Thursday, March 29, 2012

Nothing useful is of lasting value

I've just discovered a new poet (new to me, of course): A. R. Ammons (1926-2001). The title of this post is a line from his poem "Conserving the Magnitude of Uselessness." Here are two more that I like:

Cut the Grass
The wonderful workings of the world: wonderful,
wonderful: I'm surprised half the time:
ground up fine, I puff if a pebble stirs:

I'm nervous: my morality's intricate: if
a squash blossom dies, I feel withered as a stained
zucchini and blame my nature: and
when grassblades flop to the little red-ant
queens burring around trying to get aloft, I blame
my not keeping the grass short, stubble

firm: well, I learn a lot of useless stuff, meant
to be ignored: like when the sun sinking in the
west glares a plane invisible, I think how much

revelation concealment necessitates: and then I
think of the ocean, multiple to a blinding
oneness and realize that only total expression
expressed hiding: I'll have to say everything
to take on the roundness and withdrawal of the deep dark:
less than total is a bucketful of radiant toys. 

This Bright Day

Earth, earth!
day this bright day
again--once more
showers of dry spruce gold,
the poppy flopped broad open and delicate
from its pod--once more,
all this again: I've had many
days here with these stones and leaves:
like the sky, I've taken on a color
and am still:
the grief of leaves,
summer worms, huge blackant
queens bulging
from weatherboarding, all that
will pass
away from me that I will pass into,
none of the grief
cuts less now than ever--only I
have learned the
sky, the day sky, the blue
obliteration of radiance:
the night sky,
pregnant, lively,
tumultuous, vast--the grief
again in a higher scale
of leaves and poppies:
space, space--
and a grief of things:
motion: standing still.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Far-fetched examples in applied ethics

Not many philosophy papers could be called lovely, but I felt like writing a fan letter to Timothy Chappell after reading his review of Derek Parfit's On What Matters this lunchtime (maybe it was the sunshine and the carrot cake). Not only does he quote this from Simone Weil:
The distinctive method of philosophy consists in getting a clear conception of insoluble problems in their insolubility, then in contemplating those problems without anything else; fixedly, tirelessly, for years, without the least hope, in a state of waiting.
He also says this:

What M'Choakumchild [in Dickens' Hard Times] finds in the child Sissy Jupe – and labours, indeed, to choke – is a natural propensity for open rather than closed deliberation. In analytic moral philosophy classes all over the world right now, that same propensity is being carefully drilled out of students by their tutors' expositions of trolley problems, cave problems, transplant problems, rescue problems and the rest of the usual applied-ethics diet of hard-case thought experiments. Few philosophers are explicit or self-conscious about this, but Peter Unger is:

Toward having the puzzle be instructive, I'll make two stipulations for understanding the examples. The first is this: Beyond what's explicitly stated in each case's presentation, or what's clearly implied by it, there aren't ever any bad consequences of your conduct for anyone and, what's more, there's nothing else that's morally objectionable about it. In effect, this means we're to understand a proposed scenario so that it is as boring as possible. Easily applied by all, in short the stipulation is: Be boring! [Peter Unger,(Oxford UP 1996, pp. 25–26].

Is this a good thing that we who teach philosophy are doing to our students? There seems to be a danger that what we are offering them is a training in the failure of their imaginations and of their natural human sympathies. The typical philosophical use of the “thought experiment” in ethics is not just not to take students of ethics in the same direction as they go in when they read fictional narratives, towards wide-ranging, lateral-thinking, unpredictable, creative explorations of the indefinite possibilities of human life and action. It is to take them in exactly the opposite direction: to channel them down an ever-narrowing modal funnel within which all possible readings of a schematically described situation except for one or two are remorselessly eliminated. This is indeed a training to which the injunction “Be boring!” is apposite. And the normal penalty for failing to be boring in the required way is the same for our students as it was for Sissy: it is a Fail.

There is much more besides this. All books should be reviewed so well.

I haven't read it yet, but Jakob Elster's "How Outlandish Can Imaginary Cases Be?" also looks worth reading. Here's the abstract:
It is common in moral philosophy to test the validity of moral principles by proposing counter-examples in the form of cases where the application of the principle does not give the conclusion we intuitively find valid. These cases are often imaginary and sometimes rather ‘outlandish’, involving ray guns, non-existent creatures, etc. I discuss whether we can test moral principles with the help of outlandish cases, or if only realistic cases are admissible. I consider two types of argument against outlandish cases: 1) Since moral principles are meant for guiding action in this world, cases drawn from other worlds are irrelevant. 2) We lack the capacity to apply our intuitive moral competence to outlandish cases. I argue that while the first approach is importantly flawed, the second approach is plausible, not because our moral competence is limited to cases from this world, but because we lack the capacity to imagine outlandish cases, and we cannot apply our moral competence to a case we fail to imagine properly.

Anscombe in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

My article is up now, at least provisionally (the bibliography is awaiting a correction), here. It starts like this:
Elizabeth Anscombe, or Miss Anscombe as she was known, was an important twentieth century philosopher and one of the most important women philosophers of all time.  A committed Catholic, and translator of some of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s most important work, she was an influential and original thinker in the Catholic tradition and the Wittgensteinian manner. Although she worked in almost every area of philosophy, she is best known to philosophers today for her work on ethics and the philosophy of action. Outside of philosophy she is best known for her conservative views on sexual ethics, which have inspired a number of student organizations, calling themselves the Anscombe Society, promoting chastity and traditional marriage. She is also well known for her opposition to the use of atomic weapons at the end of World War II.
In ethics, her most important work is the paper “Modern Moral Philosophy.” Contemporary interest in virtue theory can be traced directly to this paper, which put forward three theses: that all the major British moral philosophers from Henry Sidgwick on were essentially the same (that is, consequentialists); that the concepts of moral obligation, the use of the word ought with a special moral sense, and related notions, are harmful and should be dropped; and that we should stop doing moral philosophy until we have an adequate philosophy of psychology.
Her work on action, found mostly in her short book Intention, was a step in the direction of such a philosophy.

Table of Contents

  1. Life
  2. The First Person
  3. Causation
  4. Intention
  5. Consequentialism
  6. Moral Obligation
  7. Military Ethics
  8. Sexual Ethics
  9. References and Further Reading
    1. Primary Works
    2. Secondary Works

Monday, March 26, 2012

Proof that it is impossible to write

I always remember Kafka's subtitle "Proof that it is Impossible to Live," but not any proof that his story contains. It came to mind again when I read James Wood saying this about Michel Houellebecq's latest novel:
Is Houellebecq really a novelist, or is he just a novelizing propagandist? Though his thought can be slapdash and hasty, it is at least earnest, intensely argued, and occasionally thrilling in its leaps and transitions. But the formal structures that are asked to dramatize his ideas—the scenes, characters, dialogue, and so on—are generally flimsy and diagrammatic. “The Map and the Territory” can’t quite decide what kind of novel it is going to be, and moves around restlessly, picking up subjects and briefly favoring them, before returning them to their lightly disturbed corners. Nothing is systematically or rigorously examined—which is to say that nothing is subjected to the longevity of narrative.
This is about right, I think, but it also kind of misses what I take to be the point. The novel ought to be of interest to readers of this blog. Houellebecq mentions Wittgenstein and Heidegger in it, and discusses architecture, nature, and modern culture generally. I doubt it's intentional, but the title could almost be a reference to Iris Murdoch's Under the Net, in which:
The "net" in question is the net of language. In Chapter 6, a quotation from Jake's book The Silencer includes the passage: "All theorizing is flight. We must be ruled by the situation itself and this is unutterably particular. Indeed it is something to which we can never get close enough, however hard we may try as it were to crawl under the net."
Houellebecq suggests that the map (or net) is more interesting than the territory, although in the end he seems happy enough that everything man-made ends up being reconquered by nature. Perhaps there's more to life than being interesting. So if we take the map (or net) as language, and the territory as the world it describes, then language is (it is claimed) more interesting than the world, but somehow inferior to it, in both power and value, nevertheless. That sounds as though it might be true.

So why is Houellebecq's novel such a mess? Why does it lack rigor and system? I think it lacks much in the way of characters, dialogue, etc. because that's the way Houellebecq is; his interests are more philosophical than those of most novelists, and he is diagrammatic when that is all he needs to be. It's his personality and his ideas that you read him for, not his characters or plots. The closest writer I can think of is Martin Amis, although Amis has nothing interesting to say (just a style of his own, which is no small achievement), but Houellebecq is something like a cross between Shaun Ryder and Dostoevsky (which means he's no Dostoevsky, of course, but still). Another way in which the book is a bit messy is that it's very hard to read. At least I found it hard to read more than a few pages at a time, but I don't think this is a fault.

What keeps interrupting the flow of the book is the commercial language of technical specifications and branding. No one just drives anywhere, they drive in a particular make and model of car, with particular features that might appeal to a consumer, both those involving engineering and those that reflect a certain lifestyle. Houellebecq gives his take on the demographics, simultaneously buying into the marketing language, mocking it, and staring at it in horror. It is there, after all, so you can hardly ignore it. And it is not something wholly outside us. We all want nice cars, cheap wine, fancy cameras, or other things of this sort. The gods may have flown but the fetishes are snugly entrenched. What we might think of as human life (i.e. a certain romantic ideal of what that naturally means) is constantly attacked or blocked by these artificial interventions. They are more interesting in the sense that they stimulate us, attract our attention, and give us something to talk and think about. But they are less real and less valuable than natural things. They are less satisfying. Houellebecq is not satisfied and seems to write from an unsatisfied desire for something that doesn't exist in our world, or for a world that is different, something like the kind of world that Tolstoy or Dostoevsky wanted, although Houellebecq knows as well as anybody that he is not from their world, nor does he try to write as if he were. On the contrary, there are suggestions that parts of the novel are copied from Wikipedia, which is about as this-worldly (this time, this space) as you can get. The language of inauthenticity speaks us, if you like.

The last third or so of the book is reminiscent of a Fred Vargas novel (to be precise, An Uncertain Place), but it is the very end that I liked the most (as well as the earlier discussions of architecture, which after all has a relation to philosophy, as David Cerbone has noticed--see the end of this interview, which I just discovered). Here's the last paragraph of the novel, describing the videos that the artist protagonist Jed Martin has taken to making at the end of his life:
The work that occupied the last years of Jed Martin's life can thus be seen—and this is the first interpretation that springs to mind—as a nostalgic meditation on the end of the Industrial Age in Europe, and, more generally, on the perishable and transitory nature of any human industry. This interpretation is, however, inadequate when one tries to make sense of the unease that grips us on seeing those pathetic Playmobil-type little figurines, lost in the middle of an abstract and immense futurist city, a city which itself crumbles and falls apart, then seems gradually to be scattered across the immense vegetation extending to infinity. That feeling of desolation, too, that takes hold of us as the portraits of the human beings who had accompanied Jed Martin through his earthly life fall apart under the impact of bad weather, then decompose and disappear, seeming in the last videos to make themselves the symbols of the generalized annihilation of the human species. They sink and seem for an instant to put up a struggle, before being suffocated by the superimposed layers of plants. Then everything becomes calm. There remains only the grass swaying in the wind. The triumph of vegetation is total.        
There are certainly echoes of Houellebecq's own work in this very novel here. It's both a nostalgic meditation on the perishable and transitory nature of any human industry and an uneasy and desolate portrait of  life. But it isn't that desolate. The triumph of vegetation sounds at least somewhat desirable. The grass swaying in the wind sounds nice, even if it is the grass growing on our graves. The central idea seems similar to John Betjeman's at the end of "Beside the Seaside":
And all the time the waves, the waves, the waves
Chase, intersect and flatten on the sand
As they have done for centuries, as they will
For centuries to come, when not a soul
Is left to picnic on the blazing rocks,
When England is not England, when mankind
Has blown himself to pieces. Still the sea,
Consolingly disastrous, will return
While the strange starfish, hugely magnified,
Waits in the jewelled basin of a pool. 
Similar too is the idea of stopping one's diary in Larkin's "Forget What Did":
And the empty pages?
Should they ever be filled
Let it be with observed

Celestial recurrences,
The day the flowers come
And when the birds go. 
Tarkovsky's Stalker also celebrates a victory of nature over violence and the power of human will in general. There are other examples (Coetzee's Michael K., for instance) of this kind of quasi-Buddhist, quasi-Christian (or post-Christian) ideal of a return to an unspoiled garden. It's rather Schopenhauerian. But Houellebecq puts it in a (to my mind suitably) cynical 21st century idiom.

