May 29, 2012

"What would you call that?"

... Nominalists make the mistake of interpreting all words as names, and so of not really describing their use, but only, so to speak, giving a paper draft on such a description. (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, § 383.)

In his comment on my blog on experimental philosophy, Matthew Pianalto wrote:

... let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that an x-phi proponent says that what they mean to do is to follow the dictum, 'Don't think, but look!'

That may well be what they would say. However, many of those who invoke Wittgenstein's dictum are liable to misunderstand it. One may be tempted to assume that looking replaces the need for thinking, and that of course is not what Wittgenstein meant; his point, rather, was that we should not try to resolve questions about use by simply turning our glance inward; rather we should remind ourselves of the variety of actual uses to which linguistic expressions are put by ourselves and by those with whom we converse. What those examples of use will tell us, however, depends on the degree of reflective awareness with which we look at them. The lessons to be drawn are not beyond argument; in philosophical reflection, I would maintain, there is no breaking out of the circle of argumentative dialogue.
                      What matters in philosophy is not whether or not you sit in an armchair but what you do while sitting there. And of course, two persons in armchairs, exchanging thoughts, are better than one. (It would be silly to suppose, by the way, that experimental science does not call for hard thinking;  it too takes a lot of sitting in armchairs.)
Some experimental philosophers, however, seem not to have heeded the need to reflect on what they are doing.

Asking for the name of a thing
Matthew also wrote:

what we're doing is informing our own philosophical reflections by making ourselves aware of how people other than philosophers use various words/apply various concepts... it supplies something further upon which to reflect.

When do we ask questions like "Would you use this word here?" or "What would you call this?"? The cases in which we do very often have to do with the drawing of lines between different qualities (as in the case of colour words), or with the classification of objects, organisms or phenomena (as in the case of different kinds of tools, musical instruments or kitchen utensils, the names of plants or trees, birds or fish, foodstuffs, clouds, lightning, etc.) What drives the question may be a wish to learn, uncertainty about usage, or curiosity about other people's uses (say, about individual, diachronic or regional variations).
                      The situations in which people ask these types of question are typically of the following kind: the questioner has some familiarity with the practice to which the classifications belong. Sometimes the classifications are immediately bound up with practical activities. Being told that this is a chisel (and not, say, a screwdriver) may have direct consequences for how I go on to use it. In other cases - as mostly with the classification of plants or birds - the central practice is that of the classification itself (though even then it may have practical significance).
Often, the questioner will have access to some other term for the same thing, e.g. in her own language. And even if she doesn't, she may be able to describe the object in a relevant way. "What was the bird I saw the other day: it had a blue head and it made such and such a sound...?" All she lacks may be the name. And even before being told the name, she may be able to tell whether those other birds over there are of the same kind as the relevant bird or not.
In fact, one must understand a great deal before one can realize that one does not know the name of something - that there is a name to find out.

Grappling with confusion
Thus, what is typical of the cases in which someone asks what a thing is called is that she is not confused about the way names of that kind are used - about what we do with them. Those who are bewildered, say, by the Gettier examples, or by the traditional skeptical conundrums, are typically in a different predicament. Thus, someone who is bewildered by the question how we can know anything about the past or about other people's sensations is not unsure about when people will normally use the word "knowledge". Rather, she is confused about what people (herself included) are doing when they use it. She may feel that the standards for calling something knowledge are so demanding that no belief I hold about the past or about what someone else is feeling can fulfil them. What she needs to be unconfused about is the actual function the word "knowledge" has in the linguistic intercourse she shares with others. Only in that way will she be free of her bewilderment.
(By the way, one of the best attempts, to my knowledge, to bring questions about knowledge down to earth by reminding us about the ways we actually speak about knowledge, is in Oswald Hanfling's Philosophy and Ordinary Language: The Bent and Genius of our Tongue, Routledge, 2000, chap. 6.)

When Words are Called for

The other day I received a copy of Avner Baz's book When Words are Called for: A Defense of Ordinary Language Philosophy  (Harvard University Press , 2012), which I look forward to reading. I can't resist quoting from the preface:

I was quite confident, when I began working on this book, that the widespread hostility and and dismissiveness toward Wittgenstein - more frequently encountered in the form of professional gossip than as the conclusion of serious engagement with his work - were suspect, and for two main reasons. First, I knew how hard it was to arrive at anything like a satisfying understanding of his work. Even if that work was fundamentally misguided in one way or another, successfully exposing it as such would not be a simple and straightforward matter. And second, the Wittgensteinian conceptual or grammatical investigation, as I understand it, while informed by a particular understanding of philosophical difficulty, is not essentially different from what competent speakers regularly do when they wish to become clearer about what they or others say or think. It would therefore be literally incredible if that form of investigation were somehow found to be illegitimate or misguided in some principled way.
                      But I did not know then, as I do now, how thoroughly reinforced by theoretical presuppositions the resistance to Wittgenstein's (later) work had become. As I wrote this book, I found myself again and again discovering, often with the help of colleagues and friends, yet another layer of theoretical bulwark set against the philosophical approach I was seeking to vindicate. The present book took shape in the wake of these discoveries.

Baz, it appears to me, is here giving eloquent expression to impressions I believe many philosophers in this tradition have shared.

May 07, 2012

Fake questions and experimental philosophy

A few years ago an apparently new branch of philosophy was launched to a certain degree of media attention: experimental philosophy, or "x-phi " as it is called by some of its adherents. Alternatively, it might be called philosophy by questionnaire. (The movement has its own website.)

To what extent experimental philosophy is still thriving I cannot judge. The idea was not entirely new: it was presaged by Arne Næss's work in the 1950's. (See Siobhan Chapman's article "Arne Naess and Empirical Semantics".)

Experimental philosophers suggested that one might approach philosophical issues about various themes such as knowledge or moral responsibility by asking people how they would apply the relevant words in particular situations.

On the face of it, this may seem like a sound idea. Non-philosophers are often puzzled by the armchair nature of philosophical inquiry. Why do philosophers think they can simply pull the solutions to the problems of philosophy out of their own heads? On what authority do they claim to be able to decide what our words mean without checking with the rest of us?

These qualms, I would argue, are based on a misunderstanding of the nature of philosophy, of the way it differs, say, from linguistics. (In using the word "philosophy" I am referring to the type of activity commonly carried on in Western universities under that heading.) Philosophers are not concerned with making assertions about language use, but with clarifying the use we share. They are not making knowledge claims, but trying to achieve a clearer understanding about the matters that puzzle us. What makes this difficult is that we often do not have an overview of our own use. The point that philosophy is concerned with clarification rather than knowledge is not always fully appreciated by those who practise the subject. Experimental philosophy, I believe, is one expression of the failure to understand this point.

I shall try to illustrate what I mean. But first some background.

One issue that has occupied experimental philosophers are the so-called Gettier examples. A definition of knowledge that used to be largely accepted by philosophers is the following: if I am to be said to know something, what I believe must, for one thing, be true and, for another thing, I must have grounds for believing it to be true. Of course, I may have any number of correct beliefs that are just happy guesses, and hence wouldn't qualify as knowledge. That's how the thinking went. However, in 1963 the American philosopher Edmund Gettier thought up some counter-examples to the definition, by constructing cases in which one could have a correct belief, have grounds for the belief, and would still not be said to know. (Read his article.)

Here is one of his examples:
Suppose that Smith and Jones have applied for a certain job. And suppose that Smith has strong evidence for the following conjunctive proposition:

d. Jones is the man who will get the job, and Jones has ten coins in his pocket. Smith's evidence for (d) might be that the president of the company assured him that Jones would in the end be selected, and that he, Smith, had counted the coins in Jones's pocket ten minutes ago. Proposition (d) entails:

e. The man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket.

Let us suppose that Smith sees the entailment from (d) to (e), and accepts (e) on the grounds of (d), for which he has strong evidence. In this case, Smith is clearly justified in believing that (e) is true.

But imagine, further, that unknown to Smith, he himself, not Jones, will get the job. And, also, unknown to Smith, he himself has ten coins in his pocket. Proposition (e) is then true, though proposition (d), from which Smith inferred (e), is false. In our example, then, all of the following are true: (i) (e) is true, (ii) Smith believes that (e) is true, and (iii) Smith is justified in believing that (e) is true. But it is equally clear that Smith does not know that (e) is true; for (e) is true in virtue of the number of coins in Smith's pocket, while Smith does not know how many coins are in Smith's pocket, and bases his belief in (e) on a count of the coins in Jones's pocket, whom he falsely believes to be the man who will get the job.
The example, no doubt, is trite as well as farfetched (more life-like examples could presumably be thought of). Anyway, the Gettier examples have been widely discussed. Is Gettier right in claiming that these are not cases of knowledge, or that in these cases the person is really justified in his beliefs? This is where x-phi comes in. In fact, experimental philosophers may approach such an issue in two different ways. (See Antti Kauppinen, "The Rise and Fall of Experimental Philosophy.") One may either try to settle the issue by establishing that all or a majority of English speakers would not (or would) apply the word "know" in this case, or one may try to show that there is no general agreement on how to describe the case.

