October 06, 2015

NORDIC WITTGENSTEIN REVIEW, Special issue on Wittgenstein and forms of life

The Nordic Wittgenstein Review, published by the NWS, has published its
first ever Special Issue, edited by Danièle Moyal-Sharrock, Piergiorgio
Donatelli and Sandra Laugier in collaboration with the present editors
of NWR.

It's open access, as always.

Best wishes,
Yrsa Neuman as the ed-in-chief
Anne-Marie Soendergaard Christensen & Martin Gustafsson, editors

PS. Submissions to NWR:


Note from the Editors    
Daniele Moyal-Sharrock     0

Forms of Life    
Peter Hacker     1-20

Wittgenstein on Forms of Life, Patterns of Life, and Ways of Living    
Daniele Moyal-Sharrock     21-42

Forms of Life, Forms of Reality    
Piergiorgio Donatelli     43-62

Voice as Form of Life and Life Form    
Sandra Laugier     63-82

Tractarian Form as the Precursor to Forms of Life    
Chon Tejedor     83-109

Mathematics and Forms of Life
Severin Schroeder     111-130

“If Some People Looked Like Elephants and Others Like Cats”:
Wittgenstein on Understanding Others and Forms of Life
Constantine Sandis     131-153

Elucidating Forms of Life. The Evolution of a Philosophical Tool    
Anna Boncompagni     155-175

September 15, 2015

Recent doctoral dissertations at Åbo Akademi

Recent doctoral dissertations at Åbo Akademi

During the last academic year three doctoral dissertations in philosophy were defended at my old department at Åbo Akademi, Åbo/Turku, Finland:

Ylva Gustafsson, Interpersonal understanding and theory of mind (19 September, 2014)

Summary: The claim that a “theory of mind”, is a fundamental cognitive capacity that grounds human social life is popular within both modern philosophical and psychological theorising on interpersonal understanding. This claim surfaces in evolutionary psychology, in theories of child development, in theories of autism as well as in philosophy on emotions and in moral philosophy. The aim of this work is to scrutinise certain psychological and philosophical theories on interpersonal understanding that are connected with empirical research. The author argues that the theories as well as the empirical research are often based on problematic philosophical assumptions about interpersonal understanding. The assumptions shape the theories and also shape the way empirical research is designed and the way results are interpreted.


Antony Fredriksson, Vision, Image, Record – A Cultivation of the Visual Field (9 January, 2015)

 Summary: The first part of this thesis delivers a genealogy of the image. It chronicles how the concepts of image, vision and the self evolved in relation to one another in a specific scientific and philosophical context, starting with the early Renaissance, which saw the invention of the perspectivist painting, up to the birth of Positivism and the photographic image. This development entailed a form of reductionism in which “the self” – the role of human psychology, our judgement, our attention and our will – was sidestepped. Within this intellectual tradition there is only a short step, from the understanding of the image as a representation of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface, to the idea of the image as a transparent picture, a window towards the world. By taking this short step one would easily lose sight of the role of the self in the practices of making and viewing images.
In the second part the author offers an alternative to the intellectual tradition described in the first part. The idea of depiction as a neutral “view from nowhere” would support a skeptical attitude towards communication, dialogue and human testimony, and therefore our reliance upon each other and consequently our reliance on ourselves. What was forgotten in this understanding of the image as a view from nowhere, was that the image is an aid in the task cultivating our visual field, an aid in sharing our views. Due to this function of sharing, the image becomes a guide as we find our orientation in this world. I might stand beside another person and see what she sees, but I do not necessarily know her reading of it. The image adds a dimension to this relation, since it does not only show me what the other sees. When an image works properly it also shows how that other person sees, and thus the image becomes an agent.
While the present thesis combines the fields of philosophical epistemology, history of science and visual studies, its main interest is philosophical. It engages with philosophical misconceptions of depiction as a mimetic art form, of knowledge as domestication and of perception as reception of data.


