Sunday, 15 August 2010

but is it rational?

In a recent literature review (forthcoming in Current Opinion in Psychiatry) I criticised the view - which might perhaps be ascribable to Tim Thornton - which equates understanding something with appreciating its rationality. Whilst one of the aims of understanding might be rational comprehension, I argued, what about other such forms - such as making something empathically intelligible, or symbolically (in the psychoanalytic - displaced association - sense) or emblematically (in the phenomenological - ontical emblem of an ontological disturbance - sense) intelligible? Might these not still be available to us - when we are trying to make sense of psychotic delusion - even when the project of rendering a delusion rationally intelligible has given out? Might not the equation of rationality with understanding amount to a prejudice of analytical philosophy, rather exclusively concerned as it is with rational argument; might we not have here a kind of illicit projection of philosophy's own methods back onto its subject matter, and an exclusive if unwitting focus on its own parochial concerns?

Whether or not my critique was apt will turn, I suppose, on a) just what we (are prepared to) mean by 'rational', and on b) whether I was correctly tracking such meaning/s as 'rational' enjoys. What I think I was imagining is that, to call something 'rational' we ought to be able to view it as supportable by reasons - as something which could be justified. But this, surely, is far too strict, for it immediately leaves out all of those claims we make which themselves exemplify, or paradigmatically instance, the rational, for which there is no (need or possibility of a) further justification. Inductive claims, I believe, work like this: Our long-standing experience of social or natural regularities does not stand to our belief that things will carry on as before as its reason or justification. Rather, to expect things to carry on as before just is what counts as 'rational' here: there is no room for a 'because' when we are already at the 'beginning of the language game'. (What I would need a reason for is if I were to maintain that something different was going to happen next time.)

So let's embrace the inductive not, to be sure, as a species of reasoning, but nevertheless as paradigmatically rational. The question remains: do we have grounds for completely equating the rational order with the intelligible order? Well, there are surely cases in which we may find ourselves wanting to use the term 'understanding' in which talk of what is 'rational' comes a little less naturally. Take, for instance, our non-intellectual understanding of a piece of music - how it can just 'make sense to us' that the tune should end like this, and not like that. More closely inviting of the 'rational' appelation are cases of skill learning (e.g. plastering a wall), where my 'getting', 'grasp', 'mastery' or 'understanding' of the requisite technique is not something other (even if not reducible to) my now being able to aim successfully at the goal which the skill itself aims to achieve (e.g. getting the wall plastered). I understand the reason why it is good to work the plaster like this or that, not merely when I intellectually grasp the benefits of doing so, but also when I incorporate the skill into my repertoire which itself has the telos of getting the wall nice and flat. And then too we have the kinds of cases with which, in the actual practice of philosophy, we are all too familiar: coming to understand, as I think we would often want to put it, why someone says what they are saying even though what they are saying isn't rationally defensible ('ah, an understandable mistake!' we say).

What about cases of secondary sense? This is a topic addressed here and here by Tim Thornton. Here are the relevant passages:
Neil Pickering ... criticise[d] a view he ascribed to Richard Gipps that mental illnesses are illnesses merely in secondary sense. His argument certainly helped to make that idea seem a desperate move. I’ll have to remind myself of what the argument for it might be. But one comment he made seems interesting. With the background thought that secondary sense is distinct from metaphor or simile because there are no shared features that justify it, he commented that a secondary extension of the use of a word is under no rational obligation.

That seems right, in the context of the contrast with simile, but less so without a codification of rationality. Isn’t it rational for those with minds like most of us to rebel against the substitution of synonyms in poetry, to treasure the picture of one’s beloved and so forth? I’m not sure. (I’m also not sure because a firm criterion here - ruling those out as instances of rationality - might come back to bite in the context of what following a rule isn’t: ie being gripped by a self-interpreting interpretation of a general rule.)

Richard seems here to be probing the same issue I have become interested in. The appropriateness of the use of words in secondary sense seems to play a constitutive role in individuating experiences such as that the world feels unreal. The experience is the experience it is because of the appropriateness of using this set of words. This is how Wittgenstein describes it (RPPI:§125).
The feeling of the unreality of one’s surroundings. This feeling I have had once, and many have it before the onset of mental illness. Everything seems somehow not real; but not as if one saw things unclear or blurred; everything looks quite as usual. And how do I know that another has felt what I have? Because he uses the same words as I find appropriate.
But why do I choose precisely the word “unreality” to express it? Surely not because of its sound. (A word of very like sound but different meaning would not do.) I choose it because of its meaning.
But I surely did not learn to use the word to mean: a feeling. No; but I learned to use it with a particular meaning and now I use it spontaneously like this. One might say--though it may mislead--: When I have learnt the word in its ordinary meaning, then I choose that meaning as a simile for my feeling. But of course what is in question here is not a simile, not a comparison of the feeling with something else. §126. The fact is simply that I use a word, the bearer of another technique, as the expression of a feeling. I use it in a new way. And wherein consists this new kind of use? Well, one thing is that I say: I have a ‘feeling of unreality’--after I have, of course, learnt the use of the word “feeling” in the ordinary way. Also: the feeling is a state.
But despite the fact that just these words are the right words (I think that ‘right’ is the right word), they are not used in the standard, primary sense. And hence Richard’s twin utter propriety and yet strict meaninglessness.

Now, however, what seems interesting to me is that there seem to be cases where such a spontaneous use is shared. One might reply: I know exactly how you feel. But what of cases where the use is not shared? What happens if one simply cannot do anything with it? In a paper I wrote some years ago I pushed the line that the only criterion we have for secondary sense is such shared reactions. What I meant was that there was no content to the claim that there was any kind of sense to it once that broke down (by the way: I’m not naturally a communitarian Wittgensteinian). Now whilst I do not wish to say that that’s false it seems to be much less interesting. It is a kind of surd fact that we have no reason to call such a case ‘sense’ rather than a fact that might helpfully explain anything else.

But that still leaves the
issue that Neil Pickering raised a year ago: does secondary sense ever impose a rational obligation? Is ‘right’ right?
First, the idea of mental illnesses being illnesses in a 'secondary sense' is owed originally to Champlin. It isn't prima facie obvious that a 'mind' can be ill in the same way that we can be ill in our bodily being. And so perhaps, he suggests, we could think of mental illness as standing to bodily illness like a rhyme for the eye (two lines of poetry looking the same at the end) stands to a rhyme for the ear (two lines of poetry ending with similar sounds). 'Rhyme' and 'ill' are used in a secondary sense in the latter cases to meet certain purposes - in the psychiatric case, for somewhat 'political' purposes to help ease the application of medical (and hence hopefully humane) rather than moral (and hence potentially punitive) approaches to people whose behaviour may be challenging of the social order. (The argument is worth making just to provide a contrast to standard anti-psychiatric polemic. Thomas Szasz now looks, not so much as if he had made a mistake of reasoning but, as if he mainly has a tin ear...)

Next: Tim makes clear one way in which an argument against equating rationality with understandability might start off on the wrong foot: if it started by wrongly assuming that rationality was codifiable, and then urged that certain codifications were lacking in the present instance. But still, I think we can reasonably ask whether anything is being said if our practice of kissing the photo of a departed beloved is described as rational or irrational. It isn't irrational, since it isn't that I kiss the photo because I have mistaken it for her. Yet it is also neither something for which further reasons could be given, nor - I think - exactly a paradigm of what it means to here act rationally. We might want to describe it as a constitutive behaviour of missing and honouring - 'to be so disposed just is what it is to miss and honour her' - and it is certainly a behaviour which can be described as intelligible - but, I submit, we don't have any clear use for talk of 'rational' here.

The quote from Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology was delightful - I never knew, or had completely forgotten, that Wittgenstein himself applied the secondary sense idea to the unreality experience. Tim's remarks on shared and unshared secondary sense reactions are however puzzling. He tells us that he is interested in cases of shared dispositions to use words other than in their primary sense, and that (by contrast with this interest?) the idea - that what makes it the case that a particular non-standard deployment of a term is an instance of secondary sense rather than of mere senselessness is a function of whether a disposition to deploy it thus is shared within the relevant linguistic community - is much less interesting. (But why? I'm not trying to defend a communitarian view of secondary sense, since I suspect that it would be no less dubious than communitarian views of primary sense (and that both originate when we are alienated from our life-with-language, and as a result split it into inner and outer aspects that we then struggle to rejoin).) Then Tim says 'It is a kind of surd fact that we have no reason to call such a case ‘sense’ rather than a fact that might helpfully explain anything else.' I go along with the surdness of the fact (since the idea that it is non-surd seems, as just suggested above, to be born of an alienated stance towards our life-with-language that then seems to beg an explanation of us), but why shouldn't the fact, however surd, itself be deployed in explanations of this or that other matter? (Tim - What is going on here?!)

What I find interesting is what the pressures of thought are that might impel us to a communitarian view of secondary sense. But first, let's return to the question: what makes something a case of secondary sense, rather than just gibberish? What comes to my mind is that the term's deployment is most paradigmatically an instance of secondary sense when it is part of a somewhat structured language-game (shared by however many, as with primary sense discourses). Various inferences may - in the secondary language game - be licensed, inferences which map the structure of some of those in the primary discourse. (So with emotions, feeling 'up' is contrasted with feeling 'down', moods may rise and fall, we can feel 'high' and 'low' too, etc.) The more one-off a use of secondary sense is, the fewer other similar things one wants to say in the conceptual neighbourhood, and the more, er, semantically embarrassing the term's deployment seems to be.

Second, I'd want to suggest that, as with metaphor, users of secondary sense ought to have some awareness that they are doing so. Consider Wittgenstein's derealisation feeling: he finds himself wanting to use the term. We are unlikely to understand him unless we have had a similar experience, part of which experience is the disposition to use the same ('unreal') description. But when someone uses the term fully in the throws of delusionality - when they start to believe that nothing is real - their praxical grasp of the difference between secondary and primary senses breaks down. (That, I believe, is what really constitutes psychosis proper: a disturbance in what is unhelpfully called 'reality testing' which, put better, amounts to an inability to keep apart the orders of i) the metaphorical / symbolical / secondary / imaginary and ii) the real / primary. The failure is not so much one of self-knowledge (i.e. not so much one of knowing what order one is in), but rather of one's experiences or thoughts (however selectively) to themselves sustain relegation to one or the other domain. (Contra Sass, I suggest that such a 'regressive' disturbance is precisely of a piece with hyper-reflexive world-disengaged thought.))

The temptation to communitarianism with primary sense arises when in the grip of a certain picture of language. The theorist starts alienated from their life-with-language (i.e. with the inner and outer aspects of language having come quite apart, with a conception of language as consisting not of living exchanges but of discarnate signs awaiting animation from without), and then asks 'What makes it the case that rule 'xyz' has the extension it does?' Depending on one's metaphysical leanings, the temptation is (as Tim documents in his book) to rejoin the two halves of language by an appeal either to inner acts of interpretation, or to the linguistic behaviour of the community (both of which, as Tim shows, are hopeless strategies). And (as Tim also documents) the real trick is not to cleave our life-with-language in the first place - to view it as animated expressive behaviour through and through.

So: what is it that makes a certain putatively secondary use of a sign a genuine, meaningful, use? Well, what I find myself wanting to say is: why should we take it to be in the predicament of needing to be made meaningful? I suspect that it looks like this if it is being approached from the outside, as a non-participant might approach it; when we wonder whether this is a practice in which we can share, whether it might not just leave us cold, wondering if it is we who are unimaginative or our interlocutors who are self-deluding.

But isn't that precisely, so often in particular in matters aesthetic, precisely our predicament? Well, yes it is, so often. Stanley Cavell makes a similar, related, point about matters psychological - how that which intellectually gets 'deflected' and generalised into an epistemological discourse about scepticism actually (or: so he tells us) begins life as a perfectly unavoidable, natural, existential uncertainty about the inner lives of others. Others can, it just must be admitted, be enigmas to us at times, be frighteningly baffling, impenetrable, suddenly alien. Often enough they are not, and that they are not is the transcendental precondition for the language games of the inner. (Consider too D Z Phillips' claims about what the most profound form of scepticism amounts to (in, but not restricted to, the philosophy of religion): not a denial of the possibility of knowledge, but an expression of a struggle to find one's feet with, to make any sense of, the discourse (e.g. talk about God) in question.)

But note that there are two different concerns here. One is that we share enough by way of our linguistic dispositions to get the (primary or secondary) language game off the ground. This however is not to provide a communitarian answer to the second, and misguided, question 'What makes it the case that 'xyz' means xyz?'' What makes it possible that we can play a particular primary sense language game is - platitudinously (in the same sense in which 'meaning = use' can be taken as platitude rather than as dubious metaphysics) - that we are wired for it. For secondary sense the question is - are we game for letting that semantic organ - our brain - spin playfully out of gear for a time? Are we prepared to submit ourselves to the requisite aesthetic education (as is most strikingly necessary before one can learn to play the language games of psychoanalysis, musical appreciation, wine tasting, and literary criticism)? We move to the misguided question out of anxieties regarding our ability to answer the first question.

I once performed an ad hoc survey of people's dispositions to classify Tuesday or Wednesday as fat or thin. The one reaction I still remember (apart from the anticipated preponderance of fat Wednesdays) was from someone who became quite agitated. 'I don't like things like that' he said, revealing not a blank disengagement or puzzlement, but a powerful defensive hostility which was a function of no other aspect of the social encounter other than the asking of precisely that kind of question. It wasn't its silliness, either, he explained; something about what I was asking him to do made him deeply uneasy.

My tentative theory would be that a willingness to (as it were) play the secondary sense game is of a piece with the ability to play (in Winnicott's sense) simpliciter - to let the mind idle and function symbolically without fear of thereby losing the plot (i.e. the neurotic fear of psychosis). Hannah Segal's paper on the difference between symbolism and the symbolic equation seems to the point here: symbolism involves the ability to take things for other than they are. If we want meaningful lives we must harness forces which also have the possibility of making for psychosis. Symbolic equation, by contrast, means getting stuck with the symbolic relation: not being able to play.

Is play rational? Not: is it rational to play (it may or may not be, depending on the circumstances) but: are the forms of play forms of rationality? I suspect that there is simply no answer to this question. That, if we wanted an answer, we would need to invent one, and add nuance to the language-game of 'rationality' that is not currently there. As with play, so for secondary sense: I can, when I find my feet with someone using a word in a new (playful, secondary) way, find it within myself to say: 'Now I see how to go on like you' even when it would feel excessive to say 'Now I see why you went on thus'.