Thursday 28 April 2016

The balance of description and criticism in philosophy essays

Another case of putting something on my blog because I often rehash the same broad idea and so should keep a copy.

Teaching on a Philosophy and Mental Health distance learning programme, Gloria and I are often asked by our mainly non-philosopher students about the nature and balance of criticism and description in philosophy writing. For some students, this may be the result of being familiar with the more descriptive style of literature review in the social sciences (though even here, such reviews must have an argumentative purpose). But it is hard to answer directly at the level of a given paragraph because all depends what that paragraph is for.

So here is a top down answer based on an analogy. Sadly this is an analogy that does nothing to explain how fascinating and mind blowing philosophy can be. Sorry.

A philosophy essay is like a report written by a civil servant making a recommendation to a minister or to a committee. The essay as a whole has a purpose: to persuade the reader of the case for something (thinking that something is true or something is right). And hence a critical style of writing is there for that purpose.

(So the analogy gives a ‘top down’ account of why philosophical writing is both critical and descriptive because this follows from the point or purpose of the essay as a whole which shapes the need for individual bits of critical writing.)

Here is an example. Near where I live, there is a proposal to build a new, higher capacity connection using very tall electricity pylons to link Sellafield nuclear power station (actually a new power station nearby called Moorside) to centres of population more efficiently. The proposal is contested because the pylons will be visually intrusive and they will be very close to, and thus visible from, the Lake District National Park.

In the main, the protesters don’t, however, say that there is no need for the new power connection. They could. That would be a ;pwerful argument against building one. (Contrast protesters against the proposed route of the high speed railway HS2 who do go back to basics to question the need as a whole for the line.) They generally accept the force of the arguments for one. (Some, of course, disagree to this whole way of getting power but that opens up a whole new argument so I will stick to those who accept the need but not the means.) So the protesters currently argue that
a) all or some of it could be underground;
b) it could take a longer route further from the Park
c) it could be submerged under Morecambe Bay
d) the pylons could be smaller.

Each of these counter-proposals (to the original idea) is opposed by counter-counter arguments. Burying is expensive. Longer routes cost more. In some countries the bigger pylons are regarded as works of sculptural art and hence are not visually intrusive anyway. Etc etc.

So imagine that you were writing a report for the minister or a planning committee, what would you do?

First, I suggest, you need to understand all the arguments, counter-arguments, counter-counter-arguments etc. as their proposers understand them. To describe the lie of the land, you have to have a descriptive understanding of the arguments put forward.

Next, you will need to think about how the various ‘battles’ between opposing views stack up. For example, defenders of using pylons argue that burying the cable instead would cost too much money: 20 miles of buried lines would cost about £450m more than using pylons. ( But assessing this point will also involve seeing what one side makes of the argument. Eg., with respect to the cost of burying the cable, opponents of pylons have argued that this would add only about 40p a year to the average electricity bill in England and Wales. As you do this, you yourself will begin to assess what you think of these arguments. That is an exercise of critical assessment. Some reasons will turn out to be stronger than other reasons when you think them through in context. Some will probably be irrelevant, rhetorical red herrings.

(This point is an important one. One cannot in general take a merely spectator attitude to the assessment of reasons. Even if the result of the report as a whole is that one cannot take a clear view, assessing component reasons is ultimately a matter of weighing them oneself. I say 'ultimately' because in some debates one may have to assess the relative ranks of experts in order to inherit from them an assessment of empirical reasons.)

Once you have this global view of – descriptively – what everyone says for and against the main position and supporting arguments and – critically – your own assessment of which arguments work out which way, which reasons are stronger, you will have taken some view of the overall issue.

In a committee paper, there are then various possible outcomes:
  • One view may be obviously the best. Still, to show why it is the best, you will need to show why the arguments in favour of the other view fail. And that requires saying – descriptively – what those arguments or reasons or factors are and – critically – how strong they are.
  • That one view is better than another may depend on an issue that is tricky to resolve. For example, one reason for not building the pylons is economic: it will undermine tourism. But another is aesthetic: it will spoil the beauty of the country. Weighing the financial cost of burying the cable against the aesthetic loss of beauty isn’t straightforward and a civil servant might try to describe both cases and then leave this up to the minister / planning committee to judge.
  • The opposing views may both be flawed because of other factors (the sudden discovery that one cannot, after all, build the power-station that needs all the pylons). So both sides may have made assumptions that frame their case but both turn out to be wrong.
Once one has taken a view about what can be rationally concluded, there is need to be imaginative in working out a rational way to present the arguments to the minister/committee. One good way to do this might be to start by saying what the recommendation is (“This report will argue for limited burying of cables across some of the distance of the power line”) and then saying how that conclusion will be arrived at (“The report will describe the facts for and against including the relative costs. The argument that tall pylons are actually beautiful will be considered and rejected.” Etc etc)

The analogy may be plodding but a philosophy essay works in the same argumentative way. It needs a balance of descriptive and critical writing because it needs to present and to assess competing arguments to arrive at some sort of conclusion (even if that is that there is no clear answer). That isn’t a feature of the style of philosophy in the way that poetry may have a particular metre or rhyming structure. Rather it stems from what philosophy is for. And that is deciding what is true and what is good.

Philosophers are God’s civil servants!

Tuesday 26 April 2016

Values-Based Practice Theory Network Spring Conference, Oxford 3-4 May 2016

The second meeting of the Values-Based Practice Theory Network will be a two-day conference held at St Catherine’s College Oxford on 3rd and 4th May 2016. The conference is run in partnership with the Collaborating Centre for Values-Practice in Health and Social Care ( and Anna Bergqvist’s established Particularism in Bioethics, Professional Ethics and Medicine Network at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Venue: The Collaborating Centre for Values-based Practice, St Catherine’s College Oxford.

Theme: Value, Context and Narrative in Medical Epistemology and Health Care Practice.

The theme of this interdisciplinary conference is focused on the theoretical underpinnings of values-based practice, and explores the implications of illness narrative and contextualism for debates about objectivity and value in philosophy of medicine and medical epistemology more generally. It builds on our first conference on Values-Based Practice and Moral Particularism in October 2015, with special attention to philosophy of psychiatry, clinical practice and scientific methodology. By bringing together theorists and practitioners from the disciplines of Philosophy and Psychology our aim is to explore the ways in which normative critical perspectives challenge the implicit or assumed reductive theoretical paradigm of many current models and measures of ‘value’ in health care contexts in developing new integrative and holistic approaches. We hope that the event will open up a dialogue about the ways we might think and argue differently about the benefit of conceptual and evaluative thought in these contexts.


Tuesday 3rd May
09:00 – 09:15. Registration and Welcome
09:15 – 09:45. Benedict Smith (Durham University), ‘Values Based Practice and Context’.
09:45 – 10:30. Ulrik Kihlbom (Uppsala University), ‘Narrative Understanding in Clinical Decision Making and Serious Games Interventions’.
10:30 – 11:00. Tea & Coffee.
11:30 – 12:15. Lubomira Radoilska (University of Kent), ‘Ignorance of What One is Doing’.
12:15 – 13:00. Ian J. Kidd (University of Nottingham), ‘Illness, Ethics and Exemplarism’.
13:00 – 14:00. Lunch
14:00 – 14:45. Richard Gipps (University of Oxford), ‘Psychotherapy as Moral Practice’.
14:45 – 15:30. Anna Bergqvist (MMU), ‘Value, Perspective and Integration: Reassessing Narrative Selfhood in Borderline Personality Disorder’.
15:30 – 16:00. Tea & Coffee
16:00 – 16:45. Mark Haydon-Laurelut (University of Portsmouth/NHS). ‘Systemic Psychotherapy, Narrative and Autistic Spectrum Conditions’.
16:45 – 17:00. Concluding Remarks.
18:00 – Dinner (at own expense).

Wednesday 4th May
09:00 – 09:45. Anna Zielinska (Sorbonne), ‘The Normativity of Empirical Enquires: The Case of Genetics’.
09:45 – 09:45. Dieneke Hubbeling (Royal College of Psychiatrists, Philosophy Special Interest Group), ‘Outcome Bias, Values, and Moral Luck’.
10:30 – 11:00. Tea & Coffee
11:30 – 12:15. Alan Thomas (Tilburg University), ‘Particularism and Group Agency’.
12:15 – 13:00. Tim Thornton (University of Central Lancashire), ‘Who Are We? Subjectivity in Objective Values-Based Practice’.
13:00 – 14:00. Lunch
14:00 – 14:45. Caroline Vass (University of Manchester/Uppsala University), ‘What is Health Economics? Problematising Value in Stratified Medicine’.
14:45 – 15:30 Jens Erik Paulsen (Norwegian Police College University), ‘Policing as a Values-Based Practice: Challenges and Prospects’.
15:30 – 16:00 Tea & Coffee
16:00 – 17:00 Roundtable Discussion
17:00 Close

The event is free and open to all but places are limited, for which reason registration is necessary. To register, please send an email to the conference organiser and director of the VBP Theory Network Anna Bergqvist at no later than Thursday 28 April 2016.
Please state any dietary or disability restrictions as appropriate, all of which will be fully catered for.


Monday 25 April 2016

The subjectivity that is supposed to be a correlative of moral objectivism

I’ve been mulling over a train of thought in Travis’ paper ‘Frege’s target’ which I’ve summarised before on this blog. The line starts with crediting McDowell a frequent appeal to the idea that judgement in a particular area may call for a subject to have a ‘special design’ in some way. The obvious area is in making value judgements, where McDowell stresses the importance of education in acquiring a second nature.

McDowell himself makes frequent appeal to ways in which we, or relevant thinkers, are thinkers of a special sort. Our special design opens our eyes, as he puts it, to particular tracts of reality. That our eyes may be thus opened shows where, and how, there may be facts that it takes special capacities, not enjoyed by just any thinker, to see. [Travis 2002: 305]

But this prompts the question.

Can mind-design select which tract of reality we deal with... without also deciding, of the selected tract, how things there are—without shaping the world along with our responsiveness to it? [ibid: 333]

The worry is that McDowell’s reliance on the idea that education and induction into the space of reasons opens a subject’s eyes to aspects of the world commits him (McDowell) to a form of idealism. This problem is brought into focus because McDowell rejects what he calls a ‘deductive paradigm that leads us to suppose that the operations of any specific conception of rationality in a particular area - any specific conception of what counts as doing the same thing - must be deductively explicable; that is, that there must be a formulable universal principle suited to serve as major premiss in syllogistic explanations’ [McDowell 1979: 339-40]. Special capacities are needed precisely because the demands of reason are not in general accessible to just any rational subject because, in turn, they are not codifiable in principles graspable by just any subject. But now the worry is that the role the special capacities have is to constitute the aspect of reality supposedly revealed.

Travis offers McDowell a way out of this potential worry based on his own philosophical signature dish which he draws from an interpretation of Wittgenstein: occasionalism. The key idea is that this allows Travis (and hence potentially McDowell) to distinguish between two different contributions that the mindedness of a subject – our nature – might make.

Let P be a way a statement might thus represent things. Then, accepting that idea, we may still innocently allow that the way given thinkers think decides whether some one of their statements stated that P, or, say, that Q, where that is another such way for a statement to represent things. But one cannot, accepting this idea, allow that, where a statement spoke of things as being P, whether it thus stated truth depends on how a particular (sort of) thinker thinks. [Travis 2002: 338]

The latter would be a form of idealism which undermines the autonomy of our rules and normativity. But the former locates the contribution of subjectivity to selecting the way we represent the world to be. This is the role of occasionalism. What is said in using a sentence depends on the occasion of its use. Hence, also, whether what is said is true or false depends on the occasion, which in turn depends, among other things, on the nature of the speaker.

Travis gives an everyday example

Sid buys a DIY chair kit. On bringing it home he discovers that it is much more difficult to assemble than he had imagined. It remains a neatly stacked pile of chair parts in his spare room. One day, someone, pointing at the pile, asks, ‘What’s that?’ ‘It’s a chair’, Sid replies, ‘I just haven’t got around to assembling it yet.’ On a later occasion, Sid and Pia, with guests, find themselves a chair short for dinner. ‘There’s a chair in the spare room’, Sid says helpfully. But there is still only the pile. [ibid: 336]

The idea is that Sid’s first answer is true. On that occasion it is correct to say that the pile is a chair. But on the second occasion, his comment is false. The pile of parts is not a chair in the context of the dinner party. The same word ‘chair’ can be used correctly and falsely of the pile of parts because different things are said to be so with it on both occasions. This suggests a role for our psychological design, not in shaping the aspect of the world judged, but in shaping the nature of what we say with our words.

It seems to me that this doesn’t scratch the right itch, however. For one thing, occasion sensitivity is supposed to be a quite general feature of meaning rather than something tied to a specific aspect of the space of reasons. It doesn’t relate to the specific character of moral judgements, for example. Being sensitive to the demands of meanings is a akin to being sensitive to the demands of values in a McDowellian enriched conception of nature but occasion sensitivity seems to privilege meanings and reach out to values only via meanings.

Travis’ account does however, head off the worry about idealism. It is innocent to think of aspects of special design affecting what subjects mean, in making a judgement, and hence affecting what would make it true or false without letting the mind affect whether a given judgement, understood in a specific way, is true or false given how the world is. So another possibility to head off idealism would be a transcendental rather than empirical reading of the connection between meaning and subject-hood. There’s an often quoted passage in Cavell which may help illustrate this idea:

We learn and teach words in certain contexts, and then we are expected, and expect others, to be able to project them into further contexts. Nothing insures that this projection will take place (in particular, not the grasping of universals nor the grasping of book of rules), just as nothing insures that we will make, and understand, the same projections. That on the whole we do is a matter of our sharing routes of interest and feeling, senses 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’. Human speech and activity, sanity and community, rest upon nothing more, but nothing less, than this. It is a vision as simple as it is difficult, and as difficult as it is (and because it is) terrifying. [Cavell 1969: 52]

So one might think that it’s a condition of possibility of projecting words into new contexts in the same way, and hence as counting as using them correctly, that one is a certain sort of subject with shared routes of interest and feeling, senses of humour and of significance and of fulfilment etc etc: all the whirl of organism. But here the problem is that in some cases – for example continuing mathematical series – other ways of going on seem mere misses of the point, failures of understanding rather than promising to illustrate other possibilities. In other cases, different practices do seem possible but not as different versions of say strictly moral evaluation. Perhaps they are practices of face saving or bravado which block the possibility of playing the moral valuing game.

Filling out the nature of the subject that transcendentally underpins our practices of responding to meanings or values looks to collapse into what McDowell calls a ‘locus of pure thought’. One needs to be a subject who can follow moral, or meaningful, or logical demands.

Playing the ‘games’ we play sincerely and wholeheartedly seems to rule out being able to flesh out an interesting link between objectivism in a domain and the necessity of a certain kind of subject-hood. Perhaps thinking that objectivity requires a correlative subjectivity is more trouble than its worth.

Tuesday 19 April 2016

Lancaster workshop on impact

Very embarrassingly, I’ve been asked to contribute to a workshop on impact at Lancaster University. Embarrassing, since I have no impact case study and have never achieved impact as understood by the Act. But I believe that I am to talk at the start of the day, perhaps presenting a problem to be solved by those with brighter ideas as the day goes by. At the very least, I’ll learn something in return for my uneasy self-consciousness.

The difficulty of Wittgensteinian philosophy

The goal or target of achieving impact is more difficult for some subjects than it is for others. In general, the humanities do not have a technology. Equally, there isn’t an industrial setting for researchers in the humanities who do not wish to be based in higher education. Philosophy inherits these difficulties. Why?

I think that there are two characteristic claims made by philosophy.
  • This is how things are because this is how they must be. (The modal status goes some way to explain the lack of need for empirical justification.)
  • This is how things ought to be.
The latter seems the more likely source of impact - a normative claim aims to change the world - but is sadly unavailable to the philosophy of thought and language / metaphysics / epistemology etc. all of which are restricted to the former. Further, it is worse in some sub-disciplines of philosophical method, such as mine.

Wittgenstein argued that there were no such things as substantive philosophical problems calling for substantive explanation or theorising. Rather, apparent problems should be dissolved. By contrast with Marx’ claim that ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’ Wittgenstein says: ‘Philosophy must not interfere in any way… It leaves everything as it is.’ [Wittgenstein 1953 §124]. How then is impact so much as possible?

An autobiographical note

Having written my first book on Wittgenstein and a second on the Wittgensteinian philosopher John McDowell, I was approached in 1994, at Warwick University, by Bill Fulford to teach on his new Philosophy and Ethics of Mental Health masters programme. I knew nothing about the philosophy of psychiatry but Bill optimistically suggested that there would be connections between what I did know about and conceptual issues lying behind mental healthcare and these would come to light in conversation with clinicians. That much was right.

The promise for impact of the new philosophy of / and psychiatry

Although a Wittgensteinian approach to the nature of philosophy raises challenges for achieving impact, the sub-disciplinary subject area of philosophy of psychiatry pulls the other way.

Whilst, in mainland Europe, philosophy carried out in the phenomenological tradition retained a close connection to psychiatry throughout the 20th century, Anglo-American or broadly analytic philosophy largely lost touch. Analytic philosophy of psychiatry has been reborn in large part as a response to the rise of the anti-psychiatry movement in the 1960’s. This was because, whatever its broader political underpinnings, the disagreement between anti-psychiatry and biologically-minded defences of psychiatry was a philosophical rather, than an empirical, disagreement. It thus prompted a fresh philosophical examination of the nature and conceptual underpinnings of psychiatry.

This new ‘philosophy and psychiatry’ (where ‘and’ means both ‘and’ and ‘of’) is a joint enterprise of philosophers and psychiatrists with co-editorships of key books and journals. The international network (the International Network of Philosophy and Psychiatry) holds conferences attended by both academics and practitioners. The issues and problems that interest clinicians reflect conceptual as much as empirical issues:
  • the nature of illness or disease and of recovery;
  • the objectivity of psychiatric taxonomy;
  • issues about the mind-brain relation;
  • capacity;
  • the justification for coercion.
These all look philosophical (and I’ve published on all of them). So surely philosophical analysis of these issues provide a route to impact?

Further, there are examples of impact (though whether or not strictly REF-able impact, I’m less sure, because I am not sure how the explicit paper trail works). For example, Fulford’s analysis of the concept of mental illness draws not on Wittgensteinian philosophy but on a related equally descriptive movement: Oxford ordinary language philosophy. He argues on the basis of analysis that the concepts of mental illness and physical illness are both value laden (and hence both sides in the major 1970s debates are wrong) but that only mental illness looks value-laden because there is widespread disagreement about the relevant values by contrast with agreement on the values pertaining to physical health and illness. If so, however, then the influential stress on evidence based medicine is incomplete without a worked out form of values based practice which Fulford then articulated (though contentiously cashed out in merely subjective terms). Since then he has been assiduous in promoting this in clinical training with some successes. He has now set up Collaborating Centre for Values Based Practice at St Catz, Oxford to act as a focus for interested clinicians and academics.

That looks like a flow of ideas from the analysis of concepts to some practical consequences for how mental healthcare should be carried out, though the grounds for impact depend on moving from the first to the second key philosophical claim (from how they are to how they should be).

But despite that rationale, it has proved surprisingly difficult for me.

Here are two possible leads but so far unfulfilled. The first seems a kind near miss; the second needs thought as to practical application.

Idiographic understanding

Attending a World Psychiatric Association conference, at Bill Fulford’s suggestion I attended a session organised by its president Juan Mezzich on person centred medicine and heard presentations on the role of a more comprehensive approach to psychiatric diagnosis called an idiographic formulation. It seemed to me that there was some confusion in what they – clinicians – meant by ‘idiographic’ and its connection to narrative.

Charged by my university to invite Mezzich and some of his colleagues to a workshop with a European service user movement at UCLan, I presented a critique of ‘idiographic’ understanding there and later at a workshop in London funded by the Department of Health. I wrote four overlapping papers, one for a humanities journal and two for psychiatry journals and one for a general medical journal. I was invited to present this at the main German annual psychiatry conference and more recently as the first non-Italian plenary speaker at the Italian national clinical psychology conference from which two further publications will emerge.

But, whilst the papers have a thesis, the general issue of how to devise a broader diagnosis was of interest to the WPA and remains part of the Person Centred Medicine movement and is also of concern to mental health service users, pushing a model of what is involved hasn’t connected to non-academic impact.

Tacit knowledge and clinical judgement

The academic itch draws on the problem of understanding individuals: the intuition that clinical skill involves something other than codified knowledge. Further, a role for clinical expertise in addition to research evidence was set out in one of the founding books on evidence based medicine. One possibility is that this extra element is tacit knowledge. I have written four papers, two chapters and a book on this issue, one of which is my most cited paper and has been cited across a range of disciplines and linked to a number of different areas.

At conferences, the idea of there being a distinct and intellectually respectable form of knowledge which, nevertheless resists codification, finds favour with clinicians for whom it seems to have ‘face validity’. But how to connect gentle interest to impact?

(My first thought: a network on the epistemology of values based practice on a version which is not cashed out in subjective terms and to connect to the Collaborating Centre for Values Based Practice.)

A few tentative conclusions

Impact is harder to achieve if one’s discipline is constitutionally averse to changing anything!

In philosophy, normative claims – about how things should be – look easier ways to draw out practical import than descriptive claims about how they are.

But given a partner discipline with its own practical problems, even philosophically therapeutic work could, at one remove, have practical consequences.

That, however, doesn’t make the connection easier and, in my own case, I suspect that a psychological resistance probably plays a role in defaulting to relatively pure philosophy instead. I can always return to writing a paper / chapter with relatively certain chance of publication.


Some years ago I worked as an administrator at the LSE within the space planning and facilities management division. It was the time of the LSE’s attempt to buy County Hall for a peppercorn as a way once and for it to solve its space shortage. In the meantime, it needed a large auditorium and considered buying a neighbouring theatre. Sadly for the LSE, the theatre was governed by planning laws which did not allow it to be ‘dark’ for more than a certain fraction of the year. Thus if the LSE bought it, this could not stop it continuing to be run as a theatre. I arrived at work one morning to discover my then boss pouring over self-help books describing the role of the theatre impresario. Although by training and career he was a university administrator, if solving the space problem that was his responsibility required that he learn how to commission plays and assemble a company of actors, that consequence would not stop him. That attitude, I suspect, is needed to milk impact out of a descriptive humanity.

Friday 8 April 2016

Dialogue with Peter Lucas on experience, concepts, judgement and the world

Over the last few weeks, I had a rare email conversation with a colleague from another school in this case Peter Lucas from HSS about the philosophical role and nature of experience and its place, or not, in accounting for what Wittgenstein describes as the ‘harmony of thought and reality’. We began with a chance discussion at a seminar of aspect perception which might or might not be a point of agreement between Heidegger, Wittgenstein and McDowell. But what prompted the conversation was me looking at Charles Travis’ chapter Travis, C. (2015) 'Suffering intentionally?' in Campbell, M. & O'Sullivan, M. (eds.) Wittgenstein and Perception, London: Routledge. 

I have put this - warts and all - on ‘In the space of reasons’ for two reasons. First, at the risk that neither of us will ever get other academic jobs having displayed our less than polished first reactions to arguments, I think it helps show the way in which the ship gets put in the bottle.

