Monday, November 11, 2019

Forma de Vida 17 (Anscombe)

The Portuguese journal Forma de Vida has a special issue on Anscombe with articles in English by me, Nuno Venturinha, and others, and (not new) articles in Portuguese by Alasdair MacIntyre, Cora Diamond, James Conant, and others. It looks really good, partly because of photography by Ana Frias. My article is a re-working of thoughts that started out in this post.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

"A lot of things happened."

Candace Vogler's autobiographical essay is remarkable, and not only for the horrors she recounts having been done to her (and others). I hesitate to say anything critical given this context, but along the way she says this:
I had started reading work by G.E.M. Anscombe in graduate school. I loved Intention. It seemed likely that there was a ghost writer at work in that slender volume, and it seemed clear that it wasn’t Aristotle. I knew that Anscombe was a devout Catholic, a convert, so I suspected that the ghost author could be Aquinas.
Exactly what "there was a ghost writer at work in" Anscombe's book means is hard to say: it could mean that only a few parts were 'ghost-written', or that it all was. But I think this is a bad way to approach Anscombe's work. No doubt she was influenced by Aquinas, as she was by Wittgenstein and Aristotle (whom she openly talks about). It is, nevertheless, her work, the product of very difficult and careful thinking. And she deserves full credit for it. (I don't think Vogler would deny this at all, but inviting the inference is a danger inherent in what she says here. And she's not the only Anscombe scholar who makes remarks like this.)

Friday, October 18, 2019

Amazon (tedious legal notice)

UPDATE: As far as I can tell I am no longer an Amazon Associate. Phew.

I just got this email from Amazon:
Hello Associate,

This is a reminder of your disclosure obligations under the Operating Agreement. Any time you share an affiliate link, it’s important to disclose that to your audience. They will trust you more if you are transparent about where you are directing them and why. To meet the Associate Program's requirements, you must (1) include a legally compliant disclosure with your links and (2) identify yourself on your Site as an Amazon Associate with the language required by the Operating Agreement.

To comply with Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations, your link-level disclosure must be:
1. Clear. A clear disclosure could be as simple as “(paid link)”, “#ad” or “#CommissionsEarned”.
2. Conspicuous. It should be placed near any affiliate link or product review in a location that customers will notice easily. They shouldn’t have to hunt for it.

In addition, the Operating Agreement requires that the following statement clearly and conspicuously appears on your Site: “As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.” For social media user-generated content, this statement must be associated with your account.

Associates should also consider the relevant social media platform’s guidelines. For example, Associates may use Facebook's Branded Content tool.

Visit this page on AC to bookmark this information about disclosures.

Thank you,

Amazon Associates Program
I will try to avoid linking to Amazon in future, since I am an Amazon Associate but don't want to jump through all these hoops. Apologies to any readers who bought books from Amazon after following a link here without realizing that I might profit as a result. (I think I have made less than $5 this way so far. But it was fun while it lasted.)

Saturday, September 28, 2019

James Klagge

... has a website. There's all sorts of good stuff here about Wittgenstein, etc. For instance, this on Wittgenstein's lectures.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Schopenhauer

Some popular philosophy by me is available here.

Morality in a Realistic Spirit

This collection of essays is now out. Here's the publisher's description and the table of contents:
This unique collection of essays has two main purposes. The first is to honour the pioneering work of Cora Diamond, one of the most important living moral philosophers and certainly the most important working in the tradition inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. The second is to develop and deepen a picture of moral philosophy by carrying out new work in what Diamond has called the realistic spirit.
The contributors in this book advance a first-order moral attitude that pays close attention to actual moral life and experience. Their essays, inspired by Diamond’s work, take up pressing challenges in Anglo-American moral philosophy, including Diamond’s defence of the concept ‘human being’ in ethics, her defence of literature as a source of moral thought that does not require external sanction from philosophy, her challenge to the standard ‘fact/value’ dichotomy, and her exploration of non-argumentative forms of legitimate moral persuasion. There are also essays that apply this framework to new issues such as the nature of love, the connections of ethics to theology, and the implications of Wittgenstein’s thought for political philosophy.
Finally, the book features a new paper by Diamond in which she contests deep-rooted philosophical assumptions about language that severely limit what philosophers see as the possibilities in ethics. Morality in a Realistic Spirit offers a tribute to a great moral philosopher in the best way possible—by taking up the living ideas in her work and taking them in original and interesting directions.
Introduction
Andrew Gleeson and Craig Taylor
  1. Ethics and Experience
  2. Cora Diamond
  3. Cora Diamond and the Uselessness of Argument: Distances in Metaphysics and Ethics
  4. Reshef Agam-Segal
  5. The Importance of Being Fully Human: Transformation, Contemplation and Ethics
  6. Sarah Bachelard
  7. How to be somebody else: imaginative identification in ethics and literature
  8. Sophie Chappell
  9. Different themes of love
  10. Christopher Cordner
  11. A Brilliant Perspective: Diamondian Ethics
  12. Alice Crary
  13. The Riddling God
  14. Andrew Gleeson
  15. Shakespeare, Value and Diamond
  16. Simon Haines
  17. The asymmetry of truth and the logical role of thinking guides in ethics
  18. Oskari Kuusela
  19. Difficulties of Reality, Skepticism and Moral Community: Remarks After Diamond on Cavell
  20. David Macarthur
  21. Comparison or Seeing-As? The Holocaust and Factory Farming
  22. Talia Morag
  23. Two conceptions of "community": as defined by what it is not, or as defined by what it is
  24. Rupert Read
  25. Thinking with Animals
  26. Duncan Richter
  27. Diamond on Realism in Moral Philosophy
           Craig Taylor

Saturday, September 7, 2019

"The Ethical and the Political in the Dilemma of Winch's Vere"

The last paper in the collection is by Lynette Reid. Melville's Billy Budd presents a tragic dilemma in which it can seem both that Billy Budd is essentially innocent and that he must be executed (because of the letter of the law and the danger of anything less than strict discipline in time of war). Vere, the captain of his ship, decides that he is to be hanged.

Reid's paper builds on work by Peter Winch, and is written as a response to Lilian Alweiss, who argues that Vere faces, not a moral dilemma, but a clash between a moral and a political duty. Reid explains that:
Winch gives Vere's choice as an example of a contradiction between the inner and the outer as such a contradiction may arise in the complexity of lives lived with the kinds of social concepts that create the possibility of "wearing two hats". Winch very briefly contrasts how he thinks about this kind of contradiction with how the contractarian approach would encompass it, with reference to Hobbes as a philosopher who, he says, attempts to collapse the distinction between the inner and the outer (meaning here, private conscience and political duty) (p. 271)     
Reid argues persuasively that Vere's dilemma is moral or at least normative in way that means Alweiss does not deprive Winch's argument of its force.

Friday, September 6, 2019

"Comments on a Contested Comparison"

Alice Crary takes on the issue of comparing people to animals and our treatment of animals to the Holocaust in her paper "Comments on a Contested Comparison: Race and Animals." Encouraging the thought of certain people as less than fully human is certainly bad, but can we accept this truth while still properly valuing animals? For instance, can we understand, and help others to see, how terrible our treatment of animals often is without comparing industrial slaughter with the Holocaust (a comparison that echoes Nazi propaganda in likening its victims to animals)? Crary's answer is Yes. Much of what she says here builds on her argument in Inside Ethics, on which see this and this. Like Craig Taylor, Crary rejects Jeff McMahan's way of thinking about animals. She also rejects the idea that there can be a neutral metaphysic and instead takes the view, argued for in Inside Ethics, that we can observe the moral qualities of animals.

