Thursday, January 31, 2013

Language is things we do: CALL FOR PAPERS: Nordic Wittgenstein Review #3 (Pr...

The following is taken from Language is things we do

CALL FOR PAPERS: Nordic Wittgenstein Review #3 (Print & Open Access) 

The new journal Nordic Wittgenstein Review invites submissions. 

The journal welcomes original contributions on all aspects of Ludwig Wittgenstein's thought and work - exegetical studies as well as papers drawing on Wittgensteinian themes and ideas in  contemporary discussions of philosophical problems. 

The journal is interdisciplinary in character, and welcomes contributions in the subject areas of philosophy and other human and social studies including philology, linguistics, cognitive science, and others. The journal includes an invited paper, an articles section, a section in which high-quality seminal works are re-published or where previously unpublished archival materials are made available for the first time, as well as a book review section. 

By the help of high quality peer review and indexing, the journal seeks to provide its contributors with academic support and wide visibility. 

The first issue is available Open Access online since November 2012. The second issue of NWR will appear in print in August 2013. To subscribe, contact ontos verlag ( NWR#2 will be available for preview and Open Review in spring 2013 - sign up as reader in our platform for e-mail notification. 

The third issue of NWR will appear in print in June 2014 from ontos verlag. The single contributions will be made available Open Access online in August 2013. 

Publication: Nordic Wittgenstein Review, Issue 3 (2013)
Submission deadline: August 31, 2013
Publication form: Open Access online (as single contributions) & Print & electronic subscription by ontos verlag
Form of peer-review: Double-blind
Range: International
Language: English

Published by the Nordic Wittgenstein Society. 


NWR is part of the monitoring and experiments of the EU-funded research project Agora - Scholarly Open Access Research in European Philosophy. 

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Monday, January 28, 2013

In Mulhall's footsteps

The Nordic Wittgenstein Review is looking for suggestions as to who should be asked to write the next invited paper for them. Stephen Mulhall wrote the first one, and apparently Lars Hertzberg and Martin Gustafsson are out of the running because they will be editing NWR in 2014. Other nominees so far are Juliet Floyd and Cora Diamond. I'm sure they would welcome other names or confirmation that these are good suggestions.

(I don't know whether the link will work--if it doesn't please let me know. Thanks.)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Good news

This essay by John Quiggin has cheered me up.  He says many encouraging things, including this:
The ultimate barriers to achieving a good life for all, free of the lash of financial necessity, are neither technological nor environmental. They are in our beliefs, values and social institutions.
If that's right then the most important work to be done is in changing the prevailing beliefs, etc. Not that that is easy to do, but if Quiggin is right then a) we're not all doomed (this is much more important than b), and b) philosophers have the potential to make a significant contribution to the world.  I hope he's right.

Friday, January 25, 2013


There is an idea that for one thing really to be better than another there must be an independent standard by which they could, at least in theory, be measured or judged, and by which they are, so to speak, measured by the universe. And this standard must itself be ideally or perfectly good, since it is the very standard of goodness. Plato thinks something like this, and we find it also in Aquinas, who writes:
Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But “more” and “less” are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being, as it is written in Metaph. ii.
So there is a best, a maximally good, thing, that is the measure of all things as far as goodness goes. Aquinas believes that this maximum is also the cause ("as fire [...] is the cause of all hot things," i.e. not the cause in the ordinary, contemporary sense of the word), and in the case of perfections such as goodness this maximum and cause is God.

But if God is the standard of goodness, does it make sense to call him good? People often say it does not, but I think it could. In another context Wittgenstein says this:
There is one thing of which one can say neither that it is one metre long, nor that it is not one metre long, and that is the standard metre in Paris.--But this is, of course, not to ascribe any extraordinary property to it, but only to mark its peculiar role in the language-game of measuring with a metre-rule.
One cannot say that the standard is or is not one metre long because...  Actually, because nothing. Wittgenstein does not say that one cannot do so because of the peculiar role the standard meter plays in the language game. He says that saying that one cannot say that it is or is not one meter long is to mark that role. He does not say that one must mark this role. I can dub an arbitrary length "one metre" or, since that name has been taken, "one meeetre," say, but dubbing and describing are different acts. So of the thing that is now the standard metre, before it was the standard metre, we could say "This is one metre long." But this is an act of dubbing, not of description. Saying it is defining "one metre," not providing information about the stick in question. And once "one metre" has been defined that way, it provides no information to say that the standard metre is one metre long.

But providing information is not the only reason to speak. So if God is the standard of goodness then it will not tell anybody anything to say that God is good, but there might be other reasons to say it. It might be a reaffirmation of one's commitment to the language-game of judging goodness relative to God. It might be something else. It isn't necessarily nonsense just because it isn't informing someone of a fact.

What if something changes? Say we see the standard metre visibly grow or shrink. There is no knowing what we do, it seems to me. It would be weird. We might ignore it, or feel the need to throw away all our old rulers and tape-measures, or we might get a new standard metre. Similarly if God appeared to change, say by ordering you to kill a child or by threatening to destroy an entire city or otherwise behaving in what strikes us a surprising or ungodlike way. We might ignore this odd behavior, pretend not to have noticed it. Or we might insist that this could not be God, and so reject the appearance as illusion. Or we might accept that whatever God does or commands must be right, however wrong it might seem to us. Or we could start defining 'good' in some other way.

There isn't one thing that we would have necessarily to do, but it's also not as if we simply choose how we react to surprises. Sometimes we find ourselves reacting a certain way and there's nothing we can do about it. So our standards are neither dictated by the universe nor chosen at will by us. A bit like faith in God. (I'm not sure that I have much of a point to make, if you're wondering about that. Just thinking out loud really.) 

Friday, January 18, 2013


A movie that every scholar should probably see is the Israeli film Footnote. It tells the story of a father and son who are both Talmudic scholars, but of different types. The father is dedicated to finding the truth, however tedious or painful the quest, and the results, might be. He is consequently overlooked when it comes to awards, but admired by some for his dedication and courage or integrity. He can also be contemptuous of others who do not live up to his standards, including his son. The son is his opposite. He puts the likable above the true, and therefore produces works that people like and find interesting even if they are somewhat speculative (he isn't a complete fraud or anything like that). He also puts his father's feelings, and his relationship with his father, above the truth. So he seems weak and a little too trendy, perhaps, but also nicer than his father. I'm simplifying, though, and the movie is subtler than this, but that's the gist.

We have, then, something like an investigation into the ethics of the will to truth, although the emphasis on scholarship, textual analysis, and a footnote also reminded me of Kierkegaard's story of the scholar who worries greatly about an oddly-placed comma only for his wife to blow away what turns out to be nothing but a speck on the page. Nothing so trivial is at stake here, but it isn't all that clear, or so it seemed to me, who ends up being shown to have been right. The father's dedication to strict accuracy appears to produce more harm than good, but the son's well-meaning efforts to protect his father don't seem to be much more successful. If anyone is the good guy here it is more the son than the father, but what is the point of scholarship if truth is not the priority? It all seems a bit pointless, like worrying about the placement of a comma that isn't a comma at all. People matter more than books, even the Talmud, the film seems to suggest.  But there's much more to the drama than this.

One other thing that I've thought of since writing these paragraphs is the pattern in how each father relates to his son. They are pretty much jerks to their sons, and in each case for the same reason: they see their sons as unacceptably slack. The generational progress is from rigorous, careful scientist to stimulating, speculative theorist, to happy-go-lucky couch potato. It's vaguely reminiscent of the transition from Plato to Aristotle to Alexander, each more worldly than the last. I doubt any similarity is intended though.

Monday, January 14, 2013

New links

Philip Cartwright of Philosophical Investigations has a new blog called Scribbled in the Margin, dealing with the relation between religion and science, but also much else besides.

This is an old one, but it may news to some readers that vh has some posts in English at his blog Orienteringsforsøk.

Another blog that looks worth checking out is Recollecting Philosophy.

And finally, there is a selection of papers from the International Wittgenstein Symposia in Kirchberg am Wechsel available here. (Just look to the right where it says 'Browse' and then choose to browse by issue, author, or title.)

Friday, January 11, 2013

More of the best of 2012

Here's The Philosophers Magazine on the best philosophy books of 2012. As I recall they particularly wanted relatively accessible books. With that in mind, this was my recommendation:
Jim Holt, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, Liveright.
This book is written mostly as a series of interviews with philosophers, physicists, and theologians, with lots of scene-setting information about Holt’s travels and thoughts between interviews. The story is personal as well as philosophical, especially at the end when he addresses questions of love and death as well as the big metaphysical question that drives the book. Constantly returning to the same issue could seem repetitive, but on the whole Holt avoids this trap, and I can’t imagine a more accessible and likeable introduction to the question of why there is something rather than nothing.

The Flexible Constitution

Sean Wilson's book The Flexible Constitution sounds promising:
This is an ambitious work on constitutional theory. Influenced by the views of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Sean Wilson tackles the problem of how a judge can obey a document written in ordinary, flexible language. He argues that whether something is “constitutional” is not an historical fact, but is an artisan judgment. Criteria are set forth showing why some judgments represent superior connoisseurship and why others do not. Along the way, Wilson offers a potent critique of originalism. He not only explains this belief system, but shows why it is inherently incompatible with the American legal system. His conclusion is that originalism can only be understood as a legal ideology, not a meaningful contribution to philosophy of law. The ways of thinking about constitutional interpretation provided in the book end up challenging the scholarship of Ronald Dworkin and numerous law professors. And the findings also challenge the way that professors of politics often think about whether a judge has “followed law.” 
He also has a website with some intriguing material for teaching a course on Wittgenstein.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Is being a professor a stressful job?

(This has been discussed all over Facebook, but if you want links, Brian Leiter has some here.)

The question is difficult to answer, partly because there is no such job. College-level instructors have different types of terms of employment, and few have the traditional or stereotypical tenured professor-type job.

Being a tenured professor as this is traditionally understood is hugely stress-free. You do as much or as little research as you like, on whatever you want. You don't teach very much, and you teach the stuff you like, mostly if not exclusively to students who have chosen to major in your subject. You have some other administrative duties, but you don't have to take these very seriously. You are well paid, and you cannot be fired. But this describes almost no one's actual job.

According to this Chronicle of Higher Education article, "those with some kind of tenure status represent a mere quarter of all instructors," and the author includes tenure-track-but-not-yet-(and-maybe-never-)tenured people in that category. And that was two and a half years ago. Of the lucky elite among instructors who have tenure, about 2% are fired every year according to the National Education Association. So not that many have tenure, and no one has a guaranteed job for life. 
There is another sense in which the job of being a professor does not exist. There is not one such job, not just one sense in which one can be a professor. Some are adjunct, some are full-time but contingent, some are tenure-track but don't have tenure, some have tenure but are subject to post-tenure review, and so on. The level of stress varies enormously.  I have it relatively good, but I'm well aware that my position could be terminated if the administration decides that we don't need anyone teaching philosophy, or that I could be dismissed if the administration decides that I am not doing my job properly, and that I can be told what to teach and how to teach it. So even my tenured position has its stress (and I know how much better off I am than adjunct and contingent faculty members).

Leiter says:

The crucial facts are that tenure-stream faculty have considerable autonomy and considerable control over when and where they work, even if they are working fifty hours or more per week.  The same can not be said for lawyers, most doctors, office workers, business men and women of all stripes, and so on.
Two things strike me as odd about this. Presumably Leiter means that tenure-stream faculty members can choose to work at home or in a café or in their office, and can work at night or by day or whenever suits them, apart from the times when they have to be in class or at a meeting. This is a nice feature of the job, it's true. But lawyers, doctors, etc. have a different kind of control over where they work. They can join a practice, or set up their own, pretty much wherever they like. Professors can't do that. It is incredibly difficult to get a tenure-track job, and the number of people who receive so many job offers that they have not just some choice but considerable choice about where they work is surely minuscule. People with tenure only have this kind of choice if they are superstars. I don't know which kind of control over where one works is better, but it isn't obvious to me that professors have the better deal. And the difficulty of moving from one place to another means that it's harder for us to quit, which means we're more vulnerable to extra stress. A law firm that makes its employees miserable might find them getting jobs elsewhere. A university or college that does so can count on many of its employees having little option but to put up with it.

