Monday, October 12, 2009

Dynamic duos

We are all familiar with the experience at the optometrist where the examiner brings out a series of lenses, placing them before our eyes in a dual sequence. “Better A or B?” we are asked.

This principle of binary choice often operates in the realm of aesthetics. For those of us who are still quaintly committed to the cause of classical music, it common to hear the question: do you prefer Mahler or Bruckner?

When I was young, way back before the Punic Wars, neither of these Austrian composers was well known. I remembering how in high school I was excited to discover Gusstav Mahler’s first symphony, not realizing that this was but an hors d’oeuvre, so to speak, of his imposing body of work. So I came to put my bets on Mahler. Eventually, though, I discovered Anton Bruckner and transferred my admiration to him. Eventually, I tired of this variety of lush late romanticism, and now don’t care much for either.

This example shows how, over one’s life span, such preferences may be dynamic rather than static. Is Dynes a Mahlerian or a Brucknerian? Well, one of the other--at certain times---but ultimately neither.

Such preferences are, of course, independent of the aesthetic contribution of each figure. Mahler, for example, by introducing such demotic melodies as “Ach, du lieber Augustin” into his serious work, pioneered in tearing down the distinction between high and low in the arts. He essayed this before it happened in the other media (Picasso, Eliot, Joyce). In this respect and others, Mahler will always be honored for his contribution to the evolution of Western music.

In my youth Arnold Schoenberg was commonly contrasted with Igor Stravinsky. René Leibowitz, a partisan of Schoenberg, wrote a whole book largely devoted to showing how superior Schoenberg was to his Russian contemporary. Nowadays, this binarism seems out of date. Except for a few early works, Schoenberg is hardly ever performed, and is of interest chiefly to musicologists. In my view, that relegation is unfortunate, since I continue to revere Arnold Schoenberg, but it has happened.

Other such pairs introduce other valences. In his fresco of “The School of Athens,” Raphael makes a fundamental contrast at the center of the painting between the figures of Plato and Aristotle, the one representing high theory, the other the application of philosophy to daily life. Simplistic? Perhaps, but this is the way such binary contrasts often work.

For a long time a conventional paragone (to use a term from the Renaissance itself) was between Raphael and Michelangelo. With his lucent clarity and perspicuousness of composition, the former exemplified the rational side of the High Renaissance, while Michelangelo, imbued with his famous terribiltà, showed how one could bend the rules in a ceaseless quest for the sublime. Since Raphael was mainly a painter and Michelangelo was mainly a sculptor (despite his grandiose frescoes in the Sistine Chapel), the two titans can stand for the contrast of the two major media in the representational arts.

Moving forward a century (into the seventeenth), another contrast occurred between the architecture of Bernini and that of Borromini, with the first representing, so to speak, normality, while the second stood for innovation, sometimes bizarre innovation.

In modern architecture one may prefer either Frank Lloyd Wright or Le Corbusier, depending on whether one thinks that the art of building should retain its links with the past, or (conversely) cast aside such associations altogether.

French nineteenth-century painting manifests the contrasting pair of J. A. D. Ingres, the neoclassicist, and Eugène Delacroix, the romanticist.

Somewhat similar is the distinction a century later between Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Picasso had his neoclassic period to be sure, but was more generally associated with formal exploration. Like Delacroix, Matisse excelled in the use of color. Several years ago New York’s Museum of Modern Art mounted an exhibition offering specific comparisons of works by the two modernists.

Other duos may have resonances within their national context. Goethe and Schiller represent such a pair, with the former excelling at many things (a fox in Isaiah Berlin’s famous image), while Schiller doggedly stuck to drama (making him a hedgehog). In Russia, there were Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky (see George Steiner’s monograph comparing the two).

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.

Recently literary critics have been debating who was the dominant figure in Anglophone poetry during the twentieth century. The time used to be referred to as the Age of Eliot, now it is more common to speak of the Age of Pound. Despite his innovations, T. S. Eliot succeeded in turning himself into an establishment figure. Ezra Pound remained a rebel until the end. I suppose that one could make a similar contrast in French literature between André Gide and Louis-Ferdinand Céline, though I have not seen this done.

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? Did he intend to push the implement up his rival's ass, Edward II-style? Well, no one goest that far, though the facts remain in dispute to this day.

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 townhouse 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 noxious influence of Otto Weininger, a self-hating Jewish homosexual, not unlike his more famous admirer. Yes, Wittgenstein was a closeted homosexual. 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 vile magnum opus Sex and Character (Geschlecht und Charakter) 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, Tolstoy, 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. The kernel of the idea stems from Henri Bergson, whom Popper scarcely deigns to acknowledge. Nonetheless, his achievement was massive. The 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: they were Anglo-Austrians. 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 effort was 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 strikes me as incoherent. Wittgenstein busied himself on such questions as "If it is 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 instances of persiflage 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 book 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 to be 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 the charlatan 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 efficacy 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 endlessly pondered by his adepts.

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



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Popper rocks. I read his writings incessantly. I'm glad you do too.

11:31 AM  
Anonymous Onlooker said...

Do you seriously think Popper is read by people in Africa outside the small remnant of European origin?

7:58 AM  

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