December 27, 2012

Against some self-images of the age: Raymond Tallis

I’ve been reading Raymond Tallis’s book Aping Mankind: Neuromania,Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity. The author’s background is in medicine, specifically clinical neuroscience. The book is a fierce criticism of two currently predominant modes of thinking about human behaviour, uncritically adopted by many scientists and cherished in popular culture: what Tallis calls neuromania (“the appeal to the brain, as revealed through the latest science, to explain our behaviour”) and Darwinitis (the idea that “unsentimental honesty ... requires us to acknowledge that we are just like animals in all respects”).
                      I believe the author has undertaken some urgent tasks: for while brain research and evolutionary psychology may undoubtedly have something to contribute to an understanding of human affairs, all parties ought to welcome a sober look at the uncritical and reductive way in which conclusions tend to be drawn and results from these disciplines to be presented in contemporary public debate. This is what Tallis offers: thus, he brings incisive and detailed criticisms to bear on several experimental studies in neurology.
                      I do have some reservations, though. For one thing, his rhetoric seems too harsh and unrelenting; this will encourage his adversaries to become defensive (or, more likely, given the current intellectual climate, tempt them to ignore his arguments altogether), rather than invite them to a fruitful dialogue.
This, after all, is just a tactical consideration. However, as far as his argument goes, I was disappointed by the extent to which Tallis rests his case against reductionism on classical, “we-know-from-our-own-case” dualism, with all the problems attendant on that position. (After all, if I only know from my own case, what grounds do I have for claiming that it’s the same thing as you know from your own case?) Concerning intentionality, i.e. the fact that perceptions, beliefs, hopes, fears, wishes, intentions, etc, are “about” things in the world, he argues persuasively that it cannot be accounted for in physiological terms; but then he goes on to say: “How ... should we ascribe [intentionality] to anything else unless it was something we had experienced in the first place in our selves?” (p. 110.)
In trying to get clear about muddles about the mind, it is important to acknowledge the interplay between first person expressions and third person ascriptions. Reductive accounts tend to ignore the first person perspective altogether. Dualists, like Tallis, go to the other extreme and present third person utterances as derivative from first person expressions. To strike a balance, it is important to reflect on the fact that we learn to express what we perceive, feel, believe, etc in interacting with others: hence the fact that we have this kind of comprehensibility to others is indispensable to our acquiring this vocabulary. But on the one hand, we acquire the ability to use these words as spontaneous self-expression, and not, say, on the basis of observation of our own behaviour. So the first person perspective too is an inevitable ingredient in this use of words, and is not derivative from the third person.
(I shall comment on Tallis’s discussion of perception in a future blog.)

November 03, 2012

The limits of the language game metaphor: Diamond and Mulhall

Stephen Mulhall’s essay “Realism, Modernism, and the Realistic Spirit: Diamond’s inheritance of Wittgenstein, early and late” (Nordic Wittgenstein Review 1 (2012), 7-33) is a thought-provoking inquiry into ways of applying Wittgenstein. (The essay is now available on the journal's website.) 
                      I shall here comment on one section of the essay (2: 3).
                      As Mulhall notes, we commonly think of Wittgenstein’s concepts “language game”, “grammar”, “forms of life”, “criteria”, ”rule-governed” – what Mulhall calls his signature concepts – as “forged by Wittgenstein himself in the service of simply putting things before us as they really are”. Mulhall, however, draws attention to the risk that
if ... this set of signature concepts is sufficiently substantial or robust to acquire a life of its own, then they might on occasions stand between us and an ability simply to acknowledge how things really are; rather than helping to subvert our tendency towards the imposition of a philosophical ’must’, they may actually subserve its further expression (p. 10).
In other words: the language game metaphor was meant to draw our attention to the actual activities in which we utter and respond to words. But there’s a danger that this perspective will come to impose its own preconceived notions on how we see things. (Thus, I suggest, we may forget that the language game is indeed a model or metaphor, and start imagining, say, that it has rules just like football, or that the limits of the game must be precisely circumscribed, etc.)
I believe this warning is of the utmost importance. Mulhall tellingly compares this situation to the development of realism in the novel:
The history of the novel since Defoe, Richardson and Sterne might ... be written entirely in terms of the ways in which novelists repeatedly subject their inheritance of realistic conventions to critical questioning in order to recreate the impression of reality in their readers (p. 9).
Mulhall illustrates his theme by reference to some of Cora Diamond’s work, among other things her essay “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy” which I touched on in an earlier blog. There Diamond speaks about certain experiences – such as the encounter with the photograph of six young men that were shortly afterward to be killed in the war – “in which we take something in reality to be resistant to our thinking it, or possibly to be painful in its inexplicability, difficult in that way, or perhaps awesome and astonishing in its inexplicability”(p. 99 in her essay, quoted on p. 18). She calls this “a difficulty of reality” and says that to appreciate it “is to appreciate oneself being shouldered out of how one thinks, how one is apparently supposed to think” (p. 105; p. 19).
                      Mulhall comments:
[P]roperly to register the essential nature of a difficulty of reality asks us to acknowledge the capacity of reality to shoulder us out from our familiar language-games, to resist the distinctively human capacity to word the world, and thereby to leave us as bewildered and disorientated as a bird that suddenly finds itself incapable of constructing a nest, or a beaver of building a dam... (Ibid.)
Not everyone will have the same response to Cora Diamond’s examples (this is one of several she invokes). If one does not, it is no use staring at the example and trying to discover what she is talking about there – one will simply have to find one’s own examples; cases in which one feels words fail one. (Nor should we forget that what strikes someone about an awesome experience may not primarily be her inability to put it into words; that, on the whole, is the reaction of someone who is preoccupied with describing things, with “wording the world”. Anyway, in a given case someone might feel that silence is the only adequate response.)
                      But if we are not all struck in the same way by the same examples, the question arises, what makes something an experience of the relevant kind? On what authority could I claim that this is a case in which words fail us, if someone fails to see it? Am I blind to something, if I personally fail to recognize this? Evidently, those questions are out of place. There is no right or wrong here. This kind of experience is not grounded in anything, it is our unmediated, primitive, subjective response. But then to say that it is an experience of the language game giving out would be a strangely objective way of putting the matter – for one thing, it makes it appear that one needs access to the concept of a language game to be able to have the experience. (It also makes it sound as if the rules of the game laid it down that this is out of bounds. But this would be giving them the kind of jurisdiction that we are concerned to question.)
                      I find it exceedingly hard to get a grip on this discussion. What complicates matters, I believe, is the way two different things come together: the speaker’s predicament in front of the experience, and the philosopher’s predicament in trying to account for the speaker’s predicament. Mulhall explicitly puts them side by side:
Surely difficulties of reality ought ... to resist the grammar of “language-game”, “grammar” and “form of life” (however flexibly they are projected) just as radically as they resist that of any other aspects of our thinking and talking? (Ibid.)
This is what I feel like saying: the speaker is bewildered about how to respond to what’s in front of her. The philosopher, so far, is not facing a question: it’s not for the philosopher to tell the speaker how she might respond, nor to say that here language gives way. The problem for the philosopher arises, if it does, after the speaker has responded. Depending on what was said, the philosopher may reflect, say, that the speaker’s words reflect her bewilderment about the experience – on the other hand, of course, her verbal response (whatever her reaction) may be down-home and trivial.
                      Mulhall asks:
Would it be at all helpful in clarifying this highly distinctive aspect of our relation with our words to say that being shouldered out of our language-games is just one more language-game, or to declare that words have a grammar when they fail us just as they do when we effortlessly employ them to word the world, or to describe these uncanny encounters as just another element in the homely forms of human life? (Ibid.)
My response here would be to say that the usefulness of the language game metaphor (like the language game itself) doesn’t come to an end in this or that particular place, rather it gradually peters out.

October 26, 2012

On the importance or unimportance of philosophy

This blog may be slightly off-topic. It is inspired by a thread on the Leiter report, in which philosophers respond in various ways to a review by veteran physicist Freeman Dyson. In his review Dyson notes the dwindling role of philosophy in contemporary culture. Some of the respondents agree that much philosophy in the English-speaking world has become an anemic and technical discipline which succeeds in engaging only its own participants, while others were more defensive, taking umbrage at the apparent insult to their profession, maintaining that there are indeed a number of philosophers who have contributed significantly to contemporary debate (Rawls was among those mentioned) or arguing that what philosophers do is truly important whether or not it is ever read by anyone outside a small circle of experts. 
                      Just after reading this I happened to come across the following philosophical example in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on metaphysics. I leave it to the reader’s judgment to decide how it reflects on the issue of the importance or otherwise of contemporary philosophy.
                      Among the problems of the “new metaphysics” is that of Tib and Tibbles:
Tibbles is a cat. Call his tail ‘Tail’. Call “all of him but his tail” ‘Tib’. Suppose Tail is cut off—or, better, annihilated. Tibbles still exists, for a cat can survive the loss of its tail. And it would seem that Tib will exist after the “loss” of Tail, because Tib lost no part. But what will be the relation between Tib and Tibbles? Can it be identity? No, that is ruled out by the non-identity of discernibles, for Tibbles will have become smaller and Tib will remain the same size. But then, once again, we seem to have a case of spatially coincident material objects that share their momentary non-modal properties.
This is meant to show, I take it, that two non-identical objects can be in the same place at the same time. The discussion seems a perfect illustration of Wittgenstein’s dictum (Philosophical Investigations § 38), according to which philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday.  It seems to me that the only way to keep a discussion like the one above going is to keep the question of how words are used firmly out of view.
                      (And what’s the solution to the problem? Just don’t cut off the damned tail!)

