What Is an Error? Wittgenstein’s Voluntarism*

Imagine that you welcome your old friend Fred in your study. Pointing at the door, he asks you whether he should shut the window. You’re confused. Did Fred just call the door a window? He’s getting old, but surely not that old. You assume that Fred has made a simple mistake. But what kind of mistake was it? Did he make a linguistic mistake by mixing up the words? Or did he make a cognitive mistake by misrepresenting the facts and taking the door to be a window? “Fred, you meant to say ‘door’, didn’t you?” If he nods agreement, everything is fine. If he doesn’t, you will probably begin to worry about Fred’s cognitive system or conceptual scheme. You might wonder whether his vision is impaired or something worse has happened, unless it turns out that you, in turn, misread Fred’s gesture, while he did indeed mean the window opposite the door.

This example can be considered in various ways.** We usually take such mistakes to lie in an erroneous use of words rather than in a misrepresentation on part of the cognitive system, such as a hallucination. The latter case seems way more drastic. But are the cases of linguistic and cognitive mistakes related? Is one prior to the other? In what follows, I’d like to consider them through the lens of Wittgenstein’s later philosophy of mind and suggest that his account it has roots in theological voluntarism.

Let’s begin by looking at the accounts of error that suggest themselves. What kind of distinction is at work here? It seems that there are at least two possible ways of locating error:

  • linguistic errors occur on the level of behavioural interaction between language users: in this case an error is a deviation from a social practice;
  • cognitive errors occur on the level of (mental) representation: in this case an error is mismatch between a representation and a represented object.

The distinction between interaction and representation intimates two ways of thinking about minds. Representational models construe correctness and error on the relation between (mental) sign and object. Interactionist or social models construe correctness and error on the relation between (epistemic) agents. On the face of it, the representational model is the more traditional one, going back at least to Aristotle and the scholastics, before being famously reintroduced and radicalised by Descartes. By contrast, the interactionist model is taken to be relatively young, inspired by the later Wittgenstein, who attacked his own earlier representationalism and the whole tradition along with it. This historical picture is of course a bit of a caricature. But rather than adding necessary refinements, I think we should reject it entirely. Besides misconstruing much of the history of thinking about minds, it obscures commonalities that actually might help understanding Wittgenstein’s move towards the interactionist model.

What, then, might have inspired Wittgenstein’s later model? I think that Wittgenstein’s later philosophy of mind is driven, amongst other things, by two ideas, namely (a) that all kinds of mental activities (such as thinking and erring) are part of a shared practice and that (b) the rules constituting this practice have no further explanation or foundation. For illustration, think again of the linguistic error. Ad (a): Of course, calling a door a window is a case of mislabelling. But what turns this into an error is not any representational mismatch. What is amiss is not any match between utterance and object but Fred’s violation of your expectation (that he would ask, if anything, to close the door but not the window). Ad (b): This expectation is not grounded in anything further but the experienced practice itself. If you learn that people call a door a door, people should call a door a door. You begin to wonder if they don’t. There is no further explanation as to why that should be so. Taken together, these two ideas give priority to interaction over representation. Accordingly, Wittgensteinians will see error and correctness in reference to linguistic practice; not grounded in representation.

But where does this idea come from? Although Wittgenstein’s later thought is sometimes likened to that of earlier authors in early modern or medieval times, I haven’t seen that his ideas were placed in a larger tradition. Perhaps, then, straightforward philosophies of language and mind are not the best place to look. But what should we turn to? If we look for historical cues of the two ideas sketched above, we should watch out for theories that construe mental events on the model of action rather than representation. But if you think that such theorising begins only with what is commonly called ‘pragmatism’, you miss out on a lot. Let’s focus on (a) first. We should begin by giving up on the assumption that the representational model of the mind is the traditional one. Of course, representation looms large, but it is not always the crucial explanans of correct vs. erroneous thinking or speaking. Good places to start are discussions that tie error to acts of will. Why not try Descartes’ famous explanation of human error? In the Fourth Meditation, Descartes claims that error does not arise from misrepresentation as such. Rather I can err because my will reaches farther than my intellect. So my will might extend to the unknown, deviating from the true and good. And thus I am said to err and sin. Bringing together error and sin, Descartes appeals to a longstanding tradition that places error on the level of voluntary judgment and action. Accordingly, there is no sharp distinction between moral and epistemic errors. I can fail to act in the right way or I can fail to think in the right way. The source of my error is, then, not that I misrepresent objects but rather that I deviate from the way that God ordained. This is the way in which even perfect cognitive agents such as fallen angels and demons can err.

