Saturday, October 7, 2017

New music

I usually have an album or two of the summer, if not here then on my phone. But Saint Etienne being Betjeman-ish didn't seem to warrant a blog post, and Alvvays didn't release their new album until September. Now, though, there are a coupe of albums that seem worth spreading the word about. One, not quite out yet, is by Makthaverskan, who usually sound like an idealized version of Siouxsie and the Banshees but here sound more like Alvvays.

The other tests the hypothesis that the more people are like me the more I like their music. The Granite Shore are middle-aged Brits who have done a whole album of moaning about Brexit. Not very promising, perhaps, but I've had this song stuck in my head for weeks, and I like the rest of the album too. (Fun fact: Phil Wilson, formerly of The June Brides, is in the band, made this video, and once emailed me. End of brag.)

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Why I write such terrible blog posts

[The title of this post is a reference to Nietzsche, not self-deprecation.]

At Digressions & Impressions, Eric Schliesser provides useful advice for anyone considering starting a philosophy blog. Here's his advice, in a series of short quotations:
  1. the first thing to reflect on is who are you, or do you imagine, writing for?
  2. The hardest problem is to figure out what persona you will project in order to connect with your audience given the ideas you want to discuss.
  3. You should really research different kind of blog providers--not just their fee structures, but also their permissible templates, the capacity of the templates to do what you want to do with the blog, and the explicit restrictions of speech they impose.
  4. The most important point about frequency is that it needs to be fairly regular--certainly while you are developing your blog and audience.
  5. write a good comments policy, so you can re-direct the aggrieved to it.
  6. it's good to set some rules for yourself about when you post and when you check comments (etc.)
  7. if you use a blog to develop new ideas or new interests, you run the risk of looking like an amateur or worse. 
This blog doesn't check too many of these boxes:
  1. I really don't think about this kind of thing much. Mostly I write for "people like me," whoever (or whether) they might be
  2. Ditto
  3. I use the one that was free and easiest to use. I have no regrets about that so far
  4. When I started I tried to post something every day. I haven't managed to sustain that, which is probably just as well. I do try to post something every week, and I don't mind posting trivial things (because it's only a blog) but I never post just for the sake of posting something. 
  5. I haven't done this, and haven't felt the need until recently. I delete spam and the remains of comments whose authors have deleted their content, but I haven't yet deleted anything else. Perhaps I should, but there's something to be said for not destroying evidence. It's also not clear to me whether not feeding the trolls is better served by deleting their comments (could that be a form of feeding?) or ignoring them completely.
  6. I don't do this, although I do sometimes avoid looking at the blog if I don't think I have time to reply thoughtfully to whatever comments might be there.
  7. I'm pretty sure I run this risk. Caring about how you look makes sense in a job interview, but it doesn't seem very philosophical. And I'm pretty sure that there aren't any great jobs that I would have been offered if only I hadn't written that stupid thing online.     
Schliesser's advice is genuinely helpful, I think, but mostly for people aiming to attract a big audience. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

Winch on Understanding Other People

A revised version of the paper I was working on in the summer is now available here, for anyone interested. I haven't managed to take all suggestions into account, but I think it's at least an improvement on the previous version.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

God, virtue, and moral absolutes

This sounds good. Here's the call for papers:
I am currently organizing a conference celebrating the 60th anniversary of Elizabeth Anscombe's seminal paper "Modern Moral Philosophy." Our four confirmed keynotes speakers are:

Alasdair MacINTYRE, University of Notre Dame
Cyrille MICHON, University of Nantes
Rachael WISEMAN, Durham University
Jennifer A. FREY, University of South Carolina

While we, the organizing committee, have a preference for submissions from current graduate students, we will consider abstracts from anyone interested.

Please feel free to pass on this information to anyone interested in ethics, moral theology, political philosophy, legal theory, etc. More specifically, please consider spreading the word to departmental grad student lists. See here for details:

All presenters will receive a private hotel room for two nights during the conference as well as a small stipend of up to $150 to help defray documented transportation expenses. There is also a limited fund to further assist those who may be traveling from abroad. Such funds will be awarded upon request, based on availability. 

Submissions received by the October 1st deadline will receive full consideration, but we plan to continue considering applications until November 1st, or until all spots are filled.

Best Wishes,
Kevin M. Scott
University of Notre Dame

Friday, September 22, 2017

Augustine and Wittgenstein on the Will

I have a draft of a paper on this subject at Comments (or constructive criticism, anyway) are welcome.

Here's the gist:

In Wittgenstein: Mind and Will (p. 593) P. M. S. Hacker writes that:
one cannot will voluntarily, cannot will to will. But that does not mean that willing is like the subsiding of the thudding of one’s heart – something that just happens to one. What it means is that willing is not the name of an action at all. And to say that one cannot will voluntarily, or will to will, is not to say that it is beyond one’s powers, as wiggling their ears is beyond most people’s powers, but rather that it is senseless to speak of willing.
The last part of this ("it is senseless to speak of willing") strikes me as clearly wrong. And the idea that willing is not the same of an action seems pretty dubious too. At least it sounds like a claim that might be debated. And I don't think of Wittgenstein as being in the business of putting forward such claims. So the questions that motivate the paper, although I don't present it this way (maybe I should), are really: How has Hacker arrived at this point? Does his thinking match Wittgenstein's? And what, if anything, does this have to do with Augustine, whom Wittgenstein mentions in connection with some of the thoughts that Hacker is attempting to explain.

The questions I have about my paper are mainly these (in order of concern, from most to least):

  1. Do I misrepresent Hacker, Wittgenstein, or Augustine?
  2. Is what I say comprehensible and easy enough to follow?
  3. Is this of any interest? 

Scanlon on inequality

[Warning: this could become part of a series.]

T. M. Scanlon has some interesting thoughts about why inequality might be bad. In looking for reasons, though, I wonder whether he doesn't overlook an important idea: that significant inequality is intrinsically evil. "The great inequality of income and wealth in the world, and within the United States, is deeply troubling," he says. But he seems somewhat suspicious of this intuition, as if there is no way it could be a direct perception of injustice. That is, his response to the feeling that there is something wrong with great inequality appears to be that either we must be able to explain what is wrong with such inequality or else reject the feeling as irrational. But nobody would say this about, for instance, the feeling that murder is wrong. And it is very hard to explain why murder is wrong. ("It violates the right to life" is a restatement of its injustice, not an explanation of what makes it unjust.) 

I'm not suggesting that all inequality is evil. I accept Hume's point that ensuring strict equality would require totalitarianism. And overall utility is probably increased by an incentive system that requires inequality. But beyond a certain level (which is inevitably hard to specify) inequality certainly seems evil to a great many people. Why rule out the possibility that this appearance is not deceptive?

Scanlon does not explicitly do this, but it seems implicit in his essay. I say this partly simply because he does not explicitly consider the possibility that serious inequality might be intrinsically evil, but partly also because just when I expect him to consider it he goes off in another direction, as if refusing to confront what is right before him. Here are three examples:
Many people in the United States seem to believe that our high and rising level of inequality is objectionable in itself, and it is worth inquiring into why this might be so. 
The inquiry that follows focuses on such things as the ability of the rich to dominate news media rather than anything about inequality in itself.
[Some] reasons for eliminating inequality are also based on an idea of equality, namely that, as Singer puts it, “every life is equally important.” This can be seen as a combination of two ideas: the general principle of universal moral equality, that everyone matters morally in the same way, and the idea that, because all people “matter morally,”  there’s a good reason to bring about increases in their well-being if we can. 
If everyone matters morally in the same way why is this not a reason for eliminating inequality rather than simply increasing the well-being of the poor? Yet Scanlon sees it as the latter only, and this is part of the motivation he offers for a new inquiry into why inequality matters. What I'm thinking is roughly this: since we are all morally equal, we should all be equal in our standard of living. This argument, such as it is, could be criticized on various grounds, but it would not be plausible to object that, while it is a decent argument for improving the well-being of the worst off, it is not, as such, an argument for increasing equality. So far as it is an argument at all that's exactly what it's an argument for.

Finally, this:
It is easy to understand why people want to be better off than they are, especially if their current condition is very bad. But why, apart from this, should anyone be concerned with the difference between what they have and what others have? Why isn’t such a concern mere envy?
But why think that it is envy in the first place? Especially when we are thinking of comfortably-off people like me saying that the less-well-off should have more? A poor person who wants to trade places with a rich person might seem envious, but appeals for greater equality don't have this appearance. Unless, perhaps, one rules out a priori the possibility that equality itself might have value.

I wonder whether Scanlon and I have different ways of thinking about what it means for something to be objectionable in itself. When you accuse someone else of blindness it's always a good idea to consider the possibility that the mote and/or beam is in one's own eye. But it looks like he's missing something.

Sunday, September 17, 2017


Tolstoy (War and Peace First Epilogue, Chapter IV):
A bee settling on a flower has stung a child. And the child is afraid of bees and declares that bees exist to sting people. A poet admires the bee sucking from the chalice of a flower and says it exists to suck the fragrance of flowers. A beekeeper, seeing the bee collect pollen from flowers and carry it to the hive, says that it exists to gather honey. Another beekeeper who has studied the life of the hive more closely says that the bee gathers pollen dust to feed the young bees and rear a queen, and that it exists to perpetuate its race. A botanist notices that the bee flying with the pollen of a male flower to a pistil fertilizes the latter, and sees in this the purpose of the bee’s existence. Another, observing the migration of plants, notices that the bee helps in this work, and may say that in this lies the purpose of the bee. But the ultimate purpose of the bee is not exhausted by the first, the second, or any of the processes the human mind can discern. The higher the human intellect rises in the discovery of these purposes, the more obvious it becomes, that the ultimate purpose is beyond our comprehension.
All that is accessible to man is the relation of the life of the bee to other manifestations of life.
Wittgenstein (Culture and Value, p. 29e):
I can say: "Thank these bees for their honey as though they were kind people who have prepared it for you"; that is intelligible and describes how I should like you to conduct yourself. But I cannot say: "Thank them because, look, how kind they are!"--since the next moment they may sting you.
Wittgenstein (Philosophical Investigations 119):
We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Economy

Since this has already been covered by The New Yorker it is probably pretty well known, but I'd like to do what I can to spread the word about this online, interactive introduction to economics.  It looks fantastic.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Throwing away the telescope

One last (probably) bit of Tolstoy:
The very question that had formerly tormented him, the thing he had continually sought to find—the aim of life—no longer existed for him now. That search for the aim of life had not merely disappeared temporarily—he felt that it no longer existed for him and could not present itself again. And this very absence of an aim gave him the complete, joyous sense of freedom which constituted his happiness at this time.
He could not see an aim, for he now had faith—not faith in any kind of rule, or words, or ideas, but faith in an ever-living, ever-manifest God. Formerly he had sought Him in aims he set himself. That search for an aim had been simply a search for God, and suddenly in his captivity he had learned not by words or reasoning but by direct feeling what his nurse had told him long ago: that God is here and everywhere. In his captivity he had learned that in Karatáev God was greater, more infinite and unfathomable than in the Architect of the Universe recognized by the Freemasons. He felt like a man who after straining his eyes to see into the far distance finds what he sought at his very feet. All his life he had looked over the heads of the men around him, when he should have merely looked in front of him without straining his eyes.
In the past he had never been able to find that great inscrutable infinite something. He had only felt that it must exist somewhere and had looked for it. In everything near and comprehensible he had seen only what was limited, petty, commonplace, and senseless. He had equipped himself with a mental telescope and looked into remote space, where petty worldliness hiding itself in misty distance had seemed to him great and infinite merely because it was not clearly seen. And such had European life, politics, Freemasonry, philosophy, and philanthropy seemed to him. But even then, at moments of weakness as he had accounted them, his mind had penetrated to those distances and he had there seen the same pettiness, worldliness, and senselessness. Now, however, he had learned to see the great, eternal, and infinite in everything, and therefore—to see it and enjoy its contemplation—he naturally threw away the telescope through which he had till now gazed over men’s heads, and gladly regarded the ever-changing, eternally great, unfathomable, and infinite life around him. And the closer he looked the more tranquil and happy he became. That dreadful question, “What for?” which had formerly destroyed all his mental edifices, no longer existed for him. To that question, “What for?” a simple answer was now always ready in his soul: “Because there is a God, that God without whose will not one hair falls from a man’s head.”

