Monday, 16 December 2013

Schizophrenia & the nature of delusions: to believe or not to believe?, Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon

I am at a two day workshop on delusions in Lyon organised by Jean-Michael Roy (pictured) and with a focus on the doxastic versus non-doxastic distinction to which he has clearly given some considerable thought. One question raised by the relation of his conception of the general framework to individual papers by others is not so much whether the distinction can be applied but whether it is the best or most helpful distinction. I'd be interested to know, however, what might replace it if it isn't.

After a very thorough taxonomy of possible positions offered by Jean-Michel, Sean Gallagher seemed surprised and faintly disturbed to be classed as occupying a kind of doxastic position. He suggested the analogy of taking a bath: in so doing, beliefs are involved but that isn't what having a bath is mainly about. So whilst his account has implications about beliefs, he wanted to resist the doxastic label. 

In his presentation, he recapitulated the account given in his paper in the Broome and Bortolotti 2009 book which criticises both top down and bottom up accounts and sketches a more general idea of delusions as the inhabiting of a different and delusional world. This, he suggested, allowed for the description of all the standard ways in which delusions have surprising properties. But he went on, beyond that paper, to present a kind of two factor biological account, plus cultural factors to shape specific content. (The second factor being a pair of localised brain mechanisms for failing to spot cognitive errors to distinguish between healthy occasional suspension of reality whilst reading novels etc. and a more permanent delusional suspension.)

I was a little unsure about how the two themes fitted together. I guess the former picture is non-doxastic in the sense that Sean's preferred  account of access to the real world is not based on intellectual, theory-theory theorised beliefs but on a richer embodied orientation. So, to put it flippantly, he also has a non-doxastic account of beliefs. But I wasn't sure what the idea of different world really added to any agglomeration of piecemeal descriptions of delusions provided by their subjects or by clinicians. And then I wasn't sure how it related to the two (plus one) model of delusions which followed. Perhaps these are simply two independent ventures: an analysis of the nature of delusion and a suggestion for their causal explanation.

Joining us on Skype, Keith Frankish presented a thumbnail sketch of his account of delusions as acceptances. Starting with a distinction between type 1 and the 2 beliefs as:
1: behavioural dispositions which are non-conscious, accessed either by actual behaviour or sometimes by imagining what one would do and strongly subject to rational norms
2: occurrent thought which are conscious, available to verbal report, weakly subject to rational norms (slips of mind etc). (They are also controlled, discrete, binary.)

Compared to these two options, delusions look more like type 2 beliefs. But they, generally, look even more like acceptances, he argued. An acceptance is the strategy (cf of scientists or lawyers) of using propositions as premises of hypotheses but with no need actually to believe them. This picture assumes reasoning is intentional, consciously controlled and binary (like type 2 beliefs). But it can be pragmatically motivated (unlike type 2 beliefs). And it can be context relative (again unlike type 2 beliefs).
On this model, type 2 belief is thus a subset of acceptances: unrestricted, evidence-sensitive acceptance or 'doxastic acceptance'.

So the claim that delusions are acceptances amounts to either:
Option 1 doxastic acceptances.
Option 2 non-doxastic acceptances.
If option 1, then they are improperly executed doxastic acceptances ie. irrational beliefs. If 2, they were never intended to be unrestricted: rational pragmatic acceptances. As indirect evidence for this idea, Keith suggested that this picture coped well with Akrasia. 
1: the action dictated by a promising policy is incompatible with some other desirable action and
2: the desire to perform this other action outweighs the desire to carry through one's premising policy.
Similarly for delusions not motivating action. And hence this suggests new questions about, not what causes someone to believe that they are dead, but what purpose does the adoption of such an acceptance for the purposes of argument serve?

I asked whether he worried about whether subjects with delusions conceived of them as acceptances. He replied that the policies which fixed an acceptance were type 1 beliefs and desires and hence non-conscious and hence subjects did not so conceive their delusion. It slowly dawned on me that this seems to suggest something like this picture. Conscious type 2 states are the result of non-conscious type 1 states which - interestingly - are nevertheless second order (not his terminology) in so far as they are about policies for dealing with contents (so beliefs about beliefs etc). So the conscious access to type 2 seems to come out if nowhere. One discovers the nature of one's type 2 state (does this include the difference between beliefs and desires as well as doxastic and non-doxastic acceptances?) by interpreting oneself (as others do). This was a price he was prepared to pay. (Standard hermeneutic worries that I may have got hold of the wrong end of the stick apply more than usually to this account of his views, I should add.)

Just now I am listening to a talk by Patrice Soom offering a formal model based on functionalism of the claim that delusions might impact on other mental properties but not vice versa. One claimed virtue is its immunity to objections to the DSM definition such as a commitment to doxastic statement, the extrinsic characterisation. It fits the Coltheart etc two factor model. It is a brave account that any unrevisable belief is a delusion but Patrice was hip to this and embraced it is an interesting prediction of the model. Still, I can't help thinking that a question has been begged in ascribing contents - eg. that they are dead - and then adding to that the subject does odd things with that content (in this case, regards it as unrevisable). I can't help being suspicious about ever using the sentence: 'Jones thinks that she is dead'.

PS: Keith has now (18/12) sent me a substantial email correcting my understanding of his view. Once I've digested it, I will post a follow-up.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Bootstrapping conceptual normativity?

Both anti-reductionist and reductionist accounts of linguistic meaning and mental content face challenges accounting for learning a first language. Anti-reductionists cannot account for a transition from the pre-conceptual to conceptual without threatening to reduce the latter to the former. Reductionists of a representationalist variety face the challenge of Fodor’s argument that language learning is impossible.
This paper examines whether Ginsborg’s account of primitive normativity might provide some resources for addressing these issues. Rejecting her ‘no conception’ account of normativity in favour of a demonstrative, local conception provides one response to Fodor’s argument which is available to an anti-reductionist and at least a further hint as to how context-independent linguistic concepts can be developed from context-dependent local conceptions of how to go on.
The problem of concept learning
One of the challenges for an anti-reductionist account of linguistic meaning and mental content is making space for an account of concept learning. If, following John McDowell for example, one takes the space of reasons to answer to a distinct constitutive ideal from that of the realm of law, it is hard to see how the route from the latter to the former can be articulated. Any such articulation would threaten to provide – what the anti-reductionist denies – a reduction of the concepts of the space of reasons to those of the realm of law.
McDowell himself suggests that Wittgenstein’s phrase ‘light dawns gradually over the whole’ provides a natural metaphor for learning a first language ‘for one’s dealings with language to cease to be blind responses to stimuli: one comes to hear utterances as expressive of thoughts , and to make one’s own utterances as expressive of thoughts’ [McDowell 1998: 333]. But he suggests that this process cannot be limited to a few sentences but involves working one’s way ‘into a conception of the world’. Suggestive though Wittgenstein’s phrase is, it does little to shed light on how the process of language learning might come about so much as summarise, albeit neatly, the fact that some such process does come about.
Whilst anti-reductionists face a principled problem, the most striking recent philosophical argument about language learning comes from one of their reductionist opponents. In LOT2: The language of thought revisited, Jerry Fodor sets out a specific argument for the difficulty of accounting for concept acquisition [Fodor 2008]. Or rather, he argues that such language learning must be impossible.
Fodor’s argument has four steps:
1.       Concept learning is a rational process.
2.       The only plausible rational process is hypothesis formation and testing.
3.       But that requires the conceptual representation of the hypothesis, which presupposes possession of the concept to be learnt.
4.       So concept learning is impossible.
The first step contrasts learning as a rational process with any form of non-rational process of concept acquisition such as by surgical implantation, swallowing a pill or hitting one’s head against a hard surface. Fodor then argues that the only plausible candidate for such a rational process is a ‘process of projecting and confirming hypotheses about what the things that the concept applies to have in common’ [ibid: 132].
The argument for the third step is couched in the terms of Fodor’s ‘Representational Theory of Mind’ (RTM) and is, initially at least, restricted to primitive, that is non-definable, concepts.
Consider any concept that you’re prepared to accept as primitive, the concept GREEN as it might be. Then ask ‘What is the hypothesis the inductive confirmation of which constitutes the learning of that concept?’ Well, to acquire a concept is at least to know what it’s the concept of ; that is, what’s required of things that the concept applies to. So, maybe learning the concept GREEN is coming to believe that GREEN applies to (all and only) green things; it’s surely plausible that coming to believe that is at least a necessary condition for acquiring GREEN. Notice, however, that (assuming RTM) a token of the concept GREEN is a constituent of the belief that the concept GREEN applies to all and only green things. A fortiori, nobody who lacked the concept GREEN could believe this; nobody who lacked the concept GREEN could so much as contemplate believing this. A fortiori, on pain of circularity, coming to believe this can’t be the process by which GREEN is acquired. [ibid: 137-8]
And hence, he argues, no primitive concepts can be learnt. (He goes on to lift this restriction but I will ignore that move here.)
Fodor’s RTM is implicit in the way he sets out the third stage: that a token of the concept is a constituent of the belief about the extension of the concept. This reflects his idea that concept possession is explained by inner vehicles of content: mental representations. But even without RTM, it is plausible to argue that the capacity to have such a belief – however realised – presupposes possession of the concept, ascribed at the level of the person, and so the argument floats free of Fodor’s particular views.
The principled problem of describing a process of concept learning from an anti-reductionist perspective and Fodor’s specific argument that concept learning is impossible presents a two-fold challenge. Can Fodor’s argument be blocked and if so can the materials used to do that shed light on concept learning even from an anti-reductionist perspective?
Ground rules
In what follows, I will make two substantial but related assumptions. First, that concept learning is normative. Second, that it is, in some sense, a rational process.
The view that concept learning is normative might follow from the view that concept use is normative. Such a view has been espoused by Blackburn, McDowell and others. But it has recently been contested by philosophers also responding to Kripke’s argument for meaning scepticism which starts – or, at least, seems to start – by assuming that meaning is normative and then using this to undermine its factual base. McDowell’s response is to agree that the claim that meaning is normative is itself philosophically innocuous and thus seek to show how that escapes Kripke’s argument. Anti-normativists such as Hattiangadi agree that meaning is connected to a notion of correctness but deny that correctness need be a normative notion. For example if R states a rule for the correct use of a term t which applies in virtue of features f
R             (x)(t applies correctly to x ↔ x is f)
then Hattiangadi argues that this ‘simply states the correctness conditions of an expression; it does not tell me what to do’ [Hattiangadi 2007: 223]. A mere descriptive sorting does not appear to raise the problems for an account for meaning that the claim that it is normative appears to.
One of the key arguments deployed by anti-normativists is that meaning yields no clear prescriptive norm in itself. Correctness conditions, for example, do not prescribe that a true (or more broadly correct) use should be made unless also combined with a prescriptive norm that one ought to speak the truth (or more broadly correctly). And that additional norm seems too strong for specifically semantic normativity.
Nevertheless, however that debate pans out, a rational process of concept acquisition or learning does look to be normative. In this context, correctness conditions are not merely a neutral way of sorting subsequent utterances but rather constitute the aim or goal of developing linguistic competence. (This is not to say that learning must always involve practising with only true utterances, customary though that may be. Parents may, and in my experience often do, teach correct use indirectly be deliberately calling out the wrong names of objects as a kind of game.) If an anti-normativist wishes to argue that the relevant prescriptive ought applies not directly in virtue of the rules of correctness of words but an adoption of those rules as the goal of concept learning, so be it.
The second assumption is that concept learning is, in some sense, a rational process. McDowell calls the acquisition of a first language a matter of being ‘cajoled’ [ibid: 333]. It is possible that being the recipient of such cajoling is not so much a rational response as being brutely changed in such a way that one can become a rational subject and make subsequent rational responses. But I will assume that it is possible to say something about rationality of the proto-linguistic responses of a subject in such a position.
My stalking horse will be Hanna Ginsborg’s account of ‘primitive normativity’.
Ginsborg on primitive normativity
Ginsborg’s account of primitive normativity is – like many of the anti-normativists - designed as a response to Kripke’s meaning scepticism [Kripke 1982]. As Ginsborg interprets the dialectic, Kripke assumes that grasp of what one meant by a word in the past sets the standard for the correctness of one’s current use of it. Part of what justifies giving the answer ‘125’ to the question of what ‘57 plus 68 equals’ is what one has previously meant by ‘plus’. Kripke then mounts a sceptical attack on how we can now know what we did earlier mean. Perhaps by ‘plus’ we really meant quus which tracks the plus function for past usage but not the two current numbers.
In response, Ginsborg denies that to claim that one ought to say ‘125’ one needs first to establish that one previously meant addition. That one ought to say ‘125’ is independent of any assumption about past meanings. She claims: ‘I maintain that there is a sense in which you ought to say “125,” given the finite list of your previous uses, independent of what meaning, if any, those uses expressed’ [Ibid: 232-3]. Given this context, ‘primitive normativity’ is a normativity independent of, and prior to, grasp of meaning. It is located below the level of facts about meaning though still irreducibly normative. She sets out an example of a child who is able to recite numerals and has learnt to count up in twos conuting from ‘40’ with ‘42’. Ginsborg characterises a conceptual-normativist account of the child’s saying ‘42’ as follows:
[T]he child says “42” after “40” because she recognizes, although without being able to put that recognition into words, that she has been adding two and that 40 plus two is 42. Her sense of the appropriateness of what she is saying thus derives from her recognition that it fits the rule she was following: a rule which she grasps, even though she is unable to articulate it. [ibid: 238]
On this higher level view, the correctness of the move – saying ‘42’ – depends on gasping a rule governing it. Primitive normativity involves less than that. But, at the same time, it involves more than the merely reliable dispositional reactions of a suitable trained parrot. By contrast with such a parrot, that the child does not respond ‘blindly’ to her circumstances.
Even though she does not say “42” as a result of having grasped the add-two rule, nor a fortiori of having “seen” that 40 plus two is 42, she nonetheless “sees” her utterance of “42” as appropriate to, or fitting, her circumstances. [ibid: 237]
So even though the child lacks full blown conceptual mastery, she has a sense of appropriateness, fitting or belonging which merits the label ‘normativity’. The parrot lacks any such sense and hence is merely governed by dispositions not norms.
Ginsborg gives a second example of the kind of middle level behaviour. She describes a child sorting coloured objects before she has acquired determinate colour concepts.
As she puts each green object in the designated box, it is plausible that she does so with a sense that this is the appropriate thing to do. She takes it that the green spoon “belongs” in the box containing the previously sorted green things and that the blue spoon does not, just as the child in the previous example takes 42 and not 43 to “belong” after 40 in the series of numerals. But her sense of the appropriateness of what she is doing does not, at least on the face of it, depend on her taking what she is doing to accord with a rule which she was following, for example, the rule that she is to put all the green things in the same box. For her grasp of such a rule would presuppose that she already possesses the concept green. [ibid: 235]
There are two sorts of general consideration to support the idea of some sort of primitive normativity. One relates to Ginsborg’s specific dialectical context. Mere dispositions will not provide a satisfactory response to Kripke’s sceptical argument whilst full blown conceptual normativity will be vulnerable to his original argument. (This is not to say that these are clear cut but they provide a rationale for attempting to articulate a middle ground.)
The other relates back to Fodor’s argument. Mere dispositions seem to leave too much of a gap still to cross to explain how a dispositional stage might be an intermediary en route to conceptual mastery. By contrast, invoking full blown conceptual mastery to characterise the counting child is to provide no answer to the question how basic concepts can be learnt.
Nevertheless, there are two options for characterising primitive normativity based on two distinct things Ginsborg says. She says of the counting child both that:
1: ‘she lacked any conception of what her saying “42” after “40” had in common with her having said “40” after “38”’ [ibid: 234 italics added]
but also:
2: ‘it seems plausible to imagine her insisting, with no less conviction than a child who was able to cite the add-two rule, that “42” was the right thing to say after “40”: that it “came next” in the series, or “belonged” after 40, or “fit” what she had been doing previously’ [ibid: 234 italics added]
The former states that the counting child has no conception of what one move has in common with a previous move. The second allows for the possibility of some conception that the next move fits or belongs (ie does have something in common) with the previous one in context. The latter allows for a conception albeit a local one. Which does Ginsborg hold?
‘No conception’ primitive normativity
There is reason to think Ginsborg believes in the more radical, minimal version. One suggestive passage runs:
The utterance, from [the counting child’s] point of view, is not appropriate to the context in virtue of its conforming to a general rule which the context imposed on her, for example, the add-two rule. Rather, she takes it to be appropriate to the context simpliciter, in a way which does not depend for its coherence on the idea of an antecedently applicable rule to which it conforms. [ibid: 234-5]
Now one way to interpret the phrase ‘antecedently applicable rule’ is a context-independent general specification of a rule. In the context of a mathematical series, that is a plausible way of cashing out full blown conceptual normativity. And hence its rejection might allow for a merely demonstratively specified local conception of the demands of a rule. On this alternative view, whilst the child does not have a general conception of what it is to add two, cannot grasp its relation to other aspects of arithmetic for example, she can, nevertheless, recognise in some particular context that saying ‘42’ is the right move.
But the phrase ‘antecedently applicable rule’ might equally be taken to mean, and hence to rule out, any conception of a rule. If so, the context imposes a sense of what move belongs with previous moves, of what next move is right, independently of any conception the child has of what she is doing. The way the quotation continues adds to this latter impression:
This is not to deny that the normativity depends on any facts about the context, since the appropriateness of “42” depends on her having recited that particular sequence of number words. But it is to deny that her claim to the appropriateness of “42” depends on her recognition of a rule imposed by the context in virtue of the relevant facts, or a fortiori on her recognition of “42” as a correct application of the rule. [ibid: 235]
This suggests a picture according to which facts about the context external to the child’s conception of the demands of the rule nevertheless make normative demands on her. The context of having counted up to 40 makes saying ‘42’ appropriate independently of her conception of what she is doing. ‘42’ belongs to what has gone before, is thus normatively connected to it, but she does not recognise that this is the demand that the rule makes in the context.
A second passage provides a distinct argument for the ‘no conception’ view of primitive normativity on the assumption that even a local conception of what the next move is requires some grasp that this is relevantly the same as previous moves.
[T]he child’s recognition of similarity is not sufficient to account for her taking herself to be going on appropriately. She must not merely take herself to be going on the same way; she must also take it that going on the same way is the appropriate thing to do in the context, which is to say that she must grasp a rule with a content like go on the same way or do the same thing you were doing before. We are thus left with the problem of how to account for her grasp of this rule... [ibid: 240]
The argument is that grasp of sameness is insufficient for knowing how to continue. One would need to grasp the further rule that one should go on in the same way, that this is what the relevant normative demand is.
There is something to this worry. There seems little prospect of factoring grasp of a rule into grasp of sameness plus grasp that sameness is what one ought to aim at. Wittgenstein stresses that agreement is internal and relative to the particular rule [cf Wittgenstein 1953 §224]. Thus grasp of the rule and grasp of what agrees with it and hence what is relevantly the same in virtue of according with the rule goes hand in hand.
But this point applies equally to what Ginsborg does make explicit: that the child grasps that the next move fits, belongs or is appropriate to the context. Those notions are equally insufficient for going on correctly. (A rule could dictate that the next move should stand out from, rather than fitting, what has gone before.)
It seems on balance, however, that Ginsborg does subscribe to a minimal ‘no conception’ version of primitive normativity (I will return to a further strategic reason why this is so shortly). Further, she seems not to be alone. In a passage in which she discusses how little may be necessary for rule following, Julia Tanney considers the conceptual possibility of rule following without the ability to cite higher level rules, or to repeat the performance or without training. She comments:
[I]f we agree with the thought that someone might be able to solve Rubik’s Cube even if she had never been trained by anyone, then this gives us a reason to reject the idea that there must be an internal connection between the rules that govern an activity and the individual who makes the moves. We can say that it is sometimes enough to credit someone with playing the game if she acts in accordance with the rules. Knowledge (implicit or otherwise) has dropped out of the picture. To insist that someone cannot solve the puzzle unless she somehow conceives the rules (even if she cannot articulate them, even to herself) and acts in the light of her conception of the rules is simply dogmatic. What would justify such insistence? If this person were suddenly entered in a contest and produced the cube with the colours in the right places, we would not withhold the prize because she merely acted in accordance with, but did not follow, the rules. Acting in accordance with the rules is solving the puzzle in certain cases. [Tanney 2013: 85-6]
On this account, having rejected a number of potentially necessary substantial claims as in fact unnecessary for rule following, Tanney concludes that, in the right context, mere accord with a rule constitutes rule following. Further, this does not seem to be merely a claim about the epistemology of the ascription of rule following – which, indeed, in the right context, apparent accord warrants the further ascription of intentional rule following – since Tanney connects it to the rejection of an internal connection between rules and agent. An epistemological interpretation, by contrast, is consistent with maintaining that accord in performance is evidence for such a connection, amounting to the grasp of the rule by the agent. Instead, and in response to a number of bogus explanations of rule following which fail because they presuppose precisely the abilities they purport to explain, Tanney offers a kind of deflationary approach. The failure of cognitivist explanations of rule following leads to a rejection of cognition. ‘To insist that someone must conceive the rules somehow – even if what it would be for her to conceive these rules is inaccessible to us – is misguided; it fails to explain anything’ [ibid: 86].
Despite this support, the ‘no conception’ version of primitive normativity faces a key objection. It severs the connection between primitively rule-governed behaviour and intentional action and the blurs the distinction between mere accord with a rule and intentionally following it. It is this distinction which marks the difference between a merely dispositional parrot, whose behaviour may accord with a rule available to a third person description, and a human subject with some sense of her new moves fitting or belonging with what went before, some sense of normative correctness.
But there is no need to get into such difficulty if the aim is merely to fit an intuitive description of the phenomenology of the child’s early performance in, as we might say, counting in twos or grouping by colour. The middle ground between dispositional accord with a rule and full-blown conceptual normativity is not the primitive normativity of someone with no conception of what she is doing but with a merely local conception. Such a conception is not tied to the local context of counting or sorting objects brutely or merely externally in virtue of an ascription of rule-accord by an observer. Rather, it is expressed by the demonstrative judgements of the child and her capacity to demonstrate and explain by example what fits with what she has been doing.
This idea runs counter to one of Ginsborg’s explicit claims: ‘I maintain that there is a sense in which you ought to say “125,” given the finite list of your previous uses, independent of what meaning, if any, those uses expressed’ [Ibid: 232-3 italics added]. On the local conception this is wrong. Correctness is tied via a local conception to what a speaker’s past utterances expressed even if the speaker is unable to offer a context-independent linguistic codification of her actions as instances of following the plus-two rule or the sorting of green objects. Her conceiving of her actions might not extend very far up the natural numbers (eg beyond 100) or to cover darker or lighter shades of green (by contrast with the vivid colours of children’s toys). So it is potentially doubly local: expressible only in some particular context of practical demonstration (by contrast with context-free linguistic codification) and covering only some particular instances and thus not actually extensionally equivalent to our concepts of plus two, or green but rather a primitive version of them.
I suggested that there is a further strategic reason why this view is unavailable to Ginsborg. She deploys the idea of primitive normativity as a novel response to Kripke’s sceptical argument. Her aim is to sidestep the arguments Kripke deploys against any justification one can currently offer for knowing what one meant in the past by one’s words, thus to undermine a standard of correctness for current use. Primitive normativity has, for those strategic purposes, thus to be independent of any conceptual conception. A local conception is, however, a form of conceptual conception and its expression in a pattern past, finite examples is just as much subject to Kripke’s argument as a full blown linguistic concept. That is to say, that is not part of a new defence of meaning against Kripke’s argument.
‘Local conception’ primitive normativity and language learning
Primitive normativity guided by a local conception of what a speaker is doing promises a partial answer to the initial two-fold challenge of describing language learning. One aspect of Fodor’s challenge was to sketch a rational mechanism for concept acquisition (hence learning). On the assumptions that a) the only plausible option is hypothesis formation and testing and b) hypothesis formation presupposes the very conceptual mastery in question, no rational mechanism seems possible.
Primitive normativity guided by and expressive of a local conception is a plausible intermediary between mere dispositional accord with rules and full blown linguistic mastery. The intermediate stage involves testing the hypothesis that a new linguistic concept expresses a content previously grasped in some local demonstrative manner. As suggested above, the grasp of a full blown linguistic concept may requires the piecemeal extension of a more primitive, merely local conception of a rule. But there may be some gradations of understanding between having no and a first language.
Of course, the very idea of an essentially situation-dependent conceptual understanding does not fit within the basic idea of Fodor’s representational theory of mind according to which content always has an inner vehicle. So no such middle ground is available to Fodor himself. Thus for anyone uneasy with Fodor’s innativism, his argument against language learning remains a powerful reductio of his representationalism. But the idea does provide a way to address the version of his argument mentioned at the start framed in terms of prior concept possession but agnostic about Fodor’s account of inner vehicles.
What of anti-reductionism? A local conception offers only partial progress here. By contrast with Ginsborg’s own account of primitive normativity, the idea that normativity always presupposes that the subject has some albeit local conception according to which she acts provides no middle ground between the ‘space of reasons’ and the ‘realm of law’ or the ‘manifest image of man in the world’ and the ‘scientific image’. Even a local conception belongs in the space of reasons or the manifest image. So it cannot be part of a route into those spaces from without. But it does help put a little flesh on the bones of the idea that ‘light dawns gradually over the whole’.
‘The whole’ need not merely be understood to be the gradual acquiring of a world view, as Wittgenstein describes in On Certainty (from where the phrase comes) [Wittgenstein 1969 §141]. It can also include mastery of primitive albeit still conceptually structured rules. This is no account of how conceptual normativity can be bootstrapped from non-conceptual dispositions but does suggest how more complex and abstract concepts cane be developed from more primitive local forms.
Fodor, J. (2008) LOT2: The language of thought revisited. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Ginsborg, H. (2011) ‘Primitive Normativity and Skepticism about Rules’ The Journal of Philosophy 108: 227-254
Hattiangadi, A. (2006) Oughts and Thoughts: Rule-Following and the Normativity of Content. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Kripke, S. (1982) Wittgenstein on rules and private language. Oxford: Blackwell
McDowell, J. (1998) Meaning knowledge and reality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Tanney, J. (2013) Rules, Reason and Self Knowledge. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press

