Sunday, March 25, 2007

Putting skepticism in its place

There a nice little post on epistemology by Ken Taylor over at the Philosophy Talk blog. Ken is expressing some misgivings about a kind of epistemology that I tend to share. I don't have much of anything to add to Ken's post. In the video series Donald Davidson: Conversations with Philosophers that I've mentioned before, there is a panel discussion with Davidson, Quine and Strawson. One of the questions that they are asked is what they think the role of the skeptic in philosophy is. None of them think it is a particularly big role. Quine and Davidson respond similarly. Strawson says one of the best things I've heard from him. Roughly: This is one of the few things that I agree with Heidegger on. Kant said that the scandal of philosophy was that no one had proved the existence of the external world and Heidegger said the real scandal of philosophy was that people still tried.

[Edit: John Greco put up a follow up post to Taylor's over at the Philosophy Talk blog. Also, over at Certain Doubts there is an interesting way to take Taylor's post. Finally, Aidan has a good response to Taylor's post in the comments here.]

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Suppose Stephen Colbert read David Lewis...

And, further, suppose he was interested in the philosophy of language. It seems obvious that he would require that for a language to be the language used by a community there'd have to be conventions of truthiness and trust for that language.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Korsgaard on private langauges

In Ch. 4 of Sources of Normativity, Korsgaard gives an interpretation of the private language argument that she thinks supports her conclusion that reasons must be public. There are some questions about what the conception of reasons that Korsgaard is using comes to. I don't want to get into that in this post, although it might be necessary at some point to get clear on how the argument works. The analogy that she relies on is that public/private reasons map onto agent-neutral/agent-relative reasons, in the sense of Smith for example. Her interpretation of Wittgenstein's argument seems to proceed like this. Meaning is normative, that is X means Y is to say one ought to take Y for X. Normativity is relational; it requires two: a "legislator" and a "citizen". Normativity is not causal. It must be possible to be wrong. Private language of the sort Wittgenstein had in mind is inconsistent with the causality condition. The meaning of private languages can’t be normative. Private languages can’t have meaning, since meaning is normative. Private languages aren’t languages at all. That's how the argument seems to run, roughly.

What seems to be doing most of the work in the argument is that normativity requires the possibility of error. But, what is the error relevant for private reasons? Korsgaard would need a premiss about private reasons lining up exactly with whatever actions the agent performs. Additionally, what is the analog of the incommunicability of private language for private reasons? Maybe reasons that are not motivating for anyone else, in principle? Reasons can't be merely linguistic ascriptions, else they'd inherit the publicity from language in general. But, it isn't clear that this is the sort of publicity that Korsgaard wants or needs for reasons. What does the relational aspect of normativity do in the argument? Korsgaard sees the relational condition being satisfied by the thinking self and the acting self of a single agent... as they say in Buffy: grr, argh.

I will probably write up a couple more (coherent) posts on this as I want to figure out what's going on. That and people seem to like discussions of reasons

Blogicus Logico-Philosophicus

I had meant to comment on this article on blogging and philosophy linked to by Leiter Reports a few weeks ago. I'm not surprised that blogs were not universally acclaimed as good for philosophy. I think that blogs are very good for doing philosophy though. There are several blogs that feature good philosophy and interesting philosophical projects. An example of the latter is the Tractatus Blogico-Philosophicus, an ongoing translation and commentary on the Tractatus. One of Leiter's complains with blogs is that they are ephemeral. While blogs often jump between several different subjects during a month's worth of posts, these are often related, although not always. An upshot is that blogs tend to leave comments open, so there can be some sustained and fruitful exchanges. I think the comments threads in many of the blogs in the links list support this thesis. While blog posts tend not to be sustained discussions of a single topic consisting of several thousand words, much like an article, this needn't be seen as a defect. They can serve as a research tool to help one sharpen one's ideas and subject them to some public discussion. That sort of public discussion seems like it would be nothing but good for philosophy. There are some people who think that philosophy is an extended conversation, with various articles and books responding to each other to form a long running exchange. There doesn't seem to be any reason to look at blogs any differently as long as the quality stays relatively high.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Extensional science

A theme in Quine's writing is that proper languages for the austere purposes of science should be extensional. At one point, if memory serves, he says that if propositional attitude predicates must be intensional, so much the worse for them. They aren't needed in a proper science anyway. Similarly for dispositions. They are good shorthand, but they are modal notions, which are intensional, and so disposable in a proper extensional language of science. Where did this idea originate? I don't remember any arguments in Quine to the effect that scientific predicates are extensional. Is this an idea that can be traced back to the Vienna Circle or someone before then? Davidson picks it up and uses it to argue for some analysis of causation [edit: in "Causal Relations."]. Someone (name escapes me and I can't find the articl [edit: Crane and Mellor's "There is No Question of Physicalism."]) responds to Davidson by arguing that causation is actually an intensional notion [edit: and other intensional contexts appear in physics, e.g. probability]. So, why would one think that scientific notions are essentially extensional anyway? If dispositional properties and counterfactuals or other modal notions are involved in scientific theories, then one wouldn't think that scientific theories are extensional. No idea really.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Inference and pragmatics, again

[This post is rather speculative and the waters may get a little choppy. Please be gentle.] It occurred to me that there are some further consequences to the criticism of Brandom that MacFarlane puts forward. In his Locke Lectures "Between Doing and Saying" (BDS), Brandom talks about some of the consequences of inference as a kind of doing. In particular, he highlights the relationship between the conditional and inference, the former saying what one does in the latter. This idea is generalized to a discussion of what expressive tools one needs to be able to say explicitly what is left implicit in practice. This a theme from Making It Explicit (MIE) that sees a formal working through in BDS.

