Thursday, 31 January 2008


Last night I found myself listening to a cd by Stars of the Lid (And Their Refinement of the Decline), a gloriously minimal and abstract piece of music (attractively described as ‘drone-based ambient’ but very well reviewed last year) whilst at the same time reading a paper by Julian Dodd called ‘There is no norm of truth’. I was struck by the common explanation I would offer of their aesthetic appeal. Both are fine pieces of minimalism. And yet the nature of what is minimal is so obviously different in the two cases. What can ambient drone music have in common with an elegant philosophical defence of a slimmed down notion of truth? At what ‘organisational’ level is something common there to see? Is it more than that ‘minimal’ rightly applies to both?

I've no idea. But given that Dodd’s solution is so attractive, I’ll try to summarise it here for its own sake. Technology prevents me similarly conveying Stars of the Lid.

Minimalism about truth starts from an assumption about the nature of truth on which almost everyone agrees. Aside from paradoxical cases, it seems trivial that there is an equivalence between asserting some sentence p (using the sentence) and asserting that that sentence is true (mentioning the sentence). Given an assertion that a mentioned or quoted sentence is true, one can make the same claim by stripping it of its quotation marks (the way we mention sentences) and using what remains as an assertion. Truth is exemplified in this role as aiding disquotation in the disquotational schema thus:

DS. ‘p’ is T iff p.

Minimalism argues that this is all there is to truth. There is, eg, no substantial property (such as correspondence to facts) that all truths have in common.

But, as Dummett argued years ago, it seems that if one knew only this about truth one would be ignorant in an important way. One also seems to need to know that truth is the aim of assertion (just as knowledge of the rules of a game shorn of the concept of winning as its aim would be only partial knowledge). Aiming at truth is what normatively governs assertion. (We'll see what is right and wrong about this in a mo.)

One might deal with this point by saying that asserting is a practice and thus like any practice has standards of correctness, standards according to which one is warranted in making a move, in this case an assertion. (Any practice not respecting such a norm is not recognisable as, and is not, a practice of asserting.) But then given the equivalence / disquotational schema, the standards which warrant asserting p, warrant asserting ‘p’ to be true. So it is tempting to argue that the normative standards for truth are just the same as the norms implicit in the idea of warranted assertibility. (This move concedes that there are norms in play. So Dummett was partially right. But so far, it does not follow that these are norms of truth rather than of assertion.)

But as Crispin Wright argued a few years ago [Wright 1992], this does not work to disarm Dummett's worry.

Consider again the DS:
1. ‘p’ is T iff p
Letting p be –p, we can derive
2. ‘-p’ is T iff -p
But we can also negate both sides of the biconditional in 1 and derive:
3. –(‘p’ is T) iff –p
From 2 and 3 we can derive
4. ‘-p’ is T iff –(‘p’ is T)

This, however undermines the hypothesis that the norm of truth is the same norm as the norm of warranted assertibility. Even if aiming at one is aiming at the other (a prescriptive agreement), two norms are nevertheless distinct if failing to achieve one is not necessarily the same as failing to achieve the other (a descriptive disagreement). So if truth and warranted assertibility differ extensionally, they are distinct norms. And now if one replaces T with warranted assertibility in 4 one gets:

5. ‘-p’ is warrantedly assertible iff –(‘p’ is warrantedly assertible)

Which unlike 4 is not true (because just because p is not warrantedly assertible it doesn’t follow that its negation is. There may be no evidence either way).

Wright goes on to outline a variety of options for more substantial notions of truth whose normative aspects go beyond warranted assertibility. But it seems that a minimalist and deflationary view of truth has to inflate under this pressue.

Dodd’s delightful paper suggests that, whilst Wright has shown something about the mismatch between the norms of truth and of warranted assertibility, his argument to inflate truth can be undermined by arguing that this mismatch results from the fact that truth does not have any distinct normative features itself. Given that truth has merely the role displayed in DS any normative properties apparently accruing to truth, really belong to each particular truth in question. Thus in each case, one should aim to

assert that snow is white iff snow is white, and
assert that grass is green iff grass is green
These can gathered together by saying that one should assert p iff 'p' is T . But in doing this, one is not adding a distinct norm of truth, one is simply codifying the prior norms.

There is no extra norm in truth, just the norms thus listed. And now it is obvious why whilst aiming at expressing a truth and aiming at warranted assertibility might offer the same advice, they can diverge. Minimalism is thus redeemed, for the moment. Lovely!

Thursday, 24 January 2008

How Doctors Think

Yesterday I somehow found the time to read Kathryn Montgomery’s recent book How Doctors Think (OUP 2006). The central idea is that medicine misdescribes itself in positivist terms and fails to appreciate that it is founded on - and indeed this is what medical education is directed at producing - clinical judgement, which it explicitly links to Aristotelian phronesis.

The widespread misdescription of medicine as a science and the failure to appreciate its chief virtue, clinical judgement or phronesis, amounts to a visual field defect in the understanding of medicine. In medical-philosophical terms, the misunderstanding of clinical reasoning is an epistemological scotoma, a blindness of which the knower is unaware. [Montgomery 2006: 5]

It is an interesting and well written book and I’ll certainly invite Montgomery to contribute to an edited book on tacit knowledge and clinical judgement I’m planning, if she’s interested. But it is also significantly different in (at least) three respects from work in the philosophy of psychiatry.

1. Montgomery has a PhD in English literature and moved into medical humanities (of which she is a professor in a medical school) through teaching medical students who had to take English courses. As a result of this background, I assume, it is a very different kind of book to a philosophical account of clinical judgement. Philosophers are mentioned (largely in footnotes) but the account of the nature of clinical judgement is developed more through an oblique accumulation of anecdote than an explicit argument. Since one of the claims of the book is that medicine has been blind to the role of judgement in favour of a positivist model of science, perhaps that is deliberate. Perhaps a more explicit argument would have smacked of the kind of rationality she distrusts.

2. There is something a little odd about the fact that science is only discussed according to a 1930s positivistic model. Part of the main claim is that medicine’s self image is, inaccurately, that of positivistic science. Since that is how clinicians conceive themselves, that is the model of science present in this book. But it surely raises the question, would clinicians be wrong to think of medicine, not along this widely rejected model, but the one (or ones) developed since the 1960s? Once one steps outside the conception of the world as apparently held by American clinicians, the substantial question to ask is surely: what really is the connection between clinical judgement and science, on the most accurate account of science we have?

3. But the third aspect is most striking and marks the difference between this book on medicine as a whole and the literature of philosophy of psychiatry. Despite the accusation of suffering from an intellectual scotoma, the book is consistently laudatory of modern medicine in the US. There is a suggestion that economics, which impact via managed care or insurance, may have a harmful effect. But the medicine and the clinicians are mainly all just fine. (They are in some sense more adult than the rest of us - see ch10.) This tone is reinforced by a personal anecdote at the end of the book. Despite her own extensive knowledge of the evidence concerning her daughter’s breast cancer she is thankful to be able to place her trust in the self-consciously authoritative claims of a doctor on a car journey, unacquainted with the particular case, even knowing his own narrow range of experience.
Perhaps because of the anti-psychiatry movement, I know of no philosophy of psychiatry books with such a deferential tone. There, there is always the possibility, even if only in the bowels of Christ, that psychiatry may be wrong. Philosophy of psychiatry need not be hostile to psychiatry - as anti-psychiatry obviously is - but it is refreshingly critical.

The one thing that did seem simply lacking in the book, especially given its author's background, was an account of narrative. One of the contrasts deployed is between the form of intelligibility of (only positivistic?) science and clinical judgement with ‘narrative’ used to help characterise the latter. But as is often the case, it would be nice to know a little more about what narrative intelligibility is supposed to be. Clearly in this book it is contrasted with subsumption under universal laws of nature (not that it puts it quite that way). But it did not seem to have to include meaningful elements of verstehen-type understanding (my own best bet for an interpretation of the term). So there’s a research project: what do defenders of narrative approaches mean by narrative? Is there something they all have in common? What constraints does the idea of narrative impose (if no constraints, there's no substance to the term; but if the narratives have to look like Jane Austen but not Alain Robbe-Grillet, is that true)?

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.


Monday, 21 January 2008

Journal acceptances and rejections #2

I’ve just been sent the most recent issue of Forum Philosophicum, a Polish journal which is ‘focused on the philosophical problems that shed some light upon the philosophical credentials of the theistic interpretation of reality’. Whilst that isn’t a particular interest of mine, it turns out that the journal is only so concerned with religious interpretation and this issue, thus, contains my paper: ‘An aesthetic grounding for the role of concepts in experience in Kant, Wittgenstein and McDowell?’.

