- Reading Wittgenstein with Anscombe, Going onto Ethics by Cora Diamond
In many ways, this is a difficult and important book about a difficult and important book (Anscombe's An Introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus) about a difficult and important book (Wittgenstein's Tractatus). It is also much more, as Diamond highlights Anscombe's work on ethics and action as she moves to engage metaethical questions about relativism and truth. One of the unifying threads is the matter of thinking about thinking, especially the ways we respond to thinking that has gone astray (5). Thinking that does go astray traverses paths with "dangerous spots," as Wittgenstein says. The dangerous spots may be muddles and confusions. To avoid these paths, we need sign posts. Diamond's work provides a collection of sign posts constructed from her careful, critical, and charitable reading of Anscombe and Wittgenstein. It is a keen study and practice of a philosophical method that not only aims to clarify muddle and confusion but avoid them in the first place. This book will benefit not only philosophers of language, Wittgenstein, and Anscombe scholars, but also those working in metaethics.
The book comprises seven essays divided into three sections. While six of these have been published previously, each has been revised and reconsidered. Each section has [End Page 412] a substantial introduction that situates the essays of that section both in terms of their relation to each other and to the trajectory of the book as a whole. In these introductions, Diamond often explains her motivation in revisiting a particular issue, framing a question differently, or explaining how her thinking has changed over time. These introductions are akin to an intellectual memoir in many ways. Diamond learned to read Wittgenstein through Anscombe's work. She is still learning from Anscombe, even as or because she disagrees with her in significant ways. Diamond displays an openness and humility about admitting where her own thinking was mistaken or where it might more productively go.
Diamond tacks into and away from Anscombe's argument that there are some sentences that can only be true but are not allowed in Wittgenstein's Tractatus. Anscombe's example is "'Someone' is not the name of someone." Anscombe takes this sentence to be obviously true. Its denial is not obviously false, but only confusion or muddle. Diamond makes a convincing argument that Anscombe is wrong, but in a way that is productive. Anscombe failed to see that Wittgenstein allows for more uses of language than Anscombe and other commentators have allowed. Some propositions block paths leading to confusion and muddle while other indicate clarifying or productive paths. Acknowledging and understanding the difference between such propositions is one crucial way to avoid dangerous spots in our thinking.
The two essays in the final section, "Going on to Think about Ethics," are masterful. They are two of the most insightful essays on the metaethical issue of relativism available. David Wiggins argues there are some thinkables to which there is no alternative; there is no intelligible negation. Wiggins offers as a candidate that there is nothing else to think but that slavery is unjustified and unsupportable. This proposition is akin to "7+5=12." There is nothing else to think but that 7+5=12. Wiggins's claim also has at least a surface similarity to Anscombe's example of "'Someone' is not the name of someone." Diamond's criticism of Wiggins is that he failed to recognize the structural complexity of moral thinking. As a consequence, he failed to see the path-blocking moves made by both defenders and opponents of slavery. Diamond's discussion is rooted in careful readings of historical texts about slavery. She excavates texts for what they reveal about thinking about slavery. In the process, she reminds us of Wittgenstein's warning about the craving for generality. That craving may send us down paths riddled with confusions and muddle that have very real consequences. Particular cases with their richness and complexity may lead in much more fruitful directions. This warning is one...