Friday, June 29, 2007

Externalism and Self-Knowledge

Several items I’ve been doting upon recently concern incompatibilism. Incompatibilism is the thesis that a priori self-knowledge and externalism are incompatible. A priori self-knowledge would be knowledge of the content of an occurrent mental state that I can obtain simply by reflecting upon that state, without the need to examine my cultural or natural environment. Externalism is the idea that the content of at least some of my mental states is a function of the environment I happen to be in, whether I know it or not; ie. English speakers have for centuries been referring to water, but only in the last century or so have we been in any position to say meaningfully just what it is that we are referring to when we refer to water. If externalism is true, then one could not have knowledge about the content of one’s occurrent mental state without consulting one’s environment. Thus a priori self-knowledge--the idea that one could have such knowledge without such consultation--is incompatible with externalism for at least some thoughts.

Let me first get rid of the ‘for at least some thoughts’ qualifier. If externalism is true about the meaning of ‘at least some thoughts,’ it probably needs to be true for all thoughts. In order for this not to be the case, one would have come up with criteria delimiting contents that could be known simply by reflecting upon them from those which could be known only through consultation with the environment. For reasons that I won’t get into now, I find this to be unlikely.

Back to the main argument: the problem with semantic externalism is that, if true, one cannot tell for sure what one is thinking without consulting the environment. Am I thinking about water or twater? Well, it depends on the world in which I happen to be. I may believe that I am thinking about water, only subsequently to discover that I’m actually on Twin Earth and therefore that I’m really thinking about twater. Such would be the case for all of my own beliefs about what I am thinking. Without some sort of empirical investigation into the world that I am thinking about, I might not know what I am thinking at all. That’s weird.

In my previous post I said that I would apply McDowell’s argument for the intrinsic intentionality of mental states to the issue of incompatibilism. Here goes. When it comes to knowing what I mean, there surely are more options than these:

(a) I know directly and apriori the meaning of my thought.
(b) I can discover the meaning of my thought only through empirical investigation, by discovering the relevant features of my environment that function as the meaning-relevant truth-conditions of that thought.

Much of the dispute between compatibilism and incompatibilism assumes that these are the two options. This is greatly restrictive.

Consider that I am thinking about the square root of two. A cursory familiarity with number theory let’s me know that I really have no firm understanding what I mean when I think the square root of two. That rules out (a). But for definitional reasons, there is no empirical field to be had where I could venture out to ‘discover’ what the world holds in regard to this thought. This rules out (b). I rather have to think through my thought. And this is not just the case with strange thoughts like the square root of two. For in fact, I would say that we very rarely are completely clear on just what it is that we are thinking or meaning. For further proof, just consider this question: are you happy?

This then is the problem with the dispute over incompatibilism: it is the assumption that ‘reflection’ or ‘introspection’ is a sort of looking inward in just the same way that seeing is a ‘looking outward.’ But this is a bad analogy. And this is McDowell’s point: if thoughts are intrinsically intentional, that means that they are intrinsically ‘deep.’ This is a metaphorical way of putting his insight that the ‘contents’ of our thoughts are not something that, once clear on, we have the further burden of comparing to the world; for the content of our thinking just is the world. I think that this is clear once we disabuse ourselves of our Cartesian prejudices.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Are Mental States Intrinsically Intentional?

Discussing the problem of reference in his book on Husserl and Frege, Michael Dummett complains that for Husserl “the intentionality of mental acts was so axiomatic…that he perceived no necessity to demonstrate it in particular cases.” (Origins of Analytic Philosophy, Chapter 6, p55). Thus, whereas Frege developed a sophisticated if flawed theory of saturation in order to account for the meaningfulness of partial or incomplete expressions, Husserl--taking it for granted that any meaningful expression intrinsically enjoyed objective reference--failed even to problematize the issue. Since every thought, including partial thoughts, is intentional, and all intentional states have directness or reference (Bedeutung), there is no need to account for the specific reference of partial acts.

Dummett’s right. Husserl did take it for granted that mental acts are intrinsically and primitively intentional. I’m not going to argue here over whatever implications this might have for a Husserlian theory of reference (although Dummett is wrong that Husserl never saw this as a problem). I would like instead to consider the more fundamental gripe: can we assume that mental states are intrinsically intentional?

On the one hand, it seems obvious that we should. For what would it mean to speak about a belief, or perception, or desire that ignored what that belief, perception or desire were about. If we cannot think of what a belief, perception or desire would be like without it being about something—without it being intentional—then this is probably a good indication that mental states like beliefs, desires and perceptions are intrinsically (even ‘axiomatically’) intentional.

On the other hand, as Putnam points out, there’s a strong whiff of magical thinking somewhere in here. In that great Intro article of lore, “Brains in a Vat,” Putnam asks, suppose that the tracks of an ant happen to spell out WINSTON CHURCHILL, would this mark mean Winston Churchill? Certainly not by itself. But if marks and noises do not meaning anything ‘in themselves,’ what could it be, other than some magical mystery property, about thoughts (or brain states) such that they are intrinsically representational, ie intentional?

Putnam’s answer we know is that no mental state as such is intrinsically representational; there is no way to determine what a state represents simply from of features intrinsic to that state. The famous Twin Earth Gedankenexperiment is directed at precisely this point. What matters rather is how that state stands vis-à-vis its environment, and specifically, the causal lineage of that state in terms of its environment.

McDowell I think has an interesting response to this, one which, if plausible, lends support to Husserl. In “Putnam on Mind and Meaning,” McDowell argues that Putnam is led to deny an intrinsic intentionality to mental states because he sticks to a false dilemma regarding the following two claims: a) to know what a mental state means (represents) is wholly a matter of knowing about the subject’s mind; and b) that meaning determines extension. Since, as the Twin Earth Gedankenexperiment shows, two subject’s can be qualitatively indistinguishable by what we know from (a) but differ according to (b), Putnam thinks that we are forced to abandon (a) if we want to retain (b).

However, this is only because of Putnam’s unstated commitment to a psychologically “narrow” interpretation of (a), that is, the idea that a mental state...
“must in itself consist in the presence in the mind of an item with an intrinsic nature characterizable independently of considering what it represents.”
Now, as McDowell emphasizes, this surely is a phenomenologically inaccurate rendering of what it means to be in a particular mental state. For it simply is not the case that, when I reflect upon the contents of my mental states all I find are sense-data, images, soundings or sensations. When I reflect, for instance, on the sound of dripping water, it requires a quite radical phenomenological conversion to consider that state simply as a sound, and not as the representing of dripping water.

McDowell's riposte to Putnam's false dilemma is to point out that the latter unjustifiably analogizes the representational powers of symbols (etchings and soundings) with the representational powers of mental states. Surely symbols do obtain their representational powers via surrogation, which is why we can describe them without reference to what they are about. But we cannot similarly do so with mental states as such, because they do enjoy their representational powers not by surrogation but intrinsically.

I think that the lesson to draw from these comments is that for too long the burden of proof has been placed upon those who, like Husserl and McDowell, want us to assume from the start that mental states are intrinsically intentional. The burden must be the other way around. If we both find it difficult if not impossible to understand clearly what a mental state might be without reference to what that state represents, and if in order to do so we must adopt a position that is quite phenomenologically artificial and, to be frank, inaccurate, then surely the problem ought to be placed upon those who insist that this is the natural place to begin. In other words, while the idea that mental states are intrinsically intentional might seem just to be an assumption, it is one I think we are still pressed to maintain until a better reason is given for dropping it, and that better reason is still wanting.

In a following post I'll try to apply some brief lessons this insight have on the issue of the seeming incompatibility of externalism and self-knowledge.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Morality and Death: Hobbesian Immoralism (I)

In an interesting move in his Leviathan, Hobbes does not simply derive the need for a commonwealth from his account of a state of nature; he imposes first an intermediary: natural law, or morality. What is especially odd is that, although the transition from the state of nature to the commonwealth requires only two laws of nature—to seek peace and to give away one’s right in order to make peace possible (though only under the appropriate circumstances)—Hobbes articulates a further host of them, concluding that the science of these laws “is the true and only moral philosophy.” He thus seems to be articulating—or clearly takes himself to be articulating—a moral system. I want to suggest instead that it is not a moral system at all. What Hobbes articulates is not a morality that differs from some other moral systems and yet finds its place among them but, quite simply, an anti-morality. He is, in other words, the arch immoralist.

To avoid confusion from the start, I am not saying that Hobbes is an immoralist because he grounds moral laws in something heteronomous or prudential, or because he approaches morality from an empiricist standpoint. Many others have done similarly—Hume, Mill, and Aristotle, just to name a few. But none of them are immoralists. What makes Hobbes an immoralist is not just his consequentialism, but the specific end of that consequentialism, an end that is not just contingently opposed to morality, but is opposed to its very essence: the preservation of one’s own life.

But let’s be charitable now. Hobbesian morality involves natural laws, which right reason discovers as a means to our ends. But he stresses in this connection that we do not all have the same ends. In fact, the diversity of goods and evils among humanity is an important part of his argument:

Good and evil are names that signify our appetites and aversions, which in different tempers, customs, and doctrines of men are different (XV)

This, in fact, is why the state of nature is a state of war: we all want different things, and in the state of nature every individual has his or her own, individual good and evil. This is bound to lead to conflicts. Through some extra steps, which we need not go into, the diversity of individual goods and evils is precisely the reason why the state of nature is a state of war. And, in fact, following the passage just quoted, Hobbes does derive the need for peace directly from this diversity of goods and evils. We might thus question whether Hobbesian morality has one given end. Furthermore, his morality appears heteronomous, but not at all immoralistic. But this is of course not the whole story.

The extra step occurs to us when we ask not simply why the diversity of human goods leads to a state of war, but—as if the answer were not already clear—why the state of war itself is such a bad thing and should be overcome. Moral precepts, or natural laws, are the rules that reason discovers as means to escaping the state of nature, but the need to escape the state of nature, and the fact that this need is a need for all human beings, is grounded in the fact that, ultimately, all human beings really do have the same end, the same ultimate good and evil. Hobbes’s moral framework is, in other words, aimed to be universal. The diversity of individual goods does not mean that morality is reducible to particular individual appetites; rather, this diversity is the reason why moral laws must have a universality. So what is such a universal law?

A law of nature, lex naturalis, is a precept, or general rule, found out by reason, by which a man is forbidden to do that which is destructive of his life, or taketh away the means of preserving the same, and to omit that by which he thinketh it may be best preserved

[These laws] are but conclusions or theorems concerning what conduceth to the conservation and defence of themselves

In other words, although human beings do have a diversity of ends, the problem with this diversity is precisely that that diversity leads to a consequence—war—which opposes another end that we all share: the preservation of our lives. It is clear that Hobbes defines morality as a system of principles dictated by right reason given the purpose of preserving one’s own life. This, of course, is Hobbes’s attempt to account for the universality of moral laws: If all human beings by nature want to preserve their own lives, then the prudential principles that best lead to such preservation are universal principles. As I will discuss in the next post, Hobbes focuses on the wrong aspect of morality: what is crucial is not simply its universality (which may, after all, be contingent), but the necessity of its universality, which is why morality must be not prudential but unconditioned. This is not in itself enough to show that Hobbes is an immoralist, but we can best show this by looking at what is entailed in the idea of an unconditioned morality.

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Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Philosophical Approaches and their Consistentcy with the History

I have occasionally seen philosophers make the claim that the analytic approach to philosophy is consistent with the way philosophy has historically been done. With this, I wholeheartedly agree. But I object to a further implication often drawn from this claim, i.e., that the analytic approach is more consistent with the history than continental approaches. That claim, I think, is simply false. My point, however, is not that some other approach, perhaps some continental approach, is instead more consistent. It is that both approaches are consistent with the way philosophy has been done historically, though perhaps not in the same way. Whether or not one thinks a particular approach is so consistent depends on the presuppositions with which one approaches the history of philosophy, presuppositions that are themselves the presuppositions inherent in one’s approach. Thus, any claim about the superiority of one or another approach to philosophy vis à vis the history of philosophy is likely to be simply circular.

A point central to hermeneutics: understanding requires presuppositions or “prejudices” (as Gadamer calls them). When I read a text, I already have some pre-formed ideas about what a text of this kind is supposed to be saying. I will thus interpret and evaluate the text in accordance with how well it does what I think it is supposed to do. If I am trained to think of philosophy as geared towards clear and precise arguments, I will likely find that the great figures in the history of philosophy have excelled at making clear and precise arguments (though I might be forced to assume that some historical elements—like Plato’s recourse to myth in the middle of an argument—are features extraneous to philosophy and rest on a confusion of that subject with another, such as religion). The presence of bias isn’t necessarily truth-distorting: the great figures really were interested in making clear arguments! But that may not be the only thing they were interested in doing.

Looking at some of the great philosophers in the history, we might note that they were in fact interested not only in making arguments, but specifically in making arguments for the correctness of a certain framework of thought, or way of seeing the world. Plato did not simply attack particular theses of Parmenides or Heracleitus: he argued that the world could not be properly grasped in its completeness either as a static unity or as a perpetual flux. Hume rejected all claims to non-experiential knowledge and suggested committing everything else to the flames. Kant, as is well-known, attempted to reconcile rationalism with empiricism, limiting the pretensions of each side to exhaustive and true knowledge of the world. These are, of course, not the only figures we find in the history of philosophy, and it is certainly false that the entire history contains nothing but attempts to articulate an overarching system or framework; to claim that would itself be an error induced by a certain set of pre-suppositions. My point is far more modest: the way philosophy has historically been done cannot be fully described by either perspective.

That articulating an overall framework of thought is a goal of many figures in the history of philosophy is implied by Peter Strawson’s distinction between descriptive and revisionary metaphysics, since both types of metaphysics aim at setting up a framework of thought or way of seeing the world, though they do this in different ways. John Rawls wrote that

one of the benefits of studying historical texts—and of trying to get a sense of the writer’s view as a whole—is that we come to see how philosophical questions can take on a different cast from, and are indeed shaped by, the scheme of thought from within which they are asked. (1)

But few simply made arguments from within a pre-given “cast of thought”—rather, philosophers have generally tried to argue for the superiority of a particular cast of thought over others—a claim with which, I take it, Rawls would be in agreement.

If we look at some of the 20th century thinkers who have not belonged to the analytic tradition, we find that this concern—the concern with addressing our cast of thought—frequently takes precedence over argument. This is not to say that Husserl, Heidegger, Foucault, Levinas, etc., do not have arguments or think arguments to be unimportant. That is far from true. But what defines their respective projects seems to me to be primarily the articulation of a particular scheme of thought. The arguments are usually made in this context and with this goal in mind, which is why—when taken out of context—they often do not even look like arguments at all. I do not want to imply, on the other hand, that analytic philosophers are conversely uninterested in our overall schema or cast of thought—many certainly are, and most seem to me to be concerned to articulate at least a segment of our cast of thought. But this strikes me as being a secondary concern—what is primary is the laying out of arguments for a specific regional problem, and the “big picture” often follows as a secondary concern arising from the combination of these regional solutions.

My point, as I’ve stressed, is not to insist on either the superiority of one approach over the other, nor is it to suggest that one is more consistent with the way philosophy has been carried out historically than the other, and it is certainly not to provide a new way to see the tired issue of the analytic/continental divide. It is only to point out that neither side can legitimately claim to be more consistent with the history of philosophy. Anyone who cares about maintaining such consistency, furthermore, would do well to look carefully both to the arguments and their framework.

(1) John Rawls, Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 17.

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