Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Making sense of words and deeds

The following passages are from p. 27 of Anscombe's Intention:
Wittgenstein said that when we call something senseless it is not as it were its sense that is senseless, but a form of words is being excluded from the language.
The 'exclusion from the language' is done not by legislation but by persuasion.
If we say 'it does not make sense for this man to say he did this for no particular reason' we are not 'excluding a form of words from the language'; we are saying 'we cannot understand such a man'. (Wittgenstein seems to have moved from an interest in the first sort of 'not making sense' to the second as Philosophical Investigations developed.)

There is not, it seems to me, a very sharp line between not understanding a man on account of what he says and not understanding a man on account of what he does. I don't mean there is no difference at all, necessarily, but the cases are surely closely related.

Later in the book Anscombe suggests that the question 'Why?', as in 'Why are you doing that?', amounts to asking 'What's the good of that?' And here, she says, "the good (perhaps falsely) conceived by the agent to characterise the thing must really be one of the many forms of good." (pp. 76-77).

When we cannot understand a man's doing this or that it seems that we cannot see the (supposed) good in what he is doing. If he kills someone to get his money then this makes sense, we can see why getting money seems (or is) good. But it only makes sense up to a point, it seems to me, given that we can still wonder about the goodness or sense of killing someone in order to get their money. If I met a mercenary, for instance, I might understand easily enough that he kills people because of the money, but I still might be quite mystified as to how he can see that as an acceptable way to make money. My understanding only goes so far. Another mercenary might understand better, but different mercenaries might draw the line in different places. I had a friend in high school with an unhealthy interest in  mercenaries. He told me that it was common for people to advertise their services in Soldier of Fortune magazine with the line 'Any cause but red,' meaning they will fight for anyone except communists. That kind of mercenary might not understand one who was prepared to fight for any cause at all.

The ways we live allow for certain possibilities and rule others out, or our lives are defined (at least in part) by what they exclude as possibilities. I could be an atheist or a Catholic or a Buddhist, but Shinto is not really an option for me, and the way of the samurai is definitely out. This says something about how I live and who I am. Certain forms of behavior and belief are excluded from the possibilities for my life. Not by my ethics, but by something that surely relates to ethics. It has, after all, to do with what I can make sense of as good.         

Over at The Limits of Language I've written the following in the comments:
Given how we live with other human beings, throwing dead (and dying!) people to be eaten by pigs might be a kind of contradiction. Soldiers returning from war often have a hard time adjusting to normal life because of this kind of contradiction between how they acted during the war and how they must act now that they are out of the war. This might be taken as a reason for thinking that the things one only would do in a war should never be done. Alternatively it could be taken as a sign that they are wrong. Whether it is a reason or a sign or neither is a tricky question, I think. (As is what it would mean to call it a sign.)

Not everything that leads to psychological problems later in life is necessarily wrong though. Say a soldier is fired on by a thirteen year-old boy, and fires back, killing the boy. Was this wrong? Not obviously. But I can imagine it might be very hard to live with having done something like that. So I'm reluctant to say that every act that is hard to live with must be wrong. Perhaps it is, but I'm not ready to draw that conclusion. On the other hand, an action's being hard to live with seems to be at least prima facie reason for thinking there is something bad about it. And not just its effect on one's mental health. It seems to be its badness, perhaps its disjointedness in relation to the rest of our lives, that makes it bad for our mental health. 

This makes me think of Cora Diamond's work on problems of life. But I also have in mind Wittgenstein's saying in Investigations 500 that, "When a sentence is called senseless, it is not as it were its sense that is senseless. But a combination of words is being excluded from the language, withdrawn from circulation." Certain ways of treating human beings and their bodies are excluded from the dictionary of acceptable forms of behavior. They are not in circulation. And when someone tries to introduce them they are rejected. Not because they are inherently worthless/senseless/impossible to circulate. But because they don't fit well with the pre-existing economy. 

Something like this, at least, is the kind of thinking I want to explore.
I think the key idea here is reasonableness. However narrowly rational evil acts might be, they are not reasonable. But do I want to make reasonableness the standard of moral goodness? That doesn't sound right.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Senseless slaughter

Especially evil deeds are often referred to as senseless. Has much been made of the similarity between the sense/nonsense distinction and the good/evil distinction?

I've been thinking about this since reading some Rai Gaita recently, but I haven't so far found a place where he talks about it explicitly and at length. Does he do so? Does someone else? I assume the idea is either no good or else old hat, but I'm not sure which it is yet.

Mind, Music, and Language

Adam Croom edits a journal, which looks interesting:
Mind, Music, and Language is a new academic journal devoted to empirical and theoretical research on mind, music, and language. The journal is fully peer-reviewed by experts and all accepted articles will be published Open Access. This means that authors retain the copyright to their work and that all journal content remains freely accessible to readers.
Mind, Music, and Language publishes original research articlesbook reviews, as well as entries for the new Encyclopedia of Mind, Music, and Language. Theoretically creative and empirically informed submissions on mind, music, and language are warmly encouraged and will receive the careful consideration of our experienced editorial team.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Yabba dabba doo

When I started reading Avner Baz's paper "The Sound of Bedrock" I was so impressed that I considered writing a blog post whose whole point was to draw attention to this paper. But when I read the last part of the paper, I found this:
I would like to propose that what we bring to what we see, when we see (or attempt to see) something as x, is not our concept of X—understood as whatever guides us in our ordinary and normal employment of ‘x'—but rather pictures, feelings, embodied attitudes, etc., that have gotten associated for us with ‘x’, and so with our concept of X, later. Thus, if I wish to see a triangle—whether drawn or three dimensional—as having fallen over (see PI, p. 200), I adopt a bodily attitude toward it that has become associated for me with the notion of ‘having fallen over’: perhaps I artificially enact, or find enacted in me upon being invited to see the triangle as having fallen over, the (simulated) intention to ‘put it back up’, or a feeling of discomfort or of things being out of order that has become associated for me with the notion of ‘having fallen over’.
This strikes me as not just wrong but as so obviously wrong that no one could possibly believe it. If I wish to see a triangle as having fallen over, I adopt a bodily attitude toward it? No I don't. I might, but I certainly don't have to do anything of the sort. And what is it to artificially enact the simulated intention to 'put back up' a fallen triangle? I know what putting back up a fallen object is. I have little idea what 'putting back up' a fallen object is (with the quotation marks, that is). What is so-to-speak putting back up, as distinct from actual putting back up? And then what is artificially enacting the simulated intention to do this? What is a simulated intention, as distinct from an actual intention, including the intention to simulate? As Wittgenstein says, "in the end when one is doing philosophy one gets to the point where one would like just to emit an inarticulate sound." This is what I find myself doing when I try to imagine what Baz is describing  

Baz's route to this point is sophisticated and interesting. I don't know how far from the truth he ends up being. But that he has not arrived at the truth seems to me about as clear as can be.  

Perhaps I've misunderstood what he's saying. It's possible that when he says "if I wish to see a triangle [...] as having fallen over (see PI, p. 200), I adopt a bodily attitude toward it" he means not that this is what one must do but simply that this is the kind of thing one might do. In that case I wouldn't disagree. But I think what he means is more that this is the kind of thing that one must do (and what he actually says is that this is the thing that one does, which has to be wrong). And the problem then is what is included in that kind. What is the scope of the 'etc.' in "pictures, feelings, embodied attitudes, etc."? What connects things of this kind is their association with a certain concept, but Baz explicitly denies that seeing x as y involves the concept of y. Talking about this experience will involve y, but the experience itself does not. There is more to be said about this, but surely Kant and Wittgenstein would disagree.

Monday, February 9, 2015

What use are economists?

The New York Times has a panel discussion.

Diane Coyle is pro-economist and makes a decent case, but says both that, "By their actions, governments clearly find economists useful, more useful than other kinds of social scientist," and "reselling tickets for events or concerts makes sense to economists, because it means the people who most value the opportunity will be the ones who attend." In the former sentence, 'find' has to mean 'regard as' rather than 'discover to be.' In the second, the enormous assumption is made that how much someone is willing to pay for something measures how much they value it. It obviously does measure or track that somewhat, but how much they can afford also matters hugely. Coyle must know this, but she writes as if she doesn't.

Peter Blair Henry is also pro-economist, arguing that:
If economists had adequate influence, policymakers in the U.S. and Europe would already have followed the example of developing countries and implemented structural reforms of their own, such as simplifying the tax code and making it easier to hire and fire workers.
Hmm. The US tax code is certainly very complicated, and I expect its complexity is harmful. But it sounds as though this is Henry's way of saying cut taxes and make it to easier to fire people. Which to the untutored ear sounds like: if only the Republicans ran everything we would all be better off. Which I think there is reason to doubt.

Marion Fourcade says nothing that I can summarize easily. And perhaps really nothing at all, beyond the claim that economists currently occupy a position that is "fragile."

Orlando Patterson and Ethan Fosse, sociologists, make the bizarre claim that it's "no wonder" that implementing ideas from economists has failed given that what economists say about the state of the economy is different from most people's felt experience. If what they said felt truer would we have good reason to expect better results? Perhaps by "no wonder" they mean that it would not strike most people as surprising rather than that a rational person would expect these bad results. They also claim that the key to development at the national level is state intervention in the economy, basically the opposite of what Peter Blair Henry recommends. Who to believe? And they complain that Economics has its own so-called Nobel Prize.

