Wittgenstein and Woke Philosophy

by Bharath Vallabha

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Since I was a philosophy undergrad 25 years ago, I wanted academic philosophy to be more diverse. Back then, at least in the departments I was in, most philosophy professors and students were white males, and the curriculum was almost entirely European. What most bugged me was this was so taken for granted that there was an implication that anyone who was getting “bogged down” in issues of inclusion was revealing their philosophical mediocrity. The feeling was those who can do the hard work of philosophy focus on debating the ideas of Quine and Fodor, and those who can’t complain about diversity.

Though I was woke in the sense that I couldn’t forget about diversity issues, in two ways I was very much not woke.

First, my favorite philosophers were mostly white men. In grad school, I spent most of my time thinking about Wittgenstein, whom I found so compelling that I wrote my first dissertation prospectus in the form of the Philosophical Investigations (no, it wasn’t accepted, and yes, rightly so). I also loved Ryle and Austin and those who kept up that tradition of skepticism about traditional philosophy, such as Richard Rorty, Stanley Cavell, the later Putnam and John McDowell. None of these thinkers, other than Rorty sometimes, talked much about diversity issues. But in a way I couldn’t pin down then, I felt these philosophers who were rethinking the nature of philosophy were speaking deeply to my concerns of diversity without ever using words like ‘race’, ‘gender’, or ‘Eurocentrism’.

Second, when I was in grad school at Harvard in the 2,000’s, I started to hear some of the diversity stuff. The younger faculty were bringing the new professionalism to Emerson Hall. At nearby MIT, Sally Haslanger was merging metaphysics and feminism in a way that seemed fresh and exciting to many folks. I identified with Haslanger’s passion for changing the profession, but I found her philosophical project itself uncompelling. Even now when I read her, or others such as Charles Mills or Jason Stanley or Kate Manne, though I admire them as philosophers, I find myself shaking my head and resisting the way they address diversity.

Why is this? How can it be that though Wittgenstein and Austin didn’t talk about diversity issues, I find their philosophical outlooks more insightful in thinking about diversity than I do the works of Haslanger and Mills? I can explain through a brief history of analytic philosophy as I see it.

Analytic philosophy can be divided broadly into four eras. The first, beginning era of Frege, Russell and Moore, at the turn of the 20th century, was a revolt against the psychologism of the then-dominant forms of Idealism. The idea was that a focus on clear thinking, the analysis of language and an understanding of new developments in science would curtail the excesses of Hegelian metaphysics.

In the second era, centered on the early and late Wittgenstein and his influence on logical positivists and ordinary language philosophy respectively. The criticism of Hegelian metaphysics was expanded into a criticism of metaphysics and of philosophy more generally. From the 1920’s to the 1960’s, analytic philosophy was revolutionary in the way the current woke generation aims to be revolutionary: a radical rethinking of the nature and possibilities of philosophy. Wittgenstein was at the center of this revolution. Though as a person he was domineering and often abusive, the crux of his latter thinking was an incredible openness to the varieties of philosophical thinking. He gave up the idea that philosophy was determined by immutable, universal questions (“How is the mind related to the body?” “Is there free will?” and so on), and instead argued that philosophy was about an individual’s search for conceptual peace. Philosophy was a form of therapy aimed at individual transformation, not a set of abstract ideas that can be established for all thinkers.

Wittgenstein’s therapeutic vision of philosophy appealed to my concern with diversity. The uncomfortable fact, which gets lost when diversity is identified with only certain topics like race and gender, is that diversity is a Pandora’s box. When it’s opened, we cannot control what diversity itself means. People are not diverse in only three or four or ten dimensions, but in hundreds of them, well beyond anything that any one person or group can hope to regulate. Sure, maybe I want philosophy to be more focused on Indian philosophy or on spirituality, but there are millions of people who want to focus on other things. What then holds all of it together as philosophy if people’s philosophical interests are so diverse? The Wittgensteinian answer is radical and simple: nothing holds philosophy together. For Wittgenstein, philosophy is not defined by a set of questions or answers or canons or methods (the extent to which his remarks that in philosophy we bring words back to their everyday use constitute a method has been a live question among Wittgensteinians). For him the idea that philosophy has an essence is itself an illusion, a form of generalizing that leads us into conceptual confusions. The way out of the confusions is to appreciate the diversity of ways — and the family resemblances among them — in which we ask questions, seek answers, hope to change things or keep things the same. There is no Philosophy, nor even Philosophers. No pantheon, no canon, no there “heart” of philosophy. There is only each person trying to think about life and understand the world and form communities with other people to whom they feel drawn.

