Thursday, September 3, 2015

Wittgenstein's lectures, 1932-33

Somehow these lecture notes had escaped my attention until recently, and here they are online. Just thought I'd share for anyone else in the same boat.

Some of Wittgenstein's ideas around this time (about the meaning of 'good') strike me as interestingly similar to, though not the same as, some of A. E. Taylor's. And it turns out that similarities between Taylor and Wittgenstein have been noted before (here and here, for instance). The whole blog (OMBHURBHUVA) looks worth reading.


  1. I'm reminded here of our discussion about the possibility of intrinsic goodness. Don't these notes of Wittgenstein's comments on goodness and beauty suggest that talk of the intrinsicness of goodness in a thing, an act, or a situation is misguided because it involves looking for some special sort of quality (whether in the natural world or in the conception we have of the thing being valued)? Here we have:

    "How can one know whether an action or event has the quality of goodness? And can one know the action in all of its details and not know whether it is good? That is, is its being good something that is independently experienced? Or does its being good follow from the thing's properties? If I want to know whether a rod is elastic I can find out by looking through a microscope to see the arrangement of its particles, the nature of their arrangement being a symptom of its elasticity, or inelasticity. Or I can test the rod empirically, e.g., see how far it can be pulled out. The question in ethics, about the goodness of an action, and in aesthetics, about the beauty of a face, is whether the characteristics of the action, the lines and colours of the face, are like the arrangement of particles: a symptom of goodness, or of beauty. Or do they constitute them? a cannot be a symptom of b unless there is a possible independent investigation of b. If no separate investigation is possible, then we mean by "beauty of face" a certain arrangement of colours and spaces. Now no arrangement is beautiful in itself. The word 'beauty' is used for a thousand different things. Beauty of face is different from that of flowers and animals. That one is playing utterly different games is evident from the difference that emerges in the discussion of each. We can only ascertain the meaning of the word 'beauty' by seeing how we use it."

    If no arrangement is beautiful in itself or, for that matter, good in itself, then doesn't that amount to a rejection of the possibility of intrinsic goodness being found in some things?

    1. I think it depends what you mean by 'intrinsic goodness.' This is a dense passage that is hard to unpack, but I take him to be saying that the (relevant) characteristics of a good or beautiful thing are either symptoms of goodness/beauty, in which case that goodness/beauty could be identified independently of those symptoms, or else these characteristics constitute the things goodness/beauty. The idea of identifying an object's beauty independently of its characteristics seems either absurd or empty. In ethics consequentialists might happily say that this is how to identify an action's goodness, but Wittgenstein was not endorsing consequentialism (and might well not have counted it even as a kind of ethics). So I think he is actually much more on the side that says a thing's beauty/goodness is constituted by its relevant characteristics, including their arrangement.

      But if no arrangement is beautiful in itself then how can this be? The answer, I take it, is that the arrangement that makes a face beautiful will not also make a flower beautiful. If RGIII throws a beautiful long spiraling pass it does not follow that I will be more beautiful if I become long and spiraling.

      So no part or set of parts or arrangement is beautiful in itself, hence no intrinsic beauty in that sense. But the beauty of a face is purely a matter of the arrangement of the various features of that face, so it is intrinsic to the face in this sense. That's my take, anyway.

    2. my pragmatist's take it to read this in terms of being good for us, as users/appreciators/etc, and not in some meta-physical way not as a kind of object-oriented-ontology or a 'natural' theology or such, good in relation to our particular uses of it. may not be what he meant but better for my purposes.

    3. I like that approach, good (or beautiful) is that insofar as it stands in relation to us. Assertions of goodness or beauty are characteristic of that relation as determined by whatever particular facts are the case for any object judged good or beautiful (different for every object, depending on how its features tend to affect us, the valuers). But they are not the name of the relation itself.

      The terms are used, I think, to declare the relation, to say to others (or ourselves in certain situation) that X has something (or some things) about it (which will vary from X to X) which is also a reason to choose that X in certain circumstances, all things being equal.

      Lots of caveats there, of course, but the point is that speaking of goodness becomes a way of announcing the relationship, of informing others of its existence.