On her view:
animals of different kinds are taken to be beings who enter moral thought, not as creatures who are in a normative sense "below" humans, but as beings who matter just as the creatures they are. So there is no room for a normative ranking into "higher" and "lower" animals... (p. 250)
I agree, although I'm not sure about the "no room" part. No doubt her view does not include any such ranking, but is it really excluded as fully as the words "no room" suggest? Couldn't someone, that is, value animals and human beings "just as the creatures they are" but also, say, group them into types, and perhaps also consider some types "higher" (who knows what that would mean?) than others? Maybe not. Presumably one could prefer some species to others. Whether that means one could rank some as higher or lower than others would depend a lot on what "higher" and "lower" would mean in this context. So I'm not sure. But if this is a criticism at all, it is about as minor as can be.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

"Our Fellow Creatures"

Craig Taylor focuses on ideas about our moral relations with fellow creatures, both human and non-human, that have been developed by people such as Cora Diamond, Raimond Gaita, Stephen Mulhall, and Stanley Cavell from ideas in Wittgenstein's Investigations and other late writings, especially Zettel. Philosophers such as Jeff McMahan and James Rachels think that what justifies our treatment of an individual in this way or that is the characteristics possessed by that individual. When Wittgensteinians then talk about the importance of something's being a fellow creature or of our sharing a common humanity, McMahan et al. take this to indicate that there is a relational property allegedly held by certain creatures that might justify, or make unjustified, certain types of treatment of those beings. But, Taylor explains:
this way of looking at things, from the perspective of the Wittgensteinian view at issue, gets matters the wrong way around: it is not as if we first recognize some property (relational or otherwise) and take that as a reason for treating all humans differently to all animals. Rather, it is that the way in which we respond prior to any such justification, on the one hand, to human beings, and on the other, to animals, helps determine in the first place our conception of what it is to be a human being and what it is to be an animal. (p. 222)
The difference is that McMahan's kind of view suggests that some disabled people should be treated like animals with similar levels of cognitive ability, whereas the Wittgensteinian view rejects this. It does not offer much in the way of reasons to justify this rejection (there are echoes of Hertzberg and Johnson here), but it does offer a different way of looking at the world. And surely a way that most of us find much more acceptable.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

"Hitting Moral Bedrock"

Jeremy Johnson draws on the work of Avrum Stroll, among others, to argue for an ethical version of Wittgensteinian foundationalism. He says early on in the paper that, "it is clear that Wittgenstein believed our language-games rest on [a bedrock that holds fast] by the time he wrote On Certainty" (p. 197). I think this is far from clear, in fact, but I'll leave this aside for now. Johnson says he is less interested in exegesis than he is in saying "something useful about morality and moral foundations" (p. 198). So whether he does this is the question to focus on.

To be honest, I'm not sure that I understand the paper well enough to be able to answer this question, but I'll try. When Johnson moves from foundationalism more generally to moral foundations in particular, he says that, "Moral bedrock certainties make it possible for moral bipolar [i.e., true or false] assertions to have sense" (p. 210). He uses a mathematical analogy to help explain the idea:
In order for us to say, meaningfully and correctly on some occasion, "there are four cows in the barn", we need such certainties as 1 + 3 = 4 and 4 > 2. These are not claims that might turn out to be wrong. They are the background against which and the foundations upon which meaningful claims can be made which might turn out to be wrong. (p. 211)
I think the idea here is this. Using math depends on the existence of math, and mathematics forms a system, with its own rules and logic. We implicitly rely on this system when we say, e.g., that there are four cows in the barn. Similarly, we rely on the, or a, system of moral thinking when we make an ethical statement. For instance:
In order for us to say, meaningfully and correctly on some occasion, "you ought not to return the sword you borrowed", we need such certainties as "there are things one ought not to do" and "one ought to prevent harm to others whenever feasible". (pp. 210-211)
But "there are things one ought not to do" is obscure in a way that I don't think 1 + 3 = 4 is. Does it mean "...no matter what"? Does it mean that there are things that are intrinsically not to be done? 1 + 3 = 4 sounds like a familiar rule that one uses when adding. It's the kind of thing one says under one's breath while adding the tip to work out how much to pay at a restaurant. "There are things one ought not to do" sounds like a line from the trailer for a horror movie. It just doesn't have the kind of use that "1 + 3 = 4" has in daily life. Perhaps I'm just being pedantic, but I think this matters.

Can I try to say what Johnson means in other words? Possibly. One thing he might mean is that "You ought not to return the sword you borrowed" does not make sense unless the word "ought" has a meaning. That is true. Another thing he might mean is that it is not enough for the individual words of a sentence to have meanings. The sentence itself must have a use in a language game or form of life, even if this particular sentence has never been used before. That seems true as well. I just wouldn't call any of this foundationalism.

Well, never mind what I would or wouldn't call anything. What is Johnson trying to do? He wants, he says, to resist a certain kind of scepticism. The "sceptic is resisted," he says (p. 216), if I reach what for me is moral bedrock, something for which I am not able to give grounds and for which I do not feel that grounds are needed or even possible. The example he gives is "cheating is always wrong."

This doesn't seem very persuasive though. Imagine a new tax is being collected to pay for some immoral enterprise, such as an unjust war. Imagine also that an illegal but undetectable way to get away with not paying this tax has been discovered and is being circulated on social media by people who oppose the war and want as many people as possible not to pay the tax. In response to such people I might say, "This would be cheating on my taxes, and cheating is always wrong." In what sense have I resisted the sceptic? I have refused to engage with their arguments, but that is all. Is that OK? Well, it's true that explanations have to come to an end somewhere. But surely it's possible to have reasonable doubts in this case. Johnson's final paragraph is this:
Taken together, these points show the way to resist sceptical regress arguments. They do not constitute a proof that we are right to hold to our moral certainties--no such proof is possible--but they serve to reassure us that there is also no proof that holding to such certainties is irrational or unjustified in an objectionable sense. (p. 217) 
Holding to some moral certainties seems absolutely fine. Refusing to commit murder, for instance, seems reasonable to me, and I am not bothered by the apparent impossibility of giving a philosophical justification for taking and standing by this position. Other allegedly moral certainties, though, are not like this. "Miscegenation is always wrong," for instance, surely is irrational and unjustified in an objectionable sense. Appealing to a foundationalist theory (or description of how our language actually works) doesn't seem to help at all here. It doesn't distinguish, as far as I can see, between the good kind of foundation and the bad kind. And so it offers no assurance that what seems good to me really is so. The sceptic is thus not so much resisted as ignored. And I think we can do that without foundationalism.

Johnson's emphasis on the groundlessness of a certain kind of belief gets at something important, though, I think, and he suggests a number of thoughtful qualifications to the foundationalist theory he starts with. So his paper is worth reading and thinking about, even though I don't buy the main argument in the end. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

"Reasons to Be Good?"

Lars Hertzberg's paper is another interesting one. He's interested in questions about reason, morality, and self-interest. In response to what Philippa Foot says in "Moral Beliefs", Hertzberg argues that "self-interest cannot ground a genuine life of justice, and that if someone is in need of a reason for a just life, there is no reason that can fulfill that need" (p. 180). He also discusses Bernard Williams' view that "a person can be given a reason for acting well only if the reason accords with some motive she embraces" and the case of the Badou family, who adopted twenty children with special needs, in addition to having two children who were not adopted.

