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