Friday, October 17, 2014

The concept of prayer

In case you don't always read everything at Jon Cogburn's blog I thought I'd draw your attention to the comments on this post. Thomas Carroll makes good points, in response to some of which Jon mentions Carroll's new book, which looks like essential reading. In the introduction Carroll writes:
The approach to reading Wittgenstein on religion advanced in this book is a variation on the ethical-therapeutic interpretations developed by Stanley Cavell, James Conant, Cora Diamond and Stephen Mulhall. 
Sounds good to me.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Philosophers' Carnival #168

The new Philosophers' Carnival is here, featuring A Bag of RaisinsJon Cogburn's Blog, and this blog, among others. Thanks to Tristan Haze for the link.

On my post ("The Truth in Relativism") Tristan writes:
It's not clear to me from the post what the scope of the relativism is that he has in mind (is he talking about the subject matter of philosophy? or all subject matter?), and I don't find myself resonating with much of it.
I've added some links to the post that might help clarify what I'm talking about, but I'll try to say a little about it here too. I had in mind a very general kind of relativism, what Russell calls "the view which substitutes the consensus of opinion for an objective standard." This view might be held with regard to ethics, say, or to anything else. It seems to me that it can seem that we really have nothing to go on but the consensus of opinion. Don't we decide both matters of empirical fact and ethical questions in this way? (I'm not saying that we do, or don't. I'm saying that it can seem this way.) And maybe everything else too. (Some people seem to talk as if they think this way, at least.) Hence the consensus of opinion is the measure of all things.

But I think that a better measure of opinion than taking a poll is looking at what people actually do. And this includes the way they use words. So step one towards an improved version of relativism is to judge matters of fact, ethics, or whatever it might be by how people ordinarily talk about such things. What is called a fact, what is called right, and so on. (And the "and so on" ought to cover a wide range, including what people actually do as well as what they say they think they ought to do.)

When we take this step we should see that 'right' does not mean (is not used synonymously with) 'considered by the majority to be right' and that 'fact' does not mean 'generally regarded as a fact'. If the consensus of opinion is our guide then we must speak with the vulgar, and the vulgar speak like realists. But they don't mean the philosophically objectionable things that realists mean. So we must speak and think with the vulgar in the sense of not reading philosophical mistakes like platonism into ordinary language, despite the learned temptation (compulsion, almost irresistible tendency) to do so. We must understand, that is, that language does not have--in itself--the metaphysical implications that we think it does (and that, therefore, it really does have, though only for us, not in itself ). So step two is rejecting anything that it would make sense to call relativism and going back to ordinary ways of talking, but rinsed free of the problematic philosophical entanglements that we had found there.

The more I write about this the more convinced I am that it's right but also the more I think I'm just repeating Wittgenstein. (By which I don't mean everything Wittgenstein ever wrote.) So I don't mean to take credit for ideas that aren't mine. But I don't mean to saddle Wittgenstein with my mistakes either. If this sounds like a (crude, blog-post) version of Wittgenstein then good. Perhaps I still haven't explained what I mean well enough for anybody to be able to tell though.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Philosophical training (and rankings)

In all the talk of rankings there are often references to good philosophers and the good training that they give to their students. This seems silly.

I don't mean to reject completely the idea that some people are better at philosophy than others. I am better than any of my students, if only because they are just starting out. I have had enough philosophical education and teaching experience to be qualified to judge what grades their work deserves, for instance. (Even though no two philosophy professors are likely to give exactly the same grades to every essay in any given stack of papers.) And there might be some geniuses so great that they are clearly the best philosophers of their age. This does not seem to be true right now, but it might have been true at some times. Still, the idea that we can compare ethicists with logicians, say, and objectively find a member of the former group to be better or worse than some particular member of the latter group in every case seems absurd. Even within the set of ethicists, who you regard as better is likely to depend on who you think is closer to the truth. It is possible to respect the knowledge and skill of someone with whom one disagrees, but it is easier when you agree. Utilitarians are likely to think more highly of Peter Singer, for instance, than non-utilitarians do. And presumably no one would think that we can sensibly rank philosophical positions. Any ranking of philosophers who have PhDs but are not as great as Kant or Plato is not going to be purely a matter of personal taste or conviction, but these factors will muddy the waters so much that the ranking would have little value.

