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.


  1. The distinction between the two ways of thinking of the significance of the ‘inside story’ is very helpful. I will focus on the second, involving a supposed residue: ‘the way it feels to the child himself, which we cannot get at simply by coming to know him’. You suggest 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’; and then consider the idea of a ‘residue’ through that thought. But while I have a lot of sympathy with the things you go on to say here, I have some reservations about the way in which the discussion comes to turn exclusively on this.
    There are aspects of another’s feelings that, it might be said, we inevitably ‘get at simply by coming to know him’. If I know him at all well I know that he feels serious anxiety before speaking in public; and, with that, if I have certain imaginative narrative powers I may be able to articulate how it is with him at these moments in a way such that he will say that I have it just right. But there may be other aspects of another’s feelings that I am not, in this way, inevitably aware of simply through coming to know him: such that we might allow that I could know the person well and yet this aspect of his life I remain largely unaware of. Of course, there are degrees of knowing someone. But what is at issue here may not turn simply on matters of degree. Might there be a significant contrast between things I might know of another independently of his telling me and aspects of his feelings that could only be got at through his telling me? A certain way of developing Wittgenstein might exclude the possibility of the second category. But I think that would be a wrong way of developing him. It is part of having language that one has the possibility of an ‘inner life’ in this sense.
    If something of that form is right (and, while I think it is, I have said nothing in defence of it) it might be relevant in a number of ways to the attempts you are considering to describe another’s experience. In particular, it might suggest that there are limits to the coherence of those attempts; and also a way in which a certain picture might lead someone to fail to appreciate those limits. (A picture on which language enables the individual to reveal aspects of himself that would otherwise remain inescapably private.)

    1. I do agree that there is an important contrast to be noted between “things I might know of another independently of his telling me and aspects of his feelings that could only be got at through his telling me”. In other words: a contrast between aspects I could discern in his behaviour (including fine shades of facial expression, etc), and things that could only come out in words. Only words, we might say, bring in the degree of nuance that would enable us to distinguish between certain aspects of feeling. I certainly think Wittgenstein did not mean to exclude that. (Cp his question: “A dog believes his master is at the door. But can he also believe his master will come the day after tomorrow?” (Philosophical Investigations, II, i.))

      As you say: “It is part of having language that one has the possibility of an ‘inner life’ in this sense.” In other words, someone’s being a speaker opens up for the possibility of certain kinds of questions and conversations concerning his / her feelings, thoughts and experiences. Yet I would suggest there is a continuum rather than a sharp line between the pre-linguistic and the linguistic. For one thing, our ability to make sense of the other’s words is dependent on the way they’re embedded in his / her life. (Cp for instance learning when to take someone’s expressions seriously.)

      This might be the point of Wittgenstein’s remark that we wouldn’t understand a lion even if he could speak: words are not a key-hole into an otherwise totally enigmatic consciousness, but something that adds nuance to that of which we already have a crude understanding.