Saturday, December 22, 2012

Guns

I've been working on a post about guns, trying to find something interesting in the way gun-rights advocates have responded to the Newtown massacre, but all I really have to show for it is a set of links to good articles by other people. And other people have done that better, so I'll just link to the links here.

Massimo Pigliucci at Rationally Speaking has perhaps the best combination of links and comment that I've seen.

Jean Kazez makes a lot of sense here (although I think I'm closer to being a liberal ideologue than she is--access to deadly weapons pretty much is the whole problem, it seems to me, although no doubt we could do better with mental illness too).

And although it might be too obvious to mention, Brian Leiter has good posts here, here, and here (plus a couple of others that I'll let you find for yourself).

Lincoln

Spielberg's Lincoln is worth seeing, but far from being the great achievement some people seem to think it is. It features very good actors, and manages to maintain dramatic tension throughout, despite the facts that we all know what's going to happen and that it's two and a half hours long. That's some achievement. But there's something trashy about it all the same. Two things, to be precise (three if you count this kind of complaint, but I'm not historian enough to judge its merits): some of the acting is better suited to the stage than the screen (what Kate Masur found moving I found contrived), and Lincoln himself is presented as a kind of prophet or god rather than as a man. He's like a cross between Heraclitus and Moses (played by Alvin Plantinga). Everything he says is wise or at least wise-sounding, albeit perhaps sometimes too deep for others to understand. His longer speeches are all accompanied by music apparently designed to let us know we are witnessing greatness, and distracting us from the actual meaning of his words by working so hard to prompt the desired emotional response. No doubt Lincoln was a remarkable man, but I wonder whether he (as presented here) would be credible as a man at all without the distraction of the music. No one talks like that all the time. (Not even Heraclitus or Moses, I would think.) I wonder what non-US audiences will make of it.  

Friday, December 21, 2012

Brogaard on relativism and expressivism

Berit Brogaard's "Moral Relativism and Moral Expressivism" is a funny paper. It's nice and clear, shows an impressive familiarity with the literature (sometimes, anyway), and deals with big issues like the nature of emotions, relativism, and expressivism in ethics. But it's surely wrong on most if not all of these big issues.

Brogaard gives virtue ethics as an example of "the view that there is one fundamental moral principle that determines what is right and wrong in all circumstances" (p. 539). Her characterization of virtue ethics is based, supposedly, on Anscombe's "Modern Moral Philosophy." The third sentence of that paper states its second thesis: "that the concepts of obligation, and duty‑-moral obligation and moral duty, that is to say‑-and of what is morally right and wrong, and of the moral sense of "ought," ought to be jettisoned if this is psychologically possible..." So it's a bit odd to identify Anscombe's view as an example of the view in question. That is, it's strange to treat a view that rejects the concepts of moral right and wrong as being a view about what determines what is morally right and wrong. And a better understanding of virtue ethics might have made relativism seem less attractive to Brogaard, since she arrives at it (in this paper, at any rate) by a process of eliminating other theories, such as virtue ethics.

But what about emotions, relativism, and expressivism? Emotions, she says, are "perceptual representations of body changes that occur in response to external stimuli" (p. 545). As she presents it this is something like the standard view these days, or her twist on the standard view. Apparently everyone has been more or less convinced by William James' counter-intuitive theory. It seems like a funny way to characterize an emotion like sadness or happiness though. Why think that emotions are representations of anything? Why think that they are perceptual? What if I experience bodily changes not in response to external stimuli? Can't perceptual representations of these changes then be emotions? Imagine I am afraid of the dark and quake at the prospect of having to go into the basement. My quaking is fearful. I quake with fear. But my thinking about going into the basement is fearful too, and I do it with fear. Neither my quaking nor my thinking is my fear. And though each is done with fear, this fear is not some other thing that exists without them. If I am not thinking of anything that frightens me and show no physical symptoms of fear (ruling out the possibility that I might be afraid subconsciously) then it makes no sense to say that I am experiencing the emotion of fear. Perhaps Brogaard is thinking that emotions are felt, and that feeling is a kind of perception. So there must be something to be perceived, and this can only (or is most likely to be) our own bodily changes. But feeling an emotion is not like feeling a carpet. It is just having the emotion. I haven't looked into all of Brogaard's arguments, or those of others whose work she builds on, but something seems to have gone wrong here. (Phil Hutchinson would have something to say about this, I imagine.)

Brogaard's relativism has a Humean flavor. Moral principles are only ever true relative to a moral judge, she says, and "An action possesses the property of being wrong relative to a moral judge if and only if the action triggers a particular kind of negative moral state in the judge" (p. 546). So an attempt to kill me that I do not recognize as such is not right or wrong relative to me, because it does not trigger the relevant "negative moral state" in me. I don't know what "wrong relative to me" can mean, therefore, except "regarded as (or perhaps felt to be) wrong by me." And in that case, are we really talking about wrongness any more? If I wonder whether some course of action I'm considering would be wrong can it be true that what I'm really doing is trying to get some perception of my body into focus (assuming that a "negative moral state" is some kind of emotion)? I suppose that wondering whether something is wrong might be the same as trying to figure out, or understand clearly, how I feel about it. But the question is still how I feel about it (so the proper focus is not myself) and how I feel about it (and aboutness is not a causal relation, so the proper focus of my inquiry is not any physical effects).

She counts it as a consideration in favor of her view that, according to it, it would be true for a pro-choice person to say, "If I had had a negative moral attitude toward abortion, abortion would have been wrong." She also thinks it is "not [...] that unintuitive" (p. 548) to say that "It is morally permissible to murder people" is true when uttered by a serial killer. Again it seems to me that something has gone badly wrong. How can anyone possibly think that something that is (in their view) morally acceptable would have been morally unacceptable if only their own feelings about it had been different? (There are cases where this could happen, but they are irrelevant to the point. For instance, if I am grieving and you make a questionable joke that amuses me then I might think that it would have been wrong of you to make that joke if it had not made me laugh. But that's not the kind of situation at issue here.) A person like that would have to think of themselves as something like God dictating what is good and what is evil, or else they would have essentially no grasp of the concept of morality at all. To take a crude example, if I felt that torture was OK then the conclusion that follows is that I would be depraved, not that torture would be all right in that case. 

