Saturday, January 28, 2012

Ethics and the real world

Stereotypical villains not only disregard others' well-being, they also have excessive or misdirected ambitions, and favor crazy, and easily foiled, schemes for achieving their aims. The ambition and the crazy schemes seem linked: both are unrealistic. Being unrealistic itself does not seem evil, but I wonder whether it isn't linked with evil in some non-trivial way. Doesn't the LA Raiders' tendency to favor risky long throws somehow go with their association with Kiss-style costumes? (Not that I'm a connoisseur of their tactics these days, but this is relevant to why I came to prefer the Browns.)

I suppose gadgetry and risky gambles go with an unwillingness to work hard, so maybe that's the connection with vice. But the work in question is not just that of achieving some specific goal (getting a first down, winning a war, forcing the nations of the world to hand over one million dollars, etc.). It's also the work of honestly facing reality, so that honesty, the willingness to make an effort, and a certain humility (the opposite of a sense of entitlement to riches without effort) all blend together. Newt Gingrich's plan to build a 51st state on the moon strikes me as somehow going with his characteristic way of treating people.   

And then there's this. Peter Singer and Agata Sagan, who start off reasonably, say that it is "not far-fetched" to think that we might be able to develop a pill that makes people more likely to do good. I've read that Ecstasy makes you feel as though you love everybody, so perhaps they are right. But the idea that such a pill might be practical, for instance in reforming convicted criminals, seems rather hopeful. And I wonder whether this optimism is of a piece with the things that make Singer's views on other matters objectionable to some people. Perhaps it is also connected with the apparent ignorance (or is it deliberate ignoring?) of Hume in their final paragraph, which begins:
But if our brain’s chemistry does affect our moral behavior, the question of whether that balance is set in a natural way or by medical intervention will make no difference in how freely we act. 
Maybe I'm mis-remembering Hume, but doesn't he think that whether an act is caused by something that belongs to or comes from the agent rather than something external makes all the difference in the world to whether the act is free? [Actually, quite possibly no. But he does think this matters as far as moral responsibility goes. And that seems important.] And isn't his view too widely shared to be ignored like this? Or is this another case of having to simplify for The Stone?  

Anyway, conclusion: fantasy is bad.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Understanding genocide

I don't think I have anything to contribute to attempts to understand genocide but I did once write a paper with this title, and a couple of people (over a period of several years) have asked for copies of it, so I'm making it available. Here it is.

Somewhat along the same lines (but with much more to say) is Rupert Read's paper "Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations as a War Book."

Two funny (-ish) stories: 1) the address of the journal my paper was published in included the line "near the gas station" or words to that effect (I'm told this kind of thing is common in India, but I don't think Mind's address includes anything like that), 2) I was a bit embarrassed to be publishing in such an obscure place, until I saw that Rupert Read had a paper in the every same issue. Not such bad company to be in after all.

Wittgenstein's Ethics

Here's a paper I'm working on. Comments welcome.

The first paragraph should give you some idea of what it's about:
The subject of this paper is not Wittgensteinian ethics but Wittgenstein’s own ethical beliefs, specifically as these are revealed in the so-called Koder diaries. The word ‘diaries’ might make one hesitate to read this material, let alone discuss it in public. But, as James C. Klagge and Alfred Nordmann note, “On first sight, this manuscript is not at all dissimilar from Wittgenstein’s other notebooks.”[i] While the Koder Diaries, also known as Manuscript 183, do contain the kind of thing that one would expect to find in a diary (e.g. accounts of travel and personal relationships), they also contain more obviously philosophical remarks too, sometimes as reflections on these personal remarks. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that, “As opposed to his other notebooks and the so-called secret diaries of 1914-1916, the Koder diaries are unique precisely in that they do not set off the private from the public at all.”[ii] Even the remarks written in code are not clearly more personal or less philosophical than the others.  It seems to me, therefore, that the Koder diaries are an especially interesting kind of document, and, as I hope we shall see, that Wittgenstein’s ethical reflections in them are unusually interesting, even if they resist being summarized in one or more ethical theses or points.

[i] Ludwig Wittgenstein Public and Private Occasions, edited by James C. Klagge and Alfred Nordmann, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Lanham, Maryland, 2003, p. 3.
[ii] Ibid., p. 3.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Happy Burns Night!

Tonight is Burns Night, so enjoy some Scotch or some vegetarian haggis (the real thing is not for the faint of heart).

Or just read some of his poems. Or listen to them instead. Tracyanne Campbell of Camera Obscura says::
We were asked by the late DJ John Peel to put some of our music to a few poems by Robert Burns, and to perform them live at Peel Acres as part of John’s annual Burns night celebration. I love my Jean turned out to be a favourite of John’s, so we decided to release it as a single and dedicate to him.

I Love My Jean

Of a' the airts the wind can blaw,
I dearly like the West;
For there the bony Lassie lives,
The Lassie I lo'e best:
There's wild-woods grow, and rivers row,
And mony a hill between;
But day and night my fancy's flight
Is ever wi' my Jean.

I see her in the dewy flowers,
I see her sweet and fair;
I hear her in the tunefu' birds,
I hear her charm the air:
There's not a bony flower that springs
By fountain, shaw, or green;
There's not a bony bird that sings
But minds me o' my Jean.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Gibson on poetry

John Gibson has a valuable essay on poetry over at nonsite. I very much like his pointing out the differences between poetry and metaphor, but he says some surprising things along the way. For instance:
Simon Blackburn has said, with admirable understatement, that no one ‘would claim that the study of metaphor has been one of analytic philosophy’s brighter achievements.’
Davidson's work on metaphor strikes me as precisely such an achievement (although I'm willing to be corrected).
It is a sign of poetic success if a poem demands to be studied before it can be understood
Really? This is highly debatable. But the debate will be about taste in poetry, I suspect, rather than about anything very philosophical. Larkin, for instance, would disagree with Gibson here (I'm pretty sure).
If I sent you an email with clear and precise instructions on how to arrive at the funeral of a childhood friend, it would be plain weird to say of it, ‘I see, but what does this email mean?’ But if I sent you a poem with the very same content, it would not only be appropriate but expected.
Maybe. It sounds like a poor poem, so it's hard to know what the appropriate or expected response would be. But in general this seems precisely the kind of response to poems that annoys poets. I don't go to many poetry readings, but I don't remember "What does it mean?" being at all a common question, even if the audience wonders just this. It is a question that seems likely to be greeted with a sigh.
What we have when we first turn to a poem is an uninterpreted mass of images.
Some poems are like this. But all? Two more quotes and then some attempt at a point.
We frequently experience poetic meaning as a far-off destination not because the meaning of a poem is so deeply hidden in its language but because the kind of communicative act in which a poem engages is extraordinarily complex, beginning with language and words but then soon passing from this into a richly, and at times bizarrely, textured imaginative space, the exploration of which is potentially interminable.
I wonder about this. Gibson uses the concept of semantic descent, in which we move below language to the level of things. This is a rich idea, it seems to me, but 'complex' seems precisely the wrong kind of word. The textured imaginative space in question either is, or else is just the same kind of thing as, the world. And to call it complex is to allow the inference that with enough work we might get to the bottom of it all, which is contradicted by the (quite right) bit about its being potentially interminable.
At any rate, it would be silly to claim that the poets I have used to set up my argument are exceptions to the rule of how we experience meaning in poetry. What would the rule be to which these are exceptions? That poems are generally composed of clear, literal language? That the meaning of most poems is transparent and immediately available to anyone who reads them?  It is hard to say this with a straight face.
It's not so much that I disagree with Gibson on this as that I'm not sure how much I agree with him. The problem, it seems to me, here and in much of his essay, is that when he talks about "most poems" he means poems of a certain, distinctly modern, kind. There are many poems that at least try to be transparent, and that, perhaps more to the point, don't have a meaning any more than life does. (And life's not having a meaning is like sunshine and lollipops not having a meaning--it isn't a fault.)

All this reads like a long complaint, but I really mean it as a series of asterisks marking the relatively few points where I am not sure I agree with Gibson. For the most part I think his essay is very good indeed, but that's not a blog-worthy thought.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Faith and grammar

Neuroscience proves Wittgenstein right! Well, no, but this is an interesting story all the same.
The study found that "sacred" values – those the participants would not sign away for cash – prompted greater activation of the part of the brain associated with evaluating rules-based, right-or-wrong thought processes: the same neural systems used for processing rules of grammar, syntax or street signs.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Impossible colors

