Thursday 9 September 2021

Lingering confusions about disjunctivism (perceptual and epistemic)

I attended a virtual workshop given by Charles Travis yesterday, in part of which he described, favourably, John McDowell’s disjunctivism in his ‘Criteria, defeasibility and knowledge’ (McDowell [1982] 1998a). At the end of the talk, he rather resisted getting drawn on McDowell’s later discussions of disjunctivism on the grounds that they were of mixed success. Given his and McDowell’s opposed views on whether perception has a content, this was not surprising. But it reminds me of what seems odd in the later discussion in a way that does not turn on McDowell’s content-view. (The fine picture of Travis is from Maarten Steenhagen's blog here.)

McDowell’s content-view forces him to say something that was not apparent in ‘Criteria…’ The good disjunct and the bad disjunct can share the same content. What differs is not the content but the way the content is had

On the content conception, the epistemic significance of an experience consists in its having content in the way it does. An experience that is a seeing can be like an experience that merely appears to put its subject in touch with a corresponding environmental reality in respect of what content it has. But a seeing is unlike a mere appearing in how it has its content. Seeings have their content in a way that is characteristic of seeings; they make environmental realities present to their subject. (McDowell 2013: 147 italics added) 

Given that the aim is to avoid a highest common factor view, this seems to me to reapproach just that. The way the content is had must not be blankly external to the subject but once we have a distinction of content and the way it is had it seems harder to resist the idea that it is. This may become clearer, below.

But my confusion today seems to turn on using disjunctivism for knowledge rather than perception and then re-engineering perception from knowledge. (This is probably one of those posts where I merely manifest my own crass misunderstandings to my peers to general hilarity. Oh well.)

Here’s a bit of a summary of the ‘Criteria…’ picture from my book.

McDowell denies that experience of other people is limited to their bare behaviour, with mentality hidden behind it. This is the assumption that initiates scepticism about other minds. McDowell’s rejection of this assumption picks up a claim from elsewhere in his discussion of Wittgenstein that, to a suitably educated subject, more can be directly perceived in speech behaviour than mere sound (cf. McDowell 1998a: 332). In the context of this more epistemological discussion, he puts the point as follows: “The idea of a fact being disclosed to experience is purely negative; it rejects the thesis that what is accessible to experience falls short of the fact in the sense … of being consistent with there being no such fact” (McDowell [1982] 1998a: 387). This underlying notion can also be applied even in cases where the fact or state concerned is not literally within the experience of a subject. It can be applied:

in at least some cases of knowledge that someone else is in an “inner” state, on the basis of experience of what he says and does. Here we might think of what is directly available to experience in some such terms as “his giving expression to his being in that ‘inner’ state”; this is something that, while not itself actually being the “inner” state of affairs in question, nevertheless does not fall short of it in the sense I explained. (ibid: 387)

Although one person’s inner states do not themselves fall within the direct perceptual experience of another person, the fact that they express them can. This idea of expression is not one that is consistent with the absence of the inner state. So McDowell replaces an account in which all that is visible to an observer is another person’s intrinsically brute or meaningless behaviour, standing in need of further interpretation and hypothesis, with one in which that behaviour is charged with expression.

It’s perhaps a pity that McDowell’s first discussion of disjunctivism takes the rather complicated case of others’ mental states since these require the extra step above. (In the first version of the book I used McDowell’s discussion of Wright’s M-realism to make this clear but I dropped it from the second edition.) I mentioned this extra complexity to Travis but he seemed to stress instead the idea that we do not know how else someone’s anger or irritation might be manifested than the ways they are. He wasn't concerned with the idea that our experience does not actually go so far as to take in, literally, their mental state. Still, it seems (to me, at least) helpful to note that even in the good disjunct here, one does not see the other person’s anger but its expression, even modulo the qualification that the expression is incompatible with the absence of the state. One might say, naturally enough, one sees that they are angry. But that’s not as innocent as it seems.

Still, perceptual disjunctivism is an attractive response to a worry that, because experience seems the same in veridical and illusory cases, the most one experiences is the highest common factor between them. And hence, even when all goes well, perception cannot be enough to ground knowledge because, for all one knows, one might be in the illusory case. According to disjunctivism, when all goes well, the fact itself (following McDowell’s view here) can be visually present to the subject, it can ‘impress’ itself upon them. Disjunctivism permits a relational concept of experience. The glass of beer itself can be visually present to a subject. I want to say that glass is part of the experience, though only in the good disjunct. I’d like to play up the analogy with singular (de re) thoughts. If so, then the nature of the experience is different in the two cases because in one it is partly constituted by a relation to a glass enabling, then, a genuine singular thought about the glass. Things are more complicated for McDowell because, later, he argues that the content in both good and bad disjunct can be the same – given not in de re but de se terms – but the way it is had differs and hence its epistemic properties.

Things seem – to me, that is - more complicated in the case of knowledge, anyway. My problem is with the fact that knowledge is not a matter of truth in the actual world but also some counter-factual notion that one could not have been wrong, covering other possible worlds. It’s not just that the glass is actually present, partly constituting my experience of it perhaps enabling a singular thought. That might be so even in a case where I do not have knowledge of it because of additional defeating factors. And here I begin to lose my grip on what the disjunctivist picture is because I take it that part of its claim is a denial of a highest common factor view but once we have left the perceptual case, I’m not sure what counts as the highest common factor. It isn’t the highest common factor of veridical and illusory experience since one might really experience something - see it as it really is - but not realise that conditions are favourable for observing it. It is the highest common factor of apparent justification, too. 

Perhaps this is the reason that in later work, McDowell also reverse engineers the notion of visual presence so that it is suited to underpin epistemic disjunctivism (however that is supposed to work).

Here’s the example he discusses in Perception as a Capacity for Knowledge. Consider a psychological experience in which subjects with normal colour vision are presented with colour samples but in non-standard and misleading lighting conditions. Now imagine that a subject is told that she will be shown colours in both good and bad lighting conditions for colour detection but without being able to tell the difference. McDowell suggests that even if she is shown a sample under conditions which, outside the experiment, would enable accurate colour detection, it would be false to say that the thing’s colour is ‘visually present to her’ (McDowell 2011: 46)

In these circumstances, she is not in a position to know that things are the relevant way – that the thing is green – at all, let alone to know that it is by being in the perceptual state she is in that she knows that… [A] perceptual state in which a feature of the environment is present to a subject, in the relevant sense, would have to be a non-defective exercise of a self-consciously possessed and exercised capacity to get into perceptual states that put the subject in a position to know, through perception, that things are the relevant way in the environment. And that is not how it is with the subject’s perceptual state in the case we are considering… [T]he experimental set-up confronts her with a specific possibility that the light is, on this occasion, unsuitable for knowing the colours of things by looking at them. (McDowell 2011: 46-8)

This is why I said he was reverse engineering perception from knowledge. Intuitively, I would have said that – providing the lighting conditions are actually good – then the actual colour is visually present to the subject but that they cannot know this because of their background justified fears about the lighting. But – I think – because McDowell thinks that perception just is a capacity for knowledge, he wants the closest connection between perception and knowledge. So in a case where perceptual knowledge is impossible, the object of perception also changes. Visual presence is not simply being present and in vision but adds in further (non-visual?!) epistemic conditions.

(My colleague Ali Hosseinkhani has just raised an interesting question. In such a case, what is the subject’s experiential status? “It’s not an illusion, nor a hallucination. Just that the lighting conditions are not guaranteed to be accurate.” Now McDowell has deployed phrases such as ‘ostensible seeings’... 

‘An ostensible seeing that there is a red cube in front of one would be an actualization of the same conceptual capacities that would be exercised in judging that there is a red cube in front of one, with the same togetherness.’ (McDowell 1998b: 458)  

... and perhaps that is what he would suggest here. But it seems odd because an observer fully informed of the situation would surely say that the experimental subject simply is really seeing the green shade of the sample. It is just that she does not know this.)

This may connect to Travis’ Fregean point about the categorical distinction between seeing and seeing-that.

