WHAT I THINK ABOUT HOFSTADTER.

I recently got a message from a fellow member of MetaFilter saying “Don’t know what you think about Douglas Hofstadter but his address to Stanford ["Analogy as the Core of Cognition"] just came up on my radar…. Wondered what you thought about his insights on language/cognition in that address.” That set me off, and I thought I’d repeat my answer here to see what the assembled multitudes think:

I’ve liked Hofstadter ever since I read GEB many moons ago, and I continue to like him and respect his very interesting mind and ability to present unusual ideas in readily graspable (and enjoyable) ways. However, I’ve gotten increasingly irritated with him over the years as he’s gotten more and more involved with subjects about which he simply doesn’t know enough: linguistics and poetry. Here, I like his thesis that “thinking (at least when isolated from external influences) is a series of leaps involving high-level perception, activation of concepts in long-term memory, transfer to short-term memory, partial and context-dependent unpacking of chunks, and then further high-level perception, and so forth.” That’s the kind of thing he knows about.
But when he writes “the standard model of language that has been built up this century by linguists is hugely impoverished,” he’s simply talking through his hat (just as Wittgenstein is when he attempts to do linguistics without knowing what he’s talking about), and it pisses me off. And I’m getting tired of people recommending Le Ton beau de Marot to me; as far as I’m concerned, it’s an enthusiastic but wrong-headed amateur’s approach to poetry and translation, and the sample of his approach he gives in this article (the stanza of Pushkin) demonstrates his failure. I’ve tried to write about Pushkin’s greatness and untranslatability at LH, e.g. here and here. Obviously people should and will continue to attempt the impossible, with varying degrees of success, but Hofstadter’s version is one of the worst. Of his dreadful “And saw in books no cause for dread;/ Instead, because he never read,” he says: “the internal rhyme of ‘instead’ with ‘dread’ preceding it and with ‘read’ following it somehow carried the day in my mind”; in other words, he’s especially proud of exactly the feature that makes it so terrible. He simply has a tin ear for poetry. No harm in that, many excellent people do, but I wish he’d stop writing about it!
Anyway, as long as he sticks to cognitive science, I have no problem with him, and I thank you for the thought-provoking link…

I will repeat (because I know there are a lot of Hofstadter fans out there) that I am very fond of his writing; he’s a brilliant and funny guy, and I’m glad he exists. And I am happy to agree that he, or anyone, could respond with “Oh yeah? Who says your ear for poetry is better than his? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there’s no accounting for taste, and so’s your old man!” All of which is irrefutable. But being the self-confident fellow I am, I nevertheless stand by my unprovable take on the matter. As always, I welcome all commentary.

Comments

  1. I agree with you entirely about Hofstadter. Perhaps another way to look on him is that he is very passionate about language as a puzzle, and the things he sees as good in a translation meet certain logical criteria he has delineated. Based on hearing him speak, I have come to believe his response to these efforts is quite emotional and not at all mechanistic or abstract. For those of us whose passions respond to other qualities, his translations can be unsatisfying. But then, I also feel strongly that if a work is worth any translation, it’s worth more than one and by more than one person. The reader can only gain as a result.

  2. No arguments here. His translation of Pushkin is uniquely terrible. If the work stands as an illustration of his ideas about translating poetry, then it should serve as an inoculation against his particular critique. On the other hand, I really enjoyed Le Ton Beau de Marot. I ended up memorizing chunks of poetry, which was something that I hadn’t done in a long time.

  3. It often makes me sad to follow the links to the Hat archive. So many good pages which I missed when they were fresh! So many amazing commenters not bothering anymore! Have we all grown more boring, more blunted? “Где та молодая шпана, что сотрет нас с лица Земли?”

  4. John Emerson says:

    I had high hopes for his Marot book, and I was reading Marot at the time, but I found the book unreadable. I felt that he had chosen a random poem by a random poet as an object for manipulation by unpoetic algorithms he was interested in. If Marot had been a random poet to me at that time I might have liked it.

