Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher, and Adolf Hitler, the dictator, were born just six days apart in the Spring of 1889 – Wittgenstein into golden luxury in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hitler into a modest family and a provincial town at the Empire’s border to Germany. Different as those backgrounds were, Wittgenstein’s and Hitler’s life-paths came to parallel each other at certain points and occasionally even to intersect. I am concerned in this essay with Wittgenstein’s pessimism about his time but have found it useful to look also at Adolf Hitler as an antithetical figure propelled by another kind of pessimism. The contrast between the two men may help to illuminate questions about their and our age, about technology and technological thinking, and, possibly, about pessimism itself.
I have been reading all summer – right across the field, whatever has come into my hands. My seminar last semester on Foucault’s “The Order of Things” stimulated my interest in French literature and because of Foucault’s well-known hostility to Sartre I decided to have another look at that philosopher. So I took up Sartre’s autobiographical work “Les Mots” which had been on my bookshelf for quite a while.
Certainly an intriguing and disturbing book. Intriguing as a description how Sartre leaned to read and began to write. But disturbing also because Sartre speaks about himself in the starkest terms. We read, for instance: “My long hair got on my grandfather’s nerve. ‘He’s a boy,’ he would say. ‘You’re going to make a girl of him. I don’t want my grandson to be a sissy!’ One day – I was seven years old – my grandfather could no longer stand it. He took me by the hand, saying that we were gong for a walk. But no sooner had we got around the corner than he rushed me into a barber shop, saying: ‘We’re going to give your mother a surprise.’ I returned home shorn and glorious. There were shrieks, but no hugging and kissing, and my mother locked herself in her room to cry. Her little girl had been exchanged for a little boy. But that wasn’t the worst of it. As long as my ringlets fluttered about my ears, they made it possible to deny my obvious ugliness. Yet my right eye was already entering the twilight. She had to admit the truth to herself. My grandfather himself seemed nonplussed. He had been entrusted with her little wonder and had brought back a toad.”
“Fully 99.5 per cent of human existence was spent in the Palaeolithic era, which began about 3 million years ago when humans began using primitive tools. That era ended about 12.000 years ago with the last ice age. During this long twilight period, people noticed almost no cultural change at all, ‘The human world that individuals entered at birth was the same as the one they left at death’.” (Jamie Susskind, Future Politics, p. 4)
Martin Heidegger reflected on history, on the philosophy of history, and on what it means to think historically from the beginning of his career at the time of the First World War onward. Over the years he advanced a series of philosophical reflections on history. A critical revaluation of his thought is still needed.
I have never been able to attach myself to a single philosopher as my guru. There are those who find all their philosophical enlightenment in Aristotle or Confucius, in Kant or Nietzsche or Marx, in Heidegger or Derrida. I have never been able to follow them. As soon as I read a philosopher, critical questions start swirling in my mind. That's certainly also true when I read Wittgenstein.
August 13, 2018
The answer seems to be about eight hundred. That many philosophers from all over the world have come to Beijing for the 24th World Congress of Philosophy ready to meet for a full week under the banner "Learning to be Human."
Here is the power point file of the lecture I just gave at the World Congress of Philosophy in Beijing.
In his Tractatus Wittgenstein speaks both of the world and of descriptions of the world. I argue that his use of that second term derives from its occurrence in Alexander von Humboldt's "Kosmos".
My project is simple but demanding. I am trying to reread Wittgenstein from the beginning without, however, relying on any established interpretations. My question is whether we can look at his work with fresh eyes. Ignoring the halo of secondary writing that now surrounds that work does not mean that I will always end up disagreeing with what previous interpreters have said. But my plan is to re-discover their insights where they are such and otherwise go my own way.
In doing this, I want to look more thoroughly at Wittgenstein’s own words than has previously been done. I don’t know how far I will get with this but completeness is not my goal. It is rather to start with the first sentence of the Tractatus and work myself forward from there as far as I can manage.
On the gravestone of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke we can read one of his last poems which says: Oh rose, you pure contradiction. To be nobody's sleep under so many eyelids." Is there a self and if not, who am I?
“In what sense are my sensations private? – Well, only I know whether I am really in pain; another person can only surmise it. – In one way this is wrong, and in another nonsense. If we are using the word ‘to know’ as it is normally used (and how else are we to use it?), then other people often know when I am in pain. – Yes, but all the same not with the certainty with which I know it myself! – It can’t be said of me at all (except perhaps as a joke) that I know I am in pain. What is it supposed to mean – except perhaps that I am in pain.”
The humanities are increasingly in a beleaguered position in Universities and Colleges across the country. Academic philosophers like to think that their place is still secure because their subject is the most ancient of the so-called humanities; it is a discipline devoted to promoting basic intellectual skills; and it has connections with a diversity of other fields. But the turbulence that is affecting our institutions is not making halt before philosophy departments.
Our epistemologists are used to ask some very general questions: What is knowledge? What is the relation between observation and theory? How do we justify claims to knowledge? Digital technology is changing how information is collected, organized, and disseminated. The proliferation of claims to knowledge in the Internet highlights moreover the issue of error, mis- and disinformation, of “Fake News,” of its distribution and the question how to disarm it. We need an epistemology for the digital age that looks at knowledge not only in the usual timeless fashion but takes into account the changing landscape of human knowledge.
Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the leading philosophical minds of the twentieth century and his thought remains of live interest. Twenty years ago, David Stern and I published the Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein which was intended to help readers of Wittgenstein along. We have now brought out a second edition of this work with some great new contributions and a completely updated bibliography.
Hegel famously wrote that the owl of Minerva starts its flight at dusk. He meant to say that philosophy, far from being avant-garde, is, in some ways, always behind its time. For first comes reality and only then, belatedly, comes our understanding of it. Our words and theories are always chasing after the facts.
Imperfect cognitive states are characteristic of social and political life. But these are not the cognitive states our epistemologists have in view. We need to consider, in particular, states of uncertainty and disorientation since those are now so prevalent in our politics.
We have learned that the ocean waves pulverize our plastic debris which is then consumed as dust by the fish we eat. The circle is closed and the poisons we have created come back to us in this altered form. The internet pulverizes human knowledge and feeds it back to us as unconnected bits of information. Our minds are bound to be ultimately overwhelmed by all this new kind of poisonous debris.
Digital technology has had the peculiar effect of atomizing human knowledge and this in two ways. It has favored the creation of small bits of information which are passed around in digital messages. And it has overwhelmed our ability to concentrate on extended lines of reasoning. There is too much information, tempting us to move quickly from one bit to another. We are distracted by all these bits of knowledge that are offered to us so enticingly on all the websites of the world. This is already showing disastrously in our students who find it increasingly difficult to read whole books. We feed them instead with power point slides that contain carefully selected bits of information. Even this blog illustrates what is happening. Blogs are signals of the decreasing attention spans of those who write them and those who consume them.
January 19, 2018 - Our sharpest break with the tradition has come with the realization of the disunity of knowledge (of thought, the mind, the world, and pretty much else that concerns philosophy). We are no longer trying to construct “a system;” we are not looking for “the foundations” of a single structure; we have abandoned the belief in completeness and in our capacity to make everything cohere.