I've been hanging onto my copy of the October 19 issue of The New Yorker because it contains a book review ("Losing Propositions") about the state of philosophy in Europe after the First World War.
The review has numerous mentions of Ludwig Wittgenstein, "perhaps the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century." So this gives me the opportunity to use Wittgenstein in the title of this post -- which in my utterly subjective opinion, elevates the profundity of this blog to an even higher level.
What I liked most about the book review were the parts dealing with language that seems to say something about reality, but which actually says nothing.
This is the problem I have with religious, spiritual, mystical, and metaphysical writings that I used to enjoy, yet now strike me as saying a lot about not much at all.
"God" "Soul" "Spirit" "Heaven" These sorts of words have meaning only in the sense that people use them in sentences that sound meaningful, but actually lack any substance grounded in reality.
"God is in heaven" is a proper English sentence, yet there is no way to tell whether what it says is true. On the other hand, "Joe Biden soon will live in the White House" is a statement that can be tested as of January 20, 2021.
Read on for some excerpts from The New Yorker piece that, if nothing else, will enable you to throw some mentions of Wittgenstein into your own conversations and communications.
For Wittgenstein, the renovation of philosophy had to begin with language. Since the Greeks, Western thinkers had tried to understand the world using terms such as "being" and "becoming," "substance" and "essence," "real" and "ideal."
But these abstractions gave rise to complicated arguments that went around and around, never reaching any definite conclusion. Now, in the early twentieth century, relativity and quantum theory were redrawing the map of reality in ways that could be verified by experiment and given precise mathematical expression.
In an age of triumphant physics, did philosophy still need to bother with metaphysics?
By declaring the answer to be no, Wittgenstein set modern thought on a new course. For the analytic philosophy he helped inspire, many of the discipline's traditional problems are actually just misunderstandings, based on an erroneous use of language.
What philosophers need isn't profundity but clarity: as Wittgenstein says in the "Tractatus," "Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be said can be said clearly."
...In most cases, determining whether a statement is empirically true or false is fairly straightforward. If someone says that the moon is made of green cheese, there are various ways to check: you could look at the moon through a telescope, or examine a moon rock, or calculate how a moon-size ball of green cheese would behave in outer space.
Even if false, "The moon is made of green cheese" is still a meaningful proposition, because it makes an assertion about the world that can be tested.
Some statements, however, can't be proved true or false, because they are constructed in a way that violates the rules of language. Carnap labelled these "pseudo-statements" -- "a sequence of words [that] looks like a statement at first glance," but whose syntax or vocabulary renders it meaningless.
He gave as an example "Caesar is and": if someone said this to you, you wouldn't say that she was right or wrong, just that she didn't know English syntax.
For the Vienna Circle, the best hunting ground for pseudo-statements was metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that deals with fundamental concepts like being and essence, time and space.
...The problem with metaphysical statements is that they are generally unverifiable, which to the logical empiricists meant they are meaningless.
In Carnap's 1932 essay "The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language," he asks us to imagine a man who invents a new adjective, "teavy," and who, when we ask him how to tell whether or not something is teavy, replies that "there are no empirical signs of teaviness." In that csse, Carnap says, "we would deny the legitimacy of using this word."
The same principle, he argues, should apply to metaphysical terms, from Plato's "Idea" to Kant's "thing-in-itself." Such impressive words may provoke "associated images and feelings," Carnap writes, but they have no actual meaning, so any explanation that relies on them is saying nothing at all.