Cheryl Misak on Ramsey’s pragmatism
Wittgenstein had argued (in Ramsey’s words) that a logical truth ‘excludes no possibility and so expresses no attitude of belief at all’. From here, Ramsey arrived at one of his most fruitful insights. Beliefs exclude possibilities, and that is how we can tell one belief from another. What it is to believe a proposition is, in large part, to behave in certain ways, and to take various possibilities as either alive or dead. It is of the essence of a belief that it has a causal impact on our actions, and we evaluate beliefs in terms of how well they work. In a paper written at the same time, ‘Truth and Probability’, he went on to argue that some habits are a better basis for action than others. Truth is linked to usefulness.
Ramsey was interested in how we use something, not in pure metaphysics — he was interested in a ‘human logic’ that tells us how we should think. Such a logic ‘is not merely independent of but sometimes actually incompatible with formal logic’.
As Ramsey put it in a 1929 draft paper titled ‘Philosophy’, one method, ‘Ludwig’s’, is to:
construct a logic, and do all our philosophical analysis entirely unselfconsciously, thinking all the time of the facts and not about our thinking about them, deciding what we mean without any reference to the nature of meanings.
Ramsey’s method, in contrast, directed us to the human facts, not the facts somehow abstracted from our understanding of them. He admitted to having once been under the sway of Wittgenstein’s conception of philosophy:
I used to worry myself about the nature of philosophy through excessive scholasticism. I could not see how we could understand a word and not be able to recognise whether a proposed definition of it was or was not correct. I did not realise the vagueness of the whole idea of understanding, the reference it involves to a multitude of performances any of which may fail and require to be restored.
He now thinks that we will often run into terms ‘we cannot define, but … can [only] explain the way in which they are used’. Ramsey thought that the ideal language Wittgenstein was trying to construct was mere scholasticism, ‘the essence of which is treating what is vague as if it were precise and trying to fit it into an exact logical category’.
Ramsey’s approach, and his rebellion against Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle, were starting to become fully formed. He summed it up perfectly in another note:
We cannot really picture the world as disconnected selves; the selves we know are in the world. What we can’t do we can’t do and it’s no good trying. Philosophy comes from not understanding the logic of our language; but the logic of our language is not what Wittgenstein thought. The pictures we make to ourselves are not pictures of facts.
Ramsey was the bridge between 20th-century pragmatism and analytic philosophy, and when he died, that route was obscured.