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.