Saturday, December 31, 2011

Hume on drugs

I haven't tried relating many topics in the history of philosophy to current affairs with my students, but perhaps I should. Anyone who teaches Hume on causation might want to look at this article by Jonah Lehrer on biomedical research, for instance. Here's the conclusion:
For too long, we’ve pretended that the old problem of causality can be cured by our shiny new knowledge. If only we devote more resources to research or dissect the system at a more fundamental level or search for ever more subtle correlations, we can discover how it all works. But a cause is not a fact, and it never will be; the things we can see will always be bracketed by what we cannot. And this is why, even when we know everything about everything, we’ll still be telling stories about why it happened. It’s mystery all the way down.
I don't love Lehrer's account of what Hume says ("a cause is not a fact—it’s a fiction that helps us make sense of facts"), and other objections are raised in the comments at the end of the article, but he might help students see some ways that philosophy could be relevant to the real world. He also suggests ways that a naive view of science can be misleading (see the comments again for discussion of whether he attacks a strawman--even if he does, I'm sure there are plenty of non-scientists who are that naive). And then there's the nice metaphysical/ethical claim at the very end, that it's "mystery all the way down." It isn't easy reading, but it might provide some good discussion material or examples to make the abstract seem less distant.

There is interesting material also here, here, and here (if you read one it's worth reading all three) about practical difficulties relating to causation and correlation in mental illness and its treatment. If I ever teach philosophy of mind/psychology again I might try bringing stuff like this in and see how it goes. Watch this space.  

Friday, December 30, 2011

Philosophy football V

Tomorrow sees Cora Diamond, Richard Rorty, and Tal Brewer (among others) go head-to-head with Kelly Dean Jolley, Reshef Agam-Segal, Mandel Cabrera, James Shelley (and others) in the unfortunately-sponsored Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Virginia is the underdog, as you might expect given that Diamond has retired and Rorty is no longer with us. They also got hammered during the regular season by Jim Klagge's Virginia Tech. And it's tigers against cavaliers, which sounds pretty one-sided to me. Perhaps it's just as well that I'll be out when the likely mauling of my alma mater occurs.

That was the year that was

The top 5 posts from this year were as follows:

  1. Secondary literature on Wittgenstein (20 comments, 135 page views)
  2. Midnight in Paris (9 comments, 95 page views)
  3. NPR on Korsgaard on bin Laden (3 comments, 92 page views)
  4. And you may say to yourself, "My God, what have I done?" (8 comments, 90 page views)
  5. Black transvestites (5 comments, 84 page views)

This suggests that not everyone who comes here does so by mistake, which is good.

Around this time last year I made some predictions about what I would be doing and blogging about in 2011. Things didn't work out quite as I expected: I couldn't think of anything to say about In the Heart of the Country after all (except: read it) and as far as I can tell my submission to the Wittgenstein conference in Iceland never reached its destination. Oh well. In 2012 I expect to be thinking about poverty, rights, Wittgenstein, and applied ethics. And how to hire a philosopher.

Thanks again to everyone who reads and comments on this blog. I always like being agreed with, but the disagreement is useful too. I often end up agreeing with it, or at least having a better idea of what I think and why. And I like that, too.

Have a wonderful New Year.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Plato's cave

Nice video adaptations here and here.

Compare the idea that for the unenlightened to understand nirvana is like tadpoles trying to understand what it means to live on dry land. Also compare Matthew 13:44:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
And then there's Wittgenstein's idea that nothing is hidden; yet we do not see. Which may or may not be related, of course. (Or rather: may be related more or less directly.)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Kill the poor

This paper by "Harrett Gardin" is a wonderful response to Garrett Hardin's "Lifeboat Ethics" argument against helping the poor. (For Gardin's real identity see Brian Leiter's blog.) Hardin advocates not feeding the starving on the grounds that this will only temporarily relieve their suffering, allowing them time to reproduce and thus increase the numbers of starving people in future. Gardin improves on this by advocating the active hunting of the starving, which would relieve their suffering more quickly, would provide entertainment for the hunters, and could generate income for poor countries that charge a fee to allow hunters in.

(Hardin is also famous for his work on "the tragedy of the commons." For a response to that see here (short version: empirical research shows that commons can and do work rather well). If commons cannot work it is odd that they survived so long, and died not a natural death from their own failures but a very artificial one motivated by greed. That tragedy is described by John Clare in two poems here.) 

Argument by ridicule is an interesting kind of argument, because one can always humorlessly bite the bullet (and claim that one is heroic for doing so), but also because nothing in particular follows except the rejection of the ridiculous view. It doesn't tell us what to do or think instead (nor, presumably, would the kind of philosophy consisting only of jokes that Wittgenstein imagined). It is like arguments based on due respect for the miraculous. We enter the territory of the vague and the subjective, which I mentioned here. I think this is, at least often, where ethics belongs, but it is a difficult area to navigate. The temptation always seems to be to flatten the map and scrape the creases out, to escape to a flat world, however ridiculous, however evil, it might be. Harrett Gardin does us a great favor in showing up Hardin's shortcomings. It's a shame his paper isn't nearly as well known as Hardin's.


Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Blogging might be light over the next few days, if only because it seems anti-social to blog during a family holiday. And this is my favorite holiday: it's the coziest and the biggest, and I love our tree.

Not everyone celebrates Christmas, I know, but it's really not a religious holiday where I come from. And there's nothing specifically Christian about celebrating the rising of the sun and the running of the deer, or judging which kind of tree is the best (the oak would get my vote, but there's no such thing as a bad tree) .

The running of the deer also reminds me of this:

(Some people find this very funny, but others don't get it at all. I think it's animals being animals and humans making themselves ridiculous by getting frustrated at this. It's always good to see a dog running for pleasure, too. If I ever get a dog I might call it Fenton.)

Anyway, happy holidays to everyone!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wittgenstein: certainty

And, finally, here's the latest draft of the section on certainty. I'm not sure this is exactly perfect, but I'll return to it after Christmas and see whether anyone has thought of anything to say about it in the meantime.
Wittgenstein’s last writings were on the subject of certainty. He wrote in response to G.E. Moore’s attack on skepticism about the external world. Moore had held up one hand, said “Here is one hand,” then held up his other hand and said “and here is another.” His point was that things outside the mind really do exist, we know they do, and that no grounds for skepticism could be strong enough to undermine this commonsense knowledge.
Wittgenstein did not defend skepticism, but questioned Moore’s claim to know that he had two hands. Such ‘knowledge’ is not something that one is ever taught, or finds out, or proves. It is more like a background against which we come to know other things. Wittgenstein compares this background to the bed of a river. This river bed provides the support, the context, in which claims to know various things have meaning. The bed itself is not something we can know or doubt. In normal circumstances no sane person doubts how many hands he or she has. But unusual circumstances can occur and what was part of the river bed can shift and become part of the river. I might, for instance, wake up dazed after a terrible accident and wonder whether my hands, which I cannot feel, are still there or not. This is quite different, though, from Descartes’s pretended doubt as to whether he has a body at all. Such radical doubt is really not doubt at all, from Wittgenstein’s point of view. And so it cannot be dispelled by a proof that the body exists, as Moore tried to do.
Recently some scholars have found in these ideas an additional stage in Wittgenstein’s development as a philosopher beyond that of the Philosophical Investigations. This “third Wittgenstein” no longer eschews theories and arguments, rather he develops a new argument against skepticism. This argument is foundational. According to it, language requires a certain form of life, which in turn requires living beings and the physical environment necessary to sustain them. Any doubt can only be expressed in language, and therefore presupposes or implies the existence of these requirements. They are the foundation of all our knowledge. To doubt their existence is to imply in language that the very requirements for language might be absent. This can only be a mistake.
Critics of this view suggest that if parts of the allegedly foundational river bed can become part of the river itself then the foundation metaphor is not really apt. The planet Earth is not logically necessary for human language, and the human form of life itself might change. So if our form of life and the environment needed to keep it going are foundational, then the foundation in question is far from stable. Nor does anyone claim that Wittgenstein’s foundationalism, if there is such a thing, is like that of other foundationalists in treating the indubitability of certain experiences or the truth of certain propositions as foundational. Instead, what Wittgenstein is supposed to regard as foundational is a certain form (or forms) of life, or the physical environment needed for such a form of life. Finally, while expressions of doubt might indeed require language, language itself consists in such things as expressions of doubt. Without any doubting our very form of life might no longer be recognizable as such. If that is the case then it seems potentially misleading to call our language or our form of life a necessary precondition, or foundation, for expressions of doubt. They seem to be parts of it more than distinct entities built upon it. 