This vision of philosophy poses an obvious problem for academic philosophy. If there is no essence to philosophy that distinguishes it from physics and art and history and math — and even worse, if it is highly particular to each individual’s search for conceptual peace — then where does it fit in a modern university? Kant and Hegel institutionalized academic philosophy in the modern university at the turn of the 19th century, and this led to a division between system-building academic philosophers (Kant, Hegel, British idealists) and non-academic existential philosophers (Kiekegaard, Schopenhaur, Nietzsche). Russell and Moore wanted to drive out of power their Idealist teachers, but still retain institutionally the basic form of academic philosophy derived from Kant and Hegel. As Janik and Toulmin note in Wittgenstein’s Vienna, Wittgenstein brought the cultural philosophies from his childhood Vienna to the Cambridge seminars of Russell and Moore. Wittgenstein’s basic disagreement with Russell can be put this way, though Wittgenstein himself didn’t put it like this: one can’t give up Hegelian metaphysics and still retain the model of the academic philosopher inherited from Hegel. For Wittgenstein, giving up metaphysics meant making philosophy profoundly existential, and that means being radically open to the diversity of ways in which each person seeks his way out of his philosophical questions.

It can be surprising that a philosophy so questioning of its own academic status could thrive in Cambridge and Oxford. But it makes sense if seen in the context of the times. The 1920’s through the 1950’s were a deeply existential period for Europe. How this played out in philosophy is brought out in recent books like Eilenberger’s Time of the Magicians and Sigmund’s Exact Thinking in Demented Times. In the aftermath of WWI and then the tumult of WWII, questions of science, politics, philosophy, European identity and the possibilities of academic philosophy were all intertwined. Wittgenstein’s philosophy and personality exemplified this tumultuousness and its inner tensions.

The third era of analytic philosophy saw the reemergence of traditional philosophy starting with Quine in the 1950s, and followed by Rawls, Kripke, Lewis and others. In a flash, Wittgenstein and Ordinary Language Philosophy started to lose ground and seemed too despairing. A new optimism about philosophy and its place in the university emerged. Not surprisingly, this had its roots in America and its ascendency after WWII. The optimism in philosophy had in the first instance to do with the availability of philosophy jobs. The beginning of mass education in America meant new universities were being founded with new philosophy departments to be filled.

Wittgenstein’s philosophy is highly meta-philosophical and presupposes knowledge of the philosophical tradition it seeks to demolish. This is a non-starter for new philosophy departments which needed to teach the basics of philosophy to thousands of first generation college students who might never have heard of Plato or Descartes. Inevitably, this led to a new professionalization of philosophy, with increasing specialization and focus on sub-disciplines like philosophy of mind, language, ethics, and so on. Professionalization also meant a new focus on respecting boundaries with one’s colleagues. One couldn’t say anymore, as Austin does of Ayer in Sense and Sensibilia or as Ryle does of Descartes in The Concept of Mind, that the philosophies one is criticizing are deeply confused. Others might be right or wrong, justified or unjustified, but conceptual confusion suggested a kind of unprofessional attack of a fellow academic, that too one with their own area of specialization which one could not trespass on.

Rorty saw the writing on the wall in 1979, when he published Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. The book was Rorty’s attempt to hold on to the existential philosophy of Wittgenstein from the second era of analytic philosophy during the rise of professionalism in the third era. Idiosyncratically, Rorty tried to make this move by arguing that the analytic heroes of the third era — Quine, Davidison, Sellars. etc. — actually were saying the same thing as Wittgenstein (and as Heidegger and Dewey to boot). This reading of Quine and Davidson seemed far-fetched, for even if their ideas were similar to Wittgenstein’s in some ways, their form of life as academic philosophers was not remotely the same. At the center of Wittgenstein’s philosophy was a deep ambivalence of whether it could be academic. In comparison, Quine and Davidson exemplified the new optimism that philosophy could be one more professional discipline among others in academia. In fact, by the late 1970’s philosophy was becoming even more professionalized as the job market was instituted, with job interviews at the APA meant to counteract the old boys club practices of distributing jobs.

