Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Between science and semantics

I'm trying to write something about what philosophy is or should be, but I keep distracting myself. Sometimes these distractions are productive though. For instance, Wes Alwan has two interesting posts at The Partially Examined Life. In one, he complains about "the oh-so-common, Wittgenstein-inspired claim that philosophy is just a matter of confusion about language."

His response to this claim is this:
It shouldn’t need saying that there’s a difference between linguistic and conceptual definitions, or that every system of knowledge rests on unproven axioms or assumptions — mathematics, logic, and science as much as philosophy. That’s why philosophical “meta discussions” about these fields — and knowledge in general — become genuinely interesting and problematic (rather than merely a matter of linguistic confusion or semantics), even while we know that that these problems don’t bear on their practical application:

"In the same way, we are not going to throw out math, logic, or ethics just because meta discussions of those topics seem to constantly get us into trouble. Hume would have approved retaining science, math, logic and ethics regardless of their respective foundational problems. But he would have simply smiled if someone rushed to him with a dictionary in hand to tell him that the problem of induction is all just a matter of definitions."
(The last part of this is a quotation from Massimo Pigliucci, at Rationally Speaking.)

Wittgenstein did not think that philosophy is "just" a matter of confusion about language. To say so is to misunderstand how important he thought language is. One fairly common way to ask the question "What is x?" is to ask "What do we talk about when we talk about x?" This, roughly speaking, is Wittgenstein's approach to philosophical questions: if we want to know what something is and cannot do so without philosophy, then we should look at how we talk about x. This is at least as much about x as it is about language.

I don't know what a "conceptual definition" is, but Wittgenstein does not deny that such things might exist, or that they might be different from the definitions of words (if that is what "linguistic definitions" are).

The claim about unproven axioms seems very Wittgensteinian (see On Certainty), so I'm not sure what the claim here is meant to be. Wittgenstein certainly never suggests "throwing out" logic, maths, or ethics because they lack foundations! Au contraire. Nor does he suggest that dictionaries can solve philosophical problems.

He did think that philosophical problems are pseudo-problems, but he had very specific ideas about what was and what was not a philosophical problem. Somewhere there is a list of the questions that Karl Popper proposed as genuine problems in philosophy, and to at least most of them, if not all, Wittgenstein replied not that it was a pseudo-problem but that it was a problem that belonged to some other discipline. He identifies philosophy with something like synthetic a priori claims. Only Kantians need disagree with his rejection of these.

The other post that caught my eye was this one on Stephen Hawking's claim that "philosophy is dead." In response, Alwan writes that:
we should really ask people what Hawking and his ilk think of literature and the humanities in general. “I am only interested in the hard sciences and everything else is squishy and impractical and insufficiently number-ish” is not an argument. It simply reflects an orientation toward activities that are as far away from social concerns as possible. It’s what we associate with being a nerd, and in a sense these sorts of pseudo-philosophical Papal Bulls by the popularizers of science are simply the ultimate revenge of the nerds.

Worse, they are a rejection of interiority, a rejection of the idea that reflection is a worthwhile endeavor. Our own thoughts and feelings cannot be “data”; me must concentrate only on empirical objects.
(I've corrected a possibly telling typo that suggests Alwan was thinking of Richard Dawkins as he was writing about Hawking--an understandable association.)

If I can be squishy (or is it slippery?) for a minute, I'd like to read this as identifying philosophy as one of the humanities, and as identifying the humanities with a concern with interiority, with things that cannot be data, such as thoughts and feelings. I like this identification--I'm not trying to pin something bad on Alwan.

It is because of the squishiness involved that philosophy cannot be a scientific or quasi-scientific discipline or enterprise. It can't really be a discipline at all if that means having a well-defined problem-set and techniques for solving these problems. That's why there are no real philosophical problems. It seems to me, therefore, that Alwan rejects a possibly Wittgenstein-inspired straw man (does anyone really think the thoughts he rejects?--maybe, but I hope not) while really agreeing with Wittgenstein, at least approximately.

He ends with this:
These instincts — to the absoluteness of certain standpoints and the promise of an end to questioning and, by fiat, a complete picture of the world — are in fact the instincts of fundamentalist religion. That’s why I see this as just another battle between fundamentalists demanding certainty — whose obsession with their counterpart Christian and Islamic fundamentalists is telling — and people (religious or not) who want to suspend judgment for the sake of thinking about things. Abandoning the need for the promise of completeness, to an end to inquiry, would be just as much a truer form of atheism as it is a truer form of faith.
Which I think is a good expression of the truer kind of thinking/living that Wittgenstein sought.


  1. Hi Duncan,

    Thanks for the interesting response and typo correction; I should say that by "Wittgenstein-inspired" I didn't mean to attribute these views to Wittgenstein himself. FYI we have two relatively decent (I hope) podcasts on (early) Wittgenstein if you're interested and have the time. I'm adding your site to my reader and our blogroll.

    Wes Alwan

  2. and fantastic blog by the way

  3. Thanks very much, Wes. I noticed that you were careful not to attribute the "Wittgenstein-inspired" views to Wittgenstein himself. I should have been clearer about that.