Woodrow Wilson News & Publications
WW NEWSLETTER EXTRA: Spring 2011 - THE NEWCOMBE FELLOWS: 1981-2011
Understanding What Can’t Be Understood:
James C. Klagge CN ’81 Perseveres
The work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, widely considered one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, is notoriously difficult. “He said over and over again that he wasn’t understood, he wouldn’t be understood, nobody understood him,” notes James C. Klagge CN ’81. “Of course, it puts me in a funny bind—suggesting that I’m going to help people understand why he can’t be understood.”
In Wittgenstein in Exile (MIT Press, 2011), Dr. Klagge argues that the difficulty of understanding Wittgenstein lies in the philosopher’s sense of being an exile—in time. “I think, in his conception of himself, Wittgenstein identified with an earlier era of thought,” Dr. Klagge says. “He wasn’t so much a geographical exile as a temporal exile.” It is, in part, this distancing from modern mechanistic thought and discourse that positions Wittgenstein to investigate modes of language. “He sees himself as coming from a different style of thinking, and that makes it difficult for us to understand what he was up to.”
So did Wittgenstein consider this difficulty of understanding to be ontological? “I don’t think so,” Dr. Klagge replies. “In fact, one of the positions he takes in his later book, the Philosophical Investigations, is that there can’t be a completely private language. Part of what that means, I think, is that things that are interior can be explicated—can be put into words. So I don’t think his position is that there is some fundamental inability to understand other people; in the case I’m trying to highlight, it’s a gap between different styles of thinking.”
In more than a quarter-century at Virginia Tech—the last four as chair of the Department of Philosophy—Dr. Klagge has taught and written not only on Wittgenstein, but also on topics as diverse as ancient Greek philosophy, the metaphysical foundations of moral thought, supervenience, the meaning and meaningfulness of life, and the ethics of bootlegging Bob Dylan.
He has also brought his philosophical perspectives to various roles in local public life: school board member and chair (in which role he guided a debate over a Native American high school mascot); Virginia Supreme Court-certified mediator for Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts; and deliverer of occasional sermons in local churches, interweaving Biblical and philosophical references.
“I take myself to be a person for whom it’s important to engage with the community and with other people in a broad range of ways,” he says. “To me, that’s what ethics and values really involve: engagement with other people. Mediation, belonging to the NAACP, belonging to a church community—they’re all of a piece. I’m trying to live a good life.”
“My academic interests somewhat support that,” he adds, noting that since his fairly technical dissertation work on the relationship between descriptive and moral language, his interest in Wittgenstein has brought new dimensions to the question. “How do our ways of talking and thinking about the world relate to each other? When we talk about the world morally, when we talk about each other from a mental or psychological point of view, when we talk about the world from a scientific perspective, how do these different ways of thinking and talking relate to each other? Wittgenstein was interested in these issues, so that’s a line of connection in my work.”
It’s also a life of perseverance: Dr. Klagge deliberately tackles both long books and long running events. He has run more than a dozen marathons in the past decade, including part of a 50-mile ultra-marathon, and his marathon reading has included the unabridged Les Miserables, Gödel Escher Bach, The Life of Johnson, Tom Jones, War and Peace, Don Quixote, and other famously lengthy tomes, with more on his list. “I like big projects,” he says. “They appeal to me in that they require a lot of me, and in a different way, I suppose the breadth of my life also requires a lot of me.”
In addition to his many other commitments, Dr. Klagge has also served since 2007 as a reader for the Newcombe Fellowship competitions, reviewing 25 to 30 applications each year as part of the preliminary scoring process to select finalists. He has done similar reviewing assignments for the Ford Foundation and other organizations.
“I enjoy serving as a Newcombe reader,” he says, “because it gives me a chance to read a wide variety of what people are working on, and to use my sense of what stands out as especially important, especially well thought-through, especially creative. To be able to put a stamp of encouragement on that is a neat opportunity for me. I also think it’s a good thing for the field to have an independent fellowship like this that supports excellence in values and ethics in a straightforward financial way. That’s a real encouragement to the discipline.”
Does he think that being a Newcombe Fellow conveys a certain message to others? As a department chair, Dr. Klagge says, he notices the Newcombe on a C.V. during a faculty search. “It’s certainly an indication that the person’s work has been carefully formulated and reviewed and is significant. Newcombe dissertations are ones that take on big issues, interesting issues, and important issues.” The Fellows, he adds, tend to be able to present their work across fields. When they apply to the Newcombe Competition, he points out, “They know their applications are going to be evaluated by people outside their field, and so they’re challenged to articulate their work in a somewhat broader fashion. So the Newcombe Fellowship does encourage that broader thinking.”