Monday, November 22, 2010

A bit of Wittgenstein

"Beyond Understanding"


Andy Martin

November 21st, 2010

The New York Times

I ought to have known better than to have lunch with a psychologist.

“Take you, for example,” he said. “You are definitely autistic.”


“I rest my case,” he shot back. “Q.E.D.”

His ironic point seemed to be that if I didn’t instantly grasp his point — which clearly I didn’t — then, at some level, I was exhibiting autistic tendencies.

Autism is often the subject of contentious and emotional debate, certainly because it manifests in the most vulnerable of humans — children. It is also hard to pin down; as a “spectrum disorder” it can take extreme and disheartening forms and incur a devastating toll on families. It is the “milder” or “high functioning” form and the two main agreed-upon symptoms of sub-optimal social and communication skills that I confine myself to here.

Simon Baron-Cohen, for example, in his book “Mindblindness,” argues that the whole raison d’être of consciousness is to be able to read other people’s minds; autism, in this context, can be defined as an inability to “get” other people, hence “mindblind.”

Was Wittgenstein hinting that autism is not some exotic anomaly but rather a constant?

A less recent but possibly related conversation took place during the viva voce exam Ludwig Wittgenstein was given by Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore in Cambridge in 1929. Wittgenstein was formally presenting his “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” an already well-known work he had written in 1921, as his doctoral thesis. Russell and Moore were respectfully suggesting that they didn’t quite understand proposition 5.4541 when they were abruptly cut off by the irritable Wittgenstein. “I don’t expect you to understand!” (I am relying on local legend here; Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein has him, in a more clubbable way, slapping them on the back and bringing proceedings cheerfully to a close with the words, “Don’t worry, I know you’ll never understand it.”)

I have always thought of Wittgenstein’s line as (a) admittedly, a little tetchy (or in the Monk version condescending) but (b) expressing enviable self-confidence and (c) impressively devoid of deference (I’ve even tried to emulate it once or twice, but it never comes out quite right). But if autism can be defined, at one level, by a lack of understanding (verbal or otherwise), it is at least plausible that Wittgenstein is making (or at least implying) a broadly philosophical proposition here, rather than commenting, acerbically, on the limitations of these particular interlocutors. He could be read as saying:

Thank you, gentlemen, for raising the issue of understanding here. The fact is, I don’t expect people in general to understand what I have written. And it is not just because I have written something, in places, particularly cryptic and elliptical and therefore hard to understand, or even because it is largely a meta-discourse and therefore senseless, but rather because, in my view, it is not given to us to achieve full understanding of what another person says. Therefore I don’t expect you to understand this problem of misunderstanding either.

If Wittgenstein was making a statement along these lines, then it would provide an illuminating perspective in which to read the “Tractatus.” The persistent theme within it of “propositions which say nothing,” which we tend to package up under the heading of “the mystical,” would have to be rethought. Rather than clinging to a clear-cut divide between all these propositions ─ over here, the well-formed and intelligible (scientific) and over there, the hazy, dubious and mystical (aesthetic or ethical) ─ we might have to concede that, given the way humans interact with one another, there is always a potential mystery concealed within the most elementary statement. And it is harder than you think it is going to be to eliminate, entirely, the residue of obscurity, the possibility of misunderstanding lurking at the core of every sentence. Sometimes Wittgenstein thinks he has solved the problem, at others not (“The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem,” he writes in “Tractatus.”) What do we make of those dense, elegiac and perhaps incomprehensible final lines, sometimes translated as “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must remain silent”? Positioned as it is right at the end of the book (like “the rest is silence” at the end of “Hamlet”), proposition number 7 is apt to be associated with death or the afterlife. But translating it yet again into the sort of terms a psychologist would readily grasp, perhaps Wittgenstein is also hinting: “I am autistic” or “I am mindblind.” Or, to put it another way, autism is not some exotic anomaly but rather a constant.

I am probably misreading the text here — if I have understood it correctly, I must be misreading it. But Wittgenstein has frequently been categorized, in recent retrospective diagnoses, as autistic. Sula Wolff, for example, in “Loners, The Life Path of Unusual Children” (1995), analyzes Wittgenstein as a classic case of Asperger’s syndrome, so-called “high-functioning autism” ─ that is, being articulate, numerate and not visibly dysfunctional, but nevertheless awkward and unskilled in social intercourse. He is apt to get hold of the wrong end of the stick (not to mention the poker that he once waved aggressively at Karl Popper). An illustrative true story: he is dying of cancer; it is his birthday; his cheerful landlady comes in and wishes him “Many happy returns, Mr. Wittgenstein”; he snaps back, “There will be no returns.”

Wittgenstein, not unlike someone with Asperger’s, admits to having difficulty working out what people are really going on about. In “Culture and Value” (1914) he writes: “We tend to take the speech of a Chinese for inarticulate gurgling. Someone who understands Chinese will recognize language in what he hears. Similarly I often cannot recognize the humanity of another human being.” Which might also go some way towards explaining his remark (in the later “Philosophical Investigations”) that even if a lion could speak English, we would still be unable to understand him.

Wittgenstein is not alone among philosophers in being included in this category of mindblindness. Russell, for one, has also been labeled autistic. Taking this into account, it is conceivable that Wittgenstein is saying to Russell, when he tells him that he doesn’t expect him to understand, “You are autistic!” Or (assuming a handy intellectual time machine), “If I am to believe Wolff and others, we are autistic. Perhaps all philosophers are. It is why we end up studying philosophy.”

I don’t want to maintain that all philosophers are autistic in this sense. Perhaps not even that “You don’t have to be autistic, but it helps.” And yet there are certainly episodes and sentences associated with philosophers quite distinct from Wittgenstein and Russell, that might lead us to think in that way.

Consider, for example, Sartre’s classic one-liner, “Hell is other people.” Wouldn’t autism, with its inherent poverty of affective contact, go some way towards accounting for that? The fear of faces and the “gaze of the other” that Sartre analyzes are classic symptoms. Sartre recognized this in himself and in others as well: he explicitly describes Flaubert as “autistic” in his great, sprawling study of the writer, “The Family Idiot,” and also asserts that “Flaubert c’est moi.” Sartre’s theory that Flaubert starts off autistic and everything he writes afterwards — trying to work out what is in Madame Bovary’s mind, for example — is a form of compensation or rectification, could easily apply to his own work.

One implication of what a psychologist might say about autism goes something like this: you, a philosopher, are mindblind and liable to take up philosophy precisely because you don’t “get” what other people are saying to you. You, like Wittgenstein, have a habit of hearing and seeing propositions, but feeling that they say nothing (as if they were rendered in Chinese). In other words, philosophy would be a tendency to interpret what people say as a puzzle of some kind, a machine that may or may not work.

I think this helps to explain Wittgenstein’s otherwise slightly mysterious advice, to the effect that if you want to be a good philosopher, you should become a car mechanic (a job Wittgenstein actually held during part of the Great War). It was not just some notion of getting away from the study of previous philosophers, but also the idea that working on machines would be a good way of thinking about language. Wittgenstein, we know, came up with his preliminary model of language while studying court reports of a car accident in Paris during the war. The roots of picture theory (the model used in court to portray the event) and ostensive definition (all those little arrows and labels) are all here. But at the core of the episode are two machines and a collision. Perhaps language can be seen as a car, a vehicle of some kind, designed to get you from A to B, carrying a certain amount of information, but apt to get stuck in jams or break down or crash; and which will therefore need fixing. Wittgenstein and the art of car maintenance. This car mechanic conception of language is just the sort of thing high-functioning autistic types would come up with, my psychologist friend might say, because they understand “systems” better than they understand people. They are “(hyper-)systemizers” not “empathizers.” The point I am not exactly “driving” at but rather skidding into, and cannot seem to avoid, is this: indisputably, most car mechanics are men.

My psychologist friend assured me that I was not alone. “Men tend to be autistic on average. More so than women.” The accepted male-to-female ratio for autism is roughly 4-to-1; for Asperger’s the ratio jumps even higher, by some accounts 10-to-1 (other statistics give higher or lower figures but retain the male prevalence). Asperger himself wrote that the autistic mind is “an extreme variant of male intelligence”; Baron-Cohen argues that “the extreme male brain” (not exclusive to men) is the product of an overdose of fetal testosterone.

If Wittgenstein in his conversation with Russell is suggesting that philosophers are typically autistic in a broad sense, this view might explain (in part) the preponderance of male philosophers. I went back over several sources to get an idea of the philosophical ratio: Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy” (about 100-to-1), Critchley’s “Book of Dead Philosophers” (30-to-1), while, in the realm of the living, the list of contributors to The Stone, for example, the ratio narrows to more like 4-to-1.

A psychologist might say something like: “Q.E.D., philosophy is all about systemizing (therefore male) and cold, hard logic, whereas the empathizers (largely female) seek out more humane, less mechanistic havens.” I would like to offer a slightly different take on the evidence. Plato took the view (in Book V of “The Republic”) that women were just as philosophical as men and would qualify to become the philosopher “guardians” of the ideal Greek state of the future (in return they would have to learn to run around naked at the gym). It seems likely that women were among the pre-Socratic archi-philosophers. But they were largely oracular. They tended to speak in riddles. The point of philosophy from Aristotle onwards was to resolve and abolish the riddle.

But perhaps the riddle is making a comeback. Understanding can be coercive and suffocating. Do I really have to be quite so “understanding”? Isn’t that the same as being masochistically subservient? And isn’t it just another aspect of your hegemony to claim to understand me quite so well? Simone de Beauvoir was exercising her right to what I would like to call autismo when she wrote that, “one is not born a woman but becomes one.” Similarly, when she emblazons her first novel, “She Came To Stay,” with an epigraph derived from Hegel ─ “every consciousness seeks the death of the other” ─ and her philosophical avatar takes it upon herself to bump off the provincial young woman she has invited to stay in Paris: I refuse to understand, to be a mind-reader. Conversely, when Luce Irigaray, the feminist theorist and philosopher, speaks — again paradoxically — of “this sex which is not one,” she is asking us to think twice about our premature understanding of gender — what Wittgenstein might call a case of “bewitchment.”

The study of our psychopathology, via cognitive neuroscience, suggests a hypothetical history. Why does language arise? It arises because of the scope for misunderstanding. Body language, gestures, looks, winks, are not quite enough. I am not a mind-reader. I don’t understand. We need noises and written signs, speech-acts, the Word, logos. If you tell me what you want, I will tell you what I want. Language is a system that arises to compensate for an empathy deficit. But with or without language, I can still exhibit traits of autism. I can misread the signs. Perhaps it would be more exact to say that autism only arises, is only identified, at the same time as there is an expectation of understanding. But if autism is a problem, from certain points of view, autismo is also a solution: it is an assertion that understanding itself can be overvalued.

It is a point that Wittgenstein makes memorably in the introduction to the “Tractatus,” in which he writes:

I therefore believe myself to have found, on all essential points, the final solution of the problems [of philosophy]. And if I am not mistaken in this belief … it shows how little is achieved when these problems are solved.

Which is why he also suggests, at the end of the book, that anyone who has climbed up his philosophical ladder should throw it away.

[Andy Martin is currently completing “Philosophy Fight Club: Sartre vs. Camus,” to be published by Simon and Schuster. He was a 2009-10 fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers in New York, and teaches at Cambridge University.]

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889—1951) [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

Ludwig Wittgenstein [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

Ludwig Wittgenstein [Wikipedia]

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