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May - August 2006 Contents

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Society News

Waismann’s Philosophy

On Russell’s Naturalism

More on Russell and Quine

Orwell on Russell’s Power

Review, On Russell and Education

Review, The Salmon of Doubt

Traveler’s Diary

a road less traveled: the lasting significance of waismann’s ‘how i see philosophy’*

Mazi Allen

In his introduction to The Linguistic Turn, the anthology that established him as an authority on the history of analytic philosophy, Richard Rorty makes several questionable claims regarding various major philosophers – dismissing J. L. Austin as a lexicographer, Ludwig Wittgenstein as a self-styled therapist for philosophers and Martin Heidegger as a poet.1 However, his most questionable claim concerns Friedrich Waismann, member of the Vienna Circle and later (after 1939) lecturer at Oxford. Of Waismann’s later philosophy, Rorty says:

[For Waismann] methodological nominalism would be retained [the assumption that universals and concepts themselves do not exist and can be explained scientifically in terms of observations of particulars or else as misuses of language], but … the demand for clear-cut criteria of agreement about the truth of philosophical theses would be dropped. Philosophers could then turn towards creating Ideal Languages, but the criterion for being “Ideal” would no longer be the dissolution of philosophical problems, but rather the creation of new and fruitful ways of thinking of things in general. This would amount to a return to the great tradition of philosophy as system-building – the only difference being that the systems built would no longer be considered descriptions of the nature of things or of human consciousness, but rather proposals about how to talk. By such a move, the “creative” and “constructive” function of philosophy would be retained. Philosophers would be, as they have traditionally been supposed to be, the men who gave one a Weltanschauung.2
This account of Waismann’s aims and methods, though correct in some respects, is quite flawed in others. Is it true that Waismann no longer aimed for the “dissolution of philosophical questions”? Did Waismann really propose “creating Ideal Languages” and returning “to the great tradition of … system-building”? Can we really say that Waismann conceived of philosophers as being “the men who gave one a Weltanschauung”?

In order to support his claims, Rorty refers to Waismann’s essay ‘How I see Philosophy’ – a work which I will reengage in order to place Waismann’s views in their proper perspective.3 In doing so, I will show that Waismann’s method and aims are not exactly what Rorty presents them as being. Waismann’s method does not consist in system-building in the traditional sense, nor in giving a Weltanshauung, nor even in constructing an ideal language, but in fundamentally questioning all of the above endeavors in open dialogue.

The essay ‘How I See Philosophy’, originally written for the anthology Contemporary British Philosophy, begins with the claim that philosophy is not like science at all.4 Given the influence of the later Carnap and Quine,5. most analytic philosophers today would find this view shocking – but this in fact was the view held by many members of the Vienna Circle, including Moritz Schlick.6 Waismann further claims that philosophy offers no proofs nor admits of theorems nor even asks questions that can be decided decisively by arguments. “Philosophy” he says,
is very unlike science; and this in three respects: in philosophy there are no proofs; there are no theorems; and there are no questions that can be decided, Yes or No.
Nor for Waismann does philosophy engage in the tradition of
casting … ideas into deductive moulds, in the grand style of Spinoza.7
Hence, just two pages into the article, Waismann has denied one of the first views Rorty attributes to him, namely, the seeking of a return to the philosophical system-building of early modern rationalism. But if Waismann says philosophy should not try to construct deductive systems that conclusively establish truths through arguments, isn’t he also saying that philosophy – as a “quest for truth” – has come to an end? Fortunately not. What philosophy does offer, according to Waismann, are not answers but questions. If we are lucky, he contends, dialogues about these questions would lead us to new and interesting ways of speaking about and so observing the world. As an example of this way of doing philosophy, Waismann reexamines the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise (Zeno’s paradox).

In considering whether Achilles could ever catch the tortoise a few feet away from him if he had to cross an infinite series of intervals to do so, Waismann first notes that the common objection to Zeno’s paradox – that “of course” a finite end exists between the supposedly infinite series between two points (namely, the second point) – entirely misses Zeno’s point. The paradox is really concerned with the infinite series itself and how one could come to the end of it if it were possible to prolong the series merely by adding another term. Yet looked at another way, the problem is easily dealt with – for if we take the same principle of Zeno’s paradox (that an infinite series can be extended “forever”) and apply it to a temporal phenomenon such as a minute, we find that the paradox falls apart. Zeno would be forced to say that “at no time” would a minute come to an end, since a half-minute, quarter-minute, and so on, would all have to end in turn.8 Hence there could be no time whatsoever.

Thus, merely placing Zeno’s paradox in a different context reveals that the notion of sequence upon which it depends may be described in two different senses – temporally and atemporally. The paradox of Achilles and the tortoise merely confuses these senses.9 As Waismann put it, the question of Zeno’s paradox was never solved but “dissolved” as a question arising from the confusion of different senses of the same term.10 In clarifying the terms of the discussion – and not merely answering the questions put before it – philosophy would find its use. But this is an example of the very thing Rorty says Waismann rejects – the “dissolution of philosophical problems”. Indeed, it is this possibility of “dissolving philosophical problems” that is essential to the method Waismann proposes for philosophical discussion. In fact, the method of questioning he proposes depends upon it. Therefore, we need to examine Waismann’s method of questioning in order to understand his view of philosophy. Here too, his proposal is quite interesting.

First, according to Waismann, one should never force the interlocutor – if the use of unusual terms is the only way in which a person can express an idea, such usages must be permitted. Further, the speaker should even be free to use the same term in widely differing – even contradictory – senses: the only requirement for such usage is that the speaker be aware of what he or she is doing and the consequences of doing it. At every phase of the account the speaker would be questioned, when necessary, as to the usefulness of terms that arise. If the terms are found necessary, the speaker would continue, if not, the questioner might propose a different set of terms and possibly even a different account.11 Again, we see that the goal of such discussion is not to prove the correctness of a system, nor to provide anyone with a complete, much less completed, Weltanschauung, but to engage in discussing and describing one’s experiences in dialogue with others.

In keeping with this dialogical method, Waismann further suggests that arguments to prove or disprove the view under examination in such a philosophical dialogue should not be used – the goal of such dialogue, and really philosophy itself, is to clarify the views in question, not to solve problems or derive proofs. Instead of argument and proof, the experience being spoken of would be discussed by all precisely as it presented itself to each of the discussants. In this way, through providing differing perspectives on the same subject, all of the discussants would aide in truly addressing the question. This would lead either to the clarification of the meaning of the terms used to describe such experience or dissolution of the worldview initially proposed.12 In this way, Waismann sought to strengthen philosophical debate – by moving it away from the rigid systemization of philosophers like Spinoza, and even away from the stiff formalism of present-day analytic philosophy, towards a more open method of analysis.

Finally, according to Waismann, what is sought in philosophy is a new way of describing the world, especially a new vocabulary and grammar with which to describe it. But note that this new way of describing the world would be neither a universal explanation nor a deductive one beyond which nothing more could be added. Instead, it would be a worldview constructed through dialogue and the clarification of language – continually open to modification by the same means.13 Waismann’s way of constructing a worldview, or rather world conception, through dialogue would affect the vocabularies and grammars of both the discussant and interlocutors – creating new problems for each in speaking about experiences, and so stimulating further discussions on the subject and further growth in vocabularies, grammars, and modes of thought.

Thus, Waismann’s later method presents a means of examining our most fundamental and deeply held views – either to clarify them through dialogue or eventually dissolve them if indefensible. Philosophy, then, is not merely a debunking of theories for Waismann, but a process of learning how and why certain descriptions of experience are used in the first place. In doing so, the practice of philosophy serves as a liberating force not only from the rigid bounds of language (both formal and ordinary) but even from the modes of thought and prejudices accompanying them.14 Take for instance Waismann’s criticisms of the then-current uses of language within philosophy.