Philip N. Cohen, another sociologist, seems much more sensible:
In reality, many economists don't hew so firmly to these mainstream dogmas [i.e. the kind defended by Henry]. But economists’ influence is largely proportional to the degree with which their analysis comports with the interests of those who make the most influential decisions. The free market orientation, individualist logic and materialist values of some economists serve well the captains of industry (or, nowadays, of finance), who in turn reward their compliant consultants with privileged perches around the seats of power.     
Finally, Charles R. Plott claims that Economics is great, appealing mostly to the fact that economic theories are widely used. Perhaps they are indeed used because they work so well. Or perhaps Patterson and Fosse are right that they actually have worked very badly. Or perhaps Cohen is right that the ideas that get used are those that suit the people in power. Who knows.

Sunday, February 8, 2015


There's not much to say about this, but I've started watching a tv series that's set in a fictionalized version of Svalbard, home of vh and his blog Orienteringsforsøk. So far there's been a disappointing lack of philosophers in the show, but that also means that no philosophers have been murdered or eaten by polar bears. Which is good.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Poor economics

If you care about economic and philosophical issues to do with poverty then you might be interested in this free online course. It's based on the book Poor Economics by Esther Duflo and Abjhit Banerjee. In the beginning of the book (pp. 4-5) they say that:
This book will not tell you whether aid is good or bad, but it will say whether particular instances of aid did some good or not. We cannot pronounce on the efficacy of democracy, but we do have something to say about whether democracy could be made more effective in rural Indonesia by changing the way it is organized on the ground, and so on.  
In other words, as I understand it, they reject the idea that economics or economists or anyone else can pronounce generally on whether democracy or aid or free markets or any other general solution to poverty works, but they do think that people can identify what works and what does not in particular cases. This sounds right, but it suggests a very modest role for economics as a science. (I say 'suggests' because I still have a lot to learn about all this.)

Two of the first readings required by the course are blog posts for and against the idea that Jeff Sachs' belief in giving away insecticide-treated mosquito nets (ITNs) for free has been vindicated by empirical evidence. The first says that:
new randomized experiment carried out by Jessica Cohen and Pascaline Dupas reaches striking and unambiguous results:
Taken together, our results suggest that cost-sharing ITN programs may have difficulty reaching a large fraction of the populations most vulnerable to malaria. [...] We also find that, for the full range of parameter values, the number of infant lives saved is highest when ITNs are distributed free.    
The second counters that:
Cohen and Dupas have confirmed that demand curves slope downward. More than that, they have found that there is residual demand for bed nets from mothers with new babies in a community that has benefited from extensive demand promotion activities in conjunction with a social marketing campaign for bed nets, which are very highly subsidized, but not free.
In other words, even "striking and unambiguous results" produce next to nothing that can be generalized with confidence. What is found to happen in one region in Kenya is found to happen in that region in Kenya, given the particular circumstances prevailing at the time. Things might be different even in that region at another time.

I don't mean that these findings are worthless. They are at least suggestive, and might eventually add up to more than that. But despite all the praise, my first impression (more impressions coming soon!) is that this cutting-edge work in economics really confirms a lot of the main points made by people generally regarded as anti-economics or anti-social science, especially the point that human life is too complicated and affected by too many variables for anyone to be able to identify universal laws of human behavior.

Are the builders happy?

Apart from the fact that it comes from a position, as it were, only partway up the ladder, what, if anything, is wrong with the following line of thought? Something feels wrong about it (perhaps something very obvious), but I haven't put my finger on it yet:

Tractatus 6.43 does not say that the world can or does wax and wane, but only that if good or bad willing changes the world then it must do so in this way, by changing the limits of the world. And these limits change as a whole, not here and there. The waxing world does not increase in this place or that, so to speak, by the addition of this or that. We cannot say in logic that the world has this and this in it but not that. And we cannot say that this world is bigger than that one because this has such-and-such in it but that world does not. The reference here to the limits of the world calls to mind 5.61, in which Wittgenstein writes that, “Logic fills the world; the limits of the world are also its limits.” The limits of logic in the world of the happy are greater than those in the world of the unhappy.
 What can this possibly mean? It seems to have to do with language. By 5.61 the world is the space of possibilities. To say in logic that the world does not contain this would be precisely to exclude a certain possibility. And this, Wittgenstein says, we cannot do. The world contains everything that can be said or thought. So an expanded world, the world of the happy, is one in which more can be thought. The possibilities are greater. For the person who lives eternally (which is not a matter of living endlessly), the possibilities are unlimited.
I am not sure how much this helps explain what Wittgenstein means, and of course he tells us later that his propositions are nonsense, so it is easy to despair of understanding. But I think it is worth going on a little before giving up. The idea of languages or logics of different size, or an idea of such things, is not very difficult to grasp. The builders’ language in the Philosophical Investigations, for instance, is small. It contains few words and recognizes few possibilities. A language like English, on the other hand, is much bigger and seems to contain endless possibilities. We can create new sentences using existing words and grammatical forms, but we can also introduce new words and new grammatical forms. Tractarian happiness, then, might mean using the entire language or being open to it, not closing oneself in a rigidly conservative region of the language. The mind of the happy is rich, open, and imaginative.