Friday, 29 February 2008

Making up the Mind 10: Sharing Minds

Chapter 7 of Chris Frith's latest book Making up the Mind: How the brain creates our mental world starts with a consideration of 'The Problem of Translation'. The hoary problem of other minds threatens to rear its ugly head almost immediately. That problem, to recap for the non-philosophers, is the epistemological difficulty one arrives at if one starts from the metaphysical supposition that (Frith, p. 163) "each mind is a private place" accessible only to the person to whom it belongs. How then can we ever know what is going on in the minds of others? Even if they tell us, how would we know that their words meant the same as ours? And so on. (The answer - or better, the way to dissolve rather than solve the problem - as has been sketched out now countless times by the existential phenomenologists and Wittgensteinians, but perhaps most clearly by Anita Avramides, is that 'the mind' is not 'a private place', and that we can directly see or hear the thoughts and intentions avowed in one another's discourse, or the sensations and feelings expressed directly in our vital expressions, as these occur in their natural contexts.)

In line with the traditional epistemological problem (but with apparent unawareness of its several proposed dissolutions), Frith opines (p. 165):

I have in my mind some idea I want to communicate with you. I do this by turning my meaning into spoken words. You hear my words and turn them back into an idea in your mind. But how can you ever know that the idea in your mind is the same as the idea in my mind? There is no way you can get into my mind and compare the ideas directly. Communication is impossible. ... And yet even at this moment we are having this vigorous interchange about the problem of meaning. Our brains have solved this impossible problem about communication.

The answer to this putative problem emerges over the next few pages: We, or rather our brains, make 'guesses' or 'prejudge' what is in people's minds. We, or rather our brains (the two are used fairly interchangably in the text), make a guess, then make a prediction about what will come next if our guess is right, and then refine our guesses according to such guesses. The problem of course is that (p. 168) 'I predict what you are going to do on the basis of what I would do if I were in the same situation. So if you are different from me, my prediction may be wrong.'

Let's pause and take stock. First the extraordinary phenomenology of what it is to speak meaningfully must be noted. For the truth, obvious as soon as we stop for even a second to consider it, is that when I want to tell you something, I precisely don't have to 'convert a (wordless?) idea in my mind into words', 'transmit' these to you. Nor do you have to then 'decode' them, through guessing, back into their original ideational form. Nothing in my experience suggests to me that I have wordless ideas. Nothing in my experience provides evidence of a translating process. This just appears to be the old empiricist 'theory of ideas' in cognitive neuroscientific garb.

Second, what evidence is there that either we or the brain is involved in making predictions as to what someone will do next? The entire discussion makes it seem as if we must posit unconscious or preconscious processes of guessing, Bayesian probabilistic reasoning going on in the brain, etc. What this (mereologically fallacious) idea overlooks is that there is no more reason to suppose that the brain is involved in such 'reasoning' than there is to suppose that, say, a falling body is busy unconsciously calculating where it should next move, according to the laws proposed by Newton or Einstein, before it moves there. As disengaged scientists we may be in the business of making predictions. As engaged cognisers, we simply have a range of expectations (not predictions!) about what people will say, expectations which are phenomenologically manifest only in terms of an absence of surprise when what happens is what is expected. When what is expected doesn't happen, then perhaps some reasoning is required of us. But to go round making predictions about what our friends do and mean would be not simply unnecessary, but also somewhat, well, rude.

Why has Frith become embroiled in this epistemological problematic? The obvious answer is that he seems to take it that what is proximally available in experience is not the actions of the other, but rather only their movements - or, not what the other says, but rather only certain word sounds. Because of this, we are forced to guess as to the underlying intentions which cause these movements or talking. Hence (on p. 166) the putative problem of discerning the meaning of movements or talk is described as akin to an engineering problem. This is what is called the inverse problem, which is the question as to what are the causal forces that must have been applied to an object such as a mechanical arm in order for it reach a desired location. (i.e. it is the inverse of the forward problem - which is the question as to where (e.g.) an arm will go given the forces we know are to be applied to it). The conflation of the intentional and the causal orders is complete.

Here, then, is how the conceptual confusions endemic within the picture of the mind on offer create the epistemological pseudo-problematic driving the supposedly empirical problem of how we understand one another. First we must imagine that we are fundamentally estranged from ourselves. As such, as a kind of inner homunculus, if I wish to act or speak then I must convert the meanings in my own private mind space into actions or words, and I do this by causally impacting on my own body. Intentions then become inner causes of actions. Naturally, since this conception of mind is to govern not just my own case but that of the others who I encounter, I must engage in a similar decoding process in order to reach even a semblance of understanding them. Accordingly I unconsciously reason my way from surface body movements to the underlying inner causes, making best guesses and eliminating hypotheses that aren't confirmed by later observations. Or perhaps it is my brain that does this reasoning for me - the mereologically fallacious attribution of psychological functions to the brain supporting the naturalistic story about the need for the brain to solve what are essentially psychological or epistemological problems for us.

That the same estranged conception of our relation to the world is also at work in Frith's conception of our relations to one another is evident from the following (p. 170):

Remember, there is nothing special about the problem of minds. When I look at a tree in the garden, I don't have the tree in my mind. What I have in my mind is a model (or representation) of the tree constructed by my brain. This model is built up through a series of guesses and predictions. In the same way, when I am trying to tell you something, I can't have your idea in my mind, but my brain, again through guesses and predictions, can construct a model (a representation) of your idea in my mind. Now I have two things in my mind: (1) my idea and (2) my model of your idea. I can compare them directly. If they are similar, then I have probably communicated my idea to you successfully. If they are different, then I certainly haven't.

By this stage in the book Frith is not even attempting to supply empirical evidence for his principal assertions (the scientific evidence is given in the rather nice appendix called 'The Evidence', pp. 212-215). We are told some interesting facts such as the following: Children as young as three years have formed expectations about the kinds of toys boys and girls will, respectively, play with. That people who are presented with words associated with old age in a psychology experiment will tend to leave the building more slowly afterwards. (This is evidence of the 'contagious' quality of other people's states of mind.) That mothers speaking 'motherese' to their children accentuate the differences in the sounds of vowels far more than when speaking in a similarly high-pitched and babyish way to their pets. That gorillas have a special way of folding nettles so that they don't get stung in the mouth when they eat them - and that young gorillas can learn this trick by observing the adults. That autism and paranoid schizophrenia are in a sense opposites and in a sense very similar: in the first meaning is seen nowhere, in the latter everywhere; yet both result in experiencing a world not shared by others. None of these substantiate the underlying framework idea, the idea that our brains construct and reconstruct models for us of the minds of others. It is not even clear what evidence could substantiate this.

Here is how the book ends (excepting the Epilogue): (p. 183):

By making models of the minds of others (in the same way that it makes models of the physical world), my brain enables me to enter a shared mental world. By sharing my mental world with others, I can also learn from their experiences and adopt the models of others that are better than my own. From this process, truth and progress can emerge, but so can deception and mass delusions.

This comes just after a description of the Jonestown massacre and the delusional beliefs of Jim Jones. But in what way has Frith really explained how this sharing of true and false ideas is possible? All we have been told are the ubsubstantiated claims that the brain makes 'models' or 'representations', that it makes 'predictions'. Along with the supposition that we are somehow located on the receiving end of these. Yet when we think about it, it becomes unclear what there really is that needs explaining. If we were in the perilous epistemological predicament that Frith implies - having to inspect mere behaviour and make inferences, create models or representations, and so on - then we would need all the help from a 'mereologically' boosted brain that we could get. And more, as it happens, since within this framework it would be entirely unclear (as Wittgenstein argued) that we could ever really comprehend what it would even be for someone else to have an idea, and certainly unclear what would license the belief that it is the possession of particular ideas by others which putatively causes the movements of their bodies. Put aside the hoary problem of other minds and the conceptual confusions implicit within it, and we emerge once again out in the open. Now we can understand our friends without having to make models of their putative inner goings on. Their meanings, feelings, and states of mind are once again immanent within their gestures which themselves are no longer mere movements but are rather replete with living intentionality. And we too are no longer on the receiving end of messages from our brains, but are rather active agents in the world which we directly perceive, our understanding of which and of the fellow inhabitants of which is constituted by the embodied dispositions and expectations causally inscribed on our brain through our years of interactive experience.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Phony Forms of Wonder

wonder woman
Ludwig WittgensteinRichard Dawkins
Not How the World is, but That it is,
is the Mystical

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.44.

There are two reactions to the world which to my mind are poor substitutes for an experience I want to hive off as 'genuine wonder'. The terms (what we decide to call 'wonder') don't matter; what matters are the distinctions between the reactions. And such distinctions really do matter because different personal reactions constitute the motivational and meaningful structure of diverse human activities, forms of life, and character traits - such as profound humility and respect, scientific inquiry and discipline, worshipfulness, and self-deluding mystery-mongering and sentimental pseudo-spirituality. Conflating these causes much misunderstanding, failures of acknowledgement, and cultural debasement. One of the ways in which the two forms of 'pseudo wonder' can be separated from 'genuine wonder' is through their proclivity to induce in us the felt need for explanation: for an explanation of how the world is the way it is, rather than, instead of an explanation, an awed acknowledgement that it is. I'll be tracking this and related distinctions in what follows.

Type One

Here is one experience I often have, an experience that I think can easily lead to superstitious forms of religion if it isn't adequately interrogated and checked. Perhaps I am in a somewhat alienated state of mind when I have it. I am cutting a bit of wood to size for the wardrobe I am making; it suddenly occurs to me when I start to reflect: Isn't it a bit of luck that I live on a planet where trees exist, where wood can be cut from them, where it lasts when stored, that it has the requisite structural properties, and so on! What are the chances of that?!

Or perhaps I think: Isn't it just amazing that the earth is just the right distance from the sun so that we don't all burn up?! Or: Isn't it a miracle that the water on the planet does not all evaporate away?! The thoughts tend to be of the form: My word, if things had been just a little bit different than they are, then my life would have been pretty damn impossible!

Now I don't want to deny that there may be a genuine thought or feeling or reaction which is getting badly expressed and perhaps contorted into a merely mystery-mongering form here; I'll return to this possibility below. But I do want to expose the form of the tacit fallacy which, it seems to me, is principally what guides their articulation and, I suspect, much of their very occurrence. And here an appreciation of the fact that the thoughts occur in a somewhat alienated, but also a somewhat narcissistic, state of mind is I think important.

The fallacy is as follows: If I tacitly start from a (narcissistic) position of my own existence taken as a given then, when I step out of my ongoing being-in-the-world for a moment, it can start to seem that the fact that the world around me just so incredibly slots into place will seem like an extraordinary coincidence. (It may be that this experience is restricted to people, such as myself, who live in comfortable freedom from war and famine.) The state I am thinking of as self-regarding may in certain ways even be extended to include the rest of humanity, or even all living things. In such cases I think: It is incredible that our Sun is such as to support our life, that the planet is the right distance from it. What are the chances of that? It may seem a bit daft to call an identification with the whole of life 'narcissistic'. But what I have in mind is just the tacit prior decision to take myself, or people, or life, as the fulcrum, the still point, around which everything else must turn, against which everything else can be measured. (This issue, or a closely related one, has been discussed in terms of the 'anthropic principle').

Leave this 'phony sense of wonder' uninterrogated and it can seem to us that we are in need of a pretty damn good explanation as to how things can be set up so nicely for us. Perhaps we feel a deistic need to invoke a creator god who, with our best interests at heart, set things up so nicely for us.

But it seems to me that, ironically, such forms of 'religious' belief are really grounded in a profound narcissism. For a condition of their (apparent) possibility is our taking ourselves as that around which everything else should turn. Furthermore, their root in an unhelpful state of alienation can be seen from the fact that we do not seem to be counting ourselves just as a contingent part of the universe, but rather as something set apart from the rest. One way of describing this is that we have started to view ourselves as externally rather than internally related to the world.

If we reverse the picture, and see ourselves as a contingent part of the universe, then the fact that there is only a 1 in a billion (or what-have-you) chance that the universe is 'set up right' (! - note the narcissism inherent in the very language: right for us is the tacit implicitur) will seem no more astonishing than that there is similarly only a 1 in a billion chance that some other configuration of things obtained. What would be the chances, we could say, that this particular configuration of non-life-supporting world arises in which material objects can become no larger than footballs? How extraordinary - such a tiny probability must demand from us some deistic explanation! And so on.

In trying to articulate the form of the intellectual disingenuity underlying this particular phony form of wonder, I find myself thinking of Wittgenstein's talk of 'fitting' in his discussions regarding the relation between an intentional state (my desire for an icecream) and the conditions which satisfy it (my being presented with one): Philosophical Grammar, p. 134:

It seems as if the expectation and the fact satisfying the expectation fitted together somehow. Now one would like to describe an expectation and a fact which fit together, so as to see what this agreement consists in. Here one thinks at once of the fitting of a solid into a corresponding hollow. But when one wants to describe these two one sees that, to the extent that they fit, a single description holds for both. (On the other hand compare the meaning of: "These trousers don't go with this jacket"!)

If we imagine that the desire and its conditions of satisfaction are externally related, then we start to think that there must be something which explains how they fit together. Just as, for example, we might think there must be something which explains just how this wooden shape fits so very nicely through this hole in this children's toy (for example, we realise that the two were made by someone for each other). On the other hand, if we see the desire and its satisfaction as internally related, then we realise that any sense of astonishment or apparent need for explanation is a function of a confusion which would be akin to that manifest in drawing a circle on a white page with a black pen, and then asking how it can be and just what are the chances that the white disk fits so very nicely into the black outline.

It is not the case, then, that the universe is set up ever so nicely for us. Rather, we are a function of it. If it weren't as it is, then we wouldn't be here to ask our misguided questions; and that is the end of the story. Properly handled, evolutionary theory can help us, here, to (sometimes painfully) overcome this particular manifestation of our narcissism. Any 'faith' which is erected on such narcissistic foundations is surely a poor thing indeed, the amazingness of the deus ex machina simply being a deferred function of the putative amazingness that we have, ab initio and sine causa, presupposed to characterise our own existences.

Type Two

A similar confusion, which involves an impoverished version of 'wonder', is I believe often present in works of popular science. The authors in question may certainly have overcome any of the superstitious tendencies of type one mystery mongering. Nevertheless they consistently confuse a kind of amazed bafflement about how the world works for the kind of mystery which manifests in, for example, Wittgenstein's wonder that the world exists.

(Heidegger's discussion of how the Greek concept of wonder degenerated into curiosity in Basic Questions of Philosophy deals with what is surely a closely related concern. Consider the following, for example (p. 135):

It has long been known that the Greeks recognized thaumazein as the “beginning” of philosophy. But it is just as certain that we have taken this thaumazein to be obvious and ordinary, something that can be accomplished without difficulty and can even be clarified without further reflection.For the most part, the usual presentations of the origin of philosophy out of thaumazein result in the opinion that philosophy arises from curiosity. This is a weak and pitiful determination of origin, possible only where there has never been any reflection on what is supposed to be determined here in its origin.

I have just found an excellent treatment of this Heideggarian theme by the philosopher Brad Elliot in his paper Curiosity as the Thief of Wonder: An Essay on Heidegger's Critique of the Ordinary Conception of Time. Another super work, by the way, is Gerald Bearn's Waking to Wonder: Wittgenstein's Existential Investigations.)

Richard Dawkins is, I believe, a good example of a writer with this tendency. Dawkins is excellent at selling us the marvels of science, and excellent too, I believe, at providing lucid and imaginative expositions of evolutionary theory. But, especially in his critique of religion, he always seems to me to read wonder along the 'wonder how' rather than 'wonder that' lines. (I ought to say immediately that I do not have a 100% convincing textual argument for this, and so would encourage the reader to take a sceptical stance towards what I'm writing. Nevertheless,) Dawkins' reasoning often seems to be that science can indeed solve mysteries, and that in the process it usually uncovers greater mysteries (so we don't need to be worried - as, supposedly, were Keats and Blake, for example - that science may diminish our sense of the mystery of things).

I have no doubt that scientific discovery does indeed sometimes proceed in the glowing way Dawkins describes (at other times it is surely just, well, rather boring). But consider the following from his essay/talk Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder:

I think that the appetite for mystery, the enthusiasm for that which we do not understand, is healthy and to be fostered. It is the same appetite which drives the best of true science, and it is an appetite which true science is best qualified to satisfy.
There is an appetite for wonder, and isn't true science well qualified to feed it?
It's often said that people 'need' something more in their lives than just the material world. There is a gap that must be filled. People need to feel a sense of purpose. Well, not a BAD purpose would be to find out what is already here, in the material world, before concluding that you need something more. How much more do you want? Just study what is, and you'll find that it already is far more uplifting than anything you could imagine needing.

Now if and when the mystery in question is something for which we have an appetite, it very well may be something which science can satisfy - satisfy at least as successfully as (what Dawkins is also talking about here) pursuing an interest in the paranormal. But what about the non-appetitive wonder which can sometimes overtake us, and which gets expressed in peculiar aphorisms such as Wittgenstein's (that the world exists, not how it exists), or which may lie behind questions such as 'why is there something rather than nothing?'. (Furthermore, it isn't clear to me what such a sense of mystery has to do with our requiring a 'sense of purpose'. That latter sense, along with the related 'need for meaning', may well have more to do with how we manage our narcissistic injuries than with any capacity to put aside our self-concern and simply marvel at the suchness of things. (Didn't Job come to a surer faith, not when he finally understood the putative purpose of his many plagues and disasters, but when he undid his transference neurosis to God and came to a new form of relationship with Him not modelled on the doer / done-to schema?))

This 'genuine' sense of wonder is, I believe, something which easily gets covered over in practice, poorly articulated into questions and expressions which speak more to our need to feel some sense of cognitive mastery over something which currently exceeds our cognitive grasp, and becomes quite mangled in the process. There is, I myself believe, a sense of wonder which is not only expressed in our amazement that the world exists, but also in our awe at the simple facts of (for example) consciousness, comprehension, life, substantiality, sound, light, and fellow-feeling. Such a sense indexes, I believe, and amongst other things, the fact that certain kinds of explanations come to an end in the face of these phenomena. This is not to say that they may not be causally explained, nor that we may not investigate them scientifically. But when it comes to saying what they essentially are, when it comes to our ontological investigations, we need to recognise that 'our spade is turned'. We need to learn to feel and hear the distinctive sound our spade makes when it hits against this particular ontological foundation stone. Such stones are not to be articulated in terms of some putatively more readily understood phenomenon, but appreciated as the sui generis phenomena that they are. Part of our wonder here is a sense of our acknowledgement of the fact that we cannot master such phenomena mentally. To use a distinction owed to Jean Piaget, we must ourselves accommodate to these phenomena, rather than assimilate them according to some other schema of understanding. In practice, however, the sense of wonder often gets worked over into the kind of mystery that Dawkins describes - an acquisitive desire to penetrate or assimilate, to develop or discover a measure up against which they can be held.

I want to make it clear that I have nothing against the development of such measures or against the noble scientific impulse. To the extent that science can penetrate mysteries, then good luck to it. To the extent however that the scientific sensibility becomes the sensibility - to the extent that all forms of mystery are subtly, casually, without even thinking about it, turned into wondering how rather than that - and a form of relating to the universe is thereby subtly shut off to us - to this extent, in such contexts only, is the scientific temperament is to be resisted.

Finally, a ridiculously short note on religion. There are those who would sympathetically interpret 'true' religion just as that mode of appreciation and wonder that I have been describing. To my mind what gets called religion is, however, in so many ways, shot through with superstition and with those 'phony' forms of wonder which, as I described above, stem ultimately more from our own narcissism than from a humility before the facts of life. My sympathies frequently change, but at the time of writing I must acknowledge that to decide to hold up religious discourse and religious impulse as the form of our recognition or articulation of genuine wonder would at the very least necessitate a whole program of apologetics and hermeneutics (directed at religious texts) which may detract, rather than better clear a place for, our sense of wonder that the world is. Rather than spend time undoing superstitious or narcissitic readings of religious texts, readings that I believe do frequently come not at all unnaturally, our time may be better spent articulating the form of, confessing our moments of, and teasing apart the phony distant cousins from the real phenomenon of, genuine wonder.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Making up the Mind 9: How Brains Model Minds

To recap, I'm making my way philosophically through Chris Frith's Making up the Mind. Chapter 6 starts by presenting us with an interesting discussion of our ability to discern the characteristics of moving people even on the basis of very little information. We are referred to the fascinating website BioMotionLab for some fun interactive examples of this. Frith also discusses the tiny cues (millimetre eye movements) we use to take 'the first step into someone else's mental world.' We are also treated to what is rare in the neuropsychological literature - an epistemologically-non-overblown description of the nature of mirror neurones. Our natural inclination to 'read' movements as goal-oriented actions is lucidly described. Even in a description of the experience of pain, Frith mentions with admirable honesty that he finds it hard to understand Wittgenstein's critique of traditional mentalist conceptions of the putative 'privacy' of subjective experience but, beyond some fairly unproblematic (i.e. easy to back-translate into a more phenomenologically acceptable idiom) lapses into talk of 'the privacy of experience' and the 'construction of mental models' etc., the text is conceptually clean. It is almost as though a philosophical critic has gone through the text and purged it of all the entifying, homuncular, and mereological fallacies that, as I have noted in previous blogs, bedevil previous chapters.

The difficulties soon crop up, however, when the discussion turns to the difficult problem of (pp. 151ff.) 'The Experience of Agency'. This putatively 'ubiquitous' and resolutely 'private' experience is

The experience of being in control, of deciding to do something and then doing it. Of being in control of [or, as Frith later suggests, perhaps simply having the feeling that one is in control of] our destiny. We are all agents. But there is much more to our sense of agency than performing actions to achieve goals. We make choices. We decide which goals to aim for. We decide when to perform actions. We are not just agents. We are free agents. At least for the small things in life, we all belive that we are in control and can cause things to happen. My hand is resting on the table and I am staring at my finger, waiting for it to move. Nothing happens. And yet, whenever I want to, I can lift my finger. This is the mystery of mind over matter: the way thought can make things happen in the physical world.

Now, first, this seems like a somewhat phenomenologically gauche description of agency. For what evidence is there that there is any experience characteristically associated with my agential acts? I can myself find none in my experience. Or rather, I can perhaps locate an experience of trying hard to perform some act. (Similarly, on occasion I find myself having to make decisions before I freely act; most of the time, however, my action does not require such prior deliberation.) But this feeling is notable by its occasionality: most of the time I do not find myself having to try; or to the extent that we wish with Jennifer Hornsby to make room for a broader notion of 'trying' (I myself don't so wish), the trying is not at least something which is experienced as such. (Cf. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 622, "When I raise my arm I do not usually try to raise it".)

Take the interesting experience of staring at our finger in a state of alienation and waiting haplessly for it to move. In this peculiar mental state we can even find ourselves willing our finger to move, only finding it still stubbornly residing there. It is precisely when we are in this frame of mind that we start to imagine - as Frith himself seems to imagine - that agency is characterised by inner acts of willing, acts which then cause things (such as bodily movements) to happen. But surely what this mini-phenomenological-experiment teaches us is that everyday agency has little to do with trying or willing or inner causation. What I need to do is to move my finger, where this is not to be characterised as my doing something mental in order to cause a bodily movement, but rather as my straightforwardly doing the bodily movement itself. 'Motility is not the handmaiden of consciousness', as Merleau-Ponty notes. Or, as Schopenhauer wrote in The World as Will and Representation, vol 2, p. 36: "We do not by any means recognize the real, immediate act of will as something different from the action of the body, and the two connected by the bond of causality; both are one and indivisible. Between them is no succession; they are simultaneous."

In terms of the previously described unholy trinity (the homuncular, entifying, and mereological fallacies), the 'inner causation' story is surely homuncular. Take the following passage, cited by Frith (also in his and Sarah Jane Blakemore's paper Self-Awareness and Action) from Ian McEwan's super novel Atonement.

She raised one hand and flexed its fingers and wondered, as she had sometimes before, how this thing,this machine for gripping, this fleshy spider on the end of her arm, came to be hers, entirely at her command. Or did it have some little life of its own? She bent her finger and straightened it. The mystery was in the instance before it moved, the dividing moment between not moving and moving, when her intention took effect. It was like a wave breaking. If she could only find herself at the crest, she thought, she might find the secret of herself, that part of her that was really in charge. She brought her forefinger closer to her face and stared at it, urging it to move. It remained still because she was pretending, she was not entirely serious, and because willing it to move, or being about to move it, was not the same as actually moving it. And when she did crook it finally, the action seemed to start in the finger itself, not in some part of her mind. When did it know to move, when did she know to move it?

Now Frith's use of this literary passage is entitled 'It isn't just scientists who wonder how we can control our actions'. And that's fine. But, in keeping with the blankly empirical character of his text, no mention is made of the extraordinary state of mind, Befindlichkeit, or what Matthew Ratcliffe calls the 'feeling of being' in which, or which frame, the question being posed. And it is surely not unreasonable to suppose that not only is the characterisation of Briony's state of mind (rather than the content of her thoughts) the real purpose of McEwan's text, but also that this state is what provides the conditions of (perhaps merely apparent) intelligibility for the asking of Briony's questions. What state of self-alienation does one need to be in to view one's own hand as a machine or fleshy spider? To view it as having a life of its own? Perhaps it is to be in a state in which the homuncular view - that one is in some of kind of causal relationship with one's own body - as if one were the inner captain of its ship - as if the way to characterise intentions is as inner causes of actions which 'take effect' at certain points in time - is apt to come naturally to one. Yet Briony also considers the possibility of a non-alienated conception of agency, in which actions 'start in the finger itself, not in some part of her mind' (cf Merleau-Ponty again: "motility is not the handmaiden of consciousness"). And that, we may suppose, is actually the phenomenologically apt way of describing the situation.

It is just this way of describing the situation, however, that Frith brings into question in the passages which follow. 'Being an agent', he says (p. 153), 'is all about cause and effect.' The discussion about agents veers confusingly straight into a discussion about the brain: First an interesting distinction is stipulatively drawn between 'physical' and 'mental' times. I am to ring a bell by pressing a button with my finger, and report the time from a clock in front of me when I do this and when the bell rings. (This is an interval in mental time. The physical time is the actual interval between button press and bell ring.) The finding is that the typical mental time is about half as long as the physical time. In an alternative condition I am not asked to ring the bell. Rather my brain is magnetically interefered with such that my finger will press the button without me myself pressing the button (i.e. we have a movement but not an action). The finding is that the (pseudo-)mental time in the second interval - i.e. the interval that I judge to occur between when my finger presses the button and when the bell rings - is about twice as long as in the first case.

This finding is described by Frith as follows:

Your brain recognizes that you are not being an agent, and so does not recognize you as causing an effect. It therefore reduces the binding of the events in time. ... The brain creates my experience of agency by binding together the causes and effects of the actions I perform.

But no justification is given for these descriptions; no explanation of what warrants it is provided. First, we have still been given no evidence for the supposition that we do normally have a 'sense of agency'. We have indeed been offered descriptions of cases in which we have a striking sense of not being an agent (for example when we find that our finger has been caused to 'press' a button via a magnetic manipulation of our brains). But nothing which would license an inference from this to the idea that we normally have a sense of being an agent has been provided.

Second, the text appears to commit a flagrant mereological fallacy: the brain is said to be 'recognising' whether or not I am an agent, and to 'recognise' whether or not it is I who cause the effect (I'm assuming here that the effect is not the moving of the finger (since then we would have a homuncular compound to the mereological fallacy) but rather the genuine effect of the tone being played). But it is people, not brains, that recognise things. Brains just consist in neurons that fire if they are caused to by external or internal stimuli.

Finally, who is supposed to be witnessing these temporally bound-together causes and effects? Frith says that this is 'my sense of agency'. But on this (homuncular) picture, it seems that we are once again placed on the receiving end of the brain's information processing: the brain produces an experience for an 'us' who has retreated to an existential point far inside the skull.


Let us now take stock of the discussion, and offer a diagnosis of what seems to have happened. Frith starts by wondering whether or not we really are agents. Perhaps, he says, we only have a sense of agency (p. 152): 'my beliefs on free will are very ambivalent. What I do know is that I have a very strong experience of free will. I feel that I am in control of my actions.' Whether or not he is 'in control of his actions' is left aside; it is rather an account of this putative experience of being in control that we will be given.

The parallels with Frith's treatment of perception are clear. Whilst we normally take it that perception puts us in touch with the world, Frith's account has it that this is merely an illusion, a sense of being in contact, created by the brain. As I argued then, the real motivation for this account was the homuncular, mereological, and entifying fallacies inscribed within it, and not the empirical data which was presented through the distorting lens of these conceptual confusions. Now we turn to action, Frith is less willing to argue definitively that our idea that we are actually the agents of our actions (or that we have 'free will' as he puts it) is an illlusion. Nevertheless the account he provides is designed to show how a putative inner sense of our own agency is a function not of a direct registering of any putative causes of our actions, but rather a sense created for us by the brain and constituted by judgements of temporal proximity of our movements and their environmental effects.

Strikingly absent is any attention given to the question of what it really means to talk of an agent who acts voluntarily and intentionally. A good place to start might be with the following: That we tend to take fellow human beings as agents unless we have reasons to doubt their agency, a 'default assumption' which we may well think constitutive of the very concept of what it means to be an agent. Or that we tend to take what someone says as the reason for their action as the reason for their action unless, again, we have reasons to suppose otherwise; another assumption which can not implausibly be taken to structure our very discourse of agency. Or that human action is voluntary to the extent that it is either not coerced from 'outside' (e.g. by a slave-master) or not marked by the presence of surprise at the occurrence of the movements one's body is making (e.g. when we spasm). Or that the meaningfulness and intentionality of action is not a function of its being caused or brought about in a particular way, but rather of its occurring in the ongoing context of a meaningfully structured human life embedded meaningfully in an environment.

Suppose instead, however, that we are, however intimately, conceived tacitly and ab initio to be lodged in our bodies like pilots trying to steer a ship from within, then it will be only too natural to suppose that the intentional or volitional character of our action is a matter of the generation of inner motor commands - or, to suppose indeed, that we may have to make do with an illusion of such commands. Disidentify oneself with one's body, consider it as a mere piece of flesh - as a 'fleshy spider on the end of [the] arm' - and it will come as no surprise that the attempt to reconnect us to it may come to seem too ambitious, and that we may instead have to put up with a mere sense of being an agent.

Philosophy and the Therapeutic Analogy 4: The Origin of Philosophical Problems

In previous posts I have considered the character and maintaining factors of certain philosophical difficulties. I used Wittgenstein's famous analogy with neurosis, and with treatments of neurosis, to shed light on the nature and treatment of such disturbances. What I haven't yet considered in any depth is the metaphilosophical question of how these problems come around. One idea, owed to Wittgenstein, has been given - that they arise due to the havoc played by unnoticed similes operating in the cognitive unconscious. In what follows I shall consider this and one other theory of the origin of 'philosophical neurosis', providing a few reasons why they do not strike me as completely persuasive. I then present a theorisation owing at least as much to Heidegger as to Wittgenstein, which seems to me to perhaps be more on the right lines. I must own at the start that what I am saying is often rather speculative and undeveloped.
1. Fischer's Cognitive reading of Wittgenstein's Therapy Analogy
Eugen Fischer
A popular reading of the 'philosophical problem = neurosis; philosophical dissolution = psychotherapy' analogy stresses those passages in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations which refer to our 'bewitchment by language'. Eugen Fischer has done the most to develop this conception - both in his paper Wittgenstein's Non-Cognitivism - Explained and Vindicated and in his forthcoming book on Philosophical Delusion and its Therapy. There are several principal claims at work in Fischer's conception which strike me as perfectly in order. I hope I can be forgiven if I illustrate these by quoting at length from his excellent work:
In the grip of [unconscious] models, we unwittingly but systematically make leaps of thought which tacitly rely on presuppositions we do not want to rely on, including propositions we reflectively reject. As long as we are under the influence of such models, we then find the conclusions we leap to intuitively compelling, and adopt them as often as not.
This tacit reliance on propositions we reflectively reject systematically leads us to adopt paradoxical claims in the absence of warrant. Such claims conflict with common-sense convictions we are unable, or scientific findings we are unwilling, to give up and thus appear to raise disquieting problems. These ‘problems’ are ill-motivated to the extent to which their proponents lack warrant for the paradoxical claims that raise them.
To such bad problems, philosophers frequently respond with the construction of equally bad theories. These theories are to restore consistency to the beliefs of their proponents: to refute what conflicting beliefs we feel able to abandon, and to accommodate those we cannot give up. Such theories tend to suffer from two defects: First, they are pointless at least to the extent to which they are meant to solve problems that are ill-motivated. Second, where philosophical pictures drive us to adopt an unwarranted claim which appears to raise a problem, they typically also drive the formulation of the theories that are to solve that problem.
In this case our theories are as unwarranted as our problems are ill-motivated: Both ultimately rely on presuppositions we tacitly make but reflectively reject. Not all of philosophy, but a significant part of it, is such a futile struggle with philosophical pictures and their consequences (the windmills they have us attack). This insight vindicates a novel approach to those problems which we raise in the grip of philosophical pictures. Once we have realised how we come to raise such problems, at least the most basic ideas of a new approach are dictated by plain common sense: Instead of rushing to ‘honour’ the claims to which we leap in the grip of philosophical pictures and then find intuitively compelling in the absence of warrant, we ought to establish carefully what warrant we can obtain for maintaining them. Where we cannot obtain any, we ought to abandon the ‘problem’ the claim appeared to raise.
The proper response to such an ill-motivated ‘problem’ is to show that it is ill-motivated: that it is raised only by a certain philosophical claim and that this claim is unwarranted. Second, we then need to enable us to actually give up what we have seen reason to reject: to deprive the claim of what intuitive appeal it may retain even once it has thus been refuted. In a nutshell: Picture-raised problems are to be resolved not by answering the questions that articulate them but by showing that we ought to give up these problems and enabling us to do so.
To this end, we need to turn from theories which belabour the symptoms to a new approach which addresses the causes: which exposes philosophical pictures and traces their effects, which shows us how adherence to such pictures leads us to endorse unwarranted claims and formulate ill-motivated problems.
Without further considering the above let me now consider what Fischer himself considers the cause of such problems. Why do we find ourselves drawn to tilting at such philosophical windmills? Fischer tells us that:
Much philosophical reflection is guided by ‘philosophical pictures’: false analogies to tangible or familiar models that have been built into our language and guide our thinking in ways of which we are hardly ever aware.
And why do we get 'held captive by' such 'pictures' - in what does our capture consist - where do what Fischer calls the 'systematically recurring cognitive distortions' come from? Wittgenstein talks (PI 109-111) of how problems arise through a 'misinterpretation of our forms of language', how 'grammatical illusions' are generated when philosophers are driven by 'urges to systematically misunderstand the workings of our language.' And why do we thus misinterpret when we do? At times Fischer appears simply to note that we do have such a systematic urge to misunderstand our own concepts. In other places, however, he develops the intriguing idea that such misunderstandings derive from the 'overly literal application of ... 'conceptual metaphors''. That is, 'philosophical reflection is profoundly pre-shaped by unintentional analogical reasoning, and that much of this reasoning involves characteristic and systematic mistakes.' Following Wittgenstein Fischer calls this 'adherence to philosophical pictures'.
Now I must own two things. First: Fischer's principle two-volume work is not yet published, and so I ought not to pretend to know what he will eventually say. Second: what Fischer does give us by way of a cause of our disposition to get caught in 'philosophical pictures' begins to give me just a little of what in other contexts is that far more profound uncomfortable quasi-countertransferential feeling I get when reading, say, certain NLP or CBT or ACT (or, even more extremely, General Semantics!) texts. (I sometimes wonder: Do people other than myself ever base their philosophy on the unpacking of their at-first-ad-hominem-ish countertransferential feelings to philosophical texts? How many others think primarily with their nose?) The feeling I get in those other contexts is that I am being presented with a too-thin vision of the being of human beings, a concerningly flat articulation of the soul, and it is linked to the notion that the kinds of emotional suffering we meet with in the clinic and in our own lives can be tracked back to logico-linguistic confusions, scope fallacies, and the like.
Why does this feeling arise? Well, it only arises a little when I consider Fischer's forgetfulness-of-metaphor approach. But when I think of cases which most pertinently manifest this disturbance in a clinical rather than intellectual register - in other words, when I think of the magical thinking and symbolic equations of OCD and schizophrenic delusion - what I immediately think of are the emotional, personality-driven, motivational factors within the mind which exploit the conflations to their own ends, without which the patient would not get stuck in such predicaments - without which the pictures would not derive their impetus and grip. I might also question why it is that the cognitive slips are made in the 'directions' in which they indeed are made. By 'direction' I mean: why is it that we tend to interpret 'ideas' along the model of 'physical objects', and not vice versa? Or: why do we tend to assimilate expression to assertion? To say that this is due to a tendency to 'literalise conceptual metaphors' may just be a way of restating this problem. Why don't we metaphoricise literal concepts instead? And why are there so many cases in philosophy - and in life - when we manage perfectly well with our conceptual metaphors without getting into philosophical trouble? Of course, it may be that we really are here at the end of the causal analysis, that our spade is turned here. But I have a reason for suspecting otherwise.
The reason is simply that urged in the previous post: that what unifies the kinds of conceptual conflations we make in philosophy is their manifestation of an alienated conception of the human being. We tend - I believe - towards conceptual conflations which depend upon our disposition to view ourselves and our worlds from the outside, as if we were not really participants in our own lives but rather, instead, disengaged onlookers.
2. Cavell's Psychoanalytic reading of Wittgenstein's Therapy Analogy
And why might that be? One reason could be that the therapy analogy is in some way more than an analogy - that our philosophical neuroses spring from the same source as our clinical neuroses. This, at any rate, would appear to be the idea behind certain contributions of Stanley Cavell, whose principal engagement with the topic has been through the idea of philosophical scepticism.
Cavell's engagement with scepticism - especially in The Claim of Reason - and especially with respect to scepticism regarding other minds - is fairly well known. Let me just highlight what I take to be a few of its principal features:
  • Cavell attempts not to refute the sceptic, but to show why and how we do not have to accept his arguments.
  • Cavell argues that Wittgenstein was not, as he reads Norman Malcolm and others as having suggested, attempting to use the notion of 'criteria' to defeat our scepticism about other minds.
  • The sceptic's argument is considered to undercut or doubt what Cavell calls our very 'attunement with one another'.
  • The anti-sceptical epistemologist and the sceptic can be viewed as two sides of the same coin. Consider Wittgenstein's parable (PI 297) of the water boiling in the pot ("Of course, if water boils in a pot, steam comes out of the pot and also pictured steam comes out of the pictured pot. But what if one insisted on saying that there must also be something boiling in the pictured pot?") - The epistemologist's desire to refer to empirical associations or to quasi-logical criteria between what is in the pot (sensations) and the steam (pain behaviour) is a manifestation of his accepting 'the picture that forces itself upon us here'. (nb as I argued above: Does the picture really force itself upon us - or are we here disowning our motivations and projecting them into the alleged 'force' of the picture?)
  • (Wittgenstein's point is better made when we understand the limitations of the picture of steam and pot contents for depicting the relation between pain and its expression.)
  • Cavell considers the philosophical problem of other minds to be an academic outgrowth of more general (not-just-academic) movements in the history of western culture.
  • In particular, we must take into account the rise of the self in the Enlightenment, the centrality given to the notion of privacy in its articulation, and the existential doubts that arise about the possibility of achieving connection with one another in this cultural context.
  • Cavell considers the way in which the attempt to refute scepticism can itself be a form of scepticism. By trying to insist on a criterial hardness of a putative 'connection' between pain behaviour and pain, the anti-sceptic finds it hard to make room for the emotionally difficult-to-accept: contingency, doubt, moral frailty, vulnerability, possibility of misreading, inability to find our feet with, of our relations with one another. They too end up denying what is, in effect, essential about our humanity.
  • Cavell turns to literature to find cases in which we fail in our acknowledgement of one another, or in our attunement to one another. Scepticism is ultimately understood as an ethical failing - a failing in those connections with one another which constitute our recognition, or acknowledgement, of one another's humanity. I'll quote a section, just because it's so very interesting (Claim of Reason pp. 478-9):
    Shylock [Merchant of Venice] has just listed his abuses at the hands of Antonio and asks the reason for them. Shylock gives his answer: "I am a Jew."
    Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not belled? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong is shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge! If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his siffereance be by Christian example? - Why, revenge! The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
    That is, for present purposes: My body, and its fates, the visible part of me, is the same as the Christian's. And then the philosophical conclusion one would expect Shylock to draw, or ask to be drawn, is that the invisible part is the same as well; reason is compelled to admit as much. It is true that Shylock includes more in his premisses of "the visible part" of himself than a purer philosopher would; he includes things that the philosopher would regard as part of the conclusion of the argument from analogy, e.g., senses, affections, passions; and hence seems to beg the question. But though less pure, Shylock is more knowing. He knows, what any sensible person knows, that the purer argument must fail, that one who does not already know that the other's body "is connected with" sentience cannot be convinced by this argument, or rather cannot understand what it is an argument about, the existence of others. So Shylock, in noting his points of identity with other human beings in a series of rhetorical questions, is allowing that others of course do know all of these things about Jews - for example, about him; but he is denying (or further reminding us not to conclude) that knowing such things about him is knowing of his existence as a (an other) human being.
Now these suggestions are, I believe fascinating and compelling - some have more recently been developed, in particular, and to great effect, by Raimond Gaita. But my question, which is not here Cavell's question, is: To what extent does this serve as an explanation of our disposition to arrive at neurotic questions in philosophy?
Cavell alludes to what seems to be the existential flip-side to Fischer's linguistic-logical standpoint. According to Fischer our philosophical 'neurosis' is as the cognitive therapist or relational frame theorist might have it: a failure to notice that we are cognitively over-reaching ourselves when, using language which borrows its structure from other conceptual domains, we take out more than our due allowance and unwittingly over-play the metaphor. Cavell, however (as it appears to me) draws on a broadly psychoanalytic vision. Our epistemological quandaries about other minds are outgrowths of our general human predicaments in sustaining our acknowledgement for one another - or for that matter, in sustaining our own humanity. Perhaps they have their source in the various drives to omnipotent phantasy: we find it hard to acknowledge the genuine independent otherness of 'other minds', of an 'external world', because it can be hard to tolerate their real independence from us, their lack of subservience to our will. At the same time it can be hard for us to recognise our own humanity for something like the opposite reason: that we are just one amongst others; that we can only live and grow and love, take in emotional food, be loved, to the extent that we can also be vulnerable, to be hurt and be broken.
These are of course valid psychological observations. But are they valid expressions of the sources of the kinds of philosophical perplexity that have been troubling me in these posts? Is Cavell right to think of scepticism as (p. 493) a 'cover - [as] the conversion of metaphysical [existential] finitiude into intellectual lack'? Against this I wish to lodge the following objections:

  • If we have already accepted that literature can be a 'truer' expression of the sceptical impulse than philosophy, then we may be persuaded by what Cavell writes. This is so because great literature grapples so well with precisely the kinds of existential and emotional preoccupations that the psychoanalyst meets with in her clinic. Yet the suspicion remains that it is only because Cavell himself holds it up as a 'truer' expression of the 'real' sceptical impulse that we are inclined, then, to treat the philosophical in the same way we would the literary.

  • Cavell's position appears to psychologise the sources of the sceptic's and the epistemologist's struggles. But perhaps there is an unwarranted assimilation at work here. Just as Fischer warns us against literalising our metaphors, or getting 'held captive by pictures', so too I am inclined to think it may be too easy to explain the hold that philosophical neuroses have on us by simply de-analogising the 'philosophical problem as neurosis' analogy.
3. Richard's ?Heideggarian? reading of Wittgenstein's Therapy Analogy...
Martin Heidegger
So is there a way between or beyond the cognitive and the psychoanalytical when we are trying to spell out the roots of what the analogy presents us with? Here I shall be claiming that Heidegger provides us with a metaphilosophical vision that has greater (explanatory) depth than the 'cognitive' one, and greater discrimination (between the psychological and the epistemological) than the 'psychoanalytic'.

Here, then, is our question: Whence the assimilations we make? Why are we prone to construe minds as places, why do so many of our tacit assimilations run in the same direction (assimilating thoughts to entities rather than vice versa)? Why are they often organised by a conception of ourselves and our relation to reality as alienated and external? If we reject the psychoanalytic vision (when applied to philosophical problems) as psychologistic, and reject the cognitive one as too thin (yes, we make the assimilations, overlook the metaphors, but why?), where do we turn?

In particular the question that interests me here is: Are there any general structural (i.e. non-motivational) reasons, relating to the nature of human understanding, which explain the alienation of some of our philosophical self-conceptions without grounding this in an alienation to which we are prone when not philosophising? Can we keep apart the existential from the psychological, keeping the former and rejecting the latter, in our metaphilosophical explications? Clearly this alienation is of a piece with our disposition to construe ourselves as objects, to model, in Sartrean language, the pour soi as the en soi. We overlook the immediacy of expression, avowal, and intrinsic normativity, and instead view our language as simply a descriptive device. Life and meaning are constantly sapped from our expression and from our discourse, and relegated to an interiorised domain from which they derive. All of this is true; we do this again and again. But: Why?
The answer that presents itself to me is as follows:

  • Philosophy begins not in wonder but in perplexity. (It seems to me that if it goes well, it ends in wonder at the world and self-dissolution of the philosophy; and if it goes poorly, it ends in an unholy alliance of theory and continued perplexity.)

  • This perplexity may arise from a multitude of sources, but like neurotic doubt it is a function of the way in which the questions are being asked.

  • This 'way' in which the questions are asked may well be under the influence of certain 'philosophical pictures' (Fischer), or out of the anxieties we have about being human (Cavell). Or perhaps it simply arises from a misunderstanding, from two people talking past each other, from one person talking past himself, or from a certain kind of curiosity which overstretches itself.

  • Yet regardless of how it arises, it is quickly 'fixed' by the habits of inquiry which are built into our understanding. It is these habits which consolidate and drive the philosophical inquiry, create the philosophical problematic, and motivate the search for theoretical answers.

  • The habits are good habits when operating in their normal, everyday, contexts. They are good habits when they function well in scientific pursuits too. In fact they constitute our very understanding of what we everyday encounter.

  • However they themselves operate within a range of conditions, a context of inquiry, which cannot be taken for granted - are in fact put out of operation - in the philosophical context.
  • The very act of raising questions, articulating perplexities into questions, questions about ourselves, has us treat ourselves, or aspects of ourselves, in reflective thought, as 'objects'. (In itself this is fine: we are, of course, in at least one sense, 'objects'.)

  • Philosophy makes enquiries of our thinking, turns our thinking into an object for its enquiries. We are thereby brought into a sort of relation with ourselves. But what can tacitly happen, when we are not then careful, is that the way in which we show up to ourselves when we inhabit this new context, becomes inscribed into our vision of the kind of being we are.
  • So: I think philosophically about thinking itself. Thinking now becomes the object of my thought, and if we are not careful we now easily overlook its character as the living medium of our linguistically structure comprehending relation to the world. It becomes objectified. Thought becomes objectified, viewed as a matter of representation, and now these representations must become magical - self-interpreting representations for example.
  • The vorhanden becomes framed as zuhanden. So too for our behaving, acting, writing, speaking, expressing. When the mind takes itself as an object a forgetfulness of its ownmost subjectivity slips in. Donald Davidson wants to start thinking of actions as events, etc. We become tacitly alienated from ourselves.
The neurotic has lost their pre-reflective, foundational, confidence in the functioning of their own mind and in the stable reliable availabilty of others and of the world around them. They are however perfectly confident in is the viability of their own questions. When foundational trust returns, however, when these tables are turned, their confidence in the sensibleness of their own doubt quickly itself erodes.

A similar process may obtain (I find, from my own experience) in doing philosophy: I am caught up in an attitude of belief in the possibility - and felt need for - but apparent absence of - a kind of certainty, and along with this goes a peculiar kind of certainty about (the viability of) my own philosophical questioning or doubting. I am, as Fischer notes, held captive by a picture. But what holds me captive, I want to say, is not the picture forcing itself on me (how would it ever do that?).

Rather, I am predisposed to make the assimilations or conflations I do because of the objectifying stance embedded in the metaphysical or epistemological gaze itself. Thoughts remain objects for too long not simply because of the metaphorical conflation but because the activity of philosophising too-readily encourages the conflation in question.

This, I believe, explains why it is that we are driven to make the particular conflations we do. Our life with numbers becomes detached and alienated and deanimated - and so we start getting into the tangles of conventionalism or platonism. Rules become facts. Expressions of feelings become expressions of judgements that we have feelings. Feelings become inner entities. Praxis becomes rule following. People - subjects - become combinations of objectified bodies and objectified minds. The true conscious subject appears to recede ever back and quite soon even mystifying talk about a mysterious flame called consciousness starts to look appealing. (It's the repository of all the life that unbeknownst to us has been sucked out of ourselves by our own tacitly objectifying mode of enquiry.) Even the idealist has first tacitly assimilated minds to things before they then go on to explicitly assimilate things to (thing-like) minds. The living heart of human life which we must always enact or expressively body forth ossifies again and again under the gaze of the Medusa-like philosophical consciousness.

Philosophy and the Therapeutic Analogy 3: The Nature of Philosophical Problems

In a previous post I isolated four non-exhaustive yet key features of clinical neurosis:

  1. The underlying driver of a neurosis is not the surface issue, i.e. not what the patient is inclined to see as the problem, but rather an underlying tacit framework of assumptions.

  2. The person with a neurosis experiences a deficit in their foundational and transcendental capacity to maintain a living, pre-reflective, embodied sense of the trustworthiness of others and of the world around them.

  3. They attempt to make up for this frightening loss of certainty or trust by a gamut of 'empirical procedures' - calculating, checking, reasoning, remembering. But such empirical procedures cannot make up for a loss of foundational and transcendental certainties: reflective certainty cannot replace, but rather, always presupposes, foundational pre-reflective certainty. Doubt is therefore ultimately reinforced rather than assuaged by the compulsive procedures.

  4. What disguises the futility of the use of merely empirical and reflective procedures to make up for a loss of pre-reflective certainty is a structure of phantasy which has been called the 'omnipotence of thought'. We could also call it, or at least see it as closely related to, a hypercathexis of the imagination. The underlying narcissistic phantasy has it that one can be one's own security-providing object and 'bootstrap' oneself into existential safety.

In what follows I shall be presenting philosophical analogies of these. The aim will be to show how the clinical ideas can shed light on the nature of some philosophical difficulties, thereby illuminating: the nature of the difficulties, the reasons why attempts to alleviate them sometimes can be counter-productive, and the best way to 'treat' the underlying disturbances.

1. A Tacit Framework of Assumptions

Philosophical Neurosis

Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, p. 308:

The first step is the one that altogether escapes notice... But that is just what commits us to a particular way of looking at the matter... (The decisive movement in the conjuring trick has been made, and it was the very one that we thought quite innocent.)

I have come to think that a good indicator of a philosophical problem which is predicated on unfortunate prior tacit assumptions is an author's use of the 'how is it possible?' phrase. Such problems are particularly prevalent in epistemology, and there are I believe good reasons to take the epistemological tradition as especially prone to the kinds of philosophical neurosis that are of concern to us. (Rorty and Hymers provide deconstructive critiques of the tradition which aim to undermine the motivation for, rather than answer, the questions it poses.) So, here are some typical 'how is it possible?' questions which present themselves as requests for an explanation - of how the phenomenon in question is possible - questions which the philosopher may be tempted to respond to at face value through the provision of explanatory theories, but which would be better dissolved, through the unearthing of the tacit assumptions which underpin the questions and which make it look as if ... well, as if something which is perfectly ordinary ought not to possible at all:

  • How is it possible that a speaker can get to know the meaning of infinitely many previously unencountered sentences of a language on the basis of his or her knowledge of the meaning of the component parts (i.e. the meaning of the words) of the sentence?
  • How is it possible that my knowledge of the meaning of a mathematical rule (e.g. 'add 2') can infallibly dictate or determine my employment of this rule in particular instances (e.g. expanding the sequence '+2': 998, 1000, 1002, 1004, 1006, etc.)
  • How is it possible for me to gain knowledge of the world on the basis of my 'perceptual representations' of it?
  • What determines my taking of signs in the way they are intended? How is it possible for me to so often correctly grasp the meaning of signs; what mediates this grasp?
  • How is it possible for me to gain genuine knowledge of what you think or feel on the basis of observations of your verbal and expressive behaviour?
  • How can it be that my self-knowledge is often infallible?
  • How do I know how to communicate (by putting into which words?) my ideas? That is, how do I know that it is apt to use those words to express those ideas?
  • How do I manage to distinguish between the real and the imaginary?
  • How is it possible for me to engage in willed action and willed expression? That is, how does the will or the mind cause the body to move?

Other problems which (I believe) have a similar root can be thought of as characterised by the 'what else?' question. Three that come immediately to mind are:

  • What must be added to arm rising (i.e. mere movement) in order to get arm raising (i.e. full-blooded action)?
  • What must be added to truth and justification for belief to rise to the status of knowledge? (The Gettier problem.)
  • What must be added to 'constant conjunction' to arrive at causation? (A Humean quandary).

Finally, we have related 'what is it that makes...?' questions, questions which purport to take a familiar phenomenon at face value and which ask what gives it the distinctive features it has.

  • What is it that makes it rational to expect what has happened in the past to continue happen in the future? Or, what is it that makes it rational to expect this rather than that to happen - i.e. to take this rather than that as an instance of the same thing as has happened previously?(Problems of induction.)

Now clearly this is a long and somewhat arbirtary list, and only a thumbnail taxonomy. And further, whether or not one of the above questions in the mouths or this or that philosopher on this or that instance counts as philosophically suspect in the way I shall detail is, I believe, best considered as context relative. Here however is the general claim inspired by the 'neurosis' analogy:

The above questions are neurotic in as much as: they only appear to be good questions if we have already tacitly made certain other assumptions. Once these assumptions are in place, then the questions will appear urgent and pressing. They will also be insoluble in the terms in which they are put, regardless of the complexity of the theoretical solutions which are proposed. Therapeutic dissolution, however, can be more successful. Here we do not simply try to 'give philosophy peace' (as Wittgenstein put it) by simply distracting ourselves from our difficulties. As in neurosis, this may provide momentary peace but only at the expense of one's moral or psychological integrity; further it leaves the problems intact. The procedures which really 'bring peace to philosophy' are those which expose the assumptions underlying the 'neurotic' questions. Once these are understood the apparent sense of (and not merely the psychological compulsion to ask) the question dissolves. The very problem is recognised as predicated on a cognitive disturbance.

I will provide an organising principle for these assumptions in a moment. Let us first consider some examples from the above:

  • How is it possible that my knowledge of the meaning of a mathematical rule (e.g. 'add 2') can infallibly dictate or determine my employment of this rule in particular instances (e.g. expanding the sequence '+2': 998, 1000, 1002, 1004, 1006, etc.)

If we imagine that what it is to know a rule is only externally (i.e. non-constitutively) related to my ability to continue the series in question (the tacit assumption), then we will start to think that my knowledge of the rule must in some way guide my rule-following activity in a quasi-causal manner (from without - as a track guides a train). If we take it, ab initio, that my being able to suddenly grasp a rule is to indicate that the understanding which that grasp consists in is an understanding which consists in some singular fact about me that could be fully displayed in a single instance, then the question stands. If instead we take it that this talk of the 'guidance' provided by a singular fact on innumerable instances of rule-following activity is merely a picture which may mislead, and accept that the relation between knowing a rule and knowing how to go on in this instance (1000, 1002, 100...) is 'internal' or constutive, then the question does not appear to arise.

  • How is it possible for me to engage in willed action and willed expression? That is, how does the will or the mind cause the body to move?

If we assume (as the initial tacit presupposition) that intentional action (by which is meant, here, action which is directed towards the world and which is not accidental movement but is rather expressive of the agent's intentions) is a matter of movement caused by inner acts of will, then the question will seem a good one. If we assume that there really is a faculty of the will which is in the business of causing bodily movements, then the question appears valid. If however we do not see action as a compound notion - as a matter of bodily movements 'caused in the right way' - then the problem does not arise. If we see it instead as a sui generis and irreducible phenomenon, the intentionality of which is immanent within it, and not added to it by conative supplementation, then the problem does not arise. The question appears to look for an explanation - of how an inner thing causes an outer thing - but if we refuse this particular construal of the inner/outer dichotomy, then we earn the right to return the question unanswered.

This last point is particularly important to grasp, since a typical response to the Wittgensteinian may be: 'But this simply creates a mystery; now you have no account/theory/explanation of action at all'. The purpose of the therapeutic or dissolutive procedure, however, is not to prohibit theorisation per se. All sorts of theories of aspects of action - neurological, physiological, sociological, psychological may still be possible. Whether a quite general 'theory of action' is required will however depend on whether there is still some kind of puzzle, something not yet understood, which can motivate and give meaning to an explanatory theory. If, after all of our dissolutive work has been done, we find ourselves still genuinely puzzled and in need of explanation - if we are satisfied with the cogency of our inferences and with the clarity and univocity of sense of the concepts we are deploying - then, well, then we are surely in need of explanation. What this shows is that some or all of our perplexity was, in the terms of the analogy, not 'neurotic'. Similarly, the clinical neurotic may have emotional problems to contend with which stem not from their neurosis, but from the interpersonal, biological, economic, and social milieu in which they find themselves.

Let's consider another example:

  • What must be added to arm rising (i.e. mere movement) in order to get arm raising (i.e. full-blooded action)?

As with the last example, so too with this related question. If we start with an ontology of action which views it as made up of subcomponents (physical: arm movement; mental: perhaps an act of will), then the question naturally arises. The question assumes that a reductive analysis of action is possible; only on this assumption is it coherent to ask 'what must be added to...'. (The example is taken from Wittgenstein, who was suggesting it as a phony question; this makes it particularly ironic that a whole philosophy of action later developed which, blind to his ironic style, took Wittgenstein's question at face value and attempted to answer it with 'causal theories' of action.)

  • What must be added to truth and justification for belief to rise to the status of knowledge? (The Gettier problem.)

So: if I start with the assumption that knowledge can be given a reductive analysis in terms of ingredients which include belief, then it will be natural to ask what more is required for a belief to count as knowledge. Gettier famously pointed out that truth and justification didn't suffice. Troublesome cases of justified true belief arise - cases that we must admit we would not be prepared to call 'knowledge'. The apparent need arises to find the extra missing ingredient, to make the reductive analysis go through.

  • How is it possible for me to gain knowledge of the world on the basis of my 'perceptual representations' of it?
  • How do I manage to distinguish between the real and the imaginary?

Let us imagine that we had tacitly accepted as a premise the idea that our perception of the world is 'mediated' by 'perceptual representations'. All that I 'really see', or perhaps better: all that I am 'immediately acquainted with', are these 'representations'. But such representations may or not accurately represent what is to be thought of as 'external' to the subject. If what or whom we are 'immediately acquainted with', however, are not our acquaintances but rather our representations of them, then it may seem that we are indeed in a pretty epistemological predicament. For, for all we know, these representations may not be being 'caused by' the external objects we take them to be of; they may be being presented to us instead by a malin génie (Descartes). There appears to be the need for some extra piece of knowledge, or for the exercise of some extra faculty, for us to be able to know whether our representations are indeed of a world which, on the assumption given, will naturally be thought of as 'external' to the reach of our mind.

If however we did not subscribe to this tacit assumption, and took it as I take it we naturally do take it - that what we are directly acquainted with in experience are indeed our acquaintances themselves (and of course all the other ingredients of the natural and social worlds) - then there is no obvious need for a theory as to how we can somehow transcend the apparent limits to knowledge provided by a putative inner wall of shadowy representations.

But let's consider, for example, that the questioner is here unconvinced by our initial diagnosis of their question. They let us know that they have all along been considering talk of our 'representations' just as a (admittedly bizarre) way of talking about our perceptual acts themselves. What they are wondering is how it is possible to gain knowledge about the world through the exercise of such perceptual faculties? But at this juncture, what are we to tell them apart from the platitudes that, as it seems to us, in perception we take on board that and how things are - we gain perceptual knowledge. What, we must now ask them, do they mean when they talk of gaining knowledge of the world 'on the basis of' the exercise of such representational capacities? Why such talk of a 'basis'? Such talk seems to naturally go along with what the talk of 'inner representations' itself encourages: that our knowledge of the world is not directly to be had - that it isn't what we achieve when we exercise the capacities in question. Normally when we talk about reaching, say, a conclusion 'on the basis of' evidence, we take it that talk of the 'conclusion' is not simply a reiteration of talk of the 'evidence'. Thus it seems to us that the philosopher has here introduced a double standard: on the one hand relying on tacit assumptions to motivate the philosophical questions; on the other hand disavowing such assumptions when enunciating their explicit commitments. Such double standards are not of course unheard of in the domain of clinical neurosis - a point I shall return to below when considering splitting.

It is of course open to the philosopher, when it is suggested to them that they are making the tacit assumptions in question, to respond with 'Yes, well, that's all well and good; the assumptions are in order.' Similarly, the neurotic may respond, when we point out the assumptions which are required for their problem to arise in the first place, by saying that these assumptions are perfectly natural ones. (If we agree with them, we may even wish to revoke our initial suggestion that they are suffering from a neurosis.) I do not wish to suggest that in certain circumstances they may not be right in making such responses. I may myself have made certain unwitting assumptions in putting the above list together; some of these I may wish to revoke when they are pointed out to me; others I may wish to disavow. The Wittgensteinian 'neurosis' analogy, however, suggests only that sometimes our neurotic worrying or philosophical questioning is the product of unwarranted prior assumptions.

2. A loss of pre-reflective trust and a correlative alienation from the world

It is now time to consider what principle organises the asking of the above questions. Or at least, time for me to confess my own belief that there is indeed such an organising principle. This is that the asking of such questions presupposes that the philosopher is tacitly conceiving of him or herself, or tacitly conceiving of the human condition, as in a state of alienation from reality or from others. That which is in fact constitutive of their mindedness or their self is rendered ontologically external to it, and epistemological questions become asked as to how they can be reunited with that which was once their abode. In fact the alienation sometimes goes one step farther, the philosopher tacitly conceiving of the self as residing behind their own mind, a mind now conceived of as an interior space, an interior space which requires successfully operating faculties for them to become acquainted with it.

I think this might seem a surprising generalisation, and so I shall wade through a few of the above examples in order to make my case.

  • How can it be that my self-knowledge is often unchallengeable?

One way in which we could understood how somebody could be puzzled about self-knowledge in such a way that their puzzlement encourages them to ask the above question is if we take it that they might think that fallible knowledge of the self by the self were not in need of explication, but that unchallengeable knowledge of the self by the self were. They may, that is, have tacitly taken our fallible knowledge of facts of nature or, say, of social arrangements - i.e. facts which are not facts about our own selves - as a paradigm of knowledge, and with this paradigm in place start to question how there could be such a thing as unchallengeable knowledge. How can it be that we may not be wrong? What extraordinarily special epistemic glue must there be which ties some of our knowledge of our selves to ourselves so securely and which sometimes even makes error unthinkable?

So how does this fall under the above-described case of alienation? What I am imagining is that somebody who proceeds with the above picture of self-knowledge is thinking of themselves as initially estranged from themselves, and of thereby being in a position of being able to find things out about themselves. Now this sometimes is a genuine possibility - witness psychoanalysis and other contemplative and soteriological pursuits. But of course we musn't just take such developed cases of (possible absence of) self-knowledge as paradigmatic of what self-knowledge means - as providing the model for understanding, say, our knowledge that I now have a toothache, or that I want a drink of water, or that I believe it is Thursday today. These are clearly not facts about myself that I may need to find out; if such were my predicament then you would be justified in certifying me not wanting in knowledge but insane. Rather, here my self-knowlege, if we are even to call it that (Wittgenstein for one considered witholding the ascription, although Wittgensteinians such as John Hyman have demurred), is at one with my sensation or feeling or belief itself. Perhaps no role has yet been provided in the language-game of sensation self-ascription for the concept of knowledge. We are just not sure what it is someone is saying when they say 'I know I am in pain' - other than, perhaps, that they are in pain, or that they know what 'pain' means. We may also consider the fact that some self-ascriptions are themselves criterial for (i.e. partially constitutive of) beliefs and desires. Or we may consider the performative dimension of other self-ascriptions where in saying, for example, that 'I promise to x' one is not fallibly reporting a prior or occurrent act of self-commitment, but rather, in the act of speaking, thereby making the commitment. The lack of room for error is once again not a function of some miraculous self-acquaintance, but rather of the epistemological irrelevance of the acquaintance paradigm. If however we did start with such a paradigm, and took it that we were typically estranged from ourselves - that we were typically in the existential predicament of needing to find out such facts about ourselves - then the question starts to make sense.

  • How is it possible for me to gain genuine knowledge of what you think or feel on the basis of observations of your verbal and expressive behaviour?

Here the basic idea seems to be that we are to take ourselves as naturally estranged from one another - that we are typically presented with one another's mere 'external' behaviour, from which inferences are to be made to states which are accordingly to be thought of as 'internal'. Perhaps it is said 'I cannot see your pain, only your pain behaviour'. From this (grammatical) remark, however, the inference is drawn that we must therefore make an inference to a pain which remains hidden and inner. (As if I were to say that, when I see five green bottles on the wall, I do not see the number five, but only the bottles, and so must infer the number from other aspects of my visual perception.)

If however we accept a conception of our mental and emotional lives as immanent within our behaviour - behaviour which can accordingly be viewed as expressing or avowing our thoughts and feelings, as itself fully intentional and alive with mentality - then the epistemic task of finding out what other people think on the basis of 'mere behaviour' does not arise. We hear what they think when we listen to them speak. We visually take in the pain in their face, the depression lived by their comportment, their intelligence in their reactions, and so on. Take it that we are fundamentally aliented from one another (and that thoughts and feelings are fundamentally estranged from the living body), though, and the philosophical questions arise: How can we ever find out from 'mere behaviour' what another is feeling? To answer the nagging 'problem of other minds', endless theories (theory-theory, simulation theory, etc.) are proposed, and endless problems with these are discerned (such as: how, if this were our predicament, could we even come by the idea that psychological predicates are applicable to others?).

I want to set myself a hard case - one which looks as if it has little to do self- or -world- estrangement. So consider logical necessity:

  • In virtue of what are necessary truths true? i.e. what makes them true?

Two popular answers have been Platonist (necessary truths are true in virtue of a realm of Platonic facts) or Conventionalist (necessary truths are made true by the conventions we have - they are true in virtue of how we 'go on' in language). The Wittgensteinian middle way between these two alternatives is, as is fairly well known, to deny that necessary truths are made true by anything. They are not made true by our conventions; rather, they are our conventions. (Conventions do not make themselves true; rather what is true is that: such and such are our conventions. We need to distinguish between the idea of a sentence which functions as a (true or false) description of a state of affairs, and a sentence which expresses a convention. We can of course also have sentences which do describe the conventions of our language. However these sentences do not function as necessary propositions, since they are only contingently true (or false) descriptions of the necessary propositions.) And such conventions would not be any less 'true' if we had different conventions. If we had different conventions, then we would have different necessary truths. The so-called 'hardness of the logical must' is thereby preserved: if we had the convention that '2+2=5', or that 'batchelors are married men', then at least one of the terms (2, +, =, 5, batchelor, married, men) would mean something different than it does in our own current notation.

So, let us accept this middle way for the moment - accept that the grammar of 'necessary truths' is not to be understood on the model of the grammar of 'empirical truths' (i.e. of propositions which are made true by the way that things are). What has this to do with alienation? What I want to suggest is that someone who thinks that necessary truths are made true by something may think this because they have become, in their self-conception, alienated from what I want to call their own 'life with language'. Necessary propositions embody the forms of our thought; our accordance with them is of a piece with our cognitive enculturation - with our learning of the meaning of the terms and rules governing the use of such terms. Such rules are, I suggested, not 'true in virtue of' anything; all that is true is that such and such statements express such rules - that these are the rules that we have. If, rather than embodying such normativity, I take myself to be the in possession of propositions which are made true by something external to their normative function, then I have become estranged or alienated from the source of their normativity. In my assumption that all language functions merely descriptively, I have become blind to its living expressive and intrinsically conventional character. Some propositions, far from functioning to merely truly or falsely describe states of affairs, themselves expressively embody, prescribe, license, or proscribe our inferences. By tacitly assimilating necessary propositions to the model of the descriptive, I lose the sense of their intrinsic rather than derivative normativity.

3. Attempts to reason our way to reality can estrange us further from it

This treatment of necessary truths may remain opaque, so let me turn to some other examples. I also want to consider the other part of this aspect of the neurosis analogy: that philosophical problems arise both due to an alienated conception of our relation to reality, and due to a correlative loss of pre-reflective embodied, engaged, non-reflective trust in the world. Consider our everyday inductive knowledge.

  • What is it that makes it rational to expect what has happened in the past to continue happen in the future? Or, what is it that makes it rational to expect this rather than that to happen - i.e. to take this rather than that as an instance of the same thing as has happened previously? (Problems of induction.)

Here we have the idea that there must be something that 'makes it rational' to expect what has hitherto happened to continue to do so. The implicit suggestion is that we don't here have to do with a defining instance of rationality - as if the rationality of our expectation, here, was extrinsic to it. That is to say, it as if, in order to retain a grip on our sense that it is rational so to expect, we ought to be able to appeal to some fact, by way of providing a justification for, the expectation. Just as with rules and examples of rule-following, or with a feeling and its expression, an internal relation is being tacitly framed as an external relation.

The pre-reflective certainty which is contained in our implicit (i.e. unformulated) expectations as to what will happen next has been construed as a thought in need of justification. The praxical dispositions which constitute what 'reasonableness' amounts to, in the context of my ongoing negotiation and anticipation of the events of my environment, are viewed as only reasonable to the extent that a justification can be provided for them. Under the sway of a rationalistic conception of what 'reasonable' means: i.e. under the sway of a preconception that it always involves us in actual or potential justification, we are forced into a conception of our sane praxical relation to reality which sees it not as possessing its own sui generis rationality, but as awaiting confirmation or disconfirmation from a disengaged faculty of reason.

Thus the philosopher who is held captive by the preconceptions informing the classical problem of induction may think that I will not be countable as rational in my empirically grounded belief that the tap will spew forth water when I turn it on unless I can supply, as a reason, grounds for my belief. Perhaps my past experience - of the tap spewing forth water in these circumstances - is itself to be taken as the reason. Someone who is prepared to take this step, however - (a step which, as Wittgenstein described it (above), is 'the one that altogether escapes notice', that 'commits us to a particular way of looking at the matter', which 'was the very one that we thought quite innocent') - quite quickly finds themselves on a slippery slope of unending sceptical doubt, the need to reassure oneself through rational procedures, and so on. Thus, once it is accepted that the rationality of my everyday expectations (not my predictions, note, but rather my unreflective anticipations) is contingent on my capacity to offer a reason for them - as if the rationality did not consist simply in, here, expecting just this or that, but rather in my capacity to justify such expectations - then the question can again be asked, with childlike insistence: 'But what makes it rational to reason in that way? Why is it rational to expect what has happened before to happen again? And in any case, what is to determine what counts as 'the same again'? (Goodman's 'grue' etc.)

Recall the obsessive who, no longer being able to take their memory, action, perception, understanding and environment for granted, thrown out of their pre-reflective certainty through anxiety, aims to quell their painful doubt through cognitive procedures. Unable to trust in the intrinsic viability of their grasp of the world, they aim to buttress their faith in themselves and in their world through rehearsals of the grounds for their safety. Once the pre-reflective certainty has been lost, however, they themselves are condemned to an impoverished, closed-in, life, since their practical and internal rituals of checking and confirming simply reinforce the grip of the neurosis. The spadework of reason paradoxically digs ever deeper the hole of doubt. So too, as the analogy would have it, with the philosopher. Having tacitly taken on board at an intellectual rather than emotional level a self-conception of our engagement with the world as rationally grounded in the deliverances of disengaged reason, intellectually sceptical doubts spring forth in ever greater profusion.

4. Doubt, certainty, and the hypercathexis of the philosophical imagination

The fourth element of neurosis isolated for the sake of the comparison with philosophy concerned a structure of phantasy - the 'omnipotence of thought' - which disguised the futility of the use of merely empirical and reflective procedures to make up for a loss of pre-reflective certainty. It is important for my handling of this analogy - as I shall explore in the next post - to take any literally psychologistic reading - i.e. to avoid equating philosophical with neurotic disturbance (without denying of course that philosophers are as neurotic as anyone else!). What I shall be claiming instead is that we can draw an analogy between that state of mind characterised by omnipotence and narcissism in the analysand, and the history and practice of philosophy, and that this analogy can in both cases help explain the grip of the neurotic or philosophical problems we are considering.

What I have in mind by the phrase 'hypercathexis of the philosophical imagination' is simply the institutionalised tendency of philosophical thought to avoid problematising itself in order to 'get on with the job'. A question is asked ('How does the mind get in touch with the external world?', 'How do we know we are not brains in vats?', 'How is it possible to...?', 'What else is needed for x to count as y?', 'What makes it the case that...?'). The fact of its repetition, or the fact that various possible answers come to mind, or that problems with these answers come to mind, reinforce the idea here that we do indeed have a sensible problem. Philosophy accordingly becomes professionalised. It becomes respectable for philosophers to report 'Currently I am working on the problem of xyz', as if they and we are obliged to unreservedly comprehend their task as serious one of solving problems, delivering analyses, developing theories, and the like.

Now perhaps sometimes this is indeed an apt description of the philosophical endeavour. Yet it is important to note the alternatives - alternatives that become especially significant when we come to philosophical engagement with the kinds of problems which call for therapeutic dissolution rather than quasi-scientific solution. And the alternative which is being explored here is precisely this therapeutic one - of attempting not to solve a problem which has been taken at face value, but rather to explore the possibility that one didn't all along understand what one was saying as well as one thought, the possibility that it may result from a 'picture which held us captive'.

In the context of Wittgenstein's philosophy this alternative mode of philosophical endeavour has been described (by Cavell and others) as 'confessional' in character. The theme of confessing to, owning up to, admitting, temptations is especially concentrated in paragraphs 254-369 of the Philosophical Investigations (although it can also be found passim). As James Peterman has noted, Wittgenstein is constantly interested in what we or he is or are 'tempted to say'.

254: ...what a mathematician is inclined to say about the objectivity and reality of mathematical facts, is not a philosophy of mathematics, but something for philosophical treatment.

255: The philosopher's treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness.
277: But how is it even possible for us to be tempted to think that we use a word to mean at one time the.... How can there be so much as a temptation here?
278: "I know how the colour green looks to me" - surely that makes sense! - Certainly: what use of the proposition are you thinking of?
288: My temptation to say that one might take a sensation for something other than it is arises from this: if I assume the abrogation of the normal language game with the expression of sensation, I need a criterion of identity for the sensation; and then the possibility of error also exists'.
298: The very fact that we should so much like to say: "This is the important thing" - while we point privately to the sensation - is enough to show how much we are inclined to say something which gives no information.
299: Being unable - when we surrender ourselves to philosophical thought - to help saying such and such; being irresistibly inclined to say it - does not mean being forced into an assumption, or having an immediate perception or knowledge of a state of affairs.

The neurotic's predicament is a function of his being unable - when he surrenders himself to neurotic thought - to resist the way of looking at, understanding, his life situation inspired by his dominant unconscious phantasies. These phantasies give rise to certain preoccupations, preoccupations which displace the painful absence of successful emotional relationships or rewarding work in his life, but which provide their own numbing and frustrating problematics, problematics that are without any apparent resolution. And what I claimed in the previous post is that the dominant structure of phantasy which provides the neurotic with temporary relief is their quasi-belief in the omnipontence of their thought. And what this amounts to, I claimed, was the belief that their thought can be self-grounding, can sustain itself, with no need of external succour. They can then (imagine themselves to) be, in the Kleinian idiom, their own breast; they no longer need others, nor need submit themselves to the vulnerabilities that real relationships entail (the possibility of being hurt, rejected, left behind, unfed, left mourning).

The philosopher's omnipotent phantasy equivalent, I am claiming, is their apparent assurance in the meaning of their utterances, even in the detached sceptical scenarios which they imagine. Is it not conceivable that I am a brain in a vat? Given that it is so conceivable, do we not need grounds for believing that we are not? Might I not always be in error about the 'external world'? What rationalises the assumptions which are central to my conceptual scheme? I perfectly understand all the words of these questions - at least in their natural application I do so understand them. The self-confidence with which the philosopher proclaims the meaningfulness of their predicaments, the confidence that, even in these obscure, anti-social, un-anchored sceptical contexts their words would still have meaning: this is what I am describing as the 'hypercathexis of the philosophical imagination'. And the belief that our engaged, embodied, embedded, praxical, enactive, expressive, intersubjective, pre-reflective life requires rational grounding in disengaged rational reflective cognition - a form of cognition which is being conceived of as self-sustaining and transparent - is the omnipotence phantasy of the philosophical imagination.


In the above I have claimed that philosophical thought is prey to quasi-neurotic disturbance.

  1. The philosopher may ask questions under the influence of a tacit preconception of how things stand.
  2. This preconception makes way for the construction of putative problems which appear to demand philosophical explanations or theories, or rational reconstructions, by way of solution.
  3. The preconception, however, is a function of an 'alienated' conception of the human's relation to reality. The pre-reflective and praxical foundations of our contact with reality are problematised, and the attempt is made to provide a reflectively rational foundation for our praxical endeavours.
  4. What maintains the apparent viability of the strategies is a blindness to the fragile or even merely apparent meaningfulness of the questions which the philosopher poses to himself, and a blindness to the vacuity of reflective thought which is not itself grounded in practical rationality.

In the next and final post on this topic I consider the question of why philosophers fall foul of such quasi-neurotic predicaments.


Wittgenstein, Diktat fur Schlick, p. 28:

Our [Wittgenstein's] method resembles psychoanalysis in a certain sense. To use its way of putting things, we could say that a simile operating in the
unconscious can be made harmless by being articulated. And the comparison with
psychoanalysis can be developed even further. (And this analogy is certainly no

Unassimilated notes:

The person suffering from a neurosis (i.e. all of us), like the private linguist, indulges in phantasies of being able to feed themselves. Like the idea of free energy, the idea is that we can inwardly sustain ourselves in perpetual motion, or even get out more energy than we put in, thereby creating good feelings ex nihilo. Such phantasies break what we could think of as the 'second law of psycho[thermo]dynamics', ignoring the fact that we need an input of 'milk' or 'love' from outside if the self is to go on surviving. Emotional energy is used to create an inner split, such that an inner giver is separated from an inner receiver. A temporary identification is effected with the inner receiver, who can temporarily experience the pleasure of being fed/loved. Another way of describing this omnipotent state is as a kind of narcissistic hypercathexis of the imagination.

Why we seek therapy, and what we really need from therapy, may be quite different.