Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Oxford Summer Schools and Conferences: Philosophy and Psychiatry: Mind, Value and Mental Health

Oxford Summer Schools and Conferences

Philosophy and Psychiatry: Mind, Value and Mental Health 

Programme now updated ...

3rd Oxford Summer School 

(13-14 July 2017)


Philosophical Psychopathology Today
Giovanni Stanghellini (Professor of Dynamic Psychology and Psychotherapy,Chieti University)
Matthew Broome (Senior Clinical Research Fellow, University of Oxford)

Empathy and Psychology 
Anita Avramides (Reader in Philosophy of Mind, University of Oxford)
Jonathan Cole (Consultant in Clinical Neurophysiology, Poole Hospital NHS Foundation Trust) 
Dan Zahavi 
(Professor of Philosophy, University of Copenhagen)

Sarah Majid (Consultant Psychiatrist in Psychotherapy, The Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust) 
Derek Bolton (Professor of Philosophy and Psychopathology, King’s College London)

Depression / Bipolar Disorder 
Stephen McHugh (Research Fellow in the Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford) 
Benedict Smith (Lecturer in Philosophy, Durham University)

Epistemic Injustice and Psychiatry 
Abdi Sanati (Consultant Psychiatrist, North East London NHS Foundation Trust) 
Elianna Fetterolf (Post-doctoral Research Fellow, University of Oxford)

2nd International Conference  

(15 July 2017)

Thrive: the Power of Psychological Therapies to
Transform Lives

David M. Clark (Professor and Chair of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford)

Interpersonal Experience and the Sense of Reality
Matthew Ratcliffe (Professor of Philosophy, University of Vienna)

Epistemic Violence and the Social Imaginary: Patient Voices and Mechanisms of Silencing in Psychiatry
Nancy Nyqvist Potter (Professor of Theoretical Philosophy, University of Louisville)

Dan Hutto explaining radical enactivism whilst on a rollercoaster

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Antonio Cerella on the globalization of hate

"The German philosopher Ernst Cassirer has defined man as an animal symbolicum. For, unique among living beings, “he has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythical symbols or religious rites that he cannot see or know anything except by the interposition of this artificial medium.” In this sense, to say that things are meaningful to us means that they give significance to our existence. A teacup is not only a tool but also material memory, life coagulated into a form and an object. As the Colombian philosopher Nicolás Gómez Dávila poetically has it, “Soul is what grows on things when they last”. Very true, when they last for us who are symbolic animals and “grasp” things through our meanings." Read more here.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Philosophical minimalism and idealism in Peter Zachar’s ‘A Metaphysics of Psychopathology’

Although Peter Zachar’s book is called a ‘metaphysics of psychopathology’ its focus is, in fact, broader in two respects [Zachar 2014]. First, it outlines an approach to metaphysical concepts in general, outside psychopathology. Second, the approach to be taken to metaphysics – which following William James, Zachar labels both ‘scientific pragmatism’ and ‘radical empiricism’ – reflects a broader approach to philosophical method. The method dovetails with substantial metaphysical claims about the connection between reality and experience. It is not antithetical to advancing metaphysical claims but takes such claims to be advanced within the boundaries of experience rather than attempting to gesture to a reality without them.

[T]he pragmatism that I explicate in this book is concerned with nitty-gritty issues in the scientific disciplines. Based largely on the pragmatism of William James, scientifically inspired pragmatism has no a priori commitments that oblige it to take a side in metaphysical debates such as those between scientific realists and antirealists. Neither does it deny the value of the substantive philosophical distinctions (such as appearance versus reality or subject versus object) that are explored in such debates. [ibid: 25]

Radical empiricism is a view proposed by William James that asserts that experience rests on nothing outside of itself (i.e., neither behind nor beyond all experience). The metaphysical distinctions that we make in order to see how things hang together (such as subjective versus objective) are made using the resources available to experience. [ibid: 239]

Radical empiricism is a theory about the sufficiency of experience for making metaphysical claims. [ibid: 52]

As well as this general claim about the experiential limits of metaphysical distinctions, two other ideas play an important role in the machinery of the book. One is Arthur Fine’s deflationary approach to debates between scientific realists and anti-realists in the philosophy of the physical sciences. Fine argues that both realists and anti-realists accept a common core. Both sides accept the truth claims made by scientists which Fine calls the ‘natural ontological attitude’. But then both interpret these in additional metaphysical terms.

Anti-realists provide a reinterpretation of truth. This might be a social constructionist account of scientific practice. Or it might be the claim that the truth of a belief consists in its coherence with other beliefs. Such modifications re-interpret the common core. Fine’s characterisation of what a realist adds to the common core is simpler: ‘what the realist adds on is a desk-thumping, foot-stamping shout of “Really!”’. The reason for this is that:

The realist, as it were, tries to stand outside the arena watching the ongoing game [of science] and then tries to judge (from this external point of view) what the point is. It is, he says, about some area external to the game. The realist, I think, is fooling himself. For he cannot (really!) stand outside the arena, nor can he survey some area off the playing field and mark it out as what the game is about.’ [Fine 1986: 131]

Zachar summarises the realist side of this disagreement thus:

What then is the difference between scientific realists and antirealists? What is the contrast between these two philosophical positions if it is not about what scientific statements are true? According to Fine, the key contrast between the scientific realist and the antirealist is that along with the various considerations that are relevant in accepting as true a statement such as “bipolar disorder has a genetic component,” a scientific realist wants, in addition, to assert some special relationship called correspondence to reality. For example, in addition to accepting all the reasons for agreeing that bipolar disorder has a genetic component, the scientific realist stomps his foot and shouts out—“Bipolar disorder really does run in families, really!” [Zachar 2014:51]

A third element of the framework is what Zachar calls ‘instrumental nominalism’.

If we were to specify what all true statements have in common, the result—called the universal essence of Truth—should be fully present in every possible true statement. Nominalists reject such universals and attend instead to the variability and plurality that exist within concepts such as truth... Instrumental nominalism is the view that abstract metaphysical concepts (which are best defined in terms of contrasts such as subjective versus objective) can be allowed as long as we are clear on the purpose for making the distinction. [ibid: 238]

Zachar uses instrumental nominalism as a means of avoiding hasty essentialist thinking. It fits with the idea that metaphysical distinctions should be tied to experience. For example, although he commends Wakefield’s harmful dysfunction analysis of psychiatric as a ‘parsimonious, elegant, and useful’ his key criticism is that it goes beyond possible experience.

Horwitz and Wakefield use a conceptual analysis of what we should and should not be expected to do to identify what lies within our biologically designed, naturally selected range of behaviors. According to them, talking to family members without intense anxiety lies in this range, but handling snakes without intense anxiety does not. Only psychiatric symptoms that interfere with what we should naturally be expected to do are to be considered objective dysfunctions. In this analysis the distinction between disordered and normal is being made not by discovering an objective dysfunction but by intuition. The HD analysis cannot, therefore, be reliably used to do what it was proposed to do—factually demarcate valid psychiatric disorders from the larger class of problems in living.

The objection is not that the analysis is false or incoherent. Rather, the appeal to biological dysfunctions to underpin a notion disorder inverts actual explanatory priority. Intuitions about what is and is not a disorder drive judgements about selective history rather than the other way round. So the objection is that the model is a gratuitous metaphysical explanation which goes beyond clinical experience.

Zachar adopts a similarly anti-essentialist view of psychiatric taxonomy in general. Rather than assuming that there must be a common essence behind diagnostic categories, he suggests that the actual pattern of overlapping similarities and differences exhausts the facts of the matter. And hence he commends an ‘imperfect community’ model of kinds rather than an explanation of kind which dig beneath the clinical surface. A similar approach guides the detailed discussion of particular diagnoistic categories.

I think that this is an admirable approach to the philosophy of psychiatry. Explanatory minimalism is a hygienic approach to the insight philosophy can provide into other disciplines. In the next section I will outline a different route to the same metaphilosophical approach: Wittgensteinian philosophy. It can seem, however, that it falls prey to an accusation of idealism. I will argue that it need not but then return, in the final section, to ask whether the same is true of Zachar’s account.

Wittgensteinian anti-explanatory minimalism

In an early passage in the Investigations Wittgenstein suggests that a failure to pay attention to the details of language and practice is not simply the result of carelessness:

If I am inclined to suppose that a mouse has come into being by spontaneous generation out of grey rags and dust, I shall do well to examine those rags very closely to see how a mouse may have hidden in them, how it may have got there and so on. But if I am convinced that a mouse cannot come into being from these things, then this investigation will perhaps be superfluous. But first we must learn to understand what it is that opposes such an examination of details in philosophy. [§52]

Philosophical theory may lead one to ignore practical details because of a prior belief that they cannot be relevant. But, the suggestion goes, the details might contain just what was needed to resolve one’s philosophical difficulty.

Cora Diamond provides an extended discussion of Wittgenstein’s meta-philosophy which includes an interpretation of this passage [Diamond 1991]. She suggests, following a gnomic comment from Wittgenstein, that the tendency to be blinded to important details by philosophical theory is a mark of philosophical realism. This is a surprising remark because, in philosophical debates about the reality of the past, or distant spatio-temporal points, or mathematics, realism is usually thought of as the non-revisionary position, the position which most fits everyday language. Nevertheless, realism fails to be realistic when it goes beyond the everyday phenomena and instead attempts to explain them by postulating underlying processes or mechanisms. Diamond suggests that the central ambition of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is to be realistic whilst eschewing both, on the one hand realism and, on the other, empiricism.

Diamond uses two examples from outside Wittgensteinian philosophy to clarify the distinction between realist and realistic philosophy. One is Berkeley’s discussion of matter in his Three Dialogues. Hylas, the philosophical realist, argues that the distinction between real things and chimeras - mere hallucinations or imaginings - must consist in a fact which goes beyond all experience or perception. For this reason, philosophy has to invoke the philosophical concept of matter to explain the difference. The presence or absence of matter is beyond direct perception or experience, although perception can provide evidence of its presence or absence. This however presents Philonous, who speaks on behalf of a realistic approach, with an opening for a criticism. Because of its independence from perception, matter cannot explain the distinctions that we actually draw between reality and chimeras. But nor, given our actual practices of drawing a distinction, is such a further philosophical explanation necessary. The practical or epistemological distinctions which Hylas can rely on are also available to Philonous without commitment to the philosophical account of matter. The mouse, in this case, is the distinction and the rags, which Hylas is convinced cannot explain the distinction, are the practical distinctions actually made.

The second example concerns a more recent case of philosophical realism. The distinction here is that between laws of nature and merely accidentally true generalisations. Peirce argues that this distinction must consist in the presence or absence of active general principles in nature. These can be used to explain the reliability of predictions based on laws. But:

The reply of a realistic spirit is that an active general principle is so much gas unless you say how you tell that you have got one; and if you give any method, it will be a method which anyone can use to distinguish laws from accidental uniformities without having to decorate the method with the phrase “active general principle”. Peirce of course knows that there are such methods, but assumes that his mouse - properly causal regularity - cannot conceivably come into being from the rags: patterns of observed regularities. [Diamond 1991: 48]

In both these cases, realist explanation is rejected. This rejection does not depend on nominalist scruple, however. Diamond suggests that closer attention shows that realist explanations are wheels that can be turned although nothing else moves with them. They cannot serve as explanations of what the pre-philosophical difference in either case really comprises since their presence or absence is not connected to the practices which they were supposed to explain. Their presence or absence could make no difference.

There is, however, an obvious objection which needs to be countered. The problem is that an opposition to philosophical realism might be thought to comprise a form of idealism, anti-realism or, more relevantly in this case, social constructivism. Here is the general danger.

Diamond’s account of the realistic spirit has idealist connotations for two reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, she selects Berkeley to illustrate a realistic approach to philosophy. Despite Berkeley’s own claims to the contrary, his opposition to matter is not simply a rejection of one philosophical explanatory theory which leaves everything else, including our normal views of the world, unchanged. Instead, he advocates a revisionary idealist metaphysics. Secondly, Diamond characterises Peirce’s account of active principles as a ‘belief in a connection supposed to be real, in the sense of independent of our thought, and for which the supposed regularity is evidence’ [ibid: 50]. This suggests that the object of Diamond’s criticism is the mind-independence of Peirce’s conception of active principles. In both cases the examples of a realistic opposition to philosophical realism appear to support a form of idealism.

Whilst Diamond’s account may encourage an idealist interpretation, idealism is not a necessary ingredient of Wittgenstein’s opposition to philosophical realism. What matters in both these cases, if they are to illustrate philosophical minimalism, is the opposition to realist explanations. But anti-realist or idealist explanations are just as much to be rejected. Wittgensteinian minimalism opposes speculative metaphysical explanation and only thus realism (or anti-realism). I will clarify this by examining one further passage from Diamond’s account.

This is how Diamond characterises the realist account of matter which should be rejected as unrealistic:

For Hylas, real existence is existence distinct from and without any relation to being perceived; and so if the horse we see (in contrast to the one we merely imagine) is real, it is because its sensible appearance to us is caused by qualities inhering in a material body, which has an absolute existence independent of our own. The judgment that the horse is real and not imaginary, not a hallucination, is thus a hypothesis going beyond anything we might be aware of by our senses, though indeed it is clear on Hylas’s view that we must use the evidence of our senses in trying to tell what is real. Still, it is not what we actually see or hear or touch that we are ultimately concerned with in such judgments; and this because however things appear to us, it is quite another matter how they are. [ibid: 47]

This passage contains two characterisations of what it is for something to be real rather than imaginary. One is the claim that reality has ‘an absolute existence independent of our own’. The other is that reality goes ‘beyond anything we might be aware of by our senses’. It is ‘not what we actually see or hear or touch’ and ‘however things appear to us, it is quite another matter how they are’. Ignoring for the moment the qualification ‘absolute’, denying that reality has an existence independent of our own - the first characterisation - would amount to idealism. By contrast, the second characterisation goes beyond an everyday affirmation of the mind independence of the real. It presupposes a philosophically charged and revisionary account of perception in which reality always lies beyond our senses. Thus its rejection is merely the rejection of a philosophical explanatory theory and not itself a piece of revision.

Thus a minimalist or realistic criticism of philosophical realism need not succumb to the criticism that it confuses epistemology and ontology. The rejection of realist explanations of the distinction between real things and illusions or between causal laws and accidentally true generalisations does not imply that these distinctions are constituted by the discriminations we make, by their epistemology. On the other hand, the distinctions are not matters which lie beyond our ways of detecting them. They are not independent of our practices in that complete and absolute sense. (If this is what Diamond means by denying absolute independence, then neither rejection is tainted with idealism or constructivism.)

Does Zachar’s pragmatism slight the independence of reality?

In the previous section, I suggested that Cora Diamond’s account of Wittgenstein’s support of a realistic spirit by contrast with realism can seem to undermine the independence of reality but should instead be construed as a rejection of explanations which go beyond the distinctions made in practice. My purpose in juxtaposing Diamond’s account of Wittgenstein with Peter Zachar’s framework of ideas is to highlight two similarities. First the similarity in minimalism with respect to philosophical explanations. But second, the danger that the resulting account may seem, at least, to slight the independence of reality. Does Zachar also escape that charge?

It is clear that one central aim of the book is to avoid such a charge. The first chapter describes the so called ‘science wars’: sociological accounts which may or may not have a debunking relation to scientific claims. On one view, accounts of the resolution of natural scientific disputes offered in sociological terms imply that physical nature itself is socially constructed. Zachar suggests offers a less metaphysically charged rapprochement:

One important realization on the part of some Science Wars participants was that an analysis of metaphysical terms such as “reality” and “objectivity”—terms that are used to theorize about scientific theories—can be critical without being motivated by an underlying hostility to the truth claims of scientists. [ibid: 11]

Hence later, when discussing whether his suggestion that distinctions should be framed within experience and hence forms of realism that go beyond such experiential limits trap subjects within experience, he connects his nuanced view back to his account of the science wars.

Does radical empiricism of this sort imply that we are trapped within our own experience along the lines of a philosophical idealism? If so, then we are back to the debates of the Science Wars and the claim that nature is constructed by us, not discovered. According to the radical empiricist, however, we are not “trapped” in experience, and making distinctions such as objective versus subjective or real versus imaginary helps us to understand why. [ibid: 34]

On the other hand, some remarks do seem to slight reality. For example, when discussing facts he draws a distinction – within the experiential realm – between fact and fiction. But he then goes on to say something more obviously metaphysically charged.

What Holmes said to Watson the morning after they dispatched Colonel Sebastian Moran was never a fact, but what Conan Doyle ate and drank on the day he finished The Adventure of the Empty House was a fact once, although it is likely no longer even a potential fact because it is not publically ascertainable. That information has been lost. [ibid: 109]

But the latter remark does seem to be revisionary: a form of anti-realism about the past rather than a natural ontological attitude. (One way to test intuitions on this is to ask whether bivalence applies such that despite no present evidence either way still Doyle did or did not eat breakfast that day.) It is one thing to stress the experiential realm when examining philosophical distinctions. It is quite another to limit reality to what is currently experientially – directly or via evidence - accessible.

I think it is unclear whether Zachar successfully treads the fine line between explanatory minimalism and idealism. Take the following example of Zachar’s commendation of a coherence theory of truth:

In philosophical terms, radical empiricism advocates for a version of the coherence theory of truth. One of the ideas behind a coherence theory is that what we consider to be true beliefs are important in evaluating new beliefs whose truth is not yet assured. New propositions that seem to readily cohere with what we already believe are going to be accepted more easily than propositions that contradict currently accepted knowledge... Correspondence theories sometimes give the impression that in knowing what is really there we get beyond evidence and experience. Coherence, in contrast, works from within experience. [ibid: 36-7]

The contrast case with correspondence suggests that a theory of truth is in the business of saying what truth is: ontology rather than epistemology. But the account of coherence concerns ‘what we consider to be true beliefs’ or what is ‘going to be accepted more easily’: epistemology rather than ontology. Putting the two together suggests a shotgun wedding of what is independent of and what dependent on human judgement.

Facts, objectivity and the experiential limits of pragmatic philosophy seem to be at the heart of the venture. But avoiding both metaphysical and excess and a shotgun wedding is tricky. Consider this passage on the notion of what is objective:

The metaphysical concept of the objective, however, is a useful tool for understanding experiences of resistance to preference. The concept of the objective is partly inspired by and reappears with the recurrence of such experiences in one or more members of a community, but it is not constituted by them. Whenever people start talking seriously about the objectivity of such things as the Copernican model, the Apollo moon walks, or global warming, the notion that someone’s preferences are being resisted is not far away. The resistance to what we prefer is not The Objective in an elaborate metaphysical sense. Metaphysical elaborations go beyond their experiential bases, but nevertheless, taking account of those experiences is useful for bringing the lofty concepts down to earth. Something important occurs when the world is not the way we want it to be, but that is a very minimal, even deflated, notion of the objective—one that does not require getting outside of experience. [ibid: 109]

My worry about this passage is that it starts with a notion which is connected to ‘the objective’ which is that one may wish certain beliefs not to be true and yet nevertheless they are true. This alone does not constitute what we mean by objectivity. It is ‘a very minimal, even deflated, notion of the objective’ although it is not ‘far away’ from it. But then the only hint at what would constitute it is ‘The Objective in an elaborate metaphysical sense’ which isn’t something that Zachar is prepared to set out for the reader. So what is the sense of objective ‘that does not require getting outside of experience’? This passage seems to contrast what it admits to be an inadequate account of objectivity with something that is merely beyond the pale according to the metaphilosophical framework of the book.

The same sort of problem occurs in trying to set out how a diachronic approach can balance the aim of remaining with the experiential with a satisfactory account of mind-intendent objectivity:

What about the notion that truths about the world are true independent of what we believe about them, and therefore reality is more than what we experience it to be? Is this something that the radical empiricist cannot account for? No—it cannot be that either. Events from the history of science work well here… Taking a historical perspective allows us to see that our past experience was limited. We can reasonably infer that future generations, with their advanced learning, will see the ways in which our current experience is limited. Reality is one of the names we give to what lies outside those limits, but that naming occurs within experience as a result of experience. [ibid: 36]

The significant phrase is ‘Reality is one of the names we give to what lies outside those limits’. Who are ‘we’? Zachar may mean realist philosophers who mistakenly or pragmatically unhelpfully do not accept the metaphilosophical framework of the book. If so, assuming the truth or pragmatic success of the framework, then that attempt to name what belongs beyond the milts of experience must fail. If, on the other hand, ‘we’ refers to ordinary non-philosophers, there must be some success in this naming. But what, according to radical empiricism, can be named beyond the limits of experience? And if nothing can, how can the inchoate thought that experience can mislead – which is surely what gives this passage its drama - be captured even given a diachronic perspective?

Later he says that:

One can accept this historically informed inference without imagining a getting beyond the veil of ideas. [ibid: 103]

This picks up a repeated theme that it is tempting to think that we are ‘trapped’ within a veil of ideas or experience or beliefs. For example:

The chapter ends with an accounting of the extent to which everyone has to rely on communities and recognized experts to know what to accept and how this psychological fact raises the worry that we are all trapped, not so much behind a veil of ideas but within the boundaries of our chosen community’s beliefs. [ibid: 19 italics added]

The modern dilemma is not that we are trapped behind a veil of ideas and locked into our own subjectivity to such an extent that the objective world is in continual doubt. [97 italics added]

It is important to be cautious about taking the veil of ideas metaphor too literally. For a radical empiricist experience is not a veil of distortion that needs getting beyond. According to such an empiricist we can justify making distinctions between subject versus object and appearance versus reality, but those distinctions are made within experience. [ibid: 102 italics added]

Something important occurs when the world is not the way we want it to be, but that is a very minimal, even deflated, notion of the objective—one that does not require getting outside of experience. [ibid: 109]

In each case, Zachar suggests that it is misleading to think that we are so trapped. But it is not clear to me that he offers enough of a diagnosis of why – despite the temptation to think that we are – we are not. For example, the injunction that it ‘is important to be cautious about taking the veil of ideas metaphor too literally’ suggests that it should be afforded some insight into human predicament, that there is some sort of veil blocking our view of reality. Moving the concern from a Cartesian solitary veil of ideas to a communal set of beliefs does not seem enough of a transformation to yield philosophical ease. Given that Zachar’s key idea is to draw distinctions only within the experiential the realm the worry that the experiential real somehow entraps human subjects blocking knowledgeable access to reality surely needs more philosophical diagnosis.

