Wednesday, November 14, 2018

They tell one themselves

Here's a nice passage from Anscombe:
So far as I know, the only places where Wittgenstein considers the expression itself to be what it expresses are aesthetic. A musical phrase, a bed of violets: such things may strongly give one the impression that they tell one something. What is it that they tell one? They tell one themselves, not something else.
(from "Frege, Wittgenstein, and Platonism", p. 163 in the electronic version of From Plato to Wittgenstein: Essays by G. E. M. Anscombe).

Compare Schopenhauer's idea of all phenomenal things as embodied music (that perhaps sing or dance themselves), and Larkin's "The trees are coming into leaf/ Like something almost being said."

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Alice Crary's Inside Ethics: a symposium

There's a wonderful set of discussions of Alice Crary's book Inside Ethics here. It features Avner Baz, Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen, Nora Hämäläinen, and Stanley Hauerwas, among others, with replies by Crary. 

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Books by friends of the blog

Sean Wilson and Stuart Mirsky, who you may know from the comments section here, have books either out or coming out soon.

New Critical Thinking

What Wittgenstein Offered


Ludwig Wittgenstein changed everything. To understand how, we need to understand what he did to the subject of critical reasoning. 

Wittgenstein didn’t leave us “philosophy”; he left a pathway for a more perspicuous intellect. This was caused by a psychological condition that made him meticulous and hypersensitive. He could abnormally perceive three natural phenomena: (a) the social traits implicated in word use; (b) the task-functions signified in communication; and (c) the pictures that flash before the mind’s eye. With this unique acuity, he showed us how post-analytic thinking was to occur. 

And this discovery changes everything. It revolutionizes how we must argue with one another and what we believe is “true.” Instead of focusing primarily upon premises or facts, we must point people to how their intellect behaves during a speech act—something called “therapy.” And this has radical implications for analysis, conceptual investigation, value judgments, political ideology, ethics and even religion. 

This book is both an explanation of, and a blueprint for, the new critical thinking. Written for both a lay and special audience, and for all fields of study, it shows what Wittgenstein invented and how it affects us all.
 Value and Representation: Three Essays Exploring the Implications of a Pragmatic Epistemology for Moral Thought 
by Stuart W. Mirsky
Consisting of three essays examining the role of valuation in assertoric discourse, and its implications for epistemology, value theory and moral philosophy, this book explores the ways in which valuation enables referential behavior and so makes it possible to live and operate within a world. Examining the different dimensions of valuational activity, it situates moral concerns within a broader constellation of human behavior to show how our moral judgments arise and attain credibility in a world of facts. 

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Forthcoming sooner than November

Wittgenstein in the 1930s
Between the Tractatus and the Investigations

  • AVAILABILITY: Not yet published - available from November 2018
  • FORMAT: Hardback
  • ISBN: 9781108425872
Wittgenstein's 'middle period' is often seen as a transitional phase connecting his better-known early and later philosophies. The fifteen essays in this volume focus both on the distinctive character of his teaching and writing in the 1930s, and on its pivotal importance for an understanding of his philosophy as a whole. They offer wide-ranging perspectives on the central issue of how best to identify changes and continuities in his philosophy during those years, as well as on particular topics in the philosophy of mind, religion, ethics, aesthetics, and the philosophy of mathematics. The volume will be valuable for all who are interested in this formative period of Wittgenstein's development.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Wittgenstein between the Tractatus and the investigations David G. Stern
Part I. Changes and Continuities in Wittgenstein's Philosophy:
1. Wittgenstein and Moore on grammar David G. Stern
2. Wittgenstein on understanding: language, calculus and practice Alois Pichler
3. Wittgenstein on sentence-hypotheses and certainty Mauro L. Engelmann
4. Wittgenstein on meaning, use and linguistic commitment Anna Boncompagni
5. Will there soon be skilful philosophers? Wittgenstein on himself, his work, and the state of civilization in 1930 Wolfgang Kienzler
6. Wittgenstein and his students:
1929–33 James C. Klagge
Part II. Philosophy of Mind:
7. From Moore's lecture notes to Wittgenstein's Blue Book Hans Sluga
8. 'Two kinds of use of 'I'': the middle Wittgenstein on 'I' and the self William Child
9. Wittgenstein on rules and the mental Volker A. Munz
Part III. Religion, Ethics, and Aesthetics:
10. Wittgenstein's discussion of 'use of such a word as 'God'' Anat Biletzki
11. Wittgenstein on ethics, May 1933 Duncan Richter
12. Wittgenstein on aesthetic normativity and grammar Hanne Appelqvist
13. Wittgenstein's remarks on aesthetics and their context Joachim Schulte
Part IV. Philosophy of Mathematics:
14. Moore's notes and Wittgenstein's philosophy of mathematics: the case of mathematical induction Warren Goldfarb
15. Wittgenstein, Goodstein and the origin of the uniqueness rule for primitive recursive arithmetic Mathieu Marion and Mitsuhiro Okada.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

World Congress of Philosophy

One of the high points of the recent World Congress of Philosophy in Beijing was hearing Hans Sluga talk through the PowerPoint slideshow I blogged about here. Unfortunately I didn't get to ask him any questions, but I did have a couple of new thoughts about it. On slide 19 he talks about metaphysics as a "stage of development" that is to be overcome, according to Schopenhauer. I don't know of anyone else who reads Schopenhauer like this, but it's an exciting suggestion. (Reminiscent of j's suggestion here, if I'm remembering correctly, that the four books of The World as Will and Representation might correspond with the four noble truths of Buddhism. These aren't just (meant to be) truths, they are something like stages on life's way. If Buddhism is right then we escape the first truth (suffering) and end up in the fourth (Nirvana).) I hadn't really noticed this before.

My second new thought is about the idea of a world ethics (see slide 41). Since the world is not (at all) the same thing as the planet, I don't quite see how we get from a world ethics to environmental ethics. It feels as though there could be a route from one to the other, but I'd be interested to know how far Sluga has mapped this. After all, say my world ethics is that whatever happens I should accept it, letting God's will be done. Then if the planet is destroyed this will be just another thing that I (believe I ought to) accept. A world-accepter will not be likely to destroy the planet, but also won't have any obvious reason (qua world-accepter) to try to prevent environmental destruction. So it looks as though there is work to be done here.

After Sluga's talk was one by Ruth Chang on three dogmas of normativity. I'm not quite sure how to characterize the second dogma, but the three dogmas are something like this:
  1. goodness is a property
  2. all states of affairs are comparable with regard to their goodness, so that each must be as good as, worse than, or better than any other. Incomparability (with regard to goodness) is not an option
  3. values are discovered, not created
I think what I've written for 1 and 3 are direct quotes (albeit from a talk rather than from a fully polished written work), but I'm not sure about 2. Anyway, Chang (if I understood her rightly) rejects all three. Very interesting stuff.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Inside Ethics

Alice Crary's Inside Ethics: On the Demands of Moral Thought is an excellent book, and I have no criticisms to offer. But I do have some questions about it. First, though, a summary of the argument, in the form of a series of quotations:
Human beings and animals have moral qualities that are, in a straightforward empirical sense, open to view. That is the thesis of this book. (p. 10)
I describe thinkers who take human beings and/or animals to lack all observable moral characteristics as situating human beings and/or animals outside ethics, and I describe those who in contrast take human beings and/or animals to have moral characteristics that are open to observation as situating human beings and/or animals inside ethics. (pp. 11-12) 
It is entirely standard to conceive of ‘moral’ values [...] as values that are internally related to action and choice, and thus far in this chapter I have simply assumed that my talk of human and animal ‘moral’ characteristics would be read as implying—as I intend it to imply—that the recognition that a creature has these characteristics is practically significant in the sense of being directly relevant to how it should be treated. (p. 13)
There are passages in his later work in which Wittgenstein gives expression to a view of mind of the sort I want to defend (viz., a view on which psychological categories are irreducibly ethical and metaphysically transparent), and his writings also develop interrelated lines of reasoning that, when brought together, can be used to make a compelling case for such a view. (p. 39)
Mental characteristics are only at home in human and animal lives in which some things matter in that they are, say, to-be-feared, to-be-sought, to-be eaten, to-be-protected, or to-be-befriended. Our ability to recognize creatures as possessing such characteristics presupposes that we have already at least imaginatively adopted an attitude toward them as beings who are caught up in such lives and who accordingly, in appropriate circumstances, merit specific modes of concern and attention. It is in this respect, insofar as they are aspects of the lives of creatures who call for particular forms of response, that the mental characteristics of human beings and animals are essentially practical. Given that they are thus both objective and essentially practical, it is fair to say that these characteristics present us with objective moral values. (p. 88)
[I]n ruling out conceptuality we commit ourselves to representing any natural or learned canine responses as operating on (or triggered by) particulars. We cannot talk about modes of conduct that involve the recognition of kinds of things or of individuals. This is what speaks for attributing conceptual capacities to dogs. (p. 113)
[I]f we are to bring human beings and animals empirically into view in ethics, then— without regard to whether they possess species-typical capacities of mind—we need to look at them in the light of ethical conceptions of what matters in the lives of members of their kinds. That is what speaks [...] for saying [...] that merely being a human or an animal matters for ethics. (p. 161) 
[L]iterary works can contribute internally to the kind of empirical understanding that we seek in ethics (p. 204) 
One striking feature of the book is its similarity to, and engagement with, regular philosophy. That might not sound striking, but Crary somehow both draws heavily on Wittgenstein and engages in what looks very much like the kind of philosophical theorizing that he rejects. I can't help feeling that this is a sign that something must have gone wrong, but I also can't see that it matters. This is not a good position for me to be in. So my first question is, what should I do about this? I'll attempt a kind of answer below.

