Wittgenstein, Russell, and Lawrence

by Mark English

I recently wrote a piece in which I looked at the views of some 20th-century thinkers on language, metaphysics, science and philosophy. My main focus was on the logical empiricists and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

In his youth, Wittgenstein worked with Bertrand Russell and then subsequently with the Vienna Circle before taking a rather different direction from the late 1920’s on. But the main elements of his thinking remained the same: his distrust of metaphysics, for example. In fact, he even came to fault his earlier work (which was heavily influenced by Russell) as being too metaphysical.

My piece triggered some discussion about the extent to which Russell’s outlook was truly scientific. It was suggested that Russell, driven by unwarranted metaphysical assumptions, got things fundamentally wrong about language and logic. By contrast, the later Wittgenstein and the Oxford school of “ordinary language” philosophy which developed in the 1950’s got things fundamentally right.

In the course of the discussion, I made the point that Russell was committed to a view of the world based on evidence and reason and was an energetic advocate for science and for a scientifically-oriented philosophy. This claim prompted the suggestion that, while Russell’s attitude to science was indeed positive, he made a fetish of science.

There is something in the fetishization idea. As an adolescent Russell had found comfort in the certainties of mathematics. And it takes a particular kind of mentality to be so concerned about the foundations of mathematics as to devote many years to attempting to elaborate a sound logical basis for the discipline.

This story, however, can be told many ways. And it is not just a story about one man’s obsessions. It was a remarkable time in European intellectual circles, and arguably what made it so remarkable was the way that scientific advances in a range of areas – especially historical linguistics, textual criticism, natural history, mathematics and physics – mattered for the general culture. There was a sense that the world had changed irrevocably since the Enlightenment; that it was no longer business as usual. Too many established truths had been shown not to be truths at all. Given this intellectual upheaval, it is no wonder that the new world sensed or foreseen by many 19th-century thinkers and artists was a disturbing and disorientating one.

Despite their various metaphysical commitments or assumptions, I don’t think it plausible to see the likes of Frege and Russell in the same terms as the Hegelian metaphysicians who preceded them, if only because they were committed to scientific methods and open to the possibility that their various projects would fail. They were intellectual pioneers; explorers, not dreamers. And they were bound in a very productive way to the spirit of their time.

The grand plan to create an explicit and complete logical  system which could encompass arithmetic was demonstrated – by Kurt Gödel in the early 1930s – to be impossible. But, as Karl Popper pointed out, this is precisely how science works and progresses: by bold conjectures and refutations. Without the prior work by Frege, Russell and others, Gödel would never have come to devise his remarkable proof. And it’s not as if Frege’s and Russell’s work was successful only in this negative sense. After all, their technical achievements helped to lay the groundwork for – and even shaped in certain ways – the revolution in digital computing as well as providing fruitful ideas in specific areas (such as formal linguistics).

I certainly don’t want to mount a defense of Russell’s logical atomism. I see the whole project of trying to construct a perfectly clear and perspicuous language (even if it is meant only for scientific purposes) as being doomed to failure. Russell’s own views changed over time. In his later works, he defends an approach to human knowledge which is (in my opinion) eminently defensible.

Russell was drawn to a correspondence view of truth. And, though his original insistence on a structural isomorphism between language and the world may not be sustainable, it seems to me (as it did to figures as different as Karl Popper and J.L. Austin) that there are objectively existing states of affairs – in both ordinary and scientific contexts – to which most statements refer and against which their truth or correctness (or whatever term might be appropriate) depends.

I see this view (or something very like it) as a prerequisite for science and scholarship as those pursuits have been traditionally understood. Sure, such a view has been challenged by various forms of idealism and radical epistemologies over the years. It is currently under sustained attack. But it is, I think, worth defending.

Much of Austin’s work is descriptive and classificatory and, as I understand it, Austin saw himself as doing something like proto-science. He believed that his work on language would eventually form the basis for a mature science, and indeed his work has been picked up by linguists as well as by philosophers. Austin’s intellectual orientation was clearly quite different from Wittgenstein’s. Both thinkers had an appreciation of the power, complexity and expressiveness of natural language. But Wittgenstein was not interested in the sort of painstaking explicitness and classificatory thoroughness to which Austin aspired.

