Ian Ground “Why Wittgenstein matters”

I just listened to a talk given by Ian Ground to The Royal Institute of Philosophy back in Feb of 2015. Much was interesting, but it was the last minute or so of the talk that had me sitting straighter. His words were,

What Wittgenstein tells us is the perspective from within life, as you might say, from the inside of the world, is not for sale to the highest objective bidder. His complaint is that there is a standing intellectual temptation which is natural to us but which is unnaturally amplified through our culture to, as it were, paint the outside of the world onto the inside.

We want our meaningful practices to be real. We don’t think our capacity for meaningful thought, for talk, and action could be some kind of systematic illusion, but in our culture our model of what it is to be real has been almost completely colonized by the sciences. We think that unless something is objectively describable, detached from any particular point of view, it must be either unreal or supernatural.

It’s not that there isn’t in a perfectly sane sense an objective view to be had on our lives, on our moral and aesthetic life, or what it is to be a natural-minded creature. It’s not that we shouldn’t seek to investigate and understand such things in an unbiased or unmethodical way, or be evidence-free. But rather that we should do ALL these things in a way which is not in thrall to a single conception of the real.

For me the remark that best crystallizes Wittgenstein’s fundamental view and why his thinking matters is this one: “Not empiricism and yet realism in philosophy, that is the hardest thing.” Empiricism here is many things, but essentially the idea that the world is wholly graspable from an objective view. The realism is neither the metaphysical nor the epistemological version, it is instead a capacity for seeing the world and our lives in it seen from the inside as well as the outside, whole and shared, aright.

My view is that preserving and nurturing that capacity, given the homogenizing and totalizing forces in the opposite direction, and given to our own capacity for self-deceit, almost as soon as we begin to reflect upon our nature, is vitally important for understanding both of ourselves and our place in nature and for the health of our culture.

Any mistakes in the transcription are my fault. The part written out here begins around 59:20

Flourishing (or not)

Since I need a place to record my thoughts (and no one reads this anyway) here is a response to a blog post someone wrote. Rather, it is the follow-up explanation after the writer confessed failing to see the relevance of my first comment. I said this:

Dan, I took your argument to be this: “given that the success and failure it imagines occur in the world and among other people and thus, depend on things other than oneself and one’s efforts, the Eudaimonic life cannot be self-sufficient.” The way you illustrate it the point “at the end of the day is to accomplish something”, that “one engages in archery to hit targets, not to try and hit them; one diets in order to lose weight, not to try and lose it; one plays baseball games in order to win them, not try to win them; and one auditions for roles in plays to get those roles, not to try and get them. Consequently, success in these endeavors cannot consist of trying to accomplish them, but only in the actual accomplishment of them.”

I agree that it seems wrong to paint flourishing as purely internal and self-sufficient. I agree also that we need to make sense of flourishing as something that happens in the world. My question is in what sense flourishing *depends* on externals. Are things like winning sufficient conditions? If as you say the point at the end of the day is accomplishing something then it almost seems you might be making that case. The example I proposed of hating tennis despite being good at it was meant to show that ‘success’ is not sufficient for flourishing. It is an odd flourishing where we absolutely hate what we are successful at.

I can’t really see that you set out precisely what the connection between externals and flourishing is, but my other example was meant to show that the externals are not always necessary. That is, while you paint ‘success’ as important if not essential to flourishing (or at minimum to “accomplish something”), sometimes success is not the measure of flourishing but rather *that* we are doing what we feel we are meant to be doing, regardless of how things turn out. The facts about success and failure are not nearly as important as what they mean in our lives. The point here is that value is not simply extrinsic or something necessarily measured but that the value of a flourishing life sometimes depends on *the measure itself*. THAT I get to be an artist rather than how successful I am at it. This still makes flourishing IN the world, involved with externals, but the point I am making is that flourishing is not dependent on them specifically. Flourishing is not necessarily tested by our success and failure.

There is a third choice between the purely subjective and the independent and measurable external. The third choice is what Wittgenstein was chasing down in much of his work. What are the hinges about which other things turn? What is the logic upon which activities depend? Not everything of value is at all times measurable. If flourishing sometimes is, sometimes depends on our successes, there is also a sense in which flourishing sometimes also depends on the framework itself, that my flourishing depends on me doing this thing that matters to me rather than something else and no matter how good at it I might be. The point may not be winning at chess but that we get to play the game.

Does being IN the world necessarily mean being best known AS something measurable? That seems to be our cultural bias. We confuse the values inside a game (success, failure, etc.) with the value of the game. Everything is measurable. But there is a difference between things being measured and the things we measure with. The measures are as much in the world as what gets measured. If those can sometimes be subject to measurement themselves, are they best known in this way? Or are they known better AS the measurements themselves?

If we don’t understand the difference then it is easy to see everything in the world as measurable. The whole ball of wax. “Come out little fly, come out. I can hear you buzzing.”

Anyway, this was my initial response that apparently strained at being relevant:

I agree that there is a sense in which flourishing IS measured by ‘success’, whatever that may be, and that it seems strange to overlook it. In that sense it depends on this measurability, is not self-sufficient, just as you say.

You bring up specific activities where flourishing depends on the outcomes, and I agree that this at least occasionally seems important. The tennis player plays to win and requires adequate competition to become the best possible. But if success in tennis is an example of flourishing, the success itself does not seem to be the only source worth considering.

What if you actually HATE playing tennis? What if you could win every match but it would bore you? What if you are playing, not to win but for some other agenda? Having a fun time with friends, for instance? What if tennis is simply the wrong game for you and no matter how good you were at it you would never point to your ‘success’ and describe it as ‘flourishing’?

The point I am aiming at is that flourishing can only get measured at all if one is doing something that ALREADY has value. If tennis matters to me then I can flourish playing tennis. If being an artist matters to me then I can flourish as an artist. If Philosophy matters to you then and only then can you flourish as a philosopher.

And sometimes it doesn’t matter how well we do those things in any measurable sense but simply that we get to do them. Sometimes it is more important to do these things than that we are any ‘good’ at them. If I am fulfilled by being an artist I may still hate most of what I make, others may not get what I am doing, and I might never make a decent living from it, but it is what I am called to do, and any measure of flourishing that did not start with being an artist would be beside the point.

The question for me always seems to be “What is the measure, and what is being measured?”

Answering Dan Kaufman on our moral exhaustion

Dan Kaufman asked some good questions about our obsession with finding “morality everywhere” in one of his blog posts yesterday. He makes some good observations, so it is worth reading. The point he is making is that we are in this uncomfortable position where everything seems to have moral implications. It looks as if anything and everything we do can be judged in some way from a moral perspective. The question is why this should be.

This was my response:

I see this as one more example of our culture’s obsession with judging (in its many forms and pathways). My own little obsession has been examining our fixation with ordinary justifying and measuring, but I can easily see how the “general moral exhaustion” you bring up is really a special case of what comes as our temptation to measure anything and everything to ‘find its value’. The similarity isn’t so much in the subject matter but in our need, our *compulsion*, to ask and come up with answers to these questions.

And the difference between a culture that tries to measure everything and one that resists the temptation is simply a difference in practices. As you put it, “we aren’t going to be able to come up with some theory or principle that will tell a person when something should be morally scrutinized or not.” That is, we cannot base the difference on differences in the subject matter we are scrutinizing. We don’t need a theory of the particular ‘things’ in question. Instead, as Wittgenstein might caution us, the real question is “What are these humans doing?”

I have made these same observations in comments over the last few months, but I should perhaps restate them here. The main issue seems to be how we make sense of things, whether they have certain specific roles within the practices of our daily life. My guess is that our culture has simply become very comfortable in taking measurements (blame scientists?), in making certain kinds of judgment (blame Peter Singer?), and in asking for and receiving justification (blame bureaucrats?). We almost accept this as the natural state of affairs. Everything can be investigated and everything *should* be investigated. There are no natural limits. We treat the world as an open question. (Think of it as like an infant that has learned to put things in its mouth indiscriminately.)

The distinction that makes most sense to me is that we generally assume this when we go out into the unfamiliar world and explore. This is *not* our attitude toward our own values, to our own measures. But we don’t see that. Our own measures are simply assumed. They are not questioned. They are not brought up on trial. And we don’t feel they need to be justified. From the inside of our lives they are what we use to make sense of the world. They are almost too familiar to us to be seen as things requiring measurement. They don’t fit that particular default. Something only performs *as* a measure when it is itself NOT being measured.

But the truth is that everything seemingly *can* be measured. When we look at other people’s values and fail to see their sense our first recourse is to find the justification, to find the best way of measuring and judging. Unfortunately two things go wrong in that attempt. Other people’s values as much as our own are not always *BASED* on justification. Sometimes, yes (of course), but in general, no. As Wittgenstein would tell you, at bedrock this is simply what we do.

But the other misstep is that attempting to measure the things that are *themselves* measures inevitably fails to embrace its role AS a measure. The fact that it can be measured is not a sign we are closer to understanding the value of its use as a measure. Subjecting-to-measurement is the *wrong* way to understand measures. You might say that we understand measures *BY* *using* *them* as measures (It is, after all, what we learned). Somehow we fail to see that. We also fail to see why that might just be important……

I get the feeling that in our culture we are prone to looking at the world as outsiders in some sense. With the eyes of science, as it were. The attitude that anything and everything can and should be measured is a stance we take regarding the world. It is also a form of blindness. It looks outward as though provisional agnosticism were our natural state. This says more about US and our cultural practices than it does necessarily about the world we are investigating. It specifically fails to capture the human practices involved in navigating the world. We are so focused on the measurable world that we fail to see our own selves doing the investigating. We ignore all the other normal daily activities, the-human-form-of-life, in which any of it comes to make sense in the first place…..

You’ve heard all of this from me before, but maybe cast in this light it actually makes more sense than the other framing I have given it. This is not what we want to hear. It is not what we are comfortable hearing.

Who’s afraid of Ludwig Wittgenstein?