Saturday, June 21, 2014

Rhees's builders

It's been a while since I read Rush Rhees's paper "Wittgenstein's Builders," which criticizes Wittgenstein's suggestion that a four-word language used by builders ("slab!", etc.) might be a complete language. But re-reading the first pages of the Investigations it struck me that Wittgenstein makes other, (seemingly) related, bizarre claims. Take the first paragraph of §19:
It is easy to imagine a language consisting only of orders and reports in battle. -- Or a language consisting only of questions and expressions for answering Yes and No -- and countless other things.— And to imagine a language means to imagine a form of life.
It is easy to imagine countless forms of life? To imagine a life in which people only talk when giving orders and reports in battle? Do they fight all the time? Is that easy to imagine?

Why is Wittgenstein telling us that this is easy to do?

Surely the careful reader will remember §19 upon reaching §25, which tells us that:
Giving orders, asking questions, telling stories, having a chat, are as much a part of our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing.  
This is contrasted with the most primitive forms of language, which even animals might have. The implication seems to be that the builders are not (really, fully) human. So then how easy can it be to imagine their form of life?

Then of course there is the shopkeeper of §1. He comes to mind when reading §53, which reads in part: 
(We don't usually carry out the order “Bring me a red flower” by looking up the colour red in a colour chart and then bringing a flower of the colour that we find in the chart;...)
Presumably Wittgenstein is aware, then, that his shopkeeper is unusual. How unusual is he? As strange as the builders? Wittgenstein does say in §1 that "It is in this and similar ways that one operates with words," but could this be part of what we are asked in this paragraph to imagine? That is, it might not be a claim that Wittgenstein makes. Rather, as with the builders, it might be something that he asks or tells us to imagine, without claiming that the example is realistic. Apart from what he says in §19, that is. 

So back to §19 and what it says about the builders. Can we imagine the language and form of life of A and B? We can picture it. Wittgenstein describes their language, and we could make a cartoon, say, in which they build all day, eat in silence, and then go to sleep. In that sense we can imagine such a form of life. Does it seem oddly inhuman though? Yes it does. In that sense we cannot imagine human beings living like this for long, as a way of life. So can we really imagine such a life or not? Paraphrasing PI 47 we might say: That depends on what you understand by 'imagine.' And that, of course, is not an answer to, but a rejection of, the question. 

It also depends on what you count as a language, or as a form of life. And I don't think that's just a matter of defining form of life as a technical term. It depends on what we count as life or as living. 

In the section of Inheritance and Originality on the builders, Stephen Mulhall calls the words of the PI "treacherous from the very beginning" (p. 52). He notes that Baker and Hacker have pointed out problems with the content of the builders' language, such as its lack of syntax, which we might normally expect to be a feature of any language. And Rhees sees problems with the context of this 'language': it does not connect with other recognizably human concerns, such as most of the ones mentioned in §25. So is it or is it not really a language? It seems to me that we can say what we like, as long as we face the facts. But what that means is not really clear. Is it facing the facts to add all sorts of details to Wittgenstein's picture, providing a background or adding flesh to the skeleton he provides? Or is that a refusal to accept the facts as given, like wondering about irrelevant details of Hamlet's family tree as if they must exist? Is it realistic to make a cartoon more lifelike or, on the contrary, to accept it as a cartoon? It depends on our purpose, surely. The builders' language is introduced in connection with Augustine's account of how he learned language, but the builders' language, bound up with construction, is quite different from anything Augustine describes. 

On pp. 56-57 Mulhall goes through three Cavellian ways of taking the primitiveness of the builders: they are something like Neanderthals, primitive beings; they might be quite sophisticated but their language is primitive; or they are an allegory of modern life. I'm simplifying, but that's roughly it. If we choose one of these options, though, then we are settling a matter that is not, in itself, settled. We are imposing our own ideas. Mulhall writes that, "If we accept for a moment that it is an essential part of Wittgenstein's challenge to us as readers to fill in the unspecified wider context of the builders' lives, then  ..." but why should we accept this, even for a moment? Why not leave the unspecified unspecified? If we insist on specifying certain details, or insist that without them we are not really imagining a language (or not really imagining a language, or a form of life) then we haven't thereby discovered anything about anything but ourselves, about what we are prepared to accept as imagining or as language or as life. 

The contrast with animals is relevant here, too, I think. Do animal forms of communication count as language? That is up to us, at least in part. The essence of language is expressed by grammar, and we have a say in what that means. 

I think I'm largely, but perhaps not exactly, agreeing with Mulhall here. And there is more to read and think about on all this. But I'll leave it here for now.   

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

All rites are of this kind

I mentioned that Brian Clack's book on Wittgenstein, Frazer and Religion is very good but I didn't really say what is good about it. Very briefly, almost everyone (at least up until the time when this book came out) reads Wittgenstein's remarks on Frazer as putting forward an expressivist view, according to which magical and religious practices are not intended to serve an instrumental purpose but rather they express attitudes and feelings. Against this, Brian argues very persuasively that some are expressive and some are instrumental:
I have, time and again in this book, emphasized that this is where the true difference between Wittgenstei n and Frazer lies: not in the latter’s belief that rites aim to achieve some end, but in the fact that he contends that such actions come about through a process of reasoning akin to hypothesis-forming and experimentation. It is the gratuitousness of the reasons Frazer gives for primitive observances – so ubiquitous in The Golden Bough – which stands in such stark contrast to the conception of natural piety. (p. 159)
Earlier on the same page he writes:
Thus, Frazer looks for reasons why the oak was so venerated (locating this in its association with the sky, the rain, the thunder, and, consequently, with Zeus), whereas Wittgenstein stresses the non-ratiocinative nature of this worship (‘no reason’).
Frank Cioffi makes a similar point on pp. 155-156 of his book Wittgenstein on Freud and Frazer. Cioffi writes:

I wonder whether the kind that Wittgenstein had in mind (when he said that all rites are of "this kind") has been misunderstood. He obviously does not mean that all rites are ways of releasing rage (and no one thinks he means this). But must he be saying that all rites are ways of releasing some emotion? One thing to note about his reference to releasing his rage is that it is in quotation marks, presumably because this is an expression we use (and which he is quoting) but also because it is a figure of speech. Rage is not something that one can literally release. So he has not told us what kind of thing rites are, only given something figurative to associate or compare them with. Another thing to note is that this seemingly expressivist point is made in contrast to two alternatives: I might believe that the earth is guilty and deserves punishment or I might believe that beating the earth will be of some use. As Brian points out, Wittgenstein is not rejecting instrumentalism here. If he were then the bit about the earth's being guilty would not belong: punishing the guilty is not typically understood instrumentally. The contrast that Wittgenstein makes is not between instrumentalism and expressivism but between behavior based on belief and behavior that is more primal, which means basically behavior that is not based on belief or ratiocination. Such behavior can still be intended to bring something about, but it is based on or starts with some feeling. In short, it is not science. For example, if I try to kill my enemy by sticking pins in a doll then I am trying to bring something about, but on the basis of a sense that what is done to the likeness of my enemy must also be done to him. We can call this sense a belief if we like, but it isn't one that I have because I have thought about it or on the basis of observation. It is just the kind of thing that human beings naturally seem to think (or 'think'). If I thought about it for a moment I would see right away that it was groundless. Wittgenstein's point, I take it, is that it is with such groundless beliefs or senses or instincts that ritual begins. This is the kind of thing they are.  

Applied monkeys

How might ethics be related to the kind of transcendental experience I talked about here? Nothing actually follows from wondering at the starry heavens above or coming across a field mouse while mowing. But experiences like this might lead to certain changes in behavior. Perhaps most obviously, if you have a kind of religious experience upon meeting a deer you might then be less inclined to hunt deer for sport. You might even become vegetarian or vegan. Or you might go in some other direction: only ever eating meat that you have killed and butchered yourself, say.

If the moon impresses you, you might support a more active space program, or oppose all space programs, as a Buddhist might be drawn to the Himalayas for religious reasons but oppose the climbing of Everest. More generally, if nature inspires you then you might support conservation more. But all of these are only responses you might have, not ones you need to have if you are to avoid inconsistency. They would be understandable, perhaps even natural, but they are not necessary. And they only go so far.

Another great mystery (source of inspiration or wonder) is life itself. You aren't likely to be struck by this the way you might be by the night sky, but I think it can happen. The children's song "Oats and beans and barley grow" gets at this, I think. The last time I googled the words they didn't come up the way I wanted, I think because some people change them so they make more obvious sense. But it's the paradoxical version that I like, in which the verses describe the process by which beans, etc, grow ("First the farmer takes the seed," and so on) but then the chorus insists that, "Not you nor I nor anyone knows how oats and beans and barley grow." We know what happens, in other words, but not how (i.e. why) it happens. Anyone who farms or gardens can wonder at this phenomenon. Nothing to do with ethics would follow from this, that I can think of, but perhaps it would reduce egoism (because the self seems less significant in the face of life itself taken as a mysterious whole, or just barley itself as a mystery).

It isn't only oats and beans that grow though. There are children too. And raising children can be a source of repeated, though not uninterrupted, amazement at the natural process of growth and the emergence of a new person. People tend to love their children, too. Something similar can happen with students if you get to know them well enough. This love might be more of an occasion for nepotism or narrowly expanded selfishness than anything obviously ethical, but the realization that everyone is someone's daughter or son could lead to more ethical behavior. Hume recommends that we try to be the sort of person we would want our child to marry. It might be better to say that we should, as far as possible, treat other people as if they were our own children, or as we would want other people to treat our children.

How useful is this, though? Obviously not very for people who don't have children. And what I have proposed is not very far from the golden rule, which makes no reference to children and does not involve any sense of wonder. It is also quite vague. But the golden rule only tells you (roughly) what to do. It says nothing about why you should do it. Implicit in it, it seems to me, is a reference to wonder. Each individual is the location of the miracles (the wonders) of life, consciousness, and will (although is will anything but life + consciousness?): act accordingly. That seems to be the idea, or one way of putting it at least. And it might be easier to remember this rule, to keep it alive in one's thinking and acting, if one's sense of wonder is still alive. It seems to need to be refreshed from time to time. Children, animals, and nature, although all have their downsides and limitations, are good for this purpose.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Monkeys and the moon

Brian Clack quotes Chesterton:
the secrets about which anthropologists concern themselves can be best learnt, not from books or voyages, but from the ordinary commerce of man with man. The secret of why some savage tribe worships monkeys or the moon is not to be found even by travelling among those savages and taking down their answers in a note-book, although the cleverest man may pursue this course. The answer to the riddle is in England; it is in London; nay, it is in his own heart.
I don't know about monkeys, but wild animals and the moon are striking things. Seeing the moon or looking a deer in the eye, say, tends to make you (or me, anyway) stop and temporarily forget whatever else was on your mind. It's like the intrusion of another world into ours, and this sense of being in the presence of (a representative of) a whole world gives a feeling of infinity, and the sense of its being another world gives a feeling of something supernatural. Not in the sense of magical powers, but in the sense of another order, in roughly the way that a foreign culture or a different time might be said to be another world. There's something pleasantly jarring about it. It's the kind of experience that people say "puts things in perspective" or "makes you think," but I don't know what it is supposed to make you think or what the perspective is. My problems mean nothing to this deer, perhaps? I knew that already, and why should I care? But the effect is something like that. You forget yourself and replace, if only for a moment, egoism with an impression of the hugeness, the variety, and the beauty of the world. Although that isn't quite right. It's a kind of disorientation or suspension. I think the word, if it hasn't been overused, is wonder.

It has been argued that this wonder, or at least something like it, is the origin of Hinduism. Surendranath Dasgupta writes:
In the later mythological compositions of the Puranas the gods lost their character as hypostatic powers of nature, and thus became actual personalities and characters having their tales of joy and sorrow like the mortal here below. The Vedic gods may be contrasted with them in this, that they are of an impersonal nature, as the characters they display are mostly but expressions of the powers of nature. To take an example, the fire or Agni is described, as Kaegi has it, as one that "lies concealed in the softer wood, as in a chamber, until, called forth by the rubbing in the early morning hour, he suddenly springs forth in gleaming brightness. The sacrificer takes and lays him on the wood. When the priests pour melted butter upon him, he leaps up crackling and neighing like a horse—he whom men love to see increasing like their own prosperity. They wonder at him, when, decking himself with changing colors like a suitor, equally beautiful on all sides, he presents to all sides his front. All-searching is his beam, the gleaming of his light, His, the all-beautiful, of beauteous face and glance, The changing shimmer like that floats upon the stream, So Agni's rays gleam ever bright and never cease." They would describe the wind (Vata) and adore him and say "In what place was he born, and from whence comes he? The vital breath of gods, the world's great offspring, The God where'er he will moves at his pleasure: His rushing sound we hear—what his appearance, no one [knows?]." It was the forces of nature and her manifestations, on earth here, the atmosphere around and above us, or in the Heaven beyond the vault of the sky that excited the devotion and imagination of the Vedic poets. [my emphasis]
(Incidentally, Dasgupta also explains that literal sacrifices, e.g. of horses, came to be replaced by meditation on symbols:
As a further development of the Brahmanas however we get the Aranyakas or forest treatises. These works were probably composed for old men who had retired into the forest and were thus unable to perform elaborate sacrifices requiring a multitude of accessories and articles which could not be procured in forests. In these, meditations on certain symbols were supposed to be of great merit, and they gradually began to supplant the sacrifices as being of a superior order. It is here that we find that amongst a certain section of intelligent people the ritualistic ideas began to give way, and philosophic speculations about the nature of truth became gradually substituted in their place. To take an illustration from the beginning of the Brhadaranyaka we find that instead of the actual performance of the horse sacrifice (asvamedhd) there are directions for meditating upon the dawn (Usas) as the head of the horse, the sun as the eye of the horse, the air as its life, and so on. This is indeed a distinct advancement of the claims of speculation or meditation over the actual performance of the complicated ceremonials of sacrifice. 
I imagine that this goes some way towards explaining the bewildering mysticism discussed here. If you're going to change an ancient practice for something else it's understandable that you might claim that "clearly" you are simply bringing out and acting on the true meaning of the ancient text. But I'm digressing.)

Anyway, I think that Chesterton is right.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Casting stones

A weird feature of scholarly work is that you pretty much have to disagree with people in order to count as having something to say. This means at least half-hoping that other people have got things wrong, which really one shouldn't hope for at all.

I'm re-reading Brian Clack's Wittgenstein, Frazer and Religion hoping both to learn from it (which I certainly am) and to find something I can disagree with or perhaps add to. I'd forgotten what a good book it is, but here's something that I think I might disagree with:
An Abyssinian king, the Alfai, is held to be able to cast down rain, and:
if he disappoints the people's expectation and a great drought arises in the land, the Alfai is stoned to death, and his nearest relations are obliged to cast the first stone at him. (Frazer;1922: 107)
[...] The case of the Alfai [...] suffices to show that the expressive theory cannot be universally applied, and that some ritualists really do think that the rain-king can make the heavens open. (Clack, p. 33)
I don't intend to defend the expressive theory (which says that rituals, etc. are not instrumental but expressive of feelings or attitudes), but I don't think this case shows what Brian says it shows, at least not in a straightforward way. Before I get to my point I should mention that he has a long footnote at this point, in which he says both that, "Wittgenstein is adamant that primitive peoples do not believe that rain-makers can alter the course of the weather, or that magicians have any special powers whatsoever," and that, "It is remarkable that Wittgenstein does not think for one moment that people could believe that a ruler has supernatural powers" (Clack, p. 178, n. 1). It is these remarks that I disagree with more than the one I first quoted.

The (most) relevant passage in Wittgenstein's remarks is this:
It is, of course, not so that the people believe that the ruler has these powers [to control the course of nature], and the ruler knows very well that he doesn't have them, or can only fail to know it if he is an imbecile or a fool. But the notion of his power is, of course, adapted in such a way that it can harmonize with experience--the people's as well as his own. That some hypocrisy thereby plays a role is true only insofar as it generally lies close at hand with most things people do. (Philosophical Occasions, p. 139)
It seems at least possible that Wittgenstein is denying the conjunction of the people's believing that the king has these powers and the king's either knowing the contrary or else being weak-headed or foolish. If everyone involved believes that the king has supernatural powers (without the king's being feeble-minded) then, on this reading, Wittgenstein is right. This reading seems quite natural to me and certainly more charitable than the one that leads to the remarkable conclusion. It also fits the quotation from Culture and Value that Brian discusses on pp. 113-114, in which Wittgenstein writes that, "Men have believed that they could make rain."

What, though, about the belief that the Alfai can make the heavens open? Do the ritualists believe this? And would their doing so prove Wittgenstein wrong? Certainly the Alfai is held responsible for any great drought. Must he therefore be believed to be able to end the drought? If he were able to make it rain why wouldn't he do so in order to avoid a horrible death? Haven't the Abyssinians thought of this? Did no about-to-be-stoned Alfai ever make this case? Surely either they did and, remarkably, it made no difference to what happened or, remarkably, it never came up. Either way we are some distance from having clear evidence of straightforward ignorance of fact on the part of the Abyssinians concerned. If they say and think that "the Alfai can make it rain" and then kill him if there's a drought then in some sense they certainly believe that he has supernatural powers. But what this sense is is not a simple matter. That 'belief' does not refer to just one phenomenon is a point that Brian makes very well in chapter 4 (see p. 49 especially).

