Tuesday, July 16, 2019


I think 'Midsommar' might be my favorite movie of the year so far. 'Us' is the other one that comes to mind. And I'm not even all that into horror movies. So what's so good about it?

The cinematography is great (not that I'm an expert, but I think that what a film looks like matters to me more than it does to many other people). There are also a couple of Wittgensteinian points and a couple of political ones in its favor.

First, Wittgenstein. The movie involves a bunch of the kind of rites that Frazer writes about, and so that are familiar to anyone who's read the Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough (this link goes to a book about Wittgenstein's remarks, not the remarks themselves, but the book appears to be both free and interesting). Secondly, one thing that the community featured in the movie do is to mimic emotions expressed by individuals. For instance, if you start crying then you might find yourself surrounded by others who all (pretend to) cry with you, even matching your particular sobs and sighs. I think this would feel like mockery, even it is isn't intended to be, but perhaps it would be comforting. The idea seems to be to reduce feelings of separation from others, which could be wonderfully communal or suffocatingly anti-individualist. I don't think Wittgenstein talks about this, but anything to do with expression of emotion and the role of others in this aspect of life is at least vaguely Wittgensteinian.

Second, politics. To the extent that we want to be able to have our own feelings and to be individuals, the movie is anti-mob and pro-liberalism. This makes it timely. The film also provides a reminder that white people are every bit as primitive or savage as anyone ever has been. Yes, it's fiction, but what we see is close enough to real things (things even more horrific than Morris Dancers and maypoles) that this doesn't matter. And, relatedly, it provides a reminder that communities' being isolated is not always a great thing.

Manohla Dargis liked it less than I did. She notes that the characters are not very well developed (which is true, except for the central character, but I'm not sure it matters) and suggests that there's an anti-women bias in the film. Here's her concluding paragraph:
Unlike Kubrick or Peele, though, Aster [the director] isn’t interested in psychological complexities that can make a character’s terminal fate meaningful and turn directorial virtuosity into vision. Despite all the time he lavishes on Dani and Christian’s relationship, which is drawn along stereotypical gendered lines (consuming female need that becomes devouring), the couple remains instructively uninteresting. That’s the case despite Pugh. She works hard to make Dani into more than a walking wound, but again and again, the character betrays both her common sense and your faith, all so the women can dance, the men howl and the maypole can hook up with ye old vagina dentata.    
This seems unfair to me. Dani (the central character) worries early on that she will seem too needy to her boyfriend Christian, but it becomes clear that she is right to be worried and is not bothering him unjustifiably. I'm also not sure what to make of Dargis' suggestion that characters, including Dani, behave stupidly. One does seem annoying in an implausibly constant way, but any mistakes I can think of that people make in the film all seem likely enough to me. And the usual horror movie question, Why don't they just leave?, doesn't apply here. Dargis' final reference to vagina dentata is also a bit mystifying. Sex does not appear to be any more dangerous than any other activity, and women no more dangerous than men, in the community portrayed here.

If you want a review that reflects my view more closely than Dargis' does, try this.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Cora Diamond and Christopher Cordner on Iris Murdoch

It's a c. 28 minute discussion with Scott Stephens on "The Philosopher's Zone," an Australian radio show. The discussion is here.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Nordic Wittgenstein Review on post-truth

This new special issue looks very good. It's edited by Rupert Read and Timur Uçan, and features essays by them and Oskari Kuusela, Matteo Falomi, Lorna Finlayson, Joel Backström, and Hugo Strandberg.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Fun Anscombe facts

