Sunday, April 30, 2017

Help Yourself

Saturday, October 23, 2010


Monday, November 16, 2009

Coogan's Bluff

Joshua Prager has written a sublime, prosaic book about the "shot heard round the world": Bobby Thomson's home run to win the National League pennant on the final playoff pitch of 1951. It has been compared to The Boys of Summer, but it is less parochial, more truthful, and more serious.

Prager's research is both exhilarating and exhaustive. In 2001, he became notorious for an article about the Giants' telescopic stealing of signs. Here it is catalogued in merciless detail.

As are the lives of Branca and Thomson. In a chapter that is a tour de force, Prager interrupts the 1951 season at the playoff to narrate in synchrony their paths to this defining moment: Branca's huge and happy family, Thomson's taciturn father and supportive brother. The intermission takes up a fifth of the book.

It is emblematic of Prager's digressions that the final game itself is paused, as Thomson steps into the batter's box, before the pitch – the swing – Russ Hodges' call – for a paragraph that begins thus:
Pitcher and hitter had both awakened that morning at 7:30 in the home of parents. Both had eaten eggs prepared by his mother, Thomson with a side of bacon, Branca a side of ham.
"We are not so different, you and I." How could we understand this miracle before we knew the breakfasts of which it was made?

If the events of Prager's narrative are deliberately inverted and pulled apart, so too his words. In the first ten pages:
Thus did a bloody digit and enflamed appendix now convene Durocher and Horace Stoneham in New York's center-field clubhouse.
Durocher was obnoxious, would from short instruct his pitcher to throw at opposing batters.
All about the city were starting nines, and the consequence most embraced of its newfound proficiency was the overtaking of New York.
There are dozens of these throughout the book: prepositions, verbs, scattered through sentences to surprise the reader. Meaning waits, as a string of signifiers, names and dates is given sense at last by the missing term, on which everything pivots. Call no man happy till he throws the final pitch.

What is a life, asks Prager? Facts and facts and facts: eggs eaten, girlfriends left, wives kissed and parents grieved. But there is only one fact about Branca: he threw the fastball Thomson hit.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Sole Text of Rational Psychology

Two passages to begin with. First, from Martin Amis, The Information:
"What did they say? Did anyone say anything?"
Yes. The man said, "I'm a child."
"The man said you're a child?" And Richard went back four or five years, to the natural confusions of early speech. "How are you?" he would ask him; and Marco would say, logically enough, "You're fine." And Marco would reach out to him with his arms and say, "Carry you." And Richard would pick him up and carry him…
No. He said I'm a child.
Then the following echo, from Life As We Know It, a memoir by Michael Bérubé:
Well into his second year, in fact, Nick persisting in saying "take him" to his parents whenever he wanted to be picked up. "No, no, take me," we said to him, to which he answered, logically enough, "take you."
Adorable, huh? But such inversions can also be symptomatic: many autistic children call themselves 'you' not 'I'; they struggle to master the conventional use of pronouns. Thus the natural confusions of childhood, logical enough in themselves, are marked as pathology: red flags.

Nor is this just any conceptual muddle, like a failure to grasp that numbers are for counting, or the eccentricity of Wittgenstein's wood sellers, who measure quantity by the area covered by a pile of wood, regardless of its volume. That there is an intimate connection between cognition and the first person concept is a thesis of the Critique of Pure Reason:
It must be possible for the 'I think' to accompany all my representations; for otherwise something would be represented in me which could not be thought at all, and that is equivalent to saying that the representation would be impossible, or at least would be nothing to me.
What kind of mind could lack this capacity? What form of thought is available to those who cannot distinguish themselves from others?

These questions evoke a persisting trope in the literature of autism: that of autist as alien. Temple Grandin writes that, for her mother, dealing with her was "like dealing with somebody from another planet." This is the obverse of the notorious defects of social cognition characteristic of autism. Grandin memorably called herself, in relation to others, "an anthropologist on Mars."

In the opening chapter of Thinking in Pictures, Grandin tries to depict the contents of her kind of mind. "Depict" is right, since she is an intensely visual thinker.
Unlike those of most people, my thoughts move from video-like specific images to generalizations and concepts. For example, my concept of dogs is inextricably linked to every dog I've ever known. It's as if I have a card catalogue of dogs I have seen, complete with pictures, which continually grows as I add more examples to my video library. If I think about Great Danes, the first memory that pops into my head is Dansk, the Great Dane owned by the headmaster at my high school […] the images I visualize are always specific. There is no generic, generalized Great Dane.
This is Berkeley's attack on abstract ideas – and something like Hume's solution. If ideas represent pictorially, and there is no such thing as a generic picture, we have to construct our concepts from images as associative files.

Reviewing Grandin's book in Hume Studies, Elijah Millgram went so far as to call it
a window into a mind of which Hume's psychology is for the most part true. […] he was, it now appears, inadvertently describing not his own experience, and not human mentation in general, but a certain type of autism.
It is a tempting move, to map the alien to the familiar – though which is which will depend on what you know. But it can't be right. Millgram is too mild when he remarks that "twentieth-century philosophers no longer find the psychology [of the British empiricists] convincing" because it "did not make good on its explanatory obligations […] a thought's being a mental picture is not a satisfactory account of why it has the content it does." Even if we drop the question of content, how to make sense of such mundane phenomena as belief, which Hume was led to equate with an indefinable "force" or "vivacity" of ideas? Quite apart from its obscurity, Hume's conception only works for ideas of particular things: it is an account of belief in x, not belief that p. Propositional belief would have to relate distinct ideas, some of them abstract – but not by association. Hume leaves no room for this.

To say this is not to question Grandin's testimony: she does not claim to be a Humean mind. But it does imply a certain failure. Her book explains how acute visualization may compensate for cognitive shortfalls. But we want more than that. When we read her words as a field report from another planet, they promise a window to the alien mind: a mode of thinking that is nothing but pictures. However it may seem, this cannot be made intelligible. It is just an illusion of thought.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Philosophical Experiments

[Warning to the reader: the remarks that follow cite no-one and do not attempt to engage with details; but they are in part a response to the first two essays in this book.]

What is called "experimental philosophy" is diverse and does not admit of unified treatment. Some of it enlists the existing work of empirical scientists where it might be relevant to the questions of philosophy. While I may not always agree about the relevance, this seems innocent enough.

But there are more radical threads. One is a variety of "naturalism" that entails the complete rejection of a priori knowledge and non-empirically justified belief. Let the armchair blaze.

It is sometimes claimed by advocates of "naturalism" that the armchair method rests on a hopeless view of philosophy as conceptual analysis: what could one discover from the armchair, if anything, but the shape of one's conceptual space? (Can one discover even that? See below.) But whatever we make of the rest of it, the sociology of Williamson's recent book is sound when he denies that this view is orthodox. Many philosophers reject the conceptual analyst's account of a priori knowledge.

Some do not, of course, but others give other accounts, and there is a silent majority. Moreover, the pressure to countenance the a priori and to do so in a way that outstrips conceptual analysis or "epistemological analyticity" can be seen in the traditional problem of induction. According to a tempting principle,
One can be justified in believing p on the basis of evidence, q, only if one is independently justified in believing [if p then q].
This has the fairly rapid upshot that, if we are justified in believing things inductively, we must be non-empirically justified in believing contingent propositions. The argument may go wrong, but it must be faced by any honest attempt to live without the a priori or to confine it to the analysis of concepts.

This is the briefest sketch; I have not tried to say why the principle above should tempt us. But let the record state that there is an argument for a priori justification that has nothing to do with analyticity and everything to do with the threat of scepticism.

It is ironic, in this context, that the most baffling experimentalist project – the taking of surveys that elicit folk intuitions about such matters as knowledge, intentional action, and moral responsibility – would have a definite point if the content of our concepts was fixed by the corresponding dispositions, as some conceptual analysts believe. Witness the idiom, "folk concept of ____," as if one could make this theory true by stipulation. If the theory is false, we need some other incentive to care what the surveys say.

One of the reasons commonly given is that when we find that our intuitions are parochial, the beliefs that rest on them are undermined. But we should ask: what justifies that response? Perhaps the view that intuitions are evidence, akin to perceptual appearances. For if things look different to others, whose perceptual mechanisms we have no reason to question apart from the present discrepancy, that should give us pause. The problem is that we need not – should not – think of intuitions in that way. We could think of them, instead, as beliefs that are justified non-empirically, if at all, and not by the "evidence" of intuitive appearances.

Alternatively, the threat of parochiality might rest on a controversial view in the epistemology of disagreement, that we should give as much weight to the opinions of others as to our own unless we have antecedent reason to doubt their reliability. On the contrary, if some of my beliefs are justified a priori, quite apart from evidence, won't that give me reason to doubt the reliability of those who disagree, antecedent to – well, everything.

Again, these arguments may be wrong. But let the record state that inferences from surveys to the application of concepts or the justification of beliefs rely on hidden machinery: theories of concept-possession or epistemology disputed from the armchair, which stand in need of further defence. In its absence, the point of the surveys, however entertaining, is seriously opaque.

There is a final heresy, espoused by some, that is irrefutable by design: the surveys do nothing more, and need do nothing more, than map the cognitive powers by which "the folk" identify something as cause or effect, intentional action, exemption or excuse. There is no call to map them on to more familiar philosophical pursuits, as the strategies above purport to do. They stand on their own.

Still, we can ask for guidance. Why survey these particular questions? Why not study what people believe about just anything, or anything that has been a topic for philosophy: say, the meaning of life? It is no good responding that surveys are apt when philosophical problems are posed by "the basic concepts people use" or that an interest in such concepts is obviously philosophical: part of what is in dispute is how the study of folk beliefs relates to the study of concepts and their conditions of application.

Not everything is philosophy. But the boundaries of the field are controversial; and it would be wrong to refuse publication on grounds that reasonable philosophers dispute. There is, therefore, a standing risk that non-philosophy will be taught and studied as philosophy. This much follows from the proper humility of peer review and a wise refusal to police the borders. The borders should not be policed: these things must work themselves out. That doesn't mean it's philosophy, any more a heap of flesh and bones is a human being.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Sense of an Ending

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
So begins John Berryman's Dream Song 14. His instruction was ignored by Bernard Williams in "The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immorality." His argument, in brief: if one lives sufficiently long, one must either remain the same, and so become hopelessly bored; or become so different that one might as well be someone else. If you want to live forever from self-interest you are out of luck.

One might hope that an argument against immortality would reconcile us to death. But it does not follow from Williams' conclusion – that I should not want to live forever – that I should ever not want to live. Nor that I should want there to be a future time at which I die. For even if I will become so different that self-interest cannot sustain concern for my 'future self,' that is no reason to wish him ill!

In any case, both sides of the dilemma have their flaws. Why should even radical change in my desires, my character, my occupations, destroy identity of the kind that underwrites self-love? And if it does, why should consistency in those matters precipitate boredom?

Not that having final ends is sufficient to prevent it. As Elijah Millgram argues, one can have things to do for their own sakes, even things that matter very much, without being the least bit interested. Along with practical rationality, we have "a kind of intellectual phototropism": "interest and boredom […] are involuntary" and "[their] function is not to stabilize the self" but to push us towards the adoption of new ends.

Part of this seems right: we must distinguish interests – in the colloquial sense – from ends. But it does not explain why we need to be pushed: why it is that ends stagnate or fail to sustain our indefinite engagement. It is oddly circular to argue for the necessity of boredom as a provocation to new pursuits. More economical, surely, to have our interests last forever.