The article ”Gender and Philosophical Intuition” by Wesley Buckwalter and Stephen Stich is an instance of the latter approach. Among other things, they discuss the following experiment: test subjects were told the below story, and then were asked, ”Does Peter really know that there is a watch on the table, or does he only believe it?”:
Peter is in his locked apartment, and is reading. He decides to have a shower. He puts his book down on the coffee table. Then he takes off his watch, and also puts it on the coffee table. Then he goes into the bathroom. As Peter’s shower begins, a burglar silently breaks into Peter’s apartment. The burglar takes Peter’s watch, puts a cheap plastic watch in its place, and then leaves. Peter has only been in the shower for two minutes, and he did not hear anything. They discuss various questionnaire studies, searching for gender bias; thus, in a Gettier-type case, they found that women were more willing than men to attribute knowledge.
In this particular case, it was found that women were more willing than men to attribute knowledge to Peter. However, I shall not specifically be concerned with the writers' conclusions. What I do want to question is the relevance of this type of study (or the consensus-seeking kind) to issues in philosophy.

Why do I find this type of thought experiment problematic? For one thing, again, the story is farfetched. It is difficult to imagine ever being in a similar situation. The stage-setting seems designed to provide a richness of context, but what is missing is precisely that aspect of the context that would be relevant: the background that would show why it would matter whether Peter is said to know or not to know. What would one be doing in attributing knowledge to him? Is he somehow responsible for noticing that there had been a burglary? Should he have been on his guard?

In being asked to give a verdict, the test subjects are supposed to accept the request for an unambiguous verdict without question. Thus they are encouraged to think of questions of knowledge as concerned with the correct description of a highly complex situation, and at the same time to disregard the fact that in attributing knowledge to a person we are doing something, the significance of which depends on the actual context in which we are speaking, on the relation between the speaker, the listener, the person being spoken about and the situation.

The test just described, I would argue, constitutes a fake experiment. The writers have failed to ask a genuine question. They are guilty of what Frank Ebersole has dubbed "the classroom and blackboard fallacy", the "assumption that the special conditions for asking a question can miraculously be produced by writing an interrogative sentence on the blackboard". (Quoted by Don S. Levi, in "Ebersole’s Philosophical Treasure Hunt ", Philosophy 79 (2004), p. 305). Also, see Levi's article, "The Gettier Problem and the Parable of the Ten Coins", Philosophy 70 (1995), 5-25.)

Thus, rather than countering the problem of aprioism, an "experiment" like this one embodies the direct-insight prejudice that they were ostensibly designed to counteract, simply extending it to a larger population. More important, however, it is subservient to the idea of philosophy as concerned with the establishing of truths – which, it is assumed, the questionnaires may either confirm or disconfirm.

On the other hand, such a study fails to acknowledge the sense in which philosophical reflection is self-oriented. If we are puzzled, say, by the question how knowledge is possible or what it is to act intentionally, the puzzle arises from our attempt to understand our own use of these words (on the model of Augustine’s dictum: “What is time? If you don’t ask me, I know, if you ask me, I don’t know”). Hence whatever facts may be discovered through a questionnaire are external to our problem.

Thinking of philosophical discussion as aiming at the establishing of truths gives rise to a false dichotomy, in which it is either thought that speakers have direct access to their own use of words, or that they have to defer to the results of empirical inquiry. If we think about the aim of discussion as not being truth but clarification, on the other hand, there is no need nor room for an authoritative judgment: neither my own, nor that of the majority or of a consensus.

Rather than the traditional question: "what is knowledge?", I would contend, the route to clarity goes through asking the question "what do we do when we attribute knowledge to someone?" - the answer to this question presumably varying depending on the context of speaking. The experimental philosophers' questionnaires, however, steer our attention towards the traditional question.

When we carry on a philosophical discussion with others, everything is in fact open to view, we are as it were involved in a joint, open-ended thought experiment in which we may or may not succeed in reaching clarity concerning the problems that beset us (and, where clarity is obtained, it may turn out to be provisonal). Rather than trying to establish what does and does not make sense, we are engaged in a continuing reflection on possibilities of making sense. (This seems to be the gist of Wittgenstein’s exhortation, “Don’t think, but look!”)

In sum, then, an investigation like that described above seems to retain the problematic aspect of the idea of philosophy as an a priori form of inquiry (direct insight), while failing to acknowledge the sense in which philosophy is not empirical but reflective.