Thursday, June 20, 2019

Anscombe and the sky

This should really be a tweet, but I'm not sure I can quite cram it into that small a space.

In the introduction to the second volume of her collected papers, Anscombe says that she got into philosophy by way of two stumbling blocks. The first was the idea that every event must have a cause. She goes on:
The other central philosophical topic which I got hooked on without even realizing that it was philosophy, was perception. I read a book by Fr Martin D'Arcy, S.J., called The Nature of Belief and got just that out of it. I was sure that I saw objects, like packets of cigarettes or cups or . . . any more or less substantial thing would do. But I think I was concentrated on artefacts, like other products of our urban life, and the first more natural examples that struck me were 'wood' and the sky. The latter hit me amidships because I was saying dogmatically that one must know the category of object one was speaking of -- whether it was a colour or a kind of stuff, for example; that belonged to the logic of the term one was using. It couldn't be a matter of empirical discovery that something belonged to a different category. The sky stopped me.
Yesterday I learned that at a school prize-giving ceremony, when Anscombe was in the sixth form, the school sang "The Spacious Firmament on High," a hymn I don't think I've ever heard of before. The words (by Joseph Addison) are rather nice:
The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame,
Their great Original proclaim.
The unwearied sun from day to day
Does his Creator's power display,
And publishes to every land
The work of an almighty hand.
Soon as the evening shades prevail
The moon takes up the wondrous tale,
And nightly to the listening earth
Repeats the story of her birth;
Whilst all the stars that round her burn,
And all the planets in their turn,
Confirm the tidings, as they roll,
And spread the truth from pole to pole.
What though in solemn silence all
Move round the dark terrestrial ball;
What though nor real voice nor sound
Amid their radiant orbs be found;
In reason's ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious voice,
For ever singing as they shine,
'The hand that made us is divine.'
Anscombe won a lot of prizes at school, including the "Mary Sybil Raymond Prize (for the best girl going on to a University)".

Here's that hymn:

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Character and personal relationships

Schopenhauer thinks, if I'm remembering correctly, that if you are a hard determinist then you will find it easier to get over the bad things you have done in the past, since you will believe they were inevitable. Presumably, and perhaps he says this too, you might also forgive others more easily.

On the other hand, if you believe in character, as Schopenhauer does, then you might be less likely to forgive and forget, because a person's actions, as you see it, reveal something about their nature. So while a kind deed might prompt you to think of them as nice, a cruel deed might strike you as showing what a nasty piece of work they really are. It's hard to forgive an action if you see it as evidence of something else, some underlying, and probably ongoing, problem.

Perhaps, then, we might all get along better if we think of actions as isolated incidents that reveal nothing at all about anyone's character. Perhaps we would be better off not believing in character at all. But it's very hard to do that. Sartre's view, for instance, strikes me as being the opposite of Schopenhauer's. It takes everyone to be 100% free and to have no character except in retrospect, this character being created by one's choices, not revelatory of any pre-existing condition. So if you have been kind to me a thousand times I have no reason to expect you to be kind again, or to think of you now as a kind person (rather than one who has been kind in the past). Which means that liking you (as opposed to something like being grateful to you) is likely to seem irrational to me, or at least a-rational.

Probably the best view to take is neither Schopenhauer's nor Sartre's, but the issue seems interesting to me. Something like it is raised by Nafsika Athanasouli's question:   
Does anyone know of a non-dispositional account of friendship? I am thinking here of philosophers who argue that evidence from psychology shows there is no such thing as character (or, if it exists, that it is not the kind of collection of dispositional traits some philosophers assume it to be). Some of these philosophers go on to give accounts of morality without relying on character (e.g. John Dorris), but does anyone try to give an account of friendship without dispositions (or character if you prefer)?

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Sean Wilson's new website

Sean Wilson has a new website with information and thoughts on Wittgenstein here. Sean is the author of The Flexible Constitution and New Critical Thinking

Friday, June 14, 2019

The fallacy of the course again

I once talked about what I dubbed the fallacy of the course, which I'll just summarize here instead of trying to link to wherever I did that. The idea is simply that some significant problem can be solved by having students take a (single) course on something. I think this is a really bad idea, but it seems to be widespread and persistent. 

In Inside Higher Ed, John Warner complains (reasonably enough) about the effects of introductory college courses on economics. He recalls his own experience in such a course, and reports that:
Like the millions of other Americans who have taken Econ 101, I remember few of the specifics of macroeconomic theory I was supposed to learn in the class. Supply/demand, competition, market, blah blah blah. I engaged in the age-old tactics of passing a required gen ed class by cramming enough stuff into the temporary storage bin just long enough to take the exam, after which that briefly held knowledge leached from my brain, leaving only the thinnest residue behind. 
In the end, the chief byproduct of my general education exposure was a kind of indoctrination into the centrality of markets to understanding human behavior and the apparent importance of economics professors. 
This strikes me as a pretty good description of what happens to many/most students who take just one course in a subject. But then near the end of his article he asks rhetorically:
What if instead of Econ 101, we’d all taken the media literacy in politics course which would’ve allowed more people to more forcefully challenge the narrative that drove that debate?  
I think we know the answer. Instead of allowing (enabling?) more people to forcefully challenge the narrative, we would find that only the thinnest residue was left behind. This would be likely to be a kind of indoctrination, deliberate or otherwise, into feeling that bias and manipulation are everywhere, that no source of information can really be trusted, and that the truth, if there is such a thing, is effectively unknowable. (I worry that introductory ethics courses can exacerbate skepticism in a similar way.)

And in the comments, someone suggests that a course on ethics should be required before students take introductory economics. Sigh.

Sometimes I think the British system (roughly: study one thing a lot instead of lots of things a little) is better than the US approach. Although really the thing to do is probably just recognize that a single course on its own is often likely to be useless or even positively harmful, and design the curriculum accordingly.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Houses of philosophers

Ray Monk says that Wittgenstein's "last two years were spent living as a guest of his friends and disciples – with Malcolm in Ithaca, von Wright in Cambridge, and Elizabeth Anscombe in Oxford." In case anyone's interested, here's what these places look like.

