Graham McFee

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Everything Goes with Beer

A Nasty Accident With One's Flies

(Or, Life in Philosophy)

The following was my inaugural lecture as professor of philosophy at the University of Brighton, delivered in May, 1996, coinciding with the Brighton Arts Festival. As is the tradition in the University of Brighton (although not in all UK universities that have inaugurated professors), the lecture was supposed both to reflect my professional concerns and to be accessible to a general audience. A version was distributed in pamphlet form by the University of Brighton after the event: that version, unrevised, is presented here.

Asked about the purpose of philosophy, the Austrian-born philosophical genius Ludwig Wittgenstein replied that its task was to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle (PI §309[1]). Such a remark is likely to puzzle us, even if we know what a fly-bottle is (it's a kind of fly-trap). What could Wittgenstein have meant by such a remark? And that puzzlement becomes important once someone (like me) urges that Wittgenstein's comment, properly understood, offers a profound as well as a correct account of the nature of the philosophical enterprise.

In the rest of this talk, I shall first clarify some aspects of what Wittgenstein meant by this gnomic remark (taking its truth and importance for granted), and then I will illustrate impacts of these ideas with examples from two (or three) specific areas of philosophy -- the philosophy of language, the philosophy of art, and the philosophical study of sport. In this way, I will bring out both the potential of philosophy and the impact of Wittgenstein.

That should explain the main title of this lecture ... Its other title ... well, in what follows there are fragments of a number of lives -- mine, Wittgenstein's -- but also (I hope) something of the enduring vitality -- the life -- of the philosophical.

But first, an autobiographical anecdote, to make the philosophical life at issue clearly my life: as an undergraduate, hitching to London (say, to a rock concert) and asked by the lorry driver who was giving me a lift what I was studying, I replied ... well, whatever I said did not mention the conversation-stopping word "philosophy". Perhaps there were many reasons why I could not discuss philosophy in that context; but my point is that philosophy -- like most disciplines, but perhaps with a greater urgency -- needs a clear sense of itself and its purposes. Certainly, there is a general lack of a consensus about the scope and limits of philosophy:

There is wide-spread disagreement about what activities it is legitimate for philosophy to pursue.[2]

I want to enter that debate tonight.

Strange as it may seem, recent philosophy in the English-speaking world is not introspective enough[3] -- once, perhaps, it was too introspective, a kind of navel-gazing having as much general relevance as debates about landing angels on the head of a pin. Return to that sorry situation is not being advocated, but it has been replaced by a brisk confidence about the nature and purposes of philosophy; a confidence not, in my view, justified.


§1     A therapeutic conception of philosophy

Wittgenstein's conception of philosophy -- manifest in the 'fly-bottle' quote -- is appropriately called therapeutic, in the sense of being directed at the resolution of problems or perplexities besetting particular individuals[4]; the showing of particular flies the way out of specific fly-bottles. So it is work that needs to be done person-by-person: or, as Wittgenstein put it:

Work in philosophy is -- as work in architecture frequently is -- actually more of a kind of work on oneself. (BT pp. 406-7; PO p. 161[5])

Nor should we think these tasks easily accomplished, for they can involve giving up ideas that one had acquired in a completely 'taken-for-granted' way[6]. Again, Wittgenstein offers an evocative metaphor:

Teaching philosophy [he says] involves the same immense difficulty as instruction in geography would have if a pupil brought with him a mass of false and falsely simplified ideas about the course of rivers and mountain chains. (BT p. 423: PO p. 185[7])

In these ways, then, work in philosophy centrally involves the dissolution of problems which beset that person, with no greater claim to generality.

But philosophical work will typically be more general: why? The point to see is the generality of the sources of these problems. Now, the 'flies' in the initial metaphor are all of us: the problems philosophy addresses are problems that could, in principle, beset any of us. Gilbert Ryle (then Professor of Philosophy at Oxford) used to raise an obvious criticism by asking, what about the fly that never finds its way into the fly-bottle? Hearing this question, John Wisdom (a pupil and friend of Wittgenstein's, and at the time Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge) once offered the stage-whispered reply: "But you will have lured him in there, Gilbert". Wisdom's point, which I shall not be contesting tonight, is that misconceptions identified by, say, Ryle, should not be seen as resulting from what 'we' commonly say or think but, instead, from the interpretation of 'our' doings by specialists, and especially by philosophers, resulting from their tendency or inclination to take what can (in principle) be misleading as having misled[8]. So reading philosophy (or other 'expert' opinion) may be the problem, not the solution!

What are the sources of philosophical perplexities? As Wittgenstein put it, in a presently unpublished manuscript:

Philosophy is a tool which is useful only against philosophies and against the philosopher in us. (MS 219, 11[9])

So philosophical perplexities derive from (at least) two related sources:

  • ·From the effect of the views of experts.
  • ·From "the philosopher in us".

But[10] we might see the philosopher in us as someone who is almost bound to arise in the course of a standard education. So few people will not need philosophy: as Wittgenstein[11] urges, only those

... who have no need for transparency in their argumentation are lost to philosophy. (BT 421; PO p. 183)

But are there any such people? One major commentator[12] is even more forceful: in his view,

... only a clod or a god could resist being drawn into the fly-bottle of philosophical puzzlement.

The 'fly-bottle' metaphor concerns the impact of philosophy -- that it responds to puzzlements or perplexities: we are not here addressing the contented fly, since (in the fly-bottle) there can be no such thing.


§2     The method of therapy

But how is the 'therapy' to be achieved? What does one do? The aim, as Wittgenstein describes it, is to provide:

... an order in our knowledge of the use of language: an order with a particular end in view; one out of many possible orders; not the order. (PI §132 [B&H 1 p. 484])

This Wittgenstein calls "a perspicuous representation" of whatever, a representation which makes the matter perspicuous (clear)[13]. Notice, first, that this is not an order to our use of language, but to our knowledge, to what we recognise: second, that it does not offer new knowledge, really -- rather, it puts in order what we already know; and third, that the order achieved is acknowledged as one ordering among many, selected for some "particular purpose" (PI §127[14]), to answer some puzzlement.

It is not as though there were a representation that could not mislead. The right idea here, as Wittgenstein urges, is given by comparing a perspicuous representation with a lamp which, in illuminating the perplexing 'side' of the issue, necessarily throws its other 'side' into shadow[15].


What we lack is not a (generalised or once-and-for-all) perspicuous representation of our grammar/language; but, rather, a certain representation (for example, the colour-octahedron [PR p. 51ff; WWK p. 42; PR p. 278]) to make some part of our grammar, a part which puzzles us, perspicuous (=clear) for us. We are puzzled because what we know, in knowing how to go on in language, is not clear to us; misleading analogies (and such like) suggest themselves -- or someone suggests them to us!

Lacking such clarity, we will remain puzzled: but, once we have achieved the clear view, it can seem obvious. As Wittgenstein remarks:

Philosophical problems can be compared with locks on safes, which can be opened by dialling a certain word or number, so that no force can open the door until just this word has been hit upon, and once it has been hit upon, no effort at all is necessary to open the door. (BT p. 417; PO p. 175 [see B&H 1 p. 485 note 22][16])

A further moral from the 'fly-bottle' metaphor is that the task of philosophy cannot turn on matters in principle unavailable to us -- the perplexities typically arise from looking in the wrong way at what we know, rather than from not knowing enough. Here, Wittgenstein's characteristic advice was "Look and see", and that is only plausible advice if what one is looking for is in plain sight.

So the task of philosophy cannot be to uncover something unavailable, but (rather) to get us to re-assess what we already know: the point about the fly-bottle just is that flies do not typically find their own way out, even though there is nothing stopping them!

Now, we have only just begun to explore this way of thinking about philosophy[17]. Still, we do not need to go much further to see that such a conception will have an impact on what is done both in pursuing and in teaching philosophy.

At this point, I will take a brief detour to mention in the context of commenting on the teaching and learning of philosophy (where mention occurs naturally) the immense contribution both to my understanding of issues raised here, and to understanding more generally, of a collection of other thinkers [some of whom are here tonight]: first, my predecessor in the ancestor of this post, David Best, whose ideas about art, dance, and philosophy are profoundly intermingled with mine; but also a collection of my 'philosophical forebears' -- in alphabetical order, Gordon Baker, whose reading of Wittgenstein founds much of what you have (and will) hear tonight; then, Terry Diffey, whose encouragement has continued unabated since he was on a panel that first appointed me (more years ago than I care to recall), and who (among other assistance) laid out for me the institutional character of the concept "art"; and also Richard Wollheim, who taught me a lot about aesthetics -- but also taught me a bit about philosophy (and its teaching) by permitting me to show-up at PhD supervision sessions having done no work but with a good question about Freud for us to discuss -- I do not assume he failed to notice this strategy; finally, the late John Wisdom -- in the past, inviting him would have involved ascertaining that he was well enough for discussion and not scheduled for horse riding!

Others who have helped me with their ideas and/or their example include a variety of colleagues (and students) from the Chelsea School -- in particular, Alan Tomlinson and Paul McNaught-Davis; and colleagues from School of Historical and Critical Studies, especially Bob Brecher and Tom Hickey.


§3     Why is giving an account of philosophy problematic?

To continue: I suggested earlier that it was difficult to give an account of the nature of philosophy. Why is that?

The chief problems, it seems to me, come from two wide-spread characterisations of philosophy: that it is about words (sometimes thought-of positively, but chiefly a negative characterisation) and that it addresses profound, general abstract questions. John Wisdom[18] recounts confronting both these reactions to the term "philosophy":

People sometimes ask me what I do. Philosophy I say and I watch their faces very closely. 'Ah -- they say -- that's a very deep subject isn't it?' I don't like this at all. I don't like their tone. I don't like the change in their faces. Either they are frightfully solemn. Or they have to manage not to smile. And I don't like either.

Of course, these are the sorts of reaction I feared from the lorry-driver! But why are these the typical reactions?

To bring out one reason, consider two main ways[19] in which philosophical puzzlement can arise:

  • first, through 'expert' opinion misleading us, through stirring up (what I shall call) Berkeleyan dust.
  • second, through confusions about 'the logic of what we say'[20] (cf. PI §345; also PI §119): so that, for example, we might look for substances, faced with substantives (That is, look for the "sake" involved in doing something for someone's sake, the "it" of "It is raining"); or, again, we might take as mere symptoms what are really criteria (mistaking logical/grammatical points for empirical ones, since there can be fluctuation between criteria and symptoms: PI §354[21]).

The first category (the Berkeleyan dust) highlights the sort of perplexity the expert might think profound; the second (focusing on "what we say") seems to imply a verbal dimension to philosophy.


§4'     Expert' questions.

Let us take them in that order. So first, then, to the views of 'experts': I spoke of "Berkeleyan dust" since the Irish philosopher, George Berkeley[22], remarks:

... that the far greater part, if not all, of those difficulties which have hitherto amused philosophers, and blocked up the way to knowledge, are entirely owing to ourselves. That we have first raised a dust, and then complain we cannot see.