Secondly, Crary distinguishes between two kinds of facts in a way that puzzles me. This comes up especially in the last chapter of the book. For instance, see these passages about Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals:
To arrive at this recognition we need to know some of the plain facts about what this system [i.e., the industrial food system] is like. These facts have in recent years gotten attention in, among other places, non-fiction best sellers, blogs, and the columns of major newspapers, and they are increasingly familiar to the reading public. Safran Foer takes it for granted that his readers will know the basics about factory farms, and he devotes himself to filling in some of the details. For instance, when he talks about the treatment of those chickens who are raised for meat—or, in the industry lingo, “broilers”—he tells us not only that the birds are packed together in close quarters but also that they are generally placed in windowless sheds by the tens of thousands at densities that allow each bird on average something less than a square foot of floor space; he tells us not only that these conditions quickly become filthy and produce illness but that they lead to respiratory disease, musculoskeletal injury, and enormously high rates of infections of different kinds (including some like E. coli that are caused by fecal contamination); he tells us not only that the birds therefore all get antibiotics in their feed but also that their bodies are routinely bathed in chlorine to decontaminate them after slaughter; he tells us not only that many chickens are injured when being packed for transport to slaughter but also that approximately 30 percent suffer broken bones, that they receive no further food or water once under way, and that they are slaughtered by a mechanical process that, when it works correctly, slits their throats while they are still conscious and, in the small but significant number of cases in which it doesn’t, scalds them alive; and so on and so on.
When Safran Foer discusses the treatment of broiler chickens, he isn’t merely concerned with these kinds of neutral facts. He is taking for granted the ethically charged image he develops of the significance of different animals’ lives and using it to get us to register the horror of what is done to the birds. One of his goals is to have us visualize what it means for a chicken to be crammed into a room with tens of thousands of its fellows, with no more than about an eighth of a square foot to itself. “Find a piece of printer paper and imagine a full-grown bird shaped something like a football with legs standing on it,” he instructs, “and imagine 33,000 of these rectangles in a grid.” He uses evocative language in talking about the kind of ailments from which many of these chickens suffer because he wants us to register the bodily significance of the fact that a small percentage of the birds “die writhing in convulsions from sudden death syndrome” and that three quarters have the sorts of walking impairments that are in all likelihood signs of chronic pain. He uses similarly expressive terms in talking about the ways in which the birds are treated during transportation to slaughter and during the killing process because he also wants us to register horrors here. Workers are, he explains, expected to crate chickens so quickly that they “will regularly feel the birds’ bones snapping in their hands.” Moreover, “often the screaming of the birds and the flapping of their wings will be so loud that workers won’t be able to hear the person next to them on the line,” and “often the birds will defecate in pain and terror.” It is in this way—by moving from his effort, early in the book, to get us to see that animals matter to evocative descriptions of the handling of broiler chickens in the industrial food system—that Safran Foer positions us to see the awful callousness of the birds’ treatment. (pp. 262-263)
Crary contrasts plain or neutral facts with ethically charged expressive terms and evocative descriptions. This sounds like a contrast between ways of saying what the facts are more than a contrast between two kinds of facts, and perhaps this is what she means. But I'm also not sure about where the contrast is. When she talks about "these kinds of neutral facts" does she mean both such facts as that "birds are packed together in close quarters" and that "they are generally placed in windowless sheds by the tens of thousands at densities that allow each bird on average something less than a square foot of floor space"? Or is the former a neutral fact while the latter is ethically charged? As these paragraphs are written it looks as though the stuff about birds having their throats slit while still conscious and in some cases being scalded alive are (supposedly) neutral facts while their dying while writhing in convulsions is either a different kind of fact (an ethically charged one) or else a different kind of presentation of a fact (an evocative one). I agree that there is a difference in kind between the bland statement that chickens are packed together in close quarters and the statement that the screaming and flapping of the birds is so loud that workers cannot hear the person next to them. But both, I take it, are equally facts. 

The first paragraph quoted above contains a series of "not only...but also" pairs of facts, and it seems to me genuinely unclear whether Crary means that everything in the paragraph is a plain or neutral fact (which is what the words "these kinds of neutral facts" in the first sentence of the next paragraph seem to imply) or whether the "not only" facts are plain/neutral and the "but also" ones are ethically charged. That would make more sense to me. But the difference seems more one of degree than of kind. One of the "not only" facts involves reference to filthy conditions that produce disease. That isn't as evocative as the fact about routine chlorine baths for decontamination, but it's at least somewhat evocative. And this matters because the inside/outside ethics distinction that gives the book its title has to do with this distinction between neutral facts and (what I think Crary never calls) ethical facts. 

A difference of degree is still a difference, but I wonder whether there's a tension, and whether this matters, between Crary's distinction between outside and inside ethics (between neutral facts and non-neutral facts) and her view that ethically relevant facts are empirically discoverable. Here's a possibility: those who situate humans and/or animals outside ethics believe that there are neutral facts, or perhaps rather that there is a space of neutral facts with no essential or internal connection to ethical facts; those who situate humans and/or animals inside ethics deny that there is such a space or, if there is one, that humans and/or animals exist within it. (The latter might think, for instance, that mathematics or physics is a kind of conceptual space in which the facts are neutral, but that in this space there are no people or animals.) In this case, from the inside ethics perspective, the distinction between neutral and ethical (non-neutral) facts is only relative at most. So in the passages quoted above about Safran Foer we need to read in words such as 'relatively' and 'supposedly' whenever anything is described as neutral or evocative or morally charged. Because all the facts mentioned there are morally charged to some extent. This, it seems to me, is in fact the case, i.e. it is the case, and not only "from the inside ethics point of view." 

I can't (be bothered (here and now) to) explain how or why, but I think this shows the outside ethics position to be not just false but nonsensical. It is a 'position' that is committed to the existence of a way of making sense of human and/or animal life that does not exist. And what I suspect is that all of Crary's book has to be read in a kind of as-if spirit. The various 'theories' that she shows to be 'wrong' are, in fact, not even possibly correct. But she talks about them as if they might be. And the 'theories' that she shows to be better are in fact a (possibly misleading) representation of the only way we can, or at least do, make sense of the phenomena in question. Thus, for instance, there is not really "a view of mind" to which Wittgenstein gives expression and which Crary endorses. Rather, there is the way (or ways) we talk about and understand the concept of mind (or a whole bunch of concepts related to mind). I haven't spelled it out, but somewhere in this, I believe, is the answer to my first question about theories and Wittgenstein. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The philosophy of Agatha Christie

This is Amy Leatheran in Murder in Mesopotamia, channeling Schopenhauer:
Somehow, the more I get older, and the more I see of people and sadness and illness and everything, the sorrier I get for everyone. Sometimes, I declare, I don't know what's becoming of the good, strict principles my aunt brought me up with. A very religious woman she was, and most particular. There wasn't one of our neighbours whose faults she didn't know backwards and forwards...

