Wednesday 28 July 2010

W: Wittgenstein says p, therefore p is true.

(As a quick break from working through my huge email backlog...)

I went to Simon Hailwood and Logi Gunnarsson’s workshop on Psychological and Self-Alienation at the University of Dortmund last week which is one a series of three workshops on alienation (alienation and the environment; and alienation and politics, being the other two themes). As is sometimes the case with themed workshops or conferences, it wasn’t immediately clear whether the theme provided a genuine unity either within the one workshop or across all three. But my hunch is that any such unity would be as much made as found. It would be a very strange coincidence if ‘alienation’ simply picked out the same sort of issues in all three areas. So it may be too soon to tell.

I gave (for the fourth time) a paper on Sass and Wittgenstein and the uncanny but encountered for the first time a deep suspicion from a couple of american philosophers. Their worry was that I subscribed to some such principle as

W: Wittgenstein says p, therefore p is true.

(I should perhaps be a bit more careful in picking out things that Wittgenstein claims rather than says, of course. I was struck by an entry in the new Acumen book Wittgenstein: Key Concepts in which Heather Gert cuts through all the difficulty about the statement:

There is one thing of which one can say neither that it is one metre long, nor that it is not one metre long, and that is the standard metre in Paris. [Wittgenstein 1953 §50]

by arguing that there is textual evidence through comparisons that Wittgenstein does not assert in propria persona any such thing.)

They also expressed some concern about using philosophers’ names as a shorthand for positions (I’d described myself as an ex-Wittgensteinian and labelled a view of content ‘broadly Davidsonian’). It dawned on me that their suspicions were those I have of a strand of or mood I think I see in Continental philosophy in the UK in which the exegetical task of working out what Kant, eg., means completely drowns out the question of whether that view is true. (I hasten to add that I think that this is an occasional weakness not an essential feature.)

Now of course I would not have read as much Wittgenstein or Davidson or McDowell as I have if I didn’t think that they were often right about things or at the very least had some kind of insight. There is also a standard charitable hermeneutic approach which is that the plausibility of the view ascribed is a measure of interpretative success (which obviously need not be true). But over and above those two assumptions, all the best work on Wittgenstein takes the form of arriving at an interpretation by articulating an argument for it.

Perhaps this is particularly true of Wittgenstein (whose texts invite active interpretative work) but the main problem with W (exemplified, eg., by Gert’s article) is that one would need to know what p was to use the principle, but the work of identifying p (through argumentative articulation) makes W redundant.

Jolley, K.D. (ed) (2010) Wittgenstein: Key Concepts, Durham: Acumen
Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell