Thursday, August 23, 2012

New books

One book I read over the summer was Language, Ethics and Animal Life, edited by Niklas Forsberg, Mikel Burley, and Nora Hamalainen. I got an advance copy because I'm so famous in return for a blurb, but I think the blurb I provided was a bit weak, so they probably won't use it. Not weak as in lukewarm, but weak as in written by an eight-year-old: "This is book is great! You should really read it!" Something like that. [UPDATE: It turns out they are using my blurb, but I'm still not that happy with it. Maybe I just remember how difficult it can be to condense all your thoughts about a collection of essays into a couple of sentences.] Anyway, I see that Stephen Mulhall has written a blurb that says exactly what I meant:
The best essays in this unusually coherent and dialogical collection make it wonderfully clear how well broadly Wittgensteinian treatments of the relations between human and non-human animals can illuminate a variety of philosophical problems concerning ethics, language and the mind, whilst also bringing philosophy into critical conversation with evolutionary psychology, primatology  and literature.
So, you should really read this book. It's great.

Mikel Burley has another book just out, Contemplating Religious Forms of Life: Wittgenstein and D.Z. Phillips, about my old mentor at Swansea. This one has a more articulate blurb by me, which I'll quote to give you a sense of the book:
Contemplating Religious Forms of Life is a pleasure to read. It is articulate, fair, and shows impressive familiarity with the relevant literature. Mikel Burley clearly brings out the value of D. Z. Phillips’ influential Wittgensteinian approach to the philosophy of religion without ever denying or ignoring its weaknesses. This is a sympathetic and reliable guide to an enormous and controversial body of work. 
And today I started reading Rupert Read's Wittgenstein among the Sciences, which promises to be entertaining. This is from page xii:
I have enjoyed (if that is the right word) a sustained series of debates in print with Steve Fuller over his criticisms of Kuhn's philosophy of science. In his latest very lengthy critique of my criticisms of him on Kuhn, Fuller (2005) makes a number of disastrous interpretive bloopers and intellectual mis-moves, which I shan't trouble to try to correct. The very final page of his paper is however of some worth...  
(Which reminds me that I think I once tried to write a novel in which one of the characters was based on Steve Fuller. Not that I know him, but I attended a talk he gave once. As I recall he said something like this: "People think that scientists try to discover the truth, but if you actually look at what they do it's all moving test tubes around and stuff." The 'but' seemed misleading.)

Another thing that struck me in Read's book is this. He quotes Wittgenstein: "Say what you choose, so long as it does not prevent you from seeing how things are. (And when you see, there is a good deal that you will not say.)" (This is Read's translation of PI 79, and it reminded me, as it has before, of Wittgenstein's "laugh, if you can" from his remarks on the Golden Bough. Seeing things as they are does not guarantee that you will not say this or that particular thing, or react in some particular way, but it makes a certain range or kind of reactions much more likely (or appropriate) than others.) But if we are really free to say what we choose, then how can Read talk about "temptations to scientise where we shouldn't"? Where can this should come from? (Or: if there is a should, then why pretend we may say what we choose?)

I think the answer comes in the very next paragraph. Read summarizes what he has been saying to this point thus:
What do we want to mean, and what can and do we actually mean, when we call something a 'science'? And when and where ought we to honestly admit that such appellation is more trouble than it is worth?
I think this idea of what we want to mean and what we can and actually do mean (all at once, as it were, so that it is simultaneously what we want to mean and what we can mean and what we actually do mean) is what I was trying to get at in the comments here. What it's possible to mean is not wholly distinct from what we want. And these normative (logical and ethical) considerations are not wholly distinct from the positive fact of what we actually do mean (if that is a positive fact--it sounds like it ought to be one). Read is talking about science while I was talking about intelligence, but what we're saying seems very similar to me. But I have left it very obscure so far.