  5. Hofstadter is astonishing. I value him as a consummately brilliant outsider – nearly always an electrifying commentator on matters in which he has no natural claim to proficiency. A Chopin étude that he tackles (though these are staples for the most accomplished pianists); serious current philosophy of mind (with Dan Dennett, one of the official main players, in The Mind’s I); poetic translation (the diversion of many an intellectual refugee or quixotic wanderer …).
    I corresponded with him briefly while he was writing Le Ton Beau. I wanted to know if he had ever seen the like of a certain new kind of palindrome I had made. He had not; and though it was an almost impossible accomplishment, he dismissed it as not of interest. I am certain that if he himself had contrived it and published it, the story would be different. We swapped a few anagrams, and some verse. I was struck by his boundless self-belief, his deserved but no less spiky arrogance. I benefited from a fleeting exposure to such uncanny actinism.
    He simply has a tin ear for poetry. No harm in that, many excellent people do, but I wish he’d stop writing about it!
    I have Le Ton Beau, but I’ve only dipped into it. That’s how I approach this author. But then, I engage little with translation of poetry systematically beyond my own specific selfish concerns – sonnets and similar traditional forms, or when I have a commission of some sort, or something very particular piques me to produce.
    As one who publishes almost nothing, I respect the work of a free-striding giant who publishes almost everything. If he has a tin ear, he has a platinum brain. I know how easy it is to be seduced by a virtuoso turn one happens upon in the course of a translation, especially under fugal quadruple-invertible-counterpoint-like constraints. The world will hear it differently, alas. If it hears it at all.

  6. Le Ton Beau is a great book when you skip large sections of it.
    That central poem was incredibly terrible and I never bothered to read any of its translations, nor various sections of the book that didn’t interest me.
    Artful skipping is a skill.

  7. By the way, partly inspired by Le Ton Beau, I’ve created a cryptic crossword that’s also a pangrammatic lipogram.
    The grid and answers set, but I’m only about halfway through writing the clues.

  8. With all due respect to Hofstadter, I also just want to mention that all those who value truth in writing, all who value clarity of thought that refuses to bend even under years of physical and mental torment–
    We all owe thanks and a moment of silence to Vaclav Havel.
    And that man could write.

  9. I agree with almost everything said here, although I find Hofstadter’s books very readable and have no desire to skip any parts of them, though I have not read the Pushkin translation. (IMHO the best book is the most technical, Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies, written with his students; it’s the one that actually delivers on the promises made in the other books.)
    When I read Le Ton Beau, I found myself wanting to write a letter correcting all the flaws I found in it. This then morphed into an open letter, and by the time I was done with the book, I realized that I would have to write a book of commentary, perhaps half the size of Hofstadter’s, which I had neither time nor energy to do. But that did not mean I didn’t like Ton Beau! While I was reading it, people would come up to me and address me in French, which I don’t understand; I would have to explain that only the title was French.
    As for Noetica’s references to the man’s “boundless self-belief” and “spiky arrogance”, I always think of Le Guin’s line on books vs. authors, which I have quoted here before and doubtless will again: “There is this terrific book that has changed your life, and then you meet the author, and he has shifty eyes and funny shoes and he won’t talk about anything except the injustice of the United States income tax structure toward people with fluctuating income, or how to breed Blank Angus cows, or something.” An author’s books, fortunately for us all, are written by his total personality, not by his ego, which means that they are or can be written by someone much better (and who knows much more) than the ego.

  10. I always think of Le Guin’s line on books vs. authors, which I have quoted here before and doubtless will again: “There is this terrific book that has changed your life, and then you meet the author, and he has shifty eyes and funny shoes and he won’t talk about anything except the injustice of the United States income tax structure toward people with fluctuating income, or how to breed Blank Angus cows, or something.” An author’s books, fortunately for us all, are written by his total personality, not by his ego, which means that they are or can be written by someone much better (and who knows much more) than the ego.
    My uncle, who lives in the Hamptons, has a story that chimes with Le Guin’s line, about meeting two of his literary heroes (Heller and Vonnegut) at a cocktail party, a meeting that stung deeply and he regretted — until, of course, he got to share his hard-earned wisdom to a nephew.

  11. I also briefly knew a state senator (a few phone calls, lunches), who, even less surprisingly, turned out to be a bit of a creep. I wished I’d been older at the time. I mean, I had the good sense to avoid his web, but I was too much of a kid not to let him handle me when we did meet — not to get in a few good shots, just in case he gained greater national prominence (a possibility), in which case I’d now have a good story or two. Instead, the stories I have are just lame and vaguely creepy.

