Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Is ethics part of philosophy?

The paper I presented in Iceland was called "Wittgenstein's Ethics." It should probably be called something like "Wittgenstein's Ethics in the Koder Diaries," so one thing I need to fix is the title. Another thing that people commented on was my claim that Wittgenstein would not have counted ethics as belonging to philosophy. So I'm looking into that now. Which has led me to this site on the Moral Sciences Club at Cambridge, where it says:
Wittgenstein gave his first paper to the Club in Michaelmas 1912. He and Moore had persuaded the Club to appoint a Chairman to prevent futile discussions and to change the rules so as to limit the duration of talks to seven minutes. Wittgenstein's contribution came on 29 November (the Club's meetings had moved to Fridays to avoid clashing with the Apostles); the minutes are as follows:
Mr Wittgenstein read a paper entitled "What is Philosophy?" The paper lasted only about 4 minutes, thus cutting the previous record established by Mr Tye by nearly two minutes. Philosophy was defined as all those primitive propositions which are assumed as true without proof by the various sciences. This defn. was much discussed, but there was no general disposition to adopt it. The discussion kept very much to the point, and the Chairman did not find it necessary to intervene much.
This seems like an odd definition of philosophy, but I have nothing to say about this now.

Wittgenstein is said to have dominated the club from 1929 onward, and he chaired it starting in 1944. On October 26 1946 Karl Popper read a paper with a similar theme to Wittgenstein's 1912 address: "Are there Philosophical Problems?" According to Popper's account of the occasion:
I went on to say that I thought that if there were no genuine philosophical problems, I would certainly not be a philosopher; and that the fact that many people, or perhaps all people, thoughtlessly adopt untenable solutions to many, or perhaps all, philosophical problems provided the only justification for being a philosopher.  Wittgenstein jumped up again, interrupting me, and spoke at length about puzzles and the nonexistence of philosophical problems.  At a moment which appeared to me appropriate, I interrupted him, giving a list I had prepared of philosophical problems, such as: Do we know things through our senses?, Do we obtain our knowledge by induction?  These Wittgenstein dismissed as being logical rather than philosophical.  I then referred to the problem of whether potential or even actual infinities exist, a problem he dismissed as mathematical. ...  I then mentioned moral problems and the problem of the validity of moral rules.  At that point Wittgenstein, who was sitting near the fire and had been nervously playing with the poker, which he sometimes used like a conductor's baton to emphasize his assertions, challenged me: "Give an example of a moral rule!"  I replied: "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers."  Whereupon Wittgenstein, in a rage, threw the poker down and stormed out of the room, banging the door behind him.  ["Autobiography," p. 98]
It would be convenient for me if Wittgenstein had denied that moral problems were philosophical problems, but he doesn't say that here. In Bouwsma's record of conversations with Wittgenstein between 1949 and 1951, Wittgenstein seems happy enough to discuss ethics, but he also seems to have doubts about the value of teaching ethics (or perhaps just about the way Bouwsma did this, but that seems unlikely to me). On p. 7 Wittgenstein (presumably) is quoted as asking "so what?" and "what next?" as well as exclaiming "how pointless!" in response to Bouwsma's account of what he does with his students in his ethics course. Bouwsma describes Wittgenstein as shaking his head over the teaching of ethics.

[By the way, in looking into this I came across the following. On January 5th 1930 at Schlick's house Wittgenstein said: "In ethics our expressions have a double meaning: a psychological one of which you can speak and a non-psychological one: 'good tennis-player,' 'good'." This sounds a little like what he told Ramsey about the sentences of the Tractatus: "Some of his sentences are intentionally ambiguous having an ordinary meaning and a more difficult meaning which he also believes."]

Other reasons to think that Wittgenstein would not have counted ethics as part of philosophy: his account of what philosophy is in the Investigations, the dissolving of pseudo-problems. But what I am to do is not a pseudo-problem. Also, the view of Cora Diamond and others that ethics covers too much for it to be a branch of anything, including philosophy. If Wittgenstein agreed with this view, he could hardly have thought of ethics as a branch of philosophy. I'll come back to this below.

My paper begins with this sentence:
The subject of this paper is not Wittgensteinian ethics but Wittgenstein’s own ethical beliefs, specifically as these are revealed in the so-called Koder diaries.
I think this needs revision too, but what I mean is that the paper is about Wittgenstein's ethics, not any sort of theory based on or derived from Wittgenstein's work on, say, rule-following. This kind of distinction can be tricky. One reviewer of my paper on Wittgenstein's remarks on Heidegger ("Did Wittgenstein Disagree With Heidegger?") complained that the paper was wrongly titled because it is about what Wittgenstein himself thought of Heidegger and not whether his philosophical work 'disagrees' with Heidegger's. So I want to avoid that kind of problem. Maybe I should say that the subject of the paper is not a Wittgenstein-inspired theory of ethics but Wittgenstein's own ethics, as revealed in the Koder diaries.

I go on to say this:
Whether this is philosophy is a question I should address, but perhaps I can be forgiven if I avoid spending too long on a largely terminological matter. Wittgenstein does not appear to have thought of ethics as belonging to philosophy as he (re-)conceived it. This has to do with what he regarded as its groundlessness:
Schlick says that in theological ethics there used to be two conceptions of the essence of the good: according to the shallower interpretation the good is good because it is what God wants; according to the profounder interpretation God wants the good because it is good. I think that the first interpretation is the profounder one: what God commands, that is good. For it cuts off the way to any explanation ‘why’ it is good. [Friedrich Waismann Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1979, p. 115. This remark is dated 17 December 1930.]
Similarly, on 6 May 1930 he writes in MS 183 that “It is good because God commands it’ is the right expression for the groundlessness.” Without any ground or explanation of why some things are good or right, it is hard to see how one could philosophize about such matters. Unless, as I am inclined to do, one simply calls thinking about ethics philosophy. This will not be philosophy as Wittgenstein understood it, but it is what many people count as a major branch of philosophy. Whatever we call it, whether philosophy or something else, it—along with thoughts about Wittgenstein and his work—is what this paper is about.

I've had quite a few comments about this and I'm starting to think I am just wrong. If ethics is groundless then it cannot be explained, but Wittgensteinian philosophy is about description, not explanation. So why would this make ethics not part of philosophy for Wittgenstein? If philosophy is about clarification or working on oneself then this is surely possible in ethics. I wonder why I felt so certain that Wittgenstein would not have counted ethics as belonging to philosophy, and think it goes back to some of what I said in my old paper "Nothing to be Said." The idea of a Wittgensteinian theory of ethics still seems wrong to me, as does the idea that there is some identifiable domain called 'ethics.' If I wonder whether I should pray or not then I don't think Wittgenstein would ever believe that philosophy has the answer for me, but that doesn't mean we can't conduct a grammatical investigation of concepts like 'prayer', 'God', 'conscience', and so on. Nor that gaining clarity about language might help us live our lives more happily (or better). Actually, rather than talking about a grammatical investigation I would prefer just to say that one can ask oneself what one means, and try to clarify this. If there are no philosophical problems, as Wittgenstein seems to have insisted to Popper, then philosophy, if anything, can only be something like a method (or methods), and I don't see any a priori reason not to apply this method to problems about what to do, say, or believe.


  1. 'Maybe I should say that the subject of the paper is not a Wittgenstein-inspired theory of ethics but Wittgenstein's own ethics, as revealed in the Koder diaries.'

    perhaps 'life' would be a good word to use here instead of 'ethics' or 'beliefs', unless you feel you need to mark a contrast between the life he lived and the life he wished he were able to live.

  2. So "Wittgenstein's own life"? That's pretty accurate, but it makes it sound as though I'm doing straight biography. Which maybe I am. Or perhaps I should say the subject of the paper is Wittgenstein's life and what it reveals about philosophy and/or ethics.

    I will have to think about this some more. Thanks.

  3. no, i was thinking more like 'how he lived his life', something that gets the mode or the reflexive/reflective aspect of it in there.

  4. Question: do we have any account of what Wittgenstein said there "about puzzles and the nonexistence of philosophical problems"?

    Maybe he had some distinction there in mind b/w puzzles and problems. Maybe that would allow us to retain some idea of philosophical puzzles (though not problems). And maybe that would be cheating, or chickening out.

  5. Thanks, j. That does sound right.

    Reshef, the only account I know of is Popper's. If Wittgenstein thought that a philosophical problem has the form: I don't know my way about, then presumably he thought there were philosophical problems in some sense. But if he thought philosophical problems are pseudo-problems then he can't have thought they were problems in a very real sense. So maybe the distinction between puzzles and problems could be useful. But did he ever say that philosophical problems are pseudo-problems? Or was that someone else?

  6. I don't know what he said. I do think it is interesting to think about the different logical forms of problems. Proving Fermat's theorem is not only a different problem than, but also a different kind of problem than, marital problems.

    Perhaps some problems are such that those who experience them don't see that they don't have a problem to begin with. In such cases, if they exist, I'm not sure whether I would want to say that they have a problem, or that they don't. But then again, I'm not sure it really matters.

  7. What about someone who suffers from loss of problems? If that implies shallowness on their part then that is a problem, even though they might not realize it.

    A useful distinction might be between people who are actually bothered by a problem and those who regard it as a mere puzzle (perhaps to be enjoyed). The puzzle-problem distinction could be used to capture this difference. Could Wittgenstein's attitude toward philosophical problems be described this way?: a philosophical problem is a problem caused by mistaking a puzzle for a problem. That doesn't sound quite right, and not only because it's too cute. But talk of dissolving problems suggests that philosophical problems are really more like puzzles in some sense.

    Maybe none of this matters, but it is making me think twice before talking about pseudo-problems that need to be dissolved, and I think a bit of hesitation to think is a good thing there.

  8. Your example of suffering from a loss of problems is funny. What you say also makes me think that there is a question here, because even for those pseudo-problems, we don't want to say, i think, that it is merely a psychological condition. The interesting distinction cannot just be b/w those who feel a problem and those who don't. It cannot be in that way contingent.

    Also, I feel i need to make here some terminological decisions. How are we using the terms "puzzle" "problem" "pseudo-problem"? Are puzzles pseudo-problems?

    Lastly, I wonder if we need to say that all philosophical problems have the same logical shape. Perhaps some of them but not all are caused by mistaking a puzzle for a problem. And perhaps for some problems or puzzles, once their character is revealed, we lose interest in them. (I tend to think this is the case, for example, with the problem of evil. The only thing that keeps it alive, I think, is that evil is a problem--a very real problem. but this kind moral sensitivity is very often invisible in philosophical discussions of the problem.)

    If you agree that this is indeed the case, can some pseudo-problems keep bothering us even after we revealed that they are pseudo-problems? That would be a really cool kind of problem, or puzzle, or whatever.

  9. I don't know. If a problem is merely a pseudo-problem, mustn't it be a psychological condition in some sense? If philosophical problems are pseudo-problems then they might be one class of psychological conditions (perhaps a class with a distinctive kind of cause and/or solution), but 'pseudo-' suggests illusion, which would be psychological, wouldn't it?

    On terminology, I would say that a problem is real, that it involves suffering or difficulty in life. A puzzle is the kind of thing you might take or leave, and which might be fun. Like logic puzzles in magazines.

    I don't really know what a pseudo-problem would be though. Perhaps a problem that is much easier to solve than one realizes, or that has an indirect solution.

    Philosophy has aspects or elements of all three, it seems to me. Some of its questions give some people sleepless nights. But logic is central to philosophy, and I think there is always something at least satisfying, if not fun, about the use of logic. The imagination also often comes into philosophy, and it's a pleasure to use the imagination. And then some philosophical problems can sometimes come to seem unreal. Perhaps the problem of evil is an example of that, although it seems real enough to me (although I suppose I mean I think it would seem real if I were a theist).

    As for all philosophical problems, I don't know. I don't know how to identify their logical shape without solving them, and I have not solved them all yet. Wittgenstein seems to have thought they all had the same shape, but then he had particular views on what counts as a philosophical problem. I think that pseudo-problems can keep bothering us after we have revealed them to be pseudo-problems. This might even be a characteristic of philosophical problems. Free will seems like this to me. From time to time it seems like a real problem to me, then I read something that makes the sense that there is a problem evaporate, but then later it starts to seem like a problem again.

    (By the way, when I said that "hesitation to think" is good I meant that hesitation in order to think is good, not that reluctance to think is good.)

  10. Other reasons to think that Wittgenstein would not have counted ethics as part of philosophy: his account of what philosophy is in the Investigations, the dissolving of pseudo-problems. But what I am to do is not a pseudo-problem. Also, the view of Cora Diamond and others that ethics covers too much for it to be a branch of anything, including philosophy. If Wittgenstein agreed with this view, he could hardly have thought of ethics as a branch of philosophy. I'll come back to this below.