Foot argues that it is in one's self-interest to behave justly. Not in any religious, poetic, or otherwise potentially mysterious sense, but in the sense that it is more profitable to be just, that 'honesty is the best policy.' Her thinking is that if, as Thrasymachus might recommend, one behaves unjustly whenever one can profitably get away with it then, in fact, one will never behave unjustly, because the cost of making sure one's tracks are covered, that no one else will ever find out, will be prohibitively high. So purely in terms of a cost-benefit analysis, it makes most sense to avoid unjust actions. Against this, Hertzberg argues that this kind of self-interested behavior is not real justice. Really being just means valuing justice even when there is nothing in it for you. Hence "If our thinking starts from self-interest, wherever it leads us to will not be genuine justice" (p. 185). In this sense, concern for justice "is not dependent on having reasons" (ibid.)

Hertzberg takes this idea up again in the second part of the paper, which he concludes by noting that "we are not necessarily in need of reasons for acting morally" (p. 191). He also says in this concluding paragraph that "one may give a person reasons for acting in a morally responsible way even if she initially had no inclination to do so, provided the word "reason" is understood in a wide enough sense." This also seems right.

The third part of the paper is more unusual and starts less with engagement with a text (although it does that) and more with thinking about a specific case. The case is that of Hector and Sue Badou, who decided, not all at once, to look after lots of children, most of them with special needs, some physical and some emotional. Hertzberg discusses the impressiveness of this case carefully. The Badous are not some special breed of person who can do this kind of thing without struggle. They thought hard about each potential adoption, deciding against some. And they cared about having joy in their lives, and the lives of their children. They were not weird saints or Kantians. But they behaved differently from the way most of us behave. What should we make of this difference?
Where the Badous differed from most other people [...] was not in their having embraced a line of reasoning that took them in a different direction from a shared reality. If by a reason we mean a conversational move, an articulated claim that is apt to make a person act in some particular way, we might not be able to identify any set of reasons that would set the Badous off from the average citizen. (p. 194)
Hertzberg's response to Foot seems completely right. But it also has me wondering about the nature of reasons and self-interest. Edward Harcourt considers various reasons why a character in the Iliad might prefer, say, killing more Thracians to stealing more armor. One kind of reason is that one course of action might be easier or safer than the other. A different kind of reason, it seems to me, is that one (presumably killing more Thracians) would be more awful than the other. The first kind of reason is the kind that might motivate an animal. The second kind seems more uniquely human (although maybe angels, aliens, or other rational beings might be motivated in the same way too). And it seems to be a very important kind of reason, this non-animal (for want of a better term) kind. Think of Plato's example of wanting to go and see dead bodies behind a wall. That isn't self-interested in the animal sense. Or the concern with retrieving the bodies of the dead after a battle in Thucydides' history of the Peloponnesian war. Or the appeal of human sacrifice (because it is awful) that Wittgenstein discusses in connection with Frazer's Golden Bough. Or, for that matter, concern with honor (not just one's reputation, although the line might be blurred at times). These non-animal or rational or human concerns (which might vary quite a bit and are perhaps not best lumped together as I'm doing now) seem like the kind of thing that Anscombe says we know about by way of mystical perception. They also seem connected, to me, to Wittgenstein's idea of absolute value, as opposed to relative value, which comes down to matters of scientific fact. There is, I think, a somewhat mysterious and yet not hard to share sense in which it is against my self-interest for my remains to be dishonored after my death. Or for me to behave in seriously dishonorable ways while I am alive. And this kind of thinking, which Foot seems to ignore (although I haven't re-read her paper fully), could suggest a reason to be just. It won't be the kind of reason she focuses on though.

Perhaps we shouldn't call it a reason. After all, we are in mysterious territory here. But it isn't that mysterious. Caring about the dead is very normal. And even animals might care about such things as fairness, death, and where one stands in the pecking order. There is a tendency to think that really everything must come down to pleasure and pain, but this reductive tendency should be resisted. Perhaps Wittgenstein's remarks on pain might even help with this resistance, bouncing us back from reduction out into the wider and more animate world. (Harcourt says something very interesting that relates to this. The very last sentence of his paper reads: "It may well be that the question--as it might be--whether the mind is the brain is one of the most pressing moral questions of our day, and if it is, this fact is not readily captured in terms of the machinery of progressively sophisticated levels which have been the stock in trade of this chapter" (p. 60).)

What, though, is a reason? If we take it to be an articulated claim then I think Hertzberg is right. But there does seem to be a sense in which the Badous did embrace a line of reasoning that took them in a different direction from a shared reality. The shared reality, let us say, is that there are children who need to be adopted if they are to grow up in a loving family. And it is good for children to grow up in a loving family. The line of reasoning that the Badous embraced (simplifying a bit) is one that goes from here to actually adopting some of these children. The rest of us, for the most part, move instead to looking for excuses not to do so, or to changing the subject. The trajectory of thought and action is different. But not because of some line of ethical code that the Badous have in their programming that we lack. If anything, we have extra, distracting lines that they leave out. Or we could equally, perhaps better, say that they mean what they say and believe more than the rest of us do. That is, in the sentences There are children who need to be adopted if they are to grow up in a loving family. And it is good for children to grow up in a loving family they really mean the words 'need' and 'good' (and perhaps 'children') while most of us mean them in a faded or half-hearted or 'yeah yeah' kind of way at best. Hertzberg says that "for someone to point to [the Badous] and say that that is how we all should live would in all likelihood be a pointless, empty gesture" (p. 193). This is true, and brings out the element of bull in our saying such things. Which suggests maybe we should agree with him that there really is no shared reality after all from which the Badous reason along one line and most people reason along another.

The emptiness of the words here seems reflective of an emptiness of their speaker. A very different kind of self-interest from the one Foot apparently has in mind would be served by meaning words like these, acting on them. This would be a matter of making oneself more substantial, more real. It would not get one what one wanted, although it might bring joy, or at least satisfaction (and it might bring neither). And it would, it seems, avoid something that one is averse to. At least, that's my interpretation of the Badous, that they felt they couldn't leave unadopted the children that they adopted. They couldn't live with that. And I think (hypocritically) that really taking in (and keeping in, not pushing down or away, not deflecting) the reality of those children and their situation would mean not having much option but to adopt them. Perhaps this is at least one way that really tremendous things get done. Not through some heroic leap or one-off moment but through a possibly very long series of small acts of honest attention, through having always the (non-miraculous, available to everyone) courage to look and respond to what one sees.

Monday, September 2, 2019

"Are Moral Judgements Semantically Uniform?"

Benjamin De Mesel's paper in Ethics in the Wake of Wittgenstein is "Are Moral Judgements Semantically Uniform? A Wittgensteinian Approach to the Cognitivism--Non-Cognitivism Debate." As De Mesel says in the introduction to the paper (p. 126), "Cognitivists think that moral judgements express beliefs; non-cognitivists think that they express "non-beliefs", for instance, emotions or prescriptions." Each side in the debate seems to assume that all moral judgements are the same in this regard: they are either all beliefs or all non-beliefs. The main point of De Mesel's paper is to question this assumption. Almost as soon as he does so, it seems obvious that he's right. (That's meant as praise, not criticism.) It's not obvious that there isn't semantic uniformity in moral judgements, but that isn't his claim. What's obvious, or seems so now to me, is that the assumption that they are all uniform is not justified.

One response to this claim would be to question whether all those meta-ethicists on both sides of this long-running debate could really have overlooked such a seemingly obvious possibility. Well, maybe they haven't all done so, but De Mesel cites evidence suggesting that some very prominent ones have.

