Free Choice

Free Choice

A strange air of unreality surrounds the free will debate. Fanciful ideas abound. One feels that something is going seriously wrong somewhere, but it is hard to pinpoint where exactly. It is otherwise with the concept of liberty: here things are plain sailing. The OED defines “liberty” as follows: “the state of being free from oppression and imprisonment”, and “the power or scope to act as one pleases”. No one thinks that liberty is incompatible with determinism, to the detriment of one of them. No one sees fit to deny the reality of liberty or question its conceptual coherence, or to affirm that liberty requires randomness and lack of determination from prior states of the world. We are all compatibilists about liberty. It is true that we might discover that we have less liberty than we supposed—we might have a device implanted in our brain by aliens that makes us control our sexual behavior a lot more than we would really like. But no one thinks that liberty is an incoherent concept or that it requires supernatural phenomena (or quantum indeterminism). In the case of freedom of the will, however, all these possibilities are entertained; and there are rival factions each claiming to possess the precious truth of the matter. Strange! The reason is that determinism is thought to pose a threat to free will, so that we must deny either determinism or freedom. Some people think that we are not free of (or from) the past, including past states of the brain, and so not free at all; others think we are free of (or from) the antecedent conditions, so that human action is not determined. Thus, incompatibilism threatens either to deprive us of our freedom or to be committed to mysterious unintelligible incoherent supernatural goings-on. What should we say about this familiar dilemma?[1]

I won’t say much about the second horn of the dilemma, since it has been extensively covered, except to observe that the postulated theory involves us in the scarcely intelligible idea of uncaused physical occurrences at the macro level. Bodily movements are alleged to occur that have no causal explanation in terms of prior states of the universe; they just spring into being randomly. Yet it is evident that this is simply not so: internal states of the body cause the muscular contractions that constitute bodily motions. To avoid this, we might suggest that the initiating acts of will are completely incorporeal, but then their nature is left up in the air (they are like “bare particulars”). Clearly this is pure mythology. So, the preferred alternative is that free will is an illusion: nothing is free from the past, so nothing is truly free. Even if the past states are desires, they still constrain the action and hence rob it of any freedom it might be thought to possess. So, at any rate, it is widely believed. The point I want to make is that the destruction doesn’t stop there: if free will goes, a lot more goes with it. The determinist incompatibilist denies the existence of free will—no one ever acts freely—but the denial has to extend further into the mind as we normally conceive it. For the notion of choice is also put on the chopping block, along with allied notions: no one ever really chooses anything. We have the illusion of choice but not the reality. The OED defines “choose” as “pick out as being the best of two or more alternatives” and “decide a course of action”. But that is not possible if freedom does not exist, since then we have no alternatives, only the illusion of them. Why we should be under this illusion, or how the illusion is possible, is not made clear—since the concept of freedom has been denied intelligibility, or even conceptual coherence. But anyway, choice must be unreal if freedom is: it cannot be an existing feature of human psychology. We have no capacity to choose (we are just “machines”). We have no genuine alternatives to choose among. A single course of action is determined before any alleged choosing can take place. The concept of “unfree choice” is self-contradictory. If freedom goes, so does choice. But doesn’t this fly in the face of obvious facts—for example, that I can choose what I will have for dinner today? So, it must be that free choice (a pleonasm) is compatible with determinism (as it is for a compatibilist); at any rate, so it may be contended. Furthermore, if choice disappears along with freedom, so also does decision: we never really make decisions if freedom is ruled out, because decision and choice go together. And then deliberation goes the same way: deliberating is choosing or deciding among alternatives, but there is no such thing as choosing or deciding. This is all (unexplained) illusion. And it isn’t like a visual illusion in which the illusory scene is at least logically possible (even commonplace): no, the alleged illusion involves an incoherent concept, viz. the concept of free will (hence choice, decision, and deliberation). A lot of folk psychology collapses if freedom does, even some of its most evident propositions (e.g., that I chose chocolate over vanilla ice cream yesterday).

Does the destruction stop there? What about desire? Aren’t desires dispositions to choose? If I desire a chocolate ice cream, then I have a disposition to choose chocolate over other flavors, especially if I strongly desire chocolate; but if choice is illusory, then this would be a disposition to nothing. I never choose (I just behave), so I never choose based on my desires—they are not “choosy” things. Maybe some desires don’t presuppose choice, but a great many desires do, so these would go by the wayside along with decision and deliberation. Choice reaches down to desire, so to speak, so desires cannot survive the elimination of choice (needs can). The whole conative side of the mind, as we normally understand it, disappears if the will is not free; it can’t be detached by itself leaving the rest intact. If we want to save the conative mind, we need to find a defensible account of freedom; we can’t just abandon freedom and go on our merry way. The dialectical position, then, is that incompatibilism faces severe problems, whether pro- or anti- free will, so compatibilism seems like the better option. It doesn’t involve us in any fanciful ideas, or denials of the obvious, or weird science. It is conservative not revisionary, straightforward not convoluted. There is no air of unreality about it. Freedom is thus akin to liberty.[2]

[1] I have several papers on free will on this blog, approaching it from different angles. This paper doesn’t purport to go over this ground again but to add something new.

[2] It would be odd if the concept of liberty and the concept of freedom (“free will”) were unconnected, as incompatibilist positions take them to be. We would want our theory of the one to slot into our theory of the other, as compatibilism suggests. In a word: freedom is liberty generalized.

