Sunday, 25 July 2021

An ongoing conversation with Neil Pickering about likeness, metaphor and illness

Neil Pickering generously replied to some comments I’d made about his work on my blog here. I’ve replied thus. 

Dear Neil,

Many thanks for these helpful comments. May I ask three follow up questions to check I understand? You don’t need to answer them, of course. If you do, they are in bold below.

In one reply you say of Szasz and Wakefield “I think I’d say: they both think the likenesses – which must be either literal or non-existent – will do the work.  They’re both wrong, and in the same way.”

I realise that I’m not totally sure what ‘the work’ is.

I think that Wakefield thinks that dysfunction is a likeness, a qualitative feature of (perhaps) all illnesses such that combining it with harm gives a sufficient condition. So he answers the question ‘In virtue of what is this an illness?’ in part by saying ‘dysfunction’. He might equally answer the question: ‘Is it true that X is an illness?’ by saying ‘Yes it is literally true that it is an illness, in virtue of it being a harmful dysfunction’.

It doesn’t quite work the same way for Szasz. He thinks that mental illnesses are not really illness. To say they are is to deploy a metaphor as he understands metaphor which makes the claim – as you say here – false and a mere myth. He doesn’t think that likenesses do the work of establishing the illness status of mental illness. But he does think that they help do the work he wants: to show that mental illnesses aren’t illnesses.

So is ‘the work’ resolving a genuine dispute in a way that begs no questions? In other words, is it that the dialectical context of an ongoing dispute is an essential part of ‘the work’? Had there not been a dispute and had people simply given – say – Wakefield’s positive answer from Day One, would there be no work to do?

(If that’s the case, then I agree that the likeness argument would not do that work. But then I think that because nothing could ever do that work, that’s not such news to me. Nothing is non-question begging! Hence my caution about conceding ‘quacks like a duck’ once one see’s where that argument is heading! (Perhaps I should have said: quacks as a duck but likeness is Pickering-brand terminology and I wouldn’t want to tamper!))

An analogy. I assume no one disputes the chemical composition of water (roughly!) and there’s even a broad enough consensus to treat it almost as essentialists do (roughly!). So the answer to the question ‘In virtue of what is the substance in this bottle water?’ is generally: ‘In virtue of it having the same chemical structure as all water does’. Chemical composition serves a function as a likeness. But it doesn’t do ‘work’ in the sense of being deployed in an ongoing dispute about categorisation. That conversation is over.

(As some sort of Wittgensteinian, I do not believe in Putnam’s magical theory in which the world individuates itself after we offer a single baptism, our meaning carried away by fairies or storks or whatever. But I do think that we have more or less adopted chemical composition as a criterion of being water.)

So a basic question: is the water example a ‘likeness argument’ on the Pickering view of likeness?

Second, do you think it a metaphor?

I think I can imagine that the very idea that a fluid has a ‘structure’, as captured in school chemistry, might have started by requiring some sort of metaphor. Fluids? Structures? I was brought up by radical sociologists of science – eg Simon Schaffer of Leviathon and the Air-pump – so I know these things take ‘work’. But by now it is hard to think that - once we have a grasp of the sort of thing we mean by the phrase ‘chemical structure’ then - water’s having a structure of H2O is a metaphor. What’s left of the literal if we think that?

So on my initial reading of your position, likenesses are not just accepted criteria – such as the water case – but have to be in active disputes. Second, you have an alternative positive suggestion, given that likenesses cannot do ‘the work’, turning on metaphors.

It was that that gave me the three-fold contrast.

  • Szasz uses likenesses to try to argue that mental illnesses cannot be illnesses. (He’s bound to fail according to your very strict requirement.) He then uses his reading of metaphor to explain what the ‘wrong’ (for him) view of mental illness as illness amounts to (a mere metaphor, a myth, a falsehood). 
  • Wakefield uses likenesses to try to argue that mental illnesses are literally illnesses. (He’s bound to fail according to your very strict requirement.) He – thinks he - has no need of metaphors because he takes dysfunctions to be partial criteria, akin to chemical composition. It’s all very literal. 
  • And – and obviously I’m worried about typing this – I took you to be saying that yoking ‘illness’ to ‘mental illness’ took a kind of imaginative miscategorising, positively described as metaphor. Not literally true but not false either.

Is that - roughly - right?

You kindly suggest that you see some virtue in my final thought. That’s linked – as I’m sure you know – to Travis’ account of rule following in his book Thought’s Footing. He connects it to a distinction between ‘prior’ and ‘novel’ understanding which is, in effect, the distinction between a descriptive thought that one can have in advance of events turning out as they do and a singular thought, in the presence of particular events, as they come to pass. Travis stresses the gap between what it is possible to think before events come about and what it is possible to think only once they have. That gap in the metaphysics of thought (Russell, Frege) is the gap that so entertains us, quasi-Wittgensteinians. So one might say that every application of every rule – every descriptive word to a particular case entertained under a singular thought – was metaphorical. That’s quite pokey!

But if we step back from that brink then where do we draw the line?

And I wanted – teasingly – to try to do to you what you did to Bill Fulford who was doing this to everyone else: recontextualize and point out a question being begged. You ask: from whose perspective can we highlight likenesses in active disputes? Since they will always presuppose a perspective, but in an area of active disagreement, then they cannot be used to resolve the disagreement. Claims about likenesses beg questions.

In this case, I wanted to ask, from whose perspective do we draw the distinction between imaginative metaphorical mis-categorisations, which extend the use of words, and literal categorisations as just more mundane applications of a word to cases to which it literally applies? I wanted to imply that your hunch that mental illness was an interesting metaphor was no better grounded than Wakefield’s hunch that it is a literal and mundane application of the baseline criterion of dysfunction. That wasn’t to hand him victory, of course, but just to say that you are – as Zaphod Beeblebrox was famously described – ‘just this guy’ or rather just another guy in the debate, not as it were, above the debate. (Putting it like that sounds awful, sorry! It wasn’t a moral accusation.)

Of course, in doing this, I was putting myself above the debate. Oh how shallow I always am! Sorry.


Wednesday, 14 July 2021

No doubt diminishing returns on hinges and sceptism

Gloria asked me: “Is the broad claim here this, i.e. that a framework of hinge-knowledge precludes our having to deal with the challenge to knowledge claims stemming from phenomenal indiscernibility? In effect, that this framework becomes a sort of transcendental condition that sculpts the space of epistemic possibilities in such a way that the very move to raise the spectre of phenomenal indiscernibility now becomes illegitimate?”

One way that hinges might be used to block scepticism is this. One concedes the MP version of closure and hence one looks vulnerable to a MT version which argues from the fact that we don’t know we’re not BIV (or any other relevant phenomenological indiscernible) to the fact that we don’t know some ordinary knowledge claim. But then while one concedes that we don’t know that not-BIV, we are committed to not-BIV as a hinge. Hinges are not knowledge claims but commitments of a different sort which lie outside closure. So not knowing not-BIV is no threat to ordinary knowledge. Pritchard argues this. He accepts that we are committed to hinges but not as either knowledge or as knowledge-apt belief (ie reason responsive belief). Hinges are commitments but not the sort of propositional attitude that can come under closure. Wright gives a pragmatic acceptance version of hinges according to which it is reasonable to act as though they are correct. It’s a rational bet.

Even if this were coherent - and frankly Pritchard doesn’t tell us enough while Wright gives us an obviously inadequate picture - it would still leave open the following possibility. While we realise that we have always a-rationally accepted hinges in the past, now we want to know whether it is reasonable to believe we’re not-BIVs. Now that that question has been raised in a philosophy class, we want to run the closure argument either way. What’s to reassure us that the propositional content that we’re not-BIV is held for good enough reason? 

I see no hope this way.

You ask - reasonably enough - whether a knowledge-based version of hinges (according to which they are conceptually structured, are the objects of attitudes and, even more, are known) provides a reason to rule out sceptical ringer arguments. Frankly, I’m not sure. I didn’t try to sell you my idea of hinges - as bits of knowledge held in place by holistic considerations and serving as the framework for the explicit asking for reasons - as an answer to scepticism. I’m proceeding by elimination. 

Hinges cannot be just animal certainties - as Stroll and Malcolm suggest - because they are / would be blankly external to our epistemic practices. (And the fact that we don’t check the checking of apples looks to be a problem if this animal fact is external to our epistemic practices. It looks like an oversight.)

Hinges cannot be extra-conceptual quasi conceptual entities as Moyal Sharrock suggests because there’s no conceptual space for that. (Here I add in a premises about the resolute reading of LW.)

They cannot be what Pritchard and Wright say.

So they must be conceptual. But if so and if not the non-epistemic attitudes of Pritchard and Wright, they must be contributions to our epistemic standing. I can only think they are known. That’s the argument from elimination.

OK so now you raise the standard sceptical argument from indiscernability / sceptical ringers. What could I invoke? Austin? McDowell? I need a way to suggest a difference between an actual possibility of being misled and a merely idling philosophical one. If there’s an actual possibility I should have addressed about the apples then I don’t know they were apples even if they were and I was lucky. But if it is idle talk of what might have been in the Matrix or a dream then I do know. 

One thing: LW’s worry that Moore cannot achieve very much by saying ‘I know’ is neither here nor there. Sincerity isn’t enough. About a third of OC goes after the wrong target by worrying about what isn’t achieved in the ‘I know’. ‘I know’ expresses objective certainty about the content of a knowledge claim but it does not, just by saying, achieve or guarantee it. This doesn’t imply that knowledge isn’t factive. It just implies that saying ‘I know’ isn’t factive. It seems remarkable that LW made such heavy weather of that.

Might that be enough? Knowledge is a genuine state achieved by ruling out real possibilities of error but, as Austin says, ‘enough is enough’. Better to focus on ‘he knows’ than ‘I know’ but also to realise that even that always leaves space in the game for the question: ‘Do you really know that he knows?’. ‘If he knows X then X, after all. Do you know X?’ But that question idles unless we can give it point.

Friday, 9 July 2021

Postscript to Some notes on having a nervous breakdown

Shortly after my previous meagre effort at autoethnography, I started a phased return to work. My managers have been very generous in not pushing me to return quickly and so I started working towards a full return after a lengthy 8 weeks. Any such return, akin to returning from annual leave, carries the additional initial stress of returning to unanswered emails. I was relieved to find only 2,000 but that was still a little daunting. Strangely, however, it was not tackling them but being sympathetically asked about my health in the third week that prompted a full-on return of anxiety reactions. The thought of my anxiety illness, and its impediment to my possible continued working, itself had become a prompt for the anxiety reaction. The dragon ate itself. I stopped the attempt at working and two days later felt perfectly fine.

I spent the next two weeks trying to build stamina for working by writing and submitting a couple of philosophy papers. Those two weeks fitted the hope that I’d had four months before of what sickness leave might be. I realised, for example, what I ought to think about Wittgenstein’s On Certainty for the first time in 30 years. (Quite often, in philosophy, it does not seem that one has had an idea or made a choice but, rather, one spots the action at a distance of previous embedded convictions. Hence one simply sees what one ought to think or to have thought all along. One experiences ‘the because’.)

I returned to a second attempt at a phased return a little before starting a fourth mood altering drug: Venlafaxine. Two days into taking it I woke feeling madness again: a slippage from direct contact with the world of facts and feelings. It was immediately obvious on waking that I wasn’t the same, sane person. (‘Oh God, Lois, I've gone mad again!’) But then the next day the clouds cleared and I felt sane and almost quite happy for a week before new side effects started: exhaustion prompted by a tiny run and lasting 10 days and the physical illness of jetlag: no appetite, tiredness, nausea, temperature dysregulation and the sense of a body as lumpen rather than a source of agency. Still, I’m not mad. I’ve been able to think philosophy and even be imaginative.

(This, sadly, undermines a theory I’d had that male libido is an expression of Kantian reflective judgement: a concept-less seeking of conceptual form. The ‘ability to judge an object in reference to the free lawfulness of the imagination’ in which there is ‘a subjective harmony of the imagination with the understanding without an objective harmony’ [Kant 1987: 91-92] I can currently manage Kantian reflective judgement. But the other…)

Waking up in the morning is now even more of a struggle than it has always been. Exhaustion always encourages anxiety, perhaps mediated by the thought that I would not be ‘up’ to managing challenges that arise. So, via its side effects, the drug also causes the very symptom I’m taking it to relieve. While it produces a kind of wooziness, it is the nauseous wooziness of jetlag rather than the wooziness of a too early but somehow justified G&T before lunch with an elderly aunt. On a bad day, it also makes me simply physically sick. I don’t even feel immune to anxiety: just a slight reduction in its hold on me.

I’d always hoped that medication would be a good thing. I had thoughts of soma in Brave New World. But it seems a Faustian pact. If I take a drug that makes me feel like this, a little less human, a little less alive, fundamentally physically sick, perhaps I can carry on working. But is that right?

Thursday, 8 July 2021

Avrum Stroll’s book Moore and Wittgenstein on Certainty

I’ve been re-reading Avrum Stroll’s book Moore and Wittgenstein on Certainty (Stroll 1994). Stroll’s book subscribes to a non-propositional reading of hinges and so is related to Dani√®le Moyal-Sharrock’s 2007 Understanding Wittgenstein’s On Certainty (Moyal-Sharrock 2007). But unlike the latter, Stroll does not give a very technical analysis of the non-propositional nature of the hinges. It does not follow, for example, from their not possessing bipolarity though they look like propositions. Hence he avoids Moyal-Sharrock’s bit where she says it and the bit where she takes it back. (By this I mean that she uses the non-propositional nature of the hinges to say they are not possible objects of knowledge - or any other attitude - while at the same time arguing that they can be transformed into relevant meaning-related doppelg√§ngers. So they are not mere nonsense strings - cf Conant - but still they cannot be known. They are a significant form of none-sense.) Rather, Stroll argues that Wittgenstein moves from a quasi-propositional view to an animal and instinctual view as On Certainty goes by.

Stroll also stresses the idea that scepticism is self-defeating.

Wittgenstein’s foundationalism, even in its absolutist form, thus differs from those of the tradition in being striated. These two features—the world and the community—thus stand fast in different ways, that is, in having somewhat different presuppositional relationships to the language game. Taken together they are what philosophers have called the external world. Both aspects exhibit a kind of objectivity—an intruding presence—that impinges upon human beings and to which in diverse ways they must conform. Neither aspect is open to obsessive doubt or to revision. Wittgenstein’s “solution” to the problem of the existence of the external world is that no sensible question can be raised with respect to either of these aspects. Their existence is presupposed in any formulation of the problem. Therefore to question their existence, as the sceptic presumably wishes to do, is self-defeating. In even trying to formulate its challenge scepticism initiates the process of its own destruction. (Stroll 1994: 181)

One reason for this is the role that language plays in articulating any sceptical doubt:

But even the form the sceptic’s challenge takes—the linguistic format to which it must conform so that another can understand it—presupposes the existence of the community and its linguistic practices. The sceptic’s doubts are thus self-defeating. (ibid: 180)

So the anti-sceptical argument floats at least partly free of the exact nature of the hinges. Scepticism is defeated via a claim of being self-stultifying rather than the specific nature of the hinges. It is not, for example, that their non-propositionality is used to block closure or directly to deny the sense of what scepticism proposes.

So what is the role of hinges? One hint comes from an earlier summary of the link between hinges and scepticism. Their role in characterising Wittgenstein’s foundationalism is what they contribute to defeating scepticism.

Wittgenstein, as a foundationalist, also asserts that nothing could be more certain than that which stands fast for us, but in On Certainty his discussion makes no reference to the regress difficulty. Given his form of foundationalism the regress problem does not arise. It arises for traditionalists because they assume that the question, How do you know that that which stands fast for us is certain? is always applicable. And they assume that because they think that the foundation and what rests on it belong to the same category. But for Wittgenstein’s form of foundationalism the question is not applicable and, in fact, embodies a category mistake. One cannot sensibly ask of that which is certain whether it is known (or not known) or true (or false); for what is meant by certitude is not susceptible to such ascriptions. The sceptical question thus need not be answered. (ibid: 148)

Stroll proposes that Wittgenstein is a foundationalist albeit of a novel kind because the foundation for knowledge is not itself known. In other words, he offers an account which aims clearly to separate knowledge and certainty.

As we have seen throughout this work, he rejects the idea that what is foundational is susceptible to proof, the adducing of evidence, truth or falsity, justification or non-justification. Whatever is so susceptible belongs to the language game and thus to a different category of human activity from das Fundament. Wittgenstein’s genius consisted in constructing an account of human knowledge whose foundations, whose supporting presuppositions, were in no ways like knowledge. Knowledge belongs to the language game, and certitude does not. The base and the mansion resting on it are completely different. This is what Wittgenstein means when he says that knowledge and certainty belong to different categories. (ibid: 145)

The picture is complicated by the fact that On Certainty contains two views of hinges.

As I have indicated in earlier chapters, there are two different accounts of F [das Fundament] in On Certainty. One of these—the earlier—is propositional in character. It clearly derives from Wittgenstein’s response to Moore, who thinks of certainty in propositional terms. As I stated earlier, when Wittgenstein speaks of hinge propositions as immune to justification, proof, and so on, we are dealing with the earlier account. The second account is completely different. It begins to develop gradually as the text was being written and comes to dominate it as it closes. On this view, there are several candidates for F, and all of them are non-intellectual. Among these are acting, being trained in communal practices, instinct, and so on. (ibid: 146)

The transition from the one to the other is hinted at by the fact that even on the former view, where hinges are called ‘hinge propositions’, their actual nature is qualified.

[W]hat Wittgenstein is calling hinge propositions are not ordinary propositions at all. Such concepts as being true or false, known or not known, justified or unjustified do not apply to them, and these are usually taken to be the defining features of propositions. (ibid:146)

This picture is more like Moyal-Sharrock’s. Such hinges are technically non-propositional despite looking conceptually articulated, the sorts of items that it would seem understandable for Moore to claim might be known. The connection between the first and second view of hinges stems from the origins of the hinges even of the quasi-propositional picture.

These propositions are not the products of intellection, reflection, trial and error, or experimentation; rather, they are aborbed by each of us in the course of our daily lives. The notion of absorption is intertwined with Wittgenstein’s denial that ratiocination is the ground that supports the epistemic structure. This notion plays a major role in his account of the community. We acquire communal practices, such as being a native speaker, by absorption rather than by explicit learning. As Wittgenstein puts it elsewhere, we inherit our picture of the world. This is another way of saying that we absorb the foundations that make the language game possible. (ibid: 155)

Stroll suggests, however, that even this half way house encourages a misreading of the nature of the certainty on which our epistemic practices rest.

Why did Wittgenstein eventually discard the propositional account in favor of one that is not propositional? I believe the answer is that he recognized that if one thinks of certitude in propositional terms—as Descartes and Moore did—the tendency to think of such propositions as being known would be irresistible. And this is the inference he wished to resist. (ibid: 155)

Hence the move to construe certainty as something primitive, instinctual, animal, practical rather than theoretical or perceptual, and inherited. Thus On Certainty contains both an initial quasi-propositional view of hinges – albeit one where they are not known or justified and hence not really propositions – and also a more radical animal and practical certainty.

His first reaction consisted in asserting that what he was calling hinge propositions are not propositions in any traditional sense of that term and, in particular, that they are not mental – a “kind of seeing, as it were.” Neither are they straightforwardly empirical—though they look as if they are. Even the idea that they are “grammatical rules” was seen to over-intellectualize the point he was trying to make. Instead he began to conceive of certainty as a mode of acting. The idea that acting lies at the bottom of the language game (instead of any system of propositions) is a new and radical conception of certainty. Certainty stems from one’s immersion in a human community in which rote training and the inculcation of habits create the substratum upon which the language game rests. This non-propositional conception of certitude thus sharply separates Wittgenstein from the tradition. (ibid: 155)

[T]his second account of certainty takes many different forms depending upon the particular contrast Wittgenstein wishes to highlight. There are three such main forms: (1) that certainty is something primitive, instinctual, or animal, (2) that it is acting, and (3) that it derives from rote training in communal practices. In all of these the major contrast with his former view is that what stands fast is the product of reasoning or intellection. Insofar as propositions or even pseudo-propositions or grammatical rules are conceived of as the products of rational activity, the new view stands in opposition to any such account…
These three strands—instinct, acting, and training—are different. If they were to be analyzed further, which Wittgenstein, of course, never had time to do, they might well turn out (as I believe) to be in tension with one another. But I think that Wittgenstein meant them to be part of a single complex idea that he wishes to contrast with the propositional account. It is thus possible to find an interpretation that welds them into a single (admittedly complex) conception of that which stands fast. On this interpretation, what Wittgenstein takes to be foundational is a picture of the world we all inherit as members of a human community. We have been trained from birth in ways of acting that are nonreflective to accept a picture of the world that is ruthlessly realistic: that there is an earth, persons on it, objects in our environment, and so forth… This picture is manifested in action. When we open a door our lives show that we are certain. Certainty is thus not a matter of reflection about the door but a way of acting with respect to it. All animals, including humans, inherit their picture of the world, and like other animals much of our inheritance derives from early training – “something must be taught us as a foundation” (OC 449). (ibid: 157-8)

Stroll’s account of the second view of hinges is thus akin to Malcolm’s ‘Wittgenstein: The relation of language to instinctive behaviour’ (Malcolm 1982). Malcolm plays up some key paragraphs from On Certainty.

If the shopkeeper wanted to investigate each of his apples without any reason, in order to play safe, why doesn’t he have to investigate the investigation? And can one speak here of belief (I mean belief as in religious belief, not conjecture)? Here all psychological terms merely lead us away from the main thing (OC 459)
In order to have ‘absolute certainty’ must not the shopkeeper try to determine not only that these things are apples, but also that what he is doing is trying to find out whether they are apples, and in addition that he is really counting them? And if the shopkeeper doesn’t do this, is this because he ‘believes’, or ‘knows’, or is ‘certain’, or is ‘convinced’, or ‘assumes’, or ‘has no doubt’, that these are apples and that he is counting them? No. All psychological terms, says Wittgenstein, lead us away from ‘the main thing’ (die Hauptsache). (Malcolm 1982: 19)

Am I not getting closer and closer to saying that in the end logic cannot be described? You must look at the practice of language, then you will see it (OC 501).
Logic cannot be described! I take this to mean that it is not appropriate for Wittgenstein to say either that he ‘knows’, or ‘believes’, or is ‘certain’, or is ‘convinced’, or ‘assumes’, or ‘does not doubt’, that his name is L. W., or that this is called a ‘hand’, or that the law of induction is true. None of these terms are correct. What does it mean to say: ‘You must look at the practice of language, then you will see it’? What do you see? Well, you see the unhesitating behaviour with which a person signs his name at the end of a letter or gives his name to a bank clerk; or uses the word ‘hand’ in statements; or makes inductive inferences; or does calculations; and so on. What you see is this unhesitating way of acting. This is the ‘logic’ of language that cannot be described with psychological words. It is too ‘primitive’, too ‘instinctive’, for that. It is behaviour that is like the squirrel’s gathering nuts or the cat’s watching a mouse hole. This is why Wittgenstein says it is something animal (OC 359). (ibid: 19-20)

Stroll characterises the animal and instinctual nature of certainty as standing in contrast to any view of hinge propositions, pseudo-propositions or grammatical rules as the products of rational activity. Certainty stands outside rational activity, the space of concepts or reasons. As Malcolm says, it is like the squirrel’s gathering nuts or the cat’s watching a mouse hole.

The key virtue of this account is that it is clear how certainty can be non-propositional and non-conceptual. It is shared with creatures who lack language and conceptual abilities. At the same time, as Anscombe stresses, animal behaviour can have a kind of unity and purposiveness. In fact, contra Wittgenstein and Malcolm’s comments, psychological concepts do find their application in a cat stalking a mouse.

But despite that qualification, the main problem is that it lies too far from the epistemic practices it is supposed to ground. Stroll himself says:

We have been trained from birth in ways of acting that are nonreflective to accept a picture of the world that is ruthlessly realistic: that there is an earth, persons on it, objects in our environment, and so forth… This picture is manifested in action. When we open a door our lives show that we are certain. Certainty is thus not a matter of reflection about the door but a way of acting with respect to it. All animals, including humans, inherit their picture of the world... (ibid: 157-8 italics added)

There is here a mismatch between the merely animal and accepting a picture of the world, moreover one that is realistic. The latter requires the conceptual abilities that the former rules out. So Stroll’s own account is inconsistent. He links acceptance of the picture with action. One manifests acceptance through activity. But while acting as though one has a picture of the world might characterise merely animal behaviour, it is not sufficient for rational agents, who are also able to form conceptually articulated judgements about the world. They actually do have a conception of the world. Further, some hinges, such as the famous ‘here is a hand’, seem to be direct codifications of aspects of conceptual mastery (cf McGinn and, to an extent, Coliva). Hence the attempt to distinguish the animal from the conceptual seems misguided. Others, such as that the world has existed for a long time, seem clearly to be beyond mere animal possibilities of expression or manifestation.

Stroll’s account – and Malcolm’s too – stands in need of a key bit of augmentation. While certainty might be more a matter of action than perception and such action might have something in common with purposive animal action, still what is the connection between rational animal activity and the possession of concepts? And in so far as certainty for such agents can be conceptually articulated, into what chunks does it divide and what is our attitude to them?

My hunch is that, whether or not Stroll is right that Wittgenstein moved from a quasi-propositional to a non-propositional animal view of certainty, such a move is a misstep. I think we can retain some key features of his (Wittgenstein’s on Stroll’s reading) picture without embracing that move. So hinges are held without specific arguments for them but as part of a conceptually structured inherited world picture. One aspect of them so holding is the certainty of action in accord with them. That is, there are behavioural manifestations of holding a hinge. But the behavioural manifestations of rational agents are expressions of tacit conceptual mastery, not brutely extra-conceptual animal certainty. And because they are held as a kind of tacit background for enquiry, we would usually have no idea what an attempt to state first person knowledge of them was meant to be doing (cf Conant).

The main violence this view does to Wittgenstein’s text is to play down the distinction between knowledge and certainty. Knowledge is certain, too (cf McDowell and Travis). But not all elements that are known form part of the foreground of epistemic practices. In other words, Wittgenstein overplayed the idea knowledge is a game of explicitly asking for and offering reasons. (Nor is doubt symmetric with all knowledge.) The capacity to acquire knowledge may require sensitivity to reasons (such as defeaters) but sometimes we get knowledge almost for free ie. for the cost of entry into the game at all.


Coliva A. (2010) Moore and Wittgenstein. Scepticism, Certainty and Common Sense (London/Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) 

Conant, J. 1998, ‘Wittgenstein on meaning and use’, Philosophical Investigations 21, 222–50. 

Malcolm, N. (1982) ‘Wittgenstein: The relation of language to instinctive behaviour’ Philosophical Investigations, 5: 3-22 

McDowell, J. (1995b) ‘Knowledge and the Internal’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 55, 877–93. Reprinted in Meaning, Knowledge and Reality, 395–413.

McGinn, M. (1989) Sense and Certainty. A Dissolution of Scepticism, Oxford, Blackwell. 

Moyal-Sharrock D. (2004) Understanding Wittgenstein’s On Certainty (London/ Basingstoke: Palgrave McMillian). 

Stroll, A. (1994) Moore and Wittgenstein on Certainty, New York, Oxford University Press.

Travis, C. (2005) ‘A sense of occasion’

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Rough first thoughts for a booklet on On Certainty

Wittgenstein, conceptualised certainty and tacit knowledge

Let’s assume that On Certainty contains a commitment to the existence of hinges: items - of some sort - which are held fast and about which inquiry turns. Now hinges might be extra-conceptual and purely animal behaviours. Perhaps the animal certainty with which my cat uses her limbs is some form of hinge for her. But if hinges contribute to the epistemic standing of rational agents then they must be conceptual. They must be something *for* the agent and that implies they are entertained as something like a Fregean sense. That is, they lie in the conceptual, the space of reasons.

One might object that we do not stand in any epistemic relation to hinges. That may be claimed to be part of the point. But if so, what is it that they do for the agent? Why are they not blankly external to him/her? One might claim that they are non-epistemic but contribute in some other way to an agent’s mental economy via some other sort of propositional attitude. But if so what outside the purely animal is it? Neither Wright’s nor Pritchard’s proposals seem plausible even by their own terms.

I take it that hinges lie within the space of reasons, are conceptual and contribute to an agent’s epistemic standing even if they do not form premises for arguments to knowledge that the agent makes. Their holding might contribute to the doxastic responsibility of the agent. Contentiously, I take it that they are known even if they are not known as the result of an inference nor a direct perception. They are part of a conceptually structured world picture held in place by holistic considerations.

Wittgenstein suggests, however, that they differ in some respects from other knowledge claims. Now it may be tempting to suggest that a difference lies in the fact that knowledge claims are advanced for good enough reasons but are not certain. Coliva implies this. This, however, seems to me to be wrong for reasons that McDowell - speaking perhaps as a late representative of Oxford Realism - has outlined. Knowledge, too, is certain.

But the difference is suggested by something right in McGinn’s account. Certainties comprise the framework of representational techniques. Normatively, ‘This is a hand’ can serve as an instruction for the correct use of ‘hand’. The utterance is conceptual. But accord with such a prescription involves knowing that this is a hand. Now this might seem to involve two distinct achievements: grasp of the meaning of ‘hand’ and a practical recognitional grasp of hands. But as Wittgenstein stresses, agreement in meaning involves agreement in judgements. This is shown in the application of ‘hand’ to the world. So knowledge of hinges is a form of tacit knowledge - knowing how to deploy a set of representational techniques - but which also carries with it ‘knowledge-that’. It enables a speaker to recognise a hand in paradigm conditions.

Both Wittgenstein and commentators seems to make heavy weather of Moore’s ‘I know’. One worry seems to be that Moore misrecognises knowledge as a mental state that could serve as a source of certainty. But that doesn’t seem to be the problem. A sincere ‘I know’ claim expresses objective certainty though it cannot guarantee it. ‘I know’ is fallible. So it can be a mental state even if not a source of certainty. Nor is it a problem that Moore attempts to enumerate what he knows. That too seems perfectly possible on a fallibilistic mental state picture. But the fallibility of knowledge avowal does not apply to knowledge itself contra what Coliva assumes when she suggests merely a defensible criteriological relation between reasons and knowledge. Knowledge is factive and we can be both fallible about the contents of a knowledge claim and the fact that we think we know it. Too much ink is spilled worrying about the ‘I know’ while a retreat to ‘he knows’ would have been clearer. Moore's failure to say something in his assertion does not carry over as to whether he knows there is a hand.

If hinges are known then neither Pritchard’s non-belief nor Moyal Sharrock’s non-propositional view will help defeat scepticism. If hinges are known then neither of their arguments can be used, for example, to block closure. So the full weight of an anti-sceptical argument will fall on whether supposedly known hinges can evade sceptical hypotheses in something like the way that rejecting a merely highest common factor picture of experience in response to the argument from illusion can undercut scepticism about perceptual knowledge. What’s needed is the idea that our epistemic standing can take in how the world is even if there is no additional assurance from outside our epistemic practices that it does. There is, however, a partial analogy between hinges as construed here and disjunctivism about perceptual knowledge. Of course, the picture offered by disjunctivism of a direct embrace of the world in object-dependent experiences or singular thoughts will not apply to all hinges. But there is an analogy in the use of samples and the role of showing in the later Wittgenstein. The representational system cannot float free of the world because its elements are made up of the world.

Thursday, 24 June 2021

The contemporary importance of the idiographic in mental healthcare

In response to concerns about the subsuming of individuals under essential general psychiatric diagnostic categories, there have been calls for an idiographic component in person specific diagnostic formulations. The distinction between the idiographic and nomothetic was introduced by Windelband as his contribution to the Methodenstreit. However, as I have argued elsewhere, it is unclear what the distinction is supposed to comprise. In this chapter, I attempt to shed light on the motivation for the distinction by looking at a number of recent approaches to healthcare that share a concern with a focus on individuals. Despite this shared element in their motivation, I argue that none help to articulate the nature of the idiographic itself.

This chapter broadens the central claim of my chapter in the 2018 Yearbook of Idiographic Science, here drawing on a clue from Windelband’s student Rickert to argue that there is a role for the idiographic in healthcare though not as a form of judgement, understanding or intelligibility but rather a specific singular interest in an individual. It is this that also underpins developments in healthcare related to the individual or person..


One of the standing concerns expressed by mental health service users and clinicians alike about contemporary diagnosis in psychiatry is that it risks pigeon-holing subjects rather than respecting their individuality. As an anonymous reviewer of one of my papers once put it: ‘Time and time again the categorical, pigeon-holing, approach to diagnosis has to be bent in order to accommodate the individual account’ (Thornton 2008b). The suggestion seems to be that the criteriological model of diagnosis that lies at the heart of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual and the International Classification of Diseases, is, by itself, inadequate to capture, and perhaps respect, patients and service users as people in all their individuality (American Psychiatric Association 2013; World Health Organization 1992).

This concern forms the motivation for proposals in psychiatry such as the World Psychiatric Association’s Idiographic (Personalised) Diagnostic Formulation which called for an ‘idiographic component alongside criteriological diagnosis’ (IGDA Workgroup, WPA, 2003: 55). It aimed ‘at understanding and formulating what is important in the mind, the body and the context of the person who presents for care’ (ibid: 55). Taking my lead from the word used by the World Psychiatric Association, I will call this concern for capturing the individual nature of the patient or service user a concern for ‘idiographic’ understanding. This, however, raises the question of the nature of the idiographic. As I will argue, it proves harder to analyse than it might first appear. Having looked at its origins in Wilhelm Windelband’s rectoral address, I will look at a number of contemporary approaches to healthcare that, I believe, are motivated by the same concern with the individual. I will argue, however, that none is able to shed light on the idea of idiographic understanding. At the end, I will suggest that the felt need for a special form of understanding can be met, instead, in a different way. It lies in an interest in individuals which is also hinted at by Windelband but also his student Rickert.

This chapter sketches a broad overall picture of a number of healthcare ‘philosophies’ seen through the conceptual lens of the idiographic. It thus writes a cheque that would need to be redeemed by careful and sober argument. That, however, will not be offered here.

Windelband and the idiographic

The first articulation of the idiographic was given by the post-Kantian philosopher Wilhelm Windelband in his 1894 rectoral address (Windelband 1980). Windelband worked in the broad tradition of the Methodenstreit, which concerned methodological distinctions between the natural and social sciences. It is usually associated with a distinction between understanding and explanation exemplified, for example, in Karl Jaspers’ General Psychopathology (Jaspers 1997). Understanding and explanation are supposed to be distinct ways of conceptualising their subject matters, with the former tied to human thoughts, feelings and actions and the latter to the totality of merely natural events.

Rather than understanding versus explanation, Windelband contrasts idiographic and nomothetic sciences. He links that distinction, primarily, to a very general distinction between the particular and the general. Such a distinction – between distinct forms of judgement in different disciplines – looks to be tailor-made to capture the contrast between a pigeon-holing approach implicit in general criteriological approaches in psychiatry and a form of judgement that captures patient and client individuality.

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. Instead it is a methodological distinction.

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.

Elsewhere I have suggested that the appeal of idiographic judgement stems from a recoil from subsuming human individuals under general 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 (Hempel 1965). This contains general laws (hence the name). But it also refers to particular circumstances in 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 a 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.

I think that the ‘individualising intuition’ is a widespread in recent responses to/against conventional psychiatric medicine. And so it may help to identify how it can be achieved by looking at other initiatives concerning healthcare. In what follows, I aim for breadth rather than depth. I will merely paint an abstract picture of the lie of the land. Justifying the connections I sketch breathlessly would require careful argument for which there is not space here.

Person Centred Medicine

The ‘individualising intuition’ is one of the motivations for the recent growing popularity of a long-standing approach to healthcare, in parallel with the growth over the last thirty years of evidence-based medicine (EBM), namely person-centred medicine (PCM). Though the roots of PCM lie in, among other places, Paul Tournier’s advocacy of ‘medicine for the person’, conceptions of the clinician-client relationship in psychotherapy, and models of patient-centred care, it has recently risen to prominence just as EBM has seized the clinical imagination. While EBM stresses the importance of evidence based on large scale population side studies, PCM presses the idea that the proper focus of healthcare should be on individual people construed as persons rather than, say, merely biological systems. The former emphasises the role of generalities in medicine, the latter individuals. This is not to say that there must be an incompatibility between looking to population-wide studies as the basis for reliable evidence and to individuals as the focus of such evidence-based care but the apparent need to re-emphasise the latter suggests an inchoate concern that the patient or client as an individual risks being lost from sight.

The nature of PCM is, however, particularly contested. For some authors, the contrast between persons and patients is key, for others not. For some, the main contrast with persons is sub-personal systems. For others, it is illnesses. For yet others, the contrast is a focus on the needs of patients rather than on the needs of clinicians. Despite having a particular focus on individual patients, understood as persons, conflicting claims are made about the values necessary either to maintain that focus or as a proper response to it.

Given these competing views, is there anything essential that all forms of PCM must hold? I have argued elsewhere that any plausible version of PCM must commit to two claims (Thornton forthcoming). Ontologically, the level of the person is an irreducible and significant feature of ontology and a proper focus for healthcare. Epistemologically, not only is knowledge of the human person (human beings, people) possible and significant in healthcare, there are also irreducible forms of person-level knowledge which are important to healthcare. A commitment to PCM is thus a substantive commitment to ontological and epistemological claims. Do either of these claims shed light on the nature of the idiographic?

I think not. First, although the two commitments are distinct – because they concern ontology and epistemology respectively – with respect to the question addressed here, they can be reduced to one. What makes the knowledge specifically personal is the ontology known. This, I suggest, following the philosophers Wilfrid Sellars and John McDowell, is characterised by a distinction between two conceptual orders: the ‘space of reasons’ and the ‘realm of law’ (McDowell 1994; Sellars 1997). The irreducibility of the level of the person follows from the irreducibility of the space of reasons to the realm of law. The former is a normative realm of reasons, motives, rules that applies to rational subjects. The latter is a realm of mere generalities concerning mindless happenings in broader nature. So, does a characterisation of the space of reasons shed light on the idiographic? To consider this I will turn to narrative understanding.

Narrative medicine

The World Psychiatric Association suggests, as an alternative to the characterisation of ‘idiographic’, that what needs to be added to criteriological diagnosis in a more comprehensive model is a narrative formulation. Any such move faces a strategic choice. Is the very idea of narrative interpreted broadly to have wide application, even at the risk of evacuating it of specific content, or is it tied to particular literary notions of narrative, thus risking narrowing its application and making it inapplicable to non-literary contexts?

At its broadest, we might use ‘narrative’ to label the kind of intelligibility required for any exploration of the space of reasons: charting the reasons, motives, rules and actions that characterise the human realm. That would also be a way to fill out the ‘understanding’ side of the ‘understanding versus explanation’ contrast in the Methodenstreit. Understanding could be characterised as narrative understanding of the space of reasons and explanation could chart the nomological realm of law. If so, the normative structure of narrative offers a genuine complement to generality based criteriological diagnosis. It offers a view of the rational coherence of a subject’s thoughts and feelings, of why they think and feel what they do according to them, over and above what is merely generally or statistically the case, in accord with the realm of law.

Despite this difference, narrative accounts are nevertheless couched in general terms and consequently narrative understanding does not address the felt need for an essentially singular judgement purpose built for an individual. This is because they are conceptually structured and, according to a very plausible principle, concept mastery is an essentially general ability. The most famous statement of this is the philosopher Gareth Evans’ Generality Constraint.

It seems to me that there must be a sense in which thoughts are structured.... I should prefer to explain the sense in which thoughts are structured, not in terms of their being composed of several distinct elements, but in terms of their being a complex of the exercise of several distinct conceptual abilities.... Thus if a subject can be credited with the thought that a is F, then he must have the conceptual resources for entertaining the thought that a is G, for every property of being G of which he has a conception. (Evans 1980: 100-104)

Because narrative understanding of others rides piggy back on conceptual thought in general, it inherits the latter’s essential generality. This suggests, too, that narrowing down, or making more specific, the model of narrative would not change this fundamental point. Even if a person-specific diagnostic formulation were more closely modelled on what we might call a ‘story’, with the necessary dramatic components of that genre, still the basic elements would be general concepts, applicable to more than one person and hence not addressing the individualising intuition. The danger of pigeon-holing would continue to exist. An individual might be subsumed under an appealing narrative or story to which they do not fully fit.

Values-based practice

Like person-centred medicine, values-based practice (VBP) is another explicit attempt to complement to EBM (generalised from medicine to practice), which aims to promote the role of patients’ and clients’ values alongside (evidence of) facts in healthcare decisions. In the original and influential statement of VBP, in addition to arguing for the general importance of values, Bill Fulford asserts the central importance of the individual patient or client: ‘VBP’s ‘first call’ for information is the perspective of the patient or patient group concerned in a given decision (the ‘patient-perspective’ principle)’ (Fulford 2001). Unlike conventional bio-ethics, VBP is concerned with a full range of values and preferences that inform patient choices rather than concentrating on ethical values. And, again unlike most – though not all – approaches to medical ethics, Fulford places no great importance on principles, contra eg Beauchamp and Childress’ Four Principles approach (Beauchamp and Childress 2001).

On Fulford’s account, further, values are subjective. Value judgements are the preferences of individuals rather than answering to anything objective. The result is an essentially subjectivist account of values in healthcare decisions. The idea of a correct medical decision is replaced by proper deliberative procedure.

In VBP, conflicts of values are resolved primarily, not by reference to a rule prescribing a “right” outcome, but by processes designed to support a balance of legitimately different perspectives (the “multi-perspective” principle). (Fulford 2001: 206)

In the context of a contrast between the particular and the general, Fulfordian VBP suggests a complementary contrast between subjective and objective. Could this be used to explain a difference between idiographic and nomothetic?

There is a prima facie problem with this idea, however. A subjectivist version of VBP is susceptible to an objection from circularity. This can be illustrated by asking: what is the status of the claim that: in VBP conflicts of values are resolved primarily, not by reference to a rule prescribing a ‘right’ outcome, but by processes designed to support a balance of legitimately different perspectives? Note, first, that although Fulford says in the quotation above that conflicts of values ‘are resolved…’ this is in the context of Values Based Practice. So it should be read as saying: conflicts of values should be resolved by processes designed to support a balance of legitimately different perspectives. But now we can ask, why should they? (It may be an analytic truth that they are within Values Based Practice, but we are invited to adopt this approach.)

The worry, now, is that this seems to be a value of a different order from the values that should be put through the right process of balancing views. It seems to be a higher order value, inconsistent with Values Based Practice’s own approach. This then suggests a dilemma for radical VBP. It can either address the question of why we should value values in the way it suggests, but at the cost of violating its own principles, or it can attempt no such question, in which case it lacks the prescriptive force that gives it teeth (Thornton 2011, 2014).

The alternative favours an objective understanding of the subject matter of value judgements and hence a particularist, rather than a subjectivist, opposition to principlism (Dancy 1993). That leaves a different account of VBP’s account of the role of values. Although not governed by general principles, values are objective, albeit situation specific features of the world. Thus, VBP adds an emphasis on getting the values of a patient or service user right along with the biomedical facts. This is a genuine and important addition to the generalist underpinnings of EBM. But again, while a patient’s situation may be unique, the concepts used to describe it in both factual and evaluative terms are general. And hence the individualising intuition is again not met. Even acknowledging the general idea that psychiatric categories are value-laden as well as factual does not make them essentially tailored to the individual. The risk of pigeon-holing remains.

The biopsychosocial model

George Engel’s biopsychosocial model of healthcare shares with the more recent World Psychiatric Association’s comprehensive model of diagnosis the aim of a fuller picture of diagnosis and healthcare (Engel 1977). Drawing on some of the same historical forebears as PCM – some proponents of which explicitly draw on the biopsychosocial model in return – the biopsychosocial model is explicitly aimed at augmenting, though still including, the biomedical model. Its key metaphysical idea is that nature comprises a hierarchy of levels: from the subatomic to the societal. The biopsychosocial model augments the biomedical model by adding in factors from higher up the hierarchy.

To provide a basis for understanding the determinants of disease and arriving at rational treatments and patterns of health care, a medical model must also take into account the patient, the social context in which he lives, and the complimentary system devised by society to deal with the disruptive effect of illness, that is, the physician role and the health care system. This requires a biopsychosocial model. (Engel 1977).

The biopsychosocial model explicitly aims to accommodate a person-level account alongside the bio-medical underpinnings of disease diagnosis. Might it, by that very aim, also accommodate idiographic understanding?

The problem is that merely adding higher levels of organisation to basic levels of physics, chemistry and biology does little to address the underlying concerns that motivated the quest for idiographic understanding in the first place. Merely adding higher levels does nothing to address a concern about the use of general descriptions and the concern of a connection to pigeon-holing.

Idiographic as an interest

In this final section, I will set out a different response to the ‘individualising intuition’ drawing on incidental clues found in Windelband and his student Heinrich Rickert. In his rectoral address, Windelband comments:

[T]he 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. We can see this disposition in the characteristically modern attempt ‘to make history into a natural science’ the project of the so-called positivist philosophy of history… 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: 181-2)

This passage suggests a contentious connection between values and uniqueness. It is contentious in both directions. With respect to the implication from values to uniqueness, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, for example, implies that love of the good has an essential generality. But the implication from uniqueness to values is also unclear. This, however, is the focus of Rickert’s general account of the relation between and contrast of natural and historical science in his The Limits of Concept Formation in Natural Science (Rickert 1986). I will briefly outline his broad methodological picture.

Rickert argues that, because concepts are general, they abstract away from the concrete details of the particular, individual and perceptual aspects of reality. This is the limit of generalised scientific conceptualisation, in the sense of what it cannot represent. Given that, at least according to our experience of it, reality is infinite in extent and infinitely complex or subdividable, the only way for concept formation following this generalising strategy to be possible is to look for abstract generalities and away from the perceptual and the real. There is thus a gap between a generalised conceptual account of the world and the world itself. This is called the ‘hiatus irrationalis’ in post-Kantian philosophy. It is an hiatus because the conceptual cannot capture every aspect of reality and it is irrational because it is only by being subsumed under concepts that we can have a rational understanding of reality.

The move to a generalised scientific account moves away from the real, individual and particular towards the general and conceptual. And hence generalised scientific concepts are emptied of their perceptual character and all its detail. Rickert points out that scientific laws have the form of conditional statements: if one thing occurs then so will another. And thus he asserts ‘It lies in the concept of law of nature that it has nothing to say about what really occurs here or there, now or then, with a uniqueness and an individuality that cannot be repeated.’ (ibid: 41)

Against the potential objection that the practical application of natural science to make specific predictions shows it deals with individuals, Rickert argues.

[T]he fact that we calculate the real in advance does not imply that the concepts of natural science comprehend its total contents… It is not a question of grasping individual and perceptual realities in their individuality and concrete actuality. We are able to say only that in the future, an object will appear that can be subsumed as a case under this or that general concept. But this does not give us knowledge of the individuality and concrete actuality of future objects. Should we be interested in this sort of knowledge, we are always obliged to wait until the objects are really at hand. (ibid: 42)

Given the hiatus irrationalis between abstract concepts and reality, generalised science cannot reproduce reality. It aims instead at valid judgement. The truth of a judgement, its validity, is distinct from a resemblance or reproduction.

The concepts of the natural sciences are true, not because they reproduce reality as it actually exists but because they represent what holds validly for reality. (ibid: 44)

But because science does not copy reality, it opens up the possibility of more than one relation between concepts and reality. The limit case of generalised natural science suggests one such alternative (in fact, the only other one). One can try to capture the individuality of the concrete, real, perceptual rather than the general.

There is a representation of reality that proceeds not by generalising but by individualising, a representation that is therefore able to satisfy the interest in the unique, individual event itself. (ibid: 51)

[T]he science of the unique and the individual is necessarily the science of the event that has occurred in the past… Every account of reality itself, every account that on the basis of the foregoing reasons, concerns the unique, individual event that takes place at a specific point in space and time, we call history. (ibid: 47-8)

But as Rickert emphasises, the arguments concerning the gap between concepts and reality apply just as much to history as to natural science.

History too, insofar as it is a science, can produce only a conception of reality based on a specific logical perspective. As a result, the immediacy of reality is necessarily destroyed, but that consideration does not alter the legitimacy of this point of departure for a logical investigation. (ibid: 53)

Hence he owes an account of the principles of concept formation that govern history analogously with the abstraction and framing of laws that governs the natural sciences. It turns out, however, that the question he answers is more specific. It is how historical subjects are selected rather than the nature of historical concepts. Subjects are selected because, in addition to being specific individuals (of which there are too many!), they are specific individuals of value. This resembles the quotation from Windelband above which highlights a connection between what we value and uniqueness. Rickert argues that history is concerned with ‘in-dividuals’ not just individuals. He offers a lengthy analysis of the nature of the values in play but given that it does not, after all, address a distinction in kind between an approach to generalities and individuals it is not relevant here. Of the concepts actually deployed in historical accounts, Ricket concedes that they are general and he merely qualifies the scope of the generality compared to the natural sciences.

Even though many, perhaps even most, historical concepts have a general content in the sense that they comprehend what is common to a plurality of individual realities, in the historical nexus of a unique developmental sequence this generality is always considered as something relatively specific and individual. (ibid: 63)

In other words, despite the philosophical framework he offers, Rickert does not provide a conceptual distinction between generalising and individualising accounts. Both lie on the conceptual side of the hiatus irrationalis and both deploy general concepts. In that respect, he is no more successful than Windelband in suggesting how the individualising intuition is to be met.

Despite that, one summarising passage in The Limits of Concept Formation in Natural Science suggests a clue.

There is a profusion of things and events that interest us not only because of their relationship to a general law or a system of general concepts but also because their distinctiveness, uniqueness, and individuality are significant to us. Wherever this interest in reality is present, we can do nothing with natural scientific concept formation. (ibid: 46 bold added)

Combining this with the suggestion from Windelband – that ‘every ascription of human value is based upon the singular and the unique’ – this suggests that the way to think about the individualising intuition is not that it requires a specific form of idiographic understanding or judgement, a specific conceptualisation. Rather it reflects an interest in individuals that might be met in any number of ways. It is not a novel form of judgement or intelligibility but rather is the nature of interest an inquiry takes 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 (Thornton 2019).

What is the nature of this interest? One element is suggested in an earlier quotation from Rickert: ‘Should we be interested in this sort of knowledge [knowledge of the individuality and concrete actuality of future objects], we are always obliged to wait until the objects are really at hand.’ This suggests that one mark of an interest in an individual is that the referential element of thoughts about them is fixed by singular or object-dependent component of the thought. The actual existence of an object is necessary to be able to think singular, as opposed to descriptive thoughts, about them. But singular thought is not sufficient for an individualising interest because one may also have singular thoughts about objects in which one has an interest merely because they are instances of a generality. Further, one may think of an object via a descriptive thought even if one has an individualising interest. Thus the nature of the interest is not determined by the logic of the thought even though the possibility of singularity is a necessary component.

Construing the idiographic as a specific form of interest, rather than a sui generis form of understanding, is liberating. It removes the need to try to formulate a novel form of concept especially tailored for the individual. Any kind of concept may, in the right context, serve the interest of shedding light on an individual. But it also helps contextualise the different approaches to healthcare discussed earlier in this chapter. The call for diagnostic formulations in addition to criteriological diagnoses, person centred medicine, the stress on personal narratives, values based practice and the bio-psycho-social model are all motivated by an interest in individuals. Each stresses different conceptual structures that might help in this but all are expressions of the same guiding concern. In response to the worry that generalities may, contingently, obscure the proper subject matter of healthcare, each of these concerns attempts to place the individual back at the centre of healthcare. That is the contemporary relevance of the idiographic, construed not as a form of judgement but as a value.


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Monday, 21 June 2021

Postscript on Annalis Coliva’s book on Moore and Wittgenstein: Scepticism, Certainty and Common Sense

I finished Annalis Coliva’s book on Moore and Wittgenstein: Scepticism, Certainty and Common Sense (2010) but I was a little disappointed. After the care with which she set out Moore’s and Wittgenstein’s philosophical discussions, it was as though she just did not care so much about her own. In the introduction there was some discussion about being an historian of philosophy as well as a philosopher. Perhaps in this book that was where the interest lay. (I’ve also been reading but not commented on her book on extended rationality. That is delightfully philosophical but just not what I need at the moment.) I think, however, that her own view is expressed by endorsing summaries of Wittgenstein often earlier in the book.

The one thing I wanted was a careful account of hinges on her view. Unlike the Norman Malcolm paper I’ve just re-read, Coliva plays down the merely animal certainty of hinges and plays up the idea that hinges are propositions, albeit set against a background of merely animal certainty. So she contrasts with Daniele Moyal Sharrock’s non-propositional and ineffabilist view, too. She connects both these rejected views at the start of the book thus:

Moreover, as to our attitude with respect to them, if we held the ineffabilist conception of hinges, whereby, failing to be propositions, they could neither be said, nor made the object of any propositional attitude, our certainty with respect to them would have to be thought of as non- propositional, non-conceptual and therefore of a merely ‘animal’ kind. (ibid: 9)

The fullest account of her own position starts from this rejection. Coliva takes hinges to be propositions, to be or to contain conceptual contents. A key claim is that this does not require that we stand in an epistemic relation to them.

Finally, it remains to characterize our relationship to these propositions, whose role is that of norms. As Moyal-Sharrock and other interpreters have emphasized, it is thoroughly non epistemic and thus unlike belief, knowledge or even psychological certainty, for Wittgenstein. What they have failed to notice, in my view, however, is that this doesn’t entail, nor supports the view that it is animal or instinctual, and hence utterly non-propositional. After all, it has propositions – albeit of a normative kind – as its objects. So, what kind of propositional attitude may it be? I think an analogy would be useful here. Think of our rules of conduct, for example, we ought to stop at traffic lights when red. In fact we can and do say that we accept such a norm. That is to say, we behave in accord with it and would either reproach those who don’t, or accept to be reproached ourselves if we didn’t. Furthermore, we teach our children to obey it. This pragmatic sense of accepting a proposition whose nature is normative, to be contrasted with an epistemic sense of accepting empirical propositions for which we don’t have (enough) evidence, and with respect to which it would make utterly no sense to talk of epistemic evidence as it has norms as its objects, is, I submit, what Wittgenstein is alluding to when he talks of certainty with respect to hinges qua hinge-propositions. Now, the interesting aspect of our acceptance of hinges is that while being a pro-attitude, it is itself constitutive of epistemic rationality, and not merely a pragmatist acceptance due to an evaluation of its expected practical utility. (ibid: 174)
Yet, this pragmatic acceptance of rules tallies with many of Wittgenstein’s remarks which allude to our certainty as displayed in our way of acting. In particular, to acknowledge this sense of ‘accepting’ allows us not to go all the way down the path of mere ‘animal certainty’ and is compatible with saying that we accept, often implicitly and as a result of our upbringing, norms both of language and of evidential significance, and ‘instinctively’ behave in conformity with them, in ways which show no doubt. It must be stressed, moreover, that such an instinctive behaviour is not the one of the animal, but that of the human animal. That is to say, of the creature who has been drilled and taught to use language and to take part in our various epistemic practices and is thus already fully conceptual and a competent epistemic agent. If, then, there is still room for instinct here, it is one concerning our so- called second nature, not our merely first and animal one. (ibid: 174-5)

So, ‘animal certainty’ is really not the focus of On Certainty, though it is a precondition for being drilled to take part in our various language games. What On Certainty centres on are rather those propositions which, as a result of our upbringing within a community that shares a language and a form of life, we can reflectively identify as being exempt from verification and control as well as from doubt. This makes them play the role of norms, either of language or of evidential significance. Moreover, with respect to them, we do practically (as opposed to epistemically) accept them – that is to say, we behave in accord with them, in ways which know no doubt – where our doing so is, in its turn, constitutive of epistemic rationality. (ibid: 175)

So the picture is one of a background of animal certainty upon which, through education and development of a McDowellian second nature, conceptually articulated propositional certainties can be built. These are thus the object of propositional attitudes though not epistemic propositional attitudes. Various questions arise such as the nature of the attitude and how the hinges’ propositionality is realised.

With respect to the former. in the passages just quoted, Coliva sketches an initial analogy between hinges and pragmatic acceptance. But she adds that the relevant attitude to hinges is not merely a pragmatist acceptance - due to an evaluation of its expected practical utility - but is rather constitutive of epistemic rationality.

So what is the limited positive aspect of the analogy? We behave in accord with pragmatic norms and also with hinges and would reproach those who don’t. But the hinges also play a non-contingent role in the constitution of rationality. What is this role? I’m not sure. But it seems to have something to do with using – if that is the right verb – the propositional hinges for normative rather than descriptive purposes. We instruct people using hinges and we accept them as the normative standards that establish the epistemic language game, I think.

By contrast, by defending the view that hinges are propositions, though normative rather than descriptive in nature, and that our certainty with respect to them is a kind of acceptance which displays itself in our acting in accord with them, we make both certainties and certainty with respect to them effable. Of course, I think Moyal-Sharrock is right to claim that when we utter hinges qua hinges we mostly do so with heuristic purposes in mind of the kind she correctly identifies. Yet, by acknowledging their propositionality hinges become indeed sayable as such – that is to say, as norms. (ibid: 177)

The second comment – about when we utter hinges qua hinges – connects a heuristic purpose, which I think Coliva accepts, with the propositionality and hence sayability of hinges as such. Utterances can have propositional contents.

Earlier she expresses this thus:

On the contrary, I hold the view that while failing at bipolarity, they are still propositions, albeit with a normative function, rather than a descriptive one, and that we do indeed express them on various occasions: either to teach them to someone who ignored them or to remind someone of them were they to violate them, as philosophers such as Moore and a sceptic do. Contrary to other framework interpreters, most notably Moyal-Sharrock, I do think that at least the former context in which hinges are actually said is a genuine language game, by Wittgensteinian lights. (ibid: 10)

So the normative use is connected to heuristic purposes and is part of a genuine language game, not a misfiring piece of nonsense. That gives us one place for hinges: in instructing people how to play the game of giving and asking for reasons, which is based on certainties. The proposition is the content of the instructional utterance. But what is our attitude to them when they take a role in propositional attitudes which display themselves in our acting in accord with them? It seems: pragmatic acceptance. But that seems odd. It seems prima facie odd to model the certainty of hinges on mere pragmatic acceptance.

Another line of thought may help. Coliva contrasts her view with Moore’s.

when taken in those very circumstances, Moore’s propositions don’t have an empirical role, but a normative one. In the twofold sense that they are both linguistically paradigmatic judgements – that is to say, judgements that must be agreed on if the meaning of the words in them is to be determined – and epistemically paradigmatic ones. That is to say, judgements that can’t be called into question on the basis of contrary evidence, for they must stay put – however in context that might be – in order for a subject to be in a position rationally to gather any kind of evidence for other, genuinely empirical propositions. (ibid: 80)

The first part of this seems to characterise an instructive use of an utterance rather than a propositional attitude. (There is a second aspect reflected by the phrase epistemically paradigmatic to which I'll return.) But the instructive use looks to be meta-linguistic. It’s something like: call this! a ‘hand’, linking mention of a word type and a demonstrative. The related propositional attitude would seem to be an attitude to the connection between the look of a hand and the word ‘hand’. But now, surely the right attitude is knowledge? I know the meaning of the word ‘hand’. I know that this is called a ‘hand’. But perhaps this is not enough because pragmatically accepting a norm here suggests not only knowing the standrd meaning or use of ‘hand’ in English but deciding to bind oneself to that norm. I'll return to this shortly.

Coliva, however, suggests that things run deeper than either knowledge of meaning or adoption of a norm by quoting a famous paragraph from the Investigations.

If language is to be a means of communication there must be agreement not only in definitions but also (queer as this may sound) in judgments. This seems to abolish logic, but does not do so. – It is one thing to describe methods of measurement, and another to obtain and state results of measurement. But what we call ‘measuring’ is partly determined by a certain constancy in results of measurement. (PI §242)

I think that this gives content the idea that judgements about instances of hands play a role in underpinning the meta-linguistic point. (I also think that this links to the saying-showing distinction.) For Coliva, the fact that we do just judge in accord with the normative standard governing ‘hand’ is part of the logic of judgement.

To judge thus-and-so, in certain circumstances, is said, in OC, to be part of ‘our method of doubt and enquiry’. Now, everything which is part of method does in fact belong to ‘grammar’ and ‘logic’ too, in the extended, not merely linguistic sense that those terms came to have for Wittgenstein at the time of On Certainty. To judge that there is a hand in the circumstances of Moore’s proof therefore belongs to the logic of our epistemic practices because it is what must stand fast if we want to test other things – for example, the reliability of our senses – which we do in turn need to trust in order to go about forming specific empirical judgements in circumstances where it is an open question whether what we see in front of us is really a hand. So, that judgement is itself part of logic and therefore comes to have a normative role, rather than a genuinely empirical one. (ibid: 81-2)

I imagine a case in which one uses one’s hand to estimate the size of a spider – “It was as big as this hand!” – taking for granted the identity of the hand. But now I’m unsure about the nature of the propositional attitude. The hand, by contrast with the spider, is not an object of scrutiny. But still it seems bizarre to think of our attitude as being analogous to a pragmatic attitude, such as agreeing to stop at red traffic lights. We might take that towards the metalinguistic fact that we call hands ‘hands’ in English. Thus, I think we know and additionally and distinctly endorse as a practice for ourselves for successful communicative intent. As well as knowing that ‘hand’ means hand in English, we might also agree to be bound by the norm of using ‘hand’ in just this way for pragmatic reasons. We can also make sense of adopting a different policy. 

But what of the unreflective, animal-based but second nature, attitude towards this thing on the end of my arm being a hand? Although I may adopt a policy of speaking in accord with English norms, it does not seem that the prior recognition of my hand as a hand - or recognising it as the same thing over time - is a matter of policy. I don’t just ‘accept’ that. No other policy seems available. 

Instead it seems to be forced on one by an appreciation of one’s predicament. Other things may then follow such as the use of hands as comparison with spiders, for example, or the decision to follow regular English usage in their labelling. But we seem to be passive in the face of acknowledging what the world shows us. Why is it not simply knowledge?