While I do not disagree, I would add that philosophers are not the only ones shuffling their feet to create the dust: in particular, scientists are doing it too. So two chief ways these perplexities are likely to arise are through the imperialism of other philosophers, or through the misleadingness of some scientific presentations. The illusion here, as Wittgenstein recognised, is that philosophical investigation is always necessary to ground other speculation. As he wrote:

Philosophy solves, or rather gets rid of, only philosophical problems; it does not set our thinking on a more solid basis. What I am attacking [he says] is above all the idea that the question 'What is knowledge?' -- e.g. -- is a crucial one. (MS 219, 10)

As though, say, we had to establish the possibility of knowledge of the (external) world in order to make the place safe for science[23]. As Wittgenstein continues:

... it seems as if we didn't yet know anything at all until we could answer that question [about the nature of knowledge]. In our philosophical investigations it is as if we were in a terrible hurry to complete a backlog of unfinished business which has to be finished or everything else seems to hang in the air. (MS 219, 10[24])

His point: we should not see philosophy as seeking (much less achieving) some fundamental foundation for this or that form of knowledge; but rather working to dispel those misunderstandings that do arise (as opposed to those that might!). To illustrate, I will offer a sport-based example (thereby acknowledging one of my professional concerns, in the Chelsea School).

This case is based on a comment genuinely made during a television programme, in which viewers were told (with a straight face) that a water-skier was making many thousand calculations as she kept her balance. My reaction would be that elaborate mental arithmetic is quite a feat for someone simultaneously engaged in water-skiing; and my advice would be to keep her attention on what she is doing! The television programme, of course, meant something quite different: roughly, that if we chose to simulate the skier's behaviour using a computer -- or perhaps a computer-controlled robot -- and if we understood computers in a fashionable way, then the computer would be doing such calculations. Now, I am not sure that even this is true; but, either way, it has no obvious bearing on what that person was doing. For that person is not a computer, nor do we have any reason to model her behaviour as computation: if we think we do, it is because we have been listening to too much 'popular science'.

It may be (completely hypothetically) that some wealthy research council might fund a project which studied computer 'activity' as a way of illuminating human action (it might even acquire a name -- say, the study of artificial intelligence, or AI): if so, then penniless scientists (if any) would have a reason to investigate it. But, notice, the first hurdle for such a project should be to determine that this is a suitable topic for investigation -- and that involves demonstrating that there is something revealing to be learned about humans in this way! Against me, it might be insisted that an open mind is what is needed here: I would agree -- but an open mind does not consist in assuming that one has the right question, and then remaining 'open' about the answer. Rather, it involves open-ness about the question too[25]. (But that is a hard idea to include in research-grant applications.)

The point, then, is that one source of 'conceptual confusion' is so-called 'expert opinion': the creation of wholly spurious difficulties, which are then transmitted to others -- for example, through one's philosophy classes. (I speak only for myself, of course.)

This case can introduce another, related problem: on the rebound from the absurdity of thinking that the skier is calculating furiously, we might say that she just does it -- that no further explanation is required. As persons, we recognise one another as embodied agents; that we can (if we are lucky) achieve things in the world. But how does the skier do it? Well, by having learned to do it, and by thinking about what she wants to do. So far, this is harmless.

But it can seem that what is going on is, first, a bit of thinking or intending (psychological activity) and then a bit of doing (bodily activity). And, enquiring how these two are related, we may see a 'little water-skier' (doing the thinking) inside the real skier: a 'dualist' conception, treating minds and bodies as inhabiting separate realms. Even this may not be bad yet. For there is no misunderstanding at work yet: we have drawn no conclusions -- say, about training programmes -- from these ideas. Now, I see how dualistic conceptions of human beings and human action can be detrimental to our understanding of action, of feeling and of one another -- but I do not find dualism in all the places some of my colleagues see it. For instance, my commitment 'body and soul' to a research project does not, in and of itself, commit me to viewing persons as combinations of bodies-plus-souls, or bodies-plus-souls-plus something-else!

One might think that it was only when we had been listening to philosophers -- who distinguish a psychological realm from a bodily one (what I earlier called "dualists"[26]) or who postulate attitudes to propositions to explain our beliefs -- that we are likely to be confused. Actually, that is not quite right -- we are as likely to be confused on this issue by scientists -- especially (as we have seen) by psychologists with a fascination with computers.


§5     Literalism and language

If that puts aside, and clarifies, the sorts of (false) profundity of which philosophy is accused, what about the other accusation: that it is just about words? It is easy to see where the ammunition for this charge comes from: from the propensity to say, "It all depends what you mean by ....". And certainly part of any full reply I made would include disputing the force of the word "just", when it is said that philosophy is just about words.

But the crucial point is to show that, contrary to what is often asserted or assumed, philosophy is not about language[27]. Indeed, this point can be made sharp by contrasting the view presented here with another; for the conception of philosophy proposed here should work against the literalism characteristic of much philosophical writing. And such literalism, with its insistence on reading at (what it takes to be) 'the foot of the letter', is destructive of progress both in the teaching and the understanding of philosophy.

To illustrate what is at issue, consider the following case. At one time, in gents' toilets in bars across the land, a particular sign was regularly found, reading:

Do not throw cigarette ends into the urinals: it makes them damp and difficult to light

Now, that sign says that the urinals will become difficult to light; but the joke (or quasi-joke) -- that the landlord might in this way be collecting cigarettes from the urinal -- works by our reading the sign differently. My point is that native English-speakers will recognise this sign as a badly-written sentence, as bad grammar if you like -- but they are not misled by it. So in what sense is it misleading? The point is not whether misleading inferences could be drawn, but whether they are drawn[28]. The literalist will insist both that this is misleading, and that facts such as this are philosophically revealing.

But is the mere possibility of such misunderstanding a genuine worry? To see that it is not, imagine that I am talking about sunrise; say, in the context of having seen a beautiful sunrise, or of sunrise being a good time to view such-and-such a species of bird. Should one take issue with this kind of talk? I see no reason to do so, even though I don't believe in sunrises (any more than the rest of you) since I take us to live in the solar system. So it would be misguided of some 'philosopher', hearing my remark, to conclude, "McFee operates with a pre-Copernican cosmology!". To repeat, it is important to reject the kind of literalism much beloved by some philosophers with analytic training who, finding a way to 'read' a sentence as misleading, take it to have misled. (In my sunrise example, no-one was misled, no-one misunderstood.)

Rather, ascription of misunderstanding must be based on evidence of misunderstanding -- that is, evidence of genuine misunderstanding, not the mere possibility of misunderstanding. This would typically take the form of some inference drawn. In my sunrise case, someone might, for instance, argue that, since there are sunrises, it follows that the sun is moving and hence that God could cause the sun to stand still. Further, this point might be used as part of a proof about the nature or existence of a deity, perhaps. Such a person is misunderstanding: none of that does follow from what I'd said! So it is possible to be misled by this form of words. But that possibility does not lead me to demand that talk of sunrises be banned!

As Wittgenstein remarks in another place:

We never dispute the opinions of common sense but we question the expression of common sense. (PO p. 247)

He is acknowledging that some implications which might be drawn from certain ways of putting a point must be rejected -- just as we reject any move from the possibility of sunrise to the fact of the sun's movement. (This is of a piece with Wittgenstein's insistence that the search for essence and the programme of analysis[29] must be abandoned: belief that there must be some underlying structure is unwarranted.)

I am effectively making two related points, the first about the nature of philosophy, the second about the teaching (and learning) of philosophy. For we do philosophy no service if we present it as requiring a wholly inappropriate 'rigour' (or literalism): first, it presents pedantry as though it were philosophy (there may be a point, as a joke, in making certain literalist remarks -- but to do so is not to practice philosophy); second, it precludes beginners from expressing points which, they fear, will not meet the standards of 'rigourous' (that is, pedantic) presentation. Yet this only hinders the entry of such beginners into the discussion; and such discussion is central to philosophy -- is a part of its life! As others have observed[30], the same word from Greek that founds the centre of philosophy -- logic -- also grounds "dialogue" and "dialectic": and the thought that philosophy should open, rather than close, options for discussion seems crucial. How else can you make the perplexities under consideration your perplexities? Indeed, if philosophy has its interest from such cases, how can it develop a history if -- at every stage -- the effect of philosophical 'discussion' is to shut-down the possibilities of further discussion? There could be no such history.

The justification often given for literalist practice is that, in order to think clearly, one must be able to express one's thought clearly. I take this point: but I would urge, first (and a debatable non-philosophical point), that a broadly supportive atmosphere facilitates one's learning to express one's thought clearly, but second (and in the centre of philosophy) that a realistic attitude to clarity of expression is needed -- in particular, one must not give in to the thought that remarks potentially misleading do actually mislead. For, in the absence of a clear understanding of appropriate clarity here, one will certainly be dismissing as misleading what are, in context, perfectly unambiguous remarks[31]. And, if they mislead none of their hearers, they can only be 'misleading' in some bizarre philosopher's sense of the term!

If no-one is being misled, there is no view put forward that requires disputing: as with the sunrise case, misleading inferences are blocked (by fiat?). Indeed, we might recognise "our strong cravings for generality and our inclination to extract generalisations" (B p. 128) as operative outside philosophy as within it: just as philosophical arguments should be seen as "absolutely context-relative and purpose-specific" (B p. 129), so too should our commonsense utterances.

Associatedly, philosophers of a literalist tendency attack the clarity of certain verbal expression. But any difficulties here are not somehow generated by language -- if anything, they arise because we seek a uniform 'reading' of forms of words[32]. Wittgenstein (PI §402) asks us to consider a case where:

... we disapprove of[33] the expressions of ordinary language (which are after all performing their office), ... we are tempted to say that our way of speaking does not describe the facts as they really are. As if, for example, the proposition "he has pains" could be false in some other way than by the man's not having pains. As if the form of expression were saying something false even when the proposition, in want of better expression [faute de mieux], asserted something true. (PI §402)

Suppose the person really is in pain (what is asserted is true). Still, a 'philosopher' might urge that saying, "He has a pain" implies that one owns or possesses pains, as saying, "He has a gun" would imply possession of a gun: and that pains are not objects, not possessible in this sense. So the form of expression might seem to introduce something false. Taking such a line is not, as Wittgenstein notes, seeing something profound. Rather:

... we have got a picture in our heads which conflicts with the picture of our ordinary way of speaking. (PI §402)

And it is that new picture that misleads us. We do not really infer, for example, that the utterance "It is raining" misrepresents the facts because we cannot answer the question, "what is the 'it'?"[34].

Almost without exception, literalist sorties are based either on a failure to understand the remark at issue (typically, a pretended failure, as in the urinal notice) or on the assumption that (grammatical) substantives imply substances -- but that idea is obviously false: we understand actions done "for your sake" and the claim that "It is raining" without postulation of an ontology of sakes or of raining its.

The philosopher's request, "what did you mean by such-and-such?", seems conclusive proof that the topic is words (only): yet it proves no such thing, for it is easily translated into a request for the contrasts drawn, the comparisons invited, the examples (pro and con) deployed -- that is, it turns into a request for clarification of what one said, what one asserted, what one asked, rather than an invitation to discuss word-use.

My suggestion has been that we focus on what is understood: by contrast, in the fly-bottle, the focus is on a disordered, philosophical account of the understanding. [But this shift of focus is not easy: as Gordon Baker[35] points out, "Only a hair's breadth separates platitude from absurdity."]

In summary, then, I suggest literalism is pernicious in three or four ways:

  • ·First, it gives a mistaken picture of precision; in particular, of precision in language-use.
  • ·Second, it separates (mis)understanding from context (as in the sunrise example), leading to a philosophical thesis about what it is for a claim to be misleading: namely that it should be potentially or possibly misleading.
  • ·Third, it destroys the 'conversation' of philosophy by suppressing views for trivial reasons[36].
  • [·Finally, if taken for the doing of philosophy, it makes philosophy appear a footling game for the witty, a species of debating.]

The abandonment of literalism should mean that the philosophical concern becomes clearly with understanding and misunderstanding, rather than with words, even if we sometimes locate the (mis)understanding in linguistic terms.


§6     The question of the practicality of philosophy

If the account of philosophy offered here is correct, is it a worthwhile activity? Why should people study it; and why should its study be supported?

To reply, I will consider two key questions, about (respectively) the potential benefit of philosophy and the idea of progress in philosophy. So, the first question is: is philosophy practical?

One could easily see a practicality to philosophy by pointing to philosophers pronouncing on:

... such subjects of immediate concern as abortion, euthanasia, the right to die, the apportionment of scarce medical resources, nuclear war, suicide, the environment ... (p. x)

or to philosophers teaching "... medical ethics, business ethics, environmental ethics ..." (p. ix) -- the list is Peter Kivy's[37]. But these have philosophers acting as sages, handing down 'wisdom'. And that is not the view of philosophy urged here.

In contrast, Wittgenstein offered both a therapeutic conception of philosophy and a "yes" answer to the question of practicality: as he[38] wrote to a friend,

... what is the use of studying philosophy if all it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious than any ... journalist in the use of the dangerous phrases such people use for their own ends ...?

For Wittgenstein clearly thought philosophy could, and should, do these things. An example may make his point sharply for us.

If we consider two instances of graceful, elegant human action -- say, one from dance and one from gymnastics --it may seem that what is true of the one is true of the other: in particular, that the benefits to the participant in each are the same. Similarly, we might think that the benefits (say, of enjoyment of graceful human movement) are also the same from the spectators' viewpoint. In that sense, the two actions are inter-changeable. And we might characterise the enjoyment and so on here as aesthetic enjoyment: the aesthetic enjoyment of the participant, and the aesthetic appreciation of the spectator, say.

This picture may seem quite attractive; but not (I hope) to those -- like myself -- committed to an educational role for dance. For, if things were as I have characterised them (if the explanation of the place of dance rested on its being graceful and elegant, say), there could be no reason to include dance in the curriculum (no educational justification for dance) that was not also a reason to include gymnastics -- and with pressure on curriculum time, and gymnastics already in the curriculum, no reason to include dance at all.

To avoid that unpalatable conclusion (unpalatable to me at least) we must find a way of distinguishing dance from gymnastics -- and, moreover, it must be an educationally-relevant distinction. Resolving questions of this sort is just one place to do philosophy with a practical 'edge'.

As I have written a whole book[39] on just this question, I cannot deal with it fully here. But, to sketch the outlines of my answer, notice two points. First, we consider (some) dance art in the 'fine art' sense of the expression; second, we value art in ways different from the ways we value other beautiful objects, such as natural beauty or the decorative; or even designed objects [the Ferrari] -- indeed, it would be hard to see the distinctiveness of art if we did not draw contrasts such as these.

So the move is to contrast the (varied) interest we take in art with the (equally diffuse) interest we take in other things in which we take an aesthetic interest. Now, we do draw the distinction in 'real life'; but we don't have a good way to mark the distinction in words -- we often use the term "aesthetic" to capture our interest both in the art and in the Ferrari, and we use the word "art" in other than the 'fine art' sense: for instance (one of David Best's favourite examples), there is a book entitled The Womanly Art of Breast-feeding.

Faced with this situation, all we need to do is to be clear in our minds whether, when we use terms like "aesthetic", "art", and many others, we are referring to an interest distinctive of our concern with artworks or whether we are not: seen one way, we have a perspicuous representation of the issue once we notice the contrast and respect it.

Yet respecting it is quite difficult -- after all, we do typically use exactly the same forms of words on both sides of the distinction. But suppose we adopt a technical distinction (suggested by David Best), reserving the words "art", "artistic" and the like for our concern with 'fine art', and using the term "aesthetic" and its relatives only for the other concerns -- for the fountain, the firework display, and the Ferrari. Now, this is an artificial distinction: we do and we must draw this distinction -- but we do not typically mark it using these words.  So this discussion does not turn on what, say, the word "art" means -- rather, it turns on what contrasts we draw in using this word; as it were, in selecting this term rather than another.

But is there any point to this distinction? Has it any practical importance? As noted earlier, one place to see the relevance of this distinction (an appropriate place for this context) concerns the explanation or justification of dance in the school curriculum -- for it cannot be doubted that other physical activities (for example, gymnastics) are graceful, elegant etc. [and sometimes the opposite]. But recognising that our interest in the grace etc. of gymnastics is different in kind from our interest in dance (in terms of the technical distinction, as aesthetic rather than artistic) gives us a basis for treating (and valuing) them differently. So, if the distinction were any good, we would have a reason to view dance as importantly different from, say, gymnastics: and if we can further show some educational weight to the concern with art then we have at least the beginnings of an argument for the place of dance.

This is only one 'small' topic, of course, by way of exemplification. But it illustrates how one might benefit from philosophy -- the benefit being personal even if the perspicuous representation were offered to us by someone else: for we must internalise it, making it our own.

Notice that philosophy here guards us from being misled, from the mistakes others might make us make: it does not solve 'perennial' problems. And this idea introduces the second topic promised a moment ago: the sense in which philosophy does (and the sense in which it does not) make enduring progress.


§7     'Perennial' problems and their solutions?

Two main sets of cases fuel the generality and abiding interest of philosophy: first, if some one person or group has been stirring up dust, a remark rendering the matter perspicuous may help generally. For example, and entirely hypothetically, suppose a bunch of scientists call themselves "Chaos Theorists", and describe certain natural phenomena as "chaotic". (The forecasting of weather is a preferred example.) Now progress against (potential) confusion might be made by bringing an audience to recognise that there is nothing genuinely chaotic about the phenomena -- that, indeed, one fundamental principle of 'Chaos Theory', the Butterfly Effect (or the Principle of Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions) is fully deterministic, since (if we did know both the initial conditions and the relevant laws) we could predict the events in question. On this view, the problem with weather forecasting is that we cannot know either the detail of the starting point (the initial conditions) or the (non-linear) equations involved sufficiently precisely. But if we did, weather forecasts could be absolutely accurate -- as the Chaos Theorists' computer-modelling of them demonstrates! And the audience for such a point about determinacy within Chaos Theory would stretch just as far as the influence of the misconception, and also would be just as 'perennial' as that misconception.

In this way, the need for philosophy should not be expected to diminish:

... fresh puzzles and bafflement may arise as new 'pictures' are invoked by philosophers, frequently from other departments of intellectual endeavour. (B&H 1 p. 477)

Fresh opportunities for misleading ourselves arise, for instance, when we forget that our Chaos Theorists preferred research tool is the computer -- and that computers genuinely chaotic would be unworkable, for we could not depend on them!

Second, there may be some tendencies which, while specific to individual situations, may none-the-less be recurrent: for instance, the tendency to conceptualise persons as (separable) minds and bodies -- what I earlier called "dualism". There may, therefore, be lines of discussion that are typically useful when confronting these misconceptions. But one should recognise that cases may be more different than they at first appear, and also (as noted earlier) be wary of seeing 'dualism' when in fact there is no such confusion[40].

So there can be both continuity and generality to philosophy even on a therapeutic conception, which sees philosophy in terms of the resolution of specific perplexities. Such resolution may well involve producing a "travel brochure" of "the paradise of a scientific conception of philosophy" with a view to remedying (or, anyway, identifying) "a failure of imagination"[41] implicit in taking philosophy to consist of a set of more or less permanent problems, some of them solved, whose solutions must then be transmitted to hapless -- and un-perplexed -- students. (No doubt some of this is to be found -- but it is not the majority, nor the centre, of philosophy.)



It may make matters clearer if, in conclusion, I return to Wittgenstein's characterisation of the (possible) achievements of philosophy. Faced with the remark that certain negative comments (on the situation in the philosophy of mathematics) constituted his attempt to 'turn out of paradise' the contemporary theorists, Wittgenstein (at least as reported in lectures[42]) was unusually restrained. He said:

I wouldn't dream of trying to drive anyone out of this paradise.

Instead, his tack would be to

... try to do something quite different ... [to say], "You're welcome to this; just look about you." ... I would try to show you that it is not paradise -- so that you'll leave of your own accord.

Yet this must be the right sort of reply for the therapeutic conception of philosophy: to make the matter perspicuous, so that one is no longer misled by the inappropriate analogies or the scientific persiflage.

But does it always succeed: is there always clarity? Of course, and sadly, the answer is "no" -- some flies stubbornly refuse to see their way out of the fly-bottle, even though some way out has been offered to them: perhaps it doesn't quite address their particular problems. For whatever reason, that leaves them in the fly-trap. Hence my characterisation of failure in philosophy: "a nasty accident with one's flies".



[1]              Ludwig Wittgenstein Philosophical Investigations (trans G E M Anscombe) Oxford: Blackwell, 1953; cited as "PI". [Throughout, standard abbreviations to Wittgenstein's published texts are used.] The text, in translation, is:

What is your aim in philosophy? -- To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.

               Note that this is his aim; but we should regard this as a normative characterisation of philosophy generally.

[2]              Gordon Baker and Peter Hacker Wittgenstein: Understanding and Meaning: Volume 1 of an Analytical Commentary on the Philosophical Investigations Oxford: Blackwell, 1980 p. 457, cited as "B&H 1", followed by page number.

[3]              It was Gordon Baker who remarked in conversation that philosophy today is not especially introspective -- he and I agreed that this was not a virtue; that thinking about the project of philosophy was an integral part of maintaining a 'live' discipline of philosophy. The alternative was one of 'briskness', where the problems are known by the philosopher and philosophy consists simply in straightening out the mistakes of others. [cf. David Best's remark that, if a bible was inevitably to be adopted, he preferred that it be his book -- I have mixed feelings about this, as I know David does too!] The problem as defined from Descartes: how are the problems Descartes raises "for as all" (see note 10 below), to be handled individually? [NB Baker's suggestion that Bernard Williams influential book on Descartes goes wrong "on the title page": it (mistakenly) presents the requirement for an "Pure Enquiry" -- which is neither possible nor desirable!!! But I should not be repeating the 'slander' ...]

[4]              As Gordon Baker ["Some remarks on 'Language' and 'Grammar'" Grazer Philosophische Studien Vol. 42 1992 pp. 107-131 (cited as "B")] urges, Wittgenstein:

... always sought to address specific philosophical problems of definite individuals and to bring to light conceptual confusions which these individuals would acknowledge as a form of entanglement in their own rules. He did not make direct assaults on various standard 'isms' ... (B p.129)

[5]              Another version (Anthony Kenny The Legacy of Wittgenstein Oxford: Blackwell, 1984, p. 50: cited as "Kenny"):

The job to be done is .... really a job on oneself.

               Yet another (CV p. 16):

Working in philosophy -- like work in architecture in many respects -- is really more a working on oneself...

[6]              To use a favourite analogy of Wittgenstein's (from Norman Malcolm Ludwig Wittgenstein: A memoir, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958 p. 55):

... just as one's body has a natural tendency towards the surface and one has to make an exertion to get to the bottom -- so it is with thinking.

[7]              Another version (Kenny p. 50):

Learning philosophy has the kind of extraordinary difficulty that geography lessons would have if pupils began with a lot of false and oversimplified ideas about the way rivers and mountain ranges go.

[8]              A tendency with a Cartesian heritage, based on the idea of needing to consider all the things that, had they gone wrong, would have prevented my knowledge-claims amounting to genuine knowledge, whatever their likelihood of being realised [what Barry Stroud {The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984 pp. 24-29; see also Stroud's Review of Unger Journal of Philosophy Vol. LXXIV 1977 pp. 246-257 esp. p. 253, and his "Skepticism and the Possibility of Knowledge" Journal of Philosophy Vol. LXXXI 1984 pp. 545-551} calls "all counter-possibilities"].

[9]              Quoted Peter Hacker Wittgenstein: Meaning and Mind: Volume 3 of an Analytical Commentary on the Philosophical Investigations Oxford: Blackwell, 1990 p. 264; and in Kenny p. 48

[10]            With Descartes [J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, and D. Murdoch (eds) The Philosophical Writings of Descartes (Volume 1), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985, cited as "CSM", followed by volume and page number], although this is widely neglected: (see note 3 above). For instance, in order to make a sustained effort to break bad intellectual habits:

[t]he seeker after truth must, once in the course of his life, doubt everything, as far as is possible. (Principles CSM vol. 1 p. 193 [section title])

               The key thing here is the expression "once in the course of his life", for only on the therapeutic conception do we all need this. (A similar point is made in Meditations [CSM vol. II p. 12] but in the first person.) Compare Gordon Baker and Katherine Morris Descartes' Dualism, London: Routledge, 1996, p. 87.

[11]            B&H 1 p. 475 offer another translation

[12]            Hacker Wittgenstein: Meaning and Mind p. 243

[13]            Compare Gordon Baker "Philosophical Investigations §122: Neglected Aspects", in R. L. Arrington and H-J. Glock (eds )Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations: Text and Context, London: Routledge, 1991 pp. 35-68, esp. pp. 53-63.

[14]            Compare BT p. 420; PO p. 181 [B&H 1 p. 557]

[15]            Compare Descartes:

... a painter cannot represent all the different sides of a solid body equally well on his flat canvas, and so he chooses one of the principal ones, sets it facing the light, and shades the others so as to make them stand out only when viewed from the perspective of the chosen side. (CSM vol. 1 p. 132)

[16]            In BT this is followed by what is now part of PI §122:

The concept of a perspicuous representation is of fundamental significance for us ....

[17]            This presentation deviates from a key principle of mine; namely, that Wittgenstein's utterances should not be wrenched from their argumentative context: that we must pay attention to Wittgenstein's argumentative strategy, rather than treating his work as a collection of aperçus. This might be disputed: but, on the face of it, treating a body of writing as a work in philosophy seems to presume that as a starting point. And mentioning that principle allows me to recognise the contribution to my writing and thinking on these matters of Gordon Baker.

                              Now, this may not be an easy course to follow in practice. As Gordon Baker urges:

... we should proceed on the basis that the texts which Wittgenstein constructed himself consist of carefully thought out arrangements of remarks whose precise wording was of paramount importance. (B p. 127)

               But, as he goes on to lament:

... this principle does not apply .. to the texts compiled by editors in various more or less systematic ways from his manuscripts. (B p. 127)

               If Wittgenstein's remarks are not a string of oracular utterances for interpretation, neither are they transparent to casual scrutiny. Rather, they must be understood as part of an on-going argument, although sometimes with opponents whose views must be reconstructed.

                              Further, it is sometimes difficult to take Wittgenstein at his word: to see him addressing only the specific issues he says he is addressing. As Baker puts it:

... we might consider respecting his reticence as an essential aspect of his thinking. (B p. 128)

               Moreover, and relatedly, taking Wittgenstein at his word may mean respecting (at least initially) his conception of the philosophical enterprise.

[18]            John Wisdom Paradox and Discovery Oxford: Blackwell, 1965 p. 1

[19]            A more comprehensive list is provided by B&H 1 p. 481 (and examples of each are given pp. 487-488):

               (i)           Analogies in surface grammar

               (ii)          The phenomenology of the use of language

               (iii)        Pictures embedded in language (BT p. 423: PO p. 185)

               (iv)         The model of science

               (v)          Projecting grammar onto reality

               (vi)         Natural intellectual prejudice

               (vii)       Philosophical mythologies.

[20]            Two points: first, Baker (B. p.118) takes this expression to be ambiguous, and hopes that recognition of its ambiguity will force consideration of how it is to be taken in any particular context (rather than the present reading); second, this emphasis on an utterance-type of idea may conflict with Shankar's insistence on the logical/grammatical (see Stuart Shankar Wittgenstein and the Turning-Point in the Philosophy of Mathematics Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1987, pp. 52-54).

[21]            cf example re standard metre? B&H 1 pp. 284-294.

[22]            George Berkeley Principles of Human Knowledge §3, reprinted in A New Theory of Vision and other essays (ed. A D Lindsay) London: Dent/Everyman's, 1910 p. 94

[23]            Consider one understanding of Descartes' project, based on the title of The Discourse ... : "of rightly conducting one's reason and seeking the truth in the sciences" -- see CSM (vol. I) p. 111.

[24]            Translation from Shankar Wittgenstein and the Turning-Point in the Philosophy of Mathematics  p. 35

[25]            Wittgenstein uses a vivid (if somewhat puzzling) image to make this point:

If I am inclined to suppose that a mouse has come into being by spontaneous generation out of grey rags and dust, I shall do well to examine those rags very closely to see how a mouse may have hidden in them, how it may have got there. But if I am convinced that a mouse cannot come into being from those things, then this investigation will perhaps be superfluous. (PI §52, discussed Cora Diamond The Realistic Spirit: Wittgenstein Philosophy and the Mind Cambridge, Mass: Bradford Books/MIT, 1991 pp. 46-7; B&H 1 pp. 301-2.)

[26]            My hesitation here is because these theorists would be subscribing to what Gordon Baker and Katherine Morris call "the Legend" of Cartesian Dualism: there are other ways to be a dualist. See Baker and Morris Descartes' Dualism, pp. 1-3; 28-53.

[27]            Here, contrast Wittgenstein with J. L. Austin on (a) the "very complexity" of Austin's views [B&H 1 p. 543]; (b) the focus on "resolution of philosophical problems" (PI §109) [B&H 1 p. 479]; and (c) something attributed (without justification?) to Austin [B&H 1 p. 557.]

[28]            See Wittgenstein on 'hidden contradiction' in mathematics: LFM 209ff, 217ff; RFM 213ff, 375ff (cf Gordon Baker Wittgenstein, Frege and the Vienna Circle, Oxford: Blackwell, 1988, p. 114).

[29]            Peter Strawson ["Construction and Analysis", in G. Ryle (ed) The Revolution in Philosophy, London: Macmillan, 1956 pp. 97-110] speaks of one important species of philosophy as "... therapeutic analysis" (p. 108): the "analysis" part of this title is what might be queried here.

[30]            For instance, Renford Bambrough "Literature and Philosophy" in Bambrough (ed) Wisdom: Twelve Essays, Oxford: Blackwell, 1974 pp. 274-292: remarks p. 274.

[31]            See esp. Charles Travis The Uses of Sense, Blackwell. 1989 pp. 18-9: consider the following example. Hugo sits reading the paper. At his elbow is a cup of black coffee. Across the room is a refrigerator, empty except for a puddle of milk at the bottom. Hugo's partner, Pia, says, "There is milk in the fridge". To see that this utterance is speaking-sensitive, consider two cases. First, immediately before the moment described above, Hugo -- whose fondness for white coffee is legendary -- had looked sadly at the coffee cup. Seeing his look, Pia makes her statement: in doing so, she says (falsely) that the fridge contains milk which might be used to whiten Hugo's coffee. In the second case, Pia had previously asked Hugo to clean the fridge -- now she finds him reading the paper, drinking coffee and still the fridge is not clean! So Pia utters the sentence, saying (truly) that the fridge contains the puddle of milk. Notice, first, that the sentence amounts to something different on the two speakings just presented -- we see this clearly once we recognise that, in the first, what Pia says is false while, in the second, it is true. And nothing else has changed. But, second, the word "milk" still means milk, the word "in" still refers to the inside of the fridge, and so on. Moreover, the indexicals, and such like, are not the issue. Pia is talking about that very fridge, and at that very time. (Not, for instance, looking at the television and commenting on a fridge in California.) In these cases we see the word "milk" making:

... any of an indefinite variety of distinct contributions to what is said in speaking it, and, specifically, to the truth condition for that. (Travis "Annals of Analysis" Mind, Vol.100, April, 1991 p.242)

[32]            As Gordon Baker ("Philosophy: Simulacrum and Form" [title in Greek] in Stuart Shanker (ed) Philosophy in Britain Today, London: Croom Helm, 1986 pp. 1-57: quote p. 48.) articulates a central Wittgensteinian thesis, the important thing "... is to direct attention away from the form of expressions to their uses". For Wittgenstein (as we have seen) forms of words might mislead -- this partly explains his preference for discussions of use. But this idea too has proved to be misleading: people have misunderstood the use of the word "use" here, having taken it as some sort of definition of "definition". Nothing could be further from the truth: indeed, the whole demand for definiteness this implies is misplaced. The use of the term "use" here is straightforward, if negative: it is just to record that our interest in forms of words is essentially contextual -- that forms of words do not have a specific meaning (perhaps, are not the bearers of meaning).

[33]            See Cora Diamond The Realistic Spirit p. 14-15, where it is translated: "... we are out of agreement with ...".

[34]            Peter Hacker Appearance and Reality Oxford: Blackwell, 1987 p. 500

[35]            Gordon Baker "Following Wittgenstein: Some Signposts for Philosophical Investigations §§143-242", in S. Holtzman and C. Leich (eds) Wittgenstein: To Follow a Rule, London: Routledge, 1981, pp. 31-71: quotation p. 43.

[36]            See John Wisdom (Philosophy and PsychoAnalysis Oxford: Blackwell, 1953 p. 41: also Paradox and Discovery pp. 83-6) on, for instance, Moore's rejection of McTaggart's claims of the unreality of time:

... he is right, they are false -- only there is good in them, poor things.

[37]            Peter Kivy Authenticities: Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995.

[38]            Letter to Norman Malcolm, November 1944; quoted in Norman Malcolm Ludwig Wittgenstein: a Memoir Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958 p. 39

[39]            Graham McFee The Concept of Dance Education London: Routledge, 1994

[40]            Someone might, for instance, invoke Wittgenstein (PI §286) at this point:

... isn't it absurd to say of a body that it has a pain?

               But this is only a question (and not a rhetorical question) asking when, for example, it would seem OK to say this, when not. Certainly, Wittgenstein is not here identifying some general absurdity: as he continues, we need to enquire what sort of issue this is. (Is a similar point made in Gordon Baker and Katherine Morris Descartes' Dualism  p. 207 note?)

[41]            Gordon Baker "Philosophy: Simulacrum and Form" p. 55.

[42]            Cora Diamond (ed.)Wittgenstein's Lectures On the Foundations of Mathematics, Cambridge, 1939  Hassocks: Harvester Press, 1976 p. 103.

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