Wittgenstein, Arendt, Rawls (LH); WATCH: Rawls (SoL);The veil of ignorance (HI); Wittgenstein LISTEN:Angie Hobbs on the veil; Wittgentstein & Blade Runner (HI). Also see: Animals and the banality of evil
- “The world is everything that is the case.”
- “Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits.”
- “I give no sources, because it is indifferent to me whether what I have thought has already been thought before me by another.”
- “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
- “A nothing will serve just as well as a something about which nothing could be said.”
- “A logical picture of facts is a thought.”
- “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.”
- “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”
- “If you tried to doubt everything you would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty.”
April 26 is the birthday of the man who said, “Philosophy is like trying to open a safe with a combination lock: each little adjustment of the dials seems to achieve nothing, only when everything is in place does the door open”: Ludwig Wittgenstein (books by this author), born in Vienna in 1889. He was described by his colleague Bertrand Russell as “the most perfect example I have known of genius as traditionally conceived: passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.” He was the youngest of nine children; three of his brothers committed suicide.
Wittgenstein was born into one of the richest families in Austro-Hungary, but he later gave away his inheritance to his siblings, and also to an assortment of Austrian writers and artists, including Rainer Maria Rilke. He once said that the study of philosophy rescued him from nine years of loneliness and wanting to die, yet he tried to leave philosophy several times and pursue another line of work, including serving in the army during World War I, working as a porter at a London hospital, and teaching elementary school. He also considered careers in psychiatry and architecture — going so far as to design and build a house for his sister, which she never liked very much.
Wittgenstein was particularly interested in language. He wrote: “The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.”
And, “Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination.” -Writer's Almanac
- “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”
- “The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.”
- “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”
- It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us-the lesson of the fearsome word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”
- "Justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others. It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many."
- “Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.”
- "David Hume thinks that people more or less naturally agree in their moral judgments and count the same qualities of character as virtues and vices; it is rather the enthusiasms of religion and superstition that lead to differences, not to mention the corruptions of political power.”
But I always try to accentuate the positive, when introducing philosophers. Wittgenstein, to his credit, laudably walked away from the academic profession of philosophy when he thought he’d said everything wherof he could meaningfully speak. Changed his mind later, of course, just in time for the posthumous publication of Philosophical Investigations. But good for him. I think he was moving in the right direction, away from a futile preoccupation with how language might "capture reality" and toward a more constructive inquiry into "the relationship between language and us."
We must still always remind ourselves, when discussing this most rare and eccentric of modern philosophers: beware the temptation to "explain" Wittgenstein: Barry Smith says he diagnosed "our problem in philosophy as the search for explanations where none can be given." That's what it means to be stuck in a fly-bottle, and what he meant by aiming to show us how to get unstuck.
Wittgenstein the former engineer came to view philosophy not as an abstract quasi-mathematical, scholarly-dispassionate discipline, but as a form of therapy. It's supposed to be helpful, even if his way of tapping its "meaning-as-use" was often mysteriously cryptic.
But for a would-be therapist, Freeman Dyson reports, he was not really a very nice man. As a young student at Cambridge in 1950 the future physicist Dyson (himself no stranger to eccentricity, check out his performance in a symposium of philosophers called "Glorious Accident") tried to compliment the philosopher and asked if (as then rumored, and now widely accepted) his views had altererd or evolved in the decades since Tractatus came out in 1922. Wittgenstein churlishly asked what publication the young man worked for. When Dyson said he was a student, not a reporter, Wittgenstein wheeled and walked away.
Wittgenstein’s response to me was humiliating, and his response to female students who tried to attend his lectures was even worse. If a woman appeared in the audience, he would remain standing silent until she left the room. I decided that he was a charlatan using outrageous behavior to attract attention. I hated him for his rudeness.
"A new word is like a fresh seed sewn on the ground of the discussion," it says he said on the wall in Vandy's Buttrick Hall. It doesn't say where or when (1929) he said it. It's in the posthumous collection Culture and Value, right below "Each morning you have to break through the dead rubble afresh so as to reach the living warm seed." Tell me about it, Ludwig. But, a “fresh seed”? Sounds more like a nipped bud.
Later in life Dyson, a scientist who “recognize[s] other sources of human wisdom going beyond science” (he names literature, art, history, religion, and philosophy), found himself respecting the permanently-silenced Wittgenstein’s legacy of eloquent inarticulation. He now blames contemporary philosophy’s marginalized place in the larger culture on its dearth of “mystics” like Wittgenstein. He evidently hasn’t read James on vagueness [or Tim Williamson, or Bill Gavin]. “It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words.” Consider the conceptual shotgun.
Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. No one knows this as well as the philosopher. He must fire his volley of new vocables out of his conceptual shotgun, for his profession condemns him to this industry; but he secretly knows the hollowness and irrelevancy.A ”dumb region of the heart” may well be, as James said, our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things.” Lay down your conceptual shotgun, pick up your POV gun. (That's from Douglas Adams, but curiously it's also referenced, sort of, by Wittgenstein's biographerRay Monk when he says Wittgenstein didn't give arguments so much as acknowledge alternative points of view.)
Wittgenstein agreed with James about the frequent hollowness and irrelevancy of words and explanations: there’s much we ought to shut up about. Or at least restrict ourselves to pointing at. Show, don’t say. Stop wasting time trying to eff the ineffable. "Explaining," says novelist Richard Ford, "is where we all get into trouble."
