Thursday, 27 January 2011

A very quick argument against a 'theory of meaning'?

Has Sootica bipolarity?
The second key distinguishing characteristic [or a resolute reading of Wittgenstein] is a rejection of the idea that recognising the nonsensicality of ... any ... proposition requires the application of a theory of meaning - a specification of the conditions under which a sentence makes sense... According to resolute readers, there is no such theory... For to what could such a theory be applied? Suppose we imagine someone claiming that the author of the Tractatus advances bipolarity as a condition for the sense or meaningfulness of a proposition... and so licenses us to dismiss any non-bipolar proposition as nonsense; and now recall the key Tractatus distinction between signs and symbols. The question arises: what is it that lacks bipolarity – a string of signs or a complex of symbols? No mere string of signs could possibly either possess or lack bipolarity; but if we are in a position to treat some given string of signs as symbolizing, then we must have parsed it as symbolizing in a particular way, and hence assigned specific logical roles to its components. If so, then the question of whether or not it possesses bipolarity comes too late; and if not if, that is, we haven’t yet settled on a particular parsing of it – then the question simply doesn’t arise. [Mulhall 2007: 5-6]

I take the point that it makes no sense to ascribe bipolarity to chairs, tables or cats. The question of whether Sootica has bipolarity ‘doesn’t arise’. And thus it seems that every time that the question does arise, it will have to be answered ‘yes’. This suggests some oddness: if S ranges only over (meaningful) sentences then sentence A:

A: S has bipolarity

lacks bipolarity, which may cause problems for a theorist of bipolarity.

But bracketing that aspect of this specific putative condition on what is of meaningful, is Mulhall’s argument in general good? Why could one not self-consciously recognise that an aspect of all propositions, of things that one does take to have meaning, is that they have bipolarity (or whatever other aspect of meaning one fancies). It may be that he is not ruling that out. All depends I think on what he means by:

recognising the nonsensicality of ... any ... proposition requires the application of a theory of meaning

If this is given an epistemological reading, that in order to find out whether something is meaningful then we have first to apply this test, then that seems a nonsense (if not actual nonsense). But surely that is not what a fan of bipolarity – or any other theory of propositional form - would say. They’d give it a constitutive reading: to count as a proposition is to pass the test specified by the theory such that the theory applies to the proposition. Aside from bipolarity’s own odd logic, I’m not sure that there could be an argument as quick as Mulhall’s to reject this idea.

Mulhall, S. (2007) Wittgenstein’s Private Language Oxford: Oxford University Press

Two initiatives on person centred medicine

I have heard, this week, of two (or two and half) initiatives on person centred medicine, both connected to the assiduous Juan Mezzich.

First, the collection of papers on 'Conceptual Bases of Psychiatry for the Person', to which I contributed a joint paper with Ken Schaffner, is to be the inaugural issue of the International Journal of Person Centered Medicine scheduled to appear in March 2011. (This replaces plans to publish in Psychopathology.) That also suggests - the half - that that new journal - co-edited by Juan Mezzich who also organised that collection of papers - will shortly be in operation.

Second, I have been invited to play a tiny role in another initiative: a "Consultation Group for the INPCM-WHO Project on Developing Measures to Assess Progress towards People-centered Care. This important study represents a new level of collaboration between our International Network for Person-centered Medicine and the World Health Organization. The results of the Study will be presented at the Fourth Geneva Conference on Person-centered Medicine on May 3, 2011, and published by the World Health Organization and the International Journal of Person Centered Medicine."

I made something of a blunder in briefly replying only to the sender and simply to say that I'd be happy to do what I can. Others have replied, copying all, to say how deeply honoured they are to be involved in such a prestigious venture. Maybe by mentioning it here I can make amends.

Monday, 24 January 2011


I hear from Harry Collins that there are plans for SEESHOP 5 to be held in the middle of June in Cardiff.

I suspect details will emerge here in the fullness of time. Or try looking from here.

PS: My own thoughts about the meeting are here.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Opposing intuitions about knowledge-how and ability

There are some confusions that I should probably not write up for a website, even as modestly read as this one. But perhaps the knowledge that I’ve posted this will serve as an incentive to get my thoughts rather clearer. They concern two opposing views of the relation between knowledge-that, knowledge-how and ability. The problem is that the underlying intuitions just seem incommensurable.

