Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A bit of singing and dancing

I keep meaning to do some real work and then other things come along instead. Similarly with blogging. One of these days I'll have a go at proper philosophical blogging (if that's what you want, Matthew Pianalto, Reshef Agam-Segal, and Daniel Lindquist have been managing to do great stuff despite its being summer), but I haven't managed much of that lately. In the meantime, Rupert Read has some interesting reflections on sport that I'd like to try to respond to. He touches not only on sport but on politics and other things too.

On the commercial corruption of 'sport' he writes:
As our climate-damaged sport-saturated ‘summer’ continues, it’s worth taking a moment perhaps to reflect on the concept of ‘sport’, and what it means today.
Take recent Wimbledon tennis finalist Andy Murray, for instance. Murray said on Radio 4 in the run-up to that final that he only enjoys winning, not playing / taking part – he regards tennis purely as a job. If so, he is a tennis player for the age of faceless soulless capitalism: an obscenely-over-rewarded workman. 
There's a lot going on here: climate-change, 'sport', soulless capitalism, and obscene rewards, for instance. Let me say a few words (literally) about each of these, to remind myself where I stand, if nothing else, before moving on.

Climate change: this recent article is worth reading, though also depressing. My view is basically that we are doomed unless global or nearly global action is taken. That's not to say that no one should bother recycling or walking when they don't have to drive, say, but that kind of individual effort won't save us. Another aspect of my view that is worth mentioning here is that Rupert Read makes heroic efforts in this department and puts me to shame. By this I don't mean simply that I admire him for what he does. I mean literally that I feel shame when I do things like drive or run air-conditioning, and I consciously connect this shame with him. Rupert would walk or ride a bike, I tell myself. Rupert would put up with this heat, or use a fan, or something. I'm not him, but I do genuinely (an earlier draft of this sounded sarcastic--I hope that's no longer true) admire his work for the environment, and the integrity he shows in doing it.

'Sport': I'll get back to this.

Soulless capitalism: a bad thing, but the other kind of capitalism is something I rather like. I don't buy the idea that everything government-run is bound to be inefficient and bad. Whatever you might think of the United States' socialized military, it's surely better than Blackwater. But I'm not a socialist. I like small businesses, family-run farms, and the like. It's big business that doesn't seem so good. Especially any business deemed too big to fail and therefore given public money. If we need businesses that big, it seems to me, they should be publicly owned, so that we share the profits as well as the risk and the cost of keeping them going.

Obscene rewards: I'm all for progressive taxation, and against enormous inequality.

OK, where was I? Later in the same article Read says:
In another, earlier, interview Murray also claimed, ‘My body feels like a machine.’ These words will be of interest to a philosopher like Merleau-Ponty, or Zygmunt Bauman. They are a confession of a way of living the body and of experiencing oneself as an industrial object, and a commodity, which is critiqued beautifully also by a philosophical neurologist like Iain McGilchrist (see my piece at http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=3398). They reveal the ethos of an activity that goes beyond inspiring youngsters to work hard to achieve high aspirations. Rather it fills youngsters with the idea that it is OK and admirable to be alienated from your own body; that winning is all that matters; that joy is unimportant.
So now we have the commodification of the body as well. That's a bad thing. Whether that's really what's going on with tennis players like Murray (and I think Andre Agassi said that tennis was a joyless job to him too) is another matter. Some of the comments below Read's post address this question. Machinification is everywhere, though, including the slow death of the humanities and the growth of distance learning. As Read implies, this is linked with a kind of consequentialism without utilitarianism, without hedonism. Winning is all that matters, joy is unimportant. This is the attitude of soulless capitalism, and it's the attitude that Read seems to be primarily against.

This marks the difference between 'sport' and sport. As he writes here:
I have serious reservations about modern spectator ‘sport’. I think it isn’t really…sport any more. It is a kind of madly-over-rewarded professional body-machinisation and semi-prostitution.
When referring to these professional capers, we should always put the scare-quotes in place… (As Confucius would have it: the most important task for a public intellectual is the rectification of names. The name of ‘sport’ has now been thoroughly turned on its head. We need to recover the old meaning (As in ‘What sport we had!’ Or ‘Now that was sporting!’).)
I'm not sure about the semi-prostitution idea (though women's beach volleyball is a possible exception), but the main idea, as I see it, is that professional sport has become joyless. It bears the hallmarks (excessive financial rewards, machinification of the people involved, exclusive focus on winning) of soulless capitalism, and involves precious little fun. This is, at least in general (and it is meant as a general point, after all), true.

Read also suggests that the Olympics causes people to "forget about solidarity with the Arab Awakening, to forget about the collapsing Euro, to forget about our day-by-day smashing of biodiversity and destruction of a liveable atmosphere." And that it increases nationalism. And that instead of watching sports people should be out playing them instead. All of which is questionable. It is possible to watch the Olympics and care about, or even do, other things as well. Nationalism, at least in the United States, is not likely to increase because of the Olympics. We're already pretty much at saturation point. And I would blame the commentators before I would blame the games themselves. I also don't like the idea that we should not watch but play. Why not do both? What if you can't play? Mark Edmundson said something similar about music, and my sense was that he just doesn't really like music. If you want to be in a band, good. But no one should feel that they have to be. And no one should stop listening to good music, or watching good sport, because of some participation ethic. If you want to join a team, fine. If you would rather go running on your own, also fine. If something else is your thing, fine too. We're not boy scouts. Part of the point of sport and art is to express yourself. The self part of that is important, and it requires freedom, including freedom not to join in.

What's good about both art and sport is the quasi-religious aspect (which brings with it an idolatrous aspect, of course: as I was sort of getting at here) and the aesthetics. Am I really going to try to talk about the aesthetics of art? I suppose not, but I will talk about the aesthetics of sport, or of sport as art. Or I'll let other people do so:

That's Stephen Mulhall, from Inheritance and Originality. Here's Geoff Dyer on the marathon in the 2004 Olympics:
Victory and triumph over adversity (as supremely achieved - twice - by Kelly Holmes) are uplifting, but defeat and failure can be utterly transfixing, too. [...]
When Elfenesh Alemu went past her, Radcliffe realised that not only would she not win gold but that she was out of the medals. [...] It was like watching someone having a complete crack-up before your eyes. As such it made superb television. (The grassy verge on which she ended up even lent a Zapruderish touch to the footage.) Athletes deny nine-tenths of themselves so that they can pack the remaining tenth with incredible intensity and purpose. While plenty of people succumb to the urge to give up (going to the gym, trying to be an artist), it goes pretty much unnoticed. But for Radcliffe this was both a public and complete ontological collapse. And it happened, let's not forget, on the very day that that icon of modern despair, Edvard Munch's The Scream was stolen. Who needs art when you've got sport?
Tears of one kind or another were everywhere in evidence at these games. Enough were shed on my sofa to leave me repeatedly and blurrily amazed by sport's capacity to reach depths of emotion that used to be regarded as the preserve of high art. [...] At a time when our responses to everything - especially so-called tragedy - are consistently being cheapened, coarsened and, preprogrammed, sport accesses some zone of shared feeling that remains mysterious in spite of the familiarity of the clichés by which it is routinely articulated. Wordsworth claimed to have thoughts that lay "too deep for tears" but the tears that left Matthew Pinsent a quaking hulk on the podium came from so far within they were practically chthonic.
[...] The majority of the occasions that left me blubbing involved some display of sportsmanship like this: when the decathletes, shattered by their exertions of the last 36 hours embraced each other; when the beaten Bernard Lagat shared El Guerrouj's joy at winning the 1500 metres that had eluded him for so long.
By contrast, the idea that winning is the only thing has become so entrenched in football as to render the sport abhorrent as often as it is thrilling (it was also one of the reasons why the Euros ended up being such a bore). 
Mulhall and Dyer alert us to the art that sport can be, even if we also recognize that the joyless and selfish obsession with one's own victory that Read decries does exist and is a blight.

But is it art? Dyer focuses on the elicitation of emotion, but Mulhall talks also of style, elegance, innovation, of a form of communication, and of seeing, and making visible, something that no one else sees. I think he's right, and that this is enough to make talk of art perfectly appropriate.

Does sport share other features with art? In August 1930 Wittgenstein wrote:
The work of art compels us—as one might say—to see it in the right perspective, but without art the object [der Gegenstand] is a piece of nature like any other & the fact that we may exalt it through our enthusiasm does not give anyone the right to display it to us. (I am always reminded of one of those insipid photographs of a piece of scenery which is interesting to the person who took it because he was there himself, experienced something, but which a third party looks at with justifiable coldness; insofar as it is ever justifiable to look at something with coldness.[)]
But now it seems to me too that besides the work of the artist there is another through which the world may be captured sub specie æterni. It is—as I believe—theway of thought which as it were flies above the world and leaves it the way it is, contemplating it from above in its flight.  [copied gratefully from here]
Do Manchester United (when playing at their best) capture the world sub specie aeterni? Do Olympic athletes? They don't show us an object in the right perspective, because they aren't engaged in representational art. What they do is closer to music or to dance than still-life painting or photography. But there is a sort of ecstasy that comes from seeing incredible skill. Incredibility is the key, I think. When we ask "How did they do that?" we aren't looking for information, as a fellow athlete or coach might. We mean !, not ? And although this is a crude thing to say, great music does something like that too. You might not shout "Woah!" in the middle of a piece of music, but that's roughly what happens. There is a feeling almost of physical movement (not your toes tapping but something like floating or flying, a weightlessness inside that can come on quite suddenly), and a mental transportation. The idea that art presents the world timelessly comes from Schopenhauer, and  it was he also who said that the inner nature of the world, behind or beneath the phenomena we know as the world, is music. Phenomena are sensible expressions of this inaudible music in, I suppose, roughly the way that dance is a visible expression of music. The world as Schopenhauer sees it is a performance of music, something like a song or a dance. By instantiating a Platonic form each kind does its own dance: trees do the tree dance, bears do the bear dance, and so on. (Although really there is only one dance, so trees perform the tree part of the dance, bears the bear part, etc.). And sport is, or can be, something like this. Of course if Schopenhauer is right then everything is like this, but Wittgenstein's point is that it takes an artist to make it clear that any given thing is like this. A dance, not to the music of time, but to the music of no-time, the eternal music, the music of time standing still while Beckham bends it or Ronaldo corkscrews it or Kagawa sees and executes a pass that no one else could see was there to be made. At its best sport reminds us what we are, what we can be, and that what we are includes unimagined possibilities.

This is at odds with the soullessness of soulless capitalism. Good sport wakes us up, invigorates, makes us wonder. Yes we (merely) spectate, but that's what you do with art. And yes, even in the best of all possible worlds there will be more bad plays than good. Many more. But the experience needn't ever be soulless. It needn't be completely passive. We can respond emotionally to what we see.

The soulless capitalist model of sport is not like this. If the crowd does not cheer or sing loudly enough, music and even singing noises will be piped in. Fans must not get so excited that they stand up (Manchester United fans in particular get in trouble for this). Everything that can be sponsored will be sponsored. And, of course, winning is all that matters. There are exceptions to all these rules, but this is the pattern. Fans are consumers, there to be managed and milked of their money. Individuality is bad for business. You are supposed to buy and wear the team shirt, eat your prawn sandwich, and then go home. The same as everyone else. And like them you are supposed to focus on the lowest common denominator, the result.

