June 29, 2018

On free will and free thought

In deliberating what to do, as well as in judging about factual issues, one takes oneself to be free to exercise one’s judgment, based on the merits of the case at hand. Now this is not compatible with believing that the thoughts that come into one’s head, or the movements one performs, are produced by causal chains which, being causal, are not responsive to reason. Introspectively one may of course have the feeling of reaching correct judgments on the basis of reasons, but this then is something one must admit to be an illusion (or delusion) since one has stipulated that these mental occurrences are causally determined. This is similar to dreaming that one has solved a mathematical puzzle or is able to speak Arabic: this does not entail that one actually has solved the puzzle or is able to speak Arabic, but is simply a mirage, an impression produced by neurological causes. (Along this line of argument, the neurologists who argue that thought processes are nothing but causal sequences of events are thereby cancelling their own conclusions, since these are presumed to be derived from empirical observation through the use of reasoning.)

December 28, 2017

Language and creativity

I recently had occasion to review Wittgenstein and the Creativity of Language, a collection of essays edited by Sebastian Sunday Grève and Jakub Macha. (Philosophy 92 (2017), 647-650.) The collection contains a number of interesting contributions, beside a few that I thought needlessly inaccessible. However, the task started a question germinating, which did not seem to be addressed directly in the book. 
What exactly is meant by the idea that language is creative? It might be natural to suppose that creativity is somehow central to the way we use language: in using language and in responding to its use we are being creative. 
Being creative in one’s use of words - one is inclined to think - is using them in new ways. And responding creatively is responding to new uses. And so the idea is that in speaking we are constantly creating and responding to new uses of words. But here’s the catch: what is ”a new way of using a word”? When is the use the same as before and when is it different from before? 
One of the central points to which Wittgenstein drew attention in Philosophical Investigations is that what will count as ”the same” something or other in any given case is dependent on the framework of comparison that is relevant to the context at hand. When it comes to comparing physical objects, for instance, two objects may be ”the same” or ”not the same” with respect to colour, size, shape, weight, material, country of origin, price, etc. (And where comparing colours is concerned, in turn, the accepted degree of variation is dependent on the purpose of the comparison. And so forth.)
The same goes for cases of speaking and responding.
When it is said that language allows for ”using words in a new way”, however, it is left open what the relevant framework of comparison might be. Any two situations of speaking can be considered ”the same” from some point of view and ”not the same” from another point of view. So saying that in speaking we may often or sometimes use words in new ways is really not saying anything at all.

This is not to deny that people may use language in creative ways. We may be struck by a deep or witty comparison, an illuminating metaphor, etc., as by Benjamin Franklin’s aphorism: ”A good conscience is a continual Christmas”, or by Churchill’s characterization of Clement Attlee as ”a sheep in sheep’s clothing”, or by someone who says that ”Trump appeals to the American Id”. To call such sayings creative is not to register an absolute difference between this and other uses of these words, but simply to express one’s reaction to the use. And people may be differently struck by different uses.

July 01, 2016

A child learning to speak will not understand herself as in a process of learning

A child learning to speak will not understand herself as in a process of learning. She will feel that what she is doing is what those around her are doing. Unlike someone learning a second language, she has no idea of what speaking is beyond what she is doing herself.

March 20, 2016

“What makes us conscious?”

‘Do you think that the machine you are reading this story on, right now, has a feeling of “what it is like” to be in its state?
            What about a pet dog? Does it have a sense of what it’s like to be in its state? It may pine for attention, and appear to have a unique subjective experience, but what separates the two cases?
These are by no means simple questions. How and why particular circumstances may give rise to our experience of consciousness remain some of the most puzzling questions of our time.
Newborn babies, brain-damaged patients, complicated machines and animals may display signs of consciousness. However, the extent or nature of their experience remains a hotbed of intellectual enquiry.
Being able to quantify consciousness would go a long way toward answering some of these problems. From a clinical perspective, any theory that might serve this purpose also needs to be able to account for why certain areas of the brain appear critical to consciousness, and why the damage or removal of other regions appears to have relatively little impact.
One such theory has been gaining support in the scientific community. It’s called Integrated Information Theory (IIT), and was proposed in 2008 by Guilio (sic) Tononi, a US-based neuroscientist.
It also has one rather surprising implication: consciousness can, in principle, be found anywhere where there is the right kind of information processing going on, whether that’s in a brain or a computer.’

The above quotation is from an article by Matthew Davidson, “What makes us conscious?”  I’m curious about what kind of theory is being proposed here. The proposal has a similar ambiguity as the Turing test.
Is Tononi putting forward a stipulative definition: “let’s call a machine conscious if it has such and such characteristics”? If so, it would of course be a mistake to suppose that this constituted a discovery. Anyone is free to formulate stipulative definitions. Whether they will enjoy wide acceptance depends on their utility for the purpose for which the stipulation is to be used.
Or is he proposing an empirical theory? But then the question is: how is it to be tested? By what criteria are we to establish whether the theory holds good in a given case?
Not only does he seem not to provide a criterion, but somehow the idea of proposing some specific mark of consciousness seems misconceived. The problem, as I see it, is that the word “consciousness” has a variety of uses. There are of course the regular down-to-earth uses, as when we ask “Jack regained consciousness a little after 5 yesterday”, or “I wasn’t conscious I had to file a tax-return by April 1.” The word is also used in more abstract ways, as in discussing animal consciousness, etc. In these contexts, however, it does not refer to some specific mental phenomenon, but rather functions as an umbrella term, to refer to the applicability of words such as “sensation”, “perception”, “intention”, “awareness”, “attention”, etc. And applicability is – to put it crudely - a practical matter.
What tends to lead us astray here – putting it briefly   is our inclination to accept the dualist idea that consciousness is a specific metaphysical substance which makes such things as sensations possible.

December 27, 2015

NORDIC WITTGENSTEIN REVIEW 4 (2015), No 2, available online

The Nordic Wittgenstein Review has published a new issue: Vol. 4, No. 2, (2015). It is available Open Access, i.e. free of charge, online, for anyone to read. See below.

Peaceful holidays to those who have them!

Best wishes,
Yrsa, and the Editors Martin and Anne-Marie

PS. CFP - Online submission by January 31, 2016


Note from the Editors
Yrsa Neuman, Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen, Martin Gustafsson


Naturalism, Conventionalism, and Forms of Life: Wittgenstein and the "Cratylus"
Paul M Livingston


Reincarnation and the Lack of Imagination in Philosophy
Mikel Burley

A Missing Folio at the Beginning of Wittgenstein's MS 104
Martin Pilch

"Let us imagine...": Wittgenstein's Invitation to Philosophy
Beth Savickey


On the Ketner and Eigsti Edition of Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Frazer’s "The Golden Bough"
Peter K. Westergaard


Wittgenstein’s Lecture on Ethics, edited by Zamuner, Di Lascio & Levy
Lars Hertzberg

Some Thoughts on "Varieties of Skepticism" by James Conant and Andrea Kern (eds.)
Adam Leite

Review of "Clarity and Confusion in Social Theory" by Leonidas Tsilipakos
Robert Vinten

December 19, 2015

Jon Fosse between the language games

I recently had occasion to watch the play Barnet [The child] by Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse at the Dramaten Theatre in Stockholm. It was a moving experience; the dialogue moves slowly and undramatically, the surface is calm but strong emotions move underneath: dread, love, compassion. Speakers communicate not so much through the specific things said, the words used, as through the way they speak, or through the mere fact of saying something.
            The dialogue has a ring of Beckett or Pinter, but in Fosse’s play the words are closer to actual everyday conversation. He appears to have an ability to listen to the way we actually talk free from preconceptions about what linguistic communication is. (Fosse also seems to view his characters with more sympathy than Beckett and Pinter do.)
            The play is about a man, Fredrick, and a woman, Agnes, who meet, fall in love and move in together. She becomes pregnant, there are complications, she is taken to hospital, tests have to be made to determine whether labour will have to be induced prematurely, which would entail a grave risk for the survival of the child.
            Here is a conversation between Fredrick and a nurse waiting for the test results:

Does something like this happen often

It seems so anyway

Because it’s things like this they work
on here


Yes it’s like that I guess
But won’t she come soon

(Looks at her watch)
Yes she’ll probably come
soon now

Is it taking a longer time than usual

(Draws it out)

(Looks at her sceptically)
Are you certain

Maybe it’s taken a little longer
It’s taken a bit of time
(Short pause)
But that isn’t unusual
These examinations
can often take time
You know
the doctors are often busy

