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/

Monday, February 13, 2017

Anthony Bourdain again

This New Yorker essay on Anthony Bourdain is well worth reading if you're interested in him at all. I don't have much to say beyond that, except that it raises the authenticity issue again (as discussed here). According to Patrick Radden Keefe, Bourdain "makes a fetish of authenticity." There is something to this, but it suggests more honesty than I think it should. 

If you read on you find his brother saying that Bourdain likes to "play up" a certain episode from their childhood, and Bourdain himself says that when he separated from his wife he no longer had to "pretend," and that in order to get the music he wanted for one show he "may have fibbed." None of this seems particularly terrible, but it makes his pose of radical honesty (if that's what it is) a bit hard to swallow. Here's some more evidence of posing from the article:   
For a time, he walked around with a set of nunchucks in a holster strapped to his leg, like a six-shooter; he often posed for photographs wearing chef’s whites and clutching the kind of long, curved knife you might use to disembowel a Gorgon.
This is in some ways the worst thing I've heard about Bourdain, although there is also an implication that he committed various crimes when he was a drug addict in order to pay for his habit, and he seems to have sacrificed his first marriage for the sake of traveling the world while being on TV. That might be the worst thing he ever did (he seems to think so), but it's hard to judge someone else's marriage or divorce.
When Bourdain tells his own story, he often makes it sound as if literary success were something that he stumbled into; in fact, he spent years trying to write his way out of the kitchen. 
No crime here, but more evidence to support my case. And finally:
Given Bourdain’s braggadocio, there were times when I wondered if the bad years were quite as grim as he makes them sound. “There are romantics, and then there are the hard-core addicts,” Karen Rinaldi said. “I think Tony was more of a romantic.” Nancy Putkoski told me in an e-mail that Tony is “pretty dramatic.” 
That's about it, as far as I can tell. On the plus side he is courteous and charming. His shows wouldn't be as much fun to watch as they are if he wasn't likable. But he does have this phony tendency which bothers me, especially given his emphasis on authenticity.

It occurs to me, though, that perhaps authenticity and honesty are not the same thing. The kind of authenticity he insists on is not faking a scene for the show--he wants the sights and sounds to be presented as they really are, and for nothing to be staged. But romanticism, a form of entertainment, seems to be his motivation far more than a respect for truth or authenticity in that sense. It's more a case of here are some great experiences I really did have than here is what life, or just eating, is really like in this place. It's reality TV, but it's still TV. Even a fetish for authenticity can be a false idol.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Bad language

I think I'm going to rename my paper on the value of clarity "The Ethics of Communication," a title suggested by James Klagge. It's a huge and understudied field, it seems to me. Lots of people talk about Orwell's essay on politics and the English language, but they tend to either agree uncritically or else dismiss it all for what often seem to be bad reasons. (The people I have seen dismiss it are Descriptivists, who David Foster Wallace takes on pretty successfully to my mind.) Lots of people have read Harry Frankfurt on bullshit, but not caring whether what you say is true or false as long as it gets results comes in many different flavors.

There is relatively little, as far as I know, that has been written on the ethics of language use. There is this course on social and political aspects of language, which looks great, and I haven't read most of what it covers, but it suggests to me that there is a field waiting to be ploughed. Maybe.

Anyway, as a step in the direction of the plough, here's a sort of list of concerns:
  • George Orwell famously warns about thoughtless and vague language, but he doesn't address careful vagueness or how to speak about such subjects as ethics, religion, and art. 
  • Harry Frankfurt, also famously, critiques bullshit: language intended to produce a certain effect but not concerned with truth. This is a broad category, though, including the relatively thoughtless (with the speaker perhaps hoping for no more than to be left alone) and the very careful (perhaps with very specific goals and clever ideas about how to achieve them). There is also the question of what to call language that is concerned with truth but that tries carefully to mislead without actually lying.
  • Steven Poole writes about "unspeak": language that tries both a) to imply an argument without defending it or making it explicit and b) to silence opposition.
  • I criticize what I have been calling "political correctness": language that is like bullshit but that is unconcerned, not necessarily with truth, but with conceptual accuracy. It is like unspeak, but it need not be deliberate. (I think I should perhaps call it something else because the term 'political correctness' is so loaded.)
  • Another linguistic vice is straightforward lying, although the ethics of lying are rather complicated
David Egan, drawing on others and on Wittgenstein's game analogy, notes some other potential problems:
  • Spoilsports (the relevant reference here is Gadamer, Truth and Method 1989, p. 102): not taking the (language-)game seriously 
  • Triflers (see Suits, The Grasshopper 2005, p. 60): respecting the rules of the game, but not its goals
  • Cheats (Suits again): recognizing goals but not rules
  • Sophists (as Egan sees it, p. 12) are like spoilsports but also deny the very possibility of achieving the goal of the game, e.g. Thrasymachus denying the reality of justice
Huizinga (Homo Ludens 1995) regards spoilsports as especially bad, but also closely connected to revolutionaries who reject one language-game, or set of language-games, but introduce new ones instead.