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Names and Descriptions

Names and Descriptions

It has been commonly supposed that names and definite descriptions have an affinity, a connection. Names of people and places, in particular, are associated with widely known attributes: for example, the name “Ringo Starr” is associated with the description “the drummer for the Beatles” and “London” is associated with “the capital of England”. This association has led to the Description Theory of Names—the theory that names meandescriptions, express them, are synonymous with them. And that has been welcomed as solving Frege’s problem of the informativeness of identity statements. We thus have a neat logical package: from the name-description link, to the sense of a name, and hence to the solution of a puzzle. What could be wrong with that? However, it has also been felt that a name is not equivalent to a description for a quiver of reasons: the statement “Ringo Starr was the drummer for the Beatles” is not analytic; speakers don’t always make the association; names are rigid designators but descriptions in general are not; it is not an a priori truth that Ringo drummed for the Beatles; names don’t accept scope distinctions but descriptions do. These objections are powerful—they seem to refute the “famous deeds” description theory and hence the proposed solution to Frege’s puzzle. Maybe names are actually just “directly referential” and have their meaning fixed by their bearer, in which case we will be faced by the informativeness problem again. This is pretty much where we stand today on the marriage between names and descriptions: they can’t live together but life apart is a problem. What is a good marriage counsellor to do? How can she engineer a rapprochement?

She might begin with an anodyne observation: just because we can’t analyze names by descriptions doesn’t mean they are not naturally connected; they may not be legally married but they are certainly intimately linked. It isn’t just that descriptions apply to things named as a matter of fact; names connote descriptions—descriptions are suggested by names, habitually tied to them. Not in the philosopher’s sense of “connote”, which requires synonymy, but in the vernacular sense, i.e., that there is a common and predictable association.[1] This may be individual or communal: the descriptive connotation may be peculiar to an individual speaker, depending on his knowledge of the name’s bearer, or it may be widely shared by speakers (as in “famous deeds”). The name reminds the hearer of something, sets up a mental link, taps into memory. It isn’t that the name means the connoted attribute; it merely evokes it in people’s minds. In particular, it doesn’t generate a priori analytic truths about the bearer of the name; the truths in question are a posteriori and synthetic. Still, they are commonly recognized, reliably correlated. This is quite compatible with accepting either of two theories of the strict meaning of names: the direct reference theory (the sense is the object named), or some other description theory of the name’s meaning (not famous deeds or generally known empirical facts). A leading contender for the latter type of theory is the metalinguistic theory: a name is self-referential, quoting itself, as in “The name ‘Ringo Starr’ means “the person named ‘Ringo Starr’”. For the sake of argument, I will endorse this theory here (it is actually a pretty decent theory): it tells us exactly what the name means in and of itself. In other terminology, it denotes the sense of the metalinguistic description. Accordingly, it is analytic and a priori that Ringo Starr is the person named “Ringo Starr”; and everyone who is familiar with the name is aware of this. Thus, we can say that the bearer of the name is the man Ringo Starr, the denotation (meaning, sense) of the name is given by “the person named ‘Ringo Starr’”, and the connotation of the name (for most people) is given by “the drummer for the Beatles”. That sounds like an attractive package, respecting the facts, not overstating things. We could call the connotation the “cultural meaning” of the name and not step on anyone’s toes, with the metalinguistic synonym as its “semantic meaning”. We could even call the bearer of the name its “referential meaning” and put it in the same box as cultural meaning, i.e., not part of strict and literal meaning but an aspect of the overall significance of the name. The name “connotes” that object as it connotes the property of being the Beatle’s drummer. Meanwhile the metalinguistic description tells us what the name means at its semantic heart.

What then of informativeness? We have two options: adopt the metalinguistic paraphrase for this purpose, or appeal to the descriptive connotations. The former strategy is familiar and I will not expatiate on it; the latter is fresher and more intriguing. The idea is that when we learn a true identity statement our knowledge is augmented by the connotations that come with the name: for example, “Hesperus” connotes “the evening star” and “Phosphorus” connotes “the morning star”, so that when we learn that Hesperus is identical to Phosphorus, we learn that the evening star and the morning star are one and the same planet. This is not the same proposition as that expressed by “Hesperus is Phosphorus” (that is given by the metalinguistic paraphrase), but is a substantive piece of knowledge associated with the identity statement. It isn’t a tautology but a real cognitive step forward.[2] It might easily be mistaken for the knowledge conveyed by the original statement, but actually it corresponds to a different statement—the one connoted. It is connotational (cultural) knowledge not denotational (semantic) knowledge. If you want to know what the conveyed denotational knowledge consists in, you will have to look at the denotations of the contained names, viz. the metalinguistic descriptions. That, too, is not tautological (it isn’t analytic that the same planet is called both “Hesperus” and “Phosphorus”). So, actually, two pieces of descriptive knowledge are obtained when the identity statement is discovered to be true—metalinguistic (denotational) and empirical (connotational). Lots of knowledge is conveyed in this composite picture, so we are not short of resources with which to answer Frege’s question. Nor does the resulting theory violate any of the principles employed in the standard objections to the description theory of names; we just have to be more careful about the formulation of that theory. We mustn’t be too simplistic and rigid about how the descriptions do their job: connotation can do it as well as denotation (strict intrinsic meaning). The marriage counsellor has advised a looser relationship as the solution to his clients’ problems, though not one without substantial commitments (live apart but always keep each other in mind).

