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Wittgenstein

Finch (W:14-17) – a ilusão de progresso

Chapter 1. Epochal change

sábado 30 de outubro de 2021, por Cardoso de Castro

FINCH  , Henry Le Roy. Wittgenstein  . Boston: Element Books, 1995, p. 14-17

The final heir of the metaphysical tradition, as Heidegger   in particular emphasized in his writings on the present condition of technological domination, is what we can call our science, that is, the science which was [15] first developed in the Renaissance as the accepted fundamental understanding of the world (i.e., metaphysical truth) and which has produced in our age electronic communication, atomic bombs, mechanized agriculture, and rocket flight. Conceiving the world in terms of physical forces and rigid mechanical laws   has left no room for Plato  ’s Good or anything but mathematical abstractions. The domination of this kind of science, which certainly could be described as “inhuman” or “out of all human sense,” is the most characteristic feature of our age. [1]

Wittgenstein   pointed this out in a number of incisive remarks, both in the Tractatus and in the excerpts from his Notebooks published under the title Culture and Value. In the Tractatus he tells us that

The whole modern conception of the world is founded on the illusion that the so-called laws   of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena. (T 6.371)

Thus people today stop at the laws   of nature, treating them as something inviolable, just as God and Fate were treated in past ages. (T 6.372)

This superstitious attitude toward the laws   of nature (which are in reality only hypothetical descriptions of phenomena) has been accompanied by a belief in the automatic improvement of the human situation by science, or what may be called the dogma of progress. Wittgenstein   early on renounced the progressive spirit, which he called the spirit of the modern age, “an age without culture” (CV 8e). The most essential feature of our time was for him an illusion.

Our civilization is characterized by the word ‘progress’. Progress is its form rather than making [16] progress being one of its features. Typically it constructs. It is occupied with building an ever more complicated structure. And even clarity is sought only as a means to this end, not as an end in itself. For me on the contrary clarity, perspicuity, are valuable in themselves.

I am not interested in constructing a building, so much as in having a perspicuous view of the foundation of possible buildings.

So I am not aiming at the same target as the scientists and my way of thinking is different from theirs. (CV 7e)

Apart from the spiritual emptiness of modern science, which takes physical forces in space and time as its central conception for understanding the universe (and then wonders why human beings come to be thought of in the same terms by national leaders), the idea of progress sacrifices the present to the future by suggesting that what we cannot realize now may be realized at some future time when obstacles have been overcome and problems solved which we are unable to overcome or solve now. The powerful appeal of such a future-oriented utopianism has been one of the narcotics by which masses of people have been led to accept miseries and atrocities now as the price of happiness for future generations. Just as at an earlier time people put a past Golden Age on a pedestal as a superior time, our age has fallen into the same illusion, but with regard to the future. It is perhaps only now after the Communist experience in Eastern Europe and the increasing savagery of modern wars that we have begun to understand the way in which science and technology themselves are postponements of the critical issues of human life, which always have had [17] their locus in the present moment. As Wittgenstein   succinctly put it:

The place I really have to get to is a place I must already be at now. (CV 7e)

The notion that the power that has been discovered and released by modern science and technology is our power, as if it were at our disposal, is itself an example of philosophical naivete since, socially or “civilizational-ly” speaking, we have no independent life or identity apart from the whole complex which now contains both the powers and us. We are, as it were, inextricably at one with the scientific and technological powers and do not, as we imagine, merely “make use” of them. Socially speaking, apart from them, we have no reality, and this is why, as individuals, far from being in control of these powers, we feel ourselves to be completely at their mercy. The situation, in other words, moves as a whole, and we have no footing either within it or outside it from which to change it. That the whole moves of itself in a benign direction is the illusion of progress. That we are in control of where it is going is an even more pervasive and deadly illusion.

To speak of an epochal change is to suggest that the whole reality (ourselves and the world in which we live) is undergoing, or beginning to undergo, a transformation similar to what brought it into being in the first place from a previous epoch.


CV Culture and Value, edited by G. H. von Wright in collaboration with Heikki Nyman; translated by Peter Winch. (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1980).

T Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, translated by D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness with an Introduction by Bertrand Russell. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961).


[1We stand today under the spell of “abstraction,” the way of thinking from which Wittgenstein in his later philosophy attempted to free himself. The last chapter of this book discusses what is meant by “abstraction” and how Wittgenstein extricated himself from it.