Via Neatorama I find that Wikipedia has an article on impossible colors. I wonder what Wittgenstein would make of this:
In 1983, Hewitt D. Crane and Thomas P. Piantanida carried out tests using a device that had a field of a vertical red stripe adjacent to a vertical green stripe (or in some cases, yellow–blue). In contrast to apparatus used in simpler tests, the device had the ability to track involuntary eye movement and to adjust mirrors so that the image would appear to be completely stable. The boundary of the red–green stripes was stabilised on the retina of one eye while the other eye was patched and the field outside the stripes was blanked with occluders. This allowed for a mixing of the two colors in the brain, producing neither green for a yellow–blue test, nor brown for a red green test, but new colors entirely. Some of the volunteers for the experiment even reported that afterwards, they could still imagine the new colors for a period of time.
My hunch is that this is one of those reason/cause cases, so that it's possible to tell a story about what might cause our inability to see, say, reddish-green, but that this would pass by the incomprehensibility (grammatical non-existence) of 'reddish-green'. It's also worth noting that the evidence from this experiment is disputed.

My favorite part is this:
In 1927, American horror fiction author H. P. Lovecraft wrote a short story called "The Colour Out of Space" in which a meteorite crashed into a family farm in rural New England. The meteorite contained a mysterious globule of a color that was "almost impossible to describe," with a note that it was "only by analogy" that professors studying the globule called it a color at all.
Incidentally, in the book 90 Minutes in Heaven, which claims to describe what it's like to be dead and then come back to life, the whole heaven part is said to be true only by analogy. There is neither time nor space, we are told, and then follows a lot of stuff about old friends and relatives happily running to greet the dead person, and so on. Curious.

Both cases (Lovecraft's color and a timeless moment that is like a 90 minute meeting with various people) push (or perhaps simply violate) the boundaries of what we (or I) can comprehend. It's probably good to experience a bit of such uncanniness every now and then, but bad to take too much refuge from canny reality in it.

SOPA, PIPA, etc.

I have nothing interesting to say about anti-piracy legislation, except that the other day I happened to read in immediate succession this piece by Jean Kazez questioning the opposition to it (which made me question it too) and then this in Crooked Timber explaining why the proposed legislation seems bad. And now this song is stuck in my head:

Sunday, January 15, 2012


The main point of this post is just to draw attention to It's an online humanities journal with lots of essays by good people on Wittgenstein and art. The only one I've read so far is this by Bernie Rhie on faces. It's very good, but a couple of points make me wonder. For instance, Rhie writes that:
There is nothing to stop us from regarding artworks as void of intrinsic expressive life, just as there is nothing to stop us from seeing the human face as without intrinsic psychological expressiveness.
This seems sort of true but also sort of false. Don't (some) artworks themselves force us to regard them as intrinsically expressive, just as the human face (sometimes) forces us to see it as intrinsically psychologically expressive? Or rather, since I don't really want to make any claims about what does the forcing here, is the kind of blindness Rhie refers to always a live option? It doesn't seem so to me. I remember (i.e. might have dreamed) that there was once a room full of Rothko paintings in London (presumably in the Tate, but I don't remember) that you entered by going through a black curtain. As soon as I went in I felt instantly depressed. That isn't a very subtle response to art, I know, but it wasn't a response that I had any control over. Was there nothing to stop me from regarding these paintings as void of intrinsic expressive life? I suppose I could have insisted that it was a coincidence, or that I was projecting, or something. But I can't imagine honestly agreeing there and then that these paintings did not have intrinsic expressive life.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding Rhie's claim. But he goes on to say that:
Cavell’s important discovery about skepticism was that far from simply being an intellectual error in need of correction, the skeptic’s position expressed an important philosophical truth: that there is no absolute ground for the meaningfulness of our lives together (like a framework of concepts or rules), only the fragile attunements we ourselves maintain by means of our continuing investment in, and care for, our shared sense-making practices. There is thus nothing to stop any of us from withdrawing our acknowledgment of those attunements, fragile as they are, which is of course the skeptic’s tragic choice. And just so, there is nothing to stop any of us from withdrawing our mutually attuned acknowledgments (fragile as they are) of the expressive meaningfulness of our very bodies, or of the artworks we make, enjoy, and study. The aesthetic expressiveness of art will indeed be but a fiction—and artworks will be dead: mere sounds, images, and dead letters—in so far as we choose (as we always can) to see them in that way. Indeed, as I think my essay has made clear, quite a few modern thinkers have already made that very choice.
This passage seems to me to move from something true to something much more dubious. I'm happy to accept that the meaningfulness of our lives together depends on the fragile attunements that we maintain by involvement in certain practices. It doesn't follow, though, surely, that we are free to choose to withdraw our acknowledgement of those attunements. Can we choose to see artworks as dead? We can choose to try to do so, I would think. And the attempt might succeed. But I don't think that we can choose in the sense that trying is bound to succeed. I can't choose not to be moved by a song or film, even if I know that I ought not to be moved. Surely this is part of Wittgenstein's suggested experiments involving trying to see children as automata or flies as no more capable of pain than rocks are. (Which relates not only to his idea of doing philosophy from within the sphere of the ethical but also to this post of Kelly Jolley's on which I would comment if I could think of more to say than Yes.)    

Being moved doesn't make you right. I have twice seen and twice cried at My Stepmother is an Alien, but (not having seen the film recently) I expect this is because I am a sucker for a certain kind of sentimentality, not because I am a discerning connoisseur of cinematic drama. On the other hand, not being moved doesn't make you right either. You might be blind (or deaf or whatever). There are some things that ought to move you. That, of course, is a value judgement. But so its denial. The facts don't dictate that we not be moved. Which is, at least roughly, why I agree with Rhie's conclusion:
But what I would like to suggest, by way of conclusion, is that that choice [not to see expressiveness] need not be one we ourselves feel compelled to make, as if it were somehow philosophically truer and less theoretically naïve to see the emotional expressiveness of artworks (as of ourselves) as something that’s not really there, but rather some sort of interpretive projection, an animating fiction, or what have you.  

Wendy Cope

I recently read Wendy Cope's Family Values, and think it's worth saying something about it. Her poetry usually rhymes and is often funny. It rarely includes any words that you have to look up (there are poets who seem to make a point of including exactly one such word per poem, I don't know why). In short, I imagine she gets little respect. That suspicion is backed up by this interview and this review. But I find it hard not to take her most recent collection seriously.

For one thing, much of it is about death. For another, she also writes painfully about her childhood, including her relationship with her mother (not good) and being bullied at school for her vocabulary. The third and final part of the poem "Boarders" (about being at boarding school) is this:
I wasn't teased much. The worst time
Was in my first year
Because some older girls decided
That I used too many long words.
I soon learned not to.
Look at how I write.
This could just be a way to make critics of her simplicity feel guilty, but I think it's just honesty. Her simplicity comes from pain, and expresses a humble, even slightly frightened, personality. Which means that, as well as a gratifying absence of ego, there is a kind of drama in the very lack of drama in her poems. It's a little like the (reported) tedium of much of the work of spies: you only get to find it boring if you are a real, honest-to-goodness spy, which is itself very exciting (to those of us who aren't spies and who find that kind of thing exciting). I hope this makes sense. I'm not trying to be clever or paradoxical.

Anyway, there's a tradition of this kind of poetry in Britain (Betjeman and Larkin are the obvious examples), but it isn't much appreciated in the United States. I can understand why, but I think it's a shame.    

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Ethics from the inside

Arto Tukiainen writes that Wittgenstein's (sole?) purpose in the Tractatus was to show that "there cannot be any meaningful ethical sentences." This struck me, so I set about trying to find where Wittgenstein said this. Tukiainen cites a letter to Ludwig von Ficker, which I assume is the one quoted below.

In 1919 Wittgenstein wrote to von Ficker:
The book’s point is an ethical one. I once meant to include in the preface a sentence which is not in fact there now but which I will write out for you here because it will perhaps be a key to the work for you. What I meant to write, then, was this: My work consists of two parts: the one presented here plus all that I have not written. And it is precisely this second part that is the important one. My book draws limits to the sphere of the ethical from the inside as it were, and I am convinced that this is the ONLY rigorous way of drawing those limits. In short, I believe that where many others today are just gassing, I have managed in my book to put everything firmly into place by being silent about it. And for that reason, unless I am very much mistaken, the book will say a great deal that you yourself want to say. Only perhaps you won’t see that it is said in the book. For now, I would recommend you to read the preface and the conclusion, because they contain the most direct expression of the point of the book.
I have quoted from this exchange in The New York Review of Books between Allan Janik and D. F. PearsHere is (part of) the German:
Es wird nämlich das Ethische durch mein Buch gleichsam von Innen her begrenzt; und ich bin überzeugt, daß es, streng, NUR so zu begrenzen ist. Kurz ich glaube: Alles das, was viele heute schwefeln, habe ich in meinem Buch festgelegt, indem ich darüber schweige. 
I can't improve on the translation, but 'rigorous' to my mind can suggest something like the thorough application of a method, something technical, and I don't think streng has this implication. I might be wrong. Google translate suggests 'strictly,' which has exactly that connotation. But the similarity between the German 'streng' and the English 'strong' makes me think that it means something like 'properly' or 'in a way that is not weak or lame' in this context.

