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.