Wednesday, September 15, 2021

British Wittgenstein Society TLP Centenary Lecture

This was not a lecture but three short presentations and a discussion, involving James Klagge, Richard Barnett, and me. You can watch it here.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

More links and free stuff

The Ludwig Wittgenstein Project aims "to make available as many of Wittgenstein's works as possible free of charge and with a free licence". Find out more here

And there is news here about a forthcoming Wittgenstein symposium in Croatia, along with some other material about Wittgenstein (e.g. a short video and a blog post). 

Both look like sites worth checking in on from time to time.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Free readings on the Tractatus

Mauro Luiz Engelman's Reading Wittgenstein's Tractatus is available to download for free until July 13th here

And Joshua Eisenthal's article-length review of Jose Zalabardo's Representation and Reality in Wittgenstein's Tractatus is here.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Foolish peasants

 I

In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina Konstantin Levin tries to introduce various reforms to improve the productivity and profitability of his country estate, but the peasants are too stuck in their ways, either unable or unwilling to learn new methods, and the reforms don’t work. Levin also tries to rationalize or make sense of his life with a similar lack of success. Tolstoy seems to see the two projects and their failure as related. In Chapter 10 of the last part of the novel he writes of Levin that:

He knew he must hire laborers as cheaply as possible; but to hire men under bond, paying them in advance at less than the current rate of wages, was what he must not do, even though it was very profitable. Selling straw to the peasants in times of scarcity of provender was what he might do, even though he felt sorry for them; but the tavern and the pothouse must be put down, though they were a source of income. Felling timber must be punished as severely as possible, but he could not exact forfeits for cattle being driven onto his fields; and though it annoyed the keeper and made the peasants not afraid to graze their cattle on his land, he could not keep their cattle as a punishment.

To Pyotr, who was paying a money-lender ten per cent. a month, he must lend a sum of money to set him free. But he could not let off peasants who did not pay their rent, nor let them fall into arrears. It was impossible to overlook the bailiff’s not having mown the meadows and letting the hay spoil; and it was equally impossible to mow those acres where a young copse had been planted. It was impossible to excuse a laborer who had gone home in the busy season because his father was dying, however sorry he might feel for him, and he must subtract from his pay those costly months of idleness. But it was impossible not to allow monthly rations to the old servants who were of no use for anything.

Levin knew that when he got home he must first of all go to his wife, who was unwell, and that the peasants who had been waiting for three hours to see him could wait a little longer. He knew too that, regardless of all the pleasure he felt in taking a swarm, he must forego that pleasure, and leave the old man to see to the bees alone, while he talked to the peasants who had come after him to the bee-house.

Whether he were acting rightly or wrongly he did not know, and far from trying to prove that he was, nowadays he avoided all thought or talk about it.

Reasoning had brought him to doubt, and prevented him from seeing what he ought to do and what he ought not. When he did not think, but simply lived, he was continually aware of the presence of an infallible judge in his soul, determining which of two possible courses of action was the better and which was the worse, and as soon as he did not act rightly, he was at once aware of it.

So he lived, not knowing and not seeing any chance of knowing what he was and what he was living for, and harassed at this lack of knowledge to such a point that he was afraid of suicide, and yet firmly laying down his own individual definite path in life.

Levin is here close to suicide, so his situation is hardly ideal, but a solution to all his problems (a solution other than suicide) seems to be close at hand. Reasoning and thinking, looking for answers and wondering whether what he is doing is right or wrong, is the source of his problems. Not thinking about such things but simply getting on with his work in the traditional way appears to be the answer.

In the next chapter, a conversation with a peasant named Fyodor, who contrasts those who live for their bellies with those who live for their souls, fills Levin with excitement:

The words uttered by the peasant had acted on his soul like an electric shock, suddenly transforming and combining into a single whole the whole swarm of disjointed, impotent, separate thoughts that incessantly occupied his mind. These thoughts had unconsciously been in his mind even when he was talking about the land.

He was aware of something new in his soul, and joyfully tested this new thing, not yet knowing what it was.

