Thursday, December 29, 2016

Where's the harm?

Two thoughts about harm, neither of which is perhaps very interesting (although if they are uninteresting because they have been expressed before I'd be grateful for a reference).

The first is about Mill's so-called harm principle, which says, roughly, that adults from civilized countries should be allowed to do whatever they like as long as they don't harm anybody else. As is well known, he does not say what he means by harm. Generally, I believe, it is taken to mean direct physical or financial damage, but there is no obvious reason why this should be so, and it isn't what Mill says. (For instance, why count a small physical harm as more significant than a great psychological harm?, or a great but indirect financial loss as less important than a small, direct financial loss?) In fact Mill clearly does not believe that people should be allowed to do whatever they want as long as they don't directly harm others. For instance, he thinks it's OK to compel people to give testimony in court or to help defend their country from attack. And you should not be allowed to sell yourself into slavery, since this would be giving up your freedom.

So it's more that there is a certain sphere within which you should be free than that you should have virtually unlimited freedom. But this limited sphere of freedom includes some very vague terms, such as freedom of "tastes and pursuits," which seems to put us back in the realm of freedom to do what you like as long as you don't harm anyone else. Except that this is explicitly not what Mill means, and we still have not defined harm. So I wonder whether Mill is really saying anything at all. That is, does the harm principle, or at least Mill's harm principle, really exist?

Speaking of harm, Judith Thomson sees no morally significant difference between killing and letting die. If, because I want you dead, I fail to intervene when I see you accidentally eat poison then this is just the same, morally speaking, as if I deliberately poison you. On the other hand, Henry Fonda does no wrong if he fails to cross the room and touch my head, even if his doing so (and nothing else) would save my life. This is because I have no right to his help, and hence his inaction is not unjust. If he crossed the room and killed me, though, then this would be unjust killing. I have no right to his help, but I do have a right to his not harming me. But harming is the same, morally, as not helping. So I'm struggling to see how Thomson thinks of this. I imagine she has addressed it somewhere (unless I'm hallucinating the problem), but I don't remember reading about it.  

(This is one of three or four posts I started before Christmas and didn't post because I didn't get around to editing them. Apologies if it is still only half-baked.)    

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Wittgenstein and Modernism

These two new books (both collections of essays by various people) look good, and are nothing to do with me:

Wittgenstein and Modernism and Understanding Wittgenstein, Understanding Modernism

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Forthcoming books from Routledge

I've got chapters in each of these books coming out next year:
Analytic Philosophy: An Interpretive History edited by Aaron Preston
Wittgenstein's Moral Thought edited by Reshef Agam-Segal and Edmund Dain

Here's the table of contents for the second one:
1. Wittgenstein’s Moral Thought Edmund Dain2. Ethics and Philosophical Clarification Oskari Kuusela3. Clarifying Clarification: Wittgenstein on Moral Clarity Reshef Agam-Segal4. Ethics and World in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Eli Friedlander5. Ethics, Aesthetics and Nonsense: Elucidating the Unity of Truth, Beauty and Goodness Kristin Boyce6. Wittgenstein and the Poetics of Failure Jean-Philippe Narboux7. An "Exclusively Self-Regarding" Ethics Kevin Cahill8. Making Sense of Wittgenstein’s ‘Lecture on Ethics’ Craig Fox9. Moral Sense: Scandalously Plain, Persistently Ambiguous Joel Backström10. Sketches of Blurred Landscapes: Ethics in the Philosophical Investigations Duncan Richter11. A Wittgensteinian Notion of Descriptive Moral Philosophy Anne-Marie S. Christensen12. Disposable Thinking Kelly Dean Jolley13. Wittgenstein’s Radical Ethics Hannes Nykänen14. Wrongdoing and Shame: A Worry about Wittgensteinian Ethics Martin Gustafsson

Thursday, November 24, 2016

What to read?

You can probably find things to read online without help from me, but these struck me as being particularly interesting:

Dimitrios Halikias on Samuel Bowles' The Moral Economy, on homo economicus and how policies based on belief in psychological egoism can fail and even backfire

Walter Benn Michaels on the importance of economic equality (h/t Camilla Kronqvist)

Candace Vogler on the purpose of higher education: here and here (warning: you won't find out what the purpose is from readings these posts, but there is a lot else that is good in them)

And if you're interested in inequality in the USA then this MOOC is great (even though it's claim to present just the facts is laughable--not because it's all liesi(t isn't) but because exclaiming and telling people that things are shocking is not being neutral)

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Nordic Wittgenstein Review Vol. 5, No. 2

Pre-print articles (selection) available from Nordic Wittgenstein Review & CFP

Dear scholar,

The Nordic Wittgenstein Review hereby invites you to preview and comment on four accepted papers to be published in NWR Vol. 5, No. 2 (2016).

This Open Review procedure will be on for a few weeks from now on. Our hope is to engage the community in a process of collaborative review, with the aim of improving the quality of the publication.

The pre-print (with comment function for registered users) is available on the NWR website:


Tim Kraft: "How to Read the Tractatus Sequentially"

Roberto Sá Pereira "What We Can Learn about Phenomenal Concepts from Wittgenstein’s Private Language"

Nicola Claudio Salvatore: "Moore(anists) and Wittgenstein on Radical Skepticism"

Peter K Westergaard: "'The suffering of an ascetic' - On linguistic and ascetic self-misunderstanding in Wittgenstein and Nietzsche"


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Call for Papers
Nordic Wittgenstein Review (NWR) publishes original contributions on all aspects of Wittgenstein's thought and work. Each issue includes an invited paper, an interview, a section for peer-reviewed articles, a section in which seminal works are re-published or where previously unpublished archival materials are presented, as well as a book review section.

The journal is a full Open Access journal, international double-blind peer review + open review of accepted papers, published by the Nordic Wittgenstein Society (NWS).

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PS. Feel free to circulate this invitation.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Wittgenstein news

There is a new Nordic Wittgenstein Review forthcoming next month.

And there's a nice map of the Tractatus (plus some handy links) produced by David Stern and others at the University of Iowa.

UPDATE: And now this newly discovered manuscript too.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Boys and frogs

Bion of Borysthenes sounds like a character from Game of Thrones but is actually the philosopher Plutarch quotes as saying that, "Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, yet the frogs die not in sport but in earnest."

The thing that has struck me about Trump's victory in the election is that no one seems to be very happy that he has won. Many of the students I teach will have voted for him, and I have some very vocal Facebook friends (former students) who are clearly delighted. But, as far as I can see, they are delighted that Hillary Clinton (and "the liberals" and "the SJWs") lost, not that Trump won. There is happy talk of building a wall, but it isn't serious. This unseriousness is interesting, I suspect, if we want to understand part of Trump's appeal. It's as if a yoke has been removed and its removal is being celebrated. That is (and here I'm both speculating pretty wildly and talking only about a very small and quite possibly unrepresentative data set), what they seem to want is not to keep Mexicans out of the country or to build a wall so much as to be allowed to talk about wanting to build a wall. Shouting "Build a wall!" makes them laugh. Some of them might actually support the building of such a wall, but I suspect that this too would be, at least in part, because they would find it funny to insult Mexico in this way. 

A seemingly related phenomenon is something I've noticed on Facebook for a while now, the 'funny' video of mishaps and stupidity that just happens to be dominated by African Americans suffering accidents or appearing foolish. These seem to be liked and shared out of a genuine sense that they are funny, and perhaps they are funny, but they obviously lend themselves to a racist agenda, and if you've learned to be sensitive to racism (through personal experience or education) then they aren't going to be comfortable viewing. I don't know whether these compilations are made with a racist purpose in mind, but I am sure that many people who watch them would be both offended and surprised if they were accused of racism for watching them. If there is racism there it is in being insufficiently sensitive to matters of race (not animus but merely the absence of caring) or in having some less passive racist attitude that is deep enough below full consciousness to cause laughter when it is satisfied. Like laughing at a dirty joke without really understanding why you are laughing.    

There is certainly insensitivity in all this (both laughing about building a wall and laughing at videos of black people falling over, etc.) and probably prejudice too. But it would take work to show that there is racial hostility there. So, for one thing, calling people who go in for this kind of thing racist is going to be a debatable move and, for another, demonstrating that it is a fair judgment will take some work. The accused don't want to have to do this work. Nor, of course, do they want to be accused of anything. Anti-racists are likely to seem much more like killjoys than loving moral improvers to them. Complaints about liberals and political correctness are often fueled partly, I suspect, by a desire to be less serious, which combines (1) a lazy reluctance to do the hard work of searching one's soul and thinking about the meaning of one's words and deeds with (2) a desire not to be accused, let alone convicted, of any wrongdoing. There is, or at least seems to be, a seriousness on the left that is not there, or not nearly as there, on the right. (This seriousness is not always a wholly good thing: it can veer off into self-righteousness or into obsession with things that don't really matter, but it is a hallmark of the left.)

The aspect of the unseriousness of the right that has immediately struck me is a sometimes wild, sometimes sneering, but always bullying humor. (Bullying because it is about disadvantaged people and because it is often aimed at people who are, at least temporarily, weak, E.g. people who cry over Trump's victory or hate crimes committed in Trump's name are likely to be mocked by Trump supporters.) But probably a more important aspect of it is the rejection of reality. News reports about bad things Trump supporters have done are simply rejected as untrue, while, of course, similar reports about bad things done by anti-Trump demonstrators are believed and exaggerated. Expertise itself is rejected as irrelevant. There is no truth, only interpretation. And there is passionate commitment to a certain frame of reference.

What is to be done? Of course I don't know, but it's tempting to attempt an analysis as a starting point. Two things stand out to me. The first is this unseriousness issue. I think many of us tend to think as if everyone is part of the reality-based community. Probably everyone is part of this community. But not as much as you might think. Not every Trump voter is motivated by things I can understand even if I don't agree with them, like a principled opposition to abortion or belief in certain principles of economics or the proper role of government. Some don't think in those terms at all. They don't really think at all. No doubt there are people on the other side like this too. I'm talking about tendencies, and I think there is (fairly uncontroversially) more of a pointy-head and bleeding heart tendency on the left and a blunt-head, cold heart tendency on the right. The blunt-headed response to inconvenient facts is to deny and ignore. The cold-hearted response to the suffering of others is denial and mockery. And this is what we see. Not from all Republicans, of course, but to a surprising degree. (Having a cold heart does not rule out laughter or emotion. But I suspect these emotions are likely to be of a particular kind. Sentimentality will loom large, for instance.)

I have drifted away from my point, which is less about head shape or heart temperature and more about sobriety or maturity, contact with and interest in reality. The Trump supporters I am talking about--not the ones who held their noses while voting for him but the ones who voted with a smirk--are like drunk people. Drunk people who have become attached to a joke and keep telling it and laughing no matter what. There is no point in wondering what policies might have appealed to them more. Perhaps we can ask how and why they got so drunk. But also people just aren't all that rational. When you find yourself asking "What were they thinking?" the answer is usually that they weren't thinking at all.

Which brings me to the second thing I was going to mention. Could better education or better media make people think more, be more serious, care about reality rather than their preferred fantasy-filled bubble? I hope so. At the very least it might make some people more ashamed of not doing so. One way to see the problem with the media is that there is so much of it, so many sources to choose from. This is defended in two ways:
  1. Free speech: what are you going to do?
  2. The market will sort the good from the bad: don't worry
But of course the market doesn't support truth. The market is for bread and circuses. So we get very little real news and lots of infotainment. We also get the idea that truth is a quaint myth, that everyone is biased, and therefore it's OK for me to be biased. Which encourages not only bias but tribalism. Not only do 'my truths' not have to track the truth or be sensitive to reality, but they are mine as opposed to yours. So our disagreement is not about the truth or about reality but about me versus you, us against them. People are probably always going to tend to think this way, but there is a relatively easy solution that might well be only partial but sufficient: improve funding for public news (e.g. PBS) and tighten regulations that have been relaxed on private news media (so that, e.g., Rupert Murdoch has less influence). This in itself would do something to restore faith in truth.

There is, I believe, a similar kind of relativism in education, though motivated by a desire to be tolerant and inclusive. Hardly anyone studies philosophy in school, but everyone studies English. And the field of English, along with many other fields, probably including Education itself, has become dominated by (a crude and muddled kind of) postmodernism. (Or, at least, I know people who teach English at several different colleges and most of them tend to be postmodern in what strikes me as a deeply problematic way.) At the college-level this means that quite a few courses are basically exercises in propaganda. (Not all are, certainly, and there is conservative propaganda as well as liberal propaganda, but I would be surprised if a degree in sociology, say, didn't include a big dose of propaganda. And this is one reason why the liberal arts are under attack from conservative politicians.) In public schools that's harder to get away with, but I do think the relativism part of postmodernism is probably taught to a lot of children. The very idea of a reasoned defense of something that is not mathematical or scientific seems to be almost unintelligible to a lot of my students. That is not relativism, but it's easy to conclude that every view is equally justified if they are all equally arbitrary. This is not good for public discourse. I have heard that postmodernism was replaced by new historicism, and that this too is now a thing of the past. So perhaps this is just an educational fashion that will go away. Let's hope so.

There is a pretty deep commitment to relativism, though, in both economics (let's maximize utility and--this is the relativist or quasi-relativist bit--define utility as preference-satisfaction because that doesn't involve moral judgment and is measurable) and large parts of the humanities and social sciences. Even if it goes away it might not be replaced by anything good. It's hard to see public education becoming anything other than a mill dominated by standardized tests, the "needs" of the economy, and doses of political propaganda injected into the curriculum by whoever is in power at the time (I mean state legislatures, not lefty teachers). This will be a shame, but not the end of the world.

I haven't really said what I meant to say. I'm sure I've left some things out, but I've also failed to hit the nail on the head, and probably will fail again if I try to sum up what I was going to say. But here's an attempt anyway. Both thoughts have to do with liberal democracy as an ideal from the Age of Reason. We, both Republicans and Democrats of a certain socio-economic class at least, tend to think about elections in terms of policies and rational arguments for and against them. But a big chunk of people just aren't, mostly, like that. To win their support or to represent them accurately you need to operate in a completely different way. Perhaps this point could be captured by talk about sound-bites or narrative, or perhaps with reference to different language-games, but I think it's more a question of mood or sobriety. Your mind has to be moved into a different gear. Whether that's a good thing to do is another matter, but I think it's a point that is repeatedly (learned and then) forgotten in politics. The frogs (and their would-be defenders) can't understand why they are being stoned, and the boys just laugh.

The other point, I suppose, is that liberal democracy might need Enlightenment ideals/values to function, and when those values/ideals die out, as they seem to be doing or to have done, on both the left and the right, then it is not clear that democracy as we know it can function. I don't think  the Enlightenment is completely dead yet. But the future looks very uncertain, and not in a good way.

As I say, though, I feel as though I have not really said what I wanted to say here. Rai Gaita does a much better job with some similar thoughts here. [h/t Reshef Agam-Segal]   

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Publishing advice

Jason Brennan has written some advice on how to publish, especially if you are a graduate student. It looks like pretty useful advice for its target audience, but it also cries out for parody. Hence the following:

Productive in Publishing: Some Advice for Academics, Especially Graduate Students

1. Meta: Make sure you are dispassionate
a. “Publish or perish” is misleading. You might die on the inside because of an obsession with publishing
b. Publishing is not the point of being an academic. That would be learning, thinking, and, above all, teaching.
c. Don’t become someone concerned primarily with your own fun and energy. It isn’t all about you. In fact, discipleship might be a good way to go: pick a giant and try standing on its shoulders.

2. Don’t let the important take precedence over the urgent
a. Do what you have to do now first, then write. Because the urgent is urgent.
b. Prep more. Teaching is your job and a way to reach far more people than publishing 
c. Never sacrifice other important things to get research done. You aren’t curing cancer

3. Write every weekday, if you have a job and life that affords you this luxury 
a. But don’t time yourself or keep a log. Stay human

4. Take breaks, enjoy treats
a. Coffee, naps, and exercise might actually help you be more productive

5. Read, don’t write

6. Write first, edit second.
OK, I actually agree with this one. At least, it is what I currently do. I suspect it might sometimes result in less good work, though, because not every flaw necessarily gets edited out

7. Don’t talk to your hairdresser about philosophy
a. “Any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell deserves to be,” Hilary Putnam
b. “Everything should be made as simple as possible but not simpler,” Albert Einstein

8. Try to stay focused on one or, at most, two projects at a time
a. When you get stuck, read more or think more. “Go the bloody hard way,” Ludwig Wittgenstein
b. Keep your head as clear as possible at all times

9. Sometimes you will have 3 things under review, sometimes nothing. That’s how it goes

10. Some articles are like term papers, some are not. Write whatever kind suits what you have to say

11. Work with the best advisor you can, the one you will learn from the most 
a. Philosophy is not a pre-professional degree. Don’t treat it like one

12. You don’t work best under pressure. Unless you do
a. I don’t know you, nor does Jason Brennan

13. Once you have a hammer, pound in multiple nails
a. Unless, you know, no nails are called for

14. Publishing in grad school is not easy, as experience shows

15. Book publishing might seem to be a catch-22, and yet people publish books. So maybe it isn’t

16. Read stuff other than philosophy
a. Philosophers often rely on mistaken assumptions about other fields; easy to spot once you know other fields, and then you have an opening for new work

b. So simply master multiple fields and publishing will be a breeze

17. Don’t write like a grad student. Be someone else. Or be one of those grad students for whom publishing is easy

18. Read your papers out loud. Rewrite until they sound good. Or re-read until they sound good. Maybe try reading in a different accent

19. You do not have to sell the paper. This is philosophy

20. A good dissertation might still be better, and a done dissertation is not necessarily a good dissertation

21. For our last job, we got about 150 applications. I threw out all applications without evidence of good teaching

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Consolingly disastrous

The election result has left me a bit stunned. It can seem completely mysterious how someone like Trump could be elected, given that the economy is doing well under Obama (whose policies are similar to those you would expect from Clinton) and given Trump's horribleness as an individual. It is not surprising, though, that many Republicans would vote for the Republic candidate even if they don't like him personally. It is not surprising that the improvements in the economy have not helped everyone or have not yet been felt by some of those they are helping. And, of course, there is more to life than the economy.

I think Trump got so many votes because of Republican loyalty, anti-elite and anti-establishment resentment, a desire by people doing well not to lose their relative advantage (even if the economy as a whole does worse), racism, and sexism. The high turnout suggests that Trump's personal qualities actually increased his support, which is disheartening. [Update: It looks as though I might be wrong about this. According to @MaxBoot: "Obama got 65.9m votes in '12, Romney 60.9m. Clinton has 59.3m, Trump 59.1m. R vote didn't go up; Dem vote went down. 6.6m missing votes."] But if you want an anti-establishment figure then one with a vicious character might be appealing. And he clearly has the qualities to appeal to racists and sexists. If what you care about most is your own relative wealth, etc. then you might well hold your nose and vote for a Trump. (Relative wealth because a Trump presidency is not actually likely to be good for the economy overall.) So maybe it's not so mysterious after all.

One remaining mystery is why there was so much antipathy towards Hillary Clinton. Sexism must be part of the answer, and her being part of the establishment another. But enough mud seems to have been thrown at her that some of it has stuck, leaving many people convinced that she must be corrupt despite the absence of proof. This raises questions about the media as well as about the electorate. If you don't like Clinton because she's supposedly corrupt, why would you prefer Trump? Of course I don't know. I wonder whether guilt about voting for Trump produces bad feelings that are then projected onto Clinton.

The media partly want to get attention, and Trump is good for that. They also might really believe that there are two sides to every story and no such thing as objective truth for them to report. The result is that both candidates are presented as being about equally bad, so you can hate the one whose policies or associations you don't like while not feeling too bad about voting for the one you prefer. Meanwhile the public has also been brought up on some kind of relativism by journalists and possibly high school English teachers, and everyone seems to share Fox News' skepticism about objectivity in journalism. So inconvenient facts are brushed aside as part of someone else's narrative.

The real question is what we can do about all this. My hope had been that the Republicans would lose so badly that they changed into some sort of kinder, gentler, possibly somewhat libertarian party. In turn the Democrats might move more to the left, and the resulting compromise government would tend to be non-interventionist in foreign policy, egalitarian, and respectful of personal freedom. So much for that. The Republican Party might not change very much at all, but it certainly isn't likely to become kinder or gentler. The market has spoken, and it did not ask for generosity, chivalry, or even decency.

I see two non-dreadful paths ahead. One is that demographic changes mean we don't have results like this much more, if at all, in the future. If the Democratic candidate had been a man then Trump might not have won (although if they only ever put up male candidates that would be dreadful). If the non-white population grows faster than suppression of the non-white vote then there is hope for a non-Republican President in future. Eventually, perhaps, all those angry old white men will die and fantasies of some sort of return to the 1950s will die with them.

Alternatively, perhaps the Democrats can make themselves more appealing to some Trump voters, most obviously members of the working class. According to the Measure of America: "Whites saw the greatest earnings drop between 2000 and 2010, nearly $2,300." I wouldn't recommend targeting whites per se, but people whose earnings have dropped are going to be unhappy and will want both hope and respect. The Democratic Party needs to make it clear that it is concerned about these people and has something to offer them if it is going to get their votes. It's a tall order when jobs are disappearing, but there are things we could do. And Trump has managed to get these votes without having a viable economic plan, so it might be easier than it seems.

None of this might matter if no one believes anything they read, see or hear that doesn't match their prejudices and fantasies. But there is still some room for hope. I think.

Failing that, there's Betjeman:
And all the time the waves, the waves, the waves
Chase, intersect and flatten on the sand
As they have done for centuries, as they will
For centuries to come, when not a soul
Is left to picnic on the blazing rocks,
When England is not England, when mankind
Has blown himself to pieces. Still the sea,
Consolingly disastrous, will return
While the strange starfish, hugely magnified,
Waits in the jewelled basin of a pool.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

More on clarity

After attending a very useful workshop on Wittgenstein this weekend I've added some stuff to the paper I've been working on about the value of clarity:
What does all this have to do with Wittgenstein? Perhaps not very much. I believe that he would have been sympathetic to what I have said here, but it is too prescriptive and too unrelated to problems of specifically philosophical confusion to qualify as what he would likely count as philosophy. This does not make it any the less true, however. And noting the ethical difference between someone like Galtung and Orwell is, it seems to me, Wittgensteinian in spirit. Wittgenstein wrote in his diary (in 1931) that Kierkegaard teases and tricks his readers into doing what Kierkegaard wants them to do. So far as this is something important it is good that people are made to do it. But even so, it is “unpleasant” to trick people in this way, Wittgenstein writes. Using such a trick is a bold move, he suggests, but “would also take a lack of love of one’s fellow human being.” It is this love that seems to be missing from the manipulative (though possibly beneficial) consequentialist ethic of communication that I have tried to identify and distinguish from a more Wittgensteinian one here.
This consequentialist form of communication is not simply bullshit, although that is a related notion. Harry Frankfurt discusses an anecdote involving Wittgenstein in his (very) short book On Bullshit. Frankfurt focuses on Wittgenstein’s reported disgust at Fania Pascal’s description of herself as feeling like a dog that has been run over. If the story is true, Frankfurt suggests, then what Wittgenstein is most likely to have objected to is Pascal’s failure even to try to describe her feelings accurately. She does not know what a run-over dog feels like, so her use of this analogy reveals her to be more concerned with entertainment or showing off than with reality. A lack of interest in truth, in external constraints on what one might say, belongs to the very essence of bullshit, according to Frankfurt.
The phenomenon that I have focused on here might be regarded as well-intentioned bullshit, but it is not quite that. Galtung is not unconcerned with the truth. What he is not concerned about is conceptual accuracy—perhaps because he would question the very idea of such a thing—or conceptual clarity—because he regards other things as more important. He does, or at least might, care about what we say and whether it is true or not. But he does not care very much about whether the way we say it results in what he calls semantic confusion. A Frankfurtian bullshitter cares neither about confusion of meaning nor about confusion of facts. Nor does he care about truth and falsity. He is trying to get away with something, and will use whatever means are necessary to do so. Galtung is trying to promote peace, which I would not really call trying to get away with something. But his chosen means involves acceptance of a certain amount of collateral semantic damage. It is the bullshitty aspect of this that Wittgenstein and others would find objectionable.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Saying the same thing