The Rylean view starts from the claim that knowledge-how cannot be explained through the intellectualist legend according to which intelligent action is steered by grasp of a proposition. Ryle argues, instead, that ‘[i]ntelligent practice is not a step-child of theory’ [Ryle 1949:27] though the deployment of a regress argument.

If a deed, to be intelligent, has to be guided by the consideration of a regulative proposition, the gap between that consideration and the practical application of the regulation has to be bridged by some go-between process which cannot by the pre-supposed definition itself be an exercise of intelligence and cannot, by definition, be the resultant deed. This go-between application- process has somehow to marry observance of a contemplated maxim with the enforcement of behaviour. So it has to unite in itself the allegedly incompatible properties of being kith to theory and kin to practice, else it could not be the applying of the one in the other. For, unlike theory, it must be able to influence action, and, unlike impulses, it must be amenable to regulative propositions. Consistency requires, therefore, that this schizophrenic broker must again be subdivided into one bit which contemplates but does not execute, one which executes but does not contemplate and a third which reconciles these irreconcilables. And so on for ever. [Ryle 1945: 2]

It seems to me that the regress argument, or something on these broad lines, helps to undermine an intellectualist explanation of knowledge-that and is a reason to think that there is an important practical dimension, although this is better emphasised through a Wittgensteinian version. Ryle himself takes it that it establishes that knowledge-that and knowledge-how are distinct and goes on to attempt to add further semantic arguments for the distinction. I will ignore both Ryle's further arguments and the former explanationist take on what the regress argument is for. Here I will report instead the view that the argument concerns what constitutes, rather than what explains, knowledge-how: grasp of a proposition, or not.

In the light of the distinction, Ryle might be thought to owe some account of in what knowledge-how consists. It does not, according to him after all, consist in the grasp of a proposition. His positive account connects knowledge-how first to ‘intelligent capacities’ and then to dispositions (in order to head off a too close assimilation to habits).

Thus Ryle severs the connection between knowledge-that and knowledge-how and instead ties the latter to a practical capacity. Those with knowledge-how have abilities but there may be some difficulties in saying why this amounts to knowledge.

The intellectualist backlash has three elements.

First, it disputes the efficacy of the regress argument by contesting that there is a plausible single interpretation of action across the premises that sustains the regress. If the regress argument fails then knowledge-how might indeed consist in grasping a proposition, under some interpretation of that claim.

Second, it disputes the assimilation of knowledge-how and capacities or abilities.

It is simply false, however, that ascriptions of knowledge-how ascribe abilities. As Ginet and others have pointed out, ascriptions of knowledge-how do not even entail ascriptions of the corresponding abilities. For example, a ski instructor may know how to perform a certain complex stunt, without being able to perform it herself. Similarly, a master pianist who loses both of her arms in a tragic car accident still knows how to play the piano. But she has lost her ability to do so. It follows that Ryle's own positive account of knowledge-how is demonstrably false. [Stanley and Williamson 2001: 416]

The converse implication from ability to knowledge-how is also questioned.

A man is in a room, which, because he has not explored it in the least, he does, as yet, not know how to get out of. In fact there is an obvious exit which he can easily open. He is perfectly able to get out, he can get out, but does not know how to (as yet)... Martin is someone who can do fifty consecutive press ups. Let us suppose that none of us here can do that. It would be, I suggest, quite counterintuitive to say that Martin knows how to do something we do not know how to do. Rather, he is, simply, stronger then we are. He is stronger, but not more knowledgeable. [Snowdon 2001: 11]

Third, given that it is not ruled out by an effective regress argument and given that there is no plausible constitutive account based on capacities or abilities, there is a positive analysis of knowledge-how in knowledge-that terms.

There is agreement in this intellectualist backlash that part of the problem (as they see it) had been an assumption that knowledge-that had to be expressed in context free general terms. But once demonstratives are available to express conceptually articulated thoughts they can also be used to express the content known in cases of knowledge-how as well as paradigmatic knowledge-that and thus the former can be thought of as a species of the latter (without, however, there needing to be a fully reductive analysis).

