Sunday, December 18, 2011

Early Moderns and "Thinking Around"

I am taking a brief break from grading to make a few notes about something I've become increasingly interested in recently, which I've been labeling for myself as "thinking around" (to be contrasted with "thinking about").

I'm going to start with two examples, one from Hume and one from Berkeley.

On my reading of Hume, there is a sort of mental activity one can engage in towards that which is strictly and literally inconceivable.  This activity is supposition.  In one part of my dissertation, I attempt to show that Hume can embrace this form of mental engagement without abandoning his commitment to analyze all mental activity (of the understanding) in terms of conception (i.e. ideas).  At any rate, there are a few passages which are naturally read as Hume allowing that some things can be supposed which cannot be conceived.  This type of mental engagement, I argue, allows a response to a Reidian objection which charges Hume as unable to account for reductio ad absurdum reasoning.  So, while you cannot, on my reading of Hume, think of or about an even prime greater than 2, for example, you can think around such a prime, allowing you to reason your way to its non-existence.

Berkeley, like Hume, has a view of conception bound up with what ideas one possesses.  Consequently, Berkeley deploys arguments about the nature of ideas to show that certain things are inconceivable.  But, as is somewhat explicit in the third Dialogue between Hylas and Philonous, and fully explicit in Alciphron VII, Berkeley introduces a way to defend the meaningfulness of discourse in which meaningful terms to not signify ideas (rejecting a straightforward Lockeanism about language), with something I'll call "notions" (though I don't know if Berkeley consistently uses the "idea"/"notion" terminology to track this distinction).  Having a notion of something does not require having an idea of it.  Thus, even though I cannot have an idea of immaterial susbtance, I still have a way to engage with propositions about immaterial substances (whether we are speaking of me or god).  This too is a sort of thinking around, as I understand it.

Resources which allow a philosopher to permit our thinking around something which we cannot (on their view) properly think about or of are important elements of their views for two reasons.  First, they can give us important insights about other aspects of their views.  For instance, noting that Berkeley must appeal to some such resource in the third dialogue, to explain how we can believe in immaterial substance helps us exclude some (seemingly natural) interpretations of the first dialogue arguments against material substance.  While it might appear that Berkeley is offering a straightforward inconceivability argument against belief in material substance there, it is clear from his own later admission that we cannot strictly conceive of immaterial substance that the dialogue one argument must be more complicated than it at first seemed.

Second, however, they are important for allowing us to see how powerful objections to those philosophers wind up being.  Take Hume, who embraces the view that we cannot conceive of anything which is impossible.  Given that various philosophers have appeared to sincerely defend views which, for Hume, turn out to be impossible, there is the objection that Hume cannot be right, because we could not then make sense of such apparently sincere defenses.  A natural sort of reply is to invoke some sort of verbal confusion underlying the dispute.  But that line of reply is not always satisfying, and does not always do a good job of addressing the behavior of his opponents.  On the other hand, Hume's resource of supposition-without-conception permits him a more robust way to understand his opponents as engaging with these impossible views (apart from merely "mistakenly defending that the sentences which express those impossibilities actually express truths").

I'm sure that similar sorts of resources crop up in the views of other philosophers, but I don't want to just start casting around randomly. If anyone has suggestions of places to look (especially in terms of early modern figures other than the "canonical" British empiricists), please let me know.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Monday Mill Blogging (#006)

Monday Mill blogging makes its triumphant return to Tuesdays, apparently.

Today's post covers book 1, chapter 2, section 3.

§ 3.  General Names and Singular Names

Section §3 is largely focused on the distinction between general and singular names.  Mill's infamous doctrine about singular names won't be put forward until two sections later, but there are some interesting elements to this discussion nonetheless.  The section opens:
All names are names of something, real or imaginary; but all things have not names appropriated to them individually. For some individual objects we require, and consequently have, separate distinguishing names; there is a name for every person, and for every remarkable place. Other objects, of which we have not occasion to speak so frequently, we do not designate by a name of their own; but when the necessity arises for naming them, we do so by putting together several words, each of which, by itself, might be and is used for an indefinite number of other objects; as when I say, this stone: "this" and "stone" being, each of them, names that may be used of many other objects besides the particular one meant, though the only object of which they can both be used at the given moment, consistently with their signification, may be the one of which I wish to speak. (p. 27)

First off, I am not sure, but it sounds like Mill might be going in for a quasi-Meinongian view, given that opening claim.  There might be a way to cash it out that doesn't involve quantifying over non-real entities, but it seems like Mill is suggesting that, while not every object has a proper name, every name has a proper object.  This sort of commitment is relevant to evaluating, for instance, what we can take Mill as having to say, if anything, about Frege's puzzle and/or other puzzles for the Millian view of proper names.  For instance, if Mill is positively committed to imaginary objects as being denoted by meaningful terms, this provides him with something of a response to at least one problem arising from "empty" names.  Actually, it might be apt to call it a "presponse", since it looks like Mill recognized that not all meaningful names correspond to real objects, and offered a view about those cases antecedent to a specific challenge being issued.

So, Mill thinks that putting together general names into complexes can supply us (perhaps only incidentally and temporarily) with names for objects that don't have their own proper name.  This is a pretty plausible thesis, I'd say.  However, this is not the only purpose for general names.  Mill suggests that if all general names were for is to allow ad hoc construction of names for objects that don't have their own proper names, they "could only be ranked among contrivances for economizing the use of language".  There is a parallel here between Mill and Locke on the role of general terms/names.  Both recognize that a language where every objects possesses only a proper name would be unmanageable, and accept some sort of argument from the practical necessities of language in favor of general terms.

As noted, Mill does not think this is the only role of general terms:
But it is evident that this is not their sole function.  It is by their means that we are enabled to assert general propositions; to affirm or deny any predicate of an indefinite number of things at once. The distinction therefore, between general names, and individual or singular names is fundamental; and may be considered the first grand division of names. (p. 27)

Mill then defines a general name as a name that is capable of being truly affirmed, in the same sense, of each of an indefinite number of things.  Individual or Singular names, then, are capable of being affirmed, in the same sense, of one thing only.  Mill's example of a general name is "Man" and his example of a singular name is "John".  Mill is not concerned about the fact that lots of people are named "John", because he thinks that "John" in "John Lennon" has a different sense than "John" in "John Fitzgerald Kennedy".  Here is the interesting part.  In defending this claim, we get a preview of Mill's famous claim about proper names:
For, though there are many persons who bear that name, it is not conferred upon them to indicate any qualities, or anything which belongs to them in common; and cannot be said to be affirmed of them in any sense at all, consequently, not in the same sense. (p. 28)

I am not sure how to make sense of this claim made here, that "John" cannot be affirmed of people named "John" at all, and the earlier claim that "a singular name is a name which is only capable of being affirmed, in the same sense, of one thing."  The definition seems to suggest that singular names are affirmed of individuals, while the latter remark seems to suggest that (some) singular names are not affirmable at all.  Now, Mill goes on to say that "The king who succeeded William the Conquerer" is a singular name, and presumably that can be affirmed, so some singular names would still be affirmable.  However, Mill's point that the propriety of calling someone "John" does not depend on their antecedently possessing some feature that is designated by "John" seems right.  Intuitively, the dependence goes in the other direction, the quality of "going by the name 'John'" is had in virtue of being called "John".  Mill's reason for taking "The king who succeeded William the Conquerer" to be singular is this: "that there cannot be more than one person of whom it can be truly affirmed, is implied in the meaning of the words."  In other words, there is a sort of semantic guarantee of the term applying to at most one object, and this suffices for it to be singular.

I have not mentioned revisions or amendments to the text, though the Liberty Fund edition of the text I am using has ample detail about changes to the text between the manuscript and different editions.  I do want to make mention of an interesting revision to the passage I've just been discussing.  The earlier text had, as the example definite description, "The present King of England" and in the explanation of it qualifying as singular, he said, "never can be more than one person at a time of whom it can be truly affirmed".  This revision is interesting to me because I think Mill would still want to count "The present king of England" as a singular name, but it seems that it is a messy example to use, since it can, at different times, be affirmed truly of different people.  I suppose one could say that it is being used in different senses at different times, but then to explicate this, one would have to suggest that the word "present" undergoes a continual change of sense.  While this might, ultimately, be the best thing to say about it on Mill's view, it would make things much messier to lay all this out when trying to explain the division than to treat of the quirkiness of the example later, when more of the machinery is in place.

Back to the main text: Mill observes that even an incomplete definite description, such as "the king", can, in the right context, count as an individual name.  Like the point about "the present king of England", this looks to open the door to all sorts of complications, at least if one tries to reconcile the official definitions of singular and general names with a willingness to allow context to dictate the singular/general nature of a name.

The last two things Mill does in this section are: a) complain about use of the word "class" to define "general name" and b) distinguish between collective singular names and general names.

