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Saturday, 25 January 2020

Wittgenstein and Heidegger vs. Science and Technology




i) Wittgenstein and Heidegger on Science and Religion
ii) Wittgenstein and Heidegger on Science and Philosophy
iii) Wittgenstein and Heidegger on Kierkegaard

...the total world-view of modern man [has] let itself be determined by the positive sciences...[which has resulted in] an indifferent turning-away from the questions which are decisive for a genuine humanity.” - Edmund Husserl (in his 1936)

Wittgenstein and Heidegger on Science and Religion

Martin Heidegger once wrote of the “flight of the gods”. This was a reference to what he took to be the ascendancy of “scientific culture” in 20th century Western society and the concomitant rise of “instrumental rationality”. Heidegger – along with Edmund Husserl - also wrote of the scientific flight from “lifeworlds”.

This position can be compared to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s view that Western civilisation had taken a flight from God. Wittgenstein was also – or in parallel - strongly against scientism (to use a term not often used in his own day).

This scienceophobia (to use an equally rhetorical term) spread it wings and flew out of the domain of philosophy and into the world of literature. It can be seen in Iris Murdoch’s following words about the existentialists’ predicament:

“…the fearful solitude of the individual marooned upon a tiny island in the middle of the sea of scientific facts, and morality escaping from science only by a wild leap of will.”

It may be incorrect to say here that Wittgenstein’s position against scientism (unlike Heidegger’s) was apolitical and personal. Heidegger, on the other hand, believed that science can/does lead to tyranny. (This is very ironic when one considers his support for the Nazis and their highly-technological regime.) Yet, according to Rush Rhees, Wittgenstein once told him that “[t]yranny doesn’t make me feel indignant”. We can clutch at straws here and say that this was because Wittgenstein believed that although tyrannies can enslave the body, nevertheless they leave the soul free to do what it likes.

However, Wittgenstein did once say that “history had shown [him] that science and industry [have the power] to decide wars”. He thought, like Heidegger, that mankind had turned away from God (or “the gods”) and put its trust in “scientific progress” instead.

Wittgenstein also once said (to a friend):

Just improve yourself, that is all you can do to improve the world.”

This was a good piece of Protestant theology (i.e., “faith, not works”) on Wittgenstein’s part.

Heidegger was generally more suspicious of religion than Wittgenstein, at least on the surface. Wittgenstein was much less concerned (that is, in his philosophical publications) with theology and religion than Heidegger. Heidegger also believed that religions should have a strong social aspect, which Wittgenstein didn’t believe. This may mean that Heidegger’s view of religion generally (if not of theology and metaphysics) might not have been as uncritical as Wittgenstein’s. Indeed Heidegger once said (quoting Nietzsche) that “Christianity is Platonism for the masses”.

Wittgenstein and Heidegger on Science and Philosophy

Wittgenstein argued (in his Blue Book and exactly like Heidegger) that what he believed to be the philosophical obsession with science could only lead us astray. Yet it wasn't only Wittgenstein's logical positivists who wanted to ask and answer questions in a scientific manner, someone like Husserl (as Heidegger argued) did so too. So just as in certain instances Heidegger saw religion as the source of metaphysics (though he didn't necessarily think that a bad thing), Wittgenstein believed (at least at one point) that our scientific yearnings were now the source of metaphysics. (He did think that is a bad thing.) In both cases, science is something beyond the rightful ken of philosophy. It is something that had a strong pull on the many philosophers both Heidegger and Wittgenstein criticised.

Wittgenstein on Søren Kierkegaard

Man has the impulse to run up against the limits of language…This running-up-against Kierkegaard also recognised and even designated in a quite similar way (as running-up against Paradox). This running-up against the limits of language is Ethics.” - Wittgenstein’s remark about Heidegger.

The following is Søren Kierkegaard himself speaking about metaphysics and reason:

[Do anti-religious philosophers] wish to monopolize the notion of ‘Reason’ for the philosophical project of epistemic self-sufficiency? Fine. We will call ourselves the Paradox…But when you say that the Paradox is in conflict with ‘Reason’ there is something of an…illusion. For this is but an echo of what the Paradox has been saying about its relation to that philosophical project since at least the time of the apostle Paul.” (1844/1985)

This Kierkegaardian and ambivalent attitude towards metaphysics and reason can also be detected in Wittgenstein.

On the one hand (as stated) Wittgenstein believed that science often initiates the metaphysical yearnings of many philosophers (i.e., in the early to middle 20th century). Though he also believed that there's indeed something about metaphysics that's deeply attractive (as did Heidegger). He might have also believed - as many other philosophers did and still do - that there's something deep and even magical about metaphysics. Though this deep and magical side of metaphysics is precisely what had turned philosophers (including Wittgenstein himself and Heidegger) against metaphysics. And here again we can see the influence of Kierkegaard (who was classed by the logical positivists as an “irrationalist”) on Wittgenstein.

Kierkegaard believed that traditional metaphysicians had deemphasised the differences between God and man. This “logocentric” position (to use a term often used by Jacques Derrida and others) also meant that at precisely the same time the distinctions between the logos (as it appeared in metaphysics and rationality) and ourselves were in certain senses being emphasised. So, according to Kierkegaard, the metaphysical tradition had fallen victim to the “forgetfulness of Being” (to use Heidegger’s later words). In so doing, reason and metaphysics were deified at the same time as “the subject” was being slowly obliterated.

Wittgenstein, on the other hand, recognised the deification of science; rather than than the deification of reason and metaphysics. Or as Richard Rorty wrote:

“…the source of realist…philosophy of science is the attempt…to make ‘Nature’ do duty for God – the attempt to make natural science a way of conforming to the will of a power not ourselves…” (1985)

In addition, just as Wittgenstein undervalued (or underemphasised) the importance of speech and language in religion, so too he conceded (if only implicitly and at certain times) that language (or words) can't tell us what is true or profound in metaphysics. This is strange considering the supposed “anthropocentrism” of the late Wittgenstein. Indeed Wittgenstein did say that the “expression of metaphysics [is a] fundamentally religious feeling”. A feeling partly inspired by the urge to bang on the doors that are the “limits of language”. Wittgenstein, like Kant before him, wanted to transcend the boundaries of reason (despite Kant’s point that this wouldn't give us knowledge) and also to take Kierkegaard’s leap of faith.

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Note: 

Perhaps it can be said in conclusion (if only for contrast) that there’s only one person who's more blinkered than a “scientistic philosopher” (if such there be): and that's a strongly anti-scientistic (or anti-science) philosopher. Wittgenstein shares his anti-scientistic (rather than anti-scientific - as in Heidegger)) trait with, among others, Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Nagel, Edmund Husserl, Colin McGinn, and many neo-Aristotelian/neo-Thomist philosophers.




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