What is significant for the question at hand is that God is taken as presenting us with a standard that we can conform to or deviate from when representing objects. Thus, error is explained through deviation from the divine standard, not through a representational model. Of course, you might object, that divine standards are a far cry from social standards and linguistic rules.*** But what might have served as a crucial inspiration are the following three points: putting mental acts on a par with action, explaining error and correctness through a non-representational standard, and having a non-individualistic standard, for it is the relation of humans to God that enforces the standard on us. In this sense, error cannot be ascribed to a single individual that misrepresents an object; it must be a mind that is related to the standards set by God.

If we accept this historical comparison at least as a suggestion, we might say that divine standards play a theoretical role that is similar to the social practice in Wittgenstein. However, divine standards come in different guises. Not all philosophers who discuss error in relation to deviant acts of will are automatically committed to the thesis that the divine standards have no further foundation. Theological rationalists assume that divine standards can be justified, such that God wills the Good because it is good. By contrast, voluntarists assume that something is good because God wills it. Thus, rationalistic conceptions could allow for an explanation of error that is not ultimately explained by reference to the divine standard. In this sense, rationalism would clash with Wittgenstein’s anti-foundationalism, called (b) above, according to which rules have no further foundation over and above the practice. As Wittgenstein puts it in Philosophical Investigations, § 206: “Following a rule is analogous to obeying an order.”

How, then, does Wittgenstein see the traditional theological distinction? Given his numerous discussions of the will even in his early writings, it is clear that his work is informed by such considerations. Most striking is his remark on voluntarism reported in Waismann’s “Notes on Talks with Wittgenstein” (Philosophical Review 74 [1956]): “I think that the first conception is the deeper one: Good is what God orders. For this cuts off the path to any and every explanation ‘why’ it is good …” Here, Wittgenstein clearly sides with the voluntarists.**** Indeed, the idea of rule-following as obedience can be seen perfectly in line with the assumption that erring consists in violating a shared practice, just as the voluntarist tradition that Descartes belongs to deems erring a deviation from divine standards.

If these suggestions are pointing in a fruitful direction, they could open a path to relocating Wittgenstein’s thought in the context of the long tradition of voluntarism. They might downplay his claims to originality, but at the same time they might render both his work and the tradition more accessible.

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* Originally posted on the blog of the Groningen Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Thought

** This is my variant of Davidson’s ketch-yawl example in his “On the very idea of a conceptual scheme”. I’d like to thank Laura Georgescu, Lodi Nauta and Tamer Nawar, who kindly heard me out when I introduced them to the ideas suggested here.

*** Thanks to Martin Kusch, who raised this objection in an earlier discussion on Facebook.

**** See David Bloor, Wittgenstein, Rules and Institutions, Routledge 2002, 126-133, who also discusses Wittgenstein’s voluntarism.

 

Abstract cruelty. On dismissive attitudes

Do you know the story about the PhD student whose supervisor overslept and refused to come to the defence, saying he had no interest in such nonsense? – No? I don’t know it either, by which I mean: I don’t know exactly what happened. However, some recurrent rumours have it that on the day of the PhD student’s defence, the supervisor didn’t turn up and was called by the secretary. After admitting that he overslept, he must indeed have said that he didn’t want to come because he wasn’t convinced that the thesis was any good. Someone else took over the supervisor’s role in the defence, and the PhD was ultimately conferred. I don’t know the details of the story but I have a vivid imagination. There are many aspects to this story that deserve attention, but in the following I want to concentrate on the dismissive attitude of the supervisor.

