Friday 28 August 2009

Confused about Davidson

It’s probably foolish to chart my ignorance and slow-wittedness in a potentially public space but perhaps, as before, someone will email me some help.

I’ve suddenly realised that I’m confused (pictured) about radical interpretation. Thinking back to the issue of how to accommodate inconsistency, there seems to be an important difference between the idea of believing p and ~p and both believing p and also believing ~p. Davidson and Dennett are both keen to rule out the former (as a possible interpretation in radical interpretation and thus as a possible belief). But it seems that common sense requires that the latter is both possible and widespread. On the other hand, the general argument for the constitutive role of rationality seems to push towards its application universally. So what principled difference is there between believing an inconsistency and inconsistently believing?

Two of my colleagues have suggested that the difference lies in conscious attention. As long as one hasn’t attended to the inconsistency between two beliefs then it is possible to hold them. Attention, however, forces (more needs to be said here) revision. But given that the argument for the constitutive principle of rationality concerned the logic of belief individuation, why should conscious attention make any difference?

Non-collusively, both colleagues suggested this line of thought. The argument for the central role of rationality from radical interpretation concerns the ascription of beliefs on the basis of behaviour. And thus it concerns beliefs that are, so to speak, in operation or active. Hence it does not provide an argument for the operation of rationality at some dispositional distance from operational beliefs. (This strikes me as a kind of Dummetian Davidson, but concerning the philosophy of language of the field linguist rather than the truth theoretic output of that.)

But I can’t see how that would work as behaviour can be evidence not only for consciously attended to beliefs but all sorts of other, dispositional beliefs, that hold those in place. And thus the argument for the role of rationality should spread some dispositional distance, at least.

Further, if one plausibly weakens the claim about rationality to hold that interpretation is only possible through the imposition of a transcendental constraint on the data that speakers at least subscribe to the norms of rationality (in Lisa Bortolotti’s helpful word), why would this weakening not govern attended to beliefs as well as those at some dispositional distance.

In other words, what difference does consciousness make? But without it, why does the bar on believing an inconsistency not escallate? I’m sure I was clear on all this in my Davidsonian youth.
(Thanks to the Warehouse for the wifi and coffee.)

Wednesday 26 August 2009

Lone scholarship

For the last few years I’ve taken a cycling holiday to mark the end of summer, thus returning with those start of Autumn / new year feelings that surely affect all those on an academic calendar. This year it was a week or two earlier (Sustrans Route 8 across Wales) but Autumn seems to be arriving earlier to compensate. And so thoughts of pubs with dark ale and warm fires begin to occur.

It’s also a year since I began to act as the director of the philosophy section here at Uclan. My colleagues have been warmly welcoming (I arrived from a different part of the University) and impressively assiduous in sharing the workload. But there has been an inevitable rise in my administrative duties and meetings and corresponding collapse in research time (I’ve written just one article this year). This reinforces a feature of (my attitude, at least, to) research in philosophy by contrast with a natural science.

There’s no obvious corresponding research advantage to being a head of section in philosophy. Were I head of a science department, it would be culturally much more normal to guide the direction of the research undertaken. Thus my own research aims would be advanced by the labour of others. But, within philosophy, if I were to ask a phenomenologist colleague to give up that area and work on Wittgenstein on nonsense instead I would be rightly told where to go. (It would not be the best use of others’ skills.)

There is an analogous role to that of the head of a science department. If one wins a sufficiently large research grant one can set up a mini-department from scratch with minions to do one’s bidding (an aim for the coming year!). Even so, I wonder whether there’s still a cultural norm specific to philosophy and the humanities: research is personally owned. Even a team working on, say, the understanding of delusions, would ultimately comprise a group of lone scholars, discussing their views over coffee and beer no doubt, but writing philosophy in their studies. One would only feel fully responsible for one’s own work.

In other news: a paper written for the Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice has been accepted after corrections in response to some very helpful reviewers. They made me realise that I had somehow misunderstood what I was going about doing. Perhaps more simply, there was simply a better way of thinking what the subsidiary arguments I had put forward showed.

I’ve been delightfully invited to a conference (which had better remain anonymous) with the final incentive (not that it was needed): “Even if you don't really fancy the conference, just think of it as three or four days of as much free booze as you can drink.” Not something one reads often in modern streamlined academia.

Finally, I’ve been invited to write a paper for the journal: Current Alzheimer Research and the invitation contains rather a specific title and a dozen or so texts in a suggested bibliography. I am simultaneously impressed by the detail of the editors’ vision and faintly affronted at the same time. (Of course, I’ll try to do it.) Now if only I were the head of a science department I could simply hand it over to a minion and bask in the subsequent credit.

Friday 14 August 2009

‘Diverse logics’ #3

Here’s my third attempt:

Rejecting the tempting heavy weight notion of ‘diverse logics’ to mean a fundamentally ‘other’ way of going on, of thinking, of being minded, I could take my sponsors to mean something more mundane, something empirical rather than transcendental, as it were. They say:

On our part, we recognize the difference between the (explicit and mathematized) logic of textbooks and the (essentially implicit and heterogeneous) diverse logics in which we think and act, and we believe that the development of reliable methods for the study of these logics can be of great help for approaching the problems of human mentality.

So let’s assume that we are back in the vicinity of Bermudez’ distinction between procedural versus epistemic rationality (of two days ago). Taking a relaxed view of ‘logic’ to mean something like ‘grammar’ in the later Wittgenstein: the rules and surrounding practices governing correct judgements, what is the difference between the explicit logic of textbooks and implicit and heterogeneous diverse logics in which we think and act?

The difference seems to be twofold: explicit versus implicit and singular rather than plural. But why should these two distinctions align? Here’s a thought. The codified norms of procedural rationality are universal: norms, according to a Wittgensteinian view, serving as the standard of correct description. Thus arithmetic, for example, provides an additional constraint on the results of correct counting. (Are the rules of arithmetic free-floating additions to prior rules of counting as Dummett suggests Wittgenstein believes (and if I correctly recall the early Crispin Wright did hold)? No but Cora Diamond has rather a fine paper suggesting a nuanced answer to this.)

By contrast the ‘logics’ of epistemic rationality have a feature that Dancy relies on to characterise his moral particularism (and which merits the plural). A reason for a belief or an action in one context can have its force, its valence, reversed by changing the context. (The appearance of barn can justify the judgement that there is one in one context and cast suspicion on that in a land of jocular Gettierian philosophers.)

This isn’t yet to make the connection from plurality to implicitness. But that is the result of the fact attempts to codify the behaviour of reasons within epistemic rationality will themselves by relative to a broader context of reasons. Codifications, in other words, are subject to merely implicit knowledge of their appropriateness. But if so, this suggests a principled constraint with the project outlined in the brief: that of characterising these implicit logics. Any such characterisation will have to be relative to a context. And that suggests that the project is best thought of as akin to the sociology of science which takes as its aim charting the contextual nature of epistemic (and according to Bloor even procedural) rationality, itself a human, rather than a natural, science.

Bloor, D. (1973) ‘Wittgenstein and Mannheim on the sociology of mathematics’ Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 4: 173-191
Dancy, J. (1993) Moral reasons, Oxford: Blackwell
Diamond, C. (1991) The Realistic Spirit: Wittgenstein, philosophy and the mind, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Wright, C. (1980) Wittgenstein on the Foundations of Mathematics, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press

Wednesday 12 August 2009

‘Diverse logics’ #2

Here is today’s attempt.

The phrase ‘diverse logics’ (from my Bulgarian sponsors) suggests that, in psychiatry, we find different ways of going on, different forms of mindedness from our own. This sounds like the ‘lost tribe romantic’ view of mental illness (in Andy Hamilton’s phrase). But is it plausible? Can we make intellectual space for such a possibility?

A clear view of the matter seems to me to be driven by the interaction of two opposing tendencies, however. On the one hand, there is the view of conventionalist and constructionist interpretations of Wittgenstein. Bloor, for example, invoked Wittgenstein in defence of the idea that, contrary to Mannheim’s reluctance on the matter, a thorough going sociology should not only embrace scientific rationality but also mathematics and logic. To the extent that sociological explanation of one way of going on requires that others were possible, everything is up for grabs. That suggests space for diverse logics.

(An opposing view would be that of Jonathan Lear. He thinks that it is significant that the sketches of alternative ways of going that Wittgenstein offers - those elastic rules and selling of wood by area - are so thin. In fact, they are intended as reductios of the idea that there could be alternatives to our form of mindedness. But I'll ignore him today.)

The opposing tendency (the one I am interested in today), however, is expressed in Davidson’s ‘On the very idea of a conceptual scheme’. Reluctant to drive the conclusion by a swift sympathy with verificationism (that only what we can recognise to be a linguistically articulated worldview is one), Davidson argues that we can make no sense of the key metaphor for such other ways of going on: that they are different ways of organising or fitting either the world or experience. A worldview is what is revealed through the process of the radical interpretation of agents’ speech and action already located in their natural environments, a process in which the interpreter’s own standards of truth and rationality play a constitutive role.

A quicker route to the same endpoint can be found in McDowell’s Sellarsian point that splitting a worldview into a (collectively) subjectively imposed conceptual structure and an extra-conceptual brute contribution from the world results in either a frictionless spinning in the void or a constraint which is at best an exculpation rather than a justification. The solution is to deny that the conceptual and worldly are notionally separable contributions. Experience, and indeed the world, is always already conceptually structured (because ‘world’ is a world of facts, of true contents of thoughts, not of things).

But does this not threaten to be too strong? If the world is not an extra conceptual thing in itself but revealed in an interpretation, an interpretation constrained by the principle of charity, does this not threaten to rule out not merely genuinely diverse logics but also everyday inconsistency?

Bortolotti presents this worry as a dilemma for Davidsonians. Either rationality is directly manifested in speakers’ performance, in which case inconsistency would, impossibly, be ruled out. Or, if it is merely an underlying commitment of speakers, then it cannot detectably constrain their manifest performance. But that was the only argument for introducing it through charity.

I don’t think that this objection is fundamentally different from an objection to the holism of belief and meaning. Since I am prepared to buy the idea that that holism isn’t an epistemic barrier (any more than the epistemic holism of the Duhemn Quine thesis is an impossible barrier to knowledge), the idea that commitments to rationality are sometimes only indirectly visible in correcting behaviour (cf Wittgenstein’s parade ground soldier) seems innocent enough. Given that agents aim at or for truths (truths if not truth seem a norm for inquiry), the aim should often enough be manifested.

What then of ‘diverse logics’? Davidson’s argument suggests that constructionist Wittgensteinians were wrong to disregard Wittgenstein’s aim to leave everything as it is. The failure of supernatural foundations for the conceptual order does not imply it is a mere convention (including also, eg., the logical consequences of the conventions). But adopting a broadly Davidsonian approach need not rule out instances of failures of logic. That, however, seems to undermine rather than support the idea of diverse logics.

Bortolotti, L. (2005) ‘Delusions and the Background of Rationality’ Mind and Language 20: 189-208.
Davidson, D. (1984) ‘On the very idea of a conceptual scheme’ in Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Lear, J. (1982) ‘Leaving the world alone’ Journal of Philosophy
Lear, J. (1984) ‘The disappearing “we”’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society supplementary volume 58
Lear, J. (1986) ‘Transcendental anthropology’ in Pettit, P. and McDowell, J. (eds) (1986) Subject Thought and Context, Oxford: Clarendon Press
McDowell, J. (1994) Mind and World, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

‘Diverse logics’, capacity and normativity

This morning I’ve been invited by the Centre for Philosophy and Mental Health at the University of Plovdiv, Bulgaria to contribute to a seminar on ‘Psychiatry and the Logics of Practice’ at the INPP meeting in Lisbon, 2009. They say:

The idea of the symposium is to announce the meeting between two groups who have been ‘digging the same tunnel from opposite sides’: psychiatrists interested in using philosophical and logical research, and philosophical logicians willing to reform their discipline so as to make it adequate for the study of the human world. On our part, we recognize the difference between the (explicit and mathematized) logic of textbooks and the (essentially implicit and heterogeneous) diverse logics in which we think and act, and we believe that the development of reliable methods for the study of these logics can be of great help for approaching the problems of human mentality.

Since Lisbon isn’t that far off, a rational thought might be: I don’t actually have anything relevant on my hard disk and so it’s too late. But, in another life as an administrator at the LSE, my first line manager, Michael Arthur, convinced me that one should never turn down work.

On that basis, this is my first hunch (I will try and generate another couple in the next few days): there’s something to be said to address an issue raised by Natalie Banner in discussions of her PhD on assessments of decision making capacity. Start with the distinction between procedural and epistemic rationality drawn by Jose Bermudez.

Procedural rationality consists in reasoning in ways that conform to the formal principles of the logic of consistency, while one is epistemically rational to the extent that one reasons in accordance to the norms of good reasoning. Whereas procedural rationality is a matter of inference, of the conclusions that it is appropriate to draw from a given belief or set of beliefs, epistemic rationality is principally a matter of the dynamical relations of how beliefs relate to evidence and how they should be changed in response to changes in the structure of evidence. [Bermudez: 2001a]

Now the niceties of debates about internal and external reasons aside, there seem to be Wittgensteinian and Rylean reasons to think that procedural rationality has to be approached with some care. There are two main reasons for this. First, there is the Wittgensteinian critique of platonic foundations for logical compulsion. Contrary to Achilles’ wishes, logic never takes one by the throat. Second, grasping a principle cannot be explained through psychologistic relations to mental elements or talismans.

These considerations suggest, at first, a revisionary possibility. If they lack external support, perhaps the canons of procedural rationality are merely one set among many possibilities. If so this might help underpin a notion of ‘diverse logics’ in the brief. But I accept Lear’s forceful rejection of this idea (if not his take on its significance) and a too close assimilation to Quinean pragmatism and the revisable web of belief.

They also suggest that the distinction itself between procedural and epistemic rationality lacks one characteristic that might have been attractive: that the former could be sketched out other than from within. That in turn suggests that the distinction is akin to Mary Hesse’s construal of the distinction between theory and observation. Against the backlash against a complete separation of theory and observation – a backlash that held there was no significant distinction – she argued that one could draw one by picking out the observational judgements but only relative to a background theory. Theory underpinned the purely observational status of some claims. But that meant the distinction could not be the neutral arbiter of theory. In this case, against a background of reactions to rules, one can pick out the deductive operations of merely procedural rationality. But the contrast is drawn only against a shared horizon (sorry!) of epistemic rationality.

Against a background of these sorts of considerations, Natalie pressed the point: if procedural rationality is only a part of the overall picture of a rationally structured capacity to make decisions, and if even it depends on a background of shared epistemic rationality, then surely that shows that there’s no further relevance of Wittgenstein’s discussion of rules? Rules are only relevant for procedural rationality.

But that, I think, misses one of the morals of the rule following considerations. Since general principles have a limited role in the explanation of judgement (that is not to say they cannot serve their ordinary justificatory role), we have instead to invoke a form of judgement particularism, of seeing a move to be the right move in the context. Wittgenstein’s discussion of rules highlights both the central role of normativity and the balance between generality and particular judgement. It’s not only of relevance where the generality takes the form of a context-free prescription but anywhere where one can ask the question in virtue of what is this judgement normatively constrained?