Machan’s Musings – A Heretical Essay on Wittgenstein

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The twentieth century has seen many philosophers pay a great deal of attention to the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. It is especially his philosophy of language—i.e., his concern with the fundamental features and functions of our forms of awareness and communication—that has inspired much discussion. It is by way of an examination of language that Wittgenstein developed his theory of knowledge (although, granted, the idea that Wittgenstein had a theory of knowledge is itself controversial).

Yet Wittgenstein's approach is not to be confused with the content of his thinking. After all, hardly any philosopher could avoid an examination of language in the process of offering an account of human knowledge. Language would appear to be the only tangible and thus easily accessible feature of knowledge, though surely not its only feature. And the content of Wittgenstein's thinking, in the Philosophical Investigations [1] and On Certainty [2] testifies to the fact that he was not a crude behaviorist of the sort we might call someone whose epistemology focuses exclusively on language.

I think it is fair to accept that in PI we get from Wittgenstein the observation that the central rationalist and empiricist candidates for a correct account of knowledge will not do. We cannot hold with good reason that the model to be satisfied must be a Platonic "closed" variety, nor will any empiricist or Humean impressionism or sense-data (type) account do the job. Others, of course, among them J. L. Austin [3] and P. F. Strawson [4], developed arguments that led to similar conclusions, although I am convinced that most of them appreciated just how humanly significant that issue is. [5]

What I want to point to is some of the possible implications, especially in the field of ethics and politics, of accepting Wittgenstein's work in the characterization of human knowledge. If the old rivalry between rationalists and empiricists came to a tentative end, it might be asked what follows from this concerning certain traditional issues, not directly investigated by Wittgenstein himself.

Though Wittgenstein wrote some very exciting and suggestive papers on ethics and aesthetics, these came before he carried out his most mature epistemological investigations. From the early remarks we are entitled to conclude that for Wittgenstein the substance of ethics and aesthetics is ineffable. And those, like Winch [6] and Rhees [7] who carried further the Wittgensteinian mode into specific fields, as well as others, like Cavell [8], who approach several normative as well as non-normative issues with an inspiration from Wittgenstein, have followed Wittgenstein by avoiding normative or substantive moral and political (as well as aesthetic) philosophy. They still seem to have the bad aftertaste of the rampant dogmatism and utopianism in earlier moral and political philosophies. Like most contemporary philosophers (as well as intellectuals in general), they do not believe it is possible to give moral advice.

With the latest attempts to live up to the Wittgensteinian mood by R. W. Beardsmore in his Moral Reasoning [9], it is evident that we are, in the end, offered relativism. If one accepts that there can be equally admissible moralities for human beings which are contradictory, one must also accept that that moral realm of life need not make clear and consistent sense and must, therefore, remain alien to the rest of reality.

This quasi-existentialist meta-ethics does not seem to me to square with the Wittgenstein who makes such general observations as, "The reasonable man does not have certain doubts," [11] and, "To be sure there is justification; but justification comes to an end." [12]. It seems that the philosopher who tells us that, "What is a telling ground for something is not anything I decide," should not be invoked to support the view that in matters of moral significance it is a decision that must lie at the foundation of judgment. [13] (Sometimes, "where evidence is facing evidence . . ., it must be 'decided' which is to give way." [14] But that is not peculiar to moral problems.)

Yet, clearly, Wittgenstein does not accept a dogmatist stance on knowledge. So his ideas cannot be used to give support to any crude absolutism in ethics. As he remarks, "On the other hand a language game does change with time." [15] But if we remember that morality is concerned with the basic principles in accordance with which human beings should conduct themselves as human beings (and not as Catholics, fifteenth century landed gentry, or certain tribes of American Indians), this cannot lead one to advance a multi-morality doctrine. There seems to be no reason at all to believe that the principles of good conduct are excluded from what we can know in Wittgenstein's philosophy. (There might be something quasi-existentialist here that has, I believed, been wrongly assessed, namely that "being good" is not something one learns. It is of one's doing. But any Objectivist can accept this.) So long as we can show that the statements pertaining to the fundamentals of human conduct can express knowledge, we must conclude that Wittgenstein believed of such statements as of any others that "One says ‘I know’ when one is ready to give compelling grounds. ‘I know’ relates to a possibility of demonstrating the truth. Whether someone knows something can come to light, assuming that he is convinced of it..." [16]

