concept pages: copyright Robert Ellis 2010

Grammatical scientism

This term is one I have devised to describe the respect in which the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, despite its advances on contemporaries, is scientistic (and thus nihilistic and dualistic). Wittgenstein was a highly original philosopher, but not insightful enough to overcome the underlying weaknesses of the analytic style of philosophy from which his approach evolved.

First it is important to recap the related terms on which the idea of 'grammatical scientism' builds. Firstly, dualism can be understood as an approach to belief that unnecessarily promotes false metaphysical oppositions, in the process making ethics impossible to justify. Nihilism is the type of dualism that offers no justification for ethics beyond social convention or individual preference, because the metaphysical bases for ethics offered by eternalism are rejected, and it is assumed that the only alternatives to such metaphysical foundations for ethics are social convention or individual preference. One common type of nihilism is scientism, which rejects any universal basis for ethics because of the fact-value distinction. Scientism assumes that facts have an objectivity that values cannot have, and since values cannot be validly deduced from facts it is assumed that values must be purely subjective - a matter of convention or individual preference. Scientistic assumptions about ethics have dominated analytic philosophy during the past century.

The logical positivist movement (out of which Wittgenstein emerged in early twentieth century Vienna and Cambridge) asserted the reliability of facts over values by asserting that facts were meaningful because they could be verified through experience, whilst values, along with other supposedly metaphysical claims, could not. The early Wittgenstein developed a similar philosophy based on an appeal to the basic components of experience to provide meaning. The more original philosophy of the later Wittgenstein, however, moved on from this early position to avoid any direct appeal to experience. Instead, Wittgenstein appealed to the 'depth grammar' that structures the meaning of the language we use as the basis of his analysis.

I am not going to go any further into the workings and content of Wittgenstein's analysis of 'depth grammar' here (though more can be read in part 4e of 'A Buddhist Theory of Moral Objectivity'), as the crucial point is about the uses he put it to - which were no different from those of previous scientistic philosophers. Wittgenstein assumed the fact-value distinction as much as any other analytic philosophy, though with a difference in style: instead of being dismissive about ethics he held it in exaggerated, mystical respect. However, this emphasises the dualism between facts and values just as much as the dismissive attitude of logical positivists such as A.J.Ayer. For Wittgenstein, any attempt to justify universal ethics would be meaningless, because it would be an attempt to put into words that which should not be put into words. To 'give philosophy peace' we should stop trying to talk about ethics and thus, in his terms, deceiving ourselves that we are doing so. However, if we stop trying to talk about ethics, we are left only with relative conventions and preferences to justify our actions, so Wittgenstein's absolutisation of ethics has the effect of relativising it.

Wittgenstein's justification for sidelining ethics relies only on the dogmatic assertion of the 'depth grammar' he believes he has access to, and his 'grammatical' analysis is only superficially pragmatic, depending as it does on the assertion that the meaning of a term is only its use in a social context of linguistic interaction. This means that meaning cannot be extended beyond existing social conventions, and any attempt to extend meaning beyond these bounds is dismissed, very much in the style of the logical positivists, as meaningless. Wittgenstein's dogmatic assumptions about meaning here go far beyond experience, because in experience cognitive meaning is constantly intertwined with emotional, and social meanings constantly interact with internal reflection.

Many thinkers seem to be deceived by Wittgenstein's rhetorical strategies: his denial of order or structure in his rambling works in numbered paragraphs, his use of such an apparently functional term as 'grammar', and his obvious individuality of vision. However, Wittgenstein's approach to philosophy is no less narrow than that of many of his contemporaries, and certainly just as disastrous for ethics. His appeal to 'depth grammar' is just as dogmatic and metaphysical as any revelation from God, and his refusal of all system an indicator of a failure to think through the wider implications of his position rather than the bold philosophical anarchism some have taken it to be. We should not be bewitched by language, as Wittgenstein himself said, but neither should we be bewitched by Wittgenstein.

Links to related discussion:

Wittgenstein (from thesis)

Analytic philosophy (from thesis)

A palace built on sand


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