Let’s face it, we all might oversleep. But what on earth brings someone to say that they are not coming to the event because the thesis isn’t any good? The case is certainly outrageous. And I keep wondering why an institution like a university lets a professor get away with such behaviour. As far as I know the supervisor was never reprimanded, while the candidate increasingly went to bars rather than the library. I guess many people can tell similar stories, and we all know about the notorious discussions around powerful people in philosophy. Many of those discussions focus on institutional and personal failures or power imbalances. But while such points are doubtlessly worth addressing, I would like to focus on something else: What is it that enables such dismissive attitudes?

Although such and other kinds of unprofessional behaviour are certainly sanctioned too rarely, we have measures against it in principle. Oversleeping and rejecting to fulfil one’s duties can be reprimanded effectively, but what can we do about the most damning part of it: the dismissive attitude according to which the thesis was just no good? Of course, using it as a reason to circumvent duties can be called out, but the problem is the attitude itself. I guess that all of us think every now and then that something is so bad that, at least in principle, it isn’t worth getting up for. What is more, there is in principle nothing wrong with finding something bad. Quite the contrary, we have every reason to be sincere interlocutors and call a spade a spade, and sometimes this involves severe criticism.

However, some cases do not merely constitute criticism but acts of cruelty. But how can we distinguish between the two? I have to admit that I am not entirely sure about this, but genuine criticism strikes me as an invitation to respond, while in the case under discussion the remark about the quality of the thesis was given as a reason to end the conversation.* Ending a conversation or dismissing a view like that is cruel. It leaves the recipient of the critique with no means to answer or account for their position. Of course, sometimes we might have good reasons for ending a conversation like that. I can imagine political contexts in which I see no other way than turning my back on people. But apart from the fact that a doctoral defence shouldn’t be such an occasion, I find it suspicious if philosophers end conversations like that. What is at stake here?

First of all, we should note that this kind of cruelty is much more common than meets the eye. Sure, we rarely witness that a supervisor refuses to turn up for a defence. But anyone sitting in on seminars, faculty talks or lectures will have occasion to see that sometimes criticism is offered not as an invitation for response, but as a dismissal that is only thinly disguised as an objection. How can we recognise such a dismissal? The difference is that an opinion is not merely criticised but considered a waste of time. This and other slogans effectively end a conversation. Rather than addressing what one might find wanting, the opponent’s view will be belittled and portrayed as not being worth to be taken seriously. As I see it, such speech acts are acts of cruelty because they are always (even if tacitly) ad hominem. The conjunction of critical remarks and of ending a conversation shows that it is not merely the opinion that is rejected but that there is no expectation that the argument could be improved by continuing the conversation. In this sense, ending a conversation is owing to a severe lack of charity, ultimately dismissing the opponent as incapable or even irrational.

You would think that such behaviour gets called out quickly, at least among philosophers. But the problem is that this kind of intellectual bullying is actually rather widespread: Whenever we say that an opinion isn’t worth listening to, when we say, for instance, that analytical or continental philosophy is just completely wrongheaded or something of the kind, we are at least in danger of engaging in it.** Often this goes unnoticed because we move within circles that legitimise such statements. Within such circles we enjoy privilege and status; outside our positions are belittled as a waste of time. And the transition from calling something bad to calling something a waste of time is rather smooth, if no one challenges such a speech act.

Having said as much, you might think I am rather pessimistic about the profession. But I am not. In fact I think there is a straightforward remedy. Decouple criticisms from ending conversations! But now you might respond that sometimes a conversation cannot continue because we really do not share standards of scholarship or argument. And we certainly shouldn’t give up our standards easily. – I totally agree, but I think that rather than being dismissive we might admit that we have a clash of intuitions. Generally speaking, we might distinguish between two kinds of critical opposition: disagreements and clashes of intuition. While disagreements are opposing views that can be plotted on a common ground, clashes of intuition mark the lack of relevant common ground. In other words, we might distinguish between internal and external criticism, the latter rejecting the entire way of framing an issue. I think that it is entirely legitimate to utter external criticism and signal such a clash. It is another way of saying that one doesn’t share sufficient philosophical ground. But it also signals that the opposing view might still deserve to be taken seriously, provided one accepts different premises or priorities.*** Rather than bluntly dismissing a view because one feels safeguarded by the standards of one’s own community, diagnosing a clash respects that the opponent might have good reasons and ultimately engages in the same kind of enterprise.

