Tuesday 13 April 2010

Amsterdam workshop

As I have hinted earlier, Gerben Meynen organised a one day workshop on Friday at the Free University of Amsterdam on my Essential Philosophy of Psychiatry which had been discussed at a reading group and seminar of philosophers and psychiatrists. In the morning there was a question session with pre-circulated questions and in the afternoon a paper and response and then further questions. The day seemed to me to go well, although whether my answers to questions went well I wouldn’t like to say.

Because the book is an introduction to an area of philosophy which doesn’t form any kind of natural kind I faced questions from, say, an ethicist or a philosopher of mind or a philosopher of science in no particular order. It would have been helpful to have an encyclopaedic overview of the whole of philosophy to draw on (I don’t!).

The question I had been given notice of on functions went as I’d expected: those who were already in agreement with me, continued so. Those who were not, were not persuaded. My basic thought is that what is simply and plainly factual is the full messy history of happenings (which includes all sorts of rabbits, for example, living and dying, mating and not mating, eating and sleeping). All those events were, as a matter of fact, selected by evolution (ie they did just happen). What is potentially reducing of disorder is, however, not just that but a functional story about this It abstracts from all those messy causal happenings a neater pattern: an explanation of the traits that were selected-for. But what is selected underdetermines what is selected-for. (Selected-for is not even consistent with selected in the sense that much of what is selected is not selected-for.) That underdetermination is filled in by begging the question about the normativity of functions.

What came as more of a surprise – and I did not get to the bottom of this – was a worry that any account of meaning or mental content that started from a Wittgensteinian emphasis on practices would be closed off from the world, and would thus have insufficient critical resources. Further, this worry was reinforced by my occasional mention in the book of being justified by particular circumstances. As is sometimes the case in question sessions, I couldn’t recognise the source of the worry. Only if one had already put particular constraints on how the practices worked would there be a problem: as though practices were played out by formal self-contained rules like a game of chess. In retrospect, I wonder whether the felt problem was not the self-contained picture of practices but the opposite: that being justified by particular circumstances looked like a form of the Given with no possibility of revising one's view of those circumstances. But having read McDowell, that is not a part of the picture I would support.

Anyway, although the audience was by no means an easy ride or particularly forgiving, it was a very hospitable occasion.

Afterwards I went round the Cobra art gallery. Excellent.