Friday, August 31, 2012

Ethics as a sense of joy

Holy moly this looks good: Wittgenstein's Ethical Thought by Yaniv Iczkovits. According to amazon:
He has been researching and teaching Wittgenstein and early twentieth century moral philosophy for the past ten years. Iczkovits is a published writer whose books are translated to several languages, and a political activist for human and animal rights.
You can read a few pages of the book here on Google books, and in them he thanks Eli Friedlander, Anat Matar, Stephen Mulhall, Akeel Bilgrami, Alice Crary, Cora Diamond, and James Conant, among others. He ends with thanks to his wife who, he says, made him realize that ethics is "after all, no more than a sense of joy." Sounds too good to be true.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Can a deaf-mute ask "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

Here's William James on (and quoting) Mr. Ballard:

On the other hand, a deaf and dumb man can weave his tactile and visual images into a system of thought quite as effective and rational as that of a word-user. The question whether thought is possible without language has been a favorite topic of discussion among philosophers. Some interesting reminiscences of his childhood by Mr. Ballard, a deaf-mute instructor in the National College at Washington, show it to be perfectly possible. A few paragraphs may be quoted here.
"In consequence of the loss of my hearing in infancy, I was debarred from enjoying the advantages which children in the full possession of their senses derive from the exercises of the common primary school, from the every-day talk of their school-fellows and playmates, and from the conversation of their parents and other grown-up persons.
"I could convey my thoughts and feelings to my parents and brothers by natural signs or pantomime, and I could understand what they said to me by the same medium; our intercourse being, however, confined to the daily routine of home affairs and hardly going beyond the circle of my own observation. . . .
"My father adopted a course which he thought would, in some measure, compensate me for the loss of my hearing. It was that of taking me with him when business required him to ride abroad; and he took me more frequently than he did my brothers; giving, as the reason for his apparent partiality, that they could acquire information through the ear, while I depended solely upon my eye for acquaintance with affairs of the outside world. . . .
"I have a vivid recollection of the delight I felt in watching the different scenes we passed through, observing the various phases of nature, both animate and inanimate; though we did not, owing to my infirmity, engage in conversation. It was during those delightful rides, some two or three years before my initiation into the rudiments of written language, that I began to ask myself the question: How came the world into being? When this question occurred to my mind, I set myself to thinking it over a long time. My curiosity was awakened as to what was the origin of human life in its first appearance upon the earth, and of vegetable life as well, and also the cause of the existence of the earth, sun, moon, and stars.
"I remember at one time when my eye fell upon a very large old stump which we happened to pass in one of our rides, I asked myself, 'Is it possible that the first man that ever came into the world rose out of that stump? But that stump is only a remnant of a once noble magnificent tree, and how came that tree? Why, it came only by beginning to grow out of the ground just like those little trees now coming up.' And I dismissed from my mind, as an absurd idea, the connection between the origin of man and a decaying old stump. . . .
"I have no recollection of what it was that first suggested to me the question as to the origin of things. I had before this time gained ideas of the descent from parent to child, of the propagation of animals, and of the production of plants from seeds. The question that occurred to my mind was: whence came the first man, the first animal, and the first plant, at the remotest distance of time, before which there was no man, no animal, no plant; since I knew they all had a beginning and an end.
"It is impossible to state the exact order in which these different questions arose, i.e., about men, animals, plants, the earth, sun, moon, etc. The lower animals did not receive so much thought as was bestowed upon man and the earth; perhaps because I put man and beast in the same class, since I believed that man would be annihilated and there was no resurrection beyond the grave, - though I am told by my mother that, in answer to my question, in the case of a deceased uncle who looked to me like a person in sleep, she had tried to make me understand that he would awake in the far future. It was my belief that man and beast derived their being from the same source and were to be laid down in the dust in a state of annihilation. Considering the brute animal as of secondary importance, and allied to man on a lower level, man and the earth were the two things on which my mind dwelled most.
"I think I was five years old, when I began to understand the descent from parent to child and the propagation of animals. I was nearly eleven years old, when I entered the Institution where I was educated; and I remember distinctly that it was at least two years before this time that I began to ask myself the question as to the origin of the universe. My age was then about eight, not over nine years.
"Of the form of the earth, I had no idea in my childhood, except that, from a look at a map of the hemispheres, I inferred there were two immense disks of matter lying near each other. I also believed the sun and moon to be round, flat plates of illuminating matter; and for those luminaries I entertained a sort of reverence on account of their power of lighting and heating the earth. I thought from their coming up and going down, travelling across the sky in so regular a manner that there must be a certain something having power to govern their course. I believed the sun went into a hole at the west and came out of another at the east, travelling through a great tube in the earth, describing the same curve as it seemed to describe in the sky. The stars seemed to me to be tiny lights studded in the sky.
"The source from which the universe came was the question about which my mind revolved in a vain struggle to grasp it, or rather to fight the way up to attain to a satisfactory answer. When I had occupied myself with this subject a considerable time, I perceived that it was a matter much greater than my mind could comprehend; and I remember well that I became so appalled at its mystery and so bewildered at my inability to grapple with it that I laid the subject aside and out of my mind, glad to escape being, as it were, drawn into a vortex of inextricable confusion. Though I felt relieved at this escape, yet I could not resist the desire to know the truth; and I returned to the subject; but as before, I left it, after thinking it over for some time. In this state of perplexity, I hoped all the time to get at the truth, still believing that the more I gave thought to the subject, the more my mind would penetrate the mystery. Thus I was tossed like a shuttlecock, returning to the subject and recoiling from it, till I came to school.
"I remember that my mother once told me about a being up above, pointing her finger towards the sky and with a solemn look on her countenance. I do not recall the circumstance which led to this communication. When she mentioned the mysterious being up in the sky, I was eager to take hold of the subject, and plied her with questions concerning the form and appearance of this unknown being, asking if it was the sun, moon, or one of the stars. I knew she meant that there was a living one somewhere up in the sky; but when I realized that she could not answer my questions, I gave it up in despair, feeling sorrowful that I could not obtain a definite idea of the mysterious living one up in the sky.
"One day, while we were haying in a field, there was a series of heavy thunder-claps. I asked one of my brothers where they came from. He pointed to the sky and made a zigzag motion with his finger, signifying lightning. I imagined there was a great man somewhere in the blue vault, who made a loud noise with his voice out of it; and each time I heard a thunder-clap I was frightened, and looked up at the sky, fearing he was speaking a threatening word."
What seems odd about Ballard's claim that he wondered "How came the world into being?" when he was about eight or nine years old is that the thought seems to need some medium, be it behavior, words, pictures, or something else. But how would anyone pose this question in pictures, or gestures, or pantomime? It's not that it can't be done. Someone might draw the Earth in space and then someone looking puzzled, say. Or a series of objects followed by their origins (tree then seed, kitten then cat, etc.) ending with the universe (or some expanse of outer space) followed by a question mark or quizzical expression. But there is a lot of room for ambiguity in this kind of thing. If the artist or mime cannot tell us what they mean then why think they mean this rather than that, or that they mean anything beyond what we see?

Well, one answer might be that the artist later tells us exactly what he meant. That might seem to settle it. But it doesn't necessarily, because there might seem to be a problem of too much content, too much sophistication to be quite plausible. Think of someone whose only idea of God (I'm not saying this is true of Ballard, but it might have been for all I know) is that his mother once told him (through pictures and gestures) about a being up above, pointing her finger towards the sky and with a solemn look on her countenance. Now imagine this person years later, having learned how to speak, telling us that he wondered then whether God was one person or three. It's not that he could not have had such a thought, nor even that it would have been highly improbable for such a thought to occur to him. It's more that it's hard to see how to attach the idea of this kind of theological speculation to the rudimentarily educated child.

In PI 284 Wittgenstein writes:
Look at a stone and imagine it having sensations. -- One says to oneself: How could one so much as get the idea of ascribing a sensation to a thing? One might as well ascribe it to a number! -- And now look at a wriggling fly and at once these difficulties vanish and pain seems able to get a foothold here, where before everything was, so to speak, too smooth for it.
I think there is something similar in the Ballard case. It's not that the cases are the same. After all, Ballard is a human being and sincerely avers that he had the thoughts in question. Why not believe him? One might say: Because I don't even know what it would mean to attribute such thoughts to someone in that condition (a child, deaf, illiterate, etc.). But what then if he or anyone else insists that they know what it means? "It means this thought attributed to that person, and here are some examples of ways in which he could have had the thought. What, they're ambiguous and open to interpretation? What isn't? The way we settle such matters is by appeal to first-person authority, and the authority in question is on my side, not yours."

Without dogmatic metaphysics I don't see how we can but concede that someone who talks like this might be right. The most we can do otherwise is to try to explain why this is so hard (for some people) to believe. We would have, I think, to take a good look at how much ambiguity there is in this case, and we should probably work carefully through the details of how the thinking is supposed to have arisen and how it is supposed to have proceeded, how Ballard could have kept track of his thoughts or his meaning, both at the time and in the years between then and when he learned to communicate his thoughts about such matters with others. It still seems as though it's going to come down to a matter of what strikes us as plausible, and that will vary from person to person. Each side might accuse the other of not really thinking, or of being in the grip of a picture. It might not be possible to reach any resolution.

