Friday, February 15, 2008

Postmodern captain

Recent visitors to this site will notice the lack of activity here, but I haven't been entirely absent from the 'sphere, as we have been having a rousing conversation about Philosophical Investigations §122, among other things, at other locales (see here, here, here, here, and here). In general, if you drop by here looking for me, if I'm not here I may be over at these or a few other places (virtually speaking). Still, even so, I am remiss in not contributing anything more substantive than a few comments from the virtual peanut gallery. We'll get to those things soon enough, I hope, but for now here's an interesting tidbit from a book I read recently which was made up (almost?) entirely of untruths.

Post Captain is the second book in Patrick O'Brian's series of naval historical novels set in the Napoleonic wars era (thanks to the Crooked Timber crew for the recommendation). Toward the end, Dr. Stephen Maturin is at the opera, but he finds it "poor thin pompous overblown stuff" and cannot enjoy it:


A charming harp came up through the strings, two harps running up and down, an amiable warbling. Signifying nothing, sure; but how pleasant to hear them. Pleasant, oh certainly it was pleasant [...]; so why was his heart oppressed, filled with an anxious foreboding, a dread of something imminent that he could not define? That arch girl posturing upon the stage had a sweet, true little voice; she was as pretty as God and art could make her; and he took no pleasure in it. His hands were sweating.

A foolish German had said that man thought in words. It was totally false; a pernicious doctrine; the thought flashed into being in a hundred simultaneous forms, with a thousand associations, and the speaking mind selected one, forming it grossly into the inadequate symbols of words, inadequate because common to disparate situations – admitted to be inadequate for vast regions of expression, since for them there were the parallel languages of music and painting. Words were not called for in many or indeed most forms of thought: Mozart certainly thought in terms of music. He himself at this moment was thinking in terms of scent.

[Suddenly, from his box Stephen espies, in the crowd below, the woman whom he has been chasing for more than four hundred pages, with little success – only just enough, in fact, to maximize his frustration.]

Stephen watched with no particular emotion but with extreme accuracy. He had noted the great leap of his heart at the first moment and the disorder in his breathing, and he noted too that this had no effect upon his powers of observation. He must in fact have been aware of her presence from the first: it was her scent that was running in his mind before the curtain fell; it was in connection with her that he had reflected upon these harps.
I find this (like a lot of things in good literature, now that I think of it) phenomenologically astute but philosophically naive. Certainly the idea of "thinking [only] in words" suggests a crude picture indeed, of the sort (rightly or wrongly) attributed to artificial intelligence types – and which provokes phenomenologically-motivated accusations of a "myth of the mental" (e.g. in Dreyfus) and calls for recognition of "non-conceptual [mental] content" (not, as I understand it, to be confused with "qualia" – but maybe I'm the one who is confused).

Surely, we feel, our minds – and our experiences – contain more than words. That our hearts leap and our breaths catch, or that our (verbal) thoughts are affected, subtly or otherwise, by bodily phenomena and multifarious subconscious associations cannot be denied. The faculty of language – the "speaking mind" – is only one of many contributors to the experiential makeup of our conscious selves. It is natural to reach, as we all do at times, for an image of trying, and often failing, to "put into words" something which must perforce exist "outside" language but which is still part of our experience. Still, I would resist the idea that there are "thoughts" antecedent to their linguistic manifestations, or that music and other arts are "parallel languages" which can communicate thoughts which (what we would have to call, now non-redundantly) "verbal language" cannot. (Or as my undergrad professor put it, when I spoke of the sort of experiences Stephen here discusses: "why do you want to call these things 'thoughts'"?)

Let's look first at the idea that words are (language is) "inadequate because common to disparate situations." This has been a common refrain in philosophy from the Greeks through Derrida. Here's another German on the matter, writing some seventy years after Stephen's night at the opera, but one hundred years before the real-life author of Stephen's ruminations:
Every word immediately becomes a concept, inasmuch as it is not intended to serve as a reminder of the unique and wholly individualized original experience to which it owes its birth, but must at the same time fit innumerable, more or less similar cases—which means, strictly speaking, never equal—in other words, a lot of unequal cases. Every concept originates in our equating what is unequal. No leaf every wholly equals another, and the concept "leaf" is formed through an arbitrary abstraction from these individual differences, through forgetting the distinctions; and now it gives rise to the idea that in nature there might be something besides the leaves which would be "leaf"—some kind of original form after which all leaves have been woven, marked, copied, colored, curled, and painted, but by unskilled hands, so that no copy turned out to be a correct, reliable, and faithful image of the original form. ("On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense", The Portable Nietzsche, p. 46)
Nietzsche scholars like Clark hurry to point out that Nietzsche later abandoned his youthful skepticism about truth (the oft-quoted subsequent paragraph in "Truth and Lie" tells us that "truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are"), reminding us that this essay was a) published only posthumously, and b) written some 15 years earlier than his most mature writings (an eternity in Nietzsche-time). Still, even here the point is not to accept but to reject the idea that the origin of our concepts means that there is some more perfect reality which (due to their humble origins) they necessarily fail to capture. This is an anti-skeptical point, one which Nietzsche retained throughout his career.