Previously I contrasted Russell’s scientific view of the world with Wittgenstein’s view. I am now suggesting a similar (but more limited) contrast between Austin and Wittgenstein. I want to make it clear, however, that I am not taking sides with respect to the thinkers involved. There is value both in Wittgenstein’s and in Austin’s writings on language. It’s just that their respective approaches and orientations are different.

On Russell and Wittgenstein, there are some issues on which I side with one, and some issues on which I side with the other. With respect to the status of science and scientific knowledge I am very much in Russell’s camp, not Wittgenstein’s.

Speaking in more personal and subjective terms, I am much attracted to Wittgenstein’s cultural views – notably to his cultural pessimism, and also to his quietism. By contrast, Russell’s style of social engagement and activism doesn’t appeal to me and I disagree with many of his stated views and opinions (on education for instance). Of course, there are many issues on which Russell and Wittgenstein agree. In particular, they had very similar views on what philosophy cannot do. And, in the end, they both rejected logical atomism.

I have been looking lately into another instance of Russell engaging closely with a younger intellectual. This case may throw some light on his interactions with Wittgenstein.

Just as his intellectual and personal relationship with Wittgenstein eventually turned sour, so too did his relationship with the writer, D.H. Lawrence. At one stage they were planning to give a series of public lectures together on social and political themes.

About this time – it was 1915 – Wittgenstein, who had volunteered (despite being eligible for a medical exemption) to join the Austro-Hungarian army, was recovering in a Krakow hospital from an industrial explosion at a repair workshop to which he had been assigned near the Eastern Front. He was soon to volunteer to join a frontline howitzer regiment in Galicia and subsequently won awards for bravery in the wake of a devastating but ultimately unsuccessful Russian attack. He continued fighting on the Eastern Front right up until the truce with Russia in 1917. In early 1918 he was transferred to the Southern Front and fought in the Alps, until he was captured only days before the end of the war.

Russell and Lawrence were living at the time in a very different world. They were both opposed on moral and political grounds to engaging in military service. But their perspectives proved to be too far apart for them to cooperate in any serious way. At first Russell had been impressed by Lawrence, but he turned against him and his ideas.

One common focus was the possibility – or necessity – for transcending the “prison” of the self but (in the words of Ray Monk) “the ideas each developed as to how this should be done were radically divergent, so much so that each could, in the end, regard the other as the very personification of the kind of egoism they sought to transcend.”

Russell remained tied to his intellectualism whereas Lawrence was committed to the importance of passion and the unconscious.

According to Jonathan Rée, Russell’s preliminary notes for his 1916 anti-war lectures were based to a large extent on “Lawrence’s contrast between “possessive” impulses, which lead to violence and war, and “creative” ones, which blossom into love and true democracy.” But Lawrence rejected the synopsis. He called on Russell to ditch “mental consciousness” in favour of the “blood knowledge that comes either through the mother or through sex.”

Unsurprisingly, Russell was not impressed. He confided to Ottoline Morrell: “Lawrence is just as ferocious a critic as Wittgenstein… [B]ut I thought [Wittgenstein] right and I think [Lawrence] wrong.”

Lawrence responded to Russell’s rejection of his ideas by saying that he “would rather have the German soldiers with rapine and cruelty, than you with your words of goodness.”

Lawrence’s reaction parallels a famous remark which Wittgenstein made to Russell. The occasion was their meeting in August 1922 in the Austrian Alps, where Wittgenstein was having a very frustrating and unhappy time teaching in an elementary school. Russell was passing through Austria on his way to an Italian summer school of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and he arranged to meet up with Wittgenstein.

The encounter was not a success. Wittgenstein found Russell’s most recent philosophical work to be glib and shoddy, and he ridiculed the very idea of a League for Peace and Freedom.

Russell: “I suppose you would prefer a League for War and Slavery.”

Wittgenstein: “Much rather, much rather!”

Rée spells out the significance of this last remark very well:

[Wittgenstein] was not entirely serious, of course: it is blindingly obvious that peace is better than war, and freedom preferable to slavery, just as health is better than disease, and happiness preferable to depression. But he was not joking either: genuine political differences, he thought, are not going to be resolved by statements of the obvious. In any case he respected the virtues of old-fashioned statesmanship: circumspection, diplomacy and proper caution about the unintended consequences of political action. Presenting oneself as a supporter of “Peace and Freedom” was an exercise in smugness and self-advertisement rather than a heroic act of moral or political virtue, or a substantial contribution to the common good. Russell might be an atheist in theory, but he seemed to be conducting himself like a self-righteous parson.

There is another parallel between Lawrence and Wittgenstein that may be worth mentioning here: their respective views of the self.

Aidan Burns comments (in his book, Nature and Culture in D.H. Lawrence) that Lawrence’s view of the self “bears an uncanny resemblance to the view of the self outlined by Wittgenstein in [the] Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.”

Wittgenstein talked about the “truth of solipsism” which cannot be expressed but which makes itself manifest. “The world is my world… I am my world…” (5.62,  5.63). This attenuated, “philosophical” self “is not the human being, not the human body, or the human soul, with which psychology deals, but rather the metaphysical subject, the limit of the world – not a part of it.” (5.641).

Lawrence also saw the self as inexpressible. And he felt that, with respect to depicting the self, the novelist had a distinct advantage over the philosopher. Shorn of philosophical commentary and moralizing, the novel permits the self to become manifest without being described.

I can’t say for sure that Lawrence’s and Wittgenstein’s views on the self are as close as Burns suggests or exactly how they would relate to Russell’s view. But it is significant that the issue of moralizing – which can be symptomatic of a certain form of egoism – has come up again here.

Even if Russell was not quite as smug and sanctimonious as Jonathan Rée makes him out to be (I don’t think he was), he is vulnerable to this line of criticism. Certainly he did play the sage and indulge in a certain amount of moralizing in his political work and writing.

By contrast, Wittgenstein did not moralize at all as far as I know. And nor did Lawrence – in his best fiction, at any rate.

20 Comments »

  1. Mark, this is terrific stuff, especially the bit on the Russell/Lawrence connection, which I did not know about.

    My only real issue is with the portion on Truth. For one thing, the correspondence theory that you advocate has never been adequately formulated and in my view — and that of many others — cannot be, without vicious circularity. The trouble, of course, is that “objectively existing states of affairs” cannot be unpacked without invoking truth. And it would be exceedingly strange if the correspondence theory was as “a prerequisite for science and scholarship,” given that the most scientifically minded philosophers today are more inclined to be deflationists of one sort or another rather than correspondence theorists. Put another way, what do you think you know that Hartry Field doesn’t? (Full disclosure: I not only was his research assistant as a graduate student, but I took a entire seminar on Deflationism with him, while in graduate school.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Glad you found it interesting.

      “My only real issue is with the portion on Truth.”

      Lower-case t truth is quite tricky enough for me. I was talking about attitudes to human knowledge at a particular time. Things that had seemed to be self-evident had recently been called into question or shown not to be the case, and this led to an upheaval in thinking about science and human knowledge more generally. We are still feeling the aftershocks.

      I did mention the correspondence theory of truth, saying that Russell was drawn to it. But I explicitly questioned the idea of a structural isomorphism between language and the world. Specifically, my claim was that “there are objectively existing states of affairs – in both ordinary and scientific contexts – to which most statements refer and against which their truth or correctness (or whatever term might be appropriate) depends.”

      You say that…

      … the correspondence theory … has never been adequately formulated and in my view — and that of many others — cannot be, without vicious circularity. The trouble, of course, is that “objectively existing states of affairs” cannot be unpacked without invoking truth.”

      Or another word or expression serving a similar function (right, correct, accurate, spot on, etc.).

      I’m not sure how much “unpacking” I need to do here. I am quite happy to use phrases like “states of affairs” and words like “truth”, “objectivity”, etc., in their normal senses.

      In a previous piece I put forward a simple – even trivial-seeming – argument of Popper’s which tried to avoid the circularity of which you speak. It seemed good to me (but I am open to being persuaded otherwise). But I have read enough philosophy to know that there are rarely any knockdown arguments. (See below on this also.)

      “And it would be exceedingly strange if the correspondence theory was as “a prerequisite for science and scholarship,” given that the most scientifically minded philosophers today are more inclined to be deflationists of one sort or another rather than correspondence theorists.”

      I did not say that the correspondence theory was a prerequisite for science and scholarship. I said that the view I put (quoted above) – “or something very like it” – is a prerequisite “for science and scholarship as those pursuits have been traditionally understood.”

      “Put another way, what do you think you know that Hartry Field doesn’t?”

      You seem to be wanting me to go much further than I have here or in previous pieces and engage with more recent philosophy. If I have any expertise of a scholarly kind it is probably in the area of intellectual history. And I am not very knowledgeable about the philosophy of the last four decades or so.

      So, not being familiar with the work of Hartry Field, I would need to do bit of reading to assess to what extent his and my views clash and to what extent they overlap. I have listened to one of the lectures he gave at Oxford in 2008 and have read some bits and pieces including a review (by Richard Fumeton) of his book, Truth and the Absence of Fact. Fumeton notes that Field is “particularly skilful at mapping the relevant differences in alternative approaches to understanding truth and content, and is refreshingly candid in conceding that there are sometimes no knock-down arguments in favor of one approach over another.”

      I need to read more before I can even begin to get a sense of where I might stand in relation to Field’s main claims.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Recently I bought a copy of Russell’s work, The Theory and Practice of Bolshevism, at a used book store and I didn’t find it to be moralistic at all. It’s an excellent account of Russell’s journey to the Soviet Union in first years of the Russian Revolution and of the many defects, many of them ethical to be sure, that he found in Russian Communism. Russell, without reneging his socialist convictions and without joining the political right, saw through at a glance all the “wonders” of Communism which bewitched so many lesser intellectuals for so many years. Yes, Russell argues in favor democratic socialism, but that’s a political posture, not moralism. In fact, Russell is much too intelligent to preach: good arguments flow from his pen with incredible facility.

    I don’t see anything wrong with a League for Peace and Freedom, any more than I something wrong with calling a political party “Democrats” or Labor” or “Conservatives”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wallerstein,

      The problem with a league for peace and freedom is that it is effectively impossible for a sensible person to be against those things, and consequently harder to be publicly critical or skeptical of whatever the actual agenda of said league happens to be. A case in point may be the European peace movement in the 1980ies that to a certain extent was infiltrated by, and a front for, Soviet propaganda. People like me, who were involved with this movement, and came to be skeptical, found ourselves ostracized as a result.
      If you label your movement such that only ‘bad people’ could be skeptical, then you have ipso facto created a breeding ground for intolerance and fanaticism; and since you by that same label are now by definition the good guys, it becomes correspondingly harder to compute why you don’t win elections, are not universally liked, &c.
      Historically, at least, this was not the case with either democracy, labor or conservatism as labels of political parties.

      Liked by 2 people

      • The League for Peace and Freedom sounds very old-fashioned and preachy today (we all could think of a better name), but remember that between the two World Wars there was a strong fascist movement in several European nations, a movement which advocated war and slavery, a big communist movement run by Stalin who was not exactly dedicated to freedom and even the Western democracies, the U.S., Britain and France still had colonial empires. Today no one goes to war to conquer. They go to war because of non-existent weapons of mass destruction and to defend human rights: the pretexts have gotten more sophisticated since the 1920’s and 30’s.

        As to the peace movement of the 80’s being infiltrated, well, I live in Chile and participated in the struggle against the Pinochet dictatorship. The moderate opposition to Pinochet was financed by the U.S., the radical opposition by Cuba (which was financed in turn by the Soviets) and by Sweden and by Mitterrand in France. I see lots of merits in both movements and you have to get your money somewhere. The leaders of both movements preserved their political independence and we got rid of Pinochet. I don’t know anything about the peace movement in Europe, but if they let themselves become a Soviet front, that is unfortunate, but not inevitable.