Following Hume again, Brogaard thinks that morals produce or prevent actions, and that they must therefore be something like emotions. But is the judgment "stealing is wrong" anything like that? If I were seriously tempted to steal, would repeating this (very thin) moral fact to myself have any motivating force whatever? I think it would be a joke. Moral propositions don't, it seems to me, have any power to produce or prevent actions. (Which is not to say that ethical considerations have no motivating power. But such considerations are typically thoughts about people, relationships, and thick moral concepts.)

She claims also that "Bad art does not trigger the same emotions in me as morally reprehensible actions" (p. 553). It does in me, at least sometimes. What makes art bad is often pretentiousness, sentimentality, or vanity. And those are moral failings. 

The end result is this (to my mind) bizarre claim:
Moral and aesthetic emotions have a different phenomenology. The reason for this is presumably that they represent different physiological changes to the body state. (p. 554)    
'Represent' here seems to mean something like are caused by. Which might have some truth in it, although it seems odd to say that crying made him sad rather than that sadness made him cry. If I think about a massacre and start crying, but only feel sad when I think about my own tears, then I am not sad about (or at) the massacre.

There seems to be an awful lot of metaphysical weirdness crying out for Wittgensteinian therapy here. Can that be right? I don't fully trust my judgment on this because I know I haven't done my homework (I've only read Brogaard's paper once, don't know much of the literature she cites, and don't have her paper in front of me now), and Brogaard is quite eminent. Can someone like that really be as wrong as she seems to me to be? Or have I just misunderstood?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Wittgenstein's Ethics in the Koder Diaries

I have now revised the paper previously known as "Wittgenstein's Ethics" and called it "Wittgenstein's Ethics in the Koder Diaries." It's on academia.edu here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

My review of Klagge's Wittgenstein in Exile in The European Legacy

Just in time for Christmas!

Jessica Feinstein of the Taylor & Francis Group writes:
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Thursday, December 13, 2012

Therapy and common sense

This is probably well known, but I don't remember ever reading it or thinking of it for myself before. In Anna Boncompagni's "The Mother-tongue of Thought": James and Wittgenstein on Common Sense she points out that:
It might be worth noticing, that the German expression for common sense, gesunder Menschverstand, implicitly links common sense to health, as gesund means healthy.
She also quotes Wittgenstein saying that "a philosopher is one who must heal in himself many diseases of the understanding, before he can arrive at the notions of common sense," and:
Philosophy can be said to consist of three activities: to see the commonsense answer, to get yourself so deeply into the problem that the commonsense answer is unbearable, and to get from that situation back to the commonsense answer. But the commonsense answer in itself is no solution; everyone knows it. One must not in philosophy attempt to short-circuit problems.
I'm not sure exactly what I have learned from this (if I tried to say I suspect it would not sound like anything new at all, not even new to me), but I think I might have a deeper understanding of the importance of common sense for Wittgenstein as a result. 

Truth with a capital T

Does anyone ever defend this idea? I can't think of a time when I've heard someone refer to "truth with a capital T" except to reject the idea. And if that is always the case, if no one ever claims to believe in truth with a capital T, why does anyone bother to reject the idea? What is being rejected?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The crisis of the humanities

This kind of story ("The message from Tallahassee could not be blunter: Give us engineers, scientists, health care specialists and technology experts. Do not worry so much about historians, philosophers, anthropologists and English majors.") makes me think that the humanities are in crisis. And people often say they are. But what is the nature of the crisis, and what has caused it?

Apparently Florida's Governor Scott wants students to pursue "job-friendly degrees." But what these are will change. In the worst case you might begin a degree in Job-Friendly Studies only to find out that jobs are hard to get in that area by the time you graduate (perhaps because everyone else had the same idea too). In the best case you might graduate into a good job because of your choice of major, but still find that the industry's fortunes change over time, not always for the better. You also might find that you don't like the major you have chosen and don't do well in it (either because you don't like it or because it's too hard, which might be why such a lucrative major was under-subscribed in the first place). You might find that you don't like working in that area. For all of these reasons it seems a bad idea to try to push students into degree programs that don't appeal to them. The free market seems pretty good at dealing with this kind of issue. 

Washington & Lee University's President Ruscio believes that there is an "increasing need to prepare students for careers and jobs." Is the need really increasing? If so, why? Of course the economy is in bad shape, but we know what caused that, and it wasn't too many students choosing to major in the humanities. (I like some of Ruscio's ideas, but this line stood out as questionable to me.) If there is a greater need now for colleges and universities to prepare students for the job market it seems to come from the general culture, not from the economy. People expect job-preparation in college, partly because college is often advertised as a ticket to a higher income. But the seemingly obviously practical choice is often not actually a practical choice. Business, for instance, is not a good choice of undergraduate major, even though that's where the money is. (That is, there is money to be made in business, but Business majors do not appear to be the ones who make it.) So what should students study? The short answer is: whatever they choose. That way they will enjoy their studies more and probably earn higher grades. And those who care most about making money can choose to major accordingly, probably in something that will prepare them for medical or law school, or else in Engineering. 

Many students still choose to major in the humanities, and that's OK. This table suggests that Philosophy majors earn more than majors in any other liberal arts (I'm counting Economics as a social science). They earn more than Biology, Chemistry, and IT majors, for instance. Also more than Business Administration majors. But is this because studying Philosophy makes you more valuable to employers, or causes you to be perceived to be more valuable, or is it because Philosophy majors tend to be smarter than others, and intelligence is valuable to employers (or at least leads to promotions and higher salaries)? Surely it is the latter. If the economy needed more Chemistry majors they would earn more, wouldn't they? Maybe I've bought into too much economics, but if there is anything to this supply and demand stuff then we should either leave students to choose their own majors or else be much more careful about which majors we push. All majors in science, technology, and mathematics are not equal. And manipulating students into majoring in Chemistry (mid-career median salary $79,900 according to the Wall Street Journal) or Biology ($64,800) rather than Philosophy ($81,200) makes no sense. Or none that I can see, at any rate.

Marjorie Perloff quotes Robert Weisbuch, "a distinguished professor of English at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation," who declares:
Today’s consensus about the state of the humanities–it’s bad, it’s getting worse, and no one is doing much about it– is supported by dismal facts. The percentage of undergraduates majoring in humanities fields has been halved over the past three decades. Financing for faculty research has decreased. The salary gap between full-time scholars in the humanities and in other fields has widened, and more and more humanists are employed part time and paid ridiculously low salaries. . . . As doctoral programs in the humanities proliferate irresponsibly, turning out more and more graduates who cannot find jobs, the waste of human talent becomes enormous, intolerable.
More broadly, the humanities, like the liberal arts generally, appear far less surely at the center of higher education than they once did. We have lost the respect of our colleagues in other fields, as well as the attention of an intelligent public. The action is elsewhere. We are living through a time when outrage with the newfangled in the humanities–with deconstruction or Marxism or whatever–has become plain lack of interest. No one’s even angry with us now, just bored.
Perloff agrees with this last point. But I'm not so sure. Are people really bored with History (think of the interest in the movie Lincoln)? Or with Philosophy (people never seem to stop asking the "big questions" or caring about what makes sense)? What I think people might be bored with is English, and not literature but precisely the obsession with theories such as deconstruction and Marxism that seemed to dominate the study of English in recent decades (I'm thinking especially of the 1980s, but the desire to be able to refer knowingly to whoever is trendy, especially if they are French (or Zizek) seems to have persisted). I don't mean this as an attack on French philosophers. It isn't (necessarily) their fault that they have been made into bandwagons. Perloff offers little by way of remedy for the humanities generally (her focus is on literary studies), but her essay is well worth reading: she rejects faux interdisciplinarity and the conversion of literary studies into cultural studies in ways that I find persuasive. Here are some of the best bits:
The downside of the equation between cultural studies and literary studies is that, carried to its logical conclusion, cultural studies can dispense with the literary altogether. Studies of consumerism, for example, can be based on the analysis of shopping malls or Home Depot layouts; no literary texts are required. Teen culture can be explored through music, film, and computer games. Current social mores and cultural constraints can be profitably studied by examining Internet discourse. And so on. Everything, after all, can be a text and so why not a golf course? A skating rink? A theme park? "Professor X," I read in the Bulletin of a leading university, "specializes in 20th-century American literature, film and cultural studies. . . . She has begun a . . . book-length project that reads important post-World War II Hollywood films as public relations maneuvers, with which the studios sought to create a benign impression of a beleaguered industry and to shape the nation’s social and economic agenda during the difficult process of reconversion to a peacetime economy."
Such studies are regularly designated as "intThe Best Years of Our Lives (1946) is a ‘public relations maneuver," designed to mask ‘the difficult process of reconversion to a peacetime economy’, then the discipline in question is cultural history in keeping with the critic’s primary purpose, which is to unmask a particular social and economic agenda. Related disciplines applied might be economics and political science–specifically, the trauma of postwar reintegration for those whose "best years" were, ironically enough, on the battlefield where they could perform the heroic actions denied to them in their prior peacetime existence.
But there is one discipline that clearly isn’t involved here and that is literature–or, for that matter, film–as artistic practice. [...]
[...] And as such, the study of poetry or film or drama is difficult to justify as more than an after-school "extra." For surely if the object is to learn how U.S. culture was restructured in the postwar years, there are more accurate indicators than individual Hollywood movies.
Her proposed solution is this: "what is urgently needed in the "Humanities" today is more knowledge of actual art works and a great emphasis on induction." She may be right (I'm not sure I understand what she means about induction, although it has to do with recognizing that not just anyone who can read can thereby read a poem properly, just as not just anyone who can hear can listen properly, critically to a symphony, and that becoming a skilled reader requires both education and lots of practice), but she's clearly talking about literature and the arts, not such humanities as History and Philosophy. So what about them?

Stanley Fish writes:
The only thing that might fly — and I’m hardly optimistic — is politics, by which I mean the political efforts of senior academic administrators to explain and defend the core enterprise to those constituencies — legislatures, boards of trustees, alumni, parents and others — that have either let bad educational things happen or have actively connived in them.
And when I say “explain,” I should add aggressively explain — taking the bull by the horns, rejecting the demand (always a loser) to economically justify the liberal arts, refusing to allow myths (about lazy, pampered faculty who work two hours a week and undermine religion and the American way) to go unchallenged, and if necessary flagging the pretensions and hypocrisy of men and women who want to exercise control over higher education in the absence of any real knowledge of the matters on which they so confidently pronounce.
The real problem is surely the myths, pretensions, and hypocrisy that Fish identifies. There's the crisis, although surely it was ever thus. Myths aren't new.

Finally, at least for now, here's another essay on the crisis, which says:
Search JSTOR for the phrase “crisis in the humanities.” Starting with the oldest articles first, I stopped reading at record 69 out of 217. The phrase first appears in a JSTOR journal in 1922, and from 1940 on becomes a steady stream of complaints. I think this is enough evidence to suggest that there has been a sense of crisis in the humanities almost as long as there have been departments of humanities. The organization of modern universities seems timeless, but the development of departments and disciplines as we know them now is a product of the late 19th century. Not only is the sense of crisis decades old and persistent, but for the most part the causes are as well. Students are choosing professional programs over the humanities; the sciences have the most authority and get the most funding; there are too many humanities PhDs; they’re evaluated by standards appropriate to the sciences but not the humanities.
This last sentence gives a pretty good summary of what people generally mean when they talk about the humanities being in crisis. If students' choosing professional programs is a problem we could close (or just not open) these programs, or explain to students and their parents why an ambition to be a lawyer is not a good reason to major in Pre-Law rather than Politics or History or Philosophy or English. Sciences surely get more funding because businesses give them grants, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that. (Of course it's easy to see how it might create problems in some cases.) Too many PhDs is a problem, but the solution is relatively obvious. Universities should hire more professors or admit fewer graduate students. Scientists have more authority and receive more money? This shouldn't matter, unless it mean that sciences are being favored irrationally, because of a general sense by people with power and money that science is somehow better than the humanities. And this brings us back to Fish's point about myth and about the hubris of people who want to manipulate higher education without really knowing anything about the subjects involved. The crisis of the humanities is not within the humanities, in other words. It is an ethical crisis in people outside the humanities, and in those within who connive with them. Changing the humanities in order to cater to these people is just adding to the problem. Or so it seems to me.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Critical thinking

Like a lot of people, I often think that students should be taught critical thinking. But I realize that I have only a vague idea what I mean by this, and when I try to articulate the idea to myself its cloudiness quickly becomes evident. Mostly I think I have two things in mind: logical reasoning and an informed skeptical tendency. But there are problems with both of these, it seems to me.