  12. …a certain new kind of palindrome I had made. He had not; and though it was an almost impossible accomplishment…
    ?

  13. Vonnegut’s supposed to have been a beastly person, which is odd. Because it was only about a year or so ago, when he died, that everyone was saying how wonderful he was.

  14. (Everyone not including your esteemed uncle, of course, who I’m sure is always consistent.)

  15. aqilluqaaq says:

    (just as Wittgenstein is when he attempts to do linguistics without knowing what he’s talking about)
    Could you repeat that please? You know, just in case I missed some subtle irony?

  16. “And saw in books no cause for dread;/ Instead, because he never read,”
    Hee, hee, hee. “Beautiful railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay.”

  17. Anyway, as long as he sticks to cognitive science, I have no problem with him.

    I don’t want to try a comparison of ideas because frankly I’m not qualified to, but personally I found Lakoff’s theories of cognition much more enlightening than Hofstadter’s.
    I think this is in part because Lakoff works kind of like an aggregator of the work of numerous cognitive scientists and philosophers (e.g. in Women, Fire and Dangerous Things he explicitly builds upon: Wittgenstein, Austin, Zadeh, Lounsbury, Berlin-Key & McDaniel, Rober Brown, Paul Ekman, and Eleanor Rosch). Meanwhile Hofstadter’s self-imposed isolation is his weakness.
    @Noetica: Would you describe us the new kind of palindrome? :)

  18. Antonios: I’ve created a cryptic crossword that’s also a pangrammatic lipogram.
    Since a lipogram is something in which a letter is missing, how is is that yours contains all letters ?
    I didn’t know the word “lipogram”. The first thing I thought of was “fat letter”, then I remembered Perec’s La Disparition, which is an OuLiPogram.
    What is the letter called that is missing from a lipogram ??

  19. Noe would like to reveal his new kind of palindrome, but the comments box is too small to contain it.

  20. Could you repeat that please? You know, just in case I missed some subtle irony?
    No irony. Wittgenstein may have been a great philosopher, I am not competent to judge, but he thought he could say important things about language and how it works by consulting his inner daemon rather than, you know, studying language or consulting those who do, and I find that quite irritating.
    personally I found Lakoff’s theories of cognition much more enlightening than Hofstadter’s.
    I was making no judgment on whether Hofstadter’s theories of cognition are enlightening, or even plausible, because again I am not competent to judge, even though I’m pretty sure I have cognition. (Similarly, simply having a language does not make people competent to say useful things about language.) I was merely saying that as long as he sticks to cognitive science, I have no problem with him. People who know more about cognitive science might.

  21. he thought he could say important things about language and how it works by consulting his inner daemon
    No. No, he didn’t.

  22. Ooh yes he did!

  23. Behind you!

  24. he thought he could say important things about language and how it works by consulting his inner daemon
    No. No, he didn’t.

    I’m curious about this disagreement. From my reading his philosophy was in logic and linguistics, similar to Bertrand Russell (with whom of course he worked and from whom he received educational patronage); he was idiosyncratic; he didn’t have a formal education (in fact, he was the last influential philosopher not to have one); and his family thought it was a hoot that academics took him seriously. I know more of his biography, but those details are the ones that touch on the debate over the two images of him — visionary and fraud — the debate that seems to be rearing its head here. Dare I say, carry on?

  25. David Eddyshaw says:

    OK – I’ll bite …
    Wittgenstein most certainly did have a formal education: he was at school with Hitler and trained subsequently in mechanical engineering. Admittedly this is non-standard for a modern philosopher.
    I don’t think many philosophers would describe him as a fraud, either. There’s none of the flakiness of (say) Derrida associated with him.

  26. non-standard for a modern philosopher.
    That’s what I meant — should have added “in philosophy.” Sorry.
    I don’t think many philosophers would describe him as a fraud, either.
    I don’t think so either; I was just trying to frame the debate. I doubt the truth lies at the fringes.

