Newsletter: May 2021
It’s been quiet over here in the world of online philosophy for the past month but things are starting to buzz again. A week ago I announced this summer’s course on The Philosophy of Love and Friendship, starting in late May. If you haven’t already, you can register your interest here. I’m finalizing the course syllabus and will announce it next week.
As ever, word of mouth is the best form of marketing, so do please spread the word to anyone you think might be interested. Don’t just sign up for love and friendship—bring a date!
There’s also hustle and bustle in my own life as I’m in the middle of a move from Galiano Island back to my home city of Vancouver. I’m happy in the home I’ve found but I’ll also miss the quiet and the beauty of the island. I was glad to have a day at the northern tip of the island in my last month. Dionisio Provincial Park is a hidden gem.
Late April is an exciting time of year if you’re into philosophy and birthday cake. April 22 is the birthday of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), considered by many to be the greatest European philosopher since Plato and Aristotle, and April 26 is the birthday of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951), my own philosophical hero.
Biographically, they were opposites. Kant had a famously boring life, never leaving the provincial city of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad in a western exclave of Russia) and was so regular in his habits that the townspeople would set their clocks by his daily walks. Adhering to a strict routine was clearly good for Kant’s productivity. Between 1781 and 1790 he wrote three monumental Critiques, which fundamentally reshaped Western philosophy.
Wittgenstein’s life, on the other hand, was unusually interesting for a philosopher. His father was a steel magnate and his family was one of the wealthiest in Austria—Brahms gave piano lessons to Wittgenstein’s sister, and Klimt painted her wedding portrait. Wittgenstein composed his early masterpiece, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, on the eastern front of the First World War, regularly volunteering for the most dangerous assignments—not out of patriotic duty but out of a desire to confront death. A small change in the trajectory of a single bullet and the course of twentieth-century philosophy would have been very different. After the war, Wittgenstein gave away his vast inheritance from a desire to live simply. He decided that his Tractatus had answered all the problems of philosophy so that there was no more philosophy left to do, and instead he spent time as a gardener, an architect, and a schoolteacher. Eventually, he came to realize there might still be some philosophy to do after all, and he devoted the last twenty years of his life to working out a fundamental revisioning of the philosophy of the Tractatus, which was published posthumously as the Philosophical Investigations.
Wittgenstein may have been more interesting but he wasn’t as much fun. Kant was apparently a great conversationalist and, bizarrely and hilariously, his late work, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, contains tips on how to run a good dinner party. Wittgenstein, by contrast, was notoriously difficult. When his friend Fania Pascal complained after having her tonsils removed that she felt like a dog that had been run over, Wittgenstein sternly retorted, “You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like.” Wittgenstein didn’t get many invitations to dinner parties, and he accepted even fewer.
Despite differences in character and biography, these two thinkers have quite a bit in common philosophically. They defy easy summary, but roughly speaking both of them work to reverse a tendency we have to project aspects of ourselves onto the world. The proper task of philosophy, according to both Kant and Wittgenstein, isn’t to reveal new truths about the nature of reality but to investigate what it is about us that inclines us to make certain pronouncements about the nature of reality in the first place.
Kant’s monumental Critique of Pure Reason challenges the idea that we are passive recipients of experience, simply taking in the world as it is through our eyes, ears, and other sensory channels. Instead, Kant argues, our cognitive faculties actively structure our experience. Take the idea of causation. We see causation at work everywhere but, as David Hume famously pointed out, we never actually see the causes themselves. We just see one thing happen, then another. Kant proposed that causes aren’t events in the world so much as structural features of our experience of it. A person wearing blue-tinted sunglasses sees everything in a bluish hue. Likewise, Kant says, we live with causation-tinted sunglasses fixed to our faces that we can’t remove (I’m borrowing the analogy from Bertrand Russell). The task of the philosopher, for Kant, is to help us see the glasses we’re wearing.
Wittgenstein takes things a step further. Where Kant thinks what we take for features of the world are often features of our own cognitive faculties, Wittgenstein thinks that what we take for philosophical problems are just confusions foisted on us by our own language. The end to our philosophizing, for Wittgenstein, comes not when we find the answers to the questions that trouble us but when the questions themselves vanish, Zen-like, into nothing.
Both Kant and Wittgenstein are notoriously difficult. Kant writes in an abstract technical jargon that set the tone for German philosophy ever since (thanks, Kant). Wittgenstein’s German is refreshingly lucid. The trouble lies in making sense of his deceptively straightforward remarks. I’ve made a couple attempts at doing this for a general audience. In one instance, I puzzle through Wittgenstein’s blunt retort to the saying that you can’t step into the same river twice: actually, says Wittgenstein, you can. In another, I think through what Wittgenstein meant when he said that a good philosophical book could be written that would consist of nothing but jokes.
Kant and Wittgenstein are both a year older but don’t throw away the party hats just yet! May offers up a plethora of other philosophical birthday boys and girls: Niccoló Machiavelli, Søren Kierkegaard, Karl Marx, Rabindranath Tagore, John Stuart Mill, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bertrand Russell, David Hume, Ibn Khaldun, Omar Khayyam, and one of the featured philosophers in our recent course “Know Thyself: Knowledge and Self-Knowledge in Literature and Philosophy”: Martha Nussbaum turns 74 on May 6. May babies all of them—and so is the Gemini writing this missive.
With many warm wishes for the month of May,