Friday 12 August 2011

Adrian Moore on ineffable knowledge

[Another work in progress. Very rough.]

A different connection between Wittgenstein’s regress argument and tacit knowledge can be drawn from Adrian Moore’s book Points of View by charting his arguments for ineffable knowledge. (Moore himself retains the phrase ‘tacit knowledge’ for something else, something for whose existence he offers no explicit argument.) Whilst in one paper, Moore argues directly that conceptual mastery is a form of ineffable knowledge, in his book, this is placed in a broader context of responding to Wittgenstein. We will first follow that latter route.

Moore suggests that, in his discussion of understanding a rule or grasping a concept, one of Wittgenstein’s targets is the idea that our concepts answer to a ‘super-physical landscape’. Discussing the idea that there is a necessary connection between the concept of aunt and being female, for example, he suggests that Wittgenstein rejects the idea that such concepts ‘were things we just stumbled across, the one an inseparable part of the other’. But instead of charting such an independent super-physical or platonic realm, Wittgenstein’s discussion makes it clear instead that: ‘It is on our own contingent practices that we are focusing’ [Moore 1997: 128].

The connection between meaning or rules and contingency is this. Recall our summary of Wittgenstein’s regress argument and also Kripke’s reconstruction of it. It seems that nothing that can come before the mind’s eye, nor anything that can be put into words, nor any finite examples of past practice can determine a rule or a concept. What then explains our ability to go on in the same way?

Moore quotes, approvingly, a famous passage from Stanley Cavell who says:

That on the whole we... [make, and understand, the same projections of words into further contexts] is a matter of our sharing routes of interest and feeling, modes of response, sense of humour and of significance and of fulfilment, of what is outrageous, of what is similar to what else, what a rebuke, what forgiveness, of when an utterance is an assertion, when an appeal, when an explanation – all the whirl of organism Wittgenstein calls ‘forms of life’ [Cavell 1976: 52 quoted in Moore 1997: 128-9]

It is because of this shared background that we react in similar ways to explanations of rules and concepts and make the same projections of word use into the future. Lacking something like a platonic landscape to chart or a signpost that needs no further interpretation, it is a shared whirl of organism that underpins the conceptual order.

But if so, then this suggests that what seem to be necessary features of our concepts themselves depend on a background of contingencies. The contingencies do not merely concern the fact that, for linguistic historical reasons, the word for aunt is ‘aunt’ and female is ‘female’. Rather, the very idea that aunts are female seems to depend on the whirl of organism. Similarly the truths of mathematic and logic.

On a Wittgensteinian view, not only does 2 + 2 equal 4, but 2 + 2 must equal 4. ‘2 + 2 = 4’ is a rule. And yet – it is a rule only because of our contingent linguistic practices (and not just in the sense that we might have used different sounds or inscriptions to express it). [Moore 1997: 132 italics added]

But that idea seems simply false. As Bernard Williams puts it:

[I]f our talk of numbers has been determined by our decisions, then one result of our decisions is that it must be nonsense to say that anything about a number has been determined by our decisions. [Williams 1982: 95]

One response to this, which Moore considers but rejects, is to attempt distinguish between an empirical and transcendental interpretation of the role of contingency. Whilst within the empirical realm it seems simple false to say that the truths of mathematics or the greenness of grass, for example, depend on our whirl of organism, perhaps there is a way to advance such a claim at a transcendental level, off stage. On this approach, conditionals such as, had our language been different then grass would not have been green, do not express empirical possibilities or point to alternatives which are alternatives for us. But this leaves the thoughts apparently expressed as incoherent, as pure and utter nonsense.

Moore’s own response to the tension is nuanced and lies mainly outside the scope of this book. But one element connects to his claim that conceptual understanding is ineffable. In the face of the tension outlined, we are inclined to ask:

‘But what, ultimately, does somebody’s being an aunt consist in? What does something’s being green consist in?’ We cannot help asking these questions because we cannot help wondering about the basic form of that to which our representations answer. [Moore 1997: 134]

Such questions presuppose that our concepts answer to something: the underlying form of the world, its necessary background logical structure. Given the apparent insight from Wittgenstein’s regress argument that necessary features of our concepts themselves depend on a background of contingencies, answering these questions in their own terms leads inevitably, Moore says, to transcendental idealism but that is mere nonsense. Moore suggests that, instead, the questions should be rejected. But this is not just in order to try to escape the tension. Rather, it is because grasp of concepts or rules does not answer to anything.

Focusing self-consciously on our understanding, we recognize the deep contingencies that sustain it… [But] Our understanding has nothing to answer to. It is part of how we receive the world… If we do achieve such clarity, then what we actually get into focus is an arrangement of interlocking, mutually supporting practices that are grounded in one another’s contingency, a complex knotted structure that might easily have been different. [Moore 1997: 162]

So part of Moore’s response to the regress argument and the tension it seems to set up between necessity and contingency is to deny that conceptual mastery answers to anything. It is not representational knowledge. For that reason it is ineffable.

My understanding of English is a prime example. I would certainly count that as ineffable, even though it includes large tracts of effable knowledge such as... that the word ‘green’ denotes green things.
Understanding, of the sort that I have in mind, has nothing to answer to. Of course, I may think that I know what a particular word in English means and be wrong: I may think that the word ‘rabbit’ denotes hares as well as rabbits. If that is the case, then what I understand is strictly speaking an idiolect distinct from English. But I do still have my understanding... a mode of reception. It is not itself a reception. It includes my knowing how to exercise the concept green, for instance, which in turn includes my knowing what it is for something to be green. But this is not the same as my having an answer to any question. (Still less is it the same as my having an answer to the pseudo-question, ‘what is it for something to be green’.) [Moore 1997: 184]

Elsewhere Moore advances a similar line of argument more directly but which also more clearly connects back to the regress argument and the role of Platonism. (This is the direct argument mentioned above.) As reported in chapter 2, Moore criticises the view that there is any neat semantic marker for a distinction between knowledge-how and knowledge-that and argues that in many cases knowledge-how can be put into words, in accord with Stanley and Williamson’s views. Nevertheless, he also argues that there is a form of knowledge or understanding which is ineffable and which cannot be put into words. Conceptual mastery is such a case.

Consider my knowledge of what it is for an object to be green. On [Stanley and Williamson’s] view this is knowledge, concerning something, that that thing is what it is for an object to be green. But concerning what? A simple reply would be: ‘What it is for an object to be green.’ But what kind of thing is that? If I try to express my knowledge by indicating a green object and saying, ‘This is what it is for an object to be green,’ what can I be referring to by ‘this’? There does not seem to be any good answer. Nothing short of an unacceptable Platonism, it seems to me, can subserve the extension of their account to this case. I do not think that my knowledge of what it is for an object to be green is knowledge that anything is the case. Nor, crucially, do I think that it is effable. [Moore 2003: 177]

In the case of grasp of a concept such as green, Moore argues that the demonstrative approach fails to work. It could only work if something like the whole use of the word were available for demonstrative singling out. But failing platonism of that form, that cannot be the case. He goes on to suggest that where knowledge is ineffable, the attempt to put it into words can only result in nonsense. Further such nonsense really is nonsense. There can be no ‘suggestion that there is nonsense that captures in some more or less obscure way how things are’ [Moore 1997: 201]. Nevertheless, that attempt can produce something that has a role in showing even whilst it cannot say anything. Showing, however, is not merely a shorthand for saying in some more or less obscure way how things are. Rather: ‘To say of some piece of nonsense that it is the result  of attempting to express the inexpressible is something like making an aesthetic evaluation’ [ibid: 202].

We will not follow Moore’s thought further along this trajectory of using nonsense to show something about our grasp of rules but rather examine the stage-setting already in play. Two elements inter-mingle in the claim that grasp of concepts is ineffable. One is the failure of a demonstration to express what one grasps when one grasps the concept of greenness. The other is the diagnosis of this that it is because that concept does not answer to or represent anything independent of it. Understanding the meaning of a word is not an instance of representing something as the case but rather a general precondition of any such representation.

My understanding is knowledge of how to acquire knowledge., then. But it is not itself true representation of how things are. It is not a representation at all...

My understanding is not true, nor true of anything, nor yet true to anything. But the fact that other people communicate with me as they do is reason for my having an understanding that will enable me to make good sense of them (as mine does). More generally, the fact that the world is the way it is is a reason for my having an understanding that will enable me to make good sense of it. And as for what ‘good’ means here: it means, not ‘right’, but... something more like useful. This is not to say that, granted the concepts I have, there is no right or wrong in how I use them to arrive at my interpretations. The point is rather that there is no right or wrong in the concepts I have. [ibid: 185-6]

The claim that grasping a rule does not answer to anything suggests a worry that such understanding cannot be a form of knowledge. Moore considers what he calls ‘the effability argument’ to the effect that answering to something independent is an essential feature of knowledge. Thus for example, strength is a capacity that enables one to do particular things in particular circumstances. But its success conditions are ‘simply the conditions in which the subject is in that state’. It is more or less useful but does not get anything right. Strength is thus not knowledge. By contrast, practical knowledge of how to make an omelette answers to facts about eggs and temperature. Had those been different, a given state of practical knowledge would fail. Thus, the latter is a form of representational knowledge. It is thus effable, according to Moore, because it can be articulated through suitable demonstratives.

How then can something which does not answer to anything independent of it count as knowledge? Moore aims to earn the right to call understanding a concept a form of knowledge by identifying three general marks of or indicators of knowledge: versatility (there is no relevant foreclosing of the possibilities it affords a subject), performance transcendence (evidence for its possession must be more than someone simply ‘bringing something off’) and rationality (it stands in logical relations to other cognitive states). Now whilst states which answer to something independent of them can meet these three conditions so also can ineffable knowledge because, roughly, by being the right sort of precondition of representational knowledge, it can inherit these three marks.

Moore is free to define ‘ineffable’ knowledge the way he wishes: as practical knowledge which is non-representational because it does not answer to anything independent of it. But it is not meant to be a purely stipulative definition. It is tied to a pre-philosophical sense of ‘ineffable’ because the meaning of ‘green’ cannot, he argues, be expressed in words. This in turn is reinforced by something like Wittgenstein’s regress argument. Only if platonism were true could one use a platonic conception of the real, underlying extension of our concepts both to explain to what they answer but also to be the object of a demonstrative to express conceptual mastery in words (as ‘green is that!’). Lacking platonism, the regress argument shows that no other attempt to capture one’s understanding in words will succeed. Any utterance will stand in need of an appropriate interpretation.

Even though this is not Moore’s own account of tacit knowledge it serves to locate a possible response to the regress argument which could be used to support a role for tacit knowledge. Concentrating on the negative moral of the regress argument, it seems that grasp of a rule or the meaning cannot be made explicit because any utterance stands in need of interpretation and that initiates a regress. Equally it cannot consist in any mental talisman akin to a signpost because that will also stand in need of interpretation. Kripke’s response to this accepts that, properly speaking, nothing is grasped in the way originally assumed. Understanding meaning is indeed tacit, though not in any clear sense knowledge, because it is a matter of projection based on not being out of step with a community. (Blackburn suggests that a similar account could be given for an individual.)

Moore’s response also accepts the negative thrust about what can be put into words (although in other cases of practical knowledge, such as omelette making, he happily endorses demonstrative expression). It is ineffable. We might say: tacit. But he nevertheless wishes to preserve the idea that it is knowledge even though this puts under strain the idea that it has content because it does not answer to anything and is thus (unlike omelette making) not representational knowledge.

In the next section we will attempt to outline more directly how an account of tacit knowledge can be drawn from Wittgenstein which shares the general pattern of Moore’s account as summarised here. (

Two claims will be key. One, is that Wittgenstein’s discussion allows more to be expressed than either Kripke or Moore accepts and that helps undercut Moore’s claim that conceptual understanding cannot be expressed. Second, part of the attraction of a substantive ineffable account of tacit knowledge stems from an only partial rejection of platonism. A more thorough going rejection of platonism removes this spurious support. But it will be helpful here to mention a further point of disagreement specifically with Moore’s account.

We said above that Moore mingles the claim that conceptual grasp cannot be expressed with the idea that it is non-representational. He says: ‘This is not to say that, granted the concepts I have, there is no right or wrong in how I use them to arrive at my interpretations. The point is rather that there is no right or wrong in the concepts I have.’ [ibid: 186]. This latter claim reflects a central theme in Wittgenstein’s later work referred to by commentators as the ‘autonomy of grammar’ [eg Hacker **]. It expresses the view that an explanation of conceptual connections in independent terms is impossible. They do not, for example, track independent platonic extensions. Following a rule is not a matter of going over in bolder pencil moves already somehow made.

One can, however, concede that claim whilst insisting that understanding a concept does answer to something: a normative pattern of use which prescribes correct instances which is reflected in the first part of the quotation above: This is not to say that, granted the concepts I have, there is no right or wrong in how I use them. That is the content of the substantive knowledge one has when one knows the meaning of a word or a rule. There is no simple link from the autonomy of grammar as a whole – the fact that it does not represent an underlying platonic structure – to the inexpressibility of what one understands when one understands a concept. One would need a further argument for this and in the next section we will attempt to undermine just such an argument.