SORITES, ISSN 1135-1349

Issue #14 -- October 2002. Pp. 117-121

Copyright © by SORITES and John M. Weyls

Wittgenstein: Transcendental Idealist?

John M. Weyls


In Jonathan Lear's and Barry Stroud's essay «The Disappearing We,»Foot note 9_1 Lear presents Wittgenstein as transcendental idealist and parallels him with Kant. Stroud, while willing to grant some degree of Kantianness to Wittgenstein, is unwilling to press the parallel as far as Lear does. I will argue that both Lear's account of Wittgenstein as Kantian, and Stroud's objections as to the extent to which the parallel can be taken, are fraught with difficulties. I will attempt to show that the difficulties center on what I take to be Wittgenstein's paradoxical relationship with synthetic a priori judgments. If, like Kant, Wittgenstein holds them to undergird the sciences, then, contrary to what he maintains, he is not entitled to hold that concepts different from the ones we are used to are intelligible. On the other hand, if Wittgenstein rejects them and, consequently, their foundational status, he is committed to either one of two views, both of which he seems to reject -- that mathematical statements are revisable in light of empirical facts, or that they are mere tautologies.

I will try to summarize Kant and Wittgenstein briefly. Kant was concerned to establish the objective validity of certain concepts. He found that while philosophers such as Hume were correct to emphasize an epistemology tied to empirical representations, the problem of not having an empirical representation for a causal concept unavoidably led to skepticism. If Hume was right, associating causes with effects was merely a psychological process, one from which conclusions drawn about causal efficacy were inductively obtained.

However, Kant rejected a metaphysics that lacked a touchstone in experience. He says in the introduction to the first Critique,

          once we are outside the circle of experience, we can be sure of not being contradicted by experience. The charm of extending our knowledge is so great that nothing short of encountering a direct contradiction can suffice to arrest us in our course; and this can be avoided, if we are careful in our fabrications -- which none the less will still remain fabrications (A4/B8).

Kant's project, in part, consists in an attempt to bridge the gap between metaphysical opposites, that is, between subjective conditions of thought and what we would like to think is objectively the case. He thinks that by showing subjective conditions to be the very conditions necessary for experiencing objects, their objective validity is secured. Synthetic a priori judgments articulate these conditions; synthetic because they enlarge our knowledge about experience, a priori because they are the necessary conditions under which experience itself is possible. Accordingly, the concepts conveyed by these judgments are constructed a priori, as they reflect these conditions; they express, with the strictest universality, how experience is, must be, and will be. By negotiating between, on one side, what we take to be objective and, on the other, subjectivity, Kant thinks he stakes out a more tenable middle position, one that reconciles sense and mind.

Wittgenstein, too, negotiated between two camps. Steve Gerrard argues that:Foot note 9_2

          The history of philosophy can partially be characterized by what Hilary Putnam has called the recoil phenomenon: an oscillation between two extreme positions, with each camp reacting to the untenable part of the other, resulting, finally, in two untenable positions ... on one side there are those who deny objectivity in all fields in all ways; there are only incommensurable narratives. On the other side are those who attempt to secure objective validity, but do so at the cost of clothing it in metaphysical mystery ... Wittgenstein argued against both sides. His ultimate achievement in the philosophy of mathematics was to stake out a defensible intermediate position between two untenable warring factions (CCW 171).

It's not hard to see that both Kant and Wittgenstein are essentially reacting against the same things. That is, psychologism on one hand, and, if not objectivity itself, the metaphysics of objectivity on the other. Like Kant's, Wittgenstein's is a critical philosophy. Newton Garver goes as far as to say that «One cannot read any of his works without a powerful sense of familiar ideas being subjected to devastating scrutiny» (CCW 162). But if I am right in what follows, Wittgenstein's arrows of devastating scrutiny in fact turn out to be boomerangs.

First, consider one particular conclusion Lear draws from analogizing Wittgenstein with Kant. Lear stresses a strong tie between Kant's synthetic unity of apperception and his own claim that for Wittgenstein, the inclination to partake in a community of language users or rule followers arises from being `so minded' to share the same cognitive dispositions.Foot note 9_3 That is, they agree in a «form of life.»Foot note 9_4 For Kant, the synthetic unity of apperception results from a spontaneous act that is capable of generating the representation `I think' concomitantly with every other representation.Foot note 9_5 More simply, representations are accompanied by a consciousness, e.g. mine, conceived as that required to carry out the syntheses from which the representations are the result. If we construe Wittgenstein's investigations as broadly transcendental, Lear argues:

          we find ourselves as speakers and understanders of language that is used both as a means of thought and of communication, and ask `what must be the case for this to be possible? ... One answer is that the representations to which I am able to append an `I understand' must also be capable of accepting a `we are so minded' (230-31).

and further,

          we come to see that there is no concept of being `other minded.' The concept of being minded in any way at all is that of being minded as we are. To put it in Kantian terms: language is that in the concept of which the manifold of our representations is united (233-34).

For Lear, othermindedness is rejected by Kant and Wittgenstein equally; it amounts to not synthesizing the sensible manifold according to conditions Kant thinks necessary for such synthesis, or, in Wittgenstein's case, not sharing a «form of life.» Kant's experience is Wittgenstein's language. Othermindedness means having neither.

Lear suggests that on Wittgenstein's account, something like the following is the case: `7 + 5 = 12' -- Kant's exemplar of a synthetic a priori judgment -- is the kind of proposition we are disposed to assert. When we study the Investigations, we come to assert that `we are so minded' to assert `7 + 5 = 12.' After realizing that we could not be `other minded,' we also realize that there is no alternative possibility to `7 + 5 = 12.'Foot note 9_6

I want to press the idea that Wittgenstein accepts the synthetic a priori in much the same way Kant does -- as foundational to both mathematics and natural science -- i.e., serving as objectively valid principles upon which their epistemic claims rest, only to uncover a problem that holding such a position involves. Stroud quotes Wittgenstein to refute Lear's claim that Wittgenstein's philosophy provides no room for alternative ways of thinking, and I point to the same passage to make a different argument. Wittgenstein says that if the formation of concepts can be explained by facts of nature, we can, for purposes of illustration, «invent fictitious natural history» and that

          I am not saying: if such-and-such facts of nature were different people would have different concepts (in the sense of a hypothesis). But: if anyone believes that certain concepts are absolutely the correct ones, and that having different ones would mean not realizing something that we realize -- then let him imagine certain very general facts of nature to be different from what we are used to, and the formation of concepts different from the usual ones will become intelligible to him (PI p230).

Now if Wittgenstein's investigations are transcendental, then it's reasonable to think that he accepts some form or other of a priori concepts. But if he accepts them in the way Kant does, i.e., as being comprised of both analytic and synthetic propositions, then he is not entitled to imagine general facts of natural history, except in a trivial sense, to be different from the ones we are used to. All Wittgenstein is entitled to imagine are a posteriori differences -- different particular facts, such as, for example, that Vesuvius did not erupt in 79AD or that he is not the author of the Investigations, and the different `very general facts' that we may imagine inductively follow from the different empirical content of particular representations. One can imagine, say, different quantitative magnitudes of empirical constants employed in mathematical hypotheses, e.g. a gravitational constant of 12.8m/s squared instead of 9.8, or a virtually infinite number of qualities predicated to any object one can think of that may differ in every respect from those encountered in experience. But these differences are trivial in the sense that what is objective in the concepts remains unchanged: Whatever their empirical content, the concepts conform to principles conceived within the limits of what is possible under subjective conditions of thought. If we press the Kant analogy, such concepts might conform to quantity, quality, relation, and modality. Finally, Wittgenstein's remarks concerning the non-revisabilty of mathematical statements suggests support for his acceptance of a priori principles: «Mathematics as such is measure, not thing measured» he says (RFM III-75). In line with the above comment about mathematical hypotheses, Wittgenstein conceives mathematics as changing only in light of mathematical considerations, not empirical ones.Foot note 9_7

While Stroud's objection to Lear's account succeeds by rightly pointing out that Wittgenstein says `alternative' concepts are possible, his position fails. If Wittgenstein rejects the objective validity of synthetic a priori judgments, then he is entitled to imagine `othermindedness.' But if this is so, then he must accept that either the judgments giving rise to the fundamental concepts employed in natural science and the mathematical hypotheses they entail are potentially revisable in light of empirical considerations, or that these judgments are not synthetic, and the `very general facts' of nature are reducible to tautologies -- a position that Wittgenstein came to reject before writing the Investigations.Foot note 9_8 If such judgments are not a priori, we have the former; if they are not synthetic, we have the latter. Keeping in mind what he says about the nonrevisability of mathematical statements, along with his rejection of a kind of early Russellian Platonism,Foot note 9_9 neither view is one that I think Wittgenstein would embrace.

Finally, there are, of course, similarities that emerge when comparing Wittgenstein with Kant. Lear is right to point to an analogy between Kant's synthetic unity of apperception and the conditions under which he thinks, in Wittgenstein's sense, make rule-following and language-use possible. Gerrard's discussion brings to light Wittgenstein's attempt to negotiate the interminable debate among ideologues of competing epistemologies; and the «devastating scrutiny» to which Wittgenstein subjected subjectivist and objectivist ideas alike smacks of Kant. But any substantive comparison must take into account whether, and the sense in which, Wittgenstein holds the synthetic a priori. Neither Lear nor Stroud address this issue squarely. Unmistakably, Wittgenstein is Kantian. But the question as to whether his philosophy is remains.


John M. Weyls
Philosophy, SIUC
Carbondale, IL.