What Philosophy Can Teach Us

There have been a few articles and discussions on the philosophy blagosphere and Twitter community recently concerning the justification of academia, and of philosophy more specifically. One of the common suggestions that crops up in this discussion whenever it occurs is the idea that philosophy, to put it crudely, helps people think better.

In my experience it is typically assumed that this improvement (whatever it amounts to) arises as a result of the training itself—through the constant exposure to criticism, practice analysing the structure and form of arguments, identifying hidden premises, assessing the validity of general forms of reasoning and so on that forms the bread-and-butter of undergraduate philosophy training—rather than a result of knowledge of the subject-matter itself.

In fact, it is often claimed that what is distinctive about philosophy is that it has no particular subject-matter, so the forms of reasoning and analysis learned by students—at least at an undergraduate level—will be applicable to any and all fields concerned with arguments and reasoning, from law to business to journalism.

I don’t want to touch on whether this is sufficient justification for the existence of philosophy, or whether esoteric academic research even needs to be justified, but I do agree that in some sense studying philosophy makes you a better thinker than you would be otherwise. What exactly this improvement consists in is, no doubt, complex, but I don’t necessarily think that one has to build up practical competence in philosophical argumentation before one can reap the benefits that philosophers offers.

An oft-bemoaned aspect of contemporary analytic philosophy is its excessive preoccupation with technical terms and subject-specific jargon. Whilst I think many of the criticisms of this pervasive feature of the discipline are spot-on, I also find (and I imagine I’m not alone in this as a philosopher) that when I think about non-philosophical topics I do so in a way aided by certain philosophical notions—I think about them through and with the aid of philosophical distinctions and terms. When I do, I find that I understand the issues, arguments, or language much more clearly than I would have without the aid of these notions.

This doesn’t (yet) amount to being able to assess arguments better or analyse positions in (say) a debate, so in this sense it doesn’t replace the practical competence mentioned above, but it provides a benefit in that, so to speak, the data are clearer than they would be without the aid of such notions, making such assessments easier.

I think that this illustrates another way that philosophy can enrich one’s thinking that doesn’t reduce to the practical know-how gained by taking philosophy courses and having to sharpen one’s critical reasoning skills (though I don’t deny that the two are intimately interrelated). In order to try and get a discussion started on this point, I’ll try to illustrate my point by providing some examples of distinctions and technical terms that I think aid clarity of thought.

Given my interests and background, most of the examples of distinctions and ideas that I often apply in non-philosophical contexts were typically linguistic or logical in nature, and their relationship to critical thinking should be clear. Suggestions of other examples (for example, there’s only one ethical/political distinction, but I imagine that those more familiar with these areas could provide more), criticisms (either of my examples or of this whole idea itself), and general discussion are encouraged.

  • Necessary and sufficient conditions.
  • Modus ponens, modus tollens, and the relationship between the two.
  • The distinction between soundness and validity.
  • Begging the question.
  • The difference between positive and negative liberty.
  • Equivocation.
  • Connotation and denotation.
  • Scope, and the de re/de dicto distinction.

I hope that the usefulness of most of these notions is self-evident, but if not I’d be happy to explain and justify my choices. However, as short and non-exhaustive as the list is, I’m not even sure about the worthiness of all of the examples. It’s not clear, for example, whether the distinction between modus ponens and modus tollens adds anything to the reasoning skills that any competent user of language already  has (aside, that is, from an extra piece of jargon with which to talk about them).

For example, a common form of reasoning, whether explicit or implicit, goes as follows: if I do X then Y; I don’t want Y to happen; therefore, I shouldn’t/won’t do X. E.g. If I go on the roller-coaster then I’ll be sick; I don’t want to be sick; therefore I won’t go on the roller-coaster. Given that people already engage in this sort of reasoning, which is structurally similar to modus tollens (if not technically a case of it), the distinction itself may not add anything to the clarity of thought that most non-philosophers already have.

However, as I said, the examples are, as much as anything, a way to get a discussion started, and I’m interested in hearing what people think, so comment away!

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Aside: A Brief Comment on Philosophical Blogging

Reading a friend’s blog recently, the following aside made me think about the purpose of philosophical blogging (and, of course, of this blog in particular):

I’ve been obsessing over a paper and all my free time has gone into writing that. What is that paper? Well, maybe one day I’ll talk about it on here, but I am keen to make it clear that what I write on here is distinct from my actual academic work, so you’ll only hear about it if I ever publish it. Sorry!

I get the impression that many academic philosophers use their blog as an online soapbox to get comments on ideas they’ve had, before shaping them for publication. In this sense, blogging functions as an extra route for feedback, in addition to (say) posting draft papers on faculty pages, or the more traditional methods of delivering talks or speaking at conferences.

As far as this blog goes, I stand on the side of the Last Positivist in distinguishing my use from such activities. For now, I’d rather stick to the more traditional methods, and make a clear distinction between my genuine academic writing and my online writing, at least until I’m a bit further in my career!

This, of course, raises the question, however, of exactly what the purpose of a philosophical blog is if not to disseminate and seek feedback on new ideas. Well, for me at least, one of the primary reasons that I write on this blog is for self-clarification. In keeping with the old adage that you understand an idea best when you’ve had to explain it to someone else, I find that writing this blog crystallises the sometimes nebulous understanding that I have of certain philosophers, ideas, and arguments.

In tandem, I hope that this blog can be of help to other people that have struggled with the same issues, perhaps providing a shortcut to understanding that wouldn’t be available if the original text was all that the reader had to rely on. I think this is especially true of some of the philosophers that I have posted about (or plan on writing a post on) whose writing style sometimes makes their ideas slightly opaque on first reading (e.g. Wittgenstein), or those for whom there is relatively little by way of secondary resources to help (e.g. Austin), or both (e.g. Travis).

This last point brings me to two other purposes of the blog. As I have made clear in the last few posts, there are many philosophers whose ideas I think are valuable but neglected. Their neglect online is also typically more noticeable than their neglect in publications (as a search for, e.g., Occasion Sensitivity will testify), and I hope that in some small way this blog might help to disseminate these ideas to more people than they might otherwise reach, simply by giving them voice in a place where (theoretically) anybody can listen. Even though I have no doubt that there are many others that could make the points more clearly, more accurately, or more succinctly than I, unless those people decide to start blogging, I’ll keep writing and do the best I can. In the mean time, I hope that at the very least some of these posts might inspire people to pick up a book or read an article that they otherwise would not, and get the ideas straight from the horse’s mouth (or should that be the cow’s mouth?).

The second point is that I get the impression that there are also a number of misunderstandings or false impressions surrounding many of the philosophers that I find interesting or worthwhile. Often these false impressions are too indeterminate to be the upshot of a genuine philosophical argument or the expression of genuine disagreement. For example, I think the claim that ordinary language philosophy has been discredited comes under this heading, since many philosophers that would assent to this claim either have a vague idea of what ordinary language philosophy is (typically something about ‘appeals to our ordinary uses of words’), or even vaguer ideas about why it’s discredited (typically something about ‘confusing meaning and use’, ‘conflating semantics and pragmatics’, or ‘committing the speech-act fallacy’).

Whilst there are philosophers attempting to make these sorts of false impressions philosophically precise in order to challenge them through philosophical publications, a blog seems like the perfect arena within which to challenge these ideas at the less-than-purely-philosophical level at which they are typically voiced, unearthing the quasi-sociological reasons for their ubiquitousness (see, e.g. “The Strange Death of Ordinary Language Philosophy” for an example)—something which might be out of place in a strictly philosophical publication.

Finally, of course, blogs are havens for navel-gazing, and this one is no exception. Whilst I don’t intend this blog to turn into a public journal any time soon, many of the posts will be quasi-autobiographical in nature—if only forming a sort of philosophical autobiography tracking my interests and beliefs as I try to climb the ladder of professional academic philosophy.

For whatever reason you are reading this blog, whether or not you know me, and whether or not you decide to return, I hope that you find some use for the ideas expressed here. In the wise words of the sage Wittgenstein:

For more than one reason what I write here will have points of contact with what other people are writing to-day.—If my remarks do not bear a stamp which marks them as mine,—I do not wish to lay any further claim to them as my property. I make them public with doubtful feelings.

Perhaps this [blog] will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it—or at least similar thoughts… Its purpose would be achieved if it gave pleasure to one person who read and understood it.

 

Dismissal and Domestication: Typical Responses to Wittgenstein and Austin

In the last two posts, I have been discussing some of my philosophical influences, focusing predominantly on their role within and distinction from the majority of philosophers working within the mainstream of contemporary analytic philosophy.

In the first of these posts, I outlined a (non-exhaustive) group of philosophers who were or are engaging in philosophy of a type that rejects many of the assumptions common to most of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy. In the second, I tried to explain what I meant by saying that the views espoused by these philosophers have not been integrated into contemporary philosophy of mind, language, epistemology, and metaphysics, by focusing in particular on one philosopher: Ludwig Wittgenstein.

In order to finish off this series of related posts, I want to try to explain how it is that many of the philosophers in the original list I mentioned are fighting against this rejection and (more or less) self-consciously aiming to bring a kind of neo-Wittgensteinian ordinary language philosophy back into the fold of mainstream analytic philosophy. Or, more precisely, I want to explain how the more contemporary of the philosophers I mentioned—Charles Travis, James Conant, Avner Baz, John McDowell, and Stanley Cavell—are all working to bring to bear on contemporary philosophy lessons learnt from Wittgenstein or Austin (or, in some cases, both).

However, in order to appreciate precisely how these contemporary philosophers are overcoming the barriers to integration that have plagued Austin and Wittgenstein, it is obviously necessary to understand what these barriers are. As such, this post will be devoted to sketching a few of the ways in which these philosophers are excluded from contemporary debates in the four areas mentioned above.

The Assumption of Outdatedness

Undoubtedly the most common way that Wittgenstein or Austin are excluded from contemporary debates is simply by ignoring them altogether. It is usually assumed that they are examples of an outdated and outmoded style of philosophy and hence that their views are at best of historical significance. In When Words Are Called For, Avner Baz explains this assumption as follows:

Within the mainstream of analytic philosophy, it is now widely held that [ordinary language philosophy] has somehow been refuted or otherwise seriously discredited, and that it may therefore philosophically legitimately and safely be ignored.

Hence, the assumption that Wittgenstein and Austin are proponents of an obsolete style of philosophising is not simply arbitrary or malicious, but is taken, either explicitly or implicitly, to be philosophically well-grounded.

The philosophical reasons behind this assumption are multifaceted, and I wouldn’t even presume to be able to give a full and adequate account of them. However, I think there are a few key points that have emerged through the way that the philosophers I mentioned have tried to challenge this assumption of the philosophical irrelevance of Wittgenstein and Austin, but I’ll have to come back to this point in the next post.

If you don’t understand the connection between these two objects, ordinary language philosophy is probably not for you.

Segregation

Often, work on the philosophers in question is acknowledged, but their influence is restricted to areas of philosophy that don’t interact in any particularly significant way with mainstream philosophy of mind, language, epistemology, or metaphysics. In this way, work continues on these philosophers in proportion to their stature and renown without this work having any notable impact on the philosophical sub-disciplines that it most naturally relates to.