“Not living for his own wants, but for God? For what God? And could one say anything more senseless than what he said? He said that one must not live for one’s own wants, that is, that one must not live for what we understand, what we are attracted by, what we desire, but must live for something incomprehensible, for God, whom no one can understand nor even define. What of it? Didn’t I understand those senseless words of Fyodor’s? And understanding them, did I doubt of their truth? Did I think them stupid, obscure, inexact? No, I understood him, and exactly as he understands the words. I understood them more fully and clearly than I understand anything in life, and never in my life have I doubted nor can I doubt about it. And not only I, but everyone, the whole world understands nothing fully but this, and about this only they have no doubt and are always agreed.

“And I looked out for miracles, complained that I did not see a miracle which would convince me. A material miracle would have persuaded me. And here is a miracle, the sole miracle possible, continually existing, surrounding me on all sides, and I never noticed it!

“Fyodor says that Kirillov lives for his belly. That’s comprehensible and rational. All of us as rational beings can’t do anything else but live for our belly. And all of a sudden the same Fyodor says that one mustn’t live for one’s belly, but must live for truth, for God, and at a hint I understand him! And I and millions of men, men who lived ages ago and men living now—peasants, the poor in spirit and the learned, who have thought and written about it, in their obscure words saying the same thing—we are all agreed about this one thing: what we must live for and what is good. I and all men have only one firm, incontestable, clear knowledge, and that knowledge cannot be explained by the reason—it is outside it, and has no causes and can have no effects.

“If goodness has causes, it is not goodness; if it has effects, a reward, it is not goodness either. So goodness is outside the chain of cause and effect.

“And yet I know it, and we all know it.

“What could be a greater miracle than that?

“Can I have found the solution of it all? can my sufferings be over?” thought Levin, striding along the dusty road, not noticing the heat nor his weariness, and experiencing a sense of relief from prolonged suffering. This feeling was so delicious that it seemed to him incredible. He was breathless with emotion and incapable of going farther; he turned off the road into the forest and lay down in the shade of an aspen on the uncut grass. He took his hat off his hot head and lay propped on his elbow in the lush, feathery, woodland grass.

“Yes, I must make it clear to myself and understand,” he thought, looking intently at the untrampled grass before him, and following the movements of a green beetle, advancing along a blade of couch-grass and lifting up in its progress a leaf of goat-weed. “What have I discovered?” he asked himself, bending aside the leaf of goat-weed out of the beetle’s way and twisting another blade of grass above for the beetle to cross over onto it. “What is it makes me glad? What have I discovered?

“I have discovered nothing. I have only found out what I knew. I understand the force that in the past gave me life, and now too gives me life. I have been set free from falsity, I have found the Master.

“Of old I used to say that in my body, that in the body of this grass and of this beetle (there, she didn’t care for the grass, she’s opened her wings and flown away), there was going on a transformation of matter in accordance with physical, chemical, and physiological laws. And in all of us, as well as in the aspens and the clouds and the misty patches, there was a process of evolution. Evolution from what? into what?—Eternal evolution and struggle.... As though there could be any sort of tendency and struggle in the eternal! And I was astonished that in spite of the utmost effort of thought along that road I could not discover the meaning of life, the meaning of my impulses and yearnings. Now I say that I know the meaning of my life: ‘To live for God, for my soul.’ And this meaning, in spite of its clearness, is mysterious and marvelous. Such, indeed, is the meaning of everything existing. Yes, pride,” he said to himself, turning over on his stomach and beginning to tie a noose of blades of grass, trying not to break them.

“And not merely pride of intellect, but dulness of intellect. And most of all, the deceitfulness; yes, the deceitfulness of intellect. The cheating knavishness of intellect, that’s it,” he said to himself.

And he briefly went through, mentally, the whole course of his ideas during the last two years, the beginning of which was the clear confronting of death at the sight of his dear brother hopelessly ill.

Then, for the first time, grasping that for every man, and himself too, there was nothing in store but suffering, death, and forgetfulness, he had made up his mind that life was impossible like that, and that he must either interpret life so that it would not present itself to him as the evil jest of some devil, or shoot himself.

But he had not done either, but had gone on living, thinking, and feeling, and had even at that very time married, and had had many joys and had been happy, when he was not thinking of the meaning of his life.

What did this mean? It meant that he had been living rightly, but thinking wrongly.

He had lived (without being aware of it) on those spiritual truths that he had sucked in with his mother’s milk, but he had thought, not merely without recognition of these truths, but studiously ignoring them.

Now it was clear to him that he could only live by virtue of the beliefs in which he had been brought up.

“What should I have been, and how should I have spent my life, if I had not had these beliefs, if I had not known that I must live for God and not for my own desires? I should have robbed and lied and killed. Nothing of what makes the chief happiness of my life would have existed for me.” And with the utmost stretch of imagination he could not conceive the brutal creature he would have been himself, if he had not known what he was living for.

“I looked for an answer to my question. And thought could not give an answer to my question—it is incommensurable with my question. The answer has been given me by life itself, in my knowledge of what is right and what is wrong. And that knowledge I did not arrive at in any way, it was given to me as to all men, given, because I could not have got it from anywhere.

“Where could I have got it? By reason could I have arrived at knowing that I must love my neighbor and not oppress him? I was told that in my childhood, and I believed it gladly, for they told me what was already in my soul. But who discovered it? Not reason. Reason discovered the struggle for existence, and the law that requires us to oppress all who hinder the satisfaction of our desires. That is the deduction of reason. But loving one’s neighbor reason could never discover, because it’s irrational.”

 

This, apparently, is what Tolstoy thought at the time is the meaning of life. Reason leads to Schopenhauerian despair, although not necessarily to wrong living. A consistent rational thinker would rob, lie, and kill. An inconsistent, hypocritical one, will behave well but feel suicidal or as if life is meaningless, and will ignore truths that they have known their whole lives. A consistent, honest person will, instead, live irrationally and love their neighbor. This is not arbitrary irrationality. It is rule-governed and time-tested. But it is incomprehensible and expressible only in senseless words.

Problems:

1.      Can truths that we all know really be inexpressible in language that makes sense?

2.      Can it really be irrational to believe such truths?

3.      A worry that some people have about the idea that one cannot rationally decide what is the best way to live but that one should, nevertheless, throw oneself into something wholeheartedly is that this will lead to people becoming Nazis or joining ISIS. Tolstoy avoids this problem but perhaps does so at the cost of committing himself to a very conservative (though not in the sense that Nazis are very conservative) position.

4.      Relatedly, does Tolstoy implicitly compliment Thrasymachus too much by suggesting that his view is indeed the rational one to take?

 

II

In the story “Die klugen Leute” by the brothers Grimm (translated as “Wise Folks,” although I would say “Clever People”) invites a mixed reaction to some simple country folks. (Link: https://www.grimmstories.com/language.php?grimm=104&l=en&r=de) One of them agrees to sell three cows on credit, security for which is offered in the form of one cow’s being left with her until the buyer returns with the money. This makes sense to the woman, so she accepts the deal. Of course, the buyer has no intention of coming back, so he gets two cows for free.

In the next episode of the story, the woman’s husband pretends to have fallen from heaven and cons a woman into giving him money to pass on to her husband there. Of course, he intends only to keep the money for himself. When this second woman’s son rides out to find the man and ask him about heaven, he pretends to be someone else and persuades the boy to give him his horse so that he can ride after the man from heaven. In this way he gets a free horse as well as the money. But, the story concludes, “you no doubt prefer the simple folks.”

Two kinds of people are contrasted in this story. The first kind is self-interested men who are cunning and cruel. They are happy to lie and cheat in order to get what they want. The main character, who is one such man, threatens his wife with a beating if she does anything foolish. When he gets both money and a horse for free he ‘rewards’ her by postponing the beating. He is not likeable at all, but he does appear to be genuinely happy at his success. He is not troubled by guilt.

The other kind of person is the two women and the boy. They sincerely believe in heaven, and are very trusting of other people. They are also kind. Not only do they not threaten to beat people, the second woman even stands in her cart so as not to flatten the straw in it, which, she believes, would make it heavier for the cattle that pull the cart. They engage in a kind of reasoning, but it is a nonsensical kind of reasoning (a denser pile of straw is not heavier than a loose one, and a cow is no security at all (let alone sufficient in the circumstances) when, until he pays, the man leaving it is not its owner. Like the first kind of person, these people are happy. They lose out in terms of property, but their faith means that they do not know they have lost out. The second woman and her son, for instance, believe that their money and their horse have gone to someone they love in heaven. As the story says, we certainly prefer such people to the cruel cynics.

