Rambling thoughts on rambling topics

Abbaye de Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris

Triangulation and social externalism

If we look at the starting point of learning a first language as involving (lots of) triangulation situations which are special in the sense that in those situations there necessarily is an asymmetrical relation of authority between the parties involved, is that not, pace Davidson, a form/source of social externalism? 

If this is right, then one could make the case that first-person authority exists only as the result of successful communication. And that would make throw a different light on the appeal that Davidson makes to first-person authority in his argumentation against social externalism à la Burge. 

The reason that Davidson wants to keep social externalism at arm’s length is probably that he thinks it might interfere with his claim that language is not an epistemic intermediary. After all, if we accept social externalism and accept the possibility of variety in sources of such external elements, then some form of relativism seem to ensue.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 20/10/2015

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Yuanming Yuan, Beijing

Grammatical meaning and situational meaning

First person certainties illustrate the distinction between grammatical meaning and situational meaning in an interesting way. Cf., ‘My name is NN‘, as said by NN. This utterance has grammatical meaning, but whether it also has situational meaning depends on the perspective we view it from. For the hearer this utterance supplies contingent information (at least, possibly). But that does not hold for the speaker. So, there is indeed a use for this sentence, –after all, this is typically the way in which we tell someone what our name is. But it has situational meaning only for the hearer, not for the speaker. The speaker needs a hearer to be able to use the sentence in the first place. And that distinguishes this sentence for its second and third person variants: ‘His name is NN‘ always has situational meaning. One could say that in the first person case the speaker uses the grammatical meaning to generate situational meaning for the hearer.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 17/07/1994

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Curaçao

Wittgenstein and naturalism

The way in which Wittgenstein describes the nature of philosophical analysis in Philosophical Investigations. Philosophy of Psychology: A Fragment, section xiii, is reminiscent of the procedure that is employed in the Tractatus, in this respect that in both cases the nature of phenomena is investigated from within. In a sense, this is Wittgensteins’s  form of transcendentalism: to investigate the conditions of possibility of a phenomenon by looking at it from the inside, i.e., from the perspective of the phenomenon itself, by charting and investigating its manifestations and possibilities. 

What distinguishes the perspective of the Philosophical Investigations from that of the Tractatus are the added dimensions of naturalism and pluralism. Looking, as he suggests we do in section xiii, at imaginary, i.e., counterfactual situations, we stumble upon naturalistic constraints on what we can in fact imagine, given the concepts that we actually have. This is not an a priori reflection on what the concept is, so, pace Hacker and many others, it is not a purely conceptual analysis. Rather, it investigates what we are able and willing to do with the concept such as it is. The naturalistic constraints that we then come across may be fairly hard (cf., Philosophical Investigations 85, on the disappearing chair), but they may also be soft, in the sense that in some cases the results of empirical research may lead us to adopt a different kind of application of a concept than we had before. Note that, as On Certainty suggests, such a change in the application of a concept is hardly ever really forced upon us: we may always decide to stick to the original application, and cover the suggested extension or change in a different way: via a conceptual subdivision, the invention of a new concept, the relegation of the newly discovered phenomena to a different realm than the original concept applies to, etc.

Slogan: “The later Wittgenstein? Kant, properly naturalised.”

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 10/04/2009

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Île de Sein

Science and humanities

A crucial element of Wittgensteins’s meta-philosophy is the specific form of naturalism that he employs. As he emphasises on many occasions, e.g., in the Lectures on Aesthetics with respect to aesthetic judgements, or in RPP withe respect to our psychological vocabulary, the meaning of these expressions/concepts cannot be identified with the underlying causal-nomological, physiological processes. Real as they are, and interesting as they are in their own right, these are not what explains the meanings that these concepts/expressions have for us. For that we need to look in another direction, viz., at the complex practices in which we use them. These practices are historically, socially, culturally determined, and they are contingent along these dimensions. Of course, these practices can also be investigated from an external perspective, one that aims to uncover whatever causal processes co-determine them. However, their role in establishing meaning is constitutive, not explanatory, and that requires an internal understanding, rather than an external explanation. 

This might be seen as pointing to a dichotomy between two types of phenomena, or, rather, between two ways of dealing with phenomena:  external causal explanation, and internal hermeneutic understanding, with no connections between the two. And that in its turn seems to suggest there is an ideological choice we need to make between reductionism, which takes only the first for real, and separationism, which claims independence of both.  However, our practices themselves provide lots of points at which the two interact. Our understanding of ourselves is not just a matter of the concepts we employ when we try to make sense of ourselves internally, it is also the outcome of what we find out when we investigate ourselves from an external perspective. Both co-determine our practices, in different ways, and along different temporal dimensions, but both are factors that shape and change our practices. In doing so, internal understanding and external explanation also influence each other, albeit often only indirectly and in complex ways that are often difficult to trace and understand. And note that the relationship goes both ways: how we understand ourselves hermeneutically determines  what we set out to explain, and the results of our explanatory understanding feed into the practices that determine our internal, hermeneutic understanding. 

It is in this way that a practice-based approach allows us to escape the false dichotomy between science and humanities. If we acknowledge that both are intrinsically tied to our practices, and that it is in both depending on and shaping those practices that the two meet, we can forego this forced and false choice.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 20/12/2015

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Bilbao

Certainties and ineffable knowledge

It is important to distinguish between certainties as background elements that are constitutive for a certain (set of)  practice(s); and  ‘ineffable’ knowledge, such as knowing what a game is, how a clarinet sounds.  These are really two different kinds of cases, and they should be kept apart. The latter are active within a language game, they can be conveyed, taught, tested; only not by means of explicit definitions and descriptions. The former are not active, but constitutive; they are not taught, not tested. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 10/06/2019

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Waddenzee near Stroe

The semantical and the epistemological

Concerning Dummett’s criticism of Davidson’s semantics (cf., ‘What is a theory of meaning? (II)’ ). First step: a semantic theory is (also) a theory of competence, i.e., of the ability to use the language with its semantics. That much is unproblematic from a Davidsonian perspective, it is what Davidson starts out with (cf., the opening paragraphs of ‘Truth and meaning, and ‘Radical interpretation’). Second step: adding the requirement that this ‘knowledge of language’ must be manifested (or, at least, manifestable). As such that does not seem to be objectionable from a Davidsonian perspective, the crux of the matter is what will count as manifestation of semantic knowledge.

Next, Dummett seems to make two moves. First he constructs semantic knowledge as the ability to observe that truth conditions obtain, and then, correctly of course, notes that taken in a more or less `literal’ way, this is problematic for sentences that have truth conditions that involve counterfactual or past situations or infinite domains. One reply to that could be that observation of truth conditions being fulfilled is not a very representative case anyway, and that it seems much more natural to construe manifestation of knowledge of truth conditions in terms of having knowledge of ways of ascertaining that truth conditions hold. (So, with regard to the past, a basic knowledge of historical methods; with regard to infinite domains, the concept of a proof by induction; etc.) This is not something Dummett spells out, but he seems to tie in with this, since the next move he makes is to suggest that verification actually is what we are after: the ability to manifest semantic knowledge is the ability to verify sentences (statements). That is a crucial move, since now the semantic and the epistemological are intimately tied: semantic competence, viz., the ability to use language correctly, has now been identified with what at first sight seems to be an epistemological `competence’, viz., the ability to verify a statement (always ‘in principle’, of course).

Here, I guess, Davidson would object. In ‘A coherence theory of truth and knowledge’ he makes an effort to carefully dissociate the semantic and the epistemological, and in a criticism of his ideas that effort cannot simply be neglected. It must be shown defective before this further step can be taken. For Davidson verification, as a particular form of justification, belongs to the coherence notion of truth, which is not to be mistaken for the `mild’ correspondence notion that plays a role in semantics and semantic competence.

The difference between Dummett’s and Davidson’s position is a substantial one. By separating semantics and epistemology Davidson makes room for the possibility that we might be able to  understand statements that are epistemologically unassailable, whereas in Dummett’s approach this becomes impossible. Mathematics provides an example: Dummett’s view on meaning forces him to adopt a constructivistic approach to mathematics, whereas for Davidson such an approach would need additional arguments that do not hinge on the semantics of mathematical statements.

What is the right approach is not obvious in any way, the point here is simply that the transition from the requirement that one be able to manifest one’s semantic knowledge to the requirement that one have a method of verification is one that stands in need of argumentation and that part of that argumentation is essentially non-semantic.

Martin Stokhof
from: Interpretation
date: fall 2001

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La Vieille, Finistère

Imagine this

This is the situation: I observe something happening and I imagine that I tell someone about it, in all details, i.e., including the fact that I imagine that I tell someone about it, in all details, i.e., including the fact that I imagine that I imagine that I tell someone about it, in all details, i.e., …

What does this show? That I can simply create an impossible situation from a contingent one. I observe something happening and I intend to tell someone about it: that is contingent. I also intend to tell someone about this intention: that, too, is contingent. Now I intend to tell everything, i.e., including this intention: that is impossible. To put it differently, the content of my intention (‘And then I will say: I saw something happening …, and then I thought, I should tell someone about it …’) cannot contain the intention itself: if the intention becomes part of the content, it is part of the content of another intention created by that.

The source of the impossibility seems to be self-reflection, in much the same way as self-reference forms the root of the Liar paradox. What can be concluded from this? A parallel that suggests itself is that with regressing awareness. I can be aware of my environment, myself, my actions, my thoughts, … I can also be aware of the fact that I am aware of my environment, myself, … But being aware of everything, including my awareness of that awareness is impossible: content and awareness can never coincide.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 13/02/1992

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Lingyin temple, Hangzhou

Ineffability and judgment

Why would the ineffability of ethics preclude ethical judgments? Of course, if we construct ‘judgment’ as ‘meaningful proposition’ the answer is obvious, but we do not need to do that. Couldn’t a judgment take on a different form, say that of an action, or an attitude? Or do we lack objective criteria for two such judgments to be the same, i.e., wouldn’t we be able to decide whether we agreed on the ethical aspect of an action unless we were able to discuss it? But why would that be the case? (And why think that the ability to discuss does come with any guarantee?)

Although the mark of a happy life can not be expressed, it must be an intrinsic aspect of our actions, not something over and above them. And that suggests that it is accessible even though it is ineffable. In general the question whether we need a verbally explicit statement of ethical principles must be distinguished from the question whether there can be such a statement. For if the answer to the first is negative, the answer to the second becomes immaterial from an ethical point of view. Whether we can do without verbalisations presumably depends on whether other means of conveying ethical principles are available. Would poetry, music, action itself, qualify?

Could we say that the ‘experiences of the second kind’ that Wittgenstein mentions in ‘A Lecture on Ethics’ (i.e., not experiences of facts in the world, but experiences that pertain to the world as such), although ineffable, do have an intersubjective potential? I.e., they point towards similar experiences other people may have had in virtue of which they are able to understand what Wittgenstein is aiming at? That would go beyond the mere recognition of other subjects as willing subjects, since it would actually differentiate between people, and could be the basis of moral conversation (instruction, etc.)

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: spring 2004

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Amsterdam

Tidbits

Ah, the eternal issue of footnotes. There are those who honestly feel that footnotes are a sign of sloppiness (in writing, and hence probably also in thinking): either what is stated in the footnote is important for understanding what is said in the text and then it should be part of the text; or it is not, and then it can be left out. Purists …

Others delight in the possibilities of adding ‘irrelevant’ details, side-remarks, hedges, that footnotes offer: entire underground battles are being fought there, scores are settled, new enemies are made. Here you can state an opinion without arguing for it, this is the place to display your knowledge and learning even if it has nothing to do with the topic. Exhibitionists …

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: spring 2003

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Sliema, Malta

Ineffability

There is an interesting parallel between Davidson’s arguments against the analysis of metaphor in terms of simile, and Wittgenstein’s way of arguing that religious expressions are not similes in ‘A Lecture on Ethics’. In both cases the point is that something ineffable is explained in terms of something that is expressible, or to put it differently, that something that does not have cognitive content is equated with something that has. Essentially, it is the distinction between showing and saying that is at stake in both cases.

Martin Stokhof
from: Interpretation
date: fall 2001

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Rotterdam

On the linguistic turn in Wittgenstein

On the linguistic turn. How should it be evaluated? On the one hand: the isomorphism of language and thought places the Tractatus squarely in the traditional, epistemologically inspired framework. (Cf., in connection with this, the first formulation of the aim of the book in the preface: ‘Das Buch will also dem Denken eine Grenze ziehen’.) On the other hand: the assignment to the principles of logic of the place that before that was reserved for the principles of thought (and perception) does constitute a fundamental step (one that is reflected in Wittgenstein’s characterisation of epistemology as ‘philosophy of psychology’ (4.1121)). For now the limits of thought are determined by something that is of a different nature than thought itself: logic. In the traditional framework there was the possibility of thought, including its limitations and fundamental principles, being its own subject matter. (A possibility left open by Kant, taken up with gusto by German idealists, to which Schopenhauer emphatically objected.) After the linguistic turn, thought appears to be forced into a more passive role. (Is it to emphasise this that the Tractatus assigns logical principles an ontological status?)

The resulting picture is mixed. What we see is a transition that potentially represent a fundamental break with the past, but the consequences of which are by and large not worked out. Locating the limits of thought outside thought itself opens up a space of possibilities. But bu opting for logic as the source not much of that space is actually explored, let alone exploited. For both, logic and thought, are essentially discursive (which is why it is possible for the Tractatus to regard them as isomorphic). It is only from the angle of language that it becomes visible what the limitation is: only the discursive (‘logical’) part of language is within the scope of the analysis that the Tractatus offers.

In the years following the Tractatus we see a shift from logic to grammar (in Wittgenstein’s sense of the word), and concommittant with that attention for other functions of language than just the discursive one. One consequence of that shift is a relaxation of the concept of ‘limits of thought’: there are as many ways of thinking as there are different, autonomous languages games. Even stronger: the central role itself of thought (in both a positive and a negative sense) is being questioned.

It is only at this point that the consequences of the linguistic turn come into their own: the diversity and multiplicity of language, of grammar, shows that there cannot be such a thing as a determination of ‘the’ limits of thought ‘as such’, that thought itself is not a monolithic whole but rather consists of various practices, with various links between them and embedded in our ways of acting. In this sense, one can say that it is only in his later work that Wittgenstein fully and completely ‘takes the linguistic turn’, and that, by doing so, he finally brings about the radical break with the old ‘philosophy of consciousness’ that he was after.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 09/03/1992

Rambling thoughts on rambling topics

Waterlandse Zeedijk

Lies, lies, lies …

Crucial for Davidson’s account of radical interpretation is that although we can distinguish verbal from non-verbal behaviour, we cannot separate them. The perennial liar can be found out because what we say is linked to what we do and because what we do is to some extent ‘shared beyond our will’ (i.e., we cannot determine that at will). That some instance of verbal behaviour is a lie will then be revealed by some particular instance of non-verbal behaviour being incongruent with ours where ‘by assumption’ it should be the same. If a perennial liar were able to completely separate their verbal from their non-verbal behaviour, and hence be congruent in what they do, yet lie in what they say, they could indeed not be found out. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Interpretation
date: 09/2003

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Summer Palace, Beijing

On Sartre on love, lust, and subject

It seems that the entire issue centres around the notion of a subject, or a self. If we start from the assumption that there is indeed a notion of subject that is fundamental, i.e., that cannot be conceived of as somehow constituted by more basic facts, or, reversely, as being constructed from those, we run into the kind of problems addressed by Sartre. Which is not to say, of course, that the analysis he gives is correct if we do grant him the assumption he makes. More on that below. First, let us examine the assumption just indicated a little further.

At the background operates an even more fundamental prejudice, viz., that it is entities (objects, individuals, perhaps even ‘Gegenstände’) that constitute the raw material that the world is made of. This picture is right at the heart of almost all of our western ways of thinking, be they philosophical, scientific, or just those of everyday. It should emphatically not be equated with some kind of material atomism. The platonistic views, the various forms of idealism that have plagued us for so long, the materialistic approaches that have both enriched us and bereft us of so many things that are intrinsically worthwhile, they all share this assumption. They are but different ways (and radically different they are, in some respects) of filling in this picture. The reference to ‘Gegenstände’ is not coincidental: even the view of logical atomism does not succeed in really freeing itself from this idea, viz., that the rock-bottom of what there is, can be, indeed must be, conceived of in terms of individual entities. It is clear that the very notion of a subject as an irreducible category, in terms of which many things simply have to be explained, is almost part and parcel of this picture. And again, it does not matter whether we are dealing with a common-sense notion, or with a more speculative, metaphysical way of conceiving of it: all these different notions take for granted that subjects are real and irreducible.

If the picture is so compelling, and also so successful in many ways, one might ask if there is an alternative. In fact, certain physical theories provide an answer (and, though perhaps not an alternative picture, at least an alternative language). Acknowledging the notion of a field as something as basic as that of an entity, these physical theories do brake the bonds of the old picture. (And that these are strong bonds can be deduced from the fact that even in this realm the attempts to reduce fields to the interactions between entities are numerous.) But pointing out this feature of physical theories is not enough. We must see whether this idea, which has limited application, can be generalised sufficiently. This extended idea would take the notion of an event, or that of a process, as basic. The world (in all its aspects) then consists, not of entities making up complex situations, but of events located in space-time, of processes unfolding themselves. Entities on this alternative picture are best conceived of either as regularities across events, or as bundles of such. (This kind of view is scarce in western philosophy, perhaps the best-known example being Whitehead’s process metaphysics. Interestingly, situation theory provides another example, at least under a certain interpretation. In other traditions this picture is more common.)

The idea of individuals as convenient labels for certain collections of events might strike us as completely absurd, at least at first sight. After all, it is we who, by acting and being in certain ways, ‘make’ events, not the other way around. Or so we feel (and hence, we think). But this is certainly not a good argument. (In a happy phrase of Kant’s, it might be an instance of mistaking the unity of experience for the experience of a unity.) A very rough indication of some reasons why one might nevertheless entertain this idea, involve the following observations. Notice that in our idea of an individual, the criterion of spatio-temporal continuity plays a decisive role. Now we may observe that although the application of this criterion is unproblematic in most cases, there are circumstances in which we find it somewhat harder to apply. One instance is that of a certain type of biological entities that are referred to as ‘colonies’ (certain jelly-fish are examples, as are corals, and perhaps also, but at a higher level, ants). (There is an analogy with problems that arise when we want determine the identity conditions for so-called ‘collective individuals’, such as groups, but I will not go into that now.) Another instance is provided by the phenomenon of metamorphosis, either in real time (caterpillars and butterflies), or in fantasies (frogs and princes). If we take this observation seriously, we must conclude that spatio-temporal continuity may be a good, efficient, successful way of carving up such ‘stuff as we are made of’, but that it certainly is not a necessary feature.  Sufficiently distant (from us) observers might individualise the same stuff quite differently. (The relevance for the issue at hand is obvious: even a temporary merging of stuff might by such an alternative criterion constitute a single individual.)

Even for the few who find the alternative picture sketched above not implausible, there is, of course, a problem, viz., how to account for the undeniable fact that we do have a notion of a self, of some personal identity. It seems that here several routes are open. One of them, which strikes me as not altogether far-fetched, is to look upon the self, in sense of the ‘I’ that we identify with, as being a partly biological, partly social construction. The biological source is mainly based on application of the spatio-temporal continuity criterion, which, although not completely unproblematic here (dreaming, sleeping), seems applicable to the events that we think we participate in, and which, on this account, go into making us up as separate individuals. The social constraints are more of a functional nature, and seem to be based, to a certain extent, on some preliminary stage of biological make-up. But notice that the two are not strictly temporally ordered. Psychotic disorders of various kinds provide relevant material here. (Cf., also Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage.) Taking our lead from this admittedly very rough idea, we can now see that the issue at hand needs to be reformulated: given that, as we undeniably do, we  have a notion of a self (for whatever reasons), but taking into account that this notion is essentially a construction, not something fundamental,  the issue turns out to be anthropological, rather than metaphysical in nature. An account of lust and desire, of love and tenderness, should take as its starting point neither our material biological make-up, nor seek refuge in some metaphysical realm, which is not to deny that such factors do play a role. The crucial phenomena to be accounted for appear on the anthropological level: it is how we see ourselves, and how we act in these matters given the way we see ourselves, that is all important.

This, in effect, is my main objection to Sarte’s analysis. Where Sartre goes wrong, – and he does go wrong, I think, even if we grant him his metaphysical notion of subject –, is that he blurs over the distinction between biological, psychological, social, metaphysical, and aesthetic aspects and the concomitant reasons and causes. The unitary notion of subject forces one to either take a reductionist stance, which he obviously rejects, or to try one’s hand at a unificatory, higher-level analysis, e.g., in terms of an exclusively metaphysical notion. The latter is Sartre’s line and that is where he goes wrong. And he has to go wrong, because of the monolithic nature of the subject that he uses. The alternative view allows at least room for another approach that is neither reductionist nor transcendent: on the heterogeneous view of the subject one can acknowledge all aspects as real and, most important of all, as unrelated (to a certain extent, i.e., at least unrelated to such an extent that we do not fall into the reductionist pitfall). Neither are we forced to deny that they are present at the same time: in desire and lust, as well as in love and tenderness, all these aspects can be distinguished, albeit not always in the same form and to the same extent. Which is not to say that the heterogeneous approach by itself provides such an analysis. For that we need the one thing that philosophers almost always refuse to look at: our personal experience.

One important characteristic of the notion of a subject, or self, is that it refers to a limit. A subject is something that is distinguished from other things, – other subjects, or objects. (In effect, from within a subject all other subjects appear as objects, albeit of a special type.) This raises two questions. One concerns the nature of this limit, the other the reality thereof.

A distinction that seems relevant here is that between a limit  that sets off one part of reality from another, and a limit  that defines a certain entity. A border between two countries is an example of the first kind, the ordinal number omega one of the second. Let us call them ‘limit-between’ and ‘limit-to’. What is the nature of the limit of a subject?.

One way to answer this question is to investigate the notion of transgression of a limit. Transgression of a limit-between means transcendence in a more or less literal sense; crossing of a border, going from one location to another. The moment someone transcends a limit-between, he cannot be said to belong to either location, to be an integral part of what is on either side. This means that the limits of a subject are not limits-between a subject and other subjects. (Of course, the subject can recognise limits-between itself and other subjects, but then it reflects upon itself from the outside as it were, i.e., it regards itself and the others basically as objects.)

It seems therefore that the limits involved are limits-to, transcendental conditions  that define the subject, rather than delimit it. Transgression of a limit-to means re-definition, broadening or narrowing down, changing one’s identity. In the context of lust such a change is the incorporation of the other, or the letting oneself be incorporated. That being so, the crucial question is whether this incorporation is appropriation. It seems not, for to appropriate something, or someone, means to make it, or them, my own, it is to change relationships, not relata. But in this very act of transgression it is the ‘my’ that is re-defined.

As for the reality of limits, it is important to note that any transgression is both conscious and temporary. Is it reality that changes, or the subject’s self-image? Which raises a preliminary question: is there a reality to a subject distinct from its self-image? A quick ‘yes’ presumably only indicates that we can look upon subjects as objects, but that is beside the point.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 10/01/1997

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Parking Victor Hugo, Toulouse

The realism of situation theory

The realism of situation theory is not a naive realism in this sense that through the concept of ‘attunement’ it incorporates an element that represents a more Kantian perspective. But it is limited: for within the sphere of real situations there is also the distinction being made between states of affairs and courses of events. The difference between these two types of ontological entities is supposed to reside in the role that time plays. And that means that time is interpreted in a purely realistic fashion. There is no room for ideality of time. In connection with this the question arises how such a realistic interpretation of time is related to the classification of localities, which include time, as uniformities.

Truth values (polarities) do not have an ontological counterpart in real situations. (This is another point of resemblance between situation theory and the ontology of the Tractatus, cf.: ‘My fundamental thought is that the “logical constants” do not represent.’ (4.0312).) Truth values are instantiations of polarities, and one could also have instantiations such as ‘good – bad’, ‘beautiful – ugly’, and so on. (Aside: Are all instantiations of polarities bi-valent? Probably not.)

How real, in the sense of independent, are situations? Not very much, in view of the fact that they need to be interpret as partial and given that they can only be grasped through the postulated uniformities. For those reasons they run the same risk as the Kantian ‘Dinge-an-sich’: postulated as the substrate of what is knowable but unknowable themselves, there is no doubt that someone will come along and dismiss them as useless postulates.

The localisation of the INVOLVE-relation in the world is innocent realism. But the fact that the definition of a situation-structure includes the demand that these constraints are satisfies shows that they are (also) being used as entities of a higher ontological order.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 31/10/1991

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Hermitage, Saint Petersburg

Davidson on rationality and the transcendental status of Charity

What is it that strikes one as problematic about Davidson’s appeal to rationality? Is it the apparently metaphysical status of the concept as it plays a role in Davidson’s work, or does it concern the content of the concept that he uses? (In the latter case, how does that differ from the kind of appeal to rationality that is inherent in, e.g., Popper’s approach in terms of falsifiability? Isn’t that another application of a conception of rationality?) 

As for the qualms that many people have about the Kantian, transcendental status of Charity: it is certainly true that one can raise objections to the kind of transcendental analysis that Davidson’s use of Charity seems to instantiate. But we should ask ourselves whether the alternative theories are really theories about the same phenomenon, or whether perhaps a shift takes place when we drop the appeal to transcendental notions. For example, one may argue that a consequentialist in ethics `really’ (but the use of `really’ should be a warning sign!) is concerned with a different notion of the good than a deontologist. Likewise, if we talk about interpretation on the assumption of the possibility of an external, independent identification of what counts as (utterances of) the same language, we’re dealing with not quite (another red light flashes) the same problem as Davidson. So what seems to be needed (but at the same time seems very hard to get) is an a priori, non-theory dependent characterisation of the phenomenon in question.

Question: suppose it were clear what exactly Davidson’s conception of rationality was, and suppose it would be one with which we  agreed, would that make a difference? In other words, is it the lack of perspicuity of some of the central concepts that is bothering us, or is it the way in which they are used? 

Observation: Davidson’s goal is not to come up with empirical theories in the sense in which scientific theories are empirical. (Cf., the discussion in `The Second Person’ about the abstract nature of the concepts of ‘language’, ‘meaning’, etc.) If anything, his goal is to come up with models for empirical phenomena that explain, not their actual ‘ins and outs’, but, one could say, their ‘possibility’. 

That actually leads to a second question (one that is not restricted to Davidson’s analyses), viz., what it is that we do when in philosophy we analyse something that is also a straightforward empirical phenomenon. To that question there are many answers, one of which is that of transcendental methodology. And the next step is then to determine how empirical observations are relevant for assessing these philosophical answers.

Martin Stokhof
from: Radical Interpretation Discussion Board
date: fall 2006

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Camperduin

Future

What is left for us to contemplate? We used to look away, to the future, the unknown, to something distant that we would discover and that would amaze us. But the present, the situation we are in, has come back, with a vengeance, because it is of our own making. The present demands all our attention, and we’d better be prepared to engage. The future is not something that may develop in ways unknown, it is what we make of it here and now. The future is the direct consequence of what we do, of how much we care, of what we are willing to confront. If we don’t, there is no future, at least, not for us.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 09/08/2017

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Rome

Philosophie pauvre

Philosophy’s alternative for scientism seems to consist in an indulgence in conceptual analysis, either quasi-scientific, as in much of contemporary analytic philosophy, or quasi-profound, as in much post-modernistic philosophy (especially when used in other humanities disciplines than philosophy itself). 

Scientism is insincere and a mark of narrow mindedness; and the alternatives testify to inability and unwillingness. Inability and unwillingness  to realise that on the one hand there is indeed a lot that science is not and will not be able to do, and on the other hand that the territory that it leaves uncharted can only  be entered with modesty and in full realisation of the limitedness of human rationality.

If there is a place, a role for philosophy with regard to that territory, it needs to be a ‘philosophie pauvre’:  a modest, hesitating, critically self-reflecting philosophy, one that suggests, asks, observes; not a philosophy that states claims, defends theses, projects visions. 

Scientism is the extrapolation of optimism, or rather, of the combination of optimism with curiosity. There is nothing wrong with either, as long as it is acknowledged that each has boundaries that are not their own. Transcending boundaries is what can, and should, happen within the domain of science. But it does not apply to the limits of science. That is what scientism loses track of, the distinction between boundary and limit, between the boundaries of what we currently know and understand, and the limits of understanding itself.

One area where what is at stake here becomes very clear is when we ponder the possible expansion of human life beyond our planet. The excitement that the very contemplation of that possibility creates (let alone the actual realisation of it) is deeply rooted in this optimism, in the longing for control and in the trust in our ability to gain that control. ‘Determining one’s own destiny’, ‘being the master of one’s fate’, the ideal applies to the human species as much as it does to the human individual. 

‘Philosophie pauvre’ opposes that. It counters the optimistic projections about the future  with simple observations about actuality:  the human condition, the constant failure of humans to live up to their ideals, to conquer their weaknesses, their inability to make sense of their own lives.  And their never failing urge to do so, to keep trying to do so. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 29/03/2019

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Tokyo

Semantic solipsism

Davidson’s analysis in ‘A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs’ marks a goodbye to the idea of a compositional (recursive) theory of meaning. Why? To answer this question we must answer another one first: Why did we want such a theory in the first place? The answer seems to be because we wanted an a priori characterisation of semantic competence, i.e., an account which deliberately disregards factual use. For such an abstract, non-situated analysis the potential infinity of language constitutes a major problem. In other words, it is the assumption of a pure, individual-based language which creates the problem, for which compositionality provides a solution (one that is intuitive, though arguably not the only one possible). If we drop this assumption this argument for compositionality at least vanishes (there may be other ones). Of course, another issue takes its place: How are we able to create ever new passing theories? Here Wittgenstein’s rule-following considerations come to bear directly on Davidson’s approach. It seems that Davidson has managed to back himself into a corner by not dropping the individual bias: meaning tends to get locked up inside each individual speaker, and a serious threat of semantic solipsism arises.

Martin Stokhof
from: Interpretation
date: 05-1997

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Amsterdam

On characteristic expression

That we do on occasion repress the characteristic expression of, say, an emotion, is definitely true. This may be on on an individual basis, but it may also be imposed on us by some social rule (‘Men don’t cry’, ‘Stiff upper lip and never say die’, that sort of thing). What makes this possible is that the characteristic expression usually consists of a variety of elements, in mixed proportions. Quite generally speaking, there seems to be a continuum of relevant criteria, ranging from pure behavioural responses (‘Ouch’; when being kicked in the sheens) to highly conventionalised verbal expressions (of, say, belief in a mathematical proposition). There are hardly any cases where there is just one criterion that makes up the characteristic expression, which is one reason, I guess, why cheaters usually can be found out. But the complexity of the characteristic expression, along with the nature of the criteria that it is composed of, seems a good indicator of what we can expect to be ‘suppressible’.

Martin Stokhof
from: PI Discussion Board
date: spring 2016

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Tallin

Uninterpreted content

One question that keeps coming back is what a practice based approach (such as Wittgenstein’s and Schatzki’s) has to offer over and above what Davidson’s appeal to Charity accomplishes. And there are good reasons to ask this question, if only because the Charity principle does seem to lend itself to formal modelling, unlike a practice based view.

The answer can be given in two ways (but it is basically the same answer): ‘uninterpreted content’, and ‘learning’. Participation in a practice originates from a point outside the practice, and a characterisation of what it  means to be a participant minimally has to allow for an account of how one becomes one. When the practice is linguistic, -one that involves interpretation-, this involves an account of the transition of the non-linguistic to the linguistic realm, and hence includes a specification of the role of uninterpreted content.

On both counts the Davidsonian approach does not seem to do well: the participants in radical interpretation are autonomous and fully competent, but how they became that way is left in the dark. (Meredith Williams in ‘Wittgenstein and Davidson on the sociality of language’ also voices for criticism along these lines.) In particular, the essentially linguistic nature (in the sense of being linguistically expressible) of what they bring to bear on the task (beliefs, desires, and other attitudes) seems to be an obstacle: there is no role for uninterpreted content here.

Another point that speaks in favour of the learning approach is that it suggests that it is not just the transition from the pre-verbal to the verbal stage that is at stake, but that learning is a continuous process. Hence, ‘teacher’ and ‘pupil’ are really indications of functions, of roles, and even during our days as ‘competent’ speakers of a language we play both roles. If we encounter a new phrase, or one that is used in a new way, we may adopt the role of ‘pupil’ and try to learn what the new meaning is. Or we may adopt the ‘teacher’ role and try to correct the other’s usage. What role we choose depends on a number of factors: our concern with successful communication in this instance, our estimate of the abilities of the other language user, social relations, our emotional attitudes towards the other, and so on.

Martin Stokhof
from: Interpretation
date: fall 2009

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Traboule, Lyon

Certainties, truth and relativism

If we compare the picture that we can extract from On Certainty with Davidson’s view (as expounded in, e.g., ‘A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge’), the important difference seems to be this, that Wittgenstein introduces the layer of certainties in between our epistemological practices and external reality, whereas Davidson construes the relation between belief and reality much more directly. The fact that certainties are categorically different from beliefs and other epistemological entities (despite the fact that over time, and between communities and/or individuals,  what counts as what may change) in combination with the plurality of systems of certainties, makes room for a measure of (conceptual) relativism that Davidson seeks to avoid. His way of doing so is to take the core of our belief system to be as stable (over time, over communities and/or individuals) as is the causal influence of external reality on humans. (There is more room for differences in the ‘superstructure’ of complex beliefs that are not directly caused by our interactions with reality, but that is something that Davidson does not pay that much attention to). 

