Sunday, 26 April 2009

Review of Having the World in View and The Engaged Intellect

Having the World in View, John McDowell (Harvard University Press), £29.95/$39.95 (hb)
The Engaged Intellect, John McDowell (Harvard University Press), £33.95/$45.00 (hb)

These two collections gather together much of John McDowell’s published work from the last decade since the publication of his first two collections Meaning, Knowledge and Reality, and Mind, Value and Reality in 1998. Those earlier collections contained mainly articles written before the publication in 1994 of his John Locke lectures as Mind and World, the book which did so much to make McDowell’s reputation as a philosophers’ philosopher. These new collections are different because they reflect McDowell’s own reaction to the reception of Mind and World and his own restatement and, on one case, modification, of key themes from that difficult book.

What are the key issues McDowell addresses? Having the World in View was also the title McDowell adopted for a prestigious Woodbridge lecture series at Columbia University. Those lectures, with which one collection begins, attempt to interpret the the recent US philosopher Wilfrid Sellars’ Kantian account of perceptual experience. The Engaged Intellect punningly refers both to the necessary intellectual commitment involved in doing philosophy but also McDowell’s attempt to reconnect our reason with our animal nature. That broader task is addressed, however, mainly through investigation of ‘our sensory responsiveness to the environment’ or perceptual experience. Thus both books have the same broad theme – to which I will return – but Having the World in View is subtitled ‘essays on Kant, Hegel and Sellars’ whilst The Engaged Intellect contains essays on Aristotle, Wittgenstein, Davidson and Evans and Brandom among others.

As that list suggests, McDowell’s approach to philosophy has, at its heart, a dialogue with other philosophers. This is no accident. Some philosophers propose philosophical theories about, for example, how thoughts are possible and then compare them with other theories, on the model of a natural science. McDowell, by contrast, advocates an anti-theoretical approach. He views philosophy as a kind of therapy. Problems should be dissolved rather than solved. Rather than proposing theories about how aspects of our lives, such as thought or knowledge, are possible, the mistaken assumptions that make these seem puzzling in the first place should be rooted out.

Such an approach, however, seems to require some sort of interlocuter. Whilst the most famous proponent of this style of philosopher, Wittgenstein, used a merely textual device (objections and questions appear in his work surrounded by quotation marks), McDowell’s philosophy is in a dialogue with real philosophers who are presented, as often as not, as having genuine, if merely partial, insight into the philosophical problems under investigation.

In one essay Davidson, for example, is credited with understanding the central importance of rationality for the irreducibility of the mental concepts to those of the natural sciences. But at the same time he is criticised for having only a partial view of the matter by being blind to the idea that our rationality shapes – according to McDowell – our perceptual experiences themselves, not just the beliefs we form on the basis of them. Going further back in time, Kant is credited with having realised that rationality shapes experience itself but with having marred this picture by arguing that space and time are somehow dependent on human subjects. McDowell turns to Hegel to correct Kant’s partial insight.

McDowell’s engagement with his interlocutors thus serves to build on their insights and correct their blindspots. This means, however, that to get the best from reading him, one has to be familiar with his selection from the philosophical canon, from Aristotle, through Kant and Hegel to Wittgenstein, Sellars, Davidson and Evans.

Some of the most robust criticism is directed against his fellow Pittsburgh neo-Hegelian Robert Brandom. One essay, in which he rejects Brandom’s attempt to assimilate his work begins with the comment: ‘I conceive this note… as an analogue to the small explosion emitted by a bombardier beetle to avoid being swallowed by a predator’. Another helps to demonstrate McDowell’s anti-theoretical approach in contrast to Brandom’s.

In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein discusses how it is that human behaviour can be guided by rules such as, for example, signposts which point the correct way to go. Brandom argues that Wittgenstein’s discussion is meant to show that, in addition to the level of explicit rules (such as the pointing signpost itself), there must be another level at which the difference between correct and incorrect behaviour is implicitly understood. It is thus a substantial explanatory task for philosophy to unearth this implicit understanding and make it explicit.

But as McDowell argues in ‘How not to read Philosophical Investigations’, whilst it is true that one needs to have the right kind of education and training to understand a signpost, once one has that then the correct direction to go is explicitly indicated. Wittgenstein’s target is the misleading assumption that a signpost can only be thought of as pointing in a particular direction under and interpretation. That assumption would lead to a regress (how is the correct interpretation to be determined: by another signpost?). But once it has been revealed and rejected, no more philosophical theorising or explanatory work is necessary. Although the essay has a specific focus on Wittgenstein and rules it is also a fine example of McDowell’s preferred method for philosophy.

