Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Fodor and LePore vs. Brandomstein

Most of us are aware of Jerry Fodor's hostility to Wittgensteinian 'use' theories of meaning, so it is no surprise that he and Ernie LePore have launched a stinging attack on Brandom's inferentialist semantics in the May 2007 edition of Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. Whatever one makes of Fodor's views, he does have a knack for cogently and eloquently articulating some of the problems faced by advocates of a social conception of mind:

As far as we can tell, Brandom simply takes for granted that (what Searle calls) "original Intentionality" inheres in public languages, the intentionality of mental states being, in some sense, derived. This is an issue over which floods of tears have already been shed; we don't propose to revive it here except to stress one brief point: If original Intentionality inheres in public languages, it must be possible fully to describe the procedures by which a child obtains mastery of its first language without invoking the child's intentional states (including what he knows, believes, hypothesizes, observes, etc.). Brandom doesn't anywhere rise to this challenge, as far as we know. Nor, for that matter, does any other philosopher we've come across. (Wittgenstein suggests that first language learning is somehow a matter of "training"; but he says nothing intelligible about how training could lead to learning in a creature that doesn't already have a mind.) ... (p.684)

The problem outlined by Fodor and LePore is a variation on a basic theme that has long been a stumbling block for those who would like to incorporate Wittgensteinian ideas into a systematic theory: namely, how can we bridge the apparent gulf between mere habituation and genuine normativity? McDowell's notion of 'second nature' in Mind and World is a promising starting point, and in her anthology Wittgenstein, Mind and Meaning Meredith Williams has written an excellent (though largely therapeutic) essay on role of 'training' in Wittgenstein. But I still feel that there is much work to be done. (Perhaps reading Making it Explicit might be a start - it's something I plan to do as soon as I get reliable access to a library again!!)

Monday, February 11, 2008

Brandom on systematic philosophical theorising

Philosophers with Wittgensteinian sympathies often display a schizophrenic attitude to their own discipline. The temptation to transform Wittgenstein's powerful but often piecemeal ideas - such as his attack on private language and his communitarian conception of rule-following and normativity - pulls strongly against the philosophical quietism espoused by Wittgenstein himself. In an interview from a few years back, Robert Brandom makes a useful distinction between "systematic metaphysical ambition" and "imperial systematic metaphysics" (p.560). The former aims for "a certain sort of expression and so of understanding: a kind of discursive self-consciousness", whereas the latter "claims that its expressive resources are the final arbiter of the reality of things". Brandom makes it quite clear that systematic metaphysical ambition is perfectly compatible with a commitment to pragmatism: "each such systematic crafting, assembling, and deploying of expressive resources is an advance in understanding, as much where it fails as where it succeeds". The renewed respectability of systematic theorising is, I think, a welcome development in contemporary analytic (and Continental) philosophy. There should be nothing intrinsically frightening about systematic thought, and genuine philosophical quietists are committed to a Jain-like asceticism which is impossible to sustain.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Searle, Kripke, and Quine's indeterminacy thesis (Part 1)

I first encountered Quine's argument for the indeterminacy of translation in a class at Berkeley last year on the theory of meaning. I feel somewhat more confident in tackling this problem after having read Kripke's Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language, which presents a similarly sceptical argument in the guise of a novel re-working of Wittgenstein's rule-following considerations from the Philosophical Investigations. In particular, I have a firmer understanding of precisely why Searle's response to Quine doesn't quite work.

Searle's response is in the time-honoured tradition of philosophical foot-stamping, which is in itself not a bad thing - much of the best philosophy involves reminding ourselves of the bleeding obvious in interesting and nuanced ways. Searle's strategy is to remind ourselves that we obviously know what we mean from the first-person perspective - that is, when we loosen Quine's artificially behaviouristic constraints on the thought experiment. Now I think that Searle is entirely right about this. Surely nothing could be more certain than the fact that when I say 'rabbit' I mean 'rabbit', not 'rabbit stage' or 'undetached rabbit part'. The tricky part is trying to work out from whence this certainty derives. We can look in one of two places: 'inside' the head, for some kind of self-interpreting mental fact that fixes meaning; or 'outside' the head, in normatively structured social and linguistic practices. Searle opts for the former, but Kripke's WRPL brilliantly shows such an attempt to ground meaning in mental states are doomed to fail.

More on this in a follow-up post.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

McDowell's domesticated Hegelianism

In Mind and World John McDowell offers an alternative to two well-worn, and equally unpalatable, positions in traditional epistemology. On the one hand, a thoroughgoing Davidsonian coherentism apparently leaves no room for empirical content - recall Davidson's dictum that "nothing can count as a reason for holding a belief except another belief". On the coherentist view, the world can only exert a purely causal impact on our network of beliefs, which leaves unsatisfied the empiricist's craving for an experiential grounding of our beliefs that is also able to figure in rational, justificatory relations. But on the other hand, the attempt to ground empirical knowledge in sense-data - the Myth of the Given in Sellars' famous phrase - is equally futile. There is an unbridgeable gulf between the sense-data theorist's 'bare particulars' and the non-inferential knowledge that is supposed to underlie a foundationalist epistemology. McDowell's 'third way', in a nutshell, is to reconceive sense experience ('receptivity' in McDowell's Kantian phrase) as already minimally conceptualised. Sense experience is taken to be an 'openness to how things are', and our experience of reality always has at least some conceptual content. When we take in the world through our sensory faculties, we experience that things are thus and so.

Whatever one makes of McDowell's rich and nuanced arguments, he undoubtedly succeeds in one of his stated aims of providing a 'prolegomenon' to Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Since Russell's History of Western Philosophy, Hegel has been the antichrist for analytic philosophers: a stodgy Teutonic purveyor of the discredited metaphysical sublime (and of a totalitarian politics to boot). But McDowell's Mind and World - along with the writings of the other so-called 'Pittsburgh Hegelian', Robert Brandom - provides an illuminating entry-point into one of the most difficult and obscure thinkers of an difficult and obscure tradition, German idealism. McDowell's attack on the Myth of the Given is an explicit reference to Wilfred Sellars' essay "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind", which is itself subtly indebted to the chapters on perception and sense-certainty in Hegel's Phenomenology.

After reading some of McDowell's and Brandom's writings on Hegel, along with other secondary literature, I have realised that there is much that analytic philosophers, particularly those sympathetic to a post-Wittgensteinian 'social practices' view of mind and language, can gain from a careful reading of Hegel's Phenomenology. The key to a fruitful analytic reading of Hegel, it seems, is to parse the mystical-sounding 'Spirit' as 'the space of reasons' (to borrow Sellars' phrase again), and to 'domesticate' the Absolute Idea into a kind of end-point of the discursive practices of an ideal community of rational linguistic agents. With these points in mind, the Phenomenology seems to espouse a number of thoroughly respectable post-Wittgensteinian positions, such as the view that sense experience is always conceptually and linguistically mediated, and that self-consciousness is only possible as a result of social recognition by other conscious agents.

These are almost certainly heavy-handed caricatures of some of the ideas in the Phenomenology, but I plan to use them as a starting-point for a close reading of that text over the next few months. I am unashamedly approaching that text through the prism of McDowell, but it is doubtful that anyone can approach the Phenomenology without some preconceived notion of what it is about. So wish me luck!