Saturday, March 17, 2007

Nietzsche And Wittgenstein

In a comment to a recent post, Horace raised the following set of questions,

I ask this as someone with scant philosophical background, but would it be fair to say that Wittgenstein and his positivist extensions of Kantian enlightenment epistemologies are often at odds with Nietzsche?

Am I wrong in understanding them (generally, simplistically) this way? If so, how do you reconcile them in your own work?

Please bear in mind that I've read too little of any of them to have an informed opinion here; I am asking for insight...


I am very pleased about this for two reasons. First, it is always nice to get comments, particularly comments like this. Second, the raising of these questions enable me to address an issue that it had not occurred to me to discuss on this blog before. However, now the questions have been raised, I realise that this blog is a perfect place to discuss this matter. The reason that this is the case is that I lack the necessary skills to be able to address these issues in a serious scholarly publication, yet it involves a potentially interesting philosophical thesis.

Any discussion of Wittgenstein is complicated by the fact that there are really two Wittgensteins, the earlier and the later. To make matters more complicated, these two philosophical phases radically differ from one another.

Horace, despite his philosophical modesty, is entirely correct in identifying a strong influence from the Vienna Circle of Logical Positivists in the work of Wittgenstein. Also, Wittgenstein was influential upon the Vienna Circle, in turn. However, these reciprocal influences are most evident in Wittgenstein's earlier works, most notably in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, (1922).

It is also worth noting that Logical Positivism was actually more influenced by British Empiricism, most notably David Hume, than by post-Kantian epistemology. However, a degree of influence from Leibniz, especially with respect to the importance of logic, has also been claimed. The post-Kantian influence is more strongly associated with German philosophers such as Hegel and Schopenhauer. It is correct though to think that Nietzsche is more strongly associated with this tradition.

The facts of the matter appear to be a little more complicated than that presented in this picture though. In the Tractatus, one of the few philosophers Wittgenstein mentions by name is one Fritz Mauthner. Wittgenstein explicitly rejects Mauthner's views. This is a little odd, as Mauthner is not considered by many to be a major philosophical figure. However, this reference permits the inference that Wittgenstein was at least acquainted with the works of Mauthner.

There is another interesting thing about Mauthner. According to Hans Sluga, in his book on Frege, Mauthner's philosophy of language was very heavily influenced by the views of Nietzsche. This at first appears a little odd, as in certain philosophical traditions, Nietzsche is not thought of being an influential figure in the philosophy of language. In the current context though, Sluga's remark suggests that it is at least possible that Nietzsche's philosophy of language indirectly influence Wittgenstein, through the works of Mauthner.

I would love to be able to investigate this hypothesis in more detail, but I do not read German and very few of Mauthner's works have been translated. Perhaps someone with the relevant skills, looking for a thesis topic, may want to investigate this possibility further.

The reason that this connection is relevant here is because of the philosophical stance taken by Wittgenstein in his later incarnation. The Later Wittgenstein, most famously in his Philosophical Investigations (1953), radically changed his views to adopt a position that was much closer to both Nietzsche's and (presumably) Mauthner's. In his later incarnation, Wittgenstein famously claimed things like,

One can for a large class of cases in which the word "meaning" is used--if also not for all cases of this use--explain the word thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language (PI §43)

The Investigations and the other writings of the Later Wittgenstein are extremely complex, involved and controversial, thus an attempt at summary will not be made here (see here for a summary, but beware of the pop-ups). However, there are reasons to believe that Nietzsche's views may have been influential on the positions argued for there.

Nietzsche's view on language are most clearly articulated in his early work, On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense. There, for example, Nietzsche remarks,

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.

The focus on metaphor and metonymy is an unusual doctrine, which is particularly Nietzschean. However, it is also similar in some sense to the kind of thing that the Later Wittgenstein might approve of (actually, it is a little more radical than Wittgenstein).

There is a final interesting, modern point that is worth mentioning before closing. In various books, the linguist George Lakoff has also argued that metaphor and metonymy are central to our formation of mental categories. In his (1987) book, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About The Mind, (University of Chicago Press), Lakoff explicitly credits Wittgenstein with anticipating the position he argues for. Many years ago now, I had the opportunity to chat to Lakoff about this particular claim, via e-mail (we had met in person on a couple of previous occasions). I argued that he would have been better off crediting Nietzsche. Initially, he was somewhat sceptical about my claim. However, after I directed his attention to certain papers by and about Nietzsche's views on language, he came to agree with my claim.

This is an awfully long answer to Horace's questions. However, it is a topic that I think is interesting, not least because of the potential intellectual link between Nietzsche and the Later Wittgenstien, via the philosophy of language of Mauthner. If anyone knows anything that may either support, or refute this suggestion, I would love to know.

The CP

5 Comments:

Blogger Horace said...

Wow, as if I didn't have enough reading (and thinking) to do...thanks for the lovely and thought provoking answer...

1:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am baffled that by the 'reciprocal' influences between Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle. Certainly, the VC's logical positivism rested on a scientistic misreading of W., but the idea that the Tractatus or W. himself were influenced by the VC is absurd, as is the idea that W. was a positivist at any point...

4:56 PM  
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Blogger Chad Goeser said...

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1:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What papers did you direct him to about Nietzsche's views on language?

6:52 PM  

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