The era of the psycho-economy and the neuro-economy also appears to be an age of Wittgensteinian problems. Some nuggets of Wittgenstein, scattered through the Philosophical Investigations:
- Just try - in a real case - to doubt someone else's fear or pain.
- You learned the concept 'pain' when you learned language.
- I can know what someone else is thinking, not what I am thinking. It is correct to say "I know what you are thinking" and wrong to say "I know what I am thinking." (A whole cloud of philosophy condensed into a drop of grammar).
- If a lion could speak, we could not understand him
- A dog cannot be a hypocrite but neither can he be sincere
Jack Straw has entered Wittgensteinian territory this week, by discovering that there is no way of diagnosing whiplash following a car accident, other than a declaration of neck pain. A shadowy insurance economy has developed on the back of this epistemological problem. Listen to this fascinating discussion with a doctor from yesterday's Today programme. As Wittgenstein might have said:
How do I know I have whiplash? Because my car has a massive dent in it.
Today, the news is that happy orangutans live longer than unhappy ones. The fact that this has made the headlines might be considered another case of the strange appeal of anthropomorphism in the digital age. Equally, it presumably implies more sunny psycho-optimism for the human race. But as I lay in bed listening to this news item on the radio this morning, I had the unfortunate experience of hearing the great Austrian misery guts muttering in my head:
How do I know my orangutan is happy if he cannot speak? Well - he's still alive, isn't he?
Or maybe the orangutan is French, and is simply experiencing joie de vivre, which confused the scientific researchers into making claims about the relationship between happiness and life. The philosophical riddles are bottomless.
I suspect such riddles are going to become commonplace, as the concern for wellbeing, happiness, quality of life develops, and neuro-mania accelerates. The twentieth century was the century of behaviourism, in which experts were content to watch us, judge us, feed us and regulate us. If we could speak, they should not be able to understand us, or at least were unlikely to try. But the rise of the mind and of the brain since the 1970s has brought subjectivity, interiority and self-consciousness crashing into the apparatus of government and measurement.
One of the striking features of the neuro-ification of society is that its initial impact is that it (as Wittgenstein said of philosophy) leaves everything as it is. Initially, we simply take everything we know to be true - that cocaine is addictive, that cities create sensory overload etc - and re-code these claims via different areas of the brain 'lighting up'. The most interesting aspect of these claims is their banality. Where previously these observations were made on the basis of observation and experience, now they are re-packaged in terms of our objective subjectivity. Could it be that neuroscience is actually one vast misunderstanding of language, as Wittgenstein believed philosophy to be? As he said, "Philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday". Surely the greatest misunderstanding surrounding neuroscience is the notion that language has been bi-passed, and that brains are now speaking their own language.
Then there is the rise of evaluation via the subject, that I partly address here. It is no longer enough to be 'healthy', 'wealthy', 'educated' - all descriptive, implicity behaviourist terms that link us indelibly to society and experts - one has to feel it, to be satisfied, made happy by it. The question is no longer "is this school any good?" but "how does this school make me feel?" and "what do my feelings about this school reveal about the quality of this school?"
This also represents a linguistic holiday. The hope is that experts can be bi-passed in the provision of professional and public services, such that we provide our own personal measures of satisfaction and wellness. No doctor knows how well I am any more, only I do. It transpires that many of us are miserable, no matter what any doctor says about our health; the turn towards 'quality of life' in health economics and 'subjective wellbeing' in economics has greatly raised the value attached to mental health. Could it not be the case that this break down of understanding is contributing to our misery? Might we not be happier if we re-learnt the Wittgensteinian insight that knowledge is social and linguistic, and that the rest is a mystery?
Some people will no doubt wait, until there is a brainscanner in every home, classroom and doctor's surgery, in the hope that then the world will really know how they feel. At which point, the cry will go up "yes, that's it! That part of my brain which shows up red! That is how I have been feeling all along!" Unfortunately, my neuro-maniac, Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations pre-empted this too:
- How do I know that this colour is red? It would be an answer to say: "I have learnt English"
Meanwhile, orangutans will still be best treated well, because that is a more humane way of being human. And car accidents will attract vultures. Things are basically left as they are.