Friday, April 21, 2017

Friedlander II

Having said I was considering a series of posts on Eli Freidlander's "Missing a Step Up the Ladder," I find that I have little I want to say beyond recommending the paper. I might do one more post on it, but this looks like being a short series. Here is one more passage that I don't understand though:
The ethical will is the actualization of the capacity for being in agreement with the world. This is not an agreement with what you represent to yourself to be essential to life. For such an agreement is understood through the primacy of ends, and the highest reality cannot be represented as an end I strive for—it is manifest as a limit I recognize. One could then say that “seeing the world aright” or simple and sober clarity of vision is the ethical imperative. Acting right is being in agreement with what has the highest reality, acting wrongly is letting yourself remain unclear, one might say unrealistic. What Wittgenstein calls in the Notebooks the voice of “conscience” arises out of a sense of non-being in my existence in meaning. This is also why ethics is so closely related to the question of nonsense in language.
The part I find especially difficult is the part I have put in bold. It might be impossible to understand this without reading the whole paper, which I should probably do again, but if anyone has any other suggestions I'd be grateful.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Wiggling chairs

I loved reading Eli Friedlander's "Missing a Step Up the Laddeer" (which I'm sure was open access when I got it, but which doesn't seem to be any longer). I might do a series of posts on it (cue nothing at all for three weeks followed by a "what I saw on TV last night" post instead).

Having said that I like the paper, there are some bits of it that I don't get. Perhaps blogging about them will help me understand.

For instance, on pp. 58-59 Friedlander says:
I can will to move my hand, but I cannot in the same sense will the chair to move. My act of will, I would like to say, cannot connect directly to the chair. I can only move my body which is the one to move the chair. But Wittgenstein asks himself what would it be like to find out that something is essentially not in the scope of my will. For this negation to make sense, one must be able to conceive of the possibility of trying to will such-and-such and not being able to do so. Someone asked, for instance, to try to will the chair to move, might concentrate on the chair intensely, fasten his gaze on it, narrow his eyes, and express determination. But would this count as trying to will the chair to move and finding out that it is the kind of thing that does not obey the will? There is no trying and discovering that the chair is out of the range of my will. It would be as nonsensical as trying to find out whether sounds can be colored.
The first sentence sounds plausible enough. Actually, I'm not sure that I can will to move my hand in any different sense than that in which I can will to move a chair by psychic means. I can, though, move my hand or, if it is restrained or paralyzed, try to move it. I cannot move a chair in the same way. Nor can I try to move a chair in the same way or the same sense. A doctor might ask me to wiggle first one hand then the other, and perhaps also ask me to wiggle each foot in turn to test for something or other. But if she then said, "Now wiggle the chair" she would either be kidding or else using 'wiggle' in some other sense, one that involves moving over to the chair and applying physical force to it. That's what I take the first part of this quoted passage to be getting at.

But the experiment with psychic powers seems perfectly intelligible to me. The chair won't move, of course. Telekinesis is not possible. Still, denying (or affirming) its possibility makes sense in a way that denying or affirming that sounds can be colored does not. Doesn't it? A magician might, after all, seem to move physical objects through sheer mental power, while no magician could ever even seem to color sounds. Doing so is unimaginable because the idea is unintelligible--the words make no sense (and 'because' here just means '=').

It's a minor point, if I'm right, but a) it's good to be right, and b) I wonder whether I'm missing something. Is attempting to use psychic powers that I know I haven't got really intelligible? Does my thinking that it is reveal some level of superstition on my part, a refusal or failure to rule out completely the possibility that people might have psychic powers? Is it like, or related to, the following question of the rationality of buying lottery tickets? It is often said that it is irrational to buy lottery tickets because the chances of winning are so small, but if you get a dollar's worth of pleasure from buying the ticket then it is rational to pay a dollar for a ticket. But then you only get that pleasure because you imagine that you might win, which is irrational of you. If you really comprehend the smallness of the odds of winning then having a ticket would give you no pleasure at all. And if you really understood how the world works, perhaps the very idea of psychic powers would seem not just false but nonsensical to you. The words 'psychic powers' (and others of the same kind) would be completely withdrawn from circulation in your conceptual economy.

That doesn't seem right though. My not thinking about, or even slightly believing in, psychic powers doesn't mean that these words have no meaning. And 'meaning for me' is not really a thing. "Those words have no meaning for me" just means I don't use those words. Or that's how it seems to me, anyway.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The big sky

