Ayer On Wittgenstein As Pragmatist

In Wittgenstein (Random House, New York, 1985), A. J. Ayer writes:

[Wittgenstein] never adopted the phenomenalist thesis that physical theories can be translated into the set of propositions describing the observable states of affairs that would confirm them…he declared the confirmation of a hypothesis is never completed. In the same set of remarks he characterized a hypothesis as ‘a law for forming propositions’ or alternatively as ‘a law for forming expectations.’ I think he can most fairly be said to have treated the experiences which would fulfil these expectations as constituting the ‘cash-value’ of the hypothesis. ‘Cash-value’ is a term employed for this purpose by William James, a philosopher whom I believe Wittgenstein respected. At any rate, his dicta of this period fit easily into the pragmatist tradition….The pragmatic tenor of Wittgenstein’s thinking at this period is again in evidence in the early part of The Blue Book. We are advised at the outset to substitute for the question ‘What is the meaning of the word?’, the question ‘What is an explanation of the meaning of the word?’ or ‘What does the explanation of a word look like?’ One immediate benefit of this approach is that it diminishes the temptation to think of meanings as a special category of objects, or that of being satisfied with any general set of answers conforming to the pattern of the assertion that predicates stand for properties. Wittgenstein sees that the fundamental problem is that of explaining how a series of noises or written marks acquires what he calls a life. His own general answer is that ‘if we had to name anything as the life of the sign, we should have to say that it was its use.’ [pp. 41-43; link added]

The relationship between Wittgenstein’s writings and those of the pragmatists are now quite well established. (A quick google of ‘Wittgenstein pragmatist’ or ‘Wittgenstein pragmatism’ shows this quite easily.) So is his supposed affinity with Williams James (as noted by Ayer above.) For my part, long before I had read any formal or theoretical analyses of Wittgenstein’s relationship to pragmatism it had seemed to me that someone committed to a use theory of meaning would find the pragmatist criterion of meaning and truth quite amenable. When I began drawing up my syllabus for my graduate seminar on pragmatism a few years ago at the CUNY Graduate Center, I pushed a bit further in the direction of this supposed connection and was immediately gratified to find the extensive literature above; I went on to draw on sections of Russell Goodman‘s Wittgenstein and William James

My students’ reactions then, to finding Wittgenstein on their pragmatism syllabus is not an uncommon response to the claim that Wittgenstein can be considered a pragmatist of sorts; in large part, this is a reaction to writing styles. The classical pragmatists–Dewey, Pierce, and James–are all generally acknowledged to be clear writers (even if Dewey is regarded correctly as excessively verbose.) Wittgenstein, of course, is famously cryptic on all too many occasions; Ayer notes, as have many others, that he was better at providing suggestive and provocative examples than he was at providing trains of rigorous arguments. (A similar reaction of surprise is expressed by some when told that Nietzsche and the pragmatists are often in sympathy with each other.) The discovery of these resonances and others like them further help establish the claim that the pragmatists are not a sui generis phenomenon but rather, represent a recurring strain and orientation in philosophy.

Nietzsche As Pragmatist

Nietzsche is a pragmatist with strong resonances with the American pragmatists; this is not a new claim. Renè Berthelot, for instance, termed Nietzsche “a German pragmatist” and emphasized the resemblance between Nietzsche’s perspectivism and the pragmatist theory of truth.[1][2] The resemblance between Nietzsche and the American pragmatists [3] is made especial note of in Arthur Danto‘s Nietzsche as Philosopher, which bids us examine The Gay Science. There, as Danto notes, Nietzsche claims that “we `know’…just as much as may be useful in the interest of the human herd” and that our primary epistemic concern is “how far a belief furthers and supports life, maintains and disciplines a species.” Nietzsche’s epistemological strategy has clear entailments for his ontology: what we believe exists is a function of how useful that belief is; metaphysics and epistemology are inseparable. Questions of ontology for Nietzsche are questions of human interests; they do not address the ‘ultimate nature of being,’ to anything unconditioned, to “something which would be true, absolutely and unconditionally, outside of all temporal and perspectival conditions.”

For Nietzsche, perspectives, interpretations, constitute our epistemological relationships with the world completely, rendering talk of distortions of reality unintelligible. Thus, marking the beginning point for pragmatic evaluations of theoretical formulations, our dominant perspective and its attendant ontology are the most “useful and necessary.” Morality and our moral theories too, allow a life-preserving way of living and interacting with this world. Morality becomes one of our many perspectives; but there are no moral phenomena or facts—all we have are “moralistic interpretations of phenomena.” Nietzsche thus dismisses the fact-value distinction—as a pragmatist might—because there are no facts, only interpretations guided by our interest-driven values. Such values come to constitute our sense of ourselves for “evaluation is creation.”

As Danto notes, Nietzsche claims there is “an inescapable tendency on our part to posit entities—to think in terms of things—and to regard the world as characterized by ‘unity, identity, permanence, substance, cause [and effect], thinghood and being.”[4] This positing tendency, the hallmark of theory construction, leads to perspectives which speak of, and manipulate these entities in their claims; these perspectives are sustained by their success in helping achieve our ends; utilizing these concepts ‘works for us’ in furthering our collectively determined ends.

Nietzsche’s perspectivism entails all terms are theoretical. The supposed contrast between theoretical terms and constructs and the objects of ‘common sense’ now vanishes; the solid object we bump up against is a theoretical posit within the perspective termed ‘common sense.’ We construct a world and its attendant reality—for ourselves, the theory’s proponents—by constructing a theoretical world indispensable for the forms of life we lead. The acceptance of these ‘articles of faith’ and their indispensability hints at the theoretical resilience of these entities. Nietzsche thus urges a pragmatic understanding of concepts like ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ as “conventional fictions.” Concepts are creative, ways by which we can fashion a new being, a new form of life.

Nietzsche’s perspectivism—human needs constitute the world for us—rejects metaphysical realism, preferring a view in which a dynamic always-becoming world is theorized into a form suited to our purposes.  Perspectives are interpretations; they make some statements true and not others but none is privileged–absolutely–above the others. In Nietzsche’s ontological view “the world is a mere fiction, constructed of fictitious entities” (The Will to Power, 568); these entities are invented to suit our ends. The entities Nietzsche considers ‘fictitious’ includes “substance, soul, (ego, philosophical subject), synchronic and diachronic identity, being, thing, cause and effect, duration, and materiality.”[5] Our language—a theory with its theoretical terms, its ‘fictions’—is a function of our means and ends and interests and bears the mark of our social activities and organizations, its service of particular ends and ways of life. Those forms of life determine the metaphysics the language necessitates. (For instance, the view that “the self is a substance that is identical over time and is that which acts and is the agent of moral responsibility” is ‘required’ by law and adopted in its ontology. )

For Nietzsche ‘things’ do not exist independent of perspectives; objects—the members of an ontology—exist within theories; they do not have character independent of them. Our concepts carve up the world according to our interests; they give us a lens through which we may categorize and make comprehensible the world.  Our interests dominate our theoretical presumptions; we assess explanations by their consonance with those interests and our values.

The trail of the human serpent is thus over everything.


[1] (http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/d/dickstein-pragmatism.html

[2] Resonances with the pragmatist theory of truth may also be found in In Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.

[3] These resonances between Nietzsche and the American pragmatists have been exhaustively explored in Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s magisterial American Nietzsche.

[4] (Danto, 86) 

[5] (Danto, 60-61)