Tommi Uschanov points out that in his 1930 "Sketch for a Foreword" Wittgenstein says that he is "not interested in constructing a building, so much as in having a perspicuous view of the foundations of possible buildings" but then goes on, after this sketch, to say that:
Each of the sentences I write is trying to say the whole thing, i.e. the same thing over and over again; it is as though they were all simply views of one object seen from different angles.
There seems to be a tension here, as Tommi notes. Does Wittgenstein want to see the multiplicity suggested by his reference to "foundations of possible buildings" or the unity of "one object"? He goes on to say the following:
the place I really have to get to is a place I must already be at now. Anything that I might reach by climbing a ladder does not interest me.
     One movement links thoughts with one another in a series, the other keeps aiming at the same spot.
     One is constructive and picks up one stone after another, the other keeps taking hold of the same thing. 
You could free associate until you were blue in the face here. Talk of the same thing over and over reminds me of what Wittgenstein said he wanted to be given to eat when he visited Norman Malcolm (but presumably that's at least mostly irrelevant). Talk of one object seen from different angles reminds me of Wittgenstein's remarks on aspect-perception and on thinking about a stove. Getting to a place you are already at sounds like T. S. Eliot (in 1943, so not what Wittgenstein had in mind). The ladder surely is the ladder mentioned at the end of the Tractatus. The series of linked thoughts also sounds like the Tractatus, while the picking up of stones sounds a bit like Wittgenstein's builders.

The stove passage is from October 8th, 1916:
       As a thing among things, each thing is equally insignificant; as a world each one equally significant. If I have been contemplating the stove, and then am told: but now all you know is the stove, my result does indeed seem trivial. For this represents the matter as if I had studied the stove as one among the many things in the world. But if I was contemplating the stove it was my world, and everything else colourless by contrast with it. (Something good about the whole, but bad in details.) For it is equally possible to take the bare present image as the worthless momentary picture in the whole temporal world, and as the true world among shadows. 
As David Stern says, this is a Schopenhauerian idea.

If Wittgenstein were to say one thing, what might we expect it to be? Here are some candidates:
  • Wow! (Since wonder at the existence of the world is the experience par excellence)
  • It ain't necessarily so (or some kind of liberating word to free us from the grip of some picture) 
  • Try looking at it this way (instead)
The last two of these could go together, and then the result might be the first. Perhaps. It would not obviously be a case of wonder at the existence of the world, but it could involve a sense of liberation and revelation. And when something is revealed to you in a new light you might see it as if for the first time, and so with fresh wonder.

At the BWS meeting in September Chon Tejedor quoted Wittgenstein's saying to Paul Engelmann in 1918 that: "When a man wants, as it were, to invent a machine for becoming decent, such a man has no faith." This machine could be the ladder (the Tractatus) and the remarks from 1930 would be a rejection of any decency (or anything else) that might be gained by climbing this ladder (or using this machine). The problems with the ladder/machine seem to be these:
  1. it takes you to a different place rather than where you already are
  2. it involves a serial movement instead of focusing on one thing
  3. (perhaps) it does (too much of) the work for you
If that is a bad way to attempt to achieve decency then perhaps a good way would:
  1. start and finish where you, in some sense, are already
  2. focus on one thing
  3. make you do the work
Wittgenstein's work early and late makes the reader do a lot of work and thereby in some sense starts and ends with the reader. He doesn't tell you what to think in the manner of a sermonizer or textbook-writer. The Tractatus attempts some leading, though, in a way that perhaps the Investigations does not. The Investigations moves criss-cross over and through the landscape, in a somewhat arbitrary (is that the word?) way. It does not appear to focus on one thing, but it is not a series of remarks that construct anything. It might aim at the same spot from different angles, although what that spot is is not so easy to say. And it might require even more work of the reader than the Tractatus does. Certainly there is no revelation in it of the kind found in Tractatus 6.54 ("Here's how my sentences elucidate: ..."). You might be able to stop reading the Tractatus whenever you get what it is trying to help you see, but you also reach an end point that feels like a conclusion. The Investigations, on the other hand, has no conclusion. Its not being finished doesn't feel entirely coincidental. How would you end a book like that?

But what about the Sketch for a Foreword? Does Wittgenstein say there that he wants one thing or many? It sounds like one thing: to have transparently before him the foundations of possible buildings. Of course, though, there is multiplicity inherent in the idea of possibility, as well as in the plural foundations of buildings that he says he wants to see. Each sentence he writes can perhaps be thought of as an invitation to free oneself. In that sense they are all the same. But freedom implies options (plural), so there is multiplicity too. And what one is freed from might not always be the same thing, even if it is always a prison.

(As you may have noticed, what I've written here is basically just notes. That's blogging for you. It might be interesting to work this out more though, to see where I've gone wrong and where I've got it right, and how it all ties together.)

Monday, October 17, 2016

The value of clarity

I have a paper on Wittgenstein and the value of clarity up at here. I'm not sure how much it has to do with Wittgenstein really, but I'm also not sure how much that matters.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The just man justices

As Kingfishers Catch Fire

Related Poem Content Details

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; 
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells 
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's 
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; 
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; 
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, 
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came. 

I say móre: the just man justices; 
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces; 
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is — 
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places, 
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his 
To the Father through the features of men's faces. 

(Taken from here, discovered thanks to @gravbeast on Twitter. I can't think of any comment worth adding.)

Tell me lies about Vietnam

This post is about Anthony Bourdain and I'm not really accusing him of lying, just quoting this poem. I'm interested in Bourdain mostly because I really like his TV shows, but also because he sometimes seems to be trying a little too hard to be cool or manly or eloquent or authentic. I'm basically a fan, but a slightly skeptical one. So I was very curious to see what he would say about Hanoi, which I visited around the same time he must have been there. Basically I liked the show, but here are a few things I noticed that might give you pause:

1. Bourdain says that the first thing that hits you in Vietnam is the smell, which he describes as a mix of things like spices, grilled meat, and incense. My first experience of this smell was in Cambodia, or actually in the plane on the way to Cambodia. Not that Cambodian people smell, but if you cram enough people into a small space in a hot climate you will smell something. And Cambodian BO is not the same as American or European BO. (It isn't worse or better, it's just different.) When you land you notice a similar smell just about everywhere, coming, I suppose, from people but also from garbage and sewage, as well as cooking, incense, etc. Vietnam has the same smell, though less noticeably. Bourdain mentioned the smell idea to President Obama, who features in the show. Obama diplomatically agrees that certain smells come from spices that you only really find in one particular place. But he can't resist adding that there are other, less pleasant, smells around too. Bourdain, it seems to me, is sanitizing or romanticizing the experience (the smell) he claims to be describing.

2. He also says that the only way to see Hanoi is from a motorbike. If you don't experience it this way you "miss everything". I haven't ridden on a motorcycle in Hanoi, but I don't buy it. I have ridden on (the back of) a motorcycle elsewhere in Vietnam and, as fun as it was, it didn't transform my experience or open my eyes to anything I had overlooked before. Maybe I'm just blinder than Bourdain. But I think this is pure fiction on his part.

3. A big chunk of Bourdain's show about Hanoi is actually set in Halong Bay, which is several hours' (nearly 200 km) drive away.

4. In Halong Bay, Bourdain interviews a villager who says they would like to leave their village on the water (as the government wants them to do), but that they are slow to move because they are wary of the unknown. Bourdain does not mention that it is illegal to protest against the government and that this might influence what someone will say on camera. My guess is that they really don't want to go.

So there you have it. It's not as if Bourdain is a big fat liar or spouts nothing but bull. But he is on TV, and his seemingly authentic view should be taken with the occasional pinch of salt.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Leaving PhilPercs

I have retired from Philosophical Percolations. This happens just as the blog is getting in the news, but it isn't at all because of that. For the curious, here's what happened.

I was very pleased to be invited to join philpercs when it started. It was an honor, and I thought it would mean more exposure, which is meant to be a good thing. On the other hand, I was never keen to leave this blog behind and uncertain how I felt about blogging for a (presumably) larger audience of strangers rather than the small audience of people I think of as friends here. The result was that I kept this blog limping along but also didn't post much over at philpercs either. And nothing I posted there really set the world on fire.

So I'm back here, for better or worse.  

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Can God ride a bike?

DZ Phillips says (here, which seems to be a transcript of what Phillips actually said and so captures his way of speaking quite nicely) that:
The meaning of omnipotence [according to Mackie and others], I repeat again, is the ability to do any action describable without contradiction. Now how do we know when a description of an action is contradictory? Who is going to decide what is or is not a contradiction. Well, I hope you would agree with this, you would have to look at the context of what he said. You cannot describe them; you cannot decide that in the abstract. So you have to look at every specific context to find out whether an action, proposed in that context, is contradictory or not. So if you accept that, this is the new look of logical problem of evil, someone challenging, like old Epicurus did; this is how the challenge would look. If God is omnipotent, he can do any action which is describable without contradiction in its appropriate context. Second line of attack, there are millions, millions, and millions and millions of actions describable without contradiction in their appropriate context which it makes no sense to describe God doing. Therefore, God is not omnipotent, that would be the challenge. If there are millions of actions, and don't forget we are speaking of the first person of the trinity, God the father; the incarnation brings in special problems, and we've got enough problems for one night on our hands with this topic without bringing in the incarnation. So we are talking about God the father as is the proof; God the father. So the challenge are there actions in context which you and I are quite familiar with, that we can describe without contradiction that it would make no sense to speak of God doing? There are millions of them, and I could get away with the rest of the lecture simply by going on giving you millions of examples, but just a few will do to disprove the proof. Here are some of them: riding a bicycle, licking a `Haagan-Daz' ice cream, bumping your head, learning Welsh, having sexual intercourse, forgetting things, being absent minding, you can go on forever. All those things we know those things; they are describable without contradiction. None of them makes sense when ascribed to the creator God
This strikes me as a bit confusing, perhaps even slightly confused, but interesting.

My first thought when I heard the suggestion that it is logically impossible for God to ride a bike (etc.) is that this is just false. If Jesus is God and Jesus can ride a bike then God can ride a bike. The idea of Jesus being God is an odd one, true, but would Phillips reject it? And if Jesus can ride a donkey couldn't he also ride a bike? Phillips says he is not going to bring in the incarnation, but that seems tricky to me. If we are talking about whether God can do something that requires a body then it is a bit arbitrary to refuse to consider his doing so by first occupying a body. Anyway, that was my first thought.

But then my second thought was that there is something very strange about this idea, something absurd. In what sense could Jesus ride a bike? In what circumstances might he do so? I keep picturing a challenge to God following which he proves his power by adopting human form and riding the nearest bicycle, perhaps doing some awesome tricks while he's at it. Or creating a bike and then riding that. But this is all absurd. He wouldn't do any of that. It's inconceivable.

It might not seem inconceivable because I just described it, and you could draw a cartoon of God proving the skeptic wrong in just this way. But, I want to say, precisely because of behaving in this way the cartoon would not (really) be of God. It would be of the familiar cartoon character called God. But it would not be of the God of the Bible. No one worships the cartoon character.

Phillips puts his point better in his book The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God (p. 19):
If it is logically impossible for God to ride a bicycle, that is, it makes no sense to talk of him doing so, not being able to ride a bicycle is no restriction on God's power. [Quoted from here.]
I don't like the 'logically impossible' talk because it makes it sound as though there is some identifiable thing that God cannot do, but if we stick to what makes sense then I agree that it makes no sense to talk about God riding a bike.

If I agree with Phillips after all why do I say the passage I quoted seems confusing? Part of the muddle, I think, is Mackie's. The business about incarnation also seems questionable, as I mentioned (but haven't explored) above. And then there's the talk about what God cannot do, e.g. his "not being able to ride a bike" (from the second, short passage). There is, I would say, no such thing as God's not being able to ride a bike. Rather, "God can ride a bike" makes no sense. Or perhaps better still, I don't know what it would mean to say of God that he either could or could not ride a bike.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Student evaluations of teaching

The most interesting thing about this article on the apparent worthlessness of student evaluations of teaching is the word 'even' in the sentence: "Yet conventional wisdom remains that students learn best from highly rated instructors; tenure cases have even hinged on it." 