There is none but arbitrary "support" for the exclusion of knowledge-claiming from the realm of morality. "I know he should not have done that," or "Everyone ought to know what the right thing to be done in this case comes to," are examples. But aside from claiming to know what is morally right, good, wrong or evil, we sometimes, albeit perhaps very rarely, do know it. [17] The possibility for substantive ethics is, thus, implied in the Wittgensteinian mode of philosophy. (But, of course, the substantive ethics may turn out to be surprising, concerned not so much with rules as with virtues. Winch seems to be emphasizing this in his "Moral Integrity." [18])

The other area of normative matters that Wittgenstein did not examine is political theory. Rush Rhees, on the other hand, has attempted to shed light on this aspect of human life from a Wittgensteinian perspective. In Without Answers, Rhees is trying, perhaps too hard, to follow in Wittgenstein’s stylistic footsteps, to exhibit the same degree of knowledge about his subject matter as he detects in Wittgenstein. This contributes to what I can only consider a misreading of what sort of politics, if any, would emerge out of a Wittgensteinian framework.

I do not mean to imply that the meta-politics of Wittgenstein would not lead to a rejection of formulas as the appropriate means by which to manage our community relations. Not static formulas, but responsible agents, must develop the principles of community life. Yet this does not mean that one is doing full justice to Wittgenstein by characterizing this as being "without answers." [19] If what we believe of human conduct in a social context can be true or false, if we can arrive at correct principles of human community life—and there seems to be no reason to suppose that this "cannot" be accomplished, all disagreements notwithstanding—this may best be understood in the light of certain features of Wittgenstein's philosophical position. I am thinking of the following observation found in Barry Stroud’s paper "Wittgenstein and Logical Necessity" concerning the title topic:

"Logical necessity, [Wittgenstein] says, is not like rails that stretch into infinity and compel us always to go in one and only one way; but neither is it the case that we are not compelled at all. Rather, there are the rails we have traveled, and we extend them beyond the present point only by depending on those rails which are already there. I have been primarily concerned to explain the sense in which we are 'responsible' for the ways in which the rails are extended, without destroying anything that could properly be called their objectivity." [20]

It is obviously dangerous to accept an interpretation of Wittgenstein. But some do work better than others. Here Stroud is, I think, doing justice to Wittgenstein's thought. My use of it is probably more ambitious than I can fully justify here. If we understand "logical necessity" as what obtains between what something is and certain aspects of reality (even if some would restrict this to what obtains only in propositions), we are entitled to include here truths by definition. The concept involved in moral discourse and in our judgments of what is right or wrong human conduct admit of definition (regardless of how difficult it is to identify them). And they, too, can undergo change—and do, often. First, change in respect to the number of items that can be meant by them, and second in respect to the criteria of their applicability. As Wittgenstein remarks, "Our talk gets its meaning from the rest of our proceedings," [21] and these certainly change in several respects. It is no less true with regard to the realm of morality, moral discourse and judgment. The idea that "What I hold fast to is not one proposition but a nest of propositions" [22] has to be understood in tandem with the fact that "there are cases where doubt is unreasonable, but others where it seems logically impossible. And there seems to be no clear boundary between." [23] We do better if we recognize that, though we hold on to certain propositions and their contexts, we hold on more firmly to some than to others. Even metaphysical facts can be understood in a better light as we come to a better understanding of the world and ourselves. But the imperative, if we are permitted to interpret Stroud's interpretation (for here we need help), that we extend the rails which are already there smoothly and naturally, is a moral one. This is what we "ought to" do. And no relativism in either epistemology or ethics can be found in that. Nor does any absolutism or dogmatism lurk here. For what Stroud is saying very clearly is that "We are 'responsible' for the ways in which the rails are extended, without destroying anything that could properly be called their objectivity." [24] This form of contextualism seems to me to make intelligible the idea of the uniqueness of morality without robbing it of its inclusion in the family of meaningful, sensible, rational endeavors in human life.

