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.