This has also consequences for how truth works in both perspectives. In On Certainty truth is first and foremost a concept that operates within a particular epistemological practice, that itself is made possible by a particular system of reference consisting of certainties. (That Wittgenstein construes it in more or less verificationistic terms is an additional,  independently motivated feature.) The relation between external reality and certainties is not one of determination, but of constraint. This is the source of plurality, and it also implies that certainties are not upheld because they are true. The fact that different certainties  can be upheld at the same time also testifies to that, of course. Nevertheless, certainties differ in terms of their entrenchment and some are so basic to our form of life that it does not seem that much of a stretch to call them ‘true’, admittedly in quite a different sense. In Davidson’s perspective we also have two distinct properties. ‘Mild correspondence’ is the notion of truth that links beliefs (and hence meaning) to the world. It is what  the causal influence of the world on us results in. Internally, i.e., within our actual epistemological practice, truth then takes on a different form, that of coherence. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 22/03/2012

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Phoenix Mountain, Beijing

On language as the medium of hermeneutic experience

Gadamer, in Truth and Method: “Interpretation […] is the act of understanding itself, which is realized—not just for the one for whom one is interpreting but also for the interpreter himself—in the explicitness of verbal interpretation.” This is the claim that language is the medium of hermeneutic experience. (And all experience, of whatever kind, is also hermeneutic.) Gadamer insists that the absence of explicit linguistic formulations does not constitute a counterexample: all non-linguistic demonstrations in fact rely on language. 

The general claim, that all understanding is linguistic, i.e., has language as its medium, definitely sounds counterintuitive, since we do intuitively feel that there are things that we understand but that we can not ‘put into words’. 

One thing to bear in mind, tough, is the intimate relation between understanding and interpretation: all understanding is interpretation, and all interpretation results in understanding. To the extent that this sound wrong, it might reflect a hidden assumption about the existence of something like ‘ultimate’, ‘final’, ‘true and complete’ understanding, a kind of understanding that transcends the kind of understanding that interpretation results in. That, Gadamer claims, is an illusion. 

That means that from a Gadamerian point of view our problem in fact reduces to the question: ‘Is all interpretation verbal (linguistic)?’ Again, we need to take that in a broad sense, i.e., without any presupposition of actual verbalisations. (In an analogous fashion, Gadamer argues that we need not worry about linguistic diversity.)

The claim then seems to come down to this: anything that is proposed as an interpretation is in principle subject to questioning, argumentation, justification. This must be so, for interpretation itself is the result of such questioning, etcetera. Asking questions, providing answers, disputing and justifying them, all this is done in language (or in a medium that presupposes language), and inasmuch as there is something that fails to be subject to these language-based procedures it can not part of the interpretation itself (and hence can not constitute (part of) understanding). 

It’s not that Gadamer would deny the existence of non-verbalisable phenomena, the claim is that as such they are not part of interpretation and hence not part of our understanding of something.  (Note that this comes remarkably close to Wittgenstein’s analysis of the ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ phenomenon in Philosophical Investigations, II.xi.)

To what is extent is this a feasible position? It seems it all centers around the question whether we can actually point to the existence of a kind of understanding that meets two requirements: it is essentially non-linguistic; it is somehow connected to the kind of understanding that is linguistic.

The second requirement is the really problematic one, I think. But it also seems justified. For without it, the dispute would in fact be merely verbal: Is there something that is not linguistic understanding? Of course there is. Can we call it ‘understanding’? Well, yes, but what would be gained by that? It is only when we can point to relationships between the two phenomena, that we really confront Gadamer’s position.

So the question is: Can we do that? What would be good examples?

Martin Stokhof
from: Radical Interpretation Discussion Board
date: fall 2004

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Amsterdam

Ideal, formal, and natural languages

Hand or hammer. An ideal language is an artificial, constructed language. (Historically this is not quite correct. Cf., ideas about Hebrew being the language spoken in Paradise. Cf., also, Heidegger on philosophical languages.) An artificial language is an instrument like a hammer. Constructed by us, and used by us by means of our natural ‘instruments’. And an artificial language can be used only by means of a natural language (this includes its construction), the same way a hammer can only be used by someone who has hands. This holds also for artificial languages that in some sense (precision, clarity, scope) surpass the natural languages by means of which they are constructed. (Cf., Frege on the telescope and the eye.) In some settings this dependence may not be so obvious: mathematics, programming languages, machine code. But think about what we mean when we say that a machine calculates, thinks, … In the end it comes down to interpretation, or translation, into our vernacular. That seems implausible only as long as we forget that our experience (action) is much broader than that which is covered by means of our natural language. (Cf., note dd. 14/07/98: “The role of experience. Experience is not what is expressed in language, at least not solely, but what makes language possible in the first place. It is therefore both transcendent and transcendental. This holds not just for empirical statements and empirical concepts, but across the board. Cf., Wittgenstein on the relation between mathematics and experience. “)

Hence, it seems plausible to consider a natural language to be like a hand, and not like a hammer. However, although we call a natural language ‘natural’ it is not something we were born with: it has to be acquired. This leads straightforward to the assumption of a language of thought. It is the LoT that is the true natural language. (Cf., the biological metaphors in Chomsky’s work, for example: ‘language organ’.)

But then the problem arises as to how this LoT has meaning (and hence conveys meaning to the acquired language. Question: on such a picture would an artificial language need the mediation of a natural language? Or could it be considered to be tied directly to the LoT, in the same way as a natural language?), i.e., how the LoT relates to the world. Explaining that in terms of a natural language (and its relation to the world) obviously leads us straight into a vicious circle. To sharpen the issue, consider theories of direct (rigid) designation. Given some assumptions about the inherent (i.e., non-reducible) indexicality of natural languages, such theories seem at least partly right. From thereon we can turn straight to the steamship metaphor of Putnam: neither natural languages nor a LoT is a natural instrument in the sense of a hand.

Interesting question: could we discover an ideal language? I.e., could we come up against some code that turns out to be (more) ideal? Not clear what that means. Notice that we would need to be able to interpret such a code in our own language, in order for it to be recognisable as a language in the first place. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 22/07/1998

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New York

Imagination

Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 398:

[…] Think of a picture of a landscape, an imaginary landscape with a house in it. –Someone asks “Whose house is that?” – The answer, by the way, might be “It belongs to the farmer who is sitting on the bench in front of it”. But then he cannot, for example, step into his house.

A possible interpretation. Perhaps we should read Wittgenstein here as follows: Whenever we imagine something it is our responsibility to determine what it is that we are imagining. So, we can imagine a landscape, and a house, and a man sitting on the bench in front to the house. And it is we who can say: ‘That’s the owner of the house.’ (And not, say, the guy in the field in the distance who is also part of this imagined landscape.) Now what Wittgenstein might mean when he says ‘But then he can not for example enter his home’ is this: If that is going to happen, it is not because the man himself decides to do that, but because we imagine that as well. That is to say, everything about the picture, and in the picture, is the responsibility of the one who imagines it. (Which need not be the maker: if it is an actual picture, it could be anyone who is looking at it.) This way of reading the passage puts it more in line with the point that Wittgenstein makes in the same section, immediately before, viz., the lack of ‘ownership’ of the visual room. 

Martin Stokhof
from: PI Discussion Board
date: spring 2016

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Vlieland

Cogito

Descartes’ cogito: `I think, therefore I am’. Can one know that one is thinking, but not know what one is thinking? Can one know that one exists, but not know what kind of being one is? If that is impossible, as it seems it is, doesn’t that imply that with the cogito already a whole frame, – of concepts, categories, etc. –,  has to be assumed? But then what kind of claim to a foundation does the cogito make? 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 22/06/1998

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Zollverein, Essen

Metaphor

The following is a curious catch in Davidson’s account of metaphor. If a metaphor has only literal meaning, then what exactly does it mean to say that a speaker uses a metaphor? What a speaker uses, in any case, is a sentence, and, according to Davidson, any sentence only has literal meaning. So, ‘metaphor’ as it is used here cannot be a predicate of sentences, but at best expresses a property of utterances of sentences, i.e., of use. ‘To use a metaphor’ then must mean: ‘to use a sentence metaphorically’. But is that not at odds with Davidson’s insistence that metaphor is not a matter of speaker’s intention?

Martin Stokhof
from: Interpretation
date: fall 1998

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Guanghua temple, Beijing

Religious belief and pictures

Concerning the role of ‘knowing the proper technique’ (Wittgenstein, Lectures on Religious Belief). The point of Wittgenstein’s  discussion in the Lecture II (Michelangelo’s picture of creation) and in Lecture III (the doodle-example, the woman-lying-on-her-bed picture) is two-fold. First of all, Wittgenstein emphasises that these pictures are not ordinary pictures, that our ordinary technique of using pictures (or phrases, or what have you) fails us here. (And, of course, that we go miserably astray if we do apply our ordinary technique in such cases.) However, and that is the second point, we do need some kind of connection with what we do in our everyday life. For without such a connection these ‘objects’ are meaningless, and our handling them an empty gesture. 

One question that arises is this: Why would the fact that pictures can be used to convey (communicate, express) a religious point of view imply that the categorical distinction between religious beliefs and ordinary, factual beliefs is discarded? I think that Wittgenstein, when discussing religious pictures, uses the word ‘picture’ in a special sense, at least not in the ordinary sense of something that depicts something that is independent of it and that it may depicts more or less accurately. Rather, this use of ‘picture’ is reminiscent of what in Philosophical Investigations he calls ‘a way of seeing’. It that is what Wittgenstein means here, then we can say, of course, that a religious picture conveys (communicates, expresses) something, but we should bear in mind that these verbs are then used in a special sense as well. I think that also in his early work Wittgenstein did not exclude the possibility of ethics/religion somehow being communicated. What he did insist upon is that this method of communication was not that of the use of ordinary meaningful language, as we use it in everyday life or science, in debates and discussions. But poetry, novels, the Gospels, music, architecture were always regarded by Wittgenstein as providing us with the possibility of expressing what is at stake here. 

There are two questions that this view raises: Are there any pictures or other means of expression that are particularly suited for religious expression? And in so far as the technique of using such pictures connects them to individual experiences, is this technique not vulnerable for a private language type of argument? 

I don’t know what Wittgenstein’s  answers would have been, but as far as the first question is concerned, my guess is that the answer is, ultimately, ‘No’. For if there would be such pictures, then they would qualify as such on the basis of certain properties and that comes dangerously close to saying that religion is about content after all. The hedge ‘ultimately’ is needed to capture the fact that within a cultural community/historical period we can in fact identify certain pictures as unambiguously religious. But that is ‘just’ an historical fact. 

As for the second question, that actually touches on a more general issue, viz., the role of individual experience in our conceptual (linguistic) system. Here it is important to bear in mind, that although having an experience is an individual matter (and the form that it takes may be even quite idiosyncratic), that does not mean that therefore experiences cannot be intersubjective, shared, common to a group. External constraints play a crucial role here. (Think of what Wittgenstein says in Remarks on Frazer’s ‘Golden Bough’ about the understanding of a ritual.) 

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: fall 2002

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Quiberville

Charity and false beliefs

What Charity does is to assume agreement (in beliefs). That by itself does not automatically assume truth (of those beliefs), it does so only in conjunction with the assumption that we ourselves have the right beliefs. And there is the conundrum: we know that some of our beliefs are false, but we do no know which these are (otherwise we would not hold them). So indirectly we will assume that others, even if we assume they agree with us, will not be right all the time, but for the same reason that we can not attribute false beliefs to ourselves without giving them up, we can not attribute false beliefs to other without giving up the assumption of agreement. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Interpretation
date: fall 2008

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Amsterdam

Rules as attitudes

Viewing rules as certainties is viewing them as attitudes. (Cf., ethics and religious belief as attitudes.) Such a view resolves a certain tension, one that can be the ground for reductionist approaches. The tension comes from an opposition between a rule as norm and the application of a rule as fact. If we view both as belonging to the same ontological or epistemological category (because of monistic assumptions), the tendency to reduce the first to the second is hard to avoid: for what is a ‘normative fact’? How can a norm be a fact in the same way as the application is a fact? (Note that what is not at stake is the fact that something is a norm: that is a social fact, or the same order as factual applications.) But also if we do not assign norm and application to the same category, but make a categorial distinction between the two, a certain tension remains. To view norms as a separate, independent category of entities, distinct from the category of facts, raises the question how the category of norms and that of facts are related. A tendency to reductionism then might be motivated by ontological parsimony, or a need to come up with a hierarchical ordening of categories. And there is the issue that a categorial distinction raises the question how entities from one category, that of norms, are related, or can be related, to those in another category, that of facts.

