torsdag 24. oktober 2013

The Importance of Being Human.

"A capacity for feeling pleasure and pain is a prerequisite for having interests," Peter Singer writes in Animal Liberation (I am translating back from the Norwegian edition, so the wording may not be accurate), and that, I think, is true. Unless you are using the word in a very peculiar way, ascribing interests to dead things sounds nonsensical. However, it doesn't follow, as Singer has it, that it therefore is just as nonsensical to treat non-conscious entities as moral objects. Singer never questions the assumption that whatever lacks interests, lacks moral status too. That is what I intend to do.

"What is it, exactly, that prevents me from putting that man's eyes out if I am allowed to do so and if it takes my fancy?," Simone Weil asks in her essay called "Human Personality". (I will return to her answer shortly, but in brief it is this: my respect for the whole Human being. She is not denying that the suffering I thereby avoid inflicting is my reason: Weil simply points out that I refuse to harm human beings because I care about human beings in the first place. (Compare: "Of course animals suffer too, but they are only animals after all!")) In order to challenge Singer, let us assume that the man in question has suffered serious head trauma, thus having his mental abilities reduced to those of vegetables. Does this imply that he morally is lowered to their level too? Singer, it seems, is forced by his theory to say so. Some readers might take comfort in the fact that at this point in the argument, the interests of other people are often introduced to the utilitarian equation. This man will have relatives, some will argue -- and they (his relatives) still have interests, among which we must assume an interest in not having their relative, whom they care about, treated as a mere vegetable. So, we would be wronging their interests by doing such a thing. But this argument doesn't help us very much, it simply pushes the question one step up. Why, after all, should they care? He himself literarily cannot care what happens to him anymore. What, then, is there left for them to care about? If the object of their concern (namely, their vegetating relative) has ceased to be of moral importance because he no longer has any interests, then it seems to follow that their "interest" in having him treated with care isn't a genuine interest either, but rather a confused reaction produced by sentimentality gone haywire -- and, then, the question is: Ought imagined interests carry this kind of moral weight? Rather than indulging these relatives in their confused thinking, the best thing to do, morally speaking, would perhaps be to make them see the truth and realise that this is really nothing to be concerned about? And what (to modify the example a little) would Singer say if the man in question had no relatives or acquaintances at all --? Or to put even more pressure on it: Say that his last living relative begged Singer to do it and offered him money for putting that man's eyes out, how could Singer (while remaining true to his theoretical toolkit) possibly not take the assignment?

Of course, by doing so he would cause massive public revulsion (should people hear about it). But having tied moral status so firmly to certain (mental) capacities, many modern moral philosophies have a hard time making sense of this. Why would our stomachs turn (as most people's stomachs certainly would) if we were approached with such an offer? Squeamishness is possibly a part of it. But if that were all, most of us should have little to no problem accepting the money if we could only close our eyes while doing it [or at least it implies that it would be quite all right for us if we, in order to be able to do such things, did our best to stymie our emotional objections]. Restricting moral philosophy to thinking in terms of capacities and corresponding interests, and the rational calculation with these, we see no (morally) significant difference between the dismembering of vegetative human beings and, say, the pealing of a carrot. If the aim is to help us understand our moral lives, then moral philosophy must be permeated by the rich moral language with which these lives are normally lived.

Insofar as having interests is dependent on certain capabilities, and these capabilities are dependent on having a functioning brain (which is what Singer claims), it follows that people in a permanent vegetative state no longer have interests that may be violated. But this is not, except for within a certain philosophical parlance, equivalent to saying that they are no longer morally significant. Experiences and interests, after all, do not exhaust our moral vocabulary. Who counts morally, and in what way, is not simply a question of what (mental) capabilities they possess. This theory simply is too, well, simple. (We do not measure things against one universal moral standard all the time. In fact, that would be (morally) wrong of us. Here's just one obvious example. Were I to start treating everyone -- friends and strangers -- equal, this would, in most people's eyes, mean that I had ceased being a true friend. This isn't a function of "objective" differences between friends and strangers. Different relationships simply ask different things of us.) The more fundamental question is what morally pertinent concepts we can apply where. While "interest" (or "rationality") clearly has no use when talking about seriously brain damaged people, other morally weighty concepts like "dignity" and "honor" do. Losing ones love for -- or, to couch the claim in moral language: failing to keep loving -- someone who's life has been reduced to bodily functions, seems possible too.

When investigating the hypothesis that our concern for -- the dignity, the honor, the human value (but obviously not the well-being) of -- permanently unconscious people may be nothing but sentimentality and self-indulgence, it is instructive to ask: What would it be for a grieving wife, say, to realise that this hypothesis was true in her case? This surely is possible. What I am questioning though, is that this is always the case. Self-pity, I am guessing, is one source of any wife's tears under such circumstances -- she has after all suffered great loss -- but feeling sorry for herself is hardly all everyone is capable of. I have no problems imagining this realisation shattering a wife's self-image and recasting her understanding of her marriage. ("Am I really this shallow! Am I just self-indulgent? Don't I love him? Have I ever?") Such accusations, of course, only make sense if she ought to be feeling for and thinking of her husband too.

"We don't treat someone as a vegetable merely because he mentally happens to be on their level!" This expresses an understanding of what it means for a human being to lose all mental capacities: Human beings may lose their limbs, their wits or their minds; but their humanity -- their moral significance -- cannot be lost in the same sense. (This, I believe, is a central feature of our modern understanding of ourselves. We are all fundamentally equal. Human dignity is supposed to be unconditioned, that it is entirely independent of personal capabilities and characteristics.) Hence, that human body is not simply a body (understood as a "biological material" or "meat"), but remains human, in some crucial sense. "A human body," some might say, a remark which might be an important reminder in some circumstances: Refusing to accept, as mourning relatives sometimes do, that significant changes have taken place in their loved one, means closing ones eyes to reality. However, in order not to mystify our moral instincts, one must keep emphasising the other word in that sentence: What lies in that hospital bed is (not a mere body, but) a human body.

To some this smacks of word-play. But that, I think, is because they mistakenly take "human being" primarily to be a descriptive term, denoting (specimens of) a biological species. "What lies in that bed is not merely a body, but the body of one Homo sapiens," would indeed be nothing but word-play. But only someone with a tin ear for nuances would hear this as a serious attempt at say the same thing with different words. In reality this could only be some kind of crude joke. (In philosophy one sometimes unwittingly tell such jokes.) What makes it a joke, is the fact that "human being" in many circumstances, as in this one, is a morally laden term -- permeated through and through by other terms like value, honor, dignity, etc -- which cannot be substituted this way; but, rather, if it should be replaced, must be replaced, as Simone Weil sometimes does, by terms like "precious" and "sacred".

But isn't this sidestepping a difficulty? What reasons do we have for revering human beings so? What reasons do we have for claiming human equality, when what we see plainly are differences? The philosophical instinct here might be to investigate whether these claims can be substantiated. This instinct is misleading, I believe. Are we to understand these expressions, we are better advised to investigate where and how we learn the meaning of such them, and where and how they are expressed, than to look for a justification. (This reveals me as a Wittgensteinian. Human sanctity/equality is in no need of a metaphysical justification. First, attempting to justify it risks undermining precisely what one hopes to secure, namely its unconditionality. Second, attempting to ground this abstract idea (or ideal) in something firmer is to misunderstand what role this idea plays in our thinking. Human equality is not something we have discovered, or might discover sometime soon, hidden underneath all human differences; it is rather a concept with which we regard and accept these differences: This concept is held fast by everything that surrounds it, by our practices.)

So, then, where should we look? Among other places, to the kinds of cases I have been discussing in this post. Being horrified by the proposal with which I started, is one instance of it. The self-accusations of the self-pitying wife might be another. Through such reactions, our own and others', we see what it can mean to say that a human being, no matter how afflicted by suffering or reduced by illness or injury it is, is still a human being and our equal. "There is something sacred in every man," Simone Weil writes. That is not his rationality, not his ability to suffer, nor is it his interests or his personality: "It is he. The whole of him. The arms, the eyes, the thoughts, everything...It is this man; no more, no less...Not without infinite scruple would I touch anything of this." Such formulations both express and give shape our idea of human value.

søndag 20. oktober 2013

Thinking Film.

I would just like to draw attention to this new blog, where Rupert Read and Phil Hutchinson in collaboration with television resarcher Vincent Gaine will be philosophising with and about films. 

søndag 6. oktober 2013

Grayling on Wittgenstein.

I finally read A.C. Grayling's book on Wittgenstein. Having heard rumors about it, my expectations were not too high. Grayling's presentation of Wittgenstein's thinking is never truly deep. But as far as a very short introduction goes, his explanations of the private language argument, rule-following and so on are detailed enough. However, there is an undercurrent of hostility skepticism running through the book, which surfaces when Grayling, on the concluding pages, launches a series of objections to "Wittgenstein's conception of philosophy and his method of doing it" (p. 132). I could make this a short blog post by simply professing my agreement with this rather sour review on Amazon, but I will elaborate a little on it.

Wittgenstein's philosophy is not beyond criticism, of course, but Grayling's critiques seem to grow out of a misunderstanding of that philosophy.
[P]hilosophy is in Wittgenstein's view a therapy; the point is to dissolve error, not to build explanatory systems. The style is accordingly tailored to the intention. It is vatic, oracular; it consists in short remarks intended to remedy, remind, disabuse. This gives the later writings a patchwork appearance. Often the connection between remarks are unclear. There is a superabundance of metaphor and parable; there are hints, rhetorical questions, pregnant hyphenations; there is a great deal of repetition....Wittgenstein's style is expressly designed to promote his therapeutic objective against the 'error' of theorizing (p. 132).
As a description of Wittgenstein's conception of philosophy and his method of doing it, this isn't too off. But readers are, according to Grayling, best advised to ignore these aspects of Wittgenstein's thinking. His programmatic remarks about philosophy, his "own official avowals about therapy and the avoidance of theory" (p. 133) are deceptive. Wittgenstein denies that his writings contain systematically expressible theories, "[but] indeed they do" (p. viii). A careful examination of his scattered remarks will uncover a philosophical theory of meaning and language with "an identifiable structure and content, even if neither, in their turn are as transparently stated and as fully spelled out as they might be" (p. 133). This conclusion, however, is possible only by doing substantial violence to Wittgenstein's texts. But this is a consequence Grayling is ready to accept, as he finds no merit in Wittgenstein's writings as such: they fail in a major philosophical duty: "namely, to be clear" (p. 133). Wittgenstein's organization of his thoughts is obscuring rather than illuminating their philosophical content. Not only are his writings summarizable "but in positive need of summary" (p. viii).

There is one way of taking this as a charitable interpretation of Wittgenstein. When someone rambles, one should do one's best to make out what he is rambling about. From a different perspective, however, this is entirely misplaced charity. Taking Wittgenstein seriously as a philosopher, requires taking his writings and the conception of philosophy they express seriously too. Language sometimes confuses us. Often we react by searching for order in the complexity. But this is confused too. Order is not what we need (nor is it to be found). The solution is getting an overview. Hence, Wittgenstein's writings are designed to ease the grip this and other deep-rooted philosophical ideas have on our thinking about language and the world, not by replacing these ideas with new ones, but rather by making their status as metaphysical ideas perspicuous to us. If we think there must be something common to everything called "games", or else they would not all have the same name, Wittgenstein's suggestion is: Don't think, but look! (PI, 66) When philosophers use a word -- "knowledge", "being", "object", "I", "proposition", "name" -- and try to grasp the essence of the thing, he encourages us instead to ask if the word ever actually used in this way (PI, 116). When our thinking ties itself up in philosophical knots, what we need is not another theory, for theorizing is often what gets us into trouble in the first place, what we need are methods for untying these knots.

Hans Sluga (whose latest Wittgenstein book I also read this summer) agrees with many of Grayling's descriptions of Wittgenstein's writings. But he makes something entirely different of them:
Wittgenstein covers an exceptionally wide range of philosophcal and quasi-philosophical matters and ... he manages to speak about them with an unusual freshness, in a precise and stylish language, often with the help of surprising images and metaphors. This has suggested to ... a group of readers that what is of greatest interest in Wittgenstein's work is the manner in which he engages with philosophical questions. On this view, Wittgenstein teaches us above all some valuable methodological lessons (p. 16).
At one point, Grayling calls this "a neat apology for obscurity". Further down the same page, however, he suggests:
Perhaps the value of Wittgenstein's work lies as much in its poetry, and therefore its suggestiveness, as in its substance. There is no doubt that in this respect Wittgenstein's work has stimulated insights and fresh perspectives, especially in philosophical psychology, which have helped to advance thought about these matters (p. 133).
At first blush there seems to be a tension here. If Wittgenstein has helped advancing thought, he has done so by helping us see our thinking afresh. Descartes' cogito argument, for instance, troubled Western philosophers for centuries. How could we possibly break out of the prison of our own minds? The so called private language argument doesn't solve this problem, but if it convinces us that the question is confused, the argument might dissolve the problem for us. By curing us from confused thinking, a successful Wittgensteinian "therapy session", one might argue, results in the exact opposite of obscurity. But Grayling doesn't think so. On his view, philosophy (unlike therapy) is not simply combatting wrong perspectives on things, but also constructing explanatory thought-systems. And it is of course true that Wittgenstein's writings seem obscure when read as attempts to rise to these demands. However, as I have argued, I believe Grayling is wrong in assuming that Wittgenstein (contrary to everything he writes) is trying to answer to these demands.

Here I am not arguing that all philosophy should be conducted in the manner of Wittgenstein (in a sense that would be impossible: if we were never tempted to theorize, "therapeutic" philosophizing would be superfluous too). What I can offer, though, is an example of how such philosophizing might work. Grayling writes that...
... it is a mistake to suppose that reminding ourselves of the main uses of words like 'good' and 'true' is enough, by itself, to settle any questions we might have about the meaning of those terms. Indeed, it is notoriously the case that question about goodness and truth, which are paradigmatically large philosophical questions, cannot be resolved simply by noting the ways 'good' and 'true' are as a matter of fact used in common parlance -- that is, in the languagegames in which they typically occur. It would seem to be an implication of Wittgenstein's views that if we 'remind' ourselves of these uses, philosophical puzzlement about goodness and truth will vanish. This is far from being so (p. 115).
When someone asks what "good" means, a Wittgensteinian would answer with a question: "What particular use of the word 'good' are you thinking about?" The meaning of "good" depends on whether you are thinking of a good taste, a good night's sleep, a good footballer, a good deed, or a good person. Forcing you to reflect harder on what you meant, this challenge might convince you that your initial question was confused. On the other hand, this needn't work, because you might, as Grayling suggests, just as well rephrase you question: "Not 'good' used in a particular way, but goodness as such." This, of course, is the kind of philosophical puzzlement Wittgenstein's "therapeutic method" is designed to combat. The fact that such reminders don't always work certainly is no proof that Wittgenstein's conception of philosophy and his manner of doing it is wrong. It only proves that his therapy doesn't always work. And there is no problem with that. Because Wittgenstein never said, as Grayling has him saying, that reminders about ordinary language use by themselves could make philosophical puzzlements go away. In addition one needs the will to receive these reminders in the right spirit. Philosophy, on Wittgenstein's account, is a fight against one's own temptation to view things in a certain way. It is not a given how that fight will end.

tirsdag 3. september 2013

Aeroporto di Fiumicino. Et mulig møte.

- Pappa, hvem var det du møtte?
Jeg forsto ikke hva hun mente, datteren min. Vi satt under solseilet på taket av feriehuset i Italia. Spørsmålet kom som rett ut av det blå.
- Nei, hvem tenker du på? Når da?
- På flyplassen.
Fremdeles uklart. Jeg møtte ingen på flyplassen det jeg kunne huske, ingen jeg visste hvem var i alle fall. Mente hun den damen i informasjonsskranken, hun som hadde vist oss veien til bussen?
- Nei, han mannen, han med alle politimennene.
- Åh, han, sa jeg. - Det var en berømt fotballspiller, men jeg møtte ham vel egentlig ikke. Jeg ham på flyplassen. Han så jo ikke meg, og vi sa ingenting til hverandre, så det var egentlig ikke noe møte å snakke om.

Mange hadde kanskje ønsket å kunne skryte av å ha møtt, for eksempel, Lionel Messi på en flyplass, men det er fordi "møte" signaliserer en sosial sammenkomst av betydning. I mitt tilfelle sto jeg i en krok og passet koffertene da denne berømtheten, omringet av sju bevæpnete politimenn, småløp forbi meg. Jeg kan skryte (hvis det er skryte jeg vil) av å ha sett ham, at han passerte like forbi meg, eller at jeg kunne kjenne lukten av ham ... eller, nei ..., men jeg kunne ha skrytt av at jeg kunne ha tatt på ham hvis jeg bare ville (skjønt dette hadde utelukkende være en antydning om avstanden mellom oss -- på ett tidspunkt var han kun én meter unna!! -- og ingen beskrivelse av den reelle situasjonen, for hadde jeg gjort det minste forsøk på beføling hadde lovens lange og mange armer satt en kontant stopper for det -- og dessuten hvilken interesse skulle jeg ha av å ta på vedkommende?), men jeg kan på ingen måte si at jeg har møtt ham. Dette betyr ikke at andre umulig kunne se misunnelige på meg og tenke at jeg har møtt Lionel Messi, eller at andre, under lignende omstendigheter, vil kunne si at de har "møtt" Michael Jackson, Barack Obama eller Jesus. Det betyr heller ikke at jeg mener at folk tar feil om de på denne måten forsøker å uttrykke hvilken betydning en slik hendelse har hatt for dem. Det betyr bare at det for min del kreves det en viss kontakt -- ikke bare fysisk nærhet, ikke bare fysisk kontakt heller, men en viss interaksjon -- før jeg vil snakke om "et møte". (Jeg har ingen definisjon å by på, men er det ikke merkelig å si at jeg har møtt noen som aldri har møtt meg?) Antagelig går det en slags nedre grense nettopp ved det gjensidige blikket. Vi snakker jo om blikkontakt: Vi kan møte noens blikk, så hvorfor ikke snakke om et "blikkmøte"?

Jeg kom til å tenke på dette da jeg i dag leste følgende anektode i et essay av Asbjørn Aarnes:
En lærer i folkeskolen gav elevene en stiloppgave: Fortell om et dyr du har møtt. Tolv-trettenåringene stod og lurte en stund: Møter man dyr? Er det ikke bare mennesker man møter? En tenksom liten kar kom frem til læreren med et spørsmål: "Jeg så engang en hjort som kom svømmende mot meg over et vann. Hjorten så på meg, det så jeg. Kan jeg da si at jeg møtte ham?""Ja," sa læreren, "så du den i øynene, da kan du si at du møtte hjorten." (Har fjellet ansikt? Naturfilosofiske essays. s 30-31)
(Hei igjen, forresten. Jeg har vært lenge borte. Jeg legger skylden på ferietid og at jeg har vært opptatt med andre skriverier. Forhåpentligvis vil bloggingen ta seg opp igjen utover høsten.)

torsdag 4. juli 2013

What I Draw from Drawing.

As you may have noticed, lately I have posted some of my own drawings on this blog. (I have done this once or twice before, even linked to my never-to-be-completed web page my "art".) Even though this is little more than showing off, or making a fool of myself, as the case may be, I have discovered that I enjoy seeing my doodles out there, so I may continue submitting sketches and drawings to my regular posts in the future.

What then do I draw from drawing? I am not sure, exactly, apart from the fact that I love doing it. But give me a little time, and I should be able to come up with some intellectually more respectable reasons for yielding to my lust. Drawing clearly has to do with perception. Drawing is mostly seeing correctly. When I am sketching, especially when drawing from life, I am concentrating on perceiving only what I perceive, not what is supposedly there. This exercise may have some spill-over effect to my other interests. Drawing sometimes feels like fighting certain temptations, not unlike doing philosophy. Wittgenstein's warning, "Don't think, but look!" (PI 66) is just as useful to an artist as it is for the philosopher. Don't think that this a hand, and that hands have five fingers on them, but look -- study the shape of the object in front of you, how does it appear from this particular perspective, don't draw what is hidden from view, how many fingers do you actually see, and so on. Drawing, therefore, is learning to see. You learn to trust your own eyes -- not blindly(!), but because you know you have made your vision more reliable through hours of concentrated practice. Kids running around can of course be disturbing. This kind of disturbance, however annoying it may be, is not really why concentration is essential to drawing, however. I am thinking more of silencing my own voice than shutting out those around me. Again, there is a similarity with philosophizing. Drawing too, some say, is a quest for understanding. This is often true, I think -- and as with philosophical understanding what is required is not so much analyzing tools and a talent for categorization as a simple will to listen. A good drawing session has the form of a conversation. The draughtsman too has things to say, obviously, but there is always the danger of becoming a talkative know-it-all who doesn't take other opinions seriously. Sometimes we scrutinize someone's ideas in search for symptoms. This might result in a diagnosis. That is what understanding someone means in psychiatry. But this is not conversing. The understanding of someone that might come from a genuine conversation, i.e. when we are tuned in to each other the right way, is more akin to becoming familiar with each other, getting, as we say, to know that other person. When drawing, particularly when drawing from life, I am, in similar fashion and for similar reasons, trying to calm down my own voice, telling me this and that about whatever I am looking at, in order not to interrupt the object in front of me. Another name for this efferent concentration, the other-directed concentration I am aspiring to when drawing from life, is attention. "Attention," according to Simone Weil, "is the rarest and purest form of generosity." So there you are. Yielding to a lust contributes to my virtuousness!

Enough rambling!

This will never become an art blog, let alone a blog devoted to investigations of the act of art making, because, as you will appreciate by now, I have a hard time expressing (in understandable terms) what drawing is, what it means to me and what one can learn by it. One who manages to just that is John Berger. He truly knows what he is talking about, both as an artist and as an art historian, and his writings are always eloquent and a pleasure to read. In particular I have enjoyed, obviously, Berger on Drawing. His book About Looking, which is less devoted to drawing, but discusses photography, perception and art in more general terms, is also inspiring -- and it opens with the, by now, classic essay "Why Look at Animals". Ways of Seeing, first published in 1972, has been highly influential in that it focuses on, and to some extent has altered, how we look at pictures. I have yet to read Bento's Sketchbook, with the subtitle "How does the impulse to draw something begin?", but as it promises reflections on sketching soaked with philosophy, Baruch (or Bento) Spinoza's in particular, the book sounds almost too good to be true: "Bento's Sketchbook is an exploration of the practice of drawing, as well as a meditation on how we perceive and seek to explore our ever-changing relationship with the world around us."

There is any number of good how to-books out there, books that teach you different techniques, what pencils and brushes to use, how to achieve certain effects and so on; but the best book I know of that aspires to teach people to use their eyes, is Betty Edwards' book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I bought my copy on a visit to the US many years ago, and made good use of it. This is very much an anyone-can-learn-how-to-draw-properly kind of book. Like learning how to read, it doesn't require any special gift, nor is there any mystery about it -- it is just a matter of learning to do certain things the right way. As the title suggests, the book is based on some theory about the two brain hemispheres having different capabilities, one side specializing in linguistic tasks, the other in visual-spatial. Edwards makes claims to the effect that the linguistic side is too dominating, and that this is what needs fighting if we are to learn how to draw anything but stylized images of things. I don't know how well supported these theories are, and frankly it doesn't matter. Who cares whether the theory is true or false, so long as the treatment works? I always thought the theoretical parts of the book unnecessary. You do not need to tell a child anything about its brain for the reading exercises work. In Norwegian the book is titled Å tegne er å se, which translates as "Drawing is seeing", and that is quite enough for me.

Here is a youtube video based on the book:

lørdag 29. juni 2013

Bukspretting som forskningsmetode?

I 1986 ble en internasjonal avtale mot kommersiell hvalfangst undertegnet. Avtalen åpner for begrenset fangst til vitenskapelige formål. Siden avtalen trådte i kraft har Japan fanget mer enn 10.000 hval i havet sør for Australia. Alt kjøtt selges på det åpne markedet i Japan. På dette grunnlaget trekker Australia i disse dager Japan for retten. "We have taken this case because we believe the whaling being done by Japan is blatantly commercial whaling and is not for any scientific purpose. It is in breach of the international convention," forklarer Bill Campbell, en australsk sakfører ved domstolen, som mer enn antyder at Japan kun har iført sine hvalfangere rene hvite labfrakker. John Frizell fra Greenpeace legger til at "All necessary research on these whales can be done by non-lethal means." Det er muligens en overdrivelse, for det hender jo at forskere "må" begå drap i forskningens navn, men som primær forskningsmetode virker dette nokså suspekt, også på en lekmann som meg. Er man interesert i å lære disse dyrene å kjenne, hvordan de lever sine liv, hvor de gyter (heter det "gyting" hos hvaler?) og så videre, må man vel kunne studere dette uten å ta livet av dem? Japan på sin side avviser alle anklager om at forskningen skulle være et skalkeskjul for kommersielle interesser, og bedyrer at fangsten gir forskerne viktig informasjon. "Japan's whaling activities are conducted purely to enhance science for conservation and sustainable use, and we'll make our case based on those facts," forklarer en anonymisert kilde ved utenriksdepartementet i Tokyo.

Her er et skudd fra hoften. Hvis det ultimate målet med forskningsfangsten virkelig er å forhindre overbeskatning og utrydding av artene, må kanskje anbefalingen forskerne lander på bli at denne typen forskning opphører. Riktignok fanger Japan "bare" tusen hval i året, hvilket ikke betyr allverden, men australske myndigheter har regnet ut at dersom alle undertegnende nasjoner var like ivrige på forskningsfronten, hadde mer enn 83.000 hval måttet bøte med livet årlig bare i Sørishavet, og det hadde vært en katastrofe for bestandene.

[Norge har for øvrig aldri signert denne avtalen og fanger hval på samme måte som alltid, iført hvalfangerutstyr.]

Dom i saken faller først om noen uker.

I mellomtiden, her er noen flere saker jeg har underholdt elevene mine med.

mandag 24. juni 2013

Picture Book.

As friends of this blog will have noticed, lately I haven't been blogging as much as I once used to. One reason is that I have been trying to get some serious philosophy done. More importantly, though, I have been busy working at the local school. Work is fun, but, because I have mainly spent time with the first graders, quite exhausting too. After school, most kids from first through third (and some from forth and fifth) grade attend the school's daycare centre. Here I get to help them do their homework, chat with them, play football, and philosophize too; but what I enjoy most of all is sitting down with these kids doodling. Many of the kids have never known grown ups to draw before and find this inspiring. It is rewarding for me too. Playing with pencil and crayons alongside a bunch of ten and twelve year olds with a massive hang up on the grotesque, makes my imagination venture into unknown territory.

Having no philosophy to show for the past month, I thought I could at least offer my readers proofs that I haven't abandoned them out of simple laziness. So here are a few of the drawings from these few weeks.

But it's not all about monsters and zombies. Kids also love small fury animals...

...and goofy clowns.

Finally, here's a picture of some of my fellow draftsmen watching a movie on a rainy day.

søndag 23. juni 2013

In a most delightful way.

Ole Martin Moen forsvarer hedonismen i Morgenbladet:
For å forstå det må man se på hva slags problem hedonismen forsøker å løse. Spørsmålet jeg stiller er hvilke ting i livet som er verdifulle i seg selv, og ikke bare som middel henimot videre mål. Om man undersøker de andre tingene filosofer foreslår som verdifulle, som kunnskap, kjærlighet og så videre, kan man vise at disse verdiene har én ting til felles, de er middel til å oppnå et nytelsesfullt liv. Å oppnå nytelse og unngå smerte er det eneste som er godt i seg selv.
Journalisten stiller et naturlig oppfølgingsspørsmål om rusmidler og smertestillende medikamenter. Finnes det noen kobling mellom Moens hedonisme og hans liberale holdning til narkotika? Moen tror ikke det:
Jeg har vært for legalisering hele tiden. Og hedonister må være åpne for at dersom vi kan få en intens lykkeopplevelse for eksempel av narkotika, kan man ikke automatisk avvise det som lite verdifullt. Vi bør selvfølgelig være bekymret for bivirkninger, men dersom vi kunne tenke oss at det fantes rusmidler som ga intens lykkefølelse uten bivirkninger, så var det bare å kjøre på.
Riktignok ser han ett potensielt problem her. "Som hedonist vil jeg gjerne at verden skal bestå, og om alle er ruset hele tiden, kan det være at vår verden faller sammen, så det er kanskje ikke å anbefale." Men hvis vi forestilte oss en lykkepille, fullstendig fri for bivirkninger, som heller ikke ga noen rus, bare endret den kjemiske væskebalansen i hjernen og ellers lot alt være som før, da var det kanskje bare å kjøre på? Her er det mange uklarheter. Jeg vet ikke engang om et slikt medikament er tenkelig. For dersom væskebalansen i hjernen endres, så må vel det påvirke mange andre ting også? "Den lykkeliges verden er," med Wittgensteins ord, "en annen enn den ulykkeliges." (Tractatus §6.43) Verden og tilværelsen ser mye lysere ut for den som er lykkelig, for eksempel. Full av lykkepiller ser vi utfordringer der vi før så problemer. Dette -- altså at vi tar ting på en mer positiv måte -- kan neppe kalles en bivirkning av at hjernekjemien endres, men er nettopp hva vi håper å oppnå med en slik pille. Men hva skal vi si når lykkepillen, fordi den fyller oss med en følelse av lykke, påvirker måten vi gjør ting på? Ofte kan man jo se kvalitetsforskjeller på arbeid utført med glede og gledesløst pliktarbeid. "Tilsiktet virkning" kan det ikke være snakk om her: kvalitativt annerledes håndverk kan ganske enkelt ikke være målet med et medikament. Bør vi oppfatte slike konsekvenser som bivirkninger av pillebruken eller bør vi betrakte dem som ringvirkninger? Hva vi faller ned på er langt på vei et spørsmål om språklige preferanser. Min egen språkfølelse tilsier at "ringvirkning" passer best i de tilfellene der konsekvensene er til det bedre. Der lykkefølelsen, som hos manisk-depresive i deres maniske faser, resulterer i ukritisk arbeidseufori og ditto resultat, er jeg (fordi "bivirkning" i mine ører låter negativt) mer åpen for å snakke om "bivirkninger" av pillebruken (skjønt i en ikke-medisinsk betydning av ordet). I og med at skillelinjene mellom tilsiktet virkning, bivirkninger og ringvirkninger ofte er vanskelige å trekke opp, er det heller ikke klart hva Moen mener når han tenker seg "rusmidler som [gir] intens lykkefølelse uten bivirkninger". Formodentlig tenker han på rusmidler uten avhengighet og uten psykiske og somatiske skader.

En person med dårlig selvbilde vil naturligvis ønske å kunne komme på bedre tanker, ønske å kunne forandre negative tanker og følelser til positive. Jeg vet ikke hva Moen mener med "automatikk", men jeg er enig i at, dersom dette kan oppnås ved bruk av narkotika, "kan man ikke automatisk avvise det som lite verdifullt". Dette gjelder ikke bare for hedonister. I visse tilfeller vil det være uproblematisk å svelge en pille som ved et trylleslag kan kaste lys over tilværelsen. Det springende punktet er kanskje hva det dårlige selvbildet handler om, om det er berettiget eller ei, for eksempel. Det er forskjell på et tvers gjennom hederlig og på alle måter godt menneske som sliter med depresjoner, og en person som bebreider seg selv fordi han rett og slett prioriterer feil og ikke strekker til. Negative tanker og følelser er ikke alltid et onde. Noen ganger er negative tanker bare negative og/eller symptomer på sykelig depresjon. Andre ganger er negative tanker og følelser på sin plass fordi de forteller oss noe viktig om virkeligheten. Moen diskuterer ikke dette viktige perspektivet. Ta en far som tilbringer hele dagen på kontoret og knapt ser ungene sine. En lykkepille vil muligens kunne fjerne den dårlige samvittigheten. Hvis pillen ikke er avhengighetsskapende, bør han da benytte muligheten? Hvis egen lykkefølelse er alt som betyr noe, skulle det være alt i orden. Det finnes vulgær-hedonister som tenker i den retningen. Det gjør ikke Moen: "Det er ingenting i hedonismen som tilsier at det må være egen lykke man skal strebe mot. Hedonisme er en teori om hva som er godt. Det videre spørsmålet om hvem sitt gode man bør fremme, er et annet spørsmål." At pappa sitter glad og fornøyd med seg selv på kontoret bøter jo ikke på ungenes savn. Men sett at også kone og barn -- og alle andre impliserte parter -- gikk på slike (harmløse) piller, slik at de ikke savnet far i huset, men tvert imot gikk omkring med en intens lykkefølelse. Var det da bare å kjøre på? Finnes det resurser innenfor rammene av hedonismen til å se noe problem med det?

søndag 2. juni 2013

Dreaded analogy...not so fast.

Here is Coetzee with another take on the dreaded analogy between animal cruelty and the Holocaust, this time in his own voice:
The transformation of animals into production units dates back to the late nineteenth century, and since that time we have already had one warning on the grandest scale that there is something deeply, cosmically wrong with regarding and treating fellow beings as mere units of any kind. This warning came to us so loud and clear that it you would have thought it was impossible to ignore it. It came when in the middle of the twentieth century a group of powerful men in Germany had the bright idea of adapting the methods of the industrial stockyard, as pioneered and perfected in Chicago, to the slaughter – or what they preferred to call the processing – of human beings.
Of course we cried out in horror when we found out about this. We cried: What a terrible crime, to treat human beings like cattle! If we had only known beforehand! But our cry should more accurately have been: What a terrible crime, to treat human beings like units in an industrial process! And that cry should have had a postscript: What a terrible crime, come to think of it, to treat any living being like a unit in an industrial process!
Whether you accept this argument or not depends, at least, on whether you accept the premise that human beings and animals are similar in morally significant ways. (You may admit all the empirical similarities Coetzee draws on even if you don’t, but in that case you are likely to dismiss the moral analogy he draws on the back of these similarities as a non sequitur.) If you accept something along the line of Peter Singer’s idea of the expanding circle of moral concern, then you might concur that treating any living creature as a production unit is similar to treating human beings like that. The moral power of the analogy would presumably weaken as you move further and further away from origo, but as long as you don't overstep the outer boundaries of the circle, it won't loose all power. Inside the circle of moral concern, you can always describe such treatment as a violation against our common creatureliness, or something to that effect. I am prepared to say things like that myself. Though, I am not sure exactly what saying this amounts to. (Nor am I, for that matter, certain where to draw the periphery line.) But it surely entails that no living creature can be treated any way we please. However, the Nazis were not simply refusing certain living beings admission to our community of fellow creatures, they were denying certain human beings admission to our idea of a common humanity too; and that makes a (moral) difference, doesn’t it? On the other hand, one could, as Matthew Pianalto points out, suggest that this question is nothing but further evidence of our inherit speciesism.

Other important differences between factory farming and the Holocaust are also too often overlooked by people who are horror-struck by undeniable similarities. The Nazi crimes were not “merely” to treat living beings as units in an industrial process (nor was it merely to treat human beings this way); the aim of the Nazi’s was to exterminate certain human beings, to eliminate the Jews and to wipe the Earth clean of them. In this respect the (admittedly factory-like) Holocaust didn't much resemble factory farming. Extermination camps were launched as the final solution to the Jew problem. With the problem finally solved, the murders would have stopped too simply because there would have been no one left alive. The industrial stockyard aims at something altogether different: it aims for eternity. Factory farming is a perpetual enterprise, where animals are ceaselessly being brought into the world for the purpose of being killed, to paraphrase Elizabeth Costello. I agree with her that this is a significant difference (though I am not sure I follow her when she claims that factory farming therefore dwarfs any evil the Third Reich was capable of). The extermination camps and the industrial stockyard are strikingly similar in some respects -- in that they employ many of the same methods, for instance --, but the extermination camps were, unlike the modern stockyard, fueled by hatred for their victims and aiming for their annihilation. In this respect the Holocaust was more analogous to a merciless war on vermin than to the merciless meat industry.

Many people disagree with this “dreaded analogy” because (as I have pointed out in the preceding paragraphs) this is far from a perfect analogy; but then again, there is no such thing as a perfect analogy. A perfect analogy simply wouldn’t be an analogy at all. Finding differences doesn’t necessarily undermine the possibility of connecting the dots (that depends on the number and the character of the differences one is talking about). On the contrary, a non-perfect fit is a prerequisite for talking about an analogy between two subjects at all.

"The reasons why the Allies fought against Germany were complex, but many people believe rightly that the Holocaust itself would have proved sufficient reason," Raimond Gaita has written, but “no one can seriously wish to respond, to the slaughter of animals as though it justified taking up arms against farmers, butchers and people who work in abattoirs.” To this I would like to say: in one sense yes, maybe, but in another sense no. "Fighting" is of course a complex term with many applications. Hence there are numerous ways of fighting an evil. It may be true that no one is prepared to shoot and kill farmers and butchers (though, as I pointed out here, whatever truth there is in this, it is hardly of the empirical kind), but many people do walk the streets daily in protest against what butchers and farmers are doing; they write about it, talk about it; they refuse to be accomplices in the wrongdoings by boycotting their products, and try to convince others to follow their lead. Many people would be very relieved (though, perhaps not as relieved as they were when the Holocaust ended (but, then again, how to compare?)) if the horrific treatment of animals that Coetzee describes were to come to an abrupt end. Boycotting and walking the streets in protest is, of course, not the same as taking up arms, but may still be an analogous reaction.

What troubles me with expressions like “animal holocaust” or “eternal Treblinka” is not that one rhetorically bridges a gap between two kinds of horror, but, rather, that one steps too quickly from one to the other as if there were no gap there at all. Stuart Rachels does so with this one-liner. Seemingly blind to all the important differences, such rhetorical moves strike me as both insensitive and unthinking. That being said, I do not think it is impossible to connect the two phenomena in reasonable and non-offensive ways. Consider this quote by Wittgenstien:
Supposing you meet someone in the street and he tells you he has lost his greatest friend, in a voice extremely expressive of his emotion. You might say: "It was extraordinarily beautiful, the way he expressed himself." Supposing you then asked: "What similarity has my admiring this person with my eating vanilla ice and liking it?" To compare them seems almost disgusting. (But you can connect them by intermediate cases.) (Lectures on Aesthetics, II, §4)
Is this analogous (!) to our own question? I suggest that it might be. People may of course be divided over how many intermediate steps one needs (and what steps they must be) in order to make the connection, but if one can, through sensitive employment of intermediate cases, connect one's delight in someone's expression of sorrow with one's delight in eating vanilla ice cream, then, I believe, one can also, as Coetzee (to my mind not quite successfully) attempts to do, namely to draw the connecting line from people's horror in face of the Holocaust (the murdering of human beings on an industrial scale in order to get rid of them) to his own horror in face of modern food industry, where billions upon billions of living beings are being turned into production units in order to be slaughtered and used for food, without behaving disgustingly.

onsdag 29. mai 2013

Simply tasteless?

I have just finished watching the TV series Holocaust. This is widely regarded as a classic, and has won several awards. But to me it was just another typical family drama, albeit set against an untypical historical background. The historical circumstances is, of course, the main "attraction" here, but, disappointingly, they are too often unconvincingly depicted.

The quality of the acting is, given the line-up of famous actors, surprisingly poor (with Michael Moriarty as the cold and creepy Erik Dorff as an honourable exception). Lack of visual despair sometimes makes it look as though the harassment never really bother the Jews. The dialogues are sometimes very awkward. From time to time the characters say things in the interest of the audience; they explain things that must be obvious to anyone in their vicinity, but which the uninformed TV viewer may not be aware of. Worse still is the apparent lack of interest for accuracy. The concentration camps seem wholly unreal. While Primo Levi's inmates are reduced to bundles of primal instincts, the Jews in this version of Auschwitz discuss their terrible lot with sometimes pompous phrases. Everything looks too clean and too healthy too. When seeing well nourished prisoners in pristine looking outfits slaving day in and out under backbreaking labour without a single drop of sweat on their faces, the only thing that kept me from laughing was the sheer injustice of it. Throughout the nine hours I was neither moved nor shocked once, except for when historical footage appeared on screen. The brutality simply was not brutal enough and the suffering not nearly deep enough.

The makers of Holocaust seem to me to have been either too ambitious, in wanting to show all sides and sites of the Holocaust, or not quite ambitious enough, in wanting to do so using only a limited number of characters. As in my childhood's favourite TV series, Once Upon a Time...Manwhere the history of mankind is illustrated from the point of view of a group that is always composed of similar recurring figures, the handful of characters in Holocaust simply turn up at too many significant points in history for the story to be credible.

tirsdag 14. mai 2013

The horror! The horror!

"The reasons why the Allies fought against Germany were complex, but many people believe rightly that the Holocaust itself would have proved sufficient reason," Raimond Gaita writes in The Philosopher's Dog:

But ... no one responds, and I think no one can seriously wish to respond, to the slaughter of animals as though it justified taking up arms against farmers, butchers and people who work in abattoirs. That can hardly be irrelevant to how we should understand the moral character of our indifference to the slaughter of animals. It must also inform the moral character of any other analogies we may be tempted to draw between the Holocaust and our treatment of animals.

This is an important warning, I think, whenever one, for whatever reason, is tempted to make that comparison. Recently, both Duncan Richter and Matthew Pianalto have blogged about this dreaded comparison. In his post, Richter criticises Stuart Rachels for discussing this question without referring to the works of J.M. Coetzee. I am not going to make the same mistake, but start by quoting from Elizabeth Costello, the novel Rai Gaita is writing about:

It’s that I no longer know where I am. I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relations with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fantasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidences. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me. Corpses. Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money.

It is as if I were to visit friends, and to make some polite remark about the lamp in their living room, and they were to say, “Yes, it’s nice, isn’t it? Polish-Jewish skin it’s made of, we find that’s best, the skins of young Polish-Jewish virgins.” And then I go to the bathroom and the soap wrapper says, “Treblinka – 100% human stereate.” Am I dreaming, I say to myself? What kind of house is this?

Yet I’m not dreaming. I look into your eyes, into Norma’s, into the children’s, and I see only kindness, human kindness. Calm down, I tell myself, you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This is life. Everyone else comes to terms with it, why cant’t you? Why cant you?

"The force of [this] passage," comments Gaita, "is in its rhetoric rather than in its moral clarity":

Or, at any rate, when I step back to assess critically its undeniable power, I find nothing in it that would make me revise my claim that I cannot, and that I know no one else who can, respond to the killing of animals as though it were mass murder. The analogy Costello draws is, I believe, foolish and also offensive ... because we do not and cannot respond to what happens in the abattoir as we respond to murder.

By labeling a text “unclear” we often mean to say that the text is riddled by confused or inconsistent thinking: As no one is prepared to take up arms against farmers and butchers, as many were against the Nazis, then it is foolish to draw the analogy between animal slaughter and the Holocaust. This is at least a part of Gaita’s critique. But I am not convinced. I am not convinced that Costello is making a (morally confused) argument from analogy to the effect that similar reactions are called for in the case of slaughterhouses as it were in the case of Treblinka; I am not sure there is an argument here at all. I am more inclined to read Costello as reporting about her own difficulties with modern animal husbandry, and how this uneasiness is alienating her from family and friends, who do not share her view on the human-animal-relationship. Costello seems to oscillate between agreeing that people’s animal consumption is perfectly ordinary, and thinking this must be a part of a terrible nightmare. Sometimes she too may walk past the butcher’s window without thinking twice about the meat sausages on display, but at other times -- perhaps most times -- she reacts to these things with tremendous force.

