Friday, 30 August 2013

on how we know what we think

About once or twice a day I receive an automated email from one Anastasia Friel Gutting supplying the latest Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews review. This is a fantastic service, although it's a bit dispiriting just how many philosophy books there are being published these days, and it's not possible to read even the reviews of more than a small portion. (It's also a bit dispiriting how chronically professionalised the whole business of academic philosophy has become. Reviews also often end, a bit like those legion self-serving empirical psychology papers, with some 'clearly this is very important work but there are still some flaws and so lots more work [and presumably lots of funding please too for this ever so important task] is now needed'. About which only: UGH!!!) At any rate, here's one that just came in and caught my attention - a review by Lauren Ashwell of Jordi Fernández' Transparent Minds: A Study of Self-Knowledge (Oxford University Press, 2013). It caught my attention because of a strikingly baffling premise inexplicitly built into it from the get-go, a premise I will question here.

Ashwell talks of how Fernández is interested in 'how we introspect' our beliefs and desires. But we're not told what is meant by 'introspect'. Whether, for example, it is something which happens very often. Whether it is something that is supposed to happen when you ask what I believe or feel and I am able to tell you. Now it might be said that it is the name for whatever the means is by which we come to know what we believe and desire. What I want to point out here though is just how un-innocent the assumption is that there is any 'how', any means or method, at all to something here being called our 'knowing' what we believe. That seems like a massive assumption, and I can't for the life of me think what motivates it - unless I saddle the philosopher promoting it with a prior commitment to an extremely alienated conception of the self (I'll say more of what I mean by this below).

Thus we are told that 'Fernández's account of introspection, like many others, takes its inspiration from Gareth Evans' remarks about introspection -- roughly, that in order to find out whether you believe that p, you simply ask whether p is true.' With this assumption in place from the start - the assumption that it makes straightforward sense to talk of finding out whether I myself believe that p - we then are treated to the inevitable causal theory:  'that when you ask whether p, you are looking for whether you are in a state that normally causes you to believe that p. The normal cause of M [Fernández] labels the ground for M. He calls his model of introspection the "bypass" model; you "bypass" looking for the mental state directly, and look for whether you are in a state that would be a normal cause of that mental state.' The discussion that follows in the book and the review will then treat of the various cases that can and cannot be accommodated by the causal theory in question. A whole host of complex philosophical theorising ensues...

But, really, why should we accept that there is any such thing as finding out whether I believe that p? What work is the concept of coming to know doing here, what discriminations does it afford in this context? There is in ordinary discourse at least one context in which we do talk of finding out what we think about p: it is when we haven't made up our minds yet, and we think it over and thereby arrive at a belief. But there's no reason at all that I can see why this would be called 'introspection'. Instead it is an active process of belief construction.

When you ask me what I believe or feel, and I tell you, what I normally do (...but you tell me what you do if it's interestingly different...) is to speak from my belief or from my feeling. I'm not normally speaking from somewhere else inside me, some other vantage point from which I must now try to access some other portion of myself (where the belief or feeling is, as it were, stored away). To ape Wittgenstein: you can often enough find out what I think or feel by asking me; I however do not need to find out what I think or feel. I do not need to find this out because my being and my believing are not two separate things. Therefore there is, it seems to me, typically no 'introspecting' and no question of a 'how' to be answered by any theory whatsoever; there is no access required.

'I know what I believe!'; 'I know what I feel!'. Sure, I can imagine uses for those phrases - such as when you question or interpret me and I self-righteously resist your usurping of my first-person authority. In pointing this out I am not trying to use an ordinary language philosophy approach to disappear the issue on the philosophical table, but only inviting the philosopher to now actually say what they do mean, since they clearly don't mean what we ordinarily mean, by the notion under consideration. It's not that they can't use words in news ways - in fact, bring it on! - but we need to be told what the work is that these notions - of 'coming to know what I feel' - are to be doing.

