Naturalism Reconsidered: Wittgenstein and Merleau-Ponty

By Brice, Robert G.; Bourgeois, Patrick L. | Philosophy Today, February 2012 | Go to article overview
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Naturalism Reconsidered: Wittgenstein and Merleau-Ponty


Brice, Robert G., Bourgeois, Patrick L., Philosophy Today


Naturalism has many differing senses, some positive and some negative. While it is used in positive senses by the tradition of analytical philosophy, with Ludwig Wittgenstein its best example, and by me tradition of phenomenology, with Maurice Merleau-Ponty its best exemplar, it also has an extremely negative sense on both of these fronts. In fact, botìi Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein in their basic thrusts adamantly reject reductionistic naturalism.

Although Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology rejects the naturalism that Husserl rejects, he early on found a place for the "truth of naturalism." In a parallel way, Wittgenstein accepts a certain positive sense of naturalism, while rejecting Quine's kind of naturalism, which has great affinities with that rejected by phenomenology. It is the aim of this essay to investigate the common ground in the views of Wittgenstein and Merleau-Ponty regarding the naturalism that they each espouse and that which they each adamantly reject. We will first consider the view of Wittgenstein before turning to that of MerleauPonty in an attempt to bring out the common ground between them.

Wittgenstein's Naturalism

Despite their protestations to the contrary, skeptics consistently act as though the external world, other minds, etc., exist. They simply cannot help believing, regardless of the doubts they may air. Hume believed where skepticism and instinct clash, instinct wins out:

To bring us to so salutary a determination, nothing can be more serviceable, than to be once thoroughly convinced of the force of Pyrrhonian doubt, and of the impossibility, that anything, but the strong power of natural instinct, could free us from it.1

David Pears has noted that as soon as "Hume traces the idea of causal necessity back to its origin .. . he halts his inquiry."2 But "if [Hume] had known how the brain works," Pears confidently adds, "he would have taken his investigation . . . into neurology."3 Equating naturalism with some kind of scientific reductionism is not uncommon. In a survey of the philosophy of language and mind from 1950-1990, Tyler Bürge simply assumed that "naturalism" was, in fact, interchangeable with "physicalism."4 Indeed, for several decades this view has been widely accepted mostly due to the overwhelming influence of W. V. O. Quine.

In "Epistemology Naturalized," Quine suggests that epistemology should rely on the techniques and assumptions of the natural sciences.

Epistemology, or something like it, simply falls into place as a chapter of . . . natural science. It studies a natural phenomenon, viz., a physical human subject. This human subject is accorded a certain experimentally controlled input . . . and in the fullness of time the subject delivers as output a description of the three dimensional external world and its history. The relation between the meager input and the torrential output is a relation that we are prompted to study.3

Accordingly, a naturalized epistemology is supposed to offer a scientific explanation of how "the meager input and the torrential output" are related. It will also provide a scientific explanation of how it is that some of our beliefs come to be knowledge and others do not.

Wittgenstein advocates something quite different in kind. Wittgenstein would probably place Quine's reductive, scientific naturalism in a language-game, where reasons and explanations can be offered. Wittgenstein's own suggestion, however, occurs at a lower level, a non-ratiocinated "animal" or "primitive" level.6 At this level, we do not depend on explication or justification. Rather, at this level, our convictions about the world, other minds, etc., are borne out in what we unreflectively do, not in what we say, nor in the reasons why we say what we say.

Although Wittgenstein's naturalism is quite different from Quine's, philosophers, like Pears, nonetheless believe it should have "ranged more freely across the border between philosophy .

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