Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Wittgenstein and Academic Disagreement

I had a further reflection – 7 years on - on my experience of studying Wittgenstein for my masters: It was very hard to find people who could present a constructive argument against his philosophy.

There were people who argued about his philosophy in an exegetical sense.  People argued amongst each other on traditional and ‘resolute’ readings of Wittgenstein. People argued about how he used the Context Principle; or whether ‘meaning is used’ is per se a definition of meaning.

There were also arguments in a more philosophical sense between his earlier and later works – defending one against the other.

However, in terms of: Wittgenstein said x and it is wrong because y – there was an awful lot less than what you would expect of an influential philosopher. People might dismiss his whole enterprise but do not engage with individual ideas and arguments

There are the non-critical admirers, and then again, a larger amount in philosophy at large that pretty much ignore him altogether and carry on metaphysical arguments as if 1) they are sensible arguments to have, and 2) do not even have to ‘face down’ the Wittgensteinian challenge.

On the one hand this is fine, I am much more interested in what Isaiah Berlin might call the ‘history of ideas’.  I quite enjoy the history of philosophy, doing philosophical exegesis and trying to provide a charitable and compelling view of a philosopher’s project in the context in which it was written.

On the other, it makes it harder than most to write a critical philosophical essay (to amongst other things, gain good marks) when the literature doesn’t lend itself to it.

Why has this happened that there is such little critical literature?

1. The cryptic style, early and late, lends itself to arguments about what he really meant

2. The nature of philosophy for Wittgenstein, again both early and late, is that philosophy should not ultimately teach you something ‘new’ as such – at least not in the sense of a discovery of true proposition

Is there something positive (philosophically) to say about this or the literature of little import than other than a historical curiosity?  I tend towards the former but as ever, I am torn

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Life Post-Wittgenstein

Since the day I met my current wife for the first time until now, I haven’t blogged. 

I always wrote writing excruciatingly painful and time-consuming.  In this sense, I always sympathised and related to Wittgenstein: The endless editing, re-editing, re-ordering and deleting felt very similar to my own experience.  The only way anything got down on paper was due to a deadline or sheer force of will.  In some sense, it was even harder with computers because I didn’t keep a notebook of my bad thoughts to be refined – they just got deleted and had to start over.

The consequence of this was such that when having a girlfriend turned wife turned joint-parent, I just did not have the time.

Yesterday, for the first time (inspired, or rather, horrified by Corbyn’s election as Labour leader) I felt compelled to sit down and right on (what was) my main blog: http://thehidingoftheface.blogspot.co.uk/

Out of interest, I looked at the blogspot stats and whilst, despite the hundreds of posts, my main blog only had a tiny view-count; my Wittgenstein blog (with only a few posts) had thousands.  Interestingly, I am linked to by the British Wittgenstein Society and I never knew!

Now, this got me thinking.  Wittgenstein’s attitudes towards philosophy have left their mark and I often see something that makes me wonder what Wittgenstein would think.  So, I wrote my blog just now on whether Bridge is a “Sport”

Now, I don’t believe I was ever the best philosopher.  Yet, being away from philosophy for many years (and not being able to access academic journals which are very expensive), I no doubt I have lost any depth of understanding that I did possess.

Being linked to by BWS, therefore, makes one awfully self-conscious and wonder what talented philosophers would make (or scoff) and any Wittgenstein writing that this self-professed “outsider” would write.

Yet, in and of itself, I think of myself as an interesting case study.  On the one hand, I have fulfilled Wittgenstein’s ambition that philosophy should lead one to leave philosophy.

Secondly, Wittgenstein (after the Tractatus) gave up philosophy and went to do all sorts of other things (e.g. teacher), before coming back to Cambridge much later.  My supervisor (Roger White) was always of the impression that the later Wittgenstein simply didn’t understand what he himself had earlier written and its motivations.  Implausible sounding at the time, I am not sure now.

Whilst Wittgenstein was a lot cleverer than I, it is sometimes hard to look back at some philosophy and just think “that’s silly”.  No doubt, within the theoretical framework constructed in analytics philosophy, there were motivations and logical paths which one could re-take.  Yet, it doesn’t alter that the pre-theoretical ‘aghast’ face that many non-philosophers would have at some of things discussed.

To my mind, this would include Leibniz’s Monads; existent, but not actual, abstract objects that are possible worlds that somehow give meaning to modal statements; and yes, Wittgenstinian Simple Objects.

Anyway, calling something “silly” would certainly not make me seem any more intelligent to real philosophers

Wittgenstein, Bridge and Sport

There is a Judicial Review underway around whether Bridge should be classified as a sport or not.

My initial thought – as I’m sure would be the initial thought of anyone reading the article – is what would Wittgenstein say?

Sport England, taking its lead from the Council of Europe, defines a sport as an "activity aimed at improving physical fitness and well-being, forming social relations and gaining results in competition".

The later Wittgenstein wouldn’t countenance that any definition or analysis of the word “sport” (indeed, any word, meaning or function) that would act as a ‘rule’ that would satisfactorily cover all eventualities – classifying an activity in or out. 

Even if such rules were theoretically possible (which they aren’t), an ‘imposed’ definition such as the one from Sports England would not do justice in many cases as to how we actually use the term – what we do or do not in fact use “sport” in relation to. 

It makes sense to call Snooker a sport, but am not sure how much it is “aimed at improving physical fitness” or successful at doing so, in comparison to SAS training, which would not generally be thought of a sport

There is no “right” answer but nonetheless how we use the term (according to Wittgenstein) forms a ‘grammar’ of the term.  The grammar does firstly, mean that someone would look at you weirdly if you said “Pencil is a sport” – you would know that they cannot mean the same thing as you or that they are talking nonsense.  Secondly, it establishes some things as more representative of “sport” with others bearing more or less family resemblance to it.  Third, it will establish associations and disassociations with other concepts such as “hobby”, “leisure activity” and “game” 

Sports England argue: 

It has argued that bridge is no more of a sporting activity than "sitting at home, reading a book".

First thing, why couldn’t reading a book at home be a sport?  One could certainly come up with a scenario (e.g. multiple people reading the same book as fast as they can against the clock, and then answering 20 questions about it) where it might more plausibly thought of as so.

As such, Wittgenstein says there is no reason why one couldn’t call Book-Reading a sport.  Yet, they are probably right that the family resemblance is more like a second cousin-twice removed than an identical twin. Comparing bridge to book reading is a good rhetorical point, therefore, but probably a disservice (Bridge does at least have competition, for example)

My thoughts, in brief, then are:

  1. If you were going to call Bridge a sport, first you would have to admit that it is not an archetypal sport; and second, go on to explain its family resemblance
  2. Ultimately, if you were discussing it in the pub, people would “know what you mean” but someone else might be “you must be kidding, mate”.  Ultimately though, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other
  3. Bridge players are therefore entitled to call it a sport but not sure they can simply do so because they want some funding from Sport England if they didn’t already.
  4. Judges are entitled to decide whether there is any legal reason why it is somehow wrong to deny them funding (but seems dubious if on the basis that they are the right people to “define” the word(even if that were possible)
  5. Sports England are too entitled to define who gets funding based on their mission and mandate, however defined, and this can well exclude bridge.  This though would not seem to depend on the meaning of a word.

If you were to press me though, Bridge isn’t a sport