Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start

Richard Joyce's The Myth of Morality consists roughly of three parts, each of roughly three chapters. In the first part he argues that morality involves an error, namely the belief that there are things one must not do, regardless of one's desires or interests. In the second part he explores the relation between morality and rationality, as well as the evolution of morality (and how we probably came to have the false beliefs we know as moral). In the third (which I haven't read yet) he argues for fictionalism, the belief that moral beliefs are useful, and therefore should be kept, even though they are false. It's all a bit like Kant on religion, a bit like Anscombe on the moral 'ought', and a bit like early analytic philosophy (in relating ethics to literature), which makes it interesting to me, but it also seems badly wrong. So I want to investigate. Yesterday I posted more or less random thoughts on chapter 2, which turned out not to be the best way to begin. Today's post will probably still be a bit random, but at least it will have the organizational virtue of beginning at the beginning. To the preface.

Moral discourse, Joyce says in the second sentence of the preface, is "fundamentally flawed." It is, he thinks, like talk about phlogiston or witches. He goes on, on the next page, to say that:
The whole point of a moral discourse is to evaluate actions and persons with a particular force, and it is exactly this notion of force which turns out to be so deeply troublesome.
Maybe it's this notion of moral discourse that leads to all the problems, but I'll try not to jump to too many conclusions. Alice Crary might have something to say about this conception of morality, though.

Fictionalism, he continues, involves using the discourse in question (in this case, moral discourse) but neither asserting nor believing its propositions. (I sense the need for Frege-style judgment-strokes and content-strokes.) The fictionalist uses moral language in something like the way that a story-teller uses sentences that she knows to be untrue (see Frege on Odysseus). It is also, he says, like the use that the Dorze of Ethiopia make of the idea that leopards are Christian animals and observe the fast days of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (information that Joyce got from Dan Sperber's work, apparently). That is, they say they believe this, but they still protect their animals just as much on fast days as on any other day when leopards might threaten them. So they don't believe it in a naive way.

Since this is just the preface I'm talking about I'll offer impressions rather than conclusions. But my impression is: so close and yet so far. Fascinating though. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Myth of Morality

I've recently been reading some of the papers from the conference in Chicago on Wittgenstein and ethics, which are all interesting in different ways (I sometimes feel as though the best papers are the ones that say the least, but there's something odd about that thought/feeling), and today I started reading Richard Joyce's The Myth of Morality, so the two are coming together in my mind, even if there is little connection in reality. I think there is a connection, though, which I'll try to explore in a post or three.

To start with, here are some things that Joyce says in chapter 2 (I read the preface and chapter 1 long enough ago that I'll have to review before saying anything about them) that strike me as being questionable or else just wrong. I'm not talking about these as an exercise in shooting fish in a barrel (if you think Joyce is obviously very wrong) or big game hunting (if you think he's much closer to the truth than that), but as a first attempt to case the joint or sniff out potential weak points in an argumentative structure with some promising foundations (e.g. the influence of Philippa Foot, who was influenced in turn by Anscombe).

On p. 31 Joyce announces that the task of chapter 2 is to clarify the inadequate response "Because you mustn't" to the question "Why musn't I do what's wrong?" The problem, it seems to me, begins when the child we are asked to imagine is told not to pinch another child "because it's wrong." (Of course it might really begin when the child wants to know why he can't pinch another child, or when he gets the urge to pinch, or when human nature became sadistic in this way, but I'll leave that aside for now.) That just isn't a reason, it seems to me. Nor is it a likely bit of dialogue. "Because it hurts" is both more likely to be said (if parents I know are typical) and more like a genuine reason not to pinch others. On p. 77 Joyce says that the theory of reasons he defends "understands reasons only as means to an agent's ends," but this seems misguided to me, given that the fact that an action's hurting others is a reason not to engage in that action. There is something wrong with you if you don't see this. (And if you don't see it then in a sense it is not part of your world, in which case your world is smaller than that of someone who does see it, which is an idea that has a Tractarian flavor to it.)

I think the following passage might be telling:
Of course, concerning Nazis we might not say "You ought not to have done that," for this sounds altogether too weak to capture the outrage -- rather, we appeal to the language of "evil" and "bestiality." But the "ought" statement is implied by the stronger language -- evil is, at the very least, something we ought not be.
This suggests a scale or ladder (am I overdoing the Tractatus references yet?) with lesser evils at the bottom and greater ones near the top, or else a kind of onion of badness with mild evil in the center and greater evils on the outside, containing the lesser degrees within them. Language that does not really apply to great evils is then taken to be of the right kind but (merely) the wrong degree. I think this misses some of the richness, the diversity, of what can be recognized in our language. Joyce moves not only from milder language to stronger but also from the second person to the third. If you were talking to a Nazi would you tell them that what they had done was evil or bestial? You might, especially if you were struggling to find suitable words, but wouldn't these really be just as weak as saying "You ought not to have done that"? If you were to scold them I think you might have to resort to swearing or spitting, but scolding Nazis itself seems wrongheaded. I'm not sure there is anything to say. I think I would have nothing to say, anyway. The Nazis are such a paradigm of evil that attempting to express the evil of his ways to a Nazi would seem to be like attempting to express the redness of red or the obviousness of the most obvious truth one can think of.

