Thursday, November 08, 2007

McDowell (and Cavell) on criteria and skepticism

The other day, Currence reported on Ed Witherspoon's talk entitled "Wittgensteinian Criteria and the Problem of Other Minds." In his post, he wondered
how Witherspoon's discussion of Wittgenstein on criteria and whether he was a McDowellian or a Cavellian -- or whether it makes a substantial difference if they're essentially the same -- ties in at all to the discussion of two kinds of skepticism, except that Witherspoon thought Wittgenstein took himself to be addressing both kinds of skepticism.
Here are some thoughts of mine on that subject which I hope will be of some use. (You should probably read his post first, if you haven't already.)

Let me start with the intuitive motivation for skepticism. When the evidence points to something, the natural thing to do (the everyday thing, the default thing) is to believe it ( = take it to be true). If one finds the evidence insufficient, one suspends judgment; but that's not philosophical skepticism. The philosophical skeptic is the guy who says "sure, I don't have any problem with your evidence – it looks that way to me too, so I'm not asking for more or better evidence – but still, we might be wrong; so we better not say we know." In other words, we are fallible, in that perfectly compelling appearances can cause us to believe falsely; the skeptical conclusion is that in every case, we cannot know if this is one of those times, so we must therefore suspend judgment on the truth or falsity of (possibly "mere") appearances, no matter how compelling they may be.

In addressing this "scandal for philosophy," Kant diagnosed it as a variant of a much deeper problem. If subject and object are so radically distinct as to threaten the former's knowledge of the latter, as the Cartesian insists, it seems that this metaphysical gap threatens our ability not only to know, but even to think about the world. This "Kantian skepticism," as Conant terms it (as we will see if that darn book of his ever comes out), addresses the Cartesian confidence in the possibility of contentful yet radically false "appearances". Turning it around, we may say that if we are in close enough contact with the world to form contentful thoughts about how it might be, then the Cartesian epistemological scruples are pointless. You may of course bite the bullet and try to deny that your thoughts have content; but then why should I listen to your self-admittedly meaningless babble?

In the contemporary context, after the linguistic turn, we speak not simply of contentful thought but also of meaningful assertion. This is where "criteria" come in. The idea of appealing to criteria in replying to epistemological skepticism is to add to the original reason for belief (i.e. that the evidence points to the truth of P) the idea that to take P as true in such situations just is to use the term correctly. After all, generally speaking, that's how we learn the term in the first place: in the (apparent) presence of a yellow banana, nanny says "look at the nice yellow banana!", and we say "yehw bana," and so on (this is not to commit oneself to the "Augustinian" picture of the opening sections of Philosophical Investigations, but to the manifest facts which make that picture seem obligatory). Once we have learned the relevant terms, to withhold assent to "there's a yellow banana" in such situations is not to show virtuous epistemic scruple, as the skeptic has it, but instead to show vicious semantic incompetence. That's the thought anyway (and there is indeed something like this in Wittgenstein; the question is what exactly).

However, as both Cavell and McDowell point out, it would be wrong to suggest that "criteria" get you across the skeptical gap. When we answer the skeptical challenge, saying that we (do too) know that P because the criterion is satisfied, there are two ways in which the epistemic chain may yet break. First, the criteria for asserting P might actually apply, but fail to entail P; or the criterion indeed entails P, but we cannot know whether it actually applies here (that is, whether the "appearance" that P is veridical). We cannot have both, on pain of dogmatism. Our manifest fallibility is as undeniable a fact as any.

Where does this leave us? Putting Wittgenstein himself to one side for now, let's compare Cavell and McDowell. According to Currence, Witherspoon suggested at the talk that the two views differ mainly in a terminological difference between them concerning the term "criterion." McDowell takes the satisfaction of criteria for X to entail the truth of X, but allows that we can take criteria to be satisfied even when they are not, while Cavell goes the other way: criteria themselves can mislead us, but we can and do know when they obtain. In any case, both reject the "criterial theorist's" view that criteria take one across the skeptical gap. So they agree; but even so, this difference reflects an important difference in emphasis and strategy, in explaining which I think we can make helpful reference to the various types of skepticism, on the one hand, and that confusing talk about types of doubt (and whether LW was a "fallibilist") on the other. In any case that's what I'll try to do here.

