Random thoughts on random topics

Traboule, Lyon

Certainties, truth and relativism

If we compare the picture that we can extract from On Certainty with Davidson’s view (as expounded in, e.g., ‘A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge’), the important difference seems to be this, that Wittgenstein introduces the layer of certainties in between our epistemological practices and external reality, whereas Davidson construes the relation between belief and reality much more directly. The fact that certainties are categorically different from beliefs and other epistemological entities (despite the fact that over time, and between communities and/or individuals,  what counts as what may change) in combination with the plurality of systems of certainties, makes room for a measure of (conceptual) relativism that Davidson seeks to avoid. His way of doing so is to take the core of our belief system to be as stable (over time, over communities and/or individuals) as is the causal influence of external reality on humans. (There is more room for differences in the ‘superstructure’ of complex beliefs that are not directly caused by our interactions with reality, but that is something that Davidson does not pay that much attention to). 

This has also consequences for how truth works in both perspectives. In On Certainty truth is first and foremost a concept that operates within a particular epistemological practice, that itself is made possible by a particular system of reference consisting of certainties. (That Wittgenstein construes it in more or less verificationistic terms is an additional,  independently motivated feature.) The relation between external reality and certainties is not one of determination, but of constraint. This is the source of plurality, and it also implies that certainties are not upheld because they are true. The fact that different certainties  can be upheld at the same time also testifies to that, of course. Nevertheless, certainties differ in terms of their entrenchment and some are so basic to our form of life that it does not seem that much of a stretch to call them ‘true’, admittedly in quite a different sense. In Davidson’s perspective we also have two distinct properties. ‘Mild correspondence’ is the notion of truth that links beliefs (and hence meaning) to the world. It is what  the causal influence of the world on us results in. Internally, i.e., within our actual epistemological practice, truth then takes on a different form, that of coherence. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 22/03/2012

Rambling thoughts on random topics

New York


Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 398:

[…] Think of a picture of a landscape, an imaginary landscape with a house in it. –Someone asks “Whose house is that?” – The answer, by the way, might be “It belongs to the farmer who is sitting on the bench in front of it”. But then he cannot, for example, step into his house.

A possible interpretation. Perhaps we should read Wittgenstein here as follows: Whenever we imagine something it is our responsibility to determine what it is that we are imagining. So, we can imagine a landscape, and a house, and a man sitting on the bench in front to the house. And it is we who can say: ‘That’s the owner of the house.’ (And not, say, the guy in the field in the distance who is also part of this imagined landscape.) Now what Wittgenstein might mean when he says ‘But then he can not for example enter his home’ is this: If that is going to happen, it is not because the man himself decides to do that, but because we imagine that as well. That is to say, everything about the picture, and in the picture, is the responsibility of the one who imagines it. (Which need not be the maker: if it is an actual picture, it could be anyone who is looking at it.) This way of reading the passage puts it more in line with the point that Wittgenstein makes in the same section, immediately before, viz., the lack of ‘ownership’ of the visual room. 

Martin Stokhof
from: PI Discussion Board
date: spring 2016

Random thoughts on random topics

Guanghua temple, Beijing

Religious belief and pictures

Concerning the role of ‘knowing the proper technique’ (Wittgenstein, Lectures on Religious Belief). The point of Wittgenstein’s  discussion in the Lecture II (Michelangelo’s picture of creation) and in Lecture III (the doodle-example, the woman-lying-on-her-bed picture) is two-fold. First of all, Wittgenstein emphasises that these pictures are not ordinary pictures, that our ordinary technique of using pictures (or phrases, or what have you) fails us here. (And, of course, that we go miserably astray if we do apply our ordinary technique in such cases.) However, and that is the second point, we do need some kind of connection with what we do in our everyday life. For without such a connection these ‘objects’ are meaningless, and our handling them an empty gesture. 

One question that arises is this: Why would the fact that pictures can be used to convey (communicate, express) a religious point of view imply that the categorical distinction between religious beliefs and ordinary, factual beliefs is discarded? I think that Wittgenstein, when discussing religious pictures, uses the word ‘picture’ in a special sense, at least not in the ordinary sense of something that depicts something that is independent of it and that it may depicts more or less accurately. Rather, this use of ‘picture’ is reminiscent of what in Philosophical Investigations he calls ‘a way of seeing’. It that is what Wittgenstein means here, then we can say, of course, that a religious picture conveys (communicates, expresses) something, but we should bear in mind that these verbs are then used in a special sense as well. I think that also in his early work Wittgenstein did not exclude the possibility of ethics/religion somehow being communicated. What he did insist upon is that this method of communication was not that of the use of ordinary meaningful language, as we use it in everyday life or science, in debates and discussions. But poetry, novels, the Gospels, music, architecture were always regarded by Wittgenstein as providing us with the possibility of expressing what is at stake here. 

There are two questions that this view raises: Are there any pictures or other means of expression that are particularly suited for religious expression? And in so far as the technique of using such pictures connects them to individual experiences, is this technique not vulnerable for a private language type of argument? 

I don’t know what Wittgenstein’s  answers would have been, but as far as the first question is concerned, my guess is that the answer is, ultimately, ‘No’. For if there would be such pictures, then they would qualify as such on the basis of certain properties and that comes dangerously close to saying that religion is about content after all. The hedge ‘ultimately’ is needed to capture the fact that within a cultural community/historical period we can in fact identify certain pictures as unambiguously religious. But that is ‘just’ an historical fact. 

As for the second question, that actually touches on a more general issue, viz., the role of individual experience in our conceptual (linguistic) system. Here it is important to bear in mind, that although having an experience is an individual matter (and the form that it takes may be even quite idiosyncratic), that does not mean that therefore experiences cannot be intersubjective, shared, common to a group. External constraints play a crucial role here. (Think of what Wittgenstein says in Remarks on Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’ about the understanding of a ritual.) 

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: fall 2002

Random thoughts on random topics


Rules as attitudes

Viewing rules as certainties is viewing them as attitudes. (Cf., ethics and religious belief as attitudes.) Such a view resolves a certain tension, one that can be the ground for reductionist approaches. The tension comes from an opposition between a rule as norm and the application of a rule as fact. If we view both as belonging to the same ontological or epistemological category (because of monistic assumptions), the tendency to reduce the first to the second is hard to avoid: for what is a ‘normative fact’? How can a norm be a fact in the same way as the application is a fact? (Note that what is not at stake is the fact that something is a norm: that is a social fact, or the same order as factual applications.) But also if we do not assign norm and application to the same category, but make a categorial distinction between the two, a certain tension remains. To view norms as a separate, independent category of entities, distinct from the category of facts, raises the question how the category of norms and that of facts are related. A tendency to reductionism then might be motivated by ontological parsimony, or a need to come up with a hierarchical ordening of categories. And there is the issue that a categorial distinction raises the question how entities from one category, that of norms, are related, or can be related, to those in another category, that of facts.

To view a rule, not as fact of the same order as an application of it, nor as a fact of a different (higher) order that maintains a special relation with its application, but as an attitude towards certain actions, may help oppose the tendency to found or reduce rules.A rule is an attitude towards actions, a way of viewing them, of seeing them in a certain light. Thus viewed, a rule is the result of a decision to consider certain actions as correct and others as incorrect. (Cf., Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations 186: ‘ […] It would almost be more correct to say, not that an intuition was needed at every point, but that a new decision was needed at every point.’) Only given that attitude do these actions become applications of a rule. Then there is no division, neither ontologically, nor epistemologically. There is not on the hand hand the rule, on the other its applications, there are actions that are viewed in a certain way, that are considered part of a particular network of actions.

