Thursday, 26 February 2015

Appropriately feeble analogy between having a cold and being in the 'bad disjunct'

So here I am ill in bed with a week-long cold trying to keep up with work/the world on an iPad and tactical visits to campus to give a lecture or attend meetings when necessary though struggling with rather less wit than I would like. Everything seems to take a long time to think through. No exercise of judgement is instinctive. Drafting text is very slow and lumpen. No thoughts are simply helpfully offered up by my lower consciousness.

The sense that one is not quite ‘there’ is an odd one. Towards the end of his life my father sometimes struggled badly with short term memory, constantly losing things including, once, his walking stick somehow down inside his own bed and generally losing track of actions that lasted longer than a moment. (The fact that memory binds mere atoms together into rational forms was more and more apparent through a kind of all too poignant deficit study.) But also, sometimes, his normal common sense of what was epistemically reasonable would go missing. This was confusing to others but hugely to him not least because it was occasional. Sometimes, despite all the dreadful, exhausting, miserable pressures of his last months, he was completely lucid and, when lucid, found the very idea of his non-lucid periods baffling and disturbing.

At the risk of the saying something like a Thought for the Day platitude (“I was driving down the middle lane of the motorway today and I thought to myself, Jesus is a little like the middle lane” [Sandi Toksvig, The News Quiz]) I am struck by an analogy to self knowledge of one’s status in disjunctivism. 

The basic picture of disjunctivism in epistemology (well, perceptually based knowledge) is this. A key argument for philosophical scepticism starts from the idea that sometimes when one thinks one sees a cat, say, there isn’t a cat but some suitable trick of the light. The ‘argument from illusion’ then runs: since illusion and veridical seeing is indistinguishable to the subject, then even in the case of veridical seeing its truthfulness is, as far as the subject goes, a matter of luck. She could, after all, be enjoying a merely illusory seeming-seeing. Seeing and merely seeming-seeing share a common element which is all that is directly available to the subject with a merely external addition in the case of seeing that what is apparently seen - the cat - turns out luckily to be there. So since knowledge and luck are incompatible, one is never in a position to gain knowledge through normal cases of seeing (ie ones where illusion is also possible). 

Disjunctivism is based on the idea that there is something quite different in the two cases. Either, one is seeing a cat. Or, one is not. (Hence the name.) Further, the epistemic consequences of the bad disjunct, like Las Vegas, stay in the bad disjunct. So if one is in the good disjunct one is in the direct presence of the cat and hence there is no room for luck in the perceptual knowledge this makes available. Of course, in the bad disjunct, one will think one is in the good disjunct but since one is not, all bets are off.

Students reasonably object: but this doesn’t help knowledge because one cannot tell whether one is in the good or the bad disjunct. As far as one is concerned, one could be in either. But the steely nerved disjunctivist patiently reminds them that what happens in the bad disjunct stays in the bad disjunct. If the subject is in the good disjunct, then the very same perceptual sensitivity that records the presence of the cat also makes the subject aware of how she knows there is a cat: by seeing it. So not only is she in the good disjunct, she knows that fact. Of course, the steely nerved disjunctivist continues softly, had she been in the bad disjunct, she would have thought herself to be in the good and also falsely thought that she knew she was in the good by the same perceptual faculty that had already let her down. But what happens in the bad disjunct stays in the bad disjunct.

I am reminded of this in the case of my coldy disorientation. At the start of the week not only was I crassly stupid in meetings but I had no insight into this (the mucous and the sneezing still being to come). Stuck in the bad disjunct, the self awareness of the good disjunct was unavailable to me. Given, for me at least, the close connection between trivial illnesses and marked affective responses, being in the bad disjunct also prevented me from understanding quite why the world seemed suddenly such a dreadful place. But at least with mere trivial and hence in a sense ‘empirical’ illness (ie not fundamentally and forever putting the world beyond one), there is the possibility of a kind of dawning realisation that one is not firing on all cylinders but that it will pass. A blog post is a kind of reminder. What seems dreadful is the possibility, later in life, of being permanently banished to the bad disjunct.

That was all rather a poor thought. But that is the point, really.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Last year's Philosophers' Rally (Radboud University Nijmegen) 'pop video'

The 2 minute after conference pop video from last year’s Philosophers’ Rally at Radboud University Nijmegen seems to be up on YouTube.

I tend to shy away from audio or video recordings of myself (I do not mind pictures). I think it may be because there is something golem-like about them. What on earth was the figure who looks a bit like me (or the voice that does not sound at all like mine but somehow is) thinking or feeling last year?

Who are we?

This is the whole of a short article published in Splijtstof, the student philosophy journal at Radboud University, Nijmegan to coincide with the Philosophers' Rally 2014. I assume that they would no longer mind it being posted in accordance, I guess, with the green standard of public access.

Who are we? 

We learn and teach words in certain contexts, and then we are expected, and expect others, to be able to project them into further contexts. Nothing insures that this projection will take place (in particular, not the grasping of universals nor the grasping of book of rules), just as nothing insures that we will make, and understand, the same projections. That on the whole we do is a matter of our sharing routes of interest and feeling, senses of humour and of significance and of fulfilment, of what is outrageous, of what is similar to what else, what a rebuke, what forgiveness, of when an utterance is an assertion, when an appeal, when an explanation – all the whirl of organism Wittgenstein calls ‘forms of life’. Human speech and activity, sanity and community, rest upon nothing more, but nothing less, than this. It is a vision as simple as it is difficult, and as difficult as it is (and because it is) terrifying. [Cavell 1969: 52]

In this influential passage, Stanley Cavell offers an interpretation of Wittgenstein’s discussion of shared language. It is offered in part to undermine the assumption that language use is governed by formal rules. So it aims to correct the idea that linguistic usage just is rule following. But that is not to say that Cavell thinks that following formal rules, in logic or mathematics, are underpinned by anything more than is described in this passage. Neither language use nor logic or mathematics is underpinned by extra-human, or extra-rational-subject, platonism.

We are able to learn and teach words or rules because we share routes of interest and feeling, senses of what is similar to what else etc. But who are we? What light does Wittgenstein’s discussion of understanding meaning and following rules shed on who we are? In this short note I will compare three contemporary philosophers who have attempted to address this question.


In three papers on Wittgenstein, Jonathan Lear vividly illustrates the difficulty of thinking about the connection between the discussion of rules and the ‘we’, the plural subject, who can grasp them. He argues that Wittgenstein’s discussion has two aspects: transcendental and anthropological. The transcendental aspect aims at non-empirical insight into rule-following [Lear 1986: 270]. The anthropological aspect consists of empirical descriptions of human nature and practices drawing on Wittgenstein’s comment that he provides remarks on the natural history of human beings which no one has doubted only because they are always before our eyes.

Although Lear thinks that Wittgenstein’s discussion contains both aspects, he also thinks that they are in tension, both with each other and with other explicit aspects of Wittgenstein’s view of the nature of philosophy. Crucially, the anthropological approach threatens to turn a philosophical discussion of norms into an explanation of them which would violate Wittgenstein’s separation of philosophy and explanation. Further:

[I]t would threaten Wittgenstein’s repeated demand that philosophical reflection should leave our practices and customs intact… Why should we not come to view the law of non-contradiction as merely one of the deeply held tribal beliefs of our tribe? [Lear 1986: 270-1]

Lear suggests that the Philosophical Investigations remained an incomplete work because Wittgenstein was never able to work through the full consequences of interaction of these two approaches. Nevertheless, he thinks that a model of philosophy as transcendental anthropology is possible given two claims he draws from Wittgenstein’s discussion of rules or norms: the first homely, the second radical.

First, non-empirical or transcendental investigation of what might come to mind shows that grasping a rule or norm cannot consist of entertaining any kind of a mental image or inner sign or speech or other kind of talisman. The ‘individual’s inner experience cannot endow his practical ability with normative content’ [Lear 1984: 235]. And thus the result of a piece of critical reflection suggests instead a need to look outwards to practices to grasp the nature of rules or norms. The anthropological description of norms is justified by the transcendental investigation of what can and crucially cannot come to mind.

Second, and more radically, Lear proposes a connection between the content of rules or norms and our ‘mindedness’. Our mindedness is illustrated in words drawn from Cavell as our ‘shared perceptions of salience, routes of interest and feelings of naturalness’ and thus rightly studied through an anthropological perspective. But it is also what conditions our concepts, rules or norms. The conditions of possibility of our thought have an ‘essential relation to our mindedness’ [Lear 1984: 238]. Thus the anthropological perspective is deployed in the service of a transcendental inquiry into norms.

This latter connection is, however, a difficult one to spell out. The appeal to the idea of mindedness must avoid both vacuity but also making a substantial but false empirical claim. Lear suggests that he can avoid the first because in appending ‘We are so minded’ to our thoughts - so as to demonstrate what conditions them - we make a substantial and synthetic claim [1984: 229]. He attempts to avoid the second by arguing that our mindedness is not merely one sort among many possible.

Considering the question of what 7 + 5 equals, Lear suggests that there are two possible answers. 

Either 12 or ‘anything at all, just as long as everyone is so minded’. The first is the correct answer but ‘After studying the later Wittgenstein, one is tempted to say that [the latter] also expresses some sort of truth’ [Lear 1982: 385-386]. But, he argues, it is not an empirical truth because that would licence counterfactuals of the form: 7 + 5 would equal something other than 12 had we been other minded:

But these counterfactuals cannot for us express real possibilities; for the notion of people being other minded is not something on which we can get any grasp. The possibility of there being persons who are minded in any way at all is the possibility of their being minded as we are. [ibid: 386]

He suggests that this transformation is a kind of modal gestalt shift:

In one gestalt, one becomes aware that there is nothing to guarantee one’s continued correct language use beyond the fact that one happens to share with one’s fellow man routes of interest, perceptions of salience, feelings of naturalness etc. From this perspective, one’s continued hold on the world appears the merest contingency... As the gestalt shifts, one comes to see that there is no genuine possibility of having fundamentally different routes of interest and perceptions of salience, for that is the spurious possibility of becoming other minded. The illusion of possibility is engendered by considering our form of life as one among others. [ibid: 386]

The second gestalt suggests that the qualification ‘for us’ which attaches to our form of mindedness ‘cancels out’.

There can (for us) be no getting a glimpse of what it might be like to be ‘other minded’, for as we try to pass beyond the bounds of our mindedness we lapse into what (for us) must be nonsense: that is, we lapse into nonsense... That the ‘(for us)’ ultimately cancels out is a key to understanding what it is to establish the objective validity of our representations: for we come to see that being one of ‘our’ representations is all that there could be to being a representation. [Lear 1984: 232-3]

This picture contrasts with those who take Wittgenstein to subscribe to a form of conventionalism or cultural relativism. On Lear’s interpretation, the fact that the qualification ‘for us’ cancels out helps to vindicate our ways of following rules. At the same time, however, although he appears to reject the link, summarised in the first gestalt above, between our logic and mathematics and our mindedness, he really rejects a reading of this position which makes logic depend on a contingent ‘one among many’ kind of mindedness. It remains philosophically important that one can have the insight this first gestalt describes when construed as an act of pointing towards transcendental connection between our mindedness and the content of our rules. So although the ‘for us’ or ‘we’ cancels out, it does not disappear.

It is not obvious, however, that the ‘We are so minded:’ must therefore disappear. Our ability to append the ‘We are so minded:’ represents a permanent possibility of reflective consciousness. [ibid: 241]

Lear thus provides mixed support for the project of highlighting the nature of the ‘we’ who are the transcendental subjects of the conceptual order through an examination of Wittgenstein’s discussion of rules. On the one hand, he argues that the negative arguments suggests that the content of rules depends on the merest contingency rather than platonic foundations of extra-human logical or mathematical norms. And hence there is a substantial role in accounting for the content of rules in appeal to our nature. But on the other hand, no other ways of going on are conceivable. The idea that our mindedness contrasts with any other turns out to be spurious. But with no possible (for us!) contrast, can we understand this connection? Has the nature of the ‘we are so minded’ been singled out? To address this question I will turn now to John McDowell.


There is, in fact, a brief explicit discussion of Lear’s interpretation of Wittgenstein in McDowell’s Mind and World. The main target of that book is a dualism of norms and nature which seems to support related dualisms of mind and world, concepts and intuitions and conceptual schemes and empirical content. Rejecting these need not be seen, however, as support for Quine’s attack on analyticity.

The suspect notion of the analytic is the notion of schemes in the suspect sense, the sense in which schemes are conceived as dualistically set over against the world…. [W]hen we reject the dualism of scheme and world, we cannot take meaning to be the stuff of schemes, on the dualistic conception of schemes. But this does not deprive us of the very idea of meaning... We can reject the two factors without threatening the idea that there are limits to what makes sense: that our mindedness, as Jonathan Lear puts it, has a necessary structure. The idea of a structure that must be found in any intelligible conceptual scheme need not involve picturing the scheme as one side of a scheme-world dualism. And analytic truths (in an interesting sense, not just definitionally guaranteed truisms such as ‘A vixen is a female fox’) might be just those that delineate such a necessary structure. [McDowell 1994: 157-8]

Although McDowell expresses approval for Lear’s idea that our mindedness has a necessary structure he rejects the picture Lear himself proposes to sustain that idea.

[T]he disappearance of the ‘we’ should not take on the aspect of a reassurance, but should rather figure as part of the reason why a reassurance should never have been needed. “How we go on” is just our mindedness, which is ex hypothesi in constituted harmony with our world; it is not something that constitutes the harmony, as it were from outside. [McDowell 1994: 159]

McDowell’s actual remarks in Mind and World seem to suggest that Lear’s main focus is – like McDowell’s own in Mind and World – empirical concepts and a harmony between those and the empirical world. This does not fit so happily the Lear’s concentration on logical and mathematical concepts. But McDowell’s point can be extended to criticise the justification that Lear seeks for our logical or mathematical rules by ruling out other ways of going on. Without at least a glimpse of other ways of going on, then our ways cannot be legitimated over other possibilities. But anything more than a glimpse threatens to undermine that legitimation by undermining the necessity of our ways of going on. The notion of mindedness, however, is not sufficiently independent of what it is supposed to underwrite. Because it is introduced through the idea of shared perceptions of salience, routes of interest and feelings of naturalness, it cannot at the same time explain or constrain those notions.

McDowell’s criticism of Lear reflects a different view of the relation between the normative level of rule following and an underlying set of contingencies concerning behaviour and reactions (for example, to explanations of direction by a pointing finger).

On Lear’s view, the Wittgensteinian lesson that there is nothing to underpin rule following beyond shared routes of interest, perceptions of salience, feelings of naturalness prompts the conclusion that ‘one’s continued hold on the world appears the merest contingency’ [Lear 1982: 386]. This in turn motivates the need to vindicate our ways of going on through the idea of our mindedness. But according to McDowell, the correct interpretation of the significance of the underlying contingencies is to concede that were certain facts not the case there would be no conceptual order [cf McDowell 1984: 347-]. Future changes in the underlying facts which underpin our abilities to be rule followers or language users would not make our present understanding precarious. If such changes were to come about that would prevent us in the future from understanding one another. It would not retrospectively undermine present understanding.

This view suggests a kind of compromise between full blown platonism about the conceptual order in which view logic takes us by the throat, exerting an external constraint on any possible form of thought and a more sociological or anthropological view. McDowell calls the middle way ‘naturalised platonism’.

In rampant platonism, the rational structure within which meaning comes into view is independent of anything merely human, so that the capacity of our minds to resonate to it looks occult or magical. Naturalised platonism is platonistic in that the structure of the space of reasons has a sort of autonomy; it is not derivative from, or reflective of, truths about human beings that are capturable independently of having that structure in view. But this platonism is not rampant: the structure of the space of reasons is not constituted in splendid isolation from anything merely human. The demands of reason are essentially such that a human upbringing can open a human being’s eyes to them. [McDowell 1994: 92]

On this view, upbringing and education opens the eyes of rational subjects to the demands that logic, for example, places on them. McDowell suggests a similar view of moral obligations [McDowell 1979]. Those with eyes to see them can learn to be sensitive and to respond to moral reasons, construed as genuine features of the world.

This later view also seems to reflect a comment from the earlier paper ‘Wittgenstein on following a rule’ in which he comments that:

When we say ‘“Diamonds are hard” is true if and only if diamonds are hard’, we are just as much involved on the right-hand side as the reflections on rule-following tell us we are. There is a standing temptation to miss this obvious truth, and to suppose that the right-hand side somehow presents us with a possible fact, pictured as an unconceptualised configuration of things in themselves... We can find this picture of genuine truth compelling only if we either forget that truth-bearers are such only because they are meaningful, or suppose that meanings take care of themselves, needing, as it were, no help from us. [McDowell 1984: 351-2]

In these passages McDowell suggests that a proper understanding of the significance of Wittgenstein’s discussion of rules and meaning has implications for the relation of mind and world. It highlights the role that ‘we’ play in sustaining the conceptual order. Neglecting the connection of human practices and meaning threatens to present a myth of the world as made up of unconceptualised things in themselves. Avoiding that myth requires not letting our understanding of the judging subjects who think, for example, that ‘diamonds are hard’ shrink to a ‘locus of pure thought’ [ibid: 351-2].

But even without Lear’s attempt to justify or vindicate our ways of following rules, McDowell’s picture of naturalised platonism does not seem to help in the task of stopping our understanding of judging subjects from shrinking to a ‘locus of pure thought’. Since naturalised platonism still credits the conceptual order with some sort of autonomy, the only freedom it seems to permit is that of being blind to some tract of reality. The contribution that a rational subject makes to the truth 7 + 5 = 12 is merely one of passive recognition. If so, it is not clear that Wittgenstein’s discussion of rules and of meaning sheds light on who ‘we’ are.


Charles Travis expresses a reciprocal worry to the concern that playing up the autonomy or objectivity of our rules plays down the role ‘we’ have in sustaining the conceptual order. Travis’ worry starts with McDowell’s emphasis on our special capacities as rational subjects of a particular sort.

McDowell himself makes frequent appeal to ways in which we, or relevant thinkers, are thinkers of a special sort. Our special design opens our eyes, as he puts it, to particular tracts of reality. That our eyes may be thus opened shows where, and how, there may be facts that it takes special capacities, not enjoyed by just any thinker, to see. [Travis 2002: 305]

But this prompts the question.

Can mind-design select which tract of reality we deal with... without also deciding, of the selected tract, how things there are—without shaping the world along with our responsiveness to it? [ibid: 333]

The worry is that McDowell’s reliance on the idea that education and induction into the space of reasons opens a subject’s eyes to aspects of the world commits him (McDowell) to a form of idealism. This problem is brought into focus because McDowell rejects what he calls a ‘deductive paradigm that leads us to suppose that the operations of any specific conception of rationality in a particular area - any specific conception of what counts as doing the same thing - must be deductively explicable; that is, that there must be a formulable universal principle suited to serve as major premiss in syllogistic explanations’ [McDowell 1979: 339-40]. Special capacities are needed precisely because the demands of reason are not in general accessible to just any rational subject because, in turn, they are not codifiable in principles graspable by just any subject. But now the worry is that the role the special capacities have is to constitute the aspect of reality  supposedly revealed.

Travis offers McDowell a way out of this potential worry based on his own philosophical signature dish which he draws from an interpretation of Wittgenstein: occasionalism. The key idea is that this allows Travis (and hence potentially McDowell) to distinguish between two different contributions that the mindedness of a subject – our nature – might make.

Let P be a way a statement might thus represent things. Then, accepting that idea, we may still innocently allow that the way given thinkers think decides whether some one of their statements stated that P, or, say, that Q, where that is another such way for a statement to represent things. But one cannot, accepting this idea, allow that, where a statement spoke of things as being P, whether it thus stated truth depends on how a particular (sort of) thinker thinks. [Travis 2002: 338]

The latter would be a form of idealism which undermines the autonomy of our rules and normativity. But the former locates the contribution of subjectivity to selecting the way we represent the world to be. This is the role of occasionalism. What is said in using a sentence depends on the occasion of its use. Hence, also, whether what is said is true or false depends on the occasion, which in turn depends, among other things, on the nature of the speaker.

Travis gives an everyday example

Sid buys a DIY chair kit. On bringing it home he discovers that it is much more difficult to assemble than he had imagined. It remains a neatly stacked pile of chair parts in his spare room. One day, someone, pointing at the pile, asks, ‘What’s that?’ ‘It’s a chair’, Sid replies, ‘I just haven’t got around to assembling it yet.’ On a later occasion, Sid and Pia, with guests, find themselves a chair short for dinner. ‘There’s a chair in the spare room’, Sid says helpfully. But there is still only the pile. [ibid: 336]

The idea is that Sid’s first answer is true. On that occasion it is correct to say that the pile is a chair. But on the second occasion, his comment is false. The pile of parts is not a chair in the context of the dinner party. The same word ‘chair’ can be used correctly and falsely of the pile of parts because different things are said to be so with it on both occasions. This suggests a role for our psychological design, not in shaping the aspect of the world judged, but in shaping the nature of what we say with our words.

Part of the motivation for Travis’ occasionalism is Wittgenstein’s criticism of (rampant) platonism: the idea that in the face of the argument that words, signs, utterances are susceptible to different interpretations there might be some intermediary, a last interpretation, between words and world which still represents the world but uniquely independently of context. Rejecting this as a myth leaves the standing need for features of the occasion, of speaker and context, to fix what is said in any utterance.

Travis’ view of meaning, like Lear’s and McDowell’s, can be seen as a development of Cavell’s view of the contingency of meaning. But whereas Lear’s and McDowell’s accounts seem to leave our contribution to the conceptual order to ‘cancel out’ – to be a merely transcendental glimpse into the conditions of possibility of meaning – Travis’ account stresses an empirical claim. As a matter of fact, we do mean different things by our words on different occasions and what we mean, and are taken to mean, depends on what it would be rational to say or to think in context. This claim goes beyond the rejection of (rampant) platonism that he shares with Lear and McDowell’s interpretation. It requires piecemeal demonstration of how occasions help fix meaning which Travis offers case by case (eg green leaves both natural and painted; red hair natural and dyed etc). But that raises the question of whether such examples might carry over to the hard cases of logic and mathematics discussed by Lear. Given their standard meanings, what does our sense of occasions contribute to the answer to ‘what is 7 + 5?’?


Cavell’s famous description of the contingency of meaning responds to Wittgenstein’s criticism of platonic foundations by suggesting that contingent features of our subjectivity sustain the conceptual order. One reaction to this might be to assume that facts about meaning reduce to contingent sociological facts. The apparent inexorability of the judgement that 7 + 5 equals, and must equal, 12 somehow reduces to contingencies of what we find natural. But such a move threatens to undermine what Wittgenstein calls the ‘hardness of the logical must’.

Lear, McDowell and Travis attempt to balance retaining the autonomy of the conceptual order with crediting some role for particular features of our subjectivity. If so, the conceptual order, the space of reasons, somehow reflects our mindedness and so should shed light on who we are. That is why we are involved, according to McDowell, in the facts set out on the right hand side of instances of the T-schema as well as the sentences mentioned on the left. But as Lear stresses, taking the inexorability of rules seriously seems to reduce the contribution of subjectivity to zero, to cancel it out. And McDowell’s own positive account of the relationship between our rule following and our contingent natures should block Cavell’s sense of terror.

Travis’ occasionalism promises a way of balancing a substantial view of the contribution of subjectivity with maintaining the autonomy of judgement. But it is open to doubt whether it generalises to the kind of hard cases Lear stresses.

So what should we make of Cavell’s comments? Does Wittgenstein’s discussion of rules and meaning suggest a positive connection to our subjectivity to balance the – negative – rejection of platonic foundations? I think not. I think we should take seriously an element of Lear’s dialectic. Reflecting on the switch between the views of the status of logical and mathematical claims as contingently reflecting our mindedness versus or inexorability reflecting the hardness of logic he says:

The difference between Wittgenstein and the conventionalists can be summed up as follows: the conventionalists state a falsehood; Wittgenstein tries to point beyond to a transcendental insight. [Lear 1982: 387]

But to take the later Wittgensteinian seriously is to realise that any such successful act of pointing would require more stage-setting than Lear describes. There is no ineffable truth outside the limits of sense to which Wittgenstein gestures. The most that Cavell’s remarks reveal is that, in the necessary absence of platonic foundations, it is a contingent fact that we understand explanations of meaning and that we can continue following rules in the way that we do. But the truths of maths and logic are truths of maths and logic: not truths about our own subjectivity. They shed no further light on who we are other than our ability to grasp them.


Cavell, S. (1969) Must we mean what we say, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Lear, J. (1982) ‘Leaving the world alone’ Journal of Philosophy 79: 382-403
Lear, J. (1984) ‘The disappearing “we”’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society supplementary volume 58: 219-58
Lear, J. (1986) ‘Transcendental anthropology’ in Pettit, P. and McDowell, J. (eds) (1986) Subject Thought and Context, Oxford: Clarendon Press pp2367-98.
McDowell, J. (1979) ‘Virtue and Reason’ Monist 62: 331-350
McDowell, J. (1984) ‘Wittgenstein on following a rule’ Synthese 58: 325-63
McDowell, J. (1994) Mind and World, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press
Travis, C. (2002) ‘Frege’s target’ Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 51: 305-343

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

UCLan’s masterplan

Not many phrases and ideas from recent philosophy have made it out into common parlance. (It will be interesting to see whether Tom Stoppard will succeed in getting ‘hard problem’ onto the lips of those middle class business men and women who now ride on the Clapham Omnibus.) But one phrase and idea that would have been familiar at least to panellists on Radio 4’s much lamented show ‘Stop the Week’ is Gilbert Ryle’s category mistake or category ‘howler’ in his The Concept of Mind [Ryle 1949 / 2009].

Ryle argues that accounts of intelligent action which postulate additional mental acts behind the bodily actions, or more generally postulate a Cartesian spectral ‘ghost in the machine’, are making a category mistake. Perhaps the best example he gives of such a mistake in a clearer context, best because it helps shed light more directly on the analogical application to the nature of mind, runs:

A foreigner watching his first game of cricket learns what are the functions of the bowlers, the batsmen, the fielders, the umpires and the scorers. He then says ‘But there is no one left on the field to contribute the famous element of team-spirit. I see who does the bowling, the batting and the wicket-keeping; but I do not see whose role it is to exercise esprit de corps.’ [ibid: 6-7]

But the more famous example (after nearly 70 years, it is striking and a bit embarrassing that both examples presuppose the ignorance of ‘foreigners’) is:

A foreigner visiting Oxford or Cambridge for the first time is shown a number of colleges, libraries, playing fields, museums, scientific departments and administrative offices. He then asks ‘But where is the University? I have seen where the members of the Colleges live, where the Registrar works, where the scientists experiment and the rest. But I have not yet seen the University in which reside and work the members of your University.’ It has then to be explained to him that the University is not another collateral institution, some ulterior counterpart to the colleges, laboratories and offices which he has seen. The University is just the way in which all that he has already seen is organized. When they are seen and when their co-ordination is understood, the University has been seen. His mistake lay in his innocent assumption that it was correct to speak of Christ Church, the Bodleian Library, the Ashmolean Museum and the University, to speak, that is, as if ‘the University’ stood for an extra member of the class of which these other units are members. He was mistakenly allocating the University to the same category as that to which the other institutions belong. [ibid: 6]

This passage, though not its intended analogical significance, struck me a couple of weeks ago when my university, UCLan, announced bold plans for the development of the university campus area of Preston. The aim would be to create more attractive walking routes between buildings, public spaces with greenery, the exile of university caused traffic to a single carpark away from the rest of the university and a clear central focus or hub: Adelphi Square, a kind of symbolic meeting place of academia and commerce.

Bracketing practical thoughts about how funding the new developments might impact on other areas of the university’s life, on what else it can afford at the same time, the underlying conception of the relation of university and city seems to me very attractive. Why should there not be an exercise of influence by the university on the city planners to change traffic movements etc given their mutual dependence?

The connection to Ryle is something like this. In Oxford – except perhaps from the top of the Radcliffe Camera – it is impossible to get a perspective on the university as a whole. One is always in media res, in an intermingling of town and gown and so it is hard to have a geographic sense of the university. This contrasts with my previous employer: Warwick University (like York and some others built at the same time on green field sites) seems modelled on a medieval settlement with central academic buildings surrounded by halls of residence (though York deliberately mingled offices and accommodation within the campus boundaries). One effect of this was that it was easy to have a sense of the bodily presence of the university. When I worked in space planning at the LSE, we were acutely aware that it was very hard to get a sense of where and hence what the LSE was physically. There was huge difficulty drawing an appropriate campus map or plan, for example. I suspect that that was a main reason for our failed attempt to buy County Hall.

Whilst the logic of Ryle’s example is not affected, a coherent university campus at UCLan with a clear focus provides a practical answer to his hypothetical confused foreigner. Standing in the middle of the future central square, one could point a sweeping hand and say ‘This is the university’.

(This would be a simpler response to the question than the one I, playing the role of ignorant foreigner, was offered when I spent a month as a guest of Universit√© Paris Descartes. Asking my sponsor over Sunday lunch in his grand apartment where the university was – with the intention of going there the next day – he shrugged and said: ‘Why, the university is in our hearts’.)

Ryle, G. (1949 / 2009) The Concept of Mind, Abingdon: Routldge

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Tom Stoppard's The Hard Problem

I wish I had something substantial to say about Tom Stoppard’s play The Hard Problem. But here is short note. Perhaps because I saw it – two weeks ago – a couple of hours after seeing The Changeling at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre – whose nastiness had entered my soul – I didn’t much mind the lack of emotional drama, the theatre perhaps, of The Hard Problem. But as a professional philosopher of sorts, I might not be the ideal audience member for a play that crams together the Prisoners’ Dilemma, the Milgram Experiment, a ‘New Mysterian’ appeal to the brute intractability of the hard problem and a kind of theology motivated by intuitions about moral realism.

I guess it would be possible to rationalise why a subject who takes the anti-reductionist views of the main protagonist would be rerunning (for real!) the Milgram Experiment but it wasn’t really rationalised. But I was struck by two kinds of blind spot in the philosophy. Theological realism played two roles dialectical roles in the play. One was a sort of negative comparison. It stemmed from the argument: given the palpable lack of success of reductionist attempts to provide explanatory solutions to the hard problem, their adherents were no more rational than those with religious faith. Well, perhaps. But that neglects the flip side that one might be driven to think that some reductionist account must be possible by an argument for example Fodor’s argument:

I suppose that sooner or later the physicists will complete the catalogue they’ve been compiling of the ultimate and irreducible properties of things. When they do, the likes of spin, charm and charge will perhaps appear upon their list. But aboutness surely won’t; intentionality simply doesn’t go that deep. It’s hard to see, in face of this consideration, how one can be a Realist about intentionality without also being, to some extent or other, a Reductionist. If the semantic and intentional are real properties of things, it must be in virtue of their identity with (or maybe of their supervenience on?) properties that are neither intentional nor semantic. If aboutness is real, it must be really something else. [Fodor 1987: 97]

Of course, theology may also be based an argument – for example, from design – but if so then that does not fit the play’s opposition of faith and reason. (The strongest argument against reductionism is when the the protagonist Hilary points out that an evolutionary account cannot merely explain the surface form of behaviour that expresses thick moral concepts but also what we mean by those concepts. At least, that’s an argument I fancied I heard. The New Scientist review objects that the play implies that scientists cannot appreciate art because the main reductionist figure gives what I took to be very much a jocular reductive description of Raphael’s The Madonna and Child as ‘woman maximising gene survival’. But there is a serious point here. Not that scientists cannot appreciate art but whether a reductionist science can explain the terms of art criticism in accord with its  own austere vocabulary or else, I assume, convict all such appreciation as illusion.)

Odder was the idea that theological realism was suggested as the only alternative to reductionistism. Dramatically, this was demonstrated by scenes in which Hilary prays, kneeling by her bed. But dialectically, it was suggested that this was the only way in which moral judgements would not be a case of doing ‘one’s own marking’. But no one thinks that physics needs a god to avoid this worry: the subject matter that disciplines the relevant judgments is enough. So why not in this case too?

Where this preoccupation seemed better was where it stemmed from closer to the philosophy of mind but in an invocation of the spirit not of David Chalmers (who coined the titular phrase) but Tom Nagel. Our antireductionist asks her reductionist lover whether the world might be teleological. Nagel distances teleology from the intentions of a creator but perhaps that is a subtlety that perhaps could not be communicated in a play and hence the shorthand of theology makes sense.

I suspect that no one with whom I ever enjoy a beer doubts the importance of Darwin and evolutionary theory. But for those of us who also resist reductionism, balancing an evolutionary story of how humans came to be with a resistance of reductionism prompts just such speculation. How could brute evolutionary forces enable us to resonate to the space of reasons? Now that seems to be a genuinely puzzling difficulty with mounting a rearguard defence against reductionism.

(The Book of Mormon was more of a hoot than either this or the Changeling, by the way.)

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Tolerating approximation in philosophy

At the end of a post-work beer with my colleague Peter Lucas, during which we had mainly discussed the connection between Hume’s problem of induction and quantitative social science research methods, we found ourselves in agreement on a pedagogic point. A too bleak presentation of the force of Hume’s argument would likely leave social scientist students or colleagues feeling somehow cheated, short changed and uninterested. A too rosy presentation of the prospects of dissolution would undermine the lessons Hume offers for the difficulty of mapping real world cases on, say, hypothetical finite jars of differently coloured marbles.

On leaving, unfolding my bicycle to head to the station, I asked him, for interest, whether he had a favourite principled or philosophical solution to the problem and he remarked, lightly, that the principled problem did not particularly bother him. Well why should it? After all, it cannot really engage one (as Hume, and in a parallel case Descartes, both acknowledge) once one has left the study or lecture hall.

Still, on the train home, I realise that I do have a shopping list of solutions to key philosophical problems. I would not be happy to be without some favourite approach to Hume, for example. But this in turn makes me realise that I tolerate a remarkable number of counter examples or unresolved difficulties in order to think that I have at least a dim view of an approximate solution. This tolerance resembles the Kuhnian idea that a dominant scientific theory is born ‘refuted’ and soldiers on despite this. But it doesn’t seem very philosophical. (Such a relaxed attitude would, eg., undermine the nature of question sessions at philosophy presentations.)

To take one example. Donald Davidson argues against type type identity theories in the philosophy of mind by arguing that mental state types, bound by the constitutive ideal of rationality, cannot be identical to physical state types, which are not so bound. John McDowell offers a similar argument against functionalism. Mapping mental states, again bound by the constitutive ideal of rationality, onto functional states would require the codification in functionalist terms of the demands of reason which seems implausible. (McDowell talks here of proof that it cannot be done.) In his book on Davidson, Bill Child deploys a related argument against even a network of token mental states identified with token physical states to which Davidson subscribes. Even that identity requires a parallel codification of the token states against which Davidson’s master argument still applies. Further, it now seems a mere coincidence that the structure of relations governing the mental tokens keeps in step with the structure of relations governing the (very same) physical tokens.

In retreat from these stronger positions, I have always assumed that weak supervenience (in the sense of John Haugeland’s article of that name as requiring no identity of elements rather than the modal version (Kim) as meaning applying only in a narrow range of possible worlds) is a place of refuge. But there is still a related objection: without a principled codification of the structure of the space of reasons in the concepts of the realm of law, or vice versa, why should these two domains march in step? A token identity theory seems unnecessary to raise this worry. I tend to ignore this, relieved that I do not publish in this area, but still retain some reassurance that despite the objections the solution lies in this broad area (supervenience without identity).

But on sober reflection, that seems rash. The objection looks to be a haymaker: ruling out occupying this possible space in realm of possible solutions to the mind-body problem. Of course, as a cursory glance at this ever-getting-another-job-defying blog would reveal, the same applies in other areas. I often flag philosophical commitments whilst simultaneously advertising obvious objections to them.

I would like to offer as a response to the question I set Peter a broadly externalist but reason-based disjunctivism about induction (sketched here and here). But I cannot swear that I lack misgivings about addressing the objections it prompts.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Grief and the idea that action doesn't need prior motivation

One of the ongoing effects I have felt of my (double) bereavement last year has been marked fluctuations in the degree to which any possible ends seem at all attractive. (One might, with psychiatry, call the phenomenon a ‘flattening of affect’, a phrase that itself seems the result of a flattening of affect.) The experience tends towards the limit case that nothing matters, nothing has value. One obvious practical problem, then, is motivation. Once final ends are sucked dry of value, they can’t set up instrumental values and so there’s no reason to do anything at all. (I guess that that is one of the reasons that being asleep seems so attractive to me at the moment: a kind of null state for acting.) Another effect is that with no ends, there seems to be no pleasure either. I don’t think I had an inkling of this connection before. Happiness seems to go hand in hand with the possibility of doing something even if the doing is merely lounging. Of course, that’s just what the experience would be in the limit and I don’t think that actual grief gets very far along the scale. But far enough, I find.

Given the pressures of having a job, though, perturbations in motivational structure are a bother. Deadlines don’t go away and essays need to be marked. But one of the themes in the long-running Oliver Burkeman column (from which I have taken the picture) in the Guardian criticising most of the self-help literature is that motivation (for example, in the very idea of motivational speakers) is over played. The key idea is this:

Motivation follows action: Books on ‘getting motivated’ - and hyperenergetic ‘motivational speakers’ - ironically compound the problem by reinforcing the idea that you need to feel positive about doing something before you begin it. But that's a subtle form of pressure. What if you dropped the requirement of feeling good, accepted that you felt bad and just started anyway? Motivation usually shows up quickly thereafter. (See the work of psychologist Shoma Morita at []

But similar ideas on the same theme can be found in other entries, for example, here and here.

In the context of philosophy, however, there is a clear contradiction. For their very identity as actions, actions need motivation. Nothing can be both an action, rather than a movement or other brute event, and lack motivation. The idea that Burkeman seems to be getting at here seems similar to the idea – in some forms of therapy – that one can aim at not owning one’s own experiences and thoughts. Taken literally, this seems incoherent. But I don’t think that a literal interpretation is the right approach. So similarly in this case.

What would it be to act ‘without motivation’? There is a reminder of Anscombe’s idea that answering a ‘why?’ question concerning why one acted with ‘for no reason’ need not deny that a putative action is an action, and hence done for some reason, but rather suggests no ulterior reason, just a reason tied to the action’s identity as the action it is. If there is no further reason, then the action has intrinsic rather than instrumental value to the agent. Hence a suggestion.

Perhaps what Burkeman is suggesting is something like this. Rather than aspiring to seeing an action as motivated by a broader aim, a step towards realising that aim, one should just carry out the action for its own sake. Each action is to be carried out for its own sake. If there is a structure, it is bottom up rather than top down.

Such a suggestion has a problem, I must admit. The ethos of the Burkeman column is that this is what one should do, that this is a better approach than a broader structure of goals and aims sold to us by motivational self-help literature. (There is a very healthy critical angle on positive suggestions in the column but it does seem that this idea is endorsed.) But, now, how does the ethos stand to the individual actions if not as itself a kind of broader motivational structure? If one does not already simply act for reasons intrinsic to the actions themselves, how can anything Burkeman write impact? My hunch is that this is supposed to be a kind of abstract imperative of rationality rather than appetite. It’s a reminder of the kind of ‘oughts’ that structure the field of possible actions. There are ends and they are to be done. They don’t need binding by extra appetitive oomph.

The difficulty, though, of grief is precisely seeing in the first place that anything is a candidate to be so much as an end in itself. The bereaved, I discover, are like epistemological sceptics wanting to be reassured of the power of reasons having foolishly already stepped outside the space of reasons. Once you do that, nothing could possibly serve as a reason to underpin the power of reasons.