One last point: there is thinking and there is thinking. A child who says "Where did the world come from?" might not mean what a physicist who asks the same question means. And a physicist might not mean what a philosopher might mean by the same words (depending on the philosopher). The child might not really mean anything in fact, but only be playing with words. Or she might be somewhere between meaning the question and not meaning it, perhaps not being quite sure whether it's legitimate or not as a question. (And not being sure doesn't mean being uncertain--she might have given the question's meaning no thought at all, just as we usually speak without stopping and thinking about our words.) I'm reading Jim Holt's entertaining Why Does the World Exist? at the moment (which is also good for its references to University of Virginia people such as Anthony Woozley and Peter Heath), and he makes it clear that this and similar questions can be approached in a variety of ways and have different significance for different people. If someone asks the question but cannot say whether a theological or a logical or a physical answer (or something else) would be more appropriate then do they really know what they are saying? Have they really thought about it? It depends what you count as really thinking, it seems to me. But it's hard to imagine Holt's book translated into pictures and gestures that a child might understand.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Wittgenstein, Freud, and pictures

There's an interesting short piece by Ray Monk here about Wittgenstein and pictures. In it Monk says that when Wittgenstein described himself as a disciple or follower of Freud, the key to understanding this remark might be provided by these words of Freud's:
Thinking in pictures stands nearer to unconscious processes than does thinking in words, and is unquestionably older than the latter both ontogenetically and phylogenetically.
Monk is not making a wild claim here, but I think he's wrong all the same. Not that I can prove it, but it seems more likely that Wittgenstein was thinking of Freud's view that behavior, including things we say, reveals something about our inner life, or even that what is visible is a picture of what is invisible. Now that's a strange idea (a picture of the invisible), but Wittgenstein did say that the body is the best picture of the soul, and souls aren't visible. I associate this way of thinking with Schopenhauer, but Freud might have picked it up from him. It's also part of ordinary language, as when we speak about the expression on someone's face. We treat smiles and frowns as not just evidence of inner states but as manifestations of those states, the happiness or whatever pushing out through the face, visible in the face. And in a sense we get the very idea of an inner from this related idea that what we see is not all there is but is an outer, a phenomenon, the showing of something.

By the way, Monk refers to a composite picture of Wittgenstein and his sisters but that picture is not the one shown in the article. The picture Monk means is this:


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Reprehensibly perfect

Whenever I go to the bathroom in the night I think of Larkin's poem "Sad Steps," or a misremembered version of it anyway. This essay by Michael Wood reminded me of the title and prompted me to look up the whole poem. Here it is:
Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness.

Four o’clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There’s something laughable about this,

The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)

High and preposterous and separate—
Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,

One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare

Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can’t come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.
The last lines recall the last words of "The Whitsun Weddings" ("somewhere becoming rain"), with the echo of somewhere and the words that rhyme with rain. There is strength and pain, too, in the arrow-shower that Larkin imagines turning into rain. The real action, or life, takes place elsewhere, of course. He presents his life as a sequence of events that didn't happen, and he seems to regard the non-event almost as a duty.

This comes out in another poem that Wood quotes, "Poetry of Departures":
Sometimes you hear, fifth-hand,
As epitaph:
He chucked up everything
And just cleared off,
And always the voice will sound
Certain you approve
This audacious, purifying,
Elemental move.

And they are right, I think.
We all hate home
And having to be there:
I detest my room,
It's specially-chosen junk,
The good books, the good bed,
And my life, in perfect order:
So to hear it said

He walked out on the whole crowd
Leaves me flushed and stirred,
Like Then she undid her dress
Or Take that you bastard;
Surely I can, if he did?
And that helps me to stay
Sober and industrious.
But I'd go today,

Yes, swagger the nut-strewn roads,
Crouch in the fo'c'sle
Stubbly with goodness, if
It weren't so artificial,
Such a deliberate step backwards
To create an object:
Books; china; a life
Reprehensibly perfect.
Two types of perfection are contrasted here, the detested life "in perfect order" (like the sentences of ordinary language (see Investigations 98)!--incidentally, searching for the relevant passage led me to this paper on "Wittgenstein, Ethics and Therapy," which I must read) and the reprehensibly perfect artificial life of someone who runs away from home. Home is full of junk, albeit specially chosen, which is not the same as well chosen. Larkin once said that he disliked or distrusted homes without junk, without tasteless souvenirs on display because of love of the place or person they came from. Staying at home is not audacious (is it cowardly?), impure, not elemental (so is it molecular, synthetic, characterized by aggregation or accumulation?), but always what we have to do. It is a kind of burden, a messy or unclear one. But the bold move is both phony (or is it willful?) and retrograde. At least I think that's what he is saying.

