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Philosophy at School

Once upon a time I attended lectures at colleges and universities. Henry Veatch, Harvard and Georgetown.

Outline of this page ...


Correspondent Remarks

Preliminary: once in a while (in a long while) I receive correspondence. Correspondence suggests thoughts to me, as follows e.g.

Language versus Thought

My schooling, such as it was. Where I went to school, there was only one term of lectures devoted to Wittgenstein's philosophy -- and those lectures dwelled on the TLP. As to the other courses of lectures, they presumed that "language is transparent: you have only to look through it to see the thought" [That was, I believe, the picture that was employed -- i.e. assumed -- by the professors of philosophy; their work was guided by a meaning of 'meaning' that is not objective]. No attention was given to the "logic of language", but only to what might be called the "logic of the thought" -- i.e. to fitting everything together, without contradictions, in a plausible way -- i.e. in a way that seemed to make sense. The question of how you know whether or not it has meaning or is only nonsense was never asked. That view, of thought-versus-language [or, of "real" versus verbal definition], I would call the point of view of metaphysics. [Metaphysics is dismissive of nominal definitions, as if those were "mere semantics", of only "nominal value" in philosophy.]

Any scholar might be offended if someone questioned whether that scholar was talking nonsense or not -- as if that amounted to someone saying that the scholar did not know what he was talking about -- although in logic of language studies, the word 'nonsense' is meant in the sense of 'undefined language' or 'noise' rather than 'nonsense' in the sense of 'foolish or absurd talk'. For the scholar may believe that his discourse -- i.e. the language he speaks -- is very learned and deep, and if you don't understand him, it must be because you are ignorant, lazy or stupid [Bertrand Russell, when he speaks of "the language of the educated" in the context of philosophy, is an example of someone who believed this]. Whatever does not seem to be nonsense to him is not nonsense; -- that criterion (if it should be called a criterion) is not of course an objective distinction between sense and nonsense: it is a distinction based on nothing more than "whatever seems correct is going to be correct [and that only means that we cannot talk about 'correct' and 'incorrect' here]" (PI § 258). The scholar's only question is who is the authority who will decide that. And now he may talk about "peer review" -- or in other words: "communities of ideas" which decide who is wise and who foolish.

Henry Veatch, professor of philosophy

A professor whose lectures I once attended (sc. Henry Veatch) published a book titled Swimming Against the Current, which I have not seen, but can anticipate because he shared Aristotle's views on logic and metaphysics at a time when most in his profession, at least according to him, held the views of Logical Positivism [which Veatch seemed to identify with the TLP; he had a visceral hatred of the very name 'Wittgenstein'] and therefore excluded Veatch from their "community of ideas" (Z § 455). [It was like the Dominicans and Franciscans wanting to send each other to Hell over their respective theologies of Predestination.] But at Georgetown University, where metaphysics in all its forms was, in Kant's phrase, "the queen of the sciences", Veatch was swimming with the current, not against it. Even the one professor who lectured about Wittgenstein was a metaphysician (It was his view that the Philosophical Investigations in no way repudiated the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus; it simply dealt with non-propositional language instead).

Professor Veatch certainly wasn't persecuted like Bruno Bauer for his views (and yet he acted as if he had been): Georgetown wasn't Cambridge University or Harvard (Veatch's own example of an evil philosophy department where, at least in his time, he said, no metaphysics was taught, although, I ask, what philosopher is associated with that particular university after William James), but it wasn't a green grocer's shop either.

Philosophy at Harvard

Aside: metaphysics is now taught -- i.e. confusion perpetuated -- with a vengeance at Harvard, according to its Web site, although I did visit that site on April Fools Day 2011:

Philosophy is the study of fundamental questions.... e.g., Is there an external world? What is the relationship between physical stuff and mental stuff? Does God exist? Does language play a role in constructing reality?... Do we act freely? Where does moral obligation come from? What is justice?... What is it to know something, rather than merely believe it? What are the limits of knowledge? Does all of our knowledge come from sensory experience or are there truths we know independently of experience?... What is a scientific explanation? What is a biological function? What is a mental representation?.... Philosophers examine these questions in a disciplined and systematic way, aiming not simply to answer them but also to understand just what is being asked in the first place. (Harvard University Faculty of Arts and Sciences, "Philosophy Handbook for Students 2010-2011")

Gosh, I am glad that they finally got to the fundamental question in the last line of their paragraph: "just what" -- if anything -- "is being asked in the first place".

Query: faculty of wonder philosophy.

Not exactly what I'd call the university's Philosophy Department -- would you? Oh, the students may be perplexed, but not the faculty: it knows many things it doesn't know, although not that it doesn't know them.

Now, back to reality:

Henry Veatch had, however, indeed been excluded from at least one "community of ideas". For Stephen Theron wrote to me [24 June 2007] about Veatch, that:

He was persecuted I think for not taking post-Fregean logical developments as normative. Fr. Bochenski O.P. got him disinvited to some conference somewhere, he told me with great indignation. I met Bochenski at a short conference on logic in Germany (well it was a prelude to the annual meeting of the International Society of Metaphysics) and asked him why he had done this. He replied that Veatch "doesn't know logic".

