State Of Philosophy

The State of Philosophy
Its Bearing upon Society

This picture of the progress of modern philosophy is presented in a necessarily simplified and sketchy form. Otherwise I would have not only to argue Wittgenstein against all sorts of apparent misinterpretations, but also against any number of supposed alternatives, for a particular interpretation of Nietzsche, which I have tried to do elsewhere1.

The indecisiveness of philosophy’s conclusions has long created a philosophical problem of its own which has fed an anti-metaphysical impulse, a desire for final understanding. The tradition known as analytic philosophy had its origins in the 1890s, and was itself the heir of an older tradition that goes back at least as far as Hobbes. This is the tradition that led up to the later philosophy of Wittgenstein. We can trace it through Hobbes, Locke and Hume, even Kant, through Russell, early Wittgenstein and the logical positivists.

Wittgenstein claimed to have a method for dissolving philosophical problems . He was concerned to show how most of the problems of philosophy and therefore the proposed solutions, spring from an unjustifiable demand, or mistaken expectation, that some particular ‘language game’ conform to the rules of another. In the 1960s, a style of philosophy was in vogue which, whatever its shortcomings, attempted to build on the premise that the argument of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations was essentially right. In the 1970s philosophy moved away from Wittgenstein, not apparently because his arguments had been refuted, but as if they had never been put or could easily be ignored.

Did philosophy simply fragment into a number of unrelated practices or is Wittgenstein seriously considered to have been refuted? If so what is the argument? Apparently some were satisfied with Gellner's crude polemic in Word and Things2. Herbert Marcuse refers to that book in his One Dimensional Man, with seeming approval3 .. Then there was Kripke's creative misunderstanding4.

What would be involved in Wittgenstein being wrong? I am not saying he is not, only that it is far from clear how most analytical philosophers manage to think that he is. Once his argument has been understood. how can it be rejected? It is not fair to say that we have passed beyond Wittgenstein and his arguments.

According to Hacker5, in the mid 1970s, partly for economic reasons, philosophy’s centre of gravity shifted from Britain to the US, where Wittgenstein’s influence had never been well rooted. There, under the influence of the growing prestige of certain exciting scientific and technological developments, like computers, neurophysiology and Chomskyan linguistics, Wittgenstein’s arguments against his original Tractatus position were disregarded in the face of a somewhat vulgarised revival of that very position6. This now calls itself analytic philosophy, though writers such as Hacker dispute its right to that title.

Hacker supports the suspicion that Wittgenstein has not been refuted, just ignored, and that philosophy has thereby taken a backward step. I try to argue how genuine weaknesses in Wittgenstein's philosophy, which is itself more advanced than most of what currently passes for modern philosophy in British and American universities, can call on Nietzsche for their solution.

Can it be acceptable that philosophy should be subject to the vagaries of fashion, or to non rational paradigm shifts? The great virtue of Hegel as a historian of philosophy was his insistence that philosophy could only move on once it had absorbed and overcome the currently most advanced position. If we apply this approach to Wittgenstein, we should try to see if he falls under internal contradictions. Wittgenstein is good on paradoxes; in Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics he discusses Gödel whose paradox Russell believed to have undermined his whole project in Principia Mathematica. Might his own philosophy be vulnerable to some comparable paradox, constructed within his own principles and assumptions, theoretical and practical?

Potential difficulties may become clearer if rather than focusing on Oxford philosophy we look at the developments explored by the Rush Rhees/Peter Winch school, where this philosophy is applied particularly to ethics and forms of life.

One accusation that is levelled at Wittgenstein’s philosophy is of an implicit conservatism7. It can seem that on his principles philosophical criticism of certain ways of talking may becomes more difficult. It is not that, for example, religious ways of talking have become legitimised, but as if an apparent way of delegitimising them has itself been delegitimised. So the effect of this philosophy may seem to be conservative and counter revolutionary, and Wittgenstein is rejected for this reason. But would not this objection only apply to illegitimate, or what we may call dishonest, efforts to rule out or delegitimise? Wittgenstein says he is only destroying houses of cards8. So is the argument that all progress comes from philosophical error? Is philosophical error the engine of progress? One would not like it to be.