So, can we put all this together to come up with an initial sketch of the landscape? I will probably have to read Suits one of these days, but in the meantime I'm struggling to imagine exactly what cheating in a language-game would be. Lying, perhaps. Trifling, as the name suggests, sounds a lot like not taking the game seriously, which is what defines a spoilsport. And sophists just seem to be a kind of spoilsports.

Deliberate vagueness, carefully constructed (Jesuitical?) bull, and unspeak all seem like forms of cheating. While thoughtless vagueness and bull are more like being a spoilsport out of laziness.

The interesting area, really, (at least to me) is bullshit. Which seems to be quite popular these days.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Ornament and Crime: the book

One of my Christmas presents was Adolf Loos' Ornament and Crime, which includes the famous essay of that title but also many more short pieces on related themes. There aren't many huge surprises, but he's funny and seems very similar to Wittgenstein in matters of taste. I couldn't wait to blog about it, but now that I've finished it I don't know what to say. Here goes nothing.

One reason I found the book interesting is that Wittgenstein once wrote that: "It is as though I wanted to change men's and women's fashions by talking" (Culture and Value p, 71, according to some notes I have, but I don't see it there in the edition I own). Loos sort of tries to do this, although he also recognizes the problem with such an enterprise. He also, like Wittgenstein, rejects talk of beauty in the arts in favor of talk about getting things right. Or rather, Loos rejects one in favor of the other, while Wittgenstein, if his students' notes are to believed, merely observed that we tend not to talk much about beauty and instead use words like 'right' and 'wrong'. Here's Loos, from the essay "Men's Fashion" (from 1898):
...what does it mean to be well dressed? It means to be correctly dressed.
To be correctly dressed! With that expression I feel as if I have removed the mystery with which our fashions have been surrounded until now. For fashion we use words such as beautiful, elegant, chic, smart, or dashing. But that is not the main point at all. The point is to be dressed in such a manner as to attract as little attention to oneself as possible. (p. 40)
He is not doing aesthetics here but trying to change men's fashions by talking. He is making propaganda, that is, against the foppishness that he identified as popular in Germany and in favor of what he identifies as the English (he is very pro-English, which probably ought to make one suspicious), modern, refined taste in men's clothing.

On the other hand, he does acknowledge that this is not generally how fashion works:
Today we wear narrow trousers, tomorrow they will be wide, and the day after narrow again. Every tailor knows that. Couldn't we just abolish the wide-trouser period, then? Oh no! We need it to be able to enjoy our narrow trousers again. (p. 60)
He does suggest, though, that the industry can impose styles on people, or at least force the speed of change to increase. And, presumably, the industry might be encouraged to do so by respected essayists. But:
Fashion progresses slowly, more slowly than one usually thinks. Objects that are really modern stay so for a long time. (p. 92)
Another engine of changing fashion is social change:
...we are heading toward a newer, greater age. Women will no longer have to appeal to sensuality to achieve equal status with men, but will do so through their economic and intellectual independence, gained through work. A woman's value will not rise and fall with fluctuations in sensuality. Silks and satins, ribbons and bows, frills and furbelows will lose their effectiveness. They will disappear. And rightly so. There is no place for them in our culture. (p. 111) 
Much has been made of the handles that Wittgenstein designed for the house he built in Vienna. (You can even buy a version of them, although his design has been reworked "to bring it in line with modern technology." The horror!) But has Loos' remark from "The New Style and the Bronze Industry" (1898, presumably, although the date given in the book is 1878--Loos was born in 1870) been noted?
There is only one decent door handle in Vienna accessible to me, and I make a special detour to see it every time I am in the vicinity. (p. 49)
From the surrounding text it seems clear that what distinguishes this handle is its lack of ornamentation. If Wittgenstein was a big fan of Loos' then he might have tried to design something that would have pleased the master. This is not easy:
Changing old objects to adapt them to modern needs is not permissible. We must either copy or create something completely new. (p. 46)
And a craftsman's best work will be the work that corresponds "most closely to his nature, to his temperament, which he produces without effort, which bear[s] the clearest stamp of his personality" (p. 45).

One rule of thumb that seems to apply throughout the book is that the duller the chapter title, the more interesting its content turns out to be. For instance, in "Interior Design: Prelude" (1898) Loos speaks of styles of furniture as languages: "Our cabinetmaker speaks German, the German of Vienna, 1898. Do not call him stupid or naive just because he cannot speak Middle High German, French, Russian, Chinese, and Greek as well" (p. 53). Perhaps this isn't earth-shattering, but it seems rather Wittgensteinian.

As, in a way, does this:
...the ancient Greeks also knew a little about beauty. And they were led by practical considerations alone, without taking beauty into account at all, without wanting to satisfy some aesthetic need. And when an object was so practical it could not be made any more practical, they called it beautiful.[...]
Are there still people who work in the same way as the Greeks? Oh, yes. As a nation, the English; as a profession, the engineers. The English and the engineers are our ancient Greeks. (p. 69)
I wonder whether Wittgenstein read this before he went to England to study engineering in Manchester.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Anger is an energy?


