Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Is ethics part of philosophy?

The paper I presented in Iceland was called "Wittgenstein's Ethics." It should probably be called something like "Wittgenstein's Ethics in the Koder Diaries," so one thing I need to fix is the title. Another thing that people commented on was my claim that Wittgenstein would not have counted ethics as belonging to philosophy. So I'm looking into that now. Which has led me to this site on the Moral Sciences Club at Cambridge, where it says:
Wittgenstein gave his first paper to the Club in Michaelmas 1912. He and Moore had persuaded the Club to appoint a Chairman to prevent futile discussions and to change the rules so as to limit the duration of talks to seven minutes. Wittgenstein's contribution came on 29 November (the Club's meetings had moved to Fridays to avoid clashing with the Apostles); the minutes are as follows:
Mr Wittgenstein read a paper entitled "What is Philosophy?" The paper lasted only about 4 minutes, thus cutting the previous record established by Mr Tye by nearly two minutes. Philosophy was defined as all those primitive propositions which are assumed as true without proof by the various sciences. This defn. was much discussed, but there was no general disposition to adopt it. The discussion kept very much to the point, and the Chairman did not find it necessary to intervene much.
This seems like an odd definition of philosophy, but I have nothing to say about this now.

Wittgenstein is said to have dominated the club from 1929 onward, and he chaired it starting in 1944. On October 26 1946 Karl Popper read a paper with a similar theme to Wittgenstein's 1912 address: "Are there Philosophical Problems?" According to Popper's account of the occasion:
I went on to say that I thought that if there were no genuine philosophical problems, I would certainly not be a philosopher; and that the fact that many people, or perhaps all people, thoughtlessly adopt untenable solutions to many, or perhaps all, philosophical problems provided the only justification for being a philosopher.  Wittgenstein jumped up again, interrupting me, and spoke at length about puzzles and the nonexistence of philosophical problems.  At a moment which appeared to me appropriate, I interrupted him, giving a list I had prepared of philosophical problems, such as: Do we know things through our senses?, Do we obtain our knowledge by induction?  These Wittgenstein dismissed as being logical rather than philosophical.  I then referred to the problem of whether potential or even actual infinities exist, a problem he dismissed as mathematical. ...  I then mentioned moral problems and the problem of the validity of moral rules.  At that point Wittgenstein, who was sitting near the fire and had been nervously playing with the poker, which he sometimes used like a conductor's baton to emphasize his assertions, challenged me: "Give an example of a moral rule!"  I replied: "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers."  Whereupon Wittgenstein, in a rage, threw the poker down and stormed out of the room, banging the door behind him.  ["Autobiography," p. 98]
It would be convenient for me if Wittgenstein had denied that moral problems were philosophical problems, but he doesn't say that here. In Bouwsma's record of conversations with Wittgenstein between 1949 and 1951, Wittgenstein seems happy enough to discuss ethics, but he also seems to have doubts about the value of teaching ethics (or perhaps just about the way Bouwsma did this, but that seems unlikely to me). On p. 7 Wittgenstein (presumably) is quoted as asking "so what?" and "what next?" as well as exclaiming "how pointless!" in response to Bouwsma's account of what he does with his students in his ethics course. Bouwsma describes Wittgenstein as shaking his head over the teaching of ethics.

[By the way, in looking into this I came across the following. On January 5th 1930 at Schlick's house Wittgenstein said: "In ethics our expressions have a double meaning: a psychological one of which you can speak and a non-psychological one: 'good tennis-player,' 'good'." This sounds a little like what he told Ramsey about the sentences of the Tractatus: "Some of his sentences are intentionally ambiguous having an ordinary meaning and a more difficult meaning which he also believes."]

Other reasons to think that Wittgenstein would not have counted ethics as part of philosophy: his account of what philosophy is in the Investigations, the dissolving of pseudo-problems. But what I am to do is not a pseudo-problem. Also, the view of Cora Diamond and others that ethics covers too much for it to be a branch of anything, including philosophy. If Wittgenstein agreed with this view, he could hardly have thought of ethics as a branch of philosophy. I'll come back to this below.

My paper begins with this sentence:
The subject of this paper is not Wittgensteinian ethics but Wittgenstein’s own ethical beliefs, specifically as these are revealed in the so-called Koder diaries.
I think this needs revision too, but what I mean is that the paper is about Wittgenstein's ethics, not any sort of theory based on or derived from Wittgenstein's work on, say, rule-following. This kind of distinction can be tricky. One reviewer of my paper on Wittgenstein's remarks on Heidegger ("Did Wittgenstein Disagree With Heidegger?") complained that the paper was wrongly titled because it is about what Wittgenstein himself thought of Heidegger and not whether his philosophical work 'disagrees' with Heidegger's. So I want to avoid that kind of problem. Maybe I should say that the subject of the paper is not a Wittgenstein-inspired theory of ethics but Wittgenstein's own ethics, as revealed in the Koder diaries.

