Blackburn and Ramsay – Cambridge versus Transparency

 We've read Blackburn a bit lightly on ethics and truth, and I knew I liked the way he thought well enough that I would watch his talk at BRSLI this past Tuesday whatever the topic. I was a little disappointed though that the topic was a person, but then the person proved a wrapping around some interesting ideas. Frank Ramsay founded what little of economics I'm involved in, also also contributed to the problems of decision theory that were ultimately Alan Turing's first contributions to computer science. He also became fascinated by psychology and apparently was credited by Wittgenstein for pointing out the flaw in his first book, that it discussed everything but what matters and says that cannot be discussed. What matters was individual experience, that is the seat of semantics, the rest is just syntax [my phrasing, not theirs.]

It was the lecture of an elderly man and I couldn't help but want to be not only in the Bloomsbury scene of the turn of the century or the Vienna circle, but at Cambridge when Simon Blackburn arrived and seeing how his mind worked then or even twenty years later, when I in fact went to Chicago (not that I regret that.) Blackburn said when he arrived to Cambridge over a decade after Wittgenstein's death his ghost was still everywhere – people imitating him, talking about where he'd drank or stood. Princeton was used to being that place for Einstein's ghost, but while we were there Einstein was an advertising gimmick and the ghost was Nash, who'd only just died when we were visiting town house hunting, before we moved there. I'm sure Chicago was full of ghosts I was too ignorant to recognise. Most of us come into spaces without the intellectual inheritance to see how history and thought is disrupted into streams and eddies around the people who compose it, even if we happen to have the cognitive resources that would have allowed us to observe that complexity.

Back to the BRSLI talk, despite all the fantastic theory and philosophy communicated, somehow the thing that stood out for a question was a slightly bitter throw-away line about how one of Ramsay's influences, Pierce, was a difficult man who never held an academic position and rather wrote in the kind of intellectual magazines that no longer exist. Around the same point in the lecture Blackburn had gushed that Ramsay as a teenager had been one of the few people alive to master the then leading (and difficult) logics, though present logics were somewhat more complex even still. So I asked a question about what had changed about being an intellectual in the last 100 years, why were there no longer these magazines, how could there be logic now beyond a super genius like Ramsay.

Blackburn answered that the change was the outcome of the Cambridge school's obsession with logic. While one part of philosophy had gone down the fork into what mattered to people – Sartre and Foucault – the other in its obsession over the foundations of knowledge had generated what is creating the era and challenges we live in now – Computer Science.

I'm running again and again over these ideas. On the one hand I find it hopeful. It illuminates my own thinking on ethics, on the necessity of grounding everything in the understanding and needs of humans, because we are the engines that move things forward for us – our aesthetics and values are aimed at our own persistence and can have no other meaningful purpose. The project then becomes using the devices we build to increase intellectual access to the complexity of our world, so we can continue to improve our own well being and the sustainability of our endeavour. 

On the other hand I'm struck by the image of us as earthworms, pushing organic material from our mouths through our butts, and information from our eyes and ears through our fingertips and keyboard, changing the world without any real concept of what we are doing. Even having that image is of course evidence of its incorrectness, but I still worry.

Earthworms in window boxes are stuck.

I should acknowledge again that we (where used in the first sentence and second paragraph) refers also to Will Lowe, without whom I would understand none of this.