Saturday, 25 June 2011

Wittgenstein's 1940s conversations on Freud

Gloria and I met up with Michael, who is doing our philosophy and mental health course, last week in our local pub, to think about a possible essay topic on Wittgenstein’s response to Freud. Sadly both he and I were a bit disappointed on re-reading the Cyril Barrett edited collection (Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief) just how thin, uneven and mixed were the comments on Freud. (A couple of interesting thoughts. Wittgenstein contests Freud’s idea that Freudian theory would be unpopular or unappealing. The opposite is true, LW suggests. Also, despite the ubiquity of sexual themes in the interpretations, there are few explicitly sexual dreams “Yet these are common as rain” Wittgenstein observes.)

What I think both Michael and I expected, and is there in part, is a criticism that Freud illicitly blurs a scientific reading of his project (as a set of empirical generalisations about the working of the mind) with a more hermeneutic view. As one might expect, Wittgenstein does not so much directly contest the idea that there might be a scientific psychoanalysis as criticise the actual project (not ‘Project’, I hasten to add) as somehow internally inconsistent. It can’t both trade in symbols as a kind of literary criticism and also be scientific. (‘He has not given a scientific explanation of the ancient myth. What he has done is to propound a new myth. The attractiveness of the suggestion... is just the attractiveness of a mythology.’ [ibid: 51]) But this thought is only partly articulated.

What is more of a surprise, and I think it was Gloria who put her finger on this, is that Wittgenstein is as forgiving as he is about the symbolic interpretation aspect. Now he does say: ‘Freud remarks on how, after the analysis of it, the dream appears so very logical. And of course it does. You could start with any of the objects on this table which certainly are not put there through your dream activity and you could find that they all could be connected in a pattern like that; and the pattern would be logical in the same way.’ [ibid: 51]

Still, in general in these remarks, he seems quite happy to concede that there’s something OK in itself about this style of interpretation. It is only in conflict with the idea that it is scientific. But, given for example the comment just quoted, that seems in an odd tension with the rest of Barrett’s collection in which Wittgenstein grants that aesthetic and religious language answer only to standards internal to those language games but, because they do so answer, they have a kind of objectivity. Given some of the comments in play on Freud, I would have expected the thought that, had psychoanalitic interpretation so answered to standards, it would have had its own objectivity. But it does not and thus so much the worse for Freudian theory. But that does not seem quite to happen here.

On misunderstanding Miro's iconography

A work trip to London this week gave me a chance to catch the Miro exhibition at Tate Modern. (In addition: the Schiller play at the Donmar Warehouse: fine production but somehow familiar and irritating plot.)

The exhibition has a broad historical sweep: from early paintings such as The Farm to late burnt canvases. Whilst it is never going to be as impressive as the Fundacio in Barcelona and has fewer gloriously playful works, although this may be matter of perception (see below), there is a strong sense of historical coherence.

But the most striking aspect of the exhibition for me was a feature of the curator’s notes. The historical sweep of the works is mirrored by an account of the political context in which Miro worked. The rise of fascism in Spain, for example, forced Miro’s move towards realism in Still Life with Old Shoe. The notes read: “He went into exile in France in late 1936 but the Civil War dominated all aspects of his work. Still Life with Old Shoe is the key oil painting of this moment, capturing the sense of disjuncture even in mundane objects. It is both everyday and wildly disconcerting.”

Thus we learn of a picture in which what I would previously have thought to be a whimsical and friendly little Miro bird with a Ready Brek glow was painted at a time when Miro was increasingly following, and worried about, the battle for air supremacy and itself represented the horrors of aerial bombardment. Whether this is really supported, quotations go some distance to showing the extent to which Miro himself took his paintings to be commentaries on the very serious matters of the time. It is not so much the works themselves but the works juxtaposed with this depressing political backstory which seems wildly disconcerting.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Recent developments for naturalising the mind

(This is now out in Current Opinion in Psychiatry.)

The philosophy of mind and psychiatry seem to be complementary disciplines investigating the same central issues. What is the nature of the mind, of the brain and body, and of their relation? And indeed much of the work of both disciplines is concerned with those central issues.

Over the last fifty years, philosophy has evolved a number of broad theories of the nature of the connection. They have ranged from the Churchlands’ eliminativist denial that there are mental states in favour merely of brain states [Churchland 1989], through forms of type-type reductionism such as type-type identity physicalism, which identifies types of mental state with types of physical state; behaviourism, which identifies types of mental state with types of behavioural state and functionalism, which identifies types of mental state with types of second order functional state [Fulford et al 2005: 613-66]. These last three approaches all aim to shed light on the mental in other terms (physical, behavioural and functional). They all face the challenge of avoiding, in Ned Block’s terms, chauvinism and liberalism (ruling out possible minds or allowing in too much) [Block 1980].

More modestly, Donald Davidson’s anomalous monism identifies each token mental event with a physical event (they are one and the same event) [Davidson 1980]. But what unites different mental tokens as instances of the same mental type (a shared kind of belief or sensation) is not given a physical reduction but rather explained through links to an irreducible rational pattern. Finally, there are positions which attempt no such reduction of the mental to the physical often emphasising the irreducibility of the qualitative aspects of mental lives – their qualia – or their intentionality or mental content.

One position in this debate which, whilst still not mainstream within straight philosophy of mind has enjoyed popularity within the philosophy of psychiatry is enactivism, discussed in two recent summaries [Drayson 2009, Potter 2010]. Its starting assumption is to stress the embodied, extended, embedded and enactive nature of the human mind and to use bodily interactions with the natural environment to account for features of the mind including both intentionality and qualitative aspects of experience. It contrasts with the still dominant orthodoxy of representationalist theories of mind which postulates mental representations characterised in information processing terms to carry (as ‘vehicles’) or encode mental content running on the brain as a kind of computer. Although varying in its explanatory aims, enactivist approaches share the assumption that the mind is extended beyond the boundaries of the skull. (One way in which enactivism cannot be easily be mapped onto the debate discussed in this review is that it concerns not the extra-cranial constitution of mental content but rather the extra-cranial mechanisms that carry or encode that content.)

I suspect that the popularity of enactivism in the philosophy of psychiatry is that it promises a translation between traditions. There has been continuity within European psychiatry between descriptive psychopathology and the philosophical tradition of phenomenology, exemplified in the work of Merleau Ponty, by a stress on embodiment. Work by Stanghellini and Fuchs are examples of this philosophically and phenomenologically informed approach to understanding psychopathology [Stanghellini 2004; Fuchs 2009]. In the UK and USA books by Ratcliffe and Gallagher also draw on phenomenology whilst also engaging with Anglo-American analytic philosophy [Ratcliffe 2008, Gallagher 2005]. Since enactivism shares with recent phenomenology assumptions about the role of the body but has been developed to address the agenda in Anglo-American analytic philosophy of mind, it promises to be a bridge between that and the problems of understanding psychopathology.

If the problem of understanding the relation between mind and body is made more difficult by the challenge of either accounting for (or somehow dismissing) the qualitative aspects of experience and its intentionality, some recent developments have challenged some assumptions about these aspects. In this review, I will focus on the latter issue starting first with accounts which attempt to locate mental states in nature by reducing them and then mentioning an alternative non-reductionist form of naturalism.

The orthodox approach to shedding light on the intentionality of mental states is remains representationalism of which Jerry Fodor’s early work was a very clear statement [Fodor 1987]. He combined the idea that the systematicity and compositionality of thought is explained by structured mental representations or symbols in a language of thought with a variant of a causal theory of how the symbols come to have worldly content or reference: the asymmetric dependence theory which is designed to explain how false thought or misrepresentation is so much as possible.

Fodor’s recent book, LOT 2: The Language of Thought Revisited, restates and develops this picture taking what he calls ‘pragmatism’ as the key target, the idea that thought’s key role is action rather than representation ‘So, one of the ways in which LOT 2 differs from LOT 1 is in the single-mindedness with which it identifies pragmatism as the enemy par excellence of Cartesian realism about mental states’ [Fodor 2008].

An alternative form of representationalism accounts for the possibility of falsity not merely through a complex causal mechanism, or what typically causes a representation, but through the idea of biological or proper function and thus what the representation is biologically designed to represent. This approach – teleosemantics – came to prominence through the work of Millikan who distinguishes between biologically mechanisms which produce representations, such as perceptual systems, and mechanisms which ‘consume’ them [Millikan 1984]. These might include mechanisms designed for predator evasion. It is the contribution that the representation makes to the consumer mechanism that determines its content: such as representing the presence of a predator.

This is an ongoing research programme [Macdonald and Papineau 2006]. But it has recently received a substantial and sustained criticism which threatens to undermine the key idea of mental representations deployed to explain the everyday intentionality of mental states.

Challenges to representationalism
In a summary of attempts to naturalise content through the idea of biological representations, Peter Godfrey-Smith expresses pessimism. ‘I doubt that teleosemantics, or any theory like it, will deliver the direct, reductive, puff-of-papal smoke solution that the 1980s literature envisaged’ [Godfrey-Smith 2006: 66]. His reason is that 30 years of philosophical theorising has delivered something in the same area but more basic.
‘One of the intuitions that has driven teleosemantics is the idea that rich biological concepts of function pick out a special kind of involvement relation between parts of organisms and their environments. Edging even closer to the semantic domain, there is a kind of specificity or directness that an evolved structure can have towards an environmental feature that figures in its selective history… But this relation is found in many cases that do not involve representation or anything close to it.’ [ibid: 60]

A more general critique of reductionist accounts of mental content is provided by William Ramsey in his book Representation Reconsidered [Ramsey 2007]. Ramsey points out that a lesson from the history of the philosophy of mind is that, as Dan Dennett noted, it is nearly always possible to describe physical processes in representational terms but it is never necessary. Just as one can avoid biological descriptions by describing biological systems in lower level physical and chemical terms, so representational terms need not be used. What then justifies the use of representational terms for complex systems? What is the explanatory benefit? Ramsey calls this the ‘job description challenge’. He argues that all the dominant approaches to explaining intentionality fail this test.

