Tuesday, 15 December 2015

The cost of the 'Question concerning technology'

At a phenomenology reading group yesterday  there was a surprisingly positive reception for Martin Heidegger’s Question concerning technology. Within a community of health researchers, one reason for this seemed to be a kind of anti-scientistic suspicion of the overuse of an impersonal technological approach to patients. Heidegger’s suspicion of modern technology’s view of the world as merely a kind of resource resonated with worries about modern medicine. The mood that resonated is expressed in the snide final sentence of the description of the role of the Rhine in contemporary thinking.

What the river is now, namely, a water power supplier, derives from out of the essence of the power station. In order that we may even remotely consider the monstrousness that reigns here, let us ponder for a moment the contrast that speaks out of the two titles, “The Rhine” as dammed up into the power works, and “The Rhine” as uttered out of the art work, in Holderlin’s hymn by that name. But, it will be replied, the Rhine is still a river in the landscape, is it not? Perhaps. But how? In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry. [Heidegger 1977: 5]

But it seemed to me that that the cost of this reassurance was high: his suspicion not, I think, of scientism but of science itself. It is suggested here:

It remains true, nonetheless, that man in the technological age is, in a particularly striking way, challenged forth into revealing. That revealing concerns nature, above all, as the chief storehouse of the standing energy reserve. Accordingly, man’s ordering attitude and behavior display themselves first in the rise of modern physics as an exact science. Modern science’s way of representing pursues and entraps nature as a calculable coherence of forces. Modern physics is not experimental physics because it applies apparatus to the questioning of nature. Rather the reverse is true. Because physics, indeed already as pure theory, sets nature up to exhibit itself as a coherence of forces calculable in advance, it therefore orders its experiments precisely for the purpose of asking whether and how nature reports itself when set up in this way. ... The modern physical theory of nature prepares the way first not simply for technology but for the essence of modern technology. [ibid: 21]

(There is also a lovely distinction between history and chronology:

But after all, mathematical physics arose almost two centuries . before technology. How, then, could it have already been set upon by modern technology and placed in its service? The facts testify to the contrary. Surely technology got under way only when it could be supported by exact physical science. Reckoned chronologically, this is correct. Thought historically, it does not hit upon the truth. [ibid: 21-2] )

If I follow the broad picture, the way in which the world reveals itself to us in the modern era, the era of both modern science and industrial production, manifests the essence of technology. That essence is the form that the world takes for us. Further, although Heidegger thinks that there is something wrong with this way, what is wrong is not a matter of falsity. Truths are revealed to us through the technological gaze. One thing wrong seems to be that this way of understanding the world excludes all others. From within it, it seems that this is the only way to latch onto the world. It takes a Heidegger to spot, because of clues still present and hinted at in a line from Holderlin, that this is not so. A poetic revealing of the world, by contrast, permits the idea that still other ways may be available.

The logic of the passage about science seems to be that what is wrong in the way the world is revealed to us through the conceptual spectacles of the essence of technology is already present in the way that natural science takes the world to fit the realm of mathematicised natural law. So if there were a way to step aside from a technological gaze it would involve rejecting the rise of scientific accounts of nature. Heidegger does not seem to reject merely a philosophical addition to science: the scientistic assumption that there is no more to nature than natural science reveals. It seems that with the sentence “Modern science’s way of representing pursues and entraps nature as a calculable coherence of forces” that science itself is already at fault.

This may all be my misunderstanding but if not it seems that the cost of the framework that Heidegger offers to my colleagues is too high. As well as rejecting a scientistic assumption that the world is merely the disenchanted realm science describes, we have also to reject its disenchanted descriptions of the disenchanted bits of the world described despite the truth that seems to inhere in them. So scientific medicine would have to be thrown out wholesale rather than merely put to the service of person centred care.

I also wonder what the marks of someone who had achieved the view Heidegger points towards would be. It was, apparently, there in the poetic response to the world of the ancient Greeks and their wholehearted embrace of art not as a mere cultural industry. For them, a life of silver chalice making perhaps. But what would it be now?

Heidegger, M. (1977) 'The question concerning technology' in Heidegger, M. The question concerning technology, and other essays. New York: Harper & Row

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Missed link to RDoC

My Frontiers paper (2015) ‘Against explanatoryminimalism in psychiatry’ Frontiers of Psychiatry 6: 171 is now out in proper format. But I realise that I missed a trick by not connecting it to issues raised in particular by Steve Hyman's Oxford lectures last month: the rise and rise of RDoC. This was suggested to me in an email over the weekend by a psychiatrist:

"Hi Tim,

I came across a copy of your recent paper “Against explanatory minimalism in psychiatry.” As I am not trained in philosophy, parts of it definitely “went over my head.” But, it seems to be quite relevant to a contemporary problem in American mental health research. That is, the National Institute of Mental Health is very focused on a neuroscientific model of mental health, and more specifically the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) framework:


This is controversial because it is impacting the types of projects that are and are not funded by NIMH, independent of scientific merit as determined by the review panels. Although not explicitly mentioned in your paper, the topic of your paper seems quite timely and relates to very pragmatic issues that is already having a profound long-term effect on psychiatric research. The RDoC framework is shaping the types of questions people are training to answer – with a huge emphasis on the “lower” levels of analysis, such as genetics/genomics, biomarkers, and at best, neural circuits, and much less on the actual lived-experience of people with mental illnesses."

Tuesday, 1 December 2015


I have a couple of PhD vivas this week (and a third where my role is merely chair) and getting home after the first, which had a happy outcome and went well by all the usual standards, I was as bad tempered as, on reflection, I always am. Given that they simply comprise a friendly questioning conversation, why should that be? Perhaps it’s because they are a disturbing parody of an academic conversation.

A fellow philosopher reported on Facebook last year that she had been asked a question at a conference which began: “I want to re-ask an earlier question but more aggressively…” What possible role could aggression have in academia, she wondered. Clearly it shouldn’t have any but I think I can see why it might seem to have one.

On the assumption that asking philosophical questions is a matter of weighing reasons for beliefs, and assuming that we don’t have a general theory of good and bad reasons (logic only goes so far), then one must accord them weight them ‘from within’ for which process a characteristic experience is an inner exclamation of ‘But that’s a terrible reason!’. In polite conversation and said of someone else’s commitment – rather than the abstract possibility of a reason – saying that would sound, and possibly be, aggressive. In academia, between equals it wouldn’t be or even sound so. (There really is no need for aggression in academia.) But because of the power imbalance in a viva such an expression is something to be avoided with a potentially nervous PhD candidate. So part of the stress of the viva is that a commitment to exploring reasons brings with it characteristic experiences of bad reasons (as well as good, but they are easy) which have then constantly to be masked. For two hours.

Second, I take my role in a viva to be primarily exploring the student’s reasons for saying and doing what he or she has in the thesis not simply imposing my views of what he/she ought. It is often a matter of exploring the costs of adopting particular views. Sometimes this leads to agreement on a matter. In other cases, not and the prospect of suggested corrections to the thesis. But in a number of cases, even after some iterations, one doesn’t ground out the issue and, practically in the circumstances, the only thing to do is let the matter drop. A PhD is, after all, merely an academic apprenticeship. But as part of a conversation aimed at getting at the truth, such lacunae are hugely frustrating. So as well as letting the particular issue drop, one has also to hide the frustration of doing this.

On reflection, though, that’s not the best way to describe things. If the conversation were simply ‘aimed at getting at the truth’ then one would usually also offer solutions. That’s what I’d do at a conference or in the pub. Although I sometimes do this in vivas in order to ask a further question, as an end in itself, it is not very helpful as part of an exam. So again there’s an internal tension in this case between the apparent regulative ideal of the conversation – seeking out the truth – and its role as an exam.

I noticed yesterday that my fellow examiner referred in media res to the ‘interesting conversation’ we were all ‘having together’. But it is a weird parody of a conversation leaving no one satisfied.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Against explanatory minimalism in psychiatry

My anti-John Campbell paper is out in a very preliminary form with Frontiers of Psychiatry, just a couple of days after being accepted.

Interesting (and worth bearing in mind in the future) that one gets to see who reviewed it.

So thanks to:

Daniel D. Hutto, University of Wollongong, Australia
Dawa Ometto, Utrecht University, Netherlands

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Kendler’s ‘Toward a limited realism for psychiatric nosology based on the coherence theory of truth’

Some of our philosophy and mental health students have been looking at Kenneth Kendler’s paper ‘Toward a limited realism for psychiatric nosology based on the coherence theory of truth’ prompting me to look at it. It is odd. I think my confusion is more psychological than philosophical, however.

The paper unleashes the meta-induction. Most past theories have proved to be false and most theoretical terms did not successfully refer. Thus, by induction, most of our current theories will prove to be false and have non-referring theoretical terms. What makes this a particularly poignant argument is that it deploys a form of inference widely assumed to play a key role in science against science. Kendler summarises this thus:

In discussions for and against scientific realism, strong support for the instrumentalist position has come from what has been called the ‘pessimistic induction’ (PI) argument (Psillos, 1996). Considering the history of scientific theories in any particular discipline (e.g. astronomy, genetics, physics, psychology), over time, older theories have continuously been replaced by newer ones. This in fact often defines scientific progress. Thus, sitting in the present, we can look back at earlier theories, since replaced, and see entities and processes referred to by these theories that are no longer considered to be real. For example, planets do not travel in epicycles as they circle the earth, ether does not exist and inheritance is not (typically) Lamarckian in nature. [Kendler 2015: 1115]

He then goes on to list a number of non-referring theoretical terms from the history of science originally set out by Larry Laudan. This then motivates an application of the meta-induction to psychiatry. Kendler comments:

Anyone with a smattering of knowledge of psychiatric history would have little problem in creating a list of 12 abandoned psychiatric disorders that at one time were widely used and considered true but are no longer considered useful and would perhaps be judged to be ‘false’. One such list would be: (i) paraphrenia; (ii) neurasthenia; (iii) phrenzy; (iv) periodic hallucinatory insanity; (v) drapetomania (Cartwright, 2004); (vi) monomania (Esquirol, 1845); (vii) lypemania (Esquirol, 1845); (viii) demonomania (Esquirol, 1845); (ix) anxiety-happiness psychosis (Leonhard, 1979); (x) cataphasia, (Leonhard, 1979); (xi) confabulatory euphoria (Leonhard, 1979); and (xii) hysteria. The PI argument applied to current psychiatric disorders argues strongly against what might be called a ‘hard’ realism model for psychiatric disorders. [ibid: 1116]

In the face of this Kendler makes two suggestions. The first is that whilst particular diagnostic categories may prove mistaken, the idea that there are some real psychiatric illnesses looks more secure. ‘we can be much more confident about the existence of the liquid than the particular bottles in which it is now residing’. Strangely there does not seem to be much of an argument for this and to defuse the meta-induction. I am sure he is right but I think we need to be told why the inductive inference can rationally be expected to fail on this point. Earlier, in an apparent spirit of fairness, Kendler mentions Putnam’s no miracles argument for scientific realism. But he does not mention it again nor does he investigate whether it could apply to some areas of science but not others nor how it intersects with the meta-induction.

Second, he suggests that we should adopt a particular view of truth with respect to psychiatric theory.

The standard approach to truth is the ‘correspondence theory’, which assumes that a statement (or theory) is true if it corresponds to a stable, mind-independent reality. This is a plausible way to think about the elements of the periodic table, but it is poor way to think about psychiatric disorders. [ibid: 1117]

Again, there is no diagnostic move to explain why the Periodic Table is exempt from the meta-induction and hence merits a correspondence approach. But:

For psychiatric disorders, we need a less ambitious version of reality. A humbler approach can be found in the coherence theory of truth. This theory postulates that something is true when it fits well with the other things we know confidently about the world. [ibid: 1117]

And then a little later we have the application of this to psychiatry:

What do we mean in this metaphorical space when we want to say that a diagnosis is ‘real’? Before answering that, let’s consider the simpler question: ‘What do we mean in this metaphorical space when we want to say that one diagnostic concept is more real than another?’ Here, the answer is simple. To be more real means to be connected to more already existing pieces and/or to be connected by stronger strings. So what then do we mean to say a diagnosis is real? We might say it is ‘pretty well’ connected with the other pieces, that it is ‘pretty well’ integrated into our accumulating scientific data base. In other words, a diagnosis is real to the degree that it ‘coheres’ well with what we already know empirically and feel confident about. [ibid: 1117]

The idea seems to be that some areas of reality and some claims as to truth are governed by one kind of truth and others governed by another. Note that this isn’t saying that the kinds of facts vary – which one might think for, say, the facts expressed in moral claims by contrast with natural scientific claims – so much as that the kind of truth varies. A redundancy theorist of truth, for example, might, also for example, think that understanding or grasping moral facts requires a special design of mind whilst grasping physical facts does not. Different ontologies, same conception of truth. This is not Kendler's way. The benchmark for psychiatry is just lower/humbler than for chemistry. What it is for something to be true in psychiatry is not just differently constituted (for example in a mind-dependent way) but actually easier. To call something true for psychiatry should involve less than for chemistry.

But the reason my confusion is more psychological than philosophical is that I cannot believe that Kendler really believes any of this. That is, that saying that schizophrenia exists is somehow making a quite different kind of linguistic move (disciplined differently as a move) than saying plutonium exists ie measured against the world differently. Surely he doesn’t think that one can just pick theories of truth willy nilly? In reply to a suggestion (by PZ) that this worry presupposes a hostility (by me) to a coherence theory of truth, I do not think so. I would be happy to take a coherence theory seriously - I used to be a Davidsonian, after all - but not a pick and mix attitude to theories of truth. Surely if one thinks a coherence theory is true then it sets the standard for truth, punkt. It doesn't set what one concedes is a lesser standard.

And against what standard could a theory of truth be ‘humbler’? Is the truth of the coherence theory of truth itself a matter of correspondence or coherence? My hunch is that talk of ‘humbler’ implies that Kendler thinks that the truth of this meta-question is really truth as correspondence. But that in turn suggests that truth generally is really correspondence and the local adoption of coherence isn’t serious. It’s just a way of speaking.

If so, I don’t understand why anyone would think that serious worries about the validity of disease categories could be lanced by playing with theories of truth. So at the psychological level, I cannot believe that Kendler really believes in a mere coherence theory of truth and hence I cannot see how that could thus provide genuine solace for real worries about psychiatric taxonomy. That all seems too easy. So why did he write it?

Kendler, K. (2015)‘Toward a limited realism for psychiatric nosology based on the coherence theory of truth’ Psychological Medicine (2015), 45, 1115–1118

Friday, 6 November 2015

Steve Hyman's Loebel Lectures

At the end of the third Loebel lecture by Steve Hyman, the motivation for some of the more radical sounding claims from the second lecture became clearer. The more radical claims included the idea that because decision making processes are subserved by unconscious processes, our sense of agency for such decisions is misleading. (At the workshop I glossed his 'not veridical' as simply false. He flirted instead with incomplete. But I think that 'false' captured the intuition.)

One slide from the second lecture went as follows:

The eliminativist view (self, minds agency as illusion) misses important facts.

Evolution seems to have invested a great deal in our capacity-limited serial processor (consciousness) that serves as an important connector with parallel processing unconscious systems.

Impairment in sense of agency: a toxins stressor
Sense of being controlled: psychosis
Impairment in recognition of minds: autism spectrum

Yet from a neuroscience view, intuitions of eg. of agency, are not veridical. Rather they are proxies for unconscious processes.

Now this starts with a softening move in the comment about evolution. Further, in three cases, a lack of a sense of autonomy or sensitivity to others' agency is pathological. But there is that robust final comment that intuitions are not veridical but proxies for something else.

And this suggests a different reading of the earlier comment about evolution as having provided us with a useful fiction rather than a truthful awareness. Steve suggested I had him right on this.

One example he gave, again before today, was that of unconscious grasp of grammatical rules. He reamarked:  "When I am talking, I am not thinking 'now I need a verb'. These systems are not accessible by introspection."

But in my own talk earlier, I argued that the was no problem with high level intentional actions and context coming together to guide lower level basic actions and these being underpinned by motor capacities whose working is not available to consciousness. To take the industry standard example, crossing the road may lead to ironwork-avoiding action but also draw on unconscious adaptation of footfall to cope with slippery leaves. Or to use Steve's own example, in giving a talk about agency I may need to say something about crossing the road. But expressing / exercising that thought can simply draw on unconscious knowledge of grammar. I don't see any threat to agency here. 