But let's turn back to the properly skeptical point with which this anti-skeptical point is easily conflated (one which later Nietzsche does reject). Even if the Platonic Leaf is an illusion, what about those "unique and wholly individualized original experiences" from which our concept of "leaf" is abstracted? If our concepts necessarily fail to capture (not the pure abstraction, but instead) these individual differences, then it seems that here too our language is inadequate. Yet it is only so if one has a distorted conception of what it is that language is supposed to do, which is not to duplicate individual experiences but instead to express beliefs (and other "mental states" like emotions) and communicate truths about the world (often, which may be the source of some of the confusion here, both at once). Even when the problem is not that language fails (in its necessary finitude) to achieve pure generality, but the seemingly opposite point that it fails (in its necessary generality) to achieve pure specificity, the result is a fatal temptation toward Platonic (or Cartesian) abstraction and reification, and a corresponding anxiety (or conviction!) that language necessarily conceals rather than reveals (or communicates).

Here's a leaf. Is it not a leaf? We just agreed that it is. So "this is a leaf" is true, and not an "illusion." But this other leaf is also a leaf; so "this is a leaf" fails to capture the specific "leafiness" of either of them. True enough, much has been left out. But so what? (What should we say, "this is a leaf, but it's an illusion to believe that it is"? Hogwash.) So say more: this particular leaf is green, small, smooth, wet. These too are merely words, generalized from many greens and smalls and wets. Even the precise hue (say, 7CFC00), the size in microns, the precise amount of water on its surface, everything I can possibly "put into words," will not get us across that metaphysical gap (once so construed) between universal predicates and irreducibly individual thing. You cannot describe to me – language cannot capture – the leaf-in-itself.

Okay, but this wasn't really our problem. Your concern in speaking to me was not after all with a posited leaf-beyond-experience (whether an ideal Platonic Leaf or a specific Cartesian leaf-in-itself) but instead your own experience, communication of which need not require such fictions as leaves-in-themselves. Here too, though, the same problem seems to arise. You had some experience which you want to communicate to me. Of course I can't be you, so I can't have your experience. Yet it still can seem as if even though I cannot be you, there is some thing, a (specific) "experience" of yours (distinct from you, that you are "having", such that that identical experiencer – you – then go on to "have" another such, etc.) which your words necessarily (alas) fail to communicate to me. That such things cannot be transferred whole from your inner theater to mine isn't the fault of language. Even if you handed me the very leaf in question, to look at and touch for myself, I still wouldn't have your experience, even the one I did have was thereby very much more "like yours" than the one I had merely listening to you describe it. This "failure" just doesn't have the philosophical significance it can seem to have: that there is, like the leaf-in-itself, an experience-in-itself which can be conceptually detached from your having it, and which I may thereby "fail" to have due to imperfections in the medium of transmission. In my view, once we've established that I can't be you (or, again, that words aren't "the same as" the things which they denote or describe), that turns out to be the only metaphysically relevant consideration – which as a triviality cannot support the philosophical weight put on it by the sort of realism which results in the sort of skepticism in question, which sees language as "cutting us off from reality" (or each other) rather than opening it up to us.

It is of course true (another triviality) that music or painting can evoke experiences which language cannot – that there are qualitative differences which, as subjects, we automatically project back onto their "objects" qua experience. We naturally speak here too of "expression"; yet there is no reason to think of these arts as "parallel languages," or languages at all. I liked Garry Hagberg's book Art as Language, which goes into these matters very clearly indeed (as the Amazon reviewer rightly notes), so I won't go into them here. I would just suggest that "expression" (whether artistic or linguistic) has connotations not simply of communication, but also of manifestation or even creation, which can help suppress the urge to posit some distinct entity which it can fail to copy adequately – while yet leaving in place the triviality that there are plenty of ways in which an "expression" (of something) can indeed fail (and corresponding locutions, such as Mozart's musical "thought").

