Monday, 24 March 2014

Mary Midgley on Karl Popper

In a recent post I responded to comments on the impact of the work of Karl Popper made by Mary Midgley in her book "Science and Poetry".

In another book by Midgley "The Myths We Live By" (Routledge, 2003), there are one or two more references to Popper which seem to me to carry the same contention that Popper's work had a negative impact in so far as it went to great lengths to demarcate science from non-science ("the demarcation problem") but then failed to give any, or enough, consideration to the status of non-scientific thought and practice, or what critical standards or criteria are appropriate to those modes of thought and practice. I think it is Midgley's contention that this neglect on Popper's part contributed to a hardening of scientism and increased defensiveness on the part of studies in humanities. She's probably right.

Writes Midgley:
"Many theorists during the later Enlightenment were fired with the ambition to become Newtons of psychology, of morals or of political thought. They claimed scientific status for a wide range of simplifications pursued from various ideological angles, so that eventually, the excesses of allegedly scientific prophets such as Marx, Freud and Skinner caused serious alarm. This is why, in the mid-twentieth century, serious admirers of science, led by Karl Popper, narrowed the meaning of the term ‘science’ in a way designed to cover only the physical sciences themselves."

And she continues (in the following sub-chapter):
"Though Popper’s campaign was aimed primarily against ideologists such as Marx and Freud, on the face of things it also disqualifies the social sciences and humanities from counting as fully ‘scientific’. And since the term ‘scientific’ remains a general name for academic excellence, people conclude that these cannot be serious, disciplined ways of thinking about the world. Social scientists and humanists therefore often feel that they ought to make their reasonings look as like physical science as possible."
('The Myths We Live By', p.59)

I believe it was Bryan Magee (in his "Confessions of a Philosoper", 1997) who said that Popper "wrote as if the noumenal did not exist", and I think Midgley is saying the same thing.

Whereas Wittgenstein, who had something to be silent about, sought to show, by a logical reduction of language, what mathematical science cannot answer, Popper saw that mathematics and logic are not in direct contact with the world, so the answer to the demarcation problem is not that science attains truth (induction is true) but induction is impossible, science is conjecture and refutation (i.e. certain knowledge is impossible).

Midgley wrote (in "Science and Poetry", p.208) that "it should have been obvious" to Popper and everyone else that Freudianism and Marxism were ideologies and not primarily scientific theories. Here I think Midgley is regretting the whole philosophical effort of the early 20th century, including Popper's work,  that went into attempting to demarcate science from non-science in so far as it led to an equation "non-science = nothing substantive or valuable".

However, it seems to me that Popper's work does not support this equation.
Isn't it the case that, while Popper was an admirer and supporter of the scientist-philosophers of the Vienna Circle, he could see that their programme to create a scientific philosophy was based on a false premise, i.e. that induction is possible, which could not serve as the criterion to demarcate science from (metaphysical) non-science? In my view it is quite probable that he knew that his criticism of the Circle's programme could easily have appeared to be Kantianism: synthetic a priori knowledge is true, and his failure to "write as if the noumenal existed" was surely partly because he wished to head off this interpretation by Circle members. He was anxious and concerned for the acceptance and endorsement of the Vienna Circle.

Popper's view is Kantian, but he denied synthetic a priori knowledge. He saw that the Circle's programme to eliminate metaphysics from philosophy (in pursuit of scientific philosophy) eliminated science. He places science on a continuum with myth, of the same kind as myth, which is I think Midgley's position. Demarcation remains important to Popper, but it now becomes testability, refutatbility. Whether or not this is plausible is, so far as I can tell, still disputed. But there remains the case that there are things we cannot know, yet which are not not important. Those things may be addressed by reasoned, yet non-scientific, enquiry and Popper's work stands as a resource to place before scientistic utilitarians who deny this.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

16th Century Protestant Iconoclasm

I've enjoyed watching the late-1960s BBC documentary series "Civilisation - A Personal View" by art historian Kenneth Clark (b.1903).

Episode 6 is about the Reformation.