    The Diamond point seems most promising to me. Given the Investigations conception of philosophy, then we must say something like: philosophy is part of ethics (the part that involves getting the pseudo-problems out of the way). This inverts (in a way that will--perhaps correctly--annoy some people) what is a "branch" of what. And I wonder whether that would provide a way of making sense of the way he talks about ethical problems with others, e.g. in his conversations with Waismann (i.e. what seems to count for him as a solution to the problem).

  11. Thanks, Matt. I agree that the Diamond point is most promising, and I like the idea of philosophy as a branch of ethics.

    I was going to say more but looking around for evidence has reminded me that I need to read Anne-Marie Christensen's essay on "Wittgenstein and Ethics" in The Oxford Handbook of Wittgenstein. That might settle the issue once and for all.

  12. I need to read Anne-Marie Christensen's essay on "Wittgenstein and Ethics" in The Oxford Handbook of Wittgenstein. That might settle the issue once and for all.

    Thanks for the reference. (Sadly, I don't have time to keep up with LW literature right now, but one day...Thanks to your blog, I feel reasonably plugged in to where I'll need to look.) As for settling things once and for all, we wouldn't want that would we? :)

    1. No we wouldn't. What was I thinking?

      I'm up to date with the Wittgenstein literature in the sense that I have a pile of papers and another of books waiting to be read. The piles are up to date even if I'm not.

  13. Duncan,

    You ask: "'pseudo-' suggests illusion, which would be psychological, wouldn't it?"

    If so, do you think it is psychological in the same sense that a trauma is psychological? Does the fly in the fly-bottle have a psychological problem (since it doesn't have a real problem. There is a way out)?

    Here are two points of possible difference:

    1) the kind of pseudo problems we have in mind, I think, don't seem to me mere personal problems--personal conditions. We all naturally share them. (For otherwise we would not be able to do philosophy together.)

    2) what causes those problems is not something that is unique to us. They are caused by the very form of our life, as it were. (If this makes sense.)

    So even if we say that these are psychological problems, I think we should also make a distinction in kind from other psychological problems. - Do you agree?

    You also say: "I think that pseudo-problems can keep bothering us after we have revealed them to be pseudo-problems."

    I'm not sure I get that. In what sense have we revealed them as pseudo-problems if they keep bugging us?

    1. Yes, I agree that there are different types of psychological problems in the sense(s) that pseudo-problems are not like traumas, and that philosophical problems are shared in a way that merely personal problems or conditions are not.

      In what sense have we revealed them as pseudo-problems if they keep bugging us?

      Maybe not in a very satisfactory sense, but I think that solutions to philosophical problems tend to be temporary. More like an aspirin than an appendectomy. But I'm speaking at a level of abstraction that I'm not very happy with here. All I really mean is that I have been bothered by questions about free will in the past that have ceased to bother me after reading certain philosophical treatments of the issue, and that the concerns have later returned. This seems to fit the kind of thing Wittgenstein says about how philosophy works, but perhaps it isn't what he meant (or perhaps he was wrong).

  14. About philosophy being like aspirin: Would you say that when the sense that free-will is a problem comes back to you, you are experiencing the same problem, or a different one?

    The reason why I ask this is because it seems to me that many times in philosophy we think we have a problem, where we really have several separable ones. That is, there is not a problem, but many problems. We have a tendency to be unsatisfied with solutions that do not solve EVERYTHING--the whole cluster. And although we are right to be unsatisfied with solutions that solve only part of a problem, or fails to individuates problems (or does that unhelpfully), we should be satisfied with solutions that solve a problem even if it doesn't solve them all.

    So what I'm curious about is whether it is the very same problem that keeps coming back to you, or different ones: Is it that the solution you were previously satisfied with is not satisfying any longer b/c you find something wrong with it, or is there something else that makes it unsatisfying?

  15. That's a good question, but I'm afraid the answer is that I don't know. If we're talking about my experience then the truth is I don't remember well enough to say whether it was the same problem that occurred or a related but different one. Talk about "the solution" to a particular problem doesn't sound quite right, though, as a description of my experience. The kind of solution I have in mind is reading a set of remarks by Wittgenstein about free will. So it isn't one fact or theory or grammatical reminder or whatever that seems to do the trick but rather a set of such things that clarifies not one point but an area. Of course this experience of mine might not generalize or be of any wider interest.