Wittgenstein, Arendt, Popper & Kuhn, Williamson

Today in CoPhi it’s Wittgenstein [W@dawn], ArendtPopper & Kuhn in LH, and Tim Williamson on vagueness in PB.

First, let’s be clear about vagueness:

Frankly, I don’t much care how many grains of sand make a heap, or how many hairs I’m short of baldness. Sorites Paradoxes are logically important, if you’re into that sort of thing (as was Lewis Carroll, btw-beware the rabbit hole of logical obsession), but I think my old friend Bill Gavin wrote the more interesting book on why vagueness matters.

Gavin argues that William James’ plea for the ‘reinstatement of the vague’ to its proper place in our experience should be regarded as a seminal metaphor for thought in general. The concept of vagueness applies to areas of human experience not captured by facts that can be scientifically determined nor by ideas that can be formulated in words. In areas as seemingly diverse as psychology, religion, language, and metaphysics, James continually highlights the importance of the ambiguous, the contextual, the pluralistic, or the uncertain over the foundational. Indeed, only in a vague, unfinished world can the human self, fragile as it is, have the possibility of making a difference or exercising the will to believe.

But if you’d rather split hairs and play in the Fuzzy Logic sandbox or talk to computers, feel free.

Hannah Arendt didn’t bog down in logic or hair-splitting. She was concerned with big questions about birth and death, good and evil, and our vital stake in the “common world”:

The common world is made up of all institutions, all cities, nations, and other communities, and all works of fabrication, art, thought, and science, and it survives the death of every individual. It encompasses not only the present but all past and future generations. “The common world is what we enter when we are born and what we leave behind when we die,” Hannah Arendt writes. “It transcends our life-span into past and future alike; it was there before we came and will outlast our brief sojourn in it…”

The foundation of a common world is an exclusively human achievement, and to live in a common world–to speak and listen to one another, to read, to write, to know about the past  and look ahead to the future, to receive the achievements of past generations, and to pass them on, together with achievements of our own, to future generations, and otherwise to participate in human enterprises that outlast any individual life–is part of what it means to be human…” -Jonathan Schell, Fate of the Earth

She also said, more pithily:

The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil. 

Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it…

Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history.

Arendt was briefly Heidegger’s lover (talk about “banality of evil”!), but is still widely regarded as a philosopher of integrity who was quite right to notice that “natality” has been too long neglected. The symmetry of death and birth is obvious. Who will write The Book of Newborn Philosophers? Alison Gopnik’s Philosophical Baby is a start. [Evil of Banality]

Verify, insisted the logical positivists (especially Freddie Ayer). FalsifyKarl Popper rejoindered. And with that, an infamous and potentially violent little confrontation was drawn. Wittgenstein’s Poker gives the odd escapade more ink than it’s due, but on the other hand it’s good (if also a bit preposterous) to see philosophers being so passionate about their ideas. Best Popper quote:

True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge, but the refusal to acquire it.

“Paradigm shift” is one of those catch-phrases everybody thinks they have a handle on, but almost nobody knows in its original incarnation. That would be Thomas Kuhn, in his 1962 Structure of Scientific RevolutionsHis view was that big new theories bring change, but not necessarily “progress”… depending, as always, on how we define our terms.

I do not doubt, for example, that Newton’s mechanics improves on Aristotle’s and that Einstein’s improves on Newton’s as instruments for puzzle-solving. But I can see in their succession no coherent direction of ontological development. On the contrary, in some important respects, though by no means in all, Einstein’s general theory of relativity is closer to Aristotle’s than either of them is to Newton’s.

Well, “ontological development” or not, greater insight into how our theories actually reorganize intellectual life is still a kind of progress. Whether Kuhn’s own theories shed such light is still being debated, but there’s little doubt as to his fundamental claim: shift happens.

== == ==

More Wittgenstein. He said “I don’t know why we’re here, but I’m pretty sure it’s not to enjoy ourselves.” Was he responding to Santayana (“no cure for birth and death, save to enjoy the interval”) or just being his own morose self? I’ll bet he never took or offered a Happiness class.

But I always try to accentuate the positive, when introducing philosophers. Wittgenstein, for instance, laudably walked away from the academic profession of philosophy when he thought he’d said everything wherof he could meaningfully speak. Changed his mind later, of course, just in time for the posthumous publication of Philosophical Investigations. But good for him.

On the other hand, Freeman Dyson reports, he was not really a very nice man. As a young student at Cambridge in 1950 he tried to compliment the philosopher and asked if (as is now widely acknowledged) he’d changed his views in the nearly three decades since the publication of his Tractatus in 1922. Wittgenstein asked what paper he worked for. When Dyson said he was a student, not a reporter, Wittgenstein simply walked away.

Wittgenstein’s response to me was humiliating, and his response to female students who tried to attend his lectures was even worse. If a woman appeared in the audience, he would remain standing silent until she left the room. I decided that he was a charlatan using outrageous behavior to attract attention. I hated him for his rudeness.

A “fresh seed”? Sounds more like a nipped bud.

Later in life Dyson, a scientist who “recognize[s] other sources of human wisdom going beyond science” (he names literature, art, history, religion, and philosophy), found himself respecting the permanently-silenced Wittgenstein’s legacy of eloquent inarticulation. He now blames contemporary philosophy’s marginalized place in the larger culture on its dearth of “mystics” like Wittgenstein. He evidently hasn’t read James on vagueness. “It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words.” Consider the conceptual shotgun.

Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. No one knows this as well as the philosopher. He must fire his volley of new vocables out of his conceptual shotgun, for his profession condemns him to this industry; but he secretly knows the hollowness and irrelevancy.

A  ”dumb region of the heart” may well be, as James said, our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein agreed: there’s much we ought to shut up about. Or at least restrict ourselves to pointing at. Show, don’t say. Stop wasting time trying to eff the ineffable.

But also try to be respectful of the points of view and the feelings of other people, and don’t be rude.

Well, at least Wittgenstein wasn’t a Nazi. Nor did he sleep with one, or hold his tongue in face of horrific evil.

But was he finally right, there at the end of the Tractatus? Must we maintain a studied silence, in the face of the unspeakable? I think I prefer wise young Kacey Musgraves‘ counsel to “make some noise.” Eternal silence comes soon enough.

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