Tuesday 23 June 2009

Rationality, interpretation and inconsistency

One of my underlying philosophical commitments is to the idea that there’s something right about what Rorty described in Davidson’s work as the ‘philosophy of language of the field linguist’. So the idea that radical interpretation is a good perspective from which to think about meaning (although some care is needed to avoid a Quinean sideways on view of it), and that it connects belief and meaning holistically to the demands of rationality even whilst that notion resists codification, are both in my conceptual index. In picking out the philosophy of language of the field linguist, I also mean to leave on the shelf the framework of the Tarskian truth theory with its paratactic analysis of ‘that’ and dark talk of same-saying etc.

Still even this gives me something to worry about in its application within philosophy of psychiatry. If rationality is at the heart of interpretability and if that is at the heart of mentality, what are we to make of the apparently mental and apparently non-rational psychopathological experiences and states?

One person who has a particular line on this is Lisa Bortolotti. Admirably steeped in Davidson, she’s mounted a kind of immanent critique. I’ve just been reading her 2003 paper ‘Inconsistency and interpretation’ in which she aims to make trouble for the central role of rationality in interpretation given (hardly surprising) empirical claims about the inconsistency in beliefs of real people (including college students, for heaven’s sake!).

Bortolotti considers two moves Davidson can make. One is to claim that whilst obvious inconsistencies are ruled out by the Constitutive Principle of Charity, unobvious ones may not be. So Davidson can argue that if beliefs are not ‘active’ or attended to then they may be held despite being inconsistent. Because the distinction between active and unactive isn’t a logical or semantic distinction I’ll ignore this bit of the paper and, in any case, Bortolotti doesn’t claim very much from it.

In the next section, she offers a key distinction between ‘conformity with’ and ‘subscription to’ norms of rationality. If we assume that radical interpretation is tied to the first (as a methodological and thus a constitutive thesis) there are problems with real cases of inconsistency. But if we retreat to subscription, we can defend actual inconsistency at the ground level (with it regained at a higher level of subjects correcting attended to inconsistency). But then, if subscription doesn’t imply in general conformity, it is no help in radical interpretation. Further, Davidson seems to say it isn’t a matter of evidential connection. So Bortolotti concludes that if there is no connection between subscription and conformity then the link between rationality and interpretation in radical interpretation is lost.

If this is what is going on in the paper, then Bortolotti’s rejection of an empirical link between subscription and conformity does a great deal of work. Surely what Davidson rejects is the idea that it is merely a contingent empirical result that thinkers/speakers subscribe to the norms of rationality? (He explains his claim saying by: ‘it is only by interpreting a creature as largely in accord with these principles that we can intelligibly attribute propositional attitudes to it, or that we can raise the question whether it is in some respect irrational.’) But that is consistent with the idea that it is contingent that a particular ‘system’ subscribes to the norms of rationality and hence (given some other assumptions about their behaviour) is interpretable. So there can be an evidential link between behaviour and subscription to rational norms.

In other words, it is a priori / necessary that interpretation requires rationality rather than being an empirical result. But that doesn’t rule out the idea that subscribing (in the anodyne sense) to a norm explains (only partially, obviously) success. One of the reasons why darts players score triple 20s is that that is what they aim at. But the idea that triple 20 is an aim of the game goes beyond a mere descriptive conformity (even if it may rationally be inferred from behaviour by those non-Quineans with eyes to see!).

Despite this, I do have some qualms about the Davidsonian picture. What seems attractive is that he connects rationality to mentality (akin, in their different ways, to Dennett, McDowell and Jane Heal). But whether our grasp of the notion of rationality so relied upon goes beyond our capacity to find subjects interpretable seems to me rather unlikely. If so, there are significant limits to how elucidatory the connection is.

(The last point is developed here.)

Monday 15 June 2009

Narrative and wellbeing

Arthur W Frank (pictured), a sociologist visiting from Calgary, gave a talk at Uclan today on narrative. Since I’m keen to try to pin down what’s meant by that term, I went along. In the background was the working assumption that something was a narrative if it met enough of a large number of criteria which he didn’t exhaustively spell out today. So there wasn’t exactly an analysis of ‘narrative’ but there were a number of pointers as to how understood it, including the claims that narrative makes lives narratable; that it involves people ‘holding their own’; that identification with characters allows some people to be caught up in, and some excluded by, it; that it can concern fear and desire in the most general sense; and that it involves a play of and with unreliable memory.

With this suggestive motley in place, his main idea – it seemed to me – was that narratives structure people’s life possibilities through the notion of ‘emplotment’. So, eg., therapists propose new life ‘plots’ to spinal cord injured patients for whom there is, sadly, no going back to their past plots. They have suffered a kind of ‘narrative wreckage’ from which they need rescuing (in a dialogue with therapists) through such therapy.

What seemed awkward to me, in what was an engaging off the cuff talk, was a tension between two aspects of such narrative structuring. First, he suggested, narratives were open to multiple readings. But second, they constrain possibilities. Their emplotting possibilities suggests a normative constraint: they fit some events better than others; others not at all. But to capture this second aspect, Frank resorted to saying that stories themselves act. This seemed to me an unnecessary and eccentric platonism (akin to Achilles’ cry: ‘Then logic would take you by the throat!’) When I queried this aspect of the account, however, he first directed me to W.J.T. Mitchell’s book What Do Pictures Want? and then said that when he longer heard people talking in this way in everyday academic life, then he’d be happy to stop. So I guess he had a point. (See this for later thoughts about his book.)

Later – in a day in which I did very little administrative work, obviously – Lynn Froggett reacted to the articulation of a debate about wellbeing, at ISCRI started by my philosophy colleagues, by mapping a psycho-social approach to how distinct models of welfare have helped and hindered it. Using two dimensions of separation vs. attachment and equality vs. inequality, she placed in historical order: social democratic welfarism; market-led private provision; mixed economy of welfare; and a new emerging and improved position based on active citizenship between interdependent subjects in the quadrant roughly defined by equality and attachment.

The diagram had the great Cartesian virtue of being swiftly surveyable. But in the end I wasn’t sure about what the significance was of the axes. On the one hand, they simply did a good job of presenting and unifying a number of features of the models of welfare since the second world war. But on the other, she suggested that they also had developmental and psychotherapeutic significance. That seemed one virtue too many. My inchoate confusion was nicely pinned down by a question from Peter Lucas as follows. There is, presumably, a happy balance in development between attachment and separation. Things are more complicated in the equality versus inequality scale but, plausibly, we might follow Rawls and accept only that degree of inequality which benefits, in absolute terms, the worst off. So there ought to be an ideal point on the two scales for wellbeing. But this wasn’t reflected in the account of approaches to welfare. How did that normative ideal relate to the rougher historical mapping?

Thursday 11 June 2009

Philosophy and ethics on the MRCPsych syllabus

I’m going over to the University of Sheffield tomorrow to give a lecture on their MRCPsych course inspiringly called ‘Basic ethics and philosophy of psychiatry’. Checking on the planned new MRCPsych syllabus, there seems to be a much greater emphasis on practical skills and sensitivities which fits both a particularist approach to moral judgement and my colleague Bill Fulford’s articulation of ‘values based medicine’ rather well.

What is less well developed is the role for philosophy, summarized simply as: The history and philosophy of science as it relates to concepts of mental disorder. The problem with that is that it seems both too general and too specific. There is no way I could simply summarise all the relevant history and philosophy of science. But to focus on the concepts of disorder is to neglect all the other areas where psychiatry blurs into and thus calls for philosophical analysis (whether carried out by philosophers or psychiatrists).

This is my presentation.

Wednesday 10 June 2009

Moral phenomenology and subjectivity

Ben Smith asked me for an abstract for an edited book on moral phenomenology. Combining two interests, I have come up with the following somewhat negative view based on a talk I gave at the relevant conference in Durham last year (see below). But in what is merely implicit in this is a further worry that goes back a long way in my understanding of McDowell.

My assumption (below) is that to count as a form of analytic phenomenology, an approach has to have a connection to subjectivity. Just such a connection seems to be part of McDowell’s discussion of platonism in his early paper on Wittgenstein: McDowell, J. (1984b) ‘Wittgenstein on following a rule’ Synthese 58. But, like a similar worry about Lear’s use of the phrase ‘we are so minded’, it seems hard to know why the connection to subjectivity, which lies at the very limits of sense, does not merely cancel out.

