09 June 2011

A Better Sort of Reader: the ethical

"A Better Sort of Reader", Ray Monk's paper from the conference, opens with a line from one of the preface drafts in "Culture & Value".

It is not without reluctance that I deliver this book to the public. It will fall into hands which are not for the most part those in which I like to imagine it. May it soon -- this is what I wish for it -- be completely forgotten by the philosophical journalists, and so be preserved perhaps for a better sort of reader.

His paper is an exploration of Wittgenstein's hatred for "professional philosophers" (which Monk takes to be what LW meant in this passage) and his rejection of the idea that philosophy could be done by means of "theses" or "theories".

This paper lead to the best discussions I heard at the conference. I think it's because what was being argued about was largely inside baseball: everyone there agreed that it was crucial to take seriously Wittgenstein's rejection of "theory", and that most "Wittgensteinians" have not done this. So what was up for debate was how exactly to get this part of Wittgenstein right. Things got down to brass tacks a lot more quickly than they often do at conferences.

Much of the paper is pro forma criticizing Hanjo Glock's claim that "The conflict over philosophical theories may be spurious, since Wittgenstein had a very restrictive conception of theory, confining it either to the deductive-nomological theories of the empirical sciences or to the attempt to provide an analytic definition of what he regarded as family resemblance concepts." But the real heart of the paper seems to be "Here is a collection of interesting Wittgenstein quotes on topics related to this area." Beating up on Glock was just an excuse to string together things to bring up for the benefit of discussion. I'm honestly surprised more conference papers aren't like this; I thought it worked very well.

I'll skip any real recapping of Monk's paper; anyone who's at all interested in this area of Wittgenstein should read it. It's short and punchy, and a copy could easily be gotten by asking someone who had one. (But be aware it's very much a draft -- many of his quotations still lack citations, and there are certainly places where Monk will revise things in light of the discussions at the conference.) So from here on I'll just note some things that seemed worth noting. And because the last post ended up crazily long and I suspect nobody's read it because of this, I'll be breaking this up into shorter posts.

Here's a quotation from Wittgenstein's discussions with the Vienna Circle that I found interesting.
What is ethical cannot be taught. If I could explain the essence of the ethical only by means of a theory, then what is ethical would be of no value whatsoever.
This is strikingly similar to part of Tractatus 6.41: "In the world there is no value -- and if there were, it would be of no value." I'm always interested in places where Wittgenstein seems to repeat the Tractatus outside of the limits of 6.54 (which tells us that the propositions of the book are nonsense), and the differences here seem significant.

The Tractarian version of the saying trafficked in a paradoxical notion of a "value" as a sort of thing which there might be in the world, but in fact there cannot be: for not only does the proposition get its sense only by negating the claim "There is value in the world", but the conditional has us entertaining this possibility, only to see that it would lead to "valueless values". The later saying doesn't have this same parallelism: the antecedent of the conditional is not identical with the negation of the first part of the claim. But this shift might just be loose talk on Wittgenstein's part.

The Tractarian saying is also attached to considerations about the accidental nature of all that happens and comes to pass in the world, and seems to say that this is why there can be no values in the world. This sort of thing I take to be attached to all sorts of other nonsense in the Tractatus that we're supposed to climb over in coming to understand its author. The Vienna Circle remark I think gives us more respectable reasons for thinking of "the ethical" in the way (at least the early) Wittgenstein did, in that it opposes two things which do make sense: One might think that ethics is something that you need to be taught, and one might think that "ethics" as a branch of philosophy is concerned with explaining the essence of the ethical. And getting these two points wrong seems to be possible, in an interesting way: it's not so much an empirical mistake as ethical self-deception. One obscures oneself, ethically, by thinking of ethics like this.

