Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The early Wittgenstein on scientism

Your quote of the day, from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena. (6.371)

So people stop short at natural laws as something unassailable, as did the ancients at God and Fate.

And they are both right and wrong. But the ancients were clearer, in so far as they recognized one clear terminus, whereas the modern system makes it appear as though everything were explained. (6.372)

My comments: The supposition that “the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena” is an “illusion” for two reasons (which do not necessarily correspond to Wittgenstein’s reasons). First, “laws of nature” are mere abstractions and cannot explain anything. What exist in the natural order are concrete material substances with certain essences, and talk of “laws of nature” is merely shorthand for the patterns of behavior they tend to exhibit given those essences. Second, that some fundamental level of material substances (basic particles, or whatever) exist and behave in accordance with such laws can also never be the ultimate explanation of anything, because we need to know, not only how such substances came into existence, but what keeps them in existence. For as compounds of act and potency and essence and existence, they cannot possibly account for themselves; only that which is Pure Act and Subsistent Existence Itself can be the ultimate explanation of them, or of anything else. In general, whatever is composite in any way requires explanation in terms of that which is metaphysically simple. (As usual, see The Last Superstition and Aquinas for the full story.)

Wittgenstein himself did not see this, despite seeing the hollowness of scientism. To be sure, unlike Carnap and Co., he could see that there was something to the questions raised by traditional metaphysics:

The sense of the world must lie outside the world. (6.41)

Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is. (6.44)

We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. (6.52)

But he hadn’t sufficiently extricated himself from the positivistic assumptions prevailing in early twentieth-century analytic philosophy to see that there was also something to the answers given by traditional metaphysics. The line from 6.52 above is followed by:

Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer. (6.52)

The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem. (6.521)

The right method of philosophy would be this: To say nothing except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science, i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying to the other -- he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy -- but it would be the only strictly correct method. (6.53)

Of course, the theory of meaning these passages embody would make philosophy itself – the very thing Wittgenstein was doing in the Tractatus – impossible. Which he realized, which is why he characterized his own propositions as ultimately “senseless,” a ladder that must be kicked away once one has reached the top (6.54), and why he famously recommended a kind of quietism in the face of the resulting paradox:

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. (7)

But this quite obviously will not do, which is why there is such a thing as the later Wittgenstein. Unfortunately, even the latter refused to see in traditional metaphysics, or in any metaphysics, genuine answers to the questions he continued to acknowledge as important ones. In part this owes to his idiosyncratic philosophical commitments; in part it owes, surely, to his proud and profound ignorance of the history of philosophy. (Notoriously, Wittgenstein acknowledged, without shame, that he had never read a word of Aristotle.) Hence he did not see that “the ancients” were “clearer,” not only about having reached “one clear terminus,” but about why their terminus – Pure Act, the One, ipsum esse subsistens – was, rationally, the only possible terminus.

All the same, Wittgenstein is brilliant and full of insights, and does not deserve the dismissive treatment he afforded his predecessors. But I’m afraid this “hit and run” is all I’ve time for tonight…

12 comments:

Jonathan said...

I suspect you will enjoy this documentary http://www.openculture.com/2010/06/dangerous_knowledge.html
It reminded me of the thoughts your post raised

mpresley said...

In order to begin to understand, one must first "feel" the mystery. It is an uncanny thing, and something very difficult to speak of--at least to those unfamiliar. Once one has experienced, one begins to understand. Anent Wittgenstein, even if one does not follow his logical symbolism, one can, by close reading, understand his meaning.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Perhaps this has something to do with Lao Tzu's:

The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.

If so, one difference is that this is where Wittgenstein ended up, but where the "old master" began.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

Witt on science: http://butler-harris.org/archives/253

"When, in the 'twenties, Russell wanted to establish, or join, a 'World Organization for Peace and Freedom' or something similar, Wittgenstein rebuked him so severely, that Russell said to him: 'Well, I suppose you would rather establish a World Organization for War and Slavery', to which Wittgenstein passionately assented: 'Yes, rather that, rather that!'"

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

One thing I find fascinating (or maybe two things) about the TLP is how Wittgenstein frequently invokes form and matter in his analysis of meaning and structure. The form is the possibility of the structure (2.033, 2.15). There is also a lot more talk of essence than is commonly recognized.

hype said...

Session 9 yet, Doc Feser??

Edward Feser said...

Hello Hype, I replied just last night in the other combox: Yes, I saw it, and it's a terrific movie. Thanks!

Just Thinking said...

Jon

That vid was very good, and very disturbing. I am sure iy affected my sleep.

It points to our futility in grasping the transcendent, our drive nevertheless to do so, and the inherent uncertainty even of the immanent noumena.

Maolsheachlann said...

"When, in the 'twenties, Russell wanted to establish, or join, a 'World Organization for Peace and Freedom' or something similar, Wittgenstein rebuked him so severely, that Russell said to him: 'Well, I suppose you would rather establish a World Organization for War and Slavery', to which Wittgenstein passionately assented: 'Yes, rather that, rather that!'"

Thanks for this story, Codgitator. It's been making me laugh for two days now.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

I know, it's pretty rich. ;)

Edward Feser said...

Yes, Codge, that's a classic!

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

It's up there with the Witt. anecdote* Harry Frankfurt discusses in his little gem of a book, On Bullshit, but so much more delicious. Witt. was a disaffected Austrian aristocrat and never got over either: his aristocracy or his dissatisfaction with his aristocracy. ;)

http://www.swans.com/library/art11/cmarow21.html*:

"There is a long digression in the middle of the treatise which is triggered by an anecdote related by Fania Pascal who, shortly after having her tonsils removed, was visited by her friend Wittgenstein in a nursing home. Asked how she felt, Pascal croaked: "I feel just like a dog that has been run over." Wittgenstein, with some disdain, replied; "You don't know what a dog that has been run over feels like."

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

hype:

At your indirect behest, I found a streaming copy of Session 9 online but it was the slowing feed in the world so I only managed to watch the first 25 minutes or so. But it's good! (I stopped at the part when the guy goes downstairs to check the circuit breakers and the new kid stays upstairs on account of his fear of the dark.)