Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Twee Tuesday II

Blimey. I resurrect my Twee Tuesday theme (which happily never took off) to celebrate the discovery that Peter Momtchiloff is both Commissioning Editor for philosophy with Oxford University Press, UK and known to Mr Zero of The Philosophy Smoker. He was also in Talulah Gosh, Heavenly, and Marine Research, to name only the bands he was in by which I own CDs.

Now to translate this into a book contract.

Who gave you the right to give out the rights?

In After Virtue (p. 69) Alasdair MacIntyre writes that:
there are no [human] rights, and belief in them is one with belief in witches and in unicorns.
The best reason for asserting so bluntly that there are no such rights is indeed of precisely the same type as the best reason which we possess for asserting that there are no witches and the best reason which we possess for asserting that there are no unicorns: every attempt to give good reasons for believing that there are such rights has failed.
He concludes (p. 70) that "natural or human rights [...] are fictions."

I disagree. I suppose that human rights were fictions at some point in time, but only in the sense that creativity was involved in bringing the idea into the world. If 'murder' means wrongful killing then murder is equally a fiction, since the idea that some killing is wrongful had to be created or invented. Such things are not discovered in the way that planets are. Perhaps they are discovered in some sense, but I'm not sure why anyone would claim that wrongs can be discovered while rights cannot be. I might appear to be getting two senses of 'right' mixed up here: the sense of a good deed (as in "two wrongs don't make a right") and the sense of a moral entitlement. But isn't murder wrong precisely because the victim's rights (in the sense of entitlements) are violated by it? Murder is wrong because it wrongs the victim, and this means it is unjust. Which means that it violates his/her rights. At least that is so according to the standard kind of thinking about rights and justice. 

Rights are not like unicorns, because unicorns are physical objects that may or may not be out there, like planets. They might yet turn out to exist, however unlikely this is. Witches are a different case. My grandmother once told me that some relative of ours had been a witch, but by this she meant something like a practitioner of folk medicine who was called a witch. I also attended a talk once by two people who claimed to be witches. From them I gathered that witches are spiritually-inclined, gothic hippies. If someone objects to Harry Potter books and movies on the grounds that they "promote witchcraft," can we just say that no such thing exists?  I would want to know what they meant.  They might mean that Harry Potter stories embody values incompatible with those of Christianity, rightly understood.  And who am I to disagree?  Well, I'm me, that's who, but I have no special right to pronounce what is and what is not the right understanding of Christianity. Witchcraft, like blasphemy (but unlike unicorns), is hard to identify without bringing in value judgments. Rights are, if anything, even more like this.             

So to call human rights a fiction is to make a kind of value judgment, it seems to me. It is to take a stand against talking about human rights. Which seems a bit like speaking against the tide's coming in. This kind of talk is not going to go away. If it should do so then this ought to be for moral or pragmatic reasons, not metaphysical or epistemological ones.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Philosophy and football III

The first summer I spent in the United States I watched a lot of baseball, trying to get into America's favorite game. It didn't work, although I retain my fondness for the Cubs. My attempts to like basketball have been more successful, but I hardly ever watch it any more. My three favorite sports are the three great kinds of football: association, American, and fantasy. (Australian, Gaelic, and rugby football will have to wait for another life.)

Anyway, if you haven't tried association football (aka soccer) yet, now might be the time to do so. It's early in the English season, but it looks as though this year's league might be dominated by two teams from Manchester, each of which is exceptionally good. They beat two of the best other teams in the country this weekend by a combined score of  13 - 3. Not bad.

It's much more fun if you care who wins, though, so here's a quick rundown of who to support (in order of where they stand currently):

  1. Manchester United: lovingly described by Stephen Mulhall, the team was brilliant and young when it was almost wiped out in a plane crash in 1958, then re-built to win the European Cup in 1968, then went bad, bounced back, and has since won the European Cup (or Champions League) twice more, in 1999 and 2008. The current team is once again very young and they play like puppies, full of energy and the unexpected.  
  2. Manchester City: popular with A. W. Moore and Oasis, the team has been great and terrible at times, but is now better than ever, thanks to an enormous (and almost inexplicable) injection of funds from Abu Dhabi
  3. Liverpool: were very good in the '70s and '80s. Also famous for disasters at Heysel and Hillsborough
  4. Chelsea: plaything of the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich 
  5. Wolverhampton Wanderers: former team of "God's footballer," Peter Knowles
  6. Newcastle: famous for its beer and beer-drinkers. Possibly a good choice if you like Thom Brooks
  7. Aston Villa: just dull. 
  8. Wigan: a good choice for fans of George Orwell, perhaps
  9. Stoke: once home to Lemmy and Slash, now associated with ultra-English (i.e. crude) tactics and politics
  10. Bolton: notlob backwards
  11. Everton: the other team from Liverpool
  12. Queen's Park Rangers: popular (I think) with the band Bush
  13. Sunderland: "Your Body is a Wonderland" is a song. "Your body is a Sunderland" would be an insult
  14. Norwich: good for fans of drunk TV chefs, W.G. Sebald, and the excellent philosophy department at UEA 
  15. Swansea: an obvious choice for Wittgensteinians 
  16. Fulham: popular with Lily Allen, Hugh Grant, and fans of Michael Jackson statues
  17. Arsenal: Nick Hornby
  18. West Bromwich Albion: rivals of Aston Villa
  19. Blackburn: good if you like holes 
  20. Tottenham: memorably used to explain the concept of purgatory in the film In Bruges 
Finally, some showing to go with all this saying:

The puppies beat the nouveau riche hirelings that day, but we'll have to wait till May to see who wins in the end. 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Surfacing, or superficial out of superficiality

[Warning: what follows is somewhat experimental. I'm not sure that I really try to say anything very original here, but I do try to put it in an original way. Sometimes when I read it through it appears to make sense, other times, I have little faith that someone else would be able to follow it, or would see the connections that I think are there.]

(I meant to type 'surfaces' rather than 'surfacing,' but I think I like the slip.)

Here's how I write some blog posts: two or three ideas I have or things I read strike me as somehow related and I try to articulate the relation. I suspect these relations are as much invented as discovered, but invention is OK. Today's ingredients: Duck's Roxy Music post, Kelly Dean Jolley's reflections on Wittgenstein's saying that "essence is expressed by grammar," and j.'s thoughts on Wittgenstein on calculating in one's head. Also this. There is also this abandoned post of mine from a few days ago:
Expressing emotion is not like expressing milk. In the latter case, the milk is there before and after the expression. It just changes place. A cry of pain or a look of delight, though, don't move the pain or the delight from inside the body to outside of it. There is no such thing as pain outside a body, and maybe no such thing as delight inside or outside a body.
I can express the pain I feel in my stubbed toe by exclaiming, but this does not get the pain out of my toe (even if I do feel better--the pain does not travel up my leg and out through my mouth). If you hear the pain in my cry you do not hear something that is in my toe (as if you might hear it better if you pressed your ear to my toe), even if the pain in question is in my toe. So if we think of pain as a thing, it will seem to be a very strange kind of thing. It might be better to think of it as not a thing really at all.

So what? Well, something like what goes for pain goes too for thoughts, emotions, and feelings. If these are all weird phenomena that are observable only by their owner then it might seem as though each of us is trapped inside our own body, in an essentially incommunicable world of sensation. Sure, I can tell when you are probably in pain or probably happy, but what your pain or happiness are like, what they really are, is forever beyond my ken. Kant was accused of killing God by reducing him to an unknown x, and there is a sense, I think, in which the reality of other people is denied by this kind of metaphysics or skepticism or whatever we want to call it. Their personhood, one might be tempted to say, is denied by regarding their inner lives as forever unknowable by me. Their status as non-zombies is questioned thereby.

John Searle, as I recall, has 'refuted' behaviorism by encouraging people to pinch their arms and thus prove that pain is real. But if pain is this-sensation-that-I-have-when-I-do-this, then no one else can have it. I can vaguely think that they probably (or even must) have something somehow similar, but this can't mean much to me. (Perhaps they will have an inner life in a secondary sense.) I am then the paradigm, or the host of paradigms, and others are merely inferior copies. Only I have the real thing when it comes to pain, joy, etc. Only I could conceivably have it, since it is defined in terms of my experience. Everyone else is at best a pale copy, a world of ideas to my world of impressions. I am the world of forms, they are caves filled with shadows. I am the only real person. Reality stops at my skin. Everything else is a video game, which, of course, I am stuck playing and might care about. But it can't possibly matter as much as I do.

Everything I do, then, becomes a matter of altering my consciousness, as Sam Harris has almost said. This is one way to make sense of some characteristic features of contemporary life, such as drug use, pornography, and video games. These might sound like solitary pastimes, but you can live solipsistically (as if the world were an experience machine) with others almost as easily as you can alone, and it's usually more fun to do so. They might also sound like typically male pleasures, but stereo-typically female pastimes like shopping could easily be added to the list. (And, of course, plenty of men like 'female' activities and vice versa.) I don't think there is anything essentially gendered about this phenomenon.

In sum, if the ultimate reality is my consciousness or sensations, then everything else is basically just a stimulus. And what stimulates are basically surfaces. So a superficial, two-dimensional life can seem to be both the only one there is and disappointingly flat and (therefore necessarily) empty. Alone in a swirl of sensations I cannot meaningfully communicate with others, even if I know what to do to get them to behave as I want (and which sounds their making spell trouble for me, etc.). I have no peers. The only meaning there could ever be is what I impose on my experience.

I don't mean that all this is connected logically. Rather, there is an understandable tendency to go from Cartesian (but also fairly natural--Cartesianism is not Descartes's fault) ideas about consciousness to a certain deflated and egoistic view of life. Together these things form something like a worldview or picture: psychological phenomena are things that we own, they are inalienable, inaccessible to others, and (hence) we are alone, with nothing to care about ultimately but ourselves, and nothing worth seeking but entertainment.

This view of things is at least somewhat similar to the view that Iris Murdoch saw as dominating modern literature in The Sovereignty of Good (see pp. 8-9). It is reflected, I think, in the character of Leon in Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, who sits at the dinner table attending to the sensation of rolling balls of paper under his fingers and speaks in a nonsense language of his own. And it shows up in the song "In Every Dream Home a Heartache," about the spiritual and emotional emptiness of life in the kind of house to which we are taught to aspire, in which the perfect companion is a blow-up doll.

So how, if at all, can we escape this idea that we are trapped within the surface of our skin and that everything else is merely superficial? What follows is going to be a little fanciful, but I hope it's both bearable and comprehensible. The view of life as two-dimensional seems to come from the picture of reality as three-dimensional. If everything is just atoms bouncing around then what can matter to me except the atoms that bombard my surfaces? And these are the atoms at the surface of other things and people. So to get a three-dimensional view, maybe we need a four-dimensional picture. Meaning is the 'fourth dimension.' 

A two-dimensional drawing can be seen (experienced, not just imagined) as three-dimensional, and a three-dimensional object or event can be seen as meaningful (or not). Something's having meaning distinguishes it hugely from something that has no meaning, but the meaning is not some other, additional object. It is, I want to say, another 'dimension' (not literally, of course) of the thing. A cry of pain is very different from a mere cry (if I am just testing or exercising my vocal cords, say), but not because it is a mere cry plus some other thing: a pain. A look of love is not just a meaningless way of appearing plus (or caused by) the mysterious inner object known as love. 

The seemingly inexpressible, inner 'object' (pain, love, whatever) is contained in its expression in intelligible behavior or language. Expression ruptures the surface, destroying the two-dimensionality of the world. This makes us vulnerable, and we might prefer to retreat into a private world. (Hence, I think, Nick Cave's treatment of the request to "Say something, express yourself" as a kind of torture in "King Ink.") But understanding expression, understanding the fact that meaning occurs, involves understanding that the flat view of the world is false. We are not each a Citizen Kane ruling over a lonely empire of private goods. Part of the value of Wittgenstein's work, and Heidegger's, lies in this, I think. 

This is not to say that we need such work in order to be saved. It has always been possible to avoid Cartesianism and the problems associated with it. But it's good to have all the help you can get.  

Neither something nor nothing

I haven't blogged for a few days (apologies to anyone who has visited in that time), partly because the new semester is starting up and partly because I haven't had much to say. Also partly because I have started and then abandoned a couple of 'ambitious' posts, that I might end up posting anyway despite their obscurity and stupidity. Perhaps there is also something true and/or usefully provocative in them too.

Now, though, I see that Jean Kazez has linked approvingly to a good essay by James Wood in The Guardian. I agree with most of what Wood says, so let me focus on the less good bits.

Terry Eagleton and others have rightly argued that, for millions of people, religious "belief" is not a matter of just totting up stable, creedal propositions ("I believe that Jesus is the son of God", "I believe that I will go to heaven when I die", and so on), but a matter of more unconscious, daily practice ("Now it is time to kneel down, face Mecca and pray"). This kind of defence of the deep embeddedness of religious practice has been influenced by Wittgenstein – for whom, say, kissing an icon was a bit like loving one's mother; something that cannot be subjected to an outsider's rational critique. Wittgenstein was obviously right, though this appeal to practice over proposition can also become a rather lazy way, for people like the Catholic Eagleton, of defending orthodox beliefs via the back door – as if a bishop encouraged his flock by saying, in effect: "It doesn't matter what you believe. Religion is not about propositions, but about practices. So stick at those practices: just keep on doing the church flowers and turning up every Sunday."
We know that plenty of people hold religious beliefs that are also propositions – they stand up and recite creeds on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays; they can tell you who will be punished in hell, and how; they believe that Allah is the one God, and so on. Prayer itself is a proposition: it proposes that God exists, and can be communicated with. 
Wood doesn't say that Wittgenstein is wrong, but it might be worth pointing out that the fact that his insight can be used as an excuse for lazy thinking doesn't mean that he is guilty of such thinking, nor that all those who agree with him are. Perhaps more importantly, prayer's proposing that God exists and can be communicated with does not make it a proposition in the relevant sense. Only a prayer that says something like "Oh God, you exist and can be communicated with" is that kind of proposition. Maybe prayer presupposes the existence of God, but that isn't the same thing, and might be not quite rightly put anyway.

Now here are two passages from later in the article:
There is an amusing clip on YouTube, in which Dawkins confronts Rowan Williams. Dawkins asks the archbishop of Canterbury if he really believes in miracles such as the virgin birth and the resurrection, happenings in which the laws of physics and biology are suspended. Well, not literally, says Williams. But, says Dawkins, pouncing, surely Williams believes that these are not just metaphors? No, says the archbishop, they are not just metaphors, they are openings in history, "spaces" when history opens up to its own depths, and something like what we call a "miracle" might occur. Dawkins rightly says that this sounds very nice but is surely nothing more than poetic language. Williams rather shamefacedly agrees. The scene is amusing because both men are so obviously arguing past each other, and are so obviously arguing about language and the role of metaphor. Dawkins comes off as the victor, because he has the easier task, and holds the literalist high ground: either the resurrection happened or it didn't; either these words mean something or they do not. Williams seems awkwardly trapped between a need to turn his words into metaphor and a desire to retain some element of literal content.
Dawkins is dead to metaphor, and tries to annul it by insisting on the literal occurrence, contained in actual words, of the virgin birth and the resurrection. And Williams insists that such literalism misses the target, and instead has recourse to the metaphor of "event", of a "space" opening up in history, an indefinably miraculous aberration. One feels sympathy for both sides – and perhaps simultaneously a plague on both their houses – because Dawkins seems so bullishly literal, and Williams so softly evasive. Contra Dawkins, God should be allowed some metaphorical space; but contra Williams, God's presence in the world, God's intervention, should not surely be only metaphorical. God is not just a metaphor.
I think this is probably right as a commentary on how we feel about the encounter between Dawkins and Williams, although obviously individual reactions will vary. But it seems unfair to Williams to saddle him with the view that God's presence in the world is only metaphorical when Williams explicitly denies that this is what he is saying. The fact that Williams feels he has to resort to metaphors of opening in order to explain his purportedly non-metaphorical use of language does not make that use metaphorical after all.

