Friday 27 August 2010

The riddle of tacit knowledge

Tacit knowledge is a riddle. On the one hand, it is tacit: it cannot be put into words. This in turn suggests that it is not articulable. It can, perhaps, only be shown rather than said (cf Moore’s account of the knowledge of the meaning of the word ‘red’ which exceeds any enumeration). Some authors suggest that it is capricious and that its transfer from one person to another is unpredictable and cannot be verified (cf Collins). Or one might model it on a form of mindless skilled coping, a mere animal ability that requires no conceptual input (and is thus not conceptually articulated) (cf Dreyfus although for him skilled coping is more basic than any form of knowledge).

But if these approaches to it are correct, then the idea of tacit knowledge comes under threat. Without some content to be known, how can this be a species of knowledge? Stressing its tacit nature undermines its status knowledge.

One might react against this by aiming to articulate a content to be known. The most obvious approach to this is through something like a conceptually structured thought available to be known. But this response threatens the tacit status since once the content of knowledge is articulated it seems that it cannot be tacit any longer. What is to stop its being put into words?

How then can the twin requirements of being being tacit and being knowledge be met or at least balanced?

Wednesday 25 August 2010

INPP: International Network for Philosophy and Psychiatry

Without drawing very much attention to itself, I see that the INPP website has slowly been growing over the last couple of years. It contains lists of forthcoming conferences, key publications within the philosophy of psychiatry (including summaries of many of the OUP publications), member associations and has a 'resource base': a place to look for publications on particular subjects. Of course I knew that but did not realise how much information there is, for example, about free access journals.

Tuesday 24 August 2010

The intelligibility of delusion

By chance (and further to my last two posts), there is a review article by Richard Gipps in Current Opinion in Psychiatry available (for those with subscriptions) here. For those without, a draft version text is here. Well worth a read.

Understanding, rationality and reasons

As a postscript to my last post, I notice that Richard Gipps has a further entry which questions a very close link - I may have been more explicitly keen to make in the pub than in print - between understanding and rationality. This link is called into question especially in cases of psychopathology where the idea of understanding an action or utterance being a matter of placing something in a rational pattern can seem to be put under threat. He comments:

Whilst one of the aims of understanding might be rational comprehension... what about other such forms - such as making something empathically intelligible, or symbolically (in the psychoanalytic - displaced association - sense) or emblematically (in the phenomenological - ontical emblem of an ontological disturbance - sense) intelligible? Might these not still be available to us - when we are trying to make sense of psychotic delusion - even when the project of rendering a delusion rationally intelligible has given out? Might not the equation of rationality with understanding amount to a prejudice of analytical philosophy, rather exclusively concerned as it is with rational argument; might we not have here a kind of illicit projection of philosophy's own methods back onto its subject matter, and an exclusive if unwitting focus on its own parochial concerns?

He then goes on to say two further things. First, rational judgements cannot be limited to those ‘supportable by reasons - as something which could be justified’ because judgements, such as inductive judgements, can exemplify rationality without being justified eg. by a claim about things carrying on in the same way. Second, there are a variety of cases where ‘understanding’ seems right but ‘rational’ is odder such as musical understanding or the understanding of a practical technique.

Now there is a substantial philosophical literature on reasons with which I’m insufficiently familiar. (Funny how in philosophy there can be a debate which is adjacent to one’s own concerns but can seem very strange and unfamiliar.) But this is what I’d say over a pint (if not be rash enough to write down).

First, although familiar regress arguments suggest a limit to the hierachy of reasons that might be involved in empirical judgement (it isn’t ‘turtles all the way down’, eg.), it would be odd to think of individual inductive judgements as not supportable by reasons: the particular reasons are what, in particular, has been observed in the past. (To take Hume’s example, I may judge that this loaf of bread will be nourishing, rather than mere supermaket cotton wool, because this is what I have found in the past, even if I do not need to add that correlations that have held in the past will hold in the future.) So I think I am happier with the connection between rationality and being supportable by reasons than Richard thinks I ought to be. What we need to beware of is a view in which there is always something more to be said for how a reason is a reason for something, a move to a higher level principle (such as that correlations that have held in the past will hold in the future). In both inductive and deductive cases that certainly looks to cause problems.

Second, it does seem to me to be natural to say in many, at least, aesthetic cases as well as practical cases that there are reasons in play (in the latter case, as in fact Richard himself suggests). So one moves the plaster like this! in order to produce this! effect. It must be mixed to this! degree of moistness for the final result to dry like this! But also if one understands why this! is the right musical coda then, perhaps, one can contrast it with this! chord. (I am drawn to the idea that aesthetic appreciation is always a matter of understanding and thus always a matter where reasons are in play but I realise that there are cases – eg Rothko - which challenge this because of the paucity of the available reasons.) Anyway, if one’s understanding is supportable by reasons it seems natural to say it is a species of rational understanding. (What blocks that may be the thought that rationality has to be apportioned to Spock and not Bones whilst affective responses belong to Bones but not Spock. No, rationality embraces both and so belongs to Kirk!)

But why think that the link understanding and rationality applies generally in the first place? Two reasons: there is Davidson’s argument for the link based on the idea of radical interpretation. That argument has come under fire from two important directions (that principles other than the principle of charity are sufficient for understanding; and that the assumption of rationality is undermined by empirical considerations). But my hunch is that, providing that the link is not thought of as reductive (so that we are owed an account of rationality in interpretation-independent terms), those can be accommodated even if that reduces the explanatory link we might have thought to find in Davidson.

Second, I am persuaded by the idea that intentional states are normative. The Brandomian idea of undertaking commitments seems helpful. And thus charting intentional states and their expression is charting a normative network of reasons.

Friday 13 August 2010

"Propriety and yet strict meaninglessness"

There has been an interesting debate going on on two blogs (here and here) which focus on the philosophy of psychiatry. One passage in a recent post by Richard Gipps nicely summarises a line of thinking I think I share with him.

Whilst I think it is entirely wrong to blithely accept that we know what is meant when someone tells us, or we tell ourselves, that we have had the experience or thought that (e.g.) nothing is real, I really can't accept that what is actually happening is that the someone in question is having a particular experience that they merely happen to thematise (narrativize) in this manner. As N says, the question then remains as to why it is so entirely natural for the someone to thematise it thus... What I would rather urge is that the content of the experience is given precisely through that avowal of it which makes use of the notion of 'unreality'.
But yet, or so it seems to me, this need not cause us to become complacent in assuming that we (could) know (that there could be such a thing as knowing) what it would mean to talk of an experience (as) of everything being real or unreal. We know what it is for a dollar or a smile or a problem to be real; do we really - really - understand what it would mean for the world to be real or not? Isn't "the world" precisely that within which discriminations of the reality of this or that are made? Isn't the world a transcendental precondition for necessarily localised talk of 'reality' or 'unreality'? Isn't it to 'sublime the logic of our language' - to ignore the necessary background context within which the concept of 'real' operates and to try to use it about the context itself - to carry on in this way?
One aspect of the model I would, then, use for making sense of the twin utter propriety and yet strict meaninglessness (although is it really right to call it 'meaningless'? I have a feeling that doesn't quite make the point I'm aiming for) of talk of depersonalisation or derealisation is secondary sense. We are drawn to using the terms in the ways we do by the experiences we have. That we are so drawn is not something which could be justified by reference to the content of the experiences; rather, our being-thus-drawn is the 'beginning, and not the end, of this [particular] language-game'. It is the condition of our finding it intelligible. Wednesday is fat and Tuesday is thin; happiness is up and sadness is down; sopranos are high and basses are low; anger is red and envy is green; and so on. We know how to use the relevant terms in their everyday deployments, and then we redeploy them spontaneously and groundlessly to express or report such further experiences and phenomena. I know how to talk about unreal diamonds, and then I find myself using the same word to characterise the very being of others. The logic of my language is sublimed (I cannot - however hard I try, with however much sincerity - mean it in the way I normally mean 'real'). But, damn it, that really is the only way to describe the experience!

Richard seems here to be probing the same issue I have become interested in. The appropriateness of the use of words in secondary sense seems to play a constitutive role in individuating experiences such as that the world feels unreal. The experience is the experience it is because of the appropriateness of using this set of words. This is how Wittgenstein describes it:

§125. The feeling of the unreality of one’s surroundings. This feeling I have had once, and many have it before the onset of mental illness. Everything seems somehow not real; but not as if one saw things unclear or blurred; everything looks quite as usual. And how do I know that another has felt what I have? Because he uses the same words as I find appropriate.
But why do I choose precisely the word “unreality” to express it? Surely not because of its sound. (A word of very like sound but different meaning would not do.) I choose it because of its meaning.
But I surely did not learn to use the word to mean: a feeling. No; but I learned to use it with a particular meaning and now I use it spontaneously like this. One might say--though it may mislead--: When I have learnt the word in its ordinary meaning, then I choose that meaning as a simile for my feeling. But of course what is in question here is not a simile, not a comparison of the feeling with something else.
§126. The fact is simply that I use a word, the bearer of another technique, as the expression of a feeling. I use it in a new way. And wherein consists this new kind of use? Well, one thing is that I say: I have a ‘feeling of unreality’--after I have, of course, learnt the use of the word “feeling” in the ordinary way. Also: the feeling is a state. [Wittgenstein RPP I]

But despite the fact that just these words are the right words (I think that ‘right’ is the right word), they are not used in the standard, primary sense. And hence Richrd’s ‘twin utter propriety and yet strict meaninglessness’.

