Delight Springs

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Wittgenstein, Arendt, Popper & Kuhn, Foot & Thomson

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.” 

Karl Popper's Open Society and Its Enemeies is must-reading too. "Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them... We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.”

Popper said science progresses when we find reasons to falsify, rather than confirm, a favored hypothesis. Science proceeds not by proving things but by pruning falsehoods. It skirts the problem of induction, the problem of our never having enough particular experiences of a phenomenon to support a generalized knowledge claim, by looking instead for falsifying counterexamples.

Thomas Kuhn said shift happens. Paradigm shifts are revolutions in though, when "normal science" fails to make sense of new observations and ways of thinking. “Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like... Under normal conditions the research scientist is not an innovator but a solver of puzzles, and the puzzles upon which he concentrates are just those which he believes can be both stated and solved within the existing scientific tradition.” When the puzzles seem insoluble, researchers become receptive to new paradigms. The Copernican Revolution was a paradigm shift. Einstein's E=mc2 was another. Aren't we about due for a new one?

Thought experiments don't require a lab, just an experimental cast of mind and the integrity to report one's results honestly when they disconfirm one's prejudices. Philippa Foot (R.I.P./Guardian) and Judith Jarvis Thomson gave us runaway train and trolley thought experiments (YouT, toolkit).

"Critics of the trolley problem say it is too unrealistic to reveal anything important about real-life morality. But the rise of drones and self-driving cars makes the dilemma perhaps more relevant than ever before. For example, should a self-driving car protect the life of its passengers, even at the expense of a greater number of pedestrians? Here too, our intuitions are inconsistent: we want other people’s cars to maximize the number of lives saved – but think our own car should protect us at all costs. As our technologies become increasingly capable of making moral decisions, understanding our own moral intuitions becomes all the more crucial." Guardian

Thomson topped herself in "A Defense of Abortion" with an unsolicited surgically attached violinist. Not everyone think this bizarre scenario supports Thomson's fetal intentions, but it's certainly got people talking.
You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist's circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, "Look, we're sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you--we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it's only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you." Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. "Tough luck. I agree. but now you've got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person's right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him." I imagine you would regard this as outrageous...
And therefore...?
?? Should we be silent about things we can't prove? Should philosophy concern itself with more than understanding the logic of language? Do you use language as a pictorial medium, a tool for managing social relationships and expressing our thoughts and feelings, or what? Are ordinary people capable of great evil? Are you? How can we be sure that a Holocaust will never happen again? What will you teach your children about that? If the government attempted to round up, detain, and deport millions of Latinos and Muslims, how would you respond? Is "the banality of evil" relevant to our time?
"It's the birthday of one of the founders of psychiatry, Philippe Pinel, born in Saint-AndrĂ©, France (1745). He studied mathematics, theology, and internal medicine before becoming the chief physician at a Paris insane asylum in 1792. Before Pinel arrived, conditions at the asylum were horrible: Among other things, patients were chained to the walls, and people could pay a fee to come in and watch them..."  It's the anniversary of Columbine (1999) and Deepwater Horizon (2010)...

5:30/6:08, 63/87, 7:23

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