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Peter Hacker

Peter Hacker is the leading Wittgenstein scholar at Oxford. Li Hong asked him about Wittgenstein and analytic philosophy.

In your book Wittgenstein’s Place in Twentieth Century Analytic Philosophy, you claim that Wittgenstein’s influence on 20th century analytic philosophy is huge, since it includes the impact of his early philosophy on the Vienna Circle, and of his later philosophy on the ‘ordinary language’ school at Oxford. What kind of role do you think Wittgenstein plays here?

He was the dominant influence on the Vienna Circle. He had a significant impact on Cambridge Analysis in the 1920s, and after he returned to Cambridge in 1929 he became a powerfully influential figure through his teaching and through his many distinguished pupils. With the posthumous publication of his Philosophical Investigations in 1953, he came to dominate analytic philosophy for the next twenty or twenty five years. What was his role? I think that it was Wittgenstein above all who brought about the so-called ‘Linguistic Turn’ in analytic philosophy. He took the first bold steps in that direction in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). In the Tractatus he held that the investigation into the essence and nature of things is to be conducted through the logical analysis of language. Subsequently he was to abandon the whole idea of the ‘sublimity’ of philosophy, ie the conception of philosophy as an investigation into the language- or mind-independent essence of the world. The method of philosophy as he later conceived of the subject, is the method of grammatical clarification – that is, the description of the logico-linguistic structures of language for the purpose of dissolving philosophical problems. This, one might say, completed the Linguistic Turn he initiated. So for a while he transformed the general conception of philosophy and of philosophical method in mainstream analytic philosophy. He also transformed the philosophy of logic, and language, and philosophy of mind. But after the mid-1970s his influence waned. The kinds of work and methods he advocated in philosophy of language were displaced by the effort to produce a so-called ‘theory of meaning for a natural language’. Similarly, his methods and preoccupations in philosophy of mind were displaced by the new pseudo-discipline that goes by the misleading name of ‘cognitive science’ – misleading, since it is neither scientific nor cognitive. His general conception of philosophy as an elucidatory activity that contributes to human understanding rather than adding to human knowledge was set aside by philosophers who embraced a cognitive conception of philosophy allied with the natural sciences.

In your book, and again in the paper ‘Philosophy’ in H.J. Glock’s book Wittgenstein: a Critical Reader, you say that the great legacy of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is his new vision and method. As I understand this, it is a transition from the quest for truth to the quest for sense or understanding. Is this the core of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, in your opinion?

I’ll try to articulate what is the core or heart of the new method that dawned on Wittgenstein as his new philosophy crystallized after 1929. Philosophy is characterized by its problems, which are not empirical, scientific problems. They cannot be answered by experiments, and they do not call for new discoveries. They often appear to be questions about the essence or nature of things. But, Wittgenstein argued, they are typically questions in search of a sense, stemming from certain kinds of unclarity – conceptual unclarity. And they are to be resolved, or often dissolved, by conceptual clarification.

How is that clarity to be achieved? Primarily (but not only) by a careful description of the uses of words. Of course, it is the job of linguists to describe the use of words. And yet philosophy is not a branch of linguistics! So what differentiates the two disciplines?

They are driven by very different questions, and the aspects of the uses of words that concern them differ fundamentally. Conventional grammar/linguistics will note for example that a transitive verb must be followed by an expression in the objective (accusative) case. But philosophy is concerned with the bounds of sense – in order to clarify problems that arise on the boundaries, or problems that arise when the boundaries are transgressed. Many (but not all) philosophical problems are not answered but dissolved when one can show that there is something misconceived about the very question asked. For example, we are prone to ask ‘What is the relation between mind and body?’ or ‘What is the relation between mind and brain?’ – but it may be that when we carefully investigate the use of the word ‘mind’ we shall find that the mind is not a kind of entity that could stand in any kind of relationship to the body or brain. Similarly, philosophers were prone to wonder what logical propositions describe, or what mathematical propositions describe. Frege thought that logical propositions describe the most general relationships between thoughts, irrespective of the contents of the thoughts in question. And he thought that arithmetical propositions describe relationships between numbers (ie classes of classes). But Wittgenstein held that careful scrutiny of the uses of logical and mathematical propositions may bring us to realise, and certainly brought Wittgenstein to realise, that these kinds of proposition do not describe anything – that they have a quite different role.

