Semiotics of the Beard

 

Semiotics of the Beard

 

Fifty years ago the beard was in the ascendant. I remember as a student everyone had one, plus long hair. I myself was virtually invisible beneath my hairiness—just eyes, nose, and a forehead. In those days a beard signified naturalness, independence, intellectual seriousness, higher aims, and lack of personal vanity. Then the beard gradually became extinct, along with bell-bottoms and long collars. Scalp hair got shorter; faces re-emerged. I was clean-shaven and shorthaired for two decades, signifying nothing. But in the early nineties George Michael grew carefully groomed stubble, giving him a pronounced dark jaw; he also wore an earring. He sang about having faith and wore a leather jacket. His beard signified something new—gay-inflected masculinity, as well as sheer style. I grew one too and called it a George Michael: it was not the norm in philosophical circles. To me it signified removal from academic style or non-style (I later bleached my hair blonde). I kept it for a couple of years and then reverted to the clean-shaven look.

Then the beard staged a general comeback, a renaissance: facial hair was everywhere, of varying length, variously groomed. I doggedly kept shaving, every day, every day. Meanwhile the beard was gaining ground; growing one could only seem like conformity. You stood out by not having one. Then a few weeks ago I happened to miss shaving a couple of days and enjoyed the freedom: it felt good to brush my teeth and jump into the shower with no tedious shaving interlude. I also wanted to see how white it would be if I let it grow. But its meaning eluded me: what was my beard saying? As it happens my beard grows high on the cheek and low on the neck, pretty wild. In my George Michael days I kept the cheeks and neck stubble-free; it was meticulously groomed. Now I just let it have its way, taking up as much facial space as it feels like. I kept my hair short, no longer than an inch. What was my face signifying? It had two parts: one civilized and manicured, the other wild and free. Gradually my beard revealed its true meaning: it has an undeniable duality, a semiotic binary divided thing going on. At last it became clear to me: the top half is civilized man, all forehead and eyes; the bottom half is the animal self with its ravenous mouth and furry-feathery covering. The lower half signifies my solidarity with our animal brethren; the upper half peeks warily out at civilized society. Being a proud member of the animal kingdom (or jungle) and co-habiting with a number of beasts (they do not spurn the epithet), I am happy to affirm my kinship with the scaled, furry, feathery, and slimy. My beard says: I am with you! I intend to leave my neck and cheeks to their natural condition. My beard has meaning.

 

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Footnote to “Appearance, Reality, and the Good”

[1] I regard this paper as experimental philosophy in the best sense: let’s try something out and see how it holds up. What have we got to lose? We have become stuck (or bored) so let’s see if we can find a new way to extricate ourselves. We will never break free unless we try something new and radical—or in this case as old as Plato. The good has suffered for too long under the crushing weight of dogmatic ontological parsimony.

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Appearance, Reality, and the Good

 

 

Appearance, Reality, and the Good

 

Once we have adopted the simile of the sun, epistemological questions about the good become pressing.[1] If the good is like the sun, is it known in the same way, or to the same extent, as the sun? The sun is both well known and not well known: we see and feel it (but don’t hear or smell it) every day and feel ourselves to be on intimate terms with it, but it presents a false appearance and has a hidden nature. It is that big bright disc in the sky with a characteristic diurnal trajectory, but it is much further away than we imagine, is a sphere not a disc, doesn’t move (the earth moves), is much larger than it looks, and has all sorts of properties not visible to the naked eye. Thus we make errors about the sun and are ignorant of much of its nature (or were till science advanced to the point it is at today—and there is still a lot we don’t know). The appearance of the sun does not exhaust its reality and is in many ways misleading. But we know enough about it to negotiate it quite well and benefit from its presence: we have practical knowledge of the sun that serves our purposes (like many animals). Is our knowledge of the good the same—a complicated mixture of knowledge, error, and ignorance? Now that we have adopted a reistic[2] view of the good, regarding it as a Thing of nature, what should we expect its epistemology to look like, and does it look that way? It is characteristic of natural existing things—matter, space, time, and consciousness—to exhibit this kind of epistemological profile, so does goodness exhibit it too? Is it partly known, sometimes falsely perceived, and largely an area of ignorance? Is reism about the good matched by its actual epistemology?

