Thursday, August 15, 2013

Facts versus values

My last post talked about a distinction that Wittgenstein makes between the scientific, practical attitude and the ethical, wondering attitude. He might value the former, but he certainly values the latter. When he says that human beings have to awaken to wonder, though, it seems clear from the context that he does not mean this as a moral imperative--the point is rather that we don't start out wondering at things like birth, sickness, death, madness, catalepsy, sleep, and dreams because they are such everyday occurrences. Animals don't wonder at these things, and there is no reason to suppose that our primitive ancestors must have either. Wondering or marveling at phenomena like these requires an awakening. But having said this, it is also fairly clear that he regards such an awakening as a good thing. And science, he says, has the opposite effect. I don't think he's anti-science, though, so much as he is against a certain kind of attitude common in contemporary science (according to him). This is a debunking, demystifying, reductive attitude. Not that he supports bunk or mystification. Rather, I think, he opposes the combination of arrogance and disappointment that comes from the project of deflating the universe. The best way to do science is with wonder, not in a spirit of opposition to it. And wonder does not mean superstition or myth-making, of course.

In a way, then, the two attitudes have to be fused. Or Wittgenstein wants them to be fused. But it is less a matter of mixing the two together than of injecting the spirit of wonder into the practical work of science, of discovering facts and exploring the world. Infusing rather than fusing, then. 

He also distinguishes two kinds of language or use of language, the factual and the ethical. But the former is the only one that actually makes sense, he argues, so really we don't have two kinds of language at all. There is only the distinction between sense and nonsense. And of course he is not in favor of talking nonsense. So there is no question of fusion or infusion here. We either talk (sense) or we don't.

The suggestion I wanted to make was that the realization that ethical talk is actually nonsense might lead us to avoid it and stick to factual language, i.e. language that actually makes sense, and that, far from meaning an abandonment of ethics and everything 'higher', this might be the saving of ethics and of us. Because there would be nowhere for all those feelings (attitudes, beliefs, whatever you want to call them) to go except into our practical work and its language. The fact/value distinction takes value out of the world, so it is good to reject it. And by rejecting all talk of value we reject that distinction.

One problem with this suggestion is where to draw the line between facts and values. Anscombe suggests dropping talk of what is morally right and wrong, etc., in favor of talking about virtues such as injustice. But is "Capital punishment is unjust" a statement of fact or of value? It looks like a value judgement. Are we to stop saying things like this? And what about a claim such as "Water-boarding is not torture"? It looks like (a claim to be stating) a fact, but doesn't it contain a value component?

I think any appearance of a problem here is an illusion. Because Wittgenstein's distinction is really between sense and nonsense. The essence of what he calls the ethical is the desire to go beyond significant language. So the question to ask is always simply, "Does this make sense?" If we can say what it means then it is OK. If not, not. Forget about questions of value, explicit or implicit. Look for meaning in concrete, practical terms, i.e. not "cosmic meaning" or "higher meaning" but ordinary, everyday meaning. As long as you have that then, so far as Wittgenstein (or the person I am describing here) has a test, you have passed it. He might look like a naturalist or a realist, and in some ways he is, but he is not looking to reduce anything to anything else, and his spirit or purpose is not one of disenchantment but of a kind of perfectly honest enchantment. He wants, as it were, to get the value back into facts, back into what we acknowledge as the world.


  1. Is what you are saying, then, that factual language has all the ethics we need in it already?

    If so, then what do you make of this, at least apparent, difference: Suppose someone asks me how many books I have on my shelf, to decide how many boxes I need to pack my office, and I say "I have five." Compare this to looking at the toes of a newborn and counting them and saying "She has five."

    This is not a difference between factual and ethical, but it seems to me that the wonder is there in the second case, and it is not there in the first. At least to me it feels that there is a deep difference of grammar, or a of point, between the two utterances.

    Is Wittgenstein recommending that we say everything in the second full-of-wonder kind of way? And if not, is there a room here for a distinction?

  2. Yes, I see a big difference between the two. And I don't think Wittgenstein thinks we should say everything in a full-of-wonder kind of way. (I'm not sure that would be possible, but perhaps that's beside the point.) The important thing for what I want to say is that in the toe-counting case there is no nonsense, and no special vocabulary. It isn't needed.

    1. So, to say something with an ethical intention is to say something that uses normal vocabulary, but uses it in a way that somehow charges it with special meaning?

      Also, what would make a sentence nonsense: (1) the vocabulary it uses, or (2) the intention (or lack thereof) with which the vocabulary is used, or (3) something else?

      Part of what I'm not sure I understand--if that's what you mean--is how there might be logical room for using the same words with a different, ethical, intention.

    2. I think I'm going to have to do a whole post to try to start getting clear on these questions. Stay tuned (if you want to). In the meantime: thanks.

    3. This is all very interesting. Thanks.

  3. I find it difficult to follow what you are doing with Wittgenstein here. In the "Lecture," Wittgenstein takes the position that only factual statements have sense and that all ethical statements--or, as he puts it, all statements that are "absolutely" rather than merely "relatively" evaluative--are non-factual and therefore non-sensical. In your initial formulation, your "suggestion" is that "the realization that ethical talk is actually nonsense might lead us to avoid it and stick to factual language." This seems to be congruent with Wittgenstein's position in the lecture.

    But then you consider certain examples that raise difficulties for the assumption that statements can be classified as "factual" or as "evaluative" ("absolutely evaluative," in Wittgenstein's terms). You respond by brushing aside "any appearance of a problem" here as "illusion," "because Wittgenstein's distinction is really between sense and nonsense." So it doesn't matter whether a statement counts as "factual" or "ethical": what matters is whether it makes sense or does not.

    But I don't see that Wittgenstein's distinction is "really" between sense and nonsense, because he operates with two distinctions, one between sense and nonsense and one between factual and ethical; that he does not hold the two distinctions to be equivalent; and that he presents an argument for holding that ethical (or, more specifically, absolutely evaluative) statements are all nonsensical. (Note that it does not follow that all nonsensical statements are ethical.) The argument, considered schematically, seems to me to go like this:

    (1) Only factual utterances make sense.

    (2) For an utterance to be ethical, it must compel anyone who understands it either to act in accordance with it or to feel ashamed of not doing so.

    (3) But no factual utterance has this power.

    (4) Therefore, no ethical utterance is factual. (From (2) and (3))

    (5) Therefore, no ethical utterance makes sense. (From (1) and (4))

    You seem to be granting (1) but not (4) and (5); so you much reject (2), (3), or both. Step (2) seems to me the most plausible of the three premises, at least if we allow ourselves some lattitude in how to formulate it. The essential idea here is that what marks a statement as ethical is that it provides by itself compelling reason to adopt the way of acting that it puts forward. (Someone could object here that there are lots of ethical statements that fail to do this, e.g., the statement that apostates from Islam deserve death cuts no ice with non-Muslims (to say nothing of dissenting Muslims); but I think that Wittgenstein could treat such statements as false ethical statements--false not in the sense of being factually untrue, but in the sense of being bogus: they sound like ethical statements but they are not.) In terms of today's philosophical ethics, Wittgenstein seems to be taking the position of internalism here. If, as I suspect, you are not contesting that position, then you must be rejecting (3), the premise that no factual statement can give one compelling reason to act. E.g., "Waterboarding is torture" gives one compelling reason not to use waterboarding (which is not to deny that there are what Anscombe would term "corrupt minds" who think otherwise).

    That seems to me a perfectly defensible position in its own right, but it is a long way from Wittgenstein's position in the "Lecture."

    1. It's true that Wittgenstein makes the two distinctions you describe. I say that really there is only one because of this: I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language.

      You're right that this does not make all nonsense ethical, but it does mean that "the ethical" is not some kind of language that can really be contrasted with the factual. What we might have wanted to call ethical language is in fact nonsense.

      This does not mean, though, that everything that anybody might think of as ethical language is nonsense. It's specifically language that looks like simile but where the "simile" cannot be stated literally that Wittgenstein is talking about. More broadly, it's using words in ways such that their meaning cannot be explained. It seems reasonable to call such uses nonsense, even if we might want to say that some of them are uses of words in a secondary sense. Should we avoid this kind of use? I'm not sure we can avoid it completely, but it doesn't seem like something to seek out. That is, I can't think of a good reason to try to use words in a secondary sense. But if it's your only option then I have no objection. As you say, my suggestion was that we might try to avoid nonsensical ethical talk. And that this might be a good thing. But perhaps some such talk cannot be avoided. Perhaps it's even a good thing.

      By the way, facts can give one compelling reason to act. If you do x then ten children will be killed is a compelling reason not to do x. But it isn't absolutely compelling in Wittgenstein's sense.

      Sorry this is not as clear or as seamlessly connected as we all might want. I'm thinking as I write, which is not ideal, but I don't want to leave your comment unanswered. I don't think I'm all that far from the Lecture on Ethics, but I am not confining myself to what Wittgenstein says there either. I also have the remarks about Renan and wonder in mind, for instance.