Tuesday 13 September 2011

Retrospective expectation?

In an introductory lecture today to give UCLan philosophy undergraduates a taste of a real problem and the sorts of options available to philosophy to address it, I put up the following passages from the Philosophical Investigations.

I see someone pointing a gun and say “I expect a report”. The shot is fired. - Well, that was what you expected; so did that report somehow already exist in your expectation?
Or is it just that there is some other kind of agreement between your expectation and what occurred; that the noise was not contained in your expectation, and merely supervened when the expectation was being fulfilled? –
But no, if the noise had not occurred, my expectation would not have been fulfilled; the noise fulfilled it; it was not an accompaniment like a second guest accompanying the one I expected.
Was the thing about the event that was not in the expectation too an accident, an extra provided by fate? - But then what was not an extra? Did something of the shot already occur in my expectation? - Then what was extra? for wasn’t I expecting the whole shot?
“The report was not so loud as I had expected.” - “Then was there a louder bang in your expectation?” [Wittgenstein 1953 §442]

I’m not sure in a brief lecture how many students will immediately have seen the problem here but I had three excellently philosophical responses. So, starting with the first question “did that report somehow already exist in your expectation?” there was a degree of agreement very quickly that the noise could not have existed in the expectation because it – that very noise – had not yet happened. (I did not expect them to see this as such a problem so easily.)

That pushed the discussion to the second option: that there is some other kind of agreement between the expectation and what occurred. Here I had no volunteers to make a suggestion for how it might work and didn't have enough time to try to draw one out. What I think of is something like a design specification, an advance blueprint, which might lay down some sort of condition that the actual noise meets and it would have interesting to get them to reflect on whether the Wittgensteinian worry that any such partial specification (missing out the accidental details of the actual event) would fail to capture the whole of the shot is really a good worry. (There are other regress-related reasons to be suspicious of the suggestion, of course.)

But in the end, there were three positive suggestions (from people who have done no university level philosophy and will not have looked at this topic before).

1: “It is something to do with past experience. A solution to the problem of induction will also solve this problem.” That seems a fine suggestion at this stage (second day! of three years) of the programme, though of course it does not really address the worry not of the justification for an expectation but rather how one can come to entertain it (its content) at all. Still, it was good to have a connection to another area of philosophy and maybe a proper solution to the problem of induction would indeed presuppose an account of intentionality.

2: “Maybe we don’t actually entertain expectations, we just talk as though we do.” This came right at the end and so I didn’t have time to draw out the underlying ideas. But being prepared to entertain such a revisionary possibility in the face of the philosophical puzzlement in the face of the ‘how-possible?’ question was rather bracing. (The speaker cannot have known of the Kripkean direction of travel here.)

3: “Perhaps it is only possible to form expectations in retrospect?” This struck me as brilliant (bloody brilliant, even). Grasping the nettle that the very noise cannot exist in the expectation because it has not happened yet but by contrast can after the fact – because one can think of that noise – the suggestion is that expectations are always formed retrospectively because we can see how they – at least – would be possible. I see a promising philosophical future for this student.