Wittgenstein, L. (1969) On Certainty. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Notes for a talk on the meaning of life

I am giving a short 20 minute talk some time between 7:45 and 8:30am tomorrow in Scholars on campus on the meaning of life. It is one of those things that non-philosophers find disappointing about academic philosophy that this subject doesn't come up all that often and I must say that I feel rather fraudulent.

Exploring the Meaning amongst the Doing
Or: What we talk about when we talk about ‘the meaning of life’
1: The problem of talking about ‘the meaning of life’
Douglas Adams, Deep Thought, 42 and the ‘Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything’.
We already know the absurdity of that being the right answer. And yet we also realise that there is something very odd about the question.
Philosophers’ quick ways with such things: declare such issues meaningless via tests of meaning such as the verification principle. Too quick.
2: Making sense of our actions
We explain our actions differently from other happenings. We shed light on / make sense of / justify them.
Two forms of explanation. “Why are you gathering kindling?”.
Either: “I am building a fire”.
Or “I want to build a fire.”
The latter may better fit a scientific explanation but the former is basic.
Rational explanation.
3: Action explanation iterates
“Why are you building a fire”. “I’m cooking / I want to cook a meal”.
“Why are you cooking a meal?”…
We make sense of individual actions by putting them into a broader context. Without limit?...
4: The danger of contemplation
The iteration of practical action explanation stops with what is not (<> cannot be) called into question: eg a local conception of a life. (Links to a sense of identity.)
But at 4am:
“Why am I – do I live as – a chef?”
“Although I am a chef, should I be one?”
For example, for anything I have been told to do by an authority, at 4am I can ask, should I listen to that authority? Eg, the law. Nothing written down actually compels. Nothing is intrinsically compelling. We have to agree to be so bound.
5: The meaning of life?
The problem: without some yet broader context, any project / conception of life could always be questioned.
Hence we want a context for our actions which itself needs no further explanation / justification: the Meaning of Life itself.
But a) the more from a local, assumed conception of a life – eg. being a chef – to a completely general one, the more possibilities are open and hence the stronger the selective justification needs to be. What general conception of a Meaning of Life would enable the derivation of all the different local conceptions of life which, as a matter of fact, turn out about right? (Would it also apply to life on Mars?)
And b) (as above) we have no model for an intrinsically compelling conception of what we ought to do.
6: The moral
The meaning of a life is found only within some local conception of a life. There are limits to disengaged contemplation, explanation and justification: the meaning is in one sense ineffable.
We can only explain the attraction of a local conception of a life to those who already share similar sensibilities.
We demonstrate it. The meaning is in the doing.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

At the Philosophy at 40 at Anglia Ruskin conference

Having only taught a single module (on Wittgenstein) for a couple of years here, I am something of an interloper at the conference celebrating 40 years of philosophy at Anglia. But it is interesting to arrive to see a hugely developed campus and to sit in The Lord Ashcroft building in rather a pessimistic round table discussion of the future of universities (and the future of philosophy). There is a shared agreement that there has been a collapse in the idea of a common good and hence the ground rules for financing higher education (and for that matter, energy supply, the railways, the postal service etc).

In that context, one particular paper from the morning stood out. Mike Wilby gave a paper on natural  inter-subjectivity which took as a starting point the contrast between chimps and small children taking part in cooperative activity. Whilst chimps have a sensitivity of fellow chimps' perceptions in competitive behaviour (subordinate chimps only taking food when they see that the dominant chimp cannot see it) they do not in cooperative behaviour. By contrast, small children are able to play cooperatively from the age of nine months or so.

Wilby took his challenge to be to give an account of essentially shared or mutual mental states in the face of incredulity from the likes of John Searle or Peter Strawson. Considering a case in which two people must cooperate to catch a rabbit, he suggested that, like an individual case, there would need to be some account of a development from a general prior intention (to catch some rabbit or other) to an particular or object-dependent intention-in-action to catch that! rabbit. In the individual case, the obvious intermediate is a perception of a particular rabbit.

Wilby's argument was that none of the three states in the cooperative activity could plausibly be reduced to an individual account. An individualistic version of the prior intention would have to be something like: I intend that we catch a rabbit. But I can only intend my own actions. At most I can intend to make it come about that we catch a rabbit. But such individual intending to make a joint action come about might not be cooperative (Bratman's 'mafia objection') and hence does not capture the cooperative example at hand.

There are also problems also with modelling joint attention in individualistic terms. Wilby suggested a kind of never ending escalation from:
I perceive the rabbit.
I perceive the rabbit and I perceive that you perceive the rabbit.
I perceive the rabbit and I perceive that you perceive the rabbit and I perceive that you perceive that I perceive the rabbit etc etc
But none of these closes off what mutual attention seems to achieve. And there are similar problems with the intention-in-action. Given additionally the complex individualistic model would have to be grasped by the nine month old children who play cooperatively this is surely all better accounted for by the idea of genuinely mutual mental states such as prior intentions, joint attention and mutual intentions-in-action.

I rather liked all this, not least because it provides a further argument against the reductionism of representational theories of mind.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Williams and McDowell on epistemological realism and disjunctivism

I’m teaching epistemology again this year and running through the same anti-sceptical arguments as last year.
  • Putnam’s attempt to show that the sceptical ringer is in some sense impossible – because self-refuting – even though it violates no physical law.
  • Davidson’s argument that our beliefs must in general be true.
  • Williams’ theoretical diagnosis that the sceptic presupposes a substantial and optional theory of knowledge: epistemological realism. Without it, scepticism cannot get off the ground. But it isn’t independently motivated. (And, before we justify scepticism, the fact that epistemological realism implies scepticism is a positive reason to reject it.)
  • McDowell’s theoretical diagnosis of scepticism about other minds and suggestion for a similar source for external world scepticism in the argument from illusion and highest common factor view of experience.
  • Wittgenstein’s attempt a therapeutic diagnosis of scepticism.
This year, more than last year, I see the need to couple the Williams with the McDowell. The diagnosis that scepticism simply assumes epistemological realism – in order to justify the further foundationalist claim that knowledge of the external world must be based on, and be subsequent to, knowledge of experience – seems to promise to head off Descartes’ second and third sceptical arguments. Instead of having to impose some sort of test merely within the neutral (foundational) space of the dreaming OR waking experience, we can say that we know we are not dreaming because we can see the (non-dream) surroundings. This fits the fact that no one is any doubt – in the lecture room – that they are awake (whether sleepy or not!).

But then the lingering worry returns: the sceptical hypotheses themselves seem to impose more severe ground rules for their assessment. I (and my students) recall that invoking perceptual contact with the world is merely an instance of the kind of test one might merely dream that one were applying and passing. So the returning, lingering worry runs: if it would fail were we asleep, what can it show when we are awake?

In this context, McDowell’s ‘Criteria, defeasibility and knowledge’ (and more recent work) does two things. First, it helps show how a picture of experience – the highest common factor – which might help motivate foundationalism is a) merely optional and b) threatens knowledge even without sceptical ringers (all we need is the possibility of everyday illusion; we don’t also need dreaming or brains in a vat). Second, it provides a further and explicit response to the returning, lingering worry.

The latter follows from the idea of McDowell’s disjunctivism. In the bad disjunct (eg, the case that one is dreaming), one’s apparent worldly experiences are merely appearances (whatever dreams comprise) and hence one cannot have knowledge of the external world because one’s beliefs are in no real relation to it. It would be the merest luck were they true. But in the good disjunct (eg. being awake), perceptual knowledge of the external world – which could, with Williams, also be used to justify the claim that one is not dreaming – is differently constituted. No luck is involved in such perceptually based knowledge (and hence it can be knowledge) because the experiences which justify it are necessarily world-involving.

Now the brighter students are persuaded by this only briefly before they raise the further question: but if one cannot tell the difference between the two disjuncts, how does this account help?

My first response – specifically picking up McDowell’s paper – is to suggest that progress has been made. On the rejected highest common factor account, there can be no perceptually-based knowledge because the best that the experience, on which it is supposed to be based, can do is not enough to rule out the additional need for luck for the beliefs formed to be true. On the proposed disjunctivist view, by contrast, there is no luck involved in the good disjunct so knowledge is sometimes possible (and the bad disjunct realistically implies that attempts to know can also sometimes fail). So if one is in the good disjunct, one does have knowledge.

There are then a couple of typical student responses: the first is to say that the indistinguishability of the disjuncts suggests that there is luck involved in being in the good one in the first place and hence then having world-involving experiences. If I understand McDowell here (and I may not), his reply to this is to concede that there is luck in being in a position to have knowledge (eg. to have a world-involving experience on which to base a knowledge claim) but no further knowledge-undermining luck (since the experience is necessarily world-involving by contrast with being a mere appearance).

The second student response is to say that it only helps to be persuaded (by disjunctivism) that, in the good disjunct, one does have knowledge if one also knows whether one is in that disjunct, rather than the bad one, and hence knows that one knows. Now this is a point that McDowell has addressed in recent papers but the Rodl passage he quotes is as clear a statement. It runs (with some additional carriage returns):

The argument (from illusion) is: Whenever I seem to know something (on the basis of perceptual. experience), I might have been fooled. Had I been fooled, I would not have known that I was. I would not have been able to tell my situation apart from one in which I am not fooled. This shows that my grounds do not place me in a position to exclude that I am in such a situation. They do not enable me to exclude that I am fooled.
—The argument supposes that, had I been fooled, I would have believed the proposition in question on the same grounds on which I believe it now that I am not fooled. This straightforwardly entails that these grounds do not establish the truth of what I believe and therefore do not provide me with knowledge.
But when I know something on the ground that, say, I perceive it to be the case, then I would not, had I been fooled, have believed it on this ground, for, had I been fooled, I would not have perceived it to be the case. Hence, when I am not fooled, my grounds exclude that I am fooled: when I perceive how things are, I am not fooled with regard to how they are.
One might object that this grants me grounds that rule out error at the price of making it impossible for me to know whether my belief is based on such grounds. For, when I am fooled, I do not know that I am fooled. So I can never know whether I am not fooled and my beliefs are based on grounds that [establish] their truth, or whether I am fooled and such grounds are unavailable to me.
This objection repeats the mistake: from the fact that, when I am fooled, I do not know that I am, it does not follow that, when I am not fooled, I do not know that I am not. When I know that p as I perceive it to be the case, then I know that I perceive that p. Thus I am in a position to distinguish my situation from any possible situation in which I would be fooled, for, in any such situation, I would not perceive that p, while in the given situation I do.' [Rodl, S. (2007)Self-Consciousness, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press pp 157-8]

This passage makes two key points. First, in reply to the students’ second response, in the good disjunct, one knows how one knows and hence, in the good disjunct, one can know that one knows (since how one knows is good enough because necessarily world-involving). Of course, had one been in the bad disjunct, one would have thought that one knew how one knew and that one knew but one would have been wrong on all counts: wrong that one knew (whatever fact about the world) and hence how one knew (it) and hence that one knew that one knew (it). But, second, the fact that, in the bad disjunct, one does not know has no effect on the good disjunct. ‘[F]rom the fact that, when I am fooled, I do not know that I am, it does not follow that, when I am not fooled, I do not know that I am not’.

It is this last point that is useful with Williams. I can know that I am not dreaming because I can know that I am in perceptual contact with the world. This is the point Williams makes available by denying epistemological realism and the foundationalism of having to base knowledge of the external world on more basic knowledge of experience. But then the lingering worry returns: if such a test of not dreaming would fail were we asleep, what can it show when we are awake? And now the proposal is that the mere existence of the bad disjunct has no implications for our ability to have knowledge in the good case. I am awake and thus know – by normal tests – that I am awake (contrary to foundationalism and hence heading off scepticism). Further, I know how and that I know that I am awake. Had I been asleep, I might have said similar things. But that case is utterly different from this case because in that case I would be asleep whereas in this I am not.

Theatrical determinism

By coincidence, the two plays I have seen in the last two or three weeks have shared the same structural feature. The action of we see in the play itself is largely determined by events which have taken place before it begins and about which we, the audience, slowly learn. (Perhaps relatedly, both were also set within a day and both staged in the round with a single set. All we seem to need is a time and space for talk.)

In Arthur Miller's 'All my sons' (at the Royal Exchange, Manchester), there is a very strong sense of fate (Fate!) playing with the pretensions to freedom of the characters' actions now. It verges on a pastiche of a Greek tragedy. The past even sends a letter to the present day to confound an attempt by one character (and perhaps we almost wish it too) to wriggle out of what has been previously set up.

In Eugene O'Nealls 'Long day's journey into night' (at the Bolton Octogon), there was less of a sense of the past playing havoc with the present as of the characters being unwilling to leave the past alone. Aside from the issue of the younger son's impending diagnosis, the forces of the play are endogenous rather than exogenous. They talk themselves into despair. Ironically in a play which lasted, in this production, 3 hours and 15 minutes, the most striking refrain was the other characters beseeching the mother figure, Mary Tyrone (played by Margot Leicester as someone who looped the start of the next sentence to the end of her previous one), to "stop talking". Indeed.

But it is distinctly theatrical, by contrast with most films, to have the sense that we are witnessing not the action of the play itself but merely it's aftermath. The action is long over before the stage lights go on.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Recovery and Social Justice Wednesday 9th October 2013

Recovery and Social Justice: Transforming mental health at individual, service and societal levels
Wednesday 9th October 2013
Location:Westleigh Conference Centre, University of Central Lancashire

How should we understand recovery? Is it a model for transforming mental health services? Is it a strategy for wider social justice? Is it used to legitimise a reduction in support for mental health service users? How do the US, Canadian and UK experiences differ? This one day conference, hosted by Mental Health Research @ UCLan, will explore the nature and practical consequences of a recovery orientation in mental health for individuals, services and wider society. There will be a particular focus on considering to what extent recovery promotes social justice. This conference will be of interest to those concerned with a critical perspective on recovery and the concrete implications for practice to achieve social change: including service users, carers, advocates, researchers, mental health professionals, commissioners and managers, and third sector organisations.

Speakers will include:
Larry Davidson(Professor of Psychology, Programme for Recovery and Community Health, Yale)
Kathryn Church(Director of the School of Disability Studies, Ryerson University, Toronto)
Karen Newbiggingand Karen Machin (University of Central Lancashire)
Hari Sewell (Senior Visiting Fellow at University of Central Lancashire)
Geoff Shepherd(Recovery Lead at the Centre for Mental Health)
Comensus (UCLan’s community engagement
and service user support group)

For more details contact: Liz Roberts, 01772 893809
To register for a place, please visit the conference website at:
Cost: £80 with bursaries available for service users and carers

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Philosophy at 40: Celebrating 40 years of Philosophy at Anglia Ruskin University

Philosophy at 40: Celebrating 40 years of Philosophy at Anglia Ruskin University

Date: Saturday 9 November 2013

Venue: Lord Ashcroft Building 006, Anglia Ruskin University Cambridge Campus

Standard registration: £20.00; Student concessions: £10.00
Teas, coffees and lunch all included
Optional 3 course dinner with wine: £35 (limited places)

Bookings: Anglia Ruskin Online Store

Conference theme: The Futures of Philosophy

Speakers: Andrew Bowie, Katerina Deligiorgi, Peter Dews, Jonathan Derbyshire, Neil Gascoigne, Colin Harper, Chris Lawn, Chris Horner, Tristan Moyle, Alison Stone and Tim Thornton

Philosophy at Anglia Ruskin University celebrates its 40th anniversary this year! Current and former staff and students will participate in a conference and reunion on 9 November at Anglia Ruskin's Cambridge campus, looking back on past successes for the degree and discussing future themes and directions in the discipline of philosophy. Some very distinguished alumni will return to their former university, including Professor Andrew Bowie, now at Royal Holloway, and Professor Peter Dews, now at the University of Essex.

Philosophy has been taught on the Cambridge campus since 1973. It began as part of a broader European Thought and Literature undergraduate degree which covered the history and culture of many writers and thinkers from ancient Greece to the modern world. These days the course covers key topics in debates about the mind, moral and political questions about the good life and further questions about art, religion and literature. It also fosters crucial skills including clear communication, problem solving and creative thinking.

The Philosophy degree at Anglia Ruskin scores well in The Guardian league table (24th in 2014) and continues to recruit strongly in today's challenging HE context. This is noteworthy in an era of fierce competition and high fees. Students rate the teaching on the degree very highly year on year in the NSS as well, with scores of around 95% satisfaction, well above the national average.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

A talk for the Chaplain

I've been asked to give an early morning talk, on the 18th November, in a series of informal breakfast discussions by the UCLan Chaplain, Andrew Clitheroe (pictured). I plan to discuss what we talk about when we talk about the meaning of life (to misquote Raymond Carver).

We give much of our lives a purposive or narrative structure. We think of it as involving actions undertaken for reasons which not only explain why we do what we do but also what we do. For example: “Why did you raise your arm?” “I was voting”. Given the wish to vote, raising an arm may be the right and meaningful thing to do. But the general features of action explanation suggest a further question, waiting in the wings: “Why were you voting?” The answer may be an appeal to a yet broader context such as: “I wanted to change the government” or “I was exercising my hard won democratic rights” but in either case, a yet further question may be suggested. Typically, this regress of possible questions and broader contexts does not bother us in the hurly burly of practical action. But sleepless at 5am it may. And then we may wish to invoke a context to give meaning to all our actions for which the further question “Why...?” cannot get a grip. Such a context may be the meaning of life itself.

I will discuss whether anything could possibly fill this role and how we might respond to a negative answer.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Review of Tanney, J. (2013) Rules, Reason and Self Knowledge, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press

Rules, Reason and Self Knowledge gathers papers written since 1995 on a number of overlapping subjects with a helpful introduction which attempts to draw out the main themes. A retrospective collection allows for different possibilities of lumping and splitting. In this case, Tanney presents the collection in four non-chronological sections on ‘Rules and normativity’, ‘Reason-explanation and mental causation’, ‘Philosophical elucidation and cognitive science’ and ‘Self-knowledge’. I will not say anything about the final section, but the first three sections can all be seen as an attempt to criticise a dominant picture of the philosophy of mind which arose, in part, through the criticism in the 1960s and 70s of the ‘strong current of neo-Wittgensteinian small red books’ (ie. ‘most of the books in the series edited by R.F. Holland, Studies in Philosophical Psychology, including Anthony Kenny, Action, Emotion and Will, London, 1963, and A. I. Melden, Free Action, London, 1961.’) against which Davidson thought of himself (and Hempel) as swimming [Davidson 2001: 261, 4]. This collection can be thought of as a defence of, and perhaps a late addition to, that Routledge & Kegan Paul series. It pitches Wittgenstein and Ryle against Davidson, Putnam and Fodor. One aim is to ‘reintroduc[e] Wittgensteinian territory into the contemporary landscape’ [Tanney 2013: 162].

The picture of mind Tanney opposes turns on a view of ‘folk psychology’ as a referential and causal theory of action, commensurable with a neuropsychology of, perhaps, the very same inner states. She contests the nature and scope of such an explanatory stance. Two broad areas of criticisms concern the connection between this view action explanation and rules and normativity, a key focus of interest of both the Wittgensteinian authors of the ‘small red books’ as well as contemporary philosophers such as McDowell and Brandom.

In the first section of the book, ‘Rules and normativity’, Tanney argues that human action (‘doings, sayings, thinkings and perceivings’ [ibid: 2]) can be assessed along a normative dimension but this is not the result of normative properties of mental states construed individualistically. The norms are somehow there in advance. Rule following activity cannot itself be explained folk psychologically because folk psychology presupposes rule following ability.

The third section of the collection, ‘Philosophical elucidation and cognitive science’, addresses a second broad criticism connected to rules and normativity: the cognitive psychological explanation of rational abilities – such as Fodor’s Representational Theory of Mind – cannot work because it is defeated by regress arguments found in Wittgenstein and Ryle. If the mind performs computational operations on representations, then the rules governing those operations will also need to be represented and that initiates a regress of rules.

A distinct line of criticism concerns the best way to understand explanation of human action by appeal to reasons. On the opposed picture of mind, such explanation works by referring to internal states of an agent which both rationalise and cause actions. Tanney rejects the first element (that it refers to internal states) and the way, at least, in which the second (the rationalising element) and third (the causal element) are understood. (It may be more accurate to say that she simply rejects the third element but there is nuance in this.) Rather than understanding psychological explanation as referring to first- or second-order physical properties of an individual, Tanney suggests that they serve as ‘tools that help us keep track of [the subject] by carving out aspects of what she says and does that we can, to a greater or lesser extent, understand’ [ibid: 147].

In what seems to me to be the strongest essay in this second section, ‘Why reasons may not be causes’, Tanney attacks Davidson’s argument that reason explanation must also be causal to distinguish a reason for an action from the reason and only causation promises to give an account of the ‘mysterious connection’ between reasons and actions. Tanney argues that causation does not provide a satisfactory addition and that no addition is in fact needed.

Firstly, taking the example of Oedipus unknowingly killing his father, there is no need to add causation into the account because it is not needed to distinguish between his reasons for killing the threatening old man and any more ‘Oedipal’ desires to kill his father. The latter are irrelevant to explaining his actions because he does not believe the old man is his father. Thus it does not serve as part of a reason he has for killing the old man. In the case of overridden reasons, Tanney assumes that Oedipus does know that the old man is his father and that in addition to his Oedipal desires (to kill him) he also has moral qualms about killing his father. Nevertheless, these qualms are overridden by his own desire to survive when threatened and so he kills his father. Given this scenario, Oedipus’s Oedipal desires do not form part of his reason for killing his father even though they are reasons he has. They are not his reason because they are overridden by his moral qualms. Davidson would explain this by saying that the Oedipal reason is not causally active in this case: that causation makes the difference between a reason and the reason. But as Tanney points out, this assumption is unwarranted once an account of competing reasons is given which trades only on rational and motivational concepts. A difference in the space of reasons can make the difference (between a reason one has and the reason one acts) instead.

Tanney concludes that, once a more complex story of weighted reasons for actions is in place, there is no need to add a causal element to reason explanation. She then goes on to suggest a deeper underlying motive for thinking that there must be some such causal addition. This is that there should be a determinate relation between reasons for action and action: that the former should be a sufficient condition for the latter. But she suggests that this is too strong a requirement to place on rational explanation. Sometimes reasons just are insufficient for action.

The paper also addresses broader worries about anomalous monism which are related to now more familiar qualms. But this initial challenge to the efficacy of Davidson’s ‘Actions, reasons and causes’ to justify a causal theory of action against the qualms of the neo-Wittgensteinians is a key element in this collection.
This negative argument against a philosophical theory of action explanation is combined with a further, and I think less successful, positive claim about the nature of action explanation itself. In ‘Reason-explanation and the contents of the mind’ Tanney considers the case of someone running out of a building. She suggests that being told that the building is on fire can serve as a proper and complete explanation for that action: ‘all we need to relieve our puzzlement is a wider view of the context or the circumstances in which the action takes place’ [ibid: 136]. In saying this, she contrasts her view with one that requires that the explanation has to include, or presuppose, the conception of the circumstances that the agent herself has.

Some explanations will have to mention the agent’s conception of the circumstances. This will be so when the agent has a misconception that explains her action. Suppose the building was not on fire. The woman might have fled because she thought it was. But it does not follow from the fact that some explanations will have to mention the agent’s conception of the circumstances that all explanations do – even, say, when there is no misconception involved. [ibid: 136]

The danger with this line of thought is that it risks moving too quickly from the pragmatics of action explanation to a substantial ontological claim. The motivation for the assumption that pragmatics is a reliable guide to what is / is not presupposed by action explanation seems to be an independent assumption about the nature of the subject’s conception of her circumstances should Tanney’s conclusion be rejected: that such conceptions are hidden or inner. In fact, she expresses the opposite worry by denying that ‘in appealing to how she conceives her situation, we must be homing in on something hidden or inner’. Such a comment implies that the idea of a subject’s conception of her circumstances is itself innocent and might, indeed, be implicitly presupposed by all action explanation even when not explicitly mentioned. But this does not seem to be her actual conclusion. I suspect that fear of invoking something hidden or inner motivates downplaying this element entirely, even in an innocent version, in favour of what is explicitly in full view and outer: the circumstances in which actions take place.

I worry that this combination of a successful therapeutic rejection of philosophical theorising coupled with a less convincing revisionary move is also present (along with much of value) in one of the other clear highlights of the collection: ‘De-individualising norms of rationality’, which connects Davidson’s account of action explanation with the role of rules and normativity. In the first section. Tanney offers the following thumbnail sketch of one version of Davidson’s position which is worth quoting in full.

In ‘How is weakness of the will possible?’ Davidson suggests that the judgment that manifests the relative ranking of reasons — i.e., the result of deliberation — is an “all things considered judgment”. An all things considered judgment is “doubly relativized”. First it is relativized according to the way in which the desire would be satisfied in the commission of the action (say, as in the prima facie judgment: “Spending the weekend in Barcelona is desirable insofar as it is likely to yield adventure”). It is relativized also according to its place with respect to other desires and in light of the agent’s beliefs, principles, and values. This judgment might be something like: “In light of my ranking the opportunity for adventure over prudential concerns, and in light of my beliefs about what spending the weekend in Barcelona will involve, and so on, spending the weekend in Barcelona is desirable”. According to Davidson, this all things considered judgment is conditional in form and thus, like the singly relativized judgments that logically precede it, does not entail the kind of judgment which is a necessary concomitant to intentional action. Again, this latter judgment — which Davidson identifies as an intention — must be unconditional, or derelativized. So the logical gap that exists between the contents of prima facie evaluations, or sentences describing them, and the contents of intentions, or sentences describing them, is still preserved on the extended model between all things considered judgments and actions. The move from a doubly relativized judgment like “Assuming that I have considered all relevant things, I ought to spend the weekend in Barcelona” to an unconditional (derelativized) judgment like “I ought to spend the weekend in Barcelona” is not a move that is prescribed by first-order logic since, presumably, some piece of relevant information not considered might always defeat the claim that I ought to spend the weekend in Barcelona. Thus, the failure to make such a move in one’s thinking cannot (yet) be taken to exhibit a kind of logical inconsistency. [ibid: 27-8]

We get to this point via the fact that the elements in a standard Davidsonian account of action contain pro-attitudues and beliefs such as:
·         Any act of mine which is likely to yield adventure is desirable
·         Spending the weekend in Barcelona is likely to yield adventure
But these will generate conclusions to a practical syllogism of this form:
·         Any act of mine which is my spending the weekend in Barcelona is one I may judge to be desirable
which seems too strong because other factors might make some such acts undesirable. So Davidson changes the form in ‘How is weakness of the will possible?’ to make the premises and conclusion all expressions of merely prima facie desirability: Any action of mine is desirable insofar as it is likely to yield adventure thus permitting trumping by other factors.

But now the problem with the account is that there is a gap between the outcome of the practical syllogism if, as Davidson thinks, the ‘action itself must correspond to something stronger than a ‘prima facie’ evaluation that the act is desirable in a certain respect; it must correspond to an unconditional or all-out, singular judgment expressing the desirability of a particular action’ [ibid: 25-6] So by what rational step does one get from a relativised prima facie judgement to an un-relativised all out judgement? One thing that is needed is a ranking of competing prima facie reasons. And this is the all things considered judgement (NB not an unconditional all out judgement) of the passage above. This judgement – which Tanney suggests might be ‘In light of my ranking the opportunity for adventure over prudential concerns, and in light of my beliefs about what spending the weekend in Barcelona will involve, and so on, spending the weekend in Barcelona is desirable’ – still does not imply an all out judgement and no such logical transition is available in standard logic.

So the patch (in Tanney’s phrase) Davidson adds is an extra principle, the principle of continence, that I ought to act in accordance with my all things considered judgment. This has the additional virtue that its violation promises an account of akrasia. The akratic subject is guilty of irrationality, according to Davidson, because he violates this second order principle. So the akratic helps illustrate – through a kind of deficit study – the structure of the normal case. But that prompts the question of whether the patch really helps. The key objection is that the principle is not sufficient without begging a question of its own application. The problem is: ‘if my implementation of the principle of continence, say, is needed to move me from an all things considered judgment to action, then why is not a higher-order principle of continence needed to tell me how I am to implement the principle of continence non-akratically, and so on?’ [ibid: 35]

At this point Tanney deploys the regress argument to this initial target, thus connection Davidson’s account of action explanation with Wittgenstein’s rule following considerations.

Is my holding the principle of continence, for example, tantamount to my having a pro-attitude toward my acting in accordance with my all things considered judgment?...
Perhaps the principle of continence is the content of an all things considered judgment. Then I judge, all things considered, that I ought to act in accordance with my all things considered judgments. Now the internal regress is explicit. If holding the principle (judging that I ought to act in accordance with my all things considered judgment) were explanatory of my rational abilities at all, it would only be if the connection between my all things considered judgments and my actions were presupposed. But this was precisely the connection that the principle was invoked to explain.
[Ibid: 36]

The problem doesn’t just lie with the norm expressed by the principle of continence. That is only one aspect of practical reasoning. Others include the links between perception and judgement, conceptual links within judgement as well as judgement to action. But no patch – no higher principle grasped by the subject – will be able explain the subject’s ability to play what Tanney elsewhere calls the ‘rule following game’. So the patch is not sufficient to explain the ability. But nor is it necessary.

Grasp of the principle of continence is supposed to dictate how the agent acts once he has weighed up his ‘all things considered’ judgement. It glues that judgement to a corresponding action. But in this case, that would be either a judgement that it is better to return to the park or a judgement that it is better to stay on the tram. The outcome depends on the relative strength of those desires. On Davidson’s account, the akratic is only irrational because, despite the fact that his all things considered desire is (in the example) to stay on the tram, his desire to return to the park trumps the principle of continence which would make him act on the desire is to stay on the tram and thus he returns to the park. But, as Tanney argues, if his all things considered judgement is to stay on the tram, then merely by his status as ‘an agent, a deliberator, a practical reasoner’ he should correct his impulse to return to the park. ‘After all, what is the point of his deliberating if he is not going to act in accordance with his deliberations? Indeed, why would he get as far along in the deliberation process as to reach the all things considered judgment if he will not act in accordance with it?’ [ibid: 34]
So the higher order principle cannot play the explanatory role Davidson wants for it. That is not to say that it cannot play a diagnostic role in explaining what has gone wrong with someone’s thinking. But it cannot be an ‘object of cognition’ which explains normal success.

In filling out this latter point, Tanney goes on to reject the idea that tacit knowledge of the principle would be explanatory. The key objection is that this also begs the question of tacitly deploying the principle correctly. Going tacit doesn’t change things. A related alternative is to think of grasp of the principle as a kind of causal instantiation of it in such a way that causally yields correct moves. But this blurs normative rules and causal laws. Causal determinants of action cannot also prescriptively guide action. From this, she concludes that conformity with the norms of rationality is not a cognitive achievement.

There is a strong intuition that we need to make out an internal connection between norms and the individual who acts in accordance with them in order to make sense of the intuition that she acts because of the norms. A disposition to act in accordance with the norms does not seem to give us the right kind of non-contingent relation required for explanation. But, I argue, this relation cannot be made out as a cognitive one such that the norms themselves are objects of knowledge or desired ends and a person engages in reasoning to implement or satisfy them. This is because the “reasoning” here will presuppose the dispositions that attributing these very norms was meant to explain. [ibid: 42]

Now this denial turns on an explanatory connection and seems right to me. It’s a rejection of the ‘intellectualist legend’ Ryle also targets. But I still want to hang onto the idea that following a rule correctly can be a case of my having grasped it. In fact, I think that this is a key distinction between rule following and rule accord (a distinction Tanney deploys herself in the third section of the book ‘Philosophical elucidation and cognitive science’ to attack Fodor). Section 6 of the paper is aimed against just this idea.

Perhaps attributing to me knowledge of a norm of rationality does not explain my rational abilities either directly, or via second-order explicational abilities, by the arguments above; but perhaps my having knowledge of the norms consists in my ability to justify my actions. And perhaps my having this second-order ability is necessary for me to be considered truly rational. If so, maybe we can make out the sought after “internal” connection after all. My following a rule or obeying a norm, as opposed to my merely acting in accordance with it, might consist in my ability to justify my actions in light of the principle prescribing it. [ibid: 42]

Tanney points out a distinction between justifying a move in chess by citing a rule and justifying a rational action by citing a rational norm. In the former case, the justificatory move is not itself a move within a chess game but a comment on it. But in the latter, the justificatory move is of just the same sort as the ground level move it was supposed to justify.

I am not sure that I follow this objection. It seems to be a justificatory analogue of the explanatory argument before. In the latter case, the charge is that one cannot deploy higher level principles to explain rule following behaviour because that explanation would beg the question. If rule following behaviour needed explaining, this would not explain it. So in this case, the analogue would be that rule following behaviour cannot be justified by appeal to rules because the justification would beg the question. If it needed justifying, this would not justify it. Such an argument has echoes of Carroll’s ‘Tortoise and Achilles’. But it seems to assume that the only successful justification of rule following behaviour would have to work from a perspective outside rule following altogether. To justify the grasp of a particular rule, one would need to justify the very idea of rule following at all. But that seems an unreasonable demand. An intermediate position would connect an individual’s grasp of a rule with their ability to explain and to justify their behaviour in accord with their conception of the rule but only to those with ‘eyes to see’. Such a justification might consist in offering example moves.

Tanney concludes:
But in what sense, then, do the norms of rationality govern thought and action if they are not properly construed as objects of cognition? The answer is that they set up the practice of ascribing thoughts and action. This is a point often made by Davidson in discussions about the principle of charity. The principles of rationality seem to play the same kind of role. They are not rules or norms that figure in our attributive practices. They are presupposed by it. But if they ground the practice of interpretation, it would be a category mistake to explain features of the practice by individualizing them. [ibid: 44-5]

There seem to me to be two senses of ‘individualise’ available. On one, rational demands result from a kind of personal bootstrapping of normative force from non-normative elements. But, like Wittgenstein’s regress of interpretations, such justification or explanation faces a vicious regress. On the other, it means something like: play a role in a subject’s mental life. Tanney appears to reject both. But rejecting the latter makes the difference of rule following and rule accord lie merely in the eye of the interpreter.

A short review can only flag a potential worry. In other papers such as ‘Playing the rule-following game’ and ‘How to resist mental representations’ the distinction between following a rule and merely according with a rule plays an important critical role and so it cannot be quickly assumed that the contrast is then downplayed or undermined with more careful analysis. But there seem to be a number of places (eg ‘To insist that someone cannot solve the puzzle unless she somehow conceives the rules (even if she cannot articulate them, even to herself) and acts in the light of her conception of the rules is simply dogmatic... Acting in accordance with the rules is solving the puzzle in certain cases.’ [ibid: 85-6]) in which a criticism of a substantive philosophical theory of a subject’s conception apparently leads to a denial of any role for such a conception and there is an emphasis, instead, on the circumstances in which rule following abilities are reasonably ascribed by others on the basis of behaviour.

If that impression is correct then there is an historical parallel. One of the criticisms raised against the small red books of the neo-Wittgensteinians – whether fairly or not – was an undue sympathy to some form of philosophical behaviourism. Whether anything of that worry applies to this latest addition to that tradition is merely one of the many reasons it merits careful study.

Davidson, D. (2001) Essays on Actions and Events, Oxford: Clarendon Press
Tanney, J. (2013) Rules, Reason and Self Knowledge, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press

Thursday, 8 August 2013

A sense of embodiment

I was told by a friend whom I had not seen in a while that, used to a life of the mind, he had recently been jolted into thinking more about what it was like, practically, to be embodied. Not the matter of the intellectual idea that embodiment plays a key and irreducible role in our being the subjects we are. One might hold such a view - enactivism, for example - in the academic and theoretical way one holds any epistemological or ontological thesis. But rather, he said, he had thrown himself into getting fit, working out and learning to dance.

This seems to be a sequence in increasing order of commitment to a sense of embodiment. One might get fit merely in order to move one's Cartesian ego about more effectively. Knowing the contingencies one might, more or less resentfully, put in the work to see more of the world. Working out is, perhaps, a step further. More than just moving the point of origin of one's visual field, it seems to be a requirement for a broader series of sensorimotor contingencies having to do with different sorts of practical abilities. Still, I can imagine a kind of grudging Cartesian being pulled so far by the unfortunate fact of being tied to a body in a bit more than just the way the captain sits on the bridge of a ship. But there may be no greater sense of embodiment than is captured by awareness - with Descartes - of the inadequacy of that analogy.

The idea that seems to push beyond that and to a real sense of embodiment is the third of my friend's resolutions. To see the point and appeal of dancing is not merely a concession to embodiment but a revelling in it. That there is such an appeal suggests that even if Cartesianism were a true account of our predicament as subjects it would, nevertheless, not ring true, to follow Bernard Williams' desideratum for philosophy.

Monday, 22 July 2013

INPP 2013 travelling symposium

Zipping up on the west coast line after an informal meeting with few people at Bill Fulford's house in London to mull over broadening the intellectual resources for philosophy and psychiatry, I am thinking a bit about what might happen to academic conferences in a recessional period. This year, there might have been a single INPP conference in Italy but for understandable reasons (“It’s the conomy, Stupid!”) it didn't happen. In the UK at least, we have benefitted from a travelling symposium (Durham, Kings College London, Oxford) and I like to think that, although I didn't lift a finger to help with the organisation, I had something to do with its conception (over a coffee or two with Werdie van Staden, Grant Gillett, Derek Bolton and Angela Woods at the INPP meeting at Otago, Dunedin last year).

I really enjoyed the Durham day on the future of phenomenology. (My own paper attempted to address phenomenology and how bridges might best be built between analytic philosophy and phenomenological accounts: how 'we' might borrow 'their' results and the familiar worries that any such accounts of psychopathology raise.) I got a chance to talk to Angela Woods about the use of twitter but also Nev Jones (who put the first version of the fifth, I think, part of her talk under erasure; if I had done that my irony would have been ironic whilst hers, more powerfully, wasn't), author of the consistently interesting Ruminations on Madness blog (note to self: I will list the blogs I read which are, unlike my own, somehow serious and grown up. Three spring to mind as quite brilliant.)

I am skipping Kings sadly because I have too much work to do to attend it but will pop down to the Oxford session. In a future world where big conferences are too much of a financial stretch, I rather like this Cricket test series reworking.