Let's start with McDowell. One of McDowell's consistent concerns – becoming more explicit in his recent work on Kant and Hegel – has been to reject the Cartesian metaphysical opposition between subject and object, which is the source and stay of the corresponding epistemological skepticism. In Mind and World (MW), pressing the "Kantian skeptic" line (though not in those terms), he insists, following Wittgenstein, that the content of our concepts is not confined to the subjective side of the Cartesian gap, but instead "[does] not stop anywhere short of the fact" [PI §95]. In contemporary terms (MW p. 27):
[T]here is no ontological gap between the sort of thing one can mean, or generally the sort of thing one can think, and the sort of thing that can be the case. When one thinks truly, what one thinks is what is the case. [...] Of course thought can be distanced from the world by being false, but there is no distance from the world implicit in the very idea of thought.
The idea, then, is that when we turn to the more fundamental semantic consequences of radical subject-object dualism, the familiar fact of human fallibility no longer even seems to have the epistemological significance the skeptic claims it does. This can thus help us resist a perennial philosophical temptation, viz., to metaphysicalize that innocent epistemic gap and identify it with that same picture's supposed ontological gap between subject and object (thus reinforcing it, as well as the resulting skepticism). If we do this, when we turn back to epistemology, the Cartesian argument "effects a transition from sheer fallibility (which might be registered in a 'Pyrrhonian' scepticism) to a 'veil of ideas' scepticism" ["Criteria, Defeasibility, and Knowledge" [CDK] p. 386n).

Here's how that works. The skeptical argument gets its traction from the idea that deceptive appearance and veridical manifestation are phenomenologically indistinguishable, and thus that "one's experiential intake—what one embraces within the scope of one's consciousness—must be the same in both kinds of case" [CDK p. 386] That "highest common factor" [HCF] between the deceptive and veridical cases is thus essentially incapable of providing evidence for one or the other. The difference between the two cases is something extra: the actual connection to the world which makes the veridical case veridical. But ex hypothesi we cannot tell which is which; the world's contribution to the veridical case, on this view, is "blankly external" to our experience.

But as we have seen, McDowell disputes the idea that the content of our experience must be construed as an HCF in this way. When I lack an actual connection to the world, it's not that my contentful perceptual experience was deceptive, but instead that I haven't had a perceptual experience at all, only an illusion of one. (I have conflated them here, but as I read it, the connection to the somewhat different linguistic version of this thought is this. My illusion of perceptual experience can result in my having a mistaken but contentful thought if on other occasions I have indeed had (veridical) perceptual experiences in the course of learning and using the concepts which make it up. The virtue of McDowell's focus on the perceptual-experience aspect instead of the contentful-concept aspect of his picture is that the latter, like Davidson's holistic view, makes it look as if it is only global skepticism which it renders ineffective: this thought can be a contentful mistake only if not all of them are. That is of course true too; but the perceptual-experience version is more powerful – and its metaphysical import more directly anti-dualistic – in that it applies even to single cases.)

McDowell's alternative conception of perceptual experience is "disjunctive":
[A]n appearance that such-and-such is the case can be either a mere appearance or the fact that such-and-such is the case making itself perceptually manifest to someone. [CDK p. 387]
I either have a perceptual connection to the world or I do not. Let's say it seems to me that I see a cat. Either I do, and a cat has manifested itself in my experience – a veridical appearance – or there is no cat to be seen. In neither case is there an epistemological or metaphysical "intermediary" (either standing between me and the cat, on the one hand, or disguising its actual absence, on the other), in the manner of the HCF.

When a fact is perceptually manifest to one, saying or believing that it is is thus guaranteed to be true, and thus, in the skeptical context, a "criterion" of truth (though of course we may not take advantage of this fact: McDowell is careful to identify manifestation with the availability of knowledge, not its achievement, as even a veridical appearance may not lead to belief (perhaps because of skeptical scruple!)). Of course the skeptic, suspicious of this talk of epistemic "guarantees," makes the natural objection, as if McDowell were trying to sweep our fallibility under the rug in order to meet the skeptical challenge. This distinction, he says, doesn't help; the fact remains that we can't tell when we are deceived.

