Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The ethics of trolling

An interesting-looking paper here by Massimo Leone. Summary:
The article singles out and describes the main rhetorical ingredients of trolling through contrasting it with comparable discursive practices: provocation, joke, defensive anonymity, critical public discourse, controversy, and lie. The following elements are found to play a major role in the discursive construction of trolling: topic-insensitive provocation; time-boundless jest; sadistic hierarchy of sender and receiver; anonymity of both the troll and her or his audience; choral character of the ‘actant observer’ of trolling; construction of artificial contradictory semantics; disruption of argumentative logics; irrelevance of the relation between beliefs and expressions. Trolling profoundly disrupts the conversational ethics of the human civilization because it severs expression from content, signifier from signified, communication from intention.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Three lions

Kelly Jolley visited VMI yesterday and gave an inspiring talk on "Wittgenstein: Philosophy as Poetic Composition." I spent most of the talk trying not to sneeze and may have misunderstood, but here are some thoughts that grew out of his presentation.

Much of the talk was about the line, "If a lion could speak, we could not understand him." Usually I think this is taken as having to do with a distinction between word meaning and speaker meaning. So if a lion could speak we might understand his words, but would not understand him. Winch says that understanding another culture might be said to involve "understanding the inner maps according to which people of that culture navigate and the destinations they are trying to reach." If we think in these terms, then on a standard interpretation Wittgenstein is suggesting that we could never understand a lion's inner maps.

Wittgenstein makes a distinction between understanding him and understanding his sentences in TLP 6.54 ("My propositions elucidate by whoever understands me perceiving them in the end as nonsensical..."). On the other hand, in the conversations with Bouwsma, assuming that Bouwsma and my memory are reliable guides, he rejects the distinction between word meaning and speaker meaning. Or at least, if someone says something that I don't understand (e.g. in the middle of a conversation about politics he says that ham sandwiches are the most popular kind) then it is a mistake to say you know what he said but not why he said it. Because you don't know what "ham sandwiches are the most popular kind" means in this context. Perhaps it's a saying you don't know about violations of God's laws, in which case the point might be about politics after all, and the popularity of evil policies, the evils of populism, and so forth. You don't know. 

Kelly's suggestion, if I understood it, is that when we read Wittgenstein's famous lion line we think we understand it (and, indeed, we can't be sure we haven't understood it until we get to the end), and think it means we could understand the lion's words but not the lion. But if we think more slowly, more carefully, more expansively, we might realize that the idea, or perhaps I should say 'idea', of a speaking lion is actually not something we can form. What we cannot understand is neither the lion's words nor the lion himself but the being of a speaking lion. If it's a lion it does not speak, cannot speak. If it speaks, it isn't a lion. So you think you understand the sentence (as long as you don't think too much, i.e. enough, about it), but you really don't. It's like Augustine with time (“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.”) The result, it seems to me, is not just the pleasure of encountering a clever puzzle. You also get a renewed appreciation for both lions and language, realities that resist combination and, so, are not just more of the same. The world is richer than that.

A second lion that this reminded me of is the one in the Lecture on Ethics. Wanting an example of a miracle, an event linked to what he calls his experience par excellence, namely that of wondering at the existence of the world, Wittgenstein says: "Take the case that one of you suddenly grew a lion's head and he began to roar. Certainly that would be as extraordinary a thing as I can imagine." This would be very unusual, obviously. But the example is stranger than that, I think. Because in what sense could there be a person with the head of a lion? It seems easy enough to imagine. But would this being live the life of a person or that of a lion? If it lived as a lion would its body still be human? Well, say what you choose, etc., but it's worth thinking a bit before making your choice. If the lion tries to run and bring down a gazelle with its claws, only to find itself jogging on two legs and flailing uselessly with fingers, is it a human with a lion's head, or more a badly disabled lion? And if it lives as a human, isn't the head of the body that lives this life at least in some sense thereby a human head, albeit a very badly formed one? Might the lion head try to eat the human body? Or the human body attack the lion head when it sleeps? In that case there is not really one being but two, at war with one another. I don't think we can really comprehend the idea of a human being with a lion's head. It is inconceivable, not just extraordinary.