Second, and related to that last point, Peter and I belong to opposing sides of the main schism in Western philosophy. I’m a kind of Wittgensteinian-McDowellian therapeutic version of an analytic philosopher. Peter’s work is situated in the phenomenological tradition of Husserl and Heidegger. And hence our discussions typically reflect both the clarity and blind-spots of our opposing traditions. Looking back, it is possible to get a bit of critical distance on how options are picked up or ignored. 

If there is a single underlying issue here it is how to reconcile experience and conceptual judgement and the hunch that there is more to experience than can be put into words. At its most extreme, I take a Travisian line in which this latter thought is simply false and Peter locates the resources for saying it is true initially in Husserl though he moves quickly on to Heidegger. A middle ground is John McDowell’s 1994 book Mind and World according to which experience has content, the content is conceptually structured, but the content can be formed from demonstrative thoughts picking up on, eg., particular shades of colour. (In a couple of emails I call this McDowell’s ‘trick’ though that isn’t meant critically.)

If nothing else, the dialogue shows moves both attempted within, and at the same time attempting to analyse (an aspect of), the space of reasons. In fact what it most clearly demonstrates is the following occasional aspect of academic life. You bump into someone in a seminar, make a chance remark, follow up with a quick email and then write hundreds or thousands of words for no formal research purposes at all!

From: Tim Thornton
Sent: 10 March 2016 22:17
To: Peter Lucas 
Subject: Travis on seeing-as


It was good to bump into you today at the seminar. Here’s the pdf of the Travis chapter I was describing on aspect perception. Travis, C. (2015) 'Suffering intentionally?' in Campbell, M. & O'Sullivan, M. (eds.) Wittgenstein and Perception, London: Routledge

With respect to your earlier worry about Travis helping himself to the intentionality of pictures in an account of seeing-as, I guess he feels the right to assume that just as one assumes the intentionality of signposts although against a further assumed background of practices.


From: Peter Lucas
Sent: 14 March 2016 15:11
To: Tim Thornton
Subject: RE: Travis on seeing-as


Had a quick read of Travis – will try to read it again more carefully. An initial reaction, for what it’s worth:

I am struggling to see how mere seeing could be any kind of “success”. If I am successfully to see x it must be the case that there is something akin to an act of judgement involved in the seeing.

There is no success involved in seeing Sid drink lager unless the context is such that (e.g.) recognising that it is indeed lager that Sid is drinking (or Sid that is drinking lager) counts as a success. Inferring that he is drinking lager might be another way of succeeding. But absent everything akin to an implicit or explicit judgement, how can we speak of success? (Merely to watch Sid drinking lager is no sort of success.) If someone should respond that it can be a success to see the ship on the horizon whether or not I happen to be looking for ships I would reply that it can count as a success only in relation to the activity of scanning the horizon for ships and the like.

So, in short, if seeing can be a success seeing must be (broadly) intentional.

The underlying mistake, it seems to me, is that of construing success terms as if the relevant sort of success did not depend upon something akin to judgement. It is assumed that if it makes any sense to construe “see” as a success term then it must follow that seeing what is not simply there to be seen is not seeing but hallucinating. But even “knowing” doesn’t behave like that. When I know that oranges are not the only fruit I don’t simply know what is there to be known. When I find that a student has committed plagiarism I don’t simply find what is there to be found. And when I see that there is a coal tit on the bird table I don’t simply see what is there to be seen. In all of these cases, success depends on seeing, grasping, finding what is not simply there. They all involve something akin to an act of judgment; and in the sense in which a judgement can be a success (i.e. we judge correctly) the judgement reflects (and must reflect) more than is simply “there”.


From: Tim Thornton
Sent: 14 March 2016 16:20
To: Peter Lucas 
Subject: RE: Travis on seeing-as

If I get time, I’ll see whether there’s a clear account of Travis’ official position of what seeing is / amounts to. I should know so I feel stupid. But he thinks that seeing affords subjects with things to think by putting them in direct contact with their surroundings. So seeing seems to involve a relation between the subject and the environment. Further, he doesn’t think that there is any conceptual content in the experiences one enjoys in seeing: the closest there is to that is actual worldly looks, the way say the Muller Lyer lines look different lengths, or the way Pia looks like her father, shares his looks. Content enters the picture in the judgements the subject makes. Where I am being dense today is that I don’t know whether someone seeing something is relation plus uptake or not. My problem is that if I saw the murderer but didn’t realise I had, the uptake / judgement I make isn’t how someone else would report my seeing and not recognising. So I’m not sure what limits there would have to be on a relation plus uptake / judgement model. (Too much uptake slips out of seeing and into the judgement of seeing-that.)

I suspect that ‘success’ was an unfortunate word for Travis. Factivity would have been better. He seems to gloss ‘success’ as factive: one cannot see what wasn’t there. That goes for me and the case of the murderer even if I don’t judge her to be a murderer. So ‘success’ seems wrong.

I’m not sure I follow your intuitions in the final para. It seems to me that what one knows was there to be known. (That’s the basis for Bernard Williams’ ‘absolute conception’.) Either simply seeing the coal tit (whether or not one knows what it is) or knowing that it’s a coal tit implies that it is a coal tit and hence that was a fact there to be known. I don’t think that that implies it’s easy. (If we now know there was a Higgs Boson at Cern...) My worry is that the opposite may be making things up.


From: Peter Lucas
Sent: 16 March 2016 15:42
To: Tim Thornton
Subject: For what they are worth...

…some musings on Philosophical Investigations paragraph 429:

Wittgenstein seems to be saying:
Talk of a harmony between thought and world comes to this: a belief (expectation etc.) may represent or misrepresent a state of affairs. Misrepresentation may be the more instructive case, since we are then not tempted to think that some individual element of the belief (etc.) must successfully represent some element of the state of affairs.

I see nothing to dispute in that, but what does it really tell us? Granting that misrepresentation does not depend (paradoxically) upon some kind of successful representation, let’s agree that:
Successful representation/misrepresentation depends on (1) successful reference and (2a) correct characterisation (in the case of truth) or (2b) incorrect characterisation (in the case of falsity).
Successful reference does not depend on any sort of representation (with a nod to Kripke).

Successful reference depends on the existence of the right sort of historical link between belief and object. The noun phrase “the red door” may successfully refer to the red door. The noun phrase “the blue door” may also successfully refer to the same red door (since the fact that the door in question has recently been repainted may be irrelevant provided the historical link is not thereby upset).

By contrast, correct characterisation depends on faithfully representing the object to which we have (successfully) referred. “The blue door is unlocked” is true just in case the item in question is unlocked. The item need not be a door and need not be blue. The elements of the noun phrase pick out but do not characterise the item in question in any significant way. It follows that successful characterisation is not a matter of simply picking out a simple or complex item as we might pick it out using a more or less complicated name or noun phrase. It matters that the door really is unlocked in a way that it does not matter whether it really is a door.

It also seems to me to follow that if we are to know that a state of affairs is successfully represented by a belief the state of affairs must be articulate in a manner that the referent of a noun phrase need not be. Of course, no weird metaphysical process takes place in the door when we switch from asserting that “the broken blue door is unlocked” to asserting that “the unlocked blue door is broken”. The door does not go from having an offhand relationship with its brokenness to having a studied relationship with its brokenness. Nevertheless the unlockedness of the door (first case) or the brokenness of the door (second case) must be evident in a manner that the blueness of the door need never be. Evidence in the relevant sense involves more than simply seeing (feeling etc.) the door and its properties. Simply seeing the blue door may be sufficient to establish a historical link for purposes of reference, but for it to be evident that the statement “the door is blue” is true we must be in a position to see that the door is indeed blue. (Merely noticing the blueness of the door will not do because it is quite compatible with failing to notice that the door is blue.)

Talking as if the state of affairs were itself a complicated sort of object would take us back to square one, so best avoided. But those who are committed to saying that we perceive/intuit states of affairs do not seem to me to be committed to saying that. Rather, their point is that the world does not consist primarily of objects but of states of affairs.


From: Tim Thornton
Sent: 16 March 2016 16:19
To: Peter Lucas 
Subject: RE: For what they are worth...

In passing...

I’m not sure that ‘The blue door is unlocked’ is true just in case the item in question is unlocked. The item need not be a door and need not be blue. I don’t know whether you are familiar with it (given your different philosophical tradition) but there’s a flow of papers from Russell’s account of definite descriptions, to Strawson, to Donnellan to Kripke. Donnellan says of a similar example that the speaker says something true but doesn’t say that the sentence itself is true. Kripke distinguishes what the speaker means by the phase and what the words mean. Without some further qualification, I think one would misinform someone if one simply said that Jones’ utterance of your sentence was true, if the door isn’t blue. The best is that they said of a particular object that it is unlocked where in the retelling, a different noun phrase has to be employed to pick out said object.

When it comes to seeing that (and the notion of evidence you begin to outline), I think we on safer ground if we say that every seeing-that is a judging. That’s why the state of affairs corresponding to the seeing-that has the right articulacy. It is as articulated as the judgement. It’s intensional. Seeing isn’t. (My cat sees Clark Kent if she sees Superman. She sees-that almost nothing.) Seeing-as is where we can then have a disagreement!


From: Peter Lucas
Sent: 17 March 2016 12:24
To: Tim Thornton 
Subject: RE: For what they are worth...

Back at yer…

Not sure we need worry too much about the first point. I would probably still try to argue it as a limit case but it can also serve to illustrate ways in which a statement can be true but potentially misleading.

On the second point: I guess I want to say that experiences can have the articulacy of a judgment. Not all seeing is intensional in the relevant way, evidently. However, some seeing is seeing-as, and seeing-as can be, in effect, seeing-that. Seeing-that is not judgement so much as evidence (in the relevant sense). An invitation to judgment?


From: Tim Thornton
Sent: 17 March 2016 12:52
To: Peter Lucas
Subject: RE: For what they are worth...

On experience: you’ll face some of the problems of the McDowell of Mind and World. If the content of experience has the articulacy of judgement and if judgement is the active exercise of concepts, presumably concepts are passively drawn on in experience (this is what McDowell says). But if so, which concepts? On the basis of an experience there seems to be a very great number of conceptual judgements I could make. Are all those concepts ‘in’ the experience? Or just a subset? If the latter, which? And is it the experience construed as a representation which is conceptually structured? Or the world so experienced?

The advantage of saying that seeing-that isn’t a perceptual verb but is a judgement (and so just names a judgement made on the basis of non-intensional seeing) is that one can answer the question of which concepts: the concepts actively selected for any particular judgement: all the judgements one takes oneself to be making. That move just seems safe to me. (Take the Muller Lyer lines: although one seems longer than the other I do not see-that one line is longer than the other. Perhaps I see one line as longer than the other. I’m happy to debate seeing-as.)


From: Peter Lucas
Sent: 17 March 2016 14:24
To: Tim Thornton
Subject: RE: For what they are worth...

I hoped you are not tired of running over and over this? I sometimes feel pretty dense. But then that also seems to happen to you.

I just re-read sections 32 and 33 of Being and Time. I guess I want to provisionally dig my heels in on the basis of what Heidegger says there – particularly in section 33. He portrays judgement as a derivative mode of understanding that fails to capture the richness of the experience that understands (in practice, various forms of experiencing-as and experiencing-that). The relative poverty of judgement is due to the fact that it is forced to operate with concepts. It would thus be no good (from his point of view) to ‘discover’ those concepts already in experience – the effect would be to impoverish experience to the same level. Of course it is only the concepts we deploy in judgement that we can explicitly list. But none of that shows that he is not right when he says that experience itself embodies primary understanding. (And, naturally, he does not think of such understanding as a matter of mental representation.) So, I will tactically shelter behind the big H and ask: what reasons do we have for thinking he is wrong? (Not purely a rhetorical question. I am genuinely concerned that he might be wrong. It is just that at the moment it seems more useful to say that I take myself to be hazarding – for better or worse - the kind of view that he sets out in the above.)

For Heidegger (though not of course for Wittgenstein) we see the table as a table, the door as a door. Seeing-as thus seems to be pervasive, and seems to go hand in hand with seeing-that. The standard Wittgensteinian cases would then be untypical: cases in which we see-as, but do not see-that (I see the duck-rabbit as a duck, but don’t see that it is a duck). Perhaps Heidegger would say that these are the sorts of cases in which we fall back on present-at-hand modes of understanding: our usual easy commerce with the world fails us and we have to employ the cumbersome procedures associated with judging that (which, as a derivative mode, must themselves have their foundation in non-atypical experiences of seeing-as – when e.g. we see the ruler as a ruler in preparing to measure the lines).


From: Tim Thornton
Sent: 17 March 2016 14:51
To: Peter Lucas <>
Subject: RE: For what they are worth...

No I never find trying to understand the basics again and again dull. Perhaps one day I will succeed.

I hear your comments about MH [Martin Heidegger] on the richness of experience through the lens of those who claim - like Peacocke - that experience has a content but a non-conceptual one. So there is a sizeable number of philosophers who hold this. I don’t know how they would answer the question I want to address to you and MH: if experience isn’t carved up into concepts on the model of a sentence / judgement, in what sense is it articulated? What do we mean by articulation outside something quasi-linguistic? ((The modern analytic philosophers would hold, unlike MH that experience is a representation. I don’t think that that changes much.))

It seems to me that the hunch about richness and the hunch about articulation pull in different directions. One might hold that experience is rich but not articul*ated* and then that judgement articulates it into poorer conceptual chunks.

You also connect seeing-as and seeing-that. So what of the Muller-Lyer case (I realise that hard cases make bad laws but...)? I would here say that we don’t see ‘that’ one line is longer than the other (we cannot because seeing that is factive) but I can imagine we might say we see it ‘as’ that.


From: Peter Lucas
Sent: 17 March 2016 16:11
To: Tim Thornton
Subject: RE: For what they are worth...

Well, MH would say that experience is articulated by the “existential-hermeneutical ‘as’” of circumspection (as opposed to the “apophantical ‘as’” of judgement). If attention then moves to what lies either side of this ‘as’, the richness comes from the fact that the existential-hermeneutical as reflects a totality of involvements which the apophantical as cannot capture. Admittedly, saying that (existential-hermeneutically) we see the hammer as a hammer doesn’t sound very rich or informative. But that’s because expressing it in that way reduces it to something indistinguishable from a judgement. The ‘as’ accounts for the articulacy, the totality of involvements accounts for the relative richness; thus, in practice, seeing the hammer as a hammer manages to be articulate, rich and informative.

(I suspect H’s point is closely related to the point he makes about “essence” in “On the Essence of Truth”: if we try to capture the essence of something by relating it to others of the same type we end up with something relatively impoverished (what all hammers have in common). Whereas if we capture it by reference to the (in the broadest sense) historical context (which includes but is not limited to its relations to others of the same type) we grasp something much richer.

I tried to deal with the Muller-Lyer case in the second paragraph of my last: perhaps in these untypical (for MH) cases of seeing-as, seeing-as and seeing-that do come apart (we see the duck-rabbit as a duck, but do not see that it is a duck). But then we must rely on seeing-as to arrive at our judgement-that (we need to see the ruler as a ruler if we are to measure the lines). Ordinarily seeing-as and seeing-that don’t come part.


From: Tim Thornton
Sent: 17 March 2016 17:34
To: Peter Lucas
Subject: Re: For what they are worth...

Hmm. I think I would need to suspend quite a lot of my own disbelief to buy into this. Two different sorts of articulacy with the crucial one being ineffable though in some sense related to an object’s history, but not the history as articulated in language or judgements. I take the point that there is always more to say or that could be said about a hammer but why isn’t that there waiting in the world for all my subsequent judgments. (The totality of the hammer’s relationships doesn’t have to be presented to me all at once.) Why does it have to be built into my non linguistically ‘articulated’ take on the world?

You say that that we need to see things as things to arrive at the judgment but I am not sure that the excursion into Heidegger has yet made that more than a shared assertion (of him and you). So, at present, I prefer the idea that what we mean by articulacy is what we can explain that word to mean clearly on the model of the conceptual articulacy of a sentence or judgement. For the other notion, if there is one, let’s use a different word so as not to get confused. I promise not to deny that experience is []{}#%^*.


From: Peter Lucas
Sent: 18 March 2016 09:55
To: Tim Thornton
Subject: RE: For what they are worth...

Well, as I say, that’s what Heidegger says…

Most of it follows directly from the idea (which is characteristic of the phenomenological tradition as a whole) that experience has its own proper articulacy, which language can only reflect in a partial and haphazard way. The point is not that there is always more to say, but that what is articulated in experience can only be roughly translated into language. What might be thus translated into language is, in a sense, all there “waiting in the world” – but of course what Heidegger means by world is the articulate world, not the inarticulate world of modern physicalism.

I think it would be more faithful to the text to say that Heidegger thinks that linguistic articulateness is in fact dependent on pre-linguistic articulateness. He is more interested in explaining how articulateness occurs than in asking how it is possible – the latter would be too Kantian for him, I think.

I suspect that the stand-off between us is likely to centre on the fact that you feel there is no meaningful philosophical work to be done in getting from the inarticulate world of physicalism to the articulacy of judgements about that world, whereas Heidegger (and, to the extent that I am interested in exploring his claims, I) think(s) that there is – that’s where the problem of being resides.


From: Tim Thornton
Sent: 18 March 2016 10:34
To: Peter Lucas
Subject: Re: For what they are worth...

Well I see that if we could grant that experience has its own form of non-linguistic articulacy other aspects of the story would follow. But that is my sticking point. I don’t know what to do with that idea. For that reason, I want simply to invert your sentence:

“The point is not that there is always more to say, but that what is articulated in experience can only be roughly translated into language.”

The points isn’t the gnomic second half. All that is correct is captured by the first part.

But I want to cry “Steady on old chap!” about the next thought:

“What might be thus translated into language is, in a sense, all there “waiting in the world” – but of course what Heidegger means by world is the articulate world, not the inarticulate world of modern physicalism.”

Is that you accusing me of subscribing to physicalism!?! I have just the same qualms about gnomic articulacy and just the same confidence in conceptual articulacy in aesthetics or morals as physics. My qualms aren’t about a prior metaphysical or scientistic assumption being made or not made. Rather they concern the idea that there is any sense of articulacy outside the conceptual or judgement. But the conceptual or judgement ranges much wider than physics (obviously!).

I suspect it’s hard to put what the standoff depends on. In one sense I do want to say that in any particular case of judgement linguistic articulateness is dependent on pre-linguistic articulateness in the sense that my cat was in the airing cupboard where I found her before I got home. My judgement answers to her prior location. The words in the utterance reflect the objects in the situation. But the way I describe that bit of worldly articulation is always going to be linguistic. (Pointing at the cat in the airing cupboard isn’t going to do it.) Where I differ is in a kind of transcendental view that the one sort of (conceptual) articulacy in general can be explained at all by anything extra-conceptual. Conceptual articulacy is where we start and finish.

“there is no meaningful philosophical work to be done in getting from the inarticulate world of physicalism to the articulacy of judgements about that world.”

Well that’s what the rule following considerations are about. There’s no good explanation. It’s again a primitive. But it does seem to call for philosophical reflection to get this right.


From: Tim Thornton
Sent: 18 March 2016 13:42
To: Peter Lucas
Subject: The harmony of thought and reality
Attachment: The harmony of thought and reality: Wittgenstein and Davidson versus McDowell


Further to recent conversations, this is the chapter I’ve been working on. It doesn’t have an ending yet (among other faults), but I thought you might be amused by its minimalism. Thought makes contact with reality only in language.


From: Peter Lucas
Sent: 23 March 2016 16:40
To: Tim Thornton
Subject: RE: The harmony of thought and reality

Thanks. I feel I am groping my way with a lot of this (my unfamiliarity with the material rather than your way of presenting it). It looks to me as if there are two types of harmony at issue here:

1. The particular harmony that might be said to obtain when on a disjunctivist view our beliefs manage to hit their target
2. The general harmony that obtains on a Davidsonian view as an inevitable consequence of the application of the principle of charity: we could not successfully individuate and attribute beliefs if we assumed that the believer was systematically out of touch with reality. (W’s view seems compatible with this.)

But I now think that issues with disjunctivism don’t have much to do with Heidegger. If I have understood correctly, disjunctivism models “harmony” on successful reference. It then seems a struggle to say what disharmony amounts to (what would a “false” belief refer to?). On the Davidson-inspired view the absence of general harmony seems unimaginable.

If I have read him right, Heidegger is much more interested in how objects are interpreted in experience. Successful interpretation of an object grasps it in its practical and historical context. (Seeing the bridge as a bridge.) We might also misinterpret the bridge by contextualising it wrongly (seeing it as wall, perhaps?) In both cases (successful interpretation, and misinterpretation) we succeed in seeing the bridge (so, this isn’t a disjunctivist view), and we have the “harmony” of successful reference. In the case of successful interpretation there is also the “harmony” of correctly understanding the relevant bit of the world (being in touch with reality). When we misunderstand there is a kind of disharmony (which nevertheless is compatible with still seeing the bridge.) Judgement is not required for experiential interpretation/misinterpretation. It comes on the scene later and endorses an interpretation (or misinterpretation) quasi-linguistically – though in doing so allowing much of the original content of the interpretation to slip through the net.

Though it seems to make your hair stand on end I am struggling to see what’s not to like in that. I can see that one might object to disjunctivism, and consequently object to the doctrine that experience itself is interpretive to the extent that it seems to entail disjunctivism. But if interpretive experience is modelled on seeing-as the problem doesn’t arise: one experiences the bridge, and either experiences it as it is or as it is not. When we experience the bridge as it is not we don’t fail to experience the bridge.


From: Tim Thornton
Sent: 23 March 2016 17:10
To: Peter Lucas
Subject: RE: The harmony of thought and reality

I’ll read and reply properly tomorrow (writing teaching slides now). Disjunctivism may have something to do with Heidegger. On McDowell’s view of it, in the good disjunct one takes in how things are. Not just successful reference but a successful glimpse of the facts. A direct relation to the things themselves.

(McDowell is criticised for not being a good enough disjunctivist because he thinks that experience has a representational content and this makes it seem to have the same content in good and bad disjunct and hence isn’t direct Heideggerian openness. I think these are good criticisms and recently McDowell has made things even worse by accepting that the content of the experience is the same in good and bad disjunct: what differs is the way it is had, its epistemic significance. But before he changed, he used to argue that having a content and being directly open to the world were consistent.)

In general, disjunctivism is taken to oppose a view that because experience is the same in veridical and non-veridical illusory cases, experience is never more than what is shared between the good and bad case. And hence - and McDowell used to be good on this - experience could never be sufficient for knowledge. So if the idea that experience is limited to what can be conceptually articulated seems a limitation (it doesn’t to McDowell but it does to you), I think one could be a non-McDowellian, disjunctivist where in the good disjunct, one is in direct perceptual contact with the world.

Finally summarised Travis though I’ll have to return to it when I’ve looked again at some other stuff.


From: Tim Thornton
Sent: 24 March 2016 14:45
To: Peter Lucas
Subject: RE: The harmony of thought and reality

I think that my qualm concerns the fact that I cannot grasp what the nature of the state is which you take for granted. If I follow at all, an experience is an interpretation in practical and historical ‘terms’ but at the same time it isn’t a judgement, which is an intellectual act downstream and one which loses lots of detail because it is cashed out in, say, linguistic conceptual terms. But the first use of ‘terms’ in that sentence (which of course is mine not yours) isn’t the right word because it would imply modelling on linguistic conceptual terms like the second, which is just what you resist. So what on earth is it? What is both an ‘interpretation’ but not a judgement?