Wittgenstein: mind and soul

I'm not very happy with this, but here's what I have for now:
His observations about private language do not, as has been alleged, make Wittgenstein a behaviorist. He does not deny the existence of sensations or experiences. Pains, tickles, itches, etc. are all part of human life, of course. At Philosophical Investigations Sect. 293 Wittgenstein says that “if we construe the grammar of the expression of sensation on the model of ‘object and name’, the object drops out of consideration as irrelevant.” This suggests not that pains and so on are irrelevant but that we should not construe the grammar of the expression of sensation on the model of ‘object and designation’. If we want to understand a concept such as pain we should not think of a pain as a private object referred to somehow by the public word “pain.” A pain is not “a something,” just as love, democracy and strength are not things, but it is no more “a nothing” than they are either (see Philosophical Investigations Sect. 304). Saying this is hardly satisfactory, but there is no simple answer to the question “What is pain?” Wittgenstein offers not an answer but a kind of philosophical ‘therapy’ intended to clear away what can seem bafflingly obscure. The required clarity is (supposedly) achieved not by looking in at one’s own pain but by looking outward at the use we make of the word ‘pain.’ This is not because there is nothing there when we talk about pain, nor because we are really talking about behavior rather than a sensation or feeling when we do so. A boy who complains of toothache is not telling us about his behavior but about how he feels. To understand him and what he means we need to understand the point of his words, not investigate something inside him that is accessible to him alone.
This puts Wittgenstein at odds with all the best known theories in the philosophy of mind. He opposes the Cartesian idea that a pain (or a belief, memory, etc.) is something in the soul. He opposes the idea that a pain is something in the brain. He opposes the idea that a pain is a something defined by its functional role. And he opposes the eliminativist idea that we should abandon concepts such as ‘pain’ altogether. Instead of proposing any kind of theory about the mind or mental states, he suggests that we already understand them well enough and merely need to be reminded, or to remind ourselves, of what we already know. Most people interested in increasing or improving our understanding of the mind and its states, therefore, find little of interest in Wittgenstein’s work. They would agree with him, however, in rejecting Descartes’s idea that the mind is the soul.
Wittgenstein says in proposition 6.4312 of the Tractatus that there can be no guarantee of the immortality of the soul, if any such thing exists. Within space and time, or just time, one is dealing with phenomena or contingencies. So there can never be a guarantee (or necessity) that something will last for any specific length of time, including all time. More to the point, it is not more life but better that one needs, so such immortality is beside the point as Wittgenstein sees it. And value (whatever might determine what is better) lies outside this contingent world. Wittgenstein is not denying that the soul exists, nor that it is immortal. What he says is that the soul as it is conceived by some psychologists does not exist.
In the Philosophical Investigations §422, he writes that the belief that people have souls gives us a certain picture, but its sense, that is its application, is distant from us or hard to see. The picture of the soul comes up again in section iv of “Philosophy of Psychology – A Fragment” (previously known as Part II of the Investigations). Wittgenstein there contrasts the idea of someone’s being an automaton with the idea of his having a soul. Neither makes sense as an opinion or belief, he says. Rather it is a question of attitude. Words and paintings can equally present a picture of the human being as “having a soul.” What this means though depends on how one uses the picture, on what one does with it. This is very complex, since it is a question of how one lives with other people, including one’s thoughts, feelings, actions, and reactions. The best picture of the human soul, he says, is the human body. Therefore not, presumably, the brain alone, or some non-physical object somehow linked with it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A study of reading habits

In Norman Malcolm's memoir of Wittgenstein, p. 62, Malcolm quotes a letter in which Wittgenstein says that:
reading aloud well, i.e. carefully, teaches one a lot! E.g. how rotten & slapdash most people, & the newspapers, write; & they write as they think.  
I thought of this when I read Timothy Garton Ash's obituary of Vรกclav Havel in the Guardian. Speaking of "the European project" he writes there that:
Looking at the mess that project is in today, one can only cry: "Havel! Europe hath need of thee."
Really? That's the only thing one can do? More charitably: Really? That's the only thing one can cry?

Jean Kazez and Matthew Pianalto read slowly, as do I. I wonder whether this is common among philosophers. It seems possible that slow readers are more careful about uses of language, and perhaps less likely to produce (a certain kind of) thoughtless claptrap. I hope we are.

Irrelevant video to explain the title and provide an opportunity to hear Larkin say "dude":

Monday, December 19, 2011

Wittgenstein: religion

Here's what I have so far on religion for the IEP article:
Wittgenstein had a lifelong interest in religion and claimed to see every problem from a religious point of view, but never committed himself to any formal religion. His various remarks on ethics also suggest a particular point of view, and Wittgenstein often spoke of ethics and religion together. This point of view or attitude can be seen in the four main themes that run through Wittgenstein’s writings on ethics and religion: goodness, value or meaning are not to be found in the world; living the right way involves acceptance of or agreement with the world, or life, or God’s will, or fate; one who lives this way will see the world as a miracle; there is no answer to the problem of life–the solution is the disappearance of the problem.
Wittgenstein opposed interpretations of religion that emphasize doctrine or philosophical arguments intended to prove God’s existence, but was greatly drawn to religious rituals and symbols, and considered becoming a priest. He likened the ritual of religion to a great gesture, as when one kisses a photograph. This is not based on the false belief that the person in the photograph will feel the kiss or return it, nor is it based on any other belief. Neither is the kiss just a substitute for a particular phrase, like “I love you.” Like the kiss, religious activity does express an attitude, but it is not just the expression of an attitude in the sense that several other forms of expression might do just as well. There might be no substitute that would do. The same might be said of the whole language-game (or games) of religion, but this is a controversial point. If religious utterances, such as “God exists,” are treated as gestures of a certain kind then this seems not to be treating them as literal statements. Many religious believers, including Wittgensteinian ones, would object strongly to this. There is room, though, for a good deal of sophisticated disagreement about what it means to take a statement literally. For instance, Charles Taylor’s view, roughly, is that the real is whatever will not go away. If we cannot reduce talk about God to anything else, or replace it, or prove it false, then perhaps God is as real as anything else.
The main source of information about Wittgenstein’s thoughts on religion is second hand reports of things he said in lectures or conversation and scattered remarks in notebooks. There is not much to go on, in other words. Nevertheless, ideas about religion that come from him and his followers have been much discussed. One such idea is Wittgensteinian fideism. This is the belief, associated with Wittgensteinian philosophers of religion, that faith is beyond criticism either because it is a distinct language-game with its own rules or because faith is really a matter of certain forms of behavior, etc. Whether Wittgenstein is guilty of such fideism is a controversial matter. He would probably agree that philosophy as such cannot criticize religion, but this does not mean that there is anything wrong with people doing so. As with ethics, philosophy does not, as he sees it, have the power to tell us what to believe or to do, but neither does it tell us not to reject this or that ethical theory or religious belief.