So for Wittgenstein the methods of philosophy are descriptive, but the goal is the dissolution of conceptual puzzles, of conceptual confusions, and the illumination of conceptual categories. Achievement in philosophy is commonly the realization and demonstration that a certain concept is more akin to concepts belonging to one category than to those belonging to another – for example, that understanding is more akin to an ability than to a state of mind; or that a certain concept does not belong to the category to which it superficially appears to belong – for example that to mean something is not an act or activity, or that to see a mental image is not a form of perception, or that to believe is not a mental state.

But one must take care here. Wittgenstein did not hold that all philosophical problems stem from misleading features of our language. There are many other sources of conceptual entanglement. We tend to be mesmerized by science and the methods of science, so we often try to mimic the procedures of science in philosophical investigation – for example when we invoke so-called ‘inferences to the best explanation’ in dealing with puzzles about the existence of other minds, as if the proposition that other people exist (are persons, have minds) were a hypothesis. We have a powerful drive to generalize – an intellectual disposition that is of the utmost importance in science, where we crave to subsume the maximum range of phenomena under a single law or explanatory theory. But this disposition in philosophy can be the source of extensive confusion, in as much as it leads us to misrepresent conceptual phenomena, for example to seek for generality where only particularity is appropriate.

I have long been puzzled about this. When Wittgenstein suggests that we dissolve philosophical problems by describing the uses of language, he tries, he says, to bring words back from their metaphysical uses to their everyday uses. But it seems to me that there are lots of misunderstandings even in the everyday use of ordinary language. So how can we dissolve philosophical problems by describing the everyday use of language?

I think that your puzzlement is itself based on a misunderstanding. We must distinguish between the standard use of words and the non-standard, metaphorical, figurative, etc. use and misuse of words. We must also distinguish between ordinary and non-ordinary, technical, words. When Wittgenstein discusses problems about names and meaning, or about thinking and imagining, he is concerned with ordinary, non-technical words. But when, in his philosophy of mathematics in the Philosophical Grammar he discusses transfinite cardinals and the relation between finite and infinite sets, or Dedekind cuts, he is not concerned with ordinary common-or-garden words, but with technical terms in higher mathematics. But in both cases he wants to show us that we generate confusions by misusing the terms in question, no matter whether they are ordinary or technical terms.

You say that there are lots of misunderstandings in the everyday use of words, but this is misleading. What is said in the ordinary use of ordinary expressions may involve many misunderstandings and errors. But Wittgenstein’s interest in the ordinary use of ordinary words is not in whether what is commonly said by their use is true or false. He is concerned with what does and what does not make sense. His concern is with the rules for the use of words – the rules that determine sense – not with the truths or falsehoods that the man in the street may utter when he uses these words. Wittgenstein was not a defender of so-called Common Sense (as perhaps Moore was). Indeed he was not defending any empirical beliefs whatsoever. He was trying to describe the bounds of sense in order to throw light on specific philosophical problems and the puzzlements that arise when we transgress those boundaries.

Do you think that Wittgenstein’s philosophical method is a kind of Copernican revolution in philosophy?

