Wednesday 20 May 2015

Rereading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance after 32 years

My old friend Derek, who spends his days repairing a couple of aging Moulton bicycles, reminded me by email of a scene in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in which the motorcycle maintaining narrator alienates his friend John by offering to repair the latter’s expensive BMW with a beer can shim [Pirsig 2009]. John, we are told, prizes the appearance of things, or ‘romantic quality’ and thus cannot see the ‘classical’ quality that attaches to underlying form, to a properly functioning motorcycle with non-wobbly handlebars.

Not being able to recall the point of the scene, I glanced back at the book over an Armagnac late last night. This was one of my favourite books in my teens and must have been an influence on me becoming interested in philosophy. I had forgotten that it contains an account of Hume and Kant and a discussion of the philosophy of science. But its central metaphysics of quality was something that I never thought to find in academic philosophy and so, weirdly, I have rather forgotten about it for thirty odd years.

So ignoring all the present tense adventure on a motorbike, the following themes struck me on a quick review.

There is an appeal to a general cultural difference – between what is hip or groovy and what is square – illustrated by the shim story. Some people are alienated from technology and cannot see its underlying formal beauty. Immediately after the shim scene, Pirsig/the narrator remarks:

What emerged in vague form at first and then in sharper outline was the explanation that I had been seeing that shim in a kind of intellectual, rational, cerebral way in which the scientific properties of the metal were all that counted. John was going at it immediately and intuitively, grooving on it. I was going at it in terms of underlying form. He was going at it in terms of immediate appearance. I was seeing what the shim meant. He was seeing what the shim was. [ibid: 59]

This leads to the following key early distinction between romantic and classical.

I want to divide human understanding into two kinds—classical understanding and romantic understanding. In terms of ultimate truth a dichotomy of this sort has little meaning but it is quite legitimate when one is operating within the classic mode used to discover or create a world of underlying form. The terms classic and romantic, as Phaedrus used them, mean the following: A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance. ... The romantic mode is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate. “Art” when it is opposed to “Science” is often romantic.  The classic mode, by contrast, proceeds by reason and by laws—which are themselves underlying forms of thought and behavior. [ibid: 73-4]

There is a second general, pre-philosophical theme. The narrator’s alter-ego, Phaedrus, teaches English composition. He has a chance conversation with a Greek teacher which runs as follows.

She came trotting by with her watering pot between those two doors, going from the corridor to her office, and she said, “I hope you are teaching Quality to your students.” This in a la-de-da, singsong voice of a lady in her final year before retirement about to water her plants. That was the moment it all started. That was the seed crystal. [ibid: 180]

This leads him to set as an essay for his class the title: What is a 350-word essay answering the question, What is quality in thought and statement? There follows a description of a kind of teaching experiment in which he argues that the students know what quality is even though none can define it. As part of the experiment, he withholds marks (though not comments) and refuses to deploy principles of rhetoric until after the students have grasped an inchoate understanding of quality for which the principles are useful guides rather than constitutive of it.

The principles expounded in them were no longer rules to rebel against, not ultimates in themselves, but just techniques, gimmicks, for producing what really counted and stood independently of the techniques—Quality. [ibid: 208]

This leads to a manifesto:

“(1) Every instructor of English composition knows what quality is. (Any instructor who does not should keep this fact carefully concealed, for this would certainly constitute proof of incompetence.) (2) Any instructor who thinks quality of writing can and should be defined before teaching it can and should go ahead and define it. (3) All those who feel that quality of writing does exist but cannot be defined, but that quality should be taught anyway, can benefit by the following method of teaching pure quality in writing without defining it.” [ibid: 213]

That seems to me the main setup for the metaphysical exposition of quality which takes about 30 pages. I am not sure that the descriptions of Hume and Kant and of the scientific method adds a great deal to this. So plunging ahead, the narrator reports that Phaedrus was challenged by colleagues:

[T]he second wave of crystallization, the metaphysical one… was brought about in response to Phaedrus’ wild meanderings about Quality when the English faculty at Bozeman, informed of their squareness, presented him with a reasonable question: “Does this undefined ‘quality’ of yours exist in the things we observe?” they asked. “Or is it subjective, existing only in the observer?” It was a simple, normal enough question, and there was no hurry for an answer. Hah. There was no need for hurry. It was a finisher-offer, a knockdown question, a haymaker, a Saturday-night special—the kind you don’t recover from. Because if Quality exists in the object, then you must explain just why scientific instruments are unable to detect it. You must suggest instruments that will detect it, or live with the explanation that instruments don’t detect it because your whole Quality concept, to put it politely, is a large pile of nonsense. On the other hand, if Quality is subjective, existing only in the observer, then this Quality that you make so much of is just a fancy name for whatever you like. [ibid: 228]

