Wittgenstein on Prior Probabilities

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Wittgenstein did not write very much on the topic of probability. The little we have comes from a few short pages of the Tractatus, some 'remarks' from the 1930s, and the informal conversations which went on during that decade with the Vienna Circle. Nevertheless, Wittgenstein's views were highly influential in the later development of the logical theory of probability. This paper will attempt to clarify and defend Wittgenstein's conception of probability against some oft-cited criticisms that stem from a misunderstanding of his views. Max Black, for instance, criticises Wittgenstein for formulating a theory of probability that is capable of being used only against the backdrop of the ideal language of the Tractatus. I argue that on the contrary, by appealing to the 'hypothetical laws of nature', Wittgenstein is able to make sense of probability statements involving propositions that have not been completely analysed. G.H. von Wright criticises Wittgenstein's characterisation of these very hypothetical laws. He argues that by introducing them Wittgenstein makes what is distinctive about his theory superfluous, for the hypothetical laws are directly inspired by statistical observations and hence these observations indirectly determine the mechanism by which the logical theory of probability operates. I argue that this is not the case at all, and that while statistical observations play a part in the formation of the hypothetical laws, these observations are only necessary, but not sufficient conditions for the introduction of these hypotheses.
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First archival date: 2015-01-17
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