Friday, June 30, 2006

Horwich on Wittgenstein's Meta-philosophy

Here's an interesting quote from Horwich's "Wittgenstein's Meta-Philosophical Development":

The right reaction to our puzzlement is to expose and eliminate the mistakes that provoke it—that is, to recognize how the questions derive from the exaggeration of linguistic analogies, how the puzzlement they induce is uncalled-for, and how the theories designed to dispel that puzzlement are irrational. Once this has been doen we will be left with no new knowledge...but merely with a strengthened resistance to philosophical confusion. (166)

That's a really nice way of expressing the difference between solving a problem and dissolving a problem.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Katherine Harris

Katherine Harris is telling people that Democratic members of congress from Florida are supporting her. Of course, that seems wildly absurd. Furthermore, according to the Orlando Sentinel, the 7 Democratic members of congress from Florida deny this. But Harris has said weird things before:

The incident is another in a list of curious episodes regarding Harris.
In the past, she has claimed the media doctored photos of her, described a nonexistent plot to blow up a power grid in Indiana and urged Florida scientists to treat citrus canker with a solution that turned out to be water.

More recently she has endured an exodus of staff members and has been linked to a defense contractor who pleaded guilty to bribing a former California congressman.

The contractor, Mitchell Wade, also pleaded guilty to giving Harris $32,000 in illegal campaign contributions in 2004.

Harris has said she did not know the contributions violated the law, and she has not been charged with any crimes. She has since donated the money to charity.

What's amazing (or maybe not) is how Harris seems to have no hesitation bending the truth whenever she wants. But it isn't just that: she doesn't just lie, she tells whoppers. Most of us would be embarrassed to tell such stories, or to be caught (as she has been, repeatedly). But that doesn't stop her.

Of course, on second thought, that's not so surprising. Harris' entire political career is based on a lie: namely, that Bush beat Gore in Florida in 2000. She, better than anyone, knows that a lie repeated often enough has the force of truth, and it doesn't really matter how outlandish the lie is. So she's just following in the footsteps of those who went before.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Davidson on Truth (again)

In Truth and Predication Davidson has many interesting things to say about the concept of truth. But I can't help but think that he's missed the forest for the trees.

Davidson writes:

A T-sentence says of a particular speaker that, every time he utters a given sentence, the utterance will be true if and only if certain conditions are satisfied. T-sentences thus have the form and function of natural laws; they are universally quantified bi-conditionals, and as such are understood to apply counterfactually and to be confirmed by their instances. Thus, a theory of truth is a theory for describing, explaining, understanding, and predicting a basic aspect of verbal behavior. (54)

I like that passage quite a lot: particularly the (daring, I think) idea that T-sentences are like natural laws.

But the rest of the chapter doesn't quite live up to this passage. For the rest of the chapter, for some 20 pages, Davidson shows how the concept of truth is useful in situations of radical interpretation. But much of that discussion has the feeling of a just-so story. For example:

The interpreter, on noticing that the agent regularly accepts or rejects the sentence 'The coffee is ready' when the coffee is or is not ready, will (however tentatively pending related results) try for a theory of truth that says that an utterance by an agent of the sentence 'The coffee is ready' is true if and only if the coffee can be observed by the agent to be ready at the time of the utterance. (63)

Well, yes, I guess so. But that scenario is so contrived, so wildly different from how languages are actually learned, from how truth really comes in useful, that it distorts what is really most important about the concept of truth: namely, that true beliefs are beliefs that work. Now, one way they work is, undoubtedly, that they allow for communication and understanding - and I think this is what Davidson is getting at. But I don't think that is the most important aspect of truth's working, and I think it distracts from the broader usefulness of true beliefs.

Telling these sorts of genetic stories about the origin of the usefulness of truth seems to commit something like a philosopher's fallacy. Philosophers might be most interested in how truth and truth theories are connected with broader issues of inter-translatability, etc. But that's just a conceit, and it misses how truth is grounded in much more mundane and realistic sorts of interactions with the world, and with each other.

In short, we don't need the concept of truth for the narrow reason that it (somehow) assists us in imputing the belief "the coffee is ready" to someone whose language we are trying to learn. Rather, the concept of truth has much more obvious value in assisting us when we are communicating with someone whose language we already share. For example, when someone we think we know well does something surprising or apparently bizarre: "Why did Jones do X? Because he thought Y was true." That's when the concept of truth comes in useful, not in the scenarios Davidson describes.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

More Rush Rhees

A few more anecdotes and quotes from Rush Rhees' Wittgenstein and the Possibility of Discourse.

Rhees on Wittgenstein:

...the difficulties of philosophy were difficulties of will, not of intellect;—and what is closely connected with that—that philosophy is difficult not because it deals with abstruse and unfamiliar subjects, but because it deals with things that are so familiar that we hardly notice them. (260)

Rhees applying for a lectureship in 1945:

I have published nothing and I have not written anything that might be published. It is not likely that I ever shall. I have had opportunity enough. (272)

Phillips on Rhees' refusal to accept promotions (after receiving his first permanent position at Swansea):

When J.R. Jones was to come as professor in 1953, Heath [basically the chair of the department] persuaded Rhees to accept a senior lectureship to assist the new man. During his first year as professor, Rhees asked Jones, casually, whether he had settled in well. On being told that he had, Rhees promptly relinquished the senior lectureship before the date of its commencement. (272)

Phillips on editing Rhees' work:

Having edited Without Answers, I found, to my amazement, that Rhees had instructed Routledge to pay all the royalties to me. Naturally, I refused to go along with this arrangement. The publishers were confronted by refusals from an author and an editor
to accept money. I then suggested to Rhees that he might want to establish prizes for students with the royalties. He was delighted with the suggestion, saying it would never have occurred to him. (274)

Finally, I can't help but wonder what it was like being an American who went to school, worked, and taught in Great Britain. I can't think of many others who've made that move.
Rush Rhees

Blackwell has recently published the second edition of Rush Rhees' Wittgenstein and the Possibility of Discourse. Glancing at it today I was struck by the biographical chapters: one, Rhees' on Wittgenstein; the second, D.Z. Phillips' biographical sketch of Rhees himself.

Rhees had a Rochester connection: his father (also Rush Rhees) was President of the
University of Rochester. In his biographical sketch, Phillips describes the young Rush Rhees' decision to leave the University of Rochester after two years to study in Edinburgh. (Rhees had gotten himself banned from a philosophy professor's class for being too argumentative. The spat made the front page of the New York Times.)

The main library at the University of Rochester is named after the elder Rush Rhees. It dominates the campus and is one of the most recognizable features of the Rochester skyline.

It's interesting, finally, to read about Rhees' difficulty finding a permanent position. His situation is not unlike Alfred Tarski, who was also in his early 40s before having a permanent appointment. But while Tarski was the victim of anti-semitism, Rhees seemed to have been overly modest, and perhaps pathologically insecure, about his abilities. Or maybe he was more interested in teaching than in publication. In any case, it wasn't until 1946 (age 41) that he landed at Swansea, and he never took a promotion during the 20 years he subsequently taught there. Strikingly, Rhees seems to have worked in factories and as a welder in between some of his temporary appointments. I'm sure this endeared him to Wittgenstein.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Gutman on Science and Religion

From The Chronicle:

Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, warned today of the perils of extremist rhetoric, a topic on which she is writing a book. In a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, Ms. Gutmann said extremist rhetoric now saturates public discourse and is undermining democracy.

Ms. Gutmann cited the debate over intelligent design as an example of how such rhetoric spawns equally inept counter-rhetoric. She dubbed the view that all human understanding derives from scientific inquiry as “scientism,” which she said “treats religion with contempt just as creationism treats evolution as beyond the pale of reasonable understanding.”

It's that last comment that I disagree with. Now I'm not exactly sure what Gutmann means by "scientism" but if it's anything like what Dewey had in mind (and Dewey would argue that knowledge does derive from scientific inquiry, broadly construed) then she's just wrong.

Her saying this is too "balanced" and minimizes the real differences between intelligent design creationism (IDC) and science. IDC is intellectually bankrupt and dishonest and it isn't contempt to say so. That's not anti-religion, though it is anti-a-certain-kind-of-religiosity.

Gutmann's comment isn't constructive. It conflates defenders of science with hard core creationists. That undermines the merits of the former and the weaknesses of the latter. Furthermore, it sends a message (and for god's sake, she's a university president) that all these positions are the same. And that just isn't true.

Perhaps Gutmann is being misquoted, or there's more to her position than described in the Chronicle article. But as it stands her remarks don't help.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Davidson on Tarski

From Truth and Predication:

"My own view is that Tarski has told us much of what we want to know about the concept of truth, and that there must be more." (27)

"What is missing is the connection with users of language. Nothing would count as a sentence, and the concept of truth would have no application, if there were not creatures who used sentences by uttering or inscribing tokens of them." (36)

That seems right to me. I'm interested in this because it can point in the direction of a pragmatic theory of truth. Pragmatic theories have received a bad rap so it's always nice to see someone make pragmatic sounding noises when it comes to truth.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Davidson on Dewey on Truth

I've started reading Davidson's Truth and Predication. It's a new book but old material: the first several chapters are Davidson's Dewey lectures from 1989.

The book starts out very promising, with a quick discussion of Dewey on truth. Dewey's theory of truth is rarely discussed (perhaps because he avoided the term in his 1938 Logic: The Theory of Inquiry). So it's good to see Davidson discussing Dewey on truth.

