Saturday, May 26, 2012

Life before Amazon and Google

So Daniel recommends the new Eckart Förster book, which I ordered, and now here it is. Looks good, and in fact I may already report an interesting bit from it. Check this out (p. 13):
The Critique appeared in 1781 in an edition of one thousand copies and went out of print within just a few years. [...] [I]t is important to remember that (with the exception of Jacobi) the later thinkers who followed upon Kant [...] were only familiar with either the second or even later editions of the Critique. The original edition did not again become available until 1838 when the first complete edition of Kant's works was published—seven years after Hegel's death! Today's practice of printing the first and second edition on facing pages or at least in the same volume was unknown in those days. Neither Fichte nor Schelling nor Hegel was familiar with the first edition of the Critique, and we must remain open to the possibility that this fact might have had consequences for the manner and extent to which they understood themselves to be engaged in a Kantian project.
Wow, I totally did not know that. Of course you might think, well, the B-edition is Kant's considered view, so what does it matter? But even the A-deduction alone is hugely informative about what Kant thought he was doing (and I always liked the threefold synthesis anyway). And Förster has promised to say more about this later, so I look forward to that.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Dann ist die Welt so trübe

RIP Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

When I was in high school I was a big fan, and it was a huge thrill to see him at Lincoln Center in an all-Schubert program (not Winterreise, but some good stuff nonetheless). I never warmed to him as an opera singer for some reason. You would have thought that his wonderfully lyrical singing, which worked so well for lieder, would be ideal for roles like Rodrigo (in Don Carlo) and Iago, and he's recorded both, but I found the very familiarity of his voice distracting there. He also sang the Rheingold Wotan, I think, but I never heard that (and again the very idea seems weird). My favorite record of his at that time was not Schubert but Mahler, a duo record with Leonard Bernstein on piano. I think it had the Kindertotenlieder on one side but I only ever listened to the other, which had (the first four of) the sublime Rückert-Lieder, of which "Ich atmet' einen linden Duft" is the most beautiful song ever, full stop.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Philosophers' Carnival #141

I used to link to these Carnivals all the time, but it's been a while. This one has not one but two of my recent posts, the one on rules (just below, so I won't link), and my latest column at 3 Quarks Daily, which I think makes an interesting counterpoint, as it puts the Hackensteinian version of the "linguistic turn" in a wider context.

Noah, the blog's proprietor, is less than impressed by the familiar DR logo, and points us to one he thinks more modern and stylish. Isn't it nice? What do you think? I think I'll keep the old one though, as I am old school in these matters.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Are semantic rules true or false?

Over at Daniel's place the other day there was an interesting discussion about McDowell's views of what he calls the "endogenous given." I'm not going to talk about McDowell here though; instead I want to back up and look at the fault lines in the ensuing discussion. Basically I see a conflict between two readings of, or ways to follow, Wittgenstein. I'll say more about that later, but in this post let me jump right into the way it came up in the thread. The hope is not so much (yet, if ever) to show that my team is right, whatever that may turn out to mean, as to see where the differences lie (which may in fact turn out to be all we want to do). That itself says something about my team, or at least about me; but let's press on.

Whether or not it amounts to a theory of truth or even a definition of "truth", my team customarily refers to the disquotational schema "'[P]' is true iff [P]" (where "[" and "]" are Quinean corner brackets; you know the drill) as a platitude (to wit, the "disquotational platitude", hereinafter DP) – i.e., something whose truth is not in dispute.

For example, I am inclined to say that this English sentence
(1) This is red.
is true iff the object indicated is indeed red. Note that this does not solve our problem (below, concerning the status of (1) as an empirical statement or a semantic rule); but nobody said it would. All the schema does is disquote. After that you're on your own. If after being dumped into the object language we still don't know what to say about the reason we brought it up, that's not (1)'s fault, nor that of the schema. This may become clearer as we continue.

In particular, it seems to me not to matter to the truth value of (1) if it was meant as an ostensive definition of "red" rather than "just" an empirical observation about the thing indicated. If the thing isn't red then how can it function as part of an ostensive definition of "red"? And if it's red then (1) is true. When you ask me to bring you a red thing, the thing pointed to in (1) is not exempt simply because it's paradigmatic of redness. So it's red, and (1) is true, like I said.

Compare the meter stick. Sometimes people arguing in what they take to be a Wittgensteinian spirit deny that the meter stick is a meter long. As I recall, this is because (or at least if) to be "a meter long" just means that it is the same length as the meter stick, and what that means (on this view) is that if you hold it up to the meter stick they match; and of course you can't hold the meter stick itself up to the meter stick, so the idea that it is itself a meter long collapses into incoherence, making "the meter stick is a meter long" nonsensical, or at least sinnlos, and thus neither true nor false.

I get the point of saying this, which I take to be a healthy resistance to platonistic reification of things like "lengths"; but I don't think taking this line is worth it. Of course the meter stick is a meter long; that's why I can use it to measure off meter-long pieces of cloth (or wood, to make more meter sticks). There are better ways of resisting platonism than by this sort of semantic sleight-of-hand.

Note the form of that statement. Naturally most critics of this "Wittgensteinian" position are defenders of platonism in the relevant sense. If I just reject it in favor of "common sense" I look like one of these critics, or at best depriving our side of a potent weapon. Instead I say that weapon isn't worth it: it costs too much and we have better ones anyway. I'm still just as much a critic of platonism, and a follower of Wittgenstein in this respect, as anyone else.

Still, we need to account for the seeming imperviousness to empirical refutation of definitional statements; and that something is red is in most cases both contingent and empirically revisable, as are most uses of (1). This is what motivates the idea that (1) considered as a definition is neither true nor false, but instead a semantic rule for use of "red": revisable, if I want to change the way the "game" is played; but not empirically falsifiable – and thus, on this view, strictly nonsensical as an assertion of fact.

This is what I get from N.N.'s remarks on the Soh-Dan thread. The idea is also batted about by Wittgenstein in On Certainty: again, the idea is that such statements are neither true nor false, truth-values being reserved for statements which are, as we might say, moves in the game rather than rules setting out how the game (of indicating how things are by making true statements about them) is supposed to be played. But as I said, (1) doesn't seem to work for this. Let's try another sentence:
2) This color is red.
I don't think this helps any. Its only function, as opposed to (1), would be to make clear that it is the color of the indicated object that you are calling "red", but it most likely already is – "red" is after all a common English color-word – and in our context it certainly is (unless you're pointing to a photograph of Red Auerbach, or indicating which sections of "The Communist Manifesto" are objectionable to your free-market sensibilites, or something). How about this one?
3) This color is called "red."
This is the same as (2). Here the speaker is emphasizing the linguistic aspect of his statement, which of course you're always allowed to do; but it's still true if the thing is indeed red (that is, the color which English speakers call "red") and not otherwise, just like (1). Finally, in an effort to wrest control of the matter, we could try:
4) I will call this color "red."
After trying to retreat from empirical statement (about the object and its color) to grammatical rule with (1) - (3), we finally come to a first-person statement – a statement not about the object, or even its color, but about me and my (subsequent) verbal behavior. This is what Daniel and N.N. go back and forth about on the thread.

One worry about this seems to be that if (4) is simply predictive of my future behavior, it doesn't mean what we want it to mean (this is N.N.'s point in certain comments). I myself wonder about the force of that italicized adverb.

Another reading can be paraphrased as "I intend to call this color 'red'". According to the DP, this is true iff you do indeed intend to call that color 'red'. (Again, the DP is remorselessly unhelpful here; but that's no reason to reject it as false. Instead, again, we just need to recognize that you get out what you put in, semantically speaking.) But then we get into the performative aspects of stating that you intend to do something, and what effect that has on the truth value of (4) – see esp. Daniel's remarks about Roedl there.

In any case, the trick here, for N.N. and his Hackensteinian friends, is to try to pack into the statement itself as an interpretation accomplie the idea that it is asserting a grammatical rule rather than making an empirical claim, and thus to indicate that responses of "no it isn't" will be met by "what do you mean, it isn't? I'm telling you how to use the word."

That's what leads us, finally, to N.N.'s example (replacing similar statements about bachelors, which he takes to be too baggage-laden for our purposes):
5) A blork is a purple flower.
6) A blork is by definition a purple flower.
Chew on that for now; I'll come back to talk about blorks later on.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Cousin Victor [not really] fills us in

Victor Mair at Language Log:
Before I went to my ancestral village of Pfaffenhofen, Austria in 1967, I had always assumed that "Mair" was an Anglicization of "Maier" or some other spelling of the German surname (e.g., Meyer, Meier, Mayer, Maier, Mier, Meir).  Indeed, many people used to ask me if I were related to Lucy Mair, the British anthropologist, but I knew that could not be so because her name was of Scots or English origin, while mine was of German derivation.  It is interesting that I am listed in Wikipedia as being a person with the surname Mair in a Scots context, though I'm sure that it won't be long after this post goes up that the Wikipedia editors shift me to the much smaller group of people named Mair in a German context.  In any event, when I went to Pfaffenhofen, I discovered that there were many individuals whose surname in the church record books and on tombstones was given as "Mair", and in the Innsbruck phonebook there were scores of people surnamed "Mair".  Even more surprising to me was that it was not uncommon for families to change their name from "Maier" (or some other spelling) to "Mair" and vice versa, depending upon fashion or personal preference.

