Skepticism Bertrand Russel and Ludwig Wittgenstein's Personal Essay

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  • Subject: Black Studies - Philosophy
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Bertrand Russel and Ludwig Wittgenstein's personal and professional relationship is well-known, with Russel having famously sponsored Wittgenstein's submission of Tractatus Logic-Philosophicus for PhD credit at Cambridge University. Both philosophers were important early contributors to the theory of logical atomism, and although they would both go on to reject many of the ideas central to logical atomism, their work nevertheless represented an important break from philosophical Idealism and set the stage for the developments of the twentieth century (Hylton 105, 116). However, despite the general agreement between Russel's The Philosophy of Logical Atomism and Wittgenstein's Tractatus, the philosophers disagree on the question of skepticism. For Russel, skepticism is an irrefutable position, whereas Wittgenstein characteristically describes skepticism as being "palpably senseless" (Wittgenstein 187). Fully understanding Wittgenstein's meaning requires an analysis of the role of skepticism in both Russel and Wittgenstein's work, but ultimately one can say with relative confidence that Wittgenstein is largely successful in dissolving the problem of skepticism, in that he is able to demonstrate how the notion of skepticism falls within a category of thought exercise that Wittgenstein sees as outside the useful parameters of philosophy because it does not actually contain any kind of sense or meaning.

Examining Wittgenstein's description of skepticism as a kind of self-evident nonsense allows one to not only appreciate how he dissolves the supposed problem of skepticism discussed by Russel, but also gives insight into Wittgenstein's larger criticism of the tendency to propose questions for which there is no answer, something Wittgenstein argues is neither useful nor an appropriate part of philosophy. Instead, Wittgenstein argues for a kind of simple critical methodology of philosophy, in which the full extent of philosophy's purpose is the delineation of what is and is not knowable and intelligible and the pointing out of those statements which fall outside this delineation and thus can be described as senseless or nonsensical. In this way, Wittgenstein is able to simultaneously disregard a number of supposedly crucial problems of philosophy while offering his readers a fairly simple means of performing philosophical work going forward.

Before discussing the notion of skepticism in greater detail, it will be helpful to provide a brief gloss of logical atomism as such, if only to better contextualize both Russell and Wittgenstein's positions. Russel proposes that the idea of logical atomism can firstly be understood to mean that he "share[s] the common-sense belief that there are many separate things," and furthermore, that these separate things are not simply "phases and unreal divisions of a single individual Reality" (Russell 2). This what is meant by the term "atomistic." To this Russell adds the term "logical" because "the atoms that [he wishes] to arrive at as the sort of last residue in analysis are logical atoms and not physical atoms," meaning that Russell is suggesting a mode of philosophy that has as one of its goals the identification and use of fundamental units of logic (Russell 3). This entire notion is based on what Russell sees as the self-evident truism "that the world contains facts, which are what they are whatever we may choose to think about them, and that there are also beliefs, which have reference to facts, and by reference to facts are either true or false" (Russell 6).

In some ways Russel is essentially describing the division between subjectivity and objectivity, with facts representing an objectivity of the universe while beliefs correspond to the subjective experience and interpretation of that objectivity. There is a slight difference, of course, because while one can speak of true or false beliefs it is difficult to speak of true or false subjectivities, in that every subjective experience of objectivity is "true" in the sense that it cannot by definition be anything else, even if that subjective experience leads to untrue conclusions regarding the nature of that objectivity. This is part of why Russell's logical atomism is so useful, because by discussing facts and beliefs rather than the objective and subjective, Russell does not really need to deal with the individual or any of the issues that might arise when attempting to delineate between what is perceived as an individual subjectivity and everything else.

The idea of logical atomism was groundbreaking because it represented a distinct shift away from Idealism, which posited the existence of a single, holistic reality which could not ultimately be atomized or discussed in legitimately discrete units. This shift is important for Russell because it allows him discuss reality with an eye towards "passing from those obvious, vague, ambiguous things, that we feel quite sure of, to something precise, clear, definite, which by reflection and analysis we find is involved in the vague thing we start from, and is, so to speak, the real truth of which that vague thing is a sort of shadow" (Russell 4). Russell is concerned with identifying and parsing the atomistic facts which underlie belief and perception, and as such he adopts a position of skepticism, in that he ultimately presumes that what one believes to be true can be analyzed philosophically in order to determine the relation between that belief and the atomistic facts which underlie it.

However, at the same time he seems to recognize that these facts are, in the end, ultimately unattainable, because although there appears to be a kind of correspondence or congruence between the realm of language (and thought) and the seeming self-evidence of facts, one cannot escape the limitations imposed by subjectivity. As a result, Russell presumes that skepticism is both necessary and irrefutable, because one will never have sufficient access to the actual facts that might refute a position of skepticism regarding any given proposition. This does not prevent Russell from making certain claims or arguing for a particular interpretation of certain facts, but it does suggest a kind of asymptotic futility to the process of philosophical investigation, because in Russell's framework, one can only ever move infinitely toward the clarification and refinement of ambiguously rendered "intrinsic obviousness" without ever coming to a definitive kernel of logic or fact (Hylton 321).

This is why for Russell skepticism is irrefutable. This skepticism can never be fully justified or refuted, because either situation would require a level of accuracy and knowledge that is ultimately impossible through philosophical inquiry and discussion. As will be seen, this decision to view skepticism as irrefutable represents a kind of misidentification of philosophical propositions, because Wittgenstein makes clear that those statements which cannot be refuted or justified are not merely difficult problems, but are actually meaningless in the sense that they cannot refer to anything intelligible.

As mentioned above, Wittgenstein disagreed sharply with Russel in regards to skepticism, saying "scepticism is not irrefutable, but palpably senseless, if it would doubt where a question cannot be asked. For doubt can only exist where there is a question; a question only where there is an answer, and this only where something can be said" (Wittgenstein 187). Wittgenstein's forceful divergence from Russell's position is notable because the two generally agree on the purpose of philosophy and the notion of logical atomism, except that Wittgenstein's conception of the purpose of philosophy ultimately discards a number of questions or ideas as inherently senseless or nonsensical. Because Wittgenstein and Russell agree on a number of concepts central to logical atomism, such as the notion that "the world is the totality of facts, not of things," or that "philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts," it will not be necessary to provide a comprehensive comparison of The Philosophy of Logical Atomism and Tractatus (Wittgenstein 31, 77). Instead, it will be useful to focus on Wittgenstein's notion of what philosophy should be used for, and furthermore, how this conception of what is and is not within the domain of philosophy leads to his statement that skepticism is not irrefutable but rather senseless.

In general, Wittgenstein agrees with Russell that the purpose of philosophy is to move "from those obvious, vague, ambiguous things, that we feel quite sure of, to something precise, clear, definite," in that Wittgenstein proposes that "philosophy should make clear and delimit sharply the thoughts which otherwise are, as it were, opaque and blurred" (Russell 4; Wittgenstein 77). However, there is a subtle detail in Wittgenstein's formulation that leads to his disagreement with Russell, because Wittgenstein specifically argues that "the result of philosophy is not a number of 'philosophical propositions,' but to make propositions clear" (Wittgenstein 77). While this appears largely consistent with Russell's position, it differs slightly in that Wittgenstein proposes that he is not actually interested in making epistemological statements about reality, but rather is concerned with making clear how such statements are made, and whether those statements can actually be said to have any sense or meaning to them. In other words, Wittgenstein is proposing a kind of critical tool or methodology, while Russell can be described as offering his readers a kind of position or paradigm. While on the surface the difference between these two offerings are slight, when examined in…

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