But, as Frege noted (1897: 149; 1918: 61), ‘see’ has non-perceptual uses. When we say, for example, ‘He sees that that flower has five petals’ (one of Frege’s examples), ‘see’ is not used to report perceptual awareness. One way to see this is to note that, while the petals are on the flower in the garden, and from thence form images on retinas – they are that sort of thing – that the flower has five petals is not in the garden. Nor is it on the kitchen table. It is not the sort of thing to be located, a fortiori, to form images on retinas. Rather, it is the sort of thing one recognises by exercising capacities of thought. In thought, one can represent the flower as falling under a certain generality; as being a certain way there is for a flower to be – five-petalled. (Travis 2015: 46)

For Travis, the object of seeing-that is a that-clause and hence is constituted of conceptual generalities. It thus takes judgement. The object of seeing is an extra-conceptual object, an instance of generalities but not a generality, and requires mere awareness and some minimal notion of ‘uptake’ (about which I remain unclear: I’m not sure what space there is for uptake that is not judgement).

McDowell, famously, does not believe that anything is outside the conceptual. Perhaps this is why he blurs the knowledge claim (that the colour is green) and what is seen / visually present.

My intuition would be to go the other way. To keep the apparently simpler case of perceptual disjunctivism relatively clear – stressing a link to singular thoughts - and work out how to construct the knowledge case as the cards fall. But his content-view adds a complexity. It introduces a difference between perceptual experience and singular thought even though both, McDowell suggests, should be subject to a disjunctive account. On his content-view, both veridical and misleading perceptual experiences can share the same content. But, I assume, successful and misfiring singular thoughts cannot do this as a singular thought stands in a specific de re relation to a feature of the environment, without which no such thought is possible. The content must be different - surely! - even if it seems the same. (There is a literature on what is thought when a singular thought fails: McDowell favours a ‘seeming to think’ account. Email me for the reference which now escapes me!) In fact, McDowell suggests that the content of perceptual experiences is contextually related not de re to features of the environment but de se to locations specified ego-centrally (McDowell 2012: 155-6). This is the strange action at a distance of combining happy disjunctivism with the content-view.


McDowell, J. (1982/1998) ‘Criteria, defeasibility and knowledge’ Proceedings of the British Academy 68: 455-79 Reprinted in (1998) Meaning, Knowledge and Reality, 369–94.

McDowell, J. (1998b). ‘The Woodbridge Lectures 1997: Having the World in View: Sellars, Kant and Intentionality.’ Journal of Philosophy, 95, 431–491.

McDowell, J. (2011) Perception as a Capacity for Knowledge, Milwaukee: Marquette University Press. pp36-44

McDowell, J. (2013) ‘Perceptual Experience: Both Relational and Contentful’ European Journal of Philosophy 21: 144-57

Travis, C. (2015) 'Suffering intentionally?' in Campbell, M. & O'Sullivan, M. (eds.) Wittgenstein and Perception, London: Routledge

The fine picture is from Maarten Steenhagen’s blog here

See this and this entry on ‘A sense of occasion’, this on ‘Reason’s reach’, this on ‘The twilight of empiricism’, and this on the discussion of rule following in Thought’s Footing.

Tuesday 7 September 2021

On the death of pets

Lois’ cat, Snufkin, is dying. He has a terminal heart condition which may be eased a little with medication but it has only one outcome. (Of course, life has only one outcome which is part of the point of this note.) Having found this out last week, I’m still in that state of shocked sentimental misery which, for me, is made worse by my taking every death of someone or something close to me to represent every death, every permanent leave-taking of someone or something close to me. Later, probably – if there is much of a later – the initial shock of the making concrete of something that was inevitable but hadn’t yet been given specific form will ease to leave merely the sentimental misery.

(I had a counsellor who decided that it would be therapeutic for me to express more emotion than I generally do. And thus in every session she brought the conversation round to how I felt about the death of my previous – my first – cat Brix, in a scene I had not witnessed but had been described to me by my braver partner. Much emotion then flowed.)

My father’s health declined in steps over 10 years. At each decline I’d react with a kind of shock and horror but then get used to it. The first time he had a TIA and was taken away in an ambulance, it seemed awful. But by the third or fourth time, it didn’t seem terrible any more. When he first became delusional, it really upset me. But for whatever reason it happened – often a humble UTI – he always returned to the space of reasons. I’m pleased that that remained so at the point of his death.

By contrast, when my mother was rushed to hospital with leukaemia, I was told that I had to get there that very day to see her alive. That turned out to be false: she lived – in hospital – another 2 months. But there still didn’t seem time to get used to it. It seemed like a single slow crash (like an oil tanker heading for an inevitable collision because it cannot be stopped within miles).

It is, of course, odd to compare my reaction to the death of my parents with that of pets. But the similarity lies in the affect. Whether or not it is right, I do feel related sadness. That's increased by the way I generalise symbolically from one instance to all others. I re-live all deaths.

Still, standing back, the key difference is surely just this: only those in the space of reasons can feel existential dread and regret over lost opportunity. The ending of a narratively structured life – whether or not one thinks that rational beings have narrative lives, we have the capacity to conceptualise them narratively – is something that can seem wrong both for the subject and for others in a way that goes beyond the non-narrative. For a cat, being is more in the moment. Elizabeth Anscombe famously ascribes intentionality to a cat stalking a bird, which implies a telos. John McDowell suggests that animal mentality is is merely a different species of the same genus: mentality. (Donald Davidson took a firmer line: the non-intensional is non-intentional, as it were.) But for cats in my experience, perhaps an association with the unpleasantness of the cat basket continues for weeks. Perhaps there’s some anticipation of breakfast after a long night with a closed kitchen. But the end (the End!) isn’t an end for the cat. Their end is an end for us but not for them. That’s the thing I find hard to keep a grip of. Sentimentality edges its way back in without me noticing. It comes to seem the saddest thing in the world because ending just is the saddest thing in the world.

Implicit bias: the ‘dark side’ of hinge epistemology?

(This entry and the talk to which it refers will be dedicated to the always excellent Sarah Traill whose chairing of a pre-board meeting today permitted me to log off and get on with writing the slides before logging back in.)

I’m giving a talk ‘at’ the Royal College of Psychiatry next week on implicit bias called ‘Implicit bias: the ‘dark side’ of hinge epistemology?’ The idea is that bias is the flipside of what has become known, following some remarks by Wittgenstein in his late masterwork On Certainty as ‘hinge epistemology’ and hence (bias) cannot easily be jettisoned if hinges are a necessary aspect of knowledge.

Here is the context. Descartes presents a conception of his own epistemic project in which, once suitably resourced, he sits in his study in his dressing gown and reflects upon the status of his knowledge claims. He says:

It is now some years since I detected how many were the false beliefs that I had from my earliest youth admitted as true, and how doubtful was everything I had since constructed on this basis; and from that time I was convinced that I must once for all seriously undertake to rid myself of all the opinions which I had formerly accepted, and commence to build anew from the foundation, if I wanted to establish any firm and permanent structure in the sciences… To-day, then, since very opportunely for the plan I have in view I have delivered my mind from every care [and am happily agitated by no passions] and since I have procured for myself an assured leisure in a peaceable retirement, I shall at last seriously and freely address myself to the general upheaval of all my former opinions. (Descartes 1911) 

He commends this to any self-conscious epistemic agent. Seen from this perspective, it seems that a self-conscious rational agent ought to be in a position to assess their beliefs, rejecting all those which do not pass muster. In fact, the start of the Meditations makes this clear. Its epistemology is individualistic. Descartes uses the shortcut of the ‘method of doubt’ to reject every belief except his cogito. From there, he builds back to full normal knowledge.

This provides a context for thinking about bias. Standard dictionary definitions of bias tend to contain two aspects. One is that bias is a vice in that it causes a moral harm to others. The other is that it is also a narrowly epistemic failing. That is, it involves a failure of justification. (Both are in the link to prejudice.) If Descartes’s views of epistemology were correct then it might be possible to offer a procedural description of the epistemic failing that bias involves.

There is, however another way to think of bias: evaluatively neutrally. 

The term “bias,” as it is commonly used, implies something morally or rationally negative. I mean to use the term in its more general, normatively neutral sense, as meaning “a tendency; an inclination of temperament or outlook.”… I am counting as a “bias” any structure, database, or inferential disposition that serves in a non-evidential way to reduce hypothesis space to a tractable size. Biases, in this sense, may be propositions explicitly represented in the mind, or they may be propositional content realized only implicitly, in the structure of a cognitive mechanism. (Antony 2016: 161) 

So following this idea I will think how bias so understood can be distinguished from epistemic virtues.