      If I say 'that's a good book' or a 'a good road to take' or 'a good hammer to buy' or 'a good way to behave' it would be very strange, indeed, if I could not then go on to give some reasons for my calling it thus, for recommending its selection. And those reasons will be facts about it which provide something the target of our words would have a reason to want.

      A good book is one that may give pleasure (in various ways, of course, depending on the sort of pleasure sought) or educate its readers (assuming education is desired), etc. A good book which offers none of these can hardly be good and no one would take me seriously if I said 'well I just think it's good but have no idea why I think so'. They would take me for failing to be sufficiently clear or articulate or for using the word strangely.

      Words like "good" and "beautiful" seem to name things of course but we know (at least since Wittgenstein) that not all words do what they seem to do or exclusively do it. In fact, in the case of a word like "good" we think that expressing the term in the right circumstances is part of that relation between valuer and valued which the use of "good" announces, i.e., when we think something good, it follows that we will act to obtain or pursue it in appropriate circumstances, and that we will call it that (or some equivalent) and will recommend it to others in the same circumstances. If we don't, our characterization of its goodness will seem misplaced. Perhaps we don't really know how the word is used.

      But if all I mean by "X is good" is something like "there's something about X which is also a reason to choose it," then it seems to me it can never make sense to think anything is intrinsically that if "intrinsic" means it is always a part of the thing, in every conceivable circumstance in which the thing occurs. But anything we can think of as good might be something whose selection we reject or think we have reason to reject. And if that's so, where is the intrinsic goodness?

      Of course, we can argue that we humans are just made in a certain way such that there are some things we will always find good (survival? comfort? satisfaction of our needs?) but it turns out that even this isn't universal among all humans. Ascetics may flagellate or otherwise deprive themselves of every comfort and think that good while many humans have committed suicide (or just sacrificed their lives for others), thinking their death the better choice. If we expand the notion of satisfaction or happiness perhaps we can say 'well that's what makes them happy or satisfies them' but then the notion is so broad that it hardly seems like much of a guide for human behavior. It becomes a maxim like do whatever you want, which surely can't provide a moral guide.

    4. It seems to me that the notion of intrinsic goodness is a non-starter, even though we do have a use for the idea of intrinsicness in cases of relative instrumental claims of goodness (for anything to be instrumentally good it must get us something that is good in itself, at least in relation to the instrument of acquisition). But extending the notion of intrinsicness to the idea of moral goodness strikes me as a mistake and I see some support for this in the text cited above.

      The notion of intrinsicness just doesn't get us any closer to an understanding of what makes some things we do (or might do) morally good and what makes them not good in this moral sense.

    5. If I say 'that's a good book' or a 'a good road to take' or 'a good hammer to buy' or 'a good way to behave' it would be very strange, indeed, if I could not then go on to give some reasons for my calling it thus, for recommending its selection. And those reasons will be facts about it which provide something the target of our words would have a reason to want.

      Yes, but less strange in some cases than others. If I say a book is good but then can't say why that is fairly normal: "I just liked it." If I say a road is good but can't say why (it's quicker, it's got great views, it's the only one that goes where you're going, etc.) that would be really strange. In the lecture on ethics Wittgenstein distinguishes between these two kinds of case, and I think he probably kept that distinction in mind in later years too. If I say someone's face is beautiful I might really struggle to say why, and if I do say why it will be something about the strength of the chin or the sparkle of the eyes or the height of the cheekbones or, to use Wittgenstein's suggestion, something about the proportion or relation of various features. But why should anyone care? What's so great about sparkling eyes or a high forehead? Still, these are the kinds of things that explain what is so beautiful about a given face. It's an explanation in the sense that it removes mystery (in some cases, for some people), not in the sense that it makes sense in utilitarian terms. For better or worse, this is how Wittgenstein seems to have thought about both ethics and aesthetics. And his goal is simply description of how we judge. He isn't recommending his view to others, or attempting a critique of utilitarianism, say. He simply thinks that this is how most of us understand goodness and beauty.

