Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Saying Too Much

There are all sorts of junctures in philosophy and in psychopathological theory when we find ourselves wanting to say too much. To offer reasons when reasons have run out. To offer a theory when what we 'need' to be able to do is instead come to accept the facts as they are - and understand better what stops us from reaching this acceptance and instead leads us to pursue theory. In this post, which I hope to update whenever the chance arises, I want to begin to catalogue some of these ways in which we unwittingly transcend ourselves, and explore some of the reasons why this happens.

1. Feeling unsure, unsafe, anxious, we look for a justification of our point of view, even when our 'point of view' is actually 'bedrock' - i.e. is the kind of everyday common sense which does not offer an account of what we find in our experience, but is itself the articulation of that experience. The 'groundlessness' of our existence is not a metaphysical surprise - since its opposite is strictly speaking unintelligible (recall the myth that the world rests on an elephant, and that rests on a turtle, and after that it's turtles 'all the way down' ('down to where?!' is the operative question!)). Nevertheless when feeling destabilised we seek grounds and certainty. Perhaps we have been taken out of (our) context. What we ought to do in these situations is to wait for things to settle down, for patterns of habit and reason to gradually solidify and emerge around us, to provide workable pathways through the conversational contexts of our everyday lives. Instead we get out a shovel and start digging to to find a mythical super-hard path that is allegedly buried beneath.

2. Relatedly, someone - a sceptic for example - starts to (try to bring into) question our everyday beliefs. Or perhaps they start first of all by characterising certain statements we find ourselves wanting to say in the face of sceptical doubt ('here is one hand') as the expression of beliefs. And feeling on the defensive, we lose confidence in simply sticking with our original assertion, and feel the need to say more. The sceptic has invoked a question-and-answer game which, to be sure, has its rightful place at certain junctures in our lives. And being caught on the back foot, we fail to inquire whether there really is the room for playing that game here, and instead take up the challenge, and try to counter their moves in the usual way. (Imagine: Someone lays out the chess pieces on a board which has (if we only stopped to look) irregular black-white square patterning, or which has too few squares, and insists quite forcefully that we play. And caught up in this we now start to take our inability to now know what to do with our knight as some kind of lacuna in our ability to play chess.)

3. Or we come to this situation of wanting to dig below bedrock, wanting to play a game when there is no space to lay it out, because we have become inwardly alienated from our own lives, and project a mental shadow of our discursive practices back onto them. Let me spell out what I mean. First: The kinds of philosophical situations in which we are 'saying too much' are, here, cases in which we are wrongly inclined to philosophically explain our everyday capacities - to speak a language, to speak our minds, to see where others are coming from. To say what these 'consist in'. Second: Here's an image: I am engaged in a certain kind of pattern play in the world. I can imagine, now, pausing for a moment and recreating this pattern play 'in my mind'. Perhaps I get quite familiar with this mental pattern play, engaging in it without any external support. So familiar, in fact, that I now start to presuppose that any worldly pattern play must, to count as genuinely an intelligent, meaningful, activity, be some kind of outward expression of the inner ersatz. And I embark on a question to find out how the inner pattern play creates what is alleged to be its external correlate. All of a sudden there seems to be a 'how' question that demands to be answered - how do I think, talk, listen, understand, write, grasp. It seems there must be some story to be told about how the intentionality securely possessed by the inner ersatz finds its way into the world of praxical endeavour.

4. The question of whether a response, justification, theory, explanation, is or is not called for in any particular instance is not one which can be settled in advance by reference to a criterion, rule, algorithm. This is a 'standing issue'. I'm thinking here in particular of reasons for actions. Whether or not my having said or done x is something for which a reason, an exculpation, a justification can intelligibly be offered will depend upon the context in which x is done. And no simple dividing line can be given to distinguish between these different context. In fact, given the hermeneutic character of our everyday (non-philosophical) engaged discernment of such contexts, the very acts of everyday sense-making, context-discrimination, etc. cannot be considered purely reflective and descriptive of a first-order domain of contexts of reason provision or abstention. Rather, the discernment itself feeds the unfolding of the practice. Yet, despite this, there remains the possibility of error. However better or worse judgement are to be individuated we do find ourselves, against our better judgement, making mistakes about which context we are in and accordingly with whether an explanation is or is not called for. To err is human.

5. We can want to say too much when we want to connect. I'm thinking in particular of how we can want to say too much about what someone else is saying or doing, when we want to find it intelligible - but it is not. This is a standing difficulty in encounters with people suffering from psychosis, or even in trying to make sense of our own idiosyncrasies or madnesses (psychotic or otherwise). It sounds like it ought to be intelligible. The words in another context may very well be. So we start to import one context after another. But then the next sentence, or sentence fragment, would need a different context for it to be understood. And we just can't reconcile the contexts. (This is how thought falls apart in thought disorder: the background contexts slip and slide. They don't stay still enough for us to find our feet with whatever is said.)

6. We can say too much when we follow the track set by the source of a conceptual metaphor into aspects of the target domain for that metaphor which are not in fact constrained, are not part of, the metaphor. So we presuppose that there will be a greater conceptual determinacy to be found than is in fact the case in the language game in question. Perhaps we get carried away by some spatial metaphors which constitute our discourse around time, and end up just taking it as obvious that 'time travel' is an intelligible possibility. (I don't mean to say that there isn't indeed something we might want to call 'time travel' - only to say that we shouldn't take it as obvious that we understand what is meant by such a term simply on the basis of our application, in temporal contexts, of the notions of before and after, in front and behind, long and short, etc.)

7. We may so utterly take for granted - without thinking about them, without realising their significance - the contexts of intelligibility we inhabit, that we fail to notice when we have abrogated, stepped outside of, their guiding influence. We then take it that the set of concepts operative within such contexts are available for theoretical deployment (for making explanatory theories, or just for everyday sense-making) in contexts which themselves involve a degrading of the structures of intelligibility. I'm thinking in particular here of two mutually reinforcing fallacies operative in psychopathological theory. On the one hand: psychological concepts are imagined to be far more free-standing (non-background-dependent) than they are. We fail to notice the necessity of background regularities for their coherent deployment. On the other hand: psychopathological conditions are treated as if they are puzzles to be made sense of, and the ways in which they themselves involve degrading of contexts of intelligibility is overlooked. Accordingly, the tacitly de-contextualised everyday psychological concepts are deployed in pseudo-explanatory theories, or sense-making endeavours, of psychopathological material.