Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Bruno Latour's Reassembling the Social

Students on our Philosophy and Mental Health graduate programme often look to Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory as a framework for thinking about disputes about mental healthcare. To keep up with them, I had a quick look last night through his 2005 book Reassembling the Social.

Whilst it is largely negative in tone, some of the first half of the book in particular, is a clear statement focusing on five key issues which help characterise ANT. But a first pair of distinctions between the approach to sociology Latour favours (a ‘sociology of associations’) and a more tradition approach – the ‘sociology of the social’ – is key.

First, sociology of the social assumes that there is a fixed social order to be investigated, a social order that serves an explanatory purpose. By contrast a sociology of associations looks at the particular associations rather than imposing an assumed social ontology. That methodological difference fits an ontological orientation. Sociology of the social assumes that ‘social’ refers to a type of material akin to what is wooden, steely or biological. A sociology of associations, by contrast, denies that there is any such substance.

It claims that there is nothing specific to social order; that there is no social dimension of any sort, no ‘social context’, no distinct domain of reality to which the label ‘social’ or ‘society’ could be attributed; that no ‘social force’ is available to ‘explain’ the residual features other domains cannot account for; that members know very well what they are doing even if they don’t articulate it to the satisfaction of the observers; that actors are never embedded in a social context and so are always much more than ‘mere informants’…and that ‘society’, far from being the context ‘in which’ everything is framed, should rather be construed as one of the many connecting elements circulating inside tiny conduits. With some provocation, this second school of thought could use as its slogan what Mrs Thatcher famously exclaimed… ‘There is no such a thing as a society.’ [Latour 2005: 4-5]

This distinction later helps with Latour’s reflections on the so called ‘science wars’ (a vile phrase). The idea that scientific facts might be ‘socially constructed’ has two quite distinct interpretations. On a debunking reading, ‘social’ picks out a particular kind of social fabric and thus equating natural scientific facts with it undermines or transforms them. Latour insists that such explanations fails: ‘for the first time, social scientists had to study something that was higher, harder and stronger than them. For the first time, the explanandum resistsed and grinded the teeth of the explanans’ cogs to mere stumps.’ [ibid: 98]

But there is no need to assume a debunking reading of constructionism and indeed, Latour tells us, it came as a surprise to him when people did.

For someone who had never been trained in critical sociology, it was hard to imagine that people could use causal explanation in their own discipline as proof that the phenomena they were accounting for didn’t really exist… [ibid: 92]

To bring constructivism back to its feet, it’s enough to see that once social means again association, the whole idea of a building made of social stuff vanishes. For any construction to take place, non-human entities have to play the major role and this is just what we wanted to say from the beginning with this rather innocent word. [ibid: 92]

I think that there is still some difficulty here in the way Latour is happy to talk of the construction of facts. If he had said, the construction of our view of, or beliefs about, or knowledge of, the facts, there would be so much less for a realist (philosopher or scientist) to worry about.

These largely negative points are augmented by a similar modesty in assumptions about the nature of agency and of action (objects can act, for example). In effect, Latour commends no prior theorising (not even philosophical theorising about a priori limits on agency, for example). He follows the Wittgensteinian maxim: don’t think, look!

But this suggests a problem for identifying a positive story. This book is pitched at a higher level rather than offering worked examples. But even worked examples would have to follow the context driven approach outlined here. And thus conclusions about levels of organisation, or claims about agency in one area cannot be applied elsewhere. Thus it’s hard to learn what ANT is either by general principles or by concrete examples.

PS: The CBC podcast on Latour is here (in the second half of the show).

Latour, B. (2005) Reassembling the Social, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Monday, 28 September 2009

Stigma and phenomenology?

I had a conversation with Dan Herron (a manager in the NHS in the NW) about stigma today. Dan is interested in the connection between dementia, stigma and phenomenology and we mulled over a few ideas.

The first thing seems to be to get some sort of hold on the nature of stigma itself. Suppose – as Dan suggested – you start with Goffman’s well known theory of stigma. I’ve never been sure of the extent to which this is supposed to be a kind of social science theory of stigma or a kind of broad scale stipulative definition. But no matter. At the very least it offers a way of relating the key term to broader social factors.

But there are a couple of areas where such an approach is less promising. First, charting the nature of the experience of being stigmatised. A theory that charts social relations looks outwards. But one of the key aspects one might want to examine, however, is the way in which such an intrinsically social phenomenon (if Goffman is to be believed) has, nevertheless, a characteristically individual feel. As a suspicious reader of social science I would think of this as a kind of test of the account. Only if Goffman’s analysis can make room for a plausible first person account of the feelings of stigma should it be trusted.