According to this article, Malcolm's address was 1107 Hanshaw Road, and when Wittgenstein stayed there his room was upstairs. It's easy to find pictures online, such as this one:
1107 Hanshaw Rd, Ithaca, NY 14850

The British Wittgenstein Society says that von Wright lived in a house called Strathaird in Cambridge:

Related image

Anscombe (and Peter Geach) lived at 27 St John Street. According to Monk (who I think took the picture below--it comes from his Twitter account), the first two floors were rented out, so Anscombe and Geach had only the top floor to themselves, and Wittgenstein occupied one room of this floor when he stayed there. The first (i.e., not ground) floor was rented to Barry Pink, whom Wittgenstein described as "very nice." It was of Pink that Wittgenstein said he "wants to sit on six stools at once, but he only has one arse" (Monk, p. 567). Pink married Margaret "Peg" Smythies, who later married first Yorick Smythies (hence the name--she was born Margaret Britton) and then Rush Rhees. One last fun fact: Thom Yorke used to live on St John Street. Here's Anscombe's house:


Rush Rhees's house at 96 Bryn Road, Swansea, looks like this. (The address is given in Wittgenstein's will of 1951, quoted here.p. 32)

Finally, Tommi Uschanov kindly showed me where von Wright lived in Helsinki. Here's the house:

Monday, June 10, 2019

Two thoughts on moral responsibility

Audun Benjamin Bengston has a nice paper here (in the latest issue of Philosophical Investigations) on Strawson on reactive attitudes and on the relevance of Wittgenstein's work for understanding what Strawson is and isn't saying. Here's the abstract:
This paper defends P.F. Strawson's controversial ‘reversal move’, the view that the reactive attitudes determine what it means to be responsible. Many are critical of this account, arguing that it leads to the result that if we were to start to hold very young children responsible, they would be responsible. I argue that it is possible to read Strawson as providing a grammatical analysis of our moral responsibility language‐game by drawing two parallels between Strawson and Wittgenstein. This interpretation shows that the formulation of the problem associated with the ‘reversal move’ rests on a grammatical mistake.
I kept waiting for something like this thought to come up, and eventually it does (the quote is from p. 297):
Just as we can imagine a scenario where the game begins with the end, it is perfectly possible to imagine a culture in which young children are regularly held responsible, but the further question we need to ask is whether our expressions related to our moral responsibility language‐game would be applicable in such a scenario. For what seems to be the case in the formulation of the worry that young children will be seen as responsible is that a different world is imagined, with quite different needs and concerns that in turn will go on to determine a rather different notion of responsibility than the one we have. In order for it to be the case that young children are seen as responsible, we would have to imagine quite a different set of circumstances; our needs and concerns to be quite different from the ones we currently have. Once we do this, then, perhaps, will it become intelligible to us that young children can be held responsible. But crucially, the concept of moral responsibility that they operate with will be quite different from the one we currently possess because the needs and concerns that condition the meaning of moral responsibility are sufficiently different in this imagined scenario. This means that its meaning would be different. This also entails that when we worry that young children would be responsible if we were to start to hold them responsible, we are no longer talking about the same concept. 
Of course, if holding children "morally responsible" involves punishing them then we can still think that doing so is unfair or cruel, but if the words "moral responsibility" are used very differently from the way we use them, then we aren't necessarily dealing with the same concept any more.

My other thought is a response to this:
In ‘Freedom and Resentment’, Strawson draws a distinction between two categories of when moral responsibility attributions are inappropriate: excuses and exemptions.
In the case of excuses, an agent is seen as the appropriate target of moral responsibility attributions, but excused from a particular action he or she performed. In the case of exemptions, the agent is seen as exempted from moral responsibility attributions altogether.
This almost makes it sound as though either one is not morally responsible at all for anything or one is (completely) excused from some individual action because of a reason that applies to (only) that particular action, or one is (completely) responsible. Maybe no one makes the mistake of being this simplistic, but, just in case they do, I want to muddy these waters, at least a bit. Excuses can be partial, after all. That is, a person might be partly excused, their culpability diminished, for some reason, without being wholly excused. And excuses can apply to multiple actions, perhaps even to everything a person does, without their being completely exempt from moral responsibility attributions altogether. For instance, if someone is under a lot of stress this might be a mitigating factor in assessing any bad thing they might ever do, without it meaning that they have the same status as children and the severely mentally ill. And someone might be under stress all the time, perhaps because of a physical disability or poverty or being a member of some low-status group.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019


I've deleted a couple of comments recently, perhaps heavy-handedly. If something seems like spam I'm likely to treat it as such. And if a comment seems irrelevant (even if it seems otherwise right or true) and contains a link then I'm likely to suspect that the link is not what it seems, and to treat the whole comment as spam.

Feel free to let me know when I've been unreasonably or unproductively paranoid. I would like to keep as many comments as possible, but I also want as few dodgy links as possible.

Anscombe's history of ethics

I'm reading Jimmy Doyle's book No Morality, No Self a bit more carefully now and he seems to see Anscombe's history of ethics as having roughly three stages: virtue theory (which is based on doing whatever it takes to have a good life--"egoistic eudaimonism"), a law conception of ethics (which basically means being Jewish or Catholic, and can be combined with virtue theory), and morality (which incoherently tries to have what a law conception of ethics has but without God). So really we have two choices: Aristotelian egoism and theism. Or three, if you include moral skepticism.

I read Anscombe a little differently. She does respect Aristotle, but she also calls the concept of "human 'flourishing'" doubtful, and explains why:
For it is a bit much to swallow that a man in pain and hunger and poor and friendless is "flourishing," as Aristotle himself admitted. Further, someone might say that one at least needed to stay alive to "flourish."
Which suggests that the egoist-eudaimonist view is actually unacceptable (otherwise it would, for instance, be ethical/rational/a good idea to join the SS rather than be killed by them) unless a lot of philosophical work can be done to explain why not. Doyle takes up Anscombe's assertion that "It is clear that a good man is a just man" in order to counter this kind of thought. But I think we then move away from Aristotle. The good and unstrained (she calls the Stoic notion of flourishing "strained") options that Anscombe considers are either being Jewish or Christian (her preference, of course) or else what I have called the plain man's view, which Anscombe describes thus:
Another man, who does not follow the rather elaborate reasoning of the philosophers, simply says "I know it is in any case a disgraceful thing to say that one had better commit this unjust action."    
This is neither very Aristotelian nor very egoist.

Anscombe also rejects a number of other views along the way:

  1. "Butler exalts conscience, but appears ignorant that a man's conscience may tell him to do the vilest things."
  2. Hume: a sophist, defining words so as to get the results he wants
  3. Kant: his theory is absurd and useless
  4. Bentham and Mill: fatal failure to notice that pleasure is such a difficult concept. Mill's theory also lacks content, as does Kant's, because he doesn't stipulate how to describe actions or principles
  5. Protestantism: rejects the idea of Christ as a legislator to be obeyed
  6. Consequentialists after Mill: no good because they refuse to rule acts such as murder out of the question
  7. Following the norms of society: not likely to be any better than Butler's ethics
  8. Following one's own rules, or those of one's ancestors: Ditto. "If one is lucky it will lead to good." It might not, of course, but at least one might have some good, Socratic doubt about whether one is on the right path
  9. Following the laws of nature: unlikely to lead to feelings about harmony or balance, likely instead to result in something like a dog-eat-dog ethic
  10. Obeying some kind of universal or social contract: this would need to be worked out, would be unlikely to provide details (such as prohibiting murder), and lacks an explanation of how we come to be bound by a contract without realizing it  
  11. Following norms embodied in human virtues: possibly OK, but we are then back to Aristotle
The social contract view would be interesting to explore, but mostly Anscombe seems clearly to prefer either religious ethics or the ethics of the unphilosophical plain man, which perhaps we could call Wittgensteinian or ordinary language ethics.