Everyone would, presumably, like to have plenty of the trusting people around. They will not cheat you, and, if you want to, you can easily cheat them. You have much to gain and nothing much to lose from their presence. Unless you marry one and they give your cows away. But you wouldn’t prefer to marry someone who beats you. Probably you would prefer to marry someone of the trusting kind, if you really had to choose between these two types of person.

Which kind of person would you rather be yourself though? It’s natural to resist the choice as overly simple, but it’s also hard to imagine what a cross between the two would be. Most of us probably are some sort of cross between the two, but it’s hard to imagine how one could be such a thing without inconsistency. That is, we are all a bit selfish and a bit altruistic, sometimes trusting and sometimes cynical, but this looks like having a self-contradictory nature rather than anything that presents a real third alternative. It is a bit of both, not evidence of another option altogether.

Questions:

1.      Is there a third alternative after all that we might find if we looked harder?

2.      If both types are happy and even use their own kind of reasoning (so that, in some sense, perhaps, neither is more rational than the other), is there any reason to prefer one to the other? Is it simply a matter of taste?

3.      What is the significance of the fact that we prefer one kind to the other? Does it make it rational to prefer to be a member of that kind? (I would say No, but there does seem to be some kind of contradiction in preferring one team but choosing to join the other.)

4.      Contrary to what I implied in question 2, are the kind, faithful people objectively foolish and not rational at all?

5.      If being rational means reasoning correctly, by what standard can we judge who reasons correctly? Is the answer, Tolstoy-style, that we have no choice but to use the only one(s) we know?

6.      And do we have only one standard of rationality? Rules of logic (e.g. modus ponens) can seem like rules of a game, and there are lots of games with lots of rules. Or, ignoring that line of thought, we might think of rationality as purely instrumental, as only about means to some non-rationally-determined end, or, alternatively, we might think of reason as something that can help us choose ends as well as means.

7.      Even if there are competing conceptions of rationality or reason, might it be the case that we ought to try to eliminate all but one. If it is a compliment to call someone or some decision rational, ought we to resist calling Thrasymachus rational? And, similarly, ought we to say that beliefs we favor are rational rather than mere matters of taste? More strongly, can we regard what we really believe as something like a mere matter of taste? (Cf. Cora Diamond’s “The Problem of Impiety” p. 39: “If you say, “I believe that incest is absolutely ruled out, but I don’t believe the prohibition rests on some rational justification; it’s simply what was passed down to me,” you are, or so it would seem, undercutting your own claim genuinely to believe that incest is ruled out.”)

 

III

Wittgenstein mentions the “Klugen Leute” when he talks about the people he imagines selling wood in an unconventional way (Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics I §150 of the 1964 edition). The discussion begins conventionally enough. Wittgenstein says in §141 that what he is doing is offering “remarks on the natural history of man” and then, in §142, talks about teaching mathematics as part of various techniques for accomplishing practical tasks: sharing out nuts, building a house, selling piles of logs. If people only multiply or add in these specific circumstances, and think of their calculations only as part of the process of doing these specific things, are they not really calculating? Presumably they are, even though their practice looks different from ours (in which, for instance, we learn times tables in school).

Things start to get weirder in §147, when Wittgenstein starts to ask questions about right and wrong (or right and more right):

These people—we should say—sell timber by cubic measure—but are they right in doing so? Wouldn’t it be more correct to sell it by weight—or by the time that it took to fell the timber—or by the labour of felling measured by the age and strength of the woodsman? And why should they not hand it over for a price which is independent of all this: each buyer pays the same however much he takes (they have found it possible to live like that). And is there anything to be said against simply giving the wood away?

There is an interesting shift here. The idea of selling wood by weight rather than volume does seem more correct, albeit perhaps unnecessary given the (I assume) more or less regular density of wood that might be sold in this way for firewood or small construction projects. If it weighs more, after all, there is more wood. But then, on second thoughts, what is the wood for? If it’s for burning, does dense wood burn as well? If it’s for construction, don’t the dimensions of each piece matter more than its weight? So the goals of the buyer come into play. As does the behavior of wood under various circumstances (e.g. how well does it burn when dense?, how much might it shrink or expand when left lying around waiting to be sold?, how much difference in cost might such things make?, and so on). It also matters a lot what people care about. Why weigh instead of measuring if measuring is easier and no one cares about the small difference in price that might result if we weighed instead?

