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Lecture examines relationship between Wittgenstein, metaphysics

| Friday, November 10, 2017

While Saint Mary’s students study abroad at Oxford University each year, the attraction between the two institutions expanded to the College hosting visiting friar Fr. David Goodill for a lecture about Ludwig Wittgenstein and metaphysics, which took place in Spes Unica Hall on Thursday.

Goodill said conflicting interpretations of metaphysical concepts — and the role they play in refining an understanding of philosophy — can result in dissenting opinions.

“Jurgen Habermas, the German critical theorist, argues that we are now living in a post-metaphysical age, whereas ancient medieval thinkers worked within the paradigm of object-directed truth,” Goodill said. “Comparisons have been made between Wittgenstein and the pragmatic tradition, which argue that Wittgenstein, in his later works, also emphasizes context and social practice in his account of meaning.”

Examining the implications of Wittgenstein’s focus on humans and their social environment helps assess the extent to which metaphysics informed his thought processes, Goodill said.

“Does Wittgenstein’s later stress on human social practices imply a rejection of the metaphysical tradition?” he said. “Or can we read Wittgenstein in a manner that places him in conversation with philosophers, such as Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas?”

Wittgenstein fulfilled one of the primary duties of a philosopher, Goodill said, because he portrayed complex beliefs — many of which supposedly represent a firm rejection of the metaphysical tradition — in an accessible manner.

“He replaces the tendency to solve philosophical problems by the invasion of metaphysical objects, with a careful analysis of the conceptual distinctions made in ordinary language,” he said. “Red is posited to exist as an object. Attention to the actual use of the word we make when we say ‘red’ shows us how we use it in referring to things that are red.”

Goodill said Wittgenstein’s linguistic prowess sparked debate over whether his words mirror or represent an independent reality.

“Wittgenstein, in his later writings, came to see that the task of the philosopher is not to discover the ontological foundations of the world, but to show how our familiar world is given through the various uses we make of language,” he said. “For many philosophers working for a revival of metaphysics, Wittgenstein offers less refinement, and some strongly oppose him, arguing that he replaces contemplation of truth with a pragmatic account.”

Differing, supported viewpoints emerge from a thorough examination of Wittgenstein’s work, Goodill said.

“Yet there are others, such as his students, … who see Wittgenstein as sharing key aspects of the metaphysical tradition,” Goodill said. “William Desmond argues that Wittgenstein’s later emphasis on the plurality of our linguistic practices, together with his intention of teaching us differences, heralds something of a return to the metaphysical practices of Plato.”

Many prominent thinkers, including Plato, have suggested the origins of metaphysics remain intrinsic to the development of truth, Goodill said. Certain fields of study, he said, rely more heavily on grounded understandings of philosophical principles.

“The relationship between grammar and metaphysics is attested to the metaphysical tradition, and the traditional syllabus followed for philosophical and theological education involved the study of grammar in various related subjects, such as dialect and rhetoric,” Goodill said. “By examining how we express concepts such as existence and causation, philosophers are able to distinguish between grammatical inquiries and those empirical investigations which are carried out in particular sciences, such as zoology or botany.”

Though scientific approaches can resolve some inquiries, certain questions require other forms of thoughtfulness if they are to be answered thoroughly, Goodill said.

“Questions such as ‘Which is the fastest land animal?’ can be answered using the Greek methods of observation and measurement,” Goodill said. “Wittgenstein’s characterization of philosophy as conceptual investigation thus continues a long tradition of grammatical inquiry.”

Goodill said metaphysics involves a broad study of all existence, rather than a more technical, detailed interpretation of certain subject matter.

“Reflections upon the relationship between metaphysics and practice do not in themselves tell us what metaphysics is, but they do move us in the right direction,” he said.

Scholars have accepted several related components as integral to the study and identity of metaphysics, Goodill said.

“For his part, Aquinas follows Aristotle’s various descriptions of metaphysics,” he said. “First, there’s the study of being, secondly, as philosophy and thirdly as divine science and theology.”

The association of metaphysics with theology has sparked controversy concerning philosophical integrity, Goodill said, for some suggest the two entities must interact while others perceive them as entirely separate.

“In particular, describing metaphysics as theology has brought the charge that Aquinas substitutes a real living experience or encounter with the divine for a set of static categories and propositions,” he said. “When we’re thinking of theological concepts, we’re also thinking about the physical, as well. Some people see them as two separate spheres with almost no interaction between them.”

Despite debates over the role of metaphysics, Goodill said, studying Wittgenstein’s works can provide individuals with a more comprehensive understanding of human behavior.

“Throughout his works from early to late, Wittgenstein strove to show light on the questions of human nature and of its origins,” he said. “One … interpretation of Wittgenstein’s philosophical practice sees it as primarily a therapy to combat the restlessness produced by our attempts to solve … problems.”

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About Martha Reilly

Martha is a senior majoring in English literature and political science. She currently serves as Saint Mary's editor but still values the Oxford comma in everyday use.

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