FOM: Wittgenstein

Charles Parsons parsons2 at
Thu Mar 26 09:39:41 EST 1998

My policy of staying out of the heated controversies on the FOM was put
under strain by Steve's characterization of Wittgenstein as a "fad". I'm
not a Wittgensteinian by any means, but I do want to insist that he is not
someone who has excited interest very recently that is likely to be passing.

Wittgenstein was considered a very significant philosophical figure by
Russell and people around him around the time of the first world war and by
the Vienna Circle (especially Carnap and Schlick) from the late 1920s. In
the thirties and forties the earlier versions of his later philosophy had
significant influence, although it was somewhat subterranean because
Wittgenstein did not publish. Beginning with the publication of the
_Philosophical Investigations_ in 1953, a couple of years after his death,
Wittgenstein has been quite widely treated as a major figure. Of course
interest in him has waxed and waned in different circles over the years,
but it has never disappeared. I think he has stood the test of time as well
as any other philosophical figure of his time.

This is not to say that there are not, and have not been in the past, fads
surrounding Wittgenstein. He is probably more susceptible to that than most
philosophers because of his aphoristic manner of writing.

Possibly Steve was thinking of Wittgenstein's work in the philosophy of
mathematics, which has been met by logicians with either hostility,
incomprehension, or indifference. But here there's certainly no fad:
Wittgenstein's philosophy of mathematics has not had a lot of influence,
and those greatly interested in it have been a small minority of those
working on philosophy or foundations of mathematics. Of people of some
significance in mathematical logic, only a few come to mind who have had a
serious positive interest in Wittgenstein: Goodstein, Dummett, Dreben,
Wang, Tait, Goldfarb. His writing on philosophy of mathematics was never
brought as close to as finished a state as the _Investigations_, and his
reputation has not been helped by the editing of _Remarks on the
Foundations of Mathematics_. I personally think his philosophy of
mathematics is one of the weaker parts of his work and that he had
prejudices about mathematics that got in the way of his following his own
maxim that "philosophy leaves everything as it is." I would conjecture that
even if he had produced a finished work on philosophy of mathematics, it
would still not have been found congenial by most mathematicians and
logicians. I should say, though, that these last remarks are not based on
hard work on Wittgenstein's texts.

Charles Parsons

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