It’s been a while since we had a post using some of our negative feedback to reflect on our project and methods.
On the US iTunes store, one reviewer who had admittedly only listened to our two recent Wittgenstein episodes and nothing else, said that we were “A) woefully ignorant of the material at hand and B) too arrogant to even begin to acknowledge that they might just be missing the real significance of the work under consideration.”
I’m less interested in rebutting this particular dude (if one of you that hasn’t yet given us an iTunes review wants to jump on and do that, feel free) than getting at the ideological assumptions and questions lurking here.
First, there’s the question of who should speak on what topics. I’m not talking about the issue of free speech; of course ignorant people are and should be legally free to blab about whatever they want, but should they? Now, it so happened that we had Philosophy Bro on the show, who I think does count as an “expert” in that he’s a current professional who teaches and and writes about Wittgenstein, but we didn’t bring him on because we felt like we needed an expert on this topic, and frankly I don’t think his being there made things go any more smoothly than they otherwise would have. Why? Because analytic philosophy (which is really what we’re doing on the show) is about reading a text and trying to figure out what it says. That’s all. If you’ve got some insight into the author’s other works and life and the secondary literature (all of which was evidence at various times in our discussions), all the better, but really, all you need to make something out of difficult texts is practice, and if you get stuck, go do some Internet background reading or grab a secondary source. As with the similar dismissal of Flanagan’s ignorance of Buddhism, this charge of “ignorance” is really just that we didn’t hit on the interpretation of the text favored by this particular guy. Of course, we may well miss things of value that our listeners are aware of, which is exactly what this forum we’ve provided is meant to correct for.
Moreover, if you’ve already plumbed the secrets of the text, why bother listening to us talk about it? We can provide a refresher, I suppose, and maybe some new perspectives that will be helpful, but I’m detecting a different need, comparable to what Schleiermacher saw as the value of a religious tradition. This dude has discovered something he thinks is profound in Wittgenstein and wants to hear someone else communicate a version of that. He’s discovered an avenue for spiritual growth and wants a push in that direction. To translate this into my usual idiom, if I’m way into Elvis Costello, I’m not going to appreciate a review of his new album that doesn’t betray a deep knowledge of his past work and what I think made it great. So much of the fascination around Wittgenstein in particular is not in his evident achievements of contributing to formal logic (i.e. truth tables) and motivating examination of the logic of ordinary language, but in this supposed mysticism that only comes through in glimpses through his major works.
To move to the second point, analytic philosophy is often accused of arrogance, in that it acknowledges that only the parts of a work that an audience can make sense of will have any value whatsoever. Yes, a work might be difficult, and patience is a virtue, but if you ultimately can’t make anything significant of it, then there’s been a failure of communication, and as in all cases, both the reader and the writer are responsible. If you have five readers who’ve worked hard to decode the work and have pulled in additional voices through secondary sources to help out and still don’t find the profundities, then the blame shifts further toward the writer. I think we acknowledged in our discussion the open-ended character of this particular text enough; we were not just pulling out some tidbits and saying you can chuck the rest.
As I know I’ve expressed on the podcast, I do think that genius is largely a myth. Yes, W. was a super smart guy who penetrated deeply into some things, which is why we bother to read him, but as he himself admits in his introduction, the Investigations is a sloppy book, and his inability to go back in and whittle it down is hardly a virtue. Not all good books have to be highly polished, and in fact there’s something really valuable in sifting through raw thoughts of this sort, but if you think that every last dropping of someone like Wittgenstein is more worth your time and meditation than the well-honed products of lesser known but also very sharp folks like Flanagan, MacIntyre, and 100,000 other men and women you’ll never hear about, then I think our celebrity-worshiping culture has warped your perspective.
On the other hand, once you’ve made a connection to a figure that you think is on to something, then going further into his scraps deepens that personal connection, so you can see more the line of his thought, just like I might dive into Elvis Costello B-sides and early works and whatever I can get my hands on. That’s a legitimate way to proceed, but it doesn’t imply that you have to put the guy on a pedestal.
Since I do this podcast, I’m in favor of our methods: Non-experts should not let some misguided reverence keep them from publicly grappling tough texts, and given that it’s fun to do so, it’s not necessary to appear penitent and tentative and meek during the whole process. Were the Internet flooded with other, more expertly informed and astute groups doing what we do, then perhaps what we post would lack value, but until that time comes, we will keep on pluggin’.