Furthermore, it is not that there are not diagnostic accounts to ease this intellectual cramp. The most familiar is disjunctivism. It holds that there is more to experience than what is common between veridical and illusory experience. When all goes well, what one experiences is the layout of the world. So when all goes well, there is no veil, simply direct access to objective reality. This is not to say that disjunctivism is both without difficulties or the only game in town. But it would be one way in which to begin to think through the issues raised by the very use of words such as ‘trapped’ or ‘veil of ideas’. The package of ideas of which they form a part is mortal poison to Zachar’s commendable philosophical minimalism.


Diamond, C. (1991) The Realistic Spirit: Wittgenstein, philosophy and the mind, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Fine, A. (1986) ‘The natural ontological attitude’ in The Shaky Game, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press: 112-135

Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell.

Zachar, P. (2014) A Metaphysics of Psychopathology, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Crotty's account of constructionism #2

In a previous post, I suggested that Michael Crotty makes two daft claims about constructionism and its opposite objectivism (I am ignoring subjectivism). Despite protesting against idealism, he is drawn on behalf of constructionism to say that the contingent history of concepts infects the ‘meaningful reality’ they enable us to articulate itself. Second, in characterising constructionism’s objectivist opposition, he assumes that it too must take meanings and concepts to be central but then locates them in the world. This reminds me of a premodern view of the world, the episteme in which, for example, the cure for impotence is a root that looks like testicles and hence naturally means potency etc. The more obvious way to think about objectivism is as holding that the natural world itself is devoid of meaning rather than containing meanings that have nothing to do with human minds and practices.

Despite the fact that these both seem unhappy – daft even – things to say about constructionism and objectivism, there are motives for them both.

Consider objectivism. Crotty takes it to ascribe to worldly objects meanings that are wholly independent of human subjectivity. I suggested that a more obvious version would have it take the world to be free of meanings. But the former view has a rationale. One motive would be sympathy with McDowell’s objection to a view of nature as disenchanted [McDowell 1994: **]. He argues that this view – a view which looks like the account of objectivism I have suggested – is the result of a misunderstanding of the methodological success of construing the physical world in meaning-free terms. It does not follow that the world in general is meaning-free. One reason to wish to deny this is to think that the world is a world of values too. (This is McDowell’s ‘partial re-enchantment’ of nature.)

There is another – related – line of thinking in favour of Crotty’s version of objectivism. It has to do with the coherence of the idea that meanings might be tied closely to human decisions. Consider the connection between rules of logical inference and the meaning of logical connectives. On a broadly constructionist view, the meaning of such connectives is fixed by convention and hence the forms of inference they permit. But now imagine that a system of logic has been adopted by such conventions. What of the particular inferences it permits? Is accord of a particular inference with a general rule (itself adopted by the convention that fixes the meanings of connectives) itself adopted by convention? Or is it fixed by the meanings so adopted, autonomously? The former looks unhappy because it replaces the sense of constraint in reasoning in accord with logical principles with freely adopted decisions: a kind of logical jazz. The latter requires thinking that logical inferences are fixed by a kind of action at a distance which seems to require the kind of objectivism about meaning that Crotty describes. Meanings are not wholly up to us. So there is a rationale for holding Crotty’s objectivism even if it is already a kind of intermediate position and hence not the best way to chart the logical geography.

There is also a rationale for Crotty’s constructionism even though his description of it isn’t happy: ‘It is the view that all knowledge, and therefore all meaningful reality as such, is contingent upon human practices, being constructed in and out of interaction between human beings and their world…’ No one should rush to say that reality is contingent on human practices. But it is hard to avoid saying this. Consider McDowell’s sympathy with the idea that the world is everything that is the case, the world of facts not of things. McDowell also connects this conception of the world with the set of true thoughts though stressing a contrast between thinkable contents and acts of thinking. The world isn’t the set of acts of thinking; it is what can be truly thought. But there is some difficulty – it seems to me – in stopping an awareness of the contingency of human concepts escalating via the apparently innocent idea that the world is the set of true thoughts, themselves conceptually articulated, into the idea that the world itself is contingent on human concepts and their history. It would be easy if one could help oneself to a distinction between conceptual scheme and extra-conceptual content. The former could be the locus of contingency. But with the death of that dualism, it becomes much harder to apportion the contingency safely.

So I don’t think that Crotty’s descriptions of the options are unmotivated. They are just a bit rash, not the sort of thing that sober researchers should assert without an ironic smile, at least.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Paul Crowther on McDowell’s objectivism

I’ve been dipping into Paul Crowther’s book Philosophy after Postmodernism looking at what he says about McDowell, a little in chapter 6 and more in a short appendix which is quite compressed. (Thanks as often to David Yates for the suggestion.) I don't think I have the hang of his concerns yet and so the following thinking aloud may be quite mistaken.

Crowther sets out two broad metaphysical positions with respect to the world and conceptual rationality. Crowther’s preferred position is mediated objectivism and the one he thinks McDowell may slip into subscribing to is absolute objectivism.

Mediated objectivism:
it is only insofar as there are rational subjects to connect mind-independent sensible material that we can talk of an objective world of facts. Such perceptible facts exist independently of the particular subject of perception, but not wholly independently of that horizon of rational connections which is the basis of subjective receptivity in general. This horizon is, in part, constitutive of objective factuality. [ibid: 218]

Absolute objectivism:
As I read McDowell, these remarks suggest that there is an objective order of facts – the ‘layout of reality’ – which exists over and above the epistemic conditions of our receptivity to it. The horizon of rational connections is our only means of experiential access to such an order, but its function is to register or receive the facts. It is in no sense constitutive of their objectivity. [218-9]

What might suggest that McDowell subscribes to the former is the fact that:

McDowell argues that the requisite rational justifications are available only insofar as our receptivity to mind-independent reality involves conceptually mediated experience. What we articulate in judgement and belief is always situated in a broader horizon of rational connections acquired as an ‘ongoing concern’ through our initiation into language and social forms of life. [ibid: 218]

Further Crowther commends McDowell’s use of the word ‘shaping’ to describe how concepts play a role in experiences such that ‘the rational connections of the concept enter into shaping the content of the appearance, so that what appears to be the case is understood as fraught with implications for the subject’s cognitive situation in the world’ [218].

I suspect – though it seems Crowther does not – that this last point has to be taken in conjunction with a further thought to make sure that it isn’t merely read as saying that concepts shape just a subjective ‘take’ on the world with no implication for how the world itself actually is. Mediated objectivism says that (perceptible) facts are not wholly independent of rational connections. So we need to add in – I think – something that we do indeed find in McDowell: that experience is essentially experience of the world, an openness to reality. (McDowell got quite cross when my friend Ian Lyne called this – merely – a ‘conjecture’.)

But then I get confused because Crowther has two bits of evidence to suggest that McDowell supports absolute objectivism rather than mediated objectivism, the first of which I think we need for ascribing to McDowell even mediated objectivism. He quotes McDowell twice over:

the idea of conceptually structured operations of receptivity puts us in a position to speak of experience as openness to the layout of reality.