The third lion is an imaginary one. The motto of the Tractatus is the following quotation from Ferdinand Kürnberger: “…and whatever a man knows, whatever is not mere rumbling and roaring that he has heard, can be said in three words.” The verbs rauschen and brausen don't seem right for lions, but they do mean noise, and not only might a 'speaking lion' and a 'person with a lion's head' produce nothing but noise, but in fact the words 'speaking lion' and 'person with a lion's head' seem to be little more than noise, since we can't (as far as I can see) really imagine anything in connection with them. Or rather, we can't imagine what we might seem to want to imagine. It's easy enough to picture a cartoon or Egyptian god. But this is likely to be only two-dimensional. If we try to imagine a four-dimensional version, living through time, we lose either the lion aspect or the human, linguistic aspect. This loss, though, feels like a gain. All we lose is a fantasy, and what we gain is a clearer, cleaner, refreshed understanding of reality.       

Friday, March 3, 2017

Punching Nazis

My (not fully formed, merely intuitive) view on the ethics of punching neo-Nazis used to be roughly that it ought to be done but that you ought not to do it. This doesn't sound very coherent. I used to think that no one should punch anyone but that there is always likely to be someone who wants to fight and that these people, if they must punch someone--which they shouldn't, should be punching neo-Nazis rather than anyone else. That is, although no one deserves to be punched, the least undeserving are neo-Nazis (and maybe some child abusers, etc.). Now I'm not so sure.

Speaking of Nazis, here's Orwell's review of Mein Kampf, in which he echoes Nietzsche on utilitarianism. Here's Orwell:
Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do. Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarised version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,’’ Hitler has said to them “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet. Perhaps later on they will get sick of it and change their minds, as at the end of the last war. After a few years of slaughter and starvation “Greatest happiness of the greatest number” is a good slogan, but at this moment “Better an end with horror than a horror without end” is a winner.
And here's Nietzsche:  "If we have our own why in life, we shall get along with almost any how. Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does." (Maxim 12 from Twilight of the Idols).

The dominant economic theory, of course, is based on utilitarianism, although these days it's based more (as far as I can tell) on the ideal of maximizing preference-satisfaction than maximizing pleasure as such. (And this is mixed with the fantasy that some version of libertarianism will in fact produce such a maximization.) But, as Michael Thompson has pointed out, it makes sense to say, "I don't want to do what I want to do." People want a why, a reason to do things. Hence the appeal of ideologies that offer something other than pleasure or the even emptier satisfaction of preferences. But speaking of reasons and getting back on topic, is there reason to punch neo-Nazis? 


Here's J.S. Mill:
It would always give us pleasure, and chime in with our feelings of fitness, that acts which we deem unjust should be punished, though we do not always think it expedient that this should be done by the tribunals. [...] We should be glad to see [...] injustice repressed, even in the minutest details, if we were not, with reason, afraid of trusting the magistrate with so unlimited an amount of power over individuals. (Utilitarianism, Chapter V)
A state Nazi-puncher would be a bad thing. And perhaps being a neo-Nazi doesn't count as an unjust act, but perhaps in order to be correctly identified as a neo-Nazi one would have to have committed unjust acts. I think it does chime in at least somewhat with our feelings of fitness when a neo-Nazi gets punched. Which is not to say, however, that it chimes in with our feelings of fitness when someone punches a neo-Nazi. My reaction, at any rate, is that the neo-Nazi got what he deserved, but not that the puncher necessarily did a good thing.

And here's Kant:
If a man who delights in annoying and vexing peaceable people at last receives a right good beating, this is no doubt a bad thing; but everyone approves it and regards it as a good thing, even though nothing else resulted from it; nay, even the man who receives it must in his reason acknowledge that he has met justice, because he sees the proportion between good conduct and good fortune, which reason inevitably places before him, here put into practice. (The Critique of Practical Reason, Chapter II)
"[T]his is no doubt a bad thing; but everyone approves it and regards it as a good thing" sounds a bit like "It's raining but I don't believe it." Which part does Kant not really mean? I think he means roughly what I've been saying (and I think this on the grounds that surely everyone would agree with me): that the beaten person in this case got what he deserved, which is good, but that it is bad that the beating was done. It would have been better if he had somehow been hoist with his own petard (as long as no one else was hoisted with it).

