Sunday 30 May 2010

Supervision and apprenticeship

I was talking to Pierre-Henri Castel about whether philosophy supervisors typically leave lasting influence on their students: whether, for example, there is more often than not, a continuity of views. He told me of his own experience.

He was, I learned, Derrida’s first PhD student but is in no sense now a Derridian. Part of the reason for that was that the great man let him write a substantial Derridian thesis in the way an impressed young man might. Derrida himself then did Castel the honour of giving a presentation in which he carefully, painstakingly and seriously deconstructed his text (“He did to me what he did to Husserl in Of Grammatology”). This both critically undercut the text but at the same time validated it. The next day, PHC telephoned Derrida to ask for a copy of the presentation. “Ah, Pierre-Henri! I’ve just deleted it!”. And that was that. Castel could go his own way.

Wednesday 26 May 2010

Why teach the philosophy of mental health?

I’ve been invited to submit an article on this subject to the Journal of Mental Health Training Education and Practice. To warm up for the writing I plan to do in Paris, I think I'll start with it. Hence, as ever, a growing draft entry here.

Why teach the philosophy of mental health?

Why teach the philosophy of mental health? Much recent philosophy of mental health has either criticised psychiatry, or attempted to defend it, from an external perspective, which suggests that the philosophy of mental health is at best a peripheral activity and at worst a distraction. A better understanding reveals that philosophical inquiry is continuous with good mental healthcare in response to genuine and deep conceptual complexity. I illustrate this claim both by examining Szasz’s arguments for anti-psychiatry, which reveal much more than a simple attack on psychiatry, and recent work on psychiatry for the person where conceptual problems are raised by the conflicting requirements on good mental healthcare.

Why teach the philosophy of mental health? What role does a philosophical understanding have for mental health service delivery and innovation? Why should we put philosophy into mental health practice? The question, however, is not just ‘why?’ but also ‘how?’. Under what construal of the philosophy of mental health, or the philosophy of psychiatry, is it clear that philosophy has a practical role to play? I will thus approach the first question via an examination of the second.
When one discipline examples another, it typically falls into one of two roles: either debunking or uncritically validating. In the history of science, for example, uncritical Whig histories from the early part of the twentieth century were replaced in the later half by social constructionist approaches many of which, at least, took their remit to be a critical challenge to the assumption of scientific rationality and objectivity. This oppositional stance was even given the name ‘the science wars’.
The philosophy of mental health, or the philosophy of psychiatry, like other ‘-ologies’ of mental health or psychiatry, naturally fits this kind of oppositional model. But the danger of this dichotomous approach to the options in this case is that it threatens to alienate a significant voice in debates about good mental health care. The philosophical critique of psychiatry – anti-psychiatry – threatens to alienate clinicians and others for whom, whatever past abuses of some patients there may have been, scientific psychiatry is the best hope for mental healthcare. On the other hand, a philosophical articulation of the virtues of evidence-based medical care or a defence of psychiatry against anti-psychiatric arguments threatens to alienate at least a proportion of mental health service users. Either way, the possibility of dialogue is undermined and only half the story is heard. But given that the promotion of dialogue is one of the key virtues of philosophy, this is disappointing. As I will argue, however, there is another option. Philosophical reflection grows organically in response to the genuine conceptual complexity of mental healthcare flowing from the confliting requirements placed upon it. It is not imposed from without but continuous with such healthcare.

