Thursday, 3 February 2022

Kripke's sceptical solution

I’ve been chatting to Ali HosseinKhani about Kripke and despite his best endeavours, I seem to be in the grip of a confusion about Kripke’s sceptical solution that I’m finding it hard to shake. Here’s another attempt to make it clearer to me.

I assume that the dialectic goes something like this. Kripke deploys a sceptical argument against an intuitive picture of meaning. His argument aims to cast doubt on what appears, pre-philosophically, to be an everyday ‘metalinguistic’ fact: the fact that one can mean something by a word. He considers the case of meaning addition by the word ‘addition’ and asks: what justifies the claim that answering ‘125’ is the correct response to the question ‘what does 68 + 57 equal?’. Two simplifying assumptions are made:

  1. that ‘correct’ means in accordance with the standards of one’s previous usage of the signs involved: what one meant by them; and,
  2. that one has never calculated that particular result before. In fact, Kripke assumes that one has ‘added’ no number larger than 57.

Normally if called upon to justify the answer ‘125’ one might give either of two sorts of response. Arithmetically, one might ensure that one had carried out the computation correctly. Metalinguistically, one might assert: ‘that “plus”, as I intended to use that word in the past, denoted a function which, when applied to the numbers I call “68” and “57”, yields the value 125’ [Kripke 1982: 8].

Kripke now introduces the sceptical hypothesis that in the past one might have followed or meant a different mathematical function, the quus function. On the assumption that one has never previously encountered numbers greater than 57, this is defined to agree with the plus function for all pairs of numbers smaller than 57. For numbers greater or equal to 57 the output is 5. He now presses the question: what facts about one’s past performance show that one was calculating in accordance with the plus function rather than the quus function, that one meant plus rather than quus?

Kripke imposes two furthers condition on any satisfactory answer to the question. One is that it must show why it is correct to respond 125 rather than 5 and, in the dialectic at least, Kripke construes this as supporting normativism. A satisfactory answer should show why one ought to answer 125. This precludes citing facts about one’s education or training which now dispose one to answer 125. It may be true that one has such a disposition, but that will not show that one should answer 125. (One may equally be disposed to make mistakes when adding large columns of figures but that does not imply that one should, that that is what one meant to do.)

The other is that simply remembering what rules one was following or what one meant non-inferentially is cheating/spooky.

He then deploys arguments based on Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations paragraphs 139-239 to show, apparently, that no facts about one’s past actions, utterances or dispositions can justify an answer [Kripke 1982: 7-54, Wittgenstein 1953]. Anything one did or said in the past could equally be interpreted as following or meaning the quus rule. For example, perhaps one said aloud that one was adding the numbers and by adding one meant counting up to the first number and then continuing counting by as many steps along the line of integers as the second number. However, as Kripke points out, perhaps the word ‘count’ meant quount which is defined as the same as counting but only as far as the number 57 [ibid: 108]. It appears that nothing that one said or did or thought to oneself can justify the claim that, now, answering ‘125’ is going on correctly in the same way one was before, in accord with what one previously meant.

In the face of this, he draws on an analogy with Hume to suggest a sceptical solution. This is partly based on the idea that while Hume denies a necessitating causal nexus from one singular event to another, so Kripke denies a necessitating meaning nexus from past intention to future performance. He suggests that a sceptical solution does not deny the force of the sceptical argument but attempts to re-establish everyday practice without it. I take it that it should be consistent with, ie not threatened by, the sceptical argument which is left intact, not undermined. (Undermining the argument is a ‘straight’ solution.)

So if Hume’s sceptical challenge is to find the impression that grounds the idea of a necessitating causal nexus, his sceptical solution of constant conjunction escapes scepticism’s force by a) denying that we need any such impression for such an idea and b) offering instead something of which we could form an impression of sorts. (OK: there are problems concerning how we even thought we had an idea of necessitating causal nexus but I’ll ignore that.)

The following passages suggest the basic idea of Kripke’s equivalent sceptical solution:

It is important to realize that we are not looking for necessary and sufficient conditions (truth conditions) for following a rule, or an analysis of what such rule-following ‘consists in’. Indeed such conditions would constitute a ‘straight’ solution to the sceptical problem, and have been rejected. (ibid: 87) 

If someone whom I judge to have been computing a normal addition function (that is, someone whom I judge to give, when he adds, the same answer I would give), suddenly gives answers according to procedures that differ bizarrely from my own, then I will judge that something must have happened to him, and that he is no longer following the rule he previously followed…From this we can discern rough assertability conditions for such a sentence as “Jones means addition by ‘plus’.” Jones is entitled, subject to correction by others, provisionally to say, “I mean addition by ‘plus’,” whenever he has the feeling of confidence -- “now I can go on!” -- that he can give ‘correct’ responses in new cases; and he is entitled, again provisionally and subject to correction by others, to judge a new response to be ‘correct’ simply because it is the response he is inclined to give. These inclinations… are not to be justified in terms of Jones’s ability to interpret his own intentions or anything else. But Smith need not accept Jones’s authority on these matters: Smith will judge Jones to mean addition by ‘plus’ only if he judges that Jones’s answers to particular addition problems agree with those he is inclined to give, or, if they occasionally disagree, he can interpret Jones as at least following the proper procedure. (ibid: 90-1). 

We can restate this in terms of a device that has been common in philosophy, inversion of a conditional. For example, it is important to our concept of causation that we accept some such conditional as: “If events of type A cause events of type B, and if an event e of type A occurs, then an event e’ of type B must follow… [H]ow do [Humeans] read the conditional? Essentially they concentrate on the assertability conditions of a contrapositive form of the conditional. It is not that any antecedent conditions necessitate that some event e’ must take place; rather the conditional commits us, whenever we know that an event e of type A occurs and is not followed by an event of type B, to deny that there is a causal connection between the two event types. If we did make such a claim, we must now withdraw it. Although a conditional is equivalent to its contrapositive, concentration on the contrapositive reverses our priorities. (ibid: 93-4) 

A similar inversion is used in the present instance. It is essential to our concept of a rule that we maintain some such conditional as “If Jones means addition by ‘+’, then if he is asked for ‘68+ 57’, he will reply ‘125’.”… As in the causal case, the conditional as stated makes it appear that some mental state obtains in Jones that guarantees his performance of particular additions such as ‘68 + 57’ – just what the sceptical argument denies. Wittgenstein’s picture of the true situation concentrates on the contrapositive, and on the justification conditions. If Jones does not come out with ‘125’ when asked about ‘68 + 57’, we cannot assert that he means addition by ‘+’. (ibid: 94-5). 

On Wittgenstein’s conception, a certain type of traditional -- and overwhelmingly natural -- explanation of our shared form of life is excluded. We cannot say that we all respond as we do to ‘68 + 57’ because we all grasp the concept of addition in the same way, that we share common responses to particular addition problems because we share a common concept of addition... For Wittgenstein, an ‘explanation’ of this kind ignores his treatment of the sceptical paradox and its solution. There is no objective fact -- that we all mean addition by ‘+’, or even that a given individual does – that explains our agreement in particular cases. Rather our license to say of each other that we mean addition by ‘+’ is part of a ‘language game’ that sustains itself only because of the brute fact that we generally agree. (ibid: 97)

Mulling this over, it is interesting that what is sufficient to justify Jones’s, albeit fallible, self-ascription of meaning addition by ‘plus’ is merely a feeling of confidence that he can give ‘correct’ responses in new cases; and he is entitled to judge a new response to be correct simply because it is the response he is inclined to give. Note also that this is not based on his ability to interpret his own intentions or anything else. It is, in other words, a brute inclination independent of any conception of what he took himself to be doing (cf Ginsborg’s primitive normativity straight solution).

This seems odd because what it justifies (contra Ginsborg’s primnitive normativity) is the following metalinguistic claim about meaning: “I mean addition by ‘plus’”. Suppose Jones has read Kripke’s book and knows all about quus and suppose he wonders whether he has always been adding or quadding. It turns out that he can justifiably, though fallibly, answer this question in favour of adding rather than quadding providing he is disposed confidently to give any answer (125 or 5!) and is justified, fallibly, in taking any answer to be the correct addition. This seems odd.

Suppose, in the past but post 1982, he has sometimes added and sometimes quadded, equally reliably though the latter only in philosophy classes. He further knows that signs are arbitrary and, in philosophical fun, has sometimes reacted to the ‘+’ sign as though it meant quus. Surely in order justifiably, though fallibly, to claim he now means addition, he needs to know which of these optional dispositional states he embodies? He might mean quaddition.

But perhaps this is illicit once the sceptical argument is in play. Perhaps we can no longer say anything about him meaning anything. Let’s call what remains after the sceptical argument and solution ‘meaning-K’. (I also think that this allows thinking about truth conditions for meaning-K. The truth about meaning-K is the truth about what justifies, albeit fallibly, claims to meaning.) By Kripke’s stipulation, if he has any shaped disposition, he means-K addition. (A reason for this might be that, prior to 1982, the second aspect of Kripke’s account of what justifies ascription to others of meaning-K would never have fitted meaning-K quaddition.) For it to be justifiable for others to ascribe meaning-K addition to Jones, Jones must be disposed to a particular pattern of responses and these must also be endorsed – ie not vetoed – by their peers.

So let’s put this account of meaning-K back through the sceptical argument. We will have to tweak Kripke’s original conditions, much as Hume’s requirement to find the impression of a necessitating causal nexus has to be given up once that is not part of the sceptical solution. Kripke’s stipulated conditions on a response were: (1) determine what we meant by our words in the past and (2) determine the correct use of them in the future.

I assume that the second has to go, as dependent on a picture of meaning (not meaning-K) which had a necessitating intentional nexus. Meaning is dispositional not normative so the best we can offer is a communal disposition. This is some sort of constraint because what a speaker is disposed to say, and which their community is disposed not to reject, rules out many possibilities. We can conjure up a Kripke-ised set of initially platonised variant meanings – take the various logically possible quus-like functions and put them through the sceptical argument - to get the slimmed down evidentially equivalent functions. It seems initially plausible that many of these will nevertheless be ruled out by the test of the sceptical solution (what a speaker is disposed to say, and which their community is disposed not to reject). Surely we do not generally even mean-K quaddition by ‘+’?

So the replacement answer for 2 isn’t what we ought to answer but what we will answer. But can Kripke answer 1? What facts about our/my past determine which Kripke-ised meaning-K is relevant for assessment of what I will do now and what my peers will not criticise?

Now we’ve read Kripke, we understand the quus rule as well as the plus rule. So I and also my peers might mean either by the English word ‘plus’. Which did I, and we, mean in the past? If my disposition is the plus disposition, I’ll do one thing. If the quus, I’ll do something else. Ditto my peers. So do I know, or can I justify a belief, either way in the face of the sceptical argument?

Given that there seem to be two elements to the sceptical solution, we can think of them independently. Asked of my own dispositions I’m inclined to offer two possibilities.

1) Prior to reading any philosophy, I will simply be disposed to give the addition of any two numbers with that cross sign between them. We all will! But surely that’s not the point of a sceptical argument? I am equally prone to disregard Cartesian sceptical possibilities until they are brought to my attention in a philosophy class. Further, I do not need to believe them either true or likely. They just have to be possible and evidentially indistinguishable from the normal picture. So now that I am offered, as a sceptical hypothesis, the idea that my past dispositions were quadditions, what is the evidence that they were not, bearing in mind that direct memory access of meanings was ruled out as spooky? So why should I be able to remember non-inferentially meaning-K either? But perhaps I simply try out my current disposition and see what I write? However...

2) Prior to being prompted, I do not know the shape of my current and future relevant dispositions partly because they will depend on a decision, now post 1982, of whether to add or whether to quad and that difference of meaning-intention will change what I am disposed to do. (I think I could write meaning-K-intention for that too.) Perhaps such dispositions are somehow self-intimating. Perhaps I can bind myself now to the norm (norm?!?) of addition not quaddition, even in fun! But that seems to require the resources of meaning not mere meaning-K if the latter is just brute disposition. (That is, I do need to take note of my intention to act a certain way even to rule out the quus meaning-K.)

I confess I don't find the options very clear because I am not sure what remains of such ideas as intending to use words with particular meanings or meanings-K once the sceptical argument is allowed. That might be the very nexus ruled out.

What of the community? Here I think Kripke’s previous scepticism does have a clear victory over his own sceptical solution. In the sceptical set-up, whether or not I have access to my own dispositions, I do not have access to the future dispositions of my peers. All evidence of what they have not vetoed in the past is consistent with quus. So if I am considering Jones and what he means-K, then I have no better evidence for whether Jones and his peers will add or quad. So Jones meaning-K plus rather than quus does not escape the sceptical argument, which is what it was supposed to do.

This I think should also cast doubt on the intuitive plausibility of Kripke’s account of the assertability condition, or Jones’ own justification, for Jones saying he means-K addition. He only means-K addition if both conjuncts are met. But, given Kripkean scepticism, he is never in a position to justify a belief that the second conjunct will hold: that his peers will not veto what he does. In the face of scepticism and its infinite quus-like sceptical ringers, he is never justified in singling out any meaning-K for himself, given how meaning-K is partly constituted by others.

So I’m confused. As a sceptical solution it seems far too vulnerable to the sceptical argument against which it was supposed to be inoculated.

Abstract: On not believing what one says: my own experience of self-avowal in anxiety

As an approximately Wittgensteinian philosopher, I have always subscribed to a ‘grammatical’ orientation in philosophy in which the key idea is to describe the conditions under which word use is normally justified. One feature of this approach is, typically, to favour the public over the private and hence the need to work to find space for the latter in the relatively unproblematic context of the former. Despite this, Wittgenstein’s work also contains discussions of finer grained linguistic phenomenology in which the wish to say something, or the wish to try to say something using certain words, plays a role. One instance of this is the case of secondary sense in which speakers use words in spontaneously novel ways linked to, but not straight-forwardly justified by, their ‘public’ uses. And hence there is a tension between the basic orientation towards the description of public rules of correctness and spontaneous private uses of words which, nevertheless, are not mere noise.

This tension has been explored in the philosophy of psychiatry as an approach to psychopathological phenomena such as delusions, which attempts to tread a middle ground between nonsense (construed as an absence of sense) and some sort of non-standard and eccentric sense. In this presentation, I take a more mundane example: my own experience of anxiety and my rationalised expression of it.

In my experience of anxiety, the emotional content of the anxiety connects to specific stressors: quite specific sources of worry, and leads to reactions that would make sense in the case of life-threatening events. Hence, the anxiety reaction is out of proportion with its merely worrying stimulus. Further, I know that this is the case. Afterwards, I am able to see that my anxiety reactions were in no sense justified by the low level of threat that prompted them. Further, in the anxiety state itself, I am also able to offer suitable arguments for the inappropriateness of the reaction. I would pass a MCA capacity test for this disavowal of the reaction. From a third person perspective, it probably seems that I know what is going on and that my disavowal of my own bodily reaction is correct. I have insight. It is merely that my body has made a different, worse and irrational judgement.

But while this is the obvious way to apply a grammatical approach to what I say and do, both in an anxiety state and when describing it afterwards, the experience of the state has made me doubt it. The phenomenology of anxiety is not adequately captured by the splitting of cognitive and affective states elicited by an imaginary dialogue of what I know, while in the state.

This suggests the following tension. While the grammatical rules for the ascription – including the self-ascription – of knowledge track the implicit norms that epistemology aims to make explicit, I wish to say that, in extremis, I do not in fact know what I say I know, and can justify. The expression of anxiety is an instance of the tension within Wittgensteinian philosophy between the public rules and the private inclinations, in this case further written into bodily reaction. This suggests that there is a similar difficulty in articulating the content of the experience as there is in accounting for secondary sense which rules out the possibility of what Travis calls ‘cognitive prosthetics’.

Thursday, 9 September 2021

Lingering confusions about disjunctivism (perceptual and epistemic)

I attended a virtual workshop given by Charles Travis yesterday, in part of which he described, favourably, John McDowell’s disjunctivism in his ‘Criteria, defeasibility and knowledge’ (McDowell [1982] 1998a). At the end of the talk, he rather resisted getting drawn on McDowell’s later discussions of disjunctivism on the grounds that they were of mixed success. Given his and McDowell’s opposed views on whether perception has a content, this was not surprising. But it reminds me of what seems odd in the later discussion in a way that does not turn on McDowell’s content-view. (The fine picture of Travis is from Maarten Steenhagen's blog here.)

McDowell’s content-view forces him to say something that was not apparent in ‘Criteria…’ The good disjunct and the bad disjunct can share the same content. What differs is not the content but the way the content is had

On the content conception, the epistemic significance of an experience consists in its having content in the way it does. An experience that is a seeing can be like an experience that merely appears to put its subject in touch with a corresponding environmental reality in respect of what content it has. But a seeing is unlike a mere appearing in how it has its content. Seeings have their content in a way that is characteristic of seeings; they make environmental realities present to their subject. (McDowell 2013: 147 italics added) 

Given that the aim is to avoid a highest common factor view, this seems to me to reapproach just that. The way the content is had must not be blankly external to the subject but once we have a distinction of content and the way it is had it seems harder to resist the idea that it is. This may become clearer, below.

But my confusion today seems to turn on using disjunctivism for knowledge rather than perception and then re-engineering perception from knowledge. (This is probably one of those posts where I merely manifest my own crass misunderstandings to my peers to general hilarity. Oh well.)

Here’s a bit of a summary of the ‘Criteria…’ picture from my book.

