Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Having a turn

At Uclan, we aim to interview all our prospective undergraduate philosophy students. One of the areas we often ask about has to do with the role of group discussions in teaching and learning. Have they had any experience of that; do they enjoy it and take part; and, have they ever changed their mind about an issue as a result of someone else’s reasoned arguments? (We’re not looking for a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ obviously.)

Reading some Dreyfus on the train today for the paper I plan to write for the Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice I had a strong flashback to how it had seemed when I first read it. Then, his emphasis on the pre-intellectual background that (he argues) makes explicit judgement possible – explicitly echoing the analytic philosophy translations of Being and Time (that he had so much to do with promoting) but also Wittgenstein, the subject of my PhD – seemed exactly right. He seemed to be on the side of the angels and saying something obviously and even pre-philosophically true.

Today, by contrast, it is impossible not to expect (I’d use the word ‘anticipate’ if it didn’t imply action) the exchange between Dreyfus and McDowell in Inquiry a couple of year’s ago (see my problem with ‘expect’?). The background to that exchange was Dreyfus’s criticism from the throne of the APA of McDowell’s description of human subjects as conceptually-laden from perception through thought to action. Dreyfus argued that McDowell had over-intellectualised human intelligence. Conceptual abilities rest on a background (or ‘Background’) of non-conceptual doings.

In the exchange in Inquiry, however, McDowell defends himself against all the specific arguments which, eg., depend on assuming that concepts are general in strong the sense of being always situation independent. A McDowellian appeal to phronesis balances the necessary generality of concepts with the possibility of their being tied to particular situations. (Object-dependent Fregean thoughts are the most obvious example of this line of approach where a general ability is tied to specific objects to say ‘That cat is …’.) I’ll come back to their discussion as I mull over tacit knowledge over the next few months (o multitude, surely, of blog readers!) but today the point is simply that the valence of my attitude to Dreyfus has switched over. Whilst I’m still – after 12 years – not sure about McDowell’s empiricism, he seems spot on about the conceptual structuring of skilled coping. So I’ve changed my mind about the philosophical innocence of Dreyfus’ account.

How many other things have I changed my mind over? Probably more than immediately strike me (it’s reading Dreyfus today that made that one obvious, eg.). The most obvious is my attitude to nomological accounts of causation (quite impervious to those now). But I do wish I could edit every occasion I’ve used the word ‘narrative’ in print. Still, what seems impossible, but what I would love to aspire to in order, perhaps, to enjoy another 20 years of being a student of philosophy would be a proper ‘turn’. To wake up and find Quine preferable to Wittgenstein, or Australian Realism better than Oxford linguistic analysis. That would be something.

(PS: The original motive to set up this blog was to show my Philosophy and Mental Health graduate students that work that might end up being published began as puzzled and sometimes contradictory thoughts. More recently, it has occurred to me that showing my working in this way might simply prevent me ever getting a next job. Please, not, o heads of large US philosophy departments! Be that as it may, the changes of mind that are an intrinsic part of first forming one’s view on a subject are not what I meant above.)