In On Certainty, Wittgenstein presents a distinct view of the nature of knowledge and its relation to certainty. Crucially, this involves the idea of ‘hinges’. 

§105 All testing, all confirmation and disconfirmation of a hypothesis takes place already within a system. And this system is not a more of less arbitrary and doubtful point of departure for all our arguments: no, it belongs to the essence of what we call an argument. The system is not so much the point of departure, as the element in which arguments have their life. 

§341 That is to say, the questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn. 

§342 That is to say, it belongs to the logic of our scientific investigations that certain things are in deed not doubted. 

§343 But it isn’t that the situation is like this: We just can’t investigate everything, and for that reason we are forced to rest content with assumption. If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put. 

§344 My life consists in my being content to accept many things. (Wittgenstein 1969)

These are held immune from justification or doubt and it is about them that the game of giving and asking for reasons turns. So understood, hinges clearly do not fit the Cartesian model of individualistic rational autonomy. But if this is so, there is no easy way to distinguish procedurally between hinges and mere bias. Bias comprises hinges that have an evaluative failing. One cannot merely eliminate attitudes that lack an appropriate epistemic pedigree, understood in Descartes’ individualistic way, because that would also eliminate virtuous hinges. Wittgenstein argues that hinges are presupposed in the context of inquiry giving it the meaning or content. So there is no possibility of attempting to reconstruct epistemology in Descartes’ image.

One response to this might be to reject Wittgenstein’s rejections of the Cartesian ideal. But there is an analogy that suggests that there is a high price to pay for that. Testimony offers recipients the knowledge of their testimonial sources. Knowledge can rub off ‘like a contagious disease’ in the phrase that John McDowell attributes to Gareth Evans. But it is not that we normally first find independent validation of the knowledge-status of our informants. If testimony can yield knowledge – as we normally think it can – then it is a lived reputation of the Cartesian ideal.

Returning to hinges, there is a complication raised by the traditional reading of Wittgenstein. On this reading, knowledge and certainty are distinct. So hinges – as  expressions of certainty – are not instances of knowledge. This may encourage the idea of relativism, which is sometimes ascribed to late period Wittgenstein. But I think we should learn a lesson from the mid C20 intellectual movement called Oxford Realism (cf J.L. Austin). Knowledge too is certain. Hinges can be instances of knowledge providing that they are true. (I am writing a book on this at the moment.)

What lessons does this have for an understanding of bias? Clearly implicit bias is the norm if bias is modelled on hinges. There is also no procedural way to root out bias since virtuous hinges resemble vice-laden bias. And hence it seems that we need to look to the evaluative aspect of bias as well as it’s specific content in order self consciously to reassess our fundamental commitments. There is no guarantee that this can be done easily. Take the example expressed in the maxim ‘blessed are the peacemakers’. This might serve as the opposite of bias: a virtuous hinge, expressive of a valued form of life. But, if it were true, what could make it true? How could we be reassured that this was an expression of genuine knowledge rather than mere bias? Clearly much work will need to be done to articulate the view of life that underpins it. If hinges are implicit commitments that aim to track the Good and the True, holding knowledge claims rather than subscribing to bias will be much harder than Descartes suggests.

Wednesday 1 September 2021

Sydney Smith’s Letter To Lady Georgiana Morpeth

Foston, Feb. 16th, 1820

Dear Lady Georgiana,

Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done—so I feel for you.

1st. Live as well as you dare.
2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°.
3rd. Amusing books.
4th. Short views of human life—not further than dinner or tea.
5th. Be as busy as you can.
6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you.
7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you.
8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely—they are always worse for dignified concealment.
9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you.
10th. Compare your lot with that of other people.
11th. Don’t expect too much from human life—a sorry business at the best.
12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy sentimental people, and every thing likely to excite feeling or emotion not ending in active benevolence.
13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree.
14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue.
15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant.
16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness.
17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice.
18th. Keep good blazing fires.
19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion.
20th. Believe me, dear Georgiana, your devoted servant, Sydney Smith

Tuesday 31 August 2021

Pickering on family resemblance

There’s a discussion of family resemblance in Neil Pickering’s 2011/12 paper ‘Extending disorder: essentialism, family resemblance and secondary sense’. Given that family resemblance trades on resemblances which are simply likenesses and given Pickering’s critique of the ‘likeness argument’, I’m surprised that he is as positive about family resemblance as an account of illness. It encourages me to rethink the conclusion of his Metaphor of Mental Illness as reinstating likenesses but only via their metaphoric construction. In other words, conditions might indeed count as illnesses via likenesses with paradigm illnesses (bizarrely in accord with the likeness argument) but only given prior creative mis categorization of their characteristics.

Anyway, this paper has what looks to be a critique of family resemblance concepts (FRCs) which is later ‘turned on its head’ and used to highlight a virtue of seeing illness as a family resemblance concept.

One confusing feature of the paper is that it uses the word ‘extension’ when discussing concepts but not generally to mean the class of things to which a concept applies (the logical sense of the word). Instead it is more often, at least, the noun formed from the verb ‘extend’. But I wonder whether this potential ambiguity causes Pickering himself some momentary confusion. That it means the latter is suggested by the framework of the paper.

Extending a concept refers to increasing the range of things which can be brought under the concept, or which fall within a category, or to which a kind term can be applied. The increase is from a baseline which is the agreed range of usage, reflecting what Wakefield calls ‘‘relatively uncontroversial and widely shared judgements’’ about what does (and does not) fall under the concept.

Two conditions are then outlined for such extending: determination and coherence.

An extension should neither go too far beyond the baseline and include things which should not be included within the concept; nor fail to go far enough beyond it, and exclude things which should be included under the concept… Echoing such concerns Horwitz suggests that to be an ‘‘adequate concept of mental illness’’ a concept must demonstrate the capacity to ‘‘distinguish conditions that ought to be called ‘mental illnesses’ from those that ought not’’… The criterion of valid extension implied by Bellaimey, Horwitz, and Wakefield will be named the criterion of determination.

[I]ntuitively, random lists of items do not imply the existence of any covering concept. What, for example, is the concept implied by (square root of) 9, the chair I’m sitting on, Beijing, and the Mona Lisa? What is lacking from this set of items is any sense that they belong together. There is a need for a criterion of coherence.

This argument for the second condition goes too quickly. There seems no reason to preclude this arbitrary list as instancing a general concept ie having Evansian generality. Let’s call it: Pickering’s example of random things. We can think of the list under that generality. Under counter-factual conditions, different objects might have occurred to him.

Pickering describes FRCs thus:

The family resemblance approach can be represented schematically and abstractly... Five things (labelled here A, B, C, D, E) are agreed to fall under a concept—they form the baseline of agreed examples. There are also five characteristics or attributes the things collectively have (labelled I, II, III, IV, V).7 Each of the things has four of the characteristics, but each has a slightly different set:
A [I, II, III, IV]
B [I, II, III, V]
C [I, II, IV, V]
D [I, III, IV, V] E [II, III, IV, V]
Consistent with the main point Wittgenstein seems to be making, there is nothing these five things all share.

Taking these to be the baseline concept, Pickering then considers a new case:

Now, let it be asked: does a further thing (F) which has the following characteristics, also fall under the concept in question:
F [III, IV, V, VI]
This shares at least three characteristics with D and E. If, on these grounds, this is allowed to be a new instance of the concept, a further characteristic (VI) may now be considered a characteristic of things of this kind. And so the characteristics which are associated with the concept are increased in number and range.

Before mentioning the disastrous logic of this example, let’s continue with Pickering’s application of the schematic model to a mental illness case.

Despite its name, the medical status of ASPD is contested... As described here, this condition has no overlap with the existing set of characteristics associated with the notion of disorder, and so on a family resemblance account there is no reason to bring this instance under the concept. However, this can change. There is reason to think that there is a subgroup (G*) amongst those exhibiting antisocial personality disorder who also respond to medical treatments (III), are typically harmed (e.g. suffer a sense of social isolation) (IV) and have a genetic predisposition (V)… If sharing three attributes or features with things which are agreed disorders, is sufficient to make something a disorder, then G* will be a disorder, and since the gap between F (schizophrenia) and G (anti social personality disorder) has now been bridged, it too will be a disorder.
In the light of this, a family resemblance account of disorder does not appear to meet either criterion for extension. The attributes don’t appear to determine any limits to extension, since they seem to be an indeterminately extendable list. Further, A and G are now included, yet they share no attributes, and so it is unclear what the rationale for including both might be.

In fact, Pickering goes on to defend the FRC view of illness. But it is worth emphasising just how radical this objection would be if it were plausible. Pickering’s initial schematic example concerns F. But there is no reason to assume that F is actual. We can explore conceptual generalities through merely possible instances. So if this case extends the concept, we can imagine a range of further extensions via a range of further hypothetical cases. Assuming, following Pickering’s words here – whether or not he means them himself – ‘a further characteristic (VI) may now be considered a characteristic of things of this kind’ and then nothing seems to be excluded from the extension (in both the logical sense and the sense of extending) of the concept.

There is, however, an assumption built into Pickering’s consideration of this objection in the comment ‘a further characteristic (VI) may now be considered a characteristic of things of this kind’. Everything depends on the ‘may’. It is that that permits the extending of the original concept to anything we like. But it seems to be motivated by this earlier comment when introducing F: ‘which has the following characteristics’. Pickering assumes – on behalf of this objection which he will go on to reject but without actually diagnosing the problem – that what is characteristic of F is characteristic of the kind or concept, too. But that does not follow. To take the other famous example of FRC – other than an actual family resemblance such as the Thornton-look – a specific game might have a characteristic without it being a characteristic of games. Golf has as a characteristic the fact that it is played by the wealthy. That’s quite typical of golf. But it does not infect games as such. So the putative objection depends on an implausible assumption.

Pickering himself rejects this objection saying that ‘the argument so far considered against the family resemblance approach must be turned on its head’. The idea seems to be that FRCs balance strict normative determinacy with an element of flexibility. One motivation for this is to argue that even non-FRC and essentialist accounts permit some flexibility. He says:

Even if the essentialist were correct that there is a pattern of necessity and sufficiency in the features of those things which are agreed to be disorders, it would be a further decision to conform the notion of ‘disorder’ to that. This decision can’t be justified by the pattern of likenesses itself—since it is the implications of this which are in question; rather it must reflect a human decision or practice.

But is that right? Consider Wakefield’s claim that a disorder is a harmful dysfunction. Suppose we accept that definition, we have necessary and sufficient conditions for calling anything a ‘disorder’. There is no further slack aside, say, from what word shape or sound we attach to the concept. Things are disordered in virtue of being harmful and dysfunctional. The conditions do not merely group conditions – extensionally, as it were – but group them as disorders.

Of course, if we just have the extension of disorder, there would be a further question of in virtue of what these things are conceptually united. But Pickering has already notionally conceded more: the necessary and sufficient conditions for being a disorder.

(I’m not sure about this, but I wonder whether Pickering’s account FRCs shares something of this picture. The putative objection to FRCs seems to start from a position outside the conceptual order, trying to infer the concept that unites a collection of otherwise unconnected instances. That is why, I hypothesise, FRCs seem so hostage to the fortune of subsuming a new instance under them. There is no sense of in virtue of what items are grouped together. (Hence in my example, being played by wealthy people might get attached, willy nilly, to ‘games’.) It is an alienated picture of our access to our own thoughts. As though we have to run a kind of Davidsonian Radical Interpretation of our own linguistic dispositions to work out the conception that gathers together the extension (in the logical sense). Again, this makes more sense if one recalls the idea that in his paper ‘extension’ generally means an extending but may also mean the logical sense of the class of things to which a concept applies. This may become clearer below.)

Anyway, Pickering’s response to the objection above runs thus:

But these problems for the family resemblance approach are more apparent than real. They have arisen as a result of focusing on the role of the attributes or characteristics of things in deciding category or kind membership. This focus on the characteristics represents a mistaken approach to family resemblance. Characteristics in the family resemblance approach to concepts do not have the determinative relation to the concepts with which they are associated that they have in the essentialist approach. Furthermore, this is a strength of the family resemblance approach, for the kind of relationship the essentialist presupposes between characteristics and concepts is far from self evident…

The possibility inherent in family resemblance of continuously extending the features associated with a concept indicates the existence of a non-determinative relationship between those features and the concept they are associated with. It is just because networks of resemblances exist between quite different kinds of things that the family resemblance approach necessarily introduces a further factor. In the family resemblance approach it becomes clear that some judgement has to be made about whether shared attributes do or do not count towards various human patterns of behaviour and experience being disorders…

Answering these questions provides a basis for a boundary of the extension of the concept, and so meets the requirement for determination. Where it is judged that resemblances of attributes count for nothing, then the limit of intelligibility in the application of the concept has been reached.

Here I think we have the crux. Indeed it applies to interpretations of Wittgenstein’s discussion of rule following outside FRCs too (eg Kripke, Travis, Wright). Does Wittgenstein’s criticism of platonism, of the idea that the conceptual order is utterly independent of us, leave room for, or indeed require, that we make things up? The slippery notion in the passages above is ‘judgement’. If I judge that 7 is greater than 5 by an increment of 2, I judge it but I judge it correctly. Any other judgement would be wrong. I judge in accord with the rules of maths. But there is another sense of ‘judgement’ in which the idea of correctness or accord with a standard goes missing and the judgement itself sets whatever lesser sense of a standard there is. The score - on Pop Idol, say - is created by the judgement of the judges, as it were.

Pickering wants family resemblance to have a foot in both camps. In the passage concerning the possibility inherent in family resemblance above, it sounds as though we get to make up the extension of the concept (in both senses of extension) but in the next passage - which is the very next paragraph but with a couple of sentences omitted by me - it sounds as though we answer questions which have antecedent correct answers and so there is genuine normative determination.

I’m not sure he can have it both ways. My suspicion is that this is where the ambiguity of the word ‘extension’ applies. Extending a concept changes the concept. Subsuming a new instance under a concept need not (pace Travis). Normative determinacy applies to the latter, only.

I wonder, too, whether this has something to do with Pickering’s idea that there are limits to the application of even FRCs. Like counting to 5 for Monty Python’s Holy Hand Grenade, some applications are ‘right out’ or, in this case, simply unintelligible. This, however, seems like a final Carrie-like grip of Platonism from beyond the grave. Conceptual normativity is explained by an appeal to what is unintelligible. But surely, the unintelligibility of the application of a concept to a range of cases flows from the concept involved? No deployment of symbols can be brutely unintelligible without reference to the rules given to the use of words and hence a concept. It cannot explain the limits of that concept. That would be Platonism. 

Tuesday 17 August 2021

Somatic Cartesianism

Yesterday, my therapist, call him ‘P’, asked me - after a relaxation exercise - what I was feeling. I replied by citing the emotional state I was in. P accepted this without implying it was any kind of faux pas. And then he added: and where do you feel it? It wasn’t an unexpected question and so I was able to remind him of the answer I’d said, beforehand, that I’d often give. In some cases, such as nervousness or anxiety, I would be happy to answer: ‘in my stomach’. But for most emotions the question doesn’t seem to me to have any clear answer. Where is my anger at the terrible situation in Afghanistan? The best answer to that might be an explanation of at whom the anger is directed. 

(I say: ‘I would be happy to answer’… because I think there’s a gap which is slyly crossed but it need not matter between friends. I think the emotion is merely correlated with bodily sensations; it is not the sensations. This bodily accompaniment sometimes happens but need not. So the ‘it’ in the second question does not refer to the answer to the first. But it would be pedantry to say that more than once. I also accept that contingent indicators of an emotion can be helpful to identify it. I sometimes spot my irritation when tired late at night by subtle changes in my orientation to the world. I hear the snappiness in my voice before I realise that I am irritated. I can see that such indicators can include purely bodily sensations. Perhaps one is holding one’s shoulders tensely and one spots that before the underlying emotion. So I see the point of the question. I just deny that it must have an answer.) 

Commenting on this later to friends Q and R, Q was quite surprised. Q, too, is a therapist so perhaps his surprise was not that surprising. But surely, he suggested, an emotion such as anger is directed at, or expressed or manifested in, some bodily response or action. If it were not, then it would not be being felt as an emotion. So it must be being felt somewhere

More to my surprise, R wondered, if emotions were not experienced at locations, how they could determine a difference between a normative directedness at embracing another versus punching them? (She cleverly mimed reaching out indeterminately.) 

I have heard this sort of argument from a colleague expressed directly at self knowledge or awareness of emotions. Unless one knows where an emotion is located in the body, then one cannot identify it and so one cannot be aware of how one is feeling. I can see this for bodily sensations such as tickles or aches. What would it be to say that one often experienced pains or tickle but seldom could begin to locate them? While I think this can happen - some pains seem to shift when one tries accurately to locate them - I don’t think that the grammar of tickles, pains and other sensations could start with these stranger cases. Bodily feelings are generally felt at bodily locations. But it seems to beg the question to assume that the same must be true for emotions. (Transported across to emotions it perhaps suggests a kind of perceptual model of inner awareness. I think that emotions are generally - modulo the remarks about the sometimes usefulness of contingent signs above - self-intimating.) ‘Feel’ works in more than one way. 

In fact, R’s question seemed very surprising because she seemed to suggest that an emotion needs a bodily location in order to have normative directedness at a caress rather than a punch. But once an emotion is identified as a free-standing state in bodily space, there will be a huge problem for explaining its normative directedness. This is just what is wrong with Cartesian pictures of the mind. Changing the free-standing state to one in bodily rather than mental space - ie a kind of ‘somatic Cartesianism’ - does not help at all. Better simply to assume its intentional or relational content from the start and note how the word ‘feel’ applies differently to tickles and to emotions. 

In such conversations, I tend to dig out an analogy with belief. A central role of belief is that when combined with a desire it motivates bodily action. But in this case the somatic Cartesian does not generally insist that the belief must be experienced in a bodily location. Why not? But if not, then bodily location is not necessary for practical - bodily - expression (contra Q’s initial assumption). And hence my view of emotion, too. 

I have found that a practical problem with discussing emotions with subscribers to somatic Cartesianism is that they take any denial of bodily location to imply a kind of alienation from the feeling. I suppose that if one assumes emotions must have bodily location, and someone denies that latter aspect, it must seem that that person cannot accommodate feeling emotions at all. They - that is, I - must have in mind merely some effete ersatz instead. 

Later Q sent me a link to a short scene from the film Good Will Hunting in which the rather nasty Robin Williams character meanly harangues the young Matt Damon character (perhaps MD was mean to RW earlier but he is, as RW says, just a kid so RW’s response is altogether shabby). But this scene didn’t seem to say what Q wanted it to say at all. RW doesn’t say that MD’s experiences are insufficient because they are not properly located in his body. (It would, after all, be madness to say that!) He says that MD has never had those experiences directly at all but merely read about them or theorised about them. He has not had or felt them. RW says, for example, that, because he has never been there, MD has never smelled the Sistine Chapel. He does not say that he has never smelled it... in his foot

It takes unquestioned commitment to somatic Cartesianism to assume that if one does not experience an emotion at a location then one cannot experience it at all and thus must merely be talking about it theoretically. 

Obviously, I think there is all the difference in the world between wishing to caress someone out of love and punch them out of anger. Further, I think the anti-Cartesian can offer a better picture of how this can be experienced all the more directly because it is not inferred or read off some free-standing bodily state. Not: “I am feeling a slight tickle behind my left ear so (by induction from past cases?) I must really love you, my dear!”

Friday 6 August 2021

PPS to Some notes on having a nervous breakdown

This will be the last of these records until I feel better. I’m more bored by this than I can say.

Having tried to return to working and failed, I decided to try a final role of the drug dice and go with an SNRI this time: Venlafaxane. And again a try at a phased return to working, starting where I’d left off, at about 33% of my contractual hours. It began and then so did the weariness.

I slept for much of the weekend at the end of which England lost, on penalties, the final of the European football contest they’d been competing in. I didn’t get to watch that as I’d had to retire to bed during the second half through simple exhaustion. I’m not a huge football fan but I took my inability even to stay awake for that epic football moment as a sign that this was not working and gave up the drug (after a month) though not the return to work.

I’d say that I have had mixed success. While coming off Venlafaxane was nothing like as bad as the dreadful Paroxetine, I have remained poised on the brink of a kind of physical illness akin to jet lag. Get too tired and I am unable to hold down food for some days. I don’t think that this vomiting is psychological – so my body has decided that it is an appropriate response to both physical and mental unwellness – but I’m obviously at the limit of what I can tolerate, in part, no doubt, because I am working more or less – but never more than – my contractual hours. I had hoped that stopping the drug after a mere month would return me to approximating the health of an unfit 70 year old that I'd reached before starting it. Not yet, it seems. I remain a stranger to my thing-of-strange-beauty Moulton bicycle, for example.

So here I am. Going to bed before 10pm, unable to exercise, easily being sick for physical or – separately – mental reasons. I think I’m not mad. (One reason for coming off Venlafaxane was that it obviously affected my aesthetics in a dark unpleasant way.) But this is August: fewer work meetings, more sun, less darkness than the season to come. My work will get more intense, my mood will naturally tend to the depressive end of things, my dreams will turn to Cthulhu’s.

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.

Sunday 25 July 2021

An ongoing conversation with Neil Pickering about likeness, metaphor and illness

Neil Pickering generously replied to some comments I’d made about his work on my blog here. I’ve replied thus. 

Dear Neil,

Many thanks for these helpful comments. May I ask three follow up questions to check I understand? You don’t need to answer them, of course. If you do, they are in bold below.

In one reply you say of Szasz and Wakefield “I think I’d say: they both think the likenesses – which must be either literal or non-existent – will do the work.  They’re both wrong, and in the same way.”

I realise that I’m not totally sure what ‘the work’ is.

I think that Wakefield thinks that dysfunction is a likeness, a qualitative feature of (perhaps) all illnesses such that combining it with harm gives a sufficient condition. So he answers the question ‘In virtue of what is this an illness?’ in part by saying ‘dysfunction’. He might equally answer the question: ‘Is it true that X is an illness?’ by saying ‘Yes it is literally true that it is an illness, in virtue of it being a harmful dysfunction’.

It doesn’t quite work the same way for Szasz. He thinks that mental illnesses are not really illness. To say they are is to deploy a metaphor as he understands metaphor which makes the claim – as you say here – false and a mere myth. He doesn’t think that likenesses do the work of establishing the illness status of mental illness. But he does think that they help do the work he wants: to show that mental illnesses aren’t illnesses.

So is ‘the work’ resolving a genuine dispute in a way that begs no questions? In other words, is it that the dialectical context of an ongoing dispute is an essential part of ‘the work’? Had there not been a dispute and had people simply given – say – Wakefield’s positive answer from Day One, would there be no work to do?

(If that’s the case, then I agree that the likeness argument would not do that work. But then I think that because nothing could ever do that work, that’s not such news to me. Nothing is non-question begging! Hence my caution about conceding ‘quacks like a duck’ once one see’s where that argument is heading! (Perhaps I should have said: quacks as a duck but likeness is Pickering-brand terminology and I wouldn’t want to tamper!))

An analogy. I assume no one disputes the chemical composition of water (roughly!) and there’s even a broad enough consensus to treat it almost as essentialists do (roughly!). So the answer to the question ‘In virtue of what is the substance in this bottle water?’ is generally: ‘In virtue of it having the same chemical structure as all water does’. Chemical composition serves a function as a likeness. But it doesn’t do ‘work’ in the sense of being deployed in an ongoing dispute about categorisation. That conversation is over.

(As some sort of Wittgensteinian, I do not believe in Putnam’s magical theory in which the world individuates itself after we offer a single baptism, our meaning carried away by fairies or storks or whatever. But I do think that we have more or less adopted chemical composition as a criterion of being water.)

So a basic question: is the water example a ‘likeness argument’ on the Pickering view of likeness?

Second, do you think it a metaphor?

I think I can imagine that the very idea that a fluid has a ‘structure’, as captured in school chemistry, might have started by requiring some sort of metaphor. Fluids? Structures? I was brought up by radical sociologists of science – eg Simon Schaffer of Leviathon and the Air-pump – so I know these things take ‘work’. But by now it is hard to think that - once we have a grasp of the sort of thing we mean by the phrase ‘chemical structure’ then - water’s having a structure of H2O is a metaphor. What’s left of the literal if we think that?

So on my initial reading of your position, likenesses are not just accepted criteria – such as the water case – but have to be in active disputes. Second, you have an alternative positive suggestion, given that likenesses cannot do ‘the work’, turning on metaphors.

It was that that gave me the three-fold contrast.

  • Szasz uses likenesses to try to argue that mental illnesses cannot be illnesses. (He’s bound to fail according to your very strict requirement.) He then uses his reading of metaphor to explain what the ‘wrong’ (for him) view of mental illness as illness amounts to (a mere metaphor, a myth, a falsehood). 
  • Wakefield uses likenesses to try to argue that mental illnesses are literally illnesses. (He’s bound to fail according to your very strict requirement.) He – thinks he - has no need of metaphors because he takes dysfunctions to be partial criteria, akin to chemical composition. It’s all very literal. 
  • And – and obviously I’m worried about typing this – I took you to be saying that yoking ‘illness’ to ‘mental illness’ took a kind of imaginative miscategorising, positively described as metaphor. Not literally true but not false either.

Is that - roughly - right?

You kindly suggest that you see some virtue in my final thought. That’s linked – as I’m sure you know – to Travis’ account of rule following in his book Thought’s Footing. He connects it to a distinction between ‘prior’ and ‘novel’ understanding which is, in effect, the distinction between a descriptive thought that one can have in advance of events turning out as they do and a singular thought, in the presence of particular events, as they come to pass. Travis stresses the gap between what it is possible to think before events come about and what it is possible to think only once they have. That gap in the metaphysics of thought (Russell, Frege) is the gap that so entertains us, quasi-Wittgensteinians. So one might say that every application of every rule – every descriptive word to a particular case entertained under a singular thought – was metaphorical. That’s quite pokey!

But if we step back from that brink then where do we draw the line?

And I wanted – teasingly – to try to do to you what you did to Bill Fulford who was doing this to everyone else: recontextualize and point out a question being begged. You ask: from whose perspective can we highlight likenesses in active disputes? Since they will always presuppose a perspective, but in an area of active disagreement, then they cannot be used to resolve the disagreement. Claims about likenesses beg questions.

In this case, I wanted to ask, from whose perspective do we draw the distinction between imaginative metaphorical mis-categorisations, which extend the use of words, and literal categorisations as just more mundane applications of a word to cases to which it literally applies? I wanted to imply that your hunch that mental illness was an interesting metaphor was no better grounded than Wakefield’s hunch that it is a literal and mundane application of the baseline criterion of dysfunction. That wasn’t to hand him victory, of course, but just to say that you are – as Zaphod Beeblebrox was famously described – ‘just this guy’ or rather just another guy in the debate, not as it were, above the debate. (Putting it like that sounds awful, sorry! It wasn’t a moral accusation.)

Of course, in doing this, I was putting myself above the debate. Oh how shallow I always am! Sorry.


Wednesday 14 July 2021

No doubt diminishing returns on hinges and sceptism

Gloria asked me: “Is the broad claim here this, i.e. that a framework of hinge-knowledge precludes our having to deal with the challenge to knowledge claims stemming from phenomenal indiscernibility? In effect, that this framework becomes a sort of transcendental condition that sculpts the space of epistemic possibilities in such a way that the very move to raise the spectre of phenomenal indiscernibility now becomes illegitimate?”

One way that hinges might be used to block scepticism is this. One concedes the MP version of closure and hence one looks vulnerable to a MT version which argues from the fact that we don’t know we’re not BIV (or any other relevant phenomenological indiscernible) to the fact that we don’t know some ordinary knowledge claim. But then while one concedes that we don’t know that not-BIV, we are committed to not-BIV as a hinge. Hinges are not knowledge claims but commitments of a different sort which lie outside closure. So not knowing not-BIV is no threat to ordinary knowledge. Pritchard argues this. He accepts that we are committed to hinges but not as either knowledge or as knowledge-apt belief (ie reason responsive belief). Hinges are commitments but not the sort of propositional attitude that can come under closure. Wright gives a pragmatic acceptance version of hinges according to which it is reasonable to act as though they are correct. It’s a rational bet.

Even if this were coherent - and frankly Pritchard doesn’t tell us enough while Wright gives us an obviously inadequate picture - it would still leave open the following possibility. While we realise that we have always a-rationally accepted hinges in the past, now we want to know whether it is reasonable to believe we’re not-BIVs. Now that that question has been raised in a philosophy class, we want to run the closure argument either way. What’s to reassure us that the propositional content that we’re not-BIV is held for good enough reason? 

I see no hope this way.

You ask - reasonably enough - whether a knowledge-based version of hinges (according to which they are conceptually structured, are the objects of attitudes and, even more, are known) provides a reason to rule out sceptical ringer arguments. Frankly, I’m not sure. I didn’t try to sell you my idea of hinges - as bits of knowledge held in place by holistic considerations and serving as the framework for the explicit asking for reasons - as an answer to scepticism. I’m proceeding by elimination. 

Hinges cannot be just animal certainties - as Stroll and Malcolm suggest - because they are / would be blankly external to our epistemic practices. (And the fact that we don’t check the checking of apples looks to be a problem if this animal fact is external to our epistemic practices. It looks like an oversight.)

Hinges cannot be extra-conceptual quasi conceptual entities as Moyal Sharrock suggests because there’s no conceptual space for that. (Here I add in a premises about the resolute reading of LW.)

They cannot be what Pritchard and Wright say.

So they must be conceptual. But if so and if not the non-epistemic attitudes of Pritchard and Wright, they must be contributions to our epistemic standing. I can only think they are known. That’s the argument from elimination.

OK so now you raise the standard sceptical argument from indiscernability / sceptical ringers. What could I invoke? Austin? McDowell? I need a way to suggest a difference between an actual possibility of being misled and a merely idling philosophical one. If there’s an actual possibility I should have addressed about the apples then I don’t know they were apples even if they were and I was lucky. But if it is idle talk of what might have been in the Matrix or a dream then I do know. 

One thing: LW’s worry that Moore cannot achieve very much by saying ‘I know’ is neither here nor there. Sincerity isn’t enough. About a third of OC goes after the wrong target by worrying about what isn’t achieved in the ‘I know’. ‘I know’ expresses objective certainty about the content of a knowledge claim but it does not, just by saying, achieve or guarantee it. This doesn’t imply that knowledge isn’t factive. It just implies that saying ‘I know’ isn’t factive. It seems remarkable that LW made such heavy weather of that.

Might that be enough? Knowledge is a genuine state achieved by ruling out real possibilities of error but, as Austin says, ‘enough is enough’. Better to focus on ‘he knows’ than ‘I know’ but also to realise that even that always leaves space in the game for the question: ‘Do you really know that he knows?’. ‘If he knows X then X, after all. Do you know X?’ But that question idles unless we can give it point.

Friday 9 July 2021

Postscript to Some notes on having a nervous breakdown

Shortly after my previous meagre effort at autoethnography, I started a phased return to work. My managers have been very generous in not pushing me to return quickly and so I started working towards a full return after a lengthy 8 weeks. Any such return, akin to returning from annual leave, carries the additional initial stress of returning to unanswered emails. I was relieved to find only 2,000 but that was still a little daunting. Strangely, however, it was not tackling them but being sympathetically asked about my health in the third week that prompted a full-on return of anxiety reactions. The thought of my anxiety illness, and its impediment to my possible continued working, itself had become a prompt for the anxiety reaction. The dragon ate itself. I stopped the attempt at working and two days later felt perfectly fine.

I spent the next two weeks trying to build stamina for working by writing and submitting a couple of philosophy papers. Those two weeks fitted the hope that I’d had four months before of what sickness leave might be. I realised, for example, what I ought to think about Wittgenstein’s On Certainty for the first time in 30 years. (Quite often, in philosophy, it does not seem that one has had an idea or made a choice but, rather, one spots the action at a distance of previous embedded convictions. Hence one simply sees what one ought to think or to have thought all along. One experiences ‘the because’.)

I returned to a second attempt at a phased return a little before starting a fourth mood altering drug: Venlafaxine. Two days into taking it I woke feeling madness again: a slippage from direct contact with the world of facts and feelings. It was immediately obvious on waking that I wasn’t the same, sane person. (‘Oh God, Lois, I've gone mad again!’) But then the next day the clouds cleared and I felt sane and almost quite happy for a week before new side effects started: exhaustion prompted by a tiny run and lasting 10 days and the physical illness of jetlag: no appetite, tiredness, nausea, temperature dysregulation and the sense of a body as lumpen rather than a source of agency. Still, I’m not mad. I’ve been able to think philosophy and even be imaginative.

(This, sadly, undermines a theory I’d had that male libido is an expression of Kantian reflective judgement: a concept-less seeking of conceptual form. The ‘ability to judge an object in reference to the free lawfulness of the imagination’ in which there is ‘a subjective harmony of the imagination with the understanding without an objective harmony’ [Kant 1987: 91-92] I can currently manage Kantian reflective judgement. But the other…)

Waking up in the morning is now even more of a struggle than it has always been. Exhaustion always encourages anxiety, perhaps mediated by the thought that I would not be ‘up’ to managing challenges that arise. So, via its side effects, the drug also causes the very symptom I’m taking it to relieve. While it produces a kind of wooziness, it is the nauseous wooziness of jetlag rather than the wooziness of a too early but somehow justified G&T before lunch with an elderly aunt. On a bad day, it also makes me simply physically sick. I don’t even feel immune to anxiety: just a slight reduction in its hold on me.

I’d always hoped that medication would be a good thing. I had thoughts of soma in Brave New World. But it seems a Faustian pact. If I take a drug that makes me feel like this, a little less human, a little less alive, fundamentally physically sick, perhaps I can carry on working. But is that right?

A PPS here.

Thursday 8 July 2021

Avrum Stroll’s book Moore and Wittgenstein on Certainty

I’ve been re-reading Avrum Stroll’s book Moore and Wittgenstein on Certainty (Stroll 1994). Stroll’s book subscribes to a non-propositional reading of hinges and so is related to Dani√®le Moyal-Sharrock’s 2007 Understanding Wittgenstein’s On Certainty (Moyal-Sharrock 2007). But unlike the latter, Stroll does not give a very technical analysis of the non-propositional nature of the hinges. It does not follow, for example, from their not possessing bipolarity though they look like propositions. Hence he avoids Moyal-Sharrock’s bit where she says it and the bit where she takes it back. (By this I mean that she uses the non-propositional nature of the hinges to say they are not possible objects of knowledge - or any other attitude - while at the same time arguing that they can be transformed into relevant meaning-related doppelg√§ngers. So they are not mere nonsense strings - cf Conant - but still they cannot be known. They are a significant form of none-sense.) Rather, Stroll argues that Wittgenstein moves from a quasi-propositional view to an animal and instinctual view as On Certainty goes by.

Stroll also stresses the idea that scepticism is self-defeating.

Wittgenstein’s foundationalism, even in its absolutist form, thus differs from those of the tradition in being striated. These two features—the world and the community—thus stand fast in different ways, that is, in having somewhat different presuppositional relationships to the language game. Taken together they are what philosophers have called the external world. Both aspects exhibit a kind of objectivity—an intruding presence—that impinges upon human beings and to which in diverse ways they must conform. Neither aspect is open to obsessive doubt or to revision. Wittgenstein’s “solution” to the problem of the existence of the external world is that no sensible question can be raised with respect to either of these aspects. Their existence is presupposed in any formulation of the problem. Therefore to question their existence, as the sceptic presumably wishes to do, is self-defeating. In even trying to formulate its challenge scepticism initiates the process of its own destruction. (Stroll 1994: 181)

One reason for this is the role that language plays in articulating any sceptical doubt:

But even the form the sceptic’s challenge takes—the linguistic format to which it must conform so that another can understand it—presupposes the existence of the community and its linguistic practices. The sceptic’s doubts are thus self-defeating. (ibid: 180)

So the anti-sceptical argument floats at least partly free of the exact nature of the hinges. Scepticism is defeated via a claim of being self-stultifying rather than the specific nature of the hinges. It is not, for example, that their non-propositionality is used to block closure or directly to deny the sense of what scepticism proposes.

So what is the role of hinges? One hint comes from an earlier summary of the link between hinges and scepticism. Their role in characterising Wittgenstein’s foundationalism is what they contribute to defeating scepticism.

Wittgenstein, as a foundationalist, also asserts that nothing could be more certain than that which stands fast for us, but in On Certainty his discussion makes no reference to the regress difficulty. Given his form of foundationalism the regress problem does not arise. It arises for traditionalists because they assume that the question, How do you know that that which stands fast for us is certain? is always applicable. And they assume that because they think that the foundation and what rests on it belong to the same category. But for Wittgenstein’s form of foundationalism the question is not applicable and, in fact, embodies a category mistake. One cannot sensibly ask of that which is certain whether it is known (or not known) or true (or false); for what is meant by certitude is not susceptible to such ascriptions. The sceptical question thus need not be answered. (ibid: 148)

Stroll proposes that Wittgenstein is a foundationalist albeit of a novel kind because the foundation for knowledge is not itself known. In other words, he offers an account which aims clearly to separate knowledge and certainty.

As we have seen throughout this work, he rejects the idea that what is foundational is susceptible to proof, the adducing of evidence, truth or falsity, justification or non-justification. Whatever is so susceptible belongs to the language game and thus to a different category of human activity from das Fundament. Wittgenstein’s genius consisted in constructing an account of human knowledge whose foundations, whose supporting presuppositions, were in no ways like knowledge. Knowledge belongs to the language game, and certitude does not. The base and the mansion resting on it are completely different. This is what Wittgenstein means when he says that knowledge and certainty belong to different categories. (ibid: 145)

The picture is complicated by the fact that On Certainty contains two views of hinges.

As I have indicated in earlier chapters, there are two different accounts of F [das Fundament] in On Certainty. One of these—the earlier—is propositional in character. It clearly derives from Wittgenstein’s response to Moore, who thinks of certainty in propositional terms. As I stated earlier, when Wittgenstein speaks of hinge propositions as immune to justification, proof, and so on, we are dealing with the earlier account. The second account is completely different. It begins to develop gradually as the text was being written and comes to dominate it as it closes. On this view, there are several candidates for F, and all of them are non-intellectual. Among these are acting, being trained in communal practices, instinct, and so on. (ibid: 146)

The transition from the one to the other is hinted at by the fact that even on the former view, where hinges are called ‘hinge propositions’, their actual nature is qualified.

[W]hat Wittgenstein is calling hinge propositions are not ordinary propositions at all. Such concepts as being true or false, known or not known, justified or unjustified do not apply to them, and these are usually taken to be the defining features of propositions. (ibid:146)

This picture is more like Moyal-Sharrock’s. Such hinges are technically non-propositional despite looking conceptually articulated, the sorts of items that it would seem understandable for Moore to claim might be known. The connection between the first and second view of hinges stems from the origins of the hinges even of the quasi-propositional picture.

These propositions are not the products of intellection, reflection, trial and error, or experimentation; rather, they are aborbed by each of us in the course of our daily lives. The notion of absorption is intertwined with Wittgenstein’s denial that ratiocination is the ground that supports the epistemic structure. This notion plays a major role in his account of the community. We acquire communal practices, such as being a native speaker, by absorption rather than by explicit learning. As Wittgenstein puts it elsewhere, we inherit our picture of the world. This is another way of saying that we absorb the foundations that make the language game possible. (ibid: 155)

Stroll suggests, however, that even this half way house encourages a misreading of the nature of the certainty on which our epistemic practices rest.

Why did Wittgenstein eventually discard the propositional account in favor of one that is not propositional? I believe the answer is that he recognized that if one thinks of certitude in propositional terms—as Descartes and Moore did—the tendency to think of such propositions as being known would be irresistible. And this is the inference he wished to resist. (ibid: 155)

Hence the move to construe certainty as something primitive, instinctual, animal, practical rather than theoretical or perceptual, and inherited. Thus On Certainty contains both an initial quasi-propositional view of hinges – albeit one where they are not known or justified and hence not really propositions – and also a more radical animal and practical certainty.

