Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Is secondary sense under rational obligation?

Just before Christmas, Neil Pickering expressed an interest in my thoughts about the use of secondary sense in philosophical reflection about mental illness. His primary interest is, I think, in whether one might deploy some such notion to explain how the word ‘illness’ is applied to mental illness (or to mental  - scare quoted  - ‘illness’, I guess): a view he once ascribed to Richard Gipps. Mine is in whether it might help us approach the expression of delusions. But whatever its eventual use (or not) it would be helpful to get clear about its limits. If one wishes to argue that it cannot be used to characterise the application of ‘illness’ to mental illness, or to shed light on the expression of delusion then it seems, at least, that one owes some comment on its limits (even if there are principled limits to what one might say about those limits!).

((Wittgenstein discusses secondary sense in the context of seeing aspects such as seeing the duck-rabbit figure now as a duck and now as a rabbit. The key instance he gives of secondary sense is the attitude most of us have towards words. We feel that a word carries its meaning somehow immediately with it. It can loose this kind of meaning if repeated. He describes this kind of immediate perception of the meaning of a word in isolation as a form of understanding meaning. Since Wittgenstein’s official recommendation is to think of understanding as grasp of a practice, the use of the words ‘understanding’ and ‘meaning’ in the case at hand is not straight-forward. It is not a metaphor, however, because nothing can be said to explain why we want to use these words for this kind of experience. But whilst this is not a metaphorical use it is nevertheless a secondary use: one which we find natural given the primary use, but which is discontinuous with, and could not be used to teach, the primary use [Wittgenstein 1953: 216]. Another example Wittgenstein gives is the use of ‘fat’ in the claim that Wednesday is fat. Clearly Wednesday cannot in any ordinary sense be compared with other fat or thin things. And it would be optimistic to attempt to teach the meaning of ‘fat’ by giving Wednesday as an example. Nevertheless, many language users give spontaneous expression to the thought that Wednesday is a fat day.

((Whilst experiencing the meaning of a word or ascribing a width to days of the week may seem to be of limited interest, the Wittgensteinian philosopher Oswald Hanfling argues that the secondary use of words is widespread [Hanfling1991]. In aesthetics, he argues, words such as ‘sad’ applied to music are used in secondary sense. (The music need not make a hearer sad, does not sound like a sad person etc.) In the description of feelings, phrases such as ‘pins and needles’, ‘butterflies in the stomach’ and ‘stabbing pains’ are all used in this way. Wittgenstein’s own description of ‘feelings of unreality’ in which ‘everything seems somehow not real’ is also secondary. This suggests the possibility that secondary sense might generally provide a way of construing the expression of delusion. I have been thinking about this - rather unsucccessfully - for the last few years.))

One prompt to my own thinking about the status of secondary sense was what might have been almost a throw away remark by Neil himself at a conference that a secondary extension of the use of a word is under no rational obligation. At the time I wrote an entry here which said:

“That seems right, in the context of the contrast with simile, but less so without a codification of rationality. Isn’t it rational for those with minds like most of us to rebel against the substitution of synonyms in poetry, to treasure the picture of one’s beloved and so forth? I’m not sure. (I’m also not sure because a firm criterion here - ruling those out as instances of rationality - might come back to bite in the context of what following a rule isn’t: ie being gripped by a self-interpreting interpretation of a general rule.)”

Now, more than a year later, I’m still unsure about this but favour the thought that the thought I ascribed to Neil was wrong. My initial response was influenced by the worry that ‘a firm criterion here - ruling those out as instances of rationality - might come back to bite in the context of what following a rule isn’t: ie being gripped by a self-interpreting interpretation of a general rule’. That worry is that saying that going on in the same way as those in the same secondary sense community is not a matter of rational compulsion invites a contrast with primary sense that might be hard to account for. One way to account for it (ie a rational constraint on use in primary sense) would be some sort of platonic obligation: a constraint on our use of words imposed on us somehow from without, a logic that took us by the throat (in Achilles’ phrase).

