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« An Inventory of Value Approaches re: Moral Questions | Main | Hall, Wittgenstein and Dennett »

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.

That we do have feelings about things isn’t in question on this view, of course, for our having such feelings is, itself, a fact in the world. But such facts are functions of the physical world of which we are a part, functions of our own physical bodies and how they work. The feelings we have just are the result, as Hume put it, of various excitations of our passions which some phenomena prompt in us. 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. Of course, the ways in which we are prone to react will be determined by what we are, the kind of creatures we are, both in terms of the physical capacities available to us as individuals and in terms of what nature has built into us as a species. 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. This Humean view does not deny that we develop human institutions and practices based on our natures and the world in which we live, and that ethics can be understood as one type of such practices. But, as such, it holds that ethics cannot be grounded in anything more authoritative than our own natures . . . what we are.

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:

We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer.

And then at 6.53:

The right method of philosophy would be this. To say nothing except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science, i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his proposition . . .

In this way he moved toward the end of his famous work, with its final and seventh primary proposition at 7.0 which has become justly famous:

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

And so, leaving ethical matters out, as it were, from his consideration in that book, although insisting, afterwards, that it was towards ethics questions that that first work was directed, he concluded his work on a strange, seemingly paradoxical note. It’s certainly a paradox for those who came after him, for he seemed to embrace the Humean idea of denying content to ethical propositions while wanting to hold onto that very content in some unexplicated way, unexplicated because, he says, there is no ability to explicate this strange thing, ethics, in our conceptual apparatus, our language.

In the Tractatus we are guided to conclude that ethics may be shown or discovered in our own lives, realized in our personal experience, but there is nothing to be gotten from trying to talk about the matter, or to describe what it’s about.

This early Wittgenstein remains something of a mystery to many, then, for just this reason – and seems almost as mysterious to himself in his later years, for in his own preface to his posthumously published Philosophical Investigations he acknowledges “grave mistakes in what I wrote in that first book.” Of his life we know this: Wittgenstein had something of a religious experience during the time in which he fought for the Austrian side during World War I and after for much of his personal writing throughout his life thereafter, is taken up with religious musings and expressions of ethical concern. Yet this did not find its way into his later work. Consistent with his earlier suggestions in the Tractatus, he seems to have kept a certain silence about such matters, at least publicly. But ethical and spiritual concerns never seemed very far from his thoughts, if we go by what is available of his private writings.

And this leads to a question. If even a man like Wittgenstein was moved to concern himself with, and articulate, ethical concerns, can we really imagine that it is sensible to dispense with an analysis of what it means to speak of such things? And did Wittgenstein, himself, really dispense with that?

We have a record of at least one other effort on his part to get at the role and nature of ethics and this in a little known lecture which he gave on the topic to a group at Cambridge called the Heretics Society after returning to that university at the end of second decade of the twentieth century. It shows him still thinking along decidedly Tractarian lines concerning ethical matters, though changes were apparently already in the offing.

In the Tractatus he had attempted to delineate the limits of language, what could and could not be said intelligibly, by exploring the logic of discourse and how it related to the world although later in his career he was to shift to an emphasis on the significance of ordinary language as the better place to look for how language works and relates to the world. On his older view, language, governed by strict logical rules, is seen to depict the world in all its variations while, in his later thinking the notion that language is more complex, is game-like in that it consists of many different things we do with words, which he dubbed “language games,” became paramount.

In the lecture he delivered at Cambridge that day he can already be seen to be tilting toward an emphasis on how we actually talk, in this case, how we use the word “good” in ordinary and ethical contexts. Yet there is still a residual belief evident in that presentation in the fundamentally unsayability of discourse about ethics and in the sense he presents that ethics is a fundamentally private, albeit important, affair.

In later years he would come to denigrate the lecture he gave on that day, believing it an unimportant and even unsatisfactory paper (although this would often be his assessment of his prior efforts). At the least, however, it seems to have reflected his thinking about moral questions at the time:

. . . if I contemplate what Ethics really would have to be, if there were such a science, this result seems to me quite obvious. It seems to me obvious that nothing we could ever think or say should be the thing. That we cannot write a scientific book, the subject matter of which could be intrinsically sublime and above all other subject matters. I can only describe my feeling by the metaphor, that, if a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world.

