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).

BV: To many people what you say will sound deluded and self-righteous. I mean, you seemed to enjoy certain aspects of being a professor. You were given the widest latitudes as a professional. You could teach what you wanted. How you wanted. You could write what you wanted. Again how you wanted. I suspect no one bothered you about publishing in Mind or the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society. You had no worries about losing your job. And you had no worries about losing your prestige either, since most people acknowledged you as a genius. You might not have written anything at all for the rest of your life, and The Tractatus would have served as your life’s achievement. You must admit, this seems like a pretty cozy life. And you seemed to accept it as your due. So how can you say that you were a professor just out of a weakness and that it wasn’t honorable?
LW: This is absurd! Was I stern and imposing as a professor? Yes. Did I seek to get things done the right way? Yes. But did I act that way because of my vanity? No. Did I do it because it made me feel good? No! Because it didn’t make me feel good! I was depressed. I felt alone. It seemed as if I was fighting against the current of the whole, bloody profession! You mention that I taught how I wanted. True, I would teach small seminars of students who seemed really interested and in those classes I would have a commanding presence, and I didn’t tolerate bullshit. Is this me being domineering and self-involved? Should I be teaching classes like Russell and that upstart Freddy Ayer where we all sit like dignified gentlemen, and discuss with poise whether we know there really is a chair in front of me? Where we discuss Kant and Plato, and the problem of universals, and then go afterwards to have some cherry and smoke a cigar? Self-involved? Now, that is self-involved. Given the problems of our civilization, how sensible is it to talk about whether all thoughts are private? If all thoughts are private, how would we get anything done?! If all thoughts are private, how would we even be having a conversation discussing these topics?!
BV: But you must admit you seemed to have a pretty nice life of adulation and comfort.
LW: No, I will not admit that! That adulation and comfort were forced upon me so that my views can seem more normal. Russell, Moore, Ayer, Carnap – all those bloody fools couldn’t deny that some of what I was saying was brilliant. But I sure as hell did not want to go to conferences and the parties as if philosophy were just a factory space of gaining knowledge, a space devoid of the gut-wrenching, soul transforming nature of therapy. The fact that I was uncompromising about how I see philosophy was a threat to the philosophy profession. If it were acknowledged that my philosophy and my way of living are deeply connected (as is the case), then Russell couldn’t praise my thoughts without seeking to change how he lives. But he didn’t want to do that. None of them did. They wanted to be on their escalator of academic achievement and the nice, comfortable lifestyle that implied. This was the main difference between me and them: I saw philosophy as a means to my not doing philosophy anymore, and they wanted to keep doing the same philosophy forever (as if that implied that what they are doing is timeless! Bloody fools!). Now, here I was—proclaimed as a genius by them—and yet I visibly loathed their way of living. How can they make sense of that? Well, they treated it as an idiosyncarcy of mine. And they lavished on me all the privilages they hold dear, as if ultimately even what I wanted were just those privilages. It was a way for them to define me in terms of their ideals, of acknowledging my ideas while bracketing as unrelated to philosophy my way of living. It was to break out of these stifling interpretations they were pressing upon me that I kept leaving the profession.
BV: So you are saying that your philosophy was a threat to the philosophy profession?
LW: Of course! How dull are you? My view is that philosophy is a kind of disease, an abnormality, a confusion. Therefore, on my view philosophy professors are therapists whose aim it is to help themselves and other infected people overcome their affliction. This therapeutic conception of philosophy is not the kind of thing college administrators can advertise as a way of getting students to their schools. Imagine this conversation. A student: “Professor, I am a freshman, and I want to decide whether to take your class on Descartes.” The Professor: “Well, do you spend a lot of your time thinking about whether your mind might be completely disconnected from your body, and that perhaps you cannot even know you have a body?” The student: “Ah, no. Should I be?” The professor: “No, consider yourself lucky! Take a nice science or engineering or carpentery class, and stay as far away from this contaminated hallway as possible!” Ha! Ha! I would love to see that conversation! No, college administrators love that Russell type promotion of philosophy: “It is a noble subject which expands your horizons…”, yada, yada, yada. You know, people say that I am self-righteous. Well, how self-righteous must a person be to say that philosophy is a noble endeavor which questions the deepest assumptions of life, and then say that they are an expert at it—as if they do question the deepest assumptions of life! As if they could do that just by getting a PhD and regurgitating the same two to three dozen books over and over again?!
BV: Wow, I never realized you were so dangerous to the profession.
LW: I am that dangerous to the profession. Think about it, man. Use some common sense! My writing is not even close to being "professional" in any normal sense. I write books in the form of diaries. I don’t normally quote anybody else. No footnotes. No bibliography. I don’t give any sense that I am building on the work of others, as if I am adding another brick in the ediface being built by a group of scholars. This is not because I think I am so brilliant that I don’t depend on anyone else. No! Anyone who knows how I do philosophy knows that it mostly involves talking to others, and engaging in group thinking. No! The reason my texts don’t seem like one more brick in the edifice is that I see philosophy as deeply personal, as ultimately about each person’s transformation to great peace and wisdom. The ultimate aim of philosophy is not external, but internal. This is perfectly compatible with philosophy being a social endeavor. For one can depend on thinking with others so that each person can gain peace. Group philosophy is like meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous: they help each other so that each person can grow and free themselves from their addiction.
BV: There is a perhaps apocryphal story that many members of the Rutgers philosophy department recently voted you as the worst influence on the philosophy profession. What do you make of this?
LW: I say those members of the Rutgers department are just stating the obvious! That is, if by “worst” one means “the most dangerous influence” on the profession. If my view of philosophy is right, then the idea that philosophy is a means of gaining positive knowledge is caput. The only kind of knowledge one can gain in philosophy is how to free oneself from philosophy. In philosophy one does not gain the kind of knowledge which one can pass on to others, as if the hard work of finding that knowledge has already been done. In philosophy one works on one’s own misguided impressions of what one thinks one knows, and seeks to remove those illusions by carefully bringing words back to their everyday use. How bluntly can I put it? Does anyone read my work? As I said in the Investigations: philosophy leaves everything just where it is. So if you are looking for the kind of knowledge which will enable a graduating senior to say, “I learnt all this in four years as a philosophy major!”, you are in for a rude awakening. For if the senior really learnt anything at all, it would be to see in the right way just what they already knew. Not exactly the kind of knowledge which will enable that student to help society professionally, the way that being a doctor or a janitor or a carpenter might.
BV: But surely philosophy majors do learn something new and interesting in their philosophy classes. Something that they didn’t know before. Something that they value and which will help them lead good lives. You can’t be denying this?
LW: Of course, I deny it! I just repeated what I wrote: philosophy leaves everything as it is. Now, certainly it is true that a freshman might not have ever read Descartes or Hume before, and so a philosophy class offers them a chance to engage with these texts. And they will know things like what Descartes said in the 1st meditation and what Hume’s problem of induction is. So far this knowledge is “philosophical” only in the sense that they are learning facts about texts normally considered philosophical. But it is itself a philosophical question whether this kind of factual knowledge is significant philosophical knowledge. And I think “no”. One can learn that Descartes argues for skepticism in the first meditation, but this offers no real philosophical knowledge without having some sense for what skepticism is. One might say, “The kind of skepticism Descartes offers in the first meditation questions whether we know there is an external world”. I don’t think this is true, since I don’t think we can question whether there is an external world. We can question whether this is a dagger I see in front of me, or if I am misperceiving what is written on the board, but I can’t question if there is a physical world at all. There is here the form of questioning without any content. So, what does the freshman learn? The freshman doesn’t learn that Descartes questioned if there is an external world, since, on my view, there is no such thing as questioning if there is an external world, and so no one can do that. What exactly the freshman learns depends on what exactly it is that Descartes is doing in the First Meditation. Since I think what Descartes is doing is fundamentally confused, I think the freshman is also doing something confused insofar as he is being taught to do what Descartes did. Most of what students normally learn in philosophy classes is nonsense masked as sense, and it would be better if they didn’t learn it at all!
BV: Some people would say you are just being an asshole. And deluded. Are you really saying that when someone reads, for example, Spinoza's Ethics in class, then they are doing something nonsensical? Don't you feel the beauty and the intellectual grandeur of Spinoza's arguments?
LW: I do feel the grandeur of Spinoza's work! I think it is brilliant. But, tell me this: which text bears a closer resemblance to the Ethics: my Tractatus or an essay published in The Philosophical Review?
BV: Well, certainly it is more like your work.
