Monday 7 February 2011

In which Wittgenstein encourages the academics

The Welsh scholar Rush Rhees (1905-1989) went into academic life very reluctantly. Inspired by Wittgenstein and Simone Weil, he tried working as a welder in a factory; but he was such a bad welder that he finally accepted a job at Swansea University. Still, he couldn't quite resign himself to academic life, and he often talked about quitting his job. On one occasion, when he was very close to leaving Swansea, he received the following letter – encouraging, yet brutally honest – from his close friend Wittgenstein (cited in Mario von der Ruhr, "Rhees, Wittgenstein, and the Swansea School", in Sense and Reality: Essays out of Swansea, 225):
I should, for personal reasons, hate you to leave Swansea…. Don’t stupidly throw away an opportunity of doing some good. Your derogatory remarks about your philosophical abilities & success are so much rubbish. You are all right. And I mean just that: nothing more & nothing less. Philosophical influences much worse than yours & mine are spreading rapidly, & it’s important that you should stay at your job. That your success won’t be brilliant is certain; in fact it will be meagre, it’s bound to be. Please, if you possibly can, resign yourself to it & stay on.
Have you ever heard a better rationale for sticking at academic work?


Arthur said...

How perfect!

Academic work is ephemeral, yes, but such a grand and grave sort of ephemera.

Pamela said...

We all (or most of us anyway) want to have "personal" success, whatever that means individually. I want to make a difference to the children I work with in my job. However, if health becomes an issue that's a different story. We can stick at something only so long as any adverse effects are not overwhelming.

Paul Tyson said...

I know my reaction to Ludwig’s above comment is badly out of context, but it strikes me as a very condescending Germanic prick type of thing for him to say. Being “all right” has always been a bit of a hard field to hoe in academia, even though most of us fit that mould, but it now takes an act of almost superhuman determination - or hopelessly misguided self delusion, or brutally pragmatic mindless hoop jumping - to just get into academia for your average academic. Now everyone has to pretend to be brilliant and original – though one must be able to prove this pretence with publications, awards, the right associations etc – to get any sort of secure academic gig at all. I have met only a few really brilliant people (the A league) quite a few very capable and gifted people (the B league) and then there are the likes of me in the C league – too chronically reflective to be comfortable anywhere outside of academia, but just not impressively bright enough to play the pretence game and win. Since university admin took over from academics in the control of departmental budgets and tenure (the 1990s in most Australian universities) bean counters just don’t see any role for good teachers with a love of their subject and solid grasp of their field. The likes of me can stay doing sessional work forever whilst foreign glitterati’s fly in and get tenured jobs (which they can’t get in Europe or the US either) over our heads. But yeah, I’m a pretty hopeless factory worker, builders labourer, real estate salesman – I feel a little bit like Jesus, with nowhere to lay my head. (OK, this is self pity, but the flip side of condescending Germanic prickness – we are both wrong.)

kim fabricius said...

There is another letter from Rees in Swansea to Wittgenstein at Cambridge in which Rees despairs over the lazy reading habits of his students and his inability to inspire improvement. Chin up, Wittgenstein wrote back, it's the same here at Cambridge. And we all thought it was IT that has students now complain when they are told that they actually have to read - books!

BTW, you will know that the Wittgensteinian legacy at Swansea University continued through Rees' student, the inimitable D.Z. Phillips. (I used to attend Phil Soc at which both Rees and Phillips held Socratic court.) But no longer. The Philosophy Department was shut down several years ago here at Swansea Cyberversity, the educational role of which is now to manage the knowledge industry. It's the economy, stupid.

kim fabricius said...

Oops, how careless: Rhees, not Rees (a Welsh forename; also Rhys).

Paul Tyson said...

Thanks for this Kim. I’m not a huge fan of Wittgenstein – who seemed to have little doubt about his own brilliance, even if he did doubt the validity of the entire enterprise of Western philosophy up until himself – but to hear that Swansea has chopped philosophy (my “university” chopped its Arts degree and all Humanities offerings!) fills me with sorrowful and warm pathos even for Wittgenstein. My sympathies to you Kim, from the other side of the tiny globe (why do all the worst ideas spread so easily in the terrible fashions of academic administration fashion?) Solidarity, oh displaced lovers of wisdom – how on earth can we re-claim academia?

Pamela said...

Reflecting on this piece Kim.
Wittgenstein was encouraging to his close friend Rhees and showed his concern for his friend. I don't know enough about Rhees to know whether he stayed on in that position or not, but wherever we "end up" we can make a contribution. I look forward to reading your "contributions" to Faith & Theology in the future!

Anonymous said...

I would argue that everyone should profoundly consider Wittgenstein's famous admonition.

"Of that which cannot be spoken, one should remain silent".

Especially everyone who presumes to talk about God or the Divine Realty.

I would also argue that Wittgenstein, along with Heidegger were the two giants of 20th Century Western philosophy. And that they both, in their own way signaled the exhaustion and end of Western philosophy - and culture.

Just as Joyce signaled and "celebrated" the end of the Western literary tradition in his book Finnegan's Wake.

A book which summarized all of Western history and culture, or the then already dead ideas etc which the Western literary tradition have ever considered or investigated.

And then declared them all to be well and truly dead and buried, via his literary wake.

It was no accident that Finnegan's Wake was published in that fateful year of 1939, a year in which Western "Civilization" finished off the process of world-wide cultural destruction begun in the first World War.

Annette said...

Great quote :)

John Hartley said...

I totally agree with Wittgenstien here. If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing badly. That's to say, it is better to do the best one can than to give up and have the job not done at all (or done worse by someone else).

Anonymous said...

Don't forget that Wittgenstein also gave a disproportionate amount of discouragement to his students about going into academia.

Lest we forget why Rush Rhees was working as a welder in the first place... A certain Herr Wittgenstein had put him up to it.

roger flyer said...

Welding ideas together is infinitely harder than working with steel.

Paul Tyson said...

Dear John of comment eight; I think Simone Weil a far better guide to the history of Western ideas and the challenges of academia than Ludwig. Read Weil’s “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force” and you will see no doubt in her about the richness, insight and ever contemporary significance of our high culture. Granted, Ludwig was smart, but he was not half so brilliant as to make all that came before him fade into obsolescence – same, very much, for Joyce. Hubris did not die out with Xerxes. Then look at Weil’s unbelievable self damaging stint of several years as a factory worker (but look also at how she died; perhaps there is a bit too much of the self damager in her). She did not work in a factory because she felt the academy to be a bad place – though she worked out of academia with far more conviction that Wittgenstein’s occasional odd potterings about in the garden – but rather, she did this to identify with the worker class and their sufferings. She puts Marx to shame. There is not a touch of superior disdain for high culture in her mission of suffering, but this cannot be said of Ludwig. As regards Wittgensteinean silence – again Weil is much better. Wait for God and He will speak. His Word cannot be reduced to any human system of logic or language; but He speaks yet to those who have ears to hear. If Rhees had paid more attention to Simone than to Ludwig he may well have ended up a saint like her – and that he could have done that as a welder or as a teacher. And – Kim do tell – maybe he did end up a saintly teacher, but I’m not sure if that had much to do with Wittgenstein.

kim fabricius said...

Rhees certainly knew and admired Weil's work, Paul, and I suspect it was he who introduced D.Z. Phillips to it. Weil is copiously cited by DZ in his books, and, in fact, it was DZ who turned me on to the writings of "Categorical Imperative in a skirt".

BTW, talking about being hands-on, I guess you know that Weil went to Spain in 1936 and, though hitherto a pacifist, joined the Anarchist Militia to fignt against the Fascists. Alas, she stayed less than two months: she was such a klutz that she became a danger to her comrades, and after falling into a pot of simmering cooking fat she returned to France.

Paul Tyson said...

Yes Kim, Weil's practical klutziness is a great comfort to me, but her commitment to integrity - integrating belief and life - is frighteningly awe inspiring. No arm chair bourgeois was she. Neither was she a proletariat philistine nor an arrogant aristocrat (nor a philistine arrogant aristocrat). And her exquisite intellectual subtlety combined with the most child-like deep insight, her rare humility combined with her dazzling brilliance, her full integration of faith, justice, life and thought... now there is a person I admire.

Pamela said...

Paul, would you recommend Gravity and Grace as a good starting point to finding out more about Weil?

kim fabricius said...

St. Simone - I agree, Paul.

Pamela, Waiting on God might even be a better starting-point. I began with a little anthology called Gateway to God edited by David Raper, but God knows if it's even still in print.

Pamela said...

Thank you sir.
The one and only bookstore in our town is used to tracking down books for me - if "Gateway to God" is to be found, he'll find it! Otherwise, "Waiting on God".

Paul Tyson said...

Hi Pamela - yes, I agree totally with Kim, Waiting on God is great. Also, Stephen Plant has written a wonderful little introductory book about Weil in the Fount Christian Thinkers series, titled (unsurprisingly) "Simone Weil", London, 1996. But her 'books' are all wonderful; the need for roots, gravity and grace, oppression and liberty - you will get heaps out of any of them Pamela.

dan said...

I would suggest that the following widely discussed line from the Tractatus is a much better point of reference for academic work:

[One] must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after [one] has climbed up it.

Academia is, I think, such a disposable ladder. This is especially true of Christian academia.

As for the remark about silence, we should remember that Wittgenstein later softened that remark and stated (more than once) that we should be aware that, in relation to some things, we are talking non-sense, but our awareness of this should not prevent us from speaking of the non-sensical.

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