Wittgenblogging: The Fourth Proposition
November 9, 2010

Ludwig Wittgenstein in his youth.
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This section of the Tractatus is the first in which Wittgenstein addresses the matter of philosophy and its uses directly. First, he writes: “Most of the propositions and questions to be found in philosophical works are not false but nonsensical.” I think this corroborates and goes back to what I’ve been arguing since the beginning: that arguments over the relationship between the soul and the body, or the possibility of omnipotence, or the existence of anything beyond the physical world don’t have right or wrong answers. They don’t have answers at all, because they’re not really proper questions. To pose the question, in Wittgenstein’s view, is to misunderstand what both language and philosophy are there and for, and what they are capable of.

So what are language and philosophy for? To Wittgenstein, language exists to express sense — that is, a representation of something that either agrees or disagrees with observable reality. In other words, language exists to express thoughts (Wittgenstein: “A thought is a proposition with a sense.”). But language also obscures thought. Listening to the spoken expression of a thought is entirely different from perceiving that thought, and it is in the gap between the two where much of our philosophical confusion lies. Wittgenstein writes: “Most of the propositions and questions of philosophers raise form our failure to understand the logic of our language.”

He sees the goal of philosophy as the eradication of that confusion. “Philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts,” he writes. Its end is not “philosophical propositions,” but “rather in the clarification of propositions.”

This is the essence of Wittgensteinian philosophy. To see how that plays out in the modern era — especially with regards to neuroscience — I recommend checking out this interview with leading Wittgensteinian Peter Hacker.

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Is there a school of thought that maintains that the mind and brain are dependent on each other? It would be like a half way point between materialism and idealism
October 29, 2010

I think most theories of mind, including Cartesian dualism, accept the existence of some sort of mind-independent material world while also saying that this world is experienced by a non-physical mind. Descartes believed that the mind interacted with the brain by way of the pineal gland, while Gottfreid Leibniz believed that the body and the mind didn’t interact at all, but moved in perfect concert because they had been set in motion to do so ahead of time by God.

Then there’s Sartre, who distinguished not between mind and body but between essence and existence, with essence being essentially that which is self-aware and can think and feel, and existence being everything else.

My own view is materialist, but I suppose I cheat a little by suggesting that the fact that we have the phenomenological experience of possessing a non-physical mind is deeply significant. I see the mind as sort of a metaphorical concept used to describe our experiences, and if you take that a step further I think you could call a person “that which experiences itself as having a mind.”

Incidentally, I’m loving answering these philosophy questions. If you guys have got any more you’re curious about, keep ‘em coming.

Wittgenblogging: The Third Proposition
October 17, 2010

Please read Peter’s thoughts on the second proposition. What he writes about the gestalt of knowledge is quite true, and I’ve found myself doing it a bit too. As Wittgenstein delves more into the philosophy of language—a subject I unwisely elected not to take in college, going for philosophy of mind instead—he loses me in a thicket of expressions, symbols, propositions, variable, propositional variables, and so on. But his thoughts on what can be understood and articulated—and therefore, for our purposes, exist—has been extremely helpful. I’m starting to embrace Wittgenstein’s view that what we call “metaphysics” is more a sort of confusion over what language is capable of expressing.

On that note, I found the first few passages in the third proposition a lot more engaging than the rest, which mostly concerned itself with the heavy-duty philosophy of language that is both beyond my ken and not directly relevant to my own philosophical project.

In the early going, Wittgenstein attempts to explain why, when discussing and describing things, we’re limited to discussing and describing them logically. That’s the sort of suggestion that’s bound to make a lot of people bristle; more than once I’ve heard proponents of mystical views about the universe defend these views by insisting that you can’t critique them logically, because they exist outside of logic. To which Wittgenstein says:

3. A logical picture of facts is a thought.

[…]

3.031 It used to be said that God could create anything except what would be contrary to the laws of logic. The truth is that we could not say what an ‘illogical’ world would look like.

3.032 It is as impossible to represent in language anything that ‘contradicts logic’ as it is in geometry to represent by its coordinations a figure that contradicts the laws of space, or to give the coordinates of a point that does not exist.