A century ago, the father of psychopathology, Karl Jaspers, combined psychiatric and philosophical expertise. Since then, within the English speaking tradition, philosophy and psychiatry have gone their separate ways throughout most of the twentieth century. But towards the end of that century, the rise of the anti-psychiatry movement has prompted a resurgence of interest in psychiatry within broadly analytic, Anglo-American philosophy.
The reason for this is that a key element of the anti-psychiatric criticism of mental health care has turned on a contentious claim about the nature of mental illness: that mental illness does not exist; it is a myth. Such a sceptical claim is paradigmatically a philosophical claim and psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, as one of the main proponents of anti-psychiatry, put forward a number of explicitly philosophical arguments in support of it. (His arguments were not the only resource for anti-psychiatry. But they were both well known and pithily philosophical.)
This in turn has spurred a philosophical response by both psychiatrists and philosophers putting forward analyses of mental illness to undercut the sceptical argument and thus, partially at least, to justify psychiatric practice. In a recent article in the AAPP (Association for the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry) bulletin, Jennifer Hansen advocates just such a justificatory view. In ‘There Are No Philosophers in Foxholes! But Maybe There Should Be...’ she describes teaching a student – Samantha – whose mother was ‘battling with bipolar disorder’ and whose cousins are psychiatrists.
Samantha blurted out: “You see, it is these silly debates that piss off real psychiatrists. No wonder psychiatrists don’t respect philosophers!” ...the psychiatrists she had been talking to pointed out to her, over and over again, that mental illness was real, that psychiatry was a science, and therefore, any debates over classification or the “reality” of mental illness was wasted breath. Philosophers, in their mind, were pseudo-scientists getting tangled up with unsolvable metaphysical questions... In particular, Samantha found Thomas Szasz’s work offensive; it was, in fact, her disgust with his claim that mental illness is not “real” that predisposed her to agree with her cousin’s colleagues; I feared I had lost her forever. [Hansen 2007: 2]
Hansen’s response to this is to suggest that philosophers can aid psychiatrists by defending psychiatry against its critics. (In the UK, at least, the idea that psychiatry, as a discipline, might seek aid from philosophy may strike some as verging on the ironic.)
The hope is that philosophers and psychiatrists can form a partnership to counteract the growing critics of the field. Philosophers can play a useful role in clarifying conceptual confusions, demonstrate the weakness of some of the arguments made against psychiatry, and the flawed nature of the critics assumptions…
[P]hilosophers play a very important role for scientists in times of crisis. The crisis is generally not generated from within, but rather the product of outside political forces challenging the legitimacy of the entire field. If I can get my students, especially Samantha, to buy into the idea that psychiatrists might need philosophers, and even find them valuable allies, then I will have made one small step toward a happy reconciliation. [Hansen 2007: 4]
The sketch of the origins of recent philosophy of psychiatry in anti-psychiatry and a contemporary philosopher of psychiatry’s call for philosophy to defend psychiatry both chime with a widespread historical ambition for philosophy more generally: to be the queen of the sciences, arbitrating what is good and what is bad science.
But, whilst that was an influential view until nearly the end of the twentieth century, it has fallen from influence. This is partly as a result of the realization of the impossibility of articulating a substantial prescriptive model of good scientific practice [Kuhn 1970]. But it is also the result of criticisms by philosophers such as Richard Rorty, Arthur Fine and John McDowell of the very idea of philosophy acting as an independent judge of the truth claims of other disciplines [Rorty 1981, Fine 1999, McDowell 1994].
Legislation by philosophy over, but from outside, empirical science has been replaced by more organic relationship between philosophy and other disciplines, a relationship that, in the US at least, has been influenced by the late WVO Quine’s advocacy of epistemological naturalism [Quine 1969]. According to the new Quinian orthodoxy, philosophical methods are continuous with scientific methods. I aim here to suggest a less radical position. Whilst philosophical methods are distinct from purely empirical methods – and that is why philosophy has something distinctive to offer – its subject matter is continuous with that of psychiatry.
One way to see a more organic relation between philosophy and practice stems, ironically, from closer attention to the arguments of Szasz which helped motivate the oppositional model within philosophy of mental healthcare.

A different lesson from Szasz?
Let us consider two of Szasz’ arguments. The first is expressed in the following passage. Szasz suggests that the idea that mental illnesses exist is based on the idea that they are some sort of ‘deformity of the personality’ which explains human disharmony or more generally life problems. But, he objects:
Clearly, this is faulty reasoning, for it makes the abstraction ‘mental illness’ into a cause of, even though this abstraction was originally created to serve only as a shorthand expression for, certain types of human behaviour. [Szasz 1972: 15]
Now it is worth thinking about this argument as an exercise in the philosophy of mental health. How does it work? What is the force of the argument. I suggest the underlying argument runs like this:
• Premiss 1: Mental illness is an abstraction from a description of behaviour. So it is defined in terms of behaviour.
• Premiss 2: Mental illness is supposed to be a cause of behaviour.
• Premiss 3: Nothing can cause itself.
• Conclusion: So there is no such thing as mental illness defined this way.
To continue the exercise, how can and should we respond to this argument? Are the premises true? Is the argument valid? Must the conclusion be true? Think about it.
Szasz also offers a second argument based on distinct norms.
The concept of illness, whether bodily or mental, implies deviation from some clearly defined norm. In the case of physical illness, the norm is the structural and functional integrity of the human body…What is the norm, deviation from which is regarded as mental illness? This question cannot be easily answered. But whatever this norm may be, we can be certain of only one thing: namely, that it must be stated in terms of psychological, ethical, and legal concepts… … [ibid: 15]
The second argument continued
Yet the remedy is sought in terms of medical measures that – it is hoped and assumed – are free from wide differences of ethical value. The definition of the disorder and the terms in which its remedy are sought are therefore at serious odds with one another… [ibid: 15]
Since medical interventions are designed to remedy only medical problems, it is logically absurd to expect that they will help solve problems whose very existence have been defined and established on non-medical grounds. [ibid: 17, italics added]
So, again, here is a summary of the argument:
• Premiss 1: Mental and physical illnesses answer to different norms (bodily function versus social, ethical, legal or otherwise evaluative norms).
• Premiss 2: Treatments which address deviation from one kind of norm cannot address the other.
• Conclusion 1: Because mental illness answers to a different norm it cannot be treated using physical medicine, or ‘medically’ more generally.
• Premiss 3: To be an illness is to be medically treatable.
• Conclusion 2: Hence mental illness (as something can be so treated, rather than as life problems) is a myth.
Again, think whether this is a compelling argument and how, if one wanted, one might try to challenge it.
Stop right there for a second and think about it! Too often arguments about psychiatry and anti-psychitray go too quickly and without careful thought.
Szasz’ second argument can be thought of has having two key stages:
1. Mental and physical illnesses answer to different norms.
2. Because mental illness answers to a different norm it cannot be treated medically and hence mental illness (as such, rather than as life problems) is a myth.
One way to challenge the argument is thus to challenge the first claim. Some philosophers working on the nature of health and illness (such as Jerome Wakefield) have suggested that at least an element in the concept of disease is that of biological disorder, an element that might be shared in both physical and mental pathologies. (Wakefield’s second element is also shared: harm.)
But there is another possible challenge to the argument, this time to the second stage. This is to concede that mental illness is identified via behavioural norms – social, ethical and legal norms expressed in speech and action – but to deny that this implies that illness is identical to that behaviour. Consider this analogy. The assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand is often described as the precipitating cause of the First World War. Thus the war and its vast social, economic and cultural consequences, including 1.7 million German deaths, were effects of that assassination. But the death of the Arch Duke is not identical with those 1.7 million deaths.
Similarly, it is consistent with the premise that we identify mental illnesses via psycho-social and ethical behavioural norms that mental illness is not identical with such behaviour but merely its cause. And thus it is not logically absurd to expect medical treatment of mental illness. So a model of mental illness that combines these two features – identification via psychosocial norms and medical treatability – need not be mythical. (This response is also available to the first argument from circularity.)
But note that whilst the above consideration undermines Szasz’ conclusion that mental illness is unreal it does not undermine his key claim that it is identified via essentially evaluative norms. And in fact most of the interesting response to Szasz – in their conflicting ways, for example, by Jerome Wakefield and Bill Fulford – take this, rather than the reality or not of mental illness, to be the main question [Fulford 1989, Wakefield 1999]. Is mental illness value-laden or not? Aside from an anti-psychiatric attack there are a number of other substantial issues of importance to psychiatry that would follow from this such as the extent to which we should expect agreement – or reliability – in psychiatry, especially across different cultures. This in turn leads to issues of public policy with regard to mental health care: what model of recovery is there? Is there a notion of mental health that is not merely the absence of illness and so on? It also leads into more explicitly ethical questions such as how a diagnosis of mental illness can ethically justify involuntary treatment. What is it about mental illness that might do this?
The initial question – of whether mental illness is value-laden – is not empirical. It depends primarily on conceptual analysis of the terms involved, although it also depends on the empirical facts about what are taken to be paradigmatic mental illnesses. A self-conscious understanding of a central psychiatric concept thus depends on a philosophical analysis. Within the original debate about anti-psychiatry is a question of continuing interest that is continuous with psychiatric practice although it need not be taken directly to threaten the very possibility of such practice. It concerns how best to understand the central subject matter of psychiatry: the treatment of mental ill health. And the resources required for addressing it are conceptual, and thus philosophical, as much as they are empirical.
The idea that the subject matter of philosophy of psychiatry is continuous with, and develops naturally from, the concerns of psychiatry itself can be illustrated through a number of recent debates as diverse as how evidence based practice is best applied to mental health care; or how brain imaging experiments on the timing of conscious decisions impact on the nature of free will. But I will jump right up to date and outline a conceptual or philosophical issue arising naturally from present concerns within psychiatry, which will have to be addressed over the coming years.

