Was Wittgenstein Right?

It’s an interesting coincidence that just a few days after my posting on the discussion at ‘Butterflies and Wheels‘, the topic of Philosophy’s relevance was taken up by Paul Horwich in ‘the Stone’  at NYTimes.com (though fortunately with less dismissive rudeness in Michael Lynch’s response).

According to Horwich

Wittgenstein claims that there are no realms of phenomena whose study is the special business of a philosopher, and about which he or she should devise profound a priori theories and sophisticated supporting arguments. There are no startling discoveries to be made of facts, not open to the methods of science, yet accessible “from the armchair” through some blend of intuition, pure reason and conceptual analysis. Indeed the whole idea of a subject that could yield such results is based on confusion and wishful thinking.

(If)Philosophy is respected, even exalted, for its promise to provide fundamental insights into the human condition and the ultimate character of the universe, leading to vital conclusions about how we are to arrange our lives. . . .(then) we are duped and bound to be disappointed, says Wittgenstein. For these are mere pseudo-problems, the misbegotten products of linguistic illusion and muddled thinking. So it should be entirely unsurprising that the “philosophy” aiming to solve them has been marked by perennial controversy and lack of decisive progress — by an embarrassing failure, after over 2000 years, to settle any of its central issues. Therefore traditional philosophical theorizing must give way to a painstaking identification of its tempting but misguided presuppositions and an understanding of how we ever came to regard them as legitimate. But in that case, he asks, “[w]here does [our] investigation get its importance from, since it seems only to destroy everything interesting, that is, all that is great and important? (As it were all the buildings, leaving behind only bits of stone and rubble)” — and answers that “(w)hat we are destroying is nothing but houses of cards and we are clearing up the ground of language on which they stand.”


We might boil (Wittgenstein’s position) down to four related claims.

— The first is that traditional philosophy is scientistic: its primary goals, which are to arrive at simple, general principles, to uncover profound explanations, and to correct naïve opinions, are taken from the sciences. And this is undoubtedly the case.

—The second is that the non-empirical (“armchair”) character of philosophical investigation — its focus on conceptual truth — is in tension with those goals.  That’s because our concepts exhibit a highly theory-resistant complexity and variability. They evolved, not for the sake of science and its objectives, but rather in order to cater to the interacting contingencies of our nature, our culture, our environment, our communicative needs and our other purposes.  As a consequence the commitments defining individual concepts are rarely simple or determinate, and differ dramatically from one concept to another. Moreover, it is not possible (as it is within empirical domains) to accommodate superficial complexity by means of simple principles at a more basic (e.g. microscopic) level.

— The third main claim of Wittgenstein’s metaphilosophy — an immediate consequence of the first two — is that traditional philosophy is necessarily pervaded with oversimplification; analogies are unreasonably inflated; exceptions to simple regularities are wrongly dismissed.

— Therefore — the fourth claim — a decent approach to the subject must avoid theory-construction and instead be merely “therapeutic,” confined to exposing the irrational assumptions on which theory-oriented investigations are based and the irrational conclusions to which they lead.


Philosophical problems typically arise from the clash between the inevitably idiosyncratic features of special-purpose concepts —true, good, object, person, now, necessary — and the scientistically driven insistence upon uniformity. Moreover, the various kinds of theoretical move designed to resolve such conflicts (forms of skepticism, revisionism, mysterianism and conservative systematization) are not only irrational, but unmotivated.The paradoxes to which they respond should instead be resolved merely by coming to appreciate the mistakes of perverse overgeneralization from which they arose. And the fundamental source of this irrationality is scientism.

As Wittgenstein put it in the “The Blue Book”:

Our craving for generality has [as one] source … our preoccupation with the method of science. I mean the method of reducing the explanation of natural phenomena to the smallest possible number of primitive natural laws; and, in mathematics, of unifying the treatment of different topics by using a generalization. Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer in the way science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness. I want to say here that it can never be our job to reduce anything to anything, or to explain anything. Philosophy really is “purely descriptive.

These radical ideas are not obviously correct, and may on close scrutiny turn out to be wrong. But they deserve to receive that scrutiny — to be taken much more seriously than they are. Yes, most of us have been interested in philosophy only because of its promise to deliver precisely the sort of theoretical insights that Wittgenstein argues are illusory. But such hopes are no defense against his critique. Besides, if he turns out to be right, satisfaction enough may surely be found in what we still can get — clarity, demystification and truth.

Horwich presents (this view of ) Witgenstein’s position as worthy of consideration (but without wholeheartedly endorsing it)

Lynch responds

According to HW (Horwich’s Wittgenstein), we get trapped in our glass cages because we philosophers fetishize science’s success in giving reductive explanations. A reductive explanation of X is one that tells us the underlying essence of X – that says what all and only X’s have in common. As HW points out, the concepts philosophers are interested in seem highly resistant to this sort of analysis. And this is something we could appreciate if we just paid attention to the role such concepts really play in our thought and language. Once we do so, we’ll see that traditional philosophical answers to its traditional questions are “mistakes of perverse overgeneralization.”


