September 10, 2012

Wittgensteinians

BV: Ludwig, you are generally quite critical of academic philosophy. What then do you make of your students, many of whom went on to have pretty normal academic lives? For example, what do you think of Anscombe, who many now consider the best among your students and an exemplary philosopher in her own right?
LW: Anscombe was intense. She would focus in on a problem and battle with it. But this doesn't mean I agreed with her! Or that she was a representative of my views! She was skeptical of the cogency of the philosophy problems from the early modern period (the mind-body problem, utilitarianism vs deontology, and so on), but she was generally more accepting than I was of the coherence of traditional philosophy problems, such as those inherited from Aristotle. She certainly would go on and on about Aristotle and Aquinas! This is a big difference between us. For me metaphysics is metaphysics, and I see all of it as a confusion. But for Anscombe there is a distinction between bad metaphysics (Descartes or Leibniz) and good metaphysics (Aristotle), and she saw her life project as defending a good metaphysics of human beings and highlighting its practical implications. That is certainly not how I saw things!
BV: It is ironic, isn't it, that you routinely told your students to leave academic philosophy, and yet the best of your students went on to become academics and never showed any of your torturedness about being academics?
LW: The best of my students? I don't think of Anscombe, Malcolm and so on as my best students! They were students I was close to, yes. They were students I depended on, yes. But did I think that these students would continue my life's work after I died? No. Because philosophy as I think of it is the deeply personal activity of rooting out one's own confusions so as to be at peace. It is a constant effort to see things just as they are, and not by gaining new knowledge we didn't have before, but by having the courage to see aright what we already know but refuse to see! This seeing aright no one else can do for me. That is each person's task and burden. My philosophy consisted of my attempting to clear my confusions. There was therefore nothing to pass on after I died as a philosophical tradition in my name.
BV: But you are an industry and a tradition, just like Plato or Spinoza or Kant. All your unpublished works were excavated and catalogued, and scholars pour through them to cull the insights from your gnomic sayings to see how they apply to traditional philosophical problems. Isn't this what your writings are meant for? If not, what is the point of the Philosophical Investigations?
LW: Maybe I should have burned my manuscript! This is exactly why I didn't publish it in my lifetime. Because I saw what people did with the Tractatus. I clearly said in the preface of the Tractatus that it was not a text book, and that only people who have already had the thoughts expressed in it will understand it. The book was not meant to teach others what to think. It was an expression of my journey from tortured philosophy to peace. If the book resonates with you, then it might move you to write your expression of your own journey. And yet people started treating it like a text book, and sought to use it for defending their philosophical views, even though if the book is right, no such views are sensical to begin with! But they brushed this off saying, "Oh, the genius says funny things!" I did not want to publish again when it was clear that my form of writing would be so grossly misunderstood. And after my death this is what has happened with the Investigations as well.

September 5, 2012

Philosophy as a Profession

BV: Mr. Wittgenstein, so it was around 1929 that you came back to philosophy and started teaching at Cambridge?
 
LW: That’s right. I was back in the thick of it all, and had to rethink what I had written earlier.
 
BV: When you came back to philosophy, did you change your mind about the idea that philosophy is a kind of disease?
 
LW: Not at all. That part remained the same. But I changed my views about how the disease gets a hold of us, what language is, and how language goes on a holiday.
 
BV: This is something I have always wanted to ask you. If you still thought that philosophy is a kind of disease, how were you able to be a philosophy professor? I mean, you were getting paid to do philosophy, right? Presumably your students were inspired by you and wanted to do philosophy more. Weren’t you worried that the fact that you were a teacher might mislead people into thinking that philosophy is a form of knowledge and something positive after all? And that in this way you might be spreading the disease to others?
 
LW: Yes! Yes! I did worry about that. I tell you, it was pure torture. I was a man with an illness. I couldn’t stop worrying about whether we know we have hands or if there is a non-physical realm of numbers, if others can know what I feel or if we could understand lions. I was like a man possessed. I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about these issues, and I was driven every waking hour to find out how I could stop thinking about them. And if I succeeded in making some headway in freeing myself from these problems, suddenly some twit would come along and say how I was an exemplary philosopher and that I was making philosophy come alive for them. Come alive? Are you crazy? Why would you want to wake the demons? That is why I told them to become nurses and janitors and engineers. Anything but professional philosophers. But unfortunately, none of it helped. Somehow just because I was a professor of philosophy, they seemed to think that it was good to be one.
 
BV: That is a rather natural inference to make, wouldn’t you say? They admired you. So they wanted to be like you. They saw you were a professor. So they wanted to be a professor too.
 
LW: No! You don’t understand, just like they didn’t. True, later in 1939 I became a professor at Cambridge. Yes, I succeeded Moore in his position. But this was because of my weakness. I was addicted to philosophy, the way one might be to drugs or gambling. If I was capable of it, I would have left professional philosophy far behind, and never looked back. But the disease was too strong within me. It was like I was in an asylum seeking my cure. And I was the only sane one because I knew I was in an asylum. The others, the admiring throngs, didn’t realize that they were in an asylum. That is what I could never tolerate, never give my blessings for: their wanting to be philosophy professors as if it were an honorific! An honor? It was suffocating. That is why I had to leave it, give up my chair. How could I free myself of philosophy if through my job I was implying that philosophy is a virtue? So, yes, I was a professor. But was I proud of it? No. I had to be one because I gave away all my inheritance to my family (not to the poor, mind you, since they would only be corrupted by the wealth).
 

September 2, 2012

Nature of Philosophy

BV: Mr. Wittgenstein, I must ask you right away, what is your view of philosophy? What do you make of it?
 
LW: Philosophy is an abomination. It is a disease. A deadly vermin which crawls into your brain and lays eggs there and which slowly robs you of all sanity and peace. It is a bewitchment of language. A distortion of our ordinary words. Philosophy lives within us the way the alien lived within Sigourney Weaver, and we can only hope to be as strong as she was in rooting out this vile creature.
 
BV: Well, that is certainly a strong view. If philosophy is a disease, what do you make of the fact that you are considered by some to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century? I believe they mean that as a compliment. What do you make of such praise?
 
LW: Oh! Don't even mention that inane praise! The people who truly understand my view understand that the greatest philosopher is one who has no need for philosophy. And so one who is not a philosopher at all. I tell you, it is impossibly hard to be me. Most philosophers are trivial windbags who pontificate meaninglessly. And the good ones--that is, the ones who understand me--well, they show their limits by the desperate need they have to praise me, as if I were just another philosopher like Plato or Kant. So even the people who understand me don't understand me. They fail to see that if I have any merit as a philosopher, it is that I am closer than they are to not being a philosopher at all.
 
BV: Are you saying that your aim as a philosopher is to not be a philosopher?
 
LW: Exactly! It's good that you are able to grasp this. Even Russell and Moore failed to truly understand this about me. Do you know that apparently in a tenure letter for me, Moore said that I was the Einstein of philosophy? I was so pissed when I heard this. As if there can be a Einstein in philosophy! I tried to tell Moore so many times: philosophy is not a science, and it can never be. And unlike what his idiotic Bloomsbury group thought, philosophy is not art either. That's the thing, really: philosophy is not anything. It is a lack, a negation, a vice. It has to be rooted out of oneself, just that way that an ascetic tries to root out sexual desires from himself.
 
BV: Wow, that sounds really frustrating. And deep. If not the greatest, you must at least be the deepest philosopher of the 20th century?
 
LW: Yes, I am.
 
BV: So have you ever gotten close to rooting out this disease of philosophy from yourself?
 
LW: At one time I thought I did. It was after my Tractatus was published. I genuinely felt that I had solved all philosophy problems, and that there is nothing to be done in philosophy.

BV: That sounds... unfortunate. No more philosophy? At all?
 
LW: Silly man. It was not unfortunate. It was divine. I was finally free of the nagging of philosophy. "Ludwig, what is the self? Ludwig, what is language? Ludwig, what does it mean to exist?" I tell you doing philosophy is the greatest burden a person faces. And what makes it worse is that it is utterly meaningless! That is what we fail to see! We think we are asking something profound, as if we were peeling back the surface and looking at the real structures of the world underneath! As if just by thinking we are making a discovery, like a scientist but also not like a scientist! It aggrivates me so to even just think about it. But...were was I? Yes, the year was 1920. The book was completed. And I washed my hands of the whole bloody subject. I was free to do what I always dreamed of doing: teaching elementary school in a remote village.