15 December 2010

"Extended Mind Redux"

From Andy Clark's "Extended Mind Redux":

Themewise, I was struck by the somewhat remarkable fact that about half the commentators thought the general line about extending the mind was plausible and even obvious, while about half thought it was implausible and perhaps even self-evidently false. In optimistic mode (which I mostly am) I take this as a good sign: as suggesting that there is indeed something worth thinking about here.

Philosophical Investigations 402:
For this is what disputes between Idealists, Solipsists and Realists look like. The one party attack the normal form of expression as if they were attacking a statement; the others defend it, as if they were stating facts recognized by every reasonable human being.

Clark also allows that perhaps he shouldn't be optimistic: "If I were feeling less upbeat, I might take it as a sign that I just hadn’t made the thought clear enough." I rather doubt "clarifications" of his thesis could help him here.

I preferred it when "The Stone" was publishing columns that were transparently insane, like the one about autism (and sex-ratios and the TLP). Then I could just shake my head at the NYT, rather than the profession.

Metablogical note: I have finally finished my paper on chapter 5 of Sebastian Roedl's "Self-Consciousness". Submitted the final version an hour or so ago. God willing, I'll have time to finally finish my McDowell Week notes come this weekend.

01 December 2010

Making a Davidson Quote more Available, and a Hegel Paper

I've gestured at this quote before (in posts and in conversation), but Google shows that I've never actually typed it all up: it only showed up on Google Books and then in some guy's dissertation in Portuguese. I think it's revealing enough to deserve more prominence than that.

"I am deeply puzzled by McDowell's alternative account.... I do not see how the (propositional) content one takes in can be evidence for a belief, since it does not, in itself, have any subjective probability (if it did, it would be a belief). How can an attitude that assigns no probability to a proposition convey a probability (positive or negative) of, or provide positive evidence for, a belief?" ("Reply to Roger F. Gibson", p.135 in "Donald Davidson: Truth, meaning, and knowledge").

PS: I will finish recapping McDowell week after I get a draft knocked out for a paper I'm writing on Sebastian Roedl for a class on internalism & externalism. Sorry it's taken so long, been a busy couple of months.

Also, "Hegel on Reality as a Modal Notion" is one of the most stimulating things I've read in a while (and I heard Stekeler was a lot of fun in person). Here's some stuff I wrote on Facebook, which I shamelessly recycle to generate blog-content. The original context was my defending Stekeler's interestingness and intelligibility against a cultured critic; I would go back in and add citations to Hegel if I wasn't a hack, but it's all in the Logic chapters that are explicitly on modal topics ("Reality" in Stekeler's paper is Wirklichkeit, not Realitat -- which makes his title seem silly, since "actuality is a modal notion" is not news to anyone):

I thought he really did make Hegel's views on modality clearer. The role of contingency in Hegel's thought seems to me to be pretty much what Stekeler says on p. 21; or at least if this is Hegel's view, then this makes sense of how Hegel can both insist that there really is contingency (and that it would be foolish to try to reduce away all contingency as merely veiled necessity) while also often sounding like a necessitarian, even affirming some form of the principle of sufficient reason: it always makes sense to ask after the cause of any happening.

Answering this causal question takes the form of characterizing the happening as the result of some ground that it follows from in accord with some "generic law", some general claim that relates the sorts of things that the cause and the effect are such that the effect makes sense as being there, given that the cause is there. But no system of "generic laws" says what particular things there are, and to try to make "generic laws" imply the existence of particulars would be to fall into confusion about how causal explanations function (since they do their work by setting particulars in a broader framework, and using the fact that the relations in the framework are understood to make sense of the relations the particulars stand in; if the relations the particulars stood in needed to be understood to make use of the framework, then positioning them within the terms of the framework wouldn't be explanatory, but would merely bring back out what was already known). So it's foolish to try to pretend there's no contingency in nature, just because everything in nature has a causal explanation: Denial of "contingency" in the sense of things that happen for no reason at all, like the atomists' clinamen, doesn't mean that contingency has been shown to be an illusion or a result of our ignorance (which is how Spinoza thought of it - E1P29). Both of these views misunderstood contingency.

This also fits in with another of his criticisms of Spinoza in the "History of Philosophy" lectures: Spinoza has no way of getting attributes into the picture. He fudges that part: God has infinite attributes (by definition: E1D6), but "attribute" is something Spinoza characterizes only by reference to "what the intellect perceives as constituting the essence of substance" (E1D4 -- he needs to appeal to *us*, as intellects, to get attributes into play). He doesn't actually prove that God/Nature has any multiplicity to itself at all, from definitions; he merely seems to, because he's smuggled in our own viewpoint alongside the definitions. Thus Hegel's regarding Spinoza as an "acosmist", someone who has no place for a world at all. And as Spinoza is the paradigm denier of contingency in nature, it seems natural to connect these points in Hegel: denying contingency in nature happens when you've actually lost nature from the picture.

Before reading this paper, Hegel's stuff about contingency had confused me. Now it seems like good sense.

16 October 2010

McDowell Week Retrospective: "Avoiding the Myth of the Given" (Wednesday part 1)

Now that I have all of the phil100 papers for my section graded, I can get back to this.

On Wednesday there was a catered lunch in the department to give grad students a chance to talk to McDowell without professors present. Thus far in McDowell week, I had not said a word to McDowell, because I get anxious about things like that; at lunch, McDowell asked me an embarrassing question about my eating habits, and this served as an icebreaker. So I started asking him about "Avoiding the Myth of the Given".

One of the first things I asked him was whether his post-"Avoiding" view committed him to saying that all we see is facing surfaces of objects -- whether or not we saw objects as having backs. He said that we just see the facing surfaces, and not the backs, and that we see them as things with backs by seeing their surfaces. He compared it to seeing that John is at the table, where that it's John at the table isn't part of the content of the experience, as someone might not know the fellow's name and still see things the same as someone who did. This all left me flummoxed for a bit. I couldn't see how this could be said satisfactorily.

McDowell mentioned Anscombe's essay "Substance" as something he was teaching in his "Philosophy of Perception" seminar at Pittsburgh. I found this essay quite helpful; it's in the second volume of her papers, and runs shy of seven pages.

I asked McDowell how my belief that I see that John is at the table is supposed to be justified, if the content of my experience doesn't give me that the person I see is John. McDowell said that even if the content of my experience didn't involve my capacity to recognize people by name, it still brought those people into view. A little more work on trying to get clear at what bothered me lead McDowell to remark that recognitional capacities (which involve concepts over and above those involved in the content of an experience) can issue nondefeasible warrants to know that-P.

And this was around the time that lunch ended and I had to go to my office hours, and then to Kaplan's epistemology seminar. Then I got some closing-hour baked goods at City Bakery and it was time for McDowell's public lecture.

Somewhere in this expanse of time, I realized what had been bothering me about "Avoiding": I had missed two points. One is that recognitional capacities issue in warrants that are just as good as those gained by "carving out" a particular bit of the content of an experience (the two are epistemologically on a level). I thought that the warrants perception issued in were supposed to be tied to the fact that it was from intuition that I took what I claimed to know, but this is just not part of McDowell's story.

"Avoiding", page 259:

Such locutions -- "I see that...", "My experience reveals to me that..." -- accept, in their "that..." clauses, specifications of things one's experience puts one in a position to know non-inferentially. That can include knowledge that experience makes available by bringing something into view for someone who has a suitable recognitional capacity.
In a footnote to the first sentence, McDowell notes that "These locutions can even be understood in such a way that inferential credentials are not ruled out for the knowledge in question. Consider, for instance, "I see that the mailman has not yet come today.""

I believe I have misread this footnote in the past. What McDowell means here is that I can claim to know that the mailman has not yet come today because "I can see that this is so", but that what this means is that I take what I can see to give me grounds for a materially good inference to the claim that the mailman has not yet come today (say I see that the flag on the mailbox is still up, and the package I placed in it to be sent is still sticking out). The knowledge I attribute to myself in saying "I see that the mailman has not yet come today" is inferential. This shows up in how I reply if someone asks me why I think the mailman hasn't come today: "I see my package is still there, and the mailman would've taken it if he had come. So he hasn't come yet today." It can also be used to state things I am in a position to know non-inferentially, and that these things are known non-inferentially likewise shows up in how I reply: "Why do you think your package is still there?" -- "I can see it from where I'm standing". I stop there; I do not claim to infer the presence of my package from something else.

In the block-quoted portion, I had previously been misunderstanding what "bringing something into view" meant. I took it to be something that experience('s content) did, which then led to recognitional capacities kicking in. But nothing like that was meant: knowledge gained via recognitional capacities being actualized in perception works just like perceptual knowledge did before "Avoiding". I was over-reading McDowell.

The second point I had been confused on was this: I was worried that someone might want to say that all experience really gives me warrant for believing myself to see is colored expanses of various shapes and sizes; the warrants perception gives are solely those gained by articulating bits of intuitional content -- if I take myself to know that John is at the table because I can see him, this supposed knowledge must have some ground other than what experience presents to me, for experience presents only colored expanses, or perhaps it has no ground but is granted due to custom or habit etc. (The worry had the physiognomy of the idea that it is only in logic that we can be certain of anything, and that if we claim certainty in any non-logical matter we are, strictly speaking, irrational. Thus the young LW's refusal to grant Russell that there was no rhinoceros in his office.)

Relatedly, I was worried about the idea that it is only by abstracting from our everyday view of objects around us that we can see ourselves as presented with "expanses of color" (I recall Alva Noe having a nice paper on how hard it is to take up "the painterly point of view" and see a coin held at an angle as an elipse, though if you look at a photograph of a coin so held it's easy to draw the elipse at its border), and with related phenomeological ideas like Heidegger's argument that ready-to-handedness is prior to present-at-handedness, or Merleau-Ponty's "the blue of a carpet would never be the same blue were it not a woolly blue". All of these seemed to give compelling reasons for thinking that what McDowell had as "the content of experience" had to be an abstraction from how the world was presented to me. Which is an awkward-sounding idea.

But McDowell is committed to it being impossible for someone's experience to only ever put her in a position to know things non-inferentially via the articulation of bits of intuitional content. She has to also be able to tell things like whether the lighting is normal, which is not a matter of what colored expanses she is presented with, nor is it something she settles ahead of time or via an inference. (This is just following Sellars's line.) So it's already a part of his position that "the content of experience" is never the entirety of what experience gives to me. So he can keep accepting Heidegger's argument about ready-to-handedness and all that; "the content of experience" is just a name for the lowest-common-denominator stuff that one is able to take in just by virtue of having functioning sense-organs and being a rational animal.

This isn't the only place McDowell uses "content" like that. According to McDowell's disjunctivism in perception, "the content" of experience is never the whole story about experience. "The content of experience" is what he calls the common factor between the good case and the bad case, between veridical and nonveridical experiences. There is more to experience than its content. That's just the way McDowell uses the words.

So there was no reason for me to feel worried that taking McDowell's position seriously ought to shrink the circle of what experience puts us into a position to know to that of which colored expanses we're presented with. That possibility was already ruled out by other things McDowell was committed to.

So, I think I am now clear on both of the revisions McDowell made in "Avoiding". Both seem fine.

This post is long enough that I think McDowell's public lecture should be in another post. But I've actually run together some things from Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday together here; I think I can stop talking about "Avoiding" now. That has become a bit of philosophy that I can stop doing when I want to. Which is now.

10 October 2010

McDowell Week Retrospective: Tuesday

I finally asked McDowell things I wanted to ask him about on Friday, after using lunch on Wednesday to get clearer on what I wanted to ask. I was happy with all the answers I got.

But let's go in order. McDowell got into town late on Monday (he had a seminar on the Philosophy of Perception that afternoon at Pitt), and the first thing I saw him at was a seminar on Tuesday.

Before his visit, McDowell had recommended that interested parties read two Tyler Burge articles: "Disjunctivism and Perceptual Psychology" and "Perceptual Entitlement", along with certain of McDowell's earlier works. These were the things the McDowell reading group at IU read through over the past few weeks.

The Tuesday seminar was on "Disjunctivism and Perceptual Psychology". On page two of that essay, Burge says "Disjunctivism is, roughly, the view that there is never any specific perceptual state kind in common between a perception of one object and a perception of another object (even if the objects are not discriminable to the perceiver through the perception), or between the perception of an object and a perceptual referential illusion that is contextually indiscriminable to the perceiver from the successful perception." McDowell said he liked this way of putting it well enough.

Some of Burge's other ways of putting it, McDowell found less congenial. For example, Burge claims that disjunctivism denies that there is any explanatorily relevant state in common between the good case and the bade case.

One odd thing about the (eighty-page-long) article that McDowell drew attention to is that in the main body of the article, "disjunctivism" is not attributed to any philosophers by name. It's only in the appendix to the article that any particular philosophers come into view, and then a lot of them do. So the body of the article is not targeting any one philosopher in particular, but is meant to hit McDowell, Evans, Snowdon, Campbell, and Martin all together.

This gives McDowell an easy reply to the bulk of Burge's article: The views Burge attacks are not held by McDowell. "I don't think Burge even contemplates my view." McDowell does not deny that there is a perceptual state in common between the "good case" and the "bad case" in perception; he just denies that that state is the only state which can be attributed to a perceiver in trying to explain how her experience presents things to her as being.

The state type which is common between the good case and the bad case is that both are states of having it appear to the perceiver that things are thus-and-so. "I am not in the business of denying that there is a common state. But I have more to say, and the more I have to say is well-expressed by means of a disjunction: it's like this, or it's like that."

McDowell asked for people to raise questions whenever they came up during the seminar (which lead to him not finishing his remarks on this paper, but I'm pretty sure the remainder just bled into Wednesday's lecture). Burge had cited "Singular Thought and the Extent of Inner Space" while criticizing McDowell, and someone asked a question about that. McDowell then spent some time saying how he had been trying to build on Burnyeat's "What Descartes Saw and Berkeley Missed" in that essay, and quite a bit of time was lost while people asked questions which revealed that they weren't familiar with that essay and had no idea what McDowell was trying to say about its relationship with STatEoIS. This was the low point of the seminar.

One good point that did come up in this discussion was that Burge tends to talk about perception in terms of the identification of particular objects. McDowell thinks that he can say what he wants to say about "disjunctivism" without getting into that at all. He is presently inclined to say (but has not yet convinced himself that it's all right to say) that the content of an experience is existential in form: "There is a man in front of me" as opposed to "John is in front of me". Which removes the mystery of what to say about the "common factor" between the perceptual analogues of singular thoughts and what merely seem to be the perceptual analogues of singular thoughts (the perceptual analogues of Evans's Frege's "mock thoughts"). We can say that the content of the experience is the same whether or not John exists, even if the experience inclines me to say that John is in front of me, and if John is in front of me and I am in a position to know that he is in front of me via perception. For even if I was mistaken in all of this, it could still be the case that my experience is a state of having it appear to me as if there is a man in front of me.

This seems to me to be a very welcome revision, if that is what it is. (McDowell wasn't sure if he had said anything that contradicted it before; he said he would have to go back through and reread all of his earlier articles to check, and he doesn't think anyone really cares (nor does he) whether or not his position on this topic has changed since the 70s.) If the content of an experience (as opposed to what an experience inclines you to say via the exercise of your other recognitional capacities) does not include singular contents, then disjunctivism doesn't need to be complexified to handle the weirdness of "Scheinegedanke", and it also looks to be independent of what one wants to say about singular thoughts.

Another point McDowell had to clarify, but which I think is clearly not a revision: "being in a state" is just having a verb-phrase true of one. Someone asked for more clarification on how to characterize the common factor between the good case and the bad case: "Find a true thing of a state-ish type you can say, and you have the common type." I was just glad to have this clear Carnapian point repeated: being in a state does not mean that there is a state which one is in.

McDowell noted that he didn't think any of this stuff actually got at what really bothered Burge, which is discussed in section III of his paper, about the perceptual capacities of brutes. He didn't actually get back to this point in depth, I don't think, but the Wednesday lecture seemed like it probably covered the material he'd not had time for. This is a place where my notes are not as clear as I would like; hopefully I can get the recordings from the seminars.

Before he got to what he thought was really bothering Burge, McDowell noted one flagrantly invalid argument Burge appealed to.

Burge claims that it follows from the fact that a perceptual capacity is fallible that it cannot be the case that a particular exercise of that capacity on a particular occasion can issue in an indefeasible warrant to know that p. He thinks that the idea of our having a capacity to know which rules out our being wrong is incompatible with recognizing that we are human, and our capacities to know are fallible.

McDowell notes that it doesn't follow from a CAPACITY'S being fallible that what it is a capacity FOR must leave it open that the capacity failed. He used the example of "a capacity to sink eight-foot putts". Everyone who has a capacity to sink eight-foot putts is fallible; nobody makes the putt 100% of the time. But when they do sink the putt, the ball goes in the hole and doesn't come back out. The capacity is fallible, but particular exercises of it can be such as to rule out that the capacity was anything less than entirely successful. "Fallibility is one thing, indefeasibility another. Indefeasibility attaches to warrants, which are on particular occasions." Fallibility is about capacities, which are only exercised on particular occasions.

Apart from this bad argument about our fallibility, McDowell doesn't see that Burge gives any argument for ruling out that perception can give indefeasible warrants. Burge just characterizes perception in such a way that the warrants it provides can be, at best, defeasible.

A good portion of Burge's paper is devoted to saying what the state of the field is in perceptual psychology. McDowell thinks this part of the paper is "beautifully done". There really is a puzzle about the underdetermination of the visual system: very different levels of light can hit the retina in different scenarios, but we can identify the surface we see as maintaining its shade throughout. McDowell seemed genuinely engaged while recounting some of the stuff he'd read about luminescence. I suspect this was intended to counter Burge's claim that "[McDowell's] claims about the science rest on a string of misunderstandings that elementary familiarity with the science would have prevented."

McDowell grants that "It might be a bad thing to just keep doing epistemology without caring about the science of how visual systems work." He mentioned Hegel's supposed proof that there can only be seven planets as a thing for philosophy to avoid; philosophers in armchairs should not deny scientific theories. He thinks Burge charges philosophy with something stronger than this, though: He seems to say "here is science, ergo epistemology has to be like this".

Burge claims that the states of a perceptual system are also those of the perceiver whose system it is: "Perceptions as of three-dimensionally shaped objects, and the motions and colors of these objects, are among the representations produced by the perceptual system. They are equally the individual's perceptual representations." Burge argues that the states a perceptual system can get into in "good cases" and in "bad cases" are the same, and hence disjunctivism (and naive realism) are false.

McDowell takes it to be obvious that this is right about perceptual systems: learning more about how perceptual systems work lets you create new perceptual illusions, for example. The possibility of convincing illusions requires that they appear to be what they aren't. The trick to getting someone to see an illusion is to get their perceptual system to be in the state that it would be in if it were a case of veridical perception, but without it being a case of veridical perception. There aren't "factive" states in perceptual systems, just as an empirical matter; that's not how the science turns out, as Burge attests.

But, if this is true about the states of perceptual systems, then no state of a perceptual system can be such that it is incompatible with a perceptual system's being in that state that things are not as that state represents them as being. And so no state of a perceptual system can be such as to issue in an indefeasible warrant to know that things are thus-and-so. And Burge had no argument why we can't conceive of perception in that way. So it's simply open to McDowell to claim that perception is not being in a particular state of a perceptual system.

So, McDowell can grant everything Burge says about the science, and still claim "Perceivers perceive, perceptual systems don't perceive", which makes much of what Burge said entirely besides the point. McDowell noted that "The perceiver is an animal. We have to be careful if we are talking about things animals do or things functionally specified parts of animals do.... The heart circulates blood. I circulate blood? No, I don't. That's not my job. It's taken care of for me."

So, none of the science Burge talks about can be constitutive of being in the sort of perceptual state McDowell's disjunctivism is concerned with, but that doesn't show that there's anything wrong with either of them. McDowell can continue to say that the stuff Burge brings up is enabling of perception, and deny that it is constitutive of it.

And then it'd been two hours, so the seminar ended. The reception afterwards was very poorly catered, I thought; I just had a couple of cans of diet coke (which they quickly ran out of) and waited for dinner. The available food at the reception was like, crackers with some sort of spread. I don't know where I was for dinner afterwards, but I don't want to go back, and nothing interesting philosophically came up there.

And there was evening, and there was morning, and it was the second day. That will be another post, because this one turned out to be pretty long.

04 October 2010

McDowell Week at IU

McDowell is visiting IU this week.

Some numbers for the week:

Number of receptions: Two.
Number of dinners the department's paying for that I'm signed up to attend: Two.
Number of catered lunches for grad students: One.
Number of parties: One.
Number of the above that McDowell will be at: Six (assuming he attends his own receptions).

Hooray for free food~

Also there's a two-part seminar for the department, a public lecture, and open office hours. I'm hoping that somewhere in there I can get McDowell to explain what's going on with "Avoiding the Myth of the Given" (the bit where he limits which conceptual capacities are involved in the content of experience).

I need to figure out what else I want to ask him about in the next day or so. "Davidson in Context" and the indeterminacy of translation both come to mind. I also hear he presented a paper on the B-Deduction at the Haugeland (RIP) conference this spring; I should try to get a copy of that.

I also want to know why "The Content of Perceptual Experience" hasn't been collected yet. It's from April 1994, The Philosophical Quarterly (Vol 44, No. 175), and he told us to read it in preparation for his visit. So far as I could find, it's the only piece of his that wasn't collected in any of the four volumes of his papers (apart from short replies). If he hadn't told us to read it, I probably wouldn't have known it existed. (It's about Dennett and animal cognition; nothing world-shaking, but a solid statement of McDowell's rejection of the (more than causal) relevance of sub-personal states to personal-level explanations.)

There are some other things that've come up in the McDowell reading groups that I want to hear McDowell respond to, but I figure other people can worry about remembering those. Nobody else is going to bug him about "Avoiding". (It was news to most people here that McDowell had revised his views in the past decade.)

Meta-note: The blog is not dead; I was just busy with moving & work & such all summer, and since I've gotten to IU I've been busy with school things. Also, random articles and such I've wanted to link have ended up getting linked on facebook instead of here, which has cut down on the amount of random incentives to post I've had. (Feel free to friend me if you read this.)

One thing I meant to note when it happened, but didn't: Barry Stroud spoke here a few weeks ago, and I was surprised to find myself agreeing with almost everything he said. It seems his view of perception is now pretty close to McDowell's, with a strong disjunctivist aspect to it. The only place he explicitly disagreed with McDowell was in whether there was any reason to call his view "idealism" (which I tried to smooth over in the Q&A*), and the only place I noticed him missing something McDowell noticed is that Stroud didn't seem to distinguish between experiences and beliefs formed on the basis of experience. (Which made his views an interesting hybrid of McDowell and the still-not-quite-right parts of Davidson.) I need to get a copy of the paper he delivered, to make sure I heard him right; it felt strange to agree with Stroud so strongly.

*Stroud was referring to the part at the end of "Conceptual Capacities in Perception" where McDowell says the label "idealism" is "a good fit" for the view he defends (p.143 in "Having the World in View"). Stroud took himself to be defending the same view as McDowell, but was troubled by the fact that McDowell thought that this view was an "idealism". I suggested that all McDowell meant to be doing by saying his views are "idealism in an obvious sense" was indicating solidarity with Hegel, since it's clear that McDowell wants to defend "common-sense realism" (also on p.143), and Hegel is an example of a self-avowed "idealist" who also wasn't an idealist in the sense that seemed to worry Stroud. (He's also the only person I can think of who could say "the world itself is structured by the form of judgement" and not mean anything worrisome about it, which is another thing McDowell says. Kant can almost say this and get away with it, but McDowell is clear in holding that transcendental idealism spoils the story. I should ask McDowell if he thinks the TLP says it, since proposition 1 of that book is nonsense.) Stroud's reply was "Well, when I asked McDowell about this, he told me 'Idealism is not a theory'". And then everyone in the auditorium had a good laugh about that.

10 May 2010

McDowell on Gjelsvik on McDowell on Rorty on Davidson on Brains in Vats

McDowell's criticism of Davidson on pages 16/17 of "Mind & World" has always bothered me. The topic is what Davidson says about brains in vats, based on the testimony of Rorty in "Pragmatism, Davidson, and Truth". It turns out that there's a volume of "Theoria" made up of critical essays with McDowell's responses, and this comes up there. I didn't know McDowell had responded to any of those essays until a few hours ago; I was excited to find them. McDowell's return to this argument was the best thing I found in there.

M&W 16/17: "Suppose one feels the worry in this familiar form: so far as the picture goes, one might be a brain in a mad scientist's vat. The Davidsonian response seems to be that if one were a brain in a vat, it would be correct to interpret one's beliefs as being largely true beliefs about the brain's electronic environment.... But the response to the brain-in-a-vat worry works the wrong way round. The response does not calm the fear that our picture leaves our thinking possibly out of touch with the world around us. It just gives us a dizzying sense that our grip on what it is that we believe is not as firm as we thought."

And then McDowell has this footnote; I'll bold the part that's always upset me:
"It takes care to say precisely why the response is unsatisfying. It is not that we are being told that we may be egregiously wrong about what our beliefs are about. If I protest that some belief of mine is not about electronic impulses or whatever but about, say, a book, the reply can be: "Certainly your belief is about a book -- given how 'a book' as you use the phrase is correctly interpreted." The envisaged reinterpretation, to suit the hypothesis that I am a brain in a vat, affects my higher-level beliefs about what my first-level beliefs are about in a way that precisely matches its effect on my first-level beliefs. The problem is that in the argument Rorty attributes to Davidson, we ring changes on the actual environment (as seen by the interpreter and brought into the interpretation) without changing how things strike the believer, even while the interpretation is supposed to capture how the believer is in touch with her world. This strikes me as making it impossible to claim that the argument traffics in any genuine idea of being in touch with something in particular. The objects that the interpreter sees the subject's beliefs as being about become, as it were, merely noumenal so far as the subject is concerned."

In "Experience" (Theoria volume 70, issue 2-3), Olav Gjelsvik complains about this passage in just the way I have in the past: "McDowell allows himself a description of the case Davidson would hardly subscribe to, namely that “we ring changes in the actual environment without changing how things strike the believer”. Davidson,in this mood Rorty describes, would hardly let in the line “without changing how things strike the believer”." Gjelsvik makes the obvious point that "how things strike the believer" is, for Davidson, a matter of which beliefs the believer holds, and McDowell grants that those change with environmental changes in his footnote (what I mean by "a book" is not a book, if I've never come into even remote contact with books). So what's supposed to be the problem for Davidson, here?

McDowell's response clears things up (after regretting that he tried to make much out of a secondhand report about an oral remark about such a tricky topic):
"When I spoke of ringing changes in the actual environment without changing how things strike the believer, I was not talking about what an interpreter might come up with when faced with something that is undoubtedly a brain in a vat. Davidson’s remark, I took it, was meant to respond to the sceptical thought (or supposed thought), supposedly entertainable by each of us, “Perhaps I am a brain in a vat”. How things strike me (which I would express by saying such things as that there seems to be a computer screen in front of me) is given by the current state of my consciousness. In the thought experiment, we are invited to switch - without changing the current state of my consciousness - between the case as I take it to be, in which there really is a computer screen in front of me, and the case in which my visual experience is produced by electrodes implanted in the brain that, in this alternative scenario, is all there is to me. The putative reassurance of Davidson’s remark was that even if the case is the second of these, my beliefs (which I express by saying, for instance, that there is a computer screen in front of me) are still mostly true; it is just that my expressions of them need to be interpreted as being about the electronic environment of the brain that, on this hypothesis, I am. I stand by my claim that this is not much reassurance. But for someone who thought it was, it would be exactly the point - contrary to what Gjelsvik says - to allow the line “without changing how things strike the believer”. The whole point of the supposed reassurance would be to grant to the sceptic that the difference between the two scenarios would not make a difference to the state of my consciousness, but to deny that this threatens the thesis that most of my beliefs are true."

McDowell took "the Davidsonian response" to the brain-in-a-vat worry to grant that one's experience is indistinguishable from the experience of a brain in a vat, but that this shouldn't worry anyone because brains in vats have mostly true beliefs, too. This is supposed to be a plausible line for Davidson because for him "experience", "consciousness" etc. are epistemically inert to begin with. So McDowell didn't just (somehow) forget that the radical interpreter would change how he took things to be striking the believer to fit with changes ringed in the environment; he took Davidson's response to grant to the skeptic that "how things strike my consciousness" can swing wildly free of how the world is. And then the argument about "the veridical nature of belief" "comes too late", just as McDowell says, for the skeptical claim about experience is left untouched, and that's the spot that itches.

This is much more plausible as a criticism of Davidson, and I no longer hate that part of "Mind & World". I don't think it quite works as a criticism of Davidson (because I don't think that that is how Davidson actually thinks of brain-in-a-vat skepticism or of "experience"), but it's intelligibly directed against a "Davidsonian" view. And addressing it helps McDowell better get into view that what we need is a conception of a natural happening which is the world's impressing itself on a thinker. I think some of McDowell's criticisms of Davidson in "Mind & World" are less than perfect (as McDowell eventually recognizes in "Avoiding the Myth of the Given"), but he's certainly right that making sense of such a conception is a desideratum, and that Davidson was ill-poised to give it to us.

27 April 2010

Putnam and Analyticity

As the previous post probably implied, I've been reading more about the analytic/synthetic distinction (and other Quinean themes). Just finished Putnam's essay "The Analytic and The Synthetic". I have mixed feelings about it.

On the one hand, much of what Putnam says against Quine's critics seems to me entirely right and laudable. It's certainly useful for some purposes to have arguments against many philosophical uses of the supposed distinction but which affirm that it exists (since so many people still feel it obviously must have some merit, including the Quine of "The Roots of Reference"). Certainly I'd prefer that everyone agree with Putnam here than with Carnap; if the analytic-synthetic distinction doesn't do any active harm in philosophy then it's rather moot what else we say on the topic.

On the other hand, I'm unconvinced by Putnam's attempt to distinguish "law-cluster concepts" from some other kind (with this other kind being what's susceptible to becoming the subject of an analytic truth). I still think Davidson is right in holding that a concept gets the sense it has by having the inferential connections it has, but that there are no privileged connections here; it's just that if we change too many of them, it's hard to see how we can be working with the same concept we started with. (And it's of a piece with this to not try to make the notion of "same concept" do any heavy theoretical lifting; we can, in general, make that judgement however we like, provided we make appropriate accommodations elsewhere in our story.) So I doubt that there's anything special about the laws connected with a given concept (as opposed to beliefs which make use of that concept more broadly), or that there's a good reason to think any part of language is not like this.

Also, it's worth noting that Putnam is in a sense not defending the analytic/synthetic distinction; he explicitly rejects the notion that analytic-synthetic forms a dichotomy. Putnam thinks there are analytic statements, synthetic statements, statements that are close to analytic, statements that are close to synthetic, and a fifth miscellaneous class. Putnam argues solely in defense of the notion of analyticity: he thinks there are some parts of language which we must not deny as analytic. It was striking how different his defense of analyticity was from Morton White's attack on the analytic/synthetic distinction, reading them back to back like this. (And as a trivial note, Putnam never mentions White in this article, though White was his teacher, nor to anyone else who attacked the distinction; his criticisms are solely directed at Quine.)

I'm not going to try to do justice to everything Putnam has to say in his essay (it's long and dense), but there are a few lines of argument that seem to me to be both central and flawed.

First, a bit I liked, from where Putnam is laying out what he means by way of talking about "law-cluster concepts":

I want to suggest that the term 'energy' is not one of which it is happy to ask, What is its intension? The term 'intension' suggests the idea of a single defining character or a single defining law, and this is not the model on which concepts like energy are to be construed. In the case of a law-cluster term such as 'energy', any one law, even a law that was felt to be defiitional or stipulative in character, can be abandoned, and we feel that the identity of the concept has, in a certain respect, remained. (p.53)
This is very agreeable. Talk of "intensions" carries around the baggage of the "Myth of Meanings": of there being such a thing as The Meaning of a word, and of this as being what a good dictionary entry is supposed to communicate. Dictionaries do not do this, and this is not a flaw; a good dictionary entry gives you some clues as to how a word is used (at least in general, in most cases, by normal speakers), often more by the examples than by the "definitions", and this is often enough sufficient for you to settle any doubts about what so-and-so meant by such-and-such you might've had. Talk of "intensions" or of "meanings" as entities is not a helpful way to understand this.

But, sadly, Putnam does not stop the essay there.
In the case of the terms 'energy' and 'kinetic energy', we want to say, or at any rate I want to say, that the meaning has not changed enough to affect 'what we are talking about'; yet a principle superficially very much like 'All bachelors are unmarried' [the "definition" e=1/2mv^2] has been abandoned. What makes the resemblance only superficial is the fact that if we are asked what the meaning of the term 'bachelor' is, we can only say that 'bachelor' means 'unmarried man', whereas if we are asked for the meaning of the term 'energy', we can do much more than give a definition. We can in fact show the way in which the use of the term 'energy' facilitates an enormous number of scientific explanations, and how it enters into an enormous bundle of laws. (p.53)
I really doubt that it's true that this is the only thing we can say if someone asks what "bachelor" means. Always more than one way to skin a cat, after all. We could, I think, exhibit a great number of sentences in which "bachelor" is used, and trust our hearer to work out the word's significance. And this is plausibly what happens in a great many cases of language-learning; even for terms which Putnam wants to say there are true analytic judgements which take those terms as subjects, it's hardly likely that the use of those terms is *always* taught by explicit statement of an "analytic" definition, or that there's any need for this to be the case. (I imagine this in some more detail in the post on "The Roots of Reference" I linked above.)

And this is connected to my next point: I don't see what's special about the "enormous number of scientific explanations" and "enormous bundle of laws" that "energy" enters into; it just looks to me like a particular case of a word having meaning because it has a use in a form of life (very broadly speaking). Putnam doesn't address this at any point in the essay; I suspect he's privileging laws just because he's using an example from the history of physics to make his anti-Quine's-critics points. Putnam's certainly right that it's this holistic web that gives "energy" the meaning it has, but I see no reason to think the vocabulary of the natural sciences is special in this respect.

I *think* the reason Putnam introduces the notion of a law-cluster concept is just because the notion of a "cluster concept" was already floating around, and Putnam regards this concept as applying solely to "typical general names like 'man' and 'crow'" (p.52). As a philological note, I don't know if this was standard. Putnam attributes the view to Wittgenstein, and the obvious proof-text there is the discussion of "Moses" in PI 79, which is not a general term but a proper name (I'm setting aside for now the nitpick that the "cluster concept" reading of that passage given by Searle is not the best reading). So I'm not sure where the link between "cluster concepts" and general terms is coming from. But as a philosophical matter, I don't see that there's any good reason to distinguish between "cluster concepts" which are "constituted by a bundle of properties" and "law-cluster concepts" which are constituted by "a cluster of laws which, as it were, determine the identity of the concept". Putnam says he agrees with Quine's emphasis on "the monolithic character of our conceptual system", but I think Quine does this monolith more justice by not making the distinctions Putnam here makes. In general, the web of inferential connections a concept is embedded in "as it were, determine the identity of the concept". We can leave out just what those inferential connections are as unimportant; inferential links are inferential links.

Putnam does have more to say about why "bachelor" is not a law-cluster concept:
... 'energy is a law-cluster term, and 'bachelor' is not. This is not to say that there are no laws underlying out use of the term 'bachelor'; there are laws underlying our use of any words whatsoever. But it is to say that there are no exceptionless laws of the form 'All bachelors are...' except 'All bachelors are unmarried', 'All bachelors are male', and consequences thereof. Thus, preserving the interchangeability of 'bachelor' and 'unmarried man' in all extensional contexts can never conflict with our desire to retain some other natural law of the form 'all bachelors are...'. This cannot happen because bachelors are a king of synthetic 'class'. The are not a 'natural kind' in Mill's sense. They are rather grouped together by ignoring all aspects except a single legal one. One is not going to find any laws, except complex statistical laws depending on sociological conditions, about such a class. Thus it cannot 'hurt' if we decide always to preserve the law 'All bachelors are unmarried'. And that it cannot hurt is all the justification we need; the positive advantages are obvious. (p.57)
The first part of this is simply wrong; "all bachelors are nonlobsters" is a counterexample. And Putnam later in the essay gives the definition of "bachelor" as "male adult human being who has never in his life been married" (p.59), which isn't a consequence of "all bachelors are both male and unmarried". And Putnam entertains the (logical) possibility that there are laws like "all and only bachelors suffer psychological trouble Phi" (where Phi is something like "sexual frustration"); he says that if it turns out anything like that is true, then it will have turned out that "bachelor" is a law-cluster concept. His confidence that nothing like this will happen is his ground for saying that "bachelor" is not a "natural kind" and that it cannot hurt to decide to always preserve the law "All bachelors are unmarried men"; if it turns out that "bachelor" is a law-cluster concept then Putnam would reject it as the possible subject of an analytic truth. All of this strikes me as fishy enough to be suspicious that Putnam's "analyticity" is something we'd be better of without. (We can still say that "All bachelors are unmarried men" is something to not give up simply because it's true, and stop there.) But, Putnam says that there are obvious benefits, and he appeals to these as one of the chief motivations for retaining the notion of analytic truths.

So I now turn to the supposedly obvious benefits:
Most important, there is the advantage of brevity. Also, there is the question of intelligibility. If some of the statements in a language are immune from revision and if some of the rules of a language are immune from revision, then linguistic usage with respect to the language as a whole is to a certain extent frozen. Now, whatever disadvantages this freezing may have, there is one respect in which a frozen language is very attractive. Different speakers of the same language can to a large extent understand each other better because they can predict in advance at least some of the uses of the other speaker. (p.56)
Putnam says nothing else on the topic of brevity. I doubt there's any real gain in saying "bachelor" rather than "single man"; both are trisyllabic. Certainly there are advantages to having multiple words with similar meanings (for poetry and to avoid monotony), but we don't need "strict synonymy" for that.

The gain in intelligibility, then, is what I take to be the real supposed benefit. But I don't see that this works, either. For one thing, if we reject Putnam's notion of analyticity we can still say that everyone believes that all bachelors are unmarried men, so we can still predict in advance that any particular speaker will believe this. There's no need to have a "frozen language" when there're frozen beliefs. This I take to be a fully adequate rejoinder; Putnam does not show any good reason to not drop "analytic" from our vocabulary, as Quine would have us do.

But I think there is a real risk that Putnam doesn't address. I think it's not entirely crazy that someone might chaff at "All bachelors are unmarried men"; certainly "married" and "man" are both terms certain people have problems with. (I vaguely recall reading an interview with Judith Butler where she complains about the supposed "necessity" of just this categorical statement, in the mouth of Kripke.) Perhaps there are some intersex persons who feel comfortable self-identifying as "bachelors" but not as "male". Or perhaps some unconventional partnership arrangements lead to men who regard themselves as equally husband and bachelor (perhaps it's an open marriage and they keep separate apartments). If Putnam is right, anything like this involves ceasing to speak English; a "nonmale bachelor" and a "married bachelor" would simply involve equivocation on the term "bachelor". But this seems to me unfair, at least on the a priori grounds Putnam supplies; presumably the intersexed person and the unconventional husband think of themselves as "bachelors" not because of some crazy new meaning they've attached to the word, but because they see themselves as being what is called in English a "bachelor". To say whether their projections of the term are reasonable seems to me impossible to decide without seeing how life works out if we do project with them or we don't. It's not something philosophers have any privileged view on.

So, my conclusion is the inverse of Putnam's: I don't see any gain to retaining the analytic/synthetic distinction, and I see some real possible risks. So I'm happy to go without it.

25 April 2010

Morton White and the Dualism of the Analytic and Synthetic

I just finished Morton White's 1950 essay "The Analytic and the Synthetic: An Untenable Dualism", which is something Quine footnotes near the end of "Two Dogmas of Empiricism". I liked it; it's a nice companion piece to Quine's essay. Here are some observations, largely made to help me remember them later.

White's essay opens as follows: "John Dewey has spent a good part of his life hunting and shooting at dualisms: body-mind, theory-practice, percept-concept, value-science, learning-doing, sensation-thought, external-internal. They are always fair game and Dewey's prose rattles with fire whenever they come into view."

It's this Deweyan approach to dualisms that guides White throughout the piece; whereas Quine seems (especially outside of "Two Dogmas" itself) purely skeptical of notions like "meaning" and "synonymy". Many of the arguments White makes are similar to ones in Quine, but the way they pose the challenge is slightly different: most of "Two Dogmas" is devoted to trying to find a non-circular definition of "analytic", most of "An Untenable Dualism" is devoted to trying to find a way to draw a sharp line between analytic and synthetic statements in ordinary language. In both cases, the conclusion reached is that any distinction we can make sense of here is plausibly one of degree rather than kind (centrality vs. periphery in a web of belief, for Quine), but this conclusion is much more centrally stated in White. White's piece ends as follows: "[If the analytic-synthetic distinction is only one of degree] an unbridgeable chasm will no longer divide those who see meanings or essences and those who collect facts. Another revolt against dualism will have succeeded."

It's also worth noting that Quine called his version of empiricism "pragmatist" just because that was the label Carnap gave to the view he was opposing, and this position was what Quine took up to defend; White does not call his view "pragmatist", but does align himself with Dewey. So you have primarily nominal versus primarily movementarian pragmatism in the two authors.

One place where White distinguishes himself from Quine (explicitly) is that where Quine suspected he would need a behavioristic criterion for sameness of meaning to make any sense of the notion, White only asks for a term extensionally equivalent to "X is synonymous with Y" (other than "X has the same meaning as Y" and others which are similarly in need of clarification), as "X is a featherless biped" is to "X is a rational animal". I don't think these demands differ a great deal in practice, but it's always nice to be able to trim away some of the mid-century behaviorist trappings of Quine's thought.

One bit from White that's not explicitly in "Two Dogmas" resembles an early version of the thesis of the indeterminacy of translation. White notes that if we're dealing with a formal language some logician has cooked up, it can be a simple matter to say whether "X is a rational animal" and "X is a man" mean the same or not: the language can simply have explicit meaning postulates (here he grants his opponent more than Quine does). But if we then try to decide whether a given artificial language is "the rational reconstruction" for a natural language, no means of deciding this has been provided; White concludes that the attempt is suspect. He makes the same point with regards to attempting to treat analyticity as a matter of convention: no criterion has been given for distinguishing between what is conventional in language and what is there for other reasons, though in particular cases we can establish explicit conventions of word-usage without much trouble.

White is also much more explicit about the sorry state of contrary-to-fact conditionals than Quine is (in "Two Dogmas" anyway), and his criticisms are more extensive than those Quine made (at least when it comes to modal semantics, as opposed to modal logic). Quine notes the connection between meaning and essence in passing ("Meaning is what essence becomes when it is divorced from the object of reference and wedded to the word"), but White explicitly sets himself against "essentialism" repeatedly. A discussion of C.I. Lewis's views on modality makes him sound awfully Kripkean:

He holds that I only need to make what he calls an "experiment in imagination" to find out whether all men are necessarily rational animals. And when I try this experiment I am supposed to conclude that I cannot consistently think of, that I cannot conceive of, a man who is not a rational animal. But how shall we interpret this "cannot"? How shall we understand "thinkable"? I suspect that this view leads us to a private, intuitive insight for determining what each of us individually can conceive.... One either sees or doesn't see the relationship and that is the end of the matter. It is very difficult to argue one's difficulties with such a position, and I shall only say that I do not find this early retreat to intuition satisfactory.
So, it seems that even before modal logic & semantics were made respectable (by Kripke's soundness and completeness proofs and his possible worlds semantics), the semantics had a similar sort of backing to it: we're supposed to just have intuitions about modal matters, and that's what the modal logic is used to talk about. This is exactly how Kripke handles things like the necessity of origins; the fact that we're supposed to get similar "insights" from science in the case of "Water is necessarily H2O" and "Gold is necessarily the element with the atomic number 79" does not seem to me to make those less suspect. In both cases the modal element seems to come from a magical faculty we are supposed to each have that lets us know an essential predication when we see one.

Finally, White's article is just a fun read. At one point he considers the defense that we can identify self-contradictory claims because they "produce a certain feeling of horror or queerness on the part of the people who use the language". White notes that for this to work
we will have to be careful to distinguish the horror associated with denying firmly believed synthetic statements from that surrounding the denials of analytic statements. The distinction must not only be a distinction that carves out two mutually exclusive classes of sentences but it must carve them out in a certain way. It would be quite disconcerting to the philosophers I have been criticizing to have the whole of physics or sociology turn out as analytic on their criterion and only a few parts of mathematics.

14 April 2010

Indiana Bound

I have accepted an offer of admittance from Indiana University for philosophy PhD program.

It's been a really long few months waiting for all this to get settled out; I finally got the offer yesterday, and accepted this morning. I will be a real grad student in the fall!

Posting here will hopefully resume at some point; while I was waiting to get accepted someplace I was not in the mood for blogging. Mood much improved now.

22 February 2010

The Representation of Stereotypes

Adam Kotsko has an interesting post up at An und für sich about what stereotypes "are". Kotsko argues that we run into difficulties if we try to treat beliefs about stereotypes as being "in the head", and so we should instead treat them as being in the environmental conditions which give rise to their instances (or something along those lines -- his post is clearer than my one-sentence summary of it). I think that this moves a bit fast; a more "traditional" way of accounting for racist beliefs seems to me to work perfectly well: they are (often unconscious) beliefs about what blacks or asians (etc.) are like, and are not different qua belief from beliefs about whether milk builds strong bones or dogs return to their own vomit.

"Indeed, when pressed even people who seem to be hardened racists will most often admit that of course not all black people are like that, etc. — calling into question whether racists, as stereotype-believers par excellence, really “believe” in stereotypes in some straightforward way."

Here I think the problem isn't with the idea that racists believe racist things, but with how those racist contents are conceived. I think this is best handled by treating statements about stereotypical Xs as what Michael Thompson calls "Aristotelian Categoricals" in "The Representation of Life". (Paper available at his webspace.)

Aristotelian Categoricals are not universally quantified statements ("If anything is an X, then it is like this"), so the fact that any given racist will admit that not all Xs ɸ (for some given class X and some stereotypical behavior ɸ) does not mean that the racist doesn't really believe the stereotypical claim "Xs ɸ" is true. They don't even have to believe that (as a statistical matter) if you took a pole of all currently existing Xs, it would turn out that a majority of them ɸ. They just have to believe that the Xs which ɸ are more typical of Xs generally (albeit maybe not at the moment), or are more authentically X-ish, or something like that. The stereotype has normative force for how (stereotypically) black a given racist thinks a given black person is.

Aristotelian Categoricals strike me as very useful for thinking about this sort of thing. Nothing else seems to get the logical contours of the stereotype-claims quite right, as Thompson argues in the parallel case of claims like "Bobcats mate for life". Some bobcats never mate, or are impotent etc., but that doesn't contradict the Aristotelian Categorical claim (think of it as something you hear in a National Geographic documentary). Healthy bobcats in bobcat-friendly environments mate for life. (Thompson has further arguments for why we can't treat this as a disguised universally quantified statement about "healthy bobcats in bobcat-friendly environments", namely that making sense of things like "health" and "bobcat-friendliness" is dependent on making sense of the Aristotelian Categoricals, and not vice-versa.)

I also don't think that the fact that stereotypes can be incoherent (Kotsko's example being that Mexicans are lazy and yet desperate to work) is problematic; it just shows that racists have weird beliefs about Mexicans. They think that both sloth and being a hard worker make one a "really Mexican" Mexican. There's not even an incoherence in this example, if you treat the beliefs as Aristotelian categoricals rather than universally quantified statements. The two extremes could both be typical of Mexicans, whereas the middle-ground would not be. There's no commitment on the part of the racists to thinking that there are some Mexicans who are both lazy and desperate to work. (Compare to "Pecans grow into pecan trees" and "Pecans are baked into pecan pies", and contrast to "Pecans grow into pecan trees" and "Pecans grow into rose bushes").

Given this, I don't see any problem with treating stereotypical beliefs as being "in the head" (which of course doesn't conflict with their showing themselves in our practices, or with being unconscious some of the time; those are both normal for things "in the head" -- the outer is inner as inner, as Hegel said).

"[This] points toward the idea that black people just naturally enjoy cheaper food (not beef, but chicken; not fruit juice, but Kool-Aid) and therefore that the dominance of fast food outlets and convenience stores (rather than good restaurants and grocery stores) in black neighborhoods simply reflects the way black people are and is therefore “okay” — and so you don’t see the mayor of Chicago trying to get more grocery stores into black neighborhoods, for instance."

This strikes me as a paradigm case of unconscious stereotypical beliefs at work. The mayor of Chicago would surely deny that black people liked cheap food as such, if you asked him; he does not consciously believe that. But he probably does (at least unconsciously) believe that black people are poorer than non-blacks. And he probably believes (likely consciously) that poor people have less money to spend on food, and so prefer purchasing cheaper food. So it seems appropriate to the mayor that black neighborhoods mostly have cheap places to buy food, since black[/poor] people prefer shopping at those sorts of places. So it's easy to explain the mayor's behavior as issuing from a combination of conscious and unconscious beliefs on his part; there's no need to posit beliefs in city blocks or anything like that. Surely the fact that many black people are poor helps to reinforce the unconscious belief, but the belief isn't anywhere special.

06 February 2010

A Very Bad Argument for Skepticism

This post irritated me. Ignore the following if you don't think Jon Cogburn's thoughts are worth your time; continue reading if you do think they're worthwhile. (There is no big payoff at the end.)

The bit in the post that I think is most egregiously confused is what Cogburgn labels "2b", which is supposed to be one horn of a constructive dilemma.

Here we are assuming that the kind of sense dependency Brandom describes (between mind and world) holds. And, by the law of excluded middle, either the relevant reference dependency claim is true, or it is false.
A preliminary clarification: Sense-dependency is a relation between concepts; mind and world cannot be sense-dependent on one another, though MIND and WORLD can (to adopt the convention of using capslock to indicate concepts). Brandom is clear on this in the quote Cogburn cites before his argument:"The determinateness of the objective world and the structured process of grasping it are reciprocally sense dependent concepts, each intelligible only in terms of the other"; Brandom regularly underlines terms for concepts in "Tales of the Mighty Dead", and I will follow him in quotation). Cogburn on the other hand does nothing to distinguish mind and MIND. Also, I'm assuming that the sense-dependency Cogburn mentions is the one he just cited, between "the determinateness of the objective world" and "the structured process of grasping it".

I don't think the disjunction has any problems; I don't think McDowell would hesitate to endorse the sense-dependency claim Brandom makes, or to assert one of the disjuncts Cogburn mentions: The "determinateness of the objective world" is not referentially dependent on "the structured process of grasping it". The world could have a determinate structure even if there were no structured processes capable of grasping it. For instance, this was the case before the dawn of life (if not before the dawn of sentience or sapience), McDowell would surely say. (And probably does say somewhere or other; he's been asked some silly questions about "idealism" before -- I would check "Reading McDowell" and "Experience, Norm, and Nature" if I felt like hunting for a reference. Dinosaurs may've been mentioned in this context.)

If the world is not reference dependent upon the mind, then the determinateness of the objective world could exist without the structured process of grasping it existing. And remember (crucially) that this denial is a denial of pantheism! The world could exist without possessing the mental properties that we are forced (by sense dependency, which we are assuming to be true) to attribute to it. But this is just to say that we have no idea what the world is really like, because we are forced to understand it in such a way that we have no idea if it really is. This is skepticism.

Cogburn's argument seems to be this:
Assume (A) The world could have a determinate structure without a mind which grasps that structure -- i.e., the world could exist without anything bearing mental properties.
(B) Given the sense-dependency of MIND and WORLD, we are forced to attribute mental properties to the world.
Assume (C) MIND and WORLD are mutually sense-dependent.
ergo (D) We are forced to attribute mental properties to the world. (from B and C)
(E) The world could exist without anything bearing mental properties, but we are forced to attribute mental properties to it (from A and D).
(F) Skepticism (supposed to somehow follow from E, I suppose because E shows there is a possibility we can't rule out. This step strikes me as a non sequitur, confusing epistemic and metaphysical possibilities, but I don't need to touch it to dissolve this argument so I'll just ignore it.)

Let's substitute in for some variables to see what the dependencies in question here amount to. Brandom defines "reference dependence" thusly:
Concept P is reference dependent on concept Q just in case P cannot apply to something unless Q applies to something
So the claim that Cogburn says leads to skepticism is "It is not the case that "determinateness of the objective world" cannot apply to something unless "the structured process of grasping it" applies to something".

Brandom defines "sense-dependency" thus:
Concept P is sense dependent on concept Q just in case one cannot count as having grasped P unless one counts as grasping Q
Substituting in, we get "One cannot count as having grasped "determinateness of the objective world" unless one counts as grasping "the structured process of grasping it", which gives (C) with trivial steps.

Where does (B) come from? Brandom's claim is that we cannot think thoughts involving MIND or WORLD unless we can think thoughts involving both. This doesn't mean we have to be able to think true thoughts involving both -- that would be to confuse sense and reference at the level of sentences (thoughts vs. truth-values). Nor does it entail that we have to endorse thoughts involving both concepts; one of the reasons Frege introduced the sense-reference distinction in the first place was to handle cases where a thought was entertained without being endorsed (in quotational contexts), and this is a central case in his later papers "Thought" and "Negation". Nothing about the mutual sense-dependence of MIND and WORLD commits Brandom to the existence of minds or worlds. (B) is simply false, and so the rest of the argument falls apart. Cogburn's argument "2" fails; the reciprocal sense-dependence of MIND and WORLD entails none of the weird consequences Cogburn thinks we need to choose between.

And now for a short bit about "quietism". Cogburn:
This is precisely where McDowell backs into Wittgensteinian quietism (according to my somewhat impoverished understanding of Mind and World). His denial of "bald naturalism" seems to return us to a kind of enchanted/pantheistic world, but it's not clear if it really does.
It is apparently quite an impoverished understanding indeed; McDowell wouldn't think that the sense-dependence of MIND and WORLD entails anything bizarre, so there's nothing to "back away from". This is genuine quietism: The supposed philosophical problem is seen to be nothing, so there's nothing to say about it.

Also, McDowell's "partial re-enchantment of the world" has nothing to do with pantheism; the only things McDowell ever considers as minded are humans. (Non-human animals are minded in a derivative sense. Non-animals are never said to be minded in any sense at all.) This is what makes it "partial": the only things in nature that are "special" are humans, not stars or rivers or clouds. Humans can do things meaningfully; stars just do whatever they do with no significance (contra the "enchanted world" where the movement of the stars mean something, i.e. astrology is supposed to not be a load of hokum). McDowell never gives any comfort to astrology or shamanism or any such superstition, and his "Hegelianism" does not include anything about a Weltgeist or Hegel's "Lectures on World History". (Incidentally, the best thing I've read on McDowell and "bald naturalism" is this paper.)

26 January 2010

A Kuhn Quote

From "Dubbing and Redubbing":

Clearly, however, only a certain number of examples [used to introduce Newtonian mechanics to students] may be altered piecemeal in this way. If too many require adjustment, then it is no longer individual laws or generalizations that are at stake, but the very vocabulary in which they are stated. A threat to that vocabulary is, however, a threat also to the theory or laws essential to its acquisition and use. Could Newtonian mechanics withstand revision of the second law, of the third law, of Hooke's law, or the law of gravity? Could it withstand the revision of any two of these, of three, or of all four? These are not questions that individually have yes or no answers. Rather, like Wittgenstein's "Could one play chess without the queen?", they suggest the strains placed on a lexicon confronted by questions that its designer, whether God or cognitive evolution, did not anticipate its being required to answer. What should one have said when confronted by an egg-laying creature that suckles its young? Is it a mammal or is it not? These are the circumstances in which, as Austin put it, "We don't know what to say. Words literally fail us." Such circumstances, if they endure for long, call forth a locally different lexicon, one that permits an answer, but to a slightly altered question: "Yes, the creature is a mammal" (but to be a mammal is not what it was before). The new lexicon opens new possibilities, ones that could not have been stipulated by the use of the old.
And a footnote about that Wittgenstein quote, in case it didn't seem familiar:
Twenty-five years ago the quotation was a standard part of what I now discover was a merely oral tradition. Though clearly "Wittgensteinian," it is not to be found in any of Wittgenstein's published writings. I preserve it here because of its recurrent role in my own philosophical development and becuase I've found no published substitute that so clearly prohibits the reponse that the question might be answerable if only there were more information.
This amuses me in particular because of Haugeland's fondness for chess examples. He seems pretty firmly committed to answering Witt with a "No!" -- which makes it interesting that Kuhn [correctly] thinks that there not being an answer is the whole point, given that Haugeland is one of Kuhn's executors.

edit: I have begun to twitter

03 January 2010

Social Externalism, Senses, and Frege's Puzzle

Akeel Bigrami's "Naturalism and Reference" is pretty terrific.

There's a bit in Bilgrami's Crispin Wright piece (also on his website) that I'd been puzzling over for a while. Bilgrami argues there that if an individual can fail to know the sense of one of his expressions, then Frege's puzzle rears its head again (and so the original motivation for positing senses falls away). So social externalism (a la Putnam, Kripke, or Burge) must be false: what I mean can't depend on what my social group says I mean. This is an attractive conclusion, but I couldn't follow Bilgrami's argument for it. Turns out "Naturalism and Reference" is largely devoted to laying out this argument.

It seems that the inspiration for the argument comes from a criticism Jerry Fodor makes against senses (following someone named "Mates" who Bilgrami doesn't cite; I will simply credit Fodor for this line of thought in my post). Fodor wants to handle all of language denotationally -- only reference, not sense, strikes Fodor as naturalistically acceptable. (I'll leave Fodor's supposed naturalistic reconstruction of reference out of this; I'll also not be concerned with Fodor's response to the puzzles, but only with his criticism of the orthodox (Fregean) response.) Now, this is just the position that Frege is arguing against in "Sense and Reference".

As a reminder, the challenge Frege poses for such a position is to make sense of the difference between "Hesperus" and "Phosphorus" in sentences like

a) John believes that Hesperus is visible from his window in the evening.
b) John does not believe that Phosphorus is visible from his window in the evening.

Given a purely denotational theory of meaning, it looks like John is irrational (since Hesperus is Phosphorus; they're two names for the planet Venus). But John needn't be irrational for sentences a and b to both be true; John could simply be ignorant of the fact that "Phosphorus" names the same heavenly body as is visible early in the evening. A purely denotational account of meaning thus seems committed to treating garden-variety ignorance of this sort as a failure of logic: John is said to both believe and not believe the same proposition.

The same issue arises also in our attempt to evenstate the puzzle: if "Hesperus" and "Phosphorus" have the same meaning (since they denote the same planet), why would it be wrong to rephrase b as b'

b') John does not believe that Hesperus is visible from his window in the evening.

since b and b' ought to be the same sentence?

Thus Frege posits "senses", ways in which a subject is presented with objects, as a component of meaning alongside reference. "Hesperus" and "Phosphorus" are said to have different senses despite having the same reference, and thus the puzzles dissolve. So goes Frege's account.

Fodor does not see how this is supposed to help. He asks why the puzzle can't simply arise again at the level of sense. Suppose "Besperus" has the same sense as "Hesperus", but John doesn't know that; you can then replace b with b''

b'')John does not believe that Besperus is visible from his window in the evening.

and it looks like Frege's puzzle arises anew. Now, this requires that it be possible for someone to fail to know the sense of something they (e.g.) utter. But Fodor thinks that this could easily happen, on Frege's picture. For Frege, senses are Platonic entities which exist in the Third Realm (being neither mental nor physical, and being the common inheritance of the whole human race); they are entities which we express in our various human tongues. Now, if senses are at all like other entities, then we should be able to misidentify them: we can grasp a sense without knowing all of the senses it's identical to. I can grasp a mug without knowing it's identical to the mug you forgot to wash, or used to rinse your mouth with; likewise I should be able to grasp a sense without knowing everything about it, e.g. that the sense of "Besperus" is identical to the sense of "Hesperus". And if John does just this, then you can recreate Frege's Puzzle with a and b''. "Hesperus" and "Besperus" have the same reference and the same sense, and yet there is a difference between them that stands unexplained.

Bilgrami takes this as a good reason to reject Platonism about senses, and that seems right to me. If senses are not entities which are present to the mind, but are simply ways in which referents are present to the mind, then this puzzle doesn't arise. If "Besperus" and "Hesperus" have the same sense, then they present one with an object in the same way, and John can't be confused in the way this puzzle posits. Seeing something in a certain way doesn't meant that one sees two items, the "something" and the "certain way". Like Carnap said, being in a state does not mean there exists a state which one is in (unlike being in a can, which does mean that there exists a can that one is in).

(As an aside, I suspect that Frege just thought (or would've thought if anyone raised this puzzle to him) that we couldn't grasp senses without identifying them perfectly; they are really weird like that. "Grasping of senses" thus looks like some magical happening, but I don't think Frege was worried by that sort of thing at all: it's a problem for psychology, not logic, how "grasping" is supposed to work (says Frege in "The Thought"). This is of course not a very happy position for anyone less willing to burden psychologists than Frege was, i.e. for anyone other than Frege himself.)

But, this is not the only possibility Fodor raises for someone getting senses wrong. Even if senses are not entities, it might be the case that (as many in the literature have claimed, e.g. Tyler Burge and Hilary Putnam) sense is dictated by one's linguistic community. "Social externalists" about meaning say that the sense of what one says depends on what one's words mean in the language one is speaking, where a language is an essentially social/shared/public creature (like French or Mandarin), something with a community of users that can criticize/endorse various uses of words. One makes noises, and then they mean what the communal norms say they mean. (This is perhaps an uncharitable way of putting it, since the relevant community is always supposed to be something of which the speaker is a part. Still, the point remains that for social externalists, one can mean something radically different than what one thought one meant, because of how a word is used in one's linguistic community [apart from oneself].)

Now, the problem here is fairly straightforward: Suppose "bachelor" and "unmarried man" have the same (social externalist) sense in a given linguistic community of which John is a member. Then you can recreate Frege's puzzle with c and d:

c) John believes that Tom is a bachelor.
d) John does not believe that Tom is an unmarried man.

Now, this might seem queer at first glance; it might be thought that John can't be truly described by c and d without being irrational, so you can't reframe Frege's puzzle in these terms. (The issue of the analytic/synthetic distinction is tied up in how one reacts to this; Bilgrami has a lovely brief parenthetical about this on page 12 of his paper that he says he won't be elaborating on for reasons of space. I will plead similarly.) I think this can be smoothed by adding e to the mix

e) John believes that to be a bachelor is to be a bearded Oxford alumnus, and that bearded Oxford alumni may or may not be married.

i.e., if we say that John is a member of the linguistic community who thinks some strange things. The social externalists are committed to this not disbarring John from the linguistic community, as the discussion in the literature of a fellow who says "I have arthritis in my thigh" shows: they would say of John that he believes of unmarried men that they may or may not be unmarried (but must have beards and diplomas from Oxford). Social externalists thus think that one can fail to know (at least on odd occasions) what senses one's words have. And so Fodor complains that adding senses to the picture doesn't dissolve Frege's puzzle; they simply push it back a level. For c and d can both be true despite "bachelor" and "unmarried man" having the same sense (and the same extension), and this is not a case of John being irrational but of him being ignorant of an empirical fact (i.e. that his linguistic community treats "bachelor" as a synonym for "unmarried man" and not for "bearded Oxford alumnus"). So senses fail to do the job demanded of them.

Fodor is right: if social externalists are right about senses, then senses don't take the teeth out of Frege's puzzle. But the correct move (says Bilgrami, and I agree) is to modus tollens this modus ponens and reject social externalism about sense. One can't fail to know the sense of what one says, contra social externalism (at least one can't fail to know it due to philosophical problems -- one can mean things without knowing it due to e.g. Freudian-style unconscious intentions to insult the reader, or in other psychologically interesting diseases of rationality; these weird psychological phenomena are not what motivate social externalist accounts of sense, and I believe they are largely a distraction from the issue under discussion).

So, there's a pretty little argument that social externalism gives a false account of senses, couched in Fregean terms: the things that dissolve Frege's puzzle from "Sense and Reference" can't fly free of the subject's grasp like the social externalist picture lets them. (Too bad I didn't get clear on this before I finished my thesis; it would've been nice to work it in somewhere.)