    6. right it not about simply listing an attribute or two and the whole gestalt may as you say escape easy explication, something like familial-resemblances but also like feel as in the feel of a good fly-rod or a tennis racket won't be the same for all people and or settings/uses.

    7. If I say of the book, 'well, I liked it,' it would be strange if I couldn't then say why, if pressed for more. If I was really at a loss to put my finger on something specific (which is possible), I'd probably say something like 'it really moved me, made me think, made me cry, made me laugh, etc.' even if I couldn't say much more beyond that. At some point my capacity to explain just simply comes to a halt but that doesn't mean there wasn't or isn't more to say. I just ran out of steam in my own reply.

      Implicit in this (if my calling the book "good" is directed at an interlocutor) is that the book will do for my interlocutor something very much like what it did for me, if he or she comes to it as I did. And implicit in that is the assumption that we are similar creatures, likely to be affected in similar ways.

      I wouldn't, of course, tell someone who couldn't understand the book in question because of some mental deficiency that it's good, of course. There'd be no point. Speaking of "good" is just to say "I liked it and you would, too, if you read it" but the interlocutor in this case could never follow up on my suggestion in any case.

      Sometimes liking something is reason enough to want it though, but obviously it wouldn't be so in every case. I like whipped cream and butter but generally shun the stuff because of cholesterol concerns. Goodness isn't best understood as a quality a thing has, I would say, but as a state in which the thing exists, i.e., that it stands in a certain relation to me, the valuer, or to my interlocutor, because of certain natural features it has and their affect on the desires, needs and wants I have. My needs and wants are as much part of the natural world as much as the features of the thing we call "good" which we think make that thing good.

      What's important is what this says about the idea of moral goodness though, since it's in the moral realm that we seem to run into trouble making the leap from liking and preferring as good-making features to the establishment and acceptance of standards of behavior on the moral paradigm. It can never be enough to say a standard of behavior is that just because we happen to prefer it to some other standard and that's where this question of intrinsic goodness pops up. We want to say that no instrumental considerations (a thing is good because it leads to satisfaction of some other desire or preference we have) can undermine the goodness or badness of certain kinds of behaviors. It's never right to suppose we should treat others well for what it can get us because this allows ill treatment if the calculus favors satisfying outcomes for us at the expense of the other's interests. But looking for the intrinsic goodness or badness doesn't resolve this if there is nothing to be picked out. And I that is the case with intrinsicness if by "good" all we mean is the state or condition in which a thing stands in relation to ourselves. Yet that is what I take the passage above to be suggesting.

    8. if asked why i love my wife i could give some of her fine attributes but that wouldn't be anything like a comprehensive or scientific answer, the danger, if you will, is to than take the leap that because I can't produce such a causal account that somehow it than is a matter beyond physics (calling for meta-physics) and that there exists some force/quality/etc that is Beauty or Love or Justice or such as opposed to the truth which is that these are just gestures-towards/shorthands-for the assemblages of complexes that actually are at work but defy our attempts to collect/frame them, see the bad Process theo-logical sorts of reification going on over @ DR's other blog:

    9. In giving your wife's attributes in answer to the question of why you love her, you are reporting the things you love about her (things you already value as it were). That's certainly a kind of answer though it doesn't really explain what it is to have feelings of love for her or to love anything at all. You could, of course, answer by saying that you are so constituted, as a human being, as to have feelings of love and that it happens that your wife is the person who excites such feelings in you. Or you might describe the factors in your particular mental life, your current psychology, that prompt you to have the feelings we associate with love for her. Or you could offer some particular incident from your past (the first time you met her and felt those feelings?) as the reason you love her.

      All would be good answers, I think, depending on the kind of question being posed. I gather you're taking loving to be a kind of valuing (which, in a sense, it is). But valuing isn't just having feelings of affinity like love (though valuing surely requires something of the sort at some level). Nor do I think making a case for having such feelings is accomplished just by saying why they occur in us, whether we give a biological or psychological account.

      To support a claim of value, I think, we must give reasons for choosing X over non-X. Explaining why we value something, in the sense in which the moral question is posed, isn't answered by just reporting that we do value something.

