Thursday, June 27, 2013

Zombies again

David Denby reminds me of my previous speculation about zombies. As he says:
The undead really do keep on coming; they are taking over our bookstores, our movie theatres, our cable channels. Every neighborhood has a zombie or two. Are they what we fear we might become if we let ourselves go—soulless vessels of pure appetite, both ravaged and ravaging? Do they represent our apprehension of what hostility lies behind all those blank faces in the office, at the mall, across the dinner table?
He doesn't have an answer, but neither do I. (I agree with him about "Man of Steel" too.)

If you want other movie recommendations (I know you probably don't), I suggest Stoker and One Night in Mongkok. The first is by Park Chan-wook, the creator of the genre I think of as Korean revenge and a former philosophy major. It is marred by gothic cliches (a girl dresses a bit like Alice, a spider crawls up her leg, etc.) but when I watched it on a plane on my recent travels it was refreshing, even thrilling, to see a film made by someone who was actually thinking about how to take each shot rather than just following the usual script. The second is set in the most densely populated part of Hong Kong (and, in fact, of the planet, if memory serves), is an action/revenge film, and shows the attitude of Hong Kongers towards the mainland Chinese quite nicely. It's a sympathetic treatment in the end, but it's not hard to infer that a certain disdain for the unsophisticated poor (these days often rich) mainlanders is widespread.


Fire, at least in the form of burning incense, is important in several religions. But water is pretty big too. Here's Larkin on the subject:
If I were called in 
To construct a religion 
I should make use of water. 

Going to church 
Would entail a fording 
To dry, different clothes; 

My liturgy would employ 
Images of sousing, 
A furious devout drench, 

And I should raise in the east 
A glass of water 
Where any-angled light 
Would congregate endlessly.
That's all Christian-influenced, of course. The Taoist version is interesting too. Here is a nice introductory video (24 minutes long, on Taoism and martial arts), and here is the water-related philosophy of Bruce Lee.

And here's some of the Tao Te Bing:

28. Be a valley

Be a valley to which, by nature,
water flows
Be an example to which, by nature,
the lives of others flow
Keep in view the child’s mind which,
like water, flows
To be whole see whole
Consider opposites
See finite and infinite
Be newborn.  Being man
understand being’s portal, woman,
through which new life  flows
See dark and light
In honor be humble
In strength be weak
To have integrity means to know outer and inner
because to each the roots of selfhood reach
In the newborn, as in an uncarved block,
are imminent possibilities waiting to be formed
Wisdom keeps its wholeness
being many

Monday, June 24, 2013

Tempo house

When I think of the word 'temple' now I think of it as said by the man at Ounalom Temple, who pronounced it roughly: tempo. In this post I want to think out what it is that I like so much about temples, particularly Buddhist and Taoist ones. It's the Taoist aesthetic that I like, but my beliefs are closer to Buddhism, and that makes a difference. I feel less strange in a Buddhist temple. I was about to add "but it's the strangeness that appeals," but that isn't true. What appeals is strange, but it isn't the strangeness. It's the vitality.



Actually these pictures don't quite make the point, but I'll try to put it in words below. The kind of church I grew up with tends towards minimalism, like Apple products and much else that is revered in our culture. Perhaps rightly so. But minimalism has to do with silence, and silence does not speak the ineffable. It might be tasteful, very tasteful indeed even, but it says nothing. A contemporary church (and I'm no expert, but I suspect there is little difference in this regard between Protestant, Catholic, and even Orthodox churches being built now) might be "the product of a decidedly sensitive ear and good manners, an expression of great understanding (of cultures, etc.). But primordial life, wild life striving to erupt into the open—that is lacking." Wittgenstein (in the same passage I've just quoted) links wild life striving to erupt (a very Schopenhauerian image, to my mind) with health. And I think what I like, or one thing that I like at least, about Taoist (and some Buddhist) temples is this sense of health and of life. 

They are full of gods and life. Spiral incense sticks hang slowly burning from the ceiling, drooping into cones that drop brown ash below. Shorter, straight incense sticks poke out from urns of sand as offerings to the gods. There is a large bell and a large drum that are occasionally sounded, after an offering has been made. Every part of the ceiling is painted brightly or carved elaborately. There are ranks of lanterns and prayer flags hanging down, banks of memorials to the dead line the walls (possibly with the ashes of the deceased behind each one--I don't know). There are large statues of armed gods standing near the back of the temple, and paintings of similar figures on the doors as you enter. Entrance is through a gateway blocked by a step to keep out ghosts, which have no knees and so cannot bend their legs to get over it. The main gods are presented (or represented) at the very back, with lesser ones along the walls, sometimes in glass cases. Before them are offerings, usually of fruit but also expensive treats (Ferrero Rocher and Toblerone, for instance, but I also saw Guinness). And of course people praying and giving incense, robed and performing ceremonies, selling incense and paper goods to burn (it is all about fire as well as smells and color, and there must be sacrifice), or just waiting in attendance while eating lunch or having a smoke. Life is here, even if this life revolves around death. I don't know, but my sense is that most of the prayers are either for the dead or the dying, or at least sick. One of the most popular temples in Hong Kong is dedicated to Wong Tai Sin, who is believed to have been able to cure all illnesses and to help with other troubles too. Outside one temple two elderly people offered pieces of paper supposed to bring luck by their red color and propitious symbols (they wanted money in return). Temples are places for the grieving and the unfortunate to grieve and indulge in superstition. But the grief, the sacrifice, and the respect for forces not of this world are all real. (How do I know? Partly because people go there alone and at any time of the day to make their offerings and say their prayers. This isn't a performance, as some church attendance is.) All day every day people come and pray, and the temples are right there among the businesses, each of which (as well as each home) typically contains its own spirit house. Merely for luck, perhaps, but this isn't the luck it takes to win the lottery. It's luck that's linked to heaven or the Buddha, and to one's ancestors. I don't mean to deny or even downplay the superstition in all this, but it isn't all superstition, and even the superstition itself (give me money and I'll give you luck) is not pure superstition. It's a corruption, a corrupt form, of something much better. Or so it seems to me. 

Larkin's "Church Going" is relevant to these temples:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in
If only that so many dead lie round.
But the question of obsolescence that runs through Larkin's meditation just isn't there in Hong Kong and Cambodia (or it didn't seem to be there to me). The temple next to the Mercedes dealership feels like a necessity, not a relic.

I don't know that I really have a point here, or if I do I'm not sure exactly what it is. Something about the pre-modern age has tremendous appeal, for me and for others. And religion, or perhaps religion of a certain kind, strikes me as essentially, perhaps definitively, pre-modern. It also seems closed off though. I can just about imagine becoming a Buddhist (of a very minimal kind), but not a Taoist. Probably all I mean is: death of God/disenchantment of the world/the good old days/the exotic Orient/etc. etc. But I mean it as the expression of a real experience. The best temples in Hong Kong felt like oxygen to me, in a way that works of art sometimes, and wild animals always, do. 

Here's an otherwise irrelevant video to explain the post's title:

Sunday, June 23, 2013

What we are losing

Dr. Harley A. Rotbart recalls his father's reaction to his graduating:
Crying loudly, Dad fell to his knees in what can only be described as a total emotional breakdown. He shook and shivered and sobbed. People all around turned to stare, but he didn’t notice or didn’t care. The usual self-consciousness was gone. As I dropped to my knees to face him, he held me like never before. Everyone backed away to give us space; a few applauded. Strangers took pictures. Dad and I stayed on our knees, crying and hugging for a long time, until we both had the strength to stand up. Then, holding onto each other and to my Mom and brother, we made our way out of the auditorium. We didn’t stop at the reception for cookies or punch. We just kept walking until we felt the rain on our faces.
Only later did I fully realize what had happened. On that day, and again in a similar scene at my brother’s journalism school ceremony the next year, Dad was liberated from Auschwitz. He was no longer “142178,” a Nazi victim. My father could now stand face to face with doctors, journalists and other accomplished Americans. Although uneducated himself, he had educated his kids, and that was plenty good enough. Better than good enough: it was great. No longer bound by the restraints life had forced on him, he reveled in what this new country had given him. He reveled in his family and in his fruit truck. He reveled in personally defeating Hitler. At his sons’ graduations, he graduated to freedom.
Who knows what was really going on in Mr. Rotbart's heart and head at that moment. But graduation from college seems to be less to do with freedom than it once was. Consider this comment and others to this post:
While I would agree that more scientists is NOT what we need, having more of the population educated about science and specifically the scientific method, critical thinking, and skepticism is certainly what we need.
The relevant background is this:
Whipping and driving people into science careers doesn't seem like a very good way to produce good scientists. In fact, it seems like an excellent way to produce a larger cohort of indifferent ones, which is exactly what we don't need. Or does that depend on the definition of "we"?
And this:
But the main backing for government intervention in STEM education has come from the business lobby. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a businessman stand up and bemoan the alleged failure of the education system to produce the science and technology ‘skills’ that his company requires, I’d be a very rich man.
I have always struggled to recognize the picture these detractors paint. I find most recent science graduates to be positively bursting with both technical knowledge and enthusiasm.
If business people want to harness that enthusiasm, all they have to do is put their hands in their pockets and pay and train newly graduated scientists and engineers properly. It is much easier, of course, for the US National Association of Manufacturers and the British Confederation of British Industry to keep bleating that the state-run school- and university-education systems are ‘failing’.
In short, education is being, or has already been, sold out to business. I think this is related to what I think Gary Gutting means when he says:
The fruits of college teaching should be measured not by tests but by the popularity of museums, classical concerts, art film houses, book discussion groups, and publications like Scientific American, the New York Review of Books, The Economist, and The Atlantic, to cite just a few. These are the places where our students reap the benefits of their education. 
I don't agree with him when he says that, "We should judge teaching not by the amount of knowledge it passes on, but by the enduring excitement it generates." Passing on knowledge matters more than generating excitement.  But it may well be that enduring excitement requires knowledge. Faith in culture seems to be dead, or at least dying. And I'm not sure that culture can survive without this faith, or that we can survive without culture.  