McDowell denies that experience of other people is limited to their bare behaviour, with mentality hidden behind it. This is the assumption that initiates scepticism about other minds. McDowell’s rejection of this assumption picks up a claim from elsewhere in his discussion of Wittgenstein that, to a suitably educated subject, more can be directly perceived in speech behaviour than mere sound (cf. McDowell 1998a: 332). In the context of this more epistemological discussion, he puts the point as follows: “The idea of a fact being disclosed to experience is purely negative; it rejects the thesis that what is accessible to experience falls short of the fact in the sense … of being consistent with there being no such fact” (McDowell [1982] 1998a: 387). This underlying notion can also be applied even in cases where the fact or state concerned is not literally within the experience of a subject. It can be applied:

in at least some cases of knowledge that someone else is in an “inner” state, on the basis of experience of what he says and does. Here we might think of what is directly available to experience in some such terms as “his giving expression to his being in that ‘inner’ state”; this is something that, while not itself actually being the “inner” state of affairs in question, nevertheless does not fall short of it in the sense I explained. (ibid: 387)

Although one person’s inner states do not themselves fall within the direct perceptual experience of another person, the fact that they express them can. This idea of expression is not one that is consistent with the absence of the inner state. So McDowell replaces an account in which all that is visible to an observer is another person’s intrinsically brute or meaningless behaviour, standing in need of further interpretation and hypothesis, with one in which that behaviour is charged with expression.

It’s perhaps a pity that McDowell’s first discussion of disjunctivism takes the rather complicated case of others’ mental states since these require the extra step above. (In the first version of the book I used McDowell’s discussion of Wright’s M-realism to make this clear but I dropped it from the second edition.) I mentioned this extra complexity to Travis but he seemed to stress instead the idea that we do not know how else someone’s anger or irritation might be manifested than the ways they are. He wasn't concerned with the idea that our experience does not actually go so far as to take in, literally, their mental state. Still, it seems (to me, at least) helpful to note that even in the good disjunct here, one does not see the other person’s anger but its expression, even modulo the qualification that the expression is incompatible with the absence of the state. One might say, naturally enough, one sees that they are angry. But that’s not as innocent as it seems.

Still, perceptual disjunctivism is an attractive response to a worry that, because experience seems the same in veridical and illusory cases, the most one experiences is the highest common factor between them. And hence, even when all goes well, perception cannot be enough to ground knowledge because, for all one knows, one might be in the illusory case. According to disjunctivism, when all goes well, the fact itself (following McDowell’s view here) can be visually present to the subject, it can ‘impress’ itself upon them. Disjunctivism permits a relational concept of experience. The glass of beer itself can be visually present to a subject. I want to say that glass is part of the experience, though only in the good disjunct. I’d like to play up the analogy with singular (de re) thoughts. If so, then the nature of the experience is different in the two cases because in one it is partly constituted by a relation to a glass enabling, then, a genuine singular thought about the glass. Things are more complicated for McDowell because, later, he argues that the content in both good and bad disjunct can be the same – given not in de re but de se terms – but the way it is had differs and hence its epistemic properties.

Things seem – to me, that is - more complicated in the case of knowledge, anyway. My problem is with the fact that knowledge is not a matter of truth in the actual world but also some counter-factual notion that one could not have been wrong, covering other possible worlds. It’s not just that the glass is actually present, partly constituting my experience of it perhaps enabling a singular thought. That might be so even in a case where I do not have knowledge of it because of additional defeating factors. And here I begin to lose my grip on what the disjunctivist picture is because I take it that part of its claim is a denial of a highest common factor view but once we have left the perceptual case, I’m not sure what counts as the highest common factor. It isn’t the highest common factor of veridical and illusory experience since one might really experience something - see it as it really is - but not realise that conditions are favourable for observing it. It is the highest common factor of apparent justification, too. 

Perhaps this is the reason that in later work, McDowell also reverse engineers the notion of visual presence so that it is suited to underpin epistemic disjunctivism (however that is supposed to work).

Here’s the example he discusses in Perception as a Capacity for Knowledge. Consider a psychological experience in which subjects with normal colour vision are presented with colour samples but in non-standard and misleading lighting conditions. Now imagine that a subject is told that she will be shown colours in both good and bad lighting conditions for colour detection but without being able to tell the difference. McDowell suggests that even if she is shown a sample under conditions which, outside the experiment, would enable accurate colour detection, it would be false to say that the thing’s colour is ‘visually present to her’ (McDowell 2011: 46)

In these circumstances, she is not in a position to know that things are the relevant way – that the thing is green – at all, let alone to know that it is by being in the perceptual state she is in that she knows that… [A] perceptual state in which a feature of the environment is present to a subject, in the relevant sense, would have to be a non-defective exercise of a self-consciously possessed and exercised capacity to get into perceptual states that put the subject in a position to know, through perception, that things are the relevant way in the environment. And that is not how it is with the subject’s perceptual state in the case we are considering… [T]he experimental set-up confronts her with a specific possibility that the light is, on this occasion, unsuitable for knowing the colours of things by looking at them. (McDowell 2011: 46-8)

This is why I said he was reverse engineering perception from knowledge. Intuitively, I would have said that – providing the lighting conditions are actually good – then the actual colour is visually present to the subject but that they cannot know this because of their background justified fears about the lighting. But – I think – because McDowell thinks that perception just is a capacity for knowledge, he wants the closest connection between perception and knowledge. So in a case where perceptual knowledge is impossible, the object of perception also changes. Visual presence is not simply being present and in vision but adds in further (non-visual?!) epistemic conditions.

(My colleague Ali Hosseinkhani has just raised an interesting question. In such a case, what is the subject’s experiential status? “It’s not an illusion, nor a hallucination. Just that the lighting conditions are not guaranteed to be accurate.” Now McDowell has deployed phrases such as ‘ostensible seeings’... 

‘An ostensible seeing that there is a red cube in front of one would be an actualization of the same conceptual capacities that would be exercised in judging that there is a red cube in front of one, with the same togetherness.’ (McDowell 1998b: 458)  

... and perhaps that is what he would suggest here. But it seems odd because an observer fully informed of the situation would surely say that the experimental subject simply is really seeing the green shade of the sample. It is just that she does not know this.)

This may connect to Travis’ Fregean point about the categorical distinction between seeing and seeing-that.

But, as Frege noted (1897: 149; 1918: 61), ‘see’ has non-perceptual uses. When we say, for example, ‘He sees that that flower has five petals’ (one of Frege’s examples), ‘see’ is not used to report perceptual awareness. One way to see this is to note that, while the petals are on the flower in the garden, and from thence form images on retinas – they are that sort of thing – that the flower has five petals is not in the garden. Nor is it on the kitchen table. It is not the sort of thing to be located, a fortiori, to form images on retinas. Rather, it is the sort of thing one recognises by exercising capacities of thought. In thought, one can represent the flower as falling under a certain generality; as being a certain way there is for a flower to be – five-petalled. (Travis 2015: 46)

For Travis, the object of seeing-that is a that-clause and hence is constituted of conceptual generalities. It thus takes judgement. The object of seeing is an extra-conceptual object, an instance of generalities but not a generality, and requires mere awareness and some minimal notion of ‘uptake’ (about which I remain unclear: I’m not sure what space there is for uptake that is not judgement).

McDowell, famously, does not believe that anything is outside the conceptual. Perhaps this is why he blurs the knowledge claim (that the colour is green) and what is seen / visually present.

My intuition would be to go the other way. To keep the apparently simpler case of perceptual disjunctivism relatively clear – stressing a link to singular thoughts - and work out how to construct the knowledge case as the cards fall. But his content-view adds a complexity. It introduces a difference between perceptual experience and singular thought even though both, McDowell suggests, should be subject to a disjunctive account. On his content-view, both veridical and misleading perceptual experiences can share the same content. But, I assume, successful and misfiring singular thoughts cannot do this as a singular thought stands in a specific de re relation to a feature of the environment, without which no such thought is possible. The content must be different - surely! - even if it seems the same. (There is a literature on what is thought when a singular thought fails: McDowell favours a ‘seeming to think’ account. Email me for the reference which now escapes me!) In fact, McDowell suggests that the content of perceptual experiences is contextually related not de re to features of the environment but de se to locations specified ego-centrally (McDowell 2012: 155-6). This is the strange action at a distance of combining happy disjunctivism with the content-view.


McDowell, J. (1982/1998) ‘Criteria, defeasibility and knowledge’ Proceedings of the British Academy 68: 455-79 Reprinted in (1998) Meaning, Knowledge and Reality, 369–94.

McDowell, J. (1998b). ‘The Woodbridge Lectures 1997: Having the World in View: Sellars, Kant and Intentionality.’ Journal of Philosophy, 95, 431–491.

McDowell, J. (2011) Perception as a Capacity for Knowledge, Milwaukee: Marquette University Press. pp36-44

McDowell, J. (2013) ‘Perceptual Experience: Both Relational and Contentful’ European Journal of Philosophy 21: 144-57

Travis, C. (2015) 'Suffering intentionally?' in Campbell, M. & O'Sullivan, M. (eds.) Wittgenstein and Perception, London: Routledge

The fine picture is from Maarten Steenhagen’s blog here

See this and this entry on ‘A sense of occasion’, this on ‘Reason’s reach’, this on ‘The twilight of empiricism’, and this on the discussion of rule following in Thought’s Footing.

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

On the death of pets

Lois’ cat, Snufkin, is dying. He has a terminal heart condition which may be eased a little with medication but it has only one outcome. (Of course, life has only one outcome which is part of the point of this note.) Having found this out last week, I’m still in that state of shocked sentimental misery which, for me, is made worse by my taking every death of someone or something close to me to represent every death, every permanent leave-taking of someone or something close to me. Later, probably – if there is much of a later – the initial shock of the making concrete of something that was inevitable but hadn’t yet been given specific form will ease to leave merely the sentimental misery.

(I had a counsellor who decided that it would be therapeutic for me to express more emotion than I generally do. And thus in every session she brought the conversation round to how I felt about the death of my previous – my first – cat Brix, in a scene I had not witnessed but had been described to me by my braver partner. Much emotion then flowed.)

My father’s health declined in steps over 10 years. At each decline I’d react with a kind of shock and horror but then get used to it. The first time he had a TIA and was taken away in an ambulance, it seemed awful. But by the third or fourth time, it didn’t seem terrible any more. When he first became delusional, it really upset me. But for whatever reason it happened – often a humble UTI – he always returned to the space of reasons. I’m pleased that that remained so at the point of his death.

By contrast, when my mother was rushed to hospital with leukaemia, I was told that I had to get there that very day to see her alive. That turned out to be false: she lived – in hospital – another 2 months. But there still didn’t seem time to get used to it. It seemed like a single slow crash (like an oil tanker heading for an inevitable collision because it cannot be stopped within miles).

It is, of course, odd to compare my reaction to the death of my parents with that of pets. But the similarity lies in the affect. Whether or not it is right, I do feel related sadness. That's increased by the way I generalise symbolically from one instance to all others. I re-live all deaths.

Still, standing back, the key difference is surely just this: only those in the space of reasons can feel existential dread and regret over lost opportunity. The ending of a narratively structured life – whether or not one thinks that rational beings have narrative lives, we have the capacity to conceptualise them narratively – is something that can seem wrong both for the subject and for others in a way that goes beyond the non-narrative. For a cat, being is more in the moment. Elizabeth Anscombe famously ascribes intentionality to a cat stalking a bird, which implies a telos. John McDowell suggests that animal mentality is is merely a different species of the same genus: mentality. (Donald Davidson took a firmer line: the non-intensional is non-intentional, as it were.) But for cats in my experience, perhaps an association with the unpleasantness of the cat basket continues for weeks. Perhaps there’s some anticipation of breakfast after a long night with a closed kitchen. But the end (the End!) isn’t an end for the cat. Their end is an end for us but not for them. That’s the thing I find hard to keep a grip of. Sentimentality edges its way back in without me noticing. It comes to seem the saddest thing in the world because ending just is the saddest thing in the world.

Implicit bias: the ‘dark side’ of hinge epistemology?

(This entry and the talk to which it refers will be dedicated to the always excellent Sarah Traill whose chairing of a pre-board meeting today permitted me to log off and get on with writing the slides before logging back in.)

I’m giving a talk ‘at’ the Royal College of Psychiatry next week on implicit bias called ‘Implicit bias: the ‘dark side’ of hinge epistemology?’ The idea is that bias is the flipside of what has become known, following some remarks by Wittgenstein in his late masterwork On Certainty as ‘hinge epistemology’ and hence (bias) cannot easily be jettisoned if hinges are a necessary aspect of knowledge.

Here is the context. Descartes presents a conception of his own epistemic project in which, once suitably resourced, he sits in his study in his dressing gown and reflects upon the status of his knowledge claims. He says:

It is now some years since I detected how many were the false beliefs that I had from my earliest youth admitted as true, and how doubtful was everything I had since constructed on this basis; and from that time I was convinced that I must once for all seriously undertake to rid myself of all the opinions which I had formerly accepted, and commence to build anew from the foundation, if I wanted to establish any firm and permanent structure in the sciences… To-day, then, since very opportunely for the plan I have in view I have delivered my mind from every care [and am happily agitated by no passions] and since I have procured for myself an assured leisure in a peaceable retirement, I shall at last seriously and freely address myself to the general upheaval of all my former opinions. (Descartes 1911) 

He commends this to any self-conscious epistemic agent. Seen from this perspective, it seems that a self-conscious rational agent ought to be in a position to assess their beliefs, rejecting all those which do not pass muster. In fact, the start of the Meditations makes this clear. Its epistemology is individualistic. Descartes uses the shortcut of the ‘method of doubt’ to reject every belief except his cogito. From there, he builds back to full normal knowledge.

This provides a context for thinking about bias. Standard dictionary definitions of bias tend to contain two aspects. One is that bias is a vice in that it causes a moral harm to others. The other is that it is also a narrowly epistemic failing. That is, it involves a failure of justification. (Both are in the link to prejudice.) If Descartes’s views of epistemology were correct then it might be possible to offer a procedural description of the epistemic failing that bias involves.

There is, however another way to think of bias: evaluatively neutrally. 

The term “bias,” as it is commonly used, implies something morally or rationally negative. I mean to use the term in its more general, normatively neutral sense, as meaning “a tendency; an inclination of temperament or outlook.”… I am counting as a “bias” any structure, database, or inferential disposition that serves in a non-evidential way to reduce hypothesis space to a tractable size. Biases, in this sense, may be propositions explicitly represented in the mind, or they may be propositional content realized only implicitly, in the structure of a cognitive mechanism. (Antony 2016: 161) 

So following this idea I will think how bias so understood can be distinguished from epistemic virtues.

In On Certainty, Wittgenstein presents a distinct view of the nature of knowledge and its relation to certainty. Crucially, this involves the idea of ‘hinges’. 

§105 All testing, all confirmation and disconfirmation of a hypothesis takes place already within a system. And this system is not a more of less arbitrary and doubtful point of departure for all our arguments: no, it belongs to the essence of what we call an argument. The system is not so much the point of departure, as the element in which arguments have their life. 

§341 That is to say, the questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn. 

§342 That is to say, it belongs to the logic of our scientific investigations that certain things are in deed not doubted. 

§343 But it isn’t that the situation is like this: We just can’t investigate everything, and for that reason we are forced to rest content with assumption. If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put. 

§344 My life consists in my being content to accept many things. (Wittgenstein 1969)

These are held immune from justification or doubt and it is about them that the game of giving and asking for reasons turns. So understood, hinges clearly do not fit the Cartesian model of individualistic rational autonomy. But if this is so, there is no easy way to distinguish procedurally between hinges and mere bias. Bias comprises hinges that have an evaluative failing. One cannot merely eliminate attitudes that lack an appropriate epistemic pedigree, understood in Descartes’ individualistic way, because that would also eliminate virtuous hinges. Wittgenstein argues that hinges are presupposed in the context of inquiry giving it the meaning or content. So there is no possibility of attempting to reconstruct epistemology in Descartes’ image.

One response to this might be to reject Wittgenstein’s rejections of the Cartesian ideal. But there is an analogy that suggests that there is a high price to pay for that. Testimony offers recipients the knowledge of their testimonial sources. Knowledge can rub off ‘like a contagious disease’ in the phrase that John McDowell attributes to Gareth Evans. But it is not that we normally first find independent validation of the knowledge-status of our informants. If testimony can yield knowledge – as we normally think it can – then it is a lived reputation of the Cartesian ideal.

Returning to hinges, there is a complication raised by the traditional reading of Wittgenstein. On this reading, knowledge and certainty are distinct. So hinges – as  expressions of certainty – are not instances of knowledge. This may encourage the idea of relativism, which is sometimes ascribed to late period Wittgenstein. But I think we should learn a lesson from the mid C20 intellectual movement called Oxford Realism (cf J.L. Austin). Knowledge too is certain. Hinges can be instances of knowledge providing that they are true. (I am writing a book on this at the moment.)

What lessons does this have for an understanding of bias? Clearly implicit bias is the norm if bias is modelled on hinges. There is also no procedural way to root out bias since virtuous hinges resemble vice-laden bias. And hence it seems that we need to look to the evaluative aspect of bias as well as it’s specific content in order self consciously to reassess our fundamental commitments. There is no guarantee that this can be done easily. Take the example expressed in the maxim ‘blessed are the peacemakers’. This might serve as the opposite of bias: a virtuous hinge, expressive of a valued form of life. But, if it were true, what could make it true? How could we be reassured that this was an expression of genuine knowledge rather than mere bias? Clearly much work will need to be done to articulate the view of life that underpins it. If hinges are implicit commitments that aim to track the Good and the True, holding knowledge claims rather than subscribing to bias will be much harder than Descartes suggests.

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Sydney Smith’s Letter To Lady Georgiana Morpeth

Foston, Feb. 16th, 1820

Dear Lady Georgiana,

Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done—so I feel for you.

1st. Live as well as you dare.
2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°.
3rd. Amusing books.
4th. Short views of human life—not further than dinner or tea.
5th. Be as busy as you can.
6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you.
7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you.
8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely—they are always worse for dignified concealment.
9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you.
10th. Compare your lot with that of other people.
11th. Don’t expect too much from human life—a sorry business at the best.
12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy sentimental people, and every thing likely to excite feeling or emotion not ending in active benevolence.
13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree.
14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue.
15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant.
16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness.
17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice.
18th. Keep good blazing fires.
19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion.
20th. Believe me, dear Georgiana, your devoted servant, Sydney Smith

Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Pickering on family resemblance

There’s a discussion of family resemblance in Neil Pickering’s 2011/12 paper ‘Extending disorder: essentialism, family resemblance and secondary sense’. Given that family resemblance trades on resemblances which are simply likenesses and given Pickering’s critique of the ‘likeness argument’, I’m surprised that he is as positive about family resemblance as an account of illness. It encourages me to rethink the conclusion of his Metaphor of Mental Illness as reinstating likenesses but only via their metaphoric construction. In other words, conditions might indeed count as illnesses via likenesses with paradigm illnesses (bizarrely in accord with the likeness argument) but only given prior creative mis categorization of their characteristics.

Anyway, this paper has what looks to be a critique of family resemblance concepts (FRCs) which is later ‘turned on its head’ and used to highlight a virtue of seeing illness as a family resemblance concept.

One confusing feature of the paper is that it uses the word ‘extension’ when discussing concepts but not generally to mean the class of things to which a concept applies (the logical sense of the word). Instead it is more often, at least, the noun formed from the verb ‘extend’. But I wonder whether this potential ambiguity causes Pickering himself some momentary confusion. That it means the latter is suggested by the framework of the paper.

Extending a concept refers to increasing the range of things which can be brought under the concept, or which fall within a category, or to which a kind term can be applied. The increase is from a baseline which is the agreed range of usage, reflecting what Wakefield calls ‘‘relatively uncontroversial and widely shared judgements’’ about what does (and does not) fall under the concept.

Two conditions are then outlined for such extending: determination and coherence.

An extension should neither go too far beyond the baseline and include things which should not be included within the concept; nor fail to go far enough beyond it, and exclude things which should be included under the concept… Echoing such concerns Horwitz suggests that to be an ‘‘adequate concept of mental illness’’ a concept must demonstrate the capacity to ‘‘distinguish conditions that ought to be called ‘mental illnesses’ from those that ought not’’… The criterion of valid extension implied by Bellaimey, Horwitz, and Wakefield will be named the criterion of determination.

[I]ntuitively, random lists of items do not imply the existence of any covering concept. What, for example, is the concept implied by (square root of) 9, the chair I’m sitting on, Beijing, and the Mona Lisa? What is lacking from this set of items is any sense that they belong together. There is a need for a criterion of coherence.

This argument for the second condition goes too quickly. There seems no reason to preclude this arbitrary list as instancing a general concept ie having Evansian generality. Let’s call it: Pickering’s example of random things. We can think of the list under that generality. Under counter-factual conditions, different objects might have occurred to him.

Pickering describes FRCs thus:

The family resemblance approach can be represented schematically and abstractly... Five things (labelled here A, B, C, D, E) are agreed to fall under a concept—they form the baseline of agreed examples. There are also five characteristics or attributes the things collectively have (labelled I, II, III, IV, V).7 Each of the things has four of the characteristics, but each has a slightly different set:
A [I, II, III, IV]
B [I, II, III, V]
C [I, II, IV, V]
D [I, III, IV, V] E [II, III, IV, V]
Consistent with the main point Wittgenstein seems to be making, there is nothing these five things all share.

Taking these to be the baseline concept, Pickering then considers a new case:

Now, let it be asked: does a further thing (F) which has the following characteristics, also fall under the concept in question:
F [III, IV, V, VI]
This shares at least three characteristics with D and E. If, on these grounds, this is allowed to be a new instance of the concept, a further characteristic (VI) may now be considered a characteristic of things of this kind. And so the characteristics which are associated with the concept are increased in number and range.

Before mentioning the disastrous logic of this example, let’s continue with Pickering’s application of the schematic model to a mental illness case.

Despite its name, the medical status of ASPD is contested... As described here, this condition has no overlap with the existing set of characteristics associated with the notion of disorder, and so on a family resemblance account there is no reason to bring this instance under the concept. However, this can change. There is reason to think that there is a subgroup (G*) amongst those exhibiting antisocial personality disorder who also respond to medical treatments (III), are typically harmed (e.g. suffer a sense of social isolation) (IV) and have a genetic predisposition (V)… If sharing three attributes or features with things which are agreed disorders, is sufficient to make something a disorder, then G* will be a disorder, and since the gap between F (schizophrenia) and G (anti social personality disorder) has now been bridged, it too will be a disorder.
In the light of this, a family resemblance account of disorder does not appear to meet either criterion for extension. The attributes don’t appear to determine any limits to extension, since they seem to be an indeterminately extendable list. Further, A and G are now included, yet they share no attributes, and so it is unclear what the rationale for including both might be.

In fact, Pickering goes on to defend the FRC view of illness. But it is worth emphasising just how radical this objection would be if it were plausible. Pickering’s initial schematic example concerns F. But there is no reason to assume that F is actual. We can explore conceptual generalities through merely possible instances. So if this case extends the concept, we can imagine a range of further extensions via a range of further hypothetical cases. Assuming, following Pickering’s words here – whether or not he means them himself – ‘a further characteristic (VI) may now be considered a characteristic of things of this kind’ and then nothing seems to be excluded from the extension (in both the logical sense and the sense of extending) of the concept.

There is, however, an assumption built into Pickering’s consideration of this objection in the comment ‘a further characteristic (VI) may now be considered a characteristic of things of this kind’. Everything depends on the ‘may’. It is that that permits the extending of the original concept to anything we like. But it seems to be motivated by this earlier comment when introducing F: ‘which has the following characteristics’. Pickering assumes – on behalf of this objection which he will go on to reject but without actually diagnosing the problem – that what is characteristic of F is characteristic of the kind or concept, too. But that does not follow. To take the other famous example of FRC – other than an actual family resemblance such as the Thornton-look – a specific game might have a characteristic without it being a characteristic of games. Golf has as a characteristic the fact that it is played by the wealthy. That’s quite typical of golf. But it does not infect games as such. So the putative objection depends on an implausible assumption.

Pickering himself rejects this objection saying that ‘the argument so far considered against the family resemblance approach must be turned on its head’. The idea seems to be that FRCs balance strict normative determinacy with an element of flexibility. One motivation for this is to argue that even non-FRC and essentialist accounts permit some flexibility. He says:

Even if the essentialist were correct that there is a pattern of necessity and sufficiency in the features of those things which are agreed to be disorders, it would be a further decision to conform the notion of ‘disorder’ to that. This decision can’t be justified by the pattern of likenesses itself—since it is the implications of this which are in question; rather it must reflect a human decision or practice.

But is that right? Consider Wakefield’s claim that a disorder is a harmful dysfunction. Suppose we accept that definition, we have necessary and sufficient conditions for calling anything a ‘disorder’. There is no further slack aside, say, from what word shape or sound we attach to the concept. Things are disordered in virtue of being harmful and dysfunctional. The conditions do not merely group conditions – extensionally, as it were – but group them as disorders.

Of course, if we just have the extension of disorder, there would be a further question of in virtue of what these things are conceptually united. But Pickering has already notionally conceded more: the necessary and sufficient conditions for being a disorder.

(I’m not sure about this, but I wonder whether Pickering’s account FRCs shares something of this picture. The putative objection to FRCs seems to start from a position outside the conceptual order, trying to infer the concept that unites a collection of otherwise unconnected instances. That is why, I hypothesise, FRCs seem so hostage to the fortune of subsuming a new instance under them. There is no sense of in virtue of what items are grouped together. (Hence in my example, being played by wealthy people might get attached, willy nilly, to ‘games’.) It is an alienated picture of our access to our own thoughts. As though we have to run a kind of Davidsonian Radical Interpretation of our own linguistic dispositions to work out the conception that gathers together the extension (in the logical sense). Again, this makes more sense if one recalls the idea that in his paper ‘extension’ generally means an extending but may also mean the logical sense of the class of things to which a concept applies. This may become clearer below.)

Anyway, Pickering’s response to the objection above runs thus:

But these problems for the family resemblance approach are more apparent than real. They have arisen as a result of focusing on the role of the attributes or characteristics of things in deciding category or kind membership. This focus on the characteristics represents a mistaken approach to family resemblance. Characteristics in the family resemblance approach to concepts do not have the determinative relation to the concepts with which they are associated that they have in the essentialist approach. Furthermore, this is a strength of the family resemblance approach, for the kind of relationship the essentialist presupposes between characteristics and concepts is far from self evident…

The possibility inherent in family resemblance of continuously extending the features associated with a concept indicates the existence of a non-determinative relationship between those features and the concept they are associated with. It is just because networks of resemblances exist between quite different kinds of things that the family resemblance approach necessarily introduces a further factor. In the family resemblance approach it becomes clear that some judgement has to be made about whether shared attributes do or do not count towards various human patterns of behaviour and experience being disorders…

Answering these questions provides a basis for a boundary of the extension of the concept, and so meets the requirement for determination. Where it is judged that resemblances of attributes count for nothing, then the limit of intelligibility in the application of the concept has been reached.

Here I think we have the crux. Indeed it applies to interpretations of Wittgenstein’s discussion of rule following outside FRCs too (eg Kripke, Travis, Wright). Does Wittgenstein’s criticism of platonism, of the idea that the conceptual order is utterly independent of us, leave room for, or indeed require, that we make things up? The slippery notion in the passages above is ‘judgement’. If I judge that 7 is greater than 5 by an increment of 2, I judge it but I judge it correctly. Any other judgement would be wrong. I judge in accord with the rules of maths. But there is another sense of ‘judgement’ in which the idea of correctness or accord with a standard goes missing and the judgement itself sets whatever lesser sense of a standard there is. The score - on Pop Idol, say - is created by the judgement of the judges, as it were.

Pickering wants family resemblance to have a foot in both camps. In the passage concerning the possibility inherent in family resemblance above, it sounds as though we get to make up the extension of the concept (in both senses of extension) but in the next passage - which is the very next paragraph but with a couple of sentences omitted by me - it sounds as though we answer questions which have antecedent correct answers and so there is genuine normative determination.

I’m not sure he can have it both ways. My suspicion is that this is where the ambiguity of the word ‘extension’ applies. Extending a concept changes the concept. Subsuming a new instance under a concept need not (pace Travis). Normative determinacy applies to the latter, only.

I wonder, too, whether this has something to do with Pickering’s idea that there are limits to the application of even FRCs. Like counting to 5 for Monty Python’s Holy Hand Grenade, some applications are ‘right out’ or, in this case, simply unintelligible. This, however, seems like a final Carrie-like grip of Platonism from beyond the grave. Conceptual normativity is explained by an appeal to what is unintelligible. But surely, the unintelligibility of the application of a concept to a range of cases flows from the concept involved? No deployment of symbols can be brutely unintelligible without reference to the rules given to the use of words and hence a concept. It cannot explain the limits of that concept. That would be Platonism.