For more on the idea of "thinking in terms of scent," I imagine there would be a lot about that in this book, the movie version of which I just saw last week. Interestingly, while I imagine some people reacted to the story's move, toward the end, from highly implausible (even in cinematic terms) to completely impossible, with an annoyed "oh, come on," I found that the move actually relieved that pressure rather than increasing it to intolerable levels – as now it became easier to see the story as purely allegorical fantasy (which of course it always was) rather than an attempt to make (still fanciful) sense on the literal level. (I speak abstractly in order to avoid spoilage.) The film (by Tom Tykwer of Lola rennt fame) renders the experience of scent in visual terms very well (although there were a few too many shots of sniffing noses), and I imagine the book's appeal depends on its success in the corresponding rendering in verbal terms.

9 comments:

Daniel Lindquist said...

"Certainly the idea of "thinking [only] in words" suggests a crude picture indeed, of the sort (rightly or wrongly) attributed to artificial intelligence types – and which provokes phenomenologically-motivated accusations of a "myth of the mental" (e.g. in Dreyfus) and calls for recognition of "non-conceptual [mental] content" (not, as I understand it, to be confused with "qualia" – but maybe I'm the one who is confused)"

Qualia aren't something a Heideggerian is likely to countenance; the "non-conceptual" features someone like Dreyfus or Sean Kelly is concerned with are features of the "world" or the "situation". The "Cartesian" picture of a subject who observes an objective world is supposed to be parasitic on being-in-the-world; being-present-to-hand is derivative from, secondary to, being-ready-to-hand. So something like qualia which are "irreducibly first-personal" or subjective can only ever be of secondary concern for a Heideggerian critique of "conceptualism" -- the whole subject-object "mental" framework is supposed to already be overlooking aspects of Dasein's being-in-the-world. If it turns out that something "subjective" is also lost in "conceptual mental content" then this is less notable than the various aspects of Dasein's temporality which are left out of that content.

As I recall, Dreyfus criticized AI guys for ignoring "the background", which (translated from Heideggerian) is the various social & natural features which are taken for granted in any action (including thinking and speaking), and which are not consciously noticed in that action. For instance, I cannot see (in the conscious/"conceptual"-verbal sense of "see") that a spade is a spade without having the (backgrounded) capacity to dig with a spade, to hold one, to differentiate between spades and shovels, spades and decorative pieces that look like spades; there has to be a difference between spades and shovels which the practices I am a part of recognize, etc. (that there is not a fixed list of capacities I'd have to have or ways the world would have to be for me to be able act in a particular way is one of the reasons the background is claimed to be "non-conceptual".) These various capacities are not capacities I could've picked up through rote instruction; there is a tacit feature to my learning in these areas. I just "catch on" or I don't; if I don't, then I don't necessarily pick up some other, rival capacities instead of the spade-relevant ones; there may be various reasons for my inability to learn a particular practice, and many of them will not be "mental". The argument was that AI was trying to "teach" an artificial mind all of the required skills it would need through programming more and more complicated changes in state via various algorithms, and that this was to act as if a mind might think without a background -- that performing a mental action just depended on other, prior mental actions being followed upon, and that all of the required capacities were various sorts of knowledge which could be picked up through rote instruction. An AI "mind" acts always through calculation, and not by the (unthinking) "coping" which is how Dasein gets around in the world. So whatever an AI can do, it's not doing what we do when we act, and this includes acts like "thinking", because we act largely "nonconceptually" (against a background) while AI "minds" work entirely "conceptually" (through calculation). "Qualia" don't enter into play at all; the background is not something of which we are conscious, but unable to talk about, but something we are not conscious of in ordinary action (what Dreyfus calls "involved coping").

(McDowell's response to all this is just that what Drefus & pals call the "conceptual" is not a plausible picture of anything minds do -- it's basically a Cartesian story, except now it's surrounded with various non-Cartesian things which are constrasted with it.)

Sean Kelly actually has done some nice work on Merleau-Ponty & colors; he argues (following Meleau-Ponty) that the appearance of a color can depend on factors like the surface it's on and the lighting around it; "the blue of the carpet would not be what it is if it were not a woolly blue." And so vision can't consist in a taking-in of various "colored points" which are then arranged to form representations of seen objects, like sense-data theories assumed; color is "situation-dependent". I can grasp that the blue I see is this blue only because I can grasp a lot of other things alongside it; that (say) such-and-such a surface is pink is something I can notice because I can notice an awful lot of visual features of my environment, and not vice-versa. Which strikes me as a productively anti-Cartesian thing to notice (in addition to being interesting reading in its own light, in the way that phenomenological stuff often is). But Sean Kelly uses this as an argument against McDowell -- things like "red" and "blue" are supposed to be "concepts" (and so things that could feature in the "conceptual content" of some experience), but situation-dependent features (such as the "woolly blue" of M-P's carpet) are supposed to not be "concepts", since they aren't sufficiently "general" (being "situation-dependent", you see). So seeing that the carpet is a woolly blue is a seeing with both conceptual content (that the carpet is blue) and non-conceptual content (it's a woolly blue). (The counter-argument is again just that the "conceptual" here doesn't seem to be anything important -- it's an abstract caricature of thinking to suppose that it consists in "general" notions only. So you just allow that "situation-dependent" features of the environment might also be conceptual. Then you no longer need "non-conceptual content", nor the weird stories about "the body" that phenomenologists have to tell.) Here too, "qualia" aren't the problem; Kelly's appropriations of Merleau-Ponty actually take "qualia"-ish views as a target, since sense-data-ish accounts of perception miss an awful lot of what's notable about it.

Duck said...

Actually, I was making a lame joke: there are these things which our concepts are supposed not to be able to capture – so maybe I'm getting these mysterious things confused, ha ha. Okay, I said it was lame.

So yes, I realize that the phenomenological criticism of McDowell doesn't involve qualephilia in the strict sense, for the reasons you mention. (Thanks for spelling it out so clearly for our viewers.) But I do also want to turn the charge of Cartesianism (coming from phenomenologists) back onto the accusers. Naturally the subject/object dualism (implicated both in qualephilia and in crude AI-style cognitivism, its natural opponent across that axis) is a Cartesian one. (That's why I was disappointed the other day when Anton struck me as speaking, in at least part of that post, in what I called "Ned Block mode." Which reminds me, I was going to get back to that.) So I can see how it would seem that the whole "Cartesian" problematic could be avoided by construing it as the result of a mistaking a superficial aspect (i.e. as experience of or with the world) of the more fundamental phenomenon, our experience in the world. But "conceptual" (so construed, as a crude computationalism or whatever) vs. "non-conceptual" is just as dualistic (and so "Cartesian," in my anachronistically broad sense) as is the narrower "subjective/objective" split. For me, the characteristic virtue of the post-Davidson/McDowell approach (especially as supplemented, at the level of philosophy itself, by the corresponding reading of Wittgenstein, toward which I hope we are working in the other thread) is that we may deal with these dualisms at the same time, qua dualism.

So you just allow that "situation-dependent" features of the environment might also be conceptual

Sure, just (!) like (as in "Functionalism and Anomalous Monism") we allow that individual causal relations may be encountered in experience. Interestingly, I think I remember Peacocke (no phenomenologist, AFAIK) saying basically the same sort of thing about concepts as Dreyfus (and Dr. Maturin) do; but I find (found; I haven't tried recently) that guy insanely hard to read. It all just seems to display a weird conception (!) of what it is that concepts are supposed to do. But I won't repeat the post here. We can bring it up again in an explicitly Davidsonian/interpretive context.

I don't find it hard to believe that Merleau-Ponty et. al. have good things to say in an anti-Cartesian vein, like the sort of holism/contextualism (anti-atomism) you mention; but I do wonder if contemporary phenomenologists have really gotten the residual Cartesianism (stemming from Husserl's overtly Cartesian first-person-ism) out of their collective systems. At some point you have to stop playing oppositional games (plumping for the "overlooked" perspective which "escapes" your opponent's "net") and hebe those dualisms auf.

Daniel Lindquist said...

Yeah, that was lame. But hey, probably did me good to call all that stuff back up & commit it to writing.

I of course agree that the phenomenologists are insufficiently non-Cartesian, and that Davidson/McDowell/Wittgenstein offer a better path. And yeah, hopefully other threads are going somewhere productive.