But there is another worry. Suppose you think that the first person experience of stigma is central (suppose, in other words, you are the sort of person who might embrace Phenomenology) then a social account of stigma might seem the wrong approach. It is plausible that whether or not it makes room for inner phenomenology, it does not necessitate it.

The other aspect I’d wish to think about is how the notion of identity in Goffman relates both to notions of identity more broadly and the notion of the self. Especially in the context of dementia, the issue of the relation of the self to social is important. If, as I do not, one holds a robustly social constitutive approach to the self, then the threat to the self that dementia brings might be offset by suitable adjustments to the other ends of the relata that constitute the self. (Jennifer Radden, among others, seems to hold this sort of view.) So how does the relational account of stigma relate to any social theories of either the self or identity that might also be in play? I’m not sure, however, that Phenomenology is a particularly promising approach to this. Why should a descriptive approach to experience yield surprisingly social constitutive results?

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

INPP (International Network for Philosophy and Psychiatry) Manchester 2010

The first flier for the International Network for Philosophy and Psychiatry (INPP) 2010 conference in Manchester is now available eg here.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Review of The Oxford Handbook of Rationality

Christian Perring has been very forgiving of the fact that I am a year late in writing a review for Metapsychology Online (I agreed before my job changed). Whilst I’ve much less time for reviewing (whether completed books or submitted papers for journals), still to delay a whole year on a simple collection (and reviews of such collections largely write themselves: see below) seems odd. Here I think is the reason.

I’m interested in rationality because of its central and idealised role in Davidson, a role put under threat by psychopathology (for earlier worries see here and here). I’m also interested in whether there can be reasons (whether for belief or action) which are, in one of the many senses of the word, ‘external’. In particular: what sense can we make of the idea that the world contains intrinsically normative features without subscribing to a mad view of logic taking one by the throat? That second issue is one that concerns rationality because it concerns the nature of the source or grounding of a rational move.

And then there’s a third area: the extent to which rational actions or rational behaviour can be captured in context-independent codifications and, if not, what this means for the notion of rationality.

I rather hoped that a ‘handbook’ of rationality would do some work in bringing debates like these (if not necessarily exactly these debates which reflect my local interests) together. But it doesn’t.

Quite quickly, the initial investigation of rationality in general turns into discussions of reason-internalism, or proceduralism, which become detailed moves within moral philosophy. In so doing, the initial connection between reasons, reasoning and rationality seems to fall away leaving instead questions of whether (moral) ends can be (morally) criticised. So what is promised as some framework discussions about rationality are themselves merely technical discussions in just one – roughly Humean versus Kantian moral philosophical – area and the hope that rationality itself would be displayed as a complex genus is dashed. Thus the book is hard to review because, independently of the quality of the chapters (they are good!), the work as a whole disappointed my perhaps misplaced expectations.

Review of Mele, A.R. and Rawling, P. (eds) (2004) The Oxford Handbook of Rationality, Oxford: Oxford University Press

The Oxford Handbook of Rationality is a substantial work assembling 22 newly written chapters (although some contain quite familiar material from their authors’ previous work). Its primary role is to offer an overview of philosophical work exploring the nature of rationality. But it could, at a pinch, also serve as an introduction to that subject. The introductory first chapter explicitly aims to introduce readers to the cross cutting debates and many – though by no means all – of the chapters are forgiving of an ill-prepared reader. But, unlike an introductory textbook (by contrast with an edited collection), much is left to the reader using the book in this way to work out what remain largely implicit connections between the different chapters.

The Handbook divides into two main sections. The first examines ‘the nature of rationality broadly understood’ whilst the second ‘explores rationality’s role in and relation to other domains of inquiry’ [ibid: 3]. The first then proceeds, as is often the way in analytic philosophy, to consider a series of binary oppositions or at least important contrasts. Most fundamentally rationality is divided between theoretical and practical: what it is rational to believe is contrasted with what it is rational to do. In fact, however, most of the section concerns the latter.

Only three essays take theoretical rationality as their focus. Robert Audi considers what serves as the ‘sources’ of such rationality, a source being something in the life of a person that characteristically yields rational beliefs: perception, memory, consciousness, reason or reasoning, and testimony. James M Joyce examines how Bayesianism can be used to model theoretical rationality. Gilbert Harman’s chapter also concerns the distinction between theoretical and practical rationality but examines how practical considerations affect theoretical reasoning.

The remaining ten chapters of the first part reflect the more common focus of recent philosophical discussion in reflecting on practical rationality. In fact the focus is not simply or uniformly on the notion of rationality here but the overlap with practical reasoning, practical reasons (including their ontology: what sort of states are practical reasons?) and even duty. Whilst not exclusively, most of the chapters are thickly laden with moral philosophical concerns.

