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Stuart W. Mirsky
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"Language Game" as a Philosophical Term

Wittgenstein's "language game" concept was on many levels designed to "push back" against the overwhelming impression a dictionary makes on our concept of "meaning". We get to mentally roll back to that earlier time in childhood development when we lived surrounded by meaning but without the benefit of a dictionary.

Apparently we learn to appreciate meaning well before we become cognizant that words have definitions. The "language game" concept is calculated to rekindle that understanding.

But is the concept of "language game" itself well-defined? Here is where you need to be a great writer like Wittgenstein to deliberately allow the notion of "fuzzy borders" into one's philosophy.

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The Rise and Fall of Zombie Philosophy

In what follows I discuss the specific form of zombie philosophy known as 'type-Z(ombie) materialism' as well as the philosophy of Daniel Dennett whose position is an instance of zombie philosophy as I've defined that term; although, it is not an instance of type-Z materialism.


it seems clear that Dennett faces serious problems attempting to defend materialism by denying the existence of qualia, the move that defines a zombie philosophy.

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Finding reasons to do good

Empathy, the recognition of the experience of others, as if we ourselves were experiencing it, begins with similarities of behaviors . . ., similarities sufficient to convince us that we are in the presence of another mind, behaviors which we seem to be “programmed” to recognize and react to. It’s a species tool, one may say, for enabling a certain level of interaction with others of our kind – and, sometimes, beyond our kind . . .

To the extent empathy is just one of a variety of characteristics and behavioral traits that we happen to inherit from our progenitors, it’s not a given that we all have it, or that we all have it to the same degree. Genes have been known to misfire or even drop out of individual members of a species and so the expressions of them are lost. To the extent empathy, which enables us to identify with others – to put ourselves in their shoes and so feel their pains and joys as if they were our own – is just an inherited trait, it cannot be praised nor, its absence, condemned.

Yet much of what we think of as moral behavior hangs on empathy, on not doing to another what we would not have done to us or, put another and slightly more parochial way, of treating our neighbors as ourselves . . .

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The Value of Persons

The distinguishing characteristics of attributions of moral value and why adherence to a traditional interpretation of Wittgenstein on the private/public language distinction may not be enough.

An inquiry into the nature of moral judgments is not about whether this or that individual (or action) is moral but about whether there is anything at all that warrants being called moral and, if so, what is it and why? Particular moral codes or standards may or may not be moral at all in fact, and actual moral codes may be in conflict with one another, at least as regards particular and often critical issues so the point of a philosophical inquiry into moral questions cannot be to discover who or what is morally good but to discover what, if anything, moral goodness is. If moral judgments are an exercise in assessing a certain kind of value, suitable for a certain sort of thing, then they will be seen to be a sub-class of a more general category of value judgment. What distinguishes the sub-class we call moral is what we want to make clear.

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Motives Matter

Why moral valuing is a different sort of animal than its familial relatives

The term “moral” finds its meaning in a variety of uses which is just what we would expect since Wittgenstein first suggested that the meanings of our words lie in the uses we make of them and noted that a family resemblance relationship tends to characterize the way the different uses of a term connect with one another. There is not, generally, one particular use that best reflects or explains the meaning of our terms but a range of them which we learn in the course of doing the business of language. The moral idea is no different.

As a sub-class of the broader notion of valuing, it requires further analysis though if we want to understand its particular role in language and in our lives.

We value all sorts of things in the course of our lives, from objects to situations to people to goals. Not all valuing, however, is about what seems good or bad to us, better or best. There are also truth values (the positions we assign to claims on a scale justifying their acceptance or rejection as expressions of knowledge) for to value anything is just to set it on a scale or range which relates it to other things placed on the scale. Measuring is to engage in valuing, too, as is the assignment of content to markings or sounds which we take as signifiers (symbols representing something else). The kind of valuing we are doing, in every case, is dependent on what’s being valued and for what purpose.

. . . In the case of moral valuing, however, the issue seems to be to assess the action itself and not the objective which it is aimed at attaining. That is, we are less concerned with the objective(s) of the actions in the moral case than we are with the action itself. What is there about actions that stands apart then from the effects they are intended to bring about?

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The Curiosity of Moral Claims

Are there reasons to be good?

. . . Moral valuing is about nothing less than valuing or disvaluing particular behaviors, either in isolation or as part of a continuum of activity we may undertake. And moral questions look like questions concerning what we should or should not do under certain circumstances . . . questions which go beyond the issue of what pleases us at this, or some future, moment. If it were just a matter of doing what pleases us, then, indeed, no action we can imagine could qualify as moral under the usual interpretation of that word. If we do what we do for our own benefit, for our advancement, for our pleasure, etc., then however moral a particular action may look to an outsider, lacking access to our motives, we would not as observers, if given sufficient information about the true motives behind it to recognize it as self-interested, agree that it was morally done.

Setting aside for the moment the notion that even actions unmotivated by a moral decision may have a good effect and may thus be deemed praiseworthy at some level, the realization that one chose the action in question for a non-moral, perhaps even an immoral, reason would fatally undermine its apparent praiseworthiness to any moral observer . . .

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Value and Moral Choice

Begins to consider the basis and justifications for making moral claims and relates this to the role of valuing and the nature of lawmaking itself.

Valuing is that added step we take concerning our needs, desires, preferences and so forth, when we arrange the possible things we can acquire or do along a hierarchy of choice. It’s an aspect of the reasoning process. Without the ability to differentiate and prioritize in this way, we could not act based on reasons but could, at best, be reactive, impetuous creatures only, choosing this or that in accord with the moment’s stimuli. And so it is with most of our animal brethren. But as you go up the evolutionary hierarchy, as you get to the point where an entity can think about its world and imagine a future, while remembering a past in relation to its present, the capacity to engage in this kind of thinking, to set values and act on them, becomes possible.

Can a dog value its food? Or its owner? Or the time allotted to it in the local park to run free in the open air? It seems difficult to imagine a creature with no more than a dog's capabilities valuing anything at all. It can certainly want those things and behave accordingly. But, to the extent it cannot think of them conceptually, cannot hold an idea of them in the abstract in its head, it seems odd to say that it it is valuing them.

And yet there is no great difference between a dog’s desire or need for its food, or for open air play, and our own . . .

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