Thursday, 6 February 2014

Utrecht workshop on the contemporary relevance of the Erklären / Verstehen distinction in psychiatry, biology and neuroscience

I am at the first day of a workshop in Utrecht on the distinction between Erklären and Verstehen, or explanation versus understanding, organised by Annemarie Kalis (pictured). Interestingly, the first couple of talks played down the importance of the distinction.

Paul Ziche outlined the history of the distinction, arguing that the key philosophers we tend to think of as proposing the distinction and arguing for its importance had, in fact, a much more ambivalent view. Thus, for example, although Windelband distinguishes between the nomothetic and idiographic, he did so, we were told, in order to play down the distinction. It was not supposed to divide the natural from the human sciences. All sciences should involve both elements. Or, another key figure, Wundt, a professor of philosophy not psychology (and regarded as the most important philosopher of the time, conducted both experimental psychology but also descriptive social psychology which might be thought to fall on either side of the putative distinction. He opposed introspectionist psychology not for its intrinsic unreliabiliability but because, as a matter of fact, the introspectionist psychologists of his day were not careful enough in their experimental design.

Overall, the story PZ presented was a complicated one in which the distinction between explanation and understanding played no fundamental dividing role. What was more important were attempts to find some general abstract feature that science as a whole had in common.

What seemed a little surprising to me was that the suggestion that both of these instincts was broadly correct was not thought of as in tension. I would have expected that the general reasons for pessimism of successfully fitting sciences into two exclusive categories might also apply to the project of marking out the whole of science from the non-sciences as instancing one unitary category.

Albert Visser also argued against the importance of the distinction for shedding light on science. One general theme was that because explanation is just one aspect of scientific practice it should not bear the whole weight of individuating sciences. But further, explanation cannot be tightly characterised in the formal terms that would enable a sharp distinction from understanding. (He suggested it comprised a subjective as well as objective side though implied that no non-circular analysis could be offered.)

But perhaps the most interesting idea was that non-human sciences shared something akin to empathy or ‘inleving’. Of various examples given one was the way in which the early developers of non-Euclidian geometry explored it, with the aim of refuting it, from within. They dwelt within it as those engrossed in computer gains become absorbed in that.

Sanneke de Haan talking to ‘There's meaning everywhere - Beyond Erklären versus Verstehen in psychiatry’ gave a whistle stop tour of an embodied, embedded, enactivist view the distinction between psychological and physical symptoms . One lesson of the moral was that things are very complicated. But another was that it suggests that it is difficult to oppose the physical and the psychological. Both are aspects, she suggested, of a broader system: the physical processes being physiogical / biological processes that sustain life. But it also has consequences for thinking about causal relations. For example, being angry includes a number of phsyical processes and hence cannot be thought to be the causal effect of those processes. One theme picked up in questioning was why this wasn't a reductionist picture: what it was about the complicated picture was not just anti-eliminativist but also anti-reductionist.

Derek Strijbos spoke to the title Understanding the causes of mental illness: why Jaspers' distinction is still relevant. But he started by pointing out that there are a number of related distinctions in Jaspers. These include:
Inner vs outer
Conscious vs extra conscious
Meaningful vs causal
Revisable interpretations vs determinate laws
Particular vs general
Limited vs unlimited
Personally engaged vs detached.
But the key idea he - Derek - wanted to extract was the meaningful versus non-meaningful for fear of losing the subject matter of psychiatry or more particularly losing a vital source for generating causal explanations.

The background to the the talk was a comparison between Jaspers and Davidson. Both share, or seem to share, a kind of ontological monism but a methodological dualism. But whilst Davidson approaches this via anomalous monism, Jaspers makes things rather less clear by denying that understanding is causal. As Christophe Hoerl argues (2013), there is a tension between Jaspers’ view that understanding is factive whilst denying that it is causal. That makes it obscure the epistemic benefit of bringing understanding to bear. By contrast, Davidson attempts to save the 'because' of reason explanation through causal explanation. One feature of this, however, is that it trades on an impersonal notion of causation. The causation of general laws.

But DS suggested that a thinner notion of causation, such as interventionism, might equally accommodate the substance of understanding whilst allowing for a more personal and particular view of the relevant causation. Further, some tools in recent psychiatric research exemplify this approach such as experience sampling methods or van Os' personalised psychiatry. These suggest a space for a particular kind of particular causal factor.

I think I understood the negative element of the talk rather more than the positive. If by causation one means something like Hume’s second counter factual definition (that all things being equal, had the cause not occurred then neither would the effect) then denying that understanding is causal looks to deny it of much force. But the familiar problem of Davidson’s reconciliation of the competing constraints on understanding is that it does not provide sufficient force to the mental properties of events. It saves the causal effects of the events invoked in reason explanation but at the cost of making the mental properties irrelevant. But denying the denial of the causal efficacy of the states that are the subject matter of understanding, ie promoting their possible causal role (on this slim notion of causation) is not yet to say what they do aside from cause.

Gerrit Glas’ paper asked whether Jaspers was a methodological dualist. As often happens, by the end of the day my ability to concentrate was somewhat impaired but some key points included: Whilst at the level of science, Jaspers thought that where there as understanding there was always a basis in explanation, and hence he was a kind of dualist, at the clinical level the two forms were not merely juxtaposed. Rather, explanation was attuned to the kind of self understanding patients had of their illness and themselves. And, depicted in rather a complex diagram, GG argued that the relation of patient and illness was itself further affected by their own nature and that of the illness. Things were further complicated, however, by the idea that within different levels of analysis, both understanding and explanation have a role. (So it is not that they are apportioned or divided  by level.) For example, within scientific explanation there is a pretheoretical appeal to a notion of fit which is itself a matter if understanding.