Wittgenstein and Scientific Knowledge: A Sociological Perspective

Hertz and Wittgenstein's Philosophy of Science
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Dewey was, like the pragmatist movement in general, keenly optimistic about the possibility of making the world a better place. He advocated the power of reflection and praised the progress of experimental science as a paradigm for reflective thinking, inquiry , in general. Wittgenstein was a cultural pessimist. It would be superficial to simply dismiss them, especially if one adopts a pragmatic way of thinking.

If the primacy of practice has any value, then it is to remind us that the way we do things is not secondary to the things done. But then, of course, it would be equally superficial just to take these first impressions at face value. My thesis is that they point to a more substantial difference, one which concerns the very core of their philosophies.

Why should we put our trust in experience and action, as Dewey invites us? The problem is: What is it that we expect from philosophy, what do we want to learn from engaging in it? What knowledge, or what kind of knowledge, does philosophy provide? In particular: What kind of knowledge does the appeal to practice provide? Their being classified as belonging to one broad family of pragmatists owes a great deal to the fact that they develop quite parallel views of what knowledge is, and what it cannot be.

Stanley Cavell had a good eye for that. Varying upon a theme that he has more systematically exposed in the first part of his Claim of Reason, Cavell uses the subject of knowledge in order to demonstrate what he means by this. Cavell 3. These two conclusions do not only align with the differences in philosophical outlook with which this paper began — Dewey putting his trust in science and progress, Wittgenstein mistrusting it deeply. It will also explain, I believe, their differences in style and finally in method.

These certainties point to other ways we are related to the world and to others. For him, our practical standing in the world is not primary upheld by practically acquired certainties, but by the dynamic net of responses, expectations and disappointments in which we are embedded. Knowledge and inquiry, from this point of view, lose their sovereign position as the most serious game in the town. There is, for one, his straight rejection of a philosophical tradition which conceives of knowledge in terms that are all too high and too theoretical.

Following the well-trodden path of religion, philosophy had detached theoretical activities from practice, placing itself firmly on the side of theory. Knowledge, then, is thought of as being something immutable, something which ideally does not change and thus provides us with insights into reality as it is. It establishes a certainty which is beyond all doubt. The knowledge it seeks, Dewey claims, cannot be had because we cannot rid ourselves of uncertainty.

Wittgenstein and scientific knowledge

This is not a direct refutation of the traditional claim, since it leaves intact the possibility that we shift the grounds. If we drop that prejudice, we will see that the separation between knowledge and action has no real grounds — theory is also an activity. What has changed is the ground upon which we assert the value of knowledge.

It helps us to see that we do, as a matter of fact , possess quite numerous certainties. There is knowledge; but it cannot be found where philosophy has looked for it. It is embodied in those impure and ordinary works of artisanry which have been ignored by the tradition. These men and women just act, and in acting, they devise tools, understanding and values. Science, for Dewey, is important because it best exemplifies the general pattern exhibited by these practical activities. The tremendous success of science is not based on its superior mode of reflection or ratiocination in the way traditional philosophy understands it, but rather on its picking up the impure methods and practical inclinations of artisanry.

This pattern, as it is well known, is called inquiry. If the topic in question is knowledge, we have to go and look at the actual procedures in which knowledge is gained.

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Instead of defining knowledge beforehand and then looking for its manifestations, we will rather gain a better understanding of what we are actually looking for by first looking at the practices in which knowledge is operative. Rather, it is the ordinary use — embodied in actual practice — which shows us how the phenomenon in question is really to be taken. Knowledge, for Dewey, is not just some conception among others to which we can turn.

For Dewey, such a claim comes close to a definition of what knowledge can sensibly be. The second point is that inquiry, as Dewey understands it, is always a response to an objectively problematic situation. Inquiry is not an idle, isolated activity. It is an essential part in our struggle to cope with all the uncertainties that permeate our practical activities.

We are obliged to inquire. But Dewey expands this pattern to include those elaborated practices by which we consciously try to solve problems. To be sure, there is a decisive difference between these two poles of inquiry: intellectual inquiry is dependent on the use of language, broadly understood as the capacity to use signs which embody meaning.

It allows the inquiring subject to relate the currently experienced traits of the situation to past and future ones; it introduces rational discourse and the capacity to form distinctive ideas about what to expect and what to do. But that modification, though it introduces a significant qualitative change, is according to Dewey but an extension of the original organic disposition towards reflective interaction with the environment.

Inquiry is hardwired into our biological and cultural pattern of life; it is the principal instrument of survival. It is the origin of all the certainties we have at our disposal. If there is some stability and knowledge in a world that condemns us to act at our own peril, it is the result of the inquiries which permeate our organic life and which define our current place in history.

