Daniel Little (UnderstandingSociety) on “Marketing Wittgenstein”

A good new-to-me web find today is The UnderstandingSociety blog from U. of Michigan-Dearborn's Daniel Little, who writes about philsoophy from a sociological perspective. This is very relevant to our recent discussion of fame among philosophers on our Lucy Lawless episode, and in this article, Little reflects on why it might be that Wittgenstein is so famous, given, as I've commented, his scant published output and self-absorbed style and behavior. Little comments a bit on the circumstances of Wittgenstein's rise, and presents a good general picture for how fame works an academic context:

The question of whether an aspiring young philosopher rises or languishes is a social and institutional one, depending on the nature of his/her graduate program, the eminence of the mentors, the reception of early publications and conference presentations, and the like. Indicators and causes of rising status depend on answers to questions like these: Are the publications included in the elite journals? Are the right people praising the work? Is the candidate pursuing the right kinds of topics given the tastes of the current generation of "cool finders" in the profession? This approach postulates that status in a given profession depends crucially on situational and institutional facts -- not simply "talent" and "brilliance". And in many instances, the reality of these parameters reflexively influence the thinker himself: the young philosopher adapts, consciously or unconsciously, to the signposts of status.

A theme in our fame discussion was how much of fame is undeserved, and how this irritates us. This is complicated by the ambiguity in our conception of "desert." As philosophy fans, we primarily embrace brilliance, and, often not knowing how much of a canoncial thinker's output really constituted original thought given what else was going on in his time, we frequently read more genius into a work/thinker than his contemporaries did. I generally see this kind of worship as harmless. If someone like Nietzsche happens to get passed down to us, and given his style and his keen insight we can already assess his brilliance, then it's academically and historically interesting to know how much of what he's say is parroting Schopenhauer or his contemporaries, but what's really important is being able to think about the ideas themselves.

On the other hand, it's easy to get irritated when some less canonical thinker is consistently underrated, e.g. when Russell gets credit for the insights of Whitehead, who is generally acknowledged to be a much deeper thinker. When Quine praised Carnap, and pointedly not Wittgenstein, as being the [residing genius in 20th century analytic philosophy, he was surely expressing his own personal preference, but also acknowledging Carnap's relentless, continuous, self-improving work (much like Quine's!), which may have lacked the aura of mystery surrounding Wittgenstein exactly on account of Carnap's writings being more readable, with repeated explanations of related issues in different publications over time. Carnap thus appears more a workman, forging these publicly accessible (though still often highly technical) materials over time, whereas Wittgenstein was more like a magician, crafting a few brilliant spells which could then be appropriated and made mundane by people like Carnap.

Considerations of brilliance and originality aside, a key part of our notion of desert in non-philosophical contexts is hard work and consistency: people should be rewarded for what they can control, not what they can't. I think this does play into how much we think fame is deserved; much as we might admire a genius and think a mere "workman" to be not worth our time, when you're comparing two arguable geniuses, do you go with the one who had that flash-in-the-pan brilliant mystery and died young, or do you choose the one who produced a lasting body of work so as to become an institution unto himself? Much as such "comparison" seems unseemly and immature (would Superman or Thor win in a fight?), we have to make such choices insofar as we allocate our time and effort into reading and understanding these figures.

Read Little's article on Wittgenstein. The rest of Little's blog is worth a look; he's got posts on current academic culture, Deleuze, the social constitution of work, and many other topics, and he's done a number of interviews with philosophers and presents. Here's another of Little's blogs (with apparently a lot of overlapping content), ChangingSociety.org. Here's Little on Philosophy Talk discussing the nature of cause in history.

Thanks to Hemant Puthli for bringing this link to my attention via our Facebook group.

-Mark Linsenmayer


  1. swallerstein says

    Very interesting reflections.

    Couldn’t you do a podcast about how philosophy is marketed?

    (I’m the person from Chile who complains about your humor).

  2. Paul Paolini says

    To me it seemed that Little’s Wittgenstein article contained a lot of unexamined assumptions. After reading it my sense was that there was something wrong with it. My sense about this is that the emphasis on access and endorsement in the making of a great philosopher is misplaced. Such may be a necessary condition to being a great philosopher, but it is a relatively easily and commonly attained one. How many ambitious young philosophers passed through Cambridge in the first part of the 20th century who would have gotten attention if they had had good ideas but did not because they did not? And even among those of who got attention and were endorsed as exceptional by the Cambridge crew, how many were subsequently forgotten? It is true that not everyone has the opportunity to get the cultivation needed to have a chance at being a great philosopher, but it is also true that the vast majority of those who do get such cultivation would be noticed and endorsed if they had relevant merit. So access and endorsement seem a relatively trivial ingredient in the making of a great philosopher. What is important I think is not access and endorsement but the staying-power of his or her ideas ideas over time and across geography.

    The article on Wittgenstein is all I’ve read by Little so I could very well be wrong about this, but he seems to believe that all ideas are of exactly equal merit and that it is merely the contingencies of particular social circumstances that elevate one idea over another. While elevation of a thinker can be, and often initially is, such a provincial affair, the real test of a great philosopher is how his or her ideas fare across provinces and over time. This is a test that goes a good way in screening out provincial factors in a philosopher’s elevation. Now I would agree that the history of philosophy is to a great extent contingent and arbitrary, and that our philosophical concerns might have been quite different from what they are, but this does not mean that importance attached to a given philosopher within this state of affairs is not merited importance based on having had especially good ideas.

    • Profile photo of Frtiz Donaro says

      @ Paul. I believe Little addresses that accusation that he views all ideas as equal, etc., in the comments section. Not surprisingly he claims that Wittgenstein’s work is indeed valuable aside from the social circumstances that led to his success and the creation of his iconic status.

  3. Profile photo of Frtiz Donaro says

    What are we in control of and how do you know that?
    Here’s a web find -“Futility Closet”.
    And an interesting bit of history from that site on another famous genius:

    “One day [A.J. Conant] asked Mr. Lincoln how he became interested in the law. ‘It was Blackstone’s “Commentaries” that did it,’ said Mr. Lincoln, and then he related how he first happened on the books. ‘I was keeping store in New Salem, when one day a man who was migrating to the West drove up with a wagon which contained his family and household plunder. He asked me if I would buy an old barrel for which he had no room in his wagon, and which he said contained nothing of special value. I did not want it, but to oblige him I bought it and paid him, I think, half a dollar. Without further examination I put it away in the store and forgot all about it. Sometime after, in overhauling things, I came upon the barrel and emptied its contents upon the floor. I found at the bottom of the rubbish a complete edition of Blackstone’s “Commentaries.” I began to read those famous works, and I had plenty of time, for during the long summer days, when the farmers were busy with their crops, my customers were few and far between. The more I read’ — this he said with unusual emphasis — ‘the more intensely interested I became. Never in my whole life was my mind so thoroughly absorbed. I read until I devoured them.’ …”

    — Ida M. Tarbell, Selections From the Letters, Speeches, and State Papers of Abraham Lincoln, 1911


  4. Jason Stable says

    Recalling the article from “Understanding Society”… I had the feeling after reading the Wittgenstein piece that I didn’t really learn shit. Maybe that’s going too far, but that was my reaction. Roughly speaking much of the account offered there of how Wittgenstein became Wittgenstein kinda corresponds to the everyday understanding of regular people the world over. How many rednecks have I heard say, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” and people observe the importance of being at the right place at the right time, etc. Of course the point is made that W. was interested in the ‘right topics’, but no shit! That’s kind of necessary to make it in a field isn’t it, as is getting help from the influential talent scouts because you’re doing what they want and yeah having a powerful, driven, charismatic personality and tons of talent help a little bit in life.
    Regarding the mysterious genius, “magician, crafting a few brilliant spells” vs. the talented and brilliant “workman” producing a strong body of work perhaps more accessible and less mysteriously delivered –this iconic status and allure of Wittgenstein is in part due to the (pernicious, imo) grip Romanticism still retains on the Western imagination. Wittgenstein was an asshole and mentally ill and also quite well fit into that mold of the Romantic hero. People are so fascinated by that. Terry Eagleton said Russell is the shopkeeper’s idea of a philosopher and Wittgenstein is the artist’s and the type of character you produce plays about.
    In any case, people with little (no pun intended) hope of understanding the philosophy of a classic like the Tractatus, and perhaps not that much interest any way when it really comes down to it, tend to wax pseudo-sociological cause they can understand sociology (and pop-psychology babble) and also go for the intriguing bio filled with outrageous behavior and weird tales of the half-mad super-genius than the professional guy who behaves himself, obviously. But that was/is all feeding the general reading public’s interest much more than the academic world. Where am I going with this… no where, that’s what I wanted to say.

    (Always dig PEL’s virtually always illuminating and interesting entries such as this one (-so thanks!), tho I originally was tempted to say something like all that while the website is a super-groovy web-find worth bookmarking fo sho (enjoy that Veblen). I pasted that Lincoln tale about finding his calling in a trash barrel some stranger heading out West sold ’em for a half dollar instead because that shit is trippy and mythical and ‘makes ya wonder’.)

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