These questions may defeat philosophy. Perhaps this is simply how it is: a matter of psychological fact. But I wonder, with hesitation, if there is not something more to say. Think about the possible objects of interest, among our possible ends. They are, it seems to me, completable, things that can be done but only if one makes it to some final point. Walking aimlessly is pleasant enough, but it cannot be interesting. More exalted aims like doing philosophy, or being happy, or treating others well – they can be sources of much interest, but not in themselves. The interest lies in the projects one undertakes in order to be happy, do philosophy, act decently. Again, this may be mere psychology, if it is true at all. But it may instead reflect the logic of interest, the sort of end by which it can intelligibly be sustained.

That would explain what is so peculiar in Aristotle's picture of the ideal life as one of contemplation, not discovery: not that contemplation must be boring, as my students insist, but that it cannot be interesting in itself.

If interest depends on completable ends, it is inevitably finite. It expires. It must be renewed. This conflicts with a certain philosophical vision – Platonic-Aristotelian – of life as governed by a single inexhaustible end. If everything I do is for the sake of philosophy, still my interest turns on finding problems to solve. If I fail, no good. If I solve them, I need more. To the problem of boredom itself, there can be no permanent solution: no end to the need for difficulties, enterprises, work.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Rest is Silence

Hilarious, inscrutable, disturbing, Melville's Bartleby both tempts and rebuffs interpretation. The basic facts are two: that we do not and cannot know what troubles Bartleby or why he ceases copying; and that the lawyer is a decent man.

In a fashionable reading, obtuseness about these matters is combined. Bartleby is Thoreau in "Civil Disobedience," set against "the numbing world of capitalist profit and alienated labor." The lawyer is a vain and self-deceived protagonist of that world.

Dan McCall's inspiring book demolishes this line.
Bartleby is Thoreau? No, the whole point of Bartleby, the maddening and precious thing about him, is that he is a lost cause. He is inconsolable.
Nor would things be different if the lawyer were an anarchist or a labour organizer. When critics condemn him, they fail to see that they are doing so in his own words: "Here I can cheaply purchase a morsel of delicious self-approval." The lawyer sees through himself: "The truly remarkable thing about [him] is just how reliable he really is." Can we question an observer whose adjectives are so generous and so sincere?
I can see that figure now – pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn.

"I prefer not to," he respectfully and slowly said, and mildly disappeared.
What vanity in the critic not to recognize that by "decoding" Bartleby, he recapitulates the lawyer's "helpless reaching" in the Dead Letter paragraph. And how humourless. Bartleby's demurral is comic, a mild assessment of options – when I compare doing it with not, on balance – not a petulant "don't want to" or an oppositional-defiant "I won't."

To the catalogue of readings refuted by McCall, we may add a few that have tempted me.

Bartleby as Meursault: "one wouldn't be far wrong in seeing ["Bartleby"] as the story of a man who, without any heroic pretensions, agrees to die for the truth." (So Camus wrote of L'Étranger in the Afterword written in 1955.) But Bartleby does not die for anything we can divine. We have no more reason to think he tells the truth because he hates hypocrisy than for any other reason.

Bartleby as furniture: "Nippers would sometimes impatiently rise from his seat, and stooping over his table, spread his arms wide apart, seize the whole desk, and move it, and jerk it, with a grim grinding motion, as if the table were a perverse voluntary agent, intent on thwarting and vexing him"; "Yes, Bartleby, stay there behind your screen, thought I; I shall persecute you no more; you are harmless and noiseless as any of these old chairs". But Bartleby is not inanimate: his will is implacable.

Bartleby as non-rational agent: "the occurrence of other answers to the question 'Why?' besides ones like 'I just did', is essential to the existence of the concept of an intention or voluntary action." (Anscombe's Intention, §20) But Bartleby neither refutes nor confirms this conjecture: we do not know why he prefers not to, nor do we know that there is no reason.

What moral can be drawn from such critical pathologies? For McCall, that confinement in symbols "parochializes literature and limits rather severely its claims on our attention." Worse, it does Bartleby "great violence – it takes his silence away from him." In reading Bartleby, we assault his dignity more severely and more evasively than the lawyer ever does. Unlike most of us, he honestly confronts his task. McCall concludes:
The deepest question in the story is what you do with Bartleby. The deepest answer the story provides is that you can do nothing.