I wrote the paper many years ago for a workshop called Crossing the Divide: new perspectives on Continental and Analytic philosophy at Anglia Polytechnic in 1995 and also took to a Canadian aesthetics conference that year. The journal Mind considered the paper it for publication, kept it for 6 months but then narrowly rejected it apparently on the grounds that it was too much about aesthetics. The British Journal of Aesthetics rejected it on the grounds that it was not concerned with aesthetics enough. Kantian Review thought there was not enough Kant in it. Philosophical Investigations thought there was too much Kant. Etc etc. After two years of trying, I put the paper aside and forgot about it. Last year, however, I took it up again and decided I’d send it to the next journal with a call for papers. And lo! Forum Philosophicum.

I must say that the journal is rather nicely printed but the article may find more of an audience via my own university webpage than the printed Polish journal.

Of other recent papers: ‘Why the idea of framework propositions cannot contribute to an understanding of delusion’ is still forthcoming but can be accessed online by those with the right subscription. The same applies to ‘Should comprehensive diagnosis include idiographic understanding?’ forthcoming with Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy and that journal is also looking at a paper on ‘Understanding, testimony and interpretation in psychiatric diagnosis’ which I co-authored with colleagues. Not a bad result since putting book writing aside 6 months ago. But I have not yet gone back to the McDowell paper as yet rejected by Philosophical Investigations. I'm not yet happy enough about the rewrite options.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Analytic phenomenology

I attended a workshop on Thursday organised by Rachel Cooper on the philosophy of psychiatry. Though the papers were supposed to be works in progress there was, genuinely, a good spread of plausible arguments in a number of different areas the subject. Perhaps the most common approach was a kind of analytic phenomenology: the attempt to understand psychopathological conditions through philosophically laden descriptions.

My own presentation, very much a work in progress, concerned empathy. In the past I’ve simply assumed that empathy was a label for knowledge of other minds, perhaps more particularly on the model of simulation theory in the philosophy of mind. But even though that would be of key importance for psychiatry, it does not seem to explain the central importance ascribed to it. Jaspers stresses the central importance of empathy for psychological psychiatry in the same moment that he distinguishes it from (merely, as he sees it) rational understanding.

[I]f we understand the content of the thoughts as they have arisen out of the moods, wishes, and fears of the person who thought them, we understand the connections psychologically or empathetically. Only the latter can be called ‘psychological understanding’. Rational understanding always only enables us to say that a certain rational complex, something which can be understood without any psychology whatever, was the content of a mind; empathic understanding, on the other hand, leads us into the psychic connections themselves. Whereas the rational understanding is only an aid to psychology, empathic understanding is psychology itself. [Jaspers 1974: 83]

And thus I’ve begun to wonder what more might be added to mere knowledge of other minds to get this widespread assumption. My thought, at the workshop, was that a model of empathy could be turbo-charged in three ways:
1: Recognising the idea that empathy involves identification with, as well as understanding of, others.
2: Explaining knowledge of other minds (even when narrowly construed) as requiring a shared form of life, or form of minded. (This might also address Jaspers' odd antipathy to rational connections. That rational connections are central to making sense of others but - outside formal logic - cannot in general be codified in a theory (a theory one might set out from 'cosmic exile'), is the best argument advanced for simulation-theory by Jane Heal.)
3: Taking empathy also to be the way that the exploration of values, widely assumed to be of great importance to mental health care, is primarily conducted.

I’m not sure whether this route would, if worked out more thoroughly, work: whether it would help explain under what model of empathy it would be of such central importance to psychiatry. But one point raised in the questions (in fact by my Uclan colleague Floris Tomasini) concerned whether something less intellectual but perhaps deeper seated might by more important: some notion of recognition of others.

I like this idea. It is right to question the intellectual model I'm instinctively drawn to. But if it is the right direction, it raises principled difficulties for ‘analytic phenomenology’. Recognition in this sense looks to be prelinguistic, verging on the ineffable and thus not really the right sort of thing for philosophical articulation of the sort found in anglo-american philosophy of psychiatry. In other words, empathy so construed might be just what cannot be articulated in this way. (As some sort of Wittgensteinian, I'd be inclined to conclude from this: so much the worse for this construal of empathy.)

Monday, 7 January 2008

Films, cover versions and singular value judgements

I’ve recently seen the film The Kite Runner. Though my companions had, I have not read the book, and thus didn’t share their (familiar) qualms about seeing a previously enjoyed book adapted and re-presented this way. Such qualms are interesting in themselves, however.

The obvious thought is that they result from a dislike of the idea of seeing the results of someone else’s imagination which may contrast with one’s own. But that itself raises the question: why is that a distinctive reaction to the case of books turned into films and not in other cases? Why does it not apply, as I may have mentioned here before, to cover versions of pop songs?

