Friday, 26 June 2015

Dialogues in Philosophy, Mental and Neuro Sciences

I see that there is a new issue of this online journal.


Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Delivering training to post graduate students?

After a chance comment at a Graduate Research Student Forum to one of the senior administrators I got an email today from someone asking whether I’d be prepared to convene a session on publication on the basis of my role as Senior Editor of Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology.

All fine and dandy. But I was struck by the title of the email which talked of ‘delivering training to post graduate students’ and a slight shiver ran up my spine. Why? Well obviously I should look to the philosophy of education and training but my remaining PhD annual progression monitoring forms for this evening won’t write themselves so there’s no time. In the absence of scholarship, I think my inchoate thought about the nature of training runs as follows.

Training is possible where the gap between the training and the activity trained is predictably crossable. Those driving schools that offer guarantees of free retests on failure after so many hours of instruction clearly take the logical gap between training and success to be empirically and inductively manageable.

At the other end of the spectrum – still with my inchoate thought – are activities which, whilst they have their roots in instruction require an exercise of judgement which seems to go beyond what was directly conveyed in the instruction. Perhaps character has been moulded, eyes opened to tracts of the space of reasons, but the judgement is in part an act of self creation. I’d like to call this ‘education’.

Even these rough thoughts do not work very well, however, to mark out clear divisions. I sometimes think that students can be trained to explain Descartes’ method of doubt. (Perhaps it helps in coping with the logical gap between training and success to start with those people who show up to a philosophy class in the first place, however.) But we provide an education for those who can see both the force of his arguments but also how to turn such sceptical doubts aside. Equally, in the School of Health, I’m sure we train nurses how to take temperatures, and train them in the necessary mental health law but we hope to educate them in the sensitivities that will allow them to take the temperature of someone detained against their will with minimal further indignity.

In this case, I am not sure it would be possible to train someone to get published although it is, probably, possible to train them out of willed failures to follow formatting guidelines. Anyway, for the second time in a week, I find my delicate sensibilities as a university lecturer easily offended by a quite standard and proper use.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Motivational speaking as instant enlightenment

Every year my School (a subdivision of the University) organises a ‘School Conference’ with various speakers, workshops etc as a piece of CPD. I make an effort to go and, despite the other things I could get done, it is generally worth it. This year’s started with a motivational speaker speaking to a title ‘Resilience’ but outlining – in a spirit influenced by the UK cycle team's aggregation of marginal gains – a number of small improvements for organisational performance. I say ‘organisational’ but they were aimed at individuals: ten or twelve plus a few other changes we might make to our own habits of thought and practice which would improve what we did not least by avoiding mental breakdown (hence resilience). As the speaker made explicit, they were mainly taken from a book on depressive illness by the psychiatrist Tim Cantopher and they had echoes of the Positive Psychology movement.

I should say that his comic timing was just right and many of the series of anecdotes he told, mainly encouraging of encouragement rather than negative criticism, were very funny. At the end, in the final five minutes, he quoted some pre-advertised bullet points from Cantopher’s book and so I guess it would be unfair to say that there wasn’t any content. But I am not sure that there was enough content for a 90 minute session. So that prompts the question: what was the relation supposed to be between the first 85 minutes and the end?

One thought is that the anecdotes illustrated or perhaps justified what was to come: only if we hear a story of a daughter who doesn’t dare ask questions in a maths class because of a bad experience five years before, will we be ready to hear that encouragement is better than criticism. The one justifies or exemplifies the generality of the other. But then, like Wittgenstein’s comment, it seems that invented examples would do as well as real ones and none of the stories were anything other than platitudinous.

My hunch is that the purpose was other: to make, causally rather than dialectically, the audience complicit in lowered expectations. After an enjoyable series of comic monologues, we embrace some brief suggestions, which could be jotted down, as an acceptable escape from complete vacuity. This Stockholm Syndrome reading of the situation was rather reinforced by the speaker’s insistence - and our compliance with this - that we gave him a standing ovation. This insistence might have been funny in a kind of meta, PoMo way but on the day seemed merely anxious and grubby.

But I think that all of this reflects a real difficulty with motivational speaking. If the aim is to change long standing habits and practices through a one off address, how could that be done? One thought is that this is what charismatic religion aims to do. By the end of the ceremony or service, we should all want to testify (or in this case applaud). But equally it reminds me of the 1970s hope that secular enlightenment might be merely one encounter group session away. Surely, however, that isn’t a sustainable model for good academic practice. I suspect that the only way to change ingrained habits is through practice and criticism and the only way a purely linguistic intervention could sustain that would be through the provision not of propaganda but standing reasons for aiming at that change. That, however, would require a more pedagogic rather than evangelical relation between speaker and audience. Perhaps as a university lecturer I would say that.

I am and I do.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Rereading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance after 32 years

My old friend Derek, who spends his days repairing a couple of aging Moulton bicycles, reminded me by email of a scene in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in which the motorcycle maintaining narrator alienates his friend John by offering to repair the latter’s expensive BMW with a beer can shim [Pirsig 2009]. John, we are told, prizes the appearance of things, or ‘romantic quality’ and thus cannot see the ‘classical’ quality that attaches to underlying form, to a properly functioning motorcycle with non-wobbly handlebars.

Not being able to recall the point of the scene, I glanced back at the book over an Armagnac late last night. This was one of my favourite books in my teens and must have been an influence on me becoming interested in philosophy. I had forgotten that it contains an account of Hume and Kant and a discussion of the philosophy of science. But its central metaphysics of quality was something that I never thought to find in academic philosophy and so, weirdly, I have rather forgotten about it for thirty odd years.

So ignoring all the present tense adventure on a motorbike, the following themes struck me on a quick review.

There is an appeal to a general cultural difference – between what is hip or groovy and what is square – illustrated by the shim story. Some people are alienated from technology and cannot see its underlying formal beauty. Immediately after the shim scene, Pirsig/the narrator remarks:

What emerged in vague form at first and then in sharper outline was the explanation that I had been seeing that shim in a kind of intellectual, rational, cerebral way in which the scientific properties of the metal were all that counted. John was going at it immediately and intuitively, grooving on it. I was going at it in terms of underlying form. He was going at it in terms of immediate appearance. I was seeing what the shim meant. He was seeing what the shim was. [ibid: 59]

This leads to the following key early distinction between romantic and classical.

I want to divide human understanding into two kinds—classical understanding and romantic understanding. In terms of ultimate truth a dichotomy of this sort has little meaning but it is quite legitimate when one is operating within the classic mode used to discover or create a world of underlying form. The terms classic and romantic, as Phaedrus used them, mean the following: A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance. ... The romantic mode is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate. “Art” when it is opposed to “Science” is often romantic.  The classic mode, by contrast, proceeds by reason and by laws—which are themselves underlying forms of thought and behavior. [ibid: 73-4]

There is a second general, pre-philosophical theme. The narrator’s alter-ego, Phaedrus, teaches English composition. He has a chance conversation with a Greek teacher which runs as follows.

She came trotting by with her watering pot between those two doors, going from the corridor to her office, and she said, “I hope you are teaching Quality to your students.” This in a la-de-da, singsong voice of a lady in her final year before retirement about to water her plants. That was the moment it all started. That was the seed crystal. [ibid: 180]

This leads him to set as an essay for his class the title: What is a 350-word essay answering the question, What is quality in thought and statement? There follows a description of a kind of teaching experiment in which he argues that the students know what quality is even though none can define it. As part of the experiment, he withholds marks (though not comments) and refuses to deploy principles of rhetoric until after the students have grasped an inchoate understanding of quality for which the principles are useful guides rather than constitutive of it.