To view a rule, not as fact of the same order as an application of it, nor as a fact of a different (higher) order that maintains a special relation with its application, but as an attitude towards certain actions, may help oppose the tendency to found or reduce rules.A rule is an attitude towards actions, a way of viewing them, of seeing them in a certain light. Thus viewed, a rule is the result of a decision to consider certain actions as correct and others as incorrect. (Cf., Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations 186: ‘ […] It would almost be more correct to say, not that an intuition was needed at every point, but that a new decision was needed at every point.’) Only given that attitude do these actions become applications of a rule. Then there is no division, neither ontologically, nor epistemologically. There is not on the hand hand the rule, on the other its applications, there are actions that are viewed in a certain way, that are considered part of a particular network of actions.

Think of Wittgenstein’s wallpaper manufacturers (cf., Wittgenstein’s Lectures on the Foundations of Mathematics, Cambridge, 1939, Lecture III). They perform the same actions as competent mathematicians. Yet, only the latter follow a rule, because only they have a normative attitude towards what they do.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 14/10/1993

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New Cathedral, Salamanca

“Ethics and aesthetics are one”

The internal relation between ethics and aesthetics that Wittgenstein suggests in this statement is difficult to come to grips with. However, it is clear that whatever the commonality, there is also difference. 

To start with the latter, aesthetic judgements are expressible, in language, by means of gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice. But ethical judgments are not. Aesthetic judgments form a practice, a system of norms, actions, objects, that is shared by a community. With that comes relativism: over time, and also contemporaneously, over communities. But ethical values are universal. In these (and related) respects ethics and aesthetics are definitely not one. 

The counterpart of an aesthetic practice in the realm of ethics seems to be a moral practice. Moral judgements, too, are expressible, are based on norms that are shared in a community, and thus form a practice . And like aesthetic practices, moral practices, too, display relativism, over time and contemporaneously.

Now for the commonality. As we have argued elsewhere (World and Life as One, chapter 4), morality can be regarded as instrumental with respect to ethics: that is to say, moral norms are not expressions of absolute value, but are instruments that can be used to realise those values. If “being in harmony” with whatever way the world is constitutes the absolute ethical goal, then the moral norms of a community serve as the reflection of those contingent, but relatively stable aspects of the world that this community finds itself in that are morally relevant in that are conducive to the realisation of that ethical goal.

Could we construct a similar relationship in the domain of aesthetics between the absolute and the relative-instrumental? There are at least two reasons to think so. 

First of all, there is the short reference to the sublime in the Lectures on Aesthetics: the gothic cathedral, the Beethoven symphony. These are objects that transcend the rules of aesthetic practices, in much the same way as absolute ethical value transcends the rules of moral practices. It is the nature of the sublime, its absoluteness, that is responsible for that. From that angle, we can view an aesthetic practice as instrumental with respect to the sublime. Engaging in aesthetic practices is a way of preparing oneself for what transcends it, viz., the creation and experience of works that are sublime.  

Secondly, there is the discussion in Culture and Value of the expressive relation between civilisation (culture) and human value. A civilisation, Wittgenstein argues, is a contingent expression of absolute value, and the disappearance  of a particular such expression (much as we may regret it) leaves the absolute value untouched. What is important to note is that what Wittgenstein identifies as expressions of the sublime, of the absolute, are exactly that: expressions, not the thing itself. (Recall the finger pointing to the reflection of the moon.) 

Here we do well to recall Wittgenstein’s characterisation of his ethical experiences in A Lecture on Ethics: these, too,  are emphatically mere expressions, and not the values themselves. Thus, expressions may differ, and will differ, according to the moral or aesthetic practices that they are a part of. And the variation may even extend to the individual level. 

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: spring 2020

Rambling thoughts on random topics

Liège

Semantics and natural language metaphysics

One issue that seems relevant to the question what the status of formal semantics actually is, concerns the ontological commitments of the formal theories employed. Does the “metaphysics vs. natural language metaphysics” distinction answer this question in a satisfactory manner? Only, it seems, if we are willing to shield the speakers of the language in question from its very metaphysical assumptions: the semantics of their language has certain metaphysical implications that they, as speakers of that language, need not share (or even be aware of). But this does create a tremendous distance between speakers and their language, and as such it seems to point toward a much more instrumental interpretation of the various theoretical (logical, metaphysical) concepts which are involved in the description of the language.

Martin Stokhof
from: Interpretation
date:
05/1997

Ramblings on random topics

Sotteville-sur-mer

On interpreting rooks

‘Rooks console each other.’ (NRC Handelsblad, 23/01/2007) Question: can a rook console me? Can I console a rook? If in both cases the answer is ‘No’, then we have two isolated subframes, each characterised by a ‘console’-relation that has certain (formal and material) properties within that subframe, but which is limited to that subframe. The analogy with (in)translatability is obvious. The question that arises then is this: What reasons do we have (could we have) to call two such completely isolated relations both an ‘x-relation’? In what sense are these two the same relation?

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 23/01/2007

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Assyrian figurine, Louvre, Paris

Human thought and the Turing test

Characteristic for the Turing test is that thinking is considered to be an activity or process that is separated from (non-verbal) action, emotion and affect, intuition, and so on. The relation between thought and action is construed as a relation between a program and a machine that executes the program. Thinking consists in formulating instructions, action in their executions. (Traces of a Cartesian dualism are visible here.) Another characteristic, closely related to the first one, is that knowledge and thought processes are assumed to be expressible in rules. (This is closely connected to a representational view of thought.)

What does the Turing-test tell us about human thinking, human thought? Consider the following example. Suppose there are two columns of water that both indicate exactly and correctly the sea level at some point on the shoreline. Column A is directly connected to the sea at that point, via a system of pipes, say. Column B is a closed system in which the water level is determined by calculations that are programmed into the system. Both column ‘behave’ in exactly the same way, yet one would only say of what happens in column A that it is the result of tidal flow. This indicates that the identity of behaviour (or a process, event, action) is co-determined by the network of causal relations in which it is located.

The same seems to be true of human thinking, human thought. If there was a machine that would pass the Turing test, it still remains an open question what conclusion we would (need to) draw. What the example suggests is that one relevant factor is whether the machine is causally related to the kind of things that human thinking is intrinsically connected to: action, will, emotions, and so on. Thus, whether there will be a machine that passes the Turing test is an empirical matter; but what that will mean, for us, is a philosophical question.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 29/03/1992

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Suzhou

On foundationalist readings of On Certainty

What distinguishes the foundationalist reading from the constitutive (‘framework’) reading is that the latter acknowledges the interdependence of certainty and knowledge, whereas the former considers certainty to be independent.

Some, e.g., Robert Brice, make a distinction between  ‘heterogeneous’ and ‘homogeneous foundationalism’, arguing that  the former position is the one  Wittgenstein takes in On Certainty, whereas the latter is the traditional position, that is incapable of fending off the attack by the radical sceptic. The distinction between these two positions as such is clear, and important. But why exactly would one want to call them both ‘foundationalism’? That suggests that besides the difference there is also something they have in common. But what might that be?  A constitutive relation is not a founding relation, the former involves an essential dependency that the latter lacks. What constitutes and what is constituted depend on one another, one cannot consists without the other. But what is founded and what founds are not in that way dependent: one can clear what is founded and be left with the foundations. 

Moyal-Sharrock  argues that the fundamental difference between what she considers Wittgenstein’s foundationalism and traditional foundationalism that the latter, but not the former, is propositional. This raises an interesting question. Is Descartes cogito propositional, or is it Descartes’ exposition of it that is propositional? The latter is certainly true, but does that entail the former?  Or consider forms  of foundationalism that consider sensory experience as foundation. Any exposition of this position will have to resort to descriptions of sensory experience, and these descriptions are, of course, propositional. But does it make sense to say that the sensory experiences themselves are necessarily also propositional? That seems not to follow, at least not without additional premisses. 

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: March 2020

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La chapelle, Saint Polycarpe

Religious belief

Religious beliefs as colouring, rather than as separate language games or as distinct frameworks of certainties. A language game is like a stage set: actors, props, decor. Religious beliefs are the stage lights: they don’t change the stage set, they do not add or remove anything, yet by colouring it they can make it appear completely different.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 20/11/2002

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Avignon

Pluralism and the possibility of philosophy

In a sense one might regard the transition from monism to pluralism, as exemplified in the contrast between Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations, as a move that rescues the possibility of philosophy. In the monistic (absolutistic) approach of the Tractatus (but that applies to many others; cf., e.g., Being and Time) philosophy is doomed by the ineffability of any kind of analysis that leads to non-contingent answers. In a pluralistic setting, such as the one explored in Philosophical Investigations, On Certainty, however, there is at least the possibility of reflection from within one framework on another framework. (But additional  conditions have to be met, of course.) Interestingly, the result of such a reflection is not descriptive, but conceptual. And to the extent that it is possible, one might regard it as a kind of reflective investigation of imagination.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date:
16/10/2002

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Saint Petersburg

On interpretation

What is the mystery of interpretation is not that it would be impossible: we are not able to fly, nor do we have the ability of bi-location, and no-one wonders why we don’t. Nor that it would be: we breath, walk, and again we take this for granted (which does not mean that we can not investigate the actual physiology of these abilities). Regarding interpretation the real problem seems to be that it is both possible and impossible. That interpretation comes natural to us — understanding somehow happens to us without us knowing how —, and that it is an impossible task — no matter how much conscious effort we put in to it we are in the end always defeated. The otherness of the other makes us strangers to ourselves, yet our familiarity with ourselves makes us understand them. Conscious and mechanical, possible and impossible: interpretation is always all of that, but none of it completely.

Martin Stokhof
from: Interpretation
date: 05-1997

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Berlin

On transitivity of translation

Part of the argumentation in Davidson’s ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’ centers around transitivity of the translation relation. The point Davidson is trying to make here, I think, is that if there exists a translation from L1 into L2, that translation itself can be stated in either L1 or L2, and consists in an accurate mapping of sentences from L1 onto sentences of L2. If the translation is stated in L1 then, by assumption, it can also be stated in L2 (after all, there is a mapping from all of L1 into L2, i.e., also of the L1-sentences describing the mapping). So we can safely assume that if there is a translation from L1 into L2, it can be formulated in L2. Now suppose there is a translation from L2 into L3: that, again is a mapping, in this case of L2-sentences onto L3-sentences. That mapping includes those L2-sentences that describe how to translate L1-sentences into L2-sentences. So what we have then is (among other things) a set of L3-sentences that tell us which L2-sentences are translations of which L1-sentences, and L3-translations of the L2-sentences. But that means we have a translation of L1 into L3. (More neatly: if a translation is a homomorphism from L to L’, then we know that if there is a homomorphism from L1 to L2 and a homomorphism from L2 to L3, then there is a homomorphism from L1 to L3, viz.: the composition of the two.)

Of course the above argument only works if we assume that translations are total, i.e., that they map all sentences of L onto sentences of L’ and vice versa. What if we drop that assumption? First of all we have to ask ourselves whether we are still dealing with translation in such a case. But let that pass, and suppose we have a mapping of all the sentences of L1 onto a proper subset of sentences of L2, i.e., there are parts of L2 that have no counterpart in L1. Notice that the formulation of the translation can not be in the latter set (for that would mean that the translation would be statable in L2, but not in L1, which is absurd.) Now assume we have a translation from L2 into L3: the only way in which that would not give us a translation of L1 into L3 (by the reasoning above), is by being restricted to exactly that part of L2 that does not contain the L1-to-L2 translation. But that would mean that it really isn’t a translation of L2 as such: it must leave out a proper part of L2. Of course, such a mapping could exists, but we would lack any justification for calling it a translation. (And if we would insist that we could call it that, then we actually are assuming what we set out to prove, viz., the failure of transitivity of translation.)

Note that the fact that in actual cases there are bound to be discrepancies between languages, i.e., things in L that don’t have an exact counterpart in L’, or things in L’ that lack a counterpart in L, does not really affect this line of argumentation. The central point is that the translation itself concerns such a substantial part of both languages, that that by itself guarantees transitivity to a sufficient degree.

Martin Stokhof
from: Radical Interpretation Discussion Board
date: 11-2004

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Napels

Notes from an encounter with Peter Hacker

Peter Hacker’s account of the relationship between philosophy and cognitive science raises questions that concern the ramifications of that position.

When it comes to the relationship between cognitive science and philosophical analysis I am always reminded of Jerry Fodor’s direct approach of the problem. In his seminal book The Language of Thought (p. 57) he relates the following encounter: ‘I was once told by a very young philosopher that it is a matter for decision whether animals can (can be said to) hear. “After all”, he said, “it’s our word”.’ As the context of this quotation makes clear, the issue was not just about hearing, but extended to a wide range of psychological predicates, including talking, thinking, reasoning. Fodor was not impressed by the argument, as is obvious from the way in which he continues his tale: ‘But this sort of conventionalism won’t do; the issue isn’t whether we ought to be polite to animals.’ And then Fodor goes on in his characteristic fashion to explain why, basically, there is no room for a separate enterprise called ‘philosophical analysis’.

If I understand Hacker correctly he would agree that perhaps the young philosopher was not quite as snobbish as Fodor makes them out to be, and that an argument may be construed to attach a basically human meaning to some of the terms the debate was about. Of course, it is not a matter of politeness whether animals think, but it isn’t a straightforward factual issue either. If anything, it is a matter of what the content of the concept of thinking is, i.e., of what the term means. And meaning belongs to the human sphere. 

That is quite the opposite view from Fodor’s, and one that was formulated and defended already much earlier by Wittgenstein, who claimed in Philosophical Investigations (II.xi; cf., also 360): ‘If a lion could talk, we could not understand it.’ The opposition is apt and relevant, since it is clear that Hacker’s analysis owes much to Wittgenstein’s observations concerning the way concepts are acquired and have meaning. 

Motivation: reductionism redux

Why is this important? New developments in cognitive science, in particular new techniques that give access to low level brain processes, suggest to many that finally reductionism is a goal that is coming within reach. Cognitive processes can be observed in vivo, i.e., concurrently with the corresponding processes in the brain. What thinking, feeling, speaking, various perceptual acts really are, we can see with our own eyes when we observe the various electrochemical processes in the brain run their course. And this is ontological reduction, not the linguistic substitute that logical positivism promoted, in which theories were reduced to others by reformulating the statements of the former in those belonging to the latter. This reductionism is the real thing: it explains the cognitive entities of  everyday in terms of neuronal entities.

The technical developments are real and we cannot rule out a priori that a reduction of this kind of some cognitive processes will indeed turn out to be feasible. (Although we certainly are not yet in a position to actually affirm that.) Several questions arise. Are there any cognitive entities that resist this kind of reduction? With regard to those concepts that are susceptible to reduction, does this affect all of their content, or will there be irreducible residues? And where reduction is feasible, what consequences does this have for the application of the concepts in question in their everyday domain?

Conceptual analysis versus empirical science

Hacker’s position on this is clear: philosophy deals with concepts and provides an analysis of their contents and logical relation relations; cognitive science is concerned with the neural conditions that determine the operation of the functions corresponding to these concepts and provides descriptively and explanatory adequate theories.

So, it seems that both with regard to method as well as with regard to content philosophy and cognitive science are strictly separated.  There is an a priori distinction between the conceptual analysis provided by philosophy and the  empirical investigations of cognitive science. This seems to suggest that no interaction  occurs between the two realms, but that is not what Hacker means. He does see a role for conceptual analysis vis à vis empirical science: conceptual analysis may provide the necessary conceptual clarity without which the empirical investigations may go astray. 

I wonder, first, whether philosophical reflection might not provide more than just conceptual clarity, i.e., whether it does not also provide actual empirical data; second, whether there may not also be an influence in the other direction, viz., from empirical science to conceptual analysis. And, third, whether one could not combine philosophical and scientific methods,  as is being done for example by people working in neurophenomenology. 

The main reason for thinking that this might be possible is the rather humdrum observation that after all the conceptual domain of philosophical analysis and the empirical domain of  cognitive science are both related to (not: coincide with) the same field of everyday phenomena. 

Interactions

Cf. the following quote from Hacker’s paper on emotions:

‘Moods are such things as feeling cheerful, euphoric, contented, irritable, melancholic or depressed; they are states or frames of mind, as when one is in a state of melancholia, or in a jovial or relaxed frame of mind.  […]  It is, therefore, unwarranted to characterise moods, as Damasio does, as emotional states that are frequent or continuous over long periods of time.’

It seems obvious to me that we are not dealing here with some kind of nominal, stipulative definition. The concepts in question have a pre-theoretical content and it is this content that is being captured and analysed in definitions (philosophy) and at the same time it is this content that motivates and directs empirical investigations (cognitive science).

My suggestion would be that this imposes restrictions on both conceptual analysis and empirical investigation. 

On the empirical side: it seems obvious to me that empirical investigations into everyday phenomena such as emotions, moods, knowledge, memory can not be dissociated from whatever content these concepts have in everyday life. Perhaps cognitive science may discover that certain distinctions should be drawn slightly differently, or that connections exists that are not apparent from the conceptualisation of these phenomena in everyday language. But it cannot attribute a different content to these concepts. If it does that, it studies something, but not emotions, moods, etc. This marks a difference with cases where science is able to correct common sense understanding, such the case of jade turning out to be two different kinds of chemical compounds, of that of light  having both a corpuscular and a wave nature’ 

So it seems to me that our first person experience, i.e., the content of these concepts as  it reveals itself in philosophical reflection, provides an empirical constraint on cognitive research. (From which it follows that there is a distinction to be made between the study of those concepts that allow for such reflection, such as emotions, moods and certain cognitive actions, and those that do not, such as perception. Interesting question: on which side of this divide are language and meaning?) 

This constraint, I propose, goes further than mere conceptual clarification, but actually provides additional empirical data that need to be accounted for by empirical theories.

But on the conceptual side, too, constraints arise. Conceptual analysis is not empirical research: philosophers traditionally don’t do experiments, use questionnaires, etc. Nevertheless, conceptual analysis is tied to empirical issues. For one thing, the fact that we have the concepts that we have by itself is an empirical matter. Different cultural and/or historical circumstances may give rise to (slightly) different sets of cognitive and emotional concepts. And the contents of these concepts themselves may change under the influence of both philosophical analysis and empirical research. To put it differently, in as much as our concepts embody a (rudimentary) conception of our selves, this very conception, and thereby the contents of those concepts, may change when we analyse it, both conceptually as well as empirically. 

In particular the last point means that although  there is a categorical difference between conceptual analysis and empirical research (here I agree Hacker), it does not follow that conceptual analysis is a priori to empirical research. The very object of conceptual analysis may change due to the results of empirical investigations, in much the same way as the empirical investigation must proceed on the basis of the results of conceptual analysis: there exists an ongoing interaction between the two. 

Also, it seems to me that this might have methodological consequences as well, in so far as it indicates that the idea of a combination of philosophical reflection and empirical research, i.e., of a first person and a third person perspective, may prove to be relevant if we are to gain a proper understanding of what such phenomena as emotions, memory, etc are. Neurophenomenology à la Varela, Thompson, Depraz and Vermersch may provide a model here, but it need not be the only one. I do feel that this is something that philosophers and cognitive scientists need to explore. 

Finally, the empirical and contingent nature of the concepts involved also provides an impetus to investigate to what extent these phenomena transcend the boundaries of the individual. Hacker quite rightly stresses that the attitudinal aspects of these concepts, viz., the fact that to have a belief, to reach a decision or to form a hypothesis, to be in a melancholy mood or to be proud, or jealous, are not isolated, instantaneous events or states, but phenomena that are related with all kinds of other properties and relations that individuals may have and enter into, with a whole network of cognitive and non-cognitive dispositions and capabilities.  But he tends to ignore that a substantial part of those capabilities (such as those that enter into the use of language) are  essentially social in nature, at least in this sense that the idea of only one single individual having these capabilities is conceptually incoherent, These concepts presuppose a social framework that allows them to be instantiated in an individual. Taking this seriously would provide us with an impetus to investigate to what extent modern cognitive science suffers from an individualistic bias, which may be due to its reductionist presuppositions and/or the limitations of its experimental toolbox. 

Consequences: identity

‘What X is for us’: what we are, is in an important sense what we think (feel, imagine) that we are. And in this sense reductionism might succeed that once we believe in (some version of) it, i.e., once we are willing to adapt our self-image to the particular picture it presents, we in fact become whatever that picture says we are.

(Note that such a development would have ethical consequences as well. That is one reason why imagination of what we are and, in particular, imagination of what we could be, as for example literature provides, is (also) of ethical importance.)

If central concepts pertaining to human identity, such as will, consciousness, thinking, feeling, imagination, meaning, are concepts with a content that is determined by ‘What X is for us’, human identity is essentially a construct: historically, socially and culturally constrained and only partially individually maintained. We are in that sense what we think we are, although the freedom we have in thinking ourselves is constrained by social, cultural and historical factors (and, of course, physical and biological ones). In modern times science has become an important source for what we count as content of certain concepts. For example, our view of the material world is increasingly informed by scientific theories (albeit often distorted by popular misconceptions and simplifications). To the extent that this holds true also for the concepts that go into determining our identity, our conception of ourselves may change as well. 

Today, it seems, essential aspects of the contents of many of the central concepts mentioned above are determined externally, i.e., by reference to things outside the  individual mental realm. However, increasing influence of research in cognitive science (psychology, neurobiology) may change that. We may come to adopt, for example, a view on what meaning is that takes into account only what  can be explained in terms of individual, psychological and/or neurobiological properties. That would not be a better (or worse) account, since there is no fact of the matter that would provide an independent measure here: if meaning is what counts as meaning for us, then if we ‘change our mind’ about what meaning is, meaning indeed becomes something else. But then so do we: as these central concepts change, our identity changes accordingly. And so we may end up with a view of ourselves in which any differences that we now count as essential differences between, say, human intelligence and artificial intelligence have been obliterated, or a view in which we accept only explanations for our actions that are based on facts concerning our material (neurophysiological) make up. 

So, humanity may well come to an end by its own hand, not through physical destruction (although that is certainly not unlikely) but by conceptual elimination. After all, is that not how we got rid of a lot of other things?

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 20/12/2008

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Opera House, Oslo

The need for uncertainty

Suppose there were creatures with the following features. If something is the case, they believe it; if something is not the case, they believe it is not the case; they do not entertain any other thoughts, more specifically they don’t have thoughts of the form ‘Suppose A were (not) the case …’, ‘If B had not been the case …’, and so on. Would we say that these creatures had knowledge? They could serve as reliable oracles, as perfect encyclopaedias, but we wouldn’t want to say that they knew anything. So knowledge presupposes (among other things) our ability to be uncertain, to entertain suppositions, to consider situations that we know to be counterfactual.

