Wednesday, March 20, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 18, 2019

Elizabeth Anscombe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Zeitschrift für Ethik und Moralphilosophie

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

Monday, February 4, 2019

The dense, glittering stream of reality

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Setiya on Murdoch

Just as anyone who might like Kacey Musgraves has almost certainly already heard her most recent album, so anyone with an interest in Iris Murdoch has probably already read Kieran Setiya's review of Gary Browning on Why Iris Murdoch Matters. Still, if you haven't read it yet, I recommend it. Partly it's a nice example of how to write a generous review. And partly I think this is a useful statement of some key ideas from Murdoch:
Murdoch has three big ideas, of which the first is key. She is fundamentally opposed to a view of “moral psychology,” the activity of deliberation and choice, that she associates with both existentialism and the Oxford moral philosophy of her time. On this view, we first come to a neutral description of our circumstance, which leaves open what to do, and then choose freely among our options, expressing our character or moral principles. For Murdoch, description is never neutral. The moral task is to describe one’s circumstance correctly. Once you find the right description, choice is virtually automatic, though not on that account unfree. This process calls for “unsentimental, detached, unselfish, objective attention […] a kind of intellectual ability to perceive what is true, which is automatically at the same time a suppression of self”; once fully achieved, “true vision occasions right conduct.” “If I attend properly,” Murdoch writes, “I will have no choices and this is the ultimate condition to be aimed at.” Murdoch’s second idea is that the primary obstacle to attention is our natural egoism, the “fat relentless ego.” Her third idea is that the answer to egoism, the source of psychic energy that fuels our attention to reality, is love.

These are real things

As far as I know, this was the best song released last year (which I have only just discovered). I found out about Kacey Musgraves from j., via this blog, and Tracyanne Campbell has talked this album up on Twitter, so thanks to both of them for this find. If G.K. Chesterton were to write a country love song it might sound like this.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Highlights of 2018

In no particular order, here's my top ten of things I can remember from this past year:
  1. Beijing
  2. Leipzig
  3. My son got into his first choice university
  4. I read the Bible 
  5. Movies: Blackkklansman and Happy as Lazzaro
  6. Publishing four papers in four months
  7. Seeing Toots and the Maytals at Lockn
  8. TV: Babylon Berlin, Dogs of Berlin, and El Marginal
  9. I made my playlist, which turned out more or less how I wanted it.
  10. I discovered this song, which seems to have influenced two other songs I really like too:

Let's hope 2019 is as good, if not better. Happy New Year!