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.

Friday, April 27, 2018


When Wittgenstein talks about the right way to Grantchester in his Lecture on Ethics, presumably he just picked a destination more or less at random. But it's an appropriate place for him to have chosen in the light of Rupert Brooke's poem "The Old Vicarage, Grantchester" (written in 1912). I won't quote the whole thing, but here's a bit, describing Grantchester as a (dubious) kind of heaven on earth:
In Grantchester their skins are white;
They bathe by day, they bathe by night;
The women there do all they ought;
The men observe the Rules of Thought.
They love the Good; they worship Truth;
They laugh uproariously in youth;
(And when they get to feeling old,
They up and shoot themselves, I’m told) . . . 
Perhaps anyone in Berlin, where Brooke was when he wrote the poem, would head to Grantchester or else feel ashamed for not doing so. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018


If I had time one of the things I would most like to do is write a book about Schopenhauer, possibly relating his thought to that of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Anscombe. So I might blog about him, especially The World as Will and Representation, from time to time. Here are some interesting bits of the preface:
I propose to point out here how this book must be read in order to be thoroughly understood. By means of it I only intend to impart a single thought. Yet, notwithstanding all my endeavours, I could find no shorter way of imparting it than this whole book. I hold this thought to be that which has very long been sought for under the name of philosophy
According as we consider the different aspects of this one thought which I am about to impart, it exhibits itself as that which we call metaphysics, that which we call ethics, and that which we call æsthetics
no other advice can be given as to how one may enter into the thought explained in this work than to read the book twice, and the first time with great patience, a patience which is only to be derived from the belief, voluntarily accorded, that the beginning presupposes the end almost as much as the end presupposes the beginning, and that all the earlier parts presuppose the later almost as much as the later presuppose the earlier.
the first perusal demands patience, founded on confidence that on a second perusal much, or all, will appear in an entirely different light
The second demand is this, that the introduction be read before the book itself, although it is not contained in the book, but appeared five years earlier under the title, “Ueber die vierfache Wurzel des Satzes vom zureichenden Grunde: eine philosophische Abhandlung” (On the fourfold root of the principle of sufficient reason: a philosophical essay).
But the same disinclination to repeat myself word for word, or to say the same thing a second time in other and worse words, after I have deprived myself of the better, has occasioned another defect in the first book of this work. For I have omitted all that is said in the first chapter of my essay “On Sight and Colour,” which would otherwise have found its place here, word for word. Therefore the knowledge of this short, earlier work is also presupposed.
Finally, the third demand I have to make on the reader might indeed be tacitly assumed, for it is nothing but an acquaintance with the most important phenomenon that has appeared in philosophy for two thousand years, and that lies so near us: I mean the principal writings of Kant
He likens reading Kant to having cataracts removed and to being reborn. And yet he does not seem to think that Kant has yet done enough.

There is also quite a bit of Wittgenstein-ish stuff like this (from the second preface):
anything true one may have thought, and anything obscure one may have thrown light upon, will appeal to any thinking mind, no matter when it comprehends it, and will rejoice and comfort it. To such an one we speak as those who are like us have spoken to us, and have so become our comfort in the wilderness of this life.  
Compare the first words of the Tractatus' preface:
This book will perhaps only be understood by one who has himself already at some time thought the thoughts that are expressed herein – or at least similar thoughts. –It is therefore not a textbook.—Its end would be reached if it gave pleasure to one person who read it with understanding.
In general there seem to me to be quite a few similarities to the early Wittgenstein here, even if they turn out to be only superficial.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

American playlist

I haven't posted much lately, which always makes me feel both lazy and that I must post something pretty good to make up for it. This is not that pretty good post. Instead it's some nonsense about music. Sorry.

