Waismann in Oxford


Waismann was good for Oxford, but Oxford was not good for Waismann. Although Oxford gave Waismann a job, a position, an income, a haven from Hitler, it did not give him a home. Waismann always gave a sense of needing to be back in Vienna, able to walk along to a coffee shop, read a newspaper on a wooden framework, be greeted by a colleague who had dropped in, and discuss perhaps just the news, but often some philosophical issue, and having argued enough, wander off to do the day's business. Oxford to the outsider presented an unfriendly face and seemed inaccessible. The Colleges were surrounded by high walls, the only entrance being closely guarded by a porter's lodge. Each College was a separate society, governed by arcane principles and etiquette, living its own life in seeming isolation from the rest of the world. Although made a member of New College, Waismann never felt he really belonged. Once or twice I took him to dine in Merton with one or two of his admirers, but the ceremonial of High Table in College Hall with Latin grace, followed by port and dessert in Common Room, did not appeal to him. He was a diabetic, so port was definitely out, and college food generally not to his taste. And although there were several philosophers ready to welcome him, Oxford dons are always busy. Opportunities for casual contact outside college are rare, and when occasion does offer for serious argument, the time available is limited by the next engagement. It was not only Waismann who found Oxford difficult to talk to---Michael Polanyi found it almost impossible to establish lines of communication. The social set-up combined with the dominance of the tutorial resulted in an unconscious impenetrability to any argument that could not be fitted into a tutorial hour.

Although Oxford was not good for Waismann, Waismann was good for Oxford. He brought to an innumerate and unscientific philosophical tradition a first-hand understanding of the advances in mathematics and physics that were of key importance in forming a twentieth-century world-view. He gave regular lectures in the philosophy of mathematics and the philosophy of physics to an undergraduate audience with very little knowledge of either. In spite of their inadequate background, he was able to convey the elements of Cantorian Set Theory, and Felix Klein's Erlanger Program with an easily understood proof that if Euclidean geometry was consistent, so also was Riemann's geometry, in which the axiom of parallels did not hold. Similarly in physics he was able to convey some of the key ideas of quantum mechanics. These were undergraduate lectures, and did not go into great detail or discuss the impact of modern developments. As far as I can remember, he did not give a proof of G"del's theorem, although he was aware of it, and I cannot remember his ever mentioning von Neumann's argument for the incompleteness of quantum mechanics, nor the Einstein-Podolski-Rosen argument. But he was giving undergraduate lectures, for undergraduates with minimal mathematical and physical background. And in conveying to them some understanding of what they needed to know, he succeeded magnificently, and Oxford had good reason to be grateful.

Waismann played a part in the development of Oxford philosophy. He was one of those who led the way from an austerely verificationist Logical Empiricism to a greater sensitivity to actual linguistic usage. In this he was not alone. Wittgentstein, although much cited later, was only just beginning to be known. Much more influential was J.L. Austin, who was giving the lectures later published as Sense and Sensibilia. But Waismann's contribution, although less influential at the time, was more profound. Austin was criticizing from the outside; he made good points that failed to convince those who were committed supporters of Logical Empiricism: Waismann criticized from the inside, and his criticisms told with the true believers. Austin's target was Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic and The Foundations of Empirical Knowledge, and argued that Ayer had simply misconstrued words like `know', and that if we attended to actual linguistic usage, we should avoid confusion and muddle. Waismann was similarly sensitive to linguistic usage , and coming on English as a foreign language in mid life, took great pains to note revealing idiosyncrasies. But he did not rest there. He never claimed that ordinary language is all right, just as it is. It was always possible to criticize ordinary usage. It was right to recognise that there were different language games, but one wanted to make sure that they meshed together in a coherent way. He was developing a view of his own, which though influenced by Russell, Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle, was often unsaying what he had previously had been saying, and almost always going beyond his previous views.

Waismann was a clear thinker, and sought clarification, but clarification was not the be-all and end-all of philosophy. His view of philosophical method fitted naturally with the prevailing practice in Oxford, based on a Socratic technique against a background of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. One worried away at a problem, arguing and counter-arguing, dispelling false analogies and rejecting invalid arguments, until the problem resolved itself, seen in a new light with a fresh insight. Certainly this applied to Waismann's graduate seminars, which he gave in room 303 in the New Bodleian on Tuesdays from 5.15 to 7pm. He would start by reading from a carefully crafted manuscript, which, I think, had been written specially for that session. Then there would be a discussion with Waismann dealing with difficulties and objections, and often making new points. At 7pm we would disperse, still arguing, but with eyes opened to new ways of looking at things. On one occasion some one said to me that Waismann had more philosophy in his little finger than the whole of the rest of Oxford put together,

Insight was a pervasive aim of Waismann's teaching, and a key element in the position he was beginning to articulate for himself. As against the reductionist tenor of Russell and Logical Positivism, he argued that the clarity they offered was spurious, being obtained by ignoring important features. If you cut things down to size, you might think you had got on top of all the problems, but really you were missing significant insights. There was a strong anti-reductionist tone to much of his teaching. On one occasion he was implicitly criticizing his earlier contention that one should not opine that the series 0,1,4,9,16, . . . was generated by the formula x = n2 because there were denumerably many other formulae that would generate a sequence beginning like that. Against this, he used to point out that we could often recognise a person's style from a limited basis---indeed even in mathematical proofs one could sometimes recognise the handiwork of a particular mathematician. But in stressing the importance of insight, he was not following in the steps of the post-Kantian thinkers of the Romantic movement. Insight for Waismann was not opposed to reason, but was a further form of it. Reason was not exhaustively defined in terms of rule-following, but sometimes went beyond what was prescribed in rules. Much of this can be argued for by reference to Go"del's theorem, but I cannot remember Waismann calling Go"del in aid to support this view. As opposed to the thinkers of the Romantic movement, Waismann never espoused any form of irrationalism in his emphasis on insight. But perhaps in another way he was a Romantic. He once told me that when he went up to university, he had intended to read classics, and went to a lecture on the Odes of Horace. But the lecturer did not mention Horace's poetry once, and only talked of texts and textual criticism. So Waismann switched from classics to mathematics. But in his Oxford years, as he freed himself from his previous mentors, we can see that in the mathematical philosopher the once would-be poet was beginning to get the upper hand.










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