Tuesday, 22 January 2008

To Marian Lawrenson

Dear Marian

I realise that it might have been more helpful if I’d provided you with a bit of context for the Forum Philosophicum paper. Given that I'm based in an Institute for Philosophy, Diversity and Mental Health, why would I be writing a paper about aesthetic understanding?

Here’s the overall thought: there is something important but problematic about the nature of judgement which is a central focus of much of my research including much of my research in philosophy of psychiatry. This interest holds together my research in:

1: idiographic understanding,
2: empathy,
3: moral judgement,
4: tacit knowledge,
5: the role of aesthetics in empirical judgement;
(and hence when all wrapped up together in)
6: clinical judgement;
also in the work of Wittgenstein and John McDowell. (In turn (though this is harder to justify) it helps place the role of the person or the subject at the heart of things.)

Start with the distinction that Kant draws between determinate and reflective judgement. He says:

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 idea is that determinate judgement is unproblematic. It is like deduction. If you know that:
1: All men are mortal; and
2: Socrates is a man.
Then you can infer that:
3: Socrates is mortal.
This is thought to be unproblematic in a number of respects. If you have accepted 1 and 2 then you have accepted 3 already. To accept that all men are mortal is to accept that Tom, Dick, Harry and Socrates are mortal. So given 1 and 2, then 3 is no step at all.

Further, deductive judgement can be mechanised. To take another example, once the basic principles of arithmetic are formalised (in Peano arithmetic) then, for any number, one can determine what that number plus 2 is. That is (part of) why electronic calculators are possible.

By contrast, there is another kind of judgement which Kant calls ‘reflective’ where the problem is how to get from the level of individuals to the level of generalities, or how to get from brute things to the concepts that apply to them. That isn’t a matter of deduction. To move from the particular to the general is somehow to gain information not to deploy it. (In another debate, this looks a bit like the distinction between deduction and induction.)

So against the background assumption that deduction or determinate judgement is mechanical, algorithmic and unproblematic, other forms of one-off or particular judgement look problematic. And to a first approximation, these are what I am interested in charting.

Thus idiographic judgement, which is defined in opposition to another general conception called ‘nomothetic’ (because it concerns laws of nature – ‘nomos’ in Greek), is one form of particular judgement and looks a bit like Kant’s reflective judgement. The inventor of the term ‘idiographic’ defines it thus:

In their quest for knowledge of reality, the empirical sciences either seek the general in the form of the law of nature or the particular in the form of the historically defined structure. On the one hand, they are concerned with the form which invariably remains constant. On the other hand, they are concerned with the unique, immanently defined content of the real event. The former disciplines are nomological sciences. The latter disciplines are sciences of process or sciences of the event. The nomological sciences are concerned with what is invariably the case. The sciences of process are concerned with what was once the case. If I may be permitted to introduce some new technical terms, scientific thought is nomothetic in the former case and idiographic in the latter case. . [Windelband 1980: 175-6]

But although I think that there is something important to say about forms of judgement that are not nomothetic, Windelband's account of idiographic judgement seems ill defined. Because it is well known it is worth criticising. Hence this paper.

Empathy looks like another interesting contrast to the general. Empathy concerns the way in which – through a rich notion of subjectivity – one makes particular, singular judgements about how things are for specific other people. I’m working on a paper on this.

Tacit knowledge looks to be another instance of the opposition to determinate judgement. Whilst tacit knowledge need not be one-off (riding a bike or determining the gender of a chicken are general abilities: they apply to lots of bikes and chickens) it is not codified in principles and thus its application is not a matter of derivation. I have a summary paper here.

In moral philosophy, there’s an influential tradition that holds that moral obligations are governed by general principles. The approach is called deontology and the basic idea is that an act of theft is wrong, eg., because all acts of theft are wrong. If there’s a further explanation of why that is so it is also a matter of further generality

The most famous form of deontological theory is Kantian ethics which centres on a single high level ‘categorical imperative’ or principle:
· Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

This flows from Kant’s argument that the key feature of morality is that moral guidance must be capable of application in any possible set of circumstances. Generality is of the essence of morality, on this view. But even this formal constraint has content because some maxims would be self-stultifying if generalised. Consider the putative maxim that it is permissible to steal. If this were generalised it would undermine the possibility of owning property in general. But if so, stealing would not, after all, be possible.

But the problem with a Kantian version of deontology is to show how all the intuitively morally compelling principles can be derived from the formal requirement for universality. In any case, this seems just the wrong basic approach because particular cases seem to be the go-carts of moral judgements. Hence I’ve argued in a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics against such principlism in ethics.

Having set up the contrast between particular and general judgements, however, there are two reasons to think that things are more complicated than they at first seem: a Kantian and a Wittgensteinian problem.

The Kantian problem: runs thus. If there is a cow in front of me, various things will follow from that. Cows are relatively slow moving, poor climbers, do not respond to verbal commands etc. But whilst deriving these judgements from the judgement that it is a cow in front of me (given also a book on cows) is unproblematic, there is a preliminary issue. How, in the face of visual appearances, do I recognise that the blobby individual in front of me belongs to the general kind cow. That move is not deductive / determinate. Hence Kant deploys reflective judgements as a forlorn attempt to solve this problem. This is what the paper you have in front of you concerns.

The Wittgensteinian problem: Actually I have over simplified up until now. All the cases I’ve been interested in so far stand in contrast to determinate judgement. But determinate judgement is not so straight forward as it might at first seem. Wittgenstein’s key point about rules is that they do not take anyone by the throat. Even to follow a simple deductive rule requires the person following it makes a contribution, sees what a relevant similar way of going on would be. Even an explication of the rule governing adding 2 which says: the units always go ‘0, 2, 4, 6, 8, 0 and so on’ requires that one can connect that very short symbol to an infinite number of cases written in all sorts of hand writing.

So my general interest concerns what sort of skill judgement is, what guides it and what normatively disciplines it. Hope that helps.