Friday, April 21, 2017

Friedlander II

Having said I was considering a series of posts on Eli Freidlander's "Missing a Step Up the Ladder," I find that I have little I want to say beyond recommending the paper. I might do one more post on it, but this looks like being a short series. Here is one more passage that I don't understand though:
The ethical will is the actualization of the capacity for being in agreement with the world. This is not an agreement with what you represent to yourself to be essential to life. For such an agreement is understood through the primacy of ends, and the highest reality cannot be represented as an end I strive for—it is manifest as a limit I recognize. One could then say that “seeing the world aright” or simple and sober clarity of vision is the ethical imperative. Acting right is being in agreement with what has the highest reality, acting wrongly is letting yourself remain unclear, one might say unrealistic. What Wittgenstein calls in the Notebooks the voice of “conscience” arises out of a sense of non-being in my existence in meaning. This is also why ethics is so closely related to the question of nonsense in language.
The part I find especially difficult is the part I have put in bold. It might be impossible to understand this without reading the whole paper, which I should probably do again, but if anyone has any other suggestions I'd be grateful.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Wiggling chairs

I loved reading Eli Friedlander's "Missing a Step Up the Laddeer" (which I'm sure was open access when I got it, but which doesn't seem to be any longer). I might do a series of posts on it (cue nothing at all for three weeks followed by a "what I saw on TV last night" post instead).

Having said that I like the paper, there are some bits of it that I don't get. Perhaps blogging about them will help me understand.

For instance, on pp. 58-59 Friedlander says:
I can will to move my hand, but I cannot in the same sense will the chair to move. My act of will, I would like to say, cannot connect directly to the chair. I can only move my body which is the one to move the chair. But Wittgenstein asks himself what would it be like to find out that something is essentially not in the scope of my will. For this negation to make sense, one must be able to conceive of the possibility of trying to will such-and-such and not being able to do so. Someone asked, for instance, to try to will the chair to move, might concentrate on the chair intensely, fasten his gaze on it, narrow his eyes, and express determination. But would this count as trying to will the chair to move and finding out that it is the kind of thing that does not obey the will? There is no trying and discovering that the chair is out of the range of my will. It would be as nonsensical as trying to find out whether sounds can be colored.
The first sentence sounds plausible enough. Actually, I'm not sure that I can will to move my hand in any different sense than that in which I can will to move a chair by psychic means. I can, though, move my hand or, if it is restrained or paralyzed, try to move it. I cannot move a chair in the same way. Nor can I try to move a chair in the same way or the same sense. A doctor might ask me to wiggle first one hand then the other, and perhaps also ask me to wiggle each foot in turn to test for something or other. But if she then said, "Now wiggle the chair" she would either be kidding or else using 'wiggle' in some other sense, one that involves moving over to the chair and applying physical force to it. That's what I take the first part of this quoted passage to be getting at.

But the experiment with psychic powers seems perfectly intelligible to me. The chair won't move, of course. Telekinesis is not possible. Still, denying (or affirming) its possibility makes sense in a way that denying or affirming that sounds can be colored does not. Doesn't it? A magician might, after all, seem to move physical objects through sheer mental power, while no magician could ever even seem to color sounds. Doing so is unimaginable because the idea is unintelligible--the words make no sense (and 'because' here just means '=').

It's a minor point, if I'm right, but a) it's good to be right, and b) I wonder whether I'm missing something. Is attempting to use psychic powers that I know I haven't got really intelligible? Does my thinking that it is reveal some level of superstition on my part, a refusal or failure to rule out completely the possibility that people might have psychic powers? Is it like, or related to, the following question of the rationality of buying lottery tickets? It is often said that it is irrational to buy lottery tickets because the chances of winning are so small, but if you get a dollar's worth of pleasure from buying the ticket then it is rational to pay a dollar for a ticket. But then you only get that pleasure because you imagine that you might win, which is irrational of you. If you really comprehend the smallness of the odds of winning then having a ticket would give you no pleasure at all. And if you really understood how the world works, perhaps the very idea of psychic powers would seem not just false but nonsensical to you. The words 'psychic powers' (and others of the same kind) would be completely withdrawn from circulation in your conceptual economy.

That doesn't seem right though. My not thinking about, or even slightly believing in, psychic powers doesn't mean that these words have no meaning. And 'meaning for me' is not really a thing. "Those words have no meaning for me" just means I don't use those words. Or that's how it seems to me, anyway.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The big sky


I'm only now getting around to reading War and Peace, but I'm glad I am. Here are some good bits that I came across recently:
"That's a fine death!" said Napoleon as he gazed at Bolkonski.
Prince Andrew understood that this was said of him and that it was Napoleon who said it. He heard the speaker addressed as Sire. But he heard the words as he might have heard the buzzing of a fly. Not only did they not interest him, but he took no notice of them and at once forgot them. His head was burning, he felt himself bleeding to death, and he saw above him the remote, lofty, and everlasting sky. He knew it was Napoleon- his hero- but at that moment Napoleon seemed to him such a small, insignificant creature compared with what was passing now between himself and that lofty infinite sky with the clouds flying over it.
Though five minutes before, Prince Andrew had been able to say a few words to the soldiers who were carrying him, now with his eyes fixed straight on Napoleon, he was silent.... So insignificant at that moment seemed to him all the interests that engrossed Napoleon, so mean did his hero himself with his paltry vanity and joy in victory appear, compared to the lofty, equitable, and kindly sky which he had seen and understood, that he could not answer him.
Everything seemed so futile and insignificant in comparison with the stern and solemn train of thought that weakness from loss of blood, suffering, and the nearness of death aroused in him. Looking into Napoleon's eyes Prince Andrew thought of the insignificance of greatness, the unimportance of life which no one could understand, and the still greater unimportance of death, the meaning of which no one alive could understand or explain. 
Here's another bit:
Just as in a clock, the result of the complicated motion of innumerable wheels and pulleys is merely a slow and regular movement of the hands which show the time, so the result of all the complicated human activities of 160,000 Russians and French- all their passions, desires, remorse, humiliations, sufferings, outbursts of pride, fear, and enthusiasm- was only the loss of the battle of Austerlitz, the so-called battle of the three Emperors- that is to say, a slow movement of the hand on the dial of human history.
No doubt this is irrelevant, but the buzzing fly in the first of these passages reminded me of this by Schopenhauer:
[C]ast our glance forward far into the future, and seek to present to our minds the future generations, with the millions of their individuals in the strange form of their customs and pursuits, and then interpose with the question: Whence will all these come? Where are they now? Where is the fertile womb of that nothing, pregnant with worlds, which still conceals the coming races? Would not the smiling and true answer to this be, Where else should they be than there where alone the real always was and will be, in the present and its content?—thus with thee, the foolish questioner, who in this mistaking of his own nature is like the leaf upon the tree, which, fading in autumn and about to fall, complains at its destruction, and will not be consoled by looking forward to the fresh green which will clothe the tree in spring, but says lamenting, “I am not these! These are quite different leaves!” Oh, foolish leaf! Whither wilt thou? And whence should others come? Where is the nothing whose abyss thou fearest? Know thine own nature, that which is so filled with thirst for existence; recognise it in the inner, mysterious, germinating force of the tree, which, constantly one and the same in all generations of leaves, remains untouched by all arising and passing away. And now, οἱη περ φυλλων γενεη, τοιηδε και ανδρων (Qualis foliorum generatio, talis et hominum). Whether the fly which now buzzes round me goes to sleep in the evening, and buzzes again tomorrow, or dies in the evening, and in spring another fly buzzes which has sprung from its egg: that is in itself the same thing
The buzzing fly echo might be pure coincidence, but Schopenhauer is far from irrelevant to Tolstoy. In the year War and Peace was published (1869), Tolstoy wrote:
Do you know what this summer has meant for me? Constant raptures over Schopenhauer and a whole series of spiritual delights which I've never experienced before. ... no student has ever studied so much on his course, and learned so much, as I have this summer 
I don't know when he first read Schopenhauer ("some time in the 1860s," apparently) but if there was no Schopenhauerian influence on War and Peace then there is at least fertile soil there for a Schopenhauerian seed. The idea of the insignificance of greatness, of course, reminds me of the end of The World as Will and Representation: "to those in whom the will has turned and has denied itself, this our world, which is so real, with all its suns and milky-ways—is nothing." Perhaps Prince Andrew would seem likely to deny that the "lofty infinite sky" is nothing, but he continues: "All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!" And perhaps this sounds nihilistic, but he goes on to want nothing but to be brought back to "life, which seemed to him so beautiful now that he had today learned to understand it so differently."

Wittgenstein's interest in aspects surely must (although those words sound an alarm) have something to do with this kind of idea. There is something a bit ugly, though, in Schopenhauer's and Tolstoy's ways of making their point(s). "[T]his our world, which is so real [...] is nothing" is paradoxical, and so either mystificatory or cheaply clever. (I'm exaggerating the ugliness or cheapness or whatever we want to call it, but I think it's there. Or is my criticizing not just Schopenhauer's and Tolstoy's writing but some of their best writing a sign that I've gone off the rails?) And Prince Andrew leaves much unexplained when he both says, "There is nothing [...] but that. But even it does not exist..." and longs to live although "[T]here is nothing but quiet and peace." How does an enthusiastic desire to live square with the quasi-Schopenhauerian insight that "there is nothing [...] Thank God!"? And what are we to make of the idea that there is nothing but the sky and even it does not exist? The contradictions feel like a prelude, like something to be moved beyond. Which is what Schopenhauer and Prince Andrew intend, of course, but it means that the last words are far from being the conclusion. What matters is not the thought that expresses enlightenment (if that's what it is) but the life lived afterwards. And this means that the intellectual or theoretical route to this life cannot be the only possible one, cannot be essential. At this point, I suppose, you throw away the ladder and go and work in a garden. Whether any of this is helpful for understanding Wittgenstein's later philosophy, though, seems doubtful. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The ethics of trolling

An interesting-looking paper here by Massimo Leone. Summary:
The article singles out and describes the main rhetorical ingredients of trolling through contrasting it with comparable discursive practices: provocation, joke, defensive anonymity, critical public discourse, controversy, and lie. The following elements are found to play a major role in the discursive construction of trolling: topic-insensitive provocation; time-boundless jest; sadistic hierarchy of sender and receiver; anonymity of both the troll and her or his audience; choral character of the ‘actant observer’ of trolling; construction of artificial contradictory semantics; disruption of argumentative logics; irrelevance of the relation between beliefs and expressions. Trolling profoundly disrupts the conversational ethics of the human civilization because it severs expression from content, signifier from signified, communication from intention.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Three lions

Kelly Jolley visited VMI yesterday and gave an inspiring talk on "Wittgenstein: Philosophy as Poetic Composition." I spent most of the talk trying not to sneeze and may have misunderstood, but here are some thoughts that grew out of his presentation.

Much of the talk was about the line, "If a lion could speak, we could not understand him." Usually I think this is taken as having to do with a distinction between word meaning and speaker meaning. So if a lion could speak we might understand his words, but would not understand him. Winch says that understanding another culture might be said to involve "understanding the inner maps according to which people of that culture navigate and the destinations they are trying to reach." If we think in these terms, then on a standard interpretation Wittgenstein is suggesting that we could never understand a lion's inner maps.

Wittgenstein makes a distinction between understanding him and understanding his sentences in TLP 6.54 ("My propositions elucidate by whoever understands me perceiving them in the end as nonsensical..."). On the other hand, in the conversations with Bouwsma, assuming that Bouwsma and my memory are reliable guides, he rejects the distinction between word meaning and speaker meaning. Or at least, if someone says something that I don't understand (e.g. in the middle of a conversation about politics he says that ham sandwiches are the most popular kind) then it is a mistake to say you know what he said but not why he said it. Because you don't know what "ham sandwiches are the most popular kind" means in this context. Perhaps it's a saying you don't know about violations of God's laws, in which case the point might be about politics after all, and the popularity of evil policies, the evils of populism, and so forth. You don't know. 

Kelly's suggestion, if I understood it, is that when we read Wittgenstein's famous lion line we think we understand it (and, indeed, we can't be sure we haven't understood it until we get to the end), and think it means we could understand the lion's words but not the lion. But if we think more slowly, more carefully, more expansively, we might realize that the idea, or perhaps I should say 'idea', of a speaking lion is actually not something we can form. What we cannot understand is neither the lion's words nor the lion himself but the being of a speaking lion. If it's a lion it does not speak, cannot speak. If it speaks, it isn't a lion. So you think you understand the sentence (as long as you don't think too much, i.e. enough, about it), but you really don't. It's like Augustine with time (“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”) The result, it seems to me, is not just the pleasure of encountering a clever puzzle. You also get a renewed appreciation for both lions and language, realities that resist combination and, so, are not just more of the same. The world is richer than that.

A second lion that this reminded me of is the one in the Lecture on Ethics. Wanting an example of a miracle, an event linked to what he calls his experience par excellence, namely that of wondering at the existence of the world, Wittgenstein says: "Take the case that one of you suddenly grew a lion's head and he began to roar. Certainly that would be as extraordinary a thing as I can imagine." This would be very unusual, obviously. But the example is stranger than that, I think. Because in what sense could there be a person with the head of a lion? It seems easy enough to imagine. But would this being live the life of a person or that of a lion? If it lived as a lion would its body still be human? Well, say what you choose, etc., but it's worth thinking a bit before making your choice. If the lion tries to run and bring down a gazelle with its claws, only to find itself jogging on two legs and flailing uselessly with fingers, is it a human with a lion's head, or more a badly disabled lion? And if it lives as a human, isn't the head of the body that lives this life at least in some sense thereby a human head, albeit a very badly formed one? Might the lion head try to eat the human body? Or the human body attack the lion head when it sleeps? In that case there is not really one being but two, at war with one another. I don't think we can really comprehend the idea of a human being with a lion's head. It is inconceivable, not just extraordinary.