Perhaps an analogy will help me make my point. Is Groundhog Day (not the movie) bad science? It isn't good science, of course, but it needn't be regarded as science at all. Do the people involved really believe that the movements of a groundhog can predict the weather? Perhaps some do. But surely most don't. Still, many people pay attention to what the groundhog does. Why? What are they thinking? I doubt that most of them are thinking much at all. Not that they are stupid people, but that the whole exercise is not an intellectual one at all. It's a ritual. It's just what people do. And something similar might well go for the case of the Alfai. Much more is at stake there, of course, but that doesn't mean it must be more intellectual or scientific than Groundhog Day. It just means that more is at stake. Why would people stone a man to death without thinking through the costs and the benefits? Perhaps the people they have been raised to defer to insist that this is the right thing to do. (Perhaps even the Alfai himself insists on this.) Perhaps they sense that sacrifice is bound to pay off. We are far from immune to such thinking today, and even if it is wrong it is not only the stupid and the insane who go in for it. And that, I take it, is the kind of point that Wittgenstein means to make.

Halfway through the book comes the second point I disagree with Brian on. At the bottom of p. 92 he says that, "Wittgenstein's prohibition on explanation seems [...] a rather bizarre one, informed only by personal preference." Actually, I probably agree as long as we emphasize the word 'seems', but I don't think that Wittgenstein's "prohibition" actually is bizarre. It strikes me as being very similar to some of his views on aesthetics. Understanding what is good about a work of art means something like being able to articulate its good qualities, and perhaps to lead someone else to appreciate it too. It does not mean knowing about any causal processes that result in this or that event in the brain. Perhaps there can be scientific explanations of why we like this or that, but these are not what literary criticism, art appreciation, music appreciation, etc. are concerned with. You could argue that they should be, but that's a different matter. Wittgenstein's interest in Frazer's work, like Frazer's too, I think, is what you might call aesthetic. Not in the sense that he finds the practices described in the Golden Bough (merely) charming, but in the sense that they are fascinating expressions of humanity. Fascinating partly because of the mysterious non-triviality that draws people to such behavior, and partly because we find that this very weirdness resonates with us too, revealing something about ourselves and humanity in general. Knowing about any underlying history or biology would be not worthless but something else.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014


I watched The Punk Singer a couple of nights ago, which is very good. I watched it just because it sounded intriguing:
Her critics wished she would just shut-up, and her fans hoped she never would. So in 2005, when Hanna stopped shouting, many wondered why. 
What I didn't realize is that Kathleen Hanna, the subject of the film, was the lead singer in Le Tigre, a band I like a lot. This is what happens when you don't have album sleeves to read anymore. She was also a leader in the riot grrl movement. Who knew? Probably everybody except me.

Speaking of music, it had looked as though the soundtrack to this summer was going to be the new albums by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and The Brian Jonestown Massacre, but now I'm not so sure. The Pains have meh-llowed a bit (the album is good but not as good as their earlier stuff, as we hipsters like to say) and the BJM album is far from being their best work despite claims to the contrary. But you can always turn to the artists your heroes recommend if those heroes themselves don't come through. Kip Berman (of The Pains) recommends Makthaverskan, and their latest album is dark (listen to it too much and you'll get depressed) but good, a bit like a more aggressive version of the Cure fronted by a sweary, younger version of Björk. 

And Anton Newcombe (of the BJM) recommends Les Big Byrd, another Swedish band. Droney but infectious.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Because it is terrible

In the Remarks on Frazer (pp. 2-3) Wittgenstein writes:
     Frazer says it is very difficult to discover the error in magic and this is why it persists for so long—because, for example, a ceremony which is supposed to bring rain is sure to appear effective sooner or later.
     But then it is queer that people do not notice sooner that it does rain sooner or later anyway.
     I think one reason why the attempt to find an explanation is wrong is that we have only to put together in the right way what we know, without adding anything, and the satisfaction we are trying to get from the explanation comes of itself.
     And here the explanation is not what satisfies us anyway. When Frazer begins by telling us the story of the King of the Wood of Nemi, he does this in a tone which shows that something strange and terrible is happening here.  And that is the answer to the question “why is this happening?” : Because it is terrible.  In other words, what strikes us in this course of events as terrible, impressive, horrible, tragic, &c., anything but trivial and insignificant, that is what gave birth to them. 
Here Wittgenstein implies that the attempt to find an explanation of magical behavior is wrong but then almost immediately appears to offer an explanation of his own. We could respond to this seeming hypocrisy by saying that these are just notes, and they are, but this is from the early part of the book, not the later part that consists of what Rush Rhees calls "rough notes", and this material was dictated to a typist, so it isn't just notes.

It might help to look at the original German: das hat diesen Vorgang ins leben gerufen--that called this procedure [Klagge and Nordmann have 'incident'] into life. I think we have to take this as something other than a causal hypothesis. (This is confirmed by remarks on p. 8 and p. 9.) Wittgenstein wants to understand not why a particular form of behavior happened to begin but why it persisted, why its first occurrence was the beginning of something that continued to occur. And his answer is: because it is something that strikes human beings as highly significant, as not in the least bedeutungslos. This is not an hypothesis but something we know, because we feel it too. And it is not an explanation of anything, but it provides the satisfaction that we (mistakenly) look for in explanations. All that we need to do in such cases is to arrange what we know in the right way and then allow the facts to strike us, allow ourselves to feel in response to these facts (and their arrangement, but the relevant arrangement just is, I take it, the one that makes us respond in this way). Then, I almost wrote, there is no mystery. But of course there is a mystery. The mystery, though, is not why people would behave in this way. The mystery is in the behavior and is the answer to our question. People do this sort of thing because it is mysterious or, perhaps better, powerfully uncanny. They aren't trying to be obscure, after all. They want meaning, and this kind of thing provides a powerful sense of meaning.

