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!

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