Does this mean that the concept of an omniscient interpreter à la Davidson is incoherent? Not necessarily. Perfect knowledge about the world is compatible, at least so it seems, with counterfactual uncertainty, and hence with having the concept of being wrong. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
dat
e: 13/10/2000, 09/08/2001

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Saint-Sernin, Toulouse

Wittgenstein and Frazer

Description itself is never neutral or objective, there is no Archimedean point that allows us to ‘just describe the facts’. But that does not necessarily imply that description and explanation are alike. An explanation, unlike a description, presupposes a theoretical framework, of general principles, inferential relations (causal or otherwise). An explanation typically presents an individual event as an instance of something more general, a law, a pattern, and in doing so links it to other events that are supposed to be similar. Description, though not objective, remains level with what is described, so to speak. It does not generalise, and respects, you might say, the individuality, the uniqueness of what it describes. Of course, description, too, is possible only within a framework, but it functions quite differently. 

[The rain king] What Wittgenstein opposes in Frazer is that the latter attributes some kind of naive proto-science to these people; according to him they are simply wrong (and we are right) about the causal antecedents of the annual rains. That the difference of opinion between Wittgenstein and Frazer itself is like a scientific debate (of sorts) is true but, as far as I can see, that has no direct bearing on the adequacy of Wittgenstein’s  criticism. For Wittgenstein, the essential point is that they do not conceive of the relationship between the Rain-King (and what he does) and the coming of the rains as a causal relationship. Q.E.D., as far as Wittgenstein is concerned: for that is exactly what he holds against Frazer, viz., that he (Frazer) does ascribe to them a kind of naive scientific theory that attempts to explain, in causal terms, the coming of the rains.

[The fire-festival] If to understand the meaning of the ritual means to experience its depth, the terror its enactment brings about, then to laugh at the description would be to show a thorough lack of understanding. That applies to the specific examples Frazer and Wittgenstein are concerned with, and it does not mean, I gather, that there couldn’t be rituals for which to laugh would be the hallmark of understanding. But in these particular cases, to laugh, to ridicule the ‘savages’, is to show that one does not understand. 

[Kissing a portrait] One important characteristic that Wittgenstein mentions, and that seems what is needed to distinguish the kissing of a portrait from doing the dishes, is that in a ritual means and ends coincide. An ordinary action aims at something: we do the dishes because we want to dine from clean ones, because we want to prevent bacteria from growing in the kitchen sink, because we want to impress someone, and so on. Here the action is a means to an end. A ritual is not like that, a ritual is not performed with an eye to its effects (although it may, of course, have effects, and some of these we might find agreeable). Rather, a ritual is performed for it own sake: “…  it does not aim at anything; we act in this way and then feel satisfied.” 

One important consequence of this is that whether an act is ritualistic or not (in Wittgenstein’s  sense) does not depend (at least not solely) on the nature of the act. (So doing the dishes can be a ritual as well.) And as far as I can see it also means that we can not say that rituals are either private or social, they can be either, and both.

As for the question whether science itself is a ritual, my guess is that Wittgenstein would acknowledge that many people have indeed replaced their reliance on some religious system by a reliance on science. However, he also quite emphatically states that this is a misunderstanding of what science is and what it can do. (Recall Tractatus 6.371-6.372; cf. also the foreword to Philosophical Remarks in Culture and Value) A proper view on science has no place for ritual, since science is about external, causal relationships between (types) of events, whereas ritual is concerned with the internal significance of an event or act. 

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: fall 2002

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Den Oever

On unconditional commitment

Dreyfus, Kierkegaard, ‘unconditional commitment’. Remarkable thing about the case of Abraham is that we do not consider the issue from Isaac’s point of view. What would he have said? “I’d rather have a despairing Buddhist as a father than this unconditionally committed Christian …”? He might have, and that’s enough. The unconditional commitment of Abraham to his God might go against whatever views Isaac has concerning the way he wants to lead his life, and that really should be reason enough for us to reject, not just this particular unconditional commitment of Abraham’s, but the very concept itself. Given the fact that we lead our lives with others, and that hence, whether we like it or not, our actions directly or indirectly influence the lives of those others, an unconditional commitment, precisely because it is unconditional, i.e., also not conditioned by concerns about others, is intrinsically morally wrong. This is independent of the moral status of actual effects of some particular unconditional commitment, it is an objection to the concept as such.

My guess is that the concept is appealing for reasons quite similar to those that make people susceptible to the idea of living in ‘historical times’, witnessing ‘turning points in history’, and so on (Heidegger). We want our lives to be dramatic, exciting, important. Whereas in reality they are ordinary, humdrum, inconsequential, even if they turn out to make a difference. That sounds contradictory, but it is not. The point is: what is a decisive moment is decided by history (i.e., by reality in its temporal dimension and complexity), not by us, and it is hardly ever possible for us to discern while we are witnessing it.  Too often an event is labelled ‘historical’, something that ‘changes the world as we know it’ by contemporaries, and most of those events turn out to be completely unimportant. At best some of them may become regarded as symbolic for a much more complex and extended sequence of events. History is complex, much too complex for us who are witnessing it to grasp, and often also too complex for those who have the benefit of hindsight to fathom completely. There is no communis opinio among historians about the majority of the events that make up our history, not because of a lack of knowledge, but because of their sheer complexity combined with the unavoidable multiplicity of perspectives. So even if a certain event or action does make a significant difference, the claim of those participating in it that it does, in most cases will be completely unfounded.

The idea of an unconditional commitment is based on a similar misunderstanding of our lives: appearance to the contrary notwithstanding, it places us, as an individual, in the centre of things. The unconditional commitment is ours, even where (or should we say, precisely because?) it involves a complete surrender to God. As such it displays a complete disregard of the fundamental given that our life is always related to that of others, even if we live alone, in the remotest place on earth. Given that, whatever commitment we make to live our life in accordance with, it needs take into account others and therefore  can never be unconditional. The alternative is a fundamental dismissal of others as worthy of moral, ethical concern, something that unavoidably leads to nihilism. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 21/05/2003

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East Goodwin

On belief and introspection

Wittgenstein claims that belief (like doubt, expectation, etc.) is ‘introspectively accessible”: if we believe that p, we know that we believe that p. Hence, we cannot say, Wittgenstein claims, that we thought we believed something, but actually did not believe it. Knowledge is not like that: we can think that we know something, only to find out that we didn’t. The reason is (presumably, but Wittgenstein does not discuss this explicitly) that belief concerns a certain state or disposition, whereas knowledge in addition involves a particular relation to the world (this is where truth comes in). 

Does this hold up if what a person believes ultimately must show itself in his or her actions, i.e., if belief is a disposition to act in a certain way? That is a view that Wittgenstein seems to endorse as well, so the issue at hand can also be formulated as follows: does it make sense to say that one can somehow be mistaken about what it is one is doing, or is disposed to do? 

Stepping back: is there at this particular point a difference between belief in the ordinary, epistemological sense, and religious beliefs and ethical convictions? If we grant Wittgenstein that, indeed, it does not seem to make sense to say “I think I believe that Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands, but maybe I’m wrong, maybe I don’t believe that”, are we then forced to also hold that it does not make sense to answer “I don’t know” if someone asks us “Do you believe in an after-life (transubstantiation, Last Judgement, …)”, and that we cannot meaningfully express doubt concerning an ethical prescription, as in “I’m not sure I believe that one should always respect the right to bodily integrity” ? It would be interesting to try to construct different cases and see whether doubt concerning belief is possible, and if so, what it means to express it. In that way we might also get a better picture of how various kinds of beliefs are related to action, on the one hand, and reality on the other (cf. above, concerning knowledge) 

It is true that what people say and what they do all too often diverges, but that does not mean that what they believe and what they do diverges as well. For saying something is one thing, believing it is another. It is only a sincere utterance that allows an inference to a belief (cf., Grice’s Maxim of Quality). This is the gist of what is known as “Moore’s Paradox” (which Wittgenstein regarded as Moore’s most important contribution to philosophy): an utterance of the form “p but I don’t believe that p” may very well be true, but it cannot be sincere. 

So, the crux of examples about a person saying one thing and doing another concerns that person’s sincerity : that cannot be taken for granted, but has to be argued for. 

That many (most) of our beliefs are unreflected, unanalysed, is an important here: in fact, explicitly held beliefs seem to be the exception, rather than the rule. And that seems to make the way a person acts the primary source for belief-ascriptions. 

This observation itself raises some other questions: Can we as outside observers always derive distinct beliefs from the way a person acts? Can a person himself do this? What kinds of beliefs lend themselves to such investigation? Aren’t these more like certainties, rather than cognitive beliefs? What about the requirement that it should always be possible to explicate a belief derived from a way of acting? 

Consider the case of the egalitarian who does not act upon his beliefs: would that be a case of a person being wrong about what he believes (he thinks he believes in equal rights, yet his failure to act shows that he does not), or is it rather a case of failing to act upon one’s beliefs? Given his beliefs the egalitarian also believes that he should act in a particular way in particular situations. That he does not, might also be attributed to weakness in character, or some other circumstance, and not to a mistake about the beliefs he holds. Of course, if he consistently acts in opposition to what we would expect on the basis of the beliefs he confesses to, we would start to doubt. And his sincerity would be the first thing we would doubt. 

Note finally that the phrase “I believe” itself can be used in a variety of ways: as a statement of a firmly held conviction; but also as a way of indicating that we are not sure (yet), that we actually leave room for the opposite. “I think” is more like “I believe” in the latter sense than in the former. And for Wittgenstein’s  argument we do indeed need the former sense. 

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: October 2002

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Lisbon

Uninterpreted content

Theodore Schatzki’s analysis of dispersed and integrative practises implies that normativity arises, not at the higher order level of rules, or practises, or institutions (at least not exclusively), but at the very basic level of individual interaction with the environment. This view is reinforced by various analyses of know-how and expertise.

What is interesting to note, especially with regard to Davidson and Gadamer, who actually are in the same boat here, is that uninterpreted content then plays a key role. We need such content in order for normativity to have a basis on which the language-based practises may build.

For Gadamer this is anathema: all experience is linguistic and exists only in and through language. For Davidson it presents a problem too, although it may not be immediately obvious that it does. For doesn’t Davidson avail himself of a primitive causal relationship between the world and us? And doesn’t he reject any form of mediation (linguistic or otherwise) between ourselves and the world?

But unmediated content is not the same as uninterpreted content as we use the phrase here. For in Davidson’s view our causal interaction with the world results in beliefs, and beliefs and (sentence) meanings are indistinguishable in terms of structure and content. So Davidson’s unmediated content is highly structured, in such a way that it is immediately expressible (given a suitably expressive language, of course): definitely not the uninterpreted content of everyday expertise. In fact Davidson seems committed to the same kind of linguistic view on experience that Gadamer embraces explicitly.

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 21/11/2006

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Amsterdam

Davidson, indeterminacy and charity

The point seems to be this: given that we have a shared ontology due to the application of the Tarskian framework (as the theoretical framework in which we formulate concrete theories of meanings for concrete languages) and charity, which implies shared beliefs, why don’t we have a shared vocabulary and a shared theory of reference concerning this vocabulary? 

The point seems to be this: given that we have a shared ontology due to the application of the Tarskian framework (as the theoretical framework in which we formulate concrete theories of meanings for concrete languages) and charity, which implies shared beliefs, why don’t we have a shared vocabulary and a shared theory of reference concerning this vocabulary? 