It has been too long since I read either BDS or MIE, and I only read each once through so some (lots) of the details are getting fuzzy. But, the role of score-keeping is toned down in BDS. The emphasis is placed on the deployment of different vocabularies to express what is done in practice. This is tightly connected to inference, but if MacFarlane is right then the inference is not the proper concept to bridge the practice and its semantic expression. That is deontic score-keeping. I don't remember any discussion tying the use of different vocabularies together with deontic score-keeping. That could be an aspect of BDS that needs to be worked out. The role of inference in BDS is a bit different from that of MIE, so MacFarlane's point is not directly applicable. BDS does build on the MIE account though, and inference is the paradigmatic kind of doing in both MIE and BDS. Probably the clearest place at which the semantic role of inference comes into play is when Brandom discusses modal notions and how certain inferences are counterfactually robust.

It seems a little odd that there wasn't any talk (to my memory at least) of the explicitating-explicating (technical Brandomese, left unexplained here; see BDS lectures 1 & 2) role of score-keeping vocabulary, namely commitment and the various kinds of entitlement. I don't think that was mentioned at all, when it is starting to seem to me like it should have been. [edit: I have been corrected in the comments. Brandom does talk about the vocabulary of score-keeping. He says in lecture 4 that it is explicitating-explicating for all vocabularies. That roughly vindicates the intuition behind this paragraph. It also seems to support some of MacFarlane's idea. Tip of my hat to eccecattus for pointing this out.] This could turn into a summer project...

Monday, March 12, 2007

Inference and pragmatics

John MacFarlane's "Pragmatism and Inferentialism" is, in large part, about Brandom's claim that inferring is a kind of doing and how that claim fits into the larger picture of Brandom's project. Brandom also thinks that semantics must answer to pragmatics, that the meaning of a term is its role in a practice. This commitment means that representation can't be one of the semantic primitives since representation is not an action, whereas inference is. Norms and proprieties can be brought to bear on actions and are less naturally brought to bear on states. But, as MacFarlane points out, even if representation isn't an action, asserting is and we can see truth as a norm of assertion. This is not a completely unproblematic response (have there been any in philosophy?), but it is a line that Davidson, who MacFarlane characterizes as a pragmatist in the sense of emphasizing use, takes. Davidson is a pragmatist in this sense since the truth-conditional theories he promotes are tested in the field by how well they allow us to interpret agents as rational beings.

Brandom sees inference as bridging the gap between pragmatics and semantics. The notion of (material and formal) validity supplies proprieties for inferences. MacFarlane asks what makes validity an unproblematic norm where truth fails the test. He give an explicit answer to that question, but he points to analogs of the reasons why truth fails. There are times when evidence supports asserting something that is false and there are times when it is improper to assert something that is true, e.g. due to redundancy or to lack of evidence. Going a bit further, when we look at Brandom's primary semantic notions (incompatibility, entitlement-preservation, commitment-preservation) we find that they do not have anything to do with validity. They are all norms for deontic score-keeping. Deontic score-keeping is what connects use to meaning. (This is really what makes MacFarlane's paper interesting.) The score-keeping is a kind of Davidsonian interpretation, so it looks like this lends some support to someone that wants to be a representationalist, i.e. use truth-conditional semantics, while being a pragmatist. Additionally it leaves it somewhat open what the role of inference in meaning is. Inferential role is how Brandom cashes out meaning, but it is no longer the concept bringing together meaning and use. That concept is score-keeping, and inference shows up there in what inferences the score-keepers are disposed to make, not the ones the asserting agent is disposed to make. Also, it opens the door as to what sorts of use meaning could consist in (if it so consists). The candidates on the table are inference and score-keeping (maybe assertion?), but there is no argument (that I know of) to the effect that this exhausts the possibilities. I don't have anything to offer as a candidate, although it seems like there could be possibilities out there.

Lame excuses

I'm going to resume posting this week. I've been on vacation (woo spring break) and didn't have the stuff I wanted to write about with me. I made a nice little folder full of papers and articles that I wanted to read and write about over break in my fair amount of down time. When I was packing I put the nice little folder next to my backpack while I cleaned out my bag. I packed up my bag and prepped a presentation I had to give the morning that I left. The next day, when I got to the airport, I opened my bag to get out my nice little folder to read some of the papers and discovered that it wasn't there. I expect it will be sitting next to my desk like it was when I was cleaning out my bag. Oh well.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

A few links...

I'm going to put up a few links while I try to work on a few things. First, there is a long, interesting post on the Tractatus over at DuckRabbit that gets connected up to the Sokal hoax. Then, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews has a review of Anil Gupta's Empiricism and Experience. I haven't read Gupta's book but I've been told it is very insightful. The review looks pretty favorable. This week's Philosophy Talk is on Wittgenstein. The guest is Juliet Floyd, and Ken Taylor has a blog post up on why he is not a Wittgensteinian. Finally, for the multilingual reader, I've noticed I've been getting some visitors from a Spanish linguistics blog and what looks to be a computer science blog in a language I'm somewhat embarrassed not to recognize. Maybe Norwegian? [edit: It is in Dutch.] [edit: another Dutch (?) blog that linked to me.] [edit: The link to the linguistics blog has been fixed.]