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 W├Ârterbuch 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


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 Backstr├Âm 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


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.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Cora Diamond and Christopher Cordner on Iris Murdoch

It's a c. 28 minute discussion with Scott Stephens on "The Philosopher's Zone," an Australian radio show. The discussion is here.