video

I'm only now getting around to reading War and Peace, but I'm glad I am. Here are some good bits that I came across recently:
"That's a fine death!" said Napoleon as he gazed at Bolkonski.
Prince Andrew understood that this was said of him and that it was Napoleon who said it. He heard the speaker addressed as Sire. But he heard the words as he might have heard the buzzing of a fly. Not only did they not interest him, but he took no notice of them and at once forgot them. His head was burning, he felt himself bleeding to death, and he saw above him the remote, lofty, and everlasting sky. He knew it was Napoleon- his hero- but at that moment Napoleon seemed to him such a small, insignificant creature compared with what was passing now between himself and that lofty infinite sky with the clouds flying over it.
[...]
Though five minutes before, Prince Andrew had been able to say a few words to the soldiers who were carrying him, now with his eyes fixed straight on Napoleon, he was silent.... So insignificant at that moment seemed to him all the interests that engrossed Napoleon, so mean did his hero himself with his paltry vanity and joy in victory appear, compared to the lofty, equitable, and kindly sky which he had seen and understood, that he could not answer him.
Everything seemed so futile and insignificant in comparison with the stern and solemn train of thought that weakness from loss of blood, suffering, and the nearness of death aroused in him. Looking into Napoleon's eyes Prince Andrew thought of the insignificance of greatness, the unimportance of life which no one could understand, and the still greater unimportance of death, the meaning of which no one alive could understand or explain. 
Here's another bit:
Just as in a clock, the result of the complicated motion of innumerable wheels and pulleys is merely a slow and regular movement of the hands which show the time, so the result of all the complicated human activities of 160,000 Russians and French- all their passions, desires, remorse, humiliations, sufferings, outbursts of pride, fear, and enthusiasm- was only the loss of the battle of Austerlitz, the so-called battle of the three Emperors- that is to say, a slow movement of the hand on the dial of human history.
No doubt this is irrelevant, but the buzzing fly in the first of these passages reminded me of this by Schopenhauer:
[C]ast our glance forward far into the future, and seek to present to our minds the future generations, with the millions of their individuals in the strange form of their customs and pursuits, and then interpose with the question: Whence will all these come? Where are they now? Where is the fertile womb of that nothing, pregnant with worlds, which still conceals the coming races? Would not the smiling and true answer to this be, Where else should they be than there where alone the real always was and will be, in the present and its content?—thus with thee, the foolish questioner, who in this mistaking of his own nature is like the leaf upon the tree, which, fading in autumn and about to fall, complains at its destruction, and will not be consoled by looking forward to the fresh green which will clothe the tree in spring, but says lamenting, “I am not these! These are quite different leaves!” Oh, foolish leaf! Whither wilt thou? And whence should others come? Where is the nothing whose abyss thou fearest? Know thine own nature, that which is so filled with thirst for existence; recognise it in the inner, mysterious, germinating force of the tree, which, constantly one and the same in all generations of leaves, remains untouched by all arising and passing away. And now, οἱη περ φυλλων γενεη, τοιηδε και ανδρων (Qualis foliorum generatio, talis et hominum). Whether the fly which now buzzes round me goes to sleep in the evening, and buzzes again tomorrow, or dies in the evening, and in spring another fly buzzes which has sprung from its egg: that is in itself the same thing
The buzzing fly echo might be pure coincidence, but Schopenhauer is far from irrelevant to Tolstoy. In the year War and Peace was published (1869), Tolstoy wrote:
Do you know what this summer has meant for me? Constant raptures over Schopenhauer and a whole series of spiritual delights which I've never experienced before. ... no student has ever studied so much on his course, and learned so much, as I have this summer 
I don't know when he first read Schopenhauer ("some time in the 1860s," apparently) but if there was no Schopenhauerian influence on War and Peace then there is at least fertile soil there for a Schopenhauerian seed. The idea of the insignificance of greatness, of course, reminds me of the end of The World as Will and Representation: "to those in whom the will has turned and has denied itself, this our world, which is so real, with all its suns and milky-ways—is nothing." Perhaps Prince Andrew would seem likely to deny that the "lofty infinite sky" is nothing, but he continues: "All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!" And perhaps this sounds nihilistic, but he goes on to want nothing but to be brought back to "life, which seemed to him so beautiful now that he had today learned to understand it so differently."

Wittgenstein's interest in aspects surely must (although those words sound an alarm) have something to do with this kind of idea. There is something a bit ugly, though, in Schopenhauer's and Tolstoy's ways of making their point(s). "[T]his our world, which is so real [...] is nothing" is paradoxical, and so either mystificatory or cheaply clever. (I'm exaggerating the ugliness or cheapness or whatever we want to call it, but I think it's there. Or is my criticizing not just Schopenhauer's and Tolstoy's writing but some of their best writing a sign that I've gone off the rails?) And Prince Andrew leaves much unexplained when he both says, "There is nothing [...] but that. But even it does not exist..." and longs to live although "[T]here is nothing but quiet and peace." How does an enthusiastic desire to live square with the quasi-Schopenhauerian insight that "there is nothing [...] Thank God!"? And what are we to make of the idea that there is nothing but the sky and even it does not exist? The contradictions feel like a prelude, like something to be moved beyond. Which is what Schopenhauer and Prince Andrew intend, of course, but it means that the last words are far from being the conclusion. What matters is not the thought that expresses enlightenment (if that's what it is) but the life lived afterwards. And this means that the intellectual or theoretical route to this life cannot be the only possible one, cannot be essential. At this point, I suppose, you throw away the ladder and go and work in a garden. Whether any of this is helpful for understanding Wittgenstein's later philosophy, though, seems doubtful. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The ethics of trolling

An interesting-looking paper here by Massimo Leone. Summary:
The article singles out and describes the main rhetorical ingredients of trolling through contrasting it with comparable discursive practices: provocation, joke, defensive anonymity, critical public discourse, controversy, and lie. The following elements are found to play a major role in the discursive construction of trolling: topic-insensitive provocation; time-boundless jest; sadistic hierarchy of sender and receiver; anonymity of both the troll and her or his audience; choral character of the ‘actant observer’ of trolling; construction of artificial contradictory semantics; disruption of argumentative logics; irrelevance of the relation between beliefs and expressions. Trolling profoundly disrupts the conversational ethics of the human civilization because it severs expression from content, signifier from signified, communication from intention.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Three lions

Kelly Jolley visited VMI yesterday and gave an inspiring talk on "Wittgenstein: Philosophy as Poetic Composition." I spent most of the talk trying not to sneeze and may have misunderstood, but here are some thoughts that grew out of his presentation.

Much of the talk was about the line, "If a lion could speak, we could not understand him." Usually I think this is taken as having to do with a distinction between word meaning and speaker meaning. So if a lion could speak we might understand his words, but would not understand him. Winch says that understanding another culture might be said to involve "understanding the inner maps according to which people of that culture navigate and the destinations they are trying to reach." If we think in these terms, then on a standard interpretation Wittgenstein is suggesting that we could never understand a lion's inner maps.

Wittgenstein makes a distinction between understanding him and understanding his sentences in TLP 6.54 ("My propositions elucidate by whoever understands me perceiving them in the end as nonsensical..."). On the other hand, in the conversations with Bouwsma, assuming that Bouwsma and my memory are reliable guides, he rejects the distinction between word meaning and speaker meaning. Or at least, if someone says something that I don't understand (e.g. in the middle of a conversation about politics he says that ham sandwiches are the most popular kind) then it is a mistake to say you know what he said but not why he said it. Because you don't know what "ham sandwiches are the most popular kind" means in this context. Perhaps it's a saying you don't know about violations of God's laws, in which case the point might be about politics after all, and the popularity of evil policies, the evils of populism, and so forth. You don't know. 

Kelly's suggestion, if I understood it, is that when we read Wittgenstein's famous lion line we think we understand it (and, indeed, we can't be sure we haven't understood it until we get to the end), and think it means we could understand the lion's words but not the lion. But if we think more slowly, more carefully, more expansively, we might realize that the idea, or perhaps I should say 'idea', of a speaking lion is actually not something we can form. What we cannot understand is neither the lion's words nor the lion himself but the being of a speaking lion. If it's a lion it does not speak, cannot speak. If it speaks, it isn't a lion. So you think you understand the sentence (as long as you don't think too much, i.e. enough, about it), but you really don't. It's like Augustine with time (“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”) The result, it seems to me, is not just the pleasure of encountering a clever puzzle. You also get a renewed appreciation for both lions and language, realities that resist combination and, so, are not just more of the same. The world is richer than that.

A second lion that this reminded me of is the one in the Lecture on Ethics. Wanting an example of a miracle, an event linked to what he calls his experience par excellence, namely that of wondering at the existence of the world, Wittgenstein says: "Take the case that one of you suddenly grew a lion's head and he began to roar. Certainly that would be as extraordinary a thing as I can imagine." This would be very unusual, obviously. But the example is stranger than that, I think. Because in what sense could there be a person with the head of a lion? It seems easy enough to imagine. But would this being live the life of a person or that of a lion? If it lived as a lion would its body still be human? Well, say what you choose, etc., but it's worth thinking a bit before making your choice. If the lion tries to run and bring down a gazelle with its claws, only to find itself jogging on two legs and flailing uselessly with fingers, is it a human with a lion's head, or more a badly disabled lion? And if it lives as a human, isn't the head of the body that lives this life at least in some sense thereby a human head, albeit a very badly formed one? Might the lion head try to eat the human body? Or the human body attack the lion head when it sleeps? In that case there is not really one being but two, at war with one another. I don't think we can really comprehend the idea of a human being with a lion's head. It is inconceivable, not just extraordinary.

The third lion is an imaginary one. The motto of the Tractatus is the following quotation from Ferdinand Kürnberger: “…and whatever a man knows, whatever is not mere rumbling and roaring that he has heard, can be said in three words.” The verbs rauschen and brausen don't seem right for lions, but they do mean noise, and not only might a 'speaking lion' and a 'person with a lion's head' produce nothing but noise, but in fact the words 'speaking lion' and 'person with a lion's head' seem to be little more than noise, since we can't (as far as I can see) really imagine anything in connection with them. Or rather, we can't imagine what we might seem to want to imagine. It's easy enough to picture a cartoon or Egyptian god. But this is likely to be only two-dimensional. If we try to imagine a four-dimensional version, living through time, we lose either the lion aspect or the human, linguistic aspect. This loss, though, feels like a gain. All we lose is a fantasy, and what we gain is a clearer, cleaner, refreshed understanding of reality.       

Friday, March 3, 2017

Punching Nazis

My (not fully formed, merely intuitive) view on the ethics of punching neo-Nazis used to be roughly that it ought to be done but that you ought not to do it. This doesn't sound very coherent. I used to think that no one should punch anyone but that there is always likely to be someone who wants to fight and that these people, if they must punch someone--which they shouldn't, should be punching neo-Nazis rather than anyone else. That is, although no one deserves to be punched, the least undeserving are neo-Nazis (and maybe some child abusers, etc.). Now I'm not so sure.

Speaking of Nazis, here's Orwell's review of Mein Kampf, in which he echoes Nietzsche on utilitarianism. Here's Orwell:
Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarised version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,’’ Hitler has said to them “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war. After a few years of slaughter and starvation “Greatest happiness of the greatest number” is a good slogan, but at this moment “Better an end with horror than a horror without end” is a winner.
And here's Nietzsche:  "If we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how. Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does." (Maxim 12 from Twilight of the Idols).

The dominant economic theory, of course, is based on utilitarianism, although these days it's based more (as far as I can tell) on the ideal of maximizing preference-satisfaction than maximizing pleasure as such. (And this is mixed with the fantasy that some version of libertarianism will in fact produce such a maximization.) But, as Michael Thompson has pointed out, it makes sense to say, "I don't want to do what I want to do." People want a why, a reason to do things. Hence the appeal of ideologies that offer something other than pleasure or the even emptier satisfaction of preferences. But speaking of reasons and getting back on topic, is there reason to punch neo-Nazis? 


Here's J.S. Mill:
It would always give us pleasure, and chime in with our feelings of fitness, that acts which we deem unjust should be punished, though we do not always think it expedient that this should be done by the tribunals. [...] We should be glad to see [...] injustice repressed, even in the minutest details, if we were not, with reason, afraid of trusting the magistrate with so unlimited an amount of power over individuals. (Utilitarianism, Chapter V)
A state Nazi-puncher would be a bad thing. And perhaps being a neo-Nazi doesn't count as an unjust act, but perhaps in order to be correctly identified as a neo-Nazi one would have to have committed unjust acts. I think it does chime in at least somewhat with our feelings of fitness when a neo-Nazi gets punched. Which is not to say, however, that it chimes in with our feelings of fitness when someone punches a neo-Nazi. My reaction, at any rate, is that the neo-Nazi got what he deserved, but not that the puncher necessarily did a good thing.

