Articles & Essays

Brooklyn is not expanding: Can we be cured of philosophical worries?

Philosophical inquiry can be one of life’s greatest pleasures. At the same time the urgency of philosophical questions can feel unavoidable and perhaps even burdensome on occasion.  Sometimes, philosophical questions present themselves as a kind of anxiety-inducing curse.  They cannot be avoided, they feel like they cannot be solved in a straightforward way, and they sometimes have disruptive effects on ordinary life.  We are concerned with ultimate questions, questions about the value and meaning of life, whether knowledge is possible, and about the kind of life that we should be living.  The answers to these questions matters to us, and concern with them can induce some anxiety in thinking people.  The charismatic Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein thought the best way to handle philosophical anxiety is through a kind of philosophical therapy.  He took his own philosophical worries seriously and apparently they haunted him in his personal life.  He saw one of the most important tasks of the philosopher to be the treatment of philosophical worries.

In his writings, Wittgenstein defended the view that philosophical problems result from our tendency to misunderstand the way our language ordinarily works.  According to Wittgenstein we are misled by language.  But he also thought of the cure for philosophical worries as a taking place by means of language; philosophical therapy involves the use of words and by cleverly redirecting our attention to the way words ordinarily work.  He describes his project this way:

“When philosophers use a word – “knowledge”, “being”, “object”, “I”, “sentence”, “name” – and try to grasp the essence of the thing, one must always ask oneself: is the word ever actually used in this way in the language-game which is its original home?

What we do is to bring words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use.”  

Philosophical Investigations § 116

Wittgenstein’s view was that we should prevent philosophers from hijacking the terms of our language for what he saw as their misguided purposes.  Instead, we should bring our attention back to the way words work when they work as they are supposed to.  In a famously polysemic line in the Philosophical Investigations, he writes:

Die Philosophie ist ein Kampf gegen die Verhexung unsres Verstandes durch die Mittel unserer Sprache. § 109

Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.

Philosophical Investigations §109

For Wittgenstein, language is the source of our problem and the vehicle for our cure.  In this later work, Wittgenstein explicitly defended a view of philosophy as a form of therapy.  We would only need therapy if philosophy itself is a problem.  Philosophy is the cure for the disease of philosophical questioning.  But is Wittgenstein right to think of philosophical questioning as a disease?  It is certainly true that philosophy can sometimes cause trouble.  With therapy in mind we can recognize that sometimes, philosophical problems can even affect your relationship with your mother.

In the movie Annie Hall Woody Allen gives us a scene where the mother of 12 year old Alvy Singer (presumably a version of the young Allen) is brought to a psychoanalyst.  Mrs. Singer hopes that the analyst can cure young Alvy of his annoying philosophical anxiety:

Dr. Flicker: Why are you depressed, Alvy?

Mrs. Singer: Tell Dr. Flicker. It’s something he read.

Dr. Flicker: Something you read, huh?

Alvy Singer: The universe is expanding.

Dr. Flicker: The universe is expanding?

Alvy Singer: Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart, and that will be the end of everything.

Mrs. Singer: What is that your business? He’s stopped doing his homework.

Alvy Singer: What’s the point?

Mrs. Singer: What has the universe got to do with it. You’re here, in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding.

Dr. Flicker: It won’t be expanding for billions of years yet, Alvy. And we’ve gotta try and enjoy ourselves while we’re here. Huh? Huh? Huh? [laughs]

You can watch the scene from the movie here:

Alvy’s mother recognizes that life goes on in Brooklyn, the world is not expanding (at least not in any timeframe relevant to our lives), and homework needs to be done.  The young Alvy, by contrast, has become concerned with a peculiarly philosophical kind of ultimate question.  From Wittgenstein’s perspective, Alvy’s intelligence has been bewitched by language.  When we ask the question “what’s the point?” in ordinary life, we generally mean something very ordinary and practical.  Perhaps someone is talking too long, they’re rambling or boring, and we want them to give us their core message: What are you getting at? What’s the point?  When we ask “what’s the point of doing homework?” it’s a different kind of question. In this case, we are asking for reasons, but in these cases there are obvious and very sensible answers.  Parents tell young people that they must do their homework in order to learn, or perhaps to get a passing grade in class.  The child might ask why they need to pass the class and the parent responds with additional sensible answers:  One needs to pass the class in order to finish school, that one needs to finish school to get a job, that one needs to get a job to pay the bills, etc.  But at every step in this chain of justification one can ask: what’s the point?  Language allows us to ask “what’s the point?” pretty promiscuously.  We can always ask for reasons.  For Wittgenstein this is the bewitching feature of the simple formula: “what’s the point?”  From the perspective of both Wittgenstein and Alvy’s mother, Alvy’s question is illegitimate.  It’s not his business.  The ultimate question that he settles on has the added virtue of being an excuse to avoid his homework: In the scheme of things, he wonders, what is the point of doing my homework? There is a little Alvy Singer in all of us:  All thinking people seem to ask philosophical questions:  How should I live?  What can I know?  What should I care about?  What is real? What is the point of it all?  And it is difficult to imagine someone worth talking to for more than five minutes who is completely immune to the force of these questions.

Apparently Alvy’s existential angst depressed him and his concern with ultimate questions provided him the ultimate excuse for not doing his homework. At the same time, little Alvy is not entirely wrong.  The fact that life and the physical universe, are destined to come to an end does seem to matter. Whether it should matter is itself a philosophical question.  Should the ways we value and are concerned with people, things, homework, and other projects be influenced by the apparent fact that our lives and the universe as a whole are limited?  How should we approach philosophical questions like those posed by young Alvy?  Should we treat them in the same way we would treat a scientific question? Or are there other ways to think through difficult questions?

Let’s consider, for example, mathematics or poetry as alternatives to science.  In some ways, the work of philosophers is more like mathematics and poetry than the natural sciences. Consider how mathematical inquiry proceeds.  Like natural scientists, mathematicians solve difficult problems and make interesting and occasionally useful discoveries using their intelligence and their educated judgment.  However, mathematicians do not need expensive lab equipment or giant teams of graduate students working for them.  All that a mathematician needs is time, a desk, paper, pen, and a trash can.  Mathematics is cheap but most science and engineering would be impossible without it.  Philosophy is an even cheaper discipline, according to the old (and unfair) joke, because we don’t need the trash can.  But like the mathematician, we philosophers work on questions that are fundamental to other areas of inquiry.  We ask the kinds of ultimate questions that end up mattering in surprising ways.  Natural science depends on concepts like causation, but what would a scientific account of causation look like?  It is not likely that any such account can be provided.

Rather than laughing at little Alvy Singer or telling him that “we’ve gotta try and enjoy ourselves while we’re here”, the philosopher takes his questions seriously.  There is a sense in which the philosopher wants to tell Alvy what the ultimate point (if there is one) of doing his homework might be.  At the very least, the philosopher is not going to avoid the question or laugh it off.  Alvy’s mother is right to point out that the expansion of the universe is not among the concerns that a child in Brooklyn can do anything about, but she is wrong to deny that impractical concerns can matter.  Likewise, I think Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy as motivated by the bewitchment of our intelligence by language is misguided.  What Wittgenstein has given us, at best, is an account of the origin of philosophical concerns.  Perhaps it is true that little Alvy is motivated to ask what the ultimate point of doing anything is by his desire to avoid his homework.  However, just because his question originates from his laziness, doesn’t mean that it is not a meaningful question.  In future essays I will attempt to show what an answer to the “what’s the point?” question might look like.

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