life. His own general answer is that ‘if we had to name anything as the life of the sign, we should have to say that it was its use.’ [pp. 41-43; link added]

The relationship between Wittgenstein’s writings and those of the pragmatists are now quite well established. (A quick google of ‘Wittgenstein pragmatist’ or ‘Wittgenstein pragmatism’ shows this quite easily.) So is his supposed affinity with Williams James (as noted by Ayer above.) For my part, long before I had read any formal or theoretical analyses of Wittgenstein’s relationship to pragmatism it had seemed to me that someone committed to a use theory of meaning would find the pragmatist criterion of meaning and truth quite amenable. When I began drawing up my syllabus for my graduate seminar on pragmatism a few years ago at the CUNY Graduate Center, I pushed a bit further in the direction of this supposed connection and was immediately gratified to find the extensive literature above; I went on to draw on sections of Russell Goodman‘s Wittgenstein and William James

My students’ reactions then, to finding Wittgenstein on their pragmatism syllabus is not an uncommon response to the claim that Wittgenstein can be considered a pragmatist of sorts; in large part, this is a reaction to writing styles. The classical pragmatists–Dewey, Pierce, and James–are all generally acknowledged to be clear writers (even if Dewey is regarded correctly as excessively verbose.) Wittgenstein, of course, is famously cryptic on all too many occasions; Ayer notes, as have many others, that he was better at providing suggestive and provocative examples than he was at providing trains of rigorous arguments. (A similar reaction of surprise is expressed by some when told that Nietzsche and the pragmatists are often in sympathy with each other.) The discovery of these resonances and others like them further help establish the claim that the pragmatists are not a sui generis phenomenon but rather, represent a recurring strain and orientation in philosophy.

Szasz On The Myth Of Mental Illness

This semester, in my Landmarks in Philosophy class, I used Thomas Szasz‘s The Myth of Mental Illness as one of the three texts on the reading list (The other two were Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman and William James’ Pragmatism.) Szasz’s argument that mental illness does not exist, that psychiatry is a pseudo-science was, as might be expected, fairly controversial; critics accused him of overstating his case and of drawing too sharp a boundary between the physical and the mental. Be that as it may, there are many, many acute insights in Szasz’s work; these continue to make reading his work a useful experience for any philosophy student.

Among these insights, in no particular order, are the following:

1. Reducing the mental to the physical comes at a cost of explanatory power. Especially when such reduction is merely offered in the form of a promissory note; many existing behavioral disorders still lack physical correlates in neurophysiology. The languages of the mental and the ethical often offer us richer and more useful explanations for understanding our fellow human beings than the language of the physical; many phenomena of social and ethical interest ‘vanish’ when subjected to the lens of the physical.

2. The so-called ‘mentally ill’ are engaged in a species of communication with us; it behooves us to try to translate their ‘speech.’ This leads to a consideration of a hierarchy of languages and a study of the metalanguage and object language distinction.

3. The category ‘mentally ill’ functions, all too often, as a catch-all category used to lump in socially undesirable behavior; what counts as desirable and undesirable is clearly a function of existing social prejudices.  The infamous DSM criteria often encapsulate such prejudices; unsurprisingly these need to be revised over time to accommodate such inclinations. (Remember that Dostoyevsky’s ‘Underground Man‘ was a ‘sick man.’)

4. A game-playing and rule-following model of human behavior offers us interesting and useful interpretations of social situations and interactions within them. (Wittgenstein’s notion of language as a kind of social game immediately comes to mind here and allows for a fruitful investigation of this claim.)

5. Medicine functions within a social, economic, political, and ethical context; the rights of patients and healers emerge within this context.  We should expect medicine to be practiced differently–with different medical outcomes–in different contexts. From this, a larger point about the social construction of science, scientific practice, and scientific knowledge can be seen to follow; the boundaries of science are very often informed by social and legal considerations. Consider, for instance, the testing of cosmetic products or new drugs on laboratory animals, experimental procedures which stand and fall depending on whether they have received legal sanction from the surrounding legal regime.

6. The autonomy and personality of the patient is a moral good worthy of respect; the practice of medicine and the relationship between the doctor and patient should be cognizant of this. (The notion of ‘informed consent’ in modern bioethics can be seen to be powerfully informed by such a consideration.)