Over photographs of broken stone images in Ely cathedral, Clark refers to the "instinct" (not religious reasoning) which drove Protestant iconoclasts to hack off the faces of the carved saints. He refers to their "instinct to destroy ... anything that reflected a state of mind that ignorant people couldn't share. The very existence of these incomprehensible values enraged them."

Human ferocity and violence is just under the surface, whatever people like Steven Pinker have to say about it.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

"Wittgenstein's Vienna", Toulmin & Janik - comments 3

I am getting the impression that T&J are enamoured of Wittgenstein, seeing his TLP as doing the Kantian-Hertzian work of proving the limits of a theoretical system from within (limits of reason in the case of Kant, limits of science in the case of Hertz-Boltzmann). I think they are enamoured because this all has a definite aesthetic appeal. Wittgenstein is a genius who resolves in the field of philosophy, thought, what others had done in literature and music, painting and theatre. They see Wittgenstein as having enacted, in TLP, the "ethical deed", which showed the limits of what can be expressed in a scientific language and the greater importance of what can't be expressed. It is because Wittgenstein believed in a scientific language - i.e. that translation if Boltzmann's statistical-mechanical-atomism to a concept of language as depicting facts, and the world as all possible arrangements of those facts - that he could also believe that TLP solved all philosophical problems.

I see T&J in 1973 wanting to overturn "50 years of interpretation of LW's TLP [as an] epistemological exercise in Machian empiricism". (p.145).
As they say TLP did everything but legitimate the Vienna Circle's project: its main point was to show what scientific philosophy can't say but which is also what is most important. Except, as Paul Engelmann wrote, empiricists receiving the TLP saw that "unsayable" as nothing.

The artistry of this is what enamours T&J. And continues to enamour.
(I'm drawn to wanting to know more about the setting of TLP because I like the idea of the domain of ethics-aesthetics being shown by a demonstration of the limits of what can be proved true in language. I get to re-visit my combat with a rigid utilitarianism which could not admit the value or significance anything that could not be proved true. I combatted this in the ways available to me at the time. TLP suggests another way it might be done, though I can't think - for all the brilliance that seems to be there - it would have the artistry of Kierkegaard's indirect communication. A different artistry, then. What's tantalising about TLP is imagining its demolition of scientism!)

Karl Popper is mentioned nowhere in T&J's book.
I think it quite likely that Popper was not anywhere in the philosophical world of Toulmin & Janik in 1973 because that world (of analytical philosophy and linguistic philosophy) would not have been there without Wittgenstein, or rather without the kind of thinking into which Wittgenstein entered, and Popper was precisely saying that Wittgenstein's linguistic routing (whatever its ethical aspect which was lost on British philosophers) was an example of a wonderful solution to a pseudo-problem.

I think it's quite likely that Popper was every bit as affected by the cultural problems of fin-de-siècle Vienna described by T&J. He was certainly influenced by Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard. (See Hacohen, 2002).

But whereas Wittgenstein seems to have appeared a very glamorous eccentric to British philosophers, pleased with their own point-missing cleverness, and pleased to welcome him in as clever too, Popper's exposure of the pseudo-problem was simply not seen, because not wanted to be seen. It would have been too awkward.

If I see myself reading TLP, it will be as an elegant solution to a pseudo-problem, in which Wittgenstein was himself caught up, but was not able to have his peers see the ethical implications of his solution.

Bryan Magee says of Popper that he "performed, better" what Wittgenstein attempted with the TLP, showing the nature and limits of empirical science, "even though Wittgenstein had greater self-awareness of the wider context in which what he was doing was embedded". (Magee, "Confessions of a Philosopher", p.201). I agree with Magee that whereas Wittgenstein "consciously took over from Schopenhauer the Kantian empirical realism/transcendental idealism [phenomenal/noumenal] view of total reality", Popper "at no point [wrote] as if he believes in the existence of the noumenal". I suppose another part of the attraction of Wittgenstein is that his whole effort was guided by concern to show the "noumenal": he wrote as if he believed in its existence.

A quote from Berkeley's "De Motu", appearing in Karl Popper: "Berkeley As A Precursor of Mach and Einstein" (in Popper's Conjectures and Refutations, p.227)
(Berkeley is writing on Newton's mechanics, Popper is stressing Berkeley's distinction between mathematical descriptions - which may be more or less useful - and the nature or essence of things.)

"It is of the greatest importance ... to distinguish between mathematical hypotheses and the natures [or essences] of things. If we observe this distinction, then all the famous theorems of mechanical philosophy which ... make it possible to subject the world system [i.e. the solar system] to human calculations, may be preserved; and at the same time, the study if motion will be freed of a thousand pointless trivialities and subtleties, and from [meaningless] abstract ideas."

I look back a few years and know that Popper only came into my view because of the deep-seated problem, in my own thinking, of accommodating non-scientific accounts of the world. This had become very pressing because art was and became an existential reality in my life. I see that an idea had been there, as a young person, that artistic expression (in my case architecture), and those doing the expressing, are bound to justify their work, and this implied the existence, somewhere, if a measure of fit or correctness. This idea coincided with a way if thinking about the world and of oneself that eliminated the subject. It was quite simply an extreme prohibition on feelings. A very powerful utilitarianism that flattened or omitted subjectivity. To accommodate free creative activity in the world and value it (attribute meaning to it), I needed to have the argument put by Popper and Kant that we, subjects, bring an active contribution to our perceptions. We are not passive receptors.

"Wittgenstein's Vienna", Toulmin & Janik - comments 2

I have read Chapter 5 and reached what Toulmin and Janik call the primary node of their argument:
that Wittgenstein was placed, in the 1900s, to undertake the philosophical equivalent, with respect to language, of what, under the influence of Kraus, had been attempted with other media of expression - the separation of fact and value.

In preceding chapters we have seen Mahler, Klimt and architect Otto Wagner acting as transitional figures in arts, breaking away from traditions in which truth-content or objectivity has been lost at the expense of ornament. Schonberg, Kokoschka and Adolfo Loos complete the break.

In chapter 5, the picture given by T&J is of Fritz Mauthner as the equivalent transitional figure in philosophy, who wants to see if language can ever be more than metaphorical.

It's all quite conjectural.
For me, the meatiest part of the chapter concerns the opposition between Ernst Mach as empiricist and Heinrich Hertz as Kantian. Ernst Mach believed in "psycho-physics", by which mathematical-physics can always be related, reduced back, to "the evidence of the given facts", "sense data", a solid foundation for scientific knowledge.

Hertz is presented as someone who grasped that Maxwell's equations - describing electromagnetism - are mathematical expressions equipped to deal with appearances, but which "say nothing at all about the physical nature [of electro-magnetism]" (p.142), they are not reducible to evidence of the senses, but remain "logical formulas", a framework for dealing with phenomena. Hertz is presented as Kantian, because he is prepared to see the limits of what physics and mathematical-science can "know" as such a logical framework: only ever appearances. Boltzmann - influenced by Hertz, originator of statistical mechanics - develops a way of describing every possible state of bodies (atoms) in the world (where Mach did not believe in the existence of atoms at all). The tool was there for a complete mathematical-logical account of an atomic world, but one that could only ever describe appearances, not "things in themselves". Here is foreshadowed the approach to be taken in Wittgenstein's Tractatus.
Mach wants to eliminate metaphysics. He sees physical theory in direct contact with the world - true knowledge. He criticises Hertz-Boltzmann's Kantianism. Kant's critique of pure reason allows metaphysics in the sense that metaphysics as scholastic "queen of the sciences" can never be a science (it deals with the un-knowable), but equally it places limits on what can be known by natural science. That reason (in Kant) descries a limit to what is knowable to natural science is metaphysical, and this is what Mach won't admit.

An important moment, for T&J, is Mach's misunderstanding of Hertz use of the term "Bild" (picture). Mach sees Hertz's Bild as "idea", close to Locke or Hume. For T&J "Hertz means anything but the British empiricist notion of ideas" (p.139). Hertz's Bilder are public representations, Darstellung: representations to others (not Vorstellung, internal representations).

Wittgenstein, interested in mechanics, prepares to study under Boltzmann in 1906. That year Boltzmann committed suicide in the face of Mach's and others' criticisms of his atomic-statistical mechanics (p.145).

So we are asked to consider that Wittgenstein was alive to the applicability of Boltzmann's method - statistical account of all logical possibilities of states off atoms - to problems that surfaced in the attempted logical foundation of mathematics (Frege-Russell), but also saw that the by-product would be to show in philosophical terms what are the limits of the sayable.

We are asked to consider that Wittgenstein was motivated to this effort - what T&J call the "ethical deed" of the TLP - by the philosophical ideas motivating many other thinkers in a Vienna at that time, those of Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard and Tolstoy. These three thinkers, say T&J, follow Kant in so far as they accept the division if the noumenal and phenomenal world. However they diverge from Kant over his ethics. For them, the ethical is not accessible to reason, but can be discerned or communicated only indirectly, in art or Socratic discourse.

All this seems plausible. But I am conscious of the points in the story where Popper would have left off. He was aware of the importance of Kant's work as a philosopher of science, given the claims being made by competing theories (Marxism, psychoanalysis) to be scientific. He is never taken in by Machian empiricism, and sees the implausibility of Machian "psycho-physics". There is no "evidence of the given facts", all observation is theory-soaked. The status as truth-certainty of scientific knowledge was to be contested.

(My understanding is that the Machian empiricism and positivism described by T&J is a part of the reaction to the 19th century Idealism that stemmed from Kant. If Kant believed in synthetic a priori knowledge, that science was possible and attained true certain knowledge, there were the thinkers who came after Kant who also believed this and also believed - maybe by virtue of that - in reason not limited, as Kant insisted, to knowing appearances. Metaphysics was seen, by Mach and others, as having been allowed back in by Kant.)

Not "science is true but metaphysics places limits on what science can discover : logically-pure language is true but limited in what can be said in it"; but "science is itself metaphysical" was Popper's approach. Popper saw that the attempt to eliminate metaphysics from philosophy, leaving scientific philosophy, would eliminate science.

Wittgenstein's approach in TLP relies on that translation of Boltzmann's atomic-statistical-mechanics idea into a vision of words depicting facts in logical relation to one another.
After what T&J have said about the cultural situation in Vienna at 1900, I find it plausible to see TLP as the attempted philosophical equivalent of the artistic reactions against aestheticism (and as philosophy - being closest to thought - "going far beyond the boundaries of particular fields", p.165). However, I still find that attempt set off on wrong premises. The metaphysical, the mystical, ethics, does not need to be shown to be beyond the limits of a scientific philosophy (but yet necessary), because science is metaphysical. Also, this showing relies on a concept of a logically pure language, underpinning all language, which proposes that "logic is the ground of language's being meaningful" (Andrew Bowie, Introduction to German Philosophy, p.164). I think this is a mis-conception.

"[Frege] is [seen by many as] one of the sources of a conception which excludes too many dimensions that belong to an adequate understanding of language. In certain respects this criticism echoes what Hamann and Herder objected to in Enlightenment philosophy. The paradigmatic division between these conceptions now becomes a division between (1) the idea that natural languages are deficient because they allow ways of talking which do not really refer to anything, and that we therefore need to construct a logically purified language (which Frege calls a Concept Script) and (2) the idea that this gets things the wrong way round, because understanding the logically purified an gauge presupposes having learned to understand and use a natural language."

(Andrew Bowie, Introduction to German Philosophy, p.161)

Saturday, 8 March 2014

"Wittgenstein's Vienna", Toulmin & Janik - comments 1

I'm continuing to read Toulmin & Janik's book, from 1973.
It was evidently addressed to contemporary "analytical" "Anglo-American" philosophy, which, the authors believed, had taken up Wittgenstein's work but missed its significance as ethical in intent.