      The moral paradigm (which is, admittedly, a sub-class of all valuing) involves claims that some things, some actions (and perhaps some feelings associated with those actions), are what we ought to have (or do). We don't ordinarily say 'you ought to love your wife' (in the romantic sense of "love" that is) for we either love or we don't (though, if we've taken someone as a spouse, which involves attestations of love in our society, then there is a moral case to be made that we ought to love her, even if we don't or don't any longer, just because taking a spouse in our culture is done by making certain attestations and there's a moral case to be made that we ought to be true to our attestations, etc.

      I think we must make a distinction between affinity (in all its variations) and valuing per se because sometimes we find that we value what we have no particular affinity -- for or disvalue what we do. Valuing is a step beyond mere attraction/repulsion, for non-rational animals have this but we wouldn't say they have values or can value. A dog may want desperately to go for a walk but we would hardly say it values going for a walk for it has no concept of taking walks at all.

      Valuing, I think, can only be understood in conjunction with the kind of cognition creatures like ourselves have, that is it seems to demand an ability to think conceptually. This might argue for the possibility of some things having intrinsic goodness, i.e., that the fact of their being treated as good by us is built into the very way we think about them, the connections they have with other things we think. But I would argue that even that is a mistake for no valued thing can be that, absent a valuer and valuers, while they may have certain built-in affinities, need not have them in ever case. It's just a contingent fact that we humans are constituted with the needs and wants and desires that we are.

    10. unless someone is challenging my statements I don't see why this would come into play : "To support a claim of value, I think, we must give reasons for choosing X over non-X
      but to the rest yes Good, Beautiful, etc for us (human-beings) and not in and of themselves.

    11. If I say of the book, 'well, I liked it,' it would be strange if I couldn't then say why, if pressed for more.

      I suppose so. But would it be strange if I said this of a view, or a piece of candy, or the second season of True Detective? Some examples: most days for the last few months I have passed by a construction site that includes a new road curving up a hill. Every time I walk by it I am tempted to photograph this road. But I can't say much about why, except that I like the curve of the road (and, I have discovered, liked it much more when it was just gray stone and not blacktop). Occasionally I eat a new (to me) kind of candy, often with a strange flavor (sour, say). Could I say why I did or did not like any of these? And there are tv series and books that I find satisfying without thinking they are really good, and I would struggle to say what I like about them. Why do people like police procedurals? Something about the procedure probably, but what? I could try to say, but I wouldn't have much confidence in my answer. It would be a hypothesis.

      Implicit in this (if my calling the book "good" is directed at an interlocutor) is that the book will do for my interlocutor something very much like what it did for me

      Sometimes, certainly. But I might mean that it is a good instance of its kind while knowing that my interlocutor is unlikely to like that kind of thing. Or I might simply mean that I like it, and know that not everyone will share my taste.

    12. I'd say that use of words like "good" signal that we think a particular relation exists between the thing we call good and ourselves (and, by extension, other selves who speak and think as we do). But what constitutes that relation? It's nothing magic or non-natural, just the fact that certain things about the object prompt our attraction to it (or, if "bad," our aversion). That is, things don't only exist for us representationally (relative to other things we can connect them with) but valuationally (in relation to ourselves). Without the possibility of valuing we could no more operate in the world at our cognitive level than without representation -- the ability to picture and deploy concepts of things via words. It's not only representing words that has content.

      A word like "good" gets its content not because it picks out and represents (stands for) something in the world, the way natural kind and descriptive words do, but because it announces a relation between the subject with desires and needs, on the one hand, and the stuff the subject can represent linguistically as desirable, needed, etc.

      It's not that "good" just expresses our feelings (or projects them onto things which would not otherwise have such coloration) as the non-cognitivists would have it, but that the word determines, by publication (telling others and sometimes just ourselves), what relation X stands in with regard to ourselves. Is it wanted or rejected and how does it fit into other things we want or reject?