But also try to be respectful of the points of view and the feelings of other people, and don’t be rude, Ludwig. Impoliteness and incivility are trouble, too.
But was he finally right, there at the end of the Tractatus? Must we maintain a studied silence, in the face of the unspeakable? I think I prefer wise young Kacey Musgraves‘ counsel to “make some noise.” Eternal silence comes soon enough.
Well, at least Wittgenstein wasn’t a Nazi. Nor did he sleep with one, or hold his tongue in face of horrific evil.
Hannah Arendt was not one to get stuck, to bog down in logic or hair-splitting. She did seem to get stuck defending the object of her old student infatuation, Martin Heidegger. But mostly she was concerned with big questions about birth and death, good and evil, and our vital stake in the “common world”:
The common world is made up of all institutions, all cities, nations, and other communities, and all works of fabrication, art, thought, and science, and it survives the death of every individual. It encompasses not only the present but all past and future generations. “The common world is what we enter when we are born and what we leave behind when we die,” Hannah Arendt writes. “It transcends our life-span into past and future alike; it was there before we came and will outlast our brief sojourn in it…”
The foundation of a common world is an exclusively human achievement, and to live in a common world–to speak and listen to one another, to read, to write, to know about the past and look ahead to the future, to receive the achievements of past generations, and to pass them on, together with achievements of our own, to future generations, and otherwise to participate in human enterprises that outlast any individual life–is part of what it means to be human…” -Jonathan Schell, Fate of the EarthShe also said, more pithily:
The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.
Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it…
Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history.Arendt was briefly Heidegger’s lover (talk about “banality of evil”!), but is still widely regarded as a philosopher of integrity who was quite right to notice that “natality” has been too long neglected. The symmetry of death and birth is obvious. Who will write The Book of Newborn Philosophers? Alison Gopnik’s Philosophical Baby is a start. [Evil of Banality] If we want to avoid repeating the evils of history we must stop raising unthinking bureaucrats and formalists "brought up to obey the law and trained to follow orders" without reflection. There's nothing more dangerous than an unthinking man or woman.
John Rawls’ veil. Rawls was committed to the idea of selfless mutual self-interest as the precondition of justice and fairness. Justice is fairness, he said.
What principles of social justice would be chosen by parties thoroughly knowledgeable about human affairs in general but wholly deprived—by the “veil of ignorance”—of information about the particular person or persons they represent? Rawls thought they’d pick these two: (1) liberty (2) fundamental individual equality, allowing only those inequalities that can be presumed to work out to everyone’s advantage.
Last time we talked Rawls somebody suggested a sporting example: a Rawlsian social contract won’t entirely level our playing fields, won’t be purely egalitarian. Behind the veil we’d probably want to design a society in which those who excel at a game others might enjoy watching, for instance, will have sufficient incentive to actually play. The basketball fan does not begrudge Michael Jordan’s fortune, if he thinks it contributes to his own delight at courtside. It’s to his “advantage,” too, for Michael to have more money and notoriety.
But whatever the deliberators decide, behind that veil, Rawls wanted to give them a procedural opportunity to agree on the basis of relevant considerations. We’ve instead been auctioning public office and social influence to the highest, loudest bidders, not the coolest reasoners. There’s nothing fair or just about that. The “law of peoples” can do better.
Michael Sandel is a semi-Rawlsian, with his talk of restoring respectful forms of democratic argument. He's also, as Wolff notes, "a communitarian who thinks Rawls is biased towards liberal individualistic conceptions of the good."
And he likes to think about trolleys too.
The late Robert Remini, biographer of Jackson and Clay, was by my reckoning a Rawlsian in spirit. He bemoaned the lost art of political compromise. (“Clay,” btw, is a family namesake: my Dad was James Clay, his Dad was Clay, and back it went deep into the 19th century. A rooted source of my pragmatic attraction to anti-ideology, perhaps?) [Remini on NPR]
An important question: "who's doing the imagining in the Original Position?" A bunch of philosophers will presumably think and deliberate differently from a bunch of fascists, or monks. But if it's a polyglot mix drawn from a diverse society, and none of them knows their race, sex, earning power, or basic preferences, maybe they won't think exclusively like (narrow or partisan) philosophers, fascists, and monks. Maybe they'll think like pluralists and cosmopolitans. Maybe they won't be prepared to gamble with their liberty. Maybe they'll want to be just and fair, and be more inclined to take care of the least well-off. Maybe so.
Carlin Romano fills out Rawls's position with the important, astonishing, neglected biographical Rawls back-story. It's useful and illuminating to know who he is, in assessing his theory of justice. He was a lucky child, recovering from diptheria and pneumonia, then a lucky soldier. His siblings and army brothers were not so lucky. He felt bad about his good luck, and angry about the theodicies offered to account for it.
A Lutheran pastor... said that God aimed our bullets at the Japanese while God protected us from theirs. I don't know why this made me so angry, but it certainly did. I upbraided the Pastor (who was a First Lieutenant) for saying what I assumed he knew perfectly well... were simple falsehoods about divine providence... Christian doctrine ought not to be used for that...
To interpret history as expressing God's will, God's will must accord with the most basic ideas of justice... I soon came to reject the idea of the supremacy of the divine will as also hideous and evil.
Did Rawls "fail" to justify his theory of justice? Wolff doesn't think so. Nor, apparently, do the theatrical producers behind this: