Wednesday 30 November 2016

Philosophical minimalism and idealism in Peter Zachar’s ‘A Metaphysics of Psychopathology’

Although Peter Zachar’s book is called a ‘metaphysics of psychopathology’ its focus is, in fact, broader in two respects [Zachar 2014]. First, it outlines an approach to metaphysical concepts in general, outside psychopathology. Second, the approach to be taken to metaphysics – which following William James, Zachar labels both ‘scientific pragmatism’ and ‘radical empiricism’ – reflects a broader approach to philosophical method. The method dovetails with substantial metaphysical claims about the connection between reality and experience. It is not antithetical to advancing metaphysical claims but takes such claims to be advanced within the boundaries of experience rather than attempting to gesture to a reality without them.

[T]he pragmatism that I explicate in this book is concerned with nitty-gritty issues in the scientific disciplines. Based largely on the pragmatism of William James, scientifically inspired pragmatism has no a priori commitments that oblige it to take a side in metaphysical debates such as those between scientific realists and antirealists. Neither does it deny the value of the substantive philosophical distinctions (such as appearance versus reality or subject versus object) that are explored in such debates. [ibid: 25]

Radical empiricism is a view proposed by William James that asserts that experience rests on nothing outside of itself (i.e., neither behind nor beyond all experience). The metaphysical distinctions that we make in order to see how things hang together (such as subjective versus objective) are made using the resources available to experience. [ibid: 239]

Radical empiricism is a theory about the sufficiency of experience for making metaphysical claims. [ibid: 52]

As well as this general claim about the experiential limits of metaphysical distinctions, two other ideas play an important role in the machinery of the book. One is Arthur Fine’s deflationary approach to debates between scientific realists and anti-realists in the philosophy of the physical sciences. Fine argues that both realists and anti-realists accept a common core. Both sides accept the truth claims made by scientists which Fine calls the ‘natural ontological attitude’. But then both interpret these in additional metaphysical terms.

Anti-realists provide a reinterpretation of truth. This might be a social constructionist account of scientific practice. Or it might be the claim that the truth of a belief consists in its coherence with other beliefs. Such modifications re-interpret the common core. Fine’s characterisation of what a realist adds to the common core is simpler: ‘what the realist adds on is a desk-thumping, foot-stamping shout of “Really!”’. The reason for this is that:

The realist, as it were, tries to stand outside the arena watching the ongoing game [of science] and then tries to judge (from this external point of view) what the point is. It is, he says, about some area external to the game. The realist, I think, is fooling himself. For he cannot (really!) stand outside the arena, nor can he survey some area off the playing field and mark it out as what the game is about.’ [Fine 1986: 131]

Zachar summarises the realist side of this disagreement thus:

What then is the difference between scientific realists and antirealists? What is the contrast between these two philosophical positions if it is not about what scientific statements are true? According to Fine, the key contrast between the scientific realist and the antirealist is that along with the various considerations that are relevant in accepting as true a statement such as “bipolar disorder has a genetic component,” a scientific realist wants, in addition, to assert some special relationship called correspondence to reality. For example, in addition to accepting all the reasons for agreeing that bipolar disorder has a genetic component, the scientific realist stomps his foot and shouts out—“Bipolar disorder really does run in families, really!” [Zachar 2014:51]

A third element of the framework is what Zachar calls ‘instrumental nominalism’.

If we were to specify what all true statements have in common, the result—called the universal essence of Truth—should be fully present in every possible true statement. Nominalists reject such universals and attend instead to the variability and plurality that exist within concepts such as truth... Instrumental nominalism is the view that abstract metaphysical concepts (which are best defined in terms of contrasts such as subjective versus objective) can be allowed as long as we are clear on the purpose for making the distinction. [ibid: 238]

Zachar uses instrumental nominalism as a means of avoiding hasty essentialist thinking. It fits with the idea that metaphysical distinctions should be tied to experience. For example, although he commends Wakefield’s harmful dysfunction analysis of psychiatric as a ‘parsimonious, elegant, and useful’ his key criticism is that it goes beyond possible experience.