Another response could be to question what this has to do with Wittgenstein. The answer, as De Mesel shows, is: a lot. Wittgenstein challenges our "tendency to look for something in common to all the entities which we commonly subsume under a general term" (from the Blue Book, quoted on p. 129). He rejects contempt for particular cases and wants us to attend to differences as well as similarities.

Thirdly, one might wonder whether anyone else has had similar thoughts about the alleged, or presupposed, semantic uniformity of moral judgements. They have, as De Mesel explains and discusses, but those who have questioned this assumption still often seem to suffer from the generalizing tendency that Wittgenstein rejects.

De Mesel has obviously had to do a lot of research to write this paper, but there's also a sense in which it seems that it would have almost written itself. The fact that no one has written it before (that I know of) shows that this isn't the case, but it still seems like a very good illustration of Wittgenstein's thought that:
The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something -- because it is always before one's eyes.) The real foundations of his inquiry do not strike a man at all. Unless that fact has at some time struck him. -- And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful. (PI 129)
In other words, it's a very nice paper.

The next paper in the book is Cora Diamond's "Truth in Ethics: Williams and Wiggins." I've talked about it in this review, so I'll pass over it here.   

Sunday, September 1, 2019

"Rule-Following, Moral Realism and Non-Cognitivism Revisited"

Alexander Miller's paper is the first in the collection not to have a colon in the title. It's not the first to talk about John McDowell, though. Here's the conclusion:
for all that McDowell's discussions show, the later Wittgenstein's reflections on following a rule fail to damage methodologically naturalist, synthetic and explanatory forms of non-cognitivism of the sort exemplified by [Simon] Blackburn's projectivist quasi-realism. (p. 121)
In other words, if Miller is right, Wittgenstein's work does not show that one cannot support a certain kind of meta-ethical position, as has been claimed. I don't mean to downplay the importance of the disagreement between McDowell and Blackburn, but my interest in Blackburn's kind of theory isn't great enough to motivate me to go through the details of Miller's argument here.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

"Between Tradition and Criticism"

Sabina Lovibond is also (like Christensen, who writes about this idea of McDowell's) concerned with "second nature" in her contribution to Ethics in the Wake of Wittgenstein, "Between Tradition and Criticism: The 'Uncodifiability' of the Normative." She advocates accepting that philosophical investigation must be done from within linguistic practice, not "from some fantasized external standpoint" (p. 97). The language with which we start is, of course, inherited from others. But acknowledging this fact does not mean being committed to moral or political conservatism. Since such philosophy does not tell us what to do it does not tell us which language-games to accept and which to question or reject. Hence:
The naturalistic picture of our formation as rational subjects is not hostile to ideals of intellectual autonomy: it leaves room, quietistically, for just as much intellectual autonomy as there actually is in our lives. (p. 98)

Friday, August 30, 2019

"Boundless Nature"

Next up is Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen's "Boundless Nature: Virtue Ethics, Wittgenstein and Unrestricted Naturalism." Christensen argues that, while there is an affinity between the later Wittgenstein and the neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics of such people as John McDowell, Philippa Foot, and Rosalind Hursthouse, adopting a Wittgensteinian form of naturalism would change the way we approach virtues in moral philosophy.

Drawing on work by Hans Fink, Christensen distinguishes between three types of naturalism: hard, liberal, and unrestricted. Hard naturalism is the kind that might be accused of scientism or being reductive. Liberal naturalism allows for human nature, including as it is shaped by culture, to count as part of nature. Unrestricted naturalism, as the name suggests, places no limits at all on what counts as natural. On this view, "everything that is, is indeed a part of nature" (p. 64).

I won't go through Christensen's discussion of hard naturalism, or much of what she says about liberal naturalism, but it's a nice discussion, and I think it sheds light on some of the strengths and weaknesses of Harcourt's paper. Of McDowell she writes that he:
presents the relationship between nature and language as the relation between a foundation and a superstructure, but this is not how Wittgenstein describes the relation between the two, as nothing in his piecemeal investigations can be said to underlie anything else. (p. 76)
One worry that someone reading Christensen's paper might have is that 'unrestricted naturalism' or 'unrestricted naturalist ethics' sounds like a theory, and surely Wittgenstein was not in the business of putting forward theories. This worry is unfounded however. As Christensen explains: "Unrestricted naturalism is not an informative or substantive philosophical claim" (p. 78). So does it have any value? Yes:
Wittgensteinian unrestricted naturalism is a way of re-directing the work we do in virtue ethics (and in ethics generally), allowing for the piecemeal clarification of the distinctions involved here. (p. 78)
We might, for instance, pay more attention to context. And then:
There are questions of what elements in societies and our circumstances influence the virtues. Questions of how changes in the way we live are tied to changes in the virtues for which we should strive. Questions of how we should understand the differences between cases where circumstances curb the possibility of realizing flourishing through virtue, and cases where circumstances further this possibility. (p. 79)
There is still plenty for virtue ethicists to do, in other words.

According to the notes on contributors Christensen is "finishing a monograph on the relation between moral philosophy, ethical theory and moral life" (p. 276), so that's something to look forward to.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

"Moral Concepts, 'Natural Facts' and Naturalism"

The second paper in Ethics in the Wake of Wittgenstein is Edward Harcourt's "Moral Concepts, 'Natural Facts' and Naturalism: Outline of a Wittgensteinian Moral Philosophy." Harcourt aims to sketch the outlines of "an investigation of the general facts of nature that underlie our possession of distinctively moral concepts" (p. 47). Before he gets going with the sketch he brings up the question whether there are any distinctively moral concepts.

In addressing this question he first describes a possible misreading of Anscombe and then points out that it is a misreading. (I'm not sure whether this is meant simply to head off a conceivable misunderstanding or whether he has some actual misreading in mind.) He then moves on to point out that "Long stretches of ordinary speech can be ethically inflected [...] without containing any specialized vocabulary" (p. 50). To illustrate the point in connection with the distinctively moral concept of kindness he gives this nice example:
"I got on the bus, realized I'd left my bus pass at home, but she paid my fare--and I'd never set eyes on her before!" (p. 50)
Harcourt accepts what he calls the "no-demarcation claim," expressed in Stephen Mulhall's words as the view that we cannot "demarcate the legitimate subject-matter of moral philosophy by identifying certain obviously moral concepts or words, and examining the ways in which they are used" (quoted on p. 50). But, despite accepting both the no-demarcation claim and the fact that we can talk about ethics without needing a special moral vocabulary, Harcourt nevertheless asserts that there are such things as distinctively moral concepts. This is because, he says, "the subject matter of moral philosophy [includes] both distinctive concepts or words and other concepts or words" (p. 51).