(It would be revisionary of an understanding of agency that did require that no part of an action was not available to consciousness. But surely there is no reason to think that that is widely held?)

However, today's lecture concerned addiction and offered a kind of Pavlovian story of how dopamine plays a role in training the brain to attend to the scene at hand, as marking that something in the scene is better than expected. This role is then usurped by drugs that mimic that function. The thought as then that because the biochemical explanation explained how it could be that plant extract chemicals could overcome human free choice, this was the correct causal story of what happened. But it is typically not a story that is available to, or even consistent with the rationalising stories told by addicts.

So that was the real context for the rest of the worry that agency is a myth sold to us for evolutionary advantage but not for truth. But it leaves open a much more modest almost disjunctivist possibility. Agency goes wrong in the case of addiction, to be sure, and knowledge of the predicament also goes wrong. That's the bad disjunct. But in the good, there is no inference from the presence of something unconscious to agency's myth.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Commentary as pre-prepared anticipation or incoherent ad lib?

I am about to go and listen to the second of the 2015 Loebel lectures in Oxford for which I am one of a happy handful of commentators. After the lecture there will be a dinner with my fellows, the distinguished speaker Prof Steve Hyman and the organisers. After that, I doubt that my philosophical brain will be at the height of its powers. (My numbskulls pack up early these days.)

So this prompts the question: should I have guessed what will be said this evening and pre-prepared my commentary due tomorrow (even then, in advance of the final concluding lecture)? Or should I wing it on the morning?

The third option - the Caol Isla option (see 1:55mins-) - is not to be repeated.

I guess, as I sip a pint of Oakham Citra, I have already implicitly made my choice. But I fear that neither option escapes a charge of rudeness.

Monday, 2 November 2015

The harmony of thought and reality in McDowell and Wittgenstein

I gave a talk in Utrecht last week and revisited an old interest. How different are McDowell’s and Wittgenstein’s accounts the ‘harmony of thought and reality’, in Wittgenstein’s phrase? I now think them utterly different and hardly attempting to answer the same question at all, to scratch the same itch. Perhaps the following sketch is now too unfair to McDowell.
We can set the scene with some passages from the middle of the Philosophical Investigations. (In my experience, this is a good way into thinking there is a problem here, needing some sort of response.)
I see someone pointing a gun and say “I expect a report”. The shot is fired. - Well, that was what you expected; so did that report somehow already exist in your expectation? [Wittgenstein 1953 §442]
Or is it just that there is some other kind of agreement between your expectation and what occurred; that the noise was not contained in your expectation, and merely supervened when the expectation was being fulfilled? - But no, if the noise had not occurred, my expectation would not have been fulfilled; the noise fulfilled it; it was not an accompaniment like a second guest accompanying the one I expected. [§442].
Was the thing about the event that was not in the expectation too an accident, an extra provided by fate? - But then what was not an extra? Did something of the shot already occur in my expectation? - Then what was extra? for wasn’t I expecting the whole shot? [§442]
“The report was not so loud as I had expected.” - “Then was there a louder bang in your expectation?” [§442]
“The red which you imagine is surely not the same (the same thing) as the red which you see in front of you; so how can you say that it is what you imagined?” [§443]
Now I don’t want to speak for the details of these thoughts, but they suggest to me at least the following problem. How can we account for the connection between the expectation and what fulfilled it given both that we don’t want to say that everything in the shot was ‘in’ the expectation and it seems that if what is in the expectation isn’t the very shot then the expectation cannot actually be about the shot that fulfils it? For any content-laden/intentional mental state, what is the connection between it, something mental,  and what it is about, something which may be part of the history of actual happenings but then again may not come about?
Generalising from expecting and imagining to thoughts (for convenience) there is, I think, a dilemma.
  • If the content of true thoughts are constituted the very facts they are about or by some sort of direct and possibly spooky relations to worldly facts, what are the contents of false thoughts? (Such direct relations seem fine for experiences, if we assume experiences have contents and are about things, or for perceptually mediated beliefs but what about future directed thoughts such as expectations?)
  • If the contents of false thoughts are free-standing internal states (pictures?), how does (true) thought ever bear on / connect to worldly facts? (Cf if understanding a rule is an inner state, how does it connect to later correct moves?) Free standing mental items seem to be no better candidates for carrying thoughts than the ten black suits hanging in my wardrobe. Suits are not about anything.)
McDowell highlights a debt from Mind and World to a Wittgensteinian trusim which, despite being a trusim, prompts the above dilemma.

I find it helpful… to reflect on a remark of Wittgenstein’s. ‘When we say, and mean, that such-and-such is the case, we - and our meaning - do not stop anywhere short of the fact; but we mean: this - is - so.’ [Wittgenstein 1953 §95] Wittgenstein calls this a paradox. That is because, especially in conjunction with the fact that “thought can be of what is not the case”, it can prompt a reaction in which our minds boggle over what seems a miraculous power of thinking in the most general sense, in this case meaning what one says, to “catch reality in its net”. But Wittgenstein also says, rightly, that the remark “has the form of a truism”. We can formulate the point in a style Wittgenstein would have been uncomfortable with: there is no ontological gap between the sort of thing one can mean, or generally the sort of thing one can think, and the sort of thing that can be the case. When one thinks truly, what one thinks is what is the case. So since the world is everything that is the case (as he himself once wrote), there is no gap between thought, as such, and the world. Of course thought can be distanced from the world by being false, but there is no distance from the world implicit in the very idea of thought. [McDowell 1994: 27 italics added]

This sets up the solution that McDowell develops in Mind and World. But I think that it is guided by a number of other prior assumptions.
  • A denial of the ‘master thesis’: ‘that whatever a person has in her mind, it is only by virtue of being interpreted in one of various possible ways that it can impose a sorting of extra-mental items into those that accord with it and those that do not.’ [McDowell 1998: 270]
  • Disjunctivism: perceptual experience is not limited to a highest common factor between veridical and illusory experience. Developed as an interpretation of Wittgenstein’s criteria. ‘To paraphrase Wittgenstein, when we see that such-and-such is the case, we, and our seeing, do not stop anywhere short of the fact. What we see is: that such-and-such is the case.’ [McDowell 1994: 29]
  • The rational constraint constraint: intentionality is only possible if there is a rational constraint between world and thought.
  • Theory building a la Sellars’ Myth of Jones. Just as Jones theorises about mental states on the basis of utterances, so McDowell is happy to theorise about experiences on the same model. I realise that the word ‘theory’ here may seem unkind.
This gives an argument for the Mind and World picture which runs as follows:
  1. The very idea of mental states having content requires their rational friction (not merely causal contact) with the world.
  2. Our only understanding of rational relations requires both relata have conceptual structure.
  3. Since experience provides the friction it must have conceptual structure (passively drawn in).
  4. And since experience is – because of the rejection of the master thesis - a kind of direct openness to the world (by contrast, a self-standing configuration in the inner realm) then the world itself must have conceptual structure.
In sum:
In a particular experience in which one is not misled, what one takes in is that things are thus and so. That things are thus and so is the content of the experience, and it can also be the content of a judgement: it becomes the content of a judgement if the subject decides to take the experience at face value. So it is conceptual content. But that things are thus and so is also, if one is not misled, an aspect of the layout of the world: it is how things are. Thus the idea of conceptually structured operations of receptivity puts us in a position to speak of experience as openness to the layout of reality. Experience enables the layout of reality itself to exert a rational influence on what a subject thinks. [McDowell 1994: 26]
There are a number of objections raised to this. I’ll list some:
  • Which concepts passively structure experience? All of them? (Contrast the question for active judgement.)
  • How can representationalism be combined with disjunctivism? If one thinks that experience has a representational content akin to a kind of unendorsed belief-content then it is tempting to think that both true and false experiences have the same content. But then how can that be reconciled with disjnuctivism which holds that veridical experiences are of a different nature to non-veridical experiences. In recent writing McDowell seems to concede this for the content of the experience but instead distinguish between two ways in which that content is had by the experience. If so, however, the having of the content must be available to the subject otherwise the position falls prey to the very same objections McDowell directs against highest common factor accounts of experience (and 1970s Wittgensteinian accounts of criteria and Brandom).
  • Is this idealistic? The world = set of true Thoughts. (‘my exploitation of Wittgenstein’s truism... can indeed be reformulated by saying thought and reality meet in the realm of sense.’ [McDowell 1994: 180]) We could grant McDowell his wish to call the world this, or this the world - some men when they hear the bagpipes wail... - but what of the world of things rather than facts?
  • Unpacking the content of experience as either looking like, or looking as if both fail. (Travis himself locates content only in responses to experience.)
McDowell has retreated from the Mind and World picture in papers such as 'Avoiding the Myth of the Given'. Now the same content is no longer mirrored from thought to experience to world. Thought and world may be the same but they are mediated by a different form of content (intuitional rather than propositional) with only a subset of the concepts available to judgement. But the resulting picture is far from the truism and seems instead aimed at explaining it.
When one thinks truly, what one thinks is what is the case. So since the world is everything that is the case (as he himself once wrote), there is no gap between thought, as such, and the world. Of course thought can be distanced from the world by being false, but there is no distance from the world implicit in the very idea of thought. But to say there is no gap between thought, as such, and the world is just to dress up a truism in high-flown language. All the point comes to is that one can think, for instance, that spring has begun, and that very same thing, that spring has begun, can be the case. That is truistic… [McDowell 1994: 27]
The truism is explained by the idea that a harmony of thought and language can itself be explained by the idea that the world has the same conceptual structure as thought. German Idealism explains the harmony. Idealism is the price for the explanation.
To repeat, I think that I am now overstating. I’m sure he would say that it doesn’t aim to explain the harmony but rather to restate it. Still it is hard to read the conceptual structure of the world as mere truism. (Or rather, one can if one reads the world to be just the set of true thoughts. But that then raises the conncetion between that world and the world of things. And yes, I know, that the later stages of Mind and World citing Evans on non-descriptive senses claim to have solved this. But I don't see it.) So let’s look back at Wittgenstein, continuing from where I left off.
“The red which you imagine is surely not the same (the same thing) as the red which you see in front of you; so how can you say that it is what you imagined?” [§443]
But haven’t we an analogous case with the propositions “Here is a red patch” and “Here there isn’t a red patch”? The word “red” occurs in both; so this word cannot indicate the presence of something red. [§443]
And this harks back to an earlier comment which introduces the phrase ‘the harmony of thought and reality’:
The agreement, the harmony, of thought and reality consists in this: if I say falsely that something is red, then, for all that, it isn’t red. And if I want to explain “red” to someone, in the sentence “That is not red”, I do it by pointing to something red. [§429 underline added]
The most obvious difference between McDowell and Wittgenstein here is that McDowell uses truth and agreement to discuss harmony relegating – in accord with disjunctivism – falsity to a subsidiary role where thought can be distanced from reality. By contrast, Wittgenstein takes the harmony to consist in something present in the case of falsity. This leads up to the positive account.
One may have the feeling that in the sentence “I expect he is coming” one is using the words “he is coming” in a different sense from the one they have in the assertion “He is coming”. But if it were so how could I say that my expectation had been fulfilled? If I wanted to explain the words “he” and “is coming”, say by means of ostensive definitions, the same definitions of these words would go for both sentences. [§444]
But it might now be asked: what’s it like for him to come? - The door opens, someone walks in, and so on. - What’s it like for me to expect him to come? - I walk up and down the room, look at the clock now and then, and so on. - But the one set of events has not the smallest similarity to the other! So how can one use the same words in describing them? - But perhaps I say as I walk up and down: “I expect he’ll come in.” - Now there is a similarity somewhere. But of what kind?! [§444]
It is in language that an expectation and its fulfilment make contact. [§445]
What looked like a substantial question about connections is answered by reminders about individuation. We reuse the same language to ascribe propositional attitudes and the facts that satisfy them. Nothing ‘makes possible’ the normative connection between thought and world. There really isn’t any harmony or agreement between thought and reality given that thought is possible at all. I can only conclude that Wittgenstein and McDowell have quite different assumptions about what needs to be solved here. For McDowell, a prior misleading assumption about empiricism and - in this context - disjunctivism queers the pitch.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Loebel Lectures and Workshop, Michaelmas Term 2015

I have been invited to act as a commentator on the Loebel Lectures in Oxford this year with the title The theoretical challenge of modern psychiatry: no easy cure. The lectures run Tuesday to Thursday and there is a workshop on the Thursday.

The blurb from the website runs as follows:

We are pleased to announce that the 2015 Loebel Lectures in Psychiatry and Philosophy will be delivered by Professor Steven E. Hyman, director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard as well as Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology. From 2001 to 2011, he served as provost of Harvard University, the University’s chief academic officer. As provost, he had a special focus on developing collaborative scientific initiatives that span multiple disciplines and institutions. In that role he helped shape the Broad Institute and Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. From 1996 to 2001, he served as director of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), where he emphasized investment in neuroscience and emerging genetic technologies, as well as the establishment of DNA collections to facilitate genetic studies at large scale. He also initiated a series of large clinical trials with the goal of informing practice.

Hyman is president-elect of the Society for Neuroscience, editor of the Annual Review of Neuroscience, and was founding president of the International Neuroethics Society. He is a member of the Institute of Medicine of the U.S. National Academies where he serves on the Governing Council and Board of Health Science Policy, and chairs the Forum on Neuroscience and Nervous System Disorders, which brings together industry, government, academia, and voluntary organizations. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a fellow of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, and a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.

Hyman received his B.A. summa cum laude from Yale College, a B.A. and M.A. from the University of Cambridge, which he attended as a Mellon fellow, and an M.D. cum laude from Harvard Medical School.

For 2015, we are holding a series of three public lectures and a one-day complementary workshop, details below.

Lectures: 3, 4 and 5 November 2015 All three lectures will take place between 6-8pm, at the *Grove Auditorium, Magdalen College, Longwall Street, Oxford OX1 4AU. *Important note - the venue is accessed via Longwall Street only.

All are welcome to attend these public lectures, however booking is required. Please book your place for each lecture separately on our bookwhen site. Please note the venue requires us to issue tickets so please print out and bring your booking confirmation with you.

Series title: The theoretical challenge of modern psychiatry: no easy cure

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Keeping a blog: academic strategy or lifestyle choice?

I’m giving a short 10 minute talk on this blog to colleagues with an interest in social media. In such circumstances I feel a little bit fraudulent as there is no single rationale for my keeping this and hence no clear argument to suggest that anyone else should. Further, others have strategies for dep[loying social media for very particular purposes of self promotion whilst I have never been sufficiently cold blooded about it. Still, as Wittgenstein points out, we send people to prison for a variety of reasons and that doesn’t suggest no rationale at all.

I guess the key factors are:
  • Showing the ship getting into the bottle to graduate students. My original motivation was to show papers / chapters at all stages of preparation in order that graduate students (PhDs and those on the MA in Philosophy and Mental Health) were not discouraged by the sight, only, of philosophers’ finished works. Of course this carries the danger for me of publishing rather than hiding my mistakes and hence of me never getting another job.
  • Serving as a preliminary stage for writing papers / chapters by forcing some preliminary coherence. It is difficult to know how far to take the preliminary / draft versions. But so far only 2 journals have objected to this.
  • Promoting the subject (philosophy of mental health / psychiatry and philosophy; anti-reductionist philosophy) and my own views of it. Some conferences etc. The figures of hits per month are about the same as OUP book print run so by accident this may be quite significant.
  • Conversations with fellow academics. Eg Harry Collins here and here. There are arguments for and against enabling comments and I have so far not done. But I publish emailed comments.
  • Enabling my own life of the mind. Eg.pub thoughts on the meaning of life.
  • A convenient place for manifestos. See below.
Practicalities / style guidelines: I write assuming that there is as much chance of a readership as the papers I Blu-Tack to my office door. Hence no apologies for time off nor use of the vocative. I warn people if I write up a substantial conference paper or a draft formal review of a book. I don’t worry too much about past links. Google based Blogger is favoured by Google searches. Wordpress is slower but, I'm told, has better access.

There is a rationale for the title and vague inclusion criteria for entries but it is not exclusively an academic blog. Hence, eg., theatre reviews. I suspect I would no longer be keeping a purely academic blog. It isn't really an academic strategy.

Some manifestos

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Levels of explanation in psychiatry

I’m reworking, today, a paper (submitted to a journal which did not want a draft of the paper on this blog) which compares and contrasts Wittgenstein’s and Campbell’s views on levels of explanation and rational explanation. In it, I argue that despite the similarity between their rejections of a necessary connection between rational explanation and neurological explanation, there is a significant difference.

Campbell’s rejection of a priori connections is put to the service of a denial of coherence to the very idea of levels of explanation. Such an idea presupposes, he argues, the idea that causality presupposes intelligibility in the world and Hume refuted that. That is, Campbell ties the idea of a level of explanation to a causal structure which makes sense to us. He then argues that because causation is in fact merely brute (following Hume), thinking that causal explanation tracks an intelligible structure in the world mistakenly projects a synthetic a priori structure onto the world. Philosophers are tempted by such synthetic a priori claims but should reject them.

Wittgenstein’s discussion of rational explanation suggests that there is, contra Campbell, reason to hold that there is such a synthetic a priori. It is the price of the assumption that a state is intentional or content laden.

As part of the context of this, my paper describes Putnam and Oppenheim’s ontological view of levels of explanation and Marr’s epistemic view. It then sets out Dominic Murphy’s discussion of the fact that psychiatry fits neither of these approaches because it invokes explanations that cross all levels. One reviewer of the draft paper asks: if psychiatry doesn’t fit any picture of levels of explanation, why would readers be interested in Campbell’s criticism of the very idea of levels of explanation? Murphy’s claims undermine the motivation to consider Campbell’s.

But it seems to me that this is wrong. Murphy’s claims address forms of explanation currently in vogue. They leave as possibilities that either ontological or epistemological housekeeping might return the scene to Marr’s or Putnam and Oppenheim’s views of what must be. Campbell goes further: if he is right, there cannot be any levels with which psychiatric data can be reconciled. No house-keeping is possible.

Against that, Wittgenstein argues for something distinct. There need not be any harmony between levels of explanation, but there is a reason to hold to some distinct forms of intelligibility. The rationale for a synthetic a priori is that that is the way intentionality comes into sight.

Is that clear?

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Loneliness research in psychology and operationalism

I spent a day at a research group meeting, organised by Pam Qualter, with a focus on the psychology youth loneliness with researchers, mainly working within psychology, from the rest of the U.K., Holland and Belgium. Because of the disciplinary background, it was interesting to hear about the variety of studies being done, looking, for example at the difference between those people who find a transition, eg between schools, as an opportunity for a fresh start and those who instead feel loneliness. Or the idea that using Facebook to increase an existing social group is generally experienced positively whereas those who use to to try to add to or replace an inadequate social life are disappointed. Or the difference between using Facebook when that is culturally normal and when it is not, where the difference amounts to removal, or not, from the wider non-online social group. Flung into the conversation was the finding that there is a link between loneliness and rumination and an inability to get over or learn from bad experiences. Also, girls with lonely friends tend to get more lonely whereas boys get less lonely. This perhaps suggests co-rumination in the former case. Also, that across all ages there is no difference in loneliness between the genders.

I was also reassured that despite the practical or clinical need in some cases not to ask people about their bad experiences - and hence wording questionnaires only positively - that in general the affective character of loneliness was often directly investigated. My worry had been that asking about social connections and support might mistakenly assume that happy loners are lonely. But even here it seems to me that there are difficulties if one investigates loneliness in other terms even if affective. I might, for example, think that I do not have enough friends on some cultural standard, or even think that I might like having more, without actually feeling lonely. Surely those young people who want more Facebook friends for reasons of apparent status may feel disappointed or inadequate. But not lonely?

If on the other hand, what it is to feel lonely is to be disposed to use that very word of oneself, then how does one police the use of that word, especially with the young? Luc Goossens, from Belgium, reassured me that there is evidence that pre-school onwards children say they are 'sad because they have no friends' and slowly learn more sophisticated understanding. I guess that this example is no more mysterious than any other case in which from apparently patchy reinforcement in the face of all sorts of Kripkean possibilities, speakers converge on the same understanding.

Towards the end of the day, however, Mark Atkinson, University of Exeter, raised a point which seemed to me quite crucial. Apparently, the scaling dimension in the UCLA loneliness scale is frequency. There is no measure of intensity. There was some discussion about whether this mattered, whether anything would turn out empirically different if an attempt were made to add intensity to the scales and hence to the research. The mood of the group was that it probably wouldn't matter. I am less sanguine about this. It suggests to me that what is being measured isn't loneliness as an emotion or state but particular expressions of loneliness. And the frequency of such expressions might not correlate very well with the strength of the emotion itself. The frequency of particular expressions, particular feelings, might depend on contextual factors, for example, and hence be a measure of the presence of those prompting factors. But the most obvious feature of loneliness seems to me to be intensity. There is all the difference in the world with the bitter-sweet loneliness I feel when I go for a walk in the Lake District and the sense of loneliness when stuck in Paris a few years ago. How often did I feel lonely? All the time! Once!

I asked whether there was an articulation of the concept of loneliness within psychology which the scales then attempted to be measures of. There might be an analysis of loneliness in the way that there are competing philosophical models of emotions more generally which focus on different - cognitive and affective - elements. But it seems that there is only the operationalisations. That suggets, if I understood, that there is no theoretical mediation between the folk concept and scales which seems rather bald.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Advanced Seminar and Inaugural Values-Based Theory Network Meeting

Rattling back on the train from Oxford today (8 hours of travel for 7 hours of workshop), from an Advanced Seminar and Inaugural Values-Based Theory Network Meeting, organised by Anna Bergqvist for the The Collaborating Centre for Values-based Practice in Health and Social Care, I was struck by how tricky it is to balance the opposing requirements on a conception of values based practice.

An aside: I have now taken to stressing to mental health nursing students at UCLan that there is an ambiguity in the spoken label: values based practice. So ‘values based practice’ is any approach to healthcare that takes appropriate note of the role of values (as one of my students suggested last week). By contrast ‘Values Based Practice’ is a proprietary brand of this promoted by Bill Fulford. That is why there can even be books critical of the very idea of VBP but not vbp. Mentioning this, today, Bill seemed rather amused by the distinction.

The opposing requirements on a conception of values based practice concern the imperative to get the philosophy right versus the need to encourage approaches which do not result in the danger of paternalism. Stressing the latter justifies Bill Fulford in resisting the allure of moral particularism. Stressing the former motivates philosophers – like me - to criticise VBP’s proceduralism from the perspective of moral particularism. Today, however, hard opposition was put aside and some peripheral issues explored.

Criticising my own papers on idiographic understanding (for the wrong reasons, I still think), Anna Berquvist made an interesting suggestion. We should think of vbp as containing an idiographic element as present in the way that a patient or service user’s reports of their circumstances and wishes / values constitute a claim about the world (understood in the broad way moral particularists understand ‘world’). Deploying a phrase to remind us of Charles Travis, she described these as ‘answerable stances’ and suggested that – following Travis – identifying the stance they are and the alternatives they rule out calls for a specific focus on that person (she didn’t say but probably meant sotto voce: and occasion).

Further, she suggested that this called for narrative understanding. Echoing this back in a question, I asked whether she meant that the gap between the general context-independent meanings of words and the particular claims they can be used to mean on particular lips on particular occasions (thus framing an answerable stance) was meant to be filled by narrative and if so, why stringing words together in narratives answered this problem (by contrast with missing it altogether if narratives are words with meanings in general; or begging the question if narratives are words on the understandings presented by the occasion). Sadly we ran out of time for a proper discussion of this point. And, in truth, my own paper (based on this) also faced the awkwardness of the narrative theorists dilemma: either ubiquitous but vacuous or specific but rare.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

John McDowell Oxford Bibliography post

I see that my entry on John McDowell on the Oxford Bibliographies website has now been published.

It is here for those - aptly! - with eyes to see (well, an institutional log-on).

The general site is here.

It is an interesting question how often one should update it. But writing it has been helpful for preparing the second edition of my book on McDowell which I hope (and I understand, not unreasonably) will be accepted by Routledge.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Twitter and authority

I have some vague recollections of an INPP (International Network of Philosophy and Psychiatry conference) in Lisbon a few years ago: the surprising defences of lobotomy by a disproportionate number of local psychiatrists (perhaps Portuguese psychiatry was having a moment); a paper by Rom Harre which lacked his customary zing; my own part in a panel presentation, in a big echoing hall of rather fascist-architecture, on Recovery when, after I’d spoken (sceptically? thoughtfully?) and was returning to the panel’s seats on the podium, both Larry Davidson and Bill Fulford had their heads in their hands and wouldn’t meet my eye. But at some point in the conference I was accosted by a stranger who said: “This is dull, let’s go and get something to eat”. A half hour taxi ride into town and the indecisions of people who don’t know one another, and I had an iffy steak but the most enjoyable company. But I’ve not seen much of Dariusz since.

Cropping up – briskly, abruptly as is the nature of the medium - on twitter today, he expressed a common (and my) view from within academia: twitter and its visibility may be necessary for academic work and the stress on dissemination and impact but it is difficult: “I find it exhibitionist. Who cares what I do, did or think?” I don’t think his point is that people will not care what an academic thinks per se (though that may also be true, sadly) but rather what an academic writing via twitter thinks. It strikes me that this highlights a feature of twitter which may be why I don’t like it: it depends on authority. It embodies an appeal to extra-textual authority.

Some tweets won’t. Those which most encourage the label ‘meme’ (a dreadful concept), perhaps. So, for example, tweeted pictures of ducklings cuddling up to cats make an appeal (if they do) which has no need for an author. Perhaps the famous one word proof of Pythogoras’ Theorem: “ecce!” augmented by a suitable diagram. But invoking tweeted images seems to be cheating. Pure text cannot do very much in a 140 characters. Crucially, it cannot offer a case for a claim or display its reasons, the kind of thing for which academics aim. That can be done in the standard media for academic dissemination: the books and papers of tradition. It can also be done in blog posts where, again, there is enough space to make a case.

I realise I risk being naïve about the authority of a text that’s longer than a tweet. David Foster Wallace wrote a fine positive review (‘Authority and American Usage’) of a 700 page work of prescriptive grammar. Such a case raises the difficulty of assuming authority in spades: why on earth should one follow some fellow’s hunches about how English ought to be written? Descriptive grammar seems to be the only intellectually honest approach. But in this case, the author – Foster Wallace tells us – cajoles us into following him through a series of choices. Surely if you want to be clear, you can see how it would be better to write this than that? And hence the authority of the text rests on the display of technical mastery available to the neutral reader. And for any reader who does not see that appeal, no matter. (As the public information film against swimming in dark swampy building sites ended: “Sensible children: I have no power over them”)

But a tweet seems to have to trade on the authority of its author in one of two ways. Either by accord with the principle: Stephen Fry says X (in a 140 characters) so X must be true. Or, worse I think, Stephen Fry’s saying X makes X interesting for that reason alone. This is an instance of the power of celebrity. Stephen Fry eats eggs for breakfast / thinks coffee passé / wears tweed again and thus so should we. It’s not because we think him likely to right about the objective aesthetics of eggs, coffee or tweed as an expert. Rather he is an expert in being Stephen Fry. That’s enough reason for us to do those things. That is, I think, how twitter works and why academics, aside perhaps from celebrity academics (or perhaps even more so for them), should shun it.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Avner Baz on the final section of Avner Baz' 'On when words are called for'

“Dear Tim,

I just read your post about the paper. Thank you so much for reading it and commenting on it.

I wrote the paper almost 15 years ago, but the basic argument is simple and still seems to me to be sound (McDowell has since retracted the idea, which was the target of my paper, that our experience contains claims, or has propositional content):

The content of a judgment (what Travis later came to call ‘auto-representation’) of perception, and similarly the content of an utterance describing what someone else is seeing, or saw, just like the content of any utterance, is context-dependent. So of course I could, given a suitable context, say what you see, and you could say what you see, and it could also be said that what you said was the same as what I said—so we could be said to be attributing the same content to your visual experience. But the content of any of those utterances is context-dependent—the words by themselves, apart from some suitable context, (would) leave it indeterminate. And the problem with McDowell (of Mind and World and ‘Having the World in View’) is that he wants to say—he SAYS—that the very same content that such utterances would have, was somehow already in the experience—independently from being articulated in one way or another, in a context suitable for such articulation (Travis would say independently of being auto-represented)—just by virtue of your being a competent speaker and awake, and facing the cube, or the tree. And THAT idea, I argue, cannot be made sense of. In attempting to make sense of it, McDowell relies on the words that could, given a suitable context, be used to say what someone (or oneself) sees, or saw. And that reliance betrays a misunderstanding—which I suspect McDowell himself would have disavowed if it were presented to him explicitly—of how language functions.  



Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The final section of Avner Baz' 'On when words are called for'

I have been reading Avner Baz’s paper, slightly confusingly called ‘On when words are called for’. It is an interesting Travis-like attack on McDowell's representationalist account of experience. But I am not sure I follow the argument because it doesn't seem as forceful as I expected it would.

The final section requires the defence, in an earlier section, of Stanley Cavell’s Wittgensteinian thought that the meaning of utterances cannot be read off the words alone but turns on their point or interest. Their point is not accidental to meaning but partly constitutes it. The final section applies this to McDowell’s account of experience in Mind and World which, like Sellars’ Myth of Jones, suggests that the content of experiences can be modelled on that of judgements.

Baz reports that:

We are invited by McDowell to think of the content of our experience as the very same content that judgments or claims might have… I think it would be more precise, and more to McDowell’s point, to say that to judge is to make up our mind what we are going to call something, what we are going to count something as (an object in front of us as a red cube; a surface as smooth; a government as stable). [485]

The first objection now runs as follows:

Already at this point we might begin to feel uncomfortable with the idea that ‘a judgment of experience simply endorses the conceptual content, or some of it, that is already possessed by the experience on which it is grounded’ (MW, p. 49, my emphases). For it is not clear what room this formulation leaves for faithfulness or unfaithfulness to our experience – and I mean this not primarily in the sense of telling or hiding the truth about it, or being right or wrong about it, but rather in the sense of being true to it, or failing to. [486]

I don’t follow this. I’m not sure I understand the difference between, on the one hand, being right or wrong about an experience and, on the other, being true to it or not. If that difference is vital then it undermines what I initially thought that this was: a worry that judgement can fail to fit experience so a model in which the former inherits the latter’s content cannot be correct because it cannot account for such failure. Had that been the worry then there are responses in the McDowellian account. To mention one: although a judgement may inherit the very same content as an experience it may also have a different content made as a recognition grounded in the experience. (Particular kinds of birds for example.) Such recognition could misfire.

But this seems not to matter as Baz warns us that this isn’t the way he will proceed.

If we press this worry too soon, however, we run the risk of remaining within the grip of the picture that underlies such formulations. And then we might end up still thinking (that we know what ‘judgment’ means, what judgment is, what faithfulness to the world requires) instead of looking (at what goes into our use of the word ‘judgment’, at what we, in actual cases, call ‘judgment’, at what faithfulness to the world requires). [486]

So what follows will respect the Wittgensteinian injunction to look rather than to think and hence to look at how ascriptions of what is seen are made.

The next objection presses the point set out in the previous section from Stanley Cavell that the meaning of utterances is partly determined by the point of making them, by the particular cares or concerns they express. This is then – I think – directed at the idea that a judgement might share the content of an experience. The question is: what is the content of the judgement?

[I]n judgments… what we decide to call the thing, and what we mean in calling it this or that, is inseparable from the nature of our interest in that thing – from that which leads us to ask ourselves what we want to count it as. Whether or not we decide, for example, to call a surface ‘smooth’ would depend on the nature of our specific interest in that surface. If you came to me and asked me, out of the blue, whether my desk, or face, was smooth, I would not know what to say. I would need for you to tell me what you meant; unless I could see, or was somehow able to guess, why you were asking me that – what the nature of the interest you were expressing with your words was. Similarly, if you asked me, under whatever circumstances, whether there was, whether I would say (judge) that there was, a red cube in front of me, I would not know what you were asking, unless I were able to see the point of your question. [486]

This passage suggests that the questions that might evoke the judgement that the table is smooth or that there is a red cube in front of one are varied depending on the matter of interest and, hence, that the content of the judgement to be made in response varies. In paradigmatic cases such as Sellars’ example of the red cube, it may seem that there isn’t this variability.

[I]t is extremely tempting to think that we can and do know what is being asked by ‘Is there a red cube in front of you?’, even in cases in which we cannot see the point of any such question. [486]

But even the meaning of utterance ‘There is a red cube in front of me’ is underdetermined by the words alone. To show this, Baz constructs a Travis-like example.

For suppose you say ‘There is a red cube in front of me’; I look, and see what for all the world is a green cube. Do I know what you said? Have you, for example, said something false? Will forming for myself an image of a red cube, or staring hard at the cube in front of you, or both, help me find out? The next thing you do is to scratch the green paint to show me that underneath the green paint there is red paint. Do I now understand what you said? Has it turned out that what you originally said was true? But then, shouldn’t you simply have said that underneath the green paint there was red paint? I’m still puzzled: What judgment (or claim), if any, did you express with your words? But suppose you now add: ‘Those idiots thought they could fool me and get away with it. Everybody knows that their green cubes are far superior to their red cubes. But I could tell (judge) immediately, just by holding it in my hand, that that wasn’t a green cube’. Now I finally understand you and know what judgment or claim you made: you weren’t just trying to be clever; and it wasn’t really the color of the cube you were concerned about, but its quality. [487]

This example presses the general claim to follow:

A judgment (or claim), I argue, requires a particular context in which it is called for. Without such a context, it would not be a judgment (or claim), nor have any determinate content. [487]

The paper doesn’t pause here. But I take it that a consequence of this is that there is a tension between two thoughts: that the content of a judgement answers to a context of inquiry but also that the content of some judgements is supposed, by McDowell, to be inherited from experience. The passage continues, directly, though with a possible contrast between judgements and experiences.

Now what about an experience? Isn’t it clearly different in that respect? It would appear that unlike a judgment or claim an experience does not need to be called for; or anyway not in the same way. It just happens to us, as we saw McDowell saying, whether we want it to or not. Whereas a judgment requires a reason if it is to be a judgment, with an intelligible content, it would seem absurd to say that you need a reason in order for you to see this or that that lies in front of your eyes – wouldn’t it? [487]

So one possible line of argument would stress a prima facie difference between the properties of judgements and experiences in order to undermine the connection – via shared contents – that McDowell suggests. But it seems not to work like that. Baz approaches the nature of experiences by looking at how we ascribe seeing something (rather than judging something) to someone. In this case too, he also wants to suggest, against his interlocutor’s intuition, the ascription depends on a context of interests or concerns.

What my interlocutor really wants to say is that the fact that there is a red cube in front of me, and that I’m looking right at it, and perhaps also that I can tell colors and shapes, justifies him in saying that I’m seeing a red cube in front of me and ensures not only the sense, but also the truth, of his words. But is that true? Is this what we call ‘seeing that this or that is such and such’? Is this what we normally mean when we say of someone that he sees this or that (to be the case)? What does determine – how do we tell– what someone sees? [498]

Again, Baz deploys a Travisian example of the possibility of different meanings dependent on context.

Here is a tree and there is Jones walking in its direction. And let us even assume that the color of the tree is of some significance to Jones, or ought to be; let us assume that we told him to wait for us by the tree whose leaves have turned red. Does Jones see that the tree is green? It is easy enough to imagine a case in which it would make perfect sense for me to say that he does. However, if I choose to say of Jones that he sees that the tree is green, my reason for saying the words would determine their – that is, my – exact meaning. [489]

That last phrase is key. Just as in the case of a judgement, so in the case of the ascription of seeing something, the claim, the ascription, about what is seen depends on context. The same Cavellian message is pressed.

I’ve been urging, following Cavell, that crucial to the conditions of someone’s saying that Jones sees this or that particular fact is that there be reason for that person to say that Jones sees this or that particular fact. [490]


It might be said, ‘But aren’t you confusing the issue of your reason for saying that Jones sees this or that with the question of whether or not he sees it? Granted that you need to make some specific point if you are to say something intelligible about what Jones sees; but this has nothing to do with his seeing what he sees…But we already saw that what you’ve just said of Jones (‘He sees that the tree is green’) can have more than one sense, depending on the specific point of saying it, and is not even obviously a ‘saying that he sees that the tree is green’. [490]


And different questions would make for different contexts and therefore for different things for him to be able to say on the basis of what faces him. [490]

For even in the case of the store manager facing the cube, or in the case of Jones facing the tree, different occasions for saying what they see at any given moment would make for different (correct) determinations of the content of what they then see.30 Even the perceiver himself can find himself offering different specifications of what he sees, or saw, given different possible occasions, or reasons, for him to attend to that matter. And so, given that most of what encounters us never actually gets articulated – even if it is something that we clearly do need in one way or another to attend to (say, where we step, or where we place something, or how someone has responded to something that we did or said); and given that different contexts of articulation will make for different specifications of the content of what we see, or saw;31 what might it mean to insist, as McDowell does, that what we take in in experience has the very same content that a judgment or claim might have? [492]

So I infer from this that the problem is not that seeing is a state with an interests-independent content whilst explicit judgement is interests-dependent and hence they cannot share the same content. Rather, the problem is that both are context-dependent in such a way that one cannot say, absolutely, what either content is.

If this is the right interpretation – and thus I think it cannot be – I’m not sure how decisive it is. Couldn’t one hold the McDowellian-Sellarsian-Myth-of-Jones idea of the judgement ‘containing’ the same content as the experience with both fixed by words used in a particular context? It is hard to assess such a thought because McDowell himself has moved on. But if one were sufficiently relaxed, could one not refuse to be embarrassed by the question of which concepts and simply grant that the content of the experience depends on what interests the subject? (My assumption is that the McDowell of ‘Avoiding the Myth of the Given’ could not take this line because that paper hints at a priori limits on the conceptual articulation of experience such that [bird] cannot be an element but [perching animal] might.)

There is a further and distinct objection.

[W]e may be tempted to pursue another understanding of the idea that our experience of the world is to be understood on the model of speech – the idea that our experience contains claims (‘contains’ ‘claims’)… Suppose we want to be able to say something about what must be happening in or to us when we see this or that. Suppose we want to insist, in response to philosophical pressures of the kind expressed in the previous paragraph, that what a competent speaker sees when she opens her eyes has the very same content as what she might say; that our experience presents us with content, in virtue of our being competent speakers whose senses are functioning, and that all that is then left for us to do is to endorse that very same content in judgment, or to express it in an utterance. Then, I’m afraid, we may find ourselves having to rely on words, those things ordinarily used for saying things, to be drawn into operation and capture – by themselves, as it were – the content of our experience, apart from some specific context in which there would be something in particular for them to mean. And then we will be proposing that what we experience is somehow already articulated (by us? for us?), and that all that is left for our judgments to do is simply to ‘select from among a rich supply of already conceptual content’ (MW, p. 49, fn. 6). [493]

But I don’t think that this would counter the contextualist response above.

PS: Avner Baz generously emailed me about this post thus.

Monday, 3 August 2015

The Collaborating Centre for Values-based Practice in Health and Social Care Website

The Collaborating Centre for Values-based Practice in Health and Social Care Website is now live. It’s here.

“Dear All 
We are delighted to announce the launch of our website - it is now live and open to all! 
If you have any contributions for our news and Notes section please do not hesitate to get in contact and if you know of any new partners who might be interested in becoming an individual or organizational partner please ask them to contact us via the website. 
Kind Regards 
Jenette Sefton (On Behalf of the Management Team)”

Friday, 31 July 2015

Reasons for buying a house

I was talking to a friend over pizza in Kendal last night who is beginning to think of buying a house, possibly here. Asking about the factors that would influence a selection she suggested a variety. I have not tidied them up to be properties or qualities of a house but rather reasons of any sort. They included:
  • Proximity to either Kendal station 
  • A view of greenery 
  • An appropriate price 
  • Avoidance of a split level garden 
  • Fear of icy pavements 
  • Walking access to civic facilities 
  • Location outside three less salubrious areas of town 
Other factors that sometimes affect such decisions were not important including house age or style or having particular a priori room configurations.

In the UK, there is a widespread fascination, which I share, with house buying that goes beyond our eccentric habit of treating houses as primary financial investments. And so I began to wonder where in Kendal the ideal house would be and had to resist getting out my phone and searching the web there and then.

The nature of the decision has, however, a couple of interesting general features in seeming tension.

First, even given a list of factors, their combination is not transferable to someone else. The list I’ve just written down isn’t necessarily a ranking order. And some of the reasons are, as it were, enthymemes. It turns out that the desirability of avoiding a split level garden (the most left field feature on the list) was not so much aesthetic as I initially assumed (who can stand the sight of them?!) but a concern with trip hazards: a reason more familiar in those over 70 with the fear of ‘having a fall’ than younger than 40. But context and personal history is all for a reason like this (visiting relatives?). Hence perhaps a graded split level garden with grab handles on non-slip illuminated steps would be fine. And so on. But given the general Wittgensteinian idea of a symmetry of understanding explanations between speaker and audience, that suggests that the way the reasons operate for my interlocutor also awaits a context. Their valence will depend on their holistic combination in particular cases. The list doesn’t actually codify the right decision for speaker or audience.

Second, despite the uncodifiability of the reasons operating in complex decisions like this, it is still tempting – well for me at least – to think that there is a kind of unique correct outcome (in this case, relative to the houses actually for sale). (In truth, I think my wiser colleague immune to my foolish assumption.) Such a mythology also seems implicit in the presentation of house buying TV programmes – of which there are many – in the UK. Buyers are guided in a teleological quest for their ideal house, waiting somewhere out there for them. This contrasts with, say, buying a bunch of bananas where, providing they are the right degree of ripeness/unripeness, number, size and fair-trade status, any bunch satisfying those criteria will do. Ditto cars, I think. So that suggests an interesting tension between the very complexity of the case and still the thought that it is not so much aimed at satisfying criteria but rather at a correctness for which the criteria are mere epistemic guides rather than constituting a standard of correctness.

(Lurking in this area is the interesting combination in McDowell’s moral anti-anti-realism. The notion of correctness of moral judgement doesn’t rule out the possibility of difficult cases which tolerate a kind of ambiguity. The reality at which moral judgement is aimed is, if I read him right, gappy.)

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Tâtonnement and failing to 'find' a paper

I spent yesterday trying to start a paper on John Campbell’s noughties papers [Campbell 2007, 2008, 2009] on causation in psychiatry and psychology but failed to get anywhere. Having recently read Peter Goldie’s book The Mess Inside, I wonder whether the word for the day’s activities is ‘tâtonnement’, which he suggests is a kind of feeling one’s way to a narrative: ‘a tentative, groping procedure: one might begin with an idea of how the narrative should be shaped, and, once one has developed it somewhat, one might be able to see saliences that one could not see before, and then find it appropriate to go back and reshape the narrative in this new light.' [Goldie 2012: 11]

The basic plot idea I was struggling with has the following vague elements.

1) Campbell argues that the idea of levels of explanation is the result of a pre-Humean assumption about that causation that the world must have an intelligible causal structure. (He suggests that this is a standard philosophical synthetic a priori claim.) But Hume teaches us that it need not. Causation is brute and Campbell suggests that the best approach to causation is interventionism. Whilst such ideas are sometimes fruitful we should neither assume that physical causation must be mediated by mechanisms nor that mental causation must be mediated by rational connections. It may be, for example, that all that can be said to explain a particular delusion is that intervening on whether someone is seen by the subject to be scratching his beard changes whether the subject forms and holds the delusion. There may be neither rational nor mechanical intermediaries.

2) Campbell’s illustration of how the facts about causation may eschew mechanisms resembles some unpopular remarks by Wittgenstein in Zettel. They include: ‘Why should there not be a natural law connecting a starting and a finishing state of a system, but not covering the intermediary state? (Only one must not think of causal efficacy.)’ [Wittgenstein 1981: §613] Of the underlying thought of these comments, Wittgenstein says: ‘If this upsets our concepts of causality then it is high time they were upset.’ [§610]

3) Wittgenstein’s remarks seem, however, to be aimed at removing the tension of reconciling a connection made at the mental level in mental and, according to him, non-causal terms with assumptions about underlying causal mechanisms at a physiological level. Campbell’s, by contrast, suggest that the top level is causal. This suggests that there is still a motivation (available to us, untouched by Campbell’s argument and distinct from the one Hume criticises) for adopting a particular synthetic a priori (rendering unto Caesar in accord with a distinct obligation). The claim that something is a delusion itself requires some synthetic a prioris. Campbell himself acknowledges this in a quite different seeming paper on the interpretation of Capgras [Campbell 2001]. To grasp the content of the expression of a delusion requires fitting it into a rational pattern of canonical testing.

4) So the explanation of delusions does require something more than brute interventionism. It requires the prior recognition of the effect of whatever putative causes as an instance of a delusion. That requires the kind of mental-level normative patterns that Wittgenstein stresses.

Well, as can be seen from the summary, this doesn’t really hang together. That I think it ought suggests something like the paradox of analysis for the activity of tâtonnement. The confidence that there is a narrative structure to be reached for suggests no need for tricky reaching activity. But where there is such activity, there’s no obvious goal for the reaching so how does one know where in conceptual space to look? This is akin to the problem Michael Luntley raises about practical expertise.

Whilst I can take in my stride the kind of fallible glad start of thinking one knows how to continue a series or launch a spoken sentence, it seems an odder piece of phenomenology that one can think one is not persuaded by a paper but only dimly grasp why not.

This paper may thus fall off my list of activities unless something changes on a run round Kentmere later.

Campbell, J. (2001) ‘Rationality, meaning, and the analysis of delusion’ in Philosophy Psychiatry and Psychology
Campbell, J. (2007) ‘An interventionist approach to causation in psychology’ in Gopnik, A. and Schulz, L. Causal learning: psychology, philosophy, and computation, Oxford: Oxford University Press 
Campbell, J. (2008) ‘Causation in psychiatry’ in Kendler, K.S. and Parnas, J. (eds) Philosophical Issues in Psychiatry, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 
Campbell, J. (2009) ‘What does rationality have to do with psychological causation? Propositional attitudes as mechanisms and as control variables’ in Bortolotti, L. and Broome, M. (eds) Psychiatry as Cognitive Neuroscience, Oxford: Oxford University Press 
Goldie, P. (2012) The Mess Inside: narrative, emotion, and the mind, Oxford: Oxford University Press 
Wittgenstein, L. (1981) Zettel, Oxford: Blackwells

For my own housekeeping convenience, my other ongoing writing activities are as follows.

Papers / chapters under review 

‘Bootstrapping conceptual normativity?’ Foundations of Science

‘Nursing knowledge: its nature and generation’ for Chambers, M. (ed) Psychiatric & Mental Health Nursing: the craft of caring, Abingdon: CRC Press

‘Transcultural psychiatry’ for White, R., Read, U., Jain, S. and Orr, D. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of Global Mental Health: Sociocultural Perspectives, London: Palgrave

‘Naturalism and dysfunction’ for Forest, D. and Faucher, L. (eds) Defining Mental Disorders: Jerome Wakefield and his Critics, MIT Press

 ‘Psychiatric classification, tacit knowledge and criteria’ for Keil, G., Kutschenko, L., Hauswald, R. (eds) Gradualist Approaches to Mental Health and Disease, Oxford: OUP

‘Recovery, paternalism and narrative understanding in mental healthcare’ Maria Francesca Freda, M.F. and De Luca Picione, R. (eds) Cultural Construction of Social Roles in Medicine, Information Age Publishing: Charlotte, N.C.

Papers / chapters in preparation 

‘Phenomenological implication as transcendental argument’ for van Staden, W. and Pickering, N. (eds) Wittgenstein and mental health, Oxford: OUP

‘The normativity of meaning and the constitutive ideal of rationality’ for Verheggen, C. (ed) Wittgenstein and Davidson on Thought, Language, and Action, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

‘Philosophical understandings of mental health’ for Wright, K. and McKeown, M. (eds) Essentials of Mental Health Nursing, London: Sage

Book in preparation 

John McDowell (second edition), Abingdon: Routledge