03 March 2009

McDowell's Certainty

Tim Thornton:

["Understanding Wittgenstein's On Certainty"] was suggested to me by one of Moyal-Sharrock’s PhD students at Hertfordshire, who said that it was an interesting counter to McDowell. I think that the contrast she had in mind was between McDowell’s commitment to the connection between mind and world being always within the realm of concepts and Moyal-Sharrock’s emphasis on a non-propositional bedrock of animal certainty / certainties.
Not having read the book, but having been keeping an eye out for McDowell's references to "On Certainty", my first impression is to expect that the difference comes in whether or not one wants to call "hinge propositions" things known. Wittgenstein pretty clearly thinks there's something wrong with that; McDowell thinks it's alright.

Now, going just by the bits I skimmed on Moyal-Sharrock's webpage and Thornton's remarks, I'm inclined to suspect that she crosses two different sorts of necessary conditions:

One has to be capable of reacting differentially to the sorts of things one is supposed to be regarding as salient in one's environment to be capable of reporting on how those things stand, or to be capable of "taking in" how those things are via experience. If one doesn't react in different ways to different sorts of stimuli, then one can't take notice of the distinctions between those sorts of things experientially. (I take this to be the point of Brandom's "RDRD"s, reliable discursive responsive dispositions.) If one's body was dead to the world, then one's mind would be, also. I take this to be what Thornton was gesturing at when speaking of the "animal" background necessary for the "game of giving and asking for reasons". All very standard Sellarsian stuff. This sort of thing is a necessary condition on being able to take a stand in the space of reasons (as it's a necessary condition on being able to know things noninferentially, and a body of knowledge needs noninferential "groundings" to distinguish it from "rumors and hoaxes", so being able to give reasons for what one holds requires RDRDs).

This is, I think, different from the sort of thing that bothered Wittgenstein in (large parts of) "On Certainty" -- "hinge propositions" (so-called because of two or three places where W. employs the metaphor of our practice "turning on them"). The thing that bothered Wittgenstein was that we can't sensibly try to figure out what is the case, in a particular instance, or what so-and-so means, in a particular instance, unless there is a great deal we simply do not put under question, in that instance. This is a necessary condition for inquiry or interpretation to be possible. Putting something in question requires not putting everything in question at once. (This is also a familiar Sellarsian/Davidsonian point.) It doesn't seem plausible to me to call this "animal" certainty -- what sort of certainty would it be being opposed to? For this sort of certainty is just: not doubting that that this is how things are.

This, I think, is what bothered Wittgenstein about Moore's "here's one hand, and here's another": In a situation in which no one is trying to figure out if there are any hands to be found, Moore presents himself as having concluded that: Yes, there are. Here is one hand, and here is another. But if this wasn't in question, then there's no conclusion drawn here. So Moore seems to "cross the streams". He takes something that was being held constant, and acts as if it was something he'd just discovered to be the case (or at least thought that we'd not noticed).

Now, McDowell. From a footnote in "Knowledge by Hearsay": "Much of "On Certainty" is about the status of this sort of knowledge. Wittgenstein himself is dubious about counting it as knowledge; but I think that is inessential to his main point, which is to warn against assimilating the sort of thing in question -- propositions that function as pivots on which our practices of looking for grounds for belief can hinge, by not being on the agenda for testing or confirmation -- to cases where it makes sense to look for the grounds of a belief. (Wittgenstein's doubt about counting these propositions as known may reflect the influence of the kind of conception of knowledge I am going to attack.)" For those who haven't read the essay, the attack in "Hearsay" is just what a reader of "Mind and World" would expect; McDowell thinks that testimony can put its hearer in touch with the facts themselves, and he opposes a "highest common factor" conception of what knowing via testimony must be like.

(A fun bit of trivia: in this essay, McDowell refers to his own position as "coherentism" and calls Davidsonian coherentism "the heroic position" -- heroic because it tries valiantly to just do without "absolute starting points" by just dropping noninferential groundings for knowledge tout court. The third position is still just the "Myth of the Given". I rather like the designation "the heroic position". And this way of laying out the dialect does a better job, I think, of making clear where Davidson fits into the dialectic of "Mind and World".)

Now, the way McDowell presents Wittgenstein's point here strikes me as agreeable. It is important to not assimilate things held in doubt to things not held in doubt. Missing this distinction will make a hash of any attempt to give an account of inquiry: it'll make it seem like Descartes was asking questions in the only way that it makes sense to ask them (or at least the only way that's not partly dogmatic). Any inquiry which doesn't begin by putting everything in question will look like it's "chickening out" in the face of hard, empirical Reality. From another vantage point: Not making Wittgenstein's distinction will make it seem like any claim to know something noninferentially is dependent for its strength on a background of premises which justify it, so that knowing that there's a pink cube in front of me must rely on my antecedently knowing that the world is laid open to view in front of me. And any attempt to know that the world is laid out in front of me by looking at it will beg the question, as the sort of knowledge I get from looking presumes what I here want to know by looking. Not drawing Wittgenstein's distinction then leads to a "highest common factor" view of knowledge. This is familiar territory for McDowell.

But, I think there's something more going on in McDowell here, and I don't like some of the other things I find. Spelling out what's bothering me here (and it's been bothering me since I first read the first appendix to "Mind and World") will require some quote-mining. I'll assume that the interested reader can look at section nine of the first appendix to "Mind and World" themself, but there are other bits that bear noting.

From the opening paragraphs of "Knowledge by Hearsay":
much of the knowledge we have through language was surely not acquired by understanding a linguistic production. Part of the point here is that we were not yet capable of understanding the elements of what we know through language when we started to acquire them. The body of sentences we accepted from our elders needs to have become quite comprehensive before any of them were comprehended. "Light dawns gradually over the whole." ("On Certainty" ss141) But the image of dawning light does not apply only to coming to understand the members of a stock of sentences accepted from one's elders. The image also fits a general sense in which growing into a language is growing into being in possession of the world, as opposed to having a mere animal ability to cope with a habitat. [Here McDowell footnotes "Truth and Method" p.443: "Language is not just one of man's possessions in the world, but on it depends the fact that man has a world at all."] And much of the knowledge that enters into our possession of the world, even though we have it through language, is not something we have been told. It need never have been enunciated in our hearing; rather, we find it implicit in the cognitive-practical ways of proceeding into which we were initiated when we learned our language.
Now, read in one way, I have no problem with any of this. Knowing something because one has been handed down the knowledge by one of the traditions one has been initiated into is a real way of knowing things. It's unwise to assimilate it to knowledge gained via testimony, for reasons McDowell explores in "Hearsay": being able to learn something via testimony requires having a conception of oneself as a hearer, and the other fellow as trying to impart knowledge. This sort of self-conception is necessary if one is to be capable of judging whether or not accepting a particular bit of testimony is doxastically responsible. And this sort of self-conception is only available downstream of picking up one's first language, being initially led into the space of reasons. So the sorts of things one knows because one has been initiated into a tradition aren't known by testimony. (I think this is a stronger way of putting the point than McDowell offers here -- from the fact that what is known hasn't been enunciated in one's hearing it remains an open question whether or not what one knows here mightn't be something gained via inference from what one learned via testimony. This is one sense in which something can be "implicit in the cognitive-practical ways of proceeding" in which we proceed as rational animals: the way of proceeding includes knowledge gained by experience or by testimony (because the way of proceeding involves communicating with others and taking in one's surroundings), and what is "implicit" is just what follows inferentially from this knowledge. This clearly isn't what McDowell wants to draw attention to.)

One neat benefit of drawing this distinction: We can rehabilitate the idea that two people can disagree with one another because of differing background commitments (or even "conceptual schemes") while agreeing on "empirical matters". For they can agree in what experience discloses to them while disagreeing about something each of them has been handed down by their tradition (one can be handed down P, the other ~P). This would be akin to two people disagreeing over whether or not a certain bird is an emu because one of them recalls the bird-book wrong (and so wants to call it an ostrich, and wants to say it lives in Africa and lays the largest egg of any bird etc.). Belief in the possibility of incommensurable conceptual schemes (in the relativistic sense) would then follow if one held that what one had been handed down by one's tradition was invulnerable to revision by experience or testimony; the sort of scheme-content dualism Davidson attributes to Kant (where there's only one scheme) would follow from believing that there's only one possible set of beliefs one can be handed down by one's tradition. (Both of these further claims, I hasten to add, seem implausible. And it would only be in certain narrow circumstances that two people could agree on what experience discloses while disagreeing on what inferences experience licenses them to draw. And narrower still cases where the disagreement about inferential licenses follows from a background difference in beliefs acquired via tradition, rather than differing in other beliefs picked up via experience or testimony.)

Where I want to differ with McDowell, then, is not on the very idea of knowing things via "the teachings of the elders" or things like that. One can simply have a belief because of how one was raised, and if it's true I have no problem with counting it as knowledge. (If one insists, you can add: and provided one has the belief due to being raised in the right way, so that it counts as justified in the right way to be knowledge.) And placing this sort of knowledge alongside learning a language seems right. Learning to cope with a novel vocabulary involves coming to know things through, so to speak, seeing that they're in the air around the practice. I don't think Davidson would reject this sort of thing, either -- when he denies that it's necessary that a speaker has ever spoken the same language as anyone else, he affirms that a speaker can only pick up what language they have by interacting with other speakers. So a child who doesn't learn to speak just as his teachers aimed at might still pick things up from their attempts, and this could be the same sort of knowledge by tradition that he would've gained if he had learned to speak just as his teachers wished. (He might have missed some of the things they aimed to teach, or he might have grasped some things they didn't think they were imparting, or even that they would reject. But I don't think any of this is a threat to the general Gadamerian idea McDowell is keen to defend.)

If this is all McDowell wants out of "the endogenous given", then the endogenous given is harmless. Where I think McDowell goes wrong is in linking this good Gadamerian idea about tradition to the good Wittgensteinian idea about a distinction between hinge propositions and others: McDowell assimilates the two, and further identifies them with "necessary forms of mindedness" and with analytic propositions (all in some very dense paragraphs at the end of the first appendix to "Mind and World"). Setting aside the further identifications, the first one seems to me to be wrong.

I think Wittgenstein was right to include "man has never been on the moon" among his examples of a "hinge proposition". It's something that (in the 50's) one would be right to hold fast as one went about in the world. If something implied that a man had been on the moon, then this would be sufficient to show it false (by modus tollens). Once the "space race" began, it would've gradually shifted from hinge to door (so to speak). And the way in which it could so shift would not be a matter of, say, experience simply revealing that it was no longer true: for hinge propositions are the standard by which we manage experience, by which we judge whether to accept or reject a particular case of things seeming to be thus-and-so. Experience would then not disprove a hinge proposition for the same reason that thermometers don't have a line that reads "this thermometer is broken". How one accounts for changing hinge propositions is just going to be a different sort of thing in epistemology. One which, as far as I can tell, McDowell doesn't give us any help in coping with.

It might be thought that McDowell was right to identify hinge propositions with analytic propositions and "necessary forms of mindedness", if experience can't threaten them. But here I think my presentation suffers from the fact that I don't have a clear grip on what I want to offer as an account of change in hinge propositions. (Barring unhappy surprises, I aim to just crib from Isaac Levi on the matter.) For I think that, in another sense, experience can lead one to reject a hinge proposition. Continuing the analogy with the thermometer, it would be similar to trashing a thermometer which read -20 degrees on a summer day, when one had intended to use the thermometer to measure the temperature outside. One had further ancillary commitments which lead one to reject the standard one was using, because of something in the way that standard had functioned in its use as a standard. It can't be "standards all the way down", so it might seem that McDowell must be right: there's a bedrock of absolutely firm standards, and these are the necessary forms any possible mindedness must take. But I think this is too quick. Levi gives an account of something he calls routine contraction, in which beliefs are rejected simply because they form a contradictory pair (P and ~P), and such things are unfit for use in the way beliefs are used (that is, as standards in inquiry). For anything is compatible with them -- anything which conflicts with P agrees with ~P, and vice-versa. The reason this is called "routine" is because it is parallel to routine expansion, in which beliefs are gained via an operating habit (as opposed to explicitly deciding to take what the map says as right, or to believe what one's mother says about how to treat a cold, or whatever). The set of beliefs one uses as a standard in inquiry function as a background against which such habits can be intelligible to have, but routine expansion is distinguished from expansion due to inquiry. I omit the details because I am not entirely firm on them; hopefully Duck can correct me if I've messed up any of this so far. But the upshot is: it is the case that taking one's experience at face value can lead to a routine contraction which eliminates a hinge proposition from one's set of beliefs. Or, more concretely, one might cease to hold as a hinge proposition the claim that Man has never been on the moon because of what one read on the front page of the New York Times. Though if one had been trying to make sense of an arbitrary stranger who was talking about NASA landing on the moon, one would have ruled out of court at the outset that he might be right that man had been on the moon -- the stranger would be taken to be a crank, as it were a priori. Like I said: the manner in which hinge propositions can be revised is tricky. (One can just say "one revises them as one judges best" but this says nothing, for they are the standard by which one judges what is best.)

Hinge propositions, I then want to say, are corrigible. This doesn't distinguish them from beliefs gained by tradition: here, too, I want to say they're corrigible. And here McDowell has to agree with me, or else his rhetoric about the "standing duty to reflect" on what one's traditions have handed one down, as what guarantees the rationality of taking the Gadamerian line on traditions, is just empty gassing.

What, then, prevents identification of hinge propositions with propositions held true because of how one was raised?

It is this: one can pick up hinge propositions other ways, too. It's easily thinkable that some children in Wittgenstein's day did not learn that man had never been on the moon via their tradition, but rather via reading about it in astronomy books, or by asking an adult whether or not there were men on the moon, as there were men in distant countries. And there's no reason to think that Wittgenstein gained this particular belief in any special way. Who knows when he first realized that men had never gone to the moon?

Now, it might seem that I'm stacking the deck against McDowell by my choice of example. But I think that the more standard examples of "hinge propositions" are not relevantly different. For in each case, the proposition's status as a "hinge" is contingent on how things fall out as life goes on. It might end up retracted due to the commitments one gained via habitual expansion. (And this would include cases such as accepting the conclusion of a skeptical argument, where it's the sort of thing one finds compelling.)

As a conclusion, I want to say: "Hinge" is a status, not a kind. A proposition which one holds as a hinge might later be rejected as simply false. And I want to say exactly the same thing about "invulnerability to experience" -- which is just to repeat C.I. Lewis's position on the issue from A Pragmatic Conception of the A Priori. And if I say the same thing about analyticity, then this is close to Quine's mature position: For late Quine, "a bachelor is an unmarried male" is analytic for a speaker because that speaker learns that this is a true sentence at the same time that the speaker learns to use the word "bachelor". For non-native speakers, it is not analytic, nor is it analytic for the odd native speaker who learns the word in some way other than learning that "a bachelor is an unmarried male" is true.

"Necessary forms of mindedness" are a different issue: here I don't want to hold on to the notion at all. If I can't make sense of someone holding that ~P where I hold that P, then I want to say that this is a failure of imagination on my part. (Which isn't to say it's blameworthy. Unlimited imaginative power is no duty, which is good because it's clearly impossible for we mortals. And of course it says nothing about the truth or falsity of P.) And where I want to talk about conceptual relations -- say, "belief is intrinsically veridical" -- it seems to me silly to claim to be limning the "necessary forms any mindedness must take" -- unless this be said with a keen awareness that philosophy is hard, and philosophers are often wrong. Rather, I want to just say: this is true, and the modality attached to it can go hang. (To deny "necessity" to a claim is not to say that it's only possible instead.) For the sorts of claims made here are as shaky as any (and so as firm as any). Rationality thus seems to demand that we recognize a standing duty to reflect on them. Which means not ruling out serious reflection a priori, by lumping them into a pile labeled "analytic" or "necessary" or "a priori".

As a final caveat, another of the few places where McDowell mentions "On Certainty". From "Knowledge and the Internal Revisited":
I recognize my own authority as a reporter of greenness. But I would be at a loss if pressed for premises for an argument that would have my reliability about greenness as a conclusion. My reliability about that kind of thing has for me, rather, a sort of status Wittgenstein considers in "On Certainty". It is held firm for me by my whole conception of the world with myself in touch with it, and not as the conclusion from an inference from some part of it.
I take it that this status is that of a hinge proposition. I also take it that there is no temptation whatsoever to claim that "McDowell can recognize green things, in normal lighting conditions" is analytic, or necessary, or anything of the kind. I also take it that it would be uncontentious to speculate that McDowell picked up his capacity to recognize green things when he learned to use the word "green", as taught by his elders. This would then be a case of an endogenously given hinge proposition which is neither analytic nor necessary, and which is further plainly in danger of being made false by experience -- if McDowell goes blind, for example (Heaven forbid). So it's not clear to me how much I'm trying to distance myself from McDowell, and how much I'm just trying to get clear on what his view is.

I can make up an interpretation on which it's reasonable to talk about rehabilitating "interesting analytic judgements" and an "endogenously given" conceptual scheme, but I can't both do this and claim to be disagreeing with "the familiar tenants of Quinean philosophy". And the necessity-talk (and the kind words for Lear's "Leaving the World Alone") just strike me as bad moves. Lear's piece tries to argue for an a priori refutation of Dummett's claims that our logic needs an intuitionistic revision, as in he doesn't deal with Dummett's arguments in reaching the conclusion that Dummett is wrong. This just seems to me to be as wrong as wrong can be. And McDowell shouldn't be so hard on Quine.

This post is an attempt to work things out that I'm not entirely settled on. What could be a better tribute to "On Certainty"?


Ben W said...

I haven't read the McDowell essays you mention, or On Certainty, but that won't stop me from sounding off in this wise: the bit about the way propositions can lose their status as hinges seems not entirely unrelated to various attempts (I'm thinking of Michael Friedman's, not that I can say I have a completely firm grasp on it) to account for rationality in the progress of science, in light of various Kuhnian concerns—Friedman thinks that one component of a rational transition from one scientific theory to another (or perhaps he just thinks this about one specific transition—unclear to me) is a gradual widening and changing of the conceptual tools available to working scientists. Mathematical frameworks, for instance. These obviously have to have their mettle tested according to their own disciplinary standards, but I take it that independent reasons can justify them, and bringing a bunch of such new tools together can lead to the formulation of new theories such that their adoption at that time can be seen by adherents of the old theories as rational.

Obviously, man didn't walk on the moon overnight, but this was preceded by the whole rigmarole of the space race, flight that didn't leave the earth, unmanned spacecraft, manned spacecraft that didn't go to the moon, and a whole bunch of other things (all reported, not by cranks, but by reputable outfits with some authority) that gradually make it more plausible that man might someday walk on the moon. Someone who had been an avid follower of the space program, but who was in a coma for all of 1969, might be perfectly willing to accept, on his emergence, that there had been people on the moon. And perhaps conspiracy-minded people, once it was shown that it was possible, wouldn't reject out of hand that man had been on the moon even in, say, 1965 (damn Russkies)—at which point it wouldn't be the case that someone maintaining this would simply be dismissed as a crank, by everyone. There comes a point at which your recognition that the proposition could become false ought to bring with it the recognition that it might already have become false without your knowledge.

And now I'm uncertain whether the process by which hinge propositions concerning empirical matters are revised is really more tricky than that by which non-hinge propositions are. Harder to effect, perhaps.

Daniel Lindquist said...

"And now I'm uncertain whether the process by which hinge propositions concerning empirical matters are revised is really more tricky than that by which non-hinge propositions are. Harder to effect, perhaps."

If I suggested that changing non-hinge propositions was easier than changing hinge propositions, this was an error. I think belief change in general is pretty wild. I want to say: the only difference here would be between coming to belief P where you'd previously believed that ~P, and coming to believe P where before you didn't have a view as to P or ~P. If you didn't have any opinion about the issue, it's easy to see how new information changed your mind: just add the new information. It's the possibility of correction that I think is tricky.

Isaac Levi doesn't have anything like the hinge/non-hinge distinction among propositions held true. Duck has said he thinks a better term for "hinge proposition" is "belief". I'm inclined to agree. Though you obviously have to go on to give some account of what the less firm doxastic attitude is ("opining" or something like that) -- the sort of thing where you want to say that P, but you wouldn't bet anything on it.

The stuff about Friedman sounds plausible, but the only Friedman I've read is a handful of his Kant articles (which are just okay). And the posts from "Words and Other Things" about Friedman's book, if that counts for anything. I got the impression that Friedman made some decent points on occasion, but that I could more profitably get those points elsewhere. But I do think that making "paradigm shifts" not something non-rational or supra-rational is important if Kuhn is to be respectable at all.

I agree with your things about the space race.

Perezoso said...
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