On Wittgenstotle

by F.

In grad school I had a seminar with a professor I’ll call “Ned.” He was a classics scholar who was teaching a first-year seminar in ethics. While the seminar was mostly content free, I recall a friend of mine in the seminar describing Ned’s “Wittgenstotelianism,” (say: vit-gen-shtote-teel-ee-un-ism) by which he meant that Ned seemed to be able to take almost any idea of Wittgenstein and “find it” in Aristotle. It was like a parlor trick. Since Ned’s knowledge of Aristotle was encyclopedic, none of us had any hope of refuting him. My friend thought this “Wittgenstotle” stuff was ridiculous, as did I.

I’ve seen the same pattern over and over. People seem to get wedded to a particular scholarly personality—Aristotle, Chomsky, whoever, and then seem to want to drive every conversation back to that person. Why? Here’s some speculation.

If a writer or scholar has invested a lot of time learning about, say, Aristotle, they want to get as much utility out of their “sunk costs” as possible. So they see in this scholar everything, which makes the time they’ve already spent learning about this (otherwise useless) character more valuable. As they say, to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Similarly, one might add that, if you already have paid to much for a hammer you can’t return to the hardware store, you really, really, really want to find nails. Otherwise, you look like an idiot.

Also, I think we want to find support for our views in great men (and women) of the past because it means some “authority” thought the same thing. The canonical case of this is use of some holy book, like the Bible. “Well, in Leviticius it says such-and-such.” I take this to be proto-science. Before science, perhaps this was the best way to get the answer. But it’s not any more. The Bible isn’t Google.

In any event, here’s the point: suppose you can “find” your current idea in some “great man (or woman)” of antiquity. Does this make it any more likely that your idea is true? Nope. It’s a merely a rhetorical device.

Now, this doesn’t mean such a move is without use. The benign version of this tendency is to use the ideas of the “great men (and women)” to introduce our ideas, either in support or as a foil. So an article might open with, “Aristotle thought the brain cooled the blood. Today, researchers at Stanford are discovering that he may not have been completely wrong” etc., etc., where the rest of the piece would describe how, say, the brain changes blood temperature. This, to me, is legitimate and useful.

What’s important to remember is that, just because Aristotle or Hume or David Ricardo or whomever you admire said it doesn’t mean it’s so, and it lends almost no support to your current claim. Oldsters can be good sources of hypothesis generation. But those hypotheses still need to be tested.