|Ludwig Wittgenstein (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
That question reverberates as I read the delightful book called Wittgenstein's Poker which recounts a famous but murky confrontation between philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper in 1946 in a Cambridge academic gathering. The author takes this incident and regales us with the personalities and issues that shaped a certain portion of the philosophical world in the 20th century, the world of analytic or linguistic philosophy.
Yet, I keep asking myself: these are supposed to be brilliant men--the likes of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, yet I get the creeping sense that they were in some fundamental sense blind: they poured their lives into questions that just seem too simplistic to anyone with well-developed intellectual intuition and sensitivity. Russell began the century by trying to prove formalistically that mathematics was a self-contained system of logical axioms with no need to refer to other sorts of assumptions, such as empirical assumptions. Well, even Russell admitted the failure of that project. But Euclid could have told him the project was a waste of time: mathematics must begin with intuitive, non-logically dictated assumptions in order to go anywhere. All high school geometry students do (or did) know that. (For details, see this article.) To be fair, we can at least term Russell's failure a glorious failure because of its pioneering work in symbolic logic.
Wittgenstein (at least in his first phase) set out to map out language with an aesthetically pleasing mathematical precision to clear up the confusions of his intellectual inferiors. Well, he gave up that project as a failure and moved on to the supposedly novel insight that you determine the meaning of words by their context ("family resemblances" in the lingo of Wittgenstein). Any half-conscious student or teacher of Latin (or any other foreign language) could have told you that. When you open a good Latin dictionary, you get a zillion definitions for one word--definitions varying almost infinitely with the context of a particular use by a particular author. Take a look at one of the many long entries in the famous Lewis & Short Latin Dictionary for proof.
Brilliant men pursuing oddly stupid quests. This picture is something to ponder--and something to make us reevalutate how we define brilliance. It almost seems that personal psychology and its neuroses create certain intellectual projects rather than such projects' being the offspring of some brilliant intuition.