            I think it would be agreed that the good is partly known: it is not a complete mystery, not like dark matter. We have two kinds of knowledge of it: which things belong to it (participate in or possess it) and what it is in itself—just as we know which things are illuminated by the sun and what the sun is in itself (hot and a source of light). Thus we know that certain traits of humans are good (we call these the virtues), that certain acts are good (they are called right), and that certain states of mind are good (we call these desirable). We also know that the good is connected to things we call obligations or duties, and that we ought to pursue the good; it has an internal connection to action (as well as emotion and desire). We are also cognizant of the fact that good contrasts with evil (as falsity contrasts with truth). So we have a decent working knowledge of the distribution of the good and of its more obvious internal properties (especially as they relate to normativity). This resembles our commonsense knowledge of the sun: just as the sun presents itself in a certain way to our senses and intellect, so does the good—which, remember, is a Thing of nature (a res) not a human construct. And just like the sun we can make mistakes about it, both practical and theoretical: we can be wrong about which things are good and wrong about the intrinsic nature of the good. The good permits of false belief (unlike the conscious mind). We used to think that execution for heresy was good, for example, but now we realize that, sorry, we were wrong about that; and we used to identify the good with various “natural” properties such as evolutionary success or pleasure or obedience to God. The essential nature of the good is by no means apparent to us—just as the essential nature of the sun is not—so it is easy to make mistakes about it. Moore thought the good was indefinable so all attempts to define it were bound to be in error. As to simple ignorance without actual false belief, opinions might differ, but we can surely make sense of the idea that the good has a nature that escapes our cognitive efforts—presently, for the foreseeable future, or permanently. We might not know everything about it: its distribution might be subject to facts that elude us (is it wrong to kill insects?), and its nature might have aspects that defy our methods of knowledge acquisition. It might even be that the most central core facts about the good are not evident to us; the good is an objective natural thing so it might well not present its full nature to our minds. When Moore said it was indefinable did he mean indefinable tout court or indefinable for us? And how strong was the modality in “indefinable”? The good might be indefinable for us as we are now but nevertheless possess an objective essence that another being might grasp, or it might be a natural primitive like the basic constituents of matter. If we insist that the good is a human construct, or a product of the will, we will be closed to this possibility of ignorance; but if we are open to a realist reism about the good, we shall be prepared to countenance all manner of possible areas of ignorance, remediable or otherwise. Plato’s strongly realist view of the Form of the Good certainly envisages deep ignorance about this res—it might be at best glimpsed by the human mind. The sun might be an open book by comparison. In any case, degrees of ignorance will attach to the good construed reistically. We should try to find room for this possibility in our imagination, limited as that faculty is: epistemic humility (itself part of the good) recommends accepting that the good might have a nature that has not been disclosed to us. The universe (Nature) is a big place with some remarkable things in it; the good might be one of these, not reducible to human practices or human constructs. In fact, it seems clear to me that it is thus transcendent, given our limited success in grasping its extension and nature: it has been historically difficult to determine what things are good, and we have not had much success defining what the good itself is (we have done much better with knowledge, say). As Iris Murdoch says: “Good is mysterious because of human frailty, because of the immense distance which is involved. If there were angels they might be able to define the good but we would not understand the definition. We are largely mechanical creatures, the slaves of relentlessly strong selfish forces the nature of which we scarcely comprehend.”[3] Here she is suggesting that our understanding of the good might be limited both by our inherent intellectual capacities and by our innate selfishness: we would need greater virtue to apprehend the good as well as more conceptual firepower. An interesting suggestion, but at any rate the “genuine mysteriousness” of which she speaks seems apt to the case. Of course, this kind of perspective is alien to contemporary moral philosophy, and indeed to all post-Kantian moral philosophy, but it is natural to conceptions closer to Plato’s, in which the good is viewed in a highly reified manner. Suppose he was right that the good is the very foundation of all reality, the ultimate level of being: wouldn’t we then be right to discern enormous ignorance in our conception of it? It is only by reducing the good in the direction of the human, and viewing the human through a limited lens (roughly, classical empiricism), that we can indulge the fantasy that the good is fully open to view—that “nothing is hidden” regarding the good. We really need a radical reimagining of the good, at least as an attempt to enlarge the philosophical possibilities. Here the simile of the sun can help, as a beginning anyway. What is nowadays called “moral realism” is actually rather insipid compared to what Plato had to offer. Even religious morality fails to come to grips with a more radical view of the good (it doesn’t escape the legislative model, which us confiningly human). The good is not just a thing; it is a big thing—capacious, majestic, and oceanic.

            It is hard to find an appealing analogy for the case of the good in another area of philosophy, though space and time have their attractions; the best I can find is the case of necessity. We have a decent working knowledge of necessity: we can make a fair stab at its distribution and we have theories of its nature (truth in all possible worlds, a higher-order primitive property). But it is easy to make mistakes about it (witness positivism) and it strikes us as remarkably elusive. What exactly are we thinking of when we think about necessity? Where is the impression (as Hume would ask)? Is it somehow an aspect of meaning? Is it an objective feature of reality or a mental projection? Maybe it has a nature that exceeds its appearance; maybe we grasp it only glancingly. What would Plato say about necessity—about the Form of the Necessary? What if we boldly reified it and became modal reists, regarding it as a Thing? We might then invent the Simile of the Earth: the Necessary is like the Earth in that it possesses the analogue of a crust and a molten core—a calm exterior but a raging interior. On the surface the Necessary holds objects rigidly, so that they can’t swap properties, but this results from an underlying force that compels objects to obey its commands—“You must be an even number!” Necessity looks static but underneath it might be dynamic (after all it necessitates). Who knows what such similes might suggest to us? Then we would start to think of necessity as a Thing with a hidden reality, not just as a human projection. We might become not just modal realists in the manner of possible worlds realism but realist reists insisting that necessity is a Thing with a deep hidden nature. It has no more to do with language (or even thought) than the good—just like matter, space, and time. The necessary and the good would be mind-independent realities, thing-like, substantial, not exhausted by human conceptions of them—much like the earth and the sun. Can such ideas be ruled out? Isn’t their invisibility in the philosophical landscape a result of a relentless and insidious humanism, a prejudice in favor of the human way of seeing things? Real realists want to know why the necessary and the good shouldn’t be viewed a la Plato, or some modern descendant of Plato—as mind-independent things equipped with a mode of being of their own. Doesn’t this give a better picture of the true epistemological situation?

            Every reality has an appearance (at least potentially), which may or may not correspond to the full extent of the reality. The appearance is a function of an interaction between the reality and the viewpoint of an observer, and is therefore relative to that observer. We should not think of it as the real face of the reality, as if it has that face no matter who looks at it. It is always tempting to collapse the reality into the appearance. This applies also to the case of the good: the good is how the good appears (to us). But we should make a firm distinction between reality and appearance even in the case of the good (perhaps especially in that case). The good far exceeds its appearance to us, unless (per impossibile) we miraculously grasp the full nature of what seems so elusive. We do know a fair bit about the good but we easily make mistakes about it, and in all probability are deeply ignorant of its real nature. Its appearance tells us something, to be sure, though this appearance can be misleading; but its appearance doesn’t reveal its complete reality—just like the sun, in fact.

[1] See my “The Sun and the Good”.

[2] The term does already exist in philosophy: the doctrine called “reism” holds that everything is a thing (an individual, a concrete particular). I am adopting the term not the doctrine: reism about the good is the view that the good is a thing, i.e. an entity with a nature of which predications may be made. It is the view that is generally rejected with the pejorative term “reify”: the good is what is truly reified, according to reism. Plato then is a reifying realist reist about the good. Subsequent Western philosophy is a reaction against this.

[3] The Sovereignty of Good (1970), pp.96-7. I think many readers of Murdoch’s book have not appreciated its metaphysical extravagance (which I do, in both senses of “appreciate”). And remember she was writing in an Oxford context in which ordinary language philosophy (especially in ethics) was not yet dead. Gutsy! She even toys with mysterianism about the good. The book was way beyond what people were thinking then, or even now. 

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The Sun and the Good

 

 

The Sun and the Good

 

In the Republic Plato offers the “Simile of the Sun”, comparing the Good to the Sun. The analogy has prima facieappeal, but what Plato does with it is far from obvious or even intelligible.[1] He writes: “Then what gives the objects of knowledge their truth and the knower’s mind the power of knowing is the form of the good. It is the cause of knowledge and truth, and you will be right to think of it as being itself known, and yet as being something other than, and even more splendid than, knowledge and truth, splendid as they are.” (Part Seven, Book Six, Section 5) On the face of it this says that the moral good is the cause of truth (the “being and reality” of objects, as he goes on to say) and also the cause of the faculty of knowledge. The moral good is what brings reality and knowledge into existence: the abstract form of the good is the origin of the universe and our ability to know about it. This sounds like a cosmological theory: the good does the kind of thing that the big bang is supposed to do. The analogy with the sun is thus that the sun is the source of growth and light, bringing visibility to objects and the power of sight to our eyes. The good enables reality, truth, and knowledge, as the sun enables sight and knowledge based on sight. I think we do well to drop the cosmological import of Plato’s theory and focus instead on the relationship between the good and knowledge. I don’t know what could be meant by saying that the form of the good is the cause of reality and truth, i.e. planets, mountains, oceans, etc. But I can see a point in saying that there is a deep connection between the good and the search for knowledge, as well as knowledge itself. For knowledge is a good thing and the search for it needs to be guided by normative principles: our epistemic endeavors need to be informed by an awareness of value—the value of knowledge and the value of the intellectual virtues. We might even claim that knowledge of the good is logically prior to knowledge of other kinds in that without it we would have no reason seek knowledge or value it. Why have knowledge of geography and physics unless there is value in having such knowledge—unless it is a good thing to know about such matters? We therefore need to apprehend the form of the good before we can apprehend other forms, to put it Plato’s way. Knowledge of the good is thus the source of all knowledge, its raison det’re. We need other inputs, to be sure, but knowledge of the good is essential to the enterprise of knowing in general. All epistemic engagement is normative engagement, as we might put it today. We might not agree with this claim, but at least we can see the point of it.

            There is also a more ambitious claim that might be read into Plato’s words: knowledge is a species of goodness. Let me put it this way: truth and beauty are types of good and the good is woven into them. Truth is the good truth-value and beauty is the good way to look. We start off with an undifferentiated concept of the good, a term of commendation or even love, and then we specialize this to the epistemic and the aesthetic. Since truth is the essence of knowledge, we can view knowledge as one manifestation of the form of the good: it is the good as it exists in the realm of belief (“good opinion”). Using Platonic language (and borrowing from Frege), we can say that the True is one species of the Good, as the Beautiful is another species. Truth is what Goodness becomes when it attaches to the world of belief, as Beauty is what Goodness becomes when it attaches to the world of the senses. Thus we can construct a metaphysical picture that fits Plato’s general conception: truth and beauty derive from goodness, being special cases of it. In this sense the form of the good is the source of knowledge and beauty—easy to see in the latter case, but also evident on reflection in the former case. The basic thing is the good with truth and beauty growing out of it. So, at any rate, we might attempt to reconstruct Plato’s baffling statements. He does speak of knowledge and truth (he says nothing about beauty in this section of the Republic) as being “like the good”, and this fits with the metaphysical picture just sketched. He insists, however, that the good is not identical to knowledge and truth, being “superior to it [the reality of objects] in dignity and power”.

            But how does this relate to morality and the Simile of the Sun? How does this rarified conception of the good connect with right action and ordinary moral thought? And how does it develop that promising analogy of the good to the sun? The only answer I can see to the former question is that the good is primarily the business of thought not action, knowledge not will. We need to bring normative ideas to bear when pursuing knowledge in general but particularly when pursuing moral knowledge: clear disciplined informed thinking is essential to moral judgment. So we need a firm grip on the form of the good when thinking morally: that is, we need to exercise the intellectual virtues. Moral psychology is in the first instance concerned with knowledge, perception, perceptiveness, attention to detail, etc.; it is not all about what I should do next, i.e. conduct. When your moral beliefs are true your action will be right. The will follows the intellect. Reason dictates action. So we can see why cognition of the good is linked to moral psychology for Plato: right action is just one manifestation of our cognitive connection to the good, i.e. our moral thinking. This is very Platonic: the world of forms, especially the form of the Good, is integral to all sound thinking and acting. The human soul exists in two planes: the abstract pure world of forms and the grubby empirical world of concrete particulars. This is why mathematics is so emblematic for Plato. Plato has a very inclusive conception of the good, not limited to everyday duties and political questions; still it is closely bound up with the practical and everyday. The good is “up there”, but also “down here”.

            As to the sun, I propose to leave Plato’s text behind now and pursue the question more generally: how are goodness and the sun similar to each other? What kind of resemblance exists between the two? The sun is a large star existing many millions of miles from us, fiery, spherical, physical, and violent—how is that like the good? Not very like, on the face of it: the good is none of those things. We might note that the sun allows for knowledge by sending light (“a precious thing”, as Plato calls it), as the good allows for knowledge by entering into it and regulating it. So there is an epistemic analogy: both conduce to knowledge and truth. If there were no sun, our knowledge would be very limited; and if there were no value, knowledge would have no point—ignorance would be entirely acceptable. Second, the sun provides warmth and sustenance (photosynthesis and so on) and we might suppose that the good provides spiritual warmth and sustenance (it feeds the soul). If there were no such thing as the good, life would be empty and the soul bereft. The sun is good and the good is also good. But does it end there—is there any further substance to the analogy? There is plenty of disanalogy: the good doesn’t rise and set, doesn’t burn us when we are out in it for too long, isn’t round, isn’t bright, isn’t something existing in space, isn’t physical, isn’t destined to burn itself out, doesn’t hurt our eyes, and doesn’t participate in eclipses. It is true that Plato held that we can’t gaze at the good just as we can’t gaze at the sun, but this is hard to make sense of: is the exceptionally good person always screwing up his or her mind’s eye? How could goodness be blinding? But there may be other analogies that are more promising. The way to approach this question is to consider other possible similes to see whether they can do better. To this end I will consider the Simile of the Tablet: the good is like a piece of stone or wax or paper with writing on it (think of Moses with the Ten Commandments inscribed on a rock). In the Judeo-Christian tradition this has been thought to be a rather good way to think about the good: a set of inscriptions prohibiting some things and commending others. The physical embodiment of these inscriptions is not supposed of any value in itself; it doesn’t do us any good. The inscribed tablet is also man-made and man-sized. It represents the good as a set of laws—a legislative document (perhaps viewed as sacred). But the sun is something very different: large-scale, not man-made, beneficial, enabling, magnificent, and beautiful. We have a quite different attitude towards the sun than we have towards a stone: it evokes awe, gratitude, wonder, and love. It is part of nature not a human artifact, a shining pervasive presence, nothing like a grim little chunk of rock. It has splendor, iridescence, gravitas. Plato’s analogy thus encourages quite different attitudes towards the good than those encouraged by the tablet analogy—arguably healthier attitudes. Second, the sun has a unity not possessed by the tablet and its list of directives. The Ten Commandments are just a series of unconnected imperatives (they could have been written on separate pieces of rock), but the sun is a manifest unity. Doesn’t this answer to our intuitive sense that the good is an organic whole? Hence we have the singular “the Good” and not the plural “the Ten Commandments”. I grant that this sense of unity may not exist in all our hearts, so steeped are we in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but maybe it still survives in vestigial form. Remember the Unity of the Virtues and other monistic moral doctrines (the categorical imperative and utilitarianism). It feels apt to compare the good to the unified sun: large and capacious but also all one. There are not many forms of the good, as if “the good” were a definite description lacking unique reference; we intuitively apprehend it as a single thing—the form of the good. The comparison with the sun nicely captures this sense of unity, clearly important to Plato.

            Now there is the question of thinghood: is the good a thing? This might be deemed a category mistake, but let’s not dismiss it so quickly. Space and time are things, so why not the good? What is the alternative? Presumably the idea that the good is a quality (or possibly a predicate): in matters of ontology we should categorize the good as something expressed by an adjective not a noun, as something that objects instantiate. But why insist on that? We find it perfectly natural to speak the good as if we are speaking of a thing; we may say that goodness is what we strive for; and we make predications of it, as in “The good is the highest value”. It is a merit of the sun simile that it captures this sense of thinghood so natural to Plato. Does this thing have parts? Now that seems to be stretching it: the sun has parts (it is a geometric object), but what would the parts of the good be? I don’t mean the set of good things; I mean goodness itself. The good seems indivisible, not an assemblage of parts. Is it homogeneous? Again, the question seems misguided: it is neither homogeneous nor heterogeneous (the sun might be hotter in some places than others). Iris Murdoch remarks that the Good (which she does not jib at reifying) is rather mysterious,[2] so we might not know the answer to such ontological questions; but it seems wrong to transfer too much from the physical realm into the realm of the good. Is the good a person? The temptation to identify it with God certainly exists, but is not succumbed to by Plato, and I think it is a virtue of the sun analogy that this idea is resisted: the sun is not a person (despite sometimes being regarded as a god). The good is an impersonal entity like the sun—a part of nature in the broadest sense. The good is. The good is like a huge glowing force, always around us, always making itself felt. Is it far away from us like the sun? We feel goodness to exist in our vicinity, here on earth, not 93 million miles away—isn’t this a significant disanalogy? But actually the sun is all around us here on earth, because its light is (and its warmth): the sun doesn’t end at its conventional boundary but reaches out across space. When you feel its rays you feel the sun—the extended sun, as we might say. The sun analogy allows us to capture the transcendence of the good as well as its close proximity: maybe the form itself exists somewhere Platonically remote, but its effects are right next to us. Similarly, the sun exists millions of miles away, but its effects are right here: it is remote yet proximate (the tablet is neither remote nor proximate, just somewhere nearby). The sun is remotely majestic as well as intimately personal, just as the good is (recall Kant’s comment about the starry heavens and the moral law). The sun has just the right size and distance and up-closeness to resemble the good—and the same dreamy insubstantial glow. If the good assumed celestial shape, it would look like the sun. Shakespeare was onto something when he wrote, “Juliet is the sun”: she is the living embodiment of the good.

            We are right to fear the good as well as love it: for it stands as a constant rebuke to our imperfection. It makes us aware of our failings and frailty, our miserable fallenness. We are also right to fear the sun as well as love it: that thing can burn you. We must not fly too close to the sun. We must respect its power. The good may warm us, soothe us, keep us in good spirits, but it can also sear us, torment us, and even drive us to despair. The moral life can be a hard life, an unforgiving life. We are ambivalent towards the good as we are ambivalent towards the sun (that relentless glare). The good is not like the moon in this respect (Plato didn’t offer the Simile of the Moon): the moon isn’t a dangerous painful thing as well as a benign thing. The sun better captures our complex attitudes towards the good: admiration and worship combined with resentment and rebellion. We don’t want to have to obey the sun, over which we have no control: we don’t want to put on the sunscreen or shield our eyes or wait for the sun rise—as we don’t want to be judged by the good, fall short of it, look shabby in comparison. Sometimes we wish it would just go away, or hide itself behind a cloud. It is unrelentingly present.

            Does the good have a nucleus, a center? The sun does, where it is presumably even hotter; its surface is not quite as intense or pure. It has often been supposed that the good has such a nucleus: Plato took it to be mathematics while others have favored art or literature or science or religion or ordinary good deeds. There is a core of super-hot morality, the place where the good is most alive. I don’t think the idea is absurd and the sun analogy helps us to formulate it (there is a reason Plato loved similes and allegories). One might be a nuclear moralist intent on one sphere of that vast terrain, convinced that this is where the good is at its purest. Philosophy might even be this core (but look at the moral condition of the average philosopher). And what is it that surrounds morality—that lies outside of its solar edges?  Many things: pleasure, dead matter, competition, animal love, the physical universe, time, etc. The good has an inside and an outside, an extension. It is not all-inclusive. We can represent its extension as a sphere, just as the sun is a sphere: some things lie within it and some lie outside, with some more central than others. It is not so much that it is a sphere but rather that it can be helpful to think of it this way. That was the purpose of Plato’s analogies: they function as aids to thought and maybe as guides to practice.[3]The Simile of the Sun seems a like a useful way to think about something maddeningly elusive and troublingly abstract. The struggling intellect sometimes needs sensory help; the sun analogy is a natural way to try to come to grips with our faltering attempts to understand the good. It allows us to form an image of the good. 

