Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Simone Weil on philosophy as poetry

I think this will only be available for a limited time, so if you haven't seen it yet I recommend looking at this incomplete essay by Simone Weil.

In response to Paul Valéry's claim that “philosophy is poetry,” Simone Weil set out to examine the nature of philosophical thinking. She argues that it is above all concerned with value. In the course of her argument, she lays out the grammatical differences between thinking about value, and other epistemological endeavours. These differences mean that inconsistencies are not to be avoided in philosophy, and that philosophy is not a matter of system building. In the end, she also believes that thinking philosophically requires one to possess the value of detachment, and hence a readiness to be transformed.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

PI 43

In case it might be helpful, here is Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations section 43 in the original German along with Anscombe's translation, the new Hacker/Schulte/Anscombe translation, and my own attempt at it.
Man kann für eine große Klasse von Fällen der Benützung des Wortes "Bedeutung" - wenn auch nicht für alle Fälle seiner Benützung - dieses Wort so erklären: Die Bedeutung eines Wortes ist sein Gebrauch in der Sprache.
Und die Bedeutung eines Namens erklärt man manchmal dadurch, dass man auf seine Träger zeigt. 
For a large class of cases--though not for all--in which we employ the word "meaning" it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language. 
And the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer
Hacker et al:
For a large class of cases - though not for all - in which we employ the word 'meaning' it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.
And the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer.
My more word-for-word translation:
For a large class of cases of the use of the word 'meaning' [Bedeutung] -- albeit not for all cases of its use -- one can explain this word thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language.
And one sometimes explains the meaning of a name by pointing out its bearer.
Two things strike me about translating this passage. One is that the German has far more words than the English. Is this just the nature of the two languages, or is Wittgenstein being wordy, either to slow the reader down or because he is choosing his words to say exactly what he means and needs this many to do so? [I was just wrong about this. See comments below.] Secondly, both Anscombe and Hacker & co. switch from 'defined' to 'explained' despite the German verb erklären being the same in each case. It's understandable but potentially misleading, I think. 


An interesting passage in "Cause and Effect: Intuitive Awareness" (in Philosophical Occasions p. 403):
     So to say "It is meaningless..." is to point out that perhaps you are being misled by these words, that they make you imagine a use which they do not have. They do perhaps evoke an idea (the prolongation of life, etc.), but the game with the sentence is so arranged that it doesn't have the essential point which makes useful the game with similarly constructed sentences. (As the 'race between the hare and the hedgehog' looks like a race, but isn't one.)   
That follows this, which helps understand what he's talking about (because it is what he's talking about):
     Suppose I have invented a medicine and say: Every man who takes this medicine for a few months will have his life extended by one month. If he hadn't taken it, he would have died a month earlier. "We can't know whether it was really the medicine; or whether he wouldn't have lived just as long without it." Isn't this a misleading way to speak? Wouldn't it be better to say: "It is meaningless to say this medicine prolongs life, if testing the claim is ruled out in this way." In other words, we are indeed dealing with a correct English sentence constructed on the analogy of sentences which are in common use, but you are not clear about the fundamental difference in the use of these sentences. It isn't easy to have a clear view of this use. The sentence is there before your eyes, but not a clear overall representation of its use. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Winch on social science

Wikipedia has a helpful page on Peter Winch. It quotes two passages from The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy which help to summarize what that book is about. These quotes include the following lines: 
to be clear about the nature of philosophy and to be clear about the nature of the social studies amount to the same thing. For any worthwhile study of society must be philosophical in character and any worthwhile philosophy must be concerned with the nature of human society
our language and our social relations are just two different sides of the same coin. To give an account of the meaning of a word is to describe how it is used; and to describe how it is used is to describe the social intercourse into which it enters. 
This sounds wrong, or at least not quite right, to me. Of course I must re-read the book before reaching any conclusions about it, but it seems worth trying to articulate some ideas to have in mind while re-reading it.

The first quotation obviously involves ideas about what is worthwhile, so Winch is making a value judgment rather than simply stating objective facts. The second quotation seems to involve a mistake, or at least something I disagree with that I don't consider to be a question of my having different values from Winch's. To give an account of the meaning of a word is to describe how it is used. This strikes me as partly true, but it ignores the part of Investigations 43 in bold here: "For a large class of cases--though not for all--in which we employ the word meaning it can be defined thus: the meaning of a word is its use in the language game." It (also) ignores essentially contested concepts. In short, Winch makes philosophy sound too much like a science.

But I mean only that in these brief passages he does that. Re-reading them in context might show them in a different light.

Social science

OK, I have to give a talk on Wittgenstein and social science, so I'd better get started. What is there to say that can be fitted in a 50-minute lecture? One issue is free will. Hume writes:
Would you know the sentiments, inclinations, and course of life of the Greeks and Romans? Study well the temper and actions of the French and English: You cannot be much mistaken in transferring to the former most of the observations which you have made with regard to the latter. Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature, by showing men in all varieties of circumstances and situations, and furnishing us with materials from which we may form our observations and become acquainted with the regular springs of human action and behaviour. These records of wars, intrigues, factions, and revolutions, are so many collections of experiments, by which the politician or moral philosopher fixes the principles of his science, in the same manner as the physician or natural philosopher becomes acquainted with the nature of plants, minerals, and other external objects, by the experiments which he forms concerning them. Nor are the earth, water, and other elements, examined by Aristotle, and Hippocrates, more like to those which at present lie under our observation than the men described by Polybius and Tacitus are to those who now govern the world.
Hume notes that history is a guide to human behavior only for the most part, but puts this down to "the diversity of characters, prejudices, and opinions". He goes on:
The vulgar, who take things according to their first appearance, attribute the uncertainty of events to such an uncertainty in the causes as makes the latter often fail of their usual influence; though they meet with no impediment in their operation. But philosophers, observing that, almost in every part of nature, there is contained a vast variety of springs and principles, which are hid, by reason of their minuteness or remoteness, find, that it is at least possible the contrariety of events may not proceed from any contingency in the cause, but from the secret operation of contrary causes. This possibility is converted into certainty by farther observation, when they remark that, upon an exact scrutiny, a contrariety of effects always betrays a contrariety of causes, and proceeds from their mutual opposition.
If we agree with Hume then we might wonder whether any social science beyond history could possibly be needed. Psychology, economics, and history would all seem to blend into one science of human behavior, based, of course, on observation of past behavior. There is some evidence of this happening, in fact, with economists offering to explain more and more kinds of behavior and the emergence of "behavioral economics," which looks a lot like psychology but pays better. (Of course it can also be argued that economists don't always pay as much attention to history as they should.)

On the other hand, we might dispute Hume's implication that human behavior can be explained by discovering hidden springs and principles. Are we really as machine-like as this image suggests?

Hume does not say that we are machines:
Thus it appears, not only that the conjunction between motives and voluntary actions is as regular and uniform as that between the cause and effect in any part of nature; but also that this regular conjunction has been universally acknowledged among mankind, and has never been the subject of dispute, either in philosophy or common life. Now, as it is from past experience that we draw all inferences concerning the future, and as we conclude that objects will always be conjoined together which we find to have always been conjoined; it may seem superfluous to prove that this experienced uniformity in human actions is a source whence we draw inferences concerning them. But in order to throw the argument into a greater variety of lights we shall also insist, though briefly, on this latter topic.
The connection between motives and actions is said here to be merely like the connection between cause and effect. But Hume does go on to say that human actions are just as governed by necessity as any other event. This is partly because we are more predictable than we might like to admit, and partly because causation in other parts of nature has less to it than we might imagine. There is, he says, no idea of causation and necessity other than "the constant conjunction of objects, and the consequent inference of the mind from one to another." Since we find the same constant conjunction and inference from one to the other with motives and actions (other things being equal) there can be no justification for denying that human behavior is just as predictable as the behavior of inanimate objects. 

It is hard to disagree with Hume here. But not impossible. Wittgenstein questions the idea of causation as constant conjunction on the grounds that it might be quite clear from just one case that one thing was causing another. For instance, if I see a string moving across the floor I might investigate and find that someone is pulling it. Is there, must there be, experience of pulling events being constantly conjoined with being-pulled events? As I recall Bill Brenner has used the example of cutting a cake. The cutting is not conjoined with the being cut as one event might be conjoined with another, distinct event. 

There seem to be two points here. One is that cause and effect are not always as distinct as they are in the cases that Hume apparently has in mind. The other is that we seem to be able to identify something as a cause from just one experience. This is most obviously true in cases where the effect is not distinct from the cause.       