I wonder though. For one thing I wonder how good it is that people get what they deserve--if what they, in some sense, deserve is really terrible, is it really good that this terrible thing should happen to them? And for another thing, I wonder whether all (people who might reasonably be called) Nazis deserve the same fate. Is merely having Nazi beliefs, perhaps for a short time, as bad as spreading such beliefs? And is that as bad as committing hate crimes on the basis of those beliefs? Surely not, in both cases.

In general I think that what people deserve, in the sense that they could hardly complain if these things happened to them since they have inflicted much the same on someone else or supported its being done (if only in thought), is not what should happen to them. If I were God I'd be more forgiving than that. (Although I'd also be wiser and so might have other ideas.)    

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Winch and relativism, logic and life

I've discussed Peter Winch and relativism before (e.g., here and here). I concluded that, "Winch is probably only a relativist in trivial and misleadingly-called-'relativist' ways." Since then I've read more on the subject, by Winch, Cora Diamond, Jonas Ahlskog and Olli Lagerspetz. So perhaps it's time to revisit the issue.

One question that is relevant to the debate is the relation between logic and human behavior. Ahlskog and Lagerspetz say (in "Language-Games and Relativism: On Cora Diamond's Reading of Peter Winch," p. 294) that "a (or the) central motif in Winch's work" is the idea that, "in order to see what a proposition implies or excludes, we must look into how it enters the life of those who use it; for example, how speakers might react in face of challenges and complexities." 

This doesn't sound quite right if we think about propositions in a language we understand well. Obviously we don't have to look into anything in order to understand a proposition. That is, we might have to on some occasion, but sometimes I know quite well what you are implying without any further investigation. Perhaps that's not fair though. The words "in order to see" might imply a case in which one does not see, and so further investigation is required. The most obvious way to investigate would be to ask you what you are implying, which again does not involve looking at how speakers (plural) might (in general) react. Perhaps this still is not fair. Perhaps if I speak the language I have already done the necessary looking and seeing. This, we might think, is (at least in part) how I learned the language in the first place. But then this sounds uncomfortably like the so-called Augustinian picture of learning a language, as if I already had a language and then did some useful anthropological fieldwork among my elders. Still, I might be being unfair to Winch by treating other people's words as if they were his, and to Ahlskog and Lagerspetz by taking one sentence out of context and making a meal of it. I think there is a potential problem here though, even if I have hardly convicted anyone of anything so far.

One problem, or question apparently worth asking, is whether we should talk about "what a proposition implies or excludes" at all. That is, do propositions imply and exclude, or do people do this (in using propositions)? I think the answer is both. Say my daughter is driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway and, after a pause to watch the sunset, the van won't start. If I ask, "Did you leave the lights on?" then I might be implying that she is often careless and has negligently caused the battery to die. The proposition on its own does not imply this. It might be said, though, to imply that the van has lights that can be left on or not. [Perhaps this should be thought of as implying in a metaphorical sense. A sentence implies things in something like the way that Heidegger or Loos might see a vase as implying things about the lives of the people who use it.] If you don't know English or any language close enough to it to have reliably similar implications and exclusions then you might have to look into how speakers of this language use sentences such as "Did you leave the lights on?" Otherwise you don't, surely. Knowing a language means, in part, knowing the correct standard use of this kind of sentence. And we don't usually learn this kind of thing by doing anthropology. Talk about what propositions mean and how we know what they mean might encourage the adoption of an outside, anthropological, third-person perspective. And this could be problematic.

In "Can We Understand Ourselves?" (CWUO) Winch says that understanding another culture requires studying the behavior of members of the culture in question. And, according to him, we cannot start by finding out their beliefs and desires, because we see these for what they are (p. 197) “only through the behavior in which they are manifested.” He seems to suggest here that knowledge of behavior, or perhaps simply behavior, is somehow prior to psychology. I wonder whether they really come apart like this. That is, perhaps they should be thought of as two sides of the same coin, with no relation of priority or dependency between them. In The Idea of a Social Science he said that "the social relations between men and the ideas which men's actions embody are really the same thing considered from different points of view". That seems better to me. 

