Monday, 23 June 2008

Moral phenomenology

Hot on the heels of the Finland ‘Limits of Personhood’ conference and last week’s ‘Explanation, reduction, and models of psychopathology’ conference in Bristol, I have been invited by Ben Smith (pictured) to contribute to a workshop on moral phenomenology in Durham this week. (The following week is the Royal College of Psychiatry meeting in London and the week after is my own institute’s colloquium on psychiatric assessment.)

Having only had one day to prepare a presentation, my thinking on moral phenomenology is fairly schematic. I will assume no connection to Phenomenology with a capital ‘P’. Then, to count as an analytic form of phenomenology, an approach has to have some connection to subjectivity such as the characteristic experiences of a judging subject, or their form of life. But to count as moral phenomenology, it must be able to take account of a normative constraint on our thinking. Together this dual condition balances subjectivity and objectivity.

There may be a number of moral philosophical approaches that could be described as moral phenomenology construed in this way. But I am interested in the way McDowell’s discussion of normativity might underpin a form in either of two ways.

We might think of moral norms as exerting an endogenous constraint on our judgement (eg via a form of moral principlism). Although McDowell himself advocates something that looks exogenous – our eyes can be opened to values implicit in empirical situations – his discussion of endogenous constraint would fit the dual condition. But there is something initially awkward seeming, at least, about the way McDowell rejects the dualism of endogenous and exogenous whilst attempting to maintain, against Quine and Davidson, ‘interesting’ analytic truths. Without a distinct endogenous factor, from what are such truths fashioned? In fact, it seems that the rejection of the endogenous given is doing the main work.

On the exogenous side, to follow McDowell’s own account of moral judgement, our thinking can – given substantial background work – answer directly to evaluative and motivating factors in the world. But his recent two-fold retreat both from the idea that experience is propositionally structured (ie shares the same conceptual form as the explicit judgements it can non-inferentially motivate) and that all the contents in the explicit judgements it can non-inferentially motivate are contained within it threatens this neat idea. If experience contains only the proper and common sensibles of vision, how is direct moral realism experienced?

I wish I could connect these two ideas in a revealing fashion (maybe the latter is a retreat from Hegelianism which might itself amount to a form of endogenous constraint?) but this will have to be the focus of my presentation.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

The vagaries of conference presentation

I’ve just been to a philosophy of psychiatry workshop in Bristol organised by Zoe Drayson and with presentations by Dominic Murphy, Rachel Cooper and Havi Carel. Sandwiched by conversations in the pub the night before and afterwards (eg the Vaults, pictured), and with copious time for coffee (in fact, it may have been the first conference I’ve been to where there might have been too much time off: never thought I’d type that), it was an enjoyable event.

I gave, for the fourth and final time, a presentation on the ‘interface problem’. (I am usually too disorganised to do the sensible professional thing of repeating a presentation a few times before publishing it.) Although it is far from an ideal paper or presentation (too much big picture, not enough argument, too may subjects, too metaphilosophical, to list only its most obvious shortcomings) it has, to my surprise, worked well on previous occasions. But not on this one.

Given that I present using pre-written powerpoints, I wouldn’t have thought that there was much possibility of variation from occasion to occasion. But I do usually take too many slides and pick the ones to use according to ongoing audience reaction. Perhaps that does allow significant variation after all.

Anyway, I can now retire it in advance of its eventual publication in Lisa Bortolotti and Matthew Broome’s edited OUP volume Psychiatry as Cognitive Neuroscience and struggle to write something for a workshop in Durham in two week’s time on moral phenomenology.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Limits of Personhood

Last weekend I went, as one of the invited plenary speakers, to the Limits of the Personhood conference at Jyväskylä, Finland (home of the Moomins, of course). In truth outside the very applied discussion of person-centred care in psychiatry, ‘person’ isn’t a term I much use in philosophy. In the wonderfully useful phrase of Rorty’s, it isn’t in my index. And thus I went armed with a paper which picked up the idea of limits, but not of the individual person but rather of 'mindedness' in general. In other words, it was an instance of my long standing interest in Jonathan Lear but modulated through McDowell’s rejection of the endogenous given. (In the end, however, and after a vote, I gave a different paper I happened to have which better fitted the discussion.)

Michael Quante, another invited speaker, gave an interesting history-of-ideas-based paper which suggested that the very notion of the person derived from its role to distinguish first second and third person moods of verbs, coupled with the Christian Trinity, as part of an always-already philosophical notion. It was never, in other words, a conceptually innocent notion. This seems to me to justify never discussing it in what aims to be therapeutic philosophy.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Avoiding the Myth of the Given

The paper that John McDowelll gave at Amiens (and which confused me at the time) is published in the newish book edited by Jakob Lingaard. In it, McDowell makes two strategic withdrawals.

I used to assume that to conceive experiences as actualisations of conceptual capacities, we would need to credit experiences with propositional content, the sort of content judgements have. And I used to assume that the content of an experience would need to include everything the experiences enables its subject to know noninferentially. But both these assumptions now strike me as wrong. [3]

As to the first, he still holds that experience is conceptually structured but it need not include all the claims that one might noninferentially make because of it.

Suppose I have a bird in plane view, and that puts me in a position to know noninferentially that what I see is a cardinal. It is not that I infer that what I see is a cardinal from the way it looks, as when I identify a bird’s species by comparing what I see with a photograph in a field guide. I can immediately recognise cardinals if the viewing conditions are good enough.

On my old assumption, since my experience puts me in a position to know noninferentially that what I see is a cardinal, its content would have to include a proposition in which the concept of a cardinal figures… But what seems right is this: my experience makes the bird visually present to me, and my recognitional capacity enables me to know noninferentially that what I see is a cardinal. Even if we go on assuming my experience has content, there is no need to suppose that the concept under which my recognitional capacity enables me to bring what I see figures in that content.

If experience does not include all the conceptual contents I might judge, what subset does it include?

A natural stopping point, for visual experiences, would be proper sensibles of sight and common sensibles accessible to sight. We should conceive experience as drawing on conceptual capacities associated with concepts of proper and common sensibles. So should we suppose my experience when I see a cardinal has propositional content involving proper and common sensibles? That would preserve the other of those two assumptions I used to make. But I think this assumption is wrong too. What we need is an idea of content that is not propositional but intuitional…[4]

So this connects to the second change. Experience is conceptually structured but not propositionally structured. It is intuitionally conceptually structured.

Propositional unity comes in various forms. Kant takes a classification of forms of judgement, and thus forms of propositional unity, from the logic of his day, and works to describe a corresponding form of intuitional unity for each... [But] [i]t is not obvious why Kant thinks the idea requires that to every form of propositional unity there must correspond a form of intuitional unity. And anyway we need not follow Kant in his inventory of forms of propositional unity. [4-5]

The concept of a bird, like the concept of a cardinal, need not be part of the content of the experience; the same considerations would apply. But perhaps we can say it is given to me in such an experience, not something I know by bringing a conceptual capacity to bear on what I anyway see, that what I see is an animal… because ‘animal’ captures the intuition’s categorical form, the distinctive kind of unity it has…
In an intuition unified by a form capturable by ‘animal’, we might recognise content, under the head of modes of space occupancy, that could not figure in intuitions of inanimate objects. We might think of common sensibles accessible to sight as including, for instance, postures such as perching and modes of locomotion such as hopping or flying.

This leaves me wondering just what intuitional conceptual structure might be and how it rationalises - noninferentially - judgements based on it. On the old account, it was easy to see how the very same content could be present in experience and in judgement and hence how the world could rationally constrain judgement. Now, there is supposed to be some sort of shared content but I am not sure what it is. Both the changes make this harder to grasp. Propositional judgements are justfied by intuitional experiences. And recognitional capacities have to be exercised on experiences whilst not being grounded in inferences from them. Hmm.
(Later thoughts on Travis’ ‘Reason’s Reach’ are here.)

Monday, 9 June 2008

Rethinking Expertise

Whilst away, first on holiday (Corsica) and at a conference (Finland), I’ve been reading Harry Collins’ new co-authored book (Collins, H. and Evans, R. (2007) Rethinking Experience, Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

Harry Collins has been one of the sociologists of science whose work I have most admired and most often cited. His Changing Order (1985 London: Sage) is a brilliant balance of small scale qualitative empirical work with a really strong philosophical narrative both substantiating and being substantiated by the empirical picture. That earlier book makes a very strong case for the central importance of tacit knowledge at the centre of knowledge claims even in hard sciences where publication is a mark of objectivity.

The new book is less dramatic, less directly empirical and probably, for me at least, less interesting. But it sets out to begin a debate about expertise in the assessment of scientific claims by articulating a taxonomy of knowledge which includes varieties of degrees of ground level knowledge or expertise (from ‘beer-mat knowledge’ to ‘contributory expertise’) and ‘meta-expertises’ (from the ‘ubiquitous discrimination’ that allows most of us to conclude that the moon landings could not have been faked to ‘technical connoisseurship’ and then ‘referred expertise’ that underpins science management).

The taxonomy is called a ‘periodic table of expertises’. But unlike the Periodic Table proper, this is not underpinned by a very thorough theory of expertise. It is rather a rough and ready tool for thinking about how technical expertise can be judged by those who do not directly share it. The proof of the pudding will be whether others find the distinctions helpful ways to frame further empirically informed work or public debate.

The main new idea is that short of contributory expertise there is a form of tacit knowledge which Collins calls ‘interactional expertise’ and which is the expertise that is constituted by a thorough going grasp of the language of a specialism or subject area. Interactional experts cannot make a direct contribution to the discipline (they cannot carry out experiments, for example) but they have a genuine expertise and according to a further claim advanced (the ‘strong interactional hypothesis’), their linguistic abilities need not be discriminable from those who also have contributory expertise.

This claim motivates two chapters which sit rather uneasily with the tone of the rest of the book. One attempts to engage with Dreyfus’ arguments that embodiment is a necessary precondition for genuine linguistic ability. This is, in effect, a philosophical chapter, although informed by a case study described by Oliver Sacks. Sadly, the treatment is much too short to make a convincing case against the variety of philosophical claims made for embodiment but long enough to disrupt the previous brisk flow of the book.

The other motivated chapter is an empirical test of the ‘strong interactional hypothesis’ by examining colour blind and non-colour blind subjects playing the imitation game (which underpins the Turing Test) and contrasting this case with those with and those without perfect pitch. The hope is that, because they have been surrounded by the non-colour-blind community, colour blind subjects will have fully mastered its language (though they do not have contributory expertise) whilst those without perfect pitch will not have mastered the language of the perfect pitch minority.

I had a concern that a different explanation for the findings was not considered. In both cases, one group of subjects has an ability the other does not have and it might always be easier for those with the extra ability to fool those without. But the examples given suggest instead that a ‘deficit model’ of colour blindness does not help. It is more as though colour blindness has its own phenomenology (as does perfect pitch) which outsiders cannot access. (Though, of course, this is not the point of the example which is that the colour blind, having been surrounded by the language of normal colour perception, have fully mastered it.) But although this chapter supports the thesis considered with direct (if relatively small scale) experimental work, I am not sure that it really adds to the argument of the whole book which turns less on whether the strong interactional hypothesis can be true either ever or in these cases and more on the role of tacitly informed interactional expertise in both assessing and managing scientific knowledge.

One further aspect of the book that pleased me was that it anticipated a number of worries I had. Thus I began to worry that the relationship between art critics and artists is not that between interactional expertise and contributory expertise as rather between two distinct kinds of contributory expertise. (And the claim that the latter kind is sufficient for the former would seem particularly implausible given the poor quality of some artists’ discussions of their own work.) But whilst not fully worked out, this idea was at least addressed.

Especially as it is presented as intended to start a debate rather than close it off, this is a valuable short book suggesting some ways to think about expertise and the broader issues of the accountability of science to public opinion. Whether it has a lasting significance rather depends on what use other social scientists, scientists etc make of its terms.

PS: see report on a workshop organised by Collins on expertise here.

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