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Why was the "queen of the sciences" (Kant) banished for a time from the universities? Was Wittgenstein's work responsible for this?

"Metaphysics was not taught at Harvard ..."

Outline of this page ...


Background: The lectures of Henry Veatch

There was at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in those days (sc. 1979) a professor named Henry Veatch. He had written books that were in the university library, and one of those books is mentioned in Guthrie's Aristotle. Guthrie mentions Veatch's book about Aristotle several times and says that Veatch presents Aristotle as "a philosopher of common sense" (which means or appears to mean "of the consensus" -- i.e. of "what all men believe" -- for that standard belongs to Aristotle's method), although to those who attended Veatch's lectures it often sounded like either common or uncommon nonsense.

Veatch would exclaim in his lectures about Aristotle's Metaphysics: "It's just common sense!" And he would contrast that with what Veatch took to be Waismann's characterization of metaphysics as "visions", by which word it was not clear what Veatch meant; he would shake his head and say "these visions" and contrast that with Aristotle's metaphysics which, Veatch said, was "just common sense". But Waismann applied his words to all philosophers, including Aristotle: "What is decisive is a new way of seeing ["vision in philosophy"] and, what goes with it, the will to transform the whole intellectual scene" (Friedrich Waismann, "How I See Philosophy" (1956)). Maybe Veatch did not think that characterization applied in the case of Aristotle. I don't know if he did.

Aristotle as a philosopher of common sense, of what mankind intuitively accepts as obvious, is the leading theme of a recent book by H.B. Veatch, A[ristotle].: a Contemporary Appreciation (1974). (W.K.C. Guthrie, Aristotle: an encounter (1981), p. 91n2)

When is a consensus not a consensus? For no one was more opposed to the vox populi than was Veatch, who was convinced that he was persecuted for swimming against the current in philosophy. But, yes, when is a consensus not a consensus? Are most human beings blind to "common sense"? The last time I saw Professor Veatch he walked straight past me, face rigidly turned forward, as if he did not recognize me. But he did: I was the enemy.

I thought it was sad, because I think he would have been a very good teacher; he read the papers we wrote for him carefully, because he made helpful comments on them. He told me that I could take the position that Aristotle's metaphysical statements were "analytic propositions" (That was the only tool I had for determining meaning in those early days: analytic, synthetic: any proposition was either one or the other), but he said I had to argue for it (i.e. philosophy wasn't simply different ways of looking at things, in his view). -- If only he had not had that tremendous chip on his shoulder.

But most of that is by way of an aside. Because the topic of this page is Veatch's statement that in early in the 20th Century "metaphysics was not taught at Harvard", the University, and for that -- Veatch blamed Wittgenstein, whose very name Veatch despised (maybe even hated), always uttering it with contempt. But did Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921; 1922 in English translation) have anything much to do with that, if it had anything to do with it at all (In any case, the Vienna Circle read into Wittgenstein's "highly syncopated" text what it wanted to read there, for the Circle was positivist whereas Wittgenstein's book was not: the "verification principle of meaning" was universally applied in philosophy by Moritz Schlick, but not by Wittgenstein) -- for was it not Kant who abolished metaphysics (What is the relation of Pragmatism to Kant, by the way)?

In any case, it appeared to me from Veatch's lectures that Aristotle's metaphysical propositions were what the later work of Wittgenstein, which could have had no effect on Harvard in the years Veatch was speaking of, called "rules of grammar" (which may appear akin to Kant's "analytic truths" but Wittgenstein's concept 'grammar' is very different, for Kant's "truths" are for Wittgenstein mere conventions of language) -- when they were not simply nonsense (i.e. what Aristotle called "mere sounds without sense"), that is. [Cf. PP iii, p. 312]


Philosophy at the Sorbonne in the early years of the 20th Century

All that was recalled to mind by what Etienne Gilson has written in his The Philosopher and Theology (1962), tr. Cecile Gilson, about the Sorbonne (University of Paris) circa (I think) 1904-1907 (p. 35; note that Gilson was born in 1884 and would have been about 20 years old in 1904).

To insure all the more scrupulously its religious "neutrality", our masters [i.e. professors at the university] restricted philosophy to those disciples which, tending to establish themselves into so many separate sciences, broke away more and more completely from all metaphysics and even more from all religion. Psychology became both physiology and psychiatry, logic was methodology, ethics gave way to the science des moeurs; sociology tried to do away with even the master questions of metaphysics by interpreting them as the collective representations they were supposed to be.

No chair of metaphysics, of course; still, since it is awkward to maintain in a university a department of philosophy without having something to put under this word, an answer to the problem was found in the decision to teach, by way of philosophy, that there is no such thing as philosophy. (p. 36)

... ever since the reformation achieved by Kant and [Auguste] Comte, all preceding philosophies had been rendered obsolete. (p. 38)

[But even to] teach philosophy as though metaphysics does not exist is itself a philosophical program. Thus the Critique of Pure Reason became the charter of a philosophical training of which it fully justified the negativist direction.... They used to the same purpose the so-called absolute positivism, which did not even go to the trouble of philosophizing in order to prove that one should not philosophize.... Born of the disintegration of Comtism, "absolute positivism" was more a state of mind than a doctrine. It simply took it for granted that, apart from the positive sciences, there was no knowledge worthy of the name. This did not even need to be proved: it was evident.

In the end both criticism [i.e. Kant] and scientific positivism [But it was "the positivism of Littré rather than that of Comte" that was taught (p. 39)] agreed on this point, of paramount importance in their eyes, that the problems of the world, of the soul, and of God were out of date. (p. 36-37)


But why did Henry Veatch blame Wittgenstein for that?

For you could not say about the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that it "simply took it for granted that, apart from the positive sciences, there was no knowledge worthy of the name. This did not even need to be proved: it was evident." You cannot say that about the TLP, because the TLP claims to prove just that point, that there is nothing that can be put into words "apart from the positive sciences" (i.e. natural science) -- but it proves it through its way of looking at (or, conception of) the logic of our language (and thus it is neither Kantian nor Comtian).

It was indeed Wittgenstein's view that the problems "of the soul, and of God were out of date" as philosophical problems -- but only because he believed that he had proved that to talk about them was to talk "nonsense" -- i.e. to try to say what cannot be said, cannot even be put into words (for only the language of the natural sciences can be put into words). That was an the eccentric definition of 'nonsense', of course, because nonsense that can convey meaning is not nonsense -- and to say that "God does not reveal himself in the world" [6.432; cf. 6.44: "it is that the world exists that is the mystical"] is not a babble of words simply because it is not a proposition of the natural sciences. (It's a strange proposition that cannot be said -- and yet which is said in the very book that says it can't be said: when is to say not to say? Only when the word 'say' is defined eccentrically.)

Knowledge can only be of things that are in the world, because language (and therefore thought, according to the TLP), whether in science or in philosophy, can only talk about what is in the world. But Wittgenstein's view came much later in time than the time Gilson is talking about, and it will also have been much later than the time of which Veatch had said "They did not teach metaphysics at Harvard".

Comte's Positivism

In the final, the positive state, the mind has given over the vain search after Absolute notions, the origin and destination of the universe, and the causes of phenomena, and applies itself to the study of their laws -- that is, their invariable relations of succession and resemblance.

Now, each of us is aware, if he looks back upon his own history, that he was a theologian in his childhood, a metaphysician in his youth, and a natural philosopher in his manhood. All men who are up to their age can verify this for themselves. (The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte [Cours de philosophie positive (1830-42)], ed. and tr. Martineau [1855])

But it can't be said of Wittgenstein that he had "given over the vain search after Absolute notions ...", but only that he had given over (although he seems never to have begun) any metaphysical-philosophical search for them. They were the "what cannot be put into words" of the TLP. In Comte's scheme of things, if I understand it (and I doubt that I do), Wittgenstein might be said either to never have been in or to never have left the "theological state". On the other hand, one might say that Wittgenstein's later work was done in Comte's positive state: "We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place" (PI § 109).

We make classification schemes with some purpose in mind. Was Comte's purpose to sort out our common concepts -- or to sort out reality? His scheme appears, at least to me, to be thinking according to a thesis -- i.e. every peg must be hammered into its holes, regardless of whether it fits naturally or not.

For example, Comte's scheme seems to have no place for a "religious, but not theoretical state", although that state too is a "search after Absolute notions". It strikes me also that Comte is wrong when he says, or I think he says, when he speaks of "the law of human development", that the mind cannot go back from the positive state to either the metaphysical or theological states. Life rather suggests that it can and does in some, possibly many cases. And in other cases, it never "progresses" to the "positive state": not everyone is drawn in that direction, e.g. Wittgenstein: "scientific questions ... never really grip me" (CV p. 79 [cf. MS 138 5b: 21.1.1949]), and it does seem to me that science, and not merely a description of the facts, is what Comte is calling "positivism".

[Norman Malcolm wrote that before going to Cambridge University in 1938:] About Wittgenstein I knew nothing. At Harvard [c. 1937-38] he was regarded as a mysterious figure who was supposed to be the guiding spirit of the Vienna Circle and also a dangerously nihilistic influence on philosophy. It was known that he was the author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus but I don't believe that the work was studied at Harvard at that time. Something of the Harvard attitude towards Wittgenstein is conveyed by the following anecdote: Before departing for England I went to say goodbye to Henry Sheffer, the logician [inventor of the "Sheffer stroke"]. He said to me, in a mocking tone, that when I met Wittgenstein, I should make a low bow and exclaim, "There is but one Tautology and Wittgenstein is its Prophet!" (A Memoir, 2nd ed., Malcolm's prefatory Note to Wittgenstein's letters, p. 86)

I wonder if when Veatch said that "metaphysics was not taught at Harvard", he did not mean that Aristotle's metaphysics was not taught there.

It may be (but therefore it may also not be) this way, that why Veatch hated Wittgenstein was because Veatch hated mathematical logic. But that logic was invented by Peano, Frege and Russell, and Wittgenstein simply took up their work in the TLP. (Veatch wrote a book of which the title was, if I recall aright, Two Logics, but I don't know if it defended Aristotle's logic against mathematical logic: what I do recall is that when I looked at that book, so many years ago now, the distinction Veatch made seemed to me quite similar to the distinction Drury made in his essay "Science and Psychology", which is a thoroughly humanistic distinction. I did not read very much of Veatch's book; it did criticise the Philosophical Investigations, but as I recall I did not find its criticism of "Don't think -- Look!" to the point.) It did happen that Veatch was not invited to a "conference on logic" because, it was said about him, Veatch "doesn't know logic", and he was quite indignant about that.

As to Wittgenstein's "dangerously nihilistic influence on philosophy", it was Russell who inspired (e.g.) Ayer's infamous Language, Truth and Logic (1936); indeed, Russell said that he should have written that book himself, because all its ideas had come from him. But Wittgenstein never held the views in that book, certainly not Russell's view of ethics ("x is good = I like x").

Wittgenstein's relation to Positivism

The so-called "Vienna Circle" was a philosophical circle of Vienna University, which had gathered around Professor Moritz Schlick ... ["By 1926-27 the Tractatus was an object of lively interest in Vienna." In 1922 Schlick attended a seminar presented by a professor (apparently) of mathematics on that work and "had been deeply impressed by it". Schlick met Wittgenstein in Vienna in early 1927 (McGuinness, Editor's Appendix, p. 146-147)] and his introduction to the ideas of the Tractatus through personal contact with its author did so much to clarify his own thought -- which from the outset had not been opposed to Wittgenstein's -- that these ideas now because, in Schlick's interpretation, the central theme of the group.

Wittgenstein took no active part in the activity of Schlick's "Circle", i.e. its seminars and discussions (and he is said to have been very rarely present at such events). It need not be added that the predominantly positivist tendency of that circle in matters outside pure logic did not appeal to him ... (Paul Engelmann, Letters from Ludwig Wittgenstein, with a Memoir, v, 7, tr. L. Furtmüller (1967), p. 117-118)

The difference is only that they have nothing to be silent about. Positivism holds -- and this is its essence -- that what we can speak about is all that matters in life. Whereas Wittgenstein passionately believes that all that really matters in human life is precisely what, in his view, we must be silent about. When he nevertheless takes immense pains to delimit the unimportant, it is not the coastline of that island which he is bent on surveying with such meticulous accuracy, but the boundary of the ocean. (ibid. v, i, p. 97)

Had the TLP anything to do with "the loss of common sense" Veatch decried or "the loss of philosophy" Gilson lamented? Or did a misreading of that book simply reinforce the existing view of metaphysics? And a misreading it was, because the TLP is itself a full-blown work of metaphysics which claims to demonstrate that philosophical discourse -- i.e. discourse about of "the mystical" (i.e. about anything which "shows" or "makes itself manifest", but is not in the world of the natural sciences) and that includes "the soul" (the metaphysical-I) and God -- is not "out of date" but instead impossible.

Wittgenstein and the Spirit of his Age

The TLP does make a sharp distinction between philosophy and religion -- but that is the work's conclusion, not its premise. It is true that Wittgenstein regarded such questions as God and the soul as religious questions and not philosophical questions -- but whether he came to hold that view as the result of the thinking behind TLP or whether he had always held that view, I don't know; but in either case, the book can stand up without presupposing that view.

Placed in the context which Gilson describes, Wittgenstein's negation of the possibility of philosophy would be just another expression of the spirit of the age he lived in -- were it not that, that age, unlike Wittgenstein himself, denies that "the problems of the soul, and of God" are topics for reasonable human beings to concern themselves with. But for Wittgenstein, on the contrary, what was most important was not "in the world" (The "world" being the sole concern of natural science) -- but what was above it, namely, God or "the higher" and also ethics. And in that way, the TLP was not an expression of the spirit of its age.

In Western Europe more and more by the young the word 'God' is being spelled with a minor case 'g', as it was in the Soviet Union, which was officially atheist, although in Russia it is now spelled with the capital case again. Death here, revival there. Thus the spirit of positivism is far from dead, but so is the spirit of religion.

Just as Wittgenstein's earlier work did, his later work claimed to demonstrate that metaphysics (i.e. propositional knowledge of God and the soul and "the reality behind reality" or "the eye of God") is not possible. But that doesn't answer the question of why Wittgenstein never wrote about ethics, or spoke about ethics after the "Lecture on Ethics" he gave in circa 1929-1930. And this is why there is something profoundly puzzling here: because the Philosophical Investigations does not justify -- nor mandate -- silence about ethics (as the TLP had claimed to do).

And so I remember when Jacob Bronowski was talking about Isaac Newton's statement "I don't make hypotheses". Bronowski shook his head: there is something very puzzling about Newton's saying that, because we know that Newton did make speculations in the vast metaphysical-theological tomes he wrote for himself alone; he only refused to make hypotheses in his natural philosophy. But why did he do this? And this is a perplexing thing. Bronowski had no answer to that question.

And I have no answer to why Wittgenstein did not write about ethics, which seems to me, as of course it did to Socrates, to be the most important of all tasks for philosophy to undertake ("we are discussing no small matter, but how to live") and not pass over in silence. And yet Wittgenstein did not undertake that task in philosophy. And that is perplexing -- because the picture of how language works in Wittgenstein's later writing does not make undertaking that task impossible. It doesn't do that at all.


Positivism and Meaning and Knowledge

First, two objects of comparison. There are many meanings of the word 'meaning'; Wittgenstein selected one in order to make an objective distinction in language between sense and nonsense in philosophy. And there are many meanings of 'to know'; Socrates selected one to make an objective distinction between knowledge and delusion in his search for wisdom in philosophy. Neither of those two philosophers put forth a philosophical thesis [hypothesis, theory, "real definition"] -- i.e. neither said: This is what meaning "really" is; This is what to know something "really" is.

The positivists, in contrast, had a single criterion for distinguishing both truth from falsity and sense from nonsense -- namely, their verification principle: If a proposition is not ultimately verifiable by the senses of perception, then it is not only false but also meaningless ("sounds without sense"). And for the positivists, that was not merely one of many possible criteria -- it was instead the only possible one: This is what knowledge and meaning really are ... as if they had discovered Archimedes' magical fixed point, not merely one point of reference among countless others. And that, not only in natural science, but everywhere.

And that one way of looking at things was transformed into a dogma by the followers of logical positivism (as if it were the view through "the eye of God"). Not only was knowledge of God and the soul impossible, but any talk about God and the soul was nonsense. (And hence there is the dogma of positivist atheism.)

Historical background: the word 'science'

As always: if I know what I am talking about and I may not know what I am talking about ... the word 'science' originally meant simply 'a body of knowledge', of which there were many different kinds -- i.e. subjects (academic, but also artisan and of warfare).

Thus "moral science" was the academic body of knowledge in ethics, and theology was the "divine science". And there was also the science of history. And in each of these different 'bodies of knowledge' = 'sciences', may, although I don't know, set different criteria for 'truth' and 'falsity' -- i.e. for what counted as 'knowledge' in their particular discipline. But the historical usage of the word 'science' was that they were all properly called 'sciences'.

The identification of 'science' with 'natural philosophy' was, I think, the triumph of the positivist crusade, which said that there is only really one body of knowledge and that body is natural philosophy. This was not only a dismissal of metaphysics -- it was also the imposition of a method, "the scientific method", on all disciplines: everything was subjected to this method, and anything that it seemed impossible to so subject -- or did not wish to be so subjected -- was banished from academic respectability. The result has been what are called the "social sciences", which masquerade as scientific knowledge, although they are very often nothing more than opinions and ways of looking at things, including a judgment about how human life should be lived (Plato's "no small matter").

Another term, I think, for 'positivism' is, in Gilson's vocabulary, 'scientism': the attempt to treat all questions as if they were questions for the sciences to answer.

Question: Voltaire's relation to positivism?

During the Enlightenment the word 'reason', at least in Voltaire's vocabulary, seemingly underwent a 180° change in meaning, at least with respect to Platonism and Catholic Christian theology: it became its opposite. When Voltaire speaks of "reason" he has (Newtonian) empiricism in mind, and opposes "reason" to what he imagines ancient Greek philosophy to have been.

Is that a positivist view (i.e. way of looking at things)?

On the other hand, Voltaire's deism is itself rationalism ("the God of the philosophers and intellectuals") rather than empiricism. And despite its setting empirical rules for reasoning in natural philosophy, can Newton's physics' notion of absolute space and time be called empiricism nel senso stretto?

The limit of empiricism -- is the need for frames of reference. (There is no absolute fulcrum, i.e. point of reference, for empiricism to rest on, but only relative -- i.e. not necessary, but discretionary, and that means more or less arbitrary -- ones.) The limit of the empirical -- is points of view (e.g. which point is chosen as the origin for the Cartesian grid).

But now I owe us a definition of 'empiricism'. Is this correct: 'The principle (not methodological only, but also as positivism's doctrine) that, Every proposition must ultimately be verifiable by sense perception if it is to be true or false (or even to have meaning (Schlick))'? Then by 'reason' Voltaire does not mean empiricism "in the strict sense", and then I don't know what Voltaire means by the word 'reason' (cf. the unclear meaning of that word in Hume's writing).

The methods of Plato and Socrates

Plato's method is an anti-empirical rationalism, which is exemplified by Plato's axiom derived from Heraclitus: that only what is essentially unchanging (or, absolute), can be an object of knowledge, and therefore nothing in sense experience can be such an object of knowledge because all such things are subject to change. That we seem to have knowledge of the changeable is solely due to our knowledge of the unchanging (e.g. we recognize cats, despite the common nature (Essence or Form) of cats not existing in the world of our sense perceptions (Parmenides 135b-c), because we know the Form 'cat-ness' or 'cat-hood' from the time when our souls were not "in the body"). Our sense perceptions are informed by our knowledge of the Forms. It really is a case of percepts without concepts (here 'concepts' = Plato's 'Forms') are blind.

No one has ever seen a common nature that is the meaning of a common name (Phaedo 65d; apparently Theaetetus 147a-c notwithstanding), certainly not in the case of "words about whose meaning we are at variance" (Phaedrus 263a-b) -- which are the very words ("abstract terms") that concern philosophy (as e.g. 'truth', 'knowledge', 'justice', 'piety', 'goodness', 'beauty').

Reason tethered to experience (Socrates)

Socratic philosophy -- although it is (as is all philosophy) a thoroughgoing use of reason -- is reason applied to experience that is never allowed to float free of the experience to which it is tethered. (That Plato's Socrates does not find the common natures he seeks gives rise to perplexity, and Plato's perplexity gives rise to Plato's speculations.) Socrates' method in philosophy is neither imitative of the axiomatic model of maths, e.g. QED, i.e. proofs from axioms in geometry (to which Plato's method may be compared), nor is it free-floating conjecture (the untethered donkey) -- i.e. pictures that cannot by verified (because their only defined test is for consistency) by comparing them to what they are claimed to be pictures of.

The test Socrates puts Apollo's words to is an empirical test: he questions men in the streets of Athens to see who is wise and who is not; it is a matter of experience that they do not know what they think they know (Xenophon, Memorabilia iv, 6, 1; cf. Xenophon, Apology i, 15-16): the refutation of their claims to knowledge is public. Wittgenstein's later work is rationalism of the same kind as that of Socrates' ("nothing is hidden").

And so I am making a sharp distinction between Socrates and Plato. Socrates is "the master of those who don't think they know what they don't know" (cf. Dante, Inferno iv, 131). Plato is the master of metaphysical speculation -- even Plato's invention of "logical form" (the prefixes "not" and "different") is metaphysical -- the master of all who would know reality (the truth) if they but could.

Not every proposition that appears reasonable is consistent with experience. Thus the Socratic tests of reason and experience are both needed if we are to distinguish what we know from what we only think we know but do not. If in philosophy we want to say, as Socrates did want, "to say no more than we know".


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