One obvious objection one might raise: People say illogical things all the time! It’s not very hard. For example, if I say, “Boris Yeltsin is the pineapple of my green space” (surely the first time that has ever been said), that seems, on the face of it, like an illogical proposition. But it also doesn’t really express anything, which is why you can’t form a mental picture of it. Now apply that same reasoning to a sentence like, “We are all one, because spirit is everything.” It sure sounds like that means something. Does it?

I’m curious to hear what Peter thinks about Wittgenstein’s definition of a “thought.” Surely his discipline—cognitive neuroscience—has a thing or two to say on the topic.

Being-For-Itself
August 16, 2010

Cover: 1964, 7th printing of Nausea; New Direc...
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Right now I’m about a third of the way through Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, and so far I’m finding it to be an immense pleasure. Effectively, this is the first time I’ve been able to really engage with Sartre’s fiction; I read the original text of Hui Clos (No Exit) in high school French, but given that French was never my strong suit I probably would have gotten more out of reading the Wikipedia synopsis. As for his straight philosophy (specifically Being and Nothingness), I found it maddeningly cryptic and elliptical. I wanted to grapple with the ideas he was proposing, but the presentation made much of it incomprehensible to me.

Nausea personalizes and makes concrete Sartre’s existentialism, which is a great way to clarify both the structure of his phenomenology and his own feelings on its implications. Given that he is one of the great giants of existentialism, and I’m probably one of the last American philosophy majors to unself-consciously identify as an existentialist, the clarification has been invaluable.

I’m particularly interested in the book’s treatment of one of the author’s key concepts from Being and Nothingness: being-for-itself. In the latter work, Sartre argues that consciousness is the being-for-itself because it is that which can observe itself. Because it has that ability, it is, itself, nothing; any of its features can be discarded or remolded at a moment’s notice. The fact that we are, ourselves, nothingness surrounded by (for lack of a better word) thing-ness is profoundly disturbing to us. This comes up a lot in Nausea, in various forms: Roquentin, the main character, is unsettled by the fact that his own reflection in the mirror doesn’t signify anything to him. As a professional historian, he reads up on the fictional (I think) Marquis de Robellon, and is disturbed by the Marquis’ seeming fluidity of character. Robellon, it seems, has embraced the nothingness at his core and set out to simply be whatever he needs to be in any given situation.

I’m of two minds about being-for-itself. On the one hand, I’m something of a soft determinist: I believe that we spend about 99.9999% percent of our lives blindly reacting to external stimuli in predictable, far from unique ways. In fact, I’d argue that this is empirically true; go ahead and ask a political scientist or behavioral psychologist if we’re all the precious little snowflakes we think we are. To the extent that our behavior seems determined by our deepest inner selves, that is because we are remarkably talented at rationalizing our own actions.

On the other hand, I think this feeling of essential emptiness is a good description of one of the fundamental anxieties of self-consciousness; and considering Sartre’s existentialism is founded in phenomenology, the philosophy of describing the character of one’s experiences, that makes all the difference.

Take, for example, my fear of heights. I rarely feel agitated when I’m gazing through a thick pane of glass or over a high railing, but climbing a ladder or standing anywhere near an unprotected ledge can be profoundly distressing. Intellectually, I understand that the only way I’ll fall is if I let go of the ladder or walk off the ledge, two things which I have no interest in doing; on a visceral level, I experience letting go or walking off as real options. That I would never do such a thing is sort of beside the point. The point is that I’m being presented with the choice, and the only things preventing me from making the wrong choice are hardwired self-preservation and my incomplete, shallow perception of myself and what I’m like.

We block out most of these choices just to get through the day without being paralyzed by anxiety. But I think realizing that we are, at our core, not really anything in particular can also liberate us from those of our own habits and behaviors we dislike. That there is a behavioral or physiological element to those habits and behaviors—one which Sartre downplays far too much—makes breaking them one of the most difficult things you can do. Yet doing so can also be the most profound disclosure of your own freedom and agency.

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The Shallows? No, Not Really.
July 13, 2010

Nicholas Carr speaking at the VINT Symposium h...
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Both Sam Rubenfeld and Dylan Matthews seem to think that my argument connection the overshare phenomenon and idle chatter is roughly equivalent to the argument Nicholas Carr (pictured) presents in The Shallows. This calls for a little clarification.

I haven’t read The Shallows, so I can’t judge the argument in its entirety, but I will say that I find the central thesis kind of implausible. Carr seems to be arguing that the way in which one typically interacts with the web—by multitasking and skimming along the serve of vast quantities of material, as opposed to concentrating intently on one thing at a time—is fundamentally altering our consciousness and making deep concentration and reflection more difficult. I’m actually a lot more sympathetic to Steven Pinker’s rebuttal.

But this confusion makes me think I should have been clearer what I was talking about when I referred to “distraction.” When it comes to serious reflection, it would seem that deep concentration is of secondary importance to what that deep concentration is projected towards. When I talked about a lot of personal blogging as a form of idle chatter, my true concern was that simple emoting and identification was not so much distracting people with short attention spans, but rather being consumed (and produced) as a paltry substitute for serious reflection. Attention span has very little to do with my argument.

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So Long and Thanks For All the Fish
June 3, 2010

Dolphin 1
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I mentioned awhile ago that there was a debate going on in certain circles over whether or not dolphins are “non-human persons.” Of course, in order to debate whether or not members of a particular species are persons, you have to nail down what, exactly, personhood is. Sure enough, philosopher Thomas White has penned an article in which he establishes eight criteria for what meets a person and goes on to argue that the typical dolphin meets all of them.

Although philosophers debate the appropriate criteria for personhood, there is a rough consensus that a person is a being with a particular kind of sophisticated consciousness or inner world. Persons are aware of the world they belong to, and they are aware of their experiences. In particular, persons have self-awareness. And the presence of such a sophisticated consciousness is evident in the actions of such beings.

If we translate this general idea into a more specific list of criteria, we arrive at something like the idea that a person (1) is alive, (2) is aware, (3) feels positive and negative sensations, (4) has emotions, (5) has a sense of self, (6) controls its own behaviour, and (7) recognises other persons and treats them appropriately. A person also (8) has a variety of sophisticated cognitive abilities. It is capable of analytical, conceptual thought. A person can learn, retain and recall information. It can solve complex problems with analytical thought. And a person can communicate in a way that suggests thought.

 

Which I suppose is all well and good, though I’m still somewhat inclined to condense it all down to existentialist/Heideggarian “being-for-itself” concept. But what do you guys think?

 

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Flesh and The Look (Or: What is Love? Jean-Paul, Don’t Hurt Me.)
May 28, 2010

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Yes, that’s right: I will continue to shamelessly reuse the joke in the title until I’m done trying to answer the question.

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre lays out a significantly darker conception of love than Aristophanes. For him, persons are forever torn between the “facticity” of their existence (that is, the factual presence and character of objects and phenomena in the material world) and the infinite freedom and nothingness of consciousness. Because this freedom is profoundly disturbing to us, we run away from it and impose limitations on ourselves, most notably by identifying ourselves with “the look” of others—the look being our own perception of their perception of us.

We can also direct the look towards others, and this is potentially an act of violence because it imposes definition on them and constrains their freedom. It draws them away from their consciousness into “flesh,” the medium by which they experience pure facticity.

So for Sartre, love and sex are just another way of acting out this struggle. Love is a way of diminishing the anguish of our internal struggle by identifying ourselves with the look of another who ostensibly “loves” us, while also directing our own look at that person in an attempt to enslave her and assert dominance.

In sex, one does this by causing such intense pleasure that it draws the other unbearably close to the flesh. And in both sex and love in general, the impulse one feels at any given moment is either inherently sadistic or inherently masochistic; one either wishes to dominate the other or be dominated.

I suspect there’s an inkling of truth in Sartre’s argument for the nothingness of consciousness, but the rest of this argument leaves me cold. For one thing, it admits no room for human empathy; everything is a power struggle. And even if you buy into such a relentlessly dark view of human nature, you have to deal with Sartre’s assertion that sex is purely about this power struggle—that there isn’t even a biological motivation. (No, really. He says that.)

Fortunately, Beauvoir is around to save the existentialist notion of love from Sartre.

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