Tuesday, October 16, 2007

First Meeting of the Year!

The Mind Workshop met for its first meeting of the year the other week. There are a couple of changes: instead of spending the year mixing it up between student presentations and our ongoing reading, this year we will read for the first half of the year, and then have a series of student presentations beginning towards the end of the Winter Quarter, and continuing through the Spring. Nat has handed the co-ordinator's baton on to me, so if you'd like to present later in the year (and slots are filling up fast), or have any questions about the workshop, get in touch with me (wsmall AaTtt uchicago D. O. T edu).

Our readings this year will be on the topic of disjunctivism. We'll be reading a series of classic and contemporary articles, rather than a book.

The first meeting saw a healthy mix of old faces, new faces, ex-agitators, lapsed members, and a Swede who somehow fell into apparently incompatible categories. Our first reading was McDowell's 'Knowledge and the Internal'; there was beer, but no pizza. David F kicked things off with a brief presentation. Here's a sketchy recap:

If we 'interiorize' the space of reasons, we are left with four options:
(i) scepticism;
(ii) the 'touching and naive' view that we can get from the appearances (which are consistent with falsity) to certainty [Brandom calls this dogmatism];
(iii) a thoroughgoing externalism that isn't interested in justification but instead carves the world up into those things that are reliable indicators and those things that are not [Brandom calls this gonzo externalism];
(iv) the 'hybrid view' that will be McDowell's focus. According to this view, justification is important (unlike the gonzo view), but it doesn't 'reach all the way' to the facts; when I have knowledge, it is in part due to the world doing me a favour --- this favour is external to any standing of mine in the space of reasons.

There's a question about who actually holds the hybrid view. No one is mentioned by name (Peacocke's and Blackburn's views are in the vicinity, but aren't the target); David suggested that perhaps McDowell has (or had, when K&theI was written) Sellars in mind.

The ensuing discussion focused largely on two issues:
(1) Just what objection is put to the hybrid view by this question of McDowell's: "But if there cannot be...standings in the space of reasons [that simply consist in a cognitive purchase on an objective fact, i.e., if the truth requirement on knowledge is conceived as external to the space of reasons], how can reason have the resources it would need in order to evaluate the reliability of belief-forming policies or habits?" (402-403, in the reprint in Meaning, Knowledge, and Reality (HUP 1998))?
Aidan insisted, for some time, that a Sellars/Davidson-style view was capable of rationally assessing the reliability of belief-forming policies by appealing to holistic considerations. (or, at least, he challenged McDowell to show that such considerations could not satisfy the demand for rational assessment). Various people tried various tacks in trying to respond. My thought was that, for any given belief, the holistic considerations that could tell for or against adopting that belief would be just the same considerations that could tell for or against revising the belief-forming practice; thus, there would not be the requisite friction between first- and second-order 'policies'. But this, like all the offerings, didn't satisfy Aidan...

(2) What is the nature of McDowell's response, if indeed he has one, to the sceptic? Is it a consequence of McDowell's disjunctivism that, though perceptual knowledge is possible (pace the sceptic), one is never in a position to know whether one is in a good or bad case (thus opening a new wedge for the sceptic)? McDowell's answer to the latter question seems to be in the second half of n.19, and seems to be 'no', though no one was quite able to articulate the argument for this convincingly. (Sebastian Roedl, in his recent book Self-Consciousness, and in his talk to the Wittgenstein workshop at the end of last year attempts to articulate this 'no', but I don't have the references handy.)

The workshop meets again tomorrow, in Cobb 101 6pm-8pm, when Stina Backstrom will kick off our discussion of Brandom's response to K&theI, 'Knowledge and the Social Articulation of the Space of Reasons', and McDowell's response to that response, 'Knowledge and the Internal Revisited'.

As always, feel free to post comments and corrections; I'll try to get the recap of our meetings blogged more quickly in the future...

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Philosophy Audio

Jason Voigt has been putting up lots of philosophy in audio format. He just posted conversations between McDowell and Davidson and Dummett and Davidson, and a bunch of interviews with Quine, in addition to the Brandom mentioned in the previous post.

Davidson and McDowell, Davidson and Dummett

Quine and Block, Dennett, Dreben, Boolos, Goldfarb


Wilfrid Sellars

Thanks again, Jason.

**UPDATE, 8/2/08: Only the Brandom link is currently active, the others are down.**
**UPDATE, 8/12/08: A Sellars Lecture has been added, hat tip to Alptekin Sanli**

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Brandom's Locke Lectures

Our technology correspondent, Jason Voigt, has made MP3s of Robert Brandom's Locke Lectures that are available for download here.

Jason says: "First, anyone looking for an initial point of entry can find a decent summary of each of the lectures here. Second, Brandom has also presented an overview of the new project and discussed its motivations in a lecture available here."

Thanks, Jason.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Davidson Video Series

Inspired by our acquisition and viewing of the Strawson-Evans conversation on truth, Jason Voigt has suggested that the library order a massive series of interviews with Davidson. Jason sent me this blurb:

"In this comprehensive video archive, Professor Davidson defends his position in a series of intensive one-on-one conversations each scrutinizing a particular topic; he participates in a summit panel discussion with W. V. Quine and Sir Peter Strawson which explores some similarities and differences between them; and he speaks candidly in a scene-setting biographical interview with Rudolf Fara of the London School of Economics. The Davidson Series is a major resource for teaching from undergraduate upwards as well as an important research archive. The series contains nineteen VHS videos (available in all formats) and a Series Guide."

Anyone interested in finding out more about the series can check out this link.

The series is expensive, so it might require more than one request before the library buys the series. If you're interested, you can email the bibliographer for philosophy at:


If the library does purchase the series, we could have a contest to see who can watch the most of it. It contains about 20+ hours of footage.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Can You Have a Demonstrative Thought About a Color?

Last night the workshop met for the final time this academic year to discuss Rachel Goodman's paper "Demonstrative Thoughts as a Response to Lewis". Both the paper and discussion were complicated and interesting. I'll just summarize a few central topics here.

Rachel's target was anyone who wanted to respond to Jackson's knowledge argument by saying that what Mary acquires when she leaves her black and white room is the ability to have demonstrative thoughts about colors. Jason and David tentatively suggested that they were interested in that way of describing what happens to Mary when she leaves the room during the last meeting of the workshop.

Rachel's strategy was to try to show that there are disanalogies between a paradigmatic kind of demonstrative thought that concerns objects individuated according to their location in space and time and putatively demonstrative thoughts that concern colors. If the disanalogies are great enough then it would be a mistake to say that what happens to Mary when she leaves the room is that she acquires the ability to have demonstrative thoughts about colors.

First Disanalogy

The central disanalogy that Rachel wanted to argue for involved the possibility of a certain kind of failure that is present in the case of demonstrative thoughts about spatio-temporal objects that isn't present (she claimed) in the case of (putative) demonstrative thoughts about colors. That failure is the following:

It is possible to have the thought That cup is blue, while thinking about a BOTTLE, and still successfully have an object-dependent thought about the bottle. That is, you can apply the wrong sortal and still succeed in having a thought that is about an object (as long as it is in roughly the right place in space and time). Rachel wanted to say that in such a case you still succeed in having an object-dependent demonstrative thought.

In contrast, Rachel claimed, you can't have the same kind of failure in the case of a putatively demonstrative thought about a color. So, for example, it wouldn't be possible to think That color is beautiful, while getting the sortal wrong and still having an object-dependent demonstrative thought. It wouldn't make sense to say that you managed to have a thought about a TEXTURE or a SHAPE, for example, if you took yourself to be referring to a color. It was on the basis of this disanalogy that Rachel claimed it wasn't possible to have demonstrative thoughts about colors.

Members of the workshop objected to this line of reasoning in different ways.

Jason didn't think you could have an object-dependent demonstrative thought in the case where you apply the wrong sortal to the cup.

Justin suggested that there was a corresponding kind of failure in the case of a color, if the sortal was chosen correctly. So, for example, you might think That pastel is beautiful, and be mistaken about the fact that the color you demonstrated was a pastel (maybe it was flourescent or neutral).

Second Disanalogy

At another point in the discussion, Rachel said that unlike demonstrative thoughts about spatio-temporal objects, thoughts about colors didn't involve a "mapping" of egocentric features onto objective features. When you have a demonstrative thought about spatio-temporal objects, you think about That cup both as located in space relative to you and as located in objective space. But in the case of putative demonstrative thoughts about colors, Rachel claimed that there wasn't an analogous mapping of subjective features (in this case, something like color phenomenology) onto anything objective. I objected to this suggestion because insofar as someone can recognize a difference between how things seem to him (say I'm wearing 3-D glasses and everything appears either red or green) and how those things really are colored, then there is the possibility of a "mapping" of subjective features of experience onto (more or less) objective features.