Of course, Rorty was no straightforward Wittgensteinian. He was interested in connecting philosophy with democracy in ways Wittgenstein wasn’t. Like Cavell, who saw in Wittgenstein’s existential focus on the individual an Emersonian vision of democratic thinking, Rorty saw in Wittgenstein’s therapeutic philosophy a link to Deweyean pragmatism. The crucial idea is that democracy means dealing with the Pandora’s box of diversity. In a democracy, any disagreement is yet another form of diversity, and so fostering democracy means thinking together without imposing constraints on how concepts ought to be used. Rorty turned Wittgenstein’s therapy into pragmatism: instead of a way to convert others to a single truth, philosophy is a way of fostering new communal possibilities. Rorty saw in the rising professionalization an obstacle to this pragmatic vision, with the reification of concepts in the form of specialization and expertise making it harder for people to think together simply as people.

In what I think of as the current fourth era of analytic philosophy, starting about twenty years ago, what Rorty was worried about is exactly what happened. Whereas Rorty wanted to avoid professionalization as a way to foster diversity, for philosophers like Haslanger and Mills, fostering diversity has become yet another within professional philosophy. Discussions of race, gender, colonialism and fascism have entered analytic philosophy classrooms, but they have done so in a hyper-fragmented context, where these concepts are seen to be the special province of the experts in those subfields. Woke philosophers stated aim to transform academic philosophy belies the deeper way in which they accept the status quo of professionalization which began in the third era.

The tension here is clear in the idea of “institutional capture.” According to this idea, academic philosophy will change when the new socially-minded philosophies are accepted in the profession and its proponents rise to positions of power. This assumes that if one is not able to effect change as one wants, it must be because of entrenched racism and sexism, which are seen as undermining one’s capacity to attain sufficient power to create more changes. But in a professionalized context, rising in the discipline implies localization of influence. Charles Mills brought together colonialism with standard political philosophical discussions of the social contract, and so brought philosophical discussions of colonialism into an analytic bastion like CUNY. This is a tremendous achievement, intellectually and institutionally. But, as Rorty came to believe as a Princeton professor, rising to the top of professional philosophy comes at a cost: the very concepts one is supposed to be an expert in are transformed — via the very process of expertise — from how they are used in non-professional contexts. The euphoria of advancement merges with the alienation of disciplinary limits. What among the results of Mills’ work can be used by non-academics in the broader society? This is a fraught question when the concepts of race and colonialism are absorbed into the vortex of journal articles, conferences and tenure reviews.

Some critics of thinkers like Haslanger and Mills suggest that the new woke philosophers are substituting power for reason. This is unfair if it means that somehow woke philosophers in particular are doing this, as if non-woke philosophers like Quine didn’t care about institutional power. But in another sense, the criticism has a point. When race, gender and fascism become the domain of experts in those concepts, that is different from when expertise of mind, meaning and ethics became specialized in the third era. The concepts of mind and meaning are central to our lives, but not to our everyday self-identities. It’s easier to think that some people over there, in a building on a campus, spend their time analyzing the meaning of beliefs and intentions. But the very social power and resonance of concepts like race and gender mean that granting some people special, deeper knowledge of them can be disconcerting. If I found out that some people specialize in the concept of “Bharath Vallabha” and have conferences about it, I wouldn’t be able to, nor should I have to, defer to their expertise of who I am. Concepts of race and gender are so deeply tied up with our very names and self-images that even though they are general concepts, they are also intensely personal. This doesn’t make such concepts equally clear to all. Mills knows much more about the concept of race than I do, just as Haslanger is an expert in feminism and I am not. But then again, my therapist might know more about some aspects of me than I do, but that doesn’t mean I can simply defer to her expertise in what I should think.

