Wednesday 19 May 2021

Getting no further, 10 years later, with Charles Travis ‘A sense of occasion’

Nearly ten years ago, I wrote a summary of Charles Travis’ utterly fascinating 2005 paper ‘A sense of occasion’. Although I was able to follow the bulk of the argument and, despite the passage of time, I hold by and large with my 2012 reading of it, I failed to follow the key argument in the penultimate section.

Sadly, I still cannot. I do not understand how occasion sensitivity can do for knowledge what it does for Lac Leman’s being blue. I cannot work out what my blind-spot is. It ought to be obvious.

So I’ll start where I left off ten years ago. This is where I become too stupid.

Max speaks truth in saying there might be goats. The truth he speaks is that there might be, on a certain understanding of something’s being what might be: what one ought to understand by this on this occasion. Again, if there is occasion-sensitivity, then there are not, in addition to such facts as to what might be when one understands might be in this or that way, further facts as to what might be anyway, occasion-insensitively. It is facts of the first kind, and not such supposed further facts, that bear on the truth of knowledge ascriptions, different ones on different ascriptions. Where Sid does not know, he is not to be treated as authoritative; where he does, he is. That rule applies equally in Pia’s situation and in Max’s. There is no difficulty in the idea that some people, engaging with the world in given ways, ought to treat Sid as an authority while others, engaged in other ways, ought not – even if the latter cannot recognize what the former ought to do.
Max ought not to treat Sid as an authority. For he ought to treat goats behind the barn as a way things might be. If he does so treat it, he will see what Pia said as indifferent to a possibility. But what Pia’s statement is indifferent to is what might be on a certain understanding of what might be. It need not thereby be indifferent to any way things might be, on that understanding of might be which its occasion calls for. (Nor is that more than Max, on his occasion, can recognize consistently.) So it need not be understood as crediting Sid with any status he might enjoy despite the existence of possibilities that he is wrong. It may be crediting him with a status he can only enjoy in having proof he grasps as proof. What may vary from one occasion to another (from Max’s, say, to Pia’s) is what would count as enjoying that.
What, if right, would demonstrate occasion-sensitivity is this. For us, both Pia’s occasion and Max’s may be fully in view. We can see all that would make things count one way on the one occasion, another on the other – if the relevant notions are occasion-sensitive. If there is not occasionsensitivity, then at most one of these occasions exhibits the facts as they really are. For there are then only occasion-insensitive facts as to what (really) might be, no matter what else passes for that on one occasion or the other. So either it really might be that there are goats behind the barn, or, really, that is not a way things might be, punkt. So which is it? What Austin and I think is that this question has no motivated answer. Nothing in the way things are gives the one answer any better credentials than the other as an answer to the question what (really) might be. If we are right, and if the point holds, not just for goats behind the barn, but reasonably systematically, then there can be no facts about what might be (or surely not enough) if those facts are not occasion-sensitive ones. That is always the mainspring of occasion-sensitivity. I think it is easy to confirm in the case at hand. [ibid: 308-9]

Let’s assume that both sheep and some goats bleat. Sid can recognise bleats from other noises that animals make (barks, tweets) and lives in a sheep-only environment. Thus when he hears a bleat, it is a sheep bleat and he can tell a bleat from a bark, say. Hearing bleating from the barn, does he know there are sheep in there?

Pia can see the barn and where Sid is standing, listening. As far as she is concerned, she can hear sheep bleating in the barn. She thinks she knows that there are sheep in the barn and she ascribes that knowledge to Sid. Perhaps she hears Sid say aloud: “Lo, the sound of sheep bleating from the barn.”

(One possibility mentioned by Travis is that she can acquire knowledge that there are sheep by hearing what Sid says and knowing that Sid can tell a sheep by its noise even if she cannot. She might be a consumer of his knowledge rather than having equal standing.)

As a variant, she walks round the barn simply for exercise, seeing, by chance, that there are no creatures behind it. This does not change her ascription. (Obviously, there’s a point to this, below.)

Max can see and hear everything that Pia can. Standing next to Sid he refuses to ascribe knowledge or even a true belief to Sid. But, as in the variant above, once he has walked round the barn, he thinks that what Sid says is true but, despite this, he does not ascribe *knowledge* to Sid. Although he does think that Sid *thinks* he knows that there are sheep in the barn (that Sid’s saying “Lo, the sound of sheep” is supposed to be expressive of knowledge) and although he thinks that this is true because he, Max, thinks that he, Max, knows that there are sheep in the barn (again possibly, ironically, partly because of what Sid himself says) still Sid’s true belief is merely lucky. It doesn’t amount to knowledge. Why? Well see a bit later.

With this in place, I will go back to Travis’ famous example of Lac Leman being blue and assume in parallel that Pia says it is, because it looks very blue as it reflects the sky, whereas water-scientist Max says that, unlike other lakes nearby, there are no alluvial deposits shading it blue and so it is not blue on his understanding. (A bucket of it would not look blue.) In this case, it seems possible to contextualise both Pia and Max and to agree that what they both said was true in the way that they were thinking of being blue. If someone - a philosopher - were to press the question of whether it was ‘really’ blue, we might have to clarify context and perhaps adopt one use or other but in general it would seem the wrong question to ask, something of a non-sequitur. (The existing full story already shows how it is blue in one sense and not blue in another and whether one sense seems more important is a practical, not a philosophical, matter.)

(Travis suggests that a philosopher asking whether someone *really* knows is equally otiose.)

So let’s go back to the knowledge case. Can we run the same contextualising form of interpretation and arrive at a view whereby both Pia and Max are right to say, although on different understanding of what they are saying, that Sid does know (ie Pia) and that he does not (ie Max)? 

I’m struggling to do this.

Since both Pia and Max think (on the variant) - correctly - that Sid has a true belief about the sheep, the difference is in the third condition on knowledge. (I assume I can speak this way even without thinking that there is an informative sufficient analysis of knowledge. Still, putative knowledge is undermined by luck as Gettier stresses.) So let’s fill out a context for Max. 

Perhaps Max knows that goats have recently been introduced to the neighbourhood and tend to try to steal food through the rear walls of sheep barns. Since Sid has not checked behind the barn, he does not know that there are no goats - though, in the variant, Max can see that there are no goats - and so Sid does not know that the bleating is sheep bleating. It might have been that there were goats instead and that is enough to undermine an ascription of knowledge to Sid. Max does not ascribe even true belief to Sid until he has himself looked round the barn because he does not think that he himself knows there are sheep until he has done this. For Max, the variant case is necessary even to ascribe true belief to Sid (and to self-ascribe knowledge) that there are sheep in the barn.

In the natural reading of the initial set-up - before we conjured up the food-stealing goats - Pia seemed right to ascribe knowledge to Sid on the grounds that he could hear the bleating and no goats had been mentioned (and in the variant Pia could see there were none, even if Sid could not). But with the new context in play, then it seems that Max would deny Pia knowledge until she walked round the barn. In her first view of things, she neglected a real possibility. And according to Max, Sid always neglects this possibility because there might have been goats and he didn’t (timelessly: doesn’t) check this (as, in the variant, Pia does). So, according to Max, Pia was wrong to ascribe knowledge to Sid even when, after walking round the barn, she was right to self-ascribe knowledge.

Unlike the Lac Leman case, I struggle to find a context pertaining to what ‘might have been’ such that both Pia and Max were right to take their different views of Sid’s knowledge status. 

How about this? Max is sensitive to a merely recent incursion of foreign goats, upsetting the long-standing sheep-only balance of nature. That is why he thinks that there might have been goats behind the barn. Perhaps, however, whether or not the incursion had happened, the goats would never have tolerated the thin atmosphere of this high altitude barn. Knowing this further fact, Pia does not even need to walk round it to rule out goats and can thus know (even before the variant) that the bleating implies sheep and hence Sid knows that there are sheep. 