Chapters 3 and 4 present the cultural life of late 19th century Vienna, and the "disease" which Kraus and others find in artistic expression of all kinds, which has become subservient to ornament or spectacle, to the extent that objective conditions can't be grasped.

Chapter 5, "Language, Ethics, Representation", considers the prevailing philosophical concerns in late 19th century Vienna. Here is where I begin to detect the date of the book, the authors' awareness of their target audience - analytical philosophy - and that they were engaged in influencing  its reception of Wittgenstein "from within".
Into view come Ernst Mach, "sense data", "psycho-physics", 19th century positivism, problems of representation, Fritz Mauthner (new name to me) is - for these authors - "the first modern European writer to consider language itself as the central and crucial topic for philosophical examination" (p.119) (what about Hamann? I thought. Andrew Bowie's work may be familiar. I think he would contest that assertion.).

So, yes, the book is of its time, and it is coming to Wittgenstein from the perspective of two authors who were themselves either pupils of Wittgenstein or else students of him, i.e. analytical philosophers. The book is going to give a picture of philosophical concerns in fin-de-siècle Vienna of which I have read something in Popper (e.g. "Mach as Precursor to Einstein", in Conjectures & Refutations; Popper saw the philosophical concern with language as wholly mistaken) and Hacohen, but which will presumably be the story of analytical philosophy as 1970s analytical philosophers would have presented it.

(There is no mention of Popper in the book. However, I noticed on p.138 mention of Max Planck's criticism of Mach, which is very reminiscent of Popper: "In Planck's view, the physicist creates the system of the physical world by imposing form upon it.")

I'll read on, cautiously.

Karl Krauss on Psychoanalysis, in "Wittgenstein's Vienna"

I am reading "Wittgenstein's Vienna", by Toulmin and Janik (1973).
This is not an intellectual biography of Wittgenstein, but an attempt to contextualise Wittgenstein's thought as integral with problems of cosmopolitan life in Vienna at the end of the 19th century.

As I have written elsewhere, I have come to know Wittgenstein's work indirectly, through art and writing, broadly what I place in phenomenology. Art and writing-thinking, phenomenology, as practice, was the necessary counter-argument, for me at a certain time, against a scientific-technological world-view. Once I became aware of Wittgenstein's work, having gained a toe-hold in philosophy, it seemed to me that the mental-imaginative place in which Wittgenstein was situated, that could make attempting the work which became "Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus" necessary, I had wanted to oppose. I came across Kierkegaard's writing aged thirty. I found there to be a way out what appeared to me as a generalising, subject-eliminating mode of thought in SK's treatment of irony and ambiguity. My feeling through my thirties was that Wittgenstein's work would be the way out of generalising from within that mode of thinking I opposed. But I had wanted to say that the problem Wittgenstein addressed only arose because that mode of thinking took root, so the proper response was to do (and therefore think) otherwise.

It's some time ago now when all this was very vivid. Kierkegaard had been vital to me to combat - something! Reading, two or three years ago, intellectual biographies of Heidegger (Safranski) and Popper (Hacohen), I was still on that wave of acquiring ammunition to kill the mode of questioning and thinking that gives rise to the problem Tractatus addresses. For me Heidegger's criticism was performative, taking the condition of anxiety or mood (states of subjectivity) as disclosive of (some basic) truth. Popper was deeply anti-Heidegger, but nevertheless insisted on subjective life being present in science.

My posting on "new atheists" is prompted by being reminded of what I worked hard not to have to fight any more. It is not possible to prove the existence of minds (persons) to the "mindblind".

Now I'm getting a lot of pleasure in finding out more about Wittgenstein's "Problemstellung". I may even end up reading TLP!

Anyway, in the present book I discover it was Karl Kraus who famously said "Psychoanalysis is that spiritual disease of which it considers itself to be the cure." (Wittgenstein's Vienna, p.75).

I saw in a bookshop that Jonathan Franzen has recently translated Karl Kraus. Must find out more.