With regard to this first, Conant brought up "the footnote in the Groundwork where Kant says that his grandmother knew very well what was right and wrong, without ever having studied philosophy". I can't find any footnote which resembles such a remark in Kant (I think there's something similar in one of his letters -- anyone know what passage Conant had in mind?), but the idea is certainly something Kant is aware of. Here are some passages from the close of the first part of the Groundwork:
Here it would be easy to show how common human reason, with this compass in hand, knows very well how to distinguish in every case that comes up what is good and what is evil, what is in conformity with duty or contrary to duty, if, without in the least teaching it anything new, we only, as did Socrates, make it attentive to its own principle; and that there is, accordingly, no need of science and philosophy to know what one has to do in order to be honest and good, and even wise and virtuous.... Would it not therefore be more advisable in moral matters to leave the judgement of common reason as it is and, at most, call in philosophy only to present the system of morals all the more completely and apprehensibly and to present its rules in a form more convenient for use (still more for disputation), but not to lead common human understanding, even in practical matters, away from its fortunate simplicity and to put it, by means of philosophy, on a new path of investigation and instruction? [AK 4:404]

I think this bit from Kant is actually illustrative for both of the points I want to make: I think that Wittgenstein not only agreed with Kant that philosophy was not needed to appreciate the ethical, but he didn't think that any philosophical presentation of "the system of morals" could actually have the ethical in view. The idea that this could make ethics "more convenient for use" is an illusion. What is of ethical importance in our lives just doesn't lend itself to this sort of systematic treatment. Where there is "system" in the ethical, this is already apparent, and there is nothing to explain. And if a philosophical "explanation" brings out anything surprising, this can only show that it has clothed the ethical in robes that don't fit it. So where you have any sort of philosophical ethics, this "ethics" has no value -- it's not the thing one needs to actually attend to, if one is to be ethical. At best, it's superfluous; at worst, it's a distraction.

I find this sort of thought attractive, but I'm not quite sure what to make of it. It seems clear that most of what philosophers do under the rubric of "ethics" is not worth doing, but I'm not sure if this is inherent to the subject, or if it's just a result of 90% of everything being crap.

A sidenote: I think it's worth noticing Wittgenstein's use of "essence" here. I don't think he's using it with any sort of disdain -- the problem with a theory which would explain "the essence of the ethical" isn't that the ethical doesn't have an essence (because it's a "family-resemblance concept"), but that you're trying to use a theory to explain it. Sometimes the later Wittgenstein is taken to be "anti-essentialist" in that he's opposed to essences; what he is really opposed to is only looking for essences where there aren't any, and thinking you've found one when you haven't. (I recently picked up Wittgenstein Reads Weininger, and Szabados's essay gets just this point exactly wrong.)


Duck said...

Thanks for these reports. I wish I had been there! I do have a few questions though.

I agree that "essence" here is untroubling, but I wonder if yours is the way to put it. I continue to find it helpful to think of W as "anti-essentialist," given the contemporary resonance of that term as something like "anti-platonist." In this sense he is indeed opposed to "essences," and believes that you when you think you've found one you are always wrong. It's the same point about "definitions" that people were not getting in that kerfuffle about the "definition of games" that some guy had found – and thus took himself to have refuted W (you remember that, I forget the guy's name now: Sands was it? something like that). I even wonder if the problem is "using a theory to explain it," which might depend on one's conception of "explanation" (or "theory" for that matter!).

I also wonder about the scope of "ethics" here. It sounds like the discussion was about ethics as an account of, or identical with, morality; but in the TLP "ethics" surely has a broader (or narrower, depending on how you look at it) scope – thus the link with aesthetics and the mystical in that context. Did anyone say anything about this?

Thirdly, I see that your discussion here of W's attitude toward "theses" and "theories" is centered on the TLP remarks. This is fine (and of course a welcome corrective to the idea that PI trumps TLP so forget about the latter), but one does wait for the other shoe to drop. Was anything helpful said in this regard?

Daniel Lindquist said...

Bernard Suits was the philosophy of sport guy. Collin McGinn assigned his book in a class on "meta-philosophy".

I doubt there is a "right" way to put the anti-essentialist/anti-Platonist point. I've come to think the label too vague to be of much use. (An upcoming post about Monk's paper should touch on a related matter -- Joachim Schulte said some very good things about the distinction between "left" and "right" Wittgensteinians, and the value of philosophical labels generally, none of which I had appreciated before.) But I don't think there's any disagreement of substance between us here, just one of sloganeering.