So, yes, why might someone come to think that there was some 'how' to be answered as to 'how I know what I believe or feel'? Here's the only way I can think myself into that epistemologised self-predicament. First I imagine myself not as living immanently within my understandings and feelings, but as residing somehow behind or set back from them. And now it really will be the case that I seem to require access of some sort to them. Now I need to find out what I believe or feel. If I really want to entrench this alienated philosophical disposition further in me, then I keep hold of such an epistemologised conception of my capacity to avow or express my beliefs and feelings, and point out just how magical the idea of, as we would now put it, 'just knowing' is. Perhaps it smacks of some Cartesian immediacy of self-presence: the mind that knows itself glowingly and gloriously in its own automatic reflexive glaze and glare. That is surely something we must do away with by wheeling out a thoroughly naturalistic alternative account. Or perhaps I can entrench it further by thinking about those cases where indeed we do all want to talk of failures of self-knowledge (cases drawn from psychoanalysis, perhaps), and then just assert without further ado that in the normal case what therefore we must have to do with are success stories. Other methods of auto-entrenchment may also be available.

What none of these options yet do, however, is to get the epistemologising project - the project of legitimating the idea that there is some knowing, some success, some access, some achievement, some arriving, some how, some means, involved in my everyday ability to state what I feel and think - off the ground. Sure, give me some examples of the communicational work that can be done by the notion of knowing what I believe or think - work that doesn't collapse into those readily available notions of strong-mindedness or interpersonal resistance or of overcoming internal repressive forces - and I'll be the first to concede that there is a need for a theory of 'how we know what' we think and feel. Until then: thanks, but let's hold the causal theory.

Sunday, 11 August 2013


Here's a recent BBC article which presents us with another undelightful concoction of CBT pop-philosophy. 'CBT', we are told, 'is based on the idea that problems aren't caused by situations themselves, but by how we interpret them in our thoughts. These can then affect our feelings and actions.' There follows the obligatory schematic of situations and an individual's thoughts and feelings and actions linked up with bidirectional arrows (we're not told what the arrows represent - causal relations? intentional relations? rational relations? who knows...).

There's something rather helpful about this presentation of the now widespread Pop Individualist Stoic Schematics (henceforth I'll just use the acronym), in that it does rather lay bare to the passingly critical mind some of the confusions at the heart of this vision of the human condition which, being second to none in its triteness and banality, remains such a constant embarrassment to the discipline of psychology.

Let's take the PISS notion of 'situations' (also often glossed as 'things') for starters. For the contrast (not by the situations themselves, but by our interpretations of these situations) to get off the ground we presumably need to have access to a concept of 'situation' which doesn't already have built into it too much by way of meaning-laden-ness - so as not to approach too closely (and obviate) the 'interpretation' which we are told mediates our emotional reactions or 'problems'. At an extreme we might perhaps take 'situations' to be intrinsically devoid of meaning, dead as it were, all the meaning being supplied by the individual's interpretative responses to, or overlay on, them. (This perhaps-pre-requisite deadening of the lifeworld is perhaps also why the stoic adage is often rendered in terms of mere 'things': 'not by things but by our interpretations of things...')

And then on the other hand we're going to have to be careful with our concept of 'interpretation' - weaving a course away from something which risks reconstruction in terms like 'meaning-sensitivity', 'uptake', 'grasp [of meaning]', 'getting [the sense of]' (since if we get too close to meaning-finding and too far from meaning-making we will lose the sense of the contrast (not by situations but by interpretations of situations...)), but which doesn't in the process take us too close to something implausibly intellectualist. By the latter I have in mind anything too literally interpretative - i.e. as when we aid our understanding by substituting the initially unperspicuous words of a text for certain other phrases which, for certain ends in a given context, can be taken as less opaque.

Now neither of these extreme readings - of 'situations', of 'interpretation' - is presumably going to find many supporters in an even slightly reflective psychological milieu. For on the 'external' side the very idea of a situation, especially as we encounter it in sociology, is of an event or context which is already run through with socially specified norms which pre-specify a range of correct, incorrect, apt, inappropriate, dismal or hopeful or what-have-you responses. And, on the 'internal' side the idea that our finding or discerning or imputing meaning in our situations is a function of anything as cognitively rich as something akin to genuine interpretation can hardly seem anything other than hyperbolic.

