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Entries in Ludwig Wittgenstein (10)


Moral Judgment, Factual Belief and Wittgenstein's "On Certainty"

Returning to an issue dealt with here a while back, I thought it might be helpful to recap what may be understood as a later Wittgensteinian perspective on moral valuing. John Whittaker, explicating the Wittgensteinian thinker from Swansea, R. W. Beardsmore, wrote that:

If we distinguish between Wittgenstein’s substantive moral views, expressed in his early Lecture on Ethics, and his more discriminating grammatical approach to logical issues that we find in the later works, we can say that R. W. Beardsmore tried to bring this latter way of doing philosophy to ethics. One might even say that he tried to give ethics something like a Wittgensteinian moral epistemology. That would be misleading if it were thought to imply anything like a theoretical system for making moral discoveries or resolving moral problems. But if epistemological work includes conceptual clarity about the distinctions that we commonly observe when we are making moral judgements – but which we often forget when we reflect analytically on what we are doing – then it can be said that Beardsmore brought some epistemological light to the dark subject of moral judgement. Contrary to the aspirations of many, Beardsmore tried to show that there is no such thing as an ultimate, rational ground of moral justification in ethics. Not that there are no arguments, but our arguments always rest on deep, often unspoken, moral commitments. These commitments involve our conceptions of value, and the place that they occupy in our thinking does not rest on evidentiary grounds.


If Whittaker's take on Beardsmore is right, then Beardsmore was arguing that a Wittgensteinian approach to ethics works rather like Wittgenstein's approach to knowledge in On Certainty. That is, claims about our moral standards (rather than about the moral judgments we make based on them) are not subject to debate as such because we stand upon them in making the various judgments we make. And yet it's not so easy to distinguish between a particular judgment and the standard it expresses. . . .

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A New Resource for Students of Philosophy?

Here's a very interesting site which offers a synopsis of the views of a wide range of philosophers through the ages. In the link provided below, Wittgenstein's early and late thinking is summarized in some detail:


In general, I think this has been done quite well (though there are some unfortunate typos in the text). This material, both the immediate section linked to on Wittgenstein as well as some of the other sections (I haven't yet read them all), looks to be a great resource. I especially found the remarks on Wittgenstein's Tractarian thinking and some of the commentary on his later work elucidating and thought-provoking.

I come to learn how to use psychological words correctly in the context of a 'public' language-game. For example, it was when I hurt myself as a child that I first learned from others how to use the sentence 'I am in pain'. Indeed, according to Wittgenstein, this can be seen as an aspect of pain behaviour. I do not have to appeal to any private state of being in pain. Moreover, the sentence 'I know I am in pain' makes no sense at all. I can know that others are in pain by observing their behaviour or because they tell me they are. But clearly I do not ask myself whether I am in pain. Already in the 1930s [Lectures] Wittgenstein had distinguished between different usages of 'I'. The pronoun has different functions in 'I have a toothache' and 'I have a bad tooth'. In the latter it can be replaced by 'my body', but in the latter [sic] case the 'I' has no reference — it does not denote a possessor or 'Ego' [d]. As for proper names, Wittgenstein now thinks of them as being defined in terms of a loose association with various descriptions — their sense changing accordingly [e]: a name is thus used without a fixed meaning [PI 79]. By the time he had written the Investigations Wittgenstein had also altered his view of the necessity of the propositions of mathematics and logic. These are now seen to be necessary in virtue of the (non-compulsory) acceptance of rules embedded in the relevant language 'game' [f]. It follows that because we set our own standards of consistency we can change the rules if we so wish — provided we are willing to accept the possibly chaotic consequences for our mathematical discourse as a whole.
A good site, on my view, worth looking at some more.

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Philosophy and Practicality

Updated on July 29, 2014 by Registered CommenterStuart W. Mirsky

Not being a member of the academic community of philosophers, and yet having an abiding interest in that community's subject matter (some elements of it, at any rate), I have often wondered about the meaningfulness of the field. This is partly a reflection of my own decision more than 40 years ago not to pursue a a graduate philosophy degree (I doubted my ability to make a mark in that particular arena and also the value of doing so). I was drawn to Wittgenstein back then, perhaps partly because he seemed to be the epitome of the anti-philosopher but, I think, even more because his strategy and approach to the business philosophers did seemed to clarify so many of my own concerns. I was caught in the web of idealism at the time, after a flirtation with logical positivism and, briefly, American pragmatism. But I was always and primarily drawn to the analytic approach of which Wittgenstein was a part even after leaving that reservation in his later years. The fact that there seemed to be no solutions to the pressing philosophical questions both kept my head spinning and suggested, to me at least, the virtual pointlessness of bothering with such questions. Yet I could not simply divest myself of them, not even after exposure to Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations.

I spent a number of years, after graduating, still troubling the same philosophical bones but finally gave it all up entirely and moved on. Yet, in my later years I've found myself drawn back to these kinds of concerns. Although I have improved my understanding of many of the issues and, I think, of Wittgenstein himself, it has seemed to me that there are still areas worth chewing over for those who are philosophically inclined. Of course, if Wittgenstein was right in his later years, we're all better off moving on to more practical endeavors but perhaps, when one has finished the practical part of one's life, a return to philosophy is just what's called for. And so I've engaged on and off over the years in philosophical discussions on Internet sites like this one. They have not always been satisfying but have often been edifying. . . .

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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 . . .

