How Wittgenstein Came to Captivate Me So Much
Wednesday, January 14, 2009 at 11:08PM
Sean Wilson in Analytic Philosophy, Me, Wittgenstein, e-mail discussion

[sent to analytic after Stuart shared his thoughts on the subject. It's too long].

Stuart I have been lecturing so long today (almost 5 hours in 3 classes) that i should surely compose this tomorrow.  But here it is anyway, in terrible form. It's also too lengthy. Why not print it and read it at your convenience.

My interest in philosophy began  as an undergraduate, when I was already a political science major. I therefore could only do a minor, but took many, many courses. The person who I credit for my interest in philosophy is Stephen Hetheringt on, who later went back to Australia (where he is today). When Stephen originally found me, I was in sort of a "funk," philosophically. I had been captured by existentialist thought -- being exposed to Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Buber, Sartre  and other Continentals when my mind was still young and naive. Those thoughts seemed so powerful back then. Although other philosophy was around in political science format -- you know, Plato, Marx, Machiavelli, Nietschze, etc. -- existentialists were the first to "take me over." It fit well with my ideology at the time, because I was developing a rather radical leftist outlook (liked the 60s, the counter culture, etc.). (There are pictures on my website of me
protesting the first Gulf war in 1990).

But Stephen pulled me out of all of that. Not necessarily the politics, but the spurious foundation I had used to shut down my mind in favor of declaring passions. And he did it in three classes I took from him -- epistemology, metaphysics and (i think -- it's been so long) language philosophy. What I remember about Stephen was that he was brilliant at letting you make your own mistakes. Getting your thought out, then showing you the problems and sending you back to confront them. What you learn out of the experience is both the need for, and trouble with, foundation. You also work on "brain skills" (conceptuali zing) that is so necessary for philosophy.

Stephen would show you things, and although many times names would be explicitly attached to them -- Kripke, Wittgenstein, etc. -- many more times the goal was simply the ideas. It didn't matter who they belonged to. Stephen held the ideas as repertoire ready to dispense as each needed. Philosophy was never historical in his classes. It was always a thought project. This "workshop approach" really helped me get rid of existentialism and skepticism and pragmatism -- because it was not by declaration or rant, but me reaching the conclusion that they no longer could be sustained. This, of course, builds character. Because you learn now that passions can mislead. An extremely important lesson that only philosophy -- and NEVER political science -- will ever show you. (Political science does the opposite. It covers this fact up and just encourages passion as being "part of politics." Political science is dead and dreary).

Anyway, after I had overthrown these influences, I went hard core in the opposite direction and converted to logical positivism. There was another logical positivist at the University who I took classes with. He also very much hardened this tendency in my thought. (My favorite fictional character was Spock).

All the while, I had a modest appreciation for Wittgenstein, but not an exuberant one. Really I did not know enough about him, I think. Only general things (slogans) and a general appreciation for what the Tractus represented to the Vienna Circle, a movement I admired very much. I really like A.J. Ayer's book. Most importantly, though, I had Steve Hetherington' s ideas in my head, which were often nameless but clearly Wittgenstein- inspired (as they were non-Wittgensteinian ).  

In law school, several things happened. First, I discovered that law schools beat the philosophy out of you. They like only to pretend that they are "philosophic"  -- you know, Socratic method and all. But they regiment your mind so that it no longer functions "creatively. " I remember having this bizzare thought that what law school really was, if I could paint it, would be a man on a set of monkey bars. Swing from this bar to the next. That is what the intellectual exercise consisted of. (I could actually see the painting in my head).  And oh the professors there are so pseudo intellectual. (Not all, of course. Just in general).

But two basic things happened to me in law school. First, I took a class at another university that taught me jurisprudence HISTORICALLY. No one had ever done that. Teaching philosophy through history was an epiphany to me every bit as important at Stephen Hetherington' s method. Applying this technique, one could now see, e.g., John Locke in a radical new way -- through the eyes of radical Whig politics in England rather than as a set of premises about the state. Man, did that turn some lights on. Of course, the class that showed me this method was jurisprudence, as I say. I had always had jurisprudence courses -- in undergrad, and in law school (apart from the one I'm  talking about). It had become my favorite subject, and I was (and remain somewhat) taken with Ronald Dworkin.