[I]f we are seeking a candidate piece of information that is known to be the case in such examples as knowing how to ride a bike, it is that this sequence of actions—present to the agent and knower in the course of actions and accessed by knower as his or her actions—is a way to ride a bike. The aim of this rather rough formulation is not to slot the proposal into some standard account of knowledge, but rather, in a relatively theoretically neutral way, to indicate a candidate for what might count as the kind of information in question in such cases. The agent need not be riding a bike to have the sample actions available to him or her, because, in principle, there might be simulation devices in the context of which the agent performs the actions without actually riding a bike. [Snowdon 2004: 28]

That, however, leaves an interesting possibility. If one severs the apparent connection between knowledge-how and ability and if one uses a demonstrative thought to pick out a way of doing something as the candidate for the content to be known in knowledge-how, might one know how to do something simply in virtue of being able to point and say ‘that! is the way to do it’?

This rather odd thought (the 'Odd Thought') is further reinforced by a pair of observations which might be used to support intellectualism:

1) As both Moore and Snowdon argue, there is no tidy semantic marker to indicate distinct two kinds of knowledge: knowledge-how and knowledge-that. Knowledge-how is no more special than knowledge-when, where, whether or why. All are answers to implicit questions.

A better clue would be the use of the infinitive. However ‘The important difference between its use in ‘knows how the getaway was made’ and ‘knows how to charm people’ is not the difference between two senses of the phrase, as it were a “propositional” sense and a “practical” sense. It is rather the ensuing difference between the finite verb and the infinitive.’ [Moore 1997: 168] But that also applies to the case of knows-when. The difference (between finite verb and infinitive) is between corresponding implicit questions about how things are and what to do rather than between distinct kinds of knowledge.

2) Cases of knowledge-how to do something can simply be cases of having knowledge-that. To know how to escape might be to know that one can escape via the laundry, that a way to escape is via the laundry. Such cases blur the apparent boundary between knowledge-how and knowledge-that. To know how to spell ‘comma’ is nothing other ‘than knowledge that it is spelt ‘c’, ‘o’, double ‘m’, ‘a’’ [ibid: 171].

S knows how to get from London to Swansea by train before midday. S’s knowing how to do that surely consists in knowing that one first catches the 7.30 a.m. train to Reading from Paddington, and then one ... etc. [Snowdon 2004: 12]

Seen from the Rylean perspective, this rather odd thought suggests a kind of irony. The intellectualist backlash captures knowledge-how in knowledge-that terms only at the cost of not accounting for the practical aspect of knowledge-how which seemed the most important thing about it to the Ryleans. If an always dyspraxic but skilled at teaching ski instructor reports that she knows the component moves in the Russian team’s final stunt but would never have been able to do it herself, it will, surely, sometimes be correct to say that she knows how to do the stunt and sometimes not, depending on context, on what is being asked. But it seems odd if that distinction - can she do it or not? - is simply missing from the analysis. (The intellectualist seems to have a quite different target notion in mind: one linked to content, to the possibility of Gettier examples, but floating free of abilities. Their view makes it easier to see why this is a matter of knowledge but misses the sometimes practical implication of an ascription.)

Stanley and Williamson themselves, however, avoid the possibility of the Odd Thought as the following lengthy quotation makes clear:

(26) John believes that that man has burning pants.
(27) John believes that he himself has burning pants
Suppose that Hannah does not know how to ride a bicycle. Susan points to John, who is riding a bicycle, and says, 'That is a way for you to ride a bicycle'. Suppose that the way in which John is riding his bicycle is in fact a way for Hannah to ride a bicycle. So, where the demonstrative 'that way' denotes John's way of riding a bicycle, (28) seems true:
(28) Hannah knows that that way is a way for her to ride a bicycle.
Relative to this context, however:
(29) Hannah, knows [how PRO to ride a bicycle].
seems false. This case parallels (26) and (27). Where the demonstrated way is the only contextually salient way of riding a bicycle, (28) and (29) ascribe knowledge of the same proposition to Hannah. But this proposition is ascribed under different guises. In (28), knowledge of the proposition is ascribed to Hannah under a demonstrative mode of presentation. In (29), knowledge of that proposition is ascribed to Hannah under a different mode of presentation, what we call a practical mode of presentation. [ibid: 428-9]

Thinking of a person as oneself entails being disposed to behave in certain ways, or form certain beliefs, given relevant input from that person. Similarly, thinking of a place as here entails being disposed to behave in certain ways, or form certain beliefs, given relevant input from that place. Analogously, thinking of a way under a practical mode of presentation undoubtedly entails the possession of certain complex dispositions. It is for this reason that there are intricate connections between knowing-how and dispositional states. But acknowledging such connections in no way threatens the thesis that knowing-how is a species of knowing-that. For example, such connections are also present in the case of first-person thought. But this in no way threatens the thesis that thought about oneself is genuinely propositional. It is simply a feature of certain kinds of propositional knowledge that possession of it is related in complex ways to dispositional states. Recognizing this fact eliminates the need to postulate a distinctive kind of non-propositional knowledge. [Stanley and Williamson 2001: 430]

This however introduces three distinct cases:

i) having context-dependent but merely spectator knowledge that that! way is the way to do something.

ii) having context-dependent knowledge that that! way is the way to do something under a practical mode of presentation

iii) being able to do it

where ii does not imply iii, and thus even grasp of a practical mode of presentation does not imply capacity.

I thus wonder about their schematic ski instructor case. If she has been able to ski but, this month, has a broken leg, she can, presumably, think about a way of ski-ing under a practical mode of presentation even though she can’t actually exercise it today. (She can, likewise, think first person thoughts even if she cannot move about much, either.) But if she merely knows how to do a stunt because she knows that it has the following steps (cf Moore and Snowdon's examples above), then, surely that is not enough to merit ascription of a practical mode of presentation. But then surely the ascription of this mode will have to tie knowledge-how back to ability again in some way since, after all, and the interesting difference will have to do with practical ability rather than ways of ascribing content which is common both to the spectator and the agent? (If so we may have to say that she is able to do the stunt, but just not now, not having functioning legs. Just as a piano player is able to play the piano but only if there is a piano available to be played. In saying this we would go against Stanley and Williamson's own view that knowledge how does not imply ability, of course.)

This leaves me with a number of confusions. What does the practical mode of presentation do for Stanley and Williamson given that they do not think that knowledge-how implies ability? If knowledge-how to do something can merely consist in knowledge-that, is this really the same notion captured by the Ryleans as knowledge-how? And how can the opposing intuitions about whether knowledge-how can sustain Gettier examples where one has the relevant ability but somehow lacks knowledge, be decided?

I suspect that the only way to deal with the underlying opposing intuitions is to ignore the semantic markers (especially 'knows how to') and maintain that we use the phrase in two senses: one implying ability and one not, the former being immune to Gettier cases and the latter not and context making it clear which is in play (with a nod to Travis, perhaps).

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Yet further thoughts on the likeness argument

Neil Pickering suggests that the debate about the status of mental illness as a whole and particular illnesses has been dominated by the likeness argument. But he thinks - for two reasons, one weaker, one stronger - that it cannot work. We cannot use a likeness argument rationally to persuade in this debate because it begs the question (in one of two ways). So what should we do about trying to settle the status of either mental illness as a whole or putative illnesses in particular? When, for example, there was a debate about the status of homosexuality, was there a rational argument that could have been in play (not that it seems actually to have been settled for the DSM through rational argument)? It seems quite odd to think that there could not have been.

But it seems to me that the likeness argument is in one sense quite trivial in form. (This is not to accuse Pickering’s analysis of the same triviality, I hasten to add. The actual forms of philosophical argument are often quite mundane but it can be a significant contribution to draw reflective attention to how a debate has worked.) It turns on taking a concept to have criteria of application and then seeing whether things meet the criteria and thus fit the concept. So if the likeness argument is ruled out it becomes hard to know how else one might argue (for whether a condition fits the concept of illness or not).

Given this tricky situation, one way one might attempt to argue is by trying to come up with a principled, theoretically driven understanding of the general concept illness (rather than one simply designed or selected to give the right question-begging result when put through a likeness argument). And one way to do that is to ask what one wants a concept of illness for.

I think of this because of an idea that Edward Craig had about knowledge. Philosophers have debated the analysis of knowledge - eg saying its justified true belief or true belief via a reliable process - for a long time without resolution. Craig suggested we think what a concept of knowledge might do for us. His idea was that it a way of picking out trustworthy informants. He then used that as an extra theoretical resource to shape the analysis of knowledge.