And here's Kant:
If a man who delights in annoying and vexing peaceable people at last receives a right good beating, this is no doubt a bad thing; but everyone approves it and regards it as a good thing, even though nothing else resulted from it; nay, even the man who receives it must in his reason acknowledge that he has met justice, because he sees the proportion between good conduct and good fortune, which reason inevitably places before him, here put into practice. (The Critique of Practical Reason, Chapter II)
"[T]his is no doubt a bad thing; but everyone approves it and regards it as a good thing" sounds a bit like "It's raining but I don't believe it." Which part does Kant not really mean? I think he means roughly what I've been saying (and I think this on the grounds that surely everyone would agree with me): that the beaten person in this case got what he deserved, which is good, but that it is bad that the beating was done. It would have been better if he had somehow been hoist with his own petard (as long as no one else was hoisted with it).

I wonder though. For one thing I wonder how good it is that people get what they deserve--if what they, in some sense, deserve is really terrible, is it really good that this terrible thing should happen to them? And for another thing, I wonder whether all (people who might reasonably be called) Nazis deserve the same fate. Is merely having Nazi beliefs, perhaps for a short time, as bad as spreading such beliefs? And is that as bad as committing hate crimes on the basis of those beliefs? Surely not, in both cases.

In general I think that what people deserve, in the sense that they could hardly complain if these things happened to them since they have inflicted much the same on someone else or supported its being done (if only in thought), is not what should happen to them. If I were God I'd be more forgiving than that. (Although I'd also be wiser and so might have other ideas.)    

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Winch and relativism, logic and life

I've discussed Peter Winch and relativism before (e.g., here and here). I concluded that, "Winch is probably only a relativist in trivial and misleadingly-called-'relativist' ways." Since then I've read more on the subject, by Winch, Cora Diamond, Jonas Ahlskog and Olli Lagerspetz. So perhaps it's time to revisit the issue.

One question that is relevant to the debate is the relation between logic and human behavior. Ahlskog and Lagerspetz say (in "Language-Games and Relativism: On Cora Diamond's Reading of Peter Winch," p. 294) that "a (or the) central motif in Winch's work" is the idea that, "in order to see what a proposition implies or excludes, we must look into how it enters the life of those who use it; for example, how speakers might react in face of challenges and complexities." 

This doesn't sound quite right if we think about propositions in a language we understand well. Obviously we don't have to look into anything in order to understand a proposition. That is, we might have to on some occasion, but sometimes I know quite well what you are implying without any further investigation. Perhaps that's not fair though. The words "in order to see" might imply a case in which one does not see, and so further investigation is required. The most obvious way to investigate would be to ask you what you are implying, which again does not involve looking at how speakers (plural) might (in general) react. Perhaps this still is not fair. Perhaps if I speak the language I have already done the necessary looking and seeing. This, we might think, is (at least in part) how I learned the language in the first place. But then this sounds uncomfortably like the so-called Augustinian picture of learning a language, as if I already had a language and then did some useful anthropological fieldwork among my elders. Still, I might be being unfair to Winch by treating other people's words as if they were his, and to Ahlskog and Lagerspetz by taking one sentence out of context and making a meal of it. I think there is a potential problem here though, even if I have hardly convicted anyone of anything so far.

One problem, or question apparently worth asking, is whether we should talk about "what a proposition implies or excludes" at all. That is, do propositions imply and exclude, or do people do this (in using propositions)? I think the answer is both. Say my daughter is driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway and, after a pause to watch the sunset, the van won't start. If I ask, "Did you leave the lights on?" then I might be implying that she is often careless and has negligently caused the battery to die. The proposition on its own does not imply this. It might be said, though, to imply that the van has lights that can be left on or not. [Perhaps this should be thought of as implying in a metaphorical sense. A sentence implies things in something like the way that Heidegger or Loos might see a vase as implying things about the lives of the people who use it.] If you don't know English or any language close enough to it to have reliably similar implications and exclusions then you might have to look into how speakers of this language use sentences such as "Did you leave the lights on?" Otherwise you don't, surely. Knowing a language means, in part, knowing the correct standard use of this kind of sentence. And we don't usually learn this kind of thing by doing anthropology. Talk about what propositions mean and how we know what they mean might encourage the adoption of an outside, anthropological, third-person perspective. And this could be problematic.

In "Can We Understand Ourselves?" (CWUO) Winch says that understanding another culture requires studying the behavior of members of the culture in question. And, according to him, we cannot start by finding out their beliefs and desires, because we see these for what they are (p. 197) “only through the behavior in which they are manifested.” He seems to suggest here that knowledge of behavior, or perhaps simply behavior, is somehow prior to psychology. I wonder whether they really come apart like this. That is, perhaps they should be thought of as two sides of the same coin, with no relation of priority or dependency between them. In The Idea of a Social Science he said that "the social relations between men and the ideas which men's actions embody are really the same thing considered from different points of view". That seems better to me. 

On the same page of CWUO on which he implies the contrary of the suggestion that we could understand others' actions by starting with their "internal 'desires and beliefs'," Winch says also that "neither words nor actions have per se any preeminent position." He also notes some peculiarities of the notion of understanding. An anthropologist might understand another culture, or some feature of it, quite well without being able to imagine (seriously or sincerely) engaging in its practices. On the other hand, there is a sense of understanding in which we do not understand people or what they do if we cannot relate to them in a more subjective way than this. If we cannot, that is, 'find ourselves in them,' whether they belong to our culture or another, then we cannot fully understand them. 

This sounds true, but does it amount to anything more than the assertion that we do not understand people that we do not understand? I don't see why, that is, one cannot come to understand liking music, or a certain kind of music, or football, to give some of Winch's examples. Although, of course, one might see nothing in any of these things. Doing so would involve seeing the point of, say, watching football, which involves something like seeing it as having a point, which is like (though perhaps not exactly the same as) wanting to watch football. It might not be possible to want to do everything, or to see every human activity as having a point. But of any given activity I see no reason why one could not come to see its point. One good thing, though, about Winch's emphasis on understanding others as finding oneself in them is that it points away from the kind of problematic third-person perspective that I identified (or gestured towards) above.          


