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!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Is ethics a subject, part II

Here are a couple more passages from the Cora Diamond paper that I mentioned here. The first is the full paragraph from which I quoted, the second is a related footnote.

The paper is "Realism and Resolution: Reply to Warren Goldfarb and Sabina Lovibond" in the Journal of Philosophical Research, Volume XXII, 1997, pp. 75-86.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018


I wonder whether anyone has ever connected Marcel Duchamp's Fountain with Schopenhauer or Kraus, Schopenhauer writes (in The World as Will and Representation) that:
when some external cause or inward disposition lifts us suddenly out of the endless stream of willing, delivers knowledge from the slavery of the will, the attention is no longer directed to the motives of willing, but comprehends things free from their relation to the will, and thus observes them without personal interest, without subjectivity, purely objectively, gives itself entirely up to them so far as they are ideas, but not in so far as they are motives. Then all at once the peace which we were always seeking, but which always fled from us on the former path of the desires, comes to us of its own accord, and it is well with us. It is the painless state which Epicurus prized as the highest good and as the state of the gods; for we are for the moment set free from the miserable striving of the will; we keep the Sabbath of the penal servitude of willing; the wheel of Ixion stands still.
But this is just the state which I described above as necessary for the knowledge of the Idea, as pure contemplation, as sinking oneself in perception, losing oneself in the object, forgetting all individuality, surrendering that kind of knowledge which follows the principle of sufficient reason, and comprehends only relations; the state by means of which at once and inseparably the perceived particular thing is raised to the Idea of its whole species, and the knowing individual to the pure subject of willless knowledge, and as such they are both taken out of the stream [255] of time and all other relations. It is then all one whether we see the sun set from the prison or from the palace.
Inward disposition, the predominance of knowing over willing, can produce this state under any circumstances. This is shown by those admirable Dutch artists who directed this purely objective perception to the most insignificant objects, and established a lasting monument of their objectivity and spiritual peace in their pictures of still life, which the ├Žsthetic beholder does not look on without emotion; for they present to him the peaceful, still, frame of mind of the artist, free from will, which was needed to contemplate such insignificant things so objectively, to observe them so attentively, and to repeat this perception so intelligently; and as the picture enables the onlooker to participate in this state, his emotion is often increased by the contrast between it and the unquiet frame of mind, disturbed by vehement willing, in which he finds himself. In the same spirit, landscape-painters, and particularly Ruisdael, have often painted very insignificant country scenes, which produce the same effect even more agreeably.
He has in mind natural objects and scenes, but one might either mock or try to confirm Schopenhauer's ideas about the objective perception of insignificant objects by presenting a urinal as a work of art.

Then there's Kraus (writing in 1913):
Adolf Loos and I – he literally and I grammatically – have done nothing more than show that there is a difference between an urn and a chamber pot and that it is this distinction above all that provides culture with elbow room. 
I don't know how much Duchamp would have known about either Schopenhauer or Kraus, but Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven might have. 

Even if there is no causal chain from Schopenhauer and/or Kraus to Duchamp (or Freytag-Loringhoven or whoever submitted Fountain), one still might wonder what, if anything, Fountain says or shows about Schopenhauer's philosophy.

OK, back to grading papers.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Is ethics a subject?

Benjamin De Mesel has made me very happy by writing about me in the same breath as he writes about Cora Diamond, Lars Hertzberg, Stephen Mulhall, and James Conant. He also emphasizes that his disagreement on one point, or set of related points, does not mean that he disagrees with most of what we say on other matters, which is a nice thing that he didn't have to say. He criticizes all of us, however, for saying that "according to Wittgenstein, ethics has no particular subject matter." This view--the one he criticizes--is linked with the idea that there is no such thing as "the moral vocabulary," i.e., the limited set of words that picks out the territory of the ethical. De Mesel agrees with this idea about words, but thinks that we can identify moral uses of words instead. I'm not so sure.

The example he gives, from Cora Diamond, is Simone Weil's use of the word 'chance' in such sentences as, "It is only by chance that I was born." I agree that this sentence can be given an ethical use, that is, roughly, that it could play an important role in how someone thinks and lives. But what exactly counts as important? And how is ethical importance to be distinguished from other kinds? I am not saying that it cannot be, but I don't know how it could be. Let me (try to) explain what I mean. Suppose that ethics is a subject, i.e., about something, and we want to say what this subject is about. Specifying what ethics is about by giving a list of words might not work, but it isn't too hard to begin to imagine how the attempt might go. "Ethics is about good, evil, right, wrong, virtue, vice, duty, rights, and so on," we might say. But if we reject this idea, as De Mesel does, then what will our list of uses of words, or kinds of uses of words, look like? It surely won't be "Ethics is about uses of words to do with good, evil, right, wrong, virtue, vice, ..." But I struggle to think what it should look like instead.

De Mesel does offer a solution to this problem (on p. 87):
The only satisfying characterizations of 'moral use' one can give, I think, are those referring to a subject matter: a sentence or word is used in a moral way if it refers to what is good, or to what is absolutely good, or to what is intrinsically valuable, etc. This is the way in which I have understood 'moral use' when I said that a moral vocabulary would contain only words in their moral uses.  
But this seems problematic to me, for reasons I hope will become clear.

De Mesel goes on to argue that Wittgenstein believed that there is such a subject as ethics, on the grounds that in the Lecture on Ethics he refers to "the subject matter of ethics" and begins the lecture with the words, "My subject, as you know, is ethics..." The subject matter of ethics is, Wittgenstein says, the good. Or the important or the valuable or what all these have in common. The only way to deny that Wittgenstein believed that ethics is a subject with its own subject matter, supposedly, is to rely on the fact that the Lecture on Ethics is an early work and Wittgenstein might have changed his mind later.

I don't think this is right though. In the lecture, Wittgenstein distinguishes the ethical sense of 'good' ('right', 'valuable', etc.) from a relative or trivial sense. A hammer might be good in a trivial sense if it works well as a hammer. A plan for robbing a bank might be good if it is a plan that is likely to succeed. There is nothing particularly ethical about this. The ethical sense of 'good' is different, Wittgenstein says. It is absolute. What does that mean? Wittgenstein says: "that no description that I can think of would do to describe what I mean by absolute value" and that he "would reject every significant description that anybody could possibly suggest, ab initio, on the ground of its significance."
That is to say: I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and, I believe, the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language.
This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science.
If ethics cannot be a science can it nevertheless be a subject of some other kind? Well, maybe. But, despite what Wittgenstein says at the beginning of the lecture, by the end it is very far from clear that he thinks there really is such a subject as ethics with any subject matter that can be talked or written about without speaking or writing nonsense. It isn't so much the later Wittgenstein who denies that ethics is a subject as it is the later-in-the-lecture Wittgenstein who at least seems to think there are huge problems with thinking of ethics as a subject. (Apologies if this sounds snarky.)

On a couple of points De Mesel identifies me as the only person who has said certain things, which ought to be a good sign that I am wrong on those points (in my opinion, not his). But, again, I'm not so sure. "Only Richter has seen," he writes, "that this [i.e., that "Rather than saving moral philosophy, an exclusive focus on use makes it impossible"] is where the Diamond-Mulhall-Richter-Hertzberg-Conant argument may lead us, and he has accepted that consequence. Unfortunately, he attributes it also to Wittgenstein" (p. 88). The evidence that I do this is my saying that "Wittgenstein was right to believe that there is no special arena that could be the subject of moral philosophy or ethics" (in "Nothing to be Said," p. 254). I do think that there is no such special arena, and that Wittgenstein thought so too, but I don't think either that moral philosophy is impossible or that an exclusive focus on use makes it so. I'll say more about this below.

The other point on which I am (said to be) alone is in going from saying that ethics "is not a subject nor a particular sphere or aspect of life" to saying that "Everything is to do with ethics" ("Nothing to be Said," p. 251). This goes against Stephen Mulhall's worry that what we count as ethical could, but should not, "become capacious to the point of emptiness" ("Ethics in the Light of Wittgenstein," p. 303). This looks bad for me, I agree, and perhaps I should never have said that everything is to do with ethics (although "to do with" is pretty vague, and perhaps I can hide in that cloudiness). But in the same paper I also say that:
It is not that just anything can be given a moral application, rather that there is no limit to the ways in which moral thought might be expressed. (p. 253)
It would be a mistake to claim that just anything could be brought into a moral relation with our lives. (p. 253 as well) 
It would be a mistake, I say, not because it would be false but because it would a) be an a priori claim that one cannot really be in a position to make, and b) to make such a claim is to invite counterexamples, i.e. trouble, needlessly.

So why did I say that everything is to do with ethics? Well, I also said that this was "only a manner of speaking" (p. 251). Things I say later in the paper, including what I've quoted here, are meant to clarify what I meant.

If I have wriggled off that hook, what about the things I've said above about moral philosophy? I imply both that moral philosophy is possible and that Wittgenstein rightly thinks there is no such subject. Can I explain myself? What I think is (something like) this. Moral philosophy is certainly possible in a negative sense: we can analyze and criticize the work of moral philosophers. Wittgenstein himself did this, although I don't know whether he would have called it philosophy. We can also think about such questions as whether we ought to recognize same-sex marriages or eat meat. I count that as moral philosophy, while Wittgenstein did not seem to think that this kind of thing is really philosophy of any kind. I don't think, though, that we can work out, or prove, in some quasi-mathematical or scientific way what we ought to do. Ethics can be no science.