So if someone like Jerry Wakefield, just as an example, says that we want a concept of illness to mark conditions which result from a breakdown of biological functions - of what bodily systems were selected for - we could interpret that as not just another move within a likeness argument but rather an attempt to find a principled neutral starting point before the likeness argument is set up.

I think of Wakefield as an example rather than eg Bill Fulford but Fulford could be used in the same way. He might say: we want an illness concept to mark conditions which stop us just doing what we can ordinarily do and thus which excuse us, eg, from work. But whether or not Wakefield's idea works ( I have my doubts), he's a better example in this case of this strategy because one thing he claims - in conversation if not in print - is that people do fall back on his idea.

So in the debate about whether homosexuality is an illness, people actually do ask: but is it a failure of biological function? In other words, he argues that at a deep level, that is part of our concept of illness, whether or not we generally realise it. (It is less clear that in debates about homosexuality, for example, people have actually and inchoately picked up on Fulford’s analysis but that is not to say that Fulford does not in the end have the better account.) And we can then go on to discover whether it applies to mental illness as a whole (ie whether anything can be one) and illnesses in particular.

In fact, the latter idea is difficult because it is hard to determine - especially in mental cases - what the biological functions of our cognitive traits are. Our only epistemic route seems to be the telling of normative Just So stories based on what we find a plausible normative story about how things ought to be. But that does not suggest that this general strategy is not a plausible response to the worries about the likeness argument.

Monday, 10 January 2011

A further thought on Luntley on expertise

So looking a little further at the Michael Luntley paper, he goes on to argue that there is a difficulty with the idea of an activity based concept which draws on McDowell’s idea of conceptual capture (that shade!) in order to articulate the content of what might otherwise seem to be an inarticulable knowledge-how. There is a kind dilemma which is expressed in this lengthy passage.

The idea of activity-dependent concepts is the idea of ways of thinking of things, events and properties made available to the subject by the way their experience is going and where the way their experience is going is, in part, determined by their activities. The idea is that the activities involve ways of acting upon things that make similarities salient, ways of acting that enable discrimination of similarities as patterns that can be attended to. So, the baker does not teach the apprentice by lecturing them, but by getting them to act in regular ways with bread that make discriminations of similarities available to the apprentice. There is a look of the bread that they will come to discriminate and eventually think about as a ‘that way of looking’ and where their discrimination of the look requires a practice of activity with bread. The experienced nurse teaches the student to modulate their care to the fine changes in patient behaviour and composure not by giving a PowerPoint presentation on how patients look and act, but by involving the student nurse in practices discriminating fine shades of behaviour and appearance. But if this notion of activity-dependence is to work, the activity in question cannot be intentional action.
We have a look of the bread that becomes discriminable as a ‘looking that way’ due to some activity type α. If α is an intentional action, there is a description δ under which the action is performed by the subject. This means that there is a description available that characterises the activity on which the possession conditions of ‘looking that way’ depends. What makes α intentional is the fact that there is a description δ such that the subject gets to do α by δ-ing and for this to work it needs to be the case that in setting themselves the goal of δ-ing, the subject sets themselves a goal with sufficient precision to bring it about that they α. But if that is so, then the description δ is rich enough to pick out the activity of α-ing. We could then, in principle, give an account of the possession conditions of ‘looking that way’ by deploying the description δ, rather than the activity, for the description δ is sufficiently discriminable to pick out the activity α. If it were not sufficiently discriminable to do this, it would not suffice as the description under which the action was intentional. This means that if α is an intentional action, it is an action already located within a conceptual space. Its location within conceptual space is captured by the description δ under which it is intentional. Therefore, the contribution of activity that is supposed to show that the concept is activity-dependent could in principle be discharged by appealing to the descriptive account of the location of the action within conceptual space. On that basis, there is no such thing as an activity dependent concept.
The idea of activity-dependent concepts looks to introduce a special type of concept, one that operates, as it were, at the boundary between thought and activity, for it is the notion of a concept the possession conditions of which are not wholly discharged by appeal to the other elements within thought, but by appeal to things outwith the realm of thought — action. However, if action is intentional action, then it is activity that is already within the compass of thought, so its contribution to the possession conditions of these special activity-dependent concepts is illusory. [Luntley 2009: 364-5]