The narrator then describes Phaedrus’ response to the dilemma. First, unlike contemporary philosophers such as John McDowell, he rejects any attempt to locate quality in the world as an observer-dependent property like colour. So the bulk of the response is to the second, subjective, horn.

Here a first diagnostic move is to realise that there is something illicit in the way it is characterised: “Or is it subjective, existing only in the observer?”.

Why should Quality be just what you like? Why should “what you like” be “just”? What did “just” mean in this case? When separated out like this for independent examination it became apparent that “just” in this case really didn’t mean a damn thing. It was a purely pejorative term, whose logical contribution to the sentence was nil. Now, with that word removed, the sentence became “Quality is what you like,” and its meaning was entirely changed. It had become an innocuous truism. [ibid: 232]

Despite this, however, he does not manage to dismiss this either. There are two sub-moves concerning the implicit perjorative characterisation. One might think that the subjective was just what one likes because of a contrast with a view of objectivity supplied by either a scientific materialism or a classic formalism. Against the former, Phaedrus argues that aspects of its world view depends on subjective elements. (the examples given are the number zero and the status of laws of nature.) Against the latter, Phaedrus gives way realising that at best he will have to subdivide quality into two.

What the classical formalists meant by the objection “Quality is just what you like” was that this subjective, undefined “quality” he was teaching was just romantic surface appeal. Classroom popularity contests could determine whether a composition had immediate appeal, all right, but was this Quality? Was Quality something that you “just see” or might it be something more subtle than that, so that you wouldn’t see it at all immediately, but only after a long period of time?...
Instead of one single, uniform Quality now there appeared to be two qualities; a romantic one, just seeing, which the students had; and a classic one, overall understanding, which the teachers had. A hip one and a square one. Squareness was not the absence of Quality; it was classic Quality. Hipness was not just presence of Quality; it was mere romantic Quality. The hip-square cleavage he’d discovered was still there, but Quality didn’t now seem to fall entirely on one side of the cleavage, as he’d previously supposed. Instead, Quality itself cleaved into two kinds, one on each side of the cleavage line. His simple, neat, beautiful, undefined Quality was starting to get complex. [ibid: 235-6]

In fact, a little later, just such a distinction returns in Pirsig’s account as the first subdivision after the primal quality. Still a failure to respond by neutralising one or other horn forces the narrator to describe Phaedrus’ conclusions as follows:

And so: he rejected the left horn. Quality is not objective, he said. It doesn’t reside in the material world. Then: he rejected the right horn. Quality is not subjective, he said. It doesn’t reside merely in the mind. And finally: Phaedrus, following a path that to his knowledge had never been taken before in the history of Western thought, went straight between the horns of the subjectivity-objectivity dilemma and said Quality is neither a part of mind, nor is it a part of matter. It is a third entity which is independent of the two…
Quality is not a thing. It is an event. Warmer. It is the event at which the subject becomes aware of the object. And because without objects there can be no subject—because the objects create the subject’s awareness of himself—Quality is the event at which awareness of both subjects and objects is made possible. Hot. Now he knew it was coming. This means Quality is not just the result of a collision between subject and object. The very existence of subject and object themselves is deduced from the Quality event. The Quality event is the cause of the subjects and objects, which are then mistakenly presumed to be the cause of the Quality!
[ibid: 234-9]

So that seems to be the heart of the metaphysics of quality. The philosophy backstory continues with Phaedrus going in search of the inversion which made quality as a whole, or as such, not an undefinable pre-rational origin of the relation of subject and object but a mere element within a larger rational structure. His aim is to make sure ‘Aristotle got his’ [ibid: 345].

