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« Searle on the Is/Ought Dichotomy | Main | MORAL REASONING: A "Wittgensteinian" Approach »

Ethics in Wittgenstein: Early and Late

There's a sharp dichotomy in Wittgenstein's later approach to ethics from what we find in his earlier work. Just as there's a recognizable break between his approach to philosophy and the kinds of claims he makes in The Tractatus and those he later presents us with via his later writings, especially Philosophical Investigations, the change in his approach to moral questions, though less visible because he is less explicit, is noticeable and important. In the Tractatus and in the wake of his immediate return to Cambridge in 1929 after more than a decade's hiatus, Wittgenstein takes a transcendental position vis a vis ethics. It's something, he asserts, that cannot be talked about but can only be felt in one's life. The Tractatus, he tells us, is really an ethical work though only a small part of it (near the end) actually addresses ethics explicitly (and, indeed, somewhat cryptically). There he tells us ethics cannot be talked about, is among those things we can only point mutely at. Later, in his address to the Heretics Society at Cambridge in '29 he says this more explicitly. Ethics involves values we hold for human behavior but there's nothing to be said about it philosophically. We would all be better off to maintain a studied silence on the matter for there is no deriving oughts from is claims, just as Hume told us. But if one could speak of ethics, write a book on the subject, it would shatter the world, he pronounces.

The later Wittgenstein seems to have kept his word on maintaining silence on the subject though ethical concerns run through his personal writings (see especially those published posthumously under the title Culture and Value). He did not contribute anything in philosophical discourse directly pertinent to the matter of ethics although the work he did, which presents language as a behavioral phenomenon to be understood via multiple paradigms as the many things we do with words instead of simply an activity of depicting facts in the world (a la the Tractarian picture of language), has certain implications for understanding moral questions, too. After all, if moral discourse is one language game, or one group of language games which are part of the overall set of games we call natural language (any particular language human beings rely on to communicate with their fellows), then exploring the uses in moral discourse to get greater clarity about those uses will have moral implications, too. Of course, this need not imply that we can develop or critique particular moral beliefs via this method. Exploring moral language use is not the same as engaging in normative moral judgments though it may help us to do the latter.

As we've seen nearby, some who came after Wittgenstein but were influenced by him or wrote in his tradition, did attempt to apply Wittgenstein's later work to the effort to give an account of moral valuing. R. W. Beardsmore (whom I only recently discovered) wrote a book (Moral Reasoning) in answer to the prominent moral philosophers of his day which was intended to apply Wittgenstein's philosophical insights about how language works to moral thinking. Beardsmore argued that moral judgments represent their own sort of language and can be best understood on analogy with how Wittgenstein suggested languages work epistemologically. Wittgenstein showed, in On Certainty, that some words (such as those like "knowing," "knowledge," "certain," and so forth) are often used in ways that appear superficially deceptive because they seem to demand evidentiary or logical demonstration which cannot be provided but that, in fact, they do not require such justifications at all since they take their meaning from different rules of use. That is, while a word like "knowledge" is frequently deployed to pick out instances of information (claims) for which we have some grounds, this is not always so. Sometimes, as in cases where we speak of knowing that there's an external world, no grounds are necessary because doubting isn't an option. Here "knowing" plays a different role for us because it serves to express fundamental positions which form the basis for asserting instances of knowledge for which grounds are required. Similarly, Beardsmore thought that our moral judgments in particular cases must rest on deeper, unquestioned value judgments which hold the other, day to day judgments up, i.e., which have a foundational role in our system of interactions with others.

This Wittgensteinian approach seems to offer a way of understanding how the later Wittgenstein, who never really addressed ethical matters as viewed philosophically directly, had an impact on ethical thought. Writing in his blog, Duncan Richter, an avowed latter day Wittgensteinian philosopher himself, offers yet another way to understand how Wittgenstein's thinking can be seen to impact ethics:


The importance of reminding people of things they already know and the goal of trying to get people to think or see differently are somewhat like Wittgenstein's way of doing philosophy. For what it's worth it also reminds me of Aristotle's idea that weakness of will is like forgetfulness caused by drink. Once you sober up you remember what you had really known all along. Maybe Wittgenstein could be thought of as wanting to sober people up. (Aristotle also mentions people who are asleep or mad in the same breath, and Wittgenstein does talk about waking people up. His goal of clarity could be thought of as something like sanity, wakefulness, or sobriety.) Wittgensteinian moral philosophy, I think, would involve this kind of enterprise: reminders, prompts to see things in different ways, etc.

Here then are at least two ways in which we can understand Wittgenstein's approach to ethics in his later years -- which seems to me to be markedly different from his Tractarian period, characterized as, it was, by a significantly mystical bent. But is either way the way Wittgenstein actually would have approached the matter or shall we take his silence as definitive, that perhaps he never forsook his earlier view that ethics was an ultimately private matter and not within the purview of philosophical inquiry?

Frankly, I have never been comfortable with doing that. Aside from the fact that ethical issues seem important to me, and philosophically interesting for that reason, I think there's ample evidence that Wittgenstein, himself, was very much invested in ethical concerns throughout his life. That he chose not to make such concerns an object of his own philosophical inquiry (in either his earlier or later periods) is perhaps only evidence of personal reticence. Certainly the concern in philosophy with ethical issues hasn't dissipated away, even among latter day Wittgensteinians. Many of his own former students ended up significantly involved in the philosophy of ethics: G.E.M. Anscombe, G. H. von Wright, Rush Rhees -- and others writing in his tradition, like Richter, Cora Diamond and Stanley Cavell have done so, as well. So there is at least prima facie reason here to reconsider moral questions in the light of Wittgenstein's ideas.

References (2)

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  • Source
    There's no shortage of songs with an ethical or political message, of course. Action Pact's "People" comes to mind, with its attempt to argue that you shouldn't treat people badly because they are people.
  • Source
    Beardsmore argues . . . that moral claims and beliefs are already embedded in our forms of life, which we take on from a very young age, and that, rather than our factual claims standing apart in some purely descriptive sense, the language we rely on (which is part of our form of life) comes pre-loaded with moral ammunition

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