Thursday, 22 September 2011

Logic and Magic

In 88 sections (a little over 40 pages), Wittgenstein dismantles many of the key tenets that supported his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Language does not work in one way; objects are not the meaning of words; sentences are not simply combinations of names representing possible states of affairs; they cannot be analysed into elementary names signifying elementary objects – indeed, there are no such names and no such objects; there is no a priori logical structure shared by language, thought and the world; and finally, therefore, there is not (and cannot be) an essence of language. Having done that, he steps back to consider the nature of logic itself and reflect on the broad methodology from which his earlier philosophy had emerged.

The bare bones of his account are easily sketched: a conception of logic as exploring essences leads to the idea that analysis of language will uncover its structure. This in turn suggests a final analysis which will reveal nothing less than the hidden a priori structure of the world (§§89-92). But now problems start to emerge: propositions, for example, seem to do something odd. They reach right up to the world, describe it exactly, and yet they are not the same as what they describe – for a proposition can be false as well as true. They start to look thoroughly mysterious (§§93-95). Nevertheless, thought, language and the world mirror each other and so, through showing us the essence of thought, logic reveals the a priori structure of the world. This structure must be simple, concrete and exact, and therefore the structure of language must also be simple, concrete and exact. And yet we cannot see anything like this structure in the language we actually use. So it must be hidden, concealed deep in our everyday forms of expression and awaiting analysis to bring it to light (§§96-104). But the more we compare language as it is with the structure we feel must be there, the harder it becomes to reconcile the two. One side will have to go (§§105-108).

This, briefly, is the tale Wittgenstein tells. But the really striking thing about it is how impressionistic it is. He barely touches upon the incredibly detailed network of metaphysical arguments which lay behind the terse pronouncements of the Tractatus. Indeed, he barely mentions the Tractatus at all. Instead, he concentrates his efforts on evoking the flavour of his old conception of philosophy. At times there is something almost ravishing about the vision he presents:
Thinking is surrounded by a nimbus. – Its essence, logic, presents an order: namely, the a priori order of the world; that is, the order of possibilities, which the world and thinking must have in common. But this order, it seems, must be utterly simple. It is prior to all experience, must run through all experience; no empirical cloudiness or uncertainty may attach to it. – It must rather be of the purest crystal. But this crystal does not appear as an abstraction, but as something concrete, indeed, as the most concrete, as it were the hardest thing there is.
Philosophical Investigations §97

There is no argument here, just an evocation of a particular mind-set. So why does Wittgenstein go to so much trouble to put us in the picture? Why does he focus on atmosphere rather than specifics? I think there are two reasons.

First, he doesn’t want to get caught up in a direct examination of the Tractatus. It is there more as an example of a broad philosophical outlook than as a text for detailed critical analysis. The important mistakes he made were not matters of detail but of approach.  Elements of that approach saturate the history of philosophy: in Plato’s theory of Forms, Cartesian Foundationalism, Empiricist Idealism, Kantian Transcendental Idealism, Phenomenology, Frege’s mathematical logic, the logical atomism of Russell, and the logical positivism of Carnap et al (plus, I might add, Quine’s Naturalism, Kripke’s metaphysics and the neo-Cartesian dualism of Consciousness Studies). For obvious reasons the Tractatus was in the foreground of his thoughts, but Wittgenstein’s real target was nothing less than the dismantling of a tradition of Western philosophy stretching back at least some 2,500 years.

Given such a radical agenda, it’s not surprising that he felt the need to employ some novel tactics in seeing it through. One such tactic was to present his opponents’ arguments in their strongest possible form. This didn’t just add to the power of his counter-arguments, it also paid his opponents the respect of taking their position seriously. And as a corollary to that he felt it important to acknowledge the seductive appeal of his opponents’ basic approach. After all, if so many great minds had been misled there must be more to it than a few dubious arguments or logical non-sequiturs. Traditional philosophy had been bewitched by the resources of language (§109) and one of the things that helped maintain the spell was the sheer beauty of the mirage it produced.

