Overview of Western Philosophy – Part 14

(Read Part 13 of the series.)

Pragmatism and William James to Linguistic Analysis and Wittgenstein

Developed originally in America, and to some extent in rebellion against the metaphysical theories current in Europe at the time (especially Idealism), Pragmatism is effectively a method for determining the worth of philosophical problems and their proposed solutions. What was thought to matter was not all of the intellectual speculation and theorising usually associated with philosophising but the practical worth at the end of the day. Is a theory actually of any use to us in our day to day life? Will it make any difference to me if I follow it or am even aware of its existence? The word ‘pragmatic’ has now passed into everyday usage as referring to an approach that actually works.

The original ideas were developed by C. S. Peirce, who saw himself as following up the system devised by Kant. He thought the only purpose in philosophising to begin with was in order to solve problems that we actually encounter. We should then use the scientific method to enquire into the problem, drawing up hypotheses, experiments to test them and so on. Once we have an answer that gets us over the original problem we should simply stop there. A proposition is ‘true’ if everyone who investigates sufficiently thoroughly comes to the same conclusion.

His ideas were promoted and enhanced by William James, the psychologist and brother of Henry, the novelist. James thought that a philosophical doctrine was worthwhile, and in a sense ‘true’, if its practice led to people’s happiness. He did not accept that an idea could somehow be true without taking into account our experience. Here, he disagreed with Plato, who had said that ideas were absolutely true or false, irrespective of whether anyone knew it. Basically, according to the Pragmatists, it is true if it works. It is neither true nor false to begin with but acquires one of those properties when we actually try it in practice.

This is not quite so ridiculous as it may at first sound. Newton’s laws of motion for example were initially regarded as universally true because they worked. After Einstein, however, and the Michelson-Morley experiments to investigate the speed of light, it was discovered that they did not give the correct results whereas the new Theory of Special Relativity did. Accordingly, in such situations, Newton’s laws became false since they did not work and Einstein’s became true.

Furthermore, metaphysical beliefs which afford no clear benefit whether we believe in them or not are not worthy of our attention (says the Pragmatist). According to this, it might be argued that it makes no sense for us to investigate the various theories that attempt to explain the nature of reality. The problems that face us in our everyday lives remain the same regardless. Obviously, I cannot subscribe to this conclusion, being an Advaitin!

Similarly, argued James, any idea is true if it helps us to live our lives. If belief in God makes life easier to accept, leads to people behaving better towards each other and so on, then it is true. This supporting argument for God was condemned by the pope. As Bertrand Russell pointed out, the same argument would show that Santa Claus also exists. Belief in God is not the same as God’s actually existing.

Clearly, Pragmatism does not offer a consistent and satisfactory basis for behaviour from a moral point of view either. If I am seriously financially challenged and obliged to repay some debts, then meeting you in a dark alley and liberating you from your wallet may well ‘work’ for me but it is doubtful that anyone, especially you, would think it ‘right’ or ‘good’ in any sense.

William James was also responsible for another, unrelated theory concerning the existence (or not) of consciousness. The traditional view of experience was that there is a ‘knower’, a process of ‘knowing’ and an object (be it gross or subtle) that is ‘known’. James denied that this subject-object dualism was fundamental. He did not accept the existence of a thing called Consciousness and thought instead that everything is ‘made out of’ experience. Out of this mass of experience, we differentiate the various aspects such as ourselves, food and partners. Nothing is fixed; we simply do whatever is appropriate to make sense of the world as it appears at any given instant and the experience develops accordingly, giving rise to a new differentiation.

Logic and Language
The philosophy of the twentieth century lost its sense of direction in many ways with some of the best minds in the world devoting themselves to analysing sentence structure and meaning. It began with the German Gottlob Frege stating that our investigations ought to be based upon logic rather than epistemology. His own investigations related mostly to mathematics, trying to demonstrate its axioms logically. Bertrand Russell had been working on similar problems independently and he took over the ideas attempting to apply them more widely. He wanted to prove that all of our knowledge comes from experience. What he found was that, once he began to analyse the construction of some of our statements, he was able to uncover logical errors. When these were removed and the statements made correctly, the problems that were thought to have been implicit were removed.

Ludwig Wittgenstein believed that philosophers had to confine their investigations to the phenomenal world, having accepted the pronouncement of Kant that reality was forever beyond our objective understanding. In the book that he eventually managed to get published, which goes by the wonderful name of ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’, he attempted to define the relationship between language and the world that it purported to describe, highlighting its function, mechanism and limitations. He believed at the time that in doing this he had clarified the nature of philosophy completely so that no further work would ever be needed.

In his later life he virtually rejected all of this work and began again, though nothing more was published until after his death. Wittgenstein’s family, incidentally, was one of the richest in Europe at the time and he could have inherited all of this and lived a life of luxury. Instead he refused any of it and spent much of his life working hard for a relatively low income in various jobs until he was eventually recognised as a truly great philosopher and offered a post at Cambridge University.

The Tractatus states that we can only speak meaningfully about anything if there is a direct correspondence between the words and statements that we make and actual objects and relationships in the world. Attempts to talk about God, emotional problems and so on, where there are no concrete facts to which the language can relate are ultimately meaningless. He ends the work with the oft-quoted statement: ‘Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we should remain silent’.

These beginnings led on to a movement called ‘Logical Positivism’ which claimed that only those statements that could be verified were actually meaningful and its adherents attempted to use scientific standards to elucidate meaning. One of the main proponents, A. J. Ayer believed that the statements that we make must be verifiable either by reference to experience or by virtue of the meanings of the constituent words and the grammar of the sentence. If a statement cannot be verified in either of these two ways then it must be meaningless. Much of what earlier philosophers had written on the subject of religion and ethics, for example, fell into this third category, it was claimed! To say that something is good means nothing more than that I approve of it. One of the members of the so called Vienna Circle that originated Logical Positivism, Herbert Feigl, said that ‘Philosophy is the disease of which it should be the cure’.

These tenets were later realised to have been unreasonable and the movement was displaced by ‘Linguistic Analysis’, which used a more common-sense approach. The idea here was that each discipline and specialisation has its own vocabulary and ‘language games’, as Wittgenstein later described them, so that it was necessary to restrict usage of a particular mode to the area in which it was applicable. Problems arise when we fail to do this and use an inappropriate way to express ourselves. The function of the philosopher is to disentangle the misuse of language and express the situation in a common-sense manner, the result being that there is now no longer a problem. At least that was the theory!

Wittgenstein now realised that the meaning of words was not fixed such that they were always used to convey a single reality. Instead, their meaning varies according to the context in which they are used together with the nature of the speaker and listener. In order to understand what is being said, all of these have to be taken into consideration. Furthermore, languages develop and exist purely for communication. We have to use words according to the rules that have been agreed within the frame of reference in which the communication is taking place and language can only have meaning in such a context i.e. we could not have a ‘private language’ used only by ourselves for thinking.

Read Part 15 of the series…