Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Reply to Holmen on Hornsby

I wish to respond to Heine Holmen’s very insightful analysis of Jennifer Hornsby’s paper, “Knowledge, Belief and Reasons for Acting”. Since Holmen already does a fine job adumbrating Hornsby’s position (see here), I will skip the summary and jump right into the analysis.

Let me begin by laying my philosophical cards on the table. I am very sympathetic with Hornsby’s claim that knowledge is a reason for acting. However, I believe Hornsby’s account suffers because of her failure to distinguish between (what may be referred to as) explanatory and justificatory reasons. Explanatory reasons (or what I sometimes prefer to call “motive-giving explanations”) have to do with our attempt to make sense of or explain the purposive activity of intentional agents (rational and non-rational alike). By contrast, justificatory reasons have to do with our attempt to ascertain whether or not the actions of an intentional agent are rationally recommended (and is therefore only applicable to agents with rational capacities). Both explanatory and justificatory reasons are normative (since they both allow for the possibility of error); but while the former answers to a why question (vis-a-vis the actions of any intentional agent) the latter answers to a should question (vis-a-vis the actions of a rational agent).

Note: I define a rational agent as an intentional agent with linguistic abilities.

According to Hornsby, “acting for reasons does not come into play unless the agent has knowledge” (I am here quoting Holmen’s summary of Hornsby’s position). Here, Hornsby clearly has justificatory reasons in mind, for we often are able to make perfect sense of the actions of agents who act from mere belief (including false ones) rather than knowledge. For example, suppose I’m playing catch with my dog in the park. I pretend to throw the ball, and the dog runs over to the place where the ball would have landed (had I thrown it) and proceeds to investigate the location(sniffing around without success). I can explain or make sense of the dog’s behaviour by observing that the dog believes that I threw the ball. The fact that I did not throw the ball (and that the dog’s belief is therefore false) does nothing to undermine my ability to explain the dog’s actions. Thus, as far as explanatory reasons are concerned, I am perfectly capable of making sense of the dog’s actions by simply referring to the dog’s beliefs. No recourse to talk of knowledge is required (in fact, since we are talking about a non-linguistic animal, some would argue that talk of knowledge is not even appropriate). Finally, it is worth emphasising that since there are correctness conditions attaching to the dog’s behaviour (i.e., the dog get’s things wrong when it believes I threw the ball), such explanations remain normative in nature. (I am here assuming that the possibility of getting things wrong is necessary and sufficient for normativity.) Thus, we arrive at my earlier claims that explanatory reasons do not require knowledge, are normative, and can be applied to non-linguistic animals.

If I am right, then Hornsby’s requirement that acting for reasons implicates knowledge is limited to justificatory reasons. Consequently, she errs by assuming that what may be a perfectly good point (i.e., that having a justificatory reason for acting requires knowledge) applies to explanatory reasons as well. Holmen observes Hornsby’s indebtedness to Williamson on precisely this score:
Hornsby seems to start out by picking up a clue from Williamson’s suggestion (2000, p. 62) that knowledge sometimes must figure in the best explanation for why some agent F-d. According to him, attributions of knowledge may be a better predictor for determining someone’s actions by lending more probability to a certain way of conduct. The intuitive example is the rational burglar who risks a lot by searching the whole building for a valuable diamond.
Holmen goes on to summarise what he takes to be the upshot of Williamson’s burglar example:
The only way to understand why a burglar would take such a risk is, according to Williamson, by attributing her with the knowledge that the diamond is in the building. Otherwise it would be hard to explain why she apparently disregards evidence to the contrary—i.e. as the time goes and her search is not successful—on pain of diminishing her rationality (like declaring her to be just plain stubborn, insensitive to evidence etc.).
I am sceptical about the above argument. It seems to me that what is really doing the work in the burglar example is the certainty or conviction with which the relevant beliefs are held, rather than the fact that the beliefs are true (or, a fortiori, that the agent has knowledge). First, consider the burglar’s psycho-physical doppelganger who is just as convinced that there is a diamond in the building (based on the same body of evidence), but does not have knowledge because (unknown to him) a ridiculously improbably quantum occurrence has transformed the diamond into a block of coal. We would not expect the behaviour of the doppelganger to diverge from that of his twin just because his justified belief turns out (quite improbably) to be false. In short, if we stipulate that the level of certainty is identical in both cases, this is sufficient to explain or make sense of why each respective burglar persists in his search for the diamond. It seems to me that the fact that in one case the justified belief happens to be false (thus baring the agent of knowledge) in no way reduces our ability to make sense of or explain the agent’s behaviour.

It may be objected that while we can still make sense of or explain the doppelganger’s actions in light of his firm conviction, we would also be inclined to regard him as rationally irresponsible for having such a firm conviction, given that he lacks knowledge. But even if we grant that this is so (and I have my misgivings) the question is no longer one of making sense or explaining why the burglar did what he did. Instead, it has become one of his rational standing. In other words, this is to switch our focus from one of motivation (why did he do what he did) to one of justification (is he justified in doing what he did). Since belief-desire explanations (as I understand them) are only concerned with the former, the burglar argument is simply changing the subject of debate. A similar point can be made with regards to Hornsby’s knowledge requirement. Hornsby endorses the following claim:
(E) Where ‘x Φ-d because p’ gives a reason-explanation: x Φ-d because p iff x Φ-d because x knew that p.
On the view I have been urging, (E) is true so long as we understand a “reason-explanation” as a justificatory rather than explanatory explanation. Since the latter (but not the former) is a necessary condition for intentional explanation, the truth of (E) is irrelevant to the type of intentional explanation that the belief-desire theorist is concerned with. Holmen, however, advances a slightly different criticism of (E)—namely, that it entails a version of the KK principle:
I think I see a problem with (E): it seems to be a version of the KK principle and thus leads one to the absurd consequence that follows when one applies an S4 model for the accessibility relation that operates on the epistemic operator.
However, it is not clear that (E) entails any such control principle. For example, consider a rudimentary reliabilist account of knowledge; one according to which the naive chicken-sexer counts as knowing the sex of the chicks she reliably sorts. Let us suppose further that the naive chicken-sexer, being naive, does not know that she knows the sex of the chicks. In short, her knowledge is strictly of the first order. According to (E), if the naive chicken-sexer sorts some male chick M as male because she knows that M is male, then she sorts M as male for a reason. This remains true even though she does not know that she knows the sex of the chick. Thus, (E) does not entail the KK principle.

In summary, while I share both Holmen’s sympathy for and critical attitude towards Hornsby’s knowledge requirement for reasonable action, I do so for very different reasons. I believe Hornsby’s analysis goes wrong due to a conflation of explanatory and justificatory reasons. While Hornsby’s claims may be be true of justificatory reasons, they are not true of the type of explanatory reasons that constitute the bread and butter of the belief-desire theorist. Moreover, I have argued that Holmen’s primary objection to Hornsby’s theory—i.e., that it commits her to an implausible KK principle—misses its mark.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Dilworth's Propositional Indexing

In his paper, “Semantics naturalised: Propositional indexing plus interactive perception”, John Dilworth advocates a propositional indexing view according to which cognitive states (understood as concrete causal occurrences) enjoy an isomorphic correspondence with propositions (understood as abstract truth-value bearing items). Maintaining such an isomorphism requires that we have some method for indexing a given proposition (such as the proposition “X is red”, with respect to some worldly object X) with a corresponding perceptual or cognitive state (such as an agent Z perceiving that X is red).

This method, whatever it may be, may be identified with the specific epistemic conditions under which we would accept that the isomorphism in question holds. Moreover, Dilworth maintains that the epistemic conditions must be ones that can be met by individuals without any technical or specialised scientific knowledge. After all, it is part of our folk psychological practice to describe the contents of perceptual and cognitive states in propositional terms. This imposes the constraint that the method for indexing propositions to cognitive states must be one which is available to everyone, including those lacking any specialised philosophical or technical expertise. Dilworth puts the point as follows:
Our understanding of propositional indexing is not intended to be restricted to specialised cognitive science procedure requiring technical expertise and detailed knowledge of such matters as the cognitive structures involved in perceptual functioning. Instead, the idea is that the everyday understanding by people in general, of when a particular proposition, such as “X is red” is true of a particular object X is to be correlated with a related understanding by such people of what kinds of behavioural evidence would justify a claim that the person had indeed correctly perceived the relevant fact. So the predominant epistemic issue is not the theoretical nature of propositional indexing as such, but rather the everyday conditions under which people in general would agree that it had successfully occurred.
Dilworth recommends that propositional indexing be unpacked in terms of classification behaviour:
For example, a paradigm kind of colour-related classification behaviour would be that of a person assigned a task of sorting some miscellaneous objects by their colour, and then putting object X into a box containing only red objects. This classification behaviour would provide evidence that the person P had perceived that object X was red. Consequently, if the person Q observing person P is considering the proposition that X is red, then Q would take person P’s classification as evidence that P had perceived that X is red, and hence that P’s relevant perceptual state S, whatever it may be, is indexed by the proposition ‘X is red’.
Significantly, Dilworth describes propositional indexing in third- rather than first-personal terms. This suggests a view according to which an agent’s cognitive state may be described as propositional just in case it is, in principle, possible for that cognitive state to be correlated with a proposition. However, the act of identifying the correlation need not be performed by the agent that is actually undergoing the cognitive state in order for the cognitive state to count as propositional. One upshot of this view is that the cognitive states of non-linguistic animals, which lack the ability to actually engage in propositional indexing, may nevertheless count as having propositional attitudes.

Dilworth’s observations about colour-related classification behaviour generalises to less overt types of classification behaviour. For example, a dog may be said to perceive a bone is edible just in case it is disposed to ingest the bone. Ingesting the bone, then, amounts to a type of classification behaviour (akin to the act of sorting bones into the set of edible items). Since the heuristic of classification behaviour is understood in dispositional terms, it is not necessary that the ingesting of the bone actually take place for the dog to count as perceiving that the bone is edible. Moreover, since a dog may engage in such classification behaviour without us having to attribute to the dog the concepts of “bone” or “edible”, the present account does not require concept possession as a prerequisite for having an agent’s perceptual state indexed by a proposition.

There is much that I find attractive in Dilworth’s framework. Specifically, I believe it provides the resources for an account of propositional attitudes that allows for such attitudes to be attributed to non-linguistic animals. (Admittedly, Dilworth may be reluctant to speak of propositional attitudes in this way, but that would only be because of his refusal to attribute semantic content to cognitive states in general and not because of any prejudice against such attributions in the case of non-linguistic animals. In short, both Dilworth and I agree in the even-handedness of our treatment of the cognitive states of linguistic and non-linguistic animals.) However, I want to conclude this post by highlighting a minor problem in Dilworth’s account of perceptual states.

Dilworth is committed to what he refers to as an "interactive theory of perception", the considered version of which he puts as follows:
IP2: An organism Z perceives an item X to have the property of being F just in case X causes some sense-organ zi of Z to cause Z to acquire an X-related disposition D, such that D is an F-classification disposition.
Dilworth defines an F-classification dispositions as “a disposition, the manifestation of which is some F-classification behaviour. For example, on this account, to perceive that an object X is red is to acquire a disposition to classify object X in some red-related way.”

However, it is not clear that IP2 can accommodate cases in which an agent perceives things to be a certain way and yet fails to believe that things are that way. For example, suppose that I am led to believe (erroneously) that a room is equipped with special lighting that makes all the white objects in the room appear red. (However, there is no special lighting and all objects in the room are actually the colour they appear to be.) Due to my misinformation, I am disposed to sort all objects that appear red into the white box. According to IP2, it follows from my having this disposition that I do not perceive that the objects are red. But this gets things wrong. The thing to say is that I perceive the object as red, but I believe it is white. Consequently, IP2 is unable to accommodate cases in which the two—perceiving X is F and believing X is F—come apart.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Toronto Graduate Student Conference

Action, Agency and Explanation
May 8-9, 2009
Keynote: John McDowell, University of Pittsburgh

Friday, May 8, 2009

“A Plea for Practices”,
Octavian A. Busuioc
Commentary by Alexander Shoumarov
“Naturalism and Moral Skepticism”,
Brian Ballard
(UC, Santa Cruz)
Commentary by Kyle Menken
“A Dilemma for Setiya’s Virtue Theory of Reasons”,
Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin
(UC, Riverside)
Commentary by Mark Schranz
“Agency, Self-Knowledge and Functionalism”,
Ariel Zylberman (Toronto)
Commentary by G. Anthony Bruno
Keynote: “What is the Content of an Intention in Action?”,
John McDowell
Reception at the Faculty Club
Saturday, May 9, 2009

“Thomson’s Turn, Dual Process Theories of Moral Judgment and the Epistemic Status of Ethical Intuitions”,
Mark S. Makin
Commentary by Steven Zylstra
“Dewey on Thinking and Acting”,
Christopher Collins (Virginia)
Commentary by Diana Heney
“The Epistemology of Embodied Action”,
Andreas Elpidorou
Commentary by Kenneth Boyd
“Desires as Sub-Agential Evaluations of the Good”,
Avery Archer
Commentary by Chris Langston
Conference Dinner