Take the case of a Venus fly trap which, according to Fred Dretske’s teleosemantic analysis, is supposed to have an internal trigger which responds to movement and thus signals the presence of insects [Dretske 1988]. Drekske says ‘there is every reason to think that this internal trigger was selected for its job because of what it indicated, because it told the plant what it needed to know.’ [ibid: 20]. But Ramsey asks why we need think of this in representational terms in addition to thinking that because of the lawlike connection between movement and plant closure plants with the trigger would be selected. ‘[T]here is no reason to think that structures recruited because their states have the property of being nomically dependent on some condition are also recruited because they carry information about that condition’ [Ramsey 2007: 135]. This mirrors the case of the firing pin in a gun which bridges the gap between pulling the trigger and firing the round. That lawlike connection is why the pin is part of the design. But there is no reason to think that the firing pin is a representation of anything.

Dan Hutto draws support from such criticisms of the attempt to locate representational content at sub-personal levels in his version of enactivism: ‘radical enactivism’ [Hutto 2010]. Arguing that other forms, such as Alva Noë’s, illicitly smuggle in sub-personal cognitive notions, his own builds in no assumption that content or meaning can play a role lower than the level of whole people [Noë 2004]. Nevertheless, he still wishes to appeal to some notion of primitive normative directedness: a kind of teleosemiotics which offers continuity between non-linguistic animals and humans. But how exactly the enactivist view of extended and embedded cognition contributes to making intentional content at the level of whole people less mysterious remains a matter of debate.

Challenges to interpretivism
Although reductionist naturalism is the dominant approach to meaning or content, there is another approach to locating meaning in nature which is to subscribe to a picture in which there are distinct and somewhat independent levels. Thus, in the tradition of Jaspers, whilst brain events are susceptible to scientific and lawlike explanation, mental events including the speech, action and experiences of whole people, are subject to understanding, which fits them into rational patterns.

This general approach has come under scrutiny in the philosophy of psychiatry, recently. Dominic Murphy, for example, has attempted to show how Marr’s threefold distinction between levels - computational theory, representation and algorithm, hardware implementation: [Marr 1982: 25] - can be applied to psychiatric explanation.

Murphy points out that Marr thinks of the levels in epistemic terms: as different ways of understanding the same system. One can determine its goals, the algorithm by which it determines those goals or the physical set up which implements that algorithm. But one might think of them as describing distinct forms of organisation in nature or distinct causal structures pitched at different ontological levels: ‘higher levels are made up of lower level things, and at each level things interact with each other rather than with things at lower levels’ [Murphy 2008: 103].

In psychiatry, however, neither of these pictures is quite right, according to Murphy, because there are different systems operating at different levels, unlike the epistemic view, but the different levels interact, unlike the latter view. Thus whilst Marr’s description of levels suggest that they are partly independent (the computational level constrains but does not determine the causal mechanisms that implements it), Murphy suggests that in psychiatry causes described at one level will have effects at another so that useful generalisations will cross levels.

John Campbell is more radical and argues that the very idea multi-level model of explanation in psychiatry results from a pre-Humean assumption about the intelligibility of relations tracked in causal explanation [Campbell 2008, 2009]. He gives, as an example, a discussion of thought insertion by Christopher Frith. Frith claims that whether or not inappropriate firings of dopamine neurons are found in subjects who experience thought insertion, that fact cannot be used to explain their experiences as it would shed no light on why that kind of symptom, rather than another, was produced by such firing. To shed light, Frith assumes, we need an account pitched at a particular level: in Frith’s case that of a sub-personal but still cognitive model of mechanisms supposedly responsible for thought insertion.

Campbell suggests that the assumption that there is a right level of explanation which clarifies things in the way Frith desires is the result of a pre-Humean view of causal explanation. Resisting the idea that the right kind of cause and effect have to be intelligibly, rather than merely brutely, related undercuts the motivation for the levels of explanation picture.

Just as we find it natural to expect there to be an intelligible mechanism underpinning material causal connections – even if this assumption lacks any genuine a priori justification – so Campbell also suggests that in the case of mental causation we expect there to be a rational connection between propositional attitudes. The rational link between two propositional attitudes is our paradigm of a mental causal mechanism. Again, however, whilst the idea that mental causation is underpinned by rational connections is natural and compelling, it lacks a priori justification.

Weakening the requirement on rationality also promises to ease the problem of account for delusions. If rationality is at the heart of interpretability and if that is at the heart of mentality, what are we to make of the apparently mental and apparently non-rational psychopathological experiences and states?

In her recent book Delusions and Other Irrational Beliefs, Lisa Bortolotti draws a key distinction between ‘conformity with’ and ‘subscription to’ norms of rationality [Bortolotti 2010]. If we assume that radical interpretation is tied to the first (as a methodological and thus a constitutive thesis) there are problems with real cases of inconsistency. If we retreat to subscription, we can defend actual inconsistency at the ground level but then, if subscription doesn’t imply in general conformity, it is no help in the ascription of mentality . So Bortolotti concludes that if there is no connection between subscription and conformity then the link between rationality and the ascription of mentality is lost. Further, drawing on empirical work on the reasoning of those not suffering from delusional states, Bortolotti argues that this is entirely plausible.

The question both of Campbell’s and Bortolotti’s criticism of the assumption of the role of rationality raise, however, is how light is shed on the mental in general without it. Placing utterances, actions and other states and experiences in a rational pattern seems to be a good way to shed light on what it is about them that counts as expressive of minds. Indeed, an extreme example of this wide view is Michael Thompson’s Life and Action which connects philosophy of mind exemplified in debate about what makes something an action with broader concepts of morally charged social practices and the nature of life itself [Thompson 2010]. In complete contrast to a reductionist focus on the micro-structure of our minds, Thompson looks to the broader context in which we live our life, act and pursue morally charged practices. But this leaves the challenge of how this broader canvas can be related back to psychiatry.

Bermúdez, J.L. (2005) Philosophy of Psychology, London: Routledge
Block, N. (1980) ‘Troubles with functionalism’ in Block, N. (ed) Readings in Philosophy of Psychology, London: Methuen.
Bortolotti, L. (2010) Delusions and Other Irrational Beliefs, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Campbell, J. (2008) ‘Causation in psychiatry’ in Kendler, K. S. and Parnas, J. (eds) Philosophical Issues in Psychiatry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press
Campbell, J. (2009) ‘What does rationality have to do with psychological causation? Propositional attitudes as mechanisms and as control variables’ in Bortolotti, L. and Broome, M. (eds) Psychiatry as Cognitive Neuroscience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Churchland, P. (1989) A Neurocomputational Perspective: the nature of mind and the structure of science, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Davidson, D. (1980) Essays on Actions and Events, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Drayson, Z. (2009) ‘Embodied Cognitive Science and Its Implications for Psychopathology’ Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology 16: 329-40
Dretske, F. (1988) Explaining Behavior, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press
Fodor, J. (1987) Psychosemantics: the problem of meaning in the philosophy of mind, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Fodor, J. (2008) LOT 2: The Language of Thought Revisited, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Frith, C. (1992) The Cognitive Neuropsychology of Schizophrenia, Erlbaum
Fuchs, T. (2009) ‘Embodied cognitive neuroscience and its consequences for psychiatry’ Poiesis and Praxis 6:219-233
Gallagher, S. (2005). How the Body Shapes the Mind, New York: Oxford University Press
Godfrey-Smith P. (2006) ‘Mental Representation and Naturalism’ in Macdonald, G. and Papineau, P. (eds) Teleosemantics, Oxford: Oxford University Press pp. 42-68
Hutto, D. (2010) ‘Radical Enactivism and Narrative Practice: Implications for Psychopathology’ in Fuchs, T., Henningsen, P., Sattel, H. (eds) Coherence and Disorders of the Embodied Self, Stuggart: Schattauer pp43-66.
Marr, D. (1982) Vision, San Francisco: W. H. Freeman
Millikan, R.G. (1984) Language, thought and other biological categories, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press
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Noë A. (2004) Action in Perception. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press
Potter, N. (2010) ‘Recent developments in philosophy of mind and psychopathology’ Current Opinion in Psychiatry 23: 542-545
Ramsey, W.M. (2007) Representation Reconsidered, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Ratcliffe, M. (2008) Feelings of Being: Phenomenology, Psychiatry and the Sense of Reality, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Stanghellini, G. (2004) Disembodied Spirits and Deanimated Bodies, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Thompson, M. (2008) Life and Action: Elementary structures of practice and practical thought, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press
Woodward, J. (2003) Making things Happen, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Sunday, 19 June 2011

The gap between actors and characters

Stuck in a gap between trains home, Gloria and I popped into the Forum and fell to discussing being in the audience of live events. She described listening to a difficult Beethoven piano concerto – it may have been the Emperor – and taking some pleasure in the thrill of the achievement of playing it itself: of getting through it correctly (whatever else would also be involved). I can understand that as an issue but not an issue for pleasure. As soon as there’s any doubt about technical competency (or in the case she was describing, the ratio of it to difficulty), my pleasure drops. And, as part of the same attitude, Gloria suggested that were something to go wrong, she’d want to hear the piece through again. A perfect one off achievement is key. That latter thought I share.