Monday, August 6, 2018

Forthcoming 2


This collection examines the relationship between Augustine and Wittgenstein and demonstrates the deep affinity they share, not only for the substantive issues they treat but also for the style of philosophizing they employ. Wittgenstein saw certain salient Augustinian approaches to concepts like language-learning, will, memory, and time as prompts for his own philosophical explorations, and he found great inspiration in Augustine’s highly personalized and interlocutory style of writing philosophy. Each in his own way, in an effort to understand human experience more fully, adopts a mode of philosophizing that involves questioning, recognizing confusions, and confronting doubts. Beyond its bearing on such topics as language, meaning, knowledge, and will, their analysis extends to the nature of religious belief and its fundamental place in human experience. The essays collected here consider a broad range of themes, from issues regarding teaching, linguistic meaning, and self-understanding to miracles, ritual, and religion. « less


Wittgenstein, Religion and Ethics

New Perspectives from Philosophy and Theology

Editor(s): Mikel Burley
Media of Wittgenstein, Religion and Ethics
See larger image
Table of contents

Notes on Contributors

Introduction: Wittgenstein, Religion and Ethics: Seeing the Connections, Mikel Burley (University of Leeds, UK)
1. The Early Wittgenstein on Ethical Religiousness as a Dispositional Attitude, Chon Tejedor (University of Hertfordshire, UK)
2. 'The Problem of Life': Later Wittgenstein on the Difficulty of Honest Happiness, Gabriel Citron (Princeton University, USA)
3. Wittgenstein and the Study of Religion: Beyond Fideism and Atheism, Mikel Burley (University of Leeds, UK)
4. Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard and Chalcedon, Rowan Williams (University of Cambridge, UK)
5. On the Very Idea of a Theodicy, Genia Schönbaumsfeld (University of Southampton, UK)
6. Wittgenstein, Analogy and Religion in Mulhall's The Great Riddle, Wayne Proudfoot (Columbia University, USA)
7. Riddles, Nonsense and Religious Language, Stephen Mulhall (University of Oxford, UK)
8. Wittgenstein and the Distinctiveness of Religious Language, Michael Scott (University of Manchester, UK)
9. Number and Transcendence: Wittgenstein and Cantor, John Milbank (University of Nottingham, UK)
10. What Have I Done?, Sophie Grace Chappell (The Open University, UK)
11. Wittgenstein and the Value of Clarity, Duncan Richter (Virginia Military University, USA)



“The essays gathered in this book address in fresh and exciting ways topics central to philosophy of religion, religious ethics, and theology. Anyone interested in those fields will want to read it, as will anyone interested in Wittgenstein. Not only does the collection show the continuing importance and interest of Wittgenstein as a philosopher in his own right, it offers fascinating dialogues between Wittgenstein and major contemporary philosophers and theologians, and it convincingly demonstrates the value to contemporary philosophy and theology of Wittgenstein's approach. Mikel Burley is to be congratulated on gathering together such a stellar list of contributors. This book will be an invaluable reference point for future discussions.” –  Andrew Moore, Research Fellow, University of Oxford, UK

Monday, July 2, 2018

Nordic Wittgenstein Review

Vol 7 No 1 is out now. I feel as though I say this every time, but this really does look like an especially interesting issue.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Sluga on Wittgenstein and Schopenhauer

Here, pointed out by Daniel Lindquist, is a PowerPoint slideshow by Hans Sluga on Wittgenstein and "the world" in the Tractatus.

Some thoughts:

On slide 9, Sluga quotes Wittgenstein saying that he "could now just as well start [the] Tractatus with a sentence in which 'lamp' occurs, instead of 'world'." This reminds me of the following remark in Wittgenstein's Notebooks:
If I have been contemplating the stove, and then am told: but now all you know is the stove, my result does indeed seem trivial. For this represents the matter as if I had studied the stove as one among the many things in the world. But if I was contemplating the stove it was my world, and everything else colourless by contrast with it.
It also makes me think of remarks about this kind of idea in Eli Freidlander's paper "Missing a Step Up the Ladder," including passages like this:
I take Wittgenstein’s claim in 6.421 that “Ethics and Aesthetics are one and the same” to suggest that works of art readily provide us a model of this dimension of experience [i.e., the "experience of the particular thing as significant in itself"]. Let me briefly suggest features of the aesthetic that echo our attempt to clarify the dimension of agreement as such. We tend to speak of beauty as a field of significant experience, or experience that in itself presents a face of value. It gives us a way to conceive of the experience of significance as pertaining to a particular (or as concentrated in a particular place), while at the same time all-encompassing. Even if there are many paintings I appreciate, I do not appreciate a painting as one among many. My aesthetic judgment does not involve choice or comparison to other objects under a common concept. Rather, a work demands my undivided attentiveness. Arguably also, the field of aesthetic experience is not partitioned by a contrast between the valuable and the valueless. Weak aspects of a painting will make it weak and would not coexist in our experience with what is valuable. And a judgment which appreciates a work does not do so by setting the positive in it against the negative in that very work. We do not judge a work by eventually recognizing that, all in all, it has more of the good in it than of the bad. Finally the activity of judging is not preparatory to enjoyment of the work. In it we come to agree with the work. Such atunement is its own reward and one’s obtuseness to the work is in itself punishment. 
In the Notebooks Wittgenstein pursues the connection between ethics and aesthetics in the following terms: “The work of art is the object seen sub specie aeternitatis; and the good life is the world seen sub specie aeternitatis. This is the connection between art and ethics” (N, 83). The expression “seeing something sub specie aeternitatis,” is notoriously mysterious, and tempts us to various pictures of a God’s eye view of things. But, Wittgenstein really rehearses the distinction between seeing something in the midst of others, and seeing it as a unique, i.e. as a world: “The usual way of looking at things sees objects as it were from the midst of them, the view sub specie aeternitatis from outside. In such a way that they have the whole world as background” (N, 83). When we consider objects from the midst of them, we conceive of them as comparable to one another, thus as things among others. But seeing something with “the whole world as background” is agreeing with it as such, whatever or however it is.  
That is (among much else that is said here), an object (e.g., a lamp) can be seen as a world. Compare Schopenhauer, according to whom in aesthetic experience:

