Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Contingency and perspectivism in Wittgenstein

I’ve been reading Adrian Moore’s Points of View (Moore, A.W. (1997) Points of View, Oxford: Oxford University Press) as part of a general attempt to get clear on Wittgenstein and transcendental idealism. In the first instance, I wanted to see what he takes the connection to be between that and Williams’ Absolute Conception. My assumption was that his defence of the possibility of absolute representations would simply conflict with any kind of role for idealism in Wittgenstein but things are not so simple.

The first main thread is the argument for absolute representations. Defined in part in opposition to (essentially and inherently) perspectival representations and partly through the argument for their existence, they are representations that can be added together without problems stemming from presupposing distinct and incompatible points of view. There is a very brisk argument in chapter 4 for their existence [73-4]. What seems to drive the argument as well as motivate it is Williams’ original idea that a commitment to an absolute conception grows out of a self-conscious understanding of how knowledge answers to something that is ‘there anyway’.

If reality is something substantial that representations answer to, the same reality in every case, then not only must it be possible to provide an account of the … for any possible true representation, but the part of this account that is used for the indirect endorsement of the representation must be combinable with every other part into a single conception of reality – call it C… The requirement of combinability here is the requirement that the representations constituting C should all be from the same points of view, if any… Now consider any possible true representation ρ from any point of view π. One of the members of C must be derived from the account of how ρ is made true by reality. This account, since it serves for pitting ρ against any possible true representation from a point of view incompatible with π, cannot itself be from π. So, given that all the members of C are from the same points of view, none of them can be from π. But π was chosen arbitrarily. So none of the members of C can be from any point of view. Absolute representations are possible. [74]

Underpinning this argument is the questionable idea that distinct perspectival representations can be endorsed from a kind of highest common factor conception of reality (contrast McDowell’s discussion of Williams). In addition, two other thoughts strike me: that there is something odd about how true perspectival representations relate to the non-perspectival world (since Moore, contra Nagel, denies that perspectivism or perspectivalness attaches to reality itself); and that the independence of reality from representations has to inflate in this way. Why should a conception of an objective world have to say more than a compendious statement of instances of the T-schema?

But as well as arguing for the possibility of absolute representations, Moore also wants to explain why a contrary view is attractive. He does this in chapters 5 and 6 in which he examines arguments for the perspectivalness of our representational practices and our language. One interesting comment is that our meta-level concepts of truth and representation may be perspectival but that that need not affect the status of our representations.

One key move is to distinguish between the conditions of the production of a representation ‘and the role that the representation can play in such processes as… integration’ [89] and to argue that the perspectivalness of the former has no effect on the latter.

A similar approach is sued to head off the worry that the meanings of sentences used to frame representations of the world are essentially context sensitive and thus expressive of a point of view. ‘There is no inconsistency in the idea that an absolute representation should be produced by using a sentence which can also be used, in another context, metaphorically perhaps, to produce a representation with some quite different content – and thus of some quite different type. All that matters, as ever, is the role that the original representation plays, or might play.’ [99]

But the real surprise begins in chapter 6. The main line of argument here is that transcendental idealism (in Kant) or something like it (which can perhaps be found in Wittgenstein) is self stultifying and thus simply nonsensical. But it gives rise in the next chapter to consideration that it might be true but unsayable. Again, Moore rejects this but suggests that a description of transcendental idealism would be an apt thing to try to say to put into words something ineffably known. He is explicit that he is not attempting to rehabilitate the truth of transcendental idealism:

The claim is not that transcendental idealism, though true, cannot be stated. The claim is rather that transcendental idealism, though incoherent, is the result of an unsuccessful attempt to state what cannot be stated. [158]

But there is something positive to be said about its role in what is a genuine insight:

Now for Wittgenstein… clarity of understanding was the main goal of philosophy. Clarity of understanding was to be sought in those cases where, for whatever reason, we misconstrue the logic of our own language and become bemused and confused by nonsense.. To achieve such clarity of understanding we must focus self-consciously on our understanding, that is on our understanding of our language. We must self-consciously re-activate it. But then… we not only have ineffable knowledge, we are shown something. What we are shown depends on what we are led to when we try to put what we clearly understand into words. And that, here as in Kant, is transcendental idealism. [161]

Why is there anything akin to transcendental idealism in play in the characterisation of the ineffable knowledge (in the failure to put it into words, in the form of words that is, in the end, strictly nonsense in an everyday, resolute, sense)? Moore thinks that one positive effect of reading Wittgenstein is to see that our concepts depend on contingent practices. That is where Wittgenstein’s opposition to Platonism takes us.

Focusing self-consciously on our understanding, we recognize the deep contingencies that sustain it… Our understanding has nothing to answer to. It is part of how we receive the world… If we do achieve such clarity, then what we actually get into focus is an arrangement of interlocking, mutually supporting practices that are grounded in one another’s contingency, a complex knotted structure that might easily have been different. [162]

The book then goes on to characterise a little further how a ‘saying versus showing’ distinction can help characterise the ineffable knowledge; the way such knowledge does not answer to something independent of a person’s having it; and the way ordinary nonsense has to be mentioned in the forlorn attempt to say what is, properly, only shown to a person who has the knowledge, in a forlorn, again, effort to put the knowledge into words.

But the key thing seems to be that there is some genuine, even if ineffable, knowledge, somewhere in the region of transcendental idealism (insofar as that that nonsense is what we reach for to try to put the ineffable knowledge into words) and which stems from the Wittgensteinian contingency about our representational practices, even whilst this does not rule out there being absolute representations.

For reasons I must try to get clear, I begin to doubt that it is possible to say anything positive about a supposed lesson about contingency in the later Wittgenstein. As soon as one invokes Cavell's whirl of organism, or Lear's mindedness, to explain why we go on in just one of the myriad ways that make up, eg., Kripkean sceptical possibilities and thus make the conceptual order depend on contingencies (that we have our whirl of organism, our mindedness), one lapses into something false.

Even for empirical concepts, theorising that the correct application of ‘red’ depend on such contingencies, rather than simply tracking its extension, looks wrong. Firstly, invoking such contengincies threatens the normativity of the correct use of ‘red’ to speak of red things (well, roughly). Secondly, it looks to be an instance of scheme-content dualism. The account of contingency explains the application of ‘red’ in purely scheme-side terms, not in terms of what is red.

So whilst talk of contingency might be a way to counter a content-side (of scheme-content dualism) invocation of rampant platonism, it surely cannot be a positive move in its own right. But if not, how precisely, should we say that there is any contingency in a properly Wittgensteinian description of language use?