Saturday, July 31, 2010

The showmanship of Ludwig Wittgenstein

Here is a description of some of Wittgenstein's typical antics (based on an account given by Peter Munz of a famous 1946 seminar and taken from the book Wittgenstein's Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidinow):

'[Wittgenstein] wrestles visibly with his ideas, holding his head in his hands, occasionally throwing out staccato remarks, as though each word were as painful as plucking thorns, and muttering, "God I am stupid today" or shouting "Damn my bloody soul! ... Help me someone!" '

Now here is a scene from the story 'The secret garden' by G.K. Chesterton (published as the second story in The Innocence of Father Brown in 1911, three years after Wittgenstein's first arrival in England):

'... Father Brown, who had sprung swiftly to his feet, [...] was holding his temples tight like a man in sudden and violent pain.

"Stop, stop, stop!" he cried; "stop talking a minute, for I see half. Will God give me strength? Will my brain make the one jump and see all? Heaven help me! I used to be fairly good at thinking... Will my head split - or will it see? I see half - I only see half."

He buried his head in his hands, and stood in a sort of rigid torture of thought or prayer ...'

In 1936 Wittgenstein tried to distance himself from the Father Brown stories (which had been recommended to him): '... Wittgenstein turned up his nose. "Oh no, I couldn't stand the idea of a Roman Catholic priest playing the part of a detective. I don't want that." '

And yet it seems that Wittgenstein, in playing the part of a philosopher, had himself been mimicking that fictional Roman Catholic priest playing the part of a detective!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Early influences

I would like to highlight a point I made in a comment attached to my previous post - namely that if an individual's political (or for that matter religious or philosophical) views are affected by basic character and personality traits, and if such traits are in part determined by genetic factors and/or by very early experiences, then an individual's views will be less a product of mature reason and analysis than is generally assumed. Consequently, we should be more skeptical of our own convictions.

Recent work in developmental psychology has showed convincingly that - and to some extent how - the sense of self arises from social interaction, but basic personality traits seem to have a strong genetic foundation. This is brought out by the controversy about the influence of birth order. Some (very cursory) reading has led me to the provisional conclusion that the 'first-borns tend to be more conservative' idea is indeed true, but only within (not between) families. Within families first-borns score higher on conservatism, conscientiousness and achievement orientation, later-borns on rebelliousness, openness and agreeableness. The results only work within families because genetic effects are stronger than birth-order effects. The birth-order effect is real but weak.

It is of course intuitively plausible that first-borns might favor the status quo insofar as they often bask in the undivided attention of their parents until the dreaded sibling comes along to drive them out of this childhood paradise.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Little Hitler

Two young women - sisters - chatting in the kitchen of a suburban house. One sister - the visitor - unscrews the lid of a jar of boiled candies and helps herself to one or two.

A little boy, about three years old, wanders into the kitchen, his eyes fixed on the open jar. The candies were his and he had a strict, self-imposed regime of two per day.

"No more lids are to be taken off in this house!" he thunders.

The sisters laugh.

"And there is to be no more laughing in this house!" he orders.

The sisters laugh uncontrollably.


The child was me, and the incident raises the issue of the early formation of psychological characteristics, and also the link with an eventual social philosophy.

It is generally accepted that a person's basic character traits are determined within the first couple of years of life. And clearly one's personality and character affect one's views of social arrangements and ultimately one's (implicit or explicit) social philosophy.

A conservative tendency? The incident suggests - let's be honest - a leaning towards something a little closer to fascism!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Work and play

I'm interested in what people would continue to do if they were no longer paid for doing it. Obviously, there is a large class of not particularly enjoyable jobs which are necessary for the effective functioning of society. And there is a class of activities - like games - which are not necessary in a practical sense but which people engage in just for fun. The interesting areas are between these extremes.

Of course, a lot of people enjoy their paid work, but part of that enjoyment usually derives from the status and the money that it brings, and I suspect that, even if they could afford it, few professionals would continue to work if all the work was pro bono!