we no longer consider the where, the when, the why, and the whither in things, but simply and solely the what. Further, we do not let abstract thought, the concepts of reason, take possession of our consciousness, but instead of all this, devote the whole power of our mind to perception, sink ourselves completely therein, and let our whole consciousness be filled by the calm contemplation of the natural object actually present, whether it be a landscape, a tree, a rock, a crag, a building, or anything else. We lose ourselves entirely in this object, to use a pregnant expression; in other words, we forget our individuality, our will, and continue to exist only as pure subject, as clear mirror of the object, so that it is as though the object alone existed without anyone to perceive it, and thus we are no longer able to separate the perceiver from the perception, but the two have become one. … What is thus known is no longer the individual thing as such, but the Idea … at the same time, the person who is involved in the perception is no longer an individual, for in such perception the individual has lost himself; he is pure will-less, painless, timeless subject of knowledge … It was this that was in Spinoza’s mind when he wrote ‘mens aeterna est, quatenus res sub aeternitatis specie concipit’ (Ethics, V, prop. 31, schol.) (WWR vol. I, pp 178-79)

On slide 24 Sluga lists "A sense of feeling guilty whatever one has done" as one of the three main experiences that Wittgenstein writes about in the Lecture on Ethics. I think he only mentions feeling guilty, though, rather than feeling guilty no matter what one has done. This might not matter, but Sluga goes on (in slide 25) to link Wittgenstein's three experiences with key Christian beliefs, in this case belief in original sin. And he contrasts Wittgenstein's alleged Christianity with Schopenhauer's Buddhism. But I think Wittgenstein is less Christian than this suggests, and Schopenhauer is more Christian. Sluga summarizes Schopenhauer's belief with the slogan "I am Thou", but this doesn't seem so different from Wittgenstein's ethics. To live with the world seen sub specie aeternitatis seems to require agreement between self and other. (This might not be un-Christian, but it doesn't seem particularly Christian rather than Jewish, say, or more Christian than Schopenhauer is.)

On slide 41, Sluga writes that, "Wittgenstein, together with Schopenhauer, shows us that ethics in [the] broadest sense calls for philosophical reflection on the world or rather on how we see the world, what picture we have of it and our place in it. He contrasts this view of ethics with ethics concerned with the self, with interpersonal relations, and with social and political ethics.

Here's an example of what I think is the Wittgenstein/Schopenhauer kind of ethics. In M. O'C. Drury's recollections of conversations with Wittgenstein (p. 143 of Rush Rhees, ed. Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections), Drury reports:
This morning the local fishermen had landed on the pier a large catch of mackerel. The usual brilliant colouring of fish just out of the sea, some of them still half alive.
WITTGENSTEIN: (in a low voice) "Why don't they leave them in the sea! I know fish are caught in the most horrible way, and yet I continue to eat fish."
Wittgenstein himself did not live up to his ideal, but this seems like a fairly clear case of what that ideal implies. That is, Wittgenstein appears to be confessing to a failing or imperfection in his own behavior, at least as he sees things. The fish should be left in the sea. Not because they have rights or because they suffer when caught or because the sight of their being caught is ugly. Perhaps there is no because. To the extent that there is, it is because their being caught (at least in the way that they are caught, dragged out of the sea en masse in a net) is manifestly horrible (and unnecessary). I realize I am not really showing how I think one gets from what Sluga and Friedlander say to not eating fish, but I do think this is where one would end up if one followed Wittgenstein's thinking on ethics all the way.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Concise Anscombe

The Encyclopedia of Concise Concepts by Women Philosophers is now online. I don't know how much content it has so far, but it will grow. One thing it includes is a short article on Anscombe's Intention.

On the radio

I can't bring myself to listen to it, but I was interviewed for With Good Reason recently, and it's available here. I think it's mostly about teaching ethics, but there could be some Wittgenstein in there too.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The humanities again

A friend has called this essay "smart, passionate, and research-driven." (Why mention that it's passionate?) Anyway, I could resist responding by secretly blogging my disagreement, but I won't.

In the essay, Eric Hayot, Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and Asian Studies at Penn State, takes a careful (or at least careful-looking to me) look at some of the numbers involved in the state of the humanities in American universities and colleges. He points out, for instance, that "the low point of humanities degrees as a percentage of overall degrees came not in 2014–15 but in 1985–86," which suggests fluctuation rather than the crisis or steady decline that we often hear about. On the other hand, he also delivers some seemingly very bad news: "At many institutions the decline in humanities majors since 2010 is over 50%, a phrase that I can barely bring myself not to italicize, put in all capital letters, and surround with flashing lights." This is all interesting, and he gives some plausible suggestions about why it is happening. So far, so smart and research-driven. But then we get to his proposed solutions.

At the undergraduate level he has four (for programs at the graduate level his suggestion is: "unless you are placing most of your students in the professorial jobs for which you are training them, you need to rethink what you are doing"):

1. teach the humanities, not the disciplines
2. experiment with courses, departments, and programs
3. don't give up on the students
4. justify and explain what we do

I'm probably not going to argue that we should give up on the students, but otherwise I have a lot of disagreement to express.

