Saturday, May 23, 2020

Wittgenstein's irony

Here's a letter from Wittgenstein to one of his sisters, followed by commentary by Joachim Schulte:
Dear Helene! In your last letter you write that I am a great philosopher. Certainly, that’s what I am, and yet I do not wish to learn this from you. Call me a striver for truth, and I shall rest contented. Certainly you are right in saying that every form of vanity is alien to me, and even the idolatrous veneration of my disciples is powerless against the relentlessness of my self-criticism. To be sure, often I myself am amazed at the extent of my greatness, and in spite of the enormous greatness of my capacity I feel incapable of grasping it. But that’s enough now – words after all are empty vis-a`-vis the richness of things. [Peter Winslow translates the last lines here as "But enough words for now, when words are but vacuity compared to the fullness of things. May you in all eternity... Your Ludwig" I prefer this, but I haven't seen the German so I can't say it's a better translation. Also, Schulte's German is a bit better than mine anyway.]
Quite obviously, this is an ambiguous and ambivalent letter (which probably dates from 1934). On the one hand, Wittgenstein is being ironic about the allusion to his greatness as a philosopher, while on the other his precise statement that he does not wish to hear his greatness affirmed by his sister seems to imply that he would not mind hearing this sort of thing from a different quarter. Moreover, wishing to be called a striver for truth could easily be regarded as a kind of false modesty, and it is by no means clear how much irony there is to be found in this expression of the wish. The remark about his lack of vanity, too, is at one and the same time a correct statement of fact and an admission of weakness, for Wittgenstein certainly wants to suggest that his self-criticism is by far not relentless enough. Even though the last two sentences about greatness and the emptiness of words appear, because of their play with cliche´s and their exaggerations, to be pure irony and fun, one still receives the impression that he who is talking here is not only a striver for truth but also a striver for greatness – an extremely ambitious man who regards most, or all, forms of ambition as bad form. At any rate, I do not think that any attentive reader of these lines can come away from them without feeling ill at ease. 
I have to say I disagree. At the risk of oversimplifying, I think Schulte is overcomplicating this. The whole thing reads like pure irony and fun to me, in a way that is somewhat remarkable given Wittgenstein's actual greatness, striving for truth, self-criticism, etc. (That is, it seems worth remarking on, but isn't necessarily surprising.) This kind of thing isn't all that unusual, surely. What else could he say, after all? If you are a great philosopher and someone says so you won't smugly agree or deny it with false modesty. The only thing is to turn the whole thing into a joke by agreeing with ironic exaggeration.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Wittgenstein's Philosophy in Times of Crisis

A series of online talks has just been announced here. There are some big name people (Oskari Kuusela, Hans Sluga, Paul Horwich, and others) and some good topics (ethics, religion, liberation, and more). Not all the talks are at convenient times for people in the US, but some are. It's worth checking out the schedule.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Taking people seriously

I've written, or thought out loud, before about unseriousness on the political right. I want to return to that idea now and have another go at saying what I was trying to say. Specifically I'm interested in the apparent disagreement between Raimond Gaita and Kate Manne about cruelty and dehumanization. Gaita's talk of a lack of seriousness and sobriety here is relevant to what I want to say, but I mention his name more because of what he has written elsewhere about racism. Here, for instance, he connects racism with dehumanizing others, and suggests that racists fail to see the full humanity of those they denigrate. This seems true, perhaps even indisputable.

But then there's Manne's view, described here, according to which:
people may know full well that those they treat in brutally degrading and inhuman ways are fellow human beings, underneath a more or less thin veneer of false consciousness.  
One question this raises is what exactly it means to "know full well" that someone is a human being. Gaita warns explicitly that he makes no claim to know "what it is to be fully human." Manne talks about various capabilities, such as rationality, agency, and judgement, that human beings are recognized as having, but she doesn't talk about meaning in the way that Gaita does. In other words, I think it would be possible to know full well that someone is human, in Manne's sense, while still failing to see that person's full humanity, in Gaita's. They aren't using the same concepts.

A second question raised by the quotation from Manne above is about what difference is made by the veneer of false consciousness to which she refers. To know that someone is human, but to do so under a veneer of false consciousness, is not to know fully that that person is human after all. The false consciousness undermines the belief involved in knowledge (conceived of as something like justified, true belief). Racists both do and do not believe that their targets are human beings, which is at least part of how they fail to see their full humanity: they see parts of it, perhaps including the capabilities Manne identifies, or perhaps even all of it, but only to a limited degree. They might, for instance, recognize the full range of emotions, but deny that they have the same depth in some people as in others. And part of seeing the full depth of another's emotions is caring about them, taking them seriously.

The racists' lack of seriousness about selected others comes out in humor. It is notable that in Paul Bloom's review of Manne's book (and others) he describes mockery of black soccer players and of Jews in Nazi Germany as if it were merely sadism. In reference to the taunting of soccer players he says that "the whole point of [the taunters'] behavior is to disorient and humiliate." Surely, though, part of the point is to have a laugh at the players' expense. We may not find it funny, but the racists who mock and taunt clearly do. They are cruel partly for the sake of laughter and they laugh, partly, in order to encourage further cruelty. The lack of seriousness feeds on itself.

[You can see how old this post's origins are in this paragraph.] The same lack of seriousness is evident, it seems to me, in chants of "Lock her up!" and "Build the wall!" No doubt some people really want these things to happen, while for others it is simply fun to join in the shouting (to "own the libs", for instance). But I suspect for most there is no question of whether the idea in question is seriously meant or not. It is part serious, part joke, and there is no interest at all in thinking about it any more than this. To the extent that it is meant, for many it is probably something they want more as a joke than anything else. That is, it would be funny to them if Hillary Clinton were really locked up. They don't seriously, soberly believe that criminal justice requires it. They also, of course, don't really care about justice much at all, at least not while they are in chanting mode.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Thoughts from Camus

I'm reading The Plague. Here's the most interesting bit so far:
[T]he narrator is inclined to think that by attributing overimportance to praiseworthy actions one may, by implication, be paying indirect but potent homage to the worse side of human nature. For this attitude implies that such actions shine out as rare exceptions, while callousness and apathy are the general rule. The narrator does not share that view. The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn't the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. 
[...]
Those who enrolled in the "sanitary squads," as they were called, had, indeed, no such great merit in doing as they did, since they knew it was the only thing to do, and the unthinkable thing would then have been not to have brought themselves to do it. These groups enabled our townsfolk to come to grips with the disease and convinced them that, now that plague was among us, it was up to them to do whatever could be done to fight it. Since plague became in this way some men's duty, it revealed itself as what it really was; that is, the concern of all.
So far, so good. But we do not congratulate a schoolmaster on teaching that two and two make four, though we may, perhaps, congratulate him on having chosen his laudable vocation. Let us then say it was praiseworthy that Tarrou and so many others should have elected to prove that two and two make four rather than the contrary; but let us add that this good will of theirs was one that is shared by the schoolmaster and by all who have the same feelings as the schoolmaster, and, be it said to the credit of mankind, they are more numerous than one would think, such, anyhow, is the narrator's conviction. Needless to say, he can see quite clearly a point that could be made against him, which is that these men were risking their lives. But again and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death.
The schoolteacher is well aware of this. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is that of knowing whether two and two do make four. For those of our townsfolk who risked their lives in this predicament the issue was whether or not plague was in their midst and whether or not they must fight against it.
Anthony Fauci knows that two and two make four, and of course he has received death threats for saying so.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Philosophers on COVID-19

There's lots of this stuff, e.g. here and here. But below are links to things by the kind of philosophers I like.

Niklas Forsberg says, among much else, that:
laws and rules grow out of something, and are subject to change. They are adjusted so as to fit our practices, the way we live. We may find this disconcerting or hopeful, but I think that we need to turn our attention to the slow changes of life as a whole too, and to how human actions and interactions are rooted in cultures and languages and traditions. It seems evident: presenting someone with facts about animal farming, climate change, is absolutely necessary, but not enough. Our ways of being together have roots that reach far deeper down than that. We need both the quick-fix and the long-term thinking.
This seems right, and I might add that laws and rules can themselves shape our practices and attitudes (not that they always do, but they can).

Hugo Strandberg says that:
helping each other can be done in two very different spirits. On the one hand, you can help others in order to create a sense of community. That there will be people not part of that community is then a grave risk, and these might be met with fear, avoidance and hostility. And, with a slightly different emphasis, you can help people because you want to live up to what is expected of you, explicit social expectations or expectations of a more abstract and general kind, expectations which you in any case submit to. Seen in this way, there is a connection between the two reactions, reactions that at first seemed contradictory. On the other hand, you can help others because you care for them. Seen in this way, there is a contradiction, for the first reaction is obviously not an expression of such care.
This is a nice distinction between what might be called commonsense ethics (I help for this identifiable reason, having to do with ideas about what will cause what effect) and the harder to explain caring ethic.

Anne-Marie S√łndergaard Christensen (in Danish, but Google translate seems to do an OK job) also speaks about a contradiction, but this one is between what might be called local life versus global (or national) life. One of her points is like the one made by Thomas Hardy in his poem "In Time of 'The Breaking of Nations'": some things in life will always stay the same whatever wars and dynasties may come and go. Another point she makes is that it is heartening to see that:
together we have been able to create a new society. Not because our political leadership has said we should, but because we could all see the point 
It is amazing how much has changed how quickly. And even though some of it has been mandated by reluctant politicians motivated by 'commonsense' calculations, and some has been done by people thinking in commonsense terms, it has still happened, it has happened largely for the common good rather than for private profit, and it has been done, in part, voluntarily out of what looks like genuine altruism. Who knows what will happen in future, in response to other pandemics or climate change or any other potential catastrophe, but it is clear that we can make large-scale changes to how we live. And that there is a lot more human decency and intelligence in the world than you might have thought based on recent election results in English-speaking countries. 

UPDATE: Here also are Nafeez Ahmed and Rupert Read on COVID-19 and the precautionary principle.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

More to read

Two new articles are up at the Nordic Wittgenstein Review, by Lassi Johannes Jakola and Stephen Leach.

And there is a whole issue of Estetika: The European Journal of Aesthetics devoted to Wittgenstein-related work. 

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Cat videos

My paper on Anscombe on intention in animals has been read and reviewed by Noah Greenstein here:


In the review he mentions a video of a cat stalking a bird, which is worth watching even if you don't care about the philosophy aspect of it all. Here it is: