David Edmonds
John Eidinow

Wittgenstein's Poker

Often Wittgenstein refused to discuss philosophy and would insist on reciting poetry—his favourite lines at this time came from the work of the Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore. The crystalline purity and understated spirituality of Tagore's poetry were probably the qualities that Wittgenstein found so attractive. He preferred to read facing the wall. And, as his imprisoned audience of logicians stared at his back, trying hard not to let their impatience show, it might have begun to dawn on them that they had misinterpreted their messiah's message.
My poet's vanity dies in shame before thy sight.
O master poet, I have sat down at thy feet.
Only let me make my life simple and straight
Like a flute of reed for thee to fill with music.
To the world of philosophy, one powerful appeal of the Vienna Circle stemmed from their simple, basic tenet that there were only two types of valid statement. There were those which were true or false by virtue of the meaning of their own terms: statements such as 'All bachelors are unmarried men,' equations such as '2+2=4,' and logical inferences such as 'All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal.' And there were those which were empirical and open to verification: 'Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius,' 'The world is flat' (which, being open to verification, is meaningful even if false).

All other statements were, to the Circle, literally meaningless. Thus, since it was impossible to verify whether God existed, religious pronouncements were sent smartly to the intellectual rubbish bin—where metaphysics, too, consequently belonged. In with this 'garbage' went pronouncements about aesthetics, ethics and the meaning of life. Statements such as 'Murder is wrong,' 'One should always be honest' and 'Picasso is a superior artist to Monet' could really be understood only as the expression of personal judgements: 'I disapprove of murder,' 'In my opinion people should always tell the truth,' 'I prefer Picasso to Monet.' 'Everything is accessible to man,' proclaimed the Circle's manifesto. 'Man is the measure of all things.'

The main function of philosophy, they held, was not to indulge in metaphysics but to sharpen and clarify the concepts employed by the scientist. The scientists were the all-important players on the pitch. The philosopher merely assisted the team by analysing the tactics of the game. Philosophy would always be subordinate to science.

However, things could not be that simple, even in the Circle's own terms. If statements were deemed meaningful because they were open to verification, what counted as verification? In the Circle's early days, much of its members, energy was taken up with determining that. For instance, how could the maxim 'The meaning of a proposition is the method by which it is verified' be adapted to encompass historical propositions such as 'William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings'? The Vienna Circle believed that science should generate predictions, which could be put to the test. But what verifiable predictions are made by a statement about the Norman Conquest of 1066?

One answer was that the range of tools traditionally at the historian's disposal—archives, correspondence, archaeological evidence, oral testimony, etc.—were the historian's equivalent of the scientist's Bunsen burner, tripod and test tube, supplying evidence which substantiated one theory rather than another. Moreover, historic propositions did yield predictions, in the sense that if a proposition was true, one would expect that any related evidence that subsequently turned up would corroborate it.

In years to come, the claim that historical statements gained their meaning only because they were in principle verifiable would strike many people as bizarre. To squeeze all apparently meaningful propositions into this verificationist straitjacket seemed artificial. It meant for example, weighing propositions about other minds ('Hennie has a headache') solely in terms of the evidence for and against the proposition itself ('Does Hennie request aspirin?') The alternative, common-sense, view is that a claim such as 'Every time the room is emptied of people, the furniture in the room vaporizes (to reappear when they return)' is meaningful: it makes sense, despite being impossible to verify. Even within the Circle there was growing scepticism about the verification principle, which was abandoned almost altogether by the mid-1950s. And later, when A. J. Ayer was asked about the failings of the movement he would answer, 'Well I suppose that the most important of the defects was that nearly all of it was false.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Through Eden took their solitary way.