The problem with this is that it seems that it undermines Max’s view of things. Although he does think it, Max is *wrong* to think that there might have been goats behind the barn. Pia *knows* that there could not be. Thus Sid’s reliance on the sound of bleating was sufficient for Sid to know that there were sheep in the barn. This is one possibility. Pia is right about Sid and Max is wrong about Sid.

Perhaps not, however. Max may take the view that although *Pia* knows about the effects of altitude on goats and he, Max, - obviously (since he is a water-scientist in the other case) - does too, Sid hasn’t explored goat respiration with sufficient attention to count as a knower. Sid’s assumption that there are no goats, while as it happens reliable, is, in Max’s view as far as Sid goes, merely a matter of luck. Max does not think that Sid is epistemically responsible. Max thinks that the fact, and the exclusion of goat-ringers, is outside Sid’s ken. What might have been is brutely external to Sid’s thinking. Etc, etc. But, again, if Max is right, then Pia is wrong.

So this still seems different to the Lac Leman case. Imagine that Max and Pia have a conversation about the goat respiration angle. She stresses that no goat could dwell at that altitude; he says that while that seems to be the latest science, it is hot off the presses and Sid would have had no right to rely on it even had he given it any thought unless he did more than glance at the Daily Mail headlines. There does not seem to be a Bernard Williams absolute conception style representation that redeems both of their apparently opposing views. Either they will continue to disagree or one view will win out.

There does not seem to be any clear but equivalent uses here of what ‘might have been the case’ akin to the equivalent cases of what sort of ‘blue’ one meant when one said the Lake was blue. Max and Pia may rationally disagree on what, actually as it were, might have been the case. That may be enough to suggest that there is no fact of the matter and hence no fact of the matter as to knowledge status. But there does not seem room for disagreement on the use or contextual meaning of ‘what might have been the case’ here such that, from yet another perspective, both parties can be easily understood to be speaking the truth when - apparently - saying the opposite thing. (The point being: in the Lac Leman case, they are not saying the opposite thing despite using the same English sentence.)

Tuesday 11 May 2021

Danièle Moyal-Sharrock on Understanding Wittgenstein’s On Certainty

Back in 2009, I wrote a very brief outline of Danièle Moyal-Sharrock’s 2007 book Understanding Wittgenstein’s On Certainty (Moyal-Sharrock 2007). I think my summary (though very inadequate) wasn’t false. So today I want to offer some sort of assessment in the light of other things I’ve read about Wittgenstein’s On Certainty (OC) more recently.

According to Moyal-Sharrock, Wittgenstein held bipolarity to be a necessary condition for propositions... 

(Bipolarity: every proposition must be capable of being true and capable of being false. It is more restrictive than bivalence: every proposition is either true or false. Thus only something that could be true and could be false counts as a proposition. So, in the context of the later Wittgenstein as usually described (the second Wittgenstein for Moyal-Sharrock), grammatical prescriptions, which set out conditions for playing particular language games (there is no such thing as reddish green; pink is lighter than red; 2 + 2 = 4), cannot be false and thus do not count as propositions. To put it that way is to mislead, however, – sorry! – because neither are they true. At this point, some commentators are happier to say that they are true in a minimal or surd manner.) 

... The expression of a hinge - in a hinge like context, not an empirical doppelgänger - cannot be false. And so it cannot be a proposition. And hence, in a technical sense, it is nonsense (which is not to say anything value-laden about it!). Nevertheless, even in such a context, a rational speaker must be able to appreciate the semantic relations of the whole to its parts and those parts to other genuine propositions with sense. All this is in her book.

Assuming that knowledge is limited to contents expressible as propositions (or, perhaps, contents that simply are propositions) then this non-propositional reading of hinges quickly and directly rules out their being known. Moore does not know the thingy he tries to express in his claim which, were one to overhear it in a crowded bar, one might have taken to concern whether he has a hand - in the non-medical context in which that seemed so sure that it was also proof against scepticism - because there isn’t anything ‘there’ in logical space to be known. He no more knows it than he knows that iggle wiggle piggle.

Now tautologies are not propositions either. And they too are related via semantic decomposition and recomposition to empirical, bipolarity-possessing propositions. And yet, someone who knows the truth of a tautology does not thereby know any worldly content. Suppose they know that a particular tautology is true. Apply Dummett’s worry about modest theories of meaning (that there is more to knowing a truth than knowing that it is true and knowledge of meaning requires the former). Can they know, not only that it is true, but its truth? Well perhaps in this derivative sense. They may know enough of the compositional structure of the tautology to know why it is a tautology. In a first year logic exam, this knowledge might be tested. So perhaps this does serve as an analogy for combining the idea that hinges are nonsensical and the idea that a rational speaker must grasp their relations to related bi-polar propositions.

Still, it would be an odd analogy (the fault is mine, not Moyal-Sharrock’s but I’m searching for a way to understand her view). Clicking the final pieces of the tautology into place stops it saying anything specific about the world (even if a competent self conscious speaker can explain how the structure yields the tautology). By contrast, Moore’s utterance looks still to have a location in logical space. It looks to link Moore and his hand, presupposing some English words, in a way that also provides a competent speaker the wherewithal to recognise that a doppelgänger sentence is not using any of the words ambiguously or as metaphor or merely in secondary sense. A doppelgänger is, indeed, a doppelgänger of the hinge itself. (Just to be clear: I am warming up to the idea that we know the content of a hinge - thus that it has a content - by taking our ability to construct the right, relevant doppelgänger as one indication. Our selection of the doppelgänger implies we know where, in logical space, to look.)

(This makes me wonder what the non-proposition ‘thingy’ (I’d write ‘content’ but it cannot be that; let ‘thingy’ stand in) of the hinge is, for Moyal-Sharrock. It must be something like the use of the sentence in that context. Used in the doppelgänger context, it is a different thing: a successful bi-polar proposition. So it cannot be just the sentence or character string. The words are not sufficient for the thingy. It must be the sentence in use. But given that it is supposed to fail of a use in the hinge context, my phrase “the use of the sentence in that context” must nevertheless be wrong. So of what is the doppelgänger a doppelgänger? Surely, again not the mere sentence or character string, since a synonymous doppelgänger using different words would also be a doppelgänger. (So the very words are not even necessary for the hinge: synonymous ones would do for both hinge and doppelgänger.) It is as though we need to postulate more than the sentence or character string but less than a proposition: a sort of nonsensical sense to serve as the basic vehicle from which doppelgängers can then be constructed. But that seems utter rubbish! This is, I fear, the consequence of starting to use the idea of nonsense as a technical notion.)

To return to the analogy with tautology. It seems much odder to say of the hinge - than the tautology - that it does not gesture at a particular bit of logical space. Its content has not been cancelled out in the way that that of a tautology has.

I have the impression that Moyal-Sharrock has provided a move in the history of ideas - in this case the specifics of Wittgenstein’s use of ‘proposition’ - rather than a contribution to epistemology (even in the meta-tradition of ending it). Once the notion of nonsense has become merely technical - such that we can say what the connection is between hinges, related empirical propositions and doppelgängers - it no longer provides illumination for why Moore’s claim to know his ‘hinge’ fails. I think that we do at least seem to know / understand what it is - what logical possibility - Moore thinks he knows: namely that ‘this’ (ie that that) is (was) a hand. So the content seems specified: that that was his hand. We might sniffily say that this is technically nonsense – well not that sniffily as ‘nonsense’ is not a value term – but we no longer have a grasp of why this isn’t a content that might be known.

Given this, then the failure of Moore to know it falls back from the stark idea that there is nothing to know to the more modest idea that there is a (quasi- or non-Wittgensteinian-propositional) content but that it is just that he doesn’t know it. His attitude is different. Perhaps he lacks the right justification? He might have a different attitude to it, one of animal certainty, and perhaps that it is a task of OC to describe.

And I think that this does seem to be a plausible reading of some of what Moyal-Sharrock says. Surely over strongly, she claims that Wittgenstein subscribes to a JTB analysis of knowledge (nothing she cites warrants this, though she does cite context specific connections to justification) and then suggests that certainties are not justified. One does not offer a reason for them. I can imagine that one could draw a distinction between knowledge and certainty this way. But if so it would be premised on a philosophical analysis of knowledge - which isn’t Wittgenstein’s usual mode - and the idea that knowledge works only that way (ie that the analysis is a good reduction). Perhaps: that there is always an explicit justification for any knowledge claim. But it seems to me to be equally plausible to say that while knowledge is a standing in the space of reasons, not every knowledge claim is advanced on the basis of a reason and in some cases offering a reason if challenged would be sketching an almost entire world picture. What is the justification for denying the chronology of young earth creationism? Well it’s not any one compelling factoid. But still, I think we know that the Earth is more than 6,000 years old.

Overall, I don't think that the non-propositional, ‘nonsensical’ reading of hinges works as a free standing response to any epistemological worries we may have.  

Moyal-Sharrock, D (2007) Understanding Wittgenstein’s On Certainty, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Thursday 6 May 2021

Some notes on having a nervous breakdown

I didn’t much like 2020. Just before it started, I found myself having a deep gash stitched on Christmas Eve (2019) in A&E. (One gets such a sinking feeling on realising that one really will require medical attention at such a time of year!) Then I developed a painful neuroma, as a result of five hours of standing teaching, which stopped all thoughts of exercise for a few months. But then Covid-19 hit and everything else seemed unimportant. I ‘saw’ in the denuded shelves of Asda in March, one Sunday morning when I am normally pretty much alone in the shop, the likely end of civilisation. We were led by a government of corrupt idiots at a time when much more was needed.

But 2021 started worse when I was forced to commit a kind of career suicide by declaring to all concerned that I could no longer work. The attacks of anxiety, the retching and vomiting, had spread through the week even to the weekends and I was ‘done in’. Various important things had to be finished, or so it seemed, but equally I couldn’t go on. And so I borrowed a few days of energy to finish some tasks and delegate others (to generous and understanding colleagues) and then walked away from work one Monday morning. ‘Walked’ is wrong. I pretty much fell onto the sofa and didn’t get up for a month. Three months later, I’m still weak as a kitten.

Since my memory seems affected, I just want to scribble some notes and there’s less chance I’ll lose them if I put them on the web.

I want to say that I’ve had a ‘nervous breakdown’ because that best balances the rational exogenous causes with the internal madness and collapse. But ‘really’ it’s GAD and depression. The latter started in 2015 or 16, a year or so after the death of my parents. Grief segued into depression. This surprised me because, despite myself, I’d let grief take its course. If, like a wave, it swamped me in a rough Liverpool pub and I ended up weeping like a child, so be it. Nor was there any corrupting guilt in the mix. We’d all done the very best by each other in that final year. And yet something went wrong. I spent much of my time fleeing the world by retiring to bed and drifting into sleep. I became worried at the boundaries of the bedroom. My safe world shrank to one room and then to under the duvet.

At some point, I realised I’d lost happiness in two quite specific ways. I was never struck by happiness any more. Never, walking in the sun up to pick up a newspaper and flirt a little with the station buffet staff, did I think: Gosh I’m happy! Second, I could never anticipate happiness. I might know – purely cognitively - on a Wednesday morning that it was likely I’d be happy in the pub on Friday, but I didn’t get to experience a foretaste of that happiness in advance. And that made dark work-day mornings rather bleak. I could never feel any happiness in advance. The belief I had in future prospects was pure belief. Not affect. This ‘anhedonia’ continues though sometimes I wonder whether I can feel a little more, like hearing returning after a noisy gig. (Am I happy in flow activity? I’m inclined to say yes, like a cat. It would be wrong to say I wasn't happy when, say, talking or teaching. It’s just that I cannot feel that I am.)

Anxiety began to grow as the Cumbrian autumnal darkness arrived (this had happened in 2019, too). Somatised as nausea and retching, I’d learned to live with this as a localised once or twice a week ‘attack’. I could cycle across Preston retching as I went merely feeling embarrassed and stupid. But it began to spread through the week as a constant feeling of dread and my body decided that since I just ignored the retching it would sometimes, playfully, unpredictably, up the stakes to vomiting. Perhaps this is what was so tiring over time, though I didn’t notice so much that I was exhausted until this year. Even as I arranged sickness leave, I didn’t spot the physical aspect of the mental illness until I was permitted to give in to it. From the first Monday I was off, I was unable to do anything. My fond thought of three months of pottering and philosophy was replaced by the most tedious of incapacity. 

I realise that my image of a nervous breakdown came from reading Saul Bellow’s novel Herzog. The titular Herzog has been left by his wife, rather cruelly, and retires from life to write letters. For example, to Heidegger. “Dear Doktor Professor Heidegger, I should like to know what you mean by the expression ‘the fall into the quotidian’. When did this fall occur? Where were we standing when it happened?” I thought I’d be able to maintain some sort of inquiring mind and write experientially grounded philosophy as a catharsis. I could study my own illness but at one remove. This immediately proved a ridiculous hope.

After a little while I decided to come off the second of the SSRIs I’d recently tried (the third of the illness as a whole). Coming off Paroxetine in a hurry turned out to be a form of ‘cold turkey’. Quite physically unpleasant. But also, as I slowly recovered, I realised just how much madder I had been. Being emotionally out of sync with the world had been like living in a mildly disturbed dream for a few weeks but I’d only occasionally realised that I was dreaming. Strange that I’d not noticed the loss of sanity, only its return (cf dreaming scepticism disjunctivism). 

As a philosopher with a particular cognitivist bent - language, thought, and intentionality being guiding interests - I’d always assumed that madness was only really a matter of what Jaspers calls ‘primary delusions’, belief-like states that strain their belief-status, are hard for others to make sense of, and occur only with particularly severe forms of mental illness. But madness is also a matter of doing, saying and feeling as well as pure reasoning. To begin with, I was obviously tearfully distressed. Phone calls, even a couple of initial reassuring calls from managers, left me attempting to press the phone into the duvet as though trying to get rid of it by submerging it. More generally, because the whole mood of the world was wrong, so was I. One evening my partner photographed me watching some trivial television programme. I was upside down with my head on the ground, the small of my back against the seat of the sofa and my legs resting up its back. I’d been like that for an hour and hadn’t noticed. Basic norms of comportment would normally have indicated to me that this was, at the very least, unusual and hardly comfortable. Self respect might have made me offer a reason to my beloved. But none of this occurred to me. The picture now makes me feel a little sick just as one might feel if one realises one wishes to turn away from a dying sheep found on a hillside.

One evening everything seemed so wrong and strange that my partner darkened the room, stoked the stove, and left a long slow piece by Max Richter playing hugely loudly on the hi fi, filling the room as though to exclude everything else from the space. It calmed me but also contaminated Richter for me afterwards. I no longer play him.

I’m returning to working now. I don't know whether it is too soon but it seems right to try. Perhaps nothing will improve very soon whatever I do. My anxiety is no better - on the morning I reviewed my email inbox, I vomited on my study carpet, having forgotten the usual safeguards - but I seem to know more fundamentally that it is irrational. My energy levels are poor. But while I don’t have the energy to be out on the hills, I no longer fear the outdoors. I could imagine being better. It doesn’t seem likely right now. But it doesn’t seem impossible as it did a few weeks ago.

There is a postscript here.