I've been asked to write a review of Williamson's brand new book Tetralogue for the Times Higher Education. Here is what I've come up with so far. Comments are very welcome, as I still have some time before submitting the final version. (For more background on the book, here is a short video where Williamson explains the project.)
Disagreement in debates and discussions is an interesting phenomenon. On the one hand, having to justify your views and opinions vis-à-vis those who disagree with you is perhaps one of the best ways to induce a critical reevaluation of these views. On the other hand, it is far from clear that a clash of views will eventually lead to a consensus where the parties come to hold better views than the ones they held before. This is one of the promises of rational discourse, but one that is all too often not kept. What to do in situations of discursive deadlock?
Timothy Williamson’s Tetralogue is precisely an investigation on the merits and limits of rational debate. Four people holding very different views sit across each other in a train and discuss a wide range of topics, such as the existence of witchcraft, the superiority and falibilism of scientific reasoning, whether anyone can ever be sure to really know anything, what it means for a statement to be true, and many others. As one of the most influential philosophers currently in activity, Williamson is well placed to give the reader an overview of some of the main debates in recent philosophy, as his characters debate their views.
Today my research group in Groningen (with the illustrious online participation of Tony Booth, beaming in from the UK) held a seminar session where we discussed Fabienne Peter’s 2013 paper ‘The procedural epistemic value of deliberation’. It is a very interesting paper, which defends the view that deliberation has not only epistemic value (as opposed to ‘merely’ ethical, practical value), but also that it has procedural epistemic value (as the title suggests), as opposed to ‘merely’ instrumental value. I'll argue here that I agree with the thesis, but not for the reasons offered by Peter in her paper.
The paper begins with the following observation:
An important question one can ask about collective deliberation is whether it increases or decreases the accuracy of the beliefs of the participants. But this instrumental approach, which only looks at the outcome of deliberation, does not exhaustively account for the epistemic value that deliberation might have. (Peters 2013, 1253)
One way to spell out this idea is the following: suppose there were two knowledge-producing procedures with the exact same accuracy, i.e. which would produce the same amount of true beliefs and avoid the same amount of false beliefs. Moreover, procedure D involves deliberation, while procedure O relies entirely on an oracle, for example. If we can show that procedure D is superior to procedure O on purely epistemic grounds, then we can establish that deliberation has procedural epistemic value, rather than merely instrumental epistemic value (i.e. increase accuracy).
I was asked to write a review of Terry Parsons' Articulating Medieval Logic for the Australasian Journal of Philosophy. This is what I've come up with so far. Comments welcome!
Scholars working on (Latin) medieval logic can be viewed as populating a spectrum. At one extremity are those who adopt a purely historical and textual approach to the material: they are the ones who produce the invaluable modern editions of important texts, without which the field would to a great extent simply not exist; they also typically seek to place the doctrines presented in the texts in a broader historical context. At the other extremity are those who study the medieval theories first and foremost from the point of view of modern philosophical and logical concerns; various techniques of formalization are then employed to ‘translate’ the medieval theories into something more intelligible to the modern non-historian philosopher. Between the two extremes one encounters a variety of positions. (Notice that one and the same scholar can at times wear the historian’s hat, and at other times the systematic philosopher’s hat.) For those adopting one of the many intermediary positions, life can be hard at times: when trying to combine the two paradigms, these scholars sometimes end up displeasing everyone (speaking from personal experience).
Terence Parsons’ Articulating Medieval Logic occupies one of these intermediate positions, but very close to the second extremity; indeed, it represents the daring attempt to combine the author’s expertise in natural language semantics, linguistics, and modern philosophy with his interest in medieval logical theories (which arose in particular from his decade-long collaboration with Calvin Normore, to whom the book is dedicated). For scholars of Latin medieval logic, the fact that such a distinguished expert in contemporary philosophy and linguistics became interested in these medieval theories only confirms what we’ve known all along: medieval logical theories have intrinsic systematic interest; they are not only curious museum pieces.
Despite not being the first to employ modern logical techniques to analyze medieval theories, Parsons' approach is quite unique (one might even say idiosyncratic). It seems fair to say that nobody has ever before attempted to achieve what he wants to achieve with this book. A passage from the book’s Introduction is quite revealing with respect to its goals:
Most readers will have had at least some exposure to John Searle’s interview by Tim Crane, which was published earlier this week. It was then hotly debated in the philosophical blogosphere at large (in particular at the Leiter Reports). Together with Peter Unger’s interview published roughly around the same time, it seems that the ‘old guard’ is on a Quixotesque crusade to chastise the younger crowd for the allegedly misguided, sorrow state of current philosophy. Now, I do think there is some truth to be found in what Searle says about the role of formal modeling in the philosophy of language, but his objections do not seem to apply at least to a growing body of research in formal semantics/philosophy of language. Moreover, it is not clear whether his own preferred methodology (judging from his seminal work on speech acts etc.) in fact does justice to what he himself views as the primary goal of philosophical analyses of language.
Here are the crucial passages from the interview (all excerpts from the passage posted by Leiter), the main bits in bold:
Well, what has happened in the subject I started out with, the philosophy of language, is that, roughly speaking, formal modeling has replaced insight. My own conception is that the formal modeling by itself does not give us any insight into the function of language.
Any account of the philosophy of language ought to stick as closely as possible to the psychology of actual human speakers and hearers. And that doesn’t happen now. What happens now is that many philosophers aim to build a formal model where they can map a puzzling element of language onto the formal model, and people think that gives you an insight. …
In much of the philosophy of language and mind coming out of the late Wittgenstein and/or early Heidegger, a distinction is made between merely following a norm versus also being able to correctly assess whether others are following that norm. Note that the Brandom of "Dasein, the Being that Thematizes" (in Tales of the Mighty Dead) and the Mark Okrent of "On Layer Cakes" both mark this distinction, though they disagree on whether the latter ability requires language. Okrent (whose objects that Brandom's view entails that human aphaisics and non-linguistic deaf adults have no minds) writes:
Because all tool use is embedded in a context of instrumental rationality, there is more to using a hammer correctly than using it as others do. Sometimes it is possible to use a hammer better than the others do, even if no one else has ever done it in that way, and no one else recognizes that one is doing so, because the norm that defines this use as ‘better’ is independent of what is actually recognized within the community. That norm is the norm of instrumental rationality: it is good to do that which would achieve one’s ends most completely and most efficiently, were anyone to do it in that way. For the same reason, it is sometimes possible for a member of a society to improve a hammer, or repair it, by giving it a structure that no hammer has previously had in that society.
I have a PhD student working on justification in epistemology. He just got started a few months ago, so for now we are sort of ‘sniffing around’ before we define a more precise focus. (He wrote his Master’s thesis on John Norton and the justification of induction.) Now, by a nice twist of fate, last week I received a Google Scholar citation alert which put us on a very promising track: Rawls’ notion of justification. (My book Formal Languages in Logic was cited in this Pitt dissertation, in the same section where there is a discussion of Rawls on justification. The dissertation, by Thomas V. Cunningham, looks very interesting by the way.)
Here is the crucial passage as quoted in the dissertation:
Justification is argument addressed to those who disagree with us, or to ourselves when we are of two minds. It presumes a clash of views between persons or within one person, and seeks to convince others, or ourselves, of the reasonableness of the principles upon which our claims and judgments are founded … justification proceeds from what all parties to the discussion hold in common … thus, mere proof is not justification … proofs become justification once the starting points are mutually recognized, or the conclusions so comprehensive and compelling as to persuade us of the soundness of the conception expressed by their premises…[C]onsensus…is the nature of justification. (Rawls, A Theory of Justice (1999 ed.), 508-509).
There have been a number of discussions here at Newapps on various things that philosophical writing can legitimately aim for other than simply tell some truth or other. Here, I want to reflect on a distinction between telling and showing. In the simplest case, this distinction arises when we contrast being told some fact and seeing something for ourselves. So I can tell you about an apple, or show you one. I can tell you how to properly pull a sweep oar or show you. And there are clearly important differences here. For one, showing is "higher bandwidth". That is, the amount of information transfered in a typical observation or physical engagement with an object is orders of magnitude more than the information stated in a claim - even a very complex, say book-length one. And there may well be other important differences. One can talk about those in different ways - concrete embodiment in environmental-social context, phenomenal access, etc. I'm making no claims about what the difference is, merely pointing to the - I hope - uncontroversial claim that there is an important difference. And I claim that this is a difference that makes an epistemological difference. We can know more, know different things, have a different sort of understanding when something is shown to us than when we merely learn various facts about it.
My thought that something very like the showing/telling distinction can arise in language; that is, we can make use of language to show things to one another in ways that carry with them the positive features of material showing. That's to say that there are non-fact-stating features of speech acts that have the upshot of something very like showing.
I have recently been working on a paper about some of the testable implications of DRT (discourse representation theory) and related dynamic semantic frameworks. One of the questions I am stuck on is that of how to put the semantics of proper names to the test. The general framework of DRT does not commit us to a special theory of proper names. However, Hans Kamp traditionally treated them as individual constants, which is consistent with the philosophical (and post-semantic) theory that non-empty names stand in causal-historical relations to their referents. In subsequent work Kamp has treated names as predicates but with an anchor to a particular individual satisfying the predicate. This, too, is consistent with a causal-historical constraint.
When I studied philosophy in graduate school [in the 1990s--ES], my peers and I went to
classes where we were made to read Kripke and Davidson and Quine and
Putnam. Then, duty done, we met together at a coffee shop and discussed
the latest paper from Millikan, pens in hand, arguing passionately. I
cannot even recall how we found her work and knew we had to study it,
but somehow there was consensus among us that she was producing the most
exciting philosophy happening right then. Sometimes we were convinced
that Millikan got a problem wrong... more often we felt she had offered a
solution to some problem that other philosophers had mostly just
obscured. But that was not what made us study her work so eagerly. The
important thing was that Millikan gave us tools. Her theory of
proper functions was something we could actually use. It had wide and
general utility...And, as we contrasted her work with
what our instructors considered the contemporary canon, we felt certain
that Millikan represented the vanguard.
I mention all this because the second striking feature of Millikan's
responses to these thirteen criticisms is that she still seems the
radical maverick. If it is fair to consider her critics in this volume
as representative of current philosophy, then one gets the impression
that most of us are still catching up with Millikan....To see her respond to this
pressure, however, is very helpful to understanding the details and
applications -- and, ultimately, the novelty -- of her approach.--Craig DeLancey, reviewing Millikan and Her Critics [the volume includes a chapter by our very own Mohan--ES]
I sometimes wonder how common DeLancey's experience is of graduate students discovering and debating exciting work unrelated to one's instructors' sense of significance. I often have the disheartening sense that it is more common that graduates recycle the shared and undoubtedly sophisticated commitments of their graduate instructors (despite the now relatively easy access to other people's works). This recycling is often itself very sophisticated with accompanying mini-narratives that bolster the priority claims of privileged participants (see, for example, this interesting review). There is nothing dishonest about this kind of recycling and it allows the generation of progress, but one wonders if more frequent intellectual parricide/matricide wouldn't be healthier for the discipline.
It is familiar to categorize speech acts according to "direction of fit". Normal empirical assertions have word to (fit) world direction of fit, in that what you say is correct or incorrect insofar as the world is as you say. If the world isn't, then you are wrong. On the other hand, a claim like "it ought to be the case that P" has world to (fit) word direction of fit. If the world isn't as described - P is false - then the purport of the sentence is that the world is wrong.
In this note, I suggest an emendation of this schematic framework that I think is fruitful for understanding the complex function of a wide range of speech act types.