On p. 373 of Philosophical Occasions Wittgenstein says:
We react to the cause.
Calling something 'the cause' is like pointing and saying: 'He's to blame!'

On p. 387 we find the case I had in mind above:
There is a reaction which can be called reacting to the cause.-- We also speak of 'tracing' the cause; a simple case would be, say, following a string to see who is pulling at it. If I then find him--how do I know that he, his pulling, is the cause of the string’'s moving? Do I establish this by a series of experiments? 

If I were to try to use this as the basis of an argument against Hume he might say that I see this as a case of causation because I am familiar with a general pattern of which this case is an instance. But, Wittgenstein might counter, how did I ever become aware of this general pattern?
The origin and the primitive form of the language is a reaction; only from this can more complicated forms develop.
Language--I want to say--is a refinement. "In the beginning was the deed." (p. 395)

The difference between Hume and Wittgenstein here is quite subtle. Both see a reaction as essential to the development of the concept of causation. Hume emphasizes the reaction to a pattern, Wittgenstein just the reaction itself, which need not (although he does not insist on this) be to a pattern or series.

Hume's hypothesis that we identify events of type x as causes of events of type y after some habituation is plausible, but I don't know how this would be proved. How long must the series of conjunctions be? Could it consist of just one instance? That does seem possible. Something hurts your hand and you turn and look in that direction. Doesn't that happen, even with babies and animals? Isn't this a kind of association of cause (something over there) and effect (this pain)? If we want to investigate the psychological foundation of the concept of causation, as I think Hume does, then this kind of thing is surely relevant. It might not be rational to think that x causes y after just one episode of y's following x, but we are not that rational, as Hume showed. And of course we might be wrong. But we do sometimes behave and think as if x causes y after just one case of the two being conjoined. And in some cases it is hard even to divide cause and effect into two in the first place.

The point about reacting in a blaming-like way is important too. there is a kind of judgement, or something like judgement, involved in identifying one thing as the cause of another. David Cockburn is good on this in his book An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind. As I recall one of the points he makes there is that to judge that a particular event or set of events is the cause of some other event is, in part, to judge that event or those events to be the relevant factor in understanding why the event in question occurred. This kind of judgement of relevance is not a simple reading of the facts presented by the world.

What are the implications for social science? Hume suggests that we can find patterns in human behavior, and that doing so might/would constitute a science. Wittgenstein seemingly thinks that we might not even find patterns and that what we find will depend on some judgments on our part.

I have not shown at all conclusively that Wittgenstein is right. But whether it matters depends on what we want from a social science, and I think that is the question to try to answer before worrying about whether we can have it.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Words and symptoms

One way to read a text is as a product of a certain environment, to treat it as symptomatic of the circumstances that produced it. This is to treat it as the effect of various causes. No doubt this can be useful. But it involves looking past the author, who then becomes a mere conduit for other forces. It also involves ignoring any logical connections there might be between parts of the text. This does not follow from that. Instead, both this and that are the result, the effect, of other forces. We are dealing with cause and effect, not reason or intention. It is mechanics, not anything as human as philosophy. Hence, presumably, Heidegger's famous claim that all you need to know about a philosopher's life is that he/she was born, did philosophy, and died. To treat other facts as relevant is no longer to treat the philosopher's work as philosophy, no longer to treat it as something that makes sense on its own terms. Of course not everything does make sense, but we should look for causes of a philosopher's writing this or that only after we have tried and failed to find reasons. At least we should do so according to a certain view of what it means to do philosophy.

In the Notebooks Wittgenstein writes:
1.8.16 Only from the consciousness of the uniqueness of my life arises religion--science--and art.
2.8.16 And this consciousness is life itself. 
I don't know what this means, but it seems related to me to the point in the first paragraph above. God is how things stand, Wittgenstein says in the same place. That suggests a contrast between everything else and the consciousness that is life, between God and me, between the world and me. In what sense is my life unique? It is the only life that is mine. Consciousness of my life as mine is consciousness of myself as the author of my life, as responsible for my actions, as meaning the things I say. This is the consciousness involved in having a life, in living a life rather than simply being alive. I don't think this life, life in this sense, necessarily has to have much of a story to it. But it is the kind of thing about which one might write a biography rather than just do biology. It is also the kind of place where ethics belongs or can get a foothold. It seems as though ethics must somehow be about the relation between the subject and the world, and that the ethical relation must be a harmonious one. What other kind of relation could be good? If anything is wrong then suicide, (regarded as) the rejection of the whole world, is wrong. So the world must be accepted. But what does this mean?

