On formless empiricism

by Collin Lysford

The work of the philosopher consists in marshaling recollections for a particular purpose.

-Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, proposition 127

Wittgenstein was hostile to modern philosophy as he found it. He thought it the product of a culture that had come to model everything that matters about our lives on scientific explanation. In its ever-extending observance of the idea that knowledge, not wisdom, is our goal, that what matters is information rather than insight, and that we best address the problems that beset us, not with changes in our heart and spirit but with more data and better theories, our culture is pretty much exactly as Wittgenstein feared it would become.

-Ian Ground, The Relentless Honesty of Ludwig Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein had a particular idea of what the work of philosophers ought to be; our modern culture has become something else. Since we still call the thing we have now philosophy”, it stands to reason there is some other thing, resembling philosophy but not quite, where the marshaling of recollections is being done to Wittgenstein’s satisfaction. What might that thing be?

Like Ian Ground, I have a general skepticism of modern philosophy, which meant that it’s only been recently that I’ve discovered Wittgenstein. It was hard to get excited about studying philosophy seeing sterile nothing-problems like the Ship of Theseus and the Sorites Paradox (faux-deep questions that are quickly and correctly answered by who’s asking?” and who’s asking?”, respectively). But I was also never that interested in placing myself on the attack against philosophy, because I inherently distrusted the company it’d put me in: technically-minded people who go after philosophy for lacking empiricism”, as though being numerically encoded is the end-all way to imbue something with truth. Since you clearly need something outside of the system to decide what to systemize, I was content to assume that there was some good in philosophy somewhere, that it didn’t feel personally worthwhile to hunt for it, and that I’d just leave it alone.

But now I find that Wittgenstein’s marshaling of recollections” is an excellent way to parcel out exactly the distinction I’m looking for. He’s asking us to ground out in memories - recollections, not ships that never were or metaphysical piles. But we don’t need to measure the recollections, or create some over-arching theory or ranking system. All he asks is that we recall the right thing at the right time. The demand for rigor is relaxed, and anecdotes are permissible - but we still have to touch the real world. In essence, while measurable rigor and empirical validity are so often assumed to be synonymous, and that a phenomena is supposed to be real” exactly when it can be objectively” measured, I’d like to split apart these two concepts and speak of having the latter without the former. We’ll use the phrase formless empiricism” for this.

In Representation and Uncertainty, I talked about the idea of loans of meaning”:

Non-indexicality lets us take a sort of loan of meaning, playing with tools that aren’t available in the here and now to broaden the ways we can think about things. But that loan has to be paid off eventually through correspondence work showing that the abstract objects you were acting on are similar enough to what actually exists in a particular situation for the finding to be valid. Otherwise, you’ve just been playing a meaningless game that has no bearing on actual reality.

Think of rigor as a tool to avoid going in to debt. If you’ve done a lot of work making a thermometer and then read the temperature off that thermometer, you don’t have to fear that it is 70 degrees F outside according to this particular thermometer” will fall in to meaninglessness. That particular example will be embedded in a framework that guarantees it’ll be meaningful, because even if that thermometer isn’t perfectly accurate”, it’s doing a repeatable and systemic thing that can be understood in a repeatable and systemic way.

By contrast, formlessness entails taking on meaning-debt by removing the requirement that the phenomenon we’re studying coheres to some existing systemization. As mentioned in Examples of themselves, some examples are powerful precisely because of their uniqueness, and to prematurely categorize them is to rob them of their power. This lets you pay off your meaning-debt and then some, turning a profit because you reached a more meaningful place (”Danny at the Grand Canyon”) than your previous categorizations allowed (”children being distracted”). Paying off this debt wasn’t trivial, though. It happened to be that the concept ended up being a useful one with general explanatory power. But it really did matter whether it was something that mapped to general lived experience - it could have been the case that Danny at the Grand Canyon was a phenomenon no one found familiar, and it would have failed to pay off it’s meaning-debt.

If it so happened that children stopped acting like Danny at the Grand Canyon - that is, if almost no one could remember a case of a child tuning out the supposed-wonder to look at something child-sized - then the idiom of Danny at the Grand Canyon” would thereby lose its point.

That’s the empiricism” of formless empiricism” - make sure that whatever you’re doing has a point. But while all forms (ideally!) have a point to them, not all points have a form to them. So you must reject the rigorous, naively quantitative idea of what a point” looks like - that’s what philosophy gets right. On the other hand, freed of the burden of form, many philosophers do not spend their meaning-debt wisely but instead go in precisely the other direction, inventing new forms that don’t ground out in anything at all. (Is the ship really” Theseus’s? Well, where did really” come from, anyway? Did you find it out in the world somewhere? Can you point at it? If we had some really” and then lost it, how would we know?)

My hope is that this distinction will let us criticize dead-end speculation without making it sound like formlessness is the problem. Kurt Gödel taught us that we’ll never have enough money on hand to buy every meaningful statement, so meaning-debt is necessary to examine the world and all its detail, and we shouldn’t treat formlessness as a lack of seriousness. But it’s important that we pay out debts somehow, even if that payment is just a metaphor that uncommonly resonates or a way of thinking that makes a group of formerly contentious people come to a consensus. Formless - you need not pay in a way we previously understood as paying - empiricism - but please do pay, all the same. Or, as Crispy Chicken put it when I first floated the phrase to him:

They’re called thought experiments for a reason, assholes.

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