Thursday, 27 March 2008

McDowell, Akrasia and the Misguided View

In this post I wish to engage in a piece of philosophical exegesis in order to expose a certain misreading of McDowell. The passage I will be discussing reads as follows:

It would be a mistake to protest that one can fail to act on a reason, and even on a reason judged by oneself to be better than any reason one has for acting otherwise, without there needing to be any clouding or distortion in one’s appreciation of the reason one flouts. That is true; but to suppose it constitutes an objection to Aristotle is to fail to understand the special nature of the conception of virtue that generates Aristotle’s interest in incontinence. (Mind, Value, and Reality, p. 55)

Here, McDowell concedes that Akrasia, the phenomenon where an agent judges that some action A is the best course to pursue, but nevertheless freely chooses not to do A, is possible. On this point, McDowell agrees with Aristotle and Donald Davidson (and disagrees with Socrates who flatly denies such a possibility). More significant still, McDowell acknowledges that the best way of conceiving of Akrasia may not be in terms of “clouding or distortion in one’s appreciation of the reason one flouts.” In short, while McDowell conceives of the distinction between the virtuous agent, on the one hand, and the continent or incontinent agent, on the other, in terms of the latter having a clouded perception, he does not maintain that the possibility of Akrasia is also to be so explained.

This is an important point since some have mistakenly attributed to McDowell the claim that Akrasia can only be explained in terms of clouded moral perception. Let us refer to the thesis that it is possible for an agent to choose not to do A even if the agent’s judgement that A is the best course of action is unclouded as unclouded Akrasia. According to, what I will refer to as the misguided reading of McDowell, the above passage implicates a denial of unclouded Akrasia. The misguided reading rests on the false assumption that the “mistake” McDowell refers to in the passage in question is the idea that unclouded Akrasia is possible. However, the misguided reading overlooks the opening clause of the very next sentence in which McDowell grants “that [the possibility of unclouded Akrasia] is true”. What McDowell actually sees as the mistake is not the possibility of unclouded Akrasia per se but the idea that unclouded Akrasia poses a difficulty for his account. The upshot of the rejection of the misguided reading is that we do not need to see McDowell as attempting to account for the possibility of Akrasia in terms of “clouding or distortion” in an agent’s appreciation of her reasons. On the contrary, a careful reading of the relevant passages reveals that this is a question McDowell is altogether silent on—i.e., McDowell fails to provide any explicit positive account of how Akraisa in general (or unclouded Akrasia in particular) is possible, at least not in the essay presently under discussion.

That McDowell fails to provide a positive account of Akrasia is not surprising, nor should it be seen as a defect (i.e., a sin of omission) given his present purposes. This is because McDowell is only concerned with preserving the Aristotelian distinction between the continent and incontinent agent, and not with an account of Akrasia per se. Thus, the misguided reading errs first and foremost because it construes McDowell’s argument as attempting to establish a conclusion on a subject matter that falls outside the argument’s actual area of concern.

However, even if we reject the misguided reading, the possibility of unclouded Akrasia may still seem to pose a difficulty for McDowell’s account. Since (in the case of the virtuous agent) perceiving what one ought to do is sufficient for doing it, then the agent who manifests weakness of will must be displaying a clouded perception. While this is true by McDowell’s lights, this fact alone does not involve the denial of the possibility of unclouded Akrasia. To see this, we must distinguish between the following two types of cases: (1) ones in which an agent arrives at what she ought to do via the exercise of a perceptual sensitivity (alone) and (2) ones in which an agent arrives at what she ought to do via ratiocination. Strictly speaking, (1) and (2) are not mutually exclusive since in the case of the non-virtuous agent (i.e., the continent and incontinent) both ratiocination and a perceptual sensitivity are typically in play. However, in such a case, the deliverance of the agent’s perceptual sensitivity is itself reduced to just another reason in the agent’s all-things-considered judgement. This follows from the fact that (in the case of the non-virtuous agent) moral perception does not have the silencing power that it does in the case of the virtuous agent. In fact, the absence of this silencing power is just what it means for a moral perception to be clouded on McDowell’s picture. By contrast, the virtuous agent, who has an unclouded perception, is one whose perceptual sensitivity silences all competing reasons (with certain qualifications that I will ignore for the time being) and who can therefore be described as not resorting to ratiocination at all. With these subtleties in mind, I will (for brevity) continue to talk of moral perception versus moral ratiocination as if the two are mutually exclusive phenomenon.

With the distinction between moral perception and moral ratiocination firmly in place, we can now appreciate that McDowell sees unclouded Akrasia as only relevant to the latter but not to the former. By McDowell’s lights, an agent cannot have an unclouded perception of what she ought to do and yet fail to do it since (as noted earlier) having an unclouded perception is sufficient for virtuous action. However, McDowell’s account allows that an agent may have an unclouded appreciation of her reasons and yet fail to act upon them. The upshot of this is that Akraisa (i.e., unclouded Akrasia) only applies to moral ratiocination and not to moral perceptions.

The significance of the above conclusion should not be under-appreciated. Recall, on McDowell’s view, the virtuous agent is able to perceive and act upon what she ought to do in a given situation without need for ratiocination. (In fact, this is what distinguishes the virtuous agent from the merely continent agent on McDowell’s picture.) Hence, the non-virtuous agent (i.e., the continent and incontinent) is the agent who has to resort to ratiocination since her perceptions (being clouded) are not sufficient to get her to the point of acting as the virtuous agent acts. In a slogan, the non-virtuous agent shall not live (morally) by perception alone. The upshot of this is that Akrasia can only arise in the case of a non-virtuous agent for whom ratiocination remains relevant. The virtuous agent, by contrast, relies solely on perception and therefore cannot ever suffer from Akrasia. This strikes me as just the sort of result one would want. In conclusion, McDowell’s distinction between moral perceptions and moral ratiocination allows him to preserve the following pair of desiderata: (1) it allows him to grant the possibility of unclouded Akrasia (vis-à-vis moral ratiocination) while maintaining that unclouded perception (alone) is sufficient for virtuous action, and (2) it implies that only non-virtuous agents can suffer from unclouded Akrasia.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Race Makes People Pre-occupied : Ferraro on Obama

Peter over at Injury, has written a very thoughtful piece that challenges the claim that Ferraro’s remarks about Obama are racist. The statement under dispute is as follows:
If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman, he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept. (taken from Daily Breeze Interview)
As I understand him, Peter maintains that it should be “obvious” (perhaps with the implied qualification, “for any unbiased observer”) that Ferraro’s comments should not be interpreted as racist. Given the tongue in cheek title of his post, “Race Makes People Insane: Ferraro and Obama”, I take the implication to be that those who interpret Ferraro’s comments otherwise are of questionable mental health (but only in jest of course). My own contention is that another interpretation of Ferraro’s comments is available to rationally competent individuals, so that someone who interprets Ferraro’s comments less charitably than he does may nevertheless continue to class themselves among the ranks of the sane.

To begin with, it should be noted that this is not the first time that Ferraro has made a statement like the one she made about Obama. In the April 15, 1988 issue of the Washington Post she made similar statements about Jesse Jackson when he was running for president. Whether her accusation is accurate or not (in either the Obama or Jesse Jackson case) is not is not a question I will take up here since it implicates a number of counterfactuals that I personally lack the power to assess. However, I think the fact that this was a “repeat offence” on Ferraro’s part casts matters in a slightly different light. Far from an “off the cuff remark” (as Peter suggests), I believe it points towards something more perennial (if not calculated). (It should also be noted that the statement about Obama was repeated on at least three separated occasions and then unapologetically defended on two subsequent occasions. (See here for the most recent discussion of Ferraro's statements)

I believe the similarity between Ferraro’s 1988 and 2008 comments is revealing. Any unprejudiced mind (no pun intended) can clearly see that Barack Obama is no Jesse Jackson. The fact that she would use almost the exact same words to describe them both, I believe, hints at the fact that she sees their shared race as somehow overshadowing their many fundamental differences. I think this is unfortunate and reflects a widespread tendency, in the United States, to see race as the primary defining characteristic of any individual that happens to be a member of a racial minority. (This is a claim I will develop further below.)

