Beyond Understanding

By Andy Martin
The New York Times, November 21, 2010

Edited by Andy Ross

In his book Mindblindness, Simon Baron-Cohen argues that consciousness enables us to read other people's minds and that autistic people are mindblind. Autism is a spectrum disorder. The symptoms of its milder or high functioning forms are suboptimal social and communication skills.

In 1929, Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore accepted Ludwig Wittgenstein's book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus as his Cambridge doctoral thesis. The book had a persistent theme of propositions that say nothing. Its final Proposition 7 is translated in English as: "Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must remain silent." This may be a hint that Wittgenstein was autistic.

Wittgenstein has frequently been categorized as autistic. Sula Wolff analyzed Wittgenstein as a classic case of Asperger's syndrome — articulate, numerate and not visibly dysfunctional, but nevertheless awkward and unskilled in social intercourse. Wittgenstein admitted to having difficulty working out what people were really going on about.

Consider Jean-Paul Sartre, who said "Hell is other people." The fear of faces and the "gaze of the other" that Sartre analyzes are classic symptoms. Sartre described Flaubert as autistic and also said "Flaubert c'est moi." Sartre's theory that Flaubert is autistic and everything he writes is a form of compensation could easily apply to his own work.

Perhaps all philosophers are autistic. Perhaps it is why we end up studying philosophy. A psychologist might say that we take up philosophy precisely because we don't get what other people are saying to us. Like Wittgenstein, we have a habit of hearing and seeing propositions, but feeling that they say nothing. Philosophy would be a tendency to interpret what people say as a puzzle of some kind.

Wittgenstein once said that if you want to be a good philosopher, you should become a car mechanic. He invented his model of language during the First World War while working as a car mechanic: Wittgenstein and the art of car maintenance.

The idea that philosophers are somehow autistic might explain the preponderance of male philosophers. The accepted male-to-female ratio for autism is roughly 4:1. By some accounts, the ratio for Asperger's is 10:1. Hans Asperger wrote that the autistic mind is "an extreme variant of male intelligence."

Understanding can be coercive and suffocating. Isn't it just another aspect of your hegemony to claim to understand me quite so well? Simone de Beauvoir gave her first novel an epigraph derived from Hegel: "Every consciousness seeks the death of the other."

Language arises because of the scope for misunderstanding. We need noises and written signs. Language compensates for an empathy deficit. But with or without language, I can still misread the signs. Autism only arises when there is an expectation of understanding.

AR  I find this persuasive. Maybe I'm an Aspie too.