Monday, December 26, 2016

How to celebrate Christmas: Wittgenstein

There is hardly any western philosopher who writes about Christmas. It’s a bit strange, since Christmas is the most important holiday in the western world, even though for many people it’s no longer celebrated because of its religious meaning. It has turned into an important secular holiday, especially to be celebrated in the family. In this way Christmas is gradually becoming important all over the world, also in non-Christian countries. Therefore, it’s remarkable that all major (western) philosophers philosophically ignore it, although much can be said about it. Even such a devote roman-catholic like Montaigne usually kept away from writing on Christmas, probably because he didn’t want to be involved in the religious conflicts of his time. He was afraid of being accused to support the Reformation, if he would present a moderate point of view.
It’s true that Sartre wrote a kind of Nativity play, when he was interned as a prisoner of war in Germany during Christmas 1940, but actually it was an act of solidarity with his fellow prisoners and a rejection of Nazism. But it is an exception and in fact only Wittgenstein devotes occasionally some words to Christmas. We know that he often celebrated it with his family – anyway before he definitively moved to England – but that he didn’t like it. However, during the First World War, so exactly hundred years ago, he was not at home, since he was a soldier. Wittgenstein wrote a diary during these years, and it would be interesting to know what he did on December 25 or 26, 1916, but alas, this part of his diary has been lost or he didn’t write about it. What we do know is what he did during Christmas two years before. These were the days that soldiers on the Western Front fraternized and celebrated Christmas together with the enemy, to the great annoyance of the generals, who succeeded to suppress this fraternization in later years. But in December 1914 Wittgenstein was in Eastern Europe and his post was behind the front line at a quiet place. So even if he would have liked to fraternize with the Russian enemy – which I doubt – he couldn’t do that.
Wittgenstein tells us that on Christmas Day 1914 he takes the midday meal in the officers’ mess. Was it special Christmas dinner? I don’t know, for he doesn’t mention what he ate. And Wittgenstein tells us that “he worked a bit”. The next day, on Boxing Day, he “hardly worked”, so he writes, and in the evening he went to a coffee house with a young man whom he had met, and he had an interesting discussion with the guy.
It needs some explanation what Wittgenstein means when he writes that he “worked”. He doesn’t mean that he did his tasks as a soldier, but that he worked on the manuscript of what would later become his Tractatus logico-philosophicus. We know even exactly what he wrote then:

“The proposition says something” is identical with: It has a particular relation to reality, whatever this may be. And if this reality is given and also that relation, then the sense of the proposition is known, "pvq" has a different relation to reality from "p.q", etc.
The possibility of the proposition is, of course, founded on the principle of signs as going proxy for objects. [Cf. 4.0312.]
Thus in the proposition something has something else as its proxy. But there is also the common cement. My fundamental thought is that the logical constants are not proxies. That the logic of the fact cannot have anything as its proxy. [See 4.0312.]
[from Notebooks 1914-1916]

In the Tractatus (4.0312) this would become:
The possibility of propositions is based upon the principle of the representation of objects by signs.
My fundamental thought is that the “logical constants” do not represent. That the logic of the facts cannot be represented.

So, during Christmas 1914, four months after he had voluntarily joined the army, Wittgenstein was working on the most fundamental thoughts of his early philosophy, namely that a language represents the world it depicts. This idea would become one of the basic ideas of analytical philosophy. Even though today we will not take it in a literal sense any longer, isn’t it still considered true that the words we speak represent at least our view on the world and how we want that others – the persons we are speaking to – see it?

Source, besides Wittgenstein’s Notebooks 1914-1916, Wilhelm Baum, Wittgenstein im Ersten Weltkrieg. Die „Geheimen Tagebücher“ und die Erfahrungen an der Front 1914-1918), Klagenfurt-Wien: Kitab Verlag 2014.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Monday, December 19, 2016