By contrast, a few years ago I saw an RSC production at the Swan, possibly a history, in which suddenly the characters / actors in their regal garb were joined, disorientatingly, by a woman in jeans and a headset who told us that a member of the audience had suffered some sort of seizure and there would be a short break while the paramedics carried him out and off to hospital. A couple of minutes later, the actors resumed, picking things up from just before the interruption. Aesthetically, however, the interruption didn’t bother me at all.

In the last few weeks I’ve seen a few contrasting performances. Since the Jacobi Lear in Glasgow, there’s been a play about Fred Dibnah at the Bolton Octogan (an explanation of the cultural phenomenon on which the play was based to anyone not living in the UK in the 1980s would require the full resources of Travisian occasionalism); The Price at the Lancaster Round (£5 standing on the stormiest of nights; and another play in which the first act serves no obvious plot function but rather, causally, prepares the audience to be able to hear the second half correctly); and Dunsinane in Edinburgh (an oddly balanced play but with a smashing performance by Siobhan Redmond; easier to see in Edinburgh to have the mocking humour defused by the laughter of a largely Scottish audience). In thinking critically about the plays and performances, I realise that I have an oddly shifting gestalt experience of the realm of acting and the realm of character. I watch plays without a full suspension of disbelief. And hence no more than momentary disruption if there is an unscheduled break in the action: if contingencies intervene.

By contrast, in for example watching good films, my attitude to the actors is as to their characters. Hence a kind of bodily anxiety for the fate in No Country for Old Men of Carla Jean Moss at the end. But there’s no problem in watching Darrell D'Silva and Katie Stephens in the RSC Antony and Cleopatra (pictured) earlier this year and seeing them performing their characters. There doesn’t seem to be a gap between actor and role but there is a distinction. Perhaps it is – to hint at the familiar issue of cover versions – because the performance is an instance of a universal: a dated particular which instantiates a play to which I can return. On the night, we simply get what happens on that night with the actors responding, including, possibly, to audience members having attacks.

I think I would have the same attitude to popular forms of music but not, eg., the Emperor. Perhaps because it is part of the craft of jazz, say, that contingency is embraced and that includes the local facts of the night it is. By contrast, I can’t shake the idea that one’s attitude to classical music is sub specie aeternitatis.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Changes to Collins and Evans' Periodic Table of Expertise

Harry Collins writes:

For the better part of a year we, at Cardiff, have been mulling over the Periodic Table with a view to creating a 'second edition' but we weren't intending to say anything much about it.

Events at S5, however, particularly the contribution of the Argumentation theorists, made it sensible to have a short unscheduled discussion of it. The result was that everyone agreed that some additional categories were sensible but people were unsatisfied with the rearrangment that had been suggested. So I have put up some of what emerged on the website [HERE] in the form of a PowerPoint presentation.

We throw this out for discussion and nothing sudden is planned. Modifying the PTE is a serious thing and we won't do it for a good while and then only after long discussions and only if widely thought necessary.

In due course we will also put up an account of SEESHOP5 and something about 'The Campaign for Real Argument'.


Monday, 13 June 2011

Report from SEESHOP 5

I’ve spent a delightful couple of days in Cardiff as a guest of Harry Collins and Rob Evans’ SEESHOP 5. In case it is of broader interest, I’ve transcribed my rough notes below. Whilst in general its main concerns are not mine and I am embarrassed in such circumstances how little I properly research the empirical issues on tacit knowledge, it seems very helpful to get a kind of snapshot of this empirical programme.

William Thomas kicked off with an overview of history’s interest in Wave 2 social science (STS) and a suggestion that history could borrow more recent work on expertise to examine, for example, the development of operational research in the bringing of science to bear on the war effort in WWII.

Theresa Schilhab addressed a worry stemming from the relation between interactional and contributory expertise. The former involves the kind of non-coal-face expertise of people who lack a particular concrete skill but can still discuss the skill as though they had it. This suggests that they have appropriate conceptual mastery even if there are related things they cannot do. But she was worried that this might be challenged through brain imaging results.

She began by commenting that enactivism has come to dominate thinking about the neurological underpinnings of conceptual mastery. She then discussed a couple of empirical examples of brain imaging. First, it indicates brain activity in areas responsible for smelling cinnamon, for example, is found in those merely thinking of it. Second, different areas of the brain are involved in thinking about objects which were, as a matter of fact, manipulable and those not for subjects prompted to sort objects not according to this but rather another distinction. She used this to motivate the problem: if activity or direct experience underpins conceptual mastery, and if one person has not had the relevant practical experience whilst another has, how could they have the same concept (eg of cinnamon)? Translated into the context of SEESHOP, what of someone with practical and interactional expertise versus someone with just the latter?

Her suggestion was that early life establishes a basic set of concepts and that subsequent ability to think, for example, abstract thoughts was based on this foundation. This seemed a modern retread of Lockean empiricism. It did prompt the question in my mind: what mediates the process of abstraction from early concrete thoughts to later abstract thoughts? Is that process itself conceptually mediated and if so what explains the possession of the concepts involved in the translation (concepts that permit the generation of an abstract concept from a concrete concept)?

But the way the worry was set out seemed to me just a mistake. If we think that brain activity is constitutive of conceptual mastery, it might follow. But the brain imaging results don’t establish that constitutive claim (that the brain activity just is the conceptual mastery) nor an enactivist version of it (which is what was initially flagged). A representationalist, for example, could accommodate the imaging data so it alone does not support enactivism. (Who is to say what the semantic significance of the brain activity is? Perhaps it is an interesting output of thinking the thought.) Nor does it support the constitutive reading since one might simply say the observed brain activity is some part of the causal underpinning of a conceptual mastery. But if it is merely part of a locally sufficient causal story (ie sufficient given our make up), then differences in brain activity between the active and the indolent need not have any implications for concept individuation (this is just multiple realizability in the philosophy of mind applied to concept possession). My hunch is that the underlying worry would need something like an enactivist or other practical account of concept mastery tying concept possession directly to contributory skills rather than this detour via brain imaging.

Robert Crease (pictured) discussed the recent history of worries that particle accelerators might destroy the world and the interestingly different responses made to those by scientists. For example, should they be rebutted by theoretical or empirical arguments? (Such as: ‘the same conditions would have occurred on the moon but it’s still there, albeit with some large holes’ versus ‘theory rules it out’. Sadly scientists in their careful way tended to say merely that such catastrophic results were ‘implausible’.)

Perhaps the most optimistic element of his account was his description of the Daily Show’s take. They filmed the ‘point: counter-point’ structure of the scientists and a particularly influential horticulturally grounded scaremonger in such a way that it displayed the context: the madness of turning the choice of whom to trust to the media. But the lingering question was how such questions should, in general, be assessed, of whether one should simply assume trust in the scientists or hand it over to non-scientific lawyers was central to the SEESHOP agenda.

(Darrin Durant suggested that a particular answer could be given by addressing whether, in the context, the scientists concerned were implicated in a politics one does not want. In the case of black hole creation there seems no particular reason to be suspicious of their motives. By comparison, the politics of the science of nuclear waste, he suggested, were highly suspect. I wasn’t sure why politics should play this role rather than any other potentially distorting factor. One could say that one should examine whether, in the context, there is reason to have doubts. Later over dinner Darrin explained why it was a matter of politics but this margin is too small to contain his convincing answer.)

Mark Addis reported on an AHRC funded project of being a resident philosopher in the construction industry. The background was two recent reports on the under performance of UK construction: eg poor business models, lack of capacity, talent, purpose, leadership but also only 3% profit on projects and a general lack of trust. One response to this from government policy was a trend towards increasing IT involvement and away from expertise (although this move is contested by industry bodies). Similarly the Construction Skills Council had called on the adoption of an approach called ‘lean construction’ despite the controversy about what it means and whether it should be adopted.

His project’s aims included both ground level issues for improving construction industry but also meta-level reflection on how this reflected back on philosophy including impact. The method included inter alia identifying problematic assumptions about knowledge and organisation and the aim to replace a model of construction activity which starts with knowledge predating thinking about doing predating doing with a rival account starting with doing, a narrative of the outcomes leading to a new explanation of doing.

Nicolas Schunck attempted to locate a notion of ‘commonness’ behind the idea of collective tacit knowledge a kind of collective lack of disagreement rather than explicit agreement. This might be an interesting idea but he wanted to approach it through a worry about language: that language articulates ‘immediacy’ in such a way that distances us from or distorts what was pre-articulated: ‘commonness’. But his account of what was added was just the conceptualisation. To talk of a storm moving thus and so adds storm individuation, movement, a direction etc. But why that was a distortion wasn’t clear. Surely the notion of distortion would only be falsity at the level of articulation? And what went missing seemed to be simply its not-being-articulated status.

The problem though was that he then wanted to break the rules of his own game and say something about the pre-articulated, to compare it with the articulated (by saying that things were added or subtracted), to persuade us of the distortions. If he were right, however, he would be in no position to do this. Taken seriously, his position would surely collapse back into every day (empirical) realism. That is all we have access to, by his own rules. (He did suggest that we had a glimpse of the pre-articulated in what changed when someone says of a cosy social setting: this is nice. If only philosophical insight / gesturing at the preconceptual was just a matter of hanging out in socially awkward ways: my career would have been so much better.)

