apolliana: (Default)
When I was four, one afternoon I touched my own arm. I realized that when I touched my arm, I could feel both the sensation of my arm under my fingers, and the sensation of the fingers touching my arm. But when someone else touched my arm, I only felt their hand touching my arm. I could feel what my arm felt, but not what their fingers felt. This made me think of all the sensations I couldn't have, because I wasn't other people--not situated inside of their bodies, but only mine. I envisioned the street outside my day care full of people whose sensations I wasn't having. I wanted to be all of them at once. I wondered why I couldn't be, and why I was the one that I was.

It was a busy afternoon.
apolliana: (Default)
 photo IMG_1687.jpg

Russell's Principle: That in order to have a coherent thought, you must know what you are thinking about; in particular, you must have some kind of distinguishing knowledge of the referents of singular terms in your thought--i.e. a way of distinguishing them from other things.

Suppose you receive a postcard that says simply, 'I wish you were here,' with no pictorial representation of where 'here' is. Suppose, for this first case, that it's signed, so the only unknown is where 'here' is. Do you understand the sentence? My inclination is to say, yes and no. You understand it as a sentence containing a variable standing for 'the place where I [the writer] am,' wherever that happens to be. And the way you understand a sentence like that is certainly different from the way you understand a sentence with no undetermined referents. Why? Because you will invariably puzzle over where 'here' is. You have received a little mystery. You do, however, understand the kind of thing 'here' stands for: some place or other, where the writer is located at the time of writing.

John Perry's response is--extremely roughly--that you think of the referent of 'here' casually; this doesn't seem quite right to me. And that since you can, with the right resources, figure out what it is, then you know what its referent is. I agree that you can sometimes figure it out. And if there were no causality, and no event was connected to any other, this--and much else--would be rather difficult. But I think you can figure it out because you know that 'here' refers to the place the writer was at the time of writing. (For all I know, this is Perry's current position. I haven't read Reference and Reflexivity yet. But he does love to talk about ambiguous postcards as counterexamples to Russell's Principle.)

This effect is magnified if the sentence you're presented with contains more than one indexical or demonstrative with an unknown referent. On the wall above, 'It's you I love' is undetermined for both 'you' and 'I.' Supposing it actually was written by one person for another, we understand it to be one person telling another that they love them. And that is about all one understands. It's an empty schema. You can only imagine the circumstances that occasioned it.

It's also possible that it was written as an empty schema, in order to puzzle people, or to symbolize the act of telling someone that you love them; in this case there is no referent. It's art. This case is perhaps the furthest from any possibility of an ordinary understanding of the sentence. Not only is it an empty schema: it was written in order to be one. It's a representation of a type of utterance. It's not an utterance at all. (This case is interesting, because these sorts of thing are everywhere these days: mottos inscribed on things. They're not actual utterances--no one is saying them. And it's not clear who no one is saying them to. Yet we surround ourselves with them.)

All of this puts aside the more complex problem that even a sentence like 'wish you were here' might not have the meaning it superficially appears to have. It might be sarcastic: "Vesuvius in eruption. Wish you were here." There might be still more to the context of a spoken or written utterance than simply the referents of indexicals and demonstratives that we need to know in order to understand the utterance. If I turn on the television and see one character say to another, "It's you I love," having not seen what preceded that, though I will know its referents (sort of: this person and that person--though I may be intrigued to watch more to find out which particular people they are in the show's universe)--and I may be able to determine from its tone whether it's sincere, I won't really know its import, having not seen what preceded it. If I open a book I've never read to a random page and see "It's you I love" written there, then, though I may be able to see that it occurs in a conversation and thus is not a piece of conceptual art, I will be able to determine just from reading that sentence neither its sincerity, nor its import, nor the referents of 'you' and 'I.' I will, however, know the sorts of things 'you' and 'I' stand for--so long as they occur in ordinary speech. They stand for people (or, in this case, fictional people). I will have to read the rest of the story, however, to find out who.

I would like, then, to partially uphold Russell's Principle. I think the way one understands a sentence with indexicals and demonstratives whose referents one doesn't know is quite different from the way one understands a sentence with indexicals and demonstratives whose referents one does know. And I think that this ability to come to know said referents rests primarily on understanding the way such terms work--the sorts of things they refer to.
apolliana: (Default)
The point of saying something often makes what is said more clear, but not always. Nor would I want to say the 'point' is always obvious from the circumstances (environment, and other people) surrounding the speaker; the thoughts of the speaker might have more light to shed on the matter. Where, metaphorically, is the 'point,' anyway? I'd say in the inclinations and needs of the speaker. 'Point' might be another way of saying 'intention.' I'm not generally a fan of explaining meanings in terms of speakers' intentions, if only because it isn't clear that there's always something we can call an 'intention' behind what the speaker says; and certainly not an intention that his words mean? [something or other] (cf. Kripkenstein).

