Thursday 31 January 2013

Authenticity and the conception of other lives

I’ve not had time to think about a conversation I had with Gloria last week in our new favourite off-campus coffee shop (The Coffee Shop).The day before, I had seen a recording of a BBC4 programme about the lives of three men detained under the Mental Health Act.

One, Andrew, had bipolar disorder and, still in the more manic phase of his condition, could not disguise some wry pleasure in the event that prompted his detention: a high speed car chase followed by three panda cars. He seemed pleased by his own skills and the performance of his car even whilst, as a late middle aged retired consultant pathologist, somewhat embarrassed. He was equally enthusiastic about another recent decision: to leave his wife of 26 years and set up a new life by himself in a bungalow.

We followed the course of his treatment: some mood stabilisation but also a slide into a more depressed state and then later anti-depressants. We also saw him discharged to his bungalow and, a month later, saw that it remained unfurnished aside from a bed and television. (The way the film was shot suggested that he spent all his time on the bed watching TV.)

Throughout this, he commented on a key feature of his illness: that after making rash decisions in his manic state he would have to deal with their consequences when he returned to normal. But he distinguished the decision to separate from his wife from such cases. That is, he did not think it had been made when he was not in his right mind.

Towards the end of the film, however, he admitted that he had gone back to live with his wife and we saw him wearing a Christmas jumper, playing the piano, in a well furnished, comfortable home, in marked contrast to the dreary bungalow.

This was a documentary in which we had only a very small and apparently carefully edited snapshot of three lives so it seems somehow impertinent to speculate on Andrew’s actual relationship. But it prompts the question: what would it be for such a decision to be merely the product of not being in one’s right mind, as opposed to an authentic decision. On one reading of the events described and shown, he took the decision to separate around the time of manic and exuberant feelings and, despite his later claiming ownership of it, the decision was not backed up by much commitment to a new life (buying furniture etc) and was reversed within a few weeks. But on another reading, the consequences of just such a decision would always be daunting; it would be hard to organise a new house whilst depressed and unused to public transport; the run up to Christmas would tempt one back to the family home etc. That is, on the second reading, whilst the decision might come to nothing, it need not be inauthentic. So in what does the difference consist? What makes a life an authentically chosen life?

My suggestion in the Coffee Shop – which moved a bit under critical scrutiny – was that it needs a self-conscious conception behind it. In some sense to be unpacked, there has to be an element of choice, within what is practical, albeit: a sense that the life lived is one among other possibilities. But, of course, we do not reflect or exercise much choice when the alarm rings at 6:50am for work. Getting up and off is habitual. So the idea of a self-conscious chosen conception must allow for un-self-conscious habit. Gloria’s sceptical alternative was that for most people, for most of the time, habit dominates and there is little reason to postulate an underlying conception. In the face of this, I think that the most I can say is that there has to be a standing possibility of stepping back from an engaged habit or practice and, perhaps, to give such talk of a ‘possibility’ any content, it has to be exercised from time to time. (How often? No idea.)

Still, I don’t think that such an idea, now suitably weakened, is utterly implausible. Here are two popular cultural examples which suggest that people do have such conceptions and do think about them from time to time.

On house buying television programmes in which we get to hear the deliberation of potential purchasers, their discussion is not restricted to the kind of description and assessment that the estate agents might deploy as to the properties and qualities of the houses. Typically it includes that (rooms are light and spacious and have attractive views, or not). But we also hear comments about the kind of lives the house would allow the buyers to live: what they would do or not be able to do were they to buy it. Rooms are linked to possible uses in more than just the sense that a dining room ‘affords’ dining. So at least in the case of house buying, the conception of other lives becomes available.

The other example is familiar from interviews with successful (or unsuccessful) sports men and women after a key event when they are asked about subsequent training (eg. after immediate celebration and rest). Rowers are a particularly good example. They often express a dread of a return to early morning winter training but then reflect that it is probably worth it because of the prospect of success next year or at the next Olympics. It is not merely that the prospect of a medal is a telos which structures and explains their training behaviour. Having a telos might be part of an unreflective habit. (Perhaps they row to the rhythm of the phrase: ‘I am going to win a medal’.) But, in the post race interview, at least, they suggest occasional deliberation about the value of the habit, even if there is no place for such deliberation before dawn on cold rives on winter mornings.

Monday 21 January 2013

Bio-medical vs social models of disability

Talking to Bill Penson this week about disability, I found myself trying to put forward something like Jerry Wakefield’s harmful dysfunction model as the best bet for a bio-medical model of disability. Bill’s basic objection was that it didn’t seem a promising way of capturing some of the important social features of disability, such as stigma. But I could imagine a bio-medical approach claiming that whilst those were important and unfortunate features, they were contingent effects of disability, not disability itself.

To rehearse familiar ground, such an approach has a key attraction. There is little hope of giving a merely statistically abnormal in the sense of unusual account of disability because it carries with it some notion akin to impairment. That notion suggests a normative or evaluative characterisation. But combined with the common neo-Humean view that norms and values are human inventions, merely subjective (even if intersubjective) features, that suggests that there could not be a science of impairment and hence disability. Now whilst it is true that the harmful dysfunction analysis does contain just such a value (harm), it also promises a central objective core condition: impairment requires biological dysfunction, cashed out through descriptive evolutionary theory.

I don’t think it is so descriptive. But let’s ignore that here.

What would be wrong with such analysis? Even if it seems to get the focus in the wrong place to some, because it is not an essentially social status, might it not captured the core idea: there is disability only where there is impairment and that that apparently normative notion reflects the biological norm of proper function?

One clue, which Bill suggested, comes from an analogy with the Deaf community: Deafness – if not deafness – can be claimed to be a cultural identity rather than a disability. It is a distinct form of subjectivity, a merely different (not impaired) take on being in the world. But the Wakefield position can accommodate this even if in a way which will not appeal to the Deaf. Deafness is a failure of biological function even if not, in the right context of community empowerment, a harmful one. Dysfunction is necessary but not sufficient, on this analysis, for disability.

But that suggests another question to ask. Is it really necessary? Do all disabilities require an impairment,  cashed out as failure of biological function? It may be that there is something more fundamental to disability than dysfunction and that dysfunction is just one way of partially filling this out.

So here is a thought which aims to capture the social dimension mentioned at the start, and stressed by Bill. Perhaps there can be disabilities where there is no dysfunction because they are purely socially constituted. This is following the idea that, to be disabled, something other than biology has to do the disabling. One is disabled by social context. (And thus, in a different context, it is not that one’s disability is ameliorated but rather expunged.)

So suppose that handedness played a much more important role in our artefactual and cultural life. All scissors were one way only. Driving and writing were virtually impossible in one chirality but fine the other. Handshakes were elaborate and required much one handed strength and dexterity (ho ho). We can now imagine a case where being one handed rather than another was not in itself functional or dysfunctional biologically. But it would be a grave disability to be of the minority handedness.

In such a case, there is something like ‘function’ playing a role. But it is an essentially social and relational version. If this is a possible approach it would explain why a biological dysfunctional approach would sometimes get the right answer but for merely derivative reasons. But we would need to work out in a generic account of what such social ‘functions’ and dysfunctions were.

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Call for Participants: Concepts of Mental Health, University College London

Forwarded from Emily Crampton, Phd Candidate, Philosophy Department, University College London

"Call for Participants: Concepts of Mental Health

BPPA Masterclass 2013
April 12th-13th

Location: University College London

I am writing to offer a unique opportunity for graduate researchers within the field of philosophy and mental health. This year’s BPPA masterclass will be on concepts of mental health. A masterclass involves a mixture of seminars, group-workshops, presentations by students and experts and critical discussion. The small number of participants (8-10) means that all will have a chance to speak and discuss their research as well as getting to know others working in similar areas. It is an excellent way of deepening and broadening understanding of a given area and further developing one’s own research.

This year’s masterclass will be led by experts committed to furthering interdisciplinary research into mental health issues, combining philosophical training with clinical experience. Professor Bill Fulford is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Mental Health at the University of Warwick and is a Member of the Philosophy Faculty at the University of Oxford. His previous posts include Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist at the University of Oxford and Special Adviser for Values-Based Practice in the Department of Health. Dr Hanna Pickard is a fellow of All Souls College at the University of Oxford and a Wellcome Trust Biomedical Clinical Ethics Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Oxford. She also holds a clinical post as a therapist at the Complex Needs Service with the Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust. The experts will be leading group-workshops and seminars and will present on their own research over the course of the masterclass.

The broad focus of the masterclass will be on exploring the varying conceptions of mental health and illness and the assumptions accompanying and lying behind these conceptions. The aim is to explore the assumptions and often false dichotomies which shape perceptions of mental health, from the perceptions of those in the field of psychiatry to those found amongst other medical professionals and the non-medical public. Topics we expect to be discussed include, but are not restricted to: free will, responsibility and related notions and their applications and misapplications within understanding of mental health problems, in particular in relation to addiction; The effect of neurological research on conceptions of mental health; The distinction between cognitive disorders and personality disorders; The extent to which mental illness can and ought to be understood within the framework of physical illness. The precise content of the masterclass will be in part determined by the research interests of the participants and there will be opportunities for 6 participants to present their own research.

To apply, please send an academic CV (including any relevant clinical or practical experience) with a cover letter stating your area of research, the relevance of your research to the masterclass and what you could contribute to the masterclass (500 words max). Please also state whether you would like to present on your research (presentations will be brief, about 20minutes each). Please also attach a reference from your supervisor (if applicable), confirming your interest and that you would make a valuable contribution to the masterclass.

The masterclass will be held at University College London. Breakfast and lunch will be provided on both days and accommodation if coming from outside of London. There may also be some small travel bursaries available.

Deadline for applications: February 15th

Please send applications and any queries to:

Follow us on Twitter @BPPAmasterclass"

Tuesday 8 January 2013

Coda to my epistemology module

I have just come to the end of teaching an epistemology module (just a revision session to go). More so than other subjects I teach, at the end of the module, no particular analysis of knowledge and no particular response to scepticism seems totally compelling. The concept of knowledge seems particularly resistant to analysis. My attempt to frame a overall view - and to grapple with why it is so tricky - focuses on five key questions.

1: What more is there to knowledge than true belief?

Epistemology starts with the extra content to the concept of knowledge over and above true belief. (I am ignoring, without argument, the thought that knowledge and belief are incompatible because to say ‘I believe that p’ implies that one does not know it. But it does seem to me that this has more to do with pragmatics than semantics.) But why is there excess  content to knowledge?

After all, mere true belief gets one what one wants. Eg. I want a coffee and I believe that there is coffee in the café. The truth of this belief (and subsidiary related beliefs) is what enables me to satisfy that want.
But: mere true belief is insufficient for knowledge. Knowledge can be undermined by luck. This seems to be a pre-philosophical datum. But recognising that isn’t the end of the issue. We can ask ‘why?’, what is the point of the concept? Edward Craig is a rare philosopher who asks this question but whether his hypothesis of knowledge’s purpose can be independent of a prior grasp of what knowledge is is moot.

2: Is scepticism natural?

(Natural by contrast with artificial / an artefact.)

We do not normally take any account of sceptical possibilities ie. it is normally correct / appropriate to ascribe everyday knowledge independent of them.

But, also and normally, a change of context can undermine a knowledge ascription. Eg the revelation that Smith has a local twin undermines the claim that we know Smith is in town. Unless, that is, we also have a way of distinguishing the twins. 

Scepticism seems to grow from the way the context of a claim to know can suggest ringers both:
i) relative to evidence so far (the twins) and
ii) relative to all possible evidence (brain in a vat).

If scepticism is merely implicit in this structure, a natural implication of it, ie if there is no difference of kind between i) and ii), then scepticism is natural.

So both Wittgenstein and Williams attempts to undermine the sceptical ringers, specifically.

Wittgenstein suggests that we do not understand them as they threaten the preconditions for the language game of ascribing and claiming knowledge and doubt.

Williams argues that the sceptical ringer depends on the idea of ‘knowledge as whole’ which presupposes a false theory of knowledge (cf Bacon on heat).

2b: If scepticism is natural, can it be reconciled with everyday knowledge ascriptions?

Nozick: concedes that we do not know that sceptical hypotheses are not true but denies that this has implications for everyday knowledge. For Nozick this follows from his tracking conception of knowledge.
But it seems odd to maintain everyday knowledge in the face of active contemplation of an undefeated sceptical ringer.

American contextualists such as DeRose and Cohen argue that everyday knowledge ascription is correct in our everyday context but that that scepticism changes the context. There, we do not know that sceptical ringers are not true.

But it is hard not then to think that the everyday context is simply ignoring a possibility that should be taken into account.

Preliminary conclusion to question 2:

Either concede that scepticism trumps everyday knowledge and convict everyday ascription of error,
Or deny that scepticism is natural. But if so, we need to know why, and we need to know why it isn’t natural before the sceptical argument is off the ground.

3: Can ‘knowledge’ be analysed?

A dilemma:
·         The analysis begs the question by assuming notions a grasp of which follows that of knowledge.
·         The analysis would be substantive but is not sufficient for knowledge.

The second horn applies to reductionist accounts of knowledge.  But the dilemma as a whole applies applies to the Justified True Belief account in the face of Gettier cases. Gettier presents his cases as of JTB but nevertheless insufficient for knowledge (the second horn). One response is to argue that Smith is not, in fact, justified in his beliefs. But this threatens to equate our understanding of justification with whatever is sufficient (combined with true belief) for knowledge.

So could 'knowledge' be a basic concept? And if so, what does that do to epistemology?

A concept may be complex, in the sense that its philosophical elucidation requires the establishing of its connections with other concepts, and yet at the same time irreducible, in the sense that it cannot be defined away, without circularity, in terms of those other concepts to which it is necessarily related. (Strawson 1992, 22-3)

4: Is the quest for generality the problem?

Consider the problem for reliabilism that a method must be reliable (eg, not less than 100% else luck undermines knowledge and also not merely 100% but by luck, so, perhaps, 100% in this and nearby pws).
But no general method can be that reliable. Even perception of medium sized objects from close by  in afternoon light is not that reliable. But in this context, looking at that apple juice carton, there may be no possibility of error. So could local context, rather than general method, be the right response to the worry about luck?

Why might general analysis be difficult? Perhaps it has to do with the connection between knowledge and other possibilities that might have been.

5: Is knowledge natural*?

*Where natural = part of nature, this world.

The cat is on the mat in this world, whatever the relation of cat and mat in other possible worlds (pws).
But whether Smith knows that the cat is on the mat depends not just on her relation to that fact in this world, but also in some other pws.  If it had not been, she would not have believed it. (Or, in nearby pws where it is not on the mat, she does not believe that it is.)

We may, with McDowell, want to say that although the capacity to have knowledge is fallible, when all goes well, Smith does know that p. This connects to what McDowell says about perception: when all goes well, Smith is directly experiencing the fact that p even though, in other cases, she can be mistaken. Perception is a disjunction: either a genuine seeing (of the cat on the mat) or a mere appearance.

But unlike ‘directly experiencing’, knowing seems to depend on what might have been, not just what is. For knowledge, the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ disjuncts is not just what actually obtains but what might have been.

(The contrast is made more complicated by the fact that an analysis of perception in either causal or counter-factual terms also presupposes how things would have been in other cases. If Smith sees that p then had p not been the case then, all other things being equal, Smith would not have had the experience as of p. But in the case of knowledge, the other possibilities, and hence the range of potential ringers, seems particularly badly behaved.)

But the lack of a plausible, non-circular, general account of the possibilities that need to be taken into account, the extra content of knowledge over true belief, makes the prospects of a general analysis of knowledge dim and throws attention back on particular circumstances. Hence epistemology helps unpack some of our commitments here and the connections between knowledge, justification, luck, etc but does not offer a reductive account of the concept in general terms.