But McDowell's concern is not to deny epistemic fallibility, but to render it epistemologically, and thus metaphysically, uninteresting. His strategy is thus inherently anti-skeptical, affirming knowledge in the face of skeptical doubt. The skeptic can extract a concession that there remains a sense in which we cannot know when we are deceived (after all, to deny this is to deny that deception is even possible). Even where we are most sure, he says, we must leave room for doubt. But if this be doubt, it is an uninteresting – or perhaps "weak" or "imaginary" or "possible" – doubt, a mere footnote to our firm affirmation of belief. I am certain – beyond present doubt – that I am sitting before the fire at my computer; but every such belief is corrigible, in that I grant the conceptual, if not actual (or, as some pragmatists say, "serious") possibility of error. Give me more evidence, and I may come to change my view (so while I may be completely certain, I'm not "absolutely" certain – like I care about that anyway). That's all the "doubt" that human fallibility gets you – and it's not enough to underwrite a seriously skeptical position.

Currence reports that here was some discussion of this point at Witherspoon's talk:
Witherspoon did make a really odd claim, however, that everyone (Conant, Finkelstein, grad students) picked on during the discussion after the talk: Wittgenstein was a fallibilist. He said this in the context of a distinction he drew between "weak doubt" and "strong doubt". He switched between "weak doubt" and "imaginable doubt". This seemed massively confused to everyone; if being a fallibilist means no more than recognizing one has been wrong about things before, then every reasonable person is a fallibilist, and the claim is uninteresting. If, however, being a fallibilist means something substantial -- and I think it does, something along the lines of making intelligible assertions like 'I am justified in believing x, but I could be wrong' -- then Wittgenstein is about the last person I'd want to say was a fallibilist.

Conant made this point through a humorous example in which someone doubts that the room is not safe, saying, "This room is not safe!"; we ask, "Why isn't the room safe?", and they respond, "I don't know, it's just not!"; we wouldn't say they've offered a doubt at all. "Chicken Little worries" do not fall under the genus "doubt", and it is a sham to call them "weak" or "imaginary" or "possible" doubts.
My first reaction to this was that I don't see why anyone (anyone in that room, anyway) should be surprised if Wittgenstein thinks it important to stress something which "every reasonable person" believes, and which would thus constitute an "uninteresting" claim. On some views, that's all he ever does. But let's let that go.

Conant's Chicken Little example looks weird to me. (I assume that there is a typo here, and that it should be "doubts that the room is safe," not "not safe".) If someone says "This room is not safe!", he is indeed doubting that the room is safe; but he's also claiming that it isn't, which is not a skeptical thing to do. Chicken Little acted on his belief, insisting that the King be notified that the sky was falling. We have no difficulty attributing belief to him (and thus actual doubt about our safety). In fact his problem is not skepticism but gullibility, and our proper response to him is itself skeptical (i.e. garden-variety rather than philosophical): his evidence – a conk on the bean (or "I don't know, it just is") – is insufficient for such a remarkable claim. So Conant is right that this shouldn't count as "doubt" in the relevant sense; but that's only because it's a belief and thus not relevant to the issue of skeptical doubt. In particular, that's not what I take to be the point of talk of "weak" or "imaginary" or "possible" doubt.

The more relevant case, it seems, is this. I say, or assume, that the room is safe, but our friend demurs. Unlike Chicken Little, though, he is perfectly happy to remain here with us. Practically speaking, he says, the evidence is sufficient to warrant staying; yet he prefers (he says) to suspend judgment on the truth of "the room is safe," for familiar skeptical reasons: if we were deceived, and poison gas were about to seep from the ventilation, killing us all, things would look exactly as they do now. There's no evidence that this will happen, so there's no reason to leave. But we cannot claim knowledge that the room is safe.