For him ethics, at this time, seemed a special, even a peculiar, phenomenon, to do with how we stand in the world in relation to the universe taken as a whole. Ethics, he tells us in that lecture, involves the search for what he terms an "absolute" good, something we can hold to be good despite all contingencies. But such a use of "good," he suggests, seems somehow illicit, outside the mainstream use in language to which we typically put a word like “good.” In ordinary usage, he remarks (presaging his later focus on the importance of ordinary language) what's "good" is always contingent on goals, objectives we have, while claims of ethical goodness imply something more.

That is, a thing is judged good, under ordinary circumstances, in light of this or that requirement we have of it and its capacity to measure up to that requirement. A good ballplayer, for instance, will be a man (or woman) who plays ball well. But what, he asks in that lecture, can we mean by a "good person" when the goodness of the person is considered outside the framework of any particular thing a person might be thought to be good at? Statements about good ballplayers are statements of fact, he reminds us and, as such, are incapable of yielding implications about what should be valued (of what it is good to call "good"). He says:

Supposing that I could play tennis and one of you saw me playing and said 'Well, you play pretty badly' and suppose I answered 'I know, I'm playing pretty badly but I don't want to play any better,' all the other man could say would be 'Ah, then that's all right.' But suppose I had told one of you a preposterous lie and he came up to me and said, 'You're behaving like a beast' and then I were to say 'I know I behave badly, but then I don't want to behave any better,' could he then say 'Ah, then that's all right'? Certainly not; he would say 'Well, you ought to want to behave better.' Here you have an absolute judgment of value, whereas the first instance was one of relative judgment.

Ordinary uses of "good," on this view, have nothing to do with what it means to speak of being a good person, i.e., one who acts in accordance with supposedly ethical standards. What seems to be at issue in this latter case is the application of some standard that presumes some thing, or things, which a person should do, or be, because it is always good for a person to do or be it. It must be so without regard to any aim or objective the person may have (to play ball better or achieve some other specified purpose). Here, when speaking of the goodness of persons as ascertained through their acts, Wittgenstein finds the notion of goodness wanting.

But what would count then? He proposes that what is thought good in this relevant “absolute” sense would just be whatever a man finds to be good for himself in all cases, no matter what. But such things are issues of personal inventory-taking, highly specific to the individual involved, and do not reflect an external standard that can be shown to be applicable for all persons.

Possible candidates for such “absolute” goodness will, he proposes, be things like situations or conditions in which a person might feel utterly happy or content without reservation, at all times and in all circumstances. That is, whatever is "absolute" will be so because of the way the person feels about it, he will always desire it, never reject it. But there is no likelihood of generalizing such absoluteness to all.

Ethical judgments, Wittgenstein here suggests, have this quality of absoluteness to them, a quality which does not partake of one's particular goals or objectives in this or that circumstance (which are, themselves, matters of fact and do imply standards against which we may judge something one does). Ethical claims, he thinks, demand recognition of and adherence to a standard that is not contingent on what we want or what the circumstances may offer, some reason or factor that makes them good in all relevant cases. Whatever is thought to be ethically good, he thinks, must, in this sense, be thought good in itself. An old view of “the good” in the history of philosophy and it seems odd that Wittgenstein should seem to hold it. And yet he does. But there is no such state or condition, he goes on to note, that fills this condition of absoluteness – although there are many bottom-line experiences or states of affairs which any of us may have and which we may think of as being absolutely right for ourselves. Speaking of how we might think of something we take to be absolutely good in the relevant, ethical sense, he offers:

. . . it is natural that I should recall cases in which I would certainly use these expressions and I am then in the situation in which you would be if, for instance, I were to give you a lecture on the psychology of pleasure. What you would do then would be to try and recall some typical situation in which you always felt pleasure. For, bearing this situation in mind, all I should say to you would become concrete and, as it were, controllable. One man would perhaps choose as stock example the sensation when taking a walk on a fine summer's day. Now in this situation I am, if I want to fix my mind on what I mean by absolute or ethical value.

