Berfrois

Wittgenstein’s Traction: Berfrois Interviews Paul Horwich

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by Russell Bennetts, Paul Horwich and Daniel Tutt

Paul Horwich is Professor of Philosophy at New York University. His new book, Wittgenstein’s Metaphilosophy, will be published by Oxford University Press in February 2014. Russell Bennetts is the editor of Berfrois. Daniel Tutt is a PhD candidate in continental philosophy, psychoanalysis and media studies at the European Graduate School. He is also an activist in interfaith dialogue and anti-Islamophobia.

Berfrois

Was Ludwig Wittgenstein the most important philosopher of the 20th century?

Horwich

Since the quality and significance of a philosopher can be assessed along a variety of dimensions – such as originality, plausibility, depth, lucidity, influence, intellectual power, etc. – for which no objective measures exist and whose significance relative to one another isn’t a clear matter either, I don’t think that there could objectively be an all-around “most important of the 20th century”. Reasonable opinions will differ – just as in the case of greatest composers, novelists, or pretty much anything else. Still I must admit that, for me personally, Wittgenstein stands head and shoulders above the rest. Apart from groundbreaking treatments of language, experience, knowledge, and other areas within the subject, I believe he was unique in appreciating what philosophy (in its primary Western form) really is, what is wrong with it, and what should be done instead.

Berfrois

Why did he publish so little in his lifetime?

Horwich

The answer, I think, is that he was exceptionally self-critical and was loath to publish manuscripts of his whose deficiencies he could recognize. So he continually revised them. Perhaps, also, he’d felt burned by the difficulty of getting his early book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, into print. It was rejected by many publishers and eventually accepted only because of the intervention of his influential mentor, Bertrand Russell. After that, none of his writings (except for a small essay) was submitted for publication in his lifetime. He did produce many further works. But only the Philosophical Investigations (Part I) was expressly intended for publication. Decisions to publish other selections from his manuscripts as “books by Wittgenstein” were made by his literary executors and should not be accorded the same status as his Investigations.

Berfrois

You have suggested that Wittgenstein’s metaphilosophy renders philosophical truths to be largely illusory. Richard Rorty read Wittgenstein as reducing philosophy to a cultural tradition. The French philosopher Alain Badiou has declared Wittgenstein an anti-philosopher for regarding philosophy as a merely descriptive enterprise devoid of truths, and for even going so far as to claim that philosophical propositions are forms of strict nonsense. What do you make of Wittgenstein’s relation to philosophy?

Horwich

Wittgenstein certainly regarded himself as a philosopher, and certainly believed in the fundamental truth of what he was saying. So it would be a misleading oversimplification to maintain that he was “against philosophy” or against “the possibility of philosophical truth”. More accurately, what he criticized was a certain kind of philosophy – perhaps the dominant kind in the West. This form of philosophy, which I call “T-philosophy” to suggest “traditional” and “theoretical”, is characterized by the implicit assumption that conjectural reasoning from intuitive a priori data is likely to uncover fundamental principles (concerning justice, consciousness, the basic structure of reality, etc.). Thus T-philosophy, which firmly distinguishes itself from empirical science, is nonetheless somewhat “scientistic”. Just as the scientific method issues in profound and sometimes radical theoretical discoveries, so the T-philosopher expects her armchair ruminations to deliver such desirable results as well. In Wittgenstein’s view this methodological presupposition – this aping of science in a priori domains – is irrational. Some vindication of this opinion is provided by the fact that solid progress in T-philosophy is barely discernible – that despite two thousand years of effort by very smart people its questions remain unanswered.

Berfrois

Some have claimed that Wittgenstein’s ‘therapeutic critical self-examination’ approach to doing philosophy leads to nihilism or even to an anti-philosophy. Why is this not the case in your view?

Horwich

How could any intellectually responsible investigator in any field be averse to critical self-examination? How could such a process, properly conducted, fail to achieve a profitable understanding of goals and methods? So the real question here, for a philosopher, is not whether to engage in this self-scrutiny, but what sort of understanding can be expected to result from it. And Wittgenstein’s answer, as I’ve already suggested, is not that philosophy in all its many shapes and forms must be abandoned. It’s rather that one of these conceptions of the subject – the one oriented towards profound a priori potentially radical discoveries – is put into question. To call this conclusion “nihilistic” or “anti-philosophical” strikes me as overly dramatic rhetorical exaggeration.

Berfrois

Is Wittgenstein’s metaphilosophy able to produce a rapprochement between the continental and analytic divide in philosophy?

Horwich

I don’t know enough about the continental side to give a confident answer to this question. But my suspicion is that the systems erected by Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre and many other continental philosophers are no less pervaded with the above-mentioned irrational presuppositions than are the works of analytic philosophers – so that Wittgenstein’s approach would be salutary there as well. Thus I would not say that Wittgenstein’s thought occupies a middle ground – providing a bridge between the two traditions. Since his own illustrations of his critical method tended to target ideas within the analytic tradition it isn’t surprising that many on the continental side regard him as an ally. But this shows, I think, that they haven’t grasped the depth and scope of his attack. The only rapprochement with mainstream analytic philosophy that I can imagine being produced by his perspective is a joining of forces against this common threat.

Berfrois

How does your Minimalist Theory of truth relate to your reading of Wittgenstein?

 Horwich

My view of truth is very much in the spirit of Wittgenstein’s deflationary approach to philosophy. For it emerges from a reaction against the presupposition – a typical instance of T-philosophy – that truth is a theoretically profound and explanatorily potent property whose underlying nature we must struggle to unearth. But according to Minimalism, this presupposition stems from an irrational scientistic tendency to assimilate all properties, including truth, to causal-explanatory ones (like being magnetic, or red, or alive), which do tend to have underlying natures. So we shouldn’t be surprised that traditional theories of truth – proposed reductions of it to, for example, ‘correspondence with fact’, or ‘provability’, or ‘practical utility’, or ‘overwhelming consensus’ – never stand up to scrutiny. The actual function of our concept of truth is not explanatory but expressive. It’s a device of generalization. It enables us to say things like “Einstein’s last words were true”, which would otherwise require the inconveniently infinite formulation, “If Einstein’s last words were that E=mc2, then E=mc2; and if they were that E=mc3, then E=mc3; and if they were that nukes should be banned then nukes should be banned… and so on, and so on”. Moreover, the basic rule of use for the word  “true” – the principle that will explain how this function can successfully be performed – is not a controversial explicit definition such as one of those just mentioned, but is rather the perfectly obvious equivalence of any claim to the claim that it’s true (e.g. the equivalence of “pigs fly” to “<pigs fly> is true”). Thus, contrary to the traditional view of it, truth is exceptionally mundane and entirely unmysterious. There could hardly be a clearer illustration of Wittgenstein’s anti-theoretical perspective.

Berfrois

Is it possible to eliminate all philosophical pseudo-problems?

Horwich

It seems highly unlikely that human irrationality could ever be extinguished. In particular, I imagine that untempered strivings for simplicity will always attract some thinkers into the scientistic overgeneralizations of T-philosophy. Still, it could well happen that Wittgenstein’s critique becomes more widely understood and accepted than it is at the moment – perhaps to the point that academic philosophy is no longer dominated by that conception of the subject.

Berfrois

Where is the best place to start reading Wittgenstein for people who want to understand his work, both from his own writings and from supplementary texts on his work?

Horwich

Begin by browsing through his Culture and Value (edited by Georg Henrik von Wright, revised edition, Wiley-Blackwell, 1998) – a chronologically arranged selection of snippets from his daily journal, covering philosophy, music, culture, literature, and many other topics. Then I’d read Ray Monk’s superb biography – Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (The Free Press, 1990) – which provides both a compelling picture of the man and an excellent sense of his philosophy. After that, go to Wittgenstein’s Blue Book(Harper Collins, 1965) – written especially for his students and therefore unusually explicit; the best introduction to his mature perspective.

Berfrois

Would Wittgenstein call a spade a spade?

Horwich

Certainly. His fundamental goals were clarity, demystification and truth. So he couldn’t bear puffed-up pretention or the technical jargon (with which philosophy is pervaded) that does no more than obfuscate and give a misleading impression of seriousness and depth.

  • rob allan

    Well that didn’t take long but still pondering ” pigs fly” -{ pigs fly}- truth.