Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Back to Wittgenstein and ethics

David Stern has an interesting paper here. He brings up Philosophical Investigations 77, which he notes is often overlooked:
And if we carry this comparison still further it is clear that the degree to which the sharp picture can resemble the blurred one depends on the latter's degree of vagueness. For imagine having to sketch a sharply defined picture 'corresponding' to a blurred one. In the latter there is a blurred red rectangle: for it you put down a sharply defined one. Of course—several such sharply defined rectangles can be drawn to correspond to the indefinite one.—But if the colours in the original merge without a hint of any outline won't it become a hopeless task to draw a sharp picture corresponding to the blurred one? Won't you then have to say: "Here I might just as well draw a circle or heart as a rectangle, for all the colours merge. Anything—and nothing—is right."——And this is the position you are in if you look for definitions corresponding to our concepts in aesthetics or ethics.
In such a difficulty always ask yourself: How did we learn the meaning of this word ("good" for instance)? From what sort of examples? in what language-games? Then it will be easier for you to see that the word must have a family of meanings.
Stern traces similar ideas about ethics, the good, and family resemblance to Philosophical Grammar (1933-34) and to G. E. Moore's notes on Wittgenstein's lectures from the same period. What he doesn't mention is that the 1929 Lecture on Ethics contains relevantly similar ideas too:
My subject, as you know, is Ethics and I will adopt the explanation of that term which Professor Moore has given in his book Principia Ethica He says: "Ethics is the general enquiry into what is good." Now I am going to use the term Ethics in a slightly wider sense, in a sense in fact which includes what I believe to be the most essential part of what is generally called Aesthetics. 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. Now instead of saying "Ethics is the enquiry into what is good" I could have said Ethics is the enquiry into what is valuable, or, into what is really important, or I could have said Ethics is the enquiry into the meaning of life, or into what makes life worth living, or into the right way of living. I believe if you look at all these phrases you will get a rough idea as to what it is that Ethics is concerned with.
Speaking of Baker and Hacker, Stern writes that "they think of our learning of words of appraisal as starting with interjections. Then he quotes them saying that:
'Good' is generally first applied by a child to food. It is taught in conjunction with exaggerated gestures and facial expressions, and with distinctive tones of voice that are expressions of approval.
What he doesn't say is that Baker and Hacker are here simply repeating what Wittgenstein is recorded as having said in his lectures on aesthetics:
A child generally applies a word like ‘good’ first to food. One thing that is immensely important in teaching is exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. The word is taught as a substitute for a facial expression or a gesture. The gestures, tones of voice, etc., in this case are expressions of approval.  
Stern criticizes Baker and Hacker for having an overly simple view of the varieties of the good (he says that they "conceive of the family-resemblance concept of goodness as analyzable into a relatively small number of discrete forms of goodness, such as “the pleasant, the skilful, the useful or the healthy” (Baker & Hacker 2005: 171)") and for taking the "crudely expressive" nature of our very first uses of evaluative terms as being the crucial point to note about how we learn words like 'good'. I'm not sure that this second criticism is fair, given that the idea under attack seems to come from Wittgenstein himself. Stern is quite right to question it though. It is very clear that Wittgenstein thinks there is more to aesthetic appreciation than oohs and aahs (or boos and bahs). In fact, he seems to treat reactions of this kind as evidence of the absence of appreciation. And I suspect that, roughly speaking, his views on ethics are exactly the same as, or at least parallel to, his views on ethics. There is much more to be said about how we get from yummy! to appreciation, about the tremendous (because "One wouldn’t talk of appreciating the tremendous things in Art"), and about the significance of all this (its relevance to ethics, for instance). But that will have to wait.

One last point. Stern quotes Moore's notes on Wittgenstein's lectures again:

Supposing you say “good is a quality of human actions & events, & one can’t explain further what sort of quality”.
Then ask: How does one know whether an action or event has it?
(I don’t despise this question: it is connected with meaning, & way in which we learnt meaning.) 
Answer might be: Study the action, & you’ll find out; just as you might study a thing to find out whether it’s steel or not.
Now can I know the action in all its details, & not know whether it’s good or not? Is that it’s good one particular experience, like that it’s hard?
Suppose I studied all the movements involved in a murder, & also all the emotions. Is there a separate investigation, having studied the whole action, whether it’s good or not? (Wittgenstein, forthcoming: May 9, 1933).
Then Stern comments:
Wittgenstein clearly expected his audience to answer “No” to the question at the end of this passage. A few sentences earlier on, he had proposed that there would be no need for a separate investigation: “study the action, & you’ll find out”.
This proposal marks a radical departure from the position of the Tractatus and the Lecture on Ethics, where he had maintained that even if we had a book that contained a complete description of the world, including the movements of every body and all the states of mind of every person, “this book would contain nothing that we would call an ethical judgment or anything that would logically imply such a judgment”(LE 1993, 39; cf. TLP 6.41) 
It seems doubtful to me that Wittgenstein really meant that you could find out whether an act was good or not by studying it just as you might find out whether an object was made of steel by studying it. There are tests for that kind of thing in a way that there aren't for whether something is good. Whether an act is good is not to be determined by some separate investigation going beyond the movements and emotions involved, but neither is it to be determined simply by studying the action. If only because studying the action is not simple. See Anscombe's Intention or Wittgenstein on the difference between my arm's going up and my raising it. Actions are not just movements, nor movements plus emotions. If we want to judge an action then we need to know something like its meaning.

Right after this passage, Stern tells us, comes this:
Take “elasticity”.
If I want to find how elastic a rod is, I can imagine two ways: – (1) With a microscope I can see  the structure, & can say it is elastic. But do I mean this structure by “elastic”? I might.
But (2) I might investigate by pulling the rod, & seeing what happens.
This might be what I mean, & the structure only a symptom.
So with “good”. 
We might mean by “good” simply “action of this sort”… (Wittgenstein, forthcoming: May 9, 1933). 
Stern suggests that this looks like a complete break with the view of ethics found in the Tractatus and the Lecture on Ethics, but that this is a superficial view given the great changes in Wittgenstein's view of language now that he has the concept of family resemblance. I'm not so sure. For one thing, the idea of family resemblance is already there, in some form, in the Lecture on Ethics. For another, the Lecture on Ethics makes a big distinction between two uses of the word 'good', the relative and the absolute. Could this relate to the two uses of 'elastic' referred to in the passage above? The first use of 'elastic' refers to a matter of fact, much as the relative use of 'good' does. Is this rod elastic? Let me see. Is this a good way to get to Dorchester? Let me see. Same idea. The second use of 'elastic' is (confusingly) more relative: how easy is it to stretch and bend this rod? But this kind of question could also be viewed as being about the category to which the rod belongs. Does it belong with rubber bands, springs, etc., or with iron bars, wooden planks, and suchlike? This is a less cut and dried matter. When it comes to goodness, we might ask in a parallel fashion: does it belong with murder and theft, or with rescuing kittens from a burning building, giving alms, etc.? Deciding to what sort of actions something belongs is not really a scientific matter. It is not a question of fact (in the sense in which the Lecture on Ethics contrasts facts with ethics), that is, precisely because it calls for a decision.

In short, Moore's notes seem very well worth reading (Stern has co-edited them with Gabriel Citron and Brian Rogers), but I am not convinced (so far) that they contain any major break with Wittgenstein's views on ethics as they appear in the Lecture on Ethics.


  1. while you were on holiday:

    1. Thanks. I did see that, but missed a lot of the comments. Good to see you, praymont, j., and Michael Kremer weighing in.

  2. Thanks for the careful point-by-point response to my paper. I'll need to give it some thought. For the moment, I'd just like to make it clear that we are still in the midst of editing Moore's notes; our contract with Cambridge UP is for submission at the end of summer 2014, so if all goes according to plan, the book should be in print toward the end of 2015. Our co-authored paper on the editing project will be published online by the Norwegian Wittgenstein Review in November; meanwhile, the pre-publication version is available from my Academia.edu webpage:

    1. Thanks very much! I should say that I still need to read your paper again more carefully before I'll be fully confident in my response to it, and that I'm not at all sure what to make of Wittgenstein's comments on elasticity. What I say about them above is highly speculative.

      I am very much looking forward to seeing the book in print.