Monday, March 4, 2013

Who Was Wittgenstein?

Is philosophy just a game played by intellectuals who have nothing better to do with their time and have no marketable skills? Has it ever lived up its promise to reveal the meaning of life, to explain what truth is and to define justice, good and evil?

Or has it just confused the issues?

Has philosophy ever explained anything? If it hasn’t, why are people still fascinated with it?

One might ask the same of psychoanalysis, bastard offspring of philosophy. Surely, Freud meant to offer the definitive explanation of human motives. In truth, his one-size-fits-all Oedipus complex does not really explain anything.

Thus, psychoanalysis has lost favor in the marketplace of mental health treatments.

This morning Professor Paul Horwich addressed these questions in an excellent article about the the great philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Many believe Wittgenstein, an Austrian who lived and worked for most of his life in Cambridge, to have been the most important philosopher in the twentieth century. Many others dismiss him as a crank.

It makes sense that philosophers would not have warm feelings for one of their own who has threatened their livelihood. Horwich  framed the issue:

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?

It might go without saying, but it probably does not: you do not need a philosopher to tell you how to use the word “truth” in everyday conversation. In a normal discussion both you and your interlocutor know what you mean when you say that something is true.  

Unfortunately, philosophers have taken a word that we use every day and turned it into a conceptual muddle.

In Horwich’s words:

Consider, for instance, the paradigmatically philosophical question: “What is truth?”. This provokes perplexity because, on the one hand, it demands an answer of the form, “Truth is such–and-such,” but on the other hand, despite hundreds of years of looking, no acceptable answer of that kind has ever been found. We’ve tried truth as “correspondence with the facts,” as “provability,” as “practical utility,” and as “stable consensus”; but all turned out to be defective in one way or another — either circular or subject to counterexamples. Reactions to this impasse have included a variety of theoretical proposals.  Some philosophers have been led to deny that there is such a thing as absolute truth. Some have maintained (insisting on one of the above definitions) that although truth exists, it lacks certain features that are ordinarily attributed to it — for example, that the truth may sometimes be impossible to discover. Some have inferred that truth is intrinsically paradoxical and essentially incomprehensible. And others persist in the attempt to devise a definition that will fit all the intuitive data.

But, what happens when philosophers undermine the concept of truth? Will we stop caring about being truthful? Will we be unable to have normal conversations because we are each using the word to mean something different?

But, if philosophers cannot define the “truth,” is the concept merely an arbitrary construct that shifts with the wind? Or was it invented as a means to oppress the masses into accepting nonsense that the ruling powers call the truth?

If I understand what Wittgenstein was getting at, a word like “truth” is a word first. Its meaning has been determined by the history of its usage. Over time large numbers of people engage in large numbers of conversations. Call it the marketplace of ideas, if you like, but the free market of people using the language determines the way words are used, what purpose they serve and what they mean.

I would not be surprised to learn that philosophers wish to own the language and to dictate the way people use it. To their great chagrin, the market ultimately overrules them. Large numbers of people, many of whom are not as smart as philosophers cast the ultimate judgment on the way we use language.

For all of their intelligence-- many of them are geniuses-- most philosophers have not been able to wrap their minds around this fact.


Mark said...

4 Wittgenstein quotes in my collection:

1. A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.

2. ..what can be said at all can be said clearly

3. To believe in a God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter.

4. The mystical is not how the world is, but that it is.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Great quotes... thanks.

Sam L. said...

The wisdom of the masses is often preferentially dismissed.

Much like those who are certain they are smarter than us should be able to tell us what to do.

Anonymous said...

We as a society need to take a serious look at our elites. We have gone from the American "aristocracy" of birth and privilege to the new "aristocracy" of intelligence, as measured by standardized test scores. Stuart, you wrote a piece on Tom Wolfe's "Eunuchs of the Universe," and how so much of life is being influenced by quantitative savants. I find this all very curious.

The author clearly points out what a threat Wittgenstein represents to those in elite university settings, especially the humanities. Perhaps Wittgenstein was humbled later in his career, and took an honest look at the premises the whole endeavor of theoretical philosophy is based on? It's more of the abstraction concern I have: that we have taken things to such levels of abstraction that they have become meaningless, untied to the real world. Read Aristotle's philosophy. Look at Euclid. It's all right there, accessible. Yet you read these tortured pieces by modern philosophers and it is nauseating. At the end of all this postmodern philosophical nonsense, what do we have? Nothing.

Sam is spot on: wisdom and experience of others is worthless to the "smart people," in all their arrogance. The only problem is that these rationalists are running our most powerful institutions, or have influenced the people running those institutions. It's a bit icky... kind of like "1984."