The other thing that strikes me as odd about what Leiter says is that he compares academics with doctors, lawyers, and business-people. Those people typically get paid much more in return for the additional stresses and general unpleasantness of their jobs. That's part of the choice you make when you go to law school or decide on a career in business. (This doesn't apply to generic office workers, but surely no one is claiming that Dilbert's life is enviable.) If you decide to become a lawyer you expect to work long hours on often tedious stuff in return for good pay and a certain amount of social status. If you decide to become an academic, or to try to do so, you expect to have to demonstrate enough ability to pass various academic tests and earn tenure (if you are lucky enough to snag a tenure-track job) in return for a relatively stress-free life doing what you love. You don't expect to get rich, but you do expect, to a large extent, to be left alone to get on with developing and passing on your expertise. If there are no jobs when you get your PhD, or the standards for getting tenure have suddenly been ratcheted up, or the nature of your job (its security, your autonomy, etc.) suddenly changes, then the contract you thought was implicit is violated, and your level of stress increases. And then when someone tells you that you have it easy because academic superstars have it easy you might get a bit annoyed. I personally do have it relatively easy, but I'm well aware that most college and university instructors don't. Let's not exaggerate the stress, but let's not go too far the other way either.

I've got Asma

Stephen T. Asma's essay on "The Myth of Universal Love" struck me as fairly reasonable when I first read it. You can't love everybody equally, and perhaps you can't love everybody at all. This is an odd claim though:
Singer’s abstract “ethical point of view” is not wrong so much as irrelevant. Our actual lives are punctuated by moral gravity, which makes some people (kith and kin) much more central and forceful in our daily orbit of values.
Some people are more central in our lives than others, and this is probably both inevitable and good. But people on the news have moral gravity too. Just as it seems inevitable and good that I should care more about my family than I do about, say, yours (no offence), it also seems inevitable and good that I should care about people I read, see, and hear about who are starving, or displaced by war, or suffering from some other disaster. If I am moved to do something to help such people (assuming I am not so poor or so recklessly generous that my family suffers hardship as a result) then surely that is good too. It isn't inevitable  but it is certainly possible. And Singer's ethical point of view, from which I see that each of us is one among many, is far from irrelevant to this. If you don't like Singer's way of putting things a similar effect can be achieved by substituting "There but for the grace of God go I."

Asma is not a  million miles away from this. He says:
Of course, when we see the suffering of strangers in the street or on television, our heartstrings vibrate naturally. We can have contagion-like feelings of sympathy when we see other beings suffering, and that’s a good thing — but that is a long way from the kinds of active preferential devotions that we marshal for members of our respective tribes. Real tribe members donate organs to you, bring soup when you’re sick, watch your kids in an emergency,  open professional doors for you, rearrange their schedules and lives for you,  protect you, and fight for you — and you return all this hard work.  
If his point is only that Singer and others sometimes go too far when talking about how much we should care for others then I agree, as do many others. Singer knows that his is a minority position. But all this talk of tribes sounds suspicious to me, and I wonder whether Asma is trying to make disregard for people outside one's own tribe sound respectable. His claim that generosity, loyalty, and gratitude are "disappearing virtues" also sounds fishy. Isn't he arguing against a certain kind of generosity, the kind that is most needed? It isn't clear to me that these virtues are disappearing. Nor how the rejection of universal love as an ideal would help promote them. So it's not so much that I disagree with what he says as that I suspect it provides cover for other things with which I would disagree.