There was also discussion of McDowell's notion that having a demonstrative thought about a color involved the presence of a sample. Jason and David discussed the possibility of a thought that depended not on the presence of the object that it is about, but on the presence of some other object (the sample). We didn't make much headway on this topic, however.

After the workshop, we watched a discussion between Gareth Evans and P.F. Strawson on the nature of truth, filmed for the Open University in 1973.

This was the last meeting of the mind workshop for this year. The workshop will resume in the fall, with a new grad student organizer: Will Small.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

McKinney on Biosemantics; Lewis on Experience

At this week's mind workshop, Tucker McKinney presented some of his work on Millikan, and Jason presented on David Lewis's "What Experience Teaches". Jason proposed that what happens to Mary when she leaves the black and white room is that she acquires demonstrative concepts of the colors.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

David Velleman

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Winter Quarter Update

The Mind Workshop had its last meeting of the winter quarter last Wednesday. We discussed chapters 5 and 6 of Campbell's Reference and Consciousness. We decided that next quarter we would switch to a brand new format, based around the best papers in philosophy of mind rather than books.

The first meeting of the workshop will be March 28, when we will meet to discuss a new paper by Martin Gustafsson, of the University of Stockholm. Martin's paper is a defense of contextualist accounts of communication against recent attacks by Cappelen and Lepore and our own Jason Bridges.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Justin Shaddock, "Passive Experience and the Freedom of Spontaneity"

Last night the philosophy of mind workshop met to discuss Justin Shaddock's "Passive Experience and the Freedom of Spontaneity" and the first two chapters of John Campbell's Reference and Consciousness. We started with a discussion of Justin's paper.

Justin argued that there is a prima facie problem with McDowell's Kantian theory of perception. If you accept that experience is conceptual, and you accept that the conceptual necessarily involves spontaneity, and spontaneity is a form of freedom, then it looks difficult to hold on to the idea that experience is passive. Obviously, there are a couple different options you might take to relieve this tension: you can reject the idea that experience is conceptual; you can reject the idea that the conceptual essentially involves a form of freedom; or you can do what Justin does and say that there's a way to see experience as caught up with the freedom characteristic of concepts.

Justin's main claim is that the content of experience can not only play a justificatory role, but that it can actually be changed when your conceptual capacities change. So, for example, pyrite might look like gold to someone who doesn't know the difference between pyrite and gold, but to a person who is trained to recognize the difference between pyrite and gold, pyrite will look different (to the trained eye). So a change in conceptual capacities produces a change in the content of experience.

David worried about the following possibility: If you think that the world (in some sense) contains "looks", so that it is just a fact that one of the lines in the Müller-Lyer illusion looks longer than the other, even if the illusion is so well-known that you would never judge that the lines are different lengths. So the content of your experience is just what it was when you began: one line looks longer than the other. But you're never taken in by the illusion--you know the lines are the same length.

Others, like Ben, felt that the idea that the content of our experience changed as a result of a change in our conceptual capacities was just intuitively implausible. The experience of John the tie salesman doesn't change after he learns that blue ties look green under the yellow lights of the tie-shop--he just gets better at responding to ties that look green in the shop by saying "That's a blue one". There was some argument about how best to describe what happens to John after he learns what yellow lighting does.

I wondered why Justin felt compelled to reject what he called "the standard reading" of McDowell on this issue of the conceptual content of experience and the spontaneity of concepts. I understand McDowell's view to be that the content of experience is conceptual because it can play a role (as a premise) in justifying our other beliefs. Justin proposes that not only can the contents of experience be premises, but that they can be (kind of like) conclusions of arguments, in that changes in concepts can produce changes in the contents of experience.

In the second half of the workshop, we discussed the first two chapters of Campbell's Reference and Consciousness. I will summarize that discussion in the next post.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

David Velleman, The Possibility of Practical Reason, "Introduction" (Part II)

[This is a continuation of the summary of our discussion of the "Introduction" to David Velleman's The Possibility of Practical Reason, which begins in the previous post.]

Velleman's Account of What Makes Behavior Into an Action

Velleman dismisses the "standard model" and the "hierarchical model" of what makes behavior into an action. What is Velleman's model?

Velleman's striking view is the following (this, as usual, is a rough summary): what makes something an action is that it is done with the "higher-order aim of knowing what [one] is doing". The Freudian slip case isn't an action because the speaker doesn't utter "I hereby declare this meeting closed" or "I live in a building with a hated pool" in order to know what he is doing. The climber dropping his partner and the speaker's crying don't count as actions for the same reason--the person doesn't drop his partner or cry in order to know what he is doing.

The workshop consensus about this view was that it was very strange. It seems straightforwardly false that I do the various things I do in order to know myself. Jason has often used the example of saving a drowning child to illustrate the strangeness of Velleman's view. Say I see my child drowning and I jump in to save his life. A philosopher asks me, "Why did you do that?" It seems that Velleman would think it reasonable to say "So as to better know myself". But that would be a weird thing to say.

There has been some feeling among some of the members of the workshop that we're not really grasping something important about Velleman's view, because the (rough) way of presenting it that was just given looks very implausible. I think one of David's reasons for assigning this "introduction" this week was that it looked like Velleman had an account of how the desire for self knowledge was not an "agential" reason, but something "sub-agential", and so not the kind of thing that you'd cite in an action-explanation. So, perhaps with self-knowledge as a sub-agential reason, you wouldn't get strange explanations of why you jumped in the river to save your child like the one given in the previous paragraph. But after a closer look, we couldn't find anything more substantial than Velleman's claim that the desire for self-knowledge is "sub-agential", and there was not an explanation of what that means. Does being "sub-agential" mean the desire for self-knowledge doesn't, or can't, figure in ordinary action-explanations? It's not clear.

There was a fair amount of discussion of points of detail, but I will conclude with one foundational question that was pressed (like many of the others) by Jason.

The Constitutive Aim of Action
Why think that there is some one thing that is the constitutive aim of action? It looks like a specifically philosophical urge to find a single, overarching principle that holds together everything that falls within the grab bag of behavior we call actions. Maybe some of our actions aim at world peace, and others at achieving some personal satisfaction, and some aim at amassing wealth, and so on? Need there be some aim that all of these share? Jason suggested that there need not be. Giving up the search for such a single aim present in all actions might radically change the shape of a theory of action, possibly for the better.

The workshop will meet again in two week's time to discuss some portion of John Campbell's Reference and Consciousness. See you there.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

David Velleman, The Possibility of Practical Reason, "Introduction" (Part I)

At the end of last meeting, David suggested that we read the introduction to Velleman's The Possibility of Practical Reason to wrap up our discussion of Velleman, since he thought it would provide the best view of the position as a whole and maybe answer some of the questions that have been raised over the past quarter about Velleman's view of action.

So we read it, and tonight we met to discuss it.

As one might expect, Jason gave a very clear and incisive introduction to Velleman's "introduction", and raised some worries about it.

Velleman is interested in answering the following question: given an event, and an agent, what makes it the case that the event is an action of the agent? More specifically, he's interested in a constitutive, non-circular answer to that question. Jason noted that thinking that question can be answered is already to make a substantial assumption.

But let's say we assume that such a constitutive account of what makes an event an action is possible. What's the best version we can give?

The Standard Model

What Velleman calls the "standard model" attempts to answer this question in the following way: an event is an action (of an agent A) provided it is caused by a belief and a desire (belonging to A). More specifically, "we want something to happen, and we believe that some behavior of ours would constitute or produce or at least promote its happening" (5). The belief and the desire are supposed to be both the cause and the reason for A's action.

Velleman says that the Standard Model (SM) "runs afoul of obvious counterexamples". In the counterexamples, "behavior is caused by a desire and a belief but fails to constitute an action performed for reasons".

Counterexample #1: Velleman gives his version of Davidson's mountain climber case. A speaker "desire[s] to win the sympathy of his audience, and his belief that nothing short of tears would suffice [to win the sympathy of his audience]" "frustrate[s] him to the point of tears" (7). So the belief and the desire cause the speaker to cry, but not in the way that is required for the belief and the desire to count as a reason for crying.