October 15, 2012

Describing smells

It is often claimed that we can’t really describe smells, or that our ability to do so is severely limited. This is taken to show a limitation of our language, a limitation that can’t be overcome. What is the source of this idea?
                      Clearly, we do describe smells sometimes. A client may tell a carpenter about the way his house smells. Say, there is a putrid smell, or a sharp, stinging smell in the basement, or it smells like old wet rags, etc, and the carpenter may tell him that there’s nothing to worry about, or maybe that the house suffers from dry rot or mildew or what have you. Or a wine connoisseur might describe a wine to a colleague, and his colleague might be able to tell what type of wine it was – or they might disagree about the aroma of some particular wine, etc.
                      “But here we are not really describing the smell itself, simply saying what the smell is like. We’re not bringing the smell itself into words.” It will also be said that what we miss is a smell vocabulary. Now strictly speaking this isn’t true, there’s a whole range of words for describing smells (as illustrated here, for instance). It is true, though, that our smell vocabulary is very generic, and that we often try to be more specific either by referring to the source of the smell (it smells of fish) or by comparing it to a smell identified by its source (it smells like fish).
                      But why should we think that in referring to the source or in invoking a similarity to a smell coming from some source we are not describing the smell itself? What would it be like to “describe the smell itself”? I should like to suggest that our thinking here is under the spell of colour vocabulary. Colour words, we think, are a paradigm of what it means to bring our very sensations into words. Colour words mention only the visible property itself, independently of the object carrying the property. The colour red is an abstract property compared to the smell of fish, for instance.
                      Colour words, however, are really a special case. Quite apart from the fact that the application of colour words is not in reality wholly object independent (consider the difference between establishing that a book is red, that an apple is red, that the sky is red, and that someone is red in the face), colour, it seems, has no direct counterpart when it comes to other perceptual properties. Our vocabulary for sound or texture or even shape (felt or seen) is quite limited, and most of the time we describe the perceptual qualities of an object by referring to the kind of object it is (I felt that it was silk) or is like (it felt like silk). Where shapes are concerned for instance, we have recourse to a few schematic concepts, which do not apply to most natural objects, and when they do apply, it is usually just by approximation. (We use the alphabet for recording spoken sounds, and we have musical notation for musical sounds, but there is no general abstract vocabulary for sounds.)
                      The relatively abstract nature of colour vocabulary, I would imagine, is ultimately grounded in our practices of painting or colouring objects; for instance in the fact that we can use the same paint for a great many different kinds of object.
                      Colours, in fact, provide a misleading paradigm of what it means to describe perceptual qualities, leading us to say that smells “can’t really be described”.

September 22, 2012

Wrong Goal or Wrong Method?

Wrong Goal or Wrong Method?

It may be asked, concerning the objections I raised against Alison Gopnik’s attempt to describe an autistic child’s experience of the world, whether the problem lay in wanting to give an account of the child’s experience in the first place, or whether it simply lay in the way she went about it.
                      One may ask: what task is the inside story (as constructed by an outsider) called upon to fulfil? Onesuggestion I made is that it is taken to function as a key to an understanding of the other’s behaviour. If we could see the world through the eyes of the other, we would have a direct perspective on how situations will present themselves to people like him. Thus, if I could give an “inside account” of how the autistic child sees other people, this would provide me with an understanding of how, say, the inability immediately to see others as human beings will shape his responses to them, make them different from those of normal people. In this way, the “inside view” would make the child’s behaviour comprehensible.
                      This line of thought would accord with a very influential view of human life. On this view, our actions and expressions are governed by mental states and processes (thoughts, feelings, sensations, etc) that exist independently of their manifestation in behaviour. The mind, as it were, is the core of the human being, like a control tower. The individual forms a representation in her mind of the world in which she lives. It is through this that her conception of her world comes to guide her actions. Since the autistic individual represents the world to herself differently, her actions are different.
This thinking may or may not be what underlies the importance bestowed on “inside stories”. Anyway, it seems to be circular. Our basis for constructing the inside picture the way we do is presumably the child’s behaviour, so what we end up arguing, it appears, is that the autistic child behaves the way he does because that’s the kind of child he is. Could there still be an advantage to dressing up our understanding in the first person form? (Perhaps it helps us remember that the child’s perspective is indeed inhabited by another?)
                      ---- I should remind you that “the autistic child” here and throughout my discussion is really a philosophers’ man of sticks, since I have no first-hand familiarity with the predicament. ----
                      On the other hand, the line of thought might be the opposite of this. It might be argued that, aside from the child’s actions and expressions which we might gradually learn to recognize, to predict, and in some sense perhaps even to understand, there would still be a residue: the way it feels to the child himself, which we cannot get at simply by coming to know him and recognizing what challenges are posed to him through his special affliction. Perhaps it will be added that this is the really important part, and that, unless we can recreate it in our own mind, we do not really understand the child in a deeper sense. It may also be added that, if we pursue this line of thought to its logical conclusion, we must recognize that we will never be able to get at this innermost residue of the child’s experience. (Can that conclusion be avoided?)
                      Now what kind of „Einstellung“ would one be expressing in saying that we will never have access to what the other is thinking? (“Hold on!”, the conventional analytic philosopher will interject here. “Why should significance matter? Knowledge is knowledge; what flows from it is external to the knowledge itself.” What this philosopher overlooks, though, is that there is a question of what point someone is making in claiming knowledge or the lack of it, or attributing it to another. The sense of the word “know” is just as dependent on its context of use as that of any other words of our language. So if the claim that we can’t have access to the other’s mind is to be anything other than a classroom exercise in philosophical dualism, we must ask ourselves what attitude it expresses.)
I could see this idea as bound up with two different, almost opposite attitudes. One is the one I touched on before: respect in the face of affliction: the refusal to appropriate the other’s suffering as one’s own. The other, I would claim, is a form of indifference; an unwillingness to deal with the other’s predicament.
I saw a manifestation of this latter attitude in a documentary (Swiss I think it was) which I saw many years ago. It was about a girl of maybe 10 who suffered from a Helen Keller type affliction: she had neither sight nor hearing. But hers was not a Helen Keller type of fate: she lived with her family almost like a feral child. No effort was made to convey language or any kind of manners to her. (Whether it could have been done I do not know: Helen Keller may have been a special case, she was undoubtedly exceptionally gifted, she had been speaking before she lost her hearing; also, she had Anne Sullivan.) Anyway, what struck me was that the members of this girl’s family kept on saying how impossible it was to fathom what went on in her mind. And it seemed to me that this profession of incomprehension went together with the way she was treated. It may have been used as an alibi for not undertaking the very strenuous effort of having her educated. Or it may have expressed resignation after numerous efforts had failed. In either case, I think we can see how the “it’s impossible to know” may go together with an inclination to distance oneself from affliction.

August 23, 2012

Writing and talking at the same time

In Part I, Chapter XXVIII of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, there is a scene in which Prince Bolkonski is writing a letter and talking to his son at the same time. The prince is not interspersing the writing with the talking; Tolstoy is clearly conveying the notion that he is formulating a written message while saying something different to his son.
                      Through this description Tolstoy is giving us a sense of the Prince’s lively and restless character. It struck me, however, that this is not something I could imagine happening in real life. It is not just that formulating oneself in one way in writing and in another way in speaking at the same time is very difficult; I’d wish to go further and say that they can’t intelligibly be carried on in parallel. Nor, for instance, do I think one could contribute to one conversation in sign language and to another orally at the same time. Though one may obviously write and say out loud what one is writing at the same time.
                      It’s not, of course, simply that one can’t do two things at once: one can walk and chew the proverbial gum at the same time, or tie one’s shoelaces and whistle a tune, or talk and drive, etc. And one could talk while signing one’s name, and possibly write while reciting a poem. It’s as if what becomes possible is to say and write different things at the same time and mean them.
                      I think there is an important philosophical point here, but I don’t think I’m philosopher enough to bring it out.
                      Would this be the way to think about it: in order to imagine this happening, we should have to think of two persons (two speakers) inhabiting one body?