A bad diagnosis [or] Autism implies canism

Tue 23 Nov 2010 11:24 AM

The New York Times has an item by Andy Martin which suggests that philosophy and autism are somehow connected. The idea is that "autism can be defined, at one level, by a lack of understanding" and that "given the way humans interact with one another, there is always a potential mystery concealed within the most elementary statement. ... [T]he possibility of misunderstanding lurking at the core of every sentence." Reading Martin unsympathetically, I might reconstruct the line of thought as the following fallacious syllogism:

1. Autism involves not understanding.

2. Philosophy involves not understanding.

3. Therefore, autism is philosophy.

A more sympathetic reconstruction is this: Because of the limitations of language and comprehension, there is always a limit to understanding. Philosophers, especially the ones he mentions, are concerned with this phenomenon. We can never fully understand one another, so (Martin suggests) we are always somewhere along the autism spectrum.

Martin's central example is Wittgenstein, who was certainly a pathological case. He gives the following as an example of Wittgenstein's inability to understand people:

An illustrative true story: he is dying of cancer; it is his birthday; his cheerful landlady comes in and wishes him "Many happy returns, Mr. Wittgenstein"; he snaps back, "There will be no returns."

This is a story about a bitter, dying misanthrope. I find it charming, in a way. Some anecdotes are revealing of a person's character, and there must be space in the world for some people to be bitter misanthropes. For Martin, however, it becomes a symptom Asperger's Syndrome. By diagnosing Wittgenstein's condition, Martin domesticates the uncomfortable Wittgenstein. He suggests that we can understand Wittgenstein as afflicted.

In this respect, however, Martin's own practice overturns his thesis. If understanding is really impossible, then the feeling of familiarity and safety we get by diagnosing someone is just an illusion. If a deep metaphysical fact blocks us from understanding a philosopher by doing philosophy, then doing clinical psychology won't do any better.

Martin also gives the example of Sartre:

Consider, for example, Sartre's classic one-liner, "Hell is other people." Wouldn't autism, with its inherent poverty of affective contact, go some way towards accounting for that?

Ack! The "one-liner" is not just a free-floating bon mot that appears in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. It's the punch-line of the play No Exit, and, in the play, it is not just any other people that are hell. Rather, there are three specific characters who constitute hell for one another. As the characters say explicitly, the problem is that they understand one another too well. Martin's interpretive framework misses the whole point of the play. He misunderstands, not because the metaphysical form of autism as such precludes understanding, but just because he's obsessed with the rubric of 'autism'.

As a footnote: As Carl Sachs points out (in a FaceBook thread) there is also a sexist middle-bit to Martin's rambling article. Martin uses the fact that more men than women are autistic to explain why more men than women have been philosophers. As Carl notes, however, this elides the oppressive politics which have kept women out of academia.

Addendum: Brian Leiter rounds up other excoriating comments about Martin's piece.