Wednesday 30 April 2008

The Perceptual Model as Ideal in McDowell's Account of Virtuous Agency

Avery has written a number of interesting posts about McDowell’s conception of virtuous agency. Here, I would like to offer a reason why McDowell thinks that the virtuous agent has a correct perception of what has to be done, when a particular situation calls for a particular ethically salient action.

Let’s begin by making a distinction between two ways of understanding the aetiology of a particular morally correct action: (1) the Perceptual Model, and (2) the Ratiocinative Model. (I’m trying to follow Avery’s terminology here.) On the Perceptual Model of morally correct action, a virtuous agent is moved to act by his or her perception of what that particular situation demands. Here, the virtuous agent does not think about what he or she ought to do before or while performing the relevant action. The sense in which the virtuous agent does not “think about” what ought to be done can be given an intuitive gloss: the agent is moved to act by an inculcated habit, which is very much like a reflex. In contrast, on the Ratiocinative Model of morally correct action, a virtuous agent is moved to act by his or her entertaining a thought to the effect that “That such-and-such is to be done, here and now”. On this model, the virtuous agent must first entertain such a thought and then act accordingly.

Now, McDowell elevates the status of the Perceptual Model to that of an ideal. Why does he set aside the Ratiocinative Model as being unworthy of the ideal status? Why might he think that Ratiocination ought not to be attributed to the ideal virtuous agent’s motivational psychology? I believe that McDowell elevates this model of virtuous agency to the status of ideal because he wants us to think of the ideal virtuous agent as having a special kind of non-inferential knowledge of a particular ethically salient matter of fact. The notion of non-inferential knowledge allows no room for the kind of error in reasoning in which one’s thinking begins with a correct apprehension of some segment of reality, and ends with a non-apprehension of any segment of reality. Non-inferential knowledge is both immediately ascertained and constitutes an accurate apprehension of some segment of reality. Coupled with McDowell’s account of the fundamentally relational and exhaustively conceptual nature of perceptual experience, non-inferential knowledge of a particular ethically salient matter of fact is perfect, indefeasible knowledge of what must be done, here and now, in the perceptible world. In effect, I believe that McDowell’s notion of the ideal virtuous agent is the idea of an Omniscient Agent.

But this does not yet constitute an answer to the question: Why is ratiocination ruled out? The answer, I think, is this: McDowell is assuming that we non-ideal (non-omniscient) agents use ratiocination as a means of discovering particular matters of fact about the empirical world, and that this means of gaining knowledge is simply not required by the ideal (omniscient) virtuous agent. The ideal (omniscient) virtuous agent registers each and every ethically salient fact, in each and every particular occasion, by perception alone.

I think this is a very provocative and plausible way of understanding the notion of an ideal virtuous agent, but I'm curious to know (1) whether anyone thinks that I've correctly described McDowell's position here, and if so, (2) whether anyone finds the position thus described plausible?

Saturday 19 April 2008

Learning to Work

Here is a link to a remarkable piece, written by Virginia Valian, about being a productive postgraduate student. Although the author describes an extreme example (namely, herself), I believe it presents insights and strategies that are useful for all postgrads, especially those in the all-but-the-dissertation stage.

Thursday 17 April 2008

McDowell's Theory of Virtue and the Multivocality Objection

One objection to McDowell’s account of virtue is that it seems to give rise to a multivocal account moral aspirations. This multivocality is viewed as problematic since it makes it unclear what the appropriate target of our moral aspirations should be.

Intuitively, one should strive to be like the ideal agent. This seems to be, in part, constitutive of what it means to be the ideal. If this is right, then it would seem that the thing to do would be to emulate the ideal (i.e., virtuous) agent. For McDowell, this means not only acting as the virtuous agent acts, but also employing the same methodology for arriving at one’s moral judgements—namely, moral perception. However, since I know that I am not the ideal, and that I am therefore unable to arrive at what I ought to do via moral perception, I should really aspire towards ratiocination (i.e., all-things-considered judgements). Admittedly, this would represent a step down from the ideal, but given my less-than-ideal status, it seems to be the best I could aspire towards.

The worry that this objection points to is that once we recognise that we are less-than-ideal agents, the ideal can on longer serve as the target of our moral aspirations. In stead of asking, what would Jesus do (i.e., the ideal agent), we seem obliged to ask what would the impetuous-but-well-meaning-apostle Peter do (i.e., the continent agent). Or, to put the matter in more McDowellian and less New-Testament-theological terms, the appropriate question for agents who recognise that they fall short of the ideal moral agent is not “what would the virtuous agent do?” but “what would the continent agent do?” This seems to follow from the fact that on McDowell’s picture the difference between the cognitive methodologies of the virtuous and non-virtuous agents (i.e., perception and ratiocination respectively) is one of kind rather than merely degree. This difference in the respective methodologies of the virtuous and non-virtuous agent opens up the lacuna that allows the multivocality worry to take hold.

This worry may further motivate the desire to have ratiocination figure as a perfectly legitimate part of the virtuous agent’s cognitive moral apparatus. If both the virtuous and continent agent, alike, are pictured as relying on ratiocination, the path appears cleared for the continent agent to become (or at least make some progress towards becoming) the virtuous agent. But so long as their methodologies remain distinct, then our awareness of our own imperfection seems to normatively confine us to emulate (i.e., employ the methodology of) the non-virtuous agent.

I believe the multivocality objection (at least in its present form) errs by construing McDowell’s account of the methodology of the continent agent (i.e., ratiocination) as prescriptive when, by McDowell’s lights, it is purely descriptive. To wit, one is never supposed to aspire towards ratiocination. Rather, moral ratiocination is simply the default position of an agent who suffers from clouded perception. Recall, the virtuous subject’s moral perception constitutes an overriding reason that silences all other reasons. By contrast, the moral perception of the non-virtuous agent is not able to silence all other reasons, which leave several competing reasons in play at once. This leads to a weighing of moral reasons, and this weighing of moral reasons just is what I have been calling moral ratiocination. The upshot of this is that ratiocination, on McDowell’s picture, always amounts to a fall back position (i.e., faute de mieux) and never to an ideal to be aspired towards.

Tuesday 8 April 2008

What's wrong with Frege's argument for Senses (Brian Kim)

Brian Kim responds to Jackie Carter's post on Frege puzzles.

I agree with Jackie that much of the motivation for many crazy views about truth, concepts, and intentional content derive from their ability to explain Frege Puzzles. I for one would like to separate my theory of meaning from a theory of intentional content. Like Stalnaker, I think thought is prior to language. I think this is the minority view in philosophy these days so in order to motivate this view, one needs to undermine the main sources of motivation for the alternative - Frege's argument for the distinction between sense and reference. In fact, Frege's argument does show that there is a distinction between sense and reference, but what it does not show is that senses have anything to do with thought.

Here's one way to present Frege's argument:
So the cognitive significance of the sentence P: "Peter Parker is Spiderman" is different than Q: "Peter Parker is Peter Parker". After all they pick out different thoughts. Are thoughts the referent of sentences? Well if they were, then the referent of the sentences P and Q must be determined by the referents of its parts. Thus, if we substituted co-referential names, the referent of the sentences should stay the same. However, if we substitute 'Spiderman' for 'Peter Parker' in P, then referent of P would be the same as Q. Thus, the referent of P and Q cannot be the thoughts they express.

The problem is that Frege simply assumes that only sentence types pick out thoughts. Sure, if we only consider the referent of sentence types, then that must be determined by the expression types 'Peter Parker' and 'Spiderman'. Then if we agree with Kripke, then names (expression types) are rigid designators, the reference of the sentence types P and Q cannot differ. However, sentence tokens can refer to thoughts as well. On this view, the referent of sentence tokens P and Q must be determined by the reference of the expression tokens 'Peter Parker' and 'Spiderman'. However, these two tokens don't have to refer to the same thing. I can use the token 'John' to refer to whomever I want. To Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne, or the dog walking down the street. There aren't any constraints on the reference of tokens. In one context, the token 'Mike' will be taken to be a token of the expression type 'Mike' (Brent) and in another context it will be taken to be a token of type 'Mike' (Seifried). The context plays a large part in determining the reference of expression tokens while the linguistic meaning determines the reference of expression types. So now, P and Q as sentence token clearly can refer to different thoughts because the expression tokens 'Peter Parker' and 'Spiderman' can refer to different people depending on the context.

Now what explains the cognitive significance of identity statements? Well P can be used to pick out different contingent propositions while Q will always pick out the necessary proposition if we are using the tokens 'Peter Parker' the same way. Of course, "Paderwski is Paderwski" can be used to pick out a contingent proposition.

