There is something so inane, so intellectually lazy, about ascribing recently invented psychological categories to figures from the past on the basis of their writing and the anecdotes about them. Yesterday’s NYT Blogs offer the unoriginal “insight” that Wittgenstein, Russell, and Sartre may have been autistic.1 First, “autistic,” like any other diagnostic category, is intended to diagnose, not to label. Unless it is being used to place a particular therapeutic course in context, it is meaningless. Second, making any psychological or medical diagnosis without the full fidelity of interacting with a patient is as irresponsible as standing on the Senate floor and insisting that a comatose woman, hundreds of miles away, will recover. And third, in suggesting that many philosophers were autistic, the idea, clearly, is to rely on unsaid presuppositions about autism to deploy unsaid claims about the relevance of philosophy, to wink at the reader and say, between the lines, that we may not be that smart, but at least we’re normal.
This tired trope is bad analysis. But, more vile, it also pathologizes the effort to think abut the world with discipline and rigor, another bit of trash floating in the sewer of the anti-intellectual tradition.
1Ref: Andy Martin, “Beyond Understanding,” The New York Times, November 21, 2010