On (a):  Mill says that it is common for people to define general names by saying general names are names of classes.  "But this, though a convenient mode of expression for some purposes, is objectionable as a definition, since it explains the clearer of the two things by the more obscure."  Mill goes on to propose that the definition be reversed, seemingly insensitive to the fact that this would rule out unnamed classes.  I don't know if that is a major issue, but it seemed worth observing.

On (b): Here Mill is essentially telling us that general names are predicated distributively, collective names predicated jointly.  "The 76th regiment of foot in the British army" is a collective singular name for a group of soldiers.  There is only one group (at a given time) of whom you can properly affirm that name, and you can't affirm it of each of the individual members.  "Regiment" is Mill's example of a collective general name, since it can be affirmed of a lot of different groups in the same sense.  Mill suggests that it is "general with respect to all individual regiments, of each of which separately it can be affirmed: collective with respect to the individual soldiers of whom any regiment is composed."  This last line suggests that collectivity is type-relative.  This is good, because it means we don't have to decide all questions of collectivity in our basic semantics.  "Mt. Everest" can be non-collective with respect to the category mountain, but still turn out to be collective with respect to the category particles of matter.

Next time on Monday Mill Blogging: §4, "Concrete and Abstract Names"

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Monday Mill Blogging (#005)

Monday Mill blogging on a Thursday? Why not.

Today's post covers book 1, chapter 2, section 2.  All this focus on naming is making me want to take some time to re-read part III of Carnap's "Meaning and Necessity".  But for now I am sticking with the Mill.

§ 2.  Words Which are Not Names, but Parts of Names

Mill ended §1 by indicating the need to outline a taxonomy of names.  But before he will give us his taxonomy of names, he feels it is necessary to discuss words that are not properly considered names, but which are parts of names.  Mill shares the conventional wisdom of which words those are:
Among such are reckoned particles, as of, to, truly, often; the inflected cases of nouns substantive, as me, him, John's; and even adjectives, as large, heavy.  These words do not express things of which anything can be affirmed or denied.  We cannot say, Heavy fell, or A heavy fell; Truly, or A truly, was asserted; Of, or An of, was in the room. Unless, indeed, we are speaking we are speaking of the mere words themselves, as when we say, Truly is an English word, or, Heavy is an adjective. (p. 25)

Mill's view here seems to be that words, in addition to their customary uses, can be used to denote "the mere letters and syllables of which [they are] composed", and in that usage, words like "of" and "heavy" are names.

Ultimately, Mill is going to remove adjectives from this list, and treat them as names.  He explains his reasoning as related to the fact that it is a mere grammatical accident of English that we cannot say "A heavy fell".  Mill marshalls some cross-linguistic evidence from Greek and Latin in support of this point, and then reaffirms that adverbs and particles can't ever denote terms in a proposition (except when being used as names for the words themselves).

Mill then puts the views he has just been outlining in scholastic terms.  What he is calling names are what the scholastics called Categoremic terms, the words that are not names, but only parts of names, are the scholastics' Syncategoremic terms.  Rather than have a third class for compound terms ("A court of justice"), Mill treats these as many-word names, and classes them as Categoremic.

In treating of these many worded names, Mill also presents a view on non-restrictive relative clauses (though he doesn't call them that):
Thus, when we say, John Nokes, who was the mayor of the town, died yesterday—by this predication we make but one assertion; whence it appears that "John Nokes, who was the mayor of the town," is no more than one name.  It is true that in this proposition, besides the assertion that John Nokes died yesterday, there is included another assertion, namely, that John Nokes was mayor of the town. But this last assertion was already made: we did not make it by adding the predicate, "died yesterday." (p. 27)

I say this is a view, even though it seems a bit cursory in terms of detail, because it, in a sense, helps us figure out what Mill would want to say about the truth or falsity of a sentence of the form, "n, who was G, is H", when the referent of 'n' has the property designated by 'H', but not the property designated by 'G'.  The use of that sentence, it seems, makes the proposition, of the referent of 'n', that they have the property designated by 'H', so the primary assertion made in uttering the sentence is true.  However, in the subject term of the sentence "there is included another assertion", the assertion, about the referent of 'n', that they possess the property designated by 'G', which is false.  It isn't clear whether this gives us a satisfactory answer about how to classify the sentence "n, who was G, is H", relative to a circumstance of evaluation, but it does shed some light on how Mill thinks about the relationship between sentences and assertions.

Next time on Monday Mill Blogging: §3, "General and Singular Names"

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Monday Mill Blogging (#004)

In this week's Mill Blogging, we're actually going to start getting to the meat of some of Mill's views on language. Today's post covers Book 1, Chapter 2, section 1.

§ 1.  Names are names of things, not of our ideas

As the chapter opens, Mill approvingly quotes Hobbes on the definition of "name":
"A name" says Hobbes, "is a word taken at pleasure to serve for a mark which may raise in our mind a thought like to some thought we had before, and which being pronounced to others, may be to them a sign of what thought the speaker had before in his mind."  This simple definition of a name, as a word (or set of words) serving the double purpose of a mark to recall to ourselves the likeness of a former thought, and a sign to make it known to others, appears unexceptionable. Names, indeed, do much more than this; but whatever else they do, grows out of, and is the result of this. (p. 24). (Mill cites the Hobbes work "Computation and Logic" as the source of this quote)

Mill then goes on to ask whether names are "more properly said to be the names of things, or of our ideas of things?"  Mill suggests that common usage is on his side in answering that names are names of things, and not names of our ideas of things.  Mill charges Hobbes with taking the contrary opinion, though I don't think I see it, at least, not from the passage he quotes:
The eminent thinker, just quoted, seems to countenance the latter opinion. "But seeing," he continues, "names ordered in speech (as is defined) are signs of our conceptions, it is manifest that they are not signs of the things themselves; for that the sound of this word stone should be the sign of a stone, cannot be understood in any sense but this that he that hears it collects that he that pronounces it thinks of a stone."

Now, I grant that this passage appears to commit Hobbes to the view that the word 'stone' is a sign of the conception/idea STONE (to adapt a notational convention from contemporary philosophy of mind).  However, Mill's question was not whether names were signs of things or signs of our ideas, but whether they were names of things or names of our ideas.  This may seem to be a nit-picky point, but I think it is important to be careful about the various semantic (or quasi-semantic) relations invoked on various theories of language.  Absent something like the assumption that, for any term t and any object o: t names o just in case t is a sign of o, Hobbes's view about what names are signs of doesn't (for all that has been said) directly bear on the question of whether terms name things or ideas.

I am taking some time to dwell on this because it seems clear that various approaches to theorizing about language will differ with respect to which semantic relations they take to be central or primary, but often, will propose definitions or accounts of other semantic relations in terms of their favored semantic relation. For instance, someone could adopt the Hobbesian view that 'stone' is a sign of STONE, and then analyze the naming relation as obtaining between a term and the object or content of the idea that term is a sign of.

So, without having read "Computation and Logic", I am inclined to think that Mill has undersold the case that Hobbes is committed to the wrong answer about whether terms name things or ideas.

There is another frustrating/confusing bit in §1, where Mill offers an argument against the view that names are names of ideas:
When I say, "the sun is the cause of day," I do not mean that my idea of the sun causes or excites in me the idea of day; or in other words, that thinking of the sun makes me think of day.  I mean, that a certain physical fact, which is called the sun's presence (and which, in the ultimate analysis, resolves itself into sensations, not ideas) causes another physical fact, which is called day.  It seems proper to consider a word as the name of that which we intend to be understood by it when we use it; of that which any fact that we assert of it is to be understood of; that, in short, concerning which, when we employ the word, we intend to give information. Names, therefore, shall always be spoken of in this work as the names of things themselves, and not merely of our ideas of things. (p. 25)

To me, it looks like Mill is offering a conflation of two arguments one of which is abysmal and one of which is spot-on.  The spot-on argument is something like:

1) If the term "sun" is the name of the idea SUN, then when I assertively utter "the sun is the cause of the day", I am making a claim about SUN.
2) It is not the case that when I assertively utter "the sun is the cause of the day", I am making a claim about SUN.
3) So, the term "sun" is not the name of the idea SUN.

I'm willing to get on board with that argument.  Note, however, that the wacky stuff about SUN causing DAY plays no role.  Which is for the best, since, there is no reason for the proponent of the view that 'sun' names SUN to suggest that 'cause' names the relation of causing, instead of naming the idea CAUSE.  There is then an open question for the view about the difference between listing three ideas (SUN CAUSE DAY), and actually doing some assertion/predication.

Sometimes when I read this, I think it is supposed to be a slam on Hume, since, on some readings, Hume's reductive account of causation makes it a relation between ideas, but if that's what is going on here, it is difficult to see why Mill would include an incidental objection to Hume (which, I should add, is also not entirely charitable), in the midst of giving a general argument against the view that names are names of ideas.

