Jun. 9th, 2013

apolliana: (Default)
I was reading along in Individuals, when I came across as passage that stated the way I'd been thinking of the Generality Constraint. I thought I was perhaps seeing what I'd been primed to see, as this passage was a footnote to an argument against what he calls the "no-ownership" or "no subject" view of the self (the view that there is no subject of mental states--that there seems to be is only an illusion); but it is indeed the passage Evans cites when he introduces the Generality Constraint.

Strawson says, "When I say that the no-ownership theorist's account fails through not reckoning with all the facts, I have in mind a very simple, but in this question a very central, thought: viz. that it is a necessary condition of one's ascribing state of consciousness, experiences, to oneself, in the way one does, that one should also ascribe them, or be prepared to ascribe them, to others who are not oneself" (99).

The footnote:

"I can imagine an objection to the unqualified form of this statement, an objection which might be put as follows. Surely the idea of a uniquely applicable predicate, i.e. a predicate which belongs to only one individual, is not absurd. And, if it is not, then surely the most that can be claimed is that a necessary condition of one's ascribing predicates to a certain class of individuals, i.e., oneself, is that one should be prepared, or ready, on appropriate occasions, to ascribe them to other individuals, and hence that one should have a conception of what those appropriate occasions for ascribing them would be; but not, necessarily, that one should actually do so on an occasion.

"The shortest way with this objection is to admit it, or at least refrain from disputing it; for the lesser claim is all that the argument strictly requires, thought it is slightly simpler to conduct it in terms of the larger claim. But it is well to point out further that we are not speaking of a single predicate, or merely of some group of other predicates, but of the whole enormous class of predicates such that the applicability of those predicates or their negations defines a major logical type or category of individuals. To insist, at this level, on the distinction between the lesser and the larger claim is to carry the distinction over from a level at which it is clearly correct to a level at which it may well appear idle and possible senseless.

"The main point here is a purely logical one: the idea of a predicate is correlative with that of a range of distinguishable individuals of which the predicate can be significantly, though not necessarily truly, affirmed (99)."

In the context of the section of the chapter in question, Strawson is talking about mental predicates, e.g., 'is in pain." So it is clear that he doesn't think it should make sense to say that, e.g., a rock is in pain. He is concerned with explaining why mental predicates are properly applied to persons, rather than to unminded bodies or disembodied minds. I'm happy to accept that if I can sensibly self-ascribe a mental state, it will be logically possible to imagine ascribing it to other subjects to which mental predicates may be ascribed.

Strawson's argument against the no-ownership view is that if it makes sense to ascribe a mental state to oneself, it makes sense to ascribe them to others, in principle. And the no-ownership theorist is committed to ascribing mental predicates to himself insofar as he talks of "my experiences" as things that can't properly be ascribed to a self.
apolliana: (Default)
“Suppose someone told of a thing of a certain kind, and of certain things that had happened to it; and, when asked where that thing had been, and when the events he recounted had occurred, said, not that he did not know, but that they did not belong at all to our spatio-temporal system, that they did not take place at any distance from here or at any distance of time from now. Then we should say, and take him to be saying, that the events in question had not really occurred, that the thing in question did not really exist” (Strawson, Individuals, 29).


This passage raises questions about what it is we understand when we understand fiction. We follow a story, we understand that something happened, and at what location in the world of the story it happened; but the relationship between that world and the actual physical world may be loose. Perhaps so long as we have a time and place, whatever their relation to the actual world is, that fulfills Strawson's criterion. Perhaps what we do in entertaining fiction is akin to building on a temporary annex to our idea of the universe.

I suspect we do something similar in other contexts. In fact, I think a similar move is indispensable to our cognitive lives in societies.

Closed systems are abundant in philosophy. Carnap's sciences form their own systems, built upon axioms that are not themselves subject to the kind of examination they make possible; the cultures of cultural relativism are closed systems--each with its own ways of defining or cashing out normative terms; our conceptual scheme, for Strawson, seems to form such a system, insofar as he thinks skeptics are incapable of questioning it without also relying on it in so doing. Any argument that a position is self-undermining indicates that the self-undermining position's proponent is trying to break out of a closed system and failing.

In the cultural relativism case, in which 'right' is defined only for individual societies, there is no way of saying that anything is trans-culturally right or wrong. This, Bernard Williams argues, shows that cultural relativism is incoherent, as 'right' is used in a trans-cultural way in arguing to the conclusion that, since 'right' is only defined for individual cultures, it is wrong to interfere with another culture's actions expressing their values.

The response I'm inclined to give here is that there must be a way of arriving at an overarching definition of 'right' (which, of course, undermines relativism). And surely this is what we do when we talk to each other; we might cause someone else, or be caused, to revise our own values. That there is a trans-cultural way of understanding moral concepts is presupposed by the fact that we can talk to people with different values. Those trans-cultural understandings might be acts of the imagination, applied to our own concepts (and to human experience), looking for some way of bridging the gap. We might be noncommittal about the objective definitions of normative terms, but hold working theories. To do this is to leave the system of values, based upon a definitions of normative terms, open--open to revision of those definitions upon 'evidence' supplied by conversations and other evidence provided by witnessing, say, the effects of values, policies, or laws.

I doubt that such acts of the imagination provide an escape from skepticism. About that, I believe Strawson is correct. I concede, for example, that the skeptic about other minds presupposes their existence in imagining his or her own experiences as missing for other people. This is not to say there's nothing it is to imagine that others do not have experiences: we can imagine this. But if one tries to put together a coherent world around the conceit, it either ceases to exemplify the philosophical problem of other minds, or falls apart, turning in on itself like Castrovalva.

Certain regions of our concepts are, as it were, on the front-lines receiving assaults from experience, normative concepts and spatio-temporal locations for stories heard first among them.

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