Davidson writes:

John Dewey drew two conclusions [re: truth]: that access to truth could not be a special prerogative of philosophy, and that truth must have essential connections with human interests. (7)

The second point is important: it's often overlooked, I think, that the concept of truth must have some use. That's a pragmatic point. But often the usefulness of the concept of truth is so refined that it isn't very useful at all: consider redundancy theories or Quine's notion of "semantic ascent." Sure, truth has a use: but not much of one.

It's to the pragmatists' credit that they always kept the general usefulness of the concept of truth front and center. And that makes a lot of sense: rather than focus on the usefulness of truth in a logical or semantic sense, they asked how our everyday lives would be different without this concept. Of course there's no reason why one can't be interested in both the logical usefulness of truth and its everyday usefulness - the problem is when the former is emphasized at the expense of the the latter. That gets things exactly backwards.

One other quibble with Davidson: while it's great that he quotes Dewey, he could have found better quotes. "Propositions, Warranted Assertibility, and Truth", for example, is an important part of Dewey's work on truth and deserves greater attention.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

This movie is an absolute must see for all the obvious reasons. No need to go into those.

But one thing about the movie does stand out: it's a PowerPoint presentation. Now, normally, I deplore such things. As Edward Tufte has pointed out, PowerPoint (PP) encourages sloppy thinking and lazy presentation. And 99.99% of the time that's true. But not here. For once, here's an example of a PP presentation that works.

Part of the reason Gore's pressentaion works, of course, is that we don't just see the PP presentation. This is a movie, after all. And Gore has given this presentation 1,000+ times - so he's a pro. But I realized watching this movie that the slides really did help make the case. How's that?

One reason is that Gore (and the filmmakers) undermine several of PP's purported "strengths." They avoid bullet lists and there's little fluff (or what fluff there is, like some of the animation, is actually pretty effective). Gore uses PP to show pictures and data - line charts, in particular. And PP is an effective means of doing this. (It is noticeable that Gore never refers to this as a "PowerPoint" presentation - always instead as a "slide show." In fact, I'm not sure if he was actually using PP for his presentation.)

The lesson is this: PP can be an effective tool for conveying certain kinds of information when the presenter is already super well-prepared. PP complements Gore's presentation because he barely needs it. But all too often people rely on PP as a crutch because they themselves are unprepared. We should be telling people to only use PP when they already have a command of their presentation. Otherwise PP takes control of the presenter, rather than the other way around.
Feferman Biography of Tarski

Just finished the Fefermans' biography of Tarski. A good read with some surprising information and gossip - but also frustrating.

The surprises: Tarski, it would seem, was high on speed and stimulants most of his adult life. He was also - and here the Fefermans are not as blunt as they could be - a sexual predator. That's not what the Fefermans call him, but it seems to be an accurate description: women seemed more surprised when he didn't proposition them than when he did. I'm not sure there's a single female in the biography that he didn't try to lure into bed.

But that's also one of the frustrating parts. The Fefermans largely, though not entirely, excuse his behavior. They suggest that it was due to his being a European intellectual. They also suggest that his wife (largely) excused his philandering because he was such a genius. But that's bunk. If she did, she deserves pity. And, in any case, there's something wrong about suggesting a connection between his great intellect and his great libido: as if limiting the latter would limit the former.

Combined with the fact that he worked his graduate students like slaves, it's no surprise that Tarski had few female graduate students, especially in the last decades of his career.

I don't think the Fefermans do justice to Tarski's sexual harassment (and I don't think they even use the word) - but that is certainly what it is. And that's odd, to say the least.

In other respects this must have been a very difficult biography to write. The main problem is how to make very abstract, complicated work accessible to the well educated reader. The Fefermans' solution is to intersperse several "interludes" that deal with the logical material, and then focus on names and places in the longer and more numerous biographical chapters. At first I thought this worked quite well. I could move quickly through the biographical material and then go more slowly through the short, discrete chapters on logic. By the end of the book, though, I wasn't so convinced. One problem is that the logical interludes are an order of magnitude more difficult than the biographical chapters - and as a result don't do quite as good a job of explaining Tarski's significance as a logician. We're left to trust that Tarski was a really, really important guy, but we don't have as clear a picture of how he fit into the intellectual/academic community. We hear a little about his work, but this is mostly in the context of where he was traveling, who he was advising, and who he was trying to seduce.

This book made me appreciate Rebecca Goldstein's recent biography of Godel even more. There are places where Goldstein could be accused of dumbing Godel down, or even of engaging in unwarranted psychological speculation, but she does a tremendouse job of weaving together Godel's life and his logic. That's missing from the Tarski book, so it is difficult to see why he attacked the problems he did, and why his work was so significant. The Feferman's biography is good, but not great.