But then people care about things other than cost and what can be done with the wood. They care about justice, for instance. And they have different ideas about what justice requires. There is certainly no easy way to choose between these as long as all are practicable. Wittgenstein is careful to bring in Tolstoy’s test of time: they have found it possible to live like that.

Having raised the question of justice Wittgenstein immediately abandons it:

Very well; but what if they piled the timber in heaps of arbitrary, varying height and then sold it at a price proportionate to the area covered by the piles?

And what if they even justified this with the words: “Of course, if you buy more timber, you must pay more”?


This does not seem just or practical to us, but, given that we have different ideas about the most just or most practical or most accurate way to sell wood, why shouldn’t we be open to other ways of doing it? Well, we aren’t (it seems). Perhaps we have the answer to question 5 above here. We might not be able to say why, but these people are behaving irrationally. It is at this point, in §150, that Wittgenstein comments: “(A society that dealt this way would perhaps remind us of the “Clever People” in the fairy tale.)”

In what way might it remind us of them? Presumably in the sense that they engage in a kind of reasoning, or appear to do so, but not one that makes sense to us. Or rather, they appear not to do what we call reasoning, but to engage in a kind of parody or pseudo-version of it. They are, we might say, fools. (And Wittgenstein says in §149 that he would try to show them that you don’t necessarily buy more wood if you buy wood spread out over a bigger area. So his point is not that their way is just as good as ours. He disagrees with them.)

But if they do remind us of the clever people then we might ask whether we are like the amoral men in that story. We might wonder, in particular, if there is something we are missing. Or if we can justify our way of doing things, show it to be better than theirs and not simply the one we are used to. And here “their way of doing things” would include not only how they sell wood but also how they reject our attempts to convert them to our way of thinking about how they sell wood. Obvious considerations would be whether they seem to be happy, and whether their society functions. But if they are just as happy as us and their society just as functional (as far as this can be measured, given their apparent folly) then we don’t seem to be able to say much except “How strange!” We might even wonder if they are morally or spiritually better than us, as people sometimes wonder about people from other cultures, although I doubt we could say anything to justify any such suspicion.

 

IV


Above I posed four problems and seven questions. Here are the problems:

1.      Can truths that we all know really be inexpressible in language that makes sense?

2.      Can it really be irrational to believe such truths?

3.      A worry that some people have about the idea that one cannot rationally decide what is the best way to live but that one should, nevertheless, throw oneself into something wholeheartedly is that this will lead to people becoming Nazis or joining ISIS. Tolstoy avoids this problem but perhaps does so at the cost of committing himself to a very conservative (though not in the sense that Nazis are very conservative) position.

4.      Relatedly, does Tolstoy implicitly compliment Thrasymachus too much by suggesting that his view is indeed the rational one to take?

 

Here are the questions:


1.      Is there a third alternative after all that we might find if we looked harder?

2.      If both types are happy and even use their own kind of reasoning (so that, in some sense, perhaps, neither is more rational than the other), is there any reason to prefer one to the other? Is it simply a matter of taste?

3.      What is the significance of the fact that we prefer one kind to the other? Does it make it rational to prefer to be a member of that kind? (I would say No, but there does seem to be some kind of contradiction in preferring one team but choosing to join the other.)

4.      Contrary to what I implied in question 2, are the kind, faithful people objectively foolish and not rational at all?

5.      If being rational means reasoning correctly, by what standard can we judge who reasons correctly? Is the answer, Tolstoy-style, that we have no choice but to use the only one(s) we know?

6.      And do we have only one standard of rationality? Rules of logic (e.g. modus ponens) can seem like rules of a game, and there are lots of games with lots of rules. Or, ignoring that line of thought, we might think of rationality as purely instrumental, as only about means to some non-rationally-determined end, or, alternatively, we might think of reason as something that can help us choose ends as well as means.

7.      Even if there are competing conceptions of rationality or reason, might it be the case that we ought to try to eliminate all but one? If it is a compliment to call someone or some decision rational, ought we to resist calling Thrasymachus rational? And, similarly, ought we to say that beliefs we favor are rational rather than mere matters of taste? More strongly, can we regard what we really believe as something like a mere matter of taste? (Cf. Cora Diamond’s “The Problem of Impiety” p. 39: “If you say, “I believe that incest is absolutely ruled out, but I don’t believe the prohibition rests on some rational justification; it’s simply what was passed down to me,” you are, or so it would seem, undercutting your own claim genuinely to believe that incest is ruled out.”)

 

And here are my answers (but I won’t offer much justification for them here):


Problem 1: No. Truths that we know can be expressed in language that makes sense.

Problem 2: No. It cannot be irrational to believe something true.

Problem 3: Tolstoy is committed to a kind of conservatism, but we need not be. We do inherit concepts and practices, but not in a way that is necessarily problematic politically, morally, etc. Commitment to what we all recognize as reason is not politically (etc.) conservative.

Problem 4: I think so, yes. We should not lightly call bad things/people rational, nor call what we embrace irrational.

Question 1: I think not, but I cannot say that I have looked very hard.

Question 2: I don’t think it’s simply a matter of taste which we prefer (although taste itself is not such a simple or arbitrary thing).

Question 3: The answer is in the question.

Question 4: The kind, faithful people are foolish in one sense (given one definition of rationality), but at least deserve better than to be called fools. Certainly those who take advantage of their nature should not be praised as clever or rational without qualification.

Question 5: The answer is in the question, more or less.

Question 6: We seem to have more than one standard of rationality. That’s probably all right as long as we keep the differences clear in our minds.

Question 7:  The word ‘rational’ should probably be used as a compliment except when it is very clear that we are using it in some other, limited (or technical) way. 

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Fears and lumps

[The title of this post refers to Rorty's paper "Texts and Lumps," so here's Rorty describing experiences relevant to the rest of the post. But it isn't a post about Rorty, so you don't need to watch the video to understand what follows. And you certainly don't need to have read "Texts and Lumps."]

 

If you said of someone: 'She has a mind, all right, she just never has anything to say', you would probably mean that the person is so unthinkingly conventional, or so cowed and terrified of expressing any thought of their own, that there is no point in talking to them, you get no real response.

(Moral Foundations of Philosophy of Mind, p. 10 )  

This is a really good book, but this sentence horrifies me. There is a sense in which it's true that some people are not worth talking to, but if you think about it from the point of view of the "cowed and terrified" person... We're in "All the Lonely People" territory here, or this bit of "If You're Feeling Sinister":

Hilary went to her death because she couldn't think of anything to say
Everybody thought that she was boring, so they never listened anyway

There are interesting questions about the ethics of social interaction, because there is such a thing as trying to keep a conversation going, and so of not trying hard enough to do so. There could be a gender aspect to this too. Tracey Thorn (in My Rock'n'Roll Friend) says of Lindy Morrison and the men in The Go-Betweens that:

She understands and appreciates the beauty that also comes out in the songs, but living and working with their introspection and angst is draining, exasperating, she thinks it is very self-indulgent boy behaviour. A woman wouldn’t get away with it. A woman has to try harder socially. Has to placate, keep things running smoothly, not make unnecessary demands.

Still, there does also seem to be such a thing as not being able to think of anything to say. And something like a spectrum of social awkwardness with mild, perhaps even pleasant, shyness at one end and autism at the other. Autism is one of Eugen Bleuler's "four A's" of schizophrenia (the others being alogia, ambivalence, and affect blunting). 

A comment of Wittgenstein's on schizophrenia is well known:

The greatest happiness for a human being is love. Suppose you say of the schizophrenic: he does not love, he cannot love, he refuses to love – where is the difference?

“He refuses to . . .” means: it is in his power. And who wants to say that?!

(Culture and Value, p. 87e.)

He also has this to say about his own inability to express himself (not necessarily in social situations):

Often I feel that there is something in me like a lump which, were it to melt, would let me cry or I would then find the right words (or perhaps even a melody). But this something (is it the heart?) in my case feels like leather & cannot melt. Or is it only that I am too much a coward to let the temperature rise sufficiently?

(Public and Private Occasions, p. 11)   

It is not clear to him whether the problem is a moral one or something for which he couldn't be blamed. But, we might ask, who would want to say it is in his power? (Perhaps an encouraging friend. Perhaps someone who has been hurt by his silence. Or perhaps the question should be left rhetorical.)

On another occasion he seems to have thought that he had a (perhaps unrelated) inability, not a culpable failing:

Although I cannot give affection, I have a great need for it.

(Wittgenstein quoted by Norman Malcolm, Portraits of Wittgenstein, p. 302)

 And he knew he was not alone in having this need: 

I wish you could live quiet, in a sense, & be in a position to be kind & understanding to all sorts of human beings who need it! Because we all need this sort of thing very badly.

(Portraits of Wittgenstein, p. 287)

As for what people who have this kind of inability (or any other, for that matter) should think, Michael Kremer (paraphrasing Augustine, I think) is excellent on this:

[P]ride judges that God could have, and so should have, made me better than I am, second-guessing God's wisdom and trying to replace it with human wisdom. Humility, on the other hand, is acceptance of what I am as good enough. This is combined with gratitude to the Creator for my existence, an attitude that implies the recognition that if God saw fit to create me, I must have been worth bringing into existence.

(“The Purpose of Tractarian Nonsense”, pp. 48-49) 

Friday, April 30, 2021

Logic and Value in Wittgenstein's Philosophy

Peter Stiers’ “Logic and Value in Wittgenstein’s Philosophy” in Philosophical Investigations Volume 44, Issue 2 April 2021 Pages 119-150 is worth reading, although I don’t know how much of it I agree with.

Here’s the abstract:

In Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus (TLP), Wittgenstein gave ethics the same semantic status as logic. This paper first investigates this claim from the perspective of Wittgenstein’s lifelong semantic framework. This reveals that ethical sentences are meaningless expressions, which can only be used to ostensively point out conditions of meaningfulness. Secondly, the paper assesses the implications of this conclusion for understanding the seven cryptic remarks on value and ethics in TLP. Using the connection between will and value in TLP and will and sentence interpretation in Philosophical Investigations, it is suggested that Wittgenstein held lifelong views on value and ethics.

 

And here are the parts that seem most questionable to me:

 

Asking which ethical attitude is the right one makes no sense, because “we do not know… how it would be determined, what sort of criteria would be used, and so on.” [And now another quotation from Wittgenstein:] “[S]uppose I say Christian ethics is the right one. Then I am making a judgment of value. It amounts to adopting Christian ethics. It is not like saying that one of these physical theories must be the right one. The way in which some reality corresponds — or conflicts — with a physical theory has no counterpart here.” (pp. 123-124)

 

If saying that Christian ethics “is the right one” makes sense, which I take Wittgenstein to imply here, then surely it makes sense to ask which ethical attitude is the right one? It would not make the same kind of sense that it makes to ask which physical theory is right, for instance, but that doesn’t make it nonsense. Say I am telling students about various ethical attitudes, views, and theories, and one of them asks me which one is right. They might be confused, but they might not be. They might mean: “which one do you live by?” And then I might name any of them and make perfectly good sense. 

To be fair to Stiers, on p. 124 he says only that “in a way [my emphasis], it makes no sense to ask whether” an ethical sentence is true or false, right or wrong. Which is what I think he should have said all along.


Here's more:

 

Now suppose that Wittgenstein, when confronted for telling a preposterous lie, would similarly respond that he knows he behaved badly but did not want to behave any better. In such case, we would admonish him by saying, “you ought to want to behave better.” The analogy of the circumstance of this utterance to Moore’s insistence that his hands exist or to the chess player's holding up the rook is clear: it is an ostensive pointing out of the rules of the game. This demonstrates that ethical utterances do have a use and, thus, are part of the practice in which language has its place. Like logical sentences, they are not nonsensical because they have an unequivocal interpretation in the context of the languagegame to which they belong. (p. 128)


I think it’s fair to wonder here what counts as an ethical utterance. Such utterances are supposed to have a use in a practice, so that saying something like “You should not lie” is reminding someone of the rules of the game. I think this is one use of sentences like that.

But what about “Abortion is wrong” or “Abortion is not always wrong”? A person might say either of these as a reminder to someone of what they already believe. But that is not the only use these sentences can have. They can also be used as part of an attempt to change someone else’s mind. Or (probably in modified form) as slogans chanted by a group whose identity is defined partly by its stance on abortion. Or, no doubt, in other ways too (as examples in a blog post, say).

