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Sunday, 06 May 2012


I had completely repressed the memory of reading Hobbes' Leviathan as an undergraduate. :shudder:

I've enjoyed Bertrand Russel's Why I am not a Christian and The Problem of Philosophy. They're very readable, and I highly recommend them.

Amen brother. My daughter went today to visit his grave at Girton in Cambridge. In another age Wittgenstein would have been a saint, and his worship would have been to clean out your head. He makes you heal your pretentious fancies. He lived a life of rigour and struggle, and was obnoxious to philosophers, all in order to let the rest of us do it with less pain. His architecture was the working out in stuff of his thinking.

You really should have Montaigne on your list. And by the way: Nietzsche was the logical result of your hero Schopenhauer. If he had a problem, it wasn't having one idea, it was having too many.

Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. Whew.

Wittgenstein was the only philosopher to make sense to me as a student — all the philosophers I read who were said to have been influenced by him were disappointing. I was delighted to see his picture here and initially surprised but shouldn't have been, really.

Speaking of Wittgenstein-- ever encountered any Piero Sraffa characters in your life?

It's always nice to have friends capable of giving us the finger in ways thoughtful enough to make us reexamine our views. I'm lucky to have one such friend.

In my humble and not-well-read opinion, several books I've encountered ponder the human condition better than out and out philosophy (he typed, deliberately ignoring the point of the original post). "The sound and the fury", by Faulkner is a difficult read, but very rewarding. "Nostromo"' or "The Secret Agent" by Joseph Conrad also knock it out of the park for me, and pretty much anything by Truman Capote. Westons "Daybooks" not bad either. I guess my point is, (to me at least) the best philosophers weren't philosophers. That said, it's your Sunday dude.


If your antecedents are Scots, should your surname have a final "e". My mother was a member of the Johnstone clan (originally, I believe, a lowland clan of cattle thieves or border reivers).

As to philosophy, can I remind you of A E Houseman's line "It is thinking lays lads low"!

"Johnston" and "Johnstone" are just alternate spellings. Same clan.


"I was thinking about thinking about thinking, but it changed my mind"

"Like Wagner, he was liked by the wrong people."

Wagner deserved his Nazi "friends". He was a virulent anti Semite.

And let's not forget Samuel Johnson. I'm not referring to his writings, which are in many cases a difficult read, but to his conversation. Also, let's include Mark Twain. Both of those gentlemen are philosophers of a different order. And while I am at it, let's add H. L. Mencken! (I'm suggesting these in the spirit of Tom higgins post, above.)

With best regards.


Saul Kripke has had a thing or two to say about Wittgenstein.

You reminded me of Monty Python's "The Philosopher's Song".

Ah, yes, the Kripkenstein monster....[g] All that is quite beyond me, or should I say over my head.

(Or, to be a little more fair to myself, I should say I've never "felt" Wittgenstein's rule-following paradox as applied to mathematics, but I sense it naturally with regard to language.)


I tried reading a bunch philosophy in my youth, seeking an "answer", but found much of it impenetrable.

Now I'm older I realise that a) there is no answer, and b) a failure to communicate is more often a failure of the author, not the reader.

I did give philosophy another try 8 years ago and enjoyed reading Karl Popper.

Have you read Bruce Duffy's wonderful novel THE WORLD AS I FOUND IT? It is about Wittgenstein, and is one of my favorites.

My favorite Wittgenstein book is his "On Certainty," ed by G.E.M. Anscome and G.H. von Wright, transl. by Denis Paul and G.E.M. Anscome, 192pp (alternate pages are in English and German), Harper, 1969.

If you haven't read it I think you would enjoy it immensely. One quote: "A doubt that doubted everything would not be a doubt."

How the Scots Invented the Modern World indeed should be required reading for everyone.


The Philosopher's Drinking Song.

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" - obviously he was thinking about the analogue/digital debate

Hume is more difficult to understand than the English translation of Marx's Das Kapital? I can't imagine. I read Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto in college as part of a Marxism course (well after Marxism was dead and communism was breathing its last) and remember reading and rereading pages and paragraphs over and over to try to figure out what he was saying. Fortunately, the professor, who looked like Lenin, "translated" it into something we could understand.

My clearest memory of the course now is that Marx was reputed to have hated potatoes. Marxism sounded wonderful though. Too bad it couldn't work in the real world. Later, as a Libertarian, I concluded the same thing about Libertarianism.

"remember reading and rereading pages and paragraphs over and over to try to figure out what he was saying."

Curiously, some philosophers have that effect on me and others don't. It seems to depend not on their actual language, but whether I'm in sync with their line of thought...or even their basic way of thinking. It's almost like a personality thing. Can't really explain it.


My favorite - and one I recognize and accept in my own life, 'how small a thought it takes to fill a whole life .

Wonderful vocal of this by Reich - totally beautiful.

Ray H.

I will read Witgenstein!

Greetings, Ed

As a descendant of some of the more famous "border reivers" (such as Roger de Kirkpatrick of Dumfriesshire), I am surprised that I never before encountered "How the Scots Invented..." But that will soon be remedied. My son, entering high school and fascinated with history (to defend himself in a family overloaded with professors, mathematicians and scientists) is also looking forward to it. Nice tip, Mike.


Don't forget to read some of the essays by Wittgenstein's successor at Cambridge, Georg Henrik von Wright. His thought provoking essay "The Myth of Progress" is a sound read.

Talk of philosophy always reminds me of this classic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92vV3QGagck

Marx was better at description than prescription.

Try Nietzsche again. I think he was brilliant, and lots of fun to read—so long as you shun the egregious Thomas Common translations in favor of Walter Kaufman's.

Who was it that said "Most people would sooner die than think, and in fact, they do so."

Mike I do love your column and enjoy your Open Mike diversions and especially liked this one. Another of Wittgenstein's important exhortations was "Don't ask for the meaning, ask for the use" in order to understand a word. His program stalled not long after his death and the radical nature of his philosophy is lost in the fetishism of the biography. He bucks 2000 years of philosophical tradition in negating the notion of the essence of things - that words are not underpinned by ideas but accrete meaning in the world where they are used and a full formal definition of a word is impossible. If I read him for more than a few pages at a time I am inclined to aphoristic utterances, my language already a great source of frustration to my children who forbid me to use the generic fist person 'one'.

sartre : "to do is to be"

socrates : "to be is to do"

sinatra : "do be do be do"

I hadn't really considered Chomsky a philosopher. The guy is pretty unique in terms of both depth and scope of thinking, and he'd be the first to tell you that his voluminous writings on U.S. foreign policy is hardly rocket science. Among other things, he's a moralist, the good kind, writing that the responsibility of intellectuals is "to tell the truth," which is one of those things intellectuals were supposed to have learned in kindergarten, but unfortunately unlearned it in later grades.

Thanks for the interesting post.

Mike, Forgive a bit of pedantry but it is notoriously difficult to be absolutely certain in Plato of the extent to which the "Socrates" character speaks for himself or is merely a mouthpiece for Plato's own development of S's ideas. Some classicists jokingly talk about "Plocrates".

Although it is about Wittgenstein (and a lot of others as well), and not by him, "Wittgenstein's Vienna" by Janik and Toulmin is an excellent read.

Mike, have you ever looked into Jungian personality types? Based on the theory of Carl Jung, it breaks people down into 16 basic categories, and are supposed to describe the fundemental ways in which we take in the world (perceive) and worked out what we think (judge). It is also the source of the words introverted and extroverted (although the meaning has been distorted in common use)

I mention this because Schopenhauer, Wittgenstein and Plato are all listed as INFJ's (my own type) (all the types have 4 letter combinations to describe them in the form [e/i][n/s][t/f][p/j]):


Which might explain why you like those 3 in particular.

If you are interested in finding out more then I recommend this site: http://personalityjunkie.com/
Personally, I have found the descriptions of my personality based on type to be shockingly accurate. It's certainly very interesting.


P.S. Personality types are all about how you interact with the world, and nothing to do with how nice you are. Hitler and Gandhi and both also listed as INFJ's.

Might I suggest you read "How To Live - a life of Montaigne" by Sarah Bakewell? (You'll thank me.)

Nietzsche repellent? I wonder why unless you want to interpret him as a Nazi philosopher which he was not. If Schopenhauer is depressing Nietzsche is the antidote. Ecce Homo and the AntiChrist are my favorites.

I did an awful lot of Wittgenstein while collecting a master's in philosophy back when I thought I was on my way to a PhD. I think that one of the books leading up to the PI (you get to abbreviating things when you study Wittgenstein, people would tell jokes just by mentioning a remark number, although I don't remember the jokes, nor were they funny) are more accessible, if more disjointed. Lots of scholars recommend the Blue and Brown Books, but personally I liked Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, which is much less intimidating than the title sounds, and has this wonderful set of remarks about unfair games and how they are never satisfying even for the winners.

Another Wittgenstein book that a novice might like is Culture and Value. It's Wittgenstein harshing on the popular culture of his time, and very very amusing.

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