Category Archives: Philosophy + Theory + Criticism
Despising teaching as much as he loved writing, Hirschman longed to spend time at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In 1971, he asked whether he could visit there for the following year. He was indeed invited and the move became permanent. At the institute, Hirschman became keenly interested in the origins of capitalism and embarked on the project that became The Passions and the Interests. In that work, he rejected the nostalgia, current at the time, for a supposedly lost world of republican virtue, free of commercial avarice. He also rejected the suggestion, prominent then and now in the economics profession, that markets simply take human beings as they are, with their inevitable self-interest.
Instead he observed that the early theorists of free markets thought that commerce would transform people, by cooling our passions and making us gentler. In the words of Samuel Ricard in 1704, commercial interactions would encourage citizens “to be honest, to acquire manners, to be prudent and reserved in both talk and action.” At the same time, however, Hirschman worried that efforts to focus people on economic gain could “have the side effect of killing the civic spirit and of thereby opening the door to tyranny.”
There is a lengthy article on Albert Hirschman and Jeremy Adelman’s Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman over at NYRB. [via NYRB]
In May of 1951, at the age of twenty, Jacques Derrida took the entrance exams for the prestigious École Normale Supérieure a second time, having failed, as many students do, in his first attempt the previous year. Fueled by amphetamines after a sleepless week, he choked on the written portion and turned in a blank sheet of paper. The same month, he was awarded a dismal 5 out of 20 on his qualifying exam for a license in philosophy.
In America, Derrida, who died in 2004, left as big a mark on humanities departments as any single thinker of the past forty years—according to a recent survey, only works by Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu are cited more often. But in France, the gatekeepers of higher learning regarded him with ambivalence and, to his devastation, kept him at arm’s length for much of his career. According to a new biography by Benoît Peeters, Derrida, a French Jew from Algiers ill-prepared for the intellectual grind and noxious food of Parisian student life, may even have “contemplated” suicide after his first attempt to get into the École Normale. He finally gained admission on his third try, despite a disastrous performance in his orals.
Emily Eakin comments on the Derrida biography (Derrida: A Biography), by Benoît Peeters. [via NYRB]
In this series of videos (I’ll only be linking to the first, but the rest should be easily accessible from there), Derrida speaks about Deleuze in 2004, making it one of his very last public engagements. [via YouTube]
Charles Rosen, pianist, critic, and polymath, has died. He was 85. [Obituary via the New York Times]
Wittgenstein’s intellectual asceticism had a great influence on the philosophers of the English-speaking world. It narrowed the scope of philosophy by excluding ethics and aesthetics. At the same time, his personal asceticism enhanced his credibility. During World War II, he wanted to serve his adopted country in a practical way. Being too old for military service, he took a leave of absence from his academic position in Cambridge and served in a menial job, as a hospital orderly taking care of patients. When I arrived at Cambridge University in 1946, Wittgenstein had just returned from his six years of duty at the hospital. I held him in the highest respect and was delighted to find him living in a room above mine on the same staircase. I frequently met him walking up or down the stairs, but I was too shy to start a conversation. Several times I heard him muttering to himself: “I get stupider and stupider every day.”
Finally, toward the end of my time in Cambridge, I ventured to speak to him. I told him I had enjoyed reading the Tractatus, and I asked him whether he still held the same views that he had expressed twenty-eight years earlier. He remained silent for a long time and then said, “Which newspaper do you represent?” I told him I was a student and not a journalist, but he never answered my question.
Wittgenstein’s response to me was humiliating, and his response to female students who tried to attend his lectures was even worse. If a woman appeared in the audience, he would remain standing silent until she left the room. I decided that he was a charlatan using outrageous behavior to attract attention. I hated him for his rudeness. Fifty years later, walking through a churchyard on the outskirts of Cambridge on a sunny morning in winter, I came by chance upon his tombstone, a massive block of stone lightly covered with fresh snow. On the stone was written the single word, “WITTGENSTEIN.” To my surprise, I found that the old hatred was gone, replaced by a deeper understanding. He was at peace, and I was at peace too, in the white silence. He was no longer an ill-tempered charlatan. He was a tortured soul, the last survivor of a family with a tragic history, living a lonely life among strangers, trying until the end to express the inexpressible.
Over at the New York Review of Books, a long commentary on Jim Holt’s book Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story by Freeman Dyson. (In two pages.) [via New York Review of Books]
It was fundamental to Wittgenstein’s think- ing – both in his early work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and in his later work Philosophical Investigations – that not everything we can see and therefore not everything we can mentally grasp can be put into words. In the Tractatus, this appears as the distinction between what can be said and what has to be shown. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” runs the famed last sentence of the book but, as Wittgenstein made clear in private conversation and correspondence, he believed those things about which we have to be silent to be the most important. (Compare this with the logical positivist Otto Neurath, who, echoing Wittgenstein, declared: “We must indeed be silent – but not about anything.”)
To grasp these important things, we need not to reason verbally, but rather to look more attentively at what lies before us. “Don’t think, look!” Wittgenstein urges in Philosophical Investigations. Philosophical confusion, he maintained, had its roots not in the relatively superficial thinking expressed by words but in that deeper territory studied by Freud, the pictorial thinking that lies in our unconscious and is expressed only involuntarily in, for example, our dreams, our doodles and in our “Freudian slips”. “A picture held us captive,” Wittgenstein says in the Investigations, and it is, he thinks, his job as a philosopher not to argue for or against the ￼￼truth of this or that proposition but rather to delve deeper and substitute one picture for another. In other words, he conceived it as his task to make us, or at least to enable us, to see things differently.
On Wittgenstein and looking, pictures, photographs. [via New Statesman]