28 July 2012

Geach's "Mental Acts" and the dualism of the conceptual and the sensible

I have been reading through "Mental Acts" over the past few days. It's long been on my short list of things to read, but I'd never picked the book up until this week. (Literally: if I had seen for myself how short it was, I would've gotten it read years ago.)

It's mainly good, in the way that everything I've read by Geach has been mainly good.

I am making a post about it largely as a reminder to myself: Chapter 15, "Judgements About Sensible Particulars [Reference to Particulars]" is striking, from a Kantian perspective. But spelling out what I find so striking about it is probably of more general interest.

Geach's puzzle is about how we can judge about particulars, given that judgements are acts of our conceptual capacities, and our conceptual capacities are always universal (as they are capable of repeated use independently of what might be presently sensed).

The judgement he considers is "That flash was before this bang", uttered on different occasions and referring to different flashes and bangs. Of this he says "there is no difference to be found on the side of the judgement itself [on these two occasions]. What we may call the intelligible content of the judgement is the same in all judgements expressible as "that flash was before this bang", regardless of which flash and bang are in question." (ps.63-64) So, given that judgements are always capable of being formed regardless of occasion, how can any judgement have reference to an occasion?

Geach's answer: "How could the utterance "flash before bang" be taken to refer to a particular flash and bang? The answer is obvious[!]; the utterance can be, and probably will be, so understood in a sensory context in which the hearer notices a flash and a bang. Similarly, the utterance "some cats, white" could be taken to refer to particular cats if its hearer was looking attentively in the right direction. The content of the judgement is always intelligible and conceptual -- acquaintance with a particular sensible thing is no part of the judgement itself -- but an act of judgement performed in a particular sensory context may thereby be referred to particular sensible things." (p.64)

The most striking fact about this answer is that Geach tries to answer the question of how judgement can have reference to particulars by referring to what a hearer would take an utterance to refer to, in a given context. He seems to want to answer the question of how thought can be about the world by noting that others take it to be so: but this is patently Munchhausenianism, with empirical content being pulled up by its own bootstraps. Unless the hearer can already judge concerning particulars, then she can't take an utterance to refer to particulars: so it does no good for Geach to appeal to her judgements on the matter.

But this may be unfair: he seems to not notice what he has said, and thinks of all the work in his picture as being done by "the context" of a judgement. How to spell this out, he is unsure of: "It is clear, indeed, that the act of judgement must bear a closer relation than mere simultaneity to the context of sense-perception that gives it its special reference to these particular sensible things; I am not prepared to characterize this special relation it must bear to its context.... But I do not think this throws any doubt on what I have said; although more remains to be said." (p.64)

It is "clear" to Geach that context must be able to do this work, for we do in fact judge about particulars, and he doesn't see anything else that can make inherently-universal judgements latch onto sensible things. He is aware that "mere" simultaneity between an act of judgement and a thing will not suffice, but I hear in this the suggestion that something more than "mere" simultaneity will do the work: Judgement + Thing + Simultaneity + Y = Judgement is about Thing; future philosophy can solve for Y.

I begin here a long aside:

I find this sort of buck-passing in philosophy disagreeable, setting aside the particular problem Geach lays out for working on: it is too easy for everyone to only think through a problem so far, because "others" can always do the rest of the work. I encountered a particular egregious version of this in a seminar recently: several rival positions on a topic in the metaphysics of social groups were compared, and a criticism against one of them (I believe it was Searle's) was rejected on the grounds that if it worked, it would work for all of the positions on offer: "And if it's everybody's problem, then it's also nobody's problem", it was said with a grin. This sort of "metaphysics" struck me as nothing but intellectual masturbation: it was an intentionally restricted way of thinking, and could never bear fruit. The sort of thing people made fun of scholasticism for.

Immediately after the last Geach quote, he continues: "The problem I have just been discussing -- how we judge about sensible particulars -- was much agitated in the Middle Ages; and in my solution of it I believe I am following Aquinas. Aquinas's expression for the relation of the 'intellectual' act of judgement to the context of sense-perception that gives it a particular reference was "conversio ad phantasmata", "turning round towards the sense-appearances". [I don't know why Geach gives a gloss on this; the book is peppered with untranslated Latin phrases.] This metaphorical term is obviously a mere label, with negligible explanatory value;  but it does not pretend to be more than a label. Aquinas has, in my opinion, at least rightly located the problem; the problem is not how we advance from judgements like this is before that to more general judgements, but contrariwise how a judgement inherently general can be tied down to referring to particular things (Ia q. 86 art. 1)" (p.65)

What do we find, if we follow Geach's pointer to Thomas? Here we read that "Our intellect cannot know the singular in material things directly and primarily.... But indirectly, and as it were by a kind of reflection, it can know the singular, because, as we have said above (Question 85, Article 7), even after abstracting the intelligible species, the intellect, in order to understand, needs to turn to the phantasms in which it understands the species, as is said De Anima iii, 7. Therefore it understands the universal directly through the intelligible species, and indirectly the singular represented by the phantasm."

So in the passage Geach cites, Thomas points a few pages earlier in his book. I believe there is an error in the online edition here; Question 85, Article 7 seems irrelevant, but Question 84, Article 7 is about precisely this question: "Whether the intellect can actually understand through the intelligible species of which it is possessed, without turning to the phantasms?" Thomas's sed contra is that "The Philosopher says (De Anima iii, 7) that "the soul understands nothing without a phantasm."" -- so even in following Geach's pointer to Aquinas through Aquina's pointer to Aquinas through an incorrect citation to Aquinas we find: a pointer to Aristotle. (In fairness to Aquinas, he had given the same reference in the first place Geach pointed to.)

But Thomas does add some argumentation in support of Aristotle's view, in his replies in the same article. He states the view he is defending thusly: "In the present state of life in which the soul is united to a passible body, it is impossible for our intellect to understand anything actually, except by turning to the phantasms." -- But now it emerges that Thomism cannot help Geach here, for Thomas is concerned with a narrower problem than the one Geach has. Geach needs an answer for how judgement can be about particulars, but Thomas is concerned only with how our, human, intellect has need of "turning to the phantasms". So in his replies, he appeals to psychological facts about our minds (even appealing that "anyone can experience this of himself") to ground the need for "turning to the phantasms". But Geach's problem is a logical one: how can it be so much as possible that "inherently general" judgements can be "tied down to referring to particular things?" It is no help to note that, in fact, our judgements are so tied down, and human minds cannot but be so tied down: Thomas's investigations enter too late to be of use.

(I won't trouble with looking at De Anima III 7; I remember the passage in question, and looking at it will not help make Geach's puzzle clearer. From what I could see, Aristotle was merely marking a psychological fact with his "no thought without an image" remark: there are always things fluttering about "before the eye of the mind" while we think. But merely noting this does not make thinking less mysterious.)

I end here my long aside.

--So, Geach thinks he can tell that there must be a Y such that Judgement + Thing + Simultaneity + Y = Judgement is about Thing.

Geach faces the same problem in his next chapter, "Judgements Involving Identifications [Judgements of Identification]", which involves judgements that contain proper names. It appeared that perhaps "This flash" could be made to pick out the right flash by demonstrative ostension; proper names do not appear handleable this way, as "Smith" can be Smith's name even if Smith is not within my ostensible reach. Geach closes out his discussion of this problem with a simile: "The problem how you call Smith, the right Smith, to mind is like the problem how you call him ([Philosophical Investigations], Part I, ss691). Although lots of people are called "Smith", the summons "Smith!" may be quite effective to fetch the Smith I want if he is the only man of that name within earshot; and similarly, a judgement that might in principle relate to many men may yet in a particular real-life context be relatable to just one." (p. 73)

Here again we see the pattern of
1. There is a problem for my view of judgement.
2. In "real-life" this problem does not arise.
.'. 3. Context must supply what is lacking in my view.

At no point does Geach consider that our conceptual capacities might inherently refer to particulars, just as he knows they are inherently general. He sees that empiricism asks a bad question when it tries to solve hour we can judge of general matters, given that we can judge of particular ones; but he thinks their error was that the real question is how we can judge of particular matters, given that we can judge of general ones. There is a dualism of the conceptual and the sensible in Geach, just as there is in the empiricists he spends so much time attacking. And if he is right about the medievals, Thomas errs on his side while many Thomists and other scholastics err with the empiricists, with Aristotle claimed by all parties. If nothing else, reading Geach has been good for helping me see that Kant's problems are not new -- or at least they can be seen to have caused trouble, beneath the surface, further back than Kant traces his histories.

On a final note (and this was actually what I originally found interesting enough to post on, before I got caught up in providing context for it), Geach notes that "Quite similar considerations apply to judgements involving tense. The difference between judgements to the effect that a hydrogen bomb will be exploded and that a hydrogen bomb has been exploded is an intelligible or conceptual difference -- a specifically different exercise of concepts is involved. But there is no conceptual difference between judgements formed in different years to the effect that a hydrogen bomb has been exploded, although such a judgement formed in 1940 would have been false and one formed in 1956 would be true." (p.65) When I first read it, I was surprised by how closely connected Geach's claim about tense was to his claims about judgements of particulars: they are treated of in the same section, are said to have "similar considerations" applying to them, and I thought that perhaps the same Kantian solution was what he had overlooked. I had hopes that perhaps here I could finally find a compelling argument for why time is the form of all intuition, what the connection is between reference to particulars and reference to temporal entities. But thinking on it more, I think Geach is just mistaken about how tenses work in language (in thought): it is the same conceptual capacity at work when I judged yesterday that I would be up all night and when I judge today that I was up all night; what has changed is not the judgement, but the context in which it is considered. There is an indexical element to judgements involving tense, just as with judgements involving the concept "now", and changes of index are not changes of indexical. (Ironically, I take this to be something I learned from reading Anscombe on the first person.)

But if this is where Geach went wrong, then the connection between reference to particulars and time boils down to the connection between reference to particulars and the indexicals "here" and "now". And it strikes me as hopeless to try to establish why space and time must be forms of intuition from the fact that (as it happens) we have spatial and temporal indexicals in our language; for if there are other possible forms of intuition, presumably the minds which intuit by them have their own indexicals. So again Kant is proving damnably right: I cannot show why space and time are (our, the) forms of intuition, though it seems clear that they are. So for now I am no better than Geach; I daydream about "others" solving that problem, and think it must have a solution!

21 July 2012

A Link Post

Robert Stern was interviewed in 3:AM magazine; it is a good read.

In the wake of Förster's book, I have been reading more about Schelling and Goethe. Robert Richards's work has been very helpful here; "Did Goethe and Schelling Endorse Species Evolution?" (PDF) was particularly stimulating.

Richards gave a seminar on "The Origin of Species" while I was at Chicago; I only sat in on the first couple of classes at the time, since I was busy and it was being recorded for posting online. Sadly, the video and podcast links are dead now, but I had most of the podcasts downloaded. (For some reason I didn't download week 2's podcast; ironically, that is the one class I am sure I was present at. The slides for that week of the course are still posted (PDF), and are worth looking at just for the cartoon of Professor Icthyosaurus on page 13. (The context for that cartoon was a cyclical theory of evolution, where extinct species were supposed to arise again once catastrophic floods had changed the character of the Earth so that humans were no longer viable, but e.g. ichthyosaurs were again. I just really like the design on the whole thing.)

Edit: This is a great sentence: "This kind of metaphysics enticed Goethe the way several of his women friends did at this time: with great allure and seduction, with the poet giving way even while recognizing the impropriety of his indulgence." (Source, PDF)

17 July 2012

Förster's "Twenty Five Years": an overview.

It seems worthwhile to outline the story of German Idealism, as Förster presents it in "The Twenty Five Years of Philosophy". I suspect my previous post on Förster's book is unreadable, and so unread.

Kant begins with the realization that philosophy before him has taken for granted that our thoughts can get things right or wrong -- that they have "objective validity", in his later terminology, or objective purport as McDowell says it -- and that metaphysics is building on sand so long as it is unsettled whether metaphysical thinking can so much as get things wrong. So in the first Critique, Kant tries to settle the question of how and when thinking can have objective purport. The answer he arrives at is that thinking has objective purport by standing in a relation to sensibility: the receptive aspect of our cognition provides us with a kind of cognition which is dependent on the objects it purports to be about, and so the question of objective purport does not arise for it; the other aspects of our cognition (the categories and the ideas) are explicated as structuring and guiding this receptive aspect of our cognition. As time and space are the forms of our sensibility, this means that thinking has objective purport only in relation to objects in time and space: as the traditional objects of metaphysics are extraspatiotemporal, traditional metaphysics thus shows itself as confused.

But a new sort of metaphysics stands primed to take its place: in establishing how it is that our (empirical, spatiotemporal) thinking can have objective purport, Kant has also established that certain principles govern such thinking. That they in fact do this is a condition on the possibility of thought, as thought must be (able to be made) self-conscious. It is the task of the new metaphysics to establish these principles, and lay out what follows from them.

Förster notes that Kant subtly changes the question he is answering after the A-edition of the first Critique: where before he was asking "How can thinking have objective purport?", starting with the Prolegomena he is asking "How are synthetic a priori judgements possible?" In the case of theoretical synthetic a priori judgements, this question is what the new metaphysics confronts and answers. This shift in Kant's question is both a narrowing of his original question, as he is no longer questioning how empirical judgements are possible as such (though this will in fact still be a topic he addresses in the B-edition of the first Critique), and a broadening of it: for there are judgements which do not depend on a relation to an object for their validity, but which are connected with synthetic a priori principles. These are practical judgements. In the first Critique, Kant had left moral questions underscrutinized, and he had explicitly denied that practical philosophy was connected with transcendental philosophy. But now practical and theoretical philosophy are both the concerns of the transcendental philosopher.

Förster thinks that Kant's attempt at his project fails at several points. For one, Kant's construction of matter in "Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science" is circular, as Kant and Schelling both notice; Förster notes that Kant was still working on this problem in the Opus Postumum, and that he still did not solve it there. Förster thinks that this is a significant problem, because he thinks the Metaphysical Foundations was trying to complete something the first Critique had accidentally ignored: a spatial schematism of the categories to parallel the temporal one given in the first Critique's Analytic. Whether Kant needed such a thing is controversial in the literature. (My judgement is that Kant didn't think he needed one, and that by his own standards he was right -- but that these standards were too low, and he in fact did need one if he wasn't to take the spatial form of our intuition as simply Given. I'm not sure that his failure to construct the concept of dense matter matters for this, though.)

This is related to a second place where Förster thinks Kant failed: he simply takes the fact that space and time are the forms of our receptivity as given, and he does the same with the table of general logical forms. Förster spends less time on this complaint, but I think it's the most important one he brings up.

Very shortly after the first Critique, Reinhold will try to present Kant's philosophy in a more systematic form than Kant had managed (following up on hints from Kant that such a system should be possible, that the transcendental unity of apperception really is the ground of all synthetic a priori judgements). The form this takes in Reinhold is an attempt to derive all of the Critical Philosophy from what he calls "the principle of consciousness": "In consciousness representation is distinguished though the subject from both object and subject and is related to both". Reinhold held this to be an analytic judgement, and from it tried to prove via a "short argument" that we can never know the thing-in-itself (because we know representations only, which are distinguished from the object) or the subject-in-itself (because we know representations only, which are distinguished from the subject), but that our representations have objective purport (because they are related through the subject to the object). (I know Reinhold only second-hand, through Karl Ameriks's "The Fate of Autonomy", but the prospects for his project strike me as dim.)

In "Aenesidemus" Schulze criticized Reinhold's attempt to found all of the Critical Philosophy on this one analytic principle. He claimed that Reinhold was tacitly appealing to many other principles in his derivations from it, for instance to the logical principle of noncontradiction, and so the appearance of systematicity was merely apparent. It was his reading of "Aenesidemus" that first startled Fichte out of his dogmatic attraction to Reinhold's philosophy; Schulze did not convince him that the whole project was hopeless, but rather spurred Fichte to try to fill the gaps and genuinely establish all of the Critical Philosophy on a single self-evident principle (from which he hoped to derive the "principle of consciousness", and therefrom use Reinhold's efforts to derive the bulk of Kant's philosophy).

Telling this part of the story occupies several chapter of Förster's book, and for my money this is the most interesting and successful part of the work. I found the accounts of how Fichte and (his very Fichtean) Hegel tried to systematize Kant's philosophy intriguing and energizing, even when I did not find them convincing as presented. The general idea is that Kant simply did not go far enough in trying to establish the conditions under which self-consciousness is possible, and that he mischaracterized the nature of self-consciousness. Where Kant still (sometimes) seems to think of self-consciousness as receptive, as relying on an "inner sense" which relates consciousness to a (noumenal) self which is not dependent on the thought of it, Fichte resolutely treats the self as nothing but its apperceptive unity. This residual empiricism in Kant's conception of the self has vanished in Fichte, and the results which are claimed as proved will be considerably more impressive, but the very general argumentative strategy of the Wissenschaftslehre is Kant's: What must be the case, given that I am aware of myself as a self?

There is a third area where Förster thinks Kant failed where I found his criticisms less clear, and the responses on the part of German Idealists seemed less on-point. This is the question of the unity of practical and theoretical reason hinted at in the third Critique, where the regulative principle of the purposiveness of nature is used to guide inquiry (as it already was in the appendix to the Dialectic of the first Critique), and also to somehow aid moral faith (by suggesting that since both the order demanded by the moral law and the order demanded by the purposiveness of nature are demands put by reason to nature, seeing one fulfilled (in scientific empirical inquiry and in beauty) is an aid to believing that the other is fulfilled, that the world is morally structured).

As I recall, Förster's complaint is largely focused on Kant's skepticism regarding whether we can know there to be purposes in the world. He presents Schelling as presenting as an empirical hypothesis that the world is so structured, and as taking contemporary developments in physics as confirming it. Förster is generally skeptical of Schelling's whole approach here (and he presents Hegel as likewise skeptical of it, after the break with Schelling in his Jena period). Förster's positive remedy to Kant's skepticism here comes from Goethe's botanical and optical writings: Goethe claimed that he could "see ideas", and Förster endorses this, and presents it as the way forward for philosophy.

Now, it is easy to see that Kant's skepticism has to be wrong somehow: we do know that there are purposes in nature, for we know that there are living things in nature, and living things are purposes. A horse does things for the sake of maintaining itself and reproducing its kind; it is not merely mechanically explicable, and in fact cannot be understood as a horse if approached mechanically. Human action is the action of a living being, and so likewise is purposive: so if we are not to be skeptical of whether there is human action in nature, of whether freedom is at work in the world, we must not be skeptical of whether we can know nature to have purposes in it.

But Schelling seems to want to prove more than this: not merely that there are purposes in the world, or that the world is purposive to the extent that morality requires (that virtue and happiness will coincide), but that nature as such is purposive. Schelling wants to derive the general structure of nature from what he calls an "intellectual intuition", but it is not at all clear how he can have such a thing. Kant used the term "intellectual intuition" to characterize how God knows the world (supposing he does): he knows it by creating it. Fichte follows Kant in this: the I knows itself in its act of self-positing, and in its act of self-positing knows itself. Schelling explicitly does *not* mean this: his "intellectual intuition" is not creating the world, for the world is already there before Schelling's Naturphilosophie. Fichte's intellectual intuition of the I was used to work out the Wissenschaftslehre, and it appears that this is the usage Schelling is following: his "intellectual intuition" is the foundational principle for his Naturphilosophie. It's unclear how he can establish it, and Förster seems to be of the view that he simply can't: Schelling built on sand.

Förster opposes Schelling and Goethe on this score. Where Schelling ultimately appeals to an intellectual intuition (which is hopeless), Goethe appeals to something else: an intuitive intellectual apprehension of an idea, which Förster also refers to by the Spinozan title scientia intuitiva. Goethean scientia intuitiva is supposed to establish what Schelling could not, and what Fichte left only as an incompletable task: that the world and the mind are both structured by the mind, that nature and reason are both rational, that the purposiveness demanded by freedom is the end of the world itself.

I said some things about why I don't think the scientia intuitiva stuff works in my previous post about Förster's book, but I think the real problems show up in his examples (the film, the book, etc.). Looking at those is probably something I need to devote a post to, because this one is already feeling too dense to be read. So I stop here.

tl;dr: Kant is insufficiently systematic; Fichte is sufficiently systematic, but does not establish all that he needs; Goethe establishes limited results about colors and plants; Hegel uses Goethe's methods to establish all that Fichte had not, to supplement what Fichte had genuinely established, and in this way brings Kant's program to a successful close. Schelling was an enthusiastic blind alley.

The future of philosophy, as I see Förster presenting it: Hegel's own post-Phenomenology work is doing a better job presenting what was already contained in nuce in his Jena-period work. Where there are problems in Hegel's system, they are to be resolved by doing Hegel's job better than he managed it himself -- but Hegel has effectively established what it is that should be done. The Absolute Idea was presented in Jena; what is left to us later philosophers is the seeing of subordinate ideas, such as Goethe saw in his optical and botanical works. (Presumably philosophers can also just do something else, not directly related to the history of metaphysics that Kant is working in: Kierkegaard and Nietzsche simply wrote books which are not trying to do what German Idealism is trying to do, and their work neither contributes to nor (directly) challenges what was going on in "the twenty five years of philosophy". But I suspect that people like Russell and Heidegger would figure as mere epigones to Fichte, on Förster's view.)

01 July 2012

Zizek googles himself too much, Or: Fess up, who linked Zizek to a post of mine from five years ago?

An edit on a post of Adam Kotsko's has alerted me to the fact that I'm in the index to "Less Than Nothing", Zizek's latest big book. He block-quotes a post of mine from back when I was still in law school, durdling around with a blog to avoid doing my reading for "Contracts". I haven't read one of the pages that's presumably in reply to me because I can't see it via "Search Inside", but I replied to what I could see about myself in the comments on Kotsko's post.

It is at least a little embarrassing to see my old prose in print. But hey, I can go to Barnes & Noble and see my name now!

The elipses in the block-quote of my post in the book omits the fact that I originally had a picture of an anime character (Caster from "Fate/Stay Night") as my "Read More!" link. That used to seem like a reasonable thing to do with my blog. Oh internet, you so crazy.

edit: From page 289: "for me, replying to this critique is almost embarrassing": you and me both, buddy! So why did you feel the need to do it? From what I recall of watching my old blog-traffic, that post was never linked to anywhere online and I only had ~30 regular readers (based on pageviews). Why is it committed to the page, now?