The Linguistic Turn was a Wrong Turn.

The 20th century was a calamity for philosophy.  It's hard not to have the feeling that there were no great philosophers in the 20th century.  There are, to be sure, great minds: Einstein, in my opinion, was the greatest genius of the 20th century, and John Von Neumann is fairly distant second.  I revere A. Emmy Noether, David Hilbert, Max Planck, Claude Shannon, Alan Turing, Kurt Gödel, Erwin Schrödinger, Edward Witten, Richard Feynman, Srinivasa Ramanujan, Juan Maldacena, Rosalind Franklin, Jane Goodall, Frans De Waal, Samuel Beckett, Oliver Sacks, Franz Kafka, William S. Burroughs, Hans Bellmer, Kobo Abe, Iggy Pop, Larry David, and many, many others.

But none of of these people are usually classified as philosophers.  Perhaps they should be.  Perhaps this is only a problem of classification.  If we were to classify these people as philosophers, then there would be no doubt in my mind that they are all far superior philosophers to any of the people who are typically listed as the great philosophers of the twentieth century.  If you hang out on my blog, you probably know that I am very, very opposed to Heidegger, but even I have to admit there is a glimmer of something in his writings, a dying ember of thought.  (I have a bit of nostalgia for Maurice Merleau-Ponty, but in the end he's too Heideggerian.)  Wittgenstein is even worse than Heidegger.  Then again, Wittgenstein is at least somewhat enjoyable to read, even though he's completely wrong.  Russell and Whitehead wrote an enormous book that no one reads and which they themselves acknowledged as a failure (Principia Mathematica), and Russell's fame largely rests on his discovery of a cute little joke, or puzzle (Russell's paradox).  All of the above (especially Heidegger and Wittgenstein) are, to one degree or another, responsible for the slide and decline of philosophy that is known as the "linguistic turn".  After this turn toward language, the ember had completely gone out.  The fire was dead.  All of this post-linguistic-turn philosophy - most of the philosophy of the 20th century - is worthless and forgettable.  Fortunately, we are forgetting it.

Richard Rorty writes: "'Analytic' philosophy is one more variant of Kantian philosophy, a variant marked principally by thinking of representation as linguistic rather than mental, and of philosophy of language rather than 'transcendental critique,' or psychology, as the discipline which exhibits the 'foundations of knowledge.'"  He's not completely wrong in characterizing analytic philosophy this way - which is why analytic philosophy is worth so much less than that which came before it. 

Nineteenth century philosophy - and even 18th century philosophy, to say nothing of ancient Greek, Chinese, and Indian philosophy - is superior to 20th century philosophy in every way.  To compare the philosophy of the 19th century to the philosophy of the 20th is to compare a gorgeous, well-appointed, extremely variegated and somewhat wild garden to a desert.

Why?  In short: the biggest problem with the 20th century was that, during that time, people vastly overestimated the importance of language.  Perhaps people overestimated the importance of language even in the 19th century, and so you could see the problems already brewing in the 19th century that would lead to 20th century problems.

There is only one exception that I can see: Guy Debord.  Not only do I consider him the greatest philosopher of the 20th century; in some respects I sometimes feel he is the only philosopher of the 20th century.  Undoubtedly he would object to being called a philosopher, but so what?  He's not the boss of me.  I do what I want.

Furthermore: Guy Debord, the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, really had no original ideas at all.  His claim to fame was merely that he was a careful and rigorous scholar of one of the greatest minds of the nineteenth century, Karl Marx, and he applied Marx's critical apparatus consistently, and somewhat accurately - far more so than the imbecilic bureaucrats, hucksters and cheerleaders that call themselves Marxists.  Indeed, so thoroughgoing was Debord in this application, that he pushed Marx's theoretical framework to the point where it came into conflict with itself and destroyed itself.  But even this accomplishment - the demonstration of the fundamental contradiction in Marx - Debord performed in a clumsy and hamfisted way, by biographizing theory, awkwardly trying to divide Marx's method into two parts, the young (good) Marx and the old (bad) Marx, which is supposed to mirror the young Hegel and the old Hegel.  Insofar as Debord reduces the complex and necessary critique of the material history of the development of the movement in which Marx participated to such silly and arbitrary categories, his critique is idealist.  Similarly, by merely opposing, step-for-step, Althusser's idealism, Debord preserves it.  As Debord's frienemy, Vaneigem, once remarked, "Pissing on the altar is still a way of paying homage to the Church."  

In some ways, Debord can be regarded as a reactionary - turning back to a purer, clearer Marxism, compared with creative and active Althusserian nonsense.  And Debord is flat-out wrong when he says "The project of mastering the economy, the project of appropriating history, if it must know--and absorb--the science of society, cannot itself be scientific. The revolutionary viewpoint of a movement which thinks it can dominate current history by means of scientific knowledge remains bourgeois."  Most of Debord's errors - which comprise the lion's share of his philosophy - are merely a gigantic edifice by which he attempts to justify this essentially anti-scientific stance. 

Even so, the salutary distinction of Debord's work was that he had not yet taken the linguistic turn.  (Baudrillard did indeed take this turn, which is why Baudrillard will always be inferior to Debord.)  Debord's errors are greater accomplishments than most 20th century philosophers' truths. 

Comments

  1. PS. When I wrote this, I forgot to mention 2 great living philosophers: Douglas Hofstadter and Nick Bostrom. Part of their greatness is that they did not take the "linguistic turn." All of the philosophers who took the linguistic turn have disappeared up their own assholes.

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