I'm looking into Anscombe's life and finding far too much material to fit into one essay. Apparently Anselm Müller is writing a book length biography of her, which should be very good. I'm tempted to write one myself, but perhaps it would be redundant. Anyway, here are some anecdotes that might not make it into my essay:
  • The first time Peter Geach met Anscombe, he proposed to her, thinking she was someone else. (Source--see note 8.)*  
  • Anscombe and a friend once made fish soup in a room that Iris Murdoch was renting, when Murdoch was out. Not only did they ruin a scarf of Murdoch's by using it to strain the soup, they also made such a mess that Murdoch was kicked out of the place. (Source: Peter J. Conradi Iris Murdoch: A Life (W. W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 2001), pp. 264-265.)
  • Anscombe did more to revive interest in just war theory (which is now taught to all cadets at West Point and is close to being officially supported by the US, at least in theory) than any other single person. (So says Anthony Kenny in his essay "Elizabeth Anscombe at Oxford".) 
  • Kenny sometimes had baths at Anscombe's house, during which she would talk to him while sitting on the edge of the tub. (Source: Kenny in The Tablet, 23 March 2019, p. 6.)     
If Kenny is right about Anscombe's role in reviving just war theory then this is a very underappreciated fact. Michael Walzer discusses the "triumph" of just war theory here and does not mention Anscombe (as far as my quick scan revealed). He identifies the Vietnam War as the reason for renewed interest in Just War, which until then had been "relegated to religion departments, theological seminaries, and a few Catholic universities" (p. 928). It seems quite likely that people in those places would have read Anscombe, though, and if they were the ones who kept the theory alive then her work really might have done as much as anyone's in helping to revive it.

*I've been wondering how Geach could have wanted to propose to someone he apparently did not know at all well. In an autobiographical essay he explains that he was '"in love with love" and determined to find someone to marry. So that more or less explains it:
“As my time at Oxford approached its end, I was in Augustine’s words ‘in love with love’: I desperately needed a girl to love and woo and marry. This is a dangerous state of mind, which often leads to humiliation or heartbreak or worse: by God’s mercy I met Elizabeth Anscombe, whom I married in 1941. I find it quite impossible to say how much she and our children have meant to me; I have never got over being suddenly struck with amazement from time to time at my good fortune.”

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Morality in a Realistic Spirit

I'm looking forward to seeing this in print. Here's the description:
This unique collection of essays has two main purposes. The first is to honour the pioneering work of Cora Diamond, one of the most important living moral philosophers and certainly the most important working in the tradition inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. The second is to develop and deepen a picture of moral philosophy by carrying out new work in what Diamond has called the realistic spirit.
The contributors in this book advance a first-order moral attitude that pays close attention to actual moral life and experience. Their essays, inspired by Diamond’s work, take up pressing challenges in Anglo-American moral philosophy, including Diamond’s defence of the concept ‘human being’ in ethics, her defence of literature as a source of moral thought that does not require external sanction from philosophy, her challenge to the standard ‘fact/value’ dichotomy, and her exploration of non-argumentative forms of legitimate moral persuasion. There are also essays that apply this framework to new issues such as the nature of love, the connections of ethics to theology, and the implications of Wittgenstein’s thought for political philosophy.
Finally, the book features a new paper by Diamond in which she contests deep-rooted philosophical assumptions about language that severely limit what philosophers see as the possibilities in ethics. Morality in a Realistic Spirit offers a tribute to a great moral philosopher in the best way possible—by taking up the living ideas in her work and taking them in original and interesting directions.
And here's the contents:
Andrew Gleeson and Craig Taylor
  1. Ethics and Experience
  2. Cora Diamond
  3. Cora Diamond and the Uselessness of Argument: Distances in Metaphysics and Ethics
  4. Reshef Agam-Segal
  5. The Importance of Being Fully Human: Transformation, Contemplation and Ethics
  6. Sarah Bachelard
  7. How to be somebody else: imaginative identification in ethics and literature
  8. Sophie Chappell
  9. Different themes of love
  10. Christopher Cordner
  11. A Brilliant Perspective: Diamondian Ethics
  12. Alice Crary
  13. The Riddling God
  14. Andrew Gleeson
  15. Shakespeare, Value and Diamond
  16. Simon Haines
  17. The asymmetry of truth and the logical role of thinking guides in ethics
  18. Oskari Kuusela
  19. Difficulties of Reality, Skepticism and Moral Community: Remarks After Diamond on Cavell
  20. David Macarthur
  21. Comparison or Seeing-As? The Holocaust and Factory Farming
  22. Talia Morag
  23. Two conceptions of "community": as defined by what it is not, or as defined by what it is
  24. Rupert Read
  25. Thinking with Animals
  26. Duncan Richter
  27. Diamond on Realism in Moral Philosophy
Craig Taylor

Monday, June 24, 2019

Oxford in the 80s

Simon Kuper's article on Brexit and Conservative students at Oxford University in the 1980s is worth reading. It's especially interesting to me because I was there. Apparently Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, and David Cameron were all in my year. I remember Boris Johnson being president of the Union. (I joined because it gave you something to do in the evenings, the bar was pretty good, and the library was useful.) I don't have much to say about all this beyond recommending the article, but I will add a point or two and try to correct some mistaken impressions that I think the article could give rise to.

