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" http://www.nordicwittgensteinreview.com/article/view/3415/Fulltext%20pdf

Roberto Sá Pereira "What We Can Learn about Phenomenal Concepts from Wittgenstein’s Private Language" http://www.nordicwittgensteinreview.com/article/view/3417/Fulltext%20pdf

Nicola Claudio Salvatore: "Moore(anists) and Wittgenstein on Radical Skepticism" http://www.nordicwittgensteinreview.com/article/view/3392/Fulltext%20pdf

Peter K Westergaard: "'The suffering of an ascetic' - On linguistic and ascetic self-misunderstanding in Wittgenstein and Nietzsche" http://www.nordicwittgensteinreview.com/article/view/3411/Fulltext%20pdf


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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.

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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.