I go on to say this:
Whether this is philosophy is a question I should address, but perhaps I can be forgiven if I avoid spending too long on a largely terminological matter. Wittgenstein does not appear to have thought of ethics as belonging to philosophy as he (re-)conceived it. This has to do with what he regarded as its groundlessness:
Schlick says that in theological ethics there used to be two conceptions of the essence of the good: according to the shallower interpretation the good is good because it is what God wants; according to the profounder interpretation God wants the good because it is good. I think that the first interpretation is the profounder one: what God commands, that is good. For it cuts off the way to any explanation ‘why’ it is good. [Friedrich Waismann Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1979, p. 115. This remark is dated 17 December 1930.]
Similarly, on 6 May 1930 he writes in MS 183 that “It is good because God commands it’ is the right expression for the groundlessness.” Without any ground or explanation of why some things are good or right, it is hard to see how one could philosophize about such matters. Unless, as I am inclined to do, one simply calls thinking about ethics philosophy. This will not be philosophy as Wittgenstein understood it, but it is what many people count as a major branch of philosophy. Whatever we call it, whether philosophy or something else, it—along with thoughts about Wittgenstein and his work—is what this paper is about.

I've had quite a few comments about this and I'm starting to think I am just wrong. If ethics is groundless then it cannot be explained, but Wittgensteinian philosophy is about description, not explanation. So why would this make ethics not part of philosophy for Wittgenstein? If philosophy is about clarification or working on oneself then this is surely possible in ethics. I wonder why I felt so certain that Wittgenstein would not have counted ethics as belonging to philosophy, and think it goes back to some of what I said in my old paper "Nothing to be Said." The idea of a Wittgensteinian theory of ethics still seems wrong to me, as does the idea that there is some identifiable domain called 'ethics.' If I wonder whether I should pray or not then I don't think Wittgenstein would ever believe that philosophy has the answer for me, but that doesn't mean we can't conduct a grammatical investigation of concepts like 'prayer', 'God', 'conscience', and so on. Nor that gaining clarity about language might help us live our lives more happily (or better). Actually, rather than talking about a grammatical investigation I would prefer just to say that one can ask oneself what one means, and try to clarify this. If there are no philosophical problems, as Wittgenstein seems to have insisted to Popper, then philosophy, if anything, can only be something like a method (or methods), and I don't see any a priori reason not to apply this method to problems about what to do, say, or believe.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Orienteringsforsøk: Against Empiricism.

What follows (if this works) is a reblog. I expressed some similar thoughts myself here, but not nearly as fully and clearly as this.

Orienteringsforsøk: Against Empiricism.: From time to time hard-nosed scientists claim that philosophical questions are either pseudo-questions or in the final analysis scientific q...

Could I be a zombie?

One way to think about the possibility of zombies that I think might be interesting would be to ask whether you might be a zombie yourself. Do you know that you aren't one? If so, how? In what sense is there something going on inside you? How do you know this counts as what others mean by 'something'?

Robert Kirk (in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) explains that: "Zombies are exactly like us in all physical respects but have no conscious experiences: by definition there is ‘nothing it is like’ to be a zombie." Do I have conscious experiences? (And have I asked enough rhetorical questions yet?) Like Hume, I have a hard time catching myself when I try to focus on my mental life. It's as if there is an 'I' there, but one that always gets away when I turn my attention in what seems to be the right direction. Mostly I'm conscious of the things around me: books, papers, pictures, a computer, and so on. I'm not conscious of having experiences of these things, just conscious of the things themselves. To have a conscious experience I seem to have to press my thumb into the palm of my hand or pinch myself. (That is, simply seeing what's around me doesn't really feel like what is normally called having an experience.) But then I still feel the thing itself (my thumb pressing, my fingers pinching), not 'a pressing sensation' or anything like that. (Well, maybe it's like that, but that seems like a very unnatural way to describe what I actually experience.) Distant hazy clouds of warmth and mild discomfort float around the edges of my body, but they barely seem to exist until I turn my attention on them, so that doing so seems to distort the evidence. Even my own thoughts are like this. I think (it seems to me, phenomenologically, not philosophically) in propositions, not sentences. They aren't in color or any particular font or accent. I suppose I think in a man's voice, but how could it be either male or female when I don't usually hear it at all. Thinking is more like reading your own mind than hearing yourself talk. (Although it's more like hearing than reading, at least for me.) It's an invisible, insensible process.  

Is there something it is like to be me? Being me, it seems to me, is doing the things I do. So no one else can actually be me because only one person can sit where I am sitting, look like this, be this tall, weigh this much, think these thoughts, feel these emotions and sensations, etc., all at the same time. But you would know exactly what it is like to be me if you lived an exactly similar life, doing exactly the same things (including reacting to things in the same way, taking offense at the same things, being amused by the same things, and so on). 

Is there then something that it is like to be a statue or a mountain? They do things: exist, crumble a bit from time to time, cast shadows, etc. Could I say that being a hill is like being a mountain, and being a mannequin is like being a statue? It doesn't feel the same, because not feeling at all is part of what it is to be a mountain or a statue. I think it doesn't really make sense to talk about what it's like to be a mountain because doing so implies that mountains experience things, are sentient. But this suggests to me that it is no help at all to explain sentience in terms of there being something that it is like to be the sentient thing. It's like defining death in terms of loss of life. What is conscious or sentient is, odd (or tiresomely Wittgensteinian) as it might sound, determined or dictated by grammar. Grammar (patterns of sense, or just language) tells us what is conscious and what is not. At least grammar marks out a kind of space within which it makes sense to call things conscious, and makes some tests of consciousness more plausible, more reasonable, than others. To ask of something that passes these tests, as I do, whether it is really conscious is then either to ask for a stricter test or to make a mistake.

(If this seems like a terrible argument, I apologize. It's not really intended as an argument at all. It's a record of my own train of thought, and where it goes quickly is not where I want to gloss over difficulties but where I raced to the end because the way seemed so clear to me. I make no claim that it is clear in any other sense.)  


Thursday, September 20, 2012

Great minds

The Wittgenstein conference in Iceland went very well. I didn't hear a paper that wasn't interesting or meet a person I didn't like, and Iceland is a fantastic place, like a cross between Scotland and Arizona.

On the way back I finished Rupert Read's Wittgenstein among the Sciences and was surprised to read these passages on p. 178:
There is no such thing as a perspective from which it can be absolutely asserted that some or other aspect of the way the Universe is made up -- e.g. that we are conscious; or that we talk; or that there is matter and energy, etc. etc. -- is odd.
If anything is odd, 'mysterious', my own intuition runs somewhat differently. I rarely find the fact of consciousness odd any more; the thing that I tend to find 'odd' is that there is any thing -- any such 'thing' as (and in) existence -- at all. 
I was surprised because what Read says here seems very close indeed to what I said here:
The (officially) hard problem of how a body or brain, something like a steak, could be conscious is a) a result of thinking of matter in a certain kind of way, i.e. as mindless, when the most obvious material beings, ourselves, are not mindless, and b) less hard than the body problem, i.e. how so much as a steak can ever be at all? That is, there seems to be a problem of how the physical can interact with the mental because we have construed the (essence of the) physical in a particular kind of way that excludes its mental aspects. But that's a problem with our construal, not with the nature of reality. It doesn't reveal an independent mystery but invites an investigation and reconsideration of our concepts and how (and why) we have formed them as we have. What does seem to be an independent mystery is stuff itself.
Since Read's book was published in April (and since he's honest) he obviously wasn't copying me, but I swear I didn't copy him either. Could we both have been influenced by some third party? It could be Wittgenstein, of course, but I suspect maybe the influence of Peter Hacker is lingering less than fully consciously in our thinking.

Congratulations and good luck to vh!

Friend of the blog vh has made the top ten in the 3QD Philosophy blog competition. I thought I had seen the top six with three added "wild card" picks by the judges, but I don't see that now so perhaps I imagined it or they are making changes. Anyway, good luck vh, and congratulations on writing such a good post.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Almost famous

I've been thinking about bands that never made it lately. Of course by this I mean bands that made it big enough for me to know about them, but that never really made it. It started when I bought an air "freshner" called Black Ice, which reminded me of the song "Black Ice" by Aragorn. That got me in a NWOBHM (i.e. nostalgic) mood, which led me back to Diamond Head. They were supposed to be the next Led Zeppelin but never made it. I saw them, though, either here or here, and got to shake the singer's hand (only about the first five rows of seats were sold, as I remember).