To return to main theme of both books, perceptual experience was also the main focus of Mind and World. That book attempts to reconcile the idea that perception serves to justify our beliefs – it is part of what Sellars called the ‘space of reasons’ – and yet it is at the same time a perfectly natural phenomenon. The problem is that natural events do not seem to be suited to play a justificatory role. Reason and nature seem to be distinct. The solution, McDowell suggests, is a proper understanding of experience. He advocates what he calls: ‘transcendental empiricism’.

Many of the essays shed fresh light on that complex issue. ‘Experiencing the world’ is perhaps McDowell’s clearest summary of the underlying intellectual tensions that he sought, in Mind and World, to ease. It makes it clear that that book was directed at a particular kind of reader: one was already sympathetic to a number of philosophical assumptions.

In ‘Scheme-content dualism and empiricism’ McDowell attempts to set out a key disagreement between him and Davidson. For present purposes it is enough to say that the dualism separates our reason and our animal nature by suggesting that an understanding of the world can be divided into purely rational and conceptual elements (the conceptual scheme), on the one hand, and purely sensory or experiential elements, (the ‘content’), on the other. Without going into details as to how they undermine the dualism, Davidson thinks that it threatens our ability to gain knowledge of the empirical world. McDowell thinks that the matter goes deeper. With the dualism in place, it would be impossible to understand how we could have thoughts that even purported to be about the world. McDowell’s empiricism concerns the possibility of thought not just the foundations of knowledge.

The three essays which formed the Woodbridge lectures augment the discussion from Mind and World by addressing a related question. If according to McDowell’s version of empiricism, experiences are shaped by our rationality, by the concepts we have, what difference is there between having an experience and having a thought? What difference is there in what they feel like? McDowell addresses this question by drawing on Sellars and Kant. In these essays, however, McDowell does not seem merely to reject misleading assumptions that blind us to the everyday natures of things. Rather, the way he borrows from both Sellars and Kant in giving an account of experience begins to be more like the articulation of a philosophical of theory of perception.

This worry, for me at least, is even greater in one of the most recent essays ‘Avoiding the Myth of the Given’ where McDowell makes two strategic retreats from earlier claims. First, according to Mind and World the underlying logic or conceptual ‘shape’ of an experience is the same as a thought. Thus one could simply embrace the content of an experience in a thought. If a pair of lines look to be of different lengths, one can adopt the content of that experience in a thought or judgement. Second, there seemed to be few limits on which concepts might shape experiences. Now he thinks that only certain sorts of concept can shape an experience (perhap ‘perching’ or ‘hopping’ or ‘flying animal’ but not ‘bird’) Further he thinks that although experiences are conceptually structured the structure is not the same as an explicit thought. They are ‘intuitionally’ rather than ‘propositionally’ structured. Both these moves invite follow up questions. How can we determine which concepts can inform experiences? How does ‘intuitional’ experience inform thoughts that have a different form? A move from philosophy as therapy to systematic philosophy calls for a careful assessment of how such questions can be answered.

That is, however, a worry about just a few of the 33 essays in the two collections which are as rich in ideas as philosophy today ever is. I know of no contemporary philosopher whose work repays as handsomely careful and repeated study, no philosopher more likely to shed original and yet fundamentally revealing light on a difficult subject, no philosopher whose ‘philosophical ear’ or ‘philosophical sense’ is more worthy of respect.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Psychiatric diagnosis

I’ve just been sent this handsome book (to which I contributed the bulk of a chapter: the final expression of the thoughts I seem to have had several times last year) on psychiatric diagnosis edited by the members of the WPA A-team (Salloum and Mezzich). There looks to be some interesting empirical material though, as the chapters are very short, it is more of an introduction to a number of overlapping issues (especially relevant because the revisions to DSM and ICD diagnostic systems) than an in-depth treatment.

By the way, the book has that nice coffee-cup-resistant shiny hard cover which perhaps goes some way to justify the price.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Philosophy as a kind of window

I was asked a few weeks ago by the omnipresent Nina Power to write a short review of the two new McDowell collections for the Philosophers Magazine by ‘about April 20th’. So having – perhaps? – missed that deadline, I must take find time over the next few days, outside salary-man working hours, to draft the text, starting this evening.

There are times when locking myself in my study is very attractive, especially if the notional alternative is a series of administrative meetings on campus. But we’ve just had 10 days of delightful weather in Cumbria coinciding with public holidays and I’ve been able to stay a couple of nights (in Sawrey) in the National Park, to get out for decent some walks, evening runs on the Scar and a couple of proper cycle rides (not merely on a folding bike). Against that notional alternative, an evening in in the study seems claustrophobic.

How to avoid that feeling? At its best, reading philosophy is a kind of window. One isn’t blocked by the obligation to read an article from a kind of social encounter. Rather, the text is an opening into a debate, into a social group with which one identifies. Often I can see it that way. But tonight, the attraction of an evening cycle ride is overridden only by an obligation to Nina to start to write the pesky review.

Anaesthetic expertise

I’ve spent a couple of days at home largely ‘off com’ writing the first draft of a paper for the Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, invited by Michael Loughlin at MMU for a special issue on the input philosophy can make. After 36 hours work, the draft is, of course, very rough. (Later: The finished paper is here.)

What struck me was that some recent ethnographic research (by Smith, Pope, Goodwin and Mort) on the nature of expertise in anaesthesia suggested that a number of related but different aspects. These ranged from manual dexterity in manipulating tubes or just adding or removing a pillow, to the more complex task of integrating readings from a number of instruments to judgements about when to override general EBM style guidelines. The authors emphasise the importance of situation-specific knowledge but complain that it is too often neglected because of a prejudice about the relative importance of ‘technical rationality’:

a model of professional activity as problem solving which is made ‘rigorous’ by the application of scientific theory and technique. The dominance of technical rationality leaves practitioners unable to account for those aspects of practice that lie outside this model. [Smith et al 2003: 319]

Now one way to try to underpin the importance of the tacit dimension would be to appeal to Dreyfus’ claims about its priority over explicit, thematic understanding: ‘all thematic intentionality must take place on a background of transparent coping’ [Dreyfus 1991: 85]. But Dreyfus account contains a restrictive model of coping. For one thing:

[I]t would be wrong to say that practical coping involves a ‘tacit’ understanding embedded in skilful dealings with things. That would mistakenly suggest that skills are already propositionally contentful, even though their content is not explicitly spoken or kept in mind. Dreyfus insists that skilful coping does not even have tacit propositional content. Beliefs, desires, and other propositional attitudes are not appropriately attributed as background to coping skills; instead, Dreyfus argues that propositional attitudes are only intelligible against a background of nonpropositional comportments. [Rouse 2000: 15]

So the background of skilled coping is neither propositionally nor conceptually structured. It is mindless. And this suggests that if applied to medical expertise, such expertise would be essentially bifurcated: mindless coping on the one hand and conceptually structured thematic and minded understanding on the other. Given their interplay, that seems an implausible story.

(At this point, one might look to discussion of the non-propositional account of Wittgenstein’s hinges from a few weeks ago. I have not yet had time to think about that yet.)

But instead, one can connect into the McDowell-Dreyfus discussion from Inquiry. That’s what I’ve done so far. There’s no reason why clinical judgement shouldn’t be a conceptual capacity with both practical and discursive (and hence fully propositionally structured) outputs.

Whether the referees, let alone the readers, of the Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice will find this a helpful articulation of the nature of tacit knowledge that forms a part of clinical judgement remains to be see.

PS: One of the features of being an applied philosopher is that I often remember a text written by a non-philosopher as expressing a particular philosophical position. I might remember a psychiatrist as a kind of cognitivist philosopher, committed to populating the mind/brain with vehicles of content to carry or encode the content. But when I look back at the text itself, it does not express precisely philosophical interests and so it is hard to ascribe a particular philosophical view to it. It shouldn’t be a surprise but it is.

I had the same problem, however, with Dreyfus’
What Computers Still Can’t Do. I found it very hard to find the argument against an AI inspired account of human intelligence. In particular I couldn’t find the argument based on rules and, even more particularly, on the regress of rules. It isn’t helped by the fact that ‘regress’ isn’t in the index.

There seem to be several versions of something like the argument. But in each case I had the feeling that this isn’t the real presentation of the argument: just a reminder. And thus it does not have to be explicit. But, as far as I could find, there isn’t a definitive version. Very annoying.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Beer and Davidson

Further to my previous entry, some stray italics round a reference to beer and Donald Davidson in a reply here reminds me of the only time I ever met him. It was at a conference in Reading in 1996, a last chance to see Quine in this world, an opportunity to watch Dennett get the better of Searle and to hear Davidson say he was tired of being subtle about the matter and that animals really didn’t have minds.

I went to the conference with a group of graduate students from Warwick including a masters student from Hong Kong whose good command of English was nevertheless understandably challenged by Davidson’s famous, singular use of ‘very’. Much of our conversation about Davidson’s philosophy actually focused on my student’s attempt to master the spontaneous use of ‘very’: “Dr Thornton, can I say…?”. Thus it was no surprise that the last time I saw him was making a beeline for Davidson at registration – the sudden realisation of the opportunity for a linguistic coup clearly momentarily distracting him – “Ah! The very David Donaldson!”.

Later in the bar, Davidson was briefly alone and, because I was a little older and a post-doc, my friends encouraged me to go first and talk to him. I did, buying myself a pint and him the half pint he asked for, and chatting to him initially about Wittgenstein. Politely, so as not to crowd him, the others joined us one by one, bringing a pint and a half of beer as if as the price of admission. As a result, I recall the great man becoming gently and very good naturedly tipsy. But, because of the number of pints I drank myself, I now remember the event as an example of why a strict redundancy theory of truth is wrong (the need for a device for compendious endorsement). Although I’m sure that whatever Davidson said was true, I can’t now replace such mention with use.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Davidson, McDowell and Rorty and conceptual dualism

My old colleague Floris van der Berg published a book on Davidson and Spinoza a couple of years ago. By far the least interesting aspect of a very clear and concise book was a friendly reference to a conversation we’d had over a beer in the Warwick Arts Centre about the robust duality, in Davidson’s thinking, between the mental and the physical. We mulled over this and over the question of what it would be for this, eg., to exhaust all possibilities. (I seem to recall that the plane of real and complex numbers is in some sense exhaustive: there are no other weird numbers to ‘find’.)

There’s been some discussion of this question on a couple of the blogs (here and here) which also discuss McDowell recently with the thought that Davidson, perhaps unlike Spinoza, was more relaxed than his writing tended to suggest about the possibility that two conceptual structures need not exhaust the ways of mapping things. But it would be nice to have a good expression of the contrary view, a view contrary to the idea that there is a particular importance to this duality.

Perhaps the most useful is Rorty’s reaction (in his Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers) to McDowell’s Mind and World in which he casts doubt on the importance of a related duality: that between the space of reasons and realm of law.

So I think that McDowell should not accept the bald naturalists’ view that there is a ‘distinctive form of intelligibility’ found in the natural sciences and that it consists in relating events by laws. It would be better to say that what Davidson calls ‘strict laws’ are the exception in natural science – nice if you can get them, but hardly essential to scientific explanation. It would be better to treat ‘natural science’ as a name of an assortment of useful gimmicks rather than of a natural kind. It would be even better to stop using terms like ‘forms of intelligibility’ , for one might then avoid worrying, as McDowell worries, about ‘whether we experience is [or is] not external to the realm of the kind of intelligibility which is proper to meaning’.
If you are fascinated by the kind of natural science that does give you nice strict laws, you will be inclined to overdramatize the contrast between nature and reason by saying, as McDowell does, that the ‘logical space of reasons’ is sui generis. I would argue that it is no more or less sui generis than the logical space of political argument or biological explanation or soccer or carpentry. All language games are sui generis. That is, they are irreducible to one another… But this sense of ‘sui generis’… is philosophically sterile.
If we are trying to give philosophy Wittgensteinian peace, we should do what Dewey did: try to make all the philosophical ‘dichotomies’ look like over dramatizations of the banal fact that different tools serve different purposes.
[Rorty 1998: 144-5]

That Rorty’s view makes sense suggests that we need to do more to motivate the importance of the duality – of reasons and natural science – if a philosophical diagnosis of it is then a reasonable use of (our) time. (McDowell suggests that he is not writing Mind and World for an audience of bald naturalists. They won’t feel his pain. The reader is someone who accepts the importance of the duality but then wishes to find a way that, whilst respecting it, still aims to accommodate it in nature.)

But there is an important distinction between the McDowellian distinction Rorty criticises and the Davidsonian one that Floris and I used to think about. The Davidson of anomalous monism seems to focus on the mental versus the physical whilst McDowell thinks that reason versus nature is the uber distinction what makes mind versus the natural world seem so problematic. So there’s already a sense that the McDowellian distinction is supposed to be more general than the one in play in Davidson’s (perhaps misleading of his own thoughts) writing about the metaphysics of mind.

It’s supposed to capture something general in the way that reasons connect together, distinct from nomological or statistical subsumption: something that might be common to political discussion and appreciation (if that’s what we’re about) of soccer and carpentry. This general logical difference (a difference in the kind of explanation they support) might form the basis of a reply to Rorty’s challenge. Whether one would want to recruit Davidson to this response seems to me to depend on whether one is focusing on his (it’s the same but different) account of the mind (the bit that first prompts a comparison with Spinoza), or whether one thinks that that bit never really worked but that his account of the role of rationality in content ascription was first rate and floats free. (I took this line in my book on Wittgenstein.)

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Having a turn

At Uclan, we aim to interview all our prospective undergraduate philosophy students. One of the areas we often ask about has to do with the role of group discussions in teaching and learning. Have they had any experience of that; do they enjoy it and take part; and, have they ever changed their mind about an issue as a result of someone else’s reasoned arguments? (We’re not looking for a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ obviously.)

Reading some Dreyfus on the train today for the paper I plan to write for the Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice I had a strong flashback to how it had seemed when I first read it. Then, his emphasis on the pre-intellectual background that (he argues) makes explicit judgement possible – explicitly echoing the analytic philosophy translations of Being and Time (that he had so much to do with promoting) but also Wittgenstein, the subject of my PhD – seemed exactly right. He seemed to be on the side of the angels and saying something obviously and even pre-philosophically true.

Today, by contrast, it is impossible not to expect (I’d use the word ‘anticipate’ if it didn’t imply action) the exchange between Dreyfus and McDowell in Inquiry a couple of year’s ago (see my problem with ‘expect’?). The background to that exchange was Dreyfus’s criticism from the throne of the APA of McDowell’s description of human subjects as conceptually-laden from perception through thought to action. Dreyfus argued that McDowell had over-intellectualised human intelligence. Conceptual abilities rest on a background (or ‘Background’) of non-conceptual doings.

In the exchange in Inquiry, however, McDowell defends himself against all the specific arguments which, eg., depend on assuming that concepts are general in strong the sense of being always situation independent. A McDowellian appeal to phronesis balances the necessary generality of concepts with the possibility of their being tied to particular situations. (Object-dependent Fregean thoughts are the most obvious example of this line of approach where a general ability is tied to specific objects to say ‘That cat is …’.) I’ll come back to their discussion as I mull over tacit knowledge over the next few months (o multitude, surely, of blog readers!) but today the point is simply that the valence of my attitude to Dreyfus has switched over. Whilst I’m still – after 12 years – not sure about McDowell’s empiricism, he seems spot on about the conceptual structuring of skilled coping. So I’ve changed my mind about the philosophical innocence of Dreyfus’ account.

How many other things have I changed my mind over? Probably more than immediately strike me (it’s reading Dreyfus today that made that one obvious, eg.). The most obvious is my attitude to nomological accounts of causation (quite impervious to those now). But I do wish I could edit every occasion I’ve used the word ‘narrative’ in print. Still, what seems impossible, but what I would love to aspire to in order, perhaps, to enjoy another 20 years of being a student of philosophy would be a proper ‘turn’. To wake up and find Quine preferable to Wittgenstein, or Australian Realism better than Oxford linguistic analysis. That would be something.

(PS: The original motive to set up this blog was to show my Philosophy and Mental Health graduate students that work that might end up being published began as puzzled and sometimes contradictory thoughts. More recently, it has occurred to me that showing my working in this way might simply prevent me ever getting a next job. Please, not, o heads of large US philosophy departments! Be that as it may, the changes of mind that are an intrinsic part of first forming one’s view on a subject are not what I meant above.)

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Philosophy of Science for Psychiatry for the Person

I've been asked to draft a short piece for the WPA on philosophy of science for a book on their Program on Psychiatry for the Person. Here is my first stab.

(PS May 2011: The much shorter and altered final published article is here.)


The Institutional Program on Psychiatry for the Person calls for a more comprehensive model of diagnosis in which conventional diagnostic elements are combined with a specifically person centred extra ingredient. The World Psychiatric Association’s call to focus efforts on psychiatry for the person coincides with proposals to revise both DSM and ICD taxonomies which are likely to stress the importance of improving their validity through the epistemic values exemplified in natural science. Thus the Program aims to balance a growing emphasis on the natural scientific underpinnings of psychiatry with an increased focus on the importance and role of the person.

This proposal to balance natural science with the role of the person mirrors some of Karl Jaspers’ aims a century ago. At the turn of the century in Germany, psychiatry was dominated by academic neuroscientists working under the assumption, epitomised by the German psychiatrist Wilhelm Griesinger’s famous aphorism, that ‘Mental illnesses are brain illnesses’ [Jaspers 1997: 459]. Psychiatric researchers such Griesinger, Alzheimer, Nissl, Carl Meynert and Theodor Wernicke were searching for the neuropathological changes to explain the major psychoses motivated by their success with general paralysis. Whilst Jaspers was optimistic about this natural scientific project, he also thought that they might result in a one-sided view of psychiatry arguing ‘These anatomical constructions, however, became quite fantastic (eg. Meynert, Wernicke) and have rightly been called “Brain Mythologies”’ [Jaspers 1997: 18].

Jaspers’ response was to stress the role of understanding in addition to explanation in psychiatry. This reflected the debate, called the Methodenstreit, about the correct methods for psychology in the late nineteenth century. Should the human sciences (the Geisteswissenschaften) attempt to copy the methods of the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften), or should they follow a distinct method or methods? ‘Positivists’, such as John Stuart Mill, Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim argued that the human sciences were methodologically no different from the natural sciences. Others, including Heinrich Rickert, Wilhelm Dilthey and Wilhelm Windelband, argued that human and natural sciences had essentially distinct methods.

Jaspers argued for a distinction within psychiatry by both distinguishing between subjective and objective symptoms and by describing two approaches to understanding subjective symptoms [Jaspers (1912) 1968, (1913) 1974]. Static understanding, usually called ‘phenomenology’ by Jaspers aims to articulate what mental states are, or feel, like. Genetic understanding, usually called ‘empathy’, concerns how one kind of mental state ideally and typically gives rise to another.

Setting the development of the Program on Psychiatry for the Person against that background suggests the importance for it also of an understanding of the Methodenstreit.

The modern Methodenstreit

Whilst empathy and phenomenology still have a role in contemporary discussion, Jaspers’ account of the possible distinction between the human and natural sciences is not influential. The most influential set of arguments for a distinction between human and natural sciences were developed in the 1960s drawing on the work of the Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). One such influential work was Peter Winch’s (1927-98) The Idea of a Social Science [Winch [1958] 1990].

Winch argues that there could be no such thing as a social science modelled on natural sciemce. Human understanding cannot and should not be modelled on the natural sciences because it employs a different form of intelligibility. In the preface to the 1988 edition of the book, Winch suggests that he does not mean by this the distinction between explanation and understanding as developed by the nineteenth century German philosopher Max Weber and incorporated into Jaspers’ psychopathology. Rather he has a deeper point. Only if there is an antecedent or background level of understanding can the sort of deficiency of understanding which an explanation might fill, be intelligible. (Thus ‘social science’ is the label for something impossible. Human understanding is not a social science. With that caveat in place, I will speak more loosely of human understanding and even human science in what follows with the proviso that ‘science’ need not mean a nomological study.)

This presupposed background understanding is ‘expressed in the concepts which constitute the subject matter we are concerned with. These concepts... also express certain aspects of the life characteristic of those who apply them’ [Winch 1988 : x]. One of the key aims of Winch’s book is to chart just what this background understanding is like.

Winch argues that a central element of understanding meaningful behaviour is an understanding of the nature of rules. For this he draws on Wittgenstein’s discussion of rule following in the Philosophical Investigations [Wittgenstein 1953 §§139-239]. Winch argues that:

1. Rules are central to social science because actions are constituted as the actions that they are by the rules that are operating. Thus, to give one of his examples, putting a cross on a piece of paper is an act of voting given the right context of rules.
2. Explaining an action by citing a rule presupposes a grasp of the rule not just by the social scientist but also (to a first approximation) by the agent whose behaviour is being explained.
3. Rule following is grounded in implicit practical knowledge of what actions count as going on in the same way. Rule following cannot rest entirely on explicit linguistically codified knowledge because that explicit knowledge would require further implicit knowledge of how the written prescription is to be interpreted.

