The first time I was a teaching assistant was in the Fall of 2001 for Warren Goldfarb's course on the Later Wittgenstein. The experience blew my mind.
At Cornell a few years earlier I had tried to write a senior thesis with Sydney Shoemaker on Kripke's interpretation of Wittgenstein's private language argument. Like my essay on Quine, the senior thesis didn't make it to completion, as I abandoned it after the Fall semester. I couldn't put my finger on it, but something about Kripke's reading seemed off, as if it almost willfully ignored Wittgenstein's meta-philosophy and his mode of writing. Combining what I liked about Wittgenstein with engaging with Kripke's text seemed too hard at the time.
My first year at Harvard was Hilary Putnam's last year before retirement, and Stanley Cavell was retired, though still teaching once in a while. As it happened, Harvard was the only graduate program I had gotten into, but I felt it was the best choice for me as I was excited to take courses with Putnam and Cavell. The excitement soon wore off. In my first year I audited a course on Wittgenstein being given by Putnam, and there was no syllabus to speak of other than a list of topics Putnam had written down on a piece of paper. It soon became clear the course was more on Putnam than on Wittgenstein, and that too with Putnam mostly speaking off the top of his head. There were the usual oppositions of how Kripke was wrong and Cora Diamond was amazing, but it didn't seem to me much insight was being generated as much as generalizations being drawn in broad strokes of who is misguided and who is deep. I dropped the course after a few weeks.
In my second year Cavell was offering a course on, if I recall correctly, Austin and Derrida. I was excited to audit the class. But when I started attending the class, the feeling I was mostly left with was that what was happening in the class was passé. In one of the early weeks, at the beginning of the class, Cavell described how when he was a graduate student at Harvard one day he got a call out of the blue with a job offer from Berkeley. He took it, and several years later while at Berkeley, he again got a call out of the blue with a tenured offer from Harvard. He took it again. He said he had never had a job interview in his life, and that perhaps that kind of freedom was essential to do the kind of work he does. To the class filled mostly with graduate students from philosophy, literature and other departments, he offered a somewhat sympathetic sigh and wondered what his career might have been if he was a graduate student now. It seemed to me that the graduate students listened to Cavell's job trajectory, how it happened, with disbelief, as if we were watching a mermaid come to shore. Some seemed to find Cavell's bemoaning the current state of affairs heroic. I found it evasive. If his kind of philosophy could only be done with the freedom he was given, what were the rest of us supposed to do? Since he was silent on this question, it seemed to me he was basically saying: "Tough luck." Soon I stopped auditing the course.
Against this background, being a teaching assistant for Goldfarb's course was a revelation. Cleared of all the clutter and hand waving which Putnam and Cavell seemed to do in class, Goldfarb gave meticulous, pointed, crisp lectures. (You can listen to a talk by Goldfarb here to get a sense for his lectures.) Goldfarb seemed to bring the precision of a logician to a text as unruly as the Investigations without, unlike Kripke, ignoring Wittgenstein's metaphilosophy. If anything, the main thing that excited me about Goldfarb's lectures was how, like Cavell, he insisted on taking the mode of writing of the Investigations seriously. Why was this paragraph next to that paragraph? Why did Wittgenstein write as he did rather than in an essay form? Goldfarb seemed to take these questions seriously, and he integrated them seamlessly into questions of what Wittgenstein believed, or didn't believe, or refused to believe, or allowed himself to believe, on topics such as consciousness, rule following and reference. Goldfarb's Wittgenstein class was the first time I remember feeling I really belonged in academic philosophy.