A little later he continues:

if the activity α is intentional action, the appeal to α in an account of an activity-dependent concept begs the question of how activity contributes to concept possession. If the activity in ‘activity-dependent concepts’ is to do any work, it needs to be a voluntary directedness to things that provides saliences for attention prior to conceptual ways of orientation to things. [Luntley 2009: 365]

So starting with the set up. Luntley’s activity-dependent concepts seem to be doubly contextual. The bread looks like that! But additionally that way of looking is only discriminable through some activity type α. What is it? Well in the example it is a ‘practice of activity with bread’ or ‘act[ing] in regular ways with bread’. The focus is then on difficulties with articulating this practice as an intentional action, an action under a description, without merely invoking context-independent descriptions. This implies that the activity is not just learning to see the colour of the bread when the master baker takes it out of the oven by looking at it when she does. (Perhaps she takes it out before it looks the final colour and it continues to cook.) But that activity would not make the concept activity-dependent in Luntley’s sense because that might be described in these context-free terms: looking at the colour of the bread when the master baker takes it out of the oven by looking at it when she does.

So perhaps the example is more like this. In kneading the dough, one stops when on being scrunched thus! it looks like this! Now scrunching thus is intentional but if so it must be describable in some way and now there appears to be a dilemma. If we can specify how to scrunch in general terms, this will not count as activity-dependent. But if it is context specific, what description can be offered such that scrunching thus is intentional under a description? This second horm seems to be unpacked in this worry:

if the activity α is intentional action, the appeal to α in an account of an activity-dependent concept begs the question of how activity contributes to concept possession


if scrunching thus is intentional action, the appeal to scrunching thus in an account of an activity-dependent concept begs the question of how activity contributes to concept possession

I think that the worry is that if scrunching thus is intentional under an activity-dependent description then that description will rely on scrunching thus but scrunching thus will only be the intentional activity it is if there is some independent way to characterise it. Otherwise, there is a circularity in the way that the activity characterises itself. There is only a concept if one can intentionally scrunch thus but one can only intentionally scrunch thus if there is a concept.

But I don’t see the problem here. The master baker can articulate what she is up to by saying “Yesterday I aimed to scrunch thus. Now I aim to scrunch thus. Tomorrow I will no doubt aim to scrunch thus.” As long as she is scrunching, this is what she can say. The learners cannot initially say or do this. But that’s because they don’t yet have a clear idea of what it is they aim to do in such context dependent terms. They have to say more general things such as: “I’m trying to learn to scrunch as the master baker does”.

Luntley says: ‘if action is intentional action, then it is activity that is already within the compass of thought, so its contribution to the possession conditions of these special activity-dependent concepts is illusory.’ Perhaps he means that if it is intentional then it has already to be action under a description which one can frame prior to thus acting. (He says ‘it is activity that is already within the compass of thought’ hence the idea of temporal priority). If so then that description would not be in activity-dependent concepts. But why think that there has to be this temporal priority?

(I am ignoring an obvious worry. If the way to articulate the action depends on a token scrunch that happens at time t1, how could that very scrunch, in all its singularity, guide action at times before t1? (If instead, action is guided by a general conception which the scrunch at t1 as a matter of fact satisfies then this is no longer an activity-dependent concept.) But this seems to depend on a kind of mechanical theory of action. Cf Wittgenstein's discussion of posting a letter in the 600s of the Investigations.)

I wonder whether Luntley is being more concerned that I would be with an account of how one comes to acquire such an activity-dependent concept. That would explain the connection to Fodor on learning concepts he goes on to make. And it is true that that does raise an issue of just how self-conscious an account of trying to do things so as to learn how to do them can be. But I think that, as self help gurus often suggest, motivation follows action here.

Luntley, M. (2009) ‘Understanding expertise’ Journal of Applied Philosophy 4: 356-370

Thursday, 6 January 2011

CBC How To Think About Science

The CBC radio series How to Think About Science podcasts, which seem to move and to vanish, are back at the moment, here.

They include broadcasts by the following excellent old-timers!

A quick thought on Luntley on expertise

On the train home from work last night there was just time to skim read Michael Luntley’s paper ‘Understanding expertise’ from a couple of years ago in the Journal of Applied Philosophy.

Two things strike me. First: his reaction to reading Wittgenstein, McDowell and Stanley and Williamson is to think that McDowell’s idea of demonstrative concepts and Stanley and Williamson's criticism of Ryle shows that there is no interesting distinction between knowledge-how and knowledge-that: practical knowledge can be articulated as knowledge that via demonstrative concepts.

(I mention Wittgenstein not because he plays any role in the paper but because Michael has written extensively on him and Wittgenstein is often taken to proffer a regress argument akin to the one that Ryle uses against intellectualism.)

An aspect of the argument is that phenomenological accounts of what it is like to make rapid decisions have no direct consequences for a constitutive account of what the rationality of practical judgements or actions consists in.

But second, he simply accepts the line of reasoning that Stanley and Williamson borrow from Ginet:

I exercise (or manifest) my knowledge that one can get the door open by turning the knob and pushing it (as well as my knowledge that there is a door there) by performing that operation quite automatically as I leave the room; and I may do this, of course, without formulating (in my mind or out loud) that proposition or any other relevant proposition. [Ginet 1975: 7]

But in this move – which is necessary to undermine Ryle’s regress argument – he seems inconsistently to accept the force of a phenomenological inner consultation to make a constitutive point (cf Noë’s objection to Stanley and Williamson).

My own thought is that without Ginet’s point, Ryle’s argument stands and thus intellectualism falls but that once language is in play (on a background of prior know-how), then practical judgement can be articulated using McDowellian demonstrative concepts, as instances of context-specific knowledge-that. Is that really different from Luntley’s position? On a mere first read, I’m not sure. But the danger of giving up Ryle as part of an account of the conceptually structured articulation of knowledge-how is how one responds to worries such as Adrian Moore’s suggestion that knowledge of the meaning of words is ineffable. Ironically, playing down knowledge-how looks to support Moore’s mysticism.

(PS: A further thought is here.)

Ginet, C. (1975) Knowledge, Perception and Memory, Dordrecht: Reidel
Luntley, M. (2009) ‘Understanding expertise’ Journal of Applied Philosophy 4: 356-370
McDowell, J (1994) Mind and World, Harvard: Harvard University Press
Moore, A.W. (1997) Points of View, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Noë, A. (2005) ‘Against intellectualism’ Analysis 65: 278-90
Ryle, G. (1949) The Concept of Mind, London: Hutchinson.
Ryle, G. (1945) ‘Knowing How and Knowing That’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 46: 1-16
Stanley, J. and Williamson, T. (2001) ‘Knowing how’ The Journal of Philosophy 97: 411-444.

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.

Sad news about Sean Spence

Sad news: Professor Sean Spence died on Christmas Day after a long illness. An email from his department at Sheffield comments: “Psychiatry has lost a key figure who contributed very significantly to our understanding of, and treatment for, mental illness, and to the improvement of the lives of our patients. He will be greatly missed.”

Whilst some people will recall his staunch criticism of Jo Moncrief and others, he had broad interests in mental health care including the philosophy of psychiatry (cf his PPP article on Libet) and he published this poem last year on the BJPsych.

If Homelessness Were Genetic
by Sean Spence

If homelessness were genetic,
Institutes would be constructed
With tall white walls,
And ‘driven’ people (with thick glasses)
Would congregate
In libraries

And mumble.

If homelessness were genetic
Bright young things
Would draft manifestos
‘To crack the problem’

Girls with braces on their teeth
Would stoop to kiss
Boys with dandruff
At Unit discos

While dancing (slowly)
To ‘Careless Whisper’.

Meanwhile, upstairs, in the offices
Secretaries in long white coats
And horn-rimmed spectacles,
Carrying clipboards,
Would cross their legs
And take dictation:

‘Miss Brown, a memo please,
To the eminent Professor Levchenko,
“Many thanks indeed
For all those sachets you sent to me,
Of homeless toddlers’ teeth.”’

If homelessness were genetic
Rats from broken homes
Would sleep in cardboard shoeboxes
Evading violent fathers,
Who broke their bones,
While small white mice
With cocaine habits
Would huddle in fear,
Sleeping in doorways,
Receiving calibrated kicks from gangs of passers-by

(A “gene-environment interaction”).

If homelessness were genetic
Then the limping man, with swollen feet,
A fever,
And the voices crying out within his brain
Would not traipse
Between surgery and casualty
Being turned away
For being roofless

Because, of course,
Homelessness would be genetic

And, therefore,