Saturday, April 28, 2012

Kafka and Wittgenstein

Perhaps because they were both brilliant, roughly contemporaneous, German-speaking, central Europeans of Jewish descent it is hard not to see connections between Kafka and Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein's "picture theory" was supposedly inspired by a report he read of a traffic accident in Paris. Kafka wrote a description of a traffic accident in Paris. Coincidence? Well, yes, presumably. Especially since the report Wittgenstein read was from 1914, and concerned a court case, while Kafka's description is from 1911 and describes the accident itself. But the coincidences pile up. Just now when I searched online for details of each case I found the passage I have linked to above, which takes Kafka's accident description as notably filmic, in contrast to his previous writing. And that reminds me of Alfred Nordmann on the Tractatus and its oddly static, decidedly non-filmic, treatment of language and the world, as if time were unreal. 

Then there's "Metamorphosis," which has been written about in relation to Wittgenstein by at least Rebecca Schuman and Stephen Mulhall. Presumably Kafka's story means what it says, so that reading it as a straightforward allegory would be wrong, but in his diaries Kafka uses the image of a cockroach to express both his own self-loathing and the attitude of anti-Semites toward Jewish people, i.e. the former see the latter as (being like) cockroaches. It would be (a little too) obvious to read "Metamorphosis" as being about Antisemitism, and, following Mulhall's suggestion in connection with this, to make a further link to Wittgenstein's beetle in the box. I don't think that Wittgenstein had Antisemitism in mind at all when he wrote about the beetle, but I am interested in exploring the application of his thought-experiment (can I call it that?) to the kind of phenomenon that Sartre describes in Anti-Semite and Jew. I mention Sartre partly because I'd much rather discuss anti-English prejudice (which he mentions) than Antisemitism, which has a history too dark for this kind of playing with ideas. But it's hard to avoid touching on darkness when dealing with this subject, and talk about Limeys or Rosbifs just seems silly.  

Here's Wittgenstein:
Suppose everyone had a box with something in it: we call it a “beetle”. No one can look into anyone else’s box, and everyone says he knows what a beetle is only by looking at his beetle. –Here it would be quite possible for everyone to have something different in his box. One might even imagine such a thing constantly changing. –But suppose the word “beetle” had a use in these people’s language? –If so it would not be used as the name of a thing. The thing in the box has no place in the language-game at all; not even as a something: for the box might even be empty. –No, one can ‘divide through’ by the thing in the box; it cancels out, whatever it is.
That is to say: if we construe the grammar of the expression of sensation on the model of ‘object and designation’ the object drops out of consideration as irrelevant. 
Instead of a box, imagine that we are talking about human bodies, and instead of a beetle, imagine that we are talking about a "soul". Each body's "soul" might be something quite different. Some might change constantly. And some bodies might even be empty, having no soul. But suppose the word "soul" has a use nonetheless? Then it is not used to designate something inside the body (even though, ex hypothesi, "soul" is what we call the thing in the body--presumably calling something something need not involve designating an object, perhaps just as naming a baby or pet is not designating an object). Saying that someone had, or did not have, a soul would then not state a certain, dispassionate kind of fact about that person but would perhaps express an attitude or be a Davidsonian metaphor or something along those lines.

Then what would it mean to say that someone had become a cockroach or beetle? In Kafka's story the inside or soul remains much the same, but the container or body is transformed. I won't interpret this, but it suggests something about people who are regarded as cockroaches, etc. They are treated or thought of or looked at differently than other people, while the dispassionate facts about them are no different from the facts about other people. They still belong to the species homo sapiens, they still bleed when pricked (although that is already starting to shade into a different kind of facts--Shylock is not a mere biologist, which is why the argument from analogy for the existence of other minds seems to work despite also seeming to be an instance of induction from just one case), and so on. Appeal to dispassionate facts won't persuade anyone that a body has a soul attached to it. We cannot shake the box and hear the beetle. This says something, something about facts and imagination and feelings, about the kind of task that Shylock faces in trying to get others to see him as a fellow human being, and about the kind of work that is involved in ethical argument (for instance about the status of animals, or fetuses, or immigrants, or the environment, etc.).