The principles expounded in them were no longer rules to rebel against, not ultimates in themselves, but just techniques, gimmicks, for producing what really counted and stood independently of the techniques—Quality. [ibid: 208]

This leads to a manifesto:

“(1) Every instructor of English composition knows what quality is. (Any instructor who does not should keep this fact carefully concealed, for this would certainly constitute proof of incompetence.) (2) Any instructor who thinks quality of writing can and should be defined before teaching it can and should go ahead and define it. (3) All those who feel that quality of writing does exist but cannot be defined, but that quality should be taught anyway, can benefit by the following method of teaching pure quality in writing without defining it.” [ibid: 213]

That seems to me the main setup for the metaphysical exposition of quality which takes about 30 pages. I am not sure that the descriptions of Hume and Kant and of the scientific method adds a great deal to this. So plunging ahead, the narrator reports that Phaedrus was challenged by colleagues:

[T]he second wave of crystallization, the metaphysical one… was brought about in response to Phaedrus’ wild meanderings about Quality when the English faculty at Bozeman, informed of their squareness, presented him with a reasonable question: “Does this undefined ‘quality’ of yours exist in the things we observe?” they asked. “Or is it subjective, existing only in the observer?” It was a simple, normal enough question, and there was no hurry for an answer. Hah. There was no need for hurry. It was a finisher-offer, a knockdown question, a haymaker, a Saturday-night special—the kind you don’t recover from. Because if Quality exists in the object, then you must explain just why scientific instruments are unable to detect it. You must suggest instruments that will detect it, or live with the explanation that instruments don’t detect it because your whole Quality concept, to put it politely, is a large pile of nonsense. On the other hand, if Quality is subjective, existing only in the observer, then this Quality that you make so much of is just a fancy name for whatever you like. [ibid: 228]

The narrator then describes Phaedrus’ response to the dilemma. First, unlike contemporary philosophers such as John McDowell, he rejects any attempt to locate quality in the world as an observer-dependent property like colour. So the bulk of the response is to the second, subjective, horn.

Here a first diagnostic move is to realise that there is something illicit in the way it is characterised: “Or is it subjective, existing only in the observer?”.

Why should Quality be just what you like? Why should “what you like” be “just”? What did “just” mean in this case? When separated out like this for independent examination it became apparent that “just” in this case really didn’t mean a damn thing. It was a purely pejorative term, whose logical contribution to the sentence was nil. Now, with that word removed, the sentence became “Quality is what you like,” and its meaning was entirely changed. It had become an innocuous truism. [ibid: 232]

Despite this, however, he does not manage to dismiss this either. There are two sub-moves concerning the implicit perjorative characterisation. One might think that the subjective was just what one likes because of a contrast with a view of objectivity supplied by either a scientific materialism or a classic formalism. Against the former, Phaedrus argues that aspects of its world view depends on subjective elements. (the examples given are the number zero and the status of laws of nature.) Against the latter, Phaedrus gives way realising that at best he will have to subdivide quality into two.

What the classical formalists meant by the objection “Quality is just what you like” was that this subjective, undefined “quality” he was teaching was just romantic surface appeal. Classroom popularity contests could determine whether a composition had immediate appeal, all right, but was this Quality? Was Quality something that you “just see” or might it be something more subtle than that, so that you wouldn’t see it at all immediately, but only after a long period of time?...
Instead of one single, uniform Quality now there appeared to be two qualities; a romantic one, just seeing, which the students had; and a classic one, overall understanding, which the teachers had. A hip one and a square one. Squareness was not the absence of Quality; it was classic Quality. Hipness was not just presence of Quality; it was mere romantic Quality. The hip-square cleavage he’d discovered was still there, but Quality didn’t now seem to fall entirely on one side of the cleavage, as he’d previously supposed. Instead, Quality itself cleaved into two kinds, one on each side of the cleavage line. His simple, neat, beautiful, undefined Quality was starting to get complex. [ibid: 235-6]

In fact, a little later, just such a distinction returns in Pirsig’s account as the first subdivision after the primal quality. Still a failure to respond by neutralising one or other horn forces the narrator to describe Phaedrus’ conclusions as follows:

And so: he rejected the left horn. Quality is not objective, he said. It doesn’t reside in the material world. Then: he rejected the right horn. Quality is not subjective, he said. It doesn’t reside merely in the mind. And finally: Phaedrus, following a path that to his knowledge had never been taken before in the history of Western thought, went straight between the horns of the subjectivity-objectivity dilemma and said Quality is neither a part of mind, nor is it a part of matter. It is a third entity which is independent of the two…
Quality is not a thing. It is an event. Warmer. It is the event at which the subject becomes aware of the object. And because without objects there can be no subject—because the objects create the subject’s awareness of himself—Quality is the event at which awareness of both subjects and objects is made possible. Hot. Now he knew it was coming. This means Quality is not just the result of a collision between subject and object. The very existence of subject and object themselves is deduced from the Quality event. The Quality event is the cause of the subjects and objects, which are then mistakenly presumed to be the cause of the Quality!
[ibid: 234-9]

So that seems to be the heart of the metaphysics of quality. The philosophy backstory continues with Phaedrus going in search of the inversion which made quality as a whole, or as such, not an undefinable pre-rational origin of the relation of subject and object but a mere element within a larger rational structure. His aim is to make sure ‘Aristotle got his’ [ibid: 345].

I am struck now that there is something in all this a little reminiscent of my very basic understanding of Kant’s problem of the schematism. What guides the application of concepts to the world if one cannot simply presuppose the choice of the appropriate concept? The Critique of Judgment can be read as attempting to answer this general question. In its solution, reflective judgment plays a central role and is defined by contrast to determinate judgment as follows:

If the universal (the rule, principle, law) is given, then judgment, which subsumes the particular under it, is determinate... But if only the particular is given and judgment has to find the universal for it, then this power is merely reflective. [Kant 1987: 18]

The task which reflective judgment has to undertake is to ascend from the particular in nature to the universal. A necessary presupposition of this activity is that nature can be brought under concepts. This principle, which is not constitutive of nature but is a subjective principle governing judgment, is that we think of nature as purposive: we think of it, roughly, as art. The claim, roughly that we must think of the world as teleological, is one part of the solution. The other is that aesthetic judgment sheds light on how judgment generally is possible. The key element of aesthetic judgment, Kant suggests, is the ‘ability to judge an object in reference to the free lawfulness of the imagination’ in which there is ‘a subjective harmony of the imagination with the understanding without an objective harmony’ [ibid: 91-92]. It is the harmony of the faculties of imagination and understanding in judgment which is both the source of pleasure that grounds aesthetic judgment and which solves the problem.

Given that Pirsig/the narrator describes classical understanding of the world as involving the analysis of phenomena into parts and sub-parts - he calls this ‘classical rational analysis’ [Pirsig 2009: 76] – a similar question can be asked in the context of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. How is it that such a form of analysis can be brought to bear on the world? The answer is that it stems from a pre-rational encounter: the quality event which makes the relation of subject and object possible. Pirsig’s quality plays a role akin to Kant’s aesthetic understanding in being a half way house to conceptual judgement. As the narrator stresses, Phaedrus’ English teaching relied on the idea that quality could be recognised and identified and known even if it could not be formally analysed.

Still, it doesn’t seem very satisfactory. One problem is very familiar: trying to balance an ineffability claim with the identification of something. Pirsig/the narrator/Phaedrus tells us that the ‘Quality event’ causes the division of subject and object but makes it entirely unclear how he earns the right to say this since it – I assume – requires a prior division of quality, on the one hand, and the emergence of a subject-object split, on the other. But such a meta-division presupposes classical understanding.

‘Event’ is also tricky as that usually presupposes a series of distinguishable worldly happenings which again presupposes a subject-object split.

The metaphysical account is partly motivated by the prephilosophical distinction between romantic and classical quality judgements but such judgements don’t seem to characterise the ineffable quality he wants. Classical quality is downstream of the primal event as it is articulable. Romantic quality is an instantaneous judgement of the appearance of things. But that idea now looks to fall prey to the dilemma of being ‘just what one likes’. If it is, then it lies on the subject side of the subject-object split and thus presupposes just that division. If it isn’t, if, say, pictorial aesthetics are susceptible to some sort of placing in the space of reasons, then romantic quality will end up a variant of classical understanding in somewhat different terms. But again that presupposes the subject-object split behind which primal quality was supposed to lie as its cause. (Phaedrus’ reintroduction of rhetorical principles suggests a view in which English composition aesthetics cannot be given context-independent general rules. But that does not rule out context-dependent articulations, or reasons, of what is good and bad in an essay.) In neither case will it be the origin of the subject-object split.

Despite this, the main problem is much more recognisable than I would have expected. My hunch is that it could have been addressed more plausibly by rejecting the idea that rationality is codifiable in context-independent, general terms than by rejecting rationality as such. Quality isn’t outside the space of reasons.

Kant, I. (1987) Critique of judgment Indianapolis: Hackett

Pirsig, R. (2009) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an inquiry into values, Harper Collins e-book

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Campbell on the meaning-rationality link in delusions

Aline, Gloria and I met together to discuss John Campbell’s 2001 paper ‘Rationality, meaning and the analysis of delusion’. As a result I think I have a clearer picture of why I disagree with it than before. The following are thus not my own thoughts (though neither do I want to saddle - my expression of - them onto either of my colleagues).

Campbell’s paper divides between two phases of argument. In the first, he deploys a Davidsonian link between meaning and rationality to press problems with the interpretation of characteristic expressions of the Capgras delusion. The characteristic type of utterance – “That woman is not my wife!” - is insufficient to specify an interpretation since that type of utterance, freed of context, might be used to flag a mere discovery of illegality in the wedding ceremony. (I worried that by the end of the paper, Campbell had lost the right to this refutation but Aline pointed out that the proof of the pudding was in the lack of acceptance by the Capgras subject of this interpretation.) But the most plausible interpretation – “This [demonstrated] woman is not that [remembered] woman” - fails because the subject fails to deploy paradigmatic or canonical forms of checking. They do not do what they ought to do to check such a thought. Given the meaning-rationality link, this apparent failure of rationality undermines such an interpretation.

The positive phase aims to respond with a suggestion about the shape, at least, of the thought-content involved. The very fact of the failure to adopt paradigmatic checking strategies would be rational if the delusion had the status of a (third period) Wittgensteinian hinge proposition. So the form of the thought can be identified even though not the content (in G’s helpful terminological analogy though it will conflict with my philosophy of content use of ‘content’, sorry).

It thus seems as though the negative phase presses a failure of rationality and hence a failure of interpretation in accord with the meaning-rationality link. The positive phase suggests a ‘sort of’ rationality and hence a ‘sort of’ interpretation that reaches only as far as the form, not the content, of the thought.

I think this summary of what is going on enables me to state my earlier worry in slightly different terms. If one takes the negative phase seriously, the positive phase is unavailable. It, the positive phase, says of we-know-not-what content that it has the form of a hinge proposition. But surely the form-content distinction is an abstraction from the motley of thoughts subjects have rather than something independently understandable. (To be so would require prior commitment to something like the representational theory of mind in a strong sense of it being independently characterisable and understandable as the a priori engineering of minds rather than merely a post facto explanation of how they could be possible.) Given the meaning-rationality link (ie the constitutive ideal of rationality underpinning interpretation through the principle of charity) and given a plausible additional claim that rationality is not codifiable, drawing a distinction of form and content would require first articulating thoughts as a piece of radical interpretation and then abstracting forms and contents (from thought-contents, I want to say, with a danger of ambiguity). So if that could be done, one would then be in a position to say that delusions have the form of hinge propositions. But the first phase of Campbell’s paper is an argument against the possibility of that necessary preliminary work.

To assume access to the form of delusions without their contents is to assume something about the shape of their intentional content (in the usual philosophy of content sense of that word). Aside from abstraction from the output of radical interpretation, the only other route I can see to that would be to start with a picture of the internal vehicles of content and describe their functional roles. This approach faces a dilemma. If the functional roles presuppose the structure of rationality then the approach cannot sidestep the meaning-rationality link since rationality governs thought-contents. But if they are just any dispositional causal connections between inner vehicles of content (whatever the content turns out to be) then this threatens the connection between what is being described and our ways of making sense of one another since only some connections would be (so much as, as they say in Oxford) intelligible. There would need to be some reason to think that both structures kept in step. In the absence of that, such an approach seems a non-starter and hence the assumption that delusions are some sort of shaping of thought-content in the form of a hinge proposition despite being inaccessible to rational interpretation looks illicit.

Campbell, J. (2001) ‘Rationality, meaning, and the analysis of delusion’ in Philosophy Psychiatry and Psychology 8: 89-100

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

If a lion could talk...

I am delighted to see this issue of Existential Comics doesn’t assume, as so often by others, that Wittgenstein’s quip about the lion suggests that we would not be able to interpret the lion’s speech.  

This line complements the last line in the Tractatus as the quotations all the participants on that fine 1980-90s radio 4 show Stop the Week knew. (And it really was an excellent programme, an excellent use of 30 minutes of the radio. I recall – dimly albeit – a good 15 minute discussion of the worth of fish knives, the vague recollection of which sometimes makes me wonder now whether I ought to buy some. My partner’s family deployed them with due solemnity for fish fingers and I think that they were right so to do.) But typically the assumption is made that it is a kind of exception to a broadly Davidsonian view. The lion really is speaking, is in the space of reasons, but is somehow inaccessible to interpretation.  

It seems, from the context, that Wittgenstein’s comment is more subtle and helps to flag some of the range of meaning that attaches to ‘understand’. It is worth noting what comes before the famous line. We can fail to understand, not because we cannot grasp their meanings, (whether or not for Mulhallian reasons one wants to rejects the word ‘interpretation’ for this), but because we cannot find our feet with them.

We also say of some people that they are transparent to us. It is, however, important as regards this observation that one human being can be a complete enigma to another. We learn this when we come into a strange country with entirely strange traditions; and, what is more, even given a mastery of the country's language. We do not understand the people. (And not because of not knowing what they are saying to themselves.) We cannot find our feet with them. 
“I cannot know what is going on in him” is above all a picture. It is the convincing expression of a conviction. It does not give the reasons for the conviction. They are riot readily accessible.  
If a lion could talk, we could not understand him. [Wittgenstein 1953: 223]

Well I hope that this is what the comic strip is flagging rather than the fact that the lion is actually Frege.

((I have no doubts, given the immediately preceding comment by Wittgenstein. There is a nice, heavy Travisian atmosphere to the scene.))

Friday, 8 May 2015

Democracy and Jubilee the elephant

For some reason today I am reminded of the first occasion I wondered whether it was conceptually possible that democracy could deliver, not just a result I didn’t like but rather, something that surely no one with a proper view of the facts could think the best.

In 1977 a baby elephant was born in Chester Zoo and the BBC children’s television programme Blue Peter was given the task of polling popular opinion for the choice of name. It being 1977, a particular year long royal event was much in the news. As a Cub Scout, I was issued with a huge badge to be worn all that year and there was much predictable and eventually quite tedious hoo-hah even as far I, as an impressionable 12 year old, was concerned. So it was no surprise at all when the utterly witless suggestion ‘Jubilee’ topped the poll for the elephant’s name with about 90% of the votes and some random people were awarded prizes for having had just the same idea as everyone else.

I seem to recall that the third name was completely left-field. Perhaps ‘Gary’. Quite why half a dozen people thought of that I’ve no idea.

But in second place, with perhaps 10% of the vote,  came the rather more imaginative ‘Jumbilee’, a nice compromise of royalist atmosphere with something at least a little elephant specific. Also an idea that required even just a bit of imagination. Surely, I thought, this is obviously better than the actual winner? And what shame must the idiots collecting their prizes for not having thought at all be feeling? Crucially, if they were in possession of the full facts, surely no-one who voted ‘Jubilee’ would really defend it in the face of ‘Jumbilee’, the objectively better name? Such were my 12 year old’s thoughts and doubts. But it seemed, and it still seems, difficult baldly and boldly to think that most people are just idiots and democracy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.