Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Blackburn's Interpretation of Wittgenstein as a Proto Quasi Realist

In his 1993 'Review of Paul Johnston's Wittgenstein: Rethinking the Inner' (published in Ethics vol. 103 that year, pp. 588 - 590), Simon Blackburn tries to demonstrate that Wittgenstein has shown us the way to a fruitful theoretical perspective, while not going all the way himself. The view in question is Blackburn's quasi realism. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy (which Blackburn wrote!), quasi realism is the view that projectivism or expressivism about ethics can make legitimate sense of the 'realist-sounding' aspects of ethical discourse. This contrasts with error theory, on which these aspects are held to reflect a false 'realist metaphysics'. (End of quotation.) Though quasi realism is by default regarded as applying to ethical discourse, analogous claims can be made about other kinds of discourse with 'realist-sounding' aspects. Some 'realist-sounding' discourse - for example discourse describing the present location of observable objects - is fully realistic, and can be taken at "face value" - that is, as describing reality. Terms like 'truth', 'fact', 'correspondence' and 'description' primarily apply to this kind of discourse, but also find legitimate uses elsewhere, e.g. ethical discourse, which are less transparent but can be explained by the quasi realist. That is the view; problems may have suggested themselves to you already, but this is not the place to criticize quasi realism directly.

Blackburn begins by noting that Wittgenstein 'is constantly suggesting that underneath the superficial similarity of linguistic form there is deep difference of function'. He gives several examples: philosophical statements are treated as 'rules of grammar', mathematical statements 'do not have the use of statements but of rules', apparent self-descriptions are 'forms of self-expression', ethical, aesthetic and theological assertions are 'not what they appear', and more. Blackburn is very approving of all this, but then comes the question:

So can we continue to talk of truth, fact, knowledge and the rest in these nondescriptive areas without blushing? It seems a good question, and I do not think Wittgenstein ever confronted it squarely. His answer is going to be that we can, but it is not at all plain how he gets to it, for the difference of activity he harps on is introduced precisely by contrast with describing and representing how things are, and those are the activities that most obviously must conform to norms of truth and fact. Wittgenstein seems to leave unfinished business ... taken up by the character I call the quasi realist, with whom he should therefore be allied.

Against this, I think it can be demonstrated that while Wittgenstein may be an inspiration for quasi realism, he cannot truly be regarded as its ally. To begin with, is Blackburn right in saying that the question above was never squarely confronted by Wittgenstein? There doesn't appear to be any extended philosophical treatment of this question in his corpus, but it would be too quick to conclude from this that Wittgenstein has left unfinished business here, something he might have got around to. Let us try to get clearer about the question of whether we can 'continue to talk of truth, fact, knowledge and the rest in these nondescriptive areas without blushing', in order to see where Wittgenstein might stand in relation to it.

Blackburn is expressing himself figuratively; actual blushing is not in question. I didn't even take note of that when I read it, which is noteworthy in itself; one feels here that Blackburn is making things rhetorically easier for himself by expressing his question this way. Since he does after all have a definite agenda, namely to ally Wittgenstein with quasi realism, I think we are justified in asking: what did Blackburn really mean by this figure?

A simple answer would be that Blackburn means to ask whether can we truly speak of truth, fact and knowledge in what he calls 'nondescriptive areas'. This will not do, however, since it is possible to express truths in a way which is misleading and confused, and perhaps this could be cause enough for 'blushing' in Blackburn's sense. Hence it cannot be merely truth and bare meaningfulness which is in question, but also the appropriateness of certain forms of words in certain uses. And what kind(s) of uses are relevant here? There are very diverse cases of talk about truth, fact and knowledge in what Blackburn calls 'nondescriptive' areas. As a rough heuristic, we may divide this talk into two categories: everyday and philosophical (or, to put a different slant on the matter, practical and idle). Intermediate and other cases are no doubt common too, but let us consider some clear examples of practical uses and philosophical uses.


- "There are four primes between 10 and 20." 'That's not true! ..oh, wait, yes it is.'

- "I have very little knowledge in topology."

- "I know it's a bad screenplay, in fact it's terrible, but the performances were somehow wonderful nonetheless."

- "At that point, he knew he had done the right thing."

- "...and that was when I first felt the pain. As a matter of fact, it's come back; I'm going to lie down."

- "She is basically a decent person." "I just can't believe that. If that were true, she wouldn't have..."


- "The knowledge we possess about the realm of natural numbers is eternally valid, and more certain than any empirical knowledge."

- "There are ethical facts."

- "I know with certainty that I am conscious, but I can only hypothesize that others are."

- "There are many facts about the properties of my sense-data which I cannot express, for lack of a proper phenomenal language."

There is reason to think that Blackburn's question largely concerned with the practical uses. Firstly, quasi realism is inconsistent with full-blown Realist philosophical claims about the 'nondescriptive' areas, which can after all be made in terms of fact, truth and knowledge. Blackburn would not want to say we're entitled to make them. Secondly, Wittgenstein himself would probably take such utterances as symptomatic of philosophical confusion. This may not mean that all philosophers who say such things should in any sense blush, or be ashamed of themselves, but such assertions do seem like the sort of thing Wittgenstein would want to investigate critically. Therefore we shall focus on Blackburn's question as it applies to the practical uses.

On this understanding, it does seem Blackburn is right in saying that Wittgenstein's answer will be that we can speak in this way without blushing. But what of the next, quasi-realism-motivating claim, that it is 'not at all plain' how Wittgenstein 'gets to' this answer?

The trick is to see that Wittgenstein doesn't get to it at all. The propriety of such talk is not something Wittgenstein establishes with philosophical considerations; it is his starting point. Wittgenstein's acceptance of our ordinary employment of language does not derive from philosophy but from life. In his philosophy, it is the given. As evidence for this, I offer the following remarks from the Philosophical Investigations:


Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it.

For it cannot give it any foundation either.



Philosophy simply puts everything before us, and neither explains nor deduces anything. (...)


(...) we shall constantly be giving prominence to distinctions which our ordinary forms of language make us easily overlook. This may make it look as if we saw it as our task to reform language.

Such a reform for particular purposes, an improvement in our terminology designed to precent misunderstandings in practise, is perfectly possible. But these are not the cases we have to do with. The confusions which occupy us arise when language is like an engine idling, not when it is doing work.

Blackburn pre-empts this exactly, by speaking of 'cluster of interpretations' of Wittgenstein on which there is no unfinished business. As Blackburn says, on this view:

The true Wittgensteinian reaction is just to find more motley. Talk of truth, knowledge, certainty is itself a patchwork. For these notions do not just arise in connection with descriptions and representations but with rules, ejaculations, and so on as well. Provided we have a correct "übersicht" of what we are doing, nothing needs explanation, nothing is hidden.

I think this is right, and that it is the truly Wittgensteinian reaction. (For the sake of simplicity, I will anticipate my conclusion by referring to it as such.) Blackburn's objection to this view gets us to the heart of the problem. I quote it in full, so that we may see in detail how it fails:

It is true to much in Wittgenstein, yet its problem is obvious: it denies Wittgenstein any words to say what he wanted about the differences that the position starts by celebrating. Maybe "description" and "representation" are a patchwork, or what might be called mottled themselves ("this is what we call describing ethical facts"). Drunk on clusters, we evade the problems that torment the quasi realist by reaching once more for the mottle. Of course ethical (mathematical logical, philosophical, psychological) statements are true, describe the facts, can be known, say how it is. No contrasts there! But they do not do so in the way that empirical statements do. Don't they? Find an interesting way in which they allegedly contrast and watch me mottle it!

The first claim, that the truly Wittgensteinian reaction denies Wittgenstein 'any words to say what he wanted' about the relevant differences, is simply false: all it says is that the propriety of 'realist-sounding' talk in (what Blackburn calls) 'nondescriptive' areas is part of the given, and not to be interfered with, and that such talk is variously used. This might deny Wittgenstein certain words to say what he wanted about the relevant differences, but he doesn't need them anyway. In fact, they can get in the way. There are many ways of talking about, and showing, relevant differences. Some basic examples:

- In Wittgenstein's simple language-games involving 'slab', 'there', etc., it is unnatural to regard the counting-words 'a', 'b', 'c', etc. as 'names of objects', and even if one does call them this, their completely different function is nonetheless manifest.

- It makes sense to say 'I doubt whether he is in pain', but not 'I doubt whether I am in pain'.

- Our method of verifying the proposition '25 x 25 = 625' is different in kind from our method of verifying the proposition 'It is raining'.

- It makes sense to talk about the destruction or disappearance of chairs, but not numbers.

This shows that Blackburn's first claim is wrong: there is plenty Wittgenstein can say about differences of function in language without employing the 'realist-sounding' words to do the distinguishing. The next claim which needs to be put right is: 'Drunk on clusters, we evade the problems that torment the quasi realist by reaching once more for the mottle.'

It is hard to know how to object to such a sentence. For a start, I think the quasi realist ought to be tormented by certain problems so long as they remain a quasi realist, since their view is not tenable. That the truly Wittgensteinian reaction avoids ('evades') these problems is a strength, not a weakness. However, it neither avoids nor evades the problem, shared with the quasi realist, of clarifying important differences in the working of language. Wittgenstein took that task very seriously. We 'reach once more for the mottle' only to show that Blackburn's particular approach, quasi realism, won't work. This is not to say: 'Find an interesting way in which ['nondescriptive' and 'empirical' statements] allegedly contrast and watch me mottle it!'. Here, Blackburn gives the impression that the quasi realist has proposed contrast after contrast, only to have each one mottled by the true Wittgensteinian. But not at all! He has only proposed one - that between quasi realistic and really realistic uses of language.

The examples given earlier, on the other hand, show some genuine contrasts which no Wittgensteinian would want to mottle. Unlike Blackburn's proposal, they are not distinctions which require extensive theoretical elaboration in order to have a chance of getting off the ground. Perhaps Blackburn finds them insufficiently 'interesting' or general, but this is a prejudice which Wittgenstein did not share, and which we need not share.