Archive for November 29th, 2017

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November 29, 2017

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November 29, 2017

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Wittgenstein, Arendt, Rawls, Turing, Searle, Singer

November 29, 2017

It’s our penultimate semester class date, with Ludwig Wittgenstein, Hannah Arendt, Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Philippa Foot, and Judith Jarvis Thomson today in CoPhi.



Wittgenstein was one odd duck. Or rabbit. Or duckrabbit. What do you see, and how do you see it? Why do you see it that way? He thought these were questions worth investigating, in his posthumous Philosophical Investigations. I’m more inclined to follow the instruction of proposition 7 in his pre-humous Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Famous premature last words.


“Raised in a prominent Viennese family, Ludwig Wittgenstein studied engineering in Germany and England, but became interested in the foundations of mathematics and pursued philosophical studies with Moore at Cambridge before entering the Austrian army during World War I. The notebooks he kept as a soldier became the basis for his Tractatus, which later earned him a doctorate and exerted a lasting influence on the philosophers of the Vienna circle. After giving away his inherited fortune, working as a village schoolteacher in Austria, and designing his sister’s Vienna home, Wittgenstein returned to Cambridge, where he developed a new conception of the philosophical task. His impassioned teaching during this period influenced a new generation of philosophers…”


The Tractatus said we can’t speak meaningfully about our most important questions in ethics and religion (and maybe language), and so should hold our tongues. That may sound like Freddy Ayer’s “nonsense,” but Wittgenstein was not being dismissive, he was courting mysticism. He presumed that language fails to mirror reality because we cannot verify their correspondence, cannot faithfully and flawlessly replicate in words the facts and meanings that lie beyond them.

The Philosophical Investigations takes a linguistic turn. “The meaning of a word is its use in the language,” not its relation to something non-linguistic in the world. The uses of words are discovered and decreed in our “language games,” which include but crucially are not limited to the games philosophers play about truth. Those games can get us stuck like a fly in a bottle, and he wanted to pop the cork. “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”

How do you avoid linguistic captivity in the first place? Not by inventing your own private language. Language is intrinsically public, and only other users of our language can call us out for the  language errors we don’t catch. A private language is too much like Leibniz’ private monadic theaters of mind, too much like a game of solitaire played with improvised rules.

But rules presuppose other rule-followers, and language games presuppose other players. So the question is how do we break the spell of language, when it bewitches and confuses us? It’s tempting to say “it’s only a game,” we can always play a different one. Can we?  “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” Won’t language always hold us captive in this sense?

The Investigations thus seem to bring Wittgenstein full circle, back to the concluding counsel of the Tractatus. “So in the end, when one is doing philosophy, one gets to the point where one would like just to emit an inarticulate sound.” I know what he means, I often feel that way when doing philosophy, and especially when watching others do philosophy. But now and then someone will say or write something that provokes an “ah-ha!” moment, and language seems less captor than liberator. Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature had that effect on many of my peers in grad school, with its proposal that the pictures holding us captive in philosophy are optional. We can just decide to give up the picture of words as mirrors? That’s a game-changer.

“Language is a labyrinth of paths. You approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about.” And vice versa. Peripatetics know this. You aren’t necessarily lost, in language, you’re exploring. Try another path. Start another conversation. Read another book. Write another sentence.

  Hannah Arendt covered Adolf Eichmann’s war crimes trial for The New Yorker in 1963 (“Eichmann in Jerusalem“), finding him the very epitome of banality, “an ordinary man who chose not to think too hard about what he was doing.” The banality of evil resides in the hearts and minds of heartless, thoughtless functionaries. “The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.” And they pay that “normality” forward, to catastrophic and tragic result. “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

The Origins of Totalitarianism has suddenly again become must-reading. “The essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them…. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists…  one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”


 John RawlsAlan TuringJohn Searle (who’s lately joined an ignoble list of alleged philosopher/harassers, but that’s another topic), and Peter Singer round out our introductory tour of western philosophy.

Rawls’ “stroke of genius” was his Original Position thought experiment, seeking fairness and justice (for Rawls justice is fairness) via the imaginative contrivance of a “veil of ignorance.” The idea is to acknowledge and lessen the undue influence of special interest pleading in our politics, allowing only those inequalities of wealth, status, privilege, opportunity, and resources that benefit all. The least well-off must be better off, when the veil is lifted, than otherwise. [SoL video]

Alan Turing’s Imitation Game, “proposing the practical test of whether or not we would attribute intelligence to a system whose performance is indistinguishible from that of a human agent,” says if it walks and talks like a smart duck it practically is one. John Searle countered with the Chinese Room, which “purports to show that even effective computer simulations do not embody genuine intelligence, since rule-governed processes need not rely upon understanding by those who perform them.”

But some philosophers remain convinced that  we might someday use computers to achieve virtual immortality. That didn’t work out so well for Johnny Depp in Transcendence“I can’t feel anything,” says the uploaded semblance of his former self. If that’s the singularity I hope it’s nowhere near, Ray Kurzweil. “Transcending biology” might strip us of our humanity and not replace it with anything better.

Peter Singer says we should always be prepared to sacrifice “one or two of the luxuries that we don’t really need” to help strangers. When you put it that way it doesn’t really sound like “a hard philosophy to live up to,” much as we love our branded shoes and suits, our cars and college funds, and our carnivorous ways. “But that doesn’t mean Singer is wrong about what we ought to do.” We ought to do a great deal more good for those in need than we do, most of us. Maybe we ought to stop eating sentient animals. Certainly we ought to stop inflicting gratuitous pain on all who can feel it. We ought to be less selfish and more cooperative.

Singer “represents the very best tradition in philosophy,” if you agree that “constantly challenging widely held assumptions” like Socrates is the very best tradition. Kwame Anthony Appiah basically agrees, but would modify Singer’s principle to something like: “if you are the best person in the best position to prevent something really awful, and it won’t cost you much to do so, do it.” [Singer slides]

Since it’s our last regular class date prior to next week’s exam, this is a good time to echo what  Professor James said about conclusions.  In the words of his favorite pluralistic mystic, “there is no conclusion. What has concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it? There are no fortunes to be told, and there is no advice to be given. — Farewell!”

Actually there is one important bit of advice all philosophers will endorse:

Albert Einstein
Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning. #Einstein

And then there’s some good advice about how to prepare for an exam.

[4.25.17] And since it’s poet Ted Kooser’s birthday I’ll add one more thing. Like Anthony Trollope, who said “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labors of a spasmodic Hercules,” Kooser had a habit of “rising early every morning so he could write for an hour and a half before going to the office.” He wrote seven books that way, and became poet laureate. So the advice (which James also gave, notwithstanding his parting reluctance to say so) is: form good daily work habits and stick to ’em. “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” -Annie Dillard

Good luck! 

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