Rules have a further important feature. They are normative: they prescribe correct and incorrect behaviour. In the example mentioned above they prescribe the difference between a successful vote and a spoiled ballet paper. Only certain actions count as casting a vote. So if understanding an event involves relating it to a rule, this form of understanding involves a notion of correctness or normativity. It involves understanding what makes it correct or appropriate as a piece of voting behaviour. This is not the same as saying that most votes are cast at a particular time of day or night or by a particular socio-economic proportion of the electorate. That may be discovered by empirical study. But the normative rules that characterise an event as an act of voting are not provided by any such statistical generalisations.

With these claims in place, Winch goes on to argue that the kind of understanding usually thought to make up social science is fundamentally dissimilar to natural science. Because explanation of meaningful action in terms of rules presupposes a grasp of the rules in question by the people whose actions are being explained or understood, human understanding deploys fundamentally different kinds of generalisations to natural sciences. They are not universal true generalisations under which events can be subsumed. They are instead open-textured patterns of behaviour which, by virtue of the normative rules acquired by shared use in the social context, grant actions their meaningful intelligibility.

One of the examples that Winch gives is characterising the behaviour of a cat as writhing. As he says, the very same movements might be plotted out in great detail in a physical vocabulary. But the two statements could not be substituted one for another. They belong to different conceptual frameworks. Now one might think that what is missing from the purely physical description of the movement of the cat is the fact that the cat is a conscious animal. And that may be true. Perhaps the concept of writhing is reserved for conscious beings. But the key point here is more modest: writhing is connected as a matter of its meaning with pain and ascriptions of pain can be used to explain or rationalise certain forms of (subsequent) behaviour. By contrast the purely physical description does not sustain these rational connections. (Note also that in this example, the rationality in play is not rationality for the cat. In this case, a pattern of understanding that has its primary role for rational agents – for persons – is extended to a mere beast.)

Winch followed Wittgenstein who had a profound influence on philosophy in the UK but much less so in the USA. But similar arguments are implicit in the work of US philosophers. Wilfrid Sellars (1912-89), for example, argued for a fundamental distinction between natural scientific and normative conceptions along similar lines. Sellars distinguishes between a natural scientific view of the world (or ‘scientific image’) and the ‘manifest image’ which is defined thus:

The ‘manifest’ image of man-in-the-world …is… the framework in terms of which man came to be aware of himself as man-in-the-world… [A]nything which can properly be called conceptual thinking can occur only within a framework of conceptual thinking in terms of which it can be criticized, supported, refuted, in short, evaluated. To be able to think is to be able to measure one’s thoughts by standards of correctness, of relevance, of evidence… [T]he transition from pre-conceptual patterns of behaviour to conceptual thinking was a holistic one, a jump to a level of awareness which is irreducibly new, a jump which was the coming into being of man. [Sellars 1963: 6]

This summary of the manifest image has three important aspects:
1. The manifest image is closely connected to the ability to exercise conceptual thought.
2. Conceptual thought depends essentially on critical evaluation.
3. There is a fundamental discontinuity between, on the one hand, conceptually structured thought and action and, on the other, preconceptual behaviour.
These three elements mark an important contrast with the elements that make up a scientific image of man.

Sellars is not alone in taking there to be a key distinction between normative person-level descriptions and underlying natural scientific accounts. Building on Sellars’ work, John McDowell, for example, contrasts the logical space of reasons with the realm of law or of natural science [McDowell 1994]. Donald Davidson argues for the ‘constitutive ideal of rationality’ which has ‘no echo in physical theory’ [Davidson 1980: 223, 231]. All three authors share an assumption about the central importance of the normativity of person-level descriptions. Normativity cannot be accounted for in natural scientific descriptions of the world. Thus, on Winch’s assumption that the social or human sciences chart the rules that shape human behaviour, there is a fundamental distinction between them and natural science.


The view that there is a fundamental distinction between the normative concepts that characterise the human sciences and non-normative concepts that underpin natural sciences has its critics. One approach is to attempt to explain the normativity of rules and concepts through phenomena that are, on the one hand, normative (or quasi-normative) but are, on the other, clearly rooted in the natural world and available to natural scientific theory.