At any rate, the last surprising bit in this passage is the claim that "in the ultimate analysis" the sun "resolves itself into sensations, not ideas".  I am assuming that, when we get further into the Logic, enough about Mill's metaphysics will be revealed for me to know what that claim amounts to.

Next time on Monday Mill Blogging: §2, "Words which are not names, but parts of names"

Monday, October 24, 2011

Monday Mill Blogging (#003)

Chapter 1 of the Logic is titled, "Of the Necessity of Commencing with an Analysis of Language".

Mill acknowledges that it is common enough to begin a treatise on logic by discussing terms and other matters of language that there isn't really a need to explain why he is going to start with a discussion of language, but he goes on to discuss it anyway.
Language is evidently, and by the admission of all philosophers, one of the principle instruments or helps of thought; and any imperfection in the instrument, or in the mode of employing it, is confessedly liable, still more than in almost any other art, to confuse and impede the process, and destroy all ground of confidence in the result. For a mind not previously versed in the meaning and right use of the various kinds of words, to attempt the study of methods of philosophizing, would be as if some one should attempt to become an astronomical observer, having never learned to adjust the focal distance of his optical instruments so as to see distinctly. (p. 19)

This remark from Mill is a very similar thought to one advanced by Tim Williamson in "Must Do Better":
Philosophers who refuse to bother about semantics, on the grounds that they want to study the non-linguistic world, not our talk about that world, resemble astronomers who refuse to bother about the theory of telescopes, on the grounds that they want to study the stars, not our observation of them. Such an attitude may be good enough for amateurs; applied to more advanced inquiries, it produces crude errors. Those metaphysicians who ignore language in order not to project it onto the world are the very ones most likely to fall into just that fallacy, because the validity of their reasoning depends on unexamined assumptions about the structure of the language in which they reason. (p. 9)

I find the telescope/microscope analogy interesting, and compelling.  Note that neither Mill nor Williamson is embracing the view that questions about language are the primary target of inquiry; rather they both liken the importance of understanding how language works to the importance of knowing how to use your tools.

In the next section of Chapter 1, Mill explains, more or less, the basics of his view of propositions.  We are told that "the answer to every question which it is possible to frame must be contained in a Proposition, or Assertion" and that "whatever can be an object of belief, or even of disbelief, must, when put into words, assume the form of a proposition" (p. 20).

Mill goes on to characterize a proposition as "discourse, in which something is affirmed or denied of something" (p. 21), and analyzes propositions as containing three parts (subject, predicate, and copula).  Throughout this section, Mill seems to be describing what an Early Modern like Locke called "Verbal Propositions", insofar as they are "formed by putting together two names", and Mill tells us that propositions "consist of at least two names".  Similarly, when we were earlier told that the answer to every question is "contained in a proposition", or that propositions are a certain type of "discourse", it is clear that Mill is taking propositions to be something linguistic or verbal.  Mill's propositions diverge, importantly, from at least one major strand of use of the term "proposition" in contemporary philosophy, and this will be important to bear in mind.

Mill ends chapter 1 with an argument in favor of studying names before studying things, by appeal to the fact that language was shaped by many people:

In any enumeration and classification of Things, which does not set out from their names, no varieties of things will of course be comprehended but those recognised by the particular inquirer; and it will still remain to be established, by a subsequent examination of names, that the enumeration has omitted nothing which ought to have been included. But if we begin with names, and use them as our clue to the things, we bring at once before us all the distinctions which have been recognised, not by a single inquirer, but by all inquirers taken together. It doubtless may, and I believe it will be found, that mankind have multiplied the varieties unnecessarily, and have imagined distinctions among things, where there were only distinctions in the manner of naming them. But we are not entitled to assume this in the commencement. We must begin by recognising the distinctions made by ordinary language. If some of these appear, on a close examination, not to be fundamental, the enumeration of the different kinds of realities may be abridged accordingly. But to impose upon the facts in teh first instance the yoke of a theory, while the grounds of the theory are reserved for discussion in a subsequent stage, is not a course which a logician can reasonably adopt. (p. 22)

Here I think we see an interesting commitment on Mill's part to a sort of qualified attention to ordinary language.  There is something like a very weak presumption that distinctions made by ordinary language are legitimate distinctions, at least to the extent that one has to show cause to disregard them, rather than having to show cause for attending to them.  This, I think, falls far short of a commitment to anything like the subsequent movement of ordinary language philosophy, but it is worthwhile to note that Mill explicitly references ordinary language (and not, say, specifically the technical vocabularies of past scholars).

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Monday Mill Blogging returns next week

I wound up taking this week off of Mill blogging, to finish up some grading.  Mill Blogging will return next Monday (or Tuesday, if my past performance is any indication).

Friday, October 7, 2011

Berkeley on the Molyneux Problem

In the course of "An Essay Toward a New Theory of Vision", Berkeley considers Molyneux's question. The question, as quoted by Locke (and Locke being quoted by Berkeley at NTV 132): "Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube and a sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and t'other, which is the cube and which the sphere. Suppose then the cube and sphere placed on a table, and the blind man made to see: quaere, whether by his sight, before he touched them, he could now distinguish and tell which is the globe, which the cube?"

Berkeley, in agreement with Locke (who was in agreement with Molyneux), says "no": it is not possible for someone born blind, who learned shape-names by touch, to then tell by vision alone, which of two shapes presented is a sphere, and which a cube.

Berkeley uses this opportunity to argue for the doctrine of proper sensibles—the view that there is no overlap among the ideas proper to different senses.  In other words, Berkeley maintains that there are no ideas that originally enter the mind through more than one sense.

It is easy to see what Berkeley has in mind if we put the issue this way:  Call the idea you get through touch of one side of a cube T-SQUARE (for tangible square).  Call the idea you get through one vision of one side of a cube V-SQUARE (for visible square).  Berkeley proposes that, if some ideas (such as the idea of a square) come in through both sight and touch, then T-SQUARE would be identical to V-SQUARE, and the only difference would be in the way you acquired them.  But if T-SQUARE and V-SQUARE are identical, then, Berkeley argues, the formerly blind individual should be able to identify the cube, since they know that a cube is a body terminated by squares, and they can also see some squares.*

The most interesting part of Berkeley's discussion, though, comes in NTV 141 to 143(ish).  And what makes this interesting is the startling similarity between what Berkeley says here, and the position Leibniz takes in New Essays On Human Understanding.
Right before NTV 141, Berkeley has just responded to the worry that V-SQUARE and T-SQUARE are called by a common name ('square') because they are of a common species, by appeal to the view that we often use the same name for the sign as well as for the thing signified.  This, in combination with the view that V-SQUARE is a sign of T-SQUARE is intended to address that worry.  The discussion moves on, then, to another potential worry:

But, say you, surely a tangible square is liker to a visible square than to a visible circle: it has four angles and as many sides: so also has the visible square: but the visible circle has no such thing, being bounded by one uniform curve without right lines or angles, which makes it unfit to represent the tangible square but very fit to represent the tangible circle. Whence it clearly follows that visible figures are patterns of, or of the same species with ,the respective tangible figures represented by them: that they are like unto them, and of their own nature fitted to represent them, as being of the same sort: and that they are in no respect arbitrary signs, as words. (NTV 141)

The worry of this passage rests on what I'll call the "greater fitness" claim: Some visible ideas have greater fitness than others to serve as signs of a given tangible idea. The worry attributes this fitness to a cross-modal commonality of species. In NTV 142, Berkeley responds to this worry by noting that the fitness of representation can be accounted for in terms of the complexity or simplicity of the ideas, without appeal to a common species. Importantly, Berkeley does not deny the greater fitness claim. Rather, he tries to show that a canonical instance of arbitrary representation exhibits a parallel case of differential fitness.
But it will not hence follow that any visible figure is like unto, or of the same species with, its corresponding tangible figure, unless it be also shewn that not only the number but also the kind of the parts be the same in both. To illustrate this, I observe that visible figures represent tangible figures much after the same manner that written words do sounds. Now, in this respect words are not arbitrary, it not being indifferent what written word stands for any sound: but it is requisite that each word contain in it so many distinct characters as there are variations in the sound it stands for. Thus, the single letter a is proper to mark one simple uniform sound; and the word adultery is accommodated to represent the sound annexed to it...It is indeed arbitrary that, in general, letters of any language represent sounds at all: but when that is once agreed, it is not arbitrary what combination of letters shall represent this or that particular sound. I leave this with the reader to pursue, and apply it in his own thoughts.

In the New Essays, Leibniz (through the mouth of Theophilus), answers Molyneux's question thus:
[Y]ou will see that I have included in [my reply] a condition which can be taken to be implicit in the question: namely that it is merely a problem of telling which is which, and that the blind man knows that the two shaped bodies which he has to discern are before him and thus that each of the appearances which he sees is either that of a cube or that of a sphere. Given this condition, it seems to me past question that the blind man whose sight is restored could discern them by applying rational principles to the sensory knowledge which he has already acquired by touch...My view rests on the fact that in the case of the sphere, there are no distinguished points on the surface of the sphere taken in itself, since everything there is uniform and without angles, whereas in the case of the cube there are eight points which are distinguished from all the others. (NEHU, book 2, chapter 9)

Leibniz claims that the formerly blind person could reason their way to the right answer, if they are told that the two visual appearances are of shapes with which they are already familiar (and further, told the specific pair of shapes that the two visual appearances are of). Berkeley concedes that, taking for granted that the visual is to be a sign of the tangible, it is not arbitrary which visible figures represent which tangible figures.
To give credit where credit is due; Leibniz himself indicated that he thinks he is on pretty much the same page with people who want to give a "no" answer; he just thinks they are giving a fine answer to the wrong question.
Anyway, it was interesting for me to find out that Berkeley pushes what is essentially the Leibnizian line on Molyneux's problem.
*Berkeley's argument is actual given in terms of numerical and specific difference, which is good, because it avoids an issue present in my quick reconstruction, having to do with token vs. type identity.  To frame it so as to avoid this issue, we can take T-SQUARE to name a particular idea you got through touch. Then the question is whether T-SQUARE and V-SQUARE are of the same kind (i.e. intrinsically alike, for a certain sense of intrinsic), not whether they are identical.  That way of putting it captures Berkeley's language more clearly: "upon the supposition that a visible and tangible square differ only in numero it follows that he might know, by the unerring mark of the square surfaces, which was the cube, and which not, while he only saw them" (NTV 133).

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Monday Mill Blogging (#002)

You might be thinking that there is something wrong with naming this feature "Monday Mill Blogging" when I appear to only ever post these entries on Tuesdays.  I rest secure in the knowledge that a few weeks from now, we'll be canvassing the Mill's views on whether names can be inaccurate, and we can find out whether it is actually a problem.

§ 4. Logic Concerns Inference, not Intuition
Mill had been concerned that "the art and science of Reasoning" was too narrow, and that "the art and science of the pursuit of truth" too broad.  His middle route between the two is to distinguish between truths known "directly", and those known "through the medium of other truths".  The suggestion is that logic is concerned with inferences from intuitive (i.e. directly known) truths, and not with the intuitive truths themselves.  Importantly, this will not limit our attention to deductive inference, since it was already flagged that Mill intends to include inductive reasoning, as well as syllogistic under the scope of inquiry.

Most interesting in this section is Mill's discussion of the certainty of directly known truths, and related caveat:
Whatever is known to us by consciousness, is known beyond possibility of question. What one sees or feels, whether bodily or mentally, one cannot but be sure that one sees or feels. No science is required for the purpose of establishing such truths; no rules of art can render our knowledge of them more certain than it is in itself. There is no logic for this portion of our knowledge.
But we may fancy that we see or feel what we in reality infer. A truth, or supposed truth, which is really the result of a very rapid inference, may seem to be apprehended intuitively. It has long been agreed by thinkers of the most opposite schools, that this mistake is actually made in so familiar an instance as that of the eyesight. (p. 7)

Mill goes on to discuss our knowledge of distance through sight.  Also worth noting in this section is the claim that it is "almost universally allowed that the existence of matter or of spirit, of space or of time, is in its nature unsusceptible of being proved" (p. 9).  He ends the section by declaring that "logic is not the science of Belief, but the science of Proof, or Evidence."

§ 5. Logic and Other Sciences

Mill moves on to consider the "authority of logic" with regard to other sciences, concluding that, because most of our knowledge is inferred, "the greatest portion of our amenable to the authority of logic" (p. 9).  He is careful though to distinguish logic from knowledge::
Logic, however, is not the same thing with knowledge, though the field of logic is coextensive with the field of knowledge. Logic is the common judge and arbiter of all particular investigations. It does not undertake to find evidence, but to determine whether it has been found. Logic neither observes, nor invents, nor discovers; but judges. (p. 10)

Mill's example is the appearances found to accompany a violent death.  Logic, he says, isn't in the business of telling the surgeon which appearances those are (that is the business of observation and testimony).  "Logic sits in judgment on the sufficiency of that observation and experience to justify his rules, and on the sufficiency of his rules to justify his conduct."  It appears, then, that Mill thinks logic also bears on what we would term "practical reasoning", though this is the first mention I've noticed of anything like that.

Also important to note: Mill does not seem to think that the fact that this science is grounded on the descriptive science of our actual human mental operations of inferring stops logic from being "the science of science itself."

§ 6. Logic is Useful

The main thrust of this section is that, with the rare exception of certain savants, most people benefit from knowledge of the principles governing good inference, rather than simply following our unreflectively acquired or natural inclinations.

§ 7. Logic Defined

We are finally told (provisionally) what logic is:
Logic, then, is the science of the operations of the understanding which are subservient to the estimation of evidence: both the process itself of advancing from known truths to unknown, and all other intellectual operations in so far as auxiliary to this. (p. 12)

We are also informed of what this amounts to, in terms of a goal for the project of Mill's System:
Our object, then, will be, to attempt a correct analysis of the intellectual process called Reasoning or Inference, and of such other mental operations as are intended to facilitate this: as well as, on the foundation of this analysis, and pari passu with it, to bring together or frame a set of rules or canons for testing the sufficiency of any given evidence to prove any given proposition. (p. 12)

Also worth noting in this section, is Mill's claim that he will be treating certain operations/processes as relative primitives (i.e. as not subject to analysis for his purposes), without intending to claim that they are themselves primitive.  His comparison is to "analytical chemistry", of which he says the results "are not the less valuable, though it should be discovered that all which we now call simple substances are really compounds." (p. 13).  In other words, there may be more analysis left to do, but we can make progress in developing this science without entering into those analyses.


I have no doubt that I have overlooked some important and interesting elements of the discussion Mill provides in the Introduction (and might well return to some of this later), but for next week, I'll be on to the beginning of book one, "Of Names and Propositions".

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Monday Mill Blogging (#001)

Apologies for starting off on the wrong foot, and not posting this week's Monday Mill blogging until Tuesday. I'll do better next time. Also, the first few chunks of the introduction are sort of dry, at least, I find them to be a bit dry. Things will pick up and get interesting pretty quickly though, I think.

§ 1. Provisional Definitions
Mill opens the first section of the introduction by reporting that there is a wide variety of proposed definitions of logic (as well as for ethics and jurisprudence). He then observes:
This diversity is no so much an evil to be complained of, as an inevitable and in some degree a proper result of the imperfect state of those sciences. It is not expected that there should be agreement about the definition of anything, until there is agreement about the thing itself. (p. 3)
This means that definitions laid out at the outset have to be provisional:
[I]n the case of so complex an aggregation of particulars as are comprehended in anything which can be called a science, the definition we set out with is seldom that which a more extensive knowledge of the subject show to be the most appropriate. Until we know the particulars themselves, we cannot fix upon the most compact mode of circumscribing them by a general definition. (p. 4)
The provisional definitions Mill has in mind are intended, then, to indicate "the scope of our inquiries", and so, the goal of the introduction would appear to be laying out the boundaries of what falls under the scope of logic in particular.

§ 2. The Art and Science of Reasoning?
Mill approvingly cites Archbishop Whately's definition of logic as "the Science, as well as the Art, of reasoning; meaning by the former term, the analysis of the mental process which takes place whenever we reason, and by the latter, the rules, grounded on that analysis, for conducting the process correctly" (p. 4). In the remainder of the section, Mill goes on to say that while that some people limit the application of "Reasoning" to syllogizing, there is a broader use, which he will follow, on which reasoning has to do with any sort of inferring whatsoever (which means that induction is included, as well as geometric demonstrations). Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the discussion of this definition of logic is Mill's tangential claim about the relationship of knowledge to action:
Art necessarily presupposes knowledge; art, in any but its infant state, presupposes a scientific knowledge: and if every art does not bear the name of a science, it is only because several sciences are often necessary to form the groundwork of a single art. So complicated are the conditions which govern our practical agency, that to enable one thing to be done, it is often requisite to know the nature and properties of many things. (p. 4, my emphasis)
The view that knowledge is prerequisite to action is hardly unorthodox. I take it that this outlook clashes with elements of pragmatism, or with, for instance, some background assumptions of Alva Nöe's enactive account of perception. That Mill has this view, then, isn't the interesting part, so much as the fact that it is stated so straightforwardly in this passage.  At any rate, Mill next turns to the worry that this definition of logic is too narrow.

§ 3. The Art and Science of Pursuing Truth?
It seems that one point of section 3 is to establish that the scope of logic includes, beyond the science and rules of inference, some treatment of terms and propositions. Mill observes that scholastic treatments of logic typically treat terms and propositions, not simply arguments, and then goes on to note:
[A] man is is often called a great logician, or a man of powerful logic, not for the accuracy of his deductions, but for the extent of his command over the premises; because the the general propositions required for explaining a difficulty or refuting a sophism, copiously and promptly occur to him: because, in short, his knowledge, besides being ample, is well under his command for argumentative use. (p. 5-6)
This leads him to consider the expanded definition of logic as "the science which treats of of the operations of the human understanding in the pursuit of truth." The definition would, Mill says, take logic to include naming, classification, definition, etc.