Thus the distinctions in play in these chapters include: procedural versus substantive practical rationality, internal versus external reasons and Humeanism versus Kantianism. Other issues concerned include whether rules (such as governing promises) introduce fresh practical reasons; the role of emotion and the application of game theory to morally charged practical reasoning. In many of these chapters the explicit primary focus is on reasons, or reasoning and the broader connections to rationality are more implicit.

The second part of the book – eight further chapters – concern the role of rationality in other domains of philosophy: Richard Samuels and Stephen Stich on rationality and psychology, Karen Jones on gender and rationality, Carol Rovane on the person, Paul Thagard on science, Paul Weirich on economics, Claire Finkelstein on legal theory and Peter Danielson on evolution. Whilst these chapters do not aim at a synoptic overview of every aspect of the role of rationality within the philosophical or other academic discipline concerned they generally pick out a central and important aspect.

The one chapter which seems more niche specific from the outset is Kirk Ludwig’s chapter ‘Rationality, language, and the principle of charity’. From the outset, it is clear that this chapter concerns a very specific approach to philosophy of language and of thought: Donald Davidson’s philosophy of language of the field linguist. Ludwig carefully reconstructs Davidsonian arguments for central role of rationality for thought and agency and hence, from that, for language. Together with Rovane’s chapter (which is similar in spirit if broader of focus) and that of Samuals and Stich (which considers empirical evidence concerning failures of rationality) it provides an overview of why rationality is an important though contested player within analytic philosophy of language and mind.

But this trio of chapters, along with others in the second part of the book, suggests the following worry. The Handbook starts by examining supposedly more general issues for thinking about rationality, broadly understood. But, in fact, it is not clear that the conception of rationality highlighted there has very much in common with the conception of rationality that drives the Davidsonian project in the philosophy of thought. (One clue to this is the different meaning of the word 'reason' in the two debates.) Nor, for that matter, does it seem close to the search for models of scientific rationality that have driven much of the philosophy of science since the earlier twentieth century. (Sadly I cannot comment on whether this also holds for legal theory or gender studies.) But if so, whilst this is a fine volume of good quality research-driven essays, it is less clear that there is a single subject matter – rationality – that it can take as its focus.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Meanings of life?

Meanwhile back in our favourite wine bar, Gloria and I fell to thinking about the meaning of life. A few years ago I read a brief newspaper article on this by Julian Baggini which today left merely the following trace thought (which may owe very little at all to Baggini’s no doubt rather better ideas). (Later: I think I must have been thinking of this one. My poor memory is perhaps explained by its 2004 publication date.)

The temptation to ask questions about the meaning of life is based on a mistaken extrapolation from the everyday case of asking for the meaning or purpose or significance of particular actions and being appropriately answered by appeal to the broader project to which they contribute. But whilst that everyday case locates lower level acts in broader projects, and whilst it iterates -those projects can be meaningfully located within yet broader projects - it is mistake to think that such iteration continues without limit. Thus whilst one can ask within an adopted framework what the meaning or purpose of a subsidiary act is, there’s no reason to think that for an arbitrary high level that such a question can be answered. One’s projects may simply run out in the whimsical adoption of the goal of being or becoming a bank manager, pop star or professional philosopher.

My apparent memory of such a position may well have drawn rather inappropriate analogical support from Julian Dodd’s argument that there is no norm of truth: just lots of specific norms each corresponding to an instance of the T-schema. So, here, there is no meaning of life just lots of specific meanings of particular projects.

But surely, argued G, such an approach would leave the uncontextualised last project vulnerable to a charge of meaninglessness. One might, at 5am, ask: my aim to be a bank manager explains why I have risen early and attended courses in financial planning but what is the meaning or purpose of being a bank manager? And if so, that would undermine all its subsidiary acts or projects which would unravel like knitting with a loose end.

So if there is not to be such a loose end, there had better be a kind of ultimate meaning: perhaps a general conception of human flourishing. If so, it would be not merely a vacuous label for all the different last projects (bank manager, philosopher, pop star). Rather it would have to be a sufficiently explanatorily thick conception. But again, any such substantial conception would be open to the 5am question: I know that if I want to fit Aristotle’s conception of flourishing I have to balance my character traits in accord with his doctrine of the mean, still, what’s the meaning or purpose of doing that? So it would have instead to be Platonised. It would have to be a putative general meaning or purpose that was not merely adopted (if I want to fit Aristotle’s conception of flourishing...) but rather took a subject by the throat [cf Lewis Carroll]. It would be an ultimate rather than merely a last or final meaning, a meaning that needed no further contextualisation.

