Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Preposterous tales

In comments here Reshef and I have been having an ongoing discussion relating to Wittgenstein's distinction between absolute and relative value in the Lecture on Ethics. The lecture begins curiously, with a borrowed definition of ethics (from Moore), followed by the claim that ethics is a (kind of) family resemblance concept (I think this is the first occurrence of the idea in Wittgenstein's work):
And to make you see as clearly as possible what I take to be the subject matter of Ethics I will put before you a number of more or less synonymous expressions each of which could be substituted for the above definition, and by enumerating them I want to produce the same sort of effect which Galton produced when he took a number of photos of different faces on the same photographic plate in order to get the picture of the typical features they all had in common. And as by showing to you such a collective photo I could make you see what is the typical--say--Chinese face; so if you look through the row of synonyms which I will put before you, you will, I hope, be able to see the characteristic features they all have in common and these are the characteristic features of Ethics.
Then we get a bunch of definitions of ethics, intended collectively to give a rough idea of what ethics is. We have to, as it were, imagine what Wittgenstein means by 'ethics,' but what this is can also be explained (with something at least approaching adequacy) by Moore's definition of ethics as "the general enquiry into what is good." But, Wittgenstein goes on, words like 'good' and 'valuable' can be used in different ways:
Now the first thing that strikes one about all these expressions is that each of them is actually used in two very different senses. I will call them the trivial or relative sense on the one hand and the ethical or absolute sense on the other. If for instance I say that this is a good chair this means that the chair serves a certain predetermined purpose and the word good here has only meaning so far as this purpose has been previously fixed upon. In fact the word good in the relative sense simply means coming up to a certain predetermined standard. Thus when we say that this man is a good pianist we mean that he can play pieces of a certain degree of difficulty with a certain degree of dexterity. And similarly if I say that it is important for me not to catch cold I mean that catching a cold produces certain describable disturbances in my life and if I say that this is the right road I mean that it's the right road relative to a certain goal.
Two things to note: when he talks about "these expressions" he apparently means words such as 'good' rather than expressions such as "ethics is the enquiry into the meaning of life," and secondly, the predetermined standard need not be very precise. It's not possible to be very precise about how difficult a piece of music is to play, or what degree of dexterity is involved in someone's performance of the piece. But we can grade such things, and presumably that's enough. The difference between relative and absolute is not, then, that one involves vagueness and the other does not.

He continues:
Used in this way these expressions don't present any difficult or deep problems. But this is not how Ethics uses them. Supposing that I could play tennis and one of you saw me playing and said "Well, you play pretty badly" and suppose I answered "I know, I'm playing pretty badly but I don't want to play any better," all the other man could say would be "Ah, then that's all right." But suppose I had told one of you a preposterous lie and he came up to me and said, "You're behaving like a beast" and then I were to say "I know I behave badly, but then I don't want to behave any better," could he then say "Ah, then that's all right"? Certainly not; he would say "Well, you ought to want to behave better." Here you have an absolute judgment of value, whereas the first instance was one of relative judgment.

The essence of this difference seems to be obviously this: Every judgment of relative value is a mere statement of facts and can therefore be put in such a form that it loses all the appearance of a judgment of value: Instead of saying "This is the right way to Granchester," I could equally well have said, "This is the right way you have to go if you want to get to Granchester in the shortest time"; "This man is a good runner" simply means that he runs a certain number of miles in a certain number of minutes, etc.

Now what I wish to contend is that, although all judgments of relative value can be shown to be mere statement of facts, no statement of fact can ever be, or imply, a judgment of absolute value. 
"You ought to want to behave better" is a judgment of absolute value, at least when made in the circumstances described (a preposterous lie, followed by a shameless expression of shamelessness about it). Wittgenstein does not appear to take himself to be putting forward an idiosyncratic view at all here: "could he then say "Ah, then that's all right"? Certainly not; he would say "Well, you ought to want to behave better." Here you have an absolute judgment of value." The absolute value judgment is the only thing one could say in the circumstances (according to Wittgenstein).

What he wants to say that might be original or controversial, as he apparently sees it, is that "no statement of fact can ever be, or imply, a judgment of absolute value." No absolute ought from an is, in other words, but this is not just Hume warmed up because Hume, at least sometimes, talks as if oughts are reducible to ises about feelings in the heart. (I think he says breast, but it's presumably the heart inside the breast that he has in mind.) And if Hume thinks that even relative oughts don't follow from any ises then Wittgenstein is saying he's wrong.

What else can we say about the judgment that the shameless teller of preposterous lies ought to want to behave better? Well, there is no predetermined standard to which he ought to come. That is, when we say that he ought to want to behave better, we do not mean that if he behaves better then he will achieve this or that describable goal. And not simply because the goal in question can only be described imprecisely. We don't mean that he will feel happier, or that others will do so. We are not thinking or speaking in terms of any describable goal at all. Which is why I'm inclined to see the contrast between absolute and relative as one between something likes ends-in-themselves and means-to-ends. Not lying preposterously, or not wanting to lie preposterously (perhaps one struggles with a strong temptation to tell tall tales), is an end in itself, or something that might be 'described' that way (although it can't be a describable goal if we are really talking about absolute judgments--but then an end "in itself" probably doesn't qualify as any kind of goal really). 

And that, I think, is all there is to say about what absolute value is. It isn't necessarily universal. Nor need it be especially important. Wittgenstein writes later:
the absolute good, if it is a describable state of affairs, would be one which everybody, independent of his tastes and inclinations, would necessarily bring about or feel guilty for not bringing about.
So an absolute requirement seems to be one that will induce guilt if it is not met, but there is no account here of how much guilt, or of what one ought to do if two absolute requirements clash. Nothing says this has to be a problem, that they all have equal trumping powers. An absolute requirement is not an overriding requirement (although it is not trivial either). It is simply one that is not a means to some describable end or standard. There is nothing hypothetical, in an if-then sense, about it. It is therefore categorical, but not deontological: it is not a case of "Do this or fail in your duty!" but of "Do this!" and nothing else. So it really doesn't seem to make much sense.

It follows, it seems to me, that we have no reason to accept any absolute requirements. But we also have no reason to reject them, other than reasons of relative value. That is, if it occurs to me that I (absolutely) should do x then I have reason not to do x if it interferes with some other goal of mine (I'm on my way to the supermarket, say, and doing x will delay me), but the mere fact that this absolute imperative has occurred to me is neither a reason to act on it nor a reason not to do so. It's up to me.

There is something plausible about this, but also something odd. The facts all seem too flat, too motivationally inert. I wonder whether facts are really like that. And of course Wittgenstein's conclusion is that all attempts to talk ethics or religion result in nonsense. That doesn't sound quite right either, even if it seems true of a great many such attempts. Tricky. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Speaking of facts, Wittgenstein describes a kind of neutral God who writes a book describing the world as he finds it. This book is full of facts, but contains no ethics. He goes on:

Our words used as we use them in science [my emphasis], are vessels capable only of containing and conveying meaning and sense, natural meaning and sense. 
This sounds like a reference to Frege, who focuses on the use of words for scientific purposes, in contrast with words such as Odysseus, which, having sense but no meaning (Bedeutung), are suitable only for literary purposes. What we need is more room, more capacious words:
Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts; as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water [even] if I were to pour out a gallon over it.
Perhaps poetic language can increase the capacity of the cup somehow. But how do we know that ethics is supernatural?
if I contemplate what Ethics really would have to be if there were such a science, this result seems to me quite obvious. It seems to me obvious that nothing we could ever think or say should be the thing. That we cannot write a scientific book, the subject matter of which could be intrinsically sublime and above all other subject matters. I can only describe my feeling by the metaphor...
It just "seems to me quite obvious" that ethics is supernatural. (Compare this later passage: "I at once see clearly, as it were in a flash of light, not only that no description that I can think of would do to describe what I mean by absolute value, but that I would reject every significant description that anybody could possibly suggest.") The metaphor referred to at the end of the passage quoted above  is the one of the world-book of facts, but I want to draw attention to the way Wittgenstein brings in a reference to metaphor here. If he really can only describe his feelings with a metaphor, then this is a problem:
But a simile must be the simile for something. And if I can describe a fact by means of a simile I must also be able to drop the simile and to describe the facts without it. Now in our case as soon as we try to drop the simile and simply to state the facts which stand behind it, we find that there are no such facts. And so, what at first appeared to be simile now seems to be mere nonsense.
A simile and a metaphor are not exactly the same thing, but if there must be facts that can be stated standing behind all similes if they are not to be nonsense, then surely the same would go for metaphors. So if we can only say what we mean in metaphor then we are talking what Wittgenstein here calls nonsense. And he's been doing this all along, from the definition of ethics at the beginning (which could not be stated clearly and precisely, even though it could be stated in a way that looked straightforward enough--Moore's definition) through the experiences he describes in order to get across what he means by "absolute value," etc. It's all "nonsense." But 'nonsense' here means language used other than it is in science, and perhaps we can add: language used as it is in literature. It is language that does not state facts, that is without reference to identifiable objects, whose essence is unparaphrasable metaphor.

This post is getting long, but what about the experiences he describes? As in his later work, Wittgenstein asks when he might use the language in question:
what have all of us who, like myself, are still tempted to use such expressions as 'absolute good,' 'absolute value,' etc., what have we in mind and what do we try to express? Now whenever I try to make this clear to myself it is natural that I should recall cases in which I would certainly use these expressions
And when he recalls these cases he thinks in terms of sensations or experiences that he wants to express. These are personal:
(As I have said before, this is an entirely personal matter and others would find other examples more striking.) I will describe this experience in order, if possible, to make you recall the same or similar experiences, so that we may have a common ground for our investigation.
There is something of a problem here, at least potentially: how to ensure or find common ground when dealing with personal experiences. It seems to me that this relates to the so-called private language argument, but it also echoes a concern of Frege's. Quoting from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Frege:
In 1918, Frege published a lengthy essay titled “Thoughts,” in which he describes his motives for investigating the nature of language:
I am not here in the happy position of a mineralogist who shows his audience a rock-crystal: I cannot put a thought in the hands of my readers with the request that they should examine it from all sides. Something in itself not perceptible by sense, the thought is presented to the reader – and I must be content with that – wrapped up in a perceptible linguistic form. The pictorial aspect of language presents difficulties. The sensible always breaks in and makes expressions pictorial and so improper. So one fights against language, and I am compelled to occupy myself with language although it is not my proper concern here. I hope I have succeeded in making clear to my readers what I want to call ‘thought’ (1997:333f., n.). 
One fights against language. And one does so with and in language. It would surely be wrong to say that this  is the whole of Wittgenstein's later philosophy. But it (i.e. not just the quote from Frege but the whole of what I have written above, or just the whole Lecture on Ethics) does seem to me to be a key to it.


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