This, then, is another reason the point of saying something does not make the meaning of 'know'--or any other term--so clear that it precludes philosophical questions about the concept the term refers to. When the question is about knowledge, what constitutes 'knowing' is not always clear. In classrooms, it is often the ability to answer a question by repeating a prompted fact. But such 'knowledge' isn't tied down by an account, making it rather superficial. This superficiality will usually be apparent to both the student and the teacher. Everyone knows that we call this 'knowledge' only for convenience of expression. What constitutes knowing whether the bank is open is less clear; I'm inclined to say that this isn't something anyone not present at the location can truly be said to know.

Thus, I believe, philosophical questions about knowledge arise naturally from the slipperiness in our ordinary uses of the term. Like any term which implies success--or at least goodness--at something, using it invokes a scale of possible degrees of this success; invoking part of this scale invokes the whole of it.

To say that all ambiguities in our words are removed in 'ordinary' as opposed to 'philosophical' contexts is to overlook the ordinary situations from which philosophical questions arise. Which is to overlook a fundamental characteristic of 'ordinary' experience.

Now, there may be problems with not knowing which particular criterion for knowledge one has when one talks about knowing, or with using more than one criterion for knowledge at once; but the problem will not be that it doesn't ordinarily happen. Perhaps there are reasons to outlaw it in an ideal language. But this is very different from saying that outside of the context of philosophical discourse this ambiguity does not happen.
apolliana: (Default)
The regulations at my university require transferred courses more than 7 years old to be supported by a more recent 'revalidation' that shows the 'currency of [the student's] knowledge [of the subject of the course].' I don't wish to complain, as I've met the requirements in the case of the one ancient course I'm transferring (though apparently there is newly invented paperwork I need to complete). But 7 years seems like a rather arbitrary number, given that most of the knowledge a student acquires in a given course vanishes from his or her head in a month or two.

If our knowledge of everything we have ever passed a course counting towards a degree in needs to be current, surely we ought to be forced to be reexamined for every course we've ever taken after a semester has passed.

I used to believe very strongly that knowledge was about acquiring facts, and being ready to deploy them when prompted. As captain of elementary, junior high and high school academic teams I spent my free time quizzing myself over any factual questions on which I could conceivably be quizzed. And I relished it, primarily as an exercise of memory. And perhaps also as an exercise of spontaneity. Most of those facts, if not all of them, are still in my head today. But plenty of things I've spent far more time on are not in my head in factual form; this includes nearly all of my undergraduate education, and some of my graduate education. They aren't there in factual form because they were not studied that way, and I'm not sure that's altogether a good thing. Adrenaline can burn things into the brain in a way that slow, careful study cannot. It can ensure that you keep hold of the fact, say--which you ought to know, having read the Principia--that Newton's laws were laws of motion, and what they were. It might help you remember--which you would think you would remember, having read the Elements of Chemistry--what Lavoisier's most important discoveries were. I read these things; I was plenty impressed with them at the time; but I don't have the relevant important facts ready to hand. This may well be due to the absence of tests from my undergraduate eduction. Tests help; but timed competitions, I think, help even more.

But, you may object, this whole model of the Student's-Brain-as-Receptacle is becoming outdated. No one ever relies anymore only on stuff in their heads. It isn't as if, released from an institution of learning, we emerge into a desert in which only the contents of our brains determine what we can do. Perhaps it was never true. If all we ever do is try to keep our knowledge 'current,' remembering what we've previously learned, as if the mind were a bowl overflowing with water that one must carry around without spilling--; surely we would never do anything else. The mind is extended now; we need only know where the facts are, and be able to deploy those strategies to continually rediscover them, rather than cramming and racking one's brains.

There are things we ought to be able to recite and rehearse--but only so that they are there when we need them, for some other purpose, for a role in new inquiries, or for practical action (or for non-trivial trivia nights). And there are skills learned in understanding and analyzing what those things are and why they are important. It is easy, in learning and deploying the skills to lose sight of the facts. And while the skills compose the greatest proportion of the impact of education on the individual, the facts are still--for reasons partly cultural--a part of what it seems like it ought to mean to be educated.

*Author confesses to greatly enjoying studying for tests, and to a slight yearning to have at her command the ability to define all of the words in the OED.
apolliana: (Mum)
That the content of dreams might be nonconceptual is suggested by the regularity with which I remember them, but cannot describe them, even to myself. I find myself saying things like,

"It was a tree, but also a house; and you were there, but you were also Bill Clinton, and then you disappeared; and we were in a theme park, then airport, then country house in Italy, and everyone was naked and on drugs."

And invariably the description will seem to miss the experience. This happens with descriptions of ordinary experiences, too; but dreams even moreso because of the apparent inability of the scenery and characters in dreams of fitting into conceptual categories. There's no question that "it was a tree, but also a house" will fail to miss what it was like. The strange superimposition of things in dreams takes care of this. Places and people are often composites; and the way in which they are composited is difficult to describe. It's possible that some cognitive attitudes come in here: "knowing" the identity of someone in a dream, while in fact they look like someone else.

