Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Myth of Secular Humanism, Revisited

At a educational training conference recently, my thoughts were driven back to a topic that has been discussed before on this blog and in several of our meetings, the idea that there is a consensus out there that by sticking to reason, science, and what we can know (practical knowledge) and by throwing off the shackles of superstition, religion, 'the God of the gaps' (or at any rate by relegating such eccentric intellectual hobbies to the private interior of oneself), we gain an objective perspective of reality - the way things really are.

The speaker at the conference was giving a brief commentary on diversity, and he suggested that there are two 'A's - Awareness and Acceptance - which are involved in a healthy, diverse community. When different groups become aware of differences, and then accept the Other notwithstanding those differences, this diversity is achieved, and the community avoids that unnecessary and grim tragedy of violence, hatred, and prejudice. He finished up by noting how the very conference room of us was full of Irish, Italian, Polish, African American, and Latin people... and who cares what anybody is? It's not as important as what we have in common. All this to the nodding of many heads in the room.

Now it goes without saying that all human beings have equal dignity (at least when we've accepted certain dogmas!), but my concern here is not with diversity. Rather, I think it very important and fascinating to note that the speaker's statement was accepted as a description of objective perspective, stripped clean of prejudice and bias, when in fact he had put forth a very strong position built on very particular beliefs.

He demanded to know why people could not put their personal prejudices aside and just accept everyone regardless of race, age, ethnicity, religion, etc. But this of course would mean accepting (either by internalizing or externally conforming to) his view of what is simply right and wrong. What he was really demanding is why everyone shouldn't act and think the way he does. I think this would be made most manifest if we took him to a culture whose beliefs radically differed from his own, say, the antebellum South, to a group of slave-owners. I suspect he wouldn't dream of simply respecting their culture as different, becoming aware of their different beliefs and accepting them.

Which brings us once again to the question of discerning the real, objective moral standard by which different beliefs and attitudes can be judged. More on that another time. For now let it merely be said that what is needed is not no judgment, but right judgment.


  1. On the subject of judgment, I think it should be noted that there is another option, or at least the inkling of one besides objective and none.

    Why do I lose my ability to make judgments if I reject underlying objective standards? I lose only the ability to make objective judgments. Just as nihilism is only troubling in a world with meaning, subjectivism is only troubling in a world with objective standards. Of course I can still say the Nazi's are evil, or that slavery is wrong, in fact I just did. You respond with a clamoring for justification, but you only accept as satisfying, justification based on your presupposition of an objective standard.

    What is historically done at this point is that in an act of deep inconsistency I attempt to follow you down that road. However, I am not going to. Instead I recognize whats actually going on here. You talk of justification is nonsense, like demanding that my shirt bleed pensively.

    I really need too clean this up, but I currently lack the mental where with all to do so. So let's just talk about it?

  2. Also, care to read I got a post of cultural diversity I would love to hear your comments on.

  3. Anake, I think what Basil is getting at (and I agree) is not that non-believers in objective truth – subjectivists – can’t make any statements about morality and reality; what he’s saying is that they can’t make these statements as objective statements. That sounds redundant, but what he is pointing out is that too often subjectivists present their realities as if they are objective, and therefore should and must be accepted by everyone.

    So, if someone says, “I disagree with Hitler, but not because I’m appealing to an objective sense or morality,” I’m fine with this. But this person must also be fine with the obvious fact that, according to their mode of ethics, Hitler and others are just as “true” when they thought and think that Nazis are morally justified. Now, some people are willing to do this – they are willing to accept that their subjectivity is just that.

    What Basil (and I) have a problem with is when other people can’t accept that their subjective moralities are just that: subjective. What they’re doing is tossing aside all objectivity and praising subjectivity, but then presenting their subjectivity as objectivity.

    I agree that subjectivity is only problematic in a world of objectivity. But what we see is that most people still in fact believe in an objective ethical system. That’s why their arguments are flawed – not on account of believing in subjectivity, but on account of not accepting all of what subjectivity means. (This possibly points to a deep-seated human need for objectivity, especially in the realm of ethics.)