"I think I remember Peacocke (no phenomenologist, AFAIK) saying basically the same sort of thing about concepts as Dreyfus (and Dr. Maturin) do; but I find (found; I haven't tried recently) that guy insanely hard to read."
Yeah, he does. I read an article by him ("Non-Conceptual Content Defended" IIRC) which made the exact same style of argument that Kelly did, except the relevant putatively non-conceptual item was demonstratives rather than "woolly blue".

Oh hey, I just noticed that Jeff Speaks, author of "Is There A Problem With Non-Conceptual Content?", has his papers online. "Is There A Problem About Non-Conceptual Content?" was pretty good.

Phritz said...

Ah the secret life of plants! How qualephiliatic. Maybe there's still time for a CPA............

Tanasije Gjorgoski said...

Hi Dave,

I may be wrong, but I find the whole issue quite simple, and can't see the problem in saying that we are not thinking only "in" language.

What does it even mean to think in language? That in our minds we juggle words when we are thinking? When while taking long trip, I'm wondering how much more road is there before I get to my destination, and I wish not much as I'm really bored, does it mean that I'm juggling with words 'how', 'much', etc... Or that to wonder that, I have to pronounce the sentence in myself?

I don't see that we are thinking in anything. We are thinking about things. In the situation described, I think about the trip I'm undertaking, about my mental situation, about the time it will take for the trip to finish, and so on. I don't think about language, nor I can see why should we say that we think in language.

Can I become aware of my boredom, only if I have a word for it maybe? How do people even get to name those phenomena, if they don't become aware of them before having words? Do people started feeling bored only once someone invented the word 'boredom'. Did we become aware of rabbits, just only once somebody invented (for no particular reason) the word 'rabbit'?

You get into the discussion of the relation of specific and universal, but while I agree with certain points, I don't see how those points are supposed to defend the position that we think in language.

BTW, I would also distinguish the relation between thinking and language, and thoughts and language. As I said, I don't see any problem in saying that we aren't thinking in language. On contrary.

However as I don't believe there are 'thoughts' literally in our minds, but that those are used to refer to something that we were thinking about, and that we can, or did express in language, I think that the term 'thought' is tightly connected to the notion of language, and that there can't be non-linguistic thoughts.

So, my position - we don't think in language, but there are no non-linguistic thoughts.

Duck said...

we don't think in language, but there are no non-linguistic thoughts.

That's what I'm saying (perhaps not clearly enough!). My point was that Stephen starts to say the first thing, but ends up saying the second as well (plus some other stuff too).

How do people even get to name those phenomena, if they don't become aware of them before having words?

Again, I agree with your general point here; still, we must be careful. There's a difference between a linguistic creature not (yet) having a word for something, on the one hand, and a prelinguistic creature on the other, not having words at all. In the terms of your own post, I'm happy to attribute, to prelinguistic infants, (let's call it) awareness of there being distinct items behind a screen; but I feel strange attributing prelinguistic knowledge that [as they will later put it] 1 + 1 = 2.

But quasi-knowers like infants and animals are always hard to talk about.

Tanasije Gjorgoski said...

Yeah, I wouldn't claim that infants realize that whenever there are two things, there is one and one more thing.

But that there, in that particular case, they are aware of there being pair qua pair, after seeing one and one more thing being hidden behind the screen. So, I would point to the ability of infants to become aware of a pair qua pair, (and not merely *this one* and *that one* which can't be kept together in thought)

This awareness, in this particular case, I think, is the base of what we express by "whenever there are two things there is one and one more thing".

I don't (going with Berkeley) believe that we get to those kind of general truths by considering abstractions. I think that we see (become aware of) them always in particulars, but ignoring the specific things of those particulars. For example, we won't be able to become aware of the truth of Pythagorean theorem, without becoming aware of the truth in the case of some particular triangle, THOUGH in that awareness we will see that some specific properties of that triangle are not important for the truth, and hence the theorem will hold for any triangle. (Which is exactly how the usual geometrical proofs for Pythagorean theorem go)

That's additional reason why I think that the awareness that infants have in particular case, can be the same one that we express for being true in general case, with one addition - the realization that we can abstract from the type of the things we have in the situation. We as grown up, realize that the type of things is not important, so we come to the more general expression.

Hope I succeeded to make more clear what I was saying in that post.

Tanasije Gjorgoski said...

Oops, for any right triangle.

Ben Wolfson said...

Nietzsche scholars like Clark hurry to argue, not necessarily to point out, that he later abandoned this skepticism.