Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Thoughts on morality, politics and history

I. Past and present

If we ignore the past, not only do we forego the opportunity to understand our own social and cultural situation in more than a superficial way, we disrespect ourselves. We are to future observers what past generations are to us, and, if we have no interest in the lives or achievements of our forebears, we are implicitly condoning a similarly dismissive attitude to our lives and achievements on the part of future generations.

Linguists analyse language both in terms of its structure and in terms of its history. Not only language but any cultural element needs to be seen in this double perspective if it is to be properly understood; that is, not just as it is at any given point in time, but also in terms of how it developed.

But increasingly, both in general and educational contexts (each reflecting the other and creating a negative feedback loop), the historical dimension is being neglected or replaced by crude historical myths and fictions. For most people today, the past is a great unknown expanse like the distant oceans on old maps, a blank canvas on which political actors are free to paint whatever they see fit. Inevitably the historical record is distorted beyond recognition as ideologues flesh out their chosen political myths with suitably aligned heroes and moral monsters.

II. Morality and Politics

Political differences are generally based on moral priorities being ranked differently. Moreover, issues which are high on a particular group’s or party’s agenda are issues upon which divergent opinions are not allowed: the party line must be adhered to on pain of excommunication.

Such attitudes are profoundly illiberal. They characterized Christian and Jewish and Muslim orthodoxies in the past and (in varying degrees) still do; and they characterize political orthodoxies, especially at the extremes of the ideological spectrum.

The fact that individual moral intuitions and priorities differ is acknowledged (how could it not be?) but in polarized political contexts these intuitions tend to be seen as indicators of the moral and political status of the individuals in question. They are also seen, by extension, as markers of group membership.

This is, as I suggested, essentially a religious attitude. “He that is not with me,” says Matthew’s Jesus, “is against me.” Or, pluralizing to make it more relevant to politics: those who are not with us are against us.

This attitude often goes slightly further and does away with even arm’s-length tolerance of alternative views. In such cases, even those who are not against those who are not with us are against us.

Against this backdrop of religionized politics, it’s no great surprise that moral realism is currently flourishing in humanist and academic contexts today, with many self-described atheists (especially those with strong political commitments) coming to believe in an objective “moral law” or set of rights that just happens to correspond to (and thus, validate) the moral imperatives central to their own favoured political ideology.

III. The Anti-Metaphysical Stance

My default position on matters metaphysical is strongly “anti” in the sense that given my assumptions about the natural world, I do not see either traditional metaphysics or theology as viable academic subjects. That a similarly robust anti-metaphysical stance has been promoted by many significant thinkers whose starting point was very different from my own (e.g. Christian fideists, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty) serves only to strengthen my convictions on the matter.

There are, I accept, questions of a metaphysical kind that can be asked and meaningfully discussed. But, in terms of scholarship and academic research, such discussion is only likely to be fruitful to the extent that it is informed by the sciences (broadly interpreted to include mathematics and historical disciplines).

Take the topic of time, for example. There seems little point in writing about it as metaphysically-oriented philosophers have done in the past, attempting to explicate its deep nature in an a priori fashion. Depending on the aspects of time in which you are interested, you obviously need to draw on various sciences or other disciplines (e.g. physics, psychology, linguistics, literature).

Epistemological questions, likewise, need (as I see it) to be seen in the context of particular research programs.

IV. Liberalism versus Dogmatism

Morality, which used to be seen in metaphysical terms, is a practical business, not a theoretical one. You can theorize about it, of course, just as you can theorize about other aspects of human value systems and human behaviour. Such theorizing is useful to the extent that it provides a descriptive account of these matters and a framework for discussion of normative questions. A large degree of agreement can be expected on the descriptive front. On the normative side, there is some scope for convergence and agreement but on personal priorities and many controversial questions definitive answers are just not possible.

The view I am putting stands opposed to sophisticated (e.g. Kantian) as well as less sophisticated forms of moral realism (such as those that underlie certain religious and secular orthodoxies). Mainstream Christian churches and Jewish communities have over the centuries come to accept the kind of tolerance for differing opinions and perspectives that has traditionally characterized the European liberal tradition. But the mainstream churches are in decline as, on the one hand, fundamentalist religious groups seem to thrive and, on the other, politics becomes more polarized and extreme.