M. G. Piety is less tolerant of Asma's arguments (as they appear in a different piece, and where (judging by what Piety says) they are indeed used to support an unappealing political agenda):
Stephen T. Asma’s article, “In Defense of Favoritism,” excerpted from his book Against Fairness (I’m not making this up, I swear) is the worst piece of incoherent and morally reprehensible tripe I think I’ve ever read in my life.
Her response (h/t Brian Leiter) is entertaining, but if you just want the meat it's pretty much this:
“Favoritism,” as distinguished from the universally human phenomenon of having favorites, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “[a] disposition to show, or the practice of showing, favour or partiality to an individual or class, to the neglect of others having equal or superior claims; undue preference.” It’s the qualification of the preference as “undue” that’s important here.
Asma explicitly defends favoritism, despite the fact that it is by definition undue. This is one of the features of his writing that makes his meaning unclear. I'm not sure it would be worth the effort to get to the bottom of it (although I say this without having made the attempt, so agree at your own risk). If you're interested in partiality you might be better off reading some Susan Wolf.

[Is it cruel or in poor taste to pun on Asma/asthma? I hope it's not cruel.]

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Best of 2012

I read a lot of books and saw a lot of movies last year, but not enough to be able to put together a reliable guide to all that was best in 2012. Nor can I remember what I saw and read when. But I'll make a few recommendations, for what they might be worth.

Rotten Tomatoes has a list of the top-rated 100 movies of the year, of which I think I've seen ten (the Rotten Tomatoes rankings are in parentheses):
  1. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (9)
  2. Argo (16)
  3. The Queen of Versailles (28)
  4. Moonrise Kingdom (37)
  5. Marvel's The Avengers (51)
  6. Skyfall (52)
  7. Lincoln (64)
  8. Django Unchained (76)
  9. The Dark Knight Rises (91)
  10. Beasts of the Southern Wild (95)
I would say that the best three of these are "Moonrise Kingdom," "Django Unchained," and "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Since I just saw "Django Unchained" and want to think through it, I'll try to say something about it here. 

Two of the best reviews I've found of it are by Joe Morgenstern and Mick LaSalle, but neither hits the nail on the head. Morgenstern says:
"Django Unchained," which has not one but two blow-out endings, is overlong—energy is lost when the narrative loses track of Django's quest for his wife—and it will surely be too blood-bespattered for many moviegoers. Yet this seriously crazed comedy is also a crazily serious disquisition on enslavement, and how it has been portrayed over the years and decades by slaves to Hollywood.
But it isn't overlong at all. You couldn't possibly get bored during the film, even though it is nearly three hours long. And it is not exactly a disquisition on enslavement. It's more a reminder of how horrible slavery was, and how fundamental it was to the southern way of life that is still so often held up as something sadly lost. It's more than that, but this is part of what the movie is. And it isn't only that Hollywood has portrayed slavery inaccurately over the years, as if this were a fault that somehow lay in the past. It's that we have grown up watching and celebrating movies that gloss over the horror, and that make heroes of the people who profited from it. The movie is a kind of Western, after all, and contains many characters who look just like the cowboys we see in those movies. But why have we been brought up, or chosen to grow up, watching so many Westerns? Why isn't there a demand for Southerns? Why are we so eager to regard and encourage others to regard armed 19th-century white men as heroes? And why so reluctant to acknowledge both the reality of life in the Old West (which I know nothing about, but assume was not all white hats versus black hats, and John Wayne or the Seventh Cavalry saving the day) and life in the Old South? Before the film has even had the chance to raise these questions we are already living the answer: we like myths and entertainment. We prefer them to reality. Tarantino makes no attempt to change this reality. He gives us all the gunfights and explosions we could want, all the simple good versus evil, and amor vincit omnia we could want. But he switches it up and raises questions about it too.

