Thursday, May 31, 2012

Discovering Rorty

Waiting for Rorty's "Pragmatism and Romanticism" to arrive via inter-library loan (it came right after I finished reading the paper, naturally) I searched online and found this. It appears to be a complete copy of Philosophy as Cultural Politics, and not a photocopy of someone's marked up copy either. So I was able to read the essay I wanted without waiting. (It surely isn't legal to put a book online like that, but I can't think of anything wrong with using the online version rather than a library copy, and being able to search using ctrl+f, and to cut and paste quotations, made my day.)

Two more discoveries I made:
  1. I agree with Rorty far more than I realized, and on ideas that are quite specific to him, such as his thoughts on poetry. I must have absorbed a lot from him without realizing it. Which makes me wonder how much I have absorbed from other people without realizing it or giving them credit. (I think I've said this before, but I'm still shocked by it.)
  2. He says things in this essay that could be very helpful to me in explaining what I mean when I talk about poetry. For instance, in comments here I used Dylan Thomas's description of the sky as "bible-black" as an example of poetry. It brings together two ideas that might otherwise have remained separate (that of  the Bible and that of blackness). Compare Rorty:
    It took imaginative genius to suggest that everybody make the same noise at the sight of blood, of certain maple leaves in autumn, and of the western sky at sunset. It was only when such suggestions were taken seriously and put into practice that hominids began to have minds.
    As for the concept “round,” it was not obvious that the full moon and the trunks of trees had anything in common before some genius began to use a noise that we would translate as “round.” Nothing at all was obvious, because obviousness is not a notion that can be applied to organisms that do not use language.
    I pretty much agree with everything he says in this essay, except the following:
    We shall never find descriptions so perfect that imaginative redescription will become pointless. (p. 109)
    How can anyone know this? As an expression of confidence I have no objection to it, but it sounds like a prediction about what is bound to be the case because of the way things are (known to be). And that sounds like metaphysics to me.
    On the anti-empiricist view, a view that I think Nietzsche would have welcomed had he encountered it, there is no difference between the thermostat, the dog, and the pre-linguistic infant except the differing degrees of complexity of their reactions to environmental stimuli. The brutes and the infants are capable of discriminative responses, but not of acquiring information. (p. 113)
    If the point here is about who or what can acquire information, then fair enough. But it sounds as though Rorty is making a claim about what dogs, thermostats, and infants are. I don't mean that they are made of different stuff (they are, but Rorty would surely concede that point), but the idea that the only important difference between a baby and a thermostat is that one is more complicated in its reactions to stimuli than the other sounds like something Mr Gradgrind would say. I hope that isn't what Rorty means, but if he does then I disagree.
    [T]o say that a dog knows its master, or a baby its mother, is like saying that a lock knows when the right key has been inserted, or that a computer knows when it has been given the right password. (p. 113)
    No it isn't. For one thing, as Rorty might agree, the first two are quite ordinary things to say, the latter two are not. Anyone who insists that dogs don't really know their masters is kidding, or doesn't know dogs, or doesn't know the meaning of 'know'. Dogs and babies are not inanimate, and this is not irrelevant. We can adopt that kind of perspective if we want to, for instance if we're doing physics, but otherwise it isn't a good idea. And it isn't anything like a view from nowhere or way to the truth, as Rorty of all people might be expected to agree. So, again, perhaps I'm misreading him here.

    With what, then, do I agree? I'll select a few key claims, although there is lots of good stuff here.
    reason can only follow paths that the imagination has broken (p. 105)
    To be imaginative, as opposed to being merely fantastical, one must both do something new and be lucky enough to have that novelty adopted by one’s fellows – incorporated into their ways of doing things. The distinction between fantasy and imagination is between novelties that do not get taken up and put to use by one’s fellows and those that do. People whose novelties we cannot appropriate and utilize we call foolish, or perhaps insane. Those whose ideas strike us as useful we hail as geniuses. (p. 107)
    I think I knew that I got this idea from Rorty, and it seems slightly fishy to me, a little too simple perhaps, but I still hold to it.
    Language is a social practice that began when it dawned on some genius that we could use noises, rather than physical compulsion – persuasion rather than force – to get other humans to cooperate with us. Language got off the ground not by people giving names to things they were already thinking about, but by proto-humans using noises in innovative ways, just as the proto-beavers got the practice of building dams off the ground by moving sticks and mud around in innovative ways. (pp. 107-108)
    It couldn't really have dawned on some genius that anything before there was language, but I suppose this is meant as a metaphor (or even a kind of joke). The second sentence sounds right though.
    [E]xpressions like “gravity” and “inalienable human rights” should not be thought of as names of entities whose nature remains mysterious, but as noises and marks, the use of which by various geniuses have given rise to bigger and better social practices. (p. 108)
    This is pretty much my view of rights, so perhaps I don't need to develop that view any more.
    Shelley, in his “Defence of Poetry,” deliberately and explicitly enlarged the meaning of the term “Poetry.” That word, he said, “may be defined as ‘the expression of the Imagination.’” (p. 109)
    Rationality is a matter of making allowed moves within language games. Imagination creates the games that reason proceeds to play. Then, exemplified by people like Plato and Newton, it keeps modifying those games so that playing them is more interesting and profitable. Reason cannot get outside the latest circle that imagination has drawn. In this sense, imagination has priority over reason. (p. 115)
    I'll have to think about this, but it appeals to me.

    Finally, there's this:
    Ontology remains popular because we are still reluctant to yield to the Romantic’s argument that the imagination sets the bounds of thought. At the heart of both philosophy’s ancient quarrel with poetry and the more recent quarrel between the scientific and the literary cultures is the fear of both philosophers and scientists that the imagination may indeed go all the way down. This fear is entirely justified, for the imagination is the source of language, and thought is impossible without language. Revulsion against this claim has caused philosophers to become obsessed by the need to achieve an access to reality unmediated by, and prior to, the use of language. (pp. 106-107)
    Rorty has a footnote here referring to his paper "Wittgenstein and the Linguistic Turn," which I'll have to read. But this passage also reminded me of Avner Baz's new book. Lars Hertzberg quotes Baz as follows:
    I did not know then, as I do now, how thoroughly reinforced by theoretical presuppositions the resistance to Wittgenstein's (later) work had become. As I wrote this book, I found myself again and again discovering, often with the help of colleagues and friends, yet another layer of theoretical bulwark set against the philosophical approach I was seeking to vindicate.
    I think I'll have to read this too.

    Wednesday, May 30, 2012

    Out there in the ether I suppose

    This essay by Ron Rosenbaum about Auden and Larkin on love is worth reading if only for the picture of the Arundel tomb that Larkin wrote about. Rosenbaum's penultimate paragraph is disappointingly metaphysical though:
    And then there's the unanswered question that's been troubling me personally and is perhaps the reason I’ve been a bit obsessed with these lines. What happens to the love between two people when it’s over? Seriously, where does it go, all that feeling, all those memories—do they dissolve into the air or do they survive somewhere, in some way—perhaps in a parallel universe?
    The best thing about this question is that it calls to mind Tracey Thorn's song "By Piccadilly Station I Sat Down and Wept," which contains these lines:
    Do you ever wonderWhere love goes?Out there in the ether I supposeSometimes it burns enough to leave a trace in the airThe ghost of me and you in a parallel world somewhere
    Thorn isn't being serious, though, or at least isn't speaking literally ("I suppose" shows that she isn't trying to answer the question seriously--it's like Morrissey's "I dunno" in response to "Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body?"). Rosenbaum seems to be engaging in sentimental metaphysics while Thorn is expressing feelings. Or perhaps Rosenbaum is just an inferior poet doing the same thing as Thorn. (Of course Thorn might not strike you as being much good either, but song lyrics rarely seem good when written down.)   

    But back to Larkin. His poem describes a stone tomb that shows a knight and his wife lying side-by-side and holding hands. Rosenbaum wants to think that Larkin's reaction is to believe that amor vincit omnia, but that is quite far from what he says. Here's the last stanza of the poem:
    Time has transfigured them into
    Untruth. The stone fidelity
    They hardly meant has come to be
    Their final blazon, and to prove
    Our almost-instinct almost true:
    What will survive of us is love.
    Time has transfigured them into untruth, not revealed the truth about them. Although perhaps this untruth has more to do with how the times have changed so that contemporary visitors to the tomb miss a lot, such as the meaning of the Latin inscription on the tomb that people no longer even read. Instead of the full truth about the earl and countess, only an attitude remains. The stone fidelity they hardly meant was a) not meant, but only something thrown off, b) meant, but perhaps something of an afterthought (the sculptor was commissioned, after all, and couldn't just do whatever he liked), and c) meant in a way that is as hard as stone, very much meant. I think Larkin is suggesting all three meanings, though not necessarily at once--they come in waves, in the order I have given them (or that's how they come to me, but how else can I read?).

    What does it all prove? Supposedly that "what will survive of us is love" is almost true. What has survived of them is love because that is what is timelessly understood and that is what they chose to show to the world. We don't make such tombs, though, and churches themselves are relics of the past, as Larkin sees them (in "Church Going" he implies, with regret, that belief is bound to die). Larkin's own relationships are somewhat notorious. What will survive of him is not love. But he's there in the poem all the same, assuming that the rhyme of 'eye' with 'I' is not just coincidental:
    Such plainness of the pre-baroque    
    Hardly involves the eye, until
    It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still   
    Clasped empty in the other; and   
    One sees, with a sharp tender shock,   
    His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.
    They are linked, he says (calling to mind my least favourite part of  "Aubade": "nothing to love or link with"). This connection with another, he does seem to think, provides a sort of immunity to death or the worst of death. What, if anything, will survive of us is love. But Larkin seems to think that both God and love are more or less dead (see "Annus Mirabilis" and "High Windows" for his views on the state of love). Now (since the sexual revolution of 1963) "bonds and gestures" are "pushed to one side," and everyone goes down the long slide to happiness, endlessly, enjoying an unlosable game. Presumably Larkin thinks there must be some price to be paid. (I wonder whether he knew the Tom Lehrer song about "sliding down the razor blade of life"? I imagine he did.) So that, I think, is what Larkin is getting at here. Love conquers more or less all, but love is very far from being something we can take for granted. I suspect also that there is some play on the similarity between 'armour' and 'amour': the tomb shows "jointed armour," but we live in "an unarmorial age."

    Monday, May 28, 2012

    More Haidt

    OK, I've finished the first part (roughly the first third) of Haidt's book, and it's more of the same. He writes very clearly and uses lots of neat examples from psychology and philosophy. It would be interesting to try to use it as a textbook, except I think you would have to work to get students to believe the good bits and doubt the bad bits. Mostly he's arguing that people are not all that rational, that we tend to rationalize non-rational feelings rather than think things through on the basis of pure reason, and we rarely change our minds as a result of reasoning, although we do as a result of peer pressure. We are social animals, believing overwhelmingly what we have evolved to believe or what our social groups tell us to believe. Reason is not the slave of the passions, but it mostly does what they ask and only rarely steers the elephant in a direction it does not want to go.

    None of this really strikes me as being anything like as new as Haidt seems to think it is, although his confirming evidence is certainly up to date. That most people are not very rational is something Plato believed, after all. That no living person is completely rational is also a platonic belief. And that wise decisions are more likely to come from a group of people than from an individual is also something Plato would be likely to accept (although, of course, it depends on the people, as I assume Haidt would accept too). That moral philosophy will not make a bad person good was known to Aristotle. And Haidt's general view is very much a Humean one, with the twist that reason is not quite the slave of the passions, at least not all the time. And I imagine most philosophers would agree with that (otherwise why be a philosopher?).

    [UPDATE: Perhaps I should qualify this. When Hume says that reason is the slave of the passions he means that reason sets no goals, it can at most tell us how to achieve those goals. When Haidt agrees with Hume, what he means is that people make moral judgments and decisions on the basis of things like feeling, instinct, and peer pressure, not reason. When Haidt suggests that people sometimes use reason to come to conclusions about morality and politics he may or may not be saying something that Hume would agree with, depending on exactly what he means. When I say that most philosophers would probably agree with Haidt I mean that they probably value reason and see it as something more than a way to rationalize non-rational feelings. They still might be subjectivists about ethics.]

    Haidt's position is pretty orthodox philosophically, but he keeps bashing philosophy all the same, either out of ignorance or to keep up the appearance that his message is more explosive than it really is.

    Deontologists [apparently the only thing moral philosophers can be other than utilitarians] talk about high moral principles derived and justified by careful reasoning; they would never agree that these principles are merely post hoc rationalizations of gut feelings. [p. 65]
    Taken literally this might be true, but I think Leon Kass and Elizabeth Anscombe might be exactly the kind of people he wants to deny exist. We aren't all caricatures of Kant. Maybe no one is.

    On p. 67 Haidt quotes Joshua Greene's conclusion of a study of people's moral judging and reasoning, to the effect that we have strong feelings about what must be done or not done, and then try to rationalize these feelings. Haidt sees it as a "stunning example of consilience" (p. 67). The "action" in ethics is supposedly shown to be in emotion, not reasoning. Ethics has been "biologized."

    The problem here, as I see it, is that Haidt treats everyone as if they are doing moral psychology, just (sometimes) really badly. The low point is perhaps on pp. 73-74, where Haidt writes:
    As is often the case in moral philosophy, arguments about what we ought to do depend upon assumptions--often unstated--about human nature and human psychology.
    Then there's a footnote:
    At least Plato stated his assumptions at great length. Many other moral philosophers, such as Kant and Rawls, simply make assertions about how minds work, what people want, or what seems "reasonable." These assertions seem to be based on little more than introspection about their own rather unusual personalities or value systems.
    He goes on to say that Rawls is wrong because it has been found that most people would not care more about raising the standard of living of the least well-off person than about raising that of the average person  if designing a society from behind a veil of ignorance.

    Kant's value system is basically Christian. Rawls's is liberal. Neither is exactly unusual, and the idea that their moral views are based on unstated assumptions about psychology is odd. What assumptions does Haidt have in mind? He leaves this unstated. How, in what way, are they assumed? He doesn't say. Anyone who says that Kant simply makes assertions about how minds work has not read the first Critique. And anyone who thinks we can test empirically what people behind the veil of ignorance would think (bearing in mind that such people would be ignorant of their own race and sex, for instance, i.e. they would not be real people) has seemingly not read even the Wikipedia entry on Rawls. I don't blame Haidt for not having read Kant or Rawls. But why bash them in that case?

    Kant and Rawls are not doing psychology. Their concern is not primarily with what or how people think about ethics or politics but with what and how people should think. The categorical imperative is a justification (or rationalization, if you prefer) of certain values, and a tool for solving moral dilemmas. If Kant thinks it is rational that's because he thinks it's good (in a particular kind of way), not because he thinks that is how people actually do reason. And the same kind of thing goes for Rawls. If people were rational, he claims, they would draw the conclusions he draws concerning the basic principles of justice. I haven't read the study that Haidt cites, but Rawls is not making the kind of claim that could be empirically confirmed or refuted. So either the study is misconceived or else Haidt has misrepresented it. The abstract of the paper says that:
    Overwhelmingly, the chosen principle is maximizing the average income with a floor constraint: a principle which is a compromise between those proposed by Rawls and Harsanyi. It takes into account not only the position of the worst-off individual but also the potential expected gain for the rest of society.
    But, of course, the people in this study were not in the original position. So Rawls is not proved wrong, however suggestive or curious the findings might be.

    Simply put, moral philosophy cannot be biologized because of the fact/value distinction. (However much of a continuum there might be linking the factual with the evaluative, it is still important to be able to see the difference between the factual, positive end and the normative, evaluative end.)

    Another curiosity:
    Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. (p. 89)
    Over the page he expands:
    I'm not saying we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgments, but they are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science, and law. Rather, what I'm saying is that we must be wary of any individual's ability to reason.
    We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system.
    So reasoning should be carried out dialectically, with exchange of ideas and peer review. (Maybe we should even have government by a group of intelligent and ethical people who pool their wisdom for the good of the state. You wouldn't get Plato thinking of anything like that!) Thank goodness for modern science!

    Haidt ends every chapter with an "In Sum" section. Here's mine:

    • Haidt writes engagingly and lucidly about matters of great interest and importance, citing lots of recent empirical studies to support his conclusions
    • These conclusions are largely in line with what most philosophers would tell you about people's moral thinking, and indeed are at least mostly in line with what I think of as common sense  
    • Yet Haidt, who clearly does not understand philosophy, presents his findings as a mighty blow to philosophy, as if it were a powerful giant that needs to be defeated because it is nothing more than bad science. The plucky David who slays this evil Goliath is none other than that lovable underdog, modern science. Hurrah!  

    Sunday, May 27, 2012

    It’s well to know exactly who you are, so you can conduct the rest of your life properly.

    Paul Fussell has died. There are obituaries here and here. I know him as the author of a fine book on Kingsley Amis, but these obituaries show that there was more to him than that. At least three more of his books sound well worth reading. Some quotes (in addition to the one I've used as the title of this post):
    Jewelry is another instant class-lowerer, like the enameled little Old Glory lapel pins worn by the insane and by cynical politicians working backward districts …
    Dismal food is bad. Dismal food pretentiously served in a restaurant associated with the word ‘gourmet’ is BAD. Being alert to this distinction is a large part of the fun of being alive today, in a moment teeming with raucously overvalued emptiness and trash.
    UPDATE: it has been pointed out to me that one of the quotes I originally gave is actually from Hemingway. It's still good, so I'll quote it again, but I'd rather do so with the correct attribution. Here it is:
    Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the number of roads, the names of rivers, the number of regiments and dates.

    Philosophy envy?

    I've started reading Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind and I'm glad I have. It certainly seems to be the kind of book I should read, since it is popular, somewhat scientific (and therefore more academically significant than a merely popular book), and deals with ethics. But it's annoying too. Most of my annoyance comes from Haidt's treatment of philosophy, which seems very unfair. I can't tell whether this unfairness is deliberate or not, but Haidt does say that he started out wanting to be a philosopher (or student of philosophy at least) before switching to psychology. So I wonder whether some lingering resentment is showing through in his treatment of philosophy.

    Here are some examples. On p. 28 Haidt says that:
    Western philosophy has been worshipping reason and distrusting the passions for thousands of years. There's a direct line running from Plato through Immanuel Kant to Lawrence Kohlberg. I'll refer to this worshipful attitude throughout this book as the rationalist delusion.
    The connection between Kant and Kohlberg is fair enough, but is there really a direct line from Plato to Kant? The influence doesn't seem very direct to me. Perhaps more to the point, when Plato and Kant talk about reason, or something that gets translated into English as 'reason', they aren't necessarily talking about the same thing. And even more to the point that I want to make, Western philosophy should not be identified with Plato and Kant. Approximately no one agrees with Plato, and Kant is not short of critics.

    On p. 32 Haidt brings in Rawls:
    He [Edward O. Wilson] was a professor at Harvard, along with Lawrence Kohlberg and the philosopher John Rawls, so [!] he was well acquainted with their brand of rationalist theorizing about rights and justice. It seemed clear to Wilson that what the rationalists were really doing was  generating clever justifications for moral intuitions that were best explained by evolution. Do people believe in human rights because such rights actually exist, like mathematical truths, sitting on a cosmic shelf next to the Pythagorean theorem just waiting to be discovered by Platonic reasoners? Or do people feel revulsion and sympathy when they read accounts of torture, and then invent a story about universal rights to help justify their feelings?
    I don't know that Rawls would deny that what he is really doing is generating clever justifications for moral intuitions. He said his project was political, not metaphysical, after all, didn't he? But to say that these intuitions are better explained by evolution is to fail to distinguish reasons from causes. Rawls is not trying to explain how we have come, historically, to have the intuitions we do. He is trying to offer the best way to make sense of the intuitions we have. It is also to be optimistic about the explanatory power of evolution. I don't mean that evolution is not true, only that its truth does not always help us understand why things are as they are. Often it provides little more than a basis for plausible just-so stories.

    The bit about mathematical truths is amazing. Is there a cosmic shelf? No. So what would Haidt say about the Pythagorean theorem? That it is a clever justification for mathematical intuitions best explained by evolution? Maybe it is something like that. It is still true. To say otherwise, on the grounds that evolution provides a "better" explanation, would be to misunderstand the nature of mathematics. And there seems to be a similar misunderstanding of philosophy here.

    Thankfully, scientists have now shown Western philosophy, i.e. Plato, to be wrong. Reason ought not to be in control, because of the "shocking revelation" that "reasoning requires the passions" (p. 34). Silly Plato. He should have listened to that guy who compared the mind to a chariot pulled by two horses with reason at the reins. Without passion the chariot won't go. To be fair to Haidt, he does provide reasons to reject this as a picture of how the mind works. As he sees it, the mind is more like an elephant over which the rational part, which rides it, has little control. Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions. That's right, in opposition to the naive and discredited theories of Western philosophy, Haidt supports the view of .... David Hume. Not just implicitly, but very explicitly, with quotations and name checks. Bizarre.

    I suppose it makes for a popular story. Philosophy is hard and not just anyone can do it well, so let's reject it as irrelevant. If that means wildly distorting what philosophers actually believe then so be it. (In case anyone reading this doesn't know; Hume is extremely popular with contemporary philosophers, Plato is not.) Sad to see.

    More later, no doubt, with plenty of puns on Haidt's name: sheer Haidt, Haidters gonna Haidt, etc.

    Friday, May 25, 2012

    Wittgenstein on clarity

    In the Tractatus Wittgenstein says the following things about clarity and elucidation:
    One could put the whole sense of the book perhaps in these words: What can be said at all, can be said clearly and whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

    3.251 A proposition expresses what it expresses in a definite, clearly specifiable way: a proposition is articulated.

    3.263 The meanings of primitive signs can be explained through elucidations.  Elucidations [Erläuterungen] are propositions which contain primitive signs.  They can thus only be understood if one is already acquainted with the meanings of these signs.
    4.112 The end of philosophy is the logical clarification of thoughts.
    Philosophy is not a subject but an activity.
    A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations.
    The result of philosophy is not "philosophical propositions" but the clarification of propositions.
    Philosophy should make clear and distinct thoughts that, without it, are, as it were, unclear and indistinct.
     4.115 It [i.e. philosophy] will refer to the unsayable in that it presents clearly the sayable.
    4.116 Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be said can be said clearly
    5.45 If there are primitive signs of logic then a correct logic must make clear their position with regard to one another and justify their being.  The construction of logic out of its primitive signs must be made clear.
    5.452 The introduction of a new device in the symbolism of logic must always be an important event.  No new device may be introduced into logic – with, so to speak, a wholly innocent face – in brackets or in a footnote.
    (Thus in the Principia Mathematica of Russell and Whitehead there appear definitions and basic laws in words. Why suddenly words here?  This would need a justification. This is missing and must be missing, since the procedure is actually forbidden.)
    If, however, the introduction of a new device has proved necessary in one place, then one must ask oneself straightaway: Where must this device now always be used?  Its place in logic must now be made clear.
    6.54 My propositions elucidate by whoever understands me perceiving them in the end as nonsensical, when through them – upon them – over them, he has climbed out.  (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed out upon it.)
    He must overcome these propositions, then he sees the world rightly. 
    The words "It is clear" and "it is clearly" occur often in the book, about 18 or 19 times in my translation (which aims to be very literal). At first these are references to what is clear in logic, as in 3.251 and 4.115 quoted above, having to do with the clear specification or presentation of what can be said. But later we get into ethics and some strange claims about what is clear, e.g. "6.421 It is clear, that ethics cannot be articulated." To whom is that clear? It isn't clear just on its own but, if at all, then to someone. And not just anyone, but an ethical being.

    The inescapability of our humanity, both our physical being, which is affected by sounds when we hear others speak, and our subjective being (is that the word?), which can guess and pick up hints, is made clear enough by Frege (especially by Beaney's Frege Reader and its helpful index). It also comes up in Schopenhauer when he writes that, "The aim of realism is just the object without subject; but it is impossible even to conceive such an object clearly" (The World as Will and Representation, Volume II, p. 12). There is no escaping subjectivity, no as it were absolutely objective communication, no understanding a speaker's sentences without understanding the speaker (although presumably Wittgenstein thinks we can understand an author without understanding his sentences, as indeed does seem to be the case).

    Frege and Russell 'cheat' (see, e.g. 5.452 above) because they have to. It is not possible to do what they are trying to do without 'cheating', as Frege, at least, recognizes. And that means there is something wrong with what they are trying to do. It involves a false view of clarity. There is not the clearly sayable and the having-to-be-guessed-at. Or rather, since, after all, some things are clearly sayable and others do have to be guessed at, the distinction between the sayable and the un-sayable can be overstated.

    Does this really matter? Wittgenstein seems to think it makes a huge difference to philosophy, to how we conceive of and do philosophy. "Philosophy is not a subject but an activity. A philosophical work consists essentially of elucidations." I take this to mean that philosophy should consist of elucidations, and that these elucidations are acts, not clarificatory statements. The clarification of propositions is not the production of clear propositions. Every proposition that means something, i,.e. every proposition that actually is a proposition, has a clear meaning. It just might not be clear to this or that person. Philosophy, Wittgenstein appears to be saying, is the activity of helping people understand this meaning. Clarity and the lack thereof are psychological matters.

    But what about 3.263? It says that: "The meanings of primitive signs can be explained through elucidations.  Elucidations are propositions which contain primitive signs.  They can thus only be understood if one is already acquainted with the meanings of these signs." So elucidations are propositions, after all, not acts of elucidation. But this proposition is sheer nonsense, isn't it? It reads like a joke. The meaning of primitive signs can be explained through elucidations, and these elucidations can only be understood if one already is acquainted with the meanings of these primitive signs. So the point of an elucidation is to explain something in a way that can only be understood by people already acquainted with what is to be explained.

    Elsewhere I commented as follows on this passage:
    What the…?! This sounds circular and pointless. Don’t know the meaning of a primitive sign? An “elucidation” will help. But you will only understand it if you already know the meaning of the relevant primitive sign! So either knowledge of meaning is not the same thing as understanding when it comes to signs, which seems unlikely (but who knows?). Or explanation of meaning is quite impossible (in the terms presented by the Tractatus up to now). See p. 44 and pp. 49-50 of Joan Weiner’s essay in Future Pasts.

    Anscombe (p. 26) suggests that this passage, along with 3.261, provides the best evidence for thinking that the elementary propositions of the Tractatus are simple observation statements, such as “This is a red patch.” Names and only names are primitive signs. Logical signs, as he indicates elsewhere, are not primitive signs. But (see p. 27) what elucidates a name need not be an elementary proposition. And from 6.3751 it follows directly that “This is a red patch” cannot be an elementary proposition.Anscombe concludes that elementary propositions are not simple observation statements, and that this explains why Wittgenstein did not refer to observation in connection with them. What they are he cannot say, but they must exist. See, for instance, 5.5562, 3.23, 2.021, 2.0211, and 4.221.

    See also 5.526.
    (I had forgotten that I had read Joan Weiner's essay before.) N.N. commented:
    Hacker argues (persuasively, it seems to me) that elucidations are ostensive definitions 'seen through a glass darkly.' That is, they are ostensive definitions misconstrued as bipolar propositions (see 'Frege and Wittgenstein on Elucidations,' Mind, Oct., 1975).
    The 'smoking gun' in favor of his interpretation is a remark that Wittgenstein made to Waismann in 1932: 'In the Tractatus logical analysis and ostensive definition were unclear to me.' That is, according to Wittgenstein, ostensive definition is addressed in the Tractatus. And even Kenny, who denies that elucidations are ostensive definitions, concedes that the only passage Wittgenstein could be referring to is 3.263 (see Anthony Kenny, 'The Ghost of the Tractatus,' in Legacy of Wittgenstein).  
    It isn't clear to me that Wittgenstein means in this remark that the Tractatus says something about ostensive definitions. Perhaps he meant that he had overlooked them. And we only have Waismann's report that Wittgenstein said this, so it's secondhand evidence. I wouldn't put too much weight on the smoking gun therefore.

