Saturday, December 23, 2017

Leadership and persuasion

I mentioned here that I don't think leadership and persuasion are real subjects. Can I back that up? Let's see.

A first point to make is that teaching a practical subject seems pointless unless it focuses on doing the thing in question well or correctly. A course in French that spends as much time on how to speak French incorrectly as it does on how to speak it correctly would be absurd, unless the point was to guide people to correct French by showing them what not to do. This might sound obvious, and hence not worth saying, except that many people who reject the very idea that some novels, say, are better than others do believe in teaching writing. And this only makes sense if there is such a thing as good writing. We might have to add that what is good in one context will not necessarily be good in every other context, but this concession is easy to make.

So what is good persuasion? It would be both effective and ethical, surely. What works is the province of psychology, especially the areas studied by behavioral economists, and, to a lesser extent (I would think) the arts. What is ethical in persuasion is partly a matter of ethics, partly a matter of logic. It would be worth considering also the kind of persuasion engaged in by writers like Dickens, in Hard Times, say, which is arguably both rational and ethical without being likely to be covered in many logic courses. So a course on persuasion should probably include psychology, literature, ethics, and logic. But approximately no one is qualified to teach all these subjects well, so it would be better to require three or four courses, at least, if you really want students to learn how to persuade. In fact it would probably be best to require something like introductory psychology, behavioral economics, marketing, at least two literature courses, critical thinking, logic, introductory ethics, a course on the ethics of communication (maybe--if enough readings to make up a course could be found), and a course on literature and philosophy. That's more like a major than a general education course, but it would make some sense. And it wouldn't all be in one subject.

Now what about leadership? There's a rumor that I might be asked/told to teach leadership, so I've been thinking about this a bit. Leadership is a lot like persuasion, but effective leadership probably requires knowledge of whatever situation you are in (so decisions are informed), intelligence (so decisions are smart), and things that cannot be taught, such as charisma. In this society I would guess that it is easier to get people to follow or obey you if you are good-looking, tall, white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied, Christian, middle-aged, college-educated, etc., but these things cannot be taught. To the extent that they can be they almost certainly shouldn't be. (How to be good-looking--dressing for success, getting sculpted abs, etc.-- could possibly be taught, but isn't a subject that belongs in a university.) I would think that good leadership--the only kind it makes sense to teach--would be about one part getting people to do what you want, one part ethics, and one part making good decisions. Getting people to do what you want is part charisma, etc. and part using incentives well. There might be something to be learned about this, but not much, I think. (I have seen multiple job talks by prospective professors of leadership and have come to the conclusion that what is worth knowing on this subject, so far as it can be taught at all, can be taught in one hour or less.) Ethics is a real subject, but no amount of ethics courses will turn students into good people. And how to make good decisions is another non-subject. There might be some rules of thumb to pass on, but they would all surely be (what ought to be) common sense. The course of study I outlined above for persuasion would cover everything, and more, that can be learned from books about leadership. 

At least that's how it seems to me. And that's what I mean when I say that persuasion and leadership are not real subjects.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Year in review

Probably the most interesting thing I did this year was to decide that, now I'm 50, I should make a point of doing things that I want to do some time in my life. My mum died when she was 62 so I'm aware that I might not have much time to do these things. Or I might have several decades. So I read War and Peace, finished Crime and Punishment, and now I'm on Moby Dick. It's amazingly easy to forget that the great books really are great, and not in some obscure moral sense (although perhaps that too) but in the very simple sense of being a great pleasure to read. It's terrible that the teaching of literature seems to be done less and less, and that those who teach it seem to feel obliged to pretend there is no such thing as good and bad. Sweet Briar College looks as though it is getting rid of all its English professors, while keeping its creative writing program. Sigh.

I'm also reading more contemporary stuff, my favorites this year being Geoff Dyer's White Sands, Mohsin Hamid's Exit West, and The Rough Guide to Beijing.

I won't attempt a top ten anything of the year list, but I'm sure Lady Bird was the best film this year. Others I've seen mentioned in the same breath, like Get Out, aren't nearly as good. Get Out is certainly worth seeing, but its point seems to be to reveal a single--sort of scary, sort of funny--idea. Okja is another good one, but not that good. It's like a live action (plus CGI) Miyazaki film, but the real Miyazaki is better.

My album of the year, not that you asked, is Alvvays' Antisocialites, which is even better than their first one. Pleasant surprise of the year goes to the Granite Shore album Suspended Second, which is like the soundtrack to a really good musical, if there could be such a thing. (People say the songs sound like Abba, but they're much less disco-ey to my ear than that suggests.) Finding this Saint Etienne Christmas album was also a treat.

The other thing I need to do, of course, is to try to write some good philosophy. I will at least try this year. (Not that I haven't tried in other years, but I'm feeling a bit more inspired than I sometimes do about things I will work on next year.)

Thanks for reading. Merry Christmas and happy New Year.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Recommended reading

Martin Shuster is kind enough to thank me (I'm not sure what for, but I'm not complaining) in the acknowledgements in his book on New Television. I've only read the introduction so far, but it looks great; a really nice combination of fun subject matter and Cavell-style scholarship.

Something I have read all the way through is Gabriel Citron's paper on Wittgenstein and philosophical virtues: "Honesty, Humility, Courage, and Strength". It's a bit depressing (your mileage may vary) to compare yourself with Wittgenstein's ideal and see how far short you fall, but it's a very good account of Wittgenstein's values.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Lady Bird

What a great film! I was thinking about trying to write something about it and love and attention and possibly Simone Weil and Iris Murdoch, but Vox has beaten me to it. (Spoiler alert: there are no Iris Murdoch references.) Here's the beginning of their review:
The French philosopher Simone Weil wrote often of attention as a kind of spiritual discipline. “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” she wrote in her notebooks, an idea she later would continue to develop, eventually concluding that attention “presupposes faith and love.”
In a Q&A following a festival screening of her masterful solo directorial debut Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig quoted Weil, and it’s clear from the film that this spirit of faith, love, generosity, and attention animates the whole endeavor. Lady Bird is a coming-of-age film starring the great Saoirse Ronan as Christine — or “Lady Bird,” as she’s re-christened herself — and it’s as funny, smart, and filled with yearning as its heroine. Lady Bird is an act of attention, and thus love, from Gerwig, not just toward her hometown of Sacramento but also toward girlhood, and toward the feeling of always being on the outside of wherever real life is happening.
Some films seem designed to make you fall in love with one or more of their characters, or the people who play them. Lady Bird is like that, except what you fall in love with is not Saoirse Ronan or the character she plays but growing up itself, or the tenderness of youth and family, the pain of forming as an individual and separating from your parents, and the sweetness of forming as an individual and never separating from your parents. I haven't nearly cried so many times about so many different kinds of thing at any movie I can remember.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Doyle on Anscombe

I knew James Doyle slightly in graduate school, but wasn't aware then of any interest on his part in Wittgenstein and Anscombe. Now he's got a very interesting looking book on Anscombe coming out. I haven't seen the book yet, but it looks as though you can get a taste of it from this paper on "Modern Moral Philosophy."

