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.
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.
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.
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
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.