I had to take a course in logic as an undergraduate and saw little point in it at the time. The reason we were given for having to take the course was so that we would be able to read papers that used logical symbols, but the symbols we were taught were not the ones most commonly used in readings we were assigned. And you don't need to take an entire course in order to know that this symbol should be read as 'or' and that as 'if ... then' (although translating from formal symbolism into ordinary language is not as straightforward as one might think). No one ever claimed, as far as I can recall, that studying logic would make us any more logical than we already were, any better at reasoning. Perhaps it does have that effect, but I've seen no evidence that it does, and this would surely be widely advertised by logicians if it existed (or have I just committed some fallacy right there?). I believe that argument mapping has good effects, but I haven't looked into it much. That's because I don't teach critical thinking, although if I did I expect I would start here and make my students do some mapping. Basically the (apparent) problem with teaching logic is that one course in anything is not likely to make a lasting difference to students, and if you're going to have students reason logically then you might as well have them do so about some particular subject, and then what you have is not a course in logic but a philosophy course on whatever area of philosophy you have chosen to focus on in the course. Perhaps it wouldn't even be a philosophy course, although if the primary focus is logical reasoning then I don't know what else it could be. In short, maybe logic should be taught across the philosophy curriculum rather than in a dedicated course. As David Papineau says:
I’ve long been unsure about the point of normal introductory logic courses.  It is doubtful they do anything to improve argumentative skills, and they tend not to leave time for any philosophically significant metalogic.  Of course, they are a necessary prerequisite for those who are going to go on in logic.  But for the many who aren’t, it is not obvious what the philosophical payoff is.
The problem with inculcating an informed skeptical tendency is that what's in question seems to be a virtue rather than some quantity of knowledge, and developing a virtue is going to take much more than one course.  It's easy enough to educate students about the bias of Fox News, but (or because) they already know this. The ones who watch it will continue to do so, and will insist (rightly) that other news sources have their own biases. People generally know how to be skeptical when they want to be. It's developing that will in the right way that's the tricky part. I don't want my students to be skeptical about global climate change--they should trust scientists more than that. I don't want them to believe that 9/11 was an inside job by the US government--they should trust the government more than that. But should they believe everything that scientists tell them? Should they always trust the government? No. It might help if they knew more about how science is done, about how many scientists believe in man-made climate change, and if they knew something about the science of climate change itself. But how much of that could be covered in one general course on critical thinking? And what would prevent any students whose minds were changed as a result from starting to believe in some other irrational theory (or some other excuse to do nothing about climate change)? It seems to me that, once again, the habits of mind we're looking for need to be encouraged and developed across the curriculum.

Which means students need to be challenged to justify their beliefs more consistently. They need to be graded on their reasoning more and on knowing the right answer less. Which means less multiple choice and memorization, more papers, oral exams, etc. Which probably means smaller classes, more encouragement to teachers to challenge students even if students don't like it, and less pressure on teachers to do anything other than teaching (so that they have time to grade all those papers, for instance). It also means thinking less that a course or two can fix a major deficiency in anyone's education.

Having said all that, every time I visit the Critical Thinking on the Web site I start to want to teach a critical thinking course despite it all.      

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Talulah Gosh was a top celebrity

This is of interest to, let's just say, a select group only, but since I've talked about them here before I want to link to this story in The Independent about Talulah Gosh. I can't believe I never managed/bothered to see them live.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Reconceiving Medical Ethics

My review of Christopher Cowley (ed.) Reconceiving Medical Ethics is up at Metapsychology. Here's my conclusion:
Although it is not likely to change the face of medical ethics, the book does make valuable contributions to several debates within the field. It also brings out some of the problems with common ways of thinking about medical ethics, such as the idea that the end can justify the means, the desire to ignore as much as possible the religious beliefs of patients and medical practitioners, and the attempt to separate ethics from both legal and professional judgment, carving out areas of technical expertise where ethics supposedly does not belong. It could almost be said that the aim of the book is to bring ethics back into medical ethics. Certainly the way it points is worth exploring.    

Wittgenstein on dreams and film

Remarks from the Koder diaries (in Public and Private Occasions):
In one regard I must be a very modern person since the cinema has such an extraordinarily beneficial effect on me. I cannot imagine any rest for the mind more adequate to me than an American movie. What I see & the music give me a blissful sensation perhaps in an infantile way but therefore of course no less powerful. In general as I have often thought & said a film is something very similar to a dream & the thoughts of Freud are directly applicable to it. [pp. 29-31, May 1930]
One often thinks--and I myself often make this mistake--that everything one thinks can be written down. In reality one can only write down--that is, without doing something stupid & inappropriate--what arises in us in the form of writing. Everything else seems comical & as it were like dirt. That is, something that needs to be wiped off. [p. 35, May 1930]
And from the Conversations on Freud:
     Symbolizing in dreams. The idea of a dream language. Think of recognizing a painting as a dream. I (L.W.) was once looking at an exhibition of paintings by a young woman artist in Vienna. There was one painting of a bare room, like a cellar. Two men in top hats were sitting on chairs. Nothing else. And the title: "Besuch" ("Visit"). When I saw this I said at once "This is a dream", (My sister described the picture to Freud, and he said 'Oh yes, that is quite a common dream'--connected with virginity.) Note that the title is what clinches it as a dream--by which I do not mean that anything like this was dreamt by the painter while asleep. You would not say of every painting 'This is a dream'. And this does show that there is something like a dream language. [p. 43, summer 1942]
     It is characteristic of dreams that often they seem to the dreamer to call for an interpretation. [...] There seems to be something in dream images that has a certain resemblance to the signs of a language. [p. 45, 1943]  
     Suppose you look on a dream as a kind of language. A way of saying something, or a way of symbolizing something. There might be a regular symbolism, not necessarily alphabetical--it might be like Chinese, say. We might then find a way of translating this symbolism into the language of ordinary speech, ordinary thoughts. But then the translation ought to be possible both ways. It ought to be possible by employing the same technique to translate ordinary thoughts into dream language. As Freud recognizes, this never is done and cannot be done. So we might question whether dreaming is a way of thinking something, whether it is a language at all.
      Obviously there are certain similarities with language. [p. 48, 1943]             
I don't have much to say by way of commentary. I had thought that Wittgenstein said something about the grammar of film, which would have been interesting, but he doesn't. Still, perhaps it's worth bringing together these quotations in one place.                                                                                           

Friday, November 30, 2012

Questioning the good life

There is a series of talks and discussions going on this year next door at Washington and Lee University called "Questioning the Good Life." I missed the first talk but made it to the second (Eric Wilson praising melancholy in a way that seemed plausible yet oddly uninformed philosophically). (Why do so many people so freely jump into philosophical discussions without even pretending to have done their homework? Do they not know that Aristotle, Mill, Nietzsche, and co. have written about the nature of happiness and its relation to the good life? Do they not care? I don't get it. Wilson even used the word 'philosophers' and named a couple of relatively obscure ones, but said nothing about the ones I just mentioned. And I don't mean this as a criticism of Wilson in particular. I'm thinking too of this essay about economists and psychologists studying happiness since the 1950s and, especially, since around 2000. Near the end it says parenthetically "oh, the philosophy professors have also joined the pursuit." Joined?! How about started, and started more than 2000 years ago at that? Sigh.) 

Anyway, yesterday they had Charles Taylor, who does know a thing or two about Aristotle and the others. At the risk of misrepresenting his views, I'll try to briefly summarize what he said here. He began by distinguishing three "baskets" of questions and issues: one about happiness, which is often thought of as something that happens to us, in relation to which we are largely passive; one about living a meaningful life, involving the kind of questions one might ask when about to graduate from college and thinking about career choices (should I try to make as much money as possible or pursue my interest in music?, for instance) or else when dying and looking back on one's life and the choices one has made (did I spend too much time at the office?, etc.); and the third about morality and the claims of justice.

Aristotle, he suggested, treated all three baskets as one. For him the one subject of ethics (a label Taylor likes to use for the second basket) covers how to be happy, how to live a satisfying life, and what one ought to do. But the moderns reject this view, Taylor said. For one thing, they distinguish between egoism and altruism in a way that Aristotle did not, and tend to think that Greeks like him were too egoistic. (Taylor attributed this to the influence of Christianity, but also suggested that the word 'altruism' was a recent invention, I think naming Auguste Comte as the inventor.) For another, they tend to think of moral reasoning as a relatively simple matter: you develop or identify a decision-procedure such as the principle of utility or maxim-universalization and then apply it. And for a third and final thing (I may be getting this wrong, be warned) they reject Aristotle's list of virtues. This rejection has several aspects: some of the names of virtues no longer mean what they used to (apparently 'generous' used to mean 'suitable to someone of high social rank,' so that one might kill an insulter out of generosity); some of the characteristics that Aristotle regards as virtuous do not seem desirable to us (you would not want a magnanimous person at a dinner party); and we are aware of ways of life other than the Greek, each of which might have its own virtues. 

Taylor's thesis, if I can simplify this way, is that neither Aristotle nor the moderns has it quite right. We cannot go back to Aristotle's view, he seemed to be saying, because his list of virtues is unacceptable, and because we now recognize duties to people outside our own polis, in a way that Aristotle did not. I don't know why we couldn't add such duties to our conception of justice (could Aristotle not have understood or incorporated somehow the Stoic view that so far as I am a human being my country is the world?). Nor why we couldn't hope to correct his list of virtues, rather than seemingly moving in a more relativist direction. No doubt either I missed something, I misunderstood something, or else Taylor has answers to these questions that he did not have time to go into in this talk.  

We cannot, though, accept the modern view because it oversimplifies what thinking about how to live is really like. Putting morality ahead of all other concerns (I think Taylor might argue) fails to give due weight to concerns with one's own happiness and the importance of living a meaningful life. Perhaps more to the point, we simply cannot separate the three baskets as neatly as we might like. If justice requires that people have certain rights or freedoms, we need to be able to distinguish the important from the trivial ones. For instance, the freedom to speak and worship freely is far more important than the right to drive without a seat-belt. What justice requires (a question from the morality basket) cannot be decided without reference, perhaps merely implicit, to what is significant (a question from the ethics basket). What we count as happiness might also depend on what we regard as a significant or as a meaningless life. And we can hardly take morality seriously without concern for the happiness of others. So the three go together, as Aristotle recognized. 

And each set of issues is in itself more complicated than we often recognize. We cannot expect to find a decision-procedure that will make all moral questions easy or straightforward. There are no simple answers (or ways to generate answers) about what makes for a significant or satisfying life. And happiness does not simply happen to us (or not happen to us). True, much might depend on a chance meeting. But relationships need also to be cultivated, and one can do this well or badly. It isn't all passive. And the relationship itself might have a kind of life of its own. It is like a plant or garden that might need help from a gardener but that also has a natural tendency to develop in this way rather than that. So we need some teleology in our thinking, too, in order to make sense of the ideas and experiences we have of people and relationships either fulfilling their potential to varying degrees or failing to do so. Again, Aristotle, or at least a broadly ancient view, is useful here.    

It was an excellent talk.

And speaking of the good life, the results of Jean Kazez's survey are now out.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Did Wittgenstein believe in God?

I'm revising my paper on Wittgenstein's ethics as visible in the so-called Koder diaries. When I've finished revising it (which I might have done already, but I haven't yet decided that I've finished) I'll post a link here. In the meantime, here's part of the ending:
My view in a nutshell is that he is right on the edge between theism and atheism. More on the edge than I would have thought possible, like Robin Hood getting even closer to the bull’s-eye than anyone else by splitting an arrow that was already there. He sometimes chides himself for having only weak faith, but his faith is weak. He wrestles with God, with himself, with his faith, and with his relative lack of faith. He is clearly attracted to Christianity, but he rejects it. For instance, in February 1937 he writes that he rejects “the Christian solution of the problem of life (salvation, resurrection, judgement, heaven, hell).”[i] He still has a relationship with God, peppering his writings with such expressions as “God willing” and “Thank God” in a way that is clearly not just a manner of speaking. No atheist would write “God! let me come into a relationship with you in which I “can be cheerful in my work”!”[ii] At the same time, though, this remark shows that he is not in the kind of relationship he wants.   
One might be tempted to compare him to Simone Weil, who famously writes:

I am quite sure that there is a God in the sense that I am quite sure my love is not illusory. I am quite sure that there is not a God in the sense that I am quite sure nothing real can be anything like what I am able to conceive when I pronounce this word. But that which I cannot conceive is not an illusion.[iii]       

This is not Wittgenstein’s position, or so it seems to me. There is no sense in which he is quite sure that there is a God. On the contrary, he says repeatedly that there is no one there. This remark could be interpreted as the rejection only of a crude sort of theism, but Wittgenstein does not follow it up with any more sophisticated theology. Although he undeniably has a kind of faith, the idea that he believes there is a God is very deniable indeed. There is also no sense in which he has a love of God that could not be an illusion. His relationship with God is more like a struggle than an instance of love (“To get rid of the torments of the mind, that is to get rid of religion,” he writes on February 21st 1937), although of course one can be tormented by or struggle with a loved one.[iv] And whatever love he might have for God could be an illusion, or at least infected with some measure of illusion. Wittgenstein is aware of the danger of superstition. One last quotation might serve as a kind of encapsulation of the nature of his faith. On February 22nd 1937 he writes:

Now I often tell myself in doubtful times: “There is no one here.” and look around. Would that this not become something base in me!
I think I should tell myself: “Don’t be servile in your religion!” Or try not to be! For that is in the direction of superstition.
A human being lives his ordinary life with the illumination of a light of which he is not aware until it is extinguished. Once it is extinguished, life is suddenly deprived of all value, meaning, or whatever one wants to say. One suddenly becomes aware that mere existence—as one would like to say—is in itself still completely empty, bleak. It is as if the sheen was wiped away from all things, everything is dead.[v]


Should we call this unnoticed, meaning-giving illumination God? It would be misleading to label Wittgenstein as either a theist or an atheist. He wears religious language like a necessary but ill-fitting and uncomfortable garment. Yet he won’t take it off, and sometimes seems to feel an obligation toward it, however much he is inclined to rebel against it. What is interesting is not the generalizations or labels but the details of his case.   


[i] Wittgenstein Public and Private Occasions, edited by James C. Klagge and Alfred Nordmann, Rowman & Littlefield, 2003, p. 169.
[ii] Ibid., p. 181, from 15th February 1937.
[iii] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, translated by Emma Crawford and Mario von der Ruhr, Routledge Classics, 2002,  p. 114.
[iv] Wittgenstein 2003, p. 199.
[v] Ibid., p. 207. 


I think that he was neither a theist nor an atheist, at least not as those terms are standardly used (and how else are we to use them?). He has a religious point of view, but not religious belief. So maybe it's no better to call him a religiously-inclined atheist (as I did in an earlier draft) than to call him a non-religious theist. 

Having offered a "last quotation" to encapsulate Wittgenstein's faith (which is probably a bad idea in the first place), here's another:
A religious question is either a question of life or it is (empty) chatter. This language game--one could say--gets played only with questions of life. Much like the word "ouch" does not have any meaning--except as a scream of pain.
I want to say: If eternal bliss means nothing for my life, my way of life, then I don't have to rack my brain about it; if I am to rightfully think about it, then what I think must stand in a precise relation to my life, otherwise what I think is rubbish or my life is in danger.--An authority which is not effective, which I don't have to heed, is no authority. If I rightfully speak of an authority I must also be dependent upon it. (pp. 211-213)  
It seems to me that he's not sure whether his faith (if that is the right word for it) is rubbish or not. Maybe this is a common concern for believers, but if so that does not prove that he is a real believer. Is his way of life dependent on God? He doesn't seem sure. And so I, taking him at his word as best I can, am not sure either.

But actually it might well be a mistake to focus on supposedly telling quotations like these. Perhaps his regular, less doubt-filled, writing is a better guide. And there he does seem dependent on God, he does seem at home in that language game. That is, it would be extremely difficult to translate his writings into language devoid of reference to God. (I still think he's some distance from Simone Weil though.)  

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Videos online: philosophy and the Congo

You may well know about the free videos available through Open Culture, but do you also know about the philosophy videos available here (there are twelve in the philosophy category, including Bryan Magee's and Alain de Botton's series, and there is a large religion category too) and here (lots of episodes on "cosmos, consciousness, God")? Worth exploring.

A non-philosophy video that I watched yesterday is available through Friends of the Congo (and YouTube -I'll post it below), which has links to other Congo-related movies too. A good article on the subject (the "most blighted nation on earth") is this, and there's this blog too, by the author of Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. Horrendous, but important to know about.

Here's the documentary I watched:


And here's another worth watching on organized crime, which refers to conflict minerals and the Congo:

  

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Aphorisms from Wittgenstein

These are from the so-called Koder diaries, published as "Movements of Thought" in Public and Private Occasions:
When mired in filth, there is only one thing to do: March. (p. 129, translation altered)
Luther was no Protestant. (p. 81)
If the moral law is natural I am inclined to defend its transgressor. (p. 77)
"White is also a sort of black." (p. 155, cf. Paul McCartney "Sadness isn't sadness. It's happiness in a black jacket," although I take it McCartney is sincere while Wittgenstein is merely noting a tendency in human thought.) 
Is being alone with oneself--or with God, not like being alone with a wild animal? It can attack you any moment.--But isn't that precisely why you shouldn't run away?! Isn't that, so to speak, what's glorious?! Doesn't it mean: grow fond of this wild animal!--And yet one must ask: Lead us not into temptation! (p. 247)



Sunday, November 18, 2012

Wittgenstein's Chinese man argument

According to Béla Szabados: "Wittgenstein said to his friend Drury: "It is impossible to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life," adding, " How then can I hope to be understood?"" Szabados remarks that, "This is an interesting remark for it surprisingly relates understanding music's significance for Wittgenstein as a person, to understanding his philosophy." This sounds right, but it might be worth looking into why Wittgenstein considered it impossible to say what music had meant to him.

On p. 7 of the 1938 lectures on aesthetics (as recorded in notes taken by some of his students) Wittgenstein is reported to have said: "It is not only difficult to describe what appreciation consists in, but impossible. To describe what it consists in we would have to describe the whole environment." Later, on p. 29, he is reported to have said that:
'The sense of a proposition' is very similar to the business of 'an appreciation of art.'
Neither, he seems to believe, can be explained:
"Then why do we admire this and not that?"  "I don't know." [p. 30]
Szabados's take on Wittgenstein's remark about music, which I think is pretty natural and standard, may well be right. Wittgenstein might have meant that anyone who did not understand him well enough to know what music had meant to him would never understand his philosophical work. But I think a different interpretation might be possible. He might have meant something like this: given that it is impossible to explain x, how will anyone understand my book on y, which is very similar to x?

The very idea of explanation in aesthetics seems almost to be a mistake in Wittgenstein's view, although he may well have meant that it is a mistake to look for the kind of explanation that we tend to look for. There is little to be said by way of explanation in any case (that is, even if there is something to be said). I will return to this, albeit briefly.

Now, what of the Chinese man? Here's the relevant passage:
Thinking is not even speaking with accompaniment, noises accompanied with whatever may be, is not [of?] the sort 'It rains' at all, but is within [the] English language. A Chinaman who makes [the] noise 'It rains' with [the] same accompaniments--Does he think 'It rains'?   [p. 30, note 1]
He only thinks "It rains" if he means what he says, and we have to suppose that the Chinaman in question cannot mean "It rains" because those words mean nothing to him, being in a language that he does not know. If he makes the right sound and has simultaneous mental pictures of rain this does not give the sound the meaning we are talking about. One can think without such an accompaniment, and one can have the accompaniment without thinking, without meaning. What gives words meaning when we say, write, or think them is, it seems, "the whole environment." And this cannot be described. Nor can how or why this context makes words meaningful be explained. This is where the connection with aesthetics lies. Why certain pieces of music make such an impression on us cannot be explained, Wittgenstein seems to have thought. (And he might have put why murder is wrong in the same category, I don't know.)

We tend to want to reduce, to go in, to locate thoughts in the brain (or computer) and feelings in the stomach (or wherever). Wittgenstein wants, as it were, to expand, to go out. If you want to understand the laughter of the audience at a comedy show, attend to what they are laughing at, not to the laughter itself (which will be much like all other laughter) or to things unknown going on inside them. If you want to understand a feeling look at its full expression (the flower, so to speak), not at its origin (a point-like seed, hard or impossible to distinguish from other such seeds). It's almost like Blow-Up in reverse (in order to see the details a photographer magnifies a picture more and more, but all he gets is a big blur). What he needs is greater definition, not magnification. Wittgenstein's view seems to be that we reach for the microscope when we don't understand something, but that this will give us no better focus. Nor do we need to expand, in fact, because the expansion has already been done for us. The expression of the thought or feeling is the magnification that we need. The phenomenon we want to understand includes the inner and the outer, but the inner is, so to speak, tiny, hidden, almost fictional, whereas the outer is open to view and comprehensible. It is this big end of the phenomenon that we should attend to. But we need to do so in the right way. To understand what is funny about a joke we should not look for hidden causes of its funniness but at the joke itself and for the reasons why that would be funny in this context (attending to the context means looking out, taking a broader view, not looking inwards or back to the root of something). To understand what is so great about this painting or music we should not look at what happens in the brain when we see a painting or hear music, but focus on the painting or music itself, and perhaps on the context, which will include art or music history as well as politics, culture more broadly, and the rest. This is how we acquire appreciation. Once you have it you might still be puzzled or mystified by it. I take it Wittgenstein was. But he doesn't seem to think there is anything to say that will explain it. The mystery, a kind of wonder, might be part of it.

I don't mean that one cannot say anything at all in Wittgenstein's view about why certain works move us as they do. But I think he thought that any such explanation will itself be an expression of appreciation. It will be analysis or criticism, not something more obviously scientific or causal. So you couldn't have an anaesthetic explanation of aesthetics any more than you could have an amoral explanation of ethics. Or rather, you could (perhaps), but even then it would not be what we really want. Someone wondering at the greatness of Michelangelo or the terribleness of murder is not looking for facts about the brain or evolution.

      

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The life and the work

Ray Monk on the philosophical value of his biography of Wittgenstein:
Some philosophers are scornful of the notion that the life can help us understand the work. Wittgenstein had a notion of understanding as seeing connections rather than building a theory. When you understand a person you see connections, you don't build a theory about them. Biography can be like that.
That sounds true to me. And I didn't know this, which also seems quite reasonable:
How did he become a biographer? "It was the result of a series of lucky accidents." In the early 80s, while studying Wittgenstein's philosophy of mathematics at Oxford, he came across two rival interpretations of it. The philosopher Michael Dummett claimed that it involved full-blooded conventionalism, while Crispin Wright argued for its strict finitism. "My thought was that if you had any understanding of the spirit in which Wittgenstein wrote, there was no way you could attribute those positions to him. You could only do that if you read what he wrote about mathematics divorced from the rest of it.
And yet...  The most obvious evidence that Wittgenstein should not be read as adopting a particular theoretical position (if such a reading is possible, of course) is contained within his philosophical work. The more we have to look outside such work to understand what it contains the less sure we can be that we have understood it correctly. The only direct testimony we have about the work is the work itself (except in the case of living authors). That is where the author tells us what she is up to. Knowing what she ate for breakfast or where she went on vacation is not going to tell us anything much. (It might tell us something, for instance Wittgenstein had very spartan tastes in such matters, and that might affect our interpretation of his writings on, say, ethics. But it doesn't tell us much.) More useful would be reports from people who knew him about things he said to them, but here biography shades into the usual studying of texts, and it matters that such reports are secondhand. So they are not as reliable as primary texts.

But it isn't only a matter of which sources of information are reliable. There is also the distinction between causes and reasons. This has been on my mind lately because of philosophy's imminent move into a rhetoric-based English department at VMI. Apparently rhetoric people focus on the ways that beliefs and values shape texts, which I take to be a kind of (presumably somewhat speculative) causal investigation. Given that the author lived in such-and-such a culture, and had such-and-such a life, and was writing for such-and-such an audience, how do these factors (seem to) show up in the text? Whatever value such an exercise might have, it is not philosophy. Regardless of why they might have been produced, philosophy focuses on the arguments as presented. We want to know the reasons offered in support of a conclusion, not what might plausibly have caused the author to present that conclusion. If Hobbes only pretended to believe in God, say, then a philosophical analysis of his work will not care whether he was pretending or not. All that matters is the work that the concept of God does, or does not do, in Hobbes' argument. And the argument that matters (most, to a philosopher) is the best one compatible with the text, not the one that Hobbes himself actually meant.

But is that quite right? Don't I care, as a scholar, what Wittgenstein actually thought and meant? Isn't it helpful when studying Plato's political philosophy to know about the war between Athens and Sparta, and what the Athenian democracy did to Socrates? The answer to the first question is Yes, I do care what Wittgenstein himself actually thought. But that's because I respect his judgment. What he meant to say is likely to be the best thing his text can plausibly be read as saying. Or at least an interesting thing worth thinking about. And Plato's historical circumstances are important partly because they might help explain why he defended what is generally taken to be an implausible position. It helps us decide that we need not keep looking for a better argument in the text. Otherwise such matters are just color or gossip. I like gossip, but it isn't philosophy.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Just like honey

