Monday 30 March 2009

INPP Lisbon 2009

I see that the 2009 INPP (International Network for Philosophy and Psychiatry) conference in Lisbon now has a website. Here is a link to it.

The programme is here.

The 2010 INPP conference will be in Manchester 27th to 30th June (2010). There is now a flier here.

A shameless plug: My distance learning postgraduate course in philosophy of mental health - aimed mainly at non-philosophers - is here.

PS: A report from the conference itself is here.

Emotions and feelings @ University of Durham

Knowing nothing about the philosophy of emotions, I went to Matthew Ratcliffe’s University of Durham workshop to sit at the back and listen. I let myself off asking any questions within the formal sessions. It seems to me as though the experience of listening is quite different for cases where one does and doesn’t join in the formal dialogue. Whilst for the former things are more focussed, I probably take in less overall. It is enough to find the or a fulcrum of the argument of the paper and think how to apply pressure.

That said, there were a couple of papers on more familiar territory. Peter Goldie argued in defence of a (metaphysically slim, he said) narrative sense of self, against worries about the dangers of treating life as fiction. His explicit targets seemed both to think a narrative sense was bad and also false (bad because false, he said later when I asked him, after a pause for thought) but he wasn’t particularly interested in thinking why in this particular case one might add badness to what is generally taken to be a sufficient charge in philosophy.

Dan Hutto (pictured) gave a paper in his usual thorough and robust style. I realise – to my regret – that I’ve not commented on his work here before and so I will do so properly later. But here’s what’s interesting to me. He deploys quite nitty gritty arguments against theories of mind, and against mental representations and mental modules and such like. Such arguments are within the discipline, as it were, arguing about what the empirical data about evolution or about mirror neurones show. But the net result is a position which locates all intentional and normative properties at the level of whole people, only. So one would get the same result from a firm distinction between norms and non-norms, the level of the person and the sub-personal. The reason for the detour via the sub personal is strategic: to engage with philosophers who would simply dismiss McDowellian-Wittgensteinian arguments.

Matthew Ratcliffe gave a paper on phenomenology of emotions which was thus doubly outside my area of understanding but seemed an important and distinctive project. One aspect of it involved defining the relative depth of emotions through what made what possible to shed light on guilt in depression. That said, I was not sure on first hearing which of two things he was doing:
1) On the assumption that some emotions are necessary for others, charting the logical relations between emotions to show how they fit together. This would be a kind of a priori investigation once, or on the assumption that, one could say what was a precondition for what. His first example of such a dependence was to say that the possibility of finding anything significant was a precondition of finding this bottle, say, significant. Thus a global loss of significance was ‘deeper’ than any particular loss.
2) Exploring from ‘within’ the way a subject thought of her emotions, using the idea of depth as a way of charting this. But on this second approach, the inquiry need endorse no claims about which emotions genuinely make other emotions possible. All that would matter would be what a subject thought.
My worry, though, was that 2) seems too weak - eg. there might be no agreement in thinking about what was deeper than what - but 1) is perhaps too strong. On what basis could one in general argue that one emotion was a precondition of what? You might if you believed in a kind of grammar of emotion (as though emotions were built from building blocks according to rules) but that seems implausible. But, to repeat, I was new to the idea of the project and my worry may simply reflect an initial misunderstanding.

Louis Sass was distinctly unimpressed by my critique of his book arguing (if my notes are correct) that the combination of both his assertion and retraction of solipsism as an interpretation of schizophrenia helped him (leaving as it were a shadowy residue of interpretative clues rather than nothing at all, as I think); that my bald dilemma for him would leave no space for hermeneutics; and that Schreber’s seeing his body as feminine was a simple matter as any breast, for example, might literally look feminine so that one could see any breast as feminine. I don’t think that any of these are going to help him but I will have to work out the best way of saying that before the Oxford seminar where I will rerun the paper.

Thursday 19 March 2009

University of Sunderland Philosophy Today group

I have been emailed by a group of students at the University of Sunderland who have been reading my introduction to McDowell.

Questions for Professor Tim Thornton from Ian Ground’s Philosophy Today Group March 2009
We have spent three profitable weeks reading chapter 2 of your book on McDowell. We have not been able to read other chapters and we hope our questions can be understood in this context. We are also aware that your book is primarily a textbook in which your own views are not to the fore. We wanted to ask the following:
1) A single and traversable ‘space of reasons’ seems to us a very unWittgensteinian idea. He at least seems to have a more patchwork, practically orientated conception of the places of reasons and judgements in our lives - more a ‘web’ than a ‘space’ of reasons. Do you think that, ultimately, McDowell offers too rationalistic an account of our conceptual capacities?
2) One of the characteristics of McDowell’s writing is his extensive use of metaphor – there are ‘spaces’, ‘realms’, ‘myths’, ‘enchantments’ and so on. These often begin innocently enough but then seem to acquire a life of their own. It is part of the reason why McDowell is difficult to read. In some cases literal expressions from Wittgenstein – we are thinking of ‘signposts’ – become in McDowell, heavily loaded vehicles of argument and meaning. We wondered whether, in writing your book, you ever considered ‘de-constructing’ McDowell’s use of metaphor? It might be very revealing.
3) We would like to know your final evaluation of McDowell’s importance. Some might say that he offers, in the end, no more than footnotes to (a correct reading of) Wittgenstein with a Kantian spin. And even this was something, we understand, a theme in earlier studies of Wittgenstein (e.g. Hacker). How far do you think it can be said that McDowell is a truly ‘original’ voice?
With many thanks for your time.

Dear Philosophy Today Group,
Thanks for using my little book as an introduction to McDowell and for taking the time to think through some questions. I hope I have at least whetted your appetite to look at some of McDowell’s original work and perhaps, thus, answer your questions better than I will today.

By ‘rationalistic’ do you mean overly regimented (there being just two quite distinct spaces: of reasons and of law)? Or overly intellectualised (by contrast, perhaps, with practical)? I’ll try to think about both.

The idea of the ‘space of reasons’ is taken from Wilfrid Sellars who uses it in his lengthy paper Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind to mark off the mental as normative. He says: ‘The essential point is that in characterizing an episode or a state as that of knowing, we are not giving an empirical description of that episode or state, we are placing it in the logical space of reasons, of justifying and being able to justify what one says.’ The point is not restricted just to states of knowledge but to states with content, intentional states, as a whole. It fits how he, elsewhere, describes the ‘manifest image’ (by contrast with scientific image):

The ‘manifest’ image of man-in-the-world …is… the framework in terms of which man came to be aware of himself as man-in-the-world… [A]nything which can properly be called conceptual thinking can occur only within a framework of conceptual thinking in terms of which it can be criticized, supported, refuted, in short, evaluated. To be able to think is to be able to measure one’s thoughts by standards of correctness, of relevance, of evidence… [T]he transition from pre-conceptual patterns of behaviour to conceptual thinking was a holistic one, a jump to a level of awareness which is irreducibly new, a jump which was the coming into being of man. [Sellars 1963: 6]

So McDowell’s borrowing of the contrast of space of reasons and realm of law shows the importance he attaches to this distinction. He says in his book Mind and World that the apparent dualism of mind and world is itself the result or effect of a more fundamental apparent dualism between norm and nature (norm: normativity, conceptual thinking; nature: too often understood as completely describably using law-like explanation).

Note that the contrast is between reasons and laws. McDowell is explicit that it is this rather than between reasons and causes because he follows Davidson in thinking that reasons may be causes (though he rejects Davidson’s own metaphysical picture of the mind). Still, something like this distinction has been a feature of debate about the difference between the social sciences and natural sciences. In the UK there was much discussion of this in the 1960s influenced by Wittgenstein’s claim that reasons were not causes. But it goes back to philosophical debates about psychology in the late nineteenth century, the so-called Methodenstreit. This concerned whether the human sciences (the Geisteswissenschaften) should try to emulate their far more successful cousins the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften), or whether they should go their own methodological way. ‘Positivists’, including John Stuart Mill, in England and both Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim in France, argued that the human sciences were no different from the natural sciences. Others argued that the human or cultural sciences were different from the natural sciences either in terms of the nature of their subject matter or their methodology or both. The latter, in Germany, included Heinrich Rickert, Wilhelm Dilthey and Wilhelm Windelband who coined the distinction between ideographic and nomothetic.

So McDowell’s distinction has a long historical pedigree (which doesn’t make it a good distinction, of course!). You suggest that it contrasts with a Wittgensteinian, practically orientated, patchwork conception of the places of reasons and judgements in our lives. One thought might be that it is consistent. However practically orientated, Wittgenstein’s discussion of our practices often emphasises the normativity of our concepts.

A wish seems already to know what will or would satisfy it; a proposition, a thought, what makes it true - even when that thing is not there at all! Whence this determining of what is not yet there? This despotic demand? (“The hardness of the logical must.”) [Wittgenstein 1953 §437]

So one thought might be that whilst Wittgenstein goes into greater detail about the differences between different rule guided or conceptually-based practices, insofar as they are rule guided, they feature within the space of reasons and thus do not conflict with McDowell’s more monolithic distinction.

You would get a clear contrast, however, if Wittgenstein’s practical emphasis did not merely articulate particular details and differences but also contrasted with McDowell’s understanding of the nature of normativity. If, for example, Wittgenstein were correctly described as a kind of social constructionist who merely showed how we can do without proper normativity (as Kripke and Kusch argue) and McDowell were a kind of Platonist then Wittgenstein would undermine McDowell’s distinction. But whilst he might be unsuccessful in his interpretation of Wittgenstein, it is clear that McDowell at least takes himself to be Wittgenstein’s faithful disciple in explaining the practical basis of normativity. I think he is the best of Wittgenstein interpreters.

What seems a more plausible criticism is Rorty’s. Rorty argues that the monolithic dualism is misleading. As a pragmatist, Rorty thinks that there are many kinds of vocabularies with many kinds of uses, purposes and advantages. Thus the distinction between normative and nomological (or lawlike) is one important distinction but only one of many. To set it out as particularly important threatens the very dualism that McDowell takes himself to be aiming to undermine.

It’s true that one of the features of McDowell’s writing is the use of a characteristic vocabulary. Further, just as one of the dangers of reading Wittgenstein is that one unconsciously apes the style without its positive effects, the same danger seems to apply to McDowell. Instinctively, in conversation even if not in one’s writing, phrases like ‘sideways on view’ become helpful but irritating short-hands. Both Kenneth Westphal and, more abrasively, Crispin Wright have accused McDowell of spreading a kind of jargon. Here’s a quote from Wright’s review of Mind and World taken from a discussion of it on Brian Leiter’s philosophy blog:

If analytical philosophy demands self-consciousness about unexplained or only partially explained terms of art, formality and explicitness in setting out of argument, and the clearest possible sign-posting and formulation of assumptions, targets, and goals, etc., then this is not a work of analytical philosophy....At its worst, indeed, McDowell’s prose puts barriers of jargon, convolution and metaphor before the reader hardly less formidable than those characteristically erected by his German luminaries.....[T]he stylistic extravagance of McDowell’s book--more extreme than in any of his other writings to date--will unquestionably color the influence it will exert...[T]he fear must be that the book will encourage too many of the susceptible to swim out of their depth in seas of rhetorical metaphysics. Wittgenstein complained that, “The seed I am most likely to sow is a certain jargon.” One feels that, if so, he had only himself to blame. McDowell is a strong swimmer, but his stroke is not to be imitated. [Wright, C. (1996) European Journal of Philosophy 4: 252]

There’s a worry here especially because McDowell aims at therapeutic philosophy. Of all philosophers, he shouldn’t be introducing irreducible technical terms.

Your suggestion that it would be worth deconstructing the metaphors suggests that you share the suspicion of Wright and others that the McDowellisms introduce a substantial and distorting effect: that the metaphoric content has effects which perhaps conflict with some of the explicit claims and / or the other metaphors. (Sadly, ‘deconstruction’ is not in my index, in Rorty’s helpful phrase, so that may not be quite what you meant.)

But I am not so worried about this. It does seem to me that many of the notions are pretty clearly innocent shorthands for complex ideas and which are thus eliminable at the cost, only, of making the work slower. Others are not so clear and it is not so clear that things are unproblematic in their vicinity (to use my own spatial metaphor!). But it seems to me that what makes the ‘partial re-enchantment of nature’ puzzling is not so much the result of choice of ‘enchantment’ but rather that the idea of the opposite of a slimmed down scientism is itself a puzzling philosophical notion. My hunch, in other words, is that the puzzle in such cases is not the distortion of McDowell’s style of writing so much as the articulation of the picture of nature.

That said, I think that the best McDowell is the most therapeutic. So his work on Wittgenstein, for example, seems much clearer than Mind and World because his main aim is to block needless philosophizing by showing the fundamental innocence of everyday notions. So that leaves a question: is the use of such metaphors (and it would be worth checking that that is what they are) an inevitable effect of therapeutic philosophy? In trying to get the right grasp of how, eg., our concepts have a kind of action at a distance, does one have to use that phrase, which one would never use whilst simply describing concepts outside that philosophical context?

(When writing my book, I wondered about what to do about such McDowellisms. Should I eliminate them all, on the assumption I could? I was instructed by an american reviewer of the manuscript for the original US publisher – some Acumen books are co-published by Princeton – that I should assume as a notional reader a not very bright undergraduate who had skipped his epistemology class. I ignored that advice both because I wasn’t sure I could act on it. But, in any case, if I had written such an introduction the gap between it and McDowell’s own texts would have been too great. I wanted to halve that intellectual gap. So, on the assumption that a proper understanding of McDowell would include fluency in his language I left them in, attemptingto explain them as they first appeared and added a glossary of 30 or so phrases.)

It is tempting to echo Zhou Enlai and just insist that it is too soon to say what the lasting significance of any of the best contemporary or recent philosophers (which bits of Davidson will last the longest?). If you believe that philosophy is a matter of system building, or providing insight into substantive metaphysical issues, then there seems to be a role for the next Newton and the problem is to guess who, now, seems most on track. But I’d like to suggest a different way of thinking about therapeutic philosophers following Wittgenstein.

If the primary role for philosophy is to diagnose the source of philosophical confusions, to remove the need for substantive claims (which turn out to lack meaning, according to this same approach), then philosophy cannot be cumulative, there cannot be progress towards a particular goal. But there can be a constant need for philosophical treatment as problems and puzzles arise, as we are constantly tempted into philosophy. (The alternative possibility is like Freud’s suggestion that once psychoanalysis became well known it would act as a prophylaxis because subconscious elements would realise that there was no future in repressing unpleasant memories etc.)

So, looking back we can see that when Kripke popularised a particular sceptical reading of Wittgenstein’s discussion of rules and philosophers like Wright and Dummett produced substantial philosophical theory influenced by such views, McDowell provided a subtle therapeutic reading of Wittgenstein, Kripke and Wright. In the face of the debate between Dummett and Davidson on how best to deploy a truth-based theory of meaning, McDowell suggests how such theories can be seen as charting our understanding. In the face of Rorty’s suggestion that justification is restricted to justification to an audience, McDowell points out both the problems of that solution and the assumptions that lead Rorty to think it necessary in the first place.

Thus one way of thinking of McDowell’s work would be to stress that it is a piece of contextually driven philosophical therapy and thus unlikely to last because the philosophical landscape will change. If that were the case, the substance, as it were, of the philosophy would not be the place to look for lasting significance. And one might add that the method is Wittgenstein’s so that is not McDowell’s own idea.

But there is something innovative about McDowell’s way with therapeutic philosophy. Unlike Wittgenstein he directly engages with the canon. Now it may also be that this raises problems (which reflect back into your second question). But if it is possible to use ideas drawn from Aristotle, Kant, Frege etc for positive therapeutic purposes, then that is potentially lasting idea for the nature of philosophy.

More on the everyday uncanny

What would it be like to see life as God’s work of art? How would that be? What is it to feel things to be uncanny or unreal?

This looks to be some sort of seeing as, a notion familiar from Wittgenstein’s discussion in the second part of the Investigations. And there is a hint that this might be worth thinking about in this context because Sass also invokes it. He suggests that Schreber’s construal of his body as feminine is a case of seeing as, and he connects his remark to Wittgenstein’s discussion of this phenomenon together with aspect-dawning [Sass1994: 30; Wittgenstein 1953: 193-229]. But at first this does not seem to help at all. How can Schreber see his body as feminine?

The most famous instances of seeing-as are cases of aspect dawning such as seeing either a duck or a rabbit in the duck-rabbit figure from Jastrow. Whilst the experiential change of aspect possible in such cases is peculiar there is something else quite straight forward in this example. The word ‘duck’ in the report ‘Now it is a duck’ carries an unproblematic interpretation. There is a complication here. Now it is a duck implies it isn’t a rabbit. And yet looking at the figure one also knows that nothing has changed. Still that doesn’t make ‘duck’ a different carry a different sense. But there are other cases of seeing-as which are less straight forward and thus more helpful in this context.

Wittgenstein suggests that there are some cases of seeing-as which can only be characterised with words used in a ‘secondary sense’. The key instance he gives is the attitude most of us have towards words. We feel that a word carries its meaning somehow immediately with it. It can loose this kind of meaning if repeated. Wittgenstein describes this kind of immediate perception of the meaning of a word in isolation as a form of understanding meaning. But since Wittgenstein’s official recommendation is to think of understanding as grasp of a practice, the use of the words ‘understanding’ and ‘meaning’ in the case at hand is not straight-forward. It is not a metaphor, however, because nothing can be said to explain why we want to use these words for this kind of experience. But whilst this is not a metaphorical use it is nevertheless a secondary use: one which we find natural given the primary use, but which is discontinuous with, and could not be used to teach, the primary use [Mulhall 2001: 163-82, Wittgenstein 1953: 216].

The Wittgensteinian philosopher Oswald Hanfling argues that the secondary use of words is more widespread than a few examples suggests [Hanfling1991]. In aesthetics, he argues, words such as ‘sad’ applied to music are used in secondary sense. (The music need not make a hearer sad, does not sound like a sad person etc.) In the description of feelings, phrases such as ‘pins and needles’, ‘butterflies in the stomach’ and ‘stabbing pains’ are all used in this way. Further, Wittgenstein’s own description of ‘feelings of unreality’ in which ‘everything seems somehow not real’ is also secondary.

§125. The feeling of the unreality of one’s surroundings. This feeling I have had once, and many have it before the onset of mental illness. Everything seems somehow not real; but not as if one saw things unclear or blurred; everything looks quite as usual. And how do I know that another has felt what I have? Because he uses the same words as I find appropriate.
But why do I choose precisely the word “unreality” to express it? Surely not because of its sound. (A word of very like sound but different meaning would not do.) I choose it because of its meaning.

But I surely did not learn to use the word to mean: a feeling. No; but I learned to use it with a particular meaning and now I use it spontaneously like this. One might say--though it may mislead--: When I have learnt the word in its ordinary meaning, then I choose that meaning as a simile for my feeling. But of course what is in question here is not a simile, not a comparison of the feeling with something else.

§126. The fact is simply that I use a word, the bearer of another technique, as the expression of a feeling. I use it in a new way. And wherein consists this new kind of use? Well, one thing is that I say: I have a ‘feeling of unreality’--after I have, of course, learnt the use of the word “feeling” in the ordinary way. Also: the feeling is a state. [Wittgenstein RPP I]

So the picture we have is this. Words in secondary sense are used in the expression of some moods and feelings. In characterising how such a feeling feels, in describing its ‘content’, one makes use of a phrase that does not straightforwardly mean (in this context) what it seems to say, although what it is used to say in the context depends on its primary meaning. To see life as God’s work of art looks to be such a use. To say that something is or feels unreal or uncanny is the same. The scene is not really unreal. Nor could it feel as if it were unreal. What would that be? What would it be if true?

So if the ‘everyday’ sense of the uncanny is a matter for secondary sense, could the same move work for the psychopathological case of delusional atmosphere? Two thoughts:

1) No. Contrast Schreber’s case with the claims both that a subject can see the duck-rabbit as a duck and that one can hear the meaning in a word.
a) In the duck-rabbit case, further explanation and justification can be given as to how the figure can be seen in that way (‘these are the wings, this the beak’ etc). In Schreber’s case, by contrast and as Sass himself emphasises, no further clarification is available.
b) But unlike the case of thinking of words as having meaning in itself in isolation - where again no further explanation appears available - we lack any more primitive shared understanding of the case. We can make nothing of Schreber’s use of female in this case. (To call it secondary sense would be at most a kind of external structural description. But what are the external meaning-free marks of secondary sense?)

2) It’s tempting – well it is for me! – to think that this is a case where the limits of sense are limitations (a distinction Stephen Mulhall (pictured) is good at pointing out and arguing against the latter [Mulhall 2006]). Ie that the attempt to force ‘female’ to carry a particular secondary sense as somehow against its (secondary sense) rules. But that is to mythologize secondary sense in the same way that construing the limits of sense as limitations mythologizes primary sense. Whilst in the case of primary sense, we might not have given symbols a use, so in the case of secondary sense, we have not found a place for a characteristic expressive use. How characteristic?

§789. When dealing with a ‘feeling of unreality’, we are inclined to say: “All I know is that under certain circumstances human beings often say that they felt everything around them was ‘unreal’. Naturally we also know what use of this word the people had learnt, and besides that something about their other utterances. More we do not know.”--Why don’t we talk in the same way when what is in question is utterances expressive of pleasure, of conviction, of the voluntariness and involuntariness of movements? [Wittgenstein RPP I]

We can say something in reply to this. The expressive uses of language for pleasure, conviction and voluntariness can all be disciplined by both third person criteria and further explanations and descriptions of their proper use. By contrast, the further descriptions that apply to feeling of unreality are few and closely dependent on its first person expression (not vice versa). But just as ‘butterflies in the stomach’ can take on stable third person conditions of use – it can attach to broader expressive behaviour, expressive of a feeling or mood – so there does not seem to be any principled barrier to less familiar use gaining more connections to a richer description of the context for its ‘proper’ use. That is, it can become normatively charged. Unusual secondary sense expression is just the limit case of this.

If so, the limits of secondary sense relevant to charting psychopathology may be porous and there is no interesting explanation of why we do not understand Schreber, if we do not. We just do not.

For a description of Sass's response to this line of thought, see this.

Wednesday 18 March 2009

Travis on Reason’s Reach

Some months having gone by since I first read it, I’ve been trying to get a feel for the significance of Travis’ ‘Reason’s Reach’. Equipped with a masterful summary drawn up by my colleague Gloria Ayob, I have more of a synoptic view of the article than I’ve had before. Without trespassing too much on her account (you’ll have to ask her), there are two kinds of argument at the heart of the article. But first some context.

Travis argues, first, that McDowell subscribes to a condition for experience to be able to exert a rational constraint on thought: ‘something non-conceptual… could not impinge rationally on what one is to think.’ [ibid: 180] Travis argues, however, that whilst McDowell attempts to accommodate the condition, it should be rejected because non-conceptual items can so impinge.

Second, we need the distinction, drawn from Frege, between extra conceptual and conceptual items on the left and right of a notional line. One point of contrast is that the former can be perceived but not the latter. So, eg., one might look at the rug to see that the meat is on the rug (pictured). But equally, one might look at Pia’s face. ‘That the sun has set (in Rostock) may be, in some sense, about a location. But it has none. The sun, perhaps, is in the sky. That it has set is not.’ [182]

Perceivable items can represent only under an interpretation but the fact that something is taken to represent is not itself perceivable. Furthermore and more importantly, conceptual items possess a kind of generality. Even the concept of being Frege could be instantiated in a number of ways even if only by Frege had he been taller or shorter or different in any number of non-essential ways.

Travis then advances two sorts of argument to support the claim that extra-conceptual items (to the left of Frege’s line) can rationally constrain judgement.

One sort runs (thanks to G for the next five sentences) as follows: If rational relations could only hold between two conceptual relata, this would mean that rational relations can only hold between generalities (since ‘the conceptual’ is defined as that which presupposes generalities). If rational relations held only between generalities, then things being as they are could not determine when one made an error in judging that an object instances being x (i.e. that the object fits a relevant range of cases), and when not. But things being as they are can determine whether or not one has made an error in judging that an object instances being x. So, rational relations do not hold only between generalities. Since the conceptual presupposes generality, this means that rational relations do not hold only between two conceptual relata (that is, the condition outlined at the start is mistaken).

This argument, it seems to me, is a powerful appeal to a pre-philosophical account. Travis reminds us of the fact that everyday objects – which instance generalities rather than being generalities – can rationally constrain judgement. Thus, any account that conflicts with this is, prima facie, falsified by our everyday understanding.

The other sort of argument concerns Travis’ philosophical signature dish: occasion sensitivity. Travis starts from the idea that the judgement that, for example, a packet of kidneys counts as meat depends on the occasion.

Handing you a packet from the butcher’s I say, ‘Here’s the meat I bought for dinner’. You open it and find the kidneys. ‘I don’t call that meat’, you say. ‘Meat, for me, is muscle’. ‘Well, I do’, I say helpfully. Again one of us may be demonstrably wrong. Lamb’s kidneys are no more meat than wool is, to one who knows what meat is. But perhaps not. In fact, there are various understandings one might have of being meat, consistent with what being meat is as such. In that sense, being meat admits of understandings. We sometimes distinguish (eg., in good markets) between meat and offal. Then if the kidneys wound up in the meat section they are in the wrong place.. On the other hand, one would not (usually) serve kidneys to a vegetarian with the remark, ‘I made sure there would be no meat at dinner’…. There are various ways being meat admits of being thought of. [187]

So with that reminder of occasion sensitivity in mind, Travis suggests that if seeing how things are is, as it seems, conceptually structured. But seeing things to be a particular way inherits the same occasion sensitivity as judgement and this sets up a contrast between seeing extra conceptual objects (pieces of meat) and the conceptualised correlates of judgements.

Travis suggests a scene in which there is meat on a rug.

Pia enters. What is there for her to see? For one thing, that [demonstrative] meat. That would be a right answer on any occasion for giving one. It is a relative fixed point across occasions for answering that question. I referred to the meat in speaking of it as meat... [190]
Suppose we decided to restrict [(with McDowell)] rational relations to the conceptual. Then, for one to see what bore on what he was to think, he would have to see things that belonged to the conceptual. So there would have to be such things to be seen; things which became visible to one, say, on entering the salon and looking at the rug. One would see these things on a different notion of seeing than the one on which one sees a piece of meat. One might, eg, see that the meat was on the rug. What one thus saw would not be literally in the surroundings. It could not have a location…
Suppose we ask the question just asked for seeing on the notion on which Pia saw the meat. What of the conceptual is visible in the scene in the salon? A prior question: what of it is present in things being as they (there) are? Here we lose the stability there was for what is present, and visible, of the non-conceptual. That that meat is present is relatively insensitive to occasions for saying so; that it…is visible roughly equally so. Not so with such things as that there is meat on the rug. For what is on the rug is liable to count as meat on some understandings of being meat but not on others (eg, if it is kidneys).

Occasion sensitivity helps to strengthen an idea already in play: that concepts are general and apply to a range of cases whereas extra-conceptual objects instantiate such concepts and, themselves, lack generality. Occasion sensitivity plays up the idea that the range in play is flexible. And this puts pressure on the idea that, in experience, there might be something conceptual (a range of cases, a range which is sensitive to the occasion on which, eg., a question is asked). By making trouble for the idea that experience is conceptual – occasion sensitivity forces the question of which concepts? – Travis is able to push attention back to the claim that the extra-conceptual can constrain judgement, which he argues is innocent.

In his reply, McDowell argues that his picture of the conceptual as having no outer boundary was meant to undermine any worry that reason is shut off from embracing objects lying outside it. He accepts a condition even if not quite Travis’ condition: ‘reason’s reach extends no further than conceptual capacities can take it’ [ibid: 259] This places no objects outside it but does express a limit: nothing can impinge on a subject’s rationality except through their conceptual abilities. (It is this which underpins McDowell’s rejection of the Myth of the Given.) So left hand side extra conceptual items can impinge on rationality or reason but only via conceptual abilities.

There is nothing outside the conceptual. That is as much as to say: there is nothing beyond the reach of reason. In this context, to say reason’s reach coincides with the conceptual cannot be to draw a boundary around reason’s reach, leaving some things outside it. The image precisely rejects any boundary... Certainly pieces of meat, say, are not conceptual; they belong on the left-hand side of Frege’s line. But they are not outside the conceptual, in a sense that could possibly cohere with my image of unboundedness...
Certainly my condition sets a limit to reason’s reach. If it did not, there would be no point in affirming it. But a limit need not be a boundary, and this limit had better not be one. What my condition disallows is the idea that something, for instance a piece of meat, can impinge on a subject’s rationality without conceptual capacities, capacities that belong to reason, being drawn on in the subject’s being thus related to it.

This is a strikingly relaxed response to the worry Travis presents. It seems at first as though Travis has both undermined the key claim of Mind and World – that to find intentionality unmysterious we need to acknowledge a transcendental role for experience which is itself only acceptable if experience is conceptually structured and also a form of direct openness – and that he has replaced it with a less philosophically loaded, more therapeutic picture. McDowell’s response claims that he is better placed to present that less loaded picture (in which pieces of meat can exert a rational constraint on our judgements).

So we need, I think, to assess both Travis’s argument against McDowell’s account of the content of experience and whether what Travis can say about experience is enough. Not that I will try that now. But, in reverse order, in ‘Reason’s reach’, this is what Travis says about the content of experience:

Pia seeing what she did as to how things were need not be seeing things to be such-and-such way. We may simply think of her experience as follows. Pia saw what she did of things being as they were, in the scene before her; thus saw what she did as to how they were (notably, though possibly not only, how the scene before her was). She was thus enabled to recognise the instancing of an indefinite variety of bits of the conceptual, within the limits of her grasp of what instancing them requires; and to treat the world accordingly within the limits of her appreciation of what difference it would then make that such-and-such generality was instanced. What she saw of how things were need no more (nor less) be that there was meat on the rug than that there were edible animal parts there – even though for things to be one way is not in general for them, ipso facto, to be the other. There need be no particular repertoire of conceptual items which, in the scene’s being as it was, just were those present and (all going right) visible – not even an infinite repertoire – nor any such repertoire which just were, as such, the ones Pia saw... [193]
Pia, like most of us, can adjust her way of saying what she saw to fit the occasion for saying it, so that, in the words she chooses, she will say the right thing. She may speak of meat as on a rug, when so doing would be saying the right thing. When it would not, then, seeing that, she can speak of something else – say, edible animal parts. What she saw is no more what she speaks of in some one such way than what she speaks of in another. Her experience is no more of any one such structuring of concepts than of any other. [194]

And McDowell charges that this isn’t enough, that it is an instance of the Myth of the Given.

[W]e stand in those cognitively significant relations to left-hand side items by having experiences in which conceptual capacities of ours are actualised. In Travis’ picture, by contrast, conceptual capacities are in play, in connection with experience, only in rational responses on our part to left-hand side items that experience anyway makes available to us for such responses: for instance in recognising something we see as a piece of meat... the presence to us of left-hand side items in experience... does not itself draw on capacities that belong to our reason. [261]
In Travis’s picture, as I said, the availability to us in experience of left-hand side items is not itself a matter of actualization of conceptual capacities. Actualization of conceptual capacities comes into play only in rational responses to things we anyway experience.This is a form of the Myth of the Given. [266]

This suggests a two-fold issue with Travis’ picture. First, is there a problem with the idea that extra-conceptual objects can hold sway over reason? Is McDowell’s basic intuition here (at the start of Mind and World) right? Second, is Travis’ very slimmed down account of experience right in its own right, aside from the broader strategic issues? Can we get away with saying so little?

What of Travis’ objection to McDowell’s account of experience? There is a distinct line of reasoning elsewhere (eg. ‘The silence of the senses’) but in this paper occasion sensitivity drives the idea that putting concepts into an account of experience invites the question ‘which concepts?’ and there is no stable answer to that. That worry seems to be the motivation for McDowell’s two-fold retreat from the Mind and World picture (experience is intuitionally rather than propositionally structured; and not just any concept can be directly involved in structuring experience although any can be the result of an act of recognition). Neither – neither Travis’ nor McDowell’s account – seems entirely attractive.

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.

Tuesday 17 March 2009

The everyday uncanny

I’ve been invited to Matthew Ratcliffe’s University of Durham workshop on psychopathology and the emotions next week and have just now been able to begin to think what to talk about. Since one of the main speakers is Louis Sass (pictured) it seems worth taking his fine short book The Paradoxes of Delusion as my starting point.

In that, Sass says that he aims to counter Jaspers’ pessimism about the possibility of understanding primary delusions by developing just such an account.

In this book I attempt to do what, according to Jaspers, cannot be done: to comprehend both empathically and conceptually some of the most bizarre and mysterious symptoms of schizophrenia. [Sass 1994: 6]

Taking Schreber’s narrative – Memoirs of My Nervous Illness – as his lead, he argues that Schreber’s experiences defy a simple ‘poor reality testing’ approach to defining delusion. An important reason for that is that such an approach takes no account of the difference in force of ordinary beliefs (whether true or false) and schizophrenic delusions. The latter display an ‘as if’ quality.

[M]any schizophrenics who seem to be profoundly preoccupied with their delusions, and who cannot be swayed from belief in them, nevertheless treat these same beliefs with what seems a certain distance or irony… A related feature of schizophrenic patients is what has been called their ‘double bookkeeping’… A patient who claims that the doctors and nurses are trying to torture and poison her may nevertheless happily consume the food they give her; a patient who asserts that the people around him are phantoms or automatons still interacts with them as if they were real. [Sass 1994: 21]

Sass suggests that this tone can be captured by comparing such delusions to expressions of philosophical solipsism.

I have, in the past, expressed some scepticism of this approach. The main problem is that if we take seriously Wittgenstein’s claims about the nonsensical status of solipsism then it threatens to undermine the content of the comparison aimed at shedding light on schizophrenia. We don’t need to be ‘resolute’ readers of the early Wittgenstein to take his critique of solipsism in particular to turn not on its falsity but on the fact that it fails to be a thesis of any sort. ‘Solipsism, when its implications are followed out strictly, coincides with pure realism.’ (Rupert Read was the first person, I know, to publish this line of thought. But he pushed it in the context of a resolute reading.)

Sass qualifies the nature of the thesis. It is not, for example, that to suffer schizophrenia is to believe solipsism to be true. But it is ‘as if’ that.

Let us call this the attitude of ‘quasi-solipsism’ (since the experience is not accompanied by a full and explicit awareness in philosophical terms of the doctrine of solipsism). [ibid: 39]

(So we have a double ‘as if’ quality. Solipsism supports an ‘as if’ attitude to the objective world in a number of respects that Sass discusses. But it is only ‘as if’ that is what is believed by Schreber.)

Now one aspect of the psychopathology in question is that of delusional atmosphere: the uncanny feeling of significance that Jaspers thought sufficiently important that it alone could qualify a belief it accompanied as delusional even if the belief had no cognitive defect. This is one of the phenomena Sass attempts to elucidate and given my scepticism about the general shape of his approach, I am (and should be for consistency) sceptical about his prospects. But this presents a problem for me. The problem is that whatever condition holds which rules out understanding delusional atmosphere (if my Jaspers-inspired pessimism is right), it had better not rule out understanding an everyday experience of the uncanny on pain of imposing a simple-minded literalness on our moods. But what is it to feel that something is uncanny? What is the content of the feeling or mood?

887. The feeling of the uncanny. How is it manifested? The duration of such a 'feeling'. What is it like, e.g., for it to be interrupted? Would it be possible, for example, to have it and not have it every other second? Don't its marks include a characteristic kind of course (beginning and ending), distinguishing it from, e.g., a sense perception? [Wittgenstein Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, Volume I]

A couple of nights ago I watched the Spanish film The Orphanage. Its great virtue is atmosphere. The film slowly builds up a sense of strangeness, significance and particular importance of historical resonances. Later, it degenerates into something simply supernatural (supernatural things just happen and we are left with an explicable story arc if you grant the supernatural premises). But, in the early stages, it is successfully uncanny. Perfectly ordinary things happen (we see, for example, children playing a game outside a house) and yet the atmosphere of the film casts these in an alienating light. But I don’t mean that we see in these ordinary events portents of the supernatural happenings that are, as it happens, to come. There is something changed in their everydayness but not in the banal sense of the merely supernatural.

Wittgenstein describes something helpful in this context:

Engelmann told me that when he rummages round at home in a drawer full of his own manuscripts, they strike him as so glorious that he thinks they would be worth presenting to other people. (He said it’s the same when he is reading through letters from his dead relations.) But when he imagines a selection of them published he said the whole business loses its charm & value & becomes impossible I said this case was like the following one: Nothing could be more remarkable than seeing someone who thinks himself unobserved engaged in some quite simple everyday activity. Let’s imagine a theatre, the curtain goes up & and we see someone alone in his room walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, seating himself etc. so that suddenly we are observing a human being from outside in a way that ordinarily we can never observe ourselves; as if we were watching a chapter from a biography with our own eyes,--surely this would be at once uncanny and wonderful. More wonderful than anything that a playwright could cause to be acted or spoken on the stage. We should be seeing life itself.--But then we do see this every day & it makes not the slightest impression on us! True enough, but we do not see it from that point of view.--Similarly when E. looks at his writings and finds them splendid (even though he would not care to publish any of the pieces individually) he is seeing his life as God’s work of art, & and as such it is certainly worth contemplating, as is every life & everything whatever. But only the artist can represent the individual thing so that it appears to us as a work of art; those manuscripts rightly lose their value if we contemplate them singly & in any case without prejudice, i.e. without being enthusiastic about them in advance. The work of art compels us--as one might say--to see it in the right perspective, but without art the object is a piece of nature like any other & the fact that we may exalt it through our enthusiasm does not give anyone the right to display it to us. (I am always reminded of one of those insipid photographs of a piece of scenery which is interesting to the person who took it because he was there himself, experienced something, but which a third party looks at with justifiable coldness; insofar as it is ever justifiable to look at something with coldness.)But now it seems to me too that besides the work of the artist there is another through which the world may be captured sub specie æterni. It is--as I believe--the way of thought which as it were flies above the world and leaves it the way it is, contemplating it from above in its flight. [Wittgenstein MS 109 28: 22.8.1930]

In this vignette, Wittgenstein imagines that we change our view of everyday events. recontextualised and reviewed, ordinary events become ‘at once uncanny and wonderful’ because seen from a new point of view compared with ‘seeing life as God’s work of art’.

But this seems only to postpone the problem. What is it to see life as God’s work of art? How would that be?

More here.

Tuesday 10 March 2009

Philosophy and film

One of the ongoing plans to bring ISCRI, our methodologically diverse school, together is an ongoing methods seminar on conceptual issues in social, psycho-social, philosophical and relevant natural science methods. Yesterday, Niall Scott convened a workshop on film as a resource for philosophical analysis. Given that, in the audience, non-philosophers out numbered philosophers, Niall very sensibly restricted himself to opening up the debate rather outlining his own thinking in any detail. Thus I’m in the strange position of knowing what one question in the area is without having more than a hint of how the field has then gone to address it.

That question is: to what extent can film itself philosophise as opposed to merely prompt philosophical reflection in its audience. The latter role is obvious: once when teaching a philosophy course for gifted youth I deployed both episodes of Star Trek and the first Matrix film to tempt the students into philosophy (sci fi seems to have cornered this market). But whether film itself can carry philosophical content is less clear. The question – which was clearly welcomed by Niall as reflecting an aspect of present debate – evolved naturally in early discussion and I’d like, when there’s time, to read that literature (I might manage Stephen Mulhall even if not Deleuze and Guattari). But in the meantime I want rashly to speculate about it.

It hardly needs saying that film cannot philosophise as agents can. If the proper vehicle of philosophy is restricted to, eg., a self-conscious subject then there is no hope for film. Another coordinate for the issue might be a reaction to both Scruton and Wittgenstein. If reality doesn’t simply present philosophical problems – if the apple of philosophy has already to have been eaten to prompt the need for a further dose of philosophy, now as therapy – and if film simply re-presents that reality, it doesn’t look as though it will be philosophical itself. It will not force a philosophical response.

It seems sensible therefore to start with a comparison with what can be philosophical: paradigmatically philosophy texts. But, of course, not any appreciation of such a text will count. I’ve heard the Tractatus in German set to music (a modernist arrangement for strings, I seem to recall) and whilst I had an aesthetic reaction to it (not good), this had nothing to do with its philosophical content. It would have to be something like: such texts are philosophical under a proper understanding. But, I fear that using this inelegant idea as a comparison for film would score a positive answer to the question only for the most clunkily philosophical of films which, like the Dark Knight, simply stage, eg., the prisoners dilemma, or like half a dozen Star Trek episodes track issues of identity explicitly as presented in the philosophy texts the script writers have clearly revised (which is, at least, a good thing when teaching gifted youth).

What’s less clear to me in this my tabula rasa state is whether there’s any mileage in the idea of film without this pedagogic intent requiring, rather than merely prompting, a philosophically informed understanding; nor whether there could be anything about philosophical content that could only be carried by film rather than text.

There: now I should look at what is actually said in the philosophy of film.

Thursday 5 March 2009

Seeing the earth turn

I took a train down to Warwick today for a one-day AHRC funded conference tomorrow on philosophy of psychiatry organised by Havi Carel and Rachel Cooper. (I'm in the Green Man, pictured, as I type.) I see that it will take place in a lecture room pretty much next door to the office I occupied in my last, not entirely happy, year at Warwick. Based up in the medical school I was semi-detached from the philosophy department but did too little, in retrospect, to develop a wider interest in philosophy of psychiatry / medicine among my new colleagues.

My last week at Warwick was particularly charged. It involved running the week long medical ethics teaching for unwilling second year medical students. Whilst I am no ethicist and cannot claim – unlike my then Warwick colleague Bill Fulford – to have a distinct and rival approach instead, the main role wasn’t so much academic as theatrical. I had to be an impresario coordinating the outside acts (from the BMA, NIMHE, MDU etc) and improvising rousing final remarks at the end of each day and the week. This seemed more stressful because I no longer lived in the area. But on reflection my stress was probably nothing compared to that of my steadier medical school colleagues anxious - and perhaps faintly disbelieving - at my last minute arrivals. I have been back once to Warwick to conduct Jakob Lindgaard’s PhD viva; but that was the main campus. I wonder how it will seem to be back in the medical school.

Sorry, that’s way too biographical (the result, perhaps, of a quick pint of Doddon brewery Ferryman’s Gold whilst waiting for my TNC friends to arrive). The pretext for all of that is merely this. As the train pulls out of Oxenholme station, one has a view over Kendal and towards the first fells in the south east of the Lake District national park. Today Ill Bell was topped with snow, picked out by sun, against looming dark clouds further north. Prompted by a memory of first arriving to live there when I was not sure what I was seeing, I was struck today by a cognitive contrast. I now know what I’m seeing. But the subtler change isn’t merely cognitive but also, somehow, experiential. From the train, I now see Kendal to be in a bowl in the low hills which lead slowly ten miles in the higher fells. I see Scout Scar, the hill on the far side, to be what helps save the Park from industrial Kendal’s light pollution. In seeing the town, I ‘see’ its position relative to the unseen landmarks: the increasingly interesting landscape as one travels north west. But I’ve not before been enough struck by the nature of this experience.

Recall Hanson’s basic discussion of Wittgenstein in Patterns of Discovery and his suggestion that Tycho and Kepler have contrasting experiences at dawn (in a way that threatens a simple minded empiricism). One sees the sun rising and the other the earth turning. But as Churchland argues, in Scientific Realism and the Plasticity of Mind, that claim is not phenomenologically accurate. Really to experience the earth turning one needs to do more than get up early having had a liberal education. One needs to do some work: going to a latitude of 30 degrees, to a smooth sea or ocean, and when there are some visible planets. Then, with one’s neck perpendicular to the plane of the ecliptic, one can fix not onto a distracting earthly horizon but the plane of the planets and then, at sunrise, one can experience the earth turn. But what sort of experience is this?

Of course, the obvious way into this is back again – via Hanson, as it were – to Wittgenstein’s idea that, in aspect perception, the kind of expression one is spontaneously inclined to make (“Now it’s a duck”) plays a constitutive role even when one knows that – really! – nothing has changed. But what kind of as if experience is this? ‘Now it’s a duck’ implies it’s not now a rabbit. But ‘now the earth is twisting’ is odd because that is indeed just what is going on. It seems strange to think of an ‘as if’ experience which is also veridical. It’s tempting to think that even in this case there’s something odd, something slightly misfiring, about the utterance. Perhaps I’m struck by this today because of Moyal-Sharrock’s book yesterday.

Wednesday 4 March 2009

A bit more on Moyal-Sharrock on On Certainty

I’ve wondered hither and thither through Danièle Moyal-Sharrock’s book on the train for the last two days and I’ve found it helpful. A third book on On Certainty seems a good thing even if the source text still doesn’t seem half as interesting as the Investigations.

I want to pick out just one thread. Unlike some other commentators, Moyal-Sharrock thinks that the bipolarity of propositions was a constant commitment of Wittgenstein throughout his writing. (Bipolarity: every proposition must be capable of being true and capable of being false. It is more restrictive than bivalence: every proposition is either true or false.) Thus only something that could be true and could be false counts as a proposition. So, in the context of the later Wittgenstein as usually described (the second Wittgenstein for Moyal-Sharrock), grammatical prescriptions, which set out conditions for playing particular language games (there is no such thing as reddish green; pink is lighter than red; 2 + 2 = 4), cannot be false and thus do not count as propositions. To put it that way is to mislead, however, – sorry! – because neither are they true. (At this point, some commentators are happier to say that they are true in a minimal or surd manner.) So what looked like metaphysical, supernatural truths are, instead, merely norms that prescribe the correct use of terms in empirical language games and perhaps license empirical inferences.

Moyal-Sharrock argues that the later, later Wittgenstein (the third Wittgenstein) realised that this status applied not only to sentences that looked metaphysical or supernatural but also to some that look merely empirical but very sure. Moore’s ‘This is a hand’ is one such. In so far as Moore is right - which is not very far, I hasten to add - it’s because he’s articulating a grammatical rule, something that lays out the conditions for empirical language games of doubt and knowledge, or reason giving. Since, when being used to articulate a grammatical rule, they cannot be false, they are not propositions. Neither do they have a positive empirical role (contra Moore).

If I say in the middle of a conversation: ‘I am here’, the sentence has no truth-value because, pronounced in such circumstances, it has no informational, hypothetical or descriptive use. [Moyal-Sharrock 2007: 93]

So there is no use which combines both their pre-language-game certainty and a fact stating role. But this point goes further.

Moore’s confusion is explained by the fact that the very same sentence can play a doppelganger role. Stripped of its certainty by the right context, it can be used to make an empirical claim (on an amputation ward, perhaps) and that explains our confusion in thinking that the rest of our empirical claims might be founded on very sure true propositional claims. So what look like hinge propositions are really grammatical rules which are neither true nor false. They can be used heuristically to explain correct empirical use. So they can be spoken. But they cannot, in a charged sense, be said: a form of vocalisation restricted to propositions. This idea of a background grammatical fits Marie McGinn’s account from twenty years ago here:

Thus, my certainty regarding, say, the judgement ‘This is a hand’ is to be seen as a pre-epistemic attitude that is in part constitutive of my practical ability to speak the language. the judgement that this is a hand is not a piece of knowledge – a true, justified belief, based on evidence – but an authoritative expression of my established mastery of English. [McGinn 1989: 144]

But not McGinn’s acceptance of the applicability of truth to hinges, at least in a derivative sense expressed here:

We are not, therefore, to think of Moore-type [ie framework] propositions as stating empirical truths, in the sense of something which has turned out to be so but which may have turned out otherwise. The judgements of the frame are not applying our language in propositions whose meaning is independent of their truth-value; for these judgements, their being true in part determines the meaning of the expressions being employed. [McGinn 1989: 142]

Still, I’m not sure that the difference is as great as all that. All turns on the next bit. This is just my first reaction and I may take it down later.

Moyal-Sharrock goes beyond what I’ve said so far in saying that hinge propositions, in not having bipolarity and thus not being propositions at all, are, in fact, nonsense in a technical sense. This fits with the idea that their use to make a claim in conversation but without the context that might make for doubt or knowledge would be bizarre (I am here; this is a token etc). But now the sense of ‘nonsense’ in play looks too strong to me.

It’s not just a Travisian point that use and meaning are highly contextually and pragmatically determined. The use is sufficiently reified that it can said to be nonsense (whereas the doppelganger use isn’t nonsense) but it is – if I’m reading this right – nonsense in virtue of the way the words are put together and the context in which they are launched. Moore isn’t just baffled by his own utterance (in the way that we may not know whether – to follow Travis – it’s right to say that ‘Smith is at home’ is true if he is in his house but it has been pushed downhill in a landslide; we know that there’s something misleading about just saying ‘Smith is at home’ without qualification).

Moore is led by the composition of the sentence to use just that sentence in that context even though it’s illicit. Whilst it would be fine for a philosopher-anthropologist to use it to chart Moore’s certainty in practice (it can play a heuristic role and the form of words matters for that), his certainty is ineffable and thus his attempt to put it into words, to say what should only be shown, results in nonsense. (I should refer back to posts on Adrian Moore here. Moore also has a notion that putting something ineffable into words results in nonsense and yet it has to be the right bit of nonsense, as it were, to count as such an attempt.) But if so, it looks very much like a two tier view of nonsense. The nonsense isn’t just of the ‘iggle wiggle piggle’ variety.

Now as Moyal-Sharrock emphasises, ‘nonsense’ is not a perjorative word for Wittgenstein. So we might simply keep an eye on the connection between sense and propositionality, sense and bipolarity, and not worry about calling everything else ‘nonsense’ but in a significant kind of way. But given that there are so many other perfectly ordinary uses of words which are not true or false, it seems excessive to deploy the label ‘nonsense’ for these cases and this corrective would, in any case, diminish our understanding of the ineffability of hinges. (Other things that would count as nonsense would not be ineffable. So the status as nonsense does not explain what fails when we try to express our certainty in words rather than actions.)

Maybe I’ve spent too long being confused by resolute readings but that experience has taken to this extent: now any sense of nonsense which isn’t actually nonsense seems a cheat.

Monday 2 March 2009

Moyal-Sharrock on On Certainty

I’ve begun to look at Danièle Moyal-Sharrock’s Understanding Wittgenstein’s On Certainty (Moyal-Sharrock, D (2007) Understanding Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) which fits both my proposed project with Richard Gipps and Gloria Ayob on nonsense and psychotic thought and my proposed book with Neil Gascoigne on tacit knowledge. So far, I am just aiming to get a feeling for it.

It was suggested to me by one of Moyal-Sharrock’s PhD students at Hertfordshire who said that it was an interesting counter to McDowell. I think that the contrast she had in mind was between McDowell’s commitment to the connection between mind and world being always within the realm of concepts and Moyal-Sharrock’s emphasis on a non-propositional bedrock of animal certainty / certainties.

The broad outline – for anyone who hasn’t read On Certainty – is that, in one of his last two works (there is some excitement in reading the dated notes that form the book if one is aware of the date of his death and the limited time he has), Wittgenstein responds to Moore’s anti-sceptical proof of the external world. Moore’s proof starts with his assertion that he knows that this is a hand (which is a worldly object and hence the first step to disprove the evil genie / brain in a vat hypothesis). Wittgenstein counters that Moore knows no such thing. There is a contrast between claims that are candidates for knowledge or doubt, for which reasons can be given, and the background of certainty / certainties which is presupposed by such language games. Moore’s claim illicitly straddles these two categories. The certainty belongs to the background. That this is a hand is one of the things we take for granted. But for that reason, it is not a candidate for knowledge and thus not something known.

The main difficulty in giving a simple interpretation of On Certainty is familiarly Wittgensteinian. What one wants to say is somehow undermined. So whilst it seems straightforward to say that the ‘language game’ of giving and asking for reasons presupposes a background which is simply taken for granted, that doubt and knowledge presupposes certainty which is animal, Wittgenstein also describes the objects of that attitude, the certainties so held. In part this is because he starts with Moore who articulates just such a ‘content’ or ‘object’ in ‘this is a hand’. These include: ‘There are lots of objects in the world’, ‘The world has existed for quite a long time’, ‘There are some chairs and tables in this room’, ‘This is one hand and this is another’. The awkwardness now is characterising these contents correctly without falling into trap of suggesting what I want to call an epistemic relation to them rather than a pre-epistemic relation. Once they have been articulated or carved out into sentence shaped chunks they look the sort of thing one believes albeit with great certainty.

From a first quick scan, Moyal-Sharrock’s main innovation seems to be to think about this very point against a background of Wittgenstein’s views on propositions. These have essentially two poles. So only something that can be true and can be false counts as a proposition. But since Moore-type propositions could not be false, they cannot really be propositions. In fact, she argues, they cannot be said – cannot be said as true, that is – either as they would have no use. So the certainties articulated as hinge- or Moore propositions are not really propositions. They are non-propositional. (The same form of words can form a kind of doppelganger of such certainties and can take on propositional form; but that has no consequence for the expression of certainties in genuine propositions.)

But I’m not sure that this is really an anti-McDowellian view. It seems so if one thinks of one’s access to the world as mediated by strange non-propositional but proposition-like entities. That would be a different matter. But the idea that there is a necessary background, which is not itself a set of propositional attitudes, presupposed by propositionally or conceptually structured attitudes does not seem to run counter to the idea that experience is always conceptually structured. So the question I need to address is just what is the status in Moyal-Sharrock’s account of these apparently propositionally or conceptually structured ‘objects’ of an attitude of certainty: ‘There are lots of objects in the world’, ‘The world has existed for quite a long time’, ‘There are some chairs and tables in this room’, ‘This is one hand and this is another’.

See this later entry for a view of a central theme in the book.