Wednesday 6 August 2008

Charles Travis ‘The twilight of empiricism’

Following on from Adrian Moore’s Points of View, I’ve been looking at Charles Travis’ (pictured) (2003) ‘The twilight of empiricismProceedings of the Aristotelian Society 104: 247-272. Although I find Travis a struggle to read (working out whether, eg., ‘that’ is functioning to introduce a clause or as a demonstrative adjective seems oddly difficult in his writing; or the oddness, to my mind at least, of his verb, object, infinitive construction (“hear him to say” rather than “hearing that he says”)), there is always an argument worth investigating. In this paper there are a number of main themes (bigger summary here):

1: There’s an articulation and diagnosis of Quine’s argument for his pragmatist empiricism, suggesting it stems from an application of the argument from illusion. The argument from illusion constrains what Quine thinks can properly be experienced and hence calls for a revisionary treatment of how experience properly constrains judgement.

2: Later there’s an argument to the effect that Quine’s attempt to moderate the effects of the argument from illusion through the notion of pragmatic and holistic adjustments to beliefs in response to recalcitrant experience fails because he has no right to the notion of recalcitrance. (This is akin to a discussion of Quine by Crispin Wright.) The argument from illusion needs, instead, to be blocked.

3: Sandwiched between these is a description of two arguments from Frege against the kind of private experience that the empiricist application of the argument from illusion gives rise to. One concerns the failure of private ideas to have the right kind of open ended systematic import to model thoughts and meanings. The other concerns the fact that private ideas cannot be used to generate the model of maximally general and universal structure that Frege thinks is required by logic.

4: Finally Travis examines the idea of parochial rather than private thoughts: thought that can only be shared by some subjects (humans rather than Martians, for example). Whilst Frege’s argument from (his account of) the nature of logic would rule these out (they would be immune to Frege’s other argument against privacy), Travis argues that Austin provides good grounds for thinking that the truth of descriptions is occasion-sensitive and thus parochial. Thus we need a different model of logic that can accommodate occasion-sensitivity. Meanwhile occasion-sensitivity can be used to frame a response (not a million miles from a disjunctivist response) to the argument from illusion.

Putting to one side the discussion of Quine, I’d like to understand whether this defence of parochialism against what Travis calls the Martian principle runs counter to Adrian Moore’s defence of absolute representations. The Martian Principle is this:

For any answerable stance, any thinker must be able, in principle, to grasp when it will have answered; to see something in the way things are or might be, on which its having answered or not turns—thus to see it to be answerable. [265]

Travis argues that occasion-sensitivity (as defended by him and by Austin) conflicts with this principle.

[O]ne can be all a thinker must be, and all that logic captures of that, and, further, one may grasp all that one must grasp to count as having the relevant concepts—one may know all there is to know as to what being coloured red would be as such—and for all that, one may not yet be in a position to see whether a given judging, or stating, say, that the drapes are red is to count as having answered to the way things are. [262]

I take it that what is going on here is that a subject cannot tell whether the answerable stance of another subject, expressed in a verbal judgement, say, has been answered by a state of affairs.

So now suppose a given candidate thinker simply could not grasp certain standards for a given stance’s having answered—certain things it might be, say, for drapes to count as red. Suppose he was intractably blind to what those standards demanded for truth. He could not, say, catch on to the way stains would matter to the truth of the particular judgement in question. Would that disqualify him as a thinker, or even as a grasper of the concept red, etc.? Austin’s point entails that it need not. [262]

My hunch, however, is that this point is orthogonal to Moore’s defence of absolute representations, representations that can be added without danger of conflicting points of view. Moore distinguishes between the the conditions of the production of a representation ‘and the role that the representation can play in such processes as… integration’ [Moore 1997: 89] He argues that perspectivalness of the former has no effect on the latter. So we can imagine responding to Travis by agreeing that the words alone, expressive of an answerable state / a representation of the world, do not pin down what it means context-free. But given the context and thus given the content, which might be expressed in those or other words in a different context, the representation might or might not be absolute in Moore’s sense.

More generally, in trying to get the relation of contingency – as said to be found at the heart of the later Wittgenstein’s discussion of the conceptual order – and an absolute conception of the world clear, my hunch is that there is a much less direct connection than I used to think.

Travis’ version of such contingency – occasion-sensitivity – seems perfectly describable and sayable without putting at risk ground level normativity (centrally, in this case, of how an ‘answerable stance’ answers to the world). But it does not conflict with absolute representations. Darker, transcendent, claims about contingency may conflict with absoluteness – they imply an ineliminable point of view – but at the same time they have problems of their own as Williams pointed out some years ago.

[I]f our talk of numbers has been determined by our decisions, then one result of our decisions is that it must be nonsense to say that anything about a number has been determined by our decisions. [Williams, B. (1982) ‘Wittgenstein and idealism’ in Moral luck, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 95]

I still don't believe in absolute representations, but not because of contingency.

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