Saturday, August 23, 2014

Anscombe Forum on Human Dignity

Conference to be held on March 13-14, 2015, at Neumann University, which is located in Aston, PA, in the greater Philadelphia area. 
The forum is an annual event designed to explore the work of G.E.M. Anscombe and topics in her work that are of continuing importance within the Catholic intellectual tradition.  In March 2014 the forum was initiated with a conference focused on the question of Anscombe's contributions to the Catholic intellectual tradition.  The March 2015 Forum will be dedicated to the subject of human dignity.
Featured speakers: Candace Vogler, David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy, University of Chicago; Nicholas Wolterstorff, Noah Porter Emeritus Professor of Philosophical Theology, Yale University; Duncan Richter, Professor of Philosophy, Virginia Military Institute.
We welcome all contributions on the subject of human dignity and are particularly interested in contributions that engage the work of Anscombe or Peter Geach, or that otherwise engage elements of the Catholic intellectual tradition.  For further information contact Dr. John Mizzoni at  Submissions (full papers only; 20-30 minute reading time) should be emailed no later than December 30, 2014 to  
More information will become available at
Select papers from the conference will be published by Neumann University Press.  
I'm looking forward to this, but being in such distinguished company is a little intimidating. I'd better say something good.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Ludwig Wittgenstein Chair at the University of Veracruz

I'm just about back and ready to catch up on emails, blogging, etc., having been in Mexico as a visiting professor at the University of Veracruz. Every 18 months or so they bring someone in for this position, and the purpose of this post is basically to describe what it involves. Robert Arrington was the first person to occupy the chair, and I was the second. In other words, it's pretty new, so who knows how the position might develop in future. What I can tell you is what I did.

My job was to give a public lecture on a Wittgenstein-related subject to an audience of roughly a hundred people and then to lead a seminar for two hours every day for a week, with between twenty and thirty people (mostly graduate students but also members of the faculty) in the seminar. All of this, apart from the last meeting of the seminar, was recorded, so perhaps it will be available online somewhere sometime. The subject of Winch's The Idea of a Social Science was suggested to me, so my lecture was directly about that book, and the seminar dealt with related topics: Wittgenstein's lecture on ethics (which perhaps is not all that relevant, in fact, but it seemed like a good idea at the time), the first part of the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein's remarks on Frazer, selected parts of Winch's book, and Winch's "Understanding a Primitive Society."

I speak no Spanish, so language was an issue sometimes, but not a huge problem. More important, I think, was that most people in the audience at both the lecture and the seminar were not philosophers but psychologists and other social scientists. They were certainly interested in Wittgenstein, but particularly in how what he said might relate to social science. And for the most part their idea of the aims of social science is not the same as Winch's. More about this, perhaps, in another post.

What did I get out of it? A lot. It's a real joy to teach students who are genuinely interested in the subject and do not have to be manipulated with carrot and stick to read the assigned material and discuss it. It's also a pleasure to discuss philosophy with people who are more knowledgeable and sophisticated than the typical undergraduate. Not just a pleasure but an education too. I also had my expenses covered, so I got a plane ticket there and back, hotel, and meals, plus a car, driver, and interpreter to take me around during the day (the seminars were held in the late afternoon/early evening) to all the best sights in the area. The people there are extremely hospitable and gave me various gifts as well. In short, if you get the chance to do this I highly recommend it.

Sorry if this comes across as bragging but I think I may have been annoyingly obscure about what I've been up to, and I loved it, so it's hard not to talk about it.             