Whether or not the accusation of conservatism is a sensible objection, there is what appears to be a related problem that needs to be confronted. Applying Wittgensteinian philosophy there can be a difficulty in finding support for what one believes or wants to believe. There is a paralysis that can result from the countenancing of doctrines which deny whatever we stand for, and a willingness to look at such ideas in their own terms. As forms of life these may well be possible, though we want to dismiss them. We might be tempted to say they do not correspond with the facts. But we don’t want to introduce contentious theories of truth. Whether we should favour a correspondence over a coherence theory or vice versa is not a game we want or need to play

The demand we understand a language game as it is actually played is surely progress. A problem arises with self reflection. Practicing Wittgenstein’s philosophy one is involved in a language game. That will be opposed by people with different language games and motives for opposing it. How do you defend the activity you are involved in against another language game that holds it to be false or impossible? How is what you count as reason to be defended against an alternative form of reason which may be by your own standards irrational? These are familiar paradoxes of relativism, which may be more or less distressing depending on how seriously they are taken.

This paralysis relates closely to what Nietzsche called nihilism, one aspect of which is the demoralisation resulting from the idea that there is no truth. Among most Wittgensteinians there would be resistance to invoking Nietzsche, because Nietzsche’s will to power, like Hobbes’ psychological egoism, can appear as precisely the sort of reductionism the forms of life philosophy is concerned to combat. Rush Rhees, for example, does not come across as exactly hostile to Nietzsche, but interprets his transvaluation as something quite irrelevant to the usages of ethical language that he wishes to defend.

“What would an ethical problem look like in the system of evaluation Nietzsche advocates? In what ways would things look different? What would a bad conscience be like in these circumstances? Or conscientiousness generally? It would look different from what we often call conscientiousness partly because there is no element of humility involved in it. Can you be conscientious about showing bravado, about taking a devil-may-care attitude in what you’re doing?…..”9(p9)

I would say this passage is quite mistaken in its implication that traditional moral questions do not arise within a Nietzschean framework. For the moment, if we recognise that the paralysis really is a problem, it does not have to be one that compels us to go back and unthink all we have thought to get us so far. We are confronted with the problem of how to escape demoralising ideas which come in the form of viciously regressive paradoxes and dilemmas. For the solution we can turn to Nietzsche, but not Nietzsche as he is often understood these days, not the radical perspectivist who is implicated in the very problems just identified.

Both Winch’s way and the Marxist way, contain alternative methods for avoiding this paralysis and securing the priority of their own perspective. Marxism takes the way of what most would now call pseudo science, dogmatically appealing to the authority of its own alleged fact for securing the language game it is wished to play. Winch protects his position by restricting his focus to particular language games and refusing to play when tempted outside where paradox might result. There are obvious reasons why this is not a satisfactory solution. Rhees writes:-

“Nietzsche feels that he cannot accept Christian ethics. Similarly someone may feel that he cannot accept Nietzschean ethics” .

There is something almost solipsistic in this enclosure within the confines of particular language games. Nietzsche held that Christian ethics are not just something we may choose or reject on a basis of personal preference. Christian ethics as usually understood involve a dishonesty about motive that can be pointed out.

On the Nietzschean solution, a demoralising idea is viewed as a hostile threat to be countered by a perspective which claims to identify demonstrable falsification in the position of its opponents. Thus a viewpoint is possible which is not undermined by relativism. It may not be the viewpoint some people want to identify with. Presumably philosophers would have to abandon some of the moral games they may wish to play. An anti-Nietzschean position may offer a liveable language game and form of life, but, the argument goes, it is one which can be shown to involve falsification, however interesting it may be trying to understand it. It would seem to follow that Wittgenstein’s suggestion that we think of the ultimate as forms of life is in this respect unhelpful10

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