This is what Peirce calls "paper doubt": philosophically motivated (e.g. Cartesian) demurral, conspicuously not backed up by action. You say you are in doubt; but you not only show no intention to leave the room (as you would if you were actually in doubt about your safety), but you're not even trying to allay your alleged doubt through inquiry. In claiming to doubt, you are simply registering your fallibility and drawing what seems to you to be the proper philosophical conclusion. But purported doubt (or belief), which has no connection with inquiry and deliberation is not doubt (belief) at all. The problem is not that the "doubter" cannot support his purported doubt, but that given his actions there's no reason, beyond his mere assertion, to attribute it to him at all. So the Chicken Little case is not germane. No-one denies that C. L. actually believes the sky is falling (and thus doubts that we are safe); it's the best way to explain his actions, including his urgent desire to see the King.

"Weak doubt" is not a good word for the bare concession of fallibility, but there's nothing wrong with "possible" as opposed to "actual" doubt (again, pragmatists oppose "theoretical" to "serious" possibility of error; it is when the former aspires to the latter condition that they (we) expose it as "paper doubt"). As for what Wittgenstein thought, that's a thorny issue. His reflections on these and related matters in On Certainty are inconclusive at best. I do agree, though, that simply to state that he was a "fallibilist" (not that that simple view is Witherspoon's) is highly misleading. But I won't get into it here.

I've already gone on for ages, so let me defer extended discussion of Cavell's position. I'll just finish the comparison with McDowell re: skepticism and criteria. As we saw, Cavell too concedes the failure of criteria to bridge the skeptical gap. But his philosophical strategy is very different from McDowell (even while sharing a great deal, in Wittgenstein and out). I quote from the back cover of Richard Eldridge's Cavell volume in the "Contemporary Philosophy in Focus" series:
At the core of [Cavell's] thought is the view that skepticism is not a theoretical position to be refuted by philosophical theory [i.e. "constructive philosophy"] but a reflection of the fundamental limits of human knowledge of the self, of others, and of the external world that must be accepted. Developing the resources of ordinary language philosophy and the discourse of thinkers as diverse as Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Thoreau, and Emerson, Cavell has explored the ineliminability of skepticism in philosophy, literature, drama, and the movies.
It's a good collection (check the link for an irresistible used price!), but unfortunately there's no article devoted to Cavell's views on skepticism in particular. Anyway, where McDowell as well as Cavell grants human fallibility (where the "criterial theorists" had no room for it, as the skeptic shows), the former shrugs it off as uninteresting, on the way to reaffirming our metaphysical and epistemological connections to the world, while the latter instead allows it to bring in its train the skeptical point about fundamental limitations on our knowledge, famously granting "the truth in skepticism," i.e. that our relation to the world "may not be one of knowing – or at least what we think of as knowing." So the skeptic wins; but then the victory turns to ashes from a Cartesian point of view, as Cavell proceeds to reinterpret its significance profoundly. So while he and McDowell may not easily be seen to agree on doctrine, or even on Wittgenstein interpretation, their views may yet be seen as helpfully complementary.


BLK said...

nice post. you should do it more often. But what is this business about a Conant book on Kant? The reason I ask is because I often see McDowell mentioning that his reading of Kant developed in cooperation with Conant (I'm thinking of the woodbridge lectures I believe). It makes me curious to see what Conant actually has to say about Kant.

Duck said...

Thanks, Rick (love yr work with The Band, man). My hope is that quality makes up for lack of quantity.

The Conant book isn't on Kant, it's on skepticism. (As of 2003, at least, it was called Skepticism and Interpretation and was to be published by Stanford U. Press.) It might only be a collection though, as it has a co-author or co-editor. I guess we'll see.

I heard Conant lecture on the topic once though, and he talked about the differences between three types of skepticism: Pyrrhonian, Cartesian, and Kantian. Now of course lots of people read Kant as a skeptic, but that's not what he's talking about. The basic idea was one familiar from McDowell: if we were really in danger of losing the world in the Cartesian manner, we wouldn't have misleading appearances or false beliefs; instead, we wouldn't have contentful "appearances" or beliefs at all.