Let's take Read's example and imagine that I have a friend who insists that economics is a science. What does he mean by this? What he means, his meaning, is not here and now, like a bang. Meanings aren't that kind of thing. They don't exist apart from all the things they depend on. And his meaning depends on the meaning of those words, which depends on actual practice but also on hypothetical practice. Actual practice comes in fairly straightforwardly. Dictionary definitions are largely based on how words are commonly used. Hypothetical practice is a matter of what people would or would not say in various circumstances, including circumstances that have never occurred and might be very unlikely to occur. In some such circumstances we don't know what people would say, how (or whether) they would use the words in question, but in others it is obvious. Of course we wouldn't call that a science, or of course it still would be a science. What is true of, or as a matter of, course depends on the course of our lives, on the general way we do things. Given that this is the kind of thing we do in this kind of situation, in that kind of situation we would do that kind of thing. Patterns of behavior matter here, as do patterns of  seeing and reacting to patterns. By 'patterns of seeing patterns' I mean things like the fact that we all tend (i.e. there is a pattern) to react to certain arrangements of dots and lines (another pattern) as a face. We generally see the same things as being alike and we generally behave in like ways (or ways that strike us as being alike). It's not that we have to act or react in such ways. We just do. And we can call this doing what we want or doing what we choose or doing what comes naturally or doing what's appropriate. There's no reason not to call it free. It isn't constrained.

There are limits of meaning or sense, but these themselves reflect or embody our interests, choices, or desires. And we can break them, since we made them. So language is not a cage, but it does provide some guidance. Maybe we should think of the lines on a tennis court more than the bars of a cage. The lines don't stop me doing anything--I can do what I choose. But if I want to play tennis there are certain things I will not choose to do. And the rules of tennis embody some of the kinds of things we want to do. So logic (or what makes sense, what is allowed), desire, and standard practice all somehow combine. But I suspect I'm at the wrong level here--speaking much too abstractly, with too little attention to what I'm actually saying--and should talk about an actual problem or example. Mostly I'm just glad to see that Read and I are in agreement. I hope that continues throughout the book.


  1. A couple of nights ago, when I was browsing all new books related to Wittgenstein on a Norwegian online bookstore (I do this when I have nothing better to do), I ended up with all of these titles in my basket (though I didn't actually buy any of them, yet).

    I am happy to hear that you found Mike Burley's book a success. Phillips happens to be one of my interests, so I might press the "complete"-button next time.

    Language, Ethics and Animal Life is a book I've been waiting for for some time (I follow the Finnish Wittgenstein milieu with great interest), but the price scared me off. I don't have a lot of money, but lots of things to read in the meantime, so I guess I'll just wait for the paperback edition or for an affordable copy to appear on the second hand market. (O, if only I was as famous as you are...)

    I read Read's blogs from time to time, and can remember that he was very exited when his new book went to the print. It sounded good then, and you certainly don't make me less eager to get my hands on it, but again, the price....

  2. Yes, these books are not priced for actual people to buy. Libraries are expected to buy them, and then people are meant to get them from their own library or inter-library loan. But if you don't have the required kind of access, then you're stuck. Open access would be a very good thing. I wonder whether electronic versions could be sold much more cheaply without undermining the academic library market. Or whether not-quite-final drafts are available on anyone's website or If not then waiting for the paperback seems like the only option, which is surely not how the exchange of ideas ought to operate.

  3. if it's with a big enough press, you could just wait til it's available, then steal it online.

  4. True. Not everything shows up online though, as you imply.

  5. Thanks for bringing my attention to Language, Ethics, and Animal Life. Looks like a must-read for me.

  6. Amazon recommended the Phillips book to me already a few weeks ago on the strength of my earlier purchases, so I ordered it immediately (thankfully it at least went straight into paperback). When it arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to see your blurb. I expect to be pleased by the book too when I have time to read it. I've mentioned before that I've been working on a paper on Phillips myself for a year or two; and it seems like I want to do to Phillips's philosophy of culture exactly the same thing Burley seeks to do to his philosophy of religion.

    It was also nice to see Burley's collaboration with Nora Hämäläinen. She's with my old department here at Helsinki, but as I haven't worked there for nearly a decade now, I don't know her ä in fact I don't think we've ever even met. The "Finnish Wittgenstein milieu" is in rude health today, perhaps more than ever before, but at the same time I have personally drifted into the margins of its margins, due to all my non-philosophical work.

  7. Yes, the Finnish Wittgenstein milieu does seem to be going very strong, which is nice to see. I wish you were more involved in it, but you can't do everything. I'd like to see your paper on Phillips, too, when it's ready for public viewing.

    Burley's work is worth looking out for. I'm not in a position to recommend all of it, but I was impressed by his Phillips book and his essay in the animals collection, in different ways. The book on Phillips is really nicely balanced, and the essay on animals begins with a meditation on a personal experience, which is refreshing to see when so much philosophy seems removed from real life. It also contains the memorable words, "In my days as a hunt saboteur..."