Wittgenstein rejects as inevitably unsatisfactory attempts to explain magic and religion. Religious actions, he writes, can be 'explained' and cannot be explained (p. 4). What he offers, I take it, is an 'explanation' but not an explanation. It appeals to an inclination in ourselves, an inclination that we might call the ceremonial or ritualistic in contrast to the animal:
one might begin a book on anthropology in this way : When we watch the life and behavior of men all over the earth we see that apart from what we might call animal activities, taking food &c., &c., men also carry out actions that bear a peculiar character and might be called ritualistic. (p. 7)         
(This is reminiscent of the distinction in the Lecture on Ethics between the trivial/relative and the ethical/absolute. Nonsensicality belongs to the essence of ethical expressions, just as inexplicability belongs to the essence of magical actions. Indeed Wittgenstein identifies the ethical and the religious in the Lecture on Ethics (and says that ethics is about the meaning of life) and the magical and the religious (which are also about meaning) in the notes on Frazer. I don't mean that what he said about ethics in 1929 is exactly what he said about magic in 1931, but there are connections. And I'm not saying that they are not identical either. I need to read and think about this more.)

It is in this sense that "Frazer is much more savage than most of his savages" (p. 8), because Frazer is closer to being stuck in animal mode, understanding magic only as an ineffective way to get food, etc.  But even he uses words like 'ghost' in his explanations of "savage" behavior. He is still human, after all, despite his modernity and his Englishness. And so he is still somewhat in touch with what is frightening and terrible in the stories he relates, qualities they acquire from the evidence:
from the thought of man and his past, from the strangeness of what I see in myself and in others, what I have seen and have heard. (p. 18)    
I should have a conclusion here but I'd rather just repeat "the strangeness of what I see in myself" to fade. And to connect this with Wittgenstein's famous earlier remark to Paul Engelmann:
And this is how it is: if one does not endeavor to express the inexpressible, then nothing gets lost. But the inexpressible will be — inexpressibly — contained in what has been expressed. 
A good description of the facts of the case concerning the King of the Wood of Nemi loses nothing but contains the inexpressibly terrible. Because the facts themselves are terrible. Not in some absolute way, but to us. As long, that is, as we are sufficiently strange (i.e. normal).

Friday, June 6, 2014

Major affective disorder, pleasant type

This is good:
the argument that happiness be excluded from future classifications of mental disorder merely on the grounds that it is not negatively valued carries the implication that value judgements should determine our approach to psychiatric classification. Such a suggestion is clearly inimical to the spirit of psychopathology considered as a natural science. Indeed, only a psychopathology that openly declares the relevance of values to classification could persist in excluding happiness from the psychiatric disorders.
[Hat-tip to The Beetle Box, also good.]

In search of Socrates

I was surprised by how little philosophy-based tourism there is in Athens. Not that philosophy-based tourism is likely to be big business anywhere, but Greece uses its claim to be the birthplace of Western philosophy in its marketing campaigns, packs of playing cards bearing quotes from and pictures of Greek philosophers are widely available for sale, and surely quite a few students are taken to Athens on educational trips. In short, you would think that philosophy-related sites would be something that some visitors would want to see and that, consequently, they would be marked and signposted. But they aren't.

If this site is to be believed, then fans of Plato are likely to be disappointed:
Plato’s property – the actual site of his school – lay apart from the walled Academy precinct, somewhere between the currently visible gymnasium and the low hill to the northeast, Hippios Kolonos. Maps drawn as early as the late 18th century record this understanding of the area’s ancient topography. Today, however, some confusion can arise for visitors, who will find misleading, decades-old signs posted by the Culture Ministry that identify late Hellenistic and early Roman foundations as belonging to “Plato’s Academy.”
In addition, these archaeological remains, some of the most important for Athens’ heritage as the birthplace of Western learning, now lie completely neglected except by the occasional gardener. Eroding walls, rusty fences, haphazard collections of ancient stones, and a lack of explanatory signboards characterize a place that should be a world heritage site.  
This site paints a similar picture:
The part shown in the top photo is probably the best preserved, but when we visited on a Suyday of May 2009, there were a group of foreigners (non-Greeks) drinking beers, and as they looked pretty drunk, we decided not to get close.Some of them looked weary that I was taking photographs. 
There is better news for Aristotle fans here, with the site of the Lyceum apparently set to open this year (or was it last year?).

But Socrates is still relatively badly served. There are some pictures of where he probably died here, but the place is more overgrown now. There is more useful information about how to find and identify Socrates' cell here. In the museum at the Ancient Agora is a case containing what might be a statuette of Socrates found at this site, along with little bottles used for hemlock.

There are also discs used to vote guilty or not guilty, a stone with slots for inserting the discs, and a water clock used for timing speeches made at trials.

The prison cells are now labelled, but there is no mention of Socrates there, and in the museum, where he is mentioned, there is no information about who he was. Odd.  

Anyway, if I got my bearings right the following are pictures of what remains of his cell, which consisted of two rooms:

This last one is taken from outside the fence around the ancient agora, so you could see this without paying to get in. The cell lies between the roofed structure just above the middle of the picture and the floor you can see in the foreground. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

What kind of relativist is Peter Winch?

Colin Lyas says of Winch that, "The whole thrust of his work is anti-relativist." (p. 92) That seems a little strong to me. It's true that Winch rejects "an extreme Protagorean relativism" ("Understanding a Primitive Society," p. 308), but that doesn't mean that he rejects all things that might be called relativism (nor even that he succeeds in avoiding the extreme kind of relativism that he says he wants to avoid). In Ethics and Action Winch says that that paper:
criticizes some forms of the idea that there is, or can be, a conception of 'a world' to be understood, which conception is independent of forms of social life and can provide us with criteria by reference to which we can criticize as 'irrational' certain ways in which men do live. I argue, rather, that any such conception of a world to be understood is intelligible only against the background of a way (or ways) in which men live together and understand each other. (pp. 2-3)
A little way down p. 3 he adds that the paper's:
argument is not, absurdly, that ways in which men live together can never be criticized, nor even that a way of living can never be characterized as in any sense 'irrational'; still less do I argue in it that men who belong to one culture can 'never understand' lives led in another culture.   
It is pretty clear to me that Winch does allow for both criticism (of some kind) of other cultures and that he accepts the possibility of understanding other cultures. Indeed he explains quite carefully how (and why he thinks one ought) to do this. It's the scare quotes around 'irrational' that are less clear and more bothersome.