The question boils down to what follows from the assumptions mentioned about reference. Let’s start with the use of the Tarskian framework. For Davidson this follows from the assumptions he makes concerning the nature of meaning (extensionalism) and the function of a semantic theory (explanation of competence); cf., ‘Truth and Meaning’ for the details. So his view is that if we want a theory of meaning for a language, it has to have that particular form. And that in its turn presupposes that in any language we find a shared logical machinery, consisting of propositional connectives, quantificational apparatus (and the basic distinctions brought along by that) and the logical rules governing their behaviour. But that is all, in particular it does not involve any assumptions concerning the reference of the non-logical vocabulary. Of course, reference is used in stating the Tarskian truth theory, but there it is used only as an auxiliary notion. What the theory defines, or accounts for, is (our knowledge of) truth conditions of sentences. It does so using the auxiliary notion of reference of sub-sentential expressions, but, and this is the important point: it does not define truth on the basis of an independent account of reference. And as Davidson points out, any account of truth along these lines leaves reference essentially underdetermined (a point also made by Putnam and several others): two sentences may have the same truth conditions under different assignments of references to their sub-sentential expressions. (If the sentences are from different languages, we have two translatable sentences which do not allow us to infer any shared reference; if the sentences are from the same language, this means that synonymy does not guarantee unique reference; and as a special (but most important) case we have that it is possible to assign to one and the same sentence the same truth conditions based on attributions of different references to one or more of its component expressions.)

Then charity. Notice that charity, too, concerns sentences, not words. In interpretation, i.e., in actually trying to construct a Tarskian theory of truth for a given language, the empirical data we start from are utterances made in a context (situation). The assumption that truth plays the same role for the speakers of the language we are interpreting as it does for us, these data can be viewed as utterances of sentences held true in that situation. A specific (to be determined!) subset of those will be utterances of sentences held true about that situation, i.e., utterances of sentences that are held true on the basis of certain aspects of the situation in which they are uttered. Each and every sentence uttered is supposed to express a belief. So certain sentences uttered in a situation express beliefs of the speaker about that situation. This is where charity comes in: it allows us to proceed on the assumption that the belief that the speaker expresses in these sentences (but remember, we do not know of every sentence in advance whether it belongs to this set) is a belief that we hold about the situation as well. This is supposed to give us enough common ground to work our way into the language. But, and this is the important point, just as two sentences can have the same truth conditions, yet not share reference of sub-sentential expressions, beliefs too can be shared without a shared set of objects, properties and relations that can be attached in a unique way as references to the expressions that occur in the sentences that are used to express these beliefs.

So neither the Tarskian framework nor charity allows us to venture beyond the level of sentences/beliefs and be confident that we will return with a unique ontology in this particular sense. But for Davidson the conclusion is not that hence there is a relativity of ontological schemes, but rather that the idea behind it, viz., that the beliefs we hold and the meanings of the sentences we use to express those beliefs, are built up from referents in this particular way, is misguided in the first place. In combination with the holistic nature of language and belief that Davidson clearly endorses, this assumption would lead to relativism. But there is, according to Davidson, no reason to make it in the first place.

Martin Stokhof
from: Radical Interpretation Discussion Board
date: 10-2003

Random thoughts on random topics

Channel

On the relation between experience and theoretical explanation

The ultimate justification of a theoretical explanation resides in the fact that it changes our experience. It allows us, not only to see things differently, but better: for our understanding of things is in the way we experience them. In that sense theories are a means, not an end in themselves.

A good example seems to be provided by certain mathematical theories, in particular geometrical ones, that, when really understood, change our ways of perceiving objects and their relationships. Or rather, allow us to perceive them differently. It is this added freedom of perception that deepens our understanding: things are not just like this, they are much more.

Similarly, mythologies, mystical explanations, good philosophy. (Is there something of this in Wittgenstein’s  remarks on Frazer?)

But, of course, this will work only if we realise that a new way of looking at things, a new way of experiencing them, is just that: one among many possible ways. The crux of the matter is that we should not exchange one view for another, but ‘collect’ them, exploit them, amplify them.  Of course, we can’t hold onto all of them at the same time (in  much the same way that we can’t entertain two different sets of certainties).  Which means that we should engage in flexibility,  change, train ourselves to switch back and forth, enjoying the distance in between.

To come to grips with the relation between experience and theory (in a wide sense) seems a crucial issue: experience alone will not do (pace the claims of sensualism) because experience never comes only by itself. It is always accompanied by feelings, thoughts, emotions that transcend it. (Even when we are not aware of this. This shows itself in how we act upon our experiences.) It is in this sense that we are not a database of experiential input and some calculating device. We need theory, not to knit the experiences together, but to understand that what holds it together in the first place: our own selves. But understanding ourselves in that way is not enough: the understanding remains sterile if it is not tested again in new experiences, or rather, in new ways of experiencing.

Another aspect: certain types of theories, say particle physics, or neurophysiology, are hard to fasten unto everyday experience. We may know that what looks as a solid material object is nothing but a swarm of particles, but we can not experience it in that way. Similarly, we may know that certain feelings arise from certain stimulation patterns in the brain, made possible by the production of certain neurotransmitters, but that is not an account of what we experience. This, too, points towards a distinction between the experiential aspect, or content, of an experience, and the accompaniments thereof. Experience is that total, not one of its components. And such theories as indicated above mainly pertain to the ‘data aspect’ of experiences. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 22-08-1998

Random thoughts on random topics

Tang pottery, Tsinghua University museum

Concerning Gadamer and normativity

The following seems a very plausible conjecture: it is the meaning of the text itself that provides the necessary normative constraints on its interpretation. But there are a few problems with that. 

First of all, it makes interpretation very much a factual, ‘realistic’ concern: independent from interpretations and interpreters, there is such a thing as ‘the meaning’, and the task of interpretation is to discover that. Once we’ve done that, the task is fulfilled and there is no more need for interpretation. But that doesn’t sit very well with Gadamer’s insistence that interpretation is an on-going affair, and moreover, one that not only constantly changes the views of the interpreter, but also the meaning(s) of what is interpreted: the ‘fusion of horizons’ is a temporary equilibrium, brought about by adjusting both the perspective of the interpreter and that of the text.

Secondly, if the objective meaning of the text itself were to play this role, this wouldn’t fit into an interpretational scheme that follows the hermeneutic circle. Recall that if we follow the structure of the hermeneutic circle we need to compare two things that both are different from this postulated objective meaning of the text itself, viz., the fore-projection, i.e., our ‘initial hypothesis’, and the result of our (first) reading. The problem was that we can compare these two without any problem, but that in order to evaluate the outcome of that comparison, we need a standard, something normative. Now suppose the objective meaning were to play that role? How would that help? If we know that this is the objective meaning of the text, we wouldn’t need any interpretation to begin with. And if we do not, it will fail to hold any normative authority.

The essence of the problem is that the hermeneutic circle, precisely because it is a circle, involves only entities of the same kind (meanings). And without reference to any external source of normativity, none of these can play the required normative role, on pain of the entire circular structure collapsing into what is basically a realistically understood concept of objectivity.

Martin Stokhof
from: Radical Interpretation Discussion Board
date: 11-2006

Random thoughts on random topics

Orkneys

Monotonicity and intensional adjectives

Suppose we have a sequence of properties N1Nn such that: N1 ⊆ … ⊆ Nn. If A is the property expressed by an extensional, i.e., subsective or intersective, adjective, it holds that (AN1) ⊆ … ⊆ (ANn). Contrariwise, for some intensional adjectives this breaks down in an interesting way: we can have A(N1) ⊆ … ⊆ A(Ni) while we do not have: A(Ni+1) ⊆ … ⊆ A(Nn). Example: a one-guilder piece is a coin, is a piece of currency, is a material object. A blackened one-guilder piece is a blackened coin, is a blackened piece of currency, is a blackened material object. But although a false one-guilder piece is a false coin and a false piece of currency, it is not a false material object. This shows that somewhere along the line of N1 to Nn there is a break, between different kinds of properties, say characteristic and non-characteristic ones, and that intensional qualifications such as false are a means to determine where the break occurs. 

Martin Stokhof
from: Aantekeningen/Notes
date: 30/06/1998

Random thoughts on random topics

North Sea

On natural phenomena as aesthetic objects

Are natural phenomena (objects, events) aesthetic objects in the Wittgensteinian sense? There is no doubt that we apply  adjectives such as ‘beautiful’ to things like sunsets, landscapes, people. But what does that mean? Are there norms that we apply?  Do we compare one phenomenon with another? Last night’s sunset with this one? The landscape before our eyes with the one we saw in a movie? This person’s face with that of our favourite movie star? 

In the last case it seems that we do indeed compare and also that we are able to express the reasons for our evaluations to some extent. In the case of sunsets this is far less obvious. Is there a sense in which this sunset is more beautiful than last night’s? More spectacular perhaps, yes. But more beautiful? And if we compare landscapes, aren’t we just  expressing preferences? (“I hate woods, give me open skies any day.”)  

We can sharpen the issue somewhat by asking about the role of two key features of aesthetic practices in Wittgenstein’s sense: training and expertise, and directed discontent. 

As for training and expertise, we have no problem in acknowledging that some people are better than we are in judging the quality of a musical performance, or that of a painting, or a sculpture. That is why we seek to learn from them and so develop our own skills and our own appreciation of a given kind of aesthetic objects. Does the same happen in ‘evaluating’ a sunset? Do we ask an expert to tell us whether this sunset is better than the one we saw yesterday, and if so, to explain to us in what way? If we ask someone whether he prefers a rugged mountainous landscape to an ocean view, do we seek to learn anything over and above his preferences, something that will help us make a more informed judgment ourselves? And if someone declares that she thinks her husband is more beautiful than the man just voted ‘sexiest man alive’, do we take her to task for not agreeing with ‘the experts’? 

It appears that although the answers may not be the same in each of these cases, there is a marked difference with how training and expertise work in aesthetic practices that are concerned with non-natural phenomena, with artefacts, performances, and the like. This relates to the second feature, directed discontent.

Directed discontent typically involves judgments about objects according to norms with an aim to improvement. We look at the object (or performance, that’s basically the same in this regard), apply a relevant norm, and judge that the object does not qualify unreservedly, that there is room for improvement. Typically, improvement presupposes control, at least in principle. Hence, a key feature of aesthetic objects is that they lend themselves to manipulation, to change and be changed. 

Now, natural phenomena are not disqualified  by this requirement per se. But it does place restrictions on when natural phenomena can be regarded as proper aesthetic objects. First of all, there has to be some element of control. Since sunsets are typically not man-made, they equally typically are not aesthetic objects: there is no aesthetic practice that aims at producing sunsets according to certain shared norms. Landscapes are an in-between case: think of landscape architecture, garden design. Here there is enough control to start an aesthetic practice. But we don’t go about designing and producing mountain ranges. (At least, not yet. Notice how all this is conditional on human ability, and hence human technology.) What about people? A human face becomes a proper aesthetic object in the context of, e.g., plastic surgery. We can well imagine two people judging the result of an operation and one of them expressing directed discontent; “Nice result, but the left cheek is not quite what it should be … Let me see, a bit more like this, perhaps?”

And this immediately reveals the second  conditio sine qua non for something to be an aesthetic object, viz., that there has to be a set of shared norms. 

So we see why on the one hand natural phenomena do not automatically qualify as aesthetic objects and why on the other hand most of our aesthetic practices involve pure artefacts: control is needed for a practicable application of norms.

Martin Stokhof
from: EOL Discussion Board
date: 27/02/2020