As academic philosophers engage more with questions of race and gender, identity and democracy, it will bring into sharper focus the complicated relation between academic philosophy and the broader society. Professionalization means the analysis of these concepts gets tied up with the concerns of academics such as job distributions and professional advancement, and it’s an open question whether that illuminates or distorts the concepts at issue. Philosophers who assume greater academic power will enable greater social change actually exhibit a naïve hopefulness about professionalized philosophy. Reflecting more on the meta-philosophical questions from earlier eras of analytic philosophy can suggest alternate ways forward.

Bharath Vallabha was born in India and moved to New York when he was eleven. He has a BA in philosophy from Cornell, a PhD from Harvard and taught at Bryn Mawr for a few years before leaving academia. He blogs at https://bvphilosophy.wordpress.com/

31 thoughts on “Wittgenstein and Woke Philosophy

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  1. I like this take on the history and development of analytic philosophy. And though I adore Quine and Davidson, I agree with you that the turn philosophy took in the 1960’s was unfortunate and meant that the full implications of Wittgenstein and Austin were never integrated into the discipline.

    I also agree that the diversity efforts of contemporary Woke philosophy are neither effective nor particularly rigorous, and part of the problem is that we are suffering an intergenerational decline in quality. The “big shots” in philosophy today increasingly fail to live up to the quality of their predecessors. So it’s not just progressively valued philosophy that is declining in quality, but philosophy in general; across the board.

    This doesn’t bother me so much, for two reasons. One, I don’t really care about the diversity issue — so there I depart from you — and two, I think Wittgenstein and Austin were largely right, and that much of what philosophy is doing today is little more than an internal game with little significance either for daily life or academic work in other disciplines. If philosophy disappeared from the Academy tomorrow, it would be barely noticeable.

    1. Would you agree, Dan, however, that there is a place for the history of philosophy, for students learning what Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Indian thought, etc., have to say and that people trained in philosophy are more qualfied to treach that than are, say, historians?

    2. I share the sense the quality of “big shot” philosophers has decreased. This was perhaps inevitable with the fragmentation of the discipline. The greats of preprofessional analytic philosophy, like Russell, Wittgenstein and even little later like Quine and Davidson, had broad philosophical outlooks which had implications for understanding a range of topics but which weren’t primarily at the level of “sub-disciplines”. After professionalization in the last forty years, greatness of contemporary thinkers is essentially sub-disciplinary first, making it hard to speak with a broad outlook. This is one way woke philosophers misdiagnose why the system isn’t changing as much as they would like. Even without reference to racism or sexism, there is an obvious explanation in professionalization, which has muted the ability to speak with a big vision. Woke philosophy embraced professionalization as a way to get accepted and yet has to depend on moral outrage to be heard in that very environment it has embraced.

      The expansion of philosophy departments after WWII made Wittgenstein and Austin seem passe. Their ideas were never refuted as much as set aside because they didn’t fit with the optimism for academic philosophy. Now as the optimism from back then that philosophy departments would just continually grow recedes, their ideas have a chance to be heard in a fresh way again.

      1. “After professionalization in the last forty years, greatness of contemporary thinkers is essentially sub-disciplinary first, making it hard to speak with a broad outlook. This is one way woke philosophers misdiagnose why the system isn’t changing as much as they would like. Even without reference to racism or sexism, there is an obvious explanation in professionalization, which has muted the ability to speak with a big vision. Woke philosophy embraced professionalization as a way to get accepted and yet has to depend on moral outrage to be heard in that very environment it has embraced.”

        I don’t understand this remark. (Warning: there are no gotchas ahead. This is just me trying to make sure I understand you. I doubt I will have any forthcoming disagreement.)

        You seem to be saying
        1. Professionalization encourages advancement through expertise in sub-disciplines.
        2. Becoming an expert in a sub-discipline makes it harder to speak with a broad outlook/big vision.
        Therefore,
        3. professionalization makes it harder to speak with a broad outlook/big vision.

        So far, so good.

        Then you write:
        4. Woke philosophy embraced professionalization as a way to get accepted.

        I think I understand this, but I’m not sure. Is the idea the following:

        5. Because of 4, woke philosophy became a sub-discipline of philosophy (e.g., philosophy of race/sex/gender, etc.).
        6. Because of 5, it became easier for people to specialize in it, and therefore advance their careers.
        7. But it also became harder for the insights that such experts came up with to travel to other subdisciplines.

