Friday, April 30, 2021

Logic and Value in Wittgenstein's Philosophy

Peter Stiers’ “Logic and Value in Wittgenstein’s Philosophy” in Philosophical Investigations Volume 44, Issue 2 April 2021 Pages 119-150 is worth reading, although I don’t know how much of it I agree with.

Here’s the abstract:

In Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus (TLP), Wittgenstein gave ethics the same semantic status as logic. This paper first investigates this claim from the perspective of Wittgenstein’s lifelong semantic framework. This reveals that ethical sentences are meaningless expressions, which can only be used to ostensively point out conditions of meaningfulness. Secondly, the paper assesses the implications of this conclusion for understanding the seven cryptic remarks on value and ethics in TLP. Using the connection between will and value in TLP and will and sentence interpretation in Philosophical Investigations, it is suggested that Wittgenstein held lifelong views on value and ethics.


And here are the parts that seem most questionable to me:


Asking which ethical attitude is the right one makes no sense, because “we do not know… how it would be determined, what sort of criteria would be used, and so on.” [And now another quotation from Wittgenstein:] “[S]uppose I say Christian ethics is the right one. Then I am making a judgment of value. It amounts to adopting Christian ethics. It is not like saying that one of these physical theories must be the right one. The way in which some reality corresponds — or conflicts — with a physical theory has no counterpart here.” (pp. 123-124)


If saying that Christian ethics “is the right one” makes sense, which I take Wittgenstein to imply here, then surely it makes sense to ask which ethical attitude is the right one? It would not make the same kind of sense that it makes to ask which physical theory is right, for instance, but that doesn’t make it nonsense. Say I am telling students about various ethical attitudes, views, and theories, and one of them asks me which one is right. They might be confused, but they might not be. They might mean: “which one do you live by?” And then I might name any of them and make perfectly good sense. 

To be fair to Stiers, on p. 124 he says only that “in a way [my emphasis], it makes no sense to ask whether” an ethical sentence is true or false, right or wrong. Which is what I think he should have said all along.

Here's more:


Now suppose that Wittgenstein, when confronted for telling a preposterous lie, would similarly respond that he knows he behaved badly but did not want to behave any better. In such case, we would admonish him by saying, “you ought to want to behave better.” The analogy of the circumstance of this utterance to Moore’s insistence that his hands exist or to the chess player's holding up the rook is clear: it is an ostensive pointing out of the rules of the game. This demonstrates that ethical utterances do have a use and, thus, are part of the practice in which language has its place. Like logical sentences, they are not nonsensical because they have an unequivocal interpretation in the context of the languagegame to which they belong. (p. 128)

I think it’s fair to wonder here what counts as an ethical utterance. Such utterances are supposed to have a use in a practice, so that saying something like “You should not lie” is reminding someone of the rules of the game. I think this is one use of sentences like that.

But what about “Abortion is wrong” or “Abortion is not always wrong”? A person might say either of these as a reminder to someone of what they already believe. But that is not the only use these sentences can have. They can also be used as part of an attempt to change someone else’s mind. Or (probably in modified form) as slogans chanted by a group whose identity is defined partly by its stance on abortion. Or, no doubt, in other ways too (as examples in a blog post, say).

And then there are similar-looking sentences that aren’t a reminder of anything, such as “In this paper I shall argue that robots have moral rights.” Even if one agrees with this thesis, it isn’t part of a practice (except the practice of doing applied ethics). The kind of robot that might be thought to have rights either doesn't exist yet or doesn't play a big enough part in enough people's lives for there to be a practice of recognizing their rights. But I wouldn’t call the thesis statement about robots' rights nonsense for this reason.

Stiers again:

“we cannot understand someone who does not subscribe to the truth of these ethical sentences.” (p. 129)

I think this is probably true of certain ethical utterances. If someone said that murder is OK I would wonder what they meant. But students have a tendency to say things like “Technically murder can be right” when they mean that war or capital punishment can be justified. So I wouldn’t rush to call even the claim that “murder is OK” nonsense without some further clarification.

And surely we can understand people who disagree with us on abortion or robot rights, even if we don’t always do so. A nice example of this kind of thing is Brandon Boulware on coming to accept his daughter’s being trans:

He certainly seems as though he can understand people who don’t share his view. (Which is not to claim, of course, that he can understand all of them. Some of them might have very different views or ways of viewing things.)

Last one:

Just as the logical insight inherent in a tautology is recognized by someone who knows language, the ethical aspect in ostensively uttered ethical propositions is recognized by someone who already has these practical insights. Thus, ethics, as well as logic, is ineffable. Moreover, all “moral” discussions must be of the form of an ostensive collision between forms of life. (p. 132)

I think I want to question the word ‘already’ here. Say I am witnessing an event where pro-choice and pro-life protestors are waving signs and shouting slogans. Imagine I am undecided about the ethics of abortion, or pro-life but with some doubts. Now someone shouts “A woman has the right to control her own body!” And I think, “You know what? That’s right! She does.”

I doubt this happens often, but doesn’t it seem possible? The pro-choice way of framing the issue invites me to see it a certain way, and when I try out this way of looking at it, suddenly I seem to see clearly. (It could go the other way, too, of course, with the pro-life view, or a pro-life view, seeming to make sense of the whole issue to someone.)

I’m not sure I would call this a collision of forms of life. But perhaps it’s good to think of the abortion debate as a struggle within our form of life.

Friday, April 23, 2021

The Significance of the Tractatus

Blimey, this looks good:

teorema Vol. XL/2, Spring 2021


           Table of Contents


The Significance of the Tractatus

Guest Editor: José Luis Zalabardo


 J. L. ZalabardoIntroduction


 J. GombinSimplicity and Independence in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus


 N. M. Mabaquiao, JrWittgenstein’s Objects and Theory of Names in the Tractatus


 G. NirAre Rules of Inference Superfluous? Wittgenstein vs. Frege and Russell


 J. A. Forero and M. J. FrápolliShow Me. On Tractarian Non-Representationalism


 O. KuuselaWittgenstein’s Grundgedanke as the Key to the Tractatus


 A. I. SegattoJudgment, Nonsense and the Unity of the Proposition: Revisiting Wittgenstein’s Criticism of Russell


 E. Pérez-NavarroFregean Themes in the Tractatus; Context Compositionality and Nonsense


 V. Sanfélix, Tractatus 5.6-5.621


 J. FairhurstThe Ethical Significance of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus


 R. HenriquesThe Tractatus as an ‘Exercise in Kierkegaardian Irony


 C. DiamondWittgenstein’s ‘Unbearable Conflict’


 M. KremerCora Diamond on “Wittgenstein’s ‘Unbearable Conflict’” 


 C. DiamondReply to Michael Kremer




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