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Entries by Stuart W. Mirsky (96)


Value and Representation (1st Draft)

Updated on January 13, 2016 by Registered CommenterStuart W. Mirsky

We see the world and talk about it using the mechanisms in our language to characterize its elements, distinguishing phenomena according to the different observable relations which they present to us, their observers. That is, we can refer to the world in a myriad of different ways, depending on the different relations we can discern between observables.

Things that are red aren't blue, large things aren't small, fast things aren't slow, soft things aren't hard, etc., etc. Of course there is relativity in relation. Being soft or hard, fast or slow, red or blue depends on the contexts in which the observed qualities present themselves. Lighting conditions affect observations of color, textures and firmness are recognized in terms of our expectations based on other experiences, on what else is around to compare against. Something that feels hard is that only to the extent that there are things that it is harder than. The features of observed things are themselves observables: observed things. But the occurrence of observables implies the phenomenon of observation and thus, observers. The world before us is a world of referents, of things we can see, count, report on and so forth -- but it also includes us, the observers, the counters, the reporters.

The means we have for doing the things observers do (for observing, counting, reporting, etc.) include our sensory faculties, of course, but also the systems we make use of to communicate with others about what we see or feel, touch or hear, smell or taste . . . about what we know. Language and mathematics are systems which enable us to organize what we know, to know things at all in fact, for knowing implies organization within a broader framework of knowns. Language and mathematics organize the inputs we receive as observers and, organizing them in various ways, makes them known by us. Knowing assumes the apparatus of our sensory faculties which give us the capacity to gather and make use of what we observe. But language and mathematics enable us to utilize what we observe. Within the parameters provided by our linguistic and mathematical capacities we develop and maintain conceptual schemas, pictures of the world in which we stand. Logic consists of the rules of conceptual relation which language rests on just as mathematics consists of the rules of relation which counting rests on.

In language, logic is those rules by which we combine and arrange information gathered by the senses (by observation) to represent the world that is observed. But logic alone does not exhaust the rules of language . . .

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Morality is Merely What We Feel

Wedding sociological and psychological speculations to well reasoned philosophical analyses that cover the ground laid out before him by Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Mill and Nietszche, Jesse Prinz, who teaches philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center, argues in a recent book, The Emotional Construction of Morals, that morality is entirely grounded in our emotional life. Elaborating on the classic Humean position that moral judgment is the application of our sentiments to the things we encounter in the world in which we operate, Prinz builds the case for understanding moral systems, and the judgments they constitute, on a purely emotional basis. Hume argued that human beings have a natural tendency towards sympathy for others and that morality is the manifestation of that, albeit shaped by the cultural education (both explicit, through education, and implicit, through observation and imitation) that we undergo. Prinz' book sets out to offer a more detailed and refined account of this picture, one suitable for our modern era, arguing along the way that while moral relativism is an outgrowth of this position, precisely as its critics maintain, such relativism is not nearly the problem for us and for the practice of moral valuing that it appears to be.

Prinz' account hinges on an analysis of our emotional life which he maintains is grounded in some core, basic biologically determined experiential reactions we have to the world in general. With William James, Prinz proposes that emotions are our experiences of our own bodily reactions to the world in terms of what we are biologically programmed to want and need, as well as to fear and avoid. Such emotions, he notes, are representative in the same sense that our perceptual experiences of the world around us are representative of that world. In the case of emotion, the experiences represent not the elements outside of us that affect us but the "concerns" we have as the organic creatures we are. That is, our emotions represent our reactive interests to our world as opposed to the world itself. Prinz goes on to suggest that it is from these basic building blocks, these core concerns as represented in our feelings, that we develop more complex, sophisticated emotional responses. One class of these more sophisticated, compound emotions (jealousy, for instance, is described as a compound of more basic emotions like anger, fear, suspicion and desire) are, on his view, those we take as moral. That is, only some of our more complex emotions are of a moral nature, those, he suggests, which prompt in us reactions of anger, disgust, contempt, etc., or their opposites and which, he proposes are different depending on their target (whether at others or at ourselves). Dispositions to have certain groups of emotions he calls "sentiments" thus linking his analysis to Hume's moral sentimentalism.

On Prinz' view, our moral life cannot be reduced to our biological programming, however, the way animals respond. Rather, he suggests, our more complex emotions, including and especially those with moral import, grow out of the social potentials built into human behavior by evolution, potentials which enable us to build a framework of socially binding dispositions, sentiments, which encourage and support social binding through cooperative behaviors, e.g., the granting of rights to others, the capacity to hold others accountable and to enforce such accountability, etc. As Prinz puts it towards the end on page 299:

Moral systems are tools for social organization

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Anscombe's "Intention"

I recently picked up Elizabeth Anscombe's monograph, Intention, for a second time after an abortive first attempt to get through it. As before, I found the first half dry and abstract and overly focused on what I take to be the minutia of usage re: some key words and, especially, "intention." But this time I saw the first half through and went on to finish the book. It was better, because of the second half, than I initially thought.

Anscombe contended that one could not properly engage in ethics (the doing of moral philosophy) if one had not already developed a suitable analysis of the concept of intentions, the personal element in every morally relevant human action. Intentions underlie, and so underwrite, human activity in its deliberative mode even if there is a wide range of human actions for which the idea of what is intended is irrelevant. It is the intention of the human agent, she thinks, that gives the act to moral evaluation. We don't judge involuntary or reflex or coerced actions in terms of their rightness or wrongness, of course, but keep such forms of judging for those acts which we think about and choose to do for reasons. Yet, the concept of intention is an odd one as Anscombe demonstrates in the first half of this ninety four page monograph. . . .

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Is Goodness Intrinsic? How Wittgenstein Saw It

Duncan Richter, posting on his blog http://languagegoesonholiday.blogspot.com/ offered a transcription he found of some notes from Wittgenstein's lectures given at Cambridge between 1932 and 1933: http://languagegoesonholiday.blogspot.com/2015/09/wittgensteins-lectures-1932-33.html In the text in question, there are passages addressing the question of judgment, in particular how words like "good" and "beauty" work in the course of our making ethical and aesthetic judgments. As he did generally in his second period of active philosophical endeavor, Wittgenstein held words had uses which we needed to explore if we were to arrive at a clear answer to the apparently philosophical questions they seemed to present us with. In the material in question he takes up "good" and "beautiful" to consider what we mean when we use these terms and how we use them in order to say something useful about ethical and aesthetic judgment formation.

This struck me as particularly interesting because Duncan Richter has often indicated that he thinks the best answer we can come up with in explaining our moral judgments is something along the lines of what Elizabeth Anscombe proposed, i.e., that such judgments must be understood in natural terms (contra Moore who challenged the notion that goodness is a natural quality of things along the lines of colors and such and concluded that if the quality of goodness was not natural then it must be "non-natural"). Anscombe rejected Moore's proposal, not least because he could give no account of what sort of thing a "non-natural" quality might be. Instead, Anscombe led a move back to naturalism in the sense of asserting that goodness IS a natural quality of things because it occurs in a perfectly natural way in the world. Following the ancient Greeks, Anscombe sought to align the notion of goodness with its particulars (something Wittgenstein moved toward as well when he rejected words like "good" and "beautiful" as being overly general and so rarely used in actual cases).

For Anscombe good things are things we just know by dint of the kinds of creatures we are, though the kinds of things we generally associate with ethics are considerably more complex than the colors we see with our eyes. Anscombe found her paradigm in denouncing some things as just bad, just because they are in themselves. We know, she thought, that killing innocents is just bad as are things like torture and cruelty. Abortion and dropping bombs on civilians (especially atom bombs!) fall into this kind of category she argued. It is, on this view, often easier to say what's just wrong because it offends any normal human being's sensibility than it is to say what's clearly right. Still, she urged this paradigm upon us as the best way to understand the mechanics of ethical consideration. . . .

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Morals and Metaphysics

It took me much longer than I'd expected but I just finished The Phenomenon of Life by Hans Jonas this weekend. Jonas was a student of Heidegger who broke with his teacher over Heidegger's embrace of Nazism though the biographical material in the book suggests he later forgave the older man and did continue to take Heidegger seriously as a thinker. Jonas was Jewish so it's not entirely surprising that he would have had some issues here. He apparently left Germany some time after the rise of Hitler and fought with the Jewish Brigade under British leadership out of Palestine during World War II. He later fought for Israeli independence in 1947-48 and then, in the fifties, emigrated to the United States where he settled in to teach and do philosophy, most prominently at the New School for Social Research. As his educational background suggests, he was drawn to phenomenology and existentialism and this book reflects that.

I picked it up some years ago out of an interest both in existentialism and moral philosophy since the blurb on the book's back cover suggests it's an ethical inquiry of a sort. However, I never got into it until quite recently when I picked it up again in order to learn about and consider another philosophical tradition's approach to Ethics. But I fear the book was a little disappointing. It consists of a series of essays Jonas wrote in the 1950s and early sixties and the first half of the volume is actually quite good. The problem is that the second part fails to sustain the quality of insight and reasoning of the first.

In the first part, Jonas offers insightful analyses of the nature of life and its relation to non-life in the universe, some of his ideas, such as the notion that life is not merely a serendipitous occurrence in a non-living universe but a natural occurrence, being particularly suggestive. While life did not have to arise, Jonas points out, under certain conditions it is the natural next step in the process that is matter he argues. And as life goes so goes mind, for mind -- or consciousness, sentience, awareness -- he seats firmly in the continuum of life. Given this, he proposes that the level of sentience we attain, i.e., the condition of cognitive functioning, of intelligence, must be seen to naturally arise from the sentient itself. None of this is entirely new but Jonas offers some interesting ways of understanding this phenomenon of life in a universe of non-life. Where is the ethical in all this though, for sentient beings which also have sapience* may be quite inured to ethical concerns?

This brings us to the essays in the second half of the book which are somewhat less satisfying. After a series of essays addressing the role of life within non-life and the levels of life itself and man's special capacities as grounded in the living modality in which he stands, Jonas ends the first section with a transitional essay he entitles "From Philosophy of the Organism to the Philosophy of Man." That piece ends with a refocusing on the thought systems of human beings as part of human history. . .

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Dewey Does Ethics

Updated on July 8, 2015 by Registered CommenterStuart W. Mirsky

As noted earlier, I've recently become interested in American Pragmatism as a serious school of philosophy. After having given it exceedingly short shrift in my college days and ignored it for some 40 years I was recently awakened to its possibilities after reading Robert Brandom's account of its role in his Reason in Philosophy: Animating Ideas and listening to him connect pragmatism to the English analytical tradition in Anglo-American philosophy in a presentation he made at Cambridge a while back which is available in full on YouTube. Most recently an old professor of mine, Haim Marantz, sent me a paper he'd written on John Dewey to read and offer some feedback on. Until then I hadn't thought much of Dewey though I'd only read a little of him as an undergrad. But the Marantz paper offered a picture of the man which struck a chord in my own thinking.

Heretofore, I had largely equated pragmatism with William James and, indeed, I'd recently completed reading James' Pragmatism and The Meaning of Truth (available in a single volume with an introduction by A.J. Ayer asserting that James' pragmatism was very much in line with the English empiricists and, indeed, the logical positivists and other analytic schools). Surprisingly, James in those books repeatedly alludes to Dewey and the importance of his work, indeed suggesting that John Dewey was a better expositor of Pragmatism than he was. James, of course, is considered the most influential and best articulator of pragmatism among the three founding fathers of that school (C. S. Peirce, William James and John Dewey). So I was naturally further intrigued by his allusions and deference to Dewey. I ended up getting hold of what I found billed as one of Dewey's most definitive works of philosophy, the one that best summarized his views on philosophy and its various concerns: Reconstruction in Philosophy. The book consists of a series of lectures by Dewey, some of which are quite good (especially the first, I thought) and some only middling because they are somewhat repetitive and sometimes fuzzy in their explication. Still, it's a worthwhile book, even if it's only a bit more than 120 pages. If one can bear with Dewey's penchant for repetition and sometimes difficult constructions, it's a valuable work indeed.

I won't attempt to explicate the overall picture of philosophy Dewey is at pains, in that material, to present. But his take on ethics does offer a useful antidote to some of the metaphysical excesses and conceptual confusions that bedevil so much of traditional ethical theory. Dewey starts by rejecting the idea that anything can be intrinsically good or bad, i.e., good or bad in itself. The classic distinction which divides ends from means and suggests that all value claims must involve some ultimate valuation, some end towards which everything else of value is only a means, is mistaken he thinks. He rejects entirely the idea that goodness (or badness) is fixed in this sense and suggests, instead, that what's good or bad is, as with most everything else, only that for someone and so is dependent on that individual's, that valuer's, interests for its valuational status, interests which may be variegated and without discernible limit from individual to individual. (He does not, by this, mean to suggest that human beings are not finite creatures with limited capacities and needs which such finitude suggests, of course.)

For Dewey, that which is good is so only to the extent it is good for someone and being good for someone depends on its meeting specific needs that individual has. Such needs may vary from individual to individual (there are no fixed goods in the universe in Dewey's view that exist independent of those who count them as good, no bottom line principles of action to which we must adhere). All our valuational choices, including our moral ones, will depend on who and what we are and what that entails for us in terms of actions. Goodness and badness is realized in action not contemplation or speculative theorizing, just as, for Dewey, is the case for all of knowledge. Action comes first, not thought -- for thought, on his view, occurs only within the context of acting agents. . . .

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The Purpose of Moral Philosophy?

I recently had a discussion with Professor Adrienne Martin of Claremont McKenna College who had argued in a recent paper (An Argument for Compassion) that the key to understanding moral argument (the basis for our moral claims) lies in recognizing that 1) it stems from having the experience of compassion (i.e., feeling and acting compassionately towards others) and that 2) the rational element (the argument for it) lies in showing others that they want compassion shown toward themselves by others and that, in wanting that, they must rationally commit to being compassionate towards others, too -- this, on the grounds, that no one can rationally expect compassion towards themselves if they don't offer it to others.

This resonates, to some extent, with Schopenhauer's argument that moral acts are grounded in our feelings with regard to others and these are of three general types:

1) self-interestedness;

2) malice towards others; or

3) compassion for others.

Schopenhauer maintained in his essay On the Basis of Morals that, because human feeling of these three sorts underpin all human action, Kant was wrong to suppose one could derive moral rules from the rules of rationality itself (the logic of reasoning) since one cannot reason oneself into particular feelings but our reason reflects the feelings we have (the motivations we want to satisfy). Instead of supposing that reason can lead us to feeling one way instead of another, Schopenhauer claimed that we are simply going to feel like acting in the right way or not and, if we have the right feelings, we will act rightly. But, for Schopenhauer (as it had been for Hume), reasoning is irrelevant except at the margins. No amount of reasoning can get us to what we typically take to be moral behavior (i.e., instances of caring about others, as evidenced through our acts, without regard to our own interests).

To get to that point one has to see the world in a certain way, to recognize its fundamental unity of all existence beneath the observable surface of things. In so doing, Schopenhauer concluded, we realize that we are all part of a common existence, not distinct entities alone but part of a single shared tapestry of being underwritten by a deeper metaphysical being which all the individual things of our experience are expressions of, a common underlying being that manifests itself in the world as multiplicity. Having come to this realization, Schopenhauer held that one's petty concerns, reflecting the multiplicity, dissolve away. Thus, one ceases to see oneself as separate, one's interests as one's own, and, instead shares in the sense of oneness with all other beings. Out of this, Schopenhauer argued, compassion naturally arises but no amount of argument, he insisted, may get us there because seeing the world in this fashion is very difficult, open only to a few, and requires far more than what is normally taken to be justified by particular arguments for or against different behaviors.

For Schopenhauer, moral argument is a charade, mostly about manipulating our fellows towards preferred behaviors. Kant, he argued, had been badly mistaken in supposing one could develop and reach sound moral conclusions (justify one's moral claims, i.e., the values we suppose to underlie moral choice in a rational way) by resort to reason alone. Only a few saintly souls in the world ever attain to the experience of compassion towards others, which Schopenhauer equated with being moral (acting fairly and justly towards others). In keeping with this Schopenhaurean insight about the place of compassion in our moral constellation of values, Adrienne M. Martin argues in her paper for what she calls

. . . the intrinsic moral value of compassion . . . without compassion, we fail to respond to the intrinsic nature and value of personhood or humanity

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