Category Archives: Philosophy Quotes

Raimond Gaita on Some Varieties of Courage

[Walter] Bonatti [a mountaineer] says … that he curses the need to prove himself, wishing he were free of it as most people are. For him, the need was not to prove himself to others, but to prove to himself that he possessed certain virtues even in the face of death — not death in the mountains but in the face of death period.

Most people live their lives without worrying about whether they would have the courage to face death. For others it can be very important to know what they would do if they were sitting on the train next to a person whose safety was threatened by a gang of thugs. Would they intervene, or would they sit quietly, hoping to be left alone? What would they do, they ask themselves, if they lived in a country in which a neighbor might disappear in the middle of the night at the hands of the secret police? Physical courage has been devalued in most Western democracies, where people are lucky that moral courage seldom needs physical courage to support it. Most of the peoples of the earth are not so lucky.

It is not therefore because they are morbid that men like Bonatti are tortured by doubts about their courage. In the mountains they seek to know not what kind of mountaineer they are, but what kind of human being. That is why it is so shaming to know that one has proved a coward even when no one has suffered the consequences of one’s cowardice. … But though it is devastating to learn that one is a coward, to have been brave in the mountains is not a good reason for believing that one will be brave elsewhere. It is one thing to risk death, to face it courageously in a blizzard or when someone has fallen, and another thing to face it in the guise of a slowly degenerative illness, and another thing again to have the courage to remain human in a concentration camp.

from The Philosopher’s Dog, (Random House, 2002), 151-152. [Not one of the sort of reflections I would have expected from this title. Gaita’s good for surprises like that.]

On directions in which to extend one’s critical vocabulary

1. Raimond Gaita

There is a permanent tension between academic practice and the example of Socrates, which is why philosophers cannot simply appeal to their authority as people who have mastered a subject to justify their entry into a discussion that requires some depth and wisdom. If they do enter it then they must not only expect, but also accept as proper, the extension of the critical vocabulary in which their remarks are to be assessed – that, for example, they are shallow, naive, callow, fatuous, or even corrupt.

from Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception, 2nd ed. (Routledge, 2004), 322.

2. John Webster

Much can be discerned about a theological proposal … by observing the sequence in which … topics are addressed and the proportions allotted to each, as well as by probing the material claims made about them. [89]

Sometimes [dubious proposals] may be warranted by appeal to elements of the Christian faith, often rather randomly chosen, abstractly conceived, and without much sense of their systematic linkages. [202]

from The Domain of the Word, (Bloomsbury, 2014), emphases added

See also: Lash and Tanner

Fergus Kerr on Cornelius Ernst and Herbert McCabe as readers of Wittgenstein

How, as theologians, did Cornelius Ernst and Herbert McCabe read Wittgenstein’s Investigations? Neither held the standard view that the Investigations is intended as a contribution to something  called “philosophy of language.” That (Ernst would have thought) is [a] kind of “trivialization” of Wittgenstein … . That only corrals Wittgenstein in a crowded field of professional philosophy. His work is much more revolutionary and iconoclastic than that. Neither Ernst nor McCabe believed that the Investigations was any more responsible for ordinary language philosophy, linguistic analysis, and so on, than the Tractatus for logical positivism. Such outgrowths they regarded as the product of radical misunderstandings. They did not believe that his advice to “Let the uses of words teach you their meaning” was the cure-all for philosophical problems. They believed, as we have seen, that the later work initiated “the demise of the Cartesian epoch,” as McCabe said and, as Ernst said, offered relief from “the absurdity of the empiricist theory of meaning.” They held that the point of Wittgenstein’s distinction in the Tractatus between what can be said and what we must be silent about was made in order to protect the realm of ethics and religion — the mystical — from misapplied ideals of science.

from “Anscombe, Ernst, and McCabe: Wittgenstein and Catholic Theology.” Josephinium Journal of Theology 15/1 (2008): 67-86.

Raimond Gaita on philosophical points of departure

I wish to offer a starting-point for reflection — philosophical reflection — on absolute value; not the starting point, not even a starting-point unproblematically within the subject, but a starting-point partly from outside the subject. I do not wish to prejudge the relation between reflection within the subject and reflection outside of it, although I plead for greater philosophical patience for reflection outside, and I shall try to undermine the confidence on the part of philosophers that they know what to make of it, that it is for philosophy to delineate all the serious options and that what is said outside of philosophy will, at best, speak for one or another of them. [13] …

It is common even for philosophers to complain of the thinness of much of moral philosophy (not just modern moral philosophy whose thinness is almost universally deplored). [14] …

[Bernard Williams thinks] that the subject [of philosophy] is in grave disorder and that we need an idea of how to sort it out; where to begin to sort it out. He recommends the question ‘how should one live?’ as the best point from which to begin to put order in the subject. That requires the question to be a real one for the philosopher who asks it: it does not allow one to drive a wedge between oneself as an individual human being and oneself as a philosopher. Socrates insisted that those whom he engaged in discussion speak for themselves, say what they seriously believed. He did not want them to report what others had said or what might be argued by one who thought this or one who thought that. That insistence is inseparable from the character of his question ‘how should one live?’

That does not fully answer the question whether the undesirable thinness of moral philosophy is internal to its practice as a subject. But it does suggest that it is internal to philosophical reflection on morality that it cannot insulate itself from the kind of reflection which is not recognizably professional and which does not allow for a sharp contrast between experts and laymen, masters and novices. There is, therefore, little reason to believe that the academic practice of moral philosophy has the authority to determine the best style and method of thinking on moral matters or, even, what the most serious problems are and how they should be characterized. [22]

from “The Scope of Academic Moral Philosophy,” In Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception, (MacMillan, 1991), 11-23. An essay that deserves to be read in full.

Herbert McCabe on the sesquiguous

I should, perhaps, introduce here my invention of the sesquiguous, which lies between the ambiguous and the plonking or flat statement. The plonking statement is one-dimensional, clear, unarguable and unimportant: in theological terms it belongs to the pre-conciliar world of what were thought of as clarities and certainties. The ambiguous statement on the other hand has two meanings, and is eminently suitable for conciliar documents, in particular for ecumenical documents, which have to be read in at least two ways by ex-opponents who are moving cautiously towards each other: ambiguity is the style of the liberal. We need, therefore, a word for what has neither two meanings nor one meaning, but one-and-a-half meanings, and ‘sesquiguous’ therefore springs to mind; a sesquiguous utterance is one in which the speaker both commits himself to a position and is simultaneously aware of the inadequacy of what he is saying, and of his own position in saying it: it is as I say really a form of irony. It involves shifting slightly to one side and taking a critical look at what you are and what you are saying, and at who is saying it. It is, in fact, the effort to overcome the ineluctably alienating character of signs and language as such. […] Nothing can really be said plonkingly, truth can only be conveyed ironically with an eye to the nearly always comic inadequacy of the signs used. (You cannot convey that you love someone except sesquiguously, or as we say, with a sesquiggle.)

from God Matters (Geoffrey Chapman, 1987), 176.

David LaRocca on Autobiographical Remarks

The greatest obstacle to truth in conventional autobiography is not insufficient insight (about facts, memories, desires, or ideas elucidated by the intellect) but vanity — a resistance by one’s will to that very difficult type of understanding we may call self-understanding. […] In the present essay, in light of Wittgenstein’s reading of Tolstoy, I explore the notion that autobiographical practice does not require a form of self-consciousness, or intellect, that may aid the development of humility, honesty, and decency. The real work of autobiographical practice isn’t done by self-consciousness but is achieved by the true humility that derives from will — a will that blocks vanity.

from “Note to Self: Learn to Write Autobiographical Remarks from Wittgenstein,” in Wittgenstein Reading, Eds. Bru, Huemer, & Steuer, (De Gruyter, 2013), 320.

Commentary: With the above LaRocca offers the always needed reminder that self-knowledge is every bit as much a moral endeavor as it is intellectual. And if we would build on LaRocca’s contribution, I’m persuaded that, first, we would do well to remember that there are more obstacles to an honest estimate of ourselves than just vanity. Lusts, cowardice, mercilessness and all sorts of other vices could do the trick of blinding us just as effectively. And second, no matter our vigilance, moral maturity is not an achievement of an individual’s sheer will-power alone. For suggestions as to what other factors are in play, you can browse other posts of mine on this topic here.