Wittgenstein Wednesday: March 27, 2019


It’s a good thing I don’t allow myself to be influenced!

Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1929 (Culture and Value, 1)

I’m not sure whether I should read this as sarcasm or youthful arrogance. Most people would follow that up with a cliche [“Or is it a little bit of both?”]. Interestingly, a cliche is representative of unoriginal thinking. Of course, being completely detached from context, there’s no way to tell. I could scour Wittgenstein’s biography and try to determine if there was some event in 1929 to which he’s referring. But that’s not important nor is it part of my purpose.

There is something of truth value in thinking along the lines of sarcasm versus youthful arrogance. We do want to be original, at least in some respects. In pop psychology terms we speak about the struggles of adolescence and young adulthood, one of those struggles being the tension between the search for individual identity and the need for acceptance by peers. Although we like to couch that tension in terms of adolescence, it’s actually present throughout most of life. It’s certainly pronounced in adolescents. One might even say that it represents a theme of adolescence. But I think we are being dishonest with ourselves if we fail to recognize that this tension stays with us for a significant amount of time, even into middle age and beyond.

In many respects, the tension between the individual and the group could be regarded as descriptive of human existence. We constantly ask ourselves (even when we don’t realize it) questions like, “Am I being (or am I able to be) my authentic self?” “Who or what is my authentic self?” “Do I fit in?” “Am I accepted by my peers (family, community, coworkers)?”

Some people are afraid to be themselves for fear of failure or rejection. Some people are seen as pathologically individualistic to the detriment of the group. People work in jobs they hate, remain in familial or friendship situations that are toxic, destructive, or dangerous, and chase fads in the dual hope that the latest diet (fashion, New Age pseudo-spirituality, job) will make them feel more like who they want to be and appear more acceptable (attractive, qualified) to a particular group.

Many of our political and social disagreements arise, fundamentally, out of this tension. Some want to elevate the group above the individual in politics, economics, and policy. Others want to do the opposite. And others propose that there’s some way to balance the two, that one need not be exclusive of the other. But those in the last group are, more often than not, drowned out in the cacophony of the conflict between the other two — most likely vocal minorities — who are just simply convinced that they’re right.

And, of course, they don’t allow themselves to be influenced.

Perhaps Wittgenstein was not trying to express either arrogance or sarcasm. Perhaps this wasn’t intended literally at all.

Anyone with a mediocre level of critical thinking skills can immediately recognize that, “of course I’m influenced.” The question is by whom or what? Or, perhaps more accurately, by whom or what do we allow ourselves to be influenced? After all, the decision over who we are (or will be) is up to us individually. What groups we do or do not belong to (with obvious exceptions) is also up to us individually. And there are other fundamental questions that arise from this observation.

How deliberate and careful am I in putting my own self together?

Do I allow my own self-identity to (at least in part) guide me and determine to what groups I do (or wish to) belong? Or, conversely, do I allow groups to construct my sense of self for me (at least in part)?

What sources of information do I value? Do I have any values when it comes to the information I consume and thereby make a part of my psychological and social makeup?

Do I make decisions based primarily on group concerns or individual concerns? Do I even really know how I make decisions? Or does it seem like all my important decisions are, somehow, already made for me?

There aren’t any simple answers to any of these questions. And naturally, the truth lies somewhere in between some of the alternatives. We all have a duty to ourselves (even if we don’t fulfill that duty) to figure out who it is we actually are or, at the very least, wish to be. We also have duties to groups, to others not ourselves, even if we don’t fulfill those duties either.

Ultimately, the problem comes down to rigorously and deliberately constructing a sense of identity and worldview that is not ad hoc. We cannot get behind the wheel of a car blindfolded with no destination in mind and expect to arrive anywhere meaningful — that is, if we don’t kill ourselves in the process. But that’s how a lot of people live their lives. And I think it’s fair to say that it’s how many of us have lived our lives at some points.

If you say things to yourself like, “It’s a good thing I don’t allow myself to be influenced,” you’re probably being arrogant or sarcastic. But at least you’re thinking about the problem in ways beyond the cliche: “I need to find myself.” And that means something, because if you’re trying to find yourself, you’re probably blindfolded behind the wheel without a destination.

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