I know

But tonight
it’s been quiet so far
She’ll probably come soon

(The quotation is from Jon Fosse, Plays One, London: Oberon Books, 2002, pp. 265 f. The translation is by Louis Muinzer. It may be noticed that the lines do not have punctuation marks.)
            If one were to try to understand what the characters are saying as an attempt at acquiring and conveying information it would all seem hopelessly bewildered. What exactly would it mean for “something like this” to happen “often” or not so “often”? How often is “often”, how soon is “soon”? Does the nurse have any concrete grounds for saying that Agnes will be back soon? She offers an explanation of why the process might take longer (“the doctors are often busy”) but immediately takes it back (“tonight it’s been quiet so far”).
            (There’s the same kind of ambivalence in the doctor telling Fredrick to prepare for the worst yet keep his hopes up:

It can be all right
this sort of thing
well to be frank
the chances aren’t so great)

Fredrick’s questions seek reassurance rather than information, and the nurse tries to offer it. Their remarks have something of the character of poetry or song. The dialogue brings to mind Wittgenstein’s remark (Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, Vol.  I, § 888):

The way music speaks. Don’t forget that even though a poem is framed in the language of information, it is not employed in the language game of information….
            Verbal language contains a strong musical element. (A sigh, the modulation of tone for a question, for an announcement, for longing; all the countless gestures  in the verbal cadences.)

One could imagine a culture in which, rather than ask and answer questions, the participants in this kind of interaction played pieces of music for one another, or together. Of course, what they played would vary with the situation.


The interest of this, to me, is that Fosse brings to the fore aspects of human conversation that tend to be overlooked in accounts of language and meaning.
            Paul Grice, famously, defined speaker’s meaning as follows:

“A meant­NN something by x” is (roughly) equivalent to “A intended the utterance of x to produce some effect in an audience by means of the recognition of this intention; and we may add that to ask what A meant is to ask for a specification of the intended effect. (“Meaning”, originally in Philosophical Review 66 (1957))

(“MeaningNN” – “nonnatural meaning” - stands for cases in which somebody means this or that by something, as opposed to cases of “natural” – i.e. roughly causal meaning – as when we say “These spots mean measles”.)
            One type of case Grice considers is “an utterance [which], if it qualifies at all as meaningNN something, will be of a descriptive or informative kind”, in which case the attitude to be produced “will be a cognitive one, for example, a belief.” When the nurse says, “she’ll probably come soon now”, then, is she attempting to produce a certain belief (which belief exactly?) in Fredrick? But even if we take it that that is not what she is doing, can we really understand her words except through reference to the practice of conveying information? Her words are “framed in the language of information” (and that’s what enables us to understand them) but they are not “employed in the language game of information” (nor do we take them to be).
            Similarly, we might ask: in Searlian terms, what is the illocutionary force of the nurse’s lines? Are they assertives, thus counting “as an undertaking to the effect that [the proposition uttered] represents an actual state of affairs”?


J. L. Austin was impressively sensitive to word nuances, not so much to the kinds of speakings there are. Philosophers of language like Grice, Austin or Searle are apt to look at the variety of human forms of linguistic interaction through a grid pattern imposed, I believe, by a tendency to model speech on written language – or perhaps we should say: on the kind of language we were taught to produce at school, with complete and grammatically consistent subject-predicate sentences and clearly indicated references, each sentence having been constructed for a distinct purpose. (For an exception, see Charles Taylor on the expressive use of speech, “Theories of Meaning”, in his collection Human Agency and Language.)
When M. Jourdain in Molière’s The Bourgeois Gentleman is told that unknowingly he has been speaking prose all his life I am not so sure that was accurate. The idea of written prose shapes our ways of looking at speech, it influences the way we actually speak in various contexts, but many of our interchanges are no closer to written prose than they are to poetry.
            We are all familiar with conversations like that quoted above, yet philosophers are inclined to ignore them in thinking about language. The speakers’ lines have an obvious role in the interchange. We can well imagine the sort of line that would be out of place in the context. Yet the words are not used instrumentally in the sense of being deliberately chosen with a specific aim in mind.


Wittgenstein writes, in Philosophical Investigations, Part II ix:

79. ---- Is it so surprising that I use the same expression in different games? And sometimes, as it were, even in between the games?
80. And do I always talk with very definite purpose? – And is what I say senseless because I don’t?

A playwright like Jon Fosse can make us notice what lies between the language games.