This might not be true of an actual Nazi. Think of someone who joined the party but never took part in any of its crimes. He might feel that he really didn't do anything much wrong. There would be things you could say to someone like this, and things he might say in response. A real conversation could be had. Philosophers' Nazis are not like this. They are chosen because they are platonically evil. But then what does a sentence like "The Nazis were evil" mean? Not much, I think, unless it is being said to a child who is only just learning about the Nazis. The evil of the Nazis is like the immemorial age of the Earth, something that goes without saying. Except that it so goes without saying that it makes no sense to say it. By which I mean: it isn't clear what saying it would (could) be. What could be communicated by uttering the words "The Nazis were evil"? Well, anything you like. But what would be communicated thereby? It would, obviously, depend on the details of the situation, but it's hard to imagine circumstances in which these words told an adult something about the morality of the behavior we associate with the Nazis.

On p. 48 Joyce writes that "whatever kind of existence moral obligations have, it is a type which we are familiar with from other frameworks already accepted." So asking whether they exist is not like asking whether numbers exist, he thinks. And this is because moral obligations only exist if reasons for performing moral acts exist, and we know what reasons are. If x morally ought to phi, then x has a reason to phi, Joyce says. But this reason would typically be thought of as itself moral, wouldn't it? Hence not the same as regular reasons. So his attempt to avoid a possible Carnapian objection (roughly: within mathematics it is obvious that numbers exist; outside mathematics the question can only mean is mathematics worth bothering with; and the same goes for talk of moral obligations inside and outside morality) doesn't look as successful to me as it does to him.

I was going to talk about chapter 3 as well, but I think this is enough for today.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Mounce on Winch and Anscombe

I had a feeling I wasn't going to agree entirely with Howard Mounce's paper in the latest Philosophical Investigations. The paper is mostly about Winch on the Good Samaritan story. Winch says that the Samaritan sees something different from what the Levite and the priest see. Mounce raises doubts about this, which is fair enough. But he says some more questionable things too.

He claims (on p. 244) that Anscombe thinks that the idea of an absolute or unconditional ought depends on the idea of divine law for its sense. I'm not sure that this is what she says though. Does she talk about an absolute ought at all? (In what follows I'm relying on my memory, but you can check what she says here.) She talks about the special moral sense of ought, and suggests that this makes no sense outside a divine law context, but she also discusses the possibility of moral oughts based on social norms or on nature. Her objection to these seems to be that they would be bad, not that the idea makes no sense. Mounce goes on to say that the unconditional "use of ought depends on the idea of divine law for its very sense." But I'm not sure that Anscombe thinks it makes any sense at all. Mounce doesn't say what he means by 'unconditional,' although it seems to be interchangeable with 'absolute.'

If he means 'absolute' in the sense of having no possible exceptions, then Anscombe might disagree. Take the rule against murder. Like the rest of us, Anscombe regards murder as out of the question. So this might look like an exceptionless rule. But what if you're Abraham and God tells you to murder Isaac? Anscombe objects to those who think in advance that murder might be something we should not rule out, but I don't think she would necessarily insist that Abraham tell God to take a hike.

If Mounce means 'absolute' in the sense of having no possible foundation or justification then, again, I think Anscombe might disagree. There are things that a theist can say to someone who asks why we should obey God. These include things about God's nature, things about the relationship between God and humanity described in the Bible, and things about the specific things that God is said to have commanded.

On pp. 244-45 Mounce claims that "many philosophers" (he mentions Mackie, Rorty, Williams, and Nietzsche) "have agreed with Anscombe" that "without the idea of God, our values must be seen as relative." Where does she say this? Where does Rorty agree with Anscombe? What, to get to the point, does Mounce mean by 'relative' here? "Not absolute," perhaps, but he hasn't explained that term ('absolute') either, as far as I can see. If Mounce thinks that Anscombe is a sort of deontologist who regards the only coherent alternative as relativism (in the PH 101 sense of 'relativism') then he is way off, it seems to me. Her objection to consequentialism is not that it is incoherent or a form of relativism. Her objection is that it is corrupt. And if she thought that only divine law theories of ethics made sense then she surely would not have recommended Aristotelianism as she did. This seems so obvious that I think it cannot be a relevant objection to what Mounce means. But it looks like a relevant objection to what he says.

Two last objections. One: on p. 247 Mounce claims that "the attitude exemplified by the parable" of the good Samaritan is "hardly discernible in the species before the existence of Christianity." One wonders how anyone understood Jesus' parable if that were so. Also, see Leviticus 19:34: “The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”      

Two: in the last footnote Mounce writes that "it is obviously absurd to judge Him in terms of good and evil, since He is the source of that very distinction." Judging God seems more wrong than absurd, but what about the time when God was supposedly put on trial? There is a play based on this event, which I think was reported by Primo Levi. Supposedly a group of rabbis in a concentration camp tried God, found Him guilty, and then went off to pray. This is an interesting story, but is it absurd? Maybe, but I suspect not quite in the sense that Mounce means. And certainly many believers think it makes perfect sense to judge God to be good. Maybe they are confused. But I don't think it's obvious that Mounce is right about this.  

Friday, June 24, 2011

Cartesian idol

Over at New APPS, Mohan Matthen writes:
You are standing in a large room. Above you, there looms a large red sphere suspended from the ceiling. When you look at the sphere, you are subject to a certain visual experience: call this experience E. For the sake of simplicity, think of E as an event in the Cartesian soul. E has certain phenomenal properties: it is an instance of phenomenal RED, of phenomenal LARGE, and so on.  To be clear, these phenomenal properties are characteristics of E. Traditionally, empiricists take experiences such as to be the ultimate source of empirical knowledge. This is the infamous Myth of the Given.
When a human subject has an experience like E, s/he tends to arrive at the belief that there is a large red sphere above. What explains this? A legitimate question, surely. There are two mental events here: an experience E, followed by the onset of a belief. Moreover, there is a pattern: experiences of the same phenomenal type lead to beliefs with the same type of content. Why?

According to Donald Davidson, E causes O.
This all seems horribly wrong to me, but maybe it's another case of my needing to read Davidson. Here are the protests I want to make while reading this:

  1. This is a very unlikely scenario. Why not pick a more normal experience, if it is ordinary experience that we want to understand?
  2. Why say that "you are subject to a certain visual experience" rather than, say, "you see something"?
  3. The Cartesian soul is introduced "for the sake of simplicity"!?
  4. The experience has phenomenal properties?
  5. Seeing a red ball leads to, or is followed by arrival at, belief that there is a red ball. Really? How long does this take?
  6. "Surely" it is legitimate to ask for an explanation of this alleged process or sequence of events?
  7. There are two mental events here. Says who?
  8. And one is supposed to cause the other. Is that true? And in what sense of 'cause'?
Here's a different, hopefully more realistic, example. Several times a day at this time of year I look outside to see whether there are any animals in the backyard. Let's say I see a groundhog. Let's say that I now believe there is a groundhog in the backyard. Are there really two mental events here? There are two verbs: see & believe. But is my believing a separate event from my seeing? I don't think so. I see, and I don't doubt my seeing. Why not say that it is my sanity that causes me to believe what I see? Or common sense?

Talk of experience might be meant to allow for possible hallucinations. Let's say that I find some mushrooms in my backyard and decide to eat them. I feel funny, and wonder whether they might be hallucinogenic. Now I look outside and, as well as a groundhog, I see that the ground appears to be moving like the surface of the sea. Is the groundhog real? I can't be sure, but real or not, I have an experience as of a groundhog that is plump, furry, etc. So is talk of phenomenal properties of the experience OK now? It still seems misleading to me, as if there were something that I see but this something might be physical or merely mental. Which implies that there are mental objects, which in turn implies that dualism of some kind is true. I don't want to imply that. If I'm seeing things, i.e. hallucinating, then I'm not seeing things, i.e. there are no things that I am seeing. Describing what I see is reporting on my symptoms, not describing the properties of some non-physical object. Or at least, I think that way of putting it is very misleading. A merely hallucinated groundhog cannot cause anything, including my belief in its existence.

I assume that Matthen is using Cartesianism as a way to make the debate clear, but perhaps in doing so he has revealed a dangerous flaw in its foundation. On the other hand, wouldn't Davidson and/or McDowell have spotted this? So I'm not sure what is going on. Matthen goes on to say:
I may experience the world as containing a large red sphere above and in front of me, but I am not forced to believe that the world is actually this way. My experience gives me reason to believe so, but I must evaluate this experience before I form a belief. Moreover, I am not forced to operate with the repertoire of concepts that experience provides: I may modify these or construct new ones.
I disagree. I think (and here I am theorizing, so I am extra likely to be wrong) that we believe what we experience by default. These beliefs can then be evaluated, as when I have eaten dodgy mushrooms and suspect an hallucination. But I don't think experience can be evaluated in that sense. It can be evaluated, I think, in these two senses: i) some part of my experience stands out as odd in some way, it doesn't fit, and I think about how to make sense of it (e.g. the strange object I see through the window might turn out to be a reflection in the window), ii) someone asks me what something was like and I give an evaluative account of the experience (this would not involve describing the phenomenal properties of the experience, it seems to me--I'm thinking of something like this: "You met the President! Wow, what was it like?" If I say it was exciting or no big deal or whatever then I am describing what the experience was like, but not by listing its phenomenal properties). Realizing that something is a reflection is not like realizing that the ground is not really moving like waves though. The former is finding how to see what is in front of you, while the latter is realizing that you cannot properly see what is in front of you. You then see the reflection as a reflection, whereas the apparent motion of the ground is something you simply have to remind yourself is not real.

In short I think that beliefs are not caused by perceptions. They are (trusted) perceptions. What if I get my belief not from direct perception (i.e. seeing it with my own eyes) but from a report on the evening news? A graphic shows the Dow Jones index gaining 50 points while the newsreader reports the same thing. I believe the report (without evaluating or thinking about it). Does seeing the graphic cause my believing it? Does hearing the newsreader cause me to believe what she says? Believing is something like a disposition to behave in certain ways (hmm--is this a sign that I'm going wrong?), but I would rather say that the news report disposes me to behave in those ways than that it causes such a disposition in me. My pension fund is related to the Dow, so if it goes up I might say "Oh good." But there isn't some thing (a belief) that causes such utterances and that is in turn caused by my hearing that the Dow has gone up, I think. Rather, I say "Oh Good" because I  hear and see the report. There is one step too many in the causal chain that has beliefs caused by perceptions or experiences, unless I am misunderstanding the notion of causality that is supposed to be involved.  

My problem is not really with Matthen, which is one reason why I'm not posting some version of this as a comment on his post (the other is consciousness of my ignorance of the literature in this area). His presentation of the issue seems fairly standard (judging by this, for example). It's the standard conception of the issue, or perhaps just the issue itself, that seems off to me. But that is quite possibly because I'm judging by simplified, introductory accounts of the issue.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sophie Scholl

Clive James calls Sophie Scholl something like the best human being since Jesus Christ, which is ridiculous but also hard to argue with. The film named after her is surprisingly worth watching, I thought. Surprising because you might expect it to be both boringly predictable and depressing. But it isn't really either, at least not as much I had feared. The general story goes as you would expect (one young woman does not bring down the Nazi government), but the details were sufficiently unknown to me for me to be able to wonder would she be arrested for this act?, would she be let go this time?, would she stick to her story here or admit the truth?, etc. And as the answers to such questions are revealed you see someone decide to stand up for the truth and what is right. She is not presented as a holy will who can do no wrong. She is a human being who will not go along with the human-faced evil that is literally (in the form of her interrogator) staring her in the face. And this is not depressing but inspiring.  

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Anscombe and Davidson

I really have nothing to add to the comments thread, but I feel that I ought to link to this discussion over at Leiter Reports. It features good comments by Daniel Lindquist, Dave Maier, and Jimmy Doyle (who was the other Englishman at the University of Virginia Philosophy Department when I was there). If Stoutland really implies that Anscombe believes in Aristotelian physics then that would be unfortunate, but I suspect that he means to imply no such thing. I haven't read any of the book in question, but I think it needs to go on my "to read" list.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Cultural Amnesia

I haven't finished reading Clive James's Cultural Amnesia yet, but that kind of thing didn't stop me reviewing the top ten movies of 2010, so why should it stop me now? I'll return to the book if I find anything new to say later.

First, what is it about? I'm not sure even James could answer that one. It's organized by name in an A-Z format, as if it were a reference book about major figures (not the major figures though--Shakespeare doesn't have an entry, for instance) in Western culture. Each entry begins with a page or two about the person, then gives a quotation, and then ends with an essay on the quotation. Sometimes this essay has little to do with the person quoted (the essay on Peter Altenberg, for instance, is mostly about love and sexual attraction, claiming that "love hits with full force straight away" (at least for men), which I find implausible). Sometimes it has a lot to do with the person quoted, and thus feels repetitive of the introductory part of the entry. So sometimes it's a book about quotations, and sometimes it's a book about people. Every fifty pages or so (the book is about 850 pages long) James will mention in passing that such-and-such a book is one that all students should read, or all students of history or literature or whatever should read, as if his aim is to construct a syllabus. He also recommends books in foreign languages that are good for beginners. He tells us how many of these languages he has learned, how many famous people he has met, how many hours he has spent in obscure secondhand bookstores and cafes reading obscure secondhand books, and what editions, with what bindings, he has in his collection. So it's a little bit like reading something called "Why I Read Such Excellent Books."

Except that he never really gets to 'why'. So I find myself wondering what the point of it all is, which is disturbing, because I don't doubt the excellence of the books. It should be obvious why anyone would read them, why everyone ought to read them. But James make me lose sight of this obviousness. Very often the conclusions he draws seem to amount to no more than one or two of the following: this is a really good book; the Nazis were horrible; the Communists were horrible. He claims at one point that most students today don't know who Hitler was. If that were true, then the point of a book like this would be much more evident. But I really don't think it is true. And yet Coetzee has called it: "Aphoristic and acutely provocative: a crash course in civilization." Which makes me wonder whether a crash course is really what one wants when it comes to civilization, and reminds me that one way to be provocative is to annoy.  

But I'm not saying that the book is worthless or even bad. The best entries, it has seemed to me so far (I'm on p. 571), are those on Hegel and Lichtenberg. Let me say more about James on Hegel to give you a feel for the book, if nothing else.

Talking about Hegel leads James to Walter Benjamin whose work, James says, contains "moments of explanatory intensity for which the word 'poetry' is hard to withhold, unless we call them philosophy instead" (p. 307). I like that quite a bit. But then on the next page a sentence begins: "Reading Croce day after day in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence...," which seems too show-offy to me (I'm putting it mildly). But then he relates Croce's saying that even the flowers have a history, although only they know it, to Shakespeare's lines:
How with such rage shall beauty hold a plea
Whose action is no stronger than a flower? 
And writes of the connection:
These connections between phrases, sentences and lines across time might seem tenuous, but I know nothing more surely than that the collective mentality of humanism is made up of them. They give the mentality of humanism its coherence and independence: two of the characteristics which the totalitarian mechanism always makes it an early business to destroy. [...] In normal times, the aim of scholarship is to bring out the meaning of a seemingly passing remark in its full richness. In dark times, the aim is to confine meaning to a sanctioned path, or eliminate it altogether.
And we could connect that with the preface to Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations and its reference to the "darkness of these times," which would be another instance of the kind of free association of possibly related ideas that reading, learning, poetry, and play allow for, that are essential to what James means by humanism, and that neither mechanism nor totalitarianism tolerate. This is what I think James means to celebrate, even while he celebrates his own fortunate life and himself. I'm not sure how good the celebration turns out to be, but it certainly has its moments.   

Monday, June 20, 2011

Midnight in Paris

A few nights ago I saw Woody Allen's latest movie, which is lightweight but fun, and features lots of very appealing views of Paris. While I was watching it some thoughts I've been having lately seemed to come together, so let's see if I can connect the dots now, in the light of day.

Larkin said once that there are two types of poetry: the kind that tries to say something new, and the kind that tries to say something old in a new way. (He aimed for the latter.) It seems to me that all speech/writing/thought is like this. If you aren't saying something (that at least seems to you to be) new or putting an old idea in a new way then you aren't really saying anything at all. You are parroting others, being a mouthpiece for them.

Larkin's preference for new ways of putting old ideas is somewhat like Wittgenstein's ideas that more facts won't solve the big questions of life and that living longer (even forever) won't help make life meaningful either. What you need (if anything) is a new way to think of the facts or to talk about life, a new way to see or conceive of things. I think he takes it as given that it must be possible to live a meaningful life at all times, so, while culture or civilization might make a big difference to how you live, when you live is irrelevant to whether it's possible for you to live a good life. It always is possible. (And it's always possible to fail, too: nothing, like something, happens anywhere, as Larkin says.) But it takes imagination or a special kind of gift to express yourself in the right way. Which I think connects with this:
I think I summed up my attitude to philosophy when I said: Philosophy ought really to be written only as poetic composition. It must, as it seems to me, be possible to gather from this how far my thinking belongs to the present, future or past. For I was thereby revealing myself as someone who cannot do what he would like to be able to do.
(Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, ed. G. H. von Wright (in collaboration with Heikki Nyman), trans. Peter Winch, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1980, p. 24e.)
Midnight in Paris is about a man who cannot do what he would like to able to do, because he feels that he belongs to a different time and place (Paris in the 1920s). But then he finds a way to do it, so all ends well. It's not very deep (with possibly one exception, every character is two-dimensional), but it's optimistic and it looks nice.

Friday, June 17, 2011

New issue of Philosophical Investigations out, with the table of contents available here. It looks like a good one, with a great paper by Matt Pianalto and another one (that I haven't yet read) by Howard Mounce on Anscombe and Winch. The abstract of that paper says that, "Anscombe had argued that the notion of an absolute ought presupposes the idea of divine law," which doesn't sound quite right to me. It is only an abstract, though, so I'll hold off till I've read the whole thing. 

There's other good-looking stuff there too, including a review by Bill Brenner of a collection of Essays Out of Swansea (that's the subtitle).

Thursday, June 16, 2011

New College for the Humanities

While I was away the news came out that Anthony Grayling is setting up a private college as part of the University of London system which is intended a) to offer a world class education to students unable to get in to Oxford or Cambridge, and b) to make money. The news has sparked a lot of opposition in Britain and some support in the United States (see here if you haven't already). I thought I had left it too late to weigh in, and perhaps I have, but there is an article about it in today's Independent in which Richard Garner* asks:
how can it be defensible to oppose something that seeks to promote quality in education, and that is publicly committed to accessibility (the aim is over 30 per cent of students on financial support)?
The answer is surely obvious even to him. Something that seeks to promote quality but does not succeed can easily be opposed. And something that is publicly committed to accessibility can be opposed if it is not privately, or in all honesty, so committed.

This kind of thing is hard to take seriously too:
I have brought together a distinguished group of academics whose experience, expertise and advice, together with their commitment to visit the college and lecture to its students, are guarantees of the college's seriousness of purpose.
Seriousness is guaranteed by a commitment by distinguished academics to visit the college? True, they will lecture while there, but it looks as though they will be giving several guest lectures each, not teaching whole courses.

Too much has been written about the proposal for me to have read it all, but I'll say a couple of things anyway, just in case they shed some light for someone. Defenders of the new college seem perplexed by the opposition, which they see as motivated by sheer prejudice. How can we know it will be bad until it gets off the ground? And how can another option for students be a bad thing? The first question reveals a consequentialist outlook, the second a kind of market liberalism. If opposition to the proposed college is not mere prejudice, then it looks as though it must be something like opposition to that kind of (i.e. consequentialist, 'marketist') thinking. And I think that's what most of the opposition is, i.e. opposition to the idea that there should be a market for higher education at all. Such a market, after all, favors the rich (or their children), and is unlikely to work as markets are supposed to because of the lack of information available to 'consumers'.

When I went to college in Britain in the 1980s it was free to anyone able to get in. In fact, we got paid to go. Not much, but enough to pay for rent and food. Of course there are problems with such a system. Many people disliked paying taxes to support students, and the rich were still at an advantage because they could afford to pay for the kind of education that helps you get in to the best colleges. My private high school offered an entire term devoted to nothing but preparing students for the entrance exams at Oxford and Cambridge. Most students don't get that kind of help. But Grayling's proposed college does nothing that I can see to avoid problems like this.

(A note on British private schools. Some are called public, I think because they are open to anyone who can pass the entrance exam (if any) and afford the fees. Some are called private, or independent, because, well, that's what they are. So it isn't the whole truth, although it's often said, that "in Britain private schools are called public schools"--only the fanciest ones are.)

The result in my day was that, while the rich were certainly over-represented, there was real diversity at places like Oxford and Cambridge. My group of friends included both unbelievably wealthy people who went to famous boarding schools and working class people whose parents worked in factories or were unemployed. Most people were the sons and daughters of doctors, lawyers, etc., but there were enough people from other classes to be noticeable. The rich are the most noticeable, though, because that's who people expect to see at Oxford and Cambridge and because they can afford to go out partying loudly while everyone else is in the library or just too broke to go to the pub. So people tend to think that the rich are already getting an unfairly large piece of the higher educational pie (for both good reasons and bad), and a new college that is twice the price of Oxford and Cambridge, offering some financial support to less than a third of its students, seems to be giving the rich even more.        

Won't more places at the top for the rich mean more places for everyone else elsewhere? Maybe so. But is elsewhere-than-the-top a fair place for the non-rich to have to go? And will every other college offering humanities courses stay open, or will some close, or stop offering humanities courses?

It's hard to think about all this without mentioning the importance of socio-economic class in Britain. Things used to be simple. Thanks to an exam taken around age 11, working class people (mostly) went to high schools that prepared them for a life of manual work, while middle class people (or whoever passed the exam, but it was mostly the non-working-class) went to schools that prepared them for middle-class jobs and/or university. University was for the intellectual elite, but it was free and so you could 'escape' the working class that way, even though cultural factors (peer influence, etc.) meant that not that many actually did. So the "eleven plus" exam was scrapped (in most places) and there was only one type of free high school for anyone to go to. And university remained free.

But private (and "public") high schools remained, giving middle-class and rich kids an advantage, and most people still did not go to university. So more universities were created and more people encouraged to attend them. This made it too expensive for the government to be able to allow students to go for free, so the student grant was ended and fees were introduced. It looks as though an attempt to break down class divisions ended up reinforcing them, at least to some extent, because less well off people are reluctant to take out loans to pay for college, and now you do have to pay for it. This is a trend not only in higher education but in social mobility and social divisions that Grayling's college is now (regarded by many people as) part of. This, then, is one reason why people object: the project is seen as naturally at odds with a just society (even if it turns out somehow to make things better).

So much for a market in higher education favoring the rich. Another problem is with information. The Independent says here that the top ten Philosophy departments in the UK are:
1. Oxford
2. London School of Economics (LSE)
3. Cambridge
4. Durham
5. University College London
6. Bristol
7. King's College London
8. St Andrews
9. York
10. Newcastle
Compare the Philosophical Gourmet, where Durham does not make the top 15 and Newcastle is not listed at all:
  1. Oxford
  2. St. Andrews/Stirling
  3. Cambridge
  4. University College, London
  5. King's College, London
  6. Birkbeck College, London
  7. Sheffield
  8. LSE
  9. Nottingham, Reading, Warwick (all equal) 
How are students to know which departments (other than Oxford) are best? (And what about Essex, East Anglia, and Southampton, which are surely superb places for those with the right interets?)

Finally, what about the US system? Isn't Grayling's move a step toward that model, and isn't it a good one? Higher education does seem to work pretty well in the US, and Grayling's college does take the UK closer to the US system. But the UK is not the US. Class distinctions are not a problem in the same way. I think they are a problem in both countries, but not in the same way. The problem in the US is (in part) a lack of awareness about class and a false sense of how easy it is to move up or down the ladder. In the UK (some) people are painfully aware of the importance of class. This means that it hurts when something that appears to benefit the rich disproportionately happens, regardless of whether it ends up so helping them or not. The closest US equivalent would be something that seemed bound to help white people but not (nearly so much) African American people. Regardless of the outcome, it would be an insensitive move.

Another difference is that in the US people feel loyalty toward their colleges and give money to them. In the UK such loyalty is pretty much an alien concept. People are no more likely to give to their old college or university than they are to their old high school, or their local hospital, or post office. All these things are valued, but they aren't thought of as part of people's identity. So attempts to fund UK higher ed. in the same way as US higher ed. are likely to be less than completely successful.

All that said, I like what I've heard about the curriculum at the New College of the Humanities (quite a bit of philosophy for everybody, a US-style broad range of subjects, Oxbridge-style tutorials). Maybe other universities will find a way to copy what's best about it. 

A lot of the above is simplified, and there is a lot more to say, but I think that's enough for now.

*Or is it AC Grayling? It's written as if by Grayling, and in comments Mike Otsuka responds as if Grayling wrote it. But Garner's name is the one that appears at the end.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

There is no doubt whatsoever

Speaking of Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein, in Allan Janik's chapter on Schopenhauer in his Assembling Reminders, he writes of the "dramatic swing" to questions about the meaning of life that can be seen in Wittgenstein's notebooks in July 1916 (and of related discussions elsewhere in these notebooks) that, "There is no doubt whatsoever that these new philosophical questions were prompted by Schopenhauer..." (pp. 75-76). Klagge's view is that they were prompted by the mortal danger that Wittgenstein was in at the time, and I think he is about as certain of this as Janik is of his thesis.

Probably both are right. Wittgenstein thought about death, God, the meaning of life, and so on, because he was in a war and liable to be killed any time. But he did so in Schopenhauerian terms because he was so steeped in Schopenhauer's work. Janik suggests (p. 95) that Wittgenstein probably knew not only The World as Will and Representation but also Aphorisms for Living Wisely and On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason pretty well. No one knows, though, as he acknowledges.

I would conclude that, as I say, probably both are right, but maybe just one is, and maybe neither is. (I enjoyed Janik's book, by the way, and wouldn't call it "gruesome" as the lone reviewer on amazon does.)

Are you really really really really free?

Warning: non-stop spoilers from here on.

On the flight back from Vegas I got to watch The Adjustment Bureau, which I had wanted to see since Jean Kazez mentioned it. (The link goes to where she discusses the movie, not to the post I read about it, which I think only mentioned that she wanted to see it or blog about it.) The film presents a view of God as the good-but-not-perfect head of an understaffed bureaucracy, which might seem Kafkaesque (in a good way) to some people, but mostly seemed stupid (in way that accurately reflects the stupidity of some real believers) to me. But mostly it's a chase movie about free will and love (or a philosophical love story about a chase). It all seemed pretty clumsy and PHIL 101-ish at first, but I think it manages to raise interesting questions even if it doesn't really have anything interesting to say in answer to them.

Here are some of the questions:

  • Is it (or would it be) good for human beings to have free will if they/we use it to fight world wars, commit genocide, develop weapons of mass destruction, and so on?
  • How valuable would free will be if we only had genuine freedom with regard to trivial choices?
  • Are we really free if some agent can make us do what they want should we turn out not to freely choose that option (i.e. what should we make of Frankfurt cases)? 
  • Is 'being all that you can be' more important than love?
  • Is the good of humanity (or the United States) more important than the love of two people for each other? (The Adjustment Bureau suggests not, Casablanca suggests so.) 

Basically the film pits two mentalities against each other, one of them totalitarian, bureaucratic, deterministic, and consequentialistic, the other being romantic and libertarian (in an evaluative sense of the metaphysical sense of that word). I say 'mentalities' because it doesn't pit theories against each other and show one to be better supported or truer than the other. In a sense it tries to show rather than say that its values are better than the others, that humanity requires free will and an evaluation of love above pretty much anything else. It would be inhuman, that is, the movie suggests, to prevent a Barack Obama from being with his Michelle even if that were necessary to ensure that Obama and not some "tool" became President of the most powerful nation on Earth. (I take it, perhaps wrongly, that Matt Damon's character is meant to be a white Obama or non-adulterous JFK.) 

The film doesn't do philosophy in the sense of making arguments (if it does this it does not do it well), but it certainly addresses philosophical issues and makes what might be called a narrative case for particular humanistic/romantic/Catholic kind of view of life. That is, the story (not as written down but as presented in film) engages you (or it did me) and inclines you to think that free will and love are very good things, and that interfering with them would be wrong. Even for the sake of some other good. Perhaps even for a very great good. (Others will call what I'm calling "making a narrative case" either appealing to emotions or pumping intuitions, but I think it's more rational than that.) 

This isn't the same as saying that one thing is more important than another. The film really says nothing about whether love or the greater good or individual development is best. What it 'says' is that a freely made choice to put love first should not be interfered with. So primarily it's saying something about the value of free will. But it uses the value of love to help make its point.

(Then last night I watched A Matter of Life and Death, which is different, but similar enough that it must have influenced The Adjustment Bureau. Again we have a confrontation of human love and an otherworldly, bureaucratic plan that has gone awry. Incidentally, I watched it because it was so high up (number 6) on this list of the best British films. I would say it is good rather than great, but anyone who thinks there have been no great Brtitish films should watch The Third Man and Kes (warning: the accents might be hard work for Americans). For more on Kes see here. The few descriptions I've read of it emphasize its bleakness, but some of them also mention how realistic it is, and the one I've linked to talks about its hope, warmth, and humour. Not that it's a happy story, exactly, but (some) people in England love it (for its sympathetic qualities, not because they love misery), so it isn't all doom and gloom. Just mostly.)    

Monday, June 13, 2011

Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein

In case anybody interested hasn't seen it, Daniel Lindquist at SOH-Dan has a great set of posts about Wittgenstein, ethics, and Schopenhauer here, here, here, here, and here. He's mostly discussing a conference I wasn't at, so I won't add much. I'm (not unpleasantly) surprised to see that Ray Monk is less of a Hackerite than I had thought. The one time I saw him was at a conference put on by Jim Klagge at Virginia Tech, and I thought he was agreeing with Glock. Perhaps he's just polite (or I misunderstood what was going on). I also wouldn't say that Genius and Talent is bad. It's been a while since I read it, but I remember it as being useful (at least) in pointing out passages in Wittgenstein and Schopenhauer that seem related. It is short, so its usefulness is bound to be limited, and I think it read like a dissertation, so it might not be a very mature work, but if no one else really has done much work on this then it's (much) better than the alternatives, i.e. nothing.

As I recall, Schopenhauer's main themes are the world as will, the world as representation, aesthetics, and ethics. I think someone (probably Geach or Anscombe) reported Wittgenstein as saying that he once bought into the idea of the world as representation but never the idea of the world as will. So one place to look for Wittgenstein's response to Schopenhauer is his remarks on solipsism and idealism. Another place would be Wittgenstein's aesthetics and ethics, of course, where he lacks Schopenhauer's platonism and emphasis on compassion (or so it seems to me) but shares his anti-egoism. See probably everything that's been written about Wittgenstein and Buddhism. Schopenhauer also denies that theory can have value in ethics (I think), so Wittgenstein was probably in sympathy with him there too. On the other hand, Schopenhauer is a determinist while Wittgenstein not only rejects belief in the causal nexus but even identifies this belief as the very definition of superstition. And I think he later says somewhere that he had thought of this rejection as the heart of a new philosophy, or something like that. So it was important to him.  

Someone should write another, longer book on the subject. In the meantime, see the links above.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Heaven or Las Vegas

Probably not of much interest, but some thoughts on the trip I just returned from (or: from which I just returned, if you prefer):

Las Vegas was the most convenient place to fly in and out of, and it seemed like somewhere I should see once in my life, but I ended up liking it enough to want to go back. At least, I would be quite happy to go back. Its downside is obvious. Our taxi driver told us that it has the highest unemployment in the country, and we drove past some very seedy motels, various people who looked homeless, and, where other cities would have boxes containing free magazines about local arts and politics, lots of what looked like listings of prostitutes. Just about everything there is fake (most obviously the promises that you will win lots of money at one of the ubiquitous casinos and have sex with a beautiful stranger) or crass (most obviously the way everything there is designed and the constant attempts to sell you tickets to expensive shows). Actually the casinos are not just ubiquitous; they are the Rome to which all roads lead. You cannot get to the elevators from the hotel check-in desk without walking through a casino (even though children are not allowed in gambling areas). You cannot get anywhere without walking through a casino. The sex stuff is pretty much everywhere too: large billboards at the airport advertising things like "Peepshow" and (shirtless) "Men from Down Under," the slogan "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," of course, and even the fortune cookies at the place we had dinner revolved around the idea that we would and should have a one-night stand later.

So what's to like? Partly the crassness itself. With each building on the strip designed without any sensitivity whatsoever to its surroundings the result is a noisy chaos of clamors for your attention. It's like a room full of young children or a page of prose by Martin Amis. And the attempts to charm and seduce are sometimes successful. The Paris and Venetian hotels are like walk-through toy versions of Paris and Venice (including gondolas on a canal on the second floor of the Venetian). I like toys, and these are well made. There are some very good shops, which I'll shop at if I ever win the lottery, and pretty good places to eat. Our hotel had a wonderful swimming pool, which the kids didn't want to leave. And the show we saw was spectacular. So all in all a great place for a short family vacation, especially if you can get (your lovely wife to find) a good deal on your hotel and show tickets.      

Everything else we saw was very different. Zion National Park (pictured below) is a lovely place to hike and ride horses. Bryce canyon was fascinating (though annoyingly crowded in places--I recommend Bristlecone Loop and the Queen's Garden Trail, each of which is easy, provides incredible views, and was uncrowded when we went there). From Tuba City you can visit dinosaur footprints, ancient petroglyphs, and (possibly) the oldest continuously inhabited place in North America

We also visited the wonderful Navajo National Monument and Monument Valley (which is impressive but felt like a tourist trap, and involves driving on an incredibly rutted and pot-holed track). Then the Grand Canyon, where just before we left I saw, to my great delight, a condor flying overhead. Then one night in Sedona and back to Vegas to catch an early flight home (we got up at 4 a.m.--ouch).

Everything we saw was worth seeing, everything we did was worth doing, but the places I most want to return to are Zion, the Grand Canyon, and, funnily enough, Las Vegas.