Sunday, July 10, 2005

Dynamic duos

Today there is much distrust of “great man” theories. Yet sometimes they seem unavoidable.

One way of approaching twentieth-century culture is in terms of dueling pairs. For example, a couple of years ago New York’s Museum of Modern Art held a big exhibition entitled Picasso-Matisse. To some extent the contrast runs deep: form (Picasso) vs. color (Matisse), tragic sense of life (P) vs. hedonism (M). However, there was also much interaction, as one artist would play off specific works of the other. Cubism was primarily associated with Picasso, yet Matisse, following him, had a kind of Cubist period as well. For many years Picasso disdained the intense colors favored by Matisse, but in a kind of expressionist breakthrough in the late 1930s the Spanish artist adopted such "couleurs criards."

In the field of architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright championed Organic Architecture, a humanistic practice with is roots in the late nineteenth century. Le Corbusier, his great adversary, stood for the severe rationality of the European International Style. One of my last courses at Hunter College was a seminar comparing and contrasting the two. The results were instructive.

In music Stravinsky represented a kind of intuitive modernism, incorporating the vitality of several national influences. Arnold Schoenberg, in this respect recalling Le Corbusier, developed the severely logical Twelve-Tone method.

Proust was the last representative of the great European tradition of the mega-novel. James Joyce, almost equally verbose, adopted a series of radically innovative techniques.

In creating Relativity, Albert Einstein produced a new, unified world picture. Yet Max Planck, in laying the foundations for the quantum theory, upset Einstein’s synthesis. The contrast between the two approaches still troubles the world of physics.

In politics Stalin and Hitler came to personify the stark choices of the 1930s. In 1937 the opposing German and Soviet pavilions at the Paris World’s Fair symbolized their rivalry. Fortunately this was one case where a stark choice proved not necessary. Today, both models have been fortunately retired—or so we must hope.

The remainder of this piece concerns a rivalry of this kind in philosophy—that of WITTGENSTEIN and POPPER.

An instructive and amusing book, Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers (2001), by David Edmonds and John Eidinow, sets the scene. In the austere Cambridge of 1946 two Viennese Titans met for one duel in Cambridge, England. At this encounter did Wittgenstein threaten Popper with a hot poker? To this day the facts remain in dispute. What is not contested is the fundamental difference between the two: are there genuine philosophical problems that must be addressed, as Popper maintained, or are there simply puzzles that must be dissipated (Wittgenstein's position).

Though they had found a haven in England, both Wittgenstein and Popper shared a common Continental background. They were both assimilated Jews formed by an especially creative period of Viennese cultural history. One need only think of Mahler and Schoenberg, Freud and Kraus, Klimt and Loos. During the 1920s Wittgenstein was to build a house reflecting Adolf Loos' ultramodern ideas.

Not everything in the Vienna of those days contributed so harmoniously. In the case of Wittgenstein one must reckon with the bad influence of Otto Weininger, a self-hating Jewish homosexual, not unlike his more famous admirer. During the 1930s Wittgenstein recorded a number of observations, which can only be termed anti-Semitic, under the influence of his unfortunate Viennese guru. As late as the 1940s Wittgenstein was still commending the noxious magnum opus "Sex and Character" of this author to his friends. In fact there was a powerful irrational and illiberal streak in Ludwig Wittgenstein. Other influences that go against the picture of Wittgenstein's work as strictly logical are Schopenhauer and Spengler, the dubious philosopher of world history.

Unlike Wittgenstein, Popper was never a member of the Vienna circle. In fact his first major book, Logik der Forschung (1935), demolished their cherished principle of verification, replacing it with the more daunting criterion of refutability. Shortly after this book appeared, Popper succeeded in emigrating, going first to New Zealand. While in exile in that remote land Popper wrote his masterpiece, The Open Society and Its Enemies. This book contrasts the open societies of democracy with their totalitarian opponents. Popper spends little time attacking the usual targets, such as Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin, though they clearly come within his crosshairs. He analyzes the contribution of such major thinkers as Plato and Hegel to totalitarianism. Equipped with a certainty, wholly unjustified, that they understood the groundplan of history, these thinkers created the basis for the repressive polities of the twentieth century. Naturally, Popper’s critique, especially of Plato, produced an outcry. This massive work in two volumes was intended as a contribution to the war effort. Yet its beneficial effects far outlasted the victory of 1945. The book produced its most imposing effect during the closing decades of the twentieth century, when it made a major contribution to delegitimizing Communist tyranny.

Apart from Austria, the two paladins of philosophy shared another country, England. Wittgenstein went there to live permanently (in Cambridge) in 1929. Popper received an appointment at the London School of Economics in 1946. Thus, apart from Austria, the two shared another country. The self-effacing triviality of English middle-class life ("What would happen if I dropped the tea tray?"), together with the common-sense philosophy that went with it, proved seductive to Wittgenstein (though he sometimes groused about Cambridge, where he actually had it good). Popper always struggled against the more complacent aspects of the English life, encouraging his new compatriots to make more strenuous efforts.

In both countries, the unifying thread of Wittgenstein’s work is concern for language. It is generally thought that he created two important philosophies, one during World War I and the second, which drastically amends the first, in the 1930s and 40s.

Wittgenstein's Tractatus (the only book he published in his lifetime) was written while he was a soldier in the Austrian army during World War I. This book seeks to state the criteria for meaningful statements as against those that are not meaningful, in effect nonsense. As such it was taken as the charter for the Logical Positivism of the Vienna Circle, with its claim to be working towards a purely scientific philosophy, which would relegate traditional concerns with metaphysics, ethics and aesthetics to the dustbin of “meaninglessness.” Further consideration suggests that they only understood one side of the Tractatus. In addition to its attempt to demarcate one type of statement from another, identifying a strain of mysticism. This mystical, indeed irrational tendency became more pronounced as Wittgenstein grew older.

Widely influential though it remains, Wittgenstein’s later philosophy is to me incoherent. Wittgenstein busied himself on such questions as "If it if three o’clock in Cambridge, what time is it on the sun?" and "If a lion spoke to us, would we understand him?" Wittgensteinians suggest that concentrating on such statements is a caricature—that these questions are only the outer husk of a profound series of inquiries about the mind and language. At all events Wittgenstein left a lot of loose ends, making considerable work for his exegetes. Some of the profusion of secondary writing that surrounds the thinker’s own works represents an effort to clarify what he said—or rather what he might have said, had he been able to think more clearly.

Of course the general public does not see the matter in this way. For those who know only a few tags from his work, Wittgenstein remains a fascinating character, a mystic and ascetic, who inspired fanatical loyalty. Even his tormented homosexuality (still downplayed by the exegetes) seemed to contribute to the enhancement of his status as a mythical figure.

Popper was by contrast a workaholic rationalist. He certainly was not endowed with tact. He could be very cutting, as I found when I briefly attended his London School of Economics seminar in 1964. But he could claim to have changed the world with his masterwork, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper has been honored in Eastern Europe for bringing tyranny down. In this way his ideas helped make life better for millions of human beings. Perhaps even now Popper's beneficial influence is beginning to take hold in Africa and other places where the residues of totalitarianism persist.

The authors of the Wittgenstein’s Poker book suggest that Wittgenstein was ultimately victorious in the long-running contest of the two men for philosophical influence. They report the claim, to me bizarre, that one professional survey ranked Wittgenstein as one of the top five philosophers in the history of the world. Hans Sluga's observation seems more just: "It is more likely that, like Pascal and Nietzsche, he will remain an uneasy presence in philosophy."

By contrast Popper’s work transcended the realm of thought, spilling over into the real world. As has been noted, his writings are credited as having wrought change in the real world, as seen in his influence in Eastern Europe, especially during the 1980s—and perhaps in Africa today.

Given the natural limits on the time allotted to us for such study, which philosopher is the more rewarding?. While The Open Society and Its Enemies is a big book in two volumes, it is relatively easy to assimilate, as are Popper’s other well-written and argued books. With Wittgenstein there are, in addition to various posthumous printed volumes, at least 4000 pages in the Nachlass. In much of this material, Wittgenstein seems struggling to make his thinking clear, but does not always succeed. It is of course possible that if one were to devote the huge blocks of time required, one would achieve enlightenment. Similar claims have been made for the opaque works of Jacques Derrida. Without having made this commitment, one cannot be sure. So most fall back on their image of Wittgenstein as a great philosopher, perhaps even a mystical guru, taking pleasure perhaps in the “poetry” of his oracular writings.

I never knew Wittgenstein. When I was an undergraduate in California in the fifties I struggled through the Philosophical Investigations, the central work in his later thought. Despite the fact that I understood very little, I still cherished the illusion that Wittgenstein’s later thinking was THE philosophy of our time. If one could just understand it, we could see the world as it is. In due course this conviction faded. It had garnered little reward. Then, when I lived in London in the sixties, I actually attended Popper’s classes at the London School of Economics on a few occasions. I then read everything I could by him. Popper offered a comprehensive view of the philosophy of science, which I still feel is the most vital remnant of that embattled discipline. Moreover, I felt that Popper had helped me to reach creative solutions to the issues presented by my dissertation, which I was working on at that time.

Perhaps the difference can be put this way. Popper held that through the use of the tools of reason bequeathed to us by Western Civilization we can work together gradually towards achieving a better world. By contrast, Wittgenstein held that philosophy was merely "therapeutic." To avail oneself of this therapy, which seems even less certain in its benefits than Freudian psychoanalysis, one must master a vast and growing mass of fumbling, oracular statements, as every last scrap of Wittgenstein’s graphomania becomes available, to be pondered by his adepts.

I know where I stand now. Popper’s works and some commentaries on them stand beside my bed, ever ready for consultation. Not so Wittgenstein’s corpus. It has been relegated to a dusty corner of the room.