Sunday, March 8, 2009

Wittgenstein above others

Here's what's really crazy. The new poll shows Wittgenstein above all others. If you can't stand Lewis, and some of the readers of this blog can't, what on earth would you say in favour of Wittgenstein? Slightly less sterile?


  1. Probably worth keeping in mind that most people are probably not voting for their "favourite" philosopher. They are really trying to size up the candidates by "greatness". My view is that there is a completely objective answer; it's a tie for first place between Wittgenstein and Heidegger.

    I first really starting thinking about such things in regard to poetry. You don't have to think of something favourable to say about Ezra Pound (many people find that difficult) to understand why he might be a "great" 20th century poet. Wittgenstein has a very similar place in 20C philosophy.

  2. Wittgenstein is hugely overrated.

    It's a tie between Popper and Heidegger.

  3. It's not a measure of who is easier or more fun to read, it's a measure of who was more significant. By that measure, Wittgenstein, who managed to look behind the presumptions prevalent in cognitivist (language-based, proposition-based, content-based) philosophy is a clear winner.

  4. Stephen Downes's points are well taken (hi Steve)! Wittenstein's anti-scientistic leanings are not disguised. Thus, he ought not hit a nerve among contemporary philosophers of science. There is despite the best efforts of Edinburgh School very little overlap or competition among disciples (yes!) of Wittgenstein and contemprary philosophers of science. The same cannot be said of those contemporary metaphysicians working in the wake of Lewis, whose project appears to have displaced the prestige of philosophers of science.

  5. I'm not an expert about either of these guys, but here's a shot at saying what a philosopher who can't stand Lewis might say in favor of Wittgenstein.

    Those who dislike Lewis typically think he was ontologically promiscuous--at least, that's the impression I get whenever I talk to people about Lewis. People object to his possible-world realism and to his work on counterfactuals. I suspect that philosophers of science still have a positivistic distaste for what cannot be directly, perceptually verified in a finite number of observations. The worry is that once one leaves empirical constraints, as Lewis is accused of doing for counterfactuals and possible worlds, the door is opened to all kinds of spooky metaphysics.

    Objections to Wittgenstein are of a totally different flavor. Wittgenstein is supposed to be cryptic. I've heard some people say he doesn't actually make arguments. On more substantive grounds, Wittgenstein is accused of holding too strictly to verificationist principles or to propounding a too-thorough-going anti-realism, in philosophy of language, in philosophy of mind, in philosophy of mathematics, in epistemology, in metaphysics, and in ethics.

    Now, I might be wrong--and I said up front that I'm no expert on either of these guys--but it seems to me that if one doesn't like the inflationary metaphysics of Lewis, Wittgenstein might seem congenial by contrast. Or to put it another way, one might think that the problems Wittgenstein's philosophy was designed to *stop* one worrying about--so that one might sleep or garden or whatever--are exactly the things that Lewis spent all his time working on.

    So now let me turn the post's question on its head: if you are a philosopher who can't stand Lewis, why wouldn't you be more likely than not to be sympathetic to Wittgenstein?

  6. If you want a scientifically sound ranking of philosophers, see here. I only did the last 100 years...

  7. If the point is about an influential philosopher, Heiddeger and Wittgenstein will have good positions in the ranking.

    If the point is about high-quaility philosophy, then the matter is controversial, because contemporary scientific-prone analytic philosophers would consider Heidegger (and Wittgenstein?) a charlatan, a sophist. But continental philosophers would argue otherwise.


  8. Wittgenstein was influential, yes . . . but his influence came very close to killing philosophy. The Private Language Argument, "Don't ask for the meaning, ask for the use", "The purpose of philosophy is to show the fly the way out of the flybottle". All of these maxims made people think philosophy was impossible, reactionary, and useless. Lewis was certainly antithetical to that; so was Russell, Chomsky, Putnam, Kripke, and piles of others.

    I am not particularly in favour of ontological excess, and arguing for the reality of possible worlds might count as that (though in fact the doctrine comes out of first-order ontological conservatism: Quine's doctrine that to be is to be a value of a bound variable).

    However that may be, it seems to me as if there is a lot more of value in Lewis, even after you have stripped away whatever you think is excessive, than there is in the idea that one cannot talk about private thoughts.

  9. Mohan,

    I'm shocked by your post. In what sense did Wittgenstein's influence come very close to killing philosophy? Through his early influence on Russell, Ramsey, and Carnap? Or through his influence on followers like Ryle, Anscombe, and Dennett? Or do you have data suggesting that philosophical publications fell off in number or quality after Wittgenstein and that this decline was actually due to his influence?

    And which people, exactly, were convinced by Wittgenstein that philosophy is impossible, reactionary, and useless? Potential philosophers? Actual, practicing philosophers?

    Somehow, I think this is overly dramatic.

    In point of fact, I like both Wittgenstein and Lewis. And I agree with you that there is a lot of value in Lewis--perhaps more than there is in Wittgenstein, though I think if one likes both philosophers they become very hard to compare. That said, I think it is *grossly unfair* to compare all of Lewis' contributions to a charicature of one argument in Wittgenstein.

  10. Hi Jonathan,

    Shocked? Perhaps you did not live through the time when any reference to a mental cause of behaviour was deemed unfit. (Nor perhaps did you have to study collections like Flew's "Logic and Language", in which clearly most of the contributors had no knowledge of either.)

    But are you asking me to name people who thought that philosophy was impossible, reactionary, and useless? If you don't know of any, you're a lucky man.

  11. Another comparison: James Joyce arguably "almost killed the novel". That is, as arguably as Wittgenstein "almost killed philosophy".

    There are probably more novels written today than ever before and there are no doubt more full-time philosophers than ever before too. But there is still something to the argument. And it has to do with the sense in which philosophy (or the novel) can reasonably be said to have made any "progress" since Wittgenstein (or Joyce).

    With the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein managed to "overwelm and subsume" (to use Harold Bloom's phrase) a great deal of what philosophers had been doing since, say, Kant's first Critique. Joyce did something like that with Ulysses.

    Figures like Lewis have done the honourable job of keeping a certain prose genre alive (in Lewis's case also a particular calculus). But they were obviously not "making progress" in the way that Kant and Wittgenstein (arguably) did.

  12. "All propositions are of equal value. .... The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: in it no value exists--and if it did exist, it would have no value."

    Nobody had ever said anything like this before, as far as we know. Most people still don't get it. It defines the situation and assigns the burden. Perfectly.

  13. Nick, I may just not get it, but it seems to say: "p implies p and p implies p is not a matter of value." The first conjunct is true, but hardly an insight. The second conjunct is more controversial, but not terribly original either.

  14. I like Wittgenstein, because of his depth. He has challenged the philosophy itself. Some people would prefer to stay in safe places, he does not.
    I specially like some of his arguments in philosophy of mathematics, and as a mathematician, I see why people don't like them, he is challenging what mathematicians believe, all of the years they have spent doing mathematics, their life! It is not a nice feeling. How would you feel if someone comes and tells you: well, you have wasted all of last 40 years talking about nonsense. He is too radical.

    ps. I still do mathematics :)

  15. Mohan,

    'Nick, I may just not get it, but it seems to say: "p implies p and p implies p is not a matter of value."'

    You might call this Beyond Logic and Illogic. Up to this point the world is the composite or sum of its "yes" or "no" atomic propositions. That's the measurable world of course, the world science can rightly address. This world, or universe, is governed by natural laws which operate as they operate. Events happen randomly in accordance with those laws. There's no natural teleology. A cow is bitten by a botfly, a star becomes a supernova: both events are reducible to propositions, the propositions are of equal value as facts, and both events are equally without objective meaning. If they did have meaning and value it wouldn't be our meaning and value and we couldn't recognize it as meaning and value anyway.

    Yet we do have values -- aesthetic values, ethical values. They exist, they're real, but they're not properly within the domain of philosophy, whose concern must be what can be said about the observable world, the world about which true propositions can be formulated. There may be a reality outside the world -- even one far more important to us as human beings than that which can be assessed by identifying atomic facts -- but it's a reality without truth-value.

    Nietzsche may have tried to say similar things, but if he did he didn't do it clearly. Darwin never ventured there. This was radical stuff in 1921. For me the main concept to take away is W's denial of all natural teleology. And this section (6) of Trac feels like a bridge between the First and Second Wittgensteins. The later work is an exploration of the ramifications of living in a world in which those issues most important to human life lie outside of what can be logically demonstrated. How can you possibly have communication without an identifiable logical structure behind it, embedded in the language we speak?

  16. In Russell's introduction we find a great sentence: "The essential business of language is to assert or deny facts." It is a pretty reductionist view of the matter, of course.

    It does capture the spirit of the Tractatus and the puzzlement of the question, "How can you possibly have communication without an identifiable logical structure behind it, embedded in the language we speak?"

    But if language use is not always an attempt to produce (utterances that would better be expressed through) scientific propositions, then communication may be possible with no logic or structure at all--passion and texture, perhaps--not imbedded in the language, perhaps, but expressed through it (or something like that).

    That, I think, is what the later Wittgenstein was showing.

  17. Got it: not imbedded in the language, perhaps, but stretched across it.

  18. Maybe (without going Dennettian here) language is a process of natural selection, which W chose to call Games. How is any game invented? Say someone kicks a rock to someone else, the second someone kicks it back, a third person joins the fun and then the folks from one of the other clans see what's going on and horn in ... already team sports. The game works because it works, not because it's logical. If it didn't work it wouldn't stay around. It has consistent rules which developed empirically but there's no logical necessity to them.

    The rules are actually arbitrary, but they prove themselves in action and structure something that people want to do; they make some satisfying events possible. True for language, mathematics, science ... ?

  19. This obviously evades issues of "deep structure" which came later with Roman Jakobson, Chomsky et seq. But those structures aren't logical in any traditional sense; they're if anything algorithmic.

    And structural linguistics so far only formalizes syntax, not semantics. Semantics is the famous gesture that Piero Sraffa favored W with (fingertips flicked forward beneath the chin, yuh!) while saying "Formulate this as a proposition!" (or whatever).

    You can translate between any languages, but never with the true and full meaning (resonances) of the original appearing in another tongue. (Tribute here to George Steiner and "After Babel").