A father might cry when his son graduated with a purely vocational degree, but there would be something absurd about this. "Yes! My boy has grown to be a tool of the Association of Manufacturers!" might be said, or even exclaimed, but surely not while openly weeping. Or perhaps it could be. But if that's what graduation means, or comes to mean, it will never be a graduation to freedom.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Critical thinking again

Thinking, like writing, ought to be about something, or at least might as well be about something. (Relevant to this point are this and this.) So I'm suspicious of courses that are simply in thinking or writing. I still think a good critical thinking course might be possible, if only because so many students seem not to know, roughly speaking, how the world works. That is, they don't know enough about science to know that its findings should generally be trusted, nor enough about science reporting and funding to know that scientific findings as reported in the media should not be accepted uncritically, and that one should often ask who is behind the research. Similarly they will distrust news sources they disagree with without asking or knowing who funds them, who works for them, what reasons they might have for promoting an agenda, and so on. That is, they might dismiss the mainstream media as having a liberal bias, but they couldn't say where this bias is supposed to come from. Or they might dismiss Fox News as unreliable, but they know next to nothing about Rupert Murdoch. And they don't know enough about how academia works to know that peer-reviewed works are more reliable than other works, that people with PhDs from reputable programs are more reliable than others, and so on. Maybe all this could be covered in a 100-level writing course, but apparently that isn't happening. And it would be good for them to learn something about fallacies, logic, the badness of bullshit, what Orwell says about politics and language, etc., etc. I think there's a course-worth of materials there. (Obviously there is if logic is understood in an unlimited way, but I mean the amount of logic that is likely to be directly useful to the average educated person, i.e. probably not much of it.)

Connected to all this is this post by Brian Leiter asking why "these people just make things up." Leiter does not make anything up in his post, but he does spin things quite a lot. Is it really reasonable to think that Graham Harman invented the reader he quotes? (And if not, why bother to call the reader "alleged"?) Is it reasonable to take "becoming a medium for a dismissive model" to mean "being himself dismissive"? I find myself a) tempted to say That's why these people just make things up, b) afraid to say anything lest I be publicly humiliated on Leiter's blog, and c) tempted to suggest the addition "...when you can just distort the truth" to the title of Leiter's post. What stands out is b, which is a symptom of a general problem in philosophy. (The good news for me is that I'm too insignificant for Leiter to be likely to bother with me, but of course that's bad news for me too. These power differences are differences in significance too, and so not only potentially unjust (if the power is not rightly distributed) but potentially painful too. I can imagine references to our all being grown-ups or big boys at this point, which would just add to the insult.) The problem is often associated with Leiter, perhaps unfairly, and comes out also in all this stuff. The discipline is not a straightforward meritocracy, but things like Leiter's rankings (which are useful) promote, intentionally or not, the view that it is a straightforward meritocracy. It is in this way (at least in part), I take it, that Leiter is seen to be part of the problem. His rankings encourage the view that not only are some departments better bets than others for prospective graduate students who hope to get an academic job after their PhDs but also (and there are varying degrees of truth in the following propositions) that some people are simply better philosophers than others, that some journals are simply better than others, that some areas of philosophy are simply better or more important than others, and that standard ideas about pedigree and ranking reflect these realities fairly (and) accurately. It doesn't help that when people mention Leiter in association with criticisms of some or all of this picture he uses the weight of his status in the profession to belittle the already relatively little (in terms of power). So that's another way in which Leiter is seen by some to be problematic.

What's the connection between the two previous paragraphs? It has to do with bias, power, and critical thinking. As Wittgenstein asked:
what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious than any . . . journalist in the use of the DANGEROUS phrases such people use for their own ends.
It seems fairly clear that the most prestigious journals in philosophy don't simply publish the best work in philosophy: they prefer work done in certain areas of philosophy, done in a certain kind of way, and it may well help if this work cites certain people rather than others (whose work may be equally good), it may help if the author is male, it may help if the author works in a select group of departments, and so on. There is no escaping some bias, but that doesn't make it all OK. And that's why I'm hopeful that the new journal from the APA will be a useful addition to the journals already out there. These are laudable aims:
The APA sees a niche for a truly general philosophy journal, one that includes scholarship from all specializations and fields of study, from analytic to continental and beyond. J-APA aims to be just such a journal.
Further, as a top philosophy journal with excellent editors, J-APA will help to improve the current publishing environment in which it is exceptionally challenging for young scholars to publish at the levels necessary to secure a job or earn tenure.
[UPDATE: Aaargh! Jon Cogburn has kindly linked to this post from New APPS, and now far more people are likely to read it than would have otherwise. Which prompts me to try to clarify a few things in the second paragraph.

Leiter quotes Harman quoting a reader's email, according to which: "[Leiter has] also become a medium for a very specific model of anglophone philosophy that is dismissive of all forms of history of philosophy, metaphysics, pragmatism, continental philosophy, philosophy of art, etc." Leiter responds, in part, by saying that he doesn't write, teach, or believe anything so dismissive.  It seems to me that this misses the point of the complaint. There are philosophers who are dismissive of the things listed, and they seem to feel entitled to their contempt because of a certain culture within the discipline, a culture according to which there are insiders and outsiders, and a definite hierarchy of the more and the less respectable/contemptible. Leiter's rankings and the various polls he conducts largely reflect the views of this culture (partly perhaps because this culture is right about who/what deserves respect and who/what deserves contempt, but also partly perhaps because it is mostly those who belong to this culture who participate in the ranking process and the polls). Whatever caveats Leiter might attach to the rankings and the polls, I think they are regarded by many as supporting a certain view, based partly on prejudice, of who/what is good and who/what is not.