LaSalle writes that:
The violence is outsize, epic, enormous, bloody - but not disturbing, and not dehumanizing. There's a place for violence onscreen, and this is the place, a Quentin Tarantino movie that's rated R. Just as there was nothing dispiriting about watching Hitler get his in "Inglourious Basterds" - it was about time - the same could be said for the events in "Django Unchained."
But "Inglourious Basterds" made us realize how close we are to Hitler and co. when we cheer their deaths, just how much savagery and bloodlust belong to who (or what) we are. And "Django Unchained" is similar. We hate the rich white man who watches black men fight to the death for his entertainment, but what are we doing as we laugh and cheer as Django gets his ultra-violent revenge on the not-exclusively-white people who abused him and his wife? We aren't the same as the bad guys, true. We haven't done exactly what they did. But we aren't all that different either. As Morgenstern points out, not only is one of the actors from "Inglourious Basterds" in a starring role, he is playing much the same character. Except that this time the murderous German is someone we root for.

The movie is not realistic at all, but it reminds us just how brutal and violent slavery was, and just how grotesque was the pretense of civility in the lifestyle parasitical upon it. Better than Morgenstern or LaSalle is A. O. Scott, who writes that:
Like “Inglourious Basterds,” “Django Unchained” is crazily entertaining, brazenly irresponsible and also ethically serious in a way that is entirely consistent with its playfulness.
The playfulness is actually essential to what the film does, because we enjoy it--that's why we're watching it--and it shows us something about ourselves. Or at least it puts this something right before our faces. Presumably not everyone sees it, since few reviews talk about the film being intentionally unsettling. But it is unsettling, albeit perhaps not unsettling enough, and not because of anything it says but because of what it does and how it does it. It uses our enjoyment to arrange an interview with conscience.

How is this not enough? There are at least three criticisms of the movie that seem worth considering. One is that it is so violent. I have never seen people being shot, but the amount of blood splashing around seems unrealistically large. This brings home how sanitized violence has been in the movies, but it also makes Tarantino's violence ridiculous, which is itself a kind of sanitization. The violence isn't clean, but it doesn't drive us insane because we can laugh at it. If it were not entertaining then the movie wouldn't work, and one might claim that the reality it is about is so horrific that you have to laugh or else you'd cry. But it is clear enough that the movie falls somewhere short of complete moral excellence when the friend with whom I go to these movies says (entirely justifiably) that they make you ashamed of yourself with a huge grin on his face as he looks forward to seeing the next one.

Another complaint people have made is that Tarantino is far too cavalier with the n-word and that he, as a white man, really has no business going into this territory at all. I don't know what to say about this. My sensibilities would probably not allow me to do what Tarantino has done. It would be pretty much unthinkable for me, even if I had his talent. But should I turn this into a rule and then apply it to others? Maybe. Maybe Tarantino is too insensitive to the suffering of those groups of people from whom he takes his heroes (African-Americans in this case). But one of the things I think he brings out is the extent to which both racism and violence are in the atmosphere we breathe. Perhaps he's too comfortable acknowledging this fact, but it does seem worth acknowledging.

Thirdly, and finally, is it all too much fun? As I said above, part of the point is that we do enjoy this stuff, and that point could not be made the same way, from within, as it were, if the movies were not enjoyable. He isn't telling us something in a sermon, he's showing us something through experience. It has to be fun to work. And the more fun it is the more people he can attract to have the experience. But does he trade too much for this? Maybe so. I can't say where he ought to draw the line or precisely how serious he ought to be, but if the movies are to be praised for their moral seriousness and value then we need to acknowledge that they are not as serious as they might be, and that their effectiveness as agents of moral improvement is questionable.

So much for movies. Of the books I read this year, the two I haven't mentioned before here but want to recommend are Paul Johnson's Socrates (the book seems poorly edited at times, and shows an off-putting desire to portray Socrates as compatible with Christianity, going out of its way to argue that he probably never had any kind of gay sex, but is nonetheless a quick, easy, and educational read for those of us who don't specialize in Greek philosophy but do teach bits of it every now and again) and Ryszard Kapuscinski's Travels With Herodotus (published in 2008 but new to me last year). Kapuscinski is not always reliable (his work has been called magic journalism) and does not seem to have been an overly noble man, but his writing is evocative and unchallenging in a way that seems to have a kind of honesty or directness about it, and he combines travelogue with stories and quotations from Herodotus in a way that, like Johnson's book, feels painlessly improving.