Ludwig Wittgenstein on logic and language

ludwig_wittgensteinLudwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) was an Austrian born British philosopher. Wittgenstein produced only one published book on philosophy (Tractatus Logico-Philosophus in 1921) while he was alive, but is nonetheless considered one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century. He was born into a wealthy family in Austria, but would later gave away his inheritance to his family, stating that philosophy was the only work that gave him satisfaction.

Wittgenstein was a student of Russell. Russell described him as “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense, and dominating.” I have written previously regarding Russell’s unique style of Platonism, which emphasised the importance of terms. Wittgenstein, inspired by both Russell and Frege, takes this one step further in contending that all major philosophical problems have their being in the misunderstanding of the logic of language.

At the heart of the Wittgensteinian philosophy is the saying/showing distinction. Wittgenstein contended that what can be shown cannot be said. But if all philosophy is bound by language, then there are simply things that cannot be known. In this sense Wittgenstein channels Kant, where the necessary apparatus for making sense of experience are things that themselves cannot be experienced and known. In this way Wittgenstein shows the Kantian limitation of Frege-Russell logic, like a paradox it may explain all things but remains itself unexplained.

Russell, realism and analytic philosophy

what-were-plato-s-beliefs_2ebecdd3-b206-467b-bb0e-c3a742b09571In the previous post I discussed some of the reasons for Betrand Russell’s rejection of the idealism of his teachers and peers.

This is remarkable because of how unfashionable realism was in the early 20th century. Russell rejected both the popular “scientific materialism” view criticised by Whitehead that all is matter, and of course the idealistic view that reality is ultimately the mental world of ideas.

Going forward, Russell was to adopt a unique type of Platonism. He writes:

Whatever may be an object of thought,…, or can be counted as one, I call a term. …I shall use it as synonymous with the words unit, individual, and entity. … Every term has being, that is, is in some sense. A man, a moment, a number, a class, a relation, a chimera, or anything else that can be mentioned, is sure to be a term….

Principles of Mathmatics, p. 43

So, according to Russell what has being is “terms” which may or may not exist. This is because for Russell words simply mean objects (or terms). So it follows that a sentence, which contains terms, is an entity of itself i.e. a unity of those terms, which may be particulars or concepts.

Following that, logical analysis consists of the deconstruction of complex unities into increasingly simpler components of concepts and particulars. This is the birth of analytic philosophy in the early 2oth century.


Bertrand Russell: the move from idealism to realism

23351-004-4286d6b7Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) was a British philosopher most famous for his work the Principia Mathematica, which he completed with Alfred Whitehead. Continuing in the footsteps of those such as Frege, this work was an attempt to establish a logical basis for mathematics. He is considered one of the pioneers of the analytic school of philosphy.

In his youth, Russell was heavily influenced by his teachers, who favoured idealism. There was a preference for Hegel’s idealism, but Kantianism was also prevalent. However, Russell began to find problems with his idealistic thinking, stating that he began to see an undue psycologicism in his work.

Russell comes to this conclusion through his study of mathematics. While retaining Kant’s distinction between the a priori and the a posterioriRussell goes on the reject Kant’s idealistic contention that is the categories of the mind that determine what is a priori. Russell’s reason for this is that he believes that if human nature were to change, the a priori truths of mathematics would then also change, which he believed was absurd. Russell calls this “psychologism” because it is the Kantian tendency to confuse what is true with what one is psychologically conditioned to think is true.

But where does this rejection of idealism based on the reality of mathematical truths leave Russell? In my next post I will examine how Russell turned to a type of realism, specifically Platonic realism.

Gottlob Frege and modern logic


Gottlob Frege (1848 – 1925) was a German intellectual whose work in the fields of mathematics and logic led to the development of modern predicate logic and sowed the seeds for contemporary analytic philosophy. Frege was largely ignored by his peers, but was to become influential upon and through the next generation of popular thinkers such as Bertrand Russell and Whitehead.

The importance of Frege’s work arises from the inadequacy of Aristotelian and Stoic logic in dealing with mathematical statements, for example Euclid’s theory of the infinite amount of prime numbers. This was a problem for Frege because he contended that all the truths of arithmetic simply were truths that were both logical and analytic. In this way, Frege’s work is more in the rationalist tradition of Leibniz than in Kant’s transcendental idealism.

Frege set about clarifying logic by doing away with the typical subject/predicate analysis and replacing it with function and argument. Many will be familiar with a mathematical function such as f(x) = x + 3, where the function is equal to the numerical value of x + 3. Frege radically applied the function to arguments, such as “all cats have tails”, expressing them as f(x), where x is a cat, then x has a tail.

Fregean logic allowed the dissolution of the problem of multiple generality. For example, prior to Frege the distinction between statements such as “every person loves some city” and “every city is loved by some person” could only be represented artificially.

Alfred Whitehead: process philosophy and scientific materialism

Whitehead_PaintingAlfred Whitehead (1861 – 1947) was an English thinker best known in his early life for his work in the logic of mathematics, and in later life for his contribution to the metaphysical school of thought of process philosophy. Whitehead co-wrote with his former student Bertrand Russell the largely influential Principia Mathematica, one of the 20th centuries most important works in mathematical logic.

Whitehead’s philosophical works were, like most great thinkers, a response to a crisis. The early 20th century saw the full throes of Enlightenment optimism, in which the development of metaphysical systems was regarded as futile due to their lack of subjectivity to the mechanistic scientific method. However, Whitehead contended that rather than abandoning metaphyiscs entirely, the thinkers of his generation had instead imported a type of Cartesianism that went unscrutinised. He called this “scientific materialism”.

There persists … [a] fixed scientific cosmology which presupposes the ultimate fact of an irreducible brute matter, or material, spread through space in a flux of configurations. In itself such a material is senseless, valueless, purposeless. It just does what it does do, following a fixed routine imposed by external relations which do not spring from the nature of its being. It is this assumption that I call ‘scientific materialism.’ Also it is an assumption which I shall challenge as being entirely unsuited to the scientific situation at which we have now arrived.

Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World

Whitehead’s primary criticism of viewing reality, in the mechanistic tradition, as discrete and independent pieces of matter was that under this schema knowledge of causation is impossible. Whitehead argues that two things that are separate from each other in space simply cannot bear a causal relationship between them. Whitehead says that knowledge of a cause will give full knowledge of all its effects, but this is impossible if pieces of matter are truly distinct from one another. In essence, Whitehead is arguing that efficient causality is unintelligible if scientific materialism is true.

While the Aristotelian tradition turns to final causality to solve this problem, Whitehead instead jettisons the relevance of static things such as substance, form and matter. Whitehead like Hegel envisions reality as a type of organism or process, which consists in its most primary form as interrelated events. For Whitehead, the universe just is a series of occasions that are causally affected by all other occasions and the idea that there could be objects existing separate and distinct in space and time is deeply mistaken.

Freud, antitheism and the genetic fallacy

freud2When Freud’s writings touch upon the issue of religion and the divine, there lies a fascinating intersection of modern ideas. While Charles Darwin had provided the scientific theory of the mechanistic origin of man from simpler life, Freud’s great contribution to the Enlightenment secular edifice was to psychologise man’s religious activities.

If one wishes to form a true estimate of the full grandeur of religion, one must keep in mind what it undertakes to do for men. It gives them information about the source and origin of the universe, it assures them of protection and final happiness amid the changing vicissitudes of life, and it guides their thoughts and motions by means of precepts which are backed by the whole force of its authority.

– Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis

Per Freud religion exists in order to placate man’s need for wish fulfillment. Specifically, religion exists because of man’s fears regarding the indifference and power of the natural world and because of its sometimes usefulness in promoting social cohesion and order. Religion is for Freud the attempt of an infantile man to use illusion to create a better world. In Freud’s theory one also finds the progressive anthropology common in the writings of thinkers such as Rousseau and Comte, where it is postulated that the primitive ideas of religion will eventually be shed by a new type of scientific man.

But is what Freud has to offer a refutation of religious ideas or simply a type of historical classification? In this regard Freud seems to take a similar approach to Nietzsche.

Historical refutation as the definitive refutation. — In former times, one sought to prove that there is no God — today one indicates how the belief that there is a God could arise and how this belief acquired its weight and importance:  a counter-proof that there is no God thereby becomes superfluous. — When in former times one had refuted the ‘proofs of the existence of God’ put forward, there always remained the doubt whether better proofs might not be adduced than those just refuted:  in those days atheists did not know how to make a clean sweep.

-Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Daybreak:  Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, Book I, sec. 95

The genetic fallacy is a type of logical fallacy whereby a conclusion is proposed based upon some fact regarding the origins of something. It is a fallacy because the conclusion is unsupported by irrelevant facts regarding the subjects origin. Freud fails to take into account that the truth (or falsity) of his psychological theory regarding the origins of religion are consistent both with the existence and non-existence of the divine.

Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis

MemoryLearningSigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) was a neurologist whose work in the field of psychology gave birth to the contemporary psychiatric apparatus of psychoanalysis. Freud initially worked as a medical doctor at the Vienna General Hospital, where he undertook research into conditions such as cerebral palsy. The publications of his research would later see him offered a position as a university lecturer specialising in neuropathology.

The intellectual climate in which Freud formulated his theories was shaped largely by the titanic influence of Darwin’s evolutionary theory of common descent and natural selection. Previously, under the Aristotelian and Platonic hierarchies, man was differentiated from animals by his possession of an immaterial intellect or soul i.e. man was a rational animal. One of the consequences of Darwin’s theory was that while man was indeed different from the animals this difference was only in complexity; quantitative rather than qualitative.

Freud was also largely influenced by the development of the physical theory of the conservation of energy. Brücke, a supervisor of Freud in his early career, published a work contending that all living organisms were also governed by the law of energy conservation. Freud’s novelty was to flesh out what Brücke’s theory meant for the human mind; that the human psyche is also a mechanistic system and its various outputs are governed by the laws of physics.

Thus arises psychoanalysis, where mental disorders are treated as physical problems and their symptoms are to be elucidated through an interrogation of the patient by a psychoanalyst. It was Freud’s revolutionary idea to apply the principles of modern science to the treatment of mental disorder, and his legacy looms large over our contemporary intellectual landscape.