Are there Philosophical Problems?
"Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistably tempted to ask and answer questions in the way science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics, and leads the philosopher into complete darkness." -- Ludwig Wittgenstein
Picture the aristocratic Athenian boy, eagerly writing, aspiring to be a playwright. An older man asks him why he wants to write reflections about reality when he could explore the thing itself. Plato
burned his plays, and followed Socrates
Picture the hedonistic Augustine
, saved by the ministrations of an enternally forgiving mother -- driven into the arms of an eternally forgiving Christ.
Picture the five year old Fritz
, crying on his Father's deathbed. The son of a Lutheran Minister would grow up to proclaim to all that "God is Dead
Picture nine year old Ludwig Wittgenstein
, slumped on a doorway, a thought comes to him unbidden: "Why should one tell the truth if it's to one's advantage to tell a lie?" He cannot conceive of a suitable answer, but such problems continue to plague him for the rest of his life.
Ethics without Theories
"If there is any proposition expressing precisely what I think, it is the proposition 'What God commands, that is good'." -- Ludwig Wittgenstein
to such problems would also continue to elude Wittgenstein. He famously remarked that his seminal tract on philosophical logic, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
, was fundamentally a work on ethics
, and yet the work contained no ethical theories, only a series of logical statements.
Wittgenstein's Tractatus, and his continued work afterwards was described by him as an attempt to end philosophy. The project of ending philosophy was a project of understanding language. Whatever could be explained by philosophy could be explained clearly, and was not subject to argument. Whatever could be explained by fact was the purview of science, and not philosophy. And whatever could not be expressed simply and clearly should not be spoken of.
Some have interpretted Wittgenstein's argument that talk about things like Ethics and Aesthetics
is nonsensical to mean that such things are not worth arguing about. Wittgenstein, however, seemed to view these things as impossible
to talk about. In his view ethics (like mathematics) exists outside of the world. Mathematics can be shown to be true through Logic. Ethics can be shown to be only through deeds, and cannot be talked or theorized about. How should one know what to do? Listen to your conscience, for as he wrote in a notebook: "Conscience is the voice of God
Methods in Philosophy
"There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.'" -- Ludwig Wittgenstein
, philosopher of science, philosopher of freedom, was invited to address the Cambridge Moral Science Club
on October 25th, 1946. His original topic was to be "Methods in Philosophy
", although this was changed to "Are There Philosophical Problems?
" in order to provoke the chair of the club, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Also present was the man who invited Popper, and likely coached him in his attack on Wittgenstein's Philosophy, Bertrand Russell
. Popper's answer to his own question was, of course, yes. He had just published a book, The Open Society and Its Enemies
, that sought to explain the origins of Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism, and attacked Plato, Marx, and Hegel. But above all, Popper argued that Philosophy was relevant
. In both science and politics, Popper viewed philosophical problems as real, and important -- in contrast to Wittgenstein's view that such arguments were nonsensical, or his more private view that such arguments were senseless without God.
Popper presented his paper for ten minutes. Wittgenstein left. These are the only facts not in dispute.
Popper recounted the event in his 1974 autobiography Unended Quest
. He claimed that Wittgenstein had been playing with the fireplace poker, using it to gesture with, and had asked Popper for an example of a moral rule. Popper:
I replied: "not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers" Whereupon Wittgenstein, in a rage, threw the poker down and stormed out of the room, banging the door behind him.
Wittgenstein died before Popper's autobiography was published, but denied Popper's account of the events while they were both living. After Popper died in 1994, this sensational account was reprinted in his obituaries, and discussed quite a bit in the philosophical community. Various disciples of Popper and Wittgenstein engaged in vicious arguments about the truth or falsity of Popper's account.
In 1999, two reporters attempted to get to the bottom of the controversy, their investigation became a rare philosophical bestseller -- Wittgenstein's Poker
. They explored the meeting from every angle, interviewing as many of the surviving witnesses as possible, and examining any letters or contemporary references they could find. Accounts ranged from the absurdity of Wittgenstein and Popper dueling with red hot pokers, to bland accounts of Wittgenstein merely leaving the meeting early (as was his habit).
The most fascinating part of all of these accounts is that none of them agree on anything beyond the basic facts mentioned above. The Cambridge Moral Science Club was filled with the most promising and intelligent men of the day, men who devoted themselves to ethics and the search for knowledge
-- and they can't seem to either remember or tell the truth about one of the most memorable personal disputes in twentieth century philosophy.
In Ray Monk
's fabulous biography of Wittgenstein, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius
, the meeting between Popper and Wittgenstein merits a mere page. The author, a modern disciple of Wittgenstein, seems to have heeded his advice: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
Monk, Ray. Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius (Penguin Books, 1991) -- All Wittgenstein quotes are taken from this work.
Edmonds, David, and Eidinow, John. Wittgenstein's Poker (HarperCollins, 1999)