It is as with Wittgenstein’s duck/rabbit-image. When you see the duck, the rabbit is hidden from view; when you see the rabbit, the duck is hidden; you cannot focus on both at once; but the hidden figure is always there, and you know that it may re-emerge anytime. Similarly, Costello seems to move easily among people, she recognises human kindness when she sees it, but at the same time she is constantly aware that there is something wrong with these people (“that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions”), and that this something might come into view anytime and anywhere to overpower her with great horror. Someone might invite her home for tea and a friendly chat, but as she sits down in the host’s beautiful and comfortable leather sofa, the screams from the abattoir might spoil the moment for her. It is understandable (as is testified by the narrative, and by Costello’s use of the phrase “seemingly normal relations”) why this wariness would put strains on her relations with other people.

On my reading, then, Costello’s Treblinka reference is not so much an attempt to compare intensive farming to the Holocaust, as it is an expression of more private associations. Shocked by the pains animals suffer in man’s custody, and angered by indifferent people who are unable or unwilling to share her condemnation of this maltreatment, Elizabeth Costello looks for expressions that can do justice to the intensity of her own revulsion. I believe such expressive use of “the dreaded comparison” to be at least as common among animal activists as genuine attempts to compare factory farming to the Holocaust, and to measure the pains and the horrors against each other. Such attempts do of course exist (for example in the Rachels essay Richter writes about: "To compare industrial farming to the Holocaust, let’s consider the number of victims involved in each."). Some are unquestionably “foolish and also offensive,” to borrow Gaita’s phrase; but I am not convinced, as is sometimes claimed, that you may never draw this analogy.

Earlier I have written that you can compare anything to everything. Comparing the Holocaust to intensive animal agriculture cannot, as some claim, be problematic in itself (whatever that could mean: after all, any comparison must be used one way or another). The crux of the matter is not what you compare to what, but the manner in which you make that comparison. Whether the comparison between animal husbandry and the Holocaust is foolish and offensive depends on what similarities you find, the way in which you make these similarities explicit, and what you hope to achieve by making these similarities stand out.

Though I still believe this is basically true -- there are undeniable similarities that one may point to without acting foolishly -- but I am not sure animal activists ever need to. The point in drawing the analogy (I am thinking of the genuine comparison not the expressive use of it) is not to offend anyone with saying anything (offending or foolish) about the Holocaust, but to make the horrors of factory farming perspicuous to people. But the best way to achieve this, I believe, simply is to report on the horrors that go on behind closed doors. Most people are not indifferent to hearing of maltreated and suffering animals. Only someone with a stony heart would need such reports to be illustrated by "explaining" images from concentration camps in order to get the point. (And if someone truly is unmoved by animal suffering, it is hard to believe that any analogy would make any difference.) This Holocaust rhetoric could possibly give the wrong impression too. What one objects to in factory farming isn't that it shares certain features with the Holocaust. The industrialisation of animal agriculture (and everything that entails: the confinement, the mechanised rough treatment, the ruthless conveyer belt killings in slaughter factories, and so on) isn't worse for resembling the Holocaust in some respects. What is wrong with this industrialisation, after all, isn’t the fact that the Nazis used similar methods, but the character of these methods themselves. What is needed then, in order to show others the evil in it, is not a comparison, but detailed, realistic descriptions of these methods and sensitive reflections on what they entail for the victims, the animals.

lørdag 11. mai 2013

Dirty dancing.

Reading J.M. Coetzee's novel Youth tonight I came across this striking passage:
Dancing makes sense only when it is interpreted as something else, something that people prefer not to admit. That something else is the real thing: the dance is merely a cover. Inviting a girl to dance stands for inviting her to have intercourse; accepting the invitation stands for agreeing to have intercourse; and dancing is a miming and a foreshadowing of intercourse. So obvious are the correspondences that he wonders why people bother with dancing at all. Why the dressing up; why the ritual motions; why the huge sham? (p. 89-90)
Which made me think of this:
According to [Alain] de Botton, people who think they are going to nightclubs just to dance, drink, and have fun are actually unconsciously driven by the will to live to seek opportunities for reproduction.... We are driven by forces that we rarely see clearly and that are themselves blind. So we don't know what is going on, what we are chasing, except in vague terms. The underlying, meaningless truth is veiled from us.
Richter is unquestionably right about the Schopenhauerian view on human existence. Gloomy though this view may be, de Botton, Schopenhauer and John (the main person in the novel) are certainly on to something. We often find our desires mystical and of unknown origin. But this may not be the whole story about what people find attractive about nightlife. John's cynical remarks on dancing comes in the wake of his struggle to understand why "people who were already married should go to the trouble of dressing up and going to a hotel to dance when they could have done it just as well in their living room, to music on the radio". To a Schopenhauerian this would seem puzzling. But perhaps there is something valuable in the experience of dancing among others that the Schopenhauerian view systematically overlooks. Married couples, possibly ageing and well beyond the reproductive stage of their lives, may go to nightclubs simply to dance, drink and have fun. But to Schopenhauer this phenomenon would surely seem even more absurd. Senior dance clubs are meaningless even from the perspective of the Will. Elderly dancers are not only moving to the beat of a blind impulse, but moving to the beat of a blind and utterly impotent impulse! Reproduction is still what dancing is all about, but for these dancers reproduction is a biological impossibility. -- Of course, one can always answer, as John's mother insists, that dancing is good exercise.

mandag 6. mai 2013


Last night the Norwegian ice hockey team continued its winning streak against the fighting Danes in the World Championship, a result that places Norway on top of the group (and Denmark at the bottom of it). Hooray! Yesterday also marked the 200th anniversary of Søren Kierkegaard's birth, so I'm sure there were smiling faces on the streets of Copenhagen last night too.

torsdag 2. mai 2013


Forleden dag kritiserte jeg en artikkel av språkfilosofen Georg Kjøll. Jeg antydet at forfatteren gjorde språklig mening unødvendig mystisk. Nå ser jeg at Kjøll har skrevet bok om emnet. Her er teksten på vaskeseddelen:
Tenker du på norsk? Kan du tenke på ting du ikke kan beskrive med norske ord? Hvordan vet du hva ord betyr? Hvordan har du lært deg ordene du kan, og hvordan vet du at de har samme mening når du og andre bruker dem i forskjellige sammenhenger? Å drive med språkfilosofi er å stille de store spørsmålene om språk, tanke og kommunikasjon. I denne boken presenterer Georg Kjøll mange av svarene som har vært gitt gjennom de siste 2500 årene, og undersøker hva vi egentlig kan vite om ordene og setningene vi bruker. 
Forfatteren tar for seg en rekke av de mest sentrale og grunnleggende filosofiske problemene i studiet av språk. På en lettfattelig måte diskuterer han blant annet hvor ords mening kommer fra, om ordmening egentlig kan defineres, om det finnes en klar sammenheng mellom språkevne og intelligens, og om vi tenker ved hjelp av mentale bilder. Kjøll presenterer de mest sentrale teoriene til filosofer som Platon, Ludwig Wittgenstein og Paul Grice, samtidig som han gjennomgår nyere utviklingstrekk i forskning på språklig mening.
Kanskje jeg leste artikkelen på feil premisser. Artikkelen var muligens ikke ment som en fullgod behandling av meningsspørsmålet, men snarere som en interessevekker (og hva er vel da bedre enn å innhylle temaet i et skjær av mystikk?). Blant de tingene jeg etterlyste var et wittgensteinsk perspektiv. Det blir spennende å se hva Kjøll gjør ut av det i boken.

onsdag 1. mai 2013

Chicken or the Egg?

Earlier tonight I saw the last half of an American science documentary about asteroids. Throughout history billions of these rocks have crashed into Earth. Many of them contain ice, so supposedly the blue colour on our planet comes from such impacts. Some asteroids even seem to carry liquid water; and if that is the case, there may be living organisms onboard too; and if that is the case, this may very well be the explanation of how life first came to Earth. So far, nothing worth mentioning. I have heard this story before. However, this was the first time I have ever heard anyone suggest this as a possible answer to the ancient mystery about the origin of life. And what a strange suggestion it was! How did life begin? Why, it came sailing in on the back of an icy rock.

tirsdag 30. april 2013

Pirking i materien.

Blogger har akkurat slukt et lengre innlegg jeg har jobbet med en stund. Det som følger er et forsøk på hastig å rekonstruere hovedtankene.

I et innlegg på Salongen leverer Georg Kjøll et forsvar for språkfilosofien. Filosofens oppgave er å "pirke borti implisitte antakelser bak, og nyanser i, ting vi sier og gjør," og stille kritiske spørsmål til vitenskapens teoretiske forsøk på å forklare hva menneskespråket er. Kjøll gjør en god jobb med å demonstrere filosofiske vanskeligheter med en rekke teorier og folkelige intuisjoner om hva språklig mening er:

1. Teorien om at ord er navn, og at meningen med ordene er de tingene ordene navngir. (Hva med ord som ikke navngir konkrete ting, men abstrakte størrelser som for eksempel "mening"?) 2. Tanken om at ords betydning er gitt ved definisjoner. (De "aller fleste definisjoner vi gir som ordforklaringer enten er for vage eller for spesifikke til at de kan være ordenes faktiske innhold.") 3. Troen på at ords mening er fast og endelig. ("Mange ord kan gi uttrykk for mange ulike meninger, og ofte vil disse meningene variere fra person til person, og over tid." Hvis ordene hadde en endelig betydning, hvordan kan slike variasjoner forklares?) 4. Tanken om at det finnes et en-til-en-forhold mellom ord og mening. (Hvis ordene sto i et uløselig forhold til de meningene de uttrykker, skulle unnskyldninger som "det var ikke det jeg mente" i prinsipp være umulige.)

Men hva er egentlig mening? Alle normale mennesker lærer etterhvert å bruke språket på fornuftig vis -- vi snakker forståelig med hverandre, vi gjør oss forstått og forstår andre -- men hvordan får vi det egentlig til? Et ord som "god" for eksempel betyr vidt forskjellige ting avhengig av om vi tenker på en god kniv, om en god person eller en god historie. Betydningen varierer også med hva slags egenskap ved tingen eller personen vi snakker om. Setningen "Per er god" har ulik betydning i en sammenheng hvor vi snakker om Pers ferdigheter som skiløper, i en sammenheng hvor vi snakker om hans musikalske evner og i en sammenheng hvor vi snakker om hans store nestekjærlighet. "Hvordan kan det ha seg at vi som oftest skjønner meningen i dette ordet, når det kan variere så voldsomt i bruk, og betegne så mange ulike egenskaper," spør Kjøll, og går ganske langt i retning av å fremstille dette som et mysterium.

Kjøll hevder at "måten vi snakker om mening som noe uproblematisk i det daglige, er med på å maskere hvilket enormt mysterium menneskets evne til å lære seg å uttrykke og forstå språk egentlig er," men jeg vil snarere mene at Kjøll er med på å fabrikere dette mysteriet.
Mening er det som gjør at ord og setninger kan brukes til å snakke om i ting i verden. Ords mening er en helt sentral forutsetning for at språk skal kunne fungere, og at ord kan brukes til å oppnå forståelse.
Selvsagt må ordene være meningsfulle for at vi skal kunne si noe fornuftig med dem. Men å hevde at ords mening er en forutsetning for at språk kan fungere, antyder at ordene må ha en mening før de kan anvendes på forståelig vis. Men dette er å snu tingene på hodet. Ess kan være både det høyeste og det laveste kortet i kortspill. Da kan det ikke være spillkortenes valør som avgjør hvordan vi kan bruke dem, men -- omvendt -- måten vi bruker dem på, hvilke regler vi følger, hvilket spill vi spiller, som bestemmer kortenes valør. Slik er språk også. Språk er ikke et system av (meningsfulle) tegn. Language is something we do, for å sitere Lars Hertzberg. Språket er vevd inn i våre liv. Det er ved å bli en del av våre praksiser at ord og uttrykk får sin betydning. Ords betydning er ikke en forutsetning for at språket kan fungere. Et fungerende språk er en forutsetning for at ord og setninger kan bety noe som helst. "I en stor klasse tilfeller -- men ikke i alle tilfeller," skriver Wittgenstein, "kan man forklare anvendelsen av ordet "betydning" slik: Et ords betydning er dets anvendelse i språket." (Filosofiske undersøkelser §43) At vi oftest forstår hva som menes med utsagnet "Per er god", skyldes ikke at vi tilfeldigvis gjetter hvilken betydning av "god" man tenker på, men at vi som oftest kjenner sammenhengen der utsagnet brukes. Når det er fotballferdigheter vi diskuterer, er det ikke uklart om ordet "god" brukes som i "Maradona er god" eller som i "Mors fløtepudding er god". Innenfor slike konkrete språkspill har ord en nokså klar betydning. Utenfor enhver kontekst -- hvis du finner en papirlapp med teksten på gaten, for eksempel -- betyr ikke "Per er god" noe som helst.

Videre skriver Kjøll:
Ikke bare er språklig mening en vag ting, det er også umulig å ta og peke på mening, eller identifisere det fysisk på noen spesiell måte. Vi vet ikke hvordan ords mening kan identifiseres i hjernen, og selv om vi visste det, er det fortsatt en lang vei å gå herfra til å forstå hva det er som gjør at mening skapes og på bakgrunn av hva det oppstår.
Men mening er ikke en objektiv egenskap ved ord, setninger og uttrykk på denne måten. Hvis en tanke betyr noe, så betyr den noe for noen. Hva jeg mener med utsagnet "Per er god" ligger ikke gjemt inne i hjernen min. Tanker må alltid tolkes. Det er derfor Wittgenstein skriver: "Om Gud hadde sett inn i vår sjel, ville han ikke der ha kunnet se hvem vi snakket om." (FU s. 247) Hvis jeg tenker på et tre og forestiller meg et grantre og Gud ser dette som et juletre i plast, hvem har rett? Hva slags tre jeg mener viser seg gjennom min atferd; gjennom hva jeg sier og gjør. Det er her, ikke i selve ordene eller i hjernen min, men i min bruk av ordene at deres mening ligger. Følgelig vil ingen MR-skanning bringe oss det minste nærmere en forståelse i spørsmål om mening.

Så lenge det finnes teorier, avslutter Kjøll, "vil det finnes behov for filosofer som kan pirke i materien, stille de vanskelige spørsmålene og se de store linjene i studiet av språk." QED