At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries we start to see the unraveling of Western European sensibilities and the collapse of the over-reliance on science as the guiding principle of our existence. Among the points that I will want to make in these regards is that all along members of Western European countries have undertaken imperialist expeditions, colonial expansionism and an entire host of eurocentric ideologies and militaristic type activities while claiming the modernist programmatic as justification. Concomitantly, of course, these conquering countries were subjugating, subordinating or enslaving the so-called primitive cultures they encountered because they could not or would not accept the supremacy of science. With this in mind, then, let us proceed to determine how science can be said to have collapsed and in this way help to reveal the true significance of those that would be primitives.
Gottlob Frege: Morning Star vs. Evening Star
Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) was a German philosopher and mathematician that laid the foundation for mathematical logic. In his work, Frege introduced a system of notations with which to solve the problem of multiple generalities. Let me give an example of multiple generalities:
When we of the United States look up in the sky at nightfall we can all see the brightest star in the sky and we know this star as the “Evening Star”, otherwise known as the planet Venus.
On the opposite side of our planet people are able to look up to the sky just as dawn is breaking and see the brightest star which they call the “Morning Star”, also otherwise known as Venus.
The issue Frege sought to resolve is how to treat multiple generalities such as these so as to produce scientific precision.
Frege, then, was credited with introducing propositions containing predicates, quantifiers, and variables – and showing how the concepts and operations of mathematics could be formalized. In addition to his influence in mathematics Frege was equally instrumental in revolutionizing the field of modern philosophy and the philosophy of language.
In a three volume set of texts written by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell and published in 1910, entitled, “Principia Mathematica”, we are provided with further refinements to Frege’s work, in what would become the philosophical foundation for the school of thought known as “Logical Positivism”. The basic intent of logical positivists was the creation of a “picture perfect” language that would represent an exact match between what was said and what was referred to in the world. It wasn’t until Russell and Whitehead’s favorite pupil, Ludwig Wittgenstein, however, in his major work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, that we were given a truly masterful account of the relationship between language and reality.
Let’s take a moment to clarify exactly what these boys were up to. Don’t forget, we are still in the process of refining scientific discourse and this, to be sure, is what logical positivists were on the verge of accomplishing. To this end we should remember Wittgenstein’s dictum that “the object of philosophy was the logical clarification of thought; philosophy was not a theory but an activity”. Armed with such a credo, the logical positivists were then able to set out to clarify the language of science. To accomplish their objective they sought to prove to us that the content of scientific theories could be reduced to truths of logic and mathematics. For the logical positivists, metaphysics was nothing more than strict speculation while morals and ethics were merely emotive. Alternatively, the language of science was tautological and empirically verifiable. They were right, they knew it and they set out to prove it.
The Turn of Events
Just when you think you have nature right where you want her, able to control her to produce goods for the betterment of mankind, she goes and slaps you in the face. In the annals of academia just down the hall from where our boys in the philosophy club were expounding the truths of logic and mathematics, the scholars of science proper, also known as the guys and gals in the white outfits that work with microscopes and tubes, were busy making some very interesting discoveries of their own.
Quantum mechanics (QM) is a set of principles describing physical reality at the atomic level of matter (molecules and atoms) and also at the subatomic level (electrons, protons, and even smaller particles). These descriptions include the simultaneous wave-like and particle-like behavior of both matter and radiation (“wave–particle duality”). What they discovered was that in the quantum mechanics of a subatomic particle, one can never specify its state, such as its simultaneous location and velocity, with complete certainty. This has come to be called the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
In the field of quantum mechanics therefore, the scientific community was actively disproving what logical positivists were actively seeking to prove. Specifically, while the logical positivists were claiming that the language of science was empirically verifiable, physicists were providing proof that nothing, in fact, of an empirical nature, was verifiable. Stated differently, because all matter is in a constant state of motion, physicists had lost the ability to pinpoint external reality.
A Recap on the Accomplishments of Modernist Ideology
Let us take a look back on history and remind ourselves what has been accomplished on the basis of the scientific certainty presumed to be at the core of the modernist programmatic. The first casualty of the modernist programmatic was the murder by strangulation of God. You will recall that we were convinced we no longer needed a supernatural deity to explain life because everything we would ever want to know could be explained through science alone. Off with his head!
The second victim of the modernist programmatic was the slow death by poising of humanity itself. When our beloved social contract theorists were convincing themselves and us that science was so great it even allows us to understand ourselves and our natural and inherent motives, they, through the grace of science, also discovered science’s true version of what our social relations should be like. In the process of implementing their sound, yet varying, political constructs they inadvertently guaranteed the alienation of individuals from their societies and from themselves.
The third victim, which is a tragedy by exclusion, is the loss of an opportunity to have evolved while living in harmony with nature. Had the modernist ideology never raised its ugly head, social relations may have developed in a more egalitarian manner that was inherently able to avoid the stratification, favoritism and prejudice that are so heavily pronounced in the contemporary social reality of modern Western European societies. Let’s hear it for Modernist Ideology!
The Second Life of Ludwig Wittgenstein
Throughout our story I have used historical pivot points to illustrate and emphasize the changes that were taking place in Western European sensibilities. In the case of our linguistic turn, there is no better or more explicit turning point than the 180 degree turn taken by Ludwig Wittgenstein in his philosophical orientation between the logical positivist views of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the ordinary language philosophy of his Philosophical Investigations, first published in 1953. Let me go on to explain why this turnabout was so significant and how it signaled the death by pride, self-righteousness and arrogance, of science.
The scientific methodology of the Tractatus was based on a foundation that came to be known as the verifiability principle. What this meant was that any scientific proposition could be verified through empirical investigation. The proposition was therefore said to be true when it could in fact be verified and false when it could not be verified. As a result of the advent of quantum mechanics, it was then realized that no empirical evidence could ever be truly verified due to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Therefore, science had to establish a new foundation upon which to judge the validity of its propositions.
In terms of linguistic analysis, it was obvious that the logical positivists’ dictum that “the object of philosophy was the logical clarification of thought”, had now been disproven and a new way of determining the truth content of our utterances was very desperately needed. This, then, was the objective of Wittgenstein’s new approach to linguistic analysis espoused in his work published under the title of Philosophical Investigations. Specifically, it was now Wittgenstein’s contention that the meaning of linguistic utterances was influenced not only by the formal resemblance of its constituents to reality but by the situation, the “language game,” in which it was used.
The linguistic turn was now complete, the death of science had been “verified” by the advent of quantum mechanics and the pronouncement of death was delivered by the praised champion of logical positivists, Ludwig Wittgenstein. The ensuing scramble of the scientific community to regain its stronghold over our country’s cultural sensibilities was accompanied by an onslaught of scholarly research from many of the marginalized segments of society that had been previously relegated to second class status within our society because of their ideological affinity to primitive sensibilities.