At the end of CWUO Winch argues that "practical 'being in tune' with others lies right at the very centre of our understanding of other human beings" (p. 203). As Winch admits, his argument here is sketchy. For those who want a fuller treatment of the topic he recommends his paper "Eine Einstellung zur Seele." One thing he does in this paper is to question the philosophical notion (or at least David Wiggins' notion) of a person:
On this view [...] reacting to someone as a person is in the first instance classifying him as belonging to a certain natural kind and this in its turn involves having certain quasi-theoretical beliefs about him. Anything that is peculiar to our attitudes towards and treatment of persons flows from and is justified by the beliefs we hold about what properties persons essentially possess; and what justifies these beliefs is ultimately scientific investigation. [Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 81 (1980 - 1981), pp. 1-15, p. 12]
One thing that Winch objects to is Wiggins' treatment of our reactions or attitudes towards other human beings as requiring justification. Another is that the justification in question is theoretical. I agree. But Winch still seems to want to explain this attitude toward a soul, referring to such things as "my general experience of human life" (p. 13). I think it's fine to try to explain what Wittgenstein means by an attitude (or orientation, perhaps) towards a soul. But explaining where it comes from seems somehow misguided. The explanation doesn't seem very informative, although what's good about it is that it is much less oriented towards theory and justification than Wiggins seems to be. Perhaps that is the main point that Winch wants to make.

Earlier in the paper he says that Wittgenstein wants:
to urge that if we want to be clear what a belief (e.g.) that someone is in pain comes to, we should not allow ourselves to be hypnotized by its verbal expression ("He is in pain"), but should look at the whole range of behaviour, demeanour, facial expression, etc. in which such verbal expressions are embedded, and with which they are continuous, which give the words their particular sense and by some of which indeed the words may often be replaced (p. 3)
This might be true if it means that Wittgenstein thinks it's a good idea to look at behavior (etc.) if one wants to be clear what a belief is and is tempted to think that it must be something purely verbal or intellectual. It seems dodgier if it means that Wittgenstein has an answer to the question 'What is a belief?' and that this answer is: "it's a whole range of behaviour, demeanour, facial expression, etc. in which such verbal expressions are embedded, and with which they are continuous, which give the words their particular sense and by some of which indeed the words may often be replaced." That would make Wittgenstein seem like a kind of behaviorist, and like someone who wanted to answer philosophical questions by putting forward theses.

A problem with Winch is that it is not always clear what he is or isn't saying. This is surely one reason for the very different readings of Winch by Diamond, who sees him, ultimately, as a kind of relativist, and by Ahlskog and Lagerspetz, who defend him against this charge. It is useful to have both readings. Even if Winch is not a relativist, Diamond's criticisms could be helpful discussions of problems that would arise if one were to take his work in a certain way. But it also seems worth trying to work out whether the non-relativist reading of Winch is tenable.

Diamond's Winch thinks like Ilham Dilman, who states that:
[W]hen Dante in his book talked of the spheres of the heavens and put the earth at the centre of the universe, he was not talking about the same universe, the universe of modern astronomy. […] The universe, as conceived of in [the] world [of the Mediaevals], was not the universe of astronomy; it was the universe of their religion. […] Thus the skies of Dante's The Divine Comedy and the sky and the stars of astronomy belong to different universes of discourse. (Wittgenstein's Copernican Revolution, 2002, pp. 48–49, quoted in Ahlskog and Lagerspetz, p. 302.)   
Ahlskog and Lagerspetz say of this (on p. 303):
It seems indeed perfectly proper to say that Dante and we, in an important sense, have been talking of the same object: “that bright thing in the sky”. Winch would hardly have quarrelled with that. [...] [A]ssuming it is agreed (in some sense) that we disagree with Dante about the heavens, it will not be clear that our disagreement translates into “criticism”. For instance, Dante is not someone we would feel the need to refute. 
They are quite right that we would feel no need to refute Dante, partly because he is dead and partly because there is little at stake. But in "Criticizing from 'Outside'," Diamond brings up the example of people being punished for alleged witchcraft, not just in the past but today. If someone is executed for allegedly harming others by supernatural means might we not be tempted to criticize this practice? We might then feel the need to refute belief in witchcraft of this kind. And even if persuasive refutation seems hopeless, we might still insist that any punishment in these cases is unjust because the accused cannot possibly be guilty. Witchcraft isn't real.

I don't think Winch would have quarrelled with that. But whether he could consistently avoid such quarrelling while maintaining everything else he wrote is another matter. Not one I can settle now though.    

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Dennett vs postmodernism

Daniel Dennett is getting some stick at the Daily Nous (and on Twitter too, I could have sworn, but now I can't find any evidence of that) because of these remarks:
Maybe people will now begin to realise that philosophers aren’t quite so innocuous after all. Sometimes, views can have terrifying consequences that might actually come true. I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts.
Justin W. replies, in part:
I’m skeptical that post-modernism had much to do with Trump’s victory. It is not even on the radar of most Trump voters, ...
The main criticisms of Dennett seem to be that he wildly exaggerates the importance of philosophy and that he has misunderstood the philosophers in question. But I take him to be saying that postmodern philosophers, or perhaps merely the philosophers who gave rise to postmodernism, have done something that had very bad consequences. He isn't, that is to say, suggesting that Trump or the people behind Fox News have read Derrida, Foucault, or Lyotard and, based on a sound understanding of their work, become Thrasymachean liars. (If he is saying that then he has lost touch with reality.)

So what could he mean that might be true? Most people (in the US) don't study philosophy at all, either because they don't go to college (and philosophy isn't taught in high school or before) or else because they go to a college or university where philosophy is not mandatory. What philosophy they get--and enough people get some exposure to philosophy for opposition to philosophy to be part of the basis of a popular film--comes from other courses. In some educational systems this philosophy might be Thomism, or something like it, but more commonly I think it will be what I call postmodernism. I work in an English department and a high percentage of my friends teach in English departments at other schools. Postmodernism is common among these people. One even said that relativism, including the explicit rejection of belief in truth, was the basic dogma (they didn't use that word) of the discipline of rhetoric and composition. And almost every student studies composition, including in high school.

This is not the fault of Foucault et al., but they have a role to play in the history of the phenomenon. I don't know how ideas like postmodernism get into other subjects, but in English graduate students typically used to have to take a theory course (perhaps they still do) in which they would learn about various kinds of critical theory. I think these courses are often based on Terry Eagleton's book Literary Theory, on which Wikipedia is interesting:
Eagleton's approach to literary criticism remains firmly rooted in the Marxian tradition though he has also incorporated techniques and ideas from more recent modes of thought as structuralismLacanian analysis and deconstruction. [...]
After Theory (2003) represents a kind of about-face: an indictment of current cultural and literary theory, and what Eagleton regards as the bastardisation of both. [...] His indictment [...] centres on "relativism"...  
In other words, it looks as though Eagleton might be (in part) both the cause of and the insufficiently-used cure for the problem that Dennett complains about. I wouldn't blame Eagleton for this any more than I would blame Lacan, but it's a reminder that bastardisation happens and happens predictably. Bastardized versions of various kinds of philosophy (Dewey is frequently misquoted and misapplied too) are widespread. I blame the bastardizers first and foremost, but philosophers themselves could almost certainly do more to combat it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Wittgenstein and politics in twenty minutes?

Here's Sean Wilson on Wittgenstein, politics, and critical thinking. I haven't had time to watch it yet, but it sounds interesting: http://drwilson.squarespace.com/invited-talks/

Monday, February 13, 2017

Anthony Bourdain again

This New Yorker essay on Anthony Bourdain is well worth reading if you're interested in him at all. I don't have much to say beyond that, except that it raises the authenticity issue again (as discussed here). According to Patrick Radden Keefe, Bourdain "makes a fetish of authenticity." There is something to this, but it suggests more honesty than I think it should. 

If you read on you find his brother saying that Bourdain likes to "play up" a certain episode from their childhood, and Bourdain himself says that when he separated from his wife he no longer had to "pretend," and that in order to get the music he wanted for one show he "may have fibbed." None of this seems particularly terrible, but it makes his pose of radical honesty (if that's what it is) a bit hard to swallow. Here's some more evidence of posing from the article:   
For a time, he walked around with a set of nunchucks in a holster strapped to his leg, like a six-shooter; he often posed for photographs wearing chef’s whites and clutching the kind of long, curved knife you might use to disembowel a Gorgon.
This is in some ways the worst thing I've heard about Bourdain, although there is also an implication that he committed various crimes when he was a drug addict in order to pay for his habit, and he seems to have sacrificed his first marriage for the sake of traveling the world while being on TV. That might be the worst thing he ever did (he seems to think so), but it's hard to judge someone else's marriage or divorce.
When Bourdain tells his own story, he often makes it sound as if literary success were something that he stumbled into; in fact, he spent years trying to write his way out of the kitchen. 
No crime here, but more evidence to support my case. And finally:
Given Bourdain’s braggadocio, there were times when I wondered if the bad years were quite as grim as he makes them sound. “There are romantics, and then there are the hard-core addicts,” Karen Rinaldi said. “I think Tony was more of a romantic.” Nancy Putkoski told me in an e-mail that Tony is “pretty dramatic.” 
That's about it, as far as I can tell. On the plus side he is courteous and charming. His shows wouldn't be as much fun to watch as they are if he wasn't likable. But he does have this phony tendency which bothers me, especially given his emphasis on authenticity.

It occurs to me, though, that perhaps authenticity and honesty are not the same thing. The kind of authenticity he insists on is not faking a scene for the show--he wants the sights and sounds to be presented as they really are, and for nothing to be staged. But romanticism, a form of entertainment, seems to be his motivation far more than a respect for truth or authenticity in that sense. It's more a case of here are some great experiences I really did have than here is what life, or just eating, is really like in this place. It's reality TV, but it's still TV. Even a fetish for authenticity can be a false idol.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Bad language

I think I'm going to rename my paper on the value of clarity "The Ethics of Communication," a title suggested by James Klagge. It's a huge and understudied field, it seems to me. Lots of people talk about Orwell's essay on politics and the English language, but they tend to either agree uncritically or else dismiss it all for what often seem to be bad reasons. (The people I have seen dismiss it are Descriptivists, who David Foster Wallace takes on pretty successfully to my mind.) Lots of people have read Harry Frankfurt on bullshit, but not caring whether what you say is true or false as long as it gets results comes in many different flavors.

There is relatively little, as far as I know, that has been written on the ethics of language use. There is this course on social and political aspects of language, which looks great, and I haven't read most of what it covers, but it suggests to me that there is a field waiting to be ploughed. Maybe.

Anyway, as a step in the direction of the plough, here's a sort of list of concerns:
  • George Orwell famously warns about thoughtless and vague language, but he doesn't address careful vagueness or how to speak about such subjects as ethics, religion, and art. 
  • Harry Frankfurt, also famously, critiques bullshit: language intended to produce a certain effect but not concerned with truth. This is a broad category, though, including the relatively thoughtless (with the speaker perhaps hoping for no more than to be left alone) and the very careful (perhaps with very specific goals and clever ideas about how to achieve them). There is also the question of what to call language that is concerned with truth but that tries carefully to mislead without actually lying.
  • Steven Poole writes about "unspeak": language that tries both a) to imply an argument without defending it or making it explicit and b) to silence opposition.
  • I criticize what I have been calling "political correctness": language that is like bullshit but that is unconcerned, not necessarily with truth, but with conceptual accuracy. It is like unspeak, but it need not be deliberate. (I think I should perhaps call it something else because the term 'political correctness' is so loaded.)
  • Another linguistic vice is straightforward lying, although the ethics of lying are rather complicated
David Egan, drawing on others and on Wittgenstein's game analogy, notes some other potential problems:
  • Spoilsports (the relevant reference here is Gadamer, Truth and Method 1989, p. 102): not taking the (language-)game seriously 
  • Triflers (see Suits, The Grasshopper 2005, p. 60): respecting the rules of the game, but not its goals
  • Cheats (Suits again): recognizing goals but not rules
  • Sophists (as Egan sees it, p. 12) are like spoilsports but also deny the very possibility of achieving the goal of the game, e.g. Thrasymachus denying the reality of justice
Huizinga (Homo Ludens 1995) regards spoilsports as especially bad, but also closely connected to revolutionaries who reject one language-game, or set of language-games, but introduce new ones instead.

