Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Sluga on Wittgenstein and Schopenhauer

Here, pointed out by Daniel Lindquist, is a PowerPoint slideshow by Hans Sluga on Wittgenstein and "the world" in the Tractatus.

Some thoughts:

On slide 9, Sluga quotes Wittgenstein saying that he "could now just as well start [the] Tractatus with a sentence in which 'lamp' occurs, instead of 'world'." This reminds me of the following remark in Wittgenstein's Notebooks:
If I have been contemplating the stove, and then am told: but now all you know is the stove, my result does indeed seem trivial. For this represents the matter as if I had studied the stove as one among the many things in the world. But if I was contemplating the stove it was my world, and everything else colourless by contrast with it.
It also makes me think of remarks about this kind of idea in Eli Freidlander's paper "Missing a Step Up the Ladder," including passages like this:
I take Wittgenstein’s claim in 6.421 that “Ethics and Aesthetics are one and the same” to suggest that works of art readily provide us a model of this dimension of experience [i.e., the "experience of the particular thing as significant in itself"]. Let me briefly suggest features of the aesthetic that echo our attempt to clarify the dimension of agreement as such. We tend to speak of beauty as a field of significant experience, or experience that in itself presents a face of value. It gives us a way to conceive of the experience of significance as pertaining to a particular (or as concentrated in a particular place), while at the same time all-encompassing. Even if there are many paintings I appreciate, I do not appreciate a painting as one among many. My aesthetic judgment does not involve choice or comparison to other objects under a common concept. Rather, a work demands my undivided attentiveness. Arguably also, the field of aesthetic experience is not partitioned by a contrast between the valuable and the valueless. Weak aspects of a painting will make it weak and would not coexist in our experience with what is valuable. And a judgment which appreciates a work does not do so by setting the positive in it against the negative in that very work. We do not judge a work by eventually recognizing that, all in all, it has more of the good in it than of the bad. Finally the activity of judging is not preparatory to enjoyment of the work. In it we come to agree with the work. Such atunement is its own reward and one’s obtuseness to the work is in itself punishment. 
In the Notebooks Wittgenstein pursues the connection between ethics and aesthetics in the following terms: “The work of art is the object seen sub specie aeternitatis; and the good life is the world seen sub specie aeternitatis. This is the connection between art and ethics” (N, 83). The expression “seeing something sub specie aeternitatis,” is notoriously mysterious, and tempts us to various pictures of a God’s eye view of things. But, Wittgenstein really rehearses the distinction between seeing something in the midst of others, and seeing it as a unique, i.e. as a world: “The usual way of looking at things sees objects as it were from the midst of them, the view sub specie aeternitatis from outside. In such a way that they have the whole world as background” (N, 83). When we consider objects from the midst of them, we conceive of them as comparable to one another, thus as things among others. But seeing something with “the whole world as background” is agreeing with it as such, whatever or however it is.  
That is (among much else that is said here), an object (e.g., a lamp) can be seen as a world. Compare Schopenhauer, according to whom in aesthetic experience:

we no longer consider the where, the when, the why, and the whither in things, but simply and solely the what. Further, we do not let abstract thought, the concepts of reason, take possession of our consciousness, but instead of all this, devote the whole power of our mind to perception, sink ourselves completely therein, and let our whole consciousness be filled by the calm contemplation of the natural object actually present, whether it be a landscape, a tree, a rock, a crag, a building, or anything else. We lose ourselves entirely in this object, to use a pregnant expression; in other words, we forget our individuality, our will, and continue to exist only as pure subject, as clear mirror of the object, so that it is as though the object alone existed without anyone to perceive it, and thus we are no longer able to separate the perceiver from the perception, but the two have become one. … What is thus known is no longer the individual thing as such, but the Idea … at the same time, the person who is involved in the perception is no longer an individual, for in such perception the individual has lost himself; he is pure will-less, painless, timeless subject of knowledge … It was this that was in Spinoza’s mind when he wrote ‘mens aeterna est, quatenus res sub aeternitatis specie concipit’ (Ethics, V, prop. 31, schol.) (WWR vol. I, pp 178-79)

On slide 24 Sluga lists "A sense of feeling guilty whatever one has done" as one of the three main experiences that Wittgenstein writes about in the Lecture on Ethics. I think he only mentions feeling guilty, though, rather than feeling guilty no matter what one has done. This might not matter, but Sluga goes on (in slide 25) to link Wittgenstein's three experiences with key Christian beliefs, in this case belief in original sin. And he contrasts Wittgenstein's alleged Christianity with Schopenhauer's Buddhism. But I think Wittgenstein is less Christian than this suggests, and Schopenhauer is more Christian. Sluga summarizes Schopenhauer's belief with the slogan "I am Thou", but this doesn't seem so different from Wittgenstein's ethics. To live with the world seen sub specie aeternitatis seems to require agreement between self and other. (This might not be un-Christian, but it doesn't seem particularly Christian rather than Jewish, say, or more Christian than Schopenhauer is.)