I was reading Foucault's "Theatrum Philosophicum" (which is a review of two of Deleuze's books) the other day, and quite liked this passage: "Overturn Platonism: what philosophy has not tried? If we defined phi­losophy at the limit as any attempt, regardless of its source, to reverse Platonism, then philosophy begins with Aristotle; or better yet, it begins with Plato himself, with the conclusion of the Sophist where it is impossible to distinguish Socrates from the crafty imitator; or it be­gins with the Sophists who were extremely vocal about the rise of Platonism and who ridiculed its future greatness with their perpetual play on words." -- and this is from 1970. Better to not put too much weight on such a title.

But then of course LW himself said things like this (in a 1931 letter to Schlick): "I cannot characterize my standpoint better than by saying that it is opposed to that which Socrates represents in the Platonic dialogues." So... yeah. One shouldn't downplay the anti-essentialism.

"I even wonder if the problem is "using a theory to explain it," which might depend on one's conception of "explanation" (or "theory" for that matter!)."

Well, there's another quote from the same time period, that Monk also quoted: "Is value a particular state of mind? Or a form attaching to some data or other of consciousness? I would reply that whatever I was told, I would reject, and that not because the explanation was false but because it was an explanation." And there's the famous anecdote about a discussion of the Euthyphro with Schlick, where Wittgenstein said that "the good is what the gods command" is actually the profounder view -- because it doesn't even pretend to have an explanation for why piety is good. And in this post I did mean to be more spelling out LW's views than defending them; I am unsettled as to what to say about ethics at present. But I do think Wittgenstein (at least early Wittgenstein) has different objections to "theories" in philosophy and "theories" in ethics. I think that (very early -- think "Notes on Logic") Wittgenstein did think that philosophy was theoretical, but I don't think he ever thought this about ethics.

Daniel Lindquist said...

"in the TLP "ethics" surely has a broader (or narrower, depending on how you look at it) scope – thus the link with aesthetics and the mystical in that context. Did anyone say anything about this?"

Have you read Conant's "What Ethics in the Tractatus is Not?" It's really good on this point. The Donatelli piece it's building on, "The Problem of the Higher in the Tractatus", is also really good. There's a lot of interesting things to be gotten out of trying to say what "ethics is transcendental" is getting at. (And remember that the parenthetical remark that "ethics and aesthetics are one" is a remark on this.) I don't think much came out in the discussions that wasn't already in Conant's paper, though; the ethics-aesthetics connection in early Wittgenstein remains underdeveloped, I think. Probably because you basically only get the October 7 1916 Notebook passage to really wrestle with.

"This is fine (and of course a welcome corrective to the idea that PI trumps TLP so forget about the latter), but one does wait for the other shoe to drop. Was anything helpful said in this regard?"

I actually don't think the other shoe does drop, at this point in Wittgenstein's thought. In the later philosophy Wittgenstein just gets more explicit and articulate about "anti-theoretical" ideas he already had by the time of writing TLP. He does shift his method of writing philosophy in a major way, but it's still in the service of the same sort of activity. Where the latter philosophy tries to only say things that everyone agrees with, the early philosophy tried to just not say anything. Conant referred to this as Wittgenstein's desire to be "methodologically impeccable", and said this was why Wittgenstein doesn't speculate much on how/why we fall into the confusions that we do in philosophy. Conant thought that Cavell gives us a story here that Wittgenstein probably would've agreed with, but he couldn't tell it himself, since it is speculative and disputable in a way that Wittgenstein didn't want his philosophy to be.

But in general, the conference was pretty tightly focused on TLP and the early 30s. I suspect it's because those are the areas where Wittgenstein actually mentions "the ethical" and "the unsayable". You have texts to work with. Ethics in the later philosophy is much more esoteric.

I want to point out that in my second post on Monk's paper, I think the account of what's wrong with 6.53 I present is something that would work as well with the later as the early Wittgenstein. The early Wittgenstein does have more to his story, about how a Begriffschrift is supposed to be useful for philosophy, but I skipped it because 1) I didn't need to get into it to show how 6.53 falls apart from within the Tractatus 2) I wanted to see how much of a PI-type view I could get just by mining Tractarian propositions 3) the role the Begriffschrift is supposed to play is neither simple nor clear 4) it's not even a fully usable Begriffschrift, since things like how to eliminate the identity sign are only sketched, not worked out in detail and 5) it's something Wittgenstein later abandons as a failure. So there is a big part of the story that I just skipped over in that post.