I can see that there could be other things going on. A violinist might pick up bow and violin and make music in a way I couldn’t no matter how much I could judge that there was a bow and violin present. I can also imagine a claim that a kind of spectator judgement of the world might depend on prior practical interventions in it (there’s a reading of Wittgenstein’s private language argument which claims this). But neither of those seem ripe/right for the word ‘interpretation’.

One wouldn’t want to fall back on just gesturing at one’s surroundings and saying “well all this is an interpretation”. (Cf PI: 261: What reason have we for calling “S” the sign for a sensation? For “sensation” is a word of our common language. not of one intelligible to me alone. So the use of this word stands in need of a justification which everybody understands. -- And it would not help either to say that it need not be a sensation; that when he writes “S”, he has something -- and that is all that can be said. “Has” and “something” also belong to our common language. -- So in the end when one is doing philosophy one gets to the point where one would like just to emit an inarticulate sound. -- But such a sound is an expression only as it occurs in a particular language-game, which should now be described.)


From: Peter Lucas
Sent: 24 March 2016 17:04
To: Tim Thornton
Subject: RE: The harmony of thought and reality

I should probably just put my cards on the table then and say that, for me, Wittgenstein’s position only seems to make sense if there can be no such thing as private “seeming” (an experience in which something privately seems to one to be thus and so). But there are private “seemings”, and the dawning of an aspect exemplifies this very straightforwardly. If I suddenly see a face differently because I see its likeness to another face there is something that I see (there is some content to my experience) even though someone who (in a sense) sees exactly what I see (the face) might not see what I see (have an experience with the same content).

It might be that I can express what I see linguistically (e.g. the face now seems to me Churchillian). Or it may be that I can’t (I can say no more than that I see the likeness to another face, though I cannot put a name to it). Either way though, I see the face “interpretively”; and either way there is (it seems to me) no way of fully capturing what I see in language.

I suppose someone could say that what can’t find its way completely into language could not function as a reason for anything (e.g. describing the face as Churchillian). I would say that that flies in the face of everyday experience: we just do experience the world interpretively (aspects colour our experience, and dawn on us), such experiences provide reasons for judgements (“this face is Churchillian”), and language can capture the content of such experiences only incompletely (the experience would be different for a member of Churchill’s immediate family, though they might describe it in exactly the same way as I would). One of Heidegger’s best thoughts is that consciousness is not closed in on itself but amounts to openness to an (intelligible) world. I like to think that language is similar – “experience” is not restricted within the closed circuit of language, rather language enables us to express experiences that are originally articulated extra-linguistically.


From: Tim Thornton
Sent: 24 March 2016 17:39
To: Peter Lucas
Subject: RE: The harmony of thought and reality

Can you just give me a little bit more?

I can see a face which looks in some sense like Churchill’s, even if it is say that of a baby. So that’s fine. I see a likeness and subsume it under a concept. Seeing that = judging. Other faces, too, can look like him. Perhaps I see a face which only suddenly looks like Churchill in a particular orientation. Or perhaps I only suddenly notice the likeness. It is a baby after all. If so, at first I lack that interpretation of the scene but then I have it and can make that judgement. This is all fine and connects seeing to judgement. But only see-that. Non-perceptual seeing. (Of course, often I see-that as a result of seeing. But I needn’t look in the same place. Travis suggests I can see that meat has fallen on the rug by seeing the horror in Pia’s face, not seeing the meat at all.)

(There may be a sense of the word ‘Churchillian’ which doesn’t mean looking like Churchill? I assume you don’t mean figurative uses.)

But suppose I see a likeness of one face to some other face which I cannot name. You say I still see the face interpretively. Perhaps I could say: I have seen a face like this before. Perhaps I can say that it is likely that I will get the name later, it is on the tip of my tongue. Suppose that never happens. Is that still seeing that face under some specific interpretation? I incline to say not. One thought there was a past generality but it turns out not. One thought one had such an interpretation but one didn’t. Of course, I may now baptise that face a particular type: 5:35pm Thursday type, say. But whether that baptism has content depends on the way I am then able to compare and contrast it with others. (One way might be: faces which might be genetically related to it. Another: faces equally stern.) This would be like baptising a colour sample. Not so much seeing this sample interpretively but rather using this sample to set up future interpretations of found colours.

Perhaps what matters more to you isn’t the reasons and judgements that seem fine by me in the above examples but something more primitively experiential. Even when I see the duck aspect of the duck-rabbit I see that it is a picture of a rabbit too. I am able to make that judgement, on the basis of what I see, ie. visually. I think you think that seeing-as is ubiquitous but I don’t know whether you think that that visual experience is. (I think it makes no sense to say that an essentially contrastive experience is ubiquitous.) You say: we just do experience the world interpretively (aspects colour our experience, and dawn on us). But it isn’t obvious to me that that happens aside from the fact that we can make judgements that a picture looks like sheep, or a face like Churchill. And, to repeat, that is still within the conceptual. Churchill’s family may be able to make finer discriminations than us. But if so they are not restricted to just using the word Churchillian. They have other words too they can use on the basis of what they see. And they can coin concepts by saying “a nose shaped like that!”. Still that’s all conceptual.

The good bit in your final thought - as far as I’m concerned - is: consciousness is not closed in on itself but amounts to openness to an (intelligible) world. The bad bit is suggesting that you can say what is ‘intelligible’ brutely, extra-linguistically. By contrast I think that in, eg., seeing-as, it’s the ‘as’ that expresses what is intelligible. The ‘as’ is followed by a concept not an inarticulate grunt.


From: Peter Lucas 
Date: 24 March 2016 at 18:49:58 GMT
To: Tim Thornton 
Subject: RE: The harmony of thought and reality

Somewhat hastily…

If we say that all seeing-as involves subsumption under a concept I would say that concepts are not narrowly linguistic (the concept under which the family member sees the face is not the concept under which I see it, though we both use the same word). I’d be happier though conceding that concepts are essentially linguistic and saying that the interpretation that occurs in the dawning of an aspect is pre-conceptual: the concept imperfectly (and linguistically) expresses what experience grasps.

(Husserl gives the example of seeing a tool as a drill. One might not be able to put what one sees into words (the word will not come, or perhaps is not known), but that need not impede our seeing it as a drill.) Of course one would usually expect that someone who can successfully interpret what they see could perform the usual tricks with samples, paradigms etc. But on my account those tricks supervene on the basic ability to see and interpret, rather than making it possible. (What licences the attribution of the interpretation to someone else is another matter – but why fixate on that?)

On my view seeing-as is more or less ubiquitous. But that doesn’t rule out contrasts. When an aspect dawns it is usually the dawning of a new aspect – rather than the appearance of an aspect for the first time. Having said that, much of what Heidegger says about the present-at-hand is suggestive of the idea that what is merely present-at-hand is simply seen and not (or no longer) seen as anything. (The broken hammer is just a dumb bit of world-stuff) – untypical, but not impossible.

Of course, the “as” is usually followed by a concept rather than an inarticulate grunt, when we put it into words! But why assume that what cannot be put (completely) into words cannot be? LW notwithstanding, it just seems daft to me to say I cannot see something “as…” what I do not have a concept for – though naturally I won’t (usually) confidently attribute the ability to someone who doesn’t have the relevant concept. (That said, if they can pick the drill up and use it to make accurate holes I won’t really worry that they don’t know its name).

Will have to sign off now – might get back to it over the weekend or next week, but can’t be sure.


From: Tim Thornton
Sent: 1 April 13:02
To: Peter Lucas
Subject: RE: The harmony of thought and reality

I think my qualms in all this are as follows: a tension between 1 and 2.

1) The intuition that one ‘grasps’ more in experience than one can (hence imperfectly) put into words is something for which some therapy is needed. One cannot just dismiss it. McDowell’s suggestion is that one can create concepts via demonstratives to say: “that shade! is ...” This still seems a good idea to me (even if one thinks that they only play a role in active judgement). But in any case, there seems something right about the idea that experience is rich in some way that might create problems for those who think nothing is missed by sticking to what can be described. Pushing this thought is an emphasis on the passivity of experience. I cannot help but drink in a richness to experience (which *may* go beyond my language without, say, McD’s suggested trick). What I ‘grasp’ *may* be more than I can understand (again unless we’re happy with the trick). ((These days, as the Travisian I’ve become, I’d avoid all this talk. But I want to record a sympathy to it. Travis owes an account of richness and he does it by outsourcing it to the experienced world, not the experiencing.))

2) But, the idea that one sees something *as* something seems to me to pull the other way. This isn’t just passive but already some sort of making of sense of the scene. Two takes on this:
i) On McD’s trick I gain a concept by saying “this shade of colour” and hence I can express a fully conceptual judgement or thought: “I’ll paint my house this! shade (of red)”. But now, what do I achieve when I see the shade as something? The best is that I see this shade *as* this shade. I’m not sure that this does any work. Perhaps the first this picks out the particular and the second is a general concept extracted from the particular? I’m ill at ease in calling this a seeing-as, though, because the concept is defined by the particular.
ii) But I’m assuming that you’d prefer to think of my grasp as non-conceptual though still some sort of ‘grasp’. In that case whatever stands in for the thought ‘this shade’ is more like the shade itself, not my conceptual articulation of the shade. So now I passively stare at the shade and take it in as this! (Not even this shade.) And that seems even worse because there’s no chance of conceptual generality in play in the second ‘this’.

I could see the point of being Hanson and thinking that all seeing is seeing-as where what follows the ‘as’ is a concept. Or rejecting that and thinking that seeing is an experientially richer notion than concepts allow but thus reject the idea that seeing is seeing-as. But I’m baffled by trying to have it both ways.


From: Peter Lucas
Sent: 04 April 2016 12:24
To: Tim Thornton
Subject: Harmony etc.: having it both ways


I think what looks to you like trying to have it both ways stems from viewing all of this ultimately from a phenomenological standpoint.* For phenomenologists, the “object” of perception is never a simple particular. Whereas for Travis “seeing that” can only ever be a type of judgement (I “see that” I was mistaken, but do not literally see my mistake), for Husserl etc. I (literally) see that such and such is the case because what I see are not objects but states of affairs. For Husserl such states of affairs are not particulars but ineliminably involve universals: if I see that the door is red I do not simply see the door along with the particular shade that the door happens to be, I see the door (and a fortiori the shade) as being a shade of red. For Husserl, I could not possibly have this experience unless redness itself (the universal) featured in it directly.

Heidegger replaced Husserl’s notion that the states of affairs we see are articulated in terms of universals with the idea that they are articulated temporally or historically. To see that a hammer is a hammer is not so much to see it in terms of a universal “being-a-hammer” as to see it in terms of its history and possibilities (which include but are not limited to its relationships to other hammers). One might say then that whereas for Husserl we never simply see the particular but see the particular in terms of the universal, for Heidegger it is seeing the particular in terms of its history that gives the experience its articulacy and (restricted) universality. “Seeing” can still for Heidegger be a success term because the hammer really is a hammer. For the Heidegger of Being and Time, all of this is going on pre-linguistically. Informed linguistically-articulated judgements are only possible because experience itself is already articulate.

*Heidegger is still in key respects a phenomenologist, even in his critique of what Derrida terms the “metaphysics of presence”. Unlike Husserl, Heidegger regards presence as fundamentally historical (thus presence is always crucially dependent on what is not yet or no longer present).


From: Tim Thornton
Sent: 05 April 2016 09:27
To: Peter Lucas
Subject: RE: Harmony etc.: having it both ways

Interesting. It sounds to me as though Husserl subscribes to a view which Travis finds significant in a criticism of it in Wittgenstein’s Blue Book.

(a) The tendency to look for something in common to all the entities which we commonly subsume under a general term. . . . The idea of a general concept being a common property of its particular instances connects up with other primitive, too simple, ideas of the structure of language. It is comparable to the idea that properties are ingredients of things which have the properties; e.g., that beauty is an ingredient of all beautiful things as alcohol is of beer and wine. (Wittgenstein 1958: 17)

Travis stresses a difference between recognition meaning re-cognising the same individual and recognition as a kind of active judgement that something should count as something (like a court recognizing someone as having particular rights). Suddenly as I type this I’m less sure that I’m getting him right but let me try this. Whilst one can recognise in the first sense an individual or thing (that one has seen before), one can only recognise properties in the second sense. So, eg., if the property is being green, knowing the meaning of the word ‘green’ is not enough to know whether it would be correct to call leaves painted green ‘green’, or an object green on the outside but not the inside etc. One also needs to know the context and what it would be reasonable to say and think in that context. This is his occasion sensitivity (of the truth of judgements). Since in different contexts leaves painted green would and would not count as green (contrast film sets and biology class), there’s no property to be recognised in the first sense, no property as an ingredient of things.

Of course, that’s not to say Travis is right to claim this!

Still, if I follow, you’ve told me this as a way of reconciling what seem to me to be two contrasting intuitions: that experience is more fine grained or richer than (conceptual) judgement but that we see things as things. So I suppose that the universals are what dissolves the tension. If seeing the red door were a matter of just seeing that object and that particular instance of the shade, that wouldn’t be seeing it as something because there would be no hint of generality in the particular experience (?). But seeing the universals and in the experience counts as a form of seeing-as, as a variant on the Hanson / younger McDowell picture where the seeing-as is in linguistic concepts. So I assume that the universals are like the ontological shadows of concepts given to us by the world itself.

If so, I have two qualms. First, it seems hard to know what to make of the idea that the world divides itself up for us into generalities. How do its divisions relate to our linguistic conceptual divisions? How does a red door signpost all the other shades of red as the same universal? Or does it not? Does it only signpost that precise shade? If so, does the world take a view on whether shades are relative to lighting conditions or surface properties of things? Second, I know you don’t believe this because of your comments about taxonomy after my session on truth the other day. So I cannot have followed your intent here. (Ie invoking Husserl to shed light on dissolving my felt tension. If so, it should at least make sense.)


From: Peter Lucas
Sent: 05 April 2016 18:17
To: Tim Thornton
Subject: RE: Harmony etc.: having it both ways

Re. occasion sensitivity: I have to say that Travis’s point seems correct but fairly trivial – what one is looking for experience to confirm in a biology class and a film set will no doubt be different, but that does not seem to entail that on each occasion there is no specific universal feature that is looked for (nothing that counts as “being-green” in that context). It will not be an “ingredient” in the sense of a part though. The idea that beauty is an ingredient of beautiful things as alcohol is of beer and wine would be rejected by a Platonist, let alone Wittgenstein.

My suggestion is indeed that making universals objects of experience (rather than simply features of judgements) would dissolve the tension (between the idea that experience is richer in content than judgement, and the idea that seeing-as is ubiquitous). However, given where (on my view) the richness lies, it might be more accurate to say that concepts are the shadows of universals.

I agree that the above makes it sound as if the world itself divides itself up into generalities – and that is (a) incompatible with what I said about taxonomy, and (b) pretty implausible (some of Husserl’s remarks about essences seem hair-raisingly implausible). But that’s why I recommended progressing via Husserl to Heidegger. Husserl establishes the idea that universals are directly present in experience (and it is the task of phenomenology to isolate and map them). Heidegger develops the idea by insisting that the “essences” Husserl claims to identify are historical through and through – the world does not divide itself up into generalities, but nor are “essences” the nominal essences of empiricism (the effects rather than the bases of judgement). The essences we experience grow out of our historical commerce with the bearers of those universals - out of a variety of forms of life. There will no doubt be some dialectical interplay between language / judgement and experience (since our commerce with the bearers of essences will be partly linguistic). But the centre of gravity of Heidegger’s attempt to read knowledge and truth back into forms of life ultimately lies in an appeal to experience and historical activity rather than to a set of linguistic practices.