Monday, 31 March 2008

The reality of British Summer Time

Yesterday evening, to mark the start of British Summer Time, Lois and I cycled down to the very top of Morecombe Bay: the estuary of the River Kent at Arnside. We set off late enough just to be able to get there, drink a pint and return before it got dark. And thus we had the very first hint of the summer’s evening rides to come. (Not summer yet, of course. There’s still snow on the hills here.)

Of course, whilst the days are now genuinely longer than winter, nothing has really changed by the start of Summer Time. To have a three hour expedition, we could simply have set off three hours before the gloaming on the previous day. But that would have been more of a late afternoon’s ride rather than an evening expedition. Even though the status of the ride has changed from one to the other simply by recent (since either yesterday or 1916) collective fiat, it has a much greater experiential solidity than that might imply.

In this it seems to be a good example of Wittgenstein’s discussion of seeing when he describes seeing a schematic triangle as either standing on its base or hanging from its apex. Whilst it might be that subjects used such descriptions interchangeably, realising that both may be applied to the same figures, as a matter of fact people do find one more compelling than another in particular contexts. So, once the time change has properly ‘taken’ it becomes impossible to think that, eg., it is either 6pm BST or 5pm GMT. No, it really is just 6pm in the only real time, now. Odd how real what is merely a convention can seem.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Semantic normativity, finally

On a wet Thursday in Preston, just before the Easter break and with a campus empty of students, Gloria, Natalie and I met in the Equator to discuss semantic normativity. We didn’t come to any agreed conclusion. But I was struck by a difficulty of the debate.

In the context of debate with someone - a normative sceptic - who denies that semantics are normative, ie. that there is a prescriptive ought in play, it is hard to provide an appropriate argument. The two-fold problem is that if one attempts to characterise a clearly prescriptive claim, such as that truth imposes an obligation on assertion, it is easy for the sceptic both to deny that the norm actually holds and, in any case, to suggest that is not a specifically semantic norm. If, on the other hand and to avoid that problem, one focuses more closely on the link between, say, conceptual thought and what satisfies it (for want of a better general word), there does not seem to be a way to gain independent enough purchase to argue that the link is prescriptive.

Wittgenstein characterises this relation in a way that seems normative:
A wish seems already to know what will or would satisfy it; a proposition, a thought, what makes it true - even when that thing is not there at all! Whence this determining of what is not yet there? This despotic demand? [Wittgenstein 1953 §437]

But the sceptic seems to be able to argue that, although there is a relation of fit here, that need not imply that there is normative prescription in place.

One possibility, suggested in the Equator by Gloria, is that whilst a third person account of someone else’s use might be adequately characterised in merely descriptive terms, charting what is correct use, when one turns to a first person perspective, correct use takes on a prescriptive character, perhaps because one needs to be guided by the idea of making correct uses. I am suspicious of this idea, plausible though it seems, because of a long-standing doubt about the philosophical significance of the first person. In this case, there seems to me to be the same need to characterise third person usage as guided.

I think that the best approach to normative scepticism, like all forms of scepticism, is to block the argument against normativity before it gets going. In Kusch’s and Hattiangadi’s books it is the forced choice between constitutive and prescriptive forms of norms that looks to be the decisive moment. (The decisive moment in the conjuring trick has been made, and it was the very one that we thought quite innocent.) But if so it seems to give the wrong account of paradigmatically normative phenomena with which languages are often compared: rule governed games.

In these, the rules (at least partly) constitute the games but are prescriptive nonetheless. Kusch strangely says that one cannot break constitutive rules because, I assume, if one does so then one is really just playing a different game. But this is clearly not the case. One can intend to follow a constitutive rule and fail. Thus the forced choice can surely be rejected. If so, the ground rules for the debate change and Wittgenstein’s description can be taken at face value again.

See earlier posts on this here and here.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008


Further to the last round up, I've heard yesterday that Medicine, Healthcare and Philosophy will publish my co-authored paper ‘Understanding, testimony and interpretation in psychiatric diagnosis’ after I made substantial changes to it at a referee’s insistence. In truth, I knew the section deleted was no good. My colleague Natalie Banner had pointed that out earlier in the drafting but, as happens too often, I liked the text and found it hard to get rid of it until forced.
I’ve seen a first review of Essential Philosophy of Psychiatry in the popular magazine Mental Health Today. Accessed via the web it is classified as ‘Reviews - favourable’. But I have to declare that it was written by Matthew Broome (pictured above), a good friend and fellow McDowellian.

I must get back now first to finish editing an issue of PPP on Values Based Practice and then to writing a pure philosophy paper on McDowell.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Where analytic philosophy doesn’t reach

This weekend Lois and I decamped 12 miles west to stay in a cottage in a small village in the Park which we’ve visited many times before. Practically speaking, for getting to the fells, it is not much more convenient, if at all. Slightly shorter distances on windy country roads replace a longer distance on the main Park artery. The cottage has little heating or hot water and there’s no possibility of a lengthy bath after a walk. Nevertheless, the qualitative difference between being based on the edge of a housing estate on the edge of a town (both pleasant enough) and being in an altogether more beautiful, rural setting is profound.

But, like the pleasure of hill walking in general, this is not something about which I can write usefully here. It is a strange aporia in analytic philosophy. Even the philosophy that can usefully be called a ‘philosophy of nature’, such as McDowell’s, does not even begin to address what a different aesthetic response to nature or a more primitive embedding in it might be like.

There is, indeed, an analytic version of philosophy of aesthetics. I have, for example, just ordered an interesting but expensive collection on conceptual art (Goldie, P. and Schellekens, E. (eds) (2007) Philosophy and Conceptual Art, Oxford: OUP). But the problems raised do not seem to go deep enough in the tradition of logical analysis and without, eg, a Kantian notion that aesthetic judgement is a clue to something metaphysically deeper and darker, analytic aesthetics seem a mere backwater.

Of course the other pleasure I gain in relocating even a mere 12 miles might simply be escaping my computer: another sense in which philosophy doesn’t reach into the Park.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Room of one's own

One of the pressures I feel as a humanities academic (though see previous discussion) concerns the preliminary reading or scholarship necessary for research and writing papers. Though it obviously is a necessary requisite, it still seems hard to justify it in practice. Perhaps this is because simply sitting reading hard philosophy looks very like sitting reading beach fiction. And thus, at the University, I might feel embarrassed in front of the manifestly hard working administrative staff based in the opposite office. In fact, however, I have the same problem when working at home when the pressure prematurely to turn on the computer and start writing is just as strong.

My solution on campus is flight to my second, but computer-free, office: the Equator coffee bar. For the cost of a fairly good cup of coffee, one can rent a table for the length of time it takes to read an average (if not a McDowell or Travis) article. I’d never get any ‘proper’ work done at the University without it.

Psychiatric taxonomy

I’ve been writing a commentary on a recent article on psychiatric taxonomy in the American Journal of Psychiatry (Zachar, P. and Kendler, K. (2007) ‘Psychiatric Disorders: A Conceptual Taxonomy’ American Journal of Psychiatry 164: 557-565) for the Association for the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry.

In the article, Zachar and Kendler set out a number of dimensions on which to locate any possible psychiatric taxonomy(or perhaps syndromes within a taxonomy which might not be uniform). They say:

These dimensions are 1) causalism-descriptivism, 2) essentialism-nominalism, 3) objectivism-evaluativism, 4) internalism-externalism, 5) entities-agents, and 6) categories-continua. [ibid: 557]

Given that the main aim of the article is to provide a framework for future discussion rather than a robust argument for a particular position, I was at first unsure how to comment on it. But two things struck me.

1) The framework blurs the important distinction between causal and constitutive forms of externalism.

Should psychiatric disorders be defined solely by processes that occur inside the body (internalism), or can events outside the skin also play an important (or exclusive) defining role (externalism)? [ibid: 558]

If one, plausibly, thinks that environmental factors sometimes cause mental illness then one is a causal externalist. But one may think that they cause mental illness by affecting states – perhaps neurological – within the body. If so, whilst a causal externalist, one is also a constitutive internalist. (Constitution is not quite the same thing as what defines a mental illness. Even a constitutional internalist may find it helpful to label illnesses by their causes.)

Combining a constitutive form of externalism with evaluativism gives a position in which mental illness is partly constituted by value judgements. But this leaves open two interpretations of constitutive evaluativist externalism depending on whether one thinks that the values are real or merely subjective, disciplined or undisciplined by real values out there.

2) An undisciplined constitutive evaluativist externalist account is not so much one way to frame a taxonomy, it undermines the very idea of psychiatric taxonomy. Mental illnesses are constituted, at least in part, by matters external to the body. In addition, these matters are not features of the world, broadly construed, but rather expressions of subjectivity. If this were the correct approach to the nature of mental illness, however, it fits uneasily with the very idea of a psychiatric taxonomy. Whilst one the aims of taxonomy is validity – to cut nature at the joints – so as to enable the framing of true judgements, on an undisciplined evaluativist approach, that idea of correctness is missing.

But this impacts interestingly on the challenge Pat Bracken raised at the WPA meeting in London last Autumn. How should psychiatry respond to those who argue that their experiences, such as hearing internal voices, whilst fitting a psychiatric diagnostic category, are not really pathological?

Imagine, for example, that objectivists succeeded in developing a consistent and intuitively plausible account of mental illness, reducing concepts of mental disorder to simple facts. Suppose that on this account, hearing voices turned out to be pathological. Suppose also that undisciplined evaluativists succeeded in developing a rival account on which hearing voices was not in itself pathological. How should the two accounts be assessed. One problem, of course, is that whilst the status of hearing voices is evidence one way or the other, it is contested. If one somehow knew, antecendently, its pathological status that would be a crucial test for the two accounts. But, as Neil Pickering argues, no such pre-theoretical knowledge is possible [Pickering 2006]. In fact, however, the problem goes deeper.

Setting out the debate like this suggests that whether or not mental illness is simply factual or whether it is irreducibly evaluative – and if so of what sort – is itself a deeper level factual matter. But it is open to an undisciplined evaluativist to argue that that deeper level matter is not factual but rather, also, evaluative. (It is a case of ‘values all the way down’.) They can argue that we should, for reasons expressive of better subjective value, choose their model of mental illness not because it is true but because it is (evaluatively) right. And that is why assessing Bracken’s question runs so deep.

PS: an update is here.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Semantic normativity #2

Having recently looked at Martin Kusch’s (2006) A Sceptical Guide to Meaning and Rules: Defending Kripke’s Wittgenstein, I’ve been reading Anandi Hattiangadi’s Oughts and Thoughts: Rule-Following and the Normativity of Content.

Hattiangadi was supervised by Kusch and shares with him hostility to the idea that linguistic meaning (or mental content) is normative. Unlike him, she does not try to rehabilitate Kripke and does not think that Kripke’s invocation of normativity is merely part of an immanent critique. On her account, Kripke goes down with the normative ship.

The arguments against the normativity of meaning are intriguing. The main thrust is this. Meaning might be governed by constitutive rules but merely constitutive rules are not prescriptive and one needs prescriptivity to get a sceptical argument about meaning. (If facts about meaning are genuinely normative or prescriptive then such facts would have to be essentially motivating. But, either, such facts could not be reduced to descriptive terms because of Hume’s Law (no ought from an is); or the very idea of sui generis motivating facts would be ‘queer’ indeed.)

The main arguments against full blown prescriptivity seem to be that one simply cannot offer a plausible prescription in the neighbourhood of meaning. Thus, for example, it simply isn’t true that if ‘red’ means red then one ought to call all red things ‘red’ because ‘ought’ implies ‘can’ and no one can call all red things ‘red’. In general, there is no intrinsic obligation to speak the truth. Thinking true thoughts inherits whatever limited obligation it does merely instrumentally from the fact that true beliefs combined with desires increase the chances of getting what one wants etc.

I do not have any knock down arguments against the case Hattiangadi offers. Despite this, I am not, however, rushing to embrace it for three reasons. (These reasons hopefully explain my suspicion. They are not yet arguments against her. I hope such arguments will follow.)

Firstly, the obligations in play in the book look like moral obligations but would have to be semantic obligations for the claims of semantic normativity to work. Thus, for example, one option considered is that semantic normativity amounts to the claim that one ought to speak the truth and yet there is no such general obligation. But this looks to assume that semantic normativity both is and is not a species of moral obligation and such a species may be hard to come by.

Secondly, the obligations are supposed to be all or nothing but no such plausible obligation is forthcoming. This seems, however, to be the wrong sort of norm for meaning. It would seem strange to think that semantic norms would not function holistically. So just as precise articulation of mental content might be part of an explanation of action but only in the context of holistic facts about other beliefs and meanings so I would not expect semantic normativity to issue action guiding prescriptions that could be stated without at least meaning-related conditional antecedents.

Thirdly, the distinction between regulative and constitutive rules does not seem quite right for the case made. Recall the distinction from Searle and summarised by Kusch thus:
Regulative: In conditions C you ought to perform action A. These regulate antecedently or independently existing forms of behaviour.
Constitutive: Doing A counts as B in context C. These create or define new forms of behaviour.

