April 29, 2012

"Back to the rough ground!"

One of the hard things about doing philosophy outside of academia - and without mimicking academic habits - is that it can feel as if the endeavor is pointless. Due to my education in the philosophy profession, there is within me a strong sense that excellent, "cutting edge" philosophers look like professors. And not being a professor any longer, it feels as if by leaving the philosophy profession I have lost out on the opportunity to contribute deeply and intellectually to the subject. I still want to be an excellent philosopher, and to be on the cutting edge of the subject. Can I do that while not worrying about keeping in touch with the latest academic writing?

This is the worry which I voiced as an objection to myself in this post.

In order to be free of the voice in my head which says that by leaving the philosophy profession I have left philosophy, I have to push back against this line of thought. This will require a series of posts. I will begin today.

The idea that the philosophy profession is the best context for doing philosophy depends on the sense that in the profession one can engage with all philosophical issues, and that therefore it is a completely neutral ground for doing philosophy. The worry is that to leave the profession is to leave this neutral ground, and so one's ability to do philosophy will be compromised.

But is it true that the philosophy profession can engage with all philosophical topics? I believe: No. Could it be that just in virtue of professionalizing philosophy, one loses the ability to engage with certain kinds of philosophical issues? I believe: Yes. Here is an example.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a wonderful philosopher in the 20th century, and Philosophical Investigations was one of his main works (published after his death in 1953). In addition to being a work on the nature of language and the mind, it is a meditation on the nature of philosophy itself. At one point (section 107), he writes:
"[In philosophy] we have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!" 

What does this statement mean? What is Wittgenstein saying?

A standard interpretation in academic philosophy is that Wittgenstein believes that philosophy problems are confusions which arise from the misuse of words. For example, the question "do humans have free will?" is a bogus question because it is using the word "free will" and its cognates in a way completely disconnected from the ordinary uses of the word, such as "John came to the movies of his own choice" or "Sita had no choice but to follow Rama". On this interpretation, philosophy questions cannot be answered because they are not well formed questions, and the task of philosophers is to bring this to light and to give peace to people from trying to answer questions which in reality cannot be answered.

Given this interpretation of Wittgenstein, the above quote can be seen to be saying: "In philosophy ordinary words have been twisted out of context, and are used in a way that is independent of any practical concerns; in this sense, they are on slippery ice. As philosophers, we have to describe the right use of philosophy terms, and thereby see them back in the practical context of day to day life. So going back to the rough ground means describing words in the way they are actually used." I will call this the academic interpretation.

At one point in grad school I thought of writing my dissertation on Wittgenstein. Writing such a thesis would have meant getting into the debates between Wittgenstein scholars such as Cavell, Hacker, Kripke, Wright, McDowell, Diamond, and so on. At that time I thought that there were the good guys (Cavell, McDowell, Diamond), the ok guys (Hacker), and the quite wrong guys (Kripke, Wright), and it seemed imperative that I help show that the good guys are right, and that the wrong guys are deeply confused. Of course, this was not a moral claim on these thinkers as people, though in the midst of academic debates it can feel that way at times.

What strikes me now is how much actually all these interpreters have in common. What they have in common is that they equate doing philosophy with doing what a philosophy professor does. Cavell is a fantastic philosopher, but in the final analysis he is still a professional philosopher--he is well read in the humanities, but no non-academic can pick up The Claim of Reason and get something out of it without committing to learning all about Wittgenstein scholarship. In effect, the way Cavell uses philosophy words is still meant for other professionals. The point is even more true for other Wittgenstein scholars.

A totally different way to understand Wittgenstein's claim is that the rough ground is the ground that all people share just in virtue of being people. It is the ground of our everyday lives, where we try to make sense of ourselves, our society, our changing times, our social and political conflicts, our hopes for happiness. On this interpretation, it is not philosophy as such which is out of touch with ordinary life. Rather, it is professional philosophy which is out of touch with everyday philosophy. If philosophy has its roots in the troubles and joys which every person can feel just in virtue of being a person, then a philosophical discourse (like the academic one) which is not accessible to most people is one which is out of touch with its own origins. I will call this the non-academic interpretation.