(This isn’t quite the right way of putting it. One might say: a proper education opens one’s eyes to the demands of virtues such that those demands constrain at least those with eyes to see them. This is a happy merely naturalised Platonism not a rampant one that can compel just anyone, or take them by the throat. But to address the 5am worry of arbitrariness, we’d need those virtues to make very specific demands. They would have generally to insist on, or preclude, anyone being a bank manager, for example. And it’s hard to see how such demands would not be rampant in that case. If on the other hand they were person-specific, it’s hard to see how that would amount to a normative standard at all and thus would merit the label ‘platonism’.)

Now neither Gloria nor I have any expertise in this area but it seems both plausible and interesting that this way of beginning the issue presents this dilemma: either a kind of existentialist creation of meaning or a Platonised idea of an ultimate meaning or conception that someone obliges us without our agreement. Neither seems an easy idea but it seems better to me to face up to the former than the latter.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Confused about Davidson #2

Whilst I still lack a resolution to the earlier worry, this one was merely a momentary post-pub anxiety. A couple of people have given me a good slapping (thanks Daniel, for one) and the fact is that, whilst my attention was on the non-individualist account of epistemology, the necessary addition of a plausible innativist account of content (rather than syntax) is not anything I can begin to believe in. I’ll leave it to mark a moment of madness whilst I sit in the corner with a dunce’s hat on.

One might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb. So whilst I’m having sudden doubts about Davidson, let me add another. I am not sure about the underlying argument for the constitutive principle of rationality. (I put this up with the hope that I will be able, in all conscience, to take it down again in a couple of days.)

I have always assumed it went something like this. Let’s start thinking about the metaphysics of meaning from a mundane third person point of view. (The justification for this will be partly by results and partly because none of the other starting points has been so very successful.) What would be the constraints on the radical interpretation of speech and action?

Well an interpreter could use evidence of what prompts utterance but what a speaker says will depend on what he or she believes. But to determine that depends on knowing what they mean. Hence we have two interconnected unknowns but only one sort of evidence. Radical interpretation can, therefore, only get off the ground if the interpreter adopts the principle of charity. She takes beliefs and utterances to be largely true and rational by her standards. But given that there are – by assumption – no facts about meaning unavailable to this stance this suggests that truth and rationality are constitutive principles of beliefs and meanings. They govern ontology as well as epistemology.

Two further moves:

1) Although the example suggests desert islands and grass skirts, radical interpretation begins at home. My only grasp of my native English depends on my original radical interpretation of parents and carers.

2) Against a student who objects that learning his native language didn’t seem much like this, I press the point that this is a rational reconstruction. His only justification for his knowledge of the meaning of words in English would be a description of such radical interpretation.

This second move has always seemed both crucial and plausible to me. Radical interpretation isn’t simply a description but a kind of idealised justification. Thus it isn’t closely tied to actual empirical details. There is, however, an echo of the epistemology of Descartes’ Meditations about this. Whilst for most people, most of the time, the actual groundings of interpretation can be ignored, a Descartes in his study can undertake a particular project. Further, the justifications implicit in radical interpretation are those that an interpreter could offer him- or herself.

Against this background my nagging worry is a quite different response to the question of how one might break into the interdependent circle of belief and meaning. Suppose that the Chomskians were right and that the poverty of empirical evidence especially refuting evidence for hypotheses about one’s surrounding linguistic culture is best explained by an innate universal grammar. We get language almost for free. If so, the background for radical interpretation is quite different. We can break into the circle of beliefs and meanings because aspects at least of the meanings are not so holistic. ((Of course I am simplifying grossly: UG is merely a grammar of syntax not semantics so much more will in fact be needed to pin down actual meanings. But let me press on for the moment with the fantasy on the assumption that we might think of a more sitable innativism about the grammar of contents.))

Now a first thought will be that this is merely a comment on the context of discovery not justification. To justify a claim for knowledge of meaning would require radical interpretation again. That’s the point of point 2 above.

But note how individualistic that picture of justification is. How about the idea that, relative to our human predicament, the interpreter need do much less by way of justification than such a full blown reconstruction? She can say that such and utterance probably means that so and so and, given UG, that amounts to knowledge.

My worry is that the full argument for the principle of charity and hence for the constitutive principle of rationality turns on an appeal to what would be necessary to constrain interpretation in radical interpretation but construed in such a way that the interpreter does her work as free as she can be from mere worldly favours. But if one adds together some appropriate innativism about contents and a less individualistic conception of earning the right to knowledge, won’t that undercut the rational reconstruction and hence the need for rationality?

Comedy and the irreducibility of de se thought

Sadly there’s little time still to hear the first sketch (‘Mighty Caesar’) on the first episode of the new series of That Mitchell and Webb Sound (and non-UK listeners would have to be inventive with proxy servers). But it says all one needs to know about the irreducible nature of de se thought.

Well, whilst it is on youtube....