Good student evaluations supposedly used to count against people at one research-focused university I heard about, being thought to indicate bad priorities. But at most colleges that emphasize teaching, i.e. that don't emphasize research, I would be very surprised if good teaching evaluations weren't the single most important factor in tenure decisions

Also worth noting is this comment:   
the majority of faculty are now off of the tenure track and these teachers are often evaluated only by students evaluations. This labor situation gives these faulty mechanisms incredible power and creates defensive teaching and a lack of academic freedom.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

What do we moan about when we moan about postmodernism?

Some philosophers are very dismissive of (what they call) postmodernism while others think it is unfairly dismissed, often on the basis of ignorance. If I speak dismissively of it I don't mean the work of Derrida, Foucault, or any other philosopher. I mean a kind of ideology or cloud of tendencies that seems very widespread outside philosophy. According to this (kind of) view:
  • there is no such thing as truth (or else, at least, we should not talk about truth, perhaps for some other reason, but only ever as if there are either no truths at all or else many (mine, yours, etc.)) 
  • the same goes for goodness and beauty (and probably logical validity too)
  • the purpose of education, therefore, is not knowledge of truth or appreciation of goodness or beauty but rather politics
  • one aspect of education in politics is simply coming to accept that everything is political, that belief in truth and beauty (etc.) is naive and that to think otherwise is to fall victim to someone else's power play
  • the other aspect is coming to accept that a) history, literature, and pretty much everything else show that dominant groups are (unfairly) dominant over others, and b) this is the point of studying history, literature, and pretty much everything else
Parts of this are true. Dominant groups are dominant. And this is either always or at least almost always unfair. (Murderers' being in prison doesn't strike me as unfair, but sexual and racial inequality do, for instance.) But other parts are absurd to varying degrees of obviousness. To assert as if true the claim that there is no truth strikes me as deeply problematic. Skepticism about truth (etc.) also, I think, helps right-wing extremists promote their causes. And then there is also the question of why anyone would want to study history or literature or religion or psychology or anything else if none of it is true or good and the only point of the exercise is to change your political views. Why would I want someone else to change my political views in a way that is explicitly not in the direction of truth or goodness? Why would I pay to have this done to my children? Why would governments pay for it? Why would employers want to hire people whose education had been of this kind? (I don't mean that education should be all about employability. I'm just going through possible reasons for education: to enlighten; to give students something that they want; to give students something that their parents want them to have; to give them something that the state wants them to have; to give them something that potential employers want them to have. Postmodernism as I've defined it seems to offer none of this.)

I don't know where this ideology comes from. One source seems to be scientism. Scientific claims might be true or false, the idea seems to be, but the humanities are a different kettle of fish. Here all is opinion and anything goes. Along with this is the existentialist idea that I am free, as you are too, to commit myself to anything with equal justification. It follows, of course, that racism is not actually unjust or unfair or evil or wrong, but also that we are perfectly entitled to commit ourselves to the view that it is any or all of the above. I don't know how much sense this makes, but I reject any view that denies the wrongness of racism. Nietzsche and Wittgenstein seem in some ways to be behind these ideas. Perhaps Foucault is too. But what I've read of Foucault's work is much better than this (i.e., the set/cloud of points listed above), and both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein would surely have rejected it. Variations on it, though, are very widespread, even standard, in large areas of the humanities, as far as I can tell. For instance, the religious studies course I gave up on a while ago presented a kind of relativism as a key feature of the religious studies approach to the study of religion. In The Good Story Coetzee defends belief in truth but is clearly aware that acknowledging the existence of such a thing is unfashionable, perhaps even rude:
Although, like most well brought up people nowadays, I am careful to avoid the impolite locution 'transcendent truth', I confess that privately I continue to distinguish between things that really happened in the past and things that did not really happen. (p. 74)
Coetzee is led to say this about halfway through his dialogue with Arabella Kurtz partly because she seems so deeply resistant to the idea of this kind of truth, which is not transcendent in any very mysterious way. It is simply the difference between what really happened and what didn't, between whether Don Quixote tilted at windmills or at giants. Kurtz is not alone in this resistance. It seems, as Coetzee notes, to be something people are brought up with.
I don't know whether anyone believes (or claims to believe) the full list of points, but something like it seems to lurk behind a great deal that is said and taught by a great many people in the humanities. And philosophers are kidding themselves if they think these ideas have all been put to bed. Of course, it might seem as though once an idea or set of ideas has been shown to be false or incoherent or otherwise implausible then there is nothing more for philosophers to do about it. But if the ideas won't die then someone needs to do more. This might be a difference between the idea of philosophy as something like a science and philosophy as therapy. Scientists prove and move on. A therapist's work, on the other hand, is never done.

I remember hearing years ago that even philosophers who are postmodernists dislike that label because it suggests something shallow and incoherent. So I'm curious about the relation between the postmodernism I'm moaning about and what we might call postmodernism proper. If the latter makes far more sense then perhaps the problem is less with bad philosophy and more with badly understood philosophy. In which case, what should we do? I'm still inclined to think that we should combat confusion wherever we find it, but that's much easier said than done. Perhaps it is simply that there are always people who talk as if influenced by philosophical works that they barely understand, and these people will move on to mangling other ideas soon enough. In short, I come and go between thinking there is a major intellectual crisis that philosophers ought to to ignore and thinking that there is really no crisis at all. But if I ever talk as if there is a crisis, or as if something called postmodernism is a very bad thing, then this is the kind of thing I'm talking (or moaning) about.  

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A principle of non-contradiction

Wittgenstein once referred, perhaps jokingly, to the mistake of disagreeing with people. He doesn't seem to be kidding, though, when he talks about not wanting to deny anything when doing philosophy, of saying only what everyone admits. If we take this idea seriously then we won't want, when doing philosophy, to contradict our interlocutors. So there would be a (potential) problem with the following kind of dialogue:

I can't tell you how much this means to me/ how much I love you/ how great God is 
You just did
I suppose if the first speaker said, "Ha ha you're right" then there might not be a problem, but otherwise I think the response fails to take seriously what the first speaker is saying. It adopts, or pretends to, a kind of meta position outside that language game in order to pass judgment on, or analyse, it, while simultaneously pretending to be making a move in the same language game by contradicting the speaker with an implicit "Yes you can." The first speaker's words are taken as a unit meaning something like "This means a lot to me/ I love you a lot/ God is really great." But what if the speaker denies that that is what he/she means? It seems unWittgensteinian to me to tell them they are wrong about what they mean. Perhaps more seriously, I think it is usually false to tell them they are wrong. Usually when people say something like this there is something they cannot do. So far they have failed to find words that express their meaning to their satisfaction.