The behaviour of the supervisor who overslept is certainly beyond good and evil. Why do I find this anecdote so striking? Because it’s so easy to call out the obvious failure on part of the supervisor. It’s much harder to see how we or certain groups are complicit in legitimising the dismissive attitude behind it. While we might be quick to call out such a brutality, the damning dismissive attitude is more widespread than meets the eye. Yet, it could be amended by admitting to a clash of intuitions, but that requires some careful consideration of the nature of the clash and perhaps the decency of getting out of bed on time.

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This post by Regina Rini must have been at the back of my mind when I thought about conversation-enders; not entitrely the same issue but a great read anyway.

**A related instance can be to call a contemporary or a historical view “weird”. See my post on relevance and othering.

*** Examples of rather respectable clashes are dualism vs. monism or representationalism vs. inferentialism. The point is that the debates run into a stalemate, and picking a side is a matter of decision rather than argument.

What are we on about? Making claims about claims

A: Can you see that?

B: What?

A: [Points to the ceiling:] That thing right there!

B: No. Could you point a bit more clearly?

You probably know this, too. Someone points somewhere assuming that pointing gestures are sufficient. But they are not. If you’re pointing, you’re always pointing at a multitude of things. And we can’t see unless we already know what kind of thing we’re supposed to look for. Pointing gestures might help, but without prior or additional information they are underdetermined. Of course we can try and tell our interlocutor what kind of thing we’re pointing at. But the problem is that quite often we don’t know ourselves what kind of thing we’re pointing at. So we end up saying something like “the black one there”. Now the worry I’d like to address today is that texts offer the same kind of challenge. What is this text about? What does it claim? These are recurrent and tricky questions. And if you want to produce silence in a lively course, just ask one of them.

But why are such questions so tricky? My hunch is that we notoriously mistake the question for something else. The question suggests that the answer could be discovered by looking into the text. In some sense, this is of course a good strategy. But without further information the question is as underdetermined as a pointing gesture. “Try some of those words” doesn’t help. We need to know what kind of text it is. But most things that can be said about the text are not to be found in the text. One might even claim that there is hardly anything to discover in the text. That’s why I prefer to speak of “determining” the claim rather than “finding out” what it is about.

In saying this I don’t want to discourage you from reading. Read the text, by all means! But I think it’s important to take the question about the claim of a text in the right way. Let’s look at some tacit presuppositions first. The question will have a different ring in a police station and a seminar room or lecture hall. If we’re in a seminar room, we might indeed assume that there is a claim to be found. So the very room matters. The date matters. The place of origin matters. Authorship matters. Sincerity matters. In addition to these non-textual factors, the genre and language matter. So what if we’re having a poem in front of us, perhaps a very prosaic poem? And is the author sincere or joking? How do you figure this out?

But, you will retort, there is the text itself. It does carry information. OK then. Let’s assume all of the above matters are settled. How do you get to the claim? A straightforward way seems to be to figure out what a text is intended to explain or argue for. For illustrating this exercise, I often like to pick Ockham’s Summa logicae. It’s a lovely text with a title and a preface indicating what it is about. So, it’s about logic, innit? Well, back in the day I read and even added to a number of studies determining what the first chapters of that book are about. In those chapters, Ockham talks about something called “mental propositions”, and my question is: what are mental propositions supposed to account for? Here are a few answers:

  • Peter Geach: Mental propositions are invoked to explain grammatical features of Latin (1957)
  • John Trentman: Mental propositions form an ideal language, roughly in the Fregean sense (1970)
  • Joan Gibson: Mental propositions form a communication system for angels (1976)
  • Calvin Normore: Mental propositions form a mental language, like Fodor’s mentalese (1990)
  • Sonja Schierbaum: Ockham isn’t Fodor (2014)

Now imagine this great group of people in a seminar and tell them who gave the right answer. But note that all of them have read more than one of Ockham’s texts carefully and provided succinct arguments for their reading. In fact, most of them are talking to one another and respectfully agree on many things before giving their verdicts on what the texts on mental propositions claim. All of them point at the same texts, what they “discover” there is quite different, though. And as you will probably know, by determining the claim you also settle what counts as a support or argument for the claim. And depending on whether you look out for arguments supporting an angelic communication system or the mental language humans think in, you will find what you discover better or worse.

So what is it that determines the claim of a text?* By and large it might be governed by what we find (philosophically) relevant. This is tied to the question why a certain problem arises for you in the first place. While many factors are set by the norms and terms of the scholarly discussion that is already underway, the claims seem to go with the preferred or fashionable trends in philosophy. While John Trentman seems to have favoured early analytic ideal language philosophy, Calvin Normore was clearly guided by one of the leading figures in the philosophy of mind. Although Peter Geach is rather dismissive, all of these works are intriguing interpretations of Ockham’s text. That said, we all should get together more often to discuss what we are actually on about when we determine the claims of texts. At least if we want to avoid that we are mostly greeted with the parroting of the most influential interpretations.

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* You’ll find more on this question in my follow-up piece.

Mistakes and objectivity. Myths in the history of philosophy (Part II)

“It’s raining.” While reading or writing this sentence now, I think many things. I think that the sentence is a rather common example in certain textbooks. I also think that it has a slightly sentimental ring. Etc. But there is one thing I can’t bring myself to think now: that it is true. Worse still, if someone sincerely uttered this sentence now in my vicinity, I would think that there is something severely wrong. A charitable view would be that I misheard or that he or she made a linguistic mistake. But I can’t bring myself to disagree with what I take to be the facts. The same is true when reading philosophy. If someone disagrees with what I take to be the facts, then … what?  – Since I am a historian of philosophy, people often seem to assume that I am able to suspend judgment in such cases. That is, I am taken to report what someone thought without judging whether the ideas in question are true or false. “Historians are interested in what people thought, not in the truth”, it is said. This idea of neutrality or objectivity is a rather pervasive myth. In what follows, I’d like to explain what I think is wrong with it.

Let’s begin by asking why this myth might be so pervasive. So why do we – wrongly – assume that we can think about the thoughts of others without judging them to be true or false? One reason might be the simple fact that we can use quotations. Accordingly, I’d like to trace this myth back to what I call the quotation illusion. Even if I believe that your claims are false or unintelligible, I can quote you – without adding my own view. I can say that you said “it’s raining”. Ha! Of course I can also use an indirect quote or a paraphrase, a translation and so on. Based on this convenient feature of language, historians of philosophy (often including myself) fall prey to the illusion that they can present past ideas without imparting judgment. What’s more, at least in the wake of Skinner, this neutral style is often taken as a virtue, and transgression is chided as anachronism (see my earlier post on this).

But the question is not whether you can quote without believing what you quote. Of course you can. The question is whether you can understand a sentence or passage without judging its truth. I think you can’t. (Yes, reading Davidson convinced me that the principle of charity is not optional.) However, some people will argue that you can. “Just like you can figure out the meaning of a sentence without judging its truth”, they will say, “you can understand and report sentences without judgment.” I beg to differ. You could not understand the sentence “It’s raining” without acknowledging that it is false, here and now at least. And this means that you can’t grasp the meaning without knowing what would have to be the case for it to be true. – The same goes for reading historical texts. Given certain convictions about, say, abstract objects, you cannot read, say, Frege without thinking that he must be wrong.

Did I just say that Frege was wrong? – I take that back. Of course, if a view does not agree with your beliefs, it seems a natural response to think that the author is wrong. But whenever people are quick to draw that conclusion, I start to feel uneasy. And this kind of hesitation might be another reason for why the myth of neutrality is so pervasive. On closer inspection, however, the feeling of uneasiness might not be owing to the supposed neutrality. Rather there is always the possibility that not the author but something else might be wrong. I might be wrong about the facts or I might just misunderstand the text. Even the text might be corrupt (a negation particle might be missing) or a pervasive canonical reading might prevent me from developing a different understanding.

The intriguing task is to figure out what exactly might be wrong. This is neither achieved by pretending to suspend judgment nor by calling every opponent wrong, but rather by exposing one’s own take to an open discussion. It is the multitude of different perspectives that affords objectivity, not their elimination.