Veatch was not, however, himself beyond excluding views he did not appreciate [22 June 2007]:

Veatch was rather cross about a review I offered to The New Scholasticism (as it then was) of his "Human Rights: Fact or Fancy" and as a trustee or something saw to it that my review was not published, although MacInerny said it was good. I used the material in my "The Recovery of Purpose" [1993]. We patched things up but Veatch has now "gone out of time".

To return to the topic of my own schooling. I see that Professor Veatch published a book titled "Swimming Against the Current". But at Georgetown University, Veatch was not swimming against the current. At Georgetown I was the one swimming against the current: I had to teach myself the type of philosophy that I wanted to study outside class; there was no professor there to teach me it.

Maybe I was fortunate the above assumption about language ("thought") prevailed where I went to school. Because in my revolt against it I was forced to come to my own understanding of what I have called "Wittgenstein's logic of language". Of course it did cut short my schooling in philosophy (which may also have been fortunate).

I often visit the cemetery, look at the graves and wonder what all the internecine fuss was about. One of Schubert's friends included in his summary of a good day, "I have not sat in judgment of any other's man's work." Although we all make private judgments, "community standards" belong to professional philosophers, not to philosophy. If there is a Last Judgment, each individual's conscientiousness will be sorted out there.

My schooling, such as among the Sophists it was

My schooling, such as it was. I was a serious student of philosophy -- I was not an academic student of philosophy. Imagine a young mind desperately -- and the only word is 'desperately' -- seeking the way out of its philosophical confusion, and instead being offered a smorgasbord of philosophy as a purely academic topic: "Descartes to Leibniz, Locke to Hume" at noon, "Aristotle's Metaphysics" at 3 PM. -- I don't believe that anyone who imposes such a course of study on a young person has ever taken philosophy seriously. [Contra Etienne Gilson I would say: "If philosophy is truly at stake, then our whole life is involved."] Such youngsters are not concerned with the History of Philosophy -- they are not academics -- nor are they like the Apostle Paul's Athenians: "Well, well, we will hear more about this some other day." Someone who thirsts for the truth does not have an academic attitude. And so, I attended the lectures at Porrigetown so that when I was not attending those lectures I could think about the philosophical problems that were troubling me as an individual -- not those that troubled (or rather, did not trouble) someone else. In that sense the professional philosopher (Plato, Euthydemus 307a-c) is no philosopher at all.

But when I said to the logic professor at Georgetown who, it is hardly surprising, did not remember me -- this was six or seven years after I had, ostensibly, been a student there -- that I could not imagine Socrates in the context of scheduling classes ("Descartes at noon, Aristotle at 3"), he said, "Maybe you are more serious about this than we are." They were not all bad fellows, even if most were a bit more than a bit full of themselves [Does the university as an institution itself have that effect on human beings -- being praised, being chosen for the doctorate, then a professorship: "You are the best and the brightest"? Praise is like water to most plants: too much kills], fully certain of their own lordly competence to judge: "At least I will see whether you can write" (that in response to the essay I had written, without being asked, for the occasion), as if the judge could not see that he is also being judged. But where in these fellows -- the professional philosophers -- was the fundamental uncertainty of the philosopher, the uncertainty that troubles and haunts a philosopher and makes him modest [Wittgenstein was not modest? See his letters to Sraffa (e.g. the letter of 20.12.1944)]?

We were required at school to take a course titled "The History of Modern Philosophy" (Descartes to Leibniz, Locke to Hume), six philosophers in two volumes of primary source readings, in one undergraduate semester. That is not the folly that is bliss. Question (this is Thomas Hardy's question, I think): if the university were forced to move out of the pseudo-Gothic facade that looms over the parkway, surrendering thus all pretension to grandeur, and forced to hold classes in some run-down store front, how would that affect our perception of it?

If you had been required as in the Middle Ages to hire and pay your own professors, how many of the professors at your school would you have hired -- i.e. acquired debt in order to attend their lectures.

To gather companions to himself Socrates needed no more than open, public spaces: his words and his humanity were recommendation enough. Can one say the same about the many professors at universities?

Many years ago I was told (I can't remember by whom and it hardly matters whether or not the story is true) that in Germany there used to be a professor who spent the entire semester lecturing about a single page of Kant. Now, that's the way to do philosophy. People spend too much time at school reading philosophy and not enough time thinking for themselves about what they read; if they did they might at least understand a little something. Six philosophers in one undergraduate semester --!

Query: philosophy of language, Wittgenstein exam questions.

It does strike me as extraordinary -- an example of not knowing oneself, that at one time I had hoped to teach philosophy. Did I really want to sit in judgment of students' work -- for marks are demanded by colleges (It was at a community college that I had thought I might teach) and universities? Never in my life have I ever thought to study for a test in philosophy. The idea strikes me as revolting. Philosophy is about thinking things through for yourself, neither parroting someone else's thinking nor being in a rush to give an account of what you think you know but hardly could. (As an aside, for where else at school would what is important be found, Wittgenstein is not philosophy of language; Wittgenstein is philosophy.) Looking back I see that I did not think well of most of my instructors, and that there were very few classes I would have preferred to attend rather than stay home because several feet of fresh snow had closed down the school. For the most part, I did not like school. I am always concerned to know what young people are studying at school (and encouraging them to attend school) -- why? Is this not irrational? I really must stop picturing school as only school at its best ... for it is not very often at its best.