"It isn't sensible [vernünftig] to be furious even at Hitler: how much less so at God," Wittgenstein wrote around 1945 according to Culture and Value (p. 46e of my edition). There is a lot of anger now about Trump's election, although I suspect (i.e. believe 100%) there might be some "anger" mixed in with it too. That is, I noticed even before the election a tendency among some people to talk about how angry they are or to refer to their own rage. What seems odd to me about this is partly how often certain people claimed to be in a rage, and partly the way they behaved when in this state. They did not scream or smash things,. Instead they went on Facebook and typed about the rage they were in. This, it seems to me, is not genuine rage. But maybe that's just me. 

Now the Daily Nous implies that accusing others of being phony about, or of exaggerating, moral outrage is a bad thing. It is certainly an accusation that can be made insincerely in order to undermine the credibility of people making moral complaints. It draws attention away from the content of the complaint to the complainers and their motives. It is thus a way of changing the subject, and of treating the complainers as being not really worth listening to. They are not to be answered, only diagnosed. There is obviously something bad, or potentially bad, at least, about making such a move. 

Still, aren't some people sometimes phony? And isn't that a bad thing?

I certainly don't mean that no one's anger about Trump is real. Even the people who seem a bit phony to me also seem to have genuine objections to make. I just don't believe that all of these people (the ones I'm thinking of are privileged, white men, by the way) really feel the "pure rage" that they claim to feel. There surely could be an element of performance to some such claims. This might have good effects, signaling a kind of solidarity with those who really do feel angry and encouraging others not to be passive. But it can also have bad effects, either making all protest seem like a pose or just alienating the Holden Caulfields among us from political action.

There is something to be said for genuine anger though. Which is not to say that it is sensible. Part of being angry, surely, is having less control over oneself, being less (inclined to behave in ways that are) sensible or rational. You cannot be angry and calm at the same time, even if you can be angry on the inside and outwardly calm. Which is why sitting down to type "What I am feeling now is pure rage" (or "Pure. Rage.") so often seems phony.

I have always, without thinking about it much, taken Wittgenstein's remark about the unreasonableness of fury at Hitler or God to be a rejection of such fury. It could be taken, though, as a contrast between rational responses and passionate ones, so that of course love or hate will never be sensible, but they might be good things nonetheless. But I don't think that's what Wittgenstein is saying. Not because Hitler is not that bad, nor because fury won't do any good. It's more, I would think, that Hitler is so bad that fury at him is an inadequate response, a silly response. There is something irresolute about fury, having to do, I think, with the facts that it cannot be maintained and that it is not something one can feel with all one's heart and mind. (Is that true?) After careful reflection about something one can be glad about it, or very sad. One can be determined to make sure it happens again, or never happens again. But I don't think one can be angry about it.

Anger seems to be a personal response, a feeling that arises in response to something done to you, or at least done to someone very close to you, perhaps to a family member. And some things seem too small to be angry about, while others seem too big. It would be petty to be angry about a loose button, but absurd to be angry about something too distant in time or space to affect you personally, or too enormous for you to have any hope of doing something about it. Hitler's acts seem like this. I can't reasonably be angry at Hitler partly because I don't have any personal relation to him and partly because his crimes are too enormous for such a personal emotional response as anger to fit them.

Wittgenstein was in a better position to be angry at Hitler, but I assume his point was that what Hitler did is too big for anger to be a reasonable response. If someone breaks my fence with their car I might be angry. I don't know what I would feel if I were close to the victims of a mass murder. But it wouldn't be the same.

Having said all this, I'm not sure that I'm right about either anger or about what Wittgenstein meant. I've also been working on this post, on and off, for far too long. A lot of the seemingly phony anger at Trump has died down, being replaced by some combination of determined resistance, despair, horror, and cautious optimism that in the very long run things might be OK. In fairness to the people who sometimes seem phony to me, they do far more of practical value than I do. So my seeing them as (somewhat) phony might say more about me than it does about them. But, of course, I don't think so.

[And, just in case this needs to be said, I am no more saying that Trump is Hitler than Wittgenstein was saying that Hitler is God.]      

Friday, January 13, 2017

British Wittgenstein Society Newsletter

[Warning: the following consists of little but bragging, although there is also a link to videos of talks by various Wittgenstein-related philosophers.]

The latest BWS Newsletter contains a short piece by Anshel Cohen, a student at Cambridge, about the 8th BWS Annual Conference. He writes:
One highly interesting lecture was Rowan Williams’ on Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard and the Gospels, which uncovered many unexpected connections between these topics. However, my favourite talk was by Duncan Richter,...
Woo hoo! (The talk in question is this one, on "The Value of Clarity".)

There's a video of the talk here. Perhaps more interestingly, the same link takes you to videos of the talks given by Gabriel Citron, Genia Schӧnbaumsfeld, John Milbank, Stephen Mulhall, Rowan Williams, Sophie-Grace Chappell, Michael Scott, and Wayne Proudfoot