Friday, 13 June 2014

Janick & Toulmin, "Wittgenstein's Vienna" - reflections on TLP and Popper

After having read a review (see Bob Corbett, Webster University, USA) I went on to read this book, and subsequent to that read Paul Engelmann's Memoir and letters from Wittgenstein.

I found Toulmin and Janick's book to be more or less the appeal, by two thinkers brought up in so-called "Anglo-American" "analytical" philosophy, to their contemporaries also brought up that way, that what they had been taught of what Wittgenstein was on about was not in fact what he was on about. (A view shared by Bryan Magee in his autobiography "confessions of a philosopher").

A toe-hold in philosophy may give some sense of the problem that might have motivated a Wittgenstein to attempt something like Tractatus Logico Philosophicus.

Even after getting some indirect understanding of Wittgenstein's situation in philosophy, I never wanted to read TLP, because it always seemed to me that it would require me to take on his problem situation (existentially, and not merely intellectually) and I sensed that it would be too awful to really situate myself in that place, out of which Wittgenstein wished to pull himself by the writing of the book.

For me, the awesome aspect of the problem that motivated TLP would be something like having an attitude towards art that it (art) cannot contain anything that couldn't be put in simpler terms. A faith, in other words, that there can be nothing that is more, or signifies more, than the sum of its parts.

Works of art, perhaps of architecture, or poetry, may (in their capacity to excite mental-aesthetic response) invoke a feeling of indignation, perhaps because art object is freely created, it exercises or symbolises a freedom not available to oneself. There may indeed be a kind of envious reaction to art objects, because they may incorporate something (or they may be held to incorporate something) that one lacks, and with this there may be a determination to destroy it by breaking it down, by making it translatable into what is familiar.

I think this is the kind of response to art (or more precisely, poetry) attributed by J S Mill to Jeremy Bentham. Mill describes Bentham's reception of poetry as hindered by a "deficiency of Imagination". Mill writes:
"Bentham's knowledge of human nature ... is wholly empirical; and the empiricism of one who has had little experience."

("Bentham", J S Mill, 1838)

Bentham was given to "denial of all that he does not see, of all truths but those which he recognises."
This of itself would not much matter, except that Bentham seems to have taken the mere presence of things not transparent to him as reason to break them into simpler terms, transparent to himself, but with a kind of impatient indignation. He didn't merely deny truths he could not see; he seems, sometimes, to have wished to refute them.

It strikes me that the task Wittgenstein attempted in writing TLP was not unlike setting out to persuade Bentham, in a language Bentham could understand, that what he (Bentham) called "vague generalities" in fact "contained the whole unanalysed experience of the human race". (Quotes are from Mill's essay on Bentham).

Mill's charge, or one of them at least, against Bentham is that Bentham was unable - by deficit of imagination - to believe that there could be any range of feelings beyond those he himself experienced. If Bentham regarded poetic utterance as a kind of "misrepresentation", this went hand-in-hand with his impulse to wish to demonstrate that it is indeed "misrepresentation" by breaking down wholes into their constituent parts so that they can be seen in simpler terms, that is, in terms intelligible to him. Behind this, and perhaps motivating a great deal of Bentham's reforming efforts, I would say, is a feeling of indignation that "others feel what I do not feel" or "others perceive what I do not perceive". It is wonderful, I think, to grasp both Mill's gratitude for Bentham in bringing opaque practices under scrutiny, yet his condemnation of Bentham as a far-seeing but ultimately "one-eyed" man.

Mill never set out (so far as I know) to persuade or, better, show Bentham that he was indeed "one-eyed", by having Bentham perceive his own "one-eyed-ness".
But I think this is the character of Wittgenstein's TLP, where the place of Bentham is replaced by Russell and Frege.
I also believe this is the character of Karl Popper's critique of the programme of the Logical Positivists. 

I understand Wittgenstein met Popper only once, and I understand that Popper always regarded Wittgenstein's concern with language (and with what can and cannot be proved to be true in language) as mis-placed. In return, I think Wittgenstein was not accepting of Popper's brand of Kantianism, that is, not accepting that there are, or can be, "philosophical problems".
(Perhaps Popper's essay "the nature of philosophical problems" was a response to that 1946 meeting).

However, in seeking to bring to the Vienna Circle to an appreciation of his criticism of the doctrine of verification, Karl Popper was also at great pains to communicate with the Circle in terms it would not reject. He wanted to be accepted by the Circle as one of them (in so far as he was sympathetic with their general political outlook and intolerance of irrationality) and had to work very hard to bring his argument to them in a language they would accept. It seems to me that he would have been extremely wary of being seen to be a Kantian, knowing that it was the programme of the Circle to banish Kantianism (and metaphysics) from philosophy. It seems to me that he sought to show to scientifically minded philosophers bent on eradicating metaphysics - and succeeded in showing - that science itself has a metaphysical under-pinning. (I think Hacohen's biography of Popper shows the very great efforts Popper went to in order to gain acceptance by the Circle where Wittgenstein seems to have been the one actually sought out by the Circle, by Moritz Schlick, for example. It's possible to see Popper being very annoyed by this!)

I think Popper's project can be seen as similar to Wittgenstein's in so far as both sought to uphold themeaningfulness of things that were yet not science. The difference would seem to be that Popper was not that much interested by non-science (not, that is, greatly interested to explore the relationship between non-science and science, though himself a sometime composer etc, or to consider the grounding - say in Kant - of non-scientific thought), whereas Wittgenstein seems to have been passionately and perhaps primarily concerned with the realm of things not accessible to science or "utterable" in philosophy, and yet apparently disappointed at having his work misunderstood and misinterpreted by philosophers as a claim that all that is non-science is meaningless.

Thank you again for your blog-post review.

Yours sincerely



Here is a transcript of a 1997 interview with Stephen Toulmin.

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