2006-12-22 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

How Is America Like Ludwig Wittgenstein (And Who Is Wittgenstein Anyway)?
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky


For those unfamiliar with him, Ludwig Wittgenstein was a giant of twentieth century philosophy. A scion of one of the wealthiest families in Austria who gave away all his wealth, Wittgenstein traveled from Vienna to England in 1914 to study engineering but ended up a student of philosophy instead, protégé and designated successor to the already eminent British philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Initially continuing Russell’s work of trying to reduce everything we could say to the pure language of logic, Wittgenstein finished his first book (the only one he actually published in his lifetime) while in the trenches of World War I. It turned philosophy on its ears and established Wittgenstein as a force to be reckoned with. Believing he had done all that could be done, Wittgenstein left philosophy when the war ended to teach elementary school and disappeared from view for nearly a decade.

But in 1929, he re-emerged and returned to Russell’s university, Cambridge, to take up philosophy again. There he secured a professorship and, until he retired in the late 1940’s, proceeded to stand philosophy on its head a second time, discarding the work he had done under Russell as seriously mistaken and turning, instead, to a view that ordinary language, not pure logic, was the more basic medium of communication. He argued that philosophical claims could only be effectively dealt with if we went back to the way we actually spoke in everyday language and that philosophers routinely confused others and themselves by trying to create an ideal language that would do a better job than the ordinary language we take from the people and culture around us. In this, his second phase, Wittgenstein established himself as the pre-eminent thinker in twentieth century English speaking philosophy.

But by establishing his primacy, Wittgenstein attracted a bevy of challengers eager to make names for themselves by overturning his ideas. Chief among these was another philosopher who also hailed from Vienna, Karl Popper, who devised his own approach, which he called “critical rationalism,” in answer to those who had been influenced by Wittgenstein’s earlier work. The fact that Wittgenstein had himself abandoned his earlier thinking cut no ice with Popper. He simply readjusted his attacks on the old Wittgenstein to suit the new one. If the point was to make room for his own reputation, he had to demolish Wittgenstein’s.

More recently, those who have defined themselves in opposition to Wittgenstein have latched onto the work of another thinker, Saul Kripke, as a means of undermining him. Kripke famously argued for a form of “essentialism,” something Wittgenstein, as well as Popper, denied. Popper’s attack on “essentialism” was premised on its being a reflection of Plato’s misguided claims which he abhorred, whereas Wittgenstein was mainly concerned to note that we use words, not by reference to their “essences” which are presumed to lie at their heart, to be their “meaning,” but by recognizing resemblances in how we use the words themselves. Kripke argued, by contrast, that we don’t names things by bundling descriptive resemblances but, rather, by directly referring to the things themselves and that this implies the existence of essences after all.

Without going further into the technical details, the point I want to make is simple: when someone ascends to a pinnacle of achievement, he (or she) becomes a focus of others’ attention, the one to beat if one is to ascend in one’s own right. It’s the gunfighter syndrome we’re familiar with from Hollywood Westerns. Popper and his adherents went gunning for Wittgenstein, as have more recent philosophical thinkers who have latched onto Kripke’s arguments. So what’s all this got to do with America?

The Wall Street Journal recently carried an intriguing article called “Anti-Americans on the March,” detailing nothing less than the almost counter-intuitive alliance between western leftists and modern day Islamicists who see in Islam an ideology of world conquest and global domination. One would think the two groups would be radically opposed to one another since leftists are resolutely secular and atheistic while fundamentalist Muslims are sectarian and theistic. But in fact the opposite is true.

The article appears on the front page of the paper beneath a picture of a rally in Lebanon with demonstrators carrying a picture of Hezbollah leader Sheikh Nasrallah side by side with 1960’s Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. What unites the two groups, despite all their differences, is opposition to the U.S. Quoting an American leftist at a Beirut conference, the article has him telling his audience that, “Your enemy is our enemy; your victory is our victory.” Later, this same radical activist, who hails from New York, tells another audience that America is “not a democracy . . . but a dictatorship of giant corporations” and that America “needs a government that provides for the people like Hezbollah . . .”

Nor is this an isolated instance. The article indicates that “some of Hezbollah’s biggest fans are in Europe” while “in deeply Roman Catholic Latin America, Hugo Chavez has become the exemplar of a new populism that sees common cause with Iran and Hezbollah.” In England’s capital, London Mayor Kenneth Livingston (“Red Ken” to many for his Marxist sympathies) has “invited a controversial Egyptian cleric . . . arguing that his views have been distorted by the West.” And Spain’s socialist prime minister, Jose Zapatero, who came to power in the wake of the Madrid bombings by al Qaeda, reportedly expresses “sympathy for Hamas and Hezbollah” and “has good relations with (Hugo) Chavez of Venezuela, Fidel Castro of Cuba and Bolivia’s populist leader, Evo Morales.” These leaders speak for a large part of the populations they lead.

One can chalk all this up to a variety of causes but the obvious one, which was clear even before the U.S. acted to finally remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, is the apparent discontent with American global dominance. This dynamic can be seen in the earliest days of resistance to the U.S. push for a united front against Saddam, when Russia, China and even our erstwhile “friend” France acted to stymie American action for their own ends.

When the Soviet Union imploded in the late eighties, there was a period of uncertainty when nations and peoples were trying to redefine themselves in the wake of that breakdown. But the anti-globalization movement, which took shape immediately afterwards, in the ‘90’s, was clearly nothing less than an anti-Americanization effort in its own right, reflecting the desire by many to prevent the growth and entrenchment of American power on an international scale in the wake of the Soviet collapse.

Indeed, one can argue that the growth of a fanatical Islam bent on turning back the clock of history is itself, a manifestation of this same dynamic, as a huge portion of humanity adversely reacts to the perceived achievements of others.

Despite the collapse of Soviet communism, the left has found its footing again in a renewed focus on America as global bogeyman. Many say it was our effort to democratize the Middle East that caused this.

But the evidence belies that.

The same envy and dislike of America evident now was evident well before the invasion of Iraq.

Our difficulties there now only serve to feed the flames; they did not start the fire. Just as Wittgenstein couldn’t help but be the target of other philosophical gunslingers, neither can we avoid the dislike of those who envy our pre-eminence.

The question is how to deal with it. Should we now pull back and leave the planet to others, as so many now demand? Could we even do that if we wanted to? Or do we forge ahead and demonstrate why ours is, indeed, the better philosophy — and why the values we uphold are those that have brought us all to this most fortunate era in all of mankind’s history?

rockirreg@aol.com

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