Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Kith selection?

Catching up with Radio 4 podcasts whilst out jogging recently, I was delighted to hear a discussion of Isaac Newton with Simon Schaffer (scarily pictured!) and Rob Iliffe, both of whom taught me in Cambridge in the 1980s. It prompted me to do a Google search of past colleagues which revealed how successful the Cambridge sociologists of science have been in getting on, landing good academic posts and shaping their field. Part of this, I’m sure, has been an active approach to supporting colleagues in part also to support the discipline.

I also came across another ex-colleague, one link for whom was to a book review in which they had attempted to give the book’s author a good kicking and the author, in a right of reply, had returned the favour. I’ve not read the original book so I do not know who really had the better argument. But, in the published exchange, the injured author clearly gets the best of things and hence my ex-colleague is rather left, with egg on face, looking both unscholarly and rather mean-spirited. This prompted me to wonder about whether writing reviews within one’s own field is really a good idea. (And if not within one’s own field, what right has one outside?)

It might be tempting, especially within the tradition of analytic philosophy of the last few decades, to enjoy the rough and tumble of writing negative reviews amongst the positive (though if the tradition is to be followed: largely negative). And perhaps within philosophy as a whole, there’s no danger of diminishing interest in the broader field. Even so, however, it would surely be unfortunate to acquire a reputation for gratuitous floccinaucinihilipilification. But the converse, whilst perhaps polite, would lack any specifically academic virtue.

Given that the next two books on my shelf for review are by authors whose still minority fields I very much support, there’s an obvious lesson to be learnt from Cambridge sociology of science.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Transcendental anthropology

I have a love-hate relationship with the idea of transcendental anthropology. It is the label given by Jonathan Lear (pictured) in three linked papers in the 1980s to what he takes to be Wittgenstein’s aim in the Philosophical Investigations. Philosophy aims at a non-empirical insight. That is how we earn the right not to have to do experiments. And some such philosophy can plausibly claim to be ‘transcendental’.

A transcendental inquiry, according to Kant, was an a priori investigation into how concepts apply to objects. And an object (Objekt), for Kant, was anything of which a concept could be predicated in a judgement. If we substitute ‘non-empirical’ for ‘a priori’, then Wittgenstein’s investigation of rule-following can plausibly be considered a transcendental inquiry. [Lear 1986: 269]

At the same time, however, there is an anthropological strain in the Investigations.

A ‘language-game’ is not merely a language, but a ‘whole consisting of the language and the actions into which it is woven’. And ‘the term “language-game” is meant to bring into prominence the fact that the speaking of a language is part of an activity, or a form of life’. This would suggest that the proper study of language requires that one take an anthropological stance: one views a language in the context of the customs, institutions, practices of a community. It is one of the ways in which a group of people interact with each other, with their environment, with themselves.
The anthropological stance would seem to encourage a naturalistic outlook: ‘What we are supplying’, says Wittgenstein at one point, ‘are really remarks on the natural history of human beings; we are not contributing curiosities, however, but observations which no one has doubted, but which have escaped remark only because they are always before our eyes.’
[Lear 1986: 268]

But, as Lear goes on to argue, it can seem that these two strands are in tension.

The anthropological stance would seem to pull one in the direction of an empirical explanation of how we go on. Succumbing to this pull, however, would violate the stricture that philosophy should have no such concern.
And it would threaten Wittgenstein’s repeated demand that philosophical reflection should leave our practices and customs intact…
Why should we not come to view the law of non-contradiction as merely one of the deeply held tribal beliefs of our tribe?
[Lear 1986: 270-1]

So far, so good. What I find frustrating is that in the final paper called simply ‘Transcendental anthropology’ Lear argues that, whilst they are not actually in tension (‘not at war… [but] of a piece’ is his dreadful pun), they are incomplete because philosophical reflection from an anthropological stance has consequences for the meanings of activities so studied. As reflective agents, such philosophical reflection cannot be kept from affecting meaning-laden practices. (Wittgenstein's account is incomplete because - according to Lear - he only discussed our unreflective blind acting.) The problem is that in giving an account of this, Lear’s language seems, to my mind at least, to go on holiday. He is forced to try to describe the kind of insight that is available whilst at the same time denying that the insight can be expressed in ordinary language with merely the darkest of hints as to how, eg., we can arrive at necessary claims about rules merely by inspecting our mental lives from within.

I have returned to these papers in an attempt to see what, if any, help it can give me in writing about the perspective implicit in McDowell’s Mind and World. Having struggled with them for nearly 20 years, I still hold out the hope that I will be able to hold them up to the light and see through them to what a self-conscious conception of philosophy might be. Today, though, they seem pretty dark.

Amid pessimism about that project, light relief comes from a generous review of the Oxford Textbook of Philosophy and Psychiatry in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Monday, 14 April 2008

How new is new?

I’ve just been invited to submit a paper based on the presentation I gave at the German Psychiatric Association (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Psychiatrie, Psychotherapie und Nervenheilkunde) in Berlin last November to the journal Psychopathology. This is a fine journal focusing on experimental psychopathology and clinical psychiatry but very much influenced by the German phenomenological tradition in psychiatry. It was founded by Carl Wernicke (1848-1905) (pictured). I am thus delighted to be invited. It does, however, raise a question.

These days, at conferences, I never read a written paper but rather give a presentation based on slides (whether gloriously in the middle of the audience using OHP or rather more detachedly via PowerPoint). Thus the papers I write on the basis of presentations are never strict derivations but require a kind of creative development from them. (They are more like Kant’s reflective rather than determinate judgement.) Now, I’ve already had one stab at this process for the DGPPN presentation to be published by JMHCP and I cannot simply repeat it. I need, therefore, to write another paper which is both sufficiently close to the presentation to satisfy the invitation but also sufficiently distinct so as to be worth publishing. This raises the question: just how different does a new paper have to be?

In this case, a new paper might be rather less scholastic in trying to derive from Windelband’s rectorial address a plausible account of idiographic judgement and rather more explicit in thinking about the relation between the failure of that project and diagnostic options. Well something like that!

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Faith in semi-colons

The recent article on semi-colons in the Guardian reminds me of a heated Equator debate I had with Natalie at the end of last week about punctuation. I must say that my feeling towards those who skilfully deploy semi-colons is akin to that towards those who have a proper understanding of culinary or sartorial aesthetics. My own habit of, when in pubs, eating only ham and eggs or my ten years of dressing largely only in the sombre shade are compensations for a lack of proper phronesis.

Here, then, is my compensation for a lack of a sophisticated grasp of punctuation: my simple approach (the ham and eggs, or dressing in black, of writing).

Commas: used, in pairs, to delimit sub-clauses in a sentence or, singly, when such a phrase occurs at the beginning or end of the sentence. Used, obviously, also in lists or between adjectives. Although I grasp the rule for using a comma before a conjunction where what follows the conjunction does, or could, express a whole proposition, I never do add such commas.
Colons: used, to adapt what Fowler says, to introduce a clause that comes as the fulfilment of a promise expressed or implied in the previous part of the sentence, whether a list, a phrase or a clause that expresses a full proposition. From choice I would not use a capital letter in the last case though US publishers have imposed that.

Semi-colons: used very sparingly in lists (when commas are also in play) or to tie together two full but short propositions which are thematically linked. In general, though, I usually replace this latter use with two full sentences.
Dashes: used in pairs – I realise that this is quite informal – to introduce any parenthetical remark that isn’t quite so parenthetical as to merit parentheses.

That/which: use 'that' to say which and ', which' to say that. (I follow the clue that if I could add a parenthetical 'as a matter of fact' then I write ', which...' and if not then simply 'that...'. Although talk of restrictive and unrestrictive clauses seems very straightforward in principle, I have to confess to some doubts in practice as to how the subject of the sentence is grasped.)
Footnotes: used, I think, only once. I was worried that I had been influenced in writing a paper by PhD supervision discussions with Richard Gipps and so footnoted his work as early as I could in my paper: the first sentence of the abstract. (Some footnotes were introduced into my McDowell book by the publisher. Not my fault!)


The Guardian article seemed to me to reflect the twin tensions in thinking about punctuation. There is a thought that it isn’t just a helpful, historically situated, device to ease communication but that some ways of going on are not just right in the sense of commanding agreement. No, they are really right. Punctuation cuts propositions at their joints. It’s like that aphorism from Nietzsche:

I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar

But on the other, it is still arcane. When the author of a Radio 4 play last week wanted to suggest scholasticism in an order of academic monks, one of the characters resists publishing, not a book on angels dancing on the heads of pins, no, as another comments with regret:

I was trying to persuade him to publish his book on the semi colon.

A whole book on the semi-colon? How outré!

Sunday, 6 April 2008

A play is a world in itself, a tiny colony we could almost say

I went north to Keswick this weekend to see a double bill at the Theatre by the Lake. The Recruiting Officer and Our Country’s Good were (as is often the case) played together with the same cast. The first, a bawdy romp, is the subject of the second, as a group of transported convicts are encouraged to stage it by the officers.

By itself, I would have to be persuaded that The Recruiting Officer is anything more than an enjoyable nonsense, though it was delightfully done. But having just seen it a couple of hours before Our Country’s Good, the dissonance of seeing the same actors in a much bleaker situation, and the idea that it, of all things, is the play which, in the middle of the immensity of their situation, their characters intend to put on were striking and required that preparatory work. Like another experience I’ve commented on here, seeing it first was a kind of causal, rather than justificatory, factor for one’s subsequent aesthetic state.

As we were leaving (and, in effect, just as The Recruiting Officer was starting in Australia) someone behind me commented that we were watching the plays in the wrong order. But in a sense he was right. It would have interesting to see it again but now as a play within a play with the actor who had played Silvia playing her again but through her Mary Brenham (with her fake posh accent).

One further feature added to the aptness of the second play was seeing it in a small holiday town like Keswick. There seemed no very good reason why it would be better presented than the play within a play. That, I fear, shows a bias stemming from seeing theatre in either London or by the RSC. But being proved very wrong added to the pleasure.

Keswick, by the way, is a great little town, properly overlooked by its surrounding fells, rather than merely with one such fell visible in the distance like my adopted Kendal. It has some nice pubs and some restaurants and guards the northern entrance to Borrowdale, the best approach to Sca Fell Pike. Having spent a day in the theatre on Saturday, I could walk in the North Western Fells, freshly covered in snow (not so possible from the West End). It does, however, make Kendal seem like a thriving metropolis by comparison so I am not sure I’d want to live there.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Philosophical style and content

I’ve been working through a backlog of submitted papers for review for a variety of journals. Like the external examiner system, it is an aspect of university life that runs on a kind of trust. Clearly if one benefits from the journal system (or running a course which is externally validated), one ought to be prepared to return the favour. But how many times should one do this? Roughly twice for every paper one ever submits?

Reviewing papers obviously involves assessing the strength of the arguments. More than that, it involves assessing how interesting and novel the argument put forward is (interestingly flawed is better than tediously true). In addition to that, however, I think it should involve a more general defence of the aim of clarity that is so much part of the self-image of broadly analytic philosophy.

An interesting contrast is with European / Continental philosophy which, I think, does not have this quality as part of its self-image. (That wouldn't stop it being clear; it just may not take itself to have that aim over all else, having not started in the logical analysis of Frege and Russell.) I recall at the end of the first conference of the Society for European Philosophy some years ago, Andy Bowie arguing that, whilst European / Continental philosophers in the UK often complained about the lack of respect for their discipline, this might have been encouraged by the almost deliberate difficulty of its literary form. He was not well received.

It is, of course, one thing to say that broadly analytic philosophy has a self-image of clarity; it is another to say it lives up to it. And that raises an interesting question of when a forbidding style has a kind of point (the early Wittgenstein, paradigmatically) and when it is instead a matter of regret but compensated for by the philosophical content dimly visible through it.

My hunch is that in Charles Travis’ work, for example, the style is an accidental impediment to getting to the philosophy. I took a week to study his Thought’s Footing last year and got a great deal out of it. But I couldn’t help feeling it might have been written in a more forgiving manner without any loss of depth. So, similarly, had I reviewed his substantial paper ‘The silence of the senses’, should I have referred it back for changes to make it more comprehensible?

Perhaps a too thorough defence of a particular style of style of philosophy would be the kiss of death to the discipline and the price of innovation is a subset of papers that seem almost deliberately frustrating. But let’s keep it a subset.