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.