For those who might be curious, the German surname "Mair" derives from Middle High German meiger, meaning "higher or superior", often used for stewards of landholders or great farmers or leaseholders; today a Meier is generally a dairy farmer. Meier and Meyer are used more often in Northern Germany, while Maier and Mayer are found more frequently in Southern Germany.
How about that. I had often wondered where our family name came from. But why would you change your name from Maier to Mair when the former is so clearly superior [heh heh] in every way? I mean, really.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Hear, hear

Brian Leiter likes to pour scorn on the NY Times's philosophy blog The Stone (he really doesn't like Simon Critchley), but this post by Alva Noë is absolutely spot on. I can hardly decide which choice bits to put here in order to incite you to go over there and, as they say, read the whole thing. Let's try this one, which sounds very much like what I always say when this issue comes up (so naturally I like it):
The idea that a person is a functioning assembly of brain cells and associated molecules is not something neuroscience has discovered. It is, rather, something it takes for granted. You are your brain. Francis Crick once called this “the astonishing hypothesis,” because, as he claimed, it is so remote from the way most people alive today think about themselves. But what is really astonishing about this supposedly astonishing hypothesis is how astonishing it is not! The idea that there is a thing inside us that thinks and feels — and that we are that thing — is an old one. Descartes thought that the thinking thing inside had to be immaterial; he couldn’t conceive how flesh could perform the job. Scientists today suppose that it is the brain that is the thing inside us that thinks and feels. But the basic idea is the same. And this is not an idle point. However surprising it may seem, the fact is we don’t actually have a better understanding how the brain might produce consciousness than Descartes did of how the immaterial soul would accomplish this feat; after all, at the present time we lack even the rudimentary outlines of a neural theory of consciousness.

What we do know is that a healthy brain is necessary for normal mental life, and indeed, for any life at all. But of course much else is necessary for mental life. We need roughly normal bodies and a roughly normal environment. We also need the presence and availability of other people if we are to have anything like the sorts of lives that we know and value. So we really ought to say that it is the normally embodied, environmentally- and socially-situated human animal that thinks, feels, decides and is conscious. But once we say this, it would be simpler, and more accurate, to allow that it is people, not their brains, who think and feel and decide. It is people, not their brains, that make and enjoy art. You are not your brain, you are a living human being.

We need finally to break with the dogma that you are something inside of you — whether we think of this as the brain or an immaterial soul — and we need finally take seriously the possibility that the conscious mind is achieved by persons and other animals thanks to their dynamic exchange with the world around them (a dynamic exchange that no doubt depends on the brain, among other things). Importantly, to break with the Cartesian dogmas of contemporary neuroscience would not be to cave in and give up on a commitment to understanding ourselves as natural. It would be rather to rethink what a biologically adequate conception of our nature would be.
Well, that would be "what I always say" if I were better at saying it than I actually am. You go, Professor Noë! Woo hoo! There's more, too, so ... you know what to do.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Wait, what about pumpernickel?

I have just discovered that on February 16, 1962, one C. M. Mullen of G. & C. Merriam Company wrote a letter to my maternal grandfather, informing him that:
We are glad to reply to your letter of February 12 in regard to the word bagel. This word has been entered in the Addenda Section of Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition, for the last few years. It is now entered in its regular alphabetical place in our recently published Webster's Third New International Dictionary, the definition reading as follows:
a hard roll shaped like a doughnut that is made of raised dough and cooked by simmering in water and than baked to give it a glazed browned exterior over a firm white interior
Okay then. Carry on.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Click click

I clicked over today to an interview with Brian Leiter in a post on The Browser today, and in the "Related Articles" sidebar there I noticed a link to my own recent 3QD post on Nietzsche's perspectivism (here), where it is described as "thought-provoking." How about that. You may also reach that same post by going over to the latest Philosophers' Carnival at Minds and Brains. Whichever way you get there is fine with me. (That is, there's no one single, correct way ... never mind.)

In other news, my post on Kant squeaked into the final round of 3QD's 2011 philosophy competition as a wild card (like the Red Sox will if they don't choke). So Patricia Churchland will become acquainted with my views on Kant. I repeat: how about that.

Friday, September 09, 2011

3QD philosophy prize

The voting round of the 3 Quarks Daily philosophy prize for 2011 is now open. I've got a post there, but don't just go there and vote for it! Take a look at the others too. (Then vote for it.) Deadline: Sunday night.