Friday, March 23, 2012


Lars von Trier's Melancholia reminded me of The Tree of Life. It's long, ambitious, vaguely philosophical, and features wordless shots of planets while classical music plays in the background. In this case the music is Wagner, who is not really my cup of tea. [Autobiographical side-note on Wagner, which you might want to skip: in my early twenties I bought a cassette tape that had highlights of Tannhäuser and Lohengrin on it. I loved this tape and used to take very hot baths while listening to it and drinking a glass of Scotch (one glass per bath, that is, not one glass stretched over several baths). I've tried since to find a CD that I would enjoy as much, without success. So I own and have listened to a bunch of Wagner's music, and I'm capable of enjoying it, but I don't know it very well because I have never found a recording that lives up to my expectations. I can't find that tape on CD either. And long baths in the afternoon are not part of my lifestyle anymore. The last time I tried to listen to Wagner I laughed involuntarily at what I think I struck me as its pomposity. So I'm not a fan, but this isn't pure philistinism on my part.]

The film is in two parts, each focusing on one of two sisters, each of whom is depressed for different reasons and, as a result, in a different way. One has a kind of Antichrist view, according to which life is evil. (Actually she specifies that life on Earth is evil, but she also says that this is the only life there is.) Mostly what we see, though, is various ways in which she feels trapped. She is surrounded by people who let her down: bickering, divorced parents, a bitter and pessimistic mother, a drunken and stupid father, a selfish employer, an uninspiring boyfriend, a judgmental sister, and no one who seems like a real friend. Her job seems meaningless, and she is apparently unenthusiastic about the prospect of marrying her boyfriend (the movie begins with them arriving very late to their wedding, and she shows no sign of wanting to hurry things along or avoid further delays). She is depressed about life. The other sister is depressed about death, or about the prospect of life coming to an end, and, presumably, the meaninglessness that this might seem to bring to everything we do. The first sister seems somehow more insightful or intelligent, but also nastier. Neither can resist showing kindness in adversity to a child though.

This fact reminds me of my take on Cormac McCarthy (that his stories tend to be about man handing on the torch of faith to his sons, no matter what hardships may come [gender-specific language intentional]), but McCarthy treats the gift of hope as a good thing, while in Melancholia it is clearly dishonest. Faith is bad faith in this world. But perhaps necessary all the same, for the sake of the children. Honesty here would be unthinkably cruel.

It's worth seeing, but I was disappointed. For one thing, it seems to want to say something about life generally, rather than America (as in Dogville) or one particular, mentally ill woman (as in Antichrist), which seems over-ambitious. I was also distracted by some oddities of the story. One sister looks German and has an American accent, the other looks French and has an English accent. Of course it is possible for sisters to differ in these ways, but it's never explained (unless I missed something) and it came across as symptomatic of laziness in casting. The house where the film is set at times seems to be a hotel and at other times as the home of the French-looking sister and her rich husband. Maybe I missed something again, or perhaps these inconsistencies are supposed to tip us off to the fact that none of the events portrayed are real. Perhaps it's all in the minds of the sisters, or some kind of metaphor for depression. But do we need a whole, long movie for that, however tastefully done? And if it isn't meant to express a depressed view but simply the truth about life, then isn't it dishonest? Life just isn't that bleak.

Oh well. It is all well done, the theme of what to tell the children is an interesting one, and the film reminded me of Cranach the Elder's painting of melancholy, which I like (just imagine the blue ball the size of a planet):


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Our Father, which art in secret

It's not an obscure verse, but I was struck nonetheless when I read this at Jon Cogburn's blog:
5. And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites [are]: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.  6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. 7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen [do]: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. 
I had forgotten the bit about God being in secret. Other translations confirm the basic correctness of the King James version, it seems to me.

I was reminded of this when I read Camilla Kronqvist's paper "Lost and Found: Selfhood and Subjectivity in Love" (forthcoming in Philosophical Investigations). She quotes a character from a Paul Auster novel:
By belonging to Sophie, I began to feel as though I belonged to everyone else as well. My true place in the world, it turned out, was somewhere beyond myself, and if that place was inside me, it was also unlocatable. This was the tiny hole between self and not-self, and for the first time in my life I saw this nowhere as the exact centre of the world.
I don't know that there is a connection between these passages, but I'd like to make one. The tiny hole, the exact center of the world, the unlocatable place that is beyond myself and inside me, that is discovered through love, is something that I would like to associate, if not identify, with the God who is not the God of the politically conservative Christians. A tiny God, the hole in the mint of life, is one I could almost believe in. (I'm sure he'll be thrilled to know.)

It's world poetry day

So says the United Nations. So here are two:

Two Deer

Between our house and the Tschantzes’,
Near the corner of the patch that we hardly ever mow
Where we never mow,
Came two deer,
A buck and a doe,
Down the hill then over the creek and off.

A stream of unmowed lawns and untrimmed hedge
Still springs from chores undone
And runs for the running
Of the wild life that remains.

One day I will do those chores
And block up those holes in the roof
So nothing will fly through our property.

A Confession

In this garden there could be gods—
A Gormley Christ, a laughing Buddha,
Mohammad uncomplaining,
Saving a girl from being buried too soon—
But it’s all too obvious.

Instead I could paint or scratch their names
On the underside of rocks
And hide them around the place,
Under a tree or by the stream,
Places of holy power.

But imagine yourself carving
Rock like a bronze-age scribe—
Better to think the places where the gods would lie,
Or better yet to leave them out
And write the gods in a poem about the garden.
But imagine yourself writing
A poem about the hidden gods—
This poem too should be unwritten.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

An immense world of delight

I've just started reading Jonathan Balcombe's Second Nature, which has a foreword by J. M. Coetzee. Coetzee quotes William Blake's "immortal question":
How do you know but that every bird that cleaves the aerial way is not an immense world of delight closed to your senses five?
I'm not sure that this can be taken seriously as a question. Or at least as a "How do you know...?" question of the usual kind. There isn't any question of knowing such a thing. Or is there?

Coetzee says that Balcombe argues that:
by dint of attentive observation of the everyday activities of animals, particularly those that are "like" us, we can to a degree come to see the world--our common world--through their eyes and thus to a degree experience, vicariously, "their" world.
My sense is that Coetzee agrees, but he doesn't come right out and say so (as I recall). I think I agree too, although the words "to a degree" are important.

How do we ever see the world through anyone's eyes or know what life is like for them? By observation of what they do and what happens to them, and by listening to what they say. If "language is things we do" then there is no very sharp distinction between what people do and what they say, and this sounds right. As soon as we accept that birds and bats are conscious (which is if anything before we are even aware that there are such things as birds and bats--it isn't, that is, something (else) we sign up to believe at the same time, nor something we only come to believe later) we accept that they are like us to a degree. We know what bird fear and hunger are like because these cannot be, it makes no sense to suppose that they are, anything but some form or other of fear and hunger, and we know what they are like. We don't know what it's like to have in-built sonar, but that's pretty much an app we don't have. We do know what it's like to have apps though. (I don't, because I don't have that kind of phone, but that isn't a metaphysically or epistemologically interesting fact.) [Update: and I do have senses, of course. Not that we can just say that if you know the five senses then it's easy enough to imagine another one. That's not true. But knowing what something is like means either having experienced it or else being able to imagine it well. (I'm not sure about this.). And imagining something is not creating in one's mind out of nothing the what-it-is-like of the something in question. It's a sort of mental acting. And I can act like a bat about as well as I can act like another human being.]

So to some extent I know what it's like to be a bird, much as to some extent I know what it's like to be French or pregnant. I haven't experienced these things, and I should be careful about when I claim to have any such knowledge (not, e.g., if the French are undergoing some national trauma, or in the presence of a woman who is having a very difficult pregnancy). But no conscious experience is a completely black box to me or to anyone else. All consciousness is related to all other consciousness, and all intelligibly conscious life is related to every other kind of conscious life. The details are expressed through behavior and language. As someone once said, "Nature is a language--can't you read?"

Of course the "to a degree" part needs to be emphasized. But I think it's important that it's a question of degree. There is also a sense in which each of us is a world of our own, unknowable by any other. But that goes for people I know well just as much as it goes for bats.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Loving dung

In her paper "On the Very idea of a Form of Life" Lynne Rudder Baker quotes Stanley Cavell saying that when we think of forms of life as conventional "the array of 'conventions' are not patterns of life which differentiate human beings from one another, but those exigencies of conduct and feeling which all humans share." According to Raimond Gaita (according to Drew Carter) it is part of our form of life that one cannot love cow dung. But some human beings do love cow dung, so what should we believe?

Perhaps I should first make my case that some people love dung. They don't fall in love with it, of course, but they value it highly. Cow dung is used as a building material and as something to burn. People who regard cows as sacred also value cow dung. In the BBC series "Extreme Pilgrim," Pete Owen-Jones is brought gifts of cow dung to burn by Hindu villagers who regard him as a holy man. It doesn't smell bad, he reports, and it is meant as a respectful gift. So I think it isn't too much of a stretch to say that some people might love cow dung, at least as much as anyone might love any natural material that they work with (and perhaps more, given the religious aspect).

Carter's point is to get across a distinction made by Gaita, a distinction between conceptual or grammatical claims (such as "one cannot love evil") and merely factual claims (such as "one cannot love cow dung"). The latter, not the former, are supposed to relate to our form of life. In Carter's view, "the central question to ask of all Wittgensteinian moral philosophy" is "Why do there exist no moral "mere facts," defining our form of life?"

I'm not sure about any of this, partly because I'm not sure what kind of love is involved in each case. People can relish evil. Does that count? Think, for instance, of the young Augustine delighting in stealing, or some kinds of sadism (the kind where part of the goal is to be as bad, or bad-ass, as possible). It would be hard to love all evil, especially evil done to you, but it can be hard to love all good too. No one loves paying their debts. Still, I think I agree with Gaita on this. Evil means bad, to love is to see as good, and good is the opposite of bad, hence you cannot love evil. Loving dung is not like this. It's an accident (of sorts) that we don't like its smell or taste.

So Carter's question might mean: is there anything morally good or bad that is accidentally so? Could ethics be empirical? Could it turn out that this or that was right or wrong? And I think the answer to that has to be No, although I'm not sure why. Certainly it could turn out that something had been a bad idea, but this wouldn't be a moral failing in itself.

(Chris Ofili uses elephant dung in his paintings. I don't know whether he loves it, but it seems possible that he might.)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Stakes of Speech

This sounds almost too good to be true:

Stakes of Speech:  Self-Revelation and Theatricality
A Summer Seminar on Wittgenstein in the Spirit of Cavell and Rhees

July 9-18, 2012
The Humanities Center
Lehigh University
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Seminar Leaders:
Steven G. Affeldt, Le Moyne College.  (
Gordon C.F. Bearn, Lehigh University. ( 
Victor J. Krebs, Pontifical University of Peru, Lima. (

Stipend for all Participants: $500.
Accommodations provided for all participants, free of charge.