    Example: You can’t both a) tell us all is subjective, and then b) tell us that accepting people of all divergent cultures is a good for everyone. The addition of “for everyone” is an entrance into the world of objectivity. So the problem here isn’t subjectivity – it’s the need for many subjectivists to ground their own beliefs in objectivity.

  4. @Ananke: “What is historically done at this point is that in an act of deep inconsistency I attempt to follow you down that road.” The point that Basil has put forth is that most subjectivists go down this road of their own volition. They try to pass off their “subjective” claims as objective. If subjectivists stop at subjectivity, and treat all of their claims as simple judgments, that’s fine; it’s when they start trumpeting their judgments as objective claims – without, of course, using that phrase.

    For example, my brother disbelieves in all and any objective moral systems. He says he doesn't want anyone to mess with or hurt his kids, but only because he doesn't want them to, not because there’s something inherently wrong with hurting kids. Therefore, he would try to stop someone from doing this because he doesn't want it done. This sounds close to what you, Ananke, want to claim as a third approach to ethics.

    I accept this sort of odd reasoning. I see nothing, from a logical/reasonable perspective, lacking in it. But here’s the catch. My brother cannot, after claiming what he has, stand on a soap box and preach about cultural diversity as if it’s some grail that all of humanity should strive after. My brother, as a real believer in what he says, would never do that. But other subjectivists do.

    This was Basil’s initial problem. It wasn't the initial argument by the presenter concerning the lack of objective standards (although that’s another debate altogether); the problem comes about when the presenter presented his/her ideas as objective, and therefore should be accepted by everyone.

    Subjectivity isn’t flawed – it’s those who claim it, but then support their own veiled form of objectivity.

    By the way, what does “Hitler is bad” mean without a belief in a objective system of morality? It can mean just that: one individual expressing his personal judgment about something, like “I like vanilla ice cream.” But just as “I like vanilla ice cream” has no real foundations for any discussion whatsoever, so too does the statement “Hitler is bad,” if it’s attached to no system. It’s like saying, “There’s no objectivity in mathematics, but I’m going to say ‘C + 7 = &.’” What does this mean, then? Nothing, really.

  5. @ Ananke, I think I would just clarify: you wrote, "Of course I can still say the Nazi's are evil... You respond with a clamoring for justification."

    I do not, in fact, respond that way to a subjectivist. I respond by saying that you have already appealed to an objective standard by using moral language ("evil"); if you truly mean "evil" then you are not a subjectivist, and if you are truly a subjectivist then you do not mean by "evil" what we ordinarily use the word to mean.

    However, your point about judging acceptable presuppositions, acceptable dogmas, is indeed a tough cookie...

    @ Jonas, very interesting anecdote about your brother... I agree that the position is not apparently invalid, but it seems intellectually groundless and therefore to me unsustainable. (But of course that has much to do with our differing experiences and personalities). This reminds me of a FT article not too long ago [McCullough, Ross, ‘The Beauty of the Ethical,’ First Things (April 2011), 17-19.], which discussed how our secular bro's and sis's may accept logical positions which could lead to some awful dystopia, but in fact they share many of our basic ethical policies. He went on to say (basically) that there's more to life than being ethical, and this is something I've been hitting on (!) lately as well. Ethics can be reduced to a calculus ('the law' of Paul's letters), but holiness centers around a relationship with God. But more on this in the future. I agree on your points here.

  6. oof I'm gonna escape the character of my first post mostly because I lack the conviction and intelligence to maintain it. However, I tend to think it's probably the best way to have such a discussion (slooooooowly working on a dialogue to that extent).

    I would start @Jonas, who I agree with to the extent that most subjectivists don't understand their own position and therefore defeat themselves, so to speak.

    On the question of objective statements. I admitted that they can't be made, but I am going to qualify that. They can't be made using objective standards of judgment (SOJ). Again, just because I don't admit to an objective SOJ doesn't mean I am committed to removing any trace of a statement that applies to more then just me. Why do we not have a problem (or at least less of one) with me saying “I believe Hitler was wrong”, but not “I believe you should believe Hitler was wrong?” Again the objectivist would respond that I would need someway of justifying that across “domains” to say the latter. But again, that's not strictly true, it doesn't offend logic, it only offends the objectivist's sense of satisfaction. He wants to say that the only satisfying narrative for people claiming “Hitler was wrong” is to say that he is appealing to an underlying truth. The alternative is that, statements such as those aren't actually appeals to the objective, just as no one supposes “Cheese is good” is an appeal to the objective.
    You are right tho, that if pushed, I hold that those two claims are somehow different, I am being inconsistent. That doesn't mean that I can't feel more strongly about one, or more convicted of the importance (evolutionarily, procedural, culturally, etc) of one over the other.