        Is that the idea?

        Assuming I have this right, the next point I think you’re making is this:

        8. Woke philosophers noticed that their insights weren’t traveling.
        9. So they assumed that the reason they weren’t traveling is that philosophers, or the system in which philosophers work, was racist, sexist, etc.
        10. But this is wrong, because the real (main) reason for 8 is 7.
        11. Nevertheless, because of 9, woke philosophers became morally outraged, and this worked to make their insights the next big idea of philosophy.

        Do I have you right?

        1. Yes, that’s right. Except I would state 11 a little differently. I don’t think their insights became the next big idea of philosophy. I am not sure there can be big ideas (as in big picture visions ranging across philosophy as a whole) in a professionalized context where expertise is defined in terms of sub-disciplines.

          Wittgenstein wasn’t trying to specialize in philosophy of mind as opposed to epistemology or ethics. He was trying to articulate and contrast his overall vision from that of, say, Russell – and that big picture difference has broad effects on how to understand mind, language, politics, etc. Big picture visions are like gestalt shifts, trying to see the world in a different angle. The rise of sub-disciplines undermined this by identifying expertise with specialized knowledge and disputes with other members of one’s sub-discipline.

          Topics of race, gender entered analytic philosophy in recent decades as sub-disciplines. It’s proponents have no option; that is the mode in which anything can be professional philosophy now. But woke philosophers want a gestalt shift to happen in the profession as a whole because of this work – they want their philosophies to be received with the admiration given to Kant, Wittgenstein, etc. And when that doesn’t happen – when they feel they are not being seen as the next big idea of philosophy – they reach for racism as the explanation. My point is there is an obvious alternate explanation, and it’s not that Kant and Wittgenstein were somehow intrinsically better. It’s that they didn’t have to think in the sub-discipline way and so could cultivate holistic visions. Woke philosophers need sub-discipline framework to get a voice, but they want their voice to resonate as if there was no sub-discipline framework – the frustration of this situation gets expressed as moral outrage.

          1. I read your Prolegomena earlier and think they are great. Very much resonate with them.

      2. One caution I would make however. Though I do agree with this, it’s more complicated if we are to give it justice. For one thing, there are some anomalous elements that had all sorts of interesting reverberations — like Sellars and Goodman and Feyerabend — and for another, even the people who most fall into the professionalized model as you describe it — the Fodor’s, Schiffer’s, Field’s, etc.. — and who were my teachers, had all sorts of elements in their work that are “on the side of light” as you and I conceive it, a la Wittgenstein: for example, Fodor’s arguments against reductionism in “Special Sciences” and Field’s deflationism.

        1. Agreed, I think of Sellars, Goodman and so on, like Rorty and Cavell, as on the cusp of the age of professionalization and so can’t be categorized in terms of sub-discisplines. Fodor et al are very much in the professionalized mode, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make important arguments. Fodor’s “Special Sciences” is a great example, but in contrast “The Modularity of Mind” not so much from a Wittgensteinian perspective. That doesn’t mean of course Modularity of Mind is only confused – I prefer a much more open minded Wittgensteinianism where we can appreciate the power of a work like Modularity of Mind not because it’s right but because of it’s being a clear expression of a certain way of thinking of the mind. I think of it like Mill’s The Racial Contract. Mill’s book makes too many generalizations which give an illusory sense of explanation, but it’s also an important work because it gives a clear articulation of that way of thinking which captures something of the zeitgeist, which has to be disentangled.

  2. Philosophy and is caught between Scylla and Charybdis. On the one side, if it drifts too close to reductionist diversity it goes down the pluralistic abyss of relativism. On the other side, if it drifts too close to holistic academic professionalism, it runs aground on the unyielding rocks of authoritarianism. Steering a path between these two conflicting philosophic positions is the heart of philosophic wisdom.

    If we accept Wittgenstein’s idea that philosophy is a “search for conceptual peace,” this idea implies conceptual conflict. I would submit that the essay implies that the above philosophic reductionist-holistic conflict in understanding ourselves and humanity is that conflict.

    Would that be a fair statement?

    Is this not also where we are in our conflicted society? Individual welfare vs. the general welfare. Self interest vs. interest in the well-being of others? Individual Liberty vs. Social Justice? This inherent tension between the competing reductionist-holistic frames in human affairs has always been and ever will be present in society, and wisdom is found in not choosing one or the other but in striking a reasonable balance between their competing needs.

    If we accept Wittgenstein’s idea that there is no unified philosophy but rather “There is only each person trying to think about life and understand the world and form communities with other people to whom they feel drawn,” then peace in our communities/society is found in each of us and *we the people* finding a more perfect union between our inherently divisive manifest individuality and our inherently uniting manifest humanity in order to promote both the individual and the general welfare by ensuring liberty and justice for all.

    Philosophy, if it is to have any social benefit, can and should show us the way toward this peace, both internally and externally.

    1. This is wonderful. Totally agree. Yes, there are some conflicts central to ourselves as people and as societies, such as that between individuality and community, and these conflicts can be personally and socially intense. The peace Wittgenstein was speaking of – or one form of that peace – is coming to grips with the tensions so that one doesn’t experience them as so painful.

      This vision of wisdom is a great alternate to seeing diversity in terms of the right moral views and actions that everyone should adopt. The latter sense of diversity ends up being authoritarian, substituting one picture of what we all share, or ought to share, with another picture. It gives a comfort that there is a right answer we can hold on and tell others to have, and the work of philosophy is finding that right answer. The Wittgensteinian alternative is how to find comfort even though there is no right answer for how people in general can find the balance within themselves – no knowledge which experts can simply pass on to the rest of society. There is no straight line from theory to practice, knowledge to politics. Just as each person has to find the peace in themselves, cultivating the peace in society is an unpredictable process of wisdom, inspiration and giving space to each other to find our commonalities.

  3. “For Wittgenstein, philosophy is not defined by a set of questions or answers or canons or methods […]. For him the idea that philosophy has an essence is itself an illusion, a form of generalizing that leads us into conceptual confusions. The way out of the confusions is to appreciate the diversity of ways […] in which we ask questions, seek answers, hope to change things or keep things the same. There is no Philosophy, nor even Philosophers. No pantheon, no canon, no there “heart” of philosophy. There is only each person trying to think about life and understand the world and form communities with other people to whom they feel drawn.”

    This is a clear (and I think accurate) statement of Wittgenstein’s position on philosophy. And subsequent remarks focused on the implications of such a position for the possibility of institutionalized philosophy are plausible.

    But I disagree on this:

    “Russell and Moore wanted to drive out of power their Idealist teachers, but still retain institutionally the basic form of academic philosophy derived from Kant and Hegel.”

    The way I see it, Russell’s model for the sort of academic work he valued was, like Frege’s, deliberately and explicitly *scientifically* oriented — and therefore less dependent on Hegel’s model of the academic philosopher than you make out.

    1. I agree there are clear differences between the kind of academic work Russell imagined for philosophy and what Hegel imagined. My point though is that Russell, like Hegel, was generally comfortable with philosophy being an academic subject; when there was a conflict for Russell, it was for political reasons, not because he was rethinking whether philosophy can be in the modern university. In contrast, Wittgenstein was much more like Schopenhauer or Kierkegaard, and saw philosophy as intensely personal in a way that contrasted with the academic model of Kant and Hegel.

      1. “My point though is that Russell, like Hegel, was generally comfortable with philosophy being an academic subject…”

        You seemed to be claiming more than this. You talked about him accepting “the basic form of academic philosophy derived from Kant and Hegel.” I am saying (and you seem to be agreeing) that Russell’s views on what academic philosophy might be changed along with his rejection of Idealism.

        “In contrast, Wittgenstein was much more like Schopenhauer or Kierkegaard, and saw philosophy as intensely personal in a way that contrasted with the academic model of Kant and Hegel.”

        Yes (bearing in mind that Schopenhauer was steeped in Kant whereas Wittgenstein was not).

  4. I have always had the impression that what drives Sally Haslanger and Stanley crazy is not diversity of opinion and the lack of people teaching the Vedanta. They are outraged by the lack of minorities (including women) in the field. In her piece in the NYT, for example, she approaches a frenzy of indignation:

    “The representation of scholars of color is plausibly worse than in any other field in the academy, including not only physics, but also engineering. Inexcusable.

    With these numbers, you don’t need sexual harassment or racial harassment to prevent women and minorities from succeeding, for alienation, loneliness, implicit bias, stereotype threat, microaggression, and outright discrimination will do the job. But in a world of such small numbers, harassment and bullying is easy.”

    And this lack of diversity is clearly, for Sally, due to the pernicious effects of “hegemonic masculinity”. She goes on to note:

    ““Bad actors” are a problem, but the deeper problem is the context that gives “bad actors” power. Change needs to happen on multiple fronts for us to make progress. Philosophy lacks the infrastructure that other disciplines have to bring about systematic change.”

    Her solution is a bit hazy and I don’t claim to understand the level of wokeness she has obtained, but she does end with the following observation:

    “The McGinn case is a tipping-point, not because it has taken down someone with great power and influence, but because his case and the response to it demonstrates that the persistent activism of the past 20 years is becoming institutionalized. We are the winning side now. We will not relent; so it is only a matter of time.”

  5. “Discussions of race, gender, colonialism and fascism have entered analytic philosophy classrooms..substituting power for reason”, I would have thought others would see this as analytic Anglophone philosophy recognizing after fifty years or so that there might be something to “conversational philosophy”.

    To further quote Rorty: “Quite a few people, both Anglophones and non-Anglophones, can easily turn from Rawls to Carl Schmitt, or from Derrida to Wittgenstein, or from Foucault to Christine Korsgaard. But this ability is still confined to a relatively small fraction of the world’s philosophers.”

  6. Fascinating essay. I was struck by the framing of Wittgenstein as focused on the individual in any sense, probably because I’ve always been so struck with the social focus of his explanations. But I suppose it makes sense to think of Wittgensteinian therapy as focused on individuals, who are freed of their burdens by a kind of surrender to the social.

    1. The relation of what I call here Wittgenstein’s existentialism (his focus on the individual) and his social view of mind/language is really interesting. Not sure the individual is freed of their burden by a surrender to the social. Perhaps not what you meant, but that sounds to me like giving up the burden of individuality rather than confronting it.

      I think of Wittgenstein as bringing together, without of course mentioning them, Hegel and Kierkegaard. In Hegel the social dimension of mind is also treated as giving solace to the individual (individuality merges with social group). In Kierkegaard the solace is gotten not through a social group but through a complete embrace of individuality. It seems to me Hegel got the social foundations of the mind right but not the existential dimension of individuality, and Kierkegaard got the existential dimension but without grounding it in social foundations of the mind. In Wittgenstein this synthesis happens by his distinguishing existential individuality from the myth of the private language (and of sense data and so on).

      My take on Wittgenstein is influenced by Cavell, who explored the idea that Wittgensteinians don’t have to embrace an end of philosophy, but rather a pluralistic flowering of it in terms of each individual’s exploration of their socialness. Cavell was different from Hacker or Kripke; in their Wittgenstein in different ways the social comes in as a final arbiter. I think Cavell got right that for Wittgenstein we are fundamentally social beings who can’t rely on society as a final arbiter – that combination of socialness and individuality, and its tensions, is a big part of the human condition.

  7. Thank you for an impressive review of mostly 20th century philosophy. Even though one could not say exactly what their ‘philosophy’ amounted to, I was attracted to the existentialists by the impression that they were truly speaking for themselves; their philosophy reflected their individual existence. Their narrative was personal and many of them even denied that they were in fact existentialists.

    Of course, as you point out, there were other schools and movements that consciously tried to promote a communal narrative. The Frankfurt School and their Critical Theory became extremely influential in academia in the US and still hits the headlines on the news channels every now and then because of its relationship to CRT, gender studies, etc.

    I agree that the individualist approach is more open to diversity and that ultimately there is the recognition that ‘philosophical’ thinking is a personal development project.

    On the other hand, belonging to movements, schools and factions demands that there is an element of groupthink. Multiple individuals must then deceive themselves to various degrees in thinking that their ‘ideology’ is shared by numerous others, and that it is therefore correct and that those that disagree are wrong. As you point out, the acquisition of power and influence may be a common motive.

    1. “Diversity” is used in two very different ways. On one reading, ‘diversity’ means diverse along all dimensions, and so is linked to each person’s individual development – call this diversity1. On another reading, diversity is short hand for certain topics such as race and gender – call this diversity2.

      I have come to think the conceptual confusions of the left right now have to do with not distinguishing diversity1 and diversity2 (the right has its own conflations). diversity1 is about pursuing one’s own individuality and respecting others’ pursuit of their individuality – and seeing that as our deepest commonality that each person has their self to cultivate. Outrage doesn’t fit with this. diversity2 sees the world through the lens of certain topics, and sees the focus on the individual as just a cop out against creating change. There is something to this, but if taken at face value, it merges into group think as if we all know, or should know, which topics are the right ones for diversity2 and what should be thought about it. I have felt in the past the pull of diversity2, but have come to think diversity1 is more fundamental and was always more my interest.

      1. I have come to think the conceptual confusions of the left right now have to do with not distinguishing diversity1 and diversity2

        Perhaps this is really the confusion of the right.

        As I see it, the left is concerned with diversity1, and sees diversity2 as only a small part of that.

        It’s true that some on the left emphasize diversity2. And that small group makes a lot of noise. But the mistake of the right is to confuse noise with relevance. So they pay too much attention to this small noisy group.

        1. I agree in a way. What I meant was the the right and left conflate diversity1 and diversity2 in different ways.

          If we think of the left in terms of the hippie image of peace and love, that’s definitely diversity1. I would say it’s not just a small group of the left who focus on diversity2, but that conceptually the hippie image of diversity1 is severely limited. This is where the hard work of existential Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard come in. Diversity1 isn’t just about spreading love, it’s about exploring one’s own individuality, which is often difficult and not just about waving banners of love. Many of the left see the limits of the hippie imagine of diversity1, and want to substitute for it a more robust fighting energy, which turns into a focus on diversity2. I think there is a different way to get beyond the limits of the hippie image without making diversity2 the main thing.

          If we substitute ‘libertarian’ for diversity1 and ‘conservative values’ for diversity2, can see a similar conflation on the right. There is something very right it seems to me about the libertarian idea, but wrong if that ideal is used just as a defense against the left. Like the hippie individuality, a simple libertarianism seems too easy. The harder thing is how to balance that individuality with the communal, without assuming everyone has to mark that balance in the same way.

          1. I think your definition of diversity1 is spot on, but I have problems with the hippie image of peace and love being emblematic of the idea. On my first visit to the US I was taken to a protest gathering of thousands on the Washington mall held by the SDS. What I remember was a bunch of young people opposing the war, with contempt for their parents generation, but intent on rewarding themselves with sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. Make love not war! My point is that everyone there probably had a different, mostly immature, existential reason for being there; and I’m sure that very few thought of themselves as trying to be a good hippie. Rather they were engaged in group think and group action.

            Creating a purely personal, ‘existentialist’ narrative is probably impossible. Rather, one should be careful to recognize when group identities sneak into our description of the world since that inevitably comes with assumptions about the other that probably are incorrect – hence the vilification and outrage so common today.

          2. I agree hippies were prone, like anyone, to group think. I meant only that the hippie ideal of peace and love, as an ideal, has an openness to all beings and all life, and in that way that ideal isn’t diversity2. In diversity2 there is no universal love ideal, since the aim is specifically the liberation of the oppressed against the oppressor – so someone has to be the bad people who we can’t “let be” – their letting be is another’s oppression. Of course the hippies might have had a version of this in “the man” or “the system”. But with diversity2 this is more narrowly defined in historical terms of particular groups.

            This seems to me the tension among the left: between universal love and particular social justice. I think the anger on the left, though just supposed to be about oppression, is also frustration at this tension. To give up on universal love feels like one is partisan, and yet to be open to all feels like accepting how things are. This frustration gets released as anger at the other side, almost like “you need to be better so I can keep to universal love. You are making me seem partisan, like my sense of justice is just what I want.” The way out of the anger is to accept that it is at the end always what I want, not some special guidance by a universal principle or love that I magically have access to and others don’t. In accepting the contingency of what I want (what Cavell called the truth in skepticism) is an emotional release. Otherwise, as you note, group think creeps in.

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