All in all, the tradition of European liberalism seems to have played itself out. It worked (to the extent that it did) only because a unique set of social and cultural conditions in European and other Western countries allowed it to work.

These conditions no longer prevail. They included a sense of continuity with the past, an enlightened and science-friendly perspective, relatively homogeneous regional and national cultures, and an organic and historically significant network of interrelated communities and practices transcending regional and national boundaries.

Typically, today’s communities and networks lack the deep historical dimension which only cultural continuity provides. As such, they are free-floating and fragile and extremely vulnerable to demagoguery and dogmatism.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Wittgenstein and Russell on metaphysics, language and science

In his youth, Wittgenstein worked with Bertrand Russell and then subsequently had dealings with the Vienna Circle before taking a rather different direction from the late 1920s on. But the main elements of his thinking remained the same: his distrust of metaphysics, for example. He even came to fault his earlier work (which was heavily influenced by Russell) as being too metaphysical.

A piece I wrote on these themes for The Electric Agora (and subsequently republished here in a slightly revised form) triggered some discussion about the extent to which Russell’s outlook was truly scientific. It was suggested that Russell, driven by unwarranted metaphysical assumptions, got things fundamentally wrong about language and logic. By contrast, the later Wittgenstein and the Oxford school of “ordinary language” philosophy which developed in the 1950’s got things fundamentally right.

In the course of the discussion, I made the point that Russell was committed to a view of the world based on evidence and reason and was an energetic advocate for science and for a scientifically-oriented philosophy. This claim prompted the suggestion that, while Russell’s attitude to science was indeed positive, he made a fetish of science.

There is something in the fetishization idea. As an adolescent Russell had found comfort in the certainties of mathematics. And it takes a particular kind of mentality to be so concerned about the foundations of mathematics as to devote many years to attempting to elaborate a sound logical basis for the discipline.

This story, however, can be told many ways. And it is not just a story about one man’s obsessions. It was a remarkable time in European intellectual circles, and arguably what made it so remarkable was the way that scientific advances in a range of areas – especially historical linguistics, textual criticism, natural history, mathematics and physics – mattered for the general culture. There was a sense that the world had changed irrevocably since the Enlightenment; that it was no longer business as usual. Too many established truths had been shown not to be truths at all. Given this intellectual upheaval, it is no wonder that the new world sensed or foreseen by many 19th-century thinkers and artists was a disturbing and disorientating one.

Despite their various metaphysical commitments or assumptions, I don’t think it plausible to see the likes of Frege and Russell in the same terms as the Hegelian metaphysicians who preceded them, if only because they were committed to scientific methods and open to the possibility that their various projects would fail. They were intellectual pioneers; explorers, not dreamers. And they were bound in a very productive way to the spirit of their time.

The grand plan to create an explicit and complete logical system which could encompass arithmetic was demonstrated – by Kurt Gödel in the early 1930s – to be impossible. But, as Karl Popper pointed out, this is precisely how science works and progresses: by bold conjectures and refutations. Without the prior work by Frege, Russell and others, Gödel would never have come to devise his remarkable proof. And it’s not as if Frege’s and Russell’s work was successful only in this negative sense. After all, their technical achievements helped to lay the groundwork for – and even shaped in certain ways – the revolution in digital computing as well as providing fruitful ideas in specific areas (such as formal linguistics).

I certainly don’t want to mount a defense of Russell’s logical atomism. I see the whole project of trying to construct a perfectly clear and perspicuous language (even if it is meant only for scientific purposes) as being doomed to failure. Russell’s own views changed over time. In his later works, he defends an approach to human knowledge which is (in my opinion) eminently defensible.

Russell was drawn to a correspondence view of truth. And, though his original insistence on a structural isomorphism between language and the world may not be sustainable, it seems to me (as it did to figures as different as Karl Popper and J.L. Austin) that there are objectively existing states of affairs – in both ordinary and scientific contexts – to which most statements refer and against which their truth or correctness (or whatever term might be appropriate) depends.

I see this view (or something very like it) as a prerequisite for science and scholarship as those pursuits have been traditionally understood. Sure, such a view has been challenged by various forms of idealism and radical epistemologies over the years. It is currently under sustained attack. Is it worth defending? Absolutely. How one sees these matters has serious intellectual, cultural and even political consequences.

Much of Austin’s work is descriptive and classificatory and, as I understand it, Austin saw himself as doing something like proto-science. He believed that his work on language would eventually form the basis for a mature science, and indeed his work has been picked up by linguists as well as by philosophers. Austin’s intellectual orientation was clearly quite different from Wittgenstein’s. Both thinkers had an appreciation of the power, complexity and expressiveness of natural language. But Wittgenstein was not interested in the sort of painstaking explicitness and classificatory thoroughness to which Austin aspired.

Previously I contrasted Russell’s scientific view of the world with Wittgenstein’s view. I am now suggesting a similar (but more limited) contrast between Austin and Wittgenstein. I want to make it clear, however, that I am not taking sides with respect to the thinkers involved. There is value both in Wittgenstein’s and in Austin’s writings on language. It’s just that their respective approaches and orientations are different.

On Russell and Wittgenstein, there are some issues on which I side with one, and some issues on which I side with the other. With respect to the status of science and scientific knowledge I am very much in Russell’s camp, not Wittgenstein’s.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Language and metaphysics

Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein had many profound disagreements. They were, for example, diametrically opposed in their respective attitudes to science and religion. But they were united in one respect at least. They both rejected the metaphysics of idealism. Metaphysically speaking, Russell was concerned mainly to counter idealist notions and to defend a science-friendly and empirical view of the world. And Wittgenstein, like many of his contemporaries, saw no role for metaphysics as a discipline in its own right.

Early in his life Russell had accepted the general framework of Hegelian metaphysics that dominated English philosophy at the time. But he soon came to see problems with this point of view and felt a sense of excitement and liberation when he finally extricated himself from this way of seeing the world. He talks in his intellectual autobiography about his early rejection of the doctrine of internal relations which was a key feature of Anglo-Hegelian idealism.

Very roughly, this doctrine constituted a form of coherentism or holism according to which everything is related to everything else and nothing can be satisfactorily understood except in terms of the totality of these relations (i.e. ultimately in terms of the Absolute). This kind of idealism fell out of favour, but gained renewed intellectual respectability when Willard Van Orman Quine proposed a form of holism which was (ironically) partly inspired by the writings of Pierre Duhem, an historian of science who was not only a deeply religious man but also an orthodox and militant Catholic.

Wittgenstein, by contrast to Russell (and Quine), was not well-read in Western philosophy. He was blissfully ignorant both of classical and medieval thought as well as of German (and English) idealism, and the “metaphysical stance” which he himself came to identify in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus derived from its logical absolutism: the attempt to reduce the intelligibility of the world to pure logical objects in logical space. The Tractatus was an attempt to give definitive expression to the scientific project and by so doing to reveal its limits. The particular understanding of language, logic and mathematics which was at the heart of the Tractatus Wittgenstein gradually came to see not so much as false but rather as unnecessarily narrow.

One of the factors which led him to see this was hearing, in 1928, three lectures by L.E.J. Brouwer. Brouwer’s mathematical intuitionism was focused on numbers rather than geometry and on finite constructions rather than on infinite logical space. Wittgenstein had to face the fact that there were various ways of conceptualizing the basis of logic and mathematics, and he started to develop a philosophy of logic and mathematics which tried to explain these practices in terms of the sorts of common agreements which make social life possible. But most of his later work was focused not on mathematics or logic but on ordinary language and the ordinary social conventions which sustain it.

Friedrich Nietzsche had noted that each natural language is, as it were, pregnant with a metaphysics, the metaphysics of one language being different from the metaphysics of another. Metaphysics (as he saw it) was largely a projection of the structure of a particular language on to the world.

This general way of seeing metaphysics as a function of language can be applied not just to natural languages but also to more formal, constructed languages or logical systems such as those which were developed from the late 19th century onward. The crucial point is that metaphysics is seen as a kind of gratuitous by-product of a language and its use – or misuse. As such it is not something that can be studied in itself as the natural or social worlds may be studied.

The Vienna Circle is well-known for taking such a line and Wittgenstein, as a close friend of Moritz Schlick and an early participant in the deliberations of Schlick’s invitation-only group, played a crucial role in the development of the ideas which would come to be known as logical positivism.

Wittgenstein’s view of language developed beyond the position outlined in the Tractatus but there is a lot of continuity in his thinking and the Tractatus itself can be read as a critique of traditional metaphysics. It is this aspect of it which appealed to Schlick and the Vienna Circle. At no time did Wittgenstein write anything resembling traditional metaphysics (or ethics, for that matter).

But Wittgenstein also came to see the standard scientific view of the world as logically flawed and as incorporating metaphysical assumptions. The law of identity (‘A is A’) has a long history as a basic axiom of Western logic and plays an important foundational role in most modern formal systems. But in the Tractatus Wittgenstein was already moving away from this kind of approach, explicitly calling the law of identity into question. “To say of one thing that it is identical with itself is to say nothing at all,” he wrote. (5.5303)

What’s more, as a Christian primitivist in the tradition of Leo Tolstoy, Wittgenstein was not sympathetic to the anti-religious stance of most logical positivists. Probably on account of his religious commitments (which are often downplayed by philosophers), he was also rather less interested in scientific questions or in articulating a scientific view of the world than his erstwhile empiricist colleagues.

Wittgenstein certainly disappointed his old mentor, Bertrand Russell, by moving away from dealing with the sorts of science-and-logic-related questions which Russell himself was concerned with as a philosopher and focusing instead on an informal approach to language and other matters.

Wittgenstein saw language as something that has the potential to lead us astray, and much of his later work is designed to highlight the pitfalls of language (especially as deployed by philosophers). Metaphysical questions can usefully be approached in this way: in terms, that is, of language (whether natural or constructed). And often apparent problems can be dissolved.

Rudolf Carnap was a major 20th-thinker thinker who followed this general approach and sought to downplay the significance of ontological claims, characterizing philosophically-based metaphysical – and, specifically ontological – claims as being either trivial or problematic.

Carnap saw ontology, understood as “the study of what there is”, as being misguided. Questions about the existence of things which are assumed to be in a given linguistic or conceptual framework are trivially true. In his paper, “Empiricism, Semantics and Ontology” (first published in 1950), Carnap writes: “A question like: ‘Are there (really) space-time points?’ is ambiguous. It may be meant as an internal question; then the affirmative answer is, of course, analytic and trivial…” But if the question about existence is seen as general and unrestricted it becomes very problematic.

Thomas Hofweber (writing on Language and ontology in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) summarizes Carnap’s view:

"Ontology, the philosophical discipline that tries to answer hard questions about what there really is is based on a mistake. The questions it tries to answer are meaningless questions, and this enterprise should be abandoned. The words ‘Are there numbers?’ thus can be used in two ways: as an internal question, in which case the answer is trivially ‘yes’, but this has nothing to do with metaphysics or ontology, or as an external question, which is the one the philosophers are trying to ask, but which is meaningless."

I am inclined to agree with this general position though I shy away from the word ‘meaningless’. Carnap termed such (external) questions “pseudo-questions”, and characterized the ontological pursuits to which they lead as “useless” and “futile”.

There is no question that metaphysical and logical ideas are related. The logical framework which one chooses has metaphysical implications. For example, if you reject the law of non-contradiction (as Hegel did, for example) this will have implications not just for what you see as valid forms of argument but also for how you see the world more generally.

I want to say something here – by way of clarification – about the various meanings and connotations of the word ‘metaphysics’. Sometimes it is used to refer to an intellectual discipline, sometimes more broadly to refer to a general view of the world. In the latter case, sometimes (but not always) there is a connotation to the effect that the view in question is akin to a religious view.

This can be confusing. For example, in his later writings, Martin Heidegger is often (and quite rightly, I think) seen as moving away from specifically philosophical and metaphysical discourse, at least as traditionally understood in the context of the Western academic tradition. But in another (quite valid) sense what he is doing is very metaphysical. When Graham Priest applies the term ‘metaphysical’ specifically to Heidegger’s later work (as he does around the 13-minute mark in this interview) he is using the term in my latter sense (and with the religious connotations, I think). I want to make it clear that this is not the kind of metaphysics which I am implicitly criticizing here. Nor (as I see it) is it the kind of metaphysics which (in their different ways) Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Carnap were attacking. (In fact, a good case can be made that that Nietzsche, (the later) Heidegger and (the later) Wittgenstein have a lot in common.)

The sort of metaphysics that Wittgenstein, Carnap et al. were concerned to counter was the traditional scholarly kind which (on their view) is based on pseudo-questions arising from a misreading or misuse of language. They both rejected the view that there is a deep “ontological” sense in which the implicitly projected objects can be said to exist. Various kinds of objects exist, but only in an ordinary sense. And a keen sense of what language is and how it works – such as Nietzsche (as a philologist) certainly had, and as Wittgenstein and many of his philosophical contemporaries also had – helps to make this clearer.

Nouns are useful abstractions. The objects that concrete nouns describe exist individually in a practical or pragmatic sense (this dog, that fork…); or not, in the case of unicorns, etc.. Useful abstractions like nation states or agreements can also be said to exist in a practical and pragmatic sense. They are social realities. But all too often, and especially in the context of philosophical discourse, useful – or not so useful – abstractions are taken to be real in a metaphysical sense, or something real or substantive is seen to lie behind an abstract noun which is merely a convenient tool facilitating concise expression.

One thing which is particularly interesting, as I see it, is the relationship between metaphysics (as a discipline) and religion. Western metaphysics – from Plato to medieval and through to modern times – grew out of what came to be called natural theology and was usually associated with a particular kind of (intellectualized) religion.

But other religious tendencies existed within the Judeo-Christian West which were hostile to metaphysics and which saw metaphysicalized religion as a betrayal of the more direct and intuitive form of religion to which they were committed. Blaise Pascal typified this approach. He rejected the “God of the philosophers” entirely, and embraced the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Tolstoy and Wittgenstein were decidedly within this fideist tradition.

A commitment to metaphysics is often associated with a commitment to religion. But a hostility to metaphysics can also be driven by religious commitments.

[This is a slightly edited version of an essay first published at The Electric Agora.]

Sunday, June 10, 2018

On the scope and limits of science

Attempts to express a comprehensive personal view of the world are doomed to failure. Each of us has a view of the world; some such views are more developed and plausible than others. But language (even supplemented with other modes of expression) is simply not equipped to articulate the complex and shifting set of values and beliefs which creates and lies behind the way a particular individual sees and interprets the world.

What we can do is to express our views on and reactions to particular topics and particular things. What we can’t do is to tie it all together and articulate the whole, even in general terms.

There are a number of ways of looking at this. You could see it in terms of underlying logical coherence, for example. If a view of things had such coherence, it could be articulated accurately and concisely, at least in general terms. (1) But, given the fact that conscious reasoning constitutes only a minuscule portion of cognitive activity, there is no reason to expect – and every reason not to expect – that a person’s outlook on the world, with all its implicit value assessments, etc., would have anything like the degree of underlying logical coherence which would be necessary for its satisfactory articulation in linguistic terms.

Another way of looking at this is in terms of frameworks. A particular context is always required to provide a foundation for any statement or claim, and there is no general or generic context to which we can appeal. The broader the context, the less we can usefully (or even meaningfully) say. The danger here is that one gets lost in virtually meaningless abstractions and generalizations.

The most powerful forms of self-expression via written language are literary, and good writing in a literary sense is marked by specificity and concreteness and attention to the details of lived experience. Generalized claims and abstractions play only a minor role.

The impulse to express a comprehensive view has traditionally manifested itself in religious and philosophical contexts. But, as ways of understanding the world, modern scientific disciplines (including historical disciplines) have largely replaced religion and traditional metaphysics. You want to know about some specific thing? Go to the experts. Unfortunately, there are no experts to go to if you want answers to substantive questions about values or about the significance of human life, for example.

Individually we need to be committed to a set of values and beliefs in order to live. There is a huge range of possible belief and value systems, but an individual’s social and cultural environment narrows the possibilities somewhat. Beyond embracing the best available cultural elements (as one sees them) and applying principles of practical wisdom and commonsense, there is not a lot more one can do, other than ensuring that – as far as possible – one’s beliefs are compatible with scientific and scholarly knowledge.

It has become clear over time that scientific, empirical, formal and analytical methods represent the only reliable ways we have of building an objective or value-neutral communal knowledge base. Unlike our culturally-driven (and so values-driven) individual perspectives, this knowledge base is not only able to be articulated, it only exists to the extent that it has been articulated. It is necessarily public knowledge. (I use the word knowledge, but all claims are subject to challenge within the context of the disciplinary processes involved.)

Even here, however, the knowledge in question does not constitute a single thing or a unified structure, and so cannot be expressed concisely or in a unified way.

The term “edifice” is sometimes used to describe our communal knowledge base, but this metaphor is very misleading. In fact, it seems to me that one of the most significant things about human knowledge which the history of science and rigorous scholarship clearly demonstrates is its diverse and distributed nature. It is something of an irony therefore that champions of a scientific view of the world so often fall into the trap of seeing knowledge in unified terms.

Otto Neurath, who represented what might be called the radical wing of the logical positivist movement, was for many years the most prominent promoter of the notion of the Unity of Science. He clashed repeatedly with moderate figures in the movement such as Louis Rougier who strenuously rejected the notion, seeing in Neurath’s campaign an attempt to promote a creed, a new orthodoxy. Neurath’s view was an updated version of well-known 19th-century attempts to create a scientific socialism, and it was quite as censorious and illiberal as traditional religious orthodoxies, if not more so.

The attempt to promote a scientific creed continues to this day, of course, driven by a combination of arrogance and ignorance of intellectual history. But there is a difference between having a basically scientific view of the world and making science into some kind of creed or orthodoxy.

Things have changed in the arts and in non-scientific intellectual circles in recent decades, but not so long ago many of the greatest writers and artists and non-scientific thinkers had a very positive view of science, or at least accepted the general findings of mainstream science and rigorous scholarship. This is sometimes forgotten, partly because many of these writers and thinkers are currently out of fashion but partly also because the scientific or science-accepting side of many currently fashionable thinkers (Nietzsche comes to mind) is being downplayed.

As I see it, the fruits of science and scholarship belong to us all even though, as individuals, our actual knowledge is necessarily limited. Strangely enough, practicing scientists and scholars – because of the extreme degree of specialization which is required today – are no more likely to have a satisfactory general understanding than the interested observer, and the amateur will often have more time and energy than the specialist to devote to wide reading and to considering the implications of what is known.

I still have a very high regard for leading thinkers in scientific fields, especially fields (like physics and biology) which deal with fundamental questions of the natural world which have a bearing on how one sees or conceptualizes human life. But the more one reads their popular books or blogs or listens to interviews or to panel discussions, the more obvious it becomes that the special insights of scientific specialists rarely go beyond the scope of their areas of expertise.

For most purposes, of course, specialist expertise is not required, and useful or interesting conclusions can be drawn from very basic kinds of knowledge. Such arguments and elaborations may (and should, in my opinion) still be rooted in a view of the world which respects the findings of mainstream science and other rigorous forms of intellectual inquiry, but any argument involving matters of human significance (and so human values) necessarily goes beyond science and our empirical knowledge base more generally.

Some such elaborations have been developed with a view to expressing in a systematic way a particular view of the world. These (if my thesis is correct) cannot succeed. I have in mind, in particular, the sort of metaphysical systematizing which was in vogue in Europe, especially during 19th century.

Under the influence of thinkers such as Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege, more analytic and narrowly focused approaches gradually came to prominence and largely replaced traditional metaphysics. This analytical strand of philosophical thinking was very different in nature to almost all philosophical thinking before it in that it sought to bring academic philosophy more into line with scientific, formal and rigorous empirical disciplines; in other words to separate once and for all philosophy as an intellectual discipline from more traditional notions which saw philosophy as (at least potentially) providing guidance for living. Both Frege and Russell saw themselves as men of science (in the old European sense of the term). Russell was particularly scornful of the idea that academic philosophy should deal in any way with what was (and still is) popularly known as a “philosophy of life.”

In his intellectual autobiography Russell described the sense of freedom and liberation that accompanied his rejection of the idealist metaphysics which dominated the intellectual world in which he grew up for a more empirically-based view of things. The case I am making here is very much in line with a Russellian view. (2)

A great strength of Bertrand Russell as a thinker is that he was always aware of the way our personal values play into our thinking. Much of his published work is journalistic and opinionated. Arguably his views on education and some social questions were quite misguided. His views on power and politics still stand up, I think. But my point is that he drew a clear distinction between his serious philosophical work (from which he sought entirely to exclude his personal values) and the rest.

My focus here, however, is not science or the nature of philosophy, but rather on the relationship between science (broadly interpreted) and human values. Any attempt to articulate a value-driven point of view takes us beyond a purely scientific or rigorously scholarly space, albeit not entirely beyond the reach of scientific and scholarly expertise.

Even in the realm of rhetoric and persuasion, where personal values hold sway, the compatibility of any given position with mainstream science and rigorous scholarship remains an important litmus test. If a position or point of view fails the test, it can be excluded from consideration. But – fortunately or unfortunately – the bar is fairly low here, and the test in question lets through a vast array of mutually incompatible points of view.

The perspective I am putting forward is based in part on a particular interpretation of recent Western intellectual history. Certain thinkers have influenced me more than others, and any elaboration or defense of these ideas would necessarily involve the historical aspect: arguments about particular thinkers and about the relative merits of different ways of identifying and framing the main questions. (3)

Nonetheless, let me try to sum up my key points in purely non-historical terms. As individuals we slowly develop (or allow the ambient culture to develop for us) a general perspective or view of the world. Such a perspective cannot be fully articulated or satisfactorily summarized. It could be seen to express itself (via words and actions) in countless choices. These choices are practical and action-oriented rather than theoretical. They are responses to particular situations. Whereas individual perspectives can never be articulated holistically, values-based points of view on particular issues (which are driven in large part by an individual’s general perspective) can be articulated. They may be falsifiable, but are not amenable to positive scientific or academic validation.


1. There may be a parallel here with the way complexity is conceptualized in algorithmic information theory, i.e. in terms of the compressibility of strings or other kinds of data structure. Data can usually be compressed (to a greater or lesser extent), but arbitrary random data cannot.

2. I am also drawing on Karl Popper’s general views on knowledge and falsifiability. Many of Russell’s and Popper’s specific views have been called into question, of course, and/or developed in various directions. Russell (at least) welcomed this. He saw himself as having made his significant contributions relatively early in his life and looked to others (initially to Ludwig Wittgenstein, and later to the logical empiricists) to move things forward. It is often asserted that the logical positivist movement 1) failed and 2) deserved to fail because the core insights of its main representatives were profoundly misguided. I question both of these judgments. Some of the ideas which drove the logical positivists were misguided. I mentioned Neurath’s ideologically-driven approach, for example. But the basic principles and perspectives on the scope and nature of human knowledge expressed in the writings of more moderate figures within the movement (like Moritz Schlick, Hans Reichenbach and Louis Rougier) are sound, and I am optimistic that they will survive – at least in modified forms which reflect ongoing changes in the scientific and intellectual landscape.

3. Also, it is obvious that the general perspective on knowledge which I have been discussing (and defending) has social implications. Historically speaking, it has, by and large, been associated with anti-totalitarian social philosophies, and this is no accident. I would want to claim (though I am not attempting to make the case here) that such a perspective is naturally compatible with traditional liberal values and – if not strictly incompatible with – at least not supportive of extremist politics, either of the left or the right.

[This essay was first published under the title Self-Expression, Knowledge and Valueat The Electric Agora.]

Thursday, April 26, 2018

History and truth

At The Electric Agora, E. John Winner reflected recently on a tragic – and relatively late – episode in the long history of the destruction of Native American culture and society: the Battle (or Massacre) of Wounded Knee. I have only a general sense of the history involved here, but the basic themes will be familiar to anyone who has lived in a colony or former colony or has knowledge of European colonialism.

What many people don't realize is that in many cases the main actors on the European side saw their actions in positive and idealistic terms. I know a bit about British colonial activity during the 18th and 19th centuries and, if you read the letters and reports of the people involved (administrators, professionals, etc.), the sense of responsibility and moral seriousness is often palpable. Certainly they saw what they were doing in very different terms from how we tend to see it today.

That said, in most cases they underestimated the complexity and sophistication of the indigenous cultures with which they came into contact and which in many cases were almost totally destroyed.

