Return to pragmatism

Three years ago, I wrote a post about measuring the quality of an idea by it’s usefulness or utility. Specifically, I applied that measure to religion. Lately, I’ve found the essays of Paul Graham, who is a former philosophy student who got lost in the field of information technology, like me. In fact, he got so lost, he earned a Ph.D. in computer science! Like my post, his essay, “How to Do Philosophy“, advocates for usefulness to measure the quality of ideas. He claims that most philosophers since Aristotle have been wasting their time chasing ideas that aren’t useful. This is an interesting idea, since eminent philosophers like Heidegger and Wittgenstein have decried the end of philosophy for decades now.

In my post about “Turns“, I puzzled over why Heidegger and Wittgenstein changed their minds, or “flip-flopped”. Having spent several months re-reading Heidegger’s books, Being & Time, and Time & Being, as well as Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and his later work, I think there is a connection between viewing the quality of philosophy by its usefulness and the “Turns” of these philosophical heavy-weights. I’ll try to elaborate on that connection.

Graham’s “How to Do Philosophy” claims that philosophers have attempted to find the most general ideas that adequately explain an event or object, but in chasing that goal, they’ve fallen into a trap of studying things that don’t matter to people. What’s more, philosophers have a language problem that makes their job very difficult: in his essay, Graham illustrates how language obstructs our view of philosophical concepts because language is an imprecise tool, which he draws from Wittgenstein’s later writing. In other words, language allows for different meanings to apply to the same words, which makes it hard to tell someone exactly what you mean to say. Heidegger’s Being and Time is a case in point: in a sentence, the book is hundreds of pages dedicated to explaining the difference between the noun, “being”, and the verb, “to be”, and at the end, it is unclear whether Heidegger has made his point.

This difficulty of language is behind the Turns of Heidegger and Wittgenstein. The early works of Heidegger and Wittgenstein attempt to capture the essence of some concept: for Heidegger, it is the existence of a human being, for Wittgenstein, it is the logical structure of language. Both philosophers wrote their early books in their 20’s in the 1920’s, when Logical Positivism and the bold belief that “scientific thinking” would make short work of the world’s problems, including the problems of existence and language.

The combination of youthful over-confidence and Logical Positivism produced favorable conditions for making big claims about complicated ideas, but their studies don’t “replicate” very well. In other words, people haven’t been able to use the methods and conclusions of Being and Time and The Tractatus to either reconfirm Heidegger’s and Wittgenstein’s ideas or develop them further. The existentialists who followed Heidegger didn’t enact a scientific method of phenomenology, as Heidegger had hoped, because there wasn’t a method spelled-out in great detail anywhere in Being and Time. Heidegger’s phenomenological method that he used to build the elaborate conceptual structure of Being and Time produced different results each time another philosopher took it up and used it: Levinas’s and Sartre’s writing don’t resemble Heidegger’s early work. In the end, Heidegger’s method wasn’t much of a method; rather, it was a loose description of how to pay attention to to the world, you might say it is a 20th Century German attempt to replicate the 4th Century Buddhist Abhidharma perceptual system. At the other extreme, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus is built on a surgically precise logical structure. In that book, language is conceived as an aggregation of logical facts that can be stated about the world. Consequently, the young Wittgenstein thinks that the world is a collection of facts: he conflates physical objects, a human’s observations of physical objects, and the “facts” made about those observations. Doing this cuts off the world’s limbs to save the head. In other words, Wittgenstein’s linguistic analysis of the observable world reduces things to true linguistic statements, and consequently, he almost certainly misses many important details of the “fact” he seeks to describe because his analysis would deem them “meaningless”.

I think that the philosophical replication problem caused Heidegger and Wittgenstein to change their minds. In both cases, there seems to be an over-abundance of rationality and rigidity early in their writing careers, which gives way to a looser, broader, perspective in their later works. Both writers attempt to fit the world into a conceptual box, and they don’t mind cutting off important parts of the world to make it fit. Reducing their perceptions of the world to only the ones that fit their case makes their cases either useless or uninteresting for later thinkers, since later philosophers heavily modified or rejected the methods and conclusions in Being and Time and the Tractatus. I find it fascinating that after living a few more decades, both Heidegger and Wittgenstein changed their respective tunes, and their later works are much less precise, and much more searching and open-minded. The tone of the essays in Time and Being has the feeling of a blind person feeling about, searching for a lost object. Similarly, Wittgenstein’s later descriptions of loose groupings of word meanings contrast with his early precise definitions of facts and objects. It seems that, after failing to capture the world in the traps they designed in their younger years, Heidegger and Wittgenstein became content to build less restrictive enclosures to contain their more mature observations. And at least in Wittgenstein’s case, his later ideas are much more useful. Linguistics and the Philosophy of Language still rely on his later work more than they do on the ideas in The Tractatus. Heidegger’s later work is less talked about than his earlier work, but while phenomenology is still studied, his early work is not taken to be true: psychologists and neurologists do not use on Heidegger’s phenomenological work to conduct their research. Moreover, later phenomenological research, like that of Levinas or Sartre, is similar to the vague, searching language that Heidegger used in his later work: to my knowledge, nobody has attempted to design another Kantian-esque framework in which to hang the definitive typology of existence.

All of this is an attempt to reinforce the point that Graham made in his essay, and that I made in my earlier post. Those ideas that are useful, tend to get picked up by later thinkers and developed further. This happened to both Wittgenstein and Heidegger, and we find that current thinking about their ideas resembles their later work, rather than their earlier work. In philosophy, as in religion, I think the metric of our quality and success ought to be, “What can we do with this?”, “Is it useful?”, rather than, “Is this true?” Often, truth and utility end up converging to be the same thing.


1 thought on “Return to pragmatism

  1. SkepticMeditations

    Good to read and see your post. I’m not convinced entirely that a pragmatic or utilitarian approach ought to be the measure of value or worth of philosophy, morality, or any other endeavor. But I agree that philosophy and ethics, is an important topic in our present-day society, and appears little discussed or of interest. Shame.

    I think the activity of philosophy and ethics ought not to be a separate domain but integrated (consciously) into our everyday lives and aspirations. Everyone has a philosophy and ethics, just maybe not used with much awareness or intention.

    How to do that–as you emphasized in your post, to make it practical–I’d argue through practicing and thinking through philosophy and ethics. Easier said than done, but necessary if we are to survive and evolve as a society, a species.


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