Carlo Penco
Wittgenstein in relation to our times
Conference in honour of G.H.von Wright
Rome 10 -19 -1996

(text of the conference submitted to Kluwer)

1. A problem posed by von Wright

In "Wittgenstein in relation to his times" Von Wright1 poses a dilemma regarding the relationship between three wittgensteinian tenets:
(i) the view that individual's beliefs and thoughts are entrenched in accepted language games and socially sanctioned forms of life
(ii) the view that "philosophical problems are disquietudes of the mind caused by some malfunctioning in the language games, and hence in the way of life of the community".
(iii) the "rejection of the scientific-technological civilisation of industrialised societies".
The dilemma is the following: is Wittgenstein's rejection of technological civilisation strictly linked to his general view of philosophy? Or is it "only contingently - that is for historical and psychological reasons, connected with the other two in Wittgenstein's thought"?
Von Wright argues, even with some doubts, for a strong link between Wittgenstein's rejection of technological society and his general approach to philosophy; the argument is as follows: "because of the interlocking of language and ways of life, a disorder in the former reflects disorder in the latter. If philosophical problems are symptomatic of language, producing malignant outgrowths which obscure our thinking, then there must be a cancer in the Lebensweise, in the way of life itself" (p.119).
The argument seems to be not compelling; among some of the main philosophical problems Wittgenstein is willing to "cure" there are misunderstandings lying in the history of our language much time before our technological civilisation (Wittgenstein refers to Augustine and Plato as suffering these disorder of language). We should generalise the criticism to technological society to the effect of enclosing ancient Greece. In this way the criticism seems to loose all its polemical vein, becoming a generic criticism of the structures of western thought since Greece. But probably this was the point Wittgenstein wanted to make in his criticism of the idea of progress and technological civilisation.
I will argue therefore for the second horn of the dilemma, relying on another kind of de facto argument: contemporary technological civilisation is embodying some of Wittgenstein's main ideas (we might also note that these ideas are among the strongest points Wittgenstein gives against Greek classical tradition in philosophy). Therefore Wittgenstein's philosophy and modern civilisation seem really compatible, notwithstanding the distrust of modern civilisation which is apparent in Wittgenstein personality.

2. Meeting between Wittgenstein's ideas and contemporary technological research

I will give here shortly three cases of strong affinities between the development of our technological civilisation and Wittgenstein's ideas.
The first case is the case of the idea of "frame" and "prototype" in A.I. and cognitive science. It has been developed starting from an explicit reference Minsky 1975 developed his well known theory of frames, as concepts with defaul values which can be changed depending on new information. In stating his theory Minsky relied explicit on Wittgenstein's idea of family resemblance predicates. The acceptance of this trend of thought has been widespread in different research environment, especially in engineering environment with the construction of adequate formal tools (from semantic networks to default logics), and in cognitive science environments (starting with an analogous work on Wittgenstein's ideas developed by Eleanore Rosh on the concept of prototype).
The second case I want to offer has deep similarity with Wittgenstein's idea of language- games. The case is the idea of toy-worlds. The idea behind the construction of toy worlds (one of the most famous is SHRDLU, by Terry Winograd, 1972) can be expressed as the following: in order to simulate human language understanding you need to have a better mastery of the surrounding world, the background-knowledge and the actions which accompany the linguistic behaviour. But it is almost impossible to have a complete mastery of that; therefore you need to isolate some simple cases. In a toy-world very simple actions are performed, following simple orders, in a situation very similar to Wittgenstein's builders (PU ¤ 2). As in Wittgenstein's language games, the analysis of the working of language emerges from the analysis of very simple situations2.
The third case is the case of Contextual reasoning (see McCarthy 1993). Limited contexts of action are not only devised just in order to study the working of language; language itself is being now considered as a web of different contexts, where contexts are defined in a rich way as local theories of a limited aspect of the world. In some theories contexts, even if not organised in a hierarchic fashion, are connected with rules which permit passages from some contexts to some other contexts. Here we find a formal expression of the most characteristic feature of Wittgenstein's viewpoint on understanding: to understand an expression is to understand the language game in which it is at home, to master the particular technique of the language (game) in question (PU ¤ 199). If there is some truth in the idea that meaning is use in context, this trend in A.I. seems to be one of the most perspicuous representations of it.

