Saturday 29 June 2024

Why should a Wittgensteinian read Travis?

My partner asked me why a Wittgensteinian ought to read Charles Travis. 

One answer would be that Travis wrote two books explicitly about aspects of Wittgenstein’s philosophy: The Uses of Sense (2001) and Thought’s Footing (2006). 

Another is that the sort of reader who flirts with a grand overview picture of the relation of thought and world and, paradoxically, also with the dissolution of such pictures, while also spurning vulgar reductionism, will find a kindred spirit in Travis. Travis both paints a big picture of the essentially general realm of the conceptual ‘reaching out’ to the essential particularity of the historical which ‘instances’ it and yet also stresses the role of our parochial sensibilities to make this possible (see his ‘Reason’ s reach’.) It is a picture consistent with Wittgenstein’s surprising claim that: 

429. The agreement, the harmony, between thought and reality consists in this: that if I say falsely that something is red, then allthe same, it is red that it isn’t. And in this: that if I want to explain the word “red” to someone, in the sentence “That is not red”, I do so by pointing to something that is red.” (Wittgenstein 2009)

A third is that Travis has really interesting things to say about some specific issues in Wittgenstein. For example, he has a line on seeing-as, seeing aspects and the duck-rabbit that starts from such a simple observation about what the duck-rabbit really is that it made me wonder how I could have missed it. He has an interesting idea to connect Wittgenstein’s central discussion of rule following to a distinction (from Russell and perhaps Frege) between singular and descriptive thought (well that is how it strikes me the idea works). I’m less convinced by his solution to the problem that then emerges. And he has a really good way to make the idea of language games very much more than a presentational eccentricity. 

I will sketch aspects of those ideas a little more, but there is also a better fourth reason for a Wittgensteinian to look to Travis which I will set out at the end. Travis’ mode of philosophy is breathtakingly Wittgensteinian (in something like Cora Diamond’s realistic spirit). I will give one example.


Wittgenstein’s discussion of aspect-dawning and the duck-rabbit in Part 2 section xi of Philosophical Investigations is sometimes taken to suggest that while particularly noticeable only in changes of aspect – of the duck-rabbit, the Necker cube etc – all seeing is seeing-as. N.R. Hanson’s 1970s book Patterns of Discovery on the philosophy of science runs such a line so as to advance claims about the theory dependence of observation in science via the idea that all perceptual experience is conceptually structured. That perceptual experience is conceptually structured is a claim famously advanced by the sometimes Wittgensteinian philosopher John McDowell in his book Mind and World. But it is an idea wholeheartedly rejected by Travis (in such papers as ‘The silence of the senses’ and ‘Reason’s reach’). 

Travis argues, instead, that perception involves no such content and is instead a relation between a subject and their environment that makes their environment available for judgements. Conceptual content first enters the picture in the judgements that the subject makes in response to a perceived environment. While seeing is perceptual and its objects have spatial locations – seeing the sun in the sky – ‘seeing that’ is a judgement and its object, such as that the sun has set, has no location. One might thus think that cases such as the duck-rabbit might be problematic for Travis. But, as he points out, the duck-rabbit is a picture in which there are two images to be seen: the duck and the rabbit. In fact, he suggests that attending to one image or the other is simply a case of seeing. ‘Seeing-as’ implies some further element of self-consciousness as to the nature of the experience. 

His account of rule following in Thoughts Footing and elsewhere, connects the issue to the difference between descriptive and singular thoughts. Here is a typical example: 

Sid tells Pia that her shoes are under the bed. Pia understands Sid’s words in a certain way. In particular, she takes him to speak on a certain understanding of shoes being under a bed. Now she enters the room. She encounters things being relevantly as they are (supposing how they are three floors down not to matter). She learns something, perhaps enough, of the conditions (circumstances) which then obtain. Three understandings of Sid’s words now become available. There is an understanding of them on which things being that way just is their being as Sid said. There is one on which it just is not. And there may be a third on which that much leaves the issue undecided. Other than the mentioned differences, these understandings may be very much alike. It may be that just one of them is the one that Pia’s understanding of Sid’s words requires. In that sense, just one of them is part of that understanding...

There is now a point about the availability of these three understandings...Some thoughts are only available to us given suitable acquaintance with our environment. And so it is with those understandings of Sid’s words I just mentioned. Pia’s shoes are positioned as they are with respect to the bed. There is then this understanding of Sid’s words: what they say is such that things being that way is things being as they said. Someone may thus understand them. One mayonly so understand them if one is suitably acquainted with things being as they then were. It is to things so being that one must be responding in having that understanding. An understanding thus unavailable to someone before a given time I will call novel (for that person at that time), and an understanding available anyway, even when that other one was not (or if it were not) prior relative to that novel one. (Travis 2006: 129-30)

The familiar problem explored in Wittgenstein’s discussion of rule following of the student who continues an arithmetic series in a divergent manner despite past agreement with common practice is mapped onto the distinction of a prior understanding that one might have of the meaning of some words and the novel understanding one is only in a position to have in a singular thought, or via acquaintance with some new situation, assessing whether those words apply to this case. The challenge for maintaining determinacy of meaning is showing how it is that prior understandings compel novel understandings. Travis thinks that Wittgenstein has done enough to undermine any account of how they do without relying on the reasonable judgement in the specific context of use of fellow subjects. (Sadly, Travis’ idea does not fit very well Wittgenstein’s famous arithmetic examples because it is unclear that one can take a singular thought towards a mathematical example. The best one could do is have a singular thought towards a specific typographic representation of a  mathematical example. But it is not clear that that is what matters. I am also unpersuaded that his positive account does enough to leave ‘everything as it is’. It looks to me that it is revisionary in the direction, at least, of Wright and Kripke by contrast with McDowell’s excellent non-revisionary account.) 

Travis adds his own particular signature dish to the possibility of divergent understandings: occasion sensitivity. And he illustrates the open possibilities for sensitivity to occasions through a connection to language games. In the example above, some of the options for understanding ‘shoes being under the bed’ include whether the shoes are wholly or only partly under the bed, nailed to the ceiling below or three floors below. But another example Travis offers may be more persuasive. It concerns whether a room is dark. Travis sketches two language games employing ‘is dark’. In one, one participant or ‘player’ announces that the room ‘is dark’ and the other then removes photographic film from its canister for developing. In the other game, that the room ‘is dark’ is deployed to explain – and thus justify – an inability to locate a specific book on shelves. The standards for ‘is dark’ differ in the two games. What meets the latter standard of correctness may not meet the former. Travis suggests that thinking of the different language games that can be played with the same English phrases, or sentences, with their standard meanings, shows how whether they can used to utter truths depends on the context. It depends on the game being played. Thus, contrary to much philosophical, including Fregean, orthodoxy, meaning alone is insufficient to fix the standard for truth. One needs to know the point of the game – eg. opening film canisters or finding books – to know the truth of the corresponding linguistic move. The idea of language games is not merely a presentational contingency but the heart of a claim that connects language to points, purposes and reasonable judgements. 


But the example that strikes me as most breathtakingly original is the discussion of names in Thoughts Footing. There are two dominant approaches to proper names in philosophy. One, starting with Russell and exemplified by Searle, claims that proper names stand for a definite description (Russell) or a cluster of descriptions (Searle). This assimilates the apparent singular character of proper name to a descriptive thought. The other, based on criticism of the descriptive account, takes the link from names to their objects to be mediate by causal relations back to an original baptism (Kripke). It faces problems concerning the specification of the causal mediation. Both approaches attempt to explain how a name can name its bearer. Travis, by contrasts offers the following picture:

Let us apply here an idea already sketched in Lecture 1 when we were considering how the notions of reason and responsibility might connect to truth. Imagine that we carry out an exercise. For its purposes we suppose that we do, on occasion, express singular thoughts, and do so with the aid of words which name individuals. We then ask: on that supposition is it clear enough where we should say a singular thought was expressed, and where not? Intuitively, yes. Descartes lived in Breda. That is a doubly singular thought. Rain makes streets wet. That is not one. If we were dividing things up in that way, following best intuition, what would we say of my ‘Russell walked’? The example is imaginary. But quite plausibly that it expressed a singular thought. Now, the idea I am applying here isjust this: if that is how the exercise comes out—if at least things divide up coherently on the working supposition—then that is how things are: we do sometimes express singular thoughts, and, nearly enough, where one would have thought we did. Ceteris paribus, then, that is what my ‘Russell walked’ did. 

To treat it as doing so will be to treat the understanding it bore in a particular way. For any general idea as to who my ‘Russell’ named—any general concept its bearer might be supposed to fit—the understanding my ‘Russell’ in fact bore must leave room for the discovery that my ‘Russell’’s bearer does not fit that concept, or that what fits it is not him. That understanding must leave room for those ideas to make sense. It must not be too stupid (unreasonable) to suppose my ‘Russell’ to bear an understanding that leaves such room. If it is too stupid to suppose this, then my ‘Russell’ was not a name. Conversely, though, by the operative idea here, if it is not too stupid to suppose this, nor too stupid to suppose that there is someone my understanding fits, then my ‘Russell’ was a name. (Family resemblance is an account of how an understanding might work as the understanding my ‘Russell’ bore would thus have to.) 

Let us now look at all the cases where, on the above line of thought, some word or other would count as having functioned as a name. We might look for something else, in common to all these cases, that would make them all count as that—some other feature of the understandings all those words bore by virtue of which it is not too stupid to regard them as leaving room for making the required kind of sense. For example, we might look for some particular sort of general idea involved in the relevant conceptions in every case. Or we might look for something like perceptual contact with the item named. But, on this first application of the idea of language on holiday, any such enterprise is a mistake. What holds all the cases together is precisely and only this: in each of them it is not too stupid to suppose that the (candidate) name bears an understanding that allows us to make sense, for any general concept, of the idea that what fits that understanding does not fit that concept, and vice-versa. The particulars that make this not too stupid to suppose may be too various here for that. If variety defeats here any candidate for further common feature to cases of names naming, that suggests no occult connection between name and bearer. It suggests no more than a very great deal of the mundane. (ibid: 63-4)

This seems to me to be a breathtakingly Wittgensteinian approach to the question of what makes a name a name and also how that is so much as possible. It takes very seriously the idea of not thinking but looking and placing weight on what we do when language is not on holiday. It refuses to do more than look to the details of actually using names. If this appeals, then Cora Diamond’s Realism and the realistic spirit is the next place to go.

See this and this for my later and initial thoughts on Travis on seeing aspects. See this for the discussion of rule following in Thought’s Footing. And see this and this and this for other interesting papers by Travis.