Friday 5 August 2011

Travis on determination / rule following

A couple of years ago, I took some time off work to read Charles Travis’ Thought’s Footing and found it a difficult but rewarding read [Travis 2006]. I didn’t take any notes about how it works so I’ve had to go back to recall Travis’ version of the rule following considerations which has a number of interesting features. The main chapter is chapter 4 on determination although a later section (pp189-93) helps to shed light on the approach here.

In chapter 4, Travis takes as a central clue a passage later than the conventional rule following passages (I would say [Wittgenstein 1953 §§139-239]):

In §459 Wittgenstein notes,
We say ‘The order orders this – ‘ and do it; but also ‘The order orders this: I am to...’. We translate it at one time into a proposition, another into a demonstration, and at another into action.
It is the transition from order to action that matters here. For a proposition, the transition is from it, or understanding it bears, to particular facts as to things being as they are (for the various ways that might be) being, or not being, things being as the proposition says. What might effect such a transition? [Travis 2006: 122-3]

I think that, by taking this as his clue, Travis stresses two things. First, there is a transition or translation from the order to what we do with it (to what I would have said ‘satisfies’ it). That suggests a gap to be crossed in some way. It is more obvious when what has to be connected is an order and an action as they seem to be of different natures or ontological orders. (This reminds me of the other crucial passages nearby in the 400s which present a solution to the connection of thought and world.) But it is true of statements as well.

On occasion we see given such translations as right. For us to mean or understand words in some given way (as we do on an occasion) is for us to be prepared to see some such translations as right, others as wrong. [ibid: 129]

The second stressed aspect is that the translation is to something particular or individual. ‘In the imagery of §459, we make translations from proposition to action (more generally, to treatments of particular cases)’ [ibid: 129].

Travis then presents two rival accounts of this:

We...have two contrasting models of meaning and understanding. They differ importantly as to what it is to be prepared to make given translations of the sort of which §459 speaks. ...[ibid: 129]

The first account assumes that to mean words in some particular way is to be related to an explicit abstract or disembodied representation.

On that expansion [of what are in themselves, pre-philosophically, innocent banalities about meaning], an explicit specification of an understanding someone means words to bear is always possible in principle. To give it would be, inter alia, to produce a representation of things being as meant... That representation would be explicit, which is to say that it would have a very special property: unlike our ordinary representations, it would not admit of understandings (of things being as thus represented). [ibid: 121]

Travis puts initial pressure on this account by stressing that, in general, our words ‘admit of understandings’. So giving the example of Sid saying that the shoes are under the bed, Travis argues that this might mean any of many options. They might have to be completely under the bed. Or having their ends protruding might be allowed. Or, rather less likely for us or for Sid, ‘in a plumb line with the bed, but three floors down’ [ibid: 120]. So a condition of adequacy of the first account is that it singles out just one such interpretation.

One the first model... for Pia to understand the sign as she does is for her to relate in a particular way to a very special sort of (disembodied) representation. That representation requires the particular transitions it does independent of anything Pia is prepared to recognise, and independent of any understanding we may happen to share as to what it requires...[ibid: 129]
Such a representation would thus be a synopsis of the solutions to indefinitely many problems; a synopsis from which all those solutions are recoverable. One would not need Pia’s form of worldliness, or any other particular form, to manage the recovery. It might be a task for an idiot-savant. [ibid: 124]

Although initial pressure is put on this model, Travis goes on to introduce a rival, second account before assembing his key Wittgensteinian objections to the first. Those objections are that nothing could do the work that the disembodied representation is supposed to do. I’m less interested in those (because they are familiarly Wittgensteinian) than with the novel set-up. So to the second model:

On the second model... for Pia to understand the sign as she does is for her to be positioned to see the solutions to an indefinite range of novel problems as to which translations it requires – problems as to whether it requires doing this to the door now. For her to be so positioned is for her to share a competence we have to see how to take the sign, except where, for one or another special reason, she deviates in her understanding from that. [ibid: 129]

On this second account, to mean something by one’s words depends on the contingencies of the situation, or the ‘occasions’ in Travis’ key word, on the practical competences of speaker and hearer (‘Pia’s worldliness places her to deal with an indefinite range of potentially relevant, and sometimes unexpected, considerations’ [ibid: 124]) and the relation between the speaker and facts about what it would be reasonable to be taken to mean in the situation. That third point is one of the ways in which Travis is a kind of communitarian Wittgensteinian.

Travis suggests one is pushed towards the first, Fregean and disembodied representation by stressing the question: What is it that Pia thus meant? Or which way is the way she meant it? But the second account develops from ‘rotating “the axis of reference of our examination... about the fixed point of our real needs” [§108]’ [ibid: 128].

This ‘rotation of our axis of reference’ brings with it two crucial new features. One is that there is no longer any supposition of a unique right answer to the question in which way Pia meant her words. If a given candidate for a way she meant them merits, by the above sorts of considerations, counting as a way she did in fact mean them, that does not exclude any other substantively different candidates from meriting the same answer once they do come into consideration. The other is that, given the role of what is most reasonable is to play in the truth of an answer for a given candidate, there is room, or more, for personal meaning to be an occasion-sensitive affair. Whether Sid is most reasonably classified as one who meant ‘gold watch’ in such-and-such given way is entirely likely  to depend on the circumstances in which, or purposes for which, that classifying is to be done. [ibid: 128]

So by p129 Travis has outlined two rival accounts of the way in which words are meant and understood, stressed the occasion sensitivity of meaning, strongly hinted at where the first will have difficulty and suggested something of the way the second will cope. All this comes in part by noticing that there is a translation between an order and an action and between a statement and a state of affairs. (The connection between these was already there in §459.)

The first account will not be able to bridge the gap that the need for translation reveals. That sounds familiar from any account of §§139-239. But Travis brings it out in the context of a neo-Fregean / neo-Russellian distinction about thought.

Sid tells Pia that her shoes are under the bed. Pia understands Sid’s words in a certain way. In particular, she takes him to speak on a certain understanding of shoes being under a bed. Now she enters the room. She encounters things being relevantly as they are (supposing how they are three floors down not to matter). She learns something, perhaps enough, of the conditions (circumstances) which then obtain. Three understandings of Sid’s words now become available. There is an understanding of them on which things being that way just is their being as Sid said. There is one on which it just is not. And there may be a third on which that much leaves the issue undecided. Other than the mentioned differences, these understandings may be very much alike. It may be that just one of them is the one that Pia’s understanding of Sid’s words requires. In that sense, just one of them is part of that understanding...
There is now a point about the availability of these three understandings. I start with another instance of just the same point. But for a certain successful enterprise on the part of Frege’s parents, there would have been no singular thoughts about him. Before 1848, there were none that anyone could think...
Some thoughts are only available to us given suitable acquaintance with our environment. And so it is with those understandings of Sid’s words I just mentioned. Pia’s shoes are positioned as they are with respect to the bed. There is then this understanding of Sid’s words: what they say is such that things being that way is things being as they said. Someone may thus understand them. One may only so understand them if one is suitably acquainted with things being as they then were. It is to things so being that one must be responding in having that understanding. An understanding thus unavailable to someone before a given time I will call novel (for that person at that time), and an understanding available anyway, even when that other one was not (or if it were not) prior relative to that novel one. [ibid: 129-30]

With this latter distinction in play, the gap covered by translation (of, for example, an order into an action) is between prior understanding and novel understanding. As the comparison with singular thoughts about Frege (and his account of such thoughts earlier in the book is excellent, by the way) makes plain, one is simply in no position to have the novel or situation-dependent thought in advance. That thought simply cannot come to mind, or be entertained, when one is framing a prior thought or understanding. 

Elsewhere he gives this example:
A man in Ulan Bator is now standing before his yurt, sipping tea. (Make it ten o’clock his time.) I cannot think a thought, of him, that he is doing that—a thought which presents him as the one who must be some way for the thought to be true, and sipping tea before his yurt at ten as what he must be doing. I cannot do this, since I neither know, nor know of, anyone in Ulan Bator (though I am sure some people live there). I can, to be sure, think that everyone in Ulan Bator stands before his yurt at 10 and sips tea. What I thus think will be false if this man does not do that. The thought I thus think has a certain kind of generality which allows it to be true, or false, in this way. But as Frege points out (1914: 108-109, different example), that man falsifes my statement only given that he is in Ulan Bator—in present terms, only given that his being as he is participates in the instancing relation with that way for a thing to be. And it is just this last that I am not in a position to think—a corollary of not being able to think of him at all. Thinking a thought which is false, given his being as he is, is not the same thing as thinking a thought of him. [Travis 2011: 310-11]

In the context of Wittgenstein’s discussion of the expectation of an explosion and the explosion which satisfies, one cannot have had a situation-dependent thought about that explosion (of the form that! explosion) in advance. Still, there has to be some connection between prior and novel understandings.

[I]f an understanding of Sid’s words is one on which things being as they are... is things being... as Sid says, then that understanding should contain some understanding which requires the corresponding novel understanding(s) relative to it. It should be an understanding relative to which understanding Sid’s words as speaking of what is instanced by this... is a novel understanding, but, moreover, one which that prior understanding mandates... The issue it raises is how prior understanding can require novel ones. [Travis 2006: 130-1]
[W]ords can be true (or false) only where they bear a prior understanding that requires the right novel one. If they are made true by things being as they are, that is by virtue of an understanding available anyway... [131]

So this way of setting up the problem stresses in terms one doesn’t find in the Investigations just what is the gap between order or intention or understanding of a rule and action. There are two different kinds of thought in play (prior and novel). So how can the one determine the other? But unless they do, there can be no such thing as truth and falsity.

There follows a discussion of why a disembodied representation could not do the work. This culminates in this passage:
Where Sid meant that things were a certain way, acquaintance with conditions in the bedroom makes three thoughts (so understandings) available which otherwise are not: that things being thus is their being that way; that it is their not being that way; and that it, so far, leaves the matter undecided. Each corresponds to a different way Sid might have meant his words. Suppose these understandings to be novel for Sid at the time he spoke. On the first model, for Sid to have meant his words as he did is for him to relate to a certain disembodied representation. Suppose that things being as they are in the bedroom is their being as Sid meant.  Then, on the model, for him to have meant his words as he did is for him then to have related to a representation of things as F, where but one of these three novel understandings is an admissable understanding of things being F (namely, the first one). What being F is rules the others out tout court. Suppose there is such a thing as being F. Then, the present point is, there is another – call it F* - which agrees with being F in point of all the understandings available to Sid prior to these novel ones, particularly, all those which are, as the above, translations from ‘order to action’ (from things being such-and-such way to things being thus), but which disagrees with F in re the novel understandings (the ones Sid could not have had, or entertained, at time of speaking). Things being as they are would be their being F, where that is a thought then available just w[h?]ere it would be their being F*; a then available understanding would be an admissable understanding of being F just where it was also an admissable understanding of being F*. What, then, could there be in Sid’s being as he then was which makes it a (disembodied) representation of things as F, and not one of things as F* that he related to in meaning what he said as he did? [ibid: 137]

I must say I find myself reading back from how I already think of the regress of interpretations argument to this dense passage. Thus, I take it that the gap between prior and novel thoughts permits a variety of bent interpretations which agree up to just this! novel, situation-dependent, thought but differ at just this point. The disembodied representation is something that can be a prior understanding and yet, somehow, fixes, by itself, just this! novel thought. But how could that be? Any concrete representation will stand there like a signpost and admit of a variety of interpretations. (I am not sure that there is textual evidence to suggest that Travis thinks this but there is a dilemma here. The embodied representation must either fix the novel understanding as it were mechanically or just contain the novel understanding. Neither works. The former for familiar Wittgensteinian reasons. The latter trivially once one buys the neo-Fregean distinction.)

(There is another element of the criticism to which I will return. On the criticised approach, the prior understanding somehow names the circumstances such that the later encounter - in the novel understanding - is not really novel but a kind of re-cognition of those circumstances. This is connected to the idea that properties are ingredients in situations that can be re-encountered as Frege the man was and involves a blurring of naming and predication. It is connected to the way Travis unpacks §429: If I say falsely that something is red, then nonetheless, for all that, it is not red. But I will try to summarise this thought some other day.)

One other difference from a conventional set up. All the talk of shoes under the bed is akin to all the examples of deviant pupils and does similar work. If those are to be ruled out by a proper account of understanding, that presents a challenge for either Fregeanism (Travis) or platonism (more familiarly). A deviant pupil does appear in discussion of §185 on p133 and Travis points out the luck that we can find a pattern in the way that he mistakenly hears the instruction: we might have made nothing of it. But in the main occasion-sensitivity stands to Wittgenstein’s pupil as the empirical does to the transcendental. Travis thinks that occasion-sensitivity is real and rampant and thus plays a more than merely formal role in shaping his account of meaning.

Frege, G. (1914) ‘Logik in der Mathematik’ in his Nachgelassene Schriffen: 219-270
Travis, C. (2006) Thought’s Footing, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Travis, C. (2011) Objectivity and the Parochial, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell

See this entry on ‘A sense of occasion’, this on ‘Reason’s reach’, this on ‘The twilight of empiricism’, and this on the discussion of rule following in Thought’s Footing.