Which is not to say I completely agreed with Goldfarb or followed him to a tee. No doubt one of the reasons I enjoyed the class was that, being the first time I was a teaching assistant, it was the first time I got to get in front of a bunch of people and in sections express what I thought. If I was simply a student I might have been disgruntled by the overly analytic focus of the course. But as a teaching assistant I was able to integrate into the sections things which I felt were important, probably in a way which Goldfarb himself would have deemed misguided. Whereas Goldfarb connected Wittgenstein in the standard way to Frege, Russell and Moore, in section I gave myself the freedom to think out loud about how Wittgenstein connected to Socrates, Kierkegaard or Heidegger. Whereas Goldfarb seemed to ignore Wittgenstein's ascetic life style, I raised questions in section of how Wittgenstein sought to live his life and what he made of academia and philosophy professors. At the time I used to walk around with a small copy of the Tao Te Ching in my pocket, and I remember in one section opening the Tao and connecting it to something Wittgenstein was saying his text. This might seem disconnected from discussions of mind, meaning and rule following. But what was amazing was how easily with Wittgenstein one could go from talking about the Augustinian conception of language to talking about the human condition. Allowing Wittgenstein's mode of writing to be taken seriously was a breath of fresh air, and it seemed to open everything up. It was glorious.
The Wittgenstein class ended in January 2002. In the spring of that year I started thinking about my prospectus for a dissertation. I can't quite tell now how it started, but over that spring my desire to write a thesis on Wittgenstein morphed into a desire to write my thesis in the way Wittgenstein wrote the Investigations. From May to September of that year I allowed myself the freedom to forget about what a thesis should look like and simply write in the way I was moved to. Since I was fresh off the buzz of teaching for the Wittgenstein class and taking Wittgenstein's mode of writing seriously, what I allowed myself was the freedom to think and write as Wittgenstein did. Not because I was simply mimicking Wittgenstein, anymore than anyone who writes in an essay form is simply mimicking Russell or Carnap. But because I found in that mode of writing an outlet for my thinking, a way to free myself of what felt to be all the institutional baggage that came with writing in the normal journal format, a way to tap into whatever moved me philosophically without imposing on it structures which felt alien to me. It was a gift to myself. They were the happiest months I ever had in academia.
One of the key ideas of Cavell's, and Goldfarb's, interpretation of Wittgenstein is that key moves in philosophy are often the ones made at the very beginning, in the very way a debate or a question is set up. Partly inspired by my reading of Derrida at the time, I decided to take this Cavellian idea seriously, and literally. I took Putnam's classic essay, "The Nature of Mental States", and focused on its introductory paragraph. Six sentences. Three questions. Filled with normal philosophical uses of words like "pain", "know", "other people", "analysis", "concept", "philosopher of mind", and so on. By that point I had studied a fair amount of philosophy of mind, having taken courses by Shoemaker, Ginet, Boyd and others at Cornell, and having just finished my second year paper at Harvard with Richard Heck on McDowell's Mind and World. I was going to be a philosophy of mind person. I knew how I was supposed to engage with Putnam's essay, to evaluate his arguments for functionalism, to see his view in relation to the standard alternatives like identity theory, dualism, eliminativism and so on.
Writing like Wittgenstein gave me a new entry into this terrain. I didn't have to focus on whether Putnam's functionalist view in that paper was right. I was free instead to pursue my deeper interest, which was a kind of understanding of the activity of philosophy. I wanted to understand how Putnam's essay got to have the sense that it is merely thinking through ideas, that it is somehow universal. As with most of my thinking at the time, I was desperate to get a handle on what kind of an education I was getting, of what I was being inculcated into and what I was being implicitly asked to leave behind. Most often I had a sense of being suffocated, of being forced into categories, dichotomies, arguments and narratives at a feverish pitch. I wanted to step back from it all and get my bearings, gather my thoughts. But the flow of courses, semesters, books, articles seemed to yank at me, pull me along as if in a torrent. What I wanted most was to gain perspective on what was happening, to take a time out, but in a philosophical way. Writing like Wittgenstein enabled this. No longer did I have to look at Putnam's essay and think only about how it relates to qualia or to externalism. I could look at the essay, breathe out and ask whatever question I had about the essay. Even if they are questions which might not get me a job, or make me sound cool, or scientific. I could ask the questions for just one reason: because they were real questions for me. That's it. Thinking about Putnam's essay, the main questions I had were: how does this essay have the power that it does, that it makes its thinking seem so obvious and intuitive? And yet why do I also feel bored by it, as if it were missing something crucial, as if it were covering over something and there are crucial confusions here under the surface? What I wanted to understand was both the pull I felt towards the essay, but also my need to resist it, to not be pulled too much into it.
Until the Wittgenstein class I didn't have the vocabulary to connect these institutional questions I had with the standard questions in the philosophy classes I was taking, such as "How is the mind related to the body?", "How is free will possible?", etc. It seemed as if questioning the questions themselves was somehow off the table, as if it showed that I didn't really understand the questions after all, that I must be a philosophical dunce if I didn't accept that the questions were well formed. Hence the revelation and excitement of Goldfarb's Wittgenstein class for me. Here was a space within academic philosophy which was allowing me a chance to raise precisely the kind of questions of disruption of the standard practices which I longed for, but in a way which was also clearly engaging with the impulses towards the standard philosophical questions. After the class it was no longer enough for me to simply read Wittgenstein that way. If it was good enough for Wittgenstein, I felt it ought to be good enough for anybody, including me.
For four months I let myself live into a world where it was perfectly natural that my prospectus could be written in the Wittgensteinian way. I didn't have a central thesis I was arguing for, since the reflections were my attempt to understand my own push and pull with regard to Putnam's essay. As Wittgenstein said in the preface of the Tractatus, the appeal of what I was writing would be for people who had similar thoughts, and found it helpful to have them expressed. I didn't engage with other texts of Putnam, or reference other authors. No quotations, no unnecessary padding, no bibliography. I didn't do anything I didn't want to do. I worked on each sentence and each paragraph, crafting the writing as if I were sculpting. Putting in ideas here, and taking them out there. Writing like Wittgenstein made it clearer why it was so natural for him to write his ideas on cards. Freed of the essay format, he didn't have to treat his writing as having a linear, one-directional form. Each paragraph instead could be treated as a node, which can lead to nodes in any number of directions. In the midst of writing like this, it felt like a world I normally saw in two dimensions was opening to me a third dimension, that connections and links could be seen and drawn which became hidden and buried in the flow of the march of an argument going just from point A to point B.
I wrote about thirty five pages like this, pursuing ideas in the myriad directions my mind took me. I was happy. But could a prospectus really look like this? I didn't care. I felt protected by one thought: If Wittgenstein can write like this and it can be great, why can't others write like this also?
In September of 2002 I gave my prospectus to my committee at the time: Warren Goldfarb, Richard Moran and Susanna Siegel. I informed them in an e-mail that my prospectus was on the first paragraph of Putnam's essay, and that the dissertation would consist of my similarly thinking through Putnam's whole essay. I put copies of my prospectus in my advisors' mailboxes. And I waited.
After a month or so I met with Siegel about the prospectus. She said she found it interesting, that it was not linear but was going in different directions at once. She wondered if this could be accepted as a prospectus. Not knowing myself, I didn't say much. For the most part, being a junior professor at the time, she seemed content to let the senior members on my committee make the call of whether it is suitable prospectus. I thought I saw her give a faint smile, as if she were amused thinking of the halo of Wittgensteinism that was still prevalent back then in Emerson hall and wondering what the resident Wittgensteinians would say.
Another month or so later I met with Moran. He gave me back my copy of the prospectus with thoughts written by him in the margins. A few places I saw he used words like "brilliant" and "exciting". We talked about the different temptations in thinking about the mind, and whether I had captured this or that temptation correctly. It was a fun conversation. Engaging. For a while I thought that perhaps I could write my dissertation like this. But on that key question, Moran also seemed unsure. Goldfarb, being the main Wittgenstein scholar at Harvard, was the head of my committee, and Moran was content to let Goldfarb deal with the administrative issue of whether this can be a dissertation.
Yet another month or so later, I met with Goldfarb. For most of our meeting we talked, as with Moran, about the content of what I wrote, about whether I was capturing accurately this or that temptation, this or that intuition, this or that motivation. We were coming to the end of our meeting, and still no word on whether I could write my dissertation like this. At one point we were talking about one paragraph I had written, and Goldfarb was trying to point out that I seemed to be confused in something I was saying. I defended myself, saying that perhaps Goldfarb was misreading what I meant, and that if we could see how this paragraph relates to that other paragraph, the connection will be clearer. Somewhat exasperated, Goldfarb said, "I am going to go through the trouble of making sense of Wittgenstein because he was a genius. But you are no Wittgenstein."