      Thus "good" has cognitive content on a different model than the representational content words about the things in the world have. "Good" works somewhat like "here" or "there," for these have content, too, only their content is entirely context-dependent on the physical location of the speaker and the hearer. They announce the relation between some X and the speaker in spatial terms. "Good's" content is determined by the facts about X and about subject Y's orientation (in terms of what he or she is likely to do) to X. Its content consists in the fact that it names the state or condition in which X stands relative to the speaker. And that relational condition is determined by the impact of the observable facts about X on the speaker (in terms of his, her or its mental life, i.e., his feelings of need, want, and so forth). [continued below]


    13. If the thing has features which are likely to satisfy the sense of need in the subject and the subject recognizes that it has these, then it is good for that subject and for any others like him.

      While we may not always be able to articulate what makes X good, there's no reason we should be able to do that in all cases. The fact that we do recognize some good-making feature(s) in X is enough, even if we are tongue-tied about it or are merely insufficiently articulate or the matter is fuzzy.

      There are many cases when we feel positively or negatively towards some X but can't say why. Being able to actually articulate what makes us treat X as good isn't as important as being able to do so in principle, i.e., to do so if we were sufficiently clear on the matter, if we had enough knowledge, etc.

      Being good of a kind ('it's a great mystery novel even though I hate mysteries!') is a reason to choose something, too, i.e., 'if you like mystery novels, this is a good one to read.' The same applies to treating one's personal preference as "good."

      I like sushi; my wife doesn't and when I say sushi is really good, she often snaps back: 'you're just confusing what you like with what you expect others to like.' I think that's wrong though and always try to remind her that what I'm saying is that I like sushi and that that's reason enough for me to eat it. There's no requirement that she do so.

      Of course I might urge someone else to try it by saying something like 'sush's,s really good, you'll enjoy it' and then maybe they will or they won't. Sushi's still good by my lights though, whether they render a positive or negative verdict.

      But if their verdict is negative, then obviously they lack the reason to eat it that I have. The assertion of its goodness goes beyond merely expressing my food preference. It informs my interlocutor(s) that I believe I have a reason to choose sushi for my supper (unless my wife insists on going to the local Mexican place)!

  2. Thanks Duncan,
    Coincidentally yesterday I came across his Lectures on Religion in which I discerned the shade of Richard Whately. Another book from ‘Ludwig’s Secret Library’! A short post.

  3. "The question in ethics, about the goodness of an action, and in aesthetics, about the beauty of a face, is whether the characteristics of the action, the lines and colours of the face, are like the arrangement of particles: a symptom of goodness, or of beauty. Or do they constitute them?"

    Here is the crux: If the characteristics of things evaluated are "symptoms" of the goodness, then goodness is something other than those characteristics which cause the symptoms and we want to know what is it that makes them good. Wittgenstein rejects "arrangement" as being, itself good or beautiful. But neither is it something occurring alongside the features of a thing (properties or qualities).

    The error seems to lie in looking for a property or quality or feature at all, as Moore did. Why should we suppose goodness is in the thing we call "good"? Is hereness in the place we point to?

    In the case of both goodness and beauty we seem to be looking for something attached, in some fashion, to the thing which we call good or beautiful. But "good" and "beautiful" operate more like "here" and "there" which don't denote any particular place but only one in relation to the speaker (and his/her interlocutor). They announce a relation between some place and some speaker(s).

    Similarly value terms like "good" and "beautiful" announce a relation between speakers and things in terms of the speaker's propensity to act with regard to those things. Calling a thing "good" is no more than to report that one believes one has (or that one's interlocutor has) a reason to to do/acquire/pursue the thing. Having a reason to act is the relation-making condition just as physical location in relation to a speaker is the relation-making condition for being here and not there.

    Just as we don't deny the cognitive content of a word like "here," whose meaning is entirely relative and shifts with the moment and the speakers so we have no reason to deny cognitive content to "good" merely because it doesn't designate a property or quality in the thing we call "good" whether natural or non-natural.

    Instead of properties or qualities we should be thinking in terms of the state or status of the thing. Calling it "good" is just to report a relation of reasonableness in selecting it (though the reasons will vary depending on the type of thing and its features and our reactions to those features).

