Monday, September 17, 2018

Wittgenstein and Russell on metaphysics, language and science

In his youth, Wittgenstein worked with Bertrand Russell and then subsequently had dealings with the Vienna Circle before taking a rather different direction from the late 1920s on. But the main elements of his thinking remained the same: his distrust of metaphysics, for example. He even came to fault his earlier work (which was heavily influenced by Russell) as being too metaphysical.

A piece I wrote on these themes for The Electric Agora (and subsequently republished here in a slightly revised form) triggered some discussion about the extent to which Russell’s outlook was truly scientific. It was suggested that Russell, driven by unwarranted metaphysical assumptions, got things fundamentally wrong about language and logic. By contrast, the later Wittgenstein and the Oxford school of “ordinary language” philosophy which developed in the 1950’s got things fundamentally right.

In the course of the discussion, I made the point that Russell was committed to a view of the world based on evidence and reason and was an energetic advocate for science and for a scientifically-oriented philosophy. This claim prompted the suggestion that, while Russell’s attitude to science was indeed positive, he made a fetish of science.

There is something in the fetishization idea. As an adolescent Russell had found comfort in the certainties of mathematics. And it takes a particular kind of mentality to be so concerned about the foundations of mathematics as to devote many years to attempting to elaborate a sound logical basis for the discipline.

This story, however, can be told many ways. And it is not just a story about one man’s obsessions. It was a remarkable time in European intellectual circles, and arguably what made it so remarkable was the way that scientific advances in a range of areas – especially historical linguistics, textual criticism, natural history, mathematics and physics – mattered for the general culture. There was a sense that the world had changed irrevocably since the Enlightenment; that it was no longer business as usual. Too many established truths had been shown not to be truths at all. Given this intellectual upheaval, it is no wonder that the new world sensed or foreseen by many 19th-century thinkers and artists was a disturbing and disorientating one.

Despite their various metaphysical commitments or assumptions, I don’t think it plausible to see the likes of Frege and Russell in the same terms as the Hegelian metaphysicians who preceded them, if only because they were committed to scientific methods and open to the possibility that their various projects would fail. They were intellectual pioneers; explorers, not dreamers. And they were bound in a very productive way to the spirit of their time.

The grand plan to create an explicit and complete logical system which could encompass arithmetic was demonstrated – by Kurt Gödel in the early 1930s – to be impossible. But, as Karl Popper pointed out, this is precisely how science works and progresses: by bold conjectures and refutations. Without the prior work by Frege, Russell and others, Gödel would never have come to devise his remarkable proof. And it’s not as if Frege’s and Russell’s work was successful only in this negative sense. After all, their technical achievements helped to lay the groundwork for – and even shaped in certain ways – the revolution in digital computing as well as providing fruitful ideas in specific areas (such as formal linguistics).

I certainly don’t want to mount a defense of Russell’s logical atomism. I see the whole project of trying to construct a perfectly clear and perspicuous language (even if it is meant only for scientific purposes) as being doomed to failure. Russell’s own views changed over time. In his later works, he defends an approach to human knowledge which is (in my opinion) eminently defensible.

Russell was drawn to a correspondence view of truth. And, though his original insistence on a structural isomorphism between language and the world may not be sustainable, it seems to me (as it did to figures as different as Karl Popper and J.L. Austin) that there are objectively existing states of affairs – in both ordinary and scientific contexts – to which most statements refer and against which their truth or correctness (or whatever term might be appropriate) depends.

I see this view (or something very like it) as a prerequisite for science and scholarship as those pursuits have been traditionally understood. Sure, such a view has been challenged by various forms of idealism and radical epistemologies over the years. It is currently under sustained attack. Is it worth defending? Absolutely. How one sees these matters has serious intellectual, cultural and even political consequences.

Much of Austin’s work is descriptive and classificatory and, as I understand it, Austin saw himself as doing something like proto-science. He believed that his work on language would eventually form the basis for a mature science, and indeed his work has been picked up by linguists as well as by philosophers. Austin’s intellectual orientation was clearly quite different from Wittgenstein’s. Both thinkers had an appreciation of the power, complexity and expressiveness of natural language. But Wittgenstein was not interested in the sort of painstaking explicitness and classificatory thoroughness to which Austin aspired.

Previously I contrasted Russell’s scientific view of the world with Wittgenstein’s view. I am now suggesting a similar (but more limited) contrast between Austin and Wittgenstein. I want to make it clear, however, that I am not taking sides with respect to the thinkers involved. There is value both in Wittgenstein’s and in Austin’s writings on language. It’s just that their respective approaches and orientations are different.

On Russell and Wittgenstein, there are some issues on which I side with one, and some issues on which I side with the other. With respect to the status of science and scientific knowledge I am very much in Russell’s camp, not Wittgenstein’s.