Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Stop making sense

Matthew Yglesias has an interesting essay on Trump and bullshit at Vox, but I think he goes too far in his attempt to explain what's going on. Here's an example:
When Trump says something like he’s just learned that Barack Obama ordered his phones wiretapped, he’s not really trying to persuade people that this is true. It’s a test to see who around him will debase themselves to repeat it blindly. There’s no greater demonstration of devotion.
This makes Trump sound like a kind of genius. He doesn't just get people to demonstrate the loyalty he craves. He has the greatest way to get them to do this.

Admittedly, this genius might be accidental. Yglesias says of Trump that, "His flagrant lies serve as a loyalty test," which is different from saying that they are intended as a loyalty test. But there is still an implication here that there is something to be explained, namely the function of Trump's bullshit, and that Yglesias has the explanation that enables us to make sense of it all. But why suppose that it makes sense in the first place? It's not as if Trump is a great success. If he had built his wall, imprisoned his electoral opponent, and banned Muslims from the United States then we might wonder how he had managed it all (as well as why, of course). But he has done so little that there is little to explain. (He has emboldened white supremacists and hurt people of color, but not as much as he tried to, and it's not clear that is exactly a conscious goal of his anyway. Nor is there any mystery about how someone could get this done.)

In other words, Trump might be an evil genius bullshitter, but he might just be confused and floundering. He could also be both. Perhaps he has found bullshit to be useful in his career. That doesn't mean that he wields it skillfully or knows what he's doing at any given moment. He might sometimes know just what bullshit to spout, or lie to tell, to achieve his particular goal. Or he might just spout and spout and hope it works out. My impression is that he is so used to getting what he demands (even if he doesn't always get what he demands) that he has very little sense of himself as answering to an objective reality. Frankfurt says:
Thoughtful attention to detail requires discipline and objectivity. It entails accepting standards and limitations that forbid the indulgence of impulse or whim. It is this selflessness that, in connection with bullshit, strikes us as inapposite.
Trump's bullshit seems to stem from, or at least reflect, his lack of thoughtful attention to detail, his lack of discipline, lack of objectivity, non-acceptance of standards and limitations, his selfishness, and his insistence on indulging impulses and whims. His is not the "carefully wrought bullshit" that Frankfurt describes (along with the other kind). The opposition between truth and (not falsehood but) ego here is worth noting.

So Yglesias seems to see sense, something intelligible, even intelligent, where there may well not be any such thing. There is still something to explain, though, namely why so many people accept this bullshit. Partly, no doubt, 'twas ever thus. Partly, also, people accept it because it is in their interest to do so: they work for Trump or they would be embarrassed to back down from supporting him, for instance. Partly, perhaps, we are more used to bullshit than we used to be because we suffer from an overload of information. This quote from T. S. Eliot has been doing the rounds on Twitter lately:
The vast accumulation of knowledge — or at least information — deposited…have been responsible for an equally vast ignorance.  When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields…in which the same words are used with different meanings, when every man knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not.  And when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.    
Maybe he's right.

And, finally, maybe there's a sort of culture of bullshit in the US. I'm hesitant to suggest this, because I don't think that any large group of people is really smarter or dumber, better or worse, than any other. If there is a culture of bullshit in the US there may well be a similar culture in other countries. But the creation of certain sacred cows is highly visible in the US in a way that it doesn't seem to be in other countries. The flag, for instance, is idolized in a way I've never seen in any other country. Religion (of a particular, and particularly American, kind) is used to justify denial of scientific facts. The Republican Party has managed to attach itself to the flag and to this kind of religion, making itself almost an idol of sorts (and support for Democrats pretty much unthinkable for many people).  
But (still finally) there is also a history, especially in the South, of lying about the Civil War, and teaching these lies to children. When your parents as well as your teachers lie in this way, as is often the case (although maybe I shouldn't call the sincere repetition of a lie lying), then you are going to have a hard time accepting that it is a lie. Then people who tell (what you may or may not recognize at some level as being) the truth will come across as enemies of your family, your educators, and your culture. (It ought to be possible to insert something here about Wittgenstein and certainty, but I won't.) White Southerners have a huge psychological incentive to reject numerous truths and truth-tellers (as well as the psychological incentive to admit the truth, which, however painful, surely makes life simpler in some ways). If they do opt for such rejection, then more bullshit won't be such a big deal for them to accept. It might even feel like home. 

I'm sure I've mentioned it before, but this is the essay by John Stuart Mill that I have in mind when I talk about lies about the Civil War. I'll quote some of the relevant bits here:
There is a theory in England, believed perhaps by some, half believed by many more, which is only consistent with original ignorance, or complete subsequent forgetfulness, of all the antecedents of the contest. There are people who tell us that, on the side of the North, the question is not one of slavery at all. The North, it seems, have no more objection to slavery than the South have. Their leaders never say one word implying disapprobation of it. They are ready, on the contrary, to give it new guarantees; to renounce all that they have been contending for; to win back, if opportunity offers, the South to the Union by surrendering the whole point.
If this be the true state of the case, what are the Southern chiefs fighting about? Their apologists in England say that it is about tariffs, and similar trumpery. They say nothing of the kind. They tell the world, and they told their own citizens when they wanted their votes, that the object of the fight was slavery.
This was written in 1862, and the same lies and half-beliefs are still very much around. Here's more from Mill:
Let me, in a few words, remind the reader what sort of a thing this is, which the white oligarchy of the South have banded themselves together to propagate and establish, if they could, universally. When it is wished to describe any portion of the human race as in the lowest state of debasement, and under the most cruel oppression, in which it is possible for human beings to live, they are compared to slaves. When words are sought by which to stigmatize the most odious despotism, exercised in the most odious manner, and all other comparisons are found inadequate, the despots are said to be like slave-masters, or slave-drivers. What, by a rhetorical license, the worst oppressors of the human race, by way of stamping on them the most hateful character possible, are said to be, these men, in very truth, are. I do not mean that all of them are hateful personally, any more than all the Inquisitors, or all the buccaneers. But the position which they occupy, and the abstract excellence of which they are in arms to vindicate, is that which the united voice of mankind habitually selects as the type of all hateful qualities. I will not bandy chicanery about the more or less of stripes or other torments which are daily requisite to keep the machine in working order, nor discuss whether the Legrees or the St. Clairs are more numerous among the slave-owners of the Southern States. The broad facts of the case suffice. One fact is enough. There are, Heaven knows, vicious and tyrannical institutions in ample abundance on the earth. But this institution is the only one of them all which requires, to keep it going, that human beings should be burnt alive. The calm and dispassionate Mr. Olmsted affirms that there has not been a single year, for many years past, in which this horror is not known to have been perpetrated in some part or other of the South. And not upon negroes only; the Edinburgh Review, in a recent number, gave the hideous details of the burning alive of an unfortunate Northern huckster by Lynch law, on mere suspicion of having aided in the escape of a slave. What must American slavery be, if deeds like these are necessary under it?—and if they are not necessary and are yet done, is not the evidence against slavery still more damning? The South are in rebellion not for simple slavery; they are in rebellion for the right of burning human creatures alive.
It will take a long time to wake up fully from this nightmare. And perhaps human beings are never fully awake. In the meantime there are going to be mixed beliefs, half-beliefs, lies, denials, and, perhaps more than anything else, confusion. Dawning consciousness, too, we can hope. But certainly confusion. And nonsense. And bullshit. Its acceptance doesn't need any special explanation.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Anscombe and Wittgenstein on Animals and Intention

[Here's something I've been working on. I think it suffers a bit from being compressed, but I'm working to a short word limit.] 

Elizabeth Anscombe famously criticizes her teacher Ludwig Wittgenstein for talking about the “natural expression of an intention” in Philosophical Investigations. I will consider recent responses to this dispute by Mikel Burley and Martin Gustafsson, arguing that Burley’s response is correct but incomplete, and that Gustafsson’s defense of Anscombe, while also correct, does not show Wittgenstein to have been wrong. Anscombe’s criticism of Wittgenstein is partly pragmatic, and since the two philosophers have somewhat different aims, each can be right relative to those aims. Whose side we take will then depend in part on what aims we adopt, and it might not be necessary to pick either side in this debate.
In order to judge the matter we should first consider the evidence. Wittgenstein asks: "What is the natural expression [Ausdruck] of an intention? – Look at a cat when it stalks a bird; or a beast when it wants to escape" (PI, §647). Responding to this, Anscombe writes:

Intention appears to be something that we can express, but which brutes (which, e.g. do not give orders) can have, though lacking any distinct expression of intention. For a cat's movements in stalking a bird are hardly to be called an expression of intention. One might as well call a car's stalling the expression of its being about to stop. Intention is unlike emotion in this respect, that the expression of it is purely conventional; we might say ‘linguistic’, if we will allow certain bodily movements with a conventional meaning to be included in language. Wittgenstein seems to me to have gone wrong in speaking of the ‘natural expression of an intention’ (Philosophical Investigations §647). (Intention, p. 5)

Wittgenstein’s remark is reminiscent of PI §256, where he asks: “But suppose I didn’t have any natural expression [Äußerungen] of sensation, but only had sensations?” The word for expressions here suggests linguistic expression, which is what Anscombe seems to have in mind, but the qualifying adjective ‘natural’ suggests that Wittgenstein is not talking about anything merely conventional. In §257 he talks about groans and grimaces as manifestations of pain. Presumably this is the kind of thing he has in mind in §256 when he refers to natural expressions of sensation. He uses a different word for expression in §647, and indeed the movements of a stalking cat seem further from language proper than a groan of pain. But it still seems right to say that these movements show something about what the cat is up to, something that will help us to predict and understand its movements. Why not call this an expression of intention? 
Mikel Burley’s view is that the disagreement between Wittgenstein and Anscombe is because of an ambiguity in the word ‘expression’.[1] This seems right, but is perhaps not the last word to be said on the subject. Burley’s point is that a cat cannot voluntarily reveal its intention. Nor can it tell us its intention, of course. But it might nevertheless, non-voluntarily, exhibit or display its intention. Burley also mentions PI §284 in this connection, where Wittgenstein invites us to imagine a stone having sensations. He anticipates a certain kind of failure. We do not, he imagines, simply fail to imagine a stone’s being sentient. We question, or perhaps reject, the very idea: “One says to oneself: How could one so much as get the idea of ascribing a sensation to a thing? One might as well ascribe it to a number!” The task is absurd. But then Wittgenstein asks us to look at a wriggling fly, whereupon he imagines our difficulties will vanish. With the stone “everything was, so to speak, too smooth” for pain, whereas with the fly “pain seems able to get a foothold”. Our reactions to a wriggling fly are quite different from those to a stone. How the world appears in terms of the applicability of concepts, whether too smooth or rough enough for us to get a grip, depends on our reactions to it. Although, of course, our reactions are to features of the world. So language depends on both us and the world. The fly’s wriggling is like a human being’s groan of pain or squirming. It surely might be called a natural expression of pain.
Anscombe does not deny this though. Her point is that intention is different. Unlike emotion (and, I would think, a sensation such as pain), it has only conventional, not natural, expression.       
Martin Gustafsson argues that Anscombe regards intention in animals and in human beings as equally cases of intention but of different kinds of intention.[2] Human intention is connected with language in a way that animal intention is not. Unlike human intention, “the cat’s intention to catch the bird exists only qua the cat’s stalking”.[3] This is what makes it like the car that is about to stop. The car has no intention, so it is also importantly different from the cat, but the symptoms of its being about to stop are not really separable from its being about to stop. Or at least, not as separable as a human being’s intention to do something is from the expression of that intention, which might, after all, be a lie. Unlike cats, human beings are also quite capable of acting against their biological interests.

In the cat case, as conceived by Anscombe, the cat’s intention (to catch the bird) is constitutively bound up with the cat’s nonconventional behavior (its stalking the bird), and this constitutive nexus is intelligible in view of what sort of creature a cat is. The characterization of the behavior qua directed at an intended goal— “stalking the bird”—is applicable because cats are creatures for which it is good to catch birds and because they have the biological equipment (sense organs, etc.) needed to aim at particular things (like birds). If [I am] correct, the reason why Anscombe does not want to call the cat’s behavior an expression of the cat’s intention is that the constitutive interrelationship between intention and behavior is too tight to make the notion of “expression” applicable.[4]  

Behavior does not express intention, according to Anscombe, because the connection between behavior and intention is too tight, to use Gustafsson’s word. What I do to achieve my intended goal embodies my intention in a way that cannot lie.[5] I might walk down a certain street in order to make you think I am going to a museum, say, but then this walking embodies my intention to deceive you. It is not merely a deceptive act regarding my unreal intention to go the museum. It is also a real act that shows, unavoidably if unwittingly, my intention to deceive. 
The expression of sensation is not quite like this. Saying “I am in pain” can be a lie and grimacing can be deceptive—I might in fact feel no pain at all. Any close conceptual connection between pain-behavior and pain is nevertheless not as close as it is in the case of intention and the behavior that embodies it. Or so, at any rate, Anscombe sees it.
Might we not, even so, choose to say that actions embodying a certain intention express that intention? Gustafsson’s view is that Anscombe means to stipulate that we ought not to speak this way when doing philosophy, because of the danger of our doing so’s leading us astray in a Cartesian or empiricist way that treats intentions as mental states not very different from sensations such as pain.[6]    
Burley’s suggestion is that we might equally say that a cat exhibits an intention as that it expresses an intention. If Gustafsson is right, then this is either not quite right or else is itself ambiguous. In philosophically safe usage we might indeed talk about a cat’s expressing its intention, but when there is a need to be scrupulous about the words we use we ought not to speak this way. The important point is to distinguish between the expression of an emotion or a sensation, on the one hand, and the expression or exhibition of an intention, on the other. Since Wittgenstein used different words for the two cases – Äußerung for the former and Ausdruck for the latter – perhaps there is no reason to criticize him. But Anscombe is bothered also by his use of the word ‘natural’ (natürliche) here. Intentions, as she sees the matter, can be exhibited or embodied, as in the case of inarticulate animals’ intentions as well as those of human beings, or, in the human case only, they can be expressed. To speak of ‘natural expression of intention’ is both to blur the distinction between animal and human intention (which Wittgenstein might not mind doing) and to blur the distinction between actual events internal to the human body (including the brain) and the metaphorically inner events of the mind. That distinction is one that both Anscombe and Wittgenstein want to insist on.
On the other hand, Anscombe’s understanding of intention, at least as Gustafsson presents it, is significantly influenced by Aristotle and Aquinas.[7] It would be antithetical to Wittgenstein’s way of doing philosophy to make Aristotelian or Thomist metaphysics an essential part of his work. So we cannot expect him to want to say all that Anscombe would say. And in §647 his primary concern is to move the reader away from the picture of intention as something inner, like a feeling, towards something more like behaviorism. Not that he is a behaviorist, or any other kind of –ist, but that he wants to move the reader out of Cartesianism (and empiricism) and to do so in a direction that might be called that of behaviorism. If you actually get to behaviorism, though, then you have gone too far. Indeed, as Wittgenstein sees it, if you stop in any -ism then you need to move on.
In other words, if Gustafsson’s Anscombe is right, then Wittgenstein went wrong in speaking of the natural expression of an intention not in the sense of saying something absolutely false but in a pragmatic and local (to philosophy) way. But given that Wittgenstein’s goals might include that of not committing to the position that Gustfasson’s Anscombe adopts, and of not committing to any other position either, unless perhaps not being in the grip of any metaphysical picture counts as a position, then it might have been no pragmatic error on his part to speak as he did.               

[1] See Mikel Burley “Wittgenstein, Wonder and Attention to Animals,” in Niklas Forsberg, Mikel Burley, and Nora Hämäläinen Language, Ethics and Animal Life: Wittgenstein and Beyond, Bloomsbury, 2012, pp. 166-178, p. 170.
[2] Martin Gustafsson, “Anscombe’s Bird, Wittgenstein’s Cat: Intention, Expression and Convention” Philosophical Topics Volume 44, Number 1, Spring 2016, pp. 207-237.
[3] Gustafsson, p. 225.
[4] Gustafsson, p. 226.
[5] See p. 231
[6] See p. 235
[7] See p. 208

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Yes, but what have you been watching on TV?

It's been a while since I watched it, but the Swedish show 30 Degrees in February is possibly the best series I've ever seen on TV (it's available on Netflix). It's about various Swedes who go to Thailand (independently of each other) for various reasons. Most of the issues you might expect to be raised come up at one point or another, some more than others, but it's a drama rather than an essay. It's not, for instance, like Downton Abbey, where every time someone picks up a newspaper you know they will make some naive comment about historical events that we can laugh at. It's fairly realistic, in other words.

Most of the other things I might recommend are too obvious to be worth mentioning. I'll mention them anyway: Better Call Saul, Survivor, The Amazing Race, Into the Badlands (despite the appallingly humorless MK), The Handmaid's Tale, The Americans, Anthony Bourdain (the recent episode on Laos was especially good), Brockmire (the funniest TV show I've seen in ages), Gomorrah, etc. Less obvious, as far as I know, are El Marginal and Departures, both on Netflix. El Marginal is about Argentine gangsters and set mostly in a prison. If you like Gomorrah (Italian gangsters) and that kind of thing you should like this. Departures is a travel documentary featuring two twenty-something Canadians (three if you count the cameraman, who sometimes becomes visible). They are no intellectuals--if I had drunk so much that I threw up I would have edited it out of the show; not these guys--but the camerawork is good and they go to some cool places. In the last season, especially, they see people in Ethiopia and Papua New Guinea whose way of life is surely not going to survive much longer, for good and bad. (Mostly for bad, I think, but then I'm not one of the women whose culture encourages them to collect scars from being whipped with sticks.)

And a new find: Samurai Gourmet (Netflix). It's sort of a cross between Iron Chef and Ikiru. A man who retires at 60 (is that the norm in Japan?) wonders what to do with himself and ends up enjoying a series of minor culinary adventures and personal growth with help from hallucinations of a samurai. Charming.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


Lalla (1320?-1390?):
I might have known how to scatter southern clouds
Dry up an ocean
Cure a leper
But I never knew how to convince a fool.
(quoted in Bonevac and Phillips, eds., Introduction to World Philosophy)

Relevant to the question of how to deal with trolls, etc.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Calling bullshit

This course on bullshit made a bit of a splash when it was first announced. Now it has actually been taught, and there are video lectures available online as well as the syllabus, FAQ, case studies, etc. Judging by the first short lecture it might not be that great, unfortunately. The first couple of minutes are basically an ad for the course and might uncharitably be classed as bull themselves. But it seems like a good idea. I'll certainly take another look, and maybe take the whole course.

I wonder how different this is from the typical college critical thinking course. It's unlike anything I've ever seen taught, but then I've never taken a course on critical thinking.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Haslanger on gender

I've presented versions of my paper "Wittgenstein and the Value of Clarity" to three different audiences now. With two it went down well, the main criticism being simply that it really had little to do with Wittgenstein. There's something to that, I think, but I still think it has something (interesting) to do with Wittgenstein. With the third it went down less well, and I want to try to think through why that might have been and whether there is anything in the paper that I should change. So the following will be mostly me thinking out loud.

One problem, I think, is that an early example that I use in the paper is 'orca' versus 'killer whale.' I suggest that 'orca' is the better term because it leaves more possibilities open, doing less to prejudge what such a creature might be like. I don't mean to suggest, though, that (what might turn out to be a fantasy of) complete neutrality is either possible or always desirable. It isn't necessarily better to call neo-Nazis "members of the 'Alt-Right'" if what they actually are is neo-Nazis. The term 'Alt-Right' might be less likely to prejudice someone, but the point of my paper is to talk about the value of clarity in communication, and terms designed to hide badness (or, really, anything else, other things being equal) do not aid clear understanding. So two things I should probably emphasize are that I am not claiming that pure neutrality or concepts that simply reflect the world as it is are possible, and that I am also not claiming that more evaluative concepts are always less desirable than less evaluative concepts.

Another thing I should probably repeat or underline is that I am not against all linguistic or conceptual innovation. As I say in the paper, although perhaps only in a footnote, sometimes a new word, expression, or idea will be clearer than the alternatives (see footnote 14, for instance). In which case, if we value clarity, we should prefer the new option.

A paper by Sally Haslanger was brought up as a possible illustration of error on my part. I think the paper is this one. As far as I can see it doesn't go against what I mean to say, although of course it might go against what I actually say if I haven't been sufficiently careful. Haslanger does make some points that I think could be useful to me in making my point(s) though, so I'm glad to know about her paper. She writes about our everyday vocabularies serving both cognitive and practical purposes, and about the possibility of developing a theory that offers "an improved understanding of our (legitimate) purposes and/or improved conceptual resources for the tasks at hand" (p. 33). One thing I aim to do in my paper is to show that some people seem to care more about practical purposes and others more about cognitive ones. I also say that I think most of us care about both such purposes, although perhaps not equally. Haslanger is a good example of someone who cares about both. (See also p. 47, where she talks about the twin goals of understanding oppression and achieving equality.) And so long as she does not want to sacrifice understanding for the sake of practical purposes (on the contrary, it seems to me that she wants to improve understanding) then she is not opposed to the side that I really try only to identify and describe but which I might seem to take against the likes of Galtung. She also talks about semantic and political conditions on "appropriating the terms of ordinary discourse," (p. 35) and the concern with the semantic condition seems to match, or at least roughly track, my concern with clarity or accuracy, while the concern with politics matches Galtung's concern (which I think is legitimate, at least as long as this kind of concern does not completely override all other concerns. And even that might be OK in extreme cases).

Haslanger does sound a little like Galtung when she says (p. 36) that "the task is to develop accounts of gender and race that will be effective tools in the fight against injustice," but she also regards it as being important (p. 36) "to provide clear conceptual categories to identify the phenomenon needing explanation, e.g., categories that identify the kind of injustice at issue and the groups subject to it." On the next page she says that "her strategy is to offer a focal analysis," and then comments that a "focal analysis undertakes to explain a variety of connected phenomena" (p. 37). So far as one's aim is to explain, rather than to obscure for political (or other) purposes, then one is on the side of people like Wittgenstein, Orwell, and Williams rather than Galtung. Haslanger's aims are not purely consequentialist. One of her implicit aims is to help us to see what is there, to enable "us to recognize significant patterns in the ways that gender is instituted and embodied" (p. 38).

She also wants to change the way we conceptualize gender differences in order to provide "resources for thinking about other (actual) genders [than man and woman], and the political possibility of constructing non-hierarchical genders" (p. 43). This rejection of limiting concepts in favor of one's that reveal extra possibilities is exactly the kind of thing whose value I am trying to show. Whether there is one best way, or right way, to do this, as Haslanger, reasonably, doubts, is not the point. The point is that it is possible to value the revelation of previously unseen possibilities through the use of one concept or set of concepts rather than another, and that such valuing might be at odds with certain practical goals. For instance, Haslanger offers a (long) definition of what it is to be a woman that makes subordination essential to the concept. (See p. 42.) Hence, "it is part of the project of feminism to bring about a day when there are no more women," as she has (re)-defined women (p. 46). This obscures the possibility of its being good to be a woman, but it does so in order to reveal sexist oppression (as well as to help end such oppression). The goal is neither obscuring reality (or possibility) as such nor the achievement of some practical goal by means of such obscuring. Haslanger's goal is far more elucidatory and emancipatory than it is obfuscatory, even if some obfuscation is an (apparently) unavoidable part of her project. (Compare my example of A, B, and C on pp. 10-11.)
Near the end of her paper, Haslanger quotes Trey Ellis who wants to be, and feel, free to call himself black, at least some of the time, rather than African-American. This kind of freedom is another aspect of what I am trying to defend, or at least acknowledge the possible value of (another thing I need to do is get clearer on exactly what I am and am not arguing for). Haslanger sympathizes with Ellis, noting that what matters is not only what words we use but "what norms and expectations are taken to be appropriate" (p. 47). Roughly speaking, context matters. I agree. What will be the clearest way to say something in one context will not be in another. I don't (think I) mean to make any claim about what is or is not clear. My point is far more about the fact that clarity/understanding is a different goal than bringing about a practical effect such as political change. Haslanger seems to agree.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Nordic Wittgenstein Review, Vol 6 No 1 forthcoming

Papers are available for preprint open review here. Authors include Anderson Luis Nakano, Camilla Kronqvist, and Elek Lane.

It looks good!