I recently visited St Louis and doing so got me thinking about driving across the country, and what music I would listen to if I did that. I'm thinking of a playlist made up of ten blues albums, ten jazz albums, ten folk albums, ten country albums, and ten rock'n'roll albums. Within each genre I'd like, within reason, to approximate an ideal of two albums by each of the best two female artists, two albums by each of the best two male artists, one compilation, and one album by someone else. And the idea is to emphasize classics, so nothing of merely historical interest and nothing too recent. All artists should be from the USA.

What's likely to happen is that I don't ever do the road-trip but do create and listen to the playlist. So I'd like it to be good.

If you have suggestions, e.g., for specific albums, feel free to make them here.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Winch on Understanding Other People

If you have access to the journal Philosophical Investigations you can read my forthcoming paper by following this link. I should be able to get access for other people soon, too. Stay tuned.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Ethics After Anscombe

Something very close to the published version of this book is now available at

Friday, March 16, 2018


Maybe I'm just unusually ignorant, but the version of the Encyclopedia Britannica that I remember seeing online contained either very short articles or perhaps an introductory paragraph followed by a message that I didn't have the right to read the rest of the article. As far as I can see this has changed, and not just because my library has taken out a subscription. The whole thing seems to be available for free as long as you don't mind seeing some ads. And the philosophy artifices look very good. There's Ray Monk on Wittgenstein, Roger T. Ames on Confucius, Wendy Doniger and others on Hinduism, and so on. Apologies if this is old news. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Eldridge lore

Richard Eldridge has an interesting essay on liberal education here. I don't know that I have much interesting to say about it, but he talks about the point of higher education, which I have talked about before, and I do have something, however slight, to say in response.

One of his key ideas is this:
human beings are enabled to flourish in and through the exercise of rational powers only through education as paideia: the actualization of rational powers and the direction of preference and interest toward appropriate ends. Merely having a biological life and a lot of pleasant experiences is not sufficient for living well. Absent education as paideia, then, human life threatens to collapse back out of the rational-cultural and into the animal-instinctual. To flourish, we must learn from each other to engage in activities that support the actualization of rational powers.
This is another:
If I can get students to pay attention — close attention — to the details and intricate coherences of, say, François Truffaut’s Day for Night or Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or James Baldwin’s Another Country, Friedrich Hölderlin’s “Half of Life” or Rilke’s “An Archaic Torso of Apollo,” Plato’s Symposium or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, then, I think to myself, that’s something. There’s a chance that they will resonate to the insights and, more important, the powers of perception infused with thought that are manifest in these works. They might learn to see their lives, their social circumstances, and the currently obscure possibilities within them more clearly and with more hope. That would be something, and I am not quite ready to give up. 
And his conclusion is along these lines:
In any case, I will carry on, with such modest successes in paideia as I am able to manage. Within a general culture that no longer expects or appreciates paideia and within an institution that is shaped by that general culture, this will sadly remain difficult and often-enough fruitless work. The larger issue is the plight of liberal education, paideia, in an ongoing war between Deweyan-Rawlsian liberal democracy and neoliberalism, where neoliberalism is winning.
I'm sympathetic to a lot of what he says, even if he sounds a bit like a grumpy old man (as I often do) when he brings up electronic dance music. But do I really agree that developing powers of perception is what higher education should mostly be about? Would I spend tens of thousands of dollars a year to send each of my children to university just for that? I think I would not, unless I had won millions on the lottery. 

One thing to note is that I wouldn't count on any university in particular right now to even try to get students to pay close attention to great works of art. My daughter (majoring in engineering) goes to an expensive university and has not been required to take any course that aims to do this. I don't think the college I teach at requires its students to take any such course either. So if you're paying for this kind of paideia, at least at one of those two places, you're out of luck. Secondly, students get exposed to some works of art in high school, and can be exposed to more by their parents. Might that be enough? And thirdly, how much can colleges and universities do to make students appreciate great works? Even if that is a worthwhile goal, and I think it is, is enough success likely to make the great expense of college worth it? Eldridge emphasizes the value of science, art, politics, and friendship. If someone like my daughter is already invested in three of these heavily and takes some interest in the fourth, how much should I worry that she might be missing out on something really important? A little, but enough to justify spending lots of money for the possibility of maybe partially filling the gap? The question seems simply irrelevant to all but the richest parents.

