Sunday, June 27, 2021

The Sociology of Philosophy II

In my post on this subject last year, I gave my impressions of the field as I experienced it, mostly well in the past. After reading about Bertrand Russell, I thought I'd add a few comments. Ray Monk's biography, I think, is protective of philosophy, though he seems to have had an unspecified animus toward Russell. Alternatively, I think that he is a little too lenient with Wittgenstein, both in the Russell biography and in the earlier Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. This is interesting, because Monk, who is ostensibly a philosopher, may have hidden agendas in his biographies of both Russell and Wittgenstein. I don't think that I have enough information to sort this out clearly, but I would at least like to write down a few thoughts on the matter.

If you have read much of this blog, you will have noticed that I enjoy looking at the underlying psychology of individuals and pondering how they attempt to construct careers in whatever field they undertake. I had never read much of Russell, because his primary work was done in the early 20th century and was not generally studied in philosophy departments when I was in college. Russell was just a popular writer then, and I never paid much attention to him, so Monk's unflattering exposé didn't surprise me much. However, I did read Wittgenstein in college, and, in the interim, Monk's glowing biography of him. Now that I think Wittgenstein wasn't that great either, it seems appropriate to untangle the sociological context of this situation.

I found little to disagree with in the Russell biography, except that Monk probably gave Russell more credit than he deserved. He let the reader believe that Gödel didn't refute Russell's main thesis and even suggested that Russell's work eventually led to the work of Alan Turing, hence, modern computers. As far as I am able to ascertain, this is hyperbole. Monk's earlier biography of Wittgenstein is comparatively glowing and has contributed to Wittgenstein's fame right up to the present. Since it is of no interest to me to reread Wittgenstein and assess his ideas now, I'll just say that I see no evidence that they are or ever were of much importance. Long ago, I also read Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, by the philosopher, Norman Malcolm, which contributed to some of the early mystique surrounding Wittgenstein. In that book, Malcolm enthusiastically describes Wittgenstein's visit to Cornell in 1949. I was surprised when I later read that Richard Feynman, who also happened to be at Cornell in 1949, though not while Wittgenstein was visiting, specifically thought that the people in the philosophy department there were a bunch of idiots. Freeman Dyson, the physicist who worked with Feynman, knew Wittgenstein at Cambridge and later made unflattering comments about him. 

In the case of Wittgenstein, it is clear that he was mythologized and had a cult following for a few years, but I am now more inclined to go with the opinions of the physicists, though they would not have been familiar with his ideas. My point is that you can look at most thinkers – in this instance Russell or Wittgenstein – and see how their professional reputations were determined less by objective intellectual standards than by vague sociological factors such as Russell's aristocratic standing and Wittgenstein's fan base. Biographers also play into this, with Monk serving as an advocate of Wittgenstein and, for the most part, a detractor of Russell, at least with respect to his personal conduct.

Most of this is fairly obvious in many domains of life, and if you look at the history of ideas, it is not uncommon to find that some of them can be popular when there is no substantive basis for their support. The funny thing about Wittgenstein's popularity is that his ideas exist almost outside the history of philosophy – they had no precedent, and they have not produced any legacy. In other words, they depended on an ephemeral set of circumstances in a specific academic environment. Also, much of Wittgenstein's popularity today can be attributed to Monk's biography, which is what Monk is best known for.

As I mentioned in one of my posts on the Russell biography, Monk overlooked the fact that Wittgenstein was probably autistic, in the negative sense that autism influenced his ideas and probably made them unintelligible to non-autistic people. Monk was therefore not doing philosophy a service by canonizing Wittgenstein. Academia typically handles problems like this by allowing specialists within a department to hold positions which are incompatible; if you disagree with the ideas of one scholar in your department, you may simply hold a different position, study different works and never engage or reconcile. This is especially common in the humanities, where popularity can easily override objectivity. A similar situation exists now in economics departments, with some economists supporting the traditional rational agent model, with efficient markets, and others supporting behavioral economics, which focuses on human irrationality. The two theories are incompatible. There are no true gatekeepers in academia, which explains how certain ideas and fads can run out of control, and strange phenomena such as political correctness can take root.

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