Finally, just for further thought, here's some more of what she says about option #10:
Just possibly, it might be argued that the use of language which one makes in the ordinary conduct of life amounts in some sense to giving the signs of entering into various contracts. If anyone had this theory, we should want to see it worked out. I suspect that it would be largely formal...
This also might be called a kind of ordinary language ethics, although it sounds as though it would involve the development of quite a sophisticated theory. Which doesn't sound like ordinary ordinary language philosophy. I think some of Margaret Gilbert's work might be (very) roughly along these lines.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Contextual ethics

This looks really interesting:

Contextual Ethics I:
Developing Frameworks for Contextual Approaches to Ethics
14-15 November 2019, University of Southern Denmark


Context has become central in contemporary moral philosophy in two distinct ways. Firstly, in the popularity of ’bottom-up’ approaches to a large range of topics such as hope, human nature and moral change. Philosophers engage history, anthropology, literature and empirical research in order to investigate and answer their questions (e.g. Nussbaum 1990; Lear 2006; Appiah 2008, 2010). Secondly, ‘context’ becomes central in the developing meta-ethical stance, we have coined ‘contextual ethics’, found in the work of moral philosophers such as Cora Diamond, Alice Crary and Margaret Urban Walker. A recurring theme in their work is that ‘the ethical’ cannot be exhaustively captured theoretically but is inherently open and interwoven with numerous aspects of human life. This gives context ethical prominence. We can formulate moral rules of thumb such as ‘Do not lie’ and develop general moral frameworks, and these principles and frameworks can be better or worse guides in moral life. But we can never deduce from the rule, what we ought to do in any given situation. This will always depend on the particular case and context. This insight has important consequences for work in moral philosophy.

The aim of this workshop is to discuss how to integrate contextual concerns into moral philosophy and develop adequate theoretical frameworks for research on contextualized ethics.

Please send proposals of no more than 250 words to: Proposals should include: title, author name and title, affiliation, email address. Deadline for receipt of proposals: 15.8.2019. Notification of acceptance will be by 1.9.2019.

[What follows is a response to this call for papers. It might sound at times, especially early on, like a criticism, but it isn't. As, I hope, becomes clear as I go on.] 

I like the bottom-up approach, but it's hard to do. And I've never really tried to teach ethics that way to students, although I also try to avoid the kind of approach that presents a small menu of theories and then invites students to apply them. I have a draft of a post somewhere on teaching ethics, so maybe I'll dig that up and finish it one of these days.

In the meantime, I'm interested in the relation between rules and contexts. A rule won't tell us exactly what to do or how to do it, but it seems that it can tell us something. If I try to live by the rule "Help those in need" and I meet someone clearly in need, the rule tells me to help them. Perhaps there are complicating factors (someone else is already helping them, I am not qualified to give the kind of help they seem to need, helping them will mean not helping someone else nearby who seems even more in need, and so on) but perhaps there aren't. It might be perfectly obvious what my rule requires of me in this situation.

Rules can also tell us what not to do. Rosalind Hursthouse tells the story of Anscombe telling the story of a woman who was hiding Jewish people from the Nazis when the Gestapo knocked on her door. She could not lie, Anscombe says, and so instead she embarrassed the young officer by acting as if she had mistaken him for some beloved relative. He got out of there as quickly as he could, no lies were told, and no one was taken away to be murdered. The story is important because it shows that the standard idea of a moral dilemma (e.g., you must either lie or give someone up to be murdered) is artificial. In real life, it is sometimes possible to find a third, better alternative. Another reason why the story matters is that the appearance of facing a moral dilemma is a big part of what the context was in this case. That is, the woman's absolute rule against lying played a big role in making the situation what it was. It wouldn't have been a dilemma if she had no problem with lying to Nazis. And it wouldn't have been a problem at all (from her perspective) if she had been an obedient Nazi. So rules, I think, (can, sometimes) help make contexts what they are.

It's also worth bearing in mind that contexts are not simply given. They can be imaginatively reconceived, as Cora Diamond points out that Socrates does when faced with the dilemma of staying in prison and being executed or letting his guard be bribed so that he can escape. Socrates does not find a third, better alternative, but he does re-describe his situation in a way that helps him decide what to do.

None of this is to deny that what we do will always depend on the particular case and context. But it does, I think, bring out how that idea is not as simple as it might sound (not that this will be news to the conference organizers, but it might be to others). The context will affect/determine which rules or virtues, if any, are relevant, and in what ways they might be relevant. And the rules or virtues in place (by which, in the case of virtues, I mean the character of the moral agent) will affect/determine the context. So it's complicated.

Which means that it would be a bad idea to adopt a slogan like "not rules but context," but something (if we need to think in terms of slogans) like "not just rules but contexts too" would be very good. And sometimes you don't really need any rules at all, or the relevant rules are so obvious that they don't need to be brought up. Someone who read it more carefully than I did told me that Ta-Nehisi Coates' case for reparations didn't actually make a case as such but simply set out a factual history. Nevertheless, something of this kind (whether or not it's true in this particular case) could constitute a powerful case. It can be very clear from a purely factual description that something ought to be stopped, for instance. (Or that something is owed to someone--Anscombe famously discusses cases of this kind.) This could be in cases where what is described is just so awful that nothing could justify it or, also, in cases where the description of the thing itself needs to be supplemented by descriptions of consequences, alternatives, or other facts. Sometimes, that is to say, facts are all you need. (Or facts plus a certain kind of character to react to those facts, if you like, but sometimes the character in question will be that of any normal human being.)              

Friday, May 24, 2019


I am not qualified to try to define or analyze populism, and other people who are much more qualified have written about it, but I nevertheless want to think about it, and I think there's a chance, however small, that I might end up saying something worthwhile that hasn't already been said. So here goes.

I think that, at least roughly (and technological advances aside), what a lot of people want is the kind of world portrayed in the Asterix books. There, people live in villages or small towns in which there is one blacksmith, one fishmonger, and so on, or perhaps a small number who, to the amusement of others, are rivals. Employment is basically self-employment, and the secrets to success are hard work, skill, and competitive pricing. So it's fair, and everyone benefits (with possible exceptions: see below). Each village in a given province is similar, but every province or country has its own peculiar culture. The British drink a lot of tea, the Spanish take siestas, etc. People everywhere are basically the same, but there is an entertaining assortment of cultures.

