Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Davidson, Knowing what you believe

First a snip from Davidson's "Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective" (Pg. 26):

"Burge has suggested that there is another way in which external factors enter into the determination of the contents of speech and thought. One of his 'thought experiments' happens pretty well to fit me. Until recently I believed arthritis was an inflammation of the joints caused by calcium deposits; I did not know that any inflammation of the joints, for example gout, also counted as arthritis. So when a doctor told me (falsely as it turned out) that I had gout, I believed I had gout but I did not believe I had arthritis.

At this point Burge asks us to imagine a world in which I was physically the same but in which the word 'arthritis' happened actually to apply only to inflammation of the joints caused by calcium deposits. Then the sentence 'gout is not a form of arthritis' would have been true, not false, and the belief that I expressed by this sentence would not have been the false belief that gout is not a form of arthritis but a true belief about some disease other than arthritis. Yet in the imagined world all my physical states, my 'internal qualitative experiences', my behavior and dispositions to behave, would have been the same as they are in this world. My belief would have changed, but I would have no reason to suppose that it had, and so could not be said to know what I believed."

This sounds quite unsatisfactory to me, as it seems to follow the reasoning that the act of being right or wrong and knowing what one believes is a matter of being accurate with respect to communicating your state of affairs – or representing them properly. But that puts language use on the plane of being a medium, and knowing your beliefs a matter of using the medium correctly and representatively. It also seems to connect and perhaps conflate language with belief, and/or assumes that to hold a language is to necessarily hold beliefs, right or wrong. In another way, that our rightness and wrongness stands either in relation to correct representation, or how ones word meanings connect with the language community at large (coherence).

Without a language do we not hold beliefs? Maybe? I suppose we could say that, just as truth only exists in language, belief also only exists in language.
But then what does "knowing what we believe" stand in relation to (representation, coherence, what)? And whether or not I'm correct in accurately verbalizing my state of affairs, am I not correct in believing that my hands hurt like a bitch? Which above Davidson says, yes, that we have the same state of affairs, but in this case we don't know what we "believe". But should we seperate belief and know in this way? Hm

I'll have to read on.....

of course I'm not talking here about what I assume Davidson to believe.


  1. I share your unease...

  2. When I get in these situations, Godel's incompleteness theorems always come to mind - our knowledge will always be incomplete, and never known for certain as final.

    At this point, I've seen noone who's been able to get around this fact.

  3. In the 30th Anniversary edition of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, there is included as an afterword an unpublished paper of Rorty's, "The Philosopher as Expert," that also happens to be one of the first things he ever wrote for publication. Besides all the light it sheds on his future arc, and how absurdly funny he is about what philosophers do, he says that:

    "the questioning of presuppositions will not be effective unless one can show that there exist genuine alternatives to these presuppositions, and to show this takes time, patience, and attention to detail. In particular, to show that purported alternatives are genuine involves showing, paradoxically enough, that the world is not radically changed by the new perspective that the adoption of such an alternative involves. Even the greatest philosopher can only suggest how things will look from the new perspective that his new questions create; to fill in the outlines of this suggestion is the work of a generation. ... By its very nature, a new philosophic vision must first appear as a paradox--a notion that, if accepted, would overthrow part or all of the comfortable set of beliefs within which we live and move. New philosophies get a hearing only because no given set of beliefs is ever quite comfortable enough. To get beyond the stage of a preliminary hearing, however, it has to be shown that the new philosophy, in addition to relieving whatever tensions existed between members of our old set of beliefs, will preserve for us all the comforts we've previously enjoyed." (italics mine)

    What muddies this is that what we identify as "comforts" are much of the time up for grabs in philosophy, too. But I think the above was in the back of Rorty's mind through his whole career, and what prompted both his attitude about strong poets remaking culture and, on the other hand, professional philosophy being safely negligible for most people. It is precisely this tension that lies at the heart of pragmatism in general, between its impetus to say "all is new" (found more in Rorty) and "let's get back to common sense" (found more in later Putnam).

    James and Dewey moved quickly between both, which is why the spirit of the conflict between Rorty and Putnam is so odd--most of their disagreements seem like a matter of which perspective you're pointing out of. Rorty, I think, found the best way of putting it, which is to make a distinction between, first, short-term and long-term, and say that pragmatism in the short-term is revisionary only for philosophy, but not common sense (it makes philosophy new, but not most of the shit we do day to day, like navigate via maps), but that in the long-term it is revisionary for common sense--that in the barely glimpsed, distant future, philosophical revisionists see the outlines of how their specifically philosophical alterations will seep into the common consciousness and have desirable results (in pragmatism's case, getting people to stop worshiping things outside of their fellow humans).

    This is all to say 1) Psi is someone that thinks some of our comforts are being left behind, and that's the impetus behind me saying resolution of these difficulties are possibly beyond the scope of a comment bank-and-forth. We need to know specifically, and in detail, what comforts we all think we need and don't need and how everything hooks up between our different ways of enunciating things. For instance, Psi thinks that the idea of "representation" is a comfort needed, but left behind by pragmatism. The angle my own pressure has come from has been: all I see presented are commonsensical comforts that philosophical pragmatism has no problem with--either present a philosophical conception of representation or admit you're a non-realist (which is to say, someone who's given up seeing the philosophical debate between realism and anti-realism as important). (This isn't to say that the burden of proof is wholly on Psi, for it is just as needed on my end to make more articulate just what counts as a "philosophical conception" and what a "commonsensical conception.")

    And 2) I think your suspicions, Andrew, arise in this case from a piece of "here's what hasn't changed." This isn't to say, however, that in the end you and Davidson won't end up disagreeing about worthy comforts, but I'm pretty sure nothing Davidson is saying here (or anywhere, really) is representationalistic. I have a number of reasons for thinking so off the cuff (watching, for instance, Rorty--the arch-antirepresentationalist--change his mind on a number of substantive issues over the years due to Davidsonian pressures), but I would start here:

    The "act of being right or wrong and knowing what one believes" is not "a matter of being accurate with respect to communicating your state of affairs," but rather a matter of being right or wrong about it and knowing whether you were right or wrong about it. The ability to articulate is extraordinarily important to Davidson, and you're right, Davidson is conflating the ability to have a belief with the ability to use language. We can attribute beliefs to all sorts of inanimate objects to help explain their behavior (e.g., "The computer believed a virus was going to eat your memory card, so it shut down suddenly"), but are we going to say they have beliefs? We could, but this is a path to a kind of counter-intuitive panpsychism--if an object can't communicate its beliefs to you, then Davidson would rather say it didn't have any.

    Aside from this, though, I can't entirely comment because it is unclear to me whether he's simply explicating Tyler Burge (a former student of his), explicating to endorse, or at some point reverting to his own point of view before the end of the quotation. (I don't have time to see for myself.) My suspicion is that Davidson is simply trying to articulate, once again as he is wont to do, the interconnectedness of belief, truth, meaning, language, and the world (and a bunch of others).

    If you're going into Davidson for the first time with that collection, and with your particular set of concerns, I would begin with the "Objective" section of the book, particularly "A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge" with its "Afterword." The afterword is an enlightening comment in relation to Rorty where he basically says, "I think everything before is basically right, I just wish I hadn't called it a 'coherence theory.'" Which is about right--his "correspondence without confrontation" isn't a correspondence theory, but neither is it a coherence theory. It's a rejection of the underlying problematic, our schemes (or representations) fitting the content (the world, sensations, whatever). "The Myth of the Subjective" in the first part is a good recapitulation of his seminal rejection of the scheme/content distinction.

  4. Matt K,

    After I've finished the one I'm reading, I'll follow your advice re Davidson.

    Is representation a 'comfort' in the sense you described? Perhaps. I'm interested in your idea that pragmatism has no difficulty with the common sense accounts of representation that I have presented. What I'm sceptical about is the idea that once we enter the magical realm of philosophy talk, these accounts will be found wanting. In other words, I'm with the modern philosophers who are unconvinced by the idea that pragmatism is revisionary in this way.

    What I'm also intrigued by is the idea that we can't sort this out because of the limitations of this format. I rather think that the limitations are my own, I simply lack the skill at the moment to present a rigorous philosophical case, although I think my arguments thus far have been ok.

  5. My aim of extracting that particular quote from Davidson was that it struck me as potentially sliding into the following sorts of accusations (NOTE: I don’t assume that the quote represents Davidson’s overall view, but merely an example for another purpose. So I’m here just throwing out what the quote BY ITSELF speaks):

    This sort of argument grants a particular group or person the license to say, “You don’t know what you believe, and therefore you are wrong.” And just leave it at that. Hey religious person, since you cannot convey the meanings of your beliefs in a manner which is consistent with my underlying philosophy, then you don’t know what you believe, and your religion is bullshit.

    Not to pick on Psi, but to grab a common statement from people in general, he stated earlier (and I paraphrase): Christianity is somewhat dependent upon at least some things in the bible being objectively true. So then, who is that a stumbling block for? Me, or the person that would assert it? Some would then state that the burden of proof is on me to show how this isn’t the case, but then I’d be asked to do this within the context of the others philosophical view point. Of course, I don’t see that statement as being the case, which is why I posted the quote, “Myths are public dreams - dreams are private myths.”

    This is furthermore why I made the statement earlier that it is reason itself which is constraining. It constrains, in this instance, ones ability to understand metaphorical concepts outside the grasp of reason.