What's the lesson here? Well the lesson is that Frege's assumption that only sentence types refer to thoughts would only be accepted by someone who thought that there was strong connection between thought and langauge. On this view, the way we pick out thoughts is highly dependent upon the nature of language (of expression types). Then of course using Frege's argument we would be forced to accept that thought is fine-grained and language like. However, if we think that sentence tokens plus context pick out thoughts, then we place a greater divide between thought and language. Of course, language is still important, but language is merely a means of picking out thought - it isn't a mirror image of thought.

Friday 4 April 2008

McDowell's Truth Theory and Frege Puzzles (Jackie Carter)

In what follows, Jackie Carter offers a clear and concise summary of McDowell's proposed solution to the Frege Puzzle. Enjoy!

So, I think that McDowell's concept of truth seems somehow unsatisfying on its face.... [H]owever, I came to find it much more palatable -- in part because of its implications for philosophy of language and in particular the Frege Puzzle. Anyway, this is my effort to explain why McDowell's truth theory, which makes "true" a status internal to a world view, helps solve the elusive Frege Puzzle. (Disclaimer: my grasp of this feels rather tenuous.)

Recall that (briefly put) Frege's Puzzle is that "Hesperus=Hesperus" seems to have a cognitive value different from that of "Hesperus=Phosphorus." The problem is that if all the proper names do is pick out some referent (some object in the world), then the two identities seem to do the very same thing - the latter seems no more informative than the former. Intuitively, Frege thinks we should avoid this conclusion, so he proposes that names not only pick out referents but also have "senses." So, in the first identity, the sense of the name is the same on both sides, while in the second identity the senses are different. QED, the second identity is of greater "cognitive value" because it involves equating two different senses.

But then the question is what exactly is the "sense" of a word? Frege wants it to play the intensional role of meaning, though he leaves the concept of sense rather mysterious (which then leads Russell and Searle to offer some rather problematic explanations).

McDowell distinguishes between sense and reference as knowledge of truths on the one hand, and knowledge of objects on the other. So, someone who knows the sense of "Hesperus=Phosphorus" has knowledge of a truth, which someone who only knows "Hesperus=Hesperus" is lacking.

{McDowell writes, “Knowledge of the reference of a name…could reasonably be held to be knowledge which, in the context of appropriate further knowledge not itself involving the name, would suffice for understanding utterances containing the name – that is, precisely, knowledge of its sense” (McDowell's "On Sense and Reference," p. 163). }

But if we understand "sense" to be knowledge of truths, we run into problems if truth & truth conditions are purely extensional (as in a deflationary account like Rorty's or even Davidson's). Truth (and along with it, truth conditions) is a mere translational relation between object language and metalanguage, but the "sense" that a given individual associates with a word, sentence, or phrase is supposed to be intensional. Moreover, different people know different truths about different names; e.g., the truths that I know about the object "Hesperus" may differ from those of another. So, how can sense just be knowledge of truth conditions, which would be objective (external, the same for everyone).

The point here is when we say:

"Hesperus = Phosphorus" is true iff Hesperus is Phosphorus,

the right hand side (RHS), which captures the "sense" of the identity, may be different for different agents. For McDowell, truth is intensional, so when we disquote (ie, move over to the RHS), we are already talking about the conception of an agent (we are internal to the world view of an agent). Because truth and truth conditions are intensional, sense is intensional, which enables it to play to intensional role of meaning. That is, the notion of sense, knowledge of truths or truth conditions, can thus capture the intensional notion of meaning.

In short, McDowell’s understanding of truth as internal to the worldview of an inquirer allows him to make truth, and therefore sense, an intensional concept. For McDowell, an account of truth conditions cannot be decoupabled from an account of agents’ beliefs. The right hand side of a Tarski sentence gets at an agent’s worldview and tells us something about her beliefs.

For Davidson, by contrast, a truth theory must include both an extensional account of truth conditions and an intensional account that derives from empirical human behavior. For McDowell, there is no reason to separate these accounts. It is unclear how (and if) someone with an extensional, deflationary truth theory like Davidson's can explain meaning, i.e. sense. So the Frege puzzles seem to go unsolved if truth conditions (the RHS of T-sentence) do not get us to the intensional perspective.