  27. John Emerson says:

    His early work was revolutionary and very technical and got him Bertrand Russell’s unbounded admiration, when Russell was one of the leaders of that kind of logic and epistemology based philosophy.
    He later renounced this work in part, and his later work is what’s controversial. To call him a linguist is pretty misleading; he wasn’t studying phonemics or syntax or morphology or structure or any of that. He’s sometimes dragged into the Chomsky-Skinner debate on Skinner’s side and I think that’s misleading too.
    He’s out of style with contemporary Anglo-American philosophy, which doesn’t do him any harm in my eyes.
    He could have gone to any school he wanted and ended up choosing the tech (engineering) track in one of the best schools in Europe. That was part of the attempt to put philosophy on a more scientific or science-like basis, in place of humanistic “big picture” philosophy.

  28. he was at school with Hitler and trained subsequently in mechanical engineering
    He was at grade school with Hitler, and they probably didn’t know one another though I seem to a remember a school photo that features them both. He did study mechanical engineering for a short time at Manchester University. I think he was interested in aeroplane design, he already knew a good deal about architecture from having met Adolf Loos in Vienna. Later, when he temporarily gave up on philosophy, he designed some quite beautiful gates and a house for his sister. Once he’d sucked Loos dry I think his curiosity about architecture was assuaged and he (rightly) put it to one side, being too big a brain for that kind of thing. From Manchester he wrote to Russell at Cambridge about the possibility of studying with him there – which he subsequently of course did. When he returned to Cambridge after WW1 he was already in a different league to Russell & Whitehead.
    Anyway, the idea that Wittgenstein had no formal education in philosophy is laughable.

  29. I read GEB many years ago when I was young and naive and I was very impressed. Since then I have spoken to people with experience in music, art, and logic (in which I have acquired some experience of my own) who all said the same thing about it: “Hofstadter has interesting ideas about <the two things I don’t know so well>, but his understanding of <my field of study> is lacking in a way that ruins his argument.”

  30. Anyway, the idea that Wittgenstein had no formal education in philosophy is laughable.
    Well, I didn’t say he had no training in philosophy; but as for what I did say, well, here’s A.C. Grayling:

    [While in Manchester, in 1908 Wittgenstein] became intrigued by the mathematics of the design, then by mathematics itself, and finally by philosophical questions about the foundations of mathematics. He asked acquaintances what he could read on this subject, and was directed to Bertrand Russell’s Principles of Mathematics. The impact of this book on Wittgenstein was great. Hitherto his philosophical reading had been limited; he had read some of Schopenhauer’s work but little besides.

    Apart from his teacher’s certificate, Wittgenstein’s only academic qualification was the Cambridge Ph.D., gained at the age of forty. He was by no means a scholar; he did not study the classic philosophers carefully (most of them he did not study at all) and he actively discouraged his students from doing so.

    This mixture, with on the one hand Wittgenstein’s fragmentary formal education and on the other his cultured and patrician home background, may in some part explain the unusual character of his mind and interests. Perhaps unorthodox educations foster originality; or it may be that native originality is stifled by too much formal schooling. Whatever the case, Wittgenstein was not the product of a typical education, and the character of his work bears testimony to that fact. It gives him another distinction: he may well be the last considerable figure in philosophy not to have followed a strict and orthodox academic regime as a condition of being taken seriously by the philosophical community.
    A. C. Grayling. Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (Kindle Locations 107… 219). Kindle Edition.

  31. To call him a linguist is pretty misleading; he wasn’t studying phonemics or syntax or morphology or structure or any of that.
    I said his philosophy was in logic and linguistics, and I don’t think that misleads people into thinking he was studying phonemics or syntax or morphology or structure, as they’re now understood in 2011, when the Tractatus was published in 1921. Again, Grayling:

    Wittgenstein’s aim in the Tractatus is stated in its preface. It is to show that the problems of philosophy can be solved by coming to a proper understanding of how language works. He puts this by saying that we shall solve the problems of philosophy when we understand ‘the logic of our language’ (T, pp. 3-4). This, indeed, is the dominating thought in all Wittgenstein’s philosophy, and it represents what is continuous between its earlier and later phases. As we shall see, however, Wittgenstein’s views about ‘the logic of language’ differ markedly in these two phases, with the later taking as its basis a repudiation of some of the earlier phase’s most central themes.
    There are two aspects to Wittgenstein’s aim as just stated. His objective is to solve the problems of philosophy, and he intends to do so by showing how language works.
    A. C. Grayling. Wittgenstein: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (Kindle Locations 223-228). Kindle Edition.

    I can’t say I know what linguistics looked like in the 1920s, but I didn’t think its parameters were so established that to describe Wittgenstein’s philosophy as “in logic and linguistics” would mislead anyone. His philosophy seemed to have a lot to do with language, anyway. If I’m wrong, it won’t be the first time.

  32. I know you didn’t, but Grayling is totally misleading. Young Ludwig came from a large, very well-connected and intellectual family and studied lots of things, and mechanical engineering was (as far as I remember) encouraged by his industrialist father. But just because he didn’t start with Philosophy 101: Plato & Aristotle, doesn’t mean he didn’t have a proper education in the subject. Cambridge uses the tutorial system and Wittgenstein studied one-on-one with Russell – not very different education to Grayling’s own at Magdalen College, Oxford, when he studied with A.J. Ayer and Peter Strawson. In short, and his own books are always short and light, AC Grayling is a floppy-haired twit; there are proper books about Wittgenstein that you’d be much better off reading than anything by AC Grayling.

  33. Okay, thanks, Crown. I have Monk, but not on Kindle, so I’ve only really browsed it. Not that I’ve ever really studied Wittgenstein properly — just read a few articles, web pages, and that short book. Good to know you think Grayling is misleading. I thought you generally liked him? Or was it his nemesis, Gray, you prefer? Or have you not really chosen sides, and just enjoy the sport of angry, spittle-flecked reviews of each other’s books?

  34. AC Grayling is a floppy-haired twit
    Sorry, poor reading; sounds like you’ve chosen a side.

  35. John Emerson says:

    Wittgenstein did have very little education specifically in philosophy, and he was not at all well-read in the history of philosophy. This is consistent both with his own philosophical point of view and that of analytic philosophers, many of whom think that serious philosophy began with Frege (1848-1925). I suppose that from an early 20th c. point of view Wittgenstein was a linguist like Sapir and Whorf.

  36. John Emerson says:

    By the time Wittgenstein studied with Russell he was almost fully developed as a philosopher and communicated with Russell as an equal. I don’t think that Grayling was terribly misleading. I have read similar elsewhere.
    Wittgenstein’s technological bent is reminiscent of Descartes’, and both proposed to forget a lot of philosophical history while building a new, different philosophy.

  37. Oh, you have the Monk. I can’t find it at the moment to consult, either. I think it’s in the out house and it’s cold over there. Gray’s weirder but I’m a lot more interested in Gray as a thinker than I am in AC Grayling. I’m probably a little bit additionally prejudiced against Grayling because the new private college he’s starting is not exactly in the spirit of public education & the current British fight over university fees.
    Plus I hate that floppy grey hair.

  38. I suppose that from an early 20th c. point of view Wittgenstein was a linguist like Sapir and Whorf.
    No, no, no! Sapir studied Germanic linguistics at Columbia and worked on Native American languages with Franz Boas and Alfred Kroeber; Whorf was a student of his at Yale who did field work on Native American languages in the United States and Mexico. They were linguists. Wittgenstein was a philosopher who studied only the language inside his head. That has nothing to do with linguistics.

  39. Grumbly Stu: the cryptic crossword that I’m making that is also a pangrammatic lipogram is missing the letter ‘e’.
    Obviously, making a pangrammatic lipogram without the letter ‘q’ is pretty easy, but one missing the ‘e’ is a significantly tougher.
    Check out the Oulipo movement — very amusing.

  40. Grumbly Stu: the cryptic crossword that I’m making that is also a pangrammatic lipogram is missing the letter ‘e’.
    Obviously, making a pangrammatic lipogram without the letter ‘q’ is pretty easy, but one missing the ‘e’ is a significantly tougher.
    Check out the Oulipo movement — very amusing.