Avoiding such a platonic account need not be the end of rational constraint, however, as is familiar from the debate about Kripke, Wright and McDowell. One can give up a platonic idea of a self-interpreting symbol (grasp of which simply imposes a use on use) without falling back onto the idea that we merely make up meaning as we go on – each step a leap in the dark – under no rational constraint. We can give up the idea of explanation (from without) of such rational constraint without giving up on the idea that, once we are inducted into a practice, that we can grasp norms which do indeed govern us and thus to which we can aim and fail to live up.

Further, this thought is consistent with an idea from the resolute reading of Wittgenstein. The distinction between accord with a rule and deviation from it - between, for example, putting words together in accord with grammatical rules and deviating from those rules - requires no outside explanation. The fact that the orders “Bring me sugar” and “Bring me milk” make sense, but not the combination “Milk me sugar” does not need an explanation through the idea that ‘sugar’ and ‘milk’ have somehow an incompatible shape with the slots in the sentence “X me Y”. All we need is the idea that we have given no sense to that (and other) combination(s). (Jim Conant makes this point.) It is not that there are limitations imposed upon us on what we could possibly mean by symbolic combinations, just limits as to what we can presently mean (with our present linguistic practices). (The distinction between limits and limitations is nicely set out by Mulhall.)

So, from within a linguistic practice, there can be normative or rational constraints on what we can say and mean in the use of words situated in a philosophical space between either norm-free constructionism and platonic explanation via super-linguistic norms. If one means red by ‘red’ then one should call this pillar box ‘red’, in order thus to say that it is red. To judge its colour correctly would be to call it ‘red’.

Returning to secondary sense, we need to think, within this same philosophical space, about what kind of normative or rational constraint might govern it. And now the problem seems to me to be, roughly, that the secondary aspect of it undermines the idea of normative constraint whilst the sense part encourages it. Given my kind of mind, my routes of interest and perceptions of salience, then it is right for me to call much of the discussion of Thought’s Footing ‘deep’. That’s the right word for my take on the book. But more than that, it’s also right for me to think of it as deep. That I did not, when I first read it, was a kind of mistake.

But there is a complication in that, whilst it may be right to call ‘deep’, of a discussion, an example of secondary sense (one would not, for example, teach the word starting with this example), still, it has become rather fossilised in this use. Perhaps the normative standards governing this use (and thus thoughts so expressible) are just (about) those of primary sense. What of a secondary neologism? Suppose that, on a holiday, in the Lake District I sample a new beer by one of the local micro-breweries and turn to Lois and say: “Ah very Clough Head!”. Now I don’t mean that it is simply like it in any obvious way. Nor that it’s key features are on the wrong side. But perhaps I do mean something by it.

I can imagine two extreme scenarios and some intermediate cases. At one end, Lois looks at me suspiciously, comments that I’m no doubt trying to do something philosophical and treats the utterance with withering contempt. Or, at the other, she says: “Well maybe, but I’d have thought more Yewbarrow”. (In an ideal case, I’d agree.) Between these, the comment might not ‘take’ on the first day, but in a different pub and a different beer, a similar utterance might work. We would work out how to trade the thoughts made possible by this spontaneous innovation. Against a background of shared routes of interest and perceptions of salience there would be a kind of sense to all this.

At the first end of the scale, the contrary failure might simply be because of a contingent epistemic shortcoming. Or it might be because I was, really and merely, just trying to do something philosophical. I am assuming the latter. If the former, ignorance of intent would come out in the wash.

Two thoughts. 1) The sort failure at the first end of the scale - the case of me failing to articulate a genuine case of a secondary sense use of a phrase - does not require further explanation. There need be no limitations imposed here on what one can and cannot mean in a secondary way. 2) But at the other end of the spectrum of cases, when I do succeed in articulating a sharable secondary sense, then it does seem to me that there is a rational constraint. It would be churlish not to agree that the beer was very Clough Head.

PS: You can find some recent thoughts from Neil Pickering on secondary sense and why it may be of interest to his work (cf. his discussion of the likeness argument, also discussed recently on  this blog) here.