Here's the first half of what Hayot says about teaching the humanities rather than disciplines:
The data suggest that enrollments in the humanities are falling far more slowly than the number of majors, because, I suspect, of the continuing appeal of humanistic questions: What is friendship? What does it mean to have a good life? What is justice? How do feelings work? Does history have meaning? Are we alone in the universe? What does it feel like to be a migrant? Students are less interested—as far as I can tell—in topical courses that promise coverage of a geographic region or historical period, in courses like The Modern Novel or Medieval Europe.
Students also like classes that tell them how to do things—how to eradicate world poverty; how to live a satisfying life; how to create political change. None of these would be strictly history or English or philosophy. I think that’s a feature, not a bug: my guess is that the humanities are going to survive by expanding and extending their general interdisciplinarity, by realizing that the separation of disciplines produces appeals to certain kinds of expertise that at this point may not be enough to retain our traditional audiences. Our market has changed; we probably need to change with it.
That's my emphasis. Things are not so research-driven here. The questions in the first paragraph are philosophy, philosophy, philosophy, philosophy/psychology, philosophy, physics/biology, and possibly literature. Not "the humanities," exactly. The things in the second paragraph that students want to know how to do are things that, roughly speaking, no one knows how to do. How (and whether) we can eradicate world poverty is a question of economics. How (and whether) we ought to try to do so is a question of philosophy (specifically the branch of political philosophy concerned with distributive justice). How to live a satisfying life is either psychology or philosophy (specifically ethics). How to create political change is something you might learn in a politics course, although if you're hoping to learn how to change the world rather than how to change one particular policy or law then you are likely to be disappointed. So far as Hayot's suspicions are right, they suggest that students should be offered a lot more philosophy and social science courses, not general interdisciplinarity.

Under suggestion #2, Hayot recommends courses like some that have proved very popular at Penn State and Harvard. But how to make a course popular is a bit of a mystery, and probably has to do with individual charisma, which some of us just don't have. (The Harvard course he mentions is the one on which this book is based, which, once again, is a philosophy course.) Here is most of the rest of what he says under this heading:
Making the kind of curricular changes I’m proposing is difficult because of institutional inertia. Who would approve the courses? Under what rubrics would they be taught? Here faculty members and administrators need to work together to create experiments in departments and programs. What if, for instance, a dean offered a group of faculty members (let’s say ten to fifteen) who could make a viable proposal the opportunity to create a new humanistic program focused on undergraduate education? What if those faculty members could spend five years, supported with a course release or two and a bit of research money, working to create new courses that would either answer the big questions or introduce students to majors in a broad and appealing way?
Of course such a thing might not work! But what we have now is not working either. It would be really great if we could populate the country (or the world) with experiments like this, knowing that we can all learn from their successes and failures and copy from them what makes a difference.
This will never happen. And not only because of institutional inertia. I've already explained why there is good reason to think Hayot is barking up the wrong tree. Believing this to be the case is not mere inertia. Even if one agreed with him, as many non-philosophers in the humanities, I think, would, there is no way that people would be given that amount of time and money and course releases to develop a new program. (I was involved in the design of a new program at my school. We were given one summer to do it.) And what do you do if, as seems likely (given the nature of experiments), the experiment does not work? Anything you undid cannot easily be brought back, anything done cannot easily be undone, and what do you do with any undergraduate majors in your new, failed program? It's a recipe for disaster. What works in one school will not necessarily work in another, either (nor will what fails at one school necessarily fail at another), so there is a limited amount of learning from others that can be done.

Hayot's third suggestion, the sure to be controversial "Don't give up on students", is about teaching. We should, he implies, expect less of them than we have in the past because students are reading and writing less before they get to college. And we should take teaching more seriously than we do (at schools that do not take it seriously) in tenure and promotions decisions. It's hard to disagree with this. There's no point blaming students for what others have failed to teach them (because of government insistence on standardized testing, etc.). And teaching is obviously important. But it's also very hard to measure good teaching, as Hayot seems to recognize, and many schools (e.g., mine) already care a lot about teaching when it comes to hiring, tenure, and promotion.

Finally, Hayot says that:
Every single class in the humanities should include some discussion about what the humanities are and why they’re worth something; it might even include information about salaries and employment issues, since our students (and their parents) often care about those a great deal.    
I disagree with this, because I disagree with his idea of the humanities. That idea seems essentially to be that people with PhDs in English (and maybe some related fields, such as Comparative Literature) should teach courses in philosophy (and maybe some other fields, related to the topic of the course), because that's what students seem to want. I do believe that English is worth something. As is Comparative Literature. As is history. But if the humanities is what Hayot seems to think it is then I'm not at all sure that it has much, if any, value. People with expertise in literature should teach literature. People with expertise in rhetoric should teach rhetoric. And so on. By all means let's offer a mix of humanities courses and respond (to some extent) to what students seem to want to learn. But if that's philosophy or economics or politics let's say so, and act accordingly. "General interdisciplinarity" is another name for mush, for the unqualified teaching students presumed too ignorant to know that their teachers lack the relevant expertise. "Let the blind lead the blind" is no way to save anything.

Hans Sluga has a blog

It's here. h/t John Holbo

If you don't know who Hans Slugs is, here's his bio.

If you're wondering whether he blogs about Wittgenstein, he does (but also about other things).

