For some people (and I include myself among them), there is an uncomfortable feeling in the air when you are in a meeting with strangers and someone ask politely about your job. Then you hesitate for a while and your brief answer is: I am a teacher, secondary school teacher. After that, the following question makes you feel almost embarrassed. “I am philosophy teacher”, you dare to whisper. If you are of this kind of philosophers, no doubt that you are under the Wittgenstein’s complex.
This is called to the personal vision of philosophy defended by this philosopher. Everybody –coming from the ashamed fields of philosophy- already knows who was this thinker. Wittgenstein always understood philosophy as a rather useless knowledge, opposite to what science, and more especificaly, technique could offer to mankind: practical and useful wisdom, able to change the life conditions and enhance life conditions. Instead of that, philosophy was some kind of mistake in the human language, a nonsense jargon, deep questions without any satisfactory answer, but that human beings were condemned to formulate by some kind of magic spell on our nature.
For Wittgenstein, the abilites of a mason or a worker in factory are quite superior to all knowledge adquired by philosophy and pure sciences. It is quite known the anecdote when some of his best students asked him what study or occupation he should follow. Wittgenstein's answer couldn't be more disappointing: go back to your little town and learn something useful. Brilliant minds that could stand out in the fields of maths, physics or philosophy should better be sent to dark factories, in the opinion of Wittgenstein. An average worker who could make simple nuts or screws for a more complex machines was a real heroe for Wittgenstein, instead of philosophers and matemathicians.
Of course, all the story could be a complete paradox, and we could accuse Wittgenstein as a complete imposter if he were not doubting during his whole life about the dignity of being a philosophy teacher and a thinker himself; more than once he renounced to all conventions and left his promising scholarship and his job as a university teacher in Cambridge, becoming a soldier, a primary school teacher, a gardener, a stretcher-bearer during the war, or even an eremit. But looks are deceiving: we could object that this continous change of occupations were possible because Wttgenstein in fact was brought up in one of the richest families in the Austrohungarian Empire, and we could doubt that he has ever had any real problem of subsistence.
This negative vision of philosophy is at odds with Aristotle’s first concept of this knowledge. The macedonian thinker took philosophy in a very high steem, as a first science, completly free from any bounds with human needs. That was what made philosophy a major wisdom: its complete uselessness. Because it was useless, no tie or bound should be linked with any human need. Therefore, it was just thinking for the mere pleasure of thinking. The more abstract was the subject (as metaphysics) the highest and purest. But Aristotle’s society was a culture where handwork was a slave’s task, and not a noble occupation for free men. Philosophy meant something more than accuteness or inteligence: it was a social class symbol, a leisure for rich people.
Too much time have passed from Boetius, when he stated that philosophy was the only consolation he could afford in his jail, waiting for an unfair capital punishment, and wrote a memorable essay where he received the visit of a young lady, who comforted him in his last hours discussing about good and evil, death and eternal life.
What happened between Aristotle and Wittgenstein? More than the eruption of science, it was the emergence of a new concept of work what have condemned philosophy to ostrascism, as too many other old sacred things. The old sense of nobility is translated after capitalism in terms of utility. All that once was sacred, vanished, Marx reminded in the Communist Manifiest. That is why after the industrial revolution and the fall of the aristocracy feelings in education, Aristotle’s view started to be seen as shameful.
Even Wittgenstein was a weird example in his age, when an outstanding and powerful economist like Keynes still was writting sophisticated ethical works and was a refined antique collector, and a first range politian as Churchill was educated under the lectures of Gibbon and was able to write masterpiece books in the field of militar history. But the world they wanted to control and dominate, had different rules and they knew that: they saw themselves as a part of a decreasing intelectual aristocracy, condemned to dissapear in the long run with other terrible and beatiful things.
And throughout the wide period between the end of the Great War and the downfall of Communism, the sacred veil of philosophy vanished. It doesn’t count if this is the moment where more books and essays on philosophy are written. Philosophy is out of our lives and our culture, weak, improductive, and in a world definitively designed for profit in the short term as globalization is, becomes an imposible task to face. Recent surveys suggested that common people are unable to stay more than ten minutes thinking about themselves and the goals of their own lives. How could this task be the main occupation in their existences? How can current philosophers bear this overwhelming pressure from our own culture?