This is why Wittgenstein begins his reflections by asking in what way logic is something sublime (§89). Notions of essence, logical form and a priori structure readily suggest a profound depth – something vast and inscrutable before which the individual feels a mixture of awe and fear. And this is the sublime: the blank unreason at the heart of reason. As such, its appeal is partly aesthetic – perhaps even spiritual.

In the face of such an intoxicating phenomenon mere arguments might not be enough. The bewitched opponent (who is actually more like a patient in Wittgenstein’s view) might simply reply, “That’s all very clever, but you don’t understand” and return to his mirage – especially as this mirage seems to him to be the apogee of reason. In such a case, paying due respect to the sublime quality of traditional philosophy is a way of gaining the patient’s trust. “I do understand,” it says, “so hear me out.”

Personally, I think this is related to Wittgenstein’s comment about The Concept of Mind. After reading Ryle’s work he simply remarked, “All the magic has vanished”. In other words, “how do you expect to convince anyone when you pay your opponents such scant regard?” Ryle had set about demolishing the Cartesian conception of mind with unmistakable glee. Wittgenstein, however, was less sanguine about his task and once noted gloomily “I was thinking about my philosophical work and saying to myself: ‘I destroy, I destroy, I destroy’” (Culture and Value, p21). It might be fair to suggest that his description of sublimated logic in the Investigations is tinged with sadness and perhaps even nostalgia.

Of course, not everyone who thinks philosophically becomes dazzled by sublime visions of logic; our preoccupations are not those of Wittgenstein in the 1910s. But although the focus shifts, the pitfalls remain the same and the temptation towards bewitchment endures. Here is a more recent example of a metaphysical vision:
The Astonishing Hypothesis is that "You," your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll's Alice might have phrased it: "You're nothing but a pack of neurons." This hypothesis is so alien to the ideas of most people alive today that it can truly be called astonishing.
Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis (1995) Chapter 1

The astonishment here is not a mere question of novelty, but relates to the fascinating yet frighteningly alien world the author claims lies hidden beneath our everyday assumptions. It is, in its own peculiar way, a vision of the sublime. And what it shows as much as anything else is that you don’t have to be a logical atomist to find yourself trapped between the “must be” and the “is”. In fact, you don’t have to be a philosopher at all.


  1. Another nice post, Philip. I think there are lots of reasons why we are attracted to metaphysics and sublime views of logic. Just saying: "the world is everything that is the case" makes me feel powerful and safe :-) Not only can I grasp the world (or rather the universe) with my mind, but the world I grasp is simple and stable. It's certainly not a world of ambiguity and self-doubt, mortality and inadequacy. One can certainly feel very good doing the sort of philosophy that Wittgenstein rips apart!

  2. Thanks! The Tractatus vision always reminds me of Excel spreadsheets - I used to love devising them at work. Everything was so ordered and precise. It was like an oasis of sanity in a world full of unreasonable, unpredictable demands from... y'know... people!

  3. Nice. I particularly like the final line. Part of the power of W's work is his ability to articulate a vision in such a way that it resonates both with the history of philosophy and with the philosopher-in-us-all, who, as a matter of fact, may know nothing of the history of philosophy. Such articulations are themselves remarkable philosophical achievements.

  4. Thanks. I intend to say more on the philosopher-in-us-all in a post I'm working on called "Why Wittgenstein Matters". If I can ever finish it, that is...

  5. Great. I look forward to that, Phillip.

  6. Thanks for the tip on "the sublime" in Crick... I've tended towards just seeing Crick as bad science + some very specific conceptual confusions. But thank you for alerting me to, so to speak, an extra nail in Crick's coffin (If you can forgive me such bad-mannered Ryleian glee...)

  7. Heh - happy to oblige! Of course Crick isn't the only one at it when it comes to cognitive science. I'd say the "Hard Problem" of consciousness is itself another example.