Something in the way Goldfarb made that remark made me think that he was not speaking about me in particular. He seemed to mean that none of us are Wittgenstein, that only the great man can write the way he did, but for the rest of us mortals our lot is to interpret his text in the standard essay form. I wanted to ask back, not how he knew I wasn't a Wittgenstein (since I was already pretty sure he was in no position to make such a judgment), but how he knew, and why he thought and acted as if, he wasn't a Wittgenstein. More than a put down of me, his remark seemed to me to open up the limits of his confidence in himself as a philosopher, as if he had long resigned himself to being one of the head honchos in the interpreting Wittgenstein game, but that he sensed there was a vast chasm between himself and Wittgenstein.
I should have realized right then that I couldn't write my dissertation that way. After all, the point of advisors is that they are ahead of you in some sense, and can offer guidance on a path which they have traversed and which you are starting to traverse now as well. But how could Goldfarb or Moran advice me in a mode of writing or a mode of doing philosophy which they themselves never seemed to have pursued, and which they might have sensed to be only possible for someone of Wittgenstein's genius but not for more ordinary professionals? Goldfarb's remark suggested that he believed Wittgenstein was better than him as a philosopher and so he Goldfarb couldn't presume to write that way. But given that I was presuming to write that way, it seemed to him as if I were presuming to be a better philosopher than him. In the normal scheme of things, the hierarchy was supposed to be: Wittgenstein, Goldfarb, me. But how can Goldfarb be my advisor if he places himself below Wittgenstein while I place myself along side Wittgenstein? This was one of the puzzles raised by the prospectus.
The main puzzle, however, was that my advisers could say neither 'yes' nor 'no' to the prospectus. They couldn't say 'yes' because the very thing I valued most about Wittgenstein's mode of writing - its utter focus on the individual philosopher's processing of her own thoughts - threatened to undermine the structures of hierarchy within the profession. If philosophical writing was each philosopher's expression of their intellectual journey, how could such writing be ranked? And without rankings, how could it be determined who is a better philosopher than whom, and so determine who gets to have the top jobs? The idea of a meritocracy depends on the idea that there is an objective way to determine where people fall in the hierarchy, as if one's worth as a philosopher is as strait-forward as who can run the fastest. Wittgenstein's mode of writing was, and is, a threat to this idea, since it forgoes the idea of evaluating philosophers altogether, and treats philosophy as each person's journey towards the clarification of their concepts in order to gain peace. This doesn't mean one can't say philosopher X is better than philosopher Y. But it does mean that such judgments are themselves always open to being questioned, and have no institutional grounding. Wittgenstein wasn't interested in the least in how philosophy could function or survive as a profession (he was undeniably a hypocrite in this regard), and he pursued and wrote his ideas accordingly. This is hardly a model for graduate education. For all of Goldfarb's, and Cavell's, emphasis on taking seriously Wittgenstein's way of writing, as academics they could never take this non-institutional nature of Wittgenstein's writing too seriously.
Yet my advisors couldn't say 'no', since there was still, at that time, in the air at Harvard a sense that it was one of the bastions of Wittgensteinian thinking. That unlike the majority of the profession, which was seen to be mired in scientism and problem solving, Harvard cared about depth rather than cleverness. Whereas schools like MIT and Princeton were pushing their graduate students through in 4, 5, 6 years, at Harvard at the time there was still a sense that 9, 10, 11 years was ok. Because what mattered was intellectual depth and a holistic vision of philosophy, rather than whatever it was that was supposed to be silly about Princeton. In Goldfarb's class, as in Putnam's and Cavell's classes, one way this difference was brought out was in the supposed shallowness of Kripke's reading of Wittgenstein, in contrast to the depth of Cavell and Diamond and the later Putnam and Goldfarb, who took seriously how the art of the Investigations as a text was inseparable from its contents. If I was a graduate student at Princeton or Rutgers, perhaps my advisors might have said that the days of Wittgenstein are over and I need to write my thesis in a professional way. But Goldfarb could hardly make this point, and that was the rub. Since I am emulating the grand master's mode of writing, he couldn't dismiss the prospectus just based on how I wrote the prospectus. How then could he dismiss it, if that mode of writing didn't lend itself easily to being graded? I was practicing what he preached in his Wittgenstein class, and so he couldn't dismiss the prospectus out of hand.