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Schopenhauer on women

I have four things to say about Schopenhauer's essay (it's really a collection of remarks) "On Women."
  1. The version of the essay in the Penguin Classics Essays and Aphorisms is abridged, leaving out the last remark and the words "The Mormons' standpoint is right" at the end of the penultimate remark. In what follows, nevertheless, I will use the numbering from the Penguin edition and hope that this is not misleading
  2. It is possible, even likely, that Schopenhauer really does mean the misogynistic things he seems to be saying
  3. Even so, his remarks are not all misogynistic. His first remark says that "the right point of view for the appreciation of women" is shown by Jouy's words, "Without women the beginning of our life would be deprived of help, the midst [of our life would be deprived] of pleasures and the end [of our life would be deprived] of consolation," and by similar thoughts of Byron's. The fourth remark implies that nature equips all creatures with what they need to survive, suggesting a kind of equality of value. In the fifth he writes that, "women are more sober in their judgment than [men], and [...] they see nothing more in things than is really there." In the sixth he claims that, "they live more for the species than for the individual, and in their hearts take the affairs of the species more seriously than those of the individual." This might sound bad, but Schopenhauer argues that the species is far more important and valuable than any individual, which would make women's hearts wiser than men's, in his view. The eighth remark sounds particularly bad (it includes, for instance, the claim that "They are the sexus sequior, the second sex in every respect"), but is in part an attack on the idea of the lady, which many feminists would also reject. 
  4. I want to explore the possibility that his apparent misogyny is ironic, and that what he means is therefore not nearly as bad as what he appears to be saying. Consider this paragraph, which is the last one in the Penguin edition:
"It is useless to argue about polygamy, it must be taken as a fact existing everywhere, the mere regulation of which is the problem to be solved. Where are there, then, any real monogamists? We all live, at any rate for a time, and the majority of us always, in polygamy. Consequently, as each man needs many women, nothing is more just than to let him, nay, make it incumbent upon him to provide for many women. By this means woman will be brought back to her proper and natural place as a subordinate being, and the lady, that monster of European civilisation and Christian–Teutonic stupidity, with her ridiculous claim to respect and veneration, will no longer exist; there will still be women, but no unhappy women, of whom Europe is at present full. The Mormons’ standpoint is right."
Assuming his readers are mid-nineteenth century German men, how would they be likely to react to this argument? Not very happily, I would think. They are accused of polygamy, which is associated with Mormonism. In his MA thesis "The Mormons in Wilhelmine Germany 1870-1914: Making a place for an unwanted American religion in a changing German society", Michael Mitchell writes (p. 1) that: "Mormonism had officially come to Germany in 1850 but opposition there was ubiquitous and conversions few." So recommending the Mormon standpoint could not be expected to be popular. Nor would Schopenhauer's reference to "Christian–Teutonic stupidity". The accusation of polygamy also seems unlikely to win him friends. Especially since, as I read the essay, he is talking about men hiring prostitutes, whose lives he describes as being "as joyless as [they are] void of honour." Nor do I imagine his readers would enjoy thinking that their wives are not ladies. And, finally, I doubt they would like the suggestion that it be made "incumbent upon [them] to provide for many women." It is not especially attractive women that Schopenhauer is talking about here but, on the contrary, all the women who are not chosen to be gentlemen's wives in the current system, including "old maids," prostitutes, and other working women. All women are to be taken care of by men of means under Schopenhauer's proposal. (Which presumably also means that all other men are left with neither wives nor prostitutes.) 
It is indeed a terrible idea. But it is so terrible that I wonder whether all that comes before it should be taken not at face value but as part of a kind of joke, whose punchline is this terrible enforced polygamy policy proposal. In other words, maybe this whole essay is really a kind of reductio ad absurdum
That's what I was going to say, anyway. Then I read the last remark (excluded from the Penguin edition), which ends:
That woman is by nature intended to obey is shown by the fact that every woman who is placed in the unnatural position of absolute independence at once attaches herself to some kind of man, by whom she is controlled and governed; this is because she requires a master. If she is young, the man is a lover; if she is old, a priest.
Perhaps this is some sort of joke at the expense of priests, but it hardly supports my Schopenhauer-as-feminist idea.So maybe I'm just completely wrong about that.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Anthony Bourdain, RIP

Now that Anthony Bourdain has apparently committed suicide, I regret every critical thing I ever said about him. He was human, and so had flaws, but he seemed like a good guy, and he made very entertaining TV.

Orwell and Wittgenstein again

When I'm not taking a day off, my plan from now on this summer is to do something Schopenhauer-related every day. Mostly this will be writing in the form of blogging, although I doubt I'll actually post every time I write. And the plan itself could change, of course.

John Holbo's dissertation is Schopenhauer-related, and that's my starting point. Here's a quote in it from Wittgenstein (LC, p.2):
If I had to say what the main mistake made by philosophers of the present generation is...I would say it is that when language is looked at, what is looked at is a form of words and not the use made of the form of words.
This strikes me as an important thought to keep in mind if you're ever tempted, as I am, to see Wittgenstein as a kind of ally of Orwell's on questions of politics and language use. Orwell does talk about the uses made of forms of words, but he also seems to think that if only we get the forms right then the uses will take care of themselves. I do think there is something to this idea. Simple words and sentences can make evil and stupidity harder to hide. But it's not a particularly Wittgensteinian idea. 

Saturday, May 19, 2018


I don't think I'm giving too much away if I say that the HBO series Westworld raises ethical questions about artificial intelligence. The series is set in an amusement park where people can live out fantasies of the Wild West, fantasies that to a striking extent involve murder and rape. But no one actually gets murdered, because the characters that populate the world are (very lifelike) robots. They feel no real pain, despite appearances to the contrary, and can be repaired relatively easily. And the customers are paying high prices for the privilege, so what could they have to feel guilty about?

I assume no one believes Jesus' idea that committing a sin in one's heart is just as bad as committing it in the flesh, but is also seems about as clear as can be that much of what Westworld's clients are paying to do is very bad (even though it is, in a sense, not really done in the flesh). Standard ethical theories seem incapable of handling this fact. Or, if not incapable, not at all well positioned to do so plausibly or simply. The problem is similar to the well known one about Kantian ethics and mistreatment of animals: if ethics is all about respect for reason and the creatures that embody it, then (why) is tormenting animals wrong? The Kantian answer is that it is bad because it makes tormenting people more likely, but this is fairly plainly inadequate. A dying man could spend his last moments torturing bunnies and do nothing unethical at all on this view. 

Shooting at (robots that look and behave just like) people for fun is cruel. Perhaps part of why cruelty is bad has to do with its effects in the world, but, as Kant saw, bad will is bad on its own, regardless of whether it turns out to have bad consequences or not in any particular instance. It seems to me that Westworld therefore shows that consequentialism and textbook Kantianism are wrong, or incomplete, as moral theories. I'm sure others see it differently though.