I think one might say something like that. Kant characterized his critical philosophy as effecting a Copernican revolution. All previous philosophy had insisted that the mind must conform to the nature of things; but Kant suggested that phenomenal things [things as experienced] must conform to the nature of the human mind. In particular, phenomenal objects must conform to the ‘synthetic a priori principles’ which are conditions of the possibility of experience. Synthetic a priori principles are conceived to be propositions that are both necessary, and true of physical reality. Wittgenstein’s account of the nature of necessary propositions effects a second Copernican revolution. He argued that a priori propositions appear to describe how things necessarily are, but in fact they do no such thing. The necessary truths of logic are vacuous tautologies that one and all say nothing at all. But each such tautology is internally related to an inference rule. Other necessary truths, that appear to fit the category of the synthetic a priori in that they are necessary but not analytic – such as ‘nothing can be red and green all over simultaneously’ or ‘red is more like orange than it is like yellow’ are what he called ‘grammatical propositions’. They are, in effect, norms of representation – rules for the use of the constituent terms in the guise of descriptions. That red is more like orange than it is like yellow is actually no more than an inference rule: it entitles one to infer that if A is red, B orange and C yellow, then A is more like B in colour than it is like C. And these internal relations are partly constitutive of what it is to be red, or orange, or yellow. Similarly, the principle that every event has a cause is part of the grammar of ‘event’ in certain physical systems, eg Newtonian mechanics – it is a ‘norm of representation’. That every event is spatio-temporally related to every other event is not a description of a physical fact, nor yet of a metaphysical fact, but a ‘grammatical’ truth partly definitive of the term ‘event’: we would not count something as a genuine event if it were not simultaneous with, antecedent to, or subsequent to any other events you care to mention. We are prone to take such grammatical propositions to be descriptions of objective necessities in the world. That is indeed what they seem to be. But they seem so only because these grammatical propositions that are expressions of rules or conventions of representation, cast a shadow upon the world, and we confuse the shadow for a reality. I think Wittgenstein did more to demystify the nature of necessity than any other thinker.

In your book, and also in your paper ‘Philosophy’, you mentioned many misunderstandings of Wittgenstein. It seems that there are two kinds of conceptions of Wittgenstein. One is yours, and the other is that of all the other scholars who study Wittgenstein. Is that not a worry?

No, no, no. I think, and I hope, that there is widespread agreement between what I have written on Wittgenstein and what such distinguished philosophers as G.H. von Wright, Norman Malcolm or Anthony Kenny wrote, and also with what younger philosophers such as H.J. Glock and Joachim Schulte and others have written. The differences between us concern matters of detail; the overall picture is, I think, wholly consistent.

Where there is substantial disagreement is with the current school of American Wittgensteinians, who like to refer to themselves as ‘the New Wittgensteinians’. Their conception of Wittgenstein was generated by the late Burton Dreben in Boston, and by Cora Diamond in Virginia. She’s found a vigorous and indefatigable follower in James Conant. Others have joined them, both in the USA and, I am sorry to say, in Britain too. The New Wittgensteinians tend to focus upon the Tractatus, insisting that the closing lines of the book show that everything within the book is to be condemned as unequivocal nonsense. So they conceive of the Tractatus as being wholly ‘therapeutic’ in intent, and in this respect, they claim, there is far greater continuity with the Investigations than what they are pleased to call ‘the standard interpretation’ is willing to grant (and for which interpretation I am usually selected as the main spokesman). The Tractatus, they contend, is a therapy against the tendency to engage in the kinds of metaphysical reflections exhibited in the earlier parts of the book. Apparently such reflections are nonsense. And so too is the distinction between showing and saying.

And you disagree with this?

Indeed I do. I wrote two articles on the interpretations offered by the New American Wittgensteinians. The first was to show why their interpretation of the Tractatus is misguided. Here I gave two kinds of criticism. The first class of criticisms concerned the inconsistency of their interpretation with the Tractatus itself. Simplifying greatly for present purposes, I tried to show that the reasons why the propositions of the Tractatus are said to be nonsense in the last remarks of the book, are themselves an integral part of the arguments of the book. So if these remarks are themselves dismissed as nonsense, then there is no reason at all left to condemn the whole book as nonsense. But if these remarks are cogent, then so is a great deal else. There are many other internal inconsistencies in the New Wittgensteinians' interpretation. Surely no one can seriously claim that the profound criticisms of Frege and Russell in the Tractatus are to be dismissed as plain gibberish, even though it is perfectly true that they do not satisfy the conditions of sense demanded by the book.

