Department of Philosophy

Wittgenstein’s Meta-Political Quietism

Kevin Cahill will give a talk at the semester's second department seminar on Thursday 28 September, 18.15.

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If asked about Wittgenstein’s views on ethics, many philosophers unfamiliar with the details of the history of analytic philosophy would likely attribute to him some form of emotivism, according to which ethical statements are non-verifiable and therefore nonsensical. This is in large part due to the influence of A.J. Ayer’s 1935 Language, Truth, and Logic which purported to speak authoritatively on the positions Ayer had gleaned from the Vienna Circle’s discussions of Wittgenstein’s views in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus from 1921. Both in the Tractatus and in a 1929 lecture on ethics he gave in Cambridge, Wittgenstein did indeed say things that sounded like emotivism. As he never spoke officially on the topic of ethics again, this remained largely fixed in many philosophical circles. This impression may have been strengthened by the fact that two leading mid-century emotivists, C.L. Stevenson and R.M. Hare, were students of Wittgenstein. But even though he never accepted that ethical statements were truth-evaluable, Wittgenstein was neither an emotivist nor a verificationist: his views on meta-ethics had less to do with epistemology than with language. And his views on language changed radically between the time when he wrote the Tractatus and his more mature thought of the mid-1930s. In this later period, he emphasized the role of the contextual use of language for an understanding of meaning instead of the earlier emphasis on truth-grounds. According to the early Wittgenstein, an analysis of ethical (and aesthetic) statements reveals that they lack truth grounds and are indeed meaningless. But once this dogma about meaning is dropped, it can be easily seen that ethical statements are meaningful, given the context of various types of discourse in which human beings engage, what Wittgenstein came to refer to as “language games”. What about politics? Although Wittgenstein said nothing philosophical about politics, some Wittgenstein scholars have recently tried to find support in his work for certain political views. But this risks disregarding the anti-metaphysical thrust of his later work, where the idea that any form of discourse, from atomic physics to mathematics, to history, to ethics and politics, requires a philosophical foundation is simply confused. Whatever Wittgenstein’s views on politics may have been, he saw it as importantly distinct from his work in philosophy. To paraphrase Rawls: Politics for Wittgenstein was political, not metaphysical.