Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Philosophy of Culture

The citizen version of analytical philosophy does not necessarily converge in all respects with the academic equivalent (itself variegated), and may occasionally sound a note of innovation.

Contemporary academic philosophy was not sufficient to contain my interest during the 1970s and 1980s. In my own citizen instance, an investigation of interdisciplinary matters soon developed, while retaining a close interest in “philosophical problems” and innovative analytical formats. The social sciences and the history of religions now furnish so much data that it may be regarded as a mistake to ignore these, just as it was an error of some exponents to ignore the natural sciences at an early period in analytical philosophy.


Further, the history of religions to some extent converges with the history of philosophy, as certain minority repertories (e.g., the Islamic falasifa) are closely related to (though not by any means identical with) religious sociocultures. The same considerations apply to Jewish philosophers of the medieval era, a category who frequently lived in Islam-dominated environments.

In my own case, the field of philosophy is not limited to modern Western philosophy (and the preceding Schoolmen), but extends to the more inclusive panorama of classical Greek and Islamic phases of the phenomenon. There is a basic three tier cross-cultural investigation involved, though becoming rather more complex when various extensions are admitted. In this inclusive approach, there is ample room for the “problems” and “language” factors, though not always arising in the format anticipated by contemporaries.

Three tier presentation is conventionally credited, a well known instance being Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy (1946). Russell covered the Greeks, Christian exponents and Schoolmen, and the moderns. There was only a brief chapter on the Muslim counterparts and a fleeting reference to the medieval Jewish contribution. Scholarship in such neglected fields has grown substantially since the 1940s, and the history of philosophy has to some extent changed contour.

The inclusive approach does require some basic study. When I commenced this form of “doing philosophy,” I did not grasp the extent of the study materials involved. That emerging problem caused me to undertake library research. Subsequently, my preliminary work Meaning in Anthropos (1991) was composed in 1984, and did indicate something of the coverage involved in the project. Conventional philosophy was there juxtaposed alongside data from social science, the history of science, and the history of religions.

I do not claim to have charted anything definitive, only to have pursued a strong interest anchored in library studies undertaken at my own expense in Cambridge over a twelve year period. There was no official grant available for such an unorthodox interdisciplinary project.

I have described my early Cambridge endeavour as interdisciplinary anthropography, a cumbersome phrase which I prefer to abbreviate. The endeavour is distinct from ethnography, a monodisciplinary subject which is acknowledged in my general theoretical constructs. I have also referred to the ongoing approach under discussion in terms of a philosophy of culture, and I think this is a more readily assimilable concept, even though it may comprise a simplification of the project denoted. See also my web article Aspects of Citizen Philosophy (2009).

Standards of culture are diversely reflected in religious, political, and educational formats, for better or for worse. Definitions of culture have varied in social science. Philosophical definition is still in the offing. I believe that culture is a more pressing yardstick than society or language, despite the relevance of the latter terms.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
January 26th 2010

ENTRY no. 10

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Logical Positivism

The phenomenon known as logical positivism (or logical empiricism) originated in the Vienna Circle, a 1920s group of thinkers led by the German philosopher (and physicist) Moritz Schlick (1882-1936), whose image is to the left on this blog entry. Other prominent members were Rudolf Carnap, Herbert Feigl, Otto Neurath, Philipp Frank, Kurt Godel, and Friedrich Waismann.

Yet the ultimate origins were a little earlier, from about 1908 onwards, when the philosophy of science was debated by mathematician Hans Hahn, political economist Otto Neurath, and physicist Philipp Frank. These men favoured the positivism of the Austrian physicist Ernst Mach (d. 1916).

In addition to the Vienna Circle, there was a similar gathering in Germany known as the Berlin Circle, inspired by Hans Reichenbach. However, the Vienna Circle is the more famous, and was assisted by the publication in 1929 of the pamphlet in German often known as the Vienna Circle manifesto. The English translation of the pamphlet title is The Scientific View of the World: The Vienna Circle.

This document amounted to a summary of the formulations favoured, including a reliance upon empiricism or “knowledge gained by experience.” There was strong opposition to metaphysics and the doctrine of synthetic a priori truths associated with Immanuel Kant. The contention was made that a uniform scientific language should be the medium for all knowledge. There was also a deference to the Tractatus of Wittgenstein, a book originally published in German as Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung (1921).

The contribution of Wittgenstein was here problematic. The logical positivists favoured his critique of language, but ironically, some of them are said to have disliked the Tractatus, deeming that work to be metaphysical. On his own part, Wittgenstein transpired to be in reaction to logical positivism in his later career.

