Monday, July 2, 2012

Harry Frankfurt, Ann Althouse, and Ludwig Wittgenstein

Happily, Ann Althouse has provided us with an opportunity to ponder the thought of a man who was arguably the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Yesterday, Althouse offered a meditation on an incident involving involved Wittgenstein and his friend Fania Pascal. The incident was reported in philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s book: On Bullshit. See also Timothy Noah's account here.

One day, in the 1930s, while Fania Pascal was recovering in a hospital after a tonsillectomy Wittgenstein phoned. When he asked how she was, she “croaked: ‘I feel just like a dog that has been run over.’”

Her statement disgusted Wittgenstein, who replied: “You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like.”

Reasonably enough, Harry Frankfort fails to understand how anyone could find Pascal’s phrase disgusting. He seems to believe that Wittgenstein was being rude and insensitive.

Maybe she misunderstood him:

Perhaps Wittgenstein was trying to make a small joke, and it misfired. He was only pretending to bawl Pascal out, just for the fun of a little hyperbole; and she got the tone and the intention wrong. She thought he was disgusted by her remark, when in fact he was only trying to cheer her up with some playfully exaggerated mock criticism or joshing. In that case the incident is not incredible or bizarre after all. 

After considering the possibility, Frankfurt rejects it. He is unwilling to believe that Wittgenstein was trying to cheer up his friend. He concludes that she is simply showing us how preposterous Wittgenstein was, as though, Althouse explains, she were making a joke.

Althouse objects to Frankfurt’s reading, first by suggesting, strangely, that Wittgenstein might have been offended by his friend’s insensitivity to the way dogs feel.

But, that too, requires us to take her words literally. If we take them figuratively, Pascal would have been saying that she felt the way we feel when we see a dog that has been run over.

Then, Althouse suggests a new way of helping Wittgenstein to save face:

Pascal wasn't being callous toward an actual suffering being. The suffering being was Pascal, and the callousness, if any, was Wittgenstein's. On this theory, which hurt Pascal's feelings, he was saying, essentially, let's not talk about your mundane little tonsil surgery and its predictable after-effects. Let's talk about something philosophical, and the first thing that springs to mind is that dog you just mentioned. And he introduces the new topic. Ironically, the distraction into the random issue of animal feelings was much more likely to alleviate Pascal's pain that going on about the details of the surgery.

As clever as this is, it misses the point. It assumes a level of social skills that Wittgenstein did not have. Both Frankfurt and Althouse are interpreting the dialogue as though it involved someone who was as socially adroit as they are.

Surely, the exchange demonstrates that Wittgenstein was very likely suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, high-functioning autism that often afflicts people of superior, genius-level intelligence.

Cambridge philosopher Andy Martin explained the reasons for the diagnosis:

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.” 

If Fania Pascal really knew Wittgenstein and understood that he had Asperger’s—less likely— she would have recognized that he was making a philosophical point because he was incapable of recognizing her humanity and did not know how to express sympathy over her condition.

Wittgenstein read her figure of speech within the context of his philosophical reflections, because that was his only context.

Why not extend some generosity to Fania Pascal here too. Perhaps her figure of speech was infelicitous, but, we should not hold her to a very high standard while recovering from for throat surgery.

As for Wittgenstein’s larger point, a point that is of considerable philosophical importance, he was suggesting that words never truly express human feelings.

Since human language is, by definition, a public medium, it cannot accurately communicate something private, like feeling and emotion.

For an extensive treatment of this issue, see Saul Kripke’s: Wittgenstein on Rules and PrivateLanguage.

A private language might be able to do it, but a private language is a contradiction in terms.

The best we can do is to try to evoke an experience that produced a similar feeling. 

So, you have an individual suffering from Asperger's trying to communicate with another person who is recovering from surgery. What you get is miscommunication. 

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