    Nevertheless, Hacker's interpretation has at least a certain plausibility. If we read 3.263 as saying that the meanings of primitive signs can be explained by means of sentences that use those signs to refer to objects with which one is familiar, then it sounds about right. But Anscombe's argument seems good. If a primitive sign is the name of an object and we cannot give any examples of objects then surely an elucidation containing primitive signs is not an ostensive definition. We can give lots of examples of them.

    Whatever we make of 3.263, it seems clear to me that the elucidations mentioned in 6.54 and 4.112 are different in kind than those described in 3.263. The latter sound much more like the kind of thing Frege struggles with. The "elucidations" of 3.263 would be philosophical propositions, wouldn't they? But these are rejected in 4.112.

    It's still a little hard to see how this is supposed to help anyone see the world rightly. To see Frege's work rightly perhaps, and to see philosophy rightly perhaps also. But the world? For that I think we would have to look more at the remarks on ethics towards the end of the Tractatus

    Thursday, May 24, 2012

    People like us

    There are interesting discussions going on at Brian Leiter's blog here and here. In the latter, John Protevi recommends that philosophy job candidates have a sober, simple, clean website, and adds: "The style of a website is like the style of clothes worn to an interview; it shows something about the style of the person in social interaction." I agree with his advice about having a website like that, but I was also struck by how explicit he is about the importance of coming across as, for want of a better word, normal. He's not wrong, but the sociology is interesting to me, especially in light of the other thread about advice for graduate students on publishing.

    Ben Hale asks "doesn’t it only make sense to reward the strong publications but not to punish the weak publications?" I would say Yes, but he feels the need to ask the question because others on the thread, including Brian Leiter himself, have referred to publications in some journals as being minuses or stains on one's CV. I find this incredible (and unpleasant). Even Ben Hale seems to concede too much when he writes:
    Assume the Gourmet Report and imagine the following:
    1) NYU: A sparkling young NYU PhD comes out onto the market with top letters from all the important players. Her pedigree and recommendations are stunning but her CV is empty.
    2) Oxford: A similarly sparkling young Oxford PhD comes out onto the market with top letters from all the important players. Her pedigree and recommendations are equally stunning, but she has one publication in the _Journal of Value Inquiry_. (Apologies to JVI. It was mentioned above, so I’m just using it to make the case.)
    Arguably, there may be a reason to discount the one with the publication: The Oxford student is evidently not as good as she appears on paper. A middling publication is evidence enough that a candidate is middling, where no publication demonstrates nothing about a candidate, so the candidate’s quality is left up to the letters and the pedigree, which are stunning. The NYU student, on the other hand, hasn't yet proven her mettle. She is _only as good as_ she appears on paper. If publication history is a better proxy of someone's potential than letters and pedigree, then publications trump all and Oxford loses to NYU.
    Weird, but fair enough. 
    Really? Fair enough? If publications trump all then why does the candidate with one publication lose to the one with no publications? What if the paper she published in the Journal of Value Inquiry was not her best work? What if someone advised her to publish there, or invited her to submit it there? Does it really make sense to hold it against her that she took this advice, or that she chose to publish something (perhaps several years ago) that was not as good as the work she is now capable of producing? The only way I can see it making sense for NYU to beat Oxford in this example is if we are snobs and want nothing to do with people who publish in journals like that, or who get advice to publish in journals like that, advice that, apparently, is contrary to what is given out at the top-ranked departments. It looks like an unhealthy concern with pedigree. I'm genuinely curious as to whether I'm missing something here, but I don't want to post this over at Brian Leiter's blog because it might seem to be attacking him (and "escalating").

    The usual argument seems to be that publishing in humble journals shows poor judgment or else is evidence of an inability to publish in top journals. But given the job market it does not show poor judgment. It might reflect a lack of confidence in one's ability to land a top job, but that lack of confidence might be a thing of the past and, besides, need not be a bad thing. As far as evidence of ability goes, I don't see that relatively moderate achievement (so far) is worse than no achievement (so far) at all. If there's something about probabilities that I'm missing, I'd like to know it. 

    Reading between the lines a little bit, by which I mean taking people at their initial word and ignoring what they say when they seem to backtrack, my inference is that departments that regard themselves as "top" really will hold non-stellar publications against applicants whereas it might be precisely such publications that you need to get a job anywhere else (because you need some publications and because stellar publications (where what is or is not stellar depends solely on the reputation of the journal it's in, not the quality of the paper itself) might make you look unsuited to life in a lowly department). So we have something like the 1% versus the 99% divide, given how few jobs there are at top departments. Job candidates have to decide which they are and submit to journals accordingly. Or submit to the stellar journals and then see whether they can make it into the top 1%, although that's a risky strategy. I find this very depressing to think about (perhaps because I have published in the Journal of Value Inquiry, but I hope that isn't it).

    It would surely be a good thing if no publications were ever held against candidates (with the only exceptions being based on the content of the paper itself, and here I have in mind things like defenses of racism, not merely weak arguments from which the author might have since moved on). Top departments should not be snobs and lesser departments should realize just how much of a buyer's market it is.  

    Wednesday, May 23, 2012

    What can be said at all can be said clearly

    In the foreword to his Tractatus Wittgenstein writes that:
    One could put the whole sense of the book perhaps in these words: What can be said at all, can be said clearly; and whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. 
    But what is it to say something clearly? In Joan Weiner's paper "Theory and Elucidation" there is a nice quotation from Frege:
    When a straight line intersects one of two parallel lines, does it always intersect the other? This question, strictly speaking, is one that each person can only answer for himself. I can only say: so long as I understand the words ‘straight line’, ‘parallel’, and ‘intersect’ as I do, I cannot but accept the parallels axiom. If someone else does not accept it, I can only assume that he understands these words differently. Their sense is indissolubly bound up with the axiom of parallels. [Weiner, p. 20]
    What could be clearer than the axioms of Euclidean geometry? Or that a straight line intersecting one of two parallel lines must also intersect the other? And yet, as Weiner points out, that doesn't mean we can all understand these axioms without elucidation. There is nothing to guarantee that everyone will accept or understand any given such axiom. Recall Frege on "Logic in Mathematics":
    Of course we have to be able to count on a meeting of minds, on others’ guessing what we have in mind. But all this precedes the construction of a system and does not belong within a system. In constructing a system it must be assumed that the words have precise Bedeutungen and that we know what they are.   
    Without checking the context of this quotation, I would say that it suggests a three-part distinction: what precedes the construction of a system, the construction of a system, and what is done within a system. As distinct as these three are, they might not always be completely distinct. Wittgenstein's remarks about the riverbed in On Certainty suggest this, but it is quite evident in Frege's work too (as, again, Weiner makes clear). In his work to construct a system he ends up dropping hints and counting on others' guessing what he has in mind. The precise sciences are born of the 'poetic' humanities, most obviously philosophy (most obviously, that is, if we accept the common story that philosophy is the mother discipline from which other disciplines are off-shoots). If we think in terms of a system, game, or calculus, then I'm inclined to say that the expressive arts, works of color and shade, the land of hints and guesses, belong to something like a foundational level or outer sphere, on top of or within which is the level or sphere of construction of the system or rules of the game, and then inside or above that is the working of the system or playing of the game itself. So the expressive arts or poetry or whatever we want to call it provides, or perhaps merely shapes, something like the context needed for the construction of games, systems, etc. This construction in turn is necessary for the use of the system, the playing of the game, etc. And hence mathematicians, logicians, scientists, need poetry.