Strikingly, he says early on in his paper that Anscombe's paper "has not been properly understood, at all." (I'm not sure when the paper was written, but it cites a paper from 2014, so it's at least fairly recent.) Reassuringly, he later qualifies this claim by saying that "only the few authors who are sympathetic to Anscombe's overall view avoid more or less basic misconstruals of" Anscombe's second thesis in MMP, which he takes to be "both fundamental to the structure of 'MMP' and what makes the paper especially profound (if it is)." These few authors include Cora Diamond and Candace Vogler. This still leaves the possibility that he thinks even they have misconstrued Anscombe's argument, thereby failing to properly understand it. Indeed, I think his belief in this failure is implied by what he says. Which makes his claim a bold one.

It's not bold in the sense of stupid though. Doyle points out some inconsistencies in what Anscombe says, and then makes the best sense he can of what she has written. This involves ignoring some of her claims, or writing them off as slips. Near the end he concludes:
In short, the parts of Anscombe's view that really matter fit together much less awkwardly if we simply drop any supposedly deep distinction between law-based and virtue-based conceptions of ethics. At least, I cannot see what is lost, except gratuitous confusion, if we suppose that all conceptions are ultimately virtue-based, that all of these will involve exceptionless norms, and that an important species of these is distinguished by the norms being commandments of God, this species alone comprising all and only the various versions of the law conception, so that the search for a secular law conception has no interest in it.
This is an interesting view, but it doesn't sound (as Doyle recognizes) like Anscombe's view. So maybe no one has really understood her properly yet. Or, at least, there is more work to be done, such as fully explaining what Anscombe really meant (which I suppose is the point of Doyle's book) or else explaining where he goes wrong.

Shorter version: if you're interested in Anscombe or questions about the nature of morality and what reason there is to be moral then I recommend the paper linked to above. [Warning: it's the time of the semester when I spend all my time grading papers, so I might be slow to respond to any comments.] 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Nordic Wittgenstein Review

Nordic Wittgenstein Review welcomes original contributions on all aspects of Ludwig Wittgenstein's thought and work - exegetical studies as well as papers drawing on Wittgensteinian themes and ideas in  contemporary discussions of philosophical problems.
The journal is interdisciplinary in character, and welcomes contributions in the subject areas of philosophy and other human and social studies including philology, linguistics, cognitive science, and others. The journal includes an invited paper, an articles section, a section in which high-quality seminal works are re-published or where previously unpublished archival materials are made available for the first time, as well as a book review section.
By the help of high quality peer review and indexing, the journal seeks to provide its contributors with academic support and wide visibility.
The previous issues are available Open Access online. We apply a double-blind peer review process.

Sign up as reader in our platform for e-mail notification.
Publication: Nordic Wittgenstein Review, Vol 7, No 1 (2018)
Submission deadline: February 28, 2018
Publication form: Open Access online & Print & electronic subscription
Peer-review: Yes; double-blind
Range: International
Language: English

Published by the Nordic Wittgenstein Society.


NWR was started as a part the EU-funded research project Agora - Scholarly Open Access Research in European Philosophy and its processes have been experimented on and monitored by the research project.

Twitter #nordicwittgensteinreview

The editors of NWR 2017-2018: Gisela Bengtsson & Tove Österman.
Editor-in-chief:  Simo Säätelä.

*Please do circulate*

Friday, November 3, 2017

Foucault Friday

Probably not the start of a series, but you never know. 

Michel Foucault The Order of Things: An Archaeology of theHuman Sciences Vintage Books, New York, 1994, p. xv.

This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought — our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography — breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a "certain Chinese encyclopedia" in which it is written that "animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (1) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off" look like flies". In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.

But if you could just see the beauty

My wife has started working on Saturdays and Sundays, which for a while left me stuck at home with not much to do. Until I realized I could go out and watch movies, so that's what I've done the last two Sundays. I've talked about Kingsman 2, but most recently I saw Loving Vincent, which is also good, though quite different.

This is one to see on a big screen, if at all. What I liked about it most is some of the quotations from Van Gogh given near the end of the film. Here's one:
Work is going quite well – I’m struggling with a canvas begun a few days before my indisposition. A reaper, the study is all yellow, terribly thickly impasted, but the subject was beautiful and simple. I then saw in this reaper – a vague figure struggling like a devil in the full heat of the day to reach the end of his toil – I then saw the image of death in it, in this sense that humanity would be the wheat being reaped. So if you like it’s the opposite of that Sower I tried before. But in this death nothing sad, it takes place in broad daylight with a sun that floods everything with a light of fine gold.
The idea of death as a reaper is hardly new, but death with a sun that floods everything with a light of fine gold, and nothing sad in it, is a beautiful idea. If it isn't a lie.

Here's another, which reminded me of Joy Division:
What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.
Finally, this idea of walking to the stars reminded me of Wittgenstein talking about going to the moon and a rose having teeth:
Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map.
Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?
Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means.
To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Kingsman and politics

Perhaps I was just in the right mood for it, but I loved the first Kingsman movie when I saw it recently. It's fast-paced, stylish*, and funny, a bit like what you might get if Quentin Tarantino directed a James Bond film. [Spoilers from now on.] About half a second later, though, I realized how, shall we say, alt right it is. Let me count the ways:
  1. the only major black character is also the major villain
  2. his sidekick is played by someone from Africa, and is also the only disabled person in the film
  3. the bad guys are extreme environmentalists
  4. the good guys are an organization of highly privileged, almost all male, and all white, British people
  5. when they realize that their lack of diversity is hurting them, they recruit a member of the white working class  
  6. he supports Millwall
  7. it ends with a sexist joke 
  8. there is almost certainly more that I'm forgetting
Thankfully the sequel, though spoiled by some unconvincing CGI, including the terrible idea of killer robot dogs, is much better from a political point of view. The villain is a woman drug-dealer, so once again just the kind of person that neo-Nazis would hate, the heroes include a good old boy or two from Kentucky, and the main hero is once again our white working class Englishman fighting for the otherwise completely posh British Kingsman organization. Also, the film is banned in Cambodia because of its disrespectful (but not physically damaging) treatment of temples there. And yet:
  1. the guy who repeatedly stops a black woman rising within the Kentuckian organization turns out to be a baddy
  2. the recreational use of drugs is presented as unwise but innocent
  3. a Donald Trump-style President tries, with support from at least one military officer, to "win the war on drugs" by letting the villain kill almost all users of illegal drugs worldwide, which is presented as unambiguously evil and leads to his arrest and removal from office
  4. Elton John features as a a comical but also somehow heroic figure (although there is also a questionable joke about him at the end too)  
  5. our hero has several close, black friends
  6. the woman who was before a prisoner he would not release unless she gave him a kiss (and who went on to offer her body as if it were an object for his pleasure) is now his girlfriend and seems free to decide what she wants to do    
There is some other dubiousness, e.g. Fox News features heavily, but mostly the film does not leave you picking swastikas out of your teeth after watching it. Which is a relief.  