In the case of Wittgenstein, the difficulty of seeing how his views fit into mainstream philosophy, coupled with his historical prominence in the history of 20th century analytic philosophy, has led to a kind of cottage industry devoted to the interpretation and development of his work. “Working on Wittgenstein” is, in a crucial sense, typically not taken to be the same as working on the philosophy of mind, language, epistemology, or metaphysics, even if as a matter of fact those topics are exactly what is being discussed.

Austin with an *i*, not Austen with an *e*.

The case of Austin is more complicated, in part due to the fact that it’s much easier to separate the ‘results’ of Austin’s work on language from the philosophical aspirations he had for his work and the meta-philosophical assumptions that underpinned his writing. However, a similar effect can be observed concerning the assumption that what’s worthwhile in Austin’s work has been extracted and applied in the realm of ‘pragmatics’ (or perhaps linguistics more widely) and needn’t particularly concern philosophers working in the disciplines I mentioned above.

This reaction is distinct from the first not only for the degree of acknowledgement that it gives to these philosophers, but also for the emphasis on the content of the work rather than the style. The assumption of irrelevance here rests more on the belief that what these philosophers are studying has no bearing on contemporary debates in the areas mentioned, rather than the assumption Baz articulated in the previous section that the way these philosophers try to answer to questions has been discredited.

Domestication

The final reaction to these philosophers does recognise their direct relevance to contemporary philosophy, but in the attempt to integrate them and make them relevant to contemporary discussions domesticates the conclusions and methods of these philosophers in the process.

This sort of domestication is at the same time the best and worst way to treat these philosophers. On the one hand, it is usually a sincere and honest attempt to fit them into contemporary debates, arising out of a genuine desire to engage with this challenging alternate style of philosophising. On the other hand, the attempt itself typically succeeds in fitting these views into the debates in question only by, and in proportion to the degree to which, the views are tamed and their challenge neutered.

A prime example of an expression of this sort of worry comes from McDowell, who criticises Brandom for his apparent misunderstanding of the quietist aspects of Wittgenstein’s philosophy:

In Brandom’s reading, “quietism” is a pretext for not doing constructive work that Wittgenstein reveals as obligatory for others not constrained by his scruples. Though Brandom calls it “principled”, “quietism” so understood looks like an excuse for laziness. I think this is a paradigm of how not to read Wittgenstein.

McDowell’s qualm here is that Brandom’s attempt to integrate Wittgenstein into a long tradition of theorising about normativity—stemming back from Brandom, through Sellars and Frege, all the way to Hegel and Kant—results in the neutering of Wittgenstein’s anti-theoretical quietism, which McDowell takes to be a central and principled aspect of Wittgenstein’s philosophy. Thus the accusation is that Brandom manages to integrate Wittgenstein into this tradition of thought only by domesticating the latter’s meta-philosophical assumptions, turning them into mere ‘scruples’.

Quietism has had a long and dignified history in film as well as philosophy.

Furthermore, it  is commonly assumed that this sort of domestication is not merely an unfortunate byproduct of modernising Wittgenstein, but positively required if his philosophy is to be presented in a way amenable to a contemporary philosophical audience (for example, Kripke’s interpretative comments in the introduction to Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language seem to suggest that he shares this view).

Anyone who has read Wittgenstein cannot fail to be sympathetic to this sort of approach, given the obscurity with which Wittgenstein typically presents his points and the resistance one naturally faces trying to integrate his philosophy into contemporary debates (not least of all from defenders of Wittgenstein). However, what separates the philosophers I mentioned earlier is that they often (though by no means always) manage to show the relevance of Wittgenstein and Austin to contemporary philosophy without doing violence to the core meta-philosophical assumptions that underlie the two philosophers’ writings, either unintentionally or deliberately.

Summary

It is worth noting that all of the common reasons for the dismissal of Austin and Wittgenstein given above are philosophically grounded in one way or another. It is easy to slip into a sort of paranoiac mindset when defending a minority position and to interpret your opponents uncharitably as a result. I hope that by indicating the role that genuine philosophical disagreements play in underpinning these responses I have avoided this sort of attitude, even if I haven’t had the space to articulate the disagreements themselves.

Thus, part of the challenge that contemporary neo-Wittgensteinian and/or ‘ordinary language’ philosophers face, one that I hope to illustrate that they have met, is to successfully articulate and challenge the philosophical assumptions that underlie the chilly reception felt by Wittgenstein and Austin. This is simply to recognise that the lack of integration is not usually a result of ignorance or neglect, but is rather an expression of genuine disagreement.

Specifically, based on the divisions above, there are at least three distinct (though, in practice, no doubt, interdependent) challenges that philosophers hoping to integrate Wittgenstein and Austin face:

  1. Unearthing and challenging the reasons for the belief that the style of philosophising exemplified by Wittgenstein and Austin has been discredited or refuted in some way.
  2. Showing the relevance of the issues dealt with by these philosophers to contemporary debates in the philosophy of mind, language, epistemology, and/or metaphysics.
  3. Doing (1.) and (2.) in such a way that the meta-philosophical assumptions underpinning the views of these two philosophers are not domesticated in any way.

Whilst it’s obviously not possible to show in a blog post that the philosophers I mentioned have succeeded in doing the above, in the next post I hope to at least indicate how each of them have gone about tackling this daunting task. Until then!

Wittgenstein’s Impact on Contemporary Philosophy

In my last post I began to talk about some of my philosophical influences, and what I thought they had in common that distinguished them from other philosophers. Given that most posts on this blog about philosophy are going to explain what the views of these philosophers are and why I believe they have something important to contribute to contemporary philosophical debates, I’m going to focus in this post on characterising the distinctive sort of neglect that I think many of these philosophers have received in mainstream philosophy, focusing for now on Wittgenstein alone.

What inspired me to take this route is the following quotation from an article by Ray Monk (author of the engrossing Wittgenstein biography The Duty of Genius) regarding the influence of Wittgenstein on contemporary thought:

Ludwig Wittgenstein is regarded by many, including myself, as the greatest philosopher of this century… And yet in a sense Wittgenstein’s thought has made very little impression on the intellectual life of this century. As he himself realised, his style of thinking is at odds with the style that dominates our present era. His work is opposed, as he once put it, to “the spirit which informs the vast stream of European and American civilisation in which all of us stand.” Nearly 50 years after his death, we can see, more clearly than ever, that the feeling that he was swimming against the tide was justified.

In one way or another, this image of swimming against the tide applies to many philosophers that I mentioned in my last post. As Monk indicates with respect to Wittgenstein, fame has little to nothing to do with the actual impact that these philosophers have (or, more appropriately, haven’t) had on contemporary philosophy.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose principal contribution to philosophy was a magnificent tuft of hair.

I think it’s worth considering exactly what it means to say that a philosopher can gain significant renown and have as much influence as someone like Wittgenstein—a household name in 20th century philosophy if ever there was one—without making a significant impression on the discipline within which they work.

John Etchemendy opens his book The Concept of Logical Consequence with a description of Tarski’s impact on contemporary philosophy of logic that I think neatly encapsulates the kind of influence that typically comes hand-in-hand with renown within a discipline:

The highest compliment that can be paid to the author of a piece of conceptual analysis comes not when his suggested definition survives whatever criticism may be leveled against it, or when the analysis is acclaimed unassailable. The highest compliment comes when… the definition is treated as common knowledge. Tarski’s account of the concepts of logical truth and logical consequence has earned him this compliment.

Though Etchemendy here speaks particularly about conceptual analysis, there’s a point that can be made here about lesser degrees of compliment that philosophers often receive more generally. Philosophers that make a lasting impact on a discipline are not necessarily those who are deemed to have succeeded in putting forth a viewpoint deemed incontestable (in fact, I’m not sure there is such a thing in philosophy), but rather those whose contribution becomes an essential and indispensable feature of the debate or region of philosophy itself.

The nature of this contribution can take any number of forms other than conceptual analysis. It can sometimes take the form of contributing a conceptual distinction thereafter deemed essential to a (sub-)discipline, as with Frege’s distinction between sense and reference. It can often take the form of contributing a distinctive stance or viewpoint to a debate that then goes on to have a life of its own outside the writings of that author, as with Bentham’s promotion of utilitarianism. It can at other times take the form of shaping or forming the nature of a debate or region itself, as with Davidson’s program for a Tarskian semantics. It can sometimes instead take the form of an interpretation of the ideas of a key figure that becomes so commonplace that the line between the interpretation and the original position become blurred for all but the specialist in that area, as is arguably the case with Dummett’s Frege. And on rare occasions, it takes the form of seemingly rejuvenating and reconceptualising an entire (sub-)discipline itself, as could not unreasonably be said of Chomsky’s contribution to linguistics.

The point is that the contributions these philosophers have made are, in one way or another, essential to the contemporary state of these sub-disciplines. What makes their contribution essential in this way is usually the fact that their ideas have been integrated or absorbed into the sub-discipline, in one of the above ways, or perhaps some other way, to such an extent that one cannot understand the current state of these areas of though without understanding their contribution to them first.

One way to understand Monk’s statement about Wittgenstein is that whilst he is undoubtedly well-known, he has manifestly not had this sort of influence on contemporary philosophy (at least the later Wittgenstein; for its influence on logical positivism and its introduction of truth tables into the philosophical tool-box alone, the Tracatus probably did have the impact discussed above). Whilst it’s very likely that you will have a chance to take a dedicated course on Wittgenstein at some point during an undergraduate degree in philosophy, it’s far less likely that Wittgenstein would be included on the syllabus for a standard introductory course on the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, or epistemology, despite the fact that the later Wittgenstein had a lot to say on these topics.

Furthermore, whilst this is a fairly accurate representation of many UK universities, I get the impression that the likelihood of coming across Wittgenstein in a US course on these topics is even slimmer (comments from readers from across the pond would be appreciated on this point). The fact is that the way these disciplines have progressed, especially in the States, is such that they have not incorporated Wittgenstein’s ideas in the same way that the ideas of other philosophers have been. To put it bluntly, you simply don’t need to understand Wittgenstein to get on in the philosophy of mind, language, epistemology, or metaphysics, whereas you’d have a hard time getting along in these areas without having a good grasp of, say, Kripke, Davidson, Gettier, and Lewis.

The fame that Wittgenstein has achieved is more comparable to that of a pre-Frege historical figure than it is to those philosophers considered an indispensable part of the canon of 20th-century analytic philosophy. Whilst it would be extremely odd to attain tenure in one of these fields without at least having a working knowledge of most members in a typical philosophical canon (think pub-conversation-level knowledge of Russell’s History of Western Philosophy), it wouldn’t be odd to attain tenure without ever having mentioned them in your publications and your contributions to contemporary research, and I think the same is true of Wittgenstein. (I think this is also reflected in the fact that graduate courses that split their modules into ‘historical’ and ‘topical’—or ‘historical’, ‘theoretical’, and ‘practical’—typically place Wittgenstein in the ‘historical’ category.)

I think that the same holds, to varying extents, of all the philosophers that I mentioned last time, though it rings especially true of Austin, given his historical importance (speech act theory itself notwithstanding, which has achieved integration into linguistics and the philosophy of language). The fact is that the views these philosophers hold on topics in the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaphysics are still for the most part quite marginal, even when at first glance their stature would seem to indicate otherwise.

For someone sympathetic to the views expressed by these philosophers, this lack of integration into the mainstream of these sub-disciplines is disappointing. The reason seems to be that whilst these philosophers have something interesting to say, the meta-philosophical views that they hold stand at odds with those shared by the majority of mainstream analytic philosophers, which makes engagement with their position difficult.

Whilst the main source of the cold reception that these philosophers have had in more orthodox circles is undoubtedly philosophical, I think that there are interesting quasi-sociological reasons, too, and since these are relevant to my view of my own eventual position in the wonderful world of academic philosophy, in the next post (and, I think, the last on this topic) I’ll try to explain how it is that a philosopher with the stature of Wittgenstein or Austin (at least in his heyday) can end up having a relatively marginal contemporary role within the sub-disciplines they worked within.

Interminable Oscillations #2: The Interminable Oscillation

A while ago I wrote an introductory post for a planned series about McDowell’s philosophy of perception. Being a man of my digital word, I have not forgotten, and today I return to make good on that vague plan to probably write some stuff about experience.

At first I wasn’t sure where to begin. If I’m right in my understanding of him, and in the interpretation I’m going to propose in the posts to follow, then the different facets of McDowell’s account of experience are all intertwined and hence not so easily separated into blog-sized chunks. If I knew the first thing about hermeneutics, I might start talking about circles at this point.

Fortunately, I decided that the best solution would be to start with the namesake for this section of the blog: the ‘interminable oscillation’ that McDowell first introduced in his 1994 lecture series, now published under the title Mind and World. Partly this is just a catchy and convenient way to pick a relatively arbitrary starting point, but there is some reason to suppose that this is a philosophically sound place to begin.

For one, this tension lies at the heart of almost all of McDowell’s philosophy of perception in one form or another, and the kernel of almost every facet of his overall theory* can be found somewhere in Mind and World. As such, it seems a philosophically apt place to start in that it is a specific issue that sheds some light on the whole project itself. As such, I’ll try to indicate points of contact as I go along. Hopefully this first issue will provide a context within which to situate the topics to follow and, in turn, hopefully they will shed more light on this sketchy introduction. There’s that pesky circle again.

[*McDowell, or at least Mind and World McDowell, being a good Wittgensteinian, would deny that he had a ‘theory’ of anything at all—see the Introduction to the second edition of Mind and World, or wait out for a future blog post on the topic.]

One of the more understandable Google Image results for “Hermeneutic Circle”.

Anyway, about that oscillation.

McDowell’s oscillation is a peculiarly philosophical one, though purportedly one that we naturally find ourselves drawn into as soon as we begin to reflect on the relationship between thought and reality. In particular, this philosophical oscillation is set in motion as soon as we try to account for the possibility of empirical thought.

For those of you that do not live in the enchanted world of John McDowell, or the universe of analytic philosophy more generally, this idea perhaps needs some explanation. In this spirit, a crude bit of general background information:

McDowell is interested primarily in thoughts that are, loosely speaking, propositional (or, speaking dangerously loosely, linguistic). In common parlance, we usually include under the banner of ‘thought’ the whole harem of fleeting mental images, snippets of songs, memories and so on that form the stream of consciousness that is human mental life. However, McDowell is only interested in thoughts with conceptual content, thoughts that in some sense say something about how things are.

What is important about ‘thought’ in the sense that McDowell is interested in is that these sorts of thoughts are apt for truth or falsity. What I think—the content of my thought—is something that represents things as being a certain way and, hence, opens my thinking up to correctness or incorrectness in a way that literary daydreams about handjobs arguably aren’t. 

Joyce had written a witty rebuttal to my snide comment about Ulysses, but unfortunately it didn’t fit in the caption box.

These sorts of thoughts have fascinated philosophers for a long time; anything from a century to two millennia, depending on how shameless you want to be in foisting contemporary assumptions onto our venerable philosophical forefathers. McDowell sees himself as broadly applying lessons learnt from Kant about the relationship between the world and these sorts of thoughts, albeit within a more modern, linguistic, framework. More about that later.

Furthermore, McDowell is interested mostly in thoughts about the world and things in it—”moderate-sized specimens of dry goods“—thoughts whose content is empirical in the sense that they are about the objective, mind-independent world.

The two terms of the interminable oscillation are effectively two pitfalls that philosophers are apt to fall in to when considering how to account for thoughts with empirical content. Mind and World thus largely consists of McDowell trying to steer his philosophical ship between a philosophical Scylla and Charybdis.

The driving force behind the oscillation is the plausible idea that thoughts come to have empirical content only by being answerable to the world. If the world did not justify some thoughts more than others, make some thoughts true and others false, make some more probable and some less so—in short, if the the world bore no rational relations to thought—then these thoughts would not be empirical.

The first pitfall arises for philosophers that simultaneously hold two beliefs about how to explain how the world constrains thought in this way. The first is that the primary way that the world could come to bear on thought is by means of experience; thought is answerable to the world primarily by being answerable to experiences, understood broadly as impacts that the world makes on consciousness. McDowell calls this idea—the idea that thought is answerable to the world by being answerable to experiences—a ‘minimal empiricism’. The second belief is that experience plays this role even though experiences are nonconceptual impacts on consciousness—mental occurrences that do not bear conceptual content in the way that thoughts in the above sense do.

This latter part of this view McDowell, principally following Sellars, calls the Myth of the Given. Exactly what the Myth is, and whether it is really a myth at all, could (and likely will) take up an entire post, but I’ll at least try to summarise it here first. The Myth is, in essence, the claim that there are rational relations between conceptual things (thoughts in this case) and non-conceptual things (experiences, on this understanding of them). In Sellarsian terms, the Myth is the claim that the space of justifications or reasons extends wider than the space of the conceptual. In neo-Kantian terms, the Myth is simply a variation of the problem concerning how to reconcile spontaneity and nature, freedom and causality.

McDowell argues that the Myth of the Given really is a myth, and cannot be reasonably defended. If, like McDowell, one finds the Myth unconvincing, one may, in attempting to avoid it, fall into the other term of the oscillation: coherentism.

Again, summarising briefly, McDowell believes that coherentists, in trying to avoid the Myth of the Given, overcompensate. They throw the philosophical baby out with the bath water. In common with the philosopher that holds to the Myth, coherentists accept that experiences are nonconceptual impacts on consciousness, but they also accept, like McDowell, that the Myth is a fallacy and should be rejected as such.

Here’s a graph of an oscillation, to prove that philosophy is a Real Science, too!

Given that the coherentist believes both that experiences are nonconceptual and that the nonconceptual cannot stand in rational relations with the conceptual, the coherentist rejects minimal empiricism. Since experiences are nonconceptual, it cannot be via experience that the world comes to bear rationally on thought. Precisely how the coherentist believes that the world does come to bear on thought, if not by experience, is, again, a tale best told another day.

However, that pretty much gets to the heart of the oscillation. This is the state of play:

The challenge is to explain empirical content in terms of the answerability of thought to reality; the rational constraint exerted on the mind by the world.

In the process of explaining this fact about thought, we come across an inconsistent triad of sorts:

  1. Experiences are purely nonconceptual impacts on consciousness, they bear no conceptual content.
  2. The conceptual does not stand in rational relations with (is not answerable to) the nonconceptual.
  3. Thought is answerable to the world primarily by being answerable to experience.

The philosopher of the Myth rejects (2.), embracing the Myth (presumably not as myth). Their challenge is to explain why the Myth of the Given is not obviously false in the way that McDowell takes it to be, to explain how a nonconceptual impact on consciousness could justify or give a reason for thinking anything at all.

The coherentist rejects (3.) and abandons minimal empiricism. Their challenge is to explain how they even meet the terms of the initial challenge in the first place; to explain how thought is rationally responsive to how things are in the world, if not by means of experience.

The interminable oscillation that McDowell speaks of is the constant shift back and forth between coherentism and the Myth, neither of which are acceptable by his lights. His solution should be obvious from the presentation of the problem given above: reject (1.) and argue for the claim that experiences actually are conceptual after all. In so doing, McDowell faces the problem of explaining how it is that experiences are still natural occurrences, interactions with and impacts from a truly mind independent world. His biggest threat, therefore, is idealism.

Hopefully this at least sets the stage for what’s to come, as shallow as the discussion is. As I said, this important issue contains the kernel of almost all aspects of McDowell’s philosophy, even to this present day. We have already seen areas of contact with Kant, Sellars, Wittgenstein and Davidson (coherentism), and the seeds are sown for discussions of epistemological externalism, idealism, Aristotle, Travis, fallibility and disjunctivism.

All of this is still to come, however. For now, we remain trapped in the oscillation with only a hint of how to escape. Stay tuned for more.

Thick Aesthetic Concepts in Extreme Metal

My last post got me thinking about why it’s so difficult to explain the appeal of extreme metal to people that don’t like the genre. Part of me was concerned that this task was not simply hard but perhaps not possible at all. I feel like the appropriate response to someone who asks what there is to like about extreme metal is the apocryphal reply that Satchmo gave  to someone who asked what jazz is: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know”. After considering it further, I think there’s something philosophically interesting about the way that people in the scene communicate with each other about their passion that might explain why this problem feels so intractable.

In the mid-80s a philosopher called Bernard Williams emphasised the importance to moral discourse of what he called “thick” ethical concepts. To get a feel for thick ethical concepts, one can contrast them with thin concepts of both a moral and non-moral variety. For example, the concept of size is a thin descriptive concept. If I say that John is tall, I am not passing moral judgement about him or invoking any kind of normative values in describing him as such. However, if I say that something he did was (morally) wrong, this judgement most certainly is evaluative, and my description of it does involve the use of normative values (namely, rightness and wrongness).

Thick ethical concepts constitute an entanglement of descriptive and normative features, they combine a judgement of fact with a judgement of value. For example, if I say that John is cruel then I am passing moral judgement on him in a way that I am not if I simply say that he has a tendency to cause unnecessary harm to others (or, at least, if there is moral judgement in this latter example it is merely implicit and not part of the meaning of the words themselves). However, I am also claiming that he has certain traits or performs certain types of actions. For instance, if John never gave money to charity, that might be reason for thinking him immoral or unethical, but it wouldn’t be sufficient for thinking him cruel, all things being equal. In this sense, cruelty has a descriptive, non-normative element to it that is absent in thin ethical concepts like ‘wrong’ or ‘good’.

Cruelty at its worst.

The notion of thick concepts, however, needn’t be restricted to ethics and can be extended into other areas of discourse that include value judgements, most notably to aesthetics. For example, if I say that a dress is elegant, I am not simply describing its shape or flow, but also voicing my aesthetic approval of it. Conversely, to say that a painting is garish is not only to describe its colour scheme but to condemn it on the basis of this choice of colours. In this way, aesthetic concepts often combine descriptive and evaluative elements.

No less than in other areas of art, metal too contains a myriad of thick aesthetic concepts. If anything, metal probably contains far more than other areas, given that many typical thin aesthetic concepts like beauty just aren’t appropriate for trying to pass judgement on the genre. Whilst the topic of discussion last time was death metal, I think that black metal is probably the sub-genre whose vocabulary is most inundated with thick aesthetic terms.

Much of the vocabulary used to describe this music draws heavily on themes central or related to the genre, which is tied to anti-Christianity, Satanism, Norway, paganism and nihilism: words like “grim”, “necro”, “brutal”, “krieg”, “misanthropic” and so on… Like the term elegance, however, many of these words not only describe the style of the music but also evaluate it positively. For example, to say that a black metal track is necro is, in part, to describe it as having lo-fi production values or a raw feel. However, the term also implies approbation or a sense of approval regarding its sound.

There is a debate within the literature as to whether or not it is possible to separate the evaluative and the normative aspects of thick concepts. Some, like prescriptivist R.M. Hare, believe that one can siphon off the descriptive element of thick concepts entirely, in a way that involves no commitment to any particular evaluative standpoint. For example, if one wanted to describe an action as “brave” without committing oneself to approving of the action, one might simply claim that it was performed without fear in the face of great danger. Since fear and danger aren’t themselves evaluative concepts, one has stripped the original term of its normative content entirely, or so the story goes.

Others, most notably Bernard Williams himself, have claimed that it is not clear that this sort of separation is possible in all, or indeed any, cases. John McDowell explains that the reason why one cannot simply separate off the descriptive element is because any accurate synonym for a thick ethical concept will inevitably bring in other evaluative terms at some point. For example, bravery is clearly not simply doing something without fear in the face of great danger, for this encompasses many stupid actions, or actions performed without knowledge of the danger in question, neither of which are brave. A more accurate description would be an action performed courageously, but of course courage is too a thick ethical concept, so unless this concept can also be explained non-evaluatively then this description fails in its task, for it sneaks value judgements into the extended description itself.

The upshot, according to Hilary Putnam, is that:

to use them [thick concepts] with any discrimination one has to be able to identify imaginatively with an evaluative point of view. That is why someone who thought that “brave” simply meant “not afraid to risk life and limb” would not be able to understand the all-important distinction that Socrates keeps drawing between mere rashness or foolhardiness and genuine bravery.

To come back to the point with which we began, if this second viewpoint is correct (that it is not possible to separate the descriptive and evaluative elements with any precision) then it will prove to be extremely difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t already share an aesthetic appreciation of metal what exactly there is to like about it. Since much of the vocabulary used to talk about the music is thick, any attempt to voice an appreciation of the music in terms accessible to someone who doesn’t already appreciate it will leave out some of the content available in a description using thick concepts.

For example, the album Under a Funeral Moon by Darkthrone is extremely necro. If I was to simply say this to someone who didn’t enjoy black metal, they wouldn’t understand what I meant. But if I was to explain to someone that I liked it because it had bad production values, this simply wouldn’t capture my reason for liking it at all. Bootlegs of Madonna gigs probably have bad production values, but I don’t like them as a result, and they’re certainly not necro. 

Madonna ist nicht Krieg.

However, I have hope that in the case of metal at least, the problem is not completely intractable. My reason for thinking this is that there are descriptions in purely thin non-evaluative terms that, whilst not fully capturing the content of the thick terms themselves, might help bridge the gap between those who appreciate the genre and those that don’t. For example, if I said to someone that I like Under a Funeral Moon because the low production values help create a dark atmosphere, whilst not synonymous with ‘necro’, this hopefully provides enough information for the person to “imaginatively identify” with my aesthetic “evaluative point of view”, even if they don’t share that point of view themselves.

So that’s it for this post. We’ve gone from ethics to aesthetics to the grim and frostbitten realms of black metal (another topic for a future post: the postmodern irony that pervades the language of black metal fandom). Hopefully you’ve learnt something about philosophy, or perhaps got some insight into metal, or even both! This sort of connection between hobbies and interests of mine and philosophy is likely going to be the topic of a number of posts to come in the future, as philosophy generally tends to pervade how I think about things and I hope it sheds some light on aspects of things that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Interminable Oscillations #1: An Overview

I mentioned in my last post that one of my goals was to explain what I care about and, hopefully, why. As an academic-in-training, most of my mental energy is spent thinking about philosophy. In fact, even when I’m not spending my time actually doing philosophy I have a tendency (no doubt common to those going into the profession) to over-think and over-analyse the everyday. A lot of what I’m going to post on this blog is going to fall into this latter camp, documenting my attempt to deconstruct and analyse pretty much everything I come into contact with, from the inefficiency of bus seating arrangements (more on that later) to TV shows and books.

However, I’m currently spending most of my time at the moment writing a paper about John McDowell’s philosophy of perception. In the process of getting myself acquainted with McDowell’s ideas over the last few years, I’ve noticed some common themes that run throughout almost all of his career. Whilst there are many distinct aspects to his theory of experience and perceptual knowledge – his disjunctivism, his conceptualism, the influence of Kant, his understanding of fallibility – it can sometimes be hard to see how they connect together. However, the more of McDowell I read, the more convinced I am that he’s simply drawing out the consequences of a conception of experience that he’s had since the early 80s, albeit emphasising different aspects on different occasions. In order to explain this, however, one needs to have a grip on what these different aspects are. In light of this, my plan is to explain these different aspects one by one, sometimes focusing on individual papers, other times focusing on general themes and motifs that crop up over the course of several papers, with the aim of giving a good understanding of what McDowell thinks and how it all fits together.

To begin with, I want to provide an overview of (to my knowledge) everything McDowell has published [EDIT–discovered some more replies to critics. The search is ongoing.] almost everything McDowell has published that’s directly relevant to his philosophy of perception (including his epistemology of perception). Aside from the fact that it will serve as a reference for the papers I mention in the posts that follow, it will also give a good overview already of what McDowell is interested in and how these interests develop and repeat over the course of his career.

The man himself, laying the philosophical smack down.