In 1924, Schlick contacted Wittgenstein, who eventually agreed to meet him (and Waismann) to discuss the Tractatus. Yet Wittgenstein subsequently concluded that the Vienna Circle were not representing his ideas correctly. He refused to attend further meetings, although he maintained a correspondence with Schlick.

The logical analysis in favour with Schlick and his colleagues deemed metaphysical statements to be meaningless. Such statements were said to be irreducible to statements about experience, i.e., not empirically verifiable. This meant that many traditional philosophical problems were rejected as fallacies resulting from mistakes in logical and verbal applications. However, other “problems” were awarded a reinterpretation as empirical statements, and thus deemed worthy of scientific investigation. The Vienna Circle validated statements in accord with their logical and mathematical code of “materialist” rationalism. They insisted upon a criterion of “verifiability” to determine the relevance of meaning.

A tragedy occurred when the Nazis gained power in Germany and Austria. Science could not compete with Fascism at this juncture. The Vienna Circle dispersed in the early 1930s, a fair number of them emigrating to America, where they became influential in universities. Schlick chose to stay in Austria, but he was assassinated in 1936 by a fanatical student at the University of Vienna. The killer later became a member of the Austrian Nazi party.

The German philosopher Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970) was especially influential amongst the logical positivists. His early book Pseudoproblems in Philosophy (1928) maintained that many traditional problems were meaningless, being the result of faulty language; Carnap advocated the elimination of metaphysics from philosophical discourse, an emphasis which became a characteristic.

Carnap had met Wittgenstein, and in The Logical Syntax of Language (1934), he reformulated the concept of logical syntax proposed in the Tractatus. Carnap stressed philosophy as “the logic of the sciences,” which some critics say is too narrow a definition. His subsequent book Philosophy and Logical Syntax (1935) again rejected metaphysics, favouring the concept of verifiability in strict positivist idiom. See further P.A. Schillp, ed., The Philosophy of Rudolf Carnap (1963).

Carnap emigrated to America, and was a Professor of Philosophy for many years at the University of Chicago. “Since ordinary language is ambiguous, Carnap asserted the necessity of studying philosophical issues in artificial languages, which are governed by the rules of logic and mathematics.” See Mauro Murzi, “Rudolf Carnap” (2001), Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

After Wittgenstein, the second complication for logical positivism was the contribution of Karl Popper, who became famous as a critic of the positivists. His early work Logik der Forschung (1934) disputed the verifiability criterion, urging that this should be replaced by a criterion of falsifiability to compensate for excesses. This conflict has been much discussed, although there have been strong arguments against Popper’s tendency to diminish the importance of induction. However, Popper was nevertheless concerned to separate scientific from pseudoscientific statements, although he did not insist that metaphysical statements are necessarily meaningless.

In his autobiography, Popper says that he heard about the Vienna Circle in 1926 or 1927. He read the books of Carnap as these were published. “They [the Circle] were trying to find a criterion which made metaphysics meaningless nonsense, sheer gibberish, and any such criterion was bound to lead to trouble, since metaphysical ideas are often the forerunners of scientific ones” (Popper, Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography, revised edn Fontana 1982, p. 80).

Popper preferred the guideline that “scientific theories always remain hypotheses or conjectures” (ibid., 81). He furnished the illustration that the Einsteinian revolution in physics “ had shown that not even the most successfully tested theory, such as Newton’s, should be regarded as more than a hypothesis, an approximation to the truth” (ibid.).

In contrast, Carnap became noted for asserting that metaphysicists are like musicians with no musical ability. Metaphysics was here relegated to the status of an art, not a science, and one amounting to poetry.
Of course, this viewpoint has been disputed by those with a tendency to metaphysical thought.

Is the art in all cases the same poetry ? Are dogmatic theologians really demonstrating the same artistry as metaphysical philosophers like Plotinus and Spinoza or a linguistic “contemplative” such as the aphoristic Wittgenstein ? Certainly, the Tractatus was at the root of logical positivism, and yet can be interpreted as an opposing factor to the format upon which it was grafted.

At the opposite extreme are those who deny all relevance to logical positivism. Yet this was a significant minority movement of scientific intellectuals, attempting to negotiate Kantian and Hegelian arguments (though positivists did not reject all the Kantian repertory by any means). Logical positivism was the ideological counter to Fascism, and lost to “ordinary language ” media of indoctrination, though surviving in the intellectual language of analytical philosophy.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
January 16th 2010

ENTRY no. 9

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Wittgenstein Revisited

There are some very different interpretations of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), and I mentioned certain of these in entry no 2 . I also stated that the Tractatus (1921) did not inspire me, but only interested me. This famous treatise was certainly an influential and significant work.