The apparent tension between narrative formulations and validity
Even a casual observer of intellectual developments in psychiatry will have noticed two growing emphases. One is the suggestion that whilst great advances were made in DSM III and IV in increasing the reliability of psychiatric diagnosis, this may have been at a cost of its validity. Thus the task force carrying preliminary research for the next revision – DSM V – have called for validity to be placed at the centre of the revision process.
Those of us who have worked for several decades to improve the reliability of our diagnostic criteria are now searching for new approaches to an understanding of etiological and pathophysiological mechanisms – an understanding that can improve the validity of our diagnoses and the consequent power of our preventive and treatment interventions. [Kupfer, First and Regier 2002: xv].
On the other hand, a recent development within the World Psychiatric Association is the advocacy of a ‘comprehensive’ model of diagnosis. A WPA workgroup charged with formulating ‘International Guidelines for Diagnostic Assessment’ (IGDA) has published a guideline called ‘Idiographic (personalised) Diagnostic Formulation’ which recommends an idiographic component within psychiatric diagnoses. This has been put forward within the context of the development of a model of ‘comprehensive diagnosis’ which is described by Juan Mezzich, President of the WPA, as follows.
The emerging comprehensive diagnostic model aims at understanding and formulating what is important in the mind, the body and the context of the person who presents for care. This is attempted by addressing the various aspects of ill- and positive- health, by interactively engaging clinicians, patient and family, and by employing categorical, dimensional and narrative descriptive approaches in multilevel schemas. [Mezzich 2005: 91 italics added]
Writing in the journal Psychopathology, the psychiatrist James Phillips describes a narrative and idiographic addition to conventional criteria-based diagnosis in this way.
In the most simple terms, a narrative or idiographic formulation is an individual account with first-person and third-person aspects. That is, the patient tells her / his story, with its admixture of personal memories, events and symptoms, and the story is retold by the clinician. The latter’s account may contain formal diagnostic, ICD-10 / DSM-IV aspects, as well as psychodynamic and cultural dimensions not found in the manuals. The clinician’s account may restructure the patient’s presentation, emphasizing what the patient didn’t emphasize and de-emphasising what the patient felt to be important. It will almost certainly contextualise the presenting symptoms into the patient’s narrative, a task which the patient may not have initiated on her own. Finally, the clinician will make a judgment (or be unable to make sure a judgment) regarding the priority of the biological or the psychological in this particular presentation, and will structure the formulation accordingly… [Phillips: 2005: 182]
If psychiatric diagnosis is, however, to include a narrative based and, as far is possible, idiographic ingredient, if the basic classificatory judgement of psychiatry is to include this element, then what of its validity? Might there not be a tension between these two intellectual aims of recent psychiatry.
Note, first, the contrast with classification in chemistry. There, the validity of the Periodic Table is displayed in classificatory judgements which are essentially general. Samples are described as instances of general types which possess a great deal of ‘systematic import’, in Hempel’s phrase [Hempel 1994: 323]. Validity in chemistry is underpinned by the use of general kinds.
The WPA’s suggestion pulls in the other direction: narrative components in a comprehensive diagnosis are tailored to individual cases in a way which seems, by definition, to undermine systematic import. Does this undermine the validity of classifications based on this approach? The difficulty in answering the question is that assessing validity seems to require stepping outside one’s beliefs to measure them against the world, to check that they line up. But that, of course, is impossible. So it seems that one needs a less direct measure of validity. What is this?
I do not here wish to argue that narrative formulations actually are in tension with the aim of increasing the validity of psychiatric diagnosis: that narrative formulations cannot be valid. But what is clear is that standard models of validity will not apply to them. In a nutshell, standard models of validity are nomothetic whilst narrative formulations are idiographic. It is thus a project for philosophical investigation – informed by empirical work on the kind of diagnoses that are actually made – but one which arises naturally from within self-conscious psychiatry rather than being imposed on psychiatry by philosopher outsiders.

Philosophy as a set of investigative tools
If, however, philosophy is not simply concerned with attempting to debunk or to justify psychiatric practice from outside, and if the philosophical work that is continuous with and relevant to psychiatry has been carried out by psychiatrists as well as by professional philosophers, how should it be best understood? What kind of thing is the philosophy of psychiatry? Where does it fit with psychiatric practice? I think that the most promising approach is to take philosophy of psychiatry to be less a body of results or theories evolved over the last hundred, three hundred or two thousand years (depending on one’s perspective) and more a set of tools and abilities for analysis.
Note first that the philosophy of mental health and philosophy of psychiatry is not akin to a ‘natural kind’. There is not an established set of closely inter-related problems with familiar, if rival, solutions. It is not like philosophy of mind or epistemology which have achieved the status of Kuhnian normal science with a settled role within the academic philosophy syllabus [Kuhn 1998]. Published work in philosophy of psychiatry is much more heterogeneous. It is generally drawn from different parent sub-disciplines within philosophy - such as philosophy of mind, philosophy of science and ethics - in response to specific issues or phenomena raised by or within mental health care. The range of issues covered – eg by the recent OUP series International Perspectives in Philosophy and Psychiatry – is great and without a single common ingredient or focus.
Secondly, unlike some areas of philosophy, philosophy of mental health can have a genuine impact on practice. It is a philosophy of, and for, mental health care, providing tools for critical understanding of contemporary practices, of the assumptions on which mental health care more broadly, and psychiatry more narrowly, are based. Thus it is not merely an abstract area of thought and research, of interest only to academics and insulated from everyday concerns. In providing a deeper, clearer understanding of the concepts, principles and values inherent in everyday thinking about mental health, psychiatric diagnoses and the theoretical drivers of mental health policy, it can impact directly on the lives of people involved in all aspects of mental health care.
This suggests that philosophy of psychiatry is best understood as a set tools and techniques to aid analysis and investigation. It is that rather than a set of established theories and results. Of course, there are philosophical theories or models that are relevant to psychiatry. Three centuries of discussing the relationship of mind and body have furnished philosophers with a variety of subtle models (from forms of dualism, through gradations of physicalism, to eliminativism with modern alternatives such as enactivism) which can help in the interpretation of psychiatric data. Equally, substantial ethical theories have informed both medical and psychiatric ethics. But whereas in some areas of philosophy both the problems and their attempted solution seem to be specifically philosophical, isolated from the concerns of everyday life (cf. the relation of radical scepticism to everyday practical certainties), that is not and should not be so for philosophy of psychiatry. Substantial theories have a role within philosophy of mental health when they are borrowed from their usual more abstract setting to be applied in the analysis of concrete practical issues.
This view also chimes with my own experiences of teaching the subject at masters level (at the University of Central Lancashire). The students have mainly come from practice - psychiatry, mental health nursing, social work and the service user movement – rather than from pure philosophy. They choose to work on issues that arise naturally within practice settings and of which they have at least some experience. Thus they might examine the nature of evidence based practice as it applies to talking cures. Or they might look to ethics of the treatment of sufferers from anorexia. Or they might go back to Jaspers to think again about the role of empathy in mental health care but perhaps in response to the established position of criterial DSM style diagnosis.
What such students gain from a masters degree in philosophy and mental health is not so much a snap shot of the present state of debates about evidence, values and the place of mind in nature as applied to psychiatry. Rather, they gain standing abilities to examine and critically analyse conceptual issues that are raised by or underpin psychiatric theory and practice.
If psychiatry itself – and mental health care more generally – were fixed and unchanging, a self conscious understanding of it would be an intellectual virtue, a desirable end where possible. But given the rapid changes in psychiatry in recent years and the continuing outside pressures on it from both public expectation and changing government policy the analytic abilities that make up a self-conscious practice of mental health care are not just desirable, they are necessary.

Fine, A (1991) ‘The Natural Ontological Attitude’ in Boyd, R., Gasker, P. and Trout, J.D. (eds.) The Philosophy of Science, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press: 261-277
Fulford, K.W.M. (1989) Moral theory and medical practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Hansen, J. (2007) ‘There Are No Philosophers in Foxholes! But Maybe There Should Be...’ Association for the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry 14: 2-5
Hempel, C.G. (1994) ‘Fundamentals of taxonomy’ in Sadler, J.S. Wiggins, O.P. and Schwartz, M.A. (eds.) Philosophical Perspectives on Psychiatric Diagnostic Classification, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins: 315-331
Kupfer, D. J., First, M. B. and Regier, D. A. (eds.) (2002) A Research Agenda for DSM–V, Washington, DC.: American Psychiatric Association
Kuhn, T. (1970) ‘Logic of discovery or psychology of research’ in Lakatos, I and Musgrave, A. (eds) Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1-24
Kuhn, T. (1998) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
McDowell, J. (1994) Mind and World, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press
Mezzich, J.E. (2005) ‘Values and comprehensive diagnosis’ World Psychiatry 4: 91–92.
Phillips, J. (2005) ‘Idiographic Formulations, Symbols, Narratives, Context and Meaning’ Psychopathology 38: 180-184
Quine, W.V. (1969) ‘Epistemology Naturalized’ in Ontological Relativity and Other Essays New York: Columbia University Press: 69-90
Rorty, R (1979) Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
Szasz, T. (1972) The myth of mental illness, London: Paladin.
Wakefield, J.C. (1999) Mental disorder as a black box essentialist concept. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 108: 465-472.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Experience and expertise

I see that I’m still on the email list that Harry Collins is using for discussion of SEE: Studies of Expertise and Experience and there has been some discussion of the relation between impressive mastery of chess and first language possession. Collins summarises his own conclusions thus:

The insight is that the deep nature of the expertise of the five-year-old language learner in respect of his/her natural language is the same as the deep nature of the expertise of the chess grand-master in respect of chess. I had always taken this to be pretty obvious but the discussion … has made me wonder if, rather, it is an insight! If the Dreyfuses say something different this would merely add a frisson.

Another tempting direction is to make a distinction (already made within SEE) between expertise and experience. Thus, I would be inclined to take the expertise of a reasonable human chess player (cf computer chess which is a different thing), and a grand master, to be pretty similar in a ‘deep’ way and to differ in that the grand master has much more experience. That means the grand master can draw on many more potentially analogous previously experienced positions during play. The expertise lies in the ability to spot what is a good or reasonable analogy and what is not -- that is the really hard part to understand; the experience lies in the number of analogies that can be drawn in.

I do wonder whether this is the right way to think of the role of experience. The problem is that it seems to confuse what might be constitutive of an ability and a hypothesis about how it might come about. That is, Collins here advances a claim about the dependence of expertise on experience which is plausible but is merely a hypothesis (then again as a social scientist, he’s in that business). Perhaps a developing master, lacking the experience of a plodding jobbing chess player, might not have had such experience but still be able to draw on many more potentially analogous positions during play? (Of course in speculating thus I am ignoring Gladwell’s famous 10,000 hour figure. But I assume we are still trying to get right the concept or concepts of tacit knowledge.)

So here’s a suggestion for a different way to think of tacit knowledge and experience. For tacit knowledge to count as knowledge it must have an appropriate kind of content (at the very least; that is not yet to distinguish it from a tacit analogue of mere belief). But for it to be tacit, it must resist some form of explicit codification. And perhaps now we can invoke experience – not as a causal hypothesis about expertise – but as partially constitutive of that expertise. To be very good at chess is to be able to see that a particular dynamic configuration will be aggressive, or defensive, or confusing or whatever. But the configurations may be articulated demonstratively – to those with eyes to see relevant similarity and difference – as ‘Like this!’ and ‘This!’ and ‘More like this!’ even when, although the exact configuration of each so gestured could be captured in a notation, what formed the kinds in question resist summary in any How to Play Chess book.

(Collins returns – a frequent figure in this Blog in truth – here but see also this discussion with him.)

Monday 24 May 2010


I’m in Paris for a little while: working from home but here rather than Kendal; working with Pierre-Henri Castel as Professeur Invité at the Centre de Recherche Médecine, Sciences, Santé, Santé Mentale et Société, Université Paris Descartes; and playing a role in a couple of conferences.

Strangely, among the various possibilities that a big city offers, the one that might be most predictably and immediately academically helpful is a kind of life in miniature. I have a delightful but tiny (bijou!) flat in the Marais, a laptop with every document and rough draft I’ve ever written, a selection of pdf articles and the outline of my work-in-progress book on tacit knowledge (and 80 cds on a nano). I picture an early run each morning before the heat builds up, a mid-morning coffee and an early evening beer in a pavement café and a fair amount of writing (pale blinds drawn all day… waiting for the gift of sound and vision).

Of course, it may not be like that at all. I (It wasn't quite.)

Monday 17 May 2010


A couple of days ago I went to see Kursk at the Liverpool Everyman. Worth seeing although oddly less engaging than I expected. The audience mills around within the set which is a kind of fat submarine with control room in the centre, bunks to one side, captain’s cabin in one corner and crew dining area in another. That gives a particular intensity to it all. But despite the inherent drama of anything set in a submarine, the real events of the Kursk sinking (only an aspect of this show despite its title) and another key element of the plot, it was not as involving as I’d expected. Perhaps things moved just a little too hurriedly. Or perhaps it was still a bit too stagey.

But there was one particular point of interest. Atmosphere was provided by a claustrophobic near constant set of background sounds. Standing where I was, this made listening to the dialogue a bit of a struggle but after a while I had the sense that I understood the outside noises, that I could hear the significance in the bangs and echoes.

That reminded me of the experience I used to have listening to unfamiliar Shakespeare histories at Stratford. For the first few moments (perhaps minutes), I would struggle to decode the English. Then suddenly it was a transparent medium for thought. The noises in Kursk cannot have been quite that but suggested it.

Monday 3 May 2010

Aesthetic self knowledge

Talking to a friend late last night I found that I couldn’t persuade her of the attractions of the broadly Wittgensteinian line on aesthetic appreciation: that paradigmatically it is not a matter of ‘that’s nice!’ but ‘those lapels are too narrow’. It’s a matter of judgement. And hence there would be something very odd about the idea of liking something but having nothing to say about it. Mitch thought, by contrast, that that happens all the time.

Taking her favourite recent film as an example (the last Star Trek movie was her rather surprise choice), I tried to persuade her that the content of what she wanted to describe about it (starting with something quite detailed about the interplay of the two Spocks within the story, and the contrast of the two actors outside that; I forget the details: it was late) was the sort of content that might enter an aesthetic appreciation: the content and the experience might be one and the same. Further, one’s knowledge might be heavily contextual: all about Spock and those actors rather than a general theory of how fantasy characters tend to act in genre films. (The latter point was intended to make the kind of knowledgeable articulation I think is central rather more plausible.)

Sadly for my own case, we were sitting beneath a print of Rothko’s Earth and Green (which I’d rescued from its previous owner’s skip-based plans for it) and which I very much like. But my ability to say anything about why I like it is fairly non-existent. (It is more a case of that than why: I like the juxtaposition of that colour and that, that ratio of sizes etc. But why, I canot say.) And, worse and worse, in general in contemporary art, my ability to articulate a view of the work is nearly always a sign I don’t like it. Liking, by contrast, is a kind of silent default.

Perhaps I could borrow David Bell’s insistence (in responding to a thought of mine) on the separation of aesthetic experience and judgement for just this one kind of case. And in any case, reasons will have to give way to features that are intriniscally or paradigmatically attractive at some point if there are to be reasons at all. It is just that that is almost the first stage for me for conceptual art.

But what of more interesting intermediate cases, where there is some obvious structure but still some obscurity? Filled with a Sunday melancholy I’ve been reading some of the poems of John Ashbery (my house guests oddly invisbily tucked into corners of Thornton Towers elsewhere). This I love, but I can hardly begin to fathom why:

The room I entered was a dream of this room.
Surely all those feet on the sofa were mine.
The oval portrait
of a dog was me at an early age.
Something shimmers, something is hushed up.

We had macaroni for lunch every day
except Sunday, when a small quail was induced
to be served to us. Why do I tell you these things?
You are not even here.

But even here I can tell you that the key phrase, crossing the line end in the second verse, is induced to be served to us. Induced! And quail. Ah yes, there is after all a story to be told of this.