Now they just need to find a way to combine the best of the two. I hope that's possible.

*It's not actually that stylish, but I've seen reviews describing it that way, and I suspect part of the reason I like it is that it looks (relatively) good.

Halloween playlist

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Pigs? In there?

Russell B. Goodman writes, in his paper "Thinking about Animals: James, Wittgenstein, Hearne," that:
Three  years  after  he  published  the Principles  of  Psychology,  James published an anonymous letter in a French newspaper that shows a different  attitude  towards  animals  than  that  of  the  thirty-one-year old medical doctor who defended vivisection. He writes (in French, my  translations  here)  of  walking  daily  past  a  large  masonry  box  in which  a  local  farmer  keeps  his  pigs. It  is  a  sight,  he  writes,  the memory  of  which obsesses  him,  “as  the  poor  animals  are buried alive in a kind of tomb”. The box has one opening at the top to let in air;  another  with  a  lid  that  is  opened  to  throw  in  food.   “When one  imagines  what  the  air  and  darkness  in  this  tomb  must  be”, James  writes,  “and  when  one  thinks  that  its  inhabitants  are  buried all  their  lives,  except  for  the  moment  when  they  are  taken  out  to have  their  throats  cut,  one  must  avow  that  there  is  cruelty  here,  if  not  active,  at  least  passive  and  unreflective  by  men  governed  by ignorance,  routine,   the  refusal  to  think”.  “What  a  destiny”,  he continues, “for a living being for whom the air and the light are the source  of  well  being  as  much  as  they  are  for  us!   Each  time  that  I take a walk again in the magnificent weather we have been having, I see this species of grave where the poor beasts are entombed, and it darkens all my pleasure” (James 1987a: 141). James sees the pigs as fellow creatures who deserve their time on earth, in the light and air. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

How (not) to teach philosophy

I went into reading this blog post (by a non-philosopher) on how to teach Heidegger expecting the worst. I didn't find it, but I do think there are problems. The motivating question behind the post is how to apply lessons from The New Education to teaching a class on Heidegger (no more information provided on what from Heidegger is being taught, what the course is, etc.). Cathy Davidson, author of  the blog post and the book in question, champions:
innovators [who] are breaking down barriers between ossified fields of study, presenting their students with multidisciplinary, real-world problems, and teaching them not just how to think, but how to learn.  
So, how to apply this exciting, disruptive (yes I'm rolling my eyes) approach to philosophy? Davidson suggests the following:
  1. Identify twenty keywords in the essay by Heidegger that you are assigning for the class, giving one of these words to each of the forty students in the class. Their job is to write what they think the word means, and to bring this definition to class. They get credit for trying, regardless of whether they get it right, but not if they don't try. Each student reads their definition to the class, then they get together with the other student who had the same word, compare notes, and then jointly compose a definition they are both happy with. Then they read this to the whole class. You can then collect these written definitions and, if you want, give a lecture during the remaining time.
  2. Begin the class by having each student read aloud the one sentence from the Heidegger essay that "they are still thinking about," which they are to have copied out. That's it--this exercise (as far as I can see) is all reading and listening.
  3. Think pair share (I always want to add 'care' to the list somewhere): You ask a question and then give the students 90 seconds to write down an answer. They get into pairs and read what they have written to each other. Then they have another two minutes at most to talk about it and write down a revised answer. Then you go around the room and one person (chosen at random) from each pair reads their answer.
  4. Before they leave the class students have 90 seconds to write down either the one idea from the class that "will keep them up at night" or that should have been talked about and that would have kept them up all night. These are handed to the instructor at the end of the class.
In all of this you are not supposed to tell anyone they have got something wrong, but you can praise right or good ideas. 
Some of the problems that occur to me in connection with all this have to do with numbers. Heidegger is something of a keywords kind of guy, but not every philosopher is. What if there really don't seem to be twenty key words or phrases in the reading you assign? Another mathematical problem is that step 1 seems as though it could take up the whole class. The definitions are meant to be 100-200 words long, which is about half a page. So it could take one minute for each student to read their definitions. That's 40 minutes total. And they still have to pair up, revise, and read out twenty new definitions. I don't think there would be time for a lecture after this.

Perhaps more to the point, what if you want students to get more out of Heidegger's work than definitions of key terms? Or what if none of them get the definition right? Or the credit available (this work is not for an actual grade) is so negligible that significant numbers of students don't even try to get it right?

I don't mean to be completely cynical. Something like this, probably with far fewer key words, could be useful. And Davidson encourages people to adapt and experiment with her ideas. But there are serious problems that she seems to be overlooking.

I have actually tried something like idea 2. In a course on world religions, I had each student read out a passage from a religious text that had struck them and to explain briefly what they thought was interesting about it. It was pretty much a disaster. Students did not want to listen to each other's thoughts, partly because the thoughts in question were very often obviously insincere, the passages having been chosen simply to complete the required exercise. I don't do this any more.

Idea number 3 strikes me as facing related problems. Is 90 seconds long enough to answer any worthwhile philosophical question? Would Heidegger think so? And when an undergraduate discusses their answer with another undergraduate, aren't the blind leading the blind?

Idea number 4 could be worth trying, because it's good to know what your students are thinking or getting out of a course. But a depressingly large number of people saying that absolutely nothing from the class would keep them up at night is surely highly predictable. Actually, honesty about this might not be depressing. But lots of "nothing"s would make the exercise a bit pointless.

It is perhaps telling to see what Davidson expects this kind of thing to achieve:
I promise, you will never have a more alert, engaged, livelier class on Heidegger.
(Her italics.) As she points out, if students are not engaged they will learn nothing. That's true. But is engagement itself the goal of teaching? And would these exercises even work in that sense? Davidson promises that "we know" they will. But what works with one group of students, or when done by one instructor, or with one text, might not work with another. I haven't found this kind of thing to work with the material I teach to my students. I've also observed lots of other people teaching, and I have never come away thinking that I ought to try, for instance, think pair care share. That isn't just because of my grumpy cynicism. I simply have not observed the kind of lively engagement that Davidson promises.

Here's another possible benefit to the new education:
statistically, minoritized students will be represented and we know that can be life-changing
This is a fair point. There are reasons to try to get all students involved in class more or less equally, ensuring that discussion is not dominated by white men, for instance. But there are other ways to do this, such as calling on students who have not yet spoken in class or making everyone do a presentation of some fairly polished work (to avoid the blind-leading-the-blind problem).

One last reason to adopt Davidson's approach:
You have great starting places for your next lecture or discussion or assignment: you have a way to see what they understand, what they don't, what they are missing, what matters to them, what does or does not make Heidegger "count" in their lives, what they are passionate about.
This is another good point, it seems to me. Some form of Davidson's methods would be a good way to find out what students understand and what they don't, what they care about and what they don't. But that's a starting point, not an end in itself. With a philosopher as difficult as Heidegger I think you would have to do some lecturing, or whatever we want to call explaining to students things they don't already understand (since 'lecturing' is becoming a dirty word). And with a subject like philosophy, in which you want students to develop certain kinds of skills, I think you would have to have them do work that requires more than writing 150 words or speaking for a minute or so at a time. Which is all to say that ideas like Davidson's are worth listening to, but should be taken with a pinch of salt. 

Why does any of this matter? Because the idea that everybody should be teaching in Davidson's kind of way is very widespread. And that means pressure, some subtle, some less so, is put on instructors to practice this kind of teaching, sometimes by people who understand work like Davidson's well, sometimes by people who merely think they do. Which means the world could use more critical thinking about such ideas. Which in turn means that the experience of instructors and the expertise of people in specific disciplines should not be ignored by colleagues from other disciplines, by administrators, or by assessment types.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

New music

I usually have an album or two of the summer, if not here then on my phone. But Saint Etienne being Betjeman-ish didn't seem to warrant a blog post, and Alvvays didn't release their new album until September. Now, though, there are a coupe of albums that seem worth spreading the word about. One, not quite out yet, is by Makthaverskan, who usually sound like an idealized version of Siouxsie and the Banshees but here sound more like Alvvays.

The other tests the hypothesis that the more people are like me the more I like their music. The Granite Shore are middle-aged Brits who have done a whole album of moaning about Brexit. Not very promising, perhaps, but I've had this song stuck in my head for weeks, and I like the rest of the album too. (Fun fact: Phil Wilson, formerly of The June Brides, is in the band, made this video, and once emailed me. End of brag.)

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Why I write such terrible blog posts

[The title of this post is a reference to Nietzsche, not self-deprecation.]

At Digressions & Impressions, Eric Schliesser provides useful advice for anyone considering starting a philosophy blog. Here's his advice, in a series of short quotations:
  1. the first thing to reflect on is who are you, or do you imagine, writing for?
  2. The hardest problem is to figure out what persona you will project in order to connect with your audience given the ideas you want to discuss.
  3. You should really research different kind of blog providers--not just their fee structures, but also their permissible templates, the capacity of the templates to do what you want to do with the blog, and the explicit restrictions of speech they impose.
  4. The most important point about frequency is that it needs to be fairly regular--certainly while you are developing your blog and audience.
  5. write a good comments policy, so you can re-direct the aggrieved to it.
  6. it's good to set some rules for yourself about when you post and when you check comments (etc.)
  7. if you use a blog to develop new ideas or new interests, you run the risk of looking like an amateur or worse. 
This blog doesn't check too many of these boxes:
  1. I really don't think about this kind of thing much. Mostly I write for "people like me," whoever (or whether) they might be
  2. Ditto
  3. I use the one that was free and easiest to use. I have no regrets about that so far
  4. When I started I tried to post something every day. I haven't managed to sustain that, which is probably just as well. I do try to post something every week, and I don't mind posting trivial things (because it's only a blog) but I never post just for the sake of posting something. 
  5. I haven't done this, and haven't felt the need until recently. I delete spam and the remains of comments whose authors have deleted their content, but I haven't yet deleted anything else. Perhaps I should, but there's something to be said for not destroying evidence. It's also not clear to me whether not feeding the trolls is better served by deleting their comments (could that be a form of feeding?) or ignoring them completely.
  6. I don't do this, although I do sometimes avoid looking at the blog if I don't think I have time to reply thoughtfully to whatever comments might be there.
  7. I'm pretty sure I run this risk. Caring about how you look makes sense in a job interview, but it doesn't seem very philosophical. And I'm pretty sure that there aren't any great jobs that I would have been offered if only I hadn't written that stupid thing online.     
Schliesser's advice is genuinely helpful, I think, but mostly for people aiming to attract a big audience. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

Winch on Understanding Other People

A revised version of the paper I was working on in the summer is now available here, for anyone interested. I haven't managed to take all suggestions into account, but I think it's at least an improvement on the previous version.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

God, virtue, and moral absolutes

This sounds good. Here's the call for papers:
I am currently organizing a conference celebrating the 60th anniversary of Elizabeth Anscombe's seminal paper "Modern Moral Philosophy." Our four confirmed keynotes speakers are:

Alasdair MacINTYRE, University of Notre Dame
Cyrille MICHON, University of Nantes
Rachael WISEMAN, Durham University
Jennifer A. FREY, University of South Carolina

While we, the organizing committee, have a preference for submissions from current graduate students, we will consider abstracts from anyone interested.

Please feel free to pass on this information to anyone interested in ethics, moral theology, political philosophy, legal theory, etc. More specifically, please consider spreading the word to departmental grad student lists. See here for details:

All presenters will receive a private hotel room for two nights during the conference as well as a small stipend of up to $150 to help defray documented transportation expenses. There is also a limited fund to further assist those who may be traveling from abroad. Such funds will be awarded upon request, based on availability. 

Submissions received by the October 1st deadline will receive full consideration, but we plan to continue considering applications until November 1st, or until all spots are filled.

Best Wishes,
Kevin M. Scott
University of Notre Dame

Friday, September 22, 2017

Augustine and Wittgenstein on the Will

I have a draft of a paper on this subject at Comments (or constructive criticism, anyway) are welcome.

Here's the gist:

In Wittgenstein: Mind and Will (p. 593) P. M. S. Hacker writes that:
one cannot will voluntarily, cannot will to will. But that does not mean that willing is like the subsiding of the thudding of one’s heart – something that just happens to one. What it means is that willing is not the name of an action at all. And to say that one cannot will voluntarily, or will to will, is not to say that it is beyond one’s powers, as wiggling their ears is beyond most people’s powers, but rather that it is senseless to speak of willing.
The last part of this ("it is senseless to speak of willing") strikes me as clearly wrong. And the idea that willing is not the same of an action seems pretty dubious too. At least it sounds like a claim that might be debated. And I don't think of Wittgenstein as being in the business of putting forward such claims. So the questions that motivate the paper, although I don't present it this way (maybe I should), are really: How has Hacker arrived at this point? Does his thinking match Wittgenstein's? And what, if anything, does this have to do with Augustine, whom Wittgenstein mentions in connection with some of the thoughts that Hacker is attempting to explain.

The questions I have about my paper are mainly these (in order of concern, from most to least):

  1. Do I misrepresent Hacker, Wittgenstein, or Augustine?
  2. Is what I say comprehensible and easy enough to follow?
  3. Is this of any interest? 

Scanlon on inequality

[Warning: this could become part of a series.]

T. M. Scanlon has some interesting thoughts about why inequality might be bad. In looking for reasons, though, I wonder whether he doesn't overlook an important idea: that significant inequality is intrinsically evil. "The great inequality of income and wealth in the world, and within the United States, is deeply troubling," he says. But he seems somewhat suspicious of this intuition, as if there is no way it could be a direct perception of injustice. That is, his response to the feeling that there is something wrong with great inequality appears to be that either we must be able to explain what is wrong with such inequality or else reject the feeling as irrational. But nobody would say this about, for instance, the feeling that murder is wrong. And it is very hard to explain why murder is wrong. ("It violates the right to life" is a restatement of its injustice, not an explanation of what makes it unjust.) 

I'm not suggesting that all inequality is evil. I accept Hume's point that ensuring strict equality would require totalitarianism. And overall utility is probably increased by an incentive system that requires inequality. But beyond a certain level (which is inevitably hard to specify) inequality certainly seems evil to a great many people. Why rule out the possibility that this appearance is not deceptive?

Scanlon does not explicitly do this, but it seems implicit in his essay. I say this partly simply because he does not explicitly consider the possibility that serious inequality might be intrinsically evil, but partly also because just when I expect him to consider it he goes off in another direction, as if refusing to confront what is right before him. Here are three examples:
Many people in the United States seem to believe that our high and rising level of inequality is objectionable in itself, and it is worth inquiring into why this might be so. 
The inquiry that follows focuses on such things as the ability of the rich to dominate news media rather than anything about inequality in itself.
[Some] reasons for eliminating inequality are also based on an idea of equality, namely that, as Singer puts it, “every life is equally important.” This can be seen as a combination of two ideas: the general principle of universal moral equality, that everyone matters morally in the same way, and the idea that, because all people “matter morally,”  there’s a good reason to bring about increases in their well-being if we can. 
If everyone matters morally in the same way why is this not a reason for eliminating inequality rather than simply increasing the well-being of the poor? Yet Scanlon sees it as the latter only, and this is part of the motivation he offers for a new inquiry into why inequality matters. What I'm thinking is roughly this: since we are all morally equal, we should all be equal in our standard of living. This argument, such as it is, could be criticized on various grounds, but it would not be plausible to object that, while it is a decent argument for improving the well-being of the worst off, it is not, as such, an argument for increasing equality. So far as it is an argument at all that's exactly what it's an argument for.

Finally, this:
It is easy to understand why people want to be better off than they are, especially if their current condition is very bad. But why, apart from this, should anyone be concerned with the difference between what they have and what others have? Why isn’t such a concern mere envy?
But why think that it is envy in the first place? Especially when we are thinking of comfortably-off people like me saying that the less-well-off should have more? A poor person who wants to trade places with a rich person might seem envious, but appeals for greater equality don't have this appearance. Unless, perhaps, one rules out a priori the possibility that equality itself might have value.

I wonder whether Scanlon and I have different ways of thinking about what it means for something to be objectionable in itself. When you accuse someone else of blindness it's always a good idea to consider the possibility that the mote and/or beam is in one's own eye. But it looks like he's missing something.

Sunday, September 17, 2017


Tolstoy (War and Peace First Epilogue, Chapter IV):
A bee settling on a flower has stung a child. And the child is afraid of bees and declares that bees exist to sting people. A poet admires the bee sucking from the chalice of a flower and says it exists to suck the fragrance of flowers. A beekeeper, seeing the bee collect pollen from flowers and carry it to the hive, says that it exists to gather honey. Another beekeeper who has studied the life of the hive more closely says that the bee gathers pollen dust to feed the young bees and rear a queen, and that it exists to perpetuate its race. A botanist notices that the bee flying with the pollen of a male flower to a pistil fertilizes the latter, and sees in this the purpose of the bee’s existence. Another, observing the migration of plants, notices that the bee helps in this work, and may say that in this lies the purpose of the bee. But the ultimate purpose of the bee is not exhausted by the first, the second, or any of the processes the human mind can discern. The higher the human intellect rises in the discovery of these purposes, the more obvious it becomes, that the ultimate purpose is beyond our comprehension.
All that is accessible to man is the relation of the life of the bee to other manifestations of life.
Wittgenstein (Culture and Value, p. 29e):
I can say: "Thank these bees for their honey as though they were kind people who have prepared it for you"; that is intelligible and describes how I should like you to conduct yourself. But I cannot say: "Thank them because, look, how kind they are!"--since the next moment they may sting you.
Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations 119):
We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Economy

Since this has already been covered by The New Yorker it is probably pretty well known, but I'd like to do what I can to spread the word about this online, interactive introduction to economics.  It looks fantastic.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Throwing away the telescope

One last (probably) bit of Tolstoy:
The very question that had formerly tormented him, the thing he had continually sought to find—the aim of life—no longer existed for him now. That search for the aim of life had not merely disappeared temporarily—he felt that it no longer existed for him and could not present itself again. And this very absence of an aim gave him the complete, joyous sense of freedom which constituted his happiness at this time.
He could not see an aim, for he now had faith—not faith in any kind of rule, or words, or ideas, but faith in an ever-living, ever-manifest God. Formerly he had sought Him in aims he set himself. That search for an aim had been simply a search for God, and suddenly in his captivity he had learned not by words or reasoning but by direct feeling what his nurse had told him long ago: that God is here and everywhere. In his captivity he had learned that in Karatáev God was greater, more infinite and unfathomable than in the Architect of the Universe recognized by the Freemasons. He felt like a man who after straining his eyes to see into the far distance finds what he sought at his very feet. All his life he had looked over the heads of the men around him, when he should have merely looked in front of him without straining his eyes.
In the past he had never been able to find that great inscrutable infinite something. He had only felt that it must exist somewhere and had looked for it. In everything near and comprehensible he had seen only what was limited, petty, commonplace, and senseless. He had equipped himself with a mental telescope and looked into remote space, where petty worldliness hiding itself in misty distance had seemed to him great and infinite merely because it was not clearly seen. And such had European life, politics, Freemasonry, philosophy, and philanthropy seemed to him. But even then, at moments of weakness as he had accounted them, his mind had penetrated to those distances and he had there seen the same pettiness, worldliness, and senselessness. Now, however, he had learned to see the great, eternal, and infinite in everything, and therefore—to see it and enjoy its contemplation—he naturally threw away the telescope through which he had till now gazed over men’s heads, and gladly regarded the ever-changing, eternally great, unfathomable, and infinite life around him. And the closer he looked the more tranquil and happy he became. That dreadful question, “What for?” which had formerly destroyed all his mental edifices, no longer existed for him. To that question, “What for?” a simple answer was now always ready in his soul: “Because there is a God, that God without whose will not one hair falls from a man’s head.”

Playing along with the art school boys (and girls)

His mother bought him a synthesizer
Got The Human League in to advise her
Now he's making lots of noise
Playing along with the art school boys

The Undertones, "My Perfect Cousin" 

It's striking how many musicians and former musicians are successful visual artists. I have no theory about this, but I feel like pointing out some examples, as well as drawing attention to some work that I like a lot. The example that inspired this post is Billy Childish, who I had read about before because of his involvement in The Delmonas (he seems to have been in dozens of other bands too). Via the magic of Twitter, I found that he is also a painter. I like this one:

Image result for billy childish jackdaw  

But there's also Elizabeth Price of Talulah Gosh, who won the Turner Prize. Anja Huwe of Xmal Deutschland is now an artist. Aggi Pastel (formerly of The Pastels) is artist Annabel Wright. Edwyn Collins draws birds too. 

