Drakopoulos, Pan: Hayek and Wittgenstein

b) Do we form our knowledge through reaction?

Wittgenstein interrupted him saying that those were problems of Logic not of Philosophy (the reader will realize that what is here called philosophy –as well as at the School of Vienna– is an attempt to bury metaphysics). Popper answered him that there are ethical problems as well as problems of validity of ethical rules. At this point Wittgenstein, who was sitting near the fireplace, grabbed the brass poker and waving it like a conductor’s baton, ordered him in a state of agitation: “Give us an example of ethical law!” Popper answered him promptly: “Don’t use a poker to threaten your guest-speakers!” Instantly, Wittgenstein tossed away the poker with rage and rushed out of the room shutting the door with a bang.

Popper caused a sensation (perhaps for my reader, too) thanks to a rhetorical transposition of the subject; in fact –we must admit– he lowered the level of the discussion by referring not to the subject but to the manners of his interlocutor. He didn’t give a philosophical answer (which he could), but he took refuge in an argumentum ad hominem, that is, in a typical sophistry which would not normally have been accepted. The only excuse for the members of the philosophical club was their surprise at the unexpectedly rude and intensely-voiced rivalry between the two Austrian thinkers.

In any case Hayek, being convinced that his cousin was not well, ceased to behave in a wounded way, and started developing solicitous feelings at that. He began to visit him in his attic in a Trinity College building across the road, to sit and talk with him for a while by his stove, mindfully avoiding political and philosophical topics. Hayek would even run some errands for his cousin realizing his weakness in managing practical issues –in particular those that had something to do with the authorities– and his irrational obstinacy in ludicrous small details.

The Second World War had caused Ludwig Wittgenstein great distress. His dismay over his beloved sister’s fate, his guilt that he proved unable to understand Nazism, his conviction that in crucial moments a philosopher should only become a silent servant, and many other things I would not like to comment on, made him withdraw from the University and hide himself away as a male nurse in the corridors of pain and death in a hospital.

Hayek, on the other hand, went on teaching undauntedly, and he taught in an idiosyncratic way: “I used to teach my students what I had been taught by great masters; what had influenced me and not what they primarily said or what made them known”, he explained in one of his essays. Instead of withdrawing himself, as his cousin did, he directly increased his public activities by speaking within and outside the University, and by writing about and explaining and buttressing his ideas.

After the end of the war, Buckingham Palace invested him with an order. The master of ceremonies asked him the exact pronunciation of his name in order to announce him. He answered: “Hi-yek, as in High-Explosive”. And this is exactly what he was. Just look at his bibliography (you can find it in John Gray’s book Hayek on Liberty ) which contains (up to 1984) more than 135 articles, 16 thick books, 12 monographs and many other texts (introductions, publications edited by him etc.). Just look at the think-tanks he established in 34 countries with more than 450 executives. `High Explosive’ he was. One can see it also in the breadth of his interests, the fact that he has written on so many subjects –economy, sociology, social anthropology, psychology and also philosophy.

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