Thursday, June 20, 2019

Anscombe and the sky

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

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

Here's that hymn:

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Character and personal relationships

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Sean Wilson's new website

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

Friday, June 14, 2019

The fallacy of the course again

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Houses of philosophers

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

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

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

Related image

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


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

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

Monday, June 10, 2019

Two thoughts on moral responsibility

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

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

Wednesday, June 5, 2019


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

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