But perhaps we might want to say there are concepts in play, but they don't fit things properly because the relevant things are ambiguous and mutable. But such are my paradigm cases of nonconceptual content: the object in the dark room that looks suddenly too strange for recognition. In that case there is something you're looking at, but it does not immediately present itself to you as falling into a category smaller than 'something.' The content of the experience, phenomenologically, is an indeterminate object. In dreams it's a raging river of them.

But is "an indeterminate object" nonconceptual? Object individuation is partly involved; a thing can be discerned. Can it be distinguished from all other things? Only partly, as the perceiver doesn't know what it is. Is a thought about it Russellian? Yes; where there is no thing, there is no thought, regardless of the indeterminacy of the object. However, when the thing is perceived in proper lighting, the previous thoughts about it as indeterminate will lose their force.

Very often I decide the content of one of my dreams cannot be the content of a thought. I give up on describing it. I decide whatever it was doesn't suit the content of a thought; whatever the thought purports to be about is not the sort of thing to sustain the thought. There is no thought there. Perhaps the combination of fluid ambiguity and being past-tense (not something I'm presently looking at) renders the content of dreams less thought-apt than even the vague object in the dark. Perhaps this is because demonstratives don't work in dreams (or in past-tense accounts of them). We cannot use 'this', 'that', 'I', and 'here' where none of those work as they normally do. Demonstratives themselves are undermined in a world that cannot be still. Even if the properties that won't be still are conceptualizable properties, demonstratives--which do not seem to rely on concepts--rely at least on their stability, or on at least a backdrop of stability, so that if the object itself is not stable at least the environment is.

Do dreams have nonconceptual content? They have content, which is not apt to be the content of thoughts. But it is less apt to be the content of thoughts than the content of indeterminate experiences, as demonstratives don't quite work. And it is less apt to be the content of thoughts than non-indeterminate experiences, because the qualities of things that go along with their conceptualizable properties aren't stable. But the sense in which the contents of dreams cannot be contained in the contents of thoughts partly parallels the sense in which the same is true of non-ambiguous experience, of which the detail, the experience, cannot be conveyed. But in dreams there's nothing else. So many a dream-thought turns out not to have been a thought at all.
apolliana: (Default)
James Conant distinguished between "Cartesian skepticism" and "Kantian skepticism" ("Varieties of Skepticism"). Each has many criteria, but roughly, the Cartesian skeptic considers what ought to be required to have knowledge and finds it lacking in even the most ordinary case, whereas the Kantian skeptic looks at, say, knowledge [though Kantian skepticism can apply to a vast range of topics], and is simply baffled as to how it is even possible. For the Cartesian "it looks as if there is something we cannot do," whereas for the Kantian it "looks as if there is nothing to do (not even dream), where we had previously thought there was something" (107/111).

I'd like to put a finer point on Kantian skepticism. I think the simplest incarnation of the Kantian skeptic (sorry, Kant) is the Tortoise, from Lewis Carroll's "What the Tortoise Said to Achilles". Presented with a simple inference, the Tortoise asks for further justification, to which Achilles can only respond by providing another inference, for which the Tortoise again demands further justification, ad infinitum. The Tortoise accepts nothing as basic. This is not unlike the difficulty of justifying an inductive inference without appealing to induction. Our Tortoise might as well be asking the Kantian question, how is modus ponens possible?


If this is the right way to think of Kantian skepticism, or Kantian questions, they start with an inability to see something as 'basic' (as 'bedrock') which must be seen as basic, or, perhaps, with a question that cannot be answered or phenomenon that can't be explained from within the framework in which it's asked. More modus ponens inferences will not enable the Tortoise to understand modus ponens inferences. What will help the Tortoise? --Some other kind of explanation. Probably exercises in aspect-perception. Phenomena as basic as modus ponens invite puzzlement; it's natural to want to know why they work. That which must be taken as basic invites the need to understand it the way we understand everything we understand through it.

Other predicaments that inspire Tortoise-like responses:

  • basic actions--how do we make them happen?

  • induction--how do we justify inductive inference?

  • how do we know our own mental states?

  • in what does following a particular rule consist?

There is more to each of these, of course, even by way of large patterns. For instance, I think it's helpful to think about both the problem of justifying induction and rule-following as drawing on an inevitable switching between foreground (a given instance or something that conforms to the inductive law or of following a rule) and background (the entirety of the inductive law, the entirety of the rule--which both cover an infinite number of cases).

I will not pretend otherwise: for me, all interesting philosophical questions are Kantian questions. I'm not sure I can defend this preference, except to say that a concern for what can be explained and how concerns inquiry in all domains--not simply philosophy; though wherever it arises, it is philosophy.


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