Friday, April 20, 2007

Wittgenstein and Socrates

An article in the new volume of Philosophy argues that Socrates and Wittgenstein shared some important personal affinities: M. W. Rowe, 'Wittgenstein, Plato, and the historical Socrates', Philosophy 82 (2007): 45-85. From a quick skim through, these include:
  1. Both began by being interested in 'science' but then moved to linguistic concerns; they underwent a significant change in outlook.

  2. Both became more pious as their scientific confidence wained. (Here Rowe uses evidence from Aristophanes' Clouds and Plato's Apology for the view that, at least at some point, Socrates was (thought of as?) an atheist natural philosopher.

  3. Both had strong artistic streaks. (Socrates even seems to want to learn to play the lyre while waiting to be given the hemlock...)

  4. Both lived through periods of significant political conflict and war.

  5. Both were rather introspective and shunned politics.

  6. Both lived rather ascetic adult lives although they came from wealthy backgrounds.

  7. Both were interested in the philosophical role of reminiscence and reminding.

  8. Socrates claims to be a kind of midwife. Wittgenstein was interested in medicine and psychoanalysis...

  9. Both aim at creating an integrated and healthy psyche via a kind of 'talking cure'.

  10. Both were (in some sense or at some time or to some degree...) homosexual.
See Rowe p. 43 n.3, by the way, for some important disclaimers about his omission of any discussion of the problem of the 'Socratic' problem and also qualms about referring, say, to ancient 'science' or 'homosexuality'...

I'll have to ponder the significance (and truth) of these claims a bit more before I can formulate a full response. Certainly, it seems likely that there was some similarity between the methods of teaching adopted by Wittgenstein and Socrates (or, at least, Plato's Socrates). Beyond that, however, I'm not sure how important many of these sometimes strained similarities genuinely are. It's plausible that some of the similarities were generated by Wittgenstein's own reaction to Platonic works; certainly, as Rowe points out, he was interested in philosophical dialogue [1]. (Wittgenstein insisted he had never read Aristotle, but he did certainly read Plato.)

It's also worth wondering, I think, whether Socrates -- or perhaps the image of Socrates generated by ancient works, Plato especially -- has become something of a paradigm in the European imagination for what a 'philosopher', perhaps a philosopher of a certain stripe, must be like. We might owe to Plato, then, the notion that philosophers must be somewhat other-worldly irritants of conventional practice and commonly-accepted notions. If that's right, then this image may have exerted its attraction on both Wittgenstein himself and also the mythology around Wittgenstein.

But one of Rowe's thoughts in particular, (related to 10. above) struck me as worthy of pause (p.78):

None of the foregoing suggests that philosophy is necessarily homosexual, but it may suggest that it is best conducted between people who are mutually attracted.
I think this is meant to be an explanation of Wittgenstein's view rather than Rowe's and even then it takes some digging to extract much from the scattered comments W. is supposed to have made which might be relevant. For Socrates, on the other hand, there's some decent evidence that he was happy to exploit quite a close relationship between philosophy and erotic desire. But, regardless whether either Ludwig or Socrates thought that philosophy must involve some kind of sexual chemistry, is it true? I'm certain that philosophy isn't necessarily homosexual (if I understand what such a claim would amount to, anyway: does it mean that it necessarily can happen only between same-sex dialectical/sexual partners?) but what about the latter suggestion? Personal experience seems to tell against it. Fortunately so, I think.

[1] See also: B. J. Heal, "Wittgenstein and Dialogue" in Philosophical Dialogues: Plato, Hume, Wittgenstein ed. T.J.Smiley Proceedings of the British Academy 85, 1995, 63-83

No comments: