Tuesday, 27 January 2015

On returning to earlier work

I have been invited by Routledge to submit a proposal for a second edition of my book on John McDowell, originally published by Acumen. (There is an irony about this that it would be indiscreet to report here.) It prompts a couple of thoughts but perhaps I should say something about McDowell for anyone who has stumbled on this blog because of shared interest in the philosophy of mental healthcare and of psychiatry.

John McDowell’s writing is one of the reasons that I am an antireductionist across a range of issues: why I do not think that physics, for example, very impressive though it is, is an exclusive metaphysical benchmark of what is real. There are more things in heaven and earth than are contained in, or reducible to, fundamental physics. Now although philosophy is explicitly driven by arguments, is a product of reason, they tend to be in play downstream of some initial commitments which are not, themselves, the product of explicit reasons. That is not to say that those initial commitments are not tested by arguments concerning their implications downstream. But I don’t think that anyone arrives at, say, a sympathy with reductionism through argument. It is more aesthetic than that. In accord with that, I was, as they say, ‘learning ready’ for McDowell’s anti-reductionism but his arguments helped crystallize the form it took. 

The other attraction of McDowell’s philosophy is its therapeutic aim: to dissolve philosophical problems rather than to construct substantial answers on the basis of what might prove to be dubious premises. McDowell seemed, and still seems, to me to be the best reader of Wittgenstein around. But more broadly, he is sensitive to unnecessary assumptions that distort the philosophical context. That may not be all there is to therapeutic philosophy but it is, I think, fairly central.

The idea of returning to McDowell raises two points of interest for me. More importantly, the way I try to think about the philosophy of mental healthcare draws more broadly on other and perhaps more central areas of philosophy. So a return to writing about McDowell is a pretext for further thought in that central area of philosophy. A bit like returning to a capital city from the provinces. In particular, his recent neo-Anscombean work on intention in action and his debate with Dreyfus seem to be key extensions of his broader picture of an extended notion of rationality in the life of those in the space of reasons. This seems important to me for subsequent thinking about illness and recovery in mental health to pick just one application. (By the way, one feature of McDowell’s philosophising is his ability to suggest that some possibilities just make sense. For example, the idea that a prior intention to act might simply become an intention in action when the time is right and then 'shrink' as aspects of the action are completed. Once suggested, this seems a perfectly fine way to think of things but it would be hard to realise that there was this point within the space of logical possibilities.)

The other (and frankly much less significant) challenge, though, is returning to my own writing. Which words to retain and which to change? I don’t know how it is for others but I always find a bizarre tension between two things. On the one hand, I am never particularly proud of anything I write. Rationally, I know the arbitrariness of any particular sentence. It could always have been otherwise. There is never time to work very hard on style, for example. But on the other, once the words are written, a strange kind of conservativeness strikes me. By virtue of being written, words take on a kind of fixedness, sub specie aeternitatis. It is always much easier to criticise students work than my own.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Health Research with Real Impact Conference, June 24 & 25

School of Health, University of Central Lancashire
Health Research with Real Impact Conference, June 24 & 25

The University of Central Lancashire is hosting the 2nd Health Research with Real Impact Conference which will take place on 24th and 25th June 2015 at the Westleigh Conference Centre in Preston.

• The focus of the first day will be around evidence synthesis.
• The second day will focus on implementation science.
• Choose to attend one or both days.

Attending the conference will be a range of staff from health and social services, methodologists, academics and health care users.

Lunch and networking opportunities for delegates provided.

British Society for the Philosophy of Science Annual Conference: 2–3 July 2015

British Society for the Philosophy of Science Annual Conference
2–3 July 2015, University of Manchester

Plenary Speakers:
Katherine Brading (Notre Dame)
Émilie du Châtelet and the foundations of physical science

Havi Carel (Bristol)
Illness, pathology and disease: a phenomenological analysis

Kim Sterelny (ANU)
Cumulative Cultural Evolution and The Origins of Language

Mauricio Suárez (Madrid)
Propensities and Statistical Modeling

Local organiser: Michael Rush
Call for Papers
Submissions are invited from anyone with a scholarly interest in the philosophy of science. Graduate students are particularly encouraged. (Graduate bursaries will be available.) Papers may be on any topic within the philosophy of science and should be suitable for presentation in 20 minutes, which will allow 10 minutes discussion. Abstracts should be received no later than Saturday 7th March 2015. Abstracts will be blind refereed, and successful contributors notified by early April. We do not anticipate being able to share referees' comments.
Submission Instructions
To submit your abstract, go to:
Log in (create an account if you do not already have one)
Select ‘New Submission’ and enter the requested information, including the title of your paper.
Enter your abstract (in plain text, of no more than 1000 words) into the Abstract box.
Please prepare your abstract for blind refereeing.
Please select the topic (or topics) that best describe the area of your submission.
Finally, select ‘Submit’.
For more information please email: <bsps2015@easychair.org>.
PLEASE NOTE: attendance at the conference is restricted to members of the BSPS. You may join the Society online here.
The British Society for the Philosophy of Science is offering a scholarship for doctoral work in the philosophy of science at a UK university, subject to a candidate of sufficient merit presenting themselves.
About the Scholarship
The competition is open to both UK/EU and international students. The scholarship will cover UK/EU fees at Research Council rates. International fees will be covered in part or in full, depending on the case, but will be covered at least up to UK/EU levels. The scholarship also includes a maintenance grant of £13,863 (£15,863 in London). The scholarship will be awarded for a period equal to the institutional norm for PhD study at the student's institution minus any time already spent on the PhD. (For example, applicants in their first year of postgraduate study at institutions that follow a 2+2 (Masters + PhD) model may apply for three years of funding to begin in the second year of their masters degree.) Applicants must apply for all other sources of funding for which they are eligible. The scholarship is conditional on being accepted onto an appropriate doctoral programme in philosophy of science at a UK university in time for the start of the 2015-16 academic year.
The closing date for applications is 27 February 2015.  Applicants are responsible for ensuring that complete applications, including references, arrive by the deadline.

The timing of the announcement of awards may be constrained by the timing of decisions by other funding bodies. Applicants with offers of funding from US institutions who require information prior to 15 April 2015 are encouraged to contact the BSPS at that time to enquire about the provisional outcome of their application.
How to Apply
A) Applicants should send (as a single PDF):
A curriculum vitae (no more than 2 sides of A4);
An outline of the proposed research (no more than 750 words);
A statement that:
i) confirms either that the applicant is not eligible for AHRC funding or that they have taken the necessary steps to be considered for such funding;
ii) states how much other funding, if any, the applicant has already secured; and
iii) states what other sources of funding have been applied for and the dates by which they will hear whether these applications have been successful.

In addition:
If the applicant has already been accepted onto an appropriate doctoral programme, they should provide evidence that this is so. Otherwise, the award will be made to the successful candidate subject to confirmation at a later date of their having been accepted onto an appropriate programme.
B) The proposed supervisor should send a brief statement (no more than 500 words) explaining why they are happy to supervise the applicant on the proposed project and how and why the supervisor’s institution is a good fit for the person and project. [See, also, Note 2 below.]

C) Two academic referees (one of whom may be the proposed supervisor) should write reference letters directly to the Honorary Secretary.

All documents should be sent by email to the Honorary Secretary at <oliver.pooley@philosophy.ox.ac.uk>.

Any queries should also be directed to the Honorary Secretary.
Additional Information
A full BSPS scholarship will not be made to anyone with another source of funding.  In cases where an awardee has partial funding from other sources, the size of the BSPS grant will be set accordingly. (For example, a successful applicant who has a fees-only award from elsewhere would still be eligible to receive a maintenance grant from the BSPS.)

Applicants may be in the position of considering a number of different departments for their doctoral studies and thus have a range of possible supervisors in mind. In this event, they should ask their currently preferred supervisor to write for them. Should an applicant be successful in the BSPS doctoral scholarship competition, but end up being accepted onto a PhD programme at a different institution from that of the supervisor who initially wrote for them, it would still be possible to hold the award at the new institution, subject to a suitable endorsement from the new supervisor. It should be noted that where it is obvious that a given applicant and project is a good fit to supervisor and institution, supervisors’ letters may be rather brief without thereby disadvantaging the candidate.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Comedy and instinctive cognitivism

I caught a production of One Man Two Guvnors at the Lowry Centre, Salford last Saturday. James Corden has long since been replaced in the lead role but the reviews were good and the performance pretty much sold out. There is a spoiler ahead.

Sadly I could not see why it had merited the praise it had (this isn’t the spoiler!) Perhaps I am being blind to the transformative powers of a popular actor but I don’t really see how Corden could have redeemed it as the play itself is so thin. It is as though someone were to aim at Fawlty Towers but end up with the kind of lame drama that closed episodes of the 1970s kids TV show Crackerjack. Its feeble attempts at linguistic play made me miss ’Allo ’Allo. Nor did it seem to understand the dramatic possibilities of varying the tempo. (In ‘The Germans’ episode of Fawlty Towers there is both an inevitable slow approach to the coming car crash but the sudden jump to the very idea of “a Prawn Goebbels” is shockingly funny.) Is it just that National Theatre goers don’t often see physical comedy and liked it for novelty?

But the reason for mentioning this isn’t just that it wasn’t very good but that it raised an issue. There were a couple of preliminary pieces of audience involvement in the first half, some breaking down of the fourth wall. (Our man at one point suggested that the responding audience member had misunderstood theatre, that his own questions were not real questions, that this was not pantomime. The audience duly chanted back: oh yes it is.) On a third occasion an apparently reluctant audience member was dragged into the middle of the famous chaotic waitering scene. The balance of no actual shaming events befalling her but coupled with her nervous wordless mere giggling in response to questions was, for the first time in the play, very funny: a gentle comedy of embarrassment (and as I get older I am more and more uneasy and unamused by this so it trod a successful fine line for me at least). But then in an escalation which ended the first half she got soaked in fire extinguisher foam. In that instant, we were back in Crackerjack and it was obvious that this was part of the play itself. 

When the second half began, I realised - to my surprise - that I was no longer likely to find anything funny, that the possibility had gone. It was as though, without any conscious deliberation, I was responding resentfully to the earlier switch. What had seemed funny was only funny if it were real. Had it been explicitly part of the play, it wouldn’t have even seemed funny in the first place. So it was as though they had scored laughs under false pretences. But such a response suggests that finding things funny might be a kind of a judgement: that it is possible to think one finds things funny when they are not even by one’s own standards. (Then again, mine might be a weird atypical reaction.)

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Why do we need more than one research method?

The following is the gist of a talk I will give on Monday at an internal student conference.

Why do we need more than one research method? In acting as a Research Degree Tutor, I am often struck by the pick and mix attitude to research methods taken by some PhD students. This stems in part from the breadth and variety of research carried out in the School: itself an admirable thing. Many different approaches are taken, ranging from large scale quantitative research to small scale hermeneutic or narrative or descriptive studies. But the attitude that surprises me is a stance to that range for which I blame Michael Crotty’s book The Foundations of Social Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process.

Crotty’s explanation of the difference of research methods

Crotty distinguishes between methods, methodologies, theoretical perspectives and epistemologies commenting:

It is not uncommon to find, say, symbolic interactionism, ethnography and constructionism simply set side by side as ‘methodologies’, ‘approaches’, ‘perspectives’, or something similar. Yet they are not truly comparable. Lumping them together without distinction is a bit like talking about putting tomato sauce, condiments and groceries in one basket. One feels compelled to say, ‘Hang on a moment! Tomato sauce is one of many forms of condiment. And all condiments are groceries. Let’s do some sorting out here’. [Crotty 1998: 3]

The following table is an instance of such sorting: dividing different approaches between different levels.

He then suggests that higher levels inform lower levels. So constructionism informs symbolic interactionism which motivates ethnography which favours participant observation.

Things are not quite as straight forward as they might be, however, as the higher levels under-determine the lower ones. So it is not simply that choice at a lower level is fixed by and hence explained by a choice at a higher level. It is not a complete answer to why there is variation at the level of methodologies and theoretical perspectives.

But my main worry is the idea that one might select a theoretical perspective or methodology because one had selected an epistemology. In the introduction, the three listed epistemological are summarised thus:

Objectivism is the epistemological view that things exist as meaningful entities independently of consciousness and experience, that they have truth and meaning residing in them as objects (‘objective’ truth and meaning, therefore), and that careful (scientific?) research can attain that objective truth and meaning…Another epistemology-constructionism-rejects this view of human knowledge. There is no objective truth waiting for us to discover it. Truth, or meaning, comes into existence in and out of our engagement with the realities in our world…In subjectivism, meaning does not come out of an interplay between subject and object but is imposed on the object by the subject. [Crotty 1998: 8-9]

It is clear that these express fundamentally contrasting views. Further, they seem to be making general claims about the nature of reality and hence they are conflicting. If one is true, the other two must be false. Hence if it were the case that the explanation of the different lower levels were difference at the highest then those lower levels would inherit the falsity of at least two of the higher level claims. Hence the explanation suggested for why there are different research methods seems to turn on a mistake. Although there are different lower levels, there should not be.

An argument for a single research method

Assuming that Crotty’s easy pick and mix is unsatisfactory, there is a further historically influential picture of the world which suggests that there should be only one research method, whatever it is. This is the picture that underpinned the Logical Positivists’ Encyclopedia of Unified Science. It includes the assumption that the human sciences will eventually be reduced to biology, biology to chemistry and chemistry to physics. Paul Oppenheim and Hilary Putnam expressed this view in their 1958 paper ‘Unity of science as working hypothesis’.

It is not absurd to suppose that psychological laws may eventually be explained in terms of the behaviour of individual neurons in the brain; that the behaviour of individual cells – including neurons – may eventually be explained in terms of their biochemical constitution; and that the behaviour of molecules – including the macromolecules that make up living cells – may eventually be explained in terms of atomic physics. If this is achieved, then psychological laws will have, in principle, been reduced to laws of atomic physics… [Oppenhiem and Putnam 1991: 407]

Oppenheim and Putnam argue that the unity of science is served by ‘microreductions’. These are reductions in which:

The objects in the universe of discourse of [the reduced science or theory] are wholes which possess a decomposition into proper parts all of which belong to the universe of discourse of [the reducing science or theory]. [Oppenhiem and Putnam 1991: 407]

Since microreduction is construed as the only serious possibility for the unity of science, and since its success rests on a number of other things being the case, the goal of unification has a number of presuppositions which are then outlined. The list begins:

1. There must be several levels. 
2. The number of levels must be finite. 
3. There must be a unique lowest level… 
4. Any thing of any level except the lowest must possess a decomposition into things belonging to the next lowest level…

This list suggests the following view of nature. The world is made up of basic building blocks or atoms which display regularities that can be described in the law statements of the most basic science. The basic atoms also combine to constitute larger structures which display characteristic regularities of their own. These can in turn be codified in the law statements of higher level sciences. But the higher level regularities do not emerge out of nothing. They can be explained as the consequences of the more basic patterns of behaviour of atoms. So the structure of the world and the structure of science can be seen as two isomorphic hierarchies of levels.

Now having graduated from an History and Philosophy of Science department I should note a couple of obvious and important caveats. First it is not clear that there is any such thing as the scientific method. A sad lesson of sustained work in the middle part of last century is that there are no plausible candidate necessary and sufficient analyses of scientific method. Second, the rise of scientific method was a contingent success driven as much by social as narrowly rational factors. Still, it does seem to me to be plausible that there is a kind of family resemblance. Scientific method has overlapping aspects but with some notions such as Mill's Method of Difference playing a key regulative role across a range of central cases.

If an instance in which the phenomenon under investigation occurs, and an instance in which it does not occur, have every circumstance in common save one, that one occurring only in the former; the circumstances in which alone the two instances differ, is the effect, or the cause, or an indispensable part of the cause, of the phenomenon. [Mill 1872: 452])

Against this background picture, the idea that there are fundamentally different research methods needs some explanation.

Three reasons why we might need different research methods

Despite qualms about Crotty’s pick and mix approach to science, I do think that there are some general arguments for differences, not merely at the level of practical tips, but with respect to accessing truth.

1: The aims of science can be general or particular.

One might study things or people either for their own sake or to generalise to other things or people. Wilhelm Windelband draws this distinction in his rectoral address of 1894.

In their quest for knowledge of reality, the empirical sciences either seek the general in the form of the law of nature or the particular in the form of the historically defined structure. On the one hand, they are concerned with the form which invariably remains constant. On the other hand, they are concerned with the unique, immanently defined content of the real event. The former disciplines are nomological sciences. The latter disciplines are sciences of process or sciences of the event. The nomological sciences are concerned with what is invariably the case. The sciences of process are concerned with what was once the case. If I may be permitted to introduce some new technical terms, scientific thought is nomothetic in the former case and idiographic in the latter case. Should we retain the customary expressions, then it can be said that the dichotomy at stake here concerns the distinction between the natural and the historical disciplines. However we must bear in mind that, in the methodological sense of this dichotomy, psychology falls unambiguously within the domain of the natural sciences. [Windelband 1980: 175-6]

Windelband himself attempts (unsuccessfully, I think) to flesh out the distinction between idiographic and nomothetic as distinct forms of understanding saying for example that idiographic sciences seeks structural forms or delineates particulars. But one might use the vocabulary to mark the distinction between the further aim of generalisation from research into particulars for their own sake. Such a distinction flags the further work that has to be done to avoid errors resulting from non-representative samples, errors from which the idiographic approach is safer. Of course, even research at the idiographic end is not safe from inductive risks since observational concepts carry future directed inferences.

2: Scientific method is itself the subject of science.

The biases worth avoiding are those that carry actual epistemic risk rather than merely possible risks. But since, as Hume teaches us and John Campbell has recently stressed, causal relations are contingent and independent of what seems natural to us. Hence it is a contingent matter what reliably indicates what. And hence we should expect epistemic differences in actual scientific practices depending on the subject matter.

3: The world is not an integrated set of properties.

The argument for a single research method above turned on the idea that nothing of epistemic significance is introduced in moving from the microphysical to the macro scale. But if one holds that mental phenomena are governed by the constitutive ideal of rationality, which ‘finds no echo in physical theory’, then – in accord with one of the competing views in the ‘methodenstreit’ – one should hold that different methods are necessary to chart meaningful from non-meaningful phenomena. This it seems to me is why social scientists are drawn to Crotty’s account of constructionism. They move from the idea that meaning is constructed in an encounter between subject and object to the mistaken conclusion that social scientist’s study of others’ meanings cannot itself aspire to truth.

So I do share with my tutees the view that there are interesting differences between research methods. Where I think I differ is the extent to which I also want some sort of self-conscious justification for articulating what the epistemic – rather than merely practical – differences comprise.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Conference Announcement and Call for Abstracts: Authenticity to Action Conference, ‘Involve and Evolve’

I see that there is a conference coming up at UCLan in March though I am not involved in it. In practice, it may not be too late to submit an abstract.

“Conference Announcement and Call for Abstracts: Authenticity to Action Conference, ‘Involve and Evolve’

Wednesday 11th and Thursday 12th March 2015
Samlesbury Hotel
Preston New Road

We are pleased to invite you to an exciting two day conference focused on the involvement of health and social care service users and carers in higher education. The theme of the conference is to examine critically the depth and sphere of involvement and to explore the impact that service users and carers have made to the quality of scholarly and strategic activity within universities.


A number of key issues will be addressed, including:

Innovation in service user and carer involvement
Positive environments and growth for service user and carer involvement
Successful service user and carer involvement
Strategic advantages of service user and carer involvement
The role of national regulatory and professional bodies – also panel discussion
International service user/carer models of involvement
Closing the gap – moving forward
Service user/carer knowledge
Embracing the digital environment
Researching service user/carer involvement in education
Concepts and contradictions ( e.g. authenticity vs reality, incorporation and co-option, self-definition ) -  also panel discussion


Conference presentations have been organised in a number of different formats to enable as many people as possible to become actively involved in debates, questions and interaction. Different types of presentation will include:

SHOWCASES – sessions that present the work of specific service user and carer involvement initiatives within Higher Education Institutions, health and social care practice and the voluntary sector. The emphasis will be on the practice of user and carer involvement its impact and outcomes. These sessions will be of 60 minutes duration and might involve a number of short stories that offer the experiences of project participants from various perspectives (e.g. users, carers, academic staff, researchers, students). Group discussion will be encouraged to explore, with presenters, possible solutions to key problems identified or discussion of strategy. The emphasis will be upon sharing experiences and learning from each other.

PAPERS – these sessions will typically involve presentation of studies of user and carer involvement in Higher Education. There will also be theoretical papers which present critical thinking in relation to key conference themes. These sessions will be of 30 minute duration, with time for audience questions. Paper sessions have been organised in groups of two that share common themes or address similar issues.

WORKSHOPS – these sessions will maximise audience participation. Alternately, they may focus upon key problems, opportunities or challenges within the field and attempt to draw out audience contributions to addressing these issues. These sessions will be 60 minutes in length.

The conference includes contributions and participation from all stakeholders:

Service users and carers
The conference is supported by the work of Comensus.  For more information visit the projects web site at www.uclan.ac.uk/comensus

We aim to make the whole conference as interactive as possible and accessible to all participants. Participants have been encouraged to present their work and facilitate sessions in plain language.

Making the most of the conference
We wish the conference to truly engage and involve all the stakeholder groups. For this reason we do not want anybody to be excluded from making a contribution. If you don’t have a paper to present, why not think about facilitating a workshop to showcase relevant experiences We encourage all participants to present their work in an accessible, jargon-free format. We are particularly keen that novice conference attendees are able to participate fully in the proceedings. We welcome presentations and workshops that are led by service users and carers.

We are also planning a number of conference debates for the whole audience.  These will allow us to explore together some of the current issues and positions that impact on our work.  We will provide a safe space for full and frank open discussion.

Abstracts of between 300-500 words are required.  They should be admitted by email tohealthconferences@uclan.ac.uk.  The subject line of the email should clearly state Authenticity to Action, and you should state whether you are submitting a Showcase, Paper or Workshop. Please also send a short biography of authors.  All abstracts will be reviewed by the conference committee.
Deadline for abstracts – Wednesday 17th December 2014

To register your interest in the conference, or for further information, please contact Liz Roberts, UCLan Conference & Events

Email: healthconferences@uclan.ac.uk Telephone: 01772 893809”

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Particularism and personalised medicine workshop, MMU

I have been at a two day workshop at MMU on Particularism and Personalised Medicine organised by Anna Bergqvist. Anna herself gave a paper outlining a friendly criticism of Values Based Practice. She suggested that VBP shares with moral particularism a distrust of the importance of deduction from principle (what Bill calls ‘quasi-legal medical ethics’). But, as I am, she was suspicious of its proceduralism which risks a kind of subjectivism. But her specific focus concerned the important role of narrative in setting out points of view but only under the right understanding of it. Summarising the main worry, she argued that current thinking seems to assume that the significance or meaning of symptoms in decisions about treatment and management of illness is fixed by either scientistically in light just of the evidence from ‘above’, as it were, or by a kind of viewer narrative construction. The meaning is determined by persons autobiographic narrative. Borrowing on work by Peter Goldie, Anna suggested that stressing the role of narrative need not be confused with thinking of lives, or people, as themselves narratives. There is a difference between a narrative and what the narrative presents. The narrative can reveal or obscure the meaning of a symptom but does not determine it. Instead it is an aid to the discernment of the normative significance of features of the situation.

In the end I wasn't entirely sure whether the appeal to narrative introduced a fresh criticism of VBP above the general worry about subjectivism or whether it was a way of filling out the form of that worry in a different way. Assuming we agree that narratives are ways of charting moral reasons, the difference between radical VBP and particularism will also play out in their differing construal of narratives.

Ben Smith raised some questions about what sort of position particularism is. For example, an ontological or epistemological thesis? A positive or a negative thesis about the nature of moral reasons? A reaction against a dominant form of generalism or principlism or, if it is to be found in Aristotle, an articulation of an orthodoxy? He suggested that one clear lack was a coherent account of the epistemology of particularism including the nature of the judging subject: the person. But persons are also key as the ‘object’ of moral judgement. As a contribution to sketching an account of persons he described the role of trust in human relations. The key claim was that there was a kind of preconceptual, pre-reflexive notion of trust which served as a precondition for any explicit, contractually established trust relations. Loss of such trust was a feature of depression.The moral seemed to be that if such basic trust is a key feature of human relations, playing a transcendental condition, and if it is below the level of and presupposed by reason-relations, then any form of particularism based on moral reasons is wrong. 

I am not entirely sure of the force of this argument and offered him, over coffee, the following analogy. In epistemology, one might think that knowledge is matter of having the right reasons (much will need to be specified about them, of course). But the possibility of giving reasons plausibly presupposes that reasons come to an end in something which is not supported by reasons: perhaps, Wittgensteinian animal certainties. Still such a precondition would not refute the idea that knowledge is a matter of reasons. It would just show that there were some preconditions of being able to play that game. Perhaps the same applies to particularism about reasons. Ben seemed happy enough with this: such reason-based particularism isn't necessarily wrong but merely only tells part of the story. 

Phil Hutchinson spoke after me and so I wasn’t as able to take it in as when fresh. But he sketched an interesting parallel between two areas of work. His previous research into the nature of emotion suggested a way of dealing with the difference between cognitivist and neo-Jamesian accounts as being pitched at the level of the whole person but as a kind of pre-judgemental seeing-as the world in particular way. The same sort of approach now struck him as a way of thinking about the way the placebo effect works: a kind of stance to the medical intervention. But if so, placebo itself is a kind of psychotherapy. This connection was further contextualised in the thought that the rise of EBM makes it hard for any approaches that do not fit RCTs. But given its nature as the ‘other’ in RCTs, the placebo effect cannot easily be given positive support in this way. 

Anna Zielinska questioned the nature of bioethical expertise. In an introduction she criticised a widespread assumption that bioethics needs principles which she suggested might be the influence on the early bioethical thinkers of their own theological backgrounds. Even casuistry, which seems to stand in contrast to principlism, was not so take by its main proponent David Jonsen who suggested instead that it might be used to construct a principle based bioethical theory. Anna's main content, however, was an empirical investigation of the working of research ethics committees. Looking in detail first at French committees but with preliminary glances at the UK and Germany she suggested that the actual reasons deployed by ethics committees for rejecting applications did not fit any ethical framework. Even those members who explicitly espoused utilitarianism deployed quite other reasons. (Of course, for anyone who favoured principled or bioethical-theory-driven decision making, this would merely show that something was wrong with the practice of ethics committees so Anna’s prior commitment to particularism shaped the way she took this evidence: its normative force.) Her practical suggestion was that committees would thus benefit not by an attempt to develop a bioethical theory but by including the views of particularism moral philosophers.

In the final presentation, Per Nortvedt raised a worry which went something like this. Despite the force of arguments for impartiality in moral judgements, there is a prima facie case that professional roles introduce a need for a reasonable element of partiality. If I followed the line of thinking it seemed to be that capturing what was right about impartiality required principlism and what was right about partiality required particularism and hence a global objection to principlism by particularism was shown to be wrong by this case. Even after the question period I realised I had failed to grasp the nature of the worry (because I could not see why particularism versus principlism and partiality versus impartiality were not debates pitched at different levels: that either of the former approaches could embrace a version of either answer in the second debate though, of course, a particularist could not offer a general principled argument for why, e.g., an impartiality reason was always a good thing). But my blindness here was probably because it was the final paper.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

A sense of identity and the meaning of life?

I had my first conversation since I got back from Durham with Gloria yesterday and we found ourselves picking up from this conversation from five years ago.

I tend to assume that the question of what makes a life meaningful or valuable, a life worth living, to or for its subject is a question worth asking and answering. My qualm concerns only limits on how it can be answered. In McDowell’s familiar metaphor: we cannot take a ‘sideways on’ perspective as from outside a life. Rather, the resources to articulate an answer to the question are only available from an initially engaged perspective. (Though to be able to answer the question will involve some stepping back from it. Still, such stepping back does not sever the connections one has to one’s own reasons for action.) So whilst I might describe the consolations of philosophical thought, a convivial beer, a run round Loughrigg Fell, another person might stress instead the importance of the plastic arts and a heightened sense of the physical properties of everyday, as well as specifically aesthetic, objects. I might be quite blind to all that.

But Gloria suggested that she had at least heard hints of a view which ran counter to that. Perhaps drawing on some traditions within meditation or some forms of therapy, one might be sceptical of attempts to answer the question in its own terms. Imagine a medical doctor (one who enjoyed her work) tempted to answer the question via an account of the importance, to her at least, of helping others. On this different view this answer involves an identification with a particular self-conception and that ipso facto can be dangerous, risking a kind of neurosis, perhaps. Perhaps it would be healthier, for example, to think of oneself both as doctor but also as an amateur sculptor. But an additive response cannot really change the logic of the situation. If identification of oneself as a doctor risks neuroticism then identification of oneself as a doctor Monday-Friday and an amateur sculptor at the weekends carries the same kind of risk. So the question should be rejected and responded to quite differently.

My interest here stems in part from the rise of meditation within everyday Anglo-American approaches to mental health. A later stage in mindfulness meditation is the idea that one can cease to identify with thoughts, or to identify oneself as their subject, agent or owner. For example in Doing the Buddha's Practice by Jack Kornfield there is this summary:

In non-identification we stop taking the experience as me or mine. We see how our identification creates dependence, anxiety, and inauthenticity. In practicing non-identification, we inquire of every state, experience, and story, is this who we really are? We see the tentativeness of this identity. Instead of identification with this difficulty, we let go and rest in awareness itself. This is the culmination of releasing difficulty through ‘RAIN’ [Recognition, Acceptance, Investigation, and Non-Indentification]. [http://www.spiritrock.org/document.doc?id=21]

Despite being minded to be persuaded of the benefits of this, I’m not at all clear of what attitude this leaves.

Part of my qualm is that there seems to be a kind of equivalence between two stances mentioned (and this is also why the third paragraph is not a non-sequitur). Imagine that I describe the world as I find it as being appropriately shaped for philosophical reflection, for finding opportunities for convivial pints, for offering up hills to be run on etc. For me, a (or perhaps specifically my) meaningful, valuable life includes responsiveness to these features of the world. Normally I may just engage in them. But in response to the question I can step back and articulate them. My worry is that it just takes a little more reflection to realise that if these are features that make this life worth living for me, I must be capable of conceiving of the world as containing them. I, as a subject, am the sort of subject who has these capacities for response: to the pull of philosophical thought, to conviviality, to running in nature etc. Now if this latter step is dangerous, it seems that the first step won’t be available either. The only way to try to preserve it would be to have a mere animal presence (like my cat) in an environment (of catty snacks, warm radiators and handy jumpers to snag) so as to block the reflective inference (since my cat cannot think about the sort of cat she is). But then one would not be in any position to answer the question, after all: another way to reject rather than to give a local answer to it. But surely, there is nothing wrong with the local answer, to having some answer, I want to say.

So here’s a (poor) thought. The connection between me and my world just sketched is akin to that between a transcendental subject and the empirical world. In a post-Kantian tradition, it may be helpful to shed light on either the subject or the world by describing features of the other if they stand in some sort of constitutive relationship. But, like McDowell’s criticism of Jonathan Lear, it may be a mistake to think that one can use features of one to justify features of the other. Typically features of the Kantian subject are offered up to underpin necessary features of the apparent world. For Lear, features of the plural Wittgensteinian subject justify our rules in the face of a threat of conventionalism which follows an attack on platonic foundations. The justification is from the subject not the object. Perhaps the worry about using a notion of identity to answer a question about what makes a life meaningful or valuable is the thought that it can somehow bootstrap more than is available in an account of a meaningful world as each of us finds it. If my invocation of who I am isn’t meant to support my appeal to particular features of the world as important to me but rather merely re-present them, then maybe it’s innocent

Abstract for MMU

Tacit knowledge, phronesis and particularism

I assume that particularism is a thesis about ontology. That which disciplines moral judgement is not codifiable. Phronesis is a corresponding epistemology where what is known resists linguistic codification in context-independent terms and is instead constitutively situation-dependent. But phronesis also denotes practical rather than theoretical knowledge raising the question of the relation between these two aspects of it.

Tacit knowledge was characterised by Polanyi via the related slogan ‘We know more than we can tell’ but at least one central argument given by him for why this is so is unsuccessful. I suggest a characterisation of phronesis and an account of tacit knowledge can both draw on familiar regress arguments for the priority of practical over theoretical knowledge which helps highlight three distinct understandings of situation-dependence but retaining the basic idea of the priority of the practical.

January Workshop: Particularism and Personalised Medicine