29 November 2008

Redding on Opposing Idealism

"Taking Berkeley as the prototype of idealism is a bit like taking the emu as the prototype of the bird."

(from "Idealism as a love (of wisdom) which dare not speak its name", which reminds me of how crazy the history of the University of Sydney's philosophy department is. I recall reading an article about it online once upon a time: at one point Althusser wrote a letter to one of the two(!) departments, reminding his "comrades" that philosophy shouldn't be entirely collapsed into political engagement. I don't know where I read that. I recall the site also having an article about how "in Australia" was a sentential operator which functioned as a form of negation: Thus "There are black swans in Australia", "Christmas is celebrated in the summertime in Australia", "Some mammals lay eggs in Australia", when of course there are no black swans, Christmas is celebrated in the winter, and mammals give birth to live young.)

14 November 2008

"The point of the book is ethical"

I've occasionally been annoyed at how rarely Wittgenstein interpreters try to flesh out the "ethical point " of the Tractatus. I recall Insight and Illusion particularly annoying me on this point: Hacker clearly had no problems "effing the ineffable" on every other point where there was supposed to be something which "couldn't be said, but only shown", but when he got to "the mystical" he suddenly hits something which really can't be said, and so he just compares it to "feeling absolutely safe" and "wonder and amazement at the existence of the world" -- the only original note Hacker seems to offer as an interpretation of what Wittgenstein was whistling here is that it's "a romantic ethics of the ineffable." "Resolute" readings of the book generally don't leave me greatly more satisfied -- there's often some gesturing to the virtues of avoiding confusion & thinking clearly, but it always seems like thin gruel as ethics.

Kremer's "The Purpose of Tractarian Nonsense" explains Wittgenstein by a preliminary discussion of Saints Paul and Augustine, attributes the showing/saying distinction to pride, and claims that the book aims to promote humility & love of one's neighbor. Now that's "not chickening out"!

(Kremer also moves seamlessly from a discussion of "justification" in Romans to a discussion of "justification" in epistemology, which is something I'd always wanted to see done. They're the same word, after all -- we can seek to justify all sorts of things, not just beliefs. Paul's not using "dikaiosune" as some weird technical term; it just means "being right/good", like in normal Greek.)

(I am also reminded here of Isaac Levi's attack on "pedigree epistemology"; Levi's rejection of a justification component in knowledge appears even more radical, in this company. I suppose this sort of thing should be expected when one wants to break down the "theory/practice" dichotomy, like a good pragmatist, but it's still striking when one notices it.)

Kremer's essay is good in general. I like this piece more than "The Cardinal Problem in Philosophy", but I suspect that's partly because I read that one first. "Cardinal Problem"'s central claim about LW's letter seems more plausible now that I've seen more of how Kremer would want to tell this story. Some of the details still seem sketchy -- Kremer likes to claim that "We can't say that p" is nonsense, where it just looks like a contradiction to me (and thus like something with a sense). But his responses to Hacker on the specific points he looks at in the later portions of the paper seem pretty compelling. They require Wittgenstein to have spoken ironically in his letters at some points, but it doesn't seem to me to be a great stretch to think that Wittgenstein didn't talk "straightforwardly" when rushed, since he clearly doesn't in his published works. His writing is just always like that.

Also Kremer quotes an amazon.com reviewer at the start of the paper. The kind of reviewer that spells "philosophy" wrong.

04 November 2008

An Observation

I had my suspicions while reading Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, but reading Sellars's Autobiographical Reflections confirmed it for me: Sellars is a terrible prose stylist. Sellars complains in the piece about how difficult he found writing for publication, and I can easily believe that it didn't come naturally to him. This essay makes me want to go back and re-read Davidson's Autobiographical Sketch a third time, just to appreciate how pleasant a read it is.

(Holy crap, there's a used copy on Amazon for $36! That is like $90 less than the last one I saw on there, and I haven't seen one on there at all in months! Library of Living Philosophers volume Get. Alibris actually shows a cheaper copy, in hardcover, but the seller doesn't appear to be reliable and I prefer having Amazon back my transaction.)

One thing that leaped out at me from Sellars's autobiographical essay: He specifically notes that he studied everything but ethics to begin with, but one of the central segues in the piece is Sellars's desire to cash out "deontological intuitionism" in naturalistic terms, partly by means of an appropriation of emotivist insights. It's hard to avoid ethics entirely.

I had no idea that Sellars studied under Quine; I had always thought of them as contemporaries. I guess Quine did start teaching when he was pretty young; he's only Davidon's senior by nine years.

02 November 2008

Bashing My Head Against Objects

Haugeland, "Having Thought" p.262, "Objective Perception":
"[Suddenly you see something that looks like your sister, sounds like your father, moves like your grandmother, and smells like your little brother. Then it has your mother's head on your uncle's body with a baby's limbs, then it has two heads and no torso or limbs and smells like a watermelon and sounds like a truck.]And moments later, [it changes] again, with new divisions and new participants. What would you say? Surely something like: 'Egads! Am I going crazy? Am I being tricked or drugged? I can't really be seeing this -- it's impossible.' That is, you would reject what you seemed to perceive, you would not accept them as objects."