Kafka also suggests a more Sartrean point, that we are what other people see us as being. We are also, Sartre thinks (as I understand him), what we make ourselves through the choices we make. But there is a sense in which we are entirely determined by others. (Perhaps we could say that Sartre believes we are all duck-rabbits, with the duck produced by completely free choices and the rabbit produced completely by forces beyond our control, the views of others. But seeing a duck-rabbit as first a duck and then a rabbit is much easier than seeing yourself as others see you, or seeing someone else as they see themselves. And I imagine Sartre knew this.)

Anyway, as I say, I think it would be a mistake to read too much into the beetle in the box example (although if you want to then see also the entertaining novel Boxer Beetle by Ned Beauman, about a gay Jewish boxer named Roach and fascists who collect beetles). But there is quite a bit already there, not about Antisemitism, but about the relations between mind (or soul) and body, the individual and society, and the subtleties of language. Kafka's story also helps bring these things out, whether he had them in mind or not. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

I guess I'm just a little...

I suppose there can't be any precise answer to the question how sensitive people should be, but I was surprised when Brian Leiter linked to a light-hearted blog post by a convicted pedophile about fun philosophy books, in which he recommends Simon Blackburn's Lust among others.

I was surprised again when he chose to use the language of the Nazis to describe excessively sympathetic attitudes towards Israel.

And it ought to be a surprise that Jon Cogburn (understandably) anticipates mercilessness from another popular blogger about his forthcoming book.    

I suppose I need to get a sense of humour.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Recent work has suggested...

The Stone is my go-to site when I want to criticize something so as to have something to post on my blog. I have realized that this is neither noble nor really worthwhile, but I'm not sure I can resist this time. Peter Ludlow writes:
Recent work in philosophy, psychology and artificial intelligence has suggested a [...] picture that rejects the idea that languages are stable abstract objects that we learn and then use.  According to the alternative “dynamic” picture, human languages are one-off things that we build “on the fly” on a conversation-by-conversation basis; we can call these one-off fleeting languages microlanguages.  
Well, yes, we can I suppose. But how do we learn these microlanguages? It surely helps to know some other microlanguage already, to have had other conversations before. More specifically, here is Ludlow's example:
suppose I am thinking of applying for academic jobs and I tell my friend that I don’t care where I teach so long as the school is in a city.  My friend suggests that I apply to the University of Michigan and I reply “Ann Arbor is not a city.”  In doing this, I am not making a claim about the world so much as instructing my friend (for the purposes of our conversation) to adjust the meaning of “city” from official definitions to one in which places like Ann Arbor do not count as cities.  
This reminds me of p. 234 of this essay by James Conant, in which he discusses Frege's sentence "Trieste is no Vienna." It isn't news that we can do things like this with language. Nor that we can break language into parts and call them something, be it microlanguages or language-games.

I don't mean to reject what Ludlow is saying though. Apart from this invitation to invent counterexamples:
If word meanings can change dramatically during the course of a single conversation how could they not change over the course of centuries?  
(Compare: "If whether I'm alive or not can change dramatically during the course of a single conversation how could it not change over the course of several decades?") For the most part I think I agree very much with Ludlow. And as ever with articles in The Stone the main problem might just be with the task he has taken on of explaining complicated issues and ideas in simple terms. But I hate the thought that an idea is only valuable when recent work in some kind of science has suggested that it is true. If people insist on thinking like that then maybe they deserve to come late to what has long since been pointed out.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Chronicle and a death foretold?

There's a story about the curricular changes going on at VMI in today's Chronicle of Higher Education. (I don't know whether that link works, but I hope it does. The story is behind a paywall, but a friend of mine linked to it on Facebook and I was able to read the whole thing there.)

Here's the part that is freely available:

Virginia Military Institute Considers Limiting How Many Students Can Choose Popular Majors

Virginia Military Institute Considers Controversial Plan to Limit How Many Students Can Choose Popular Majors 1
Virginia Military Institute
R. Wane Schneiter, deputy superintendent for academics and dean of the faculty at VMI, says "uneven enrollment distribution strains resources for the larger majors and underutilizes resources for the smaller ones and prevents effective resource planning."