On slide 41, Sluga writes that, "Wittgenstein, together with Schopenhauer, shows us that ethics in [the] broadest sense calls for philosophical reflection on the world or rather on how we see the world, what picture we have of it and our place in it. He contrasts this view of ethics with ethics concerned with the self, with interpersonal relations, and with social and political ethics.

Here's an example of what I think is the Wittgenstein/Schopenhauer kind of ethics. In M. O'C. Drury's recollections of conversations with Wittgenstein (p. 143 of Rush Rhees, ed. Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections), Drury reports:
This morning the local fishermen had landed on the pier a large catch of mackerel. The usual brilliant colouring of fish just out of the sea, some of them still half alive.
WITTGENSTEIN: (in a low voice) "Why don't they leave them in the sea! I know fish are caught in the most horrible way, and yet I continue to eat fish."
Wittgenstein himself did not live up to his ideal, but this seems like a fairly clear case of what that ideal implies. That is, Wittgenstein appears to be confessing to a failing or imperfection in his own behavior, at least as he sees things. The fish should be left in the sea. Not because they have rights or because they suffer when caught or because the sight of their being caught is ugly. Perhaps there is no because. To the extent that there is, it is because their being caught (at least in the way that they are caught, dragged out of the sea en masse in a net) is manifestly horrible (and unnecessary). I realize I am not really showing how I think one gets from what Sluga and Friedlander say to not eating fish, but I do think this is where one would end up if one followed Wittgenstein's thinking on ethics all the way.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Concise Anscombe

The Encyclopedia of Concise Concepts by Women Philosophers is now online. I don't know how much content it has so far, but it will grow. One thing it includes is a short article on Anscombe's Intention.

On the radio


I can't bring myself to listen to it, but I was interviewed for With Good Reason recently, and it's available here. I think it's mostly about teaching ethics, but there could be some Wittgenstein in there too.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The humanities again

A friend has called this essay "smart, passionate, and research-driven." (Why mention that it's passionate?) Anyway, I could resist responding by secretly blogging my disagreement, but I won't.

In the essay, Eric Hayot, Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and Asian Studies at Penn State, takes a careful (or at least careful-looking to me) look at some of the numbers involved in the state of the humanities in American universities and colleges. He points out, for instance, that "the low point of humanities degrees as a percentage of overall degrees came not in 2014–15 but in 1985–86," which suggests fluctuation rather than the crisis or steady decline that we often hear about. On the other hand, he also delivers some seemingly very bad news: "At many institutions the decline in humanities majors since 2010 is over 50%, a phrase that I can barely bring myself not to italicize, put in all capital letters, and surround with flashing lights." This is all interesting, and he gives some plausible suggestions about why it is happening. So far, so smart and research-driven. But then we get to his proposed solutions.

At the undergraduate level he has four (for programs at the graduate level his suggestion is: "unless you are placing most of your students in the professorial jobs for which you are training them, you need to rethink what you are doing"):

1. teach the humanities, not the disciplines
2. experiment with courses, departments, and programs
3. don't give up on the students
4. justify and explain what we do

I'm probably not going to argue that we should give up on the students, but otherwise I have a lot of disagreement to express.