All of that is bad. But the enemy isn't sport. Bill McKibben says in his article on global warming that "we have met the enemy and they is Shell." In football the enemy is the Glazer family, Sheikh Mansour, and Roman Abramovich. In general the enemy is big corporations and their power over ever more areas of our lives. Because of this power there is little anyone else can do except vote for whichever politicians seem most likely to restrain their power. We can also, though, battle the mindset that favors, and is therefore favored by, corporations: the desire to turn people into sheep or machines, something obedient and predictable; the value-system that puts success (understood in simple consequentialist terms) above everything else; and the blind faith that huge, private corporations are necessary and even good.

The love of sport allows people to see what damage is done by this kind of soulless capitalism. Anything that brings true joy is the enemy of soullessness. That might not be Andy Murray, but I wouldn't reject all professional tennis, or football, or the Olympics because of the worst aspects of contemporary sport. Fun and games are not yet incompatible.

Monday, July 30, 2012

In Wittgenstein's Footsteps for the last time

This may well be redundant, but since I promised to provide more information when I had it, and I do have more information, here it is: https://notendur.hi.is/~gunhar/wittgenstein-2012/index.htm.

It looks as though flights from the US are filling up, and hotels in Reykjavik are too. If I find any great deals I'll post them here. Feel free to share advice if you have it.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Bread and circuses

What to think of the Olympics? On the one hand you've got people (on Facebook) complaining that it's all a distraction from pressing political issues, or that the opening ceremony showed a Disneyfied version of British history with no reference to colonialism, and on the other you've got unapologetic enthusiasm for the emotion and beauty of the games. I vaguely sense that I ought to feel like one (actually both) of these parties, but I don't. I like sports enough to react against the condemnation of the whole thing, but I just don't like athletics or gymnastics enough to get very worked up about sports that aren't some kind of football. I'll watch bits here and there, which is probably what most people do. For instance, I watched part of the opening ceremony, but the long parade of athletes and the dumbed-down commentary ("don't worry, I've never heard of Tim Berners-Lee either!") drove me away.

What about the bread and circuses charge? Well, I like circuses and I like bread. Few who complain from a left-of-centre position are likely to object to the bread part, and the opening ceremony of the games this year celebrated the National Health Service, which is a bit like advertising bread. Not a bad idea if you want something similar to emerge in the United States, for instance. Of course it was all rather pro-British, but what do you expect? Over at Crooked Timber, the always-good Hidari takes this objection to its logical conclusion:
But of course I am a pretentious elitist and snob and would have chosen Ken Loach to direct the ceremony, which would have consisted entirely of black and white shots of pensioners weeping over the privatisation of the NHS for four hours, intercut with statistics about the LIBOR scandal for light relief with choice arias from Moses und Aron as the background music, so I am perhaps not the best person to be making aesthetic judgments about populist spectacles.
In fairness to the likes of Hidari I should note that I don't live in Britain and so do not see the NHS being gradually sold off or any of the other things that lead people to think that the Olympics is a bad use of public money. But in general I think that bread should be provided to those who need it, and that people can't live on bread alone. The question then is what kind of circuses should we have [UPDATE: What a terrible inference! What I should have said is simply that I support spending public money on arts, circuses, etc. What I should have done is drink more coffee before posting.], and of course people will disagree. As long as the entertainment is not watching people getting killed, as in the original circuses, then I'm not very fussy. The Guardian seemed to enjoy the opening ceremony, as did most other people. I'd call that a success.

The ceremony has also been called very British, which I'm sure led to some frustration for non-British people who couldn't understand it all. But I'm glad there is still such a thing as British culture to be expressed in this way. Not because I think British culture is better than any other culture, but because I like culture. I also like variety, so I hope there is also a distinctive Chinese culture (or multiple Chinese cultures), Indian culture, French culture, and so on. It seems that there is, which is encouraging.

Finally, just when their music thread had me almost convinced that taste is all hopelessly subjective, along comes Kieran Healy with a subjective assessment of sports that is uncannily close to my own view. Which is good.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Interview with Stephen Mulhall on Wittgenstein

Looking around for what other videos on Wittgenstein might be out there, I found this:

It's Stephen Mulhall speaking for twenty-five minutes about Wittgenstein's life and ideas. Not surprisingly, it's very good indeed. The interview is part of a video timeline project, which looks worth checking out.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Wittgenstein in the sea of faith

Not to be confused with the upcoming conference in Iceland is the website In the Footsteps of Wittgenstein, "a celebration of creativity and life through works inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein." There I found this video about Wittgenstein:

Part 2 is here:

I'm not sure about the interpretation offered (neither quite what it is nor whether it's right), but at the very least it's interesting to see some of the places where Wittgenstein lived and died.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Stretching concepts

In "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell seems to imply that we should only use nouns that refer to some concrete particular. "The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness," he complains. He also offers this interesting advice:
In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose -- not simply accept -- the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one's words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally.
Getting one's meaning clear without using words sounds problematic to me, but the general idea here seems right. To speak the truth, or to speak honestly, or to speak realistically, or to avoid humbug, bullshit, and sheer thoughtlessness, it is important to focus attention on objects and experiences, not on preformed phrases and expressions.

One danger of this approach is that it might seem to rule out talk of non-concrete things: God, ethics, aesthetics, etc. Wittgenstein's Lecture on Ethics could be read as a kind of reductio of this way of thinking, or rather, one could try to read it that way as an exercise that (I think) might have some value. In other words, it is worth thinking about whether Wittgenstein contradicts Orwell.

I don't think he really does, although of course he might not agree with every point or with Orwell's way of making certain points. (Orwell himself thinks it likely that some of his essay is badly put.) After all, one of Orwell's rules is "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous." So if following his advice seems to lead to barbarism--and I take it that amoralism and philistinism are forms of barbarism--then  his advice has been misunderstood. But talk to do with values should be conducted carefully, precisely because of the values involved, and so perhaps should be carried on with a sense that one is, if not transgressing, on dangerous ground. Orwell says at the end of his essay:
I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.
He doesn't say (at least not here) what the literary use of language is, but he makes it clear that he is concerned with expressing thought. Talk of abstractions is not necessarily meaningless, but should be engaged in only as something like a last resort. Wittgenstein might agree, although his main point is not this so much as that if we "talk ethics" then we will not be dealing in facts that add to anyone's knowledge. A different use of language is involved.

Does this use of language perhaps show something about the world even if it cannot say it? Yes and no, according to Wittgenstein. He says:
I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and, I believe, the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language.
This running against the walls of our cage is perfectly, absolutely hopeless. Ethics so far as it springs from the desire to say something about the ultimate meaning of life, the absolute good, the absolute valuable, can be no science. What it says does not add to our knowledge in any sense. But it is a document of a tendency in the human mind which I personally cannot help respecting deeply and I would not for my life ridicule it. [My emphasis]
He implies that there is such a thing as what ethics says, even though what it says does not add to our knowledge. And what it says, whatever that might be, shows something. Not something about the non-human world, though, but about us: it is a document (a Schein?) of a human tendency. Does it also say something about this tendency? No. Wittgenstein rejects the idea that by such words we don't mean nonsense. The inference seems to be invited that what we mean is nonsense. But then we surely don't mean anything. It's as if Wittgenstein is playing with us or making fun, but it's about as clear as it could be that he isn't joking. What he wants to convey above all, apparently, is that ethical talk and writing is not descriptive of facts. It is, in short, precisely the kind of language that Orwell thinks we should be extra careful with, and perhaps avoid if possible. (Which is not to say that it is always possible to avoid it.) If we do feel the need to use it, we should proceed with caution. 

I've probably said all of this before, but in the last couple of days I've come across two examples of what seem like misuses of ethical talk, and I want to try to comment on them in a kind of Orwellian-Wittgensteinian spirit. (Or is the idea that there is a spirit or idea that they have in common itself an example of stretching meanings carelessly?) One is the accusation of racism leveled against Rio Ferdinand for calling Ashley Cole a choc ice. The other is the suggestion by Susan Elkin that teaching creationism is a form of child abuse. [Warning: I have made a point of not censoring swear words and racist language in what follows.]  

Here's what I take to be the gist of the Ferdinand story. His brother was allegedly racially abused during a football/soccer match by John Terry. There is video (but no audio) of Terry appearing to say the words "black cunt" to Anton Ferdinand. Apparently his (successful) defence was to insist that these words were preceded by something along the lines of "No, I did not call you a..." There is no video evidence for or against this claim, it seems. (Actually, the video here appears to show Terry saying very little more than "Hey! Hey! You fucking black cunt," which I would have thought was pretty conclusive. But he has been found not guilty.) Ashley Cole, also black, defended Terry, which was followed by someone tweeting that Cole is a "choc ice," i.e. brown on the outside but white inside. Rio Ferdinand responded with: “I hear you fella! Choc ice is classic hahahahahahahha!” This is being taken by some people as a claim that Cole is a "race traitor" and therefore an act of racism on Ferdinand's part.

If Terry said what he was alleged to have said, then that was racism. But it seems ludicrous, or worse, to me to apply the same label to Ferdinand's tweet. Why? Both are race-related insults after all. Partly I don't want to give a reason. It seems to me that one case is obviously racist (if it happened) and the other would only ever seem racist after a bit of thought or persuasion. If it is racist at all it is not obviously so. And this difference in obviousness does not need explaining. Indeed, as with jokes, explanations might do more harm than good, making an obvious difference appear un-obvious.

But there is an explanation that can be given. What Terry is alleged to have said treats 'black' as an insult. It is straightforwardly racist. What Ferdinand says treats being black as conferring some special obligation, a duty to oppose white racism. The idea that black people have a special obligation in this regard, one not shared by all people equally, is certainly open to debate. It might even harm black people in some way, by suggesting that racism is more their problem than it is other people's, or by suggesting that one can have special moral burdens just because of the colour of one's skin. But even if such harm is real, it is clearly not intended. Ferdinand's comment was aimed at Ashley Cole, not black people generally. Terry's alleged remark was aimed at Anton Ferdinand, but by its nature it could have been aimed at any black person. This is an obvious and serious difference that is obscured by calling them both racist. Which is a good reason not to call them both racist. And I think anyone trying to speak plainly would not use the same term to describe both remarks, which is a reason to favor plain speaking. 

The same kind of thing could be said about the idea that religious indoctrination and religiously-inspired puritanism in education (e.g. not mentioning sex at all when teaching literature, leading to a 15-year old girl's not understanding what danger soldiers might pose to women whom they were not likely to kill) is a form of child abuse. This kind of thing might be bad for children, and it might be dishonest and therefore willful. But it's a far cry from violent or sexual abuse, or extreme neglect, which is surely what comes to mind when people talk about child abuse normally. 

In each of these cases a case could be made that 'racism' and 'child abuse' are appropriate terms to use, but a case would have to be made. It isn't obvious. And when concepts are stretched to cover a wider array of cases they get thinner and weaker. If we take racism and child abuse seriously, then we ought to be very careful about diluting the relevant concepts. Which is one reason why in matters of value we should stick to the concrete as much as possible. There is more to what Orwell and Wittgenstein say than this, but these strike me as good examples of how language matters to ethics. The Terry case in particular is at the heart of a national debate about racism. His not guilty verdict was bad enough, but if Ferdinand is tried and found guilty of racism it will be even worse.

UPDATE: a Football Association panel has now found Terry guilty.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Awe therapy

I'm not quite sure what to make of this story about "awe therapy," but I thought I'd mention it. The gist seems to be that when people feel that they have no time they suffer from stress and depression, but when they see something "awesome" (even on video), such as the Grand Canyon or the Northern Lights, they feel as though time slows down, so they have more of it. This makes them happier, more patient, and more inclined to help others.

This strikes me as a good thing, but the idea of packaging such experiences and handing them out on video as therapy seems like a poor substitute for the real thing. A little bit Brave New World too.

More here.

In Wittgenstein's Footsteps again

Anyone interested probably knows this by now but just in case, and for the sake of completing the record, the Wittgenstein conference in Iceland this September is on.  Apparently something disastrous happened to their email, but the problem seems to have been resolved.  Hurrah!

If you haven't heard from them, I'd try again: email seems to be getting through now.  I'll post more details here when they're available.  

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Wittgenstein dictionary

Have I mentioned that I am working on a revised edition of my dictionary of Wittgenstein's philosophy, also known as the A-Z of Wittgenstein (which gives me an idea for a pointless video link at the end of this post!)?  Well, I am. I don't expect anyone reading this to know the book at all well, but if you have suggestions please feel free to post them here. I don't mind at all if you suggest something that is already included. Mostly I'm looking for ideas about subjects to include as entries, but anything you think of might be helpful.

I've already corrected some things, and will look again at what I say about logicism in light of this paper by Michael Kremer. If you know of any mistakes that you haven't already told me about, those would be good to know about too. At the series editor's suggestion I will add an entry on 'politics' and one on either 'poetry' or 'literature' (whichever of those doesn't already have its own entry).

Any other ideas?


Bateman on Haidt

When I was blogging about Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind (here, here, here, and here) I had an email exchange with Chris Bateman, with whom I found myself very largely in agreement. He now has a review of Haidt's book up at his blog Only A Game. I recommend it.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Sebald on the totality of things

In comments Beatrice Trotignon writes:

I'm trying to contact Tommi Uschanov, in relation to his translation of Guy Debord, as I am part of the organizing committee of a translation conference in France. I've tried his tuschano mail, but my message doesn't seem to have reached him. I hope this might be more successful?

I'm very glad that this blog functions as a point of contact between people and a place to share news, as with the Iceland conference (still no word, I'm afraid) and the workshop in Pennsylvania on Cavell and Rhees that I somehow seemed to hear about before many other people. I hope Tommi gets the message.

Another thing the blog does it to present a version of me to the world, and I sometimes worry about this. Will trivial posts make me seem like a fool? Might avoiding all trivialities be pretentious? Will making public what Reshef Agam-Segal calls "notes and half-thoughts" (although his are far more than half-thoughts) make me look stupid, or reveal my stupidity, or waste the time of those who bother to read them? Well, these are my half-thoughts. I hope they combine to present a more or less accurate picture of me but, more importantly, I hope they have some value for someone else. The following falls in the possibly-a-pretentious-waste-of-time category though. You have been warned.    

One thing I sometimes do is try to introduce myself to the work of two new poets each summer. This summer it looks like being W. G. Sebald (some of whose poetry I've already read, so this is cheating) and Michel Houellebecq (whose prose I know, so this is only almost cheating). I was disappointed by the Sebald collection, and this review by Ruth Franklin does a pretty good job of explaining why. Sebald's translator, Iain Galbraith, suggests that there are hidden meanings in the poems, so that when a German place-name is mentioned it can be important to know that this was the site of a concentration camp or some other Nazi business. Franklin then complains that the references are impossible to track down in their entirety. Sebald mentions lots of places, things, and people, both implicitly and explicitly, and includes words and whole sentences in other languages as well. Are we supposed to understand all these (how good is your Dutch?)? Must we read all the footnotes to get the poems, and when is the footnoter's work complete?

This, or something like it, is Franklin's main complaint. If Sebald really wants to refer so much to the Nazi past then perhaps Galbraith should have translated the title as "Over the Land and the Water" (instead of "Across..."), as this is more suggestive of the original Über, with its hint of Über Alles, which is not far from the title of the book, after all. Another complaint I might have made about the poems is that, unless Galbraith has done a really bad job (I don't think he has), then Sebald uses clichés quite a bit, which are not much fun to read. I think he does this because his poems are like collages, collections of found objects, and a cliché is a found bit of language or non-thought. Because of this, I think it's necessary to add a third poem to those identified as being in some sense key to understanding the collection by Galbraith and Franklin.

The first key, and the first poem in the book, is this:
For how hard it is
to understand the landscape
as you pass in a train
from here to there
and mutely it
watches you vanish.
I like this poem, but it seems a bit like (little more than) a clever trick: instead of you watching the landscape vanish, it watches you. But there are at least two other ideas here (as well as elements other than ideas, of course): it is very hard to understand the landscape, and it is watching you. The land and water are inscrutable and omniscient, a bit like a kind of God. The mute watcher feels like a judge. But it is both mute and very hard to understand, so we don't know what judgment it makes of us, if any. This is part of Sebald's conception of the world (it seems to me).

The second key is highlighted by Galbraith, in his introduction to the collection, and by Franklin, who quotes both Sebald and Galbraith:
“Somewhere / behind Türkenfeld,” a small town in southern Germany near Sebald’s native village, there is “a spruce nursery / a pond in the / moor on which / the March ice / is slowly melting.” The Nazis built a subcamp of Dachau behind Türkenfeld; the trains to the camp passed through the station. The ice melts slowly indeed to reveal this history.
“Our first unknowing reading of the [Türkenfeld] poem,” Galbraith writes, “and with it the poem’s own translation of an unruffled, apparently unremarkable landscape ‘mutely’ watching us ‘vanish,’ points to the perilous consequences of our loss of cultural memory.” 
There probably is something to this, and it is worth keeping in mind Sebald's concern with cultural memory and the guilty secrets of the landscape. His understanding of what history means comes out in another poem in which he writes that, "this ground / is steeped in history / they find corpses / every time they dig.” History = corpses. But I don't think his view is as simple as that, which is why the reader's job is not as impossibly hard as Franklin seems to think. We don't need to keep working to make out the meaning of each word, each line, each poem.

Here is a poem that (as I recall) Franklin doesn't mention, except in passing:
The Secrets
of the Universe, 
Patriotic Tales and 
A Germanic 
Hall of Fame, 
The Neudamm 
Forester’s Primer, 
Register of 
Protected Species, 
Social Hygiene 
in Hamburg, 
and The Mushrooms 
of Our Region— 

all informative 
works assembled 
by chance 
in the display 
of a junk shop 
near a railway 
underpass in 
Oldenburg I 

think or Osnabrück 
or in some 
other town
If we want to find Nazi-references there is presumably one in "Social Hygiene in Hamburg," but beyond that what we have is a chance assembly of junk in an obscure part of some barely remembered town. Such are "the secrets of the universe"--random, half-forgotten, some innocent-sounding, some not. However guilty we might feel about the past of our culture or our failure to remember it properly, to own it, as well as the guilt there is incomprehension and incomprehensibility. The world as we find it is not a totality of intelligible facts but a totality of things. The origin and history of the rubble that makes up the rings of Saturn is unknowable, but the rings are beautiful all the same. Perhaps only beautiful because we cannot know the history. The town may be unmemorable, but the names of the books remain. The particular stands out (almost free from space--because we don't understand the landscape--and time--because we forget--and so almost like a work of art as Schopenhauer understands it). And if we laugh at a book called The Secrets of the Universe, shouldn't we perhaps laugh at ourselves as well if we think that we know such secrets to be unknowable or non-existent?

We know nothing. But we can still live a moral and aesthetic life, still appreciate particular things (good and bad), and still find something to laugh about amid the haze.

Friday, July 13, 2012


As I've mentioned before, there are changes afoot in the curriculum at VMI. I am on the committee to redesign the major in English, which we have been told must be based on rhetoric and writing, but which is also to include literature, fine arts, and philosophy. Nothing has been decided, but my sense is that some people on the committee would like all courses in this department to have the same designation, so that, for instance, what is now called PH 304 Ethics might be called something like EN 304 Ethics. In the catalog of courses, in other words, philosophy courses would look like English courses, as would rhetoric and fine arts courses. At any rate, all these kinds of courses would look the same, whether they're listed as EN (for English), RH (for rhetoric), HU (for humanities), or whatever it might be. I don't like this idea. Am I too conservative?

Here are my main concerns:

  1. In thinking what courses to require in the new major, we were specifically instructed to give priority to courses in rhetoric and writing. Would it not then be disingenuous to behave as if rhetoric and writing were essentially the same thing as literature, philosophy, and fine arts? If all these subjects are basically the same, why prioritize rhetoric and writing? If they aren't basically the same, why label them as if they were?
  2. It might be nice to break down boundaries within the new department, but wouldn't it be more helpful to people outside the department to be able to see easily which courses are in literature, which in philosophy, which in rhetoric, and so on? If I'm a graduate school admissions officer or potential employer, isn't it legitimate for me to want to know what kinds of courses a student has taken? If another department at VMI wants its students to take a course or two in writing, wouldn't it be helpful for them to know which are writing courses and which are literature or fine arts courses? And if a student takes ethics and likes it, wouldn't it be helpful for them to be able to find similar courses easily? Not to mention that a change in labeling would almost certainly mean that students could no longer get minors in philosophy, fine arts, etc.
  3. I'm not a disciplinary purist and do teach, for instance, some literature in my courses. But I still recognize that I have been given a specialized education, that I have had a particular training and have particular skills that make me suited to teach certain types of courses (i.e. courses in philosophy) and not others. Doesn't interdisciplinary work rely on some disciplinary skills, concerns, and methods? Otherwise isn't there a danger of a lack of rigor and, in a word, mush?
  4. Given that we currently do distinguish between writing courses and those in English literature, those in fine arts, and those in philosophy, why not continue to do so? Is there a serious danger that students or faculty members will divide harmfully along these lines unless we deny that they exist? I'm currently in the Department of Psychology and Philosophy, and we all get along very well. Psychology majors can get either a BA or a BS, and they all get along. 
In short, I see no good reason to change the labeling and several reasons not to do so. But am I missing something? And would the above be a good way to make the case to my colleagues, or might it be too confrontational?   

Thursday, July 12, 2012


As alert readers of the blog might have gathered, we have power again after almost exactly a week without it. I enjoyed spending more time reading actual books and magazines rather than more or less random stuff on the internet, and will try to do more of this. We'll see how that goes. I really don't need to check my email or Facebook more than once or twice a day, but the possibility of hearing good news is often more of a draw than the possibility of learning something or just enjoying a good read. A wise person would be more patient, leaving any good news there might be till later (and of course usually there isn't any significant news, good or bad).

