Thursday, January 11, 2007

Wittgenstein and ... Kierkegaard?

Am I the only one who finds it surprising that Wittgenstein, the logical genius protege of Bertrand Russell, was fascinated by Kierkegaard. Tracking back through Kierkegaard's article I found that Wittgenstein considered Kierkegaard to be "by far the most profound thinker of the last century. Kierkegaard was a saint." Not only that, but Wittgenstein allegedly said that "Kierkegaard is far too deep for me...[h]e bewilders me without working the good effects which he would in deeper souls". The article remarks "the point is that Wittgenstein acknowledges the possibility that he is unable to see something that would be more apparent to someone with greater religious sensitivity."

Is this point somewhat neglected by academic philosophy? An excerpt from a biography of him sheds more light on Wittgenstein:

Wittgenstein's penchant for active philosophizing also helps to account for the fact that he was not very well read in the history of philosophy. He once assured a student that 'no assistant lecturer in philosophy in the country had read fewer books on philosophy than he had.'10 He read a great deal of Plato, but no Aristotle at all! Most of his favorite authors were suggestive and moral, rather than rigorous and logical, in their writings; in addition to Kierkegaard, Saint Augustine, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy are often mentioned. It was Tolstoy's abridgement of the Gospels that he discovered during the First World War, and carried with him. He read George Fox with approbation. Schopenhauer's World as Will and Idea was one of his earliest philosophical readings. He read, and was excited by, William James's Varieties of Religious Experience as early as 1912. He believed that it caused a moral improvement in him.11

The paucity of Wittgenstein's philosophical reading was a [12] conscious decision ... Another reason why Wittgenstein read little philosophy was that he disdained academia-for-its-own-sake. 'Professorial philosophy by philosophy professors,' or non-genuine philosophizing, was one of Wittgenstein's greatest dislikes.12 He often tried to discourage his best students from becoming professors. Several of them report that he seems to have been afraid they would cheat their students - and themselves - by offering a course in philosophy. (He seemed to believe that no one could deliver what 'philosophy' promises.13) He suggested that instead they should do useful work. This fits, not only with his remarks on 'philosophy' in general, but with his expressions of his own inadequacy as a teacher. He was sure that his teaching had done more harm than good to his students. He twice left the academic scene because he felt he had nothing more to contribute, and there is evidence that he had considered leaving more often.

It seems that academic philosophy often forgets the primary purpose of philosophy: to guide one's thoughts, decisions, and actions. Metaphysics, epistemology, and logic are simply tools toward discovering how best to act in the real world.


Henry said...

You're not the only one... Bertrand Russell, for one heh.

After decades of scholarly research on these two, Wittgenstein's interest in Kierkegaard is not surprising. Key points of the Tractatus and Investigations were inspired as much by Kierkegaard as they were Russell.

ADHR said...

I'm sympathetic to your point.

I find it a little odd, though, that the example of someone who tried to make a difference in the "real world" was a guy who spent much of his life wandering from place to place. Russell is a better example of the kind of philosopher you're admiring.

I don't think there's a general reluctance to admit Wittgenstein's affection for Kierkegaard and other figures. Certainly I haven't encountered it.

undergroundman said...

You've got a point. You're arguing on the basis that acting in the real world necessarily means making a "positive difference." But, yeah, as I've often made clear, I do think making a positive difference is what one should do in the real world.

I don't know what Wittgenstein thought he was doing, but clearly he thought he was doing something moral. I don't think he would've disparaged what Russell did, either.

I'm not sure I agree with Wittgenstein that philosophy can be harmful, either -- I'm inclined to think that those who studied academic philosophy and came out less than spectacular (morally) would've been no worse if they hadn't entered into philosophy. But who knows. I don't even know what extremely analytic academic philosophy is these days, so I can't judge it as right or wrong.