If you can't say 'yes' and you can't say 'no', what can you do? Stall. Push away the moment of making a decision. And that is what Goldfarb settled on. At the end of our meeting he said that the committee would need to see more writing of this kind before a decision can be made. I agreed to write some more and give it to them. So I spent the next three to four months writing another twenty five pages on another section of Putnam's essay. And I gave it to the committee.
And I waited. and waited. Three months passed by without a response. I spent my entire fourth year in graduate school, starting from when I gave my committee the first part of my prospectus, waiting to hear if this would work as a dissertation. By the end of the year I was exhausted by my waiting. I wonder now why I didn't make a bigger deal back then and rush into their offices and demand a 'yes' or 'no' answer. But it is clear why I didn't: because I knew as well, deep down, that there was no way that prospectus could be a dissertation.
The more I realized this, the more I got angry. Not mainly at my committee, since they started to seem to me like mere mortals who didn't know what to do. I got angry at Wittgenstein. I thought about what Goldfarb said about me not being Wittgenstein, and I realized he had a point. Not about my philosophical capacity, but about the sociological fact that I wasn't seen as a genius, and so I couldn't write the way Wittgenstein did. The more I thought about my prospectus, the more Wittgenstein's hypocrisy became clearer to me. He leveraged his being categorized as a genius to be in academia without in any way taking responsibility for improving academia or even thinking about how others might continue on his path. Seen from this light, the special halo around the Investigations started to seem rather different; that it seemed unique because it was unique, literally unreplicable because the kind of leverage Wittgenstein was able to have as an academic was no longer possible. I realized Wittgenstein still shines brightly because the sun is setting on the way he was able to do philosophy, assuming that he could do philosophy, get to its "deepest impulses", without talking once about the institutional structures which made his writings possible. From this angle, the very thing I loved the most about Wittgenstein's writing - its steadfast individuality and challenge to hierarchy - seemed like an illusion, that the text in a sense was the height of privilege, because it could pretend as if it was written outside an institutional context, as if it was just a person thinking to himself.
Flooded with these thoughts, I stared at my prospectus and wondered what this thing was that I had written. Wittgenstein is unintelligible to most of the public, and even to most academics, and yet he is praised to the heavens because philosophy professors hail him as a genius. What I wrote most academics wouldn't be bothered to read, and to non-academics it would not be an expression of freedom and equality, as it felt to me as I was writing it, but rather the height of academic arrogance. A whole dissertation on one essay, that too analyzing this word and that, without references, just one person working his way through his thoughts! What is the point? I knew what the point was, because I knew the elation and excitement I felt in writing it. But I also started to realize, to my horror, that the very individual exploration I had prized had rendered my writing into something that possibly only I could really understand, or care about. It was a beautiful expression of my mind, an expression so unique that perhaps only I could see it as something meaningful. Because Wittgenstein had the halo of being a genius, he could write a text in the form of a diary, and have other people dedicate their lives to deciphering the code. But when I, without the institutional halo Wittgenstein had, wrote like Wittgenstein, what I ended up writing was merely a diary of my thoughts. A beautiful diary but without any institutional grounding or home. I had created a private document in what turned out to be in effect a private language. With that thought, my attachment to my Wittgenstein prospectus was cut. Anger turned into disappointment into self-loathing into confusion into a need to distance myself from the prospectus and from Wittgenstein. I threw away the copies I had of the prospectus, and deleted it from my computer.
In the summer after my fourth year I hastily put together a prospectus on the mind-body problem, written in essay form, and gave it to my advisors. The new prospectus was soon approved. My advisors didn't ask me why I changed my mind about the Wittgenstein prospectus, or how I felt about leaving it behind. By that point I didn't care to talk about it with them. Or think too much about it myself.