Mill also makes sure to address the worry that this definition of logic is going to subsume all treatment of language, given the expansive definition which includes definition, naming, and so on.  He responds to the worry by observing that those operations, besides being used in the pursuit of truth, serve other purposes as well:

For instance, that of imparting our knowledge to others. But viewed with regard to this purpose, they have never been considered as within the province of the logician. The sole object of logic is the guidance of one's own thoughts: the communication of those thoughts to others fals under the consideration of Rhetoric, in the large sense in which that art was conceived by the ancient; or of the still more extensive art of Education. (p. 6)

There is a remaining worry, which we will begin with next time: the worry that our definition is still too liberal because it includes sense-perception and intuition, which are not to be included in logic proper.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Monday Mill Blogging (#000)

I've been wanting to work my way through John Stuart Mill's magnum opus, "A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive", and I have also been wanting to increase the frequency of substantive philosophical posting on this blog. I am combining those aims, and I will be adding a weekly feature to the blog: Monday Mill Blogging, where I blog my way through all six books of of Mill's System of Logic. I'll be using volumes 7 and 8 of the Liberty Fund's "Collected Works of John Stuart Mill" for these purposes. Today's post is just the announcement. Next Monday I'll start blogging about the introduction.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Back to Blogging

One thing I learned this summer is that it is extremely easy to radically underestimate the time and energy involved in moving from Los Angeles to Detroit. However, now that I am here, have the first few weeks of classes under my belt, and am beginning to get into a bit of a routine, I am happy to say that I will be getting back into somewhat regular blogging. A couple of fun announcements: I'll be presenting a paper on Locke that I've been working on at the South Central Seminar in Early Modern Philosophy. The central argument of the paper is that Locke's philosophy of language runs into some difficult problems because he does not posit negative ideas. I show that these problems are independent of which interpretation of Signification one prefers (signification being the core semantic/linguistic relation employed by Locke). The paper also includes some speculative discussion of the source of Locke's reluctance to admit negative ideas. I will also be presenting a paper at the Central APA this February in Chicago. My paper, "Reid's Complaint against Hume's Maxim: Conceivability, Possibility, and Reductio Reasoning", concerns some pretty daunting challenges for Hume's theory of cognition raised by Thomas Reid. Essentially, Thomas Reid observes that the "maxim of conceivability" (i.e. the view that conceivability implies possibility) has consequences for one's account of various sorts of mathematical reasoning. If you can't conceive of any impossible claim, for instance, how can you suppose one to be true for purposes of a reductio argument against it? I show how Hume's basic resources can be put to work addressing this challenge.

Monday, July 4, 2011


Sorry for the lack of posting lately. I am in the midst of moving from Los Angeles to Detroit.

I will be getting pack into the blogging groove once I get to my new home and get settled.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

My first publication!

I recently got a paper accepted to Philosophical Studies, and it is now available online here. I jumped the gun on giving my e-mail address, as that address isn't yet set up (I thought there would be a longer lag before the paper came out).

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Smith on Sympathy for the Deceased: Feeling for the Departed

This is the third and final post in my series on Smith on Sympathy for the Deceased (previous posts are here and here).

It is easy to come away from the first chapter of Smith's "Theory of Moral Sentiments" feeling like the account of sympathy for the deceased is intended to be one of the central upshots of his view. The materials in this post and the previous posts are all from that first chapter ("Of Sympathy"), and the final paragraph (TMS of that chapter is entirely about our sympathy for the deceased. That paragraph begins:
We sympathize even with the dead, and overlooking what is of real importance in their situation, that awful futurity which awaits them, we are chiefly affected by those circumstances which strike on our senses, but can have no influence upon their happiness. It is miserable, we think, to be deprived of the light of the sun; to be shut out from life and conversation; to be laid in the cold grave; to be prey to corruption and the reptiles of the earth; to be no more thought of in this world, but to be obliterated, in a little time, from the affections, and almost from the memory, of their dearest friends and relations.

First, note that Smith appears to simply be applying the theory already laid out to the case of the deceased. We know that they are buried in cold ground, excluded from conversation and society, and thus, on his account, we are prompted to imagine ourselves being buried in the cold ground, excluded from conversation and society, which generates the emotional response of misery/sadness, and thus, according to Smith, we feel sympathy for the deceased.

Second, because this is an account of sympathy for the deceased, we need to distinguish this from another emotional response we have to the death of another; ordinary sadness at our loss. When someone close to us dies, there is emotional pain and anguish which Smith's account is not intended to address: the pain we feel for the loss we have endured. Of course, Smith's account of sympathy is not intended to address such an original emotion, and so it is no problem that such an emotion is absent from this story.

Smith's discussion continues:
Surely, we imagine, we can never feel too much for those who have suffered so dreadful a calamity. The tribute of our fellow-feeling seems doubly due to them now, when they are in danger of being forgot by every body; and, by the vain honours which we pay to their memory, we endeavour, for our own misery, artificially to keep alive the melancholy remembrance of their misfortune. That our sympathy can afford them no consolation seems to be an addition to their calamity; and to think that all we can do is unavailing, and that, what alleviates all other distress, the regret, the love, and the lamentations of their friends, can yield no comfort to them, serves only to exasperate our sense of their misery. The happiness of the dead, however, most assuredly, is affected by none of these circumstances; nor is it the thought of these things which can ever disturb the profound security of their repose.

Here Smith alludes to the role of sympathy in consolation, something that he will return to in the next chapter ("Of the pleasure of mutual Sympathy"), and so I won't say much about it here. The last sentence in that passage, however, is worth commenting on. This is where we can see relatively clearly, that sympathy for the deceased is a case of imagination-reality mismatch for Smith. As we saw in the previous discussion, it is not clear that there really is anything going wrong with feeling sympathy in such cases, though it is worth noting that this case differs from that of, say, sympathetic embarrassment for someone who is oblivious, because, plausibly, we cannot regard the target of sympathy in this case as committing an error of any sort (whereas the target of sympathetic embarrassment can easily be thought of as failing to have an emotional reaction that they should have). One thought that might help to unify both cases is to observe that both the oblivious individual and the deceased individual are not properly aware of being in the situation that prompts the sympathetic reaction. This could account for the mismatch in both cases, without presuming that anyone's emotional reactions are improper, so long as emotional reactions occur in response to knowledge/belief/awareness, which seems plausible.

Smith concludes:
The idea of that dreary and endless melancholy, which the fancy naturally ascribes to their condition, arises altogether from our joining to the change which has been produced upon them, our own consciousness of that change, from our putting ourselves in their situation, and from our lodging, if I may be allowed to say so, our own living souls in their inanimated bodies, and then conceiving what would be our emotions in this case. It is from this very illusion of the imagination, that the foresight of our own dissolution is so terrible to us, and that the idea of those circumstances, which undoubtedly can give us no pain when we are dead, makes us miserable while we are alive. And from thence arises one of the most important principles in human nature, the dread of death, the great poison to the happiness, but the great restraint upon the injustice of mankind, which, while it affects and mortifies the individual, guards and protects the society.

In light of the imagination-reality mismatch in sympathy for the deceased, we have to wonder if sympathy for the deceased is a problematic aspect of the way sympathetic emotions are generated in us, or, if instead, there is something good about sympathy for the deceased coming about in this mismatch-y way. Smith seems to be concluding, here, that there is something good to be said for our sympathy for the dead in this regard. Specifically, it generates in us a fear of death, which he then claims is integral to the preservation of society. Obviously, to see why Smith thinks that fear of death is so integral to the preservation of society, we would need to look to material from later in Theory of Moral Sentiments, something I'll have to take up another time.

Now, I've been excited about Smith's account of sympathy for the deceased since I started reading TMS, but most people seem to be extremely skeptical when I tell them about it. For me, though, Smith's account was "confirmed" in a fairly visceral way. When I imagine the things he describes in the opening of this paragraph, I react, and my reaction does seem to be triggered by imagining myself inhabiting the circumstances so-described. I'm not so overconfident in my introspective powers that I think this clinches the case for Smith, but it doesn't strike me as straightforwardly wrong the way it seems to strike the people I've been telling about it (though perhaps the problem is in my telling of it, and not the theory itself).

The last thing I want to observe about this account is that it seems to address something of a puzzle for believers in the afterlife. Suppose one believes in an afterlife, and is reasonably confident that they will be spending it in heaven rather than hell. It seems difficult to say why such a person should fear death. Smith's account of sympathy purports to account for the fear of death even in such persons, because even knowing that the deceased's state is unaffected by the corruption of their body doesn't interrupt the generation of sympathetic misery for the deceased (and this is what generates fear of death, for Smith).

