Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Linking A.W. Moore on Wittgenstein and ineffability

Much to my surprise, I have found it much harder to summarise the route that Adrian Moore uses to get to ineffable knowledge than I expected. In one paper, he just comes out and asserts it. But in Points of View it builds from discussion of the temptation to construe the later Wittgenstein as a transcendental idealist. Anyway, here is an attempt:


A different connection between Wittgenstein’s regress argument and tacit knowledge can be drawn from Adrian Moore’s book Points of View by charting his arguments for ineffable knowledge. (Moore himself retains the phrase ‘tacit knowledge’ for something else, something for whose existence he offers no explicit argument.) Whilst in one paper, Moore argues directly that conceptual mastery is a form of ineffable knowledge, in his book, this is placed in a broader context of responding to Wittgenstein. We will first follow that latter route.

Moore suggests that, in his discussion of understanding a rule or grasping a concept, one of Wittgenstein’s targets is the idea that our concepts answer to a ‘super-physical landscape’. Discussing the idea that there is a necessary connection between the concept of aunt and being female, for example, he suggests that Wittgenstein rejects the idea that such concepts ‘were things we just stumbled across, the one an inseparable part of the other’. But instead of charting such an independent super-physical or platonic realm, Wittgenstein’s discussion makes it clear instead that: ‘It is on our own contingent practices that we are focusing’ [Moore 1997: 128].

The connection between meaning or rules and contingency is this. Recall our summary of Wittgenstein’s regress argument and also Kripke’s reconstruction of it. It seems that nothing that can come before the mind’s eye, nor anything that can be put into words, nor any finite examples of past practice can determine a rule or a concept. What then explains our ability to go on in the same way?

Moore quotes, approvingly, a famous passage from Stanley Cavell who says:
That on the whole we... [make, and understand, the same projections of words into further contexts] is a matter of our sharing routes of interest and feeling, modes of response, sense of humour and of significance and of fulfilment, of what is outrageous, of what is similar to what else, what a rebuke, what forgiveness, of when an utterance is an assertion, when an appeal, when an explanation – all the whirl of organism Wittgenstein calls ‘forms of life’ [Cavell 1976: 52 quoted in Moore 1997: 128-9]

It is because of this shared background that we react in similar ways to explanations of rules and concepts and make the same projections of word use into the future. Lacking something like a platonic landscape to chart or a signpost that needs no further interpretation, it is a shared whirl of organism that underpins the conceptual order.

But if so, then this suggests that what seem to be necessary features of our concepts themselves depend on a background of contingencies. The contingencies do not merely concern the fact that, for linguistic historical reasons, the word for aunt is ‘aunt’ and female is ‘female’. Rather, the very idea that aunts are female seems to depend on the whirl of organism. Similarly the truths of mathematic and logic.

On a Wittgensteinian view, not only does 2 + 2 equal 4, but 2 + 2 must equal 4. ‘2 + 2 = 4’ is a rule. And yet – it is a rule only because of our contingent linguistic practices (and not just in the sense that we might have used different sounds or inscriptions to express it). [Moore 1997: 132 italics added]

But that idea seems simply false. As Bernard Williams puts it:
[I]f our talk of numbers has been determined by our decisions, then one result of our decisions is that it must be nonsense to say that anything about a number has been determined by our decisions. [Williams 1982: 95]

One response to this, which Moore considers but rejects, is to attempt distinguish between an empirical and transcendental interpretation of the role of contingency. Whilst within the empirical realm it seems simple false to say that the truths of mathematics or the greenness of grass, for example, depend on our whirl of organism, perhaps there is a way to advance such a claim at a transcendental level, off stage. On this approach, conditionals such as, had our language been different then grass would not have been green, do not express empirical possibilities or point to alternatives which are alternatives for us. But this leaves the thoughts apparently expressed as incoherent, as pure and utter nonsense.

Moore’s own response to the tension is nuanced and lies mainly outside the scope of this book. But one element connects it to the ineffability of conceptual understanding. In the face of the tension outlined, we are inclined to ask:
‘But what, ultimately, does somebody’s being an aunt consist in? What does something’s being green consist in?’ We cannot help asking these questions because we cannot help wondering about the basic form of that to which our representations answer. [Moore 1997: 134]

Such questions presuppose that our concepts answer to something: the underlying form of the world, its necessary background logical structure and lead inevitably to transcendental idealism and nonsense. Moore suggests that, instead, they should be rejected. But this is not just in order to try to escape the tension. Rather, it is because grasp of concepts or rules does not answer to anything.

Focusing self-consciously on our understanding, we recognize the deep contingencies that sustain it… [But] Our understanding has nothing to answer to. It is part of how we receive the world… If we do achieve such clarity, then what we actually get into focus is an arrangement of interlocking, mutually supporting practices that are grounded in one another’s contingency, a complex knotted structure that might easily have been different. [Moore 1997: 162]

So part of Moore’s response to the regress argument and the tension it seems to set up between necessity and contingency is to deny that conceptual mastery answers to anything. It is not representational knowledge. It is, instead, ineffable.

My understanding of English is a prime example. I would certainly count that as ineffable, even though it includes large tracts of effable knowledge such as... that the word ‘green’ denotes green things.
Understanding, of the sort that I have in mind, has nothing to answer to. Of course, I may think that I know what a particular word in English means and be wrong: I may think that the word ‘rabbit’ denotes hares as well as rabbits. If that is the case, then what I understand is strictly speaking an idiolect distinct from English. But I do still have my understanding... a mode of reception. It is not itself a reception. It includes my knowing how to exercise the concept green, for instance, which in turn includes my knowing what it is for something to be green. But this is not the same as my having an answer to any question. (Still less is it the same as my having an answer to the pseudo-question, ‘what is it for something to be green’.) [Moore 1997: 184]

Elsewhere Moore advances a similar line of argument more directly but which also more clearly connects back to the regress argument and the role of Platonism. (This is the direct argument mentioned above.) As reported in chapter 2, Moore criticises the view that there is any neat semantic marker for a distinction between knowledge-how and knowledge-that and argues that in many cases knowledge-how can be put into words, in accord with Stanley and Williamson’s views. Nevertheless, he also argues that there is a form of knowledge or understanding which is ineffable and which cannot be put into words. Conceptual mastery is such a case.

Consider my knowledge of what it is for an object to be green. On [Stanley and Williamson’s] view this is knowledge, concerning something, that that thing is what it is for an object to be green. But concerning what? A simple reply would be: ‘What it is for an object to be green.’ But what kind of thing is that? If I try to express my knowledge by indicating a green object and saying, ‘This is what it is for an object to be green,’ what can I be referring to by ‘this’? There does not seem to be any good answer. Nothing short of an unacceptable Platonism, it seems to me, can subserve the extension of their account to this case. I do not think that my knowledge of what it is for an object to be green is knowledge that anything is the case. Nor, crucially, do I think that it is effable. [Moore 2003: 177]

In the case of grasp of a concept such as green, Moore argues that the demonstrative trick fails to work. It could only work if something like the whole use of the word were available for demonstrative singling out. But failing platonism, that cannot be the case.