    And there's more. Problems can arise within the game that call for interpretation of the rules, or the introduction of new rules. And in constructing a system or game we can find that we have to resort to the undefined, to communication by non-scientific means. So the levels or spheres are not completely distinct. So science is continuous with poetry, not merely dependent on it but involved in a somewhat fluid relationship with it.

    But: a) I need to check the context of the quotation from Frege, b) I need to think about whether he is really right, c) I especially need to be careful to distinguish the expressive arts' belonging to a sphere of communication or human relations on which technical work depends and the more dramatic claim that technical work depends on the expressive arts themselves (if Frege has to do the work of a poet it does not follow that without Goethe there could be no Frege, or anything like that), d) what about Wittgenstein on saying things clearly? I might get to that in my next post.

    Tuesday, May 22, 2012

    World Goth Day

    Apparently it's World Goth Day. Have a good (or bad) one! (This reminds me of being 17, and still sounds good.)

    Monday, May 21, 2012

    Best movies ever

    I won't try to name my top ten films of all time because I haven't seen enough movies enough times to make a significant selection. There are several such lists in this article and the comments below it though. The ones that seem closest to what I might come up with are these:
    Ivan the Terrible (two parts), The Seven Samurai, Apu Trilogy, Manila at the Claws of Light, Bicycle Thieves, Metropolis, The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Official Story, Hamlet (1948), Citizen Kane.
    Posted 5/21/2012, 3:11:22am by Ralfy
    While " greatness" is a highly subjective commodity, I am bemused by the absence of Fellini, Kuorsawa, Wilder, Lang, and other recognized heavyweights. Here is a list of suggested historical greats which stand the test of time: Fritz Lang's " M"; Preston Sturges " SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS"; Orson Welles " CITIZEN KANE"; Yasuhiro Ozu's " TOKYO STORY"', Federico Fellini's " LA STRADA", Ingmar Bergman's " WILD STRAWBERRIES", Akira Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI", Billy Wilder' " SOME LIKE IT HOT" Marcel Carne's " CHILDREN OF PARADISE"', and Peter Davis ' HEARTS AND MINDS"
    Posted 5/21/2012, 1:16:47am by bunuel
    My list would (see how I'm cheating!) definitely include some Kurosawa (most likely Ikiru), some Tarkovsky (especially Stalker), and some Bergman. But I really don't have a list.

    If you're looking for something to watch see Dave Maier on Japanese films here, although I've seen very few of the ones he mentions and not many sound like my cup of tea. Another good guide is vh.

    Good movies I've seen recently include The Two Escobars (a documentary about drugs, crime, and football in Colombia), Take Shelter (a Hollywood drama about a man who starts to have vivid nightmares--is he a visionary or is he losing his mind?--let down by its ending, I thought), and My Joy, about which Wikipedia says:
    There was a considerable outcry in Russian media over the film's purported Russophobic slant. Film director Karen Shakhnazarov claimed that Loznitsa would like everyone living in Russia to be shot. Another Russian film director, Andrey Zvyagintsev, called My Joy the best Russian-language film of the decade. Among American reviewers, Manohla Dargis (The New York Times) referred to the movie as "suspenseful, mysterious, at times bitterly funny, consistently moving and filled with images of a Russia haunted both by ghosts and the living dead". A blurb in Sight & Sound advertises My Joy as "Ukraine’s answer to Deliverance". Village Voice (Michael Atkinson) reviewed My Joy as "a maddening vision and one of the year's must-see provocations."

    Different colours, different shades

    Or "Frege on color and shading." This is a footnote in Frege's "On Concept and Object":
    Nowadays people seem inclined to exaggerate the scope of the statement that different linguistic expressions are never completely equivalent, that a word can never be exactly translated into another language. One might perhaps go even further, and say that the same word is never taken in quite the same way even by men who share a language. I will not enquire as to the measure of truth in these statements; I would only emphasize that nevertheless different expressions quite often have something in common, which I call the sense, or in the special case of sentences, the thought. In other words, we must not fail to recognize that the same sense, the same thought, may be variously expressed; thus the difference does not here concern the sense, but only the apprehension [Auffassung], shading [Beleuchtung], or colouring [Färbung] of the thought, and is irrelevant for logic. It is possible for one sentence to give no more and no less information than another; and, for all the multiplicity of languages, mankind has a common stock of thoughts. If all transformations of the expression were forbidden on the plea that this would alter the content as well, logic would simply be crippled; for the task of logic can hardly be performed without trying to recognize the thought in its manifold guises. Moreover, all definitions would then have to be rejected as false. [Beaney, pp. 184-185]
    I think it is quite right that the same thought may be variously expressed. Some translations are perfectly accurate, and it is possible to say the very same thing in two (or more) different ways. That is, sometimes differences in shading don't matter. It could be argued that they are always there nonetheless, but I don't know what the point of making this argument would be.

    In "Logic" Frege writes:
    In many cases a sentence is meant to have an effect on the ideas and feelings of the hearer as well; and the more closely it approximates to the language of poetry, the greater the effect is meant to be. [Beaney, p. 239]
    He goes on to discuss a case of onomatopoeia from Homer, in which sails are said to be torn apart by the wind in a sentence that combines windy whistling sounds with violent, snapping-sail sounds. This is a pretty clear case of word-choice mattering in a way that is not wholly dependent on word-meaning, but there is surely more to the color and shade of language than this. Frege says that:
    it cannot be denied that the spoken word affects the ideas we have just because it enters consciousness as a complex of auditory sensations. Right from the start we experience the series of sounds themselves, the tone of the voice, the intonation and rhythm with feelings of pleasure or displeasure. These sensations of sound are linked to auditory ideas that resemble them and these latter are linked in turn with further ideas reactivated by them. This is the domain of onomatopoeia. [Beaney, pp. 239-240]
    The physical nature of speech is essential here. It belongs to the world of cause and effect, of stimulus and response, in a way that, seemingly, cannot but affect our feelings one way or another. The same need not be true of words read silently, or of thoughts. But it surely depends how one reads or thinks. To understand Homer in this case one should read as if aloud, attending to the sound of each word, and not quickly scanning the line for its sense. (I only ever read as if aloud. My lips move when I read or think, so I don't know what it's like to read in the more efficient way. Must there be some trace of the sound of the spoken words even in this case? And what about thinking?) Everything is surely written in some tone of voice, even if this is often the impersonal or instructive tone, the deadly language of the textbook or legal document. (Although, in fact, legal documents have their own tone, with notes of bureaucracy, minute deliberation, and just a hint of electric chair or prison cell. Textbooks, vetted by committees, are more psychotic, with a blank where the personality ought to be, like the personae suggested by the name Ghostface Killah or the Ruthless Rap Assassins' claim that "ice cold water races through my veins".) In short, Frege seems to be suggesting, rightly, that there is always some tone, but that it is not always relevant.