    @Basil I don't agree that moral claims spoken from the subjective viewpoint aren't being used according to the vernacular. What is problematic about my English? You claim that I have already appealed to an objective standard, but why? Your assumption that evil must connote an objective standard doesn't follow from my use, unless you have yourself already presupposed that objective component to language. The notion that in order to utter a meaningful phrase I need to carry with it a large definition in my pocket doesn't seem to correspond to how we actual use language. Side point: given the sheer difficulty philosophy of language has with delineating a system of meaning in language analytically (and the mostly fruitless results thereof), I myself tend to think the problem is that we are looking at it wrong.

    The interesting point here is how deep our conviction of objective vs subjective SOJ extend. I'll admit that in order to be consistent with a moral subjectivism I at least need to be the same for language. Language is convention, there are no underlying world of ideas that it corresponds to. As such my sentence doesn't appeal to anything other than language in use.

    The “strategy” here is to illustrate the viability of the position, not make it appealing. In one sense I would think that the argument only really makes sense to make if the subjectivist is ALSO presupposing his beliefs. That doesn't pose a logical problem as I am not trying to disprove the existence of objective SOJ, just illustrating that I don't fall into any logical holes. I also admit that at it's heart what I am reducing philosophical dialectic to is persuasion of one to another. I realize how upsetting that idea can be but that doesn't make it wrong.

    I have channeled a large amount of poorly represented Wittgenstein, as applied to moral philosophy. I am sorry for the lack of rigor in the above, I am only operating on a possible intuition of thought, and not a fully formed theory, so please forgive my laziness.

    also awesome to do this again! and where's Skrignov shouldn't he have my back :P

  7. @Ananke: Language takes its root in culture and the cultural meaning assigned to it. The present English word “evil” takes its root in a belief in an objective system of ethics. Therefore, I think it perfectly sound for Basil to make the point that most people are appealing to an objective standard when they claim, “Hitler is evil.” What does “evil” mean if not something objective? Does it mean that we don’t like Hitler because he consciously caused a lot of needless pain to a lot of people? Well, then we’re saying that consciously causing a lot of needless to a lot of people is evil and wrong for all people.

    Now, languages evolve, and meanings shift. I accept that we can have a statement “Hitler is evil” without a foundation in an objective belief of morality; however, this needs to be tempered by two other points: 1) Most people imply an objective standard, even if they claim they’re subjectivists. (Like I said before.) 2) Of course, we don’t need to mean “Hitler is evil” in an objective sense, but then, what do we mean?

    Analogy: I can say “2 + 6 = 9087” and claim I’m stating it in a world without mathematical absolutes; but what does this mean? Not too much. That's because a discussion of mathematics is pretty meaningless without an assumption that there’s something objective about mathematics.

    I think this is Basil’s point about ethics. The very discussion of ethics implies something objective. Even people who reject moral absolutes regarding specific human actions usually appeal to something else objective, i.e. pleasure is good; pain is bad. This isn’t because objectivists bring this to the table, and therefore they’re only pleased when things are discussed objectively. It’s because words like “good,” “bad,” “evil,” “wrong,” and “right” have little meaning outside objectivity. Like I keep saying, you CAN make the claim subjectively, but they holds little to no meaning

    For example, if you say, “Hitler is evil” without appealing to some sort of objective statement, what in fact are you saying? That you feel like he’s bad? That you reaction negatively to him? That he’s “negative” to you? That you feel he’s evil, and want other people to think this too? OK, but what do any of these statements mean?

  8. PS Let's see if Skrignov can show up at some point...

  9. I think what I'm getting at is that we can use words without having to appeal to anything else besides how the words are used. We could try this. Evil means what we use it to mean. there is no need for a prescriptive definition of it only a descriptive one. I say Hitler is evil, people understand what I mean because they know how the word is used, not because it coincides with a metaphysical notion of Evil. that learning a definition from context; that act doesn't grant new metaphysical access to the meaning of the word, just an understanding of how to use it. The broader the context the word is seen in, the better my understanding of the meaning of the word, just because I have a larger understanding of its use.

    It seems odd to me that the basic utterances about evil ACTUALLY carry the large amount of conceptual baggage we philosophers like to read into it. for instance I can express a sentence that is perfectly meaningful but offends the law of non-contradiction, "baseball? I love it and I hate it". I've just expressed a logical impossibility and yet it's still meaningful. You can construct some of the sentence that dissolves that contradiction, "I love this part but hate this part," but it's a different sentence and not what I said. To say that that sentence was actually implicit in my original is rife with its own problems.

    the assumption of implicit objectiveness is a result of philosophers attempting to quantify and define, not something implicit in the actual use and understanding of the sentence.

    so when you ask what do "evil, good, bad, wrong" mean without objective underpinnings, I say the same thing they have always meant, because their meaning was never based on objective standard. their meaning is derived from their use. Only an analysis of the actual use of a word within the culture would adequately give you a description of it's meaning. Luckily we all already know how we use the word, for the most part.

    I am aware of the consequences here, I am denying the existence of ANY underlying essences. No definitions in the platonic sense. but hey, why not go for broke :P

    by the way Wittgenstein did think that mathematics could hold the same level of "Truth" without any need for some objective truth about math. 2+2=5 is not problematic theoretically, but it is wrong insofar as it offends convention (overly simplified). Also, as I read him that is not to say we can suddenly decide that 2+2=5 but I am VERY unfamiliar with his theory of math and therefor cannot adequately defend his position.

  10. by the way, I pretty much argue the exact opposite of this over at my blog, talking about cross cultural sharing of concepts

  11. @Ananke: I think I understand what you’re trying to say and do. We bring linguistic assumptions (and metaphysical properties) to our discussion of language that we don’t necessarily need, and which we don’t necessarily mean in the vernacular. For example, if you say, “This ice cream tastes real good!” I don’t need to say, “Hmmm. ‘Good’ lies on a continuum of ‘best-worst,’ and therefore your statement about the ice cream being ‘good’ implies that you believe in an objective standard of taste – and therefore, any discussion of the goodness/badness of the taste of ice cream only makes sense within an objective framework of taste.” This is bogus. You can meaningfully say, “This ice cream tastes good!” and simply mean what you mean by your saying of it.

    However, my issue is that ethics is in different category than taste. For example, what does the statement “Hitler is evil” mean without a standard of judgment? You have eluded answering this so far. You say, “It means what we always meant it to mean,” or something like this – but what does it mean? What are you expressing?

    Your point, via Wittgenstein, concerning the metaphysical nature we apply to language, doesn't exactly hold water here. I’m not saying that the word “evil” is imbued with metaphysical qualities. I’m simply saying that the word is a category within a metaphysical system, and that's how we use it. Whether or not that metaphysical system is real bears no effect on this fact.

    Analogy: Let’s imagine that you are a materialist and have no concern for anything even hinting of spiritual. What I see you (and others) trying to do when you talk of “evil” without appealing to any objective standard is analogous to a materialist wanting to talk of the “soul,” but still denying everything but matter. What does the phrase, “I am body and soul” mean to a materialist? The only way it makes sense is if we tweak, or completely change, the original meaning of the word “soul.” The materialist must drop his use of the “soul” (in the original meaning of the word) if he wants to be authentic.

    Just so, the subjectivist must drop his use of “evil” (and other such things) if he wants to be authentic. His statement “Hitler is evil” has about as much meaning as “I am a body and soul” to a materialist.

  12. @Jonas I think your explanation of what I'm getting at isn't strong enough. I deny that my use of the word evil has anything to do with metaphysical anything.

    In what way does it make sense to say that, "Jesus is good" is different in some intrinsic metaphysical sense from "Ice cream is good." Does the use of it in an ethical sense suddenly attach some special metaphysical quality to it? Perhaps it references or is derived from an object? Shouldn't the name “Jesus” lose its meaning now that the person (object) it is referred to is gone? Does meaning automagically, fundamentally change at the mere pronouncement of a word in an “ethical” sense? Clearly there is a multiplicity of meanings of the word good.
    “Jesus is good”
    “Jesus does good”
    “He fell down, but now Jesus is good”
    “You see him play that fiddle? Jesus is good!”
    “Mr Good? Yeah, Jesus is Good”
    Is the idea that each different use of the word has some different object (metaphysical or not) it is associated with? It doesn’t seem to make sense to me, to talk about the meaning of good, evil, bad, wrong, outside of our use of the words in common language, nor as one meaning being somehow ontologically distinct in some way. Do the two ethical connotations have something special? Was my utterance of them in anyway intrinsically different from the other ones?

    I guess I don’t understand why the meaning of the word has to have anything to do with a “metaphysical system”. It seems unnecessary, so many of our words don’t (and ‘parts’ of certain words [Good] seem to live in both?). “Evil” only seems to live in a “metaphysical system” (as you say) in the specific technical language of philosophy (which is not to say that its meaning is derived from the existence of an actual metaphysical system). It seems like the metaphysical system (in language) only exists when we do philosophy about it, not when we speak normally about good and bad.

    To temper the tone a bit let it be said that is is more of an exploratory account on my end and not an assertion of possible dogma. Wittgenstein would say that philosophy in general leads us to formulate nonsense. i.e. the illusion of “metaphysical” talk is a temptation of language that leads us to try and escape the language itself. To search for something hidden, when everything is already in plain view and just needs reordering. It is an error in 'grammar', or rather a misleading endeavorer. My simplistic take is that second order talk (metaphysical theory) is akin to taking literally, “kick the bucket”, or a movement from “in the box” to “in the mind” and thinking of the “mind” as something that can stuff can be put in, in the same sense as the box. It's a grammatical error to start explaining meaning in words as it is a result of a correspondence, or “naming”, or is derived from, an object or thing. When all we can sensibly speak about is the practice of using the words, and demonstrations thereof.

    To your original question, the meaning of the word “Evil”, or any other, is its use. If you want a formal definition, in the sense of telling you what common underlying essence ethics, or toys, or statues have I can’t give one, because there doesn’t seem to be one to be found (for anything). My justification is in correct use. In my ability to demonstrate an accordance to the rules of language that allow me “to go on” in the expected way. Use doesn’t need to appeal to anything other the general grammar/rules of our language use for a standard of correct or incorrect. Then I am done, that is the most of which we can speak intelligibly about. I have reached the end of possible epistemic justification. There may be objective things, or objects in and of themselves, but language doesn't give us access to them in the sense you want.

    sorry I am reading a lot of Wittgenstein and need opportunities like this to try and crystallize his points in my own mind!

  13. more on ethical langauge connotations and the justification of their continued use, despite a lack of belief in the particular concepts they seem to be based in, after the break.

    I need to a chance to try and be coherent before addressing your materialist example full on. in the meantime I leave the above for your perusal.

  14. The more you write, Ananke, and the more I remember back to my class on Wittgenstein, the more I understand you. But I don’t claim to grasp all you say. Either way, I think you are either a) misapplying a concept of Wittgenstein’s to a situation that it doesn't work, or b) correctly applying it – but then I’d disagree with Wittgenstein.

    (By the way, it’s fun to revisit Wittgenstein. Thanks for forcing me to.)

    I feel as if you’re misapplying Wittgenstein. I think the word “evil,” in the very vernacular and basic use of the word is a reference to an objective standard, whether or not this standard exists. It’s language involved in an objective standard, like ‘10’ is involved in a system of numbers. That’s why Nietzsche threw out the “good/evil” wording, and replaced it with “good/bad.” It’s why he threw out the term “virtue,” and replaced it with “value.” These new terms aren’t an entrance into a discussion of objectivity.

    The clearest thing I can say in return is to succinctly repeat the materialist analogy. What does the word “soul” mean to the materialist?