I am struck now that there is something in all this a little reminiscent of my very basic understanding of Kant’s problem of the schematism. What guides the application of concepts to the world if one cannot simply presuppose the choice of the appropriate concept? The Critique of Judgment can be read as attempting to answer this general question. In its solution, reflective judgment plays a central role and is defined by contrast to determinate judgment as follows:

If the universal (the rule, principle, law) is given, then judgment, which subsumes the particular under it, is determinate... But if only the particular is given and judgment has to find the universal for it, then this power is merely reflective. [Kant 1987: 18]

The task which reflective judgment has to undertake is to ascend from the particular in nature to the universal. A necessary presupposition of this activity is that nature can be brought under concepts. This principle, which is not constitutive of nature but is a subjective principle governing judgment, is that we think of nature as purposive: we think of it, roughly, as art. The claim, roughly that we must think of the world as teleological, is one part of the solution. The other is that aesthetic judgment sheds light on how judgment generally is possible. The key element of aesthetic judgment, Kant suggests, is the ‘ability to judge an object in reference to the free lawfulness of the imagination’ in which there is ‘a subjective harmony of the imagination with the understanding without an objective harmony’ [ibid: 91-92]. It is the harmony of the faculties of imagination and understanding in judgment which is both the source of pleasure that grounds aesthetic judgment and which solves the problem.

Given that Pirsig/the narrator describes classical understanding of the world as involving the analysis of phenomena into parts and sub-parts - he calls this ‘classical rational analysis’ [Pirsig 2009: 76] – a similar question can be asked in the context of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. How is it that such a form of analysis can be brought to bear on the world? The answer is that it stems from a pre-rational encounter: the quality event which makes the relation of subject and object possible. Pirsig’s quality plays a role akin to Kant’s aesthetic understanding in being a half way house to conceptual judgement. As the narrator stresses, Phaedrus’ English teaching relied on the idea that quality could be recognised and identified and known even if it could not be formally analysed.

Still, it doesn’t seem very satisfactory. One problem is very familiar: trying to balance an ineffability claim with the identification of something. Pirsig/the narrator/Phaedrus tells us that the ‘Quality event’ causes the division of subject and object but makes it entirely unclear how he earns the right to say this since it – I assume – requires a prior division of quality, on the one hand, and the emergence of a subject-object split, on the other. But such a meta-division presupposes classical understanding.

‘Event’ is also tricky as that usually presupposes a series of distinguishable worldly happenings which again presupposes a subject-object split.

The metaphysical account is partly motivated by the prephilosophical distinction between romantic and classical quality judgements but such judgements don’t seem to characterise the ineffable quality he wants. Classical quality is downstream of the primal event as it is articulable. Romantic quality is an instantaneous judgement of the appearance of things. But that idea now looks to fall prey to the dilemma of being ‘just what one likes’. If it is, then it lies on the subject side of the subject-object split and thus presupposes just that division. If it isn’t, if, say, pictorial aesthetics are susceptible to some sort of placing in the space of reasons, then romantic quality will end up a variant of classical understanding in somewhat different terms. But again that presupposes the subject-object split behind which primal quality was supposed to lie as its cause. (Phaedrus’ reintroduction of rhetorical principles suggests a view in which English composition aesthetics cannot be given context-independent general rules. But that does not rule out context-dependent articulations, or reasons, of what is good and bad in an essay.) In neither case will it be the origin of the subject-object split.

Despite this, the main problem is much more recognisable than I would have expected. My hunch is that it could have been addressed more plausibly by rejecting the idea that rationality is codifiable in context-independent, general terms than by rejecting rationality as such. Quality isn’t outside the space of reasons.

Kant, I. (1987) Critique of judgment Indianapolis: Hackett

Pirsig, R. (2009) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: an inquiry into values, Harper Collins e-book

Wednesday 13 May 2015

Campbell on the meaning-rationality link in delusions

Aline, Gloria and I met together to discuss John Campbell’s 2001 paper ‘Rationality, meaning and the analysis of delusion’. As a result I think I have a clearer picture of why I disagree with it than before. The following are thus not my own thoughts (though neither do I want to saddle - my expression of - them onto either of my colleagues).

Campbell’s paper divides between two phases of argument. In the first, he deploys a Davidsonian link between meaning and rationality to press problems with the interpretation of characteristic expressions of the Capgras delusion. The characteristic type of utterance – “That woman is not my wife!” - is insufficient to specify an interpretation since that type of utterance, freed of context, might be used to flag a mere discovery of illegality in the wedding ceremony. (I worried that by the end of the paper, Campbell had lost the right to this refutation but Aline pointed out that the proof of the pudding was in the lack of acceptance by the Capgras subject of this interpretation.) But the most plausible interpretation – “This [demonstrated] woman is not that [remembered] woman” - fails because the subject fails to deploy paradigmatic or canonical forms of checking. They do not do what they ought to do to check such a thought. Given the meaning-rationality link, this apparent failure of rationality undermines such an interpretation.

The positive phase aims to respond with a suggestion about the shape, at least, of the thought-content involved. The very fact of the failure to adopt paradigmatic checking strategies would be rational if the delusion had the status of a (third period) Wittgensteinian hinge proposition. So the form of the thought can be identified even though not the content (in G’s helpful terminological analogy though it will conflict with my philosophy of content use of ‘content’, sorry).

It thus seems as though the negative phase presses a failure of rationality and hence a failure of interpretation in accord with the meaning-rationality link. The positive phase suggests a ‘sort of’ rationality and hence a ‘sort of’ interpretation that reaches only as far as the form, not the content, of the thought.

I think this summary of what is going on enables me to state my earlier worry in slightly different terms. If one takes the negative phase seriously, the positive phase is unavailable. It, the positive phase, says of we-know-not-what content that it has the form of a hinge proposition. But surely the form-content distinction is an abstraction from the motley of thoughts subjects have rather than something independently understandable. (To be so would require prior commitment to something like the representational theory of mind in a strong sense of it being independently characterisable and understandable as the a priori engineering of minds rather than merely a post facto explanation of how they could be possible.) Given the meaning-rationality link (ie the constitutive ideal of rationality underpinning interpretation through the principle of charity) and given a plausible additional claim that rationality is not codifiable, drawing a distinction of form and content would require first articulating thoughts as a piece of radical interpretation and then abstracting forms and contents (from thought-contents, I want to say, with a danger of ambiguity). So if that could be done, one would then be in a position to say that delusions have the form of hinge propositions. But the first phase of Campbell’s paper is an argument against the possibility of that necessary preliminary work.

To assume access to the form of delusions without their contents is to assume something about the shape of their intentional content (in the usual philosophy of content sense of that word). Aside from abstraction from the output of radical interpretation, the only other route I can see to that would be to start with a picture of the internal vehicles of content and describe their functional roles. This approach faces a dilemma. If the functional roles presuppose the structure of rationality then the approach cannot sidestep the meaning-rationality link since rationality governs thought-contents. But if they are just any dispositional causal connections between inner vehicles of content (whatever the content turns out to be) then this threatens the connection between what is being described and our ways of making sense of one another since only some connections would be (so much as, as they say in Oxford) intelligible. There would need to be some reason to think that both structures kept in step. In the absence of that, such an approach seems a non-starter and hence the assumption that delusions are some sort of shaping of thought-content in the form of a hinge proposition despite being inaccessible to rational interpretation looks illicit.

Campbell, J. (2001) ‘Rationality, meaning, and the analysis of delusion’ in Philosophy Psychiatry and Psychology 8: 89-100

Tuesday 12 May 2015

If a lion could talk...

I am delighted to see this issue of Existential Comics doesn’t assume, as so often by others, that Wittgenstein’s quip about the lion suggests that we would not be able to interpret the lion’s speech.  

This line complements the last line in the Tractatus as the quotations all the participants on that fine 1980-90s radio 4 show Stop the Week knew. (And it really was an excellent programme, an excellent use of 30 minutes of the radio. I recall – dimly albeit – a good 15 minute discussion of the worth of fish knives, the vague recollection of which sometimes makes me wonder now whether I ought to buy some. My partner’s family deployed them with due solemnity for fish fingers and I think that they were right so to do.) But typically the assumption is made that it is a kind of exception to a broadly Davidsonian view. The lion really is speaking, is in the space of reasons, but is somehow inaccessible to interpretation.  

It seems, from the context, that Wittgenstein’s comment is more subtle and helps to flag some of the range of meaning that attaches to ‘understand’. It is worth noting what comes before the famous line. We can fail to understand, not because we cannot grasp their meanings, (whether or not for Mulhallian reasons one wants to rejects the word ‘interpretation’ for this), but because we cannot find our feet with them.