LW: Exactly. My point isn't that statements from the Ethics are nonsensical. After all, I believe that statements considered by themselves are neither sensical or nonsensical. It is words and sentences used in context which are sensical or nonsensical. There are uses for the Ethics which are enormously powerful. One such use is as a tool for clarifying one's ideas and to thereby achieve the kind of freedom which comes from recognizing oneself as a part of nature. This use is an enormously personal one, though again that doesn't mean it is meant to be solitary. Another use of the Ethics was socio-political in the 1600s, and that was to show that the emerging sciences do not rob human life of value, and can in fact enable one to live a meaningful life.
BV: But if you grant all this, why do you say that what happens in philosophy classes is mostly nonsense?
LW: I mean that the way the Ethics is used in philosophy classes now is nonsensical. That the use is inconsistent and irrational; that it only has the appearance of a productive use without actually being productive. Take the first use I mention above. Can a student use the Ethics in the classroom as a way of gaining inner freedom?
BV: Perhaps. Why not?
LW: What an obedient sheep you are! Think! The way the student can use the Ethics in class is dependent on how the professor uses the text. After all, the student is learning how to use the text from the professor. But the professor's job isn't to use the text to gain inner freedom. Perhaps a professor might do that on their own, but that cannot be codified as part of his job description. Ha! I would love to see that on a CV: "Have practice with developing freedom through disengaging from emotions by understanding the causal nature of the universe. Am an expert at such freedom." How is one going to determine in a professional context how much freedom a person has gained? They can't. So professionally the teacher's expertise doesn't consist in using The Ethics for personal transformation. A student can't gain such expertise in class, since the professor isn't transmitting that kind of expertise in class.
BV: Fine. What happens in classes isn't new age philosophy about having self-confidence and learning to be happy. But why can't the teachers use the Ethics in the second way you mention?
LW: Because we don't live in the 1600s anymore! Certainly there are still battles in the world about whether to accept modern science or if so, in what way--such as the creationism debate. But unlike in the 1600s in Europe, Spinoza's Ethics isn't now used to contribute to that debate. When the Ethics is used in class, it is functioning in a context where the issue of whether to accept modern science is long dead and buried. The use of the Ethics in the 1600s was to blaze a path for embracing modern science while reconciling it with the possibility of human values. Now, almost four hundred years later, the use of the Ethics is as a way to highlight the path we are already on, a path which no longer depends on modern science getting justification from philosophical texts. Now the justification of science is everywhere from cars to computers to medicines. We can no longer really question whether science is compatible with human flourishing, because science has become so integrated with human practices that it cannot even be separated conceptually from our ideas of flourishing.
BV: Well, you have dismissed two possible uses of the Ethics. But aren't you forgetting the most basic use: to understand the mind, knowledge, freedom, God, emotions, etc.? I mean, let's set aside how the Ethics is used personally or sociologically. Isn't the first and primary use of that text to understand the world better? To understand these basic aspects of human life?
LW: Certainly the aim in reading a text like the Ethics is to understand the world. I don't deny that! But I do deny that understanding the world comes apart from personal or social transformations. To understand, for example, freedom is to understand the various uses that talk of freedom and its cognates play in our lives, and to engage in the continual practice of determining which of those uses are still relevant to the our changing world, and which are not. There is no one concept called freedom, the essence of which we are trying to understand in philosophy. An inquiry so construed is a confusion! Not all abstraction is good abstraction, and sometimes abstraction just leads us astray into thinking that there are brute essences when in fact there aren't any such essences.
BV: Why then is it so natural to think there is such an essence of, say, freedom? If such a concept is truly confused, why do we get so attached to it?
