Posts Tagged ‘Wittgenstein’

Natural Law in an Age of Nihilism (pt. 4)

June 11, 2019

In a curious way, this nihilism offers a possible justification for an attempt to reestablish the notion of “human rights” on a firmer foundation.[i] The moral theory of human rights, as outlined in such documents as The Geneva Conventions and The International Bill of Rights, is an attempt to establish a universal moral framework for international statements and action on behalf of the rights of all persons. This theory holds that all people are essentially equal, and have equal rights to such things as freedom of conscience and expression, freedom to live without persecution due to religion, ethnicity or other relevantly similar condition, and so on. As a universal ethic, it is not dependant on any religious or philosophical creed, but simply on a set of moral principles or axioms that are, to coin a phrase, held to be self-evident. However, writer Michael Perry (and some other philosophers) question whether this ethic is in fact as purely secular as it claims. Nietzsche proclaimed the “death of God,” the demise of a universally-accepted morality and foundation of value; but Perry argues that we have by and large simply ignored his critique and proceeded as if in fact we all were on the same page. In this view, “human rights” is founded on a concept of human equality drawn from religion, or perhaps from several religions, and includes such ideas as “we are all equal before God,” “we are all children of God,” the Golden Rule, and other moral principles that seem to be (or at least are taken to be) found in all major religions. But what if this equality is, despite the generations of secular usage, still implicitly a religious notion, with no rational secular foundation? In that case, human rights morality itself has no foundation. This does not mean we have to stop using it; we could simply declare that human equality is an axiom like “straight lines do not intersect,” and go from there. But at least one possible response to the death of God is to deny the claims of self-evidence, and to insist that human equality and human rights be established on other, more rational grounds. The creation of a panel of ethicists to find such grounds, with the idea of basing national policy on human rights upon their conclusions regarding the rational grounding and nature of those rights, would seem to be a reasonable action.

However, Perry’s questions about the ethics of human rights rest on a premise which most American social conservatives would find unacceptable: the death of God. If God is not dead, then there is no reason to believe human rights are dead, either. Nor, in fact, is there any great need to rethink the notion of human rights morality. If our conception of human rights is in fact rooted in beliefs about God, human nature and the relationship between them (that God created all people as essentially good and equal, that God loves everyone and wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves, etc.) then we don’t need to fundamentally redefine human rights at all. We might run into problems with those who simply reject the entire religious framework and with it reject human equality, in which case we might run into the problem Wittgenstein is said to have faced when asked how you can rationally argue that a Nazi is morally wrong. He supposedly responded, “You don’t argue with Nazis. You shoot them.”[ii] But with anyone who is willing to accept the moral axioms of equality, dignity and such, we can viably carry out moral conversations.   We could even say that human rights ethics IS a form of natural law morality, and natural law legal theory: a moral system deriving moral principles and guidance from human nature and nature in general, and a legal theory that our national and international law should be based on such moral principles.

It seems that by saying that we need to rethink and reestablish the entire conception of human rights, the Trump administration is saying that God is dead, therefore belief in human equality is dead, and thus we need to establish our notion of human rights on some other grounds. More traditional American conservatives (like Paul Ryan or Rand Paul) might have chosen to start with Ayn Rand, and the Objectivist definition of humans as innately selfish and rational, so that the richest people are the most rational and since to be rational is also to be just and not to seek unfair advantage for oneself we should just let the rich and powerful do what they want with no government interference. The failure of such ethics when attempted proves, or at least strongly suggests that this view is based on a faulty anthropology; so we can be grateful if Trump relies on Robert George, who seems more inclined than Rand to listen to Kant and other reasonable philosophers.[iii] It seems more likely, for reasons I shall argue later, that Objectivism was passed over not because it was a flawed philosophy, but because it was too consistent. Rand in fact rejected religion, and the Christian ethic of love; she denied the personhood of the fetus and therefore allowed abortion; she was doubtful about the death penalty; and in short, while she opposed “socialism” and consistently conflated democratic socialism with Stalinism, she also stuck to her principles and in doing so took a knife to many conservative sacred cows. If you want to make sure your “independent panel of moral experts” comes out in favor of Republican ideology, you need to stock it with people other than honest Objectivists.

(It may seem strange that Ayn Rand has for decades been such a darling with conservatives, given her expressed contempt for Christianity, Ronald Reagan, and other idols of American conservatism.  After examining comments from politicians and others who express deep love both for Jesus and for Rand, I have concluded that in fact many who love Ayn Rand have never really read her, or at least have selectively read snippets out of her fiction without regard either for the overall message of her novels, or the explicit statements in her philosophical essays.  This has led to absurd statements such as the one from the congressman who required all his staff to read Atlas Shrugged but who was surprised to learn that Rand was an atheist.)

To be continued….

