Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hamlet Versus The Logical Positivists, Part 1

In the early 20th century, a new school of philosophy, Logical Positivism, came into being in Europe — originating in Austria and Germany — and became very influential; becoming, in fact, the leading modern philosophical school of thought for a few decades.

The logical positivists were greatly influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus — it's probably not overstating the case to say the Tractatus was their Bible1 — even though Ludwig W., while not unsympathetic to the positivist school, was not himself a logical positivist.

Essentially, the positivists were deeply opposed to a philosophical outlook that values metaphysics of any kind. They considered metaphysical statements to be not wrong, but rather, to use their own condescending epithet, "meaningless", and therefore useless and to be banished from any reputable philosophy2.

In one way, it makes perfect sense that this school of thought should have gotten traction because scientific empiricism and mathematical rigor were all the rage in the early 20th century and the positivists kinda wanted philosophy to be viewed in the same vein as those disciplines — kinda, "Hey, guys, we can be all fact-based and logical, too." But in another, more important way, the fact that this school of thought managed to get any traction is to my mind kinda inexplicable and fucktarded because metaphysics, which is precisely the philosophical discipline that the positivists wanted to purge, had been the centerpiece of Western Philosophy for millennia; and one of the things that makes Philosophy not only interesting, but necessary, is that  it is not science or math or anything else: It's philosophy, with all that entails, including metaphysical speculation.

And so trying to be more empirical and "logical" caused the positivists no end of problems because it eventually obliged them to kinda purge language itself, to try to replace the everyday language that we all use to express ourselves with a more "precise" version that is less ambiguous and less susceptible to inadvertent  metaphysical propositions. There are numerous problems with this approach, not the least of which being its Orwellian Newspeak vibe, which is problematic itself since it is essentially an attempt to make metaphysics and metaphysical expression a form of thoughtcrime, which, I dunno about you, but I consider kinda chilling and massively Fucked Up. Not to mention impossible.

Because it evidently never even occurred to the positivists that the "connection" between any physical object and the language we use to describe or denote it is essentially the result of a metaphysical leap of faith, an instance of epistemological fiat. There is no empirical connection between a table and the word "table" other than what we arbitrarily say exists. Because we can say things about a table that can be shown to be either true or false — it has a flat top; it has four legs — but we can also say things that are true about the word "table" that are plainly false about tables or even any particular table; e.g., it is indisputably true that "tables" has six letters but tables don't; "tables" has two syllables, but tables don't; etc.

Thus, the positivists' stated goal of accepting as "meaningful" and "non-metaphysical" only those statements that "are true in all possible worlds3" proved to be their downfall; because it is glaringly obvious (to all except the positivists, it seems) that, due to the nature of language and the fact that things and the words we use to denote them are not one and the same thing, one can easily find statements that are true in this world but would be false in some easily-imaginable and distinctly possible alternate world: "Most hands have five fingers" would be false in a very possible alternate world in which the word "finger" has, for some reason, evolved to mean not the digits on our hands, but rather, say, the left @$$-cheek. And it's simply not true — it is, in fact, demonstrably false — that "Most hands have five left @$$-cheeks." I think I could easily prove empirically that most hands have zero left @$$-cheeks.

Natural languages routinely evolve in the way adumbrated above. The positivists made their school of thought's survival dependent upon bringing about a possible (I guess) world in which natural language itself would be forbidden to do that.

One of the most wonderful features of any natural language, though, is this very ability to evolve as needed to accommodate the linguistic needs of the speakers and users of that language.

That's why Shakespeare's Hamlet is so useful in demonstrating the paucity of the positivists' unthinking view of natural language.

Coming in Part 2: Doubt; or, By heaven, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me4!
1 Um, well, it might be overstating the case. More accurately: If we analogize1a the positivists to Christians, then the Tractatus would be their Old Testament, while they themselves were in the process of writing their own New Testament.

I like comparing the positivists to religious sects because the positivists themselves would have considered any religious tenets to be "metaphysical" in nature and therefore meaningless.

I also enjoy pointing out that the famous first line of LW's Tractatus — i.e., "The World is All That is the Case" — is itself a blatant metaphysical statement that is both kinda obvious — I mean, Duh, Luddy! Could you please be a bit more vague? — and also kinda meaningless because what exactly we're talking about when we talk about "The World" is precisely the question that is at issue. I mean, if someone asks you, "What does 'supercilious' mean?" are you really being helpful if you answer: "It means 'supercilious'"?

Saying,"behaving or looking as though one thinks one is superior to others" — now you're being helpful.

Also helpful, though slightly less so: "Have you ever read a logical positivist on the issue of the value of metaphysics? You know that tone they get? That's supercilious."

1a Of course, "analogize" has an entirely different meaning in the LuMu household, where it refers to LuMu's favorite sex act, which is still technically illegal in all of Our Great Southern States as well as Metropolitan Frostburgg.

2 If you read any of the Major Logical Positivist Tracts — and I am strongly recommending that you not do so because they are so tedious and dry and humorless and infuriatingly, stereotypically Teutonic in the worst sense of that word that you'll end up feeling as though you've been violently "analogized" in the LuMu sense of the word ... and without the benefit of any lube whatsoever (which is a bit beyond the pale even for LuMu herself) — you will run across truly obnoxious statements about what "metaphysical statements" are good for; statements of the These are the types of speculations best left to poets and "artists" and other social fucktards who lack even a semblance of the sort of rigor-of-thought that is required for philosophy type. To be fair, the logical positivists didn't hate poetry; they in essence didn't get it — a failing they attributed to the poets and the poetry rather than to themselves. Hence, they kinda looked upon art in general as harmless but meaningless, and they encouraged all metaphysicians to accept their generous offer of exile to Poets' Island because they — those who dabble in the witchcraft of Metaphysics — were no longer welcome on the Mainland of Teh United States of Empiricism.

3 In the same way that, in math, "2+2=43a" is (arguably3b) True In All Possible Worlds. If it is, it is because the language of mathematics — numbers — is an "artificial" language with set rules that doesn't so much evolve as get added to and altered by a select group of experts who use that language for a specific and limited purpose.

3a Assuming Base 10, here, of course.

3b Arguable because the "truth" of the language of math is, itself, based on nothing that can be proved empirically. Again, it is a leap of faith, but one that has obviously proved itself useful. Which itself proves that metaphysical statements are not only useful, but necessary to make sense of this world or any other.

4 Part 1, admittedly, makes it hard4a to see what-all this has to do with Shxpr, but that will hopefully become clearer in part two. And then I'll feel no need to apologize for my posts because I fucking warned you awhile ago that these Shakespeare posts were coming4a, but who said anything about logical positivism? Well IN YER FACE because this post isn't really about the Log. Pos.'s!1! It's about Shakespeare. Which will become clearer in the next post.

4a That's What She Said!1!


  1. Anybody that liked this post needs to read Godel, Escher, and Bach. No, not the works by those people, though ploughing through Godel will clarify this post immensely. I'm talking about the book by Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.

  2. All I recall from Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is (using what I think were his numbers): 1.) Whatever can be said, can be said clearly. and 7.) Everything else must be passed over in silence.

    Saves ya a week's reading, that.

    @Keith: I've read Doug's book. Meh. I prefer his Scientific American columnist predecessor Martin Gardner's "Aha! Gotcha!" Lots of post-graduate stuff at about a 3rd grade reading level.

  3. Great ball game last night, despite the result.

  4. Oh, and about poets. Being of their ilk (and a rigorous scientist at the same time), I love the unclarity of Gerard Manley Hopkins ("betweenpie?" - really? bad neologist!), Hart Crane and Fernando Pessoa - though celibate priest, multiply married gay man and middle-aged virgin have me thinking it's not good for one's sex life.

  5. And when my hand has an ass cheek in it, it's a fine day indeed.

  6. so, instead of saying, "high five!" we'll have to say, "smack my ass!"?

  7. That's why Shakespeare's Hamlet is so useful in demonstrating the paucity of the positivists' unthinking view of natural language.

    Well, gosh. Thanks for clearing THAT up. It has been bugging me for years.

    (and yes, I have read footnote 4, and no, I do not believe you)

    Aside: I only had to look up one word for this whole post. (Ok, and a shit load of references, but still) I must be getting better at this.

    @SQ: And when my hand has an ass cheek in it, it's a fine day indeed.

    Sooooo, by your own logic, either you are a shitty poet or you do not have many fine days. Which is it?

    @jiff: That is my golden rule, yes. ;)

  8. Dammit Glaven. I can't read this at 6pm the day I start my weekend. I cannot comprehend the werrrrds that are on this page #$$%%^&*$

    You're killin me. Can we talk about bears shitting in the woods or ass cracks or nuts@cks or hairy legz or American League pu$$ies or something I can relate to???????????? Who's winning, btw? GO COCKS!

    Happy Weekend :) I've lost my stinkin mind and cannot focus today.

    Hey, look, there's a butterfly!

  9. you lost me just before the beginning part...

  10. Thanks for checkin on me, G. I was near hysterical (bad grammer on purpose, oops I did it again) yesterday afternoon because I work with a bunch of incompetent nincumpoops. How do you spell that werd? And then I come over to your blog for some relief and got a little more than my brain could munch on.

    Anyway, yeah, I got your "gift". We could smell it from San Francisco. Newark: the gift that keeps on giving.

  11. "... and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances..." - Hamlet

    "... and mistaking one for the other is illegal in some states." - SteveQ

  12. HA! Someone mentioned anal AGAIN!