Only Sentences

Ray Monk

  • Wittgenstein’s Place in 20th-Century Analytic Philosophy by P.M.S. Hacker
    Blackwell, 368 pp, £50.00, October 1996, ISBN 0 631 20098 3
  • Wittgenstein: Mind and Will, Vol. IV of an Analytical Commentary on the ‘Philosophical Investigations’ by P.M.S. Hacker
    Blackwell, 742 pp, £90.00, August 1996, ISBN 0 631 18739 1

A feeling has been growing that analytic philosophy is in crisis. Once proud and disdainful of other traditions, it has become unsure of itself; uncertain about its past and fearful of its future. One sign of this insecurity is the debate now being conducted among leading analytic philosophers about their own history. Previously, they cared little about this. Confident in the superiority of their methods over those of earlier philosophers, they regarded an interest in history as a perverse preoccupation with the mistakes of the past. History was for second-class minds; first-class minds could safely ignore it and get on with the job in hand.

Such an attitude, however, could only survive so long as there existed a rough consensus as to what the job in hand was. In the Fifties, the heyday of British analytic philosophy, this was expressed in a series of books with titles such as The Revolution in Philosophy, in which the leading philosophers of that time – Austin, Strawson, Ryle, Ayer – expressed, despite their many differences, broad agreement about the nature of their subject and a common belief that the method of analysis they had learned from Frege, Russell, Moore and Wittgenstein constituted a great advance over previous ways of doing philosophy and over the techniques of their Continental rivals.

Nowhere is this confidence better epitomised than in the notorious paper delivered by Ryle at the conference on La Philosophie analytique at Royaumont in 1960. Entitled ‘Phenomenology versus The Concept of Mind’, this contrasted the befuddlement of the German phenomenological tradition when faced with problems in the philosophy of mind with the clarity achieved by ‘Anglo-Saxon’ analytic philosophers. The Germans, Ryle suggested, had been misled by Husserl into attempting to reestablish the proud role philosophy had once played as ‘the Science of the sciences’, while we in Britain ‘have not worried our heads over the question Which philosopher ought to be Fuehrer?’ but have instead trusted in logical analysis.

That trust remained undimmed throughout the Sixties and Seventies, when the philosophy departments at the newly-established universities were filled, in the main, with graduates of Ryle’s Oxford B.Phil degree, who devised courses in which logical analysis occupied centre-stage, Hegel and Husserl were written out of history, and post-war trends in French and German philosophy completely ignored. Discontent with the narrowness of such an approach was expressed in the founding of the journal, Radical Philosophy, and in the establishment of popular graduate programmes in ‘Continental Philosophy’, but these remained marginal developments which troubled the mainstream – in so far as it was aware of them – very little. Meanwhile, outside philosophy departments, the work of contemporary French and German philosophers was studied by cultural theorists, literary critics and others.

The seeds of the present crisis, however, were sown, not by dissidents from the analytical tradition, but rather by analytical philosophers themselves, who, since the Eighties, have been increasingly divided about what, exactly, the ‘method of analysis’ is. One of the central questions has become: what is analytical philosophy?

An influential answer has been provided by Michael Dummett, until recently the Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford and the author of several important books on Frege and the philosophy of language. Significantly, Dummett’s most recent books have been concerned with history, particularly his Origins of Analytical Philosophy, which broke sharply with the Rylean notion of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ philosophy by insisting on the Continental roots of the analytical tradition. ‘The roots of analytical philosophy,’ Dummett writes, ‘are the same roots as those of the phenomenological school.’ The two traditions ‘may be compared with the Rhine and the Danube, which rise quite close to one another and for a time pursue roughly parallel courses, only to diverge in utterly different directions and flow to different seas.’ The Rhine is Frege and the Danube Husserl, and the point of divergence is the ‘linguistic turn’ taken by the Fregean stream. Both Frege and Husserl, that is, were centrally concerned with the analysis of thought, but Frege took the decisive step of insisting that thought could be analysed only through language. Thus: ‘Analytical philosophy was born when the linguistic turn was taken’, and, in Frege: Philosophy of Mathematics, Dummett identified the precise moment of this momentous step: in paragraph 62 of The Foundations of Arithmetic, in which Frege begins by asking about the nature of numbers and ends by asking instead about the meanings of sentences containing number words.

Analytical philosophy is, then, according to Dummett, ‘essentially post-Fregean philosophy’ and its central task is the creation of a viable theory of meaning. ‘For Frege,’ Dummett insists, ‘as for all subsequent analytical philosophers, the philosophy of language is the foundation of all other philosophy.’ As a characterisation of analytical philosophy this has the awkward consequence of denying Bertrand Russell membership of the tradition. For Russell never thought that the philosophy of language was the foundation of all other philosophy, indeed was horrified when such a view became the orthodoxy. ‘In common with all philosophers before [the later Wittgenstein],’ he wrote in the Fifties, ‘my fundamental aim has been to understand the world as well as may be, and to separate what may count as knowledge from what must be rejected as unfounded opinion.’ But, he added, ‘we are now told that it is not the world that we are to try to understand but only sentences’ – a conception of the subject which he regarded as an abdication of its claim to be a serious discipline.

Then there is the question of what place Wittgenstein has in Dummett’s characterisation. Did Wittgenstein think that the central task of philosophy was the construction of a theory of meaning? Emphatically not. Philosophical theories were for him a symptom of disease, a case for treatment, not the basis of a cure. Dummett acknowledges this, but declares it to be a flaw in Wittgenstein’s otherwise admirable approach to the subject. His hostility to theory is, Dummett writes, ‘probably the weakest part of his work’, and a part we can safely ignore, since it is ‘quite easy to formulate theses which Wittgenstein advanced’. Wittgenstein was, then, despite his vehement insistence to the contrary, a theorist, and, moreover, a theorist of meaning, and, as such, a respectable member of the analytical tradition.

For those who feel that Dummett has here done less than justice to the spirit of Wittgenstein’s work, a welcome alternative view is provided by Peter Hacker’s new book, Wittgenstein’s Place in 20th-Century Analytic Philosophy. This was written as a synoptic essay to accompany the huge four-part Analytical Commentary on the ‘Philosophical Investigations’, which he began working on twenty years ago with his colleague, Gordon Baker, and which has just been completed. The recently published Volume IV of this definitive work, Wittgenstein: Mind and Will, covers paragraphs 428-693 of what Hacker believes to be ‘the most important contribution to philosophy since Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason’, and is, like its predecessors, essential reading for any serious student of Wittgenstein. Anybody reading Philosophical Investigations would do well to keep it by their side, not only for its authoritative commentary on particular passages, but also for Hacker’s extremely illuminating essays on the themes of the last part of the book: one each on intentionality, induction, the arbitrariness of grammar, negation, methodology in philosophical psychology, memory and recognition the will, intention and the mythology of meaning.

In the twenty years that it has taken to complete this extraordinary commentary a great shift has taken place in the concerns of analytical philosophers. In 1976, Wittgenstein’s place as the foremost philosopher in the analytical tradition was taken for granted, and commentaries on his work formed part of the mainstream of philosophical literature. Now, however, Wittgensteinians have become marginalised, and those, like Hacker, who remain faithful to his conception of philosophy have been fighting an increasingly forlorn rearguard action against what they see as the confusions and misconceptions that now dominate analytical philosophy. How has this happened? That is the question which Hacker seeks to address.

Wittgenstein’s Place in 20th-Century Analytic Philosophy is the most impressive history of the analytic movement yet written, covering in detail its development from its inception in Cambridge at the turn of the century to what Hacker sees as its decline in the last two decades. Along the way, Hacker provides perceptive and original accounts of the impact of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus on the Viennese logical positivists, and of his Philosophical Investigations on post-war Oxford philosophy.

It is, however, his discussion in the last few chapters of why Wittgenstein’s work has been marginalised that will, I suspect, attract most attention. His answer is that, since the Seventies, analytical philosophers have become intoxicated by the pursuit of theory and have come to think of themselves as contributors to a more or less scientific endeavour. In doing so, they have abandoned the insights of Wittgenstein’s later work, which informed Oxford analytical philosophy during its ‘golden age’. Thus, what we have witnessed in the last few decades is ‘the decline of analytic philosophy in all but name’.

Hacker has written a history that serves in many ways as a corrective to Dummett’s. Taking up the latter’s river analogy, Hacker describes the process by which the ‘Cam flowed into the Isis’, the way, that is, in which the ideas of Moore, Russell and Wittgenstein were taken up at Oxford to produce the ‘fructifying waters of analytic philosophy in its last great, connective phase’. In the Seventies and Eighties, however, these waters ‘became increasingly muddied with the silt of misunderstood science and misconceived scientism’.

Where Dummett makes ‘the linguistic turn’ central to, and defining of, the analytic tradition, Hacker (who argues that the linguistic turn was taken not by Frege but by Wittgenstein) attaches similar importance to the separation between philosophy and science. In his chapter on the Tractatus, for example, he emphasises that ‘from the very beginning, Wittgenstein insisted upon a sharp distinction between philosophy and science’:

In neither its method nor its product is philosophy akin to the sciences. There can be no hypotheses in philosophy, or tentative approximations to the truth. The task of philosophy is not to describe the most general truths about the universe – that is the province of physics. Nor is it to describe the workings of the human mind – that is the province of psychology. It does not investigate the metaphysical nature of things and report its findings in special philosophical, a priori propositions, for there are no such things.

Similarly in his chapter on ‘the Achievement of the Investigations’, he argues: ‘If one had to choose one single fundamental insight from the whole corpus of Wittgenstein’s later work ... it should be the insight that philosophy contributes not to human knowledge, but to human understanding.’ Moreover, he stresses, Wittgenstein’s conception of understanding puts him at odds with ‘the spirit of the late 20th century, with its narrow, monistic conception of understanding modelled on scientific understanding, its craving for explanatory theories and its intoxication with scientific progress’.

Philosophers at Oxford were, Hacker points out, by and large, graduates in Literae Humaniores, and therefore better informed about Greek literature than they were about science, more likely to be intoxicated by the achievements of classical civilisation than those of modern physics. Bertrand Russell, a Cambridge man and a mathematician who disparaged the effects of a classical education, could enthusiastically campaign for ‘scientific method in philosophy’, and Rudolf Carnap, writing in a self-consciously Russellian vein, claim that ‘the new type of philosophy has arisen in close contact with the work of the special sciences, especially mathematics and physics. Consequently they have taken the strict and responsible orientation of the scientific investigator as their guideline for philosophical work.’ But Oxford philosophers like Ryle were unmoved by such sentiments (the dichotomy of ‘Nonsense or Science’, Ryle once remarked, contains too few ‘ors’), and, thus freed from the most pernicious form of philosophical confusion, were able to usher in a period of ’energy and creativity in philosophy such as had not been seen at Oxford since the Middle Ages’.

When Michael Dummett wrote his Origins of Analytical Philosophy, he was aware that some of his younger colleagues had abandoned what he regarded as the central insights of Frege and (therefore) the analytical tradition. The work, for example, of Gareth Evans and Christopher Peacocke, which seeks, to some extent, to analyse what it is to think about an object independently of language, strikes Dummett as a dangerous form of apostasy, threatening to undo the good work of Frege and throw philosophy back into a Husserlian mire of psychologism. Hacker’s book is written with a similar awareness of the dangers of apostasy, only, for him, the apostates include those who, like Dummett himself, believe that philosophy can and ought to be a systematic inquiry, a ‘quest for truth’ that has ‘a generally accepted methodology, generally accepted criteria of success and, therefore, a body of definitely achieved results’.

On Hacker’s view, philosophy may be systematic, but it is a quest for conceptual clarity and perspicuous understanding, not for truth. For him, the rot set in with the great influence exerted on Oxford philosophers by the ambition of the American philosopher, Donald Davidson, to construct a general, truth-functional-theory of meaning for natural languages. His chief target, however, is not Davidson himself, but his erstwhile teacher, W.V. Quine, whose ‘philosophy, if correct, brings analytic philosophy as depicted in this book to an end, for the conception that informs analytic philosophy (and has informed it since the Twenties) is inconsistent with that of Quine, who reverts to the earlier, Russellian phase of analytic philosophy which Wittgenstein criticised in the Tractatus.’

