Thursday, February 8, 2007

Wittgenstein and Physicalism

Wittgenstein can be read as both a physicalist and as an anti-physicalist. It may be that the two interpretations are compatible because there is a difference between metaphysical physicalism and epistemological (or "reductive") physicalism. On the one hand, Wittgenstein is deeply committed to the view that intentional/semantic properties are not real. This is a core intuition for him, and one of his basic points. There is no internal mental content, no meaning somehow under the surface of language. Intentional and semantic predicates can only intelligibly be applied to public referents. This is the physicalist intuition that motivates behaviorism, Wittgenstein, and Ryle. On the other hand, Wittgenstein is committed to a version of functional-role semantics: language is misconstrued as neutrally or passively naming or describing an independent, external world. Rather speech acts are forms of behavior with (myriad) functions, all specific to specific "forms of life," literally specific to creatures with such-and-such bodies in such-and-such environments and so forth ("If a lion could speak we would not understand him."). Thus, classical metaphysics is brought to an end (so Wittgenstein thought with many others of his era), but also eliminated by functional-role semantics is the epistemic privilege of science: all speech behaviors are essentially pragmatic and thus a correspondence theory of truth is misconceived according to this pragmatist/anthropological view of language. So he shares with the physicalist the metaphysical intuition that intentionality/semantics must be washed out of a coherent account of the world, but rejects the program of reductive materialism. (PS Thanks to Fernando Birman of Columbia University for a nice presentation today here at the University of Puerto Rico)

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