Applications due May 1, 2012, Decisions made May 8, 2012
                        Application Information Below

1.  Seminar Description
It was to have been a revolution.  Wittgenstein hoped to turn our (philosophical) lives around, or upside down.  But the fires of Wittgenstein’s revolution were no match for philosophy's fantasy of rigorous science and his work was soon assigned its narrow place on the shelf of formal semantics: an appendix of pragmatics.  The fires cooled to embers guarded—perhaps smothered—by a dwindling band of devotees. 

Thankfully some continued to write as though nothing had happened in analytic philosophy of language.  And now the years of work and the shelves of books by Stanley Cavell and Rush Rhees seem finally to be reigniting those old revolutionary hopes, not only in philosophy but throughout the literary humanities.

As taken up by Cavell and Rhees, the heart of Wittgenstein’s effort to revolutionize our lives lies in his binding the intelligibility of speech to self-revelation: to revealing the positions from which we speak and the multiplicity of cares, interests, expectations, and more that give shape and direction to our lives. Such revelation is not inevitable.  Nor is the only alternative the sensible silence that comes of recognizing that you can’t, and shouldn’t, talk to everyone about everything.  On the contrary, the revolutionary urgency of Wittgenstein’s work is rooted in confronting the myriad forms of emptiness and nonsense that spring from trying to evacuate the self from our words and to mean without disclosing ourselves.

This summer, we will spend an intensive and collegial week exploring some of the questions provoked by this picture of what is involved in speaking intelligibly.  How should the demand for self-revelation or the presentation of the self be understood?  What are its presuppositions and implications?  What kinds of factors and forces (linguistic, psychological, aesthetic, inter-personal, cultural, social, political, etc.) that shape the possibilities of self-presentation and so intelligibility?  Does the demand for self-revelation insinuate, or even essentially involve, a concern for audience?  If so, does this attractive Wittgensteinian picture begin to smack of theatricality and stagework and so of insincerity and inauthenticity?  Must it endure a Beckettian fate where "damnation lies not in a particular form of theater, but in theatricality as such" (Cavell, MWM, p. 160)?

Preposterous tales

In comments here Reshef and I have been having an ongoing discussion relating to Wittgenstein's distinction between absolute and relative value in the Lecture on Ethics. The lecture begins curiously, with a borrowed definition of ethics (from Moore), followed by the claim that ethics is a (kind of) family resemblance concept (I think this is the first occurrence of the idea in Wittgenstein's work):
And to make you see as clearly as possible what I take to be the subject matter of Ethics I will put before you a number of more or less synonymous expressions each of which could be substituted for the above definition, and by enumerating them I want to produce the same sort of effect which Galton produced when he took a number of photos of different faces on the same photographic plate in order to get the picture of the typical features they all had in common. And as by showing to you such a collective photo I could make you see what is the typical--say--Chinese face; so if you look through the row of synonyms which I will put before you, you will, I hope, be able to see the characteristic features they all have in common and these are the characteristic features of Ethics.
Then we get a bunch of definitions of ethics, intended collectively to give a rough idea of what ethics is. We have to, as it were, imagine what Wittgenstein means by 'ethics,' but what this is can also be explained (with something at least approaching adequacy) by Moore's definition of ethics as "the general enquiry into what is good." But, Wittgenstein goes on, words like 'good' and 'valuable' can be used in different ways:
Now the first thing that strikes one about all these expressions is that each of them is actually used in two very different senses. I will call them the trivial or relative sense on the one hand and the ethical or absolute sense on the other. If for instance I say that this is a good chair this means that the chair serves a certain predetermined purpose and the word good here has only meaning so far as this purpose has been previously fixed upon. In fact the word good in the relative sense simply means coming up to a certain predetermined standard. Thus when we say that this man is a good pianist we mean that he can play pieces of a certain degree of difficulty with a certain degree of dexterity. And similarly if I say that it is important for me not to catch cold I mean that catching a cold produces certain describable disturbances in my life and if I say that this is the right road I mean that it's the right road relative to a certain goal.
Two things to note: when he talks about "these expressions" he apparently means words such as 'good' rather than expressions such as "ethics is the enquiry into the meaning of life," and secondly, the predetermined standard need not be very precise. It's not possible to be very precise about how difficult a piece of music is to play, or what degree of dexterity is involved in someone's performance of the piece. But we can grade such things, and presumably that's enough. The difference between relative and absolute is not, then, that one involves vagueness and the other does not.

He continues:
Used in this way these expressions don't present any difficult or deep problems. But this is not how Ethics uses them. Supposing that I could play tennis and one of you saw me playing and said "Well, you play pretty badly" and suppose I answered "I know, I'm playing pretty badly but I don't want to play any better," all the other man could say would be "Ah, then that's all right." But suppose I had told one of you a preposterous lie and he came up to me and said, "You're behaving like a beast" and then I were to say "I know I behave badly, but then I don't want to behave any better," could he then say "Ah, then that's all right"? Certainly not; he would say "Well, you ought to want to behave better." Here you have an absolute judgment of value, whereas the first instance was one of relative judgment.

The essence of this difference seems to be obviously this: Every judgment of relative value is a mere statement of facts and can therefore be put in such a form that it loses all the appearance of a judgment of value: Instead of saying "This is the right way to Granchester," I could equally well have said, "This is the right way you have to go if you want to get to Granchester in the shortest time"; "This man is a good runner" simply means that he runs a certain number of miles in a certain number of minutes, etc.

Now what I wish to contend is that, although all judgments of relative value can be shown to be mere statement of facts, no statement of fact can ever be, or imply, a judgment of absolute value. 
"You ought to want to behave better" is a judgment of absolute value, at least when made in the circumstances described (a preposterous lie, followed by a shameless expression of shamelessness about it). Wittgenstein does not appear to take himself to be putting forward an idiosyncratic view at all here: "could he then say "Ah, then that's all right"? Certainly not; he would say "Well, you ought to want to behave better." Here you have an absolute judgment of value." The absolute value judgment is the only thing one could say in the circumstances (according to Wittgenstein).

