The early Wittgenstein on scientism

Your quote of the day, from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena. (6.371)

So people stop short at natural laws as something unassailable, as did the ancients at God and Fate.

And they are both right and wrong. But the ancients were clearer, in so far as they recognized one clear terminus, whereas the modern system makes it appear as though everything were explained. (6.372)

My comments: The supposition that “the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena” is an “illusion” for two reasons (which do not necessarily correspond to Wittgenstein’s reasons). First, “laws of nature” are mere abstractions and cannot explain anything. What exist in the natural order are concrete material substances with certain essences, and talk of “laws of nature” is merely shorthand for the patterns of behavior they tend to exhibit given those essences. Second, that some fundamental level of material substances (basic particles, or whatever) exist and behave in accordance with such laws can also never be the ultimate explanation of anything, because we need to know, not only how such substances came into existence, but what keeps them in existence. For as compounds of act and potency and essence and existence, they cannot possibly account for themselves; only that which is Pure Act and Subsistent Existence Itself can be the ultimate explanation of them, or of anything else. In general, whatever is composite in any way requires explanation in terms of that which is metaphysically simple. (As usual, see The Last Superstition and Aquinas for the full story.)

Wittgenstein himself did not see this, despite seeing the hollowness of scientism. To be sure, unlike Carnap and Co., he could see that there was something to the questions raised by traditional metaphysics:

The sense of the world must lie outside the world. (6.41)

Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is. (6.44)

We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all. (6.52)

But he hadn’t sufficiently extricated himself from the positivistic assumptions prevailing in early twentieth-century analytic philosophy to see that there was also something to the answers given by traditional metaphysics. The line from 6.52 above is followed by:

Of course there is then no question left, and just this is the answer. (6.52)

The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem. (6.521)

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 always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical, to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying to the other -- he would not have the feeling that we were teaching him philosophy -- but it would be the only strictly correct method. (6.53)

Of course, the theory of meaning these passages embody would make philosophy itself – the very thing Wittgenstein was doing in the Tractatus – impossible. Which he realized, which is why he characterized his own propositions as ultimately “senseless,” a ladder that must be kicked away once one has reached the top (6.54), and why he famously recommended a kind of quietism in the face of the resulting paradox:

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. (7)

But this quite obviously will not do, which is why there is such a thing as the later Wittgenstein. Unfortunately, even the latter refused to see in traditional metaphysics, or in any metaphysics, genuine answers to the questions he continued to acknowledge as important ones. In part this owes to his idiosyncratic philosophical commitments; in part it owes, surely, to his proud and profound ignorance of the history of philosophy. (Notoriously, Wittgenstein acknowledged, without shame, that he had never read a word of Aristotle.) Hence he did not see that “the ancients” were “clearer,” not only about having reached “one clear terminus,” but about why their terminus – Pure Act, the One, ipsum esse subsistens – was, rationally, the only possible terminus.

All the same, Wittgenstein is brilliant and full of insights, and does not deserve the dismissive treatment he afforded his predecessors. But I’m afraid this “hit and run” is all I’ve time for tonight…
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