Why does this matter? Let's not count the ways, but here are a few. 1) It is contrary to the ideals of philosophy to dismiss a view on the basis of anything but careful thought (and yet I, for example, was told from day one of my philosophical education that continental philosophy is not really philosophy--this prejudice is widespread and often really seems to be nothing more than a prejudice), 2) it is contrary to the ideals of philosophy to dismiss a person on the basis of what they find interesting or worthwhile (it isn't very nice to do this either), 3) the dismissive attitude is not only contrary to things like wonder and open-mindedness, often thought to be vital to philosophy, but also has a narrowing effect on the discipline. More and better philosophers are likely to be drawn into respected areas of the subject simply because of the associated prestige (which, I take it, is not a good reason), and departments that care about their PGR ranking are likely to want to hire in these areas, even if they themselves regard other candidates as superior (which is also not good). In short, Leiter's rankings, polls, etc., without meaning to, contribute to a dismissive (and therefore unphilosophical) culture within philosophy. Those dismissive of continental philosophy (even Leiter's own) are likely to be drawn to his blog for this reason. And that goes double when he personally dismisses people like Harman (and now Cogburn). Leiter may be a Nietzsche scholar, believers in the model complained about might say, but my enemy's enemy is my friend. He can, of course, get away with a certain amount of dismissiveness if he chooses to precisely because he works on continental philosophy and the history of philosophy. 

This is related to the kind of fear that I said was a symptom of a general problem in philosophy. Because so many ideas, fields of study, kinds of people, and individuals are dismissed and/or insulted (sometimes with accompanying justifications for the contempt shown them, sometimes not), there is a chilly climate in philosophy, not an open or welcoming one. You must think like the people at the top of the hierarchy. And they do not usually bother to explain (what can certainly often seem to be merely) their prejudices. This is not racism, sexism, classism, or homophobia, but it has something of the same flavor: differences in power, status, job security, pay (these are all related) are used to silence or humiliate dissenters from the status quo. I don't mean that people like Leiter have not earned their salaries, status, etc. I mean that differences in status play more of a role in the life of the profession than they should (according to a certain ideal of rational discourse that I think/hope is widespread in philosophy).      

What about my talk of things being painful, and of insulting references to our all being grown-ups? I meant that if I were Harman (or Cogburn) I would be hurt by Leiter's comments. Let's imagine I'm Harman. I probably feel pretty good about my leading role in the speculative realism movement. But I probably have moments of doubt too. It's not as if this work has been universally embraced by philosophers. And then one of the biggest names in the discipline implies that I'm a crank who just makes things up! Harman is probably made of stronger stuff than me, but that would be a bad day at the office for me if I were in his shoes. And then I was imagining someone telling Harman, as some have said about the student allegedly harassed by Colin McGinn, that we are all grown-ups and should learn to take such hits on the chin. And it seemed to me that this would be like telling someone who has just been hit to grow up. Which is adding insult to injury. As I write this I have a strong sense that it is embarrassing or wrong, a deviation from disciplinary norms, to talk about people's feelings like this, and to believe that it is wrong to hurt them. But I do believe that, and I'm mystified by the apparent unconcern for others' feelings (to say nothing of the desire sometimes apparent to cause pain) in some of these exchanges. 

Finally, why did I just mention salaries and job security? I think these are relevant in two ways. For one thing, tenure and a big salary confer prestige, which in turn makes it easier (and more obnoxious) for those who have them to beat up on those who have less of them. For another, philosophy, the humanities, and higher education generally are on the ropes at the moment. With employment prospects within the discipline so bleak there is bound to be an increased desire to conform to the norms of those in a position to hand out jobs, tenure, invitations to speak at conferences, reputation, etc. The more prevailing prejudices are confirmed the more anyone who cares about being able to get a job (which includes not only graduate students and the un-tenured but anyone whose job is not 100% secure) will be inclined to conform and the more these people will be disinclined to, say, dabble in speculative realism. That is not necessarily bad, but I take it that it is bad to the extent that it happens because of prejudice and power-plays rather than the careful employment of reason.]

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Wittgenstein Among the Sciences

I don't know how long this link will remain functional, but for now you should be able to see my review of Rupert Read's latest book here. The book is Wittgenstein among the Sciences: Wittgensteinian Investigations into the “Scientific Method,” edited by Simon Summers (London: Ashgate, 2012). 

The first and last paragraphs should give you the gist (and I think it's OK for me to reproduce them here):
Rupert Read's new book argues that the so-called social sciences ought to be understood as social studies instead. At least, this is how the book is likely to be read, despite Read's insistence that he is not really arguing so much as he is providing reminders to help the reader decide for herself whether the social sciences are best thought of as genuine sciences. He does this in two stages. In the first, he makes the case that Kuhn is not the relativist he is often taken to be and can usefully be thought of as a Wittgensteinian philosopher. In the second, he goes through one social science, or group of social sciences, after another in order to question their status as sciences and to suggest that they are actually more philosophical than is generally recognised. The book also includes lecture transcripts, an “inter-section,” and an interview with Read conducted by Simon Summers, but the bulk of the book consists of “Part 1: Wittgenstein, Kuhn and Natural Science” and “Part 2: Wittgenstein, Winch and ‘Human Science’.”
Is economics therefore not a science? Well, as Read somewhat surprisingly does not dwell much on, it depends what you mean by science. If some economists, for instance, seem to want to claim something false about their discipline by calling it a science, one response is to contradict them. Read leaves it to the reader to decide what to say, but it is clear enough where his sympathies lie. Another approach, however, is to agree with the economist and to be more liberal with what is called a science. Terms such as “scientia” and “Wissenschaft” (as Read notes) have a wide scope, after all, wide enough to cover philosophy (although he rejects calling philosophy science as “a disastrous and self-deceptive manoeuvre” on page 130). As Wittgenstein and Read might say, we can say what we choose, so long as it does not prevent us from seeing the facts. And Read's rich work presents a great many facts and insights that do indeed incline the reader to see much of the social sciences as infected with scientism. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Stretching a point

This passage from Moore's notes on Wittgenstein's lectures bothers me:
If I want to find how elastic a rod is, I can imagine two ways: –
(1) With a microscope I can see the structure, & can say it is elastic.
But do I mean this structure by “elastic”? I might.
But (2) I might investigate by pulling the rod, & seeing what happens.
This might be what I mean, & the structure only a symptom.
So with “good”.
We might mean by “good” simply “action of this sort”…(Wittgenstein, forthcoming: May 9, 1933).
Specifically the line, "So with 'good'." What could this mean?

The interpretation I tried out before looked for the relative/absolute distinction from the Lecture on Ethics in this passage. But I'd like to try just to make sense of the passage on its own. The stuff about the rod seems straightforward enough: I might mean 'elastic' as a kind of technical term, saying something specific about the physical structure of an object. Or I might mean it in a more ordinary sense, in which it refers to the behavior of an object in certain circumstances. And we are talking about how elastic the rod is, so it's a matter of degree that concerns us.

How could assessing an action's goodness be like this? Nothing much suggests itself about what would correspond with the technical, structural sense in this case. My first thought is of ethical theories: an action might be called good if it promotes happiness, or is performed on the basis of a maxim that could be willed as a universal law, or accords with the Ten Commandments, etc. But it's not clear that examining the structure of the action (whatever exactly that might mean) would help here. Do the consequences, does the maxim, belong to the action's structure? Well, they might. Depends what you mean by 'structure' when the word is applied to actions. And that, I think, could be said about any suggestion regarding the correct interpretation of this part of the analogy.

So what about the pulling part? We can't really do anything to the action and see what happens. We could see what results the action produces, but it's unlikely that Wittgenstein believed that this is the way to judge goodness. A consequentialist reading of the analogy would also leave unexplained the pulling part and the reference to good's meaning 'action of this sort'. The word 'simply' just before 'action of this sort' is interesting too. Could good actions simply be those belonging to a certain type, not definable by their structure? That is, I take it, not definable by anything other than their belonging to that type? And where the type in question has a non-technical, ordinary name?

I think he must mean something like this. In which case I think the Lecture on Ethics reading is at least roughly right. Wittgenstein probably had Moore's open-question argument in mind here too. He was lecturing more or less to Moore, after all, and the definition/symptom distinction sounds relevant: whatever feature you might identify as the good-making property, it still makes sense to ask, "But is it good?" just as whatever feature is elastic-making one can still ask, "But does it stretch when pulled?" Wittgenstein is a non-naturalist, like Moore, although I think he would agree more with the autonomy-of-ethics thesis than with Moore's realism about normative judgments. Not because such judgments aren't objectively true or false but because the meaning of "objectively true or false" is far from clear in this case.

More to think about:

  • the question of symptoms suggests a relation to questions about criteria, 
  • Wittgenstein's early interest in Moore (along with Moore's view that our knowledge of moral truths comes from their being self-evident) suggests that On Certainty might have an ethical aspect/significance/reading, 
  • Moore gives what might be called a metaphysical account of goodness whereas Wittgenstein seems to prefer something else (something more linguistic and more ordinary), 
  • there are suggestions in all this of a connection between the notions of family resemblance and of secondary sense. 
This connection comes in two ways. First, the Lecture on Ethics both defines ethics in a family resemblance way and calls it nonsense in a way that Wittgenstein later associated with secondary sense. Secondly, the use of a word in a secondary sense depends on some felt but unidentifiable (is this right?) similarity with its use in its primary sense, and family resemblance is, or at least can be, like that. One kind of family resemblance says A is like B and B is like C, therefore C belongs to the same family as A despite their having nothing much in common. Another kind says A is like B despite their having nothing helpfully specifiable in common. Two shades of red, say. Sure they're both red, but in virtue of what? And if they count as the same color, why don't various shades of orange, pink, and purple? (In case this is all wrong let me distract you by pointing to more on family resemblances here.)

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Back to Wittgenstein and ethics

David Stern has an interesting paper here. He brings up Philosophical Investigations 77, which he notes is often overlooked:
And if we carry this comparison still further it is clear that the degree to which the sharp picture can resemble the blurred one depends on the latter's degree of vagueness. For imagine having to sketch a sharply defined picture 'corresponding' to a blurred one. In the latter there is a blurred red rectangle: for it you put down a sharply defined one. Of course—several such sharply defined rectangles can be drawn to correspond to the indefinite one.—But if the colours in the original merge without a hint of any outline won't it become a hopeless task to draw a sharp picture corresponding to the blurred one? Won't you then have to say: "Here I might just as well draw a circle or heart as a rectangle, for all the colours merge. Anything—and nothing—is right."——And this is the position you are in if you look for definitions corresponding to our concepts in aesthetics or ethics.
In such a difficulty always ask yourself: How did we learn the meaning of this word ("good" for instance)? From what sort of examples? in what language-games? Then it will be easier for you to see that the word must have a family of meanings.
Stern traces similar ideas about ethics, the good, and family resemblance to Philosophical Grammar (1933-34) and to G. E. Moore's notes on Wittgenstein's lectures from the same period. What he doesn't mention is that the 1929 Lecture on Ethics contains relevantly similar ideas too:
My subject, as you know, is Ethics and I will adopt the explanation of that term which Professor Moore has given in his book Principia Ethica He says: "Ethics is the general enquiry into what is good." Now I am going to use the term Ethics in a slightly wider sense, in a sense in fact which includes what I believe to be the most essential part of what is generally called Aesthetics. And to make you see as clearly as possible what I take to be the subject matter of Ethics I will put before you a number of more or less synonymous expressions each of which could be substituted for the above definition, and by enumerating them I want to produce the same sort of effect which Galton produced when he took a number of photos of different faces on the same photographic plate in order to get the picture of the typical features they all had in common. And as by showing to you such a collective photo I could make you see what is the typical -say-Chinese face; so if you look through the row of synonyms which I will put before you, you will, I hope, be able to see the characteristic features they all have in common and these are the characteristic features of Ethics. Now instead of saying "Ethics is the enquiry into what is good" I could have said Ethics is the enquiry into what is valuable, or, into what is really important, or I could have said Ethics is the enquiry into the meaning of life, or into what makes life worth living, or into the right way of living. I believe if you look at all these phrases you will get a rough idea as to what it is that Ethics is concerned with.
Speaking of Baker and Hacker, Stern writes that "they think of our learning of words of appraisal as starting with interjections. Then he quotes them saying that:
'Good' is generally first applied by a child to food. It is taught in conjunction with exaggerated gestures and facial expressions, and with distinctive tones of voice that are expressions of approval.
What he doesn't say is that Baker and Hacker are here simply repeating what Wittgenstein is recorded as having said in his lectures on aesthetics:
A child generally applies a word like ‘good’ first to food. One thing that is immensely important in teaching is exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. The word is taught as a substitute for a facial expression or a gesture. The gestures, tones of voice, etc., in this case are expressions of approval.  
Stern criticizes Baker and Hacker for having an overly simple view of the varieties of the good (he says that they "conceive of the family-resemblance concept of goodness as analyzable into a relatively small number of discrete forms of goodness, such as “the pleasant, the skilful, the useful or the healthy” (Baker & Hacker 2005: 171)") and for taking the "crudely expressive" nature of our very first uses of evaluative terms as being the crucial point to note about how we learn words like 'good'. I'm not sure that this second criticism is fair, given that the idea under attack seems to come from Wittgenstein himself. Stern is quite right to question it though. It is very clear that Wittgenstein thinks there is more to aesthetic appreciation than oohs and aahs (or boos and bahs). In fact, he seems to treat reactions of this kind as evidence of the absence of appreciation. And I suspect that, roughly speaking, his views on ethics are exactly the same as, or at least parallel to, his views on ethics. There is much more to be said about how we get from yummy! to appreciation, about the tremendous (because "One wouldn’t talk of appreciating the tremendous things in Art"), and about the significance of all this (its relevance to ethics, for instance). But that will have to wait.

One last point. Stern quotes Moore's notes on Wittgenstein's lectures again:

Supposing you say “good is a quality of human actions & events, & one can’t explain further what sort of quality”.
Then ask: How does one know whether an action or event has it?
(I don’t despise this question: it is connected with meaning, & way in which we learnt meaning.) 
Answer might be: Study the action, & you’ll find out; just as you might study a thing to find out whether it’s steel or not.
Now can I know the action in all its details, & not know whether it’s good or not? Is that it’s good one particular experience, like that it’s hard?
Suppose I studied all the movements involved in a murder, & also all the emotions. Is there a separate investigation, having studied the whole action, whether it’s good or not? (Wittgenstein, forthcoming: May 9, 1933).
Then Stern comments:
Wittgenstein clearly expected his audience to answer “No” to the question at the end of this passage. A few sentences earlier on, he had proposed that there would be no need for a separate investigation: “study the action, & you’ll find out”.
This proposal marks a radical departure from the position of the Tractatus and the Lecture on Ethics, where he had maintained that even if we had a book that contained a complete description of the world, including the movements of every body and all the states of mind of every person, “this book would contain nothing that we would call an ethical judgment or anything that would logically imply such a judgment”(LE 1993, 39; cf. TLP 6.41) 
It seems doubtful to me that Wittgenstein really meant that you could find out whether an act was good or not by studying it just as you might find out whether an object was made of steel by studying it. There are tests for that kind of thing in a way that there aren't for whether something is good. Whether an act is good is not to be determined by some separate investigation going beyond the movements and emotions involved, but neither is it to be determined simply by studying the action. If only because studying the action is not simple. See Anscombe's Intention or Wittgenstein on the difference between my arm's going up and my raising it. Actions are not just movements, nor movements plus emotions. If we want to judge an action then we need to know something like its meaning.

Right after this passage, Stern tells us, comes this:
Take “elasticity”.
If I want to find how elastic a rod is, I can imagine two ways: – (1) With a microscope I can see  the structure, & can say it is elastic. But do I mean this structure by “elastic”? I might.
But (2) I might investigate by pulling the rod, & seeing what happens.
This might be what I mean, & the structure only a symptom.
So with “good”. 
We might mean by “good” simply “action of this sort”… (Wittgenstein, forthcoming: May 9, 1933). 
Stern suggests that this looks like a complete break with the view of ethics found in the Tractatus and the Lecture on Ethics, but that this is a superficial view given the great changes in Wittgenstein's view of language now that he has the concept of family resemblance. I'm not so sure. For one thing, the idea of family resemblance is already there, in some form, in the Lecture on Ethics. For another, the Lecture on Ethics makes a big distinction between two uses of the word 'good', the relative and the absolute. Could this relate to the two uses of 'elastic' referred to in the passage above? The first use of 'elastic' refers to a matter of fact, much as the relative use of 'good' does. Is this rod elastic? Let me see. Is this a good way to get to Dorchester? Let me see. Same idea. The second use of 'elastic' is (confusingly) more relative: how easy is it to stretch and bend this rod? But this kind of question could also be viewed as being about the category to which the rod belongs. Does it belong with rubber bands, springs, etc., or with iron bars, wooden planks, and suchlike? This is a less cut and dried matter. When it comes to goodness, we might ask in a parallel fashion: does it belong with murder and theft, or with rescuing kittens from a burning building, giving alms, etc.? Deciding to what sort of actions something belongs is not really a scientific matter. It is not a question of fact (in the sense in which the Lecture on Ethics contrasts facts with ethics), that is, precisely because it calls for a decision.

In short, Moore's notes seem very well worth reading (Stern has co-edited them with Gabriel Citron and Brian Rogers), but I am not convinced (so far) that they contain any major break with Wittgenstein's views on ethics as they appear in the Lecture on Ethics.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Six days in Hong Kong

If you're going to Hong Kong for a short visit, my first advice is: don't buy the Lonely Planet guide. The map is useful, but you can print out maps from the internet. Its advice is pretty bad. For instance, in the first few pages of the book it lists eleven "top sights" (pp. 8-11) and suggests a four-day itinerary of Hong Kong's "must-sees" (pp. 14-15). Do the must-sees include all the top sights? Nope. Do they include shopping at the same place (G.O.D. in Causeway Bay) twice? Yep. Do they include one full afternoon and two part-afternoons of shopping on a four-day, probably once-in-a-lifetime trip? Yes. Is the only suggested alternative visiting a temple that you are supposed to have already seen? Naturally. Is that temple actually worth visiting? Not unless you want to be among busloads of tourists. It seems to be a sort of Taoist Lourdes, and it has zero charm for anyone not hoping for a cure. I won't go on, but I could.

Probably the best place I saw in my six days in Hong Kong is the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery. As far as I can tell this place is not even mentioned in the Lonely Planet book, which is a disgrace. Let me qualify these last two sentences: although I was a first-time visitor on a short trip, I was with a friend who lived here for a year, and who took advice from Hong Kongers about what to see when here. He and his wife gave me invaluable suggestions about where to go (insert joke here) and they described the Ten Thousand Buddhas as a must-see. In short, I have more Hong Kong tourism expertise than you might think. Second qualification: the monastery is a very long way from being wheelchair accessible, involving a steep climb up a hill. There is a ramp, but I cannot imagine having the arm-strength to get a wheelchair up it. And no one who struggles up hills could walk it. The incline is about 30 degrees, I would guess, and it lasts and lasts. But if you can get there, it is well worth it.

The view's not bad, for one thing.

My second favorite temple is not the famous Man Mo Temple in Sheung Wan, although that is very good, but the more out-of-the-way Man Mo Temple in Tai Po. I was in Tai Po anyway because it's where my friends lived, but it might not be so much better than the other one to justify a trip out there. Your call. The famous one is bigger and, I'm told, often filled with tourists (I saw only a few when I was there). The more obscure one is a bit smaller and much quieter, hence more atmospheric. Both are fantastically elaborate: lined with statues of multiple gods, colorfully painted, intricately carved, filled with incense, punctuated with drum beats and bell tolls, occupied by the genuinely devout, places of commemoration hanging with flags of prayer, places for giving gifts of food and more incense to the gods, enemies of minimalism, sullied by my photographing presence. 

The cones are suspended, burning coils of incense.

Other highlights so far: the view from the peak (clear when I went there, but perhaps not a must-see otherwise), the Star Ferry between central Hong Kong island and the Kowloon Peninsula, the Hong Kong Museum of History (lots of short movies and life-size replicas you can walk through and around, all for less than US $2: a must), the Hong Kong Museum of Art (a should more than a must, but also less than US $2 and right next to the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade, so you really should), and Kowloon Park (Hong Kong Park is meant to be nice too--both have aviaries, people doing Tai Chi, etc.). 

The second best thing I did was to take a free Tai Chi lesson on the promenade from William Ng and Pandora Wu. You just show up at 8:00 am on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday and join in. I found out about this from the Lonely Planet guide, so it's good for something, but it incorrectly says that you have to make reservations. Far from it--any passerby is loudly encouraged to join in. I showed up early and found myself doing twenty minutes of Tai Chi (very badly) with Chinese people (some of whom were just as bad as me, thankfully). The lesson starts with breathing exercises, about a minute of meditation, watching a demonstration, being led through a short routine of exercises a few times, watching another demonstration, and then finally photographs. Unfortunately they kindly insist on your being in the pictures with them, and in a Tai Chi pose no less, so I won't post one here. But they are expert teachers, the location is spectacular (when you're not watching the instructor or keeping your eyes on your left hand as instructed all you see is the harbor and the skyline behind it), and it's a perfect introduction to one aspect of Chinese religion and culture. 

