Wednesday, January 10, 2007


Stanley on the "Wittgenstein Fallacy"

I can't resist saying something in response to Jason's suggestion that Dummett commits what he calls the "Wittgenstein Fallacy". I cited Dummett's famous remark from the preface to Frege: Philosophy of Mathematics where he suggests that Wittgenstein wouldn't have fared too well in the current philosophical climate given the demands placed on philosophers to publish.

Jason suggests that Wittgenstein would do just fine, and so it's a fallacy to criticize the existing climate on the grounds that he wouldn't gain recognition or employment. Jason writes:

'Is the claim really that a modern day Wittgenstein wouldn't have tenure somewhere really quite respectable?'

I want to suggest that's not really the claim. I took it Dummett intends the point, as I did in citing it, as purely a piece of rhetoric. I seem to remember that Moore was asked to write a recommendation for Wittgenstein when he had been proposed as Moore's successor to the chair at Cambridge which Simon Blackburn now holds. As I recall, Moore wrote that to deny a professorship of philosophy to Wittgenstein would be like denying a chair in physics to Einstein. The suggestion can't seriously be that Wittgenstein wouldn't be able to make a career in contemporary academic philosophy, even having published just the Tractatus and 'Some Remarks on Logical Form'; surely Jason's right that the profession is not so enamored with publishing that it would fail to recognize such talent, or fail to be impressed by such a recommendation. But I find it hard to believe that Dummett is best read as making a serious suggestion otherwise.

Now, that leaves quite open the issue which I'm suggesting the "Wittgenstein Fallacy" is meant to dramatize; whether there's undue pressure stemming from universities for their academics to aim for quantity rather than quality when publishing. It's my own impression that such pressure does sometimes exist, though naturally I'll have to defer to those who have a better perspective on such matters. Jason has used his platform at Leiter Reports largely to promote a much more upbeat view of contemporary academic philosophy than one often finds elsewhere, both from people outside the profession and sometimes from those within it. I'm sympathetic to most of the points Jason has raised in his series of posts on these and related matters, but I do think there's a issue here that's at least worth discussing, and while the "Wittgenstein fallacy" may be a distracting rhetorical flourish, it does serve to highlight that issue.

Update: I've written a followup to this post, quoting and discussing Dummett's actual words, here. Jason has opened comments on his original post over at Leiter Reports.

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Donald Gillies makes a version of this argument in a paper in the polemically-named Post-Autistic Economics Review:

I'm sure there are very reasonable points to be made here, but the point of these comparisons seems to be an emotional appeal to some older way of doing things. (In this case, it looks like there's opposition both to the mathematical turn in economics, and the quantifying turn in academic funding overall.)

Perhaps they'll accuse me of begging the question, but it seems very easy to cherry-pick examples, and much harder to establish some sort of general pattern. And the latter is what really needs to be done to say definitively whether some change is good or bad. (Of course, this probably can't be carried out for a variety of reasons.)

And of course, it's very hard to say what a Frege or Wittgenstein would have done, had he been faced with a pressure to publish. Maybe the later masterpieces would never have come out, but it also seems at least somewhat plausible that all of their central themes would have emerged in a stream of earlier publications, allowing these authors to clear even more ground than they actually did.

But basically, the point is, we really have no idea at all how current developments in the field would have affected the output of past philosophers.
I must admit that when I've heard this so-called Wittgenstein Fallacy earlier, I've been somewhat persuaded by it. Does Stanley's criticism change this? I don't think so - there's something to this rhetorical point, although not in the version restricted to publication rate.

If we consider a modified version of the fallacy, something along the lines given in Stanley's formulation: "The Wittgenstein Fallacy is the claim that the profession of philosophy as currently practiced is somehow flawed, because a modern day Wittgenstein would not receive recognition or employment." If all we look at is rate of publication, I'll grant that this would not be a major obstacle for a modern-day Wittgenstein (think family resemblance). But notice that Stanley's scenario already presupposes that this modern Wittgenstein-character has earned the recognition of his professors, and that he got his book published.

Professional philosophy "as currently practiced" would without doubt, however, give rise to other problems for someone sufficiently like Wittgenstein, and this is what lends plausibility to the "fallacy".