The idea of delimiting or defining the ethical from within is a curious one. It suggests to me something like a rejection of any foundationalism in ethics, of any attempt to answer a question like 'Why be good?' If we are (always already, if you like) within ethics, after all, then it seems we must in some sense take it as given. But this isn't what you find in the Tractatus at all. Questions about value are not addressed until the end of the book, and then we are told (in 6.41) that value can only lie outside the world. Perhaps the Tractatus itself is somehow meant to be written from outside the world, which it seemingly would have to be if it were written from within ethics (and if ethics lies outside the world), but it seems more likely that when Wittgenstein says his "book draws limits to the sphere of the ethical from the inside" he means from the inside of the book, not from the inside of ethics. The strategy of the book would then be something like this: it would be written from a supposedly extra-ethical vantage point, somewhere almost Nietzschean in its coldness and hardness (I'm thinking of Nietzsche as portrayed here), somewhere very much in the logical-positivist or scientistic sphere (speaking aesthetically or in terms of flavor, that is); it would then draw the limit of the sphere of the ethical by showing that there is no such limit, that there is nothing beyond ethics, nothing that value cannot reach; and it would have to do this by showing that the book's own vantage point is merely imaginary, that the book as presented does not, cannot, exist. It must explode itself, slowly, as one reads, turning itself inside out under the pressure of its self-appointed impossible task (i.e. existing outside the sphere of the ethical). Then we might see that the place we had imagined to exist beyond the ethical does not exist, that we had only imagined that we could see beyond the horizon of value. 

A somewhat similar idea, used in a different way, is found in the Lecture on Ethics:
And now I must say that if I contemplate what Ethics really would have to be if there were such a science, this result seems to me quite obvious. It seems to me obvious that nothing we could ever think or say should be the thing. That we cannot write a scientific book, the subject matter of which could be intrinsically sublime and above all other subject matters. I can only describe my feeling by the metaphor, that, if a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world. Our words used as we use them in science, are vessels capable only of containing and conveying meaning and sense, natural meaning and sense. Ethics, if it is anything, is supernatural and our words will only express facts; as a teacup will only hold a teacup full of water and if I were to pour out a gallon over it.   
I'm waiting for someone on this thread to say that work on the history of philosophy (e.g work on what Kant really thought about x or Plato meant by y) is worthless and that only practical or scientific work has any value. With that in mind, who cares what Wittgenstein meant? Well, I do, I suppose. But I think what concerned him continues to concern people, albeit perhaps in different ways. One way to attack ethics (or religion) is to treat it scientifically. If we trace the origins of morality (or religion) to something in our evolutionary history, say, then we are likely to seem not only to have explained something but to have debunked it. Nietzsche tried to do something like this quite deliberately, and empirically-minded ethicists (sometimes) do it unwittingly. For an example of how the attempted debunking of religion in this way might go see here. The link is to Brian Leiter on a review of Daniel Dennett's tellingly titled Breaking the Spell, in which Leiter writes that: 
It is true that you cannot show a belief to be false by explaining its origin, but it is clear you can show that holding the belief is not warranted by explaining its origin.  (This is an important topic I have dealt with elsewhere.)  If you believe buying stock in High Tech Miracle, Inc. is a good investment based on recommendation of your broker, and then you discover that your broker recommended it because he is an investor in the company and a beneficiary of its rising stock fortunes, you no longer have a reason to believe it's a good investment--though it might turn out to be one, of course, but you no longer are warranted in believing that.  Hume, Nietzsche, Marx, Dennett and many others exploit this form of argumentation, without making any mistakes, let alone abandoning "reason," as Mr. Wieseltier--whose arrogance may even outstrip his ignorance--remarkably claims.    
For the case of ethics, see here. The link is to Helen De Cruz on "evolutionary debunking arguments" in which she paraphrases Sharon Street as holding:
that, even if there were universal agreement about moral evaluative attitudes, this would not constitute any evidence for moral objectivism, because an evolutionary account can plausibly [explain] why we hold those beliefs without invoking any objective moral norms. Indeed, it would be highly unlikely, an incredible coincidence, if this were the case
So if we all agree that murder is wrong, and if evolutionary accounts can explain why we believe this, then it would be highly unlikely that we believe murder is wrong because it really is wrong. At least, I think that's what the idea is. And the effect, I think, is to undermine our belief that murder is wrong, to push us toward a kind of defensiveness about our moral commitments. So "murder is wrong" becomes "murder is wrong (in my opinion, of course, but that's just an accident of history--I'm not so naive as to think I have any insight into the Truth)."

The key word (in "explaining why we believe this or that") is 'why.' The evolutionary account is historical or causal. It is not rational or justificatory. It would not be an incredible coincidence if I hold that murder is wrong because (in the justificatory sense) it really is and I also hold that murder is wrong (in the causal, historical sense) because I belong to a species that has this belief for evolutionary reasons (i.e. because of evolutionary processes). Nor would it be an incredible coincidence if the (let us suppose) useful belief that murder is wrong is actually true, even (or especially) if 'true' does not simply mean 'useful'. I say especially here because the sense in which a moral belief is true might be part of a completely different ballgame from that in which a judgment about the world is true or false. It is not an incredible coincidence if I check my watch at the same time that I check my bags. It is a sort of pun or accident (non-necessary, not utterly random, feature) of language. Similarly, it is a sort of accident if useful beliefs are also worthy of affirmation. (What might not be a mere coincidence is that such beliefs are deemed worthy of affirmation. But that's a separate issue.)

[I remember thinking that I had realized something was wrong with this, but I can't remember what it was.]

What Wittgenstein might have meant is that in the Tractatus he tackles ethics from the outside. From within an 'objective' or 'scientific' position he tries to show that such a position is untenable, that the ladder collapses. And thus that what the Tractatus rules out as nonsense is in fact not some separable sphere but part of the only sphere there is, the only game in town: sense or the intelligible world (in a non-metaphysical sense). Then, continuing with my speculation (or half-remembered ideas taken from others, if that's what these are), the Investigations would more truly be a work of ethics (and everything else) from within.

Look at this wriggling fly and see what happens when you tell yourself that its pain is not real (I'm thinking of PI 284, although this isn't exactly what he says there--it's more that a fly can be believed to be in pain). Look at those children and tell yourself that they are automata (PI 420). You cannot prove the contrary, but you cannot believe these things. You do not believe them. Or, at any rate, we do not believe them (which is a kind of definition of 'we'). This is philosophy done from within ethics, from within the world of ordinary judgments, from within our (partly) subjective experience of the world, not in some pretend-objective way. A certain ideal of objectivity is illusory, because it would be outside ethics, outside value judgment, outside all normativity and subjectivity, and there is no such sphere.           

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Keeping it real

A philosophical defense of torture (in certain circumstances) has sparked controversy here and elsewhere on NewAPPS. To which this reference to Anscombe's well known remark about not wanting to argue with philosophers who show corrupt minds is also relevant. As, I think, is Jason Stanley's memory of Michael Dummett:
I found myself sitting in the New College Senior Common Room after lunch discussing the meaning of the word “if” with another philosopher. Dummett was huddled over a newspaper elsewhere in the room. I remarked how odd it was to think that the word “if” could have radically different meanings on different occasions of use, for example one meaning in a sentence like “If Oswald didn’t kill Kennedy, someone else did,” and another meaning in a sentence like “If Oswald hadn’t of killed Kennedy, someone else would have.” From a cloud of tobacco smoke halfway across the room, Dummett piped up, “I wonder if you really think that.”
I'm not sure I get the point of this story. Was Dummett making a joke by himself using the word 'if' in this way? Does Stanley think Dummett mistakenly thought that Stanley believed Kennedy was bound to be killed by someone? Or was Dummett questioning Stanley's claim to find it odd that the word 'if' has these different uses? I prefer to think that both the first and the third of these answers are correct. In which case Dummett would have been (if only in attempt) bringing Stanley very nicely back to earth. This is roughly what Anscombe was doing in that remark: I don't know whether it was meant to be funny, but it is a remark that has a kind of shock value and that rejects a certain kind of philosophers' (philosophical?) practice.

Eric Schliesser argues that philosophers should be careful when they make arguments that can be used for bad purposes in the world outside philosophy. This is a consequentialist argument against certain uses of consequentialism. I suppose there is something to be said for speaking the language. But I prefer Anscombe's approach. What's wrong with entertaining the prospect of torturing people is not that doing so might encourage others to torture (although that is a bad thing). What's wrong with it is that it is entertaining the prospect of torturing people.

That isn't a reason not to do it, I know. That is, I have not provided a reason not to do x by putting x in italics. Like the argument from tigers, though, the idea is: think what you are saying. If you support letting tigers become extinct, then think about what tigers are, how sublime/awesome they are. Or, as they say, give your head a wobble. I would say the same kind of thing about torture: if you support it, then (please) think again about what torture is, about how evil/appalling it is.

I would like to think that no one would support torture in any circumstances, i.e. that no one in a calm moment or a cool place would support it at all, but there's a danger of defining this into truth, of insisting that no one who supports torture can really be thinking, that they cannot really mean it. And I'm not in any position to say that. So I think we have to let the fearless thinkers have their say, whatever harm it might do. Then those of us who disagree need to make clear how and why we do so. Sometimes the best way to do this might be by refusing to argue with them. Not simply not arguing with them, but announcing publicly that one will not do so, and saying why. This might induce some useful shame. But it won't always, and then other tactics might be called for. Such as, say, studying the arguments of one's opponents and responding carefully to them. There is surely an art to knowing which arguments and which opponents to dignify in this way though.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Southern discomfort

Despite having lived in Virginia for more than twenty years I still don't really get the culture here. When people started driving their pickup trucks with the tailgate down it seemed obvious to me that this was an obnoxiously aggressive act--if you rear-end a truck like that you and/or your vehicle will come off very badly. Then I found out that people do it to make their trucks more aerodynamic and therefore fuel-efficient. Which is a good thing, and not so obnoxious after all. So I was wrong.

On the other hand, there is a certain amount of aggression in the culture. Not only do lots of people hunt deer and other animals, quite a few boast about it, for instance with bow-hunting decals saying "I'm a real heart breaker!" Not to mention some of the Confederate pride stuff  that spills over into angry defiance. Of course most people here are not hostile rednecks (far from it), but some are. But perhaps this aggression is the dark side of a culture that, though mysterious to me, is not really so bad taken as a whole. Maybe it's all part of an honor culture.

At least that's what I started to think a couple of days ago when I spent part of the morning reading over a draft syllabus for a course on honor and reading part of a paper on honor as a warrior code. From this paper (by Dan Demetriou), which I can't find online, I discovered both this website and this quotation from Pierre Bourdieu:
There is nothing worse [according to the Kabyles of North Africa] than to pass unnoticed, like a shadow. Thus, not to greet someone is to treat him like an object. ... The challenge, on the contrary, is the highlight in the life of the one who receives it.
I wonder whether this is related to the fact that in this part of Virginia people typically greet each other when they pass, even if they are strangers. It's usually a friendly greeting, but it sometimes feels grudging or wary, as if the alternative might be a Wild West shoot-out. There is supposed to be a tradition of violence and feuding in the American South, which is supposed to come from years of fighting over territory and livestock around the England-Scotland border (see here and here, for instance). So it would make some sense if Virginians greeted each other as an alternative to insulting silence. Just a theory. But I like the theory because of the historical aspect, which also came up at a New Year's Day party I attended with some people from near Richmond who said their accent was supposed to come from the far North of England. It didn't really sound like it to me, but it did sound unusual.

Anyway, the website Honor Ethics looks worth checking out. As well as Dan Demetriou, its contributors include two people I know and respect: Jim Peterman and Lad Sessions.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Wittgenstein in exile again

If I ever go on the job market again perhaps I could list Jim Klagge's Wittgenstein in Exile as an AOS. I've now reviewed it three times (if a review on amazon counts). The latest is in The Philosophers' Magazine, which has some interesting-looking articles, here.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

No resolutions

The kind of resolutions I might make for the New Year remind me of this song by Radiohead:

So I don't have any. Here's an alternative attitude (although I think my lazy ways will come to an end when the kids go back to school):