Passing a square

Nancy, France, Place Stanislas

A few weeks ago I wrote here about a series of photos I presented recently at a photo exhibition in my town. These photos were mainly landscapes but what was special was that each photo was framed by a natural frame, for instance a window frame. Just by the frames the pictures got a philosophical meaning, for don’t we all look at the world through our mental frames? However, I presented then also another series of photos, which showed pictures on a theme that seems meaningless at first sight: People crossing squares. Why taking pictures of such an ordinary if not banal event that is not conspicuous in any sense and doesn’t seem worth to remember? In a way you are right, I think, when you say that we can ignore such daily events like – in this case – crossing squares. Nevertheless I don’t agree with you. In order to explain that I’ll concentrate on the theme of the exhibition (people crossing squares) but it’s only an example of the “banal” things we do.
Actually squares are quite prominent in a town. Some are even famous, like Trafalgar Square in London, St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City or the Red Square in Moscow. It’s not without reason, for a square can have all kinds of functions like being a market place, a place where people meet, a place where buildings of a certain type are concentrated, and many more. Squares are also connecting and communicating spaces. They are places you must pass when you want to move from one part of a town to another part. In the latter sense they are transit places, or as I prefer to call them: passages. Squares are not the only kind of passages. Other passages are, for instance, waiting rooms, highways and railway stations. One characteristic of passages is that you want to pass them as quickly as possible. Or sometimes you use them in a way related to their meaning of a passage: If you are too early for an appointment, it’s a nice place to wait just there. Usually squares got their function as a passage and their other functions not by chance: They have been made that way. Towns develop around markets. Museums are deliberately concentrated around a square. Spaces are left open as meeting places. Squares are essential when planning a town.
Just this given functionality makes that passing a square is not an accidental affair. People are – often unconsciously – led along squares. City planners can have made it so that you have to pass them (because of the pattern of the streets). People may like it to pass them if they find them beautiful, even if they don’t give attention to the beauty once they are there, because they are in a hurry. And look: most people pass squares in the same way, along the same lines. Such things make that from a philosophical and sociological point of view passing a square is not an event without meaning, even if it may lack meaning from the point of view of the passer-by. Passing a square is one of the simple and apparently banal things that make up life, just like many other simple actions do like emptying your mail box, going to the baker’s, taking a breakfast, waiting in a waiting room. Actually such things are essential for life and we necessarily spend a lot of time on them. They cover also a big part of our planning when we prepare what we see as a meaningful event like a party. Just this is the meaning of “banality” in daily life, like passing a square.

Recommended authors: Michel de Certeau, Marc Augé.
More photos of passing a square on:

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Raven Paradox

Since I didn’t succeed to take a picture of a raven, instead I have photographed an orange.

Last week I talked about the liar’s paradox and the Sorites’ paradox. Paradoxes are self-contradictory reasonings, for short. They have to be distinguished from fallacies, which are invalid or otherwise faulty reasonings that often seem correct (or to some they do) and therefore deceive the mind. I have talked about paradoxes and fallacies in my blogs before.
Paradoxes seem unsolvable but once they have been solved they appear to be fallacies. An example of a paradox that became a fallacy is Zeno’s paradox about Achilles and the tortoise. (Zeno of Elea lived from 490-430 BC) Achilles and the tortoise are in a footrace and the tortoise starts, say, 100 metres ahead of Achilles. Then, so Zeno, Achilles cannot outrun the tortoise, for when he has done 50 metres, the tortoise has done, say, 5 metres in the same time, and when Achilles has done half the distance to the tortoise that then remains, the tortoise has advanced again, and so each time that Achilles has done half the distance separating him from the tortoise, the latter has moved forward again, etc. Only in modern times this paradox could be solved, which made it a fallacy. The flaw in the reasoning is that Zeno does as if the time doesn’t move on.
When browsing on the Internet for more paradoxes, I came upon one that is interesting from a methodological point of view, namely Carl G. Hempel’s Raven Paradox, which he expounded originally in an essay published in 1945 (republished in 1965; see footnote). Hempel himself calls it the “confirmation paradox”, and just this name shows why it is interesting, for Hempel’s idea is that we must try to find confirming evidence for our hypotheses, which brought him into conflict with Karl R. Popper, who says that we must try to falsify hypotheses (and must formulate them that way, that this is possible). I’ll quote the paradox not from Hempel’s essay, but from a website that explains it without the logical notation used by Hempel:
“[T]he Raven Paradox begins with the apparently straightforward and entirely true statement that ‘all ravens are black.’ This is matched by a ‘logically contrapositive’ (i.e. negative and contradictory) statement that ‘everything that is not black is not a raven’—which, despite seeming like a fairly unnecessary point to make, is also true given that we know ‘all ravens are black.’ Hempel argues that whenever we see a black raven, this provides evidence to support the first statement. But by extension, whenever we see anything that is not black [and not a raven; HbdW], like an apple, this too must be taken as evidence supporting the second statement—after all, an apple is not black, and nor is it a raven.” (
So, the evidence that apples are not black while ravens are so by hypothesis seems to confirm that ravens are black, indeed.
In 1967, the British mathematician Jack Good wiped the floor with the Raven Paradox. I haven’t read his article, but only a short version of his argumentation. However, already immediately after I had read Hempel’s reasoning it seemed counterintuitive to me and with right, for it’s not correct: There is simply no relation between the colour of apples and the colour of ravens and between apples and ravens, so what could apples tell about ravens? Whether apples are red, white, yellow or black, it’s quite well possible that there are white ravens, and the colour of apples cannot confirm or disconfirm the existence of this variety of ravens. The Raven Paradox is simply a fallacy.
Talking about fallacies, what the author of the website just quoted, Paul Anthony Jones, probably didn’t realize is that also his explanation of the Raven Paradox contains a fallacy (or to say it more friendly: it’s not correct). For immediately after the passage I quoted he goes on:
“The paradox here is that Hempel has apparently proved that seeing an apple provides us with evidence, no matter how unrelated it may seem, that ravens are black. It’s the equivalent of saying that you live in New York is evidence that you don’t live in L.A., or that saying you are 30 years old is evidence that you are not 29.”
The first sentence of the quotation is okay, and that’s what the Raven Paradox mistakenly says. However, Hempel’s reasoning is not the equivalent of the two examples that follow then, for there is a relation between living in New York and living in LA in this case, and there is a relation between being 29 or 30 years old, and this relation is you. You can live in only one place, which can be described by its geographical coordinates. When those coordinates are those of NY, they are simply different from those that belong to LA, although this doesn’t say something, of course, about what the coordinates of LA are and whether or how they relate to the coordinates of NY. In the same way, the fact that your age is 30 years old does say that you are not 29, for your age is a measurement on a time scale and just like that you cannot be at two places at the same time, you cannot have two ages (and, by the way, there is a relation between 29 and 30 years as such, namely that they indicate points on the same time scale).
The upshot is that one must not compare apples with oranges, not to speak of apples and ravens.

Note: Carl G. Hempel, Aspects of Scientific Explanation and other Essays in the Philosophy of Science. New York: The Free Press, 1965; pp. 14ff.

Monday, December 05, 2016

The paradox of lying

In On what matters. Volume One, pp. 277-78 Derek Parfit writes:

‘[According to Kant] “It is wrong to act on any maxim of which it is true that, if everyone accepted and acted on this maxim, or everyone believed that if it was permissible to act upon it, that would make it impossible for everyone successfully to act upon it.”
Turn next to lying. Herman writes that [Kant’s statement] “seems adequate for maxims of deception ... Universal deception would be held by Kant to make speech and thus deception impossible.”
Korsgaard similarly writes “lies are usually efficacious in achieving their purposes because they deceive, but if they were universally practiced they would not deceive ...” ’,

so Parfit, and he continues:
‘But no one acts on the maxim “Always lie”. Many liars act on the maxim “Lie when that would benefit me”.’

So far so good. It’s not only true for liars but for all deceivers like corrupt people, people who give themselves bonuses which they don’t deserve, and so on: If everyone benefits at the cost of others, no one benefits. Then you can better stop deceiving, for everybody would be better off if no one deceives. However, if only some deceive, the deceivers are better off and the victims are the losers, even when they don’t notice it.
But here we have a problem that looks like the liar’s paradox: “All Cretans are liars, said Epimenides, himself a Cretan”. For if everybody lies, it’s almost sure that everybody knows it. Then we’ll give what someone says the opposite meaning of what it actually means. But then the opposite meaning becomes the factual meaning of the words. However, it remains possible that everybody is basically a liar but doesn’t lie always but most of the time. It would living together make quite complicated, if not impossible.
What when only some people lie (at least sometimes they do) or only some people are corrupt (sometimes)? Then lying or being corrupt can be effective. But how far does it go? Take the case of corruption. If in a society nobody is corrupt with the exception of only a few, these few are better off and as a whole this society flourishes, as practice shows. But to the extent that corruption grows, a society becomes worse off (in the sense that most people it in are worse off), and in a very corrupt society, everybody suffers, with the exception of some “happy few”, and the society tends to fall apart or to be ruled by the “happy few” who are the most efficacious in their corrupt practices. But where are the limits that divide societies that are well off because there is only little corruption from societies that are rather well off, because corruption is present but not disturbing, and these from societies that are undermined by corruption? It’s like the Sorites’ paradox: How many grains of sand make a heap? Or how many grains of sand must we remove from a heap of sand till it is no longer a heap?
Parfit tells us that ‘no one acts on the maxim “Always lie”. Many liars act on the maxim “Lie when that would benefit me”.’ That’s a philosophical answer but practice shows that deceiving like corruption can become endemic in a society. Then in the end nobody will profit by deceiving (I am convinced that also the “winners” of deceiving would be better off if they would stop deceiving). Nevertheless everybody continues, for who stops first will lose anyway.

Find here be way of illustration the Corruption Perceptions Index 2015 by Transparency International:
Reference: Derek Parfit, On what matters. Volume One. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.