Not all words have connotations, at least not in any marked manner; names stand out in this respect. Connectives and prepositions don’t do much connoting; nor do articles and pronouns. Verbs do some, but nouns do the most. This includes singular and common nouns (e.g., kind terms, natural and artificial). The reason for this is presumably that these are the things of most interest to us—in particular, people and places (just listen to the Beatles song “In My Life”). We have thoughts and feelings about the bearers of names, and these stick in our minds. Names are connotation-rich. It is not surprising that there are quasi-semantic associations here, interpenetrations. Frege and Russell were right to sense an affinity, though they overdid it to the point of asserting identity. The pragmatics of names is clearly description-directed. So, we should expect that descriptions will play a role in the functioning of names, though an auxiliary role. Names thus point towards descriptions without being equivalent to them. But the pointing goes in the other direction too: descriptions also connote names. If you hear the description “the drummer for the Beatles”, you naturally think of Ringo Starr, his face, his hair, his drumming style—the name strikes you in a certain way. This explains why we tend to regard definite descriptions as name-like, contrary to Russell’s theory. We expect descriptions to function like names because they irresistibly suggest names to us (it isn’t just that they occur in subject position); hence Russell’s theory comes as a surprise. The connotations of descriptions instill the idea that they are name-like—just as the connotations of names instill the idea that names are description-like. The mutual connotation encourages semantic assimilation. We mistake affinity for overlap, even identity. This is the psycholinguistics of names and descriptions, their depth psychology (the “semantic unconscious”). Russell’s theory of descriptions could be entirely correct, and known to be so, and yet descriptions persist in having name-involving connotations; just as Mill’s theory of names could be entirely correct and yet names persist in having descriptive connotations. And connotations count: they shape conceptions.[3]

Connotations need not be accurate; denotations have to be. You can get things wrong about the objects you refer to without detriment to your referential success, but you can’t be wrong in what you mean and expect to lock onto the right object. You might think Ringo was the drummer for the Stones but still refer to Ringo with “Ringo” not Charlie, but you can’t refer to Ringo with “Ringo” if you don’t grasp that Ringo is named “Ringo” and not “Charlie”. Denotation is infallible in this sense, but connotation is not: you can’t grasp the meaning of “tree” and not refer to trees with “tree”, but you can grasp the connotation of the word “tree” and this connotation not be an accurate representation of trees (for you “tree” might connote “plant that poisonous snakes hide in”—because you once saw a documentary about poisonous tree snakes in Africa). Connotations are certainly not entailed by denotations (meanings)—they are just stuff you associate with the word. But they can cooperate with denotations in the use and understanding of language—they come with words (hence con-notation: “con” as in “together with”). We should really pay more attention to the phenomenon of connotation in the philosophy of language.[4]

[1] See my “On Denoting and Connoting” for some background to this paper.

[2] One thing is perfectly clear: affirmations of self-identity can never be informative.

[3] Connotations are not the same as conversational implicatures, though they belong to the same general territory. Neither follows from strict literal meaning; both are broadly pragmatic (or penumbral). Connotations are more like psychological associations, cognitive and affective; implicatures have to do with conversational rules governing the purposes of communication. A comparative study of connotation and implicature would be worth undertaking.

[4] Words have reference, sense, force, tone, and connotation. Each does its job in accounting for language use. Consider all the connotations of “I went for a job interview in New Jersey yesterday”, let alone “The Second World War killed millions of people”. Language is heavy with connotation.

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On Denoting and Connoting

On Denoting and Connoting

There is something amiss with our standard terminology. And it covers actual confusion. I propose to straighten all this out.[1] The standard way of talking assigns a denotation and a connotation to definite descriptions (sometimes also to names and demonstratives): the denotation of a description is the object it refers to (if it refers), while the connotation consists of the properties expressed by the embedded predicates. In other terminology, the denotation is the extension and the connotation is the intension (the meaning, intuitively). This does not conform to the dictionary definition of these terms or their common usage. The OEDdefines “connotation” thus: “an idea or feeling which a word invokes in addition to its primary meaning”, following this with “Philosophy the abstract meaning of a term, determining which object or concept it applies to”. These two definitions are at odds with each other: the former speaks of contingent associations with thoughts and feelings that are not part of the “primary meaning” of the expression; the latter identifies connotation with primary meaning. This is very explicit in the definition for “connote”: “(of a word) imply or suggest (an idea or feeling) in addition to the primary or literal meaning”. This makes connotation extrinsic to meaning, while the philosophical definition makes it intrinsic to meaning. Clearly, the philosophical definition has deformed the vernacular meaning. What word does philosophy have for those suggested ideas and feelings that are merely associated with the term? The OED (concise edition) definition of “denote” gives us simply “be a sign of; indicate”; for “denotation” the Shorter OED gives us “the meaning or signification of a term, as distinct from its implications or connotations”. So, the denotation of a term can just be its conventional meaning not the object the term stands for or refers to. If we use “denotes” in this way, we can say that a definite description denotes the properties denoted by the predicates contained in it, i.e., what those predicates mean—not its ordinary reference. In other words, the connotation in the philosophical sense is the denotation in the vernacular sense. You see what I mean about the oddity of our standard philosophical use of these terms? It is really not true to say that meaning is constituted by connotation; what is true is that it is constituted by denotation. Since every word has a meaning, it has a denotation in the ordinary sense. The sense of a word, using Frege’s terminology, is its denotation; connotation doesn’t come into it, except as a kind of secondary meaning. That would seem to be the more accurate and natural way of speaking.

What is called by philosophers the denotation actually belongs with the connotation as normally understood, in that both belong to extrinsic contingent features of the term, more alluded to than actually expressed. I mean that the reference is not strictly part of what the term means, just like the connotation; both need not even exist in order for the term to have its usual meaning. You can vary the reference or the connotation and keep the meaning fixed. We might say that reference and connotation are alluded to or signified or intended by the use of the term (not by the term itself), but they are not aspects of its strict and literal meaning. They form the penumbra of the term’s meaning, piggybacking on it, not its core or nucleus. Both are indicated, even referred to, by the speaker—they are intended objects of speech. But they are not denoted by the term considered in itself; they might be removed without detriment to the term’s “primary meaning”. We could almost say that the reference in this sense is part of the term’s connotation: it connotes that object, suggests it, implies it, points towards it. If I know that Benjamin Franklin was the inventor of bifocals, then that description connotes the idea of Benjamin Franklin to me, even though that idea is not part of its strict meaning. Thus, rightly considered, connotation becomes denotation and denotation becomes connotation. A definite description denotes the properties that constitute its meaning, and it connotes an object that is not part of its meaning. According to Russell’s theory of descriptions, then, the denotation of a description is the property or set of properties denoted by its predicates, not the object indirectly alluded to by those predicates. It isn’t that the description has no denotation—for it has a meaning—but rather that its denotation is other than we tend to suppose. We thought (with Meinong and Frege) that its denotation was its intended object of reference, but in fact, as Russell’s analysis reveals, the only denoting going on is being performed by the predicates in relation to the properties they express. Meaning is always denotational, trivially so, but the denotation need not be a concrete object like a man or a mountain. The revealed logical form of the description tells us that its meaning consists in denoting properties not objects. That is the real lesson of the theory of descriptions once the terminology is straightened out. There is not denotational meaning and connotational meaning; there is just denotational meaning. Even if objects do sometimes constitute meaning (“logically proper names”), there is still just denotational meaning across the board—the entities may vary from expression to expression but not the meaning-constituting relation. Words always signify—denote–meanings, though it is possible for different kinds of things to be meanings. The contentious question has been what kinds of denotation words possess, not whether some words mean by denoting while others mean by connoting. That whole way of thinking and speaking is misconceived.

If we look at the extension of a predicate, we see clearly what is going on. The extension of a predicate is not its denotation; the property (or concept) it expresses is. The extension is extrinsic to the meaning and can vary ad libitum; it is more like connotation in the ordinary sense. The property determines the extension (in a world), but the two are quite distinct entities. Similarly, the property also at least partially determines the ideas and feelings connoted by the term in question (e.g., the property of being a snake). So, there is a definite relation between denotation, on the one hand, and extension and connotation, on the other. Still, it is denotation that is semantically primary, i.e., what the word strictly and literally means. In the case of whole sentences, we may say that their truth-value corresponds to the connotation side of things (what Frege would call their Bedeutung), while the proposition they express corresponds to the denotation side (alternatively, the states of affairs corresponding to them). Sentences thus denote (mean) propositions but merely allude to truth-values—intend them, point to them, contain them in their penumbra. The two don’t stand in the denotation relation but only in the “connotation” relation; we might say that they are “correlated”. But propositions are clearly integral to sentence meaning and hence are correctly said to be denoted by sentences. The extension of a sentence (its truth-value) is thus not its denotation; the intension of a sentence is. Sentences denote their intensions but not their extensions. Similarly, the truth-table of a connective is not its denotation but rather a part of its “connotation” in the extended sense; the denotation will be the function directly expressed by the connective (as it might be, the negation function). Denotations have penumbras or correlates or associations (ideas and feelings, references, extensions, truth-values, truth-tables), but they are always separate and autonomous. We should not confuse the two or mislabel them.  The whole point of the denotation/connotation distinction is to separate what is internal to a word’s meaning from what is external to it; it does no good to force connotation into the heart of word meaning. We have inherited a misleading nomenclature and need to dispense with it.[2]

[1] Prepare yourself for a wild ride. We are going to break some bones, destroy some shibboleths, upset some apple carts. Expect dizziness.

[2] It is actually quite difficult to break the hold of the old nomenclature if one has been steeped in it for long enough, as I have been. We have to fight off the usual interpretation of “denotation” in classic philosophy of language. The word “denotes” has become an entrenched term of art in logic and philosophy of language, but it is a distortion and a source of wrongheadedness. It is to be noted that there is no vernacular term that means just what philosophers intend to mean by “denotes”; it is a neologism. Speakers refer not words; denotation is supposed to be something that words can do off their own bat. They can, but only if the term is taken in the vernacular sense as equivalent to “meaning”.

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Hand-Based Psychotherapy

Hand-Based Psychotherapy

The image we have of the therapeutic set-up derives from Freud’s clinical practice. It consists of a patient lying on a couch with the therapist sitting behind her unseen. There is no physical activity apart from talking. It is as if patient and therapist are focusing exclusively on the mind with the body bracketed for the duration. We would never picture this set-up if we were considering physical therapy—here the body is likely to be moving quite a bit. The division is remarkably Cartesian, and not in a good way: we all know that mind and body interact in all sorts of ways, especially when it comes to pathologies. We have psychosomatic illness as well as psychic disturbance occasioned by bodily injury or disease. Shouldn’t both kinds of therapy be psychophysical? Shouldn’t we be treating the WHOLE PERSON? With this ideology in mind, I wish to urge the benefits of a type of psychotherapy dedicated to the hands—hence hand-based psychotherapy.[1] The theoretical background to this method draws upon the central role of the hands in human life and evolution, the extensive neurophysiological basis assigned to the hands, and the consequences of hand dysfunction. There is nothing particularly esoteric about any of this: it is just part of our shared knowledge of the hand as mature human beings. I am not asking you to swallow anything mystical or New Age or weird-science. And my aim is thoroughly practical: therapeutic efficacy rules, there are no magic crystals, it’s all out in the open. So, let me be blunt in my language and my specific proposals. The heart of hand-based therapy is what we might call “hand activation”, i.e., a series of hand exercises or skills or disciplines. An initial list will include throwing, drumming, hitting, gripping, stroking, and strengthening. Both hands will be worked on, especially the non-dominant hand. Games and sports of various kinds are encouraged, as well as playing musical instruments; these may be decided by therapist and patient together. (I personally would favor knife throwing, drumming, and tennis, but that’s just me.) The aim is to train the hands systematically, bringing out their full potential, particularly the non-dominant hand. Hand awareness and hand connectedness are thereby enhanced.

I envisage this form of therapy for depression, anxiety, and PTSD, as well as ordinary discontent. I follow it myself. It is perhaps not wise to try to delve into its rationale and empirical basis too deeply, because that way lies mystification and pseudo-science. The general idea is that our hands are a central part of our human nature and should be developed to a high level in order to realize that nature. Just imagine life without your hands—it doesn’t bear thinking about. A considerable part of the brain is dedicated to the hands. They are capable of amazing feats. Capitalist labor has alienated workers from their hands by insisting on repetitive motions. Many jobs involve minimal hand activity and creativity. Hand neglect is like brain neglect, and indeed entails brain neglect. Infants follow a regular pattern of hand development beginning at just a few months old, indicating a carefully orchestrated set of innate instructions (like language development). Healthy hand development is necessary to a happy successful life. Some people are afflicted with hand phobia (chiro phobia) while others suffer from Clenched Fist Syndrome (CFS). Some gesticulate wildly while others let their hands droop uselessly. Most people never give their hands a second thought, so don’t do anything to unlock their potential. I would advocate hand therapy for criminals languishing in jail. I think the pinched personalities of many academics would benefit from compulsory hand exercises. Healthy hands make for healthy and happy minds. The old regime of forcing children to fold their arms and not “fidget” is the opposite of healthy, depriving them of the natural action of their hands (“hand repression”). There should be social clubs devoted to hand activities. Hand wellness should be a societal priority. The soul-hand nexus should be celebrated. But here I risk lapsing into hand mysticism, hand obscurantism. Let me just say that it is high time we recognized the importance of hand development to human wellbeing.

I am not suggesting that we replace all other forms of psychotherapy with hand-based therapy (“chiro therapy”). It can certainly be used in conjunction with other forms of therapy (including rebirth therapy[2]). But I think it could be a valuable addition to other therapeutic approaches. Obviously, it would be desirable to undertake empirical studies to evaluate its efficacy, but this is notoriously difficult to arrange (most psychotherapies are lacking in empirical support). Still, I am confident that it could have beneficial effects, simply because it goes to the heart of our human nature. We are born handy creatures.[3]

[1] I intend this short essay as an offshoot and application of my (criminally neglected!) book Prehension (2015).

[2] See my “Foundations of Psychotherapy” for an account of rebirth therapy.

[3] This essay is obviously highly programmatic; much more needs to be said. For example, should the education system make room for dedicated hand development classes? Is writing a sufficient use of the hands for a healthy psyche? (No!) What is the relative psychological importance of finger dexterity and propulsive manual power? Should different types of ball be used therapeutically? (Yes.) Are drummers happier than singers? (Probably.) How much emphasis should be placed on eye-hand coordination? Is there such a condition as stiff hand dystonia? Should we talk less and use our hands more? How should the feet be integrated with the hands? Is hand behavior diagnostic of psychopathology? Is obsessive-compulsive disorder hand-centered? Should children be tested on their hand skills? What constitutes hand beauty? Are there national differences in hand sophistication? Should the elderly pay special attention to their hand-mind health? Et cetera.

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Is Language a Practical Capacity?

