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August 21, 2004

Rational mysticism

One of the most agitating portions for me of Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine was Richard Dawkins' introduction where he tells of a student of his who had picked up some peculiar mannerisms from her parents, who themselves had affected these tendencies in imitation of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Something within me could not help but be digusted by this idolatry of Wittgenstein, I can abide by the abject devotion and dedication that the majority of my fellow man direct toward their gods, but a man who walked in the flesh and seemed to always be on the verge of insanity?

It did not help that I generally do not feel congenial toward Wittgenstein's philosphical "ideas." Not only did he turn against Bertrand Russell, a man who I admire despite his naivete and hyporcisy, for the sheer firepower of his mind, Wittgenstein stood in opposition to the late Sir Karl Popper, the father of falsification (or rather, he was Popper's "enemy #1"). Wittgenstein's Poker is a philosophical history that I just recently read which details the conflict between the two Austrians, in the process taking a gentle and entertaining tour of early 20th century intellectual history. I come not to recommend the book, if you've read much history of philosophy it is nothing more than a casual airport read, rather, I want to dwell upon the magic of Wittgenstein.

Many philosophers hold to the conceit that they are rational beings. And when I read about the abominable cult of Wittgenstein, I peruse passages that describe his "incandescent intellectual fire," his "compulsive charisma," his "godlike disregard for convention." You would think the man was the second coming! His life was wracked by the torment of thought, his existence pervaded by extreme suffering on behalf of the intellectual shortcomings of his fellow man. I have only mildly skimmed Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, a byproduct of a period where I absorbed data on the life of Bertrand Russell (Wittgenstein being a prominent player). I don't disagree with all that Wittgenstein asserts, but I left the text with a feeling of "there is no there there." Plato seduced by flattering the conceit of intellectuals that their ideas, their minds, were all that truly was (a metaphorical solipsism if not a literal one). Aristotle by his sheer diluvian output. Aquinas via the fiat of the Church. What power does Wittgenstein hold over the hearts of men?

For all Wittgenstein's peculiar manners, there are some key facts about him that need to be highlighted.

  • He was the scion of one of Austria's wealthiest families, and so was possessed of a natural confidence.
  • He was an exemplar at whatever task he set himself. He was an outstanding mechanical engineer, philosopher, architect, medical research assistant, school-teacher, and so forth.
  • His lack of self-conscious pretention (his love of crime fiction for example) appealed to those who saw it as a signal that here was one who did not need to display substance, but simply was.
Earlier I have blogged about the book The Imitation Factor, and Wittgenstein is a clear case of this. Second order imitation, as in the case of Dawkins' student is very probable, as all the researchers who study his life seem to imply that all his "followers" aped his style, though they generally failed to appreciate the substance. Wittgenstein was what Susan Blackmore would term a "Meme Fountain."

But what does that all mean? Does it matter that a small cult of followers of the late great philosopher is fanatic enough that he was rated the 5th most influential philosopher of all time in a poll taken in 1998 (this was of academics in the field)? I hold that unlike the work of Sir Karl Popper, Wittgenstein's system is mumbo-jumbo, only a level below that of Sarte or Heidegger. One could say this about a lot of philosophy. Over the generations memetic fidelity will shift his shapeless ideas beyond shapeless recognition. Only the ghost of "Forms of Life" will survive, or whatever nonsensical definition they use. "Schools" of philosophy exist because most of philosophy does not live up to the conceit of rationality, it is driven, perish the thought, by emotion rooted in evolution!

To some people the primacy of idealism appeals to their ego and self-conception as the apex of creation (strangely, my narcissism has always grafted itself onto a skeptical empiricism!). Hard-headed empiricists look to their common sense. More artistic minds wade through the morass that is modern non-analytic philosophy, especially fields like literary criticism. And then there are the men and women who develop "cult" followings, devotees of the mind who flee rationality and yet aver that they are still partisans.

Persistant philosophical ideas are the ones what defy falsification, and so blur the line between faith and reason, religious and paradigm.

Wittgenstein was probably right that there aren't really philosophical "problems," just language puzzles. But, as the decades have past, the importance of non-rational and unconscious thought have come to the fore, and vast swaths of the mind have opened up for scientific investigation. Wittgenstein and his followers might assert as a Truth that each language is its "own form of life," but many linguists would assert that these "forms of life" are constrained by the active hand of evolution, by biology, by the naturalistic limitations of the universe. The "cult" of any philospher exists in that gray zone outside of science, where fashion and fad play a greater role than prediciton of coherency. If all philosophical sense is nonsense, it stands to reason that the most creative and colorfull cult leaders would leave the largest footprints.

Addendum: In contrast, think about the situation of the contemporaneous scientist Linus Pauling. James Watson asserted that one reason Pauling, for alll his brilliance, didn't stumble upon the structure of DNA, was because he was surrounded by over-awed "Yes men." Where philosphers can afford acolytes, scientists need skeptics as helpmates. Reality does not accept ego as a form of payment.

Posted by razib at 09:23 PM