The Dependence Of Autobiography On Biography (And Vice-Versa)

A few weeks ago, I briefly spoke at a conference hosted in honor of my dissertation advisor’s eightieth birthday. In my talk I offered some personal recollections of having worked with Distinguished Professor Rohit Parikh, his intellectual influence on me, and the various lessons–personal, technical, moral–that I learned along the way from him. As I began my talk, I apologized for what I described as the ‘self-indulgent’ nature of the talk. After all, even though the talk was about Professor Parikh, it would keep me center-stage at all times; I was as much a character as him. The stories I would tell my audience were about him and me; they would describe my passage through my dissertation, my post-doctoral fellowship, and then later, my work as a faculty member of the City University of New York, all the while informed by my advisor’s presence. (And indeed, I found myself telling tales of my first encounter with my advisor, my decision to work on a dissertation topic that spun off from one of his papers, my struggles to become more mathematically proficient, the shaping of my philosophical world-view through the many discussions and conversations we had, and the various insights into mathematical method, the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the nature of logic and knowledge that I gleaned over the years from him. I recalled memorable lines, jokes, profundities; I briefly mentioned our political differences.)

As part of my ‘apology’ therefore, I said that in trying to provide a biography of someone I had interacted with over an extended period of time, it was necessary to provide an autobiography as well. I went on to note that this was not surprising: after all, the recountings of our autobiographies must necessarily call on the biographies of others to be made complete. Our lives are not lived in isolation; they inform, interact with, and impinge upon, many other lives. We form relationships with others; we enter into them, and move on out again; they take us from station to station. The stories of our lives, thus, are also the stories of many others’: friends, lovers, enemies, teachers.

Biography and autobiography are fickle genres of story-telling; they rely on memory, and are infected throughout by all kinds of prejudice. The interaction between the two I describe here shows how these errors may accumulate: my autobiography might distort the biography of others. I might cast myself in a more favorable light, paint myself as more virtuous when contrasted with others; if my autobiography is relied upon as a biographical source for others’ lives, these errors will be perpetuated. In the particular forum in which I was recounting my ‘autobiography’ a converse possibility existed: that I would be corrected by the very person whom I was speaking about; my advisor could have raised his hand at some point and told me that he remembered additional details that I had forgotten, or that I had gotten some quote or location or time wrong.

No man is an island and all that.

RIP Hilary Putnam 1926-2016

During the period of my graduate studies in philosophy,  it came to seem to me that William James‘ classic distinction between tough and tender-minded philosophers had been been reworked just a bit. The tough philosophers were still empiricists and positivists but they had begun to show some of the same inclinations that the supposedly tender-minded in James’ distinction did: they wanted grand over-arching systems, towering receptacles into which all of reality could be neatly poured; they were enamored of reductionism; they had acquired new idols, like science (and metaphysical realism) and new tools, those of mathematics and logic.

Hilary Putnam was claimed as a card-carrying member of this tough-minded group:  he was a logician, mathematician, computer scientist, and analytic philosopher of acute distinction. He wrote non-trivial papers on mathematics and computer science (the MRDP problem, the Davis-Putnam algorithm), philosophy of language (the causal theory of reference), and philosophy of mind (functionalism, the multiple realizability of the mental)–the grand trifecta of the no-bullshit, hard-headed analytic philosopher, the one capable of handing your  woolly, unclear, tender continental philosophy ass to you on a platter.

I read many of Putnam’s classic works as a graduate student; he was always a clear writer, even as he navigated the thickets of some uncompromisingly dense material. Along with Willard Van Orman Quine, he was clearly the idol of many analytic philosophers-in-training; we grew up on a diet of Quine-Putnam-Kripke. You thought of analytic philosophy, and you thought of Putnam. Whether it was this earth, or its twin, there he was.

I was already quite uncomfortable with analytical philosophy’s preoccupations, methods, and central claims as I finished my PhD; I had not become aware that the man I thought of as its standard-bearer had started to step down from that position before I even began graduate school. When I encountered him again, after I had finished my dissertation and my post-doctoral fellowship, I found a new Putnam.

This Putnam was a philosopher who had moved away from metaphysical realism and scientism, who had found something to admire in the American pragmatists, who had become enamored of the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations. He now dismissed the fact-value dichotomy and indeed, now wrote on subjects that ‘tough-minded analytic philosophers’ from his former camps would not be caught dead writing: political theory and religion in particular. He even fraternized with the enemy, drawing inspiration, for instance, from Jürgen Habermas.

My own distaste for scientism and my interest in pragmatism (of the paleo and neo– varietals) and the late Wittgenstein meant that the new Putnam was an intellectual delight for me. (His 1964 paper ‘Robots: Machines or Artificially Created Life?’ significantly influenced my thoughts as I wrote my book on a legal theory for autonomous artificial agents.)  I read his later works with great relish and marveled at his tone of writing: he was ecumenical, gentle, tolerant, and crucially, wise. He had lived and learned; he had traversed great spaces of learning, finding that many philosophical perspectives abounded, and he had, as a good thinker must, struggled to integrate them into his intellectual framework. He seemed to have realized that the most acute philosophical ideal of all was a constant taking on and trying out of ideas, seeing if they worked in consonance with your life projects and those of the ones you cared for (this latter group can be as broad as the human community.) I was reading a philosopher who seemed to be doing philosophy in the way I understood it, as a way of making sense of this world without dogma.

I never had any personal contact with him, so I cannot share stories or anecdotes, no tales of directed inspiration or encouragement. But I can try to gesture in the direction of the pleasure he provided in his writing and his always visible willingness to work through the challenges of this world, this endlessly complicated existence. Through his life and work he provided an ideal of the engaged philosopher.

RIP Hilary Putnam.

Philosophy, ‘Pseudo-Philosophy’, And Claiming To Be Philosophy

In his foreword to Jacques Bouveresse‘s Wittgenstein Reads Freud: The Myth of the Unconscious (Princeton University Press, 1996, New French Thought Series), Vincent Descombes writes:

[S]cience alone is opposed by a counterfeit called ‘pseudo-science.’ ‘Pseudo-philosophy’ does not seem to be a term we can use, much as we might be tempted to when dealing with what we think is bad philosophy. But philosophical speculation is such that everything that claims to be philosophy is philosophy. The price of this unlimited tolerance is that bad philosophy is as philosophical as good philosophy.

Descombes might be right that the term ‘pseudo-philosophy’ is not bandied about as much as ‘pseudo-science’ is, but there is certainly no shortage of attempts to characterize ‘what’ philosophy is, so that pretenders to the throne may be disabused of their pretensions. The pejorative description ‘that’s not really philosophy’, or ‘you aren’t doing philosophy’, and the skeptical question, ‘how is this philosophy’ are not unheard of; there is, supposedly, like science, a particular valorized method, a distinct ‘philosophical style’ of writing, analysis, and communication. The anxieties visible here are, I think, quite as acute as those visible in science’s defense of its domain.

But what is the nature of ‘philosophical speculation’? We know one part of the answer that is provided to us by those who man the ramparts: a concern with ‘getting things right’, ‘seeing how things hang together in the right way’, ‘seeking the truth’, ‘framing good arguments that bring us closer to the truth’, ‘asking the right questions’, and so on. But if Descombes is right, these are all too restrictive, for all claimants are granted access to this privileged space; the correct distinctions to be made are about the quality and nature of the philosophizing on display, and not about whether an act of thinking qualifies as philosophical in the first place.

Descombes’ catholic attitude is grounded in an acknowledgment of the inability of philosophizing to limit itself, for these boundary policing acts are grounded in philosophical maneuvers and that which requires such an engagement must be philosophical in some shape or form. The act of claiming to be–or not–philosophy is a philosophical claim, and must be dealt with as such. This is why philosophy remains indispensable to science, for instance, even when its practitioners reject philosophical influence or provenance.

More broadly, it would be surprising indeed if philosophy could so limit itself, if it could so easily set constraints on its ambitions and so clearly know what its possibilities are that it would ever possess the means to reject putative entrants to its domain. Such an activity would not be philosophy but some other, more specialized, and restricted activity, one which has, from the outset, set its sights much lower.

Note: Descombes goes on to say:

Wittgenstein might say that bad philosophy is even more philosophical than good: not more philosophical in the sense of more profound or more solid, but rather in the sense of of more representative of of the characteristic temptations of philosophy, such as wrongly generalizing from a privileged example, or confusing the particularities of a mode of expression with the higher laws of being.

Women In Philosophy And Reconceptualizing Philosophical Method

This past Monday, on 20th April, Christia Mercer, the Gustave M. Berne Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, delivered the Philosophy Department’s annual Sprague and Taylor lecture at Brooklyn College. The title of her talk was ‘How Women Changed The Course of Philosophy’. Here is the abstract:

The story we tell about the development of early modern philosophy was invented by German Neo-Kantians about 150 years ago. Created to justify its proponents’ version of philosophy, it is a story that ignores the complications of seventeenth-century philosophy and its sources. In this lecture, Professor Christia Mercer uncovers the real story behind early modern rationalism and shows that many of its most original components have roots in the philosophical contributions made by women. [link added]

At one point during the talk, in referring to the contributions made by Julian of Norwich, Professor Mercer began by saying, “Julian does not offer an argument here, but rather an analysis…”. During the question and answer session, focusing on this remark, I offered some brief comments.

There is at the heart of philosophical practice, a fairly well-established and canonical notion of philosophical method: the construction of arguments, hopefully building up to a ‘system’, which are to be subjected to an examination for weaknesses. The successful arguments emerge from this crucible all the better for their trials. From this conception of philosophical method we may also derive a fundamentally adversarial conception of philosophical activity–when two philosophers meet, they are engaged in a form of intellectual conflict, with each attempting shore up the defenses of their own system and expose the deficits of the other. But perhaps philosophers could do more than just offer and refute arguments. Perhaps they could offer observations and insights that make us view the world in a different light; perhaps they could show how one thing relates to another; perhaps they could analyze a situation or a state of affairs, not in the destructive, decompositional sense, but instead, by way of showing us what has to come together, and how, to make the situation ‘hang together’; perhaps, as Wittgenstein is said to have done, they could ‘point’ and ‘lay things out for us to see.’

If understood in this way, then the business of ‘bringing more women into philosophy’ might not be just a matter of reaching out to women to ‘pull’ them in, but also of expanding our understanding of what philosophy is and how it is to be done so that its ambit will include women and the ways in which they might have been philosophers. (I could imagine, all too easily, responses along the following lines being made to some of Professor Mercer’s examples of philosophical work in the period she was discussing: Why is this philosophy? The reasons for the exclusion of women from philosophy would not just be the denial of educational opportunity or participation in philosophical institutions  but also a straightforward failure to recognize their intellectual contributions as being philosophy in the first place.) Such an understanding of philosophy and its methods and practices would, of course, bring it closer to literature and poetry as well.

Professor Mercer seemed to respond rather favorably to these remarks. I look forward to her forthcoming book on Anne Conway, in which some of the fascinating commentary she offered on reconceptualizing so-called ‘early modern rationalism’–by way of showing its dependence on bodily experience and affect–will surely be recapitulated.

A Bad Teaching Day

Yesterday, I had a bad teaching day.

First, I was scattered and disorganized in my Twentieth Century Philosophy class; I repeated a great deal of material we had already covered; I offered only superficial explanations of some important portions of the assigned reading; I did not answer questions from students satisfactorily. (It was pretty clear to me by the end of the class that I did not know how to explain Wittgenstein’s argument against private languages to a novice.)

Then, fifteen minutes later, I walked into my Philosophical Issues in Literature class-where we were scheduled to discuss Jose Saramago‘s Blindness–and floundered again. (Though not as badly.) Here, I largely failed to satisfy myself that I had covered all the bases I wanted to. For instance, I was unable bring the class discussion around to a consideration of Saramago’s satirical tone, his view of humanity, the novel’s take on technology and the reaction of the state to sudden catastrophe–all important in studying Blindness. Instead, the discussion ran in several different directions and I felt entirely unsure that I had done a good job in keeping it coherent.

Later, after a break of a couple of hours, I traveled to Manhattan to teach my graduate Nature of Law seminar. Now, I struggled because of faulty syllabus design. My fifth and sixth weeks of the class were ostensibly to be devoted to studying legal realism. For the first of these two weeks, I assigned three essays by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes; for the second, a selection of articles from an edited anthology. There were two problems with this choice. First, the readings were disproportionately assigned to the two weeks–the first required the students to read a mere forty-five pages, the second, approximately two hundred and twenty. Second, and more seriously, some of the readings for the second week should really have been assigned as companions to the Holmes essays. This poor design almost immediately manifested itself in the class discussion.

It was quite difficult to discuss Holmes essays without the surrounding context–historical and legal–that the additional readings would have provided. As a result, my students and I found ourselves either listening to me lecturing about that missing component, or returning, again and again, to discuss threadbare, the same central theses of Holmes that had begun the class session. (Indeed, I found myself repeating some points ad nauseam.) As the class wore on, I could not fail to notice that my students were losing interest; perhaps the assigned readings hadn’t been substantive or provocative enough. Perhaps.

That expression, of students fading out, is a killer. I almost ended the class early–one normally scheduled to run for two hours–but not wanting to admit surrender, hung on for dear life. With ten minutes to go, my students were packing up. I desperately sought to show them the reading at hand had more depth in it, looking for a money quote that would illustrate, brilliantly, a point I had just been trying to make. I didn’t find the one I was looking for, and had to settle for a lame substitute.

Which is how the class ended, lamely.

Hours later, after I had reached home, had dinner, and begun to settle down for the night I was still fuming. This morning, it continued. And here I am, writing a blog post about the whole day.

Teaching can be a wonderfully invigorating experience; it can also be painfully demoralizing.