    But if we aren't to look for some property or quality in the thing itself then there is nothing that can be there intrinsically. Being good is not intrinsic to the thing but entirely dependent on the contingencies of how we're made and what the target things have as features that affect us.

    1. Although, as you say, there often is something about a thing that makes it (at least allegedly) good. It is the job of a critic to identify what this is. In some cases it might be impossible to say more than, say, "It's sweet, and I like sweet things," but in other cases there will be much more to be said about what makes a certain novel, or whatever, so good. These qualities won't include something called "goodness" but they might, I would think, be intrinsic to the work nonetheless. The characters and plot belong to the novel, after all. It's true, of course, that even the best novel will be no use without readers. But if I call a novel good am I talking about these readers rather than solely about its plot, characters, etc.?

      (By the way, I'm heading out of town for a couple of days so this will probably be my last comment for a while.)

    2. I agree they won't include an extra quality of goodness nor would any of the primary natural qualities have qualities of their own, one of which would be goodness. Could they be "intrinsic"? I think we'd need to say what the term means here. If we mean something like they are an essential part of the thing in question, that is, you could not have that thing or the same thing,without that particular part, then I would think of that as "intrinsic." But if there is no quality that counts as goodness per se, then we cannot imagine the thing not being itself without it because the goodness isn't part of the thing at all. That's my point about applying a different paradigm, of thinking of goodness as a state or condition in which a thing stands, relative to something else (in this case us), rather than as some thing that another thing has.

      Things we can distinguish as things always have other things about them, can always be explained in other terms, as in 'this is what I mean by this.' But goodness isn't that sort of thing. It's purely relational and, if so, it cannot be intrinsic in the sense in which a certain tone or style or plot is thought to be intrinsic to a particular novel, or mass and extension are intrinsic to a baseball.

      Supposing that a thing is good does not imply that we aren't talking about natural features it has. It only means that we're talking about them relationally. The relation I have in mind here is the connection of the thing to the speaker in terms of his or her dispositions to act, i.e., as providing reasons to act.

      Have fun then. In truth I missed the exchanges we used to have here since you moved over to Percolations. So I was kind of glad when you posted the Wittgenstein notes. I've worked up a more thorough response to the intrinsic question they suggest to me over on Sean's blog by the way. Meanwhile enjoy.

    3. Thanks. If I'd known posting this link would generate such a response I probably would have posted it over at philpercs. Oh well. I'm still working out what belongs where.

      I'll have to think about the relationality idea some more.

    4. DR you should re-post it for that crowd,

    5. You might be right. I'll probably wait till I have something more to say about it though.

    6. Yes, it'd be interesting to get your take Duncan, especially on the passage which poses the question of where the good we see in a thing is to be found.


  5. For some odd contingent reason, these lecture notes were among the very things that I read of Wittgenstein, at least before I read the Investigations. One thing, wihich is interesting in them is the clear articulation of the tension between reasons and causes that would later become vital in the context of Davidson's Actions, Reasons and Causes (and Sellarsian lines of thought related to the space of reasons):

    "There are two senses of "reason": reason for, and cause. These are two different orders of things. One needs to decide on a criterion for something's being a reason before reason and cause can be distinguished. Reasoning is the calculation actually done, and a reason goes back one step in the calculus. A reason is a reason only inside the game. To give a reason is to go through a process of calculation, and to ask for a reason is to ask how one arrived at the result. The chain of reasons comes to an end, that is, one cannot always give a reason for a reason. But this does not make the reasoning less valid. The answer to the question, Why are you frightened?, involves a hypothesis if a cause is given. But there is no hypothetical element in a calculation."

    PS: I don't mean say that Wittgenstein is the first to point out the difference between reasons and causes; Socrates makes it a point of it Phaedo 99d1. Yet there something in his clear way handling the distinction in these notes that anticipates later 20th century treatment of this topic, especially with the philosophy of action...

    1. Yes, it's very important. And it's this distinction that Anscombe (in Intention) and Winch (in The Idea of a Social Science) take up. It seems to have been dropped again, though, at least in some quarters.