International Ethics
November 12, 2010

Sergio Vieira de Mello
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So right now I’m working my way through the first half of Samantha Power’s excellent book Sergio. It’s a biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello (pictured), who the back cover describes as “a charismatic peacemaker and troubleshooter with the United Nations.” Oh, and also, “a ‘cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy.’”

Vieira de Mello himself is a fascinating tour guide, but what makes his story relevant — and not merely compelling — is that his career took him through the slow, painful birth of our current world order. From 1969 to his death in 2003, he watched the bipolar world disappear, Westphalian sovereignty begin to mutate and erode, humanitarianism’s role in foreign affairs change, and terrorism rear its ugly head.

One thing that I think makes Vieira de Mello a particularly good guide to these issues is his philosophical background. He actually juggled his UN duties with earning a doctorate at the Sorbonne, and it’s clear that he made an effort to integrate what he learned about academic philosophy into his thinking on the UN’s mission. It seems that he didn’t have a choice: Power quotes a letter he wrote while taking undergraduate courses at the Sorbonne in which he says he would “never abandon philosophy,” and that, “to do philosophy is to have it in your blood and to do what very few will do — to both be a man and to think everywhere and always.”

Unfortunately, we only get little snippets of his philosophical writing on problems related to foreign policy. Early on, there’s a passing reference to intersubjectivity (in phenomenology, the perception of another as a subject rather than an object) as the basis for dealing with foreign powers. And a little later, we learn that his doctoral dissertation, called “Philosophical History and Real History: The Relevance of Kant’s Political Thought in Current Times,” he argued for a global Kantian “federation of states” that would not breach the sovereignty of other states unless their internal political instability proved to be an international threat.

I mostly picked up this book due to my deepening interest in international relations, but the philosophical angle is an intriguing one. I’m used to thinking about ethics in terms of how individual actors interact with one another, but states are not individual actors in the same way people are. Creating a just society is one thing; imagining just arbitration between societies that are just to varying degrees is another. But when I try to think of philosophers who have addressed this head-on, it’s hard to name any. I know Kant talked about international relations, but I haven’t read the source material itself. I think Kymlicka talked a little about it too.

Who else? Help me out, fellow philosophy nerds.


Wittgenblogging: Proposition 4 and the Cartesian Circle
November 11, 2010

Meditationes de prima philosophia - Renatus Ca...
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Peter highlights one of the more intriguing findings of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus’ fourth proposition, regarding the slipperiness of trying to describe or prove logic itself. Logic is the underlying framework of the universe; you can’t construct a proof to demonstrate the validity of logic, or precisely describe logic itself, because doing so would require stepping outside of logic. That’s not something we’re capable of. Peter has a good analogy:

Sort of how I can’t really tell you what it’s like to be alive, because both you and I would have to be dead first to actually comprehend the contrast.

I first encountered the problem of how to demonstrate that logic or reason were useful tools for understanding the universe in Descartes’ Meditations. Early on in the Meditations, Descartes decides that if he can’t be certain of the validity of his perception, then reason is all he has to rely on. But then he starts asking himself why he has any reason to think that reason itself is reliable, and the result is the painfully contorted piece of reasoning we call the Cartesian Circle.

It goes like this:

  1. Whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive (meaning, essentially, can hold in my mind and understand wholly from a mental picture) is true.
  2. I know that my clear and distinct perceptions are accurate because they are given to me by God, and God is not a deceiver.
  3. I know God exists because I can clearly and distinctly perceive Him. I just imagine a perfect, infinite being, and understand that it is more perfect for something to exist than to not exist.

I don’t think I need to spell out the problems here. And it shouldn’t be hard to see why I prefer Wittgenstein’s far more elegant answer to the question: “How do we know reason itself is valid?”

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.

In academia is Pirsig's M.O.Q ignored, respected, or a joke?
November 7, 2010

Largely ignored, I think. I’ve certainly never heard it brought up by any academic philosophers, and from what little I know of it, I sincerely doubt it would be able to withstand the sort of rigorous scrutiny that academic philosophy demands.


Over Twitter, Julian Sanchez adds:

@resnikoff sub-joke. Ppl mock Kenny G, not the tone-deaf kid in HS jazz band; why bother?

Wittgenblogging: Proposition 3.5
November 2, 2010

Peter’s all caught up on the Wittgenblogging, and pretty close to outstripping me. I’ll admit I haven’t started on the fourth proposition yet; the third sort of took the air out of my tires, and besides that I’ve got a list of philosophy texts I want to read that’s thiiiiis big. But I will get to it soon; this week, hopefully.

Anyway, Peter raised some issues with my last post on the subject that I think I should address.

For example:

First, I would hesitate use “mental pictures,” as the litmus test for the logicality of a statement. There are plenty of statements that I can not picture, but that are almost certainly true. Examples of these include, “People with synesthesia can taste music,” “Bees can see ultraviolet light,” “When in a state of dreamless sleep, you experience nothingness,” and “The universe is infinite.” I can also picture things that, while I guess they don’t contradict logic, are physically impossible*. For example, I can imagine ashes burning.

Peter may be right here, but I think he’s actually being a little over-literal when it comes to the idea of “mental pictures.” While you might not be able to take a literal snapshot of how a synesthesiac (that’s a word, right?) perceive music, you can certainly imagine what it would be like to experience a certain coppery taste when one hears a high C-sharp. I think that when Wittgenstein talks about mental pictures, he just means imagined sets of data that it is within our capability to perceive.

As for the ashes burning thing, I think Peter’s right there. “The ashes are burning” is a phrase that obeys a certain logical form, and you can imagine how one might perceive it. As a result it has some truth value (likely negative). 

Peter also writes:

Second, Wittgenstein directly says, “It is as impossible to represent in language anything that ‘contradicts logic’.” Language is inherently logical. A statement may be meaningless, but it can never be illogical. Therefore, when somebody says “We are all one, because spirit is everything,” they are speaking a logical statement. I think that Ned is confusing the colloquial idea of “logic” with the philosophy of language idea of “logic.”

Right. The “spirit is everything” example clearly obeys the form of a logical statement. When I suggested that it doesn’t express anything, I meant that I have no idea how one would form a mental picture corresponding to that sentence. I think the spiritualist would tend to agree, arguing that these things are beyond our perception — but I think the Tractatus Logic-Philosophicus goes a pretty long way towards establishing that if there’s no faculty we can use to perceive something (even with artificial enhancements to our perception), then it’s unlikely that we can legitimately call it a part of the world.

Philosophy Trends
November 1, 2010

aatombomb asks:

What’s in vogue right now academia-wise? When I was in school, many moons ago, it was postmodernism (I was a Derrida fan myself). I feel like that has fallen out of favor since. Has anything else emerged in its place?

Honestly? I haven’t the faintest idea. Ever since I graduated college, I’ve kind of existed in my own little universe when it comes to what philosophy I consume and why. The best answer I can give is based on anecdotal evidence from my time at NYU. I can tell you that I didn’t hear Derrida mentioned once in any of my classes (as a result, sadly enough, I couldn’t even really tell you much of what he’s all about, besides mumbling something about deconstruction and postmodernism). It seems like he’s mostly only brought up in comparative lit and other non-philosophy classes these days.

The big thing at NYU, and, I think, most other US universities is analytic philosophy. You’re unlikely to hear much about any philosophers from the European continent after Kant; not even Nietzsche. Personally, I found that to be sort of a bummer.

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.

A question that has been on my mind (as I am sure as is for many others throughout history) is how far can we be sure about anything? How much do we have to be sure of something before we can call it knowledge and how would define knowledge? (At least, your own interpretation of such.)
October 12, 2010

Epistemology’s not really my field. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions!

It seems to me that the only thing we can truly, 100%, capital-K Know is our own phenomenological experience. So even if I doubted whether or not I was truly sitting in a chair right now—say if I suspected that Leonardo DiCaprio had constructed a dream in which I merely thought I was sleeping in a chair—it would be incoherent for me to doubt that I was having the experience I associate with sitting in a chair.

Beyond that phenomenological experience, sure, there’s always room to introduce some measure of doubt. But most of the time I think it’s prudent to roll with your phenomenological experiences unless some evidence to the contrary presents itself. I feel that I am sitting in a chair right now; my perception has been pretty consistent about this since I initially sat in the chair, and I have noticed no evidence to the contrary. If I invited my roommate in here and asked, he would probably give me an odd look and confirm my suspicion that I am in a chair. What possible reason could I have to behave as if I’m not in a chair?

As for claims about virtual reality, five-minute-old worlds with false memories, dreams, evil demons, and so on: those are positive claims, and the fact that they don’t know for sure they’re not happening isn’t any reason to suspect that they are. At least until we see some positive evidence.

Wittgenblogging: The Second Proposition
October 10, 2010

Here we go. Right around halfway through the second proposition—which is a good eight or nine times longer than the first—things start to get complicated.

Here Wittgenstein introduces several new concepts into his list of the constituent parts of the universe. In the last proposition we got facts and things (AKA objects). Now we also have:

  • States of affairs: Arrangements of objects in some definitive relationship to one another. All possible states of affairs are encoded into the relevant objects regardless of whether or not those states occur.
  • Form: ”The possibility of structure.” I think of form as the distinguishing characteristics by which we can organize objects. So for example, color is a form because we can identify commonalities between different objects based on their proximity on the spectrum of color. Time is one because it is one of the major organizing principles of our experience, but doesn’t appear to have any substance to it. Speaking of which:
  • Substance: ”What subsists independently of what is the case.” Also: “Objects make up the substance of the world.” I think substance is that which is empirically observed and not really open to interpretation.
  • Pictures: Models of reality we construct in our heads, be they accurate or inaccurate.
  • Sense: That which a picture represents. “The agreement or disagreement of its sense with reality constitutes its truth or falsity.”

But what strikes me most about the second proposition isn’t what Wittgenstein identifies as constituting reality, but what he  excludes. For example, Wittgenstein writes that, “It is essential to things that they should be possible constituents of states of affairs.” And also: “The sum-total of reality is the world.” This “reality” doesn’t include anything like values, God, or any other sort of metaphysical propositions.

And here’s something else: Wittgenstein argues that pictures, even if they are not intended to correspond with the world as it actually is, most still borrow some form from them. So, as he says in the last line of the second proposition: “There are no pictures that are true a priori.” That leaves me with the question: Does Wittgenstein think all a priori reasoning is impossible? Or just pictures?

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