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.