At the risk of being reductive, I see three possibilities for theists: God is something, God is nothing, or God is neither something nor nothing. The first is the view of fundamentalists (among others), the second is the view of those who believe that God-talk really is ultimately nothing but metaphorical, and the third is, I think, Wittgenstein's view of what the best kind of religious belief amounts to, as well as being the view of many believers.

So what can it mean to say that God is neither something nor nothing? He is not something in the sense that he is not (meant to be) an object, something just like a human being only bigger, stronger, invisible, smarter, etc. He is not a policeman in the sky or one being among others, only greater. He is not just hard to comprehend but impossible to comprehend, essentially a mystery. On the other hand he is not nothing either, not just a metaphorical posit for talk that is all really about love or kindness or whatever. God would not be mysterious if he were just a metaphor. Perhaps the thing to say is that God is something but not a something.

Anyway, I think Wood is better on how Dawkins goes wrong than he is on Williams. And I think there is a parallel or connection between Wittgenstein's thoughts on God and his thoughts on feelings such as pain, but I think I'll leave that for another post.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Another God

In my dissertation I defended Anscombe's view that we would be better off if we we did ethics without reference to such things as permissibility, obligation, right, and wrong. So I am somewhat in sympathy with Joel Marks when he talks about "excluding all moral concepts and language from my thinking, feeling and actions." But what does he use instead?
It seems to me that what could broadly be called desire has been the moving force of humanity, no matter how we might have window-dressed it with moral talk. By desire I do not mean sexual craving, or even only selfish wanting. I use the term generally to refer to whatever motivates us, which ranges from selfishness to altruism and everything in between and at right angles. Mother Theresa was acting as much from desire as was the Marquis de Sade.
Noooooo!!! Or rather: OK, but why? What good can it do to say that: "whatever motivates us has been the moving force of humanity"? This obviously isn't false, but someone who says it is surely making a mistake (or a joke).

He goes on:
I used to think that animal agriculture was wrong. Now I will call a spade a spade and declare simply that I very much dislike it and want it to stop.
OK. But now think of the case from Even the Rain (even though you haven't seen it yet) in which (spoiler alert) Costa is asked to take Daniel's daughter to the hospital. It will be difficult for him to do so, and dangerous. He does not want to take her, he wants to leave and finish shooting his film. But, he says repeatedly, he can't leave her. He knows that she might die if she doesn't get to a hospital soon and that he is probably the only person who can get her there.

Now, what it means to say that he can't leave her, I think, is hard to say. He is physically capable of leaving her, after all. To say that he may not leave her doesn't tell us much, because it raises questions about who or what might have made the rules that tell him what he may or may not do. He doesn't seem to be religious, for instance, so it isn't (seemingly) God. Saying that he has an obligation not to leave her sheds no light either, it seems to me. It's more that leaving her is unthinkable to him, even if it isn't actually unimaginable. It's outside the realm of what he can live with. Leaving her would not be him, is not something that is possible in his world. Does he desire not to leave her to die? In Marks' sense, yes, of course (how could he not?), but not, as Marks clearly recognizes, in the normal sense of the word. The only reason he experiences the situation as a dilemma is because what he desires to do conflicts with what he must do. He saves her because of integrity, not desire, not in the sense that he wants to have, or maintain his, integrity, nor in the sense that thoughts of integrity enter his head. But the forces that hold him together as a person, that make his life and his self coherent, force him to save her. Or, at least, force him not to leave her. And then what else can he do but try to get her to hospital?

Marks says that he is an atheist who came to see that morality (as he had understood it) was another God:
I had thought I was a secularist because I conceived of right and wrong as standing on their own two feet, without prop or crutch from God. We should do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, period. But this was a God too. It was the Godless God of secular morality, which commanded without commander – whose ways were thus even more mysterious than the God I did not believe in, who at least had the intelligible motive of rewarding us for doing what He wanted.
This is pretty much Anscombe in a nutshell, or an important part of her view anyway. But to go from this insight to thinking that we should just say that we desire whatever we would previously have called the right thing to do seems to me to be a big mistake. Life is more complicated than that. I like his idea that judgmentalism is not the way to go in moral dialogue and that giving people information, including information about alternative courses of action, in a respectful way is better. But then he says this:
I must accept that other people sometimes have opposed preferences, even when we are agreed on all the relevant facts and are reasoning correctly.
I wonder what 'must' means here. And in what sense we must accept the existence of unacceptable preferences. He says that he "could think of no greater atrocity than the confinement and slaughter of untold billions of innocent creatures for sustenance that can be provided through other, more humane diets." (Are the words 'atrocity,' 'slaughter,' 'innocent,' and 'humane' part of moral language or not? What about this: "It is wrong to toss male chicks, alive and conscious, into a meat grinder, as happens in the egg industry"? Is only the word 'wrong' there moral? Doesn't the rest of the sentence bristle? In fact, isn't it more powerful without the word 'wrong'?) Meat-eating and factory-farming might well be the kinds of thing one has to accept, like it or not. I might be persuaded otherwise, but at least for now I'll agree with him on this.

But what about this? Before going all Alasdair MacIntyre (who himself was channeling Anscombe), Marks writes this:
It is wrong to toss male chicks, alive and conscious, into a meat grinder, as happens in the egg industry. It is wrong to scorn homosexuals and deny them civil rights. It is wrong to massacre people in death camps. All of these things have met with general approval in one society or another. And yet I knew in my soul, with all of my conviction, with a passion, that they were wrong, wrong, wrong. I knew this with more certainty than I knew that the earth is round.
But suddenly I knew it no more. I was not merely skeptical or agnostic about it; I had come to believe, and do still, that these things are not wrong. But neither are they right; nor are they permissible. The entire set of moral attributions is out the window.
So what are we to say about massacring people in death camps? "It's wrong" is no good, I think, because it's like complaining that it violates their rights. It fails to express what it tries to get at. But at least it tries to get at something real, whereas "I would prefer it not to happen" or "I strongly desire that it not happen" sound like sentences uttered while stifling a yawn. Meta-ethical considerations, thoughts about which words one has a right to use, seem to be trumping actual concern for human beings. Maybe the word 'massacre' is all we need. But if we're going to eschew any words here, I would think 'desire' is one of them. Others would be: "I must accept that other people sometimes have opposed preferences."

Saturday, August 20, 2011


It seems to me that perceptions of the truth about philosophy (as a profession, as a discipline, and as a body of wisdom or knowledge) are likely to be distorted. For instance, if someone starts a thread of comments on what philosophers are teaching next semester, then people who feel good about what they are teaching are more likely to respond quickly than those who feel bad about it. So the people who aren't teaching because they don't have jobs and the people who are teaching numerous large sections of uninteresting (-sounding) courses might well be drowned out by people teaching small numbers of boutique courses on niche topics.

Papers that argue for unfashionable views are less likely to be published than others. On the other hand, merely being right is not enough for a paper to be published. It must be (perceived as) interesting, which means, roughly, within the limits of the fashionable but otherwise as eccentric as possible. (Although admittedly sometimes "interesting" means "exactly what I think too.")

Everyone agrees that philosophy should be written as clearly as possible but no clearer. People one agrees with are much clearer than others. I agree, for instance, that Daniel Dennett writes with a certain clarity, but I remember feeling that Brainstorms was unreadable because I had too many reservations about and disagreements with things he wrote to keep them all in the air at the same time. Now, I might have been quite wrong to have these reservations, but if I wasn't then Dennett's writing is only superficially clear; in reality it (in the hypothetical case that I was right) is a mass of murkiness and, possibly, confusion. Whether he is really clear or only superficially, misleadingly so depends in large part on how right he is. The same kind of thing, except in reverse, could be said about the famous obscurity of Heidegger. He believed that he had to write that way, and knew it wasn't easy reading. If he was wrong then this is a failing, of course, but if he was right then he is as clear as he could be. (I don't mean to suggest that he was necessarily either all right or all wrong, of course.) It's interesting to see some people in Brian Leiter's thread objecting to unnecessary, excessive clarity (here is what I will say, here it is, here is what I have argued, and so on). I sympathize, but achieving just the right amount of clarity and explanation depends on having readers who agree with you just enough to need telling only what you tell them, to need spelling out only what you spell out. The right amount of clarity isn't something one can just have independent of one's audience. Sociology (or fashion) comes in here, too, as knowing the audience is almost impossible if you went to the wrong schools, read the wrong books, talk to the wrong people (or hardly anyone at all), etc.        

Now this might all sound like a complaint, but I don't think I have suffered because of any of these things. They do seem worth being aware of though.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Even the Rain

También la lluvia is a film I highly recommend. It's about a film crew that goes to Bolivia and exploits the local people in order to make a film about Columbus and others exploiting the local people when they first came to America. It's one of those rare films where every shot is well composed--not distractingly, but so that the movie is always visually interesting (color, contrasts of bright light and shadow, etc.). It also raises questions about the buying and selling of natural resources (in this case water), and includes a good example of a kind of Good Samaritan case. (I find these interesting because of the question in what sense one cannot leave the person to die: should we talk of rights, or moral obligation, or something else in such cases?) It has its own point of view, but it isn't unbearably heavy-handed (I thought).

More corbel!

Maybe there's no problem, but I've been thinking that my line of questioning about corbels, metaphysics, etc. was pretty obscure. So, if only for my own benefit, here's an attempt to sketch my thinking more fully.

Wittgenstein tends to think of philosophical questions as pseudo-questions, ones that don't really have answers. In Investigations 217 he says that "we sometimes demand explanations for the sake not of their content, but of their form." He does not say here that this is the case with all philosophy, but he does seem to have at least considered the possibility that this is so. He also says that in such cases the demand is "architectural," by which he seems to have meant aesthetic, i.e. a matter of taste. If no explanation can be given then the demand for an explanation gets us nowhere, but we might feel the need to ask for one anyway and be satisfied by a kind of phony answer. For form's sake.

Before I go on, I think two points need to be addressed here. One is that this is very abstract, the other is that Wittgenstein (as I have presented him) has provided no evidence that this obscure and weird-sounding hypothesis is true. So here are some examples of questions that (Wittgenstein seems to think) have no real answers: how is it possible to follow a rule? and: why are the laws of nature as they are? (Perhaps you could just insert any unanswered philosophical question from the last two thousand years or so.) Wisely or not, people have devoted a lot of time to trying to answer these questions. What evidence is there that people ask for form's sake, and can be satisfied with pseudo-answers? One piece of evidence is that there are people who regard questions like these as real questions and who are satisfied with such answers as "Wittgenstein's theory of bedrock," even though the theory in question amounts to little more than: that's just the way it is. I think that Wittgenstein wanted to be able to not ask such questions, but I'm not sure that he ever stopped asking them, even if he realized early on that they could never be answered. They don't have as-yet-undiscovered answers or answers known only to God. They just don't have answers at all.

So why do we ask them? Why do we demand explanations where there are none to be given? Wittgenstein says (i.e. hypothesizes) that it is like the architectural demand for corbels that support nothing. But why do people demand things like that? One possibility is that it is because that is what they/we are used to. We see so many corbels that a building without them doesn't look right. And we ask so many questions that have answers, demand so many explanations that are forthcoming, that we expect every question (perhaps even everything that looks like a question) to have an answer. In the "Dictation for Schlick" Wittgenstein uses the example of someone who is used to getting stomach aches from not eating enough. Such a person will become accustomed to eating whenever he has a stomach ache. If, in one particular case, this is the very thing that will make the pain worse, he will still be inclined to want to eat. That's just what he's used to doing at such times. So, perhaps because the human quest for answers has been so successful, we form questions and look for answers, even when the questions are not the kind that could be answered (and so, in a sense, are not really questions at all).

But perhaps it isn't only a matter of habit. In the "Dictation for Schlick" Wittgenstein says it is a requirement of style (ein Bedürfnis des Stils), in the Investigations he calls our demand architectural (Unsere Forderung ist eine architektonische). Architectural style reflects habit, but also the spirit of the age (or of the architect). Wittgenstein disliked decoration. There is something, I suppose, dishonest or pretentious about a purely decorative corbel. At least it can be regarded that way. Is there something equally immoral (if I can use that word) about philosophical questions and theories? If so, what is pretentious about them?

The section of the "Dictation for Schlick" that I have been discussing ends with the claim that:
it is a desideratum, e.g., to trace back to a creator the coming into being of the universe even though this in a certain sense explains nothing and merely draws attention to the beginning.
If someone wonders why there is something rather than nothing, or why the laws of physics are as they are, then one answer they might be told is that God did it. This explains nothing because it doesn't tell us how God did it, nor what exactly God is, nor why God exists, and so on. (This is to say nothing about the truth or falsity of the claim that God created the universe.)

This passage echoes Tractatus 6.371 and 6.372:
6.371 At the root of the whole modern worldview lies the mistaken view [or: illusion] that the so-called laws of nature are the explanation of natural phenomena.
6.372 Thus they stop at laws of nature as at something sacrosanct, as the ancients stopped at God or fate.
And indeed they are both right, and wrong. The ancients are certainly clearer in so far as they recognize a clear conclusion, whereas in the new system it is supposed to seem as if everything were explained. 
The ancients are (presented as being) wrong because they offer God or fate as an explanation, when really no explanation can be given. But they are right because their answer makes it clear that there is no ultimate explanation. It's tempting to say that they are right because they are so clearly wrong, but that's probably misleadingly paradoxical. The moderns are right because they avoid the mistake of thinking that references to God explain anything, but wrong because they obscure the fact that a complete explanation is impossible. Or a complete explanation. A full account can be given, presumably, by science. But it is a mistake to think that then no mystery remains, that there is nothing to wonder at.

Whether one wonders is a matter of taste or habit, something about which there can be no purely rational debate. But the pseudo-answer "that's just how it is" suggests, and perhaps promotes, a kind of boredom. To stop this unappreciative boredom at the world we might need to stop the pseudo-questions that give rise to that kind of pseudo-answers. But appreciation of the world requires mental activity all the same. We need, Wittgenstein seems to think, to be somewhat like Aristotle's god, contemplating the good of the world without  having to inquire into it. Philosophical investigations (in German literally "under-seekings," I take it) are a mistake. Nothing is hidden, so there is nothing to find, no matter how deep we dig, or think we are digging. Not how we follow rules but that we follow rules is the thing to hold onto.

Or so I think Wittgenstein thinks.

(I have skipped over part of the "Dictation for Schlick" that I find obscure. I will try to return to this some time.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I don't read, I just guess

(Are blog post titles taken from song lyrics as annoying to some people as Facebook status updates taken from song lyrics? Protests will be heeded.)

Anyway, I read very slowly, which has its disadvantages. So I've been looking into techniques for reading more quickly. Some of these involve not reading every word and counting on being able to, as it were, predict (or unconsciously guess) what the missing words are likely to be. This is not at all how Wittgenstein wanted to be read. He didn't aim to provide easily extractable content. And there's something questionable about the idea of identifying the alleged content, even though I think it's reasonable to point out when the content is not what some people say it is. So one qualification I would add to my first thoughts on PI 217 is that no gloss should ever be taken as a substitute for reading and thinking through the original. His aim, after all, was to work on the will, and no list of points made will do this work. (I don't mean that we must give him whatever he wanted because he is Saint Ludwig. I mean that his work cannot be judged (or used in any way, really) without being approached as it was intended to be approached. We wouldn't be using or judging his work if we took it some other way of our own.)

Secondly, the corbel that supports nothing is like a piece of machinery that does no work. Asking for a philosophical account of rule-following is idling, the question an occasion of language going on holiday. But there are reasons why we ask, as there are reasons why someone might want a purely decorative corbel. These reasons have to do with history, I think Wittgenstein believed. And I think TLP 6.371 and 6.372 can shed light on this. We want explanations because we think everything can be explained, so we ask even where no answer can be given, and we are inclined to accept whatever 'answer' is given, even if it really tells us nothing. (We might even mistakenly think of Wittgenstein as developing a kind of foundationalist theory.) We like to have the appearance of explanation as we might like the look of corbels (or spoilers on cars), even when no work is done by them.

Presumably we like the look of corbels because of some association they have with something like grandeur. Do we like explanations for the same kind of reason? Or is it metaphysics that has this appeal? If so, why? When a metaphysical-sounding question is not in fact a scientific one (in which case it's OK, I would think) then is it actually a kind of subconscious yearning (is that too strong a word?) for something like a creation myth?  Or a certain kind of religion?

Monday, August 15, 2011

An architectural requirement

Tommi Uschanov referred in comments the other day to a couple of passages from On Certainty and to Philosophical Investigations 217. So I re-read 217 and was surprised to see the part about architecture, which I had forgotten. It provides a link to Wittgenstein's views on Heidegger and the influence on his thinking of Adolf Loos (see below). So I would like to investigate all this, starting by looking only at 217. Here it is:

217. “How am I able to follow a rule?” – If this is not a question about causes, then it is about the justification for my acting in this way in complying with the rule.
     Once I have exhausted the justifications, [then] I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: “This is simply what I do.”
     (Remember that we sometimes demand explanations for the sake not of their content, but of their form. Our requirement is an architectural one; the explanation a kind of sham corbel that supports nothing.)
(This is Hacker's and Schulte's translation, but I have inserted the word 'then' for the German 'so' to make it clear that "I have reached bedrock" is not meant just as another way of saying "I have exhausted the justifications'.)

The demand for explanations here is fairly clearly regarded by Wittgenstein as a bit of bad taste: he wasn't a big fan of sham corbels (those are corbels above), and this remark recalls the "Dictation for Schlick" (see pp. 75-77), in which he discusses the various requirements of style that are felt to be required at different times, and says that what he says has been influenced by Loos (it's here, too, that he makes an implicit reference to Heidegger). But he doesn't say it is bad taste; he just notes that it is a matter of taste. Anyway, back to the start of the passage.

The first paragraph distinguishes two possible meanings of a question such as "How is it possible to follow a rule?" We could inquire into the biological features of human beings, perhaps, that make it possible for us to follow rules. This would be a causal, scientific inquiry. It is not for philosophers. Or we could want to understand how doing this could be justified (or made the right thing to do) by such-and-such a rule. How does the rule translate, or get translated, into certain acts and not others? What makes this and not that the right thing to do, given the rule?

The second paragraph suggests that multiple answers can be given, but gives no examples. I suppose we can imagine any rule we like, and then imagine explaining it to a child or other person unfamiliar with the rule and its application. After some time you run out of things to say to explain the rule, and then you are likely to be inclined to say, "That's just what you do," or something similar. Wittgenstein does not say that we are right to be so inclined, nor that the inclination leads us to say something true. But he doesn't deny this either.  

Then in the third, parenthetical paragraph he suggests that the question and the answer are pretty meaningless. We ask for an explanation or justification not because any such thing is needed but only because that is what our taste requires. And the explanation(s) offered (which end in "This is simply what I do") does nothing, except satisfy our taste for such things. It isn't an explanation at all, we might say, and so the demand for an explanation is sort of empty too. It is a request for something that can never (not just not yet) be provided. "How is rule-following possible?" seems to be a bit like "Why is murder wrong?" and "Why are we here?" It looks like a question, but it has no answer. So one might say it isn't really a question at all. (Although the point is not to be dogmatic about what is and what is not a real question. Call it a question if you like, as long as you see that it is the kind of question that can never be answered.) So Wittgenstein's view of rule-following would appear to be that it's a mistake (and one in bad taste) to ask about it, unless you do so in a scientific spirit.

That's my initial take on this passage anyway.

Secularism and David Brooks

You've probably already seen these, but just in case: this review essay on secularism is very good, and is quoted at this excellent (though sometimes obscure) blog.

Saturday, August 13, 2011


Anscombe was clearly appalled by the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I'm always tempted to read her example of the judicial execution of someone known to be innocent as a reference to this bombing. But it seems a slightly odd way to characterize it. Why not call it murder, say, rather than execution? So this is probably a temptation I should resist. But I was struck by the second sentence quoted below from the Boston Globe:
On Aug. 6, the United States marks the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing’s mixed legacy. The leader of our democracy purposefully executed civilians on a mass scale. 
It's from an article explaining the theory that the Japanese surrendered because of the Soviet invasion of Japan, which happened after the bombing of Hiroshima, not because of the bombing itself, and not because of  reasons that already existed before the bombing. Worth reading.   

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Losing face

[UPDATE: I think all the following really amounts to is a half-baked attempt to spell out what is involved in losing face, i.e. doing something that is socially embarrassing. It seemed like more at the time.]

Thinking about moral courage has led me to some odd thoughts. Let's see if I can make any sense of them, and then maybe see whether they are at all plausible. Perhaps really it's a combination of thoughts.

One of these is the idea that certain things are obviously evil, for instance cruelty. The Bible (Leviticus 19:14 to be precise) tells us not to place a stumbling block in front of blind people, which is the kind of thing you might think would go without saying. This kind of thing is just obviously wrong, it seems to me. If you want some explanation of why it is bad I guess you could talk about cruelty, human dignity, and so on, but it's hard to imagine a human being not understanding that playing tricks like this on handicapped people is evil. (It's hard also to imagine a human being who didn't understand the temptation to engage in such evil deeds, too, at least at some level, but that is a different point. Maybe it's because we hear the voice of this temptation and recognize it as a voice not to be trusted that we see its suggestions as evil. Or maybe not.)

Another is the idea that a wise person will see, know, or understand what to do in any given situation. I'm not sure that I believe this, but it seems to me that it might be true and it also seems that it might be a good thing to hold it as true. Anscombe believes in absolute moral prohibitions, which raises questions such as "Is it really wrong to lie even if doing so is the only way to save someone's life?" Her answer, as I recall, is that it really is wrong to lie, but that it might be very hard to see a way out of certain situations without doing something wrong. If you can see no other way out, she thinks, then it is better to lie than to let an innocent person be murdered, but it is still wrong to lie. After all, God has forbidden all lies. It would seem a bit unfair of God to do this unless it were not really necessary to lie ever after all. And that, I think, is what Anscombe believes: there always is a way to do the right thing, if only we are wise enough to see what it is. For this reason she sticks to her absolutism and rejects the consequentialist idea that lying, e.g., might sometimes be the right thing to do.

I don't have Anscombe's faith, so I don't believe exactly the same thing. But I agree with her that wisdom or creativity can find ways that are not obvious, and that we should not be too quick to accept the anti-absolutist idea. There are sometimes better consequences to be had by sticking to absolutism rather than weakening our commitment to such things as human rights. Anscombe says that someone who thinks in advance that we shouldn't rule out options such as executing an innocent person shows a corrupt mind. If they think we shouldn't rule it out when faced with a horrible dilemma (of which such an execution is one horn) then they are, she says, just a normally tempted human being. This seems right to me. And if we think this way then we still might end up murdering people, but only if we really are in an unusually bad situation and only after we have run out of other ideas. Justice requires a commitment not to commit such crimes as murder, wisdom requires the vision or imagination to see how to avoid committing them. And something that we might call humanity requires both justice and wisdom.

But humanity is something that we (like to think we) share with others. If others simply do not care about justice or wisdom then they are scarcely human. But what if they care, yet do not share our view of what justice or wisdom dictates? Then it seems we ought to talk to them, to try to persuade them to see the truth (unless the disagreement is about something trivial). Why? For the sake of justice or wisdom (or whatever), but also for the sake of not being alien in relation to them, for the sake of the commonality of humanity, which has to do with both our own sanity and community. (I'm conscious here that I need to read, or re-read, Gaita's A Common Humanity.)

Combining these ideas, I find myself leaning toward the following: a truly human person (by which I mean something like a truly virtuous person,a truly humane person) will be able to get other human beings to see what is required by the humanity that they share. Failure to do this is a human failure, a failure of one's humanity (which might also be called a moral or a spiritual failure). If you take a stand against injustice directed against you by saying "I am a Man," and you fail to persuade your audience, then you have failed to establish common humanity with them.

I don't mean to say that it is your fault, that you are to blame, if you fail in this kind of attempt. (It might be that you could have presented your case better, but there is no moral blame here even if you chose really bad tactics. All the moral blame goes to those who don't recognize your humanity.) But you have  gambled and, in the case I'm imagining, lost some of the sense of your humanity. Whose is this sense? It might be your own. That is, you might (although you should not) start to doubt your own humanity. It might be other people's sense of your humanity, although that seems doubtful. It's more the public, shared sense of your humanity. You have made a claim to have your humanity publicly, commonly acknowledged and, I'm imagining, you have failed. The risk of such failure is part, it seems to me, of the reason why it takes courage to take this kind of stand. (There is something odd about the idea of a man holding a sign saying that he is a man, something that makes it hard to believe anyone could deny the claim. And indeed I think it is impossible to deny it. So the moral risk in this case is not great (compared with the physical risk). But the claim still needed to be made by African-Americans in the 1960s and could have been rejected in some way, even if not honestly denied.)

And (this is the point I originally wanted to make) there is a similar risk in taking such a stand for others. Imagine an old woman being racially insulted by some young men. You hesitate to get involved but realize that you cannot stand by and let this happen. So you try to persuade them to leave her alone. You risk being attacked, of course, but there are other risks, too, I'm inclined to think. What you are trying to do is, in a sense, to get them to see the woman as a human being. If you fail you might confirm them in their view that she is not really a human being. By opposing them you also create, or at least accentuate, a division between them and you. If you succeed then this division will be healed. If not, you have divided humanity still further, you have made our shared sense of common humanity weaker than it was. (Is that right, I wonder? Maybe not. But it depends who ends up knowing about your action, and how they react to it. So there is at least a risk that opposing racists will weaken the social bond.) And to the extent that you fail you will have been dismissed as someone who is not wise or just and who is, in that sense, not fully human. You speak but you are not heard, so in a sense you have no voice. You become part of the silent, faceless mass. Not in your eyes, necessarily (although you might feel that way), but in the eyes of the bullies and therefore in the eyes of the common humanity you had hoped existed, or could be made or found to exist, between you and them.

Acts of moral courage risk loss of face, I want to say, and not only in the sense that they risk social embarrassment. But I might be letting metaphors carry me away or muddy the water. I might be relying on an ill-conceived theory of virtue. I might be trying too hard to be clever or tidy without paying enough attention to reality. Let me try just to say as simply as possible the kind of theory that is appealing to me, so that its flaws might be most evident. Here, in summary and conclusion, is what I feel like saying (note, I'm not actually saying it yet):

Human beings see what is true, do what is right, and live in the same world as other human beings. If you stand up for yourself as a human being you risk having your status as a human being denied. To the extent that this is denied (though this is not your fault), you do not live in the same world as (all) other human beings and therefore do not get to be, or live as, a fully human being. If you stand up for others as human beings you run a similar risk, because your status as a being that sees what is true and does what is right is at risk of being denied. And to the extent that this is denied, your status as a human being is denied.    

That's it. I'm not prepared to adopt this theory yet for various reasons, including the following: the idea of humanity seems to be doing an awful lot of work here without being very carefully examined or explained, and it comes close to saying that reality is socially constructed, which just sounds false (even if there might be a grain of truth in it). But I feel as though there is something to the theory nevertheless. So I throw it out to see whether others have any thoughts on it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Riot in progress

The first thing I read this morning was a rant by one of my cousins on Facebook against the people rioting in London. As far as I can tell a lot of people are cashing in on the opportunity to steal things or to bash the government or to bash the left. This seems like a fairly sensible assessment from my perspective, an ocean away. I can't find it now, but as I recall the Telegraph ran a piece attacking the left for blaming the riots on the government "as they inevitably would," i.e. before anyone had actually done any such thing. That was pretty disgusting. But then people on the left did start trying to connect the riots to government cuts.

I have little to say on the subject, but I think it is always a bad idea to try to identify what the cause is with events like this, or what it is that they are really about. Wars and riots are wars and riots. They are not parables. They are not necessarily about anything. Nor are they simple events with simple causes. Many people are involved, each possibly with several different motivations. These might include righteous anger, self-righteous anger, greed, boredom, a desire to be part of history, a desire to go along with one's peers, and much else besides. Of course these things are not the norm, so it isn't unreasonable to ask why these riots happened where they did, when they did. But the answer is likely to involve a combination of factors, not just one key event that we can identify and load all our blame onto.

Secondly, it's generally a good idea when possible to separate reasons from causes. Most rioters are not likely to have good reasons to burn, loot, and attack people. But seeing this fact does not require us to ignore possible causes of criminal behavior at the economic or social level. Tony Blair's idea of being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime isn't so stupid (even if people who want to be "tough on crime" often favor bad ideas). (These causes are hard, if not impossible, to identify, but it's always possible to use trial and error. If egalitarian moves are followed by less crime then it might be a good idea to support such moves, and if movements in the other direction are followed by more crime then it might be good to oppose such movements. This looks like a case of nineteenth-century-style, laissez faire liberal policies leading to the kind of behavior that motivated the twentieth-century reforms that the right is trying to undo. But I really know so little about political and economic history that I probably shouldn't risk making such claims at all.)

If we could see all all might seem good

Thanks to Arts & Letters Daily I found this wonderful story about Edward Thomas and Robert Frost. I've been thinking about Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" since it was read at a Bar Mitzvah I went to recently. My sense is that a lot of people think of the poem as a celebration of individuality, of marching to the beat of a different drummer, of being different. But when the same celebration of being different is everyone's favorite poem then something seems wrong to me. And I noticed during the reading that Frost (or the narrator) describes the two paths as being "really about the same." The reference to looking back with a sigh at the end of the poem also suggests that it isn't meant as a celebration. In short, I think this poem is often misunderstood.

Anyway, here's a very fine poem by Thomas, which ends with these lines:
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.'
'And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.' 'Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.' Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.
The following is too silly to belong here, but while I'm on the subject here's a play on Frost that I came up with a few years ago:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I would not ask which I should take
And that is because of my vas deferens.

(Explanations kill jokes, but just in case it's necessary: men are notoriously unwilling to ask for directions.)

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Another Year

I was a little disappointed by Mike Leigh's Another Year. I'm not sure I can do a better job of explaining why than to point to this review in The Independent, in which Anthony Quinn says that he found himself "admiring the acting while questioning the authenticity of what's actually happening." But I generally think that acting should go unnoticed, so that if you are admiring the acting it probably isn't that good. My guess is that there are exaggerations needed for good stage acting that don't work in film, but I don't know.

Anyway, it's the dubious authenticity that most strikes me. Rottentomatoes (summarizing many other reviews) talks about "the director's trademark feel for the nuances of everyday life," and calls the film an "emotionally honest portrait of ordinary people trying to make sense of their lives." But some of the people seemed about as authentic as Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah's sofa to show the world that he was in love. The main characters (an aging couple called Tom and Gerri) are always happy except when they are angry at the government or disapproving of someone else for behaving badly. This is a world in which grown men (they seem to be about sixty) jump on each other for piggybacks and a 30-year-old man introduces his girlfriend to his parents by getting her to hide behind a door and shout "boo!" when they come in. Everybody laughs, of course. It's a world in which happily married couples constantly share loving smiles and say, in front of other people, things like "You're perfect in every way, darling, and you know you are." No one is embarrassed by any of this, no one rolls their eyes, and no one thinks it doesn't need to be said. Of course not everyone is like me, but I know several couples who seem very happily married, and none of them acts like this.

This is supposed to be a sad movie, one that confronts problems of bereavement, loneliness, and aging. So how can it be so chipper? By not really confronting anything, I think. The film begins with a woman reluctantly receiving counselling for the depression she would rather not acknowledge and ends with another being advised to seek the same kind of help (from an objective professional, not a friend who has the necessary professional skills, for some reason). The same woman is told that she must take responsibility for her decisions, and it is made clear that another character (who would surely die within minutes if he really ate, drank, and smoked as desperately as he does in the film) could be happily in a relationship if only he wasn't such a pig. If you're unhappy, the message seems to be, it's probably your fault. If it isn't, then seek professional help. That will do the trick.

What about death? Surely some things are just bad and there's nothing we can do to take away their sting? Well, yes and no. We see two men who have been widowed in the movie. One assures us that you get used to it and it isn't so bad. Another seems well on the way to that attitude, too, but first spends a few days with friends to help him make the transition from married life to widowed life. His manly stoicism helps too. And that seems to be it: a stiff upper lip, a lovely cup of tea, and, if all else fails, professional help can solve every problem life can throw at us. It's a positive attitude to take, but it also seems unrealistic and unsympathetic to me.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Winch and Lerner

In the 1958 edition of The Idea of a Social Science (which is the only edition I have to hand), Winch says on p. 1 that his topic is a certain idea about the relation between social science, natural science, and philosophy. Basically it's the idea that the social sciences are just like the natural sciences, only younger. It is this idea that he wants to attack.

On p. 43 he identifies "giving an account of the nature of social phenomena in general" as "the central problem of sociology." I think this gives some idea of what he means when he talks about social sciences wanting to be (or being wanted to be) like natural sciences: the goal is general laws or the identification of general patterns.

On p. 88 he says that "a historian or sociologist of religion must himself have some religious feeling if he is to make sense of the religious movement he is studying." This might sound controversial, but he goes on to use the example of a historian of art needing to have some aesthetic sense in order to understand "the problems confronting the artists," which seems reasonable, if perhaps a little vague, to me. Without such a sense, he says, the historian would only provide "a rather puzzling external account of certain motions which certain people have been perceived to go through." He does not deny that it is possible to give this kind of account. All he denies is that it would be a history of art.

The last passage I want to quote is on p. 93:
I am not denying that it is sometimes possible to predict decisions; only that the evidence on which such predictions are based must be different in kind from that on which scientific predictions are based.
Historical trends are in part the result of intentions and decisions, he explains.

It seems to me that Winch denies that meaningful behavior can be studied simultaneously qua meaningful and in just the same way that scientists study the meaningless behavior of atoms or cells. And that seems right to me. (It also seems to me that his work might usefully be read alongside Anscombe's work on intention, but that's probably another story.)

Now, what does Lerner say about Winch? He gathers together and discusses a range of criticisms of Winch's work, which seems valuable in itself to me. He also makes a strong case that Winch has got the Azande wrong. But what seems to me to be his key claim is, as he summarizes it on pp. 3-4, this:
I criticize Winch (and Norman Malcolm) for not appreciating that a naturalistic inquiry into the human cognitive capacities that underlie rule following could serve as the subject of an explanatory science of uniquely human behavior. Furthermore, I point out that the application of a rule to substantially unfamiliar circumstances is precisely the situation in which "meaningless" causal factors are most likely to determine human behavior.
This is a fair point, I think, but the study of meaningless causal factors and human cognitive capacities would not, it seems to me, count as social science as Winch understands it. That kind of thing would be natural science, which Winch has nothing against.

What about the usefulness of social science for policy-making? A friend of mine is an expert on African politics and sometimes shares his expertise with people in Washington, DC. Winch says nothing against the idea that this might be a good thing. All that I think he would deny is that this kind of expertise is scientific expertise, rightly understood. Much that goes by the name of "social science" might be very useful, as Lerner rightly points out, but I don't read Winch as meaning to deny this. So, although I'm aware that I might be chickening out of an unwelcome confrontation, I think it's possible to agree with Winch and Lerner to a large extent. Winch explains what social science cannot be, while Lerner points out what it nevertheless can be. Both are, for the most part, right.

OK, what have I missed or got wrong?    

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


During an unsuccessful attempt to find out why recent comments are not showing up in the sidebar as they are supposed to I noticed that six comments had been flagged by blogger software as spam and not posted. Not one of these was actual spam. One looked like a repeat, so I have left that, but the others should now be posted (although they aren't showing up as new comments, so it will take me a while to track them down and respond).

My apologies.

Nordic Wittgenstein Review

This is very good news. Trying to identify which bits of information to cut and paste, I think I've concluded that anyone interested should just read the whole thing. But, in brief, it's a new journal for Wittgenstein-related research (broadly conceived), featuring open access and open review, and with the first issue focusing on Wittgenstein and Ethics. Hooray!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Lost in translation?

Ernie Lepore has an interesting piece on poetry and meaning at The Stone. I disagree with quite a bit of it, so let me run through these disagreements and then try to reach some sort of conclusion.

Lepre begins by saying that the question "What is your poem about?" has no satisfactory answer. Surely this is not always true. Perhaps this is a small point, and I certainly agree that many poems (and other works of art) are not 'about something' in any simple way, but some are. Larkin's "Myxomatosis," for instance, is surely about myxomatosis, a disease spread deliberately in order to reduce the rabbit population. It is also, therefore, about the way we treat animals. Other poems by Larkin and others are about death, love, and other well known subjects. A sentence like that should not need to be written, and perhaps does not still, but Lepore's claim ignores its truth.

He goes on to explain what Cleanth Brooks called "the heresy of paraphrase" this way:
efforts at paraphrasing poetry into prose fail in ways that parallel attempts for prose do not.
Surely it depends on the poetry and the prose in question. In a long poem, say, the author might write in a certain form just to keep the form going. It might be quite possible to paraphrase part of such a poem into prose with no loss of meaning whatsoever. But I won't insist on this point. More important is the fact that not all prose can be paraphrased without loss. Larkin's poem reminds me (and I want to avoid 'doing a Morrissey' here) of Hardy's phrase "because we are too menny." This is prose, but changing the wording or the spelling would surely affect the meaning. Something would be lost. And if that is true (I think it is, but I don't want to claim more than I need to) then that is because Hardy has chosen his words perfectly. Surely he is not the only writer of prose ever to do so. Instead of contrasting poetry and prose it might be better to contrast literature with the language of the textbook or instruction manual, or else to make clear that 'poetry' is being used in a special sense here. This sense is broad enough to include far more than poetry, but it might not include everything that is to be found in poems. (For reasons that I have already tried to explain, plus the fact that bad poetry is unlikely to be poetic in this sense.)

Lepore goes on to mention
T.S. Eliot, who, when asked to interpret the line “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day…” from his poem “Ash Wednesday,” responded, “It means ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day.’ ”

Eliot’s implication was that repetition is the best we can hope to achieve in interpreting poetry. Translators of Rimbaud likewise lament that because French is soft, melodious and fluid in cadence, English and other non-Romance languages are unsuitable for translation. The poet E.E. Cummings went further, claiming that even the visual impact of the typography of his poems renders them unparaphraseable.
Perhaps writing a blog post for a general audience is the root of Lepore's problems here, but let me just state a few more (seemingly, to me) obvious truths anyway. Paraphrase, which is what was at issue till this, is not the same thing as interpretation. I would think it obvious that "Ash Wednesday" cannot be paraphrased without loss, but I see no reason why it couldn't be interpreted quite accurately. Allusions can be identified, as can subjects addressed (such as conversion to Anglicanism). What the poem says might not be specifiable in other words (it probably can't be), but what it says those things about might be perfectly specifiable. This would be interpretation, it seems to me.

Second obvious point: Eliot's response is an impatient joke, not a general thesis about interpreting poetry (although he may have held the thesis that Lepore attributes to him).

Third: the unsuitability of English as a medium into which French poetry might be translated is not a fact about interpretation or paraphrase. It does not mean, for instance, that French poetry cannot be interpreted or paraphrased in French.

Fourth: Cummings' claim is closer to being obviously true than it is to being the kind of claim that justifies words like 'even' and 'further.' We all know that how a poem is presented on the page can make a difference. Anyone who has read much poetry written for children, at any rate, has surely experienced visual devices and is familiar with how (and that) they work.

In short, there is a lot to take issue with here, but perhaps none of it matters very much. Lepore then says that:
Contemporary philosophers and linguists have either ignored such skepticism or dismissed it out of hand. The idea that an unambiguous word might mean one thing in a news article or shopping list and something altogether different in a poem is not so easy to embrace.
The skepticism in question, remember, is a series of obvious truths (which really constitute just one truth, a truth "generally agreed upon since Aristotle," in Lepore's words) about poetry uttered by poets. If Lepore means that all contemporary philosophers have ignored these truths then he is surely wrong. The idea that context is relevant to meaning is hardly unheard of in philosophy. But he might be right about mainstream philosophers, in which case so much the worse for them.

He goes on:
How do we figure out what a poem means if its words do not carry familiar learned meanings? And further, isn’t this skepticism vulnerable to the following simple refutation: take any expression in any poem and introduce by fiat a new expression to mean exactly what the first one does; how could this practice fail to succeed at paraphrase or translation? Though such substitutions can change the aesthetic, emotive or imagistic quality of a poem, how could any of them change meaning?

Despite the simple refutation, the heresy of paraphrase remains compelling.
The expression "figure out" seems telling. Do we calculate meanings? Maybe with some of Eliot's works we do something like that, looking up "Shantih" and so on, but normally we read and understand without having to do any figuring out. How do we do that? Well, effortlessly, but if you want more of an answer you would have to explain whether it was the neurological basis of language that interested you, or something more anthropological, or what.

The "simple refutation" is more interesting, at least to me. It seems like a joke or an exercise in surrealism, but apparently we're meant to take it seriously. So I can stipulate that f means the same thing as Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Now, isn't f a great piece of writing? But it isn't a piece of writing. It's a letter. Is its meaning great? Its meaning has been stipulated as being the same as that of a great piece of writing. But maybe it isn't the meaning of that writing that is so great. Maybe it doesn't even have a meaning, at least in the relevant sense of 'meaning.' Lepore is talking about meaning in a sense that is independent, after all, of aesthetic, emotive, and imagistic qualities. I am confused at this point. If it is a fact that "What is your poem about?" has no satisfactory answer then why assume that poems have meaning in this technical sense? (In Lepore's defense I should note that he goes on to reject the simple refutation, but I still find all this rather confusing.)

I get more confused as I read on:
typing the word “brick” in italics (as in “brick”) obviously draws attention to a particular presentation of the word, not to the word itself. But it is one of many. The word might have been spoken, rendered in Braille or even signed. Surprisingly, in this instance, a moment’s reflection ought to convince you that no other articulation could have been used to make this point in this way. In short, that “brick” is italicized cannot be said out loud or signed or rendered in Braille. In effect, the practice of italicization allows the presentation of a language to become a part of the language itself.

If poems too can be (partly) about their own articulations, this would explain why they can resist paraphrase or translation into another idiom
At the risk of sounding (or being) snarky, can I draw attention to these words?: "that “brick” is italicized cannot be said out loud." Yes it can. I can say "'brick' is italicized" and "that 'brick' is italicized." I can also emphasize the word 'brick' when speaking in much the same way that it is emphasized in writing by putting it in italics. A playwright who wants a word to be spoken with emphasis would know to italicize or underline the word in the script. There is nothing one cannot do here.

But wait. Can I italicize spoken words? No, there is no such thing as literally doing that. So is Lepore right that the presentation of language can be part of the language? I think there is something to this, yes. How you express your meaning affects that meaning. Speaking in a sarcastic tone obviously affects the meaning of what is said, for instance. The form of communication affects the content of the communication, i.e. what is communicated. But Lepore wants to deny this, as we shall see.

Are poems partly about their own articulation? Surely not usually. Let's say I write a love poem and shape the words to look like a heart. Pitiful, true, but the kind of thing that people (though perhaps not poets) do. Is my poem then in any way about its own articulation? No. The articulation belongs to the form of the poem, not its content. Didn't I just say that form affects content? Yes, and the shape of this poem does influence its message. It makes it more childish and sentimental, for instance (unless it is clearly a joke). But this does not mean that the poem is about childishness or sentimentality. It is still about my love. Form shapes content, but it is not content. The medium is not the message.

Speaking of form and content, one last quotation from Lepore:
This explanation of the heresy of paraphrase differs from the New Critics’ quasi-mystical invocation of form shaping content. Linguistic expressions mean whatever they mean wherever they occur, but in poetry (as in other forms of mentioning) the medium really becomes the message. From this, however, it does not follow that the language of poetry is magical or even distinct from the languages of other discourses; they are identical. The words in a Cummings’ poem mean exactly what they do in prose. But because a poem can be a device for presenting its own articulation, re-articulating Cummings while ignoring his versification fails.
"Linguistic expressions mean whatever they mean wherever they occur"? Hard to dispute the first six words of that, but the implication of the last three suggests that context is irrelevant to meaning. What about metaphor? When Tracey Thorn sings that her lover "brushes sadness from [her] eyes," doesn't 'sadness' here mean tears? She might protest that if she had meant tears she would have sung 'tears', and I would happily concede that 'sadness' means sadness, but it isn't straightforward. There is also a pretty obvious sense in which she means tears. That song might not be well known, but I assume I don't need to give other examples.

All in all, Lepore seems to be very wrong. But so wrong that I can't help wondering if I haven't missed the point. If so, that could be because I have read him badly, or perhaps because he has translated his ideas into a popular idiom unsuccessfully.