Saturday, January 29, 2011

To kill or not to kill

One the cases Sandel discusses (in his book and in the talk he gave at VMI) is that of Marcus Luttrell. Luttrell was searching for a Taliban leader in Afghanistan with a team of SEALs when their position was discovered by some local goat herders. Sandel tells the story (as Luttrell seems to too, judging by this Wikipedia article) as though Luttrell and his men faced a simple choice: kill the goat herders so that the Taliban would not find out about their presence in the area, or let them go and risk being found and attacked (as in fact they were, all but Luttrell being killed, along with a rescue team in a helicopter that was shot down). It is easy for soldiers and soldiers-to-be to come away thinking that killing the goat herders would have been the right thing to do.

But it isn't immediately clear why tying up the goat herders would not have been an option. Perhaps rope and gags should be taken on such missions just in case. I've heard, though, that in this case that might well not have worked because the goats walked the same route every day, and would have carried on back to their village without the herders. This might have given the game away too. As, presumably, would killing (or tying up) all the goats. So it looks as though the only options were to let the herders go and carry on with the mission (which was very risky) or else to let them go and abort the mission. Murdering the goat herders might well have been suicide (not literally) as well as murder.

The presentation of the situation as a moral dilemma (kill or be killed) is not true to the case. It also encourages murder in future similar cases. Which seems like a bad idea.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Anything but argument

Leonard Lawlor's paper "Reality and Philosophy: Reflections on Cora Diamond's Work" is a bit surprising. Lawlor seems to come to Diamond's work from a different tradition and a different perspective, so that's one thing that makes it interesting. But the paper is written with what might be considered a lack of argument, or a lack of a certain kind of argument anyway, which makes it both the kind of thing I might be expected to like and (yet) somewhat unsatisfying (to me--I can imagine other people liking it a lot).

For instance, Lawlor writes that "The relation of reality to language and thought and therefore to philosophy is an internal one. Reality is in philosophy..." But to say that two things are internally related is surely not to say that one is in the other. I would have thought it meant, rather, that the two are conceptually interdependent. And I don't know what to make of "Reality is in philosophy."

He goes on to note that the word 'spirit' occurs in the title of Diamond's book The Realistic Spirit but not much in her subsequent work. He links this with her non-biological conception of what it means to be human, and then moves to talk of theology and messianism. This might all seem like too much too fast, but Lawlor does not claim to have proved anything. He mostly just asks questions and suggests ideas.

Sometimes he does what looks a bit like logical argument, e.g.: "Reality is not independent of our experience, which means, reversing the negation, that it is to be found in experience." Substitute "my children" for reality and "their parents" for our experience and you can see that this is not a logical argument in fact.

And so it goes on. This is not my cup of tea but, as I say, I can imagine others finding stimulation in it. And if I don't like this kind of thing, then I ought to be more careful about what I say regarding the place of argument and personal expression in philosophy. That would be a good lesson for me to learn.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sandel at VMI

I just got back from a talk to our entire student body by Michael Sandel. He gave an interactive lecture very much like the ones you can watch online here, going over the trolley problem (plus fat man on the bridge), the question whether soldiers should risk being killed or instead kill civilians who discover their position, and whether one should help the police find and arrest one's mobster brother. It was all very well done and got the students thinking (as far as I can tell). One said it was the best talk by an outside speaker he had ever heard. But it wasn't quite the way Sandel's lectures appear to go at Harvard.

One thing I noticed was how few of our students were willing to raise their hands to speak in defense of their views. Sandel has the audience vote for one of two options, and plenty of people voted, but he then invites people to explain why they voted as they did. In the lectures online many more hands go up than did today at VMI. Are our students more shy? Less interested in argument, debate, and questions of principle? Or does it take the Harvard students time to warm up too?

Those who did speak often seemed more interested in entertaining the audience than in giving a serious answer. So this seems like an aspect of the first issue really: few of our students wanted to give a serious answer to a serious question (even though there are human beings who enjoy this kind of thing, not all of them particularly intelligent). I don't think intelligence is the issue, but perhaps the kind of intelligence involved is rarer here. I don't know.