     More from "Logic":
    In human beings it is natural for thinking to be intermingled with having images and feeling. Logic has the task of isolating what is logical, not, to be sure, so that we should think without having images, which is no doubt impossible, but that we should consciously distinguish the logical from what is attached to it in the way of ideas and feelings. There is a difficulty here in that we think in some language or other and that grammar, which has a significance for language analogous to that which logic has for judgement, is a mixture of the logical and the psychological. If this were not so, all languages would necessarily have the same grammar. [Beaney, p. 243]
    There is a sort of mind-body problem here. Language combines or intermingles the psychological, the sensory, the personal, the physical, with the strictly logical, the impersonal. So logic is in a sense pitted against language--it must struggle to disentangle itself. Over the page Frege goes on:
    Instead of following grammar blindly, the logician ought rather to see his task as that of freeing us from the fetters of language. For however true it is that thinking, at least in its higher forms, was only made possible by means of language, we have nevertheless to take great care not to become dependent on language; for very many of the mistakes that occur in reasoning have their source in the logical imperfections of language. [Beaney, p. 244]
    Plenty to chew on there if we want to think about Wittgenstein's emphasis on grammar. Translation is a key issue for Frege, because different languages do not have the same grammar, and logic deals with what sentences in different languages that mean the same thing have in common, i.e. the same thing that they mean. I don't think Wittgenstein would necessarily reject this idea, but there is something about his talking about grammar rather than logic that suggests doubt about the feasibility of the Fregean task of freeing ourselves from the fetters of language. Language is, after all, not a cage, and we cannot understand one another without language.

    In "Thought" Frege points out that:
    It is just as important to ignore distinctions that do not touch the heart of the matter, as to make distinctions which concern essentials. But what is essential depends on one's purpose. To a mind concerned with the beauties of language, what is trivial to the logician may seem to be just what is important. [Beaney, p. 331]
    So questions of value, of what matters, are always relevant, at least as a background to what one is doing.

    And human activities are not always as distinct as we might think. There is often an element of the dry in the wet, and vice versa:
    What are called the humanities are closer to poetry, and are therefore less scientific, than the exact sciences, which are drier in proportion to being more exact; for exact science is directed toward truth and truth alone. Therefore all constituents of sentences not covered by the assertoric force do not belong to scientific exposition; but they are sometimes hard to avoid, even for one who sees the danger connected with them. [Beaney, p. 330]
    Only relative purity is attainable.

    Finally, back to translation and the question of psychology or personality:
    The more rigorously scientific an exposition is, the less the nationality of its author will be discernible and the easier it will be to translate. On the other hand, the constituents of language to which I here want to call attention make the translation of poetry very difficult, indeed make perfect translation almost always impossible, for it is just in what largely makes the poetic value that languages most differ. [Beaney, p. 331]
    Apart form the Lecture on Ethics, Wittgenstein always wrote his philosophical work in German, as far as I know, which might show something about how far he thought his work was scientific. I plan to turn to Wittgenstein in the next post in this series. Meanwhile, here's Ian Curtis taking the blame for mistakes made over different colours, different shades.

    Saturday, May 19, 2012

    Philosophy and the expressive arts: Frege

    One of my goals between now and the end of October is to write an essay on philosophy and the expressive arts. I have about two weeks before my kids get out of school for the summer, and hope to have a (probably very) rough draft by then that I can return to about once a month until it's done or my time is up. What I think I would most like to do is to offer a reading of Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country as philosophy, but I doubt that's really what the organizers of the competition are looking for. Maybe I can incorporate elements of such a reading in the essay, but for the most part I think it ought to be about Frege and Wittgenstein (and possibly Davidson and maybe Rorty) and what we can learn from them. What follows is preliminary notes (really just a series of quotations) on Frege on hinting. Perhaps I should have called this post "Wink, wink, nudge, nudge," but I won't.

    Here's the relevant part of the explanation of the competition:
    From Plato on, philosophy has had an uneasy relationship with expressive arts such as narrative, poetry, drama, music, painting, and now film. If philosophy today can learn from science, can it learn from the arts as well—or even instead? If so, what can it learn?
    Does expressive art access truths, particularly ethical truths, that cannot be expressed any other way? If it does, what can ethicists and other philosophers say about these truths? If it does not, what differentiates expressive from merely decorative art?
    Some philosophers insist with Wittgenstein that “whatever can be said at all can be said clearly”. In that case, are artistic uses of language such as metaphor and imagery just "colour", as Frege called it - just ways of dressing up thoughts that philosophers, by contrast, should consider in their plainest possible form?
    We welcome submissions of 8,000 words or fewer addressing these or other questions about philosophy and the expressive arts.  
    The penultimate paragraph seems like a good starting point. In "On Sinn and Bedeutung," Frege distinguishes between Vorstellung (idea), Sinn (sense), and Bedeutung (reference), all three being kinds or aspects of meaning.
    The idea is subjective: one man's idea is not that of another. There result, as a matter of course, a variety of differences in the ideas associated with the same sense. A painter, a horseman, and a zoologist will probably connect different ideas with the name 'Bucephalus'. This constitutes an essential distinction between the idea and the sign's sense, which may be the common property of many people, and so is not a part or a mode of the individual mind. [Beaney, p. 154]
    Frege is not very interested in ideas (understood as here), but they surely are important to the expressive arts. He identifies three "levels of difference" that can exist between "words, expressions, or whole sentences" (Beaney, p. 155). These are differences in ideas only, in (ideas and?) sense but not reference, or in reference as well (in which case, presumably, there will be differences in sense and ideas too).
    The difference between a translation and the original text should properly not overstep the first level. To the possible differences here belong also the colouring and shading which poetic eloquence seeks to give to the sense. Such colouring and shading are not objective, and must be evoked by each hearer or reader according to the hints of the poet [nach den Winken des Dichters] or the speaker. Without some affinity in human ideas art would certainly be impossible; but it can never be exactly determined how far the intentions of the poet are realized.
    In what follows there will be no further discussion of ideas and intuitions... [Beaney, p. 155]
    Hints are fundamental in Frege's work, though. In "Function and Concept" he writes that he cannot give a regular definition of what he is calling an object:
    I regard a regular definition as impossible, since we have here something too simple to admit of logical analysis. It is only possible to indicate that is meant [gemeint]. [Beaney, p. 140]
    Gemeint could also be translated as 'intended', I believe. Reluctantly, Frege is seemingly doing (what he regards as) the work of a poet here, hinting at his intentions in uncertain hope that the reader will share enough affinity with him to receive what he is trying to evoke. He resorts to similar hinting in "On Concept and Object":
    Now something logically simple is no more given us at the outset than most of the chemical elements are; it is reached only by means of scientific work. If something has been discovered that is simple, or at least must count as simple for the time being, we shall have to coin a term for it, since language will not originally contain an expression that exactly answers. On the introduction of a name for something logically simple, a definition is not possible. There is nothing for it but to lead the reader or hearer, by means of hints, to understand the words as is intended. [Beaney, p. 182]
    He goes on over the page:
    ...we cannot understand one another without language, and so in the end we must always rely on other people's understanding words, inflexions, and sentence-construction in essentially the same way as ourselves. As I said before, I was not trying to give a definition, but only hints, and to this end I appealed to the general feeling for the German language. [Beaney, p. 184]
    The essay concludes:
    'Complete' and 'unsaturated' are of course only figures of speech; but all that I wish or am able to do here is to give hints.
    It may make it easier to come to an understanding if the reader compares my work 'Function and Concept'. For over the question what it is that is called a function in Analysis, we come up against the same obstacle; and on thorough investigation it will be found that the obstacle is essential, and founded on the nature of our language; that we cannot avoid a certain inappropriateness of linguistic expression; and that there is nothing for it but to realize this and always take it into account. [Beaney, p. 193]
    Two more quotations to fill in the picture of Frege on the necessity of 'poetic' hinting:
    We come to definitions. Definitions proper must be distinguished from elucidations [Erläuterungen]. In the first stages of any discipline we cannot avoid the use of ordinary words. But these words are, for the most part, not really appropriate for scientific purposes, because they are not precise enough and fluctuate in their use. Science needs technical terms that have precise and fixed Bedeutungen, and in order to come to an understanding about these Bedeutungen and exclude possible misunderstandings, we provide elucidations. Of course in so doing we have again to use ordinary words, and these may display defects similar to those which the elucidations are intended to remove. So it seems that we shall then have to provide further elucidations. Theoretically one will never really achieve one’s goal in this way. In practice, however, we do manage to come to an understanding about the Bedeutungen of words. Of course we have to be able to count on a meeting of minds, on others’ guessing what we have in mind. But all this precedes the construction of a system and does not belong within a system. In constructing a system it must be assumed that the words have precise Bedeutungen and that we know what they are. ["Logic in Mathematics" in Beaney, p. 313, quotation cut and pasted from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy] 
    Finally, from a footnote in "Thought":
    I am not here in the happy position of a mineralogist who shows his audience a rock-crystal: I cannot put a thought in the hands of my readers with the request that they should examine it from all sides. Something in itself not perceptible by sense, the thought is presented to the reader – and I must be content with that – wrapped up in a perceptible linguistic form. The pictorial aspect of language presents difficulties. The sensible always breaks in and makes expressions pictorial and so improper. So one fights against language, and I am compelled to occupy myself with language although it is not my proper concern here. I hope I have succeeded in making clear to my readers what I want to call ‘thought’. [Beaney, pp. 333-334, quotation cut and pasted from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy] 
    This last quotation rings a bell, I think because either Kelly Dean Jolley or James Conant quotes it in something I read not too long ago. I'll have to investigate. But throughout there are Wittgensteinian themes here: battling with language, philosophy needing to be written on the model of poetry, and the essentialness to a certain (attempted) task of an obstacle or impossibility, for instance. Not all that glisters is gold, but these apparent foreshadowings are surely worth investigating (which will involve, of course, looking at what others have written about this--I know it's not uncharted territory).

    Wednesday, May 16, 2012

    Charity, moral psychology, and politics

    I think I'm going to have to read at least enough of Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind to be able to talk about it professionally, but it sounds flawed in its conception (judging by bits of reviews I've seen, nothing more). Perhaps it's the reviewers who are getting it wrong. And perhaps I've said this before, although a quick search of this blog suggests I haven't.

    Here's the stuff I have in mind. Nicholas D. Kristof writes that:
    “The Righteous Mind,” by Jonathan Haidt, a University of Virginia psychology professor, argues that, for liberals, morality is largely a matter of three values: caring for the weak, fairness and liberty. Conservatives share those concerns (although they think of fairness and liberty differently) and add three others: loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity.
    Another way of putting it is this: Americans speak about values in six languages, from care to sanctity. Conservatives speak all six, but liberals are fluent in only three.
    This makes conservatives sound better than liberals. William Saletan produces a similar kind of sound:
    Social conservatives see welfare and feminism as threats to responsibility and family stability. The Tea Party hates redistribution because it interferes with letting people reap what they earn. Faith, patriotism, valor, chastity, law and order — these Republican themes touch all six moral foundations, whereas Democrats, in Haidt’s analysis, focus almost entirely on care and fighting oppression. This is Haidt’s startling message to the left: When it comes to morality, conservatives are more broad-minded than liberals. They serve a more varied diet.
    There is a basic mistake here which I think is easy to see if we substitute racial purity for any of the listed themes or values: having more values is not necessarily better (although I agree that it might be), in the way that having a more varied diet or speaking more languages is undoubtedly better. I'm guessing that the common source of this error is Haidt himself, although I'll have to read his book to find out.

    A second problem is the apparent use of charity in interpreting people's political beliefs. Perhaps the Tea Party hates redistribution because its members believe in reaping what you earn. But perhaps these people oppose redistribution for purely self-interested reasons (they expect to do badly from it), or because they are racist and think of the poor as likely to be members of ethnic minorities that they regard as lazy. I imagine that individual members of the Tea Party vary, and that some are influenced by two or more of these and other considerations.

    Saletan also says:
    Haidt has read ethnographies, traveled the world and surveyed tens of thousands of people online. He and his colleagues have compiled a catalog of six fundamental ideas that commonly undergird moral systems: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Alongside these principles, he has found related themes that carry moral weight: divinity, community, hierarchy, tradition, sin and degradation.
    The concern he attributes to the Tea Party seems to have to do with fairness. But it's worth asking whether people actually do reap what they earn. Some do, some don't, surely. Some people get rich by working hard or being very talented, or both. But luck usually comes into it somewhere, and not every talented, hard-working person has good luck. Similarly, some poor people are lazy. Some lack talent (but is that their fault?). And some are simply unlucky. If anyone denies that luck is involved (and thoughtful conservatives such as Hayek do not do so) then they aren't necessarily showing sensitivity to some value to which others are blind. They might be in denial of the truth. And the more values we have to attribute to them in order to try to make charitable sense of their beliefs, the less coherent their belief-system might be.

    Another question concerns the idea that liberals don't care about all six "themes." Trades union members care about loyalty, for instance. Religious people, many of whom are politically liberal, believe in and value authority. And supporters of women's rights often refer to women's bodies as things that the government should not touch. Isn't that a kind of sanctity? Perhaps it is better counted as a concern with freedom. Still, Haidt's views seem problematic in a variety of ways. They do address an important issue though. Which is why I need to read his book.