Otherwise I feel as though I ought to have learned something from the experience, but I'm not sure I did. Walking at night by the light of the full but cloud-covered moon into my neighborhood when it was all dark was a weird experience, especially when one of our cats brushed against me. But it's not as if this was how the place looked at any time in the past. And, as one of my kids pointed out, we didn't exactly find out what life was like for people before they had electric power in their homes because they were used to living that way and we're not. It's good to take a break from normal life every once in a while though. I don't know that I appreciate electricity more now, but I do notice it, and our dependence on it, more. And noticing something under your nose that you usually overlook is a good thing.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


Allen Buchanan says:
The fact that something is natural doesn't make it good. To say that something's natural is simply to say that it accords with the way we happen to be as a result of evolution. 
It depends what you mean by natural. I'm not sure that anyone has ever really explained what 'natural' means, but it certainly does not always mean what Buchanan says it means. Anscombe, as I recall, says that in Catholic thinking (or perhaps in Aquinas) 'natural' sometimes just means good or not wrong. But I think some people use it to mean a sort of cross between the positive (or Humean) conception Buchanan has in mind and the purely normative sense that Anscombe describes. There is a sense I find in people such as Leon Kass and Michael Sandel that the source of life, call it God-or-nature, is good. Jonathan Haidt describes people trying to justify moral reactions by imagining the harm that could come from this or that odd situation (incest where pregnancy is impossible, a man having sex with a frozen chicken, etc.). Basically, when we disapprove of something we will (often) claim that we do so because we foresee bad consequences. Pointing out that such consequences are highly unlikely shows not so much that we are wrong to disapprove but that we disapprove for some other reason.

In these cases we need to dig a bit, or just think more. Ronald Dworkin does this kind of reconstructive moral psychology in Life's Dominion (I think he does a good job, others disagree), as does Jonathan Haidt in his most recent work (not well in my opinion, but others no doubt differ). In Better Than Human Buchanan unhelpfully politicizes the issue of biological enhancement, mentioning George W. Bush as often as possible (so that conservative moral positions are associated with conservative political positions) and even bringing in Patrick Devlin (think nature is a seamless web? well you know who else talked about seamless webs...). The issue is already controversial enough without bringing in guilt by association. Other than this Buchanan's arguments are good (so far--I'm only halfway through the book), but he seems blind to the possibility that respect for nature and/or life might be a value. He points out that nature isn't always nice, even quoting the old "red in tooth and claw" line and committing what I think of as the Black Corridor fallacy, namely treating the amorality of something impersonal as if it were a kind of cruelty. Jonathan Balcombe combats this attitude with a chapter in Second Nature about the warm and fuzzy side of nature. But I think this is not enough.

How can one possibly live as if nature were an enemy to be struggled against? That seems so wrongheaded to me that even neutrality seems close to impossible. Something like Chesterton's primal loyalty, along with his hating the world enough to change it and loving it enough to want to change it, seems not only good but practically necessary to me. How can we live sanely without thinking of the natural world, or just the universe, as our home? And how can we (again: sanely) avoid warm feelings about home? Buchanan shows no loyalty to nature, happily suggesting that we re-engineer mice, for instance:
the post-mouse future will arrive considerably ahead of the post-human future, and that's a good thing. Let them be the risk-pioneers. (p. 94)
The post-mouse future referred to is one in which mice have been so changed as to no longer be what we know as mice. How is this good? Buchanan writes in this passage as if it's good for us, because the risks involved will fall on the mice. To be fair to him, though, we should consider that he might also mean that it's good for the mice, because they will become post-mouse by being enhanced, not just changed but improved.  This raises the question what constitutes improvement. A better mouse-trap does its job better, but mice don't have a job (unless they were built for a purpose by the Creator, in which case Buchanan is wrong). Better mice might be happier mice, but we ought not simply to assume that happiness is the only relevant value. Or we might think of mice in more or less Aristotelian terms, as having not so much a job but a function, or multiple functions. There are things mice do: see, hear, run, avoid cats, etc. If we make them better at some or all of these things then they will be better mice. Perhaps. But there's also the idea that mice are something like works of art. And then improving them no longer makes much sense as an idea, except in cases where sick or handicapped mice are made more like standard mice.

The cosmic patriot or jingo of the universe, as Chesterton puts it, would love mice just as they are, and would want no part in trying to enhance them. The very idea of improving mice would be like the idea of improving Hamlet (perhaps by adding a sex scene). The same, only more so, would go for human beings. You can't really think (can you?) both what a piece of work is man and we can make him better. Not without a dismissive "yeah, yeah, I get it" after the 'what a piece of work' part anyway. And it's resistance to the "yeah, yeah" attitude that I think Buchanan doesn't get. Otherwise, as I say, I think I agree with him. But I haven't finished the book yet, and I worry that there might be a kind of no true Scotsman problem lurking for someone who takes my position. For now, though, I must stop blogging and enhance my back garden by weeding it before it gets too hot.


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Iceland update

Apparently the conference "In Wittgenstein's Footsteps" is going ahead after all. They have had email problems, I'm told, which is why some of us have not heard from them. My intention is to try again to contact the organizer, perhaps by a more old-fashioned method.

(My source is an email from a reliable person who tells me that he is going. I feel unnecessarily clandestine leaving him anonymous, but I would feel worse publishing a private communication.)

Monday, July 9, 2012


I've been thinking about pictures a lot recently, partly because I saw a lot of pictures on vacation that I wished I knew more about, and partly because I've been thinking about metaphors, secondary sense, and pictures in language. If I insist on using the word 'brown' to describe a voice, or 'yellow' to describe a vowel, then why do I want this word here? Because of its meaning, we might say, but not really because of its use in the language, or its normal use. Isn't it more because I want to evoke a certain picture, to sound a certain note on the keyboard of the imagination? The words 'brown' and 'yellow' don't usually work like this. They don't mean what they mean by popping the lid off a mental paint can labeled 'brown' or 'yellow' as Descartes (roughly speaking) thought. Meanings ain't in the head, and if when Madonna sang that "cherish is the word I use to remind me of your love" she meant to imply that language generally works by summoning up private memories and associations then she is wrong.

But it is something along these lines that people seem to be doing when they use 'yellow'  in songs like "Yellow" by Coldplay or "Bright As Yellow" by the Innocence Mission. They want the listener to picture the color yellow in her mind as she hears, and to understand what is said in light of this (which means something like side-by-side with this image). Maybe that's not quite right. But some association is being used or counted on, and the association with 'yellow' (not a very complicated metaphor) is surely likely to be something like an after-image or vague thoughts of lemons and sunshine. It's almost as if the kind of philosophy of language that Wittgenstein rejects is true of metaphorical language. (Or: when I try to philosophize about language on my own I repeat the mistakes of philosophers who have not learned from Wittgenstein. I'm not sure. The way to work this out is to go in deeper.)

Because of this interest in pictures I'm reading Gombrich's The Story of Art. He writes:
Everyone knows that Egypt is the land of the pyramids, those mountains of stone which stand like weathered landmarks on the distant horizon of history. However remote and mysterious they seem, they tell us much of their own story. They tell us of a land which was so thoroughly organized that it was possible to pile up these gigantic mounds in the lifetime of a single king, and they tell us of kings who were so rich and powerful that they could force thousands and thousands of workers or slaves to toil for them year in, year out, to quarry the stones, to drag them to the building site, and to shift them with the most primitive means until the tomb was ready to receive the king. No king, and no people would have gone to such expense, and taken so much trouble, for the creation of a mere monument. In fact, we know that the pyramids had their practical importance in the eyes of the kings and their subjects. The king was considered a divine being who held sway over them, and on his departure from this earth he would again ascend to the gods whence he had come. The pyramids soaring up to the sky would probably help him to make his ascent.
This strikes me as both true and false. It is true that "No king, and no people would have gone to such expense, and taken so much trouble, for the creation of a mere monument." But medieval cathedrals, Stonehenge, and the pyramids all suggest that it is perhaps only for monuments that people will go to such trouble. If asked why, they might be likely to offer the kind of practical purpose that Gombrich describes. For the sake of eternal life it makes sense to work hard before we die. And yet people don't readily give up smoking or eat more healthily or exercise more for the sake of longer life. And this is despite evidence that doing so will help, which is quite lacking in the case of the belief that "pyramids soaring up to the sky would probably help him to make his ascent" (even if 'probably' is not part of their belief but is rather Gombrich's judgment on the plausibility of his hypothesis). 

People will make incredible sacrifices and efforts for religious purposes that they will not make for secular purposes, even if they think of the two as being the same. It isn't what they think, in other words, that really matters. The difference shows up in what they do. This might be guided by pictures. Perhaps it has to be, perhaps it would never work without some pictures, and these might have to be of a particular kind. But it is the effect of these pictures, or the use to which they are put, that really matters, not the pictures themselves (e.g. pictures of living on after death). It seems to be important that the pictures are not thought about too much, are not investigated. They might need to be thought about in the sense of being kept in mind, but wondering about cause and effect (as in Fyodor Karamazov's wondering about the hooks in hell) will tend to undermine their efficacy. 

Monuments are objects that we literally live by (i.e. near to), and they are, presumably, meant to influence how we live as well. So they function like pictures or metaphors. We live, if not in their light, then in their shadow. They also express beliefs or attitudes. (At least monuments like ancient pyramids do. Others might express nothing but a desire to build something large or monumental.) But this expression is not statement. There's a difference between crying and saying "I am sad." I think it's easy to misinterpret expressions if we take them as instruments (even though they might be instrumental in some ways). But they aren't (always) just expressions either. They can be intelligible, articulate. 

I don't know whether I've got this right or said anything new, but this is probably long enough for a blog post in which I'm really just thinking out loud. Please feel free, as ever, to correct any errors.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Blogging (without) light

My apologies in advance to anyone who comments and doesn't get a quick reply, or gets only an inadequate reply. The recent storm has meant that I've had no electricity at home since Friday night. That means less sleep than normal (because it's so hot and the air-conditioning isn't working), which isn't good for thinking. It also means I only have internet access in my office, and I don't spend much time there because a) I'm too groggy to do much work, and b) my kids are off school for the summer. Normal service should resume in a day or two. I hope. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Second Nature

My review of Jonathan Balcombe's book Second Nature is now up at metapsychology.

Re-reading it reminds me of something I just read in a forthcoming book about animals, ethics, language, Wittgenstein, and so on. Pär Segerdahl made a couple of innocent mistakes when visiting language-learning bonobos and was labeled a monster by one of them. This sounds pretty bad, but it turns out that a movie had been made featuring a person in a gorilla costume to help scare the bonobos away from a dangerous area. The gorilla was called 'monster'. Another movie featured someone dressed as a bunny who always brought presents. One of the bonobos, who did not like the scary monster movie, often wanted to watch the bunny movie instead. That's about as cute as it's possible to get, I think, at least as told in Segerdahl's paper.

And searching for the details of the story now led me to this. Segerdahl gets called a monster, but Anderson Cooper is bunny: