Corrections to the blogosphere, the consensus, and the world

Thursday, February 26, 2004

The Fog

Fog-like Sensations
According to some sympathisers, the reason why drivers on the motorways failed to slow down in thick fog recently, and so crashed into each other in multiple collisions of up to thirty vehicles, was simply because the authorities had failed to provide illuminated signs explaining that the fog was fog. This is a situation on which Wittgenstein made one or two helpful remarks in a previously unpublished section of ''Philosophical Investigations".

694. Someone says, with every sign of bewilderment (wrinkled forehead, widened eyes, an anxious set to the mouth): "I do not know there is fog on the road unless it is ,accompanied by an illuminated sign saying 'fog'."
When we hear this, we feel dizzy. We experience the sort of sensations that go with meeting an old friend one believed was dead. I want to say: "But this is the man philosophers are always telling us about! This is the man who does not understand—the man who goes on asking for explanations after everything has been explained!"
(A sort of Socratic Oliver Twist. Compare the feelings one would have on meeting Oliver Twist in the flesh. "And now I want you to meet Oliver Twist."—"But …!")
695. Now I feel a different sort of excitement. I see in a flash a thought forming as it were before my mind's eye— “This is at last the sort of situation which philosophers have always waited for—the sort of situation in which one as a philosopher can offer practical help!"
696. Imagine that the motorist said: "The trouble is, I can't see the fog for the fog." . We might understand this as a request for practical information, and try to answer it by showing him the definition of "fog" in the dictionary. To this he might reply: "I can't see ‘fog' for the fog." We respond by putting the dictionary an inch in front of his eyes. Now he says: "I can't see the fog for ‘fog'."
697. At this point a philosopher might want to say: "He sees the fog but he does not perceive its fogginess." Ask yourself what could possibly be the object of saying this.
698. Now the man says: "I can see the fog perfectly well, but I don't know that it's fog." I feel an urge to say: "Yet you know it's fog that you don't know to be fog!" (The deceptively normal air of paradoxes.) One can imagine his replying: "Naturally—it looks like fog." Or, if he is familiar with philosophical language: "Of course—I know that I am having fog-like sensations." And if one asked him what he meant by that, perhaps he would say: "It looks like what I see in places where I should know what I was seeing if it were labelled ‘fog'."
699. Now the feeling of dizziness vanishes. We feel we want to say: "Now it seems more like a dull throbbing behind the eyes."
700. Of course, one is familiar with the experience of seeing something ambiguous. "Now it is the Taj Mahal — now it is fog." And one can imagine having a procedural rule that anything ambiguous should be treated as the Taj Mahal unless we see that it is labelled "fog."
701. The motorist replies: "What sort of rule is this? Surely the best guarantee I can have that the fog is fog is if I fail to see the sign saying ‘fog' because of the fog."—One can imagine uses for the rule. For example, to lure people to their deaths.
702. Still the man seems uneasy. "To be sure that the fog is fog because it is labelled ‘fog', I must first be sure that ‘fog' is ‘fog'. Now, supposing, without its being perceptible to the naked eye, the top of the ‘o’ were slightly open. How am I to be certain that it could not be accepted as a ‘u’, so that the word was not ‘fog' at all but ‘fug' ? Or how can I be certain that the first letter is really ‘f’ and not a grossly deformed but still meaningful ‘b’?
So now we have to have a label for “fog"! And another label for the label of "fog"!
703. But we are not yet out of the wood! (Or, as one might say, out of the fog.) The motorist might object: "I still cannot understand. I see that the fog is labelled ‘fog', and that ‘fog' is labelled ‘”fog”’, and so forth. But how am I to know that ‘fog' means fog, or that ‘”fog”’ means ‘fog'?
So we must qualify still further. We must expand "fog" to read “’fog', where ‘fog' means fog."
704. Now imagine the motorist's face. Imagine that the doubtful expression remains. Imagine that he says: "But how do I know that the expression “’fog', where ‘fog' means fog" means “’fog', where ‘fog' means fog"?
705 What sort of game are we playing here ? What sort of language are we using ? I am tempted to ask, what sort of man am I being used by? I have a certain feeling that goes with grating teeth, a frown, flushed cheeks. I want to say: "My offer of help is being abused."
706. One might try to provide the man with a mental picture, a working model of his position—as it were a map to enable him to get his bearings. I might say: "You are in a complete mental fog about the whole business." He seizes on this eagerly. He goes through the motions of assenting—nodding his head, pursing the lips, saying: "Yes, yes, that's it exactly. I am in a complete mental fog."
Now one asks: "But how do you know it's a mental fog you're in?"
707. At once he cries: "NOW I see! I see that I don't know I'm in a mental fog at all! I need an illuminated mental sign saying 'mental fog'."
708. If a lion could speak, it would not understand itself.

Happiness & the Propelling Pencil

Following on the observations about happiness, I happened on what Michael Frayn had said about it in the sixties -
New Man Coming
One's personality is a remarkably stable structure; and the most stable element in it is one's steadfast conviction that it is just on the point of being entirely transformed.
Transformed, needless to say, not by any efforts of one's own, but by magic objects and events outside oneself. One's dissatisfactions and limitations will be suddenly and wonderfully sloughed off, one comes to believe, when one has acquired a striped suit, or a red car; when one has got married; when one has written a book, or found God, or learnt Italian; when one has reached the age of 10; when one has moved house; when summer comes.
It is strange that so much of one's action is motivated by such patent witchcraft. But in a society where unhappiness is regarded rather like fleas, as an unappealing state people ought to be ashamed of getting into, I suppose it is congenial to see oneself as a naturally happy soul hindered from achieving perfect contentment only by external causes. All these extraordinary superstitions are ways of concealing from oneself the painful fact that most of one's discontents are the inevitable by-products of one's own nature.
I rely a bit on almost all these superstitions, but most particularly on those that involve straightforward covetousness. If I had a certain material object, I have repeatedly felt, my whole life would be entirely changed. From its small corner the totem would radiate such a powerful field of rightness and delight that everything else would come to glow in sympathy.
The first thing I can remember coveting as a child was a propelling pencil that wrote in five colours, after I had seen the teacher correcting exercise books with one. Other little boys might have conceived a passion for the teacher, but I fell in love with the propelling pencil. It was beautiful, and I desired it. The provocative glimpses of the coloured leads through the slots in the side inflamed my senses. I longed to touch the exquisite texture of the nickel-plating.
My parents were driven to say they would buy me one— but, torment of hopes raised only to be the more savagely hurled down, there was none in the shops! I raged about the house like a tiny junkie deprived of his fix, while they ransacked London, and after days of great misery for all of us, ran one to earth in far-off Peckham Rye. But so supremely unimportant did it become as soon as I possessed it that I cannot even remember what happened to it.
It sometimes seems to me that the whole story of my life could be adequately told in the catalogue of my love affairs. There was the affair with the ten-and-sixpenny plastic crystal set (purchased—never worked); the affair with the miniature starting-pistol (owned by a friend—fiercely desired through long centuries of time—swapped for about half my possessions —instantly devalued, and allowed to fall to pieces before it could fire the five blank cartridges which my friend's father was keeping locked up to celebrate the end of the war with); the affair with the second-hand sports car (£180—"Take you anywhere, that car," said the salesman, "Take you to Land's End and back,") snatched away at the last moment by a providential failure to raise the money.
One learns, of course. I don't think I shall ever fall in love with another propelling pencil, or another plastic crystal set. But the inoculation is against the particular ju-jus I've tried, not against ju-jus in general. It doesn't in any way deter me from my present mania, for example, which is coveting a swivel chair. If I had a swivel chair, upholstered in worn leather, I know I should be a new man.
I can see myself very clearly with the swivel chair. I am a calm man, a responsible man, a happy man, a man who can work for eight hours at a stretch without being interrupted by fatigue, boredom, bad temper or incompetence, a man who can take well-earned relaxation with his smiling wife and laughing child in some gay but uplifting leisure pursuit. 1 am a man who keeps an exquisitely selected early June day permanently outside his window. I am a man who does not get telephone calls from people who think they are phoning the South Eastern Gas Board.
1 am a man who is swinging gently from side to side in his worn leather swivel chair as he decides whether to spend the sunlit working day ahead on finishing his play about the ultimate essence of man, or starting the essay in which the ultimate nature of the universe is set forth in 500 exact and simple words.
Manufacturers of swivel chairs, join me in happy contemplation of the picture! Sooner or later I shall have the swivel chair, and you will have the money for it. How would you ever sell me a swivel chair I do not need if I did not believe 1 was buying a complete new personality ? How would any five-colour propelling pencils ever be sold if other people did not share my disorder? How would the evangelists and the travel agents survive ?
And just as surely as I know the man in the swivel chair will be a new and perfect man, so I know he will be the same inadequate one, not only depressed by the weather, interrupted by the telephone, unable to find a pen that works, and confused about exactly what he is supposed to be doing, but also driven to final exasperation because the swivel on the blasted chair is broken.
I know it only too well. Perhaps it's just as well for all concerned that I don't actually believe it.

Reasonably well expressed, but interesting particularly because as far as I can see that swivel chair actually worked for Frayn.
A pity those pieces are out of print. Surely the one on Wittgenstein and fog must be posted somewhere?
Apparently not. I shall do it myself.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Fox Nader

I’m just reading Charles James Fox’s History of the Early Years of the Reign of James II, and the dissensions that wrecked the Duke of Argyle’s uprising against James II seemed eerily similar to today's events;

“Add to Argyle’s problems that where spirit was not wanting among his supporters, it was accompanied with a degree and species of perversity wholly inexplicable, and which can hardly gain belief from any one whose experience has not made him acquainted with the extreme difficulty of persuading men who pride themselves upon an extravagant love of liberty, rather to compromise upon some points with those who have in the main the same views with themselves, than to give power (a power which will infallibly be used for their own destruction) to an adversary of principles diametrically opposite; in other words, rather to concede something to a friend, than everything to an enemy.”

It's funny because it's true.



Posts in Mat. Yg about happiness, and the fallacy of expecting happiness to increase with more possessions;

True enough, but the issue is not at this level "Why do we keep getting possessions when they don't make us happier" but "Why do we want to be happy?" It isn't exactly a tautology. I once wrote a short story about a group of scientists trying to persuade a computer not to commit suicide, and the issue was that happiness isn't transferable into mind as opposed to glands. Which means that there is no rational (non-tautological) reason to wish to seek happiness, and we ought to recognise it as a Darwinian survival strategy bred into us by many generations of extinct unbreeding pessimists. And when Mr. Yg says
"Getting the new phone will make me happy for, maybe, a week or two, but soon enough it's just going to be part of the landscape. That fact is totally clear to me, and yet I still want the new phone."

that is of course looking at the object as if it were a goal rather than the goal being the process; what he wants is to want and to satisfy wants, and the particular wants are determined by the particular role he is playing in his particular internal movie - who he wants to see himself as.
As Outside Counsel says,
"We live our lives as the stars of our own movies, and if the lighting and the storyline favor us, well, it is our movie after all. We account for ourselves in the way that makes us look like the people we believe ourselves to be...."


Monday, February 23, 2004


David Hicks is in Guantanamo because he was caught in Afghanistan. He has been there for two years without any measurable progress being made to any form of trial. His australian supporters are seeking to have him returned to Australia for trial. The Americans refuse to send anybody back to any country that won't undertake to kill or, at the very least, prosecute and convict them. However, at the time Hicks did whatever he did Australia seems to have had no laws that would make whatever it was illegal. Correspondingly, the only way to have the Americans refer him for trial in Australia would be for our new terrorism legislation to be made retrospective, and this has now been proposed. The Prime Minister, John Howard, is against this because he feels that retrospective laws imposing criminal sanctions are unfair. Well, yes; but as that's so, shouldn't Hicks be let go? He didn't do anything that Australia prohibits, he couldn't be said to be doing anything against Afghan laws by fighting for the recognised government, and the Americans haven't identified any American law that would hold him.

This is surely a time for Habeas Corpus and the Case of the Hottentot Venus.


Friday, February 20, 2004


I haven't checked out the conspiracy theories about what Bush did to miss that physical, but it seems mathematically certain there was something pretty discreditable; if there wasn't he wouldn't have bothered to stonewall for a week in which his approval rating plunged.


Thursday, February 19, 2004

Rummy, that

I have so far been unable to convince any of my Australian friends that the talking Donald Rumsfeld doll I ordered from America is not in fact a biting satire but rather a sincere tribute by like-minded conservatives. There is obviously a remarkable difference between the two cultures in the semiotic significance of the action figure.


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