Friday, November 30, 2012

Questioning the good life

There is a series of talks and discussions going on this year next door at Washington and Lee University called "Questioning the Good Life." I missed the first talk but made it to the second (Eric Wilson praising melancholy in a way that seemed plausible yet oddly uninformed philosophically). (Why do so many people so freely jump into philosophical discussions without even pretending to have done their homework? Do they not know that Aristotle, Mill, Nietzsche, and co. have written about the nature of happiness and its relation to the good life? Do they not care? I don't get it. Wilson even used the word 'philosophers' and named a couple of relatively obscure ones, but said nothing about the ones I just mentioned. And I don't mean this as a criticism of Wilson in particular. I'm thinking too of this essay about economists and psychologists studying happiness since the 1950s and, especially, since around 2000. Near the end it says parenthetically "oh, the philosophy professors have also joined the pursuit." Joined?! How about started, and started more than 2000 years ago at that? Sigh.) 

Anyway, yesterday they had Charles Taylor, who does know a thing or two about Aristotle and the others. At the risk of misrepresenting his views, I'll try to briefly summarize what he said here. He began by distinguishing three "baskets" of questions and issues: one about happiness, which is often thought of as something that happens to us, in relation to which we are largely passive; one about living a meaningful life, involving the kind of questions one might ask when about to graduate from college and thinking about career choices (should I try to make as much money as possible or pursue my interest in music?, for instance) or else when dying and looking back on one's life and the choices one has made (did I spend too much time at the office?, etc.); and the third about morality and the claims of justice.

Aristotle, he suggested, treated all three baskets as one. For him the one subject of ethics (a label Taylor likes to use for the second basket) covers how to be happy, how to live a satisfying life, and what one ought to do. But the moderns reject this view, Taylor said. For one thing, they distinguish between egoism and altruism in a way that Aristotle did not, and tend to think that Greeks like him were too egoistic. (Taylor attributed this to the influence of Christianity, but also suggested that the word 'altruism' was a recent invention, I think naming Auguste Comte as the inventor.) For another, they tend to think of moral reasoning as a relatively simple matter: you develop or identify a decision-procedure such as the principle of utility or maxim-universalization and then apply it. And for a third and final thing (I may be getting this wrong, be warned) they reject Aristotle's list of virtues. This rejection has several aspects: some of the names of virtues no longer mean what they used to (apparently 'generous' used to mean 'suitable to someone of high social rank,' so that one might kill an insulter out of generosity); some of the characteristics that Aristotle regards as virtuous do not seem desirable to us (you would not want a magnanimous person at a dinner party); and we are aware of ways of life other than the Greek, each of which might have its own virtues. 

Taylor's thesis, if I can simplify this way, is that neither Aristotle nor the moderns has it quite right. We cannot go back to Aristotle's view, he seemed to be saying, because his list of virtues is unacceptable, and because we now recognize duties to people outside our own polis, in a way that Aristotle did not. I don't know why we couldn't add such duties to our conception of justice (could Aristotle not have understood or incorporated somehow the Stoic view that so far as I am a human being my country is the world?). Nor why we couldn't hope to correct his list of virtues, rather than seemingly moving in a more relativist direction. No doubt either I missed something, I misunderstood something, or else Taylor has answers to these questions that he did not have time to go into in this talk.  

We cannot, though, accept the modern view because it oversimplifies what thinking about how to live is really like. Putting morality ahead of all other concerns (I think Taylor might argue) fails to give due weight to concerns with one's own happiness and the importance of living a meaningful life. Perhaps more to the point, we simply cannot separate the three baskets as neatly as we might like. If justice requires that people have certain rights or freedoms, we need to be able to distinguish the important from the trivial ones. For instance, the freedom to speak and worship freely is far more important than the right to drive without a seat-belt. What justice requires (a question from the morality basket) cannot be decided without reference, perhaps merely implicit, to what is significant (a question from the ethics basket). What we count as happiness might also depend on what we regard as a significant or as a meaningless life. And we can hardly take morality seriously without concern for the happiness of others. So the three go together, as Aristotle recognized. 

And each set of issues is in itself more complicated than we often recognize. We cannot expect to find a decision-procedure that will make all moral questions easy or straightforward. There are no simple answers (or ways to generate answers) about what makes for a significant or satisfying life. And happiness does not simply happen to us (or not happen to us). True, much might depend on a chance meeting. But relationships need also to be cultivated, and one can do this well or badly. It isn't all passive. And the relationship itself might have a kind of life of its own. It is like a plant or garden that might need help from a gardener but that also has a natural tendency to develop in this way rather than that. So we need some teleology in our thinking, too, in order to make sense of the ideas and experiences we have of people and relationships either fulfilling their potential to varying degrees or failing to do so. Again, Aristotle, or at least a broadly ancient view, is useful here.    

It was an excellent talk.

And speaking of the good life, the results of Jean Kazez's survey are now out.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Did Wittgenstein believe in God?

I'm revising my paper on Wittgenstein's ethics as visible in the so-called Koder diaries. When I've finished revising it (which I might have done already, but I haven't yet decided that I've finished) I'll post a link here. In the meantime, here's part of the ending:
My view in a nutshell is that he is right on the edge between theism and atheism. More on the edge than I would have thought possible, like Robin Hood getting even closer to the bull’s-eye than anyone else by splitting an arrow that was already there. He sometimes chides himself for having only weak faith, but his faith is weak. He wrestles with God, with himself, with his faith, and with his relative lack of faith. He is clearly attracted to Christianity, but he rejects it. For instance, in February 1937 he writes that he rejects “the Christian solution of the problem of life (salvation, resurrection, judgement, heaven, hell).”[i] He still has a relationship with God, peppering his writings with such expressions as “God willing” and “Thank God” in a way that is clearly not just a manner of speaking. No atheist would write “God! let me come into a relationship with you in which I “can be cheerful in my work”!”[ii] At the same time, though, this remark shows that he is not in the kind of relationship he wants.   
One might be tempted to compare him to Simone Weil, who famously writes:

I am quite sure that there is a God in the sense that I am quite sure my love is not illusory. I am quite sure that there is not a God in the sense that I am quite sure nothing real can be anything like what I am able to conceive when I pronounce this word. But that which I cannot conceive is not an illusion.[iii]       

This is not Wittgenstein’s position, or so it seems to me. There is no sense in which he is quite sure that there is a God. On the contrary, he says repeatedly that there is no one there. This remark could be interpreted as the rejection only of a crude sort of theism, but Wittgenstein does not follow it up with any more sophisticated theology. Although he undeniably has a kind of faith, the idea that he believes there is a God is very deniable indeed. There is also no sense in which he has a love of God that could not be an illusion. His relationship with God is more like a struggle than an instance of love (“To get rid of the torments of the mind, that is to get rid of religion,” he writes on February 21st 1937), although of course one can be tormented by or struggle with a loved one.[iv] And whatever love he might have for God could be an illusion, or at least infected with some measure of illusion. Wittgenstein is aware of the danger of superstition. One last quotation might serve as a kind of encapsulation of the nature of his faith. On February 22nd 1937 he writes:

Now I often tell myself in doubtful times: “There is no one here.” and look around. Would that this not become something base in me!
I think I should tell myself: “Don’t be servile in your religion!” Or try not to be! For that is in the direction of superstition.
A human being lives his ordinary life with the illumination of a light of which he is not aware until it is extinguished. Once it is extinguished, life is suddenly deprived of all value, meaning, or whatever one wants to say. One suddenly becomes aware that mere existence—as one would like to say—is in itself still completely empty, bleak. It is as if the sheen was wiped away from all things, everything is dead.[v]

Should we call this unnoticed, meaning-giving illumination God? It would be misleading to label Wittgenstein as either a theist or an atheist. He wears religious language like a necessary but ill-fitting and uncomfortable garment. Yet he won’t take it off, and sometimes seems to feel an obligation toward it, however much he is inclined to rebel against it. What is interesting is not the generalizations or labels but the details of his case.   

[i] Wittgenstein Public and Private Occasions, edited by James C. Klagge and Alfred Nordmann, Rowman & Littlefield, 2003, p. 169.
[ii] Ibid., p. 181, from 15th February 1937.
[iii] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, translated by Emma Crawford and Mario von der Ruhr, Routledge Classics, 2002,  p. 114.
[iv] Wittgenstein 2003, p. 199.
[v] Ibid., p. 207. 

I think that he was neither a theist nor an atheist, at least not as those terms are standardly used (and how else are we to use them?). He has a religious point of view, but not religious belief. So maybe it's no better to call him a religiously-inclined atheist (as I did in an earlier draft) than to call him a non-religious theist. 

Having offered a "last quotation" to encapsulate Wittgenstein's faith (which is probably a bad idea in the first place), here's another:
A religious question is either a question of life or it is (empty) chatter. This language game--one could say--gets played only with questions of life. Much like the word "ouch" does not have any meaning--except as a scream of pain.
I want to say: If eternal bliss means nothing for my life, my way of life, then I don't have to rack my brain about it; if I am to rightfully think about it, then what I think must stand in a precise relation to my life, otherwise what I think is rubbish or my life is in danger.--An authority which is not effective, which I don't have to heed, is no authority. If I rightfully speak of an authority I must also be dependent upon it. (pp. 211-213)  
It seems to me that he's not sure whether his faith (if that is the right word for it) is rubbish or not. Maybe this is a common concern for believers, but if so that does not prove that he is a real believer. Is his way of life dependent on God? He doesn't seem sure. And so I, taking him at his word as best I can, am not sure either.

But actually it might well be a mistake to focus on supposedly telling quotations like these. Perhaps his regular, less doubt-filled, writing is a better guide. And there he does seem dependent on God, he does seem at home in that language game. That is, it would be extremely difficult to translate his writings into language devoid of reference to God. (I still think he's some distance from Simone Weil though.)  

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Videos online: philosophy and the Congo

You may well know about the free videos available through Open Culture, but do you also know about the philosophy videos available here (there are twelve in the philosophy category, including Bryan Magee's and Alain de Botton's series, and there is a large religion category too) and here (lots of episodes on "cosmos, consciousness, God")? Worth exploring.

A non-philosophy video that I watched yesterday is available through Friends of the Congo (and YouTube -I'll post it below), which has links to other Congo-related movies too. A good article on the subject (the "most blighted nation on earth") is this, and there's this blog too, by the author of Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. Horrendous, but important to know about.

Here's the documentary I watched:

And here's another worth watching on organized crime, which refers to conflict minerals and the Congo:


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Aphorisms from Wittgenstein

These are from the so-called Koder diaries, published as "Movements of Thought" in Public and Private Occasions:
When mired in filth, there is only one thing to do: March. (p. 129, translation altered)
Luther was no Protestant. (p. 81)
If the moral law is natural I am inclined to defend its transgressor. (p. 77)
"White is also a sort of black." (p. 155, cf. Paul McCartney "Sadness isn't sadness. It's happiness in a black jacket," although I take it McCartney is sincere while Wittgenstein is merely noting a tendency in human thought.) 
Is being alone with oneself--or with God, not like being alone with a wild animal? It can attack you any moment.--But isn't that precisely why you shouldn't run away?! Isn't that, so to speak, what's glorious?! Doesn't it mean: grow fond of this wild animal!--And yet one must ask: Lead us not into temptation! (p. 247)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Wittgenstein's Chinese man argument

According to Béla Szabados: "Wittgenstein said to his friend Drury: "It is impossible to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life," adding, " How then can I hope to be understood?"" Szabados remarks that, "This is an interesting remark for it surprisingly relates understanding music's significance for Wittgenstein as a person, to understanding his philosophy." This sounds right, but it might be worth looking into why Wittgenstein considered it impossible to say what music had meant to him.

On p. 7 of the 1938 lectures on aesthetics (as recorded in notes taken by some of his students) Wittgenstein is reported to have said: "It is not only difficult to describe what appreciation consists in, but impossible. To describe what it consists in we would have to describe the whole environment." Later, on p. 29, he is reported to have said that:
'The sense of a proposition' is very similar to the business of 'an appreciation of art.'
Neither, he seems to believe, can be explained:
"Then why do we admire this and not that?"  "I don't know." [p. 30]
Szabados's take on Wittgenstein's remark about music, which I think is pretty natural and standard, may well be right. Wittgenstein might have meant that anyone who did not understand him well enough to know what music had meant to him would never understand his philosophical work. But I think a different interpretation might be possible. He might have meant something like this: given that it is impossible to explain x, how will anyone understand my book on y, which is very similar to x?

The very idea of explanation in aesthetics seems almost to be a mistake in Wittgenstein's view, although he may well have meant that it is a mistake to look for the kind of explanation that we tend to look for. There is little to be said by way of explanation in any case (that is, even if there is something to be said). I will return to this, albeit briefly.

Now, what of the Chinese man? Here's the relevant passage:
Thinking is not even speaking with accompaniment, noises accompanied with whatever may be, is not [of?] the sort 'It rains' at all, but is within [the] English language. A Chinaman who makes [the] noise 'It rains' with [the] same accompaniments--Does he think 'It rains'?   [p. 30, note 1]
He only thinks "It rains" if he means what he says, and we have to suppose that the Chinaman in question cannot mean "It rains" because those words mean nothing to him, being in a language that he does not know. If he makes the right sound and has simultaneous mental pictures of rain this does not give the sound the meaning we are talking about. One can think without such an accompaniment, and one can have the accompaniment without thinking, without meaning. What gives words meaning when we say, write, or think them is, it seems, "the whole environment." And this cannot be described. Nor can how or why this context makes words meaningful be explained. This is where the connection with aesthetics lies. Why certain pieces of music make such an impression on us cannot be explained, Wittgenstein seems to have thought. (And he might have put why murder is wrong in the same category, I don't know.)

We tend to want to reduce, to go in, to locate thoughts in the brain (or computer) and feelings in the stomach (or wherever). Wittgenstein wants, as it were, to expand, to go out. If you want to understand the laughter of the audience at a comedy show, attend to what they are laughing at, not to the laughter itself (which will be much like all other laughter) or to things unknown going on inside them. If you want to understand a feeling look at its full expression (the flower, so to speak), not at its origin (a point-like seed, hard or impossible to distinguish from other such seeds). It's almost like Blow-Up in reverse (in order to see the details a photographer magnifies a picture more and more, but all he gets is a big blur). What he needs is greater definition, not magnification. Wittgenstein's view seems to be that we reach for the microscope when we don't understand something, but that this will give us no better focus. Nor do we need to expand, in fact, because the expansion has already been done for us. The expression of the thought or feeling is the magnification that we need. The phenomenon we want to understand includes the inner and the outer, but the inner is, so to speak, tiny, hidden, almost fictional, whereas the outer is open to view and comprehensible. It is this big end of the phenomenon that we should attend to. But we need to do so in the right way. To understand what is funny about a joke we should not look for hidden causes of its funniness but at the joke itself and for the reasons why that would be funny in this context (attending to the context means looking out, taking a broader view, not looking inwards or back to the root of something). To understand what is so great about this painting or music we should not look at what happens in the brain when we see a painting or hear music, but focus on the painting or music itself, and perhaps on the context, which will include art or music history as well as politics, culture more broadly, and the rest. This is how we acquire appreciation. Once you have it you might still be puzzled or mystified by it. I take it Wittgenstein was. But he doesn't seem to think there is anything to say that will explain it. The mystery, a kind of wonder, might be part of it.

I don't mean that one cannot say anything at all in Wittgenstein's view about why certain works move us as they do. But I think he thought that any such explanation will itself be an expression of appreciation. It will be analysis or criticism, not something more obviously scientific or causal. So you couldn't have an anaesthetic explanation of aesthetics any more than you could have an amoral explanation of ethics. Or rather, you could (perhaps), but even then it would not be what we really want. Someone wondering at the greatness of Michelangelo or the terribleness of murder is not looking for facts about the brain or evolution.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

The life and the work

Ray Monk on the philosophical value of his biography of Wittgenstein:
Some philosophers are scornful of the notion that the life can help us understand the work. Wittgenstein had a notion of understanding as seeing connections rather than building a theory. When you understand a person you see connections, you don't build a theory about them. Biography can be like that.
That sounds true to me. And I didn't know this, which also seems quite reasonable:
How did he become a biographer? "It was the result of a series of lucky accidents." In the early 80s, while studying Wittgenstein's philosophy of mathematics at Oxford, he came across two rival interpretations of it. The philosopher Michael Dummett claimed that it involved full-blooded conventionalism, while Crispin Wright argued for its strict finitism. "My thought was that if you had any understanding of the spirit in which Wittgenstein wrote, there was no way you could attribute those positions to him. You could only do that if you read what he wrote about mathematics divorced from the rest of it.
And yet...  The most obvious evidence that Wittgenstein should not be read as adopting a particular theoretical position (if such a reading is possible, of course) is contained within his philosophical work. The more we have to look outside such work to understand what it contains the less sure we can be that we have understood it correctly. The only direct testimony we have about the work is the work itself (except in the case of living authors). That is where the author tells us what she is up to. Knowing what she ate for breakfast or where she went on vacation is not going to tell us anything much. (It might tell us something, for instance Wittgenstein had very spartan tastes in such matters, and that might affect our interpretation of his writings on, say, ethics. But it doesn't tell us much.) More useful would be reports from people who knew him about things he said to them, but here biography shades into the usual studying of texts, and it matters that such reports are secondhand. So they are not as reliable as primary texts.