Wittgenstein: ethics

Here's another draft of a revised section of my article on Wittgenstein for the IEP:
In 1929 Wittgenstein gave a lecture on ethics to a student organization at Cambridge called the Heretics Society.  In this lecture he identifies ethics with aesthetics and religion, suggesting that all three have to do with experiences that we feel are supremely important.  He gives three examples of the kind of feelings he has in mind.  The least surprising of these, which is often overlooked by commentators on the lecture, is the feeling of guilt.  Certain kinds of action make us feel bad when we do them, but rather than try to get rid of these bad feelings, as we would with a headache, we value the feelings as intimately related to something important, namely ethics.  The rational thing would seem to be to try to take some kind of moral aspirin, which no doubt some people do in one way or another, but that isn’t what we think of as the right thing to do.
Another example that Wittgenstein gives is the feeling of wonder at the very existence of the world.  Being able to sense, whether what we sense is pleasurable or painful, seems good to us, perhaps most obviously when we think about being able to see.  Of course, sight is useful, but even if it did you no good at all it is something you would probably still want very much to have.  This comes out in Shakespeare’s play King Lear, which Wittgenstein wanted to quote in the motto to a book he planned to write, and which also contains the idea that life is a miracle to be treasured, no matter how badly things might go.  This wonder at the existence of the world, at being able to see, or sense, or be conscious, or alive, at the fact that there is something rather than nothing, is often said to be the beginning of philosophy.  For some philosophers it has been the end too, the goal of their work being to bring this feeling back into a world whose increasing rationality seems to be stifling it.
The other feeling that Wittgenstein talks about is the feeling of being absolutely safe.  This might relate to belief in immortality.  Socrates famously said while he was awaiting execution that a good person cannot be harmed.  Perhaps he felt absolutely safe.  No real harm could come to him, he seems to have believed, even if he was made to drink poison until he died.  Belief in life after death is very familiar, of course, but we all know that when you’re dead you’re dead.  So what can “life after death” mean?  Well, what can it mean to think that it is ever good to feel bad?  What can it mean to value a life in which you lose everything you ever had and loved, to love life despite its very worst contents?
Rather than try to explain the meaning of such feelings, or the sentences we produce when we try to express them, Wittgenstein rejects the idea of reconciling value with sense.  All rational talk of value can only ever be in terms of what will satisfy our various preferences most efficiently, he believes.  So talk of real value, the kind of value that actually has value, can only be nonsense.  Wittgenstein accepts this, encourages others to accept it too, without trying to wriggle out of it by pretending that nonsense can make sense after all or contain profound truths.  If we are to avoid hypocrisy, sentimentality, bad taste, and wishful thinking, then we must accept that we cannot express the feelings that give our lives a sense of meaning or value.  We should make no attempt to do so.  This does not mean, though, that we should have different feelings (how could we?) or live as someone would who had no such feelings (why should we?).
In a world of contingency one cannot prove that a particular attitude is the correct one to take. If this suggests relativism, it should be remembered that it too is just one more attitude or point of view, and one without the rich tradition and accumulated wisdom, philosophical reasoning and personal experience of, say, orthodox Christianity or Judaism. Indeed crude relativism, the universal judgement that one cannot make universal judgments, is self- contradictory. Whether Wittgenstein’s views suggest a more sophisticated form of relativism is another matter, but the spirit of relativism seems far from Wittgenstein’s conservatism and absolute intolerance of his own moral shortcomings. Compare the tolerance that motivates relativism with Wittgenstein’s assertion to Russell that he would prefer “by far” an organization dedicated to war and slavery to one dedicated to peace and freedom. (This assertion, however, should not be taken literally: Wittgenstein was no war-monger and even recommended letting oneself be massacred rather than taking part in hand-to-hand combat. It was apparently the complacency, and perhaps the self-righteousness, of Russell’s liberal cause that Wittgenstein objected to.)
Certainly Wittgenstein worried about being morally good or even perfect, and he had great respect for sincere religious conviction, but he also said, in his 1929 lecture on ethics, that “the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language,” i.e. to talk or write nonsense. This gives support to the view that Wittgenstein believed in mystical truths that somehow cannot be expressed meaningfully but that are of the utmost importance. It is hard to conceive, though, what these ‘truths’ might be.
An alternative view is that Wittgenstein believed that there is really nothing to say about ethics. This would explain why he wrote less and less about ethics as his life wore on. His “accept and endure” attitude and belief in going “the bloody hard way” are evident in all his work, especially after the Tractatus. Wittgenstein wants his reader not to think (too much) but to look at the “language games” (any practices that involve language) that give rise to philosophical (personal, existential, spiritual) problems. His approach to such problems is painstaking, thorough, open-eyed and receptive. His ethical attitude is an integral part of his method and shows itself as such.
Wittgenstein’s emphasis on language and human behavior, practices, etc. makes him a prime candidate for anti-realism in many people’s eyes. He has even been accused of linguistic idealism, the idea that language is the ultimate reality. The laws of physics, say, would by this theory just be laws of language, the rules of the language game of physics. Anti-realist skepticism of this kind has proved quite popular in the philosophy of science and in theology, as well as more generally in metaphysics and ethics.
On the other hand, there is a school of Wittgensteinian realism, which is less well known. Wittgenstein’s views on religion, for instance, are often compared with those of Simone Weil, who was a Platonist of sorts. Sabina Lovibond argues for a kind of Wittgensteinian realism in ethics in her Realism and Imagination in Ethicsand the influence of Wittgenstein is clear in Raimond Gaita’s Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception. However, one should not go too far with the idea of Wittgensteinian realism. Lovibond, for instance, equates objectivity with intersubjectivity (universal agreement), so her realism is of a controversial kind.
Both realism and anti-realism, though, are theories, or schools of theories, and Wittgenstein explicitly rejects the advocacy of theories in philosophy. This does not prove that he practiced what he preached, but it should give us pause. It is also worth noting that supporters of Wittgenstein often claim that he was neither a realist nor an anti-realist, at least with regard to metaphysics. There is something straightforwardly un-Wittgensteinian about the realist’s belief that language/thought can be compared with reality and found to ‘agree’ with it. The anti-realist says that we could not get outside our thought or language (or form of life or language games) to compare the two. But Wittgenstein was concerned not with what we can or cannot do, but with what makes sense. If metaphysical realism is incoherent then so is its opposite. The nonsensical utterance “laubgefraub” is not to be contradicted by saying, “No, it is not the case that laubgefraub,” or “Laubgefraub is a logical impossibility.” If realism is truly incoherent, as Wittgenstein would say, then so is anti-realism.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Wittgenstein: private language

More of a first draft of a revised version of the article I'm working on for the IEP:
The debate about solitary individuals is sometimes referred to as the debate about “private language.” Wittgenstein uses this expression in another context, however, to name a language that refers to private sensations. Such a private language by definition cannot be understood by anyone other than its user (who alone knows the sensations to which it refers). Wittgenstein invites us to imagine a man who decides to write ‘S’ in his diary whenever he has a certain sensation. This sensation has no natural expression, and ‘S’ cannot be defined in words. The only judge of whether ‘S’ is used correctly is the inventor of ‘S’. The only criterion of correctness is whether a sensation feels the same to him or her. There are no criteria for its being the same other than its seeming the same. So he writes ‘S’ when he feels like it. He might as well be doodling. The so-called ‘private language’ is no language at all.
It might be worth trying to spell this idea out at greater length, and Wittgenstein approaches much the same idea from a different angle with his example of the beetle in the box. In this case we are asked to imagine that everyone has a box with something in it called a “beetle.” No one can see anyone else’s beetle, and the only way for anyone to know what a beetle is is to look inside his or her own box. Whatever is in it is a beetle, by definition. So “beetle” means “contents of one’s box,” whatever this might be, including nothing at all or a constantly changing something. Or rather, it is to the contents that the word “beetle” refers, but the use of the word “beetle” might be quite different from the use made of “the contents of one’s box.” The terms “flyover states” and “the heartland” might refer to the same geographic region, but their meanings are different in the sense that the use, the point, of each is different. In the case of “beetle,” however, there is no such relevant common referent. Only the use can matter to the word, and this use is common to all speakers of the language.
The words of a “private” language, one whose words’ meanings were the boxed-in contents of each speaker’s head, would have no real meaning at all. This is because the meaning in question of each word is supposed to be whatever is in the person’s mind or head when he or she says (or writes, or thinks) ‘beetle’ or ‘S’. Not that the meaning is: whatever is in my head when I say ‘S.’ That is perfectly intelligible. Rather, the meaning is supposed to be the actual thing, whatever it might happen to be, and this could be anything or nothing. A language whose words mean anything or nothing is no language at all.     
The point of this is not to show that a private language is impossible but to show that certain things one might want to say about language are ultimately incoherent. If we really try to picture a world of private objects (sensations) and inner acts of meaning and so on, we see that what we picture is either regular public language or incomprehensible behavior (the man might as well quack as say or write ‘S’).