Winch does seem to think that there is something the matter with calling a way in which people live 'irrational'. Look at the hedging: nor even that a way of living can never be characterized as in any sense [quote unquote] 'irrational'.

The problem with calling a way of living irrational is that for it to be a way of living (and not just some stuff that some people have done) it must have some regularity to it, some rules followed by the people whose way of living it is. And if there are rules then there is intelligibility, something that can rationally be understood, not just chaos.

Must a way of living be rational in the sense of being a means to people's ends? I'm not sure how much sense this question makes. A way of living goes at least some way towards setting those ends. Winch likes to quote Vico, who says that all nations practice some religion, solemn marriage, and burial of the dead. If we just take religion we could ask whether the Christian life, the Islamic life, the Buddhist life, etc. give Christians, Muslims,and Buddhists what they aim for. If by "what they aim for" we mean Heaven or Nirvana then at least sometimes the answer will be No. But so far as what a Christian, for instance, aims for is to live a Christian life then of course the answer is Yes. Any form of behavior that lasts is presumably satisfying to those who engage in it in some way or to some extent. If we regard it as failing to deliver we have probably misunderstood its point. But it is possible for people to find better ways of doing things or to discover problems in their traditional behaviors. So I don't think all customary forms of behavior are necessarily rational in this sense. It belongs to the very idea of a way of life that it is rational in the sense of being intelligible though.

In what sense then could a way of living be called irrational? I can think of two. One sense of 'irrational' is purely derogatory. We can, and I think Winch would allow this, call another way of living irrational in the sense simply that we reject it. Its rules are not ours and we want nothing to do with them. This is not a very careful use of 'irrational', but it is a possible use. Another would relate to things like marriage and burial. Winch emphasizes the universal human importance of birth, sex, and death. Any way of living that fails to recognize this importance, perhaps by insisting on universal celibacy or constant war, might be called irrational. It would not be absolutely irrational, in the sense of being shown by the world as it is in itself (the world as something independent of forms of social life that provides us with criteria of rationality) to be irrational, because even if the idea of the world as it is in itself makes sense and even if this world shows us something, it does not show us, for instance, that the gods do not require celibacy or war.  

So is Winch a relativist or not? He is, I think, a kind of relativist about rationality. So far as 'rational' means intelligible, what is rational in one culture will not be rational in another. This is not simply a matter of different cultures calling different forms of behavior rational. Of course they do that, just as they call different forms of behavior good. But what it makes sense to do actually is different in different cultures. Winch does not believe, though, that anything goes. Cultures or ways of living have their own rules, after all. Furthermore, for us to recognize something as a culture or way of living we have to be able to make some sense of it in terms of our own standards of rationality. If the behavior in question is puzzling enough then we won't be in a position to say even that it is part of a way of living.

In short, 'rational' can mean something like sane or intelligible, or it can mean useful in a narrow sense (getting a gun is useful if you want to rob a bank, but robbing banks is not a very useful thing to do), or good, or useful in a broader sense. Where a way of living has been identified as such, its characteristic forms of behavior will be rational in the first two of these senses, but not necessarily in the latter two. Or so it seems to me and, I think, to Winch.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Evans-Pritchard's mistake

Part I of Winch's "Understanding a Primitive Society" (American Philosophical Quarterly Volume I, Number 4, October 1964, pp. 307-324) raises "certain difficulties about Professor E. E. Evans-Pritchard's approach in his classic, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande." What I want to do is to get clear on the nature of these difficulties.

In a critical tone, Winch notes that in Evans-Pritchard's work, "There is more than one remark to the effect that "obviously there are no witches"..." (p. 307). This might make Winch appear to be criticizing E-P simply for disagreeing with the Azande. But I don't think that's quite right.

On p. 308 Winch writes that:
Evans-Pritchard, although he emphasizes that a member of scientific culture has a different conception of reality from that of a Zande believer in magic, wants to go beyond merely registering this fact and making the differences explicit, and to say, finally, that the scientific conception agrees with what reality actually is like, whereas the magical conception does not.
If E-P goes wrong it is not, according to Winch, simply for rejecting Zande belief in witches, oracles, and magic but for doing so on the grounds that such belief supposedly fails to agree with reality. One apparent problem here is that it is hard to see a difference between saying, as I surely may, "I do not believe in witches etc." and saying, as Winch finds problematic, "belief in witches etc. does not agree with reality." Surely (at least sometimes) belief that p = belief that p is true = belief that p agrees with reality. Winch sounds as though he is saying that it is a mistake to go beyond saying "I believe this and you believe that" to saying "I am right and you are wrong." But that can't be right. It can't simply by definition be wrong to think oneself right. If 'right' and 'wrong' mean anything then it is possible that I am right and others with different beliefs are wrong. And if 'right' and 'wrong' mean nothing then it is meaningless to say that I am wrong to say that I am right (or wrong).