I'm sure things were never quite so rosy as this picture suggests. There have always been wars and plagues and serious inequalities of wealth and freedom. But it seems to be roughly what life was like before the industrial revolution, at least when times were good. The big disruptor of the Asterix model was industrialization, which means the end of cottage industry and leads more people to move into cities. This means there is greater efficiency and profit, but less equality. And if family and local charity were ever enough to take care of old, sick, disabled, and otherwise unlucky people (which is doubtful), they aren't any more.

Another disruptor is feminism (and, in the United States, the civil rights movement). The women in Asterix are much less likely than men to have their own businesses. This is still true, but less so (it seems to me, as I should add to every sentence here). This progress in terms of opportunities for women is good, but it means there is more competition for the fishmonger, etc., and a less cushy life at home as well. So women have more options and are, presumably, happier (which could also benefit men), but life is basically worse for men than it was. Justly, but people don't always care as much about justice as they do about their own comfort.

Thirdly there is globalization or free trade. Like industrialization and feminism, this is good overall, but it has its losers. If goods, including jobs, can easily move from one country to another then this is good for the world's poor (who need it most) as well as for business owners (who don't), but at least potentially bad for those in between, who perhaps find that they can buy cars more cheaply but no longer have as good a job as they once did. Globalization also means that each place comes to seem less unique and more like anywhere else (even if this appearance is combined with persistent deep differences of some kind).

Populism is unhappy about these trends. Hardly anyone opposes the industrial revolution, but plenty of people are unhappy about at least some of its effects. The left-wing version of populism, if there really is such a thing, opposes globalization and, especially, inequality. The right-wing version (which is much more noticeable) opposes feminism and globalization. But there is often more to it than this. Here's a list of other features:
  • Fight response (as in fight or flight). People on the right, and especially on the far right, like military stuff, but they especially seem to think of it as a necessary response to a perceived threat. Hence the 'response' part. I suppose this is part of why such people are called reactionaries.
  • Racism. The Asterix books are not exactly free of racism, even if it is intended to be friendly or at least inoffensive. And populism is always likely to involve stereotypes and caricature. But the right-wing version embraces this aspect of populism and digs its heels in (and mixes its metaphors). Cultures are not (regarded as) just different: some are (regarded as) better than others. And the (supposedly) better ones just happen to be those that come from around here, wherever here is in any particular case.
  • Social Darwinism. A major reason why cultures cannot be thought of as simply different is because they are conceived as being in competition with one another. This relates also to the fight response feature of this kind of mindset. Others are (perceived as) a threat. Their appearance requires a defensive response. So globalization, increased openness to interaction with strangers, just as such, is scary. 
  • Tribalism. This is related to racism but prior to it. A tribalist, in my sense, need not think of his or her tribe as better than any other. But they will think of themselves as a member of this or that tribe (rather than as simply an individual). Jonathan Haidt, if I'm remembering correctly, has found that conservative people tend to be sports fans, affiliating themselves with groups, such as sports teams. This is an aspect of Aristotle's idea of the political animal: we are naturally social beings. It relates also to the idea of justice found in Book I of Plato's Republic (but rejected by Socrates) that justice is a matter of helping one's friends and hurting one's enemies.
  • Relativism. Tribalism is also part of Devlin's idea that people need a society, which in turn depends on shared morals, and that these morals need not be particularly good. We just need to have some sort of code, and serious threats to this code cannot be permitted. The conventions matter much less than that we conform to them. This is hard to take seriously unless we abandon the idea that one set of conventions can be better than another. And (so?) one kind of right-wing person is a relativist about ethics. We are better than them, but not in a particularly ethical way. Betterness is more a matter of mere feeling. This is likely to be expressed in more concrete terms--we are more intelligent than them, more ethical, and so on--but if any specific claim to superiority is disproved it will be met with an "Ah, well, nevertheless..." What matters is not so much being better, or even good, as expressing and believing in the superiority of one's own tribe.
  • Irrationality, by which I mean positive hostility to reason (and science, expertise, etc.). Loyalty to the code of one's tribe means rejecting the very idea of objective or dispassionate assessment of norms. (Which is why I think it's questionable to link objectivity with white supremacy culture.) Passion must trump reason. And one's own tribe, and those like it, must be preferred to others, so there can be no respect for the "global community" or humanity in general. The Enlightenment can be championed as a feather in the hat of one's own tribe (if one happens to be European or white or more or less plausibly related in some such way to the Enlightenment), but actual Enlightenment ideals such as human rights or the value of reason (except as understood in tribal terms) are to be rejected. (Which all makes it unsurprising that populists are more likely to believe conspiracy theories.)
  • Anti-individualism. The group and its conventions come first, and assertions of one's own identity or ethics are a threat to this. They ought not to be argued against (although there might be some show of 'arguing', especially if one regards the Enlightenment as a badge of honor as described above) but should be suppressed in other ways, such as mockery and violence. So being trans or vegan, or different in many other ways, is not allowed. Once a kind of difference is conventionally accepted, though, then it's OK. So being gay might be accepted, but any kind of difference is always likely to be (regarded as) dangerous.
  • Immorality, i.e., positive opposition to (some) ethical behavior. The conscience, so far as it is the voice of reason or individual belief, is not to be trusted. It must be overcome. This takes "strength." And strength is already considered a virtue because of the importance of fight response, social Darwinism, and manliness.    
  • Manliness. The ideal person is a not-too-rational team player who is willing to fight, a manly man. This is likely to be an especially popular view among anti-feminists. There's been a lot of attention paid to young incels, but there are also a lot of bitter, divorced, older men out there. 
I don't mean that every populist has all of these features. But they do seem to go together, in practice as well as in theory, and perhaps thinking them through like this helps to bring the connections out.

OK, that's about all I have. If you're disappointed, try this instead: "What We Know Now About Bias". 

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The meaning of Iris Murdoch's work

Philosophers were invited to write on a postcard (to be sent to a randomly chosen fan, I think) what Iris Murdoch's work means to them. The answers are available to read here. Some of my favorite philosophers are there, and it's interesting just to read all the answers as a kind of summary of what Murdoch has to offer.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Nothing to be said?

Here's a chunk from my old paper "Nothing to be Said" (pp. 253-254):

In comments starting here Reshef asks some questions and I sometimes get close to responding relevantly and then sometimes don't. After which he offers a kind of summary of what he's been trying to get at:
I’ve been trying to look through the eyes of the unhappy, or of the happy for that matters. Through their eyes human nature is morally significant. They are responding morally to it. The happiness/unhappiness is their response. 

What I fear, again, is that if we say that not anything could be brought into a moral relation with our lives, we will deny ourselves access to these happy/unhappy points of view: to these moral reactions (also reactions to human nature). I’m not saying that the happy or the unhappy is right. I’m not so much asking this question. And I agree that not everyone will agree. I agree that not on every view of what moral thinking consists in human nature can be a moral issue. I am just worried of a kind of meta-ethics that does not leave room for views, or attitude to life (because I'm not sure we should call happiness or unhappiness “views”), in which human nature is or can become a moral issue.
I want here to get clearer about what I have been saying (what I said in that old paper still seems right to me) and what Reshef is saying. I say "It is not that just anything can be given a moral application" and "It would be a mistake to claim that just anything could be brought into a moral relation with our lives." This certainly sounds like a denial by me that anything whatever could have a morally significant place in one's life. But that isn't what I mean. What I mean is that, although a very wide range of things (including both physical objects, ideas, and sentences) can be morally significant, as can be shown by various examples, these examples do not show that absolutely anything whatsoever could be morally significant. Perhaps it can be, but (as far as my investigation goes) that remains to be seen.

Reshef seems to be saying that someone might have an ethical view, or attitude, according to which everything one cares about is morally significant, precisely because one cares about it. And this (the thing cared about) might be anything at all.

This is a view that I find hard to get in focus, but I don't think I'm ruling it out as a possibility at all. I'm just not endorsing or adopting it.

Am I perhaps trying to do meta-ethics without ethics, and is that a tenable distinction? And what about the points made by Cora Diamond that I quoted here? Not to mention the paper by Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen that I mentioned here. There are reasons to think that I might need to change my tune and not just stick with what I wrote twenty years ago. But at the moment it still seems OK to me.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The absolutely right road

Tommi Uschanov and Reshef have a nice discussion here about what Wittgenstein might mean when he talks about the absolutely right road in the Lecture on Ethics. Tommi provides a link there to this essay by Arto Tukiainen. Tukiainen writes:
Wittgenstein himself connects ethics with logic when he compares absolute goodness to an absolutely right road that everyone chooses with logical necessity after having become aware of it (1965, 7). He qualifies this by saying that if we don't choose absolute goodness, we feel guilty. One might wonder how it is possible to feel guilty for not choosing absolute goodness if choosing it happens with logical necessity. Is it not the case that not choosing absolute goodness and feeling guilty about this excludes choosing it and being happy? So how can choosing absolute goodness happen with logical necessity? How can Wittgenstein compare absolute goodness to a road we choose with logical necessity? (p. 105)
There seems to be a mistake here. Wittgenstein says:
I said that so far as facts and propositions are concerned there is only relative value and relative good, right, etc. And let me, before I go on, illustrate this by a rather obvious example. The right road is the road which leads to an arbitrarily predetermined end and it is quite clear to us all that there is no sense in talking about the right road apart from such a predetermined goal. Now let us see what we could possibly mean by the expression, "the absolutely right road." I think it would be the road which everybody on seeing it would, with logical necessity, have to go, or be ashamed for not going. And similarly the absolute good, if it is a describable state of affairs, would be one which everybody, independent of his tastes and inclinations, would necessarily bring about or feel guilty for not bringing about. And I want to say that such a state of affairs is a chimera. No state of affairs has, in itself, what I would like to call the coercive power of an absolute judge.
I take the alleged logical necessity to be, not that one takes the absolutely right road, but that one either takes this road or feels guilty. So there is no need to wonder "how it is possible to feel guilty for not choosing absolute goodness if choosing it happens with logical necessity". Choosing it does not happen with logical necessity. (Unless I'm misreading the text.)

It's interesting that Wittgenstein says that there is no such state of affairs. How does he know? He goes on not to give evidence (unrepentant murderers, etc.) but to ask what people, including himself, who still want to talk about absolute value have in mind and mean to express. And he thinks then of cases in which he would use such language. Here he starts talking about psychology, and certain kinds of experiences, in the hope that the audience will call to mind similar experiences of their own. (This all sounds like the kind of thing he later recommends not doing in philosophy, although given his particular purpose here perhaps even his later self would be OK with it.)

When he considers these experiences the first thing he has to say is that their verbal expression is a nonsensical misuse of language. These experiences seem to people like him to have "in some sense an intrinsic, absolute value." But a few lines later he concedes that, "it is nonsense to say that they have absolute value." Shortly after that (I'm going through this too fast: one day perhaps I'll write a line-by-line exegesis) he realizes that nonsensicality is the essence of the expressions he is concerned with.

I think, then, that it's not an accident that there just happens to be no state of affairs with the power of a coercive judge. Any such state of affairs, if it did exist, would not be what is wanted. An object or person that made one do what it wanted or else feel mental pain would be evil (cf. Kant, who, however, doesn't say exactly the same thing, and this from Wittgenstein: "If I thought of God as another being like myself, outside myself, only infinitely more powerful, then I would regard it as my duty to defy him." (Recollections of Wittgenstein, ed. Rush Rhees, Oxford University Press, 1984, pp. 107-8)--quoted here). To see what Wittgenstein means to help you see, though, you ought to go through the twists and turns in the lecture.

One final note. The first paragraph of the lecture (there are two in all, the second being the longer) ends thus:
My third and last difficulty is one which, in fact, adheres to most lengthy philosophical lectures and it is this, that the hearer is incapable of seeing both the road he is led and the goal which it leads to. That is to say: he either thinks: "I understand all he says, but what on earth is he driving at" or else he thinks "I see what he's driving at, but how on earth is he going to get there." All I can do is again to ask you to be patient and to hope that in the end you may see both the way and where it leads to.
This, again, warns against relying on a summary of what the lecture says, but it's possible that it isn't just a coincidence that Wittgenstein uses a road metaphor here as he does in explaining what he means by "absolute value," etc.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Burrow

Anscombe was a big fan of Kafka's short story "The Burrow." Unfortunately, I don't know why. She said she didn't understand it at first, so my working hypothesis is that she came to think that she did understand it and that she liked it because of what she took its meaning to be. But what was that?

Coetzee also seems to be a fan, and has a lot to say about time in the story. (In case that link doesn't work for you, the paper is "Time, Tense and Aspect in Kafka's "The Burrow"," in MLN Vol. 96, No. 3, April 1981, pp. 556-579.) A few quotes from this paper might give some idea of what the story is about, and hence of what Anscombe might have taken it to be about:
The state in which Kafka's creature lives is one of acute anxiety (one would call it irrational anxiety if there were any reliable opposition between rational and irrational in his universe). His whole life is organized around the burrow, his defense against an attack which may come at any moment and without warning. (p. 574)
Time in "The Burrow" is discontinuous in a strictly formalizable sense. Any moment may mark the break between before and after. Time is thus at every moment a time of crisis (from Greek krino "to separate, to divide"). Life consists in an attempt to anticipate a danger which cannot be anticipated because it comes without transition, without warning. The experience of a time of crisis is colored by anxiety. The task of building the burrow itself represents a life devoted to trying to still anxiety, naturally without success; for without warning "the enemy" is in the burrow. (p. 575)
What we have in "The Burrow", rather, is a struggle--not only the representation of the struggle but the struggle itself--with time experienced as continual crisis, and experienced at a pitch of anxiety that leads to attempts to tame it with whatever means language offers. (pp. 576-577) 
I don't know whether, or why, questions about tense and time would have interested Anscombe especially (although of course they might have), but I wonder whether it's too fanciful to see a connection with some of what Father Zosima says here (from The Brothers Karamazov):

To transform the world, to recreate it afresh, men must turn into another path psychologically. Until you have become really, in actual fact, a brother to every one, brotherhood will not come to pass. No sort of scientific teaching, no kind of common interest, will ever teach men to share property and privileges with equal consideration for all. Every one will think his share too small and they will be always envying, complaining and attacking one another. You ask when it will come to pass; it will come to pass, but first we have to go through the period of isolation.”

“What do you mean by isolation?” I asked him.

“Why, the isolation that prevails everywhere, above all in our age—it has not fully developed, it has not reached its limit yet. For every one strives to keep his individuality as apart as possible, wishes to secure the greatest possible fullness of life for himself; but meantime all his efforts result not in attaining fullness of life but self-destruction, for instead of self-realization he ends by arriving at complete solitude. All mankind in our age have split up into units, they all keep apart, each in his own groove; each one holds aloof, hides himself and hides what he has, from the rest, and he ends by being repelled by others and repelling them. He heaps up riches by himself and thinks, ‘How strong I am now and how secure,’ and in his madness he does not understand that the more he heaps up, the more he sinks into self-destructive impotence. For he is accustomed to rely upon himself alone and to cut himself off from the whole; he has trained himself not to believe in the help of others, in men and in humanity, and only trembles for fear he should lose his money and the privileges that he has won for himself. Everywhere in these days men have, in their mockery, ceased to understand that the true security is to be found in social solidarity rather than in isolated individual effort. But this terrible individualism must inevitably have an end, and all will suddenly understand how unnaturally they are separated from one another. It will be the spirit of the time, and people will marvel that they have sat so long in darkness without seeing the light. And then the sign of the Son of Man will be seen in the heavens....   

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Taking Back Philosophy

My review of Bryan W. Van Norden's book Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto is, for a limited time, available here. Basically, I agree with him that Western philosophy departments should either rename themselves as such (rather than as simply philosophy departments) or else teach more non-Western philosophy.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Me vs Jimmy Doyle

In his No Morality, No Self, Jimmy Doyle disagrees with me in a couple of places:

That's from p. 206. The following is note 14 from pp. 207-208:
Richter concurs: "Anscombe would agree [with Baier and, he implies, with Richter] that confusion arises precisely when the moral is confused with legal notions of duty, obligation and the rest (not when morality is coherently conceived on the, for example, divine law model)" (1995, 74; my emphasis). Richter also quotes Winch, in his unpublished paper, attributing to Anscombe the suggestion that "there is something unintelligible about a moral modality which lacks external (e.g., Christian or Aristotelian) justification" (Winch, 10, quoted in Richter 1995, 75n27; my emphasis); the clear implication is that a moral modality equipped with such a justification would be intelligible.
One quick point to make is that Winch's paper ("Professor Anscombe's Moral Philosophy") is no longer unpublished. It came out in 1997 in Commonality and Particularity in Ethics, pp. 177-196, edited by Lilli Alanen, Sara Heinämaa, and Thomas Wallgren, in the Swansea Studies in Philosophy series published by Springer. Winch revised his paper in response to criticisms by Lars Hertzberg, so it's possible (I haven't checked yet) that what I say about Winch's paper is no longer true, or is less true, of the revised, published version. 

Another quick point, in response to the second quotation, is that the emphasis, which is Doyle's, makes a difference. If Anscombe had said that, "there is something unintelligible about a moral modality which lacks external (e.g., Christian or Aristotelian) justification" then it might be that "the clear implication is that a moral modality equipped with such a justification would be intelligible." But without the emphasis couldn't one infer instead that perhaps the issue is more with modality than morality? Or that a moral modality equipped with such a justification might be intelligible (while one without it is certainly not)?   

But I should look first at the first quotation, and at the passage to which it is a footnote. Here it is, on p. 31:
As Doyle notes, Anscombe says two inconsistent things. In one place she defines a 'law conception' of ethics as requiring a divine legislator, while in another she allows for the possibility of a law conception without a divine legislator. Which should we treat as a mistake? To settle that I'll have to look in much more detail at Doyle's interpretation and what there is to be said in favor of it, although he says that he doesn't want to press the point and suggests that not much depends on it. So perhaps looking into what he says more will make no difference, but I'll have to do the looking first to know either way. 

Anyway, it seems to me now that the fact that Anscombe discusses several possible secular versions of a law conception of ethics shows pretty conclusively that she does allow for this possibility and does not mean to rule it out by definition. Another alternative, perhaps, is that she uses 'law conception' in two different ways, only one of which is defined as involving a divine lawgiver. I'll have to re-read MMP to decide how plausible that seems after further reflection.  

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Three sides of Elizabeth Anscombe

I said below that I don't have much of a sense of what Anscombe was like just from reading her work. That's not quite true. I was forgetting about things like her description of how fantastic examples are used in moral philosophy, such as the following:
if you had to move forward, and stepping with your right foot meant killing twenty-five fine young men while stepping with your left foot would kill fifty drooling old ones. (Obviously the right thing to do would be to jump and polish off the lot.)
(From "Does Oxford Moral Philosophy Corrupt the Youth?", quoted here.) 

She is joking when she says you should kill all these people. And I think she is sort of joking when she writes, in "Why Have Children?", that Sanjay Gandhi was "fortunately killed" in a plane crash, and that she is "happy to say that quite a few" people who were traveling around India sterilizing men "got lynched." She is at least, I think, enjoying the shock value of saying such things. But she isn't completely joking about this--she is very much against the sterilization program associated with Indira and Sanjay Gandhi. So that's two sides of Anscombe: jokey (in a particular, shocking, kind of way) and genuinely, in all seriousness, fiery.

Here's a third. In the same paper she writes that we should "think of a child as an 'occasion of love'--to be embraced." So she's not all salt and fury. There's love in there too. She's no softy, though, that's for sure.  