LW: It is because we are susceptible to a cognitive illusion created by historical change. At the time Spinoza wrote about freedom, no one would have thought that Spinoza was engaging in an inquiry independent of social transformation. This is because it was completely obvious that Spinoza's thinking (even with its abstraction) was meant to propel social change, and that it was intended as a proposed solution to some of the enormous social issues of the time. Hence the sense that Spinoza was an iconoclast. But now fast forward four hundred years, and Spinoza has become a philosophical institution, a part of the curriculum. Whereas in his own time Spinoza was seen to be so revolutionary that even the elders of his time didn't understand him, now Spinoza is accepted as part of the ediface of knowledge such that he is taught to young adults as part of their enculturation into the society. This doesn't mean that Spinoza is completely understood now, but it does mean that the task of understanding him comes from within the system, from within the culture, not as a threat to civilization but as part of one's cultural heritage. In this way our relation to Spinoza is very different from that of his contemporaries. Hence the uses we can make of the Ethics are also bound to be different. But it can be tempting to think that all these changes are irrelevant to understanding Ethics the book, since for that all we need to do is to focus on its sentences. That since the book still seems relevant to us, it must be because the book carries its meaning within itself, sealed from the ebb and flow of social changes, and that it is that inner sealed understanding of the book which we are seeking. That to grasp that sealed understanding is to grasp the essence of the book, and that is to grasp the essence of the concepts of mind, freedom, the good and so on.
BV: So you are saying that when a text like the Ethics becomes enshrined as a classic, it starts to lose its potency?
LW: Not quite. The Ethics is a classic, and it should be considered a classic in our society. But the text starts to lose its potency when we think that there is a set method of trying to latch into that potency, as if just by taking classes on the text or writing essays about it or giving conference talks on it one is getting closer to the essence of that potency. Here is the illusion! The potency of the text comes from its ability to be used in the context of highly charged situations. Imagine a conversation between Billy Graham and Bill Maher about the meaning of the word 'God' and both thinking about Spinoza's definition of God (a being with infinite attributes). The power of Spinoza's writing is that it forces both Graham and Maher to rethink how they understand God, what they are affirming or denying in talking about God. That is a socially powerful tool to have, a use of talking about God with clear, palpable social and personal implications. Imagine, on the other hand, Spinoza as introduced normally in class, where though there are resonances of the social battles happening in society, they are kind of bracketed, and the emotions don't run as high and the policy questions aren't as immediate as on the Senate floor. In a classroom it is as if one were tapping into the essence of the Ethics, but without actually being in a context which can elicit the real power of the book. Here we are in the thickets of nonsense! If the professors themselves were to use the Ethics publically in society in a way analogous to how the text was used in Spinoza's time, then it makes some sense to say that the professors are doing the kind of thing Spinoza did in writing the book. But to say that one is doing the same kind of thing because one is repeating the same kind of words and the same kind of sentences, though without being the kind of social lightening rod that Spinoza was--that is crazy! The way it would be crazy for a person to think that by mimicking the bodily movements of Willie Mays hitting a home run they are themselves also hitting a home run, even though they are not on a baseball field and no one is pitching to them!
BV: It sounds like you think we should be very suspicious of the feeling that in doing philosophy we are trying to understand the essence of, say, freedom or the mind, etc. And this is because that sense of grasping the essence can create a false, comforting feeling that just in virtue of reading or writing like Spinoza we are now doing just the kind of thing Spinoza did in his own time, and that in this way we forget about all the important contextual differences between Spinoza's time and our own time.
LW: That's right! What Spinoza did as a philosopher was fantastic. But we have to be wary of the thought that we can just do from within academic philosophy the kind of thing Spinoza did, because the two contexts are so different. Certainly the difference in contexts doesn't mean there can't be similarities. But it is self-delusional to ignore the vast extent of the differences in context and what that means. On the one hand, there is Spinoza writing the Ethics outside academia in the 1600s when religious wars were tearing apart Europe, when there was no democracy, when modern science was still in its infancy, when there was no philosophy profession in the sense we now think of it, when the majority of the population did not go to schools and could not even aspire to do so, and so on. On the other hand, there is someone like Stuart Hampshire in the 1960s writing about Spinoza from within professional philosophy, which is nestled within academia, which in turn has enormous social leverage and stability because in order to get good jobs people need to go to college, and so on. Given these differences in context, the easy way to say that Hampshire is doing the same kind of thing Spinoza did is to simply affirm that they are seeking the truth about freedom, that they are both in search of the essence of freedom. Pitched this way, the idea of essences is nothing more than an excuse for forgoing the hard work of trying to think about how one can live now the kind of overall life that Spinoza lived. One does not live as Spinoza lived just by being a philosophy professor, no matter how much one knows about Spinoza! What ultimately matters is the lived life, and the work it takes to discovery what it means to live like a Spinoza now, in this day and age. That is the bloody hard way, to take that ideal and to find a new expression for it in our own time.

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