Friday, July 29, 2011

Into (and out of) the woods

I have wanted to write some kind of review of Tal Brewer's The Retrieval of Ethics, but I can't think of much to say about it except that I like it. If you want a very short summary of it it would be something like this: Aristotle. For a longer account see here. It's certainly a book that anyone interested in virtue ethics should read. The part I liked best comes at the beginning (i.e. the first hundred pages or so). Here he attacks the view of action as necessarily aiming at making the world a certain way and introduces the idea of dialectical activity. If I'm working in a factory then I might know exactly what my actions are intended to bring about (a paper-knife just like all these others, say), but not all activity is like this. If I am writing a novel or painting a picture, or trying to get to know someone through conversation, or living my life the best way I can, for instance, then I don't have a clear view of what I am after going in to the project. If I already knew what I wanted to write, Brewer points out, then all I would have to do is type the novel up. If I already understood you fully then I wouldn't need to have the heart-to-heart conversation that I am now engaged in. What I want is understanding, but I don't yet know what that will consist in, what it will mean. Instead we begin with a dim or sketchy idea and then feel our way forward, correcting ourselves when we take a false step and letting new discoveries guide our progress. But it's not as if we keep stopping and starting. The end is continuously adjusted, as are the means.

I was reminded of this by Kelly Dean Jolley's post on the structure of the Philosophical Investigations and Tractatus. As he writes there:
In TLP and PI, the concentration of metaphilosophical remarks occurs in the dialectical middle (a middle not necessarily the same as its paginal middle): the 4s in the TLP and in 89-133 in PI. Rhetorically, each of the books is a large epanados, a chiasmus. That is, each of the books is organized spatially around a center or middle. Each book has the structure, roughly, of a large ‘x’, with the metaphilosophical remarks stationed at the crux of the ‘x’.  
The 'x' makes me think of cross-stitch, although sewing has a more tangible product than philosophy. But the movement of stitching, going in and out and back and forth, seems apt. Wittgenstein's books are made to be read dialectically. At the very least the meta-philosophical remarks ought to make you want to go back to the beginning and start again, if only to make sure that you haven't misunderstood anything as a result of coming to the book with a different idea of what philosophy is than Wittgenstein's. So you go into the text, then return to the beginning, and then (maybe) read through till the end. Like an h written backwards. But the more you retrace your steps or explore different paths the more your route will resemble an X or a figure 8. You have to find your way around by exploring. Wittgenstein provides sketches of landscapes and you have to go criss-cross through them. This seems to be the kind of activity that Brewer describes as dialectical.

I was also reminded of this by thinking of the song "Accept Yourself" when I was writing about being yourself.  "Others conquered love but I ran. I sat in my room and I drew up a plan," Morrissey sings. Of course, making a plan and then enacting it (the model of action rejected by Brewer) is not the usual way to success in such matters. Indeed, it might well be regarded as a form of evasion. Not all problems are technical, as Morrissey also makes clear in the joke "I need advice, I need advice....nobody ever looks at me twice" (from "Miserable Lie"). (It's a joke because no advice will make him better looking.) What people need is to engage and find their way, however clumsily, not a better plan or sounder advice.

And then there's Dante:
In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

Ah how hard to say what a harsh
thing was that wood savage and rough and hard
that to think about it renews the fear!

Not all activities are dialectical, and not all problems are like this, but the big ones seem to be. And this is surely related to Wittgenstein's idea that the answers to life's problems will not be provided by science or philosophy as traditionally conceived.


  1. I haven't read Brewer's book, but it looked important when I first saw it, so thanks for a reminder that I need to get around to reading it.

  2. I think it's really good. It's long, so it might be a bit daunting, but it's nicely organized with concluding remarks at the end of each chapter, clear indications at the beginning as to what each chapter is going to say, and so on. So you can fairly easily identify which parts you want to pay most attention to, and I think most chapters could be read on their own.

  3. The Dante is terrific. I never thought of it in this connection.

  4. I think the Dante connection has been made before, but I don't remember who made it.

  5. is the emphasis on the 'certain way' one's acting does or doesn't aim to change the world to be, or on the aiming to change the world?

    robert pippin drops a notion of action kind of like that (the one being criticized, i think) at one point in his recent nietzsche book and it got me wondering about the provenance of views like that in action-theory circles. ('i desire something which is not satisfied by the way the world currently is: i shall act to change it.')

  6. I think the emphasis is on the aiming to change the world. Wanting tea and wanting the world to be such that you have tea are not the same thing, I think Brewer argues. If someone threatens to kill me unless I drink tea now then I might well want to be drinking tea, but that isn't the same thing as wanting tea. Any satisfaction I take in drinking the tea will come not from the tea itself but from my knowledge that I am much less likely to be killed now. So treating wanting tea as wanting the world to be such that ... is a mistake. (Sorry if that's repetitive, incoherent, or wrong. I've just got home from a trip out of town and I'm not sure I'm thinking very clearly yet.)

    As for the provenance of this way of thinking, I don't know. But I suspect one or more of the early moderns is or are to blame. According to Brewer almost everybody thinks this way now.

  7. Reminiscent of Philosophical Remarks §§21-22:

    "What is essential to intention is the picture: the picture of what is intended.

    It may look as if, in introducing intention, we were introducing an uncheckable, a so-to-speak metaphysical element into our discussion. But the essential difference between the picture conception and the conception of Russell, Ogden and Richards, is that it regards recognition as seeing an internal relation, whereas in their view this is an external relation.

    That is to say, for me, there are only two things involved in the fact that a thought is true, i.e. the thought and the fact; whereas for Russell, there are three, i.e. thought, fact and a third event which, if it occurs, is just recognition. This third event, a sort of satisfaction of hunger (the other two being hunger and eating a particular kind of food), could, for example, be a feeling of pleasure. It's a matter of complete indifference here how we describe this third event; that is irrelevant to the essence of the theory.

    The causal connection between speech and action is an external relation, whereas we need an internal one.

    I believe Russell's theory amounts to the following: if I give someone an order and I am happy with what he thendoes, then he has carried out my order.

    (If I wanted to eat an apple, and someone punched me in the stomach, taking away my appetite, then it was this punch that I originally wanted.)"

    Also PI §440:

    "Saying 'I should like an apple' does not mean: I believe an apple will quell my feeling of nonsatisfaction. This proposition is not an expression of a wish but of nonsatisfaction."

  8. Yes, that seems to be almost exactly it. Of course, there are more details and arguments in what Brewer says, but this is at least highly relevant. He mentions Wittgenstein, but perhaps not as much as he should given these passages (which he may well be unfamiliar with). Thanks!