[1] I wrote this paper after reading Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good (1970). In this book she strives to articulate a conception of the Good that differs from that of later post-Kantian moral philosophy. This conception treats the Good as a reality unto itself by no means equivalent to human acts of will (or even divine acts). I am using this background in order to discuss Plato’s Simile of the Sun (which Murdoch briefly mentions). What I say here will not seem compelling (or even intelligible) without some acquaintance with Murdoch’s book. Both of us could say that we are trying to take the Good seriously and not dismiss it as airy mystical nonsense.

[2] “A genuine mysteriousness attaches to the idea of goodness and the Good. This is a mystery with several aspects.” (96) “We do not and probably cannot know, conceptualize, what it is like in the center [of moral goodness]”. (97)

[3] The analogy of the cave stands in an interesting relation to that of the sun. In the cave there is an absence of sun so that genuine knowledge is not obtainable. By analogy there is no good in the cave, i.e. that which enables real knowledge. The sun exists outside the cave, so the man who escapes the cave comes into contact with the good, making knowledge possible. So the two analogies slot together: the sun gives knowledge and its absence prevents it; the good gives knowledge and in its absence there is only ignorance. Being outside or inside the cave corresponds to acquaintance with the good or lack of acquaintance with it, and hence with knowledge or ignorance. 

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Use and the Will

 

Use and the Will

 

Wittgenstein tells us that meaning is use. Meaning involves practices, customs, and institutions. In the beginning was the deed. But he doesn’t say much about what use is. I propose to fill this gap. Evidently use is action, though we don’t find Wittgenstein saying as much. So the philosophy of action can be applied to use: use is action with words, as opposed to tools or musical instruments. When we use words we perform actions. What is an action? There is controversy about this, but we can at least say that actions have a purpose; they are teleological not “mechanical”. They are not purposeless events like eruptions or floods. In the case of human action the concept of intention suggests itself: acts are things done intentionally. So use is intentional action; it isn’t just like a reflex, as with the patellar reflex. Nor is it a conditioned reflex in which a stimulus mechanically evokes a stereotyped response, as in Skinnerian psychology. Nothing in Wittgenstein suggests any allegiance to S-R psychology. Wittgenstein has no trouble with the will and uses the concept freely (images are said to be “subject to the will”). So we can say that use is willed action—purposeful, intentional. Use is an instance of practical reason (to borrow Aristotle’s phrase): human practices and customs are instances of practical reason, i.e. planned purposeful action. Thus use is a rational activity: we use words as we do to achieve goals guided by reasoning. We have reasons to use words as we do—we don’t just blurt them out like Pavlov’s salivating dogs or Skinner’s pecking pigeons (not that dogs and pigeons are really stimulus-response automata either). Are our linguistic actions free? They are not stimulus-bound, as Chomsky long ago pointed out; nor are they coerced by some external agent. Normally our actions with words are free of both environmental stimuli and other agents: we do what we want with words according to our own volition. So use is free, rational, reason-based, intentional, purposeful action. Accordingly, meaning is action in that rich sense; it isn’t to be conceived as merely external vocal response or automatic non-rational bodily movement. That is, it must be conceived mentalistically not mechanically. If we call it “behavior”, it must be understood in that broad sense—human intentional action as a product of the rational will. This has nothing to do with “behaviorism” as a reductionist doctrine. It is action as a result of the rational faculties, as springing from motives, intentions, and means-end reasoning. If I call someone’s name in order to get their attention, I engage in an activity governed by my wishes, reasoning, and conscious intentions—this is linguistic use.[1]

            Wittgenstein famously connects meaning with what he calls “form of life”. Again, this concept is not to be taken in a narrow biological sense, as in anatomy and physiology. It is taken to include the whole life of a human being in all its richness, including of course emotional, cognitive, and perceptual life. That would be an apt way to talk about human action in general: our willed actions fit into a broad scheme of capacities, goals, biological functions, and cultural forms. So use is connected to form of life as the will in general is connected to form of life; linguistic actions take place in a context that includes non-linguistic actions with their life background. Use is not detached from the rest of human life any more than other actions are. Compare Grice’s theory of meaning: utterances are conceived as the acts of speakers with intentions and goals (specifically the transmission of beliefs). Meaning is use for Grice in the sense that meaning results from willed acts of intentional belief transmission. Meaning is acting with certain intentions. I see no reason Wittgenstein could not have signed on to such a conception; it locates meaning precisely in actions that fit into a broader context of human life. Grice’s theory is certainly far removed from the abstractions and geometrical thinking of the Tractatus. In any case, use in Wittgenstein’s sense is best understood in the rich psychological way outlined: it is a matter of the will and not a matter of perception or pure intellectual apprehension (“grasping a sense”). Where Schopenhauer talked about the world as consisting of Will, Wittgenstein (in effect) views meaning as consisting of Will (no doubt he wouldn’t like this way of putting it).[2] Meaning isn’t a matter of the Idea (to borrow again from Schopenhauer) for Wittgenstein but a matter of the conative faculties—doing, acting, performing. Meanings are willed into being not apprehended by a quasi-perceptual faculty. The deed is the foundation of meaning, because meaning is use; but the deed is shaped by the will and its connections to other aspects of human life. This is the “pragmatic turn” in Wittgenstein—the turn towards activity, volition, and decision. Understanding is a capacity to act not a perception of a Form of some sort (Platonic or Fregean or Humean)—where action is conceived in the full-blooded way indicated. If Wittgenstein had given us a philosophy of action, we might have expected the sort of account familiar from the philosophy of action; but he left that part of his overall conception in undeveloped form, which is why I have had to impose some conceptions on his text that are not present in it. If we want to develop his views about meaning, we do well to incorporate this richer picture of action: this makes it clearer what is intended and adds plausibility to what otherwise seems thin and under-described. In particular, we need a philosophy of the will if we are to understand the thesis that meaning is use.

            Above all we must avoid the picture of use that detaches it from the rest of the human agent—the isolated vocal emission, the pure bodily movement. Recognizing that use is an action allows us to bring to bear the whole philosophy of action with all its “mentalistic” elements, viz. purpose, intention, decision, choice, freedom, reasoning, even perception and knowledge. Of course, this doesn’t imply adopting false theories of these things, whether empiricist or rationalist or scientific; it is simply to acknowledge that the concept of linguistic use is embedded in a rich network of other concepts related to what is traditionally called the will. To say that meaning is use is to say that meaning is an operation of the will, however that is to be understood (or misunderstood: the topic of the will is full of perplexities). This is to be contrasted with perception and cognition, which were the dominant metaphors of the Tractatus.

[1] We are not committed to regarding use as external and public, i.e. noises from the vocal apparatus or hand gestures; we could speak of inner use as in silent speech. Meaning as it exists in silent speech is a matter of how words are used internally and not (say) coexisting mental images. In the philosophy of action we are familiar with the notion of purely mental action, as in calculating in the head; the same point carries over to linguistic use. There are two types of action, external and internal, and there are two types of linguistic use, out loud or privately in the head.  

[2] Apparently Wittgenstein was familiar with Schopenhauer’s work, so there may be some influence in the direction of a more dynamic view of reality (as opposed to the Kantian Idea). Wittgenstein even uses the word “moves” to characterize meaning: “(It might almost be said: ‘Meaning moves while a process stands still’)”: Philosophical Grammar, p.149.

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Meaning, Use, and Existentialism

 

 

Meaning, Use, and Existentialism

 

Wittgenstein writes in the Philosophical Investigations: “How can he know how he is to continue a pattern by himself—whatever instruction you give him?—Well, how do I know?—If that means ‘Have I reasons?’ the answer is: my reasons will soon give out. And then I shall act, without reasons.” (211) “When someone whom I am afraid of orders me to continue the series, I act quickly, with perfect certainty, and the lack of reasons doesn’t trouble me.” (212) “If I have exhausted the justifications, I reach bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do’. (217) “I obey the rule blindly.” (219) To anyone familiar with existentialist thought this must sound eerily familiar: actions don’t issue from reasons, justifications, character, upbringing, genes, or any other determinative factor; they come from pure spontaneous free will.[1] Nothing determines our actions but free action itself. So action cannot find a basis in reason or psychological state or logic; it must occur in a vacuum. Wittgenstein is saying that following a rule is not based on any “interpretation”, any inner or outer state or process or symbol that fixes what has to be done at any point in the application of the rule; rather, the will itself must step in to apply the rule. As he says: “It would almost be more correct to say, not that an intuition was needed at every stage, but that a new decision was needed at every stage.” (186) The rule-follower is free from every antecedent fact and must act anyway. The will is primary in producing action, not reason or perception or consciousness. This conception is rightly associated with existentialism and is opposed to rationalist conceptions of action and will construed as the slaves of reason. We could say that Wittgenstein is a semantic existentialist: the use of words is radically free, not dictated by logic, interpretations, subjective states, or anything of the kind. The existentialist holds that action in general, especially moral action, is likewise not grounded in anything perceived by the mind, whether in the empirical world or in platonic heaven. We don’t apprehend the Good and act accordingly, just as we don’t apprehend a Fregean sense and use words accordingly. Instead we simply act—blindly, without guidance, without reasons. Whatever is going on in consciousness cannot determine our actions; we must act from pure will. The deed has no foundation in antecedent facts about the mind—not in what we call personality, and not in mental states preceding or accompanying linguistic use. The will is an autonomous agency.

            Given this analogy, it makes sense to investigate further possible analogies between Wittgenstein and Sartre (taking him to be representative of existentialist thought). In particular, can we find an analogue of Sartre’s notion of Nothingness in Wittgenstein? I will assume familiarity with Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, simply reminding the reader of some salient points. Consciousness (the for-itself) is nothingness because its being is exhausted by its intentional objects—what it is conscious of. It has no more being than that conferred by its objects, but it doesn’t collapse into those objects. Decision thus arises from nothingness, because that’s what consciousness (the mind) is. The essence of the human being is non-being—a kind of structural emptiness. Future actions are not in any way contained in or predetermined by the contents of mind at a given time; the faculty of will steps in to take up the slack, i.e. to make action possible. The will is an autonomous faculty not an obedient servant of reason or even emotion. We are condemned to be free, as Sartre puts it. We exist in time and must act in time, but the past doesn’t determine how we act; every act is really a new decision, a leap in the dark. Values arise from these free acts; the acts are not determined by values. We could say that the human agent is conceived as a pure potentiality, a kind of unconditioned spontaneity, not a collection of actual empirical facts—an empty vessel, a vacuum, a non-being (yet very real). We may try to conceal our freedom from ourselves (bad faith), but it is an undeniable reality. At our heart we are nothing but the bare possibility of acting.

I have reported Sartre’s position so as to bring out the analogy with Wittgenstein’s: for he too thinks that meaning (rule following, understanding) is essentially a form of emptiness, a mere potentiality. Nothing in my current state of understanding contains or predetermines future use, though we are tempted to think otherwise; it is the potentiality of future use not the guarantor of it. Its being is not like the being of a sensation or an image; in so far as it has being this consists in a capacity to act in certain ways in the future, where this capacity is not grounded in any further psychological fact. That is why the next stage in developing the series is more like a decision than an intuition: it is an act of autonomous free will. The Tractatus tried to find a cognizable fact to constitute meaning (a picturing relation), but this quest turned up nothing, so the Investigations settles for an active potentiality—a bare ability to use words over time. The empirical psychologist tries to identify a set of mental elements that constitute the psyche and determine action (Freud is the obvious example), but Sartre thinks this underestimates human freedom, which is better pictured as an empty spontaneity. Both Sartre and Wittgenstein think that cause and effect should be reversed: use causes or creates meaning; action causes or creates personality. Meaning rests ultimately on a vanishing point of pure will (the unconditioned deed); the self likewise rests upon a pure volitional assertion (the self-created self). Action emerges as foundational in the formation of both meaning and the self—action that springs from pure potentiality. No doubt this notion of the volitional tabula rasa is difficult to comprehend, and is indeed rather mysterious, but we are driven to it by honest reflection on how reason and the will connect, i.e. not very closely. Reason alone cannot dictate action, especially moral action (or so it is thought), and neither can it dictate how to follow a rule or use words. The rationalist view of action must give way to the existentialist view in both ethics and semantics. If this calls for a radical rethinking of metaphysics, in which nothingness and pure potentiality are included in what there is, then so much the better, given that rejection of such ideas leads to distorted pictures of meaning and the self. So, at any rate, these two thinkers might suppose (I am describing not endorsing)—Wittgenstein with some misgivings (see sections 193 and 194 on the potentialities of machines), Sartre with something more like gleeful abandon. Certainly some serious revision of traditional philosophical ideas is called for by both thinkers. One wonders whether followers of either of them realized quite how serious the metaphysical stakes were (I am thinking of analytical philosophers influenced by Wittgenstein and humanists excited by Sartre’s vision of limitless freedom). In point of fact, both are advocating ideas that are deeply mysterious and bordering on the miraculous—the pure will as an agent of semantic and personal construction. For how can an empty will create meanings and selves? The idea seems romantic and far-fetched—that is, guaranteed to appeal to the fantasy driven and thrill seeking. But I digress: my aim is only to investigate the history of ideas not pronounce on their merits. I certainly found Sartre’s ideas about freedom exhilarating in my youth, and Wittgenstein’s voluntaristic view of meaning strangely gripping in my middle age; and I can’t be the only one. The notion of pure creativity is bound to resonate.[2]

            Stepping back, we might bring in developments in physics roughly contemporaneous with the work of Sartre and Wittgenstein—developments that also appeal to the human imagination. I mean the quantum revolution. In Newtonian physics everything is determined by the antecedent state of the world, conceived as a set of hard fixed facts, with nothing “funny” going on. But in quantum theory (under some interpretations) the basic constituents of matter have no determinate nature until their properties are measured; before that they are mere potentialities. Nor do their properties determine what will happen in the future; their future behavior is not “contained” in their present state. So we should adopt an existentialist view of elementary particles: how they behave over time is not fixed by their internal state, which is best viewed as a type of potentiality. They are “free” from anything that precedes them, as if they have a will that permits different possibilities of action. Thus we have what may be called “physical existentialism” to be set beside semantic existentialism and personal existentialism. All three views reject ideas of determinism and determinate nature, replacing these with a new metaphysics of potentiality and openness. The particle too emerges as a kind of nothingness only given determinate reality by freely “chosen” acts. It would be rash to speculate on intellectual influences, but such ideas were in the air when Sartre and Wittgenstein were forging their radical theories; at least there is a common pattern at work here. No longer is the world a totality of well-defined facts, construed as determinate elements of reality, but rather a sea of potentialities waiting to become concretized by free action. The world becomes performance, a freely constructed artifact, not unlike a fictional work: the unconstrained will creates reality from nothing. A performative utterance is one that creates a fact from an act; in this sense the existentialist holds that parts of reality are performatively constructed, i.e. brought about by the will. It’s a bit like God’s ability to create the universe: by pure will alone he can produce realities. Uses create meanings, actions create selves, and measurements create particles: free action is the root of these realities (note that the concept of action is commonly employed in physics). Each is a type of behaviorism in that action is invoked to account for being; there is no essence that is prior to behavior and productive of it. Existence precedes essence—though the existence is of a wispy and elusive nature. It might be more apt to say that non-existence (Nothingness) precedes both existence and essence. The will conceived in the existentialist manner (which is not compulsory) is a remarkably etiolated and elusive thing, yet it is regarded as capable of astonishing feats of construction. It tends to be characterized negatively with little said to explain its productive power.[3]

 

[1] This paper was stimulated by reading Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good (1970), especially the first chapter. Here she draws a connection between Continental existentialism and Oxford-based views of moral conduct, suggesting that they too are existentialist. Both base morality on the will not on perception of the Good or any other rational foundation. She remarks en passant that the Oxford existentialists were influenced by Wittgenstein. This led me to think more systematically about the relation between Sartre’s existentialism and Wittgenstein’s use theory of meaning.    

[2] I studied Being and Nothingness closely as an undergraduate and later gave a graduate seminar on it (as well as writing an encyclopedia entry on Sartre); and I wrote a book on Wittgenstein in the early 1980s (Wittgenstein on Meaning). At both periods I felt the force of their positions. Now I am more reluctant to go along with them. Existentialism is a young person’s philosophy.

[3] Creativity is of course a psychological mystery: we have very little understanding of how the human mind generates anything novel. A mysterian view of how the will creates meaning and the self is not to be lightly dismissed, and gives Sartre and Wittgenstein some needed wiggle room. Existentialist mysterianism might be the indicated position.

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Skepticism and Existence

 

 

Skepticism and Existence

 

The usual forms of skepticism emphasize existence: we don’t know that external objects exist, or that other minds exist. We might be brains in a vat and none of the objects of perception really exist, or the bodies we observe do not contain existing minds. These types of skepticism typically cite hallucination as a real possibility: it can seem to you as if an object is thus and so but there might be no object there at all, or a lifelike body might be just an automaton. But these are not the only conceivable kinds of skepticism: the skeptic might see fit to challenge our ordinary beliefs about other properties of objects, such as color, shape, size, weight, etc. We don’t really know that the things external to our minds have the properties we normally ascribe to them. Maybe things are objectively very different from the way they seem and the way we think of them: perhaps they have different colors and shapes, or lack color and shape altogether. Here the model would be visual illusion not hallucination: the object exists but it is otherwise than it seems. There are real things causing our perceptions but they don’t appear as they really are. The skeptic wants to know how we can rule this out. I think my desk is brown and oblong, but maybe it is yellow and square—how can I be sure this is not the case? For some reason this type of skepticism is not mentioned—what we might call “attribute skepticism” as opposed to “existence skepticism”. This omission is curious and I can see no obvious reason for it; perhaps it simply lacks the drama of skepticism regarding existence. If people never had any experience of hallucination, it might be the preferred form of skepticism; in any case it clearly exists in logical space. In some ways it is more natural than existence skepticism, since it concerns ordinary properties not the peculiar property of existence. I don’t really know the shape and color of (existing) objects.

            But there is a further reason to recognize this form of skepticism: it avoids a problem for existence skepticism. The problem is that it is open to the anti-skeptic to maintain that external objects must exist given the nature of perceptual experience. For experiences need causes, so it cannot be that their distal objects fail to exist. Even if the cause is a supervising scientist, there something out there causing one’s experiences, and this is the object of the experience in question. There is an external world under the brain in a vat hypothesis, and this world supplies experiences with external causes. So it may be said that the usual skeptical scenarios fail to establish the possibility of experience without an external world; it might even be said that we see the objects postulated in these scenarios. I might really be seeing electrodes in my brain when I seem to see a table. Whatever is causing my experiences qualifies as their object—what I am seeing. So I do know that the external world exists! I just don’t know what it’s like. But this response is not possible for attribute skepticism: the external object might really lack the properties I attribute to it, while it cannot lack the property of existence. It is relatively easy to satisfy the existence requirement, but it is much harder to justify the claim that the table is really brown and oblong. We all know what would have to be the case for something not to be brown and oblong (e.g. to be yellow and square), but there are so many ways of existing that the external world could satisfy that allow it to be very different from what we suppose. We might just be seeing our brain states, existing things, but we would certainly not be seeing them as they are if we are suffering from massive illusion (seeing neurons as brown oblong tables etc.). So attribute skepticism can easily avoid the response to existence skepticism I have mentioned. It should be added to the skeptic’s arsenal both for reasons of completeness and also for dialectical purposes. Knowing that the external world exists and is perceived is not much comfort to common sense if you can’t know anything about it.[1]

 

[1] Similarly, we might allow that other minds must exist given that they are needed to explain behavior, but it is a further question whether they are as we normally suppose. Maybe we need color experiences of some sort to explain discriminative behavior, but the experiences need not coincide with our own, as in a classic color inversion case. Existence skepticism about other minds might be false though attribute skepticism is still true. At any rate, we need to distinguish the two.

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Is Referring Opaque?

 

 

Is Referring Opaque?

 

If I refer to Hesperus with “Hesperus” am I also referring to Phosphorus? If I refer to Clark Kent with “Clark Kent” am I also referring to Superman? Suppose I disbelieve that Hesperus is Phosphorus and that Clark Kent is Superman: is it still true that I am referring to Phosphorus and Superman when I use “Hesperus” and “Clark Kent”? It is generally held that such inferences go through, but I am doubtful: that is, I doubt whether “A refers to x” generates a transparent context at “x”. Compare the verbs “allude to”, “advert to”, “mention”, “mean”, and “list”: if I allude to Clark Kent, do I also allude to Superman, and so on for the other verbs? That sounds wrong: I might protest the imputation and I would be right to do so. In other words, these verbs create an intensional context: we can’t substitute co-denoting terms within it salva veritate. We might be able to report concerning Superman that I referred to him (de re), but we can’t say that I referred to Superman (de dicto). Or consider “A intentionally referred to x”: surely that is an opaque context—I did not intentionally refer to Superman by saying “Clark Kent” if I disbelieve that Clark Kent is Superman. Referring is a mental act and it inherits the opacity common to mental acts (same for “alludes” etc.). Speaker reference thus exhibits referential opacity.

            But isn’t semantic reference ultimately dependent on speaker reference? Isn’t speaker reference the basic concept? If so, semantic reference must inherit the logical behavior of speaker reference: the construction “w refers to x” is also an opaque context. So it doesn’t follow from the truth of “’Hesperus’ refers to Hesperus” and “Hesperus is Phosphorus” that “’Hesperus’ refers to Phosphorus” is true. Indeed, we might conclude that it is simply false, given that speakers don’t use “Hesperus” when they want to refer to Phosphorus—they use “Phosphorus”. If we know the identity, we won’t object to using the names indiscriminately, but strictly speaking “Hesperus” refers to Hesperus and “Phosphorus” to Phosphorus, but not contrariwise. To repeat, “refers” generates an intensional context, like “believes” and other psychological verbs. This is a rather startling result, given how the notion of reference (denoting, designating) has been employed in analytical philosophy, yet it seems intuitively correct. But there is a still more startling consequence of accepting the opacity point: reference is not a relation. For genuine relations don’t generate opaque contexts: they hold between things however those things are designated (e.g. “to the left of”). But reference does not hold between things no matter how those things are designated (the subject position of the sentence is transparent, however). So we should not speak of the “reference relation” or model reference on genuine relations; it is no such thing. If there are relations between words and the world (and there undoubtedly are), they are not relations of reference. For example, Phosphorus may indeed cause utterances of “Hesperus”, but it is not denoted by “Hesperus”; and it is not possible to analyze denotation in terms of causal relations, since that would be false to its logical character. No relation could constitute reference. The whole picture of reference as some sort of real relation between words and things has to be wrong. We picture language as over here and the world as over there, with all sorts of relations holding between the two; but the concept of reference doesn’t correspond to any of these relations, because reference is not a relation at all. It is a kind of pseudo-relation.[1]               

 

[1] It is much the same as with the verb “thinks of”: if I am thinking of Clark Kent, I am not thereby thinking of Superman, and might strongly the reject the suggestion that I am. It may yet be true that I am thinking of someone (Clark Kent) who happens to be identical to Superman, but it doesn’t follow from this that I am thinking of Superman. I think the same is true of perceptual verbs, though here the intuition doesn’t seem so robust: if I see Clark Kent in the office, does it follow that I see Superman in the office? That is, is there a reading of this sentence under which it doesn’t follow? I think there is, but you have to think hard to find it. If so, “sees” doesn’t express a genuine relation either (ditto “remembers”). 

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