Kuper says that Oxford taught you how to speak without much knowledge. (He mentions Simon Stevens, who I believe was one of Rupert Read's tutorial partners, as someone allegedly very good at this.) I'm not so sure. Certainly no one explicitly tried to teach you how to do this. It would be a useful skill in a tutorial, which is like an interview in some ways, so those who already possessed this ability probably honed it, but the rest of us would just have floundered if we showed up unprepared.

Kuper also says that students only have to write one essay a week, and that this can involve very little work. But as Kalypso Nicolaïdis says in the article, it's actually two essays a week. And, as I've said, most people would find it very hard to do this without much preparation. If you're wondering how anyone ever got away with doing no work all week, the answer (apart from repeating that this is probably both an exaggeration and very rare) is that all work until your final exams is basically done pass/fail. Tutorials and tutorial essays are meant to prepare you for your final exams. It's up to you how seriously you take this preparation, although if you are too lazy you will be kicked out. So doing just enough to get by is not that hard, but is likely to hurt you in the end. Final exams are all written and anonymous, so there is no bluffing your way through them using your Old Etonian charm. 

Finally, you might get the impression that Oxford is full of sad women who will do anything to help get some boy elected to office in the Union. This is not how machine politics works, as far as I know. The Union has many elected offices, mostly (as I remember it) positions on various committees. The voters--Union members like me--know nothing at all about most of the candidates. So groups of candidates form alliances, all voting for each other and encouraging their friends to do the same. Being part of one of these groups doesn't guarantee that you'll be elected, but it certainly helps. If you arrive at Oxford already knowing about this system and already knowing other people from your old school, you have a big advantage. I was clueless, and by the time I might have worked out that this was the way to become a future prime minister, it would have been too late. Not that I have any ambitions like that, or the skills to get anywhere in politics, but it's obviously an unfair system. Which is why Kuper's article is worth reading.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Anscombe and the sky

This should really be a tweet, but I'm not sure I can quite cram it into that small a space.

In the introduction to the second volume of her collected papers, Anscombe says that she got into philosophy by way of two stumbling blocks. The first was the idea that every event must have a cause. She goes on:
The other central philosophical topic which I got hooked on without even realizing that it was philosophy, was perception. I read a book by Fr Martin D'Arcy, S.J., called The Nature of Belief and got just that out of it. I was sure that I saw objects, like packets of cigarettes or cups or . . . any more or less substantial thing would do. But I think I was concentrated on artefacts, like other products of our urban life, and the first more natural examples that struck me were 'wood' and the sky. The latter hit me amidships because I was saying dogmatically that one must know the category of object one was speaking of -- whether it was a colour or a kind of stuff, for example; that belonged to the logic of the term one was using. It couldn't be a matter of empirical discovery that something belonged to a different category. The sky stopped me.
Yesterday I learned that at a school prize-giving ceremony, when Anscombe was in the sixth form, the school sang "The Spacious Firmament on High," a hymn I don't think I've ever heard of before. The words (by Joseph Addison) are rather nice:
The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame,
Their great Original proclaim.
The unwearied sun from day to day
Does his Creator's power display,
And publishes to every land
The work of an almighty hand.
Soon as the evening shades prevail
The moon takes up the wondrous tale,
And nightly to the listening earth
Repeats the story of her birth;
Whilst all the stars that round her burn,
And all the planets in their turn,
Confirm the tidings, as they roll,
And spread the truth from pole to pole.
What though in solemn silence all
Move round the dark terrestrial ball;
What though nor real voice nor sound
Amid their radiant orbs be found;
In reason's ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious voice,
For ever singing as they shine,
'The hand that made us is divine.'
Anscombe won a lot of prizes at school, including the "Mary Sybil Raymond Prize (for the best girl going on to a University)".

Here's that hymn: