Sunday, July 29, 2012

Wittgenstein's anti-metaphysical stance

One thing I share with Ludwig Wittgenstein is a hostility towards metaphysics.

Henry Le Roy Finch argues* that the origin of metaphysics lies in the idea of identity, which he traces to Plato's conception of original or self-existing things, and to Aristotle's (and the Aristotelian tradition's) more systematically logical approach to the notion of self-identity.

That a thing is identical with itself (traditionally referred to as Aristotle's first law of thought) is often seen as the foundation for all logic.

Wittgenstein, on the other hand, thought that there was no more meaningless statement than a statement of self-identity. "To say of one thing that it is identical with itself is to say nothing at all." (Tractatus 5.5303)


But Finch goes further and suggests that this skepticism about self-identity is linked to Wittgenstein's rejection of the popular notion of personal identity, the Cartesian thinking self. This is a central theme of Wittgenstein's (subsequently taken up by Gilbert Ryle). As Wittgenstein put it: "There is no such thing as the subject that thinks or entertains ideas." (Tractatus 5.631)

Certainly, both this claim and the previously-cited one are anti-metaphysical. And, significantly, Wittgenstein saw metaphysics and religion (or at least the sort of religion he embraced) as being in opposition to one another rather than as allies.

Finch rightly points out that "identitylessness" is at the heart of some important religious traditions, notably Buddhism, certain forms of Christianity** and Islam in its Sufi aspect.

Wittgenstein said that his goal was to "show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle", which can be interpreted as referring to the freeing of the human being from his or her false self-perception as a thinking self in its own private world. And this view of freedom is quite consistent with the religious traditions listed above.

On the other hand, as Finch points out, it is not consistent with other religious and philosophical approaches:

"The Stoic (and some would say also Judaic) idea of freedom is essentially that of Kant, which is that of the ethical self or free will, in which the self still retains its identity through its capacity to decide."

I remain uncomfortable with religious language and concepts, but I don't think someone like Wittgenstein can be understood (and I think he is worth trying to understand) if one ignores the implicit religious dimensions of his thought.

Also, having grown up (and so having invested a lot) in a religious tradition which I subsequently rejected, it's satisfying to see elements of that tradition coming into play here in a positive way.

* See his Wittgenstein, published by Element Books as part of the series Masters of Philosophy.

** I would single out the tradition known as fideism, and also the various mystical traditions. Pauline themes are important here; and it is worth noting in this connection that Wittgenstein liked the writings of the twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth.


  1. So what do you mean by metaphysical?

    When Wittgenstein says, "There is no such thing as the subject that thinks or entertains ideas", I read that as a perfect example of a metaphysical claim. It's about "what there is", except that is says what there isn't.

    Strange how it can seem so different to you!

    1. You can see the statement as metaphysical (in the broad, contemporary sense of the word) and also as anti-metaphysical in the sense that it is part of Wittgenstein's attempt to discourage certain ways of thinking which (in accord with Platonic metaphysics or a Cartesian perspective) see the self as a separate, private, 'spiritual' entity.

      Wittgenstein himself recognized that the Tractatus was metaphysical, but it was part of the process of his freeing himself from metaphysical thinking.

      You will know this quote but others may not: "My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must, so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)"

  2. So is it possible to not have a metaphysics? Is being anti-metaphysical merely a way of pretending one doesn't have a metaphysics?

    1. You could certainly argue that we all have a metaphysics (generally implicit), and that any natural language reflects a rudimentary metaphysics. But metaphysics as a discipline can be understood in many different ways. My focus here was on Wittgenstein and the early 20th century when it was generally understood in a more traditional way.

      I certainly reject the old idea that we can somehow determine - just by thinking - what is really real, and I don't see much value in all those old metaphysical systems that philosophers have been producing (on and off) for hundreds of years. I know post-WW2 metaphysics takes a more modest view of itself, but do we really need it? I have not read much Peter Strawson, for example, and it is possible I might get something out of it. But I just have the sense (from what I have read in the philosophy of language and related areas) that there is nothing there for me. It's difficult and rigorous but is it necessary or important?

      My anti-metaphysical bias is just one of those tendencies one feels. It's like a hunch about where the truth lies (or doesn't lie). One sees metaphysical and anti-metaphysical currents of thought in the Middle Ages and in the 20th century, say. The context may be different but I try to 'place' myself in respect of the thinkers of times past.

      Of course, hunches or intuitions are a just a starting point. One follows where they lead and if they turn out to be dead ends, then it's back to base.

      But for now I am inclined to think that any study of 'what there is' which is not scientifically informed and driven is unlikely to be of much value.

  3. My favourite metaphysician is Berkeley, who constructed the most outrageous transcendental metaphysical system, while vigorously insisting he was talking the merest common sense. For him it was the physicalist Newtonians who had gone off into cloud cuckoo land -- with their fictional discovery of stuff they called gravity and their pretended account of natural causation!

  4. If Berkeley had lived in the early 20th century, he would have been a logical positivist, I think.

    Not sure how the Vienna Circle would have felt about an Irish Anglican bishop (and mathematician) sitting down with them for coffee.

    1. I too have a soft spot for Berkeley (and Spinoza and Bradley). But in the end I look to science.

      So how can I express the distinctions I want to make? I don't know that I can, but here's an attempt...

      Firstly, there is a distinction between those who see an at base morally neutral natural world as all there is - those with a non-religious orientation - and those with a tendency to see things in religious terms.

      And then (I would argue) there is a distinction between those who are inclined to see natural theology and metaphysics as important and viable intellectual disciplines and those who don't. (The former group may be seen by the latter as putting too much trust in unaided human reason in areas which are not mathematical; a tendency which I think is related to what Ryle saw as the 'ghost in the machine' illusion.)

      So the possibilities are:metaphysical religious (like Aquinas); anti-metaphysical religious (like Wittgenstein); metaphysical non-religious (like Bradley?); and anti-metaphysical non-religious (like me and a lot of other people).

      I am speaking of general tendencies of thought here. Obviously the categories are not clearcut.

  5. You also need a distinction between metaphysics as what-there-is (M1) and metaphysics as supernaturalist or anti-naturalist (M2). It quickly gets confusing.

    So your four types would be: M1 and M2; not M1 or M2; M1 but not M2; and not M1 but M2.

    I think.

    1. I realize I have used 'metaphysical' in different senses: in particular, relating to the (traditional) discipline, and relating to particular views. But I suggested that these senses were linked insofar as those with Platonistic or Cartesian views tend to have a high regard for what pure reason can achieve and so tend to respect metaphysics as a discipline.

      Also, I think it's noteworthy that there are impressive religious traditions of thought which are skeptical of metaphysics (as a discipline, and also, in many cases, of a Platonistic or Cartesian view of the mind etc.). This is the category which interests me most (anti-metaphysical religious). It shows (in my opinion) that religious thinkers had profound insights (about the nature of the human mind and the 'self', for example) well before Freud and modern psychology and neuroscience. (I am thinking mainly of late medieval and early modern thinkers here rather than Wittgenstein.)

      And, if even profoundly religious thinkers have doubts about the value of (traditional) metaphysics, it gives me more confidence in my (non-religious) anti-metaphysical orientation.