Presumably Winch is not making that mistake. He is not talking about what anyone might say but about what Evans-Pritchard says. The mistake, whatever it might turn out to be, is a mistake given Evans-Pritchard's particular goals and commitments. And what it will turn out to be has to do with his making certain claims finally and beyond certain other claims. That is, as a kind of justification. Winch would not object, I take it, to a Zande person assuring us that he believes in magic, nor to a European insisting that he believes in science. Nor would he object, I believe, to these assurances being made in the idiom of agreement with reality. The problem he sees is with trying to claim in a non-circular way that one's preferred conception of reality is justified by reality itself.
     Evans-Pritchard [...] is trying to work with a conception of reality which is not determined by its actual use in language. He wants something against which that use can itself be appraised. But this is not possible; and no more possible in the case of scientific discourse than it is in any other. (p. 309)
Here is another problem. What is not possible? If this allegedly impossible thing is conceivable then don't we need proof, rather than mere assertion, that it really is impossible? And if, as I suspect, Winch means that it is not really conceivable because it is incoherent, then what is the 'it' that Evans-Pritchard wants but cannot have? What is the 'it' that we cannot conceive? It seems a little uncharitable to attribute such incoherence to Evans-Pritchard. But then I suppose it would be equally uncharitable of me to attribute it to Winch. Let's say for now that Winch seems to see in Evans-Pritchard an apparent confusion. We get onto firmer footing very soon, thankfully.

On p. 310 Winch quotes a series of definitions that E-P provides of terms such as 'mystical,' 'scientific,' and 'ritual'. It is clear enough, at least with the help of Winch's italics, that E-P has built pro-science and anti-mysticism, anti-ritual bias into the definitions. If we define the relevant terms in such a way then it is not reality that will justify our preference for science over magic but simply our own uses of language. And that is no justification of such uses at all.

Does consulting oracles make sense? Winch considers this question starting on p. 311. Azande do not treat oracular pronouncements as hypotheses but as guides to action. Is it possible to make decisions about what to do in this way? Yes. Does it make sense to do so? To those who do so, yes. To us, probably not. The disagreement between Winch and E-P arises because:
it is clear from other remarks in the book to which I have alluded, that at the time of writing it he would have wished to add: and the European is right and the Zande wrong. This addition I regard as illegitimate and my reasons for so thinking take us to the heart of the matter. (p. 313)
So here we are, at the heart of the matter:
Evans-Pritchard is not content with elucidating the differences in the two concepts of reality involved [in the language of the Azande and in our language]; he wants to go further and say: our concept of reality is the correct one, the Azande are mistaken. But the difficulty is to see what "correct" and "mistaken" can mean in this context. (p. 313)
Another difficulty might be to see what "illegitimate" can mean in the context of the previous quotation from p. 313. I don't think Winch can really mean that E-P has no right to prefer the European 'language' to the Zande one. The mistake that Winch has in mind is that of thinking that one language can be more correct than another in a purely objective, value- and preference-free way. Or at least that the European, scientific language is more correct in this kind of way than the Zande language. Perhaps some possible language would be riddled with problems, but the Azande got along with theirs for a very long time (apparently they have moved over to ways of thinking more like ours now, but that's beside the point). In what sense could their language and way of life be (not immoral or ugly or unpleasant but) incorrect or mistaken?

One way that Winch considers would be if it involved contradiction. But merely possible hypothetical contradictions are not a real problem, and it is not irrational to ignore them. Apparent contradictions that do arise must be dealt with in some way, but if there is a way to deal with them then the system as a whole, including this method for dealing with what might otherwise be a problem, is not irrational. Theoretical contradictions matter for theoretical systems, but not everything that might look like such a system really is one. This is Winch's claim about Zande ideas about the inheritance of witchcraft. If witchcraft is inherited, as the Zande (used to) say, then if one member of a clan biologically-related through the male line is a witch the whole clan must be, and if one is not then none can be. There is a post-mortem test that shows whether a person really was "a witch" or not, though, so this could seemingly be used either to show that everyone or no one is a witch. One positive result here or there need not brand the whole clan as witches because the witch might have been illegitimate or swapped at birth or whatever, but enough results one way or the other would surely clear the matter up. Is it irrational, or less rational, of the Azande not to carry out the relevant tests? Winch thinks not. They simply are not interested in knowing about global witch-statuses. This is not a mistake. It is a mistake, though, if we think that they somehow ought (in some supposedly absolute sense) to have such an interest.

This, I gather, is what Winch takes Evans-Pritchard's mistake to be. He wants our standards of rationality, the norms that govern our assessment of ways of thinking and behaving, to justify themselves and delegitimate those that differ from them. He wants, as it were, a kind of neutral or non-evaluative judgment of value. This is incoherent. That's one problem.

Another problem, it seems to me, is that E-P wants to understand the Azande but goes about it in a way that will not work. Later in the paper (p. 319) Winch writes:
Since it is we who want to understand the Zande category [of magic], it appears that the onus is on us to extend our understanding so as to make room for the Zande category, rather than to insist on seeing it in terms of our own ready-made distinction between science and non-science.
The issue here is not what makes sense or what is in some sense legitimate but simply what will get us what we want. We will not understand those whose concepts are very different from ours if we insist on an overly simple application of our concepts to theirs or translation of their concepts to ours. Of course we do need to relate their concepts to ours in some way, but we are not stuck, as Winch points out, with a fixed stock of concepts or expressions. We can add to what we have, and part of the point of studying other cultures is to grow in this way.

In the end, then, Winch appears to have identified two errors in Evans-Pritchard's thinking: a pragmatic one and a logical one. The logical one is to try to use your own concepts (or way of life) to justify themselves (or itself). The pragmatic one is to try to understand the behavior of another people without the necessary flexibility and open-mindedness, and, indeed, from a starting point that defines that behavior as irrational.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

10th Annual International Conference on Philosophy

Having just returned from the 9th Annual International Conference on Philosophy, run by ATINER (the Athens Institute for Education and Research), I see that information about next year's conference is already available. Regular readers of this blog might not be interested, but I'd like to provide a kind of review for anyone who searches online for information about these conferences. The news is both good and bad.

