You are currently browsing the monthly archive for October 2004.

Mind, issue 451

The world’s most venerable journal of analytic philosophy, the last issue of Mind was devoted to various themes from Aristotle: kudos to David Wiggins for making the argument that “neo-Aristotelian” views might be a bit verfremdet from the standpoint of Anglo-American idealists and to Peter Millican for a thoroughly clear and inventive essay on Anselm’s “prime mover”.

Martin Heidegger, Off The Beaten Track

However one feels about Heidegger’s involvement with the Nazi party, this is a lovely precis of his later thought not particularly given to the boot-stamping cadences of the Rectoral address and other works from the 1930s. Rather, we are treated to longish works (proper essays compared to the rest of the Heideggerian corpus) on art, modernity, Hegel, Nietzsche, poetry and antiquity: all written in a relatively limpid prose designed to highlight the extent to which Heidegger’s attitude was naturally modern, rather than neo-Scholastic. My favorite essays are those on Hegel and Nietzsche: I once remarked that Heidegger does Hegel right, and the essay on Nietzsche offers that thinker a place outside Heidegger’s central ontological concerns (on the psychological trajectory between Hume and James, offering an interesting counterpoint to his use in post-Hegelian philosophy).

6th (Lord’s day).  Dressed and had my head combed by my little girle, to whom I confess ‘que je sum demasiado kind, nuper ponendo mes mains in su des choses de son breast, mais il faut que je’ leave it lest it bring me to ‘alcun major inconvenience’.  So to my business in my chamber, look over and settling more of my papers than I could the two last days I have spent about them.  In the evening, it raining hard, down to Woolwich, where after some little talk to bed. 
Pepys, 1665

There is a dichotomy those who study practical reasoning argue about, between reasons as causes for a person’s action and motives as causes.  In this note I would like to suggest that an argument advanced in favor of the former is wrongheaded, for incorporating the concept of “directions of fit”. These notions of “world-to-word” and “world-to-word” directions of fit (originating with Hegel, although rarely attributed to him) attempt to capture the dimension of agency which has our actions effect changes in the world according to a pre-set plan, rather than treating them as reflexive responses to an objectively determined environment.  But this distinction is misleading, for the reason that the latter set of circumstances has entirely fewer social determinants than the former: there are many, many proprieties governing what it is we say and don’t say about the world, but really very few concerning the sort of plans it is possible or desirable for an acting person to make. 

Instead, what in truth governs the class of plans are regularities of the sort observed in nature: regularities in knowledge, for it is not possible to formulate a plan using words we do not know and not desirable to formulate a plan concerning realities we do not know to obtain, but otherwise feasible that a person’s doings fall under the category of “actions” as outlined by action theorists (permitting of multiple descriptions, alternatives, rational linkages).  For this reason a person’s practical reasoning is partially hypothetical, in that while performing the action it is not entirely clear which description will best fit it, and meaningfully so in the case of strategic action (where the task is, most nearly, to determine which of the possible rationalizations is the best reason for acting at the present time tout court

Pepys’ pidgin makes it clear that such reasoning need not occur in the literary language of a country (obviating a number of linguistic issues the presentation of which is shaped by the need to be fully accountable for through mutual agreement), but also that the actions we describe are in serious danger of failing to be “adequate to their idea” rather than incorrectly logged: Pepys leaves it perilously close to being the case that his friend is not “demasiado kind”, and his diaries, as well as Boswell’s Life of Johnson, show us that the vicissitudes of agency are no less perplexing for the esteemed.  The adventuring that agency requires of us, the ability to reshape our worldly doings to fit a template itself reshaped by the popular argot of the times: perhaps this is a way of saying that no topic could be as multiform, in theory and in practice.

A quick apercu (!) regarding the utility of the concept “schizophrenia” as a medically ascertainable illness. The use of this notion in clinical treatment is very much in flux, as the Freudian origins of the binding DSM-IV definition are undermined by the more recent neuropsychological theories used to justify contemporary clinical practice — such that a contemporary schizophrenia diagnosis cuts across a wide variety of symptom profiles: patients hearing voices and patients with delusions fall alike under the current etiology for schizophrenia (as opposed to bipolar depression and other schizoid illnesses). So what, if anything, serves as the legitimate basis for the consensus regarding schizophrenia’s origins and its treatment?  I would like to suggest that, surprisingly, a social-psychological observation regarding the behavior and life histories of schizophrenics contains the germ of what post-Freudian psychiatry treats as that mental illness. 

As remarked above, those diagnosed with schizophrenia today present remarkably multiform symptoms: compelling hallucinations and delusions of victimization grandeur cannot be counted upon as typical of the person undergoing treatment.  What is also remarkable, however, is the extent to which schizophrenics demonstrate a deficiency with respect to problems of social choice: anti-social behavior instrumentally non-conducive to the patient’s advancement in life is a relative constant, both cumulatively and in the average interaction.  What is the schizophrenic flubbing that non-schizophrenics have relatively little difficulty with?  I would like to suggest that the difficulty is best isolated by considering the distinction between “formal” and “material” aspects of discourse, in its modern variety the mathematical definition. 

Much of modern life resembles mathematics in its formal or “as-if” character: the substantive character of the topoi at issue in a social interaction are far less important than their ordering and articulation. Given the sometimes-exquisite delicacy of such tasks, I would like to propose this hypothesis: what is characteristic of the schizophrenia patient is an inability to systematically reason without reference to countervailing factors, an excessive reliance on “thick description” not solely in terms of cultural significance, but also as an excessive focus on the heuristics (rules of thumb) which might be applied.  The “heuristic hypothesis” means schizophrenics reason ineffectively, not randomly: they are excessively interested in “learning how to learn”, and inattentive to the niceties necessary for thought and communication to proceed quickly and thoroughly even in the most socially basic of interactions.  

In other words, schizophrenics demonstrate a lack of facility with such concepts as are employed in complete definitions, “from scratch”, rather than inductively defined concepts such as are employed in “folk psychology” about thought and language. An explanatory test for the hypothesis: if schizoid illnesses are de-linked from the concept of “bizarre” (Schreberian) delusion, as much contemporary clinical practice does, do schizophrenics manage (in court appearances) to meet the reasonable-person standards necessary for competency to stand trial and the inadmissibility of the insanity defense yet continue to exhibit the patterns of failure to advance in society and economy that have traditionally characterized schizophrenic illness (even nascent illness)?  

If so, perhaps schizophrenics are “reasonable” in attending to the Freudian proprieties of reasoning about the world (employing the conceptual pairings plausibility/implausibility, normality/abnormality) without meeting certain clear standards of effectiveness, this perhaps even with an ascertainable neurophysiological basis.  If mainstreaming schizoid patients is a task to be undertaken in part by ordinary people, it seems that information pertaining to such deficits in properly formal reasoning, the inclusion or exclusion of concerns “for the sake of the argument”,  would be a welcome addition to cognitive-science research.

A comment on the nature of political power: in the main, all discussion of the topic seems somehow ludicrous, but perhaps there is a guiding thread in all such commentary as is offered outside the fold of party politics.  Perhaps the defining characteristic of political power is its having to do with nonpolitical energies *already spent*, cultural-practical forces outside the material shaping of class and country — which are no longer, but exert a controlling influence on those considerations which can comfortably be hived off as “technical”, the issues upon which political personages meet in conflict.  That is to say, the inexistence of the wellsprings of political power is well-nigh literal and cause for consideration of what is at stake in political conflict: perhaps it is nothing less than the decision to be quits with an issue as contemporary, or to allow a complex of pragmata and its ordering to continue to exert a constitutive effect upon the space of our life. 

What does such a sign and its symptomatology suggest for the role of political power in society?  That it itself is far from constitutive, so far as to suggest that careful attention to all the disjecta membra of everyday life is a prerequisite for an informed perspective on politics.  In other words, the “objective” analysis of politics suggests that a concern with “social facts” is far from lazy — rather, such *realites* are the coin of rational political discussion insofar as it permits of constructive resolution between adversaries. Only concrete examination of the situation facing us in society today can avoid the dangers of extremist political or anti-political movements, such as perenially threaten to capture “the spirit of the age” among the disenfranchised; and the undesirability of such, the eclipse of progress in the name of a extrapolitical order attended to by the same hands, is certainly no issue.