Wittgenstein’s discussion of objectivity in OC25 covers some central points concerning the role "we" play in our knowledge of the world. Stroud’s point about responsibility, although made before OC was published (still, it could have been available to him as far as I know), applies to morality just in the sense that Wittgenstein indicates the place of man in relationship to what he knows. We are responsible for, in the sense of being the source or discoverers of, what we know; and we are also responsible to make sure that what we learn is objectively correct. Moreover it seems reasonable to suggest that certain facts "ought to" be learned by us all, including that what we need to go about identifying the world around us objectively. [26] These would be some of the most general facts pertaining to what is needed to make a decent, good, just or happy human life. At the outset, however, the suggestion emerges that the most important ethical fact is that we ought to go about identifying what there is objectively. (And surely if we fail in that task, all others will be damaged. It is this that Israel Scheffler points out in the first part of his Science and Subjectivity. [27] And this is what Stroud seems to suggest when he tells us that we need to proceed in our development of concepts and definitions "without destroying anything that could properly be called their objectivity." [28])

While up to this stage none of the usual normative concepts would seem to emerge full blown in Wittgenstein's discussions, Stroud's mention of responsibility would suggest that Wittgenstein could very well have been at pains to make a normative point. The observation that it is we who produce our knowledge of the world and that we ought to proceed objectively in order to avoid mistakes would seem to contain an important moral truth. And it seems that this truth has universal impact—it pertains to all human beings, at all times. We all must make every effort to be objective in our task of learning what there is, what we need, what we should do in this or that specific kind of circumstance, etc. This idea that human beings must first of all exercise their rationality, their capacity to be objectively aware of the world and their own place in it—whenever and wherever this may be the case—seems to be expressed here in slightly different terms from how we have heard it said by other philosophers. Pascal put it thus: "Let us labour, then, to think well, for such is the foundation of morality." [29]

So, despite the different formulation of the point, there is evidence that the approach Wittgenstein took to his own doings and suggested that all those who deal with his subject matter ought to take implies a moral point of view with some very specific virtues. (Peter Winch chose moral integrity as the appropriate virtue to relate to the ethics that emerge from the Wittgensteinian mode of thought. [30])
From these considerations it does not seem justified to accept Beardsmore’s idea that Wittgenstein’s philosophical writings lend support to the possibility of multi-moralities (where in the end we "must make a decision" [31]). Nor does it suggest that in ethical or political matters we are left without answers. [32] Instead in both areas we should (although we might not) make the effort to choose the correct, objectively justifiable approach to problems. It is true that no answers are somehow ready made for us. But that does not leave us without answers "we" are capable of providing and “should” provide. Talking about decisions here suggests all too strongly the kind of arbitrariness that is incompatible with Wittgenstein’s thinking about the issue at hand.

Too many philosophers and other commentators have, I believe, misunderstood Wittgenstein to have been suggesting lack of precision in human thought as the best road to understanding our world and our place in it. Such notions as "family resemblance" do seem to move us away from the rigor of the idea of a definition, for example. Yet there has been ample trouble about that rigor, also. The need for reconciliation between a view that gives us something that compels us to go along a predetermined route and one that allows for any and every direction seems to me to be quite evident. I am convinced that Wittgenstein has tried to provide that sensible moderate view for which we certainly have a very respectable precedent in the history of philosophy.

