Ludwig Wittgenstein begins his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus with the famous words “Die Welt is alles, was der Fall ist.” The world is all that is the case. Over the last few days there have been a number of attempts to distinguish science, as the study of what is the case, from other disciplines or modalities of thinking which also take note of what is the case. And, just for the record, all these discussions are really (to use Wittgenstein’s famous word for it) doing philosophy, and consitute an attempt to say what is the case with various kinds of utterance, whether scientific, moral, religious, and so on. For instance, Russell Blackford attempts to do something like this in his Talking Philosophy post, entitled “Is Science So Limited?” And Jerry Coyne has addressed the question in a number of posts: “Brother Blackford and Other Ways of Knowing,” “Can philosophy or religion alone establish facts,” and “Guardian writer foolishly claims that religion answers factual questions,” to go no further than three, and we should include Jim Houston’s Talking Philosophy piece here as well, since it was at least an oblique response to Jerry Coyne’s rhetorical challenge to Keith Ward about the factuality of religion. And all of them are doing philosophy, whether well or ill.
One of the real issues here, just to fill in a bit of background, is whether only science can tell us what is the case — was der Fall ist. But notice that when science tries to do this it must move into a different register, what we might call the basso profundo of philosophy. Because this movement into a new register is often not acknowledged the accusation of “scientism” is frequently heard from religious believers who claim that the new atheism is scientistic (not scientific, note, but scientistic) — that is, whether the new atheism is an ideology which simply declares certain things not to be the case, or, at least, to limit what is the case to the propositions of science. We can quote Wittgenstein again:
4.1 Propositions represent [darstellen = portray or picture] the existence and non-existence of states of affairs.
4.11 The totality of true propositions is the whole of natural science (or the whole corpus of the natural sciences).
4.111 Philosophy is not one of the natural sciences.
(The word ‘philosophy’ must mean something whose places is above or below the natural sciences, not beside them.)
4.112 Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts.
Philosophy is not a body of doctrine but an activity.
A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations.
So, for Wittgenstein, in his Tractatus phase, only science dealt with what is the case, and the totality of true propositions comprise the totality of science. But then, of course, it becomes almost impossible to say this, which is why, he suggests, what he says in the Tractatus should be used like a ladder, and then thrown away. Of course, as most people know, Wittgenstein was finally not content with this positivism — he simply could not remain silent, because he had so much more to say that did not consist in the propositions of science, and were in some sense true — a positivism which was doubtless influenced by his relationships with those who made up the Wiener Kreis (Vienna Circle), a group of philosophers centred around the University of Vienna in the 1920s. But the First World War changed all that, and perhaps just being a Wittgenstein changed all that too, for like his brothers, three of four of whom died by suicide, Wittegenstein had some pretty significant psychological problems. However, unable to remain silent, he went on to “invent” (that would not be too strong a word, I think) a kind of philosophy which dominated English-speaking philosophy in the fifties and sixties commonly known as “ordinary language philosophy,” and consisted in the clarification of our ordinary everyday concepts. And while one might want to say that philosophy must go much further than this, the achievement of conceptual clarification that was undertaken during this ordinary language period was not nugatory.