In critical rationalism, fideism, popper, wittgenstein on 26/07/2011 at 5:51 am

A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that’s unlocked and opens inwards; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than push. (Ludwig Wittgenstein)


In Wittgenstein’s posthumous Philosophical Investigations he argues that meaning of terms is equal to its use within language: each ‘linguistic universe’ has its own rules. Content cannot be separated from criteria by which they are judged: criteria is never inter-cultural, but sub-cultural. Each discipline or ‘language’ game has its own standards, which cannot be reducible to other standards or principles. The task of the philosopher is then to describe and clarify standards, not to judge, defend, or criticize proposals laid out within a ‘language game.’ Criticism can only point out the misuse of language, or violations of the rules.

Argument or judgment does not cross disciplines, for they exist only in reference to criteria of the rules of the game. This leads to relativism, where there is no rational choice to be made between competing games: all games are equally defensible.

As Wittgenstein said,

we may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be any thing hypothetical in our considerations. We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place. (Wittgenstein)

Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language … For it cannot give it any foundation either. It leaves everything as it is. (Philosophical Investigations, para. 124).

Kuhn, on the other hand, provides a conservative social interpretation of Wittgenstein: scientific knowledge is consensus amongst scientists. Rationality is commitment to the latest scientific fad. Anyone from within the dominant paradigm that produces sharp criticism may be ostracized in order to hold the line; alternative theories may be rejected as meaningless so as to protect the content of the paradigm. The community, and their solidarity in their commitment to the central dogma of an age, becomes far more important than the truth. As a consequence, existing power structures are legitimized at the cost of the growth of knowledge: no more learning from our mistakes.

There appears to be a rule, in fact the only rule, governing a meta-game when deciding between linguistic games: one cannot criticize the game from outside. Call this the defining rule of the “Descriptive Meta-Game”.


And what is not skilled, ignorant? Have you not observed that there is something halfway between skill and ignorance?

What is that?

You know, of course, that to have correct opinion, if you can give no reason for it, is neither full knowledge—how can an unreasoned thing be knowledge?—nor yet ignorance; for what hits on the truth cannot be ignorance. So correct opinion, I take it, is just in that position, between understanding and ignorance.’ (Plato, Symposium, 202a)

We live in a world of twilight ‘between understanding and ignorance.’ The views that we hold may be true, but we can never know that they are. If we admit our fallibility, we recognize that the content of the games we play may not be true, or their structure may not be conductive towards reaching the truth. If we want to deliberately aim at the truth, we should then adopt another ‘language game’: the meta-game of critical discussion. We attempt to weigh these other language games (both their structure and their content) and see whether or not one is preferable to the other.

If the Descriptive Meta-Game exists, a meta-game that focuses on judging, weighing, or criticizing different games — the “Critical Meta-Game” — is more than permissible: no one committing to the Descriptive Meta-Game can possibly object to its existence: to them it’s just another ‘language game.’ Those that adopt the Critical Meta-Game will return the favor: While people that choose to play the Critical Meta-Game may think that they are right, they understand that they could very well be wrong: the Descriptive Meta-Game might be right. A language game that functions on commitment to a dogma, or the content of that game, could be true.

However, the individual that commits to the Descriptive Meta-Game might incredulously ask, “How do you know that the Critical Meta-Game should be preferred over the Descriptive Meta-Game?” The response parallels Lakatos’ remark,

“The indefatigable sceptic will ask again: ‘How do you know that you improve your guesses?’ but now the answer is easy: ‘I guess.’ There is nothing wrong with an infinite regress of guesses. (Imre Lakatos)

“I guess. When choosing between the Descriptive and Critical meta-games, I will employ the Critical Meta-Meta-Game … There is nothing wrong with an infinite regress of choices, and I will happily retire from it [adopt the Descriptive Meta-Game] if I should learn that I am in error.”


It is criticism that, recognizing no position as final, and refusing to bind itself by the shallow shibboleths of any sect of school, creates that serene philosophic temper which loves truth for its own sake, and loves it not the less because it knows it to be unattainable. (Oscar Wilde)

Unlike other games, no one is committed to the Critical Meta-Game: someone engaged in the critical discussion might criticize this meta-game as impossible, or ultimately futile, or contradictory, &c.

Perhaps this meta-game is impossible, but I think it’s still worth trying, rather than prematurely playing a game that sounds so dry and barren. This is an emotional plea, not a definitive argument (for I think such an argument that would convince someone committed to the Descriptive Meta-Game would be impossible to provide.) As David Pears put it, Wittgenstein’s view produces “a dreary kind of philosophy done under a low and leaden sky” (Pears, Wittgenstein, 184). People engaged in the Critical Meta-Game are interested in climbing mountains rather than living in hovels; interested in the vibrancy of life and the multitude of problems the multitude of life-forms encounter, rather than watching static on the TV.


The best way to choose between competing games, I conjecture, is a mirroring of the diversity in the struggle of life in the diversity in the struggle of ideas: through constant proposals of alternatives and the mutual criticism of these proposals with others. Here we encounter evolutionary epistemology: our previous acceptance of our fallibility leads us to reject more optimist views of knowledge (à la Lorenz’s Behind the Mirror) that claim evolution endowed humans with sensory and mental organs that reliably track truth, and adopt a view that rejects any sort of foundation in evolved physical and mental structures.

The structure of the Critical Meta-Game is that of tentatively adopting proposals, and then subjecting them to harsh criticism from without and from within; the content, then, is much the same: tentatively adopting theories or proposals for action, and then subjecting to harsh criticism.


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