To make out a moderate view in ethics and politics is risky. Here the battle lines are ancient and more vehemently drawn than in other fields that concern philosophers. Yet I suggest that Wittgenstein’s philosophical investigations do have implications for these realms as well. Here, too, he seems to want us to take seriously the role both we and the world must play in reaching a satisfactory solution to the problems involved. So what I have been trying to do in this paper may be expressed well by echoing Barry Stroud's remarks in connection with a more strictly epistemological matter: I wanted to show how we are responsible for the ways the ethical and political principles are developed without denying that there need be a criterion for doing this successfully, i.e., "without destroying anything that could properly be called their objectivity."

Would Wittgenstein have found a particular approach to ethics more appropriate than some other? He appears to have believed, at one point, that discussing ethics is pointless, that one cannot really talk about this subject. His epistemological reflections near the end of his life, after his direct discussion of ethics, seem to support the idea that he would have seen ethics differently from how he had earlier. For example, his talk about the nature of judgment lends weight to the hypothesis that he in this period saw ethics differently from the days of his earlier lectures on this subject. It suggests that he began to take seriously what we might dub a naturalist approach to ethics. [33]

The controversial thesis of this essay should be stated at the outset. I will connect Wittgenstein with a kind of ethical naturalism and, thus, also cognitivism. Did he not make it clear that he stood against this view? Furthermore, didn’t several of Wittgenstein’s interpreters find him to be a resolute follower not only of epistemological conventionalism, but also of an ethical non-cognitivism, indeed even mysticism? The works of Rush Rhees and R.W. Beardsmore, not to mention that of Thomas S. Kuhn, seem to lend weight to this interpretation. [33]

In opposition to these interpreters, in this article I will develop the view that, although Wittgenstein supported tolerance, contextualism, and even substantial degrees of vagueness in ethics, hewas not what many believe him to have been, a mystic or non-cognitivist. We should not forget the work of Stanley Cavell, Hanna Pitkin, and especially of Barry Stroud, who over the course of years have presented us with a complex account of Wittgenstein's opinions that would suggest that he is not a conventionalist either in epistemology or in ethics. [34] Under their interpretation, I will argue, Wittgenstein can be understood as an original representative of an epistemological naturalism and ethical cognitivism. Even in some of his earlier, albeit informal, remarks, Wittgenstein seemed to have the view that that human beings are what they are because of definite common features (though not properties). [35] In separate, unexpected contexts, Wittgenstein appears to have thought that how we develop ourselves as human beings, as rational animals, is closely related to our moral character. I will thus argue that, regardless of whether Wittgenstein was a naturalist or essentialist, he sometimes found it helpful to use essentialist ideas. The nature of a thing, as he once remarked, "is expressed in the grammar." [36] This suggests that Wittgenstein did not reject that the nature of something exists in some fashion or another. But what is the nature of something? To judge from the context in which Wittgenstein uses the concept, we should conceive of it as the indispensable and distinguishing aspect of a thing about which we speak.

Would Wittgenstein have gone further and have admitted that the nature of a human being is itself ascertainable? Where one means to refer to a human being as such, without consideration of individuals, a positive answer to this question seems to me to be warranted. It is then not necessary that a common quality, e.g., wisdom, mortality, or mentality, be ascribed to human beings in a strict metaphysical sense. The only condition is that one portray human beings as sharing all determinate traits and peculiarities which are decisive for rationally being included as members in a specific group of living creatures.

But is this not problematic, to associate Wittgenstein of all philosophers with such a position? Did he not disavow the very project of rendering ethics in terms that would make it a rational, accessible inquiry? In other words, isn’t Wittgenstein quintessentially associated with ethics being ineffable? That is what we might glean from his explicit writing, as I have already suggested. We inquire, for example, whether a particular region of the world should be organized in a certain way, or whether a drug is suitable for human use, or again whether a specific course of action is the right one for human beings to undertake. As we seek answers, do we not work, without exception, inside just one or another more or less complex system of standards for what would be a good answer, without any one of these systems being demonstrably the right one? And will these systems not guide us, through complex steps, to construct answers which are ultimately not objectively well-founded, i.e., independent of some system of ideas, interests, and so forth but right as such, just for human beings? Are our categorizations not ultimately collective acts of will, which have nothing to do with the possibility of an objective human nature, but more with our various forms of life? This kind of understanding toward ethics is usually connected with the name of Wittgenstein.