I can't help but connect all this with religion, which might be one of the laughable immensements of "Sad Steps," and with Samuel Beckett, who seems to have some similar interests in the ordinary and in junk. (I'm going by this article, which reads like a sort of collage of quotations to me, but probably because I don't know Beckett well enough). Not that religious belief is always artificial or retrograde. But I think that for some of us it would be. Our job is to stay in our room, however detested, and to lie in the good bed we have made.

Wood writes that in Larkin's verse:
The ordinary becomes poetry but not “poetic.” “I don’t want to transcend the commonplace,” Larkin said, “I love the commonplace.” He loves it enough to get it into his verse, and also enough to allow it its own unruly life. 
Which is good, I think. It's too bad that Wood ends with the ending of the poem about an Arundel tomb, which is a little too commonplace now, but it's a useful and refreshing review all the same.

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.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Reflections on reflection

Reflective learning is one of the latest buzzwords in education. Unfortunately, like critical thinking, everyone claims to know what it means (and to teach it already) but no one agrees on what it is. Fortunately, there is some agreement that John Dewey is the father of reflective learning, and it gets some of its cachet from his reputation. So maybe philosophers can use this to defend the teaching of philosophy, deal with assessment people, sell the subject to administrators, etc.

Here are some things that Dewey says about reflection (he doesn't mention reflective learning) in How We Think:

Thought is reflective only in cases where "the ground or basis for a belief is deliberately sought and its adequacy to support the belief examined."
Reflection involves not simply a sequence of ideas, but a consequence—a consecutive ordering in such a way that each determines the next as its proper outcome, while each in turn leans back on its predecessors. The successive portions of the reflective thought grow out of one another and support one another; they do not come and go in a medley.   
Active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends, constitutes reflective thought. 
This function by which one thing signifies or indicates another, and thereby leads us to consider how far one may be regarded as warrant for belief in the other, is, then, the central factor in all reflective or distinctively intellectual thinking. 
Demand for the solution of a perplexity is the steadying and guiding factor in the entire process of reflection.  
Reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance. Reflective thinking, in short, means judgment suspended during further inquiry; and suspense is likely to be somewhat painful. As we shall see later, the most important factor in the training of good mental habits consists in acquiring the attitude of suspended conclusion, and in mastering the various methods of searching for new materials to corroborate or to refute the first suggestions that occur. To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry—these are the essentials of thinking.
Genuine freedom, in short, is intellectual; it rests in the trained power of thought, in ability to "turn things over," to look at matters deliberately, to judge whether the amount and kind of evidence requisite for decision is at hand, and if not, to tell where and how to seek such evidence. If a man's actions are not guided by thoughtful conclusions, then they are guided by inconsiderate impulse, unbalanced appetite, caprice, or the circumstances of the moment. To cultivate unhindered, unreflective external activity is to foster enslavement, for it leaves the person at the mercy of appetite, sense, and circumstance. 
Upon examination, each instance [of reflection] reveals, more or less clearly, five logically distinct steps: (i) a felt difficulty; (ii) its location and definition; (iii) suggestion of possible solution; (iv) development by reasoning of the bearings of the suggestion; (v) further observation and experiment leading to its acceptance or rejection; that is, the conclusion of belief or disbelief. 
There is thus a double movement in all reflection: a movement from the given partial and confused data to a suggested comprehensive (or inclusive) entire situation; and back from this suggested whole—which as suggested is a meaning, an idea—to the particular facts, so as to connect these with one another and with additional facts to which the suggestion has directed attention. Roughly speaking, the first of these movements is inductive; the second deductive. A complete act of thought involves both—it involves, that is, a fruitful interaction of observed (or recollected) particular considerations and of inclusive and far-reaching (general) meanings. 
I guess this is meant to apply to subjects beyond philosophy, but it fits philosophy pretty well. There is little emphasis here on memorizing facts or mastering already-discovered methodologies or techniques for solving particular problems. Some of this is going into my syllabuses, and I might even design paper assignments based on the last two quotations above. Something like this: first, in applied ethics, (i) identify some problem, (ii) define the problem precisely, (iii) consider a possible solution, (iv) think through (i.e. explain carefully) what the proposed solution would mean in this case, both the good and the bad, (v) conclude whether the proposed solution (or theory) should be accepted (or believed) or not. Repeat until a belief that should be accepted is identified, making sure to consider at least two proposed solutions before the end of the paper is reached. And then, still in ethics, but more abstract, (i) based on the last quotation above, connect the conclusions of two or more papers on applied ethics to form a more comprehensive or inclusive belief or theory about how ethical problems should be resolved, (ii) try this belief or theory out on some other problems you can think of, (iii) draw a conclusion about whether the belief or theory leads to good results or bad, (iv) adjust if necessary and re-test the belief or theory, (v) conclude that the belief should be accepted or rejected.

Hmm. I think Dewey's language might need to be updated or simplified for contemporary undergraduates, and then I might end up simply asking them to do exactly what I already do. But I like the idea of being able to sell philosophy as it already is as reflective and therefore in line with the required mission. Less cynically, it's also helpful to read through Dewey's thoughts and reconsider in their light practices that might otherwise become thoughtless habits.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"We've passed the Turing test, but we don't know it"

This is interesting. Apparently a machine almost passed the Turing test this year, which involves fooling people into thinking a machine is human 30% of the time for 5 minutes. Here's the final paragraph:
Perhaps, however, we’re closer than we think to “true” AI. After the Wright Brothers’s aeroplane lifted off in 1903, sceptics continued to debate whether we were “really” flying – an argument that simply faded away. It may be like that with AI. As [Pat] Hayes argues, “You could argue we’ve already passed the Turing test”. If someone from 1950 could talk to Siri, he says, they’d think they were talking to a human being. “There’s no way they could imagine it was a machine – because no machine could do anything like that in 1950. So I think we’ve passed the Turing test, but we don’t know it.”
I sort of like this idea, but I don't buy it. The Turing test has enough problems without adding the requirement that we try to think as if we were in the 1950s. And if no machine has ever fooled people for as little as 100 seconds (or a bit less even) then we seem quite far from passing the Turing test in fact. Not that we haven't made progress, of course.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

I spent a summer wasting

Well, that felt unproductive. I think I never get as much done as I think I will during the summer, but this one was worse in that respect than usual. Going on vacation didn't help, nor did losing power for a week. Then there's been the distraction of committee work connected to redesigning the English major at VMI, and the extra yard work that comes from an unusually rainy and hot summer. It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under, as someone once said. And then there's the fact that I might have June and July off (when I'm not being called in for committee meetings) but so do my kids. Read a couple of books more slowly than you need to, tell yourself that blogging is work, and before you know it all those weeks have gone, with little to show for it. But the kids go back to school tomorrow, so normal life might return if the committee work ever slows down to normal levels. Then I might actually have something to say about philosophy.

All of which sounds much too moany. (Poor me, I own property! Poor me, I have children! Poor me, I'm lazy!) I just need to be more realistic about the goals I set myself in the summer. Probably my best summer for research was when I had almost no expectations at all because I had a baby daughter to look after. Apart from gathering materials from libraries while she sat quietly eating Goldfish, i.e. not for more than a few minutes at a time, the only time I could work was during her nap. That meant three hours a day at most, usually only about one hour, and sometimes no time at all. But I made sure I used every minute of the time I had to catch up on Wittgenstein scholarship from the previous five years or so, which led  to my working up some old material and adding some new material to it to produce Wittgenstein at His Word. Knowing you have precious little time can be helpful. The illusion of having more time is a dangerous thing.

Neil Young said that a man needs a maid, but really a philosopher needs a maid, and a gardener, and a babysitter. Except that I can't help feeling that one should do these things oneself. Or at least the babysitting part. Be a philosopher, but amid all your philosophy be still a dad (or mum/mom). Or something like that. Of course everyone's circumstances are different, and my feelings-based priorities might be all wrong.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The mind-body problem

Reading Braver's Groundless Grounds and this article on LSD made me think again about the mind-body problem. David Cockburn's An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind (following Locke, as I recall) argues that there's no special mystery about how one thing can interact causally with a very different kind of thing. A fork, a child, and electricity are all quite different, but there is no official mystery about how a child's sticking a fork in an electric outlet can result in a shock. Or at any rate the only officially mysterious part of such an event is how the (physical) child can experience (conscious) pain. But why is that any more mysterious than electricity causing burns? Or, for that matter, electricity itself? Or gravity? Or matter? Or causation?

And is this right? The (officially) hard problem of how a body or brain, something like a steak, could be conscious is a) a result of thinking of matter in a certain kind of way, i.e. as mindless, when the most obvious material beings, ourselves, are not mindless, and b) less hard than the body problem, i.e. how so much as a steak can ever be at all? That is, there seems to be a problem of how the physical can interact with the mental because we have construed the (essence of the) physical in a particular kind of way that excludes its mental aspects. But that's a problem with our construal, not with the nature of reality. It doesn't reveal an independent mystery but invites an investigation and reconsideration of our concepts and how (and why) we have formed them as we have. What does seem to be an independent mystery is stuff itself. We might be able to explain, say, force in terms of other elements of physics, or even take the concept out of physics completely, but whatever concepts we use there is still stuff that we try to explain or describe. The existence of stuff is not really a problem though. It's just there, buzzing away as mass-energy or vibrations or whatever. You can't ask why it's there as if anything else could explain it because then both that other thing and how it is supposed to explain anything would have to be explained. You're just left with the buzz.

The LSD essay also reminded me of Bill Hicks. This is pretty well known, but if you haven't seen it it's worth watching, partly just because it's well known and often quoted, so if you don't know it you'll miss those references. But as popular philosophy it's not bad. And it's funny that he made a living as a strand-up comedian when a lot of what he did, as far as I can tell, was more like preaching. It (I don't mean this particular clip, but his material generally) almost is a kind of philosophy, albeit a sloppy kind with few if any arguments.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Sons of Anarchy

A few years late, I've just discovered Sons of Anarchy. It's clearly meant to be something like The Wire, but with small town California bikers dealing arms in place of East Coast city gangsters dealing drugs. I won't say it's as good as The Wire, but it's pretty good all the same. The biker gang is led by Tom Waits and Kurt Cobain (actually Ron Perlman and Charlie Hunnam), and the show has an appropriate soundtrack, none of which I recognize but much of which sounds like the Black Keys.

The story involves the Kurt Cobain character periodically reading his father's journal, which involves some cringeworthy philosophizing and pseudo-profundity that so far never seems to get any more profound than Kenny Rogers' "sometimes you gotta fight if you're a man." On the other hand, the story is partly about how a group of hippie idealists ended up being a gang of criminals, and whether it's possible for them to return to their earlier ideals. Which is potentially interesting.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Groundless Grounds

Lee Braver has written a book that I think was crying out to be written, comparing Wittgenstein and Heidegger. The subject needs to be addressed, and Braver writes with real charm. Here's the beginning of his acknowledgments page:

I think that's pretty funny, and he makes similarly lighthearted comments throughout the book, without straying from his task. That task is both to present an introductory overview of the work of Wittgenstein and Heidegger, and to argue that they have similarities that are numerous, significant, and illuminating of each other's work. His knowledge of the two bodies of work is impressive (I suspect he has a method for doing his homework, and I wish I could copy it), and he writes with admirable clarity.

It's possible that he is too clear. His previous book, remarkable in similar ways to this new one, begins with a list of six kinds or aspects of realism and six of anti-realism, plus five other ideas that come up often in the book. These are then referred to throughout as R1-R6 (for realist ideas), A1-A6 (for anti-realism), and various acronyms such as ED (the Empirical Directive, not erectile dysfunction, although it does refer (Freudianly?) to "this ... he or it (the thing) which thinks..."), HPO (Historical Phenomenological Ontology), and so on. It's like trying to read Spinoza when his arguments consist entirely of references to previous sections of his book, or a long blog post full of links that you are expected to click on and more or less memorize. There's nothing absolutely wrong with this kind of thing, and it is clear in the sense of being precise: we know exactly what is being claimed. But books like this are made for studying rather than reading in the normal or casual sense. Clarity of this kind is not the lazy reader's friend.

Groundless Grounds is not like that, but it is still arguably too clear in two ways. Most obviously, if this is really what Wittgenstein and Heidegger meant then why didn't they say so? It's tempting to think that that's a devastating objection, but I'm not so sure. There is a place, and perhaps even a need, for simplification in an introduction. One of the things I think Braver wants to do is to start a dialogue, and there is no need to get everything exactly right at the start of a dialogue. His simplified versions of Wittgenstein and Heidegger are strongly suggestive of connections worth investigating further, and if further investigations occur as a result then Braver will have been (at least partly) successful. Of course such connections have been suggested before by Cavell, Rorty, Mulhall, and others, but not in such an accessible and programmatic way (as far as I know). 

Another problem with Braver's easy style is that you don't always know what he is claiming. I'll give just one example, and I should note that not many others come to mind. On p. 234 Braver says that both Heidegger and Wittgenstein aim to "help us return to where we already are." He links this with a rejection of nihilism, which he suggests results from an artificial understanding of the world that overlooks the meaning already inherent in it. "We don't need to figure out how to inject values into a gray landscape; our lives are flooded with Technicolor." I take this to mean that our lives and the world we live in are full of, or at least contain significant amounts of, value, and that it is both a metaphysical error and a kind of moral or spiritual mistake to deny this. Yet on the next page Braver writes about Wittgenstein as a kind of Stoic, seeking independence from the world through apatheia. This sounds like a very different idea to me. If the world is flooded with value then why would it be good to seek independence from it? How could I be apathetic towards it? Perhaps the tension is only apparent, but Braver does not explain it away. Or perhaps he means to point out a difference between Heidegger's view (which is more obviously what he has in mind when he makes his Technicolor comment) and that of the early Wittgenstein, but he doesn't say so. He writes as if there simply is no tension here. (Maybe he is counting on better readers than me.) Sometimes clarity comes from overlooking problems, and that can leave the reader confused.

Connected with this is the fact that Braver's interpretation is sometimes questionable. That's always going to be the case with writers like Wittgenstein and Heidegger, so Braver should get some slack here. But not endless amounts. I don't feel qualified to question his reading of Heidegger, but here are a few points in the book that made me reach for an imaginary red pen:
  • on p. 41 Braver summarizes the ethics of the early Wittgenstein and writes that "hanging my happiness on getting what I desire and avoiding what I do not is a sucker's game. The dice are loaded--determined, even--and the house always wins in the end." This seems wrong in two ways. For one thing, Wittgenstein was surely not looking to win in this sense. The Epicureans believed that the way to maximize happiness is to minimize misery, and the way to do that is to withdraw from the world. That is not Wittgenstein's position at all. He never was any kind of hedonist. Secondly, neither was he a determinist. "Superstition is belief in the causal nexus," he wrote. (Incidentally--and this is probably either unoriginal or wrong--thinking about this led me to these thoughts: determinism is not something we find to be true but a requirement we place on reality ("Well it had to be caused by something. Things don't just happen.") and so it makes no sense (or little sense at best) to call it true; whether we should make this requirement is an ethical question, not one that the facts can settle; it does not follow that we have free will, as Hume pointed out, because free will is not the denial of determinism; libertarianism (of the free will, not the political, kind) is dubious because it regards me as an uncaused cause, or uninfluenced influence at least, which seems hubristic as well as undemonstrable; which seems to leave us with some kind of compatibilism, which, though not provably correct, might be unavoidable anyway.)
  • Braver seems to think that the later Wittgenstein thought that philosophy was just a bad mistake, to be gotten rid of by whatever means prove necessary. On p. 51 he considers an objection to this interpretation, but quickly (inside one paragraph) dismisses it as not fitting with the rest of what Wittgenstein says. I must say I think he should have paid more attention to the objection. Wittgenstein, it seems to me, clearly thought of philosophy as important in a way that Braver appears not to see (despite his later comments to the effect that the moral point of philosophy as Wittgenstein saw it is much the same as the moral point that Heidegger sees in it--not that Heidegger would like that way of putting things).
  • on p. 77 Braver suggests that what Wittgenstein liked about Westerns is their lack of moral ambiguity. We discussed this a little here (see comments), and I suspect that seanwilsonorg is right that what Wittgenstein wanted was a temporary mental captivation, not moral simplicity. After all, he praised detective stories for sometimes containing wisdom (in contrast to the articles in Mind). There is little wisdom in the idea that good guys wear white hats and bad guys wear black. The hero of Rendezvous with Fear (a detective story set in the American West) is far from being unambiguously good, and this was one of Wittgenstein's favorites.
  • at the very end of the book, p. 239, the last page before the notes, etc., Braver writes: "Wittgenstein wants to eradicate wonder, it is true..." News for Gordon Bearn. Let me just say this: it is not true. 
Still, the world is a better place for having this book in it. May many others correct whatever faults it might contain. It aims to stimulate, and it succeeds delightfully.

Friday, August 3, 2012

To Rome With Love

Woody Allen's new film is, I think, better than his last one. The only way in which it's inferior is in showcasing its featured city. Rome actually looks better in real life than Allen makes it seem here, although that could be because his taste in urban scenery is different from mine. It might also be because what's so good about Rome is not so much this view or that but the fact that the good bits go on and on and on, which is probably hard to show in a film. Anyway, like his last one this one made me think, partly in ways it was clearly intended to.

Let me show off: when I was having dinner with my family at a restaurant in the square shown here earlier this summer a camera crew showed up and started filming. A crowd, including my children, gathered around to watch. We didn't recognize any of the actors, but the rumor was that the filming was for French television. Perhaps Allen had a similar experience (or perhaps his whole career feels like this), because one theme of his  latest film is fame, and specifically the way people will flock to look at and hear about famous people despite their having no other reason to take any interest in these people at all. Why should my (non-French) kids want to see French television stars? The whole thing could even have been a psychology experiment to test the lure of a camera crew with bright lights and alleged stars. What seems at first to be bad acting and/or writing on Allen's part near the beginning of the film in retrospect seems possibly deliberate. Allen's character is on a plane and complaining about his fear of turbulence. It isn't funny or interesting or how people talk in real life. But it's recognizably Woody Allen, neurotic and kvetching. Why should we care? Well, why indeed might be his point. And yet he's made a career out of this sort of thing. Why should this be? What sense does it make?

Allen's view of life is basically that it is meaningless, and that's the general theme of To Rome With Love. All kinds of things happen by pure chance (a man becomes famous and, just as suddenly, ceases to be so, another man finds a beautiful prostitute in his hotel room offering to do anything he wants (she has gone to the wrong room by mistake), couples meet and get married following a chance encounter, and so on). And three times, just in case we miss the point, people refer to "Ozymandias melancholia," the despair brought on by thinking that all human achievements will eventually end up in ruins, like the ruins with which Rome is peppered. And, just in case we don't get the Ozymandias reference, another character says that it's "ironic" that the once great Roman empire is now in ruins. I don't know whether Allen really has a point to make, as such, but the movie is sort of a meditation on contingency, on the way things, especially love and fame, come and go for no real reason. 

If that sounds depressing wait, there's more. One character runs a funeral parlor, dealing with death all day long, and he works long hours to support his family. Although the film is a comedy, it includes the end of an opera in which the last line, after a couple of people have been stabbed to death, is: "La Commedia è finita!" My Italian is not great, but even I can translate that. The end of the comedy is death. The whole film is reminiscent of Schopenhauer's claim that: “The life of every individual is really always a tragedy, but gone through in detail, it has the character of a comedy.” But this is a comedy. Every character's story ends more or less happily, and there is a lot of enjoyable absurdity along the way. You might not ROFL or even LOL but you will GQO (grin quite often). 

One more note before I get to any bigger point: not everything is arbitrary here. One character who apparently "just has something about her" that makes her attractive also works hard to seem interesting, in a phony way, so maybe she makes herself attractive this way rather than just lucking out. And another character's failures seem more stupid than "ahead of their time" as a kinder person might put it. And yet there is an awful lot of luck here too. It's luck whether you're born pretty or plain. Powerful and/or famous men are presented as being very attractive to women, and power and fame, in turn, are presented as having a lot to do with luck. You might have a fine singing voice but never be discovered, or you might find yourself famous simply for being famous. Very much depends on opportunity, and opportunity is largely a matter of luck. Or so Allen seems to see things. (And he has a point.)

Now for my attempt or gesture at a bigger point. If tragedy is not just a story with an unhappy ending but a story of how a fatal flaw in someone's character produces an unhappy ending then Allen's view of life does not lend itself to tragedy. Character is not destiny in his world. A thief is created by the opportunity to steal, nothing more. We are all more or less the same, differing above all in the opportunities that happen to present themselves. This can only lend itself to comedy, not tragedy. (Of course it might not lead to any kind of coherent story.) Perhaps if life seems meaningless then you really do have to laugh.

Another feature of the film is that the story seems to take place out of time. Somehow a woman's stepping out to get her hair cut and getting lost allows for (what seems to be) several days' worth of adventure and misadventure. Somehow also a character in the film becomes a sort of narrator or chorus, visible to perhaps only one other character. We seem to be outside space as well as time, or at least the normal rules don't apply. So we see things, in a way, sub specie aeterni.

Maybe that's a stretch, but the prevalence of sheer chance along with this apparent freedom from the laws of time and space means that we have at least the suggestion of the makings of a Schopenhauerian work of art. Allen presents the world roughly as Schopenhauer says a work of art presents it. And for Schopenhauer this is a key to enlightenment. The early Wittgenstein (up to at least August 1930) seems to have thought in similar terms (I quote the relevant passage here). Now here's what I'm wondering: what kind of connection might there be between senselessness in the sense of the non-applicability of the principle of sufficient reason and senselessness in the sense of nonsense? Consider tragedy, say Hamlet or Macbeth. All the killing has a cause (so the principle of sufficient reason applies in that way) but still might strike us as senseless. Indeed, we might not even have a tragedy unless it strikes us that way. The killing needs to be not just bad but terrible, hard to accept or comprehend. Perhaps the coming apart of reason and cause could even be regarded as the essence of tragedy. Comedy is not like this. There does not have to be a causal nexus in comedy, everything can happen by chance.

Both comedy and tragedy then can make us question, or simply suspend, our faith in the causal nexus. It need not be part of a comedy at all, and it is not enough for tragedy. If belief in the causal nexus is superstition, as Wittgenstein once wrote, then drama is anti-superstition. (And we might question the very meaning of 'causal nexus', since Wittgenstein can't be in any position to reject belief in it a priori unless the very idea is suspect. Of course we can at the same time question whether he's right. Or his rejection of such belief might be a matter of personal taste. But it does seem to be a problematic idea, leading to questions like what caused the causal nexus?, or apparent evasions like talk of grounds rather than causes, or moonwalking into some version of the cosmological argument.) In this way, that is, by combating superstition, fiction might be more honest than non-fiction, or at least the kind of non-fiction that leaves superstition alone. Fiction reminds us that it ain't necessarily so, that things could be otherwise, which is both true and mentally liberating (potentially anyway). Maybe that's why we like it.

[I was reminded of the passage from Wittgenstein by Reshef Agam-Segal, and some of what I say here is inspired by his recent work on seeing aspects. I'll try to make the connection clearer, or better, or both, in the near future.]