The Overview:

1983: Criteria, Defeasibility and Knowledge (published in Meaning, Knowledge and Reality)

An article ostensibly debating the intricacies of Wittgenstein scholarship with Crispin Wright, but typically cited as the canonical exposition of ‘epistemological disjunctivism’. The reason for this is that towards the end of the paper, McDowell explains his rejection of ‘highest common factor’ accounts of experience and his disjunctive understanding of appearances. Whether or not McDowell is making an epistemological point or a metaphysical one is debatable, however, and something that will come under discussion in a later post.

1986: Singular Thought and the Extent of Inner Space (published in MK&R)

Another article in which McDowell commits himself to disjunctivism, this time both about singular thought and perception. The overall discussion is an attempt to explain a conception of object-dependent singular thought in the manner of Evans, but in the process McDowell explains his disjunctive conception of experience and contrasts this with what he calls a ‘Cartesian’ view of subjectivity.

1994: The Content of Perceptual Experience

The primary focus here is on Dennett’s account of conceptual content as a ‘welling up’ of the content of sub-personal systems. Important largely because McDowell explains his understanding of the relationship between personal and sub-personal systems and the distinction between enabling and constitutive explanations. The overall point being made is key for understanding how McDowell conceives of the relationship between scientific accounts of perceptual systems and philosophical accounts of experience.

1994 (1996 for the second edition): Mind and World (a book based on a series of lectures)

Initially and, I imagine, somewhat unusually, my first introduction to McDowell wasn’t with this book, nor did it make much of an impression on me when I first read it. However, slowly I’ve come to see its importance. It includes everything from Kant, Gadamer, Aristotle, Wittgenstein, empiricism, naturalism, there’s even some proto-disjunctivism thrown in for good measure. I think any summary of the book would not begin to do it justice, so I’ll just leave it there!

1995: Knowledge and the Internal (published in MK&R)

This is one of the first of a series of articles explaining the details of some central topics broached in Mind and World. The focus of this paper is the Sellarsian idea of experience as a ‘standing in the space of reasons’ that informs McDowell’s strong internalism about perceptual knowledge. The focus is almost solely on epistemology, which I think makes this the clearest exposition of  a purely epistemological disjunctivism.

1998: Having the World in View; Sellars, Kant and Intentionality (published in a collection of the same name: Having the World in View)

A series of three lectures delivered on Kant and Sellars that massively refines McDowell’s Mind and World account of experience in the process. Lecture one is some heavy-duty Kant scholarship, arguing with Sellars over how to understand Kant’s notion of intuitions. Lecture two applies this idea to his Mind and World conception of experience. Lecture three applies the idea to intentionality and, specifically, singular thought. Also the first clear exposition of McDowell’s shift away from propositional content towards intuitional content.

1999: Naturalism in the Philosophy of Mind (published in The Engaged Intellect)

Another paper elaborating some key ideas from Mind and World, this time the clash between a scientific understanding of experience as a natural phenomenon and the neo-Kantian/Sellarsian idea that experiences are rational occurrences – ‘standings in the space of reasons’. There’s a bit of Frege debate too, this time with Millikan.

2000: Experiencing the World (published in TEI)

Another one in the ‘why do I keep having to explain Mind and World to people’ series, this time a fantastic little article explaining the ‘transcendental anxiety’ about the possibility of empirical content that McDowell takes to be at the heart of Mind and World. This is one I’ll have to come back to later, partly just because it’s a great article, but mostly because it beautifully ties together many of the themes that run throughout the rest of these papers.

2002: Knowledge and the Internal Revisited (published in TEI)

A response to Brandom’s criticism of Knowledge and the Internal. A great one for understanding the connection between disjunctivism and Mind and World.

2006: The Disjunctive Conception of Experience as Material for a Transcendental Argument (published in TEI)

The title pretty much says it all; it’s an attempt to undermine scepticism using the resources made available by McDowell’s disjunctive conception of experience. This article should have put to bed all of the claims that McDowell is only a disjunctivist about epistemology, but apparently the misunderstandings still continue. There is also a very interesting connection to Mind and World that I’ll come back to at some point.

2007: What Myth? (published in TEI)

A response to Dreyfus’s criticisms of Mind and World, primarily centring around the idea of embodiment. There’s a nice little section full of the two of them arguing over how to interpret Aristotle, too.

2008a: Avoiding the Myth of the Given (written for a festschrift called Experience, Norm and Nature)

An article supposedly clarifying McDowell’s shift away from propositional content and towards intuitional content. The account of intuitional content given here is far less clear than the one from Having the World in View, though McDowell does explain the difference from propositional content more clearly. It’s also not clear whether McDowell intends this to be an abridged version or an amendment, though. Safe to say that whilst the article is interesting, it feels as if half of the important links have been left out.

2008r: Responses (part of the festschrift, responding to the essays in it)

Much as it sounds, it consists of a responses by McDowell to a number of articles written for a festschrift dedicated to his ideas. Interesting primarily because he addresses some of the in-fighting that’s gone on between disjunctivists (who are already few in number), in the form of responses to Charles Travis and Bill Brewer.

2010: Tyler Burge on Disjunctivism

A good article replying to Burge’s criticisms of disjunctivism. Makes clear exactly what he thinks the relationship is between the results of vision science and philosophical accounts of experience (drawing on some ideas from The Content of Experience) and has a really clear explanation of his understanding of the fallibility of perceptual capacities.

2011: Perception as a Capacity for Knowledge (book based on lectures)

Much of the same material as in the Tyler Burge article, but with a Sellarsian twist, plus even more on fallibility in capacities.

So, that about does it for the overview! Hopefully this will be of use to some people who have read some of McDowell’s articles and want to know where to move on. Plus it should be a lot of use for us in the future when it comes to spelling out the details of McDowell’s account of experience and understanding how it’s developed over time. For now, that’s it!

Keep an eye out for more posts under the banner of “Interminable Oscillations” where the McDowellian fun will continue.