Limitations and Functions of Systems

By | December 7, 2017

I recall as an undergraduate reading a review of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations by Peter Strawson. Even then I saw a disjunction between two philosophical approaches. Strawson tried, with predictably mixed results, to define more precisely what Wittgenstein was arguing for. In a way he was searching for ‘systemness’ in a ‘post-system’ discourse. He wanted to wrap things up in a way that left little or no ambiguity. He presented as just the kind of philosopher that Wittgenstein wanted to show the way out of the fly-bottle. But there is a reason Strawson’s review has lingered in my mind, and when I wrote a recent blog on ’the meaning of life’ (there isn’t one, just lots, and they’re species-bound) this all re-surfaced.

Without repeating myself on life’s meanings, how can I explain what remains a kind of quandry for me? I readily accept much of the Wittgensteinian analysis, or at least my interpretation of it. While his later work is post-foundationalist, it accepts that there is stuff we cannot doubt because if we do then nothing makes much sense (see also On Certainty). We are socialized into discrete ‘language games’ – for which, read ‘forms of life’ – and it is often when we switch from one to another without due care and attention that we introduce the kinds of puzzles that have conventionally seduced as well as providing employment for philosophers. Thus, when a physicist, or for that matter a philosopher, ask the theologian for ‘proof’ of the existence of god, their concepts of proof are not the one to be found in religious or theological language games: they are not thinking in terms of, and would scorn, leaps of faith of the kind espoused by Kierkegaard.

My reading of Wittgenstein eschews Winch-like relativism, though I find the former’s quasi-sociological account of knowing and acting exciting and fruitful. But, and here’s the rub, I retain a smidgeon of sympathy with Strawson. Is this possible without falling into animal traps of confusion, even contradiction?

I am clear enough for my purposes that we humans find ourselves on Planet Earth, one of numerous species, and can only work within conjectures and theories, frames, emergent from our collective intelligence. It is an intelligence that rates our prowess and capabilities well above those of ants, but … Well, even in our own terms, we lack comparative data. Fallibilism is a lesson learned. If we have foundationalist urges, then we end up on a slippery slope, either trapped in unsustainable radical scepticism or a Winch-like relativism, or we reconcile ourselves to our fallibility and limitations.

This blog hinges on where this leaves ‘science’. Science – natural, life, social – comprises language games/forms of life, pace Wittgenstein. It is subject, therefore, (only) to certainties conditional on temporal inexactitude. Many a natural and life scientist might demur, but that’s the laboratory habitus – exaggerating the power of experimental closure over the reality of the open society – for you! So what about Strawson-like systemness?

Well, I’m inclined to think that ‘exaggerating the power of experimental closure over the reality of the open society’, or in more general terms accenting the potential of systemness, might afford even social scientists the optimum prospects of harnessing explanatory power (and yes, I do think that the cognitive reach of science exceeds that of its immediate predecessor, religion, and, further back, the mythology characteristic of societies immediately before and after the neolithic revolution).

So for me, and as a fallibilist I am ever ready to be corrected, there exists a social psychological case for a neo-Strawsonian urge to system-construction; if you will, as an expedient device. I do not have in mind here those varieties of empiricism that sidle up to, embrace and end up over-investing in enticing but spurious and pseudo-experimental closures. I would suggest: (a) ‘going for it’, trying to ‘wrap things up’, while (b) remaining reflexive about the impossibility of accomplishing any such – epistemologically silly – task. So, that’s the extent of my sympathy with Strawson’s attempt to make systematic sense of the later Wittgensteinian project. Maybe a systemic habitus is functional, notwithstanding its flaws? But, if so, it surely demands reflexive awareness.

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