To illustrate: would Wittgenstein do well on GRE exams? Would his writing samples be readable? Would his style be appreciated by modern day publishers? Would he be recognised by professors as an eccentric undergraduate among hundreds of others, and would he at all make it to graduate studies? And if he did, would he go to Grad conferences, uphold deadlines, find funding, etc.?

In other words, is it not likely that this new Wittgenstein would have a hard time achieving that which Stanley's scenario already assumes? Of course, no one is claiming that such things never happen - the question is rather whether the current system makes it significantly harder.
But I think there's still an open question - would a modern-day Wittgenstein have had the same writing style if he had been alive today?

Obviously, someone working today the way Plato did (only writing in dialogue form, including strange mystical speculation amidst the arguments) wouldn't do very well today. But that's not in itself a criticism of our modern environment. It was fine to do what Plato did then, but today that would probably be seen as a waste of talent.

Every single concern you raise was just as true then. Wittgenstein had a terrible time finding a publisher for the Tractatus, because of the writing style. But Russell agreed to write an introduction, and Russell and others supported its publication. Similarly, nowadays, if David Lewis wrote an introduction for an oddly written book, and guaranteed its brilliance, it would be published in a second. In fact, it would be MUCH easier for it to be published now than then.

There are SO MANY incredibly successful eccentrics in top departments who can't tie their shoes. I'm not going to name names. Your second to last paragraph could just as well be written with any of a dozen philosophers in top departments nowadays substituted for "Wittgenstein" (come to think of it, I tanked my GREs, and had a strange writing sample).

Of course, there's no denying that there still are *some* Wittgenstein-type philosophers making it as professional acadmics - I'm probably thinking of the same examples as you. The question I'm raising, however, is whether the modern philosophical practice has made it harder. This question is not settled by pointing to specific contemporary philosophers (nor presumably, by pointing to specific past philosophers, such as Wittgenstein). What is up for debate is whether there is an increasing professionalism in philosophy leading to an undesirable homogeneity.

Although I can't provide solid evidence for this, I don't think it's obviously false (few fallacies are). At least, the claim is controversial enough to maintain a healthy debate. To say that this line of argument involves a fallacy, however, implies that there are convincing reasons for believing that the above claim is false, and I haven't seen any so far.

That being said, I feel drawn towards Kenny's agonsticism on the subject.
Jason Stanley has thrown down the challenge to explain why "wouldn't get a job in a top philosophy department today," and my answer is probably a bit trivial: given his personality, he likely would not bother. Even if he did, he showed a tendency at points in his life toward...wanderlust. Good jobs often have generous sabbatical policies, but going off to rural mountain communities to teach kindergarten for several years is likely beyond their scope. There are limits to what behavior will be tolerated from even the best philosophers, and this would probably be Wittgenstein's problem today.
Can you imagine Ludwig Wittgenstein kowtowing to the lackeys who run today's universities? (I know if I had his money I would have told a few to get lost a long time ago.) Would he be willing to treat his students as customers- even the ones who are only using his courses as stepping-stones to diplomas? (It is said that no one dared walk into his classroom once he started his lecture.) Teach from the same textbook as every other philosophy instructor? Water down his subject matter so that the answers to his test questions can be memorized beforehand? (When I’m feeling intrepid, I relate to my test-anxious charges his maxim that to do philosophy “one must be willing to descend into the primeval (conceptual) chaos and feel comfortable there.”) And let’s not even get started with the eccentricities. The hair-pulling incident alone would have gotten him blacklisted. (Wanna have some fun? Let’s set up a fictional account for Professor Wittgenstein at Rate Your Professor and post some reviews of his courses. The malcontent running the site deserves to be messed with.) Maybe he would have been given a post teaching graduate students by some well-connected fan of his work. Then again, how many of today’s busy professionals would be willing to tolerate unannounced, late-night visits by a supposedly suicidal graduate student? (I always thought he was just twisting Russell’s arm.) In any event, Professor Dummett’s point is well taken: the capitalists ruin everything they put their greedy hands on.
"As I recall, Moore wrote that to deny a professorship of philosophy to Wittgenstein would be like denying a chair in physics to Einstein."

I think it was C.D. Broad who said this, but I do not have a source. I'm quite confident, though. It may be objected that Broad liked Wittgenstein less than Moore did, and their personal relations were more distant, but Broad's high-mindedness in making the remark is part of what makes it a memorable, quotable thing.
Aha, you're absolutely right - I was misremembering.
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