Think of Wittgenstein’s wallpaper manufacturers (cf., Wittgenstein’s Lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics, Cambridge, 1939, Lecture III). They perform the same actions as competent mathematicians. Yet, only the latter follow a rule, because only they have a normative attitude towards what they do.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 14/10/1993

Rambling thoughts on random topics

New Cathedral, Salamanca

“Ethics and aesthetics are one”

The internal relation between ethics and aesthetics that Wittgenstein suggests in this statement is difficult to come to grips with. However, it is clear that whatever the commonality, there is also difference. 

To start with the latter, aesthetic judgements are expressible, in language, by means of gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice. But ethical judgments are not. Aesthetic judgments form a practice, a system of norms, actions, objects, that is shared by a community. With that comes relativism: over time, and also contemporaneously, over communities. But ethical values are universal. In these (and related) respects ethics and aesthetics are definitely not one. 

The counterpart of an aesthetic practice in the realm of ethics seems to be a moral practice. Moral judgements, too, are expressible, are based on norms that are shared in a community, and thus form a practice . And like aesthetic practices, moral practices, too, display relativism, over time and contemporaneously.

Now for the commonality. As we have argued elsewhere (World and Life as One, chapter 4), morality can be regarded as instrumental with respect to ethics: that is to say, moral norms are not expressions of absolute value, but are instruments that can be used to realise those values. If “being in harmony” with whatever way the world is constitutes the absolute ethical goal, then the moral norms of a community serve as the reflection of those contingent, but relatively stable aspects of the world that this community finds itself in that are morally relevant in that are conducive to the realisation of that ethical goal.

Could we construct a similar relationship in the domain of aesthetics between the absolute and the relative-instrumental? There are at least two reasons to think so. 

First of all, there is the short reference to the sublime in the Lectures on Aesthetics: the gothic cathedral, the Beethoven symphony. These are objects that transcend the rules of aesthetic practices, in much the same way as absolute ethical value transcends the rules of moral practices. It is the nature of the sublime, its absoluteness, that is responsible for that. From that angle, we can view an aesthetic practice as instrumental with respect to the sublime. Engaging in aesthetic practices is a way of preparing oneself for what transcends it, viz., the creation and experience of works that are sublime.  

Secondly, there is the discussion in Culture and Value of the expressive relation between civilisation (culture) and human value. A civilisation, Wittgenstein argues, is a contingent expression of absolute value, and the disappearance  of a particular such expression (much as we may regret it) leaves the absolute value untouched. What is important to note is that what Wittgenstein identifies as expressions of the sublime, of the absolute, are exactly that: expressions, not the thing itself. (Recall the finger pointing to the reflection of the moon.) 

Here we do well to recall Wittgenstein’s characterisation of his ethical experiences in A Lecture on Ethics: these, too,  are emphatically mere expressions, and not the values themselves. Thus, expressions may differ, and will differ, according to the moral or aesthetic practices that they are a part of. And the variation may even extend to the individual level. 

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: spring 2020

Random thoughts on random topics


On foundationalist readings of On Certainty

What distinguishes the foundationalist reading from the constitutive (‘framework’) reading is that the latter acknowledges the interdependence of certainty and knowledge, whereas the former considers certainty to be independent.

Some, e.g., Robert Brice, make a distinction between  ‘heterogeneous’ and ‘homogeneous foundationalism’, arguing that  the former position is the one  Wittgenstein takes in On Certainty, whereas the latter is the traditional position, that is incapable of fending off the attack by the radical sceptic. The distinction between these two positions as such is clear, and important. But why exactly would one want to call them both ‘foundationalism’? That suggests that besides the difference there is also something they have in common. But what might that be?  A constitutive relation is not a founding relation, the former involves an essential dependency that the latter lacks. What constitutes and what is constituted depend on one another, one cannot consists without the other. But what is founded and what founds are not in that way dependent: one can clear what is founded and be left with the foundations. 