And now he makes an interesting move for he proposes that he finds, in himself, states which he takes to be good in this non-contingent sense, that is, states in which he finds it utterly satisfying to be. But in doing so he makes a jump from the original idea of feeling completely and irrevocably satisfied with this or that state, which all and any of us may experience, to something more. The idea of an absolute, non-contingent type of goodness, such as he proposes, seems finally to be psychological, i.e., whatever any of us likes or desires most for ourselves, given our ‘druthers but he now steps beyond that simple notion to something more:

. . . in my case, it always happens that the idea of one particular experience presents itself to me which therefore is, in a sense, my experience par excellence . . . (As I have said before, this is an entirely personal matter and others would find other examples more striking.) I will describe this experience in order, if possible, to make you recall the same or similar experiences, so that we may have a common ground for our investigation.

Instead of picking out something mundane, like the pleasantly contemplative walk he began with, or happiness as the state of being purely contemplative, which some philosophers have thought the ultimate good toward which man should aim, he now conjures something that has the look of what may justly be characterized as a spiritual experience. Explaining his own particular kind of absolutely good experience, he says:

I believe the best way of describing it is to say that when I have it I wonder at the existence of the world. And I am then inclined to use such phrases as 'how extraordinary that anything should exist' or ‘how extraordinary that the world should exist.' I will mention another experience straight away which I also know and which others of you might be acquainted with: it is, what one might call, the experience of feeling absolutely safe. I mean the state of mind in which one is inclined to say 'I am safe, nothing can injure me whatever happens.'

But this is a feeling never borne out by reality, he hastens to add, for we are never as safe as all that, given our human condition. About these states or conditions in which we may find ourselves, and in which he himself has found himself, he now adds this, in keeping with his still Tractarian point of view:

And there the first thing I have to say is, that the verbal expression which we give to these experiences is nonsense!
Here then is his rejection of the ethical inquiry as we found it in the Tractatus. There is no possibility, he suggests, of speaking sensibly about such feelings, the sorts of things we are inclined to name when called upon to identify what we take to be absolutely good, i.e., good in the ethical sense of “good” that he is concerned with here. At best we can assert that some of us, at least, have such states, though we cannot put these states, themselves, into descriptive words. We cannot convey to another just what it is that we ourselves have experienced. And we cannot draw conclusions from such experiences, either, for they imply nothing linguistically meaningful by their occurrence. At best, as he would come to suggest in his later works, such statements serve to express our feelings rather than to describe them. Each of us will have his own feelings and not another’s and as such, they are private to the individual, unavailable to linguistic discourse as he would later suggest because language is ineluctably public, not private, in its venue.

Having ignored the more mundane feelings of goodness he started with (feeling contemplative or being in a general state of contentedness, the sorts of things some ancient philosophers had proposed as the right candidates for an ethical standard or objective to be aimed for), albeit without explicitly dismissing such states either (since he grants that some among his audience may have these as their own "absolutes"), he offers his personal candidates which have a distinctly different character, being states of wordless awe and so unsupportable, because they are factually disconnected from the world outside ourselves. That is, they are personal experiences, which some people, like himself, happen to have.

Here he says that whatever we take to be “absolutely” good in the ethical sense will have this private characteristic and so offer no ground for assertions about what anyone (ourselves or others) ought to do. Ethics is just outside the realm of discourse – except insofar as we may use language to express our feelings about things.

But, he wants to say, there is something still quite important here and this comes through most clearly in the choice of experiences he chooses to focus on. If private experience is inaccessible to us, and so linguistically unintelligible in terms of descriptive content, some private experiences, such as those in which we suddenly stand in awe of existence itself, offer still another kind of unintelligibility for they point, in the Tractarian way, to something outside the knowable world. A supernatural tone has crept into our calculations.

And here, he seems to want to say, ethical considerations become significant, beyond the scope of how we just may happen to use them in human society (as a means for guiding conduct by reference to our human feelings about things which enable society to function in certain ways). For now the feelings involved take us outside the realm of the knowable, point to something more, something beyond, to something transcendental.