But it isn't only a matter of which sources of information are reliable. There is also the distinction between causes and reasons. This has been on my mind lately because of philosophy's imminent move into a rhetoric-based English department at VMI. Apparently rhetoric people focus on the ways that beliefs and values shape texts, which I take to be a kind of (presumably somewhat speculative) causal investigation. Given that the author lived in such-and-such a culture, and had such-and-such a life, and was writing for such-and-such an audience, how do these factors (seem to) show up in the text? Whatever value such an exercise might have, it is not philosophy. Regardless of why they might have been produced, philosophy focuses on the arguments as presented. We want to know the reasons offered in support of a conclusion, not what might plausibly have caused the author to present that conclusion. If Hobbes only pretended to believe in God, say, then a philosophical analysis of his work will not care whether he was pretending or not. All that matters is the work that the concept of God does, or does not do, in Hobbes' argument. And the argument that matters (most, to a philosopher) is the best one compatible with the text, not the one that Hobbes himself actually meant.

But is that quite right? Don't I care, as a scholar, what Wittgenstein actually thought and meant? Isn't it helpful when studying Plato's political philosophy to know about the war between Athens and Sparta, and what the Athenian democracy did to Socrates? The answer to the first question is Yes, I do care what Wittgenstein himself actually thought. But that's because I respect his judgment. What he meant to say is likely to be the best thing his text can plausibly be read as saying. Or at least an interesting thing worth thinking about. And Plato's historical circumstances are important partly because they might help explain why he defended what is generally taken to be an implausible position. It helps us decide that we need not keep looking for a better argument in the text. Otherwise such matters are just color or gossip. I like gossip, but it isn't philosophy.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Just like honey

The same stuff that caught my eye about promising love in this review by Ralph Wedgwood of Elizabeth Brake's Minimizing Marriage also caught Eric Schliesser's eye:
Chapter 1 discusses whether marriage involves a promise. First, she argues that the typical marriage vows -- "to love, honour, and cherish, until death us do part" -- cannot literally be taken as promises. It is not clear that we can promise love at all. If we could, it would follow, counter-intuitively, that divorce counts as promise-breaking.
I'm with Jon Cogburn and BioethicsUK (in comments here) on divorce involving promise-breaking (i.e. I think it does, although not necessarily culpably). I also agree with Cogburn that:
More generally I think that you can (and must actually) promise to love. You and your spouse are going to change quite a bit over your lives in ways that neither of you can foresee when you get married. As a result of this it is vitally important to commit to the relationship itself, and a promise to love is a vital part of strengthening the bond through changes rather than weakening it.
I have nothing much to appeal to other than intuitions here (which Schliesser doesn't seem to like), but here's something. You cannot enjoy the joke in "Honey" by the Marine Girls unless Cogburn is right about this. In fact, there would be no joke. Here are the relevant lines (the last from each verse):
I know I'll love him forever/ Or until I find another boy
I love him every day/ Or at least until this feeling goes away
But honey knows I never lie/ And I'll be his until this feeling dies 
The point is: this isn't love. The character portrayed in the song has no deep feelings for, let alone commitment to, the boy she says she loves. It is not this kind of love that is promised at a wedding. I can't say what love is, but I know enough about it to get the joke. (And baby I can guess the rest, as Lynyrd Skynyrd would say.)

Monday, November 5, 2012

The meaning of life

Jean Kazez has kind of a fun quiz here. (Fun until you find yourself in the age category 41-60, that is. Can't I be 26-45 instead?)

I thought of the meaning of life when I read Matt Pianalto's post on transgenic animals too. Falling-over turkeys bred to be all breast meat seem like a crime against nature to me, a kind of blasphemy, and the same goes for oncomice. But would finding a cure for cancer justify that kind of crime? I'm inclined to say No, partly because a crime is a crime, and partly because people who die of cancer will still die of something else even if we do cure cancer. But I realize that this is callous, and I would almost certainly change my tune if cancer hit closer to home. Really I think you would need to know the meaning of life to be able to answer such a question with any confidence. (I would have posted this as a comment on Matt's blog but it seems too  unhelpful to be worth posting there.)

And I thought of it another time recently when a friend of mine posted the uncharacteristic (for him) Facebook status: "What's the point?" I think he probably just meant why work hard on research if journals don't recognize good work when they see it?, or why teach in innovative ways if no one appreciates your efforts? But it sounded gloomier than that. To my surprise I found myself thinking, "Because we all die in the end." This wasn't just black humor but an expression of the idea that we are all, so to speak, in the same boat, and that boat is the Titanic. So we may as well be nice to each other while we sink. About the only things that seem to make sense are love or kindness and smelling the roses while you can. But I don't think this is really what I believe, or not the whole of it anyway. Those roses really do smell good--they aren't just a consolation. And some people aren't too bad either.