Monday, December 06, 2010

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 7

You may not recognize the reference in the title to this post above . It's a reference to the the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (a.k.a., "The Logical-Philosophical Treatise"), the only book ever written by eminently influential philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The Tractatus consists of seven philosophical propositions, the seventh of which reads:
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
Excellent advice, which I'll return to shortly.

My guess is that if you're younger than 30, you may not recognize the image in the upper-left, either. It's from the film Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, a mostly-dopey but totally endearing time-travel film from 1989 in which a couple of hapless "dudes" transport themselves through the last two millenia collecting famous people (Socrates, Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Beethoven, Abraham Lincoln, Sigmund Freud et al) to aid them in their upcoming presentation for a high school History class. They accomplish this supernatural feat via a magical telephone booth-- again, if you're under 30, you may not know what that is, but it looks like this-- and our young heroes learn a few lessons about History and humanity along the way. Chief among those lessons: "Be excellent to each other" and "Party on, dudes." (Bill and Ted were kind of like my generation's Harold and Kumar, I suppose, only instead of actually getting stoned all the time, they just acted as if they were.) Anyway, I digress...

The video below made the viral rounds a few weeks ago. It's from a PBS children's television program called "Martha Speaks" and it's intended to introduce children to "philosophy." This should have NEVER been made.

Just in case you didn't catch all of it, here are the lyrics to the "Philosophy" song:
Philosophy. What's your philosophy?
It needn't be Greek to be, or even deep to be, important or true.
Philosophy. Your philosophy
is what you believe to be, or perceive to be, important for you.
[Philosophers are people who try to figure out what life is all about,
But EVERYONE can have HIS OR HER OWN philosophy!]
Philosophy. What's your philosophy?
You don't have to cogitate, or ruminate, calculate or speculate,
combinate or postulate until its getting very late
to have a philosophy.

And then, of course, the dog says "I think, therefore I'm hungry."


So, what does this have to do with Bill, Ted and Wittgenstein? As the latter of those, the astute Viennese philosopher Wittgenstein, rightly warned: if you don't know what you're talking about, you should shut the hell up. (Not in those exact words, but more or less.) In the film Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, the premise is that these two high school kids had basically blown off their History class all year and were going to fail. They didn't know anything about history, so they had to travel back in time and speak to actual historical figures to say anything about it at all. No one, I hope, really watches Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure to learn about Genghis Khan or Socrates or Freud, and although the movie doesn't provide anything close to a comprehensive report on those figures, it at least doesn't provide misinformation.

The "Martha Speaks" segment, on the other hand, is not just inadequately informing children about Philosophy, it's giving them WRONG information. Like, really, really, REALLY wrong information. Now, I'm not sure that I could do a great job of explaining Philosophy to 8-year-olds if I were charged with such a task, but at the very least it might occur to me to check in with actual philosophers (or, I don't know, read the Wikipedia page on "philosophy") before writing a catchy little ditty about it. And, if I did actually bother to do either of those practically-effortless background checks, I most certainly NEVER would have included a boneheaded lyrical claim like "Philosophy is what you believe to be, or perceive to be, important for you," nor would I have hoodwinked the poor children with an almost inconceivably stupid (though rhyme-y) assertion that suggests one doesn't need to THINK (i.e., cogitate, ruminate, calculate, speculate, postulate) to have a philosophy.

There's a great (and brilliantly deadpan) rebuttal by a real philosopher to the "Martha Speaks" segment that would be hilariously funny if it weren't so tragically necessary. (Still, it's pretty funny.) I agree with everything Professor Slave One says here in his reluctant, though nonplussed, point-by-point refutation of the "philosophy song." Every word of it. And so I'm going to re-post it here, to save myself having to use foul language:

Of course, I'm not 8-years-old nor am I the parent of an 8-year-old, so my objection to this probably insignificant video is on principle alone. It's all about the kids here. Ergo, from this blog to PBS, let me just say:

Hey, PBS: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 7.

1 comment:

Curry O'Day said...

Wrong on two counts: I recognize the reference in your title, having read it, and I know what "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" is, having seen it. Oh, and I'm 24. :-)

While I find the Martha Speaks video equally abhorrent, I'm nervous about your decision to use Wittgenstein to disqualify their comments. You're right to use the quotation that you did, but I think his commandment is further reaching. In the preface, he offers a slightly more specific version, saying, "what can be said at all can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent." So, it's not just whether Martha Speaks is right, but also whether what they are saying is clear. And Wittgenstein uses this notion to criticize the whole institution of philosophy. In 4.003 he says, "most propositions in questions, that have been written about philosophical matters, are not false, but senseless." He goes on to conclude that the role for philosophy in most cases is one of enforcing the limits of the logic of language, reminding philosophers of when they are using terms without meaning (i.e. all of metaphysics). Philosophy, then, is demoted to only saying things about natural science, which Wittgenstein himself admits isn't really philosophy.

Of course, I know you know this. I just think that, while compelling and indeed influential, Wittgenstein leaves philosophy in a bad spot. What could Martha Speaks have said about philosophy, if it has to fit Wittgenstein's strict notion of clarity? What can any of us say? How many children would want to go into philosophy having read Wittgenstein?

Mainly I'm just frustrated because I am smack dab in the middle of finals, pouring through Aristotle's Metaphysics and Physics, little of which is clear, but all of which I hope is worthwhile. Figured I'd give a philosophical response to your post.

Also, you said the Tractatus was the only book every published by Wittgenstein, but didn't he also publish the Philosophical Investigations? That book is even less clear than the first.

Anyway, back to my paper on the eternal unmoved mover.