Of course, this is a very different basis for unintelligibility than just lacking denotative content, as value talk does for Humeans and the logical positivists who came later, since not all feelings of approval or disapproval will now be seen to be tied into one's feelings about the universe. And that is very much more weighty a matter, on his view, than just how we feel about this or that particular thing at this time or another. But Wittgenstein not give us an account of how being so tied in might produce ethical claims besides his assertion that some people may, like him, just happen to favor being in states of awe toward the universe – and that this may presumably, somehow yield ethical judgments.

With Hume and many later philosophers in the Anglo-Empirical tradition, Wittgenstein, in this lecture, rejects the is-to-ought presumptions of classical ethics (the idea that "good" can be "naturalized" as just this or that natural phenomenon, e.g., happiness, pleasure, the elements we associate with a proper human life, etc.). But he goes further than Hume had done by focusing not merely on the is/ought dichotomy itself but on the idea that the sort of thing that underlies our moral sensibilities will be seen to be feelings of a special sort, feelings which reflect, in at least some of us at any rate, the kinds of thing we associate with spiritual awe in the face of a mysterious universe.

Since there can be no point in wondering about such things, however, and no content in speaking of such wonder – although such wonder is not wrong and may, in fact and as he suggests, be a positive state in which to be – he concludes, in keeping with Hume, that moral questions are fundamentally outside the realm of intelligibility. Yet, to the extent they reflect something deeper, a religious or spiritual inclination, they are not simply to be ignored, as we might suppose it all right to ignore a preference for quiet, contemplative walks in the sunlight on a warm day if someone tried to present this as something others should aim at. Although Wittgenstein does not, himself, propose that we can argue for feeling awe in the face of the universe (it is hardly intelligible to the person who feels it, after all, and cannot be reduced to so many words in a claim or argument!), he does want to say that such feelings are important and not to be sloughed off lightly. Here is a strong, albeit unexplicatable, phenomenon, he thinks, to which we must attend: religious sensibilities.

It's just, Wittgenstein suggests, that these sensibilities lie outside philosophy's realm. Hence, a statement he made, not long after delivering that lecture, to two members of the Vienna Circle (a group of science-oriented Austrian philosophers who had been much taken with the Tractatus) with whom he had become associated, Friedrich Waismann and Moritz Shlick:

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.

He wanted to reject the ethical inquiries of his fellow philosophers at the time as pointless, misdirected, and likely to yield no benefit, either in terms of greater knowledge about how ethical judgments fit with everything else we do or in terms of discerning what is and is not ethically correct to do. And this, he seems to have believed, because of the extra-lingusitic character he had determined was properly to be ascribed to what we call “ethics.”

Wittgenstein concluded his talk to the Heretics Society by proposing that religious language has special significance albeit lacking in conceptual content. It is, he says, a language in similes which serves to express our stance in relation to a universe that is finally mysterious to us:

I am tempted to say that the right expression in language for the miracle of the existence of the world, though it is not any proposition in language, is the existence of language itself. But what then does it mean to be aware of this miracle at some times and not at other times? For all I have said by shifting the expression of the miraculous from an expression by means of language to the expression by the existence of language, all I have said is again that we cannot express what we want to express and that all we can say about the absolute miraculous remains nonsense.

The ethical just is the religious then, he seems to be proposing, and the religious is beyond intelligible discourse.

But, of course, this is his ethics, his own sense of what has an "absolute" (as in bottom-line) importance – highly personal to himself, of course, as he reminded his audience at the lecture’s outset. It doesn't follow that others will share the same religious or spiritual feelings he has anymore than it does that all men will favor quiet, contemplative walks among the trees. Must ethics then, being the basis for distinguishing better or worse choices in an “absolute” way, always boil down to sharing the same deep seated-feelings about things? Wittgenstein offers no answer.

Can it be that he has really just made a mistake here by confusing his own sense of what is ultimately of value with whatever might be taken to be a trans-personal basis for ethics, if anything might be? If ethical inquiry is intended to determine what we mean by "good" in certain kinds of cases (such as the one in which he speaks of lying as being to act "beastly" above), can likening the ethical to what is “absolutely” good in such a sense present us with a compelling standard of behavior? Does it matter if he, or any of us, just happens to feel that it all boils down to one's capacity to stand in awe of the universe? How does such a claim add anything to our understanding of ethics which, after all, does seem to play a prominent and seemingly unavoidable part in our lives? If ethical claims are merely emotional expressions, as Hume proposed, can supposing that some emotional expressions express deeper and more important emotions than others really be enough to enable us to believe in the possibility of distinguishing better or worse behaviors? Of avoiding being “beastly”? If not, what possible reasons could we give to avoid such behavior?

