Friday 28 December 2007

"I will teach you differences"

Seeing the current RSC production, I realised that I’d forgotten, if I ever knew, that the motto that Wittgenstein considered quoting at the start of the Philosophical Investigations comes from Lear. The Earl of Kent says to Oswald: “I will teach you differences” (meaning in this case differences of rank or status). For Wittgenstein, attention to the differences between word uses which we might otherwise too quickly assimilate, and thus be led into philosophical confusion (such as referring to pains and referring to objects), is key to philosophical clarity.

I was struck by this phrase in relation to the production itself which somehow didn’t at first seem quite to work (though things improved considerably after the interval). But how would one begin characterise what seem to be problems of pace or focus? They seem hard to put into informative words. In some remarks on aesthetics, Wittgenstein comments that such judgements are less like the expression ‘How nice!’ and more like the judgement about a jacket that its lapels (thus!) are too narrow. This suggests that one understands the aesthetics of lapels by understanding relations between different lapels (one sees the lapel in the context of other possibilities) and this in turn suggests an essentially practical dimension (in which actual lapels have a role to play). How much more theatrical direction must also be a matter of practical demonstration of differences.

Monday 24 December 2007

Painting as photography

I’ve just been to the exhibition ‘The painting of modern life’ at the Hayward: paintings based on photography and it put me in mind of a recent discussion at the Kendal photography group asa64 of Roger Scruton’s 1981 article ‘Photography and representation’ (Critical Inquiry, 7: 577-603).

Scruton’s key idea is that painting, unlike photography, is ‘intentional’ and thus it is possible to have an aesthetic interest in the way it is representational.

Paintings are intentional in two senses:
1: Although painting can be about things, those things need not exist. (This is the philosophical use of the word ‘intentional’ which applies in the philosophy of thought and language meaning ‘aboutness’.)
2: What is depicted is the result of the painter’s intention, it is deliberate.

By contrast, though a photograph is of something, the relation is causal not intentional in either sense.
1: The object of the photograph must exist / have existed.
2: Its appearance does not realise an agent’s intention but how the object looked.

Thus, of any feature of a painting, we can ask what purpose the painter had in including it. This gives rise to an aesthetic interest in representation. By contrast, in photography, the details are there because they were there in the original scene. Thus, just as those with eyes to see can see human intentions expressed in human behaviour, so, with the right background, we can see a painter’s intentions in the painting. Understanding a painting is a matter of understanding thoughts (hence again the connection to intentionality) and seeing, in features of a painting, the vision of its subject that its painter intends to communicate.

In photography our interest, according to Scruton, is in the subject matter or object seen ‘through’ the photograph, not the representational qualities of the photograph itself. He asks, expecting the answers 'no':

Can I have an aesthetic interest in the photograph of a dying soldier which is not also an aesthetic interest in the soldier’s death? Or, rather, can I maintain that separation of interests and still be interested in the “representational” aspect of the photograph?

Hence if there is an aesthetic in photography it concerns the scene picked out in the way one might, equally, charge people to look at a particular view without being in the business of representation (of the view).

The asa64 group, perhaps predictably, were not sympathetic to the line of argument which seems to reduce the seriousness of photography. But I’ve found it a useful idea to have in mind when taking photographs. As a first step it seems worth asking: is the scene itself of aesthetic interest?

The exhibition ‘The painting of modern life’ nicely raises some of the issues in Scruton’s account. Some of the paintings are almost exact reproductions of photographs, produced by projecting the original image onto a canvas and then copying it in paint. So, because it is a painting, we can ask, with Scruton, of any detail why it is there. But, unlike the cases Scruton considers, we already know the answer: because that detail was there in the photo (including blurring, or the stray reflection in a window glass) and the artist has chosen to be so guided. In turn, the detail is there in the source photograph because it was there in the real scene. Still, there is choice and intention in the final painting, unlike the photography.

In fact, choices about the framing of the image (in the sense of selecting the boundaries) seemed the most interesting aspect of the choice / lack of choice involved. As Lois, my partner pointed out, insofar as the images looked like photographs they looked like not very good ones, and that rather undermined the final aesthetic outcome.

Sunday 16 December 2007

Someone must have traduced Jospeh K

Returning to Wittgenstein’s remark that ‘If a lion could talk, we could not understand him’ I’ve just been given the following delightful account of using public baths in Budapest last week.

It was initially one of the most disorientating and baffling experiences I’ve ever had with a series of cryptic rules of etiquette, bizarre pricing systems and an unguided labyrinth of rooms. The locals naturally knew exactly what they were doing and looked at us oddly when we were trying to figure out the complex locker use system that involved several keys of non-matching numbers, at least two attendants and a mystery swipe card that, as far as I could see, served no purpose whatsoever. In other words, I was thoroughly uninitiated into the practices and customs of the community (not just linguistically). What I found remarkable was that in some sense, light did indeed dawn over the few hours we were there. I still didn't get the intricacies of the system but grasped enough to get by, accompanied by hand gestures and liberal tipping. Thus the bathing experience turned from being daunting and unfathomable to, if not relaxing, then quirkily pleasant.

What I particularly like is the idea that one might somehow get the hang of this without knowing how one has the hang of it. Chicken sexing, perhaps. About the same time I was (rather less interestingly) in Borders in York, passing time whilst my folding bike was serviced and thus comparing translations of Kafka’s The Trial.

Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K…/ Somebody must have been spreading lies about Joseph K… / Someone must have been traducing Joseph K… / Somebody must have been telling tales about Joseph K…/ Someone must have made a false accusation against Joseph K…

But aside from the quirky pleasure in re-reading familiar scenes in slightly different voices (like the very real pleasure in cover versions of familiar pop songs), I realised that in some translations K is just much more rational than in others. In one, for example, he is worried that his refusal to be interviewed might be taken seriously. In another he refuses to be interrogated. In a third he fears he has somehow refused to be tried. As a result he plans to return to the court / the court room / the council offices. Whilst the differences are subtle they slowly mount up such that K is either doing pretty much reliably what one would do oneself, or systematically always drawing slightly the wrong conclusions. This, I think, nicely illustrates the deep Davidsonian connection between interpretation and rationality.

Suddenly it dawned on me that part of what had seemed bizarre, off-kilter, and alienating about the writing (there's a word for this!) might be the result of the translation and not the original text. (This strangely depressing thought came in the same week as the revelations about Raymond Carver.)

Friday 14 December 2007

Psychiatric virtue ethics

I’ve spent the day reviewing a manuscript for a book on psychiatric ethics written by Jennifer Radden (editor of The Philosophy of Psychiatry: A Companion) and John Sadler (co-editor of PPP and author of Values and Psychiatric Diagnosis).

The manuscript is for a book with OUP and is, as I would expect, very well written. The basic thesis is that ethical obligations on psychiatrists stem both from their status as professionals with client relations and also from their specifically medical role. Doctors have obligations to their patients. But, and this is what gives the book half of its purpose, psychiatry – over and above medicine in general – imposes yet further obligations on its practitioners. These, the book argues, are best articulated as a set of virtues that are called for by the roles psychiatrists adopt, and it is this that provides the second purpose of the book. Articulating ethics through virtues contrasts with the dominance within medical ethics of utilitarianism, Kantian deontology and the popular hotch potch: the Four Principles approach.

There is, however, a fairly standard objection to virtue ethics. Whilst utilitarianism (at least in those forms in which utility is not itself characterised in ethical terms; so when it is taken to be, eg, expected happiness) and Kantian deontology (with its uber categorical imperative and derived principles) promise specific guidance for ethical judgement, virtue ethics seem not to. The problem is that to determine what to do, one needs to determine what a virtuous agent would do. But there is no independent account of what the demands of virtue are from outside a perspective that has already earned the right to characterise itself in virtuous terms. (I should say that I don't think that this is a real worry. The idea that we can and should in general step outside our practices to justify them as from cosmic exile is a mistake, though a tempting one.)

Radden and Sadler footnote this worry but I think that they take their book to be engaged in a different project to that of defending the approach from first principles. Instead they spend 15,000 words of a central chapter setting out what they think the virtues are, in response to the challenges of psychiatry. That seems fine. What seems odder is, relatedly, that they do not attempt very firmly to demonstrate the advantages of virtue ethics over other approaches. They suggest, eg, that it complements rules-based approaches. (They do suggest that because good psychiatric practice requires affective responses from psychiatrists which cannot be governed by rules but can indirectly be inculcated, virtue ethics may be a better fit. But this point does not seem to carry much weight and I think it could not.)

The real weakness of an ecumenical approach, however, is that lacks an explanation of moral seriousness. It sounds instead as though one can add together a variety of different methods for framing ethical judgements just as one pleases and without a clear sense of what would make any such judgement right or wrong. What is it that disciplines a moral judgement?

That said, I'm very impressed with the book because its aims and purposes seem clear from the start and are carried out thoroughly.

Thursday 6 December 2007

New book on philosophy of psychiatry

I'm delighted to report that Rachel Cooper, a philosopher of psychiatry who, like me, graduated from the Cambridge HPS department, but in her case, unlike mine, the training seemed to 'take', has just published a new book on the philosophy of science of psychiatry.

I'll report back when I've read it but the manuscript version of it suggested a book well worth reading, genuinely combining philosophy and some history and making some contentious points.

Rationality and Compulsion #2

In the end, I was a little disappointed with Lennart Nordenfelt’s book Rationality and Compulsion (mentioned before). The second half ‘Irrationality, compulsion, and mental disorder’ applies the framework of ‘action theory’ from the first half to consider mental disorders. My qualm is two-fold.

Firstly, the real business of the book is postponed to the final two (of nine) chapters which does not seem to be enough of a return on the investment of coming to grips with the theoretical framework.

Secondly, I’m not sure that the framework really pulls its weight. Recall that the book is called Rationality and Compulsion. The final chapters discuss compulsion explicitly. Nordenfelt takes a condition of adequacy of any analysis of compulsion that it reflects the fact that if someone is compelled to do something then they could not avoid doing it [141]. Thus the analysis of obsession is a good opportunity to see what the action-theory framework can do. He considers the example of a subject who obsessively checks that she has turned off a tap.

The subject believes… that a risk exists that the water is still running from the tap. At other moments… she believes that this cannot possibly be so. Subjectively, overwhelming evidence also exists that the taps have been turned off. The situation can perhaps be described as follows: the subject cannot help having a completely unjustified, indeed foolish, belief...
[I]t is primarily the belief that the tap is running that is compelling. [177]

But there is no explanation of the tension in this case, the point that the subject believes both that the tap may be running and that it cannot be. Elsewhere, in the case involving wants as well as beliefs, Nordenfelt suggests that there are ‘conceptual’ limits to irrationality or a lack of fit between mental states and actions.

If a person genuinely wants to do F, has no conflicting want to do non-F, believes that he or she can do F, is capable of and not impeded from doing F, then he or she must for conceptual reasons at least try to do F. If A does not attempt to F, then something must be wrong with the premises. [117]

And earlier he expresses doubts about the psychological possibility of entertaining incoherent or conflicting beliefs.

A person who believes that both p and non-p at the same time has an incoherent belief. A logician would say that such a belief is irrational and logically forbidden. An interesting problem is whether such a belief is even psychologically possible. [100-1]

He goes on to argue that it is psychologically impossible to entertain a belief in the incoherent conjunction but that it is possible to hold a conjunction of beliefs which turn out, on investigation, to be incoherent. But this will not apply to the obsessional case (it is not a matter of investigation that the tap cannot be both on and off). Thus the account of the obsessional case does not seem to advance our understanding of it at all. Subjects of obsessional thoughts are compelled to have conflicting beliefs but we are not told anything about the nature of that compulsion.

Perhaps the best possibility for developing an account of obsession from the materials found in the book comes from its separation of rational and causal factors.

If no contact (or no relation whatsoever) exists between a particular want or set of beliefs, on the one hand, and an action on the other hand, it is not sensible to talk about the former being defective reasons for the latter. In order for a defective reason for F to occur, some relation must exist between the reason and the performance of F. And consider again the two plausible relations in this context, namely a causal relation and a rational relation. [114]

He goes on to suggest that a causal relation can exist even when the wants and beliefs ‘defectively rationalise’ the action. Further there is much talk of reasons being 'strong' or 'idle' which seems to mean causally strong or weak. But since he argues that ‘[r]ationalisation is a relation totally different from causation’ [97] this raises the question, which is simply not touched on, of what connection there is between rationalising force and causal force. Nordenfelt simply assumes a harmony between these two factors in most cases without saying why the ‘conceptual reasons’ that obligate action in the case quoted above also cause it. But this is surely the key question for a book that examines the relation of rationality and compulsion.