Monday, August 14, 2017


Moving to this country was the the first time I ever flew in a plane. I landed in Charlottesville, where I lived for five years. I still live just over an hour's drive from there, and go there quite often to eat a meal, do some shopping, or just get out of the small town I live in for a few hours. It's weird to see the city's name synonymous with racist extremism and violence. 

The pressing question is what to do about these racists. Some people argue that neo-Nazis should be denied the oxygen of attention, while others argue that they must be resisted with force. The fact is, I suppose, we cannot really know what will be most effective. Perhaps we can know what it is right to do, though, even if we cannot know what will do the most good. It seems right to protest, and to be ready to defend anyone who gets attacked by neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates. Not that I did so this weekend, but I think I should have.

I once counted the reasons why I don't do more. I think there were nine of them. Laziness and cowardice were no doubt two, but I don't remember all the others. One of them, though, is that I am put off by other people on my side, including some leading figures in the local movement against racism. Or, I should say, some of the things said by these people. The people themselves don't repel me. There's an example of the kind of thing that puts me off above, featuring people whose identities I have tried to cover. The comments are made by people I'll call A, B, and C. The order of speakers is: A, B, A, B, A, C. A is a white woman, B is an African-American man, and C is a white man (I wish this were irrelevant, but it isn't). They are talking, initially, about neo-Nazis rallying in Charlottesville.

What A says seems right to me. B is also right to point out that these people, "frightened white boys" though they may be, also pose a very real threat and do real harm. A then accepts this point, and adds that they are irrational. I agree. It is not good to honor Nazis, etc. with the label 'rational'. If we find ourselves concluding that such people are rational, we should probably reconsider our conception of rationality. (See here for more on this sort of thing.) It also seems simply accurate to call right-wing extremists irrational. Their ends make little sense ('racial purity' is a stupid thing to want) and their means are unlikely to get them what they want (joining a racist group might get you some 'friends', but it is likely to lose you others and hurt your career, while the chance of achieving your political goals (which, if achieved, I suspect would be unsatisfying) are very slim). 

B then responds in a way that seems somewhat uncharitable, albeit with a good point or two as well. The good points are that identifying them as irrational should not lead us to be complacent, and that their irrationality is not sheer irrationality. It can be seen as an understandable, albeit deplorable, reaction to certain historical and political trends. A, who sounds frustrated, in effect accepts these points, while clarifying that she had not meant to say anything contrary to them. At this point C steps in and tells A to apologize to B and "sit down", which at least sounds as though it means shut up.   

Despite some misunderstandings, which up to this point all seemed to be quickly cleared up, A and B, as A says, seem very much to be on the same side. Indeed, they seem to be making complementary points. Yet A is accused of "explaining how white supremacy works to a black man" and told to apologize to him "for the misunderstanding." And then to shut up. 

I imagine that C's behavior here strikes you as being as patronizing, as unproductive, and as based on misunderstanding as it does me. But, as you can see, C gets more likes than A. And B, who seems better than C but also to misunderstand A, gets even more. The conversation has continued and neither side has backed down or changed its mind (last time I checked at any rate). C has not, for instance, apologized to A. 

If anyone sees the matter differently I am genuinely curious what there is to be said for C's take. I don't know how common this kind of thing is--apologies if this is a matter of only very local interest--but from my perspective it looms large.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

New online Wittgenstein book by Kristóf Nyíri

This looks interesting, in terms of both content and the decision to publish free and online. The title is Pictorial Truth: Essays on Wittgenstein, Realism, and Conservatism, and it's by Kristóf Nyíri. He writes:
I am really curious how the scholarly world will react e.g. to my view formulated in the Preface, that peer-reviewed publications by now might have become obsolete. 
Me too.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Beyond bullshit?

My friend Chris Gavaler has co-written a piece with Nathaniel Goldberg on Trump and bullshit for Philosophy Now. If you're interested in this subject then, obviously, you might want to read it. Their conclusion is that a sample of Trump's speech is "beyond bullshit."

Here's the sample:
“He said something to the effect, ‘No we’re not leaving, because Donald Trump promised us that we’re not leaving.” Trump added, “I actually said I didn’t make [the promise]. When they played [my statement back], I said, ‘I did make it [to Carrier], but I didn’t mean it quite that way’.” As he explained: “I never thought I made that promise – not with Carrier. I made it for everybody else. I didn’t make it really for Carrier.” The promise was, he said: “A euphemism. I was talking about Carrier like all other companies from here on in, because they made the decision a year and a half ago”
After quoting this they talk a bit about what Trump might have meant and about Grice on implicature, before drawing their conclusion. But they've already quoted Frankfurt saying that the bullshitter "is not trying to deceive anyone concerning [the particular subject he happens to be talking about]. What he cares about is what people think of him." And that seems very much like what Trump is up to, and not something that Trump somehow goes beyond.

In this case. actually, Trump seems to be trying to tell the truth, more or less. At least, he seems to be acknowledging that Carrier made their decision before he did anything about keeping them in the US, although he's also adding a claim that other companies will keep jobs in the US now because of him (which is doubtful). He just isn't very good at speaking precisely. It does seem true, though, that what he cares about above all else is what people think of him. Trump is thus not beyond bullshit but the ultimate example of the kind of person Frankfurt was talking about. (As, I believe, Frankfurt himself has said.)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Mulhall's magic

I talked a bit about Stephen Mulhall's The Great Riddle here and here. This is the last post I intend to write about it, and it's about the part of the book I like the most. Near the end, Mulhall refers to "the sheer wild particularity [...] of each individual thing harbouring a refusal to conform to or be exhausted by any of our orderings of things." He quotes Chesterton saying that, "A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree"

(Cf. Tolstoy:
When an apple has ripened and falls, why does it fall? Because of its attraction to the earth, because its stalk withers, because it is dried by the sun, because it grows heavier, because the wind shakes it, or because the boy standing below wants to eat it? 
Nothing is the cause. All this is only the coincidence of conditions in which all vital organic and elemental events occur. And the botanist who finds that the apple falls because the cellular tissue decays and so forth is equally right with the child who stands under the tree and says the apple fell because he wanted to eat it and prayed for it.") More respectably, Chesterton writes that, "The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, 'charm,' 'spell,' 'enchantment.' They express the arbitrariness of the fact, and its mystery.")  
Mulhall connects this with Wittgenstein on the two different kinds of plant whose seeds look identical but which reliably produce plants of the type from which each came. In such a case, Wittgenstein remarks, to insist that there must be a difference in the seeds, even though we cannot detect one, "only shows what a powerful urge we have to see everything in terms of cause and effect." The beauty of Wittgenstein's story is that it never goes beyond the observable (imaginary) facts, which makes it undeniable, and yet it is hugely discomfiting to the mindset it takes aim at. It's like Kant without the metaphysics (Kant aimed, as I see it, to show the Dawkinses of his day that science can never show religion to be false), or attacking positivism by being more positivist than the positivists. Basically, by actually sticking to the undisputed facts it reveals how much metaphysics there is in the view of many people who proudly think of themselves as sticking to the facts. 

And when we do stick to the facts in this way (cf. also Tractatus 6.53) we are freed from unjustified assumptions about the laws of nature and cause and effect. Focusing on the thing itself means bracketing the principle of sufficient reason, which means seeing things how Schopenhauer says we should see things if we are to perceive objectively and achieve peace.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Seeing the world aright

[What follows is little more than a bunch of quotes strung together. But they are good quotes.]

The desirability of seeing what is under our noses and thereby becoming free is a bit of a theme in 19th century European thought.

Here's Father Zossima, a favorite of Wittgenstein's, in The Brothers Karamazov (emphasis added):
Brothers, have no fear of men's sin. Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God's creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love. Love the animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled. Do not trouble it, don't harass them, don't deprive them of their happiness, don't work against God's intent. Man, do not pride yourself on superiority to the animals; they are without sin, and you, with your greatness, defile the earth by your appearance on it, and leave the traces of your foulness after you—alas, it is true of almost every one of us! Love children especially, for they too are sinless like the angels; they live to soften and purify our hearts and as it were to guide us. Woe to him who offends a child! Father Anfim taught me to love children. The kind, silent man used often on our wanderings to spend the farthings given us on sweets and cakes for the children. He could not pass by a child without emotion. That's the nature of the man.
This advice (there is more in the surrounding pages) is given as an alternative to the (allegedly) false wisdom of the day, which sounds very similar to today's dominant ideology:
The world has proclaimed the reign of freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs? Nothing but slavery and self-destruction! For the world says:
“You have desires and so satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the most rich and powerful. Don't be afraid of satisfying them and even multiply your desires.” That is the modern doctrine of the world. In that they see freedom. And what follows from this right of multiplication of desires? In the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; in the poor, envy and murder; for they have been given rights, but have not been shown the means of satisfying their wants. They maintain that the world is getting more and more united, more and more bound together in brotherly community, as it overcomes distance and sets thoughts flying through the air.
Alas, put no faith in such a bond of union. Interpreting freedom as the multiplication and rapid satisfaction of desires, men distort their own nature, for many senseless and foolish desires and habits and ridiculous fancies are fostered in them. They live only for mutual envy, for luxury and ostentation. 
Plato might have agreed with this, too, so perhaps the 19th century has nothing to do with it, although the emphasis on perception seems very post-Kantian. Speaking of Plato, here's Schopenhauer:
Plato often says that men live only in a dream; the philosopher alone strives to awake himself.
And here is Schopenhauer again, sounding a bit Zossima-ish:
[W]hen some external cause or inward disposition lifts us suddenly out of the endless stream of willing, delivers knowledge from the slavery of the will, the attention is no longer directed to the motives of willing, but comprehends things free from their relation to the will, and thus observes them without personal interest, without subjectivity, purely objectively, gives itself entirely up to them so far as they are ideas, but not in so far as they are motives. Then all at once the peace which we were always seeking, but which always fled from us on the former path of the desires, comes to us of its own accord, and it is well with us. It is the painless state which Epicurus prized as the highest good and as the state of the gods; for we are for the moment set free from the miserable striving of the will; we keep the Sabbath of the penal servitude of willing; the wheel of Ixion stands still.
But this is just the state which I described above as necessary for the knowledge of the Idea, as pure contemplation, as sinking oneself in perception, losing oneself in the object, forgetting all individuality, surrendering that kind of knowledge which follows the principle of sufficient reason, and comprehends only relations; the state by means of which at once and inseparably the perceived particular thing is raised to the Idea of its whole species, and the knowing individual to the pure subject of will-less knowledge, and as such they are both taken out of the stream of time and all other relations. It is then all one whether we see the sun set from the prison or from the palace. 
Forgetting all individuality also sounds a bit like Zossima, who says:
My brother asked the birds to forgive him; that sounds senseless, but it is right; for all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth. It may be senseless to beg forgiveness of the birds, but birds would be happier at your side—a little happier, anyway—and children and 
all animals, if you were nobler than you are now. It's all like an ocean, I tell you. Then you would pray to the birds too, consumed by an all-embracing love, in a sort of transport, and pray that they too will forgive you your sin. Treasure this ecstasy, however senseless it may seem to men.
Nietzsche, too, believed in something like objective perception of reality, although he seems to deny the possibility of any such thing. Nevertheless, he opposed the "narcotics" of alcohol and Christianity. Marx wanted to replace false consciousness with (true) consciousness. But that's all fairly familiar. Less familiar to me until recently is Tolstoy on a similar theme, talking about causes in history. The whole chapter (Book Nine: 1812, Chapter 1) is worth reading (along with the first chapters of the next two books, not to mention the whole novel), but here is one highlight:
To us it is incomprehensible that millions of Christian men killed and tortured each other either because Napoleon was ambitious or Alexander was firm, or because England’s policy was astute or the Duke of Oldenburg wronged. We cannot grasp what connection such circumstances have with the actual fact of slaughter and violence: why because the Duke was wronged, thousands of men from the other side of Europe killed and ruined the people of Smolénsk and Moscow and were killed by them.
To us, their descendants, who are not historians and are not carried away by the process of research and can therefore regard the event with unclouded common sense, an incalculable number of causes present themselves. The deeper we delve in search of these causes the more of them we find; and each separate cause or whole series of causes appears to us equally valid in itself and equally false by its insignificance compared to the magnitude of the events, and by its impotence—apart from the cooperation of all the other coincident causes—to occasion the event. To us, the wish or objection of this or that French corporal to serve a second term appears as much a cause as Napoleon’s refusal to withdraw his troops beyond the Vistula and to restore the duchy of Oldenburg; for had he not wished to serve, and had a second, a third, and a thousandth corporal and private also refused, there would have been so many less men in Napoleon’s army and the war could not have occurred.
Tolstoy suggests that there is no one right way to understand what caused what, but he also raises the possibility of seemingly inevitable (and bad) events being prevented by ordinary people's refusing to go along with them. If we just realized this, and acted accordingly, how much better the world might be.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Minimum wage

Perhaps this isn't worth a blog post, but it's not as if I've been posting much otherwise. Sometimes it's better to have low standards. So here goes.

Two things strike me as not just true but obviously true about any increase in the legal minimum wage (including an increase from nothing to something):
  1. it will increase the wages paid to those earning the lowest legal wage
  2. it will be a disincentive to employing such people
What's interesting is how rare it is to see both points acknowledged. Proponents of an increase tend to focus exclusively on point #1, either not mentioning point #2 at all or else dismissing it very lightly (for instance, Colin Gordon's generally excellent Growing Apart says little more than that, "a raft of recent research has put to rest the old saw that a higher minimum wage kills jobs or repels investment," which is not true). Opponents of the minimum wage, or at least of increases to it, tend simply to trot out the old saw that Gordon mentions (which is clearly not yet at rest, partly because it has at least this kind of currency and, more importantly, because of this recent evidence). And I'm not talking only about ordinary people. I mean professional experts, including economists.   

So what's my point? Partly I'm just expressing frustration, so my point is: Aaagh!! Partly also I can see why some people are tempted to reject what experts have to say about policy matters. And partly I continue to be interested in economics, what it can and cannot do, and what (if anything) it has to teach us. 

In addition to the two obvious truths listed above I might add these:

     3. what really matters is whether the good of point #1 outweighs the bad of point #2
     4. the way to find out is to see what happens when the minimum wage is increased  

Point #3 involves ethics, but the usual economists' preference for utilitarianism is probably more or less fine here. (Not everyone sees it that way, which is one reason why some people ignore point #2. If #1 is a question of fundamental justice then consequentialist considerations such as #2 might be irrelevant. I don't see it that way, but some do.) Still, this does mean that the relevant question is not about unemployment (or wages) so much as it is about utility. And no one that I know of measures this.

That means that we basically never get to point #4. That is, people do look at what happens, but a) this is really difficult because human interactions are very complicated, and b) the 'what happens' that even the best people look at is not the relevant what happens, i.e. what happens to utility.

Hence the following are the kinds of things the best economists (as far as I know) say on the subject. First, the authors of the recent Seattle-based study that made the headlines:
The second Seattle minimum wage increase, to as much as $13/hour on January 1, 2016, resulted in [...] a reduction of over $100 million per year in total payroll for low-wage jobs, measured as total sum of increased wages received less wages lost due to employment reductions. 
In other words, roughly speaking, people got paid more per hour but were employed for fewer hours, with a resultant net loss of earnings overall. But with the following qualifications:
These analyses are designed to reveal the impact on the entire Seattle low-wage labor market and do not necessarily reveal the full effect of the minimum wage increases on individual workers. Most importantly, our data do not capture employment or earnings in contract or “gig” jobs, work paid “off the books,” self-employment, or work done outside the City of Seattle.
We may not find the same things we found in this study in other cities, states, or at the national level. There are multiple factors that make Seattle and this minimum wage law unique, including high housing costs and relatively large increases in the minimum wage beginning at what had been the nation’s highest state minimum wage. 
So this study is far from being the "proof that increasing the minimum wage doesn't work" that is is presented by some people as being.