Moyal-Sharrock  argues that the fundamental difference between what she considers Wittgenstein’s foundationalism and traditional foundationalism that the latter, but not the former, is propositional. This raises an interesting question. Is Descartes cogito propositional, or is it Descartes’ exposition of it that is propositional? The latter is certainly true, but does that entail the former?  Or consider forms  of foundationalism that consider sensory experience as foundation. Any exposition of this position will have to resort to descriptions of sensory experience, and these descriptions are, of course, propositional. But does it make sense to say that the sensory experiences themselves are necessarily also propositional? That seems not to follow, at least not without additional premisses. 

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: March 2020

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La chapelle, Saint Polycarpe

Religious belief

Religious beliefs as colouring, rather than as separate language games or as distinct frameworks of certainties. A language game is like a stage set: actors, props, decor. Religious beliefs are the stage lights: they don’t change the stage set, they do not add or remove anything, yet by colouring it they can make it appear completely different.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 20/11/2002

Random thoughts on random topics


Pluralism and the possibility of philosophy

In a sense one might regard the transition from monism to pluralism, as exemplified in the contrast between Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations, as a move that rescues the possibility of philosophy. In the monistic (absolutistic) approach of the Tractatus (but that applies to many others; cf., e.g., Being and Time) philosophy is doomed by the ineffability of any kind of analysis that leads to non-contingent answers. In a pluralistic setting, such as the one explored in Philosophical Investigations, On Certainty, however, there is at least the possibility of reflection from within one framework on another framework. (But additional  conditions have to be met, of course.) Interestingly, the result of such a reflection is not descriptive, but conceptual. And to the extent that it is possible, one might regard it as a kind of reflective investigation of imagination.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes

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Saint-Sernin, Toulouse

Wittgenstein and Frazer

Description itself is never neutral or objective, there is no Archimedean point that allows us to ‘just describe the facts’. But that does not necessarily imply that description and explanation are alike. An explanation, unlike a description, presupposes a theoretical framework, of general principles, inferential relations (causal or otherwise). An explanation typically presents an individual event as an instance of something more general, a law, a pattern, and in doing so links it to other events that are supposed to be similar. Description, though not objective, remains level with what is described, so to speak. It does not generalise, and respects, you might say, the individuality, the uniqueness of what it describes. Of course, description, too, is possible only within a framework, but it functions quite differently. 

[The rain king] What Wittgenstein opposes in Frazer is that the latter attributes some kind of naive proto-science to these people; according to him they are simply wrong (and we are right) about the causal antecedents of the annual rains. That the difference of opinion between Wittgenstein and Frazer itself is like a scientific debate (of sorts) is true but, as far as I can see, that has no direct bearing on the adequacy of Wittgenstein’s  criticism. For Wittgenstein, the essential point is that they do not conceive of the relationship between the Rain-King (and what he does) and the coming of the rains as a causal relationship. Q.E.D., as far as Wittgenstein is concerned: for that is exactly what he holds against Frazer, viz., that he (Frazer) does ascribe to them a kind of naive scientific theory that attempts to explain, in causal terms, the coming of the rains.

[The fire-festival] If to understand the meaning of the ritual means to experience its depth, the terror its enactment brings about, then to laugh at the description would be to show a thorough lack of understanding. That applies to the specific examples Frazer and Wittgenstein are concerned with, and it does not mean, I gather, that there couldn’t be rituals for which to laugh would be the hallmark of understanding. But in these particular cases, to laugh, to ridicule the ‘savages’, is to show that one does not understand. 

[Kissing a portrait] One important characteristic that Wittgenstein mentions, and that seems what is needed to distinguish the kissing of a portrait from doing the dishes, is that in a ritual means and ends coincide. An ordinary action aims at something: we do the dishes because we want to dine from clean ones, because we want to prevent bacteria from growing in the kitchen sink, because we want to impress someone, and so on. Here the action is a means to an end. A ritual is not like that, a ritual is not performed with an eye to its effects (although it may, of course, have effects, and some of these we might find agreeable). Rather, a ritual is performed for it own sake: “…  it does not aim at anything; we act in this way and then feel satisfied.” 