3. A first answer : Wittgenstein against scientism

An immediate reaction in remarking these similarities could be: who cares? Wittgenstein didn't like western technological civilisation; western civilisation technological liked Wittgenstein. There is nothing more to say.
But, it seems to me, the evidences given above are related to a central core in Wittgenstein philosophy: the idea of meaning as use, of the vagueness of our concepts and their being embedded in social practices and activities, together with the impossibility to give a straightforward theory of "the" language seem to be ideas which are so central to Wittgenstein's philosophy that it does not seem possible to detach them from the overall view of his philosophy. This assumption brings us back to von Wright's problem.
Let us give a more detailed look at Wittgenstein's rejection of the scientific-technological civilisation. The theme appears to be a constant in Wittgenstein's attitude, from the criticism of Tractatus against the blind belief of modernity in scientific laws, through the preface to Philosophische Bemerkungen where he express his distrust of western civilisation to the last passages from the end of the forties quoted in Vermischte Bemerkungen: here he consider the "apocalyptic view of the world" and he asserts that it is "not nonsensical to believe that the age of science and technology is the beginning of the end of humanity" and that the idea of progress "is a delusion" and that mankind in seeking scientific knowledge "is falling into a trap"[VB 107-8]. A comment follows which may be is one of the strongest, but also somehow most na•ve remarks of dissatisfaction with modern world: science and industry will "condense the world into a single unit", but it will be a world with no peace: "because science and industry do decide wars, or so it seems"[VB 120].
Could we say that Wittgenstein was nostalgic in respect of better - or more honest - kinds of war given in the past (included the one he was engaged with)? This is a question which will be remain unanswered, even if we may accept the suggestion given by Von Wright, that Wittgentein's world view "has no vision for the future; rather it has a touch of nostalgia about the past" (p.115). We may certainly assume at least that his attitude against western civilisation is embittered by the war experience and strongly dependent by historical accident. But how much this attitude is strictly tied with his philosophy?
Wittgenstein's apocalyptic remarks seem to be always mitigated by some critical attitude which compels him to take some distance in respect of the apocalyptic point of view: He asserts that "any speculation about a coming collapse of science and industry is, for the present and for a long time to come, nothing but a dream". And if we read carefully the passages, we note that "the apocalyptic view of the World" is not positively assumed but only considered as an hypothesis.
Did he ever adhere to the apocalyptic hypothesis? explicitly he does not; he makes, in few places, strong remarks on the negative sides of technology3 (such as: "a technical development in film production does not correspond of a development in style"). But such kinds of assertion does not imply that a technical development cannot have a value for itself. In fact, this reaction against technology in art contrasts with the place the concept of "technique" has in his last writings. Beyond that, Wittgenstein's attitude to science has been always respectful: science is part of our representation of the world; it is accepted for such, it is part of our back)ground. (On Certainty 600-604). This general recognition is also a result of his ever lasting appreciation for science and scientific endeavour (we cannot forget his great admiration for Boltzmann and Hertz), together with his admiration for any technical abilities and skill and his love for mathematical proof techniques (Kreisel speaks of his ability in diagonalization games when he was teaching foundations of mathematics).
On the other hand he reacts against "popular semi-philosophical speculations" made by scientists, which "pander to people's curiosity to be titillated by the wonder of science without having to do any of the real hard work involved in understanding what science is about"4. This is just one of many examples of his respect of sane scientific work, to be defended by superficiality and ideology. Appreciation of science runs against scientism.
A first answer of our dilemma therefore could be: Wittgenstein's philosophy is against scientism, but not against science and technology in principle. Plane scientific work is admired: science idolatry is feared. The constitutive role of science and technique in our thinking habits is well accepted and recognised, the role of the application of science and industry together (technology and the idea of progress) is considered dangerous. Both stances seem integral to his general attitude; but they are not clearly distinguished in his writings, where the second seems to involve a general disapproval of science which in not really involved. We might conclude: being against scientism is an integral part of Wittgenstein philosophy and can be shared also by researches involved in our technological civilisation as a central attitude against any attempt to believe that science and technology may resolve the problems they have been responsible of5.
But this is not enough for an answer; even if we assume that Wittgenstein's reaction against technological civilisation is strictly depending on historical factor and not linked to his philosophical thought, there is still something of this antagonism with technological society which has a deep role in Wittgenstein's philosophy: the reaction against the influence of scientific way of thinking on philosophers, of which we have many testimonies in is life and in his writings.

4. A deeper dissimilarity with wetern culture?

We are therefore led to reconsider his distrust of the idea of progress as a symptom a deeper dissimilarity non only of his personality, but also of his philosophy, in respect of western civilisation. Von Wright suggests that his idea of philosophy as a cure of the malfunctioning of language leads to the idea that "there must be a cancer in the way of life itself". If we assume that the cancer is the idea of scientific progress, we may be let to consider Wittgenstein method in philosophy as an alternative to the scientific way of thinking. We could therefore consider his deeper mistrust in science as a desire to substitute science with some kind of new way of looking at things. Relying on contemporary literature on Wittgenstein6, we could label his method "anthropological method" or "morphological method": this method could be considered an alternative to scientific progress, a strategy to go deeper into the essence, instead of looking around for more and more data and results (just remember the preface to Philosophische Bemerkungen).
In this case his distrust towards scientific progress would remind us of the romantic Goethean attitude towards Newtonian physics, against which Goethe wanted a new kind of way of looking at the world. Wittgenstein's reference to Spengler gives a more determinate impression of this general distrust against western civilisation, and Waismann's disappointment against Wittgenstein in his last days is another sign of Wittgenstein distrust against science in general.
On the other hand, although he was certainly influenced by Spengler, Wittgenstein's remarks on him are critical; as far as Goethe is concerned is worth noting that Goethe is not mentioned among the main influences on his ideas: that could be a sign that Goethe had for him the greatest influence, so great to be not perceived as such, because too obviously part of his intellectual environment and therefore of his mental structure. But, although we may detect many great influences in Wittgenstein work, we are still facing a man who gave rise to the ideas of Wiener Kries; and the respect for mathematics and science as a fundamental feature of human culture lurks behind any wittgensteinian analysis; so in his last remarks on colour he reacts against Goethe's pretension to give a "theory", as an alternative to Newton's one: "Goethe's theory of the origin of the spectrum isn't a theory of its origin that has proved unsatisfactory; it is really not a theory at all. Nothing can be predicted by means of it." (BuF,III,125;cfr.I,70) Goethe's work is a conceptual analysis, of the kind Wittgenstein wanted to pursue; to define his kind of analysis he has to be constantly aware of its difference from scientific analysis. But that does not mean to despise of scientific analysis; we need to distinguish the two in order to avoid conceptual confusion, which happens when philosophers try to be scientific and scientists try to philosophise.
Even if it is clear that Wittgenstein felt very clearly the danger of the invasion of scientific way of thinking inside philosophy, it seems that his own philosophy, free from this danger, is in the best position to interact with the scientific and technological culture of our times. Philosophy sometimes, even if it not its only aim, may prepare the way to science; it may deprive it of preconceptions and conceptual confusion. Once prejudices and misunderstandings are dissolved, the way is open for actual research on substantial problems. Wittgenstein anticipated many results, and certainly contributed to the building of many ideas which are essential in many sectors of our technological culture. Some of the ideas he was struggling for are now commonsense. But the kind of job he wanted philosophy to do is still to be pursued not against, but inside our civilisation.


We have to distinguish between an apocalyptic attitude and a criticism internal to our civilisation, which is permitted by its own development. As Wittgenstein realised, technological civilisation is going to unify the world in a single unit, whose cohesion is given by technology. A main core of this coherent unity is given, in technology and industry, by the new computational paradigm, which requires detailed analysis of how language works. In such a work people are compelled to go deeper and deeper in the understanding of the subtleties of our natural language; and they are led to develop insights similar to Wittgenstein's or actually to pick up his ideas. Although Wittgenstein's personal remarks on civilisation can be taken over by apocalyptic thinkers, his overall philosophy can become integral part of our technological civilisation and be a stimulus on one of the many different directions this civilisation may take7.
The strong passionate personality and the Jewish background have certainly given a great stress to the contrast between Wittgenstein's ethical attitude and the disaster of the apparent lack of values in the technological society as Wittgenstein felt it; but Wittgenstein's philosophy remains a contradictory tension which tries to hold together Jerusalem, Manchester and Athens, or, as he once said, Religion, Wissenshaft und Kunst [TB 8.1.1916].


J.McCarthy 1993 "Notes on formalizing contexts" in IJCAI 1993.
B.McGuinness (ed.) 1982Wittgenstein and his times, Blackwell, Oxford,
M. Minsky 1975 "A framework for representing knowledge", in Winston (ed) The psychology of computer vision, New York, McGraw-Hill.
C. Penco 1997 "Holism in A.I.?" in Structure and Norm in Science edited by M.L.Dalla Chiara, K. Doets; D. Mundici, J. van Benthem, Kluwer (forthcoming)
R. Rhees 1984 (ed.) Recollections of Wittgenstein, OUP, Oxford.
T. Winograd 1972 Understanding Natural language, Academic Press, New York
. G.H. von Wright 1978 "Wittgenstein in relation to his Times" in Wittgenstein and his impact on Contemporary thought, Wien, Holder-Pichler-Tempsky, 1978; reprinted in McGuinness 1982 and in von Wright 1982.
G.H. von Wright 1982 Wittgenstein, Oxford, Blackwell
G.H. von Wright 1989 Science, Reason and Value, The Royal Swedish Academy of science, 1989.
G.H. von Wright 1995 "Wittgenstein and XX Century", in R. Egidi (ed) Wittgenstein, Mind and Language , Kluwer Academic Press, Dordrecht
L. Wittgenstein 1953 Philosophische Untersuchungen/ilosophical Investigation, Blackwell, Oxford. [PU]
L. Wittgenstein, 1977 Bemerkungen Ÿber die Farben/Remarks on colours, Blackwell, Oxford. [BuF]
L. Wittgenstein 1977Vermischte Bemerkungen, Surkamp Verlag, FrankfŸrt am Main (ed.G.H. Von Wright) [VB]

1 This very clear paper has been originally given at Wittgenstein Symposium in Kirchberg in 1977, where I have had the occasion to listen to it; I quote here from the version appeared in McGuinness 1982, p.118.
2 Differently from the frame theory, Toy Worlds have not been explicitly connected with Wittgenstein's ideas from the start. For a more explicit connection see Penco 1997.
3 Here "technology" may be defined, following von Wright 1989 "science plus industry" ; but Wittgenstein never uses this term; he speaks only of "technique" and "technical":
4 Conv. with Drury - Rhees p.117
5 This belief is what characterises scientism in Von Wright 1989, ¤9. This belief can easily be connected with the desire to substitute science for philosophy and to overlap empirical problems with conceptual problems, which was one of the main concern in Wittgenstein's criticism of the scientific point of view.
6 It is enough here to refer to the results given in the paper by Andronico, in this volume.
7 As Wittgenstein said, when we think of the future, sometimes we forget the following: "dass sie [die Zukunft] nicht gerade lŠuft, sondern in einer Kurve, und ihre Richtung sich Kosntant Šndern" (VB, 14 from 1929).