Thursday, December 17, 2020

Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard

UPDATED: It looks as though this paper ("The philosopher and the reader: Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein on love and philosophical method" by Anne‐Marie Søndergaard Christensen) is now not freely available online. It figures out things I've tried, and failed, to figure out, and then adds more. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

New Perspectives on Wittgenstein on Expression

This is nothing to do with me, but it looks really interesting:

Call for Workshop Participants/Special Issue: New Perspectives on Wittgenstein on Expression

Organizers: Michael Campbell (Centre for Ethics, Pardubice); Lynette Reid (Dalhousie)

Advisors/participants: David Cockburn (Lampeter); Lars Hertzberg (Åbo Akademi)

We invite applications for participation for a virtual workshop on Ludwig Wittgenstein's use of the concept of expression and related notions, centered around the question of the integration of what was formerly presented as Part I and Part II of the Investigations. (See the workshop format below.)

A pivotal difficulty for what is in earlier editions presented as Part II of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is the question that launches II.x: “how did we ever come to use such an expression as ‘I believe…’?”. The discussion that follows moves from the concept of belief to the phenomena of aspect-perception and the possibility of meaning-blindness, to aesthetic taste and judgement. These discussions of distinctive experiences are intended to enable us to “shift for ourselves” (II.xi, p. 206) when confused about expression and meaning. Wittgenstein frames his investigations into aspect seeing and related phenomena as training ground for navigating the complexity of the dual face of expression: in making an assertion, I say something about the world and, in so doing, express my own state of mind.

Wittgenstein’s comments about aspect seeing and meaning blindness have intrinsic interest as investigations of human experiences of meaning, and some construe them as a distinct project, one that stands apart from Wittgenstein’s concerns with language and logic. However, a number of considerations speak against this bifurcation. Peter Winch pointed out (1996/2001) that the Necker cube discussion in the Tractatus is a comment on Wittgenstein’s analysis of Russell’s theory of judgment, a move echoed in the ordering of Moore’s paradox about belief and the aspect-seeing discussions of the traditional Part II of the Investigations. Lars Hertzberg (1992) argued that Wittgenstein’s interest in primitive reactions straddles—and undermines—the distinction between logic and anthropology. More recently, Hugh Knott (2017) presents historical and exegetical evidence that, from the Blue and Brown Books onwards, Wittgenstein saw his discussion of aspect seeing as an intrinsic culmination of his treatment of language and logic.

An utterance may express both a proposition (a claim about the world; capable of being true or false) and something about the person making the utterance (at least, their belief, or some closely related characterization of the person or their point of view). Two questions then arise: what is the nature of the relation between the sign and what is expressed by it, since these things appear to be of entirely different orders?; and what is the relation between these two expressive functions of an utterance—how does the meaning of an utterance relate to the one who makes it, their person or their point of view? These questions and the presuppositions that give rise to them exercised Wittgenstein throughout his life.

We invite papers that explore how the discussions of aspect seeing help us “shift for ourselves when we encounter conceptual difficulties” that arise in, and in reflection on, our practices of expressing and attributing inner states, and of seeing things as meaningful or meaningless.

Questions could include, for example:

•       How do we characterize challenges in the attribution of belief across historical, conceptual, cultural, scientific and political change? (Cf. Diamond 1999, 2012)

•       Is there philosophically significant variety we have been ignoring in what it is for one person to respond to another person as believing something—or in what it is to believe another person—in different contexts?

•       What should we retain and what should we discard from the Tractatus view of the “enormously complicated” “silent adjustments” necessary “to understand colloquial language” (4.002)?

•       Does the word “expression” in the phrases “self-expression,” “expression of a thought,” and “expression of a belief” mean the same? In the phrases “expressive face” and “expressive musical passage”? Could we replace “expression” with a different word in each of these uses?

•       Can Wittgenstein’s comments cast useful light on debates concerning the doctrine of expressivism?

•       What can we learn about the question of II.x (“how did we ever come to use such an expression as ‘I believe’?”) from investigating examples of owning and disowning one’s words, avowing and disavowing beliefs or their implications?

•       Is there a connection between Wittgenstein’s early discussion of Russell’s conception of belief and his later discussion of Moore’s paradox?

•       What is the relationship between the logical and the psychological, if we are true to the particularity of uses of language in context?

•       In what sense can “making a move in a language game” characterize who a person is? What is the relationship between expression and identity?

•       How do the visual features of objects relate to the judgements which can be made about them? And, is this related to the question of how we ought to characterise the relationship between pictorial models and our understanding of the phenomena which they depict?



We intend to form a group of approximately 12-20 participants, of whom 12 will present papers (via zoom, dates and times tbc) on the topic, to be followed by discussion with the group. We envision fruitful collaboration between a diverse group of academics working to make Wittgenstein's philosophy relevant to contemporary questions, both academic and practical. Participation in all 12 sessions is not mandatory but is strongly encouraged, and we would expect participants to commit to attending a majority of the sessions. We envision approximately 12 sessions to be held over approximately 6 months, beginning in January 2021 and running until June 2021, and will do our best to come up with a schedule that suits the majority of participants.

At the end of the process, interested participants may submit their papers to a special issue of a journal devoted to the topic. (The Nordic Wittgenstein Review have expressed an interest.)

Please submit a 500 word abstract (for paper presentation) or statement of interest (for participation without presentation) to by November 27, 2020. Successful applicants will be notified by Dec 1. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to email us on and This workshop is hosted by the Centre for Ethics, at the University of Pardubice.

Christensen's "Wittgenstein and Ethics" again

I have changed my mind after reading the paper more carefully.

Here I said:

According to Wittgenstein, 
Christensen argues, ethics is "an active perspective or attitude" that structures one's view of the world in a particular way "because it concerns the world as a place in which one has to live" (p. 798). This sounds right, but it is a very broad view. Christensen immediately refers, in fact, to "the ubiquitous character of this conception," referring to Cora Diamond's work. And at the foot of the same page Christensen says that, "Our ethical attitude [...] is not just a particular view of the world; it encompasses our entire way of relating to and acting in particular circumstances." This sounds like a good description of ethics, but it doesn't seem like a definition. Something that encompasses our entire way of acting sounds like life, or at least something too big to be part of philosophy. It sounds bigger than philosophy. Christensen says  (bottom of p. 799) that Wittgenstein places ethics within the question of the meaning of life, but that he does not try to answer this question; "instead, he is simply showing us how it arises, namely in any attempt to live a human life" (p. 800). I don't know what to think about this. I don't know how one would show that ethics (or anything else) arises in any attempt to live a human life. One could try to argue that it necessarily must do so, but that doesn't sound like Wittgenstein. Or one could try to show that it just does arise in every human life, but that sounds too empirical (and too time-consuming to be practical). But I don't mean this as more than an objection, a point that might usefully be clarified. I don't mean it as an attempted refutation of Christensen's position. In fact I think she is at least partly right (and maybe completely right). Perhaps the truth is that Wittgenstein does not try to show how or that ethics arises in any attempt to live a human life but that he believes it does (and perhaps shows that he believes so in various remarks).


I think the answer lies in this passage from pp. 803-804:


Especially relevant, both to the question I wanted to ask and to the answer that Christensen implies, is the idea that “the very concept of a rational subject […] involves the possibility of will” which in turn means “it has genuine alternative options” for action. This sounds much more metaphysical and theoretical than I think of Wittgenstein as being.

But Christensen has a nice response to this kind of objection: “we use the word ‘action’ for an event that is connected to a will.” McDowell sounds unlike Wittgenstein, but he can be understood as elaborating on a simple (albeit very significant) grammatical point. So far as action implies will (which implies regarding some things as better than others), ethics will arise in any attempt to live a human life. And it’s hard to imagine trying to show that this is the case. All that can be done is to elucidate what it means.

So, eight years later, I think I’ve answered my own question. Or realized that my objection/question was ill conceived.  

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Livestream discussion of Wittgenstein's Heirs and Editors


Sunday, November 15, 2020 at 12 PM EST – 3 PM EST
Public · Hosted by Wittgenstein Initiative
Online Event
Wittgenstein’s Heirs and Editors (Cambridge University Press 2020). A thrilling story of philosophical inheritance
Livestream Discussion Panel from 17:00 GMT, Q&A starting at 19:00 GMT on Wittgenstein Initiative on YouTube. The video recording will be later permanently available.
If you wish to ask your questions directly during the Livestream, please let us know at You will be sent the Chat ID a day before the Livestream starts. Please pay attention to your time zone when scheduling the chat!
James Conant (University of Chicago, Universität Leipzig)
Christian Erbacher (Universität Siegen, author of Wittgenstein’s Heirs and Editors, Cambridge University Press 2020)
Allan Janik (Forschungsinstitut Brenner Archiv, Universität Innsbruck)
Ray Monk (University of Southampton, author of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The Duty of Genius)
David Stern (University of Iowa, editor of Cambridge Elements. The Philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein)
Ludwig Wittgenstein is one of the most widely read philosophers of the twentieth century. But the books in which his philosophy was published – with the exception of his early work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus – were posthumously edited from the writings he left to posterity. How did his 20,000 pages of philosophical writing become published volumes? Using extensive archival material, this book reconstructs and examines the way in which Wittgenstein’s writings were edited over more than fifty years, and shows how the published volumes tell a thrilling story of philosophical inheritance. The discussion ranges over the conflicts between the editors, their deviations from Wittgenstein’s manuscripts, other scholarly issues which arose, and also the shared philosophical tradition of the editors, which animated their desire to be faithful to Wittgenstein and to make his writings both available and accessible. The book can thus be read as a companion to all of Wittgenstein’s published works of philosophy. 

Monday, August 10, 2020

More Cora Diamond

 Links to her lecture "Reflections of a Dinosaur" (audio and text) are available here. (h/t dmf)

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Cora Diamond on Five Questions

I don't do podcasts, but even I enjoyed this. Kieran Setiya interviews Cora Diamond about her education, philosophical fears, thoughts on the professionalization of philosophy, etc. The link should take you to a page with all the interviews he has done so far in this series. Very interesting.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Absolute guilt

Someone is wrong. Is it me? And where does the error come from?

Here's what I'm talking about. I mentioned before that Hans Sluga, in his PowerPoint slides on "Wittgenstein's World", includes "A sense of feeling guilty whatever one has done" (slide 24) in his list of key experiences discussed by Wittgenstein in his Lecture on Ethics. In his talk on "Wittgenstein as a Liberatory Thinker" (slide 34, 48 minutes in) "I am guilty whatever I do" is quoted again, although the quotation marks might only indicate that Sluga/Wittgenstein is talking about this proposition, not that Wittgenstein used these exact words. Maria Balaska also identifies a feeling of "absolute guilt" as one of the three feelings (along with wonder at the existence of the world and a feeling of absolute safety) discussed in Wittgenstein's lecture. (She discusses this on pp. 8-9 of her very good book Wittgenstein and Lacan at the Limit: Meaning and Astonishment.) But I don't think Wittgenstein says or means absolute guilt or anything other than ordinary guilt. So someone is wrong, and I wonder where the mistake comes from.

There are multiple drafts of the Lecture on Ethics. The first, which is just some crossed out notes, does not, I think, mention guilt. The second, which is the first real draft, talks about "the experience of feeling guilty" and connects this with the expression "that God disaprooves of our conduct." The revised manuscript, which is what Wittgenstein probably presented to the Heretics, says: "A third experience of the same kind is that of feeling guilty & again this was described by the phrase that God disaprooves of our conduct." In the typescript this is cleaned up: "A third experience of the same kind is that of feeling guilty and again this was described by the phrase that God disapproves of our conduct." (All quotations from Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Lecture on Ethics, edited by Edoardo Zamuner, et al.) 

I can think of two reasons why someone might think Wittgenstein is talking about something other than the ordinary feeling of guilt here. One is that the other experiences he talks about are unusual. The first is wonder at the existence of the world, which he contrasts with ordinary wonder at the size of some dog, say. The second is feeling absolutely safe, safe no matter what happens. So one might think he must mean an unusual feeling of guilt, even if he doesn't say so explicitly. 

Relatedly, he says of all these experiences that their expression is nonsense and that they seem to have an intrinsic, absolute value. This makes them sound weird or special. So, again, one might think that he cannot have ordinary guilt in mind. 

But I think he does. For one thing, he talks about the feeling of guilt, not some special or absolute feeling of guilt, and, for another, he talks about God's disapproving of our conduct, and I don't think anyone believes that God disapproves of our conduct no matter what we do. The relevant distinction is not between strange, absolute feelings of guilt and normal feelings of guilt, as I see it, but between feelings of (moral) guilt and findings of (legal) guilt, as in a criminal trial.

Two more points while I'm on the subject. I've mentioned Grantchester before and said then that "When Wittgenstein talks about the right way to Grantchester in his Lecture on Ethics, presumably he just picked a destination more or less at random." I still think this is true, but I'll add that he once lived on Grantchester Road. Brian McGuinness (Wittgenstein in Cambridge: Letters and Documents 1911 - 1951, p.6) says he lived there during the 1929-30 academic year, so that's probably what made him think of it. Also, for what it's worth, Wikipedia says this:
The history of The Orchard started in 1897 (the orchard itself was first planted in 1868) when a group of Cambridge students asked the landlady, Mrs Stevenson of Orchard House, if they could take their tea in the orchard rather than on the front lawn as the custom was. This practice soon became the norm, and the place grew in popularity. The next phase in the history of The Orchard began when the poet Rupert Brooke took up lodging in the house in 1909. A graduate student of great popularity in the university community at the time, Brooke soon attracted a great following at the place, among them Virginia WoolfJohn Maynard KeynesE.M. ForsterBertrand RussellAugustus John, and Ludwig Wittgenstein – the so-called Grantchester Group, or the neo-pagans as Woolf called them. Brooke later lodged in a neighbouring house, the Old Vicarage and immortalised both houses in his poem The Old Vicarage, Grantchester. 
Secondly, I wonder how to understand the sentence "Black lives matter" in relation to Wittgenstein's lecture. Although someone might believe or say the contrary, it does seem a bit like something that one would have to either affirm or else feel guilty about not affirming. Not in some timeless, absolute sense, but here and now. Ray Monk has said that the sentence is not used to express an obvious truth, but I think there's a sense in which it is. [UPDATE: Monk is talking about "All lives matter," not "Black lives matter."] At least one way to think of it is as a reminder of an obvious truth that is too often neglected. And, although it is a truth that could be denied, it (roughly speaking) never is. Instead people counter with "All lives matter" or "My life matters" (said by a white person) or "Blue lives matter." Practically speaking (in the world as we have made it), it is an undeniable truth.

This isn't the same as being absolutely correct or right in Wittgenstein's sense though. For one thing, it is presumably possible to deny that black lives matter without feeling guilt. For another, to the extent that it is not possible to do so, this impossibility is partly social. Some people seem to feel constrained by the fact that they are not 'allowed' to express such thoughts. The shame one might feel when violating a social norm is not quite the same thing as guilt, although I think it's closely related. Guilt is more internal, more personally owned, than shame.         

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Wittgenstein and the Limits of Language

My review of Hanne Appelqvist's new edited collection is now up at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. It's a nice book, which I appreciated more the more I tried to figure out exactly what I thought about it. I think that's a sign that there's a lot there.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Wittgenstein's irony

Here's a letter from Wittgenstein to one of his sisters, followed by commentary by Joachim Schulte:
Dear Helene! In your last letter you write that I am a great philosopher. Certainly, that’s what I am, and yet I do not wish to learn this from you. Call me a striver for truth, and I shall rest contented. Certainly you are right in saying that every form of vanity is alien to me, and even the idolatrous veneration of my disciples is powerless against the relentlessness of my self-criticism. To be sure, often I myself am amazed at the extent of my greatness, and in spite of the enormous greatness of my capacity I feel incapable of grasping it. But that’s enough now – words after all are empty vis-a`-vis the richness of things. [Peter Winslow translates the last lines here as "But enough words for now, when words are but vacuity compared to the fullness of things. May you in all eternity... Your Ludwig" I prefer this, but I haven't seen the German so I can't say it's a better translation. Also, Schulte's German is a bit better than mine anyway.]
Quite obviously, this is an ambiguous and ambivalent letter (which probably dates from 1934). On the one hand, Wittgenstein is being ironic about the allusion to his greatness as a philosopher, while on the other his precise statement that he does not wish to hear his greatness affirmed by his sister seems to imply that he would not mind hearing this sort of thing from a different quarter. Moreover, wishing to be called a striver for truth could easily be regarded as a kind of false modesty, and it is by no means clear how much irony there is to be found in this expression of the wish. The remark about his lack of vanity, too, is at one and the same time a correct statement of fact and an admission of weakness, for Wittgenstein certainly wants to suggest that his self-criticism is by far not relentless enough. Even though the last two sentences about greatness and the emptiness of words appear, because of their play with cliche´s and their exaggerations, to be pure irony and fun, one still receives the impression that he who is talking here is not only a striver for truth but also a striver for greatness – an extremely ambitious man who regards most, or all, forms of ambition as bad form. At any rate, I do not think that any attentive reader of these lines can come away from them without feeling ill at ease. 
I have to say I disagree. At the risk of oversimplifying, I think Schulte is overcomplicating this. The whole thing reads like pure irony and fun to me, in a way that is somewhat remarkable given Wittgenstein's actual greatness, striving for truth, self-criticism, etc. (That is, it seems worth remarking on, but isn't necessarily surprising.) This kind of thing isn't all that unusual, surely. What else could he say, after all? If you are a great philosopher and someone says so you won't smugly agree or deny it with false modesty. The only thing is to turn the whole thing into a joke by agreeing with ironic exaggeration.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Wittgenstein's Philosophy in Times of Crisis

A series of online talks has just been announced here. There are some big name people (Oskari Kuusela, Hans Sluga, Paul Horwich, and others) and some good topics (ethics, religion, liberation, and more). Not all the talks are at convenient times for people in the US, but some are. It's worth checking out the schedule.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Taking people seriously

I've written, or thought out loud, before about unseriousness on the political right. I want to return to that idea now and have another go at saying what I was trying to say. Specifically I'm interested in the apparent disagreement between Raimond Gaita and Kate Manne about cruelty and dehumanization. Gaita's talk of a lack of seriousness and sobriety here is relevant to what I want to say, but I mention his name more because of what he has written elsewhere about racism. Here, for instance, he connects racism with dehumanizing others, and suggests that racists fail to see the full humanity of those they denigrate. This seems true, perhaps even indisputable.

But then there's Manne's view, described here, according to which:
people may know full well that those they treat in brutally degrading and inhuman ways are fellow human beings, underneath a more or less thin veneer of false consciousness.  
One question this raises is what exactly it means to "know full well" that someone is a human being. Gaita warns explicitly that he makes no claim to know "what it is to be fully human." Manne talks about various capabilities, such as rationality, agency, and judgement, that human beings are recognized as having, but she doesn't talk about meaning in the way that Gaita does. In other words, I think it would be possible to know full well that someone is human, in Manne's sense, while still failing to see that person's full humanity, in Gaita's. They aren't using the same concepts.

A second question raised by the quotation from Manne above is about what difference is made by the veneer of false consciousness to which she refers. To know that someone is human, but to do so under a veneer of false consciousness, is not to know fully that that person is human after all. The false consciousness undermines the belief involved in knowledge (conceived of as something like justified, true belief). Racists both do and do not believe that their targets are human beings, which is at least part of how they fail to see their full humanity: they see parts of it, perhaps including the capabilities Manne identifies, or perhaps even all of it, but only to a limited degree. They might, for instance, recognize the full range of emotions, but deny that they have the same depth in some people as in others. And part of seeing the full depth of another's emotions is caring about them, taking them seriously.

The racists' lack of seriousness about selected others comes out in humor. It is notable that in Paul Bloom's review of Manne's book (and others) he describes mockery of black soccer players and of Jews in Nazi Germany as if it were merely sadism. In reference to the taunting of soccer players he says that "the whole point of [the taunters'] behavior is to disorient and humiliate." Surely, though, part of the point is to have a laugh at the players' expense. We may not find it funny, but the racists who mock and taunt clearly do. They are cruel partly for the sake of laughter and they laugh, partly, in order to encourage further cruelty. The lack of seriousness feeds on itself.

[You can see how old this post's origins are in this paragraph.] The same lack of seriousness is evident, it seems to me, in chants of "Lock her up!" and "Build the wall!" No doubt some people really want these things to happen, while for others it is simply fun to join in the shouting (to "own the libs", for instance). But I suspect for most there is no question of whether the idea in question is seriously meant or not. It is part serious, part joke, and there is no interest at all in thinking about it any more than this. To the extent that it is meant, for many it is probably something they want more as a joke than anything else. That is, it would be funny to them if Hillary Clinton were really locked up. They don't seriously, soberly believe that criminal justice requires it. They also, of course, don't really care about justice much at all, at least not while they are in chanting mode.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Thoughts from Camus

I'm reading The Plague. Here's the most interesting bit so far:
[T]he narrator is inclined to think that by attributing overimportance to praiseworthy actions one may, by implication, be paying indirect but potent homage to the worse side of human nature. For this attitude implies that such actions shine out as rare exceptions, while callousness and apathy are the general rule. The narrator does not share that view. The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men are more good than bad; that, however, isn't the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. 
Those who enrolled in the "sanitary squads," as they were called, had, indeed, no such great merit in doing as they did, since they knew it was the only thing to do, and the unthinkable thing would then have been not to have brought themselves to do it. These groups enabled our townsfolk to come to grips with the disease and convinced them that, now that plague was among us, it was up to them to do whatever could be done to fight it. Since plague became in this way some men's duty, it revealed itself as what it really was; that is, the concern of all.
So far, so good. But we do not congratulate a schoolmaster on teaching that two and two make four, though we may, perhaps, congratulate him on having chosen his laudable vocation. Let us then say it was praiseworthy that Tarrou and so many others should have elected to prove that two and two make four rather than the contrary; but let us add that this good will of theirs was one that is shared by the schoolmaster and by all who have the same feelings as the schoolmaster, and, be it said to the credit of mankind, they are more numerous than one would think, such, anyhow, is the narrator's conviction. Needless to say, he can see quite clearly a point that could be made against him, which is that these men were risking their lives. But again and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two make four is punished with death.
The schoolteacher is well aware of this. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of this calculation. The question is that of knowing whether two and two do make four. For those of our townsfolk who risked their lives in this predicament the issue was whether or not plague was in their midst and whether or not they must fight against it.
Anthony Fauci knows that two and two make four, and of course he has received death threats for saying so.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Philosophers on COVID-19

There's lots of this stuff, e.g. here and here. But below are links to things by the kind of philosophers I like.

Niklas Forsberg says, among much else, that:
laws and rules grow out of something, and are subject to change. They are adjusted so as to fit our practices, the way we live. We may find this disconcerting or hopeful, but I think that we need to turn our attention to the slow changes of life as a whole too, and to how human actions and interactions are rooted in cultures and languages and traditions. It seems evident: presenting someone with facts about animal farming, climate change, is absolutely necessary, but not enough. Our ways of being together have roots that reach far deeper down than that. We need both the quick-fix and the long-term thinking.
This seems right, and I might add that laws and rules can themselves shape our practices and attitudes (not that they always do, but they can).

Hugo Strandberg says that:
helping each other can be done in two very different spirits. On the one hand, you can help others in order to create a sense of community. That there will be people not part of that community is then a grave risk, and these might be met with fear, avoidance and hostility. And, with a slightly different emphasis, you can help people because you want to live up to what is expected of you, explicit social expectations or expectations of a more abstract and general kind, expectations which you in any case submit to. Seen in this way, there is a connection between the two reactions, reactions that at first seemed contradictory. On the other hand, you can help others because you care for them. Seen in this way, there is a contradiction, for the first reaction is obviously not an expression of such care.
This is a nice distinction between what might be called commonsense ethics (I help for this identifiable reason, having to do with ideas about what will cause what effect) and the harder to explain caring ethic.

Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen (in Danish, but Google translate seems to do an OK job) also speaks about a contradiction, but this one is between what might be called local life versus global (or national) life. One of her points is like the one made by Thomas Hardy in his poem "In Time of 'The Breaking of Nations'": some things in life will always stay the same whatever wars and dynasties may come and go. Another point she makes is that it is heartening to see that:
together we have been able to create a new society. Not because our political leadership has said we should, but because we could all see the point 
It is amazing how much has changed how quickly. And even though some of it has been mandated by reluctant politicians motivated by 'commonsense' calculations, and some has been done by people thinking in commonsense terms, it has still happened, it has happened largely for the common good rather than for private profit, and it has been done, in part, voluntarily out of what looks like genuine altruism. Who knows what will happen in future, in response to other pandemics or climate change or any other potential catastrophe, but it is clear that we can make large-scale changes to how we live. And that there is a lot more human decency and intelligence in the world than you might have thought based on recent election results in English-speaking countries. 

UPDATE: Here also are Nafeez Ahmed and Rupert Read on COVID-19 and the precautionary principle.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

More to read

Two new articles are up at the Nordic Wittgenstein Review, by Lassi Johannes Jakola and Stephen Leach.

And there is a whole issue of Estetika: The European Journal of Aesthetics devoted to Wittgenstein-related work. 

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Cat videos

My paper on Anscombe on intention in animals has been read and reviewed by Noah Greenstein here:

In the review he mentions a video of a cat stalking a bird, which is worth watching even if you don't care about the philosophy aspect of it all. Here it is:

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Oxford in the 80s again

There has been more evidence recently that Britain is ruled by members of a very small group of people. I alluded to this before. Now I see that the head of the National Health Service, who I mentioned in that post, was a friend of a friend. And the chief medical officer was one of my closest friends. This does not seem healthy.

This also makes me a member of the ruling class, I think. Luckily for everyone else I don't actually rule anything though.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Nordic Wittgenstein Review news

A new issue is out now with a paper by James Conant, along with news that the journal is now being published continuously, so that accepted papers are available to read right away.  

Monday, March 16, 2020

What has history to do with me?

Nora Hämäläinen's paper "A Case for Moral History -- Universality and Change in Ethics after Wittgenstein" raises interesting questions. One such question is the extent to which we can think of ourselves as being in history. On the one hand, of course we are in history and are creatures of our time. On the other hand, it seems as though we have to set such awareness aside, at least some of the time. Awareness of our historical context requires a kind of stepping back that, in turn, requires an ahistorical life from which to step back. 

Rather than beginning with an overview of her argumnet, I'm going to start from within the paper. At one point Hämäläinen quotes Walter de la Mare's poem "Titmouse" and then goes on to discuss it. Strikingly she says that the bird "does not appear [...] as the holder of any [...] distinct trait that would qualify it as worthy of moral concern" (p. 7). But, as Diamond notes, de la Mare talks about the bird's coming out "of earth's vast unknown of air" and going off into "time's enormous nought," which, it seems to me, evokes both mortality (something we have in common with the bird) and the mystery of being, or at least of life (which, again, we share with the bird, and which seems worth respecting in any case).* The bird is also said to come "Out of all summer", which seems like another reason to value it: it is part of, and a product of, the summer. The bird is "happy company" (doubly good!) who takes "his commons" (i.e., shared food, I assume, which again brings out the fact that the bird is company and a fellow animal), and, as Diamond emphasizes, is a "tiny son of life". Diamond does not deny that the titmouse has distinct traits that qualify it as worthy of moral concern so much as she denies that it has biological (belonging to the science of biology) traits that qualify it as worthy of such concern. Talk of qualifying or being worthy of concern seems out of place in Diamond's way of thinking too, as if there were, or could be, a sort of checklist that might tell us what we ought to care about, and in what way we ought to do so. But the bird's traits are certainly relevant because they mean that it is in the same boat as us in various ways: alive, mortal, dependent on food, capable of enjoying food (it leaves "Sweet-fed"), and (therefore?) capable of being company.

There is something timeless about what we share with the titmouse, something that was always shared and could always have been noticed and cared about, even if thoughts about the moral value of animals are more common now than they have been before. Hämäläinen does not reject Diamond's thought, but wants us to think more historically too. It seems reasonable to wonder why. Here is her answer:
We should, as Kuhn taught us in the case of science, ask what kind of sense previous moral frameworks have made for the people who lived within them, and what kind of precarious whole, with costs and benefits, is constituted by our own moral framework. But to attain this kind of perspective, we must take a broader view, look at practices, activities, banal preferences, hopes, dreams, occupations, diversions, social and material infrastructures, etc. [1] It is only with this broader take on the moral life that we can make substantial sense of ourselves as creatures inhabiting a moral universe that undergoes change.
[...] [2] An ethics that emphasises acknowledgement of this or that person or group is impotent if no illuminating account of structural, social, cognitive, etc., obstacles to acknowledgement of others is given.
The sentence I have labeled 1 ("It is only within...") seems true to me, but I'm less sure about 2. Can't a work of philosophy or literature, for instance (it could also be something much simpler), successfully increase acknowledgement of a person or group without offering any account of obstacles to acknowledgment? I agree that an account of such obstacles is desirable, but it doesn't seem to be absolutely necessary before any progress can be made. Perhaps Hämäläinen means simply that it is desirable, that an ethics that provides such an account will have greater power than one that does not. 
Later in the paper she says something that could sound dubious:
in a slave society, the slave‐owner’s life will be characterised by its own responsibilities and duties – running a farm, ruling the city – which make the freeing of slaves look like foolish indulgence to him. Not because he is mean, but because his life is embedded in a different way. 
This might make the slave-owner sound reasonable. And I suppose there is something to be said for working one's way into a space where that is how things seem. As long as one can and does escape from that space soon afterwards. Part of the value of such an exercise is expanding one's mental universe, coming to live in a bigger world. (The danger is shrinking it by losing sight of what an evil slavery always was. Understanding how slavery could have seemed reasonable must not be confused with understanding that slavery was in fact reasonable. It wasn't.) But another part of the value of such exercises is returning to one's own world with new questions about ways in which what seems reasonable to us might actually be anything but. How might we be like the 'reasonable' slave-owner of past times?

There's a problem with this kind of question though. I don't mean an insuperable problem that makes it simply not worth asking at all. But it's a problem all the same. It has to do with something Iris Murdoch says about art. This is from her essay "The Sublime and the Good":
Tolstoy complains as follows: "All the existing aesthetic standards are built on this plan. Instead of giving a definition of true art and then deciding what is and what is not good art by judging whether a work conforms or does not conform to this definition, a certain class of works which for some reason pleases a certain circle of people is accepted as being art, and a definition of art is then devised to cover all these productions." I cannot altogether agree with this. Our direct apprehension of which works of art are good has just as much authority, engages our moral and intellectual being just as deeply, as our philosophical reflections upon art in general; and indeed if Tolstoy were right critics would have explicitly to formulate a morality and an aesthetic before they could be sure of their judgments. I cannot believe this to be necessary; and since my own concern here is with defining art in general, and not with judging particular works, I would rather say the opposite thing. Our aesthetic must stand to be judged by great works of art which we know to be such independently; and it is right that our faith in Kant and in Tolstoy should be shaken when we discover shocking eccentricities in their direct judgment of merit in art. So let us start by saying that Shakespeare is the greatest of all artists, and let our aesthetic grow to be the philosophical justification of this judgment. We may note that a similar method can, and in my view should, be used in moral philosophy. That is, if a moral philosophy does not give a satisfactory or sufficiently rich account of what we unphilosophically know to be goodness, then away with it.      
We can ask ourselves, as people sometimes do, whether our present treatment of animals will come to seem like the past treatment of people who were enslaved or murdered en masse. But what we can't (reasonably) do is simply note that it is has similarities a, b, and c with slavery and genocide and therefore is, morally speaking, on a par with them. Relevant similarities, if they exist, are ones that (among other things--seeming doesn't make it so) strike us as relevantly similar. What these are cannot be determined in advance or scientifically. At least not easily. As Kevin Cahill says (see more on this paper below):
everyday application of criteria governing everyday concepts also requires relevant projection, even in the most mundane of circumstances they are not self-applying. Even pointing at my cat and telling my son to “feed the kitty” requires such projection of criteria and uptake on both of our parts. (my emphasis)
Uptake is easy and predictable in some cases, but not in all. And ex hypothesi it is neither in cases where there are hard-to-spot obstacles to seeing something as morally problematic. 

But I don't mean to say that we are simply passive and must await being struck this way or that. We can actively bring up questions and see where they take us. We can use our imaginations and see what we come to believe, see, and do as a result. And exercises like this can be collaborative: we can create art works, for instance, that try to help people see what we think we have seen, help people be struck by what has struck us. And we can choose to seek out such works of art and enter into them. We can also simply go to places and choose to interact with or simply observe other people or animals or whatever it might be and see what this does to our attitudes, beliefs, behavior, etc. Art is a kind of aid to experiencing reality, not an alternative to it. 

Hans Sluga's paper "'What has History to do with Me?': Timelessness, Time, and Historical Contingency in Wittgenstein" seems relevant to Hämäläinen's concerns. Sluga asks whether one can "genuinely be a Wittgensteinian historicist" (p. 4) and what this would mean. Sadly, although the paper is well worth reading, he does not provide an answer to these questions. 

Hämäläinen's paper reminds me a little bit of Kevin Cahill's "The Grammar of Conflict". Cahill brings up "the possibility of a grammar in which "reality" (and perhaps other terms like "truth") only has meaning within the domain of the grammar itself". I don't want to say either that such a grammar is possible or that it is not, but when I try to imagine it I imagine people adding something like "from our point of view, of course" to the end of every factual statement. Which seems like a prime example of a wheel that turns without being connected to anything else. 

Cahill's paper is written in response to recent papers by Cora Diamond about Peter Winch and his alleged relativism. I'll summarize parts of it by selectively quoting:
Diamond attacks Winch’s position on the grounds that it imposes a dubious logical or metaphysical requirement on the conceptual resources available to language users, and so unnecessarily restricts the possibility of criticizing a system of thought such as an alien world view in which one does not participate. The dubious requirement is [...] the idea that the content of terms like “reality” (and relatedly “true”) must be articulated only within the pre-given logical spaces provided by existing discourses. (pp. 4-5)
Diamond finds this view anything but obvious. She asks, “[W]hy should there have to be an ‘established universe of discourse?’ Why can one not be making, giving articulation to, a kind of thought about reality in thinking about the conflict?” (p. 5)
I agree with Diamond’s main criticisms of the kind of view put forth by Winch. In what follows, I discuss what I take to be some of the implications of her analysis, even though I am very unsure whether she would regard them as such. I take Diamond at any rate to be committed to something close to the following two claims: 1) systems of thought may contain logical resources for making various types of criticisms that go beyond what is clearly visible to their current participants and 2) these conceptual resources can be developed, brought out, made manifest, by, among perhaps other things, conflicts with other systems of thought. I think that Diamond is certainly correct in claiming 1), but I think 2) raises some complicated issues. In particular, it is unclear to me whether Diamond thinks that the logical space that may be articulated in the course of a conflict must be understood as a result of mutual features of each conflicting system’s logical resources, or if it is enough for coherent criticism that only one of those grammars has this potential openness in its self-understanding of “reality”. As I try to show below, it is difficult to argue that only the first possibility is permissible and allowing for the second possibility has some interesting consequences. (p. 7)
Cahill identifies two such consequences. The first is that "her argument about what our grammar allows us to do in the way of criticism licenses a conflation of the observer and participant points of view in certain debates, making “us” as it were both judge and party to the same dispute" (p. 18). This doesn't bother me very much, and Cahill himself describes the second issue as "more philosophically interesting" (p. 19), so let's turn to that.
It seems to follow that if we can have grammars of both types, one grammar which allows for the bare notion of “reality” having a use outside of its own already articulated conception, and another type without such a notion, or at least with a much more restricted notion, then it seems that we are led to the idea that the feature of the grammar of the party to the conflict that makes criticism from outside possible is not a given, but rather has a contingent, historical dimension to it. This fact, in turn, would suggest that there is not likely to be any stand-alone argument showing that the grammar with the feature that makes criticism from outside or exploration of new logical spaces both intelligible is, or ought to be, immune to change. This does not imply of course that once we realize the historical contingency of our grammar’s containing things like the “concept of an object as independent of that concept”, we could just merely shake ourselves loose of this concept through an act of will if we somehow found ourselves wishing to do so. To say that a feature of our grammar is historical or conventional is not to say that it is arbitrary. Things are much more complicated than that. But like any other feature of a grammar, this one must be articulated and thus supported in practices. And this fact about the historical embeddedness of grammar can raise, in turn, the normative question as to whether this feature is worthy of that continued support. That is to say, the very fact of a grammar’s existence can’t by itself be used in any non-circular way to justify our continued reliance on it. This does not mean that no defense can be articulated at all of the value of the idea of reality conceived as independently of any discourse. Our practices make this kind of internal argument available to us as well. (p. 20)
I could quote more, but I'll stop there. I don't see a problem here, though, and Cahill doesn't clearly identify one, as far as I can see, either. In other words, what he says looks right to me. It's just that the implications of Diamond's view that he identifies don't seem especially problematic to me, which is what I was (perhaps mistakenly) expecting when I saw them described as "interesting". 

Back, finally, to Hämäläinen's paper. I think it reminds me of Cahill's paper because both have to do with relativism. Neither defends relativism, but each is concerned with features of non-relativist positions that can seem interesting or even problematic. Cahill articulates some interesting features of (what he takes to be) Diamond's position, while Hämäläinen looks at what else might be needed in addition to what is often taken from views such as Diamond's in order for us to understand ourselves fully, or as fully as possible, and to be better able to overcome obstacles to acknowledgment of others. She's right, I think, and in pointing out some of the difficulties involved I don't mean to reject her suggestions.   

*It (part of de la Mare's poem) is also reminiscent of this passage from the Venerable Bede:
Excerpt from the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (London: Penguin Books, 1990, pages 130-31), as reproduced in English translation. This text is Bede's account of the Anglo-Saxon's religious beliefs around the year 627 A.D. 
Book 2, Chapter 13:  He [the King] summoned a council of the wise men, and asked each in turn his opinion of this strange doctrine [Christianity] and this new way of worshipping the godhead that was being proclaimed to them. Coifi, the chief Priest, replied without hesitation: "Your Majesty, let us give careful consideration to this new teaching. "For I frankly admit that, in my experience, the religion that we have hitherto professed seems valueless and powerless. None of your subjects has been more devoted to the service of our gods than myself; yet there are many to whom you show greater favor, who receive greater honors, and who are more successful in all their undertakings. Now, if the gods had any power, they would surely have favored myself, who have been more zealous in their service. Therefore, if on examination you perceive that these new teachings are better and more effectual, let us not hesitate to accept them." Another of the king's chief men signified his agreement with this prudent argument, and went on to say: "Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter's day with your thegns and counselors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Therefore, if this new teaching has brought any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it." The other elders and counselors of the king under God's guidance, gave similar advice.