We also say of some people that they are transparent to us. It is, however, important as regards this observation that one human being can be a complete enigma to another. We learn this when we come into a strange country with entirely strange traditions; and, what is more, even given a mastery of the country's language. We do not understand the people. (And not because of not knowing what they are saying to themselves.) We cannot find our feet with them. 
“I cannot know what is going on in him” is above all a picture. It is the convincing expression of a conviction. It does not give the reasons for the conviction. They are riot readily accessible.  
If a lion could talk, we could not understand him. [Wittgenstein 1953: 223]

Well I hope that this is what the comic strip is flagging rather than the fact that the lion is actually Frege.

((I have no doubts, given the immediately preceding comment by Wittgenstein. There is a nice, heavy Travisian atmosphere to the scene.))

Friday 8 May 2015

Democracy and Jubilee the elephant

For some reason today I am reminded of the first occasion I wondered whether it was conceptually possible that democracy could deliver, not just a result I didn’t like but rather, something that surely no one with a proper view of the facts could think the best.

In 1977 a baby elephant was born in Chester Zoo and the BBC children’s television programme Blue Peter was given the task of polling popular opinion for the choice of name. It being 1977, a particular year long royal event was much in the news. As a Cub Scout, I was issued with a huge badge to be worn all that year and there was much predictable and eventually quite tedious hoo-hah even as far I, as an impressionable 12 year old, was concerned. So it was no surprise at all when the utterly witless suggestion ‘Jubilee’ topped the poll for the elephant’s name with about 90% of the votes and some random people were awarded prizes for having had just the same idea as everyone else.

I seem to recall that the third name was completely left-field. Perhaps ‘Gary’. Quite why half a dozen people thought of that I’ve no idea.

But in second place, with perhaps 10% of the vote,  came the rather more imaginative ‘Jumbilee’, a nice compromise of royalist atmosphere with something at least a little elephant specific. Also an idea that required even just a bit of imagination. Surely, I thought, this is obviously better than the actual winner? And what shame must the idiots collecting their prizes for not having thought at all be feeling? Crucially, if they were in possession of the full facts, surely no-one who voted ‘Jubilee’ would really defend it in the face of ‘Jumbilee’, the objectively better name? Such were my 12 year old’s thoughts and doubts. But it seemed, and it still seems, difficult baldly and boldly to think that most people are just idiots and democracy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Thursday 7 May 2015

Suzanne Stern-Gillet on ‘Is philosophy a set of footnotes to Plato?’

I went to an interesting polemical talk by Professor Suzanne Stern-Gillet yesterday called ‘Is philosophy a set of footnotes to Plato?’.

The abstract ran as follows.

A unique particularity of philosophy as an academic discipline is to include, as an integral part of itself, a reflection on its own past.  This is a ‘fact’ insofar as anyone embarking on the study of philosophy today can expect frequent encounters with Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant and countless other figures from the past.  Why should this be so?  And, if it is so, why did a well-known Princeton philosopher, in the heyday of analytic philosophy, advise his students to ‘say “no” to the history of philosophy’?  An outline of the two positions will be followed by a discussion of a few case studies chosen to highlight the pitfalls (unless they be benefits) of creative appropriation and the challenge involved in casting one’s mind back to the distant philosophical past.

The structure of the talk involved first assembling some characteristic quotations from analytic philosophy expressing ahistorical views of the nature of the subject and then pointing out some vices to which this left them hostage. (Whilst continental philosophers were not charged with equal crimes neither did they escape entirely on the grounds of obfuscation.)