Wittgenstein: rule-following

As always, comments welcome (but not mandatory):
Without sharing certain attitudes towards the things around us, without sharing a sense of relevance and responding in similar ways, communication would be impossible. It is important, for instance, that nearly all of us agree nearly all the time on what colors things are. Such agreement is part of our concept of color, Wittgenstein suggests. Regularity of the use of such concepts and agreement in their application is part of language, not a logically necessary precondition of it. We cannot separate the life in which there is such agreement from our concept of color. Imagine a different form or way of life and you imagine a different language with different concepts, different rules, and a different logic.
This raises the question of the relation between language and forms or ways of life. For instance, could just one person have a language of his or her own? To imagine an individual solitary from birth is scarcely to imagine a form of life at all, but more like just imagining a life-form. Moreover, language involves rules establishing certain linguistic practices. Rules of grammar express the fact that it is our practice to say this (e.g. “half past twelve”) and not that (e.g. “half to one”). Agreement is essential to such practices. Could a solitary individual, then, engage in any practice, including linguistic ones? With whom could he or she agree? This is a controversial issue in the interpretation of Wittgenstein. Gordon Baker and P.M.S. Hacker hold that such a solitary man could speak his own language, follow his own rules, and so on, agreeing, over time, with himself in his judgments and behavior. Orthodoxy is against this interpretation, however.
Norman Malcolm has argued that rules are only ever followed, given, and enforced against a background of instruction and acceptance. An individual who was solitary from birth would not have such a background, and hence would not follow rules. He or she might behave in a regular way, but would not thereby be guided by, or really follow, any rules. Mere regularity of behavior does not constitute following rules, whether they be rules of grammar or any other kind. A car that never starts in cold weather does not follow the rule “Don’t start when it’s cold,” nor does a songbird follow a rule in singing the same song every day. Whether a solitary-from-birth individual would ever do anything that we would properly call following a rule is at least highly doubtful. How could he or she give himself or herself a rule to follow without language? And how could he or she get a language? Inventing one would involve inventing meaning, as Rush Rhees has argued, and this sounds incoherent. (The most famous debate about this was between Rhees and A.J. Ayer. Unfortunately for Wittgenstein, Ayer is generally considered to have won.) Alternatively, perhaps the Crusoe-like figure just does behave, sound, etc. exactly like a native speaker of, say, English. But this is to imagine either a freakish automaton, not a human being, or else a miracle. In the case of a miracle, Wittgenstein says, it is significant that we imagine not just the pseudo-Crusoe but also God. In the case of the automatic speaker, we might adopt what Daniel Dennett calls an “intentional stance” towards him, calling what he does “speaking English,” but he is obviously not doing what the rest of us English-speakers–who learned the language, rather than being born speaking it, and who influence and are influenced by others in our use of the language–do.
The best known work on Wittgenstein’s writings on this whole topic is Saul A. Kripke’s Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. Kripke is struck by the idea that anything might count as continuing a series or following a rule in the same way. It all depends on how the rule or series is interpreted. And any rule for interpretation will itself be subject to a variety of interpretations, and so on. What counts as following a rule correctly, then, is not determined somehow by the rule itself but by what the relevant linguistic community accepts as following the rule. So whether two plus two equals four depends not on some abstract, extra-human rule of addition, but on what we, and especially the people we appoint as experts, accept. Truth conditions are replaced by assertability conditions. To put it crudely, what counts is not what is true or right (in some sense independent of the community of language users), but what you can get away with or get others to accept.
Kripke’s theory is clear and ingenious, and owes a lot to Wittgenstein, but is doubtful as an interpretation of Wittgenstein. Kripke himself presents the argument not as Wittgenstein’s, nor as his own, but as “Wittgenstein’s argument as it struck Kripke” (Kripke p.5). That the argument is not Wittgenstein’s is suggested by the fact that it is a theory, and Wittgenstein rejected philosophical theories, and by the fact that the argument relies heavily on the first sentence of Philosophical Investigations Sect. 201: “This was our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because every course of action can be made out to accord with the rule.” For Kripke’s theory as a reading of Wittgenstein, it is not good that the very next paragraph begins, “It can be seen that there is a misunderstanding here…” Still, it is no easy matter to see just where Wittgenstein does diverge from the hybrid person often referred to as ‘Kripkenstein’. The key perhaps lies later in the same paragraph, where Wittgenstein writes that “there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation“. Many scholars, notably Baker and Hacker, have gone to great lengths to explain why Kripke is mistaken. Since Kripke is so much easier to understand, one of the best ways into Wittgenstein’s philosophy is to study Kripke and his Wittgensteinian critics. At the very least, Kripke introduces his readers well to issues that were of great concern to Wittgenstein and shows their importance.