Friday, August 8, 2014


'Consequentialism' and 'utilitarianism' are used pretty much interchangeably these days, but of course Anscombe coined the term 'consequentialism' in order to distinguish the view of Sidgwick and others from utilitarianism. It can be hard to see what difference she saw, so I might get it wrong, so I'll quote what she says:
Let us suppose that a man has a responsibility for the maintenance of some child. Therefore deliberately to withdraw support from it is a bad sort of thing for him to do. It would be bad for him to withdraw its maintenance because he didn't want to maintain it any longer; and also bad for him to withdraw it because by doing so he would, let us say, compel someone else to do something. (We may suppose for the sake of argument that compelling that person to do that thing is in itself quite admirable.) But now he has to choose between doing something disgraceful and going to prison; if he goes to prison, it will follow that he withdraws support from the child. By Sidgwick's doctrine, there is no difference in his responsibility for ceasing to maintain the child, between the case where he does it for its own sake or as a means to some other purpose, and when it happens as a foreseen and unavoidable consequence of his going to prison rather than do something disgraceful. It follows that he must weigh up the relative badness of withdrawing support from the child and of doing the disgraceful thing; and it may easily be that the disgraceful thing is in fact a less vicious action than intentionally withdrawing support from the child would be; if then the fact that withdrawing support from the child is a side effect of his going to prison does not make any difference to his responsibility, this consideration will incline him to do the disgraceful thing; which can still be pretty bad. And of course, once he has started to look at the matter in this light, the only reasonable thing for him to consider will be the consequences and not the intrinsic badness of this or that action. So that, given that he judges reasonably that no great harm will come of it, he can do a much more disgraceful thing than deliberately withdrawing support from the child. And if his calculations turn out in fact wrong, it will appear that he was not responsible for the consequences, because he did not foresee them. For in fact Sidgwick's thesis leads to its being quite impossible to estimate the badness of an action except in the light of expected consequences. But if so, then you must estimate the badness in the light of the consequences you expect; and so it will follow that you can exculpate yourself from the actual consequences of the most disgraceful actions, so long as you can make out a case for not having foreseen them. Whereas I should contend that a man is responsible for the bad consequences of his bad actions, but gets no credit for the good ones; and contrariwise is not responsible for the bad consequences of good actions.

The denial of any distinction between foreseen and intended consequences, as far as responsibility is concerned, was not made by Sidgwick in developing any one "method of ethics"; he made this important move on behalf of everybody and just on its own account; and I think it plausible to suggest that this move on the part of Sidgwick explains the difference between old‑fashioned Utilitarianism and that consequentialism, as I name it, which marks him and every English academic moral philosopher since him. By it, the kind of consideration which would formerly have been regarded as a temptation, the kind of consideration urged upon men by wives and flattering friends, was given a status by moral philosophers in their theories.
One difference between consequentialism so understood and old-fashioned Utilitarianism is surely that under consequentialism "you can exculpate yourself from the actual consequences of the most disgraceful actions, so long as you can make out a case for not having foreseen them." This means that one problem with consequentialism is that it is, in a sense, not consequentialist enough. There is too much scope for failure of imagination (by way of excess or deficiency) to exculpate. Hence, to give some examples, I might not be responsible for killing an innocent man if I genuinely felt (i.e., imagined that I was) mortally threatened by him and did not foresee that he might pose no real threat to my life, and I might not be responsible for plunging a country into violent anarchy if I sincerely expected my invading troops to be greeted as liberators. 

Another difference is that in consequentialism "the kind of consideration which would formerly have been regarded as a temptation [...] was given a status by moral philosophers." We see this in the following quotation from Benny Morris:
Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history. 
He is talking about Israel, but many people in the United States think something like this. Or they think that the annihilation never happened, or it wasn't so bad because those were different times, or it was bad but it's in the past and therefore irrelevant, or they don't think about it at all. Or all of the above. What matters is the evasion of responsibility, not how the evasion is achieved.

But I don't mean to single out Americans. The Khmer Rouge were consequentialists too. Consequentialism is bad, ubiquitous, and not well understood. Philosophers can at least address the last of these. As I see it (going solely by this passage, which is probably a mistake), consequentialism holds (or at least implies) that the goodness or badness of an action depends entirely on the consequences expected by the agent. Whether these consequences are foreseen or intended does not matter. The intrinsic goodness or badness of the action is also irrelevant. And for these reasons consequentialism is doubly bad.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Burry Man

I haven't blogged for a while and probably won't for a week or two because I'm traveling. I don't have much to say right now, either, but here's something that caught my eye. A surprising number of people I follow on Twitter are Scottish and one of them, Ian Rankin, tweeted this story today. According to the BBC:
The Burryman is as he sounds, a man made from burs. Dressed head to toe in the spiked and painful seeds, he parades around Queensferry on the second Friday in August every year. He is accompanied by two aides who help him with his difficult task and a number of other helpers who make up the rest of the entourage. He cannot move his arms to his sides, walk particularly well or even sit down, yet he tours Queensferry for the whole day. The small whiskies the Burryman receives throughout his tour help fortify him in his task and also offers a way for the public to show their gratitude. Even with the pain and discomfort caused by the outfit the Burryman tradition lives on.
The origin of the practice is obscure, but it is at least several hundred years old. One theory has it as a punning celebration of Queensferry becoming a burgh, others as much older and pagan. Not only is the costume painful, it is so hot that it is hard for the man in it not to faint. He is supported by others so he doesn't collapse. But he is also decorated with flowers and the occasion is merry. What would Frazer have made of this? What would Wittgenstein say?

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Of course I don't know, and it doesn't particularly matter. It does, though, seem both an intrinsically interesting case and a good way to try out some of the ideas expressed in Wittgenstein's remarks on Frazer. John Nicol (@johnjnicol) was the Burryman for thirteen years and says it baffled him. He also describes the job as an honour and the tradition as a mystery, which he regards as important. I think he's right, and this idea (that the mysteriousness of this kind of customs is part of the reason for their existence) is a Wittgensteinian one. The mystery means we can try out various theories, or rather trot them out, since we have nothing much against which to test them. In doing so we bring what we know about human nature and experience to bear on the facts before us, the phenomenon in question. And then it almost doesn't matter whether our theories are right or wrong. What matters, we might say, is what we recall of human nature and experience, and what we see in the custom itself: individual suffering and sacrifice, hidden (yet obvious) suffering, public and communal celebration, fertility, whisky, and so on. It's almost like a Rorschach test, but not quite. Fascinating, though. And creepy.

Presumably Wittgenstein might object that we should not trot out theories to try to explain the Burry Man. Rather, we just need to set out all the facts in the right way and no explanation will be necessary. (At least he might say that. I don't think he's committed to saying this in every case.) This reminds me of the idea that in ethics there is nothing to be said. But that's something to explore another time.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Ivy League zombies?

This article in the New Republic seems to have got a lot of attention. It's a strange piece, I think, with good bits and bad. The basic claim is that students should not go to the most elite universities and colleges but should aim one step lower, at places that many people think of as elite but that are not quite as difficult to get in to.

Why? Because:
Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.
What the author, William Deresiewicz, says he is talking about when he talks about elite education is "prestigious institutions like Harvard or Stanford or Williams as well as the larger universe of second-tier selective schools," but if these "second-tier" schools are so bad then it is odd that his conclusion is that "the best option of all may be the second-tier—not second-rate—colleges, like Reed, Kenyon, Wesleyan, Sewanee, Mount Holyoke, and others." It's also a little strange to hear such good schools referred to as second-tier. Wesleyan is ranked 17th among national liberal arts colleges by US News & World Report, and several others mentioned here are in the top 40. Given the unreliability of the rankings it seems crazy to think there is much difference in quality between any two places in the top 50 or so, although there are probably some exceptions. Perhaps just being ranked 1st or 2nd makes a difference to the kind of students that apply and get in, but I wouldn't blame the colleges themselves for that. Maybe Deresiewicz doesn't either.

What he's really complaining about is:
the private and affluent public high schools; the ever-growing industry of tutors and consultants and test-prep courses; the admissions process itself, squatting like a dragon at the entrance to adulthood; the brand-name graduate schools and employment opportunities that come after the B.A.; and the parents and communities, largely upper-middle class, who push their children into the maw of this machine. In short, our entire system of elite education.
In other words, not elite colleges and universities but the admissions system and the socio-economic, largely economic, inequality that it helps perpetuate. He makes a good point.

Here's another:
Like so many kids today, I went off to college like a sleepwalker. You chose the most prestigious place that let you in; up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth“success.” What it meant to actually get an education and why you might want oneall this was off the table. 
I think this is generally true, and probably always has been. Students (in general and for the most part) don't go to college because they want to learn, even if they think they do. I don't think this is a problem so much as a feature of human nature, especially for young people coming out of high school who are used to doing what their parents and teachers tell them to do.

What is the problem then? Here's one, according to Deresiewicz:
So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. 
Again, though, I don't know that this is a problem. The obvious solution would be for college admissions officers to give priority to applicants who had failed or had shown a willingness to take risks. Then this would become one more thing that well prepared students would make sure was part of their application. Perhaps some would fail to fail and so accidentally look too perfect. Then they might end up at second-tier schools, where Deresiewicz wants them anyway. The real problems seem more to be the obsession with rankings, as if the generally unmeasurable could be very finely measured after all, and the unfairness (and inefficiency) of a system that perpetuates inequality instead of being the meritocracy it pretends to be.

Here's one of the worst parts of the article:
Religious collegeseven obscure, regional schools that no one has ever heard of on the coastsoften do a much better job in [teaching students how to think]. What an indictment of the Ivy League and its peers: that colleges four levels down on the academic totem pole, enrolling students whose SAT scores are hundreds of points lower than theirs, deliver a better education, in the highest sense of the word.  
He gives no evidence that this is true, and it's hard to believe. Surely many obscure religious colleges stifle thought in favor of orthodoxy. There are different orthodoxies at non-religious colleges, no doubt, but merely asserting that religious colleges are often better than Ivy League schools in this regard is no indictment at all in the relevant sense (i.e. it is an accusation but not evidence that the accusation has any merit).

Such missteps aside, the main point of the article (as I read it) is good:
This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead. 
Why is this?
The major reason for the trend is clear. Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. 
Private colleges won't admit the best students regardless of their ability to pay, so the decline in funding for public higher education means that social mobility is in decline.The obvious solution, which Deresiewicz in effect calls for, although he mixes it up with irrelevant claims like "The problem is the Ivy League itself," is a massive increase in funding for public universities along with more sensible admissions policies. This will not ensure that rich kids don't become "entitled little shits" but it will make it far less important that anyone get into an Ivy League university or elite private college. Since no one cares about fairness, though, it will probably take failure to compete economically with better educated countries to prod the United States into improving its educational system. I wouldn't hold my breath, in other words. Especially when it's the zombies who are in charge.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Are there any language-games?

I've been thinking about this post at The Limits of Language, and this concluding thought in particular:
“Language game” is not a name. It is a picture made to counter the charm of certain other pictures.
I think this is right, but there seems to be more than one picture of a language-game. In PI 7 Wittgenstein introduces the term 'language-games' to refer to the "speech-like processes" that constitute exercises one goes through in teaching and learning a language (repeating words after the teacher, pointing to appropriate objects when the teacher says certain words, and so on). He gives a list of examples here, but they all seem to me to be examples of the same thing: games and exercises by means of which one learns a language. Nursery rhymes, for instance (which Baker and Hacker say that Wittgenstein preferred to "games like ring-a-ring-a-roses" as the English translation of Reigenspielen). Then right at the end he adds (my translation):
I shall also call the whole, the language and the activities with which it is interwoven, the "language-game".
It isn't clear what he means by "the language" etc. He has already said that he will call a primitive language a language-game, and it isn't really clear what counts as a primitive language. Is "the language" the primitive language, or some other language? The only thing to do is to look and see how he uses the term. In 300, for instance, when he talks about "the language-game with the words "he is in pain"," he seems to mean neither a learning exercise or game nor a whole language in any obvious sense of "whole language." We have to attend, it seems, not to what he says but to what he does. And presumably that's deliberate.

What he certainly does not do is present himself as having unearthed some phenomenon that had previously been overlooked, namely language-games. Instead he has invented a concept as a tool, and what matters is what he does with it. His use of the term develops in the course of the book. So the introduction of the term in PI 7 no more gives us everything we need to grasp its meaning than does the ostensive teaching of a word.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Political links

The problem with unstructured summer time combined with distracting (albeit lovable) family members is that I don't get nearly as much done as I think I should. The stretches of uninterrupted time needed for work or reading a good book just aren't there, or take more effort to create than I tend to make. On the plus side, I do end up reading lots of little things, some of which are quite good. Here are some highlights from the last couple of days:

William Findley against big banks:
If our wealth is less equal than our kind of government seems to require—and if agrarian [i.e., redistributionist] laws are unjust in our present situation, how absurd must it be for government to lend its special aid in so partial a manner, to wealth, to give it that additional force and spring, which it must derive from an almost unlimited charter? Can any gentleman avoid seeing this to be eventually and effectually overturning our government? Democracy must fall before it.
Lee A. Arnold on ten truths about "a cohesive, pervasive social organism"
conservative white males are likely to favor protection of the current industrial capitalist order which has historically served them well. Fiscally conservative white males have disproportionately occupied positions of power within our economic system, controlling stocks and flows of various forms of capital and benefiting from ample amounts of prestige, status, and esteem… Given the expansive challenge that climate change poses to the industrial capitalist economic system, it makes sense that conservative white males’ strong system-justifying attitudes—triggered by the anti-climate science claims of the conservative movement…—may drive them toward climate change denial.
[I'm not convinced that white males' favoring an order that has served them well is "not racist," but I suppose we can disagree about how to define 'racism'. And what I've quoted (which is itself a quote from someone else, not Arnold) might seem obvious, but there's more in Arnold's comment than just the obvious.]

Finally, Changing Universities on "the higher education myth":
[Arne] Duncan and others appear to believe that college degrees produce jobs that require degrees, when in fact, there is very little relation between these two factors.  In fact, since wealthy students graduate from college at a much higher rate than anyone else, higher education often serves to increase income inequality.  Higher education thus cannot substitute for broader economic public policies, and at a time when public higher education is seeing decreased funding, it is absurd to ask higher education to be the solution to all of our problems.  For example, Duncan claimed that higher education is the key to keeping high-pay, high skill jobs in America, but this perspective fails to look at the role of corporations seeking to increase their profits by outsourcing jobs and replacing full-time workers with part-time employees.