Friday 19 May 2017

Language and the first-person perspective

On Wednesday, May 31st 2017

At: The Collaborating Centre for Values-Based Practice, St Catherine’s College University of Oxford, Manor Road OX 1 3UJ.

This one-day Advanced Seminar examines the theme of language and the first-person perspective from a number of disciplinary perspectives, with a particular focus upon the significance of these debates for people with people with mental health conditions. The seminar is the third annual meeting of the Values-Based Theory Network hosted by the St Catherine Collaborating Centre for Values-Based Practice, in collaboration with Manchester Metropolitan University.

How does it feel to be you acting in the world through the use of language or actively entertaining your own cognitions? And what happens when such a feeling is disrupted, ascribed to you by someone else or conferred upon something else?

Our experience of the surrounding world and of our own selves in thought and language is tightly linked to the first-personal sense of agency. As such, its loss, disruption or misattribution can severely affect all aspects of our conscious life. How we describe the experiences of mental illness also goes hand-in-hand with dignity and respect, and thus something that everyone working in mental health contexts needs to think carefully about.
In bringing together philosophers, psychologists, linguists and lay representatives, the Advanced Seminar strategically responds to the BSA (2015) Guidelines on the use of language in relation to functional psychiatric diagnosis platform statement that the profession needs to move towards a system which is no longer based on a ‘disease’ model, yielding public affirmation of the large and growing emerging evidence that experiences hitherto described in functional diagnostic terms may be better understood in psychosocial terms.

Our aim is to open up a co-creative multi-disciplinary dialogue between practitioners, academics and lay representatives about the ways we might think and argue differently about the benefit of re-appraising the first-person standpoint in understanding the experience of mental illness and self-knowledge through the use of language, with a view to identify creative techniques for patient empowerment, education and clinical treatment, in shaping future direction of the research and innovation collaboration.
Confirmed speakers:

Anna Bergqvist (Philosophy, Manchester Metropolitan University).
Eleanor Chatburn (Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford).
David Crepaz-Keay (Head of Empowerment and Social Inclusion, Mental Health Foundation).
Edward Harcourt (Philosophy, University of Oxford).
Veryan Richards (Lay participant and patient/carer representative, Royal College of Psychiatrists/The Collaborating Centre for Values-Based Practice).
Léa Salje (Philosophy, University of Leeds).
Elena Semino (Linguistics, Lancaster) and Zsófia Demjén (Linguistics, UCL).
Tim Thornton (Philosophy and Mental Health, University of Central Lancashire).

Contact and registration: Dr Anna Bergqvist. Email:


Wednesday 3 May 2017

An introduction to Wittgenstein on the agreement or harmony between thought and reality

I was lucky enough to be invited to talk to my local U3A philosophy group on Wittgenstein today. Sadly I made the schoolboy error of trying to cover too much and so didn't let discussion develop properly and fully. Many years ago, I was able to spend a weekend introducing Wittgenstein at an adult education centre. A whole weekend, with time for discussion over a coffee or beer, may have contributed to my foolish thoughts about timing today. Anyway, here is a prose introduction to Wittgenstein on the harmony of thought and reality.
Background: what are propositional attitudes?
Propositional attitudes are mental states about things, states of affairs, events etc.
Suppose I am in my office in Preston and am asked where my cat is likely to be. I say, and think, Sootica is in the airing cupboard in my house in Kendal. So I have a thought or belief that Sootica is in the airing cupboard in my house in Kendal.
We can generate other examples of different kinds of thoughts. If asked where she will be later I can say, and think, I expect that she will be waiting by the door in Kendal when I get home. Or if asked where I last saw her I might say: I remember that she was waiting for a third breakfast by her bowl.
All of these cases are ‘propositional attitudes’, a posh phrase for a mental state about something, some state of affairs or possible fact.
Attitudes are expressed by verbs such as believe, hope, expect, fear, remember.
Propositions are express by the phrase after the word ‘that’ which describes a possible fact. Hence various propositional attitudes given by different attitudes taken towards different propositions.
·         I expect that Sootica will be waiting by the door in Kendal when I get home.
·         I believe that Sootica is in the airing cupboard in my house in Kendal.
·         I remember that Sootica was waiting for a third breakfast by her bowl.
The problem
If I am in Preston and I believe that Sootica is in the airing cupboard in my house in Kendal then I am in a mental state in Preston which concerns a possible state of affairs in Kendal. My mental state is about that possible fact. It represents it. It concerns her and the cupboard and her being in it.
What could such a mental state possibly consist in? How is it – so much as - possible to be in such a mental state? What is such aboutness? (In philosophy, the technical word for this is ‘intentionality’.)
What the problem isn’t
This isn’t the question of how one can be justified in thinking such a thing. Perhaps experience or others’ testimony is an answer to that. Nor is it a question of why one believes or expects something. Perhaps after a run of heads it is natural to expect the next coin toss is more likely to be tails. That is irrational but a natural expectation. Still that isn’t the problem. The problem is how one thinks it.
So not: what justifies the belief that Sootica is in the cupboard, nor why does one think it, but what sort of state is that?
There are many relational states but none seems right for explaining aboutness (in the way my thought is about Sootica). It is not, for example, a state of ‘being on top of’ (as a cat on a mat). Nor is it a state of ‘being 50 miles from’ (as Preston is from Kendal, that doesn’t make Preston about Kendal). Nor does it seem to be a state of ‘being caused by’. The airing cupboard temperature may be warmer because Sootica is in there breathing. Or she may be there because it is warmer than the house. But neither of those causes is ‘about’ Sootica being in the cupboard. So the attempt to shed light on how a mental state can be about something is not helped by most of the familiar relations that hold between things.
The aim of answering this is not armchair biology but rather to find a way that such a state doesn’t seem utterly mysterious and impossible.
Two possible solutions sadly fail
1: Thoughts as pictures
Perhaps having a mental state about something is explained by having a mental picture of that state of affairs? In other words, since pictures are familiar and unmysterious, we can use them to shed light on belief and other propositional attitudes.
What’s good about this suggestion?
Pictures are both about, but also independent of, what they depict. A picture can be of Sootica in the airing cupboard and it can still exist even if she is not in the cupboard. (Obviously!) So if a thought is a picture then that may explain how thought can be both about but also independent of what it concerns. In other words, it can be true or false, as thought obviously can be. (Similarly, an expectation can come true or not.)
What’s bad?
But a picture is utterly unlike what it depicts. It only represents it to someone who understands its rules of projection. A two dimensional picture only represents a three dimensional cat in a cupboard given the right rules of projection.
Now one may try to fix this problem by saying that thought is explained as having both a mental picture and a grasp of its rules of projection.
But if we take seriously the idea that thought is explained by pictures, thinking about the rules of projection (understanding them) will also have to be a matter of having a mental picture of them.
Perhaps we have a mental picture which is modelled on the following possible actual picture. A picture of both a real cat and also a person painting a picture of a cat with dotted lines connecting the former to the latter. (Such a picture might be in a book on the history of perspective in art.) The problem is that this too is a picture (of a cat and a picture of a cat) and it will only be understood by someone who understands its rules of projection.
So begins an infinite regress (when one calls for a picture of a picture of a picture of a cat…)
Thus thoughts cannot consist of pictures. We can explain pictures by invoking thoughts of what they are about but not the other way round. Even those people who ‘think in pictures’ think either about pictures or have pictures in their minds when also thinking. But pictures cannot explain thoughts.
2: Thoughts as (sort-of) perceptions
When I see (by contrast with think about from afar) that Sootica is in her cupboard, I am in a complicated state that involves me, Sootica, the cupboard and me being awake and alert to this fact. It is a relational state. Sootica herself is part of me seeing her. Seeing is not merely an inner event. I cannot see what is not there (evidence might be given in court to show I could not have seen the suspect, eg. Even if I thought I saw her if she was not there). Of course, I can think I see things that are not there but let’s focus on actual seeing. Could believing be a matter of sort-of-seeing, in some spooky way at a distance?
What’s good about this suggestion?
Because seeing is a relational state that involves, in this case, Sootica herself, that explains how my state of seeing can be about Sootica. She is part of the state. It would not count as a case of my seeing Sootica if she were not about to be seen. So unlike the picture explanation, this solves the problem of how propositional attitudes can be about actual states of affairs.
What’s bad?
But what happens if unbeknownst to me in Preston, Sootica isn’t in the cupboard in Kendal? If so, there isn’t a fact for me to sort-of-see. If my belief (that she is in the cupboard) is false, there isn’t a fact to explain what it is for me to have the belief (namely to sort-of-see, in a spooky way, from 50 miles distance, her in the cupboard).
Roughly: the picture explanation solves for false thought but not true thought and the sort-of-seeing theory solves for true thought but not false thought.
Are there any other accounts?
(One might say that computers and the web has aboutness. A Google inquiry yields truths about the world. But the inquiry yields patterns on screens which we interpret as about the world. In the background, much software and hardware engineering ensures ultimately through physics that the right patterns are displayed on the screen for a given use of the keyboard.)
Wittgenstein’s attempt to ease the tension
The above dilemma plays out in this passage:
442. I see someone aiming a gun and say “I expect a bang”. The shot is fired. - What! – was that what you expected? So did that bang somehow already exist in your expectation? Or is it just that your expectation agrees in some other respect with what occurred; that that noise was not contained in your expectation, and merely supervened as an accidental property when the expectation was being fulfilled? a But no, if the noise had not occurred, my expectation would not have been fulfilled; the noise fulfilled it; it was not an accompaniment of the fulfilment like a second guest accompanying the one I expected. Was the feature of the event that was not also in the expectation something accidental, an extra provided by fate? – But then, what was not an extra? Did something of the shot already occur in my expectation? –
Then what was extra? for wasn’t I expecting the whole shot.
“The bang was not as loud as I had expected.” – “Then was there a louder bang in your expectation?”
It seems that the actual event in the future, in all its later detail, cannot actually exist earlier in my mental state (I could not sort-of-see it in the future). And yet: that bang is what I did expect.
This is the bind of the dilemma described above. Wittgenstein sidesteps it.
443. “The red which you imagine is surely not the same (not the same thing) as the red which you see in front of you; so how can you say that it is what you imagined?” – But haven’t we an analogous case with the sentences “Here is a red patch” and “Here there isn’t a red patch”. The word “red” occurs in both; so this word can’t indicate the presence of something red.
The interlocutor stresses the apparent distinction between an object of thought and a worldly feature; Wittgenstein replies with a baffling analogy with two contrasting assertions. So why should one think that colours in the imagination must be different to physical coloured samples? In this kind of case there is a plausible motivation. Imagining the colour red might be assumed to involve having a red mental image before the mind’s eye. If so, the question of whether the red mental image is the same colour as a worldly sample of redness is pressing.
The response, however – the suggested ‘analogous case’ – looks to concern something quite different, the meaning of the word ‘red’ in two contrasting sentences. But the second sentence - “Here there isn’t a red patch” – functions no less well than the previous sentence even without the presence of anything red. And hence the suggested diagnosis: if imagining something red is modelled on a sentence about redness rather than a red mental image, the problem of comparing inner and outer reds can be sidestepped. This line of thought is clearer in the next pair of remarks.
444. One may have the feeling that in the sentence “I expect he is coming” one is using the words “he is coming” in a different sense from the one they have in the assertion “He is coming”. But if that were so, how could I say that my expectation had been fulfilled? If I wanted to explain the words “he” and “is coming”, say by means of ostensive explanations, the same explanations of these words would go for both sentences. But now one might ask: what does his coming look like? - The door opens, someone walks in, and so on. - What does my expecting him |131| to come look like? - I walk up and down the room, look at the clock now and then, and so on. - But the one sequence of events has not the slightest similarity to the other! So how can one use the same words in describing them? - But then perhaps I say, as I walk up and down: “I expect he’ll come in.” - Now there is a similarity here. But of what kind?!
Again the passage concerns the connection between a mental state and a worldly event that satisfies or fulfils it. This time, the initial worry is with the content of a first person linguistic expression of an expectation and a description of an event that satisfies it. But why might one think that the phrase ‘he is coming’ has two different senses depending on whether it is part of the former or an assertion concerning the latter? One reason would be if one thought that in the two uses, it stood for two different things: a merely mental object and a worldly event. This would echo the previous difference between colour as imagined and actual sample.
Again Wittgenstein switches to language. The connection between a mental state and worldly event holds in virtue of our use of the same linguistic phrase. ‘He is coming’ can be used both to individuate the expectation and to report the event or fact that satisfies it. Hence the climax:
445. It is in language that an expectation and its fulfilment make contact.
And hence the official Wittgensteinian line:
429. The agreement, the harmony, between thought and reality consists in this: that if I say falsely that something is red, then all the same, it is red that it isn’t. |128| And in this: that if I want to explain the word “red” to someone, in the sentence “That is not red”, I do so by pointing to something that is red.
Answers to homework questions
1.      What general notion does McDowell invoke in Mind and World to explain (or rather to make un-mysterious) thought’s bearing on the world? What ‘-ism’ applies to this (though generally familiar in a slightly different area of philosophy)?
Experience and empiricism. In other words, he tries to show how thought is possible by comparing it to perception. Light enters the mind via experience. That may be true but what of false thought?
2.       Does McDowell offer a symmetric account of the cases of truth and falsity?
No. He only directly addresses the case of true thought. This makes false thought mysterious.
3.       Does McDowell’s explanatory notion play any role in Wittgenstein’s discussion (here)?
No. Wittgenstein does not mention experience. His key idea is language.
4.       Is there reason to think that Wittgenstein treats cases of truth and falsity (satisfaction or not) differently?
No especially since he attempts to account for the harmony of thought and reality through the case of falsehood: ‘if I say falsely that something is red, then all the same, it is red that it isn’t’.
5.       With what other phenomena does Wittgenstein compare intentional mental states (ie states that are about possible events / facts)?
As well as a range of mental states (expectations, imaginings, wishes, plans), he invokes orders and descriptive sentences.
6.       In a nutshell, what is Wittgenstein’s account of the connection between mental states and what they are about?
We use the same language to describe both facts and mental states. It is merely truistic that the expectation that he is coming is satisfied by him coming.
7.       What follow up questions does that raise?

So if mental states hook up to the world by descriptions, how does language hook up to the world? How do we know what mental state we are in? Does the linguistic connection between a mental state and what fulfils it create that connection or report one that was already there? If the latter, in what fact does that connection consist? Wasn’t that the connection we started with? (I think progress has been made!)