Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Roll away the stone

I first noticed Hugh Chandler's paper on "Wittgenstein on the Resurrection" when it was on PhilPapers. I wasn't sure then that the idea of a historical fact, or of what a camera would have recorded if..., is quite as straightforward as he makes out, but he makes his case well. Still, I think some things in the paper could be debated.

Chandler appears to think that Wittgenstein believed in what he labels "Theory 2," namely that "No genuine religious belief is religiously risky," while Chandler himself prefers "Theory 3," that "Some genuine religious beliefs are objectively and religiously risky." Obviously we need to know what "objectively risky" and "religiously risky" mean.

Chandler defines these terms as follows: "A belief is objectively risky if it is at least epistemically possible that it is false." And "A belief is religiously risky ... if it is objectively risky and its falsity would constitute a threat to the believer's religious or spiritual well being. That is to say, its falsity would be religiously damaging, or perhaps disastrous, for her (whether or not she ever learns of it)."

But what does that mean? Chandler includes moral well being in the category of religious or spiritual well being, so that feeling self-righteous, for instance, would count as suffering a kind of religious damage. But it isn't only a moral issue. Believing that God, having given up on humanity, was about to destroy us would be, in Chandler's opinion, "religiously misguided." This still sounds moral, since the sin of despair is surely at least part of what makes this belief religiously misguided (in addition, Chandler says, to its being objectively risky). So I don't see what "religiously risky" can mean except with reference to moral judgments. And if Wittgenstein approves of all genuine religious belief, then the extent to which we can argue with (or against) him seems quite limited.

But Chandler's point seems to be more that religious belief can be objectively risky. An example I think he has in mind is belief in God. If you pin your hopes on salvation but God does not exist then you have bet on the wrong horse, so to speak. And, as he sees it, there is a fact of the matter whether God exists or not. And this, I take it, is meant to be the same kind of fact as the kind that cameras can verify, even though cameras would happen not to help much in this particular case, since God is invisible. It might not be an empirical fact, but it's an objective fact, I think Chandler would say, whether God exists or not.

But then the meaning of "objective fact" would need to be explained.

What if there had been a camera at the tomb, which could show us whether the body rotted or was re-animated or what? Would the risen Christ have a mind or be a (possibly very powerful) zombie? Is this a matter of objective fact too? Some facts might matter, but at some point one's attitude surely has to matter, too, if religion is to come into the matter. And cameras can't show what attitude is called for.

There ought to be a story about a battle between two sides whose perspectives are so different that, at the end, each thinks it has won and the other lost. Nietzsche's take on the crucifixion is a little like this, I think. Jesus succeeds perfectly in being Christian (on his terms) while the Romans succeed perfectly in being anti-Christian (on theirs). But then, as Nietzsche sees it, the Christians bought into the worldly view of the Romans and invented a resurrection. Hence the last true Christian died on the cross.

This isn't what Wittgenstein says, but it's compatible with it. As is Schopenhauer's nice account of some people's everything being nothing to others. In the end I wonder whether Chandler's perspective isn't making it impossible for him to see what it is that Wittgenstein understands genuine religion to be.

That's all probably in need of unpacking, but that might have to wait for another day.

Monday, August 30, 2010

What is it like to be a child?

There's a good book with a title I don't like called Waking to Wonder. If Disney ever started a chain of churches I imagine this is the kind of thing they would come up with as an advertising slogan. But, to be fair, Wittgenstein himself wrote about the importance of awakening to wonder (albeit in German, making it less cloyingly alliterative), so it's an understandable choice for a title.

Anyway, Ronald L. Hall of Stetson University (where I hope they all wear big hats) writes about wonder and Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations. It's not a bad paper, but I don't agree with all of it. For instance, Hall writes that, "The child's world is enchanted with fairies, monsters, and magic; indeed, everything is wonderful in its own way and nothing is really mortal." He says a few more things in this vein, but I think this quotation is enough. It sounds like a Victorian fantasy of a child's world, or perhaps something from Chesterton. It does not sound like something a parent would write, except perhaps one who has not done much parenting lately. There is some truth in it, but then there is some truth in Mark E. Smith's singing "You can cry for your lost childhood, ... but remember how you hated it" in "Futures and Pasts." There is fantasy in childhood, but also lots of reality too, some good, some bad.

Hall is right that Wittgenstein believed in wonder, and I think he's right to connect this with "It's a Wonderful Life." But "Ikiru" is relevant, too, and doesn't have any magic in it. You can love the world, love life, without sentimentality or fantasy. Or that's the hope, anyway.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Today's lesson

Since it's Sunday, the day of rest and sermons, I will provide a sermon written by someone else, while I rest.

But no one believes in a planned economy any more. When it comes down to it, most anticapitalists now believe in the sort of regulated capitalism one finds in Scandinavia, where government intervenes only with the modest goal of making a country’s economy serve its citizens rather than the other way around. Rather than setting the price of bread, as the Soviets did, governments like the Swedish restrict themselves to sensible measures like enforcing paid paternity leave and minimum annual vacations. Such policies do not abolish capitalism; they merely limit its domain. They might be a hassle for employers, but they surely benefit the quintessential local, organic, traditional institution–the family. And they hardly constitute government by the bureaucracy.

I think I might subscribe.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Local food for local people

The first time I heard there was a song called "My Humps" I assumed it must be by Tubbs. I know that an obsession with all things local can be bad.

And yet. Whenever I go near the apple tree in my back garden (aka yard) I feel that it is criminal not to eat the apples it produces. Going inside removes this feeling, or reduces it to a mere idea. Part of the idea of eating local food relates to this feeling, I think. The earth provides food in certain places and certain times, and we should not spurn the gift for the sake of supposedly better food from elsewhere, or produced by artificial means. (Religion and pomposity are mingling in me here, but I don't think they are both essential to the idea.) That is Faustus' sin in wanting out-of-season fruits. His desire shows how little he is getting in return for his soul, but it's also a symptom of ingratitude.

The dominant scientism means this kind of religious attitude is likely to express itself, confusedly, in claims about health or efficiency, but this does not invalidate the underlying attitude.

Anyway, my next post will be about something else. I promise.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Those crazy do-gooders

"Math Lessons for Locavores" is an annoying op-ed piece in the New York Times that I somehow missed until now.

I don't dispute the claim that it can be cheap and efficient to transport food long distances. But that's about the only claim that Budiansky backs up. He does nothing to show that ignorance of economics means that "the local food movement now threatens to devolve into another one of those self-indulgent — and self-defeating — do-gooder dogmas."

How is it self-indulgent to grow your own food, or buy from people who do, or pay more for local food (even if this is a mistake)? Why, or how, would such "self-indulgence" defeat the purposes of the local food movement? I guess we have to understand its sole purpose as being to increase economic efficiency. But that isn't a plausible understanding at all. These are Birkenstock-types we're talking about, after all. They're capable of self-righteousness, but economic efficiency is not their main concern.

He continues: "Other favorite targets of sustainability advocates include the fertilizers and chemicals used in modern farming. But their share of the food system’s energy use is even lower, about 8 percent."

This looks like a promising entry in a non sequitur contest. "Hey farmer farmer, put away that DDT now, The chemicals you're using/ are a recipe for inefficiency-hee!" I don't think that's how it goes.

He ends with this:
The relative pittance of our energy budget that we spend on modern farming is one of the wisest energy investments we can make, when we honestly look at what it returns to our land, our economy, our environment and our well-being.

What the...?! Where did that come from? What is "our energy budget"? Some sum set aside to be spent on energy? There is no such thing, surely. So he must mean the money spent on running farms, including the cost of fertilizers, etc. But wouldn't that include the money spent on subsidies? Who thinks that's money well spent? And farming includes animal farming, too, which is generally not a great investment in our well-being.

I hope he got a big bribe to write this and doesn't actually either believe it or hate green-types so much that he'll say anything just to try to make them look bad. He's probably honest but confused, and I probably shouldn't write about things that make me feel like Brian Leiter, but I can't believe this kind of thing gets published in such a high profile place.


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Justified and ancient

Michael Weston has an interesting paper in the latest issue of Philosophical Investigations. It's about Wittgenstein, the later Heidegger, forms of life, the Zande, Native Americans, Rush Rhees, Peter Winch, and the meaning of life. Right up my street.

At the end of the paper he seems to say that Wittgenstein would reject his view because he, unlike Wittgenstein, thinks that language games can be justified (or unjustified). But this must be wrong. For one thing, Wittgenstein is vague about what counts as a language game, so I would hesitate to attribute any significant or controversial thesis about them to him. For another, I see no reason why Wittgenstein would have to reject any attempt to justify a game, practice, institution, custom, or part thereof. On p. 250 Weston writes that "there cannot be a justification for the rules themselves: that is just what we call "football" or "chess."" If that were true then how could people debate the possible introduction of goal-line technology in football? Or if my son suggests that we alter the rules of chess next time we play, how could I even try to argue that the rules we usually play by are better? This thesis seems obviously false and is not actually proposed by Wittgenstein. Charity suggests we should not attribute it to him. That makes him able to agree with the rest of what Weston says, which is probably what Weston would like anyway. Everybody wins.

Another weird idea in the paper, which Weston (unless I'm misreading) attributes to Rhees, is that unless there is a meaning of life, there can be no meaning in language. This can't be true either. I suppose that people must care about something if they are ever to learn language, and must share some sense of what matters with others if they are to share a language with them. But the fact that things matter to me, or are meaningful to me, does not mean that my life actually does have meaning. If I care very much about putting green books on my roof then my life is actually sadly bereft of real meaning. And as far as I can see, we can generalize this point. The fact that language exists only shows that things matter to us, not that anything is meaningful in any more important sense than this.

I suspect that this problem is more damaging to Weston's case, but there is plenty in the paper to make it worth reading anyway. Here's a vaguely relevant video to celebrate.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


My last post and the one about the "postmodern threat" might give the impression that I am against postmodernism or deconstruction or continental philosophy. I'm not particularly, although I do think that every type of thinking has its own dangers. What I had in mind when I referred to the turn to deconstruction was the fact that existentialism seems to have been left behind. Heidegger certainly was concerned with the questions that concern me (I don't mean that there's a complete overlap). Perhaps others since him have been too, but it's less obvious. Wittgenstein cared about them, but I don't think he considered them to be philosophical questions. Philosophy cannot tell us how to live, as he sees it.

What I think of as "the problem" might be what Coetzee calls "Empire" in Waiting for the Barbarians:
What has made it impossible for us to live in time like fish in water, like birds in air, like children? It is the fault of Empire! Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.
I understand this not as a reference to imperialism in the literal sense, but to a kind of mindset that drives imperialism of all kinds. It's similar to Heidegger's notion of das Gestell as Julian Young explains it, the "frame-up," a "horizon of disclosure," a phrase that calls to mind the first sentence of Coetzee's novel: "I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire." This in turn suggests thoughts of Kant, whose central insight has famously been expressed (controversially) as analogous to the idea that if one wears coloured glasses then the whole world will appear coloured.

If there is no social, political, or historical solution to Empire, perhaps one can withdraw psychologically. This might be a sort of European Buddhism, but it would be detachment from Western Civilization as we know it, not a general detachment that happens to take place within Europe or the West. But diagnoses of the (alleged) problem seem more common than plausible solutions. I don't see Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Coetzee, Nietsche, or Young, for instance, having a credible answer about how we should live. Perhaps Heidegger's spectacular failure (he joined the Nazi Party) has put people off trying for solutions. The main candidates that are put forward seem to be something that looks like despair (Coetzee and Wittgenstein come to mind, although both probably have richer and more promising positions than mere despair), Christianity, and some version of the 1960s. On the last of these, see this from Hubert Dreyfus:
Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and other rock groups became for many the articulators of a new understanding of what really mattered. This new understanding almost coalesced into a cultural paradigm in the Woodstock music festival of 1969, where people actually lived for a few days in an understanding of being in which mainline contemporary concerns with order, sobriety, willful activity, and flexible, efficient control were made marginal and subservient to certain pagan practices, such as enjoyment of nature, dancing, and Dionysian ecstasy, along with neglected Christian concerns with peace, tolerance, and nonexclusive love of one's neighbor. Technology was not smashed or denigrated; rather, all the power of electronic communications was put at the service of the music, which focused the above concerns. (from "Heidegger on the connection between nihilism, art, technology, and politics".)
(Quotation copied from here.)

None of these solutions sounds right to me. If I ever figure it out I might write the answer under the title Neither Nuremberg nor Woodstock, in honour of this other failed solution.

Friday, August 20, 2010

What is Man?

Apologies for the sexist title--I'm trying to sound pompous (as a hilarious joke).

Jonathan Safran Foer (see also here) notes that people in the industry talk about "harvesting" fish. (I note that people also talk about harvesting organs for transplant, so perhaps the truth is simply that people like the word 'harvesting' and not any of the speculative stuff I'm about to write.) This suggests that they think of fish as plants. Animals generally are treated (for the most part) as if they were insentient, or as if their sentience did not matter (or, in cases of abuse, as if their sentience were a cruel joke).

Factory farming, in a somewhat parallel way, doesn't allow farm-workers much of the dignity traditionally associated with being human. It's almost as if everything has moved one step down on the human-animal-vegetable scale. That's a stretch, I know, but it's not the only reason to think of modern life as somehow, somewhat dehumanized. Which raises the question of what it means to be human. What would it mean to re-humanize life?

It's tempting to think of going more small-scale: living close to work, friends, and family; eating locally-produced food; attending a small college with small classes rather than a large, anonymous university; working for yourself or a small company where everybody knows your name, etc. But I wonder a) whether this is realistic for many people, and b) whether it's possible to be much more precise about what would be involved.

In some ways the problem seems to be anonymity, which suggests that the solution might have something to do with names. I can't think what this solution might be though (beyond making sure that you deal primarily with people that you know by name and who know you). And perhaps the internet (and phones, etc.) can change the meaning of 'local', so that we don't all have to move to small towns and villages in order to live 'locally' (i.e. work with people we know, etc.). Then there are also the questions of whether there really is a problem; whether it is spiritual, economic, political, or what; whether it can be solved; etc.

Did philosophers give up asking questions like this when deconstruction came along?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Mosque outrage

The talk about a mosque at Ground Zero seems like a complete non-story, since it's not a mosque, it's not at Ground Zero, and it is to be built on private property in a free country. Two things about it are interesting though. One of these is the fact that it has become a story, partly because some people seem to be little more than generators of some substance that needs to be spewed out and that can only be discharged in the form of words relating to an item in the news. It's also seemingly because no one is ever reported as being anything but either for the mosque or against it. So if you say that you believe in freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom to do what you want on your own property as long as it's legal, then you are reported as being "for the mosque." There aren't allowed to be more than two sides to any issue and whoever complains about something first gets to dictate what the issue is.

The other interesting thing is that this is an issue that brings up the question of insults. Imagine that someone did want to build an actual mosque at (not just near) Ground Zero. Imagine further that it was not a nice Sufi imam behind the plan but an al Qaeda sympathizer. Wouldn't this be at best insensitive and at worst horribly insulting to the victims of the September 11th attacks? It seems to me that the US Constitution would protect the right to build such a mosque in such a place, but it wouldn't be a non-story. And so, it seems to me, just pointing out that we have freedom of religion, etc., is perhaps not the best response to the opponents of the Cordoba Initiative's Community Center. It is also helpful to point out, as has been done, that it isn't actually a mosque, isn't actually at Ground Zero, Muslims are not the same thing as terrorists, etc.

Because of all this, the proposed center is not an insult to the victims of the attack on the World Trade Center. Even if some people think it is. What is or is not an insult is not determined solely by how the offended party feels. The relevant consideration is more something like how a reasonable person, informed of all the pertinent facts, would feel. So the fact that some people could be caused to feel offended by just about anything is neither here nor there. The limits of the right to insult are hard to draw, but fortunately we don't need to do so in this case.

Thomas Jefferson

I went to Monticello earlier this week, where it's always interesting to see how the subject of slavery will be addressed. Our guide this time seemed to think that Jefferson's owning slaves was worse because he recognized that slavery is wrong. I'm not so sure. But it is curious how he could see the injustice of the institution and yet perpetuate it. I had thought that perhaps he just couldn't imagine doing without the lifestyle that slavery allowed him and, perhaps especially, his family to enjoy. But this (from Wikipedia) suggests that he feared the vengeance of freed slaves:
I can say with conscious truth that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach [slavery], in any practicable way. the cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed, is a bagatelle [a small matter] which would not cost me in a second thought, if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected: and, gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be. but, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other
It is one thing, though, to change one's own life, and another to change one's family's life because of a new moral vision. If you went vegetarian, for instance, how would you explain the change to your children? I can imagine children understanding and accepting vegetarianism, but what would they make of your past meat-eating? The possible difficulty of explaining isn't a reason not to change, but I wonder how much is owed to children in terms of an explanation, and what the best way to put it would be. Can an authority admit to being wrong without undermining its authority? Perhaps it doesn't matter.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Search and destroy

One difference between Wittgenstein and Mulhall is that Wittgenstein sometimes feared that all he was doing was destroying things, albeit houses of cards. Mulhall could surely never have that fear. Reading Russell Goodman's Wittgenstein and William James I was struck by this quotation from Wittgenstein on p. 63: "How needed is the work of philosophy is shown by James' psychology. Psychology, he says, is a science, but he discusses almost no scientific questions."

The work of Wittgensteinian philosophy, it seems to me, is essentially critical, even if also therapeutic. Goodman's careful reading of Wittgenstein and James shows how their work relates--where it differs, and how, and where it treads the same path. Wittgenstein clearly respected James, but wanted to point out where he went wrong (e.g. in thinking that he was doing science when he wasn't, or in thinking that something must be so when it need not be). This kind of work requires careful reading, but Wittgenstein focuses more on the attempted cure than on documenting the symptoms and defending his diagnosis. Perhaps because he is demonstrating his methods, or perhaps because he felt no need to defend himself.

In this sense some of Peter Hacker's work seems more Wittgensteinian than Mulhall's, at least in terms of what Hacker is trying to do (I haven't read this book, so can't say whether he succeeds). That's not to say that Mulhall is wrong to do what he does, but it is more positive than what Wittgenstein apparently had in mind. This still leaves me with the question of what to make of Wittgenstein's reading (if that's what it is) of Augustine, but I think that will require further investigation of the Investigations. There's also the question of what philosophers should do, but Goodman, Hacker, and Mulhall all provide reasonable models. There's no need for everyone to do the same thing.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Cannes duo

Two film recommendations (each of which won a prize at Cannes, though not the Palme d'Or): A Prophet and Harakiri.

I don't have much to say about A Prophet except that it shows how good French films often are and I'm not sure I quite get it. The main character (I'll try not to give too much away) sees things, but he gets the nickname that gives the film its title by 'predicting' something that I'm not sure is anything other than literally seeing it. Is that the point? Is the idea that you can tell what is going to happen just by being observant of what is happening? And then is the film as a whole meant to show us what is happening and going to happen in French society? If so, that seems a bit too bold and ambitious. Otherwise, though, a definite must-see if you can handle subtitles and prison violence.

Harakiri is more interesting. Like Kurosawa and Tarkovsky, Kobayashi makes every shot beautiful. This is helped by the Japanese architecture and interior design that features so prominently in the film. It's all very symmetrical, (apparently) carefully-made, minimalist without pretension. And then the story is philosophically interesting, rejecting the samurai concept of honour while simultaneously upholding and celebrating a (novel or, perhaps, simply deeper) version of it. (The samurai code is similar to the ideal of the western knight. Like the buildings they live in, samurai should be square, upright, unfussy, characterized by uncommon care and skill, but also fit for human life.) There are moral lessons in the story as well as food for thought about what it means to follow a moral rule. And there's a social or political point, too, about what happens when those at the top of a hierarchy act on the basis of worldly concerns but still expect those below to be motivated by honour. It reminds me of how we often treat soldiers, teachers, etc. We don't need to pay them well (or take care of them in other ways) because they should do their jobs for love (of country or whatever). But don't expect those at the top not to make sure they get as much as they can.

This is nothing new, of course, which is generally the way with ethics. But Harakiri shows how old ideas can be presented in new ways, and can need presenting to us again. It perhaps loses something for the emotionally manipulative use of a child's suffering (but then you could say the same about The Brothers Karamazov), but otherwise it's just about perfect. Both films are worth at least four stars.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Tenure Itch

Just when this article had almost convinced me that we don't need tenure, along comes this story showing that we do.

The case against tenure is basically that it doesn't work. Only something like 37% of college professors in the US have tenure (which makes me feel a bit better about my job, but bad about the state of the profession as a whole), so the system seems to be dying out. And anyone who is outspoken can be removed by having their position closed anyway. So what is tenure except a stick to beat academia with and an especially tough hurdle for women to get over?

The system is far from perfect, but it isn't as bad as people think it is, or in the ways they think it is. Tenure does not mean you can't be fired for not doing your job properly. It means you can't be fired for publishing research that supports unpopular conclusions. That's a good thing, even if there are sometimes ways round it for the determinedly unscrupulous.

It probably will die out anyway, but my fear is that faculty members will too frequently be replaced by cheaper, younger people fresh from graduate school. The hell of the academic job market will then be imported into the academic job itself: no security and constant pressure to conform to the expectations of others. There will be famous names at famous places who are kept around for their whole working lives to provide prestige, but everyone else teaching will be kicked out sooner or later and have to start another career. How bad this will be for students I don't know, but it will be very bad for the vast majority of academics. It might mean that people try even harder to publish in order to become a famous enough name and focus less on teaching well, knowing that their teaching days are numbered anyway unless they publish well and often. Maybe I'm being unduly pessimistic, but I don't have much faith in the humanity of the market (the invisible foot gets mentioned far less often than the invisible hand), of politicians, or of university administrators as a class.

The title of this post is a two-thirds gratuitous reference to this:

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A and B

I should perhaps now compare Wittgenstein's treatment of Augustine's text with Mulhall's treatment of various texts, but I don't think I've got to a sufficiently clear or complete view of what Wittgenstein says about Augustine (if he says anything at all about him) to do that. So I'll press on with Wittgenstein instead.

The first paragraph of §2 begins with a reference to "that philosophical concept of meaning," which seems slightly ambiguous. Does the concept in question belong to the interlocutor who asks about the meaning of "five" in the shopkeeper example? Or to the narrator, who says that only the use of the word "five" was in question, not its meaning? Or do these two share an understanding of what "meaning" means? The matter seems to be cleared up in the next paragraph, which mentions Augustine again. Having said that the philosophical concept of meaning belongs in a primitive idea of how language functions, the narrator says that we could also say that it is the idea of a language more primitive than ours. Then he tells us to think of a language for which the description given by Augustine would be fitting. This is not quite the same as the shopkeeper story, and it is introduced in way that suggests the shopkeeper story was not intended to fit Augustine's description. After all, why invent a new example/story to do this job if we have just been given one?

The story we get now is of the builders A and B. The first thing we are told is what the language is for: A is building and B is his assistant. When A calls for a particular stone, B brings it to him. There are four kinds of stone, each with its own name. And this is the whole language, we are asked to imagine.

As with the shopkeeper, there is something strange about this story. Why are there only two people doing the building? Why isn't their work done more cooperatively? How heavy can the blocks be if B is carrying them single-handedly (is he Obelix?)? Both this building and the shopping in the previous section sound a lot like children's games. Whether that matters I don't know.

A second thing to note is that in the Augustinian picture, the meanings of words are supposed to be the objects for which they stand. But here the meaning of "slab" seems clearly not to be a kind of object. It means something more like "Bring me a slab!" Is Wittgenstein trying to show how embedded language/meaning is in activities or forms of life? Or is he getting his own interpretation of what Augustine says wrong? Even if he got it wrong deliberately, this would be weird, so I expect he's trying to make a point about purpose and practice in connection with language, but it's still too early to draw definite conclusions.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The postmodern threat

Jon Cogburn links to some discussion of Derrida. Among these is this from k-punk (who has some interesting thoughts on Morrissey, about whom more below, here). Cogburn seems to agree with k-punk's claims that Derrida always treats everything he writes about as if it were a text (while refusing to ignore the form in which it is "written") and that deconstruction is a kind of pathology that refuses to say Yes or No except, as it were, accidentally.

I don't see anything wrong with treating things as texts, as long as their form is taken into account (including whether they take the form of a text or not). Of course, doing so might be unproductive sometimes, but every attempt to do something risks failure.

It's the second claim that interests me. Or rather, the two claims taken together seem close to getting at some of the worry I have about philosophy done as Stephen Mulhall might be interpreted as doing it. There is a lot to be said for not trying to say anything, it seems to me, especially about the ultimate nature of reality. But then why write books? And, perhaps more to the point, why read books or papers by someone who is trying not to say anything? The complaint about Derrida, I take it, is that there really is no point at all in reading his work, or his later work at any rate, precisely for this reason.

If this is true of Derrida it is not true of Mulhall. At the very least, his work sheds light on the meaning and value of other people's work. But I still wonder whether that's all it does, or whether something of Mulhall himself is there too. And if it is, what exactly is it? And is it good, bad, or indifferent? I have wondered, for instance, whether his work is a kind of Christian propaganda. Perhaps some is. But is all of it? And is an element of propaganda inevitable in work like his (i.e, roughly, reading)? If so, is that necessarily a bad thing?

I once wanted to write a paper about Rorty on feminism called "Sister I'm a Strong Poet," but all I had was a title. In "Sister I'm a Poet" Morrissey sings that he has "no reason to talk about the books I read, but still I do" and that's because he's a poet, i.e. (in part) a poseur. Rorty always struck me (perhaps I was very wrong about this) as having a hard time explaining why he was talking about the books he read. Somehow the point, as I understood it, was meant to be pragmatic and political, but I don't see philosophy changing the world. Perhaps his goal was to divert the philosophically-minded away from useless philosophy (which is not all philosophy) and toward useful political action. Certainly he preferred feminists who wanted action to those who seemed to want only more deconstruction. So I'm not saying that he was a poseur. But there is a danger of mere posing or what k-punk calls "grey vampirism" in talking about books.

I think I'm rambling/erring now (but part of the point of this blog is for me to think out loud, so caveat lector), but one last point. Larkin once said that there are two types of poetry: the kind that tries to say something new and the kind that tries to find a new way to say something old. He preferred the latter type. So do I. This is why I don't much like the idea of trying to say something, because the something in question is meant to be something both new and important. I don't see anything really new in ethics being good. And I don't see anything really new in metaphysics being important. But that's begging the question I suppose.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Wittgenstein's shopkeeper

I have been trying to read what Wittgenstein writes about Augustine and the shopkeeper and the rest as if for the first time, but also slowly and carefully. As well as the danger of failing to do this, of not being careful enough, there is also the danger of going too slowly, trying too hard to be careful, and seeing things or imagining problems that are not really there. But Wittgenstein advised philosophers to take their time, so I think that slowly is the right way to read him. (This does not guarantee success, of course.)

Another danger is that of being influenced by others one has read, including Wittgenstein himself. If we have already been convinced that meaning and use are closely related, perhaps even the same thing, and that explanations do indeed come to an end somewhere, then we might be too unquestioning of the shopkeeper example. If we have read Stephen Mulhall on this example (in Inheritance and Originality or Philosophical Myths of the Fall--the relevant pages can be read online using either Google Books or amazon's "look inside" feature (search for "shopkeeper)) then we might be too quick to regard the shopkeeper as mechanical or zombie-like. Perhaps I have made that mistake.

So let me try to treat the example as realistic. People do use written notes in shopping sometimes. Online shoppers send written lists to shops, in places where goods are hard to find one might hand one's shopping list to the shopkeeper, foreigners might write down what they want, and so on. We can imagine the apples being kept in a drawer of some kind of refrigerator, with different draws for different fruits. People do count out loud, or under their breath. Looking up "red" on a chart sounds a bit odd, but wouldn't be if there were many similar colours (think of all the redlike paint shades you can buy). But we do, I think, have to imagine quite a bit to make the story credible as a scene from anyone's actual life. Wittgenstein has not done anything like this with the quotation from Augustine. Should he have, or is it OK, when doing philosophy at least, to ignore or forget about context?

This remains to be seen as far as the Philosophical Investigations goes. (Or so it seems to me.)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Back to §1

One question I didn't address in my last post is whether the picture that Wittgenstein finds in Augustine's words supports the portrayal of language use in the shopkeeper story. Augustine's evil baby genius (who is selfish and whiny, and can think but has not yet cracked the code of the Latin-speaking grown-ups) is quite different from the robotic/zombie shopkeeper. One has an implausibly rich inner life, while the other is hard to imagine as having any inner life at all. But in each case we get the idea that words are correlated with things and that these things are the meanings of those words. Wittgenstein describes the idea as this: "Every word has a meaning. This meaning is correlated with the word. It is the object for which the word stands."

He seems to be against this idea. But is he against all of it? Should he be? For instance, how often does anyone suggest that the first part of the idea ("Every word has a meaning") is objectionable? But the idea of nonsense is important to Wittgenstein, so perhaps we should question this idea.

The important thing might be, not so much who or what is right, but that Augustine has described learning language as if it were a matter of becoming like the shopkeeper, despite the fact that he very clearly does not think of our lives as being like the shopkeeper's. So he has somehow said something that he does not really mean. Or else his words have been misinterpreted.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Wittgenstein reads Augustine

First, it would be a mistake to skip the preface to the Philosophical Investigations, but I will note just a few things about it: 1. like the Tractatus, it contains thoughts but is not meant to tell people what to think (rather, Wittgenstein says he wants to "stimulate someone to thoughts of his own"), 2. speaking of ownership, Wittgenstein says that: "If my remarks do not bear a stamp which marks them as mine, then I do not wish to lay any further claim to them as my property," and 3. he expresses pessimism about the quality of what he has produced (it is only an album of halfway decent sketches) and the likelihood of its being understood (the times are too dark and one can understand the thoughts in the book properly only "by contrast with and against the background of" the thoughts in the Tractatus).

After the preface the book begins with a quotation in Latin from Augustine's Confessions. If the preface has not made us go back and read the Tractatus, and if trying to read that book has not made us stop and go back to Frege and Russell, and possibly Schopenhauer, Kant, and others too, then this Latin passage might prompt us to brush up our Latin or read Augustine. Otherwise we have to trust the narrator, who has already warned us that we are unlikely to understand what he has written.

Augustine's words are addressed to God, and they emphasize the role of the body in learning language. Bodily movements and gestures constitute a natural language, and one has to learn to use one's tongue in order to pronounce words. What drives this learning, as Augustine expresses it, is the desire to express one's will in order that one might get what one wills. There is something sinful about this: Augustine takes a rather dim view of babies and their willfulness. It is God's will we should want to be done, after all, not our own. Augustine also writes as if babies have a fully developed will (maybe not at first--when they know only to suck, to enjoy what they like, and to cry at what they dislike--but soon after this), capable of thinking and desiring a range of things. So simply watching what Latin-speakers call by what names enables one to learn Latin. Readers are probably aware that it takes more to understand the quotation from Augustine than a knowledge of the meanings of the main nouns in the passage.

There is something off about Augustine's portrayal of babies, something we might laugh at, except that it is clearly bound up with his religious beliefs. The Confessions is not a funny book. And Augustine's seemingly questionable psychology is perhaps best understood not as psychology at all but as an attempt to express our fallen nature. In this sense it sounds like the kind of thing that, at the end of the Lecture on Ethics, Wittgenstein said he would not ridicule for the life of him. So I doubt we are meant to laugh--or to keep laughing, at any rate--but we might if we fail, or refuse, to take the speaker of these words into account.

Wittgenstein's response is to say that it seems to him (so this is a personal reaction) that these words give us a certain picture of the essence of language. In this picture, he continues, we find the roots of an idea about language. This mixed metaphor might (should?) give us pause. Not to criticize Wittgenstein's writing but to think about what he might mean. What is a picture in this sense? How could it contain roots? How can he know there are these roots in this picture? Is he telling us what he thinks is going on in Augustine's mind? He doesn't say.

The next paragraph points out some things that Augustine does not mention, without any explicit criticism of him for this, and then says what Wittgenstein believes someone who describes learning language like this believes. He is thinking primarily of certain obvious nouns (the names of concrete types of objects, such as chairs) and people's names. Wittgenstein gives no reason to think that Augustine in particular is thinking this way (although it would seem reasonable enough to think this of him), and in general treats Augustine's words as if their author and original context did not matter. Perhaps that is OK, but a case could certainly be made that it isn't. Is context never important? Is Wittgenstein reading into Augustine's work ideas that he previously believed in? We don't have much basis on which to decide yet, but it seems reasonable to ask the questions.

In the next paragraph Wittgenstein changes tack (at least seemingly) and tells us to think of a use of language: Wittgenstein sends someone (who? someone he outranks? a child? a foreigner?) shopping with a piece of paper marked "five red apples." The shopkeeper does not simply hand over the apples--he looks up what colour red is and uses this information to identify which apples he should take from the drawer (!) in which he keeps them. He has memorized the number series, but still has to count up to five to know how many apples to hand over. Then Wittgenstein remarks that, "It is in this and similar ways that one operates with words." Is this claim part of what we are simply being told to imagine? Or is Wittgenstein really claiming that this story is similar to the way we operate with words? Who are "we" though? Is "operate" really what we do with words? And how similar must two things be to count as genuinely similar? Wittgenstein does not say, and there isn't really an answer to any of these questions I can think of that isn't arbitrary.

An interlocutor then asks none of these questions but one about how the shopkeeper knows what to do in response to the words "five" and "red." These would be reasonable questions if the shopkeeper were a robot and we wanted to know how he has been programmed, but otherwise they sound a bit odd to me. Wittgenstein (or the narrator) takes them in his stride, though, and brushes them aside with a mere stipulation that the shopkeeper acts as described and that "Explanations come to an end somewhere." The interlocutor then wants to know what the word "five" means (in this story, presumably, but perhaps more generally), but is told that this was not in question. The question was only how the word "five" is used.

So was it unreasonable to ask about the meaning of "five"? Does the story-teller get to dictate what the story was about? Perhaps he does, but then what is the point of the story if it does not answer the questions that other people have?

So far, then, we have been told something that Augustine wrote, told what Wittgenstein thinks in response to words like these, and told to imagine a strange story. We have not been told what we should think about anything, but have been given plenty of food for thought. Which is what Wittgenstein told us he was aiming to do in the preface.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Reading with Wittgenstein

I think somewhere Nietzsche identifies philology with reading, and I've been thinking that what Stephen Mulhall does--very well--is read. His readings, while not wildly idiosyncratic, are inevitably personal, which deviates from a certain ideal of philosophy as an impersonal quest for Truth or as continuous with the natural sciences. The idea of philosophy as therapy also makes philosophy personal, since the problems to be dealt with are personal ones, and the therapy that works for one person will not necessarily work for another, even if their problems show up in the same way (e.g. they both claim to doubt the existence of other minds, or to believe in the real existence of other possible worlds). If Wittgenstein has demonstrated a method for carrying out this therapy, then what remains is to apply it. But it's not as if the world is full of people asking for philosophers to cure them, and most of us do not feel that we should be setting up shop to provide a sort of rival to psychoanalysis. Instead we keep writing. But, if this is not just a mistake, what form should this writing take? If therapy cannot be generic but writing for a general audience (and what else will be published?) has to be, then how can we do philosophy in writing?

Mulhall provides a model or three. We could try to do something like what he does (which is something like what Stanley Cavell does). Or we could try to do something like what the authors he writes about do. Or, since this is a diverse group, we could go off in a direction of our own, as he and they have done. That would not exactly be copying a model in any straightforward sense though. So how does what Mulhall does compare with what, for instance, Wittgenstein does? Does Wittgenstein read (offer readings of) texts? And if he does, how does he do it?

Philosophical Investigations begins with a text from Augustine's Confessions, and Wittgenstein's response to it is interesting.

That's what my next post will be about.

Martin Amis

It's possible that all you need to know about Martin Amis is that he writes in his autobiography that when it comes to Israel he thinks "with the blood." A quick bit of googling suggests that this expression comes from D. H. Lawrence (although Kipling's name comes up a lot too). But it is an expression commonly associated with the Nazis, who were big fans of this kind of thinking--not just racism but proudly unthinking racism. It is almost, then, as if Amis were saying something like "I'm a Nazi for Israel" or "I'm as pro-Israel as Hitler was pro-Germany." It's shockingly crass, but the degree to which it is shocking, the degree of crassness, is impressive in a way. Of course he might have been thinking of Lawrence alone, but he ought to have heard the echoes of Hitler too.

Amis's writing typically has this extreme, insensitive quality to it (Dead Babies, anyone?), like a literary version of a Quentin Tarantino film. He got there before Tarantino, so credit where it's due, but after The Sex Pistols and others who also liked to shock. There's a rowdiness about Amis's work that was probably refreshing in the 1970s, but when he tries to get intellectual it all goes horribly wrong.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Thinking the unthinkable

Elizabeth Costello objects to Paul West's having thought his way into and brought back to life the executions of people who plotted to kill Hitler. Stephen Mulhall discusses this on pp. 203-213 of The Wounded Animal.

If I were him I would have brought in Plato's story about wanting to go and look at some dead bodies behind a wall (he mentions Plato, but not this story specifically, as I recall). Plato tells the story (as I remember) to defend his belief that in addition to the rational part of the soul and the monster of desire, we also contain another part, one that can get angry when we stoop to such base acts as rubbernecking at faces of death. Costello's view is, roughly, that there are some things we should not look at, some places we should not go. The curious, lustful monster should be kept in some kind of check.

Mulhall contrasts this with an ideal of realism, which demands that we seal ourselves off from no bit of reality. He writes that Coetzee goes ahead and represents the very things that Costello, in Coetzee's story, refuses to represent (see p. 211). But it isn't clear to me that this is true. There is a difference between writing a novel that quotes bits of West's book, on the one hand, and writing a book like West's, on the other. I haven't read all of Coetzee's work, but I don't remember him going into (porno)graphic detail when it comes to torture, rape, and murder.* These things happen, but off-stage. So he does, it seems to me, retain a sense of the obscene. Its existence is not denied, but it is not inhabited either. You might leave one of Coetzee's novels knowing (in some sense, to some extent) what it is like to be, say, him, but not with any improved sense of what it is like to be a torturer or rapist. So here is a point where I think Mulhall goes wrong (although, of course, it might be me that is wrong).

Does Coetzee then fail to be a true realist? Well, perhaps that isn't what he really wants to be. But no, I don't think he does fail in this way. Preserving the phenomena, capturing the facts, keeping it real means not pretending that obscene things don't happen, but also not pretending that they are not obscene.

*I'm not saying that West does this, but it seems to be Costello's view that he does.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Who is Stephen Mulhall?

This is the title of a paper I wanted to write years ago, dealing with the position of the author in philosophy. It would have dealt with questions of individual responsibility and linguistic normativity of the kind addressed here. It would have focused, of course, on Mulhall's views on these issues. I don't think I will ever write it now.

But Mulhall is interested in the question of what philosophy is, or ought to be, or can be, which is an excellent question. And his answer seems to be roughly that philosophy is reading texts. The texts he chooses are typically ones that have the potential to illuminate our lives, and his readings build on this potential, helping his readers to benefit from those texts, perhaps even without reading them. I have not seen all the Alien films, for instance, but still think I have gained from reading what Mulhall has to say about them.

Authors are not necessarily infallible about the meanings of their works, but commentators are in an even less certain position. Hence an understandable hesitancy sometimes in Mulhall's writing. In The Wounded Animal (p. 192), for instance, he brings up Hamlet because Coetzee's description of a man laying a woman out sounds (to Mulhall) more like something a funeral director would do with a corpse than part of a sexual encounter and because the man (the fictional writer Emmanuel Egudu) goes on to introduce something to her (Elizabeth Costello's) ear. Hence the relevance of the dumb show in Hamlet. Mulhall recognizes that the connection here depends on feelings that might not be universal. It isn't only that you won't see the connection unless you feel this way: there simply is no connection unless this feeling is in some sense normal or normative. He is a tremendously sensitive, perceptive reader, but how can anyone judge whether connections that are not blindingly obvious are real or imagined? Does Mulhall's sensitivity and knowledge of the literature make him an authority on the reality in question? Perhaps it does. But if it does, this is surely an interesting fact about reality.

I don't mean "Who the hell does Stephen Mulhall think he is?" (which is roughly what I did mean when I talked about David Brooks). What I mean is more like "Who is the reader?" And what happens when the reader is also an author?

As I think I've said before (here), my problem is not so much that Mulhall hears echoes that are not there. Rather it is that he hears some and not others. And, the point is, this will be true of any reader. If I'm criticizing Mulhall at all it's because I think he is as good a philosopher as there is today, and he might well represent the (best possible) future of the subject. On the back of The Wounded Animal Cora Diamond is quoted as saying that Mulhall claims that philosophy can be radically changed, that his work attempts something very ambitious, and that it is a great success. I agree with all that, but I would struggle to say what exactly it is that he is doing and why it matters.

Perhaps I just want a manifesto or a slogan, which would not be very impressive of me, but there's something unsettling about his project and I'm not sure I can put my finger on it yet.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Don't let yourself be consoled

I suppose there are exceptions, but crowds generally seem like a bad thing. Perhaps there is something to be said for transcending egoism by merging with a mass of people, but losing yourself is usually losing yourself in something, and what this is matters (it seems to me). So waving a lighter while singing along with thousands of other people to "Free Bird" or "Sunday Bloody Sunday" can't be good, even though those aren't bad songs. If you're going to give up yourself it should be for something better than that. This has something to do with integrity or honesty. Roughly: you should sing your own songs.

The idea of a non-conformist crowd is absurd. So this story about political slogans at a football match seems to miss the point. Fans holding up banners that read "The Truth Is Always Revolutionary" and "There Are No Idols" are not being political so much as absurd. Art doesn't make football political. It makes politics absurd. This in itself could be political, puncturing overinflated myths perhaps, but obscure, arty slogans are quite different from the more common, thuggish politics associated with, say, Lazio (nicknamed Nazio by some because of their fondness for fascist salutes and banners).

So I like the 'philosophical' banners as a kind of joke, but I don't expect them to change the world.

Monday, August 2, 2010


This story in the Telegraph caught my eye when it appeared a couple of weeks ago. It says that well-educated people (another story in the same paper on the same day calls them "Champagne socialists") are not as left-wing as they think they are. According to the story, "the respondents’ actual ideological position ... was established by asking them whether they believed wealth should be divided more equally."

Now Chris Bertram is talking about it at Crooked Timber. He quotes the questions asked about the division of wealth:
“Incomes should be made more equal vs We need larger income differences as incentives. How would you place your views on this scale?”
“Imagine two secretaries, of the same age, doing practically the same job. One finds out that the other earns considerably more than she does. The better paid secretary, however, is quicker, more efficient and more reliable at her job. In your opinion, is it fair or not fair that one secretary is paid more than the other?
The underlying assumptions (or some of them anyway) seem to be that income differences are incentives, that you either believe in incentives or you don't, and that left-wing people don't. The last two of these ideas are not admirably sophisticated.

The first might sound true, but it needs to be read not as saying that, among other things, income inequalities are incentives, but rather as saying that this is all that such inequalities are. So what you cannot think is that qua incentives such inequalities are good but that all things considered they are bad. There are, supposedly, no other things to be considered. That's quite a claim, but I suppose the main problem is with the second assumption. You can, in fact, believe that two people doing the same job should have some incentive to do that job well without thinking that the top 1 or 2% of earners should be paid vastly more than everyone else.

It is perfectly reasonable to think that incentives can encourage people to work harder. It is less reasonable to think that this is what explains the inequalities in our society. CEOs make about ten times what coal miners make. They don't work ten times harder. Nor are they ten times better as people. It might be true that it is a sad fact that CEOs need to be paid this much in order to get the best people to do their important work. But that has nothing to do with the question about the fairness of paying a quicker, more efficient, more reliable secretary more than a sluggish, inefficient, unreliable co-worker. Fairness and reliability are moral concepts, but if there is a need to pay CEOs vast amounts then this has nothing to do with morality. Although I'm sure many CEOs would like to think that it does.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Wittgenstein and Youth

It's not always easy to know when you are reading and when you are reading into a text, but surely there are implicit references to Wittgenstein in Coetzee's Youth. For instance, this passage raises the philosophical question of what counts as speech, mentions silence (which is the last note of Wittgenstein's Tractatus), and features a man writing S in his diary:
About quitting IBM he has no regrets. But now he has no one to speak to, not even bill Briggs. Day after day goes by when not a word passes his lips. He begins to mark them off with an S in his diary: days of silence.

Outside the Underground station he bumps by mistake against a little old man selling newspapers. ‘Sorry!’ he says. ‘Watch where you’re going!’ snarls the man. ‘Sorry!’ he repeats. Sorry: the word comes heavily out of his mouth, like a stone. Does a single word of indeterminate class count as speech? Has what has occurred between himself and the old man been an instance of human contact, or is it better described as mere social interaction, like the touching of feelers between ants? To the old man, certainly, it was nothing.
Compare Wittgenstein:
258. Let us imagine the following case. I want to keep a diary about the recurrence of a certain sensation. To this end I associate it with the sign "S" and write this sign in a calendar for every day on which I have the sensation. - I will remark first of all that a definition of the sign cannot be formulated. - but still I give myself a kind of ostensive definition. How? Can I point to the sensation? Not in the ordinary sense. But I speak, or write the sign down, and at the same time I concentrate my attention on the sensation. But what is this ceremony for? for that is all it seems to be. A definition surely serves to establish the meaning of a sign. - Well that is done precisely by the concentration of my attention; for in this way I impress upon myself the connection between the sign and the sensation. But "I impress it on myself" can only mean: this process brings it about that I remember the connection right in the future. But in the present case I have no criterion of correctness. One would like to say: Whatever is going to seem right to me is right, and that only means that here we can't talk about 'right'.

259. Are the rules of the private language impressions of rules? - The balance on which impressions are weighed is not the impression of a balance.

260. "Well, I believe that this is the sensation S again." - Perhaps you believe that you believe it! Then did the man who made the entry in the calendar make a note of nothing whatever? - don't consider it a matter of course that a person is making a note of something when he makes a mark - say in a calendar. For a note has a function, and this "S" so far has none. (One can talk to oneself. - If a person speaks when no-one else is present, does that mean he is speaking to himself?)

It isn't clear what Coetzee's response to Wittgenstein is. Is his echo just an echo, or is he engaging more significantly than that? One thing he seems to be doing is working Wittgenstein's example into a life, so that it is less a context-free thought-experiment and more...what? Real? Worth thinking about? Something like that. And this imagining of a life to go with the imagined language is a very Wittgensteinian thing to do. Earlier in the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein writes that "to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life." I imagine that he would sympathize at least somewhat with the passage from Goethe that is the motto of Youth:
Wer den Dichter will verstehen,
Muß in Dichters Lande gehen.
("Who would the poet understand, Must go into the poet's land," or something like that.)

If we want to understand the diarist's S we must see where he is coming from, how it fits into his life. Or so I think both Coetzee and Wittgenstein would say. The difference is that Wittgenstein doesn't really do this in the Investigations and that, by giving S a meaning, Coetzee moves away from Wittgenstein's example, which is not about days of silence. Both raise questions about meaning, though, and I think both allow for ambiguity: it isn't simply, always, clearcut what has meaning and what does not, what counts as speech and what does not, what counts as an instance of human contact and what does not. Awareness of such ambiguity, and the ability to handle it, makes human understanding quite different from the abilities to read, understand, and process information possessed by the machines that Coetzee programs in the novel.

Finally, in case all this seems forced, Coetzee refers later in the novel to reading about the history of logic, including works by Carnap and others. He doesn't mention Wittgenstein, but it seems likely that anyone who read much Carnap would be aware of Wittgenstein's work. So, all in all, it seems hard to doubt that Coetzee has Wittgenstein in mind in at least some parts of the novel. But seeing this relies on a kind of ability that a) would be very hard to give to a computer, and b) is inescapably fallible.