One important consequence of this is that whether an act is ritualistic or not (in Wittgenstein’s  sense) does not depend (at least not solely) on the nature of the act. (So doing the dishes can be a ritual as well.) And as far as I can see it also means that we can not say that rituals are either private or social, they can be either, and both.

As for the question whether science itself is a ritual, my guess is that Wittgenstein would acknowledge that many people have indeed replaced their reliance on some religious system by a reliance on science. However, he also quite emphatically states that this is a misunderstanding of what science is and what it can do. (Recall Tractatus 6.371-6.372; cf. also the foreword to Philosophical Remarks in Culture and Value) A proper view on science has no place for ritual, since science is about external, causal relationships between (types) of events, whereas ritual is concerned with the internal significance of an event or act. 

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: fall 2002

Random thoughts on random topics

East Goodwin

On belief and introspection

Wittgenstein claims that belief (like doubt, expectation, etc.) is ‘introspectively accessible”: if we believe that p, we know that we believe that p. Hence, we cannot say, Wittgenstein claims, that we thought we believed something, but actually did not believe it. Knowledge is not like that: we can think that we know something, only to find out that we didn’t. The reason is (presumably, but Wittgenstein does not discuss this explicitly) that belief concerns a certain state or disposition, whereas knowledge in addition involves a particular relation to the world (this is where truth comes in). 

Does this hold up if what a person believes ultimately must show itself in his or her actions, i.e., if belief is a disposition to act in a certain way? That is a view that Wittgenstein seems to endorse as well, so the issue at hand can also be formulated as follows: does it make sense to say that one can somehow be mistaken about what it is one is doing, or is disposed to do? 

Stepping back: is there at this particular point a difference between belief in the ordinary, epistemological sense, and religious beliefs and ethical convictions? If we grant Wittgenstein that, indeed, it does not seem to make sense to say “I think I believe that Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands, but maybe I’m wrong, maybe I don’t believe that”, are we then forced to also hold that it does not make sense to answer “I don’t know” if someone asks us “Do you believe in an after-life (transubstantiation, Last Judgement, …)”, and that we cannot meaningfully express doubt concerning an ethical prescription, as in “I’m not sure I believe that one should always respect the right to bodily integrity” ? It would be interesting to try to construct different cases and see whether doubt concerning belief is possible, and if so, what it means to express it. In that way we might also get a better picture of how various kinds of beliefs are related to action, on the one hand, and reality on the other (cf. above, concerning knowledge) 

It is true that what people say and what they do all too often diverges, but that does not mean that what they believe and what they do diverges as well. For saying something is one thing, believing it is another. It is only a sincere utterance that allows an inference to a belief (cf., Grice’s Maxim of Quality). This is the gist of what is known as “Moore’s Paradox” (which Wittgenstein regarded as Moore’s most important contribution to philosophy): an utterance of the form “p but I don’t believe that p” may very well be true, but it cannot be sincere. 

So, the crux of examples about a person saying one thing and doing another concerns that person’s sincerity : that cannot be taken for granted, but has to be argued for. 

That many (most) of our beliefs are unreflected, unanalysed, is an important here: in fact, explicitly held beliefs seem to be the exception, rather than the rule. And that seems to make the way a person acts the primary source for belief-ascriptions. 

This observation itself raises some other questions: Can we as outside observers always derive distinct beliefs from the way a person acts? Can a person himself do this? What kinds of beliefs lend themselves to such investigation? Aren’t these more like certainties, rather than cognitive beliefs? What about the requirement that it should always be possible to explicate a belief derived from a way of acting? 

Consider the case of the egalitarian who does not act upon his beliefs: would that be a case of a person being wrong about what he believes (he thinks he believes in equal rights, yet his failure to act shows that he does not), or is it rather a case of failing to act upon one’s beliefs? Given his beliefs the egalitarian also believes that he should act in a particular way in particular situations. That he does not, might also be attributed to weakness in character, or some other circumstance, and not to a mistake about the beliefs he holds. Of course, if he consistently acts in opposition to what we would expect on the basis of the beliefs he confesses to, we would start to doubt. And his sincerity would be the first thing we would doubt. 