[i] Michael J. Perry, “Morality and Normativity;” in Morality and Moral Controversies, ninth edition, ed. by John Arthur and Steven Scalet (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc. 2014) pp. 56-64. Originally published in Legal Theory 13(3-4) 2007; pp. 211-55;

[ii] I can’t find the source for this story. I was told it was a BBC interview with Wittgenstein. But it makes sense to me; on Wittgenstein’s terms, his game theory of language would imply that there is no way to communicate with someone like a Nazi who simply refuses to join in any shared project or values with you; furthermore, you are making a conceptual mistake to try. The proper language-game to play with Nazis is not “Rational Debate,” but “War for Survival.”

[iii] Denise Cummins, “This is What Happens When You Take Ayn Rand Seriously;” PBS Newshour Feb. 16, 2016 (

Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 5)

November 5, 2012

 Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 5)

           Not surprisingly, James’ pragmatism bears some resemblance to Nietzsche’s; after all, they were near contemporaries in time.  Both are interested in how the individual constructs his (or her) world, based at least in part on psychological needs and one’s personal agenda.  James does appear to put more emphasis on the empirical roots of pragmatic truth than does Nietzsche, whose emphasis on the will-to-power overshadows all other concerns.

In some ways, though, James seems to foreshadow Wittgenstein.  First, James roots his pragmatism not only in the individual’s experience, but also in the history of the race.  Today’s common sense is yesterday’s discovery, passed on through the culture and the conversation of the ages.  My new truths may be those I discover or invent to meet my own needs, but James says the new truths have to learn to live with the old ones, which are often community property.  This isn’t exactly a Wittgensteinian language-game, but it certainly is more communal than Nietzsche’s brand of pragmatism, which lauds the Superman who creates his own values by his own will alone.  Second, like Wittgenstein and unlike Nietzsche, James is tolerant and even supportive of religious belief for those who find it meaningful.  In Culture and Value, Wittgenstein writes of religion as a somewhat regretful outsider.   Religion is the live fire of passion; philosophy only poking around in the ashes to see what can be learned after the fire has burned out.  While he himself did not understand the religious language-game as an insider would, he accepted that it had meaning for believers.  Likewise, James accepted that some “tough-minded” sorts would never get the meaning of religion and never see any point in it, while some “tender-minded” would need it above all else, and many would seek a faith that had a foot on both sides of that stream.  Nietzsche, by contrast, rails against those who would embrace an other-worldly faith, urging us to “be true to the earth” and accept only material values and realities.

This may be more interesting and helpful to me as I sort through James than it is to you; but I enjoyed the exercise and I hope you gained something too.  It seems to me, then, that even such anti-Kantian thinkers as Nietzsche develop a pragmatism that owes more to transcendental idealism than to empiricism.  In Nietzsche’s case, this means his pragmatism is rooted in ontological theories about the will as both a psychological and cosmic force, theories that themselves are not really pragmatically founded.  For Wittgenstein, no such ontological assumption is necessary or even really conceivable; the structures of the mind are rooted only in human behavior, which is the real primordial reality, creator and justifier of the concepts of any particular language-game.  James dedicates his lectures on pragmatism to J.S. Mill, and his allegiance to empiricism is obvious in his philosophy.

One final observation:  as I pointed out, James relies on a form of the coherence theory of truth to rein in the wild flights of fancy that might otherwise propose any sort of “useful” fiction.  By contrast, Wittgenstein is only interested in showing how the concepts of a particular language-game follow their own grammar, their own rules, and are consistent within that language-game.  It is a subject of dispute among students of Wittgenstein just how permeable the boundaries are between language-games.  That is, some claim may make sense in the religious language-game that is simply nonsense in the science language-game.  Some would argue that there must be some overall language-game of my life that contains the others; but others would say that the language-games can be mutually independent, and a person may engage in multiple language-games that are irreconcilable.  In that sort of Wittgensteinian perspectivism, a claim could be both truth and false, depending on the context in which it was used; so long as the concept is used correctly in the particular context of the associated human activity, and everyone understands it well enough to act together according to the rules of the language-game, the concept is “true.”  Likewise, Nietzsche holds to a form of perspectivism, based even more fundamentally on a form of nihilism.  Nothing is true except the will to power, and the fact that the individual wants to live and thrive; so concepts are “true” if they are true for me and help me live a healthier, more creative and vigorous life.  My truths may not be your truths, and there is no way to reconcile them.  To James, the truth claims of another are at least a challenge to my own, and if there is a reason for me to do so I will try to reconcile them with my other beliefs; and always, I must reconcile my truths with one another.  Nietzsche would see the truth claims of another as a struggle of wills, and I should feel free to simply ignore them.  I don’t even have to try to reconcile them with each other, so long as they all help me to live:  as he writes, “the will to a system is a lack of integrity.”  If my life is integrated, I don’t have to concern myself with whether my ideas are logically consistent.  And for Wittgenstein, the idea that I should reconcile my ideas with one another is false; it is simply the decision to set one language-game over as judge of another.  If both language-games reflect human behaviors that serve a purpose for those who engage in them, there is no further reason to try to explain one in terms of another.  So both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein favor complete perspectivism and multiple, incompatible “truths.”  James holds out the possibility of one truth to which we could all agree, albeit a rather broad and vague pragmatic truth; and this final unity is more of an ultimate goal or ultimate hope rather than a present reality.  Still, even the possibility of finding a shared framework for the search for truth is more than Nietzsche or Wittgenstein think possible.