We are constantly urged to behave in one way and not another in our lives, either by family and friends, or by various societal authorities and spokespersons – and even by ourselves (when we search our consciences about the right things to do) – and there are many, many reasons to sort through when we want to make ethically correct decisions. How can holding a particular feeling or set of feelings of awe (or some other very personal sense of what is "absolute") help us decide what the right choice is for others and, because for others, for ourselves?

Perhaps the “awe” invoked is just to guide us toward particular religious doctrines and the ethical elements they contain. But then, if we are each uniquely locked into our own private world of experiences, how are we to choose between doctrines and, presumably, the often different ethical maxims they include?

If others don't share the same "absolute," how can moral assertions, advice and judgments work? And then haven’t we lost the use of language in ethics entirely?

What good, then, to declare something good or not in a moral way, to recommend or condemn some behaviors, or praise or blame a person for doing what they do? An ethics which is so entirely excluded from descriptive linguistic usage, must fail utterly to perform the function it seems to have for us in our daily discourse.

Sometimes, the issue will just be about what will serve us best, of course, and there it is relatively easy to discern what course of action we will take and little of controversy to contest as Wittgenstein points out at the outset of his talk. But sometimes, surely, and this more often than many of us might like to admit, we are concerned about when and why we should subordinate our own interests to that of others.

How then can any particular person's beliefs about what is absolutely good in the sense Wittgenstein alludes to in that lecture help guide the advice we give to, or the judgments we make, of others? Indeed, differentiating between those times when one should concern oneself with one's own interests and those when others’ interests should matter more would seem to be the paramount moral case. And here an approach which says it's all personal, without the possibility of argument or convincing another, can't help very much at all.

If, as Wittgenstein seems to have proposed in that lecture, ethics simply lies outside the sphere of legitimate philosophical inquiry, if it is only a matter of comporting oneself in a way that is consistent with one’s own highly personal sense of what is "absolutely" good or right for him, without any way of distinguishing between different notions and standards concerning what is to count as good or right in some bottom line sense, then ethics has gotten no further with this view than it did after Hume's devastating attack upon the is/ought connection – a connection which Wittgenstein, in this talk at least, appears to grant right out of the box.

In seeking to do away with ethics as a suitable field for inquiry, has Wittgenstein not also done away with the very thing we need in order to better understand what lies beneath and behind our ethical choices?

In light of the fact that ethical questions have not gone away since Wittgenstein told Russell that the Tractatus, which looks at language and logic in their relation to the world, was really about ethics despite initial appearances, or since he spoke with Waismann and Shlick about the emptiness of ethical inquiries per se, or gave his talk to the Heretics Society rejecting the meaningfulness of ethical language, must we not conclude that he left a serious gap behind in the realm of philosophy, one that still cries out for consideration today?

The later Wittgenstein moved definitively beyond his Tractarian period and there is evidence, even in that talk to the Heretics Society (where he frequently refers to ordinary language use – the cornerstone of his future thinking) of this change. But ethical questions seem to have always remained personal for him, even in his later work (as can be readily seen in his personal notes, many of which have been posthumously published as Culture and Value). But he didn’t concern himself with wrestling out the meaning of ethical claims in any of his actual work, either in the earliest days or later, while leaving behind in the later work the notion that language operates differently in different areas of our lives.

Given this, can we just dismiss out of hand the ways in which ethical judgments and ethical assertions work for us, that is, the parts they play in our various language games (the paradigm which, for Wittgenstein, characterized much of his later thinking)? Even now, more than sixty years after his death and in the wake of a whole host of writers who have taken up the ethics challenge after him, despite his seeming renunciation of it (many of whom wrote with deference and attention to the implications of ordinary language usage which he first championed), these issues remain.

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