Some people have too much talent.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Analytic Philosophy: An Interpretive History reviewed by NDPR

The review is here. Thankfully, even though it does mention me, it doesn't say anything bad about my contribution. (Perhaps tactfully, it says almost nothing at all about it.) Here's a taste of the review:
This volume is a valuable addition to this growing literature, with a lucid introduction by the editor and seventeen contributions by distinguished scholars, all of which demonstrate a high quality in content and are written in excellent prose.Although each chapter has its own agenda, a common theme runs through the book. The authors combat a narrow-minded, but still popular, conception of analytic philosophy based on a simplistic interpretation of the revolt against idealism, the linguistic turn, and the neo-positivist rejection of metaphysics.

Friday, September 1, 2017

War and Peace and Wittgenstein

These are all just coincidences, I suppose, but there are some striking similarities between some of Wittgenstein's acts and ideas and elements of War and Peace. Here are three.

The Tractatus contains seven main propositions, which are to be overcome in order to see the world right. On his journey towards enlightenment, Pierre passes through Freemasonry, which makes  much of the number seven:
our talk turned to the interpretation of the seven pillars and steps of the Temple, the seven sciences, the seven virtues, the seven vices, and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Wanting to test his fear of death, Wittgenstein volunteered to serve at the front-line during World War I, where he made observations to help the artillery hit the enemy forces. In War and Peace, as Wikipedia puts it, Pierre "decides to leave Moscow and go to watch the Battle of Borodino from a vantage point next to a Russian artillery crew. After watching for a time, he begins to join in carrying ammunition. In the midst of the turmoil he experiences first-hand the death and destruction of war."

Here is Tolstoy on a proclamation made by Napoleon regarding the occupation of Moscow:
But strange to say, all these measures, efforts, and plans—which were not at all worse than others issued in similar circumstances—did not affect the essence of the matter but, like the hands of a clock detached from the mechanism, swung about in an arbitrary and aimless way without engaging the cogwheels. (Book Thirteen, Chapter X)
And here is Wittgenstein on private sensation and nonsense: "Here I should like to say: a wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it, is not part of the mechanism." (PI 271)

None of this is hugely significant, but I wonder whether Wittgenstein thought of Pierre when he was an artillery spotter. Even if not, both were involved in a Schopenhauerian project. 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Malcolm Pryce on dreams, reality, and fiction

One of my favorite authors on why fiction is not a distraction from reality. Here's a taste:
The night time dream is chaotic and can be genuinely frightening. The dream we call life is filled with joy and suffering, but for many people a lot more suffering than joy, and we have no control over it. It just happens. The dream we enter when reading fiction has a number of advantages over the one called life. It is scripted rather than chaotic. If the dream called life is scripted it is done so by a bungler, whereas writers of fiction are often highly skilled.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Does writing exist?

It seems paradoxical to write the question, "Does writing exist?" but what I mean is: is there some thing called writing that someone can be good or bad at, teach, or simply do? According to John Warner, we know how to teach writing. But what is the evidence? And what is it that we, supposedly, know how to teach?

Warner's concern is with student writing, and in particular with the common complaint that students write badly. One part of his response, to which I am very sympathetic, is to say that people have been complaining about bad student writing forever. Saying that students can't write is like complaining about kids these days. I get that.

A second part of his response relies on agreement among people who teach writing about what works and what doesn't when trying to get students to write better. I have some sympathy with him on this too. When you teach something you do find out what works, and this isn't necessarily something you can easily prove to people who have not taught that subject. On the other hand, there are some questions one could ask about his main claims, which he says most writing instructors would agree with. Here are the claims:
  1. The more reading and writing we do, the better.
  2. Writing is best taught as a recursive process which includes (but isn’t necessarily limited to) pre-writing, drafting, revision and editing.
  3. Writing should engage with the rhetorical situation: message, audience, purpose and genre.
  4. Reflection and metacognition are key ingredients to developing as a writer.
  5. Isolated exercises in grammar and mechanics that don’t engage with the students’ own writing are not helpful.
  6. Sentence diagramming is not an important skill for good writing.
  7. Peer response and collaboration are useful tools in helping developing writers
  8. Writers write best when engaging with subjects they are both interested in and knowledgeable about.
  9. Developing as a writer requires a mind-set where we seek to increase our expertise without ever declaring ourselves expert. (There is always more to learn.)
  10. Writing itself is an act of thinking that allows for discovery while writing. In other words, the ultimate message is constructed through the act of writing, as opposed to being fully formed prior to starting to write.
  11. Developing writers benefit from close one-on-one instruction from an experienced mentor
Here are my responses to these claims:
  1. Agreed (within reason)
  2. This sounds right, too, as long as we keep in mind that this probably does not apply to all writing (e.g texting my kids) and that not everyone works best like this 
  3. Probably also true, although I sometimes fear that in teaching this point too much attention is paid to teaching and learning the meaning of 'rhetorical situation'
  4. This seems doubtful. "Reflection and metacognition" sounds as though it means self-consciousness, and I can imagine this doing as much harm as good. But perhaps this is because (or why) I haven't developed much as a writer
  5. Could be true. But when people complain about student writing I think that grammar and mechanics are primarily, if not exclusively, what they have in mind. So if these things cannot be taught (which I know #5 isn't saying) then perhaps we should stop trying to teach students how to write in dedicated writing courses 
  6. Depends how it is done, I think. (I have never done it, by the way.) Argument mapping has been found to improve critical thinking. (I don't mean that it has been conclusively proved to help in all cases.) But perhaps argument mapping is too different from sentence diagramming for this to count. Or perhaps critical thinking is not relevant to good writing. Or perhaps what almost all writing instructors would agree on is not the same as what empirical evidence shows.
  7. Maybe. My students very often think it is a waste of time (I still do it sometimes, because it seems as though it ought to help.) I believe that people with MFAs disagree about whether this kind of thing actually improves one's writing or, instead, turns it into writing by committee. Peer response will only be as good as the peers in question anyway.
  8. Plausible. But students must learn to write about things they are not already interested in. 
  9. OK
  10. Certainly writing should involve thinking
  11. Surely this is true
In other words, many of Warner's claims are at least highly plausible. But I also get the distinct impression that he wants to focus on teaching writing in a sense that is quite different from what the "kids these days can't write" crowd want. They want spelling and grammar. He, and others who teach writing, want something else. That's fine. But I think the reason so many students are required to take so many writing courses is because of "kids these days" concerns. If these courses don't address those concerns they should probably be optional.

Here's another questionable claim from Warner, one that I've heard before from other people (emphasis added):
Supposed tensions such as “Do we hold students accountable to sound mechanics?” or “Do we let students engage in self-expression?” are not actually tensions when students are required to work in a full rhetorical situation because they are forced to do what all writers must do -- make choices and wrestle with ideas that will be presented to interested audiences.
Do that enough times in enough different contexts and not only will you learn how to write, but when you’re confronted with a type of writing you haven’t done before, you’ll be able to figure out how to write in that form or genre as well.
Seriously? If you write a novel, a political speech, and a lab report then when you have to write a sonnet you'll be able to do it? That's absurd. So maybe that's not what he means. You might be more confident of your ability to rise to the challenge, and confidence surely helps. You might also know something about how to learn how to write a sonnet. But you won't actually be able to do it just because you have written other kinds of things. If you really want to learn how to write sonnets you should take a sonnet-writing or poetry-writing course. Just as if you want to know how to write a lab report you should probably get to a lab and ask someone there.