On p. 57 Harcourt explains the threefold theoretical point of his discussion of the bus-pass story:
  1. it shows that Cora Diamond is right that we can imagine people whose moral teaching, appraisal, etc. consist of story-telling, without special moral words such as 'kindness' or 'virtue' 
  2. we are not such people and do have a distinctive moral vocabulary 
  3. the bus-pass episode involves a particular pattern of behavior, one that we pick out with the word 'kindness', a pattern that could occur in other episodes, which allows us to tell stories like this and say, e.g., "do likewise"
In the next, and last, three pages of the paper, Harcourt discusses some other examples. For instance, people deciding what to do might consider various options. They might prefer certain options to others because they are safer, easier, more fun, and so on. And then they might, if they haven't done so already, come up with words for safety, ease, fun, etc. And these can be understood as goods.
Thus--as with the bus-pass case, "kind", and "virtue"--we again tell a story that relates three increasing levels of sophistication in concept-use, containing, progressively "The Trojans would be furious", [one of the reasons imagined for choosing to steal Trojans' armor] the latter plus "easier" (etc.), and both the latter plus "better". The method exemplifies the Wittgensteinian method of relating problematic moral concepts to underlying facts--with the concepts getting progressively less puzzling as one relates the concept to progressively more basic concepts and (if we really try hard) to preconceptual activities. (p. 60)
This is interesting, but I have a few questions:
  • Are the concepts associated with the words 'virtue' and 'better' really more puzzling than those associated with 'kind' and 'easier'? And are the concepts associated with the buss-pass case and the stealing-from-the-Trojans case really less puzzling than those associated with the words 'kind' and 'easier'? It seems to me that what is puzzling, or more puzzling than something else, depends on the person doing the thinking (the person getting puzzled) and on how their thinking goes.
  • Is degree of puzzlingness inherent in concepts, so that the more abstract are more puzzling than the more concrete? Harcourt seems to assume that this is so, but the assumption seems unjustified.
  • Do these types of human behavior count as the kind of very general facts of nature that Wittgenstein refers to?
  • However Wittgensteinian the proposed kind of philosophy is, would it do any good? Imagine I am puzzled about the nature of virtue. Then someone tells me that it is a general term for things like kindness and courage. This is true, but will it help me? And if I am puzzled about the nature of kindness, will it help if someone tells me the bus-pass story and then says that kindness is that kind of behavior? Wittgenstein does sometimes talk as if he is advocating doing this loser-in-a-dialogue-with-Socrates kind of thing, but it isn't much like what you get in Wittgenstein's writing. And it seems very unlikely to help anyone with their puzzlement. Perhaps more, and more complicated, examples would make Harcourt's suggestion more persuasive. 
  • Harcourt comes close to saying that there is a continuity from the natural (as in human nature) and the non-moral to the moral, with moral concepts more abstract than the ideas involved in more basic reasoning. But along with very easily understandable concerns about nearness, ease, fun, and safety he includes (p. 59) awfulness, as in let's do this because it will be so awful. That--the attraction to terrible things--is part of human nature, but it seems like a strikingly different kind of feature than our natural concern with safety and comfort. Which suggests that maybe questions about such things as good and evil are not best thought of as merely more abstract, or more abstract in a particular direction, than questions about human nature. Doesn't it? Perhaps I've misunderstood what he's saying.
Here is part of what Wittgenstein says about very general facts of nature in Philosophical Investigations Part II, xii:
I am not saying: if such-and-such facts of nature were different people would have different concepts (in the sense of a hypothesis). But: if anyone believes that certain concepts are absolutely the correct ones, and that having different ones would mean not realizing something that we realize – then let him imagine certain very general facts of nature to be different from what we are used to, and the formation of concepts different from the usual ones will become intelligible to him.
At least here, Wittgenstein's reason for referring to very general facts of nature seems to be in order to explain or describe a way to help someone see that having different concepts would not necessarily mean failing to realize something that we realize. He also says that "our interest does not fall back upon [...] possible causes of the formation of concepts; we are not doing natural science; nor yet natural history – since we can also invent fictitious natural history for our purposes." This seems different from Harcourt's kind of concern, although his sketch, being only a sketch, makes it hard to be sure.

What might be a case of doing what Wittgenstein describes (in the passage quoted above) in moral philosophy? Perhaps we could do something with the idea of rights. Hume, for instance, apparently thinks that the idea of property rights only makes sense in conditions of relative scarcity (and widespread self-interest):
Why call this object MINE, when upon the seizing of it by another, I need but stretch out my hand to possess myself to what is equally valuable? Justice, in that case, being totally useless, would be an idle ceremonial, and could never possibly have place in the catalogue of virtues.
So, if Hume is right, we might think that anyone who believes the idea of individual property rights is not only useful (as Hume certainly believes it to be) but absolutely correct is mistaken, and might be helped by imagining the kind of situation that Hume describes. Perhaps Humean reflections would help us understand the nature of rights, although I see no reason to believe that properly Wittgensteinian moral philosophy would come as close to utilitarianism as Hume does. Seeing that there isn't only one set of moral concepts that people absolutely must have does not mean becoming a utilitarian or a relativist or anything else.

But back to Harcourt. His essay is interesting but perhaps not as Wittgensteinian as it might be (if what we are looking for is Wittgensteinian moral philosophy).

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

"Logical-Linguistic Method in Moral Philosophy"

The full title of Oskari Kuusela's paper in Ethics in the Wake of Wittgenstein is "Logical-Linguistic Method in Moral Philosophy: Resolving Problems From Iris Murdoch and Bernard Williams With Wittgenstein." It's good but also long, and I'm not sure I have understood all of it. Which is a reason to blog about it and try to straighten out my thoughts. A general problem for anyone trying to do Wittgensteinian ethics is avoiding the twin dangers of not being Wittgensteinian and not doing ethics, so I'll look out for that too.

Kuusela's goal in the paper is to show how a Wittgensteinian approach to moral philosophy can avoid the problems that Iris Murdoch and Bernard Williams identify in much analytic work in ethics, while also showing explicitly and in detail how moral philosophy can be done without becoming merely empirical. The problems that Murdoch points out are:
  1. narrowness
  2. ahistoricity
  3. imposing a false unity on morality
  4. pretending to be neutral while failing to be so     
The complaint about narrowness has to do with the concepts that philosophers look at when they bring the methods of linguistic analysis to moral philosophy. If we assume a Kantian view of ethics, for instance, then we might focus on notions of duty and obligation. If we are consequentialists then we might focus on the idea of goodness. And if we think that the only serious options in normative theory are either Kantianism or consequentialism then we might focus on all of these, but not on what Williams calls thicker concepts such as rudeness or courage. Not to mention less obviously ethical concepts that might nevertheless be used in ethical thinking. The narrowness in question is meant (I take it) to be within meta-ethics, since Murdoch is talking about people who aim to be neutral and are "anxious not to moralise" (Existentialists and Mystics, p. 74). But the distinction between meta-ethics and normative theory seems hard to maintain here. It would indeed be a mistake for a would-be neutral describer of moral language to reduce it to a single formula. This would (almost certainly) be a bad description, because it would (I believe) be oversimplified. But Kantians and utilitarians typically do believe that ethics can be reduced to a single formula. And this isn't (usually, necessarily) a result of describing language-use simplistically. If they are mistaken, their mistake is moral. (That is, Kantians don't claim that everyone is a Kantian and that their use of moral language shows this to be the case. What they claim is that everyone should be a Kantian.) So the complaint about narrowness, as I think Murdoch would accept, is partly evaluative. It more or less assumes the falseness of moral theories such as Kantianism and utilitarianism.

Something similar can be said about the ahistoricity complaint. Linguistic concepts are social and historical, so analyses of concepts that ignore differences over time or place can be regarded as faulty. Murdoch (p. 66) mentions the complaint that "as soon as you regard your moral system as a sort of fact, and not as a set of values which only exist through your own choices, your moral conduct will degenerate." This, as she notes, is a moral complaint. It is far from being a neutral fact that all philosophers must accept on pain of irrationality. If we take ourselves to be investigating concepts as used in various times and places then we had better not take an ahistorical approach. But if we are concerned with only the timeless truths of morality then we need not, and probably should not, worry about historical changes. 