The dean of the Virginia Military Institute has put forward a controversial and unusual plan that could prevent students from choosing popular academic majors so that the institute can equalize faculty workloads and spread out its 1,500 students more evenly across disciplines. The plan has upset some professors, including one who called it "academic socialism." 

It's a slightly strange story, emphasizing a proposed cap on the number of students who can major in each available subject rather than the prospect of eliminating the BA in Psychology, eliminating the major in English literature (and replacing it with a major in writing and speech), or the alleged fear of tenured faculty members to speak out, which it mentions at the very end. My understanding is that the cap on majors is not likely to make a big difference in practice, although I also think that how, and whether, it works remains to be seen. Interesting to see how what goes on here is perceived by the outside world.

Oh, and to explain my title: there are rumors that all this means the death of English literature at VMI. Of course it doesn't mean that. Only that the study of such literature will no longer be a substantial part of any major here. What part it will have in the curriculum is yet to be determined.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Taste without flavor

Mohan Matthen says a couple of interesting things about judgments of taste here. First there's this:
there is nothing universalizable or normative in lustful contemplation. There is nothing in it that supports the idea that others should take the same kind of pleasure, or any kind of pleasure, in the contemplation of this [person’s] naked form.
I'm not sure that I agree with this, but then how would the matter be decided? (And that is what I find most interesting about the claim.) How do we know, or how could we know, what is or is not in lustful contemplation? Getting into a lustful (but merely contemplative) state can't be the way to do philosophy, and whatever I might find in my lustful contemplation might not be in lustful contemplation as such or in general. In other words, the empirical approach might conflict in practice with the philosophical aim of the experiment, and its results might not generalize even assuming one can analyze well while genuinely in the required state. If we try some lust-free armchair analysis then Matthen seems right--there is nothing about the concept of lust that implies any universalizability or normativity. To lust is not to judge lust-worthy. Lust is animal, and animals don't judge.

Still, this seems not quite right, perhaps because it makes too sharp a distinction between us and animals, or between lust and aesthetic appreciation. Are they really so distinct? Is it possible to desire without regarding as desirable? And how different are a) desire and lust, and b) regarding as and judging to be? I recently ate some tasty wasabi trail mix, the kind of thing it is hard to stop eating. I didn't think of it as tasty-to-me or merely desired (but not necessarily desirable). Nor did I think of it as something that every rational or normal eater would like. I just liked it. And, it seems to me, the judgment (or experience) that something is tasty is quite similar to the judgment/feeling that someone is hot (to keep the wasabi theme going). It isn't normative, but it isn't non-normative either. That is, there is nothing about the contingency of my feeling this way in the experience, just as there is nothing about other people's having to feel the same way in it.

That's obscure. What I mean is that, like Homer Simpson, when I eat or lustfully contemplate a doughnut my thought is something like, "Mmmm...doughnut." It isn't, "Well, that doughnut looks good to me, but I realize that others might quite reasonably not feel the same way." Nor is it, "What a doughnut! All must want it on pain of irrationality." But if anything I think it's closer to the latter than it is to the former. And lust is like hunger.

Some experiences do have a sense of contingency about them, especially when we're not quite sure what we think or how we feel. I like marmite, but I can see how other people might not. And this is related to (but not the same thing as) the fact that I don't like it very much. When I really like something a lot I do tend to think that you would have to be mad not to like it. So that is normative, although of course I can understand that tastes differ, especially when it comes to sexuality (less so with food, I think). Most obviously, if you don't share my view of someone's attractiveness I will be less likely to think you insane if your sex or sexual orientation is not the same as mine. But there is still something theoretical or intellectual about such recognition (or acceptance) of other's rationality. My mouth tells me the trail mix tastes good. My brain tells me your mileage may vary.

Then Matthen says this:
Enjoying food is not enough for the application of aesthetic epithets; indeed it is irrelevant. To make a “judgement of taste”about food, you have to judge that it has qualities, which might be related to the flavour experience, that ought to give anybody pleasure independently of enjoying the flavour.  
I can make no sense of this. So here's the same thing with more context:
it is certainly possible that persons are beautiful, but only if the pleasure of contemplating them transcends sexual preference and desire.
Similarly for food and wine. Enjoying food is not enough for the application of aesthetic epithets; indeed it is irrelevant. To make a “judgement of taste”about food, you have to judge that it has qualities, which might be related to the flavour experience, that ought to give anybody pleasure independently of enjoying the flavour. It’s certainly possible that terms like beautiful (or their domain-specific counterparts) can be attributed to food, but it requires considerations quite different to the sort that food critics usually employ. 
Now food can look nice or have an appealing texture without tasting good. But I take Matthen to be saying that, or wanting to say something like, food can taste beautiful without this having anything to do with the enjoyability of its flavor. That's got to be wrong. If this is what he or Kant (Matthen says he has "adopted Kant's notion of beauty") thinks then it looks like a reductio of that position. Maybe I've got it wrong. Let's see.

Here is Matthen on Kant on judgments of beauty:
Kant said that you attribute beauty to something when you judge that it is, i.e., ought to be, an object of disinterested pleasure for everybody. His example is that of a palace. You can judge that it would give you pleasure if you lived in it. Or you may think it represents the kind of extravagance that greatly pains your socialist soul, and you judge that others should share your disapproval. But these pleasures and pains are not “disinterested.” Disinterested pleasure is independent of the palace existing. It attaches to the “mere representation.”
I (think I) understand the first part of this, the idea that you can take pleasure in something's appearance without anticipating any personal benefit from it. The socialism part makes less sense to me, because surely the socialist in this case is trying to be disinterested. She judges that others ought not to approve of the palace. Perhaps the idea is that the socialist sees that the palace is beautiful but disapproves of the causal chain by which it was produced, or the effects its production is likely to have. The palace considered just in itself, as it were, might be fine from her point of view. It's the socio-economic context that makes such a palace objectionable, not anything about the palace's matter or shape. So how does this apply to people and food?

I can judge, or simply see, that someone is beautiful without wanting to have sex with them. I agree with that. So if food can be beautiful then perhaps I should be able to appreciate this without wanting to eat the food. Indeed, I might be too full to eat. But I think Matthen wants to exclude that kind of consideration. Other things being equal, considered only as food (and not as, say, poison to someone with your allergies), could you judge this food to have a beautiful flavor without at all wanting to eat it? That makes no sense to me.

But, having worked on this post on and off for several days, I think I'll leave it there. The comments thread at New APPS has some good stuff in it, but also more mystery. In comment 30 Matthen says this:
I am sure you don't think (all/any of) the following count as experiences of beauty: sexual arousal by somebody very attractive, the taste of chocolate, the soothing sound of a waterfall or surf on a beach, a warm bath. How do you think that these differ from the sight of a magnificent mountain range, the taste of coq au vin, the sound of a nightingale? I take each of the last three to be examples of beauty as opposed to mere pleasure. 
Most of the time I just see no difference at all between the first examples and the last ones. Sexual arousal could be different, but when you specify that this is arousal "by somebody very attractive" then I don't see how that could not include an experience of beauty, even if it also includes other things too, such as love or lust. How is chocolate different from coq au vin, unless the flavor of one is assumed to be simpler than that of the other? Why do waterfalls give mere pleasure with their sound but nightingales sound beautiful? Complexity seems to be the difference again, since waterfalls make a kind of noise whereas nightingales sing a kind of tune. But I don't accept that beauty requires complexity or order.

Then again, perhaps I'm forgetting what beauty is. How could I think that getting into a warm bath is experiencing beauty rather than mere pleasure? One problem here is that we don't have a good account of what pleasure is, which makes it hard to distinguish between it and beauty. Another problem, as Wittgenstein is reported to have said in the lectures on aesthetics, is that we actually use the word 'beauty' very little in discussing aesthetic matters. At least, I imagine that professional critics try to avoid using it. It doesn't seem to have a very clear or precise meaning.

I'm getting suspicious of the whole idea. Matthen talks about "the sight of a magnificent mountain range" as an example of beauty. I do and don't know what he means. On the one hand, this is a standard kind of idea of beauty, the kind of scene people used to put on boxes of chocolates. But does anyone look at such pictures and think "Magnificent!" or "How beautiful!"? Don't they just look cheesy? I live in a valley surrounded by mountains, and I certainly think of them as beautiful. But they aren't what I would call magnificent. Emperors are magnificent (doesn't it mean great-doing, or something along those lines?), while the Blue Ridge mountains are firry (to coin a word) and green. The Alps might be magnificent, or the Rockies. But to see something as magnificent seems to me to involve being a little bit afraid of it, while seeing it as beautiful involves a kind of love. (And then the sublime somehow combines these two, as I understand it.)

In the end I'm not sure that 'beautiful' means much more than nice to look at. And 'nice' means neither nice-for-me nor nice-for-all-right-minded-people. It means nice. The nice is good and worth protecting, of course, but should others like it? I don't really know what it would mean to say such a thing. Other things being equal, it seems good to like things. And, as lucky Jim says, nice things are nicer than nasty things. As I said a few paragraphs ago, I think I'll leave it there.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

How to hire a philosopher

It really is a buyer's market, so anyone hiring a philosopher would do well to aim for the very best person who applies, and not worry much that this person will turn them down for something better. In our job search this year I decided to gamble and recommend to the search committee that we do just this (not quite in those terms though). They took my advice (perhaps not realizing what a gamble I thought it might be--I'm the only philosopher on the search committee), and it paid off. The people we brought to campus interviewed extremely well, did a great job in the classroom, impressed everyone they met, and were eminently hire-able. What's amazing is that I don't think any of them got better offers elsewhere. Other people in my top twenty are showing up as having accepted post-docs, so it's possible that deep into my pool of best applicants for a teaching job no one has been offered a tenure-track or quasi-tenure-track position (I'm guessing that a job like this would be preferred to a post-doc, and that guess might be wrong). So that's my first bit of advice: by all means try to weed out people who don't really seem to be looking for a teaching position (although I have doubts about this--wouldn't everyone rather do a little teaching really well for more money than more teaching probably less well for less money, i.e. take a job at a research school?), but from my (limited) experience, it's a big mistake to rule out anyone on the grounds that she is simply too good.

The other decision I made fairly late in the day, and it was more like a realization than a decision, was that it mattered to me that we should hire someone interesting and not someone who would encourage ways of thinking in our students that I would want to undo. I just couldn't bring myself to recommend candidates who were too extreme, either in the continental or the mainstream analytic direction. My top candidates had research programs that were either close to mine or else diverse in a way that I found exciting. Of my top four, two have written papers that I either think I might have written (on a good day) or else wish I could have written, and two work in quite different areas than I work in, but are so creative that I could easily see areas of overlap and possible mutual inspiration. I really wish we could have hired all four.

What I discovered above all was that the whole process was much more painful than I had anticipated. A couple of years ago I went to a conference at Ã…bo Akademi University in Finland, and several people there commented on what a great philosophy department Lars Hertzberg has put together. Of course Hertzberg is best known and most admired for his scholarly work, but I sensed that some people felt his work in building (or helping to build--I don't know the history) a group of such intelligent, pleasant, and interesting people was almost as significant an achievement. I had this in mind when I set about looking through our applications, feeling like a kid in a candy store. One applicant prompted me to write the words "seems almost too good to be true" in my notes. Another literally made my jaw drop. A couple did work that struck me as so cool that all I could really think about it was, "Wow!" And most of these people also provided excellent student evaluations, as well as at least one letter detailing just how good their teaching is. But we could only hire one person.

156 applicants means 155 rejections. Some of the 155 don't live all that far away, and several work in areas close enough to mine that it seems inevitable I will come into contact with them again in future. Their pain is greater than mine, of course, but it's horrible having to give genuinely excellent candidates bad news. I never anticipated losing as much sleep as I have. The consolation is that we have hired one of the people I described in the paragraph above, so I can't believe our luck. It comes at a price though.

I know that some people think it's ridiculous that people like me want to hire people better than us. But of course we do! We could easily have brought half a dozen people to campus for interviews who had tremendous publication records (in any terms you like: quantity, prestige, quality, fit, ...) as well as persuasive evidence of excellent teaching, not to mention collegiality, and all the rest of it. Of course you never know how good someone really is until you meet them, see them teach, and continue to do these things over a number of years. But why anyone would decide to shortlist people with less going for them on paper is beyond me. It isn't that a school like ours needs geniuses to teach the courses we offer. It's that there is no good reason to pass over an Einstein who can teach in favor of Bill Nye or Walter White, just because you are kind of a Bill Nye school. My reference to Einstein might make it sound as though I emphasized research above teaching, but I didn't. It's hard to judge teaching ability on paper, though, so research is a useful way to differentiate between candidates who provide equally strong evidence of teaching excellence. It's also part of our job description to engage in scholarly work. For the record, the person we are hiring was described by one of my colleagues who saw his teaching demonstration as having "hit it out of the park" and by another as having done as good a job as he had ever seen in such a demonstration. The wonderful and frightening thing is that these are the people getting jobs at schools like ours, and in some cases not getting the job but coming a very close second: jaw-droppingly good researchers who teach as well as anyone you have ever seen, and who come across as (and are said by people who know them to be) good people willing to help out wherever and whenever necessary.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A rhetorical question

I've just found out that the philosophy program at VMI is likely to be moved from the Department of Psychology & Philosophy to the Department of English & Fine Arts, which I'm guessing might be renamed. There could be some curricular revision on the horizon too, to emphasize rhetoric. So I wonder what a major in English/philosophy/fine arts/rhetoric should look like. There must be potential for something really good, but realizing that potential and making the major attractive to students might not be easy. If anyone reading this has suggestions or relevant experience, I'd be happy to hear about them.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The missing shade of blue

If, like me, you don't remember to check Arts & Letters Daily daily then you might have missed this essay in the Financial Times. In it Jennie Erdal asks whether it's still possible to write a philosophical novel, although I don't see why it wouldn't be, and she gives some examples in answer to her own question (including novels by Coetzee and All is Song by Samantha Harvey, which sounds quite good). It might not be easy to do it as well as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky did it, but then it probably never was.

Erdal's own novel is called The Missing Shade of Blue, and its title reminds me of this famous passage from Hume:
I believe it will readily be allowed, that the several distinct ideas of colour, which enter by the eye, or those of sound, which are conveyed by the ear, are really different from each other; though, at the same time, resembling. Now if this be true of different colours, it must be no less so of the different shades of the same colour; and each shade produces a distinct idea, independent of the rest. For if this should be denied, it is possible, by the continual gradation of shades, to run a colour insensibly into what is most remote from it; and if you will not allow any of the means to be different, you cannot, without absurdity, deny the extremes to be the same. Suppose, therefore, a person to have enjoyed his sight for thirty years, and to have become perfectly acquainted with colours of all kinds, except one particular shade of blue, for instance, which it never has been his fortune to meet with. Let all the different shades of that colour, except that single one, be placed before him, descending gradually from the deepest to the lightest; it is plain, that he will perceive a blank, where that shade is wanting, and will be sensible, that there is a greater distance in that place between the contiguous colours than in any other. Now I ask, whether it be possible for him, from his own imagination, to supply this deficiency, and raise up to himself the idea of that particular shade, though it had never been conveyed to him by his senses? I believe there are few but will be of opinion that he can
I think I have to count myself among the few here. We can conjure up ideas in the usual sense of 'idea', but Hume is talking about ideas as things that can "enter by the eye," which can only be something like bits of light. And there's no conjuring those up. Presumably he means the experience of seeing, say, some particular shade of blue, but that doesn't enter by the eye, and it also can't be conjured up. We can dream we see it, or imagine we know what it would be like, but we surely can't actually create the experience by thinking or willpower. If we think we can it's because the grammar of color seems to intimate it to us, showing the hole in our experience where it ought to go. But this via negativa is no substitute for the real thing. Experiences are events, and ideas are public. The idea of private objects as something like a cross between an experience and an idea is a myth. But not one I expect to go away any time soon, or as a result of reading this post. And I expect I am being much too dogmatic here, hoping for a shortcut to avoid real work.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Meek's Cutoff

Films about journeys suggest some kind of metaphor about our journey through life, and films about white people traveling to the American West suggest some kind of metaphor about the history or nature of the United States. So almost from the beginning of this movie about a small group of Virginians and English (and others) trying to get to Oregon I was asking myself what it all meant.

The first things that struck me about it are that the picture, at least on my tv, is square (I don't know why, but the effect is to make you feel that you aren't seeing the full picture, that your perspective is limited, incomplete); that the cinematography is superb; and that the movie is very quiet. I had to turn it up unusually loud to hear what people were saying, and there is a general lack of sound in the film (very little music, for instance, and not a whole lot of dialogue). In this respect, as well as in others, it is quite different from The Tree of Life, although I'm tempted to say that Meek's Cutoff is the movie that The Tree of Life wanted to be. The main thing you hear is the creaking of the wagons as they are pulled across the dry land. There is very little for the people to do except wonder whether their guide, Stephen Meek, really knows where he is taking them, to fear that they will die of thirst or at the hands of the native people, and to read from the Bible. The first passage read is not about the meek inheriting the Earth, which would have been obvious, but about our being made of dust and destined to return to dust. Not very cheery when you're lost in a desert.

I did find myself thinking constantly about the idea of inheriting the Earth. Would this mean getting to Oregon and the agricultural riches promised there? Or would it mean inheriting the desert, perhaps by dying in it and becoming part of it? And who will get the inheritance in question, the meek or Mr Meek? He is one of four leaders who appear in the film, the others being a man named Solomon, a woman named Emily Tetherow, and an unnamed native American. Meek is not meek, and one character wonders whether he is evil or simply ignorant. People ask similar questions about God in relation to the problem of evil. Is he not really omnibenevolent? Or not really omniscient? And with people who do bad things (from annoyances inflicted on you by your boss to the worst atrocities in human history) we wonder whether they are malevolent or just irrational. Either way, the group is in Meek's hands.

At least until the other leaders emerge. Solomon and Emily Tetherow are clearly well-intentioned, but are they wise? It's hard to know. And when the group decides to follow the Native American they don't know whether he is leading them to water or to his home, which, from their perspective, would be a trap (at least if the native people treated them as they have treated the Native Americans). Or perhaps he is lost too. In the absence of knowledge people look for signs, or for meaning in what might be signs. A tree might signify that the desert is coming to an end, but what does a dead tree indicate? When the Native American makes marks on rocks and leaves other traces of his presence, is he leading other people to find him, or is it "Nothing--just religion"?

No answers are given by the film, at least not to questions about whom to choose as a guide. It's clear enough in general where we start and where we end up, and the time in-between is, one character says, something like a dream or a story. I suppose it makes sense to live well, rather than doing (what appears to you as) evil that might seem necessary simply in order to live longer. What living well entails, though, and whether religion is just nothing or somehow necessary for true humanity, or perhaps just a kind of beautiful ornament, is not clear.

It's funny how a film set in the American West in the 19th century, not the least popular setting for films over the years, can seem so unfamiliar. The wagons seem smaller than I think of them as being, the landscape is flatter, the women's clothes part familiar, part middle-eastern looking when the sand blows around their heads, and part almost like something from Star Wars when we see their bonnets in silhouette. And their predicament seems novel, like a story whose ending we want to get to, and yet, in outline, about as familiar as it could possibly be.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Following moral rules

Having written a paper on "Ethics and Private Language" I have joked with myself about writing a paper on "Ethics and Rule-Following." (I'm not saying it's a funny joke, and you might have to have read Kripke on Wittgenstein to get it.) But now the joke looks as though it might become a reality. My paper on "Wittgenstein's Ethics" prompted one workshop member to comment that a key issue was clearly that of rule-following, and my recent dialogue here with Reshef has made me wonder about what would count as doing the same thing in making what Wittgenstein-in-1929 would call making an ethical judgment. He describes such judgments in terms that are strikingly similar (as Cora Diamond was the first to notice, as far as I know) to those he later uses to explain the notion of secondary uses of words. And I think it might help to get some distance from ethics here, in case familiarity leads us (i.e. me) to overlook important points. So I'll start with an example of using a word in a secondary way that has nothing to do with ethics.

Let's say I call 'e' yellow. You say you know what I mean, and call 'f' green. But this makes no sense to me. Challenged, you claim to be doing the same thing I was doing. I smell a rat--are you making fun of me? Or just pretending to have understood what I meant? Or is it me that is missing some insight or imaginative discovery of yours? Or is something else going on? To what extent, or in what sense, can I accept that you are doing the same thing that I was doing if I don't at all share your view that 'f' is green?

It seems to me that we would have to have a conversation, and you would have to give me the kind of hints that people give when introducing someone to, say, a new kind of art. If I love Rothko or Pollock and you say that your five-year-old could have painted something as good, then I'll try to say and show you what I take to be so good about their work. You might get it, you might not. Much as if I were trying to teach my children to enjoy Shakespeare or philosophy. There isn't any fact we get to that shows it is good, like Wittgenstein's example of engineering in which there is a bridge that must not collapse. If the bridge supports traffic, it is a good bridge. There's nothing like that with philosophy (with, perhaps, rare exceptions when someone identifies an indisputable logical error) or literature or art. Or ethics. (Not that art is ethics. But the two are closer, at least in this regard, than either is to engineering considered in that kind of means-end, or meeting the objective/describable standard, way.)

Now what if you call suicide, as Chesterton does, "the ultimate and absolute evil" and I say that I know what you mean by "absolute evil" but disagree that the label is rightly applied to suicide? Perhaps I say that genocide is the ultimate and absolute evil. Are we talking past each other? It seems to me that we might be, but that only a conversation could make the answer clear. I don't mean that if we agree then by definition we are right in some sort of community-agreement-equals-truth kind of way. But if we agree that we did or did not mean the same thing by "absolute evil" then I don't see what grounds anyone else could have for saying we have got it wrong. Unless they join the conversation. Two uses are the same if they are like one another, and what is like what is a subjective (or inter-subjective) matter. Objectively, or as far as objectivity is concerned, everything is like everything else. So if saying that x is like y is going to have any point then there must be some relevant similarity. And relevance is (what I am calling) a subjective matter.

Which brings us to the question of (subjective) judgments of what things are like. What is the taste of pineapple? This. What is the taste of pineapple like? It's sweet. A bit like mango. A bit like apple.
"So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?" -- It is what human beings say that is true and false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life.
Compare this remark about opinions with this one: "I am not of the opinion that he has a soul." That other people have souls belongs to our form of life. Compare that remark about forms of life with this one: ""What has to be accepted, the given, is -- one could say -- forms of life."

There is no arguing about this, or no arguing other than the kind that goes on in relation to matters of taste. I cannot prove that green beans and raisins are horrible in the way I can prove that a collapsing bridge was badly designed or badly constructed. (I can, of course, prove whether people like them or not.)

It seems to me that Wittgenstein  answers an important question ("So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?") with a reference to "agreement in the language that human beings use" which could use some clarification. What is it to speak the same language? In a literal sense of "same language" two people might both speak, say, English. But not only is there another sense of "speaking the same language" that is less literal and less easy to identify, or impossible to identify objectively (I think I need to say more about what I mean by that), there is also a similar problem with regard to speaking English. That is, two people with little in common might be said not to speak the same language, even if both do in fact speak English. But even leaving aside that idiomatic use of "speak the same language" there are problem cases. Can a machine that passes the Turing Test speak English? At what point can a beginner be said to be able to speak English? When he can lie convincingly, as the Turing Test requires? When she can make a joke in English? When she dreams in English? Is American English the same language as British English? I don't think questions of relevance, and hence subjective judgments, can be completely avoided here.

And then there is another sense in which we can agree in the language we use. 'Language', like 'language-game', can refer to a part as well as the whole. It can mean wording. This might be a recent idiom, but it seems relevant to me. If "I feel absolutely safe" or "I wonder at the existence of the world" cannot be understood in a literal way, then how can we tell whether two people have the same feeling or wonder? How except by the words that they use to describe the feeling in question? And then it looks as though the two people's agreement in what they say decides whether it is true that they have the same feeling. Conclusion: I'm not sure that PI 241 is as straightforward as it seems.