Living in the present still difficult

29 July, 2011

W. H. Auden:

“Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Charles Williams…is what one might call the orthodoxy of his imagination, as distinct from his beliefs, for this is very rare in our technological culture. In describing the life of the body and its finite existence in time, most contemporary writers, what their beliefs, show a manichaean bias, an emphasis on the drab and the sordid. If they are materialists they place the beautiful and the exciting in some temporal future; if they are professing Christians the only road to salvation they can imagine is the Negative Way of ascetic renunciation. Even the few who…do not suffer from this bias, cannot find anything in the contemporary world to their relish and turn for sustenance to preindustrial societies.”

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Toward Eccentricity

27 May, 2011

Jonathan Lear:

One symptom of our age is that we live with a caricatured conception of eccentricity. There is, of course, the absentminded professor combing a dusty study for the glasses which are sitting on top of his nose; there is the British eccentric of the nineteenth century, butterfly net in hand . . . etc. These distorted images disguise from us the fact that a true eccentric is simply someone who is moving in a different orbit from everyone else. A true eccentric is someone who has tried to determine what his desires and values are, to make them his own, and to live by them: by his very nature, an eccentric is not willing simply to conform to culturally given standards of “self-fulfillment.” Even if he ends up participating in a culture’s values — even if his orbit is a minor perturbation of tradition — he will make those values distinctively his own. The very idea that an eccentric is a deviation suggests that we are, by and large, concentrics.

Love and Its Place in Nature, p. 20.


A Philosopher Transposed

2 April, 2011

A certain moral philosopher I respect delivered a characteristically lively talk at the Anselm Müller conference this morning,  in which he combined arguments about quantifying-in with his own brand of literary oddity to mount a convincing (to me) takedown of game theory-style philosophy of action. In the midst of logical fugue, he broke cadence to appeal to our “philosopher’s taste”, our sense of reality. It was the most apt description of dissatisfaction with modern moral philosophy that I have heard in some time, and to my untrained ear it makes excellent poetry. Here are his words, wrested out of their original paragraph and reshaped as a poem.

We soft-minded romantic types,
we are distracted
by the ugliness of it all,
the unreality,
the unfamiliar mental state pileup,
the tall
stacks
of doxastic
pancakes.

Think of it as found art, from a Powerpoint slide.


Early Modern Philosophy at the Core

9 March, 2011

In class yesterday James Conant remarked that the starting point of the the standard philosophy core curriculum is early modern philosophy, even if the standard first course isn’t a course in the history of philosophy. It does seem fairly usual to introduce undergraduates to philosophy through the characteristic problems of early modern philosophy. The worry is that this practice implicitly casts early modern philosophical problems as definitive of philosophy itself, such that distinctively early modern versions of perennial problems, as well as uniquely early modern problems that aren’t themes in other eras of philosophy, are (perhaps unintentionally) suggested to represent the kinds of problem that philosophers from Plato to the present day are worried about. Thus the really hard thing, Conant suggested, is to really get back to ancient philosophy, or to really get forward to contemporary philosophy, without forcing either of the two into the early modern mold.


Must We Say What We Mean?

8 March, 2011

Does the language I speak have any normative force on how I go about saying what I mean? Is there such a thing as the set of words I should use to say what I mean? Maybe there is no one set of the right words, but we could make a weaker claim: for anything you want to say, there are some words that cannot be used to say that. Not everything can be said in any way.

But what right do we have to make even this weaker claim? Isn’t it true that new uses for language are being found all the time, and that even nonstandard uses of words still communicate? Given the interpretive agility that mature speakers of a language exhibit, perhaps we should say that, though there are ways of saying what you mean that are the most common (in your area or in your community) and therefore constitute the easiest way to say what you mean, you could say what you mean in any number of other ways.

David Wiggins disagrees:

…even to an audience that knows no better, you cannot utter the sentence ‘the sonatas are just the anecdote to a gloomy summer’s day’ and count as having said that the sonatas are an antidote to such a day, or utter the sentence ‘a wind machine is used to emulate breathing at the start and finish of the work,’ and count as having said that a wind machine is used there to imitate or simulate breathing. That will only become possible when the day dawns on which so many people use these words in this way, and they use them thus so deliberately, and they are so multiply and densely defended and reinforced in these choices of words, that that is what these words mean in the language. (“Languages as Social Objects”, p. 523)

Here Wiggins argues that you do not mean what you say or say what you mean when you utter a malapropism. We may be able to see what a speaker does mean when she makes such a mistake, but that does not mean that ‘the sonatas are just the anecdote’ is a way to say what you mean when you mean that the sonatas are just the antidote. Some people talk in a way upon which Fowler would frown, but we can still puzzle out what they’re trying to say. Only, we should not let this fact convince us that trying to say amounts to saying.

Why is this not just dogmatic insistence that one use of language (ours, conveniently) is the right one? Wiggins grants that speaking in the right way is not a matter of measuring up to some timeless Right Way that comes attached to a language.

…it has long been common ground between all parties that there is no anhistorical, unconditioned standard that a speaker needs to have observed if he or she is to count in the way he or she wishes to count as having said that so and so. It is not a question of how, starting from scratch, the speaker is to speak in order to perform a certain linguistic act. It is a question of how the speaker is to proceed given what has been done so far, what has worked so far and what has been enshrined so far in the language. Sometimes this is a question of what will work, or what the speaker or writer can cause to work. […] But mostly it is a question of what does count by the (however essentially contestable) standard of the language itself. (ibid., p. 522)

But the lack of a timeless standard for saying what you mean can seem to level the playing field in such a way that anything can be used to say anything. How do we avoid this conclusion? We’re stuck oscillating between rigidity and lawlessness, between linguistic puritanism and a chaotic libertinism.

Wiggins’s way out begins with asking what language is for. To a mature speaker of a language, the language exists as a tool, as a tool that makes itself available to be used to accomplish the speaker’s purposes. So a speaker’s intention when she chooses her words is “not the intention to uphold a regularity but the intention to exploit an existing resource” (ibid., p. 513). We use the word “antidote” (not “anecdote”) to speak of antidotes not out of sheer concern for conformity, but because we know that we can do what we want to do by using that word. Wiggins spells out this feature of language by pointing out that our primary purpose in speaking is to go on record as saying or having said that such-and-such (where saying or having said that accomplishes some purpose). Going on record is a kind of public event, and it is useful to have publicly accessible ways of making that event happen. Saying what you mean is supposed to be open-access, and the only way for it to be that way is for there to be a public way of doing so as well as a public way of failing to do so.

For all this, we can still understand a person when she misspeaks. We know what she is trying to say when she says that the sonata would be the perfect anecdote. Is this ability a counterexample to Wiggins’s view? Going beyond Wiggins, perhaps it is right to suggest that we possess this ability not in spite of the normative force of our language, but because of it. Picking the right tool is hard, given the number of tools in our collective linguistic toolbox; no one gets it right all the time. One way to adjust to the possibility of failure is to . When another person reaches for the wrong tool, we politely insert the right tool into their hand. After all, we ourselves have experienced disconnection between what we say and what we mean; we know what the failure of malapropism is like from the inside. So we know what is going on when another person misspeaks because we know what is going on when we ourselves misspeak. We can see what a speaker really means because we know what it is to make this kind of linguistic mistake, and we know what it is to correct such mistakes (and be corrected ourselves).


Necessary Inexpressiveness

11 February, 2011

Stanley Cavell’s work on traditional epistemological skepticism — of the ‘how do we know what we see is really there?’ variety — comes in the end to a very simple criticism: by treating knowledge as the only relation to our world that matters, traditional epistemologists treat our life in the world as if it is defined by only one of our many ways of relating to that world. The world is present to us, we live in it, because we have many and various capacities for responding to it, of which knowledge is only one. But the skeptic feels that all of these capacities depend on knowledge. Grant him this, and the skeptic will be very difficult to refute.

