I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Wittgenstein, Arendt, Rawls, Turing, Searle, Singer https://t.co/m5GlPEcUsR

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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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Blindness https://t.co/xsP1liU3ye

November 28, 2017

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Blindness

November 28, 2017

Foggy morning. Visibility is limited. But that’s always so, until we notice and correct for our condition.

William James said “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” which we’re looking at in Happiness, was one of his own most important and gratifying essays. It calls out our self-inflicted and obtuse “ancestral blindness” in failing to grasp or even acknowledge the interior lives of others. It celebrates the often-inexpressible delight of being human and having a human interior. It pleads for mutual respect and toleration, in recognizing that each of us possesses a singular station and perspective. It says my pursuit of happiness must empathize with yours, or else it becomes as egoistic and dumb as it is blind.

It anticipates Carl Sagan’s cosmic wonder at our uniqueness. “Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”

It shares Richard Dawkins’s deep biologically-informed gratitude for life. “The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia.” We’re so lucky to have the opportunity to open our eyes on this sumptuous planet, so tragically short-sighted not to.

It celebrates the self, every self, all selves,

celebratory of the self as a locus of intrinsically valuable experiences… he appreciates the marvelous diversity of ways in which human beings find the world interesting and important, ways that “make life worth living.” The fact that one person’s very reason for being leaves another cold and uninterested is at the heart of what he considers the enduring mystery of happiness and is part of the larger mystery of life. William James’s “Springs of Delight”

It concludes with a stern “Hands off” warning: “neither the whole of truth, nor the whole of
good, is revealed to any single observer, although each observer
gains a partial superiority of insight from the peculiar position
in which he stands.”

Failure to respect a multiplicity of
interpretive insights would be an instance of the deplorable but
natural “blindness” by which we so frequently misconstrue one
another. James did advance a striking vision; but one great fact
about him, and the most arresting thing about it, is that his
vision (like Emerson’s “thousand-eyed present”) defies every conceivable attempt to
reduce it to a single point of view, including his own. It is “self-reliant” only to a point. I read it as an ultimately optimistic vision. We’re blind, but we can (if we will) see that we are, and therein lies our hope.

“Take our dogs and ourselves, connected as we are by a tie more intimate than most ties in this world…” This passage resonates more for me today than it might, having just said a sorrowful farewell to our constant canine companion of the past dozen years. How often old Angel sat at my feet, doubtless rehearsing (in her way) something like James’s fox-terrier’s lament:  “To sit there like a senseless statue, when you might be taking [her] to walk and throwing sticks for [her] to catch! What queer disease is this that comes over you every day, of holding things and staring at them like that for hours together, paralyzed of motion and vacant of all conscious life?” Sorry, old girl. You tolerated so much, asked for so little, provided so much joy.

Joy’s the word, as Stevenson said, “the personal poetry, the enchanted atmosphere, that rainbow work of fancy” we miss if we objectify and neutralize things by reducing them to their surface externality. Our springs of delight lie beneath the surface, our inner lives are out of sight. We’re each tasked to “find out where the joy resides” and honor it. In the case of departed friends, it resides in pleasant precious memory. Pixar’s Coco gets it right: remember.

11.3.15. 6 am/6:13, 59/75
Podcast

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I’ve just posted on my Blog about: Russell, Ayer, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus https://t.co/2cNweAsfc5

November 27, 2017

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Russell, Ayer, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus

November 27, 2017

Today in CoPhi we begin with a closer look at Bertrand Russell, whose historical opinions we’ve been noting all semester. But we’ve outrun his his 1945 History, which gives generous but unsympathetic late chapters to William James (“almost universally beloved”) and John Dewey (“leading living philosopher in America”) before concluding with a few cursory words on the logical analysis of Cantor and Frege. He says nothing of the Existentialists or then-young A.J. Ayer.

Russell’s youthful encounter with J.S. Mill led him to a pivotal liberating insight.

I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day at the age of eighteen I read Mill’s Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: “My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question `Who made god?'” That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, “How about the tortoise?” the Indian said, “Suppose we change the subject.” The argument is really no better than that. Why I Am Not a Christian

We  should resolve, he decided, “to understand the actual world as it is, not as we should wish it to be… Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.”  Mature wisdom then comes when we apply ourselves to building on that understanding, and seeing if we can either construct steps to reach our castles in the sky (in Thoreau’s metaphor) or build new castles where we stand. Why else was old Russell in the streets protesting nuclear proliferatrion and Vietnam?

“To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it… The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty…” That’s the state of mind that best stimulates curiosity and creativity, and opens us to consider new possibilities. “Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom.”

Russell also said “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” And, “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” And, “Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so… It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.”

Russell’s china teapot is one of his more improbable enduring images. “If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion…” You can probably guess where he’s going with that teapot.