  41. As far as I can tell, Wittgenstein tried to start a religion and failed, mostly. He didn’t contribute much of anything to philosophy, aside from the staggeringly original discovery that language is a bit of a head-scratcher. His most-quoted line (“That which cannot be spoken of must be passed over in silence”) is an inane tautology that only someone who has drunk deep of the Wittgenstein kool-aide can find profound.
    Derrida, on the other hand, did have quite a few original and interesting things to say, but not about literature or literary studies or lit crit, which often comes as a surprise to people interested in that stuff, because that’s the section of the bookstore they find his books in. He was doomed by his nationality to be pigeonholed with people like Christeva etc.
    Specifically, what he did was build on the Germanic tradition including Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, to name three whose names start with H. He’s worth reading if you know their work, but if you’re a sophomore English major he’s going to mean nothing to you at all, so you’re going to pretend you understand (to get laid) (and it’ll work) and then you’ll wind up with a PhD purely on the basis of your ability to use big, deep-sounding words in combinations that make no sense but man are they deep-sounding, and the thesis committee is going to award it to you because if they didn’t, they’d have to admit they didn’t understand what you were writing, and only the academically suicidal (=honest) would dare something like that. Multiply that by 30 years of PhDs, and heybangpresto you have an entire academic field built on absolutely nothing, thanks to the historical accident of Derrida being read by the wrong people because he’s French.

  42. John Emerson says:

    My original point was that Wittgenstein was not doing linguistics at all. I don’t see much overlap between what he does and what linguists since Bloomfield and Saussure do. Then Jamessal said that his work was in linguistics, and I disagreed with that, and he disagreed again, and then I conceded that maybe he was a little like Sapir, who did a kind of linguistics that linguists don’t do much any more. But my point was and is that he wasn’t “trying to do linguistics” according to any definition of linguistics that I know of, except that I think that there might be some overlap with sociolinguistics.

  43. John Emerson says:

    As far as I can tell, Wittgenstein tried to start a religion and failed, mostly.
    This is just nonsense.

  44. But it’s enjoyable nonsense!

  45. John Emerson says:

    Oh, come on, Hat. Marc has some reason for not liking Wittgenstein, and so do you, and he makes up something cute and stupid, and you love it. It wasn’t even a clever, meaningless quip.
    I’ve never been an advocate of Wittgenstein before, but he really deserves better than this kind of incomprehension.

  46. What do you mean by “mostly”?

  47. I was kidding, but if you ever try to get a Wittgenstein acolyte to describe any actual contributions he made to philosophy (and I’m not being all Anglo-American in my definition of it), the resulting verbiage will resemble nothing so much as a medieval description of the nature of the hypostases of the trinity: a lot of careful constructed stuff, but ultimately resting on a reverential awe of something unknowable.
    As for translations good and bad, I’ve recently been quite astounded to find out that Bernardo Atxaga’s Obabakoak, which won a few prizes and is probably the most widely-translated Basque book, exists in two rather different versions: the original Basque and the Spanish “translation” the author himself produced, on the basis of which it has been translated. To say the word “translation” is inappropriate here is putting it mildly. I was going to use the Spanish and Basque as a kind of dual-language thing in my Basque studies, but there is almost no correspondence. Not just word-for-word or line-for-line, either. The chapters have been reordered (and he left one out of the Spanish version for good measure). The stories are retold. Details differ.
    I don’t know if he was making a point or what, but it’s kind of stunning. I’m thinking of translating the Basque original into English at some point, because what people read when they read Margaret Jull Costa’s English translation from the Spanish “translation” is different from the Basque.

  48. That’s very interesting indeed. I loved the English translation enough to read some of it in the Spanish version, and of course I wondered about the Basque, but I just assumed it was pretty much equivalent. Surely there’s something online about the discrepancy? But if only Basque readers are aware of it, maybe not. Anyway, I’d be delighted to hear more about it, and if you do translate the original I’ll definitely plug it here.

  49. Hofstadter has said that the Escher and Bach bits of GEB are decorations for the central argument, which is all about Gödel’s Proof.

  50. … but the comments box is too small to contain it
    No, it’s short to describe with adequate precision:
    A standard letter-unit palindrome is a string of letters whose right half is the mirror image of its left half. A well-formed English palindrome has spaces and punctuation spliced into the string to make a sequence of genuine English words: grammatically placed, and with some approximation to meaningfulness.
    My new palindrome was English with one set of splicings, and Italian with an alternative set of splicings. If anyone has seen such a thing anywhere, I want to know about it.
    A far easier way of making a two-language palindrome is to have the left half in one language and the right half in another. This is not without precedent, but extremely rare:

    Anger? ‘Tis safe never. Bar it! Use love. Evoles ut ira breve nefas sit; regna!