There is, I think, a general acceptance that politics – and especially geopolitics – doesn't actually work according to principles of justice; in other words, that wealth, technology and ultimately force are more important driving forces. Consequently, claims based on moral or justice-related grounds are often seen in rhetorical and political terms. They may not even necessarily be believed in (in any real sense) by those initiating or promoting the claims. Claims based on generalized notions of justice (and especially on notions of social justice) are often wielded merely as political weapons.

My own inclination in dealing with historical narratives is to try not to expropriate them for political purposes, because this inevitably leads to distortion. The aim becomes not so much to understand what happened as to find or develop a politically effective narrative, to have a useful story. The story is judged not according to criteria such as balance or truth (i.e. whether it derives from a plausible interpretation of available primary sources) but rather in terms of perceived usefulness for bringing about a desired political outcome.

I am more comfortable dealing with terms like "probity", "decency", "cruelty" and "betrayal" than with more abstract and generalized concepts (like "justice" or "social progress"). The former can often be read out of primary sources fairly directly. By contrast, the latter – more often than not – are read into such sources by historians or activists who have their own preconceived ideas about what justice or social progress is or should look like.

We come to terms with the past only to the extent that we understand it. And understanding history inevitably involves being open to a range of (often conflicting) perspectives or points of view.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Justice, injustice and truth

What follows is a short extract from an essay of mine which was published earlier this month at The Electric Agora on truth and justice. In this passage, I raise a couple of logical and linguistic points about justice (relating to negation and markedness), as well as noting the asymmetry between the concepts justice and truth (the former being dependent on the latter, but not the latter on the former).

[...] Just as the positive rights implicit in social justice are more controversial and contested than negative rights (like liberty), so the concept of justice is (I would suggest) more problematic than the concept of injustice or of a miscarriage of justice. You could argue about whether a person guilty of a crime, for example, ought to be punished in this way or that or punished at all or even blamed. (There might have been extenuating circumstances.) But there would be no disagreement at all about the wrongness of a miscarriage of justice, where a person innocent of a particular crime was convicted; or with respect to cases of a broadly similar kind but which do not involve the court system (so that the term miscarriage of justice would not apply). With respect to the latter, I am thinking of situations – not hard to find, it must be said – in which a person is disadvantaged or penalized in some significant way for what is generally accepted as honest and exemplary behavior.

Another point that seems interesting to me here pertains to the linguistic concept of markedness. Markedness phenomena crop up in many linguistic contexts, like grammatical gender for example. Feminine nouns and adjectives often derive and take their core meaning from the unmarked masculine form. (A suffix might be added to signify a feminine noun or adjective.) Markedness can also apply to antonyms and negation. But it seems that certain negative forms are more uncontroversial and may be clearer than their positive equivalents. This is slightly odd given that the marked negative form of an expression (like ‘injustice’) is in a real sense dependent on and derives its meaning from the unmarked positive form (‘justice’). How is it then that cases of injustice can be more readily understood and less controversial than questions of justice? It is as though the semantics is pulling in one direction (making ‘injustice’ the primary term) and morphology and syntax in another.

Note also that the two concepts, truth and justice, are not symmetrically related. Truth relates directly to justice. The legal process is designed to uncover the truth of what happened, and perjury is a serious offense. One talks of someone being falsely accused. But justice doesn’t relate directly to questions of truth and falsity. Claims are true or false according entirely to non-justice-related criteria. Justice (or injustice) just doesn’t come into it.

Saturday, January 20, 2018


I have been neglecting this and my other Blogger site and concentrating on writing essays for Dan Kaufman's Electric Agora and (usually) posting shorter versions (plus links) to my G+ collections. I had intended to crosspost relevant essays here but haven't been doing this. I will be doing so in the future, however.

Over the past couple of years I have written quite a lot of material, and my essays have attracted a bit of attention and garnered about 1500 comments in total.

The Electric Agora is not my site, however, and I don't have any control over it: over whether or in what form it continues, for example.
So I am thinking that I could use this site to bring together (possibly in revised form and/or with a view to reworking them) all of my relevant pieces from the EA (and elsewhere).

Again, one has no control over how particular platforms such as Blogger or G+ are going to develop (if indeed they continue), nor of course can one predict with any confidence how the general informational and communicational landscape is going to evolve in the future.

My intention is just to stick to the sites I currently have or contribute to.

Including my Twitter account... @mark_english1.