August 29, 2014

THE ANGLOSPHERIC TRADITION:

Was Wittgenstein Right? (PAUL HORWICH,  MARCH 3, 2013, NY Times)

Wittgenstein claims that there are no realms of phenomena whose study is the special business of a philosopher, and about which he or she should devise profound a priori theories and sophisticated supporting arguments. There are no startling discoveries to be made of facts, not open to the methods of science, yet accessible "from the armchair" through some blend of intuition, pure reason and conceptual analysis. Indeed the whole idea of a subject that could yield such results is based on confusion and wishful thinking.

This attitude is in stark opposition to the traditional view, which continues to prevail. Philosophy is respected, even exalted, for its promise to provide fundamental insights into the human condition and the ultimate character of the universe, leading to vital conclusions about how we are to arrange our lives. It's taken for granted that there is deep understanding to be obtained of the nature of consciousness, of how knowledge of the external world is possible, of whether our decisions can be truly free, of the structure of any just society, and so on -- and that philosophy's job is to provide such understanding. Isn't that why we are so fascinated by it?

If so, then we are duped and bound to be disappointed, says Wittgenstein. For these are mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking. So it should be entirely unsurprising that the "philosophy" aiming to solve them has been marked by perennial controversy and lack of decisive progress -- by an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues. Therefore traditional philosophical theorizing must give way to a painstaking identification of its tempting but misguided presuppositions and an understanding of how we ever came to regard them as legitimate. But in that case, he asks, "[w]here does [our] investigation get its importance from, since it seems only to destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great and important? (As it were all the buildings, leaving behind only bits of stone and rubble)" -- and answers that "(w)hat we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stand."

Given this extreme pessimism about the potential of philosophy -- perhaps tantamount to a denial that there is such a subject -- it is hardly surprising that "Wittgenstein" is uttered with a curl of the lip in most philosophical circles. For who likes to be told that his or her life's work is confused and pointless? Thus, even Bertrand Russell, his early teacher and enthusiastic supporter, was eventually led to complain peevishly that Wittgenstein seems to have "grown tired of serious thinking and invented a doctrine which would make such an activity unnecessary."

But what is that notorious doctrine, and can it be defended? We might boil it down to four related claims.

-- The first is that traditional philosophy is scientistic: its primary goals, which are to arrive at simple, general principles, to uncover profound explanations, and to correct naïve opinions, are taken from the sciences. And this is undoubtedly the case.

--The second is that the non-empirical ("armchair") character of philosophical investigation -- its focus on conceptual truth -- is in tension with those goals.  That's because our concepts exhibit a highly theory-resistant complexity and variability. They evolved, not for the sake of science and its objectives, but rather in order to cater to the interacting contingencies of our nature, our culture, our environment, our communicative needs and our other purposes.  As a consequence the commitments defining individual concepts are rarely simple or determinate, and differ dramatically from one concept to another. Moreover, it is not possible (as it is within empirical domains) to accommodate superficial complexity by means of simple principles at a more basic (e.g. microscopic) level.

-- The third main claim of Wittgenstein's metaphilosophy -- an immediate consequence of the first two -- is that traditional philosophy is necessarily pervaded with oversimplification; analogies are unreasonably inflated; exceptions to simple regularities are wrongly dismissed.

-- Therefore -- the fourth claim -- a decent approach to the subject must avoid theory-construction and instead be merely "therapeutic," confined to exposing the irrational assumptions on which theory-oriented investigations are based and the irrational conclusions to which they lead.

It's not that Wittgenstein was right, but that Hume was.  Wittgenstein just reiterated.
Posted by at August 29, 2014 7:30 AM
  
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