Thursday, December 20, 2018

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Is ethics a subject, part II

Here are a couple more passages from the Cora Diamond paper that I mentioned here. The first is the full paragraph from which I quoted, the second is a related footnote.

The paper is "Realism and Resolution: Reply to Warren Goldfarb and Sabina Lovibond" in the Journal of Philosophical Research, Volume XXII, 1997, pp. 75-86.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018


I wonder whether anyone has ever connected Marcel Duchamp's Fountain with Schopenhauer or Kraus, Schopenhauer writes (in The World as Will and Representation) that:
when 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 willless knowledge, and as such they are both taken out of the stream [255] of time and all other relations. It is then all one whether we see the sun set from the prison or from the palace.
Inward disposition, the predominance of knowing over willing, can produce this state under any circumstances. This is shown by those admirable Dutch artists who directed this purely objective perception to the most insignificant objects, and established a lasting monument of their objectivity and spiritual peace in their pictures of still life, which the æsthetic beholder does not look on without emotion; for they present to him the peaceful, still, frame of mind of the artist, free from will, which was needed to contemplate such insignificant things so objectively, to observe them so attentively, and to repeat this perception so intelligently; and as the picture enables the onlooker to participate in this state, his emotion is often increased by the contrast between it and the unquiet frame of mind, disturbed by vehement willing, in which he finds himself. In the same spirit, landscape-painters, and particularly Ruisdael, have often painted very insignificant country scenes, which produce the same effect even more agreeably.
He has in mind natural objects and scenes, but one might either mock or try to confirm Schopenhauer's ideas about the objective perception of insignificant objects by presenting a urinal as a work of art.

Then there's Kraus (writing in 1913):
Adolf Loos and I – he literally and I grammatically – have done nothing more than show that there is a difference between an urn and a chamber pot and that it is this distinction above all that provides culture with elbow room. 
I don't know how much Duchamp would have known about either Schopenhauer or Kraus, but Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven might have. 

Even if there is no causal chain from Schopenhauer and/or Kraus to Duchamp (or Freytag-Loringhoven or whoever submitted Fountain), one still might wonder what, if anything, Fountain says or shows about Schopenhauer's philosophy.

OK, back to grading papers.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Is ethics a subject?

Benjamin De Mesel has made me very happy by writing about me in the same breath as he writes about Cora Diamond, Lars Hertzberg, Stephen Mulhall, and James Conant. He also emphasizes that his disagreement on one point, or set of related points, does not mean that he disagrees with most of what we say on other matters, which is a nice thing that he didn't have to say. He criticizes all of us, however, for saying that "according to Wittgenstein, ethics has no particular subject matter." This view--the one he criticizes--is linked with the idea that there is no such thing as "the moral vocabulary," i.e., the limited set of words that picks out the territory of the ethical. De Mesel agrees with this idea about words, but thinks that we can identify moral uses of words instead. I'm not so sure.

The example he gives, from Cora Diamond, is Simone Weil's use of the word 'chance' in such sentences as, "It is only by chance that I was born." I agree that this sentence can be given an ethical use, that is, roughly, that it could play an important role in how someone thinks and lives. But what exactly counts as important? And how is ethical importance to be distinguished from other kinds? I am not saying that it cannot be, but I don't know how it could be. Let me (try to) explain what I mean. Suppose that ethics is a subject, i.e., about something, and we want to say what this subject is about. Specifying what ethics is about by giving a list of words might not work, but it isn't too hard to begin to imagine how the attempt might go. "Ethics is about good, evil, right, wrong, virtue, vice, duty, rights, and so on," we might say. But if we reject this idea, as De Mesel does, then what will our list of uses of words, or kinds of uses of words, look like? It surely won't be "Ethics is about uses of words to do with good, evil, right, wrong, virtue, vice, ..." But I struggle to think what it should look like instead.

De Mesel does offer a solution to this problem (on p. 87):
The only satisfying characterizations of 'moral use' one can give, I think, are those referring to a subject matter: a sentence or word is used in a moral way if it refers to what is good, or to what is absolutely good, or to what is intrinsically valuable, etc. This is the way in which I have understood 'moral use' when I said that a moral vocabulary would contain only words in their moral uses.  
But this seems problematic to me, for reasons I hope will become clear.

De Mesel goes on to argue that Wittgenstein believed that there is such a subject as ethics, on the grounds that in the Lecture on Ethics he refers to "the subject matter of ethics" and begins the lecture with the words, "My subject, as you know, is ethics..." The subject matter of ethics is, Wittgenstein says, the good. Or the important or the valuable or what all these have in common. The only way to deny that Wittgenstein believed that ethics is a subject with its own subject matter, supposedly, is to rely on the fact that the Lecture on Ethics is an early work and Wittgenstein might have changed his mind later.

I don't think this is right though. In the lecture, Wittgenstein distinguishes the ethical sense of 'good' ('right', 'valuable', etc.) from a relative or trivial sense. A hammer might be good in a trivial sense if it works well as a hammer. A plan for robbing a bank might be good if it is a plan that is likely to succeed. There is nothing particularly ethical about this. The ethical sense of 'good' is different, Wittgenstein says. It is absolute. What does that mean? Wittgenstein says: "that no description that I can think of would do to describe what I mean by absolute value" and that he "would reject every significant description that anybody could possibly suggest, ab initio, on the ground of its significance."
That is to say: I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and, I believe, the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language.
This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science.
If ethics cannot be a science can it nevertheless be a subject of some other kind? Well, maybe. But, despite what Wittgenstein says at the beginning of the lecture, by the end it is very far from clear that he thinks there really is such a subject as ethics with any subject matter that can be talked or written about without speaking or writing nonsense. It isn't so much the later Wittgenstein who denies that ethics is a subject as it is the later-in-the-lecture Wittgenstein who at least seems to think there are huge problems with thinking of ethics as a subject. (Apologies if this sounds snarky.)