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        • A movement to get rid of a murderous fascist dictator like Pinochet has a clearly stated objective. It would be exceedingly hard to fool anyone into thinking that ‘Let’s get rid of Pinochet’ did somehow not mean what everyone thinks it means. But ‘peace’ and ‘freedom’ are slippery words. You think they mean one thing, but then secretly or very suddenly they mean something else altogether. And we have had Pax Americana, with CIA-sponsored fascist dictators in Latin America, and Pax Sovieticus, with communist dictators in eastern Europe. Both with a copious helping of ‘peace and freedom’ rhetoric.
          The European peace movement was never monolithic, and everyone knew there were self-proclaimed communists involved. But honest communists was never the issue, as far as I was concerned. Nor was I ever involved in any leadership capacity. I was just a wide-eyed kid with big, naive ideas about how it would be real nice if we all stepped away from the brink, and did not deploy nuclear missiles in the heart of Europe.
          The problem is that people I knew, who identified as anti-authoritarian, as anarchists, as democratic socialists, or as liberal in one form or another, point blank refused to discuss certain issues, such as why we’re protesting American, but not Soviet missiles. The issue itself may have arisen from a bit of conservative what-aboutery, but it should have been a legitimate issue to discuss, if only so that we might have an adequate reply. But it transpires that a fair few people who preach tolerance, inclusion, and an open and free debate, are very suddenly, if certain issues are raised, or certain questions asked, not at all tolerant, not in the least inclusive, and not the slightest inclined to engage in open and free debate. But they are still, by their own definition, the ‘good guys’, so people like me, who can’t help talking about things that seem a little off, get labeled accordingly either an idiot, or a terrible person.
          It’s this culture of what one may call social schizophrenia, and its associated distortion of reality that enables hidden agendas, and in this case, Soviet infiltration of the supposedly liberal peace movement. And I find that vague ‘goodness’ objectives facilitates the emergence of such cultures, and that, in turn, clear labels and clear, well-defined objectives may be a good prophylactic.

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          • My Dad used to gleefully point out that the Peace Movement seemed to be at its most active at the time that it suited the Soviet Union for it to be. I found that the peace activists that I knew at least listened and entertained the possibility when I mentioned this to them. But then I just knew local organisers, I was never close to the inner sanctum (if there was such a thing).

            Liked by 1 person

          • I know all too well the situation you describe so clearly and like you, I have the congenital defect of commenting on things that seem “a little off”.

            My criticism is more directed towards Wittgenstein, as a person, not as a philosopher. I’m not a philosopher myself, but from what I’ve read he is considered the most important 20th century philosopher and I have no reason to question that. However, his remark in favor of a League for War and Slavery (ironic, I know) just confirms my impression of him as an ultra rich kid who never joined the human race. Russell was also a rich kid, but he joined the human race and even wrote a couple of books which sold well (History of Western Philosophy, Why I Am Not a Christian, etc.) and that’s to his credit. At times “selling out” is a virtue.

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  3. One other thing that struck me as quite odd was the ways in which you fall on the side of Wittgenstein and Russell respectively. It seems to me like you admire each for his worst and reject each for his best. I’d love to hear a defense of Russell’s view of the “status of science and scientific knowledge” that doesn’t beg every relevant question, as well as a defense of Wittgenstein’s views on culture, which does not simply gloss over many of the repulsive things he says in “Culture and Value.”

    Other than with respect to logic and a handful of technical matters in the philosophy of language, Russell’s views have pretty much been wholly rejected, which is why so much of his philosophy has aged so poorly and figures so little into graduate education. (He barely appeared in any of the courses I took throughout the 1990’s.) His one redeeming quality is his antiwar activism. Wittgenstein, meanwhile, looks to be more and more right on the serious philosophical questions, the more time passes, but he also comes across as more and more of a crank, the more we come to know about him, aside from his contribution to philosophy.

    I realize that perceptions vary, but here it really seems like your impression of the relative virtues and vices of the two figures is pretty much upside-down.

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  4. s. wallerstein

    “My criticism is more directed towards Wittgenstein, as a person, not as a philosopher… [H]is remark in favor of a League for War and Slavery (ironic, I know) just confirms my impression of him as an ultra rich kid who never joined the human race.”

    This is very harsh. Not only did he volunteer and fight – as a common soldier, not an officer – and endure horrific conditions and risk his life during WW1, he gave away his inheritance. As I point out in the essay, while Wittgenstein was fighting the Russians on the Eastern Front, Russell and Lawrence were having a much better time. (Even during his prison stay, Russell had privileges.)

    Had I been around at that time I would have probably taken a non-military option, but that does not lessen my respect for the people who fought and my sympathy for what they endured.

    And that remark of Wittgenstein’s had a serious point (which Jonathan Rée explicated well, I thought).

    Ray Monk wrote biographies of both Wittgenstein and Russell, and came to love the former but not the latter. Here is Jonathan Rée reviewing the first volume of the Russell biography: “When Monk demonstrated the
    unity of Wittgensteinʼs life, he portrayed an astonishing and touching philosophical hero; but when the same service is performed for Russell, he appears as superficial, mediocre and unwise: exceptional only in his productivity, and his titanic imperceptiveness about others and about himself.”

    I don’t necessarily endorse Monk’s or Rée’s judgements here. I am more sympathetic to Russell than they are. But *in certain respects* Wittgenstein was a more penetrating thinker than Russell. Arguably, he was also more self-aware.

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    • I read Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein. Not only did Wittgenstein volunteer for the trenches, but he accepted the most dangerous position, in front of the main trench, because it allowed him to get away from the other soldiers, who were too vulgar and stupid for Ludwig to be around. That’s fairly typical of him. Yes, he gave away his inheritance, but only a rich kid who refuses to join the human race will do that: the rest of humanity accept our inheritances gratefully and at times all too greedily.

      Ray Monk, an excellent writer to be sure, lauds Wittgenstein’s purity over Russell’s human all too human corruption. At times I feel that there is something to be said for a bit of human too human corruption. Purity is a Christian virtue and as Russell proudly says, I am not a Christian.

      Let’s take the situation mentioned above. Russell comes to visit Wittgenstein in rural Austria. There are no super highways or rent-a-cars, so the trip is tiring and complicated. Imagine that a friend goes way out of their way to visit you and when they arrive, they tell you of a new well-intentioned project with a stupid name (The League for Peace and Freedom). Any normal friendly person, seeing that it is a well-intentioned project of a person who has gone way of their way to visit you at a certain expense of time and money, will make a couple of constructive criticisms, but never never like Wittgenstein, the sneering snide comment of a spoiled teenager, that about preferring a League for War and Slavery.

      Wittgenstein’s purity, which Monk finds a great virtue, is that of a spoiled rich teenager.

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      • s. wallerstein

        “Any normal friendly person, seeing that it is a well-intentioned project of a person who has gone way of their way to visit you at a certain expense of time and money, will make a couple of constructive criticisms, but never never like Wittgenstein, the sneering snide comment of a spoiled teenager, that about preferring a League for War and Slavery.”

        I know you see this comment as epitomizing your particular view of Wittgenstein but honestly I think you are taking things too far here. Nobody is denying he was a very prickly character, and he often said hurtful things when annoyed. As when he humiliated a woman at whose house he was spending his final days (he was dying of cancer) when on his birthday she wished him “many happy returns”.

        No way was he a nice or normal friendly person. He was “awful strange” as a child in a family hosting him in England after WW1 noted in his diary.

        But it takes all types to make a world and Wittgenstein inspired great love and friendship in some, and inspired or stirred up others through his intellectual work (which was in some ways an expression of his personality).

        Like you, I find his Christianity quite alien but I came away from Ray Monk’s book with a slightly different picture of Wittgenstein than you did.

        I warm to him – to an extent at least. You clearly don’t.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Mark: This is a nice extension of your earlier piece. I’ll try to clarify my viewpoint.

    Firstly, you make it clear that you agree with my main point against Russell’s position. You say “I certainly don’t want to mount a defense of Russell’s logical atomism. I see the whole project of trying to construct a perfectly clear and perspicuous language (even if it is meant only for scientific purposes) as being doomed to failure.” That says it well.

    Accepting that, we might have nothing further to discuss. But maybe not. Russell’s project of making language match the world (to put it crudely) is widely endorsed, I think. It’s what referential theories of meaning aim to achieve. The opposing view, which Wittgenstein spent much of his life developing, holds that this project makes no sense. On this view, linguistic meaning does not play that world-matching role; it plays all sorts of other roles and those roles are embedded in the social practices we have created, including the practices of the natural sciences.

    Confusion is added to this long-running debate by injecting into it the further question of “correspondence” between true sentences and their referents. I think that is a different matter altogether from the question of the relation between linguistic meaning and reality. One can hold a correspondence position about truth while holding a Wittgensteinian view about meaning.

    A further issue in all this is whether “science” has a special claim on us as a guide to truth. Again, one can admire science as much as you say Russell did without allowing it any special claims over truth in general. There are many and diverse truths, and science has nothing to say about most of them, I think.

    Alan

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    • Hi Alan

      “Russell’s project of making language match the world (to put it crudely) is widely endorsed, I think. It’s what referential theories of meaning aim to achieve. The opposing view, which Wittgenstein spent much of his life developing, holds that this project makes no sense.”

      I agree that Wittgenstein came to see little sense in developing this kind of theory of meaning.

      “On this view, linguistic meaning does not play that world-matching role…”

      I can’t quite make sense of this. You seem to be turning meaning into an agent. As here also…

      “… it plays all sorts of other roles and those roles are embedded in the social practices we have created, including the practices of the natural sciences.”

      If I’m not mistaken Wittgenstein said somewhere (in the PI?) that the referential function applies in many cases. And so it does. You can’t (as I see it) exclude the referential function from an account of how language works and what it does. I’m not sure if you are wanting to do this. Accepting that language has a referential function does not, of course, necessarily entail having a referential theory of meaning such as certain thinkers devised (I think) essentially as an attempt to undermine metaphysical and religious claims (to make them “meaningless”).

      Also I don’t think Wittgenstein thought we need a theory of meaning at all: he certainly wasn’t intending to put one forward in his later writings.

      “Confusion is added to this long-running debate by injecting into it the further question of “correspondence” between true sentences and their referents. I think that is a different matter altogether from the question of the relation between linguistic meaning and reality. One can hold a correspondence position about truth while holding a Wittgensteinian view about meaning.”

      Dan has chimed in on this. But let me just say that the notion of correspondence in this context carries a lot of baggage. Clearly we need to distinguish between the notions of meaning and truth. Religious and all sorts of non-empirical claims, for example, certainly have *meaning* as far as I am concerned. But their truth or plausibility or whatever term we want to apply is another question entirely.

      “A further issue in all this is whether “science” has a special claim on us as a guide to truth. Again, one can admire science as much as you say Russell did without allowing it any special claims over truth in general. There are many and diverse truths, and science has nothing to say about most of them, I think.”

      Certainly there are many different areas of human life which are language-saturated and so concerning which the discourse necessarily includes statements and claims which (depending on the exact nature of the claim and the context in which it is made) may properly be deemed true/untrue, or accurate/inaccurate, or plausible/implausible, or insightful/misguided, etc.. And appeals to science are not going to be necessary or appropriate in the vast majority of cases.

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  6. Mark,

    About this time – it was 1915 – Wittgenstein, who had volunteered (despite being eligible for a medical exemption) to join the Austro-Hungarian army, was recovering in a Krakow hospital from an industrial explosion at a repair workshop to which he had been assigned near the Eastern Front. He was soon to volunteer to join a frontline howitzer regiment in Galicia and subsequently won awards for bravery in the wake of a devastating but ultimately unsuccessful Russian attack. He continued fighting on the Eastern Front right up until the truce with Russia in 1917

    I am fascinated by this. Wittgenstein would seem to be have been an Anglophile and yet he fought very enthusiastically on the German-Austrian side. How do you explain this? How is it possible that two really great intellects(Russell and Wittgenstein) could have reached such different conclusions?

    Congratulations, by the way, on a most stimulating essay. I would have liked you to address the issue of truth more fully, but I can see that was not your main point.

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    • labnut

      Thank you.

      “Wittgenstein would seem to be have been an Anglophile and yet he fought very enthusiastically on the German-Austrian side. How do you explain this?”

      Is it that surprising? When war comes along you don’t normally choose sides! You fight for your country – or not. I don’t have a good sense of what the Germans and Austrians thought about the war as it began. But the central character of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain – a gentle and civilized young man – joins up and fights almost as a matter of course.

      Ludwig’s brother Paul lost his right arm in the first year of the war. He was a pianist.

      Ludwig’s sister Hermine said that Ludwig fought not just out of patriotism. He wanted to prove himself morally. To do something difficult (that was not intellectual).

      “How is it possible that two really great intellects (Russell and Wittgenstein) could have reached such different conclusions?”

      The interesting thing is that these differences did not (apparently) lessen their mutual affection and respect. Wittgenstein’s war service did put strains on his relations with other English friends and acquaintances however. A.N. Whitehead, for example, had lost his son in the war and wanted nothing to do with Wittgenstein.

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    • Hi Mark: We perhaps don’t disagree much on these matters. My feeling is that the question of the origins of linguistic meaning is the site of a deep divide within philosophy — between those who try to derive meaning from the extra-linguistic world (Russell, et al) and those who derive it from human needs and practices (Wittgenstein, et al).

      The former tries to deny that there is anything especially interesting or important about concepts and language. They want to bring all that nebulous stuff under the umbrella of empirical science, even if they don’t yet quite know how to do it.

      The latter have no such ambition. They see the investigation of concepts as the central subject matter of philosophy and they think it should be central to any program of modern education. They are not anti-scientific, just anti-scientism. Given that philosophy is today only a very minor part of education, the latter group are on the losing side in this debate. Regrettably, I think.

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  7. Alan

    “My feeling is that the question of the origins of linguistic meaning is the site of a deep divide within philosophy — between those who try to derive meaning from the extra-linguistic world (Russell, et al) and those who derive it from human needs and practices (Wittgenstein, et al).”

    Many (most?) human needs and practices *are* extra-linguistic are they not? (Some could even be seen as extra-cultural.) And all human needs and practices occur within the physical and biological (as well as the cultural) realms. My point is that their meaning needs to be understood within this broader context.

    You talk about the origins of linguistic meaning. Historically speaking, these origins – especially in relation to very basic human needs and practices – lie in pre-linguistic behaviour. (I am thinking of our pre-linguistic forebears who had meaningful signalling systems.) And so if you want to understand “where meaning comes from” – how it arose within the biological realm – then it makes sense to go back to these simpler worlds. Culture and language are built on these foundations.

    “The former tries to deny that there is anything especially interesting or important about concepts and language. They want to bring all that nebulous stuff under the umbrella of empirical science, even if they don’t yet quite know how to do it.”

    Obviously concepts and language are important. As I see it, they can be usefully studied in various ways: by psychologists, by linguists, and by philosophers. But philosophers have moved on from the sort of analysis which Plato indulged in (say), mainly because we know a lot more about how the world works. This knowledge must (at least in general terms) be taken into account.

    And, historically, most philosophers were also interested in what we now see as scientific questions. There is no clear borderline between philosophy and science as I see it. (In the essay I mentioned J.L. Austin in this connection.)

    “The latter have no such ambition. They see the investigation of concepts as the central subject matter of philosophy and they think it should be central to any program of modern education.”

    You raise two distinct issues here: philosophy as a research discipline, and philosophy as a desirable component of programs of modern education.

    “They are not anti-scientific, just anti-scientism.”

    I am opposed to scientism when it means (or leads to) doing something which mimics science but which is not science.

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