Distinguishing between philosophy and science with the help from Ludwig Wittgenstein

“Philosophers constantly see the method of science before their eyes, and are irresistibly tempted to ask and answer questions in the way science does. This tendency is the real source of metaphysics and leads the philosopher into complete darkness.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein, BB

This is a very strong statement. To Wittgenstein it is most important to stress the differences between philosophy and science. And though you rarely hear people who say they disagree with him, few actually follows up the consequences of what this implies, it seems to me.

Here I will make some distinctions between philosophy and science:

This is not intended to be about any particular kind of philosophy, but philosophy in general. Many would probably disagree with this list. To some degree I agree that it can be revised (for example, one can argue that philosophy doesn’t need to be a priori or analytic). But in order to dissolve disagreements about this list, I think it’s mostly important to stress that one should not make overhasty conclusions about it. Things can be viewed from different perspectives, and interpretations can be made very differently… Describing difference between philosophy and science is in a sense much more complicated (something we’ll have reason to dig deeper into later on).

One important note is that claims of empirical science is not same category as the claims of logic. One of the most common and problematic prejudices among people, it seems to me, is that many think that science is based upon logic. It is true that scientists often uses logic as a tool, but logic cannot back up scientific conclusions (as the scientific conclusions are based upon empirics and logic is independent of empirics).
Another common prejudice that follows from this is that people think science deals with certainty, when in fact scientific conclusions are in fact only matter of estimated probability. And on the other hand, people who think that logic (deduction) has to do with probabilities are just as wrong.

Some quotes from Wittgenstein for further development:

“What kind of investigation are we carrying out? Am I investigating the probability of cases that I give as examples, or am I investigating their actuality? No, I’m just citing what is possible and am therefore giving grammatical examples.” PBT

“Our interest does not fall back upon these causes of the formation of concepts; we are not doing natural science; nor yet natural history – since we can also invent fictitious natural history for our purposes” PI

“One might also give the name philosophy to what is possible//present// before all new discoveries and inventions.” PBT

“If one tried to advance theses in philosophy, it would never be possible to debate them, because everyone would agree to them.” PBT

“The work of the philosopher consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose.” PBT

“Learning philosophy is really recollecting. We remember that we really used words in this way.” PBT

“The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have known since long.” PI

‘The “actual infinite” is a “mere word”. It would be better to say: for the moment this expression merely produces a picture —which still hangs in the air: you owe us an account of its application. An infinitely long row of marbles, an infinitely long rod. Imagine these coming in in some kind of fairy tale. What application, even though a fictitious one, might be made of this concept? Let us ask now, not “Can there be such a thing?” but “What do we imagine?” So give free rein to our imagination. You can have things now just as you choose. You only need to say how you want them. So (just) make a verbal picture, illustrate it as you choose – by drawing comparisons etc.! Thus you can – as it were – prepare a blueprint. – And now there remains the question how to work with it.’ Zettel

(My emphasis)

“The aim of philosophy is to erect a wall at the point where language stops anyway.” PBT

“It is all one to me whether the typical western scientist understands or appreciates my work since in any case he does not understand the spirit in which I write.

Our civilization is characterized by the word progress. Progress is its form, it is not one of its properties that it makes progress. Typically it constructs. Its activity is to construct a more and more complicated structure. And even clarity is only a means to this end and not an end in itself. For me on the contrary clarity, transparency, is an end in itself I am not interested in erecting a building but in having the foundations of possible buildings transparently before me. So I am aiming at something different than are the scientists and my thoughts move differently than do theirs.” – CV


Ludwig Wittgenstein
BB = Blue Book
CV = Culture and Value
PBT = Philosophy in Big Typescript
PI = Philosophical Investigations

Further reading
/Issue_21_Paper_Marconi.pdf  (A well written article. It becomes a bit boring when he speaks of Quine, but the part about Wittgenstein is good, and the authors conclusions makes sense.)
A lecture on science and Buddhism, by Alan Watts http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dzyDTV6EzUs
I found this interesting. Watts describes science in a sense that is not far off from how Wittgenstein describes philosophy. He says, science is descriptive and systematic, much like Wittgensteinian philosophy. Watts is not wrong, I’d say, he just makes another distinction, an interesting distinction indeed.
Wittgenstein’s Lectures on Philosophy

Internal links
Selected quotes of Ludwig Wittgenstein and commentary


About Dandre

Former student of philosophy, maths and literature. Now studying master program in sociology. Some thinkers of central interest include Ludwig Wittgenstein, C. G. Jung and Pierre Bourdieu.
This entry was posted in Logic and science, Metaphilosophy, Wittgenstein and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Distinguishing between philosophy and science with the help from Ludwig Wittgenstein

  1. Pingback: “Games Critics Play” by Carter Kaplan | Recollecting Philosophy

  2. Pingback: Alan Watts on Science, Buddhism and Wittgenstein | Recollecting Philosophy

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