Friday, June 5, 2015

Quietism; Wittgenstein

This site was originally conceived as an ideology-free zone. Impossible, of course, for a blog which consists largely of opinion pieces (even if they are mostly on science- and philosophy-related topics).

Partisan politics free? Yes, that's quite easy to do, especially since political views are not directly relevant to most of the topics discussed here anyway.

But ideology is inescapable. Understood as a culturally-generated framework of purposes, facts and values which is adopted – and adapted – by individuals more or less voluntarily and more or less consciously, it pervades and motivates virtually all culturally-significant human activity.

For a while there I had been thinking about collapsing my two blogs into a single new site with a new title, shorter and sharper than 'Language, Life and Logic' but not suggestive (like 'Conservative tendency') of a particular political orientation. The latter is a strong title but could (my thinking went) be a liability, especially if it were my sole site and I wanted to focus on more science-oriented topics.

I have been posting at this site mainly pieces on language or the philosophy of mathematics or other more or less philosophical topics: relatively dry stuff, but ideological nonetheless a lot of the time. In fact, the generally deflationist, anti-metaphysical and quietistic orientation on display here might even be characterized – though not in a specifically political sense – as conservative.

Quietism has, after all, a distinct conservative (albeit anti-libertarian) flavour. It is all about respecting the power and efficacy of what is beyond the individual.

In religion (where the term had its origin) it was a borderline-heretical mystical movement within French and Spanish Catholicism which advocated a kind of willing surrender of one's will to an all-powerful deity.

These days, however, quietism usually refers to a political orientation characterized by skepticism about social activism, etc.; or to a position in the philosophy of language characterized by the rejection of a reformist approach to natural language.

The later Wittgenstein is often referred to as a quietist as he saw philosophical problems as arising not from the deficiencies but rather from the misuse of natural language. If language is seen as deficient, then some kind of revisionism seems called for – let's fix it (or replace it with something better). But Wittgenstein sought, as he put it, to leave everything as it was.

Arguably, this quietistic streak carried over into other areas of his life. Though he was deeply influenced by Tolstoy's radical views and had left-wing connections and friends (e.g. his colleague, the economist Piero Sraffa), Wittgenstein's radicalism was more moral than political. He was not (so far as I know) politically active, and he remained conservative in many ways. He was certainly a cultural conservative.

Let me make it clear that I am not endorsing Wittgenstein's view of the world – and certainly not his religious leanings or his curiously negative attitude to science.

All I am suggesting here is that there is a degree of overlap between (different forms of) quietism and (different forms of) conservatism, and that the case of Wittgenstein may be seen to illustrate this to some extent.