Wittgenstein pp 160-181 | Cite as

Positivism and Cultural Pessimism

  • David Bloor
Part of the Theoretical Traditions in the Social Sciences book series


Wittgenstein is sometimes said to be remarkable for the novelty of his work and for the fact that he cannot be classified with an established school of thinkers.1 This is not true. Wittgenstein was a ‘conservative thinker’ in the sense given to these words by Karl Mannheim.2 This link was made implicitly by W. H. Walsh when he drew attention to the similarities between Wittgenstein and Edmund Burke.3 The accuracy of this comparison has recently received strong support from the work of J. C. Nyiri, who has exhibited numerous affinities and links between Wittgenstein and the conservative tradition.4 My interest in this connection is not biographical or historical: rather, I want to bring out a structural feature of his thought. This will enable me to confront the ‘antipositivist’ Wittgenstein and the standard, method-oriented readings of his work that I mentioned in the first chapter.


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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Pitkin, for example, claims on p.1 of her book that Wittgenstein offers a ‘new perspective’. This theme is reiterated throughout. See, for example, pp.325 and 328. H. Pitkin, Wittgenstein and Justice, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1972.Google Scholar
  2. It has also been said of Wittgenstein that he is ‘outside any specific sociological tradition’: see G. Flöistad, ‘Notes on Habermas’s Proposal for a Social Theory of Knowledge’, Inquiry, vol.13, 1970, pp.175–98, p.176.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 2.
    K. Mannheim, ‘Conservative Thought’, in Essays on Sociology and Social Psychology, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953, ch.II. It should perhaps be emphasised that the word ‘conservative’ as it is used here has no simple application to the categories and labels of present-day, British party politics.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    W. Walsh, Metaphysics, London, Hutchinson, 1963, pp.122–4.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    J. Nyiri, ‘Wittgenstein’s New Traditionalism’, in Essays on Wittgenstein, Acta Philosophica Fennica, vol.28, nos 1–3, 1976, pp.503–12Google Scholar
  6. J. Nyiri, ‘Wittgenstein’s Later Work in Relation to Conservatism’, in B. McGuinness (ed.), Wittgenstein and his Times, Oxford, Blackwell, 1982, pp.44–68. I have greatly benefited from reading these papers in the writing of the following section.Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    The literature on German conservative and romantic thought is extensive. Useful and brief accounts can be found in: H. Reiss, The Political Thought of the German Romantics, 1793–1815, Oxford, Blackwell, 1955Google Scholar
  8. R. Cardinal, German Romantics in Context, London, Cassell & Collier Macmillan, 1975Google Scholar
  9. R. Berdahl, ‘Prussian Aristocracy and Conservative Ideology: A Methodological Examination’, Social Science Information, vol.15, 1976, pp.583–99. Berdahl brings out clearly the basis of the ideology in social interest.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 6.
    Quoted in Mannheim, ‘Conservative Thought’, pp.128-9.Google Scholar
  11. 7.
    O. Spengler, The Decline of the West, trans. C. F. Atkinson, London, Allen &Unwin, 1926.Google Scholar
  12. 8.
    G. von Wright, ‘Wittgenstein in Relation to his Times’, in B. Mc-Guinness (ed.), Wittgenstein and his Times, Oxford, Blackwell, 1982, pp.108–20, p.116.Google Scholar
  13. 9.
    In 1931 Wittgenstein wrote: ‘I don’t believe I have ever invented a line of thinking, I have always taken one over from someone else. I have simply straightaway seized on it with enthusiasm for my work of clarification. That is how Boltzmann, Hertz, Schopenhauer, Frege, Russell, Krauss, Loos, Weininger, Spengler, Sraffa have influenced me’ (CV, p.19). The first eight names represent authors who mainly influenced Wittgenstein’s early work. See: J. Griffin, Wittgenstein’s Logical Atomism, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1964Google Scholar
  14. P. Engelmann, Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein with a Memoir, trans. L. Furtmüller, Oxford, Blackwell, 1967Google Scholar
  15. A. Janik and S. Toulmin, Wittgenstein’s Vienna, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973. Sraffa was a Cambridge contemporary of Wittgenstein’s whose help is acknowledged in the preface of PI. Little has yet been written on the Sraffa-Wittgenstein connection. Further investigation may significantly deepen our understanding of Wittgenstein’s relation to the intriguing intellectual climate of Cambridge in the 1930s.Google Scholar
  16. 10.
    Spengler, Decline of the West, p.21.Google Scholar
  17. 15.
    Ibid, p.59. The whole second chapter of Spengler’s book is devoted to the meaning of numbers.Google Scholar
  18. 16.
    Valuable evidence of Spengler’s impact in this respect is to be found in P. Forman, ‘Weimar Culture, Causality and Quantum Theory, 1918–1927: Adaptation by German Physicists and Mathematicians to a Hostile Intellectual Environment’, Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences, vol.3, 1971, pp.1–115.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. For contemporary assessments of Spengler’s significance see: E. Troeltsch, ‘The Ideas of Natural Law and Humanity in World Politics’, in O. Gierke, Natural Law and the Theory of Society, trans. E. Barker, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1934, pp.201–22Google Scholar