Regarding the insistence on the ordinary use of language in philosophy, Waismann states in his article ‘Ordinary Language’ that,

even if there were such a thing as a stock-use [of language], it need not matter much to the philosopher … I should say that, sooner or later, he is bound to commit the crime and depart from it – that is, if he has something new to say.15
And in his article ‘Verifiability’, he claims that new ways of speaking even affect the way people perceive their environments, as was also supposed by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistic anthropology.16 Waismann also asserts this view in ‘How I See Philosophy’ and approvingly quotes Nietzsche as saying:
It is quite possible that philosophers within the domain of the Ural-Altaic languages … will look differently “into the world” and be found on paths of thought quite different from those of the Indo-European….
And he further elaborates on these views later in the article, arguing that Frege could not ask “What is a number?” – with number being an ideal, even Platonic entity, as opposed to a symbol used in counting – if his language did not allowed for Platonizing (which, apparently, Waismann believed the Chinese language did not allow for). However, such relativity – even in the conceptualizing of such things as number – need not be denied or seen as obstacles to understanding in Waismann’s view but rather seen as opportunities to understand differently, to “swim up-stream … against the current of clichés.”17 Hence, far from the position of Quine and others,18 Waismann might have been expected to defend the usage of obscure terms even by thinkers such as Derrida – that is, if Derrida actually had “something new” to say.

But what does all this say about Rorty’s claim that Waismann’s philosophy consists in creating ideal languages? Rorty uses Gustav Bergmann’s account of language as an example of an ideal language. According to the view Rorty lays out, analytic philosophers who advocate constructing an ideal language do so as a means of dissolving philosophical problems. Thus Bergmann, Rorty’s exemplar of such a view, states that an ideal language must serve to both (a) dissolve “philosophical puzzles” (b) “show, in principle, the structure and systematic arrangement of all major areas of … experience.”19

Although this view of an ideal language seems similar to what Waismann has said about the aim of his philosophy, there are important differences. Bergmann, among others, believed that such a language could be established once and for all. However, this type of ideal language – single, final and universal – is not what Waismann was proposing. Waismann would have considered such language a hindrance to philosophy – in fact, in ‘How I See Philosophy’, he compares such formalized language to “an axe of glass that breaks the moment you use it…. ”20 More importantly, for Waismann, the creation of such an ‘ideal language,’ or even a slightly improved one, could only occur through dialogue. Such dialogue would seek to test the supposed “ideal” (or at least adequate) nature of pre-existing language(s) used by participants in terms of how adequate they were for dissolving philosophical puzzles and presenting new insights into various sorts of experience. Only when these were found inadequate would the task of clarifying language and hence creating an “ideal” language (or really, a somewhat improved language) begin. Regarding the role of dialogue, however, Bergman was silent.

For Waismann, what was sought was to create language(s) adequate to the experience being described and hence to remove certain linguistic practices as well as the long-held prejudices accompanying them. This would be accomplished through an on-going, collective undertaking to create a fundamental change in our “angle of vision” as philosophers. Waismann thus proposed that “cases” for a certain view or other would be built up and dialogically contested as to their descriptive adequacy instead of a single ideal language being created to encompass every aspect of experience.21

It seems that Waismann was on to something: language is “plastic”, shaped both by its use and the material conditions of its users.22 The particular linguistic turn made by Waismann was significant in going beyond Bergmann and others in conceiving of the use of language as being one which was contested in an open-ended (indeed “open textured”) dialogue, rather than being firmly, definitively, set in rigid conventions. Thus his method, instead being of a return to rationalist metaphysics, was really a return to the older tradition of Socratic dialogue. This rediscovery of question and dialogue as a philosophical method is perhaps Waismann’s most overlooked as well as most important achievement.

In a discussion of an earlier version of this paper, David Godden brought up an interesting point regarding Waismann in asking “whether any employment of language (whether this involves the introduction of new vocabularies, or new uses to which an existing vocabulary might be put) would be either encouraged or accepted by Waismann” and whether “Waismann [would] really sanction the use of obscure terms by certain postmodernist thinkers … as a matter of general principal?”23 For his example, Godden used Alan Sokal’s book Fashionable Nonsense and its account of Sokal’s well-known hoax perpetrated on the “postmodernist” editors of the journal Social Text. If Waismann were to allow the use of unusual senses unqualifiedly, Godden would indeed be correct in saying that this would be “certainly more permissive than we [philosophers] ought to be.” However, as Godden himself noted, Waismann does not. Instead he says:

we merely remind him of how these words have always been used by him, in non-philosophical contexts that is, and then point out that, to say what he wanted to say lands him in an absurdity. All we do is to make him aware of his own practice. We abstain from any assertion. It is for him to explain what he means.24

Unlike Waismann, however, Godden was pessimistic as to whether the interlocutor could in fact “explain what he [or she] means” in such a situation where he or she was seemingly talking nonsense. Waismann, I contend, was far more of an optimist.

For Waismann, whether or not a point being argued was nonsense was an open question to be decided in discussion. If the ideas being presented were sheer nonsense – as was Sokal’s “physical reality is a social … construction” article25 – a well executed philosophical dialogue would surely have brought this to the fore, allowing the “Sokal” figure to be caught in the linguistic trap he had laid for his audience. However if a person truly had something new to propose for which the terminology was not presently available, this too would become apparent. Indeed, the type of discussion proposed by Waismann would even help the philosophical interlocutor find the terminology needed to express the new idea. Hence, unlike the former editors of Social Text, who seemed to have accepted Sokal’s propositions uncritically, the philosophers engaged in discussion structured along Waismann's lines would be in little if any danger of embarrassments like the Sokal Hoax.

Whether Waismann was really trying to build a system of philosophy or not would depend on the way we conceive of ‘a system of philosophy’. If we mean that he was trying to find one, complete, final system of meaning, the answer would be that Waismann was not engaged in this sort of thing, whereas Spinoza certainly was. Indeed, given the various factors that go into creating a philosophical system, Waismann would have probably thought such a system impossible. However, if constructing systems means clarifying pre-existing or emerging systems of thought, comparing their merits, or tentatively introducing new concepts into our vocabularies and so new ways of looking at the world into our languages, then for Waismann too philosophy works at system-building – though through open-ended discussion and an ongoing search for language adequate to everyday experience in the more modest style of Socrates as opposed to Spinoza. The Spinozist project described by Rorty was not a part of Waismann’s own conception of philosophy.


* An earlier version of this essay was read at a History of Early Analytic Philosophy Society session of the December 2004 eastern division meeting of the American Philosophical Association.
1 Richard Rorty, ed., The Linguistic Turn: Recent Essays in Philosophical Method (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 34-35.
2 Ibid., 34.
3 Ibid., 36, n.66.
4 H. D. Lewis, Contemporary British Philosophy (London: Allen & Unwin, 1956).
5 D.S. Clarke, Philosophy’s Second Revolution: Early and Recent Analytic Philosophy (Chicago: Open Court, 1997), p. 110; 110, n.7.
6 Rorty, The Linguistic Turn, 50-51.
7 Friedrich Waismann, How I See Philosophy (London: Macmillan, 1968), 1-2.
8 Ibid., 7.
9 Ibid., 7-8.
10 Ibid., 10.
11 Ibid., 12.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid., 12-13.
14 Ibid., 13, 21.
15 Ibid., 187.
16 Ibid., 59-60.
17 Ibid.
18 ‘Open Letter Against Derrida Receiving an Honorary Doctorate from Cambridge University’ The Times (London), May 9, 1992.
19 Rorty, The Linguistic Turn, 132-134.
20 Waismann, How I See Philosophy, 23.
21 Ibid., 30.
22 Ibid., 23.
23 Godden, now at the University of Windsor in Ontario, made these comments at my presentation of this paper at the December 2004 meeting of the APA.
24 Ibid., 11.
25 Alan Sokal, ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, Social Text 46/47, 1996.

Program in Philosophy, Interpretation, and Culture
Binghamton University
Binghamton, NY 13902-6000