I have no idea what I should say. I suspect I should stare blankly. I might say that I was "seeing something impossible", but I doubt it; that sounds like an idiom I am uncomfortable with. Rather, I suspect I should say (or at least think, since I suspect I would be going catatonic) "I must be seeing things". I wouldn't reject "what I saw" as not being "object(s)"; I would reject what I saw as not being veridical. (Perhaps more properly: I would reject the notion that I was seeing anything at all, rather than hallucinating.)

I should think that I would do exactly the same thing if I were to "see" my great-grandparents standing at the door. They've all been dead for some time, and so I regard it as impossible that they could be at the door (or anywhere else, aside from buried). This is not because the "objects" I "see" as seeming to be my great-grandparents would fail to satisfy some standard qua objects or qua persons, or even qua the persons whom I regard as being my great-grandparents, but simply because I don't think my great-grandparents have risen from the grave. (Perhaps I would revise this judgement if they started making conversation with me, and I became convinced that either they had not died, or they had somehow been resuscitated from their eternal rest. If I did revise my judgement as to whether or not my great-grandparents are/remain dead, then I should now probably have no problem with changing my mind further, and deciding that they had been standing at my door back then, after all.)

In fact, for me to reject the shades as actually being my great-grandparents, they have to satisfy whatever standards I might hold for some objects to be my great-grandparents, in a sense. For the experience I reject as non-veridical is an experience which seems to be of them standing at the door. And so Haugeland's non-objects must satisfy some standard for objecthood, for they seem to be impossible objects. If they have properties which cannot coherently exist in a single object, then they have properties and so have at least that much coherence to them. (I suspect that pressing this line would lead Haugeland to simply reject the example entirely. But it seems to me that he has to have something to replace it, and I don't see that anything can.)

There's no need to come up with counterfactuals this strange: If I were to see Barack Obama riding alongside me on CTA 172 some morning, I should have no doubt that I would decide I was hallucinating (probably from lack of sleep). Is "does not use overcrowded public transit" part of what constitutes a senator? (That seems an odd thing to say. And I could certainly come up with any number of other reasons Obama would not ride my bus, even if it wasn't so crowded. Which ones would be the ones I use to judge whether or not the fellow who looks like him next to me on the bus is actually him?) And in a sense it's possible that Obama might walk down a few blocks and get on the bus. There's a stop less than two blocks from his house, and it's faster than walking.

In each case, I can imagine that (mirabile dictu) further circumstances might incline me to simply accept the wild appearances as veridical. Perhaps the Large Haldron Collider has started to have catastrophic effects, and among those is creating things with two heads that sound like trucks and smell like watermelons, and are prone to sudden shapeshifting. (Perhaps these things only seem to have heads, but really they're just lumps with the shapes of heads, like with statues. Or perhaps the LHC actually creates monsters which exist only for a moment before dissolving, and what Haugeland describes as a kind of shapeshifting is actually many monsters replacing one another in a series. I don't see why it matters what we should say about things like this. Our ordinary ways of talking are perfectly servicable in the workaday world, but words might simply fail us when we come across LHC-derived monstrosities.) [Everything in this paragraph seems like an overwrought version of Austin's bit about the finches that suddenly explode etc., and what we should say about them. I can't recall where that passage is. I need to read more Austin.]

The very idea of giving a "constitutive ideal" for "thinghood" strikes me as inadvisable. It seems obvious to me that here there just aren't rigorous rules for how we talk (and so no such rules for how we regard entities as standing-forth for us, or anything like that). How we handle "things" varies depending on why we give a flip about them in a particular instance.

"To perceive objects is to insist upon their coherent integrity -- the constitutive standard for thinghood -- just like insisting on legality in chess, rationality in interpretation, and ordering with precision and scope in empirical science."

(Emphasis mine.) I think this is a fine place to focus on in saying what seems wrong with how Haugeland approaches these topics. In interpretation one doesn't insist that the speaker one interprets is rational. The presumption of rationality has the character of an "analytical hypothesis", to speak Quinean; one begins by assuming that the interpretand is rational, with the hope of figuring out what it is that they're saying and doing, what they believe and desire, etc. -- the hope of coming to understand them. Without such an initial hypothesis, there's simply no way to get traction in interpretation: Anyone whom I am able to understand I take to be largely rational (since any irrationality requires a background of rationality to be intelligible as irrationality, and whatever I can understand in them I understand to be either rational or irrational), and it's my standards of rationality that I use to winnow down what I regard as possible ways to take what it is they're saying and doing etc. I don't insist that whoever I try to interpret be rational -- perhaps they just aren't and I end up giving up the idea that there's anything there to be understood. Rationality is constitutive of anyone I understand not because I insist upon it, but because without perceiving rational patterns in someone's behavior I have no way to make sense of them as a person. (And what is "constitutive" here may shift and alter; the standard of rationality I use is always my standard of rationality at the moment, and there's nothing sacrosanct about that.)

I continue to dislike the chess example. As given here (and this is typical, both in Haugeland's writings and in what he says about chess in class), it is impossible to cheat at chess. For anything which is cheating is in violation of the rules of chess, and anything in violation of the rules of chess just isn't chess. And so anything which is cheating isn't chess -- a "move" which is illegal (say I castle despite my rook having moved since the start of the game) isn't a move of any game of chess (because an illegal move is a square circle), and so it can't affect the state of the board in any game of chess, and so if this "move" leads to one player "winning" they in fact did not win, since they were not playing chess. For Haugeland, "cheaters never win" is thus a priori true. In fact, cheaters never finish a game at all (and so never lose either).

I can easily imagine a game of chess in which neither player remembers the rules for castling (and so never castles, as they don't want to admit their ignorance). For Haugeland, these people can't be playing chess (since castling is among the rules of chess). Though many games of chess can be played without either player ever castling. (Suppose one of the players knows how to castle, and the other doesn't -- he can never remember which piece he switches with his rook. It seems that for Haugeland, these two can't play chess, since only one knows the rules. The fact that they might sit across from one another, move carved ivory figures around on the board, etc. would not change the matter -- one Can't Play Chess If One Doesn't Know The Rules. And one of the "players" doesn't, and so no chess is played. The fellow who does know the rules for castling (and so can play chess, even on Haugeland's view) is then unable to tell what he's doing, since he surely thinks he's playing chess.)

I can easily imagine a game of chess in which both players cheat -- when either gets up to go to the bathroom or get a drink, the other alters the board slightly. Haugeland is emphatic that such a thing Would Not Be A Game Of Chess; I can't see why it matters what we say about it. (My inclination is to call it a game of chess, since understanding how one plays chess is how one makes sense of the ways in which each player is cheating -- why they don't replace rooks with pawns or remove their own king from the board. But if one is counting games of chess played for some reason, say there's a chess league going on and each game played is worth some points, then I can see why one wouldn't count this game, if one knew about the cheating.)

A larval thought about why I can't abide Haugeland's way of treating these matters: Haugeland treats objects initially, and truth falls out later -- in "Truth and Finitude" the primary locus of truth is getting an entity right, with the truth of a sentence being something derivative. This is putting the cart before the horse: Truth and falsehood are properties of sentences. (In "Two Dogmas of Rationalism" Haugeland claims that "There was no truth a billion years ago" is true in some sense stronger than just the fact that there were no speakers (and thus no sentences or utterances etc.) back then. This strikes me as a foreboding, and impenetrable, claim. If "truth" is supposed to be something other than a property of true sentences (/utterances/propositions etc.), I don't know that it exists now.)

Edit: The response to Conant in the paragraph that bridges p.255/256 is painful to read:

The arguments that matter, therefore, are those to the effect that chess itself presupposes language, either for learning it or for playing it. But to those, I think, a simple reply is decisive. It is certainly no harder to learn and play chess than it is to learn and speak a natural language. Quite the contrary: games are clearly less demanding than languages by all counts. In particular, languages are just as constituted by standards, hence just as dependent on speakers' insistence, as any game. Yet, it must be possible to learn and speak a language without benefit of (any other or prior) language, on pain of regress. So, in principle, it's possible for games as well.
Learning a first language comes effortlessly to toddlers; learning a first game takes a modicum of work (it doesn't happen at all if no one makes an effort to teach the kid a game). Languages are not "as constituted by standards" as games -- if I "break the rules" in chess I cheat (or at least have to take the move back); if I "break the rules" in English I might be the next Joyce (or if I just speek unlovilily, then still I speak and might make myself understanded). And the argument here is just a non sequitur: Even if learning a language is generally harder than learning a game, and learning a language is possible without a prior language, it doesn't follow that learning a game is possible without a prior language. (Learning to play "Pictionary" is certainly easier than learning to speak Arabic, and learning to speak Arabic is possible without a prior language, but learning to play Pictionary is impossible without a prior language. So there's no "in principle" reason to think chess can be learned without a prior language -- especially given the stuff about having to be able to make it known that one regards a move as illegal, which is what Conant's point seems to have been.)

Happily, the paragraph on p.255 (which is footnoted as being due to a conversation with Conant) makes the points I would want to make about most of this essay.

Another howler, p.257: "The rules of a playable game must be consistent, complete, and followable". "Magic: The Gathering" is thus not a game, or at least wasn't a game in the first several years it was around, because it didn't have firm rules. (I'm told that even the current rules aren't consistent & complete -- there are places where the game is held together with spit and bubblegum, basically. That's why there are rules updates every few months.) The "Illuminatus!" card game had a rule that said that cheating was allowed, unless you were caught -- is this even intelligible on Haugeland's conception of a game? (It's certainly easy to make the rules inconsistent, if cheating is allowed.) Certainly people played Illuminatus!; that's how they were able to cheat, and how people were able to catch them cheating, etc.

I very much dislike the chess example.

Haugeland's class is wearing on me. At least the analytic class is going well. (We finally hit Two Dogmas on monday. Last class was entirely taken up by trying to make sense of Kripke's positive picture of reference in "Naming and Necessity"; it was fun.)