Wednesday, 27 February 2008

One edge must be sharper!

I was struck by the dangers of trying to deploy everyday philosophy (this blog!) by the following interchange on Stephen Fry’s ancient radio show: Saturday Night Fry, repeated recently.

Hugh Laurie has gone to see a new exhibition of cutlery and interview the artists to find that, in order for the work to be seen in situ rather than than ‘lifelessly’ hanging on a wall, it is on display in use in what seems like a restaurant. Later we discover that it is a restaurant and that the artists have neither made nor even commissioned the cutlery but (oddly, on reflection) bought it from Peter Jones (“I’m an artist. It would take years to learn the skills involved in cutling. I haven’t got the time to start acquiring vulgar skills. That’s for artisans.”) Still, one of the artists is able to offer this perceptive account of why the one-sided sharpness of the bread knife is an appropriate reflection, or commentary, on life.

Hugh Laurie: Medusa, this cutlery, we’re about to use it. I have to say, it certainly seems very functional. It all fits well to hand. I’m using a bread knife at the moment and I must say that it appears to be working perfectly.

Medusa (Julia Hills): Thank you. You’ll notice one edge is sharper than the other.

Hugh Laurie: Yes! Yes, I have noticed that, yes.

Medusa (Julia Hills): This is quite deliberate. Although all knives are essentially double edged it seemed important to me to ensure that one edge was keener. This reflects the sense in which the choices in life, though endlessly varied, relentlessly ambiguous must ultimately resolve. One view of the world is in the end truer, one action juster, one decision wiser, one edge must be sharper!

Hugh Laurie: Hmm, it also presumably reflects a sense in which bread is resistant to a blunt edge as far as slicing goes.

Medusa (Julia Hills): I think that’s rather a shallow observation.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Being and saying

Last night I went to hear Hot Chip at the university. They sounded so much better than on cd. They seemed much livelier. But, perhaps more importantly, there’s something engaging about feeling one’s body resonate to the vibrations. One needs, I realise, to have viscera to experience the visceral. This prompted me to think about a couple of cross cutting philosophical themes.

The first is a consequence of the fact that, inspired by Frege, Russell and Wittgenstein, analytic philosophy has always centred on linguistic analysis. In John Collins’ pithy phrase: semantics exhausts ontology. Being is captured by saying.

By attending directly to language and thus only indirectly to things and, typically, by aiming to analyse one concept into others, such an approach encourages an emphasis on relations between things rather their supposed internal or intrinsic natures properties. (Rorty, for example, is explicit in rejecting intrinsic properties in favour of relations.)

Given this historical tendency there is a predictable reaction against it which emphasises just such intrinsic features. It lies at the heart, for example, of both Frank Jackson’s and Tom Nagel’s appeals to raw feels or qualia in the philosophy of mind. (The claim being that then dominant analyses might get the relations between supposed mental states right but failed to address the intrinsic feel of having a mental state and thus were not, after all, getting to the nature of minds.)

The other theme that struck me was the role of embodiment in philosophy. I’m tempted to think that there’s been a gradual retreat from a God’s eye view to something very much more mundane. Descartes’ attempt to capture subjectivity relies on simply adding in some extra stuff which seems to lack the explanatory resources to explain the connection between being a subject and having any kind of perspective. Cartesian minds are allocentric golems. The Tractarian Wittgenstein draws attention to the connection between being a subject and seeing the world from a perspective. But the subject so construed is merely a logical point of origin, a pictorial perspective. In the mid twentieth century, the fact that subjects are embodied and have a practical relation to the world comes to the fore. And more recently still we have had a growth of philosophy of the flesh. (Links to come.)

But, listening to the funky rhythms, I was struck by the difficulty of assessing the merits of claims to philosophical attention either of intrinsic qualities or the specifics of the flesh. In both cases the claim is that something important is missing from dry relational accounts. But this means that such claims cannot, themselves, be justified in relational terms but rather through a kind of inner pointing: “You’re missing this!” Sadly such brute appeals to the nature of being rather than through saying need not gain argumentative hold over philosophers – we Wittgensteinians, for example – who start from the perspective that semantics exhausts ontology. I guess you'd have to be there.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Empathy and films

This week my colleague Gloria gave a fine, detailed research presentation on empathy which took as its point of departure the thought that one should not construe it as way of delivering knowledge of the content of others’ mental states but rather as responsible for incorporating others' first person perspectives into one’s own understanding. She then considered three routes (based on perception, imitation and imagination) to this. (I’ll think a little more about the idea before commenting on it here.)