The SM could be modified to exclude a case like this, possibly in the way proposed by Davidson, where the belief and the desire have to cause the action "in the right way" (which is not meant as a non-circular way of specifying what's required to count as a reason), or in the not obviously circular way suggested by Velleman: the belief and desire have to "exercise their characteristic powers in causing the behavior".

There was some argument between Jason and Will about whether the Davidsonian way of handling this kind of counterexample was the same as the one mentioned by Velleman (the consensus reached was that they're not, because Jason said that "characteristic powers" is a phrase that has its home in reductive naturalistic accounts of action).

Counterexample #2: Even if the standard model is modified in the way proposed by Velleman (by adding the requirement that a belief and a desire have to cause behavior according to their "characteristic powers" for the behavior to count as an action), there is still another problem that shows it can't be an adequate account of what makes a bit of behavior an action.

Velleman thinks that "activity" like Freudian slips and "bungled actions" (which don't turn out to be actions at all, on Velleman's account) pose a problem for the standard model. When Dr. Katz says, in a conversation about his ex-wife, that he lives in a building with a hated pool, his utterance was caused by a desire to express his hatred of his ex-wife, and a belief that by saying "hated pool" instead of "heated pool", he would express that belief, and his motive (his belief and desire) would be exercising their characteristic powers in this case. And yet Velleman says that in the case of a Freudian slip like this, Dr. Katz's utterance "doesn't qualify as an action" (8).

So the standard model classifies things that aren't actions as actions. So we need a better account of what makes behavior action, rather than mere "activity".

The Hierarchical Model
Velleman then considers a Frankfurt-like "hierarchical model" of what makes a bit of behavior an action. Roughly, according to the hierarchical model, when a belief and a desire plus a higher-order desire for the desire cause a bit of behavior, that behavior is an action (12).

Velleman thinks that "the hierarchical model...as an improvement on the standard model, because it requires the subject to be reflectively aware of his motives in order to act autonomously. A Freudian slip takes its agent by surprise, thereby casting him in the passive role of observer...Such a lack of self-awareness would not have disqualified the resulting behavior from being an autonomous action according to the standard model, but it is indeed disqualifying according to the hierarchical model. For an agent cannot want or be content to be motivated by a desire he is unaware of having" (12).

Several people (Jason most of all) took issue with this claim. Why can't someone have unconscious second-order desires? Jason gave (a version of) the following example: In therapy, I try to understand why instead of making fun of some hapless coworker, I inadvertently protected him from ridicule by doing something unexpected (comically crashing into a cubicle, say). I reason about my behavior as follows: "I must have wanted to help my co-worker avoid ridicule, and I must have thought that that was a worthy thing to do (desired to desire it)". So it's at least not obvious that there can't be unconscious second order desires.

But this isn't a serious objection to Velleman's overall project, because Velleman doesn't think the hierarchical model suffices as an account of action. But we had a worry about why Velleman thinks it is insufficient. Velleman's view that the hierarchical model is insufficient rests on a version of Freud's case of the president who opens the meeting by saying "I hereby declare this meeting closed". If the president was depressed about the opening of the session, he might thereby have desired to close the session, and so had a second-order desire to desire to declare the session closed. But in such a case the president, according to Velleman, would not have been "autonomous"--his utterance would not have counted as an action: "If anything, [the cause of the president's behavior] would have expressed a lack of will on his part, under the weight of a psychic force that is usually regarded as pathological or alien" (13).

The worry (again raised by Jason) about Velleman's account of the inadequacy of the hierarchical model was that it seems like Velleman is committed to the odd view that behavior that is caused by depression isn't action. This reflects a recurring tendency of Velleman's to say certain things people do (Freudian slips, bungled "actions", behavior at least partly caused by depression or ennui) are "alien", when it seems intuitive that they are still kinds of actions.

to be continued...

Second Meeting of the Winter Quarter

The Mind Workshop met tonight to discuss the introduction to David Velleman's The Possibility of Practical Reason. This concluded our quarter-and-a-half-long discussion of Velleman's theory of action. I will post a summary of the central concerns that have been raised during our discussions soon.

In two weeks, we will meet to read and discuss some portion of John Campbell's Reference and Consciousness.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

First Meeting of Winter Quarter

The Philosophy of Mind Workshop will meet on Wednesday, January 10th to discuss David Velleman's "From Self Psychology to Moral Philosophy". The workshop meets from 6-8pm in Cobb 101.

See you there.