On this interpretation, the way to engage with philosophy problems is to get back to the ground which is their origin, and that means to get back to the aspects of oneself which one shares with all people and not just with people who have gotten a PhD. This interpretation makes sense of why Wittgenstein continually sough to leave professional philosophy, and had such a distaste for it. For though he enjoyed being seen as genius, one can hardly imagine a more frictionless ground than that of being proclaimed a genius and having one's every utterance treated as if it were a work of inspiration. If Cambridge Dons live in a rarefied air, Wittgenstein lived in an even more rarefied air -- one where he could move even among Cambridge Dons as he chose, as it fit his fancy at any moment.

In effect there was a deep conflict between Wittgenstein's philosophy and his professional identity. The philosophy pushed for a deep, egalitarian link to all people--the rough ground in which he can share the impulses of philosophy with carpenters and nurses, waiters and elementary school teachers--and yet his professional identity set him up with a privilege which even most academics could not possibly hope for. It was this sense of privilege which he hoped to discard every time he left professional philosophy. And yet, born as he was in a Vienna milieu where it was "genius or bust", the everyday life was actually suffocating for him, since ordinary people could not actually see him as a genius (imagine a neighborhood barber trying to read the Investigations). So Wittgenstein always ran back to his beloved students such as Anscombe and Malcolm, and back to the rarefied air where the recognition of his genius was intact.

It is a horrible and painful thing to crave recognition, but to not respect the people who can give such recognition. That was Wittgenstein's situation. He craved to be seen as a genius. And yet he could only be seen as a genius in the very professional circles which he wanted to overcome. That is the root cause of his dismissive attitude towards professional philosophers. He wanted to criticize professional philosophy as shallow and out of touch. Yet he needed it to be a genius. And he hated the fact that he needed it, and he took it out on others in the profession. Ironically, the very fact that he could take it out on others without any consequences only reaffirmed the special privilege which had been accorded to him.

Wittgenstein faced the same situation that Wittgenstein scholars face. How can one acknowledge the non-academic interpretation (that the rough ground lies on the other side of the professionalization of philosophy) even as one is a professional philosopher? I believe Wittgenstein felt the force of this question, and it tormented him, as if he were continually failing to live up to his own beliefs. What is striking is that Wittgenstein scholars for the most part in the last fifty years have hardly shown the same awareness of the tension.

One effect of this is that the academic interpretation of Wittgenstein goes unchallenged, since Wittgenstein scholars tend to write as if there is no tension between Wittgenstein's philosophy and the professionalization of the subject. For, after all, how can they take the non-academic interpretation seriously, even as they are unfailingly committed to their own jobs as professional philosophers? This gives the professional writing of a Cavell or a McDowell a particular flavor, a kind of torturedness of self-reflection even though they seem, at least outwardly, perfectly at ease with their role as professional philosophers.

So, can Wittgenstein scholars consider all possible interpretations of Wittgenstein? Can they take seriously an interpretation which suggests that perhaps many dimensions of philosophy cannot be professionialized because its expertise belongs equally to all people (which is not to say that everyone exercises that expertise equally)?

Imagine professional philosophers debating this issue only among themselves at conferences. In that context, could they possibly take the non-academic interpretation of the Investigations seriously? In such a situation, the talk is divorced from the potential for action - of perhaps leaving the profession. That is the slippery ice of professionalization, where the sense of the idealness of its rational discourse is actually just a nicer name for its lack of friction, and the lack of the possibility of deep change.

To debate properly whether the non-academic interpretation of Wittgenstein is correct, one has to come half way to the rough ground of life. A debate about Wittgenstein's philosophy between a non-professional and a professional. That is more in the direction of going back to the rough ground.

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