His first reaction consisted in asserting that what he was calling hinge propositions are not propositions in any traditional sense of that term and, in particular, that they are not mental – a “kind of seeing, as it were.” Neither are they straightforwardly empirical—though they look as if they are. Even the idea that they are “grammatical rules” was seen to over-intellectualize the point he was trying to make. Instead he began to conceive of certainty as a mode of acting. The idea that acting lies at the bottom of the language game (instead of any system of propositions) is a new and radical conception of certainty. Certainty stems from one’s immersion in a human community in which rote training and the inculcation of habits create the substratum upon which the language game rests. This non-propositional conception of certitude thus sharply separates Wittgenstein from the tradition. (ibid: 155)

[T]his second account of certainty takes many different forms depending upon the particular contrast Wittgenstein wishes to highlight. There are three such main forms: (1) that certainty is something primitive, instinctual, or animal, (2) that it is acting, and (3) that it derives from rote training in communal practices. In all of these the major contrast with his former view is that what stands fast is the product of reasoning or intellection. Insofar as propositions or even pseudo-propositions or grammatical rules are conceived of as the products of rational activity, the new view stands in opposition to any such account…
These three strands—instinct, acting, and training—are different. If they were to be analyzed further, which Wittgenstein, of course, never had time to do, they might well turn out (as I believe) to be in tension with one another. But I think that Wittgenstein meant them to be part of a single complex idea that he wishes to contrast with the propositional account. It is thus possible to find an interpretation that welds them into a single (admittedly complex) conception of that which stands fast. On this interpretation, what Wittgenstein takes to be foundational is a picture of the world we all inherit as members of a human community. We have been trained from birth in ways of acting that are nonreflective to accept a picture of the world that is ruthlessly realistic: that there is an earth, persons on it, objects in our environment, and so forth… This picture is manifested in action. When we open a door our lives show that we are certain. Certainty is thus not a matter of reflection about the door but a way of acting with respect to it. All animals, including humans, inherit their picture of the world, and like other animals much of our inheritance derives from early training – “something must be taught us as a foundation” (OC 449). (ibid: 157-8)

Stroll’s account of the second view of hinges is thus akin to Malcolm’s ‘Wittgenstein: The relation of language to instinctive behaviour’ (Malcolm 1982). Malcolm plays up some key paragraphs from On Certainty.

If the shopkeeper wanted to investigate each of his apples without any reason, in order to play safe, why doesn’t he have to investigate the investigation? And can one speak here of belief (I mean belief as in religious belief, not conjecture)? Here all psychological terms merely lead us away from the main thing (OC 459)
In order to have ‘absolute certainty’ must not the shopkeeper try to determine not only that these things are apples, but also that what he is doing is trying to find out whether they are apples, and in addition that he is really counting them? And if the shopkeeper doesn’t do this, is this because he ‘believes’, or ‘knows’, or is ‘certain’, or is ‘convinced’, or ‘assumes’, or ‘has no doubt’, that these are apples and that he is counting them? No. All psychological terms, says Wittgenstein, lead us away from ‘the main thing’ (die Hauptsache). (Malcolm 1982: 19)

Am I not getting closer and closer to saying that in the end logic cannot be described? You must look at the practice of language, then you will see it (OC 501).
Logic cannot be described! I take this to mean that it is not appropriate for Wittgenstein to say either that he ‘knows’, or ‘believes’, or is ‘certain’, or is ‘convinced’, or ‘assumes’, or ‘does not doubt’, that his name is L. W., or that this is called a ‘hand’, or that the law of induction is true. None of these terms are correct. What does it mean to say: ‘You must look at the practice of language, then you will see it’? What do you see? Well, you see the unhesitating behaviour with which a person signs his name at the end of a letter or gives his name to a bank clerk; or uses the word ‘hand’ in statements; or makes inductive inferences; or does calculations; and so on. What you see is this unhesitating way of acting. This is the ‘logic’ of language that cannot be described with psychological words. It is too ‘primitive’, too ‘instinctive’, for that. It is behaviour that is like the squirrel’s gathering nuts or the cat’s watching a mouse hole. This is why Wittgenstein says it is something animal (OC 359). (ibid: 19-20)

Stroll characterises the animal and instinctual nature of certainty as standing in contrast to any view of hinge propositions, pseudo-propositions or grammatical rules as the products of rational activity. Certainty stands outside rational activity, the space of concepts or reasons. As Malcolm says, it is like the squirrel’s gathering nuts or the cat’s watching a mouse hole.

The key virtue of this account is that it is clear how certainty can be non-propositional and non-conceptual. It is shared with creatures who lack language and conceptual abilities. At the same time, as Anscombe stresses, animal behaviour can have a kind of unity and purposiveness. In fact, contra Wittgenstein and Malcolm’s comments, psychological concepts do find their application in a cat stalking a mouse.

But despite that qualification, the main problem is that it lies too far from the epistemic practices it is supposed to ground. Stroll himself says:

We have been trained from birth in ways of acting that are nonreflective to accept a picture of the world that is ruthlessly realistic: that there is an earth, persons on it, objects in our environment, and so forth… This picture is manifested in action. When we open a door our lives show that we are certain. Certainty is thus not a matter of reflection about the door but a way of acting with respect to it. All animals, including humans, inherit their picture of the world... (ibid: 157-8 italics added)

There is here a mismatch between the merely animal and accepting a picture of the world, moreover one that is realistic. The latter requires the conceptual abilities that the former rules out. So Stroll’s own account is inconsistent. He links acceptance of the picture with action. One manifests acceptance through activity. But while acting as though one has a picture of the world might characterise merely animal behaviour, it is not sufficient for rational agents, who are also able to form conceptually articulated judgements about the world. They actually do have a conception of the world. Further, some hinges, such as the famous ‘here is a hand’, seem to be direct codifications of aspects of conceptual mastery (cf McGinn and, to an extent, Coliva). Hence the attempt to distinguish the animal from the conceptual seems misguided. Others, such as that the world has existed for a long time, seem clearly to be beyond mere animal possibilities of expression or manifestation.

Stroll’s account – and Malcolm’s too – stands in need of a key bit of augmentation. While certainty might be more a matter of action than perception and such action might have something in common with purposive animal action, still what is the connection between rational animal activity and the possession of concepts? And in so far as certainty for such agents can be conceptually articulated, into what chunks does it divide and what is our attitude to them?

My hunch is that, whether or not Stroll is right that Wittgenstein moved from a quasi-propositional to a non-propositional animal view of certainty, such a move is a misstep. I think we can retain some key features of his (Wittgenstein’s on Stroll’s reading) picture without embracing that move. So hinges are held without specific arguments for them but as part of a conceptually structured inherited world picture. One aspect of them so holding is the certainty of action in accord with them. That is, there are behavioural manifestations of holding a hinge. But the behavioural manifestations of rational agents are expressions of tacit conceptual mastery, not brutely extra-conceptual animal certainty. And because they are held as a kind of tacit background for enquiry, we would usually have no idea what an attempt to state first person knowledge of them was meant to be doing (cf Conant).

The main violence this view does to Wittgenstein’s text is to play down the distinction between knowledge and certainty. Knowledge is certain, too (cf McDowell and Travis). But not all elements that are known form part of the foreground of epistemic practices. In other words, Wittgenstein overplayed the idea knowledge is a game of explicitly asking for and offering reasons. (Nor is doubt symmetric with all knowledge.) The capacity to acquire knowledge may require sensitivity to reasons (such as defeaters) but sometimes we get knowledge almost for free ie. for the cost of entry into the game at all.


Coliva A. (2010) Moore and Wittgenstein. Scepticism, Certainty and Common Sense (London/Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) 

Conant, J. 1998, ‘Wittgenstein on meaning and use’, Philosophical Investigations 21, 222–50. 

Malcolm, N. (1982) ‘Wittgenstein: The relation of language to instinctive behaviour’ Philosophical Investigations, 5: 3-22 

McDowell, J. (1995b) ‘Knowledge and the Internal’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 55, 877–93. Reprinted in Meaning, Knowledge and Reality, 395–413.

McGinn, M. (1989) Sense and Certainty. A Dissolution of Scepticism, Oxford, Blackwell. 

Moyal-Sharrock D. (2004) Understanding Wittgenstein’s On Certainty (London/ Basingstoke: Palgrave McMillian). 

Stroll, A. (1994) Moore and Wittgenstein on Certainty, New York, Oxford University Press.

Travis, C. (2005) ‘A sense of occasion’