On one level, Wittgenstein does speak in favor of this kind of position; on another, however, he seems to be wedded to something different. The very idea that we are ready, frequently, to debate almost any topic, including our own thinking and use of language as human beings, and not simply as Germans, blacks, young people or Westerners, suggests that we hold out some serious hope for finding a system of standards that imposes discipline and order on our thinking and behavior qua human individuals, and, now and then, probably also on the thinking and behavior of the larger groups to which we otherwise belong. [37] On this level our observations and reflections show us that fundamental human traits, ones which no one under any circumstances (other than serious debilitation) can do without, and consequently shows their general reality, bound to special groups of human beings.

On a less fundamental level, human beings think of their various endeavors as if they were of universal concern, independently of place and time (other than, of course, the place being earth and the time being the history of the human species). Thus, everyone wants for his child that he will lead a pleasant life, irrespective of where he lives, and one hopes that things will go well for him as a person, independent of all specific circumstances. As a parent one is also aware, at least subconsciously, that one is ethically obligated to prepare one’s children to enter adulthood equipped for success.

Naturally, most of the time, these thoughts will have been brought on by specific circumstances. But they suggest that human beings can think about human life as such, ask questions about our wants and goals as human beings, be concerned with perhaps evading the right answers, feel certain especially strong emotions, play games of one or another kind, and so forth. All this arises from the nature of human beings, not from peculiarities of this or that group of them; we are therefore united into a species with a specific nature at least if our thinking and talking are reliable guides on such a matter. [38]

Would Wittgenstein, however, have denied reflections in a place in his explicit ethical thinking? At first glance, a negative answer seems warranted here: he, after all, emphasizes the mysticism of value and—in opposition to many other philosophers—proposes that we should seek to approach this sphere through rational reflections.

However, Wittgenstein seems to have been of a divided opinion about the topic. Although he did not write in detail about matters of value, including ethics and politics, he offered some important and possibly correct utterances, even if uttered in non-professional, non-academic contexts.

On the one hand, Wittgenstein considered it not mainly as a problem for philosophers as such to produce answers to the questions of ethics, morality, politics and art. He tended to regard specific philosophical reflections on these questions as presumptuous. However, as an acting, reflecting and talking human individual he, nevertheless, had an opinion about such matters. Especially meaningful concerning ethics is his remark in a letter to Paul Engelmann: "I am working diligently and wish I were better and had a better mind. And these both are one and the same...."[39]

Although he wrote these lines as early as in 1917, Wittgenstein expresses something here that he could very well believe. He shows himself in this passage as both a working individual person as a philosopher, showing us, though perhaps not deliberately, how philosophically interesting ideas are used in their natural contexts. What he writes in these lines must be taken seriously, if one wants to understand what he means.

But let me now return to what Wittgenstein said as a working philosopher in his lecture on ethics. After he had accepted Moore's characterization of ethics as an examination of the good, Wittgenstein thought that in ethics, we could indeed draw attention to, or demonstrate in some fashion, that whatever can be said or thought about the subject could be nothing but nonsense. [40] Does this not already wreck all attempts to identify Wittgenstein as having a theory or even an explicit opinion about ethics, about what would be to do what is morally good or right?

Let us consider that when Wittgenstein was philosophically active, he was the most effective and innovative representative of the subjects in a science of philosophy. Wittgenstein was himself initially captivated by the view that philosophy could be reduced to pure logic or something similarly formal. This was an impressive idea, to remodel all of philosophy based on the scientific paradigm of the time. The project, however, had to exclude ethics as it was then understood. Wittgenstein writes on that:

"Suppose that I can play tennis, and one of you sees me playing and says: 'You play very badly.' Whereupon I answer, 'I know that I play very badly, but I don't want to play better.' The other can then reply only, 'Well, okay.' Suppose, however, that I had told one of you a grotesque lie, and he came to me and said: 'You behave like a beast', and I would respond with: 'I know, that I behave badly, but I don't want to behave any better' –could could he then still say 'Well, okay'? Certainly not; he would answer me by saying, 'You should want to behave better.' Here, we deal with an absolute value judgment, whereas in the first case, we dealt with a relative value judgment.. Instead of 'That is the correct way to Granchester,' I could have said, 'That is the correct way to Granchester, which you must follow if you want to take the shortest route to Granchester.' 'This man is a good runner' means simply that he runs a certain number of miles in a certain number of minutes, and so forth. What I have now wanted to maintain is that although all relative value judgments themselves prove to be merely fact-based, no one can ever show a relative value judgment or imply one. [41]

Although not an uncomplicated passage, it supports the distinction between instrumental or intellectual, and categorical or moral claims; between judgments about that which is and that which ought to be. It harks back to the reductionism we discussed earlier. The first judgments are the objects of science, while the latter belong chiefly to the supernatural. This was not a very controversial point given when it was advanced by Wittgenstein.

If one puts these and other remarks of Wittgenstein against his earlier casual, unsystematic comments about ethics, they make a more exact view. Aside from the impressive remark in his letter to Engelmann, one also finds certain clues in the introduction to his lecture on ethics:

A further possibility has to be examined, to give to you a so-called popular lecture, which you believe lets you understand something that you in reality do not understand, and with that to satisfy one after my consideration of the lowest desires of modern man, namely the superficial understands of the newest discoveries of science. [42]

Note the strong value judgment underlying the passage. Both in 1917 and in the last twenty years of his life, Wittgenstein did not hold back from declaring that people exhibit higher or lower moral quality. And in a politically more relevant context, too, Wittgenstein has been reported to offer certain remarks that suggest that values are not ineffable at all. Norman Malcolm recounts a discussion he had with Wittgenstein and here, too, some value oriented suggestions emerge.

”When in very good spirits he would jest in a delightful manner. This took the form of deliberately absurd or extravagant remarks uttered in a tone, and with the mien, of affected seriousness. On one walk he ‘gave’ me each tree that we passed, with the reservation that I was not to cut it down or do anything to it, or prevent the previous owners from doing anything to it: with those reservations they were henceforth mine.43

Does this story not suggest that Wittgenstein believed that one ought not to talk this way, that it is wrong to think that one can both own something and not have any control over it? While this is not the product of explicit political philosophizing, implicit within it is a judgment as to political economy, namely, that ownership and control are intimately linked, something that many people fail to heed. Such remarks, however, dispute Wittgenstein’s very own characterization of ethical language as expressing simple nonsense.

How is this contradiction to be understood?

Putting it into words he himself used to talk of certain problems other philosophers faced, Wittgenstein appears to have been captivated by a picture. This picture demands that all facts be describable. That shows itself in his various references to the inappropriateness of statement about values in a book which "would contain the complete description of the world." [12] He says, also, that "an attitude, as long as we understand it as a fact, is not in an ethical sense good or bad."[13]
Wittgenstein goes on to intimate a (possibly unintentional) reductionism, when he holds against his own statements:

Well, if certain experiences constantly tempt us to attribute a quality to them which we call absolute or ethical value and importance, this simply shows that by these words we don't mean nonsense, that after all what we mean by saying that an experience has absolute value is just a fact like other facts and that all it comes to is that we have not yet succeeded in finding the correct logical analysis of what we mean by our ethical and religious expressions. Now when this is urged against me I at once see clearly, as it were in a flash of light, not only that no description that I can think of would do to describe what I mean by absolute value, but that I would reject every significant description that anybody could possibly suggest, ab initio, on the ground of its significance. [14]

Is it necessary with value judgments that the facts to which they are related be like other facts, so that value judgments represent factual judgments akin to ones in the physical sciences or agriculture and are, thus, describable—capable of being given a description as, say, a vase or sofa in a room can be? This is by no means necessarily so. There are obviously many non-ethical facts that do not amount to describable facts—for example, the headache one is feeling or the intent one has to take a vacation—it seems not at all implausible that the same would be so about ethical facts. In other words, a fact like "The spot is red" isn’t like the fact that "Harry intends to go to Paris for his vacation" or even like "Sunshine is required for certain plants to grow healthy." Or consider such facts as, "For an economy to grow, there needs to be much innovation and flow of commerce." So, then, if one proposed as a fact that "Human beings ought to act prudently in their lives," or "Honesty is a sound approach to living well," that these aren’t like facts we can describe, yet they manage to be facts nonetheless, their failure to satisfy the criteria of factuality that are satisfied by facts we can describe need not count against their being facts.

What should we make of Wittgenstein's description of his preference for the characterization of the ethical dimension as private, subjective or idiosyncratic? He has said, "I can say no more than: ‘I do not want to disregard this human inclination; I tip my hat to it.’ And here it is important, that it is not a matter of a sociological description, but that I speak [only] for myself." [15] What becomes now, however, of Wittgenstein's earlier remark, that what he would want to mean with such nonsensical expressions as ethical ones is "to go beyond the world, and with that, beyond each nonsensical language" (16) It seems clear to me that Wittgenstein accepted such an interpretation of "nonsensical language" and "the world" which forced him to describe ethics as nonsensical and meaningless.

If I am right, Wittgenstein was forced by his own captivity to certain notions to refrain from an ethical discourse. I want thus to regard Wittgenstein's ideas as he puts them down in other, non philosophical writings, and not his expressed remarks on the nature of ethics, as a better clue to what he thought about ethics.
I believe that Justus Hartnack was right to call J. O. Urmson's essay "On Grading" [17] as one of the most important philosophical discussions, which developed under the influence of Wittgenstein's later philosophy.[18] Urmson looked at value judgments as a form of objective grading, based on an assessment of what can be rationally expected. If we also agree on the presence of a mild form of essentialism that Wittgenstein, in my opinion, embraces—namely, that assessment of things as good or bad specimens must be based on their nature—what they shows it that Wittgenstein actually exhibits, even if he does not profess, a kind of ethical naturalism.

People’s moral worth is thus not a result of how they have become something, say, biologically, but is derived from what they have done or failed to do. [19] That is unique to them as people, because they are rational and choosing animals, i.e., they possess the capacity for conceptual consciousness, something that can be confirmed from the huge number of variations in human life and the history of humanity. [20]

Wittgenstein's remark in his letter to Engelmann fits very well into this Aristotelian interpretation of ethics, namely, that it is the same to be better and smarter. Which is to say, that people are morally better insofar as they have exhibit greater levels of awareness. As Leo Strauss renders the point, the good life for man is:
… simply the life in which the requirements of man’s natural inclinations are fulfilled in the proper order to the highest possible degree, the life of a man who is awake to the highest possible degree, the life of a man in whose soul nothing lies waste.” [21]

That is the fundamental theme of Aristotelian ethics.

Wittgenstein's remark, that ethics could not be taught, wants naturally still always to be true: It turns out not with the fact in contradiction, that a non-cognitivist attitude can no longer be ascribed to him. I think at the same time about a trait of ethics, that distinguishes it from all other sciences—namely, that in ethics, people function not merely as registrars of facts, reporters of facts, or judges of truths. They are indeed that. They also play, however, the role of motives for the realization of ethical truths, the carriers-out of facts. If it thus is true, that people in general should be honest, ought those people, who can know this truth, also be honest. And on the basis of their own and independent decision, they must be honest.

Ethics can, therefore, not be taught. If someone learns, he has already made a morally valuable decision. The decision, to be attentive and willing to learn, is itself not teachable; it is the independent contribution of the trader. Nothing in this interpretation of ethics—its special place in human sciences—makes it however into a mystical affair, which should have its place in the area of the supernatural or beyond the boundaries of language.

1 See L. Wittgenstein, "A Lecture on Ethics", in Philosophical Review, 74 (1965) pp. 11-12, und F. Waismann, "Notes on Talks with Wittgenstein", in Philosophical Review, 74 (1965), pp. 15-16.
2 See R. Rhees, Without Answers (London 1969); R.W. Beardsmore, Moral Reasoning (New York 1969); and T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).
3 See S. Cavell, Must We Mean What We Say? (New York 1969) und The Claim of Reason (New York 1980); H. Pitkin, Wittgenstein and Justice (Berkeley 1972); B. Stroud, "Wittgenstein and Logical Necessity," in Wittgenstein: The Philosophical Investigations (Garden City, 1968).
4 I refer here to the human ability to think. In general, I hold human beings to be rational animals, in which their rationality makes their differentia specifica or their nature. My own ideas bring to expression what I have learned from Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd edition(New York 1979).
5 PU 371. It would also have followed the emphatic [?unknown word] application of the concept of "nature" in "We have learned the Nature of arithmetic in arithmetic class." In UG 149 it is called "My judgments themselves characterize the kind and way, as I judge, the nature of judgments." E. H. Wolgast has indicated in the discussion of this lecture, that Wittgenstein seemed to recognize the existence of human nature in his "Remarks on Frazer's 'The Golden Bough'" in Synthese 17 (1967), pp.233-253, if he speaks of our general feelings against the habits of a certain group.
6 If this also has expressed something too large, is however to observe, that under the assumption that we [can't make this out] of the best kind, express ourselves, would have considered, we must not make mutual on thoughtful, that we stray from the reality.
7 The characterization of people by their nature as rational animals does not imply either that only human beings can show rational behavior or that each person always behaves rationally. That would have been a confusion of the meaning of "nature", "definition", or "his nature according to" with necessarily. A detailed discussion can be found in my book Individuals and Their Rights (Chicago: Open Court, 1989). A very good explanation of what "necessary" is contained in Stroud (1968).
8 Engelmann, P., Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein, With a Memoir. B.F. McGuinness (ed.) (Oxford 1967), p.4. See, also, Blaise Pascal, who reportedly implored: "Let us labour, then, to think well, for such is the foundation of morality." Quoted in THE WEEK, July 27, 2002, p. 17.
9 Wittgenstein (1965), S.11.10. Wittgenstein (1965), S.5f.
10 Wittgenstein (1965), S.5f.
11 Wittgenstein (1965), S.4.
12 Wittgenstein (1965).
13 Wittgenstein (1965).
14 Wittgenstein (1965).
15 Waismann (1965), S.16.
16 Wittgenstein (1965), S.11.
17 See, J. O. Urmson, "On Grading", in Mind, 59 (1950).
18 Justus Hartnack, Wittgenstein and Modern Philosophy (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985), p.121ff.
19 See, Tibor R. Machan, The Pseudo-Science of B.F. Skinner (New Rochelle, NY 1974); N. Branden, The Psychology of Self-Esteem (New York 1969); J.M. Boyle et al, Free Choice (Notre Dame 1976); J. F. Rychiak, Discovering Free Will and Personal Responsibility (New York 1979); R. W. Sperry, "Changing Concepts of Consciousness and Free Will", in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 19 (1976), S.9-19.
20 Op. cit., Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology
21 Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History, 2nd edition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 127.

( categories: )

Logical Positivism

Jeff Perren's picture

I would encourage you to read Brand Blanshard's Reason and Analysis, and then see if you still have the same view. And, rest assured, it is NOT any kind of hot-headed, moralistic screed. (Among other things, Blanshard was a Quaker.)

The days of the Vienna

Ali Hassan Massoud's picture

The days of the Vienna Circle and the Logical Positivists that emerged from it brought about what could honestly be described as a second Age of Reason.

Wittgenstein thought that whatever could be expressed in language could be understood; what couldn't was smoke and fog. Wittgenstein was after all mainly a linguist and the Logical Positivist school would tolerate no mystical forms of explanation or insight.

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