Russell’s paradoxical barber, fascinated with language and its self-referential confusions, was less obviously engaged in constructive world-making. But he inspired A.J. Ayer and the logical positivists, convinced that progress in philosophy and in life required the dismantling of philosophy’s unverifiable traditional ambitions as so much literal nonsense. Language, Truth and Logic was a young man’s book. Old Ayer had to nearly choke to death on his salmon to acquire mature wisdom. He also courted a near death  experience with the ear-nibbling prizefighter Mike Tyson. (“Wickedest Man in Oxford“)

The Existentialists, rallying under Jean Paul Sartre‘s anti-essentialist banner, warned against “bad faith” but didn’t explain precisely how people who love their work – philosophers included – can avoid being defined or inauthenticated by it. Sartre’s advice to the student who didn’t know whether to join the Resistance, to just choose, was frustrating. But he’d say that’s life.

Simone de Beauvoir was a bit more helpful. She said women are made, not born, but have been too accepting of the constructed gender constraints imposed by men. “Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female — whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.” They can make a different plan. The present generation is testing the limits of reconstruction, as women and men explore the possibilities of self-discovery. We can all learn to persist and persevere against arbitrary silencing and suppression. “In itself, homosexuality is as limiting as heterosexuality: the ideal should be to be capable of loving a woman or a man; either, a human being, without feeling fear, restraint, or obligation.”

“Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.” So, is it existentially inauthentic to hire a housekeeper? I can’t imagine my wife happy without her.


Albert Camus said there’s no final escape from the absurdities of life, but we can learn to live with them. We must imagine Sisyphus happy. Camus and his generation successfully pushed back against the rock that was the Reich. He was awarded a Nobel. And then he died behind the wheel.

“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” I don’t agree, but if he felt that way why did he search for happiness and meaning? Or maybe it just came to him. “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” 
“Real generosity towards the future lies in giving all to the present.”

Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion were absurd, but they too persisted and learned something from Sartre about the roads to freedom. “If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company… Do you think that I count the days? There is only one day left, always starting over: it is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk… Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning… Freedom is what we do with what is done to us… We are our choices… Hell is—other people!”

Best accessible recent account of Existentialism: At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell. “Paris, near the turn of 1933. Three young friends meet over apricot cocktails at the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue Montparnasse. They are Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and their friend Raymond Aron, who opens their eyes to a radical new way of thinking. Pointing to his drink, he says, ‘You can make philosophy out of this cocktail!'”

And so we’ll ask: Have you ever read a book that changed your mind about something important to you? What would you say to Bertrand Russell and J.S. Mill about the First Cause Argument? Are linguistic paradoxes a deep philosophical/conceptual problem, or an amusing quirk of language reflecting our freedom of expression and self-discovery? Can you give an example of an unverifiable statement that you consider meaningful? If biology and the social sciences don’t shed light on a shared species essence, what is the status of our common genetic and memetic inheritance? Can you construct a personal essence, it that’s always subject to deconstruction and replacement? Could that be our essence? Where is gender headed, in this and coming generations? What’s your Sisyphean rock?

==

Cosmopolitans like Kwame Anthony Appiah push against the rock of nationalist chauvinism, and push for greater human solidarity. Anthony Appiah pushes alongside Adam Smith, the old free marketeer who insisted on recognizing what he called “reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct” as our greatest source of conscience. Like his friend David Hume, he found wisdom in thinking about his little finger. Hume’s lexicon was different, in A Treatise of Human Nature, but the enlightened Scots agreed: we have it in ourselves to become more generous and less selfish. “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger,” but it is definitely contrary to our better sentiments and sympathies, and contrary to our humanity.
==
4.18.17. Happy birthday Clarence Darrow, defender of Tennessean John Scopes in the 1925 Monkey Trial (which surprisingly many Tennesseans in my classrooms haven’t heard of-they should read Trials of the Monkey and watch Inherit the Wind)… and Susan Faludi, author of Backlash: The War Against Women and Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. “She received criticism from the feminist movement for focusing on men, but she shrugged it off, saying: ‘I don’t see how you can be a feminist and not think about men. In order for women to live freely, men have to live freely, too. Being a feminist opens your eyes to the ways men, like women, are imprisoned in cultural stereotypes.’”

5:30/6:11, 63/79/62, 7:21

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@Antirealist Thanks. She was.

November 25, 2017

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Farewell “Angel”-faithful friend and steadfast walking companion 2006-2017. https://t.co/m1r4cbAJun

November 24, 2017

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“The best thing about saying thank goodness in place of thank God is that there really are lots of ways of repaying your debt to goodness—by setting out to create more of it, for the benefit of those to come.” @danieldennett Happy Thanksgiving!

November 23, 2017

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RT @calvin_smith33: @keenantaylor_ #JRNL2720 Philosophy professor Dr. Phil Oliver was asked about the scale of the impact social media can have on social change he said, “I think we’re still figuring that out, but it looks like it has the power to shape elections.“ https://t.co/hTxDxWc5Wh

November 22, 2017

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