In the philosophy of thought and language Ruth Millikan has argued that language is a biological category [Millikan 1989]. Its representational properties are explained through the biological, natural or proper functions of relevant human neurological traits. Such functions can be used to distinguish between behavioural dispositions which are in accord and those which are not in accord with the functions of a trait. Thus, functions set a normative standard (akin to rules) but are, nevertheless, a proper feature of biological and evolutionary theory. Her view has clear influenced that of Wakefield in the philosophy of psychiatry and his attempts to explain mental disorder through a similar idea of failure of biological function.

Also working with the philosophy of psychiatry, Derek Bolton and Jonathan Hill have attempted to reconcile the normative and non-normative. Instead of distinguishing between rational reasons and causes they distinguish between intentional and non-intentional causes. This places the hard physical sciences on one side of the divide and the equally hard biological and behavioural sciences on the other. Everyday psychological explanations – folk psychology – are classified alongside and continuously with sciences that invoke the notion of information alongside that of causality. What was useful and appropriate about the distinction between reasons and causes can be captured by the new distinction without incurring its difficulties. Reason explanation is a form of intentional-causal explanation as exemplified in many respectable sciences. They summarise the flow of their argument as follows.

The first step... is that explanation of action in terms of meaningful states has predictive power; the second is... that such explanation is causal; the third is the assumption... that the brain causally regulates action, all of which can be made compatible on the methodological assumption that the meaning (information) that regulates action is encoded in the brain. [Bolton and Hill 2003: 86]

The idea is as follows. The explanatory power of everyday intentional or ‘folk psychological’ explanation derives from the causal power of reasons. But the historical division between reasons and causes voiced, for example, by Karl Jaspers puts this claim under threat. If, instead, one distinguishes between intentional and non-intentional causation, folk psychological explanation ceases to be exceptional and in need of special philosophical explanation and becomes instead a particular example of a more general phenomenon.

Conclusions for Psychiatry for the Person

This is not the place to attempt to adjudicate the debate about whether there is a fundamental distinction between the natural and the human sciences. Those who argue that there is, stress the central importance of rule-governed or conceptually structured behaviour which, they argue, cannot be captured within a natural science view of subsumption under general or statistical laws. The ‘space of reasons’ is distinct from the ‘realm of law’. Those who argue that there is not a distinction of kind – although there may be a difference of degree – argue either that the normativity of rules can be reduced to behaviour of biological functions which also impose a normative standard of sorts on behaviour. Or, they argue that the distinction between reasons and causes is a mistake and intentional causation is a feature of the broader natural world. Counter moves include arguing that biological functions do not behave sufficiently alike rules, or illicitly presuppose the normativity of rules and challenging the role of meaning in sub-personal or natural features.

But the debate has important consequences for whether the additional elements called for in a comprehensive model of psychiatric diagnosis are genuinely distinct in their underlying logic to the conventional and natural science inspired diagnostic elements. If they are not distinct in underlying form then it seems possible that a comprehensive model of diagnosis might be a unified one, deploying, for example, concepts of intentional causation across the board. But if, as Jaspers assumed, there is a fundamental divide, the new elements may be needed to give a fuller picture of the human subject, a person whose experiences need both understanding in meaning-laden and normative terms as well as explanation.


Bolton, D. and Hill, J. (2003) Mind Meaning and Mental Disorder, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Davidson, D. (1980) Essays on Actions and Events, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Jaspers, K. ([1912] 1968) ‘The phenomenological approach in psychopathology’ British Journal of Psychiatry 114: 1313-1323
Jaspers, K. ([1913] 1974) ‘Causal and “Meaningful” Connections between Life History and Psychosis’, trans. by J.Hoenig, in S.R.Hirsch and M.Shepherd. in Hirsch, S.R., and M. Shepherd, Themes and Variations in European Psychiatry, Bristol: Wright: 80-93
Jaspers, K. ([1913] 1997) General psychopathology, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press
McDowell, J. (1994) Mind and World, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Millikan, R.G. (1989) ‘Biosemantics’ Journal of Philosophy 86: 281-97
Sellars, W. (1963) ‘Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man’ in Science, Perception and Reality, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul
Winch, P. ([1958] 1990). The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy, London: Routledge.
Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell.