WAB: "Fragments" | The following contribution is an excerpt from Allan Janik: "Impure reason vindicated", in: Alois Pichler and Simo Säätelä (eds.): Wittgenstein: The philosopher and his works, Working Papers from the Wittgenstein Archives at the University of Bergen no. 17, Wittgenstein Archives at the University of Bergen (WAB) 2005, pp. 263-280. Publication on WAB's website with kind permission from the author and the editors (2005.4.7).
All agree upon the classical definition of man as a rational animal at a superficial level; yet, paradoxically, these various conceptions of rationality are heterogeneous to the point of contradicting one another, thereby deflating all their claims to be the one true account. Moreover, the collapse of classical modern theories of rationality containing criteria for progress in the intellectual and social sphere such as logical positivism, structuralism and Marxism has led many post-modern thinkers to opt for an irrationalist position, deeply shot through with irony, according to which anything goes. So there should be little wonder why rationality is a central topic for philosophical discussion at the beginning of the 21st century. We seem to confront the horns of a dilemma with an overly constrictive and rather dubious theory of rationality on one side and a superficial irrationalism on the other. Wittgensteins practice-immanent concept of rationality offers us a way to pass between the modern and the post-modern horns of the dilemma.
However, we do well to begin by asking what the discussion of rationality has to do with Wittgenstein. In fact, he barely mentions the topic at all there are only a handful of references to the word family rational (Vernunft, rational etc.) in the Bergen Electronic Edition of his papers. He did not discuss the topic explicitly. This means that if we want to talk about Wittgensteins connection with a new paradigm of rationality we have to reconstruct a position from his works. That position will bear less upon what he has said in his philosophical writings (and not at all upon his personal opinions) than upon the philosophical implications of the views articulated in his text. The question is important for us because it bears upon the practice of philosophy and its future.
One way of introducing the theme of Wittgensteins relevance for current discussions of rationality is to re-examine how his thought has had an impact upon one crucial controversy surrounding the topic in the 20th century. The case of Wittgensteins influence upon the debates in philosophy of science in the wake of Thomas Kuhns The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) will be a useful reminder of Wittgensteins importance in questions of rationality. This debate is of particular interest because it challenged the strong claims of logical positivism about the nature of knowledge and rationality such that it ultimately led to the dismantling of the most ambitious program to reform knowledge and society in modern times. Apart from the demand to eliminate metaphysics as a hindrance to progress and a potential danger to society, these claims can be reduced to three. First, only natural science is genuine knowledge. Claims to knowledge can only be considered scientific when they are verified on the basis sense data. Second, theoretical physics, and it alone, counts as science in the strict sense. Third, genuine scientific knowledge is all of one piece. All genuine disciplines should conform to the model of physics or in some way be deducible from it. Clearly, logical positivisms strong program for the unity of science represents a form of rationalism, for it in no way describes the practice of science. In its distorted concept of reason logical positivism in its extreme form (there were other ways of construing its program)1 was not rational, but rationalistic. It is precisely the confusion of rationality with those big stories told by monolithic rationalism that Wittgensteins philosophizing early and late vehemently opposed. Yet, for all of that, Wittgenstein never embraced irrationalism.
Thus it should not be surprising that the Kuhnian revolution in the philosophy of science, for want of a better term, was carried out by philosophers with a strong background in science and at the same time deeply under the influence of the later Wittgenstein such as Stephen Toulmin and Norwood Russell Hanson (Kuhn himself doubtlessly was exposed to Wittgenstein indirectly in his animated conversations with Stanley Cavell during his books gestation period).2 The Wittgensteinian notions that played crucial roles in the discussion then were the idea that seeing is seeing as, the family resemblance character of the referents of a concept and the notion that examples lie at the basis of knowledge. Thus the lamentably forgotten Hanson could brilliantly exploit Wittgensteins insights into the contextual nature of perception in order to demonstrate how all observation depends upon theoretical presuppositions. Similarly, the idea that theoretical knowledge is built up on the basis of canonical examples, so central to Toulmins Foresight and Understanding (1961), had its origins in Wittgenstein, as did the idea so closely associated with Kuhns work that all knowledge and a fortiori all science is not and cannot be all of a piece. Wittgensteins ideas about how we use paradigms and the family resemblance character of concepts were thus crucial to those debates. Above all, the idea that the practice of science and scientific theory is the actual embodiment of scientific rationality, then much discussed inter alia in connection with the question of how scientists choose between competing theories, depending upon the notion that science is not simply theory but theoretical practice, leaned heavily upon Wittgenstein.
Wittgenstein was as much a grandfather to the movement towards a praxis-oriented philosophy of science as, say, R.G. Collingwood with his Aristotelian view of philosophy3 as the analysis of the absolute presuppositions of our scientific enterprises or Michael Polanyi with his emphasis upon the role of experimental skills in science.4 Even in the 70s is was clear to some of the participants in these debates that the revolution from a monolithic to a pluralistic account of scientific rationality was deeply under Wittgensteins influence. So there are good reasons for expecting that Wittgenstein will be relevant to any discussion of rationality now. The practice-orientation of Wittgensteins later philosophy offers us the possibility of escaping between the Scylla of rationalism and the Charybdis of irrationalism.
However, it is less that Wittgensteins later philosophy offers us a new paradigm of rationality than that it helps us to recover an old, unjustly neglected one. The central notion in his later philosophy is the idea of following a rule, where there are no formal rules to which we can appeal, but examples to be imitated. This view of rule-following ultimately entails the primacy of practice over theory in epistemology. The primacy of practice, the assertion that in traditional terms belief is groundless, in turn, implies that practice must take care of itself. That further entails that rationality is practice-immanent.
Theory can neither capture nor justify the multifarious character of practice. Moreover, the practice-immanent character of rationality determines that the rationality of our actions and beliefs must be reconstructed ex post facto on the basis of reflection upon what we do in the normal course of events. Such a claim and such reflection is the basis of the Common Law, which itself is rooted in the Aristotelian notion of phronesis.
Without in the least being aware of it, the later Wittgensteins insistence upon the primacy of practice over theory in epistemology, as well as the self-sufficiency of practice, rehabilitated Aristotles notion of practical rationality. In effect, Wittgenstein re-introduced the Aristotelian idea that norms are potentially present in practices: everything philosophers have wanted from theory has to be gleaned from reflection upon practice. It is important to emphasize Wittgensteins relation to Aristotle here because it is Aristotelian practical philosophy, even more than skepticism or pragmatism, with which Wittgenstein has his deepest affinities. However, it is less that Wittgenstein merely restored a lost view than that the two views of rationality complement one another in profound ways. The resulting view of philosophy is a sobering, because realistic, concept of what philosophy can do in the world, which is none the less important for its sobering character. These are the themes to be explored here. In order to explore them we must, as the participants in the debates around Kuhn did not, go to the very heart of Wittgensteins philosophy, the concept of practice and the idea of rule-following.