Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Bob Dylan, Wisdom, trivial coincidence, ... or not

Bob Dylan gave a puzzling  introduction to a new song at the Albert Hall in 1966: "I would like to dedicate this song to the Taj Mahal. It's called 'I see you've got your brand new Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat'". I was there, bunking off school. I heard him say it.

Going over some very old philosophical ground recently, I thought I might have finally found a solution to the puzzle: "Suppose someone is trying on a hat. She is studying it in a mirror. There's a pause and then a friend says 'My dear, the Taj Mahal'. .... To call a hat the Taj Mahal is not to inform someone that it has mice in it or will cost a fortune." ('Philosophy, Metaphysics and Psychoanalysis', John Wisdom, 1953).

Coincidence? Probably. But, I know Dylan has eclectic reading habits, and like to think that Wisdom's eccentric remarks would have appealed to his quirky imagination which was, after all, working overtime in those days.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Insidious realism: some backtracking

Looking back over what I have said about it, it seems that I have not yet nailed down what I call insidious realism. So let me say a bit more. Often when philosophers try to get clear about something, they assume, tacitly or otherwise, that the something in question is there, complete in itself, waiting to be properly explored and subsequently described. But in the interesting cases, this is rarely true  - if it were, philosophy would be much easier or redundant (think about it).
How often do we find philosophers discussing something like, say, desire as if the term "desire" designates something independent and complete in itself that accounts of it can either match or fail to match? Moreover, when a philosopher evinces some views about desire that are later worked up into a conception of desire by other philosophers working from an historical perspective, then the same assumptions about that conception often come into play. This generates two thick layers of fog.
In the latter cases, it is usually best to try to untangle what is there, so to speak, from what can be added, where the constraints on the additive process involve considerations such as consistency, utility, elegance and economy. Some times a degree of charity concerning one or more of these should come into play.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Unlocking the mysterious attraction of metaphysics

Metaphysics has once again become a key subject in philosophy. Indeed, it could well be attracting more sustained attention from the philosophical community than anything else. I must confess that I didn't even notice this until relatively recently. And then, I was simply left wondering "How did all this happen behind my back?". It's not that I believe the positivists succeeded in cutting off metaphysical thinking (i.e. the vestiges of it that survived Hume's critique and Kant's abortive 'purified by reason' version) at its roots long ago. It's rather that, since hanging out with pragmatists, I have had little practical use for the term "metaphysics". Whenever I see it deployed, either it seems to constitute the equivalent of a blank space in the relevant sentence or there seem to be better plainer speaking terms readily available - so it usually cries out to be replaced by one of them.
Consider Eric Olson's otherwise rather nifty book What Are We? Here are the opening sentences: "This is a book about a question: What are we? That is, what are we, metaphysically speaking? What are our most general and fundamental features? What is our most basic metaphysical nature?" Olson goes on to say that he is not going to try to define "the daunting phrases here" (e.g. 'our most basic metaphysical nature'), but will instead "give their meaning by example". However, it strikes me that the rest of the book can be made good sense of without referring back to these phrases or invoking their components. "Metaphysics" and "metaphysical", in particular,seem to be redundant throughout.
I guess I will say more about why I am suspicious of the current metaphysics growth industry in other posts (clue: it is far too often linked with insidious realism). For the moment, I just want to speculate that metaphysics has become so attractive again because it is such an effective enabler of philosophical fantasies - especially those that conjure up special powers of discernment regarding matters of ultimate concern and correspondingly special areas of inquiry (e.g. fundamental ontology). Yesterday, for example, I was reading Kit Fine's 'What is metaphysics?' and even though that paper seems to deal with the question in the clear-cut, reasonable way one expects given the author, it struck me that it can be read as one long philosophical fantasy (more about that later as well, perhaps).

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Freud gets out of jail again

Freud was a great and tremendously interesting writer, but he could be pretty slippery. Below is a nice example:

  1. A contradiction to my theory of dream produced by another of my women patients (the cleverest of all my dreamers) was resolved more simply, but upon the same pattern: namely that the nonfulfillment of one wish meant the fulfillment of another. 
  2. One day I had been explaining to her that dreams are fulfillments of wishes. Next day she brought me a dream in which she was traveling down with her mother-in-law to the place in the country where they were to spend their holidays together.  Now I knew that she had violently rebelled against the idea of spending the summer near her mother-in-law and that a few days earlier she had successfully avoided the propinquity she dreaded by engaging rooms in a far distant resort.  And now her dream had undone the solution she had wished for;  was not this the sharpest contradiction of my theory that in dreams wishes are fulfilled? 
  3. No doubt;  and it was only necessary to follow the dreams logical consequence in order to arrive at its interpretation.  The dream showed that I was wrong.  Thus it was her wish that I might be wrong, and her dream showed that wish fulfilled (italics original).                                                                         Sigmund Freud, The Interpretations of Dreams (New York: Avon, 1966)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Morality and Money

I came upon these comments in a notebook. They were written some time ago, but still seem relevant:

Money has always provoked moral debates in which its capacity to corrupt plays a key role. However, over the past forty years or so this kind of debate has itself been corrupted. Ideas that created money’s reprehensible image seem to have been either abandoned or turned on their head.
            Unfettered pursuit of money simply for its own sake, exclusive use of monetary sums to calibrate values and social status, the flaunting of wealthy attributes, conspicuous consumption of luxury goods, vast disparities in both assets and income as between individuals within the same community, avid avoidance of taxes, and the assumption of large debt are somehow no longer obvious causes for moral concern.
“Somehow” is a vague term. But, ambiguity is appropriate here. For it is difficult to pin down when and why such sea change in moral perception occurred. One of the main reasons for this is that the process of uncoupling of money from morality has been deeply obscured by the fog of financial innovation. It is tempting, therefore, to put the causal blame on finance theory, and that insidious constellation of views has certainly been highly influential. However, to do this would be to invoke a separation between theory and practice that does not exist. It is a great irony that the longstanding leftist project of aligning theory with practice has already been accomplished by what can best be called, with still further irony, the finance community. But, what is this community?
It is a loose collection of financial institutions and the clients they are supposed to serve. This is held together by economic and political beliefs that yield both a sense of immunity to ordinary moral scrutiny and, strangely, a sense of moral accomplishment in being able to do the very things that such immunity allows.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Sufficiency of Relaxed, Low Key, Natural Ontology

I have been reading Sellars' Naturalism and Ontology. The discussion veers between the direct and the oblique. This leaves me wondering whether a direct Wittgensteinian approach would be sufficient. Consider the ontological confusions concerning attributes.
How are we to explain "Yes, there are attributes" when it is voiced in response to a question like "Are there attributes?" (where the person asking, 99.999% of the time it's going to be a philosopher, is fishing for possible commitments to abstract objects or some such)? Can we not simply respond: "If we are able to attach a practical sense to "there are attributes" (meaning we know what to do with the phrase - can fit it into intelligible contexts, put it to communicative use, and so forth), then we need not invoke ontological talk and consequent puzzles about what it is for an attribute to exist, etc."?
Isn't the temptation to resist this sub-philosophical approach one that conflates reluctance to indulge in certain imaginative extrapolations (e.g. one imagines attributes floating around in metaphysical space waiting to get hooked up to something appropriate) with a supposed limitation of intelligence, whereas, clearly, intelligent insight is required to see that such imaginative extravagances are redundant - rather as one realises that angels are not real beings and then automatically feels relieved of any need to imagine what they look like, where they reside, and so on?
But then, can we not apply this to "there are infinities"? How does that square with my previous posting? Is it simply that we can again talk about infinities without dragging in the imagined realist underpinnings?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Deeper into insidious realism

A real realist thought: there are no infinities.
Another thought about this thought: if x supposedly has the characteristic of being infinite, then x does not exist.
Supposition behind this: all entities must have finite boundaries.

What is the status of such remarks?

In the light of them, can we interpret "infinite" in ways that do not have existence implications - e.g. "the series 1,2,3,..... is infinite" means that there is no procedure for establishing an end point, and no more than that? But then, do we not need to avoid the temptation to think "this is what 'infinite' really means"? Why would there be such a temptation if we were immune to the attractions of insidious realism and could use "really" innocuously?

Logic and language: how crude the discussion of the relationship here has so often been. Is logic necessarily an extension of ordinary/natural language  - so that it cannot have the autonomy required for it to serve as an independent means of clarifying/reforming such language? If it is an extension, what is wrong with the notion of language turning back on itself to clean itself up?

Imagine a professor kicks off a lecture a by putting a long string of unknown symbols on the blackboard, then, for whatever reason, makes no effort to explain their significance. Could sense be made of them without embedding them in some natural language narrative? If not, does this tell us something about the primacy of language? Could logical notation attain a level of autonomy such that it could be displayed (written/spoken) to purposeful effect absent any natural language contribution, and without the prospect of it ever being translated? Could sense be made here just by linking the symbols involved with other symbols? Could the border be crossed over into mathematics? Could someone get by speaking only mathematics?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Insidious realism again: back to some preliminaries

What makes the prospect of insidious realism so enticing? Is it that we find the idea of a metaphysical space, a place that is only constrained by logic, so attractive? But, why does such an idea tend to get a grip on us? Do we somehow feel we need some such space where, or so we imagine, we can park things like the members of infinite sets?

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Insidious Realism

What do I mean by 'insidious realism'? The phrase is intended to refer to certain kinds of realist assumptions that lurk all over the place in philosophy. Wittgenstein was extremely good at sniffing them out, and even better at dismantling the imaginary pictures that encourage them. Think, for example, of his various assaults on the platonic imaginings that infect philosophical accounts of mathematics. Though here, it might be better to speak of imaginary, imaginary pictures because we our imaginations cannot conjure up pictures of, say, an infinite series of numbers. But, more next time!

Monday, May 6, 2013


I have taken some time out to pursue some research and progress a number of publishing projects, but I will be blogging again shortly. One of the topics that I might well explore concerns an insidious form of realism that pervades a great deal of modern philosophy. Consider the tacit assumption that linguistic phenomena - concepts, word meanings, etc. - have a real existence independently of social practices.