Wittgenstein (and falsifiability, Popper and Snakes)

Wittgenstein, with what looks like a chalk cobra to his left, veered upright and ready to strike. You see it right? Maybe it's just me...

Wittgenstein, with what looks like a chalk cobra to his left, veered upright and ready to strike. You see it right? Maybe it’s just me…

There has recently been a surge in discussion of the principle of falsifiability as a necessary condition of the sciences, due to the efforts of SelfAwarePatterns. I don’t intend to make a contribution to this discussion today, rather, I want to note that Wittgenstein, in his later works, used a similar methodology in the philosophy of language in order to show that our concepts are not definable into essences, but only have practical import for usage. It’s worth noting that while there is a strange fascination with the mythology surrounding Wittgenstein among philosophers, I have no abnormal affection for him. I do respect the fact that he made a major contribution to one view, descriptivism, and was modest enough to admit his error and attack his own view in his later work. But Hilary Putnam did the same with functionalism and scientific realism, so Wittgenstein is not the only philosopher deserving of such accolades. Regardless, I do think Wittgenstein’s early and later work has been massively influential.

In his later work, the posthumous Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein posits that we should not look for the

Forget the new editions, this is the essential one.

Forget the new editions, this is the essential one.

essences of things, but rather, look for strange cases, particularly those cases that do not fit with our common conception of a thing. Wittgenstein warned that if we looked for similarities that we would find similarities, such that we should look for differences in order to find the differences, amongst for example, games. These strange cases show the gray area in our definitions, such that these strange cases not only reveal these open places, but also open or expand the definition.

We could begin by trying to define what a venomous snake is by describing it; surely this is a very useful definition to know. It is likely that we would eventually attempt to describe it by noting that venomous snakes have triangular heads. I, for one, used this working definition of “poisonous snakes” for some time. Yet, while that is true of snakes in the United States, if you were to travel outside of the United States there is a family of snakes called elapids,

The black mamba has an oval head.

The black mamba has an oval head.

which include adders, cobras and mambas, that are venomous despite not having triangular heads. Thus, if a black mamba escaped from a private collection (people actually do collect exotic, venomous snakes) and it were to cross your path, you could assume that, as it did not have a triangular head, it was not venomous. Yet, when it bites you and you develop respiratory and cardiovascular complications you realize, if you can, that your definition of venomous snakes for practical use is flawed. This black mamba serves as a representation of an intermediate case that opens up the boundaries of the definition of your concept of venomous snakes.

Wittgenstein uses this style of thought experiment to show that strange cases reveal open places in definitions, such that where there are no clear boundaries the definition is not well defined. In this way we may ask with Wittgenstein, “Can you give the boundary? No. You can draw one; for none has so far been drawn” (Philosophical Investigations, 68). Thus, in this statement Wittgenstein propounds that you cannot give the boundaries that demarcate all that falls within them a certain thing. He posits that, rather, you can attempt to draw these boundaries because no boundary has been drawn before due to the difficulty in such an endeavor. Thus, Wittgenstein proposes a method of philosophical investigation in which we look for the strange cases that reveal the open places of our definition. These open places reveal that a definition is not well defined.

This method strikes me as similar to the method of falsifiability proposed by Karl Popper. Though Popper posited this method for determining the explanatory strength of scientific statements, it seems there is a slight semblance between the two methods. Popper argued that strong scientific statements have a high informative content, and yet, the greater the informative content, “the greater will be the number of ways in which it may turn out to be false” (“Karl Popper.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Thus, as science should aim for statements with high informative content it follows that science should posit statements that are highly falsifiable. Popper’s thinking is that it is impossible to verify a highly informative statement such as a universal scientific theory, while it is possible to find a case that refutes a universal scientific theory. Consider that, “while no number of observations in conformity with the hypothesis that, say, all planets have elliptical orbits can show that the hypothesis is true or even that tomorrow’s planet will have an elliptical orbit, only one observation of a non-elliptical orbit will refute the hypothesis” (O’Hear, Anthony. “Popper, Karl.” The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Comp. Ted Honderich. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. 739.) Scientific statements that we value as strong are theories that are possible of being disproven but have not once been confuted. Thus, Popper proposes a method of scientific investigation in which we look for the cases that refute scientific statements.

Wittgenstein uses his method of philosophical investigation to argue that strange and intermediate cases at the boundaries of a concept show that many definitions are not well defined. Thus, only one strange case is needed to show that our definition of a concept is not well defined. Likewise, Popper propounds that only one case is needed to refute a universal scientific theory. Therefore, Wittgenstein and Popper both advocate looking for cases that are dissimilar to the concept in order to come to a better understanding of what it is we are investigating. Wittgenstein uses the method to argue for his concept of ‘family resemblances’ as superior to the presupposition of essences. Popper advocates the method in order to disprove false scientific statements and thus, further scientific knowledge. Yet, while their goals are different, they share at least a single similar method of investigation.

A black mamba.

A black mamba. Why does it have to exist?!

P.S. On a less philosophical note, I think snakes are evil incarnate. Not due to any religious reasons, but I suspect that whoever wrote the bible used a snake in the garden of Eden because snakes just seem so evil. To be quite frank, I think it is messed up that snakes even exist. That there exists scaly, limbless, cold-blooded creatures that can inject a painful and fatal neurotoxin into you is really just messed up. Snakes should not exist. Suffice it to say, I have a phobia of them.


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  1. #1 by gaurarader on January 25, 2014 - 2:12 pm

    I think Wittgenstein gets “abnormal affection” because is something like the archetypal philosophical genius. I guess I must confess I do have a bit of a thing for Wittgenstein, despite his personal character flaws, or maybe because of them.

    • #2 by ausomeawestin on January 25, 2014 - 2:21 pm

      I think you are absolutely right, Gauradrader, thanks for your comment.

      Perhaps if the movie on Turing does well in the box office they’ll consider making a movie on Wittgenstein. I know I would see it — I’d love to see Wittgenstein brandishing that fire poker at Karl Popper! Hey, whattayaknow, I compared their views in this post…

  1. Falsifiability is useful, but a matter of judgment | SelfAwarePatterns

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