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Den Oever

On unconditional commitment

Dreyfus, Kierkegaard, ‘unconditional commitment’. Remarkable thing about the case of Abraham is that we do not consider the issue from Isaac’s point of view. What would he have said? “I’d rather have a despairing Buddhist as a father than this unconditionally committed Christian …”? He might have, and that’s enough. The unconditional commitment of Abraham to his God might go against whatever views Isaac has concerning the way he wants to lead his life, and that really should be reason enough for us to reject, not just this particular unconditional commitment of Abraham’s, but the very concept itself. Given the fact that we lead our lives with others, and that hence, whether we like it or not, our actions directly or indirectly influence the lives of those others, an unconditional commitment, precisely because it is unconditional, i.e., also not conditioned by concerns about others, is intrinsically morally wrong. This is independent of the moral status of actual effects of some particular unconditional commitment, it is an objection to the concept as such.

My guess is that the concept is appealing for reasons quite similar to those that make people susceptible to the idea of living in ‘historical times’, witnessing ‘turning points in history’, and so on (Heidegger). We want our lives to be dramatic, exciting, important. Whereas in reality they are ordinary, humdrum, inconsequential, even if they turn out to make a difference. That sounds contradictory, but it is not. The point is: what is a decisive moment is decided by history (i.e., by reality in its temporal dimension and complexity), not by us, and it is hardly ever possible for us to discern while we are witnessing it.  Too often an event is labelled ‘historical’, something that ‘changes the world as we know it’ by contemporaries, and most of those events turn out to be completely unimportant. At best some of them may become regarded as symbolic for a much more complex and extended sequence of events. History is complex, much too complex for us who are witnessing it to grasp, and often also too complex for those who have the benefit of hindsight to fathom completely. There is no communis opinio among historians about the majority of the events that make up our history, not because of a lack of knowledge, but because of their sheer complexity combined with the unavoidable multiplicity of perspectives. So even if a certain event or action does make a significant difference, the claim of those participating in it that it does, in most cases will be completely unfounded.

The idea of an unconditional commitment is based on a similar misunderstanding of our lives: appearance to the contrary notwithstanding, it places us, as an individual, in the centre of things. The unconditional commitment is ours, even where (or should we say, precisely because?) it involves a complete surrender to God. As such it displays a complete disregard of the fundamental given that our life is always related to that of others, even if we live alone, in the remotest place on earth. Given that, whatever commitment we make to live our life in accordance with, it needs take into account others and therefore  can never be unconditional. The alternative is a fundamental dismissal of others as worthy of moral, ethical concern, something that unavoidably leads to nihilism. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 21/05/2003

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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

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Lisbon

Uninterpreted content

Theodore Schatzki’s analysis of dispersed and integrative practises implies that normativity arises, not at the higher order level of rules, or practises, or institutions (at least not exclusively), but at the very basic level of individual interaction with the environment. This view is reinforced by various analyses of know-how and expertise.

What is interesting to note, especially with regard to Davidson and Gadamer, who actually are in the same boat here, is that uninterpreted content then plays a key role. We need such content in order for normativity to have a basis on which the language-based practises may build.

For Gadamer this is anathema: all experience is linguistic and exists only in and through language. For Davidson it presents a problem too, although it may not be immediately obvious that it does. For doesn’t Davidson avail himself of a primitive causal relationship between the world and us? And doesn’t he reject any form of mediation (linguistic or otherwise) between ourselves and the world?

But unmediated content is not the same as uninterpreted content as we use the phrase here. For in Davidson’s view our causal interaction with the world results in beliefs, and beliefs and (sentence) meanings are indistinguishable in terms of structure and content. So Davidson’s unmediated content is highly structured, in such a way that it is immediately expressible (given a suitably expressive language, of course): definitely not the uninterpreted content of everyday expertise. In fact Davidson seems committed to the same kind of linguistic view on experience that Gadamer embraces explicitly.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 21/11/2006

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Amsterdam

Davidson, indeterminacy and charity

The point seems to be this: given that we have a shared ontology due to the application of the Tarskian framework (as the theoretical framework in which we formulate concrete theories of meanings for concrete languages) and charity, which implies shared beliefs, why don’t we have a shared vocabulary and a shared theory of reference concerning this vocabulary? 

The point seems to be this: given that we have a shared ontology due to the application of the Tarskian framework (as the theoretical framework in which we formulate concrete theories of meanings for concrete languages) and charity, which implies shared beliefs, why don’t we have a shared vocabulary and a shared theory of reference concerning this vocabulary? 

The question boils down to what follows from the assumptions mentioned about reference. Let’s start with the use of the Tarskian framework. For Davidson this follows from the assumptions he makes concerning the nature of meaning (extensionalism) and the function of a semantic theory (explanation of competence); cf., ‘Truth and Meaning’ for the details. So his view is that if we want a theory of meaning for a language, it has to have that particular form. And that in its turn presupposes that in any language we find a shared logical machinery, consisting of propositional connectives, quantificational apparatus (and the basic distinctions brought along by that) and the logical rules governing their behaviour. But that is all, in particular it does not involve any assumptions concerning the reference of the non-logical vocabulary. Of course, reference is used in stating the Tarskian truth theory, but there it is used only as an auxiliary notion. What the theory defines, or accounts for, is (our knowledge of) truth conditions of sentences. It does so using the auxiliary notion of reference of sub-sentential expressions, but, and this is the important point: it does not define truth on the basis of an independent account of reference. And as Davidson points out, any account of truth along these lines leaves reference essentially underdetermined (a point also made by Putnam and several others): two sentences may have the same truth conditions under different assignments of references to their sub-sentential expressions. (If the sentences are from different languages, we have two translatable sentences which do not allow us to infer any shared reference; if the sentences are from the same language, this means that synonymy does not guarantee unique reference; and as a special (but most important) case we have that it is possible to assign to one and the same sentence the same truth conditions based on attributions of different references to one or more of its component expressions.)

Then charity. Notice that charity, too, concerns sentences, not words. In interpretation, i.e., in actually trying to construct a Tarskian theory of truth for a given language, the empirical data we start from are utterances made in a context (situation). The assumption that truth plays the same role for the speakers of the language we are interpreting as it does for us, these data can be viewed as utterances of sentences held true in that situation. A specific (to be determined!) subset of those will be utterances of sentences held true about that situation, i.e., utterances of sentences that are held true on the basis of certain aspects of the situation in which they are uttered. Each and every sentence uttered is supposed to express a belief. So certain sentences uttered in a situation express beliefs of the speaker about that situation. This is where charity comes in: it allows us to proceed on the assumption that the belief that the speaker expresses in these sentences (but remember, we do not know of every sentence in advance whether it belongs to this set) is a belief that we hold about the situation as well. This is supposed to give us enough common ground to work our way into the language. But, and this is the important point, just as two sentences can have the same truth conditions, yet not share reference of sub-sentential expressions, beliefs too can be shared without a shared set of objects, properties and relations that can be attached in a unique way as references to the expressions that occur in the sentences that are used to express these beliefs.

So neither the Tarskian framework nor charity allows us to venture beyond the level of sentences/beliefs and be confident that we will return with a unique ontology in this particular sense. But for Davidson the conclusion is not that hence there is a relativity of ontological schemes, but rather that the idea behind it, viz., that the beliefs we hold and the meanings of the sentences we use to express those beliefs, are built up from referents in this particular way, is misguided in the first place. In combination with the holistic nature of language and belief that Davidson clearly endorses, this assumption would lead to relativism. But there is, according to Davidson, no reason to make it in the first place.

Martin Stokhof
[from: Radical Interpretation Discussion Board
date: 10-2003]

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Channel

On the relation between experience and theoretical explanation

The ultimate justification of a theoretical explanation resides in the fact that it changes our experience. It allows us, not only to see things differently, but better: for our understanding of things is in the way we experience them. In that sense theories are a means, not an end in themselves.

A good example seems to be provided by certain mathematical theories, in particular geometrical ones, that, when really understood, change our ways of perceiving objects and their relationships. Or rather, allow us to perceive them differently. It is this added freedom of perception that deepens our understanding: things are not just like this, they are much more.

Similarly, mythologies, mystical explanations, good philosophy. (Is there something of this in Wittgenstein’s  remarks on Frazer?)

But, of course, this will work only if we realise that a new way of looking at things, a new way of experiencing them, is just that: one among many possible ways. The crux of the matter is that we should not exchange one view for another, but ‘collect’ them, exploit them, amplify them.  Of course, we can’t hold onto all of them at the same time (in  much the same way that we can’t entertain two different sets of certainties).  Which means that we should engage in flexibility,  change, train ourselves to switch back and forth, enjoying the distance in between.

To come to grips with the relation between experience and theory (in a wide sense) seems a crucial issue: experience alone will not do (pace the claims of sensualism) because experience never comes only by itself. It is always accompanied by feelings, thoughts, emotions that transcend it. (Even when we are not aware of this. This shows itself in how we act upon our experiences.) It is in this sense that we are not a database of experiential input and some calculating device. We need theory, not to knit the experiences together, but to understand that what holds it together in the first place: our own selves. But understanding ourselves in that way is not enough: the understanding remains sterile if it is not tested again in new experiences, or rather, in new ways of experiencing.

Another aspect: certain types of theories, say particle physics, or neurophysiology, are hard to fasten unto everyday experience. We may know that what looks as a solid material object is nothing but a swarm of particles, but we can not experience it in that way. Similarly, we may know that certain feelings arise from certain stimulation patterns in the brain, made possible by the production of certain neurotransmitters, but that is not an account of what we experience. This, too, points towards a distinction between the experiential aspect, or content, of an experience, and the accompaniments thereof. Experience is that total, not one of its components. And such theories as indicated above mainly pertain to the ‘data aspect’ of experiences. 

Martin Stokhof
[from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 22-08-1998]

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Tang pottery, Tsinghua University museum

Concerning Gadamer and normativity

The following seems a very plausible conjecture: it is the meaning of the text itself that provides the necessary normative constraints on its interpretation. But there are a few problems with that. 

First of all, it makes interpretation very much a factual, ‘realistic’ concern: independent from interpretations and interpreters, there is such a thing as ‘the meaning’, and the task of interpretation is to discover that. Once we’ve done that, the task is fulfilled and there is no more need for interpretation. But that doesn’t sit very well with Gadamer’s insistence that interpretation is an on-going affair, and moreover, one that not only constantly changes the views of the interpreter, but also the meaning(s) of what is interpreted: the ‘fusion of horizons’ is a temporary equilibrium, brought about by adjusting both the perspective of the interpreter and that of the text.

Secondly, if the objective meaning of the text itself were to play this role, this wouldn’t fit into an interpretational scheme that follows the hermeneutic circle. Recall that if we follow the structure of the hermeneutic circle we need to compare two things that both are different from this postulated objective meaning of the text itself, viz., the fore-projection, i.e., our ‘initial hypothesis’, and the result of our (first) reading. The problem was that we can compare these two without any problem, but that in order to evaluate the outcome of that comparison, we need a standard, something normative. Now suppose the objective meaning were to play that role? How would that help? If we know that this is the objective meaning of the text, we wouldn’t need any interpretation to begin with. And if we do not, it will fail to hold any normative authority.

The essence of the problem is that the hermeneutic circle, precisely because it is a circle, involves only entities of the same kind (meanings). And without reference to any external source of normativity, none of these can play the required normative role, on pain of the entire circular structure collapsing into what is basically a realistically understood concept of objectivity.

Martin Stokhof
[from: Radical Interpretation Discussion Board
date: 11-2006]

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Orkneys

Monotonicity and intensional adjectives

Suppose we have a sequence of properties N1Nn such that: N1 ⊆ … ⊆ Nn. If A is the property expressed by an extensional, i.e., subsective or intersective, adjective, it holds that (AN1) ⊆ … ⊆ (ANn). Contrariwise, for some intensional adjectives this breaks down in an interesting way: we can have A(N1) ⊆ … ⊆ A(Ni) while we do not have: A(Ni+1) ⊆ … ⊆ A(Nn). Example: a one-guilder piece is a coin, is a piece of currency, is a material object. A blackened one-guilder piece is a blackened coin, is a blackened piece of currency, is a blackened material object. But although a false one-guilder piece is a false coin and a false piece of currency, it is not a false material object. This shows that somewhere along the line of N1 to Nn there is a break, between different kinds of properties, say characteristic and non-characteristic ones, and that intensional qualifications such as false are a means to determine where the break occurs. 

Martin Stokhof
[from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 30/06/1998]

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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]