Friday, 29 October 2010

Against Sass on delusional atmosphere

Whilst the bulk of Paradoxes of Delusion concerns the idea the relation between schizophrenia and solipsim, a later chapter provides a distinct line of interpretation of the specific schizophrenic symptom: delusional ‘atmosphere’ or ‘mood’ described by Jaspers in his General Psychopathology.

“The environment,” says Jaspers “is somehow different – not to a gross degree – perception is unaltered in itself but there is some strange change which envelops everything with a subtle, pervasive and strangely uncertain light.” Whatever is perceived may seem tremendously specific and meaningful, but without the patient being able to explain why; unfamiliar events and objects may appear to be copies or repetitions of themselves… “objects and events signify something but nothing definite”. [Sass 1994: 97]

The key feature of delusional mood or atmosphere is its uncanny particularity and Sass looks to some passages in Wittgenstein’s Brown Book to attempt to shed light on it.

In Schreber’s Memoirs, the feeling of uncanny particularity emerges most clearly in his discussion of the wasp miracle…”I have most stringent and convincing proof that these beings do not fly towards me by accident…. These animals always appear on definite occasions and in definite order around me.” It seems, rather, that Schreber’s experience of definiteness simply could not have been described more completely. [ibid: 99]

This description presents a problem, however. If that is the best that Schreber can do he does not seem to have given an account of the content of the experience. Just what can he mean by ‘definite occasions and in definite order’? Presumably, another observer would notice nothing special in the flight of the wasps and Schreber does not explain the pattern that he sees. So, as Sass asks, how can we characterise or comprehend this experience in which everything looks so completely normal yet at the same time so indescribably, so incomprehensibly, special?

His idea is to make use of some passages from the Brown Book in which Wittgenstein examines the idea that grasp of meaning is a particular kind of experience. This provides a key tool for Sass’ purpose. Wittgenstein sketches a distinction between a transitive and an intransitive meaning of ‘particular’.

Now the use of the word “particular” is apt to produce a kind of delusion and roughly speaking this delusion is produced by the double usage of this word. On the one hand, we may say, it is used preliminary to a specification, description, comparison; on the other hand, as what one might describe as an emphasis. The first usage I shall call the transitive one, the second the intransitive one. Thus, on the one hand I say “This face gives me a particular impression which I can't describe”. The latter sentence may mean something like: “This face gives me a strong impression”. These examples would perhaps be more striking if we substituted the word “peculiar” for “particular”, for the same comments apply to “peculiar”. If I say “This soap has a peculiar smell: it is the kind we used as children”, the word “peculiar” may be used merely as an introduction to the comparison which follows it, as though I said “I'll tell you what this soap smells like:...”. If, on the other hand, I say “This soap has a peculiar smell!” or “It has a most peculiar smell”, “peculiar” here stands for some such expression as “out of the ordinary”, “uncommon”, “striking”. [Wittgenstein 1958: 158]

So a transitive use of ‘particular’ introduces a comparison what can then be filled out. An intransitive use marks, instead, a mere emphasis, equivalent to saying that something is striking. Wittgenstein goes on to suggest that we can become confused as to the nature of the use that we ourselves are making of it at any time. This enables Sass to suggest that one can have an experience characterised by one kind of use and confuse it for one characterised by the other such that ‘when one is having the first, intransitive type of experience, that one is noticing the sort of thing that one actually does notice in the first, transitive type’ [104]. And from this Sass concludes:

As Wittgenstein analyses it, this uncanny experience of mute particularity is one of the characteristic delusions engendered by a certain unnatural, reflective stance characteristic of philosophizing. [104]

The problem with this approach is that it relies on the idea that Wittgenstein does indeed provide an analysis of an experience of mute particularity. But it is far from clear that he does. I say ‘far from clear that he does’ rather than ‘clear that he does not’ for this reason. Wittgenstein’s analysis, in the passages Sass cites, concerns the view that understanding sameness and difference of meaning can be explained or analysed as sameness and difference of an experience of meaning. It is the idea that the word ‘red’ comes to us in a particular way when we recognize a colour as red. It is to criticise this idea that Wittgenstein draws the distinction between transitive and intransitive meaning.

To shed light on this he compares the idea that one experiences a word in a particular way, with the idea that one might describe one’s bodily posture at any given time as ‘particular’.

You are, of course, constantly changing the position of your body throughout the day; arrest yourself in any such attitude (while writing, reading, talking, etc. etc.) and say to yourself in the way in which you say, “‘Red’ comes in a particular way …”, “I am now in a particular attitude.” You will find that you can quite naturally say this. But aren't you always in a particular attitude? [Wittgenstein 1958: **]

Although it is natural, he suggests, to say this when concentrating on one’s posture it is not that there is a type of posture being picked out. Neither, however, is one’s posture particularly striking.
And of course you didn't mean that you were just then in a particularly striking attitude.

Rather, the naturalness of the use of the word is an artefact of the situation:
What was it that happened. You concentrated, as it were stared at, your sensations. And this is exactly what you did when you said that “red” came in a particular way. [Wittgenstein 1958: **]

And this same idea is then used to try to undermine the compulsion to say that understanding a meaning is a matter of having a particular experience. There are experiences when one uses or understands a word just as one’s body is always in some posture or other. But nothing significant follows from this:
What is particular about the way “red” comes is that it comes while you’re philosophizing about it, as what is particular about the position of your body when you concentrated on it was concentration. We appear to ourselves to be on the verge of giving a characterization of the “way” describing the way, whereas we aren’t really opposing it to any other way. We are emphasizing, not comparing, but we express ourselves as though this emphasis was really a comparison of the object with itself; there seems to be a reflexive comparison. [Wittgenstein 1958: **]

The reason for looking at the thrust of Wittgenstein’s argument here is this. As is typical of his later work, there is a mix of both therapeutic understanding and destructive criticism. For Sass’ project to work, it would be necessary that part of the therapeutic understanding was an account of what it is or would be to have an experience of ‘mute particularity’ even if this were then criticised as part of the destructive aspect of Wittgenstein’s analysis. But it does not seem that that is the case. The closest that he comes to that is the account of the misleading naturalness of using the word ‘particular’ in the context of concentration. But in the elucidatory but deflating example of bodily posture the natural utterance, whilst intransitive, does not even mean striking. Whilst natural the utterance still, in some sense, misfires. So there is no suggestion that it expresses an experience of mute particularity and thus no account of that supposed experience is given.

This is, perhaps, unsurprising. Wittgenstein puts talk of ‘particular experiences’ in the mouth of an interlocutor who wishes to explain meaning through characteristic experiences and which he – Wittgenstein – wishes, by contrast, to refute. The more the quest for empathic and therapeutic understanding of the opposing view were to succeed in granting it coherence, the less robust would be the critical counterpoint. Instead, Wittgenstein offers the most minimal account of why one might be tempted to deploy the idea of ‘particular experiences’ and then pulls the rug from under it, leaving no substantial account of what such experiences might be.

For this reason, Sass’ suggestion that we look to where we should not look for an account of meaning to help us understand an experience of mute particularity cannot work.

Sass, L.A. (1994) The Paradoxes of Delusion, New York: Cornell
Wittgenstein, L. (1958) The Blue and Brown books, Oxford: Blackwell.