In the days before this blog I had a website on which I answered various questions about myself that my students sometimes asked (or that I liked to think they might ask someday). This included a list of my favorite bands, and although Diamond Head didn't make the cut, the June Brides did (my review is the more carried away of the two). As a result I got an email from Phil Wilson himself, who was amused that someone at VMI liked the June Brides. And now I find that Dave Eggers is also a fan.

I'm glad that both Diamond Head and the June Brides have had some recognition from big names at last. There's probably not much money in that, and money means more than people make out, but it isn't everything. It's like the heartwarming story of Anvil. There's a less happy ending to the story of the World of Twist. They were big enough to be named by my friend Richard as the only group he could think of that he liked at one time (or the only new group worth mentioning, or something like that) and to be named in a song by Saint Etienne (see below). But they never made it, and I heard once that at least one of them never got over it. There is so much brilliance in the world, and what gets noticed and what does not is not random, but it's painfully close. (Video from Fish Tank.)


Sunday, September 9, 2012

Science vs philosophy

A somewhat interesting, though also depressing, dialogue between Julian Baggini and Lawrence Krauss here.   Krauss says the following things:
If I don't know what my actions will produce, then I cannot make a sensible decision about whether they are moral or not. Ultimately, I think our understanding of neurobiology and evolutionary biology and psychology will reduce our understanding of morality to some well-defined biological constructs.
Iron age scriptures might argue that homosexuality is "wrong", but scientific discoveries about the frequency of homosexual behaviour in a variety of species tell us that it is completely natural in a rather fixed fraction of populations and that it has no apparent negative evolutionary impacts. This surely tells us that it is biologically based, not harmful and not innately "wrong".
The fact that infidelity, for example, is a fact of biology must, for any thinking person, modify any "absolute" condemnation of it.
If the first two quotes don't seem problematic to you, the third ought to make clear what's going wrong here. Baggini battles gamely, but I'm not sure he really gets through to his opponent.  

Saturday, September 8, 2012


I finally saw The Hunger Games recently and was impressed. It's a dystopian fantasy that I like to think is popular because it picks up on so much that is real and bad in our past and present: a let-them-eat-cake upper class, the hunger of the Thirties, selections (visually suggested in the movie, not actually part of the plot), and the reduction of everything to entertainment, among other things. What struck me the most, though, was that the main characters come from a place called District 12, which is meant to be something like West Virginia. This reminded me of District 9 and District 13 (both recommended, by the way). Why all these districts in dystopian futures?

I imagine it's partly that 'district' combines the sound 'dys' with the word 'strict,' so we get a bad kind of strictness suggested along (perhaps) with the German sound of rict, as in Recht and Richter. All very fascistic, in other words. But it's also just a vague term, like 'zone', and hence unhomely, anonymous. Adding a number to it makes it even less personal. And this made me think about names and home and the Spielraum that Kraus says is provided for culture by the distinction between the urn and the chamber pot. Dividing the places where people live into numbered districts with no other names provides no such Spielraum. You can love (or hate) England or Virginia, but it would surely be hard to love a numbered district. Or perhaps rather: for us a name like "District 12" sounds much too bureaucratic, impersonal, ahistorical, unpoetic to be the name of anything lovable. (There's no reason why such a name could not acquire associations and a history, and become, say, "the Fighting 12th.") It's an inhuman kind of name, in short. Which brings me to Wittgenstein and G. A. Cohen's conservatism.

The Investigations begins with a quotation from Augustine that is oddly, or strikingly, generic or neutral: "When they (my elders) named some object, and accordingly moved towards something..." The Latin is even more generic, referring not to Augustine's elders but to 'majores hominem,' which I would translate as "big people" (Google translate says "larger men") and the German is "the adults." There is something dreamlike about these nonspecific people nonspecifically moving (neither walking nor running, for instance) towards nonspecific objects. But there is also something technical about it, like an approximation of the language of physics (a body b approaches an object o at velocity v...). This abstraction from particulars is surely part of the reason why Wittgenstein talks about Augustine giving us a picture. It is a kind of model of how we learn language, whether or not it is an accurate one. We need this kind of abstraction sometimes, but we also resist it (by not liking physics or by not wanting to live in places called things like District 12).

It seems to me that Augustine offers an approximation of the truth. I wouldn't say he was hopelessly confused or wrong, but he doesn't give us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. He gives an interpretation of part of the truth. And when Wittgenstein says of his shopping story that, "It is in this and similar ways that one operates with words," he is doing the same kind of thing. As Stephen Mulhall points out, we don't actually operate in the way Wittgenstein describes. That is, we don't write "five red apples" on a piece of paper and hand this to someone who hands it to a shopkeeper who keeps apples of all colours in a draw then looks up "red" and counts to five to identify what he is to hand over. That never happens. But it isn't false to say that we "operate in this and similar ways." We certainly do things that are similar to this. And what is a way? To behave in the same way is to do something similar, the same but different. And how we shop is similar to but different from what Wittgenstein describes. There is a certain Spielraum in the concept 'way.' We act in that general kind of way, but not in that exact way.

There is something alien about the shopkeeper, though, as Mulhall also points out (he uses the words 'robotic,' 'homunculus,' and 'foreign'). There is something equally alien, I think, about the Tractarian idea of precisely defined possibilities and definite facts. The human world is not so precise or anonymous. Red apples, typically, only need to be roughly red. That is, they can be a bit green in parts, and they don't have to be held up against a colour chart the way that a specific shade of paint might be. We don't require that kind of accuracy. Something sufficiently similar to the standard will do. The same but different. And knowing what is similar enough, what is too different to count, takes judgment.

We don't care only about objects as bearers of certain particular qualities either. We also care about particular objects. This is an idea that Cohen defends. And I don't think it's just a coincidence that "Maximizing consequentialism stands in especially sharp contrast with conservatism as [he has] defined  it." That is, I think there's something of a theme in Wittgenstein that Anscombe picked up on in attacking consequentialism. Not that Wittgenstein attacks consequentialism, even implicitly, but he helps clear the way for such an attack.

So how do I get from the imprecision of (what I'm calling) the human to the rejection of consequentialism? Imprecision in definition gives wiggle room to the use and hence meaning of words. And that means we can't map words precisely to sets of definite qualities. So what we call 'good' depends on the use of judgment. We can call good only happiness or what produces happiness. But we don't have to. Even if everything we recognize as good produces happiness, we can still apply the term in (similar but) different ways in future. Ethics need not be about particular properties or their maximization. It can be about things, and the meaning of things. We can oppose using an urn as a chamber pot, for instance. Wittgenstein's shopkeeper would have a hard time doing this. He opens the draw of containers, finds one that matches the shape he has been shown, and hands over the round thing with the open top. Could he have some marked as only for this or that use? Yes, of course. But there's nothing in the picture Wittgenstein gives us to suggest that he would do such a thing. He has no culture.  

Perhaps that's all hopelessly obscure, or just hopeless. But Cohen's paper is worth reading. Or listening to. The video of his talk is here:


Friday, September 7, 2012

The polls are open!

Vote in the 3QD philosophy blog contest here. I couldn't bring myself to vote for my own post, but friends of the blog are getting some votes, which is good to see.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Wittgenstein would not have blogged

John Preston's Wittgenstein chronology, which is about to get into his trip to Iceland, suggests that the early Wittgenstein would not have made a happy blogger:
Wednesday 4th September, 1912: LW arrives back in London from Austria, to do further furniture shopping for his new rooms in Cambridge, and stays at Russell’s room in Bury Street, near Piccadilly (McGuinness, pp.133-5; Monk, p.57). Russell writes to Ottoline that he and LW plunged into a discussion of logic, and that LW ‘has a very great power of seeing what are really important problems’. He recalls urging LW not to put off writing until he has solved all the problems that concerned him, since that time would never come. LW responded wildly, with what Russell calls ‘the artist’s feeling that he will produce the perfect thing or nothing’. Russell also mentions that he himself feels delightfully lazy because he can now leave a whole department of difficult thought, which used to depend on him alone, to LW (McGuinness, pp.104, 135). 
Emphasis added.

Sunday, September 2, 2012


3 Quarks Daily is having a philosophy blog post contest, as you probably know, but since they have asked people to spread the word I am linking to it here. I decided to enter too, although I'm not sure I really post the kind of substantial piece I imagine they are looking for. There's nothing much to lose, so why not? Good luck to all readers of this blog who enter.

Secondly, two mysteries involving Brian Leiter. Jon Cogburn invites people to link this picture of Leiter, so here I am doing just that. I assume this is so that people who search for pictures of Leiter find one that he approves of rather than something less flattering, although I prefer the others that show up. Not out of any malice (is there some really terrible picture that I'm not seeing?) but because the other pictures I found when I searched looked more natural.

The other Leiter-related oddity is this post of his denying that he publishes gossip. I assume this is a response to some claim to the contrary, but he provides no link, and searching for "Leiter gossip" just brought me back to the post denying that there is any gossip on his site. Well, that and various people complaining about him, but the complaints were from several years ago and didn't focus on talk of gossip. Odd.