Cavell is also interested in a parallel form of skepticism, that about other minds. How do I know that other people really are thinking, feeling beings like I am? Can my evidence — others’ expression and behavior — ever be good enough to assure me that others are more than automata? What’s most interesting about Cavell’s twisting thinking about this kind of skepticism is how uncontrollable it is. Working oneself into the skeptical frame of mind about other selves will not leave one’s own self unscathed. To come to think of, say, others’ pain-related behavior as evidence for their elusive ‘inner’ life — instead of an expression of urgent need, requiring not knowledge but response — is to deform one’s own humanity. And this deformation swiftly leads to a detachment from one’s own inner life, in which one’s grip one one’s own self comes to seem increasingly tenuous. If the ‘evidence’ others provide in the form of behavior is inexpressive, does not give expression to anything, then everything of a similar kind must be inexpressive, including one’s own words and deeds.

The temptation to such an impossible position is powerful. Cavell, in a virtuoso passage, gives his diagnosis:

A fantasy of necessary inexpressiveness would solve a simultaneous set of metaphysical problems: it would relieve me of the responsibility for making myself known to others — as though if I were expressive that would mean continually betraying my experiences, incessantly giving myself away; it would suggest that my responsibility for self-knowledge takes care of itself — as though the fact that others cannot know my (inner) life means that I cannot fail to. It would reassure my fears of being known, though it may not prevent my being under suspicion; it would reassure my fears of not being known, though it may not prevent my being under indictment.   — The wish underlying this fantasy covers a wish that underlies skepticism, a wish for the connection between my claims of knowledge and the objects upon which the claims are to fall to occur without my intervention, apart from my agreements. As the wish stands, it is unappeasable. In the case of my knowing myself, such self-defeat would be doubly exquisite: i must disappear in order that the search for myself be successful. (The Claim of Reason, 351-352)

Be careful with philosophy, kids.


Getting Aristotle’s Priorities Straight

10 February, 2011

Is there a highest good? Aristotle famously thinks so. There is something that is the human thing to do, says he. That thing can be done well or poorly, and the happy person is the one who does it well.

There’s a way of agreeing with Aristotle while missing his point. You might take the highest good to be something like the ultimate justification for action. For anything you do, or anything you do willingly and in good conscience, there is a string of ‘Why?’ questions we could ask you. Why did you tell him the truth? Because you value truth-telling more than convenience. Why do you value truth-telling so? Because it enables honesty and trust among people. Why do you care about those things? Because they make harmonious relationships possible. And so on, until you get to the end of your answers. The last answer you can give, at the end of questions, will be an answer with reference to the highest good: that is simply the human thing to do, the thing that is good for us. This last answer is the final, ultimately justifying reason for doing what you do. The highest good is highest because it is the ultimate reason.

You can think of the same progression in reverse. You want to know what to do in a given situation. Think of the choices available to you, then find the one that is connected to the highest good in a string of reasons for action. The highest good is highest because it is the final justification in your reasons for action.

No doubt, if there is a highest good for human beings, it would make sense to criticize and justify our action with reference to it. But this kind of scenario—reasoning about what to do, or about why you were right to do what you did—is the not the kind of situation in which Aristotle’s notion of the highest good is at home. The reasoning-first understanding of the highest good misses the point because it puts reason in first place. Aristotle’s arguments and doctrines about the good are not (in the first place) about the kind of reasoning we should engage in (although this topic is of course important to him), but about what kind of beings we are. The question What is a correct progression of practical reasoning? is a legitimate question for Aristotle, one that is connected to his idea of the highest good. But the question to ask before that is, What is a human being? The highest good is the highest human good. Only when we understand ourselves will we know how to reason.