The third lion is an imaginary one. The motto of the Tractatus is the following quotation from Ferdinand Kürnberger: “…and whatever a man knows, whatever is not mere rumbling and roaring that he has heard, can be said in three words.” The verbs rauschen and brausen don't seem right for lions, but they do mean noise, and not only might a 'speaking lion' and a 'person with a lion's head' produce nothing but noise, but in fact the words 'speaking lion' and 'person with a lion's head' seem to be little more than noise, since we can't (as far as I can see) really imagine anything in connection with them. Or rather, we can't imagine what we might seem to want to imagine. It's easy enough to picture a cartoon or Egyptian god. But this is likely to be only two-dimensional. If we try to imagine a four-dimensional version, living through time, we lose either the lion aspect or the human, linguistic aspect. This loss, though, feels like a gain. All we lose is a fantasy, and what we gain is a clearer, cleaner, refreshed understanding of reality.       

Friday, March 3, 2017

Punching Nazis

My (not fully formed, merely intuitive) view on the ethics of punching neo-Nazis used to be roughly that it ought to be done but that you ought not to do it. This doesn't sound very coherent. I used to think that no one should punch anyone but that there is always likely to be someone who wants to fight and that these people, if they must punch someone--which they shouldn't, should be punching neo-Nazis rather than anyone else. That is, although no one deserves to be punched, the least undeserving are neo-Nazis (and maybe some child abusers, etc.). Now I'm not so sure.

Speaking of Nazis, here's Orwell's review of Mein Kampf, in which he echoes Nietzsche on utilitarianism. Here's Orwell:
Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarised version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,’’ Hitler has said to them “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war. After a few years of slaughter and starvation “Greatest happiness of the greatest number” is a good slogan, but at this moment “Better an end with horror than a horror without end” is a winner.
And here's Nietzsche:  "If we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how. Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does." (Maxim 12 from Twilight of the Idols).

The dominant economic theory, of course, is based on utilitarianism, although these days it's based more (as far as I can tell) on the ideal of maximizing preference-satisfaction than maximizing pleasure as such. (And this is mixed with the fantasy that some version of libertarianism will in fact produce such a maximization.) But, as Michael Thompson has pointed out, it makes sense to say, "I don't want to do what I want to do." People want a why, a reason to do things. Hence the appeal of ideologies that offer something other than pleasure or the even emptier satisfaction of preferences. But speaking of reasons and getting back on topic, is there reason to punch neo-Nazis? 

Here's J.S. Mill:
It would always give us pleasure, and chime in with our feelings of fitness, that acts which we deem unjust should be punished, though we do not always think it expedient that this should be done by the tribunals. [...] We should be glad to see [...] injustice repressed, even in the minutest details, if we were not, with reason, afraid of trusting the magistrate with so unlimited an amount of power over individuals. (Utilitarianism, Chapter V)
A state Nazi-puncher would be a bad thing. And perhaps being a neo-Nazi doesn't count as an unjust act, but perhaps in order to be correctly identified as a neo-Nazi one would have to have committed unjust acts. I think it does chime in at least somewhat with our feelings of fitness when a neo-Nazi gets punched. Which is not to say, however, that it chimes in with our feelings of fitness when someone punches a neo-Nazi. My reaction, at any rate, is that the neo-Nazi got what he deserved, but not that the puncher necessarily did a good thing.

And here's Kant:
If a man who delights in annoying and vexing peaceable people at last receives a right good beating, this is no doubt a bad thing; but everyone approves it and regards it as a good thing, even though nothing else resulted from it; nay, even the man who receives it must in his reason acknowledge that he has met justice, because he sees the proportion between good conduct and good fortune, which reason inevitably places before him, here put into practice. (The Critique of Practical Reason, Chapter II)
"[T]his is no doubt a bad thing; but everyone approves it and regards it as a good thing" sounds a bit like "It's raining but I don't believe it." Which part does Kant not really mean? I think he means roughly what I've been saying (and I think this on the grounds that surely everyone would agree with me): that the beaten person in this case got what he deserved, which is good, but that it is bad that the beating was done. It would have been better if he had somehow been hoist with his own petard (as long as no one else was hoisted with it).

I wonder though. For one thing I wonder how good it is that people get what they deserve--if what they, in some sense, deserve is really terrible, is it really good that this terrible thing should happen to them? And for another thing, I wonder whether all (people who might reasonably be called) Nazis deserve the same fate. Is merely having Nazi beliefs, perhaps for a short time, as bad as spreading such beliefs? And is that as bad as committing hate crimes on the basis of those beliefs? Surely not, in both cases.

In general I think that what people deserve, in the sense that they could hardly complain if these things happened to them since they have inflicted much the same on someone else or supported its being done (if only in thought), is not what should happen to them. If I were God I'd be more forgiving than that. (Although I'd also be wiser and so might have other ideas.)