Now, however, what seems interesting to me is that there seem to be cases where such a spontaneous use is shared. One might reply: I know exactly how you feel. But what of cases where the use is not shared? What happens if one simply cannot do anything with it? In a paper I wrote some years ago I pushed the line that the only criterion we have for secondary sense is such shared reactions. What I meant was that there was no content to the claim that there was any kind of sense to it once that broke down (by the way: I’m not naturally a communitarian Wittgensteinian). Now whilst I do not wish to say that that’s false it seems to be much less interesting. It is a kind of surd fact that we have no reason to call such a case ‘sense’ rather than a fact that might helpfully explain anything else.

But that still leaves the issue that Neil Pickering raised a year ago: does secondary sense ever impose a rational obligation? Is ‘right’ right?

Wednesday 4 August 2010

So good they named it twice

Having a long standing interest (see eg here, here and here) in the way that cover versions of songs or artworks stand in dialogue to originals, I must add a link to the much discussed Welsh cover of the Jay-Z song and the Guardian article that drew my attention to it.

What, however, strikes me most about this instance is not so much general aspects of the relation of the original to the cover (although see the post script) but something specific about these particular relata. The original is a straight hymn of praise to New York (“where dreams are made of”, sadly). It is a city where “There’s nothing you can’t do, Now you’re in New York”. Of course that is deeply implausible of the city’s substantial underclass and thus simply asserting it is naive and even rather vulgar. But would it ever be possible to sing so simply the praises of any city, even one in a Scandinavian social democracy which had taken The Spirit Level to heart?

The cover (although its authors are not from the town) sings the praises of Newport in an altogether more realistic, nuanced way. Newport isn’t entirely good but despite that, all things considered, it is to be praised. That seems a more convincing sentiment. Putting it like that, though, isn’t quite right either. It is the localness of the singer’s (fictional) relation to the town which frames his take on the details that make up the song and which do not even need to be weighed for a positive view. So even though Newport is a ‘concrete jungle, [with] nothing in order’ this does not matter because:

And I’ll be Port forever
Yes it is my lifeblood
These streets they are a part of me
The yin to my yang
The Craig to my Bellamy

Whilst there is something sometimes worrying about such localism (an us and them opposition scary near exiting football matches) it allows for the rest of the cover to make gentle fun of the local details. The indirection of the sentiment is summarised nowhere better then in the way the song knows that it is not without surprise simply to repeat the town’s name in the chorus. We have to be enjoined:

Let’s say some more Newports, Newports, Newports

Returning to the simple tone of the original is rather a disappointing experience, a bit like Mozart’s apparently accidental dismissal of the lack of flair in Saleri’s gifted tune in Amadeus.

PS: Interestingly, mentioning this to Gloria over a glass of wine last night, she reported that she’d been presented with the cover without any refence to an original. She had, in Wittgenstein’s analogy, then happily played along at trains with no knowledge of what a train was, and still took some intrinsic pleasure in the game/song.

Tuesday 3 August 2010


I’ve been asked to serve on the professorial appointments committee of the University of Wolverhampton. After the first such meeting, I was impressed by the strictness of the criteria they apply. For one thing, the criteria form a conjunction rather than, eg, the kind of weighted cumulative disjunction (OK there must be a proper phrase for that) that readers of DSM are familiar with. Thus candidates do not merely have to meet, strongly, say three of five general criteria but rather all five. Of course, part of the point of then having a committee to assess these is that some judgement gets to be exercised.

One place where that judgement is needed is checking that the right local standards apply to different disciplines. So an engineer who has gained £600,000 of research funding has done about as well as a historian who has raised a tiny fraction of that. This reminds me of my favourite Kuhnian idea: that the tables in textbooks that seem to show how well supported by data a theory is actually show what good support in a local discipline comprises. (Chemists have to get things right to four places of decimals. Physicists need to be within an order of magnitude.)

But I was left wondering whether there should be a kind of personality to professorial appointments. It isn’t obvious to me that different kinds of university (eg. those that specialise in links to industry and in ‘knowledge transfer’) all need the same kind of professor. Do we really have a clear enough antecedent grasp of ‘professor’ that we couldn’t tolerate different notions?

(Some years ago, Neil Gascoigne and I came up with a kind of definition of ‘professor’ in philosophy, albeit one which would reduce the numbers massively. If Smith is a professor it should be possible to grasp what going on in a Smithian manner would be in a new area of philosophy but in such a way which isn’t explained as a Jonesian manner. ‘Smithian’ should be an irreducible projectible predicate.)