Harry Collins described what he called the ‘domain specific discrimination’ of physicists. He’d been sent a paper from an academic physicist, published in a radical physics journal, which argued that the current multi-million dollar industry aimed at detecting gravity waves could not work. He had sent this to a number of highly reputable physicists and asked them whether they would read or generally take seriously such a paper. It turned out that they would not although none offered a technical argument against the paper. They would instead rely on a judgement that the paper had too many ‘markers of crankness’. But, argued Harry, that is an essential recognitional skill given the number of new papers. The anti-relativity industry, he suggested, had had enough time to make an impact but has not been successful.

There followed three papers on what’s apparently called ‘argumentation studies’ (AS) and its relation to SEE. Gabor Kutrovatz outlined various normative approaches to assessing expertise. He had examined blogs in Hungary discussing both the issue of whether the moon landings were faked and the issue of H1N1 vaccination and counted the kinds of moves made by participants. Few used structural arguments compared with both simple deference to experts or pretending expertise themselves. Gabor Zemplen outlined how an AS approach could be applied to codify Newton’s changing views of the physics of colour. Jean Goodwin outlined what she thought was a model of a way to provide a reason for members of the public to trust experts whose expertise they could not directly assess. Within a kind of black box model of interaction of citizen and expert she proposed a ‘blackmail and bond transaction’ in which the expert has both to be explicit, provide an explicit account of their expertise and undertake to stand in risk of loss of status. As Rob Evans pointed out, however, her black box contained only one expert and thus didn’t address the deep problem of conflicting experts. As was also pointed out, trust and accountability can be opposed and this seemed to be a model of the latter.

Sadly at this point my netbook ran out of steam. I recall that Mike Gorman described the experiences of a couple of humanities students working in science labs and Evan Selinger and Andrew Berardy outlined a proposal to use TFL teaching techniques to teach students interactional expertise in thermodynamics in order to address issues in sustainability. One interesting nugget was that thermodynamics has a kind of generally accepted codified exam in its conceptual mastery. They proposed to add the imitation game to that to test tacit knowledge.

I gave a paper exploring my worries about balancing the tacit and the knowledge statuses of tacit knowledge and got some interesting questions. One worry I did take away both from that session and from the workshop as a whole was this. More than once ‘tacit’ seemed to be opposed not to ‘explicit’ but ‘explicable’ and that is surely a mistake (a mistake of not distinguishing between sense and reference). (Cf my earlier worries about robots and cycling here.)

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Zeno's Coffeehouse

Here is a link to Zeno's Coffeehouse. The site says:

Zeno of Elea, a pre-Socratic philosopher, was born about 490 B.C. His style of argument was to assume, provisionally, the position of the opponent, and then to derive impossible conclusions from it, thus establishing the absurdity of the assumption. In the spirit of this Reductio Ad Absurdum dialectical approach to critical thinking, our Coffeehouse activities will tackle from time to time so-called 'common sense views,' analyzed critically.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Cultural narrative and ideology

Running through my email this morning before starting the day I realise I have so much work that has to be done quite quickly that it is hard to prioritise and thus to start any of it. So here’s something that doesn’t have to be done urgently and yet appeals rather more, an email from a colleague:

Hi Tim
I was sent this question from one of my PhD students in Australia and I thought it would be something that would set you thinking:
Do you know what the difference might be between a cultural narrative and an ideology?
As ever, answers on a postcard!
Dr Bernie Carter
Professor of Children's Nursing

Well as is obvious from previous posts, I have the no expertise on this sort of thing and no proprietary rights on how any of the key words ought to be used (such as the rights that might accrue from having popularised a fruitful way to speak of ‘narrative’ or ‘ideology’). But what might the differences be? Or, perhaps better, what would one want a difference to do?

Assuming that there’s something right about the sociologist Daniel Bell’s description of action oriented political beliefs to capture the nature of an ideology, how does that line up with what a cultural narrative might be? Two thoughts spring to mind as to how one might weight that phrase. First, putting weight on ‘narrative’ might be to stress the idea that it is something that is actually told or repeated. Second one might stress its role in cultural identity.

So, a narrative repeated to forge an identity. One example of that might be Old Testament accounts of the tribes of Israel. There seems much evidence that such stories were told and retold and served to rationalise who the tellers and hearers were in eschatological terms. Another might be the way history seems to have been lived as present in Northern Ireland to keep alive both rival community identities and to maintain a set of ongoing, but historically grounded, grievances.

A third example is the repetition of John Major’s thought (or at least a thought like this one) “Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and, as George Orwell said, 'Old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’ and, if we get our way, Shakespeare will still be read even in school.” I suspect that almost no part of this is generally true of Britain (‘warm beer’ for example, suggests that John Major didn’t actually drink real ale) but it serves – for some at least – as a kind of cultural ideal.

I could imagine that a culture or community or population could frame a cultural narrative in the terms of a political ideology: a country, perhaps, in the grip of a social revolution seeing the revolution as a kind of teleological inevitability. But in the main, surely ideology and cultural narrative will look quite different? No UK political party has explicitly campaigned for cricket grounds, warm beer and bicycling old maids (it is always the economy, stupid). But John Major clearly wanted us implicitly to associate preserving the values linked to that list with his party.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

"It is impossible to generalise knowledge from one individual subjective case"

Having met Stephen Tilley at the Mad Activism workshop at UCLan, he sent me his edited book: Tilley, S. (2005) Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing: The Field of Knowledge, Oxford: Blackwell and I’ve been slowly browsing through it. It is an interesting book for a variety of reasons but one of which is a kind of failure. (Though as Dylan sang: ‘There’s no success like failure. And failure’s no success at all.’)

Tilley obviously intended the book to represent views of what makes nursing knowledge characteristic according to a number of different institutions (which it does) but also for authors representing those differing views and institutions to enter into some kind of dialogue by reading each others’ chapters and having a series of commentaries. The judgement of some of the non-UK commentators and, I think, Tilley himself, is that that didn’t happen. The book ends with some discussion of why not.

But one theme which does seem to crop up in a number of places is the issue of the unity or not of nursing knowledge and – relatedly – its distinctness from other forms. The Institute of Psychiatry view, according to one chapter, is that there is simply psychiatric knowledge to which nursing can contribute.

The most explicit statement of at least the possibility of a contrary view is expressed by a German commentator Susanne Schoppman who suggests that the various chapters express different but possibly complementary views (of course if they are indeed sources of knowledge, they must be complementary) from:
  • natural science, 
  • social science, 
  • psychoanalysis, 
  • humanities, 
  • subjective individual case.
Of all but the last, she says: ‘It is possible to discuss and argue about the validity and generalisability of a certain knowledge. However it is clear that knowledge generated in this way is always theoretical, textbook knowledge. Whereas it is impossible to generalise knowledge from one individual subjective case’ [ibid: 210].

This I think goes to the heart of my worries about the Mad Activism workshop (eg about worries about validating individual experience in a PhD viva) and in general about a too quick ascription of knowledge by experience. There is of course something worrying about small sample sizes. Even Wittgenstein comments:

If I say of myself that it is only from my own case that I know what the word "pain" means—must I not say the same of other people too? And how can I generalize the one case so irresponsibly? [Wittgenstein 1953 §293]

But the worry in the quotation from Schoppman seems instead to be that there is something essentially ungeneralisable from ‘subjective individual cases’ whilst at the same time they do afford a kind of knowledge. What can that knowledge be? I suspect: knowledge of what it is like to have some particular experience. But not even hypothetical Mary’s experience of the what-it-is-like-ness of red when she emerges from her black and white prison since that can be shared by all enjoying a view of the same tomato.

That, I think, pushes the nature of knowledge to the limit. It is acquired automatically and without epistemic effort. (That is not to say that there is no effort involved in living the life that gives rise to it.) Best I think not to call it ‘knowledge’ but ‘experience’ and legislate that it is never correct English to say that such experiences are sharable. They are always tokens, never types. But once we’ve said that, we have, again, left debates about nursing knowledge, or knowledge of rival other forms, behind.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Philosophy for Nursing at UCLan

I have been drawing up a programme of philosophy for nursing here at UCLan. It may not be picked up by my managers but in case it is of interest to others, my rough notes are here.


Contemporary nursing is increasingly challenging. But it is not merely technologically, scientifically or empirically testing. It is also conceptually difficult. An increasingly technological approach to intervention in and management of illness has also to be balanced with an ethics of care. But understanding that balance is not itself a matter for technology, nor ethics, alone.

Future – especially graduate entry – nurses will need to be able to think through fundamentally difficult issues and exercise complex judgements balancing different kinds of evidence and different perspectives and values; balancing general guidelines with individual people. That calls for skills and abilities in thought and judgement underpinned by a broader understanding of the fundamental intellectual tensions within healthcare today.
This short course comprises two sibling 10 CAT modules at levels 5 and 6 on ‘Conceptual Issues in Nursing’ and ‘Reflecting on Nursing Practice’.

Conceptual Issues in Nursing examines some key issues about the target of nursing care. What is illness or disease or disorder? Does mental illness even exist? Is illness a strictly biological factual notion or does it depend on values? And if diagnosis does depend on values, does this matter? Can it be used to characterise a distinctive recovery model? If so, what kind of argument can be offered for it? How do values impact on capacity? And is coercion ever justified?

The aim of this module is to give students a greater understanding of the concepts of illness and disorder in general to complement their knowledge of specific illnesses and disorders and approaches to treatment and management of those in their care..

Reflecting on Nursing Practice concerns three broader perspectives
  • Thinking about values
  • Thinking about evidence
  • Thinking about individuals
It aims to give students greater reflective understanding of the kind of thinking necessary for good nursing practice in these three broad areas and to stimulate an interest in continuing reflection and professional development.

Both modules draw on, and reflect, the published research of the course tutor.