The latest The Stone
post discusses the topic of writing in languages other than one’s ‘native
language’ (a problematic concept when it comes to writing, as I will argue),
bearing the somewhat dramatic title ‘Born again in a second language’. Though this is undoubtedly a fascinating topic, the post itself is a bit heavy-handed in
the use of metaphors to describe the passage from writing in one language to
writing in another, such as:
To begin with, when
changing languages you descend to a zero-point of your existence. There must be
even a moment, however brief, when you cease to be. You’ve just quit the old
language and the new one hasn’t received you yet; you are now in limbo, between
worlds, hanging over the abyss.
(Even in practice, this doesn’t sound quite right, as
typically the transition is gradual rather than sudden, with intermediate
periods of active writing in both languages, or possibly even in more than two
languages.) Moreover, the ‘evidence’ cited by the author of the post, Costica Bradatan,
to substantiate his claims does not go much beyond the anecdotal, even if the writers
he cites as having had this experience are luminaries such as Cioran and
Beckett. Valuable though these testimonies are, Bradatan could also have
consulted the significant body of literature in linguistics on second language
writing, which is a bourgeoning field of research (currently with its own
journal and annual conference).
But the main shortcoming of the post, in my opinion, is the
fact that it projects the concept of a ‘native tongue’ -- which as the term
itself indicates, pertains to spoken
rather than written languages -- into
writing, as if this transposition were entirely unproblematic. True enough,
Bradatan is not alone in assuming a straightforward correspondence between
speech and writing: the age-old, received view is that writing is simply the
visual rendering of speech, which implies that properties attributed to speech,
for example the concept of a native tongue, can also be attributed to writing
in an uncomplicated way.
Today I came across this story by a man named Kim, whose
quest for a job was seemingly hampered by his gender-neutral but
female-sounding given name. The moment he added ‘Mr.’ to his CV, the interview
invitations started to pour in. In no time, he landed an excellent job, after
months of having his CV with the 'missing' ‘Mr.’ being systematically ignored. Of course, this
will not surprise anyone familiar with the studies on how a CV is perceived in
function of the associations created by the name at the top: in many cultures, everything other
than ‘white male’ associations is bound to make the CV be evaluated less
This phenomenon is related to something I’ve been thinking
about a bit as of lately, namely the concept of gender-neutral given
names. My two daughters have unambiguously female names, but if I were to name a
child now, I would opt for a gender-neutral name, both for a boy and for a
girl. The point is not to preclude the kind of discrimination documented in
these CV studies against female-sounding names, as the effect of a
gender-neutral name for a boy is likely to be detrimental (as in Kim’s story
above). The point is rather to counter the obsession with tracking gender that
seems to be pervasive in virtually every human society.
A review of a recent collection of essays on Davidson concludes with:
To conclude, there are some interesting and thought-provoking moments in
this collection. But the take-home message (no doubt unintended) is
that Davidson's insights and theorizing have far less currency in
current analytical philosophy than they did twenty or thirty years ago.
It is interesting to compare this volume with two very famous and
influential volumes: Truth and Interpretation: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson, edited by Lepore, and Actions and Events: Perspectives on the Philosophy of Donald Davidson, edited
by Lepore and Brian McClaughlin. Those two volumes show how central
Davidson was at the time (1985 and 1986) to most of the major areas of
philosophy (language, epistemology, metaphysics, and mind). In contrast,
reading the present volume brings home how much philosophy has moved
away (for better or for worse) from those Davidsonian themes that
captured the imagination of entire generations of analytic philosophers.--José Luis Bermúdez.
I rarely agree with José Bermúdez, but for once I share his sentiment. (Recall this post on how Anscombe's Intention is being unshackled from a Davidsonian interpretive frame.) Still, it would be interesting to see some careful data on this; this quick and dirty data suggests that the earlier "Davidsonic boom" may just a being at Oxford-induced illusion--a known perceptual bias. Either way, José does not explain why "philosophy" moved "away" from Davidsonian themes. Is it just a consequence of changing fashions, or have fatal arguments been directed against the Davidsonian program? Is it too early to tell? Readers's insights much appreciated.