Is Language a Practical Capacity

It is sometimes said, with an air of obvious truth, that mastery of one’s native language is a practical capacity.[1] The suggestion sounds reasonable enough, even somewhat illuminating: we do useful things with words, perform tasks, achieve stuff; we don’t speak just to broadcast propositions into the atmosphere. This is obviously correct for Wittgenstein’s builders, memorialized in section 2 of the Investigations, because they are engaged on a practical task. We also learn in section 11 that words are like tools, also things that are involved in practical tasks. But is it true that all uses of language are thus practical? Is all speaking and listening practically oriented? Some speech clearly serves a practical purpose, but does all of it? That depends on what is meant by “practical”. It can’t just mean “action involving” because many actions are not practical in the usual sense, e.g., writing philosophy or reciting poetry or kicking a ball around. It must mean a specific type of action. The OED gives us “the actual application or use of a plan or method, as opposed to the theories relating to it” for “practice”; hence “practical” means “not merely theoretical”. In speech we apply the rules of grammar and vocabulary, as opposed to theorizing about those rules (the job of the linguist). But to do what? You might say to communicate, or to aid thought: these are the practical purposes to which language is put. But communicate about what, or aid thinking about what? Suppose someone is discussing the puzzles of quantum physics: is that a practical task? If you are discussing theories, are you engaged in a practical activity? What about reciting poetry—is that a practical activity? If so, the slogan “language is a practical capacity” is reduced to a truism. No, we must mean something more limited than merely performing an action or else nothing we do will ever count as impractical. And, of course, that is not how the word “practical” is commonly understood: it is associated with such words and phrases as “useful”, “work-related”, “functional”, “businesslike”, “down-to-earth”, “pragmatic”, “effective”, “helpful”, “utilitarian”—not theoretical, intellectual, aesthetic, impractical, amusing, fun, enjoyable, devoid of all practical value. Plumbing and carpentry are practical, ballet and theoretical physics are not. Are your feet on the ground or your head in the clouds? Language used in practical contexts (“Hand me a slab!”) is practical, but not language used in theoretical or intellectual or aesthetic contexts (“Shakespeare is superior to Marlowe”). It is simply not true that all language use is practical in the proper sense.

Is seeing a practical capacity, or remembering, or thinking? Some types of seeing, remembering, and thinking are indeed practical, if they are employed about practical tasks; but not all types of seeing are thus practical. Seeing a picture in an art gallery is not practical, nor is remembering a concert, nor is thinking about the mind-body problem. Not every activity of mind is geared towards solving practical problems (abstract theorizing is not). That is the whole point of the concept—its contrast with the unpractical. It is the same with language: some language use is devoted to pursuing impractical ends—artistic, scientific, philosophical, playful. This is obvious and is only occluded by the platitudinous idea that language use is a type of action, as if that fact alone entails that language mastery is a “practical capacity”. You may as well say that all thinking is a practical capacity. Could it be maintained that impractical activity is necessarily derivative from practical activity? That doesn’t seem like a conceptual truth, and anyway it wouldn’t undermine the case against the doctrine at issue. That doctrine is just plain false. It is true that it is wrong to picture language mastery as consisting solely in the contemplation of abstract propositions or platonic essences (in the style of the Tractatus), but it is equally wrong to assimilate it to issuing orders on a building site. We can overintellectualize language use, but we can also underintellectualize it. If part of the intent of the doctrine at issue is to “naturalize” language use by comparing it to reflexes and habits, then that is a misguided project; language mastery is a complex cognitive achievement, even in the case of Wittgenstein’s builders. In fact, even this kind of “primitive” linguistic behavior embeds sophisticated cognitive processes (see psycholinguistics), and grammar itself is a mighty cognitive structure. We might better say that a deeply “intellectual” accomplishment is sometimes employed for mundane practical purposes: language is really “slumming it” when it descends to supplement a practical chore. Its real nature shows itself best in Shakespeare, the great philosophers, the poets. This is the essence of human language, with its infinite scope and power, not the monosyllabic “slab” and “block” (Wittgenstein himself describes such a language as “primitive”). We would do better to describe human language use as unpractical in its essential constitution; it raises us above nature, above brute practicality. We should not be language philistines.

What philosophy of language might the doctrine of practicality be ranged against? To whom and what does it react? And is this reaction justified? Frege provides a good example (the Tractatus descends partly from him). Frege depicts the language user as engaged in some pretty fancy mental gymnastics (the same is true of his philosophy of mathematics): the whole apparatus of sense and reference, function and object, is like a giant jigsaw puzzle that the mind must somehow solve. Just to understand a simple sentence, you have to be able to negotiate an elaborate construction of moving pieces slotted precariously together. You are said to “grasp a thought”, itself a quasi-platonic entity, that bears no essential relation to actual language use, let alone practical endeavors. One would never think this airy contraption might be useful in getting a house built or ordering lunch! It seems like a language suitable for gods not men. Frege seems quite unconcerned with psychological reality and the concrete activity of speaking and hearing. Those simple builders know nothing of sense and reference, thoughts and truth-values, functions and objects. Isn’t the practicality doctrine a useful corrective to this kind of intellectualist thinking? Actually no, and for a simple reason: Frege is primarily concerned with syntax and semantics not pragmatics. He could allow that pragmatics emphasize the practical side of language and stick to his elaborate theory of syntax and semantics. The mind must operate at all three levels in order to organize speech, and the pragmatic level enjoys a certain autonomy with respect to syntax and semantics. Nothing in Frege’s semantics denies the practical (and impractical) uses of language at the pragmatic level; and this can be as pragmatic as you like. Language use could be practical through and through without prejudice to semantics. Of course, the linguistic mind can’t just be a reflex mechanism if it grasps the Fregean structure—it can’t just be an input-output device. But it can still be as practically oriented as it pleases, as unconcerned with matters intellectual and theoretical. Practicality of result doesn’t preclude complexity of structure. These are orthogonal issues. Given that practical tasks come in an enormous variety, it is likely that a complex semantic system underlies their possibility: the builders might also be cooks, car mechanics, landscapers, and fishermen. All that is going to require a sophisticated machinery of moving parts, the full complement of human language as we know it. And anything above the simplest type of practical behavior calls for theoretical understanding of principles and means-end reasoning. Theoretically limited practice is limited indeed. Really, the whole idea of the noble savage speaker, always bent over the tools of his trade, is a myth; he will talk trash and nonsense (as well as poetry and astronomy) at least some of the time. Human language will always burst the bonds of the boringly practical. It will not wither away as life becomes less practically burdensome. Language is not essentially a practical device.[2]

[1] Michael Dummett used to say this a lot, but it is a common refrain, especially in ordinary language philosophy.

[2] I think the picture of human language here sketched is broadly Chomskian, what with his emphasis on grammatical structure and creativity. The practical activity conception is closer to Skinner-type behaviorist linguistics. I do wonder how philosophers of language, whose use of language is seldom practical, could have arrived at the view that the essence of language is practical, as if manual workers are the true speakers. Reverse snobbery? Language is above all flexible.

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Einstein and Wittgenstein

Einstein and Wittgenstein

In Philosophical Remarks, composed in the late 1920s, Wittgenstein several times enunciates a verificationist principle, which was not present in the Tractatus. It is plausible that the Vienna Circle, with whom Wittgenstein met several times during this period, derived the verifiability theory of meaning from these interactions with him (not from the earlier Tractatus). On page 200 of Philosophical Remarks, we read the following: “How a proposition is verified is what it says…The verification is not one token of the truth, it is the sense of the proposition. (Einstein: How a magnitude is measured is what it is.)” Clearly, Wittgenstein is drawing a connection between Einstein’s physics and his own verificationism, and thus with the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle. He is surely right to do so. It is true that Wittgenstein did not repeat this kind of verificationism in his later work (notably Philosophical Investigations), but this is a striking historical moment. Einstein and Wittgenstein on the same positivist page.

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Memory and Expectation

Memory and Expectation

How do memory and expectation differ? For example, I might remember going to the shops yesterday and expect to go to the shops tomorrow—how do these states of mind differ? They concern the same state of affairs, but they are evidently not the same; we never confuse one with the other (“Am I remembering going to the shops or expecting it?”). It might be thought that the answer is simple: memory is directed to the past while expectation is directed to the future—that is the essential and sole difference. This may be backed up by the claim that the same state of affairs that is now remembered was once expected and vice versa: time passes and the mind reflects how the world is at a given time, marking it as past or future. We simply have a different temporal perspective on the world analogous to our varying spatial perspective on things presently seen. You can believe that an event lies in the past or in the future, but the belief element is constant—it is just a belief state with a different temporal content, signified by tense. Beliefs about the past are the same as beliefs about the future except that they embed different propositions. Similarly, memory embeds the proposition that in the past p, while expectation embeds the proposition that in the future p. Memory is a belief about the past and expectation is a belief about the future.  We can call this the “symmetry theory”. If we turn to the dictionary, we receive some confirmation of the symmetry theory: “remember” is defined as “have in or be able to bring to one’s mind (someone or something from the past)”; “expectation” is defined as “a strong belief that something will happen or be the case” (OED). We could paraphrase the former as “be able to form an accurate belief about the past” and the latter as “have a belief about the future”. What distinguishes these beliefs is the occurrence of distinct types of temporal reference in their content, either to the past or the future. Crudely, remembering is thinking about the past and expecting is thinking about the future.

But this is too crude. In the first place, when we remember we think with both concepts: we think something was the case in the past but also that this something itself had a future, i.e., what followed the event remembered. We remember the event as occurring in time, with a past and future at that time. In the same way, when we think of a future event, we think of it as having had a past—as positioned in time. We employ this complex of concepts. Second, it is of course possible to have a belief about the past which is not a memory of the past, as with my belief that the earth is over three billion years old; not all knowledge of the past is remembering that which is known. Nor is memory always accompanied by belief: I might be remembering a real event and yet feel unsure about whether my memory is reliable in this instance (compare perceptual hallucinations). Expectation is much closer to belief, though even here I might find myself with an attitude of expectation but question whether it is well founded (some drug keeps causing me to have false expectations). So, what is the difference? What is the essential nature of memory and expectation? How should these concepts be analyzed? Now things become more difficult (as with everything about time). It won’t do to say that we can have knowledge of the past via memory but not knowledge of the future via expectation, because skepticism can be broached in both areas, and knowledge of the future is as extensive as knowledge of the past. We are on fairly safe ground if we observe that memories are caused by past events, while expectations are not caused by future events, though this observation by itself is less than explanatory. How does the attitude of remembering differ from the attitude of expecting, as opposed to the causal history of the attitudes in question? Causation is extrinsic to the inner nature of these attitudes. If in some remote possible world, the causal stories were inverted, would that change the nature of the attitudes? If the future caused expectation and the past failed to cause memory, would the attitudes be inverted, so that we remember the future and expect the past? I don’t think so. We need to find something more intrinsic, definitional, phenomenological.

I can think of two marked differences in the psychology of memory and expectation. The first is that we can fear the future but not the past. Remembering a past event does not evoke fear in us to the effect that the past might hurt us—the past is past, dead and gone. Recollecting a close call with a dangerous animal does not make us afraid of an attack by that animal now. But if we expect an attack, that certainly evokes fear. We are afraid of the future, as of the present, but not of the past. That is a big difference psychologically. Memories of the past might cause us to fear something similar in the future, but we are not afraid of the past as such (those events). The second point is that memory is saturated with detail and specificity, while expectation is etiolated and general. If I remember meeting someone yesterday, I can recall concrete details of our encounter drawn from my earlier experience; but if I expect to meet someone tomorrow, there is no experiential input to the expectation, just a schematic outline. Memory is experientially saturated, but expectation is not, since we have no experience of the future to draw upon. The future is conceived thinly, but the past is conceived thickly. Thus, the past seems to us more real than the future, less conjectural. To remember is to relive, but to expect is not. The past is part of me, but the future isn’t, not yet. My past makes me me, but my future doesn’t make me me (now). The past is bound up with personal identity; not so the future. This is why theorists of personal identity cite memory as crucial but not expectation and the future. I am what has happened to me, not what willhappen to me. I am not so much my plans for the future, which may or may not come to fruition, as I am my past experiences, which have definitely happened and shaped me. When I remember I am confronted with myself, but when I expect I am confronted with the world; I might not even survive into the future, but I sure as hell existed in the past. The past is fullness (Being, as Sartre would say); the future is emptiness (Nothingness). A human life is part Being and part Nothingness: an actual history and a speculative hope (or fear). Phenomenologically, memory is the repository of a lived life, while expectation is a receptacle waiting to be filled by life. Memory is replete with being, but expectation is striving after being. Non-being is the threat posed by the future; being is the accomplishment of the past. Fear is the emotion proper to the future, while regret is proper to the past (or pride and self-satisfaction). The difference between memory and expectation, at the phenomenological human level, is the difference between life as already lived and life as it might or might not be lived. Fact and supposition, reality and dream, the concrete and the conjectural. We remember as creatures of an experienced world; we expect as creatures of a world as yet unexperienced. These are very different attitudes. Human existence in time is suspended between the two attitudes. They are our constant companions. We are expectant memoirists.[1]

[1] I wrote this paper after having read Wittgenstein’s discussion of expectation in Philosophical Remarks (1930). In this work there is no trace of behaviorism. He is concerned with the logical nature of expectation, its specific mode of intentionality (he doesn’t use this term).

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Eliminating Common Sense

Eliminating Common Sense

Russell said that ordinary language contains the metaphysics of the Stone Age. Wittgenstein says that philosophy leaves everything as it is. Both were wrong. Ordinary language contains no metaphysics at all, ancient or modern; and advanced philosophy does not leave primitive philosophy alone. The bore in the bar telling you “his philosophy” is contradicted by more expert philosophers, but the house cleaner going about her daily business is not doing philosophy at all. Both Russell and Wittgenstein picture the ordinary person as philosophically engaged, either well or badly; but Joe Six-Pack and Fred Flintstone are not proto-metaphysicians, good ones or bad ones. Ordinary thought evolved far too long ago to be steeped in philosophical reflection. But there is a type of philosophy that prima facie conflicts with common sense (so called)—eliminative philosophy. There are philosophers (thankfully not many) who actually deny that minds exist: they assert that there are no experiences, no consciousness, not even beliefs and desires. There is only the brain, or only behavior. This doctrine is not, on the face of it, an opinion shared by your average Sharon or Sheila, Joe or Jim. So, aren’t these worthy souls in disagreement with their eliminative philosophical coevals? Don’t they talk as if they believe that minds exist—aren’t they “ontologically committed” to the existence of mental states? Don’t they subscribe to a realist metaphysics of mind?

The question is not easy to answer, however. To be sure, they say things like “I believe in ghosts” or “I want some ice cream” or “My back is killing me”: they employ psychological language assertively. But do they believe the negation of what the eliminative philosophers believe? Do they believe that mental states exist in the same sense that elephants or human bodies exist; that such states cannot be eliminated in favor of brain states and behavior; that they are real features of objective reality? Now we are losing our sturdy compatriots—we are stuffing them with thoughts they have never entertained. The eliminative materialist has a set of beliefs regarding the “ontological status” of mental states, to the effect that they have no role in science, that they are outmoded forms of description, that they represent a “museum myth” concerning the human animal. People used to believe in the celestial spheres, phlogiston, and the ether—but now we know better. Mental language will eventually go the way of these outdated ideas. So, do Sharon and Joe reject these claims, holding that mental states should be quantified over, incorporated into cognitive science, treated as entities with causal powers and computational properties? Of course not: they have no developed conception of the nature of the things they talk about (even this formulation might be alien to them). They are not anti-eliminative, convinced realists. They entertain no metaphysics of mind, stone age or contemporary. If the eliminative philosopher starts to expound his metaphysical views, they will look baffled and find an excuse to walk away. The would-be eliminator may deplore their loose talk, but he cannot convict them of cleaving to a false metaphysics. After all, they talk of many things without believing in some associated “realist ontology”: numbers, the time of day, negation and conjunction, fictional entities. So, there is no clash of opinions separating the eliminative philosophers from their commonsensical associates. Of course, if the latter individuals start to theorize about matters philosophical, holding that psychological realism is the only viable doctrine, then we will have a genuine difference of opinion. But many people go through life untroubled by such thoughts: they remain unconcerned about whether the mind is real or not. There is thus nothing in their heads that needs to be eliminated, revised, or otherwise criticized.[1]

[1] It isn’t that they are to be commended for believing what is true, as “common sense philosophers” maintain; rather, they are in the position of agnostics, or simply “indifferents”.

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