Eldridge, I think, recognizes this. The problem is less what universities teach and more the precarious state in which people entering the job market find themselves. If there were less inequality, if being at the bottom were less terrible, then we would be less worried about the need for our children to get job qualifications. It would also help, of course, if higher education were much less expensive. In the meantime, though, as he suggests, colleges and universities can at least try to cultivate the minds of students in less utilitarian ways. I agree with him that it's a shame we don't do more of this.  

As things stand, a college degree increases one's expected lifetime earnings enormously but is also very expensive. Which means the advantage goes to the children of richer parents. That is unfair, and means that we all suffer from living in a less meritocratic society (the talents of working class children are often wasted, to the disadvantage of all except the less talented members of the higher classes). This strikes me as a bigger issue than paideia.

But I do care about paideia as well.     

Friday, March 9, 2018

Miranda Fricker at Washington & Lee

Yesterday Miranda Fricker spoke at Washington & Lee University about "Epistemic Equality as a Condition of Well-functioning Blaming and Forgiving." It was a strange experience for me because we were contemporaries as undergraduates, not just at the same university but at the same college within the university, although I don't think we've ever had a conversation. She has achieved rather more than I have since then. I'm not sure that her promise was recognized as much as it should have been at the time.

She talked her talk rather than reading it, which was impressive and more engaging than the usual philosophy presentation, but it also led to a problem with timing and, unless I missed something, she didn't get to finish saying what she meant to say, even in abbreviated form. It didn't help that a man in the audience interrupted the talk to ask a question. What she did say was a kind of (necessarily very brief) summary of her ideas about epistemic injustice, followed by some application of these ideas to blame (I don't think she got to forgiveness, except perhaps very briefly).

Epistemic injustice occurs when someone either is not listened to, or is not taken fully seriously, when they make a statement because of unjust prejudice against them or some group to which they belong, or when their participation in "practices of shared social understanding" is limited. These ideas of Fricker's are relatively well known.

What was new in this talk, as far as I know, was the application to blame. I was slightly confused by some of this, so I may be presenting the ideas inaccurately, but here's what I think she said. One kind of blame (and by 'blame' she seems to mean the public act of accusing someone of having done wrong, not just holding a grudge or privately judging someone to be in the wrong) is fairly straightforward: your friend is late to meet you, say, and you point this out (perhaps she had thought the arranged time was later than it really was), whereupon she acknowledges the badness of her behavior, apologizes, and life goes on as normal. Another kind, though, is more complicated. This is the part I struggled with, especially in terms of imagining an actual example of the phenomenon in question.

This kind of blame involves someone who does not see anything wrong with their behavior, who sees no reason why they should have behaved differently. Here pointing out what they did will make no difference to them. Perhaps they acknowledge that they were late but see no reason why they should ever be punctual, for instance. Fricker's handout says:
Treat someone as if she already recognizes a reason to have acted differently, and (given she has sufficient base-line respect or care for you) you may thereby cause her to come to recognize the reason.
I'm speculating here, but maybe the idea is something like this. I tell my friend not to worry about her lateness since the time flew by as I waited for her because I was enjoying reading and rarely get a chunk of time like that in which to read; she is initially puzzled because she doesn't expect people to care about lateness, but realizes that I obviously take it to be something one might well care about; putting two and two together, she comes to see that even if she never minds when others are late, she had better be more careful with other people's time in future.

If she goes through a process of reasoning like this then the value of punctuality has now become more widely entrenched in our social world. But whether his happens, or to what extent it happens, will depend in part on how seriously she takes what I say and on how well she is able to understand what I am saying. So there is room for problems of epistemic injustice to make a difference here.