On one reading of the latter, an anthropologist might baptise a form of behaviour and so constitute a way of going on as, say, ‘passive aggressive’ without the agents self ascribing that phrase or even being aware of it. The concept would shape a form of behaviour in whoever’s eyes. This minimal reading would denude constitutive rules of any power to do work against semantic reductionism perhaps because it has no prescriptive force.

But Hattiangadi (perhaps following Searle - ages since I read him) takes an example to contrast with a regulative rule which does seem to be normative.

A group of people might go through the motions with marked tiles, but if they are in ignorance of the rules of Mah-jong, they are not playing Mah-jong. Before the rules of Mah-jong were invented, nobody played Mah-jong; nobody could have played Mah-jong without first inventing the rules. In contrast… the Indian rule of etiquette that prohibits eating with one’s left hand… regulates the activity of eating, which certainly predates the invention of the rule, and could just as well outlive it. [Hattiangadi 2007: 54]

The behaviour which is constituted as the behaviour it is by the rules of Mah-jong is surely so constituted in part by the idea that, if one is playing the game, then one ought to play in accord with both the legal rules and the norms of good strategy. It would still be impossible to derive a quasi moral ‘all out’ obligation. No one need try to win at Mah-jong. But that seems to me to indicate that there is something wrong with the strategy of the book rather than showing that neither Mah-jong nor semantics is normative.

See also this later entry.

I am the third revelation!

On Saturday evening I went to see There Will Be Blood with my partner Lois and another friend. Given our different reactions to the film over a beer (in that fine pub, the Star and Garter) I was struck again by the subtlety of the ‘logic’ of aesthetic discussions. One issue in play for us, for example, was the extent to which the entire film really hangs on the pay-off of the extraordinary final scene –

“I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!”

- and the way, both for the central character but also the audience, for that scene to be ‘possible’ one has to have had the rest of a long film. Given a sufficiently positive reaction to the end, much of what goes before can be justified simply on its basis. But if, as seems plausible, part of what makes that scene work, if one thinks it does, is a specific kind of reaction to the rest of the film then there is an inevitable circularity in what one can say against the worry that the whole thing is just too loose and bloated.

Wittgenstein characterises the gappy and ultimately groundless nature of such discussion as follows:

Aesthetic discussions [are] like discussions in a court of law, where you try to “clear up the circumstances” of the action which is being tried, hoping that in the end what you say will “appeal to the judge”... if by giving reasons of this sort you make another person “see what you see” but it still “does not appeal to him” that is “an end” of the discussion. [Wittgenstein 1955: 19]

This suggests a key contrast with other kinds areas of debate. It is, for example, ‘part of the framework on which the working of our language is based’ that ‘disputes don’t break out (among mathematicians, say) over the question whether a rule has been obeyed or not’ [Wittgenstein 1953: §240]. So whilst he suggests a kind of anthropological background to logical or arithmetic rules, still, as a matter of fact, there is agreement there.

In the Philosophical Investigations he does say a little more about the nature of aesthetic judgements through an analogy with understanding meaning (a central theme in the book).

Understanding a sentence is much more akin to understanding a theme in music than one may think. What I mean is that understanding a sentence lies nearer than one thinks to what is ordinarily called understanding a musical theme. Why is just this the pattern of variation in loudness and tempo? One would like to say “Because I know what it’s all about.” But what is it all about? I should not be able to say. In order to ‘explain’ I could only compare it with something else which has the same rhythm (I mean the same pattern). (One says “Don’t you see, this is as if a conclusion were being drawn” or “This is as it were a parenthesis”, etc. How does one justify such comparisons? - There are very different kinds of justification here.) [§527]

We speak of understanding a sentence in the sense in which it can be replaced by another which says the same; but also in the sense in which it cannot be replaced by any other. (Any more than one musical theme can be replaced by another.)In the one case the thought in the sentence is something common to different sentences; in the other, something that is expressed only by these words in these positions. (Understanding a poem.) [§531]

Then has “understanding” two different meanings here? - I would rather say that these kinds of use of “understanding” make up its meaning, make up my concept of understanding.For I want to apply the word “understanding” to all this. [§532]

This hints at a model of aesthetic judgement as essentially comparative. It is a matter of seeing matters in some specific way. Such seeing, or seeing as, can be partially explained but there is a kind of circularity. If someone else does not see things that way then reasons run out almost immediately. The other party need not be guilty of inconsistency and the extent to which they are guilty of ignorance turns on the status of the initial comparison for which there seems merely the thinest of foundations. Of course on some readings, things are fundamentally the same even for mathematics. It just happens we agree more about maths than films.

For a brisk mention of a  ‘resolute’ reading of There Will be Blood, see this entry.