What he wants to say that might be original or controversial, as he apparently sees it, is that "no statement of fact can ever be, or imply, a judgment of absolute value." No absolute ought from an is, in other words, but this is not just Hume warmed up because Hume, at least sometimes, talks as if oughts are reducible to ises about feelings in the heart. (I think he says breast, but it's presumably the heart inside the breast that he has in mind.) And if Hume thinks that even relative oughts don't follow from any ises then Wittgenstein is saying he's wrong.

What else can we say about the judgment that the shameless teller of preposterous lies ought to want to behave better? Well, there is no predetermined standard to which he ought to come. That is, when we say that he ought to want to behave better, we do not mean that if he behaves better then he will achieve this or that describable goal. And not simply because the goal in question can only be described imprecisely. We don't mean that he will feel happier, or that others will do so. We are not thinking or speaking in terms of any describable goal at all. Which is why I'm inclined to see the contrast between absolute and relative as one between something likes ends-in-themselves and means-to-ends. Not lying preposterously, or not wanting to lie preposterously (perhaps one struggles with a strong temptation to tell tall tales), is an end in itself, or something that might be 'described' that way (although it can't be a describable goal if we are really talking about absolute judgments--but then an end "in itself" probably doesn't qualify as any kind of goal really). 

And that, I think, is all there is to say about what absolute value is. It isn't necessarily universal. Nor need it be especially important. Wittgenstein writes later:
the absolute good, if it is a describable state of affairs, would be one which everybody, independent of his tastes and inclinations, would necessarily bring about or feel guilty for not bringing about.
So an absolute requirement seems to be one that will induce guilt if it is not met, but there is no account here of how much guilt, or of what one ought to do if two absolute requirements clash. Nothing says this has to be a problem, that they all have equal trumping powers. An absolute requirement is not an overriding requirement (although it is not trivial either). It is simply one that is not a means to some describable end or standard. There is nothing hypothetical, in an if-then sense, about it. It is therefore categorical, but not deontological: it is not a case of "Do this or fail in your duty!" but of "Do this!" and nothing else. So it really doesn't seem to make much sense.

It follows, it seems to me, that we have no reason to accept any absolute requirements. But we also have no reason to reject them, other than reasons of relative value. That is, if it occurs to me that I (absolutely) should do x then I have reason not to do x if it interferes with some other goal of mine (I'm on my way to the supermarket, say, and doing x will delay me), but the mere fact that this absolute imperative has occurred to me is neither a reason to act on it nor a reason not to do so. It's up to me.

There is something plausible about this, but also something odd. The facts all seem too flat, too motivationally inert. I wonder whether facts are really like that. And of course Wittgenstein's conclusion is that all attempts to talk ethics or religion result in nonsense. That doesn't sound quite right either, even if it seems true of a great many such attempts. Tricky. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Speaking of facts, Wittgenstein describes a kind of neutral God who writes a book describing the world as he finds it. This book is full of facts, but contains no ethics. He goes on:

Our words used as we use them in science [my emphasis], are vessels capable only of containing and conveying meaning and sense, natural meaning and sense. 
This sounds like a reference to Frege, who focuses on the use of words for scientific purposes, in contrast with words such as Odysseus, which, having sense but no meaning (Bedeutung), are suitable only for literary purposes. What we need is more room, more capacious words:
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 [even] if I were to pour out a gallon over it.
Perhaps poetic language can increase the capacity of the cup somehow. But how do we know that ethics is supernatural?
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...
It just "seems to me quite obvious" that ethics is supernatural. (Compare this later passage: "I at once see clearly, as it were in a flash of light, not only that no description that I can think of would do to describe what I mean by absolute value, but that I would reject every significant description that anybody could possibly suggest.") The metaphor referred to at the end of the passage quoted above  is the one of the world-book of facts, but I want to draw attention to the way Wittgenstein brings in a reference to metaphor here. If he really can only describe his feelings with a metaphor, then this is a problem:
But a simile must be the simile for something. And if I can describe a fact by means of a simile I must also be able to drop the simile and to describe the facts without it. Now in our case as soon as we try to drop the simile and simply to state the facts which stand behind it, we find that there are no such facts. And so, what at first appeared to be simile now seems to be mere nonsense.
A simile and a metaphor are not exactly the same thing, but if there must be facts that can be stated standing behind all similes if they are not to be nonsense, then surely the same would go for metaphors. So if we can only say what we mean in metaphor then we are talking what Wittgenstein here calls nonsense. And he's been doing this all along, from the definition of ethics at the beginning (which could not be stated clearly and precisely, even though it could be stated in a way that looked straightforward enough--Moore's definition) through the experiences he describes in order to get across what he means by "absolute value," etc. It's all "nonsense." But 'nonsense' here means language used other than it is in science, and perhaps we can add: language used as it is in literature. It is language that does not state facts, that is without reference to identifiable objects, whose essence is unparaphrasable metaphor.

This post is getting long, but what about the experiences he describes? As in his later work, Wittgenstein asks when he might use the language in question:
what have all of us who, like myself, are still tempted to use such expressions as 'absolute good,' 'absolute value,' etc., what have we in mind and what do we try to express? Now whenever I try to make this clear to myself it is natural that I should recall cases in which I would certainly use these expressions
And when he recalls these cases he thinks in terms of sensations or experiences that he wants to express. These are personal:
(As I have said before, this is an entirely personal matter and others would find other examples more striking.) I will describe this experience in order, if possible, to make you recall the same or similar experiences, so that we may have a common ground for our investigation.
There is something of a problem here, at least potentially: how to ensure or find common ground when dealing with personal experiences. It seems to me that this relates to the so-called private language argument, but it also echoes a concern of Frege's. Quoting from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Frege:
In 1918, Frege published a lengthy essay titled “Thoughts,” in which he describes his motives for investigating the nature of language:
I am not here in the happy position of a mineralogist who shows his audience a rock-crystal: I cannot put a thought in the hands of my readers with the request that they should examine it from all sides. Something in itself not perceptible by sense, the thought is presented to the reader – and I must be content with that – wrapped up in a perceptible linguistic form. The pictorial aspect of language presents difficulties. The sensible always breaks in and makes expressions pictorial and so improper. So one fights against language, and I am compelled to occupy myself with language although it is not my proper concern here. I hope I have succeeded in making clear to my readers what I want to call ‘thought’ (1997:333f., n.). 
One fights against language. And one does so with and in language. It would surely be wrong to say that this  is the whole of Wittgenstein's later philosophy. But it (i.e. not just the quote from Frege but the whole of what I have written above, or just the whole Lecture on Ethics) does seem to me to be a key to it.


