Thursday, 3 February 2022

Abstract: On not believing what one says: my own experience of self-avowal in anxiety

As an approximately Wittgensteinian philosopher, I have always subscribed to a ‘grammatical’ orientation in philosophy in which the key idea is to describe the conditions under which word use is normally justified. One feature of this approach is, typically, to favour the public over the private and hence the need to work to find space for the latter in the relatively unproblematic context of the former. Despite this, Wittgenstein’s work also contains discussions of finer grained linguistic phenomenology in which the wish to say something, or the wish to try to say something using certain words, plays a role. One instance of this is the case of secondary sense in which speakers use words in spontaneously novel ways linked to, but not straight-forwardly justified by, their ‘public’ uses. And hence there is a tension between the basic orientation towards the description of public rules of correctness and spontaneous private uses of words which, nevertheless, are not mere noise.

This tension has been explored in the philosophy of psychiatry as an approach to psychopathological phenomena such as delusions, which attempts to tread a middle ground between nonsense (construed as an absence of sense) and some sort of non-standard and eccentric sense. In this presentation, I take a more mundane example: my own experience of anxiety and my rationalised expression of it.

In my experience of anxiety, the emotional content of the anxiety connects to specific stressors: quite specific sources of worry, and leads to reactions that would make sense in the case of life-threatening events. Hence, the anxiety reaction is out of proportion with its merely worrying stimulus. Further, I know that this is the case. Afterwards, I am able to see that my anxiety reactions were in no sense justified by the low level of threat that prompted them. Further, in the anxiety state itself, I am also able to offer suitable arguments for the inappropriateness of the reaction. I would pass a MCA capacity test for this disavowal of the reaction. From a third person perspective, it probably seems that I know what is going on and that my disavowal of my own bodily reaction is correct. I have insight. It is merely that my body has made a different, worse and irrational judgement.

But while this is the obvious way to apply a grammatical approach to what I say and do, both in an anxiety state and when describing it afterwards, the experience of the state has made me doubt it. The phenomenology of anxiety is not adequately captured by the splitting of cognitive and affective states elicited by an imaginary dialogue of what I know, while in the state.

This suggests the following tension. While the grammatical rules for the ascription – including the self-ascription – of knowledge track the implicit norms that epistemology aims to make explicit, I wish to say that, in extremis, I do not in fact know what I say I know, and can justify. The expression of anxiety is an instance of the tension within Wittgensteinian philosophy between the public rules and the private inclinations, in this case further written into bodily reaction. This suggests that there is a similar difficulty in articulating the content of the experience as there is in accounting for secondary sense which rules out the possibility of what Travis calls ‘cognitive prosthetics’.