The third best thing I did was go to the Big Buddha (I just mis-typed that as Big Buggha!) on Lantau Island.  It's quite touristy, but you can just walk through those parts and focus on the 34-metre-tall Buddha, the weird vegetarian lunch (including unidentifiable-vegetable soup) you get at the nearby monastery if you buy a ticket to see the relic and view from upstairs in the Buddha building, and the great walks you can do up there away from the crowds. I had already checked out of my hotel and wanted to avoid getting too sweaty before my flight home, so I didn't hike much, but I did walk the Wisdom Path. I had no idea what this was, but it turned out to be all 260 verses of the Heart Sutra (in Chinese) inscribed on huge wooden columns in a figure-eight pattern. It reminded me of Stonehenge, although I suppose I'd be getting carried away if I said it was as impressive a sight as that. Still I think the Hong Kong Tourism Commission is right to call it a masterpiece.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of my photograph.

Other places I've been:
  • the mid-level escalators on Hong Kong island: outdoor escalators going up (but not down) a steep hill surrounded by real-estate agents and bars for ex-pat Brits, Aussies, etc. All I could think about was the lives those people must lead. They must be loaded because it's an expensive place, but they all seem to be either together (not mixing with the natives) or alone (not mixing even with each other). Analytic it may be, but island life looks insular for ex-pats. And clichéd it may be, but are they really happy?
  • Temple Street Night Market: surprisingly similar to markets in Cambodia, almost as if there are factories in Asia churning out all those Buddha statues, Dr Dre Beats headphones, etc. Until we got to the sex toys. Those were new. And very, very plentiful. 
  • Chi Lin Nunnery and adjacent Nan Lian Garden: more restrained than the Taoist temples but still not all that different really, and very peaceful
  • Hung Shing Temple and Fook Tak Temple: both recommended as among the "best temples" by my guidebook, neither worth going out of your way for given their small size. The book calls them "quirky," but there just isn't much there to see except people trying to smoke a cigarette or pray and being interrupted by some fool with a camera who bought the wrong guidebook  
  • Cheung Hing Tailor, fourth floor, 79 Queen's Road C. [Central?]: bought a custom-made jacket (which hasn't arrived yet so I can't vouch for the quality, but others who should know do). About $140 including shipping, which seems like a good deal to me. Quite an experience too: "Two button free button? New fashion! Two button. Obama! Ha ha!" 
Here's the itinerary I would suggest:

Day One: maybe the first morning you should walk around Tsim Sha Tsui (I'm sort of assuming you're staying in this area, just because I did), visiting the promenade (don't miss the Tai Chi lesson at 8:00 if it's Monday, Wednesday, or Friday), the history museum, and the art museum. After lunch head for the peak if it's clear, or a temple if it's not. Maybe take the Star Ferry to central and hit Man Mo Temple, see some skyscrapers, and pretend to be in the market for antiques. There really is a lot of good shopping to do, from expensive works of art in central to cheap (not-necessarily)-crap in the night market.

Day Two: if you are sufficiently mobile, head to the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery in Sha Tin. You could visit the Chi Lin Nunnery and adjacent Nan Lian Garden in the afternoon. There is a restaurant here (which I didn't try), so perhaps go here in the morning and then hit the Ten Thousand Buddhas after lunch, although I tried something like this and didn't stay long enough to still be in the garden at lunch time. Your patience may vary.  

Day Three: head out to Lantau Island (the MTR train system takes you to Tung Chung, then you get a cable car to the Big Buddha). I would seriously consider making a day of this, either hiking as much as you can or doing one of the tours of the island (one includes a boat trip on which you might see dolphins). For about $10 (US) you can go up in the building at the base of the Buddha, where there is an unimpressive museum and spectacular views, and an enormous vegetarian lunch down below at the monastery. Worth it, I think. 

Days Four-Six: catch up on whatever you missed that I mention above, otherwise see as many temples as you can, walk as much as you can, and look around some markets. If I had stayed longer I might have gone by boat to Macau, which sounds good.

A note on food: Maybe it's just me, but I often felt inclined to skip lunch, which is not the usual me at all. My hotel offered a huge buffet breakfast, dinners were very filling, and there is plenty of snack food available as you go around (the English-style custard tarts are great, there is good dim sum in the markets, and I would try as many mysterious dessert-type things as you can). So that leaves dinner. You have to have dim sum at least once. The best other food I had was hot pot (not sure where, but it felt like a very local place) and meals at the Spicy Crab (which gets remarkably mixed reviews: I had nothing very expensive there and it was all very tasty, perhaps because I went with people who knew what to order) and (I think) Lin Heung Tea House. The hot pot can be spicy if you want (you get to choose the broth you cook your food in, and to add whatever spices you like to your own bowl), and the food at the other places was sometimes incredibly garlicky (which I like). People here don't generally speak much English, but it's not that hard to find places with menus in both Chinese and English, and you can point to what you want. Or stick to sad pub meals in Central.

This is worth seeing too.

The view from...the hutch

I won't out the author, but a philosophy lecturer in Cheshire, England has a new blog. More politics than philosophy so far, but it looks like good stuff.