  15. I think "..the word 'evil,' in the very vernacular and basic use of the word is a reference to an objective standard" is something Wittgenstein would disagree with. Actually I'm positive, I feel certain I am at least not misrepresenting that. Whether I can offer a defense of that from Wittgenstein's perspective is a completely different bear.

    at the very least the word doesn't "reference" anything non linguistic. I think the closest W comes to connecting a word to a thing, is in naming, but with the caveat that the bearer of the name need be present. If anything the reference amounts to little more then pointing and saying "this!".

    As I follow it to move from that to reference to something like an objective thing somewhere metaphysical amounts to a misuse of language via misunderstanding of the grammar. Like confusing "in a box" and "in the mind" (or "kick the bucket").

    On the materialist enigma you posed. The only question I am stuck on, as it were, is whether something like "evil" amounts to a similar misuse of language, and as such should be clarified (as you suggest). On the other hand I may be able to continue to speak the same ol' way since I need not justify my speech, against any standard other than correct use, which I don't think I offend.

    I am inclined to think the correct reading is the latter. W doesn't seemed to be bothered by such "inconsistencies", like the logical contradiction sentence earlier, or elastic rulers. such inconsistencies, either:

    --Don't exist or rather exist in a different sense. What gives rise to their appearance is diseased philosophy. i.e. we get along fine talking about good and evil, normally. it's only when we do ethics that problems arise. I am swayed by this; we do use "good" and "evil" all the time without problem, along many different situations. It's only at special points of disagreement do we start doing metaphysics, which under W, amounts to trying to find what is hidden when, what is really going on is, we are disagreeing on use of the word. We confuse “lost in translation” for “real metaphysical dilemma”.

    --Do exist but don't offend truth in anyway. We operate with such inconsistencies all the time with little problem. Perhaps there is a true concern but how can we know? That feeling of “logical inconsistency” is actually just “grammatical inconsistency” of a non intentionally built language. Many of the meanings of our words were established by wrong thinking people years ago, so do I give up their use? Perhaps in the technical sense? Generally though language is now built is such away that we would be rendered unintelligible were we to suddenly drop the usages. Perhaps we only feel bothered because we still expect metaphysical talk to be coherent. We are only bothered by the inconsistencies because we mistakenly feel like we have different kind of justification than what is available to us?

    There is a powerful intuition I find in Wittgenstein's approach to philosophy, as much as I loath the consequences. Thousands of years of work and not a single settled matter. Our search for the most exact, most pure, true essence of so many problems has turned up with a lot of arguing. Rationality seems so poised to to logically settle things and yet it doesn't seem to actually work, at least not in the way we all want: unequivocal Truth. Wittgenstein more or less bowls philosophy (rightly practiced) to basic persuasion, on the acceptance that little counts as real “reasons” across the wide ranging world views—the implicit assumptions and biases inherent in the work. I react darkly to such a conclusion, that this type of inquiry is little more than getting you to believe me. Yet looking at actual experiences of doing philosophy I can't help but wonder if we aren't already in that boat.

  16. Part 1
    Oh my goodness, am I confused! I have never studied Mr. W, so I am no doubt ignoring or misunderstanding his ideas, as I receive them through this conversation. But I cannot resist from joining in! I merely apologize if my objections were answered in the first paragraph of his first essay.

    I am having serious difficulty knowing where to begin, at what I think are your claims about language, or what I think are your claims about metaphysics [in language]...

    To begin with, scanning your posts, Ananke, I'm picking up the general sense that language has no reference that transcends itself, only references to other words. Thus I read your, "Language is convention, there are no underlying world of ideas that it corresponds to" and other similar lines.
    ** I may be wrong here, and you may be distinguishing between ordinary usage naming type words and "second order talk (metaphysical theory)" in which case I would strongly question the distinction, but more on that below **

    You write therefore that "The notion that in order to utter a meaningful phrase I need to carry with it a large definition in my pocket doesn't seem to correspond to how we actually use language."

    Here I disagree: it seems that "meaningful" words - language - absolutely requires a definition, and requires that it be understood by both speaker and listener. I don't think there's any serious problem with one sound utterance (or written symbol) having more than one meaning. Indeed, your examples of the possible meanings of "good" seem to emphasize all the more the reference to some reality beyond the words. When the context clarifies which definition the speaker is using, the listener then perceives the meaning.

    It would seem that 'common language,' 'how we use the word,' etc. absolutely refers to transcendant meanings, even when we speak about language itself. For example, to suddenly use the word 'red' to refer to what we all refer to as blue defeats the attempt to communicate meaning. "I'll meet you in front of the red car" leads to a miscommunication. To do the same to 'I,' 'meet,' 'you,' etc. renders the sentence devoid of all meaning (at least in the communication, or personal, sense). It seems to me that the 'justification' for using red includes the reality beyond the word -- i.e., not only that we all commonly use red, but that we use it to refer to a specific thing that exists regardless of the word (in this case, a color).

  17. Part 2

    Which brings me to the metaphysical aspect. You write: "I guess I don't understand why the meaning of the word has to have anything to do with a "metaphysical system." ... It seems like the metaphysical system (in language) only exissts when we do philosophy about it, not when we speak normally about good and bad."

    If we commonly use words with and precisely because of their definitions, then I don't see much difference between your last sentence and "the physical universe (in language) only exists when we do philosophy about it, not when we speak normally about mass and energy."

    When I use a word like 'mass' or 'stick,' through my context I utilize these to refer to physical realities beyond these words. I don't see much difference between this and using 'morality' and other moral language to refer to a reality preexisting the words.

    Lastly, it seems to me that plenty of our common language refers to the moral dimension of reality: e.g., to say that slavery is wrong. We humans may be inventing said moral dimension out of our imaginations, but it is inaccurate to suggest that 'wrong' here refers, not to the moral dimension, but to something else. It is like using 'blue' yet rejecting the 'baggage' of color. Yes, one could be feeling blue today, but it would be another defeat of meaning to conclude that we all really mean the sky is sad.

    The hour is late, and I'm no doubt becoming tremendously unclear, so I shall sign off, hoping for tutelage and enlightenment when I next sign on.

  18. Basil! good to see you jump in.

    Part 1. In what way is a definition needed to use a word? Certainly you have to have some idea how to use it, to use it, but why a definition? When you learn a word from context, are you learning a definition or just how to use the word? Doesn't demonstrating an ability to correctly use the word, demonstrate that you know what the word means? What about talk about words in which our definition is "incomplete" such as in science?

    W makes an observational point about platonic definitions—that they appeal more to our need to order (in a misinformed way) then to reflecting actual language. Take the word Game, what is the underlying essence of a game—gameness—that incorporates all of our uses of it? Baseball, war games, board games, solitaire, children throwing a ball, children poking something with a stick, video games, throwing rocks at bigger rocks (we played this a lot). The better explanation is that these meanings/uses share various overlapping commonalities, Family Resemblances, as opposed to an underlying essence.

    We can define, by that amounts to usage restriction, say “begging the question” in the technical meaning, as opposed to the common usage.

    Language is convention, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t rules for correctness, standards of correct or incorrect use. You are right in noting that without some sense of continued meaning, no speech would be comprehensible. Wittgenstein’s idea is that language grows out of the specific needs, concerns, and context of groups of people. We each participate in various language-games, which make up something like a giant collection of Venn diagrams of sharing such games with other people, and communities. Like any game, there are rules. Correct usage amounts to rule following. There is no necessary need to invoke platonic forms/ideas to fixate meaning in language.

    It would be hard to run through all the reasons why a referential view of language is problematic, though I have given a bunch of problems/examples, in the above writings. Let me just say that W would take you saying, “seemingly refers to thing in reality” as similar to as saying, “He kicked the Bucket” and concluding that a literal bucket was kicked. It is a temptation of language.

  19. To Ananke,

    OK, I think I can buy (for the moment) that ‘usage account’ of language development (though I don’t see a terribly deep divergence from the other account, at least as I understand it – both seem to see in language a phenomenological approach, if you will, whereby we encounter realities and organically develop words to talk communicate about them, thereby helping us recognize and articulate symmetries and patterns we had not previously been aware of).

    But it doth seem to me that this discussion of language can be had without affecting my original point about moral claims implying objective standards.

