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