Note finally that the phrase “I believe” itself can be used in a variety of ways: as a statement of a firmly held conviction; but also as a way of indicating that we are not sure (yet), that we actually leave room for the opposite. “I think” is more like “I believe” in the latter sense than in the former. And for Wittgenstein’s  argument we do indeed need the former sense. 

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: October 2002

Random thoughts on random topics

North Sea

On natural phenomena as aesthetic objects

Are natural phenomena (objects, events) aesthetic objects in the Wittgensteinian sense? There is no doubt that we apply  adjectives such as ‘beautiful’ to things like sunsets, landscapes, people. But what does that mean? Are there norms that we apply?  Do we compare one phenomenon with another? Last night’s sunset with this one? The landscape before our eyes with the one we saw in a movie? This person’s face with that of our favourite movie star? 

In the last case it seems that we do indeed compare and also that we are able to express the reasons for our evaluations to some extent. In the case of sunsets this is far less obvious. Is there a sense in which this sunset is more beautiful than last night’s? More spectacular perhaps, yes. But more beautiful? And if we compare landscapes, aren’t we just  expressing preferences? (“I hate woods, give me open skies any day.”)  

We can sharpen the issue somewhat by asking about the role of two key features of aesthetic practices in Wittgenstein’s sense: training and expertise, and directed discontent. 

As for training and expertise, we have no problem in acknowledging that some people are better than we are in judging the quality of a musical performance, or that of a painting, or a sculpture. That is why we seek to learn from them and so develop our own skills and our own appreciation of a given kind of aesthetic objects. Does the same happen in ‘evaluating’ a sunset? Do we ask an expert to tell us whether this sunset is better than the one we saw yesterday, and if so, to explain to us in what way? If we ask someone whether he prefers a rugged mountainous landscape to an ocean view, do we seek to learn anything over and above his preferences, something that will help us make a more informed judgment ourselves? And if someone declares that she thinks her husband is more beautiful than the man just voted ‘sexiest man alive’, do we take her to task for not agreeing with ‘the experts’? 

It appears that although the answers may not be the same in each of these cases, there is a marked difference with how training and expertise work in aesthetic practices that are concerned with non-natural phenomena, with artefacts, performances, and the like. This relates to the second feature, directed discontent.

Directed discontent typically involves judgments about objects according to norms with an aim to improvement. We look at the object (or performance, that’s basically the same in this regard), apply a relevant norm, and judge that the object does not qualify unreservedly, that there is room for improvement. Typically, improvement presupposes control, at least in principle. Hence, a key feature of aesthetic objects is that they lend themselves to manipulation, to change and be changed. 

Now, natural phenomena are not disqualified  by this requirement per se. But it does place restrictions on when natural phenomena can be regarded as proper aesthetic objects. First of all, there has to be some element of control. Since sunsets are typically not man-made, they equally typically are not aesthetic objects: there is no aesthetic practice that aims at producing sunsets according to certain shared norms. Landscapes are an in-between case: think of landscape architecture, garden design. Here there is enough control to start an aesthetic practice. But we don’t go about designing and producing mountain ranges. (At least, not yet. Notice how all this is conditional on human ability, and hence human technology.) What about people? A human face becomes a proper aesthetic object in the context of, e.g., plastic surgery. We can well imagine two people judging the result of an operation and one of them expressing directed discontent; “Nice result, but the left cheek is not quite what it should be … Let me see, a bit more like this, perhaps?”

And this immediately reveals the second  conditio sine qua non for something to be an aesthetic object, viz., that there has to be a set of shared norms. 

So we see why on the one hand natural phenomena do not automatically qualify as aesthetic objects and why on the other hand most of our aesthetic practices involve pure artefacts: control is needed for a practicable application of norms.

Martin Stokhof
[from: EOL Discussion Board
date: 27/02/2020]