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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Wittgenstein vs. Schopenhauer

Still (slowly) reading Bouveresse's book on Wittgenstein Reads Freuds, and got to an interesting bit where Witty is pitted against that compassionate curmudgeon, Arthur Schopenhauer. The battle is played around the difference (if there is any) between a cause and a reason for an action. This, as it happens, has profound consequences for the philosophy of mind, consciousness, and free will. So, read on!

Here is what Wittgenstein says: "The proposition that your action has such and such a cause is a hypothesis. The hypothesis is well-founded if one has had a number of experiences which ... agree in showing that your action is the regular sequel of certain conditions which we then call causes of the action. In order to know the reason which you had for making a certain statement ... no number of agreeing experiences is necessary, and the statement of your reason is not a hypothesis."

OK, Witty is always difficult to read, but it seems that what he is saying is that causes are hypotheses about how events are connected in the world. Reasons, on the other hand, are justifications that we give for certain actions or propositions. Perhaps an example will clarify: if I hit your knee with a small hammer, your leg will move because of a reflex. I.e., the hit, through a series of physical connections, caused the leg to move. However, if I ask you to raise your leg and you do it, your reason for doing so is that I asked you to perform the action. Wittgenstein is saying that reasons aren't causes, they are an altogether different kind of beast. This distinction does have great intuitive appeal, as we all realize that there seem indeed to be a big difference between the two cases concerning your knee just described.

Arthur (Schopenhauer), on the other hand, said about such matters: "Motivation [i.e., reason] is causality seen from within. ... Motivation [is only] causality passing through knowledge."

I'll be darn if this also doesn't make a lot of sense! The idea here is that in fact there is no real distinction between causes and reasons, because the latters are simply an awareness that we have of the causes of certain events or actions. So, for example, when I say that I got up and went to the refrigerator to get me a beer because I was thirsty, I am giving both a reason and a cause: indeed, my reason is a first-person description of the underlying cause (I was thirsty). (Incindentally, current neurobiological research seems to support Schopenhauer's contention.)

Wittgenstein seemed to prefer a distinction between causes and reasons for two, well, reasons! First, he was always distrustful of excessively scientifical or physical explanations of the human condition, especially of mental phenomena. Second, he felt that if one explains actions in terms of causes, then one is committed to an automatic form of determinism, and there goes free will out the window. Consciousness, then, is an after-the-fact illusion, a fiction that allows us to think that "we" make decisions, when in fact it's all a matter of physical causes.

The problem with Witty's position seems to me twofold: first, I don't see why causes have to be deterministic. We know (for example from quantum mechanics) that there is such a thing as probabilistic causality (though that still doesn't rescue free will, since we would at most have a random will). Second, Wittgenstein, like so many anti-physicalists, simply (conveniently) neglects to give an alternative explanation. If reasons are not a particular instance of causes, what are they, exactly? Inquiring minds want to know, and for good reasons.

(By the way, if you are wondering what all of this has to do with Freud, it is because Wittgenstein accused Freud and his disciples of confusing causes and reasons in setting up their psychoanalytical explanations.)


  1. As always with LW, it's important to ask what problem he is trying to dissolve. You say, "Wittgenstein, like so many anti-physicalists, simply (conveniently) neglects to give an alternative explanation. If reasons are not a particular instance of causes, what are they, exactly?" And from a Wittgensteinian perspective we would not give an explanation, but perform a grammatical investigation in the hope that you would not ask philosophical questions of this kind when we had compared and examined a number of related cases.

    Reason is conceptually connected to cause: E.g., it's easy to think of cases where no one would object to replacing "cause" with "reason" or the other way around. But we take certain paradigms of our language and pick one, calling that the paradigm of causation. E.g., movement due to impact, or the regular succession of one event from another. A neurophysiological reduction of reasons to causes is quite tempting. There, we think, is a good ground for assimilating reasons to causes, but the assimilation covers up serious differences between reasons and causes. We say that NN had a good reason for acting as he did, but not that he had a good cause. Causes can't be good or bad, but reasons can, and we might say later that his reason for acting was not what he thought it was. These kinds of cases make it harder (though it will always be possible) to obscure the differences between reasons and causes.

    The tendency to reduce the concept of cause to a single kind of example is what LW wanted to resist, precisely because it introduced philosophical problems about causation. The distinction between reasons and causes is one way of getting your foot in the door here.

  2. Michael, yes, what you say makes sense. But there are two things that still bug me: 1) Why couldn't reasons be a particular category of causes? 2) If they are not, Witty still doesn't offer us an account of what reasons really are.

  3. Massimo,
    Perhaps I can put it this way: Though it may not satisfy you (and if not, then you're in good company), it is consistent with LW's method and intention that he does not offer an explanation at all, let alone an explanation of what reasons "really are," and is therefore hard to fault him on. The negative answer is just the point. But it is not a mere repudiation of the philosophical problem, rather, it (if successful) changes the way we see the world. As LW said, "What Freud says about the subconscious sounds like science, but in fact it is just a means of representation. New regions of the soul have not been discovered." (Cambridge Lectures 1932-35 p. 40) This sharply separates LW from empirical scientists, some philosophers of mind, and Schopenhauer, among others, and explains why LW described himself as a "disciple" of Freud. That said, I have not read the book that sparked your comments, so perhaps none of this is news!

    Best Wishes,

  4. Without trying to sort out Wittgenstein & Schopenahuer,it strikes me that your discussion of causality might be unlimbered by harkening back to (though not adopting)Aristotle's four causes. The example of what causes you to get the beer from the refrigerator would look to Aristotle as matter of various types of causality: Efficient (you and your thirst), Material (your domestic infrastucture), Formal (your habit of keeping beer in the fridge), and Final (letting the good times roll). Okay, Aristotle would do a better job of it. My point being only that somewhere around the time of Newton we began to restict the definition of causalty to what Aristotle, et seq. would have called efficient casuality. This has led to some puzzles since the term really has several meanings and applications. We then get captures in such puzzles as used to annoy Wittgenstein.


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