Socrates did not have a school, or teach in a school, or have students as such; he had only companions, and anyone who wanted to learn from him could follow him about the streets and other public places. And, now, who was a better teacher than Socrates. After you learn to read and write, if you want an education, go to the public library and teach yourself: to reject school is not to reject education (although schools pretend that it is; cf. the nearby law court that calls itself the "Hall of Justice", as if 'law' and 'justice' were not different concepts, just as 'school' and 'education' are).

They really should be put out of business, these fellows ["slum landlords"] who make philosophy academic. I would want all my life to remain an unprofessional philosopher.


Recognition and Resignation

There is a story told about Albert Schweitzer in old age told by Clara Urquhart (in Norman Cousins' Dr. Schweitzer of Lambaréné (1960), p. 16), that he had written some philosophical notes and an antelope, wandering freely about his room, had eaten them in Schweitzer's absence. Schweitzer's response was to shrug his shoulders. Why was this?

Now I can rejoice that my works on Jesus and Paul have convinced people, and that reverence for life is being seen as a basic element that we must again struggle for in our civilization. A lot of what I wanted to write has remained incomplete.... I suffered from my failure [to finish my writings], but I have now calmly resigned myself because I hear from others that I have recognized and expressed something that can advance us spiritually, something that is important to them.

What I had to offer found acceptance calmly and slowly while I was running my hospital in the stillness of Lambaréné. I regard this as a great privilege that was bestowed on me. (Albert Schweitzer, Letters 1905-1965, ed. Bähr [1987], tr. Neugroschel [1992], Lambaréné, 29 February 1960, p. 299-300)

In the middle of September, the first rains fall. The cry then goes out to get all the building timber under cover. Since we have scarcely an able-bodied man in the hospital, I begin, with the help of two faithful workers, to drag the beams and boards. Then I see an African in white clothing sitting by a patient he has come to visit. "Say friend," I call, "won't you give us a little help?" "I am an intellectual -- I don't drag timber," comes the answer. "You're lucky," I respond. "I wanted to be an intellectual too, but I didn't make it." (Quoted in Pilgrimage to Humanity, tr. Stuermann (1961), p. 16)

I wanted to be an educated man, but I didn't make it. My many years in the state schools were wasted, fundamentally because I had no philosophical understanding of the purpose of schooling, indeed, because I had no guidance at all, but that was the nature of the schools; contrast that with G.E. Moore's early schooling. As it happened, I did not meet a scholar until I was more than twenty years old -- and then I finally, but slowly, understood the purpose of school; but by then there was no foundation to build on and I have never recovered from that. My early years and most of my later years can be summarized in the word: ignorance, all too much of it conceited. And now age has added the loss of hope for foolish things and reviving sleep. I could never have been a philosopher, but I could have been a far better thinker than I am, or so I imagine.

Why did Schweitzer not care about the antelope? Was it because, as is the case with most men, illusions, and consequently enthusiasm, are lost as one grows older? Not in the least. Was it old age and the many years of working in the tropical heat? For instance, as he grew older Wittgenstein told Malcolm that his thoughts refused to crystallize (Memoir (1984), p. 78), but then later he was able to write On Certainty.

It is doubtless true that, if the poet does not rouse himself to finish Faust and Wilhelm Meister until the closing years of life, when his hand is already unsteady, the explanation is this, that the officeholder and the nature student have not permitted him to undertake it earlier. Is it not this fact, however, that we do not have those two books as the result of a single outpouring, outweighed by this other fact, that they are now two steams in which the experience and thought of Goethe all the way from his youth to old age are reflected? ("One Hundredth Anniversary Memorial Address" [Frankfort 1932] in Goethe: Five Studies (1961), tr. Joy, p. 93-94)

Maybe Schweitzer thought the he, too, would be able to finish his earlier work, particularly his Philosophy of Civilization, in his old age. But it did not work out that way. In the end his mission-hospital finally consumed him.

I wanted to be a doctor that I might be able to work without having to talk. For years I had been giving myself out in words .... this new form of activity I could not represent to myself as talking about the religion of love, but only as an actual putting it into practice. (Out of my Life and Thought, tr. C.T. Campion, p. 94 [cf. Chapter 9, p. 92, of A.B. Lemke's edition], quoted by Eugene Exman in The World of Albert Schweitzer: a book of photographs by Erica Anderson (1955), p. 20)

He had been willing to be "as silent as a fish" [as mute or unspeaking as a carp], but as it happened he had not had to sacrifice preaching, scholarship, or music. His writings had "expressed something that many people found important to them". And he could look at his hospital, a small outpost of the kingdom of God, and say, "My life is my argument."

What is my life?


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