Some characteristic analytical comments included:
  • Bernard Williams: ‘The legacy of Greece to Western philosophy is Western philosophy.’ (1981, reprinted in The Sense of the Past: Essays on the Philosophy of History, 2006)
  • Quine (allegedly): ‘There are two sorts of people interested in philosophy, those interested in philosophy and those interested in the history of philosophy.’
  • John Searle (allegedly): ‘I am an analytical philosopher.  I think for myself’
  • Gilbert Harman (allegedly): Just ‘say “no” to the history of philosophy’ (inspired by Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just say “no” to drugs.’).  N.B.: he denied having said it.
I jotted down some of the problems that an ahistorical approach fell victim to. They included. 
  • Assuming that philosophical problems are trans historical, remain the same unaffected by contingencies. (This is indicated by book titles such as Problems of Philosophy).
  • Presenting historically separated philosophers as conversational partners. (eg Jonathan Bennett in the preface to A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics (1984, p. 1): The book was written in the hope of convincing philosophers that Spinoza can be treated as ‘an energetic collaborator or antagonist’ (p. 1), mindful no doubt of Ryle’s warning to Wittgenstein and his acolytes that past philosophers ‘should be treated more like colleagues than like pupils.’ (‘Autobiographical’, 1971, p.10 sqq.)).
  • Adopting what Ian Hacking calls this a pen friend approach but it is also akin to a ghostly dinner party in which the shade of dead philosophers are present together. But this assumes, falsely, that they would be able to engage with each other's views.
  • Paying minimal attention to dialectical context. They do not ask why texts were written, in response to which problems and why the problems were problems.
  • Paying minimal attention to the overall coherence of an argument with the rest of a dead philosopher's work.
Although I certainly agree with the virtues of a rounded historically-informed approach to philosophy (even though I lamentably fail to adopt one myself never happy delving further back than 1953), it seemed to me that the talk did not actually engage the philosophers it criticised. The vices Suzanne warned of and the virtues she praised all presupposed that the idea that getting the history of the subject right mattered. But that is just what ahistorical analytic philosophers do not care about. For example, they do not make the historical error of assuming that their problems are the same as those of the real though dead Plato. They don't give a damn about his problems only their own. Because of this they do not assume historical continuity, rather they deny history. Philosophy is restricted to the present tense. Given that, then none of the vices will seem to be vices to those to whom the argunents are addressed. (The likely fact that the actual dead philosophers would not have understood one another again misses the point. ‘Their’ views are compared and contrasted from the contemporary perspective so they are not really their views at all.)

One of the vices that Suzanne ascribed to ahistorical philosophers was not being sensitive to other philosopher’s genuinely different perspectives. But in assuming that ahistorical analytic philosophers assume the continuity of their problems with the past (by contrast with making no such assumption and at most projecting contemporary problems back onto a fictionalised past) she seemed to fall prey to that very vice. If one presupposes the value of the history of philosophy then what ahistorical philosophers do will seem epistemically risky or simply blind to important facts. But that presupposition is not shared by them: they are doing something genuinely different.

If I heard correctly there was a further interesting brief suggestion: the history of philosophy need not be interested in the whole of the context of philosophical authors and texts: not social context, for example. That would be mere history of ideas. Having rubbed shoulders with social historians of science this seemed to me to be an interestingly arbitrary view of what was essential for understanding the history of the subject.

Tuesday 5 May 2015

Essex Autonomy Project Summer School 7th July 2015

"This year the Essex Autonomy Project will be joining forces with the Human Rights Centre at Essex to contribute to the Summer School on Human Rights Research Methods. Don’t be put off if you are not a researcher (!), as the EAP has planned a practical and discussion-based day around the challenges of applying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, taught by the leading members of the Autonomy Project research team.

The day will cover:

An introduction to the CRPD, led by Wayne Martin
We will consider the difference between the Convention itself and its Optional Protocol, the standing and responsibilities of the convention’s treaty body, and some of the contested issues regarding the requirements of compliance.   As a test case for examining the issues around compliance, we will introduce three pieces of UK legislation that are relevant to the challenge of achieving CRPD-compliance:  The Mental Health Act of England and Wales (1983, rev 2007); The Mental Capacity Act of England and Wales (2005); the Adults with Incapacity (Scotland) Act (2000).

Discrimination against persons with disabilities, led by Timo J├╝tten
One of the central aims of the CRPD is to end discrimination on the basis of disability.   We examine the definition of “discrimination” within the convention, consider the distinction between direct and indirect discrimination, and survey the controversy over whether the convention sanctions any kind of defence against charges of discrimination.   We then break into groups to consider whether two specific provisions of UK law stand in violation of the anti-discrimination provisions of the CRPD:   the use of “mental disorder” as an element in the justification for detention under the Mental Health Act, and the use of the so-called “Diagnostic Threshold” in the definition of “mental incapacity” in the Mental Capacity Act.

Conflicts of Rights, led by Sabine Michalowski
The CRPD, like other international human rights instruments, calls for the respect and protection of a range of different rights, including the right to legal capacity, to  equal standing before the law, to life, to the highest attainable standard of health care, to protection against neglect and abuse, etc.   But what happens when two or more distinct rights come into conflict?   How should the conflict be resolved?   We contrast two approaches that have been taken to this challenge — one that has developed in the case history of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the other that is implicit in the recent General Comments of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Substituted decision-making under the Best-Interests paradigm, led by Wayne Martin
The UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has claimed that compliance with the CRPD requires states parties to abolish substitute decision-making and the best-interest paradigm.   What is the meaning of this claim?   What is its basis in the Convention?  And what is its legal authority?  Are the Committee correct in this claim about the requirements on CRPD-compliance?   What would be the consequences for UK mental health law?   Does current UK law provide sufficient safeguards to ensure respect for the rights, will and preferences of disabled persons?  If not, how might those safeguards best be strengthened?

The day is suitable for anyone with an interest in the UNCRPD and will introduce the Autonomy Project’s latest research on the issues surrounding this human rights convention. The fee for the day is £225 – if you book before the 30th April a 10% early booking discount is available.

To book your place please go to the Human Rights Centre website:

Best wishes,
Becky Parsons
Project Officer
The Essex Autonomy Project

Friday 1 May 2015

Philosophy as creative writing?

I had an interesting misunderstanding with a friend, Jo, this week about the creativity involved in writing philosophy. I think it may have begun with some confusion on my part stemming from momentarily forgetting that ‘creative writing’ is a proper name for a genre as well as being an adjectival qualification of an activity. It might also have been influenced by Jo’s background in advertising, a business that seems to me to mythologise creativity in its absolute distinction between ‘creatives’ and everyone else.

We were discussing - at a funeral - the common intuition that a flourishing life requires, as one component, some exercises of creativity and I mentioned writing philosophy. Jo was surprised, suggesting that it surely wasn’t creative.

Of course, philosophy isn’t Creative Writing: the activity taught in masters courses at some UK universities. One might stipulate that forms of short story, novel and poetry writing just are what one means by that name and also any homophonic phrase. But there is surely no general intuition that flourishing requires Creative Writing in that sense.

Jo’s reasonable objection to my assumption that philosophy is, or at least can be, creative was that it is descriptive. It’s guided by the norm of truth in a way that fiction isn’t, whether or not there is a kind of truth in fiction. But even if descriptive accuracy is the goal, little philosophical writing looks like a description. To win through to a description involves the usual philosophical methods of argument, of deriving consequences of views, of thinking up counter-examples, perhaps even occasional thought experiments. There seems something right in Wittgenstein’s poetic suggestion that ‘philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language’ [1953 §109] which points to the difficulty in achieving a clear description even if that is the aim. It simply hadn’t occurred to me to think such an activity anything other than creative.

Having said that, as an aide memoire for me rather than anything else, here’s a bit of housekeeping with respect to my own rather pedestrian efforts. The following are now forthcoming (I think).

Thornton, T. (forthcoming) ‘Bootstrapping conceptual normativity?’ for Foundations of Science

Thornton, T. (forthcoming) ‘John McDowell’ for Pritchard, D. (ed) Oxford Bibliographies in Philosophy New York: Oxford University Press

Under review

‘Psychiatric classification, vagueness and tacit knowledge’ for Keil, G., Kutschenko, L., Hauswald, R. (eds) Gradualist Approaches to Mental Health and Disease Oxford: Oxford University Press

‘Naturalism and dysfunction’ for Forest, D. and Faucher, L. (eds) Defining Mental Disorders: Jerome Wakefield and his Critics Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

‘Nursing knowledge: its nature and generation’ for Chambers, M. (ed) Psychiatric & Mental Health Nursing: the craft of caring Abingdon: CRC Press (I have some doubts about this one actually making it through. If anyone else wants a fine 6-10,000 word chapter on knowledge underpinning nursing practice, let me know.)

‘Transcultural psychiatry’ for White, R. (ed) The Palgrave Handbook of Global Mental Health: Sociocultural Perspectives London: Palgrave

In preparation

‘Phenomenological implication as transcendental argument’ for van Staden, W. and Pickering, N. (eds) Wittgenstein and mental health, Oxford: Oxford University Press

‘The normativity of meaning and the constitutive ideal of rationality’ for Verheggen, C. (ed) Wittgenstein and Davidson on Thought, Language, and Action, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

‘Philosophical understandings of mental health’ for Wright, K. and McKeown, M. (eds) Essentials of Mental Health Nursing, London: Sage