Some of what goes for complaint number one also goes for number three. If we really want to describe ethical (or ethically significant) uses of language then we should certainly avoid imposing a false uniformity on these uses. But whether any alleged uniformity really is false is likely to be debatable. And moral philosophers who do not intend to do merely empirical, descriptive work are likely to be most interested in (alleged) underlying similarities. Everyone will agree that false unity should not be imposed. Not everyone will agree, though, on whether correct ethical views will contain some unity. Nor will they agree on what the nature of this unity might be. 

Similarly, pretending to be neutral while failing to be so is uncontroversially a bad thing. But is being neutral a good aim or not? Murdoch doesn't seem to think it is good. Wittgenstein recommends description (which sounds neutral) and not advancing theses, but we shouldn't jump too quickly to taking this as insistence on neutrality. His method seems more dialectical than exact neutrality, involving various points of view, not a view from nowhere. Still, there does seem to be a difference on this point between Murdoch and Wittgenstein. Murdoch says:


Kuusela, slightly differently, says that: "although we might not be able to completely avoid bringing our own moral views into philosophical accounts of morality, we ought at least to do so consciously and openly" (p. 42). He sounds a little reluctant, and I think he could be more open about it, although there is no evidence that he is trying to hide anything. (For instance, my sense is that he rejects utilitarianism, Kantianism, and Thomism, but I don't think he ever explicitly says so. Nor that he is rejecting them on moral grounds. I'll say more about this below.)

In Kuusela's view, Murdoch is right, but not as explicit as she might be about how moral philosophy should be done. She also, he thinks, does not clearly explain how what she recommends would be different from an empirical investigation such as those conducted by sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists. And if we merely describe different ethical ways of thinking and behaving then the specter of relativism looms.

I'm not sure about any of this. Murdoch wrote quite a lot of moral philosophy, so we can see from that how she thinks moral philosophers should proceed. And the passage above about pictures that half describe and half persuade sounds a lot like descriptions of what Kant and Mill do in their best known work in moral philosophy. So maybe that is the kind of thing she thinks we ought to be doing. The "half persuasion" part does not sound purely empirical, so there goes that worry. And the relativism concern seems minor given that it is presumably possible to describe different systems or cultures without judging, as the relativist does, that all are equally good. Kuusela himself notes (p. 41) that philosophers since Aristotle have been pointing this out. His solution to the problem is not wrong, so I don't mean to overdo any criticism here. But the solution is well known, and he spends little time spelling it out, which makes the problem seem rather insignificant. In other words, I'm not completely persuaded that there is much of a problem to be solved in the first place. Nevertheless, Kuusela is right that there at the very least might seem to be not just one but three potential problems here, and it is not a bad idea to try to address these concerns. My complaint, so far as I have one, is really only that I agree with Kuusela so much that his conclusions don't surprise me as much as they might some other people. That's not much of a complaint.  

The solution he proposes to the shortcomings he sees in Murdoch (and Williams) involves using models for purposes of comparison and clarification. Thus:
the Wittgensteinian method outlined makes possible the reinterpretation of [Kantian and utilitarian ethical] theories as clarificatory devices employed to explicate specific aspects of morality, but without any need to accept that either of them could by itself explain what is essential to morality. (p. 36)
I agree that theories like these can be seen as clarifying aspects, but not the whole, of how we think about ethics. Compare "'What Is Ethical Cannot Be Taught'—Moral Theories as Descriptions of Moral Grammar" byAnne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen (in Wittgenstein's Moral Thought), in which she argues, among other things, for "a conception of moral theories as descriptions of morally relevant uses of language, moral grammars". What, though, about the "need to accept that either of them [i.e., Kantianism and utilitarianism] could by itself explain what is essential to morality"? Some people, presumably, genuinely believe that utilitarianism captures the essence of (true) morality, while others think something similar about Kantianism. Probably some people think that some moral theory of this kind must be true. But I just don't know how many people really feel as though either utilitarianism or Kantianism must be true, and feel this as a dilemma in the way that free will vs. determinism, say, can feel like a dilemma. Kuusela writes (p. 37) that:


If the suggestion is that we all feel as though either utilitarianism or Kantianism must be the whole truth about ethics, but that it is hard to decide which is true because each has strong points in its favor, then this feels like a false premise. But Kuusela makes no such claim, so he can't be convicted of that. On the other hand, if he isn't saying that, then his claim seems a bit weak. There are many ethical theories to choose from, including pluralism and anti-theory, so the stalemate has gone a long way to being dissolved already. Nor do many people, I would think, feel forced to stretch a theory to do what it struggles to do. As with what he says about relativism, perhaps the problem here is simply that I agree so much with Kuusela that his claim doesn't strike me as especially new. One thing he does that is new is to provide a philosophical justification, instead of agreeing with bits of one theory and bits of another in an ad hoc way, for regarding each theory as partly right. Perhaps this is really the main point he wants to make.  

Finally, he offers some other criticisms of utilitarianism and Kantianism, e.g., "it is still a mistake to confuse a theory [...] with reality" and "it cannot be assumed that justification must always refer to either the motive or consequences" (both from p. 37). This is true. But it isn't the same kind of mistake to believe that a particular theory happens to describe reality accurately, surely. That is, one can believe in utilitarianism, say, without confusion. And while assuming that the motive alone is the only thing ever to justify an action would be a mistake, one surely could believe this. It might be bad to believe it, but it doesn't seem to have to involve the kind of confusion that Wittgenstein aims to help us with.

In short, I think that most, if not all, of what Kuusela says is right. I would like to see more about just how short the alleged shortcomings in Murdoch's and Williams' work are, about just how much we need to get into Wittgenstein's work to reach the conclusions about ethics that Kuusela reaches, and about precisely what these conclusions are and imply. But the paper is already long, and going into all that would make it even longer, by quite a bit. Which goes to show that there really is a lot to talk about here, which is what Kuusela's and De Mesel's book aims to show. So it's a successful first essay. 

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

You'd Be Surprised


Jonathan Rée mentions in this essay (h/t Dirk Felleman) that Wittgenstein considered a line from an Irving Berlin song as a motto for the Philosophical Investigations. The line is the title of the song: "You'd be Surprised." It's possible that Wittgenstein just liked the idea (as well as "I'll teach you differences" and "It takes many sorts to make a world"), but it also seems possible that the original context of the words mattered too. So here are some of the lyrics, courtesy of Wikipedia:
Part of first verse:
Johnny was bashful and shy;
Nobody understood why
Mary loved him
All the other girls passed him by.
Everyone wanted to know
How she could pick such a beau
With a twinkle in her eye
She made this reply
Parts of various choruses:
He's not so good in a crowd
But when you get him alone
You'd be surprised;
He's kind of scared in a mob
But when he takes you home
You'd be surprised.
He won't impress you
Right from the start
But in a week or two
You'd be surprised.
At a party or a ball
I've got to admit he's nothing at all
But in a Morris chair
You'd be surprised
Part of second verse:
Mary continued to praise
Johnny's remarkable ways
To the ladies
And you know advertising pays
Now Johnny's ne'er alone
He has the busiest phone
Almost every other day
A new girl will say

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Wittgenstein's Dictionary

This article on the dictionary that Wittgenstein wrote for elementary school children is very interesting.
His goal was to give his students a resource of word usage that they would be familiar with and which would put the responsibility for their use on their shoulders: “Only a dictionary makes it possible to hold the student completely responsible … because it furnishes him with reliable measures for finding and correcting his mistakes…. It is, however, absolutely necessary that the student corrects his compositions on his own. He should feel that he is the only author of his work and he alone should be responsible for it” (Preface, p. 15). Wittgenstein’s Wörterbuch thus served a clear purpose in his teaching method, but also points to his careful contemplation of how one becomes a member of a language-using community and the responsibility that this carries.
Apparently an English translation is on the way.
 