So, can we put all this together to come up with an initial sketch of the landscape? I will probably have to read Suits one of these days, but in the meantime I'm struggling to imagine exactly what cheating in a language-game would be. Lying, perhaps. Trifling, as the name suggests, sounds a lot like not taking the game seriously, which is what defines a spoilsport. And sophists just seem to be a kind of spoilsports.

Deliberate vagueness, carefully constructed (Jesuitical?) bull, and unspeak all seem like forms of cheating. While thoughtless vagueness and bull are more like being a spoilsport out of laziness.

The interesting area, really, (at least to me) is bullshit. Which seems to be quite popular these days.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Ornament and Crime: the book

One of my Christmas presents was Adolf Loos' Ornament and Crime, which includes the famous essay of that title but also many more short pieces on related themes. There aren't many huge surprises, but he's funny and seems very similar to Wittgenstein in matters of taste. I couldn't wait to blog about it, but now that I've finished it I don't know what to say. Here goes nothing.

One reason I found the book interesting is that Wittgenstein once wrote that: "It is as though I wanted to change men's and women's fashions by talking" (Culture and Value p, 71, according to some notes I have, but I don't see it there in the edition I own). Loos sort of tries to do this, although he also recognizes the problem with such an enterprise. He also, like Wittgenstein, rejects talk of beauty in the arts in favor of talk about getting things right. Or rather, Loos rejects one in favor of the other, while Wittgenstein, if his students' notes are to believed, merely observed that we tend not to talk much about beauty and instead use words like 'right' and 'wrong'. Here's Loos, from the essay "Men's Fashion" (from 1898):
...what does it mean to be well dressed? It means to be correctly dressed.
To be correctly dressed! With that expression I feel as if I have removed the mystery with which our fashions have been surrounded until now. For fashion we use words such as beautiful, elegant, chic, smart, or dashing. But that is not the main point at all. The point is to be dressed in such a manner as to attract as little attention to oneself as possible. (p. 40)
He is not doing aesthetics here but trying to change men's fashions by talking. He is making propaganda, that is, against the foppishness that he identified as popular in Germany and in favor of what he identifies as the English (he is very pro-English, which probably ought to make one suspicious), modern, refined taste in men's clothing.

On the other hand, he does acknowledge that this is not generally how fashion works:
Today we wear narrow trousers, tomorrow they will be wide, and the day after narrow again. Every tailor knows that. Couldn't we just abolish the wide-trouser period, then? Oh no! We need it to be able to enjoy our narrow trousers again. (p. 60)
He does suggest, though, that the industry can impose styles on people, or at least force the speed of change to increase. And, presumably, the industry might be encouraged to do so by respected essayists. But:
Fashion progresses slowly, more slowly than one usually thinks. Objects that are really modern stay so for a long time. (p. 92)
Another engine of changing fashion is social change:
...we are heading toward a newer, greater age. Women will no longer have to appeal to sensuality to achieve equal status with men, but will do so through their economic and intellectual independence, gained through work. A woman's value will not rise and fall with fluctuations in sensuality. Silks and satins, ribbons and bows, frills and furbelows will lose their effectiveness. They will disappear. And rightly so. There is no place for them in our culture. (p. 111) 
Much has been made of the handles that Wittgenstein designed for the house he built in Vienna. (You can even buy a version of them, although his design has been reworked "to bring it in line with modern technology." The horror!) But has Loos' remark from "The New Style and the Bronze Industry" (1898, presumably, although the date given in the book is 1878--Loos was born in 1870) been noted?
There is only one decent door handle in Vienna accessible to me, and I make a special detour to see it every time I am in the vicinity. (p. 49)
From the surrounding text it seems clear that what distinguishes this handle is its lack of ornamentation. If Wittgenstein was a big fan of Loos' then he might have tried to design something that would have pleased the master. This is not easy:
Changing old objects to adapt them to modern needs is not permissible. We must either copy or create something completely new. (p. 46)
And a craftsman's best work will be the work that corresponds "most closely to his nature, to his temperament, which he produces without effort, which bear[s] the clearest stamp of his personality" (p. 45).

One rule of thumb that seems to apply throughout the book is that the duller the chapter title, the more interesting its content turns out to be. For instance, in "Interior Design: Prelude" (1898) Loos speaks of styles of furniture as languages: "Our cabinetmaker speaks German, the German of Vienna, 1898. Do not call him stupid or naive just because he cannot speak Middle High German, French, Russian, Chinese, and Greek as well" (p. 53). Perhaps this isn't earth-shattering, but it seems rather Wittgensteinian.

As, in a way, does this:
...the ancient Greeks also knew a little about beauty. And they were led by practical considerations alone, without taking beauty into account at all, without wanting to satisfy some aesthetic need. And when an object was so practical it could not be made any more practical, they called it beautiful.[...]
Are there still people who work in the same way as the Greeks? Oh, yes. As a nation, the English; as a profession, the engineers. The English and the engineers are our ancient Greeks. (p. 69)
I wonder whether Wittgenstein read this before he went to England to study engineering in Manchester.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Anger is an energy?


"It isn't sensible [vernünftig] to be furious even at Hitler: how much less so at God," Wittgenstein wrote around 1945 according to Culture and Value (p. 46e of my edition). There is a lot of anger now about Trump's election, although I suspect (i.e. believe 100%) there might be some "anger" mixed in with it too. That is, I noticed even before the election a tendency among some people to talk about how angry they are or to refer to their own rage. What seems odd to me about this is partly how often certain people claimed to be in a rage, and partly the way they behaved when in this state. They did not scream or smash things,. Instead they went on Facebook and typed about the rage they were in. This, it seems to me, is not genuine rage. But maybe that's just me. 

Now the Daily Nous implies that accusing others of being phony about, or of exaggerating, moral outrage is a bad thing. It is certainly an accusation that can be made insincerely in order to undermine the credibility of people making moral complaints. It draws attention away from the content of the complaint to the complainers and their motives. It is thus a way of changing the subject, and of treating the complainers as being not really worth listening to. They are not to be answered, only diagnosed. There is obviously something bad, or potentially bad, at least, about making such a move. 

Still, aren't some people sometimes phony? And isn't that a bad thing?

I certainly don't mean that no one's anger about Trump is real. Even the people who seem a bit phony to me also seem to have genuine objections to make. I just don't believe that all of these people (the ones I'm thinking of are privileged, white men, by the way) really feel the "pure rage" that they claim to feel. There surely could be an element of performance to some such claims. This might have good effects, signaling a kind of solidarity with those who really do feel angry and encouraging others not to be passive. But it can also have bad effects, either making all protest seem like a pose or just alienating the Holden Caulfields among us from political action.

There is something to be said for genuine anger though. Which is not to say that it is sensible. Part of being angry, surely, is having less control over oneself, being less (inclined to behave in ways that are) sensible or rational. You cannot be angry and calm at the same time, even if you can be angry on the inside and outwardly calm. Which is why sitting down to type "What I am feeling now is pure rage" (or "Pure. Rage.") so often seems phony.

I have always, without thinking about it much, taken Wittgenstein's remark about the unreasonableness of fury at Hitler or God to be a rejection of such fury. It could be taken, though, as a contrast between rational responses and passionate ones, so that of course love or hate will never be sensible, but they might be good things nonetheless. But I don't think that's what Wittgenstein is saying. Not because Hitler is not that bad, nor because fury won't do any good. It's more, I would think, that Hitler is so bad that fury at him is an inadequate response, a silly response. There is something irresolute about fury, having to do, I think, with the facts that it cannot be maintained and that it is not something one can feel with all one's heart and mind. (Is that true?) After careful reflection about something one can be glad about it, or very sad. One can be determined to make sure it happens again, or never happens again. But I don't think one can be angry about it.

Anger seems to be a personal response, a feeling that arises in response to something done to you, or at least done to someone very close to you, perhaps to a family member. And some things seem too small to be angry about, while others seem too big. It would be petty to be angry about a loose button, but absurd to be angry about something too distant in time or space to affect you personally, or too enormous for you to have any hope of doing something about it. Hitler's acts seem like this. I can't reasonably be angry at Hitler partly because I don't have any personal relation to him and partly because his crimes are too enormous for such a personal emotional response as anger to fit them.

Wittgenstein was in a better position to be angry at Hitler, but I assume his point was that what Hitler did is too big for anger to be a reasonable response. If someone breaks my fence with their car I might be angry. I don't know what I would feel if I were close to the victims of a mass murder. But it wouldn't be the same.

Having said all this, I'm not sure that I'm right about either anger or about what Wittgenstein meant. I've also been working on this post, on and off, for far too long. A lot of the seemingly phony anger at Trump has died down, being replaced by some combination of determined resistance, despair, horror, and cautious optimism that in the very long run things might be OK. In fairness to the people who sometimes seem phony to me, they do far more of practical value than I do. So my seeing them as (somewhat) phony might say more about me than it does about them. But, of course, I don't think so.

[And, just in case this needs to be said, I am no more saying that Trump is Hitler than Wittgenstein was saying that Hitler is God.]      

Friday, January 13, 2017

British Wittgenstein Society Newsletter

[Warning: the following consists of little but bragging, although there is also a link to videos of talks by various Wittgenstein-related philosophers.]

The latest BWS Newsletter contains a short piece by Anshel Cohen, a student at Cambridge, about the 8th BWS Annual Conference. He writes:
One highly interesting lecture was Rowan Williams’ on Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard and the Gospels, which uncovered many unexpected connections between these topics. However, my favourite talk was by Duncan Richter,...
Woo hoo! (The talk in question is this one, on "The Value of Clarity".)

There's a video of the talk here. Perhaps more interestingly, the same link takes you to videos of the talks given by Gabriel Citron, Genia Schӧnbaumsfeld, John Milbank, Stephen Mulhall, Rowan Williams, Sophie-Grace Chappell, Michael Scott, and Wayne Proudfoot 
 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island

This essay of mine used to be available online but has disappeared, so I've uploaded it to academia.edu. If you like his work, or don't like it but want to understand why others do, you might be interested.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Philosophy as a kind of rebellion

A thought occurred to me the other night, while I was more or less asleep, that seemed like a revelation. In the light of day it seems less exciting, and less certainly true. But, as I have to keep reminding myself or else I will never post anything, this is only a blog. It is just the place for these possibly significant but probably nothing thoughts. So here it is.

A philosopher's not being a member of any community of ideas is the other side of the coin that says to talk ethics is to run against the boundaries of language. In a community of ideas people think, speak, and behave in similar ways. Not to be a member of any such community is not to go along, not to join in. Of course (or: presumably), a philosopher so defined might go along here and there, or now and then, but accidentally, not out of conformity. This does not guarantee running against the boundaries of language (if we recognize such things as existing in the first place), but it does suggest unconventional movements within any such boundaries, and probably increased likelihood of running against them. It will not be conventional thinkers who run against these boundaries.

Another thing I would assume is that a philosopher will not run against the boundaries of language just for the sake of it. Rather, he or she will take their cue not from society or convention but from something else, and this is what will cause the unconventional thinking/speaking/behavior. If this something else is a voice in one's head, say, then the results might not be good. But if it is what you might call God or Nature then perhaps it will be.