Wednesday, June 27, 2007

R’ Chaim Brisker and Wittgenstein - intellectual spoilsports

I’m too lazy to track down a source for this story, but as I recall the general outline, the Bais haLevi once was asked to describe the difference between his derech in learning and that of R’ Chaim Brisker. He explained that when someone asked him a question, both he and the questioner walked away happy - the questioner was happy for having thought of a good question, and he was happy for thinking of a good answer. When someone asked R’ Chaim Brisker a question, neither walked away happy. R’ Chaim would invariably show that the question was never a question to begin with, leaving the questioner displeased, and since the question was never a question R' Chaim could never claim to invent answers.

Richard Rorty's recent death spurred me to try to read a little of his work, so I started on “Achieving our Country: American Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America” (easier than a heavy philosophical work). In a footnote to the essay “The Inspirational Value of Great Works of Literature” (this entire essay is online) he notes that Wittgenstein and others in analytic philosophy have been more inclined to dissolve problems rather than to solve them, which does not make for happy colleagues. “Such innovators are always viewed with some suspicion: those brought up on the old problems would like to think that their clever solutions to those problems are permanent contributions to human knowledge. Forty-odd years after its publication, Philosophical Investigations still makes many philosophers nervous. They view Wittgenstein as a spoilsport.”

R’ Chaim Brisker and Wittgenstein – spoilsports of the most intellectually pleasing variety : )


  1. I have always had difficulty with this concept. A question is always based on a lack of understanding, which is ultimately dispelled by the answer.

    Thus, any good answer is in reality a demonstration that the question was rooted in incomplete or false premises.

  2. I enjoyed the cross cultural references, and thanks for the very useful references.

    I do think there is a difference between an answer and "der kashe fahngtzach nicht ohn." As the article states, when reinterpreting the underlying assumptions results in avoiding the question, this is different than accepting the assumptions and creating a new complication. It's like the difference between heliocentric and terracentric astronomy. You can explain regression with both, but with the latter you have to introduce a whole new set of rules, while with the former you need nothing new.

  3. The source of the story with the Bais HaLevi and Reb Chaim is this book.