Mari Lindman, Work and Non-Work : On Work and Meaning (8 May, 2015)

Summary: It may seem self-evident that employment is crucial to a happy life and that job creation is a central societal concern. However, this dissertation suggests that work is neutralized when it is understood simply as a valuable societal asset or as an individual life project, while its existential, ethical and political significance in a specific life situation is ignored. One example of such neutralization is when the importance of work is reduced to the importance of “having a job”, whatever its practical content or purposes. To challenge such neutralizations, the author looks at the tension within the conceptions of work (necessity, hard work and self-realization are three examples) which underlie them. The danger of such neutralization is that political and existential worries about work and the working life are swept under the rug. The book aims to repoliticize work by looking at it as an essentially contested concept. The author suggests that important aspects of work are revealed within such contestations of the role of work in our lives and that tensions can be a fruitful point of departure for resisting neutralizations of work. All chapters are structured around dialogues with critical accounts of work, including those of Hannah Arendt, André Gorz, Kathi Weeks, Simone Weil, Raimond Gaita, Karl Marx and Richard Sennett. What does it mean to say that society has been invaded by necessity? What does it mean to imagine a society beyond wage labor? Is it a utopia or a dystopia to think about work as a limitless activity? What is at stake when work becomes a commodity on the market? What are the hazards of fragmentation of work?

September 14, 2015

Standing Before a Sentence

Yrsa Neuman is defending her doctoral thesis in philosophy at Åbo Akademi on Friday, 18 September (in Auditorium Arken, Fabriksgatan  2, Åbo/Turku), at 12 noon. The opponent (external examiner) is Dr Kevin Cahill, Bergen.

Short summary:
Standing Before a Sentence
Moore’s paradox and a perspective from within language

Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote to G.E. Moore that he had stirred up a philosophical wasps’ nest with his paradox, associated with the sentence “I believe it’s raining and it’s not raining”. The problem is that it would be odd for a speaker to assert this thought about herself, although it could be true about her, and although the sentence is well-formed and not contradictory.

Making use of the notion of a sentence having sense in a context of significant use (inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein), the author explores the responses of some of the “wasps” who responded to the paradox, and the background of their reactions.

By using the metaphor of philosophizing from within language rather than outside of language the author explores what she calls “the user perspective” on philosophical problems. In this investigation, Moore’s paradox functions as a test case, by which the author elucidates differences in view of the role and powers of philosophical terminology.

The contribution of this work is meta-philosophical in being concerned with philosophical method. Its point of departure is in the therapeutic strand of the tradition after the later Wittgenstein.

The full text of the thesis is found here:


June 19, 2015

“An attitude towards a machine”

The British film Ex Machina, written and directed by Alex Garland, is an intelligent dramatization of the issue of artificial intelligence. Caleb, a young programmer working for Bluebook (the counterpart of Google in the film’s universe), is invited to spend a week in the company owner’s secluded refuge in the wilderness. It turns out that Caleb is to conduct an enhanced version of the Turing test on an advanced robot, Ava, constructed by the owner, Nathan. Ava is designed as a female. If she can get Caleb convinced that she loves him, he will take her to have a consciousness, and thus she will have passed the test. Of course, Caleb knows from the start that Ava is an artefact, which raises the stakes. I shan’t give the plot away for those who haven’t yet seen the film.
Ex Machina might be suitable for a film and philosophy course. It gives plenty of food for thought. There is ingenious play with various degrees of embodiedness - to travesty Wittgenstein, Ava’s body is the worst picture of her soul (Philosophical Investigations¸ Philosophy of Psychology – A Fragment, § 25).The erotic tension gives a wholly different twist to the intellectualist preconception of the original Turing setup.
Standing before a Jackson Pollock painting, Nathan explains that the greatest difficulty is how to recapture a similar effect of controlled spontaneity in the robot.
            There are, by the way, some intriguing allusions to Wittgenstein – maybe as a gesture to his grappling with the problems of souls and automata (e.g. Philosophical Investigations § 420). Apart from the search engine Bluebook which is explicitly said to be named after the Wittgenstein text, a copy of Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein (Ludwig’s sister), posing erect, cool, composed, is prominently displayed – in the room in which the female dresses and faces of robots are stored. (Gender roles is also a theme of the film that might be explored.) And on one occasion, Ava shows Caleb a doodle she has made and asks “What is this?” (an allusion to Culture and Value, p. 24). Caleb then teaches her to draw.
            Like virtually all stories involving artificial intelligence, this film remains a fairy tale along the lines of Frankenstein or Pygmalion – not a prediction of a possible development. The missing link in all stories about artificially created consciousness is the question how a human creation is supposed to be endowed with a life. The real deus ex machina here is Ava’s supposed desire to survive. But where does her desire come from? Or rather: where does the machine’s disposition to secure its own continued functioning come from?

April 12, 2015

What is understanding a sentence?

Michael Johnson gives the following argument for compositionality in his article on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

We are capable of understanding a very large number—perhaps an infinite number—of sentences that we have never heard before. …
If we understand the meaning of a new sentence whose meaning we haven’t been specifically taught before, it must be that we can work out its meaning from information available to us when we hear that sentence and other things that we have already learned.
Suppose for a moment that English is a compositional language, in the sense that the meaning of a sentence of English can be computed (worked out) from its syntactic structure and the meanings of its morphemes. This would explain how one could understand a novel utterance [shouldn’t this be “sentence”?] such as There is a cauliflower-shaped spacecraft from Saturn on television. English speakers who have never learned the meaning of this sentence specifically have nevertheless learned the meanings of each of the words in it: cauliflower, shape, the past tense morpheme -ed, spacecraft, and so forth. Furthermore, part of mastering a language involves acquiring the ability to parse sentences of that language, that is, to figure out their syntactic structure—for example, figuring out that cauliflower-shaped modifies spacecraft, but on television doesn’t modify Saturn. Thus if English is compositional, English speakers have all they need to understand novel English sentences they have never encountered before—provided those sentences don’t contain unfamiliar words. (Michael Johnson, “Compositionality” , Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy¸ accessed 11 April, 2015)

This is one version of a familiar line of argument. However, it doesn’t seem clear to me what precisely it is supposed to prove. I had never heard the sentence, “There is a cauliflower-shaped spacecraft from Saturn on television” until I read this article. I immediately recognized it as an English sentence, and I suppose I can say I understood it: it didn’t bewilder me, I understood how it was meant to be taken. (This was partly due, no doubt, to the context in which I encountered the sentence, as an instance of “sentences-understood-though-never-before-heard”.)
I could, as it were, identify the place of the sentence in the language calculus. Or we might say, I can state its truth-conditions (“the sentence p is true if and only if p”). But considered as an achievement, it seems to me, this is tautologous. Mastery of the system gives me mastery of the system; the question, however, is what enables us to reach beyond the language cage. After all, compositionality I take it is supposed to explain how we are able to communicate by means of combinations of words we have never encountered before, and all its seems to explain is how we are able to recognize combinations of words as the combinations of words they are. Suggesting that understanding a sentence takes us beyond mere recognition because it enables us to tell what the truth-conditions of the sentence are is no help: for one thing, this is true only if truth-conditions are understood as tautologically conveyed by the sentence itself. (“’Snow is white’ is true if and only if snow is white.” ) Second, if I don’t understand what the speaker is up to I don’t know how he means for his words to be related to the question of truth: is he trying to tell me something, musing on a formulation, telling a joke, composing a line for a science fiction story, planning the interior design of a room (“On top of the television set there will be this funny-shaped spacecraft-looking thing.”)?
            In fact, the condition that I must know the words in the sentence in order to understand it – in this sense – seems gratuitous, as long as I know what grammatical categories they belong to. Thus, to cite a famous example, while I have no idea what a runcible is, I have no difficulty understanding that the sentence “Smith kept a runcible at Abbotsford” is true if and only if Smith did indeed keep a runcible at Abbotsford. Why should my familiarity with the words have a bearing on my ability to extract the truth-conditions from the sentence?
            The idea seems to be that compositionality can explain the mysterious leap from simply hearing a sequence of words to a state called “understanding the sentence …”, a state which, although it does not yet tell me what I am to do with the words spoken, yet puts me in a position to deal with them wherever I might encounter them. And I doubt whether any such state needs to be postulated.