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.

The Worst Sentence William James Ever Wrote

I have just concluded, in one of my classes this semester, my teaching of William James‘ classic Pragmatisma bona fide philosophical classic, one richly repaying close reading and elaboration of its central theses. My admiration for James’ writing and thought continues to grow, even as this semester, I encountered a passage that is remarkably incongruous with all I know about James’ sensitivity and appreciation of diverse religious traditions–this is after all, the man who wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience.

In Lecture IX, ‘Pragmatism and Religion,’ James says:

Suppose that the world’s author put the case to you before creation, saying: “I am going to make a world not certain to be saved…I offer you the chance of taking part in such a world. Its safety…is unwarranted. It is a real adventure….Will you join the procession? Will you trust yourself and trust the other agents enough to face the risk?”

Should you in all seriousness, if participation in such a world were proposed to you, feel bound to reject it as not safe enough? Would you say that, rather than be part and parcel of so fundamentally pluralistic and irrational a universe, you preferred to relapse into the slumber of nonentity from which you had been momentarily aroused by the tempter’s voice?

[I]f you are normally constituted, you would do nothing of the sort. There is a healthy-minded buoyancy in most of us which such a universe would exactly fit. We would therefore accept the offer…Yet perhaps some would not; for there are morbid minds in every human collection, and to them the prospect of a universe with only a fighting chance of safety would probably make no appeal. There are moments of discouragement in us all, when we are sick of self and tired of vainly striving….We want a universe where we can just give up, fall on our father’s neck, and be absorbed into the absolute life as a drop of water melts into the river or the sea.

The peace and rest, the security desiderated at such moments is security against the bewildering accidents of so much finite experience. Nirvana means safety from this everlasting round of adventures of which the world of sense consists. The hindoo and the buddhist, for this is essentially their attitude, are simply afraid, afraid of more experience, afraid of life. [emphasis added]

The total misunderstanding on display here of these two great religious and philosophical traditions is acutely disappointing. James seems to have absorbed, uncritically, the most facile and reductive view possible of the claims they make; he reduces the diversity of Indian thought to a quick caricature. ‘Nirvana’ is not nothingness; it indicates a state of living in this world that is not afflicted by the pointless suffering that is the lot of all those who do not practice the kind of ‘ironic detachment’ the Buddha preached and practiced. The ‘hindoo’ for his part does not retreat, afraid of this world; nowhere in the diverse philosophical systems that make up ‘Hindu thought’ is retreat from the world the central prescriptive claim. At best, it might be one of the practices that lead to enlightenment, one of the stages of life that we must pass through.

James betrays here a parochialism that still infects the modern academy; the misunderstanding on display still reigns supreme.

Political Tactics, Antifa, And Punching Nazis

In response to my post ‘Punching Nazis in the Face and Anti-Antifa Critiques‘ a friend of mine offered some critical responses on Facebook; these responses have offered me an opportunity to try to express my original claims more clearly. My responses are below. (Excerpts from my original post are indented in plain text; my friend’s responses are italicized.)

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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)

Anticipating Another Encounter With Books And Students

This coming fall semester promises to be a cracker: I have the usual heavy teaching load of three classes (including two four-credit classes whose lectures will be one hundred minutes long, thus making for a very exhausting Monday-Wednesday sequence of teaching running from 9:05 AM to 3:30 PM, with an hour break between the second and third class meetings); and I will be trying to make some headway on a pair of manuscripts, both due next year in May and August respectively (one project examines the Bollywood war movie and the Indian popular imagination, another conducts a philosophical examination of the Indian film director Shyam Benegal’s work.)

The three classes I will be teaching this semester are: Social Philosophy, Philosophy of Law, and Landmarks in the History of Philosophy. The following are their reading lists: the first two classes below feature my favored kind of reading assignments–pick a few select texts and read them from cover to cover; this is a slightly risky move, given that my students–and  I–might find out, together, that the text is ‘not working.’ For whatever reason; some works do not bear up well under closer inspection in a classroom, some material turns out to be tougher to teach and discuss than imagined, and so on. When it works though, a detailed and sustained examination of a philosophical work pregnant with meaning can work wonders, allowing my students and I to trace the various strands of complex arguments at leisure, drawing out their many interpretations and understandings as we do so.

Social Philosophy: 

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press; 2nd ed., 1998,

Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, Routledge Classics,

Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, W. W. Norton & Company, 1989,

Landmarks in the History of Philosophy:

William James, Pragmatism, Dover, 1995

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Dover, 1996,

Thomas Szaz, The Myth of Mental Illness, Harper Perennial

Philosophy of Law: 

‘The Case of the Speluncean Explorers’ by Lon Fuller (to introduce my students–briefly and vividly, hopefully–to theories of natural law, positivism, and some tenets of the interpretation of legal texts.)

HLA Hart, ‘On Primary and Secondary Rules’

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, ‘The Path of the Law’

David Caudill and Jay Gold, Radical Philosophy of Law

Besides these three classes, I will also be conducting an independent study with an undergraduate student on the relationship between Nietzsche’s writings and Buddhism; this promises to be especially fascinating. The following is the list of books my student and I will work through over the course of the semester:

Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities

Nietzsche and Zen: Self Overcoming Without a Self 

Nietzsche and BuddhismProlegomenon to a Comparative Study

Nietzsche and Buddhist Philosophy

Every semester, as always, brings on that same trembling anticipation: books and students and all the promises those encounters hold–the revelations, the surprises, the discoveries, the missteps. What a great way to spend one’s waking hours; I will have ample opportunities to count my blessings in the weeks that lie ahead.

Alasdair MacIntyre On Relativism And The Immigrant

In ‘Relativism, Power, and Philosophy,’ (Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association,Vol. 59, No. 1, September 1985, pp. 5-22) Alasdair MacIntyre writes:

‘Relativism’…names one kind of conclusion to enquiry into a particular class of problems. Those questions arise in the first place for people who live in certain highly specific types of social and cultural situation…It is perhaps unsurprising that [these questions] have been overlooked by those recent philosophers who want to make a sharp dichotomy between the realm of philosophical theorizing and that of everyday belief….This attitude is perhaps a symptom of…too impoverished a view of the types of social and institutional circumstance which generate philosophical problems. What then are the social and institutional circumstances which generate the cluster of problems to which some version of relativism can be a rational response?

They are the social and institutional circumstances of those who inhabit a certain type of frontier or boundary situation. Consider the predicament of someone who lives in a time and place where he or she is a full member of two linguistic communities, speaking one language…exclusively to the older members of his or her family and village and [another language, X] to those from the world outside, who seek to engage him or her in a way of life in the exclusively [X]-speaking world. Economic and social circumstance may enforce on such a person a final choice between inhabiting the one linguistic community and inhabiting the other; and in some times and places this is much more than a choice between two languages…For a language maybe so used…that to share in its use is to presuppose one cosmology rather than another, one relationship of local law and custom to cosmic order rather than another, one justification of particular relationships of individual to community and of both to land and to landscape rather than another.

Nietzsche famously said that all philosophy is but disguised autobiography. I find such a philosophical claim plausible because, interestingly enough, it speaks to my experiences in the course of my intellectual development. I find myself sympathetic to relativistic, quasi-relativistic, perspectival (and relatedly anti-foundational) claims in many domains of philosophy because I consider myself–a bilingual immigrant, who is now a naturalized citizen in his adopted homeland–to ‘inhabit a…frontier or boundary situation.’ Philosophical theses built on such claims exercise a particular fascination for me; I find myself drawn to them. I say so because it would be dishonest to pretend that my acceptability of their arguments is purely a matter of intellectual assessment. As William James would describe it, my ‘passional nature‘ runs ahead of me here, taking me with it. As all too many immigrants and bilinguals will note, their transitions between countries and languages are not journeys through merely space-time or linguistic boundaries; rather, conceptual boundaries of considerable standing and importance are crossed. Incommensurability between worlds and ways of being seems a cosmic fact, an inescapable aspect of such a lived reality; relativism suggests itself as a ‘rational response’ to such a state of affairs.

Yertle The Turtle, Cosmological Anti-Foundationalism, And Political Change

Bertrand Russell and William James were informed, in rather arch fashion, we are told, that the solution to the age-old cosmological problem was that it was turtles all the way down. Another no less distinguished philosopher, Theodor Seuss Geisel suggested, however, that the chain of turtles, rather than extending into the deepest recesses of a cosmic infinitude, might terminate in a particular turtle, one named Mack, with a proclivity for burping at inopportune moments. Especially if you happened to be the top of the heap, and gazing fondly over the vast reaches of your empire, as Yertle, Mack’s oppressor, was. This rather simple opposition, however, does not do justice to the political and metaphysical sophistication of Geisel’s vision of this world’s orderings and the motive powers that might disturb them.

Consider that Mack does not remove himself from the bottom of the stack by shrugging, which might be considered the correct way to displace off one’s shoulders, the weight of an oppressive, individuality-destroying hierarchy (as Ayn Rand so memorably suggested in, er, Atlas Shrugged); rather, he burps. Why does Geisel chose the emission of the burp as the prime stack-toppling agent?

A burp is, as Wikipedia informs us, “the release of gas from the digestive tract (mainly esophagus and stomach) through the mouth. It is usually accompanied with a typical sound and, at times, an odor.”  As mention of “gas,” “mouth,” “digestive,” “stomach,” and “odor” suggest, a burp is a lowly, bodily thing. There is little reason in it; no premeditation, no planning, no ratiocination; it is irredeemably sordid with nary a hint of the sublime. It is all praxis and no theory. It is pure, elemental physicality, a surge of bodily power, a summoning up from the primeval depths of forces beyond our control. The murk stirs at the bottom of the pit, double bubble toil and trouble, and a gaseous charge is emitted, racing upwards for release at our oral orifice. (Modesty forbids me mention the alternate passageways that may be followed by such vaporous emissions when they race downwards instead.) The burp is the roiling forces of the Id, the dark Unconscious, made palpable and manifest. Especially to our olfactory and aural senses.

Thus does Geisel suggest that the greatest manifestations of power, the most towering reaches of human vanity, arrogance, and hubris, which seek to place themselves beyond the reaches of grubby, earthly powers, will be displaced by, not the high winds that blow at the summits, but rather by forces that reach up from below, from the deepest depths, from those most repressed, those that are the least visible. The political lesson here is clear and stark: do not expect change to come from the top, it must become from below, from those who are the most reviled, the most oppressed, the ones whose voices are all too easily ignored and shouted over. And when they do rise up, they will not do so in fancy, prettified ways; they will revel in the ugliness that was always ascribed to them. It will be their greatest weapon.