Which is to say that I have real doubts about the point of trying to teach generic writing, unless it really is focused on precisely the grammar and mechanics that people like Warner, understandably, seem not to want to teach.

Monday, August 21, 2017


This Guardian essay on neoliberalism is frustrating in some ways (too cloudy at key points, and too prone to ad hominem insults), but it's interesting, and brings out the importance of Friedrich von Hayek, whose work probably ought to be engaged with more just because it has been so influential. With that in mind I started reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on him. It contains this gem:
Bureaucrats experience mistakes not as events from which they need to learn but rather as events that they need to cover up. 

Monday, August 14, 2017


Moving to this country was the the first time I ever flew in a plane. I landed in Charlottesville, where I lived for five years. I still live just over an hour's drive from there, and go there quite often to eat a meal, do some shopping, or just get out of the small town I live in for a few hours. It's weird to see the city's name synonymous with racist extremism and violence. 

The pressing question is what to do about these racists. Some people argue that neo-Nazis should be denied the oxygen of attention, while others argue that they must be resisted with force. The fact is, I suppose, we cannot really know what will be most effective. Perhaps we can know what it is right to do, though, even if we cannot know what will do the most good. It seems right to protest, and to be ready to defend anyone who gets attacked by neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates. Not that I did so this weekend, but I think I should have.

I once counted the reasons why I don't do more. I think there were nine of them. Laziness and cowardice were no doubt two, but I don't remember all the others. One of them, though, is that I am put off by other people on my side, including some leading figures in the local movement against racism. Or, I should say, some of the things said by these people. The people themselves don't repel me. There's an example of the kind of thing that puts me off above, featuring people whose identities I have tried to cover. The comments are made by people I'll call A, B, and C. The order of speakers is: A, B, A, B, A, C. A is a white woman, B is an African-American man, and C is a white man (I wish this were irrelevant, but it isn't). They are talking, initially, about neo-Nazis rallying in Charlottesville.

What A says seems right to me. B is also right to point out that these people, "frightened white boys" though they may be, also pose a very real threat and do real harm. A then accepts this point, and adds that they are irrational. I agree. It is not good to honor Nazis, etc. with the label 'rational'. If we find ourselves concluding that such people are rational, we should probably reconsider our conception of rationality. (See here for more on this sort of thing.) It also seems simply accurate to call right-wing extremists irrational. Their ends make little sense ('racial purity' is a stupid thing to want) and their means are unlikely to get them what they want (joining a racist group might get you some 'friends', but it is likely to lose you others and hurt your career, while the chance of achieving your political goals (which, if achieved, I suspect would be unsatisfying) are very slim). 

B then responds in a way that seems somewhat uncharitable, albeit with a good point or two as well. The good points are that identifying them as irrational should not lead us to be complacent, and that their irrationality is not sheer irrationality. It can be seen as an understandable, albeit deplorable, reaction to certain historical and political trends. A, who sounds frustrated, in effect accepts these points, while clarifying that she had not meant to say anything contrary to them. At this point C steps in and tells A to apologize to B and "sit down", which at least sounds as though it means shut up.   

Despite some misunderstandings, which up to this point all seemed to be quickly cleared up, A and B, as A says, seem very much to be on the same side. Indeed, they seem to be making complementary points. Yet A is accused of "explaining how white supremacy works to a black man" and told to apologize to him "for the misunderstanding." And then to shut up. 

I imagine that C's behavior here strikes you as being as patronizing, as unproductive, and as based on misunderstanding as it does me. But, as you can see, C gets more likes than A. And B, who seems better than C but also to misunderstand A, gets even more. The conversation has continued and neither side has backed down or changed its mind (last time I checked at any rate). C has not, for instance, apologized to A. 

If anyone sees the matter differently I am genuinely curious what there is to be said for C's take. I don't know how common this kind of thing is--apologies if this is a matter of only very local interest--but from my perspective it looms large.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

New online Wittgenstein book by Kristóf Nyíri

This looks interesting, in terms of both content and the decision to publish free and online. The title is Pictorial Truth: Essays on Wittgenstein, Realism, and Conservatism, and it's by Kristóf Nyíri. He writes:
I am really curious how the scholarly world will react e.g. to my view formulated in the Preface, that peer-reviewed publications by now might have become obsolete. 
Me too.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Beyond bullshit?

My friend Chris Gavaler has co-written a piece with Nathaniel Goldberg on Trump and bullshit for Philosophy Now. If you're interested in this subject then, obviously, you might want to read it. Their conclusion is that a sample of Trump's speech is "beyond bullshit."

Here's the sample:
“He said something to the effect, ‘No we’re not leaving, because Donald Trump promised us that we’re not leaving.” Trump added, “I actually said I didn’t make [the promise]. When they played [my statement back], I said, ‘I did make it [to Carrier], but I didn’t mean it quite that way’.” As he explained: “I never thought I made that promise – not with Carrier. I made it for everybody else. I didn’t make it really for Carrier.” The promise was, he said: “A euphemism. I was talking about Carrier like all other companies from here on in, because they made the decision a year and a half ago”
After quoting this they talk a bit about what Trump might have meant and about Grice on implicature, before drawing their conclusion. But they've already quoted Frankfurt saying that the bullshitter "is not trying to deceive anyone concerning [the particular subject he happens to be talking about]. What he cares about is what people think of him." And that seems very much like what Trump is up to, and not something that Trump somehow goes beyond.

In this case. actually, Trump seems to be trying to tell the truth, more or less. At least, he seems to be acknowledging that Carrier made their decision before he did anything about keeping them in the US, although he's also adding a claim that other companies will keep jobs in the US now because of him (which is doubtful). He just isn't very good at speaking precisely. It does seem true, though, that what he cares about above all else is what people think of him. Trump is thus not beyond bullshit but the ultimate example of the kind of person Frankfurt was talking about. (As, I believe, Frankfurt himself has said.)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Mulhall's magic

I talked a bit about Stephen Mulhall's The Great Riddle here and here. This is the last post I intend to write about it, and it's about the part of the book I like the most. Near the end, Mulhall refers to "the sheer wild particularity [...] of each individual thing harbouring a refusal to conform to or be exhausted by any of our orderings of things." He quotes Chesterton saying that, "A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree"

(Cf. Tolstoy:
When an apple has ripened and falls, why does it fall? Because of its attraction to the earth, because its stalk withers, because it is dried by the sun, because it grows heavier, because the wind shakes it, or because the boy standing below wants to eat it? 
Nothing is the cause. All this is only the coincidence of conditions in which all vital organic and elemental events occur. And the botanist who finds that the apple falls because the cellular tissue decays and so forth is equally right with the child who stands under the tree and says the apple fell because he wanted to eat it and prayed for it.") More respectably, Chesterton writes that, "The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, 'charm,' 'spell,' 'enchantment.' They express the arbitrariness of the fact, and its mystery.")  
Mulhall connects this with Wittgenstein on the two different kinds of plant whose seeds look identical but which reliably produce plants of the type from which each came. In such a case, Wittgenstein remarks, to insist that there must be a difference in the seeds, even though we cannot detect one, "only shows what a powerful urge we have to see everything in terms of cause and effect." The beauty of Wittgenstein's story is that it never goes beyond the observable (imaginary) facts, which makes it undeniable, and yet it is hugely discomfiting to the mindset it takes aim at. It's like Kant without the metaphysics (Kant aimed, as I see it, to show the Dawkinses of his day that science can never show religion to be false), or attacking positivism by being more positivist than the positivists. Basically, by actually sticking to the undisputed facts it reveals how much metaphysics there is in the view of many people who proudly think of themselves as sticking to the facts. 

And when we do stick to the facts in this way (cf. also Tractatus 6.53) we are freed from unjustified assumptions about the laws of nature and cause and effect. Focusing on the thing itself means bracketing the principle of sufficient reason, which means seeing things how Schopenhauer says we should see things if we are to perceive objectively and achieve peace.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Seeing the world aright

[What follows is little more than a bunch of quotes strung together. But they are good quotes.]

The desirability of seeing what is under our noses and thereby becoming free is a bit of a theme in 19th century European thought.

Here's Father Zossima, a favorite of Wittgenstein's, in The Brothers Karamazov (emphasis added):
Brothers, have no fear of men's sin. Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God's creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love. Love the animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled. Do not trouble it, don't harass them, don't deprive them of their happiness, don't work against God's intent. Man, do not pride yourself on superiority to the animals; they are without sin, and you, with your greatness, defile the earth by your appearance on it, and leave the traces of your foulness after you—alas, it is true of almost every one of us! Love children especially, for they too are sinless like the angels; they live to soften and purify our hearts and as it were to guide us. Woe to him who offends a child! Father Anfim taught me to love children. The kind, silent man used often on our wanderings to spend the farthings given us on sweets and cakes for the children. He could not pass by a child without emotion. That's the nature of the man.
This advice (there is more in the surrounding pages) is given as an alternative to the (allegedly) false wisdom of the day, which sounds very similar to today's dominant ideology:
The world has proclaimed the reign of freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs? Nothing but slavery and self-destruction! For the world says:
“You have desires and so satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the most rich and powerful. Don't be afraid of satisfying them and even multiply your desires.” That is the modern doctrine of the world. In that they see freedom. And what follows from this right of multiplication of desires? In the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; in the poor, envy and murder; for they have been given rights, but have not been shown the means of satisfying their wants. They maintain that the world is getting more and more united, more and more bound together in brotherly community, as it overcomes distance and sets thoughts flying through the air.
Alas, put no faith in such a bond of union. Interpreting freedom as the multiplication and rapid satisfaction of desires, men distort their own nature, for many senseless and foolish desires and habits and ridiculous fancies are fostered in them. They live only for mutual envy, for luxury and ostentation. 
Plato might have agreed with this, too, so perhaps the 19th century has nothing to do with it, although the emphasis on perception seems very post-Kantian. Speaking of Plato, here's Schopenhauer:
Plato often says that men live only in a dream; the philosopher alone strives to awake himself.
And here is Schopenhauer again, sounding a bit Zossima-ish:
[W]hen some external cause or inward disposition lifts us suddenly out of the endless stream of willing, delivers knowledge from the slavery of the will, the attention is no longer directed to the motives of willing, but comprehends things free from their relation to the will, and thus observes them without personal interest, without subjectivity, purely objectively, gives itself entirely up to them so far as they are ideas, but not in so far as they are motives. Then all at once the peace which we were always seeking, but which always fled from us on the former path of the desires, comes to us of its own accord, and it is well with us. It is the painless state which Epicurus prized as the highest good and as the state of the gods; for we are for the moment set free from the miserable striving of the will; we keep the Sabbath of the penal servitude of willing; the wheel of Ixion stands still.
But this is just the state which I described above as necessary for the knowledge of the Idea, as pure contemplation, as sinking oneself in perception, losing oneself in the object, forgetting all individuality, surrendering that kind of knowledge which follows the principle of sufficient reason, and comprehends only relations; the state by means of which at once and inseparably the perceived particular thing is raised to the Idea of its whole species, and the knowing individual to the pure subject of will-less knowledge, and as such they are both taken out of the stream of time and all other relations. It is then all one whether we see the sun set from the prison or from the palace. 
Forgetting all individuality also sounds a bit like Zossima, who says:
My brother asked the birds to forgive him; that sounds senseless, but it is right; for all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth. It may be senseless to beg forgiveness of the birds, but birds would be happier at your side—a little happier, anyway—and children and 
all animals, if you were nobler than you are now. It's all like an ocean, I tell you. Then you would pray to the birds too, consumed by an all-embracing love, in a sort of transport, and pray that they too will forgive you your sin. Treasure this ecstasy, however senseless it may seem to men.
Nietzsche, too, believed in something like objective perception of reality, although he seems to deny the possibility of any such thing. Nevertheless, he opposed the "narcotics" of alcohol and Christianity. Marx wanted to replace false consciousness with (true) consciousness. But that's all fairly familiar. Less familiar to me until recently is Tolstoy on a similar theme, talking about causes in history. The whole chapter (Book Nine: 1812, Chapter 1) is worth reading (along with the first chapters of the next two books, not to mention the whole novel), but here is one highlight:
To us it is incomprehensible that millions of Christian men killed and tortured each other either because Napoleon was ambitious or Alexander was firm, or because England’s policy was astute or the Duke of Oldenburg wronged. We cannot grasp what connection such circumstances have with the actual fact of slaughter and violence: why because the Duke was wronged, thousands of men from the other side of Europe killed and ruined the people of Smolénsk and Moscow and were killed by them.
To us, their descendants, who are not historians and are not carried away by the process of research and can therefore regard the event with unclouded common sense, an incalculable number of causes present themselves. The deeper we delve in search of these causes the more of them we find; and each separate cause or whole series of causes appears to us equally valid in itself and equally false by its insignificance compared to the magnitude of the events, and by its impotence—apart from the cooperation of all the other coincident causes—to occasion the event. To us, the wish or objection of this or that French corporal to serve a second term appears as much a cause as Napoleon’s refusal to withdraw his troops beyond the Vistula and to restore the duchy of Oldenburg; for had he not wished to serve, and had a second, a third, and a thousandth corporal and private also refused, there would have been so many less men in Napoleon’s army and the war could not have occurred.
Tolstoy suggests that there is no one right way to understand what caused what, but he also raises the possibility of seemingly inevitable (and bad) events being prevented by ordinary people's refusing to go along with them. If we just realized this, and acted accordingly, how much better the world might be.