Playing along with the art school boys (and girls)

His mother bought him a synthesizer
Got The Human League in to advise her
Now he's making lots of noise
Playing along with the art school boys

The Undertones, "My Perfect Cousin" 

It's striking how many musicians and former musicians are successful visual artists. I have no theory about this, but I feel like pointing out some examples, as well as drawing attention to some work that I like a lot. The example that inspired this post is Billy Childish, who I had read about before because of his involvement in The Delmonas (he seems to have been in dozens of other bands too). Via the magic of Twitter, I found that he is also a painter. I like this one:

Image result for billy childish jackdaw  

But there's also Elizabeth Price of Talulah Gosh, who won the Turner Prize. Anja Huwe of Xmal Deutschland is now an artist. Aggi Pastel (formerly of The Pastels) is artist Annabel Wright. Edwyn Collins draws birds too. 

Some people have too much talent.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Analytic Philosophy: An Interpretive History reviewed by NDPR

The review is here. Thankfully, even though it does mention me, it doesn't say anything bad about my contribution. (Perhaps tactfully, it says almost nothing at all about it.) Here's a taste of the review:
This volume is a valuable addition to this growing literature, with a lucid introduction by the editor and seventeen contributions by distinguished scholars, all of which demonstrate a high quality in content and are written in excellent prose.Although each chapter has its own agenda, a common theme runs through the book. The authors combat a narrow-minded, but still popular, conception of analytic philosophy based on a simplistic interpretation of the revolt against idealism, the linguistic turn, and the neo-positivist rejection of metaphysics.

Friday, September 1, 2017

War and Peace and Wittgenstein

These are all just coincidences, I suppose, but there are some striking similarities between some of Wittgenstein's acts and ideas and elements of War and Peace. Here are three.

The Tractatus contains seven main propositions, which are to be overcome in order to see the world right. On his journey towards enlightenment, Pierre passes through Freemasonry, which makes  much of the number seven:
our talk turned to the interpretation of the seven pillars and steps of the Temple, the seven sciences, the seven virtues, the seven vices, and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Wanting to test his fear of death, Wittgenstein volunteered to serve at the front-line during World War I, where he made observations to help the artillery hit the enemy forces. In War and Peace, as Wikipedia puts it, Pierre "decides to leave Moscow and go to watch the Battle of Borodino from a vantage point next to a Russian artillery crew. After watching for a time, he begins to join in carrying ammunition. In the midst of the turmoil he experiences first-hand the death and destruction of war."

Here is Tolstoy on a proclamation made by Napoleon regarding the occupation of Moscow:
But strange to say, all these measures, efforts, and plans—which were not at all worse than others issued in similar circumstances—did not affect the essence of the matter but, like the hands of a clock detached from the mechanism, swung about in an arbitrary and aimless way without engaging the cogwheels. (Book Thirteen, Chapter X)
And here is Wittgenstein on private sensation and nonsense: "Here I should like to say: a wheel that can be turned though nothing else moves with it, is not part of the mechanism." (PI 271)

None of this is hugely significant, but I wonder whether Wittgenstein thought of Pierre when he was an artillery spotter. Even if not, both were involved in a Schopenhauerian project. 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Malcolm Pryce on dreams, reality, and fiction

One of my favorite authors on why fiction is not a distraction from reality. Here's a taste:
The night time dream is chaotic and can be genuinely frightening. The dream we call life is filled with joy and suffering, but for many people a lot more suffering than joy, and we have no control over it. It just happens. The dream we enter when reading fiction has a number of advantages over the one called life. It is scripted rather than chaotic. If the dream called life is scripted it is done so by a bungler, whereas writers of fiction are often highly skilled.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Does writing exist?

It seems paradoxical to write the question, "Does writing exist?" but what I mean is: is there some thing called writing that someone can be good or bad at, teach, or simply do? According to John Warner, we know how to teach writing. But what is the evidence? And what is it that we, supposedly, know how to teach?

Warner's concern is with student writing, and in particular with the common complaint that students write badly. One part of his response, to which I am very sympathetic, is to say that people have been complaining about bad student writing forever. Saying that students can't write is like complaining about kids these days. I get that.

A second part of his response relies on agreement among people who teach writing about what works and what doesn't when trying to get students to write better. I have some sympathy with him on this too. When you teach something you do find out what works, and this isn't necessarily something you can easily prove to people who have not taught that subject. On the other hand, there are some questions one could ask about his main claims, which he says most writing instructors would agree with. Here are the claims:
  1. The more reading and writing we do, the better.
  2. Writing is best taught as a recursive process which includes (but isn’t necessarily limited to) pre-writing, drafting, revision and editing.
  3. Writing should engage with the rhetorical situation: message, audience, purpose and genre.
  4. Reflection and metacognition are key ingredients to developing as a writer.
  5. Isolated exercises in grammar and mechanics that don’t engage with the students’ own writing are not helpful.
  6. Sentence diagramming is not an important skill for good writing.
  7. Peer response and collaboration are useful tools in helping developing writers
  8. Writers write best when engaging with subjects they are both interested in and knowledgeable about.
  9. Developing as a writer requires a mind-set where we seek to increase our expertise without ever declaring ourselves expert. (There is always more to learn.)
  10. Writing itself is an act of thinking that allows for discovery while writing. In other words, the ultimate message is constructed through the act of writing, as opposed to being fully formed prior to starting to write.
  11. Developing writers benefit from close one-on-one instruction from an experienced mentor
Here are my responses to these claims:
  1. Agreed (within reason)
  2. This sounds right, too, as long as we keep in mind that this probably does not apply to all writing (e.g texting my kids) and that not everyone works best like this 
  3. Probably also true, although I sometimes fear that in teaching this point too much attention is paid to teaching and learning the meaning of 'rhetorical situation'
  4. This seems doubtful. "Reflection and metacognition" sounds as though it means self-consciousness, and I can imagine this doing as much harm as good. But perhaps this is because (or why) I haven't developed much as a writer
  5. Could be true. But when people complain about student writing I think that grammar and mechanics are primarily, if not exclusively, what they have in mind. So if these things cannot be taught (which I know #5 isn't saying) then perhaps we should stop trying to teach students how to write in dedicated writing courses 
  6. Depends how it is done, I think. (I have never done it, by the way.) Argument mapping has been found to improve critical thinking. (I don't mean that it has been conclusively proved to help in all cases.) But perhaps argument mapping is too different from sentence diagramming for this to count. Or perhaps critical thinking is not relevant to good writing. Or perhaps what almost all writing instructors would agree on is not the same as what empirical evidence shows.
  7. Maybe. My students very often think it is a waste of time (I still do it sometimes, because it seems as though it ought to help.) I believe that people with MFAs disagree about whether this kind of thing actually improves one's writing or, instead, turns it into writing by committee. Peer response will only be as good as the peers in question anyway.
  8. Plausible. But students must learn to write about things they are not already interested in. 
  9. OK
  10. Certainly writing should involve thinking
  11. Surely this is true
In other words, many of Warner's claims are at least highly plausible. But I also get the distinct impression that he wants to focus on teaching writing in a sense that is quite different from what the "kids these days can't write" crowd want. They want spelling and grammar. He, and others who teach writing, want something else. That's fine. But I think the reason so many students are required to take so many writing courses is because of "kids these days" concerns. If these courses don't address those concerns they should probably be optional.

Here's another questionable claim from Warner, one that I've heard before from other people (emphasis added):
Supposed tensions such as “Do we hold students accountable to sound mechanics?” or “Do we let students engage in self-expression?” are not actually tensions when students are required to work in a full rhetorical situation because they are forced to do what all writers must do -- make choices and wrestle with ideas that will be presented to interested audiences.
Do that enough times in enough different contexts and not only will you learn how to write, but when you’re confronted with a type of writing you haven’t done before, you’ll be able to figure out how to write in that form or genre as well.
Seriously? If you write a novel, a political speech, and a lab report then when you have to write a sonnet you'll be able to do it? That's absurd. So maybe that's not what he means. You might be more confident of your ability to rise to the challenge, and confidence surely helps. You might also know something about how to learn how to write a sonnet. But you won't actually be able to do it just because you have written other kinds of things. If you really want to learn how to write sonnets you should take a sonnet-writing or poetry-writing course. Just as if you want to know how to write a lab report you should probably get to a lab and ask someone there.

Which is to say that I have real doubts about the point of trying to teach generic writing, unless it really is focused on precisely the grammar and mechanics that people like Warner, understandably, seem not to want to teach.

Monday, August 21, 2017


This Guardian essay on neoliberalism is frustrating in some ways (too cloudy at key points, and too prone to ad hominem insults), but it's interesting, and brings out the importance of Friedrich von Hayek, whose work probably ought to be engaged with more just because it has been so influential. With that in mind I started reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on him. It contains this gem:
Bureaucrats experience mistakes not as events from which they need to learn but rather as events that they need to cover up. 

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