And then the answers themselves were not what I might have hoped for. I think the majority voted that soldiers should murder civilians rather than risk being killed. This is understandable, but not the noblest view one could take. Nor is it what the Army teaches at West Point, as far as I know.

[pause while I go and teach]

The students in the class I just taught expressed frustration with Sandel's wanting to make every situation a black and white one. You either kill five or you kill one with the trolley, for instance. There is no shouting warnings or anything like that. I'm glad they want realistic examples and more options. But I also understand why Sandel wants to resist this kind of objection. It's a refusal to play his game, and the point of the game is to generate thought and discussion about principles. If principles matter at all then this is a good point for a game to have.

But it is a game. And it takes a certain kind of person to be willing to play such a game while also taking it seriously. Perhaps Harvard has more people like that than we do. If that is what the difference comes down to, then I don't think either VMI or Harvard necessarily has any reason to be ashamed of the difference.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Is students learning?

This seems to be taken to mean that students are not learning. But according to this article "The test ... does not address subject-matter knowledge" and was taken by students who may have had little reason to try to do well on it. So it doesn't seem to be a very meaningful measure of anything. What is the test then?
To gauge summative performance authentically, the CLA presents realistic problems that require students to analyze complex materials and determine the relevance to the task
and credibility.
That's from the test-makers' website. If that makes little sense to you, there is an example here. As far as I can see, the test requires you to think sensibly about a problem and then write clearly about it. If schools want their students to do well on such tests, I would think they should have them all take at least one course in critical thinking and consider making this test the final exam. There's your incentive. (The course should be taken before the last semester of senior year, too.) More courses in philosophy and English would almost certainly help too. I doubt many people will suggest this, though, and those who do will likely be philosophers and professors of English. Oh well.

UPDATE: There is a good discussion of the book and the test it's based on here. And more here. I'm not sure about the idea that we don't evaluate student learning though. Assessment is rife at VMI, and I hear similar things about other schools. In my department we (try to) measure the improvement in critical thinking skills of students who get a minor in Philosophy (we don't offer a major), and we (try to) measure the same thing plus general knowledge of Psychology for all our Psychology majors. My sense is that this kind of thing is pretty standard. Maybe I'm wrong.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Disgrace: the movie

Last night I watched the film of Disgrace, which I thought was good. I'd have to re-read the novel to be sure, but I think it was pretty faithful to the book. You can't fit everything into a two-hour film, though, so something must have been left out, and what remained was brought closer together. So we see David lecturing about Lucifer and immediately connect his description of Lucifer with his own nature: he does what he wants regardless of whether it is good or evil, and is insane not in the head but in the heart. This doing whatever he wants, being a creature of the will, makes him pretty much the opposite of characters like Lucy (his daughter) and Michael K. It also makes him similar to the men who attack him and Lucy, perhaps to men in general (as they are presented in the film/book at least), and presumably to the white people who originally took over South Africa (where the story is set). At one point he quotes Blake's "Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires," which I have read (somewhere--in Disgrace?) is not about killing babies but about desires in their infancy: if you have a desire that is starting to grow, you should either act on it or snuff it out, not feed it if you have no intention of acting on it.

The snuffing out of desire comes up also in connection with dogs. David tells Lucy of a man who punished his dog whenever it got sexually excited, which was every time it saw a female dog. Through Pavlovian association the dog came to hate its own arousal, its own desire. (Nietzsche has a similar story about the effects of Christianity and the masochism of puritanism.) At this point, David says, it would have been better to kill the dog and put it out of its misery.

So dogs are something like symbols of desire (they are also just dogs) in the story. Lucy and another woman (Bev Shaw) care for them. David approaches something like salvation (but does not seem to be changed in any complete way) by helping with the killing of dogs (that, presumably, need to be killed). There is a danger here of presenting women as good, suffering nurses and men as bad predators whose nature needs to be denied or destroyed. There are also some suggestions that, while men are like dogs, women are like flowers. Lucy grows and sells flowers as well as running a kennel; a boy who attacks her then runs off and kicks at her garden saying "we will destroy you"; David tells a female student he is trying to seduce that women's beauty belongs not to them but should be shared. The idea seems to be in the air (whether we are meant to agree with it or not) that women give to the world, like harmless and pretty flowers, while men only take and destroy.

But it isn't quite so simple, thankfully. Redemption (grace?) does seem possible for David, even if he doesn't take full advantage of it (we see him picking up a prostitute near the end of the movie, and he never seems to fully accept Lucy's decision to live at peace with her neighbors, even those who raped her). And Bev has carnal desires too, although David's relationship with her is not exactly passionate. In the movie it seems almost as if he is doing penance by having antiseptic sex with a woman he does not find at all attractive. (I don't remember how it goes in the book, but I think it's along these lines.)

In the end the sense is that South Africa, having gone to the dogs, is now being reclaimed. Like the putting down of a hopeless dog, this is an unpleasant process, but the right thing all the same. So Lucy remains, however stoical she has to be in order to survive there, David withdraws, and the black Africans (should they be called Native Africans?) take over.

It would be easy to see some true but not very interesting political messages in the story, for instance that the end of apartheid is good but likely not to go completely smoothly, or that women are often treated badly by men but that it isn't always clear whether a given act should be regarded as an abuse of male power. (If a male professor seduces a female student is this sexual harassment or just the private business of two consenting adults? Could it somehow be both? Everyone involved treats it as wrong, except David, but I don't think every reader will see it this way.)

I find the ethical questions much more engaging: if our doggy nature is the root of all evil (which might be an exaggeration, but isn't far from what this story suggests), then what are we to do? Complete passivity seems to be one answer, but it is very unappealing and appears to require doing violence to the dog (Plato uses the image of a monster) in us.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The destruction of innocent life

By way of Paul Raymont I found this article by Christopher Howse about Anthony Kenny on Anscombe. Raymont rightly recommends the comments by Allectus at the end of the article, one of which reads:
I don't think it ever makes sense to say that an act, even one which deliberately brings about the destruction of innocent life , must be always and absolutely morally wrong.

Those who insist on this principle (sometimes called "the principle of double effect") seem not to appreciate the distinction between something being always undesirable in itself and its never being justified under any circumstances. We can all envisage consequences far worse than the destruction of a single innocent life: but following this principle, it would never be permissible to sacrifice this one innocent life (if this sacrifice were, in Elizabeth Anscombe's words, both "intended and foreseen") in order to save a hundred, a thousand or even a million such lives. I find this attitude incomprehensible.

Of course, I do not deny that taking a deliberate decision to destroy an innocent life involves very real and very grave costs and risks; but as long as we are honest with ourselves about these costs and risks, such decisions (which should be taken only at the highest level, and then only in time of war or other emergency) should always come down to a pragmatic and realistic assessment of the likely costs and benefits.
I sympathize, but I also think that this doesn't really work as a criticism of Anscombe's position. She does, after all, believe in God, and that God has categorically forbidden the intentional "sacrifice" of one innocent life. This makes a huge difference to what she would consider pragmatic and realistic.

She also rejects even thinking about what one ought to do if (unrealistically) one 'had to' murder one to save millions. It is part of her faith that God is unlikely to put anyone in such a position, but this is not her main point on such matters. Her main point is that it is important for us to remain committed to refusing to commit murder, even though we could find ourselves in a situation in which it would be hard to think of a better course of action. I think she accepts that it is conceivable that there might be no better course of action (at least that an ordinary mortal would think of), but she objects to the suggestion that we ought to think about such things. They invite corruption. I find this attitude not only comprehensible but quite attractive.

An oversight

Trying to find the email address of a friend who had generously sent me a copy of his latest book I discovered that another follower of this blog has a blog of his own. Google Translate doesn't seem to do as good a job with Spanish as it does with Norwegian, but this still seems worth checking out.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

I, you, here, now

One of the passages in In the Heart of the Country that makes me think Coetzee has Wittgenstein in mind is this:
74. My father is exchanging forbidden words with Klein-Anna. I do not need to leave my room to know. We, he is saying to her, we two; and the word reverberates in the air between them. Now, come with me now, he is saying to her. There are few enough words true, rock-hard enough to build a life on,and these he is destroying. He believes that he and she can choose their words and make a private language, with an I and you and here and now of their own. But there can be no private language. Their intimate you is my you too. Whatever they may say to each other, even in the closest dead of night, they say in common words, unless they gibber like apes. How can I speak to Hendrik as before when they corrupt my speech? How do I speak to them?
This is not Coetzee speaking, of course, and the character who speaks might even be insane at this point, so we have no real reason to accept what is said here, beyond the words themselves and our own thoughts and experience. But the basic idea seems true to me. Just as my father's sleeping with another man's wife (not that he would!) might change the relationships between the four of us, so might the words used in the forbidden act become colored by this use.

On the other hand, if these words are spoken in private, how much difference can this use make to the general use of those words by others, who do not know what has been done with them in private?  If just two people attach special meaning to the words we and two, then this won't make much difference to the meaning of these words.  Unless the two people make up a large percentage of the community in question.  If others pick up on the fact that something is associated with these words, then using them might become awkward, or funny, or romantic, or whatever.  And then the language has changed, if only slightly.  So even private (i.e. behind closed doors) uses of words, in thought alone even, can change the public, shared language.  But they don't have to.

I wonder what this implies for solitary language users.  I wouldn't want to say that a Robinson Crusoe could not speak a language, but he might face problems with meaning, with making sense, that the rest of us don't.  If you're already inclined to agree with Kripke's reading of Wittgenstein then this will hardly be news, but I'm not, so it's interesting to me.

It also makes me think about original meaning and current use as determining the meaning of a word.  There was quite a discussion here about "the c-word" and whether its use is sexist or not.  Roughly speaking, Americans seem to think it is (necessarily) sexist because a) that's how it tends to be used in the US (as a nasty, reductive alternative to 'woman') and b) its origin is clearly gender-specific so its use as an insult must imply that there is something bad about that gender.  On the other hand, British and Australian people seem to think it is not sexist because, whatever the original intent of the first person to use it as an insult, it is not used as anything but an insult (i.e. meaning something like bastard, only stronger).  I lean towards this latter view, but of course words can carry historical baggage.     

Surely what matters is what words still carry with them, or have come to carry with them, not the original luggage they left home with, as it were. It doesn't matter if 'welch' (meaning to fail to pay a gambling debt) originally came from 'Welsh' (meaning of or pertaining to Wales) if no one remembers this connection. (Does it? According to my dictionary the origin of 'welch' is unknown, by the way.) But it is no easy matter to know what someone remembers, or might remember, or might come to think. Words with a dubious past are always liable to have this past brought up, but innocent words (such as 'niggardly') might still upset people. And this kind of damage seems more important to me than questions of etymology in deciding which words to use when. What words should remain in currency seems to be a kind of political decision, and the politics of Robinson Crusoes are hard to imagine or understand. Which relates to the idea of ethics for one that Christensen addresses.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A glorious sun and a bad person

Anne-Marie Christensen has a paper forthcoming in Philosophia that is well worth reading.  Here's the abstract:
Most commentators working on Wittgenstein’s remarks on ethics note that he rejects the very possibility of traditional normative ethics, that is, a philosophically justified normative guide for right conduct. In this article, Wittgenstein’s view of ethical reflection as presented in his notebooks from 1936 to 1938 is investigated, and the question of whether it involves ethical guidance is addressed. In Wittgenstein’s remarks, we can identify three requirements inherent in ethical reflection. The first two is revealed in the realisation that ethical reflection presupposes both a clear understanding of oneself and a normative ideal of how one ought to live and reason. The third source of normativity springs from the fact that ethical reflection involves a relationship with the other, not as judge, but as example and addressee. In this way, ethical reflection is essentially relational. In the article, we unfold how these three normative sources figure in Wittgenstein’s remarks, especially how the third requirement, the relationship with the other, shows both a point of conversion and a difference between his view of ethics and religious faith. It will also be argued that even if Wittgenstein thus presents ethical reflection as a normatively guided activity, the content of the guidance is personal, springing solely from the reflecting individual.
Christensen draws on remarks found in Wittgenstein's diaries, some of them written in code. Her title, for instance, comes from a passage written in March 1937 in code. I think this passage has to be understood against the background of one from 19th February of that year, in which Wittgenstein begins by talking about getting rid of an old sweater but soon gets into much more difficult territory. It occurs to him that he ought to give away the sweater, which he has been meaning to give away for some time. But then it also occurs to him "as it were like an order" that he should also give away his new sweater, which he likes a lot. This is what sets him off. If orders can occur like this, then he might be ordered to do anything at all, including, for instance, burning his manuscripts. So if he obeys these 'demands' he might lose everything he cares about. If, on the other hand, he decides not to (since there is no reason to obey them), then he will feel that he is fleeing something and will be unhappy because of this.

At the risk of oversimplifying, I'm tempted to put his position like this: he has a strong intuition that he ought to do something that he does not want to do; this outrages him, not simply because he does not want to do it, but because it seems to put his sense that his life is meaningful at the mercy of intuitions that might demand anything at all of him; yet if he turns away from the intuition he will be turning away from the source of all sense of value in life. It is as if his only options are complete surrender of his will and a life of moral evasion. The latter disgusts him, but he cannot or will not do the former. He seems to think or feel that he must do it, but he rebels against doing it. Why? Perhaps he is sick:
Call it a sickness! What have you said by that?  Nothing.
Don't explain!--Describe! [Then in code:] Submit your heart & don't be angry that you must suffer so!  
Later that day he kneels and prays, and says, looking up above: "There is no one here." This occurs to him as a relief and a kind of enlightenment, although he is not sure what to make of it.

On March 22nd he describes the sun's rising, shining on the snow, and setting, as well as accusing himself of vanity. Then he writes: "There is no one here: But there is a glorious sun here, & a bad person.--" (Es ist niemand hier: Aber es ist eine herrliche Sonne hier, & ein schlechter Mensch.  There is a contrast between the lordly and the base which is hard to capture in normal English and doesn't really come out in Klagge's and Nordmann's idiomatic translation.)

From remarks like these Christensen concludes that,
For Wittgenstein to see and note that he (thinks he) is "a bad person", he must have someone to whom he can address this judgment, even if it is only "a glorious sun".
But I think it is pretty clear that he is expressing a kind of atheism here (albeit perhaps the kind that is compatible with a certain type of Christianity, as in Simone Weil's remark: "A case of contradictories which are true. God exists: God does not exist.Where is the problem? I am quite sure that there is a God in the sense that I am quite sure my love is not illusory. I am quite sure that there is not a God in the sense that nothing real can be anything like that which I am able to conceive when I pronounce this word. But that which I cannot conceive is not an illusion.").  I don't know that anything significant can follow from the fact that Wittgenstein writes his judgment down in a diary, thereby addressing a kind of other.  Which is not to say that what Christensen says is false.

The other passage that she focuses on is from Culture and Value (p. 27e in the old edition, 31e in the new), also from 1937:
The fact that life is problematic shows that the shape of your life does not fit into life's mould. So you must change the way you live and, once your life does fit the mould, what is problematic will disappear.
This shows, Christensen says, that ethics involves "an obligation to work towards a clear understanding of ourselves as well as our place in the world" and "a normative demand to attempt [to] live in a way that reduces ... the difference between this understanding and our ethical ideals." I think this is right as an account of Wittgenstein's idea of ethics. It also sounds rather Aristotelian (although Aristotle seems to be more one-size-fits-all than Wittgenstein, who favors a more personal kind of ethics, as Christensen points out). It follows, of course, that Wittgenstein would have rejected other ethical views. Utilitarianism comes to mind, for instance. But it does not follow that Wittgenstein would have denied that utilitarianism even counted as a kind of ethic. And it surely doesn't follow that philosophical followers of Wittgenstein ought to deny that utilitarianism is a kind of ethic. Which is why I think it's important, albeit sometimes difficult, to distinguish between Wittgenstein's personal beliefs (e.g. "the sweater I bought in Bergen is really nice") and properly Wittgensteinian beliefs (e.g. philosophy ought not to be about establishing the truth of controversial theories by way of a priori reasoning). To be clear, though, these last remarks of mine do not contradict anything that Christensen says in the paper.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Philosophy football

(Not these people, who no longer seem to make a Wittgenstein t-shirt, sadly.)
Tonight the football teams that represent two great American philosophy departments square off in the Tostitos Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game (which surely needs a better name).

Oregon has cool uniforms, a team called the Ducks (a refreshing change from the usual things-that-could-beat-you-up kind of nickname), and Don S. Levi (among others).

Auburn comes from a part of the country where I think football belongs (basically the Midwest and the Deep South--is this a thought I should give up?), has a better team, and has not only individuals like Kelly Dean Jolley, James Shelley, and Reshef Agam-Segal, but also a great department all around.

So I'll be rooting for Auburn.

Anscombe: "the next big thing"

According to Candace Vogler in The New York Times.  Wow.

(Thanks to Brian Leiter, without whose blog I would not have found this story.)

Let's hope her moral philosophy gets some of this coming attention.

UPDATE: the Times article says: "the philosophy of action — a sub-field concerned with how our brains cause our bodies to do things."  This is not how Anscombe would describe the field.  Intention is about intention, not causation, about what it is to do something intentionally.  And that is not a matter of what causes what, as she sees it.   

Political violence and Fox News

Judging by what little I've read about the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, one question being asked seems to be whether the shooter was politically motivated (Giffords is a Democrat) or crazy. It's as if "right-wing crazy" weren't even a category of human being. Odd.

There are always going to be sane people who want to commit violence and insane people who can be manipulated to do all kinds of things. Some suicide bombers are suicidal anyway, for instance, and might well not mind taking some others with them when they go. Any honest, thoughtful (does 'thoughtful' already imply 'honest'?), mature person knows this. Which is one good reason for avoiding violent or just extreme rhetoric in politics. Unless you actually want your opponents to be killed by some nut or thug.

So what are we to make of the kind of rhetoric used on Fox News as reported here, and Sarah Palin's "target list"? I don't see how we can avoid thinking that this kind of thing is thoughtless, immature, malicious, or some combination of the three. The figureheads of this tendency come across as crazy, not very intelligent, or both, but behind them are some extremely intelligent and presumably sane people, such as the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch. These people are often described as libertarians, but libertarians are starry-eyed idealists, smitten by the wonder of liberty. (Or so I try to think of them.) No idealist decided (or approved the decision) to use "Fair and Balanced" as the slogan for an organization with a clear conservative bias. This is cynicism reveling in itself.

So I don't think we can expect this shooting to lead to any lasting changes in the rhetorical strategy of the right-wing. It is part of their ideology that only the person who pulls the trigger is responsible. Meanwhile their strategy will continue to be to do all they can to create an atmosphere in which people will want to shoot at their opponents. So far as this is cynical and malicious, rather than just stupid, the shooting will be taken to show that their rhetorical strategy is working. Let's hope none of it is deliberate.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Blog news

I'm working on a post that has veered from Coetzee to swear words.  Hopefully I'll get it under control soon.  In the meantime, here is some news about blogs you might not know about:

  • Susan Sterrett (of Wittgenstein Flies a Kite fame) is starting a blog called matters of proportion
  • DuckRabbit (which is always good) is promising to start up again, just when I had deleted it from my bookmarks
  • I don't have links in the sidebar to any foreign language blogs, but Orienteringsforsøk by Vidar Halgunset and Betänkligheter by Lars Hertzberg are worth reading, even if you have to rely on Google Translate to understand them
  • Thanks to Michael Cholbi at In Socrates' Wake I've discovered Worst Professor Ever, who is no longer a professor and has some interesting thoughts on why she chose to leave academia
  • She also has some criticisms of academic conferences, as does Jon Cogburn.  There might be good reasons for big conferences like the three APA meetings, but I much prefer (and think I get more out of) smaller, more narrowly focused ones.  That seems too obvious to make into a blog post of its own though. 

Monday, January 3, 2011

Essence and existence

A quick glance at Jon Cogburn's recent APA paper surprised me.  Cogburn contrasts Bertrand Russell's view, according to which "only our words are vague, not the world they describe," with Schopenhauer's.  Cogburn calls Russell's kind of vagueness "R-vagueness" and writes:
R-vagueness should be contrasted with S-vagueness, named for Schopenhauer, who, in a representative passage early in The World as Will and Representation, argues that our ability to interpret facial expressions depends upon concepts that are unable to capture the subtleties of such expressions (1989: 56-7). For Schopenhauer, the minutia of facial expressions is too extensive for our concepts to ever catch up to them, and he compares them to a mosaic having sharply defined colour boundaries that represent gradual changes in hue. Likewise, in the typical neo-Kantian tradition, concepts are thought of as precise and the perceived reality (“intuitions”) to which they apply is thought of as vague.
Later he says that "one can view S-vagueness in a way closer to Schopenhauer’s own perspective, as the reverse of Russell’s view."

When I say I'm surprised I don't mean that Cogburn has got Schopenhauer wrong. It's just that I think of Schopenhauer as denying that reality can be vague (although I suppose noumenal reality is about as vague as it gets). Here's the passage I think of in connection with this, from On the Freedom of the Will:
Here one must be reminded that every existence presupposes an essence, must have a definite nature. It cannot exist and yet be nothing, it cannot be something like the ens metaphysicum, that is, a thing which simply is and no more than is, without any definitions and properties, and consequently, without a definite way of acting which flows from them. As little as an essence yields a reality without an existence (as Kant expounded in the familiar example of the 100 talers), just as little can an existence do this without an essence. For every thing-in-being must have a nature which is essential and peculiar to it, in virtue of which it is what it is, which this being always maintains, and whose manifestations are called forth of necessity by causes; while on the other hand this nature itself is by no means the effect of those causes, nor can it be modified by them. But all this is just as true of man and his will as of all other beings in nature. He too has an essence in addition to existence, that is, fundamental properties which make up his character and require only an outside inducement in order to reveal themselves. Consequently, to expect that a man should act one time in one way, another time quite differently, in response to the same cause, would be no different than to expect that the same tree which bore cherries this summer should bear pears in the next. Freedom of the will, when carefully analyzed, means an existence without an essence, which means that something is and at the same time is nothing, which in turn means is not, and consequently is a self-contradiction.
This makes an interesting contrast with Sartre's existentialism ("existence precedes essence"), but also seems to deny that (phenomenal) reality could be vague or indeterminate. Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, or perhaps he contradicts himself in The World as Will and Representation. Or, very possibly, I'm misunderstanding what it means for reality to be vague. I'll have to check.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy New Year

Normal blogging will resume next week. In the meantime, here are a few unrelated points:

1. Happy New Year!

2. This looks like a dream conference. I'll be spending a lot of time trying to think what I can write to get a paper accepted so that I can go.

3. I'm likely also to spend some time thinking about Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country. It's just about the perfect novel for me: short, philosophical, tragic, and horrifically violent. And it cries out for interpretation, being seemingly full of references to Wittgenstein, Dostoevsky, Kafka, T. S. Eliot, and so many others that I wonder both how many I have missed and how many I am only imagining.

4. Taking a cue from Jean Kazez, here are the top posts from this blog from 2010:

  1. The argument from tigers    11 comments, 873 Pageviews
  2. Against nature   12 comments, 107 Pageviews
  3. An idea of a university   7 comments, 103 Pageviews
  4. Generic blog post   79 Pageviews
  5. Does New Jersey moral philosophy corrupt youth?   8 comments, 48 Pageviews
  6. Abstract mysticism   10 comments, 47 Pageviews
  7. Letter to the editor   12 comments, 42 Pageviews
  8. Wonder-Safety-Guilt   12 comments, 42 Pageviews
  9. Philosophy & Animal Life III   16 comments, 40 Pageviews
  10. Total nonsense  10 comments, 37 Pageviews

Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting.

5. I don't have a top ten of movies, books, or albums from 2010, but the one song from the past year that really caught on in our house is this: