RIP David Pears

I only just recently found out that Wittgenstein scholar David Pears has died. I was lucky enough to have Pears as my professor for my first class on Wittgenstein, and I don’t think I could have had a better introduction. (I also enjoyed his stories about going to school with the Beyond the Fringe crowd.) He demythologized Wittgenstein and treated him in an methodical and non-mystical way, something that’s been lost among many contemporary Wittgenstein scholars.

Pears wasn’t at all pompous or polemical and he even admitted that he believed his analysis of Wittgenstein’s later work in the second part of The False Prison was somewhat off the mark. I still think the first part of The False Prison is one of the best surveys of the Tractatus available (which he also translated), covering the book thematically rather than as some sort of weird prose poem to be deciphered line by line. His treatment of logical atomism in particular is excellent.

I like the second part as well, off-base or not, because Pears is a lot less polemical than even his contemporaries. (I respect P.M.S. Hacker’s work, but there’s no question he is less likely to consider competing views than Pears was. I thought that Pears’s rebuttal to Kripke’s interpretation of Wittgenstein was far more polite and considerate than it needed to be.) Pears’s analyses of the private language argument and rule-following get terribly intricate, but even if his conclusions are uncertain, he is great at bringing forth the complexity that many people (including professors) miss in later Wittgenstein: e.g., the precise nature of criteria for rule-following. When I am trying to explain to someone that no, Wittgenstein is Not That Simple, I point to Pears’s work as a good explanation of why.

Here’s a characteristic passage on the private language argument from one summary he wrote of Wittgenstein:

Suppose that a word for a sensation-type had no links with anything in the physical world and, therefore, no criteria that would allow me to teach anyone else its meaning. Even so, I might think that, when ‘I applied it to one of my own sensations, I would know that I was using it correctly But, according to Wittgenstein, that would be an illusion, because in such an isolated situation I would have no way of distinguishing between knowing that my use of the word was correct and merely thinking that I knew that it was correct., Notice that he did not say that my claim would be wrong: his point is more radical – there would be no right or wrong in this case. (Wittgenstein, 1953, ยง 258).

The common objection to this criticism is that it simply fails to allow for the ability to recognise recurring types of things. This, it is said, is a purely intellectual ability on which we all rely in the physical world. So what is there to stop a single person relying on it in the inner world of his mind? Perhaps Carnap was right when he chose ‘remembered similarity’ as the foundation of his Logical Structure of the World (1967).

Here Wittgenstein’s second move is needed. If the ability to recognise types really were purely intellectual, it might be used in the way in which Carnap and others have used it, and it might be possible to dismiss Wittgenstein’s objection by saying, ‘We have to stop somewhere and we have to treat something as fundamental – so why not our ability to recognise sensation types?’ But against this Wittgenstein argues that what looks like a purely intellectual ability is really based on natural sequences of predicament, behaviour and achievement in the physical world. Pain may seem to be a “clear example of a sensation-type which is independently recognisable, but the word is really only a substitute for the cry which is a natural expression of the sensation” (1953, ~~ 244-6). Or, to take another example, our ability to recognise locations in our visual fields is connected with the success of our movements in physical space. Our discriminations in the inner world of the mind are, and must be, answerable to the exigencies of the physical world.

The first volume of The False Prison also happens to have my pick for the most apt cover of a philosophy book ever:

I wish there were more professors like him.

One Comment

  1. Erik Kowalewsky
    8 April 2011

    A true gentleman. I had him as a professor in LA in the mid-90s. Found myself in Oxford last year, and wanted to drop in, only to learn of his passing. A couple of brilliant obits are out there, in addition to yours, from the Times and Guardian if I recall correctly. Thanks for this.

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