Here’s a another way of putting the worry. McDowell suggests that rampant platonism mistakenly characterises the norms of logic, say, in terms utterly independent of human subjectivity; and constructionism mistakenly explains merely ersatz norms in terms of norm-free human practices. The solution is a third way which gives up any attempt to gain a sideways on view of norms or practices and describes the practices in norm-presupposing terms. I can see how this works to correct the reductionist aspirations of constructionism (by denying that anything approaching norms can be reconstructed from norm-free terms). But I am not at all sure about the other direction. To what extent does a description of norms presuppose subjectivity? The problem is that, being the subjects that we are, explanations or descriptions of rules convey the rules without relying on us to guess their essential drift.

“But do you really explain to the other person what you yourself understand? Don't you get him to guess the essential thing? You give him examples,--but he has to guess their drift, to guess your intention.” – Every explanation which I can give myself I give to him too. – “He guesses what I intend” would mean: various interpretations of my explanation come to his mind, and he lights on one of them. So in this case he could ask; and I could and should answer him. [Wittgenstein 1953 §210]

And thus it seems to me the mention of subjectivity (in McDowell, not Wittgenstein) should cancel out.

Abstract: McDowellian Moral Phenomenology?
Tim Thornton
I suggest that to count as an analytic form of phenomenology, an approach has to have some connection to subjectivity such as the characteristic experiences of a judging subject, or their form of life. But to count as moral phenomenology, it must be able to take account of a suitable kind of normative constraint on our thinking. Together this dual condition balances subjectivity and objectivity. There may be a number of moral philosophical approaches that could be described as moral phenomenology construed in this way. But I am interested in the way McDowell’s discussion of normativity might underpin a form in either of two ways.

Moral judgements might be disciplined by either exogenous or endogenous factors. McDowell himself advocates something that looks exogenous. Our eyes can be opened to values implicit in empirical situations. But his recent two-fold retreat both from the idea that experience is propositionally structured (ie shares the same conceptual form as the explicit judgements it can non-inferentially motivate) and that all the contents in the explicit judgements it can non-inferentially motivate are contained within it threatens this neat idea. If experience contains only the proper and common sensibles of vision, how is direct moral realism experienced?

Although McDowell himself advocates something that looks exogenous, his discussion of endogenous constraint would fit the dual condition outlined above. But there is something initially awkward seeming, at least, about the way McDowell rejects the dualism of endogenous and exogenous whilst attempting to maintain, against Quine and Davidson, ‘interesting’ analytic truths. Without a distinct endogenous factor, from what are such truths fashioned? I argue that this difficulty can be avoided providing that the rejection is construed as a rejection of a form of a particular kind of endogenous givenness. But whether this leaves space for a form of moral disciplining and thus for moral phenomenology depends on turning aside McDowell’s own arguments against moral principles. Thus neither route to a form of analytic moral phenomenology seems promising.

Thursday 4 June 2009

87 words against the myth of the given

In a commentary on clinical judgement for Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, I've made a quick aside on the myth of the given which the editor, reasonably, would like explaining. But given that anything more than a sentence or so will distract from the main business, how quickly can one summarise Sellar’s key argument against it? Here is a first stab.

... Such judgement falls prey to the criticism made by the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars of what he called the ‘myth of the given’ (Sellars 1997). Sellars’ target was the idea that empirical knowledge could be given a sure foundation in direct perceptual reports independent of any uncertain background theory. But, he argued, such reports would need not only to be reliable indicators of whatever features they concerned, but also to be known to be reliable. Otherwise they would no more be reports, or judgements, about anything than the reliable squawk of a parrot. That necessary extra knowledge however undermines the hope that perceptual reports can be an independent foundation for empirical knowledge.

Tuesday 2 June 2009


I’ve mixed feelings about the prospects for research this year. Some things I’d written before have now come out. That includes the PPP special issue I edited with a couple of papers I drafted myself (it carries a 2008 date although it came out in March this year):

(2008) ‘EBM and evaluativism’ Philosophy Psychiatry and Psychology 15: 175-8
(2008) ‘Values based practice and reflective judgement’ Philosophy Psychiatry and Psychology 15: 125-133

My locally co-authored paper came out (back in January):
Thornton, T., Shah, A.K., and Thomas, P. (2009) ‘Understanding, testimony and interpretation in psychiatric diagnosis’ Medicine, Healthcare and Philosophy 12: 49-55
Sad to say, Phil Thomas has now retired.

My eccentric commentary for the AAPP came out (before some of it came out again in the PPP issue mentioned above) with the benefit of a reply:
(2009) ‘Constitutive evaluativist externalism (Commentary on Zachar, P. and Kendler, K. ‘Psychiatric Disorders: A Conceptual Taxonomy’)’ Association for the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry Bulletin 15: 9-12

As I reported previously, a WPA commissioned book chapter was published last month:
Thornton, T. and Fulford, K.W.M. (2009) ‘Philosophical Perspectives on Health, Illness and Clinical Judgement in Psychiatry and Medicine’ in Ihsan M. Salloum, I.M and Mezzich, J.E. (eds) Psychiatric Diagnosis: Patterns and Prospects, Hoboken: Wiley: 15-27

Perhaps more interestingly the paper I managed to give four times at conferences last year is out in Matthew and Lisa’s book:
(2009) ‘On the interface problem in philosophy and psychiatry’ in Bortolotti, L. and Broome, M. Psychiatry as Cognitive Neuroscience, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 121-136

I’ve given four invited talks at small conferences / workshops:
‘The everyday uncanny and the Sassian project’ (invited speaker) Philosophy of Psychiatry, St Cross College, University of Oxford May 2009
‘The everyday uncanny and the Sassian project’ (invited speaker) AHRC Workshop: Emotions and Feelings in Psychiatric Illness, Durham March 2009
‘Constitutive evaluativist externalism’ (invited speaker) AHRC Mental Disorder Workshop, Warwick March 2009
‘Constitutive evaluativist externalism’ Philosophy of Psychiatry Workshop, Lancaster January 2009

The research bid proposal I’m writing with Richard Gipps looks pretty good. Odd how long it has taken to get it right. The tacit knowledge book proposal is now with a publisher.

But there really just doesn’t seem to be enough time to think about possibilities properly. Having never had one, I could use a sabbatical, I guess.

Oxford symposium in philosophy of psychiatry

Last Thursday I was invited to a paper at a one day conference on philosophy of psychiatry held at St Cross College, Oxford. The other speakers were the previous and current Wilde Professors of Mental Philosophy, John Campbell and Martin Davies (pictured) and also Tim Bayne.

Martin Davies’ paper, based on his chapter in Matthew Broome and Lisa Bortolotti’s new IPPP book Psychiatry as Cognitive Neuroscience, concerned the 2 factor account of delusion. What shape does such an account have to have to so count with the limit case being just any combination of 2 factors (a bucket of this, a bucket of that, whatever more can be said to characterise the buckets). Davies aimed to balance the aim of covering all the cases but also saying something substantial but I had sympathy with John Campbell’s worry that the approach might now be so general as to be unfalisifiable.

Tim Bayne’s paper concerned what story could be told to link apparent empirical findings about dysconnection at the neural level and fragmentation at the level of thought in schizophrenia. The suggestion he considered was a Bayesian analysis of perception. But this seemed – as he argued – rather poorly explanatory.

John Campbell argued for the possibility in psychopathological cases of a kind of a-rational action at a distance. Although two paradigmatic notions of causal mechanisms are the communication of motion by impulse and the rational connection of thought, there was no reason to hold – with Davidson – that thoughts had to be rationally connected. Brute a-rational connection – a kind of action-at-a-distance – was also possible. (In part his argument for this was that there was no reason to bind nature by any synthetic a priori claims.) But I wasn’t sure how much this idea could escape a general rational holism of the mental. How many thoughts could be merely a-rationally connected whilst still being recognisable as thoughts?

Although covering quite a narrow area of the philosophy of psychiatry – all within the philosophy of mind / understanding third in my scheme – I had a strong sense of the growing respectability of the subject within mainstream philosophy. I wonder whether, if that comes about, I will miss its previous outsider status.