Monday, 25 April 2016

The subjectivity that is supposed to be a correlative of moral objectivism

I’ve been mulling over a train of thought in Travis’ paper ‘Frege’s target’ which I’ve summarised before on this blog. The line starts with crediting McDowell a frequent appeal to the idea that judgement in a particular area may call for a subject to have a ‘special design’ in some way. The obvious area is in making value judgements, where McDowell stresses the importance of education in acquiring a second nature.

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.

It seems to me that this doesn’t scratch the right itch, however. For one thing, occasion sensitivity is supposed to be a quite general feature of meaning rather than something tied to a specific aspect of the space of reasons. It doesn’t relate to the specific character of moral judgements, for example. Being sensitive to the demands of meanings is a akin to being sensitive to the demands of values in a McDowellian enriched conception of nature but occasion sensitivity seems to privilege meanings and reach out to values only via meanings.

Travis’ account does however, head off the worry about idealism. It is innocent to think of aspects of special design affecting what subjects mean, in making a judgement, and hence affecting what would make it true or false without letting the mind affect whether a given judgement, understood in a specific way, is true or false given how the world is. So another possibility to head off idealism would be a transcendental rather than empirical reading of the connection between meaning and subject-hood. There’s an often quoted passage in Cavell which may help illustrate this idea:

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]

So one might think that it’s a condition of possibility of projecting words into new contexts in the same way, and hence as counting as using them correctly, that one is a certain sort of subject with shared routes of interest and feeling, senses of humour and of significance and of fulfilment etc etc: all the whirl of organism. But here the problem is that in some cases – for example continuing mathematical series – other ways of going on seem mere misses of the point, failures of understanding rather than promising to illustrate other possibilities. In other cases, different practices do seem possible but not as different versions of say strictly moral evaluation. Perhaps they are practices of face saving or bravado which block the possibility of playing the moral valuing game.

Filling out the nature of the subject that transcendentally underpins our practices of responding to meanings or values looks to collapse into what McDowell calls a ‘locus of pure thought’. One needs to be a subject who can follow moral, or meaningful, or logical demands.

Playing the ‘games’ we play sincerely and wholeheartedly seems to rule out being able to flesh out an interesting link between objectivism in a domain and the necessity of a certain kind of subject-hood. Perhaps thinking that objectivity requires a correlative subjectivity is more trouble than its worth.