A key sentence of the Tractatus is well known. “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” Much depends upon what we really can speak about.

A basic problem is that there is still no definitive or standard view of what the Tractatus means. There have been contrasting interpretations of this salient text. The ambiguity discernible here perhaps underlines Wittgenstein’s own statement to his publishers that what the Tractatus did not contain was more important than what it did contain. This paradox is sometimes interpreted in the context of the “metaphysical” dimension which Wittgenstein regarded as being beyond speech.

One trend of interpretation says that Wittgenstein recognised the deficiencies of the Tractatus in his later years. “It was above all [Piero] Sraffa’s acute and forceful criticism that compelled Wittgenstein to abandon his earlier views and set out upon new roads” (G.H. Von Wright, “Biographical Sketch,” in Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, Oxford University Press, 1958; repr. 1980, p. 15).

Another form of exegesis indicates that he was less discontented with the Tractatus in his mature years than is often believed. The crux here is that Wittgenstein was more dissatisfied with the assumptions that he probed, not with his actual conclusions. The basic confrontation transpired to be with logical positivism. He examined the belief that an entirely empirical language is possible. Adherents of this explanation say the Tractatus proved this proposition about language to be untenable. In this view, Wittgenstein had no reason to correct anything in the Tractatus at a later date.

Rather, his main point of disagreement was with what other philosophers made of the Tractatus, especially the Vienna Circle, who were enthusiastic about that work. Wittgenstein is said to have perceived that Bertrand Russell, G.E. Moore, Rudolf Carnap, and others did not fully understand the arguments involved. In this light, the flawed interpretation of the Tractatus by the Vienna Circle was the main reason for Wittgenstein’s return to Cambridge in 1929 and subsequent application to the Philosophical Investigations (1953).

Some investigators have found a problem in Wittgenstein’s “contemplative philosophy.” His form of verbalism avoided “metaphysical” identifications. However, he did at least once express a positive view about the conception of God. There have been different statements made about whether he actually believed in God. In theory, he should have remained silent about such beliefs, in accord with his austere discussion of language philosophy as represented in the Tractatus.

The significant memoir by Professor Norman Malcolm states: “Wittgenstein frequently said to me disparaging things about the Tractatus. I am sure, however, that he still regarded it as an important work.” (Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, repr. 1980, p. 69.)

Malcolm also penetrated the difficult subject of religion in this instance. Wittgenstein told Malcolm that he had been contemptuous of religion in his youth, but that at about the age of 21 a change occurred in him, when “for the first time he saw the possibility of religion” (ibid., p. 70). Then during his service in the First World War, he was strongly influenced by Tolstoy’s writings on the Gospels (ibid.). Yet he produced such an ostensibly “positivist” work as the Tractatus, from which Malcolm cites 6.44: “Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.” Like other aphorisms of that philosopher, special interpretation is needed.

Wittgenstein was impatient with declared proofs of the existence of God. He disliked the writings of Cardinal Newman, “but revered the writings of St. Augustine” (Malcolm, op.cit., p. 71). Yet he cannot be called a Christian. The verdict of Malcolm was:

“I believe that he looked on religion as a ‘form of life’ (to use an expression from the Investigations) in which he did not participate, but with which he was sympathetic and which greatly interested him. Those who did participate he respected – although here as elsewhere he had contempt for insincerity. I suspect that he regarded religious belief as based on qualities of character and will that he himself did not possess.” (Ibid., p. 72.)

Wittgenstein has been described as a tortured genius, and subject to bouts of depression and suicidal tendency as a consequence of his homosexual disposition. One interpretation is that he was ashamed of the disposition and wanted to escape from it. He contrasts with the more suave and socialising heterosexual figure of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), his former tutor who became a figurehead of the radical liberalism which became popular at the end of Russell’s long life. It is possible to criticise both of these entities for lifestyle problems without denying their intellectual merits.

See further Ray Monk, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (1990); Monk, Bertrand Russell: The Ghost of Madness, 1921-1970 (2001).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
January 11th 2010

ENTRY no. 8

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Analytical Philosophy

The subject of analytical (or analytic) philosophy is far more complex than often appears at first sight. This subject is sometimes divided into two strongly defined phases, meaning the circa 1900-1960 trend of developments, and the post-1960 contemporary version. Thus entries 2-6 on this blog refer to the preliminary period.