On a couple of points De Mesel identifies me as the only person who has said certain things, which ought to be a good sign that I am wrong on those points (in my opinion, not his). But, again, I'm not so sure. "Only Richter has seen," he writes, "that this [i.e., that "Rather than saving moral philosophy, an exclusive focus on use makes it impossible"] is where the Diamond-Mulhall-Richter-Hertzberg-Conant argument may lead us, and he has accepted that consequence. Unfortunately, he attributes it also to Wittgenstein" (p. 88). The evidence that I do this is my saying that "Wittgenstein was right to believe that there is no special arena that could be the subject of moral philosophy or ethics" (in "Nothing to be Said," p. 254). I do think that there is no such special arena, and that Wittgenstein thought so too, but I don't think either that moral philosophy is impossible or that an exclusive focus on use makes it so. I'll say more about this below.

The other point on which I am (said to be) alone is in going from saying that ethics "is not a subject nor a particular sphere or aspect of life" to saying that "Everything is to do with ethics" ("Nothing to be Said," p. 251). This goes against Stephen Mulhall's worry that what we count as ethical could, but should not, "become capacious to the point of emptiness" ("Ethics in the Light of Wittgenstein," p. 303). This looks bad for me, I agree, and perhaps I should never have said that everything is to do with ethics (although "to do with" is pretty vague, and perhaps I can hide in that cloudiness). But in the same paper I also say that:
It is not that just anything can be given a moral application, rather that there is no limit to the ways in which moral thought might be expressed. (p. 253)
It would be a mistake to claim that just anything could be brought into a moral relation with our lives. (p. 253 as well) 
It would be a mistake, I say, not because it would be false but because it would a) be an a priori claim that one cannot really be in a position to make, and b) to make such a claim is to invite counterexamples, i.e. trouble, needlessly.

So why did I say that everything is to do with ethics? Well, I also said that this was "only a manner of speaking" (p. 251). Things I say later in the paper, including what I've quoted here, are meant to clarify what I meant.

If I have wriggled off that hook, what about the things I've said above about moral philosophy? I imply both that moral philosophy is possible and that Wittgenstein rightly thinks there is no such subject. Can I explain myself? What I think is (something like) this. Moral philosophy is certainly possible in a negative sense: we can analyze and criticize the work of moral philosophers. Wittgenstein himself did this, although I don't know whether he would have called it philosophy. We can also think about such questions as whether we ought to recognize same-sex marriages or eat meat. I count that as moral philosophy, while Wittgenstein did not seem to think that this kind of thing is really philosophy of any kind. I don't think, though, that we can work out, or prove, in some quasi-mathematical or scientific way what we ought to do. Ethics can be no science. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

One week in Beijing

Beijing is a huge, modern, and largely grey city, which I think could be a bit depressing, not to mention just plain difficult to navigate if you don't speak Mandarin. So I strongly recommend staying in an older, more human-scale neighborhood. To be precise, I recommend staying at the Orchid Hotel, but if that's not possible, at least try to be in that part of town. Why? It's a neighborhood, for one thing, with real, friendly people. It's also a short(-ish) walk from some of the best places to eat, drink, and shop. Your local pub is the best in Beijing. (They have one beer called Hidden General and another called Little General. One was my favorite and the other is way too bitter. Unfortunately, I don't remember which one's which.) A few yards from the pub is a literal hole in the wall place serving jianbing, so you can get dinner (to eat on the street) for under a dollar. They don't speak much/any English, but it's not too hard to get across that you want one jianbing, and they didn't rip me off.
My other favorite places to eat around this part of town are Mr Shi's dumplings (the dumplings are very good, but locals get the other, noodle dishes, which are cheaper and also good) and Private Kitchen 44. Part of the fun of going here is the walk to get there. You go through an area with lots of bars and restaurants serving almost exclusively Chinese people (hard to tell if they were tourists, but they certainly weren't Western tourists) and then walk along the side of a lake where locals fish and swim. It seems to be a popular spot for families and couples to walk, so there are plenty of people enjoying the sunset over the water, but it's not too crowded. And the restaurant itself is great (there is an English menu, but don't expect any of the staff to speak English).
If you like areas popular with the locals (or Chinese tourists, maybe), you should also visit Nanluoguxiang. It was always crowded when I went, but sometimes a bit of bustle is nice. And it's perfect if you want a cold, tea-based drink.
As far as sight-seeing goes, you either feel obliged to see the main sights, in which case you'll visit the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, and the Summer Palace, or you feel able to do what you think you'll actually enjoy most. In that case, I still recommend the Great Wall, but also temples, temples, temples. There are lots, and many are spectacular. The Lama Temple is possibly the most spectacular, and it's near the Orchid Hotel. 
If you want a book recommendation, try Midnight in Peking (although the murder it's about is pretty gruesome). Someone was doing free walking tours based on this book once a month when I went, so look out for those. The father of the murdered girl apparently got in trouble at the Lama Temple, where foreigners used to complain of being robbed and roughed up. It's more peaceful now, but you can maybe imagine how it used to be.

So here is an itinerary for you:

Day One: Explore the area around the hotel, possibly including the Confucian Temple, the Lama Temple, the Drum Tower, and the Bell Tower. If it's summer you'll want to shower, change, and rest before dinner after all this.

Day Two: Visit the Great Wall at Huanghuacheng.

Day Three: Get up early to visit the Forbidden City before all tickets for that day are gone. If you get in around 8 o'clock you'll be done by around 11, even if you are intent on seeing just about everything there. Then continue to the views and temples in Jingshan and Beihai parks (if you have the energy).

Day Four: Temple of Heaven and then more temples or shopping.

Day Five: Back to Tienanmen Square to visit the National Museum of China, possibly followed by one or both parks if you skipped them on day three.

Day Six: The Summer Palace.

Day Seven: Temples! Or, if you're leaving today, drop your bags at the airport and head out to the 798 art district. Or maybe go back to the Great Wall, this time at Mutianyu. Or check out the Qing or the Ming tombs.

Which temples? They are all good. Bear in mind that some are treated as museums, and museums are closed on Mondays. Which you go to is likely to depend on which ones are close to where you are and how much time you have. There is a useful list here

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

They tell one themselves

Here's a nice passage from Anscombe:
So far as I know, the only places where Wittgenstein considers the expression itself to be what it expresses are aesthetic. A musical phrase, a bed of violets: such things may strongly give one the impression that they tell one something. What is it that they tell one? They tell one themselves, not something else.
(from "Frege, Wittgenstein, and Platonism", p. 163 in the electronic version of From Plato to Wittgenstein: Essays by G. E. M. Anscombe).

Compare Schopenhauer's idea of all phenomenal things as embodied music (that perhaps sing or dance themselves), and Larkin's "The trees are coming into leaf/ Like something almost being said."

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Alice Crary's Inside Ethics: a symposium

There's a wonderful set of discussions of Alice Crary's book Inside Ethics here. It features Avner Baz, Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen, Nora Hämäläinen, and Stanley Hauerwas, among others, with replies by Crary. 

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Books by friends of the blog

Sean Wilson and Stuart Mirsky, who you may know from the comments section here, have books either out or coming out soon.

New Critical Thinking

What Wittgenstein Offered


Ludwig Wittgenstein changed everything. To understand how, we need to understand what he did to the subject of critical reasoning. 

Wittgenstein didn’t leave us “philosophy”; he left a pathway for a more perspicuous intellect. This was caused by a psychological condition that made him meticulous and hypersensitive. He could abnormally perceive three natural phenomena: (a) the social traits implicated in word use; (b) the task-functions signified in communication; and (c) the pictures that flash before the mind’s eye. With this unique acuity, he showed us how post-analytic thinking was to occur. 

And this discovery changes everything. It revolutionizes how we must argue with one another and what we believe is “true.” Instead of focusing primarily upon premises or facts, we must point people to how their intellect behaves during a speech act—something called “therapy.” And this has radical implications for analysis, conceptual investigation, value judgments, political ideology, ethics and even religion. 

This book is both an explanation of, and a blueprint for, the new critical thinking. Written for both a lay and special audience, and for all fields of study, it shows what Wittgenstein invented and how it affects us all.
 Value and Representation: Three Essays Exploring the Implications of a Pragmatic Epistemology for Moral Thought 
by Stuart W. Mirsky
Consisting of three essays examining the role of valuation in assertoric discourse, and its implications for epistemology, value theory and moral philosophy, this book explores the ways in which valuation enables referential behavior and so makes it possible to live and operate within a world. Examining the different dimensions of valuational activity, it situates moral concerns within a broader constellation of human behavior to show how our moral judgments arise and attain credibility in a world of facts. 

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Forthcoming sooner than November

Wittgenstein in the 1930s
Between the Tractatus and the Investigations

  • AVAILABILITY: Not yet published - available from November 2018
  • FORMAT: Hardback
  • ISBN: 9781108425872
Wittgenstein's 'middle period' is often seen as a transitional phase connecting his better-known early and later philosophies. The fifteen essays in this volume focus both on the distinctive character of his teaching and writing in the 1930s, and on its pivotal importance for an understanding of his philosophy as a whole. They offer wide-ranging perspectives on the central issue of how best to identify changes and continuities in his philosophy during those years, as well as on particular topics in the philosophy of mind, religion, ethics, aesthetics, and the philosophy of mathematics. The volume will be valuable for all who are interested in this formative period of Wittgenstein's development.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Wittgenstein between the Tractatus and the investigations David G. Stern
Part I. Changes and Continuities in Wittgenstein's Philosophy:
1. Wittgenstein and Moore on grammar David G. Stern
2. Wittgenstein on understanding: language, calculus and practice Alois Pichler
3. Wittgenstein on sentence-hypotheses and certainty Mauro L. Engelmann
4. Wittgenstein on meaning, use and linguistic commitment Anna Boncompagni
5. Will there soon be skilful philosophers? Wittgenstein on himself, his work, and the state of civilization in 1930 Wolfgang Kienzler
6. Wittgenstein and his students:
1929–33 James C. Klagge
Part II. Philosophy of Mind:
7. From Moore's lecture notes to Wittgenstein's Blue Book Hans Sluga
8. 'Two kinds of use of 'I'': the middle Wittgenstein on 'I' and the self William Child
9. Wittgenstein on rules and the mental Volker A. Munz
Part III. Religion, Ethics, and Aesthetics:
10. Wittgenstein's discussion of 'use of such a word as 'God'' Anat Biletzki
11. Wittgenstein on ethics, May 1933 Duncan Richter
12. Wittgenstein on aesthetic normativity and grammar Hanne Appelqvist
13. Wittgenstein's remarks on aesthetics and their context Joachim Schulte
Part IV. Philosophy of Mathematics:
14. Moore's notes and Wittgenstein's philosophy of mathematics: the case of mathematical induction Warren Goldfarb
15. Wittgenstein, Goodstein and the origin of the uniqueness rule for primitive recursive arithmetic Mathieu Marion and Mitsuhiro Okada.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

World Congress of Philosophy

One of the high points of the recent World Congress of Philosophy in Beijing was hearing Hans Sluga talk through the PowerPoint slideshow I blogged about here. Unfortunately I didn't get to ask him any questions, but I did have a couple of new thoughts about it. On slide 19 he talks about metaphysics as a "stage of development" that is to be overcome, according to Schopenhauer. I don't know of anyone else who reads Schopenhauer like this, but it's an exciting suggestion. (Reminiscent of j's suggestion here, if I'm remembering correctly, that the four books of The World as Will and Representation might correspond with the four noble truths of Buddhism. These aren't just (meant to be) truths, they are something like stages on life's way. If Buddhism is right then we escape the first truth (suffering) and end up in the fourth (Nirvana).) I hadn't really noticed this before.

My second new thought is about the idea of a world ethics (see slide 41). Since the world is not (at all) the same thing as the planet, I don't quite see how we get from a world ethics to environmental ethics. It feels as though there could be a route from one to the other, but I'd be interested to know how far Sluga has mapped this. After all, say my world ethics is that whatever happens I should accept it, letting God's will be done. Then if the planet is destroyed this will be just another thing that I (believe I ought to) accept. A world-accepter will not be likely to destroy the planet, but also won't have any obvious reason (qua world-accepter) to try to prevent environmental destruction. So it looks as though there is work to be done here.

After Sluga's talk was one by Ruth Chang on three dogmas of normativity. I'm not quite sure how to characterize the second dogma, but the three dogmas are something like this:
  1. goodness is a property
  2. all states of affairs are comparable with regard to their goodness, so that each must be as good as, worse than, or better than any other. Incomparability (with regard to goodness) is not an option
  3. values are discovered, not created
I think what I've written for 1 and 3 are direct quotes (albeit from a talk rather than from a fully polished written work), but I'm not sure about 2. Anyway, Chang (if I understood her rightly) rejects all three. Very interesting stuff.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Inside Ethics

Alice Crary's Inside Ethics: On the Demands of Moral Thought is an excellent book, and I have no criticisms to offer. But I do have some questions about it. First, though, a summary of the argument, in the form of a series of quotations:
Human beings and animals have moral qualities that are, in a straightforward empirical sense, open to view. That is the thesis of this book. (p. 10)
I describe thinkers who take human beings and/or animals to lack all observable moral characteristics as situating human beings and/or animals outside ethics, and I describe those who in contrast take human beings and/or animals to have moral characteristics that are open to observation as situating human beings and/or animals inside ethics. (pp. 11-12) 
It is entirely standard to conceive of ‘moral’ values [...] as values that are internally related to action and choice, and thus far in this chapter I have simply assumed that my talk of human and animal ‘moral’ characteristics would be read as implying—as I intend it to imply—that the recognition that a creature has these characteristics is practically significant in the sense of being directly relevant to how it should be treated. (p. 13)
There are passages in his later work in which Wittgenstein gives expression to a view of mind of the sort I want to defend (viz., a view on which psychological categories are irreducibly ethical and metaphysically transparent), and his writings also develop interrelated lines of reasoning that, when brought together, can be used to make a compelling case for such a view. (p. 39)
Mental characteristics are only at home in human and animal lives in which some things matter in that they are, say, to-be-feared, to-be-sought, to-be eaten, to-be-protected, or to-be-befriended. Our ability to recognize creatures as possessing such characteristics presupposes that we have already at least imaginatively adopted an attitude toward them as beings who are caught up in such lives and who accordingly, in appropriate circumstances, merit specific modes of concern and attention. It is in this respect, insofar as they are aspects of the lives of creatures who call for particular forms of response, that the mental characteristics of human beings and animals are essentially practical. Given that they are thus both objective and essentially practical, it is fair to say that these characteristics present us with objective moral values. (p. 88)
[I]n ruling out conceptuality we commit ourselves to representing any natural or learned canine responses as operating on (or triggered by) particulars. We cannot talk about modes of conduct that involve the recognition of kinds of things or of individuals. This is what speaks for attributing conceptual capacities to dogs. (p. 113)
[I]f we are to bring human beings and animals empirically into view in ethics, then— without regard to whether they possess species-typical capacities of mind—we need to look at them in the light of ethical conceptions of what matters in the lives of members of their kinds. That is what speaks [...] for saying [...] that merely being a human or an animal matters for ethics. (p. 161) 
[L]iterary works can contribute internally to the kind of empirical understanding that we seek in ethics (p. 204) 
One striking feature of the book is its similarity to, and engagement with, regular philosophy. That might not sound striking, but Crary somehow both draws heavily on Wittgenstein and engages in what looks very much like the kind of philosophical theorizing that he rejects. I can't help feeling that this is a sign that something must have gone wrong, but I also can't see that it matters. This is not a good position for me to be in. So my first question is, what should I do about this? I'll attempt a kind of answer below.

Secondly, Crary distinguishes between two kinds of facts in a way that puzzles me. This comes up especially in the last chapter of the book. For instance, see these passages about Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals:
To arrive at this recognition we need to know some of the plain facts about what this system [i.e., the industrial food system] is like. These facts have in recent years gotten attention in, among other places, non-fiction best sellers, blogs, and the columns of major newspapers, and they are increasingly familiar to the reading public. Safran Foer takes it for granted that his readers will know the basics about factory farms, and he devotes himself to filling in some of the details. For instance, when he talks about the treatment of those chickens who are raised for meat—or, in the industry lingo, “broilers”—he tells us not only that the birds are packed together in close quarters but also that they are generally placed in windowless sheds by the tens of thousands at densities that allow each bird on average something less than a square foot of floor space; he tells us not only that these conditions quickly become filthy and produce illness but that they lead to respiratory disease, musculoskeletal injury, and enormously high rates of infections of different kinds (including some like E. coli that are caused by fecal contamination); he tells us not only that the birds therefore all get antibiotics in their feed but also that their bodies are routinely bathed in chlorine to decontaminate them after slaughter; he tells us not only that many chickens are injured when being packed for transport to slaughter but also that approximately 30 percent suffer broken bones, that they receive no further food or water once under way, and that they are slaughtered by a mechanical process that, when it works correctly, slits their throats while they are still conscious and, in the small but significant number of cases in which it doesn’t, scalds them alive; and so on and so on.
When Safran Foer discusses the treatment of broiler chickens, he isn’t merely concerned with these kinds of neutral facts. He is taking for granted the ethically charged image he develops of the significance of different animals’ lives and using it to get us to register the horror of what is done to the birds. One of his goals is to have us visualize what it means for a chicken to be crammed into a room with tens of thousands of its fellows, with no more than about an eighth of a square foot to itself. “Find a piece of printer paper and imagine a full-grown bird shaped something like a football with legs standing on it,” he instructs, “and imagine 33,000 of these rectangles in a grid.” He uses evocative language in talking about the kind of ailments from which many of these chickens suffer because he wants us to register the bodily significance of the fact that a small percentage of the birds “die writhing in convulsions from sudden death syndrome” and that three quarters have the sorts of walking impairments that are in all likelihood signs of chronic pain. He uses similarly expressive terms in talking about the ways in which the birds are treated during transportation to slaughter and during the killing process because he also wants us to register horrors here. Workers are, he explains, expected to crate chickens so quickly that they “will regularly feel the birds’ bones snapping in their hands.” Moreover, “often the screaming of the birds and the flapping of their wings will be so loud that workers won’t be able to hear the person next to them on the line,” and “often the birds will defecate in pain and terror.” It is in this way—by moving from his effort, early in the book, to get us to see that animals matter to evocative descriptions of the handling of broiler chickens in the industrial food system—that Safran Foer positions us to see the awful callousness of the birds’ treatment. (pp. 262-263)
Crary contrasts plain or neutral facts with ethically charged expressive terms and evocative descriptions. This sounds like a contrast between ways of saying what the facts are more than a contrast between two kinds of facts, and perhaps this is what she means. But I'm also not sure about where the contrast is. When she talks about "these kinds of neutral facts" does she mean both such facts as that "birds are packed together in close quarters" and that "they are generally placed in windowless sheds by the tens of thousands at densities that allow each bird on average something less than a square foot of floor space"? Or is the former a neutral fact while the latter is ethically charged? As these paragraphs are written it looks as though the stuff about birds having their throats slit while still conscious and in some cases being scalded alive are (supposedly) neutral facts while their dying while writhing in convulsions is either a different kind of fact (an ethically charged one) or else a different kind of presentation of a fact (an evocative one). I agree that there is a difference in kind between the bland statement that chickens are packed together in close quarters and the statement that the screaming and flapping of the birds is so loud that workers cannot hear the person next to them. But both, I take it, are equally facts. 

The first paragraph quoted above contains a series of "not only...but also" pairs of facts, and it seems to me genuinely unclear whether Crary means that everything in the paragraph is a plain or neutral fact (which is what the words "these kinds of neutral facts" in the first sentence of the next paragraph seem to imply) or whether the "not only" facts are plain/neutral and the "but also" ones are ethically charged. That would make more sense to me. But the difference seems more one of degree than of kind. One of the "not only" facts involves reference to filthy conditions that produce disease. That isn't as evocative as the fact about routine chlorine baths for decontamination, but it's at least somewhat evocative. And this matters because the inside/outside ethics distinction that gives the book its title has to do with this distinction between neutral facts and (what I think Crary never calls) ethical facts. 

A difference of degree is still a difference, but I wonder whether there's a tension, and whether this matters, between Crary's distinction between outside and inside ethics (between neutral facts and non-neutral facts) and her view that ethically relevant facts are empirically discoverable. Here's a possibility: those who situate humans and/or animals outside ethics believe that there are neutral facts, or perhaps rather that there is a space of neutral facts with no essential or internal connection to ethical facts; those who situate humans and/or animals inside ethics deny that there is such a space or, if there is one, that humans and/or animals exist within it. (The latter might think, for instance, that mathematics or physics is a kind of conceptual space in which the facts are neutral, but that in this space there are no people or animals.) In this case, from the inside ethics perspective, the distinction between neutral and ethical (non-neutral) facts is only relative at most. So in the passages quoted above about Safran Foer we need to read in words such as 'relatively' and 'supposedly' whenever anything is described as neutral or evocative or morally charged. Because all the facts mentioned there are morally charged to some extent. This, it seems to me, is in fact the case, i.e. it is the case, and not only "from the inside ethics point of view." 

I can't (be bothered (here and now) to) explain how or why, but I think this shows the outside ethics position to be not just false but nonsensical. It is a 'position' that is committed to the existence of a way of making sense of human and/or animal life that does not exist. And what I suspect is that all of Crary's book has to be read in a kind of as-if spirit. The various 'theories' that she shows to be 'wrong' are, in fact, not even possibly correct. But she talks about them as if they might be. And the 'theories' that she shows to be better are in fact a (possibly misleading) representation of the only way we can, or at least do, make sense of the phenomena in question. Thus, for instance, there is not really "a view of mind" to which Wittgenstein gives expression and which Crary endorses. Rather, there is the way (or ways) we talk about and understand the concept of mind (or a whole bunch of concepts related to mind). I haven't spelled it out, but somewhere in this, I believe, is the answer to my first question about theories and Wittgenstein. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The philosophy of Agatha Christie

This is Amy Leatheran in Murder in Mesopotamia, channeling Schopenhauer:
Somehow, the more I get older, and the more I see of people and sadness and illness and everything, the sorrier I get for everyone. Sometimes, I declare, I don't know what's becoming of the good, strict principles my aunt brought me up with. A very religious woman she was, and most particular. There wasn't one of our neighbours whose faults she didn't know backwards and forwards...

Monday, August 6, 2018

Forthcoming 2


This collection examines the relationship between Augustine and Wittgenstein and demonstrates the deep affinity they share, not only for the substantive issues they treat but also for the style of philosophizing they employ. Wittgenstein saw certain salient Augustinian approaches to concepts like language-learning, will, memory, and time as prompts for his own philosophical explorations, and he found great inspiration in Augustine’s highly personalized and interlocutory style of writing philosophy. Each in his own way, in an effort to understand human experience more fully, adopts a mode of philosophizing that involves questioning, recognizing confusions, and confronting doubts. Beyond its bearing on such topics as language, meaning, knowledge, and will, their analysis extends to the nature of religious belief and its fundamental place in human experience. The essays collected here consider a broad range of themes, from issues regarding teaching, linguistic meaning, and self-understanding to miracles, ritual, and religion. « less


Wittgenstein, Religion and Ethics

New Perspectives from Philosophy and Theology

Editor(s): Mikel Burley
Media of Wittgenstein, Religion and Ethics
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Table of contents

Notes on Contributors

Introduction: Wittgenstein, Religion and Ethics: Seeing the Connections, Mikel Burley (University of Leeds, UK)
1. The Early Wittgenstein on Ethical Religiousness as a Dispositional Attitude, Chon Tejedor (University of Hertfordshire, UK)
2. 'The Problem of Life': Later Wittgenstein on the Difficulty of Honest Happiness, Gabriel Citron (Princeton University, USA)
3. Wittgenstein and the Study of Religion: Beyond Fideism and Atheism, Mikel Burley (University of Leeds, UK)
4. Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard and Chalcedon, Rowan Williams (University of Cambridge, UK)
5. On the Very Idea of a Theodicy, Genia Schönbaumsfeld (University of Southampton, UK)
6. Wittgenstein, Analogy and Religion in Mulhall's The Great Riddle, Wayne Proudfoot (Columbia University, USA)
7. Riddles, Nonsense and Religious Language, Stephen Mulhall (University of Oxford, UK)
8. Wittgenstein and the Distinctiveness of Religious Language, Michael Scott (University of Manchester, UK)
9. Number and Transcendence: Wittgenstein and Cantor, John Milbank (University of Nottingham, UK)
10. What Have I Done?, Sophie Grace Chappell (The Open University, UK)
11. Wittgenstein and the Value of Clarity, Duncan Richter (Virginia Military University, USA)



“The essays gathered in this book address in fresh and exciting ways topics central to philosophy of religion, religious ethics, and theology. Anyone interested in those fields will want to read it, as will anyone interested in Wittgenstein. Not only does the collection show the continuing importance and interest of Wittgenstein as a philosopher in his own right, it offers fascinating dialogues between Wittgenstein and major contemporary philosophers and theologians, and it convincingly demonstrates the value to contemporary philosophy and theology of Wittgenstein's approach. Mikel Burley is to be congratulated on gathering together such a stellar list of contributors. This book will be an invaluable reference point for future discussions.” –  Andrew Moore, Research Fellow, University of Oxford, UK

Monday, July 2, 2018

Nordic Wittgenstein Review

Vol 7 No 1 is out now. I feel as though I say this every time, but this really does look like an especially interesting issue.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Sluga on Wittgenstein and Schopenhauer

Here, pointed out by Daniel Lindquist, is a PowerPoint slideshow by Hans Sluga on Wittgenstein and "the world" in the Tractatus.

Some thoughts:

On slide 9, Sluga quotes Wittgenstein saying that he "could now just as well start [the] Tractatus with a sentence in which 'lamp' occurs, instead of 'world'." This reminds me of the following remark in Wittgenstein's Notebooks:
If I have been contemplating the stove, and then am told: but now all you know is the stove, my result does indeed seem trivial. For this represents the matter as if I had studied the stove as one among the many things in the world. But if I was contemplating the stove it was my world, and everything else colourless by contrast with it.
It also makes me think of remarks about this kind of idea in Eli Freidlander's paper "Missing a Step Up the Ladder," including passages like this:
I take Wittgenstein’s claim in 6.421 that “Ethics and Aesthetics are one and the same” to suggest that works of art readily provide us a model of this dimension of experience [i.e., the "experience of the particular thing as significant in itself"]. Let me briefly suggest features of the aesthetic that echo our attempt to clarify the dimension of agreement as such. We tend to speak of beauty as a field of significant experience, or experience that in itself presents a face of value. It gives us a way to conceive of the experience of significance as pertaining to a particular (or as concentrated in a particular place), while at the same time all-encompassing. Even if there are many paintings I appreciate, I do not appreciate a painting as one among many. My aesthetic judgment does not involve choice or comparison to other objects under a common concept. Rather, a work demands my undivided attentiveness. Arguably also, the field of aesthetic experience is not partitioned by a contrast between the valuable and the valueless. Weak aspects of a painting will make it weak and would not coexist in our experience with what is valuable. And a judgment which appreciates a work does not do so by setting the positive in it against the negative in that very work. We do not judge a work by eventually recognizing that, all in all, it has more of the good in it than of the bad. Finally the activity of judging is not preparatory to enjoyment of the work. In it we come to agree with the work. Such atunement is its own reward and one’s obtuseness to the work is in itself punishment. 
In the Notebooks Wittgenstein pursues the connection between ethics and aesthetics in the following terms: “The work of art is the object seen sub specie aeternitatis; and the good life is the world seen sub specie aeternitatis. This is the connection between art and ethics” (N, 83). The expression “seeing something sub specie aeternitatis,” is notoriously mysterious, and tempts us to various pictures of a God’s eye view of things. But, Wittgenstein really rehearses the distinction between seeing something in the midst of others, and seeing it as a unique, i.e. as a world: “The usual way of looking at things sees objects as it were from the midst of them, the view sub specie aeternitatis from outside. In such a way that they have the whole world as background” (N, 83). When we consider objects from the midst of them, we conceive of them as comparable to one another, thus as things among others. But seeing something with “the whole world as background” is agreeing with it as such, whatever or however it is.  
That is (among much else that is said here), an object (e.g., a lamp) can be seen as a world. Compare Schopenhauer, according to whom in aesthetic experience:

we no longer consider the where, the when, the why, and the whither in things, but simply and solely the what. Further, we do not let abstract thought, the concepts of reason, take possession of our consciousness, but instead of all this, devote the whole power of our mind to perception, sink ourselves completely therein, and let our whole consciousness be filled by the calm contemplation of the natural object actually present, whether it be a landscape, a tree, a rock, a crag, a building, or anything else. We lose ourselves entirely in this object, to use a pregnant expression; in other words, we forget our individuality, our will, and continue to exist only as pure subject, as clear mirror of the object, so that it is as though the object alone existed without anyone to perceive it, and thus we are no longer able to separate the perceiver from the perception, but the two have become one. … What is thus known is no longer the individual thing as such, but the Idea … at the same time, the person who is involved in the perception is no longer an individual, for in such perception the individual has lost himself; he is pure will-less, painless, timeless subject of knowledge … It was this that was in Spinoza’s mind when he wrote ‘mens aeterna est, quatenus res sub aeternitatis specie concipit’ (Ethics, V, prop. 31, schol.) (WWR vol. I, pp 178-79)

On slide 24 Sluga lists "A sense of feeling guilty whatever one has done" as one of the three main experiences that Wittgenstein writes about in the Lecture on Ethics. I think he only mentions feeling guilty, though, rather than feeling guilty no matter what one has done. This might not matter, but Sluga goes on (in slide 25) to link Wittgenstein's three experiences with key Christian beliefs, in this case belief in original sin. And he contrasts Wittgenstein's alleged Christianity with Schopenhauer's Buddhism. But I think Wittgenstein is less Christian than this suggests, and Schopenhauer is more Christian. Sluga summarizes Schopenhauer's belief with the slogan "I am Thou", but this doesn't seem so different from Wittgenstein's ethics. To live with the world seen sub specie aeternitatis seems to require agreement between self and other. (This might not be un-Christian, but it doesn't seem particularly Christian rather than Jewish, say, or more Christian than Schopenhauer is.)

On slide 41, Sluga writes that, "Wittgenstein, together with Schopenhauer, shows us that ethics in [the] broadest sense calls for philosophical reflection on the world or rather on how we see the world, what picture we have of it and our place in it. He contrasts this view of ethics with ethics concerned with the self, with interpersonal relations, and with social and political ethics.

Here's an example of what I think is the Wittgenstein/Schopenhauer kind of ethics. In M. O'C. Drury's recollections of conversations with Wittgenstein (p. 143 of Rush Rhees, ed. Ludwig Wittgenstein: Personal Recollections), Drury reports:
This morning the local fishermen had landed on the pier a large catch of mackerel. The usual brilliant colouring of fish just out of the sea, some of them still half alive.
WITTGENSTEIN: (in a low voice) "Why don't they leave them in the sea! I know fish are caught in the most horrible way, and yet I continue to eat fish."
Wittgenstein himself did not live up to his ideal, but this seems like a fairly clear case of what that ideal implies. That is, Wittgenstein appears to be confessing to a failing or imperfection in his own behavior, at least as he sees things. The fish should be left in the sea. Not because they have rights or because they suffer when caught or because the sight of their being caught is ugly. Perhaps there is no because. To the extent that there is, it is because their being caught (at least in the way that they are caught, dragged out of the sea en masse in a net) is manifestly horrible (and unnecessary). I realize I am not really showing how I think one gets from what Sluga and Friedlander say to not eating fish, but I do think this is where one would end up if one followed Wittgenstein's thinking on ethics all the way.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Concise Anscombe

The Encyclopedia of Concise Concepts by Women Philosophers is now online. I don't know how much content it has so far, but it will grow. One thing it includes is a short article on Anscombe's Intention.

On the radio

I can't bring myself to listen to it, but I was interviewed for With Good Reason recently, and it's available here. I think it's mostly about teaching ethics, but there could be some Wittgenstein in there too.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The humanities again

A friend has called this essay "smart, passionate, and research-driven." (Why mention that it's passionate?) Anyway, I could resist responding by secretly blogging my disagreement, but I won't.

In the essay, Eric Hayot, Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature and Asian Studies at Penn State, takes a careful (or at least careful-looking to me) look at some of the numbers involved in the state of the humanities in American universities and colleges. He points out, for instance, that "the low point of humanities degrees as a percentage of overall degrees came not in 2014–15 but in 1985–86," which suggests fluctuation rather than the crisis or steady decline that we often hear about. On the other hand, he also delivers some seemingly very bad news: "At many institutions the decline in humanities majors since 2010 is over 50%, a phrase that I can barely bring myself not to italicize, put in all capital letters, and surround with flashing lights." This is all interesting, and he gives some plausible suggestions about why it is happening. So far, so smart and research-driven. But then we get to his proposed solutions.

At the undergraduate level he has four (for programs at the graduate level his suggestion is: "unless you are placing most of your students in the professorial jobs for which you are training them, you need to rethink what you are doing"):

1. teach the humanities, not the disciplines
2. experiment with courses, departments, and programs
3. don't give up on the students
4. justify and explain what we do

I'm probably not going to argue that we should give up on the students, but otherwise I have a lot of disagreement to express.

Here's the first half of what Hayot says about teaching the humanities rather than disciplines:
The data suggest that enrollments in the humanities are falling far more slowly than the number of majors, because, I suspect, of the continuing appeal of humanistic questions: What is friendship? What does it mean to have a good life? What is justice? How do feelings work? Does history have meaning? Are we alone in the universe? What does it feel like to be a migrant? Students are less interested—as far as I can tell—in topical courses that promise coverage of a geographic region or historical period, in courses like The Modern Novel or Medieval Europe.
Students also like classes that tell them how to do things—how to eradicate world poverty; how to live a satisfying life; how to create political change. None of these would be strictly history or English or philosophy. I think that’s a feature, not a bug: my guess is that the humanities are going to survive by expanding and extending their general interdisciplinarity, by realizing that the separation of disciplines produces appeals to certain kinds of expertise that at this point may not be enough to retain our traditional audiences. Our market has changed; we probably need to change with it.
That's my emphasis. Things are not so research-driven here. The questions in the first paragraph are philosophy, philosophy, philosophy, philosophy/psychology, philosophy, physics/biology, and possibly literature. Not "the humanities," exactly. The things in the second paragraph that students want to know how to do are things that, roughly speaking, no one knows how to do. How (and whether) we can eradicate world poverty is a question of economics. How (and whether) we ought to try to do so is a question of philosophy (specifically the branch of political philosophy concerned with distributive justice). How to live a satisfying life is either psychology or philosophy (specifically ethics). How to create political change is something you might learn in a politics course, although if you're hoping to learn how to change the world rather than how to change one particular policy or law then you are likely to be disappointed. So far as Hayot's suspicions are right, they suggest that students should be offered a lot more philosophy and social science courses, not general interdisciplinarity.

Under suggestion #2, Hayot recommends courses like some that have proved very popular at Penn State and Harvard. But how to make a course popular is a bit of a mystery, and probably has to do with individual charisma, which some of us just don't have. (The Harvard course he mentions is the one on which this book is based, which, once again, is a philosophy course.) Here is most of the rest of what he says under this heading:
Making the kind of curricular changes I’m proposing is difficult because of institutional inertia. Who would approve the courses? Under what rubrics would they be taught? Here faculty members and administrators need to work together to create experiments in departments and programs. What if, for instance, a dean offered a group of faculty members (let’s say ten to fifteen) who could make a viable proposal the opportunity to create a new humanistic program focused on undergraduate education? What if those faculty members could spend five years, supported with a course release or two and a bit of research money, working to create new courses that would either answer the big questions or introduce students to majors in a broad and appealing way?
Of course such a thing might not work! But what we have now is not working either. It would be really great if we could populate the country (or the world) with experiments like this, knowing that we can all learn from their successes and failures and copy from them what makes a difference.
This will never happen. And not only because of institutional inertia. I've already explained why there is good reason to think Hayot is barking up the wrong tree. Believing this to be the case is not mere inertia. Even if one agreed with him, as many non-philosophers in the humanities, I think, would, there is no way that people would be given that amount of time and money and course releases to develop a new program. (I was involved in the design of a new program at my school. We were given one summer to do it.) And what do you do if, as seems likely (given the nature of experiments), the experiment does not work? Anything you undid cannot easily be brought back, anything done cannot easily be undone, and what do you do with any undergraduate majors in your new, failed program? It's a recipe for disaster. What works in one school will not necessarily work in another, either (nor will what fails at one school necessarily fail at another), so there is a limited amount of learning from others that can be done.

Hayot's third suggestion, the sure to be controversial "Don't give up on students", is about teaching. We should, he implies, expect less of them than we have in the past because students are reading and writing less before they get to college. And we should take teaching more seriously than we do (at schools that do not take it seriously) in tenure and promotions decisions. It's hard to disagree with this. There's no point blaming students for what others have failed to teach them (because of government insistence on standardized testing, etc.). And teaching is obviously important. But it's also very hard to measure good teaching, as Hayot seems to recognize, and many schools (e.g., mine) already care a lot about teaching when it comes to hiring, tenure, and promotion.

Finally, Hayot says that:
Every single class in the humanities should include some discussion about what the humanities are and why they’re worth something; it might even include information about salaries and employment issues, since our students (and their parents) often care about those a great deal.    
I disagree with this, because I disagree with his idea of the humanities. That idea seems essentially to be that people with PhDs in English (and maybe some related fields, such as Comparative Literature) should teach courses in philosophy (and maybe some other fields, related to the topic of the course), because that's what students seem to want. I do believe that English is worth something. As is Comparative Literature. As is history. But if the humanities is what Hayot seems to think it is then I'm not at all sure that it has much, if any, value. People with expertise in literature should teach literature. People with expertise in rhetoric should teach rhetoric. And so on. By all means let's offer a mix of humanities courses and respond (to some extent) to what students seem to want to learn. But if that's philosophy or economics or politics let's say so, and act accordingly. "General interdisciplinarity" is another name for mush, for the unqualified teaching students presumed too ignorant to know that their teachers lack the relevant expertise. "Let the blind lead the blind" is no way to save anything.