The second kind of criticisms I made concerned Wittgenstein’s own remarks about the Tractatus before 1914, during the period he was composing the book, in the immediate aftermath in 1919 to 1921, and later. In his later writings, he makes very many criticisms of the Tractatus, points out again and again that he was mistaken to have thought thus-and-so when he wrote the book, and explains in detail why he made these mistakes. But if the New Wittgensteinians are right, he never made any such mistakes – the whole book was no more than an exercise in sophisticated irony. So he must, miraculously, have forgotten after 1919 what the whole point and purpose of the book was. This is wholly implausible.

The second paper I wrote concerned a point raised by James Conant. He distinguished between an austere conception of nonsense and a substantial conception of nonsense. A substantial conception of nonsense takes a nonsensical sentence to be composed of meaningful words, the meanings of which will not cohere, so such a sentence is held to express a thought that is nonsensical. Conant accuses Rudolph Carnap [a famous logical positivist] of having such a conception of nonsense, and he goes on to claim that I do too. Further, he claims that Wittgenstein’s conception of nonsense is such that the only thing awry with a nonsensical sentence is that we have not given a meaning to certain words occurring in it. Most importantly, Conant continues, the idea that a nonsensical sentence involves transgressing rules of logical syntax or grammar is an idea wholly alien to Wittgenstein, and is derived from Carnap and my own misconceptions.

I showed that far from Carnap embracing a so-called ‘substantial conception of nonsense’ he clearly repudiated any such notion. It is true that he did not think that nonsensical sentences are composed of meaningless words; but he did think that words were misused in such sentences, being combined in ways excluded by the rules for use of those words – hence the resultant form of words, the sentence, has no sense. Carnap never thought that a nonsensical sentence was anything other than a form of words that lacks any sense. And, to be sure, I have never adopted a substantial conception of nonsense. Indeed, I have argued against such a misguided idea ever since my first book on Wittgenstein was published thirty years ago. Finally, I showed that Wittgenstein certainly did think that nonsensical sentences transgress rules of logical syntax or of grammar.

I should add that I do not think that these disagreements are of any great importance. In ten years’ time they will be forgotten – at least I hope so. For the points of disagreement have no grand implications for philosophy in general or for philosophical method.

In your paper ‘Analytic Philosophy: What, Whence and Whither?’ you claim that analytic philosophy declined after the 1970s. Would you like to give us a picture of analytic philosophy since the 1970s?

Well, we are still too close to the developments in philosophy in the last three decades of the twentieth century to have a very clear picture. It will be easier to discuss this in 25 years time. That is why I only sketched a thumbnail picture in the paper you mentioned and in the book. It may well be that we’re in just a passing phase in the grand history of analytic philosophy; but it also may be that this is the final, dying phase of the analytic movement.

My own view is that much of current philosophy has lost contact with its analytical roots and has abandoned the fundamental principles that were common to analytic philosophers from the 1920s to the 1970s. Von Wright has remarked that perhaps the main legacy of analytic philosophy will be that writings in the history of philosophy will be informed by the analytic techniques that we have learnt in the twentieth century. That may well be so. Certainly current writings on the history of philosophy are much superior to those written a hundred years ago, and the superiority is in part due to the use of analytic methods.

What is clear is that over the last thirty years philosophers in the analytic tradition have increasingly moved away from Wittgenstein’s philosophy, from his philosophical methods, and from his overall conception of the nature of the subject. Partly due to the influence of Quine and his repudiation of the idea of an analytic/synthetic divide, and partly due to much more general cultural influences, analytic philosophers have progressively abandoned the elucidatory conception of philosophy that characterizes Wittgenstein’s conception of the subject and characterized analytic philosophy from the 1920s until the 1970s. In its place they have blurred the boundaries between philosophy and science, conceiving of philosophy as a theoretical discipline that can construct, confirm or disconfirm its theories about the world and complement the theories of science. As is evident from all my writings, I find these changes misconceived. They are likely to breed intellectual illusion and add even more to the quantity and range of nonsense that pervades the world.

Li Hong is based at the Research Centre for Philosophy of Science & Technology at Shan Xi University in China.


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