Thursday, December 23, 2010


This will probably be my last post before 2011, so let me wish you a happy Yule while I can.

I haven't seen much about the film Restrepo, but I highly recommend it. There's a good review here. Basically, a film crew goes to Afghanistan with some US soldiers and records what happens, along with some interviews done, presumably, in a studio somewhere else about the soldiers' feelings.

I don't think there is any kind of voice-over or editorial comment, so it's tempting to say that the film just shows things as they are (although they seem to deliberately avoid showing any active enemy combatants or dead bodies). Certainly all the identification is with the Americans, but that would probably have been the case anyway, whatever the film-makers' intent, for American viewers. One comment I think I saw (can't find it now) complained that the film romanticizes the war, but I don't think it particularly does. War is romantic. Not in the sense that it's a good thing, but because you have so much danger. Death is not exciting, but the threat or danger of death is the stuff of adventure stories. J. Glenn Gray is very good on the appeal (as well as the horror) of war, and I think Restrepo supports a lot of what he says about camaraderie, etc.

It's hard to watch people you identify with being shot at without feeling at some level that you ought to be there with them, helping in some way or other. So I think the film would be an effective recruiting tool. But it wasn't enough to make me sign up. And what I came away thinking was that the danger these men are exposed to is completely pointless.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Stephen Mulhall, part II

Over at Practice and History of Philosophy, j. is in the process of answering my question, Who is Stephen Mulhall? (My post is here, j.'s answer so far is here and here.) Mulhall provides a description of what he is doing at the end of his book Faith & Reason.

Here he writes:
And what of philosophy in all this? In what sense can this and the preceding chapter be thought of as philosophical investigations, as opposed to poor attempts at edification or the unwitting provision of ample grounds for taking offence? Is there really room here for an exercise of reason that is not an employment of it on one side or another of the existential choice with which Christianity faces us?

Only if the following distinction can be made and observed: the distinction between a description and a defence of (or an attack upon) a form of life. [...] [P]hilosophy can spell out the central features of the forms of life that face one another across the divide between religious and other modes of human existence [...] But it neither can, nor should, attempt to engage in those arguments with, let alone to make that choice for, it readers.
He is not saying that people should not engage in such arguments. What he is saying is that this should not be done in the name of philosophy, as if philosophy or logical argument could spare anyone the need to make existential choices. What he says here sounds right to me, but I wonder whether the distinction he identifies between description and defense (or attack) can be made and observed.

It is worth noting also that Faith & Reason is a relatively old book. It came out in 1994, and Mulhall has published much else since then. His Inheritance and Originality came out in 2001 and ends with a "Concluding Dogmatic Postscript." Presumably the Mulhall of 1994 would not have considered anything dogmatic as philosophy. Perhaps the 2001 Mulhall doesn't either, but I always wonder what exactly it is that he takes himself to be doing. And I think he does too. The last sentence of Inheritance and Originality (before the acknowledgements, bibliography, and index) asks: "But can philosophy acknowledge religion and still have faith in itself?" I don't think the answer is meant to be obvious.

Then in 2002 there appeared an interview with Mulhall in New British Philosophy. Here he describes "a sense that there's some kind of open border between philosophy and literature" as the direction he finds interesting in philosophy. (This is a thought that I am trying to have articulately.) He also says, "My concern was that it is very difficult to see how to go on with and from Wittgenstein without your own voice being completely submerged." Cavell provided a model of how to do this, but he doesn't want to be a sort of ersatz Cavell. He wants to be himself, to speak with his own voice. And, "The trouble with philosophy is that philosophers seem to have an almost inveterate tendency to forget that they're human beings too."

So Mulhall seems to have struggled with the questions of what philosophy (generally) ought to be, or how it ought to be done after Wittgenstein (and after Cavell), and of how he (in particular) ought to speak or write (or think?). This interests me because I have similar questions. But also because I often wonder to what extent he is speaking for himself. In 1994 he seemed to think it was possible to be neutral. Does he still think that? Does he ever still try merely to describe (in his book on private language, for instance)? And if not, then with what authority does he write? In short, I think what I'm trying to say is that his work raises the questions: 1. What is the relation between philosophy and literature?, and 2. What is the authority of literature (and of the kind of philosophy that exists along that open border)? Perhaps there is something wrong with that second question though. And that interests me too.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The experiment continues

UPDATE: The link now takes you to the latest version of the paper.

If I call the last one a rough draft, then here is a first draft of my paper on what philosophy ought to be. It might not be very good, but it is at least (I hope) less bad than the previous one. Comments welcome, as always.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

...and your head on the ground

Andy Clark has added to his earlier post. In this new piece he says this:
A few commentators rightly suggested that mind itself is probably not a “thing” hence not worth trying to locate. That is not to say — heaven forbid — that it is a non-material thing. Rather, it might be a bit like trying to locate the adorableness of a kitten. There is nothing magically non-physical about the kitten, but trying to fine-tune the location of the adorableness still seems like some kind of error or category mistake. In the case of mind, I think what we have is an intuitive sense of the kind of capacities that we are gesturing at when we speak of minds, and so we can then ask: where is the physical machinery that makes those capacities possible? It is the physical machinery of thought and reason that the extended mind story is meant to concern.
This seems right to me, so perhaps I should just take back everything I said in my last post. But I'm still troubled by the fact that he and others care so much about these questions.

If the question really is just "Where is the physical machinery that makes [the kind of capacities that we are gesturing at when we speak of minds] possible?" then why aren't libraries and stomachs part of the answer, and obviously so? If they aren't part of the answer, then what does the question really mean? My impression is that many philosophers want to know whether tools are really part of our minds (for instance, if I use an address book or my cell phone to help me remember people's phone numbers, is the book or phone now part of my memory?). And I don't know what to say to this except to recommend that they read Kant or Nietzsche or Wittgenstein or... . As Wittgenstein said, say what you choose, so long as it doesn't prevent you from seeing the facts.

(I'm girding myself to look again at the paper I'm working on (or trying to work on, or tying not to work on), which is partly a resurrection of a paper I presented years ago at a conference on what philosophy is or ought to be. Struggling then to state my theses I began with "Philosophers ought to read Wittgenstein and Heidegger." The audience laughed. But it's not as if many people do read this stuff, as far as I can tell. Maybe this (that I'm trying to state the obvious when the obvious in question is not obvious) is why I'm not having much joy with the paper.)

Monday, December 13, 2010

With your feet in the air...

Andy Clark wants to argue that we don't just think in our heads and, against Descartes, that the mind is both embodied and extended.  I sort of agree.  But his piece for The Stone reminds us why ordinary language is important in philosophy.  For one thing, he begins and ends with references to the Pixies' "Where is My Mind?" without showing any sign that he has noticed how psychedelic the song is.  The question it asks is not a normal question.  Yet Clark offers an answer as if it were a perfectly straightforward question.  This doesn't prove that he's making a mistake, but it's a sign that maybe something is wrong.

Secondly, as if aware of this, he resorts to some rather odd language:   
Is it possible that, sometimes at least, some of the activity that enables us to be the thinking, knowing, agents that we are occurs outside the brain?
This seems like a strange way of asking whether thinking and knowing occur outside the brain.  The answer to the question "Where does thinking occur?" is: where there is intelligent life.  I.e., in such places as libraries and studies, in comfy chairs and so on (as well as in less obviously intellectual locations, too, of course).  Saying that we think inside our brains is like saying that we see inside our eyes.  It is, in other words, a mistake.  I expect that this is one possible reason why Clark uses the odd form of words that he does.  But the answer to the odd question is just: Of course.  One activity that enables me to be the thinking, knowing agent that I am is eating.  Another is breathing.  These activities involve the brain, but they do not take place inside it. 

I'm not saying anything new here, as most people who read this are likely to know.  It's the kind of point that I'm told Peter Hacker makes repeatedly in some of his recent work.  And he takes his inspiration from Wittgenstein.  But it's not as if Hacker's work has changed the direction of neuroscience or the philosophy of mind.  Amazon quotes a reviewer from Philosophy saying of this book that: "Whether this book leads to a reconfiguring of contemporary neuroscience and the philosophy associated with it will tell us much about the dynamics of contemporary intellectual life."  I suspect that it will not have the reconfiguring effect that Hacker would like to see.  

But what would this tell us about the dynamics of contemporary intellectual life?  That people ignore philosophers?  That's part of it, but Clark is a philosopher, as are many of the people that Hacker criticizes.  It seems to be more that people don't want to have to deal with human beings.  We prefer things (like brains) to people (or "the thinking, knowing agents that we are").  And this preference is surely linked to the need for an organized campaign to defend the humanities in universities and colleges.  There is money to study brains, but not to study human beings qua human beings.  I doubt Clark thinks as he does because of any financial incentive, but the forces pushing him to think as he does are perhaps the same ones that push others to attack the humanities as worthless.  Scientism, in a word, I suppose.  (I should emphasize the word perhaps here--I can't know why Clark thinks as he does.)


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A failed experiment?

UPDATE: Looking over it again I see that the paper is much rougher than I realized. Apologies to anyone who read it.

As a sort of challenge to myself, and prompted by a deadline that Matthew Pianalto alerted me to, I've tried to write an entire paper almost completely from scratch this semester. It does incorporate bits of an old, unpublished paper, but not much of it, and what I have used I have also revised quite a bit. The paper is by no means finished, but I think it's far enough along to be able to benefit from comments from other people. So if you have any, please fire away.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

Read v. Coetzee

Rupert Read argues that irrationality cannot be understood, that we cannot make sense of nonsense. If someone is schizophrenic, therefore, we should not expect to be able to understand them. I think he would allow that we might be able to understand them and/or things they say some of the time, but he also writes that "sometimes the closest we can get to understanding (for example) schizophrenia [is] becoming clear that it is not understandable." And he does not mean only the illness but the people who suffer from it and (some of) the things they say because of, or out of, it.

This strikes me as being true in two ways. Trivially, if someone talks nonsense because of a mental illness (or for any other reason) then this is nonsense and its meaning cannot be understood because it does not exist. If it did it wouldn't be nonsense. More interestingly, there is something condescending about claiming to understand anyone else too much, and it seems as though such claims are always at least in danger of being too much when the someone else is schizophrenic. There must be something seriously alien about their thinking for them to be rightly diagnosed as schizophrenic.

But it also seems false in some ways too. If I have had schizophrenia but am currently OK, whether or not because of medication, couldn't I reasonably claim to understand the illness? (I don't mean that such claims are bound to be reasonable, only that it seems some could be.) Or if I work with a schizophrenic person all the time, might I not have some understanding of him? At times this understanding might be of the fairly minimal that's-just-what-he-does-when-there's-thunder variety, but then that's only different in degree from our understanding of anyone, isn't it? It's the kind of understanding that we have of animals, after all, and we are animals ourselves. I think Read would accept all this.

Another criticism that I think people sometimes want to make of Read's view is that, while avoiding belittling schizophrenics, it instead rejects the very possibility of a human relationship with them at all. They are alien, after all, and incomprehensible. This criticism is probably unfair. I'm sure it is aimed at something he does not mean.

But a different kind of criticism is also possible, and I think Coetzee at least gestures toward this. (This link isn't much help, but it's the paper I'm talking about.) Read wants to say that there is something we cannot do, even if we are as gifted as can be when it comes to thinking or writing or understanding. There is something, in particular, that writers cannot do. Or at least he seems to want to say this, although he also says that he agrees with almost everything Coetzee says in response to him. Perhaps his choice of words is sometimes misleading and that's all there is to it.

Rather than say things like "there is no understanding schizophrenia because there is nothing there to understand" (which is the kind of thing Read says about solipsism, and he relates solipsism to schizophrenia often), Coetzee seems to want to say that there could be something called "understanding schizophrenia." I'm tempted to say that Read rejects these words as having no meaning while Coetzee out-Cora Diamond's him by saying they haven't been given a meaning yet, until someone (perhaps Faulkner) comes along and gives these words meaning. But I'll resist saying that until I've re-read Read's original paper and The Sound and the Fury.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Abstract mysticism

This is an abstract I'm working on for a conference paper. A previous version of it was unsuccessful, so I've revised it, but perhaps not enough. I'm working with a 500-word limit, so I can't add anything unless I also take something else away. Any suggestions, though, would be welcome.
Mysticism, perhaps for good reason, is something of a dirty word in philosophy, but I think that something that has gone by this name is necessary for ethics or moral philosophy. My goal in this paper is to explain this thesis, clarifying what I mean by ‘mysticism’, and exploring some of the advantages and disadvantages of mysticism in ethics. Not surprisingly, mysticism is associated with religious views on ethical issues, and these are often conservative. One danger of appeals to the mystical is that they can seem to justify the irrational and evil prejudices of people on the right wing. Another danger is that they might seem to justify nothing at all, or perhaps anything whatever. But I should first define mysticism.

In her essay on “Contraception and Chastity,” Elizabeth Anscombe claims that the sense that casual sex dishonors the body is a mystical perception. She also says that the sense that leaving dead bodies out with the trash shows a lack of proper respect is mystical too. It seems to me that Leon Kass has exactly the same kind of perception in mind when he talks about the “wisdom of repugnance.” He asks rhetorically in his essay on that subject: “Can anyone really give an argument fully adequate to the horror which is father-daughter incest (even with consent), or having sex with animals, or mutilating a corpse, or eating human flesh, or even just (just!) raping or murdering another human being?”

I do not know whether Kass really means to imply that having sex with animals is worse than rape and murder as he might seem to (I doubt it), but my goal is not to defend the specific values that Anscombe (a Catholic) and Kass (a one-time member of George W. Bush’s government) support. Rather, I am interested in the limits of rational argument that Kass points out. These limits can be seen by liberal and progressive thinkers as well as conservative ones. I would argue, for instance, that the idea that human beings have natural rights is a mystical one. The same might be said about the very idea of a moral law.

This kind of “mystical perception” or “wisdom of repugnance” obviously depends on a certain kind of emotional response, but it is not thereby non-rational. Indeed, someone who put his dead or dying mother out with the rubbish would be regarded as highly irrational, precisely because (or insofar as) he saw nothing wrong with doing so. Moral reasoning typically begins from certain data, such as the badness of pain, the value of human life, the desirability of autonomy, and so on. Our perception that such things are indeed good or bad, however, is hard to justify empirically or logically. Instead it rests on a kind of emotional response. People who lack this kind of basic emotional orientation to the world would strike us as alien and hard, if not impossible, to reason with. In this sense reason and emotion are intertwined.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Elevate me

Jean Kazez says:
The good of religion It goes back to Keith Richards's book. Over and over again, he talks about the "elevation" he feels from making one out of many--one sound in a band with many members. This is a term also used by Jonathan Haidt, who references Barbara Ehrenreich's book about the lost art of dancing in the streets. We can't all be Keith Richards, but anyone can become a member of a church--and then the "band" is huge, crossing boundaries of both space and time.

But wait--why do you need a church for that? Why isn't there sufficient elevation in going to rock concerts or political rallies or baseball games? It's different, because a church (but not a stadium) is a place in which people deal with the passage of time (marked by holidays) and the major events of life--birth, marriage, illness, death. Contingently, though not of necessity, churches are in the time/birth/death business because they are places run by priests who have contact with the powers that supposedly govern such things.

The new atheist attitude is that the whole edifice of religion should come falling down because there aren't any gods. But then you'd lose all the good. As I see it: better for religion to evolve in a rational direction, not vanish entirely. That view is the main thing that makes me a not-new atheist, and it has nothing to do with "accommodationism" about science and religion.
The second paragraph reminds me of the end of Larkin's "Church Going":
I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for which was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.
I think Kazez and Larkin are excellent on why there might be a need for church, but actually going to church does not (in my experience) provide the kind of elevation that Richards talks about. This elevation seems to come from a kind of communal art, although 'art' might be too grand a term for it. I think it would include the joy that a Cleveland Browns fan recently described to me of chanting "Asshole" in unison with a whole stadium at a hated former player. It certainly includes this kind of singing, etc. at a football/soccer match. But that has nothing to do with marriage, birth, and death. We still tend to go to church (or turn to religion in some form) for those things.

So how do we bring the things we care about (the Browns, the birth of a baby, etc.) together with church and/or religion? I'm not sure that a more rational form of religion is the answer. The best lack all conviction/The worst are full of passionate intensity, as Yeats said. (This seems to apply to politics as well as religion, and is almost explicitly given as a common reason for not voting for the clearly better presidential candidate in the US.) So we need to make the worst more rational (which people are constantly trying to do, without much success) and the best more passionate (which means finding something they can get passionate about).

Which is a bit like saying we need a new god, or only a god can save us now. Also like Nietzsche's madman's "I seek God, I seek God." It seems to keep being said. Which means, not to end on too much of a downer, that hope remains alive.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Do I know what I'm doing?

In my last post I wrote that "We know what we are doing not only better than others know but in a different way. In fact, we know with such certainty that it almost makes no sense to say that we know it. But the chalk example shows that we can be wrong, and so knowledge claims do make sense. There is something that could be true or false, something to know or fail to know." I'm not happy with this for various reasons. It sounds too much like a kind of Wittgensteinian theory to me, and I don't think it's all that true to how we use the word 'know.'

"I know what I'm doing" is usually a defensive remark made to counter a suggestion either that you are incompetent or that your goal is not a wise one. It might be said in answer to "Are you sure you want to climb that ladder in this high wind?" or "Isn't that too much salt?" It isn't something you would normally say unless challenged. So it isn't a simple statement of fact.

What is a fact is that we are normally perfectly able to say what we are doing and that what we say is authoritative. Am I playing a tune with the squeaky pump, or pumping water with it, or murdering the Nazis hiding inside the house? There is a sense in which only I know the answer to this or, rather, there can be circumstances in which only I know the answer. Sometimes the evidence will make it very clear what I was doing, but sometimes it won't.

Performing an action is like acting (in charades, say). Sometimes we need the actor to tell us what s/he (can we invent the word 'acter' so that we don't have to say actor/actress any more?) was doing. But then there is no possibility of a mistake on the actor's part.

If the meaning of, or reason for, your movements is obscure to others then you can remove this mystery by telling them what you are (or at least take yourself to be) doing. In that sense you know what you are doing. But you don't know in the sense of having found out. Nor do you know in the sense that your belief is by definition true. So it might be best not to say that people have knowledge in such cases. As long as we don't get too preachy in the face of perfectly functional cases of ordinary use.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Blind vision

John McDowell asks an interesting question in his "What is the Content of an Intention in Action?" If Anscombe is right that "I do what happens," then how can she also say that "my knowledge is independent of what actually happens" so that I can know that I am writing "I am a fool" on a chalkboard even if my eyes are shut? (See here for the relevant passage from Anscombe.)

Anscombe's point is that if someone asks what you are doing, you don't have to stop and look in order to answer the question. You know what you are doing non-observationally. But what if the board has been cleaned with something that prevents the chalk from making a mark? Then how could I know I was writing anything, rather than merely trying to write something, if my eyes are shut?

Anscombe says that in such cases the mistake lies in the performance, not the judgment. McDowell insists that: "it is surely wrong to suppose Anscombe's claim to be writing 'I am a fool' on the blackboard can express knowledge if those words are not getting written on the blackboard."

She might be said to have knowledge of what she takes herself to be doing, but if we say this then it sounds as though we might always have to actually check in order to be sure that we really are doing what we think we are doing (in other cases, as well as the blindfold-type case). And this is both unfashionably dualistic and absurd. We know what we are doing not only better than others know but in a different way. In fact, we know with such certainty that it almost makes no sense to say that we know it. But the chalk example shows that we can be wrong, and so knowledge claims do make sense. There is something that could be true or false, something to know or fail to know.

The problem with what Anscombe says, it seems to me, lies in her assertion that her knowledge would be the same in the case where she is writing and in the case where, unbeknown to her, something has gone wrong in the performance of her action. Her belief or certainty might be the same, but in one case she knows only what she means to do, not what she is doing. So it's odd to say that her knowledge is the same in both cases. Should we say that her mental state is the same, but that in one case it is not knowledge? That doesn't sound quite right either.

It's important to stay on Anscombe's side, though, otherwise we seem to be left saying that we don't know what we are doing most of the time (unless we neurotically look and see), just as we might in other philosophical debates say that it is not reality that horrifies some people but only putative reality, or that we don't really hear motorcycles but only sounds that we interpret as motorcycles. Sometimes it is hard to know what one is hearing or doing, but excessive focus on these exceptional cases make bad metaphysics.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Never understand

I decided to read and blog about this piece on autism and philosophy before I saw that Matthew Pianalto had already done so and that it was largely about Wittgenstein. It's hard to see past the wrongness about Wittgenstein. He was not "awkward and unskilled in social intercourse." On the contrary, he could be very charming. What he was is rude, which is not the same thing. My sense is that he was perfectly capable of getting along at a superficial level with people he probably thought of as superficial, but that he had a very low tolerance of what he regarded as bullshit when talking with people from whom he expected more, such as philosophers. I'm pretty sure that it's false (or at least misleading) to say that:
Wittgenstein, we know, came up with his preliminary model of language while studying court reports of a car accident in Paris during the war.
Wittgenstein heard about these court reports, but it's not as if he studied them. Anyway, almost everything about Wittgenstein seems at least slightly wrong in this kind of way, and sometimes Martin (the author of the article) seems to admit that he doesn't much care whether he gets Wittgenstein right or wrong: "I am probably misreading the text here — if I have understood it correctly, I must be misreading it. But ..." Sigh/grr.

We can probably never understand another human being so well that they are incapable of surprising us. But we can understand well enough to get along with people, which is the main thing. I don't think too many philosophers would deny these banalities. Least of all Wittgenstein.

(I can't get my youtube link to work properly, so click here for video entertainment.)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Philosophy & Animal Life V

In Hacking's very nice conclusion to the book he writes:
Cavell notes that both Costello and Diamond are horrified not only by what is done to animals but also by the widespread indifference of the humanity that eats them. He invites us to think of two different visions of the world. Quite so, but it also comes down to innumerable minutiae, whose effect may differ from attentive person to attentive person (p. 148)
I take it that the indifferent are the inattentive, who elsewhere are called blind. But I take it also that one can be attentive without becoming vegan (Costello isn't, for instance) or even completely vegetarian (one might eat only humanely raised and slaughtered animals, perhaps). And there could be degrees of attentiveness, rather than just two categories of people: the attentive and the inattentive. Perhaps this would explain some people's going further than others towards pure veganism, though I doubt it could be the whole story.

In response to McDowell's suggestion that we talk of "putative reality" rather than "reality" (since we might not share Costello's reaction to it), Hacking writes:
Perhaps we should speak not of the difficulty of reality but of the difficulty of experienced reality, of reality as experienced. This allows Elizabeth Costello her horror at the meat industry, the reality as she experiences it. It excludes the madman in his cabin because delusions are not reality as experienced, even if they are as painful to the deluded man as any experience he has ever had. (p. 153)
The point is that "putative reality" might be a delusion, and Costello does not seem to be deluded, even if we don't react as she does. This seems like a good idea, although there could be trouble ahead if we start trying to distinguish between reality as experienced and reality as it is in itself. Can't we understand why the reality might cause her to react that way even if we do not react that way ourselves?

On Hughes's poem about the photograph, Hacking points out that the men died at Gallipoli, which is still remembered as a tragedy, in a war that has an important part in British, Australian, and Canadian mythology. (For a right-of-center view of what it meant, see Larkin's poem MCMXIV. For a left-of-center view see The Pogues singing about Gallipoli.) It could be that some sense of this mythology is necessary to appreciate the full force of Hughes' poem.

Finally, Hacking questions why Diamond should count instances of goodness or beauty as difficulties of reality, and the question is worth asking. But it's only such instances that throw us that Diamond is talking about, as I read her. Most goodness and beauty is not like this. I would think that difficulties of reality are wherever you find them--whatever you find hard to live with or make sense of (as long as you are not deluded) might count as such a difficulty. Diamond says that in at least one case of goodness "what is capable of astonishing one is its incomprehensibility" (quoted on pp. 166-167). Hacking says that, "Her point is that we cannot comprehend it by 'taking it apart.'" (p. 167). He wants to say that we can simply wonder at such goodness, without (also) wondering at our inability to comprehend it. But I'm not so sure. I'm not sure whether there is any real disagreement between Diamond and Hacking on this point, but I'm also not sure that Hacking has got it quite right either (nor that I have, of course). To call something wonderful is very close to calling it incomprehensible. So wondering at something's incomprehensibility is like wondering at its wonderfulness. It's almost the same thing, only squared or intensified. But if Hacking exclaims "Wonderful!" at some act of generosity and Diamond gasps "Incomprehensible!" do they really have the same appreciation of it? Hacking seems to have in mind a reaction that is not a difficulty of reality, that does not upset the normal flow of one's life, whereas Diamond seems to have something potentially transformative in mind. I don't know.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Philosophy & Animal Life IV

Four striking things that McDowell says:

1. Cavell "concludes that the idea of seeing something as something is not helpful here because if we frame Diamond's thinking in terms of aspect seeing, we do not give proper weight to the fact that for her other animals simply are our fellows, not things we can see as our fellows if we can achieve an aspect switch" (pp. 127-128).  But I suspect Diamond would accept the possibility that someone might fail to see an animal as a fellow being and then, perhaps quite suddenly, start to see it as one.  And that the same thing could happen with a human being.  Doesn't Scrooge come to see his employees differently, to see them as human beings?  The duck-rabbit might not be helpful, because it seems too much like a toy or game, but I think aspect seeing is relevant (and I think Cavell recognizes this).

2. If "one views animals as Diamond does, one would have to see sending them to be turned into food, however friendly one's previous relations with them were, as a betrayal" (pp. 130-131).  Maybe, but I wonder.  Stephen Mulhall talks about the way animals are treated in the little house on the prairie stories.  Must such farmers be regarded as betraying their animals if they take them to be slaughtered, or slaughter them themselves?

3. Costello's "response is over the top" (p. 134), and "does not give such questions [as in what sense factory farming is like the Holocaust] the care they need" (p. 131).  This sounds a bit like saying that she needs to calm down.  Which is understandable, but jars a little nevertheless.

4. A different poem would have been harder for Ted Hughes to write (p. 132).  Would it?  How easy or hard was the first one to write?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Philosophy & Animal Life III

(I just lost about an hour's worth of thoughts on Cavell's essay.  What follows will be truncated and written while grumpy.)

Cavell wonders whether it might be possible to "suffer" (p. 93) from a kind of blindness in respect to non-human animals, in the way that one can be blind to the humanity of other human beings.  I think the answer is No.  There might be kinds of mental handicap that make one incapable of seeing others as human beings, but otherwise failure to recognize someone as human, to treat them as a human being, is a moral failing.  It is not something from which one suffers.  Everyone knows that animals can, for instance, see, be sane, be loved, care for their young, fear for their lives, and so on.  There is no therefore (...they have rights, or ...they should not be eaten, say), but the kind of blindness Cavell has in mind seems like a kind of bad faith, nothing more.

On p. 108 Cavell talks of different realms, seemingly meaning the human and the animal realms.  He compares the difference with that between the human realm and the divine.  I find this unhelpful, partly because I don't recognize any such thing as the divine realm.  But also because, like Cavell, I want to acknowledge a host of differences and similarities between human and non-human animals.  Talk of separate realms seems to downplay the similarities and make something like a metaphysical truth (something platonic or God's eye) of the differences.

He goes on to talk about the comparison of modern farms and Nazi death camps made by both Heidegger and Elizabeth Costello.  He questions whether anyone not crazed could make such a comparison.  I think they could.  It's true that there are obvious and crucial differences, and that making the comparison risks insulting the victims of Nazi genocide.  But ignoring the similarities also risks being insensitive to what they suffered.  Remembering the Holocaust means (to my mind) thinking that we must never let such a thing happen again.  And that means being alive to what is such a thing, perhaps even being extra sensitive to it.  And feeling horror when we come across such a thing.  Factory farms are not the same thing, but you don't have to be mad to find them too close for comfort.

Finally, on p. 122 and p. 124 Cavell talks about why he has not become a vegetarian, and connects this with the idea that vegetarianism is something like a self-righteous distancing of oneself from the rest of humanity.  Orwell said something similar, I believe.  This might be a reason not to insist that one's hosts go out of their way to serve one only vegetarian food.  It might be a reason not to go on about one's vegetarianism.  But I don't see how one could read Diamond's work, or Coetzee's (including works he has endorsed), and come away thinking that this is what motivates (or even constitutes) their vegetarianism.                  

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Philosophy & Animal Life II

Three thoughts about Cora Diamond's essay on the difficulty of reality and the difficulty of philosophy:

1. It's really hard to summarize what she says or does in this essay.

2. The difficulties of reality that she uses as examples are interestingly related to Wittgenstein's examples in the Lecture on Ethics. They are these: a poem by Ted Hughes about a photograph of men who died (later) in the First World War, Coetzee's presentation of Elizabeth Costello's woundedness because of what we do to animals, the almost wrong impossibility of beauty and wonder at an act of kindness, and something like the experience of separateness from others. These examples are themselves hard to summarize or pin down, and it is no accident that Diamond uses references to literature, to "poetry, in a broad sense of the term," (p. 56) to help get her ideas across. They are not easy to articulate. It is not really clear whether the examples are poetry or experience, in fact. The first example is said to be "a poem" (p. 43). The second is complex but includes "a set of lectures" (p. 46). The third (after a section named "Deflection") is introduced simply as "Beauty and Goodness," and here the first example is described as involving (not being) a poem, and the second as involving "the horror of what we do to animals" (p. 60). So, as far as I can see, the examples involve a kind of mix or blurring or blending together of experiences and the poetry (in a broad sense) that captures or expresses these experiences. This is the kind of thing, I think, that the early Wittgenstein called nonsense. That name seems inadequate, but does have the virtue of making clear that it is hard to make sense of this stuff. Diamond's point, if she can be said to have just one, is that you could go mad thinking about these things. It might not all be nonsense, but it is far from being good, plain sense either.

Another aspect of her point (can a point have aspects?--one for each angel dancing on it, perhaps) is that there is a plain understanding of each example that is perfectly easy to understand: those men were alive when the picture was taken but now they are dead, Costello feels bad about the meat industry, some things are beautiful and some people are good, and some people are skeptical about other minds (or something like that). This understanding is often preferred by philosophers, makes the problems involved easy to solve or even invisible completely, and misses the point every time.

3. Diamond ends with a paragraph that might become famous for these sentences:
A language, a form of thought, cannot (we may be told) get things right or wrong, fit or fail to fit reality; it can only be more or less useful. What I want to end with is not exactly a response to that: it is to note how much that coming apart of thought and reality belongs to flesh and blood.
The coming apart in question is the difficulty of reality, the seeming impossibility of thinking things we nevertheless experience. Diamond links this with skepticism, and hence philosophy, but also with poetry and with, not just human, but bodily (flesh and blood, which can mean both meat and real) existence. It might be tempting to say that philosophy is a problem for which poetry is the answer, but Diamond's work clearly belongs to philosophy and is hardly beside the point.

Finally, Peter Hacker says some interesting things about experience here. I quite like his response to the whole question of "What is it like to be a bat?" Elsewhere he has written that we do know what it is like: rather like what it is to be a mouse, only with wings and in-built sonar. This is a nice answer, but it isn't as friendly to wondering as it might be. Could a Ted Hughes accept this answer as the whole truth? And could a Hacker appreciate the poems of a Ted Hughes? If not then he is missing something.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Philosophy & Animal Life I

What a great book! It's fun to imagine teaching a course based on this and Stephen Mulhall's book, along with The Lives of Animals and some other readings too, probably. It's also fun to see how each author responds to the others and, in some cases, to the discomfort of being a non-vegetarian in such company (I would be uncomfortable too). I want to try to write at least something about each part of the book, starting with the introduction by Cary Wolfe.

Wolfe provides a fine introduction that brings Derrida into the mix as well. I didn't find this all that helpful, but then I don't understand Derrida very well. (Generally he seems to want to say: "That's not quite right. There's something you're missing out, but I can't really tell you what it is." And this might well be true, but reading his way of trying to gesture at what is being missed never helps me very much, possibly because I don't spend enough time on it.)

What struck me most was this bit: "when Diamond affirms Costello's assertion that "I know what it's like to be a corpse," Derrida's response would be, "No, you don't. Only the other does, ..." (p. 23). I don't know how to read this except as saying that, according to Derrida, one cannot know what it is like to be a corpse. And that sounds too metaphysical for my taste. If anyone knows what it is like to be a corpse it isn't from time served as a corpse or from reading richly detailed descriptions of the experience of being dead. So it would (seem to me to) be reasonable to ask Costello or Diamond "How on earth do you know that?" or "What can you possibly mean?" And I wouldn't be surprised if they had interesting answers to those questions. But to say (relatively) simply, "No, you don't," appears to take what they mean as both straightforward in meaning and false. It might be the latter, but I don't see how it could be the former.

I might now accuse myself of making exactly the same mistake with Derrida or Wolfe, but it's less obvious (to me) that they couldn't be mistaken here. Also, Wolfe is suggesting a reading of Costello, according to which Costello is less worth reading than I had thought. This makes Wolfe less worth reading, too, since what he offers is a commentary on her text. Costello, on the other hand, gives us a commentary on death and animals, which are still interesting subjects even if Costello gets them wrong.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Anscombe's Moral Philosophy

Ever since I chose not to use a stock photograph of something or other and went with my favourite colours for the cover instead, I've been dreading what the new book might look like. So I'm very relieved that the design people have done such a nice job.

I also can't believe how generous Cora Diamond has been with the comment she's provided:
"A splendid book on a remarkable thinker, whose writings on ethics are deeply controversial. Richter makes clear the power and enduring interest of Anscombe's ideas. His reading is distinguished by sympathetic insight and sharp critical intelligence, making the book essential reading for anyone interested in ethics."—Cora Diamond, University of Virginia

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Moral (anti-)foundationalism

One of the more annoying questions that comes up in philosophy of religion and debates between evangelical new atheists and salesman-slick theists is "What is morality based on?" It seems obvious to me that it isn't based on anything. But I don't think a connection between this and foundationalism in epistemology had occurred to me until a day or two ago. Foundationalists typically want to base knowledge (or knowledge claims) on either sense-data-type givens ("I seem to see a red patch," etc.) or else a priori truths such as "A = A."

Perhaps this is blindingly obvious (and perhaps I've even read or written about it before and simply forgotten), but I think the thought is new to me that the former is like the utilitarian idea that ethics should be (or is) based on pain's feeling bad (and pleasure's feeling good, although this seems like a different kind of claim, a less seemingly intelligible one), while the latter is like the Kantian idea that ethics can be given a rational foundation. Which suggests there could be a moral version of Wittgenstein's anti-foundationalism.

How would that go? It would reject utilitarianism and Kantianism so far as they claim to be justifications of what we already believe. It would not reject them as recommendations about what we ought to do or believe. And it would reject them as justifications by showing that they fail to do what they set out to do, perhaps because nothing ever could intelligibly provide a justificatory foundation for what they purport to justify.

And there would be a misleading, pseudo-Wittgensteinian alternative that tried to base ethics on some language-game or form of life (or the planet we live on). It might be a bit tedious but probably wouldn't be too hard to work out how all this would go. The key idea, I (like to) think, is that recognizing that the space of reasons is curved does not mean (and means not) thinking of this space as round. That is, it is not that the foundation (or edge of space) is of a different kind than we had imagined. It is, rather (or at least more), that there is no foundation (or edge). If your spade is turned, the important thing is that it turns, not that it hits something rock hard.

But it would be reasonable to ask what I mean by all these metaphors and whether what I mean is actually true.

Monday, November 8, 2010


In connection with writing about religious experiences recently it occurred to me that Wittgenstein says some interesting things about them in his Lecture on Ethics. He describes three kinds of experiences in order to get across what he means by 'ethics' and goes on to connect them with kinds of religious experience and expression.

Wittgenstein begins the lecture with an odd kind of definition of his key term. He says he is going to use Moore's "explanation" of ethics as "the general enquiry into what is good," but then immediately says he is going to use 'Ethics' in a wider sense than this. He says that the clearest possible understanding of what he means by 'Ethics' can be got by his giving a collection of "more or less synonymous expressions," so that an overall impression will be created, similar to the kind of impression Galton produced when he made a composite photograph. Galton's technique is dodgy in two ways: it isn't reliable (the results can be manipulated by choosing particular people to include or exclude, for instance, and his attempts to reveal a facial type of this or that criminal (e.g. murderer, thief, etc.) were apparently unsuccessful), and it is connected with racism. Galton considered the Chinese to be racially superior to Africans, for instance, and the point of his technique is to produce a kind of literal racial stereotype. Nevertheless, it seems that the technique can be effective: see here, for instance. And the idea of family resemblance seems generally harmless. (Wittgenstein's thinking here is reminiscent of the disagreement between Berkeley and Locke on abstract ideas. Does Galton disprove Berkeley's claim that "nothing abstract or general can be made really to exist"?)

Ethics, Wittgenstein says, has to do with absolute value, absolute goodness, absolute importance, and so on, as distinct from merely relative (means-end) value, etc. Since this is not a matter of fact (it is not a scientific fact that this or that has absolute value or is absolutely good), it is a matter of feeling. So Wittgenstein talks about experiences he has that make him want to use such expressions as "absolute value" and so on. There is a direct link between the experience or feeling and the expression (form of words) used to express it. The experience is what is expressed by or in the expression. So although we're talking about psychology, we are also talking about grammar.

Wittgenstein has one experience that he associates above all with ethics as he means it, namely the feeling of wonder that the world should exist at all. But he has a couple of others too: the feeling of being absolutely safe (which reminds me of Socrates' saying that a good person cannot be harmed--that being poisoned to death is somehow not really suffering any harm) and the feeling of guilt.

Each of these experiences also has a religious form of expression, he suggests:
For the first of them is, I believe, exactly what people were referring to when they said that God had created the world; and the experience of absolute safety has been described by saying that we feel safe in the hands of God. A third experience of the same kind is that of feeling guilty and again this was described by the phrase that God disapproves of our conduct.
But if the form of expression is inseparable from what is expressed, as I suggested, then how can a religious and a non-religious form of words refer to exactly the same thing? I think we have to leave open the possibility that when the words are different the experience is different. But just as different definitions of 'ethics' can share a family resemblance, so too can different expressions of ethical or religious experiences. In that case, having 'religious' experiences does not commit one to being religious--the experience can be translated into different language.

Religion offers a way to tie these experiences together, and to other beliefs, feelings, etc., in away that might help you make sense of the world, of life. But it also ties you, or so it seems, to certain texts, forms of words, rituals, and so on, that might seem tired or incredible. If the 'metaphor' used to express these real experiences has become dead, then there is reason to reject it. Then the challenge becomes how to talk or think about these experiences, and how to connect them with the rest of your life. This is a challenge we cannot meet, according to Wittgenstein (and never could, even within religion): "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." But unless we just don't think about these supremely valuable experiences (assuming we have them, or have had them), then we have no option but to at least think nonsense. Our lives, at least on the inside, will then consist in part of a hopeless running against the walls of language. And what is this if not a form of creative expression, of art?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Is God good?

Edward Feser writes:
The Euthyphro dilemma goes like this: God commands us to do what is good. But is something good simply because God commands it, or does He command it because it is already good? If we take the first option, then it seems we are committed to the possibility that God could make it good for us to torture babies just for fun, simply by commanding it. If we take the second option, then it seems we are committed to saying that there is a standard of goodness independent of God, to which He refers us when He commands. Neither option seems a good one from the point of view of theism. The first makes morality arbitrary, and the claim that God is good completely trivial. The second conflicts with the core theistic claims that God is the ultimate cause of all things, and in particular the source of all goodness. So, we have a problem, right?

Actually, we don’t, because the dilemma is a false one
So far so good, unless you don't like the last sentence, but it's what you might expect a theist to say. He goes on to say:
The actual situation, ..., is this. What is good or bad for us is determined by the ends set for us by our nature, and ..., that means that there are certain things that are good or bad for us absolutely, which even God could not change (since God’s power does not extend to doing what is self-contradictory). Now God, given the perfection of His intellect, can in principle only ever command in accordance with reason, and thus God could never command us to do what is bad for us. Hence the first horn of the Euthyphro dilemma is ruled out: God can never command us to torture babies for fun, because torturing babies for fun is the sort of thing that, given our nature, can never in principle be good for us. But the essences that determine the ends of things – our ends, and for that matter the end of reason too as inherently directed toward the true and the good – do not exist independently of God. Rather, ..., they pre-exist in the divine intellect as the ideas or archetypes by reference to which God creates. Hence the second horn of the Euthyphro dilemma is also ruled out.
I wonder what "good" means here. In what sense could torturing babies for fun never be good for us? I don't think Feser means it could never be fun, although that might be true. I think he means that people who take pleasure in such things thereby stray from the proper path for human beings. But what makes this path proper? The answer to that seems to have to do with the essences that pre-exist in the divine intellect. But why should anyone care about them? This includes God. Why does he create by reference to them? Does he have any choice about doing so? Or is the idea that he has a choice but realizes that doing so is the best choice to make and therefore makes that choice, i.e. creates by reference to these archetypes? Or does he choose (or create) the archetypes themselves? In which case we can ask whether he chooses/creates them because they are good, or vice versa. The problem looks to have been pushed inside the divine intellect, not solved.

Feser goes on:
Keep in mind also that, ..., the metaphysics underlying the arguments for classical theism lead to the conclusion that God is not one good thing among others but rather Goodness Itself. Given divine simplicity, that means that what we think of as the distinctive goodness of a human being, the distinctive goodness of a tree, the distinctive goodness of a fish, and so on – each associated with a distinct essence – all exist in an undifferentiated way in the Goodness that is God.
If God is goodness (I assume this is what "Goodness Itself" means) then, as I think Leibniz worried, it doesn't seem to make sense to praise or thank him for being good. Doing so would be like praising chocolate for being chocolatey. That does make a kind of sense, I think: it is an expression of love. But I don't think that's what Feser wants. And if God is goodness, then 'good' means 'godly,' and God's commands are good by definition (because they are commands of or pertaining to God, i.e. goodness). This might be the best way to go (other than dropping God-talk completely). To suggest that God(-as-goodness) might have commanded something bad makes no sense. It would be like saying that red might have been blue. Of course we might have called torturing babies for fun 'good,' but then 'good' would simply have meant what we mean by 'bad.'

So I think the best options are either atheism, in which case we are stuck with the question of what we ought to do, and defining God as goodness, in which case we should probably drop all talk of "the divine intellect" (because how could goodness have an intellect?) and, while God's commands can never be bad, we still have the question of what we ought to do. We should do what is good, or godly, but what is that? God knows.

Seeing is believing

I remember reading a lot about sense perception as an undergraduate but not much since then. What follows might be hopelessly naive, therefore, but perhaps every blog post should be taken to be not yet fully worked out. Anyway, here goes.

It seems to me that there is a sense in which seeing is believing. Not to believe what you (think you) see involves an act of telling oneself that it is not real, which takes some conscious effort. And what is real is often determined by the senses, so that if something looks like one thing but is really another this means that, while to the eyes it may be a duck (or whatever), to the other senses (or to the eyes at another time, or from another angle, or in a different light) it is clearly a wooden model (or whatever). There is, then, a logical or grammatical connection between reality and sense experience: 'real' means something about sense experience.

Other things get called real too, but there is often controversy or mystery about their reality (are numbers real?, are universals?, is love?, etc.) and the claim that they are real usually (always?) comes back to our experience and making sense of it as best we can. But experience is not all sense experience. I mentioned love, which is not one simple feeling but involves various feelings, and pain is another well known example. There is no simple way to check for reality in the case of these experiences.

Take pain, for instance. If someone complains of being in pain then we usually believe them, but not always. If they have a wound then we would probably stop doubting. But in many cases we have to decide on very little evidence whether someone is malingering or not, insane or not, exaggerating or not. Sometimes we even have to decide (or might wonder, anyway) whether our own experience counts as pain or not. Feelings are not the kind of things you can fix clearly in your inner sights, as it were (at least not always); they can be very indistinct, fleeting, in flux. Another question is knowing what the right word for any particular feeling might be. What do other people call this? Or, given that there isn't really a 'this', just a sort of sea-surface of subjectivity, Do I have the right to call this 'pain' (or 'love' or whatever)? Should I suck it up and get back to work? Should I stop talking about it? Will this feeling last or fade away? There is no knowing--you have to make a decision, or at least act. You go back to work or you take to your bed, etc.

Sometimes these experiences are symptoms of something else, giving you reason to draw a kind of conclusion. I have pain in my arm, therefore maybe I'm having a heart attack. That kind of thing. But pain is certainly not always evidence of any problem beyond the pain itself. You have a headache, you cannot doubt that you have a headache (without denying your own sanity to the extent that you abandon all hope of rational thought), but you have no reason to conclude that you therefore might have a head wound. In the case of love, you might doubt whether the feeling is really love (or is it a crush?, or lust?, or is there even any such thing as true love?, etc.), but you cannot seriously doubt that you have some strong feeling. And it isn't evidence of anything, i.e. of the existence of anything outside of you.

When it comes to religious experience (and here I am getting to my point at last), people seem to want to treat it on the model of sensory experience. It is often said that there is an argument for the existence of God that goes: I (and/or others) have had an experience as of God, therefore God (probably) exists. It is then pointed out what a terrible argument this is, because it does nothing to prove that these experiences are not hallucinations or something of the sort.

But this objection treats the argument as if it were a claim to a kind of sense experience, which would then make God the kind of thing, a content of the world, that he is not meant to be. So it might seem better to treat religious experience as more like the experience of pain or love. The problem then is how this gives anyone a reason to believe in the existence of something outside the subject. And the answer to that would come back to our need to make sense of our experiences. Grammatically, feelings of love have an object (while feelings of pain do not). Love is of this or that person or thing. Pain is in something, but is not intentional, is not of or for or about anything.

I'm not sure there is a grammar of religious experience, but (if there is) it's more like love than pain. If you've had the experience you cannot doubt that you have had it. And it is typically an experience as of God (or "the One"). You can write it off as something less meaningful than it seemed at the time, or as something like a hallucination, but this takes work. Whether such effort is worthwhile depends on what best enables you to make sense of your experiences as a whole. And that is going to vary from person to person and over time, as experiences come and go.

Which might not be much of a thesis, but is an attempt to explain why I'm dissatisfied with standard treatments of the argument from religious experience. It isn't as bad an argument as non-theists typically think, but it also isn't anything like a rational proof that everyone should accept.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Browne study

I had thought of blogging on this response to the Browne Report on higher education in England and Wales (I don't think it applies to Scotland, but I could be wrong), but I had nothing to say except: "Well said!" Now Eric Schliesser has attacked the response, so I can decide how right or wrong he is about it.

Schliesser has eight critical comments on Collini's response to Browne, starting with an unnumbered parenthetical one:
(What's wrong with Ryan-air, by the way?)

1. It romanticizes the past and treats younger colleagues in stereotypical fashion.

2. For the life of me I can't understand why (other than naked self-interest, fear, and ideology) folk are so eager to endorse what is one of the most paternalistic and condescending documents I have read in a long time.

3. To treat students as near children might explain why Collini sees no point to "student satisfaction."

4. Collini notes in passing, but does not reflect on the fact, that the removal of block grants will limit the degree of flexibility to university administrators. I think this is a good thing

5. It is especially noteworthy that Collini is so focused on defending university education as a public good that he has not noted how regressive the current system is. Poor folk (who do not tend to go to university) are subsidizing the education of the middle (and upper) classes.

6. Finally, the market gets disparaged a priori. Yet, the most envied and admired university system is the one in the US. It has, of course, many flaws (that we regularly debate here), but one of the features that has made it thrive is the constant competition and emulation among all kinds of universities.

7. There is a kind of pessimistic undertone that does no justice to the facts. As if the Humanities cannot thrive in these new circumstances!

Ryan-air is a cheap airline that offers notoriously poor service. Unless I'm thinking of a different airline, they actually boast about their poor service (no free toilets in flight, etc.) in order to encourage the belief that they have cut costs to the minimum in order to be able to keep fares low. Collini's point is that this is not what we want universities to do. What he fears, I imagine, is that Oxford and Cambridge (and maybe one or two others) will remain elite while every other university affected will become something like the University of Phoenix.

1. Collini simplifies to make a point, but I think he does have a point about academic culture. I will simplify too in an attempt to make much the same point. There used to be professors who cared primarily about teaching and reading. No doubt there was some dead wood too. But to get rid of the dead wood, administrators have required that everyone publish all the time. A lot of rubbish gets published, and a lot of time is spent producing this rubbish that ought to have been spent on reading and teaching.

2. The point about paternalism is prompted by Collini's analogy of students choosing courses with children choosing candy: they know what they want, he believes, but not what is good for them. Students vary, of course. When I was an undergraduate I chose the courses that sounded most interesting to me. Others chose the courses that were reputed to be the most difficult. But many choose only what seems easiest or most likely to lead to gainful employment. Hence many undergraduates study Business, even though they might be much better off studying something else and learning about business through direct experience or an MBA program taken later in life. Our highest earning alumni (at VMI) are English majors who went on to become lawyers, but English is still regarded as being a recipe for relative poverty. Sometimes students surely do need to be told what they should take. Not because they are children, but because, by definition of their status, they lack the expertise to know what it is important for them to learn about the subjects they are studying.

3. Student satisfaction would be relatively easy to achieve not by teaching students well but by doing such things as the following: emphasizing one's English accent, dropping highlights from one's CV into lectures, telling students that they are very smart, telling them that the course is challenging, telling them lots of jokes, saying things they don't understand so as to create the impression that you are smart, and so on. Being tall, male, and good-looking supposedly helps too. High grades and easy assignments are obvious ways to keep the customers happy too. Some students will tend to see through such tactics, especially if they are employed crudely, but many will not. And how can the ignorant, who are still learning a subject, judge how well they are learning it relative to how well they could be learning it from a better teacher? How can they know if the facts they are being taught are out of date, for instance? Student evaluations of teaching are important, it seems to me, or at least somewhat valuable, but unpopular courses should not all be scrapped, nor unpopular teachers fired.

4. I have no idea whether administrative flexibility, or the lack thereof, is good or bad. If we want a good market in higher education, though, I would think variety would be a good thing. A lack of flexibility for administrators would seem likely to work against this ideal. But I could well be missing the point.

5. I don't know how regressive the current British system is. Rich kids go to university more than poor kids do, but their parents also pay more in taxes. Would the poor be better off if they had less access to higher education? Surely not. I like the fact that poor kids in Britain can (or used to) go to the very best universities in the country, and not just in a handful of cases. If these universities charge ever higher fees (as seems likely) this will cease to be the case, if it hasn't already done so.

6. Is the US system the most envied and admired in the world? I don't know. Should it be? That would be even harder to determine. I think people admire the fact that so many people in the US go to college, although the number who graduate from four-year colleges is not as impressive relative to Britain as it used to be, I understand. The percentage might even be lower (although a typical BA in Britain takes only three years). The quality of research faculty in the US is also admired, which stems from US schools having lots of money to lure the best minds from other countries and ensure that the best US minds stay here. This wealth appears to come from alumni donations, which are the result of a kind of brand loyalty that does not exist in the UK. I don't see how this shows that "the market" should not be disparaged (although I'm not saying it should be either).

7. The humanities are already under attack (see Middlesex philosophy, for instance). The proposal is to cut their funding. How would this make them thrive? Of course they might survive, and probably will. But there is no freshman comp or western civ in traditional British universities. If there are few English majors, why will universities keep their English departments going? I expect most will, because there will continue to be demand. But not as many will. There are bound to be more Middlesex-type cases.

I hope I'm wrong, but most of this seems obvious to me and, apparently, to most other people who have read and agree with Collini's piece. The bottom line, I continue to think, is Browne bad, Collini good.

How long is the meter-stick?

Kelly Dean Jolley's paper "Mensurable Confusion?" seems important. At least, it does to me now that I've read it all. It is presented as a response to a paper by Heather Gert that I didn't know, and as a defense of a kind of orthodoxy in Wittgenstein interpretation, so it didn't strike me as essential reading right away. There's also the fact that the first word of the title looks like a typo for 'measurable'--turns out 'mensurable' is a real word and means exactly the same thing in this context as 'measurable,' which is also a real word. But if you get past all this, the paper has some important things to say.

For instance, Jolley says that some people ignore Wittgenstein's methodological remarks and that others make the mistake of treating these remarks as somehow distinct from his philosophical remarks. He suggests that Gert is guilty of the latter mistake, and I think I have been too if it is a mistake.

So why not make this distinction? Jolley notes that in the Tractatus and the Investigations the methodological remarks come amid other remarks, not at the beginning, because they should be understood as part of the same project as the other remarks, the project of dealing with philosophical problems as Wittgenstein understands them.

Following Cavell (generally a good idea), Jolley takes PI 128 (“If one tried to advance theses in philosophy, it would never be possible to debate them, because everyone would agree to them”) not to be saying that such theses would be commonsensical and therefore too obvious to debate. He takes the agreement here to be the kind referred to in PI 241: not agreement in opinions but in form of life.

I wonder what exactly this means. I certainly don't take Wittgenstein to be a common sense philosopher in the way that Moore is. And to understand Wittgenstein's methodological remarks you need to understand what he means by 'philosophy' and 'philosophical problems'. But to identify remarks such as 128 as methodological one has to make some distinction between methodological and other remarks. And Wittgenstein does (or did) elsewhere talk about his remarks as "boring truisms" and said (I think, in the Lectures on Religious Belief) that if anyone disagreed with something he said that he would take it back. So at some time (perhaps before he finished the PI) he seems to have thought something like PI 128 taken in the supposedly wrong way.

If philosophy consists in assembling reminders for a particular purpose, and these reminders consist of grammatical remarks such as "every rod has a length," then it seems to me that there is a sense in which Wittgensteinian 'theses' would be commonsensical. Perhaps PI 128 can also be taken in Cavell's way, but it doesn't look as though that can be the only correct interpretation. I will have to think about this some more though.

By the way, according to Yahoo! Answers:
Originally the meter was 1/10,000,000 of the distance from the equator to the north pole, along the meridion passing through Paris. In 1960 the meter was defined as 1,650,763.73 wavelengths of the orange-red emission line in the electromagnetic spectrum of the krypton-86 atom in a vacuum. In 1983 the meter became how far light traveled in a vacuum in 1/299 792 458 of a second, officially. But this is hard to set up, so in practice, the meter is now 1,579,800.298728 wavelengths of helium-neon laser light in a vacuum, easily measured in your average home garage.

The meter was originally defined by French Scientists when the metric system was created (during the French Revolution, late eighteenth century). The meter was defined as one ten-millionth of the distance from the equator to the north pole on the meridian passing through Paris. They actually attempted to measure this distance, using a mix of geometric calculation and direct measurement, and the result was surprising accurate, within a millimeter. They made a silver bar of that length they calculated, and this was the standard meter, stored in Paris. Over the years international standards committees re-evaluted the meter. Another standard bar was made in 1889, this time made of an alloy of platinum and iridium. But any metal bar was not stable; it shrank and expanded with temperature and pressure, and it was losing metal atoms and gaining impurity atoms. This did not matter until modern technology demanded a more stable standard. So in 1960 an international scientific conference first chose laser light as the basis for the official meter length, set to match the original meter. Thus the meter in the new SI system was first defined using wavelengths of light, and today is defined as the distance light travels in a few billionths of a second, as stated above.
If this is right then the standard meter might or might not be a meter long, and in fact is not exactly one meter long any more. Not to mention the fact that there have been two different standard meters. Wittgenstein's point remains intact though. The point is that "This is a meter long" means different things when said of a sample that defines what "a meter long" means and when said of anything else. In the first case you are specifying a rule, in the second you are making a claim about the world, applying that rule. I hope I'm right about at least this much.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Letter to the editor

Here's a draft of a letter I'm thinking of sending to our local newspaper:
Joy Masoff’s book Our Virginia: Past and Present, published by Five Ponds Press, a book for fourth-graders in Virginia, falsely claims that thousands of African-Americans fought for the South in the Civil War. Of course some did. Slaves don’t have much say in such things. But what Masoff has written is not true. That her book should contain such errors ought not to be surprising, since she is not a trained historian and made her claim on the basis of something she found on the internet. Fortunately this book was not given to children in Rockbridge County [where I live] as far as I know. But it is an issue that should still concern us here. It certainly concerns our Governor, who has ordered a review of Virginia’s textbook adoption system.

Some people are calling this a great opportunity for children to learn not to believe everything they read. But how are children to learn if they question everything their teachers say? Or everything they read in state-approved textbooks? Are fourth-graders supposed to fact-check the material we ask them to read? If so, how exactly are they supposed to do it? If they learn anything from this sorry episode it should be not to trust material they find on the internet, where anyone can post anything.

So should we take them to the libraries at VMI or Washington and Lee [the two local colleges] so they can do their own research? I think they might be a little young for that.

This is not a learning opportunity or “teachable moment” for our children. It is a wake-up call for parents and anyone else who cares about the education of young Virginians. We need to get amateurishness and propaganda (where do you think Masoff got her ‘information’ from?) out of the classroom. And it is important too that our children learn that there is such a thing as truth, that one source is not just as good as another, and that there are facts, not just different opinions. It would be nice if the people in Richmond realized this too and chose a textbook written by a real expert next time.

Any suggestions for improvement will be gratefully received.

UPDATE: the letter was published and several people have said they liked it. Tomorrow (Wednesday) I'll find out whether anyone has responded.

Monday, October 25, 2010

What's bad about pain?

Here's an odd exchange from The God Dialogues:
Eva: The argument can be stated concisely, if we let "evil" stand for things having negative moral value.
Gene: What does that mean?
Eva: The clearest examples are pain and suffering. Those things are morally bad. I mean: it's better if there's less of them, other things being equal.
Gene: So evil is pain or suffering?
Eva: Again, those are clear examples. But there might be other evils, such as the sort of loss that death can imply.
Theo: Hold on, Eva. "Evil" doesn't mean "pain, suffering, or death." Paper cuts cause pain but rarely involve evil.
Eva: Right, I know. I just need a term for negative moral value.
Gene: Hey, I just thought of one that's less misleading than "evil."
Eva: Do tell.
Gene: How about, "negative moral value"?
Eva: Cute. Look, I'll just use "evil." Sue me later if you want.

I have to say I'm with Theo and Gene here, and don't know how or why the authors let Eva get away with this. My fear is that they did because it is common to do so in philosophical circles. If that is the case then no doubt there are objections to doing so, and it is perhaps these to which Eva pays lip service in this dialogue. Against Eva, and anyone else who talks or thinks this way, though: How does pain have negative moral value?

What I want to say is this: Inflicting pain is morally bad, other things being equal, but pain itself is not morally anything. Its badness is subjective, i.e. it feels bad.

But pain's feeling bad is analytic, isn't it? Wikipedia defines pain as: "an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage." Quoting Wikipedia isn't always impressive, I know, but the article gets its definition from this source: "International Association for the Study of Pain | Pain Definitions". Retrieved 12 October 2010. Derived from
Bonica, JJ (1979). "The need of a taxonomy". Pain 6 (3): 247–252. doi: 10.1016/0304-3959(79)90046-0. ISSN 0304-3959. PMID 460931.

And that sounds pretty respectable to me. The definition itself also strikes me as perfectly reasonable, and I am a competent speaker of English.

So there is something weird about saying that pain feels bad, or is bad in a subjective (i.e. 'feely') way. It's the kind of tautology that I can imagine Wittgenstein calling nonsense. But at least it's the kind of nonsense--if it is nonsense at all--that is closer to obvious truth than obvious falsehood.

The idea that pain is "morally bad," on the other hand, sounds very confused. Can a state even have moral value at all? G. E. Moore argued that “by far the most valuable things…are certain states of consciousness, which may roughly be described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects” (Principia Ethica). I don't know what is meant a "state of consciousness," but perhaps pain would count as one. If so, perhaps Moore's work is the origin of the idea that pain is not merely bad but morally bad.

(I say I don't know what a state of consciousness is, by the way, because I don't know whether such a state is supposed to be able to exist without, say, the beautiful objects referred to. That is, is it something that can be artificially produced, or is the context essential to it? Is one supposed to be able, if only in theory, to have the pleasures of human intercourse without the human intercourse itself? Is it something in the head?)

But what do I mean by "morally bad"? What kinds of badness can there be other than the subjective kind? Lots, I would think. But doesn't there have to be a moral agent involved for there to be moral badness or goodness? It seems to me that morality has to do with agency, so that only an agent or an act can have moral qualities.

Hmm. Before I started typing this seemed to have all sorts of connections to Anscombe and problems in Moore and the problem of evil and so on and so on. Now I think maybe I've just found a bad passage in a textbook. Oh well.

Nothing to show

Peter Hacker:
Philosophy does not contribute to our knowledge of the world we live in after the manner of any of the natural sciences. You can ask any scientist to show you the achievements of science over the past millennium, and they have much to show: libraries full of well-established facts and well-confirmed theories. If you ask a philosopher to produce a handbook of well-established and unchallengeable philosophical truths, there’s nothing to show. I think that is because philosophy is not a quest for knowledge about the world, but rather a quest for understanding the conceptual scheme in terms of which we conceive of the knowledge we achieve about the world. One of the rewards of doing philosophy is a clearer understanding of the way we think about ourselves and about the world we live in, not fresh facts about reality.

(See OLP & Literary Studies Online for more.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Life and Times of Michael K

I think this is the best of Coetzee's novels that I've read. For a review (the best I've seen online, not that I've looked at many) see here. I find it hard to believe that The Road was not inspired at least partly by this story, which features a sort-of Christlike man on a journey through a land made hellish by war. He is Christlike in a very unpreachy way, though, and perhaps not obviously Christlike at all. I'm thinking of Nietzsche's understanding of true Christianity, the naive acceptance of whatever comes (which isn't quite how Michael K is, but it's close), or Dostoevsky's The Idiot, which I think inspired Nietzsche. He's also Schopenhauerian, being selfless and loving the world, compassionate toward others. Like the man in The Road, he carries something of great value. But what matters is his having it, not whether it gets successfully passed on to others. At times it seems clear that it will not be passed on, but that this is not something that concerns him. And his lack of concern comes to seem (to me) right. Then again it seems that it always was going to be passed on, because how could something so important or powerful just die out? This, as I see it, is the point of the passage with the doctor near the end, the part of the book that Cynthia Ozick regards as "superfluous." He sort of gets it and sort of doesn't, so that if Michael K has disciples they are almost bound to distort his "message." Perhaps just by understanding it as a message.

A striking, and odd, feature of the book is its references to Kafka, which come so often that I wasn't sure whether I was imagining some of them. Are we meant to think of "Metamorphosis" when K (who is subject to the power of people from "the Castle") is likened to an insect? Presumably we are. But then what is the point of hitting the reader over the head with these references? Is it to show that Kafka's world can be anywhere, even outside, even in the future or today, even in Africa? Is it to show that it is indeed everywhere, that we now live in an inescapably Kafkaesque world? Is it to downplay the influence of Kafka by making a joke out of it? Or is it to show that one can be literary at the very same time as being political and religious and philosophical? Or is it just how Coetzee thinks, sees things, and writes? Or again, is Coetzee a kind of disciple of Kafka who recognizes and confesses that he cannot be Kafka and so must follow without following, like the child he imagines in the interview with Peter Sacks who follows Bach's experimental steps ("try this") at the piano, until Bach takes off in a way that is beyond the child? I doubt there is a simple answer to these questions.

It's a great book though, and one I should just urge you to read rather than talking about it any more. One final note: the copy I read was from a library and had been written on quite a bit by someone with a red pen. Much of this writing referred to Kafka. So my interpretation of the novel might have been coloured by this.