  20. O. Neurath, ‘Anti-Spengler’, in M. Neurath and R. Cohen (eds), Empiricism and Sociology, Dordrecht, Reidel, 1973, pp.158–213. (first published in 1921).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 17.
    Quoted in R. Rhees (ed.), Ludwig Wittgenstein, Personal Recollections, Oxford, Blackwell, 1981, p.128.Google Scholar
  22. 18.
    For example, in the context of educational debate the hierarchy is often upheld by a rhetorical contrast between the symbols of head and hand. See S. Shapin and B. Barnes, ‘Head and Hand: Rhetorical Resources in British Pedagogical Writing, 1770–1850’, Oxford Review of Education, vol.2, no.3, 1976, pp.231–54.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. 19.
    See PI, I, pp.307-8; RFM, II, 18. C. Chihara and J. Fodor, ‘Operationalism and Ordinary Language’, American Philosophical Quarterly, vol.II, 1965, pp.281–95Google Scholar
  24. reprinted in G. Pitcher (ed.), Wittgenstein, London, Macmillan, 1968, pp.384–419.Google Scholar
  25. 20.
    P. Winch, The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958.Google Scholar
  26. 21.
    E. Gellner, ‘The New Idealism — Cause and Meaning in the Social Sciences’, in I. Lakatos and A. Musgrave (eds), Problems in the Philosophy of Science (vol.3 of the Proceedings of the International Colloquium in the Philosophy of Science, London, 1965), Amsterdam, North-Holland, 1968, pp.377–406.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 22.
    Two representative papers are: M. Oakeshott, ‘The Tower of Babel’, The Cambridge Journal, vol.2, 1948–49, pp.67–82; and ‘Rational Conduct’, The Cambridge Journal, vol.4, 1950–51, pp.3-27.Google Scholar
  28. 23.
    Winch, Idea of a Social Science, p.54.Google Scholar
  29. 28.
    Winch is keen to deny any analogy between the exchange of ideas and the interaction of forces in a physical system. Oakeshott shows no such anxiety in the face of similar physical analogies. ‘Human conduct’ he says ‘in its most general character, is energy; it is not caused by energy, it does not express or display energy, it is energy.’ (‘Rational Conduct’, p.22). The significance of Oakeshott’s rhetorical identification should be clear in the light of the previous discussion of the spirit-matter hierarchy. Oakeshott is collapsing it in an upward direction.Google Scholar
  30. 29.
    Winch, Idea of a Social Science, p.62.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Wittgenstein in fact deliberately inverts the metaphor of logical’ seeing’ by insisting that in the last analysis ‘I obey the rule blindly.’ (PI, I, 219).Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    Winch, Idea of a Social science, pp.61 and 62. As evidence for his claim Winch cites E. Levi, An Introduction to Legal Reasoning, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1949. This fascinating book seems to me to show the opposite of what Winch wants.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Wittgenstein does, however, seem to draw the line at machines. Cf. Z, 614.Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    Winch, Idea of a Social Science, p.62.Google Scholar
  35. 36.
    D. Broadbent, Perception and Communication, Oxford, Pergamon Press, 1958, ch.3, esp.p.47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. 37.
    Winch, Idea of a Social science, p.87.Google Scholar
  37. 38.
    J. von Uexküll, Theoretical Biology, London, Kegan Paul, Trench & Trubner, 1926, Scholar
  38. and ‘A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men’, in C. Schiller (ed.), Instinctive Behaviour. The Development of a Modern Concept, London, Methuen, 1957, pp.5–80 (first published 1934).Google Scholar
  39. N. Tinbergen, The Study of Instinct, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1951, p.37.Google Scholar
  40. J. Durant, ‘Innate Character in Animals and Man: A Perspective on the Origins cf Ethology’, in C. Webster (ed.), Biology, Medicine and Society 1840–1940, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp.157–92.Google Scholar
  41. 39.
    Some philosophers reject such a reading as superficial. They say that the deeper reading of Kant places the a priori structure of the mind entirely outside nature rather than making it a phenomenon within nature. There is, however, a long tradition of naturalising the a priori. Herbert Spencer and William James, for example, argued in this way: as well as Durkheim and Wittgenstein. For a modern defence of this approach see D. Campbell, ‘Methodological Suggestions for a Comparative Psychology of Knowledge Processes’, Inquiry, vol.2, 1959, pp.152–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. 40.
    See, for example, K. Lorenz, ‘Kant’s Doctrine of the A Priori in the Light of Contemporary Biology’, in R. Evans (ed.), Konrad Lorenz: The Man and his Ideas, New York, Harcourt Brace, 1975, pp.181–217. (The paper was first published in 1941). UexküH’s Kantianism is quite explicit and is closely associated with a characteristic form of relativism. Notice the similarity between what Uexküll says about the self-contained character of each animal’s’ self-world’ and what Wittgenstein said about the completeness of language-games. The first principle of Umwelt theory is that ‘all animals, from the simplest to the most complex, are fitted into their unique worlds with equal completeness’. Uexküll, ‘A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men’, p.11.Google Scholar
  43. 41.
    For example, Winch, Idea of a Social Science, p.108. See Tinbergen, Study of Instinct, p.32.Google Scholar
  44. 42.
    Winch, Idea of a Social Science, p.85.Google Scholar
  45. 43.
    For a forceful statement of the dependence of language on prior, non-linguistic adaptations to the material world, see D. Campbell, ‘Ostensive Instances and Entitivity in Language Learning’, in W. Gray and N. Rizzo (eds), Unity through Diversity, New York, Gordon & Breach, 1973, pp.1043–57.Google Scholar
  46. 44.
    ‘The philosopher is the man who has to cure himself of many sicknesses of the understanding before he can arrive at the notions of the sound human understanding’ (RFM, IV, 53). ‘The philosopher’s treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness’ (PI, I, 255).Google Scholar
  47. 45.
    Winch, Idea of a Social Science, p.3. Cf. also p.17.Google Scholar
  48. 46.
    Ibid, p.15. Cf. also p.8.Google Scholar
  49. 47.
    Ibid, pp.101–2.Google Scholar
  50. 48.
    Ibid, pp.102–3.Google Scholar
  51. 49.
    Ibid, p.103.Google Scholar
  52. 50.
    P. Ricoeur, ‘Husserl and Wittgenstein on Language’, in E. Lee and H. Mandelbaum (eds), Phenomenology and Existentialism, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Press, 1969, pp.207–17, p.217.Google Scholar
  53. 51.
    J. Habermas, ‘Towards a Theory of Communicative Competence’, Inquiry, vol.13, 1970, pp.360–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. and ‘On Systematically Distorted Communication’, Inquiry, vol.13, 1970, pp.205–18. For a valuable analysis and clarification see T. McCarthy, ‘A Theory of Communicative Competence’, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, vol.3, 1973, pp.135–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. 52.
    Habermas, ‘Towards a Theory of Communicative Competence’, p.372.Google Scholar
  56. 53.
    A similar theory has been offered by Ellis as an ‘epistemic’ basis for logic. The idea is that if validity is to be defined by assertability rather than truth conditions then, ultimately, validity requires that an inference can be incorporated into an ideally and universally extended system of rational belief. He says, ‘a rational belief on a language... is defensible before an audience of competent speakers. I offer completability through every extension of the vocabulary of the language as my criterion of ultimate defensibility.’: B. Ellis, ‘Epistemic Foundations of Logic’, Journal of Philosophical Logic, vol.5, 1976, pp.187–204, p.201. This is just Habermas’s image of a totally open and unbounded society expressed in a different idiom. The trouble is that this replaces the myths of Platonism by an equally mythical cosmopolitanism. The truths of logic are just as much beyond our grasp in this myth as in the other. The real epistemic foundations of logic cannot be based on ‘every extension’ of our vocabulary, but must relate to our vocabulary as it exists here and now.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. 54.
    See Oakeshott, ‘The Tower of Babel’, Cambridge Journal, vol.2, 1948–9, pp.67–83.Google Scholar
  58. 55.
    In our free-floating imagination we can, of course, combine ideas in an indefinitely large number of ways and join fragments of all kinds of different social practices. This would suggest that there are, in principle, an infinite number of different ideals of discourse, rather than a small number of archetypes. There must, surely, be some truth in this, but two additional factors must be borne in mind. First, any systematic attempt to sketch out an overall model of discourse and rational conduct must strive to create an appearance of consistency and coherence. Second, if these claims to coherence are going to have any credibility they will have to resonate with the habits of thought and implicit models of conduct in the minds of their intended audience. Taken jointly this means that the ideological traditions that have grown up historically in the inherited culture of that audience will be used as measures of coherence and credibility. If grid-group theory really does pick out the vital variables there would be grounds for suspecting that the four extreme cases would each yield a simple model of a social form that would act as a reference point in the culture. This point is discussed with reference to the long-standing opposition between conservative and enlightenment ideologies and their relation to the Kuhn-Popper debate in: D. Bloor, Knowledge and Social Imagery, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976, ch.4.Google Scholar
  59. 56.
    Gellner, ‘The New Idealism’, p.397.Google Scholar
  60. 57.
    For example, the ethnomethodologists, and, B. Latour and S. Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts, Beverley Hills, Sage, 1979Google Scholar
  61. A. Brannigan, The Social Basis of Scientific Discovery, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1981.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© David Bloor 1983

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Bloor
    • 1
  1. 1.University of EdinburghUK

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