On a related note, in Avengers: Infinity War the baddie is a consequentialist and the goodies "don't trade lives" (cf. Kant and Romans 3:8). I usually don't like science fiction-inspired philosophy, partly because it's usually metaphysics or epistemology (which are not my thing) and partly because it so often seems to be wrapped up in concerns about what is cool (also not my thing). But Westworld, which also raises metaphysical questions, seems to me to demonstrate something important about ethics that is rarely shown.

Attempts to anticipate dissent:

1. The clients of Westworld don't do anything wrong--you can do what you like to robots, as long as no actual people's rights are violated.  In a way I agree with this. But perhaps that just shows that there is more to ethics than questions about actions and their rightness or wrongness. There is, it seems to me, just something obviously very bad about choosing to have the experience as of shooting a man and seeing him bleed to death, screaming in pain, etc. Perhaps the badness is located more in the heart-mind of the person choosing to behave this way, or in the choice to act this way, than in the act itself, but that there is badness there seems about as plain as it could be.

2. So you're saying it's wrong or bad to play video games that involve shooting, etc.? Not necessarily. But there is something bad about playing a game that focuses on violence and in which the players want the violence to be as realistic as possible. Space Invaders is not like this. Nor is Angry Birds. (Although would the Buddha play either of those games?) No doubt there is a gray area somewhere. Such is life.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Forsberg on Agam-Segal and Dain

Niklas Forsberg has helpfully posted a non-final draft of his review of Wittgenstein's Moral Thought (eds. Reshef Agam-Segal and Edmund Dain) here. Naturally you want to know mostly what he says about my paper, so here you are:
[I]t is a relief of sorts that only two of the papers of this volume start off by noticing that Wittgenstein wrote very little about ethics. [I'm pretty sure mine is one of the two.] One may even say that one of the most central lessons one should learn from this book is that “what we had thought of as the field of ethics is so vast and unbounded that we no longer recognize it as a field at all” as Duncan Richter formulates it.
Richter’s text is something like a turning point of the book. He focuses on later Wittgenstein’s more fluid conception of language, which enables him to bring into view the multifarious ways in which evaluative words – like good and beautiful – are meaningfully used. One may see this as on a par Wittgenstein’s earlier thought, where ethics is not about a specific something, and ethical difficulties may surface anywhere and are interwoven with our lives in language. If we assume that “good” means one thing, and one thing only, we will have nothing to say about it. As a consequence, a notion like “good” must remain indefinable, but not because it is ineffable or somehow out of reach. As Richter says: “An accurate  picture will not be neat,  because the use of the word ‘good’ is not neat” (154), falling back upon Wittgenstein’s idea that one cannot really “sketch a sharply defined picture ‘corresponding’ to a blurred one” (PI,77). We need to think about more things than moral code words such as good, evil, right, wrong, etc. One must also think about “things such as people, their property, our relationships with them, and so on. (…) There is far more to ethics than questions about what is right and what is good” (168).
[T]his is a very helpful book. It should be, and probably will be, one of those books that most philosophers who think about ethics after Wittgenstein will have to read.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Fixing Frege

Frege ("Logic in Mathematics"):
Definitions proper must be distinguished from elucidations [Erläuterungen]. In the first stages of any discipline we cannot avoid the use of ordinary words. But these words are, for the most part, not really appropriate for scientific purposes, because they are not precise enough and fluctuate in their use. Science needs technical terms that have precise and fixed Bedeutungen, and in order to come to an understanding about these Bedeutungen and exclude possible misunderstandings, we provide elucidations. Of course in so doing we have again to use ordinary words, and these may display defects similar to those which the elucidations are intended to remove. So it seems that we shall then have to provide further elucidations. Theoretically one will never really achieve one’s goal in this way. In practice, however, we do manage to come to an understanding about the Bedeutungen of words. Of course we have to be able to count on a meeting of minds, on others’ guessing what we have in mind. 
Also Frege (The Foundations of Arithmetic):
At first, indeed, [Mill] seems to mean to base the science, like Leibniz, on definitions, since he defines the individual numbers in the same way as Leibniz; but this spark of sound sense is no sooner lit than it is extinguished, thanks to his preconception that all knowledge is empirical. He informs us, in fact, that these definitions are not definitions in the logical sense; not only do they fix the meaning of a term, but they also assert along with it an observed matter of fact. But what in the world can be the observed fact, or the physical fact (to use another of Mill’s expressions), which is asserted in the definition of the number 777,864? Of all the whole wealth of physical facts in his apocalypse, Mill names for us only a solitary one, the one which he holds is asserted in the definition of the number 3. It consists, according to him, in this, that collections of objects exist, which while they impress upon the senses thus, \, may be separated into two parts, thus, (.. .). What a mercy, then, that not everything in the world is nailed down; for if it were, we should not be able to bring off this separation, and 2+1 would not be 3! What a pity that Mill did not also illustrate the physical facts underlying the numbers 0 and 1!
I'm no philosopher of mathematics, but Frege's criticism of Mill does seem on target. Mill goes wrong by imagining too limited a set of examples and by thinking of the one example he does consider as if it were fixed. But that is not the real world, and somehow we do manage to get by even though not everything is nailed down. But then Frege seems to want to pin down the meanings of words, despite conceding that in practice this is not really necessary and that in theory it is impossible.

Mill makes what, after reading Frege's criticism of it, seems like a stupid mistake. Frege's problem is of a different kind. There is something wrong with what he wants. He sees the problems himself, but still, apparently, goes on wanting the same thing. So pointing out the problems won't help at all. We might say he needs a kind of therapy, although this won't be regular psycho-therapy. Nor does it at all follow that therapy is what Mill needs.