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.