Since I started reading Theory of Moral Sentiments, I've become increasingly of the opinion that it is one of the most under-rated works in the history of philosophy. I hope that these posts on Smith's account of sympathy for the deceased, if nothing else, have conveyed the incredible richness of material in that work, given how much there is going on in just the first chapter.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Smith on Sympathy for the Deceased: Cases of Imagination-Reality Mis-Match

In the previous post in this series, I was concerned with presenting the basic mechanisms of sympathy on Smith's view. I stressed that Smith offers a general three-part account of sympathy: (i) perception of another's (external) situation, prompting (ii) imagination of oneself experiencing that situation, which in turn produces (iii) a similar (but less lively) emotional reaction as would be produced by actually experiencing that situation. The links from (i) to (ii) and from (ii) to (iii) are causal. I also noted that the account concerns emotion in general (rather than limiting itself to some subset of sympathetic emotion) as well as that the account is indirect (in that it takes the aforementioned detour through the imagination, rather than regarding, for example, sympathetic sadness as an immediate reaction to the perception of another's sorrowful countenance).

I have found the pair of emotions anger and sadness helpful for summarizing where Smith's view is particularly successful vs. where it faces some challenges: Because of its indirectness, Smith's view is especially well suited to explain sympathetic anger. Merely seeing an angry person does not provoke sympathetic anger in us. On Smith's view, this is because we are not responding to the display of emotion in sympathy as much as we are to an act of imagining the source of that emotion. When someone tells us how they have been slighted, we are then likely to join them in their anger. Sadness, on the other hand, is a challenge for Smith. If we see someone crying, we usually feel for them, (i.e. sympathize with them) before learning the source of their sorrow. Conversely, and account that has an easy time with sadness is likely to be hard pressed to account for the absence of sympathy at displays of anger.

In a later post, I want to discuss two worries that I've heard from people when describing Smith's account. The first is what I'll call the "objection from babies", i.e. the worry that Smith's account over-intellectualizes sympathy (and thereby predicts that babies don't do sympathy). The second is the "sympathy/empathy worry" which is that there is a distinction between sympathizing and empathizing which Smith's account (as I have so far presented it) misses out on this distinction. I'll discuss those in a separate post or two after this series on sympathy for the deceased.

This post, however, is going to focus on Smith's discussion of cases that I'm labeling "imagination-reality mis-match". Immediately after defending the indirectness of sympathy (by appeal to sympathetic anger), Smith introduces a range of cases that he takes to be fodder for his view (TMS
Sympathy, therefore, does not arise so much from the view of the passion, as from that of the situation which excites it. We sometimes feel for another, a passion of which he himself is incapable; because, when we put ourselves in his case, that passion arises in our breast from the imagination, though it does not in his from the reality. We blush for the impudence and rudeness of another, though he himself appears to have no sense of the impropriety of his own behaviour; because we cannot help feeling with what confusion we ourselves should be covered, had we behaved in so absurd a manner.

Contrast Smith's view here with an expression-responsive view of sympathy (i.e. a view on which we perceive the emotions of another by way of expressions of those emotions, and experience sympathetic emotions as a result. The expression-responsive view, unlike Smith's, cannot explain sympathetic embarrassment when the person behaving in an embarrassing fashion fails to experience and express said embarrassment. This is not to say that the proponent of such views is unable to offer some explanation of the case, only to note that such cases are covered by Smith's view in precisely the same fashion as other sympathetic emotions. This, I think, is another virtue of his approach.

It will be useful to raise the issue of whether Smith's view should be considered, then, an error theory, given the preponderance of imagination-reality mis-match cases. Standardly, an error theory about X is the view that that our ordinary judgments about X go wrong, at least, in some reasonably large proportion of cases.

Does Smith's story about mis-match cases of sympathetic embarrassment include some sort of error-theory? I think not. Recall that the general account of sympathy involves (i) an act of perception, (ii) an act of imagination, and (iii) an emotional response. The thing perceived, here, is the external circumstances of another person. For instance, if an individual is horribly overdressed for a casual party, but blithely unaware, the contents of our perception are things like that the individual is over-dressed, that everyone is staring at them, etc. In normal cases, we are correctly perceiving the external circumstances of this individual. So we have no false judgment there.

Second, there is an act of imagination. Now, here, the sympathizer imagines him or herself having the features the individual in question was observed to have. Here we have a false content to the act (the sympathizer is not overdressed, but imagines him or herself to be overdressed), but we also have no judgment in this act, and so, no false judgment.

Third is the emotional reaction to the act of imagining. Again, there is no judgment in this emotional reaction, and so, there can be no false judgment.

The mismatch in question is not a mismatch between the content of a judgment made by the sympathizer and the way the world is. At the same time, there is something, in this case of sympathetic embarrassment, that is properly called a mismatch: the sympathizer's emotional reaction doesn't match the emotional reaction of the person being sympathized with. And it does seem that the very notion of sympathy (which Smith treats as interchangeable with "fellow-feeling") presupposes that there is an accord between the emotion felt by the target and the emotion felt by the sympathizer.

I am not sure what to make of the mismatch in light of this, but it seems that Smith can, at the least, claim that something goes awry in such cases (by the lights of the sympathizer): If sympathy presupposes a match in emotions between the sympathizer and target, this does not mean that any case of mismatch places the error with the sympathizer. In the cases Smith has in mind, it seems to be clear that the mismatch results from something going wrong with the target, and not with a mistake (of any sort) on the part of the sympathizer (TMS
Of all teh calamities to which the condition of mortality exposes mankind, the loss of reason appears, to those who have the least spark of humanity, by far the most dreadful, and they behold that last stage of human wretchedness with deeper commiseration than any other. But the poor wretch who is in it, laughs and sings, perhaps, and is altogether insensible of his own misery. The anguish which humanity feels, therefore, at the sight of such an object, cannot be the reflection of any sentiment in the sufferer. The compassion of the spectator must arise altogether from the consideration of what he himself would feel if he was reduced to the same unhappy situation, and what perhaps is impossible, was at the same time able to regard it with his present reason and judgment.

I want to stress that Smith is not offering a special view of these mismatch cases as an amendment to his theory. Smith's stance here is straightforwardly the consequence of his general view, and he regards it as a virtue that his view can explain sympathetic embarrassment or pity in cases where the targets do not, themselves, feel embarrassed or sad.

We've got enough of the view on the table now that I can turn, in my next post, to Smith's account of sympathy for the deceased (and, relatedly, Smith's account of our fear of death).

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Nitpick: Schaffer on Contextualism

Sometimes, there is a completely minor point that I want to make about a talk/paper/argument/etc., and it occurred to me that such minor points are well suited to being blogged. When I consider something this sort of minor point, I'm going to try and label the post as a "nitpick", so that it is clear how minor I take the point to be. In this case, the point concerns one of Jonathan Schaffer's arguments against contextualism (about "knows") in "From Contextualism to Contrastivism":
The second argument for the preferability of ternicity is the argument from scoring inquiry: ternicity better suits ‘knows’ to its role in keeping score of the overall progress of inquiry.

Ternicity is the view that knowing is a three-place relation between a subject, a proposition, and a contrast class. Contextualism is the view that "knows" is a context-sensitive term, which designates different relations (presumably two-place) in different contexts of utterance/evaluation. Here's the argument Schaffer offers on the basis of scoring inquiry:
(10) One of the roles of ‘knows’ is to keep score of the overall
progress of inquiry;

(11) Indexicality precludes ‘knows’ from scoring the overall progress of inquiry, because indexicals cannot keep a consistent score across contexts; and

(12) Ternicity allows ‘knows’ to score the overall progress of inquiry, because the various stages of inquiry may be consistently logged under various values of q.

The nitpicky point concerns the second premise. Schaffer defends the premise by saying:
indexicality precludes ‘knows’ from keeping score of the overall progress of inquiry. This is because, with indexicality, the denotation of ‘knows’ is always warped to the
current context. As such ‘knows’ cannot keep consistent score across contexts. But scoring inquiry requires evaluating how a subject performs through a sequence of questions, and this requires a consistent score across contexts. (Imagine trying to score a baseball game if the denotation of ‘run’ changed with every inning!)

My nitpick is that, while Schaffer is right that baseball would be difficult to score if the denotation of "run" changed with every inning, I think he overstates the case here. It seems that we could devise a game which would be relatively simple to score, but where the denotation of key scoring terms shifted about throughout the game (at least, in the same sense as relevant for his argument). Here's such a game: there are six numbered buckets in a row. Players stand at one end of the row and take turns tossing differently colored ping pong balls into the buckets. To begin, getting a ball in any bucket is worth one point. After each round of play, a die is rolled. If the die comes up 6, only the points in the furthest bucket count (even from previous rounds). If the die comes up 5, only the points from the furthest two buckets count. And so on. In other words, points in the sixth bucket are "safer" points than points in the first bucket, because each round, the buckets that actually count for points can change, but the higher the bucket number, the less likely it is that those points are excluded. So, if I toss all my ping pong balls in the first bucket, I may end the first round in the lead, but enter the second round with no points.