Typing this, I’m listening to Christopher O'Riley’s solo piano versions of Radiohead songs. Whilst there is something odd about them, and I could easily imagine disliking them - they verge on the naff – the fact that they change the original, and presumably may change the way I hear the originals, isn’t necessarily disturbing. It would only be disturbing if I thought that there was a good chance that they would do this in a particular bad way. In the case of films of books, though, the very idea of it being someone else's take seems in itself a bad thing, whether or not the take is bad. (A good take may be more powerful, in fact, and thus worse than a bad one which one simply passes over.)

In his account of one-off or ‘idiographic’ judgement, the post-Kantian philosopher Wilhelm Windelband suggests that the more general importance of such singular judgement is exemplified (and thus partly explained) by value judgements which, he thinks (and in this has something in common with other post-Kantians) are obviously singular. He says:

[E]very interest and judgment, every ascription of human value is based upon the singular and the unique… Every dynamic and authentic human value judgment is dependent upon the uniqueness of its object. It is, above all, our relationship to personalities that demonstrates this. It is not an unbearable idea that yet another identical exemplar of a beloved or admired person exists? Is it not terrifying and inconceivable that we might have a second exemplar in reality with our own individual peculiarities? This is the source of horror and mystery in the idea of the Doppelganger -no matter how great the temporal distance between the two persons may be. [Windelband 1980: 181-2]

Now in the case of ‘our relationship to personalities’ this seems true (and the comments about Doppelgangers suggestive). And if it applied to an attitude to books, it might explain why a copy (both like and unlike) would be disturbing. But why think of other objects of more obviously aesthetic judgements in singular rather than general terms? Why isn’t the song ‘Yearning’ from the novel Steppenwolf more a universal than a particular, which might be instantiated in any number of cases?

That said, I can imagine that some reproductions might have a corrupting effect on the original. I hold out no hopes for my photography group home work this month: a re-creation of Frantisek Drtikol’s The Soul (above).

Friday, 4 January 2008

Community and normativity

In recent months, I’ve been increasingly drawn into recreational running, including off road running. (I’m now equipped, thanks to my brother, with some snazzy new off road shoes which will oblige me to keep it up.) Aside from rational considerations of health and so on, usually in full view at this time of year, there’s another reason in play which has made has helped motivate me. In Kendal, it seems harder to find people who do not run regularly than those who do. The implicit presence of the community of like minded people makes going out on cold winter days so much more normal and thus so much easier. Running is, in this context, just the right thing to do. But in general I don’t actually run with other people. I haven’t, eg., joined the Helm Hill Runners who run on my local hill. So what difference should a largely implicit community make?

In Wittgensteinian philosophy, there’s a tradition of arguing for a fundamental role for a community in sustaining the normativity of judgement (and hence conceptual thought as a whole). According to a communitarian interpretation, only relative to the performance of a community can an individual’s judgements be deemed false or true. The very idea of following a rule, of going on correctly, on this view, depends on, implicit at least, comparison with others. Since judgement is rule governed, judgement requires a community.

But there are real problems with communitarian Wittgensteinianism. Simon Blackburn suggests the following principle when approaching necessary conditions for rule following. Whatever the constraint is, it had better be the case that one’s favoured instance of rule following (eg. public, communal judgement of everyday objects) meets it. And, in fact, once one has got one’s teeth into arguing that isolated individuals cannot follow a rule, it becomes quite hard to retrieve rule following for communities.

I think that the best communitarian Wittgensteinian is Meredith Williams. But even her account (which in retrospect had a significant but insufficiently explicit influence on my own book on Wittgenstein) seems to beg the question at the key moment when she suggests that individuals’ behaviour cannot manifest a correction of an earlier judgement and thus cannot manifest a distinction between being right and only thinking that one is right.

So is there any other account of the connection between a community and normativity explored in philosophy? Strangely it might be found in philosophy of psychiatry where there is the beginning of a fresh discussion (obviously influenced at a distance by Foucault) of the familiar idea that madness is a form of other behaviour: the behaviour of a kind of lost tribe. Practically, there is the reciprocal idea within the service user movement that it can and should reassert a kind of positive tribal identity in, eg., Mad Pride. What’s missing as yet is a good philosophical story about just how the community and personal identity can stand in a mutually constitutive relation (I’m suspicious of constructivist constitutive claims in which relations to the community constitute identity) but the agreement that there’s a phenomenon to be explored seems promising even for less concrete communities, such as the wider community of Kendal runners.

For links to later post on normativity see here.