And then there is the question of training. The best athletes and musicians do not always make the best teachers. The same is likely to be true of philosophers. And graduate school in philosophy is not really a matter of going through a period of training anyway. Most of the time you are on your own reading (or not), not being coached. You might well be put right on this point or that in a seminar or by a comment on a paper, but there isn't a lot of this, as I recall. You learn various arguments and positions, and you sharpen your ability to defend your own positions and attack others. But there isn't so much intense sharpening that a dull mind will become an expert in just a few years. A good adviser can help you a lot, but good philosophers need not be very attentive advisers. Mine was, but you couldn't tell that by reading her publications or looking at her CV.

Ranking philosophers seems a bit like ranking football players. You can't really compare a striker with a defender, and even if Ronaldo stands out from almost everyone else, the rest of the pack (as long as the pack is suitably defined) is much of a muchness. If players were ranked, the 13th ranked player would be unlikely to be significantly better than the 23rd player. Numbers like these are meaningless. To then think that if you study with the 13th best you will improve more than if you studied with the 23rd is to compound the mistake. Philosophy professors provide reading lists and a kind of model of how to do philosophy, but the demonstration might not work particularly well in every case.

Which is all to say that I think there is something very problematic about ranking graduate programs in philosophy. This has been said before, and perhaps is obvious. But it's funny how seriously rankings and pedigree are taken. If you graduated from a good program you must be good because of the great training you will have received. It's easy to think this way. I think it's very hard to justify it though.

I do think it's good that there is information about graduate programs available online. When I was looking for a place to do my PhD in the 1980s I asked an American friend, who named what he thought were the top ten universities in the USA (without special regard to their philosophy programs), and D. Z. Phillips, who told me about some people in the States who had recently done work that he admired (not all of whom taught at PhD-granting institutions). I decided not to apply to Illinois because I wasn't sure that Peter Winch would stay there. So I applied to the University of Virginia (because Cora Diamond was there) and Rutgers (because Rupert Read went there, and he surely knew what he was doing). It worked out for me, but I was pretty ignorant. I never even considered Pittsburgh, for instance, which would have been a good place given my interests. (Although I might not have got in, of course.) So I'm glad it's easier now for people to find out who is where, who does what, and, to some extent, which places are considered better than others. But quality, being so subjective, matters mostly because you don't want to go somewhere that guarantees you will never get a job. I know there are hardly any jobs to get any more, but that's no reason to shoot your prospects in the foot unwittingly. Which leads me to think that information about which places are especially good for certain types of interest and a placement ranking is all that's needed. If there must be rankings by overall quality or reputation, let there be as many as possible so that both what consensus there is and what wide disagreement there is are apparent.  

I'm tempted not to bother posting this because it all seems obvious or at least familiar. What is interesting to me is the combination of just how obvious at least some of it is and just how often it is (or at least appears to be) ignored in practice.    

UPDATE: This (a comment by Helen De Cruz) seems relevant to the above:
Unsurprisingly, the philosophers' beliefs (theism, atheism, agnosticism) predicted to a significant extent how strong they thought these arguments were. It's no surprise that philosophers who were theists thought the arguments for theism were strong, and that the arguments against theism were weak, and that the opposite pattern held for atheists. Correlations between religious belief and perceived strength of argument were quite strong, e.g., an r score of -.483 for the cosmological argument. If argument evaluation is objective, how can we explain these strong correlations?
Perhaps there is some flaw in her work, and perhaps a similar pattern would not be found among ethicists or philosophers of language, say. That is, maybe philosophy of religion is a special case. But I suspect it isn't. And I suspect that her findings are significant. There might be widespread agreement about who the top one or two Kant scholars or people working in x-phi are, but a) objectively evaluating Kant or x-phi seems to be a hopeless task, and b) below the very top, differences in ability are likely to be so small that they are either invisible or easily obscured by subjective noise (pedigree, personal acquaintance, etc.).