Sunday, August 11, 2019

And I pictured you singing the Silver Jews

I knew the Silver Jews existed, but mostly because of the Allo Darlin' song that mentions them. Since David Berman's death I've been reading a bit about them and I'm amazed I stayed ignorant for so long. Berman was my age, went to the University of Virginia, where I went to graduate school (we didn't overlap), and sang just the kind of literate, sad songs I like (caveat: I still haven't listened to one all the way through yet). One of their albums is named after the Natural Bridge, which is only a few miles from here, and another was recorded partly in the small town where I live. I might have passed one or members of the band on the street. Time to catch up. I might have to look into Pavement too.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

This is and isn't a good movie. It's well made (looks good) and interesting, but it seems kind of evil. I think it also just fails on its own terms in some (but not all) ways. You expect Tarantino to be ironic, but his films have been fun in the past. This one seems more just contemptuous of just about everyone and everything, including Tarantino himself (a cheesy scene from a movie within the movie is reminiscent of the ending of Inglourious Basterds), but that doesn't "make it OK". It's especially contemptuous of Bruce Lee (the only person of color with a significant part in the film) and of women. (Also of Hollywood actors--Leonardo DiCaprio plays a drunk (Rick Dalton) with a speech impediment who cries when things go badly--and of hippies. Dalton's disability is mocked, but only by himself. So that's all right.) The hero, on the other hand, (Cliff Booth) is a white working class man who killed his wife and insults Bruce Lee.

The misogyny here isn't just something you might think you detect and then worry about ("Is it OK to like a film made by a bad person?"). It spoils the movie, since parts of it seem to rely on the audience's sharing this attitude. The death of Booth's wife is all but shown in a flashback in which she is drunkenly berating Booth on a boat while he drunkenly holds a harpoon-gun pointing in her direction. Did he fire on purpose? We can't be sure, and we don't see the shot. But the whole point of the scene seems to be to laugh at, or otherwise delight in, the imminent painful death of this woman whom we are shown from behind wearing a bikini. Another, longer scene, has Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie) going to a theater to see a film she is in and the audience's reaction. The scene is pointless unless we are expected to enjoy seeing this woman taking pleasure in her success while, unbeknownst to her, the Manson family is planning to murder her later. Sexy women about to be murdered are apparently for Tarantino what getting into a nice mess was for Laurel and Hardy. Specifically, sexy women holding forth or basking in success. (I'm using "sexy" here not to express my feelings but as shorthand for "young woman in a bikini with the camera zoomed in on one of her buttocks" and "famously beautiful young woman in a mini skirt".)

If you too like sneering at women, hippies, and Chinese people then you might enjoy all this, but a few times I think the movie just plain fails. Early on, a car door opens and piles of cigarette ends fall out. Ho ho! How much are these guys smoking?! I'm pretty sure this joke has been made before. Maybe that's more irony that I'm just failing to enjoy. But in the big fight at the end of the movie, three main sights stand out: where Booth's dog bites the male intruder, what the injured woman's face looks like, and what Dalton does to the intruder in the swimming pool. The last of these is presumably not meant to be much of a surprise, but the other two, I think, are. But what the dog does is what dogs do in John Wick: Chapter 3, and what the injured woman's face looks like is much the same as one or two of the injured faces in Midsommar. So it looks like Tarantino has been beaten to the punch with his shock tactics here.

Having said all this, I mainly care about what a film looks like and whether it has any philosophical or thought-provoking content. This one is very nicely filmed and has made me think. It's just that it has mostly made me think about how nasty it all is.           

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Perks of the job


It's nice to review a paper that mentions your work without just using it as an example of error. (I wrote this a while ago and didn't bother posting it, but this video--of the song I wanted to link here anyway--has just been uploaded to YouTube, so that's my excuse now.)

Monday, July 22, 2019

Post-truth

The Nordic Wittgenstein Review has a special issue out now on the idea that we live in a post-truth world. The idea of post-truth is, I think, a bit like Nietzsche's idea that God is dead: large numbers of people have stopped really believing in something that used to make a big difference in our lives. It's a problematic idea because it's hard to imagine life without some sort of belief in, or commitment in practice to the value of, truth. Nevertheless, there does seem to be something in the suggestion that we do, in some sense, live in a post-truth world. The question is what is there in this idea, why, and what can we do about it?

Lorna Finlayson doubts that there is really anything new that ought to be called 'post-truth', rejecting claims that there has been a rise in bullshit or relativism in recent years on the basis of lack of evidence. As Rupert Read points out in his response, it would be hard, if not impossible, to prove an increase in bullshit (how do we measure sincerity, for instance?). But I do think there are more grounds for plausible speculation than Finlayson acknowledges. Read's conclusion is, in part, this:
I claim, contra Lorna Finlayson, that what has grown over the past generation or more is a trend toward a lack of interest in the claim of truth among some/many voters, and toward a rank contempt for truth among those (some in the academic world, some in thinktanks, some in business, some in politics) who have deliberately promoted a ‘consumeristic’ attitude toward truth. This lack of interest and this contempt are absurd: but I submit that we live in absurd times.
Do we therefore literally live in post-truth times? Of course not: but it is nevertheless as if we do. Much like we used to live in times in which it was as if there was a God.
Well, how did we get here? No doubt the story is complicated, but I think part of it does have to do with the bullshit and relativism that Finlayson downplays. Harry Frankfurt claims, with little supporting evidence, that:
The contemporary proliferation of bullshit [...] has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These “anti-realist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry.
I think he has a point. Skepticism has an ancient history, of course, so it is not new. And, as Finlayson points out, lying and propaganda are not new either. But I think there has been a renewal in recent decades of the idea that one need not be ashamed of lies, bullshit, and propaganda. One need not be ashamed, the idea is, because bias is inevitable. It is naive even to try to discover or speak the truth. The main supporters of this view seem to be on the left, but its most successful exploiters are on the right.

Since 1996 Fox News has been hitting the American public with right-wing propaganda. Opinions vary as to whether watching it actually makes you more ignorant, but it is certainly, and demonstrably, a very inefficient way to become more informed, and it does push people to the right politically. These facts are sufficiently well known that there is little excuse for watching Fox News, but I'll leave questions of whether to blame viewers or the network aside. The important point is that there is a significant new possible cause of false beliefs.

OK, you might say, but this is only in the US. True (as far as I know), but the Murdoch media empire is global. OK, then, you might continue, this explains some false beliefs, but not something new that needs its own name ('post-truth'). True again, but Fox News openly mocks the idea of objective reporting with its slogan "Fair and Balanced". Arguably it sees itself, or its viewers see it, as genuinely fair and balanced, in contrast to the allegedly leftish mainstream media, but this is prima facie implausible (why would all other news sources have a leftish bias, especially when so many are owned by large corporations?) and utterly implausible when taken together with the facts about bias and ignorance mentioned above. So Fox News not only keeps its viewers ignorant and pushes them to the right, it also undermines their faith in the value of truth and objectivity. Biased reporting is nothing new, but before cable news channels like Fox News did not exist. And its open contempt for the ideal of objectivity is, if not new, at least not as familiar a phenomenon as old-fashioned lies, bias, and propaganda.