The same stuff that caught my eye about promising love in this review by Ralph Wedgwood of Elizabeth Brake's Minimizing Marriage also caught Eric Schliesser's eye:
Chapter 1 discusses whether marriage involves a promise. First, she argues that the typical marriage vows -- "to love, honour, and cherish, until death us do part" -- cannot literally be taken as promises. It is not clear that we can promise love at all. If we could, it would follow, counter-intuitively, that divorce counts as promise-breaking.
I'm with Jon Cogburn and BioethicsUK (in comments here) on divorce involving promise-breaking (i.e. I think it does, although not necessarily culpably). I also agree with Cogburn that:
More generally I think that you can (and must actually) promise to love. You and your spouse are going to change quite a bit over your lives in ways that neither of you can foresee when you get married. As a result of this it is vitally important to commit to the relationship itself, and a promise to love is a vital part of strengthening the bond through changes rather than weakening it.
I have nothing much to appeal to other than intuitions here (which Schliesser doesn't seem to like), but here's something. You cannot enjoy the joke in "Honey" by the Marine Girls unless Cogburn is right about this. In fact, there would be no joke. Here are the relevant lines (the last from each verse):
I know I'll love him forever/ Or until I find another boy
I love him every day/ Or at least until this feeling goes away
But honey knows I never lie/ And I'll be his until this feeling dies 
The point is: this isn't love. The character portrayed in the song has no deep feelings for, let alone commitment to, the boy she says she loves. It is not this kind of love that is promised at a wedding. I can't say what love is, but I know enough about it to get the joke. (And baby I can guess the rest, as Lynyrd Skynyrd would say.)

Monday, November 5, 2012

The meaning of life

Jean Kazez has kind of a fun quiz here. (Fun until you find yourself in the age category 41-60, that is. Can't I be 26-45 instead?)

I thought of the meaning of life when I read Matt Pianalto's post on transgenic animals too. Falling-over turkeys bred to be all breast meat seem like a crime against nature to me, a kind of blasphemy, and the same goes for oncomice. But would finding a cure for cancer justify that kind of crime? I'm inclined to say No, partly because a crime is a crime, and partly because people who die of cancer will still die of something else even if we do cure cancer. But I realize that this is callous, and I would almost certainly change my tune if cancer hit closer to home. Really I think you would need to know the meaning of life to be able to answer such a question with any confidence. (I would have posted this as a comment on Matt's blog but it seems too  unhelpful to be worth posting there.)

And I thought of it another time recently when a friend of mine posted the uncharacteristic (for him) Facebook status: "What's the point?" I think he probably just meant why work hard on research if journals don't recognize good work when they see it?, or why teach in innovative ways if no one appreciates your efforts? But it sounded gloomier than that. To my surprise I found myself thinking, "Because we all die in the end." This wasn't just black humor but an expression of the idea that we are all, so to speak, in the same boat, and that boat is the Titanic. So we may as well be nice to each other while we sink. About the only things that seem to make sense are love or kindness and smelling the roses while you can. But I don't think this is really what I believe, or not the whole of it anyway. Those roses really do smell good--they aren't just a consolation. And some people aren't too bad either.      

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Poverty games

I've been meaning to post something on poverty for months, so here goes. I have taught a course called Poverty and Human Capability just once, so I'm no expert, and even that course was team-taught with an economist friend of mine, so I really only taught half of it. Our original plan was for me to teach the first half of the course, looking at questions of definition and giving an introduction to distributive justice. Colleagues at Washington & Lee University with more experience, though, suggested that the political philosophy part would go better if we first taught students about the causes of poverty. They would then be less likely to blame the poor (for alleged laziness or whatever) and to take seriously the idea that others might have a responsibility to do something to help. So we split the course into four quarters: definitions of poverty, causes of poverty, distributive justice, and possible solutions to poverty. It went well, but I think now that maybe causes of poverty should come first. That might sound odd, but the most interesting definition of poverty is based on the capabilities approach developed by Amartya Sen and defended in Martha Nussbaum's Creating Capabilities. And that book is best read after you have read some Rawls and some utilitarian philosophy. So actually the best order seems to be: causes of poverty, ideas about distributive justice, definitions of poverty, solutions to poverty. Between the last two parts I intend next semester also to include a look at how the USA is doing in terms of the development of capability, based on The Measure of America.

That site has some nice tools, including a well-o-meter, which lets you measure your own level of human development (I scored about 8.5 out of 10). There is something questionable about poverty-based games (the apparently defunct Chickens in choppers had a post once making a somewhat similar point, as I recall), but perhaps they have educational value. Here are some more that I have found:

http://playspent.org/ -- a game designed to educate people about what it is like to be poor in the USA

http://secure.pdcnet.org/8525737F00588478/file/94F5EA59723DAEA585257876006979FA/$FILE/teachphil_2011_0034_0001_0021_0036.pdf -- an article about using Second Life to teach social justice and Rawls

http://whoarethejoneses.org/ -- compares your income with that of other people around the world

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2012/03/white-educated-and-wealthy-congratulations-you-live-in-a-bubble.html -- provides a quiz on how much of a bubble you live in (is aimed primarily at white Americans)

http://www.apaththatsclear.com/index.html -- giving-to-charity games

http://www.givingwhatwecan.org/resources/how-rich-you-are.php -- a rich and interactive website making the case that you should give to help the poor in other countries

Friday, October 26, 2012

Ordinary language philosophy and the democracy of the dead

There's something democratic (at least in flavour) about ordinary language philosophy, and tradition is what Chesterton called the democracy of the dead. Both come to mind when I read J.E.H. Smith saying this:
I am more convinced than ever that what some guy who happens to be alive right now, and employed by a university to tell us what he happens to think about, e.g., whether there is a hard problem of consciousness or not, can be of next to no interest for our understanding of the philosophical question in question. The truth is I don't think it's very grown-up, intellectually, to set about actually trying to answer questions like these, at least in the way we are used to seeing philosophers try to answer them. In this respect, I am sympathetic to the approach of experimental philosophy, even if I have not yet been able to convince any experimental philosophers that I'm on their side. Like them, I think the more sophisticated and fruitful approach to questions like, e.g., whether the mind is distinct from the body, is not try to answer them directly, but to somehow take a survey of the range of possible positions human beings take up on the question. Now, the experimental philosophers today think it is enough to survey their contemporaries, by methods borrowed mostly from psychology. I'm starting to think that what we need to do is, so to speak, to survey the past, using methods adapted from archeology, historical linguistics, and evolutionary biology, and recently applied with impressive results in unlikely fields such as comparative literature.
Can I blame my cold for not being able to think about this (or much of anything else)? Anyway, if you have thoughts on what Smith says, feel free to tell me what to make of it.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Was Wittgenstein sexist?

If you care, you should read this post and comments on it over at Philosophy, lit, etc. It's got me, praymont, and Tommi Uschanov (who quotes me saying things I would not have known I ever wrote if he hadn't mentioned my name). Interesting stuff.