Here's the first half of what Hayot says about teaching the humanities rather than disciplines:
The data suggest that enrollments in the humanities are falling far more slowly than the number of majors, because, I suspect, of the continuing appeal of humanistic questions: What is friendship? What does it mean to have a good life? What is justice? How do feelings work? Does history have meaning? Are we alone in the universe? What does it feel like to be a migrant? Students are less interested—as far as I can tell—in topical courses that promise coverage of a geographic region or historical period, in courses like The Modern Novel or Medieval Europe.
Students also like classes that tell them how to do things—how to eradicate world poverty; how to live a satisfying life; how to create political change. None of these would be strictly history or English or philosophy. I think that’s a feature, not a bug: my guess is that the humanities are going to survive by expanding and extending their general interdisciplinarity, by realizing that the separation of disciplines produces appeals to certain kinds of expertise that at this point may not be enough to retain our traditional audiences. Our market has changed; we probably need to change with it.
That's my emphasis. Things are not so research-driven here. The questions in the first paragraph are philosophy, philosophy, philosophy, philosophy/psychology, philosophy, physics/biology, and possibly literature. Not "the humanities," exactly. The things in the second paragraph that students want to know how to do are things that, roughly speaking, no one knows how to do. How (and whether) we can eradicate world poverty is a question of economics. How (and whether) we ought to try to do so is a question of philosophy (specifically the branch of political philosophy concerned with distributive justice). How to live a satisfying life is either psychology or philosophy (specifically ethics). How to create political change is something you might learn in a politics course, although if you're hoping to learn how to change the world rather than how to change one particular policy or law then you are likely to be disappointed. So far as Hayot's suspicions are right, they suggest that students should be offered a lot more philosophy and social science courses, not general interdisciplinarity.

Under suggestion #2, Hayot recommends courses like some that have proved very popular at Penn State and Harvard. But how to make a course popular is a bit of a mystery, and probably has to do with individual charisma, which some of us just don't have. (The Harvard course he mentions is the one on which this book is based, which, once again, is a philosophy course.) Here is most of the rest of what he says under this heading:
Making the kind of curricular changes I’m proposing is difficult because of institutional inertia. Who would approve the courses? Under what rubrics would they be taught? Here faculty members and administrators need to work together to create experiments in departments and programs. What if, for instance, a dean offered a group of faculty members (let’s say ten to fifteen) who could make a viable proposal the opportunity to create a new humanistic program focused on undergraduate education? What if those faculty members could spend five years, supported with a course release or two and a bit of research money, working to create new courses that would either answer the big questions or introduce students to majors in a broad and appealing way?
Of course such a thing might not work! But what we have now is not working either. It would be really great if we could populate the country (or the world) with experiments like this, knowing that we can all learn from their successes and failures and copy from them what makes a difference.
This will never happen. And not only because of institutional inertia. I've already explained why there is good reason to think Hayot is barking up the wrong tree. Believing this to be the case is not mere inertia. Even if one agreed with him, as many non-philosophers in the humanities, I think, would, there is no way that people would be given that amount of time and money and course releases to develop a new program. (I was involved in the design of a new program at my school. We were given one summer to do it.) And what do you do if, as seems likely (given the nature of experiments), the experiment does not work? Anything you undid cannot easily be brought back, anything done cannot easily be undone, and what do you do with any undergraduate majors in your new, failed program? It's a recipe for disaster. What works in one school will not necessarily work in another, either (nor will what fails at one school necessarily fail at another), so there is a limited amount of learning from others that can be done.

Hayot's third suggestion, the sure to be controversial "Don't give up on students", is about teaching. We should, he implies, expect less of them than we have in the past because students are reading and writing less before they get to college. And we should take teaching more seriously than we do (at schools that do not take it seriously) in tenure and promotions decisions. It's hard to disagree with this. There's no point blaming students for what others have failed to teach them (because of government insistence on standardized testing, etc.). And teaching is obviously important. But it's also very hard to measure good teaching, as Hayot seems to recognize, and many schools (e.g., mine) already care a lot about teaching when it comes to hiring, tenure, and promotion.

Finally, Hayot says that:
Every single class in the humanities should include some discussion about what the humanities are and why they’re worth something; it might even include information about salaries and employment issues, since our students (and their parents) often care about those a great deal.    
I disagree with this, because I disagree with his idea of the humanities. That idea seems essentially to be that people with PhDs in English (and maybe some related fields, such as Comparative Literature) should teach courses in philosophy (and maybe some other fields, related to the topic of the course), because that's what students seem to want. I do believe that English is worth something. As is Comparative Literature. As is history. But if the humanities is what Hayot seems to think it is then I'm not at all sure that it has much, if any, value. People with expertise in literature should teach literature. People with expertise in rhetoric should teach rhetoric. And so on. By all means let's offer a mix of humanities courses and respond (to some extent) to what students seem to want to learn. But if that's philosophy or economics or politics let's say so, and act accordingly. "General interdisciplinarity" is another name for mush, for the unqualified teaching students presumed too ignorant to know that their teachers lack the relevant expertise. "Let the blind lead the blind" is no way to save anything.

Hans Sluga has a blog

It's here. h/t John Holbo

If you don't know who Hans Slugs is, here's his bio.

If you're wondering whether he blogs about Wittgenstein, he does (but also about other things).