And then there are similar-looking sentences that aren’t a reminder of anything, such as “In this paper I shall argue that robots have moral rights.” Even if one agrees with this thesis, it isn’t part of a practice (except the practice of doing applied ethics). The kind of robot that might be thought to have rights either doesn't exist yet or doesn't play a big enough part in enough people's lives for there to be a practice of recognizing their rights. But I wouldn’t call the thesis statement about robots' rights nonsense for this reason.

Stiers again:

“we cannot understand someone who does not subscribe to the truth of these ethical sentences.” (p. 129)

I think this is probably true of certain ethical utterances. If someone said that murder is OK I would wonder what they meant. But students have a tendency to say things like “Technically murder can be right” when they mean that war or capital punishment can be justified. So I wouldn’t rush to call even the claim that “murder is OK” nonsense without some further clarification.

And surely we can understand people who disagree with us on abortion or robot rights, even if we don’t always do so. A nice example of this kind of thing is Brandon Boulware on coming to accept his daughter’s being trans:

He certainly seems as though he can understand people who don’t share his view. (Which is not to claim, of course, that he can understand all of them. Some of them might have very different views or ways of viewing things.)

Last one:

Just as the logical insight inherent in a tautology is recognized by someone who knows language, the ethical aspect in ostensively uttered ethical propositions is recognized by someone who already has these practical insights. Thus, ethics, as well as logic, is ineffable. Moreover, all “moral” discussions must be of the form of an ostensive collision between forms of life. (p. 132)

I think I want to question the word ‘already’ here. Say I am witnessing an event where pro-choice and pro-life protestors are waving signs and shouting slogans. Imagine I am undecided about the ethics of abortion, or pro-life but with some doubts. Now someone shouts “A woman has the right to control her own body!” And I think, “You know what? That’s right! She does.”

I doubt this happens often, but doesn’t it seem possible? The pro-choice way of framing the issue invites me to see it a certain way, and when I try out this way of looking at it, suddenly I seem to see clearly. (It could go the other way, too, of course, with the pro-life view, or a pro-life view, seeming to make sense of the whole issue to someone.)

I’m not sure I would call this a collision of forms of life. But perhaps it’s good to think of the abortion debate as a struggle within our form of life.

Friday, April 23, 2021

The Significance of the Tractatus

Blimey, this looks good:

teorema Vol. XL/2, Spring 2021

 

           Table of Contents

 

The Significance of the Tractatus

Guest Editor: José Luis Zalabardo

 

 J. L. ZalabardoIntroduction

 

     https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=7871309

 

 J. GombinSimplicity and Independence in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus

 

     https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=7871310

 

 N. M. Mabaquiao, JrWittgenstein’s Objects and Theory of Names in the Tractatus

 

     https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=7871311

 

 G. NirAre Rules of Inference Superfluous? Wittgenstein vs. Frege and Russell

 

     https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=7871312

 

 J. A. Forero and M. J. FrápolliShow Me. On Tractarian Non-Representationalism

 

     https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=7871313

 

 O. KuuselaWittgenstein’s Grundgedanke as the Key to the Tractatus

 

     https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=7871314

 

 A. I. SegattoJudgment, Nonsense and the Unity of the Proposition: Revisiting Wittgenstein’s Criticism of Russell

 

     https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=7871315

 

 E. Pérez-NavarroFregean Themes in the Tractatus; Context Compositionality and Nonsense

 

     https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=7871316

 

 V. Sanfélix, Tractatus 5.6-5.621

 

     https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=7871317

 

 J. FairhurstThe Ethical Significance of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

 

      https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=7871318

 

 R. HenriquesThe Tractatus as an ‘Exercise in Kierkegaardian Irony

 

     https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=7871319

 

 C. DiamondWittgenstein’s ‘Unbearable Conflict’

 

     https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=7871320

 

 M. KremerCora Diamond on “Wittgenstein’s ‘Unbearable Conflict’”

 

     https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=7871321 

 

 C. DiamondReply to Michael Kremer

 

     https://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/articulo?codigo=7871322

 

                                         oooo00oooo

 

teorema is pleased to announce that its contents from 1971 to the current issue (included) are available for FREE DOWNLOAD through the Internet website <www.unioviedo.es/Teorema>

Hard copies can be obtained by annual subscription (three issues a year), or purchased individually, from the Spanish publishers KRK http://www.krkediciones.com