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Wittgenstein's Error

The early Wittgenstein, whose Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus made waves in the twentieth century between the world wars, considered ethics beyond the reach of philosophical inquiry because its propositions, he held, lacked content. In Tractatus 6.42 he said “. . . there can be no ethical propositions” and followed, at 6.421, with:

. . . ethics cannot be expressed. Ethics are transcendental. (Ethics and aesthetics are one.)

In this (aside from the invocation of the “transcendental”!) he was fully in line with the tradition in Empiricist philosophy, since Hume, that ethical propositions do not express objectively discernible claims about things in the world but serve, rather, to express our feelings about such things. And feelings about things can be neither true nor false themselves, neither right nor wrong. They just are particular states in which we happen to find ourselves. Whatever we take to be the case about the world, as we find it, cannot imply anything about how we ought to feel about it. . . .

. . . On this Humean view we can neither be blamed nor condemned for what we feel, and what we feel can neither imply anything factual about the world nor itself be taken to be implied by the way the facts present themselves to us since we may react in any number of ways to the phenomena of the world. . . . But in that case we cannot be praised or blamed for being such creatures since we are not what we are by our own choice and ethics is, finally, about judging our options, the choices we make. . . .

Wittgenstein, whose early philosophy was much influenced by this post-Humean empiricism, as expressed in the work of the early analytic philosophers at Cambridge led by Bertrand Russell, came to think a little differently however. As he goes on to say immediately after at 6.422 in the Tractatus:

The first thought in setting up an ethical law of the form “thou shalt . . . ” is: And what if I do not do it. But it is clear that ethics has nothing to do with punishment and reward in the ordinary sense. This question as to the consequences of an action must therefore be irrelevant. At least these consequences will not be events. For there must be something right in that formulation of the question. There must be some sort of ethical reward and ethical punishment, but this must lie in the action itself. (And this is clear also that the reward must be something acceptable, and the punishment something unacceptable.)

Immediately following, at 6.423, he adds:

Of the will as the bearer of the ethical we cannot speak. And the will as a phenomenon is only of interest to psychology.

Then, at 6.43:

If good or bad willing changes the world, it can only change the limits of the world, not the facts; not the things that can be expressed in language.

Wittgenstein moves here toward an account of ethical valuing which, while not rejecting the Humean analysis, endeavors to find a place for ethical concerns despite their exclusion from the realm of meaningful content. As he later suggested with regard to the Tractatus, its thrust, on his view, was not so much to show how ethical matters are excluded from our areas of concern but to show how ethics occupies a different, albeit still legitimate, position in our world. But he is not transparent about this in that work. At 6.52 he writes . . .

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Hall, Wittgenstein and Dennett

Walter Horn, who from time to time posts here, is a former professor of philosophy and the author of numerous articles as well as at least two books dealing with philosophical questions. The first is a somewhat strange account of conversations with a mystical teacher of presumably eastern meditative practices which is somewhat hard to characterize. The other, more recently published and mentioned by Walter here, is an overview of 1950's philosopher Everett Wesley Hall who is little known today and who, Walter feels, deserves more recognition than he has gotten since his untimely early death. The book consists of various critical essays by others looking at his work as well as some of Hall's own work. A number of Walter's own essays are also included. Although the book is costly, Walter provides a substantive introduction to it which is available free on the Internet:


Having read one of Hall's books at Walter's suggestion, Our Knowledge of Fact and Value (apparently his last work based on a series of lectures he gave at a Japanese university and compiled and published posthumously), I can now claim some acquaintance with his thinking. Of course, I am no expert on the man, nor do I profess to fully understand everything he wrote in that book. Walter thinks I have missed quite a bit, in fact, and that may be. However, it seems to me to be at least somewhat worthwhile to consider some of Hall's ideas here, particularly because Hall seems to have been influenced, at least to some degree, by the early (Tractarian) Wittgenstein. Of course, there are significant divergences. I note that Hall is portrayed by some as a linguistic idealist though I don't think that would be a fair description of early Wittgenstein (though I have heard some make such a claim). If anything, it is probably right to say that Hall was somewhat influenced by the Tractatus but not that he was a Tractarian in the way Wittgenstein and some others who followed Wittgenstein can be said to have been. Walter, in his introduction to the book, offers the following by way of explaining Hall's relation to Wittgenstein . . .

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Was Wittgenstein Wrong on Ethics?

According to Paul Livingston of the Philosophy Department of the University of New Mexico, in early 1930 Wittgenstein reportedly told Waismann and Schlick, in a reference to the matter of ethics, that philosophical inquiries about ethics amounted to trying to run "up against the boundaries of language," suggesting that, in his view, there was little of conceptual significance that could be said explicitly about the classical ethical questions in philosophy (alluding, of course, to the manner in which philosophical thinkers in his time approached the matter):

This running up against the boundaries of language is Ethics. I hold it certainly to be very important that one makes an end to all the chatter about ethics – whether there can be knowledge in ethics, whether there are values, whether the Good can be defined, etc. In ethics one always makes the attempt to say something which cannot concern and never concerns the essence of the matter. . . .

This is clearly in keeping with his suggestion about The Tractatus that the real point of that effort, which laid out what he then took to be the limits of substantive linguistic expression, was ethical. Presumably, and in light of the above passage and in keeping with his talk on Ethics a few weeks earlier, delivered to the Heretics Society at Cambridge, he held the view that one could say nothing of substance concerning this matter . . .

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