    For instance, let us say that someone asserts that “slavery is not good.” I leap into my Inquisitor’s robes and declare that the speaker has used moral language, that is, words whose meaning (as determined by usage, if you wish) implies morality.
    The speaker replies: “Half a moment! I haven’t implied objectivity at all; you have inferred it from my word.”
    “Careful, heretic,” say I. “How do you mean?”
    “I say, ‘Slavery is not good.’ You confused the word I used to identify slavery with its heteronym, ‘good’ meaning moral goodness. I meant it in a different way.”
    “Oh,” I say. “Terribly sorry, old chap. What did you mean?”
    He sighs, “Clearly you have not met my friend, Mr. Slavery, who is not named Good, who does not play the fiddle well, and who hasn’t recovered from his fall.”
    “Oh, I see,” say I. “Convey my best wishes for his recovery and his fiddle lessons. I see we are not in disagreement after all. You may leave the dungeon now. Come round for tea later!”

    As you can see, multiplicity of meanings is the joyous stuff of puns, but not (to me) a moral dilemma. However, in the above dialogue, we never got round to the moral sense of “good.” If there is such a thing as an objective moral standard, and if one of the common uses of ‘good’ refers to that standard (one of the Venn circles), then we can at least agree that the subjectivist won’t ever be able to use ‘good’ and mean to convey that circle section (objective morality).

    If a subjectivist does say something like slavery is morally wrong/unethical/impermissible, we must analyze what he wishes to convey. We know he does not want to suggest that slavery is violating an objective morality. We must assume therefore that he cannot logically (consistently) communicate a message that relies on objective truth. He must be referring to one of the other usages of “wrong/unethical/morally impermissible” (what those might be I do not know, aside from proper names).

    Am I on the wrong track, vis-à-vis Wittgenstein?

  20. More simply put, I guess I don't see why the relative relativity [ :p ] of language relates to whether a moral relativist is can consistently make moral claims [w/reference to the objective moral reality].

  21. in a nutshell, with no evidence, here is the arc of the argument:

    - Language (words, hand gestures, etc) is our only means of conveyance.
    - Language therefore constrains epistemic access to itself ('second-order' talk therefore, is impossible).
    - Therefore meaning cannot imply anything outside of language; in this case an objective moral standard

    So you point drops out because language cannot actually imply what you say it does. My “kick the bucket” example is a simplistic explanation as to why it is possible to THINK that language implies those things and be incorrect. The problem is actually this. You uttering “Hitler is evil” with the assumption that the force of meaning in your sentence stems from your understanding of an objective moral standard, is (at least) as problematic as the metaphysical subjectivist uttering the same. In other words, if there is a problem with inconsistency in my use, there is the exact same problem in yours. As soon as we do metaphysics we both succumb to the illusion, objectivist or not.

    It is not that objective standards don't exist, it's that we can't speak about them because our meanings are bound by language use itself. To do true metaphysics we would need to get outside of language.


    [warning musings to follow, not to be taken as a statement of argument by me or Wittgenstein]

    When I say that ask what is meant, and we do “true” philosophy (as conceived by W) we are looking at a data set of demonstrated uses. So I utter “Slavery is good” and the inquisitor seeks to clarify:

    Inquisitor: “such as this datam uttered yesterday? 'Bob fell but is now good?'”
    Me: “No”
    Inquisitor: “Hmm then such as, 'Mr Smith is Mr Good'?”
    Me: no
    Inquisitor: “than as, 'Killing Saddam Hussein was good?'”
    Me: “Yes!”

    [The above is not meant to be an actual illustration of meaning analysis, more of say, a poetic nudging towards a concept beyond my ability to express at the moment. It is clear that the above is just a fanciful restatement of the same example. ]

    one could imagine the Inquisitor asking, “O you must mean, “1 good 2 equals 5?” to which is say, not no, but “what?” i.e. we have only now reached a point of outside of the overlap. It is probably helpful to think of meaning along behaviorist terms (tho W would disagree, so again poetic nudging) in that word use (it's meaning) must be judged by it effect, not it's intent.

  22. oof I don't have the willpower currently to reflect on that initial argument to see if there is any logical consistency. Luckily it's expression in words makes that impossible to begin with, though I will be just as harshly judged on usage inconsistency within the framework of logical talk (that will be confused with logical inconsistency)

    FYI: Wittgenstein, did think it possible for a isolated people to have a different (equally correct) method of induction. Not different words, different induction. Same for Math