I want the Goods

At the very beginning of Book II of Plato's Republic, Glaucon, one of Socrates interlocutors, lists three different types of goods: 1. Some things are good purely for their own sake, and not because of anything in particular that comes from them. Joy and 'harmless pleasures' are the two examples Glaucon cites.

2. Other things are good both for their own sake and for the sake of things that come from it. Knowing, seeing, and being healthy are Glaucon's examples here.

3. The third kind of good are things that aren't particularly good in and of themselves, but are nonetheless desirable because of good results that they produce. Examples include exercising, medical treatment, medicine itself, and making money. (357b-c)

This three part typology (which Socrates responds to quite agreeably, if you were wondering) is fascinating to me, because I think our culture has no comparably nuanced language for the good. For us, what is good is just what is desirable. We participate in other activities, we call them "necessary evils", but we do so because they give us things that we do desire. But at bottom we're always only driven by desire. And my hunch is that our desires are more arbitrary and disorganized than we think they are. They have to be in order for capitalism to work.

Plato surely had his own problems (and ends up taking the Republic in a surprisingly totalitarian-esque direction), but nonetheless I think Glaucon's three different kinds of good are helpful, if for nothing else than to help develop for us the vocabulary of the good beyond the language of "I want..." or "I feel like..." For these exercise their own more clandestine form of totalitarianism, deeply and violently sinister, but in ways that kill quietly, with a smile and a helping of the finest delicacy.

Kenny's Wittgenstein

Anthony Kenny's book Wittgenstein is, as one might easily guess from the title, a book about the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Kenny approaches his subject developmentally, attempting on the one hand to faithfully present Wittgenstein's thought at various different stages from beginning to end, and on the other hand making a case that there is much more continuity than many of Wittgenstein's readers suppose. Kenny's book moves from a brief philosophical-biographical overview of Wittgenstein's life and work to a discussion of Wittgenstein's main jumping off point - the systematic logical works of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell - and then from there jumps straight into Wittgenstein's early notebooks. Kenny explains lucidly how Wittgenstein moved from the tutelage of Frege and Russell to the material of the Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, and from there how Wittgenstein began to see that work's metaphysics of 'logical atomism' (Russell's term) begin to unravel leading eventually to the work of his later years.

And in narrating this development, Kenny presents a convincing case that the later Wittgenstein is not as drastic a departure from the Tractatus as is often claimed. The work's final chapter, "The Continuity of Wittgenstein's Philosophy", sums up this argument and brings the book's exposition of the essential contributions of this great 20th century philosopher beautifully to a close.

According to Kenny, the alleged drammatic differences between the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations are typically articulated along three lines:

(1) In the Tractatus Wittgenstein put forward a metaphysical atomism: the ultimate elements of language are names that designate simple objects; elementary propositions are concatenations of these names, each such proposition being independent of every other such proposition. In the Investigations it is argued that the words 'simple' and 'complex' have no absolute meaning, and the search for the ultimate independent elementary propositions is regarded as a delusion. (2) In the Tractatus Wittgenstein is interested in the formal structures of symbolic logic as a key to the ideal essence of the proposition and of language; in the Investigations he has abandoned the idea that language has an essence and devotes himself to the study of the idioms of ordinary language. (3) Whereas the Tractatus held that sentences had meaning or sense because they were pictures, the Investigations says that the meaning of a sentence is its use or employment or application; the conception that a significant sentence is a picture is replaced in the later thought by the view that the sense of a sentence is determined by the circumstances in which it is uttered and the language-game to which it belongs. (pp. 173-4)

The first point Kenny rightly concedes. The basic thrust of Wittgenstein's later work is based on a critique of this aspect of his early work, as he began to see that the atomism of that work - e.g. the indepencdence of elementary propositions - was untenable.

The second point, according to Kenny, is both right and wrong. The truth of point (1) certainly requires a reworking of the way Wittgenstein understands what is required in the analysis of ordinary language, but the Tractatus is already concerned with ordinary language - it only misfires because of the assumptions of logical atomism. And so point (2) overstates the point.

The third point, however, Kenny thinks is almost entirely misguided. Wittgenstein doesn't so much move from the picture theory of the proposition to the notion language-games. Rather, the latter extends the former and fills it out. Kenny's account of Wittgenstein's development goes to great pains to ensure we see that even after the rejection of atomism he still returns to the notion of a picture. While pictures don't get a lot of mention in the Investigations itself, they do show up in basically all of the intervening works from the 1930's, and it continues to be a powerful concept for Wittgenstein's understanding of language even after his full 'maturation.' As such it is unfair to say that there are two Wittgensteins as it has been common to argue.

After responding to these three points in kind, Kenny lists again 8 theses that he had used earlier to explain the picture theory and how it was modified (though not abandoned!) by the later Wittgenstein. From there he posts a long quote from the Introduction to the 1913 (pre- Tractatus) "Notes on Logic", and then lists 6 ways that the later Wittgenstein largely maintained the same philosophical vision: 1) Philosophy is purely descriptive. 2) Philosophy is not a natural science. 3) Philosophy and pictures. 4) Philosophy consists of logic and metaphysics. 5) Philosophy is the doctrine of logical form. 6) Logical propositions are unique.

Overall, Kenny's book was an enjoyable read, and one that was accessible even to a novice like myself. And importantly his exposition succeeded in making me eager (and, I hope, more able) to dive into my next self-appointed philosophical task: to tackle the Philosophical Investigations itself.

Disclosure: I did not receive a free review copy of this book, probably because Wiley-Blackwell Publishing has no idea who I am. I think my sister bought it for me for Christmas last year. Which was very nice of her, because Blackwell books are really expensive (list price for this 183 page paperback book is $38.95).

Make good use of it / everyday life

Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote to a recent recipient of a doctorate of philosophy: "May you make good use of it! By that I mean: may you not cheat either yourself or your students. Because, unless I'm very much mistaken, that's what will be expected from you." Seems to me that with only slight changes in terminology this exhortation would apply quite nicely to a recent recipient of a masters in divinity. He also wrote, in a letter to a friend, "What is the use of studying philosophy, if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc. and if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life?" Once again this could easily apply, mutatis mutandis, to the study of theology in many quarters. On this point I always appreciated my New Testament professor, Jo-Ann Badley, as she tried to push us to ask the question, "How does it preach?"

Both quotes are from Anthony Kenny's Wittgenstein, pp. 10.

Dissing Derrida

I thoroughly enjoy Anthony Kenny's complete disrespect for Jacques Derrida, and his lack of any attempt to hide it in his Philosophy in the Modern World (2008), the 4th and final volume of his A New History of Western Philosophy. Kenny had my inner nerd in outward stitches several times during his treatment of Derrida in the chronological portion of the book (pp. 90-96). Kenny introduces Derrida at the end of his discussion of the Continental tradition, tracing the conversation from Husserl to Heidegger to Sartre, before finally ending at Derrida. He contrasts Derrida to Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin, Derrida's obvious early influence, and the very different ways the two approach the same topic, the philosophy of language.

Austin's speech act theory introduced numerous technical terms in order to make helpful distinctions in aid of our understanding of the way we "do things with words." His terms are illuminated by helpful examples to further clarify Austin's claims. While Derrida is also famous for introducing technical terms, Kenny complains that he seems reticent to offer lucid definitions, "and often seems to reject the very request for a definition as somehow improper" (91).

Austin isn't terribly interested in the distinction between spoken and written language. Derrida, on the other hand, complains incessantly about 'phonocentrism', a coined term for Western culture's alleged over-obsession with the spoken word over and against the written one. Kenny counter-complains: "Given the emphasis placed by both law and business on getting things in writing, and the enormous efforts modern societies have put into making their citizens literate, Derrida's charge of phonocentrism has to be based on a number of eccentric texts starting with an ironic passage in Plato's Phaedrus" (92).

Austin and Derrida were both interested in the nature of promises as linguistic acts, but while Austin is interested in exploring the different kinds of ways a promise can be broken, Derrida is most obsessed with the fact that one might die before fulfilling a promise. Kenny: "But, pace Derrida, since we are all, always, mortal, the possibility of death tells us nothing about performatives in particular." Indeed, many things other than promises can be interrupted by death, and for that matter promises can actually consider death, as in the standard wedding's "till death do us part", a kind of promise that is in fact not broken due to death at all.

Kenny proceeds from contrasting Derrida and Austin to discuss some of Derrida's later development. Where philosophers have always been concerned to draw distinctions between concepts in order to avoid confusion, Derrida shows a knack for inventing terms that create confusion between ideas that are perfectly distinct. The most famous of these is differance, a term combining the ideas of deference (as in putting off till later) and difference (as in being different or distinct). After considering some of Derrida's attempts to combine the two ideas, Kenny concludes: "The various paraphrases we find of 'deferrence' in his texts are perhaps themselves an instance of deferrence: IOUs that are quite distinct from a definition and which put off to an indefinite future an actual conferment of sense" (94).

Next Kenny makes the claim that the later Derrida essentially stopped doing philosophy, reverting instead to a kind of slippery rhetoric, especially utilizing the shock-topics of sex and death. The two examples of Derrida's unnecessary and ill advised references to sexuality are particularly hilarious, including a comparison of talking to oneself to masturbation, and a near chuckling-school-boy interpretation of Revelation 22:17 ("The Spirit and the bride say, 'Come!' And let those who hear say, 'Come!' Let those who are thirsty come; and let all who wish take the free gift of the water of life." TNIV) in terms of sexual climax, a sense found both in Derrida's French as well as the English word "come". But Kenny: "If one were churlish enough to point out that the Greek word translated 'come' cannot possibly have the sense of 'achieve orgasm', one would no doubt be told that one had missed the whole thrust of the exercise" (95).

Kenny concludes by answering the potential objection of his including Derrida in this account of the history of philosophy at all. Indeed, Derrida not only implicitly spurns the traditional tasks of philosophy in favor of the clever turn of phrase, rejecting that his work might have actual theses with which one might critically interact, but he also at times explicitly even denies wanting to be thought of as a philosopher at all. So what is he doing in this book? Kenny:

Is it not unfair, then, to include Derrida, whether for blame or praise in a history such as this? I think not. Whatever he himself may say, he has been taken by many people to be a serious philosopher, and he should be evaluated as such. But it is unsurprising that his fame has been less in philosophy departments than in departments of literature, whose members have had less practice in discerning genuine from counterfeit philosophy. (96)

For my own part, I've never quite understood people's interest in Derrida. His writing too often seems like it's trying hard to be opaque so that it doesn't have to say much that's actually substantive, a suspicion that I feel was confirmed by Kenny, who unlike me is actually a philosopher - and a particularly well respected one at that. It was for sections like this one that I decided to read Kenny's 4 volume history as opposed to someone else's history - as admittedly little as I know about philosophy, I've become convinced that an honest and humble pursuit of truth in the 21st century will be more fruitful if it takes as its conversation partners 20th century minds like Wittgenstein and Austin, rather than figures like Derrida and Deleuze. And in particular, for theology the analytic tradition seems to have more helpful tools for a renewed and positive interest in the faithful proclamation of the Word of God in and for the church than does either the 'postmodern' Continental tradition of Derrida and his ilk, or a clinging to other, older post Enlightenment traditions of inquiry.

Because in the end, it's Word that matters, and for all the letters on all the pages, Derrida the counterfeit philosopher seems to have failed to 'do' much that is interesting with words.