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.