This taking of words as a unit seems like a kind of sealing to me, closing the individual words off from attention, treating them as irrelevant. Sometimes that is a good move. The other day someone asked me "What's new?" and I made the mistake of trying to tell him. All he meant was Hello. But sometimes the meanings of parts of the sentence matter.

There is what seems to me a similar kind of sealing off when a religious experience is treated as simply an experience, perhaps with an "as if of" quality about it but without any actual intentionality or content that points beyond itself. Bracketing, I suppose, is the word for this. And it's problematic, because if someone says "I saw God" they don't mean "I had an experience as if of seeing God," just as if I say "My dog is on the sofa" I (probably) don't mean "I am having a visual experience as of my dog on the sofa." I'm not saying that people who claim to have seen God must have really done so, or ought to be assumed to be saying something true. But if we take "seeing God," for example, as the name of a certain kind of experience that can be understood on its own, as if the experience itself were a kind of thing that could be studied in isolation, sealed off from everything else, then I think we go wrong. Or at least we run the risk of doing so. We are (potentially) no longer treating the words as spoken as they were meant. This is probably not a good idea if we actually want to understand them. It also suggests a bad, patronizing attitude toward the speaker, as if we know better than they do what they mean. We might in some cases, but surely shouldn't just assume that we do.

This all seemed quite simple and self-evident when I first thought about it, but writing it down has made it seem much less clear. I hope it make some sense. Just in case it doesn't, I'll try to retrace the steps that led me to these thoughts, although this risks repeating things I have already said. I have heard DZ Phillips criticized for suggesting that an apt response to a statement along the lines of "I can't say how much..." is "You just have." I don't have a reference to hand, but if he did say this then I agree that he was wrong (at least with regard to some cases). Sometimes "I can't tell you how much this means to me" means no more than "This really means a lot to me," and the word 'can't' should not be taken to refer to any inability. Instead it should be taken together with the rest of the words in I-can't-tell-you-how-much, which collectively mean something like: A lot is what (this means to me). Correct understanding depends on not breaking the 'can't' out of its implicitly hyphenated, blister-packed whole.

But not every case is like that. Words don't always come easily, if at all. Treating words as if they are always parts of  ready-made wholes misses this, leading to a superficial understanding of sentences and the people who utter them. If someone says "I can't tell you how much I love you" and you reply "I love you too" then you have failed (perhaps justly, but perhaps not) to take their words seriously.

And it seems to me that there is something similar going on when an experience that is most naturally described as an experience of God, an experience that implies that some kind of religion is true, is treated (perhaps by the very subject of the experience) as a pleasant hallucination, as something with no real implications at all. I don't mean that it is a mistake (or a crime) to treat religious experiences this way. All I'm saying is that writing off a (seemingly) religious experience as something not really religious after all is denying it the implications and the importance (the significance in two senses of the word) that it at first, when the experience happened, appeared to have. This means sealing it off from the rest of your life (instead of, say, making it the start of a new life) and treating it as a relatively superficial event. That might be the best thing to do, but it is a sealing off, a denial of significance. And that is what makes it like the "You just did" response.       

Friday, September 2, 2016

Pianalto on Patience

Shirong Luo has written a nice review of Matt's book for NDPR. Here's the bottom line:
Pianalto has done a great service to virtue ethics by reclaiming the long-neglected virtue of patience. His excellent book has thrust the virtue of patience to the foreground of the contemporary revival of virtue ethics, and will spark widespread philosophical interest in examining the nature of patience and its intricate relationship with other virtues that have long enjoyed the spotlight.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Theories of everything

This article on Shakespeare and education is interesting. Here's the bit that most stood out to me:
Because thinking and speaking well form the basis of existence in a community, rhetoric prepares you for every occasion that requires words.
That's quite a claim. (And some might expand the claim on the grounds that thinking and speaking need not involve only words.) Although I suppose 'prepares' and 'prepares completely' are not the same thing.

Here's more:
Fierce attention to clear and precise writing is the essential tool for you to foster independent judgment. That is rhetoric.
I don't know what to make of this. I'm all for clear and precise writing, but what exactly is its connection with judgment, let alone independent judgment? Clear expression should help clear understanding, but can one write clearly and precisely about a subject one does not understand? And isn't the meaning of clarity and precision something that varies from subject to subject or context to context? Yet knowing that hardly tells one what to say or write, or how to say or write it. So it doesn't prepare you for every occasion that requires words.

I don't have much more to say about this except that the claim made here on behalf of rhetoric seems excessive. And it reminds me of some claims made on behalf of economics, e.g. that it is the science of behavior (wasn't psychology meant to be that?), so that if you know economics then you know what people will do in this or that situation. Is that a helpful connection to make? It seems like a bad sign when any subject claims, or is claimed, to have an application as broad as this. But is it necessarily? And where does that leave philosophy?

Wednesday, August 24, 2016


I finally made it to Vienna this summer. I posted some pictures over at philpercs, if you're interested.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

More videos

If you liked the video of Cora Diamond's recent lecture you might want to see if there's anything here you've missed:

Russell on Wittgenstein, Sea of Faith documentary on Wittgenstein, and Wittgenstein the movie

Cora Diamond speaking at Gregynog in Wales, 2011

Rai Gaita at the same conference

Stephen Mulhall on Wittgenstein (part 1, part 2) and as one of Melvyn Bragg's guests in a program on guilt

Stanley Cavell on "The Wittgensteinian Event" (and more Cavell here)

Lars Hertzberg in conversation with Frederick Stoutland on Georg von Wright and at Gregynog


I went to Vietnam. You can read about it over at philpercs here, here, here, and here if you like. Short version: it's hot, there are lots of motorcycles, it seems to be developing quickly, I liked it.