Another thing that is new is certain trends in the teaching of English. The fight between descriptivists and prescriptivists seems to have been won by the descriptivists. (For more on this fight see David Foster Wallace and me.) That is, people who teach languages, including English, appear (overwhelmingly, from what I can tell) to prefer descriptivism. A common belief among them seems to be that it is elitist at best, and racist at worst, to regard some ways of using language as correct and others as incorrect, because the "correct" uses are so often those of the privileged while the "incorrect" ones are those of the working class, the less educated, and members of ethnic minorities. The feeling behind this belief is good, but there are some obvious problems with having no standards of correctness. Perhaps a sophisticated descriptivist would take the most common usage to be correct, or would have some other way of distinguishing acceptable from unacceptable usage. In practice, though, I think a lot of teachers are reluctant to call anything wrong.

A colleague of mine says she was taught in graduate school never to tell a student that what they have said is wrong. I don't know whether this is related to descriptivism or whether it's meant to be a kinder or more effective teaching technique, but in practice it's easy to imagine how teaching this way combined with a fuzzy version of descriptivism could lead students to think that anything goes. (And this applies not only to grammar but to ethics as well. More than one person (i.e., two) with a PhD in English has told me either that relativism is fundamental to their discipline or that it is politically preferable to the alternative, which they see as inherently conservative.)

I suspect that this leftish concern with students' feelings, which of course goes very well with the rightish idea of students as consumers that schools should aim to please, is what produces this kind of thing. It's worth clicking on the link and reading the whole thread, but here's a summary. A woman in her twenties was apparently reduced to tears by being told that she had spelled 'hamster' incorrectly. She was not used to being told that anything she had written could be improved in any way, and did not accept that a dictionary was authoritative on spelling. This one case proves nothing, of course, and might not be the result of the preferred teaching styles or ideology of English teachers. But it is exactly what one might expect from people taught English by relativists who don't believe in telling students they are wrong.

Then there's also the problematic teaching that all beliefs are either matters of fact or mere, arbitrary, opinionJoel Backström is good on the idea that 'everyone is entitled to their opinion' (as is Agnes Callard). This commonly repeated idea is more a result of scientism, or just crude thinking, than anything politically motivated, I suspect. But it surely encourages the belief that anything political is free from legitimate criticism. 

In other words, I do think that there is a real problem in the form of a recently increased lack of shame about lying. Or perhaps in the form of confusion about how to respond to relatively sophisticated defenses of shameless lying (and possibly sincere repetitions of lies). And 'post-truth' seems like a reasonable name for this problem, since no one will say that they think lying is OK. What they might say is that there is no such thing as objectivity or the ability to know the truth ("truth with a capital T" is likely to get mentioned at this point), or that everyone has their biases. And then the conclusion is that bias and non-true statements are fine because they are inevitable. Indeed, not only are they inevitable, they are protected by the universal right to one's own opinion. So how dare you attack what I think! No doubt this kind of thing is very often said in bad faith, but if you were brought up to believe that everyone is entitled to their opinion, that all that is not science is mere opinion, that we all have our biases, and that it is cruel to tell people they are wrong, then you are likely to struggle to respond well to this kind of argument.     

Which is why I think that the problematic term 'post-truth' gets at something real and bad, and I think that the origin, apart from basic problems like greed and dishonesty, is a combination of neo-liberalism (which gave us both the idea of students as consumers, who must be kept happy, and the 'freedom' to air propaganda as news--perhaps the First Amendment does this, but it seems that the fairness doctrine could have been applied to cable news if it hadn't been dropped) and a well-meaning but sloppy kind of relativism that has been adopted by many teachers (from elementary level up). 

What to do about all this, assuming I'm right, is an interesting question. To a large extent much of the problem is driven by money. Murdoch and Sinclair have the power, because they have the money, to push their political views. It's hard to fight that. But another source of trouble is bad philosophy, much of which might be called degenerate Wittgensteinianism. Think of a sort of bluffer's guide to Wittgenstein-influenced thought, including logical positivism, fideism, Lyotard, Rorty, and Kuhn, and then imagine people who understand this guide imperfectly, but who believe it implicitly, teaching children at all levels of education. Very roughly speaking I think that something like this has happened. (Although the possibly excessive concern with students' self-esteem is partly Ayn Rand's fault, so we're back to libertarianism there.) If so then part of the solution might be better Wittgenstein scholarship. Or rather, Wittgenstein scholarship that trickles down better. Which might be Wittgenstein scholarship that doesn't trickle down at all. Or some new fashion for graduate programs in English, journalism, etc. that is more committed to the value of truth.      

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Midsommar


I think 'Midsommar' might be my favorite movie of the year so far. 'Us' is the other one that comes to mind. And I'm not even all that into horror movies. So what's so good about it?

The cinematography is great (not that I'm an expert, but I think that what a film looks like matters to me more than it does to many other people). There are also a couple of Wittgensteinian points and a couple of political ones in its favor.

First, Wittgenstein. The movie involves a bunch of the kind of rites that Frazer writes about, and so that are familiar to anyone who's read the Remarks on Frazer's Golden Bough (this link goes to a book about Wittgenstein's remarks, not the remarks themselves, but the book appears to be both free and interesting). Secondly, one thing that the community featured in the movie do is to mimic emotions expressed by individuals. For instance, if you start crying then you might find yourself surrounded by others who all (pretend to) cry with you, even matching your particular sobs and sighs. I think this would feel like mockery, even it is isn't intended to be, but perhaps it would be comforting. The idea seems to be to reduce feelings of separation from others, which could be wonderfully communal or suffocatingly anti-individualist. I don't think Wittgenstein talks about this, but anything to do with expression of emotion and the role of others in this aspect of life is at least vaguely Wittgensteinian.

Second, politics. To the extent that we want to be able to have our own feelings and to be individuals, the movie is anti-mob and pro-liberalism. This makes it timely. The film also provides a reminder that white people are every bit as primitive or savage as anyone ever has been. Yes, it's fiction, but what we see is close enough to real things (things even more horrific than Morris Dancers and maypoles) that this doesn't matter. And, relatedly, it provides a reminder that communities' being isolated is not always a great thing.

Manohla Dargis liked it less than I did. She notes that the characters are not very well developed (which is true, except for the central character, but I'm not sure it matters) and suggests that there's an anti-women bias in the film. Here's her concluding paragraph:
Unlike Kubrick or Peele, though, Aster [the director] isn’t interested in psychological complexities that can make a character’s terminal fate meaningful and turn directorial virtuosity into vision. Despite all the time he lavishes on Dani and Christian’s relationship, which is drawn along stereotypical gendered lines (consuming female need that becomes devouring), the couple remains instructively uninteresting. That’s the case despite Pugh. She works hard to make Dani into more than a walking wound, but again and again, the character betrays both her common sense and your faith, all so the women can dance, the men howl and the maypole can hook up with ye old vagina dentata.    
This seems unfair to me. Dani (the central character) worries early on that she will seem too needy to her boyfriend Christian, but it becomes clear that she is right to be worried and is not bothering him unjustifiably. I'm also not sure what to make of Dargis' suggestion that characters, including Dani, behave stupidly. One does seem annoying in an implausibly constant way, but any mistakes I can think of that people make in the film all seem likely enough to me. And the usual horror movie question, Why don't they just leave?, doesn't apply here. Dargis' final reference to vagina dentata is also a bit mystifying. Sex does not appear to be any more dangerous than any other activity, and women no more dangerous than men, in the community portrayed here.

If you want a review that reflects my view more closely than Dargis' does, try this.