The contemporary analytical trend is widespread in Britain, America, Canada, and Australia. It is not a uniform model, and exponents differ markedly in their views. Contemporary analytic is frequently viewed as a rival of what is known as “continental philosophy,” one exemplar of which is Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), whose “deconstruction” of texts has been strongly queried. See my web entry
Jacques Derrida and deconstruction (2008).

Many contemporary analytical philosophers emphasise clarity of argument via logic and language analysis. However, they have exhibited varying tendencies and methods of exegesis. Not infrequently, they have actually rejected basic ideas found in the pre-1960 phase of the analytic phenomenon. It is no longer easy to keep track of all the formulations and dispositions involved. Language philosophy is sometimes said to have been relegated as a primary pursuit, having become a secondary support, though nonetheless visible.

A fair number of contemporary analytical philosophers have integrated the natural sciences into their worldview. This has sometimes tended to converge with earlier attitudes of the Vienna Circle and logical positivism, though again, there are variations.

The logical positivists are noted for rejecting many traditional problems of philosophy, especially anything relating to metaphysics. Their emphasis upon empiricism opted for the conclusion that philosophy must decode to the strictly scientific and logical clarification of thoughts and concepts. The truths of science were regarded as verifiable, with logic and mathematics the runners-up for accuracy. These interests comprised the only meaningful statements. Everything else amounted to an irrelevant statement, not actually being true or false, but meaningless. Ethics, metaphysics, and aesthetics were placed in the category of meaningless statements.

Logical positivism met a challenge in the 1950s, and notably in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953), a work strongly associated with language philosophy. Some British philosophers emphasise the influence of Wittgenstein in the 1960s and 1970s, and lament the fact that developments in American analytical philosophy during the 1970s offset that British trend by the new fascination with computers, neurophysiology, and other matters.

In Britain, the “contemplative philosophy” associated with Wittgenstein was argued as part of a new approach to the philosophy of religion, said to have revived when logical positivism fell from favour. Some have reflected that “contemplative philosophy” is very sparse in Wittgenstein’s published output, a factor contributing to my own interpretation in entry no. 2, which does not deny any significance of the innovated phrase, but instead meaning that the new language philosophy failed to express complexities inherent.

The trend to philosophy of religion illustrates the diversity of contemporary analytical approaches. Indeed, metaphysics was reinstated in the form known as “analytic metaphysics.” This is quite detailed, and has involved a deference to scientific realism via such data as is afforded by quantum physics. The friction with logical positivism has entailed strong debates.

Karl Popper devised the theme of falsification in his philosophy of science. He is viewed as being in reaction on this point to the logical positivists. The falsifiability criterion met with varied denials. The philosophy of science continued into the paradigm theory of Thomas Kuhn and the relativism of Paul Feyerabend, who is often viewed as overturning the formerly assumed priority of the natural sciences. Feyerabend’s “cognitive relativism” gained a strong degree of popular acceptance, though objections have been lodged. See, for example, my web article
About Science and Paul K. Feyerabend (2008).

Logical positivism effectively restricted ethical philosophy in the pre-1960 phase. The prevalence of sceptical vogues was stifling for this neglected subject. Value was demoted. A revival occurred at the end of the 1950s, restoring the Aristotelian emphasis on virtue. Kantian ethical philosophy was evoked in the 1970s, and was thus a partner to virtue ethics. Utilitarianism has also survived. Ethical philosophy became noted for a concern with environmental issues and animal rights.

The “logical atomism” of Wittgenstein’s early Tractatus (1921) was obscurantist about values, affirming that (philosophical) language can say nothing about them. Such a tenet was welcome to logical positivism, which deliberated that ethical and aesthetic judgments cannot be true or false, but merely constitute a subjective attitude. The confusion of ethics with art is a serious shortcoming, and can mean a science without scruple and a science lacking objectivity. However, Wittgenstein himself was resistant to logical positivism, furthering a somewhat different orientation.

What is known as the philosophy of mind struggled to emerge from the grip of behaviourism that is associated with Gilbert Ryle (see entry no. 5). Basic forms of mind-brain cognitivism developed, known by different names. Eventually, dualism emerged as a minority element in contemporary analytical philosophy, though such matters are contested.

All things considered, analytical philosophy has a very different face to the one presented half a century ago. There are many unresolved issues, and strong debates. Despite Brian Magee’s reflection about a “bankrupt tradition” (see entry no. 5), one can be more optimistic here. Bankruptcy might indeed have occurred if the more limited vistas had prevailed after 1960, but the new mood of expansion and daring acted as a compensator to poverty.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
January 7th 2010

ENTRY no. 7


Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.