Sunday, 9 March 2014

"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)

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