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Language is things we do

Via Orienteringsforsøk (a site I rarely visit now that Google Chrome won't translate it anymore--I must have clicked in the wrong place sometime) I see that Lars Hertzberg has a new, English-language blog called Language is things we do. Worth checking out.

Hertzberg says that he was encouraged to start the blog by Pär Segerdahl, who edits The Ethics Blog. That too looks interesting (see here and here, for instance).

Monday, March 12, 2012

Say what you choose

One of my favorite passages from Philosophical Investigations is from section 79:
Say what you choose, so long as it does not prevent you from seeing the facts. (And when you see them there is a good deal that you will not say.)
(My Google search to find the location of this passage brought up references to my work more than anything else, which perhaps shows how much I like it and have quoted it. Or it might just be that Google is that personalized.)

It's easy to focus on the "say what you choose" part, in something like the spirit of Richard Rorty or Daniel ("thermostats can think") Dennett, but I now think that the parenthetical caveat is almost more important: Don't say things that will prevent the seeing of the facts. Be true to the facts, we might say. Do justice to the world (Wittgenstein talks elsewhere about doing justice to concepts). This is much easier said than done, or so he seems to believe.

One of the main ideas I came away with from the Wittgenstein Workshop this past weekend, if you can call it an idea, is this sense of honesty as mission in Wittgenstein's philosophy. Possibly more on this in future.

(It reminds me a little of the Confucian idea of the rectification of names, which makes me wish I had an opportunity to make a joke about a women's prison being for the rectification of dames. Sorry. Here's a song that refers to a women's prison as compensation.) 


A history of violence

Three points from which I will start in hope of arriving at a point in the end:

  1. There is a sense in which violence has disappeared from everyday life, at least when it comes to (people like) me. Evidence: fights were part of life when I was a kid, both at school (where the other kids would stand around chanting "Scrap! Scrap!") and on the streets, especially outside pubs. This doesn't seem to be true any more. I live in a different country, so it's hard to compare, but I don't think there are any fights like that at my kids' schools. If a fight broke out it would be a big deal and all the parents would probably hear about it. Evidence that this is a general truth and not merely a peculiarity of my life comes from the fact that people like the Rolling Stones and Elton John could sing popular songs about fighting in the street in the 60s and early 70s (although the Stones' song is supposedly a political statement about apathy--I don't think that fact is well enough known to affect my point), whereas by the late 70s Slaughter & The Dogs were asking "Where Have All the Bootboys Gone," and by the 80s the Newtown Neurotics were rejecting "Mindless Violence," which apparently had gone from the gentlemanly fair fighting of the bootboys ("Do you want a scrap? All right. Get ready then.") to something closer to murdering old people (as also decried in the Smiths' "Sweet and Tender Hooligan"). 
  2. It is well known that "Anglo-Saxon" words are frowned upon in polite society while Latin words are considered much more respectable. This seems prissy until you feel the origin of the words as when, for instance, I was watching a Danish film (as I remember) and noticed that the Danes use the word 'fuck.' That fact might not strike you unless you know enough English history to know about the terrifying attacks by Danes in the 9th century. I think I read about them in extracts from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which I remember as a series of rumors about the movements of the pillaging horde. Raping and pillaging, presumably. So 'fuck' is the word the rapists use. The rapists who travel unpredictably in an unstoppable (or at least unstopped) army. Understandable that it should send shivers through centuries, even if these shivers end up being a little gutless. Except that this history is all based on my imagination as far as words go. According to the internet, Anglo-Saxon words weren't considered bad until the Norman conquest of 1066, when the Anglo-Saxons were on the losing side. So perhaps disliking these words has always been prissy. I have a hard time not believing my version though.
  3. At Washington and Lee University for the Wittgenstein Workshop I noticed an old photograph showing the university's neoclassical colonnade in the background, with what look like shacks in the foreground (where the town's mostly African-American neighborhood is now). I suppose there would not have been such a neighborhood in the days of slavery, but it made me think of Neil Young's line about "tall white mansions and little shacks." The fine buildings look triumphant (in a bad way). What is now an excellent liberal arts university open to all was then a place of white, male privilege, after all. The classical look seems to rub this in the noses of others.
There is baggage in words and buildings. Not that they are nothing but such baggage, of course, but it's there. We suffer a kind of historical blindness or deafness if we ignore it. This doesn't mean we should tear down Washington and Lee, or never say 'fuck.' It does mean, I think, that we need to know history if we are to know ourselves. But I suppose that's just a cliché, the kind of thought more likely to be repeated thoughtlessly than actually taken in (like "Never again").

I'm not looking for a theory of history to buy into (although I am interested in collecting a few plausible contenders), but economics certainly seems to play a big part in Viking raids, imperialism, and slavery. It also seems to be behind the disappearance of the bootboys (young men so fond of kicking people that they are identified by this habit). "Where Have All the Bootboys Gone?" is worthy of a short essay on its own, but I'll try to focus on the answers it implies to the question it so memorably poses.

The opening couplet is almost perfect comedy: "Wearing boots and short haircuts/ We will kick you in the guts." If they had just gone with 'nuts' instead of 'guts' it would have been a great parody of punk rock. But the line that people laugh at the most is "They drink tea from a cup." This brings us to the sociological analysis that Slaughter has to offer. Some bootboys apparently become bourgeois, drinking tea instead of beer, and from a cup instead of a more manly, blue-collar mug. Others "get married and settle down," which might explain the tea cups. And the rest "leave for a foreign town," presumably elsewhere in Britain rather than anywhere literally foreign. So social aspirations (tea drinking and no more fighting at the request of their wives) and economic ambition or necessity (leaving their friends to seek work away from home) appear to be at the root of the disappearance. This all seems plausible as the working class has been squeezed at both ends by the opportunity to rise socio-economically for the lucky and sinking into a pride-less, culture-less underclass for the unlucky. And that's in line with the policies of the Thatcher government ("the enemies of the British working man" according to the Newtown Neurotics), who wanted that kind of opportunity and were prepared to accept that kind of cost. (And who may well have believed there was no better alternative.) They famously advised the unemployed to "get on their bikes" and move to where the jobs were. (My dad lived for a while in something like a van down by the river in much this spirit after he lost his job.) 

So what's my point? Perhaps it's that people tend to do things for short-term economic gain, but that these things can have cultural effects that are much harder to measure and predict, and that can last for centuries. I want also to create a kind of conceptual collage in which this idea is brought together with Nietzsche's genealogy of morality and Wittgenstein's suggestion that a whole mythology is contained in our language. Beyond that I don't think I have a point to make, except that I prefer History to Economics, and the disappearance of the bootboys is not necessarily a good thing.  

Friday, March 9, 2012

Stolen valor

Here's an interesting discussion of the ethics of the legality of falsely claiming to have won a medal. The author, Dan Demetriou, suggests that such false claims should not be illegal, as they are under the Stolen Valor Act of 2006, and that "the law should not enforce the honor code, but [...] private individuals should through public denunciation and social sanction."

I'm not sure what I think about this (I do reach a conclusion by the end of the post though) but it's interesting to me because for nine years I wore the uniform of the unorganized Virginia militia, which to the untrained eye looks exactly like a US Army uniform. (Most VMI faculty members wear this uniform, but it took a while for everyone to realize that non-US citizens like me are not supposed to do so.) As a result I was stopped more than once on the street and thanked for my brave service to the nation. A real soldier once even asked me where the nearest PX was, which meant I had to explain that I wasn't a real soldier and didn't know. This was all embarrassing, and I felt as though I was involved in a kind of fraud. You can imagine how little college professors dressed as soldiers actually look like soldiers. The VMI line is that we should wear the uniform with pride, and make an effort to keep in shape, learn how to salute properly, and so on, so that we don't look silly.

Some military people take the view that being allowed to wear the uniform is an honor. Others believe that this honor only makes sense when those wearing the uniform do so because they have earned the right to do so, by joining the real military. It's reminiscent of the Chesterton story in which Father Brown explains that a deconsecrated church is no longer a church, no matter how much it looks like one (which in turn is reminiscent of  Socrates' joke at the expense of Crito, who asks how they should bury him--Socrates replies that it is only his body that they will bury, not Socrates himself (it isn't a very funny joke)). It reminds me also about the debate about same-sex marriage and whether this would be real marriage or merely resemble it, and whether such resemblance would matter or not.

We can take different views when it comes to uniforms/medals, churches, bodies, and marriages, but in each case two positions stand out. There is the view that technical differences make all the difference, so that it does not matter at all what happens with deconsecrated churches, dead bodies, gay "marriages" (scare quotes to reflect the position of people who would not recognize such unions as marriages in any sense that mattered, which is not my position) or non-real-military uniforms. Call this the Father Brown view. And there is the view that apparent similarity matters. Turning a deconsecrated church into a public toilet or a brothel would then be blasphemous. Throwing Socrates' body in a landfill would be an insult to Socrates (as well as to human dignity), wearing the uniform of the unorganized Virginia militia badly would be an insult to the US Army, and allowing same-sex marriage would say something about traditional marriage. (Whether this something was an insult or not--I don't think it would be, but others disagree--would depend on the propriety of same-sex marriage.) Call this the Anscombe view (because I think it's what she would think about at least a couple of these issues).

I side with Anscombe (or "Anscombe," if we're being careful), but I don't know how much I can do to justify this. It's tempting to think that what matters is the intention or attitude of the people doing the alleged insulting (you get this a lot when the issue of confederate flags comes up--"I have no conscious racist motive, therefore my waving the battle flag of an explicitly pro-African-and-African-American slavery army is not a racist act"), but I think it's easy to see that this is wrong. The cultural meaning of actions matters, but not the individual intent so much. If I urinate on a church or a corpse then I have insulted it, whether I meant to do so or not (perhaps I was drunk and didn't know what I was doing). But if I am in a culture where urination is an act of respect then I have not insulted it. That's a silly example, but the traditional example of ways of disposing of dead bodies makes the same point. In some cultures burning a body is an insult, in others it's respectful. My point is only that the culture determines what is an insult and what is a mark of respect, not the thoughts of the individual agent, and not the reaction of any alleged victim ("It doesn't offend me, therefore it's not offensive"). If I take offense unreasonably then I have not been insulted, even though I feel as though I have been. And if I  am very thick-skinned, or just beaten down by constant abuse, then I will not feel feel insults that are still perfectly real. Nor can I turn a compliment into an insult by a secret mental act. Respect and disrespect are public, cultural acts, not private, mental ones on the part of the agent or the patient.

Wearing medals you have no right to wear devalues the currency of respect. It is counterfeit valor, it seems to me, more than stolen valor. And this is a harm to the valorous (assuming that medals are awarded for valor and not for, say, mindless obedience to the imperialist dictates of the military-industrial complex). It takes away some of the respect, or honor, that has been bestowed upon them. Dishing out medals too readily might have much the same effect, but it isn't necessarily dishonest, and it would be difficult to use the law to ensure that it never happened. Pretending to have been awarded a medal not only contributes to "respect inflation" but it also does so in a way that shows disregard for the respect in question (whereas simply awarding too many medals is compatible with high regard for what each medal means--it shows rather an overestimation of the worth of some actions). 

Apparently free speech is considered relevant to this issue by some people, but I don't see any reason to believe that people have a right to make false claims. Jokes, yes. People should be allowed to wear fake medals for purposes of satire, political protest, and theater. But it seems right to me that deception for personal gain should remain illegal.