Monday, August 20, 2018

Language and metaphysics

Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein had many profound disagreements. They were, for example, diametrically opposed in their respective attitudes to science and religion. But they were united in one respect at least. They both rejected the metaphysics of idealism. Metaphysically speaking, Russell was concerned mainly to counter idealist notions and to defend a science-friendly and empirical view of the world. And Wittgenstein, like many of his contemporaries, saw no role for metaphysics as a discipline in its own right.

Early in his life Russell had accepted the general framework of Hegelian metaphysics that dominated English philosophy at the time. But he soon came to see problems with this point of view and felt a sense of excitement and liberation when he finally extricated himself from this way of seeing the world. He talks in his intellectual autobiography about his early rejection of the doctrine of internal relations which was a key feature of Anglo-Hegelian idealism.

Very roughly, this doctrine constituted a form of coherentism or holism according to which everything is related to everything else and nothing can be satisfactorily understood except in terms of the totality of these relations (i.e. ultimately in terms of the Absolute). This kind of idealism fell out of favour, but gained renewed intellectual respectability when Willard Van Orman Quine proposed a form of holism which was (ironically) partly inspired by the writings of Pierre Duhem, an historian of science who was not only a deeply religious man but also an orthodox and militant Catholic.

Wittgenstein, by contrast to Russell (and Quine), was not well-read in Western philosophy. He was blissfully ignorant both of classical and medieval thought as well as of German (and English) idealism, and the “metaphysical stance” which he himself came to identify in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus derived from its logical absolutism: the attempt to reduce the intelligibility of the world to pure logical objects in logical space. The Tractatus was an attempt to give definitive expression to the scientific project and by so doing to reveal its limits. The particular understanding of language, logic and mathematics which was at the heart of the Tractatus Wittgenstein gradually came to see not so much as false but rather as unnecessarily narrow.

One of the factors which led him to see this was hearing, in 1928, three lectures by L.E.J. Brouwer. Brouwer’s mathematical intuitionism was focused on numbers rather than geometry and on finite constructions rather than on infinite logical space. Wittgenstein had to face the fact that there were various ways of conceptualizing the basis of logic and mathematics, and he started to develop a philosophy of logic and mathematics which tried to explain these practices in terms of the sorts of common agreements which make social life possible. But most of his later work was focused not on mathematics or logic but on ordinary language and the ordinary social conventions which sustain it.

Friedrich Nietzsche had noted that each natural language is, as it were, pregnant with a metaphysics, the metaphysics of one language being different from the metaphysics of another. Metaphysics (as he saw it) was largely a projection of the structure of a particular language on to the world.

This general way of seeing metaphysics as a function of language can be applied not just to natural languages but also to more formal, constructed languages or logical systems such as those which were developed from the late 19th century onward. The crucial point is that metaphysics is seen as a kind of gratuitous by-product of a language and its use – or misuse. As such it is not something that can be studied in itself as the natural or social worlds may be studied.

The Vienna Circle is well-known for taking such a line and Wittgenstein, as a close friend of Moritz Schlick and an early participant in the deliberations of Schlick’s invitation-only group, played a crucial role in the development of the ideas which would come to be known as logical positivism.

Wittgenstein’s view of language developed beyond the position outlined in the Tractatus but there is a lot of continuity in his thinking and the Tractatus itself can be read as a critique of traditional metaphysics. It is this aspect of it which appealed to Schlick and the Vienna Circle. At no time did Wittgenstein write anything resembling traditional metaphysics (or ethics, for that matter).

But Wittgenstein also came to see the standard scientific view of the world as logically flawed and as incorporating metaphysical assumptions. The law of identity (‘A is A’) has a long history as a basic axiom of Western logic and plays an important foundational role in most modern formal systems. But in the Tractatus Wittgenstein was already moving away from this kind of approach, explicitly calling the law of identity into question. “To say of one thing that it is identical with itself is to say nothing at all,” he wrote. (5.5303)

What’s more, as a Christian primitivist in the tradition of Leo Tolstoy, Wittgenstein was not sympathetic to the anti-religious stance of most logical positivists. Probably on account of his religious commitments (which are often downplayed by philosophers), he was also rather less interested in scientific questions or in articulating a scientific view of the world than his erstwhile empiricist colleagues.

Wittgenstein certainly disappointed his old mentor, Bertrand Russell, by moving away from dealing with the sorts of science-and-logic-related questions which Russell himself was concerned with as a philosopher and focusing instead on an informal approach to language and other matters.

Wittgenstein saw language as something that has the potential to lead us astray, and much of his later work is designed to highlight the pitfalls of language (especially as deployed by philosophers). Metaphysical questions can usefully be approached in this way: in terms, that is, of language (whether natural or constructed). And often apparent problems can be dissolved.

Rudolf Carnap was a major 20th-thinker thinker who followed this general approach and sought to downplay the significance of ontological claims, characterizing philosophically-based metaphysical – and, specifically ontological – claims as being either trivial or problematic.

Carnap saw ontology, understood as “the study of what there is”, as being misguided. Questions about the existence of things which are assumed to be in a given linguistic or conceptual framework are trivially true. In his paper, “Empiricism, Semantics and Ontology” (first published in 1950), Carnap writes: “A question like: ‘Are there (really) space-time points?’ is ambiguous. It may be meant as an internal question; then the affirmative answer is, of course, analytic and trivial…” But if the question about existence is seen as general and unrestricted it becomes very problematic.

Thomas Hofweber (writing on Language and ontology in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) summarizes Carnap’s view:

"Ontology, the philosophical discipline that tries to answer hard questions about what there really is is based on a mistake. The questions it tries to answer are meaningless questions, and this enterprise should be abandoned. The words ‘Are there numbers?’ thus can be used in two ways: as an internal question, in which case the answer is trivially ‘yes’, but this has nothing to do with metaphysics or ontology, or as an external question, which is the one the philosophers are trying to ask, but which is meaningless."

I am inclined to agree with this general position though I shy away from the word ‘meaningless’. Carnap termed such (external) questions “pseudo-questions”, and characterized the ontological pursuits to which they lead as “useless” and “futile”.

There is no question that metaphysical and logical ideas are related. The logical framework which one chooses has metaphysical implications. For example, if you reject the law of non-contradiction (as Hegel did, for example) this will have implications not just for what you see as valid forms of argument but also for how you see the world more generally.

I want to say something here – by way of clarification – about the various meanings and connotations of the word ‘metaphysics’. Sometimes it is used to refer to an intellectual discipline, sometimes more broadly to refer to a general view of the world. In the latter case, sometimes (but not always) there is a connotation to the effect that the view in question is akin to a religious view.

This can be confusing. For example, in his later writings, Martin Heidegger is often (and quite rightly, I think) seen as moving away from specifically philosophical and metaphysical discourse, at least as traditionally understood in the context of the Western academic tradition. But in another (quite valid) sense what he is doing is very metaphysical. When Graham Priest applies the term ‘metaphysical’ specifically to Heidegger’s later work (as he does around the 13-minute mark in this interview) he is using the term in my latter sense (and with the religious connotations, I think). I want to make it clear that this is not the kind of metaphysics which I am implicitly criticizing here. Nor (as I see it) is it the kind of metaphysics which (in their different ways) Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Carnap were attacking. (In fact, a good case can be made that that Nietzsche, (the later) Heidegger and (the later) Wittgenstein have a lot in common.)

The sort of metaphysics that Wittgenstein, Carnap et al. were concerned to counter was the traditional scholarly kind which (on their view) is based on pseudo-questions arising from a misreading or misuse of language. They both rejected the view that there is a deep “ontological” sense in which the implicitly projected objects can be said to exist. Various kinds of objects exist, but only in an ordinary sense. And a keen sense of what language is and how it works – such as Nietzsche (as a philologist) certainly had, and as Wittgenstein and many of his philosophical contemporaries also had – helps to make this clearer.

Nouns are useful abstractions. The objects that concrete nouns describe exist individually in a practical or pragmatic sense (this dog, that fork…); or not, in the case of unicorns, etc.. Useful abstractions like nation states or agreements can also be said to exist in a practical and pragmatic sense. They are social realities. But all too often, and especially in the context of philosophical discourse, useful – or not so useful – abstractions are taken to be real in a metaphysical sense, or something real or substantive is seen to lie behind an abstract noun which is merely a convenient tool facilitating concise expression.

One thing which is particularly interesting, as I see it, is the relationship between metaphysics (as a discipline) and religion. Western metaphysics – from Plato to medieval and through to modern times – grew out of what came to be called natural theology and was usually associated with a particular kind of (intellectualized) religion.

But other religious tendencies existed within the Judeo-Christian West which were hostile to metaphysics and which saw metaphysicalized religion as a betrayal of the more direct and intuitive form of religion to which they were committed. Blaise Pascal typified this approach. He rejected the “God of the philosophers” entirely, and embraced the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Tolstoy and Wittgenstein were decidedly within this fideist tradition.

A commitment to metaphysics is often associated with a commitment to religion. But a hostility to metaphysics can also be driven by religious commitments.

[This is a slightly edited version of an essay first published at The Electric Agora.]