Ten days after the Daily Breeze interview, Ferraro told a FOX News interviewer:
I got up and the question was asked, 'Why do you think Barack Obama is in the place he is today’ as the party's delegate front-runner? I said in large measure, because he is black. I said, Let me also say in 1984 -- and if I have said it once, I have said it 20, 60, 100 times -- in 1984, if my name was Gerard Ferraro instead of Geraldine Ferraro, I would never have been the nominee for vice president.
Peter sees Ferraro, in the above quote, as merely “reiterating the fact that Obama’s race is a net political asset in the democratic primary.” While this may be true, I am of the opinion that there is something more insidious at work here. Ferraro’s comparison between her (self-professed) gender based vice-presidential appointment and Obama’s delegate lead in the democratic primary, presupposes that the two cases are in some way analogous. But it is not at all clear why anyone would think that they are. Ferraro was selected by Walter Mondale to be his vice-presidential running mate (presumably because having a female running-mate would draw attention to his campaign). Obama chose, we can assume of his own free accord, to run for the office of president of the United States. He was not recruited to be vice-presidential running mate by some other candidate who desired to exploit Obama’s race to get media attention. These strike me as very different scenarios.

Now, Ferraro’s point most certainly could not be that Obama chose to be black in an attempt to garner media attention. But perhaps her point is that Obama is exploiting the fact that he is black in order to get ahead in the polls. But one would need to present some evidence in support of such a claim. Ferraro has given us none. Moreover, only a momentary reflection on the course and spirit of Obama’s campaign would reveal that the claim is (on the whole) preposterous. (In fact, it is Obama’s opponents, rather than Obama or his campaign, that have been most keen on emphasising the issue of race.) So what makes the Ferraro and Obama case analogous does not seem to have to do with the overt exploitation of a social category for political gain. While such may be an accurate description of what went on in the former case (if we take Ferraro’s claim seriously) it does not seem true in the latter. So why think the two cases analogous? I will return to this question shortly. But first, a not-so-brief caveat.

Going into the primary, Hillary Clinton was a household name. Barack Obama was anything but. At the risk of understatement, he had an uphill battle against Senator Clinton. But he has consistently demonstrated that his campaign is better organised, able to raise more money, and inspire more enthusiasm and support from a wider cross-section of the American population than that of the seasoned veteran he has been up against. I must confess that I find it more than a little curious that the one candidate who everyone labels as politically inexperienced is the one candidate who has demonstrated the best organisational skill, leadership, and judgement in the execution of his campaign. Hillary has not only been in Washington much longer (as she often emphasises), but she also began with an obvious advantage due to her greater name-recognition. Yet her campaign has been characterised by one blunder after another, which has facilitated her fall from the privileged “shoe-in” position she initially held.

One suspects that Obama’s comparative success is due (in part) to the fact that, unlike many presently in politics who grew up believing that positions of power were their birthright, he did not enter into the race with a feeling of entitlement. He understood that only hard work, careful planning, and perspicuous decision making would yield the desired results. Pace what the cynics may say, a black man does not achieve what Obama has already achieved (no, not in this country) if all he has is “talk”. Anyone daft enough to think this even a possibility is sadly nescient about what it means to be black in America. (Incidentally, I do not believe Senator Clinton really believes Obama is all talk but the idea is undeniably a politically useful one.) Can you imagine if Obama ran this country as well as he has run his campaign? We have no reason to think he wouldn’t, and it would certainly be a marked improvement over what we have seen over the last seven years.

Senator Clinton, on the other hand, is the one who supposedly has the wealth of political experience, and yet she was the one who had to loan money from her own pocket to keep her campaign afloat. How could this be anything but evidence of poor planning on her part? Given the advantage with which she began, had she demonstrated prudence and organisational skill equal to that of Obama, then he certainly would not be where he now is (a point Ferraro seems to have overlooked). Pace what the Senator Clinton camp may say, I submit that the mark of a great leader is not experience but effectiveness. Thus, a much more apt diagnosis of why Obama has been so successful is his superior management of his campaign vis-à-vis Senator Clinton’s.

So I ask once again, wherein lies this alleged analogy between Obama and Ferraro? What comparable feats did Ferraro accomplish by being selected as Mondale’s vice-presidential running mate? My contention is that the comparison is not an apt one and we need to ask why anyone would think it is. But again, another not-so-brief caveat:

Peter also points out that “even those who are denouncing Ferraro for racism admit that many blacks are voting for him [Obama] because he is black”. While true, I believe his observation overlooks important subtleties in the support Obama has received from the African American community. At the beginning of the presidential race the vast majority of blacks supported Clinton. Now, there are many reasons for this, a few of which are insidious. Among them (the insidious ones, that is) is the fact that the vast majority of blacks did not take Obama seriously as a candidate because they did not think he was electable. The prevailing sentiment among African Americans was that white people would never vote for a black candidate, and the unsuccessful bids of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton was often cited as evidence to this end. Blacks were not going to vote for Obama because they thought in so doing they would have been throwing their votes away. (I am not suggesting that this is true, but this is what most members of the African American community believed.)

What convinced blacks to beginning supporting Obama was that he demonstrated that he was electable. How? Well, by securing the support of whites. I submit to you, and this is a claim that few in the media seem to appreciate, that blacks only began rallying behind Obama in record numbers when he demonstrated that he could win white votes. Thus, to say that Obama’s success is due to the fact that he has overwhelming black support grossly oversimplifies matters. (Interestingly, the only other candidate that gained anywhere near the overwhelmingly high percentage of black votes that Obama has was Bill Clinton).

End of digression, and back to main point at hand. My point, then, is that there are several things Ferraro could have described as salient vis-à-vis the effectiveness of Obama’s campaign. Ferraro could have said that if Obama wasn’t as good an organiser as he is, he would never be where he is. But she did not say that. She could have said that if it wasn’t for the fact that Obama was able to win so many cross-over voters and independents, he would not be where he is. But she did not say that. She could have said that if he believed that the presidency was something he was entitled to rather than something he had to work for, he would never be where he is. But she did not say that. She could have said that if he had not consistently raised more money than every other candidate since January, he would not be where he is. But she did not say that. She could have even said that if it wasn’t for the fact that Obama, unlike many black candidates before him, demonstrated that he could win white votes (allowing blacks to feel they could support him without throwing away their votes) he would not be where he is today. But she did not say that. Any of the above factors strike me as far more salient vis-à-vis the success of Obama’s campaign. (Indeed, many blacks ran for office before Obama, but the pigmentation of their skin did not automatically secure for them the successes Obama has had in the democratic primary.) But Ferraro did not mention any of these things. What she took to be most salient, and what she knew that American public would regard as most salient once the idea was touted, was the fact that he was black. And the question I pose to you is, why?

Now, I am not so daft as not to notice that there is an obvious answer to my question. Of course, being a Senator Clinton supporter, she would not want to say something complimentary about Obama. But again, one must look deeper. She didn’t have to say anything at all about why he has done so well in the primaries. Certainly she is aware that with regards to one’s political opponents, the rule is if you don’t have anything bad to say, then don’t say anything at all. But she did have something to say. And like a true follower of the “political golden rule” she made it critical (and even hurtful). Contra your suggestion, I believe Ferraro’s comment was anything but a “positive racial message”. (Incidentally, most blacks I know are quite capable of distinguishing between being complimented and being patronised.)

Peter points out that Ferraro’s statement is probably true. But that’s all beside the point, and the fact that he fails to recognise this is what accounts for Peter’s rather benign interpretation of Ferraro’s comments. The question underlying the interpretation of Ferraro I have been advocating is this: why is the content of her statement perceived as salient? It is true that if Beethoven had never lived, he wouldn’t have been a great composer. But certainly, having lived is not a salient feature of Beethoven’s being a great composer. (Just consider the many others who have lived, and yet did not turn out to be great composers.) The point ought to generalise to the present case. But what racism does, at its most insidious level (the level that the American psyche—so preoccupied with the N-word, burning crosses and white hoods—never seems to appreciate), is that it warps peoples conception of what is salient, so that skin-colour trumps everything else. This, I submit, is the tendency that Ferraro has fallen victim to, and this is what makes her comments problematic, even lamentable.

In conclusion, even if one remains un-persuaded by my assessment of Ferraro’s remarks, I hope I have at least demonstrated that things are not as clear cut as Peter paints them, and that people whose interpretation of Ferraro differs from his are not suffering from some kind of mental deficiency or (worst) insanity.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

McDowell On Virtue

The meta-ethical approach limned in John McDowell’s essay, “Virtue and Reason”, combines the Socratic thesis that “virtue is knowledge” with the Aristotelian thesis that a virtuous agent is one who exhibits a “reliable sensitivity” to the requirements of virtue. McDowell describes this sensitivity as a perceptual capacity—the ability to see, for example, what kindness requires. Significantly, McDowell’s picture does not require that the virtuous agent have the conceptual sophistication to nominally identify the particular virtue (for example, “kindness”) the agent happens to be acting from in a given situation. All that is required is that the agent be able to identify the act that kindness requires as “the thing to do”, whenever acting kindly is what ought to be done. The exercise of this sensitivity amounts to a type of knowledge, according to McDowell, because it involves getting things right.

One preliminary objection McDowell considers to the virtue as knowledge thesis is the claim that a mere sensitivity is insufficient to capture virtue since one may apprehend what one ought to do without being motivated to do it. According to this objection, some added appetitive component is needed, so that virtue is best conceived as a composite of reason and desire. I will refer to this idea as the composite conception. McDowell diagnoses the plausibility of the composite conception as stemming from the putative possibility of a non-virtuous agent perceiving the very same thing as a virtuous agent in a given situation and yet not act as the virtuous agent acts.

McDowell’s response to the composite conception appears to give rise to a dilemma, rooted in (what I shall argue are) conflicting sets of claims. On the one hand, he seems to deny the possibility of a virtuous and non-virtuous agent enjoying matching perceptions vis-à-vis what ought to be done:
If we are to retain the identification of virtue with knowledge, then, by contraposition, we are committed to denying that a virtuous person’s perception of a situation can be precisely matched in someone who, in that situation, acts otherwise than virtuously. (p. 54*).
On the other hand, he rejects Socrates’ claim that the difference between the virtuous and non-virtuous agent is one of ignorance, since this has the unattractive upshot that the non-virtuous agent’s failure to act as the virtuous agent does is involuntary. However, it is not clear that both of these positions can be consistently maintained.

McDowell’s proposed solution is “to allow that someone who fails to act virtuously may, in a way, perceive what a virtuous person would…but to insist that his failure occurs only because his appreciation of what he perceives is clouded, or unfocused, by the impact of a desire to do otherwise.” (p. 54) This reply preserves the idea that virtue is nothing more than a sensitivity since, by McDowell’s lights, the non-virtuous agent’s failure to act is not due to the agent lacking something that the virtuous agent possesses. Thus, there is no need to posit something, like say a desire, to bridge the gap between the virtuous agent’s action and the non-virtuous agent’s inaction. In stead, the reverse seems true by McDowell’s lights. To wit, it is the non-virtuous agent who actually possesses something that the virtuous agent lacks—namely, a perception-clouding desire to do otherwise. However, McDowell points out that the fact that there is an appetitive element present in the case of the non-virtuous agent does not mean that there is an appetitive element present in the case of the virtuous agent as well.

McDowell’s reply to the composite conception seems to concede that the virtuous and non-virtuous agents have the same sensitivity after all, albeit the latter’s sensitivity is accompanied by something extra. Recall, McDowell means to deny that the inactivity of the non-virtuous agent is to be explained in terms of ignorance. As such, he appears to allow that the non-virtuous agent possesses the same knowledge (i.e., sensitivity) that the virtuous agent has. However, if virtue is knowledge, then this seems to entail that the non-virtuous agent also possesses virtue. Admittedly, the non-virtuous agent possesses more than just knowledge (i.e., the relevant sensitivity) since he also possesses a competing desire. But, if virtue just is knowledge, then possession of said knowledge should be a sufficient condition for the agent counting as virtuous. If so, then the fact that the non-virtuous agent also has a perception-clouding desire to do otherwise seems beside the point. (Consider: if possessing mammary glands is sufficient for being a mammal, then the fact one also has a tail in no way ameliorates one’s fulfilment of the sufficient condition.)

The above objection illustrates why the Socratic response to the composite conception—i.e., equating a lack of virtue with ignorance—is so attractive. If one posits a sufficient condition for virtue and one wants to deny that a particular agent is virtuous, then the thing to do would be to deny that the agent meets the sufficient condition, not to say that the agent meets it but has some additional property. Thus, to the extent that Socrates employs the first strategy and McDowell employs the second, the former is preferable to the latter. As already noted, McDowell rejects the Socratic strategy because it has the unattractive upshot that the non-virtuous agent’s failure to act as the virtuous agent does is involuntary. But he seems equally unable (or unwilling) to say that the non-virtuous agent has the relevant knowledge (i.e., sensitivity) since, given the equation of virtue and knowledge, this would imply that the non-virtuous agent is virtuous.

There is a tempting reply to the above dilemma which I believe should be resisted. It is almost impossible to read McDowell’s claim that the virtuous and non-virtuous agents fail to have matching perceptions without thinking of a thesis McDowell advocates elsewhere—namely, experiential disjunctivism. Roughly, experiential disjunctivism amounts to the thesis that perceptual experiences are essentially relational, so that a subject who undergoes a veridical perceptual experience and one who undergoes a phenomenologically indistinguishable illusory experience actually have different types of experiences. On this view, there is no “highest common factor” shared between verdical and illusory experiences which may be cited as an explanation for their phenomenological indistinguishability. Applying this idea to the case of virtue, McDowell may well argue that although the perceptual experience of the virtuous and non-virtuous agents may be in some sense indistinguishable, the fact that the latter’s experience is clouded by a competing desire entails that the non-virtuous agent is having a different type of experience. That McDowell may have had something along these lines in mind is suggested by his carefully placed qualification “in a way”, in his description of the shared perception of the virtuous and non-virtuous:
This is to allow that someone who fails to act virtuously may, in a way, perceive what a virtuous person would…but to insist that his failure occurs only because his appreciation of what he perceives is clouded, or unfocused, by the impact of a desire to do otherwise. (p. 54, Italics mine)
“In a way” is supposed to flag the fact that though similar, perhaps even indistinguishable in some sense, they are ultimately different perceptions and involve the use of different sensitivities. On this view, moral perceptions are to be individuated, in part, by the presence or absence of competing desires to do otherwise.

However, the disjunctive reading of moral perceptions seems powerless to free us from the aforementioned dilemma. First, even if we grant that the virtuous and non-virtuous undergo different types of perceptual experiences, it does not follow from this that they are exercising different types of sensitivities. Presumably, the same sensitivity can be exercised in different ways and can even give rise to different types of experiences. But since it is the exercise of a certain sensitivity, rather than the type of perceptual experience the sensitivity gives rise to, which is to be identified with virtue, then a disjunctive conception of perceptual experiences does little to ameliorate the present worry. Second, even if we allow that the sensitivities exercised by the virtuous and non-virtuous agents are in fact different, this only pushes us unto the second horn of the dilemma outlined earlier. If the virtuous agent has a different sensitivity to that of the non-virtuous agent, then (given that the sensitivity in question is to be equated with knowledge) the non-virtuous agent lacks the relevant piece of knowledge. But that is just to say that the non-virtuous agent suffers from a type of ignorance. Hence, if this is the correct diagnosis of the non-virtuous agent by McDowell’s lights, then McDowell’s position is no better than the Socratic solution.

In sum, McDowell seems confronted with the following dilemma. If he denies that a virtuous agent may have the same knowledge (i.e., moral sensitivity) that the virtuous agent has, then it seems to imply that the non-virtuous agent had no choice but to act non-virtuously. If, on the other hand, he affirms that the non-virtuous agent may have the same knowledge (i.e., moral sensitivity) that the virtuous person has in a particular situation, then given the equation of virtue with knowledge, McDowell’s position would imply that the non-virtuous agent is virtuous.

*All page numbers taken from the Mind, Value and Reality anthology.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Grice on Meaning

Grice’s paper, “Meaning”, represents a significant shift from approaches to the meaning of utterances that look to the meaning of the words used to one which looks, instead, to the content of the mental or psychological states of speakers. Grice begins by drawing a distinction between two senses of ‘mean’ as it occurs in sentences of the form:
(*) x means that p.
Where x ranges over objects which have meaning and p over declarative sentences. Grice illustrates the two senses of ‘mean’, which he calls “natural” (N) and non-natural (NN), with the following two examples:
(N): Those spots mean measles

(NN): Those three rings on the bell (of the bus) mean that the bus is full.
Grice maintains that sentences like (N) are factive, while sentences like (NN) are not. For example, Grice notes that it would be contradictory to say:
(N*): Those spots mean measles, but he hasn’t got measles
This is because in the case of natural meaning, sentences which have the form ‘x means that p’ entail ‘p’. It should be noted that strictly speaking the schema ‘x means that p’ entails ‘p’ does not apply to (N*) since the left conjunct does not contain an appropriate substitution instance for ‘that p’. Thus, (N*) should be rewritten as follows:
(N**): Those spots mean that he has measles, but he doesn’t have measles
The same holds true for (N). This minor incongruity in his example aside, I take Grice’s general point regarding the factivity of natural meaning to be well placed.

By contrast, the non-natural sense of ‘mean’ is non-factive, so that the schema ‘x means that p’ does not entail ‘p’. This is easily seen when one considers that from the fact that the conductor rings the bell three times it does not follow that the bus is full. At best, it only follows that the conductor thinks that the bus is full. Generalising from the examples given above, the difference between natural meaning (henceforth ‘meaningN’) and non-natural meaning (henceforth ‘meaningNN’) is this: it is not consistent with something’s having a meaningN that what it meansN is false; but it is consistent with something’s having a meaningNN that what it meansNN is false. (Grice discusses additional differences between the two cases, but I take this to be the main one).

Grice distinguishes between natural and non-natural meaning in order to avoid confusion. However, it is the latter that he is primarily concerned with since examples of meaning that involve language (Grice’s main focus) are typically cases of meaningNN. Grice attempts to show that ultimate source of an utterance’s meaningNN is the mental content of the speaker. He attempts to do this in two steps:
(Step 1) Occasion meaning: give a definition of single utterances couched entirely in terms of the speakers’ intention to produce certain effects in their audience.

(Step 2) Timeless meaning: give a definition of expression meaning couched entirely in terms of the definition of idiolect meaning given in (Step 1).
If Grice’s overall project is successful, then we could eliminate the semantic notion of timeless expression meaningNN in favour of the psychological notion, thereby showing that it is the mental states of speakers, rather than the meaningNN of expressions, that are the ultimate source of an utterance’s meaningNN. After consider two alternative definitions, which he rejects as insufficient, Grice settles on the following definition of idiolect meaningNN:
(IM): A specific utterance φ meansNN that p, if and only if, in performing it, the utterer intends:
(a) that an audience will come to believe that p, and
(b) that this audience will recognise intention (a), and
(c) that the recognition in (b) will cause belief in (a)
The timeless meaningNN of an expression, in turn, is defined as follows:
(TM): An expression θ meansNN that p within a certain linguistic community if and only if most utterances of θ by members of that community meanNN that p.
One difficulty with the above definitions, (IM) and (TM), is that they say nothing about word meaningNN. Even if we grant that Grice is right to claim that a sentence means what it does because of regularity in the meaning of utterances using it, it is not clear that the meaning of words can also be defined in terms of such regularities. After all, we often do use words in novel combinations, and the meaning of each individual word may change slightly given where it appears in the sentence and the other words around it. Moreover, it is not clear how, give Grice’s claim that the meaning of a sentence has to do with how it is regularly used, it is not clear how I can utter a completely novel sentence, “She was erratic like a lunatic chimpanzee on a merry-go-round!”, and it still be meaningful. Of course, if we did have a theory of word meaning, we would simply need to show how the meaning of the novel sentence arises from the meaning of each of the words. However, the above objection may not be as serious as it first appears. While not explicitly a theory of word-meaning, word-meaning can be seamlessly integrated into Grice’s account of timeless meanings. On this picture, word-meaning is simply a function of how words, as opposed to sentences, are commonly used by a particular linguistic community.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Columbia Maurice Merleau-Ponty Conference

The Philosophy Department of Columbia University and Barnard College Announce a Conference to Celebrate the Centenary of the Birth of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Dates: March 6-7, 2008
Location: Sulzberger Parlor, Barnard Hall (Broadway and 117th Street)

Thursday March 6
4:00 pm HUBERT DREYFUS (UC Berkeley)
"Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty on the Prepredicative Character of What Is First of All Given"

6:00 pm SEAN KELLY (Harvard)
"The Normative Nature of Preceptual Experience"

Friday March 7
10:00 am KOMARINE ROMDENH-ROMLUC (Nottingham)
"The Tacit Cogito"


2:00 pm ESPEN HAMMER (Oslo/ Penn)
"Merleau-Ponty and Literature"

4:00 pm PHILIP WATTS (Columbia)
"Merleau-Ponty in and out of Film Theory"

Saturday, 1 March 2008

On the Logic of Knowing

In epistemic logic it has become common to construe formulas of the form Kiφ, read “agent i knows φ”, in modal terms. Most notably, Hintikka has suggested the following definition of knowledge:
(*) M, s ╞ Kiφ iff for all t ~ i s : M, t ╞ φ
According to the above formula, an agent i knows that φ in some situation s, on some model M if and only if, for all other situations t, that i considers indistinguishable from s, t entails φ on M. On this approach an agent i is said to know a fact φ if φ is true at all the worlds she considers possible (given her current information).

However, intuitively, there seems to be certain sceptical scenarios which, though remote, we still feel inclined to hold as possible (given our current information). Nevertheless, we seem to feel that these possibilities do not preclude our knowledge of propositions that are incompatible with the sceptical scenarios envisioned. For example, I take myself to know that my laptop is currently sitting on the desk in my apartment (I am currently in the Butler Library computer lab) although I consider it possible that someone broke into my apartment and stole it twenty minutes ago. Since I am in no way inclined to believe that this possibility changes the fact that I know that my laptop is on the desk in my apartment, these two claims must, by my lights, be compatible. But if (*) is correct, then it seems as if I do not count as knowing that my laptop is on the desk in my apartment.

One response to the above objection would be to distinguish between logical possibility and serious possibility. The defender of (*) may grant that I consider it logically possible that my laptop has been stolen but then point out that I do not consider this a serious possibility. The key to distinguishing between the two draws on intuitions from Action Theory.(I take Action Theory to minimally entail the claim that knowledge cannot be analysed independently of epistemic actions. For our present purposes it won't be necessary to appeal to anything beyond this minimal claim.) Roughly, a serious possibility is one which is sufficient for generating a change in an agent’s behaviour. If I considered the possibility that my laptop has been stolen a serious one, the thought goes, then I would not be sitting calmly in the computer lab typing up a philosophy blog post. Rather, I would probably be running home to double check that my computer is still there.

We may construe the notion of serious possibility along probabilistic lines by specifying a threshold for a logical possibility to become a serious possibility. For example, I may regard some possibility as serious only when it has a logical possibility above 0.3. The present suggestion allows us to reconcile (*) with intuition described above. If we construe logical possibility along probabilistic lines, then my earlier admission that the possibility that my laptop was stolen twenty minutes ago is greater than zero merely registers that this is a logical possibility. However, since I hold this possibility as being less than 0.3, it still does not amount to a serious possibility for me. That is, it is not the type of possibility that would prompt any changes in my behaviour. Since the type of possibility implicated in (*) is actually serious possibility, the defender of (*) may, without contradiction, say that I do not consider it possible (i.e., seriously possible) that my laptop was stolen twenty minutes ago.

One problem with framing serious possibility in terms of the Action Theoretic terms adumbrated above is that it makes an agent’s behaviour the litmus test for what she does or does not know. This seems problematic since agents often do not act in ways that reflect their knowledge. For example, suppose I suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder and I find myself plagued by thoughts of having forgotten my gas stove on. I may be aware of my neurosis, and therefore dismiss my fears as idle paranoia, and yet decide to return home to check on the stove. I believe that any general account of knowledge should allow that, despite my neurosis, I do know that my gas is turned off. Admittedly, such actions on my part would count as irrational. However, it does not seem as though the irrationality of my behaviour should undermine my knowledge. This suggests that a plausible behavioural litmus test must be framed only in terms of rationally consistent behaviour. But if we already have some criterion for which actions count as rational, then it is this criterion, and not the agent’s behaviour per se, that determines what constitutes a serious possibility. In my next post on this topic I will suggest an alternative framework for differentiating between logical and serious possibility that is free of the foregoing problematic behaviourist assumptions.