Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Taking up the flute again and the Polanyi from... to... structure

I learnt to play the flute between the ages of 8 and 18 to the standard that any reasonably assiduous but non-musical person might, but then just stopped playing when the rest of life intervened. A misunderstanding with an eBay robot purchasing agent (not an agent that purchases robots, sadly) just before Christmas accidentally bought me a new plastic student flute which piqued my fancy enough to try playing again.

I discovered that I had dramatically forgotten most of the theoretical ‘knowledge-that’ involved. A flute has, I think, 16 holes covered by keys connected together and to other keys and hence not every hole has a fingered key above it. I had forgotten on which keys the fingers rest (they don’t move much once placed) and had to look that up. I’d also partly forgotten the combinations yielding notes (which is almost standard over two octaves and then gets a bit weird). But once revision had answered some of those factual questions, know-how began to fill in the gaps. My fingers seemed to know how to play scales and arpeggios. And from this know-how, I milked the ‘knowledge-that’ of other finger placement. The plastic flute didn’t sound bad to my ear but the fingering was spongy and, anyhow, I own a couple of better flutes and so, ten days ago, I took up one of my original metal flutes.

It felt very heavy in my hand. Because the plastic flute has a bent head to reduce the reach needed by younger students, the full size flute felt very long in contrast (and after thirty years). But the most obvious thing was that the tone I produced, by contrast with what I’d achieved on the cheap plastic flute, was breathy, rough, impure.

Polanyi suggests all awareness takes the form of a from... to... structure. One attends from something subsidiary to something focal. Learning to ski, eg., one starts by attending (focally)* to the edges of the skis, their angle etc but as one gets the hang of it one can attend from them to where one wants to go on the hill. That’s how one conceptualises what one is doing. Of course, one is still in some sense bodily aware of what one is doing proximally with one’s skis even as one individuates actions distally: awareness of the skis is subsidiary awareness. And of course it can become focal again, especially in ski lessons.

*When one attends focally to the edges of the skis, from what does one attend subsidiarily? Good question! One might say: the position of the feet attached to them. But then, to learn to move the feet correctly, from what did one attend to them? Unconvincingly I think, Polanyi says that one has subsidiary awareness of one’s own neurological states of which, however, one can never be focally aware, rather extending the normal meaning of ‘awareness’. (I fear he suffers a ‘craving for generality’, in Wittgenstein’s pathology of philosophy.)

All that to raise a question. In the face of the poor tone of the metal flute, I tried changing my embouchure but couldn’t really tell if I was doing anything different and couldn’t hear any improvement, even momentarily. I tried to vary things but didn’t have a sense of what my mouth was doing in purely bodily terms and so wasn't sure I was doing anything different and if I were, what. (Perhaps at 18, I would have had a sensory vocabulary and corresponding sensory awareness for that but certainly not now.) And because I couldn’t improve the tone at all, I couldn’t link my ‘inner sensations’, as it were, to a change in tone as the manometer example in Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument suggests.

Ten days later, however, and after modest daily practice, it simply sounds better. I am doing something better. But I cannot see how there has been any feedback or any explicit trial and error. How is it possible to get better at doing something when - unlike the skiing case - it does not seem possible to be aware, focally, of what component actions one has been changing? There have been no eureka moments of thinking: I should form my mouth thus via a McDowellian/Evansian demonstrative concept. How could a telos be built into the practice when no element of the practice going well could be identified? It seems miraculous. Practice may make perfect but one needs some way to conceptualise the perfection and mine has merely been from a great distance as sounding rather better but not as sounding like that. What fills the gap? (No one say: reflective judgement, please.)

(Interestingly, my plastic flute now sounds very different and rather worse. Surely it does not actually sound different? Surely, I’ve not lost that skill, pushed out by the newer one over ten days? I am just hearing it against a new standard: the sound of a conventional flute, which I had forgotten over 30 years?)

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Delusion and disjunctivism

I realise that sitting in conferences on mental illness and madness, I’m aware of a lack of general awareness of something like the power of disjunctivism to undermine the argument from illusion. That might seem an odd segue but it comes naturally to me when presented with a worry from Thomas Szasz that there’s something odd about a diagnosis of mental (by contrast with physical) illness in that it turns on a disagreement between clinician and patient. The worry starts from the practical asymmetry in that situation and then presses the question: but who is to say that the clinician is right? And it can seem that since the main thing that holds the practical asymmetry in place is a social power relation - where one side can access the police and law easily while the other cannot - then that is also all the asymmetry can comprise, too. The difference is merely one of power.

My naive response, when I hear this worry expressed, that the clinician is obviously right and her patient wrong if the latter says (today) he is Napoleon (to take an example from Szasz) is usually greeted with a raised eyebrow and the question: but how do we know that? And once one begins to press this worry, it can seem that this meta-level asymmetry, which now has me and the hypothetical clinician, with perhaps other members of society, on the one hand and the supposed patient and possibly my more open-minded interlocutor (“Perhaps he really is Napoleon, travelled through time!”) on the other hand, itself only comprises difference in numbers.

I suspect that this is a case where the obvious and naive thought is given up not because it ceases to ring true, but because of an intuitive philosophical argument. The ‘who is to say?’ question is a philosophical question and seems to drive a conclusion that - like much philosophy - goes against what we had taken to be obvious. If that is so, it is a pity that disjunctivism isn’t more widely available since the worry Szasz implicitly trades on a form of the argument from illusion. I’d like to print out these passages from Sebastian Rodl’s book and hand them to all and sundry:

The argument (from illusion) is: Whenever I seem to know something (on the basis of perceptual. experience), I might have been fooled. Had I been fooled, I would not have known that I was. I would not have been able to tell my situation apart from one in which I am not fooled. This shows that my grounds do not place me in a position to exclude that I am in such a situation. They do not enable me to exclude that I am fooled. —The argument supposes that, had I been fooled, I would have believed the proposition in question on the same grounds on which I believe it now that I am not fooled. This straightforwardly entails that these grounds do not establish the truth of what I believe and therefore do not provide me with knowledge.
But when I know something on the ground that, say, I perceive it to be the case, then I would not, had I been fooled, have believed it on this ground, for, had I been fooled, I would not have perceived it to be the case. Hence, when I am not fooled, my grounds exclude that I am fooled: when I perceive how things are, I am not fooled with regard to how they are. One might object that this grants me grounds that rule out error at the price of making it impossible for me to know whether my belief is based on such grounds. For, when I am fooled, I do not know that I am fooled. So I can never know whether I am not fooled and my beliefs are based on grounds that [establish] their truth, or whether I am fooled and such grounds are unavailable to me.
This objection repeats the mistake: from the fact that, when I am fooled, I do not know that I am, it does not follow that, when I am not fooled, I do not know that I am not. When I know that p as I perceive it to be the case, then I know that I perceive that p. Thus I am in a position to distinguish my situation from any possible situation in which I would be fooled, for, in any such situation, I would not perceive that p, while in the given situation I do. 
[Rodl, S. (2007)Self-Consciousness, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press pp 157-8]

This is a good summary of disjunctivism in epistemology: the view that the epistemic significance of an experience is not restricted to what would be the highest common factor shared between a veridical experience and a mere illusion. There can be more to an experience than just an appearance, construed as merely as how things seem. It can be a matter of drinking in an aspect of the world itself. Rather than being limited to the highest common factor, experiences come in two distinct forms: Either, when all goes well, a taking in of how the world is. Or, when things go badly, a mere deceptive appearance. Hence ‘disjunctivism’. In the former case, experience is relational: a feature of the world itself forms part of the subject’s state.

Rodl’s passage makes two key points. First, in the good disjunct, one knows how one knows and hence, in the good disjunct, one can know that one knows (since how one knows is good enough because necessarily world-involving). Of course, had one been in the bad disjunct, one would have thought that one knew how one knew and that one knew but one would have been wrong on all counts: wrong that one knew (whatever fact about the world) and hence how one knew (it) and hence that one knew that one knew (it).

But, second, the fact that, in the bad disjunct, one does not know has no effect on the good disjunct. ‘[F]rom the fact that, when I am fooled, I do not know that I am, it does not follow that, when I am not fooled, I do not know that I am not’.

Disjunctivism helps highlight the real asymmetry in the case above. It is not that both clinician and patient have the same sort of cognitive state with the fact about Napoleon’s identity being an inaccessible extra. The real asymmetry in the case of the sane clinician and deluded patient is that one is right and the other wrong about who is and isn’t Napoleon.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

How is experience supposed to be a positive reason for belief in Mind and World?

I’ve been working on final edits to the second edition of my book on McDowell and I’m increasingly confused by something that, surely!, should have bothered me much more in the past. It concerns the status of experience as a reason for belief, which is one of the most obvious features of the Mind and World account.

