Friday 30 November 2007

Contents and vehicles

One informal project that those of us from the more philosophical side of the Institute are engaged in is trying to get a better understanding of the embodied, embedded, enactive (and some add extended) approach to philosophy of mind that has sprung up recently from a number of distinct sources. My own sense that we should do this sprang from frequent references to this family of views in both philosophical and clinical papers at the Leiden IPPP conference in 2006. (My colleagues have their own reasons, of course, including interests in similar Continental philosophical approaches.)

Falling, as one is wont, to talking shop over a very fine pint in the Sun Hotel in Lancaster last night, I realised (very much guided by Gloria) that although I navigate much of philosophy through appeal to familiar distinctions (and when philosophers such as Quine propose giving up a distinction my general assumption is that something will be lost rather than gained) a fresh application of one can have me stumped and wondering whether I understood it in the first place.

In this case, the distinction is from the philosophy of thought between the content of mental states (often what comes after the word ‘that’ in saying, eg., Smith believes that Flaming Nora is a fine beer) and the vehicle for, or of, that content. In the case of the sentence I’ve just written, one might explain the vehicle as the squiggles you’ve read and the content as what they mean. In philosophy of thought or mind, the vehicles are usually neurological states in the head. One advantage of this approach is that the vehicles of content are what can causally explain a subject’s actions. As neurological states, they can operate the causal pushes and pulls that end up making a chap raise a glass to his lips. (It is less clear how the content itself – that FN is a fine beer – can do this.)

Now the neat picture that might be suggested was put under threat thirty years ago by arguments by Putnam and Burge that content – or meaning – was sometimes at least determined by external features: ie. features of the broader natural or social context. Thus Putnam argued that thoughts that I might express using the word ‘water’ are constituted as the thoughts they are by the chemical make up of the world (such that my twin on another world where the surrounding liquid is undetectably but chemically different expresses different thoughts using the same sounding sentences). Content, they argued, was broad or external, not narrow or internal and a fiddle was needed to preserve a simple causal role for internal vehicles (of something less than the full content or meaning of a thought, some internal element of thought common between me and my twin).

But in the context of the 3 (or 4) Es, the new notion is one of vehicle externalism. The thoughts themselves are carried by vehicles that are outside the skull. Such vehicles might be an extended feature of the body or, perhaps, a shopping list. Now I think I can begin to understand this. I think I can see how a shopping list might not only constitute my shopping intentions but ‘carry’ those intentions. But I begin to lose my grip now on the distinction between content and vehicle at just this point. What is its purpose? Without the neat picture of internal vehicles causing my actions neurologically, what is the need for the distinction between content and vehicle?

I’m suffering, in other words, from the confusion that is characteristic in philosophy as the ship, as it were, is put into the bottle. I look forward in about a week, I hope!, to when I understand what this amounts to. But typically, I will simply forget how I didn’t understand it before.

Wednesday 28 November 2007

Everyday illness phenomenology

I’ve spent the last couple of days suffering a standard autumnal cold. The striking thing about such a normal experience is how bizarre aspects of it are. There is, for example, something quite unique about how it feels to begin to fall asleep during the daytime when one is escaping from the experience of illness which is so different from normal lazy post-prandial dozing. There is also something quite reassuring about making up a fire and settling down in front of a film (I tried Blue Velvet last night: not the best film for a cold, in fact) knowing that one isn’t up to doing any work or anything else practical. That is a kind of first person experience of illness as excuse.

But the oddest experiences for me are those that characterise sleeping badly at night and realising, for example, that one has been thinking nonsense for the last hour (literally things that make no sense though one hadn’t noticed it), or becoming convinced that getting to sleep involves some sort of quite other project or achievement (does this only happen to me?). These slightly shivery experiences are so different from the everyday experiences of thoughts going well and suggest a kind of fragility of the every day case (so in fact akin to the fragility of the everyday suggested in Blue Velvet after all).

It would be good to find a published account of the phenomenology of the common cold, to see what it is like for others. It would be a version of Jaspers’ account of static understanding: grasp of the very nature of what it is like (perhaps nothing else!) to be subject to fragmented and uncanny thoughts. But given that the phenomena only come along when one is not in the most objective of states, it’s hard to know how they could ever be accurately recorded. And that problem seems to me to generalise to other cases of fragmented and unusual thought processes or experiences.

My thoughts about my own coldiness are, however, rather put into perspective by the news that Peter Lipton, Chair of Cambridge HPS and who saved my PhD, died suddenly in his early fifties from a heart attack a couple of days ago. It’s very sad and quite shocking news.

Sunday 25 November 2007

In Berlin

I’ve just got back from my final conference of 2007: kindly invited by Thomas Fuchs and Martin Heinze to give a paper at the German Psychiatric Association (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Psychiatrie, Psychotherapie und Nervenheilkunde) in Berlin. It was a huge conference with many of the people one would expect (eg Alfred Kraus, Henning Sass) but also my colleague Kwame McKenzie turned out to be in from Toronto and staying in my hotel and the ubiquitous and very hard working Juan Mezzich had been and gone.

Coming from a philosophy background, the strange thing about psychiatry conferences is the different attitude to asking questions. At a philosophy conference, the cut and thrust of the questions after a paper or presentation is the main reason for attending (aside from networking to land one’s next job!). Without that, one might as well wait for the papers to be published and stay at home with decent beer. But at psychiatry conferences, questions are generally merely a polite extra. (I guess this is partly because of differing assumptions about what disciplines the disciplines.)

Thus I was very surprised to be asked a really good question on this occasion. I’d given a presentation arguing that it is a mistake for the WPA to call for an idiographic addition to criteriological diagnosis because no sense can be given to idiographic understanding that marks it off from a contrasting form and the very idea of individualised judgement threatens the validity of diagnosis, broadly construed. (Instead we should follow the more helpful idea that narrative elements be added: these are distinct, normative and not-precluded from possessing validity.) Delightfully I was asked whether my argument turned on neglecting Kant’s idea of reflective, rather than determinate, judgement, which cropped up here the other day. I don’t think it would help because I don’t believe in reflective judgement in Kant’s sense either (and for a related reason to my distrust of idiographic judgement). But I wonder whether a background in philosophy is still a much more common aspect of German psychiatry than it is in the UK. If so, that adds to the recent debate at PEHM about the relationship between the two disciplines.

Very odd to wonder round a city which functions so much like any other affluent European city but where I lacked any grasp of the language. There’s a phrase from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations which is often, I think, misapplied: If a lion could talk, we could not understand him. This is often used to support the idea that we wouldn’t be able to translate its utterances because its world would be so different from ours. But actually Wittgenstein mentions it in the context of considering being abroad somewhere where one does understand the language but not the people: one doesn’t share the right expectations. What stood out for me in this case was that even not understanding German (yes I’m embarrassed!) how much was understandable, how much is agreed in practice. The systems (in airports and restaurants) are their own translations.

Monday 19 November 2007

Everyday philosophy of vision?

In an article in today's Guardian which reviews an exhibition of Sidney Nolan, and successfully persuades me to look at his work afresh, Germaine Greer says some irritating things about perception:

By now everyone should be aware that what we see is not really there. What is really there is a boiling stream of disconnected bits of information that is turned into a moving picture by the brain.

So far, so typically scientistic albeit with the racy addition of ‘boiling’. But even though there may be much work necessary behind the scenes to make the world visually available to a subject, it does not follow that all that is really seen is not what we think it is (but is instead the boiling stream). We need an argument but we don't get one. Oddly, she continues:

When it comes to recognising a picture, we have to post it up next to one of our brain-made images of the same thing. If the two don't tally we say that the photograph, drawing, painting, bust or whatever is a poor likeness. We even dare to say that it is unrealistic, as if our brain images were more real than somebody else's.

How is the comparison supposed to work? A real picture on the left and a brain-made image on the right? Or a brain-made image of the picture and a brain-made image of the scene? But if this latter idea, what is wrong with the idea of a comparison? Then:

There would be no point in painters simply doling out versions of pictures we can summon up at will; they impose their own convention on what they see.

Far from being motivated by her account of what is ‘really’ seen (the ‘boiling stream’ of neural events), the second part of this sentence could better fit the naïve model of vision Greer takes to be obviously false. If vision merely copied the world then that would explain the interest of an art which did not. Later she says:

When Nolan's paintings of the outback were exhibited at David Jones's department store in Sydney in 1949, according to Cynthia Nolan, "old ladies from central Queensland carrying string bags" came up with tears in their eyes and said: "It's so true, so real". The old lady writing this travelled from south-east Queensland to Sydney to see the current Nolan retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and found herself saying the same sort of thing. Cynthia Nolan's old ladies had not had the advantage of seeing Nolan paintings all their lives, as I have. For them the shock of recognition was exactly that.

So Greer now seems to think that somehow Nolan got things right. But how can that be, given her starting point?

I’ve no qualms with putting forward a revisionary philosophical view of vision but it is annoying to be told that this is obvious and we should all be aware of it. I suspect no one is or can be aware of any such thing because it isn’t true.

Sunday 18 November 2007

Judgement, understanding and contemporary music

My colleague Pat Bracken objected at a seminar last week to me suggesting that a clinical encounter between psychiatrist and patient / service user was a matter of judgement. My justification was that taking the idea of understanding patients seriously required aiming at getting their stories right (although rightness might be, say, narrative fit according to the patient) and the best word for aiming at rightness is ‘judgement’. (Additionally: judgement needn’t imply being judgemental and saying that psychiatric diagnosis / formulation is a matter of judgement doesn’t preclude other features of it such as interpersonal warmth.)

But I was asked later by Richard Gipps whether I really think that all understanding is a matter of judgement, with, further, the thought that judgement is matter of subsuming things (eg utterances) under concepts. I think that I do. But a weekend at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (coupled with a quick visit to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park) threatens that thought.

The question it raised was whether what I lack when I listen to a piece of music that seems simply unconnected poops and whistles is understanding in that sense, especially when contrasted with a piece in which there is a kind of repeated structure even though of a minimal form (James Wood’s ‘De telarum mechanicae’ was brilliant in this way). Still, in the latter case, it seems hard to think that it is a matter of bringing the experience under concepts. I have no vocabulary for it (the programme notes don’t encourage adoption of theirs; contrast the brilliance of architectural vocabulary).

Still, I think it is. One grasps at musical phrases, demonstratively labelled (a la McDowell’s description in Mind and World) as “like that!”, keeping that phrase in mind for a little while and thus navigates through the piece, even if falteringly and partially. Anything less than that isn’t any kind of understanding.

A few years ago, there was an excellent paper by David Bell (‘The art of judgementMind 1987) which suggested that a response to a Jackson Pollock was a good way of exemplfying the kind of judgement in Kant’s Third Critique. Reflective judgement, by contrast with determinate judgement is a mid way between subjective whimsy and fully conceptual judgement.

If the universal (the rule, principle, law) is given, then judgment, which subsumes the particular under it, is determinate... But if only the particular is given and judgment has to find the universal for it, then this power is merely reflective. [Kant 1987: 18]

Bell suggests that the kind of understanding one has of Jackson Pollock is just such a preconceptual judgement. What's more he suggests Wittgensteinian support for this given Wittgenstein's suggestion that understanding music is a good comparison for understanding linguistic meaning. But I just don’t believe that there's any (conceptual) space for a third way here. It’s concepts or nothing!

Friday 16 November 2007

Draft reply to Damiaan Denys

I am grateful to Damiaan Denys for the friendly tone of his critical response to Natalie’s and my paper and for his mention of my own contribution to the International Perspectives in Philosophy and Psychiatry book series: Essential Philosophy of Psychiatry.

In fact, the friendly tone appropriately reflects a large measure of underlying agreement alongside surface disagreement. We all agree that philosophy and psychiatry can stand in a useful mutual relationship. We all agree that there has been a history of interrelation especially within the phenomenological tradition. (Natalie and I mentioned this in a preliminary way though it was not our topic.)

But while Natalie and I saw grounds for optimism in the new developments in broadly Anglo-American philosophy of psychiatry, Professor Denys emphasises the grounds for pessimism in the diminution of philosophy within psychiatry itself. Aside from the suggestion that the rise of the new philosophy of psychiatry is the direct result of its loss within psychiatry – ‘Philosophy has left the psychiatric building. It is exiled from psychiatry, externalized and sequestered in the “new” philosophy of psychiatry’ - which seems unlikely, there is little substantial to disagree about. We see the glass half full (and the focus of our review was that full half), Damiaan Denys sees it half empty. All of us would like it to be fuller.

So what practical steps can we take to improve matters? A recent discussion of the World Psychiatric Association’s Institutional Program on Psychiatry for the Person that took place in London suggested some possibilities. The main focus of the meeting, organised by Juan Mezzich (and the Department of Health), was to find ways to augment a narrow criteriological model of diagnosis with a broader, more explicitly person-centred, approach to psychiatric formulation. But in the meeting different views were also expressed (mainly by psychiatrists) questioning the general need for diagnosis and also pointing out the view of some service users that their conditions should not be seen in negative, pathological terms at all. Such debate, although leading to no quick answers, suggests a positive and practical way to improve our understanding of mental health and mental health care but also the positive practical steps that this might underpin.

Professor Denys comments that most of the work of the new International Perspectives in Philosophy and Psychiatry book series is critical, for example ‘critically analyzing the conceptual foundations of academic psychiatry’. This is true and surely a good thing. What would be the point of a philosophical or conceptual engagement which was not critical, reflective, thoughtful? But he also suggests that such criticism, ‘coming from the outside’, is often perceived to be negative.

It is worth noting that most of the authors or editors we reviewed are qualified psychiatrists (with a couple of clinical psychologists, also) so the criticism is not in the sense implied external to psychiatry. But if it is perceived by some to be negative that suggests that there is work to be done in examining the assumptions about change and development of psychiatric services and about the shared and divergent values of those involved. In this process there is an important role for the new philosophy of psychiatry.


I had lunch with Professor John Cox yesterday who will, hopefully, act as External Examiner for the Philosophy and Mental Health MA at Uclan. He outlined his growing interest in the role that spirituality might play in mental health. In the main, in discussions I’ve had about this both in the UK and at the Sun City philosophy of psychiatry conference, the idea has usually been coupled with formal religious faith traditions. But amongst most of my friends such traditions hold no interest. And yet as the WHO makes plain, the idea of experiencing life as having meaning seems very important both as an aim in itself and as a way of promoting mental health.

[T]hat mental health and mental well-being are fundamental to the quality of life and productivity of individuals, families, communities and nations, enabling people to experience life as meaningful and to be creative and active citizens. We believe that the primary aim of mental health activity is to enhance people’s well-being and functioning by focusing on their strengths and resources, reinforcing resilience and enhancing protective external factors. [WHO Europe Declaration]

And thus I wondered all the more, watching the very powerful and well directed film Control last night whether a sufficiently rich aesthetic life with both direct emotional engagement and discursive judgement might be enough to amount to spirituality in the WHO sense. I rather hope so. Of course it helped, watching Control, that the music has been a long standing part of the sound track of my own life since late adolescence.

Wednesday 14 November 2007

Overly rational? Overly simple?

One of the projects undertaken by recent philosophy of psychiatry has been to try to resist Jaspers’ claim that primary delusions are un-understandable. It is the subject of chapter 3 of my Essential Philosophy of Psychiatry. The idea is to take seriously the strangeness of expressions of delusions but at the same time to try to understand them as from within. So it is not just a matter of predicting that such and such a lesion might lead to a particular kind of utterance. Understanding rather than explanation. But at the same time, an interpretation which was too straight forward would fail to capture what makes delusions difficult. So the aim is to ‘solve simultaneously for understanding and utter strangeness’ in Naomi Eilan’s phrase.

There are a number of strategies then available. Sass, eg., compares delusions with the philosophical ‘theory’ of solipsism. Maher suggests that delusions are rational responses to unusual experiences. Campbell and Eilan suggest that they are deviant framework propositions. And so on.

But as Richard Gipps suggested to Gloria and me at a seminar we gave in Uclan yesterday, perhaps philosophers (I should say ‘we philosophers’ to flag my shared guilt in this) are too obsessed with rational, successful utterance and belief. Perhaps, although most people hold mostly true beliefs, they misfire in some areas, not just in the sense of being false (well formed but false) but being bizarre.

I am quite sympathetic to this thought but it would need to be augmented by a kind of philosophical therapy, with, perhaps, comparisons with more familiar cases of beliefs and utterances which are not just like successful everyday cases. Today, three spring to mind.

1) Dennett’s case of the lemonade salesman.
The boy's sign says "LEMONADE—12 cents a glass." I hand him a quarter, he gives me a glass of lemonade and then a dime and a penny change. He's made a mistake. …but exactly which mistake? This all depends, of course, on how we tell the tale—there are many different possibilities. But no matter which story we tell, we will uncover a problem. For instance, we might plausibly suppose that so far as all our evidence to date goes, the boy believes:

(1) that he has given me the right change (2) that I gave him a quarter (3) that his lemonade costs 12 cents (4) that a quarter is 25 cents (5) that a dime is 10 cents (6) that a penny is 1 cent (7) that he gave me a dime and a penny change (8) that 25 - 12 = 13 (9) that 10 + 1 = 11 (10) that 11 not= 13
Only (1) is a false belief, but how can he be said to believe that if he believes all the others?

Dennett suggests that belief ascription turns on an ideal of rationality that can simply fail to apply and if so then there just isn't a fact of the matter as to what is believed.

2) The theological disagreement between Anglicans and Catholics concerning transubstantiation. Or rather: my Divinity O level understanding of this according to which the latter believe the bread becomes the body of Christ whilst the former take there to be a merely symbolic relation between them. But it is worth asking what it would be to believe that the bread becomes body? In what sense are these words used? Is there really a clear distinction between the theological approaches?

3) Cora Diamond’s example of the Lives of the Saints.
In her Realism and the Realistic Spirit she mentions the strangeness of the narrative structure of lives of the saints in which, for example, a saint might suffer the stigmata, might modestly keep them hidden and yet, straightaway, his followers detect them. In this narrative context, the rational stress between these elements is simply disregarded. A saint must be modest and yet the blessing of the stigmata must be detected.

Cases like these suggest that there are cases with which are more familiar in which the quest for a simple, literal, empirical perhaps, interpretation is vain. Perhaps they can relax the impulse to interpret the content of delusions in an overly rational and overly simple manner.

Monday 12 November 2007

A response for PEHM?

I mentioned (on this blog) a reply to Natalie's and my overview of the OUP book series a little while ago. If anyone cares to support (financially) the free access journal Philosophy, Ethics and Humanities in Medicine (and surely free access journals are a Good Thing) merely by writing a comment, you might be interested in this email from its editor.

"Dear Natalie and Tim,

I am writing as Editor-in-Chief of the open-access, peer-reviewed, journal, Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine (PEHM) , regarding a recent publication.

How new is the new philosophy of psychiatry?Damiaan DenysPhilosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine 2007, 2:22 (20 October 2007)

PEHM has been challenged by a supporter – can there be a broad and lively response to a provocative and timely article such as Damiaan Denys – or not? Is the field of psychiatry interested in having such a serious discussion – and on an international level – in a medium such as ours? Our potential donor challenges us. He/she will donate $10,000 to PEHM to support future papers if there are a dozen good responses (comments) to Damiaan Denys article.

This current email is a request for a comment from you on Damiaan’s article. Comments are easily added to articles in PEHM by going to the web page of the article ( and – on the right of that page, in the side bar, notice, under “Tools” :
Email to a friend
Order reprints
Post a comment
Sign up for article alerts

The section “Post a comment” - click on that and follow directions. Comments can be scholarly or informal, they can have references or not. They are posted subject to editorial review. They can be responded to by other comments. This discussion that I am looking for is about the future of philosophical psychiatry. How can psychiatry – as Damiann Denys asks, best “incorporate basic philosophical attitudes” ?

I believe that we can achieve the conditions set by our potential donor, and I am asking for your participation. Can you upload a comment? Can you help begin this discussion?
Best wishes and thanks,

Michael Alan Schwartz, M.D.
Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine (PEHM)"

Friday 9 November 2007

Why colours look the way they do

I went to a fascinating paper by Nick Unwin on ‘Why colours look the way they do’ yesterday evening but - or should that be ‘and’? - have been left baffled.

Colours have been taken by philosophers to be the best examples of qualia and hence often described as ‘nomological danglers’ because, so the thought goes, they dangle free of the physical laws. But in fact there’s been much work to explain colour vision and thus, as Nick put it, to take some small steps towards bridging the explanatory gap between our account of the physical world and the phenomena of consciousness. (He recommended Hardin’s Colour for Philosophers as a good start on this.)

One expression of the idea that colours are nomological danglers is that they might be inverted. For all we know, other people might see red where we see green and so on. If the inversion were systematic, it would not be detectable in the judgements they made about the colours of objects. But as Hardin and others have argued, there are in fact constraints on this because the relations between colours (including non-spectral colours like brown) are complex. Not just any inversion would work. In his paper, Nick argued that the ‘warmth’ of some colours would make inversions of red and blue detectable but that it might still be possible to mirror colours across the ‘warm-cold’ axis. He then discussed, in a fairly open ended way, whether this was conceivable, by looking, eg, at way shaded green grass would have to be translated into some forms of purpley pink (I think) and creating pictures of this.

What confused me was this. In the project of eliminating such sceptical possibilities as inverted colours what is needed are internal relations within the colour system which make no other systematic mapping possible. Indeed Nick called for the development of just such a pure phenomenal language. (Connections which are merely associative - between the colours and, say, thermally warm things - do not have anti-sceptical effects because a colour inverted subject might simply have different associations. Warm fires might look green to her.) But such internal features of colours do not seem to help much in explaining how colours are part of the natural world: closing the explanatory gap. Articulating such relations seems to be more describing how colours, as a whole, look than why they look as they do.

To put it another way, the project of eliminating scepticism here seems to require that there are sufficient internal, non-associative features of colours. But it seems odd that the project of explaining colour appearance (a project which includes discussion of the rods and cones of the eyes and of opponent processing of those outputs) should be held hostage to the fortunes of a particular anti-sceptical argument. In other projects of naturalising phenomena, scepticism doesn’t get a look in, let alone pride of place.

But as Nick pointed out, an explanation should be contrastive. It should explain why things are one way and not another. So, unusually perhaps, he argued that explaining colours does require this detour. That seems to me to be such an odd result that I’m left baffled.

Wednesday 7 November 2007

Alienation with rabbits?

Having expressed some qualms about Lennart Nordenfelt’s characterisation of everyday mutual understanding (it is too intellectual and too much akin to the world of a private detective) I was struck by an experience a day later which did seem to fit his description.

I went to see the most recent David Lynch film: Inland Empire. More so that Mulholland Drive, it seems to resist narrative interpretation. Whilst (parts, perhaps, of) scenes ‘hang together’ as the simulacra of rationally structured actions, any momentary sense of knowing what is going on is swiftly fractured. Unlike meaningless activity, it seems to demand interpretation. It ‘sprongs’ the spider-senses, so to speak, but to no, immediate at least, avail. One is left both instinctively deploying one’s faculty for empathy and finding it frustrated.

That said, there is much to be enjoyed about the film, not least the surface structure and appearance.

Monday 5 November 2007


I’d meant to spend Sunday afternoon catching up with various things I need to read, including Lennart Nordenfelt’s Rationality and Compulsion (OUP 2007) but went instead for a walk along the low ridge of hills that encloses Kendal from the West in part to try to work out why I’m just not getting on with that book.

Lennart is a charming fellow whom I met when he visited Warwick a few years ago. His style is almost self-consciously old-fashioned. He must be the last person left who describes his own linguistic-analysis-based approach to philosophy as ‘logic chopping’. There is a pleasing rigour to his approach to philosophy of psychiatry which is built upon an analysis of action, not a million miles from Bill Fulford’s work.

The new book is divided into two halves. The first summarises his approach, expressed more fully in two other books, to the philosophy of action. The second half, which I will probably enjoy more, applies this to mental illness. My qualm has something to do with the atmosphere, rather than the analysis itself, of the first half. What sent me off on my walk yesterday was the third of three niggles.

1) In what may be a throw-away remark, Nordenfelt suggests (p78) that a want to do F is a disposition to form an intention to do F. (Actually, he suggests a want is a disposition and then in the next sentence he says that if one wants F then ipso facto one will have a disposition to form the intention, which isn’t quite the identity hinted at. But I assume that is what he means.)

I think that there’s something wrong with that claim though I’m not sure I have a knock down argument. What is plausible is that if I want to do F then I will be disposed to intend to do it. (Contrary wishes may block me forming the intention to act but not negate the disposition.) But might a want just be a disposition to intend? Suppose I have a longstanding wish to be agreeable to friends when visiting them and fall in with their plans but that I have no idea what sort of thing they will want to do. If, over breakfast, they suggest we go to see the Warhol exhibition, this suggestion will, in the context, determine what I agree to, and thus intend to do. Nothing has changed about my character over breakfast - changing one’s dispositions to intend is akin to learning to like English beer which slowly transforms one’s behaviour in pubs - so my dispositions to intend are, I assume, the same as they were. Thus, in some sense, I already had the disposition to intend to see Warhol and thus had that want. But that is not something I even could have been aware of. (One might say: the genuine want at work is the longstanding want to be agreeable and it is this which selects seeing Warhol, when that is suggested. But the challenge is to derive this from the dispositions in play not to impose it on them.)

Actually, the fact that I’m trying to find an objection suggests my real qualm is deeper. It is that wants can be the sorts of things that one offers as reasons for one’s intentions. My long-standing wants concerning pizza will help rationalise my intentions to act when the new Kendal Pizza Express opens next month. But that rational answerability seems to be missing from a merely dispositional analysis.

2) More surprisingly, Nordenfelt comments at the start of the book (p4) that actions are abstract (like the number 4) and thus cannot be observed ‘with the senses’. This is surely a startling claim, seeming to undermine the very idea of witnesses to criminal acts, for example, but I’ve not been able to find much defence of it yet. I guess that the argument for it may start with the idea that actions are behaviour plus mental states and couple this with a Cartesian assumption that others’ mental states cannot be perceived with the senses. But it seems to me that the conclusion is sufficient to cast doubt on the Cartesian assumption, not the other way round.

3) The third niggle was especially striking in the context of also reading Matthew Ratcliffe’s book (mentioned before on this blog) criticising the idea that interpersonal understanding is a form folk theory. It is worth quoting Nordenfelt’s account of understanding other people’s action at length:

“What does it mean to answer the question ‘what is this?’ in relation to actions? Assume that two persons (A and B) witness the occurrence of a behaviour performed by a man C. Assume that they witness C is waving his hand. A asks B what is going on.
B’s first task is to identify the performance as an action in the first place. The context is not legal, so B can wholly concentrate on the issue of intentionality. Does this behaviour issue from some intention of C’s? B’s task is one of interpretation. The answer is not self-evident since the intention in question, being a mental event, is not observable. B has to find evidence for assuming the existence of the intention. Different methods for this exist. If C is approachable for questioning one can simply ask him what he is doing. This is a recommendable procedure in many instances. However, it is not waterproof. C may lie about his intentions… A second task is therefore to put C’s behaviour in a context. Where does the waving take place? Is there a human being in the neighbourhood to whom the waving can be directed? Is there anybody else doing the same thing as C?
Further observation by B may detect the following circumstances. C is standing together with a number of other people, all waving their hands, in front of a building. In a window on the upper floor of the building a man is standing looking at all the people outside. It is evident that the group outside are calling this person’s attention to something. Thus, the primary question can be answered: C’s behaviour is intentional. It is an action.
Preliminarily, B can now identify C’s action as an action of waving.” (p69-70)

This strikes me as a very odd view of understanding. If one had to do all this work merely to understand that C is a part of a crowd waving, one would be a very unusual kind of person. It is, I think, a mad view.

Now, of course, it may not be an account of everyday phenomenology but rather a reconstruction of how, if challenged, one might justify one’s normally seamless understanding. But that is not how it is presented and I fear that by starting with such an ‘alienated’ conception even a piece of reconstructive epistemology will be misleading.

My worry, in other words, is that the dryness of a kind of analytic philosophy may not merely be an impediment to its popularity but may also distance it from the very phenomena it is trying to understand.

Friday 2 November 2007

Categorial unity

A few weeks ago I was invited to a small conference to mark the translation into French of John McDowell’s Mind and World. (My single chapter summary of Mind and World is here.) It was the third time I've had the chance to give a talk on McDowell to McDowell. One aspect of the oddness is that whilst, obviously, one addresses him as ‘John’ in the surrounding banter of a conference (anglo-american philosophy is informal), there seems to be something arch about referring to him in a paper as ‘John’. On the other hand, referring to him as I did in my presentation as ‘the author of Mind and World’ was probably worse, though there was an excuse.

Being these days a fully naturalised philosopher of psychiatry, I turned up with a power point presentation to talk to. But of course, no one else did. Nearly everyone read a paper script. (Jim Conant, an honourable exception, gave a very clear and entertaining off the cuff presentation for about an hour.) Still, the disruption of getting a projector and laptop set up in the middle of proceedings seemed hugely rude. It was like being invited to dinner and insisting on arriving with a karaoke machine.

My excuse for keeping ‘John’ and ‘the author of Mind and World’ distinct was that McDowell announced a key change to his earlier views. The central claim of Mind and World is that experience itself has a conceptual shape. Only so can one reconcile the transcendental role of the world via experience in rationally constraining thought with the idea that only something already conceptually shaped can be a (rational) reason for a thought. But, if I understood him, he now thinks that there is something right about the following challenge (though the example is Conant's). In the face of experience of one’s hotel room, for example, one might frame any of the following judgements: ‘There are middle sized dry goods before me’, ‘There is a bed, chair and desk before me’ and ‘There is the kind of furniture one finds in a hotel before me’. So, the challenge runs, if experience (on which judgements are made) itself has a conceptual shape, which particular conceptual shape does it have? McDowell now grants that experience is not ‘discursively conceptually shaped’. It is merely apperceptively or intuitionally conceptually shaped. My problem, before and since, is simply not understanding what this amounts to.

Anyway, today I’m puzzling over something McDowell has published this year in a debate about tacit knowledge with Dreyfus. I have the bad feeling that this is the clearest expression I’ll find of the new view:

“What is important is this: if an experience is world-disclosing, which implies that it is categorially unified, all its content is present in a form in which, as I put it before, it is suitable to constitute contents of conceptual capacities. All that would be needed for a bit of it to come to constitute the content of a conceptual capacity, if it is not already the content of a conceptual capacity, is for it to be focused on and made to be the meaning of a linguistic expression. As I acknowledged, that may not happen. But whether or not a bit of experiential content is focused on and brought within the reach of a vocabulary, either given a name for the first time or registered as fitting something already in the subject’s linguistic repertoire, it is anyway present in the content of a world-disclosing experience in a form in which it already either actually is, or has the potential to be simply appropriated as, the content of a conceptual capacity.” McDowell, J. (2007) 'What Myth?' Inquiry, 50: 338 - 351

Thursday 1 November 2007


Sitting in the Sun Hotel, Lancaster, with Gloria Ayob after a reading group I had a sudden enthusiasm for the view that to be a good enough philosopher (in a rough and ready, journeyman sort of way) requires two key things. One should have some sort of philosophical personality or roughly consistent approach (it is just too hard to defend strict reductionism in one area and relaxed naturalism in another). And one should be able to correct one's work. There's a sense in which the latter is just what one learns in writing essays for a masters degree. One learns to ask whether it is clear what a paragraph is doing and if not, even if one is fond of its elegant turns of phrase, one should delete it and try again. (In truth I'm rubbish at this. I can spot the motes in others' eyes but not the beams in mine.) But I think the real attraction for me of the idea is that it's more than just that and, instead, lies at the heart of philosophy. This morning I realise that this stems from reading Thomas Bernhard's great Wittgensteinian novel Correction. But since central also to that book is the thought that correction, as a kind of life-long activity, also amounts to a form of madness I should probably revise my advice to young philosophers.