Sunday, February 26, 2017

Winch and relativism, logic and life

I've discussed Peter Winch and relativism before (e.g., here and here). I concluded that, "Winch is probably only a relativist in trivial and misleadingly-called-'relativist' ways." Since then I've read more on the subject, by Winch, Cora Diamond, Jonas Ahlskog and Olli Lagerspetz. So perhaps it's time to revisit the issue.

One question that is relevant to the debate is the relation between logic and human behavior. Ahlskog and Lagerspetz say (in "Language-Games and Relativism: On Cora Diamond's Reading of Peter Winch," p. 294) that "a (or the) central motif in Winch's work" is the idea that, "in order to see what a proposition implies or excludes, we must look into how it enters the life of those who use it; for example, how speakers might react in face of challenges and complexities." 

This doesn't sound quite right if we think about propositions in a language we understand well. Obviously we don't have to look into anything in order to understand a proposition. That is, we might have to on some occasion, but sometimes I know quite well what you are implying without any further investigation. Perhaps that's not fair though. The words "in order to see" might imply a case in which one does not see, and so further investigation is required. The most obvious way to investigate would be to ask you what you are implying, which again does not involve looking at how speakers (plural) might (in general) react. Perhaps this still is not fair. Perhaps if I speak the language I have already done the necessary looking and seeing. This, we might think, is (at least in part) how I learned the language in the first place. But then this sounds uncomfortably like the so-called Augustinian picture of learning a language, as if I already had a language and then did some useful anthropological fieldwork among my elders. Still, I might be being unfair to Winch by treating other people's words as if they were his, and to Ahlskog and Lagerspetz by taking one sentence out of context and making a meal of it. I think there is a potential problem here though, even if I have hardly convicted anyone of anything so far.

One problem, or question apparently worth asking, is whether we should talk about "what a proposition implies or excludes" at all. That is, do propositions imply and exclude, or do people do this (in using propositions)? I think the answer is both. Say my daughter is driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway and, after a pause to watch the sunset, the van won't start. If I ask, "Did you leave the lights on?" then I might be implying that she is often careless and has negligently caused the battery to die. The proposition on its own does not imply this. It might be said, though, to imply that the van has lights that can be left on or not. [Perhaps this should be thought of as implying in a metaphorical sense. A sentence implies things in something like the way that Heidegger or Loos might see a vase as implying things about the lives of the people who use it.] If you don't know English or any language close enough to it to have reliably similar implications and exclusions then you might have to look into how speakers of this language use sentences such as "Did you leave the lights on?" Otherwise you don't, surely. Knowing a language means, in part, knowing the correct standard use of this kind of sentence. And we don't usually learn this kind of thing by doing anthropology. Talk about what propositions mean and how we know what they mean might encourage the adoption of an outside, anthropological, third-person perspective. And this could be problematic.

In "Can We Understand Ourselves?" (CWUO) Winch says that understanding another culture requires studying the behavior of members of the culture in question. And, according to him, we cannot start by finding out their beliefs and desires, because we see these for what they are (p. 197) “only through the behavior in which they are manifested.” He seems to suggest here that knowledge of behavior, or perhaps simply behavior, is somehow prior to psychology. I wonder whether they really come apart like this. That is, perhaps they should be thought of as two sides of the same coin, with no relation of priority or dependency between them. In The Idea of a Social Science he said that "the social relations between men and the ideas which men's actions embody are really the same thing considered from different points of view". That seems better to me. 

On the same page of CWUO on which he implies the contrary of the suggestion that we could understand others' actions by starting with their "internal 'desires and beliefs'," Winch says also that "neither words nor actions have per se any preeminent position." He also notes some peculiarities of the notion of understanding. An anthropologist might understand another culture, or some feature of it, quite well without being able to imagine (seriously or sincerely) engaging in its practices. On the other hand, there is a sense of understanding in which we do not understand people or what they do if we cannot relate to them in a more subjective way than this. If we cannot, that is, 'find ourselves in them,' whether they belong to our culture or another, then we cannot fully understand them. 

This sounds true, but does it amount to anything more than the assertion that we do not understand people that we do not understand? I don't see why, that is, one cannot come to understand liking music, or a certain kind of music, or football, to give some of Winch's examples. Although, of course, one might see nothing in any of these things. Doing so would involve seeing the point of, say, watching football, which involves something like seeing it as having a point, which is like (though perhaps not exactly the same as) wanting to watch football. It might not be possible to want to do everything, or to see every human activity as having a point. But of any given activity I see no reason why one could not come to see its point. One good thing, though, about Winch's emphasis on understanding others as finding oneself in them is that it points away from the kind of problematic third-person perspective that I identified (or gestured towards) above.          

At the end of CWUO Winch argues that "practical 'being in tune' with others lies right at the very centre of our understanding of other human beings" (p. 203). As Winch admits, his argument here is sketchy. For those who want a fuller treatment of the topic he recommends his paper "Eine Einstellung zur Seele." One thing he does in this paper is to question the philosophical notion (or at least David Wiggins' notion) of a person:
On this view [...] reacting to someone as a person is in the first instance classifying him as belonging to a certain natural kind and this in its turn involves having certain quasi-theoretical beliefs about him. Anything that is peculiar to our attitudes towards and treatment of persons flows from and is justified by the beliefs we hold about what properties persons essentially possess; and what justifies these beliefs is ultimately scientific investigation. [Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 81 (1980 - 1981), pp. 1-15, p. 12]
One thing that Winch objects to is Wiggins' treatment of our reactions or attitudes towards other human beings as requiring justification. Another is that the justification in question is theoretical. I agree. But Winch still seems to want to explain this attitude toward a soul, referring to such things as "my general experience of human life" (p. 13). I think it's fine to try to explain what Wittgenstein means by an attitude (or orientation, perhaps) towards a soul. But explaining where it comes from seems somehow misguided. The explanation doesn't seem very informative, although what's good about it is that it is much less oriented towards theory and justification than Wiggins seems to be. Perhaps that is the main point that Winch wants to make.

Earlier in the paper he says that Wittgenstein wants:
to urge that if we want to be clear what a belief (e.g.) that someone is in pain comes to, we should not allow ourselves to be hypnotized by its verbal expression ("He is in pain"), but should look at the whole range of behaviour, demeanour, facial expression, etc. in which such verbal expressions are embedded, and with which they are continuous, which give the words their particular sense and by some of which indeed the words may often be replaced (p. 3)
This might be true if it means that Wittgenstein thinks it's a good idea to look at behavior (etc.) if one wants to be clear what a belief is and is tempted to think that it must be something purely verbal or intellectual. It seems dodgier if it means that Wittgenstein has an answer to the question 'What is a belief?' and that this answer is: "it's a whole range of behaviour, demeanour, facial expression, etc. in which such verbal expressions are embedded, and with which they are continuous, which give the words their particular sense and by some of which indeed the words may often be replaced." That would make Wittgenstein seem like a kind of behaviorist, and like someone who wanted to answer philosophical questions by putting forward theses.

A problem with Winch is that it is not always clear what he is or isn't saying. This is surely one reason for the very different readings of Winch by Diamond, who sees him, ultimately, as a kind of relativist, and by Ahlskog and Lagerspetz, who defend him against this charge. It is useful to have both readings. Even if Winch is not a relativist, Diamond's criticisms could be helpful discussions of problems that would arise if one were to take his work in a certain way. But it also seems worth trying to work out whether the non-relativist reading of Winch is tenable.

Diamond's Winch thinks like Ilham Dilman, who states that:
[W]hen Dante in his book talked of the spheres of the heavens and put the earth at the centre of the universe, he was not talking about the same universe, the universe of modern astronomy. […] The universe, as conceived of in [the] world [of the Mediaevals], was not the universe of astronomy; it was the universe of their religion. […] Thus the skies of Dante's The Divine Comedy and the sky and the stars of astronomy belong to different universes of discourse. (Wittgenstein's Copernican Revolution, 2002, pp. 48–49, quoted in Ahlskog and Lagerspetz, p. 302.)   
Ahlskog and Lagerspetz say of this (on p. 303):
It seems indeed perfectly proper to say that Dante and we, in an important sense, have been talking of the same object: “that bright thing in the sky”. Winch would hardly have quarrelled with that. [...] [A]ssuming it is agreed (in some sense) that we disagree with Dante about the heavens, it will not be clear that our disagreement translates into “criticism”. For instance, Dante is not someone we would feel the need to refute. 
They are quite right that we would feel no need to refute Dante, partly because he is dead and partly because there is little at stake. But in "Criticizing from 'Outside'," Diamond brings up the example of people being punished for alleged witchcraft, not just in the past but today. If someone is executed for allegedly harming others by supernatural means might we not be tempted to criticize this practice? We might then feel the need to refute belief in witchcraft of this kind. And even if persuasive refutation seems hopeless, we might still insist that any punishment in these cases is unjust because the accused cannot possibly be guilty. Witchcraft isn't real.

I don't think Winch would have quarrelled with that. But whether he could consistently avoid such quarrelling while maintaining everything else he wrote is another matter. Not one I can settle now though.    

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Dennett vs postmodernism

Daniel Dennett is getting some stick at the Daily Nous (and on Twitter too, I could have sworn, but now I can't find any evidence of that) because of these remarks:
Maybe people will now begin to realise that philosophers aren’t quite so innocuous after all. Sometimes, views can have terrifying consequences that might actually come true. I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts.
Justin W. replies, in part:
I’m skeptical that post-modernism had much to do with Trump’s victory. It is not even on the radar of most Trump voters, ...
The main criticisms of Dennett seem to be that he wildly exaggerates the importance of philosophy and that he has misunderstood the philosophers in question. But I take him to be saying that postmodern philosophers, or perhaps merely the philosophers who gave rise to postmodernism, have done something that had very bad consequences. He isn't, that is to say, suggesting that Trump or the people behind Fox News have read Derrida, Foucault, or Lyotard and, based on a sound understanding of their work, become Thrasymachean liars. (If he is saying that then he has lost touch with reality.)

So what could he mean that might be true? Most people (in the US) don't study philosophy at all, either because they don't go to college (and philosophy isn't taught in high school or before) or else because they go to a college or university where philosophy is not mandatory. What philosophy they get--and enough people get some exposure to philosophy for opposition to philosophy to be part of the basis of a popular film--comes from other courses. In some educational systems this philosophy might be Thomism, or something like it, but more commonly I think it will be what I call postmodernism. I work in an English department and a high percentage of my friends teach in English departments at other schools. Postmodernism is common among these people. One even said that relativism, including the explicit rejection of belief in truth, was the basic dogma (they didn't use that word) of the discipline of rhetoric and composition. And almost every student studies composition, including in high school.

This is not the fault of Foucault et al., but they have a role to play in the history of the phenomenon. I don't know how ideas like postmodernism get into other subjects, but in English graduate students typically used to have to take a theory course (perhaps they still do) in which they would learn about various kinds of critical theory. I think these courses are often based on Terry Eagleton's book Literary Theory, on which Wikipedia is interesting:
Eagleton's approach to literary criticism remains firmly rooted in the Marxian tradition though he has also incorporated techniques and ideas from more recent modes of thought as structuralismLacanian analysis and deconstruction. [...]
After Theory (2003) represents a kind of about-face: an indictment of current cultural and literary theory, and what Eagleton regards as the bastardisation of both. [...] His indictment [...] centres on "relativism"...  
In other words, it looks as though Eagleton might be (in part) both the cause of and the insufficiently-used cure for the problem that Dennett complains about. I wouldn't blame Eagleton for this any more than I would blame Lacan, but it's a reminder that bastardisation happens and happens predictably. Bastardized versions of various kinds of philosophy (Dewey is frequently misquoted and misapplied too) are widespread. I blame the bastardizers first and foremost, but philosophers themselves could almost certainly do more to combat it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Wittgenstein and politics in twenty minutes?

Here's Sean Wilson on Wittgenstein, politics, and critical thinking. I haven't had time to watch it yet, but it sounds interesting:

Monday, February 13, 2017

Anthony Bourdain again

This New Yorker essay on Anthony Bourdain is well worth reading if you're interested in him at all. I don't have much to say beyond that, except that it raises the authenticity issue again (as discussed here). According to Patrick Radden Keefe, Bourdain "makes a fetish of authenticity." There is something to this, but it suggests more honesty than I think it should. 

If you read on you find his brother saying that Bourdain likes to "play up" a certain episode from their childhood, and Bourdain himself says that when he separated from his wife he no longer had to "pretend," and that in order to get the music he wanted for one show he "may have fibbed." None of this seems particularly terrible, but it makes his pose of radical honesty (if that's what it is) a bit hard to swallow. Here's some more evidence of posing from the article:   
For a time, he walked around with a set of nunchucks in a holster strapped to his leg, like a six-shooter; he often posed for photographs wearing chef’s whites and clutching the kind of long, curved knife you might use to disembowel a Gorgon.
This is in some ways the worst thing I've heard about Bourdain, although there is also an implication that he committed various crimes when he was a drug addict in order to pay for his habit, and he seems to have sacrificed his first marriage for the sake of traveling the world while being on TV. That might be the worst thing he ever did (he seems to think so), but it's hard to judge someone else's marriage or divorce.
When Bourdain tells his own story, he often makes it sound as if literary success were something that he stumbled into; in fact, he spent years trying to write his way out of the kitchen. 
No crime here, but more evidence to support my case. And finally:
Given Bourdain’s braggadocio, there were times when I wondered if the bad years were quite as grim as he makes them sound. “There are romantics, and then there are the hard-core addicts,” Karen Rinaldi said. “I think Tony was more of a romantic.” Nancy Putkoski told me in an e-mail that Tony is “pretty dramatic.” 
That's about it, as far as I can tell. On the plus side he is courteous and charming. His shows wouldn't be as much fun to watch as they are if he wasn't likable. But he does have this phony tendency which bothers me, especially given his emphasis on authenticity.

It occurs to me, though, that perhaps authenticity and honesty are not the same thing. The kind of authenticity he insists on is not faking a scene for the show--he wants the sights and sounds to be presented as they really are, and for nothing to be staged. But romanticism, a form of entertainment, seems to be his motivation far more than a respect for truth or authenticity in that sense. It's more a case of here are some great experiences I really did have than here is what life, or just eating, is really like in this place. It's reality TV, but it's still TV. Even a fetish for authenticity can be a false idol.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Bad language

I think I'm going to rename my paper on the value of clarity "The Ethics of Communication," a title suggested by James Klagge. It's a huge and understudied field, it seems to me. Lots of people talk about Orwell's essay on politics and the English language, but they tend to either agree uncritically or else dismiss it all for what often seem to be bad reasons. (The people I have seen dismiss it are Descriptivists, who David Foster Wallace takes on pretty successfully to my mind.) Lots of people have read Harry Frankfurt on bullshit, but not caring whether what you say is true or false as long as it gets results comes in many different flavors.

There is relatively little, as far as I know, that has been written on the ethics of language use. There is this course on social and political aspects of language, which looks great, and I haven't read most of what it covers, but it suggests to me that there is a field waiting to be ploughed. Maybe.

Anyway, as a step in the direction of the plough, here's a sort of list of concerns:
  • George Orwell famously warns about thoughtless and vague language, but he doesn't address careful vagueness or how to speak about such subjects as ethics, religion, and art. 
  • Harry Frankfurt, also famously, critiques bullshit: language intended to produce a certain effect but not concerned with truth. This is a broad category, though, including the relatively thoughtless (with the speaker perhaps hoping for no more than to be left alone) and the very careful (perhaps with very specific goals and clever ideas about how to achieve them). There is also the question of what to call language that is concerned with truth but that tries carefully to mislead without actually lying.
  • Steven Poole writes about "unspeak": language that tries both a) to imply an argument without defending it or making it explicit and b) to silence opposition.
  • I criticize what I have been calling "political correctness": language that is like bullshit but that is unconcerned, not necessarily with truth, but with conceptual accuracy. It is like unspeak, but it need not be deliberate. (I think I should perhaps call it something else because the term 'political correctness' is so loaded.)
  • Another linguistic vice is straightforward lying, although the ethics of lying are rather complicated
David Egan, drawing on others and on Wittgenstein's game analogy, notes some other potential problems:
  • Spoilsports (the relevant reference here is Gadamer, Truth and Method 1989, p. 102): not taking the (language-)game seriously 
  • Triflers (see Suits, The Grasshopper 2005, p. 60): respecting the rules of the game, but not its goals
  • Cheats (Suits again): recognizing goals but not rules
  • Sophists (as Egan sees it, p. 12) are like spoilsports but also deny the very possibility of achieving the goal of the game, e.g. Thrasymachus denying the reality of justice
Huizinga (Homo Ludens 1995) regards spoilsports as especially bad, but also closely connected to revolutionaries who reject one language-game, or set of language-games, but introduce new ones instead.

So, can we put all this together to come up with an initial sketch of the landscape? I will probably have to read Suits one of these days, but in the meantime I'm struggling to imagine exactly what cheating in a language-game would be. Lying, perhaps. Trifling, as the name suggests, sounds a lot like not taking the game seriously, which is what defines a spoilsport. And sophists just seem to be a kind of spoilsports.

Deliberate vagueness, carefully constructed (Jesuitical?) bull, and unspeak all seem like forms of cheating. While thoughtless vagueness and bull are more like being a spoilsport out of laziness.

The interesting area, really, (at least to me) is bullshit. Which seems to be quite popular these days.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Ornament and Crime: the book

One of my Christmas presents was Adolf Loos' Ornament and Crime, which includes the famous essay of that title but also many more short pieces on related themes. There aren't many huge surprises, but he's funny and seems very similar to Wittgenstein in matters of taste. I couldn't wait to blog about it, but now that I've finished it I don't know what to say. Here goes nothing.

One reason I found the book interesting is that Wittgenstein once wrote that: "It is as though I wanted to change men's and women's fashions by talking" (Culture and Value p, 71, according to some notes I have, but I don't see it there in the edition I own). Loos sort of tries to do this, although he also recognizes the problem with such an enterprise. He also, like Wittgenstein, rejects talk of beauty in the arts in favor of talk about getting things right. Or rather, Loos rejects one in favor of the other, while Wittgenstein, if his students' notes are to believed, merely observed that we tend not to talk much about beauty and instead use words like 'right' and 'wrong'. Here's Loos, from the essay "Men's Fashion" (from 1898):
...what does it mean to be well dressed? It means to be correctly dressed.
To be correctly dressed! With that expression I feel as if I have removed the mystery with which our fashions have been surrounded until now. For fashion we use words such as beautiful, elegant, chic, smart, or dashing. But that is not the main point at all. The point is to be dressed in such a manner as to attract as little attention to oneself as possible. (p. 40)
He is not doing aesthetics here but trying to change men's fashions by talking. He is making propaganda, that is, against the foppishness that he identified as popular in Germany and in favor of what he identifies as the English (he is very pro-English, which probably ought to make one suspicious), modern, refined taste in men's clothing.

On the other hand, he does acknowledge that this is not generally how fashion works:
Today we wear narrow trousers, tomorrow they will be wide, and the day after narrow again. Every tailor knows that. Couldn't we just abolish the wide-trouser period, then? Oh no! We need it to be able to enjoy our narrow trousers again. (p. 60)
He does suggest, though, that the industry can impose styles on people, or at least force the speed of change to increase. And, presumably, the industry might be encouraged to do so by respected essayists. But:
Fashion progresses slowly, more slowly than one usually thinks. Objects that are really modern stay so for a long time. (p. 92)
Another engine of changing fashion is social change:
...we are heading toward a newer, greater age. Women will no longer have to appeal to sensuality to achieve equal status with men, but will do so through their economic and intellectual independence, gained through work. A woman's value will not rise and fall with fluctuations in sensuality. Silks and satins, ribbons and bows, frills and furbelows will lose their effectiveness. They will disappear. And rightly so. There is no place for them in our culture. (p. 111) 
Much has been made of the handles that Wittgenstein designed for the house he built in Vienna. (You can even buy a version of them, although his design has been reworked "to bring it in line with modern technology." The horror!) But has Loos' remark from "The New Style and the Bronze Industry" (1898, presumably, although the date given in the book is 1878--Loos was born in 1870) been noted?
There is only one decent door handle in Vienna accessible to me, and I make a special detour to see it every time I am in the vicinity. (p. 49)
From the surrounding text it seems clear that what distinguishes this handle is its lack of ornamentation. If Wittgenstein was a big fan of Loos' then he might have tried to design something that would have pleased the master. This is not easy:
Changing old objects to adapt them to modern needs is not permissible. We must either copy or create something completely new. (p. 46)
And a craftsman's best work will be the work that corresponds "most closely to his nature, to his temperament, which he produces without effort, which bear[s] the clearest stamp of his personality" (p. 45).

One rule of thumb that seems to apply throughout the book is that the duller the chapter title, the more interesting its content turns out to be. For instance, in "Interior Design: Prelude" (1898) Loos speaks of styles of furniture as languages: "Our cabinetmaker speaks German, the German of Vienna, 1898. Do not call him stupid or naive just because he cannot speak Middle High German, French, Russian, Chinese, and Greek as well" (p. 53). Perhaps this isn't earth-shattering, but it seems rather Wittgensteinian.

As, in a way, does this:
...the ancient Greeks also knew a little about beauty. And they were led by practical considerations alone, without taking beauty into account at all, without wanting to satisfy some aesthetic need. And when an object was so practical it could not be made any more practical, they called it beautiful.[...]
Are there still people who work in the same way as the Greeks? Oh, yes. As a nation, the English; as a profession, the engineers. The English and the engineers are our ancient Greeks. (p. 69)
I wonder whether Wittgenstein read this before he went to England to study engineering in Manchester.