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).

Allan Janik: Impure reason vindicated

Rationality, Wittgenstein and philosophy of science

There is scarcely a more important concept than rationality either in everyday life or in research. The traditional definition of the human being as rational animal reflects this importance as do the numerous ways in which the word rational and its cognates enter in to common discourse. In everyday life rationality bears upon the ability to reason and to act sensibly. Thus we frequently refer to the “rational” or appropriate thing to do in the circumstances. Conversely to assert that, say, someone’s decision was “irrational” is more or less to question that person’s mental balance. Thus being rational is in a sense being normal. However, the normalcy connected with rationality is devilishly difficult to define in the abstract, even if we have little trouble recognizing it in the concrete. Without a sense of what is normal we have no way of assessing the meaning of change either in everyday life or as students of society. In the academic context the issue of rationality is where the philosophical dimension of human activities most readily comes to light. A mere glance at those contexts provides abundant evidence of that. Thus the concept of rationality bears, among other things, upon choice and decision as it is conceived by economists and other social scientists, on the development of bureaucracies by sociologists, on cognitive structures as con-ceived by linguistics and psychologists, on issues relating to cultural relativism and the nature of religion among moral philosophers and philosophers of social science, on paradigm change among philosophers of science, on the adaptation of ideas to their environment to evolutionary epistemologists and, last but not least upon the very process of reasoning for communications specialists. In many contexts rationality refers to the very idea of Enlightenment conceived as progress through the growth of scientific knowledge. In all of these contexts the issue of rationality is closely linked to normative theories of what ought to be taken to be normal with respect to human action.

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. Wittgenstein’s 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 Wittgenstein’s 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 Wittgenstein’s 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 Wittgenstein’s influence upon the debates in philosophy of science in the wake of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) will be a useful reminder of Wittgenstein’s 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 positivism’s 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 Wittgenstein’s 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 book’s 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 Wittgenstein’s 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 Toulmin’s Foresight and Understanding (1961), had its origins in Wittgenstein, as did the idea so closely associated with Kuhn’s work that all knowledge and a fortiori all science is not and cannot be all of a piece. Wittgenstein’s 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 Wittgenstein’s influence. So there are good reasons for expecting that Wittgenstein will be relevant to any discussion of rationality now. The practice-orientation of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy offers us the possibility of escaping between the Scylla of rationalism and the Charybdis of irrationalism.

However, it is less that Wittgenstein’s 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 Wittgenstein’s insistence upon the primacy of practice over theory in epistemology, as well as the self-sufficiency of practice, rehabilitated Aristotle’s 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 Wittgenstein’s 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 Wittgenstein’s philosophy, the concept of practice and the idea of rule-following.




1Cf. Allan Janik, Wittgenstein's Vienna Revisited (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2001), Ch. 10, pp. 197-212.
2Kjell S. Johannessen has made this point in conversation. Cf. Johannessen, Tradisjoner og skoler i moderne vitenskapsfilosofi (2nd ed.; Bergen: Universitetsforlaget, 1987).
3Cf. R.G. Collingwood, An Essay on Metaphysics (Oxford: Clarendon, 1940).
4Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958).



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