Above all it means not committing suicide, being happy. It is like (I don't mean exactly the same as) Nietzsche's saying yes to everything, even the terrible. But that still recognizes the terrible as terrible. It is certainly not a matter of being happy about the terrible things in the world.

Treating words as symptoms rather than as expressing the meaning of their author is then seemingly anti-life, a rejection of the consciousness of the uniqueness of the subject that is life itself, according to Wittgenstein. (I don't mean that Wittgenstein is necessarily correct, and I haven't thought this through very carefully, but I'm trying to make up for not having blogged all week by posting some things I started and never got around to finishing.)

Rhetoric again

We had an interesting discussion of rhetoric on Friday with all the rhetoricians and philosophers at the school plus some others trying to explain and understand what it is that the discipline of rhetoric takes itself to be. I'm not sure how far we got. Here are some points that the rhetoric people seemed to agree on:
  • the goal of teaching and studying rhetoric is to achieve social harmony, specifically the avoidance of world wars and genocide but also lesser evils such as government shutdowns
  • rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and studying it enables you both to persuade and to detect when others are trying to persuade you of something
  • it is founded on a belief in relativism that rejects the idea of "truth with a capital T
  • it is a habit of mind, something active that is never still and can never be pinned down or really defined
  • it is also interested in human relations and power structures in something like the way that sociology is interested in such things
I don't know how all this is meant to go together, but it is quite possible that the subject doesn't see itself as having an essence that ties its various aspects together. My questions, still, would be something like these:
  • if it is deeply relativistic, how can it also stand for good and against evil? what does it take 'good' and 'evil' to mean?
  • if it is a kind of tool for non-violent combat, or simply persuasion, why should we expect this to lead to agreement rather than victory for one side or the other? or is agreement achieved through non-violent persuasion regarded as inevitably or necessarily harmonious? 
  • if so, what reason is there to believe that the good guys will always win, or that the bad guys (or others) won't resort to non-rhetorical means when they sense that they are losing the rhetorical battle? 
  • how does awareness of attempts to persuade lead to harmony rather than suspicion?
  • if it really is about what actually persuades people (rather than, say, what ought to persuade people), why aren't empirical studies of the kind psychologists conduct a bigger part of the discipline?  
  • if nothing really ties the parts of the subject together then how does one progress within the discipline from introductory to intermediate to advanced? and if one doesn't, or can't, do that, then is it really an academic discipline in which it makes sense to have students major, or would it better as a supplement to other majors?
I think that the questions about relativism, world peace, and whether something so diverse can be a real discipline are probably best regarded as red herrings. What remains seems strikingly close to the idea of the hermeneutics of suspicion (an approach to reading and interpretation that brings together ideas from Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud). So how might a course of study be built on this idea? 

I think you would need to know some of the history of philosophy before you could understand Nietzsche, so you would probably start with a couple of courses in philosophy. Perhaps one course dealing with ethical theories from Plato to Mill, and another focusing on modern philosophy from Descartes to Kant. Some Schopenhauer would be handy, too, and some political philosophy wouldn't hurt. Next would come Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, either together in one course (which sounds like a lot, but might be possible) or else in three separate courses (ideal but perhaps not practical). Then you could finally get to the business of reading and interpretation, probably looking at both classic works of literature and art and contemporary 'texts' that can usefully be interpreted in this kind of way. For the latter I would think that literature and art would be less appropriate choices than political slogans, journalism, various forms of popular entertainment, and so on. 

You would need philosophers to teach the foundational philosophy courses, philosophically literate professors of literature and art to teach the classics, and some people (probably rhetoricians) to cover the contemporary stuff, although I don't know how much help, i.e. how many courses, students would need in this area. If you can read Shakespeare and Melville through Marxian, Freudian, and Nietzschean lenses then you probably don't need a lot of help doing the same with much simpler material. There wouldn't be much pure rhetoric in there, but then rhetoric doesn't seem to be pure so much as it is the application of certain philosophical ideas to literary (and other) criticism.

This could be quite a good program, although I don't know how different it would be from a fairly standard English curriculum with a more than standard philosophy requirement. I'm also not sure that the special promotion of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud is justified. It wouldn't be likely to be all that popular, or to lead directly to a job. But it would be interesting.