Wednesday 31 December 2008

Christmas spirit

In the hinterland between Christmas and New Year, I went, today, for a walk in the Howgills (the Lake District itself is as busy now as it is for August bank holiday and thus best avoided). On easy ground and with no navigational issues I found myself wondering what the best way is to approach the Christmas holiday period. As a child, I recall, it had a very particular resonance, independent of either religious or secular mysticism. There was a specific and exciting ambience and, even if the prospect of being given presents was part of the cause of this mood, it certainly wasn’t its object. The odd thing is that I cannot now recall what the mood was, what it took the time to be ‘about’ (not, of course, that it was literally about anything).

(2008 having been such a lamentable year for me for reading fiction I’ve resolved – a little crassly – simply to read a Dance to the Music of Time in 2009. Surely such a simple project will work! Already one feature of the book series is striking. It is realist but it starts in 1921 and continues to the 1970s with the same degree of access to the details of the time. Aspects of the narrator’s school-life, for example, are portrayed – unbelievably – with infinite and unproblematic access to their mood. Does anyone have such memory?)

One possible clue as to how to approach the season is something I’ve been struck by increasingly this year: the false ring of being wished a good Christmas on, say, Christmas Eve by people one might well see within a few days. Such wishing seems to compress a weight of expectation onto a single day and a single perspective: such as a solitary attempt on the summit of Everest or one’s necessarily personal interview with Death (pictured). No-one would compress wishes for a summer onto the fate of Midsummer’s Eve, for example. A good summer is both temporally extended and (potentially, at least) shared.

Perhaps the best that one can hope for is a kind of collective Humean projectivist illusion. What’s right within the false sounding wishing is something like the idea of taking the season to have a kind of meaning (again, though, not really/literally). It’s that which is collectively supported by the disproportionate enjoyable round of mulled wine parties, dinners, evenings out etc. But the problem with that as an idea is that it still leaves the content of projected attitude to be explained: the ‘meaning’ or atmosphere. (In a more serious vein, that is the problem for projectivism in general, mentioned before.) That remains – to me – as opaque as Jaspers’ idea of delusional atmosphere. What could it be?

I return to delusional atmosphere and its content here.

Sunday 21 December 2008

The skull beneath the skin

The bad news is that the Christmas number one in the UK is a cover version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah by the winner of the X Factor (a factory pop reality show; I can’t help feeling that that’s so much less good sounding than a Factory pop reality show might have been). In previous posts (here, here, and here), I’ve - possibly tediously - worked through my intuitions to decide that whilst there may, in extreme circumstances (and nearly everything about Rolf Harris spells danger), be some kind of risk of blasphemy (no doubt why as a typical teenager fundamentalist I had no time for them), cover versions set up a dialogue with originals which is often fascinating. And I had an excuse to mention Wittgenstein’s discussion of children playing trains, which is always useful. So why is it such bad news about Hallelujah?

One of the other things Wittgenstein says in this area is that one form of aesthetic judgement is a) a form of comparison in which one b) sees or hears something as something. Now hear this as the conclusion, one is told, for example. That prompts the kind of worry that motivates moral particularism, however. Why, if one’s focus is, or should be, on this case (moral or aesthetic), should one look away at the key moment to other examples? Why isn’t that the wrong direction of gaze? Further, if aesthetic judgements were to work by such comparisons then the comparisons would either have to be with other aesthetic or with other non-aesthetic aspects (or past judgements). This leads to two bad choices. It seems unlikely that present aesthetic judgements could merely turn on non-aesthetic features. But if they depend on past aesthetic judgements, then that threatens vicious regress. How did those judgements get off the ground? But let me put that worry aside for the moment and return to the case at hand.

Let me declare my view that the best version of the Cohen song is the one by John Cale on I’m Your Fan (a cd I insisted on playing having retired to spin the – generally mellow – discs at the end of London dinner parties in 1992). The Buckley version is horribly over the top. (The chart topping version isn’t worth comment.) But with the judgement-as-comparison thought in play, then surely having exposure to these versions will simply provide me with indirect access to the fine Cale version, in memory at least? Surely it’s no bad thing? In fact, however, I’m going to avoid music radio for a couple of weeks because of another comparison.

The Arts Centre at the University of Warwick used to serve only one real ale: Charles Wells Bombardier. It served this in such lamentably poor quality that rejecting pints became second nature. That, however, was a comparatively good result. One had at least tried to buy a decent real beer, failed, and thus bought a hugely expensive bottle of, say, Old Hooky but one could meet one’s bank manager in good faith. The problem was with the penumbra of doubtful pints that were not so screamingly awful that they violated the Sale of Goods Act but would still bring no pleasure. Repeated exposure to these taught one to taste every stage of the degradation of a beer (like the scenes of speeded-up decay in the Peter Greenaway film A Zed and Two Noughts). Thus, in a merely poor beer, one could anticipate its final vile state, two days later. And then eventually, one could taste in even a good pint of Bombardier those flavours that in its death throws would carry the final reek of oxidation.

Did that comparison reveal the essential structural weakness of Bombardier? Or was it a distortion that should have had nothing to do with its flavour for those with a luckier choice of pub? I’m not sure. And I’m not sure what the result of listening to a dreadful rendition of Hallelujah for the next two weeks. (Revellation or distortion?) But I’m not prepared to take the risk.

Monday 15 December 2008

Mere habit?

I am used to thinking about habit as the underpinnings of normatively or conceptually structured action and thought. As an ex-Wittgensteinian, I think of habit as a surrogate for a Platonic foundation for our concepts. Against the idea that habitual action might be a middle ground between conceptually structured activity and mindless doing, I see conceptual structure in the habits. And, of course, this invocation of custom and habit to underpin concepts has familiar Humean echoes. Mere habit escalates into something normatively richer.

Two things brought this to mind this weekend. The first was the need to stack the winter’s load of firewood for the stove. Delivered as a loose pile on the garage floor, I needed to stack it more tightly and higher against a wall. I thus spent an hour or so mindlessly stacking. But not in fact mindless. After only a few minutes a pattern began to appear: unconsciously I found myself slotting the differently shaped bits of wood into a more rather than a less appropriate gap, a particular way up and round, so as to keep the wood stable. Norms simply appeared, loosely fossilised in the final pattern of wood.

The second was taking part in a 10km organised run in Langdale, the first such event I’ve taken part in. I half wondered whether some further structure of thought – some sort of implicit plan – would simply appear during the course of running. I’m sure it does for fitter people in the way that in, eg., learning to ski one learns to individuate ones actions as ‘going to that tree’ rather than turning one’s skis. But I found I lacked the extra capacity necessary to do anything other than mindlessly stagger to the end. There was no further room for doing it right or wrong. Mere habit, it turned out.

Saturday 13 December 2008

Jack Bauer against the Principlists!

This week, quite uncharacteristically, I let Gloria drag me both to a trendy bar (well, as close as Preston comes) rather than my usual old man’s pub and also into a conversation about moral philosophy. (My one short article in JME is all I’ll ever write about moral philosophy.) But the issue was an curious one.

Suppose one holds both to a form of moral principlism and, more specifically, to the principle that torture is always wrong. Suppose, also, that that one’s interlocutor objects by citing what G called a ‘ticking time bomb’ case familiar to fans of Jack Bauer (pictured). The torture of a suspect is putatively justified because of the threat of a ticking time bomb that will kill averagely virtuous people. Suppose, fourthly, that it is at least open to question whether the anti-torture-principlist can contest the account of the case first advanced with further details. Perhaps, for example, torture produces unreliable results. Even in urgent cases there are more trusting alternatives. Training torturers to be able to act in such cases has too many unpleasant other consequences. And so forth.

But what, G wondered (amongst other perhaps more interesting issues we might have got to if I hadn’t been so dim about this one), have the particular details of the case even got to do with the original principle? If principles discipline moral judgement (ie. they determine their truth or correctness, whether or not we actually appeal to them for guidance) then bandying about rival accounts of the details of particular cases seems to be missing the point. A principlist should firmly stand aloof and say that, through whatever act of divination one arrives at underlying principles, once one has arrived at the principles, the particular cases can (as a maths teacher of mine often used to say) take care of themselves. They cannot conflict with the underlying principle that, eg., torture must be wrong.

Over a San Miguel (not at all appropriate brain food it seems to me), my instinct was to think this. There would be something pretty heroic about a principlist who took that – self-consistent – line. But there are two reasons for them to condescend to contest details. Firstly, cases might stand to principles as cases stand to putative empirical laws in a hypothetico deductive account of theory testing. If so, then contesting the details would be part of an alternative account of how one arrives at or justifies principles to replace one of mere divination.

Secondly, even principlists must think that their principles ‘touch the ground’ in real cases. A principlism of principles only would be a kind of abstract moral platonism, useful only in the next life, perhaps. So rival principlists, contesting the status the torture, must aim to make the interplay of favoured principles realised in every case of torture work out their way.

I suspect that, in practice, this tends to stretch cases into attenuated principles. They become the standard cases of moral education (like the ladder of mass m leaning at angle θ against a wall on a ground with a frictional coefficient of μ; or, rather, like a Jehovah’s Witness debating surgery).

In this last feature, principlists accounts of cases seem quite different from particularists for whom the ‘valence’ of any feature might be transformed by the presence of another feature. Ironically, whilst it is particularists who have the greatest reason to stress the importance of particular cases when discussing moral judgements, it is almost impossible to discuss interesting cases with them since in the real conversational situation of pub of trendy bar there is never enough shared knowledge of the details of the real cases they trade in.

PS: (a few weeks later): As reported here, sitting in the Forum, Gloria suggested that we take a 24 style scene to think about principlism. On last week’s gripping episode of 24, the man himself was challenged by a moral principlist who asserted against Bauer-ian actions: “But it’s the rules that make us better.” As a good particularist, Bauer had no intellectual cramp in replying: “Not today”.

Thursday 11 December 2008

Knowing how

Last night I read Stanley and Williamson’s (pictured) ‘Knowing how’ (Stanley, J. and Williamson, T. (2001) ‘Knowing how’ Journal of Philosophy, 98: 411-444). On the face of it, it is a troubling read for someone writing a book on tacit knowledge. On the assumption that, whatever it is exactly, there is a strong connection between tacit knowledge and know-how, it seems reasonable to hope that know-how, or knowledge-how, is importantly distinct from knowledge-that even whilst it retains the rights to the title ‘knowledge’. Stanley and Williamson argue that this is not so. Knowledge-how is not distinct from but merely a form of knowledge-that.

The paper divides into three sections with four main areas of argument.

In the first, Stanley and Williamson take issue with the modern father of the distinction between knowledge-how and knowledge-that: Gilbert Ryle. They argue both that Ryle’s regress argument for the priority of knowledge-how over knowledge-that does not work. They also argue against Ryle’s positive claim that knowledge-how is an ability (on the basis that one can retain know how even if one has, for practical reasons, lost an ability actually to perform an act).

In the second section they present a detailed summary of syntactic and semantic analyses of statements ascribing a variety of forms of knowledge including both knowledge-how and knowledge-that. Although the analysis they offer is way beyond my competence in the field, the gist of the argument seems to be that neither relevant syntactic nor semantic work draws any important distinction between these two forms of knowledge.

The third argument area grows from this. Statements ascribing knowledge-how to subjects can take the broader form of a knowledge-that ascription.

Suppose that Hannah does not know how to ride a bicycle. Susan points to John, who is riding a bicycle, and says, ‘That is a way for you to ride a bicycle’. Suppose that the way in which John is riding his bicycle is in fact a way for Hannah to ride a bicycle. So, where the demonstrative ‘that way’ denotes John’s way of riding a bicycle, (28) seems true:
(28) Hannah knows that that way is a way for her to ride a bicycle.
Relative to this context, however:
(29) Hannah, knows [how PRO, to ride a bicycle].
seems false… Where the demonstrated way is the only contextually salient way of riding a bicycle, (28) and (29) ascribe knowledge of the same proposition to Hannah. But this proposition is ascribed under different guises. In (28), knowledge of the proposition is ascribed to Hannah under a demonstrative mode of presentation. In (29), Knowledge of that proposition is ascribed to Hannah under a different mode of presentation, what we call a practical mode of presentation.
[ibid: 428-9]

This gives rise to the following account of know-how.

So, here is our complete account of knowing-how. Suppose modes of presentation are semantically relevant. Then (29) is true relative to a context if and only if there is some contextually relevant way ώ such that Hannah stands in the knowledge-that relation to the Russellian proposition that ώ is a way for Hannah to ride a bicycle, and Hannah entertains this proposition under a practical mode of presentation. [ibid: 430]

Finally, they anticipate a number of plausible objections to their proposal, closing with this comment.

All knowing-how is knowing-that. Neglect of this fact impoverishes our understanding of human action, by obscuring the way in which it is informed by intelligence. [ibid: 444]

I’m going to have to think rather more carefully about the argument against Ryle’s regress. Given that I have always thought of Ryle as expressing an argument akin to Wittgenstein’s rejection of what McDowell calls the master thesis, I’ve never thought carefully about how exactly Ryle’s version of that broad consideration works. So there are two things for me to do about this section: to rethink Ryle in the light of Stanley and Williamson and to see whether their argument counts against Wittgenstein.

The second and third points, however, do not seem to be too worrying on this first encounter, however. Firstly, there is something reassuring about the idea that know-how can be expressed given a sufficiently broad construal of language. The suggestion is like McDowell’s expansion of the space of concepts outside antecedently prepared bits of language to embrace, eg, colour patches. This in turn recalls Wittgenstein’s comment.

What about the colour samples that A shews to B: are they part of language? Well, it is as you please. They do not belong among the words; yet when I say to someone: “Pronounce the word ‘the’ “, you will count the second “the” as part of the language-game; that is, it is a sample of what the other is meant to say. It is most natural, and causes least confusion, to reckon the samples among the instruments of the language. [Wittgenstein 1953 §16]

So the idea that one can say what way things should be done demonstratively – and thus say what a subject understands – is not too unfamiliar. Better, surely, to embrace this idea than either Adrian Moore’s mysterious ineffable understanding or Harry Collins’ scepticism about such tacit knowledge. (Collins calls such knowledge capricious and says that one cannot reliably determine whether it has been passed on. This surely relies on a false contrast with knowing-that.)

But on the other hand, to encode knowledge-how as knowledge-that requires not only this use of a demonstrative to pick out the way, eg., a piece of music should be played, it also involves distinct modes of presentation for a non-violinist conductor and the leader of the orchestra. In an obvious sense, one of them does not know how to play the piece that way, even whilst she knows that that is the way to play it. But characterising this ‘practical mode of presentation’ is surely what was of interest about the putative distinction between knowledge-how and knowledge-that.

My hunch is that this might leave things like this. Broadly Rylean and Wittgensteinian arguments against a Cartesian and cognitive account of intentionality still imply that knowledge-that depends on knowledge-how. (This point, I suspect, survives in the account yet to be given of a practical mode of presentation.) But once language or intentionality is taken for granted (being lazy: once we can take for granted that we are in the space of reasons), then know-how can be expressed linguistically, providing one has a sufficiently broad conception of language in play.

PS. Having now looked at papers replying to Stanley and Williamson by Alva Noë, Ted Poston, John Bengson and Mark Moffett, and Elia Zardini, I plan to return to this issue in late January.

Thursday 4 December 2008

Tacit knowledge

In a taxi ride across Cairo in 2005 with Bill Fulford, I rashly announced that I was writing a book on tacit knowledge. The sense of ‘writing’ was that in saying one is thinking about writing, or actively pursuing the possibility of writing, not necessarily at the glad stage of typing actual chapters. Nevertheless, this idea, retrospectively and prospectively, justified my being introduced as someone working on tacit knowledge (an idea which has had a bit of a hold on some colleagues, much as one’s relatives may recall with perfect clarity a rash statement from one’s teens). Wearing my applied philosophy hat, tacit knowledge promises practical utility and that has been a helpful impression when, eg, being introduced to clinicians in a medical school.

In the meantime, however, I’ve been distracted into other projects. Fortunately, the same (introductory) purpose has been served by the central role of judgement in much of what I’ve written about and which more quickly connects Wittgenstein, and possibly Kant, with aspects of clinical judgement. (For an attempted justification see here.) But finally I’m writing (in the sense explained above!) the book on TK with my good friend Neil Gascoigne (pictured). (In my case, at least, it may be an occasional weekend project rather than blocked out time during the working week.)

Two initial problems have to be faced. One is that Neil sees all ground level philosophical issues through the lens of metaphilosophy. (By contrast, I’m merely troubled by how philosophy is possible. It’s a condition of adequacy of an account that it must be possible in its own terms and philosophical dogmatism should be avoided.) Further, his metaphilosophical stance takes the reaction to scepticism as its starting point. Especially in a book on tacit knowledge, this is bound to produce differences in how we want to frame the issues. (Is tacit knowledge really best thought of in the context of a response to Gettier problems?)

The other is that I realise that the question of what makes TK tacit is one for which none of the plausible answers completely attracts me. If ‘tacit’ equals unreflective (as, eg Erik Rietveld’s work implies), that looks to be merely a contingent phenomenological distinction. If it is taken to be darkly ineffable (as Adrian Moore’s tantalising book suggests), then it is hard to avoid a sense of implausible mystery clinging to it (one does not standardly say that the tacit knowledge of white sauce making is ineffable). If, as I’m inclined to say, one presses the idea that it is not (finally?) linguistically codifiable, then some apparently explicit judgements will count as tacit.

It seems odd to have decided on so much else about the book but not, perhaps, the central issue.