Wittgenstein: meaning

Here's a draft of the section on meaning for the IEP article:
The most famous of the theories that have been found in the Tractatus is the “picture theory” of meaning. According to this theory propositions are meaningful insofar as they picture states of affairs or matters of empirical fact. Anything normative, supernatural or (one might say) metaphysical must, it therefore seems, be nonsense. This has been an influential reading of parts of the Tractatus. Unfortunately, this reading leads to serious problems since by its own lights the Tractatus’ use of words such as “object,” “reality” and “world” is illegitimate. These concepts are purely formal or a priori. A statement such as “There are objects in the world” does not picture a state of affairs. Rather it is, as it were, presupposed by the notion of a state of affairs. The “picture theory” therefore apparently denies sense to just the kind of statements of which the Tractatus is composed, to the framework supporting the picture theory itself. In this way the Tractatus pulls the rug out from under its own feet.
In contrast to the idea that words have meaning in virtue of their picturing or representing states of affairs in the world, Sect. 43 of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations says that: “For a large class of cases of the employment of the word “meaning” – though not for all – this word can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.”
It is quite clear that here Wittgenstein is not offering the general theory that “meaning is use,” as he is sometimes interpreted as doing. The main rival views that Wittgenstein warns against are that the meaning of a word is some object that it names–in which case the meaning of a word could be destroyed, stolen or locked away, which is nonsense–and that the meaning of a word is some psychological feeling–in which case each user of a word could mean something different by it, having a different feeling, and communication would be difficult if not impossible.
Knowing the meaning of a word can involve knowing many things: to what objects the word refers (if any), whether it is slang or not, what part of speech it is, whether it carries overtones, and if so what kind they are, and so on. To know all this, or to know enough to get by, is to know the use. And generally knowing the use means knowing the meaning. Philosophical questions about consciousness, for example, then, should be responded to by looking at the various uses we make of the word “consciousness.” Scientific investigations into the brain are not directly relevant to this inquiry (although they might be indirectly relevant if scientific discoveries led us to change our use of such words). The meaning of any word is a matter of what we do with our language, not something hidden inside anyone’s mind or brain. This is not an attack on neuroscience. It is merely distinguishing philosophy (which, as Wittgenstein understands it, is properly concerned with linguistic or conceptual analysis) from science (which is concerned with discovering facts).
One exception to the meaning-is-use rule of thumb is given in Philosophical Investigations Sect.561, where Wittgenstein says that “the word “is” is used with two different meanings (as copula and as sign of equality)” but that its meaning is not its use. That is to say, “is” has not one complex use (including both “Water is clear” and “Water is H2O”) and therefore one complex meaning, but two quite distinct uses and meanings. It is an accident that the same word has these two uses. It is not an accident that we use the word “car” to refer to both Fords and Hondas. But what is accidental and what is essential to a concept depends on us, on how we use it. This in turn depends on our purposes and interests.
It is not completely arbitrary, however. Depending on one’s environment, one’s physical needs and desires, one’s emotions, one’s sensory capacities, and so on, different concepts will be more natural or useful to one. This is why “forms of life” are so important to Wittgenstein. What matters to you depends on how you live (and vice versa), and this shapes your experience. So if a lion could speak, Wittgenstein says, we would not be able to understand it. We might realize that “roar” meant zebra, or that “roar roar” meant lame zebra, but we would not understand lion ethics, politics, aesthetic taste, religion, humor and such like, if lions have these things. We could not honestly say “I know what you mean” to a lion. Understanding another involves empathy, which requires the kind of similarity that we just do not have with lions, and that many people do not have with some other human beings.
When a person says something what he or she means depends not only on what is said but also on the context in which it is said. Importance, point, meaning are given by the surroundings. Words, gestures, expressions come alive, as it were, only within a language game, a culture, a form of life. If a picture, say, means something then it means so to somebody. Its meaning is not an objective property of the picture in the way that its size and shape are. The same goes of any mental picture. Hence Wittgenstein’s remark that “If God had looked into our minds he would not have been able to see there whom we were speaking of.” Any internal image would need interpretation. If I interpret my thought as one of Hitler and God sees it as Charlie Chaplin, who is right? Which of the two famous contemporaries of Wittgenstein’s I mean shows itself in the way that I behave, the things I do and say. It is in this that the use, the meaning, of my thought or mental picture lies. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wittgenstein: conception of philosophy