    I’ll get to all of this in anther post, but for this thread, my main point in another way, whether or not we “know what we believe” in the manner stated above is to a high degree irrelevant (at least to me) with respect to our knowledge of what a given belief does for us. The above example seems a bit “trivial” (those quotes are scare quotes) in that, believing one has gout vs. arthritis can still serve quite well to convey the idea that my hands hurt as they both are known to cause pain. Whether or not the underlying meaning of the word is grasped from its medical context is irrelevant to the rhetorical place the word takes in the statement. I could say that, “My hand hurts like a bitch,” well, what’s a bitch hurt like? Do I know what I believe in this instance? Or say, “My hands hurt, I believe I have gout and not arthritis as I previously thought,” of course the reason your hand hurts has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that you hold that particular belief, right or wrong. Further more, the statement will only completely be grasped by people who have had gout, or by people who have had arthritis. As well, the words themselves take places within a medical language practice and science, but in this instance you’re not using the words to be scientific, you’re merely trying to tell someone how you feel.

    It would be different if the context were different; suppose I’m the doctor that makes the statement, “your hand hurts because you have gout, not arthritis,” in the long run this categorical error by me (the doctor) could have a negative impact on how I manage the pain and treatment of a patient, and therefore its critical that I be not merely rhetorical; that what I “believe” leads to the best possible patient care.

    At the bottom of it all, can I be wrong about my base “feels”? Or am I just wrong about how I try to convey them? And is that incorrect conveyance an example of me not knowing what may or may not be going on with me? God makes me feel spiritual…. Do I know that?

  6. Not to go off on a tangent, but let me put a spin on something I said:

    Let’s suppose this blog isn’t about philosophy or religion, but it’s about art, painting and sculpture. A couple times a week I post a piece, make some commentary and a conversation ensues.

    I’d like to suggest, for the sake of this comment, that there are two different ways we could go about having a conversation about a given piece; A.) we could talk about what the painter was trying to get across, what he was trying to convey by the painting, or B.) we could talk about what we think about the painting.

    I would say that “A” is purely academic and generally focuses on historical and cultural aspects; where was the painter from, what was his life like, when did he live, what were the historical and cultural contingencies that led to him painting the piece and what does it mean (and it’s a bit realist from that perspective). On the other hand, “B” doesn’t care about all those academic contingencies but looks only at ourselves and what we think about the painting now. It takes the painting out of its context and contemplates it within the world we live in today.

    Often in conversation you find people switching back and forth between these perspectives without even realizing a switch took place, and these switches can really separate us as humanity. When we start being academic about religion, for example, it separates people on trivial grounds. It’s akin to arguing the meaning of a painting because one person thinks contingency “A” infers meaning “X”, while another person thinks contingency “B” infers meaning “Y”. Whereas these questions are important to a given purpose, they separate us here and now based on trivialities. And not that those questions and answers are trivial in and of themselves, but the differences and/or barriers they create between people are there for trivial reasons. This is one reason why we should see religion as an army of metaphors, something to be understood within the context of how we live today, and not something to be argued over within an academic perspective.

  7. Psi said:
    I'm interested in your idea that pragmatism has no difficulty with the common sense accounts of representation that I have presented. What I'm sceptical about is the idea that once we enter the magical realm of philosophy talk, these accounts will be found wanting.

    There was an old modus operandi engendered by late Wittgenstein that went something like "philosophical problems are created by taking language out of its real home--common sense--and putting into a new, foreign context--philosophy." The Philosophical Investigations helped create what went by the name "Oxford philosophy" or "ordinary language philosophy."

    While there is something of a re-rise in this idea (by people like Cavell, Putnam and a number of their students), most have gotten over the idea that there is anything like a "correct context" for any words, phrases, ideas, etc. But the latent wisdom in the idea, I think, is that, at the very least, common sense and philosophy are two different contexts, with different problems.

    There is always going to be an interplay between the two contexts, just as there are in all contexts we might pick out, but I take it as important to have an idea of how we move back and forth between the two, as they are usually hidden (and disagreed upon amongst philosophers and laypeople alike). Reading Davidson and going to the doctor have two different sets of potential problems, despite the fact that we can see Davidson pulling something from the latter context to help with his, and we can try to pull out something from Davidson to deal with doctors--we just have to be careful doing it.

    In the particular case of representation, I understand what you mean by the map representing the terrain of England, and how if it failed in representing southern England accurately, I would have a hard time getting from London to Bath. That's what I would call the common sense context. The trouble is that in going to philosophy, you have to make an analogy between the map and language and the terrain and "the world." The near obvious equality of the two latter terms gives a tremendous amount of plausibility for the efficacy of the analogy, but the suggestion of pragmatists from James to Putnam has been that we, in the end, can't make sense of the language-world set, even if we still can of the map-terrain set.

    Psi said:
    What I'm also intrigued by is the idea that we can't sort this out because of the limitations of this format. I rather think that the limitations are my own, I simply lack the skill at the moment to present a rigorous philosophical case, although I think my arguments thus far have been ok.

    Well, I would be the first to acknowledge my own lack of skills. The trouble is that we are amateurs sifting through professional material and trying to make some sense of it. In my experience, format does have a tremendous impact of what one can and cannot get done, that different purposes are sometimes better served by different formats.

    Professionals write books and essays--big, long things. While not always the most productive uses of space, we do have to admit that some of their ideas really do need that much space to articulate convincingly. Us amateurs have two primary difficulties to our efforts: 1) we don't have that much space--a blog isn't a good format for 20,000 words and comments sections aren't good for 1,000 words (just look at some of my comments--barely readable, partly because of length). 2) we probably don't have the skills to fill that much space anyways. So, in the end because us amateurs don't digest large amounts of each other's writing terribly well (the blog style is different from the book style--we sit with books, but with blogs we typically read once, and then comment immediately), we have to make a virtue out of the conditions we find ourselves in.

    Which we might say is something like 1) become good at condensing (of summarizing and presenting hard nuggets of wisdom), 2) become good at being modular (of presenting things that don't require a lot of previous context--just the context that's there), 3) become good at not putting too much pressure on either yourself or your interlocutors (we're all in the same semi-articulate boat), and 4) become used to irresolution (demonstration and changes of mind are probably out, so instead suggestion and continuing the conversation should be focused on).

  8. Andrew,

    I think, having read your two latest posts, that the problem is like this: neither of us believe god is real or that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, both of us recognise the value of religion to the community of believers. So what, essentially is the difference between us?

  9. Matt K,

    I agree with what you say regarding the format and the limitations that non professional philosophers have in operating within it.

    I think there still might be a way to progress, but in order to understand our differences in sufficient detail, I need to do some reading for a while.

    In going to philosophy the issue is whether the failure to make sense of the language-world set really does invalidate the notion of representation. Further, the question will be whether the concept of representation that I seek to defend will end up in the permitted category of common sense, the forbidden category of faulty philosophy, or whether the boundaries of these categories need redrawing.

    In short, I'll get back to you....

    PS I did like your ideas about irresolution. Just occasionally though, people do surprise you and declare a change of mind in the light of arguments presented. I have done it, and occasionally I have witnessed it. But as lawyers say, they will experience a witness breaking down on the stand maybe once or twice in a career.

  10. Well, Psi,
    I've been tempted to make the same comment. I'd say the differences are trivial, but then that trivializes the points of view.

    I too am deffinately open to changing my mind - although I'd suggest it's more accurate to say that I simply haven't made up my mind.

  11. On the other hand, I have strong affections for mysticism; that I don’t believe in virgin births and people coming back from the dead is only to say that within the context of thought we have today, (and looking through an objective lens) such a thing doesn’t make any sense. But to deny it outright on those grounds is, I think, is to miss the point.

    In this sense, I (as apposed to you, maybe) have no problem with saying, “Jesus died for our sins”, or that, “Salvation is had through faith is Jesus Christ”. The fun comes, I suppose, in interpreting what these things mean or what the point is.

  12. No, there again I have affection for mysticism, and I think I can say 'Jesus died for our sins' and feel its resonance. But like you, I don't actually believe he rose again. So we are still struggling to find a substantive difference maybe. After all, I wouldn't deny it outright either.

    With the fun of interpreting though, its all vry well until someone loses an eye :-)

  13. Loosing eyes, I'd suggest (and I've talked about this in the past) is merely a product of viewing ones religion, philosophy, whathaveyou, through an absolutists lens.

    For me, the foundation of any fundamentalist dogma is absolutism (whether religious or atheist) - which is why I lean so hard on representation and the like. Although, as it turns out, not your form of it.

    For example, I've always had my suspicions that people like R. Dawkins and S. Harris are nothing but fundies of a different ilk.

  14. Anonymous8:29 PM

    Truth and Reality always already exists prior to whatever you think or believe about it.

    Reality does not think.

    Do the giant Redwood trees, or any of the non-humans think or believe anything?

    And yet they carry on their activities with a graceful ease that makes us human appear dreadfully aberrated--which we are.

    What happens when you nightly go into the state of deep dreamless and formless sleep?

    You at your depth level (the Witness Consciousness) are still there/here and the entire cosmic display, including your bodily processes still continues.

    And when you "wake up" into your state of normal dreadful sanity your thinking/believing mind automatically slices up the Indivisible Unity of Existence-Being into seemingly separate bits and pieces.

  15. Anon, you said:
    "Truth and Reality always already exists prior to whatever you think or believe about it."

    Ok, great! Since you're so confident of this, perhaps you could enlighten us as to what that is?

    Perhaps you could start with an enlightened definition of "truth" and "reality"