My brother is a professional actor, and he will occasionally help out with a student film, or do something he considers worthwhile on the stage for a pittance. But his identity as an actor is dependent on properly paid work.

Journalism is an interesting case. Bloggers generally blog for no financial reward and a fair percentage of the material is professional standard. Obviously, the intrinsic rewards of writing and research (if it is being read and/or utilized) are sufficient to keep these sorts of activities going.

Another interesting area is academic research in the humanities. I know a university professor who spent years (on and off) as part of a team translating Proclus (a 5th-century neo-Platonist with some pretty crazy ideas) into English, which was good for his career - but would he have done it if it did not enhance (albeit indirectly) his pay packet? I doubt it - but I may be wrong. I know of other, older scholars who will happily take their labors of love into retirement.

Despite the exceptional cases, funding matters - in the arts, in social areas and in science. Many - most? - areas of the arts and the humanities would wither away without financial support. Individual initiatives could never replace social spending by government and large private organizations*. And most areas of science depend on a combination of government and commercial support to maintain critical mass.

The hard truth is that much of the support that these activities depended on in the past can no longer be relied on.

There are humanitarian issues at stake here (I would place them above the arts and pure science in importance), and many will suffer.

However, in areas in which human suffering is not at issue, the process may be bracing to watch. A giant social experiment is in train which will determine which (intrinsically valuable) human activities will remain live options into the future.

*Spending by government on social welfare and similar programs can, of course, have adverse consequences. However, I am making the (relatively uncontroversial) assumption here that governments do have a legitimate role in providing a safety net for those in need.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Left, left, left right left

It has recently been pointed out to me that my conversation is full of references to "the left" and "the right" (and this blog tends to reflect my conversational habits). I think the observation carried an implicit criticism (about my tendency to think in terms of simple, adversarial dichotomies?), and I might just give a few initial reflections here on the matter.

First of all, I realize that an individual's political and social views are very complex and cannot be reduced to a position on a one-dimensional (or even multi-dimensional) scale. I have used the word "conservative" to label my general position, but it is a word which is sufficiently flexible to cover a range of perspectives in a range of areas (not just politics).

I had a friend who was raised in China in the 1970s (the daughter of a general, in fact), and she was in a deep sense a conservative, though she was not interested in Western politics. She was educated in Confucian values and classical Chinese literature by her maternal grandmother, who had been a concubine, and yet she was also deeply affected by Maoist Communist ideas.

The point I'm making is that I know there is no simple left/right dichotomy. I am interested in how people think and form their values, and, if I tend to identify with "one side" of politics, I am not totally sure of my position and I remain respectful towards and sometimes fascinated by those with views very different from my own.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Racism and the right

Talk about 'ethnic differences' and attitudes thereto is usually conducted, in educated circles at least, in a very constrained and politically correct manner. No wonder. A word out of place - or the wrong word - can destroy a career.

This situation is unfortunate because there will always be those who - feeling that they have nothing to lose - are only too ready to fill the vacuum with ugly words and ugly deeds.

On the basis of evident racism in elements of the far right, the left tends (incorrectly) to see anyone right of centre as suspect in this regard. I think I am correct in saying that the left particularly prides itself on not being racist (whatever that means exactly [see below]) and sees this as a key point of differentiation and self-definition. So if racist ideas can be imputed to conservatives, this serves to sharpen the left's self-identity.

Racism becomes politicized - which means it is ever more difficult to deal with the deep and complex problems associated with ethnic tensions, and ever more difficult to discuss these issues sensibly.

In fact the words 'racism' and 'racist' have become rhetorical hand grenades without any clear meaning. Sure, racially-motivated violence, racially derogatory language and certain forms of discrimination can be seen clearly to be racist. But even those who merely interpret data garnered from cognitive and other testing of various populations as indicating significant statistical differences between those populations with respect to specific abilities may be accused of racism.

These implicit constraints on free inquiry and free speech only serve to create resentment and cynicism.