A draft of a revised version of the section on Wittgenstein's conception of philosophy for the IEP:
Wittgenstein told the publisher Ludwig von Ficker that the point of the Tractatus was ethical. In the preface to the book he says that its value consists in two things: “that thoughts are expressed in it” and “that it shows how little is achieved when these problems are solved.” The problems he refers to are the problems of philosophy defined, we may suppose, by the work of Frege and Russell, and perhaps also Schopenhauer. At the end of the book Wittgenstein says “My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical” [emphasis added]. What to make of the Tractatus, its author, and the propositions it contains, then, is no easy matter.
The book certainly does not seem to be about ethics. It consists of numbered propositions in seven sets. Proposition 1.2 belongs to the first set and is a comment on proposition 1. Proposition 1.21 is about proposition 1.2, and so on. The seventh set contains only one proposition, the famous “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”
At several points in the Tractatus (e.g. 1, 4.01, 4.121, 4.5, and 5.4711) Wittgenstein seems to be saying that the essence of the world and of life is: This is how things are. One is tempted to add “–deal with it.” That seems to fit what Cora Diamond has called his “accept and endure” ethics, but he says that the propositions of the Tractatus are meaningless, not profound insights, ethical or otherwise. What are we to make of this?
Many commentators ignore or dismiss what Wittgenstein said about his work and its aims, and instead look for regular philosophical theories in his work. The most famous of these in the Tractatus is the “picture theory” of meaning. According to this theory propositions are meaningful insofar as they picture states of affairs or matters of empirical fact. Anything normative, supernatural or (one might say) metaphysical must, it therefore seems, be nonsense. This has been an influential reading of parts of the Tractatus. Unfortunately, this reading leads to serious problems since by its own lights the Tractatus’ use of words such as “object,” “reality” and “world” is illegitimate. These concepts are purely formal or a priori. A statement such as “There are objects in the world” does not picture a state of affairs. Rather it is, as it were, presupposed by the notion of a state of affairs. The “picture theory” therefore apparently denies sense to just the kind of statements of which the Tractatus is composed, to the framework supporting the picture theory itself. In this way the Tractatus pulls the rug out from under its own feet.
If the propositions of the Tractatus are nonsensical then they surely cannot put forward the picture theory of meaning, or any other theory. Nonsense is nonsense. However, this is not to say that the Tractatus itself is without value. Wittgenstein’s aim may have been to show up as nonsense the things that philosophers (himself included) are tempted to say. Philosophical theories, he suggests, are attempts to answer questions that are not really questions at all (they are nonsense), or to solve problems that are not really problems. He says in proposition 4.003 that:
Most of the propositions and questions of philosophers arise from our failure to understand the logic of our language. (They belong to the same class as the question whether the good is more or less identical than the beautiful.) And it is not surprising that the deepest problems are in fact not problems at all.
Philosophers, then, have the task of presenting the logic of our language clearly. This will not solve important problems but it will show that some things that we take to be important problems are really not problems at all. The gain is not wisdom but an absence of confusion. This is not a rejection of philosophy or logic. Wittgenstein took philosophical puzzlement very seriously indeed, but he thought that it needed dissolving by analysis rather than solving by the production of theories. The Tractatus presents itself as a key for untying a series of knots both profound and highly technical.
Wittgenstein’s view of what philosophy is, or should be, changed little over his life. In the Tractatus he says at 4.111 that “philosophy is not one of the natural sciences,” and at 4.112 “Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts.” Philosophy is not descriptive but elucidatory. Its aim is to clear up muddle and confusion. It follows that philosophers should not concern themselves so much with what is actual, keeping up with the latest popularizations of science, say, which Wittgenstein despised. The philosopher’s proper concern is with what is possible, or rather with what is conceivable. This depends on our concepts and the ways they fit together as seen in language. What is conceivable and what is not, what makes sense and what does not, depends on the rules of language, of grammar.
In Philosophical Investigations Sect. 90 Wittgenstein says:
Our investigation is a grammatical one. Such an investigation sheds light on our problem by clearing misunderstandings away. Misunderstandings concerning the use of words, caused, among other things, by certain analogies between the forms of expression in different regions of language.
The similarities between the sentences “I’ll keep it in mind” and “I’ll keep it in this box,” for instance, (along with many others) can lead one to think of the mind as a thing something like a box with contents of its own. The nature of this box and its mental contents can then seem very mysterious. Wittgenstein suggests that one way, at least, to deal with such mysteries is to recall the different things one says about minds, memories, thoughts and so on, in a variety of contexts.
What one says, or what people in general say, can change. Ways of life and uses of language change, so meanings change, but not utterly and instantaneously. Things shift and evolve, but rarely if ever so drastically that we lose all grip on meaning. So there is no timeless essence of at least some and perhaps all concepts, but we still understand one another well enough most of the time.
When nonsense is spoken or written, or when something just seems fishy, we can sniff it out. The road out of confusion can be a long and difficult one, hence the need for constant attention to detail and particular examples rather than generalizations, which tend to be vague and therefore potentially misleading. The slower the route, the surer the safety at the end of it. That is why Wittgenstein said that in philosophy the winner is the one who finishes last. But we cannot escape language or the confusions to which it gives rise, except by dying. In the meantime, Wittgenstein offers four main methods to avoid philosophical confusion, as described by Norman Malcolm: describing circumstances in which a seemingly problematic expression might actually be used in everyday life, comparing our use of words with imaginary language games, imagining fictitious natural history, and explaining psychologically the temptation to use a certain expression inappropriately.
The complex, intertwined relationship between a language and the form of life that goes with it means that problems arising from language cannot just be set aside–they infect our lives, making us live in confusion. We might find our way back to the right path, but there is no guarantee that we will never again stray. In this sense there can be no progress in philosophy.
In 1931 (see Culture and Value, p. 18e) Wittgenstein described his task thus:
Language sets everyone the same traps; it is an immense network of easily accessible wrong turnings. And so we watch one man after another walking down the same paths and we know in advance where he will branch off, where walk straight on without noticing the side turning, etc. etc. What I have to do then is erect signposts at all the junctions where there are wrong turnings so as to help people past the danger points.
But such signposts are all that philosophy can offer and there is no certainty that they will be noticed or followed correctly. And we should remember that a signpost belongs in the context of a particular problem area. It might be no help at all elsewhere, and should not be treated as dogma. So philosophy offers no truths, no theories, nothing exciting, but mainly reminders of what we all know. This is not a glamorous role, but it is difficult and important. It requires an almost infinite capacity for taking pains (which is one definition of genius) and could have enormous implications for anyone who is drawn to philosophical contemplation or who is misled by bad philosophical theories. This applies not only to professional philosophers but to any people who stray into philosophical confusion, perhaps not even realizing that their problems are philosophical rather than, say, scientific.