A Wittgensteinean argument

In his Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein asks us to: “Compare knowing and saying: how many feet high Mont Blanc is; how the word ‘game’ is used is; how a clarinet sounds. If you are surprised that one can know something and not be able to say it, you are perhaps thinking of a case like the first. Certainly not of one like the third.”

What is Wittgenstein noting here? It is certainly fair to list as a necessary condition for knowing how high Mont Blanc is that one is able to say how high it is. If someone could not say it, we would be right to doubt whether she could know it. The temptation is to take this one case and form the general principle: a necessary condition for knowing x is being able to say x. But certainly this wouldn’t apply to the musical case: if someone could pick out the clarinet on the CD, we should say she knows what a clarinet sounds like, regardless of whether she could describe the sound. (And we should also say that someone who could describe the sound, but not pick out a clarinet, does not know how it sounds).

This is related to Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblances. Why do we call different things by the same name? (Socrates, for example, frequently asked such questions about virtue terms). Rather than responding with necessary and sufficient conditions, Wittgenstein argues that different examples of the same concept might actually have nothing significant in common. We call many different things “games,” Wittgenstein says in Investigations 65; “look and see whether there is anything common to all.” Game #1 might have characteristics A, B, C, and D; game #2 characteristics B, C, D, and E; #3 C, D, E, and F; #4 D, E, F, and G; and #5 E, F, G, and H. Thus, even though #1 and #5 are both properly called “games,” they have nothing significant in common. The epistemological mistake is to focus only on examples #1 and #2, determine the criteria on the basis of these examples, and then either ignore #5 or proscribe that it cannot, in fact, be a game. On this view, the selection and salience of examples becomes a primary philosophical task.

Wittgenstein rarely leaves the realm of examples for generalizing, but in remark 593 he summarizes a lesson here: “A main cause of philosophical disease is a one-sided diet: one nourishes one’s thinking with only one kind of example.” The complex history of Western epistemology confirms Wittgenstein’s diagnosis. For much of philosophy’s history, mathematics, particularly Euclidean geometry, has been held as the paradigm of knowledge. The theorems of Euclidean geometry are derived a priori; holding this not just as the chief characteristic of one kind of knowledge, but as a necessary condition for all knowledge, has led to skepticism after skepticism.

After Newton, the admitting of physics to the paradigms of knowledge made all the difference in the world to Western philosophy. More recent advances in the epistemology of science have been due to the recognition that biology, say, need not have the same criteria of confirmation as physics. Philosophy advances (partly) by the appreciation of better and more diverse examples. What was once considered a minor technical problem to be solved later finally becomes the dominant concern of new research programs.

The point of the previous discussion and examples was to serve as the background for this relevant example. Social contract theory in the tradition of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Rawls has been a dominant strain in Western political thought.

The contemporary philosopher Annette Baier looked at this tradition through different lenses. Social contract theory, she argued, looks at the moral relationship between human beings as if we were all members of a gentlemen’s club. What are the morally significant characteristics in such clubs?

There are, for example, the assumptions of equal status, symmetrical desires, static rationality, and mutual disinterest. Baier asks us to perform the thought experiment of taking as the paradigm moral relationship not that between gentleman and gentleman, but between mother and infant. Then all the assumptions change, and the very nature of what it means to be a moral relationship at all undergoes a transformation. The very act of selecting a different example results in the most serious reformation. Now, of course, it is not a necessary truth that such a change in example is due to the fact that Professor Baier is a woman, but it is hardly a coincidence that such considerations most powerfully arose when women first became academic philosophers.

My Wittgensteinean argument has been: the pursuit of truth depends on the selection of a plurality of salient and representative examples; the selection of such examples is, at the very least, partially determined by what strikes the individual as salient; thus, the pursuit of truth partially depends on a community of seekers of truth who consider different examples salient.

What kinds of diversity are epistemologically relevant is a contingent matter, and it is a contingent truth that in our particular society at our particular time, race and gender (and not, say, the color of one’s eyes) are crucial (but not necessarily overriding) factors in determining what examples an individual considers worth noting and investigating. This becomes especially significant in the case of individuals who are members of groups that have historically been marginalized in the academy.

Thus, in addition to the moral, political, and pedagogical reasons for Williams College’s affirmative action programs, our institution, as a community of seekers of truth, depends on the increasing participation of diverse and previously marginalized voices.

If the United States Supreme Court voids affirmative action programs, that would not be the first time that government has made philosophy more difficult.