Wednesday, March 20, 2019


In "'What Matters to Us?' Wittgenstein's Weltbild, Rock and Sand, Men and Women," Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen connects the certainty that "a human baby cannot look after itself" (p. 151, quoting an example from Danièle Moyal-Sharrock) to the fact that, "if we found an abandoned baby, we would take care of it until we were sure that it was in safe hands. Moreover, we would regard it as an ethical duty to care for it in this way" (p. 152). I'll come back to this below. First, though, a little more from this part of her paper:
I know that I should try to help others in need, but I do not really know anything I could refer to in order to justify this belief; at least not anything that would be more certain . This of course does not mean that I always help others in need, but my acknowledgement of this belief shows in the fact that in cases where I do not manage to or actively refrain from doing so, I feel guilty, try to provide excuses for my negligence etc. (pp. 152-153)
Comparing this with the idea of a Weltbild (roughly, all the things we take for granted, but more importantly, certainties that are not subject to testing and confirmation, and that need to be in place for investigation of knowledge claims to occur), Christensen goes on to suggest that, "the belief that we should help others in need is not an ethical judgement (at least not in most cases), but a prerequisite for such judgements..." (p. 153).

There is a lot here, and I want to try to unpack it and think it through. Or some of it, anyway. In particular I'm thinking of connections with Aristotle and with Wittgenstein's Lecture on Ethics. This, for instance:
Now let us see what we could possibly mean by the expression, "the absolutely right road." I think it would be the road which everybody on seeing it would, with logical necessity, have to go, or be ashamed for not going. And similarly the absolute good, if it is a describable state of affairs, would be one which everybody, independent of his tastes and inclinations, would necessarily bring about or feel guilty for not bringing about.
Christensen doesn't mention necessity, and she is talking about her own knowledge that she should try to help others, not claiming that everyone shares this knowledge, but there's a striking similarity, it seems to me, between what she's saying and what Wittgenstein is talking about in his lecture. Wittgenstein says that there is no absolute good in this sense, but that's precisely because of the necessity and universality that he includes and that Christensen excludes. There is, though, a kind of necessity in Christensen's example, because it involves a certainty that is beyond, or prior to, testing or confirmation. It might not be necessarily true, but it is treated as something like that. It goes without saying (at least in most cases). And this also gives it something like a kind of universality. What goes without saying for me is likely to go for a great many other people too. I don't mean this as a matter of logic. Indeed Christensen gives the example that she is a woman, and this obviously isn't true of everyone. I think Wittgenstein gives the example that his name is Ludwig Wittgenstein, and this is very far from being universal. But part of the reason why it's certain that I have two hands is that everyone (with exceptions, of course) has two hands. Similarly, what I know is not so much that I should try to help others but that one should try to help others (ceteris paribus). So it seems to me there's a connection between Christensen's On Certainty-inspired thoughts here and the Lecture on Ethics. Unfortunately, I'm not yet sure what, if anything, to make of this connection.

The other connection that occurs to me is with Aristotle. Let's go back to the abandoned baby example. Christensen is right, I think, about what we would do if we found an abandoned baby. But not everyone would respond the same way. Some would take sadistic pleasure in neglecting it. Some would neglect it out of mere thoughtlessness. Some would take care of it because they wanted to do so (in a sort of "Hey, free baby!" spirit). Some would be self-conscious about their ethical duty to help the baby, perhaps resisting a temptation to ignore it. And then others would care for it because of course that's the (only) thing to do: a baby can't look after itself. We might think of this last attitude as the result of having internalized the norms of the self-consciously ethical person. Or we might think of it as part of what it means to understand, or to know, what a baby is. Each of these different possible reactions to the situation can be thought of as revealing a different state of the character of the person involved (vicious, incontinent, etc.). I'm not sure what to do with this idea, either.

Maybe this. Each person's (ethical) river-bed is, potentially, different. For some, it goes without saying that you care for an abandoned baby if you find one. For others, it doesn't. And people for whom it does go without saying might vary with regard to the extent to which it goes without saying. The hardness of the ethical 'must', so to speak, might vary. This would affect the way that temptations might affect someone's actions, for instance. Let's say that it goes without saying for me that I would care for any baby I found until I was sure it was in safe hands. Even so, if someone kept offering me more and more money to neglect the baby, then at some point I might start to be tempted to leave it, even if I didn't give in to the temptation. Or, if I'm better than that, I could be tempted by competing ethical demands: look after the baby or rescue that drowning cat, or three cats, or a child in a burning building, or six children in a burning building, and so on. Some people might just not leave the baby, no matter what. Others, presumably, would.          

'Abandoned baby', 'drowning cat', and '$1000 to just walk away now, no questions asked' mean different things to different (kinds of) people. In one case, thing to care for, thing to care for unless there's something more urgent, and disgusting attempted bribe. In another, wailing irrelevance, miaowing irrelevance, and offer too good to refuse. Depending on one's Weltbild, the world will contain different things. This might be one way to understand Wittgenstein's claim that the world of the happy is different from that of the unhappy. It also suggests a (very promising, unless someone's already done it) non-empirical way to think about character and its place in ethics.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Elizabeth Anscombe

It's 100 years to the day since Anscombe was born (h/t Constantine Sandis). I spent last week in Helsinki, where, among other things, I had a day in the National Library reading correspondence between Anscombe and Georg Henrik von Wright. It's weird to find yourself holding a letter that talks about Wittgenstein in the present tense. But what struck me most is how heroic Anscombe was.

Three pictures of Anscombe, I think, are dominant. The main one presents her as a scary kook. The second one portrays her as something of a hero, but a champion specifically of Catholic values. The third one, recently emerging, has Anscombe as a feminist. There's something to each of these, but I think each one misses something important, and even adding all three together might well miss something, most obviously the value of her work as a contribution not only to Catholic thinking but to philosophy in general. 

People (including me) enjoy stories about her eccentricities of dress and behavior, and perhaps try to balance the disrespectful mockery that goes with this, however subtly, by bringing up her formidable intellect and imposing manner. I don't know why she dressed as she did (and, as Mark Oppenheimer points out, it's not particularly relevant), but I've heard that her sometimes wearing things like leopard skin trousers was more to do with shopping at places like Oxfam and having daughters who might borrow her clothes (leaving her only with theirs to wear) than it was any reflection of a punk fashion sense of her own. (And if she did have such a fashion sense then that should be celebrated.) Her eccentric behavior all seems to be to do with sticking up for herself. Two examples: she once talked a man in Chicago out of mugging her by getting him to see that she was a guest in his city, and there is a famous story of her, upon being refused entry into a restaurant because she was wearing trousers, simply taking them off.

These stories are funny, but they aren't only that. They both show courage and the imagination to look for, and find, a good alternative when faced with a seemingly no-win dilemma. This is exactly what she thought was lacking in people who wanted to bomb civilians in World War II. Think about this story:
She chain-smoked for some years, but bargained with God, when her second son was seriously ill, that she would give up smoking cigarettes if he recovered. Feeling the strain of this the following year, she decided that her bargain had not mentioned cigars or pipes, and took to smoking these.
Anscombe's cigar-smoking is a key part of the scary kook story, but consider of the circumstances in which she made this bargain with God. There's nothing funny about it at all.

The second, Catholic hero, picture is closer to the truth, but I think it's a partial picture at best, and one that invites misunderstanding. She certainly was a Catholic, and is greatly, and understandably, admired by others who share her faith. But she wasn't only a Catholic. She was also, for instance, a Wittgensteinian. And an individual with a mind of her own. Mary Geach (one of her daughters) reports that Anscombe said she didn't like to bring up Aquinas' name because doing so tended to make one sort of person (Catholics, presumably) uncritically accepting of whatever was attributed to him and another sort (non-Catholics) uncritically dismissive of it. No doubt this is true, but it shouldn't be taken as a license to read secret references to Aquinas into her work. Her interest in Aristotle, for instance, was surely quite sincere. Perhaps she thought of him as second best to Aquinas, but perhaps she didn't. Perhaps, like Aquinas, she simply believed that we have a lot to learn from his work. And approaching her work with anything like a presupposition that it is going to contain hidden Thomism is a recipe for both (potentially) misconstruing it and encouraging its dismissal by non-Catholics. As Mary Geach points out, "Anscombe drew upon [Aquinas'] thought to an unknowable extent" but did not write a lot about him, even in unpublished papers (see the introduction to From Plato to Wittgenstein: Essays by G.E.M. Anscombe).

The third, feminist, picture is probably the closest to the view of Anscombe that I am coming to have, and want to promote. But, partly because of her Catholicism, she's an unlikely feminist. And, perhaps more to the point, I think I want both to emphasize that she was a woman in a man's world and, once this point has been taken, to forget it for as long as necessary/possible to appreciate her work just as work in philosophy. Calling her a feminist or focusing on her links with other women, such as Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch, risks obscuring the fact that she was a great philosopher. Calling her a great philosopher, on the other hand, risks obscuring the fact that she was a great woman philosopher, or that she was a woman.That fact doesn't, I suppose, need emphasizing, except that there is a human story, or a picture of Elizabeth Anscombe as a human being, that seems to get overlooked. And it's worth seeing, partly because it's true and partly because it's simultaneously horrifying and inspiring.

The best Anscombe biography I know of is this one, by Jenny Teichman. The period that most interests me is, roughly, 1942-1962. Anscombe married Peter Geach in December 1941 and first met Wittgenstein in 1942. By 1962 most of her best philosophical work had been done and, I assume, most, if not all, of her children had been born. The youngest would have been more or less grown up.

Teichman notes that:
Her work on part 1 of Philosophische Untersuchungen (Philosophical Investigations) was carried out under [Wittgenstein's] guidance and completed shortly before he died in April 1951. The translation of part 2 was ready in time for the whole book to be published in 1953; Anscombe's English was printed en face with Wittgenstein's German. She later translated his Remarks on the Foundation of Mathematics (1956), Notebooks, 1914–16 (1961) [...]
and other works. Teichman continues:
Anscombe's own writings comprised two books, Intention (1957) and An Introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus (1959), and part of a third, Three Philosophers: Aristotle, Aquinas and Frege (1961, with Peter Geach). 
She also wrote numerous papers, including the hugely influential "Modern Moral Philosophy," which was published in 1958.

This is an incredible body of work to have produced, metaphorically speaking. But it's almost literally incredible when you think that she gave birth to seven children and, as far as I can tell, was their primary caregiver. (Along with Peter Geach, of course, but my impression is that she did more parenting and cooking, etc. than he did.) She must have been exhausted. And yet she went on. And the children weren't just numerous. They did things like get seriously ill, in one case, and hit by a car, in another. And her publications weren't just numerous either. They did things like change the course of philosophy (our understanding of Wittgenstein, the philosophy of action, and ethics). It's a remarkable achievement. Worth celebrating.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Zeitschrift für Ethik und Moralphilosophie

Readers of this blog are likely to enjoy at least some of this new journal. It's open access and contains articles by Roger Teichmann (on Anscombe on ethics), M. J. B. Stokhof (on Wittgenstein on ethics), David Owen, Christine Korsgaard, and others. 

Monday, February 4, 2019

The dense, glittering stream of reality

Perhaps the most philosophical film of last year was Happy as Lazarro, in which the title character is reminiscent in some ways of both Socrates and Christ, and in which vaguely Marxy questions are raised about politico-economic systems and people's lives within them. (To be less obscure: when a group of peasants are moved overnight from a feudal society into a contemporary capitalist one they still end up broke and with very little opportunity to improve their lives. Does this reveal their lack of grit, initiative, etc. or show that the system is to blame? Or, since this is a work of fiction, does it show nothing at all?) But I would like to think of Zama as philosophical too. The best review I've found of it is this one in The New York Review of Books. It's here that the director, Lucrecia Martel's, desire "to film not Don Diego [Zama]’s hallucinations or his distorted perception of the world, but the dense, glittering stream of reality he moves through: the experience that precedes the interior monologue" is described. Also worth reading, though, is Glen Kenny's review, which notes that the film ends "on a scene of verdant nature not entirely stained by humanity." 

The dense, glittering stream of reality through which Zama moves is not only the horrible and absurd colonialism that most reviews focus on but also the verdant and magical natural world, with its llamas, tall grasses, and strangely attired human inhabitants. Zama is mostly talked about in the reviews I've read as an absurd figure living a frustrated and ridiculous life that he deserves because his sins are "of his own making." There is something to this, of course (why would so many critics say it otherwise?, and aren't everyone's sins of their own making?), but he can also be seen, it seems to me, as a kind of everyman. He is described as mediocre, which suggests averageness, and as characterized by "thwarted dignity and unrequited desires, [and] his bewildered attempts to grasp the logic of his predicament and exercise some sort of control." Otherwise known as the human condition, as Geoff Dyer might say.

There is a real danger that I'm projecting (I certainly tend to think "human world bad, natural world good"), but it seems to me that Zama contrasts the violent, mediocre, cruel, and tedious worlds that people make for themselves with the almost literally incredible larger world of beauty and strangeness around us. Zama waits for a transfer to another post that never comes, but the switch he really needs to make is of a different kind.

Searching for Zama led me to Scipio Africanus, which features a recreation of the Battle of Zama. This is literally fascist propaganda (made in Italy in 1937), but it seems tame in comparison with a movie like 300. It's been a while since I saw that film, and I don't plan to watch it again just to get my facts straight, but as I recall 300 pits a bunch of manly British actors playing Spartans against a bizarre coalition of brown and Asian types (didn't some of them look Samurai-ish?), led by a queer Xerxes. My point is not to bash an old movie but to note that the racism, nationalism, and lust for war (or glory) in Scipio Africanus is no worse than we are used to seeing in movies, and in some cases significantly weaker than what can easily be found in contemporary culture. Whether this causes fascism is probably debatable, but it can't be good.