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Schopenhauer on women

I have four things to say about Schopenhauer's essay (it's really a collection of remarks) "On Women."
  1. The version of the essay in the Penguin Classics Essays and Aphorisms is abridged, leaving out the last remark and the words "The Mormons' standpoint is right" at the end of the penultimate remark. In what follows, nevertheless, I will use the numbering from the Penguin edition and hope that this is not misleading
  2. It is possible, even likely, that Schopenhauer really does mean the misogynistic things he seems to be saying
  3. Even so, his remarks are not all misogynistic. His first remark says that "the right point of view for the appreciation of women" is shown by Jouy's words, "Without women the beginning of our life would be deprived of help, the midst [of our life would be deprived] of pleasures and the end [of our life would be deprived] of consolation," and by similar thoughts of Byron's. The fourth remark implies that nature equips all creatures with what they need to survive, suggesting a kind of equality of value. In the fifth he writes that, "women are more sober in their judgment than [men], and [...] they see nothing more in things than is really there." In the sixth he claims that, "they live more for the species than for the individual, and in their hearts take the affairs of the species more seriously than those of the individual." This might sound bad, but Schopenhauer argues that the species is far more important and valuable than any individual, which would make women's hearts wiser than men's, in his view. The eighth remark sounds particularly bad (it includes, for instance, the claim that "They are the sexus sequior, the second sex in every respect"), but is in part an attack on the idea of the lady, which many feminists would also reject. 
  4. I want to explore the possibility that his apparent misogyny is ironic, and that what he means is therefore not nearly as bad as what he appears to be saying. Consider this paragraph, which is the last one in the Penguin edition:
"It is useless to argue about polygamy, it must be taken as a fact existing everywhere, the mere regulation of which is the problem to be solved. Where are there, then, any real monogamists? We all live, at any rate for a time, and the majority of us always, in polygamy. Consequently, as each man needs many women, nothing is more just than to let him, nay, make it incumbent upon him to provide for many women. By this means woman will be brought back to her proper and natural place as a subordinate being, and the lady, that monster of European civilisation and Christian–Teutonic stupidity, with her ridiculous claim to respect and veneration, will no longer exist; there will still be women, but no unhappy women, of whom Europe is at present full. The Mormons’ standpoint is right."
Assuming his readers are mid-nineteenth century German men, how would they be likely to react to this argument? Not very happily, I would think. They are accused of polygamy, which is associated with Mormonism. In his MA thesis "The Mormons in Wilhelmine Germany 1870-1914: Making a place for an unwanted American religion in a changing German society", Michael Mitchell writes (p. 1) that: "Mormonism had officially come to Germany in 1850 but opposition there was ubiquitous and conversions few." So recommending the Mormon standpoint could not be expected to be popular. Nor would Schopenhauer's reference to "Christian–Teutonic stupidity". The accusation of polygamy also seems unlikely to win him friends. Especially since, as I read the essay, he is talking about men hiring prostitutes, whose lives he describes as being "as joyless as [they are] void of honour." Nor do I imagine his readers would enjoy thinking that their wives are not ladies. And, finally, I doubt they would like the suggestion that it be made "incumbent upon [them] to provide for many women." It is not especially attractive women that Schopenhauer is talking about here but, on the contrary, all the women who are not chosen to be gentlemen's wives in the current system, including "old maids," prostitutes, and other working women. All women are to be taken care of by men of means under Schopenhauer's proposal. (Which presumably also means that all other men are left with neither wives nor prostitutes.) 
It is indeed a terrible idea. But it is so terrible that I wonder whether all that comes before it should be taken not at face value but as part of a kind of joke, whose punchline is this terrible enforced polygamy policy proposal. In other words, maybe this whole essay is really a kind of reductio ad absurdum
That's what I was going to say, anyway. Then I read the last remark (excluded from the Penguin edition), which ends:
That woman is by nature intended to obey is shown by the fact that every woman who is placed in the unnatural position of absolute independence at once attaches herself to some kind of man, by whom she is controlled and governed; this is because she requires a master. If she is young, the man is a lover; if she is old, a priest.
Perhaps this is some sort of joke at the expense of priests, but it hardly supports my Schopenhauer-as-feminist idea.So maybe I'm just completely wrong about that.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Anthony Bourdain, RIP

Now that Anthony Bourdain has apparently committed suicide, I regret every critical thing I ever said about him. He was human, and so had flaws, but he seemed like a good guy, and he made very entertaining TV.