Wittgenstein was not explicitly in my thoughts in these days, but his influence  would crop up every now and then. For example, during my third year of law school, I had this English professor teach me what lawyers call "critical legal studies." What a joke that was. The guy would take a bunch of word pairs like "freedom -- order" and "construct -- justification" and put them horizontally  on the board. He would then circle the vertical side of a pair grouping and say that this is a certain ideology, while the other side was its counter. The point being: life was a fundamental contradiction. You could not deploy the ideas without bias. The point further translated by me (and this is the Wittgensteinian- inspired thing coming out of me): if a concept has an antonym, you can't use it. What was the true ideology was the lecture. The idea of the "fundamental contradiction"  later became known as the "Dunkin Kennedy fallacy" (for the law prof who
invented it) [and even he withdrew from it]. But I remember critiquing those ideas with great zeal. It would light a flame within me.

After law school, I practiced law for about 5 years before going back to graduate school. I felt intellectually dead when my mind was forced to practice law. God how I had yearned to go back to contemplating something for its own sake. Because I didn't want to waste my education, I picked a "legal studies" sort of field. I also had Wittgenstein in the back of my mind, who had warned me against being a philosopher. I had thought: philosophy done unto itself degenerates into an irrelevant conversation,  as history degenerates into trivia. I wanted something that could harness and raid history and philosophy and APPLY it. Make it useful. I had picked political science because it had this idea of studying jurisprudential issues empirically. I foolishly and quite incorrectly thought that if they were actually studying something empirical -- like a scientist (duh) -- that they would have better jurisprudential theories (which turned out to be the
exact opposite).

Now this is critical: as I was in grad school and began studying again, I had developed very keen Wittgenstein impulses that began stewing in me. My admiration from him grew daily. You will note that the reason I did not go into philosophy for Ph.D was really a Wittgensteinian idea dormant within me.  The way this works is neat. When a professor teaches you an idea (as an undergraduate) , you (being creative) think about it here and there and chew on it all throughout your life. The same exact path or channels that your mind goes upon is similar to the surrounding ideas that the original thinker of the idea had as it was taught to you. That is what contemplation does; it's kind of like mining. These tangents that run through the head are like the irrigation of seeds. Someone plants the seed (professor), and you irrigate the idea as you energetically self contemplate. I've always talked with myself very energetically. People catch me all
the time locked in self-thought. It's actually embarrassing.

So my point is this: I had good Wittgenstein impulses in graduate school. I had long abandoned logical positivism as being too narrow minded, but still saw skepticism as nonsense. I had appropriately absorbed methods class with grain of salt. I was distrustful of hardened-systems of logic or theory, but not so of conceptualism.  As I like to say it: I was against "formalism but not conceptualism. "

And then it happened. I started reading those damn biographies.  Oh dear god what happened next. I have every damn thing he ever wrote. I read and re-read them, even today. They are like scripture to me. I find new insights into him all the time and find all sorts of people saying things about him that don't really get the gist of it. One cannot understand Wittgenstein until one tries to stand in his psychology. Also, there is so much similarity I found in these biographies to the manners that I myself display, that I must confess to being extremely intrigued by his life.  I'm not talking about washing dishes in the tub, either. I just simply mean certain personality features and quirks. I admire Wittgenstein like no other intellectual I have ever found.

One of the beautiful things about it is that it is anti-Wittgensteinia n to be a groupie. One should never espouse any of Wittgenstein' s ideas merely because he did. Always the idea itself stands upon its own making. That was his rule, and he lived by it. 

And the rest of the story is this: as an academic, I became immersed in philosophy and cognitive linguistics. I am very well read in philosophy right now. But I consider my primary concentrations to be language philosophy and philosophy of law. Those are the two fields I would classify myself as an expert. The rest I'm just conversant. (I'm putting together a course called Wittgenstein, Language and Politics -- when I have it ready, I'll let you know. It will webcast on the internet) 

Long live Ludwig!  
Dr. Sean Wilson, Esq.
Assistant Professor
Wright State University
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