A day later I watched No Country for Old Men. It was, predictably, very good. Lovely cinematography; good dialogue - such as the meditative discussion of a strained analogy from the Sheriff which finishes with the line:

“Point bein’, even in the contest between man and steer the issue is not certain”

- and an engaging plot. Of course, like any decent film, no such check list gives much of an impression of what it was like. It was in Emilio Estevez’ character from Repo Man Otto’s phrase ‘intense’.

Despite emerging from it to the usual post film pint and a pleasant debriefing conversation with friends it took a long while to recover from the experience. Strange that I watch films in the full knowledge that they are fiction, aware in this case that I’d last seen Kelly Macdonald in a poor Richard Curtis vehicle, and yet cannot disengage from an immediate emotional response. (A moment in which the psychopath Anton Chigurh emerges from a house and inspects his feet for blood thus telling us what has just happened was particularly striking.) If this is a kind of empathy, why is it not undermined by the knowledge that there isn’t another point of view or even a subject at hand?

Thursday, 21 February 2008

Philosophy as social science

Once one looks, one begins to see instances of constraining codifications everywhere. Yesterday I read a social science PhD thesis and was reminded of the formal constraints of that group of disciplines, in the UK at least. This matters (to me) because philosophy is sometimes classified by universities as a social science and thus is governed by their regulations. (At my university, the philosophers are all housed within the Faculty of Health which is disciplined by social science.)

Social science PhDs generally share the same structure which includes clear separations between literature reviews, formulation of a research question, an account and justification of research methods, results and conclusions. There seem to be many models of research which can be plucked from the shelf (“I will adopt a grounded theory approach...”; “The thesis uses social constructionism…”; “Using narrative theory…” etc etc). By contrast, when submitting structured abstracts of papers to social science journals I’m forced, with some embarrassment, to write, baldly, ‘conceptual analysis’ for my research method. (I suppose I could say, rather more darkly, that I would spend some time “in the clearing”.) **

Most disconcertingly, this proliferation of names of models sometimes even applies to the justification for how one selects the reading to go into the literature review (“I searched the literature using the snowball aproach”). For a philosophy PhD, the ‘method’ by which one selects literature isn’t mentioned. As long as one has read the right literature (as determined by one’s examiners), no one cares whether one can justify the method of its selection.

I can see the point of the mechanical codified approach. It is an attempt to make sure that there is some sort of research question, some agreed method and an awareness of the literature. But it runs the risk of separating the literature review, the method and the results which may generally work well in the natural sciences, seems implausible in philosophy and is clearly under stress in some qualitative social science (where the justifications of method and results do not seem to be independent).

Interestingly, tacit expertise still finds a role despite the codifications as students and supervisors skilfully balance the general requirements of following the explicit rules with the local needs of their particular research project.

(** Does anyone ever, in these contexts, really try to spell things out and say something about being in the the clearing made possible by the fourfold unity of earth, sky, divinities and mortals? Wouldn't it be great to slip into the description of research methods something along these lines?:

The fouring, the unity of the four, presences as the appropriating mirror-play of the betrothed, each to the other in simple oneness. The fouring presences as the worlding of the world. The mirror-play of the world is the round dance of appropriating. Therefore, the round dance does not encompass the four like a hoop. The round dance is the ring that joins while its plays as mirroring. Appropriating, it lightens the four into the radiance of their simple oneness. Radiantly, the ring joins the four, everywhere open to the riddle of their presence. The gathered presence of the mirror-play of the world, joining in this way, is the ringing. In the ringing of the mirror-playing ring, the four nestle into their unifying presence, in which each one retains its own nature. So nestling, they join together, worlding the world. )

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Semantic normativity

I’ve begun reading a book I bought last year and put to one side because I couldn’t believe it could say anything persuasive: Martin Kusch’s (2006) A Sceptical Guide to Meaning and Rules: Defending Kripke’s Wittgenstein, Chesham: Acumen. My doubt had nothing to do with Kusch’s reputation (I’ve another book of his on the history of psychology) but Kripke’s. Although Kripke’s book drew attention to the importance of the rule following sections of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and outlines a seemingly powerful sceptical argument against the very idea of meaning, it is widely regarded as misguided. Hence my initial interest in, and temptation to buy, a book that attempts to resuscitate Kripke but also my tendency to defer actually looking at it.

I’ve noticed a couple of interesting things, so far, about the role of normativity.

The first is the status of normativity in Kripke’s argument. I have always taken it that the normativity of meaning (‘semantic normativity’) is a pre-philosophical characteristic of meaning that Wittgenstein invokes to criticise a number of substantive philosophical accounts of meaning. Reductive dispositionalism, for example, is false because it cannot account for the normativity of meaning. Similarly, I took Kripke to share that pre-philosophical assumption and follow it, almost unwillingly, as it seemed to lead him, at least, to scepticism about realism about meaning. And I took it that his slightly uneasy sceptical solution (to his sceptical problem) at least attempted to rebuild something akin to semantic normativity in the negative judgements of the community.

Kusch has a much more straight forward idea. Semantic normativity is part of a package of ideas that constitute ‘meaning determinism’ all of which are under fire. This means that Kusch can ascribe to Kripke a positive view which – consistently – also rejects semantic normativity. (Of course it also means that he needs to explain what a positive account of meaning is which eschews normativity.) More strangely, it means that his account of Kripke’s criticism of dispositionalism has to be accounted for as an aspect of meaning determinism. Supporters of meaning determinism are supposed to attempt to develop their own position by invoking dispositionalism. That seems odd because of the ad hominem point that it is only the anti-reductionists who ever stress the normativity of meaning. Getting to grips with this dialectic, however, will require me to understand his positive account of meaning better than I do at present.

The second point is that Kusch takes Kripke’s supposed rejection of semantic normativity to be correct. This is something I do want to reject.

Following Searle, Kusch suggests that there are two sorts of norms: regulative and constitutive:
Regulative: In conditions C you ought to perform action A. These regulate antecedently or independently existing forms of behaviour.
Constitutive: Doing A counts as B in context C. These create or define new forms of behaviour.
Kusch suggests that defenders of semantic normativity take it to be regulative since they suggest it concerns how words ought to be used. But he argues, first, that the same philosophers have often compared language use to a game and thus suggested a constitutive reading instead. Secondly, he argues that they owe an account of what kind of thing semantic normativity is, distinct from moral or prudential senses of ‘ought’. Thirdly he points out that one cannot simply get a regulative norm out of a constitutive one because the injunction ‘Do B in context C by doing A!’ could not be broken. ‘Constitutive rules cannot be breached’ [ibid: 55].

But this seems to me to be odd. Defenders of semantic normativity need not think that semantic norms regulate antecedently of linguistic conventions. So given the forced choice, I’d say semantic norms were constitutive rules. That also accords with the frequently made comparison of language with games. Given that then it still seems possible to get some sense of ‘ought’ in this way. If you want to say that something is red in the context of an English speaking community you ought to use the word ‘red’. It may be true that in that context that that is the only way to say it is red so in one sense that linguistic rule cannot be breached (by fiat). Still, one may still fail to say that something is red (by misspeaking in whatever way). This, of course, need not be a prudential ‘ought’. Perhaps it is not prudent to draw attention to the colour. Semantically, however, to say that something is red one should aim at saying ‘red’.

See also this and this later entry on semantic normativity.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Kafka and empathy

I trekked down to the Liverpool Playhouse at the weekend to see a production of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. It was strikingly theatrical.

Samsa’s change, or rather his having already changed, was brilliantly signalled by just three things:
1. rents in his suit, as though he no longer had human shape;
2. the actor moving about the set like a modern free rock climber; and
3. his bedroom, which formed the upper tier of a two floor set, being orthogonal to the plane of the set so that the back of the stage was the floor, his bed stood vertically as far as the audience was concerned etc.

The irritating peculiarity of his family, suggested in part by rapid transitions from emotion to comedy, was underlined by an occasional habit of standing in a line, declaiming to the audience. The final scene which reflects this passage…

Then all three left the apartment together, something they had not done for months now, and took the electric tram into the open air outside the city. The car in which they were sitting by themselves was totally engulfed by the warm sun. Leaning back comfortably in their seats, they talked to each other about future prospects, and they discovered that on closer observation these were not at all bad, for the three of them had employment, about which they had not really questioned each other at all, which was extremely favourable and with especially promising prospects. The greatest improvement in their situation at this moment, of course, had to come from a change of dwelling. Now they wanted to rent a smaller and cheaper apartment but better situated and generally more practical than the present one, which Gregor had found. While they amused themselves in this way, it struck Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, almost at the same moment, how their daughter, who was getting more animated all the time, had blossomed recently, in spite of all the troubles which had made her cheeks pale, into a beautiful and voluptuous young woman. Growing more silent and almost unconsciously understanding each other in their glances, they thought that the time was now at hand to seek out a good honest man for her. And it was something of a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions when at the end of their journey their daughter got up first and stretched her young body.

... was gestured at by a gloriously lit, flower filled walk in a park, strangely bathetic, with a swelling Nick Cave song.

I mention all this because of the following phenomenon. I would have thought that the artifice of the production (required in part because it is hardly a story for naturalistic depiction) would have got in the way of an empathic response. But within the space of 90 minutes, the norms and traditions of that way of going on began to feel natural and both the cruelty and yet subsequent seemingly naive optimism of the final scene was strangely affecting. Interpretation, in an emotional as well as intellectual sense, doesn’t seem to need that much commonality, after all.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Craft skill and error

Out pounding the streets of Kendal last night I listened to the podcast of the sociologist Lawrie Taylor’s Thinking Allowed programme on Radio 4. He was discussing ,with the author, the much reviewed book by LSE sociologist Richard Sennett The Craftsman and had Grayson Perry, the Turner Prize winning artist and craftsman-potter on the programme as well. There was a brief interchange (starting at 9 minutes 54 seconds into the recording) which I thought missed a trick.

Perry had just said that he had the slogan “Creativity is mistakes!” cast into the concrete of his studio much to Sennett’s delight ("Oh very good! Oh I like this!"). But then he went on:

Perry: "There is no right way to do it and it is always about my judgement: what is good.”
Sennett: “You’ve got an objective standard though, of course? You are judging yourself.”
Perry: “Yes [doubtfully] - but it can move. I have an aesthetic standard. You can’t measure it. You can't put a ruler next to it and say it is good.”

This is the problem. We tend to equate too quickly the lack of a codified standard of correctness, so that judgement is needed, with the idea that there is no such thing as correctness or error at all. (People are always suggesting this to me about philosophy, as though one can just say what one likes.) But it does not follow, as Sennett was keen to emphasise.

Note, of course, that Perry's first comment requires the very normative standard that he then downplayed, before going on to blur the issue by saying it moved and then that you cannot measure it with a ruler. (A ruler?! So what? He must think he can judge it, however, to think that creativity is mistakes.)

Until the idea of uncodified but still correct / erroneous judgement is taken for granted, a reaction against Perry’s view (in, say, medicine where we do want correct medical judgements) will, sadly, motivate those who wish to replace merely skilled judgement with algorithmic standards. Hence the lamentable growth of codification that Sennett also criticised.

PS. For my surprising disappointment with his book, see this entry.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Cover versions and Wittgenstein on playing trains

Sitting up in front of the fire late last night with Brix and a glass of Oddbins’ modestly priced Domaine de Joy Bas-Armagnac, it seemed exactly the right time to play some of the Johnny Cash late American Recordings. And hence now to return to the notion of cover versions of pop songs.

Here’s the thought. Half the pleasure of Johnny Cash covers is the simultaneous awareness of what the original sounded like. Given the very particular sound (the voice, the basic instrumentation, the very immediate or ‘up front’ sound stage: all of which are characteristic of the American Recordings), whatever the original sound of the song (from Nick Cave and Simon and Garfunkel to U2 and Nine Inch Nails), the final will sound a bit like every other later Johnny Cash song. Unlike, eg, Jeff Buckley’s dreadful pastiche of the Leonard Cohen / John Cale song Hallelujah listening to Cash seems to encourage a kind of constructive dialogue with the original.

What would it be like to listen to them without that; if one had not heard Hurt, The Mercy Seat, or One previously sung? For that matter, I’ve also recently got hold of the Nau Ensemble’s meditations on Joy Division’s Closer using an Arvo Part-like arrangment of strings and choir. This recording makes almost no sense except in relation to the original. (I can’t decide whether its deeply moving but funny or just funny.)

I’m reminded of Wittgenstein’s discussion of children playing trains:

“But in a fairy tale the pot too can see and hear!” (Certainly; but it can also talk.)
“But the fairy tale only invents what is not the case: it does not talk nonsense.” -- It is not as simple as that. Is it false or nonsensical to say that a pot talks? Have we a clear picture of the circumstances in which we should say of a pot that it talked? (Even a nonsense -- poem is not nonsense in the same way as the babbling of a child.)
We do indeed say of an inanimate thing that it is in pain: when playing with dolls for example. But this use of the concept of pain is a secondary one. Imagine a case in which people ascribed pain only to inanimate things; pitied only dolls! (When children play at trains their game is connected with their knowledge of trains. It would nevertheless be possible for the children of a tribe unacquainted with trains to learn this game from others, and to play it without knowing that it was copied from anything. One might say that the game did not make the same sense to them as to us.)
[Wittgenstein 1953 §282]

There would – obviously! – be something to liking the Cash songs or the Nau Ensemble as though they were originals but, at the same time, it would seem rather to miss the point.