Friday 29 October 2010

Against Sass on delusional atmosphere

Whilst the bulk of Paradoxes of Delusion concerns the idea the relation between schizophrenia and solipsim, a later chapter provides a distinct line of interpretation of the specific schizophrenic symptom: delusional ‘atmosphere’ or ‘mood’ described by Jaspers in his General Psychopathology.

“The environment,” says Jaspers “is somehow different – not to a gross degree – perception is unaltered in itself but there is some strange change which envelops everything with a subtle, pervasive and strangely uncertain light.” Whatever is perceived may seem tremendously specific and meaningful, but without the patient being able to explain why; unfamiliar events and objects may appear to be copies or repetitions of themselves… “objects and events signify something but nothing definite”. [Sass 1994: 97]

The key feature of delusional mood or atmosphere is its uncanny particularity and Sass looks to some passages in Wittgenstein’s Brown Book to attempt to shed light on it.

In Schreber’s Memoirs, the feeling of uncanny particularity emerges most clearly in his discussion of the wasp miracle…”I have most stringent and convincing proof that these beings do not fly towards me by accident…. These animals always appear on definite occasions and in definite order around me.” It seems, rather, that Schreber’s experience of definiteness simply could not have been described more completely. [ibid: 99]

This description presents a problem, however. If that is the best that Schreber can do he does not seem to have given an account of the content of the experience. Just what can he mean by ‘definite occasions and in definite order’? Presumably, another observer would notice nothing special in the flight of the wasps and Schreber does not explain the pattern that he sees. So, as Sass asks, how can we characterise or comprehend this experience in which everything looks so completely normal yet at the same time so indescribably, so incomprehensibly, special?

His idea is to make use of some passages from the Brown Book in which Wittgenstein examines the idea that grasp of meaning is a particular kind of experience. This provides a key tool for Sass’ purpose. Wittgenstein sketches a distinction between a transitive and an intransitive meaning of ‘particular’.

Now the use of the word “particular” is apt to produce a kind of delusion and roughly speaking this delusion is produced by the double usage of this word. On the one hand, we may say, it is used preliminary to a specification, description, comparison; on the other hand, as what one might describe as an emphasis. The first usage I shall call the transitive one, the second the intransitive one. Thus, on the one hand I say “This face gives me a particular impression which I can't describe”. The latter sentence may mean something like: “This face gives me a strong impression”. These examples would perhaps be more striking if we substituted the word “peculiar” for “particular”, for the same comments apply to “peculiar”. If I say “This soap has a peculiar smell: it is the kind we used as children”, the word “peculiar” may be used merely as an introduction to the comparison which follows it, as though I said “I'll tell you what this soap smells like:...”. If, on the other hand, I say “This soap has a peculiar smell!” or “It has a most peculiar smell”, “peculiar” here stands for some such expression as “out of the ordinary”, “uncommon”, “striking”. [Wittgenstein 1958: 158]

So a transitive use of ‘particular’ introduces a comparison what can then be filled out. An intransitive use marks, instead, a mere emphasis, equivalent to saying that something is striking. Wittgenstein goes on to suggest that we can become confused as to the nature of the use that we ourselves are making of it at any time. This enables Sass to suggest that one can have an experience characterised by one kind of use and confuse it for one characterised by the other such that ‘when one is having the first, intransitive type of experience, that one is noticing the sort of thing that one actually does notice in the first, transitive type’ [104]. And from this Sass concludes:

As Wittgenstein analyses it, this uncanny experience of mute particularity is one of the characteristic delusions engendered by a certain unnatural, reflective stance characteristic of philosophizing. [104]

The problem with this approach is that it relies on the idea that Wittgenstein does indeed provide an analysis of an experience of mute particularity. But it is far from clear that he does. I say ‘far from clear that he does’ rather than ‘clear that he does not’ for this reason. Wittgenstein’s analysis, in the passages Sass cites, concerns the view that understanding sameness and difference of meaning can be explained or analysed as sameness and difference of an experience of meaning. It is the idea that the word ‘red’ comes to us in a particular way when we recognize a colour as red. It is to criticise this idea that Wittgenstein draws the distinction between transitive and intransitive meaning.

To shed light on this he compares the idea that one experiences a word in a particular way, with the idea that one might describe one’s bodily posture at any given time as ‘particular’.

You are, of course, constantly changing the position of your body throughout the day; arrest yourself in any such attitude (while writing, reading, talking, etc. etc.) and say to yourself in the way in which you say, “‘Red’ comes in a particular way …”, “I am now in a particular attitude.” You will find that you can quite naturally say this. But aren't you always in a particular attitude? [Wittgenstein 1958: **]

Although it is natural, he suggests, to say this when concentrating on one’s posture it is not that there is a type of posture being picked out. Neither, however, is one’s posture particularly striking.
And of course you didn't mean that you were just then in a particularly striking attitude.

Rather, the naturalness of the use of the word is an artefact of the situation:
What was it that happened. You concentrated, as it were stared at, your sensations. And this is exactly what you did when you said that “red” came in a particular way. [Wittgenstein 1958: **]

And this same idea is then used to try to undermine the compulsion to say that understanding a meaning is a matter of having a particular experience. There are experiences when one uses or understands a word just as one’s body is always in some posture or other. But nothing significant follows from this:
What is particular about the way “red” comes is that it comes while you’re philosophizing about it, as what is particular about the position of your body when you concentrated on it was concentration. We appear to ourselves to be on the verge of giving a characterization of the “way” describing the way, whereas we aren’t really opposing it to any other way. We are emphasizing, not comparing, but we express ourselves as though this emphasis was really a comparison of the object with itself; there seems to be a reflexive comparison. [Wittgenstein 1958: **]

The reason for looking at the thrust of Wittgenstein’s argument here is this. As is typical of his later work, there is a mix of both therapeutic understanding and destructive criticism. For Sass’ project to work, it would be necessary that part of the therapeutic understanding was an account of what it is or would be to have an experience of ‘mute particularity’ even if this were then criticised as part of the destructive aspect of Wittgenstein’s analysis. But it does not seem that that is the case. The closest that he comes to that is the account of the misleading naturalness of using the word ‘particular’ in the context of concentration. But in the elucidatory but deflating example of bodily posture the natural utterance, whilst intransitive, does not even mean striking. Whilst natural the utterance still, in some sense, misfires. So there is no suggestion that it expresses an experience of mute particularity and thus no account of that supposed experience is given.

This is, perhaps, unsurprising. Wittgenstein puts talk of ‘particular experiences’ in the mouth of an interlocutor who wishes to explain meaning through characteristic experiences and which he – Wittgenstein – wishes, by contrast, to refute. The more the quest for empathic and therapeutic understanding of the opposing view were to succeed in granting it coherence, the less robust would be the critical counterpoint. Instead, Wittgenstein offers the most minimal account of why one might be tempted to deploy the idea of ‘particular experiences’ and then pulls the rug from under it, leaving no substantial account of what such experiences might be.

For this reason, Sass’ suggestion that we look to where we should not look for an account of meaning to help us understand an experience of mute particularity cannot work.

Sass, L.A. (1994) The Paradoxes of Delusion, New York: Cornell
Wittgenstein, L. (1958) The Blue and Brown books, Oxford: Blackwell.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Postscript to: Not a review of Collins' Tacit and Explicit Knowledge

I still haven’t had an opportunity to write a proper and considered review of Collins’ clearly important book on this subject but I can gesture at some of the developments in the second half and thus contextualise my own initial comments from a few weeks ago.

One of the features that marks out this book from most of the rest of the literature on tacit knowledge is that it builds on Collins’ recent work on forms of expertise that are carried in language. (Recall talk of interactional expertise etc. from Rethinking Expertise.) Thus whilst chapter 5 concerns bodily or somatic tacit knowledge, familiar from the work of Dreyfus for example, chapter 6 is called ‘Collective tacit knowledge and social cartesianism’. It is this latter chapter that brings in the kind of distinction which I find so important between linguistic agents and mere animals or trees.

This reflects Collins’ fairly explicit initial approach to tacit knowledge. As he explained to me in a recent email:

I implicitly define ‘knowledge’ as meaning that which you have when you can do the thing and that which you don’t have when you can’t do the thing. This approach has nothing to do with self-consciousness, or intentions, or actions as opposed to behaviours. Those distinctions are discussed at length in Collins and Kusch’s Shape of Actions. At least, in so far as it does have anything to do with those distinctions, it is that Collective Tacit Knowledge is still mysterious because it is the knowledge required to carry out polimorphic actions (the subject of the earlier book). Given this much broader implicit definition of knowledge, then there are no distinctions between humans, cats, trees and sieves (I even treat the later as having the ‘knowledge’ to sort stones so that looks even dafter if you want to go there). Obviously, and this was the stated intention at the beginning, the differences between humans and other entities re-emerge at the end of the book with ‘Social Cartesianism’, which turns on Collective Tacit Knowledge.

So the starting point is very minimal indeed. ‘Knowledge’ can be possessed even by sieves. The distinction between sieves, trees and cats, on the one hand, and linguistic humans, on the other, is then earned in that later chapter from which, among other things, distinctions between mere behaviour on the one hand and action on the other can then be constructed with conceptually clean hands. Once one realises that then, radical though the minimal starting point remains, one can understand why the book begins that way. It is a deliberate methodological strategy.

There is a view of philosophy according to which philosophy does not so much tell one what to think but the cost (by way of implications and supporting accounts) of thinking what one may wish to think. Against this idea, Tacit & Explicit Knowledge, sets itself the task of earning rather than merely borrowing or stealing distinctions which seem important for characterising tacit knowledge in its various species. I remain unsure, however, whether the further cost of such a reconstruction has been fully met. But you’ll have to take a look.

Monday 25 October 2010

The Loneliness of Lowry

Had I not been lonely none of my works would have happened.

I caught the current exhibition at the Abbot Hall called ‘The Loneliness of Lowry’ just a week before it closes. It occupies only three rooms of the gallery (and the choice for one of the other upstairs rooms rather spoils the atmosphere that the Lowrys promote) but manages to produce a very pronounced impression through its fairly narrow focus: some people, country and industrial landscapes, and seascapes.

The key impression is the way the tone or mood verges content (an isolated house in an urban setting becomes a lonely house) with style. This is a Lowry merging with abstract or conceptual art.
Two other minor contingent things struck me (ie not essential to the exhibition itself) as I left.
  1. The rooms carried only minimal overviews with few descriptions of individual pictures. Such is the lure of text I often spend nearly as much time reading as looking in galleries these days.
  2. One of the pleasures of seeing Lowry in the Abbot Hall rather than its proper home in the Lowry Centre in Salford is that the latter, dramatic building in orange and purple though it is, seems to have nothing in common with its subject.

The past, present and future of psychiatry - left versus right hemispheres

Last Friday, I was invited to speak at the East of England Psychiatry Higher Trainees Annual Conference on ‘The Past, Present and Future Perfect of Psychiatry’ in Cambridge. It was for me a chance to see German Berrios for the first time, lecturing on the history of psychopathology. Early on he suggested a choice between, roughly, realist and constructivist (or constructionist) views of the psychopathological categories opting for the latter himself. But I wasn’t sure whether this was a view to promote good history (in his role as historian of psychopathology) or a metaphysical commitment.

(Apparently the word ‘psychopathology’ first appeared in the 1847 translation into English of a work by Feuchtersleben in which it had appeared as ‘psycho-pathologie’ in German. “The disappearance of the hypen was very important”, said Berrios.)

But it was also a chance to hear Ian McGilchrist (pictured) summarise the main line of argument of his newish and well reviewed book The Master and his Emissary. His own site says:

Most scientists long ago abandoned the attempt to understand why nature has so carefully segregated the hemispheres, or how to make coherent the large, and expanding, body of evidence about their differences. In fact to talk about the topic is to invite dismissal. Yet no one who knows anything about the area would dispute for an instant that there are significant differences: it's just that no-one seems to know why. And we now know that every type of function - including reason, emotion, language and imagery - is subserved not by one hemisphere alone, but by both.
This book argues that the differences lie not, as has been supposed, in the 'what' - which skills each hemisphere possesses - but in the 'how', the way in which each uses them, and to what end. But, like the brain itself, the relationship between the hemispheres is not symmetrical. The left hemisphere, though unaware of its dependence, could be thought of as an 'emissary' of the right hemisphere, valuable for taking on a role that the right hemisphere - the 'Master' - cannot itself afford to undertake. However it turns out that the emissary has his own will, and secretly believes himself to be superior to the Master. And he has the means to betray him. What he doesn't realize is that in doing so he will also betray himself.
The book begins by looking at the structure and function of the brain, and at the differences between the hemispheres, not only in attention and flexibility, but in attitudes to the implicit, the unique, and the personal, as well as the body, time, depth, music, metaphor, empathy, morality, certainty and the self. It suggests that the drive to language was not principally to do with communication or thought, but manipulation, the main aim of the left hemisphere, which manipulates the right hand. It shows the hemispheres as no mere machines with functions, but underwriting whole, self-consistent, versions of the world. Through an examination of Western philosophy, art and literature, it reveals the uneasy relationship of the hemispheres being played out in the history of ideas, from ancient times until the present. It ends by suggesting that we may be about to witness the final triumph of the left hemisphere – at the expense of us all.

If I understood the presentation, one idea was that whilst the left hemisphere deals with details, specifics and practicalities, the right hemisphere deals with wholes, contexts, broader meanings and so forth. The right checks the general picture, the left focuses down without such doubts. (I want to add other distinctions such as knowledge-that versus knowledge-how but I suspect I would be free associating rather than remembering. Ah! How about that distinction!?!) And thus it is possible - as a kind of addition or consequence - to use this distinction of characteristic ways of doing things as a critical approach to contemporary culture. It seems in its emphasis on bureaucratic and algorithmic technical fixes, contemporary culture shows the over development of left hemisphere thinking over right hemisphere thinking.

It was too much to resist using this distinction (as I misunderstood it) to characterise how psychiatry should be practiced in an ideal future: the correct balance of left and right: detail and technology but also meaning and context. It was also too much to resist the idea that Iain’s over optimistic selection of slides for his talk reflected left hemisphere concentration on the details of what should be included overriding right hemisphere realism about what, in the context, might actually fit. (Who has not done that?) But I think he saw the joke.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Williams' absolute conception

Later today I’m teaching a session on Williams’ absolute conception in my first year Value of Knowledge module (BA Philosophy). I realise that I don’t or no longer understand a key point. If I work through the argument (below) as I've previously thought about it, perhaps this will help pinpoint my blindspot.

Williams’ way of substantiating the Absolute Conception develops from a minimal thought experiment. Two people, A and B, both have different but equally true beliefs about the world. (Perhaps they are in different places). If so, then it must be possible to describe the set up, including how A and B’s beliefs, as different true representations of the same broader thing, are related both to each other and to the thing of which their respective beliefs are representations. But this larger account is itself a representation of the world that includes A and B and explains how their beliefs are related to each other and to the world.

Hence, we have formed a conception of a larger representation of the part of the world in question (now construed broadly to include both A and B and their original representations), which is distinct from our conception of that part of the world itself. Thus understanding the larger story requires also grasping the contrast between, on the one hand, the representation of the world, and, on the other, the world of which the representation is (merely) a (albeit true) representation.

In fact postulating two people seems unnecessary for the thought experiment as indicated by the fact that the last ‘larger story’ / representation can itself be the subject of a broader account of how it itself relates to, but is distinct from, the world it represents and to other true representations of the world that could be given. And so in earning the right to the initial aspect of knowledge – that it is of something independent – we seem to have a kind of escalation of representations, each one standing distinct from the complex part of the world it represents.

This makes me think that there’s a quicker route to the same idea starting from Williams’ premiss: ‘if knowledge is what it claims to be, then it is knowledge of a reality which exists independently of that knowledge, and indeed... independently of any thought of experience’ [Williams 1978: 64]

So, with Williams, using the word ‘representation’ to mean anything which represents the world or reality as being a particular way, we can say: if our conception of knowledge is of something independent of us, we must also think of the knowledge in question (or the representation) as distinct from, but depicting, a bit of the world. And thus our everyday understanding of knowledge must involve a contrast between:
  • A: a representation, on the one hand, and the world, on the other.
Williams argues that the very idea of knowledge involves that contrast. Anyone who did not understand the idea that, although knowledge represents the world being a particular way, it is distinct from the world, would not understand what knowledge is. But that point - ‘A’ - is itself expressed in a representation which, because it aims at objective truth, stands in contrast to another bit of reality (a bit of reality which also includes a representation). And so to grasp the objectivity of A requires grasping this further contrast between:
  • B: a representation (ie A: of a representation, on the one hand, and the world, on the other), on the one hand, and the world (what A represents: a more complicated bit of the world this time which also includes the first representation), on the other
But ‘B’ is itself something that we think and take to be true and so is another representation. So it is distinct from the state of affairs it depicts. So to grasp its objectivity - its aim to tell us something about how true representations are nevertheless distinct from the world they represent - we must be capable of thinking about a further distinction which we can label ‘C’. And so on. This line of thinking is suggested by this passage:

For if A or B or some other party comes in this way to understand these representations and their relation to the world, this will be because he has given them a place in some more inclusive representation; but this will still itself be a representation, involving its own beliefs, conceptualizations, perceptual experiences and assumptions about the laws of nature. If this is knowledge, then we must be able to form the conception, once more, of how this would be related to some other representation which might, equally, claim to be knowledge; indeed we must be able to form that conception with regard to every other representation which might make that claim. If we cannot form that conception, then it seems that we do not have any adequate conception of the reality which is there ‘anyway’, the object of any representation which is knowledge; but that conception appeared at the beginning as basic to the notion of knowledge itself. That conception we might call the absolute conception of reality. If knowledge is possible at all, it now seems, the absolute conception must be possible too. [Williams 1978: 65]

So much for the argument as to why we must be able to form an absolute conception of the world if we are to grasp the concept of knowledge. But how we do so faces a dilemma:

On the one hand, the absolute conception might be regarded as entirely empty, specified only as ‘whatever it is that these representations represent’. In this case, it no longer does the work that was expected of it, and provides insufficient substance to the conception of an independent reality; it slips out of the picture, leaving us only with a variety of possible representations to be measured against each other, with nothing to mediate them.
On the other hand, we may have some determinate picture of what the world is like independent of any knowledge or representation in thought; but then that is open to the reflection, once more, that that is only one particular representation of it, our own, and that we have no independent point of leverage for raising this into the absolute representation of reality. [ibid: 65]

Our concept of knowledge seems to require a contrast between representations and the world represented. Awareness of this seems to escalate into a conception of what all possible true representations represent: an absolute conception. But
  • Either it is just, vacuously, stated by saying ‘what true representations represent’.
  • Or we use a particular picture of the world. But in our own case, that just trades on some particular representation. It may, eg., be false.
And hence we need some other response to this which turns out to be an indirect way of specifying the content (in one sense) of the conception via a Piercean ideal endpoint of inquiry route: reality is what is described by a finished science. We can conceive reality to the extent that we can concieve of this process towards an endpoint. Now as McDowell points out, pretty much the same kind of dilemma we had earlier arises again with this suggestion in characterising science (either ‘whatever gives us access to reality’ or that historical method practiced in such and such a lab). But what bothers me today is getting a feel for the dilemma in the first place. What exactly is the worry about the first horn?

The minimal thought experiment suggests that whenever we have a true representation (the sort of thing that knowledge is, at the very least) it is possible to tell a broader story of how it relates to the reality, a bit of which it depicts, and that this might go on without stopping short of an account of how the totality of true representations depict the totality of reality / the world as a whole. But to get as far as the dilemma requires more than just the thought that it might be possible to escalate (that there need be no stopping point). Rather, it requires thinking that we need to escalate in this way to earn the right to thinking of knowledge as answering to an independent reality in the first place. Ie only by doing this do we fill out our grasp of the world to which knowledge / representations answer.

With that worry in place then I think I see why the first horn is a problem. All the subsequent representations seem increasingly to concern representations rather than the world in contrast to which the first representation stood. Or, if it isn’t quite that, then if there was a problem understanding the objective purport of the first one, then embedding it in a series of further representations makes no progress. That idea was, I think, sustained for me in the past by adding sotto voce the phrase ‘the hell’ after ‘whatever’ in the first horn: whatever the hell it is that these representations represent. With that in place, the first horn seems to be a case of simply failing to specify a world to contrast to our representations.

But the glaring problem with that reading is that it makes the first step so odd. (I have to say that I always thought that the first step was the misleading one. What has changed is that I no longer understand its initial appeal.) Under what circumstance would one grasp something about the nature of knowledge or representation but lack a grasp of the bit of reality it aimed to get right that would, in turn, be informed or corrected by the first step of the escalation? Especially given that Williams is concerned with knowledge and thus true representations, what would it be to understand the true representation ‘Sootica is in her basket’ and not grasp that it is the fact that Sootica is in her basket that this aims to get, and succeeds in getting, right?

Sunday 10 October 2010

Introducing Endtroducing

In a hiatus in my ability think about philosophy or philosophy of psychiatry, I can at least add another comment on cover versions (adding to comments here, here, here, here and here for example). Last night I went to hear Introducing playing DJ Shadow’s album Endtroducing at the Bewery Arts. Endtroducing is an album played almost entirely from samples (possibly the first such album). Introducing, by contrast, play it live as a nine piece band, held together by impressive drumming.

There is something simply admirably gonzo about the project, the mere fact of it. But I realised in advance that if they produced, through some miracle, an exact copy there would be no aesthetic value in it. If on the other hand, what they produced was too different (like the reggae version of Dark Side of the Moon), I would feel cheated, in the presence of mere pastiche.

(This seems vaguely akin to Harry Collins' comments (in Changing Order) on the replication of scientific results. One needs some differences: the same scientists in the same lab count for less replication than a distinct lab. But they must replicate the same experiment: mere coincident insight from tea leaves would not count.)

In fact Introducing played it straight and as close as they could, I suspect, to the original. Nevertheless, the inevitable differences in emphases, mix and singing style had some overall interesting effects. I could, for example, hear the album as an instance of trip hop, a label applied to it at the time but which made no sense to me. Played live, it clearly was. But I also suspect that I will hear the original, when I next play it, differently: in a relation to last night's performance..

The effect was less a cover version of an original than a relation to an abstract template like a particular production of Hamlet standing in the context of all the others one has seen

Friday 1 October 2010

INPP conference Gothenburg website

The website is now up and running here.