Secondly, and finally, here are Isabel Sawhill and Quentin Karpilow speaking sensibly about what economists knew about increasing the minimum wage in 2014:
While a higher minimum wage will help to boost earnings, critics worry about its effects on hiring, arguing that employers will create fewer jobs if they have to pay higher wages. Although past increases do not appear to have adversely affected employment, there is no denying the risk that much larger increases might pose to the least skilled workers. Raising the minimum from its current $7.25 to $15.00 per hour, as some have advocated, would more than double the cost to an employer and likely have some impact on hiring.
The Seattle study does not contradict this. While it does show an adverse effect on employment, the increase that showed this was not the increase to $11 per hour made in April 2015 but the increase to $13 an hour made in January 2016. The Seattle study, in other words, confirms Sawhill's and Karpilow's view (which I think is pretty orthodox) that a modest increase to the minimum wage is likely to be helpful (or at least harmless), but that anything too dramatic could be harmful. They advocate increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, and redesigning the Earned Income Tax Credit.

This kind of work strikes me as being very useful. Its informed skepticism and moderate recommendations are hardly likely to get many people fired up (although I doubt I'm alone in finding thoughtfulness refreshing), but that shouldn't be the measure of value. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Winch on understanding other people

This paper needs quite a bit of work, but for anyone interested here is an only very slightly (so far) revised version of the paper I presented at the conference on Peter Winch last weekend in London.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Witchcraft among the Azande

If you're interested in Peter Winch on understanding others, you might be interested in this documentary. Perhaps it's well known, but I only just found it:

And here's one on Evans-Pritchard:

I haven't watched either one yet, so can't guarantee their quality. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Mulhall's riddle

Some questions that you might want to ask Stephen Mulhall when you read his new book:
  1. if talk about God is nonsense, why bother?
  2. if talk about God has a use, mustn't it thereby have a meaning after all?
  3. if you accept that nonsense is nonsense, that there is no significant nonsense, then how comfortable can you be, or should you be, with the idea of deliberate uses of certain kinds of nonsense? Even if you aren't guilty of chickening out, are you nevertheless sneaking around? 
Some answers to the first question can be found in the passage I quoted earlier. For one thing, "everything in creation is a potential source of imagery for the divine, and the more of it we activate in religious language the better, since only thus can we acknowledge God’s superabundant variety." If religious language is nonsense then I'm not sure how successfully it can acknowledge anything about God, but the superabundant variety of creation, and the excellence of what is so superabundantly various, I would add (although I think a sense of appreciative wonder is already implicit in Mulhall's words, so I'm not adding much), can certainly make you want to sing its praises. For another thing, the "transcendence of God is best acknowledged precisely by following out the consequences of attributing contradictory attributes to him; for if he is both male and female, and we know that no person can be both male and female, we thereby appreciate that our idea of him as a personal God is itself a misrepresentation—a necessarily unsuccessful attempt to delineate that which is beyond delineation." Wonder might leave us speechless, or mouthing something with obviously minimal content, such as "Wow!", but Mulhall argues that it is better to speak:
The best way to appreciate the transcendence of God to human language is [for the reason just quoted] not to fall into silence, avoiding even the assertion that nothing is assertable of him, or to attempt some inconceivable synthesis of affirmation and negation; it is rather endlessly to employ that language in relation to him, and endlessly to experience its inevitable collapse upon itself.  
Silence, I suppose, can too easily become mere silence, "There are no words" a thoughtless cliche. The surest sign of being "lost in wonder, love, and praise" is that you attempt to express this wonder, love, and praise, even if you are bound to fail. These attempts at expression, though, it seems to me, since they are bound to fail, have to be understood as something like symptoms rather than as ends worth pursuing in themselves or means worth choosing for the sake of some other end. As Wittgenstein says at the end of the Lecture on Ethics, they are "a document of a tendency in the human mind." This makes the question "why bother?" moot. It is like asking why anyone should laugh when they are amused. Mulhall does have an answer, though, to anyone who thinks we should actively try to stop talking like this.

His answer to the second question, about whether religious talk must have a meaning after all, since it has a use, is this: "It could only mislead to say that being shouldered out of our language-games is just one more language-game, or to declare that words have a grammar when they fail us just as they do when we effortlessly employ them to word the world." In other words, as I understand it, you could call the use of (nonsensical) religious language a language-game, but it isn't a good idea. That seems fair enough.

The third question is the one that bothers me the most, although I'm not sure how troubling it really ought to be. Involuntary babbling praise is obviously OK (or: there is no point in trying to rule it out as somehow 'illegitimate'), but it isn't theology. Nonsense can be used deliberately though, as satire or in a reductio, for instance. This doesn't sound like theology either, though, although here my ignorance of theology feels like a problem. Perhaps there could be theological anti-theology that deliberately used nonsense to burst balloons and bring its targets back to earth and/or God. Some of Kierkegaard's work might be thought of this way. But this would always be a negative, reactive project.

Mulhall apparently accepts something like this idea, although he focuses on theology as a reaction to philosophy rather than to other theology. As he sees it, "In short, theology discloses philosophy’s perennial aspiration to a God’s eye view as both essential to its nature and essentially beyond its own grasp—not exactly because there is no such perspective, but rather because that perspective is and can only be a ‘perspective’, hence belongs to God alone, and so is realizable only as and through faith." So, roughly, theology shows something even if it has nothing to say ("the linguistic constructions to which theology is driven do not constitute an intelligible language"). Mulhall doesn't put it this way, though, talking instead about theology's not knowing something that philosophy does not know and yet nevertheless having something to tell it.

Still, you might wonder whether Mulhall hasn't just claimed on theology's behalf to know (or say) the thing that he says theology can tell (or show) philosophy. You might also wonder what idea of nonsense is at work in the following passages:
This recalls the Thomist claim that the perfections apply to God, but do so more appropriately or fittingly than they do to us. For in giving expression to that semantic priority by knowingly violating the grammar of ordinary perfection talk (e.g. by saying that God is loving if and only if one says that he is Love), we maintain the appropriate theological balance between acknowledging scriptural authorization for characterizing our relations to God as personal whilst not characterizing God as a person (hence, as subsumable under categories, genus, and species). 
The only way of making sense of Abraham is to grasp the point of his not making sense—to see him as having a very particular use for a very specifically generated kind of nonsense.
As sophisticated as Mulhall's take on the story of Abraham and Isaac is, does he perhaps still (or thereby) come too close to making sense of what he says does not make sense? And is it really possible to maintain both that theology is nonsense and that one can maintain the appropriate theological balance between one thing and another by knowingly violating the grammar of ordinary perfection talk? That makes it sound as though there is a right way to violate these rules, and hence that such 'violation of grammar' is in fact an activity with rules of its own. I'm not sure what I think about these things. But this third question seems more serious than the first two.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Wittgenstein and the value of clarity again

Just in case anyone's interested, I've revised this paper. The new version is here.

Songs about film directors

Are there any bad ones? These are the best, and only, three I know: "Woody Allen" by Allo Darlin', "What's Yr Take on Cassavetes" by Le Tigre, and "Roman P" by Psychic TV.

The videos aren't very exciting, but the performances are better in these than in the live versions you can watch online. 

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Deviant philosophy

This site looks great. It is designed to be a teaching resource for people who teach philosophy but want to diverge from the usual texts and topics taught. So if you want to teach some Asian philosophy, for instance, this site will (it is not yet complete) provide you with primers on basic information, give you ideas for units and lessons, and further ideas for specific activities you can (have your students) try. It seems to me there is a lot of potential for people who don't teach philosophy but just want to learn here too.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

More nonsense

I'm enjoying Stephen Mulhall's The Great Riddle very much. Here he is on religious language:
...insofar as God is the source of all that is, possessing in his being all the perfections he causes, then everything in creation is a potential source of imagery for the divine, and the more of it we activate in religious language the better, since only thus can we acknowledge God’s superabundant variety. And yet, using language in all these ways simultaneously will inevitably lead to us speaking contradictorily about God (as male and female, light and darkness, weakness and strength); and nothing we say about him can conceivably capture his nature anyway. But that transcendence of God is best acknowledged precisely by following out the consequences of attributing contradictory attributes to him; for if he is both male and female, and we know that no person can be both male and female, we thereby appreciate that our idea of him as a personal God is itself a misrepresentation—a necessarily unsuccessful attempt to delineate that which is beyond delineation.
The best way to appreciate the transcendence of God to human language is thus not to fall into silence, avoiding even the assertion that nothing is assertable of him, or to attempt some inconceivable synthesis of affirmation and negation; it is rather endlessly to employ that language in relation to him, and endlessly to experience its inevitable collapse upon itself. Religious language is thus essentially self-subverting language; the repeated collapse of its affirmations into complete disorder is its mode of order—it is, one might say, the only way the ‘language-games’ woven into honest, transparent religious language-games should be played.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Stop making sense

Matthew Yglesias has an interesting essay on Trump and bullshit at Vox, but I think he goes too far in his attempt to explain what's going on. Here's an example:
When Trump says something like he’s just learned that Barack Obama ordered his phones wiretapped, he’s not really trying to persuade people that this is true. It’s a test to see who around him will debase themselves to repeat it blindly. There’s no greater demonstration of devotion.
This makes Trump sound like a kind of genius. He doesn't just get people to demonstrate the loyalty he craves. He has the greatest way to get them to do this.

Admittedly, this genius might be accidental. Yglesias says of Trump that, "His flagrant lies serve as a loyalty test," which is different from saying that they are intended as a loyalty test. But there is still an implication here that there is something to be explained, namely the function of Trump's bullshit, and that Yglesias has the explanation that enables us to make sense of it all. But why suppose that it makes sense in the first place? It's not as if Trump is a great success. If he had built his wall, imprisoned his electoral opponent, and banned Muslims from the United States then we might wonder how he had managed it all (as well as why, of course). But he has done so little that there is little to explain. (He has emboldened white supremacists and hurt people of color, but not as much as he tried to, and it's not clear that is exactly a conscious goal of his anyway. Nor is there any mystery about how someone could get this done.)

In other words, Trump might be an evil genius bullshitter, but he might just be confused and floundering. He could also be both. Perhaps he has found bullshit to be useful in his career. That doesn't mean that he wields it skillfully or knows what he's doing at any given moment. He might sometimes know just what bullshit to spout, or lie to tell, to achieve his particular goal. Or he might just spout and spout and hope it works out. My impression is that he is so used to getting what he demands (even if he doesn't always get what he demands) that he has very little sense of himself as answering to an objective reality. Frankfurt says:
Thoughtful attention to detail requires discipline and objectivity. It entails accepting standards and limitations that forbid the indulgence of impulse or whim. It is this selflessness that, in connection with bullshit, strikes us as inapposite.
Trump's bullshit seems to stem from, or at least reflect, his lack of thoughtful attention to detail, his lack of discipline, lack of objectivity, non-acceptance of standards and limitations, his selfishness, and his insistence on indulging impulses and whims. His is not the "carefully wrought bullshit" that Frankfurt describes (along with the other kind). The opposition between truth and (not falsehood but) ego here is worth noting.

So Yglesias seems to see sense, something intelligible, even intelligent, where there may well not be any such thing. There is still something to explain, though, namely why so many people accept this bullshit. Partly, no doubt, 'twas ever thus. Partly, also, people accept it because it is in their interest to do so: they work for Trump or they would be embarrassed to back down from supporting him, for instance. Partly, perhaps, we are more used to bullshit than we used to be because we suffer from an overload of information. This quote from T. S. Eliot has been doing the rounds on Twitter lately:
The vast accumulation of knowledge — or at least information — deposited…have been responsible for an equally vast ignorance.  When there is so much to be known, when there are so many fields…in which the same words are used with different meanings, when every man knows a little about a great many things, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know whether he knows what he is talking about or not.  And when we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.    
Maybe he's right.

And, finally, maybe there's a sort of culture of bullshit in the US. I'm hesitant to suggest this, because I don't think that any large group of people is really smarter or dumber, better or worse, than any other. If there is a culture of bullshit in the US there may well be a similar culture in other countries. But the creation of certain sacred cows is highly visible in the US in a way that it doesn't seem to be in other countries. The flag, for instance, is idolized in a way I've never seen in any other country. Religion (of a particular, and particularly American, kind) is used to justify denial of scientific facts. The Republican Party has managed to attach itself to the flag and to this kind of religion, making itself almost an idol of sorts (and support for Democrats pretty much unthinkable for many people).  
But (still finally) there is also a history, especially in the South, of lying about the Civil War, and teaching these lies to children. When your parents as well as your teachers lie in this way, as is often the case (although maybe I shouldn't call the sincere repetition of a lie lying), then you are going to have a hard time accepting that it is a lie. Then people who tell (what you may or may not recognize at some level as being) the truth will come across as enemies of your family, your educators, and your culture. (It ought to be possible to insert something here about Wittgenstein and certainty, but I won't.) White Southerners have a huge psychological incentive to reject numerous truths and truth-tellers (as well as the psychological incentive to admit the truth, which, however painful, surely makes life simpler in some ways). If they do opt for such rejection, then more bullshit won't be such a big deal for them to accept. It might even feel like home. 

I'm sure I've mentioned it before, but this is the essay by John Stuart Mill that I have in mind when I talk about lies about the Civil War. I'll quote some of the relevant bits here:
There is a theory in England, believed perhaps by some, half believed by many more, which is only consistent with original ignorance, or complete subsequent forgetfulness, of all the antecedents of the contest. There are people who tell us that, on the side of the North, the question is not one of slavery at all. The North, it seems, have no more objection to slavery than the South have. Their leaders never say one word implying disapprobation of it. They are ready, on the contrary, to give it new guarantees; to renounce all that they have been contending for; to win back, if opportunity offers, the South to the Union by surrendering the whole point.
If this be the true state of the case, what are the Southern chiefs fighting about? Their apologists in England say that it is about tariffs, and similar trumpery. They say nothing of the kind. They tell the world, and they told their own citizens when they wanted their votes, that the object of the fight was slavery.
This was written in 1862, and the same lies and half-beliefs are still very much around. Here's more from Mill:
Let me, in a few words, remind the reader what sort of a thing this is, which the white oligarchy of the South have banded themselves together to propagate and establish, if they could, universally. When it is wished to describe any portion of the human race as in the lowest state of debasement, and under the most cruel oppression, in which it is possible for human beings to live, they are compared to slaves. When words are sought by which to stigmatize the most odious despotism, exercised in the most odious manner, and all other comparisons are found inadequate, the despots are said to be like slave-masters, or slave-drivers. What, by a rhetorical license, the worst oppressors of the human race, by way of stamping on them the most hateful character possible, are said to be, these men, in very truth, are. I do not mean that all of them are hateful personally, any more than all the Inquisitors, or all the buccaneers. But the position which they occupy, and the abstract excellence of which they are in arms to vindicate, is that which the united voice of mankind habitually selects as the type of all hateful qualities. I will not bandy chicanery about the more or less of stripes or other torments which are daily requisite to keep the machine in working order, nor discuss whether the Legrees or the St. Clairs are more numerous among the slave-owners of the Southern States. The broad facts of the case suffice. One fact is enough. There are, Heaven knows, vicious and tyrannical institutions in ample abundance on the earth. But this institution is the only one of them all which requires, to keep it going, that human beings should be burnt alive. The calm and dispassionate Mr. Olmsted affirms that there has not been a single year, for many years past, in which this horror is not known to have been perpetrated in some part or other of the South. And not upon negroes only; the Edinburgh Review, in a recent number, gave the hideous details of the burning alive of an unfortunate Northern huckster by Lynch law, on mere suspicion of having aided in the escape of a slave. What must American slavery be, if deeds like these are necessary under it?—and if they are not necessary and are yet done, is not the evidence against slavery still more damning? The South are in rebellion not for simple slavery; they are in rebellion for the right of burning human creatures alive.
It will take a long time to wake up fully from this nightmare. And perhaps human beings are never fully awake. In the meantime there are going to be mixed beliefs, half-beliefs, lies, denials, and, perhaps more than anything else, confusion. Dawning consciousness, too, we can hope. But certainly confusion. And nonsense. And bullshit. Its acceptance doesn't need any special explanation.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Anscombe and Wittgenstein on Animals and Intention

[Here's something I've been working on. I think it suffers a bit from being compressed, but I'm working to a short word limit.] 

Elizabeth Anscombe famously criticizes her teacher Ludwig Wittgenstein for talking about the “natural expression of an intention” in Philosophical Investigations. I will consider recent responses to this dispute by Mikel Burley and Martin Gustafsson, arguing that Burley’s response is correct but incomplete, and that Gustafsson’s defense of Anscombe, while also correct, does not show Wittgenstein to have been wrong. Anscombe’s criticism of Wittgenstein is partly pragmatic, and since the two philosophers have somewhat different aims, each can be right relative to those aims. Whose side we take will then depend in part on what aims we adopt, and it might not be necessary to pick either side in this debate.
In order to judge the matter we should first consider the evidence. Wittgenstein asks: "What is the natural expression [Ausdruck] of an intention? – Look at a cat when it stalks a bird; or a beast when it wants to escape" (PI, §647). Responding to this, Anscombe writes:

Intention appears to be something that we can express, but which brutes (which, e.g. do not give orders) can have, though lacking any distinct expression of intention. For a cat's movements in stalking a bird are hardly to be called an expression of intention. One might as well call a car's stalling the expression of its being about to stop. Intention is unlike emotion in this respect, that the expression of it is purely conventional; we might say ‘linguistic’, if we will allow certain bodily movements with a conventional meaning to be included in language. Wittgenstein seems to me to have gone wrong in speaking of the ‘natural expression of an intention’ (Philosophical Investigations §647). (Intention, p. 5)

Wittgenstein’s remark is reminiscent of PI §256, where he asks: “But suppose I didn’t have any natural expression [Äußerungen] of sensation, but only had sensations?” The word for expressions here suggests linguistic expression, which is what Anscombe seems to have in mind, but the qualifying adjective ‘natural’ suggests that Wittgenstein is not talking about anything merely conventional. In §257 he talks about groans and grimaces as manifestations of pain. Presumably this is the kind of thing he has in mind in §256 when he refers to natural expressions of sensation. He uses a different word for expression in §647, and indeed the movements of a stalking cat seem further from language proper than a groan of pain. But it still seems right to say that these movements show something about what the cat is up to, something that will help us to predict and understand its movements. Why not call this an expression of intention? 
Mikel Burley’s view is that the disagreement between Wittgenstein and Anscombe is because of an ambiguity in the word ‘expression’.[1] This seems right, but is perhaps not the last word to be said on the subject. Burley’s point is that a cat cannot voluntarily reveal its intention. Nor can it tell us its intention, of course. But it might nevertheless, non-voluntarily, exhibit or display its intention. Burley also mentions PI §284 in this connection, where Wittgenstein invites us to imagine a stone having sensations. He anticipates a certain kind of failure. We do not, he imagines, simply fail to imagine a stone’s being sentient. We question, or perhaps reject, the very idea: “One says to oneself: How could one so much as get the idea of ascribing a sensation to a thing? One might as well ascribe it to a number!” The task is absurd. But then Wittgenstein asks us to look at a wriggling fly, whereupon he imagines our difficulties will vanish. With the stone “everything was, so to speak, too smooth” for pain, whereas with the fly “pain seems able to get a foothold”. Our reactions to a wriggling fly are quite different from those to a stone. How the world appears in terms of the applicability of concepts, whether too smooth or rough enough for us to get a grip, depends on our reactions to it. Although, of course, our reactions are to features of the world. So language depends on both us and the world. The fly’s wriggling is like a human being’s groan of pain or squirming. It surely might be called a natural expression of pain.
Anscombe does not deny this though. Her point is that intention is different. Unlike emotion (and, I would think, a sensation such as pain), it has only conventional, not natural, expression.       
Martin Gustafsson argues that Anscombe regards intention in animals and in human beings as equally cases of intention but of different kinds of intention.[2] Human intention is connected with language in a way that animal intention is not. Unlike human intention, “the cat’s intention to catch the bird exists only qua the cat’s stalking”.[3] This is what makes it like the car that is about to stop. The car has no intention, so it is also importantly different from the cat, but the symptoms of its being about to stop are not really separable from its being about to stop. Or at least, not as separable as a human being’s intention to do something is from the expression of that intention, which might, after all, be a lie. Unlike cats, human beings are also quite capable of acting against their biological interests.

In the cat case, as conceived by Anscombe, the cat’s intention (to catch the bird) is constitutively bound up with the cat’s nonconventional behavior (its stalking the bird), and this constitutive nexus is intelligible in view of what sort of creature a cat is. The characterization of the behavior qua directed at an intended goal— “stalking the bird”—is applicable because cats are creatures for which it is good to catch birds and because they have the biological equipment (sense organs, etc.) needed to aim at particular things (like birds). If [I am] correct, the reason why Anscombe does not want to call the cat’s behavior an expression of the cat’s intention is that the constitutive interrelationship between intention and behavior is too tight to make the notion of “expression” applicable.[4]  

Behavior does not express intention, according to Anscombe, because the connection between behavior and intention is too tight, to use Gustafsson’s word. What I do to achieve my intended goal embodies my intention in a way that cannot lie.[5] I might walk down a certain street in order to make you think I am going to a museum, say, but then this walking embodies my intention to deceive you. It is not merely a deceptive act regarding my unreal intention to go the museum. It is also a real act that shows, unavoidably if unwittingly, my intention to deceive. 
The expression of sensation is not quite like this. Saying “I am in pain” can be a lie and grimacing can be deceptive—I might in fact feel no pain at all. Any close conceptual connection between pain-behavior and pain is nevertheless not as close as it is in the case of intention and the behavior that embodies it. Or so, at any rate, Anscombe sees it.
Might we not, even so, choose to say that actions embodying a certain intention express that intention? Gustafsson’s view is that Anscombe means to stipulate that we ought not to speak this way when doing philosophy, because of the danger of our doing so’s leading us astray in a Cartesian or empiricist way that treats intentions as mental states not very different from sensations such as pain.[6]    
Burley’s suggestion is that we might equally say that a cat exhibits an intention as that it expresses an intention. If Gustafsson is right, then this is either not quite right or else is itself ambiguous. In philosophically safe usage we might indeed talk about a cat’s expressing its intention, but when there is a need to be scrupulous about the words we use we ought not to speak this way. The important point is to distinguish between the expression of an emotion or a sensation, on the one hand, and the expression or exhibition of an intention, on the other. Since Wittgenstein used different words for the two cases – Äußerung for the former and Ausdruck for the latter – perhaps there is no reason to criticize him. But Anscombe is bothered also by his use of the word ‘natural’ (natürliche) here. Intentions, as she sees the matter, can be exhibited or embodied, as in the case of inarticulate animals’ intentions as well as those of human beings, or, in the human case only, they can be expressed. To speak of ‘natural expression of intention’ is both to blur the distinction between animal and human intention (which Wittgenstein might not mind doing) and to blur the distinction between actual events internal to the human body (including the brain) and the metaphorically inner events of the mind. That distinction is one that both Anscombe and Wittgenstein want to insist on.
On the other hand, Anscombe’s understanding of intention, at least as Gustafsson presents it, is significantly influenced by Aristotle and Aquinas.[7] It would be antithetical to Wittgenstein’s way of doing philosophy to make Aristotelian or Thomist metaphysics an essential part of his work. So we cannot expect him to want to say all that Anscombe would say. And in §647 his primary concern is to move the reader away from the picture of intention as something inner, like a feeling, towards something more like behaviorism. Not that he is a behaviorist, or any other kind of –ist, but that he wants to move the reader out of Cartesianism (and empiricism) and to do so in a direction that might be called that of behaviorism. If you actually get to behaviorism, though, then you have gone too far. Indeed, as Wittgenstein sees it, if you stop in any -ism then you need to move on.
In other words, if Gustafsson’s Anscombe is right, then Wittgenstein went wrong in speaking of the natural expression of an intention not in the sense of saying something absolutely false but in a pragmatic and local (to philosophy) way. But given that Wittgenstein’s goals might include that of not committing to the position that Gustfasson’s Anscombe adopts, and of not committing to any other position either, unless perhaps not being in the grip of any metaphysical picture counts as a position, then it might have been no pragmatic error on his part to speak as he did.               

[1] See Mikel Burley “Wittgenstein, Wonder and Attention to Animals,” in Niklas Forsberg, Mikel Burley, and Nora Hämäläinen Language, Ethics and Animal Life: Wittgenstein and Beyond, Bloomsbury, 2012, pp. 166-178, p. 170.
[2] Martin Gustafsson, “Anscombe’s Bird, Wittgenstein’s Cat: Intention, Expression and Convention” Philosophical Topics Volume 44, Number 1, Spring 2016, pp. 207-237.
[3] Gustafsson, p. 225.
[4] Gustafsson, p. 226.
[5] See p. 231
[6] See p. 235
[7] See p. 208

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Yes, but what have you been watching on TV?

It's been a while since I watched it, but the Swedish show 30 Degrees in February is possibly the best series I've ever seen on TV (it's available on Netflix). It's about various Swedes who go to Thailand (independently of each other) for various reasons. Most of the issues you might expect to be raised come up at one point or another, some more than others, but it's a drama rather than an essay. It's not, for instance, like Downton Abbey, where every time someone picks up a newspaper you know they will make some naive comment about historical events that we can laugh at. It's fairly realistic, in other words.

Most of the other things I might recommend are too obvious to be worth mentioning. I'll mention them anyway: Better Call Saul, Survivor, The Amazing Race, Into the Badlands (despite the appallingly humorless MK), The Handmaid's Tale, The Americans, Anthony Bourdain (the recent episode on Laos was especially good), Brockmire (the funniest TV show I've seen in ages), Gomorrah, etc. Less obvious, as far as I know, are El Marginal and Departures, both on Netflix. El Marginal is about Argentine gangsters and set mostly in a prison. If you like Gomorrah (Italian gangsters) and that kind of thing you should like this. Departures is a travel documentary featuring two twenty-something Canadians (three if you count the cameraman, who sometimes becomes visible). They are no intellectuals--if I had drunk so much that I threw up I would have edited it out of the show; not these guys--but the camerawork is good and they go to some cool places. In the last season, especially, they see people in Ethiopia and Papua New Guinea whose way of life is surely not going to survive much longer, for good and bad. (Mostly for bad, I think, but then I'm not one of the women whose culture encourages them to collect scars from being whipped with sticks.)

And a new find: Samurai Gourmet (Netflix). It's sort of a cross between Iron Chef and Ikiru. A man who retires at 60 (is that the norm in Japan?) wonders what to do with himself and ends up enjoying a series of minor culinary adventures and personal growth with help from hallucinations of a samurai. Charming.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


Lalla (1320?-1390?):
I might have known how to scatter southern clouds
Dry up an ocean
Cure a leper
But I never knew how to convince a fool.
(quoted in Bonevac and Phillips, eds., Introduction to World Philosophy)

Relevant to the question of how to deal with trolls, etc.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Calling bullshit

This course on bullshit made a bit of a splash when it was first announced. Now it has actually been taught, and there are video lectures available online as well as the syllabus, FAQ, case studies, etc. Judging by the first short lecture it might not be that great, unfortunately. The first couple of minutes are basically an ad for the course and might uncharitably be classed as bull themselves. But it seems like a good idea. I'll certainly take another look, and maybe take the whole course.

I wonder how different this is from the typical college critical thinking course. It's unlike anything I've ever seen taught, but then I've never taken a course on critical thinking.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Haslanger on gender

I've presented versions of my paper "Wittgenstein and the Value of Clarity" to three different audiences now. With two it went down well, the main criticism being simply that it really had little to do with Wittgenstein. There's something to that, I think, but I still think it has something (interesting) to do with Wittgenstein. With the third it went down less well, and I want to try to think through why that might have been and whether there is anything in the paper that I should change. So the following will be mostly me thinking out loud.

One problem, I think, is that an early example that I use in the paper is 'orca' versus 'killer whale.' I suggest that 'orca' is the better term because it leaves more possibilities open, doing less to prejudge what such a creature might be like. I don't mean to suggest, though, that (what might turn out to be a fantasy of) complete neutrality is either possible or always desirable. It isn't necessarily better to call neo-Nazis "members of the 'Alt-Right'" if what they actually are is neo-Nazis. The term 'Alt-Right' might be less likely to prejudice someone, but the point of my paper is to talk about the value of clarity in communication, and terms designed to hide badness (or, really, anything else, other things being equal) do not aid clear understanding. So two things I should probably emphasize are that I am not claiming that pure neutrality or concepts that simply reflect the world as it is are possible, and that I am also not claiming that more evaluative concepts are always less desirable than less evaluative concepts.

Another thing I should probably repeat or underline is that I am not against all linguistic or conceptual innovation. As I say in the paper, although perhaps only in a footnote, sometimes a new word, expression, or idea will be clearer than the alternatives (see footnote 14, for instance). In which case, if we value clarity, we should prefer the new option.

A paper by Sally Haslanger was brought up as a possible illustration of error on my part. I think the paper is this one. As far as I can see it doesn't go against what I mean to say, although of course it might go against what I actually say if I haven't been sufficiently careful. Haslanger does make some points that I think could be useful to me in making my point(s) though, so I'm glad to know about her paper. She writes about our everyday vocabularies serving both cognitive and practical purposes, and about the possibility of developing a theory that offers "an improved understanding of our (legitimate) purposes and/or improved conceptual resources for the tasks at hand" (p. 33). One thing I aim to do in my paper is to show that some people seem to care more about practical purposes and others more about cognitive ones. I also say that I think most of us care about both such purposes, although perhaps not equally. Haslanger is a good example of someone who cares about both. (See also p. 47, where she talks about the twin goals of understanding oppression and achieving equality.) And so long as she does not want to sacrifice understanding for the sake of practical purposes (on the contrary, it seems to me that she wants to improve understanding) then she is not opposed to the side that I really try only to identify and describe but which I might seem to take against the likes of Galtung. She also talks about semantic and political conditions on "appropriating the terms of ordinary discourse," (p. 35) and the concern with the semantic condition seems to match, or at least roughly track, my concern with clarity or accuracy, while the concern with politics matches Galtung's concern (which I think is legitimate, at least as long as this kind of concern does not completely override all other concerns. And even that might be OK in extreme cases).

Haslanger does sound a little like Galtung when she says (p. 36) that "the task is to develop accounts of gender and race that will be effective tools in the fight against injustice," but she also regards it as being important (p. 36) "to provide clear conceptual categories to identify the phenomenon needing explanation, e.g., categories that identify the kind of injustice at issue and the groups subject to it." On the next page she says that "her strategy is to offer a focal analysis," and then comments that a "focal analysis undertakes to explain a variety of connected phenomena" (p. 37). So far as one's aim is to explain, rather than to obscure for political (or other) purposes, then one is on the side of people like Wittgenstein, Orwell, and Williams rather than Galtung. Haslanger's aims are not purely consequentialist. One of her implicit aims is to help us to see what is there, to enable "us to recognize significant patterns in the ways that gender is instituted and embodied" (p. 38).

She also wants to change the way we conceptualize gender differences in order to provide "resources for thinking about other (actual) genders [than man and woman], and the political possibility of constructing non-hierarchical genders" (p. 43). This rejection of limiting concepts in favor of one's that reveal extra possibilities is exactly the kind of thing whose value I am trying to show. Whether there is one best way, or right way, to do this, as Haslanger, reasonably, doubts, is not the point. The point is that it is possible to value the revelation of previously unseen possibilities through the use of one concept or set of concepts rather than another, and that such valuing might be at odds with certain practical goals. For instance, Haslanger offers a (long) definition of what it is to be a woman that makes subordination essential to the concept. (See p. 42.) Hence, "it is part of the project of feminism to bring about a day when there are no more women," as she has (re)-defined women (p. 46). This obscures the possibility of its being good to be a woman, but it does so in order to reveal sexist oppression (as well as to help end such oppression). The goal is neither obscuring reality (or possibility) as such nor the achievement of some practical goal by means of such obscuring. Haslanger's goal is far more elucidatory and emancipatory than it is obfuscatory, even if some obfuscation is an (apparently) unavoidable part of her project. (Compare my example of A, B, and C on pp. 10-11.)
Near the end of her paper, Haslanger quotes Trey Ellis who wants to be, and feel, free to call himself black, at least some of the time, rather than African-American. This kind of freedom is another aspect of what I am trying to defend, or at least acknowledge the possible value of (another thing I need to do is get clearer on exactly what I am and am not arguing for). Haslanger sympathizes with Ellis, noting that what matters is not only what words we use but "what norms and expectations are taken to be appropriate" (p. 47). Roughly speaking, context matters. I agree. What will be the clearest way to say something in one context will not be in another. I don't (think I) mean to make any claim about what is or is not clear. My point is far more about the fact that clarity/understanding is a different goal than bringing about a practical effect such as political change. Haslanger seems to agree.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Nordic Wittgenstein Review, Vol 6 No 1 forthcoming

Papers are available for preprint open review here. Authors include Anderson Luis Nakano, Camilla Kronqvist, and Elek Lane.

It looks good!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Monday, April 24, 2017

A problem with bullshit

In "On Bullshit" Harry Frankfurt says that, "the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony." This suggests that it is not the content of speech that makes it bullshit but something else, something like the motive for producing it. He also says:
The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are. 
And this: "However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something."

Generally when people lie it is because they are trying to get away with something. Perhaps some people simply enjoy deceiving others and lie for the sake of lying, but most lies are surely not of this type. People lie to get out of trouble, to impress others, to help make a sale, and so on. Their motive is unconcerned with how things are.

So how does lying differ from bull? Bull could be true, false, or half-true: the bullshitter does not care. Except that we never go around stating truths for no reason other than that they are true. We always mean to achieve something. (Hmm. Do we? At any rate, we do far more than state truths when we speak, and when we do state truths we rarely, if ever, do so simply because they are true.) So truthful bull seems not unlike normal truthful speech, except perhaps that the speaker has a vicious motive. And untruthful bullshit seems very much the same as normal lying. The clearest case of bull seems to be the half-truth. But then why do people tell half-truths? Isn't it usually because they care both about getting the result they want and the truth? (Even if they only care about the truth because they care about possibly getting caught in a lie.) Perhaps what Orwell calls "sheer cloudy vagueness" should be another category here, alongside half-truths. Like half-truths, though, a more or less meaningless cloud of words is what people produce when they want to say something (silence would be costly) but have nothing they want to say (because they are ignorant or because the truth is unpleasant).

We might need to distinguish between two kinds of bull: all speech (true, false, or nonsensical) by people who do not value truth or honesty as such (roughly: consequentialists), and carefully constructed half-truths or misleading whole truths told by people who do care about truth and/or honesty but also care about other things too, e.g. St Athanasius' saying "He is not far from here" when asked about his location and wanting to throw his ill-intentioned pursuers off the scent without actually telling a lie.  

Jennifer Saul (here) argues that you might as well "Just go ahead and lie" as mislead in the way that Athanasius did, but I disagree. Here's the conclusion of a longer version of her paper:
The picture sketched in this chapter is a very complicated one, which both rejects and respects both traditions with which we began this chapter. The first tradition holds that method of deception is never a matter of moral significance: lying and misleading are equally bad or good, and the moral status of any particular deception depends on such things as its goal or its consequences. The second tradition holds that lying is always wrong, and that misleading is always better than lying (even if it isn't always morally acceptable). The view developed here firmly rejects both of these.
Against the second view, I maintain that misleading is not always better than lying. I showed this through an examination of cases in which misleading was not morally preferable to lying. Further, I argued that there does not seem to be any good justification even for a defeasible version of this view-on which misleading is, except in certain special cases, morally better than lying.
But I do not agree with the first tradition's claim that method of deception is never a matter of moral significance. I take method of deception to be moral significance in all of the following ways:
(1) Whether an agent chooses to lie or merely mislead can make an important difference to moral evaluations of an agent.
(2) In an adversarial context like a courtroom, misleading is morally better than lying.
(3) Where there is a prior agreement that misleading is to be preferred to lying, misleading is morally better than lying.
And here's a key part of her argument, a case in which misleading is supposedly not morally preferable to lying:
Charla is HIV positive, but she does not yet have AIDS, and she knows both of these facts. Dave is about to have sex with Charla for the first time, and, cautiously but imprecisely, he asks (3).
(3) Do you have AIDS?
Charla replies with (4).
(4) No, I don't have AIDS.
Charla and Dave have unprotected sex, and Dave becomes infected with HIV. It is unquestionably true that Charla deceived Dave about her HIV status, and also unquestionably true that Charla did not lie--she merely misled him. Yet it seems completely absurd to suppose that Charla's deception was even a tiny bit better due to her avoidance of lying. In this case, misleading is in no way morally preferable to lying. If misleading was, quite generally, morally preferable to lying, it would be morally preferable in this case. Since it is not, we should reject the strong general claim (M).   
This seems wrong to me. I agree that in terms of what Charla did to Dave her misleading response was as bad as a lie. It might even be worse, because of the apparent sadism of toying with him like this. But as well as Dave I think we should keep in mind both Charla herself and what we might call truth, or respect for the truth, or respect for the value of truthfulness. (I think it might be most useful to think in terms of truth or even the dreaded Truth, but I don't mean this in a way that cannot be translated into naturalistic talk about relations between people.)

Mill says that one should not tell lies even when doing so would maximize utility because lying is bad for one's character, reducing one's honesty or commitment to truth-telling, making it more likely that one will lie in other, less justifiable, cases later. (He might also say the opposite somewhere else, but never mind.) This sounds like an empirical hypothesis, and a dubious one at that. But it can be taken in a different way, having to do with Anscombe's remark about its showing a corrupt mind if one is prepared to accept "in advance, that it is open to question whether such an action as procuring the judicial execution of the innocent should be quite excluded from consideration." Mill might be thinking that it is corruption of mind (in a way that might have nothing much to do with consequences) to lie, or perhaps to be prepared (in advance) to lie, over relatively trivial (non-life-threatening) matters. This case is life-threatening, of course, but does Charla fully understand that? We don't know. 

As well as thinking about cases in which misleading might seem just as bad as lying, it could be worthwhile to think about those in which there seems to be a difference. Consider Athanasius again. I don't know what really happened or why, but it is surely conceivable that he wanted to avoid lying while also helping to prevent (his own) murder. And that this was not because he wanted to keep his hands clean, although that is one possible motive, but because he wanted to act with due respect for God, who not only commanded that we not bear false witness but is also sometimes identified with Truth. Atheists won't be moved by such considerations, of course, but they might still care about truth and/or truthfulness. 

Here's a quick run through of Saul's paper.

"If the result is the same, and the motivation is the same, why should we have this moral preference?" for misleading over lying, Saul asks. The immediate motivation--deception--might be the same, but respect for truth might be part of the motivation in the case of misleading. (This is easier to imagine in Athanasius' case than Charla's.) Indeed the result would not be the same in this case either--if one merely misleads then one does not, apparently, disrespect the truth as much as if one lies. One has not violated the norm of not lying. Perhaps that is irrelevant, but it is hardly obvious that it doesn't matter.  
Saul does accept that misleading is better than lying in some cases (see points 2 and 3 above). In a courtroom lying is perjury while misleading is not. And then there's this, slightly odd, example: "A couple with an open marriage might [...] agree that lying about affairs is not acceptable while misleading is." (This seems odd because it sounds as though there is bad faith in the relationship. Why is misleading OK here if both partners are happy with the marriage's being open? The idea seems to be that whatever consenting adults agree to is OK, which I find hard to believe. Because a) is consent genuine when bad faith is involved (or does, e.g., one partner 'agree' to the open relationship because of fear of losing the other, and is agreement resulting from fear what we want to count as consent (if so, what's so great about consent?)?)?, and b) is 'OK' the right evaluation of, say, consensual cannibalism?          

And that's about it. (Although I have skipped the part where Saul discusses the "overwhelming majority of justifications for the belief that lying is worse than mere misleading" which "turn, in one way or another, on holding the audience more responsible for the falsehood they believe in the case of mere misleading." I don't see that as being a very promising line of attempted justification.) Saul draws the conclusion that I quoted above (from the longer version of the argument).  

My objection is partly that her argument is based on unrealistic examples and partly that her focus is too narrow. The two concerns are related. Saul appears not to look far beyond questions about motivation and results, and the motivations and results she focuses on are those directly involving people and their immediate future: what counts as Charla's motivation is sex with Dave, what counts as the relevant result is Dave's infection. Any possible concern with honesty on Charla's part is not mentioned. (And what is Dave's deal? "Do you have AIDS?" is surely not credible dialogue in the circumstances.) What about motivation and results as far as norms/principles/values and their violation go? Don't people in fact think and care about such things as well as wanting sex, information, etc.?         

Real life is not like the encounter we are presented with between Charla and Dave. And this matters because one thing that is missing from Charla is any concern with ethics. Perhaps she is meant to be a sociopath, like a dishonest version of Saga Norén. But if she were more normal she would surely have some thoughts, before of after, about her dishonesty. These might be in terms of the value of honesty or the badness of lying or deception. Or they might be about Dave and her abuse of his trust. We might then think about the value of general principles. Misleading and lying are both abuses of trust, but is one perhaps a greater abuse than the other? Might it be better if we all valued truth itself or honesty itself, in an abstract way, rather than only valuing concrete individuals such as Dave? 

The moral universe of these examples seems to be one in which people want various things and are entitled to pursue them as long as they don't break various rules (violate Dave's rights, produce needless unhappiness, or whatever it might be). The rules all immediately concern people. Not only are they not concerned with God, they are also not concerned with any value independent of people, such as beauty or truth. And this lack of concern with truth is what makes speech bullshit, at least according to Frankfurt.

I'm not sure how far it's possible to live without some values of this kind, though. Roughly: is act-consequentialism possible in practice? Or must we internalize principles (rules) of some sort if we are to behave ethically? And without some values of this sort, how can we make sense of valuing people or their wants or rights? Aren't people worth caring about partly because they are rational, and rational beings can discover truths, and truth is good? Or because people can love and love is good? Maybe that's not quite right. Maybe the value of people is more basic than that. But there are things about people that we value. And there are other things that we value too, like the beauty of nature. Motivations and results, on the other hand, surely matter, but don't seem to be the right kinds of things to be valued as good. Dave's continued good health might be good, for instance, but only because Dave is good. (Not morally good, but a good thing (in a non-instrumental sense) for the universe to contain.) This seems to be missing from Saul's thinking. But I'm reading a lot into one short paper. I've also relied heavily on rhetorical questions.

With that in mind, let's have a go at Saul's seemingly preferred example:
Consider for a moment the story of Frieda, who suffers from a peanut allergy so dire that even the tiniest amount of peanut oil could be deadly. George knows that, and invites her to dinner, murderously preparing a stir-fry with peanut oil. Frieda, appropriately cautious (though not cautious enough), asks, ‘Are there any peanuts in the meal?’, to which George replies ‘No, there are no peanuts’. Frieda eats the stir-fry, and dies. If misleading is always better than lying, then George did something slightly less bad by choosing his true but misleading utterance rather than a false one like ‘No, it’s perfectly safe for you.’ This seems clearly wrong.
One problem here, it seems to me, is that George's murdering Frieda casts a huge shadow over the example, obscuring any difference there might be in the ethics of lying and misleading. Another, related problem is that we don't know why he chose to mislead rather than lie. In some cases someone might make this choice because of fear of God or love of truth or a desire to be an honest person, but it's hard to imagine any of these motives at work in a cold-blooded murderer like George. It does not follow that such motives are generally irrelevant to the ethics of the deeds they motivate though. It is, as Frankfurt argues, hard to make sense of the nature and badness of bullshit if we don't accept the value of concern with truth or honesty.  

The point of Saul's examples, I take it, is to challenge the idea that misleading is always better than lying by finding cases in which it seems equally bad because the motive and result are the same either way. I think she's right that they are not always morally different. But I don't know how significant this is. Stealing $10 from a dying man doesn't seem significantly worse than stealing $5 from a dying man, but this does not show that the amount stolen is never relevant to how bad an act of theft is. Or take Mill's example of saving a man from drowning in order to torture him before he is killed. This might show that saving someone from drowning is not always better than not saving someone from drowning. But it still is generally better. 

The idea of having a motive along the lines of murder-without-lying is hard to imagine (or to value), but Athanasius' possible intention to avoid-being-murdered-without-lying seems both conceivable and conceivably valuable. Nor is it the same motive as avoid-being-murdered-by-any-means-necessary. So if we really do take motives seriously, and not only consequences, then misleading can appear to be better than lying. 

Finally, there is the question of consequences. Whether he lies or misleads, George still murders Frieda. And whether he lies or misleads, Athanasius still gets away unharmed. But there are other possible consequences that are not the same. If lying is worse than misleading then the consequence having lied is worse than that of having misled. We can't prove that lying is not worse than misleading by assuming this not to be the case. How might having lied be worse than having misled? To have lied is to have betrayed commitment to truthfulness to a greater extent than to have misled is. (I mean this to be analytic.) Is it therefore worse? It is if commitment to truthfulness is a good thing (generally, even if perhaps not always). And such commitment does seem to be a good thing. 

Or am I simply assuming that Athanasius-style 'bullshit' is better than student-who-hasn't-done-the-reading-but-won't-admit-it bullshit?