Horwitz and Wakefield use a conceptual analysis of what we should and should not be expected to do to identify what lies within our biologically designed, naturally selected range of behaviors. According to them, talking to family members without intense anxiety lies in this range, but handling snakes without intense anxiety does not. Only psychiatric symptoms that interfere with what we should naturally be expected to do are to be considered objective dysfunctions. In this analysis the distinction between disordered and normal is being made not by discovering an objective dysfunction but by intuition. The HD analysis cannot, therefore, be reliably used to do what it was proposed to do—factually demarcate valid psychiatric disorders from the larger class of problems in living.

The objection is not that the analysis is false or incoherent. Rather, the appeal to biological dysfunctions to underpin a notion disorder inverts actual explanatory priority. Intuitions about what is and is not a disorder drive judgements about selective history rather than the other way round. So the objection is that the model is a gratuitous metaphysical explanation which goes beyond clinical experience.

Zachar adopts a similarly anti-essentialist view of psychiatric taxonomy in general. Rather than assuming that there must be a common essence behind diagnostic categories, he suggests that the actual pattern of overlapping similarities and differences exhausts the facts of the matter. And hence he commends an ‘imperfect community’ model of kinds rather than an explanation of kind which dig beneath the clinical surface. A similar approach guides the detailed discussion of particular diagnoistic categories.

I think that this is an admirable approach to the philosophy of psychiatry. Explanatory minimalism is a hygienic approach to the insight philosophy can provide into other disciplines. In the next section I will outline a different route to the same metaphilosophical approach: Wittgensteinian philosophy. It can seem, however, that it falls prey to an accusation of idealism. I will argue that it need not but then return, in the final section, to ask whether the same is true of Zachar’s account.

Wittgensteinian anti-explanatory minimalism

In an early passage in the Investigations Wittgenstein suggests that a failure to pay attention to the details of language and practice is not simply the result of carelessness:

If I am inclined to suppose that a mouse has come into being by spontaneous generation out of grey rags and dust, I shall do well to examine those rags very closely to see how a mouse may have hidden in them, how it may have got there and so on. But if I am convinced that a mouse cannot come into being from these things, then this investigation will perhaps be superfluous. But first we must learn to understand what it is that opposes such an examination of details in philosophy. [§52]

Philosophical theory may lead one to ignore practical details because of a prior belief that they cannot be relevant. But, the suggestion goes, the details might contain just what was needed to resolve one’s philosophical difficulty.

Cora Diamond provides an extended discussion of Wittgenstein’s meta-philosophy which includes an interpretation of this passage [Diamond 1991]. She suggests, following a gnomic comment from Wittgenstein, that the tendency to be blinded to important details by philosophical theory is a mark of philosophical realism. This is a surprising remark because, in philosophical debates about the reality of the past, or distant spatio-temporal points, or mathematics, realism is usually thought of as the non-revisionary position, the position which most fits everyday language. Nevertheless, realism fails to be realistic when it goes beyond the everyday phenomena and instead attempts to explain them by postulating underlying processes or mechanisms. Diamond suggests that the central ambition of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is to be realistic whilst eschewing both, on the one hand realism and, on the other, empiricism.

Diamond uses two examples from outside Wittgensteinian philosophy to clarify the distinction between realist and realistic philosophy. One is Berkeley’s discussion of matter in his Three Dialogues. Hylas, the philosophical realist, argues that the distinction between real things and chimeras - mere hallucinations or imaginings - must consist in a fact which goes beyond all experience or perception. For this reason, philosophy has to invoke the philosophical concept of matter to explain the difference. The presence or absence of matter is beyond direct perception or experience, although perception can provide evidence of its presence or absence. This however presents Philonous, who speaks on behalf of a realistic approach, with an opening for a criticism. Because of its independence from perception, matter cannot explain the distinctions that we actually draw between reality and chimeras. But nor, given our actual practices of drawing a distinction, is such a further philosophical explanation necessary. The practical or epistemological distinctions which Hylas can rely on are also available to Philonous without commitment to the philosophical account of matter. The mouse, in this case, is the distinction and the rags, which Hylas is convinced cannot explain the distinction, are the practical distinctions actually made.

The second example concerns a more recent case of philosophical realism. The distinction here is that between laws of nature and merely accidentally true generalisations. Peirce argues that this distinction must consist in the presence or absence of active general principles in nature. These can be used to explain the reliability of predictions based on laws. But:

The reply of a realistic spirit is that an active general principle is so much gas unless you say how you tell that you have got one; and if you give any method, it will be a method which anyone can use to distinguish laws from accidental uniformities without having to decorate the method with the phrase “active general principle”. Peirce of course knows that there are such methods, but assumes that his mouse - properly causal regularity - cannot conceivably come into being from the rags: patterns of observed regularities. [Diamond 1991: 48]

In both these cases, realist explanation is rejected. This rejection does not depend on nominalist scruple, however. Diamond suggests that closer attention shows that realist explanations are wheels that can be turned although nothing else moves with them. They cannot serve as explanations of what the pre-philosophical difference in either case really comprises since their presence or absence is not connected to the practices which they were supposed to explain. Their presence or absence could make no difference.

There is, however, an obvious objection which needs to be countered. The problem is that an opposition to philosophical realism might be thought to comprise a form of idealism, anti-realism or, more relevantly in this case, social constructivism. Here is the general danger.

Diamond’s account of the realistic spirit has idealist connotations for two reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, she selects Berkeley to illustrate a realistic approach to philosophy. Despite Berkeley’s own claims to the contrary, his opposition to matter is not simply a rejection of one philosophical explanatory theory which leaves everything else, including our normal views of the world, unchanged. Instead, he advocates a revisionary idealist metaphysics. Secondly, Diamond characterises Peirce’s account of active principles as a ‘belief in a connection supposed to be real, in the sense of independent of our thought, and for which the supposed regularity is evidence’ [ibid: 50]. This suggests that the object of Diamond’s criticism is the mind-independence of Peirce’s conception of active principles. In both cases the examples of a realistic opposition to philosophical realism appear to support a form of idealism.

Whilst Diamond’s account may encourage an idealist interpretation, idealism is not a necessary ingredient of Wittgenstein’s opposition to philosophical realism. What matters in both these cases, if they are to illustrate philosophical minimalism, is the opposition to realist explanations. But anti-realist or idealist explanations are just as much to be rejected. Wittgensteinian minimalism opposes speculative metaphysical explanation and only thus realism (or anti-realism). I will clarify this by examining one further passage from Diamond’s account.

This is how Diamond characterises the realist account of matter which should be rejected as unrealistic:

For Hylas, real existence is existence distinct from and without any relation to being perceived; and so if the horse we see (in contrast to the one we merely imagine) is real, it is because its sensible appearance to us is caused by qualities inhering in a material body, which has an absolute existence independent of our own. The judgment that the horse is real and not imaginary, not a hallucination, is thus a hypothesis going beyond anything we might be aware of by our senses, though indeed it is clear on Hylas’s view that we must use the evidence of our senses in trying to tell what is real. Still, it is not what we actually see or hear or touch that we are ultimately concerned with in such judgments; and this because however things appear to us, it is quite another matter how they are. [ibid: 47]

This passage contains two characterisations of what it is for something to be real rather than imaginary. One is the claim that reality has ‘an absolute existence independent of our own’. The other is that reality goes ‘beyond anything we might be aware of by our senses’. It is ‘not what we actually see or hear or touch’ and ‘however things appear to us, it is quite another matter how they are’. Ignoring for the moment the qualification ‘absolute’, denying that reality has an existence independent of our own - the first characterisation - would amount to idealism. By contrast, the second characterisation goes beyond an everyday affirmation of the mind independence of the real. It presupposes a philosophically charged and revisionary account of perception in which reality always lies beyond our senses. Thus its rejection is merely the rejection of a philosophical explanatory theory and not itself a piece of revision.

Thus a minimalist or realistic criticism of philosophical realism need not succumb to the criticism that it confuses epistemology and ontology. The rejection of realist explanations of the distinction between real things and illusions or between causal laws and accidentally true generalisations does not imply that these distinctions are constituted by the discriminations we make, by their epistemology. On the other hand, the distinctions are not matters which lie beyond our ways of detecting them. They are not independent of our practices in that complete and absolute sense. (If this is what Diamond means by denying absolute independence, then neither rejection is tainted with idealism or constructivism.)

Does Zachar’s pragmatism slight the independence of reality?

In the previous section, I suggested that Cora Diamond’s account of Wittgenstein’s support of a realistic spirit by contrast with realism can seem to undermine the independence of reality but should instead be construed as a rejection of explanations which go beyond the distinctions made in practice. My purpose in juxtaposing Diamond’s account of Wittgenstein with Peter Zachar’s framework of ideas is to highlight two similarities. First the similarity in minimalism with respect to philosophical explanations. But second, the danger that the resulting account may seem, at least, to slight the independence of reality. Does Zachar also escape that charge?

It is clear that one central aim of the book is to avoid such a charge. The first chapter describes the so called ‘science wars’: sociological accounts which may or may not have a debunking relation to scientific claims. On one view, accounts of the resolution of natural scientific disputes offered in sociological terms imply that physical nature itself is socially constructed. Zachar suggests offers a less metaphysically charged rapprochement:

One important realization on the part of some Science Wars participants was that an analysis of metaphysical terms such as “reality” and “objectivity”—terms that are used to theorize about scientific theories—can be critical without being motivated by an underlying hostility to the truth claims of scientists. [ibid: 11]

Hence later, when discussing whether his suggestion that distinctions should be framed within experience and hence forms of realism that go beyond such experiential limits trap subjects within experience, he connects his nuanced view back to his account of the science wars.

Does radical empiricism of this sort imply that we are trapped within our own experience along the lines of a philosophical idealism? If so, then we are back to the debates of the Science Wars and the claim that nature is constructed by us, not discovered. According to the radical empiricist, however, we are not “trapped” in experience, and making distinctions such as objective versus subjective or real versus imaginary helps us to understand why. [ibid: 34]

On the other hand, some remarks do seem to slight reality. For example, when discussing facts he draws a distinction – within the experiential realm – between fact and fiction. But he then goes on to say something more obviously metaphysically charged.

What Holmes said to Watson the morning after they dispatched Colonel Sebastian Moran was never a fact, but what Conan Doyle ate and drank on the day he finished The Adventure of the Empty House was a fact once, although it is likely no longer even a potential fact because it is not publically ascertainable. That information has been lost. [ibid: 109]

But the latter remark does seem to be revisionary: a form of anti-realism about the past rather than a natural ontological attitude. (One way to test intuitions on this is to ask whether bivalence applies such that despite no present evidence either way still Doyle did or did not eat breakfast that day.) It is one thing to stress the experiential realm when examining philosophical distinctions. It is quite another to limit reality to what is currently experientially – directly or via evidence - accessible.

I think it is unclear whether Zachar successfully treads the fine line between explanatory minimalism and idealism. Take the following example of Zachar’s commendation of a coherence theory of truth:

In philosophical terms, radical empiricism advocates for a version of the coherence theory of truth. One of the ideas behind a coherence theory is that what we consider to be true beliefs are important in evaluating new beliefs whose truth is not yet assured. New propositions that seem to readily cohere with what we already believe are going to be accepted more easily than propositions that contradict currently accepted knowledge... Correspondence theories sometimes give the impression that in knowing what is really there we get beyond evidence and experience. Coherence, in contrast, works from within experience. [ibid: 36-7]

The contrast case with correspondence suggests that a theory of truth is in the business of saying what truth is: ontology rather than epistemology. But the account of coherence concerns ‘what we consider to be true beliefs’ or what is ‘going to be accepted more easily’: epistemology rather than ontology. Putting the two together suggests a shotgun wedding of what is independent of and what dependent on human judgement.

Facts, objectivity and the experiential limits of pragmatic philosophy seem to be at the heart of the venture. But avoiding both metaphysical and excess and a shotgun wedding is tricky. Consider this passage on the notion of what is objective:

The metaphysical concept of the objective, however, is a useful tool for understanding experiences of resistance to preference. The concept of the objective is partly inspired by and reappears with the recurrence of such experiences in one or more members of a community, but it is not constituted by them. Whenever people start talking seriously about the objectivity of such things as the Copernican model, the Apollo moon walks, or global warming, the notion that someone’s preferences are being resisted is not far away. The resistance to what we prefer is not The Objective in an elaborate metaphysical sense. Metaphysical elaborations go beyond their experiential bases, but nevertheless, taking account of those experiences is useful for bringing the lofty concepts down to earth. Something important occurs when the world is not the way we want it to be, but that is a very minimal, even deflated, notion of the objective—one that does not require getting outside of experience. [ibid: 109]

My worry about this passage is that it starts with a notion which is connected to ‘the objective’ which is that one may wish certain beliefs not to be true and yet nevertheless they are true. This alone does not constitute what we mean by objectivity. It is ‘a very minimal, even deflated, notion of the objective’ although it is not ‘far away’ from it. But then the only hint at what would constitute it is ‘The Objective in an elaborate metaphysical sense’ which isn’t something that Zachar is prepared to set out for the reader. So what is the sense of objective ‘that does not require getting outside of experience’? This passage seems to contrast what it admits to be an inadequate account of objectivity with something that is merely beyond the pale according to the metaphilosophical framework of the book.

The same sort of problem occurs in trying to set out how a diachronic approach can balance the aim of remaining with the experiential with a satisfactory account of mind-intendent objectivity:

What about the notion that truths about the world are true independent of what we believe about them, and therefore reality is more than what we experience it to be? Is this something that the radical empiricist cannot account for? No—it cannot be that either. Events from the history of science work well here… Taking a historical perspective allows us to see that our past experience was limited. We can reasonably infer that future generations, with their advanced learning, will see the ways in which our current experience is limited. Reality is one of the names we give to what lies outside those limits, but that naming occurs within experience as a result of experience. [ibid: 36]

The significant phrase is ‘Reality is one of the names we give to what lies outside those limits’. Who are ‘we’? Zachar may mean realist philosophers who mistakenly or pragmatically unhelpfully do not accept the metaphilosophical framework of the book. If so, assuming the truth or pragmatic success of the framework, then that attempt to name what belongs beyond the milts of experience must fail. If, on the other hand, ‘we’ refers to ordinary non-philosophers, there must be some success in this naming. But what, according to radical empiricism, can be named beyond the limits of experience? And if nothing can, how can the inchoate thought that experience can mislead – which is surely what gives this passage its drama - be captured even given a diachronic perspective?

Later he says that:

One can accept this historically informed inference without imagining a getting beyond the veil of ideas. [ibid: 103]

This picks up a repeated theme that it is tempting to think that we are ‘trapped’ within a veil of ideas or experience or beliefs. For example:

The chapter ends with an accounting of the extent to which everyone has to rely on communities and recognized experts to know what to accept and how this psychological fact raises the worry that we are all trapped, not so much behind a veil of ideas but within the boundaries of our chosen community’s beliefs. [ibid: 19 italics added]

The modern dilemma is not that we are trapped behind a veil of ideas and locked into our own subjectivity to such an extent that the objective world is in continual doubt. [97 italics added]

It is important to be cautious about taking the veil of ideas metaphor too literally. For a radical empiricist experience is not a veil of distortion that needs getting beyond. According to such an empiricist we can justify making distinctions between subject versus object and appearance versus reality, but those distinctions are made within experience. [ibid: 102 italics added]

Something important occurs when the world is not the way we want it to be, but that is a very minimal, even deflated, notion of the objective—one that does not require getting outside of experience. [ibid: 109]

In each case, Zachar suggests that it is misleading to think that we are so trapped. But it is not clear to me that he offers enough of a diagnosis of why – despite the temptation to think that we are – we are not. For example, the injunction that it ‘is important to be cautious about taking the veil of ideas metaphor too literally’ suggests that it should be afforded some insight into human predicament, that there is some sort of veil blocking our view of reality. Moving the concern from a Cartesian solitary veil of ideas to a communal set of beliefs does not seem enough of a transformation to yield philosophical ease. Given that Zachar’s key idea is to draw distinctions only within the experiential the realm the worry that the experiential real somehow entraps human subjects blocking knowledgeable access to reality surely needs more philosophical diagnosis.

Furthermore, it is not that there are not diagnostic accounts to ease this intellectual cramp. The most familiar is disjunctivism. It holds that there is more to experience than what is common between veridical and illusory experience. When all goes well, what one experiences is the layout of the world. So when all goes well, there is no veil, simply direct access to objective reality. This is not to say that disjunctivism is both without difficulties or the only game in town. But it would be one way in which to begin to think through the issues raised by the very use of words such as ‘trapped’ or ‘veil of ideas’. The package of ideas of which they form a part is mortal poison to Zachar’s commendable philosophical minimalism.


Diamond, C. (1991) The Realistic Spirit: Wittgenstein, philosophy and the mind, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Fine, A. (1986) ‘The natural ontological attitude’ in The Shaky Game, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press: 112-135

Wittgenstein, L. (1953) Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Blackwell.

Zachar, P. (2014) A Metaphysics of Psychopathology, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press