That, at least, is what I think she means. And it seems right to me.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The fallacy of the course again

I wrote about the fallacy of the course here. Since I have several posts drafted but never seem to get around to finishing and posting them, I may as well revisit the idea. In a nutshell, where it probably belongs, the fallacy is to think that requiring students to take a course will give them some significant, life-enhancing skill. Put like that it doesn't sound so fallacious, perhaps, but here's an example from the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Students in every major are well advised to take a class or two in improvisational acting, creative writing, or drawing. Being proficient at writing code or any other technical skill will take you only so far in an evolving labor market.
Without creativity, good luck not being replaced by a less costly alternative.
See the problem? A class or two in drawing will not make you creative. Perhaps it will make you more creative in some ways (though I doubt it--I imagine it would mostly a) make clear to you that you are not that great at drawing, and b) teach you some techniques to improve your drawing). But why on earth would anyone think it would make you more imaginative in a general or transferable way?  

Parts of the article are fine. Its overall point, rightly understood, might even be right. But it's hard to think that any real thought has gone into it when you see this kind of thoughtless blather about creativity.

For more of my grumpy ranting see also here

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Belgrade Philosophical Annual: Perspectives on Wittgenstein

You can read the whole issue online (as far as I can see) here. The details are these:

Issue 30, Year 2017

Belgrade Philosophical Annual
Institute for Philosophy, University of Belgrade
ISSN: 0353-3891
Guest Editors: James R. Connelly, Andrej Jandrić, Ljiljana Radenović


Hans-Johann Glock


Arif Ahmed


Leon Kojen


Severin Schroeder


S.G. Sterrett


Pasquale Frascolla


James Russell Connelly


Henry Jackman


Russell B. Goodman


Dejan Todorović


David G. Stern


Ljiljana Radenović, Slaviša Kostić

Saturday, February 17, 2018

(in parenthesis)

This website, dedicated to Anscombe, Foot, Murdoch, and Midgley, looks great.
“The Golden-Age of Female Philosophy” is a rare case of women flourishing and achieving collective prominence in the discipline, at a standard that rivalled their male counterparts. Through a detailed historical study of this period, with particular focus on the life and work of Mary Midgley, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe and Phillipa Foot, In Parenthesis describes the particular conditions under which this happened. As well as illuminating some of the more well-documented barriers to inclusion, there is scope to discover unknown factors and ultimately new strategies for gender activism within philosophy. By examining a brief window, albeit in parenthesis, where the social and intellectual landscape of academic philosophy was altered as a result of the disruptions of the second World War, the current project promises to reflect on the questions facing contemporary women philosophers and the more general question of ‘women in philosophy’, as it is known.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Grappling with every donkey

Some interesting stuff about Wittgenstein on an essay by Ludwig Hänsel on p. 19 of this catalogue.
Summarising his opinion on the front wrapper, Wittgenstein writes: "Auch ein Museum braucht einen Kurator, der weiß, was wohin zu stellen ist, und nicht Dreck und Wertvolles durcheinander in alle Schränke stellt" (museums need curators who know what goes where, and don't jumble up the rubbish with the valuable stuff). In the margins of the text, like a schoolmaster, he convicts Hänsel of waffle ("Geschwätz, gehauen nicht & nicht gestochen!"), ambiguity ("Wie verschwommen!") and lack of focus ("Wenn man sich mit jedem Esel herumschlägt, wird man leicht selber einer" – if you grapple with every donkey you'll become one yourself). He asks at one point "Was ist durch diese Fassung geleitet?" (how does this get us any further forward?), and at another writes "Hier wird kein Problem gelöst, sondern nur das, was problematisch wiederholt" (here you haven't solved the problem, only restated it). He also observes "Nimm die Wiederholungen fort & das Leere der Paragraphen wird sich zeigen" (take these repetitions out, and the vacuity of the paragraphs will be manifest). Towards the end, in mock-exasperation, he declares "Wenn das Philosophie ist, dann sollten die Menschen ein für allemal auf sie verzichten" (if that's philosophy, then we should all give it up for good), and against Hänsel's closing paragraph he suggests he keep his pearls of wisdom to himself - "Behalt's bei Dir!"
H/t Julian Baggini on Twitter.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Anscombe and Wittgenstein

Looking for information about this book I came across a blog post with some nice memories of Anscombe. It's by Louis Roy O.P., and he writes:
During homilies, she and her husband Peter Geach, himself also a renowned philosopher, would look at the preacher with severe, apparently distrustful eyes. Given that they had got in touch with the Dominican prior provincial of England to accuse of heresy a friar at Cambridge who was on the whole more traditional than me in his ideas, it was intimidating to preach in front of these two powerful and highly critical intellects.
If accusing people of heresy doesn't sound very nice, this is more heartening:
Yet they cared for Dominicans and they invited me to dinner once. Their residence had no curtains – a bit like the bare house Wittgenstein had designed for his sister. Seated on the floor, they drew for me the truth tables (or logical constants) of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus on a little black slate. Realizing that I was not understanding much about those tables, I was afraid they would summon me to rephrase the gist of what they had taught me – which I would have been incapable of doing. Fortunately, I did not undergo this humiliation, because it was soon time for supper. The prayers were pronounced with piety. Suddenly John, a simple-minded person who would spend his days in town, speaking with anybody – including me –, appeared and ate with us. The Geaches had invited him to occupy a room in their home, but he declined, explaining he would prefer staying next door, in the shed.
The whole thing is worth reading.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

God as the creator of the world

Something that I would expect someone (specifically DZ Phillips, if I had to guess) to have done is to take Wittgenstein's sentences "My attitude toward him is an attitude toward a soul. I am not of the opinion that he has a soul" and "The human body is the best picture of the human soul" and use them as a model for talking about God. A quick search on Google suggests that someone (indeed it is DZ Phillips) has done this for the latter but that no one has done it for the former. On p. 240 of Religion and Hume's Legacy, edited by Phillips and Timothy Tessin, Phillips writes:
Wittgenstein said that the human body is the best picture of the soul. Maybe for religious believers the world is the best picture of God -- the face and gesture of God. They believe there is something to be seen here. When the Psalmist says that the heavens declare the glory of God, he does not mean that the heavens are evidence of the glory of God. What he means is not captured by the cosmological argument. 
This seems about right to me, and yet:
  1. Is it better to say that the world is the best picture of God or that it is the only true picture of God, that it is the picture of God? Ramanuja says something like: the world is the body of God. (Sally McFague sounds like someone else to read on this too.) Perhaps that goes too far, but if so it's going too far in a good direction.
  2. I don't like the addition of the words "the face and gesture of God," as if there is much to God that is not to do with the world. The idea I want to see expressed is that God is the creator of the world, so that as long as we accept the idea of the world then it almost goes without saying that God exists. 'God' means: whatever brought this about. But without accepting any such thought as: There is some x such that ...   
  3. I'm also not sure about "there is something to be seen here." There is everything to be seen here, I would say.
  4. As for the Psalmist, why not say that the heavens are evidence of the glory of God? What else might count as such evidence? What better evidence could there be?  On the one hand I would say this, but on the other hand, point 2 implies (rightly) that talk of evidence is really out of place here. That is: there is no question of evidence, really. But if we are going to allow such loose talk, then the whole (natural) world and each thing in it is all the evidence you could ever need. The world is evidence of God in the way that a dead body with a knife in its heart is evidence of a murder.
  5. There are different cosmological arguments made by different people for different purposes. Couldn't some of them be attempts to express what I am trying to say in 2 above?
The idea that belief in God might be something like an attitude probably sounds too much like atheism for some people. But if it's an attitude that cannot be expressed or explained without reference to God then it is surely not exactly atheistic. 

Wittgenstein himself might be brought in as a witness against the idea of belief as attitude. In his lectures on religious belief the following exchange is said to have taken place:
Suppose someone, before going to China, when he might never see me again, said to me: “We might see one another after death” – would I necessarily say that I don't understand him? I might say [want to say] simply, “Yes. I understand him entirely.”
Lewy: “In this case, you might only mean that he expressed a certain attitude.”
I would say “No, it isn't the same as saying "I'm very fond of you” – and it may not be the same as saying anything else. It says what it says. Why should you be able to substitute anything else?
But Wittgenstein doesn't here (assuming he is being quoted accurately) deny that the person going to China is expressing an attitude. What he primarily denies is that what is expressed can be equally well expressed in different words. There is also an implication that we are not talking about a mere attitude. On p. 12 Wittgenstein is reported as saying:
“He could just as well have said so and so” – this [remark] is foreshadowed by the word “attitude”. He couldn't just as well have said something else.  
This is his objection to the word 'attitude' here. If we use the word' attitude' in some other way, as in the "attitude toward a soul" case, I would think, then the objection doesn't stand.

What if the same idea could be expressed in other words? In the Lecture on Ethics he says that:
all religious terms seem in this sense to be used as similes or allegorically. For when we speak of God and that he sees everything and when we kneel and pray to him all our terms and actions seem to be parts of a great and elaborate allegory which represents him as a human being of great power whose grace we try to win etc. But this allegory also describes the experience which I have just referred to. For the first of them is, I believe, exactly what people were referring to when they said that God had created the world; and the experience of absolute safety has been described by saying that we feel safe in the hands of God. Third experience of the same kind is that of feeling guilty and again this was described by the phrase that God disapproves of our conduct.
The suggestion here is that we describe or point to certain experiences by saying certain things, in this case about God. Saying that God created the world refers to the experience of wonder at the very existence of the world. It sounds a bit odd to say that we are referring to or describing experiences here, and to talk as if describing an experience is the same thing as referring to it. Imagine a dialogue:
A: I sometimes have this feeling of absolute safety
B: What's that like?
A: We are safe in the hands of God
Or this:
A: God created the world
B: What are you referring to?
A: I wonder at the existence of the world
These are not the best dialogues ever written, but they don't seem that odd to me after all. In the abstract, referring to something and describing it seem like different things, but in these cases they seem to more or less come to the same thing. It is clear that we are not in the business here of simply describing or referring. It's more that something is being expressed, and I don't know what to call that something except an attitude. Wittgenstein calls it an experience, but it's not an experience that can be described without reference to the attitude in question. It isn't an experience like the feeling you get when x happens (the dentist gives you laughing gas, say), or the experience of  Mardi Gras in New Orleans (which might not be any particular kind of feeling). Wondering at the existence of the world is not just feeling wonder. (The existence of the world is not a state of affairs that happens to be the cause of feeling W in this case.) Nor is it the experiencing of some particular event or state of affairs. Whatever it is, it is something (not some thing) that cannot be understood without reference to something like the existence of the world or God's act of creation.

Whether it is (rightly or best called) just an attitude will depend, I would think, on how it goes with the rest of one's life.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Nordic Wittgenstein Review

Volume 6, Number 2 is out now.

There are papers by Lars Hertzberg and Edmund Dain, among others, and a review of Roger Teichmann's new book by me.

Mark Smith is dead

If you know who he is then you already, almost certainly, know this. But it's still sad.

Rather than pick one of his songs, here's one that was inspired by him.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

If a whale could speak

Furthermore, as his windpipe solely opens into the tube of his spouting canal, and as that long canal- like the grand Erie Canal- is furnished with a sort of locks (that open and shut) for the downward retention of air or the upward exclusion of water, therefore the whale has no voice; unless you insult him by saying, that when he so strangely rumbles, he talks through his nose. But then again, what has the whale to say? Seldom have I known any profound being that had anything to say to this world, unless forced to stammer out something by way of getting a living

Monday, January 15, 2018

Nutshell studies

More about these scenes here. And, if you're wondering, these are just pictures from an exhibition I visited recently accompanied by passages of philosophy that they reminded me of. I'm not trying to make a deep point.