If I think about Wittgenstein scholars I can easily think of several who are neither definitely in the top two nor merely part of an indistinguishable mass, so perhaps I'm exaggerating. But something like the following categories seem to exist: the one or two people who I imagine are the most sought after for anthologies, conferences, etc.; ten to twenty big names whom it would make no sense to try to rank against each other; a mass of other people who are more or less indistinguishable from one another in terms of objective merit; other people who work on Wittgenstein but are basically unknown, perhaps because they have not published anything yet. The second category (the top ten-to-twenty) might turn out to be larger than I think if I actually started naming names. Anyway, I think that just about every Wittgenstein scholar who teaches at a PhD-granting institution probably belongs in this category. And the best scholars are not necessarily the best teachers or advisers. So anyone wanting to study Wittgenstein (and the point goes for anything else you might want to study) would be better off looking at how Wittgenstein-heavy a department is than at how highly ranked its one Wittgenstein scholar is.              

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Sean Wilson's new book project

Sean writes:
I am seeking feedback on the enclosed proposal. I wonder if people think it looks like a viable project? Would the thesis of such a book interest you? Basically, the book is a bit personal: it's based upon an intellectual transformation that I went through and how I came to see the fields of political science, law, and philosophy so differently. The premise is that Wittgenstein did this to me. But the important part is not that -- it is: (a) what this "new thinking" is; and (b) why it is important for other scholars to think this way. The enthymeme here is that the fields of law, political science and philosophy need more Wittgensteinians.
The proposal is here.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The truth in relativism?

[This post is a follow-up to this comment and subsequent comments here and here. Knowing this won't make what follows crystal clear, but it might help.]

Bertrand Russell writes (about Plato's political philosophy):
Two general questions arise in confronting Plato with modern ideas. The first is: Is there such a thing as "wisdom"? The second is: Granted that there is such a thing, can any constitution be devised that will give it political power?
"Wisdom," in the sense supposed, would not be any kind of specialized skill, such as is possessed by the shoemaker or the physician or the military tactician. It must be something more generalized than this, since its possession is supposed to make a man capable of governing wisely. I think Plato would have said that it consists in knowledge of the good, and would have supplemented this definition with the Socratic doctrine that no man sins wittingly, from which it follows that whoever knows what is good does what is right. To us, such a view seems remote from reality.
That seems right. As does this:
It should be observed, further, that the view which substitutes the consensus of opinion for an objective standard has certain consequences that few would accept. What are we to say of scientific innovators like Galileo, who advocate an opinion with which few agree, but finally win the support of almost everybody? They do so by means of arguments, not by emotional appeals or state propaganda or the use of force. This implies a criterion other than the general opinion. In ethical matters, there is something analogous in the case of the great religious teachers. Christ taught that it is not wrong to pluck ears of corn on the Sabbath, but that it is wrong to hate your enemies. Such ethical innovations obviously imply some standard other than majority opinion, but the standard, whatever it is, is not objective fact, as in a scientific question. This problem is a difficult one, and I do not profess to be able to solve it.
The first of these passages raises a question about what a philosopher might be. Surely not a lover of wisdom if wisdom does not exist. The first sentence of the second passage points out that the consensus of opinion is against the idea that the consensus of opinion is the standard of truth/rightness (i.e. the idea that I think of as relativism). In other words, as is well known, simple relativism undermines itself.

Rejecting platonism in favor of something like relativism leads to the idea that there is a standard other than majority opinion, but not an objective fact of the kind found in science. I think this is right. And it suggests also that philosophy is, or at least perhaps might be, the teasing out of this kind implication and the clarification of its not being an instance of various kinds of mistake (such as platonism and relativism) despite appearances to the contrary. This "something like relativism" rejects views that "seem to us remote from reality" and that "few would accept." Not in a superficial way though. It does not, for instance, simply take platonism and then substitute the consensus of opinion for an objective standard. That would lead to a conservatism that few would accept. Instead it investigates our language from the inside, looking not so much at opinions as they might be reported to outside observers but at what we say and would say. And we can know what we would say because the 'we' in question includes us. Of course sometimes we might be divided, and then one can only speak for those who think like oneself, but this need not be a big problem in many cases.

This is what I mean when I say that relativism properly thought through leads to ordinary language philosophy. I can't say that I have properly thought this through myself, though, so I could be wrong. Or it might have been said much better long ago. Or both.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Two star

It's not good to get only two stars out of five, but this isn't really such a bad review after all:
The amount of "Used" stickers on this book was a little much. Otherwise it is an amazing read with the author trying his best not to show his own opinions too often. It all honesty I prefer reading this book to listening to my professors lectures any day. This book also had a few annotations, but were in pencil so nothing serious! In conclusion, amazing book, was just sent quite an aged copy.

Good reason

This post was originally going to be called "Kids these days," so be warned that what follows is likely to be cranky nonsense. I'm writing in response to a couple of things. One is a student in my poverty course (we are discussing distributive justice at the moment) who said, as if to save us all a lot of wasted effort, that the thing about this stuff is that it's all normative. He seemed to mean that because it is normative there is no point discussing or thinking about it. De gustibus non disputandum, and of course the normative is all a matter of gustibus. I say 'seemed' because he was unable to say what 'normative' meant. It was almost as if he had been taught that 'normative' means impossible (or at best pointless) to think or talk about. A colleague at another school who also teaches a course on poverty tells me that this is the biggest obstacle he faces. Students just don't accept that, or see how, one can reason about questions of justice, right and wrong, etc.

The other thing that has set me off is a visit to the theatre on Monday night. The performance was not the greatest I have ever seen, and some people in the audience got restless. One person near me laughed at all the most highly dramatic points, which was understandable but distracting. Perhaps she couldn't help it, or didn't realize that the play was not a comedy. The two people behind me talked throughout the second half of the play, seeming to think that it was OK as long as they whispered and so did not drown out the voices of the actors. This too was distracting, and the last thing you need when trying harder than usual to suspend disbelief. It was annoying, but it also struck me as stupid. Not just thoughtless, but betraying a kind of blindness to the reality of other people. No doubt they had not thought through what it would be like to try to enjoy a performance while people around you were whispering constantly. But also, and one reason for this thoughtlessness, they appeared not to have much sense of other people as subjects, as beings both sentient and mattering.

Sentience and mattering seem to me to go together. Not because the sentient can feel pain. But, roughly speaking, because sentience, consciousness, is a miracle. Failure to appreciate this is a kind of mental dullness. I ought to say more about this, though, which is not easy to do. One aspect of what I mean is related to the fact that anyone who appreciates a great work of art will care about its treatment. This, I take it, is analytic. And it's not that people are great works of art, but we are like great works of art. What a piece of work is a man! and all that. The moral importance of human beings is something like self-evident.

Another part of my idea is that we are people. Whatever other people are is what we are (so far as we are people). Tat tvam asi. That you are in that seat and I am in mine, or any of the other individuating differences between us, is obviously irrelevant at some, important, level. Moral equality is self-evident too, in other words.

So bad behavior is a kind of stupid behavior. And the normative is something we can reason about, however difficult it might be to do so. We just need the right sense of reason, one that has more to do with reasonableness than with means-end reasoning. It's a sense of reason that includes the ability to empathize and to see (but not exaggerate) the value of civility. (This point seems relevant to, but is not intended to be about, a bunch of debates going on elsewhere on philosophy blogs.)