In the first version of my book, I took the following as a key statement of McDowell’s empiricism.

In a particular experience in which one is not misled, what one takes in is that things are thus and so. That things are thus and so is the content of the experience, and it can also be the content of a judgement: it becomes the content of a judgement if the subject decides to take the experience at face value. So it is conceptual content. But that things are thus and so is also, if one is not misled, an aspect of the layout of the world: it is how things are. Thus the idea of conceptually structured operations of receptivity puts us in a position to speak of experience as openness to the layout of reality. Experience enables the layout of reality itself to exert a rational influence on what a subject thinks. [McDowell 1994: 26]

This passage combines two key notions. First, experience has a conceptually articulated content. This is important because of McDowell’s assumption that rational relations connect only conceptualised relata. So if experience is to provide a rational friction on thought by the world it must be the case that experience is conceptually structured. Second, and following from that requirement, experience is, when all goes well, a form of direct openness to the world. This in turns leads to German Idealism because if experience is conceptually structured and is also, at best, a form of openness to the world, then the world, too, is conceptually structured. But I’m not worried about that bit today. Rather, it’s what I didn’t notice before because I focussed on the idea that experience couldn’t play this role unless it were conceptually structured. What I didn’t think about is how it could play a rational role even if it were so structured.

By contrast with later work, on the Mind and World picture, experiences contain the very same kind of propositional content as is contained in judgements and, further, in the specific judgements they can, when all goes well, rationalise.

A judgement of experience does not introduce a new kind of content, but simply endorses the conceptual content, or some of it, that is already possessed by the experience on which it is grounded. [McDowell 1994: 48-49]
Note that grounding need not depend on an inferential step from one content to another. The judgement that things are thus and so can be grounded on a perceptual appearance that things are thus and so.
[McDowell 1994: 49 footnote6]

The link from experience to belief is not an inference. Elsewhere McDowell says:

In the conceptual activity I am mainly concerned with, that of making observational judgments, what matters is the rationality exemplified in judging whether things are thus and so in the light of whether things are (observably) thus and so. The content of the item in the light of which a judgement of this kind has its rational standing is the same as the content of the judgement itself. The only inferences corresponding to the rational connection in question would be of the “stuttering” form, “P; so P.” [McDowell 2009: 32]

So the connection between experience and subsequent full blown judgement is not an inference, unless of this vacuous stuttering form. So what is it? Experiences are not themselves perceptual beliefs. They need not be actively endorsed. There is a gap between experiences and active endorsements of them in judgements. So what kind of link is there between experience and judgement? The gap (to be bridged) is stressed in the following passage from Mind and World.

I said (§4) that when we enjoy experience conceptual capacities are drawn on in receptivity, not exercised on some supposedly prior deliverances of receptivity. And it is not that I want to say they are exercised on something else. It sounds off key in this connection to speak of exercising conceptual capacities at all. That would suit an activity, whereas experience is passive. In experience one finds oneself saddled with content. One’s conceptual capacities have already been brought into play, in the content’s being available to one, before one has any choice in the matter. The content is not something one has put together oneself, as when one decides what to say about something. In fact it is precisely because experience is passive, a case of receptivity in operation, that the conception of experience I am recommending can satisfy the craving for a limit to freedom that underlies the Myth of the Given. [McDowell 1994: 10]

If one goes no further than reporting one’s experience as containing the claim that things are thus and so, one still has to determine whether to endorse that claim oneself. If one endorses it, one claims to see that things are thus and so (if the experience is a visual experience). If not, one restricts oneself to saying it looks to one as If things are thus and so. In a “looks” statement, that is, one withholds one’s endorsement of the claim one reports one’s experience as containing. [McDowell 2009: 228]

Elsewhere he sets out Sellar’s account on which his own is closely based (in these regards, at least).

The conceptual episodes Sellars is concerned with, when he speaks of visual experiences as claims, are not as such cases of judging. Even if one does judge that things are as they look, having them look that way to one is not the same as judging that they are that way. In some cases, perhaps, one does judge that things are a certain way when look that way-acquiring the belief that they are that way by freely up one's mind that they are that way. But more typically, perceptual belief-acquisition is not a matter of judging, of actively exercising control over one's cognitive life, at all. Unless there are grounds for suspicion, such as odd lighting conditions, having it look to one as if things are a certain way-ostensibly seeing things to be that way becomes accepting that things are that way by a sort of default, involving no exercise of the freedom that figures in a Kantian conception of judgment. So there is a disconnection between perceptual experience and judging. [McDowell 2009: 11]

As in the key statement from Mind and World I quoted above, this passage suggests that experiences have a content, contain a claim (or rather many claims), that can be endorsed in a judgement. They share the same content, the sort of thing that could be put forward as a claim. That is what the idea of experience as conceptually structured buys for McDowell. But how does an experience provide a positive reason for a judgement? The following passage, which starts with an example that emphasises the distinction between experience and belief, also contains a suggestive metaphor.

Consider a person who thinks her visual experience does not put her in a position to say how things are in some respect. But she later realizes she was wrong about that, and says something on these lines: I thought I was looking at the tie under one of those lights that make it impossible to tell what color things are, so I thought it merely looked green to me, but I now realize that I was seeing it to be green… Our subject accepted the less committal proposition, but having an impression is not to be identified with accepting such propositions, any more than it is to be identified with accepting the more committal proposition that constitutes the impression’s content. An impression is something like an invitation—a petition, as Robert Brandom puts it in his contribution to this volume—to accept a proposition about the objective world. Our subject refused the invitation, but responded to it to the extent of accepting a proposition about how things looked to her. But one need not respond, even to that extent, to the invitation to belief that an impression is. [McDowell 2002: 278]

I mis-remembered Mind and World as also using the idea of experience as invitation to believe but I do not think it does. It’s here in the later collection Reading McDowell [Smith 2002]. McDowell’s response here is to a challenge Barry Stroud issues.

McDowell nonetheless puts his problem of how experience can give rational support to empirical judgments as that of accounting for “the way appearances can constitute reasons for judgements about objective reality” (p.62). His answer appeals to “rational relations” between experiences and the judgments about the world that we make on the basis of them (p.52), and he appears to think of those relations as holding between the contents of the experiences and the beliefs (p.166). “Because it looks square,” he says, is “easily recognized” as giving a reason to believe “It is square” (p.165); it is the person’s reason for believing that the object is square. But is it recognized as a reason because we discern a certain “rational linkage” between the content of the experience and the content of the belief? I think the content of an experience alone cannot give a person reason, or be a person’s reason, to believe something. The content of an experience is typically expressed in a proposition, and propositions are not reasons, nor do they make other propositions reasonable. Propositions are true or false, not reasonable or unreasonable, justified or unjustified. Even if one proposition implies another, it does not justify, support, warrant, or make reasonable that other proposition. What is justified or reasonable or supported or warranted is a person’s accepting a certain proposition, or rejecting it, or taking some other attitude toward its truth. [Smith 2002: 89]

McDowell’s response to this worry includes the following thought:

Stroud writes: “‘Believe’ is perhaps not the best word to capture the attitude of acceptance or endorsement involved in perception, especially if it suggests actively making up one’s mind.” But my problem with the suggestion is not met by insisting, correctly enough, that belief-acquisition can be involuntary. My problem is that I think we need an idea of perception as something in which there is no attitude of acceptance or endorsement at all, but only, as I put it, an invitation to adopt such an attitude, which, in the best cases, consists in a fact’s making itself manifest to one. [McDowell 2002: 279]

I don’t know why this didn’t seem baffling to me before. Before repeating the metaphor of invitation, McDowell here stresses: “I think we need an idea of perception as something in which there is no attitude of acceptance or endorsement at all”. He needs that because experience is supposed to be what provides the grounds for perceptual beliefs and thus cannot simply be – cf Davidson's experience-free picture of justification – a full blown perceptual belief itself. But now, if it is anything less than accepting a claim – which is what is supposed to follow from the experience, not be the experience – what less than that would have any rational sway on subsequent belief at all? An invitation would have to be one which had a good chance of being accepted, not just one of a set of contradictory invitations found on the doormat of a popular socialite. It must be more than just some sort of hypothetical content, such as the antecedent to a conditional. It must be more than just the claim that could be made using a sentence. As Charles Travis puts it:

An English sentence is not in any way committed to things being some one way rather than another. It does not pretend, or purport, that that is how things are. If one understands the English sentence ‘Pigs swim’ one thereby has it on no authority at all that that is how things are. It would be a gross misunderstanding to see English as thus saddled with such a preposterous collection of contradictory commitments. [Travis 2004: 61]

I’ve always focused on the account of how experience might have the right sort of shape to carry a claim that could be endorsed in a subsequent judgement: its having a conceptual articulation modelled on Sellars’ Myth of Jones (according to which we just should not be worried about states containing claims modelled on explicit judgements). But I’ve insufficiently worried about how it was ever supposed to provide reason for that judgement. Of course, this is the focus of that Travis article: to say that there’s no logical space for a notion of representation that does what McDowell needed it to do. But it had not occurred to me until now how little McDowell ever offered by way of an account of the evidential or rationally compelling status of the content supposedly contained in an experience on subsequent judgement. Unless the experience is in some partial sense always already endorsed, what weight can it carry for subsequent judgement?

The decisive moment in the conjuring trick looks to be stressing how the same content can be both contained in an experience and also endorsed in a judgement, not saying why the experience provides any reason at all to do that.

McDowell, J. (1994) Mind and World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
McDowell, J. (2002) ‘Responses’ In Reading McDowell, N. Smith (ed.), 269–305. London: Routledge.
McDowell, J. (2009) Having the World in View. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Smith, N. (ed.) (2002) Reading McDowell. London: Routledge
Travis, C. (2004) ‘The Silence of the Senses’ Mind, 113: 59–94.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Spandrels as counter-examples to evolutionary-theoretic accounts of mental disorder

Because of the debate in one of the modules of the Philosophy and Mental Health Programme we teach, Gloria and I fell into discussion of spandrels as part of a critique of evolutionary theoretic approaches to the concept of mental illness, disease or disorder.

One example of implicit reference to this is in a discussion of Boorse by Elselijn Kingma in Analysis. She comments:

A final interpretation of design as Natures intent is closely related to ‘natural’. This should capture the idea that Nature intended there to be men and women, but it did not intend blind people. The latter are an accident, perhaps a ‘freak of nature’. Since I, and I suspect Boorse, reject an appeal to intelligent creation, the most obvious place to justify an appeal to design or Natures intent is evolutionary biology. This is not an attractive position for Boorse, however, who explicitly rejects the idea that evolution is relevant to physiological function and health (1976: 85). To evaluate this solution in detail goes beyond the scope of this paper, but if, as I suspect it must, this solution appeals to a difference between polymorphisms that are maintained by natural selection, such as eye-colour and sex- differences, and polymorphisms that are not maintained by natural selection, such as heart-defects, then it must at the very least dispose of the following problem. It must give a non-question begging account that explains why certain traits that are maintained by natural selection, such as sickle cell-anaemia, are nevertheless diseases. Since natural selection can enter into the explanation of both diseased and healthy traits (Sober 1980), this seems neither easy nor obvious... [Kingma 2007 italics added]

One of our students expressed the following eminently reasonable worry (in fact three good concerns) about the appeal to sickle-cell anaemia as a potential counter-example.

The reference to sickle-cell anemia isn’t entirely convincing to me. For one, this seems to be a fairly unique example, which is often the sole reference (at least that I’ve heard) for this type of argument about nature selecting disease. While, yes, one example is enough to disprove a general theory, are there any other examples of this conflict? I have a hard time thinking of conditions exactly like sickle-cell in this way, though there are certainly no shortage of traits originally selected by evolution which have become maladaptive in our present environment (insatiable hunger, metabolic problems, our capacity for salt-retention and resulting hypertension). The other argument I can see is that it’s actually sickle-cell trait (heterozygous allele) which has been selected by evolution; sickle-cell disease (homozygous allele) may be understood as an unfortunate consequence of that selection.

The problem for an evolutionary-selective account that Kingma flags stems from the thought that some things are maintained by natural selection but are nevertheless diseases. And hence the norm of maintenance by natural selection cannot be the norm whose failure is being tracked by, and hence sheds light on, intuitive judgements of illness, disease and disorder.

It seems to me, however, that this is rather the point of spandrels in thinking about natural selection. Spandrels are features maintained by natural selection. In other words they are selected. But they are not selected-for: the spandrel does not possess a function that would be appealed to in giving a natural selective explanation of fitness. This is implicit in our student’s comment that it is the ‘sickle-cell trait (heterozygous allele) which has been selected by evolution; sickle-cell disease (homozygous allele) may be understood as an unfortunate consequence of that selection’. It seems to me that this isn’t quite right. It is the sickle-cell trait (heterozygous allele) which has been selected-for by evolution. The sickle-cell disease (homozygous allele) is the spandrel: a feature selected but not selected-for. It occurs and is maintained because of the former and some biological laws and laws of probability, I imagine. Maintaining is thus disjunctive: occurring as either what is selected-for or what is selected but not selected-for.

This suggests that the misstep was to think of the relevant norm for assessing disease as being maintenance, instead of function or selection-for. But it leaves open whether, nevertheless, a spandrel such as sickle-cell anaemia serves as a counter-example to a general evolutionary-theoretic approach to disorder. It would, if there is no way to answer the challenge Kingma raises: It must give a non-question begging account that explains why certain traits that are maintained by natural selection, such as sickle cell-anaemia, are nevertheless diseases.

But it seems to me to be plausible that there are resources available to evolutionary theorists if they alter their gaze. Sickle-cell anaemia (homozygous allele) counts as a disease because it produces dysfunctions in the cardiovascular system. Short lived, too large red blood cells cannot perform the functions that explain, in natural-selective terms, the existence of the cardiovascular system. It is because of its effect on the performance of this that sickle-cell anaemia counts as a disease. Hence there are two natural selective characterisations in play: the disease is maintained as a spandrel because it rides piggy back on the heterozygous allele, which confers selective advantage in, let’s call it, the malaria-protecting system but itself, in the form of homozygous allele, is biologically dysfunctional in the cardiovascular system. One explains its prevalence; the other its disease status.

If so then it seems that spandrels can be accommodated without counting as counterexamples. The norm of disease might still be natural selective dysfunction as far spandrels are concerned. It is another question, however, especially in the case of mental illness whether there is a principled and non-question-begging method to pick out functions, spandrels and dysfunctions without merely relying on antecedent assumptions about what is and is not an illness, disease or disorder.

Kingma, E. (2007). What is it to be healthy? Analysis, 67, 128–133

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

The subject matter of the new Centre for the Study of Compassion

Today I went to the launch at UCLan for the Centre for the Study of Compassion including a memorial lecture by the new professor, Patrick Pietroni (pictured) on ‘What does a compassionate university look like?’ And then a talk by John Ballatt on the Darwin International Institute for the Study of Compassion (DIISC) scholarship programme.

The Centre’s key research areas include:
  • the role of compassion in health and wellbeing 
  • compassion in education and organisations 
  • mentoring and compassionate leadership 
  • mediation and compassionate approaches to justice 
  • the role of compassion and cooperation in establishing sustainable communities
The mood or tone of both of today's talks was on the multidisciplinary basis for the proper study of compassion (and hence, too, an emerging DIISC network). Patrick Pietroni pointed out that compassion might be proximal, in the response to the needs of someone present (raising a question of the psychology why some such appeals command compassion and some do not) or distal. His talk stressed the latter, giving a number of examples of projects which helped people. In one, processes to aid the resettlement of refugees cut the time they spent in cramped B&B hotels in London from 24 to 6 months. Another subtly linked (through representations of where everyone lived shown in a communal room) isolated elderly in high rise accommodation with similarly housed single parents such that they came to support each other. The stress was on practical general strategies or systems to produce good effects. It did not matter whether anyone had had any personal I-thou feelings to those who partook of the systems. One simply had to think through, accurately, their needs.

Both he and John Ballatt also stressed the multitude of disciplines on which any study of compassion should draw, in the former’s case connecting theology’s focus on the golden rule, anthropology on pro social behaviour, social science and the spirit level, psychology on imprinting and empathy, the biology of altruism and its genetic explanation via completion, neurology’s interest in mirror neurones etc. Various disciplines could feed their perspectives into a spectrum of foci from the personal, to the social, to the environmental which in turn would feed into interventions in quite distinct areas (eg mentoring in the NHS, compassionate universities etc).

I couldn’t help wondering, though, what kind of placeholder ‘compassion’ was. For example, would it matter whether a system with sufficiently virtuous ends was ruthlessly efficiently run by soulless bureaucrats? And how would that relate, say, to the Biblical widow generously but practically uselessly donating her mite? Once compassion can take as its focus the mindless environment, is it clear that this is the same virtue as that involved in fellow-feeling? If it can be elicited from listening to the fourth movement of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (singled out by Pietroni), how does that compare with practical effectiveness, as the systems approach emphasised?

By the end, I half wondered whether ‘compassion’ played the same role as ‘quality’ does in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Some thing, or property, or virtue that always lies on both sides all the many distinctions mentioned today. If so, does that matter providing some tacit grasp of the good is shared and communicated by examples rather than flowing from some more explicitly univocal concept?

Friday, 12 October 2018

Univie Summer School on Philosophy and Psychiatry

Call For Application (Deadline: February 15, 2019)


Univie Summer School – Scientific World Conceptions (USS-SWC) July 1–12, 2019

The Univie Summer School – Scientific World Conceptions (USS-SWC) – until 2014 under the label "Vienna International Summer University" – will be held from July 1 to 12, 2019. The topic of the two-week course is „Philosophy and Psychiatry“ The main lecturers are Rachel Cooper (Lancaster University), Dominic Murphy (The University of Sydney) and Tim Thornton (University of Central Lancashire).

As an international interdisciplinary program, USS SWC brings graduate students in close contact with world-renowned scholars. The program is directed primarily to graduate students and junior researchers in fields related to the annual topic, but the organizers also encourage applications from gifted undergraduates and from people in all stages of their career who wish to broaden their horizon through crossdisciplinary studies of methodological and foundational issues in science.

The topic of the two-week course is „ Philosophy and Psychiatry “:

By its very nature, psychiatry – the medical specialism devoted to mental healthcare – raises as many conceptual as empirical questions. The philosophy of psychiatry is a rapidly emerging field which draws broadly on philosophical traditions – centrally analytic philosophy and phenomenology – to address a range of questions as broad as the demands made on psychiatry to address problems of human suffering, distress and disorder. It is also an area where philosophical methods, accounts and theories can be applied to and thus tested against psychiatric and psychopathological phenomena. But at its heart lies the question of whether, since psychiatry sees itself as part of medicine, the medical conceptualisation of illness and disease can be articulated in such a way that it properly applies to the distinct ‘problems of living’ that psychiatry addresses in response to the crisis of legitimacy often raised. This summer school will address a number key questions which impact on mental health care.

Application form and further information:

The Main Lecturers:

Rachel Cooper (Lancaster University)

Dominic Murphy (The University of Sydney)

Tim Thornton (University of Central Lancashire)

Guest lecturer:

Raffaella Campaner (Università di Bologna)

USS-SWC operates under the academic supervision of an International Program Committee of distinguished philosophers, historians, and scientists. Its members represent the scientific fields in the scope of USS-SWC, make contact to their home universities and will also support acknowledgement of courses taken by the students. USS-SWC is organised every year by the Institute Vienna Circle of the University of Vienna.


Venue: Kapelle, Institut für Ethik und Recht in der Medizin, Campus der Universität Wien, Entrance 2.8

Time: Monday, July 1, 2019, 9 a.m.

Further Information

Since 2010 USS-SWC is a part of the curriculum of the doctoral programme "The Sciences in Historical, Philosophical and Cultural Contexts"

There is an exchange programme with Duke University (North Carolina):

For further inquiries, please send email to or consult the IVC's Web site


Robert Kaller
Institute Vienna Circle
Spitalgasse 2-4, Hof 1, 1090 Wien
Tel. +43-1-4277-46504

Scientific director:
Prof. Martin Kusch
Department of Philosophy
University of Vienna

Monday, 1 October 2018

Idiographic Approach to Health

Idiographic Approach to Health

Edited by:
Raffaele De Luca Picione, University of Naples Federico II
Jensine Nedergaard, Aalborg University
Maria Francesca Freda, University of Naples Federico II
Sergio Salvatore, University of Salento
A volume in the series: Yearbook of Idiographic Science. Editor(s): Sergio Salvatore, University of Salento. Jaan Valsiner, Niels Bohr Professor of Cultural Psychology, Aalborg University.
In Press 2018
The concept of health is a challenge of great complexity in terms of theoretical, methodological and intervention within the idiographic frame.

Health cannot be considered an abstract condition, but a means, a resource aimed at achieving objectives that relate to the ability of people to lead their lives in a productive way - individually, socially, and economically. Health is a process that is not based on the definition of standards and categories on the basis of which typifying the states of health. Rather, it has to be considered a process, on a large scale and on many entangled levels, aimed at generating a culture of the health as a resource for individuals and communities and to promote skills needed to transform these resources into developmental goals.

The notion of health, indeed, defined and interpreted in terms of "state" and not of process, meets the immediate paradox of being an indicator of normativity by reason of which we risk a proliferation of new and potentially infinite forms of "deviation". The approach of the idiographic sciences (see previous volumes of the Yearbook Idiographic Science Series, by same publisher IAP) considers that every psychological process (but in general every process, from organic to the social and cultural ones) is characterized by a contextual, situated and contingent dynamics. That dynamics is always characterized by a never-ending opening of its cycles and great variability. Conditions of stagnation and hypostatization are characteristic of all forms of disease (physical, mental and social) that sclerotize relational links between people and their environments. Health is therefore a process that presents oscillation in the same way of any developmental process that has moments of crisis and rupture in order to re-organize new forms of relationship with the social and cultural environment.

This book represent a fruitful way to deep many cogent issues and to dialogue with an idiographic perspective in order to discuss the concept of health, to define its cultural meanings and possible polysemy (e.g., wellness, care, hygiene, quality of life, resilience, prevention, healing, deviation/normality, subjective potentiality for development, etc.), its areas of pertinence and intervention (somatic, psychological, social) trying to offer possible alternatives to the "normalization" of health and creating new incentives for the reflection.

Series Editor’s Preface: Health: The General in the Unique, Jaan Valsiner. Health: A Current Challenge for the Idiographic Sciences, Maria Francesca Freda, Raffaele De Luca Picione, Jensine. Nedergaard, and Sergio Salvatore. SECTION 1: THE DYNAMIC CONSTRUCTION OF BORDERS BETWEEN HEALTH AND ILLNESS SECTION 1.1: CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF THE HEALTH NOTION. AN IDIOGRAPHIC LENS ON THE TOPIC. DIFFERENT PATHS BETWEEN GENERALIZATION AND IDIOGRAPHY. Five Inconsistencies in Scientific Discourse, Sven Hroar Klempe.The Enigmatic Soul of Health: From Balance to Inscape, Robert E. Innis. Values and the Singular Aims of Idiographic Inquiry, Tim Thornton. Psychopathology: Mental Illness and Relationship Between Idiography and Health: The Case of Transsexuals’ Experience, Roberto Vitelli. SECTION 1.2: HEALTHCARE RELATIONSHIP AND POSSIBLE FUNCTIONS OF IDIOGRAPHIC APPROACHES.Crisis of Medical Institution: An Idiographic Approach, Annalisa Venezia and Chiara Marangio. From Medicalizing Discourse to Situated Practices. From Reification to Semiotization of Processes of Sensemaking: The Function of Psychological Scaffolding in the Experience of the Disease Within the Healthcare Relationship, Raffaele De Luca Picione, Francesca Dicé, and Maria Francesca Freda. Communicative Partnership Between More Than Two: When a Child Becomes a Patient, Jensine Ingerslev Nedergaard and Elise Snitker Jensen.SECTION 1.3: THE CARE OF SOCIAL CONTEXT. THE EXTENSION OF IDIOGRAPHY TO WIDER FRAMES. Growing up in the Suburbs: Stories of Adolescents at Risk and of Their “Maestri di Strada”, Santa Parrello. The Generational Shift in the Family Business: Defining the Condition to Plan the Intervention, Barbara Cordella and Assunta Capasso. SECTION 2: NARRATIONS OF HEALTH AND ILLNESS SECTION 2.1: THE NARRATION OF THE UNSPEAKABLE. HEALTH AND ILLNESS IN ONE’S OWN EXPERIENCE. Disquieting Experiences, Borders, and Healthcare Processes, Lívia Mathias Simão and Giuseppina Marsico. “I Get Along Without You...”: On Billie Holiday, Clichés and Psychological Truth, Yair Neuman.Lessons of Pathosophy—And Implications for Medical Care, Elin Håkonsen Martinsen. SECTION 2.2: THE MODELLING OF NARRATIVES PROCESSES IN THE CLINICAL CONTEXT. Narrative Functions to Support the Meaning-Making Process During Cancer Traumatic Experience in Pediatric Oncology, Maria Luisa Martino and Maria Francesca Freda. The Power of Self-Narratives in Health, João Tiago Oliveira, Miguel M. Gonçalves, João Batista, and Adrián Montesano.Commentary: The Enchantment of Stories, Luca Tateo. SECTION 2.3: THE IDIOGRAPHIC CHALLENGE OF NARRATIONS IN THE RESEARCH PROCESSES. The Idiographic Science Perspective Applied to the Treatment of Younger Women with BRCA Mutation, Emanuela Saita, Sara Molgora, and Chiara Acquati. Risk and Prevention: Women’s Experiences of Barriers to Cancer Screening, Daniela Lemmo and Adele Nunziante Cesàro. The Role of Narrative in Promoting Changes in Illness Transitions of the Life-Span: An Idiographic Approach, Andrea Smorti and Chiara Fioretti. Author Biosketches.