Ok, so, you might be thinking this fictional bucket-toss game is too minor of a point to raise, even for a nitpick post. At the same time, this isn't entirely unrelated to Schaffer's point: If we think of the shifting standards for which buckets count as analogizing changes in the contextually set standards for knowledge, and the ping pong balls as beliefs, we can see how the contextualist might conceive of scoring inquiry for "knows"-ascriptions. Your score fluctuates from context to context, but some of your points are safer than others. Perhaps a better analogy would allow the players to attempt to influence the bucket-boundary for points (to better analogize the popular contextualist view that knowledge claims can be used to attempt to shift the standards for knowledge-ascriptions).

So, I think Schaffer overstates the case against the indexicalist when it comes to the claim above labeled (11). Of course this is just one small part of Schaffer's case, and I don't think anything crucial for Schaffer's larger project turns on it (hence the status as a nitpick).

Friday, April 15, 2011

Smith on Sympathy for the Deceased: The Mechanism of Sympathy

I've recently been reading Adam Smith's "Theory of Moral Sentiments", and already I think it is clear that this is one of the most underrated works of philosophy from the early modern era.

I've been yapping at people a lot about Smith's account of our Sympathy for the deceased, so I wanted to write up some of my thoughts on it, but I'm going to try and do this in a multi-part post, rather than one giant one.

In this first post First, though I need to present my understanding of the basics of Smith's account of sympathy. We'll start with Smith's own statement of the core of the account (TMS

As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation. Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person, and it is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations. Neither can that faculty help us to this any other way, than by representing to us what would be our own, if we were in his case. It is the impressions of our own senses only, not those of his, which our imaginations copy. By the imagination, we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enuring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them. His agonies, when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have thus adopted and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble and shudder at the thought of what he feels. For as to be in pain or disress of any kind excites the most excessive sorrow, so to conceive or imagine that we are in it, excites some degree of the same emotion, in proportion to the vivacity or dulness of the conception.

Smith's account, I take it, is this: I see someone else in circumstance C. I don't perceive what it is like for them to be in C, but instead, I imagine what it would be like for me to be in C. Imagining myself in C produces a weaker version of the emotional reaction that would be produced if I were in C. This is the mechanism, on Smith's view, whereby I can have sympathy (aka "fellow-feeling") with that person.

There are a few interesting aspects of this account that I want to flag. First, the account can be thought of as having three components: 1) perceiving someone else's circumstances, 2) imagining oneself in those circumstances, and 3) reacting emotionally to the act of imagination. This is interesting because it has specific psychological predictions about instances of sympathetic emotional reaction.

Second, the principal place that judgment or belief enters the picture is in the first component: there, we have a perceptual judgment that so-and-so is in such-and-such circumstances. The subsequent elements of the account involve an act of imagination as well as an emotional reaction to the imagining. And though this judgment is a component of cases of sympathetic emotion, it is non-essential to the machinery of the other components (at least, for all that has been said). The emotional reaction is consequent on the act of imagining, but we can and do imagine ourselves in circumstances that we do not perceive others to be in. This opens room for a puzzle about why I am saddened much more when the act of imagining is prompted by perceiving someone in those circumstances, than when I just imagine myself in such circumstances. I suspect that the strength of the imagining would be a natural thing to appeal to in response to this puzzle, and my guess is that the best response to this puzzle is that we imagine more strongly with perceptual prompting then if we just idly imagine ourselves in some circumstances.

Third, the account is general for various emotions. Smith's opening example is one of sympathetic sorrow, but he intends it to apply to cases of joy, anger, etc. There are some interesting remarks on which emotions are more or less prone to produce sympathy (and the degrees of sympathy they are prone to produce), but I won't go into that here.

Finally, the account is indirect in a way that may be troublesome to some: It is natural to think that I can sympathetically become sad simply by seeing the sadness in someone's face. Smith's account does not, as it stands, permit this. Smith actually discusses this worry though (TMS
Upon some occasions sympathy may seem to arise merely from the view of a certain emotion in another person. The passions, upon some occasions, may seem to be transfused from one man to another, instantaneously, and antecedent to any knowledge of what excited them in the person pricipally concerned. Grief and joy, for example, strongly expressed in the look and gestures of any one, at once affect the spectator with some degree of a like painful or agreeable emotion. A smiling face is, to every body that sees it, a cheerful object; as a sorrowful countenance, on the other hand, is a melancholy one.

This, however, does not hold universally, or with regard to every passion. There are some passions of which the expressions excite no sort of sympathy, but, before we are acquainted with what gave occasion to them, serve rather to disgust and provoke us against them. The furious behavior of an angry man is more likely to exasperate us against himself than against his enemies. As we are unacquainted with his provocation, we cannot bring his case home to ourselves, nor conceive any thing like passions which it excites. But we plainly see what is the situation of those with whom he is angry, and to what violence they may be exposed from so enraged an adversary. We readily, therefore sympathize with their fear or resentment, and are immediately disposed to take part against the man from whom they appear to be in so much danger.

It may seem that here, Smith is conceding that his account does not apply to grief and joy, but does apply to sympathetic fear and anger. Rather, though, Smith is using this case to point out that a general account of sympathy has to be indirect, in order to capture anger. He then goes on to present an account of how we can view sympathetic grief and joy under this indirect account. Roughly, the account is that grief and joy are known to be reactions to bad and good fortune (respectively), so seeing a sad face suggests to us the general idea of ill fortune, and this is what prompts our sympathetic sadness. While seeing an angry person suggests the general idea of provocation, for Smith, this general idea alone does not trigger sympathetic anger. Smith's remarks suggest that the key difference is that anger is directed at another individual, whose interests oppose the angry party's, whereas good fortune or ill fortune (as such) do not go beyond the individual experiencing them.

The only amendment I want to propose to Smith's account here is to allow for habituated emotional reactions to the sight of a sad or joyful face, where sufficient repetition of sympathetic joy and grief allows us to acquire immediate emotional reactions to seeing a sorrowful or joyful face, rather than always requiring the involvement of imagined (general) good or ill fortune. I don't know enough of Smith's views on the human mind to determine whether this would be taken as a friendly amendment, or whether such an account would do violence to other views of his.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Big Updates!

Last Tuesday (March 1st), I successfully defended my dissertation. Also last week, I accepted a tenure-track position in the philosophy department at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. I am, obviously, extremely excited about both of these facts, and, while I still have to format the dissertation and fill out some paperwork, this also means that I am pretty much finished with grad school.

This past Saturday, I gave a talk at the Early Modern Circle (an early modern philosophy workshop here in Southern California). The discussion during the Q&A session was very fruitful for me, so that was excellent.

Oh, also, I will be commenting on a paper at the upcoming Hume conference in Edinburgh, which is awesome because this year is Hume's 300th birthday, so this should be a pretty exciting conference.

I think that's all my major news at the moment. Soon, I will be back to philosophical posts.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Actions: Intentional Under Some Description? Redux

In "Intention", Elizabeth Anscombe introduces the verbiage of an action being intentional under a description in the following way:
Since a single action can have many different descriptions, e.g. 'sawing a plank', 'sawing oak', 'sawing one of Smith's planks', 'making a squeaky noise with the saw', 'making a great deal of sawdust', and so on and so on, it is important to notice that a man may know that he is doing a thing under one description and not another. Not every case of this is a case of his knowing that he is doing one part of what he is doing and not another (e.g. he knows that he is sawing, but not that he is making a squeaky noise with the saw). He may know that he is sawing a plank, but not that he is sawing an oak plank, or Smith's plank; but sawing an oak plank or Smith's plank is not something else he is doing besides just sawing the plank that he is sawing. For this reason, the statement that a man knows he is doing X does not imply the statement that, concerning anything which is also his doing X, he knows that he is doing that thing. So to say a man knows he is doing X is to give a description of what he is doing under which he knows it. Thus, when a man says 'I was not aware that I was doing X', and so claims that the question 'Why?' has no application, he cannot always be confuted by the fact that he was attentive to those of his own proceedings in which doing X consisted. (Intention Sec. 6, p. 11-12, emphasis in the original)

This, at any rate, is the citation offered by Anscombe in her later "Under a Description" in which she endeavors to clear up a large number of confusions that people had surrounding the notion of an action's being intentional under a description.

In my previous post on these issues I claimed that this "action under a description" business was in tension with Leibniz law. My argument was basically this:
1) If my flipping the light switch and my alerting the burglar are the same action, then for any property P, my flipping the light switch instantiates P if and only if my alerting the burglar instantiates P.
2) Suppose that my flipping the light switch was intentional, but that my alerting the burglar was not intentional, and that my flipping the light switch is the same action as my alerting the burglar.
3) Then, there is a property — the property of being intentional — instantiated by my flipping the light switch, but not by my alerting the burglar.
4) So, my flipping the light switch is not the same action as my alerting the burglar.
5) But, (from 2) they are the same action.

So, we have a contradiction following from the supposition in (2) and Leibniz Law. And for what it is worth, I think the argument is right: one should not have a view which commits them to all the elements of (2), unless one wishes to abandon Leibniz Law.

My mistake was in thinking that (2) correctly encapsulates the business about actions being "intentional under a description". As Anscombe makes very clear in the paper "Under a Description", the point of this under-a-description business was not to posit some weird entities, actions-under-descriptions and then take the stance that a-under-description-D1 and a-under-description-D2 (1) are the same thing, and (2) possess different properties. Rather, Anscombe points out that this "under-a-description" business is qua "in modern dress", and takes it to attach to the predicate, rather than the subject. So, it is not that A-under-description-D1 is intentional, and A-under-description-D2 is not intentional; rather, A is intentional-under-D1, but not intentional-under-D2.

It is clear that this is the way to structure the view, if one wants to say that the flipping of the switch is the same action as the alerting of the burglar. It is perfectly fine for there to be one action which has the feature of being (for lack of better phrasing) purposefully-switch-flippy while lacking the feature of being purposefully-burglar-alerty.

This Leibniz-law concern is just one of the issues that Anscombe discusses in "Under a Description". As I begin gearing up for the Intention reading group I'm organizing, I'll definitely be going carefully through that article as well, since it did a really nice job, I think, of clarifying this talk of actions being "intentional under a description".

Actions: Intentional Under Some Description? [Correction]

In an earlier post on this topic, I mis-attributed the origin of "intentional under a description" talk to Davidson's 1963 paper, rather than Anscombe's 1957 book Intention. More importantly, I wrote the post without having read Anscombe's excellent 1979 paper "Under a Description", which clears up a number of things about what is supposed to be going on with the view. In the next few days, I hope to have a post up detailing my new and improved understanding of this "under a description" talk. I know see ways in which my presentation of the view in the previous post were missing what is, essentially, the key element of the view (hint: my statement of component (B) of Davidson's view in the earlier post is thoroughly incorrect).

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Talk: Early Modern Circle (March 5th @ CalTech)

On March 5th, I will be presenting my paper, "How To Avoid Mis-Reiding Hume's Maxim of Conceivability" at the Early Modern Circle. The meeting will be at CalTech, in Pasadena.

In the paper, I defend David Hume's endorsement of the principle that conceivability implies possibility from two of the four criticisms offered by Thomas Reid. While I have been spending most of my time recently arguing that Reid's complaints about Hume are wrong, I should note that Reid has a tremendous talent for finding challenges that Hume needs to address, even if I am much more optimistic than Reid is about Hume's prospects for addressing those challenges.

It strikes me that Hume and Reid were, to an important extent, on the same page about what sort of project they were up to, and Reid was amazingly sharp, so that all adds up to a recipe for some really interesting and important challenges to look at in connection with Hume's account.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Gift-giving and Economics

One of the podcasts I listen to during my commute is NPR's Planet Money podcast.

I fell behind over break, and was catching up today, so I just heard the December 27th edition on why some economists don't like gift-giving.

This isn't the first time I've come across the anti-gift giving sentiment of economists, either. I was sincerely puzzled when I first came across the sentiment, and I continue to be perplexed. I keep coming across economists advocating a theory of gift-giving on which instead of exchanging sweaters, DVDs, and the like, we should be giving each other cash.

Now, I should preface this post by acknowledging that I am not an economist, and I have not had any real exposure to economic theory (though Mankiw's "Principles of Economics" is sitting on my bookshelf next to Spivak's "Calculus" and Abelman and Sussman's "Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs" in the space reserved for non-philosophy textbooks I intend to work through when I am able to find/make the time.

It seems to me that any theory of gift-giving which recommends that all gift-giving take the form of cash transfers is a pretty bad theory of gift-giving. As I understand it, the thought behind migrating to cash-gifts is something like this: If Jones spends $30 on a Christmas sweater for Smith, and Smith has no desire or use for that sweater (i.e. the sweater produces no utility for Smith), we have missed out on the chance for that $30 to increase the utility in the world, and instead we wasted that money and used up some resources (e.g. yarn and time). Better to have given that Smith that DVD Smith has been wanting, or, better yet, give Smith the power to choose the purchase(s) that maximize utility; the gift of cash.

A clear way to see the problem with this system is that, if Smith and Jones are good friends, they probably exchange gifts during the holidays. It is safe to say that it would be pretty ridiculous for them to each put $30 in an envelope and swap envelopes. So, if the best account of gift-giving is one that recommends cash exchanges, I'd take that to be, roughly, a condemnation of gift-giving.

It seems to me that there are a few ways to resist this conclusion, which is fortunate for those of us who like the practice of gift giving.

Way 1: The efficiency argument against gift-giving requires the assumption that Smith is better informed than Jones about Jones's preference ordering, and this assumption can be challenged. One of the best gifts I have ever received was a personalized book embosser that was given to me by family friends at my high school graduation. I did not know about customized book embossers prior to receiving one. Had someone told me about them, there is a decently high chance that I would not have placed a high priority on acquiring one. However, now, almost 10 years later, I still use it, and still think it was a great gift, and there is no way I would have been happier with whatever it is that I might have spend the equivalent amount of money on for myself.

This seems to me to bring out one of the distinctive values of gift-giving; the opportunity to enrich a friend's life or have a friend enrich your life by giving you something that you didn't even know you wanted. Note that, for someone who is good at picking out such gifts, the dead-weight loss would occur (I think) if they failed to give a gift, and instead just handed over some cash.

Way 2: Many gifts have sentimental value, but sentimental value can't attach to cash (at least, not without interfering with its role as currency. For instance, if you save the first bill you earned at a childhood lemonade stand, because of its sentimental value, you aren't able to spend that money while treating it as a keepsake. So, while the books my brother has given me as gifts can remain function both as literature and as store-houses of sentimental value, money really can't play that role.

This is, I imagine, one of the most common thoughts about what is missing from the picture advocated by the sorts of economists I've linked above. The sentimental element of gift-giving is a pretty glaring omission in the utility-exchange story (at least, it seems to be — if anyone knows otherwise, please let me know).

Way 3: It may be impermissible for someone to spend their own money to acquire certain types of items (frivolous/fun/luxury items), but not impermissible for them to receive those items as a gift. A lot of people in grad school, for instance, would have to be irresponsible to spend a sizable chunk of money getting themselves an ipod or a videogame or what have you. If they have the money to spend on that sort of thing, they really should put some of it into savings, or the like. But it is not irresponsible for them to accept an ipod or a videogame as a gift. The fact that it would be irresponsible for the person to splurge on something unnecessary/impractical for themselves does not mean that it would be bad or wrong for them to possess it. Gift-giving provides a way for people who couldn't responsibly treat themselves to occasionally get those sorts of treats.

One thing that is important to note is that both the NPR podcast and the article I linked indicate the enormous amounts of money that get sunk into our ritualized gift-giving. And nothing I've indicated here really defends the scale of our gift-giving practices or the huge numbers of gifts that don't fall under the category of preferred-but-unknown, sentimentally-valuable, or fun-enabling-without-being-irresponsible. For all I have said, it may be the case that we ought to tone down the practice a fair amount and focus on increasing the relative frequency of the particularly valuable modes of gift giving. But that conclusion is a far cry from the view that the real values of gift-giving are best promoted by handing over cold hard cash.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Spring Reading Groups (and Other Plans)

This Spring (i.e., the semester, not the season), I am planning to organize two reading groups:

(1) A reading group on Anscombe's Intention (and related works). A lot of USC people expressed interest in this one, and there are a lot of people with related interests in the department, so that should be a lot of fun and very rewarding.

(2) The continuation of our Early Modern Women in Philosophy reading group. I imagine we will stick with Mary Shepherd for now, but there are a lot of other great female figures to study in the early modern period, so we are not likely to run out of options.

Anyone outside USC with interest in either of these should let me know so I can include you in e-mails and the like.

I'll also be sitting in on Ed McCann's Locke/Leibniz seminar, defending my dissertation(! — on March 1st), and continuing in my role as managing editor of the Pacific Philosophical Quarterly.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

APA Book Purchases

Books I got this year at the Eastern APA:

Descartes and the Puzzle of Sensory Representation — Raffaella De Rosa
Leibniz: Body, Substance, Monad — Daniel Garber
Hume's Morality: Feeling and Fabrication — Rachel Cohon
Reflection and the Stability of Belief: Essays on Descartes, Hume, and Reid — Louis Loeb
The Riddle of Hume's Treatise: Skepticism, Naturalism, and Irreligion — Paul Russell
Scientific Representation — Bas van Fraassen