Jun 18, 2012

Whereof one cannot speak, race horses

I'm trying to imagine Ludwig Wittgenstein at the tracks, watching horses race:

Wittgenstein, dour and scowly, austere and logical, surrounded by Kentucky Derby decadence.

Wittgenstein, the ascetic who gave away his fortune twice,who lived in spare, bare, whitewashed rooms and wished to be a saint of the sort praised by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Kierkegaard, taking in the so-called "sport of kings."

I imagine him mumbling, surrounded by julep swillers and discarded racing forms. "I don't know why we are here," he would say, "but I'm pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves."

It's not entirely impossible, though. He could have gone to the tracks -- even the Triple Crown. He did, after all, fly a kite once. He was known to row a boat. He enjoyed detective novels. Maybe watching horses run for money could have been one of the past times he enjoyed between bouts of philosophy.

Or maybe not.

This is someone who once planned to emigrate to the Soviet Union for its (utopian) austerity, and advised students to give up academia for manual labor. Someone who twice himself tried to make a life as a monastery gardener. And who, of course, wrote forever of logic and language and meaning in an ongoing struggle with the seriousness and un-seriousness of thinking, who engaged from beginning to end in philosophical interventions into and against philosophy, who was fighting philosophy with philosophy most of his life, and attempting radical ethics the rest of it.

I find it difficult to reconcile these struggles -- the struggle to be an ascetic, a saint, and the struggle to defeat philosophy -- with the idea of Wittgenstein and horse racing. Wittgenstein and what Hunter S. Thompson once called "some jaded, atavistic freakout with nothing to recommend it except a very saleable 'tradition.'"

It's very odd, then, I think -- queer, Wittgenstein would say -- that in the biggest horse-racing story of the year, Wittgenstein turns out to play such a central role.

Wittgenstein, who doesn't actually make the news with any regularity, has been important in exactly one news story this year, and it's a horse racing story. The horse racing story of 2012.

The story is J. Paul Reddam's.

Reddam is the owner of I'll Have Another, the 3-year-old horse who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes and was a fan favorite for the third leg of the "Triple Crown," the Belmont Stakes. The build up to the third race was pretty big. I'll Have Another looked to be the first horse with a shot at all three wins in a while, and there was a chance he'd win and would "join an elite group [of famous race horses] that includes Secretariat, Citation and Affirmed," as Sports Illustrated put it.

In the build-up, journalists looked as they always do in these situations for a good story, an arc of some sort to work with and hang facts on, even though the time between races is fundamentally non-narrative. And they wrote about Reddam. And they asked Reddam about philosophy. Specifically, they asked him, when he won, what philosopher summed that up. Kind of a weird question, but he answered it.

He said: Wittgenstein.

What?

Wittgenstein.

And he said, "After all the philosophical problems have been solved, nothing of importance will have been accomplished."

That, Reddam said, was his philosophy of horse racing. The reason he got into horse racing in the first place. That was what summed up winning for him.

I don't know who the reining philosopher of horse racing was before that, but he was dethroned temporarily by the man the Washington Post called "the arcane Austrian thinker." At least for a few days, until I'll Have Another had a tendon problem and was pulled from the final competition the night before the race, and retired from racing for good.

I can't find the source of the quote -- "After all the philosophical problems have been solved, nothing of importance will have been accomplished" -- but it sums up Wittgenstein's idea that philosophy should be therapy. That is, that philosophy is itself something to be solved, and if done right, dissolved, that is, resolved, and resolved for good. So that one could get on to the more important things.

This idea persists across Wittgenstein's work.

In the earliest intervention into philosophy, the Tractatus, for example, he writes, "My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)" (6.54). The idea being that "my propositions," Wittgenstein's sentences, rightly understood, would bring an end to the confusion called philosophy. It is only then, he writes, one "sees the world rightly" (6.54), and sees "The riddle does not exist" (6.5).

He continues this latter, making it more explicit, more central, as his thinking develops into a pronounced anti-philosophy philosophy. In Philosophical Occasions, Wittgenstein claims that, correctly understood, "Philosophizing is: rejecting false arguments" because "The philosopher strives to find the liberating word, that is, the word that finally permits us to grasp what up to now has intangibly weighed down upon our consciousness." (p. 165), so that "The problems are dissolved in the actual sense of the word — like a lump of sugar in water" (p. 183, italics original).

In Philosophical Investigations, he calls philosophy a "house of cards" (§ 118), clutter that needs to be cleared away. And further, says that "The real discovery is the one which enables me to stop doing philosophy when I want to. The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself into question" (§ 133).

In On Certainty, in a classic example of Wittgensteinian humour, he writes,
"I am sitting with a philosopher in the garden; he says again and again 'I know that that's a tree,' pointing to a tree that is near us. Someone else arrives and hears this, and I tell them: 'This fellow isn't insane. We are only doing philosophy.'"
So why is Reddam quoting or paraphrasing this? What does this concept of the resolution or dissolution of philosophy -- of philosophy, rightly understood, as therapy to solve the problem of philosophy wrongly understood -- have to do with the Triple Crown? What's it have to do with I'll Have Another, or horses at all, and racing around an oval in 2:01.83?

The answer: J. Paul Reddam.

Reddam, it turns out, used to be a philosophy professor. Specifically specializing in analytic philosophy, on logic and ethics at California State University, Los Angeles. Which meant, apparently, Wittgenstein.

He used to be a philosopher professor professing the logic and ethics of Wittgenstein, until he decided the whole point of there not being any point to philosophy meant, for him, horse racing.

For him the end of the struggle with serious and un-serious thinking, that final moment of throwing away Wittgenstein's ladder, that moment of philosophy overcoming philosophy, ended not with some great ethical enterprise, not monastic gardens or Soviet manual labor or some other form of an ascetic life of sainthood, but another path entirely. For Reddam the therapy of philosophy ended with a kind of moral nihilism: none of it matters.

According to the New York Times, Reddam dabbled in horse racing even before he gave up academia. At one point using a Canadian government scholarship to buy himself a stake in a race horse. When he gave up philosophy -- putting this together from the NYT, the Washington Post and NPR -- this was the alternative path he pursued:
  • Full time horse race bettor. 
  • Mortgage banker for his father's firm.
  • Founder of his own mortgage lending firm, Ditech, "a mortgage lender that became known for its aggressive marketing of mortgages, some of which were subprime." 
  • Sold the company to a GMC subsidiary for $240 million.
  • Left his position at the company when three of his managers are indicted on charges of extorting kickbacks.
  • Founded CashCall, a payday loan company, "a company that makes unsecured loans to high-risk borrowers." Also known as predatory exploitation of poor people. Annual interest rates started at 35%, and went all the way up to 184.36%.
  • Used Gary Coleman, former star of Diff'rent Strokes, to advertise payday loans.
  • Expanded CashCall into business of refinancing dubious mortgages.
  • Got in trouble in California, Maryland and West Virginia, where his company was accused of violating consumer protection laws: Jerry Brown, at the time California's Attorney General, called him a loan shark. In West Virginia, his company is being accused of usury.
  • Parlayed business success into horse racing enterprise. 
As Frank Deford said, in a cranky editorial for NPR, Reddam "is invariably described as a former philosophy professor -- as if he still strolls the hills and dales alone, contemplating his favorite philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein." But his more recent activity is of a decidedly different character.

But so what?

It's not like Reddam's the first to exploit the poor using high finance. Reddam's not the only one who gave up lecture halls, office hours, and faculty meetings to pursue money, money, and lots of money. It's not like, even if the accusations of all three states against CashCall turn out to be true, he'll have tarnished the moral reputation of horse racing. Reddam's not the first shady character of questionable morality to take an active interest in the sport of running Thoroughbreds.

I don't particularly care about Reddam. He is what he is. I'm not committed to the nobility of horse racing, and not shocked or appalled that this might be the human face of horse racing.

But what does this say about Wittgenstein?

More people may well have heard that name in this context than in any other. This is how Wittgenstein crops up in the news right now -- this the is the story where his name and his ideas will appear in the mass portion of the media this year, and maybe for years to come. This is Wittgenstein as presented today:
"After all the philosophical problems have been solved, nothing of importance will have been accomplished. So, we got into horse racing."
What bothers me about this is it's not entirely alien to Wittgenstein's conception of philosophy dissolving. It's not exactly obvious or overwhelmingly clear how this is the wrong interpretation of Wittgenstein's philosophy-as-therapy.

When Wittgenstein gave up logic, it was for ethics. It was for more asceticism, not less.

But why?

Can we say, somehow, how that's the legitimate life after philosophy -- manual labors, bare rooms, renounced fortunes -- and this other, alternative path of usury and horse racing is illegitimate? Say how the one's obviously right and the other clearly wrong according to Wittgenstein's thinking?

This, after all, is the realm of what is unsaid in Wittgenstein's thought. It's the region of what can't be said -- and if it isn't said and can't be said, that what's the argument from that that opposes Reddam's interpretation of Wittgenstein?

Wittgenstein says, in a letter on the Tractatus, "my work consists of two parts: of the one which is here, and of everything which I have not written. And precisely this second part is the important one." From his life, one would conclude this important "second part" was Tolstoyian monk-dom. Is that argument clear enough and strong enough, however, to make a persuasive case it couldn't also be the hedonism of horse racing, the lackadaisical, laissez faire ethics of payday loans?

Wittgenstein says, famously, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

The question -- the critical, ethical question -- is how to gloss that silence. How to interpret it. What is the character of that silence? What is that silence in human action, and how does one live it out? How does one interpret that and get from that to the kind of intense attempt at a better form of life Wittgenstein himself evidences?

Or does the silence -- that apparent ethical claim of after philosophy's solved -- really not mean that at all?

As Reddam reads it, his "favorite philosopher" and that philosopher's silence at the end of philosophy, the answer isn't ethical angst, isn't striving, isn't radical experiments in austere living. For him the end of Wittgenstein, the silent part, is just the imperative: Enjoy! Race horses! And I'll Have Another.