Apart from the fact that this is a conference in Athens, a very desirable place to visit for philosophers, the best news is that the conference itself is pretty good. It is a genuinely international event, with speakers from India, China, Australia, Europe, and the United States, for instance. If you're interested in comparative or world philosophy then this is a good event to attend. The quality of the papers is not uniformly high, and it doesn't help when a paper is delivered by someone for whom English is a second language who is so nervous that they talk rapidly, but most of the sessions I attended were either straightforwardly good or at least interesting because of what they showed about how philosophy is done in other places. The presenters were a nice mix of senior people, junior academics, and graduate students. Ilse Somavilla was there, for instance, so it was by no means all nobodies. I got at least as much out of this conference as I did from the last APA meeting I attended, where I found that there were very few papers on areas I work in and that papers in other areas assumed too much knowledge for me to be able to follow the argument properly. It's also a relatively small conference (with about sixty participants) and has an extensive social program, so there is a lot of opportunity to trade ideas outside of the formal conference sessions.

On the downside, this social program is not cheap, and a common topic of conversation was how expensive everything was. Most expensive of all was the hotel, for which I paid 150 euros a night through ATINER. I'm pretty sure I could have either paid much less or got a much better room if I had made my reservation directly with the hotel. So my first tip is to either stay elsewhere or else book your room yourself, not through ATINER. (They don't tell you where the hotel is until about a week before the conference begins, though, so this is risky. You could find yourself struggling to find a room in the right part of town. Having said that, making one's own arrangements seemed to work out just fine for a number of people at this year's conference.)

Next I'll go through the social program event by event and give my opinion on the quality and value you can expect:

Monday 25 May 2015: 21:00-23:00 Greek Night Entertainment. Tickets cost 60 euro each. 

In 2014 tickets cost 30 euros each for what appears to be exactly the same menu, location, etc. The food was not as good as you might expect for that price (and certainly not for twice that price), the view of the Acropolis far less impressive than I was expecting (because it is much farther away than it appears in the picture on the conference website), and the meal is not designed for vegetarians, but I thought this was (just about) worth doing. There is live Greek music throughout the meal, the company was good (although I ended up sitting with people from another, non-philosophy ATINER conference, which was not what I expected), and I was twice persuaded to join in the traditional Greek dancing, which was funny. If that sounds like a good time to you and you have 60 euros to spare, then go for it. Otherwise I would give this a miss. Bear in mind that you can get a better meal for less with a view of the Acropolis elsewhere. See here for some ideas.      

Tuesday 26 May 2015
18:30-20:30 Athens Sightseeing: Old and New-An Educational Urban Walk  

I made the mistake of assuming that a walk for philosophers would include the agora and Socrates' prison cell. Wrong. The walk is designed for participants in all ATINER conferences (engineers, accountants, and psychologists as well as philosophers when I went) and our guide (a sociologist) made no reference to philosophy that I can remember. He was good, but no better than I would expect any good tour guide to be. I enjoyed the walk, but I'm not convinced it's worth the price. Bear in mind that it includes the cost of a ticket to the Acropolis (12 euros), but also bear in mind that there is this free alternative (which I haven't tried and can't vouch for, and which is not conveniently scheduled after the conference sessions are over).   

Tuesday 26 May 2015: 21:00-22:00 Social Dinner

I didn't go to this, but it doesn't sound like a good deal. Your call.

Wednesday 27 May 2015: 07:30-20:30 Cruise to Aegean Islands

The reviews I read of a similar cruise before I went almost made me regret signing up for this. It's boring, they said. You don't get to spend any time on the islands, they said. The trip takes you to three islands--Hydra, Poros, and Aigina--and you do get to spend time on each one. We had about an hour on Hydra, supposedly the third most beautiful island in the world according to Condé Nast (it looks like it comes 11th here), although it was cloudy when I was there. Still very nice. Just enough time on Poros to climb up a hill for the views and photo ops. Then two hours on Aigina, which I used to go on the optional extra bus trip to the Temple of Aphaea and a disappointing church (built in the 1990s, I think, so not much historical interest there). If you don't pay the 25 euros for this trip you have two hours at the beach. The rest of the time on the boat you can get soaked by the waves if it's choppy and you sit in the wrong place (check), or sunburn (check), or listen to live Greek music (some of the time) and watch traditional Greek dancing (some of the time), or drink in the bar, or look at the sea. We didn't see any dolphins but I think people often do. Not cheap, but not bad.        

Thursday 28 May 2015: 08:00-19:30 Delphi Visit

This was wonderful. Partly because Delphi is so great and partly because our tour guide was so good. She also recommended a trip to Sounion as a must, and I trust her judgment. Apparently Heidegger liked it too. I didn't get the chance to go there, but I would seriously consider skipping the cruise to the Aegean islands and going to Sounion instead if you don't have the time and money to do both.     

You should make time to see the ancient agora where Socrates' prison cell is, and consider making visits to the sites of Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum. The Acropolis, of course, is also a must. And so is the National Archaeological Museum

Athens is a funny place, a bit like a poor person's Rome. Not that poverty is funny, but it's a peculiar city. There are heavily armed police in groups dotted about the city, wearing riot armor and carrying machine guns. There are also posters and graffiti promoting both anarchy and Marxism. The hammer and sickle sign seems to be a vote-winner here, which is a far cry from the US of A where I live. And there are homeless people and beggars, just as you might expect in any big city but not like the homeless people and beggars you would see elsewhere. I saw a young man who looked as though he had just left work at the office climb into a sleeping bag and lie down on the sidewalk. I saw multiple people with missing limbs or horrifying skin conditions showing off their injuries to try to gain sympathy and cash from passersby. It's as if the country is poised right outside the door to the Third World, or revolution, or fascism, or some combination of the three. 

On the other hand, mostly what I saw was very normal-looking people going to work or being tourists and consumers. There are excellent bakeries, coffee shops, and restaurants all over the place. There aren't as many antiquities as there are in Rome, and the rest of the architecture isn't as charming as it is in Rome. It's mostly pretty charmless in fact. But the Acropolis is right there over much of what you see, it's very sunny, I had no trouble at all with any crime, you can walk almost everywhere in the city, and there's more than enough to see to keep you busy for days.