The claim that Quine is not an analytic philosopher is scarcely less startling than the earlier claim that Russell wasn’t one, but in a stimulating polemical chapter entitled ‘Post-positivism and Quine’s Apostasy’ Hacker justifies it by showing the radical incompatibility between Quine’s views and those of Wittgenstein and the Oxford philosophers of the Fifties. Central to analytical philosophy as Hacker understands it are the related distinctions between meaning and truth, knowledge and understanding, and science and philosophy. In Wittgenstein these appear as the fundamental distinction between grammatical propositions, which fix meanings, and empirical ones, which express truths. The philosopher’s task, on this account, is to identity confusions between the two: to point out, for example, that ‘2 + 2 = 4’ is a grammatical proposition, and that therefore, the philosopher’s search for the ‘truth’ it expresses is misconceived.

On Quine’s view, on the other hand, mathematical propositions are no different in kind from empirical ones: we accept truths about numbers for the same reason that we accept truths about physical objects, namely that, by doing so, we ‘expedite our dealings with sense experience’ in a satisfactory way. If either a mathematical or a physical belief proves to be unsatisfactory in this respect, we are free to reject it, though, in practice, we adopt an ‘understated policy of shielding mathematics by exercising our freedom to reject other beliefs instead’. For Quine, ‘truth is truth’, and does not come in different kinds. Our beliefs are, rather, embodied in a whole nexus which constitutes our science. Thus statements about the external world ‘face the tribunal of sense not individually but only as a corporate body’, and ‘the unit of empirical significance is the whole of science.’ Our philosophical beliefs are part of that nexus, and, to that extent, part of our science. In this way philosophy is ‘naturalised’, and the notion of conceptual analysis that Hacker believes to be central to analytic philosophy is dispelled. ‘If Quine is right,’ as Hacker puts it, ‘then analytic philosophy was fundamentally mistaken ... Contemporary philosophers who follow Quine have, in this sense, abandoned analytic philosophy.’ Accordingly, Hacker juxtaposes Quine’s views with Wittgenstein’s in the most detailed comparative study undertaken so far.

Hacker ends with a chapter on ‘The Decline of Analytic Philosophy’, in which he surveys the criticisms of Wittgenstein’s work put forward in the last twenty years and briefly charts the setting of Oxford’s philosophical sun and the corresponding rise of Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, Berkeley etc. He does not analyse in detail the work of Davidson, Kripke, Putnam and the other Americans who dominate contemporary philosophy, but notes sadly and summarily the baleful effect it has had in encouraging philosophers to think of themselves as ersatz scientists. Philosophy now ‘is concerned, no less than science, with theory construction, albeit at a higher level of generality’. What Hacker sees is a climate in which ‘science and the scientific spirit of investigation no longer needed defending, but only following, for it was triumphant’: ‘The thought that understanding in the humanities, in history, parts of psychology, economics and the social sciences, might not conform to the model of understanding in the physical sciences was rejected by mainstream Anglophone philosophy.’ And with it went the ‘new vision of new methods’ that had been Wittgenstein’s legacy.

One may, of course, quarrel with Hacker’s determination to reserve the title ‘analytic philosophy’ for work which stays true to this legacy. As he himself says, Quine’s work and the work inspired by it are close in spirit and motivation to that of Russell and Carnap, and one could choose to regard that as a single tradition, give it the name ‘analytic philosophy’ and find some other name for the tradition of Wittgenstein, Ryle and Austin. But Hacker has shown with great power and conviction the gulf that separates the two. ‘The works of the great masters are suns which rise and set around us,’ Wittgenstein once wrote. ‘The time will come for every great work that is now in the descendent to rise again.’ Hacker’s hope in writing this informative, and moving, book is that these words will one day apply to Wittgenstein’s own work.