Tuesday, November 1, 2016

More on clarity

After attending a very useful workshop on Wittgenstein this weekend I've added some stuff to the paper I've been working on about the value of clarity:
What does all this have to do with Wittgenstein? Perhaps not very much. I believe that he would have been sympathetic to what I have said here, but it is too prescriptive and too unrelated to problems of specifically philosophical confusion to qualify as what he would likely count as philosophy. This does not make it any the less true, however. And noting the ethical difference between someone like Galtung and Orwell is, it seems to me, Wittgensteinian in spirit. Wittgenstein wrote in his diary (in 1931) that Kierkegaard teases and tricks his readers into doing what Kierkegaard wants them to do. So far as this is something important it is good that people are made to do it. But even so, it is “unpleasant” to trick people in this way, Wittgenstein writes. Using such a trick is a bold move, he suggests, but “would also take a lack of love of one’s fellow human being.” It is this love that seems to be missing from the manipulative (though possibly beneficial) consequentialist ethic of communication that I have tried to identify and distinguish from a more Wittgensteinian one here.
This consequentialist form of communication is not simply bullshit, although that is a related notion. Harry Frankfurt discusses an anecdote involving Wittgenstein in his (very) short book On Bullshit. Frankfurt focuses on Wittgenstein’s reported disgust at Fania Pascal’s description of herself as feeling like a dog that has been run over. If the story is true, Frankfurt suggests, then what Wittgenstein is most likely to have objected to is Pascal’s failure even to try to describe her feelings accurately. She does not know what a run-over dog feels like, so her use of this analogy reveals her to be more concerned with entertainment or showing off than with reality. A lack of interest in truth, in external constraints on what one might say, belongs to the very essence of bullshit, according to Frankfurt.
The phenomenon that I have focused on here might be regarded as well-intentioned bullshit, but it is not quite that. Galtung is not unconcerned with the truth. What he is not concerned about is conceptual accuracy—perhaps because he would question the very idea of such a thing—or conceptual clarity—because he regards other things as more important. He does, or at least might, care about what we say and whether it is true or not. But he does not care very much about whether the way we say it results in what he calls semantic confusion. A Frankfurtian bullshitter cares neither about confusion of meaning nor about confusion of facts. Nor does he care about truth and falsity. He is trying to get away with something, and will use whatever means are necessary to do so. Galtung is trying to promote peace, which I would not really call trying to get away with something. But his chosen means involves acceptance of a certain amount of collateral semantic damage. It is the bullshitty aspect of this that Wittgenstein and others would find objectionable.


  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vl6y9QNBvDY

  2. I don't think that Kierkegaard was being tricky he just realized that people don't generally come to such
    real-izations thru straight-talk/reasoning. does Wittgenstein ever discuss Original Sin?


    1. I don't have a very clear idea of what Wittgenstein is saying about Kierkegaard in this passage, and he expresses doubts as he goes along. Wittgenstein himself seems to support indirect communication, but I guess he's concerned with how exactly to go about it. He doesn't want to anything too tricky. That, I think, is his point more than anything about Kierkegaard.

      I'm sure he mentions original sin here and there, but no extended discussion comes to mind.