For the tradition, the quest for peace has been directed towards the objects of knowledge. For Dewey, reassurance can be found in the truth of inquiry. In submitting all knowledge to situational inquiry, Dewey creates a stable frame wherein the content of inquiry might change, but in its very form it remains stable. His whole philosophical outlook is based on the idea that every practical activity is threatened by uncertainty; we live in an instable world in which we cannot attain the kind of knowledge the tradition has looked for.

But at the same time, this very contingency also forms our capacity to reflect. Inquiry itself is not a contingent practice, but the very pattern by which life upholds itself. Inquiry and contingency are two sides of the same coin. Martin Kusch , Vienna. Charles Travis , King's College London.

Michael Williams , Johns Hopkins. Alexandra Dias Fortes and Ricardo N. A call for a Research Fellowship is launched by the project on 8 August Preprint version. Final version. Henriques, Ricardo N. In Nuno Venturinha ed. A book about Wittgenstein is surely in many ways dependent for its existence on our interaction with some parts of reality. And so are ships, houses, music-boxes, and many other things.

Wittgenstein and scientific knowledge : a sociological perspective

We can discover them, but we also create them. In this sense many things are dependent as well as created by us. But that is not the sense which Trigg has in mind. He is perhaps speaking about reality in itself, or reality in general, or reality as a whole. Whatever that may be, and in whatever way it is not dependent and not created by us, social scientists simply do not investigate reality in itself, or reality in general, or reality as a whole.

Social scientist investigate the ways people build and observe houses, build ships, and use music-boxes. What should be explained, then, is at least how these plebeian parts of ordinary reality are linked to reality in itself. Because in most cases scientists are not in doubt in which sense something is in dependent, and not created. And where they are in doubt, they normally try to develop scientific methods and criteria for deciding the question. What about the lion: it is of course not reality in itself, but perhaps, as a member of a natural kind, it is somewhat closer to reality than our examples of artificial products?

What I can assume when I see a lion as well as when I see a house may be debatable. But what is it to "react accordingly without being inducted into the practices of a society"?


If somebody sees a lion in the zoo and runs away, crying for help - is that person then seeing the lion for what it is and reacting accordingly? If the example of the lion is supposed to be an example of the philosophy favored by Trigg, it is a bad one.

If it is a good example at all, then it is an example in favour of Wittgenstein. This becomes more obvious, even for the case of seeing, when one substitutes "a solemn ceremony in Westminster Abbey" for "a lion" in Trigg's proposition. I am in at least one sense dependent for my existence on my father, but I am distinct from him.

Yet my father and I belong still, so to say, to the same ontological realm. One can compare my father and me, whether there is, for instance, any resemblance in our appearances.

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One can also ask whether the fact that I am a mechanic is dependent on the fact that my father is a watchmaker. Maybe, and maybe not. And again, my father as a watchmaker and I as a mechanic belong to the same ontological realm. But what if one would say: Music is in its existence both independent of and distinct from sugar beets? Here one could answer that music and sugar beets do not belong to the same ontological realm.

Module 01 - Philosophical and sociological perspectives: Basic assumptions

And that would mean: one cannot compare it like one can compare fathers and sons, mechanics and watchmakers. There is no possibility for a relevant and meaningful comparison between music and sugar beets. Here one could perhaps say that music is in no sense dependent for its existence on sugar beets. But then "in no sense dependent" is the same as "in no sense not dependent", and not the same as "independent", as this concept is normally used. Otherwise the result is nonsense, or something like a grammatical proposition. Now, do societies the nature of societies, social realities and investigators belong to the same ontological realm?

If "society" is taken in the sense of "community" one can try to become a member of a society, but one cannot try to become a member of an investigator. That is not impossible, because it would be very hard for people to become members of an investigator. Hence, in "x is a member of y" there is no meaningful and relevant substitution for "x" with "y" representing "investigator" - as opposed to "society". Similar considerations can be made for "x is born in y", "x is happy in y", and others. If we take "society" in the sense of "complex of social relations", instead of "community", the problem is much easier to solve.

The moral: a society or the nature of a society, or social reality does not belong to the same ontological realm as an investigator. Therefore, to say that for knowledge to be possible in the field of social science, the nature of a society has to be regarded as distinct from the investigator is like comparing music and sugar beets. Trigg speaks about observing a system in a detached way, because continually interacting with it would make the acquisition of knowledge impossible. But is this true?

Wittgenstein and scientific knowledge. A sociological perspective

Is a watchmaker interacting with a clock when he turns it around, trying to see how it works? Or is this no interaction? Is he then interacting with the clock when he takes it apart? If this is interaction, it is by no means clear why he should not be able to observe the mechanism of the clock. On the contrary, to turn the clock around in your hands, or taking it apart, may well be necessary conditions for observing the clock with the aim of finding out how its mechanism works.

Those who now feel like saying that a clock is not a system, should remember that biologists and chemists are interacting in many more ways with things that are paradigms for systems. And surely they acquire knowledge, even if it may be difficult to separate the influence of the scientist. But there are many different ways of interacting, some leaving this aspect of the system as it naturally is, some other aspects.

In this sense, Trigg's remarks are simply false, and one does not have to be a philosopher of science to see that. But things like these are surely not what Trigg has in mind. What he wants to stress are concepts of interaction and system, according to which a system would behave differently if we interact with it. And the interaction would render the system's normal behavior inexplicable. But taken in this way Trigg's proposition is like a part of an explaining theory with concepts defined within the context of the theory.

But then it is not clear how the theory could explain e. Alternatively, the proposition is a definition of a word. Such definitions cannot be judged as true or false, but as fruitful or not fruitful. For some cases at least, Trigg's definition is not fruitful, as we have seen. What does it mean to say that we no longer take society's assumptions for granted? Which assumptions? All, or only some of them? If only some of them, one wants to know which of them, and why not the others.

What could be the criterion? If all of them, we arrive at the Cartesian doubt. But what then about the "natural picture"? Can each individual think clearly, or only I? Do I have different determinate experiences, or only the experience that I know clearly that I am in doubt?

Wittgenstein, Dewey, and the Practical Foundation of Knowledge

But again, that is surely not what Trigg means. Yet, instead of using ordinary words in a metaphysical manner, he now uses ordinary words in an ordinary manner, coupled with the "dialectical" phrase of "simultaneously grasping and distancing". Even if Trigg's metaphysics can be criticized as in the above section, he could well be right in his critique of Wittgenstein. So, let us take a closer look at it.

It sounds as if there are two theses, and the social scientist, looking for proper foundations for his actions, could choose. But this picture is wrong. Neither are the two claims "on the same level", nor are both claims theses. Wittgenstein writes: "In what sense are my sensations private? In which sense is this false, and in which sense is this nonsense? The second part of the proposition beginning with "Well" is false. The first part of the same proposition is nonsense: "It can't be said of me at all except perhaps as a joke that I know I am in pain. What is it supposed to mean - except perhaps that I am in pain" [ PI ].

So one must make a distinction within Trigg's phrase of the "individual private experience": experiences are something that individuals have, but they are not private in the sense of the first part of Wittgenstein's proposition above. And this sense is the philosophically important sense for the "natural picture". One could well say that individual experiences are the basis for our concepts -- if that means that without individuals having experiences there would be no concepts. Of Mr. And that is the correct answer" [ PI ]. But being able to have experiences and opinions means that an individual is able to master a social practice.

Therefore I have just not thought or said even something indeterminate about myself and the world "until it has been mediated by the rule governed practice of our shared life", as Trigg says. In this sense there is no stress on the social instead of the individual. But there is also no stress on the public instead of the private, when taken in the way we normally use "instead of".

The concept of the mind as something private is nonsensical, not false. And therefore the remarks on the public character of mental states and processes are not a thesis which one could choose instead of the thesis that mental states and processes are private.

Is there a possibility in Wittgenstein's later philosophy to concede that "one may be right and everyone else wrong"? Notice first that this remark is imprecise. Who is "everyone else"? Is the question whether of three, four, or one hundred people with an opinion on question Q, one is or may be right and the other two, three, or ninetynine are or may be wrong? Or is the question whether in a community one may be right and everyone else in that community may be wrong, whatever may be the question? Trigg himself points to PI where Wittgenstein says: "So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?

That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life. Rather more important for Trigg's position is the next section: "If language is to be a means of communication there must be agreement not only in definitions but also queer as this may sound in judgments" [ PI ]. If some people were to measure the length of a table, and one said that it is 2 meters long, whereas the others said it is 3 meters long, it could well be the case that only the one is right. But if there were no agreement at all whenever anybody would measured the length of the table, the procedure of measuring would lose its point.

There is, then, surely the possibility in Wittgenstein's later philosophy that one may be right and everyone else may be wrong; but not in each case at every time in each question. First, it seems to presuppose that we can never stay inside all language-games and talk rationally. That may well be. In other words, it could be the case that the predicate "rational" is not meaningfully applicable to all language-games and activities. For instance the language-games of singing catches, cursing, and praying, listed by Wittgenstein in PI 23, may belong to the group of such language-games.

However a person prays, we will hardly say that he prays rationally or not rationally, but rather e. But Trigg's remark, to make a point at all, must presuppose the stronger claim that we cannot stay in any language-game and talk rationally.

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For, if we could at the same time be in a language-game and talk rationally, the metaphysical foundation of an "unconstrained and unprejudiced reason" would lose half of its attraction. So, does Trigg's argument mean, for instance, that we cannot talk rationally while playing the games of describing the appearances of an object, or that of reporting an event, or speculating about an event, listed by Wittgenstein PI 23?

Is Trigg saying that whatever a social scientist is doing when he describes the appearance of an object, reports an event, or speculates about an event, he is not engaged in the language-games of describing, reporting, or speculating, because what he is doing may be rational?