Some Thoughts About Different Approaches to Pragmatism (pt. 2)

October 15, 2012

The Nietzschean pragmatism is based on this will-to-power; it gives me my goals, and then those goals create the structures by which I construct my reality.  In contrast, the Wittgensteinian approach eliminates this psychological theory, but keeps the idea that the categories by which we construct reality are themselves the creations of human goals and practices.  In Wittgenstein’s philosophy, all language evolves from human practices.  “True” words are those that make sense within a particular practice, in that they allow a person to achieve a goal or communicate/coordinate with others.  In Philosophical Investigations, he presents a very simple example as a thought experiment.  Suppose a group of people were building.  If I want a large, flat rock, I call out “Slab!”  and everyone knows what I want.  If I get the sort of rock I need, that is all the “truth” I need.  So the “language-game” necessary for this simple practice needs a few words such as “slab,” “pillar,” and perhaps a few other basic shapes, together with some prepositions (Slab here!  Pillar there!).  Wittgenstein hypothesizes that all language arises as part of this sort of language-game, where we learn certain words to convey what we mean in order to interact together.  Some of these words may spring from purely private experiences, such as pain.  Strictly speaking, I don’t know if you feel the same thing I feel when I sprain my ankle.  However, when you see me roll around on the ground with tears streaming from my eyes and profanity streaming from my mouth, you act as if you understand.  You ask, “Where does it hurt?” and I tell you or point, you bandage or do something like that, and it reduces my pain.  Taken together, this is “pain behavior,” some instinctual and involuntary and some socially structured; and “pain language” is part of this overall activity.  We don’t know whether we feel the same things, but we know we both act the same ways and respond to the same sorts of assistance, so we both call what we feel “pain.”

Instead of concepts, then, Wittgenstein is more inclined to speak of “language-games” and “the grammar” of an activity.  What are the words used by people who engage in a particular activity, and what are the rules whereby they use those words?  How well do they understand and coordinate with one another?  Some may engage in different language-games, and experience reality differently than others.  And the words, concepts and grammar that one employs can structure how one experiences reality.  To illustrate this, Wittgenstein presents this example:


What is this?  You might say, “It’s a rabbit; see its long ears and the little mouth?” I might say, “It’s a duck; see its bill?”  Depending how you look at it, it could be either.  It is a duck-rabbit.  If you had no word for “duck” and had never seen one, you would only see the rabbit; and likewise, if you’d never seen a rabbit you’d have no idea that this duck might be anything else.  The concept you employ shapes your experience; and you cannot see both simultaneously.[1]  You probably are able to switch between seeing it as one or the other animal; if one is particularly close-minded, one might be unable to see it as the other at all.              Like Kant, both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein are interested in how we use our concepts to construct our world.  We filter our reality through our concepts.  Unlike Kant, both these philosophers see our concepts as rooted in our language, not in universal human concepts.  Nietzsche sees our concepts as themselves rooted in the will to power; Wittgenstein largely moots inner psychological considerations and focuses on shared human activities and behavior.  Nietzsche is more deductive; his theory flows from his conception of will, which of course is largely invisible.  Wittgenstein’s theory seeks to be more observational and inductive.

James shares elements of both of these philosophers.  Like Nietzsche, William James was an early pioneer in psychology, and based much of his philosophy on psychological theories and concerns.  Like Wittgenstein, James was more inclined to look to observation, and less judgmental of the different options others might choose.

It is clear that the European pragmatism of both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, as different as they are in many ways, do have at least one thing in common:  they both follow Kant’s “Copernican Revolution.”  Both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein agree that the object of knowledge must conform to the structure of knowledge, rather than knowledge being determined by the object.  The mind creates useful categories, concepts and connections that serve pragmatic purposes; it then shapes its world and the objects of experience according to those categories.  For Nietzsche, these purposes flow from individual psychological needs, and are (or ought to be) the tools of personal projects.  For Wittgenstein, concepts flow from human activities and the need of humans to communicate with one another; therefore, there are no private concepts.  But whether the concepts are the spawn of individual projects or social projects, both agree that concepts are created by human interests and activity and are “true” insofar as they are useful.  The actual world is little more than the raw material to be shaped by human concepts, interests and projects, and is not really an object of philosophical consideration at all.  How does the American pragmatism of William James compare to these?

To be continued…..

[1] The closest you can come (which I don’t recall Wittgenstein mentioning) is that if you’re a student of Wittgenstein you might see a figure like this and identify it as neither one of those, but as a “duck-rabbit.” When I see it I see an ambiguous figure.  I think I experience this figure as a figure and must make a slight effort to see it as either animal in particular.  That is, I have three concepts and structure the experience in three different ways.