Now of course Kant doesn't believe this is true, so in that sense he's not a "skeptic" at all; but the same can be said of Descartes too, can't it.

Daniel Lindquist said...

Here's a lecture where Conant discusses "Kantian skepticism".

And there's plenty more where that came from; I've only listened to the one I linked above.

Good post; the amazon price was indeed irresistible.

A said...

Nice post, Duck, very instructive.

I don't have much to say except:

1. If I seemed to characterize or suggest that Witherspoon's arguments were bad, I definitely didn't mean to. His talk was interesting, it was rather my unfamiliarity with Cavell's notion of criteria (and my cursory familiarity with McDowell's) that made some of it seem less subtle to me than it probably was. (Unfortunately he didn't distribute copies of his paper, so I can't refer back to the letter of his talk.) I took the "Witt as fallibilist" part to be wrong because everyone in the room jumped on it, and Witherspoon never responded, "No, no, you've misunderstood my claim." In his defense, I think he didn't want to say "Witt is a fallibilist" in a philosophically robust more-than-recognizing-our-ability-to-be-wrong
kind of way.

2. I think "Chicken Little" was not the best image to invoke for describing what I was trying to describe. I had forgot that Chicken Little (a) followed through on his belief (he went to the King, and so forth), and (b) had some reason for believing what he did (a piece of something fell on his head). I was trying to capture the image of the philosopher who says "The room isn't safe!" and then clams up, or perhaps only responds with "How do you know it isn't?" ("Because I've been in this room once a week, every week, for a long time, and it's consistently safe." --"How do you know it didn't become unsafe today?" -- "How could it have become unsafe?" -- "Somehow." ...).

Duck said...

There are a number of Conant lectures on that page. I think "Varieties of Skepticism" must have been the one I heard.

C – Just to be clear myself, I didn't take you to have been dismissive of Witherspoon at all. "Fallibilism" is a tricky subject, and I'm afraid the terminology I use for my own views (borrowed directly from my teacher I. Levi) makes it trickier still (unlike the view itself, which clears away a great deal of muddle – but of course I would say that).

Anonymous said...

Metaphysical quacks generally fancy skepticism, whether of the pious or pagan varieties: it keeps them from having to like do any work of any real importance. Any would-be Descartes or Humes should be required to commence their methodical doubt in regards to the physical world or, shall we say, biological realism, by having a hand cut off, or at least their mouths sewed shut.

Anonymous said...

"the Cartesian argument "effects a transition from sheer fallibility (which might be registered in a 'Pyrrhonian' scepticism) to a 'veil of ideas' scepticism""

Important distinction, if sort of obvious to like most bright undergrads at U of Shekelsville.

Humean skepticism (of the Pyrrhonian sort, presumably) concerns the fallibility of knowledge, and induction one might say, and is not the same as doubt regarding the reality of the external world (though there is still a bit of a cartesian to Hume, perhaps, in so far that he grants that he cannot conclusively prove (via logic anyways) that his sense impressions-- and visual data--- derive from a "real world". That does not justify extreme doubt, however but makes it a problem of weighing reasons for believing in an external world vs. not believing, or something like that. Regardless of that belief or lack thereof, contemporary Humes still head to IHOP for their post-philosophizin' cakes).

Fallibility then pertains not so much to metaphysics but to theory-building, "truth-process", verification, and the physical sciences, and that's one reason why Carnap and Popper valued much of Hume's Treatise.

Dr. James M. Dow said...

hi Duck,
i liked this post. it rocks the spontaneous world. but, i have an issue with this characterization of disjunctivism: "McDowell's alternative conception of perceptual experience is "disjunctive": [A]n appearance that such-and-such is the case can be either a mere appearance or the fact that such-and-such is the case making itself perceptually manifest to someone. [CDK p. 387] I either have a perceptual connection to the world or I do not. Let's say it seems to me that I see a cat. Either I do, and a cat has manifested itself in my experience – a veridical appearance – or there is no cat to be seen." i should say that disjunctivism befuddles me to the last, so, i think we need to be very careful in characterizing it... the way you represent the disjunct in your summary of the view maintains the possibility that i am out of touch with the world in the righthand side of the disjunct, when it seems more likely that this interpretation would bring in an intermediary or the kind of subjectively indiscernible state that McD wants to avoid. also, the left-hand side of the disjunct makes it sound as if veridical experience is a "perceptual connection" in the sense of a mechanism of perception rather than openness to the layout of reality as such. Disjunctivism is contrasted with the “highest common factor” account of experience. Disjunctivism is motivated by the argument from illusion. The argument from illusion (or similar skeptical arguments) are motivated by the assumption that there is there something common to veridical experiences (E) and illusions (I)? If it supposed that there is, then from the subject’s point of view, there is no difference between (E) and (I). Assume S has a perceptual experience that P, for instance “this hat is blue.” Under the HCF conception (motivated by the basic assumptions of cartesian philmind), if it is a veridical experience, then the truth of “this hat is blue” is “blankly external” to the content of the experience. These basic Cartesian assumptions about phil mind make perceptual knowledge of the world impossible. Now, we might suppose that the account is supplemented with a causal theory of perception. P (“this hat is blue”) is true IFF the blue hat causes a perceptual experience that has the content “this hat is blue." This is just the bald naturalist's attempt to make sense of how empirical content is possible. But, notice the causal connection is not part of the experience, so is unavailable to the subject to justify her assertion. So, the highest common factor account either leads to Cartesian skepticism or to bald naturalism. Experience has the following structure: either P is veridical OR P is illusory (or something else is going on, or.. ). Illusory experience is merely appearance, but veridical experience does not stop short of the facts or states of affairs it represents. In this sense, appearance is sometimes of the facts and sometimes not of the facts, but is nevertheless always of the world in some sense, partly because we would not deny that there is some reason for our being out of touch with the facts or states of affairs. As such, experience is “openness to the layout of reality” (L2; 26).

Duck said...

Thanks James! I certainly agree that one needs to be very careful in characterizing the various positions here. I never know whether to assume familiarity with the details (risking confusion) or to slow down for a long exposition (risking boredom and, for a different reason, confusion). So I usually settle for a not-entirely-happy medium.

Here, I think that we need to walk a thin line between allowing the argument from illusion to dictate the metaphysics (= HCF) and, recoiling from that, denying the phenomenon which that metaphysics, in its Cartesianism, wrongly construes. Perceptual error is a real phenomenon. When Tweety Bird says "I tawt I taw a puddy tat," he acknowledges the possibility of error; yet his characterization necessarily describes the experience in the terms appropriate only (if McDowell is right) to the veridical case. What else would you have him say?

The problem is, as we know, that the phenomenon of illusion this makes it sound as if there's this thing, the "perceptual experience," which is the same whether or not the puddy tat was indeed present to be teen. The trick is to deny this without also denying the phenomenology of illusion (after all, if it didn't seem as if the p.t. were there, no illusion would be possible). There's nothing wrong with "subjectively indiscernible states"; the problem comes instead in describing them as thereby having the same content.

McDowell (as the outside observer) wants to describe the illusory case as having no content – as being merely the illusion, not of a p.t., but of a contentful perceptual experience at all. Yet what TB says is perfectly true. He registers the subjective indiscernibility the only way he can: in terms of the veridical case. This makes it doubly hard to avoid the HCF account. But once we see how it goes – the concepts in use in this characterization get their content not from the (possibly contentless) experience, but from previous experience with real puddy tats – then there should be no danger of confusion. That is, if you accept disjunctivism (and it has always struck me as possibly more of a quick fix than a central feature of a good epistemology; but it's better than the Cartesian account, that's for sure).

It's true that the agent can't appeal to a causal account to justify a judgment that an appearance is veridical. But that doesn't mean it's false. We interpreters can use it, and indeed it seems we have to. As Davidson says, the content of an assertion is typically what causes it. *I* say that he saw a puddy tat (and not merely that he *thought* that he did) when I have reason to believe, indeed, that his belief that he did was caused in the right way – by a puddy tat.