Wittgenstein Today

Being Wittgenstein’s birthday, reminded me that, at the end of last week, I’d listened to a 2015 Royal Institute of Philosophy talk “Why Wittgenstein Matters” by Ian Ground.

Sadly audio only, even though the speaker uses a few slides that we don’t see, but a very interesting talk. Partly about the importance of Witt in terms of his distorting effect on philosophy generally, but also a good summary of what his most important thoughts actually were.

Main reason for posting the link now is that the reminders reminded me I’d noticed in the side-bar to the above another Witt “RIoP” lecture by Rupert Read of a similar vintage.

Now I am prejudiced against RR thanks to his extremist Extinction Rebellion / end-of-civilisation links, and one particular experience of his unpleasant interaction on an IAI “How The Light Gets In” panel. But I had noticed he was a Witt scholar, and in fact has a book out in 2021 “Wittgenstein’s Liberatory Philosophy”. So I guess I should listen to what he actually has to say bout Witt. (He has done more talks / interviews to support his book publication, but this predates that.)

He’s clearly already on his anti-technological-progress agenda. New technological innovation isn’t progress, economic growth or development isn’t progress – no arguments there. Scientism isn’t the solution to all our problems – the source of all progress – in the real world – agreed, absolutely.

Problem for me is he seems to be advocating the opposite – explicitly advocating against these. Justifying his anti-establishment, destructive, anarchic, rebellion. No argument we need more enlightened values of what progress could and should be. A proper conservative ecologism, as opposed to neo-libertarianism, as opposed to economic “sustainability”. Seems we may agree strategically (aims of conservative values) even if I’d disagree on destructive tactics. But it is indeed memetic – rescuing our minds from dominating, infectious ideologies that have become part of received wisdom. Anti-establishment in that sense. It is where Wittgenstein fits.

Flourishing, wisdom … what’s not to like.

I need to give Read more time and credence.

4 thoughts on “Wittgenstein Today”

  1. Toward the end of the talk (37:00 or so), Read says he doesn’t want to encourage pessimism. Following his reading of Wittgenstein’s aphorism, he calls for progress to be a feature of civilization rather than its form. How exactly this is to be manifested, he doesn’t seem to know; he is merely saying that we need urgently to think about it. The first step is to consider how progress is, indeed, the form of our civilization rather than a feature, and this is what the lecture is about.

    He calls for “wisdom,” and a little earlier he used the word in connection with Socrates’ idea of progress (as opposed to Aristotle’s). I would have to replay the audio looking for the reference, which is why I prefer transcripts to YouTube.

    He also talks about individualism, and I’ve been thinking about this and its implications for identity politics. With luck I’ll come up with a blog post about it soon.

  2. Form or feature, it’s progress and conservation of the values of civilisation that matter. “Wise” values as opposed to accountable stuff (money or CO2 levels or population or trees or fish-in-the-sea or species). Economic growth was always a red-herring, a proxy for continuity of creative activity – a slight but sufficient excess of creation over destruction – to keep the wheels turning. Once we focus on those objectively “accountable” measures, we’ve missed the actual point.

    (When it comes to post-capitalist economics, Paul Mason has some good suggestions – the place of individuals and “unions” are key – there have to be institutions and organisations of some kind. I fear Read is basically anti-capitalist, anti-establishment, full stop.)

  3. I haven’t followed him, so I couldn’t say whether he is anti-capitalist, full stop, but in this lecture he seems to be concerned that the very concept of civilization (which he sometimes contrasts with “culture”) smuggles in the idea of “progress” as a defining characteristic, making growth the only possible option by definition. To the extent that capitalism expresses this unspoken, underlying assumption, he would surely find Wittgensteinian fault with it, as he would with any activity that is incapable of questioning the primacy of progress as a goal unto itself.

    He seems to be comfortable with the idea of progress towards specific goals as a feature of civilization, an activity from which it can step away, instead of one that practically defines it. To the extent that capitalism can step away from progress, he might be fine with it. But how can capitalism step away from progress, when the activity itself is premissed on “development” (or “improvement,” as in early English capitalism)? Such absurd demands lead to empty phrases such as “sustainable development,” which are really thin masks for the inexorability of progress.

    If this is anti-capitalism “full stop,” it is at least a considered position. But I see it more as a structural critique of our economic options, which does not set aside the idea that, for example, a wealthy and cvilized nation can provide health care for its population or look after its elderly with dignity. To make progress towards these things is to treat progress as a feature. To put “progress” before health care and human dignity leads us away from these things, and is a mistake; and on the evidence, capitalism tends to do that. The professor merely has a theory about why, and I’m not sure it’s wrong.

  4. Yes, I’d agree with you on the strength of this – he’s not wrong – in professorial mode.
    (As I said “What’s not to like?”)

    In anarchist campaigning mode, he comes across much more negatively dogmatic in my on-line and in-person experience.

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