Wittgenstein, Russell

Gottlob Frege said philosophy had been putting Descartes before the horse all these years, as it were, by asking what we could know for certain, and how we could know it, without first clarifying the logical nature and status of our knowledge tools. Hence, his focus on the twinned roots of math and logic and his quest for a perspicuous language free of the imprecision of ordinary words. They’re ambiguous, their “sense” is sometimes hidden in the minds of speakers. Tighter analysis should lay bare their referential meaning, finally making reality reveal her secrets.

NOTE TO STUDENTS: I know you can’t wait to commence your Thanksgiving break, but you don’t want to miss class today. We’ll catch up on old quizzes, sign up for final presentations, discuss final essays, and begin trying to understand the dominant 20th century movement of “analytic philosophy.” And we’ll do course evaluations. Many of your midterm essays are ready to return, too.

Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead (who said William James was America’s Plato) wanted to “tidy up” math , but were stymied by Cantor‘s unfinished set theory and Godel‘s incompleteness theorem.

Whitehead, the “process philosopher” who thought too highly of Platonic, eternal ideals but who made compensatory sense by shifting to talk of events coming into being through patternsinstead of eternal, unchanging objects as most real. Nature itself is continuously creative, novel, imaginative so philosophy should be correspondingly and poetically flexible.

Enter Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Vienna Circle, logical positivism and atomism and logicism… and eventually the resurgence of ordinary language.

Wittgenstein (part I) modestly claimed to have “solved all the problems of philosophy,” in his terse and cryptic Tractatus. He was the Joe Friday of philosophy (“Just the facts, M’am”). Every picture tells a story.

Wittgenstein II, to return later (Phil Investigations) in the guise of therapist, is to me the more compelling figure. He apparently materialized while Wittgenstein the temporarily- ex-philosopher was busy doing other things including, to his credit, still philosophizing. [Bio & phil]

“The world is everything that is the case,” begins his portentous (pretentious?) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. On young Wittgenstein’s view, our words should aim to picture the world structurally and isomorphically. What we can’t faithfully replicate of the world in words or their logical surrogates, we should shut up about. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” He really thought he’d said it all, that is, all that could be meaningfully said. So he stopped philosophizing in public, for quite some time. But he didn’t stop thinking. Wittgenstein II would re-surface years later with the posthumous Philosophical Investigations.

He was not really separated at birth from Lyle Lovett.  But my old Vandy Prof Michael Hodges did report that (although he was not from Texas, “that’s right”) he loved American western films. He may have been a Frank Capra fan, too: his last words, in 1951, were “tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”

Carnap and the Vienna Circle Positivists said all philosophical problems are really about the syntactical structure of language, not about ultimate meaning or Reason or Truth. They despised Hegel, who was not careful with his syntax at all. Ver-i-fy, they insisted. Fal-si-fyKarl Popper rejoindered. [Wittgenstein’s Poker]

And now we turn to Logicomix, an epic search for truth in the form of a graphic novel. [Skeptic review]

It begins in 1939, with Russell the pacifist speaking before an academic audience in New York and comparing America’s prospective participation in WWII to being “your brother’s keeper.”

The story then leaps back to the previous century, when young Bertie was introduced to the forbidden fruit of books and learning by his famous grandfather Lord John.

Eventually Bertie declares his intent to seek reality through science, logic, and mathematics. The discovery that math is sometimes circular and always reliant on unproven axioms gave him his project, to articulate a transparently self-justifying logical language.

For that he drew inspiration from, of all possible predecessors, Leibniz. The wildly-speculative rationalist metaphysician did indeed possess an impressive mathematical/logical side, which he– unlike Russell– did not consider it necessary always to display.

“We shall not know” would not suffice for Bertie Russell.

Neither would it for the intense young Austrian he’ll soon be meeting.


P.S. It’s rare to flip on the radio in America and hear an excited conversation about a centuries-dead philosopher, but they were talking about Montaigne– the anti-certainty philosopher– on “On Point” yesterday. His new biographer Sarah Bakewell tells his story in 20 questions. For example:

How to live? A. Don’t worry about death; Pay attention; Question everything; Reflect on everything; regret nothing; be ordinary and imperfect; Let life be its own answer

For some of us, that’s a good answer to Wittgenstein and Russell too.

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