Monday, January 08, 2018



D. R. Khashaba

In September last, on my ninetieth birthday, I posted a blog titled “Ninety” as a farewell to ‘doing philosophy’. Though I continued to post blogs and have even been flirting with the idea of yet another book on Plato, I looked to all of that as no more than ‘parerga’ to idle away my remaining days. But when I came across an article by Professor Alan Lightman reviewing Exact Thinking in Demented Times by Professor Karl Sigmund on the Vienna Circle I felt that I had struck gold and could not let the chance slip away. Here, clearly, succinctly, and precisely are set views that I have been combating in all my writings. Here I have the opportunity to set out my opposed views in some order, not by way of commenting on the rich review article but by way of answering the foundational beliefs and presuppositions of the Logical Positivists’ credo as so plainly expressed here.

First an explanatory note to ward off a possible misunderstanding. The Vienna Circle consisted of a group of mathematicians, physicists and philosophers coming together to brood “over such questions as the nature of science, the nature of philosophy and the dividing line between the two”. This innocent-looking delineation of purpose hides a damaging presupposition; not that there is anything wrong with mathematicians, physicists, and philosophers coming together to exchange views; any broadening of one’s outlook is beneficial, but to suppose that these intellectuals working in their diverse fields can somehow cooperate to reach answers to any common questions leads to serious error on all sides. More of this in what follows; indeed this is the bottom line of this paper and cannot be adequately treated in a preliminary note. I will hereunder reproduce salient statements from Professor Lightman’s article and then give my answer.

LIGHTMAN: “The distinguished members brooded over such questions as the nature of science, the nature of philosophy and the dividing line between the two”.

KHASHABA: Between science and philosophy there is not a dividing line but an impassable chasm. Science and philosophy are two radically distinct domains dealing with two entirely separate realms of being. The defining law of science is objectivity. Philosophy proper is exclusively concerned with the subjective. The first to see this clearly and state it explicitly was Socrates, at any rate Plato’s Socrates as represented in the Phaedo in a crucial passage (95e-102a) that scholars have been strangely blind to. By disregarding this Socratic insight both scientists and philosophers erred gravely: philosophers made fools of themselves by trying to reach factual knowledge about the natural world and scientists often produced absurdities as soon as they ventured beyond their proper domain. (See my “Stephen Hawking’s Bad Metaphysics”.) Kant rediscovered the Socratic insight but has been grossly misunderstood: I will revert to this further below.

L.: … said Schlick: ‘The scientist seeks the truth (the correct answers) and the philosopher attempts to clarify the meaning (of the questions)’; what meaningful statements can be made about the world; and the challenges of language itself in describing the world.”

Kh.: So many issues are raised in the above-quoted lines. I will try to be brief, leaving side-issues untouched. ‘Truth’ in the common acceptation of the term has no relevance in philosophy which is concerned with metaphysical reality (see further below). Although the clarification of language (meanings) in general is a role of philosophy, science alone has to elucidate the meaning of its own concepts and – more importantly – its own questions.

L.: “The members of the Vienna Circle were not shy about asking the big questions, nor giving their answers. We still struggle with the aftermath.”

Kh.: The ‘big questions’ relating to the physical universe when formulated in scientific terms and dealt with by scientific methods are the prerogative of science. But questions about ultimate origins, ultimate ends, and ultimate values cannot be dealt with by scientific methods. When scientists deal with these questions they can only return absurdities. hen philosophers deal with these they produce myths, myths that ease our yearning for understanding; but when philosophers go on to assert that their mythical representations are ‘true’ of the actual world they commit the sin that has brought philosophy to its present-day disgrace. Science gives us ‘knowledge’ of appearances, in the strict sense of the term, as what appears to us and our instruments, but of the core of things we know nothing. This is what both Socrates and Kant tried to make us see, (More of this below.)

L.: “… the members of the Circle … were unified in rejecting the abstractions of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who proposed that there were things in themselves outside perception, and knowledge independent of human experience.”

Kh.: I am completely baffled by the failure of eminent thinkers, among both scientists and philosophers, to understand Kant. Kant harmed himself by burying his core insight under the imposing architectonic of his transcendental system. The core insight is a (conscious or unconscious) revival of the insight in the Socratic-Platonic doctrine of Forms and it is as simple as it is profound. The impressions that come to us through our senses (the ‘ideas’ of Locke) are in themselves and by themselves mute, meaningless, until the Forms (Plato) or Concepts of the Understanding (Kant), engendered in the mind and by the mind, are applied to them; then and only then do they have meaning for us. A thing in the natural world is for us the sum of the sensuous impressions that come to us from the thing. What is behind or beneath those impressions we never know. Only in one place do we know that hidden noumenon: that one place is our own internal reality. All our sophisticated ‘knowledge’ of the natural world – galaxies, electrons, neuron – rests finally on observation of impressions coming to us from that world. That is the meaning of Kant’s assertion that all empirical knowledge is knowledge of phenomena. To say that Kant “proposed that there were things in themselves outside perception” is a distortion of Kant’s position. With the sole exception of our own inner subjective reality, the inner reality of things is never and can never be known to us. To say that the sum of impressions that come to us from a thing is all there is in that thing, is to pass judgment on what we do not know and can never know. Our inner reality is not “outside experience”; it is the ground, fount, condition of all experience. Let me stop here, else I would be rewriting the Critique of Pure Reason all over again.

L.: “Schlick and Hahn and Carnap proclaimed, instead, that all our beliefs should be testable and verified, a philosophical theory that became known as ‘logical positivism.’”

Kh.: Kh.: Our ‘beliefs’ about the natural world should certainly be empirically testable, but statements relating to values, ends, and ultimate realities lie outside the jurisdiction of empirical science. Professor Lightman says as much in a bracketed statement following the above-quoted lines.

L.: “At age 29, Wittgenstein wrote to Russell (perhaps the greatest living Western philosopher at the time), ‘I think I have solved the problems once and for all.’ By ‘problems,’ the young Wittgenstein meant all the problems of philosophy.”

Kh.: Wittgenstein’s philosophical career was as tragic as his personal life. He ‘solved’ all philosophical problems by declaring that all philosophical statements arise out of ignorance of the principles of Symbolism and out of misuse of language. When he first met Russell both of them had high hopes. But soon their positions diverged to the point of becaming completely opposed. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus concluded that all logic was empty, says nothing. Although Wittgenstein stated that conclusion clearly and emphatically, Russell wrote an enthusiastic introduction that was actually a complete misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the young man’s position, as Wittgenstein himself said. Later, in My Philosophical Development, Russell expressed his bitter disappointment in Wittgenstein and showed that neither of them could understand the other. In my opinion, Wittgenstein had an inborn yearning for metaphysical understanding that was suppressed by the teaching of Frege and Russell. I venture to suggest that had Wittgenstein studied Philosophy in Berlin instead of Engineering he would have had a richer and happier philosophical career.

Professor Lightman concludes by relating a freak incident in which Schlick was involved, then remarks, “It was an illogical act but one we can understand.” I find this insightful but refrain from adding to the length of this paper by commenting.

D. R. Khashaba

January 8, 2018

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