The thinkable contents that are ultimate in the order of justification are contents of experience, and in enjoying an experience one is open to manifest facts, facts that obtain anyway, and impress themselves on one’s sensibility.

But surely this idea is necessary to get even a partial constitutive role for concepts in the world via discussion of shaping experience?

The second bit of evidence is that McDowell thinks, in Crowther’s phrase, that ‘if we are to give due acknowledgement to the independence of reality, what we need is a constraint from outside thinking and judging’ [219]

It surprises me that he doesn’t provide a bit more context for this. McDowell contrasts 'thinking' meaning act of thinking with 'thinking' meaning thinkable contents. Equating reality with the former slights its objectivity, he thinks, but not the latter:

If we say that there must be a rational constraint on thought from outside it, so as to ensure a proper acknowledgement of the independence of reality, we put ourselves at the mercy of a familiar kind of ambiguity. "Thought" can mean the act of thinking; but it can also mean the content of a piece of thinking: what someone thinks. Now if we are to give due acknowledgement to the independence of reality, what we need is a constraint from outside thinking and judging, our exercises of spontaneity. The constraint does not need to be from outside thinkable contents. It would indeed slight the independence of reality if we equated facts in general with exercises of conceptual capacities- acts of thinking-or represented facts as reflections of such things; or if we equated perceptible facts in particular with states or occurrences in which conceptual capacities are drawn into operation in sensibility-experiences-or represented them as reflections of such things. But it is not idealistic, as that would be, to say that perceptible facts are essentially capable of impressing themselves on perceivers in states or occurrences of the latter sort; and that facts in general are essentially capable of being embraced in thought in exercises of spontaneity, occurrences of the former sort. [McDowell 1994: 28]

I think that I want rather a more objective picture of the world than either Crowther or McDowell offers but this contrast seems crucial to understand McDowell’s worry about slighting the independence of reality. Having rejected the potentially idealist connection of the world to acts of thinking, McDowell is happy with its connection to thinkable contents. So it seems surprising when Crowther goes on to say:

The horizon of rational connections is, as McDowell admits, the basis of our knowledge of a world of objective facts. To suppose in addition that the objectivity of this world can exist independently of the condition of our knowing it is merely an assumption – and one for which McDowell offers no justification over and above his unwarranted worries about idealistic ‘slights’ to the independence of reality. He offers us, in other words, no positive grounds for the acceptance of absolute objectivism. To vary his parlance slightly, where we wanted justifications we get a leap of faith instead. [219]

It seems a perverse misreading to think that McDowell offers an account of the objectivity of the world as a kind of further assumption lying behind what he thinks is given (small g!) in experience: a glimpse of the objective world where world just is the set of true Fregean Thoughts and hence essentially rationally structured.

This reminds me – though I admit the analogy is not close – of an exchange between Michael Friedman and McDowell. Friedman argues that McDowell’s account is idealist because the difference between inner states such as sensations and worldly facts depends merely on what subjects do with their experiences. McDowell’s reply is to stress that the phenomenology of outer sense shows it to involve glimpses of the world. The further connection to the reflective role of reason is a transcendental condition on such glimpses. But it does not explain how neutrally described experiences gain their worldly content. That isn’t the right starting point. Friedman says:

[T]he distinction between passive experience (concerning which we are simply “struck” one way or another, as it were) and active judgment (concerning which we have free choice) is not at all the same as the distinction between that which expresses constraint by an independent objective world and that which does not. The crucial question, in this regard, concerns rather how we distinguish between “inner” and “outer” sense. And McDowell’s idea here, if I understand him correctly, is that passively received impressions become experiences of an objective world (and thus impressions of outer sense) only by being taken as such by the active faculty of understanding: by being subject, that is, to the perpetually revisable procedure through which the understanding integrates such impressions into an evolving world-conception. [Friedman 2002: 34-5]

McDowell responds.

But this does not fit the conception of experience I recommend. In my picture, actualizations of conceptual capacities in receptivity are already, in conforming to that specification, at least apparently revelatory of an objective world, and, when all goes well, actually so. They do not need to be turned into experiences with objective purport by being so taken. The point of invoking the perpetual obligation to rethink a world-view is to help make it intelligible that these “passively received impressions” already have objective purport - not to indicate a way in which intellectual activity can somehow make experiences of an objective world out of items that are in themselves less than that. [McDowell 2002: 273]

What I take from the analogy is that McDowell does not think that in avoiding slighting the independence of reality he is postulating something that needs faith: a world beyond our knowledge. A mundus absconditus. (It is worth comparing this with his criticism of Rorty.) Rather, that experience is of something independent of us when it comes to outer sense needs no argument. (What might need an argument is how philosophical positions that make this impossible can be dissolved.)

I am not at all sure that I am happy with the balance that McDowell attempts to strike between the idea that experience is simply a form openness to the world with the role that concepts play in constituting that same world. I’m worried by such comments as: ‘thought and reality meet in the realm of sense’ [McDowell 1994: 180]. It’s the balance between a disjunctivist account of experience in which, when all goes well, experiences stops nowhere short of the fact and the shared conceptual structure – in Mind and World if not more recently – of thought, experience and world. But it seems bizarre to have an opposite worry: that McDowell offers a mere leap of faith to an account of the world beyond our capacity – when all goes well – to know it. That seems utterly alien to his thinking.

To repeat, however, perhaps I’m just not getting the dialectic.

Crowther, P. (2014) Philosophy after Postmodernism: civilised values and the scope of knowledge, London: Routledge

Values and the singular aims of idiographic inquiry

A very draft version of a paper for a conference in Italy in a couple of weeks.


In response to the concern that criteriological psychiatric diagnosis, based on the DSM and ICD classifications, pigeon-holes patients, there have been calls for it to be augmented by an idiographic formulation. I have argued elsewhere that this is a mistake [Thornton 2008a, 2008b, 2010]. If ‘idiographic’ judgement is construed as essentially individualistic then it is in tension with the aim of such judgement also being valid. Looking back to its original proponent Wilhelm Windelband yields no clear alternative account of idiographic judgement. But in this paper I will argue that Windelband just provide a helpful clue in his remark that ‘every interest and judgement, every ascription of human value is based upon the singular and the unique... Our sense of values and all of our axiological sentiments are grounded in the uniqueness and incomparability of their object’ [Windelband 1980: 182]. This suggests a role for the idiographic not as the content of a particular kind of judgement but rather as characterising its aim. I will argue that this connects to the issue of the generalisability of small scale qualitative social science research and to the critique of ‘looking away’ in moral philosophy.

Key words

Causation, explanation, idiographic, interventionism, nomothetic, understanding,


The idea that psychiatric diagnosis or, more broadly, psychiatric formulation should include an idiographic element is explicit in publications by psychiatrists working on the WPA initiative Psychiatry for the Person. It forms part of the explicitly broad conception of diagnosis called a comprehensive model or concept of diagnosis. The Idiographic (Personalised) Diagnostic Formulation closely connects a comprehensive model with an idiographic component:

This comprehensive concept of diagnosis is implemented through the articulation of two diagnostic levels. The first is a standardised multi-axial diagnostic formulation, which describes the patient’s illness and clinical condition through standardised typologies and scales... The second is an idiographic diagnostic formulation, which complements the standardised formulation with a personalised and flexible statement. [IDGA Workgroup, WPA 2003: 55]

The role of the idiographic aspect is to complement and contrast a general approach through ‘typologies and scales’ with something personal and individual. The psychiatrist James Phillips makes this individual focus explicit: ‘In the most simple terms, a[n] idiographic formulation is an individual account’ [Phillips: 2005: 182 italics added].

But this raises the following question. If an idiographic element is to be a genuine complement to general typologies and scales, what kind of understanding of an individual does it comprise? How is it different from criteriological diagnosis, for example? Although the term ‘idiographic’ has a settled use in psychological research to refer to small scale qualitative studies, that use does not explain how an idiographic element would be a genuine complement to criteriological diagnosis in psychiatry.

Windelband and individuals

The distinction between idiographic and nomothetic forms of understanding was first introduced by Wilhelm Windelband in his rectoral address of 1894. Windelband, as a post-Kantian philosopher, was familiar with the debate about the relation of the human and natural sciences called the ‘Methodenstreit’, a debate which shaped, for example, psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers’ views of the importance of empathy for understanding psychopathology [Thornton 2007: 90-2]. That distinction is usually thought of as a distinction between explanation and understanding. Jaspers contrasts explanation in terms of causal connections with understanding of meaningful connections (and further subdividing understanding into phenomenology and empathy for example) [Jaspers 1974]. This has in turn led modern philosophers, especially those in the Wittgensteinian tradition, to characterise understanding as a form of intelligibility suited for the meaning-laden actions and utterances of rational animals hence stressing its rational and normative character that ‘finds no echo in physical theory’ [Davidson 1980: 231].

In his address, however, Windelband stresses instead that the difference between nomomethetic and idiographic, whilst still a distinction in method or form of knowledge rather than subject matter, concerns the difference between general and particular.

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. [Windelband 1980: 175-6]

Windelband remarks that the distinction he is attempting to frame is not based on a distinction of substances: sciences of nature or natural science [Naturwissenschaften], versus the sciences of the mind [Geisteswissenschaften]. Such a distinction is hostage to the fortunes of that dualism. If the reductionist project of explaining mental properties in physical terms were successful then that contrast would be undermined.

Even with these characterisations in play, however, the distinction as so far introduced is not clear. Consider the contrast between ‘what is invariably the case’ and ‘what was once the case’. There are three problems with using this contrast to characterise a notion of ‘idiographic’. First, it threatens to slip back from a methodological distinction of how a subject matter is approached to the underlying nature of the events in question (whether, as a matter of fact, they are invariant or unique). Second, a substantive distinction does not explain in what way an idiographic understanding differs from any other sort. Third, the uniqueness of its subject matter cannot separate the idiographic and nomothetic. The gravitational forces on a mass, for example, depend in principle on a vector sum of its relation with every other object in the universe and thus some of the events described by physics are likely to be unique.

One of the clues Windelband himself offers is to suggest that history is a paradigm of idiographic sciences which ‘provide a complete and exhaustive description of a single, more or less extensive process which is located within a unique, temporally defined domain of reality’ [Windelband 1980: 174] However, this does not explain how historical explanation differs from physics, say. Windelband’s further comments about historical judgement are unhelpful. He says:

[H]istory seeks structural forms… [Windelband 1980: 178]

[I]n the historical sciences,… [thought] is devoted to the faithful delineation of the particulars… [ibid: 178]

The historian’s task… is to breathe new life into some structure of the past in such a way that all of its concrete and distinctive features acquire an ideal actuality or contemporaneity. His task, in relation to what really happened, is similar to the task of the artist, in relation to what exists in his imagination. [ibid: 178]

But the task of ‘describing structure’ is shared by some nomothetic sciences like chemistry. ‘Delineation of particulars’ is also the common aim of both idiographic and nomothetic sciences. The physics of a particular mass concerns that individual. Talk of ‘ideal actuality’ may be uniquely appropriate for the idiographic sciences but hardly sheds light on what this amounts to.

It might be assumed that using history as a paradigm suggests a connection to the other broad way of construing the Methodenestreit mentioned above as marking a distinction between explaining natural events and understanding meaning-laden events or rational subjects. But Windelband offers an example of historical understanding that is of a merely biological process, which show that this is not what he has in mind.

Consider… the subject matter of the biological sciences as evolutionary history in which the entire sequence of terrestrial organisms is represented as a gradually formative process of descent or transformation which develops in the course of time. There is neither evidence nor even a likelihood that this same organic process has been repeated on some other planet. In this case, the science of organic nature is an idiographic or historical discipline. [Windelband 1980: 176]

In summary, although Windelband coins a distinction between idiographic and nomothetic, stresses that it is a distinction of a form of understanding rather than of types of subject matter and offers history as an example of idiographic understanding, it remains unclear what the distinction amounts to.

Elsewhere I have suggested that the appeal of idiographic judgement stems from a recoil from subsuming human individuals under conceptual categories – from pigeon-holing people – and hence instead attempting to understand them in other ways or other terms, a kind of ‘individualising intuition’ [Thornton 2008a, 2008b, 2010]. The problem is then to explain what novel form of judgement would address this task. If judgement in general takes a subject predicate form – s is P – then there are two elements to consider: the referential element and the predicational element.

The referential element does not seem to be a hopeful place to look to draw a distinction between nomothetic and idiographic. Consider the traditional deductive-nomological model of explanation as an example. This contains general laws (hence the name). But it also refers to the particular circumstances of the explanans. Whether an adequate formal model of explanation or not, since the DN model of explanation is designed to fit paradigmatically nomothetic sciences, mere singular reference to particular circumstances is not sufficient to distinguish a different form of intelligibility.

But ‘individualising’ the predicational element seems equally unpromising albeit in a different way. Such a predicate would have to be designed for a particular single element carrying with it no possible application to, and hence comparison with, other individuals. What could such a predicate be? What property would be picked out such that it could not possible apply to other cases? The closest idea seems to be a kind of name designed for specific individual (person or event). But that collapses this proposal back into the referential element of the judgement. In neither way can the ‘individualising intuition’ be satisfied through a novel form of judgement.

Singular causation

I suggested earlier that Windelband’s distinction between idiographic and nomothetic is a distinct variant of a broader discussion of the difference between human and natural sciences that in more familiar forms concerns understanding and explanation. Such a distinction plays a key role in the thinking of Karl Jaspers. Christophe Hoerl suggests that Jaspers contrast has both an epistemic and ontological dimension [Hoerl 2013]. Epistemically, the distinction runs as follows:

Explaining, Jaspers thinks, requires repeated experience – it is achieved by “observation of events, by experiment and the collection of numerous examples” (GP, 3 p. 302), which allow us to formulate general rules and theories. Understanding, by contrast, is achieved (if it is achieved) directly upon confrontation with a particular case. As Jaspers also puts it, “[p]sychological understanding cannot be used mechanically as a sort of generalized knowledge but a fresh, personal intuition is needed on every occasion” (GP, p. 313). We might thus say that Jaspers subscribes to a form of epistemic particularism regarding understanding. Understanding is not achieved by bringing certain facts under general laws established through repeated observation. Rather, the grasp it delivers of how one psychic event emerges from another in a particular case strikes us “as something self-evident which cannot be broken down any further” (GP, p. 303). [Hoerl 2013: 108]

Ontologically, understanding and explanation chart different aspects of reality: meaningful psychic connections and rules of causality, respectively. Hoerl points out that Jaspers suggests that the former are not causal. (In this, he resembles 1970s Wittgensteinian philosophers.) But Hoerl objects both that this makes it ‘quite obscure what genuine epistemic gain understanding could deliver’ [ibid: 109] and also that Jasper’s talk of events ‘emerging’ from others seems to be a causal notion [ibid: 110]. The difficulty here is a dilemma. If understanding is construed as non-causal then it risks epistemic obscurity. But if it is causal, it risks collapsing into explanation.

Hoerl suggests a reconciliation via the distinction between singular and general causation.

When he talks about (mere) causal explanation, what he has in mind are general causal claims linking types of events. Understanding, by contrast, is concerned with singular causation in the psychological domain – i.e. with the particular way in which one psychic event emerges from or arises out of another on a particular occasion. [ibid: 111]

This suggestion raises a question, however. Given that since Hume, a dominant approach to causation has stressed a connection between causal relations and constant conjunctions, what account of singular causal relations can be given?

Following John Campbell, Hoerl suggests that an interventionist approach fits the bill. Campbell’s discussion of interventionism within psychology and psychiatry starts by rejecting two connections which philosophers find natural: between non-mental causal connections and mechanisms and between mental causal connections and rational relations.

Campbell suggests that:

there is an analogy between: 1 the idea that propositional attitude ascriptions depend on the ascription of rationality to the subject, and 2 the idea that all causal interactions between pieces of matter must be comprehensible in mechanistic terms. Both ideas express an insight – that we find it extremely puzzling when we encounter causal relations among propositional attitudes that are not broadly rational, just as we find it extremely puzzling when we encounter causal interactions between physical objects that are not mechanistic, and that involve spooky ‘action-at-a-distance’. Both ideas express a natural impulse of philosophers – to elevate this kind of point into a kind of synthetic a priori demand that reason makes on the world. This impulse has to be resisted. [Campbell 2009: 142]

Campbell suggests that, in both cases, there is a genuine insight. As a matter of custom and habit, we find an absence of material mechanisms and an absence of rational connections between mental states puzzling. But in both cases it is a characteristic philosophical error to promote this natural expectation into a justified a priori claim that the world must respect. Mere custom and habit cannot rationally sustain any such demand on how the world must be.

Campbell rejects the necessity of both physical mechanisms and rational connections in favour of an interventionist approach to causation. With respect to the latter, he argues:

Suppose you believe: 1 that this man is stroking his chin, and 2 that this man believes you need to shave. What is it for the first belief to be a cause of the second? On the interventionist analysis, it is for the intervention on the first belief to be a way of changing whether you have the second belief. So if some external force changed your belief that this man is stroking his chin, you would no longer believe that he believes you need to shave. There is no appeal to rationality here, no appeals to mechanism. [Campbell 2009: 143]

The causal connection between one state and another is underpinned in interventionist terms based on the idea that if intervening on the first belief is a stable way of bringing about a change in the second then this is sufficient for there to be a causal connection between them.

For propositional attitudes to count as causes of other propositional attitudes such as delusions, Campbell suggests two conditions have to be met. There should be ‘systematic relations between cause variables and the subsequent delusion’ and there should be a correlation between a change of the cause and a change of the effect [Campbell 2009: 146]. More generally for the causal explanation of mental states, the causal variables, which he calls ‘control variables’, should have large, specific and systematic correlations with their effects akin to the way the controls of a car systematically control its behaviour. These conditions do not require a rational connection, however.

The classical philosophical approach has been to regard propositional attitudes as part of a ‘conceptual scheme’ that we bring to bear in describing the ordinary world. This conceptual scheme is taken to have strong a priori constraints on its applicability. In particular, as we have seen, rationality is taken to be a norm with which the scheme has to comply... The appeal I have just been making to the notion of a control variable is intended to replace this invocation of rationality... [I]t is the fact that we have control variables, not the fact that we have rationality, which means that we are ‘at the right level’ to talk of beliefs and desires. [Campbell 2009: 147]

Taken together, Hoerl’s and Campbell’s accounts suggest a recipe for idiographic judgement. Hoerl suggests that understanding charts singular psychological causal relations and that singular causal relations can be construed on interventionist terms. Campbell argues, also on interventionist grounds, that the assumption that causal connections between psychological states must presuppose rational relations between them is mistaken. The combination suggests an austere view which is not tied to the psychological realm. Hence the possibility that this might offer substance to Windelband’s emphasis on the particular rather than the meaningful. Perhaps idiographic judgement trades in singular causal relations shorn of rational relations?

I do not think that this will work, however. Consider Campbell’s example of the deluded man who thinks that someone else believes he needs to shave in virtue of the fact that that other person is stroking their chin. Campbell suggests that this can be given an interventionist account without presupposing rationality. But in doing this, Campbell simply assumes the correct interpretation of the two beliefs of the deluded person. Whence this interpretation? It does not seem to be a matter of brute causation. If it is not, then Campbell’s claim that articulating the causal connections does not require rationality is misleading. Identifying the causal connections may not but identifying the mental states themselves may do.

What of non-mental cases such as Windelband’s example of merely biological evolutionary event where there is ‘neither evidence nor even a likelihood that this same organic process has been repeated’? The problem in such cases is that mere non-repeatability of subject matter is not sufficient to ensure its study is not nomothetic. It seems for example an empirical question whether the Big Bang was a one off event or whether a collapsing universe will, in the future, lead to a repetition of an event of that general kind. Hence whether the physics and cosmology of the early universe – which is continuous with physics in general – counts as nomothetic or idiographic in this sense is an open empirical question. But such a view of idiographic will not serve the purpose set for it by the felt need not to pigeon hole individuals.

In summary, the idea in this section was the following. It might be possible to spell out a notion of idiographic judgement by looking at one version of the related distinction within the Methodenstreit between understanding and explanation. According to Hoerl’s interpretation of Jaspers, understanding concerns singular causation in the psychological domain. Such causation is, on one model at least, underpinned by the idea of intervention rather than nomological generality. Further, according to Campbell, even in the psychological domain, such singular causation need not trade in rational relations. At this point in the combination of ideas, the analysis offered may no longer be an account of Jasperian understanding but seems, partly for that very reason, to be a promising match for Windelband’s emphasis on particularity within and without the mental realm. (That is why idiographic judgement is not simply the same as understanding.) However, moving away from the connection between understanding and rationalisation also undermines the substance of the potential account of idiographic judgement that remains. Had an antecedent variable been changed then a consequent effect would also have changed. But such reasoning cannot be based on laws of nature at risk of collapsing back onto the nomological and cannot be based on rational relations without collapsing back into a narrower version of understanding.

Values and the singular aims of idiographic inquiry

So far I have suggested that two broad approaches to filling out Windelband’s account of idiographic understanding have failed. Attempting to articulate a form of judgement that eschews implicit comparison between individuals undermines the content of the putative judgements. Stressing singular rather than general causation either assimilates the idiographic to rational understanding – with its own distinctive form of generality – or does not sufficiently distance it from nomothetic judgement.

In this final section I will sketch a different approach. The clue comes from another passage in Windelband’s rectoral address in which he again stresses the importance of the contrast between the general and specific to his distinction of nomothetic and idiographic.

[T]his distinction connects with the most important and crucial relationship in the human understanding, the relationship which Socrates recognized as the fundamental nexus of all scientific thought: the relationship of the general to the particular. [Windelband 1980: 175]

The commitment to the generic is a bias of Greek thought, perpetuated from the Eleatics to Plato, who found not only real being but also real knowledge only in the general. From Plato this view passed to our day. Schopenhauer makes himself a spokesman for this prejudice when he denies history the value of a genuine science because its exclusive concern is always with grasping the specific, never with comprehending the general... But the more we strive for knowledge of the concept and the law, the more we are obliged to pass over, forget, and abandon the singular fact as such… [ibid: 181]

So far these passages repeat the importance of the singular over the general that has already been discussed. But in explaining why this is important, Windelband introduces a further element:

In opposition to this standpoint, it is necessary to insist upon the following: every interest and judgment, every ascription of human value is based upon the singular and the unique... Our sense of values and all of our axiological sentiments are grounded in the uniqueness and incomparability of their object. [Windelband 1980: 182]

Now in one respect this does not help since it merely stresses the the uniqueness and incomparability of the objects of idiographic judgement and, as the discussion above has suggested, this does not help single out a form of judgement or intelligibility to stand in opposition to the nomothetic. But there is a further idea: that what we as subjects value in judgement and sentiment is tied to uniqueness and incomparability.

This is a contentious claim and it is far from obvious that it is true. The Categorical Imperative implies, to the contrary, that love of the good has an essential generality. More mundanely, one might value a piece of industrial design – a car, bicycle or cutlery – despite its mass production. But there are some cases where value seems to be tied to uniqueness: feelings of love and friendship directed to particular individuals – by contrast with a generalized love of humanity – being paradigmatic.

This suggests a different way of thinking about idiographic not as a novel form of judgement or intelligibility but rather as pertaining to the nature of interest taken in its subject matter. In some cases, one is interested in individuals because they are instances of generalities. In others, the interest is in them as individuals.

Here is a mundane example of the contrast. In 2009, UK members of parliament (MPs) were found to have taken part in widespread abuse of their expenses system to augment their incomes. UK newspapers investigated many such cases and every day printed new instances of the absurd financial claims made. But the focus seemed to be to use each new instance to justify the general claim that MPs as a whole were a corrupt group rather than having an interest in any previously obscure MP. The reputation of politicians as a class of people was the target. By contrast, in 1997 Diana, Princess of Wales, died in a car crash provoking much newspaper coverage. One particular newspaper – the Daily Express – continued, for a decade afterwards (!), to favour for its front cover any story about the late princess. But the claims advanced were not intended to shed light on royalty, or even princesses, in general. Rather the focus was relentlessly on Diana herself. The interest was, in the sense I have suggested, idiographic.

One consequence of moving the conception of idiographic from a form of intelligibility to the nature of the interest taken in individuals is that it places no constraints on the kind of intelligibility in play. Materials from either side of the traditional explanation versus understanding distinction, for example, could be deployed for idiographic purposes. No attempt need be made to frame descriptions that could only fit one individual.

Given this, however, it may seem that the contrast between idiographic and nomothetic as proposed does not amount to very much. What does it matter with what interest or value the subject matter of idiographic inquiry is approached if the actual judgements offered are as they would be in nomothetic inquiry?

In response to this question I will finish with two general consequences. The first is that idiographic inquiry – so understood – can simply escape one of the conceptual challenges of small scale qualitative social science research. This is the question of whether and how the results can be generalised. By contrast with large scale often quantitative research, a narrow deep focus may not be based on a statistically significant sample and hence may not reliably generalise to other individuals or populations. But if not, what is the point of the inquiry? Idiographic inquiry, however, can bit on this bullet because has no interest in other individuals or populations. Like the Daily Express’s interest in Diana, its focus is on the particular for the sake of the particular.

The second is that idiographic inquiry is naturally resistant to a source of error that Jonathan Dancy calls ‘looking away’ [Dancy 1993]. This is a virtue he claims for particularism over generalism in moral philosophy. Generalism claims that moral judgements can be codified in context-independent principles. Particularism opposes this and insists that small differences in a particular situation can reverse their moral valence. Hence Dancy argues from his particularist commitments for the importance of scrutinising particular situations with great care rather than being distracted by a premature comparison of that situation with others.

Particularism claims that generalism is the cause of many bad moral decisions, made in the ill-judged and unnecessary attempt to fit what we are to say here to what we have said on another occasion. We all know the sort of person who refuses to make the decision here that the facts are obviously calling for, because he cannot see how to make that decision consistent with one he made on a quite different occasion. We also know the person (often the same person) who insists on a patently unjust decision here because of having made a similar decision in a different case. It is this sort of looking away that the particularists see as the danger in generalism. Reasons function in new ways on new occasions, and if we don’t recognize this fact and adapt our practice to it, we will make bad decisions. Generalism encourages a tendency not to look hard enough at the details of the case before one. [Dancy 1993: 64]

Although the motivation differs, idiographic inquiry ‘sees’ its subject matter not primarily as interesting because it instances generalities but interesting for being the particular individual it is. And hence, whilst any subject matter will instance generalities – and such is the content of the any judgement made about it – the focus is bottom up: from individual to general characteristics rather than top-down from generalities to instances.


Recent calls for psychiatry to augment criteriological diagnosis with a more individualistic element have glossed this as an idiographic element. But this prompts the question of what the idiographic could amount to. Windelband’s various characterisations do not yield a distinct account of a form of judgement to contrast with nomothetic judgement. Nor is the use of singular causation an appropriate fit for this purpose.

Instead, Windelband’s suggestion that there is a connection between a focus on individuals rather than generalities and what is of value suggests a distinct response. On this suggestion, idiographic inquiry does not have a different form of intelligibility of its subject matter but rather has a particular kind of interest in it. It is an interest in the individual as such. This helps sidestep a worry about how to generalise small scale qualitative research and to avoid an epistemic bias of ‘looking away’: prematurely looking away from the individual to generalities. It is in such differences rather than the form of judgement taken that the difference between idiographic and nomothetic lies.


Campbell, J. (2009) ‘What does rationality have to do with psychological causation? Propositional attitudes as mechanisms and as control variables’ in Bortolotti, L. and Broome, M. (eds) Psychiatry as Cognitive Neuroscience, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 137-150

Dancy, J. (1993) Moral reasons, Oxford: Blackwell

Davidson, D. (1980) Essays on Actions and Events, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Hoerl, C. (2013) ‘Jaspers on explaining and understanding in psychiatry’ in Fuchs, T. and Stanghellini, G. (eds.) One Century of Karl Jaspers’ General Psychopathology, Oxford: Oxford University Press

IDGA Workgroup, WPA (2003) ‘IGDA 8: Idiographic (personalised) diagnostic formulation’ British Journal of Psychiatry, 18 (suppl 45): 55-7

Jaspers, K. ([1913] 1974) ‘Causal and “Meaningful” Connections between Life History and Psychosis’, trans. by J.Hoenig, in S.R.Hirsch and M.Shepherd. in Hirsch, S.R., and M. Shepherd, Themes and Variations in European Psychiatry, Bristol: Wright: 80-93

Phillips, J. (2005) ‘Idiographic Formulations, Symbols, Narratives, Context and Meaning’ Psychopathology 38: 180-184

Thornton, T. (2007) Essential Philosophy of Psychiatry Oxford: Oxford University Press

Thornton, T. (2008a) ‘Does understanding individuals require idiographic judgement?’ European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience 258 Suppl 5:104–109

Thornton, T. (2008b) ‘Should comprehensive diagnosis include idiographic understanding?’ Medicine, Healthcare and Philosophy 11: 293-302

Thornton, T. (2010) ‘Narrative rather than idiographic approaches as counterpart to the nomothetic approach to assessment’ Psychopathology 16: 284-291