First, just because we can’t reductively (“scientifically”) define something doesn’t mean we can’t say something illuminating about it. Go back to HW’s account of truth. He assumes that there is either a single nature of truth (and we can reductively define it) or that truth has no nature at all. But why think these are the only two choices?


So no uniform reductive explanation perhaps, but illumination just the same.

This brings me to the second way that I think HW’s metaphilosophy overgeneralizes. According to HW, philosophy is purely descriptive; it should “leave the world as it is” — only describe how we think and talk, and stop at that.

I think philosophy can play a more radical role. Return to our fly. Wittgenstein was not the first to compare the philosopher to one, nor the most famous. That award goes to Socrates, who claimed that the role of the philosopher was to act as a gadfly to the state. This is a very different metaphor. Leaving the world as it is isn’t what gadflies do. They bite. As I see it, so can philosophers: they not only describe how we think, they get us to change our way of thinking — and sometimes our ways of acting. Philosophy is not just descriptive: it is normative.

This is most obvious with ethical questions. Locke’s view that there are human rights, for example, didn’t leave the world as it was, nor was it intended to. Or consider the question of what we ought to believe – the central question of epistemology. As I’ve argued here at The Stone before, questions about the proper extent and efficacy of reasons aren’t just about what is, they are about what should be. In getting more people to adopt new evidence-based standards of rationality — as the great enlightenment philosophers arguably did —philosophers aren’t just leaving the world as they found it. And that is a good thing.

Lynch ends with

Philosophy is not science. Knowing how we ordinarily use our concepts of truth, or personhood or causation is important. Wittgenstein was certainly right that philosophers get into muddles by ignoring these facts. Yet even when it comes to the abstract concerns of metaphysics, philosophy can and should aspire to be more than just a description of the ordinary. That is because sometimes the ordinary is mistaken. Sometimes it is the familiar from which we need liberating — in part because our ordinary concepts themselves have a history, a history that is shaped in part by certain metaphysical assumptions.

Consider the idea that the real essence of truth is Authority — that is, what is true is whatever God, or the King or The Party commands or accepts. This is a reductive definition, one that still lurks in the background of many people’s worldviews. It has also been used over the centuries to stifle dissent and change. In order to free us from these sorts of thoughts, the philosopher must not only show the error in such definitions. She must also take conceptual leaps. She must aim at revision as much as description, and sketch new metaphysical theories, replacing old explanations with new. She must risk the fly bottle.

Perhaps it’s an annual event there since it’s almost exactly a year since Gary Gutting addressed the same question in the same place.

If you think that the only possible “use” of philosophy would be to provide a foundation for beliefs that need no foundation, then the conclusion that philosophy is of little importance for everyday life follows immediately.  But there are other ways that philosophy can be of practical significance.

Even though basic beliefs on ethics, politics and religion do not require prior philosophical justification, they do need what we might call “intellectual maintenance,” which itself typically involves philosophical thinking.  Religious believers, for example, are frequently troubled by the existence of horrendous evils in a world they hold was created by an all-good God.  Some of their trouble may be emotional, requiring pastoral guidance.  But religious commitment need not exclude a commitment to coherent thought. For instance, often enough believers want to know if their belief in God makes sense given the reality of evil.  The philosophy of religion is full of discussions relevant to this question.  Similarly, you may be an atheist because you think all arguments for God’s existence are obviously fallacious. But if you encounter, say, a sophisticated version of the cosmological argument, or the design argument from fine-tuning, you may well need a clever philosopher to see if there’s anything wrong with it.


The perennial objection to any appeal to philosophy is that philosophers themselves disagree among themselves about everything, so that there is no body of philosophical knowledge on which non-philosophers can rely.  It’s true that philosophers do not agree on answers to the “big questions” like God’s existence, free will, the nature of moral obligation and so on.  But they do agree about many logical interconnections and conceptual distinctions that are essential for thinking clearly about the big questions.   Some examples: thinking about God and evil requires the key distinction between evil that is gratuitous (not necessary for some greater good) and evil that is not gratuitous; thinking about free will requires the distinction between a choice’s being caused and its being compelled; and thinking about morality requires the distinction between an action that is intrinsically wrong (regardless of its consequences) and one that is wrong simply because of its consequences.  Such distinctions arise from philosophical thinking, and philosophers know a great deal about how to understand and employ them.  In this important sense, there is body of philosophical knowledge on which non-philosophers can and should rely.

In an interview a month earlier (for 3am magazine), Gutting had said something similar.

Over its history, philosophy has accumulated an immense store of conceptual distinctions, theoretical formulations, and logical arguments that are essential for this intellectual maintenance of our defining convictions. This constitutes a body of knowledge achieved by philosophers that they can present with confidence to meet the intellectual needs of non-philosophers. Consider, for example, discussions of free will. Even neuroscientists studying freedom in their labs are likely to offer confused interpretations of their results if they aren’t aware of the distinction between caused and compelled, the various meanings of “could have done otherwise”, or the issues about causality raised by van Inwagen’s consequence argument. Parallel points apply for religious people thinking about the problem of evil or atheists challenged to explain why they aren’t just agnostics. Philosophers can’t show what our fundamental convictions should be, but their knowledge is essential to our ongoing intellectual engagement with these convictions.

Now it’s my turn.

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