Friday, 28 November 2008

Off the beat?

Whilst running yesterday I played the podcast of a recent In Our Time programme on neuroscience which included on the panel the Kings College philosopher David Papineau. Later in the evening I went to hear to Zutons play at Carlisle (living where I do, I have to seize such opportunities).

In the ordinary sense of the word, Papineau wasn’t dogmatic. Indeed, Melvyn Bragg was obviously a little frustrated for the first half of the programme because the notes he had submitted in advance were obviously much more forthright than Papineau himself initially was. He conceded, for example, the naturalness of a dualist position against his own ‘died in the wool materialism’ (though I’m not sure it is really a natural position; the assumption it is calls for questioning). But when urged, he did outline a standard physicalist account of the mind-brain relation.

But whilst David Papineau wasn’t dogmatic in any pejorative sense, the account he offered was dogmatic in this sense. It comprised a set of positive but philosophical claims thus making me wonder: on what premises had it been based (if it were philosophical as opposed to empirical but likely to be true)? But that is too blunt a question to be happy with. Ultimately, no positive philosophical account would escape it and the only alternative lies in Wittgenstein’s comment: I destroy, I destroy, I destroy!

But later at the Zutons, the following association struck me. A few years ago I played their first album throughout the autumn as a gently upbeat mildly funky cd to, eg., drive to. But I hadn’t thought of them amplified to gig level volume, presenting a wall of sound. For the first few moments they sounded a bit like, and made me wish I were hearing, Seamonsters era Wedding Present. But what redeemed things was that, although they slipped weirdly into channelling first Thin Lizzy and ultimately early Pink Floyd, most of the time the Zutons’ music is syncopated (it also has two saxophones, a flute, self-conscious drum solos and other quirks). It is often nicely off the beat. As a result, although it climaxed with a standard four-four thrash, this seemed a destination justified because achieved only once they had travelled a circuitous route.

This made me realise what seems so odd about philosophy in the style of David Papineau. Recall Michael Dummett’s (pictured) remark at the start of The Logical Basis of Metaphysics. He’s had a plumbing disaster after trying to make some alterations himself with hammer and chisel (perhaps, my memory is dim). The emergency plumber comes to rescue him and when queried about whether all is lost says no, it is a straight-forward job providing that one does not go about it, as Dummett has, ‘bald-headedly’. (I really will have to check this memory!) So equally, suggests Dummett, philosophy should not be attempted head on like Papineau, but via a principled route through, for example, the philosophy of language, to set some ground rules. Philosophy should be, so to speak, off the beat. That’s what’s wrong with dogmatic philosophy. It is merely on the beat.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Do animals need a ‘theory of mind’?

At this fortnight’s Uclan Philosophy research seminar Ian Ground (pictured), from the University of Sunderland, gave a paper called ‘Do animals need a ‘theory of mind’? to be published as a book chapter. The paper seemed to me to fall into two parts. First he argued that much work in animal cognition work which is used to argue for a theory of mind presupposes a background Cartesianiam. One revealing quote was:

That a mirror-educated chimpanzee immediately rubs off a spot on his forehead when he sees it in a mirror is not… clear evidence for self-awareness, at least in its usual sense… Our conscious selves are not our bodies… we do not see our conscious selves in mirrors. Gallup’s chimpanzee has [merely] learnt a point to point relation between a mirror image and his body, wonderful as that is. [Jaynes, J. (1978) ‘In a manner of speaking’ BBS 1: 578-9]

Ian recalled the Wittgensteinian claim that such implicit Cartesianism also structured its apparent polar opposite: behaviourism. He didn’t say it quite like this but the idea was that the description of behaviour that behaviourism took as the basis of an analysis of mindedness (the mind just being the behaviour) was what was left over on the bodily side of a Cartesian distinction between mind and body. (Then again, given how clumsy that sentence was, maybe it’s a good thing he didn’t put it like that!) Against this background, theory theory looks to be a necessary route from observable behaviour to unobservable mental states.

But, there is another option. If one denies the Cartesian divide between observable behaviour to unobservable mental states one can see that in behaviour mind can be expressed. (In the human case, it is usual, following Strawson, to start talking of the central role of the person at about this point.) So, Ian suggested, there’s no need to deploy theory theory either to grant that animals might have minds or to underpin their own ability to detect other minds. We can all get by by seeing others’ minds in their behaviours, including, eg, my cat Brix.

It was a bit surprising that in this account, no mention was made of McDowell, who has famously discussed the connection between Cartesianism and an impoverished conception of behaviour, given that he was the target of the final section.

In this, Ian argued that a neo-Kantian view - championed by McDowell - of experience blocked a view of animal minds. The worry is that an agent’s expressive behaviour can only express a content that the agent can entertain, him- her- or itself. On a neo-Kantian approach, however, firstly, all such content must be conceptualised and secondly, only language can carry concepts. So given that animals lack language, they lack concepts, thus content and thus minds.

Ian’s response was to suggest that animals’ interactions with the world could deliver a sufficient degree of articulation for them to be able to experience or inhabit a world rather than a mere environment as McDowell says, following Gadamer.

I wasn’t sure, however, how this answer was supposed to deliver the right response. Firstly, whilst there might be fine grained behavioural discrimination, there’s surely no hope that this could underpin the inferential properties of linguistically structured concepts. Secondly, this distinction would surely mean that our ability to read animals’ expressive behaviour would need a translation between the normatively and inferentially structured concepts we use and animals’ proto-concepts before we could attribute mental states.

Ian agreed that there were problems with his view but suggested it was better than either denying animal minds (a non-starter for a plausible philosophy of mind) or, my other suggestion, starting with the linguistic mind as a prototype and abstracting away from it. This seemed to him to be equally unfair to animals.

(Sorry this is such an uncritical post; I will link back to it when I have something at least a little interesting to say about the matter myself.)

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

McDowell on Intention in Action

In case anyone hasn’t seen this lecture, here’s a link to McDowell on Intention in Action on Youtube. The gently unforgiving style of delivery is typical. We are straight into the philosophy with little sense of where we’re going. How unlike the style I try to teach undergraduates of giving a plan and a clear structure in advance. And yet, how oddly effective it is.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Trying to understand the endogenous Given

Last week, I gave two papers at the University of Hertfordshire. The system is that one first presents a research paper during a two hour session, pauses an hour and then gives a shorter paper to the undergraduate philosophy society. The audiences seemed very friendly.

(One man, however, in my short presentation on Thomas Szasz muttered loudly that he didn’t know why he’d come. He very much reminded me of the slightly confused man in ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ who asks the Hugh Grant character, Charles, ‘Who are you?’ and Hugh Grant replies, ‘I’m Charles’, hugely annoyed, the older man replies, ‘Don’t be ridiculous! Charles has been dead for years’. I didn't mind that he was a bit rude.)

But I was a little fazed by one question asked of my other paper which seems to suggest a real problem for a particular kind of philosophy. My paper turned on the worry that McDowell’s rejection of an endogenous (strangely, pictured!) component to our thinking rules out a role for a non-Quinean picture of philosophy and that his own comments do not go far enough to explain how the insight in Mind and World is possible. McDowell suggests that there is no difficulty in rejecting an endogenous scheme but preserving analytic truths.

We can reject the two factors without threatening the idea that there are limits to what makes sense: that our mindedness, as [Jonathan] Lear puts it, has a necessary structure. The idea of a structure that must be found in any intelligible conceptual scheme need not involve picturing the scheme as one side of a scheme-world dualism. And analytic truths (in an interesting sense, not just definitionally guaranteed truisms such as “A vixen is a female fox”) might be just those that delineate such a necessary structure. [McDowell 1994: 158]

The rejection of the endogenous is put thus:

If we embrace the picture I recommend…, in which the conceptual realm is unbounded on the outside, we make it unintelligible that meaning’s impact on determining what we are to believe is endogenous as opposed to exogenous. (Not that it is exogenous instead; the need to make this kind of determination simply lapses.) [McDowell 1994: 157]

But this rejection might suggest a merely Quinean picture of the web of belief in which there is no special role for philosophy except as lazy empirical science which doesn’t bother with experiment.

There is one further suggestion in the text: ‘at least some of the “hinge propositions” to which Wittgenstein attributes a special significance in On Certainty’ [McDowell 1994: 158 fn 35] should count as delineating a necessary structure in our mindedness. But most hinge propositions in On Certainty seem to be contingent. In this context, they look like central beliefs in Quine’s web and charting them looks more like anthropology than philosophy or ‘transcendental anthropology’.

Anyway, my suggested resolution was to take McDowell’s rejection as of the endogenous Given not merely the endogenous given (just as perception can provide an exogenous given even if not exogenous Given), and to base this on a response to Jonathan Lear.

Lear’s transcendental anthropology might – had it been coherent – have been a picture for how Mind and World might combine both transcendental and anthropological stances. But it fails because – I suggest – it relies on a picture of the endogenous Given to constrain our concepts, to turbo-charge why, eg., 7 + 5 has to equal 12 (not just because that is the rule). I also suggested that Achilles’ outburst against the Tortoise about logic taking one by the throat was a further instance of an implicit appeal to the endogenous Given, compelling our concepts from outside the conceptual though, somehow, inside understanding.

Anyway, I was asked how the idea of the endogenous Given and endogenous given could be distinguished since, if I understood the questioners, the constraint operated on concepts and could not be from outside the conceptual order. There are two things to say, however. The exogenous Given operates on concepts but from outside the conceptual. So, insofar as we understand the latter, we should be able to understand the former.

But of course, my problem is that I do not think we can understand either sort of Given really. That there is no endogenous Given is not a contingent fact. It makes no sense. So, when asked to fill out how there could be such a Given, I was a bit stumped. Only if one already were tempted by the idea (as I think Lear has been), can the therapeutic move directed against seem to have any point.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Postscript to: Cover versions and Wittgenstein on playing trains

Further to my previous thought about cover versions of popular songs Wittgenstein’s discussion of children playing trains, in Saturday’s Guardian, in an article about Barack Obama, Marina Hyde commented thus:

Have you ever heard Rolf Harris’s version of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven? It has a didgeridoo solo, and is not widely acknowledged to be a masterpiece. Bless Rolf, though, because years after its release, he revealed he’d never actually heard the original when he came to record it. “And when I did,” he confessed in horror, “I thought: ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’”

Of course, this story seems highly unlikely. But imagine if it were true. That would completely alter the status of Rolf’s version’s relation to the original. Arch pastiche would become an accidental stumble into the territory of blasphemy. The whole feel of the game would be changed.

(A correspondent from East Molesey adds:
I believe that the story about dear old Rolf is completely true. As I heard it at the time of the single's release, Rolf had guested on a TV show (Australian?), on which the convention was that all interviewed musicians had to play a version of Stairway to Heaven. Having never heard it, Rolf simply got hold of a copy of the sheet music and, being the pro he is, performed from that.

I wonder what he meant when he asked himself what he had done upon hearing the original? My guess is that his thought might translate as "I've covered a bloody awful song by perhaps the most over-rated band in history (though their first album was OK, along with a couple of tracks from their fourth)".

Faith and Aristotle

I popped along to a seminar on conceptions of mental wellbeing and eudaimonia, this morning, put together by Karen Newbiggin (Institute for Philosophy, Diversity and Mental Health), Dave Littlewood (Philosophy) and Mahmood Chandia (Islamic Studies), all now part of ISCRI (the International School for Communities, Rights and Inclusion) at Uclan.

Karen Newbiggin presented an overview of her scoping exercise on empirical findings concerning conceptions of mental health in Scotland amongst Chinese and Pakistani ethnic populations. These included the use of ‘happiness’ by the Chinese, informed by either Confucianism or Taosim, and the notion of a ‘peaceful mind’ informed by Islam.

Dave Littlewood presented an overview of Aristotle (pictured, apparently) on eudaimonia, suggesting that one aspect of his discussion that hadn’t been sufficiently developed in recent commentary and which might be most useful for contemporary work on mental wellbeing was the social dimension of flourishing.

Mahmood Chandia discussed the differing views of physical and mental health deriving from Islam and the connection between mental wellbeing and a self-conception framed in faith-related terms.

Whilst Mahmood’s presentation had the authority of personal commitment and Dave’s had the characteristic doubt of a professional philosopher, I had assumed that I would ‘read’ the former as an account of actors’ categories and the latter as a potential, at least, discussion of analysts’ categories. That is, following Karen’s overview, I assumed that Mahmood would provide a further description of a conception of wellbeing framed within a particular (religious faith based) community whilst an Aristotelian account might enable us more broadly to think what wellbeing might be or mean.

Perhaps the actual result is obvious. Although Aristotle says some entirely reasonable things – still!, after two millennia – that simple reasonableness now seems entirely suspicious. On whose authority is that kind of plain speaking philosophy put forward (by contrast with the philosophy which- in the title of Kuusela’s recent book – rejects dogmatism)? I realise that, these days, I simply do not believe in Aristotle.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Philosophy, social science and reasons

Yesterday I went to a paper given by my colleague Phil Thomas at an inter departmental group for Mental Health and Society. Taking as his point of departure Peter Sedgwick’s Marxist book Psychopolitics which argued, among other things, that the arguments for anti-psychiatry might be used by the right wing to reduce resources for mental healthcare, Phil wanted briskly to outline (rather than argue in full at much greater length than time allowed) that there was a difficulty even in Marxist writing in escaping an Enlightenment individualism and that this had consequences for a proper understanding of multiculturalism.

A post-Enlightenment conception of the self based on ‘interiority and self reflexivity’ led, at a distance, to a failure to escape a ‘normative, reified and fixed’ view of culture. Thus, escaping an individualist account of the self was the cost of being able to adopt a properly sensitive approach to multiculturalism.

Two things struck me about the seminar. Firstly, there was something utterly appropriate about being at a seminar at an ex-polytechnic at which the participants debated with themselves about whether they should call themselves, or think of themselves as, Marxists or not. The issue was both an academic one (befitting university debate) but also politically and practically significant (befitting a polytechnic).

Secondly, I was left a little uneasy about how the connections which Phil – for the sake of speed – merely gestured at might be filled out if time had allowed. Just how does one get from a view of the self has having particular ‘inner’ characteristics to a view of culture as both fixed, substantive and to be judged judgementally? For one thing, how does one get from what seem to be non-evaluative premises concerning the nature of selves to evaluative conclusions about culture?

Two options strike me. One is that there might be a conceptual argument that connects the two with suitably specified additional premises. Phil himself suggested that an individualistic model of the self is often combined with adoption of autonomy as a moral principle. Nevertheless, I doubt that that would really work.

So I suspect that what sustains the longer argument is a piece of qualitative social science. The Enlightenment model of the self is taken by many to be a reason for the moral importance of individual autonomy. That’s what it is to be a reason in this field. And given that, if you want a better view of multiculturalism, you need to argue against the ‘premiss’.

Interestingly, if so, whilst that may seem very close to philosophical analysis (and thus to the philosophy of psychiatry as I see it) it is actually diametrically opposed to it in spirit. Philosophical analysis often focuses on an association that is plausible and taken for granted and then points out that the one thing doesn’t actually follow from the other, despite the common view. That something is taken to be a reason isn’t enough for it to be a reason.

(Of course, one problem for reason-particularism is that it is quite hard to fill out why that is true. It is not that real reasons can in general be codified in deductive structures, for example. That is not the test of a genuine reason.)

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Putnam on magical theories of reference

Last week, I was invited by my colleague Peter Lucas to reply to a paper he was giving defending phenomenology from the charge, made against it by Hilary Putnam in Reason, Truth and History, that it subscribes to a merely magical theory of intentionality.

I last looked at Reason, Truth and History twenty years ago with quite different eyes. Then, I took its attack on reference to be an attack on a correspondence theory of truth and an inflated metaphsyical realism (as Putnam seems to want us to take it). But now it seems to be more like a defence of a Davidsonian prioritising of truth over reference as an approach to semantics. If so, whilst the Skolem-Lowenheim thesis, to which he appeals, seems to deliver a familiar result, it seems to presuppose a too intellectual picture of how reference might get off the ground to promise a helpful account of language.

Deriving truth from reference in the absence of a contextualising account of a language game (for want of a better phrase) seems a no hoper. Davidson tempers his truth-based approach to formal semantics with the more general philosophy of language of the field linguist employing the principle of charity, for example. Putnam merely darkly talks of reference within a conceptual scheme:

In an internalist view also, signs do not intrinsically correspond to objects… But a sign that is actually employed in a particular way by a particular community of users can correspond to particular objects within the conceptual scheme of those users. ‘Objects’ do not exist independently of conceptual schemes. We cut the world into objects when we introduce one or another scheme of description. Since the objects and the signs are alike internal to the scheme of description, it is possible to say what matches what. [Putnam 1981: 52]

This might be intended to make a merely negative point. One cannot place words in a relation with extra conceptual reality. Or, taking account of Travis’ writing in this area – he argues that objects such as pieces of meat are themselves extra conceptual – things impact on thought only through our conceptual abilities. They never brutely impact. But Putnam’s language implies that there is a substantial insight into the nature of the world summarised in the label ‘internal realism’. We can only refer within our scheme as though extra-scheme reference is denied to us. We’d aim at that more penetrating gaze but are blocked by the limits of our grasp.