On the same page of CWUO on which he implies the contrary of the suggestion that we could understand others' actions by starting with their "internal 'desires and beliefs'," Winch says also that "neither words nor actions have per se any preeminent position." He also notes some peculiarities of the notion of understanding. An anthropologist might understand another culture, or some feature of it, quite well without being able to imagine (seriously or sincerely) engaging in its practices. On the other hand, there is a sense of understanding in which we do not understand people or what they do if we cannot relate to them in a more subjective way than this. If we cannot, that is, 'find ourselves in them,' whether they belong to our culture or another, then we cannot fully understand them. 

This sounds true, but does it amount to anything more than the assertion that we do not understand people that we do not understand? I don't see why, that is, one cannot come to understand liking music, or a certain kind of music, or football, to give some of Winch's examples. Although, of course, one might see nothing in any of these things. Doing so would involve seeing the point of, say, watching football, which involves something like seeing it as having a point, which is like (though perhaps not exactly the same as) wanting to watch football. It might not be possible to want to do everything, or to see every human activity as having a point. But of any given activity I see no reason why one could not come to see its point. One good thing, though, about Winch's emphasis on understanding others as finding oneself in them is that it points away from the kind of problematic third-person perspective that I identified (or gestured towards) above.          


At the end of CWUO Winch argues that "practical 'being in tune' with others lies right at the very centre of our understanding of other human beings" (p. 203). As Winch admits, his argument here is sketchy. For those who want a fuller treatment of the topic he recommends his paper "Eine Einstellung zur Seele." One thing he does in this paper is to question the philosophical notion (or at least David Wiggins' notion) of a person:
On this view [...] reacting to someone as a person is in the first instance classifying him as belonging to a certain natural kind and this in its turn involves having certain quasi-theoretical beliefs about him. Anything that is peculiar to our attitudes towards and treatment of persons flows from and is justified by the beliefs we hold about what properties persons essentially possess; and what justifies these beliefs is ultimately scientific investigation. [Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 81 (1980 - 1981), pp. 1-15, p. 12]
One thing that Winch objects to is Wiggins' treatment of our reactions or attitudes towards other human beings as requiring justification. Another is that the justification in question is theoretical. I agree. But Winch still seems to want to explain this attitude toward a soul, referring to such things as "my general experience of human life" (p. 13). I think it's fine to try to explain what Wittgenstein means by an attitude (or orientation, perhaps) towards a soul. But explaining where it comes from seems somehow misguided. The explanation doesn't seem very informative, although what's good about it is that it is much less oriented towards theory and justification than Wiggins seems to be. Perhaps that is the main point that Winch wants to make.

Earlier in the paper he says that Wittgenstein wants:
to urge that if we want to be clear what a belief (e.g.) that someone is in pain comes to, we should not allow ourselves to be hypnotized by its verbal expression ("He is in pain"), but should look at the whole range of behaviour, demeanour, facial expression, etc. in which such verbal expressions are embedded, and with which they are continuous, which give the words their particular sense and by some of which indeed the words may often be replaced (p. 3)
This might be true if it means that Wittgenstein thinks it's a good idea to look at behavior (etc.) if one wants to be clear what a belief is and is tempted to think that it must be something purely verbal or intellectual. It seems dodgier if it means that Wittgenstein has an answer to the question 'What is a belief?' and that this answer is: "it's a whole range of behaviour, demeanour, facial expression, etc. in which such verbal expressions are embedded, and with which they are continuous, which give the words their particular sense and by some of which indeed the words may often be replaced." That would make Wittgenstein seem like a kind of behaviorist, and like someone who wanted to answer philosophical questions by putting forward theses.

A problem with Winch is that it is not always clear what he is or isn't saying. This is surely one reason for the very different readings of Winch by Diamond, who sees him, ultimately, as a kind of relativist, and by Ahlskog and Lagerspetz, who defend him against this charge. It is useful to have both readings. Even if Winch is not a relativist, Diamond's criticisms could be helpful discussions of problems that would arise if one were to take his work in a certain way. But it also seems worth trying to work out whether the non-relativist reading of Winch is tenable.

Diamond's Winch thinks like Ilham Dilman, who states that:
[W]hen Dante in his book talked of the spheres of the heavens and put the earth at the centre of the universe, he was not talking about the same universe, the universe of modern astronomy. […] The universe, as conceived of in [the] world [of the Mediaevals], was not the universe of astronomy; it was the universe of their religion. […] Thus the skies of Dante's The Divine Comedy and the sky and the stars of astronomy belong to different universes of discourse. (Wittgenstein's Copernican Revolution, 2002, pp. 48–49, quoted in Ahlskog and Lagerspetz, p. 302.)   
Ahlskog and Lagerspetz say of this (on p. 303):
It seems indeed perfectly proper to say that Dante and we, in an important sense, have been talking of the same object: “that bright thing in the sky”. Winch would hardly have quarrelled with that. [...] [A]ssuming it is agreed (in some sense) that we disagree with Dante about the heavens, it will not be clear that our disagreement translates into “criticism”. For instance, Dante is not someone we would feel the need to refute. 
They are quite right that we would feel no need to refute Dante, partly because he is dead and partly because there is little at stake. But in "Criticizing from 'Outside'," Diamond brings up the example of people being punished for alleged witchcraft, not just in the past but today. If someone is executed for allegedly harming others by supernatural means might we not be tempted to criticize this practice? We might then feel the need to refute belief in witchcraft of this kind. And even if persuasive refutation seems hopeless, we might still insist that any punishment in these cases is unjust because the accused cannot possibly be guilty. Witchcraft isn't real.

I don't think Winch would have quarrelled with that. But whether he could consistently avoid such quarrelling while maintaining everything else he wrote is another matter. Not one I can settle now though.    

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Dennett vs postmodernism

Daniel Dennett is getting some stick at the Daily Nous (and on Twitter too, I could have sworn, but now I can't find any evidence of that) because of these remarks:
Maybe people will now begin to realise that philosophers aren’t quite so innocuous after all. Sometimes, views can have terrifying consequences that might actually come true. I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts.
Justin W. replies, in part:
I’m skeptical that post-modernism had much to do with Trump’s victory. It is not even on the radar of most Trump voters, ...
The main criticisms of Dennett seem to be that he wildly exaggerates the importance of philosophy and that he has misunderstood the philosophers in question. But I take him to be saying that postmodern philosophers, or perhaps merely the philosophers who gave rise to postmodernism, have done something that had very bad consequences. He isn't, that is to say, suggesting that Trump or the people behind Fox News have read Derrida, Foucault, or Lyotard and, based on a sound understanding of their work, become Thrasymachean liars. (If he is saying that then he has lost touch with reality.)

So what could he mean that might be true? Most people (in the US) don't study philosophy at all, either because they don't go to college (and philosophy isn't taught in high school or before) or else because they go to a college or university where philosophy is not mandatory. What philosophy they get--and enough people get some exposure to philosophy for opposition to philosophy to be part of the basis of a popular film--comes from other courses. In some educational systems this philosophy might be Thomism, or something like it, but more commonly I think it will be what I call postmodernism. I work in an English department and a high percentage of my friends teach in English departments at other schools. Postmodernism is common among these people. One even said that relativism, including the explicit rejection of belief in truth, was the basic dogma (they didn't use that word) of the discipline of rhetoric and composition. And almost every student studies composition, including in high school.

This is not the fault of Foucault et al., but they have a role to play in the history of the phenomenon. I don't know how ideas like postmodernism get into other subjects, but in English graduate students typically used to have to take a theory course (perhaps they still do) in which they would learn about various kinds of critical theory. I think these courses are often based on Terry Eagleton's book Literary Theory, on which Wikipedia is interesting:
Eagleton's approach to literary criticism remains firmly rooted in the Marxian tradition though he has also incorporated techniques and ideas from more recent modes of thought as structuralismLacanian analysis and deconstruction. [...]
After Theory (2003) represents a kind of about-face: an indictment of current cultural and literary theory, and what Eagleton regards as the bastardisation of both. [...] His indictment [...] centres on "relativism"...  
In other words, it looks as though Eagleton might be (in part) both the cause of and the insufficiently-used cure for the problem that Dennett complains about. I wouldn't blame Eagleton for this any more than I would blame Lacan, but it's a reminder that bastardisation happens and happens predictably. Bastardized versions of various kinds of philosophy (Dewey is frequently misquoted and misapplied too) are widespread. I blame the bastardizers first and foremost, but philosophers themselves could almost certainly do more to combat it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Wittgenstein and politics in twenty minutes?

Here's Sean Wilson on Wittgenstein, politics, and critical thinking. I haven't had time to watch it yet, but it sounds interesting: http://drwilson.squarespace.com/invited-talks/