So on both the 'situation' and the 'interpretation' side we are, on reflective appreciation of what we could allow ourselves to sensibly mean by our talk of such matters, likely to want to slide towards the middle - taking situations as already to some degree meaningful without individual help from us readers of them, and taking what is being referred to here as 'interpretation' as to some degree a matter of sensitivity rather than of idiosyncratic and reflective making-something-particular-out-of-ness  (the 'how we interpret them in our thoughts' bit). But then, I want to ask, are we still really confident that we know exactly what we are talking about when we say now that psychological 'problems' are a function of interpretation rather than of situation? Can we really hold these two far apart from one another in an obvious and reliable way without them jostling up against / collapsing into one another in the middle? Can we avoid the defunct dualistic conception of the human as split into a meaningful interior which inhabits a meaningless exterior, and instead bring ourselves home to the embodiment of our dasein, the fleshliness of the social, whilst yet still holding out any hope that the PISS formulation can do anything for us?

Unemployment and social isolation are what social psychiatry identifies as amongst the most powerful causes of depression. Is it really a helpful take on this to come from family home into one's job in the clinic and say to one's patient 'but you're just caught up in an unhelpful take on your predicament me old mate'? 'Look at it this way: you have no commitments or responsibilities to anyone, you have a lot of free time to yourself; you're just taking a perfectly innocuous situation in which you happen to not be in frequent geometric proximity to others and laying on top of it all of this unhelpful interpretative paintwork by construing it evaluatively in terms like 'isolation', 'loneliness' etc.' Now of course no-one really thinks this, and I should probably stop taking the PISS so seriously. To talk in that way is just as absurd as to suppose that the causal effects of unemployment and isolation are brute de re facts akin to the causal effects on mood of, say, low serotonin (or what have you).

But my point, recall, is not in any way to try and position the causality underlying emotional problems as either meaning-involving or brute, or anywhere in between, but instead to put pressure on the idea that we really know what we're talking about when we say things like 'not due to situations, but due to our readings of them.' For the fact seems to be: that some, perhaps many, readings are a matter of uptake and not of (non-dynamic) projection; that some of the emotionally significant meaning is there to be found and not to be made; that the concept of a 'situation' is typically of something necessarily already meaningful - already woven through with trans-individual emotionally salient senses of significance; that both problems and joys (both our access to reality and impairments of that access) arise naturally and equally through an admixture of meanings found and imposed; that often problems emerge not from our interpretations of our situations but from the thought-and-feeling-and-understanding-numbing consequences of an instinctual defensive recoil away from those painful feelings that we avoid; that the 'interpretations' which we meet with in the patient are often enough the result of the distorting effect of defenses operating on feelings rather than something driving the problems-in-feeling under their own steam; etc. (To say nothing of the fact that, surely, some problems are somewhat brute - take the unwanted side-effects of certain psychiatric medications for example, or the impact of damage to this or that part of the brain.)

In fact, to get nearer to the psychopathological truth it seems to me that we have to become much more specific and phenomenologically acute about what we mean by our 'interpretations' of our situations. And at the end of this process, I submit, we might look around and find ourselves a million miles away from anything like the nice breezy PISS formulation and allied boxological models of the human condition. (We ultimately arrive, I would submit, at something which looks a lot more like the primitive embodied unconscious phantasies described by the psychoanalysts - phantasies that much more beset us than are entertained by us, phantasies which pay little respect to the laws of rational sense-making - than at anything that naturally invites us to engage in talk of 'interpreting'. But I won't try to make that case here! In any case, to imagine that one could promote the grasp, through a bare schematic assertion of the psychodynamic and phenomenological facts, of what is what here really would amount to the analytic kettle calling the PISS pot black.)

Read the PISS in as interpretatively charitable a way as possible and we arrive at something which one would have to be pretty much insane to deny. But also, I suggest, at something which will either need to be so vaguely broad, or so idiosyncratically finessed, that one would also have to be pretty much insane to imagine that its articulation in the clothes it normally wears could serve any fathomable human purpose.