See conference website here.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Wittgenstein on the Essence of Grammar (Adam See)

In the early notes and lectures entitled The Blue Book that would eventually make up the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein claims that human beings have an inherent “craving for generality” [Blue Book, 20]– that there is something natural in the disposition of mature human beings to seek the essence of things. In the Investigations Wittgenstein continues this line of thought claiming that modern man is “dazzled by the ideal” and – as we recall from Katie’s presentation last week – “seduced” into thinking that an analyzed form of language is essential to our understanding of its ultimate machinations. This word “essence” occurs frequently in sections 65-137 and many commentators (Stanley Cavell, David Bloor, and G.E.M. Anscombe among them) have written that how Wittgenstein deals with this issue constitutes the drive of his later philosophy.

In this blog post, I will be offering a reading of the Investigations to the effect that Wittgenstein’s response to those seeking an “essence” to language leads to what has been called his “linguistic idealism.” From this idea, I believe that the concept of “family resemblance” may be unpacked and clearly differentiated from that of “universals”. I hope that what I have to say about these things will stimulate discussion on some tricky issues in Wittgenstein’s thought.

Section 65 of the Investigations marks an inward turn in the trajectory of the text. Wittgenstein’s interlocutor accuses him of talking about various “sorts” of language games, but never saying “what is common to all these activities” – or, what is the “essence” of language games. Throughout the proceeding sections Wittgenstein responds to various demands for an “ideal” of, and “form” of, language. Further in the text – section 371 – Wittgenstein finally claims that “essence is expressed by grammar.” I would like to rephrase this statement into a question, and ask, “How does grammar express essence?” –or, rather, how does grammar essence? I am here taking Heidegger’s claim that “language essences” – that “essence” should be seen as a verb when speaking of language. I think this is what Wittgenstein is implying when he writes essence is expressed by grammar, namely that language does not latch on to independent “essences” in the world – meaning universals – but rather that language is “self-referential”, entailing that linguistic practices are utilized and authorized by linguistic practices.

In a famous essay entitled “The Question of Linguistic Idealism” Anscombe argues that in Wittgenstein’s philosophy ‘language does not reflect an independent reality, but rather creates what it refers to;’ that when we think we are referring to something in the world (whether an object or an act) we are in fact referring to semantic concepts generated through linguistic practices. There is no truth or meaning inherent in the world; we construct it ourselves and then refer to it as objective reality – this is what Anscombe means by the self-referential character of language. She claims that there is an “active, creative element in concept formation.” I interpret this “creative” element – in line with Heidegger’s thought – as possessing an active quality only in the subconscious – that for all intents and purposes it appears to us as a passive quality. Heidegger claimed that the way an individual or group of individuals determine the essence of a particular object is by selecting from a series of infinite properties a subset that matters to us or concerns us most in relation to how we are disposed towards the world. That way certain properties are salient while others seem trivial. Something thus essences when it moves us or concerns us. Take for example a brick of gold, which may be mere building material to a people living in an environment that abounds with it, or of the utmost value to those for whom it is a rarity. Wittgenstein’s chess piece example works as well – it is a block of wood for a child, perhaps for building, and a piece in a game for others.

Hans Gadamer, taking from Heidegger, expressed this idea as follows: “In truth, the illusion that things precede their manifestation in language conceals the fundamentally linguistic character of our experience of the world.” (Nietzsche expresses a similar view in On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense where he claims that reality as we know it is merely a plethora of arbitrary metaphors generated by arbitrary concepts). Wittgenstein uses the word “illusion” – Täuschungen – himself in a similar context in section 110 where he mocks the philosopher’s statement, “Language (or thought) is something unique” to which he claims that “this proves to be a superstition (not a mistake!), itself produced by grammatical illusions.” The grammatical “illusions” here are explained in the next section as stemming from philosophical problems that are misinterpreted as having depth – meaning that they speak of the form or essence of language – this being an illusion and a “grammatical joke.” The claim that language is something unique is not a “mistake” because it is true, however it is a superstition and an illusion to think that this claim expresses its essence.

Section 119 expresses this point more clearly: “The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense and bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language. These bumps make us see the value of the discovery.” The point as I see it is this: we cannot rupture the everyday semantics of language to find some underlying structure – this is a superstition –, but if we try (as Wittgenstein did in the Tractatus) we realize that language is in fact self-referential. The “limitations” of language do not designate some impenetrable bulwark to logical structure (like in a pseudo-Kantian idealism), but rather demonstrate a necessary circularity inherent in self-referential linguistic practice. David Bloor claims that for Wittgenstein our semantics are circular in the sense that “essences can be created in the course of being expressed,” and if this is the case, “what is it that is being expressed, if it is the expression which does the creating?”[Cambridge Companion to Wittgenstein, 356] This may sound convoluted; the point is simply this: there is no foundation for “essence” to latch on to since essence is both expressed and created at the same time; essence is created via self-referential activity. The reality expressed by the activity of essencing consists in precisely the practices of invoking that reality. Language is performative for Wittgenstein, and this means that language does not find essence in world, but instead in the performance of itself.

Bloor claims that this isn’t a vicious circularity, but rather just an enclosed system.[Ibid.] I think that part of the reason we find this initially confusing is ironically because we possess what Wittgenstein describes as that seduction of foundationalism that I mentioned at the outset. In section 107 Wittgenstein takes on a semi-Nietzschean tone in writing, “We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to rough ground!” This force that the philosopher feels, that demands a foundation to build up from is what Wilfred Sellars would later call the “myth of the given” and what J. L. Austin called “the pursuit of the incorrigible” – both claiming that there are no such things as non-inferential beliefs.

By this Wittgenstein and his followers do not mean that particulars in language find their meaning by linguistic “universals” though. In section 101 Wittgenstein speaks of the idea that “absorbs” us – that there “must” be something in common between certain concepts that allows us to speak of them as such – games, rules, conventions, or even colors and shapes. Section 100 tells us not to be “dazzled by the ideal,” and section 97 directs us away from the “illusion of the profound;” this leads to Wittgenstein’s idea of “family resemblances,” which I believe can be understood in just this self-referential framework. I think that the notion of family resemblance is absolutely crucial to Wittgenstein’s later philosophy.

In The Claim of Reason, Stanley Cavell writes that, “all the idea of family resemblances is meant to do, or need do, is to make us dissatisfied with the idea of universals as explanations of language, of how a word can refer to this and that and that other thing, to suggest that it fails to meet ‘our real need’. Once we see that the [very] expression ‘what is common’ has ordinary uses, and that these are different from what universals are meant to cover; and, more importantly, see that concepts do not usually have, and do not need ‘rigid limits’.”[Claim of Reason, 187] I think that Cavell is absolutely correct that the notion of spotting a family resemblance and then expressing the commonality of two things is not “an alternative to the idea of ‘essence’,” nor does it directly counter the idea of universals, but rather demonstrates “…that I know no more about the application of a word or concept than the explanations I can give, so that no universal or definition would, as it were, represent my knowledge – once we see all this, the idea of a universal no longer has its obvious appeal, it no longer carries a sense of explaining something profound.”[Ibid, 188] So making salient a family resemblance is a move in a language game; there are no more “profound illusions” to be sought because all such concepts are relative, contextual, many-faceted and historically evolving, and therefore unable to be universalized or declared as an essence.

Since language itself essences, the essence of language is not “hidden from us” as Wittgenstein’s interlocutor declares in section 92, but is instead always in plain sight! We are, remember, not speaking of essence as a noun, but as a performative verb. The “essence” of a “game” then is (1) its self-referring character, and (2) its performative aspect as a “form of life.” What makes a game a game is that it is played or performed in reference to itself – to the parameters and rules that are agreed on by all. Family resemblances are totally unlike universals in that they draw their own boundaries. For example, the essence of gift-giving – as Wittgenstein describes in section 268 – is not achieved by passing an object from one hand to the other, but what makes all occurrences of gift-giving similar is that gifts are given ­as gifts – that there is a moral component in the “spirit” (as we recall from section 36) of the performance.

So if Wittgenstein’s thought is fueled by the self-referential circularity of linguistic idealism – which I believe to be the case – then it can be ultimately described as follows: Wittgenstein does not deny that there is an independent or material reality that we can interact with; the claim is that this reality has no semantic content outside of language – that we understand it as reality only as it is acted out through linguistic practice. The essence of this reality is simply that which we give it in our everyday thoughts and activities. To not see this initially does not surprise Wittgenstein, for as he writes in section 103: “[The idea of the ideal] is like a pair of glasses on our nose through which we see whatever we look at, [yet] it never occurs to us to take them off.”