Tuesday, 19 August 2008

SEESHOP 2 postscript

As I was leaving the workshop today, I had a quick further conversation with Harry about what he thought of Theresa Shilhab’s presentation. His main thought was that there might be things which, for merely contingent reasons, contributory experts (mothers, in the example) might not have commented upon and were thus not available to interactional experts (non-mother midwives). Thus, I think, he aimed to defuse the threat of there being something in principle only available to the former by suggesting that the evidence presented might of something merely in practice unavailable.

He didn’t, however, like my yesterday’s generalisation of that thought: that experience equips subjects with knowledge in specific ways and those ways may be detectable in the tests. He suggested that the guidelines for running imitation-game tests included not asking about specific information to sidestep that sort of worry. Rather, the claim was that interactional experts could acquire the ‘conceptual structure’ of relevant contributory expertise. This seems to me to be a tricky point, however.

Of course, by connecting the theoretical claim to a grasp of conceptual structure, one could now invoke a fairly standard reading of the later Wittgenstein to argue that experience alone is not sufficient for grasp of grammar. (That’s the point of the critique of a philosophical use of ostensive definition to explain reference in the early stages of the Investigations. It is also in play – albeit with some other assumptions about what is available – in the private language argument.) So, if experience alone is what distinguishes mothers from non-mothers, this fact would seem to be insufficient to equip only the former with a grasp of the conceptual structure, or grammar, of the experience of motherhood (whatever that would be). But whilst that helps defend Collins’ point with some a priori philosophy, it makes me suspect that that this isn’t really what he wants. I understand his claims about interactional expertise to be contingent. Hence all the experiments.

Surely, therefore, the claim isn’t just about conceptual structure or grammar but rather about the ability to make some moves in accord with that grammar. Interactional experts can make the very same moves as contributory experts. So I wonder whether there is a distorting effect here of the empirical test used: the imitation game. Testing the claim that interactional experts can in principle acquire the full linguistically codified knowledge of contributory experts (not their non-linguistic tacit knowledge, of course) by seeing whether in practice they always, or even usually, pass the imitation game seems wrong.

One problem is, to repeat, that experience equips subjects with a particular route to knowledge and this might affect any actual imitation game. Good interactional expertise might be aspirational, it might take lots of ongoing work. If so, the claim would be this: that there are no knowledge claims in principle unavailable to that stance. In other words, there is no propositional knowledge that cannot be acquired by testimony. For a few seconds that seemed to me, if true, to rule out specific embodied but still propositional knowledge of what motherhood is like and thus to be a substantial claim. But on reflection it seems a piffling point. Testimony enables one to know any propositional knowledge, given the right interlocutor. So what can the claim really be?

For a change to the official picture, see this update.