    That specimen from 1866 has supererogatory similarity of meaning between left and right. A virtue of this sort of palindrome: it is easier to achieve originality, which is an elusive desideratum in the game. I have made a few like that (English:French; English:Italian), with the pivot not at the exact point of transition from one language to the next.
    Will I show any of mine here? Nah. Too shy.
    Lakoff
    I find him pretty unreadable. One who makes a fetish of complexity. A pity, because his ideas in Women, Fire and Dangerous Things strike me as fundamental and fascinating. I love discussions of our uses of categories; but not this one.
    Wittgenstein
    Fun to sample, a lifetime’s work to fathom. Is the effort worth it? Spend a lifetime at it and let us know, if you like. I will not.
    Grayling
    A tedious writer if ever I encountered one. His Philosophy: A Guide Through the Subject is more an extended invitation to leave the subject well alone. The hair? One of his better features. Lately he seems to have grown toward the world, and fits into a television panel discussion well enough.
    Derrida
    With colleagues in analytical philosophy I attended a lecture of his. Competition to get in was fierce. We were surprised to be as impressed as we were. I fell asleep only twice (overworked at the time). He spoke for two hours: engagingly, immediately, humanely, and without any “Derridean” apparatus weighing things down. The topic was forgiveness. I remember little more, save impressions and random associations of ideas.

  51. John Emerson says:

    One of Wittgenstein’s aims was to help people escape from philosophy, so it’s not really surprising that he is not regarded as having contributed to philsophy. So one thing he originally did was like what Russell did, and what the logical positivists, and try to define how valid statements about the world are made. It was a theory of the language of valid statements and linguistics in that sense, except that linguists don’t talk about validity of statements.
    It was generally thought that once the way to produce valid statements, and only valid statements, was found, then big philosophical errors could be avoided. The target, I think, was most of the philosophical and non-philosophical “big thinkers” like Jung and Freud and Spengler and Toynbee and Bergson, etc., etc. These people talked in a grand prophetic sort of way but also all actually believed that they were scientists, but none of them could meet the scientific test.
    However, Wittgenstein was dissatisfied with his first try, so he started over again. In general, the idea that political and ethical and social errors could be solved if only the language of ethics, politics, etc. were grounded on truth hasn’t really accomplished much, and many have abandoned it, not just Wittgenstein, and those who haven’t abandoned it often fail in the same way the earlier ones had.
    One solution was to abandon the ethical-political product and just do logic, epistemology, philosophy of science, and philosophy of mind. That’s the mainstream of American philosophy (with bizarre ethical-political outbuildings attached.)
    What Wittgenstein tried to do was try to figure out a way of talking about the big questions which did not claim to be scientific or factual or grounded on truth. This is the part that seems mystical or poetic. He didn’t get far, perhaps mostly because of death, but some people find the problems he raised still interesting.
    Rorty picked up this aspect of W>, comparing it to Heidegger and Dewey, and tried to take it from there, but few followed.
    The followers of Popper and Gellner have done old-style philosophy on politics, but IMHO it requires that you already accept most of their conclusions before their arguments are convincing. Wittgenstein also tried to deal with “subjectivity” and ethics and self-awareness in a way the Gellner people didn’t.
    Wittgenstein respected Heidegger, a fact that was concealed from the forst genertaion of Wittgensteinians by the method of censoring a short letter.

  52. John Emerson says:

    “product”=”project”.

  53. Scott Schulz says:

    Doug’s a friend of a friend, and so I’m slightly biased in his favor. He clearly over-values rhyme and meter in poetry, but we were just happy to see him writing again after he lost his wife to a brain tumor. Thus, Le Ton beau de Marot represented a major step towards healing for him, even as a represented a poor approach to translation.
    I do like his syngergetic and polymathic approach to topics. Yes, he’s a jack of all trades and master of none. I think the Academy needs more of that rather the rote call to man the barricades when anyone dares express an opinion within a particular discipline. Yeah, he gets things wrong occasionally because he does not have the depth in an area, but he does make intriguing connections. I do not think that his ideas about recursion, cognition and language will change the course of those fields any more than Wolfram’s computational thinking will revolutionize mathematics. But like Wolfram’s work, Hofstadter’s is quite tantalizing. It always feels like something’s there – even in LTbdM.

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