What was equally disappointing was the way in which Putnam recruited Wittgenstein to his initial argument against a magical theory of reference. The set-up is something like this. According to Putnam, ‘mental presentations’ (a technical term), had they existed, would have been essentially representational. They would have had essential intentionality. Mental images and concepts are not mental presentations, so defined. They are like physical images and signs whose intentionality is contingent.

Concepts are not mental presentations that intrinsically refer to external objects for the very decisive reason that they are not mental presentations at all. Concepts are signs used in a certain way… And signs do not themselves intrinsically refer. [Putnam 1981: 18]
The doctrine that there are mental presentations which necessarily refer to external things is not only bad natural science; it is also bad phenomenology and conceptual confusion. [Putnam 1981: 21]
[M]ental representations no more have a necessary connection with what they represent than physical representations do. The contrary supposition is a survival of magical thinking. [Putnam 1981: 3]

He then deploys an argument inspired by Wittgenstein which illustrates the contingent intentionality of pictues and hence, apparently, mental images.

Suppose there is a planet somewhere on which human beings have evolved… Suppose these humans, although otherwise like us, have never seen trees. Suppose they have never imagined trees... Suppose one day a picture of a tree is accidentally dropped on their planet by a spaceship ... Imagine them puzzling over the picture. What in the world is this? All sorts of speculations occur to them: a building, a canopy, even an animal of some kind. But suppose they never come close to the truth.
For us the picture is a representation of a tree. For these humans the picture only represents a strange object, nature and function unknown. Suppose one of them has a mental image which is exactly like one of my mental images of a tree as a result of having seen the picture. His mental image is not a representation of a tree. It is only a representation of the strange object (whatever it is) that the mysterious picture represents…
We can even imagine that the spaceship which dropped the ‘picture’ came from a planet which knew nothing of trees. Then the humans would still have mental images qualitatively identical with my image of a tree, but they would not be images which represented a tree any more than anything else.
[Putnam 1981: 3-4]

Putnam thus drives a wedge between pictures (of a tree) and trees. Pictures are not essentially representational. They need not be individuated by what they represent. And they have other non-intentional intrinsic (eg spatial) properties.

But to count against a magical theory of reference or intentionality (of mental images), the argument needs to sever the connection between the aliens’ mental images and the picture. It does not. Why generalise from the contingent intentionality of pictures to that of mental images?

Note also the point about concepts. Putnam says ‘Concepts are signs used in a certain way… And signs do not themselves intrinsically refer.’ But what of signs used in a certain way? I agree that one might pick out the way in a manner that has no essential connection to the meaning of the sign. But if so, that way will not explain concepts in the way that Putnam has just claimed is possible (when he says that concepts are just signs used in a certain way). Picked out in the way that is needed for that identity claim, then the way signs are used seems, contra Putnam, to have an essential connection to the concept.

I think that the overall problem is this. Wittgenstein criticises the appeal to images (which resemble what they are about) and other free-standing mental items (such as inner signs, like signposts, that just stand there) as an explanation of intentionality. Thus the contingent intentionality of pictures counts against the use of images in explanations of intentionality. Putnam, by contrast, argues that what we would pre-philosophically call ‘mental images’ (rather than explanations of mental images) are not mental presentations as he defines them and have merely contingent intentionality. And this move seems simply wrong.

What seems a little ironic is that Wittgenstein himself sometimes seems to say quite spooky things about intentionality:

“You said, ‘It’ll stop soon’. Were you thinking of the noise or of your pain?” If he answers “I was thinking of the piano-tuning - is he observing that the connexion existed, or is he making it by means of these words? - Can’t I say both? If what he said was true, didn’t the connexion exist - and is he not for all that making one which did not exist? [§682]

I draw a head. You ask “Whom is that supposed to represent?” - I: “It’s supposed to be N.” - You: “But it doesn’t look like him; if anything, it’s rather like M.” - When I said it represented N. - was I establishing a connexion or reporting one? And what connexion did exist? [§683]

I do not mean that Wittgenstein subscribes to a magical theory of intentionality. He subscribes to no theory in this area. But his rejection of subvenient mechanisms of thought verges on the spooky.