Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The problem of other minds

There's nowt as queer as folk, as the saying goes. This can make communication difficult, especially online (where you can't use non-verbal cues and are often talking to people you don't know very well). So it was with some trepidation that I attempted a light-hearted comment over at Philosophical Investigations. The thought of (possibly quite small amounts of) drink leading to someone's being banned from the pubs a philosophical forum struck me as funny. If I could draw I'd try to combine this:

With this:

But does my comment come across as friendly banter or as condescending and insulting? I think I got away with it, but it can be hard to know. And if philosophers are autistic then I might never know. (You can take a 'fun quiz' here to find out whether you might be autistic. The average score is about 16, problem scores seem to start at 32, and I got a worrying 28.)

I wasn't going to blog about any of this (perhaps for obvious reasons--it's Twitter-worthy at best), but then I read Mohan Matthen quoting Wittgenstein and commenting as follows:
We think there must be something going on in one's mind for one to understand the word 'plant'. We are inclined to say that what we mean by one's understanding the word is a process in the mind. ... There is a way out of the difficulty of explaining what understanding is if we take 'understanding a word' to mean, roughly, being able to use it. The point of this explanation is to replace 'understanding a word' by 'being able to use a word', which is not so easily thought of as denoting an [inner] activity. 
Apparently, according to him, there is nothing going on in one’s mind when one comes to understand a word.
How can an intelligent and philosophically sophisticated person misread so badly? It's true that the first sentence here suggests that Wittgenstein might be open to the possibility that there might not be something going on in one's mind when one understands the word 'plant'. (And that does sound odd, though not necessarily wrong.) But he doesn't say this. What he says (or implies) is that there is a problem if we go from this thought to saying (or thinking) that what we mean by understanding a word is a process in the mind. And he suggests a cure for this problem.

The problem, I take it, is that any 'process in the mind' that is supposedly what we mean when we talk about understanding would be very obscure. What is the mind? What might a process in it be? How have we managed to refer to such a process without knowing what it is or ever experiencing it? I have experienced understanding, but not as an internal process. Wittgenstein proposes that we focus less on what we apparently must be talking about and more on what we actually do. Matthen resists doing this, instead relying on appeal to standard views and rhetorical questions ("Such a categorical change must be a mental change—what else could it be?"), along with an apparent presupposition that "understanding a word" must refer to this mental change.  All very odd.     

My point is not that Matthen is wrong. Several people have already pointed that out. What's interesting is the way he has gone wrong, which appears to involve taking several specific ideas for granted but also a general kind of approach to reading an unfamiliar text. I'm not sure that I could characterize that approach, but I'm reminded of it when I read Denis McManus's new book on Heidegger (which, as far as I can tell, being neither an expert nor farther in than p. 30, is excellent) and his discussion of the Theoretical Attitude. It's an approach that takes an awful lot for granted: Wittgenstein, like anyone else, can be understood easily enough even when quoted out of context; there is no need to read sentences carefully because it's obvious what kinds of things someone might say; it is also obvious what questions matter and what don't; it's obvious what kind of thing might be true (the range is limited by science and the current consensus among philosophers); of course there is no point in thinking about whether what seemingly must be true really is true; and so on. In a word: science. And in two words: not philosophy. When continental philosophers talk as if analytic philosophy has not really moved on from logical positivism I suspect it is this kind of thing they have in mind. Not that this is logical positivism, but the scientistic spirit seems much the same. (I don't mean that continental philosophy is better than analytic philosophy, if that needs to be said.) The desire to get on, to make progress (e.g. to figure out what understanding is, and to be impatient with people like Wittgenstein who seem to want to obstruct your project), works against the desire to stop and think. It strikes me as both unphilosophical and characteristic of a mentality that is dangerous. It's easy to think you're making progress just because you keep moving. (And easy, too, to think you are benign just because you are too inert to be malignant.) 


  1. Here you have hit on what, to my mind, is an important point. When we ask what a seemingly mental thing, like understanding, is we are sometimes tempted to want to identify it with whatever brain processes are going on in the head, for surely some are. And when Wittgenstein suggests it is just knowing how to use a word (if the understanding under consideration is verbal) or how to build something or do something, it looks like he's denying the role of mental processes qua what brains do! And then it seems he gets in the way of science. But a better reading of Wittgenstein would, I think, recognize that meaning as use in this case applies to a different sense of the word, ie., what we have in mind when we speak of Frank understanding Sam. But the use of "meaning" in science will be somewhat different. There the job of saying what a word like "understanding" means is to discover what the entity that is Frank, in terms of his brain, is doing in order to learn how to replicate Frank's understanding behavior. The meaning of "understanding" for science will be different than for philosophers in general (unless they have set themselves the task, like Dennett, of abetting science in its own house). And this is because even the meaning of "meaning" is a matter of use and science will, ordinarily, have a different use in mind for answering questions about meaning, than philosophers and the rest of us in our daily activities will.

    1. Yes, it could be that scientists who say they want to know what understanding is just mean that they want to know what happens in people's brains when they understand. And Wittgenstein has no objection to that. But anyone (scientists, journalists, philosophers) who says that this is what 'understanding' means is either taking a kind of moral stand (making the normative claim that we ought to use words as the scientists do) or else making a mistake. Either way I disagree with them.

    2. So do I. I would say they are confusedly mixing the uses, I suppose.

    3. I agree and yet... §158 seems to come perilously close to suggesting there may turn out to be no such thing as an underpinning physical structure for understanding. That's especially true if you read it in conjunction with Zettel §609. Of course there are various ways of interpreting both sections - some conciliatory, others less so. But it does at least muddy the waters a bit.

    4. Well I don't know how we get round the obvious fact that science can certainly, at least in principle, learn about brains and what they do. And one of the things they do is make our mental lives work. Can we deny having mental lives?

      Wittgenstein doesn't do that as he often speaks of having pictures and what other kind can he mean but the kind we "see" in our heads? He certainly didn't mean oils hanging on some wall.

      The point of a scientific study of brain operations, or the AI project aimed at trying to replicate those operations computationally for that matter, is to produce in some manufactured entity the equivalent of what we recognize in ourselves as a mental life, at least enough of one to prompt behaviors like our own vis a vis the sorts of things entities like ourselves do, e.g., understand words, ideas, etc., know things, have beliefs, etc., etc. Wittgenstein's point, on my view, is best understood as focusing on the linguistic issue, i.e., that the features of our mental lives are not entity-like even if the only language we have tends to treat them like that and so can be misleading when we take the pictures they yield too seriously.

      So either we must conclude that Wittgenstein, in coming so "perilously close," erred in this regard or that he never meant (and certainly never explicitly says) that there is no such thing as a mental life (or whatever else we want to call it). "Not a something, but not a nothing either."

    5. Obviously Wittgenstein doesn't deny we have a mental life. And that's not what he's casting doubt on in §158. He's casting doubt on the idea that there must be a physical structure underpinning understanding. True, we can't understand things unless we have a mental life, but that doesn't mean that "understanding" = "mental events". In fact, Wittgenstein argues that the two are not equivalent; the word "understanding" does not name a mental event or structure (nor a physical one either).

      So, to be fair to Wittgenstein, it's not as clear as it might seem that there must be any kind of identifiable brain state that we could point to and say "that's what happens when someone understands something".

    6. And in saying "'understanding' does not name a mental structure or event" he is correct in the usual case. That IS the way we use the word in ordinary language. But science may have other concerns such as what is the underlying process or processes that produce the mental features, whatever they are, that we find in ourselves when we have instances of understanding? That project implies a different use for the term "understanding," one that cannot be constrained by a recognition that we TYPICALLY use "understanding" differently.

      The fact that we use words in different ways (family relations) supports the notion that "understanding" can rightly be taken to mean different things in different contexts when deployed for different purposes. I agree, though, that the use of "understanding" does not imply any kind of brain state or event. Not for Wittgenstein and not for anyone. THAT is an empirical issue, i.e., whether instances of understanding require brains or kidneys or some non-physical phenomenon such as a soul.

      As to whether "'understanding' names a mental event or structure (nor a physical one either)" in any possible case, I agree that that isn't what we mean in ordinary language. But it may be what some researchers come to mean in cases where they are seeking to replicate the phenomenon of understanding in a manufactured system.

      It still wouldn't be what we mean in ordinary language and our job will remain to keep the meanings clear and well sorted. But there is no reason why, in particular contexts, "understanding" might not come to have an entirely different meaning than we typically give it in ordinary (and philosophical) discourse. Nor should ordinary usage ever count as an argument against such specialized usages.

    7. I agree that specialised definitions of words (including understanding) can be introduced, and that it's important to keep specialised and normal definitions distinct. But there's also the question of the appropriateness of using a particular word in a new way - the notion of family resemblance concepts doesn't warrant the connection of any two phenomena no matter what (though it doesn't set a predetermined boundary either).

      In other words, you can still ask whether it makes sense to use the same word for two different phenomena. Mightn't it be better to invent a new word and use that instead?

      Also, of course understanding requires a brain. Corpses don't understand anything. But that doesn't necessarily mean there will turn out to be a particular brain-state that can be correlated with instances of what's called understanding. After all, how many possible internal structures are there for a calculator?

      Of course, it may turn out that there is an identifiable structure (or perhaps a manageable number of them), and so it may well make sense to use "understanding" in a technical sense for that state. But Wittgenstein's beef is with the idea that it must turn out to be that way.

    8. Thanks for the reference to PI 158. I had to look it up, and here it is:

      But isn't that only because of our too slight acquaintance with what goes on in the brain and the nervous system? If we had a more accurate knowledge of these things we should see what connexions were established by the training, and then we should be able to say when we looked into his brain: 'Now he has read this word, now the reading connexion has been set up.' -- And it presumably must be like that - for otherwise how could we be so sure that there was such a connexion? That it is so is presumably a priori -- or is it only probable? And how probable is it? Now ask yourself: what you know about these things? -- But if it is a priori, that means that it is a form of account which is very convincing to us.

      I don't know that he has a beef with anything here so much as he wants to draw attention to what we know and what we don't know, and to what patterns of thinking are convincing (in Anscombe's translation) or very appealing (Hacker and Schulte) to us. Identifying these patterns might help us avoid mistaking them for necessary truths. It might also give us some understanding of ourselves. There is a kind of implicit beef there with ignorance and confusion, but his goal is not to take sides in a debate.

  2. First off, don't worry: I took no offence at all. In fact, kudos for mentioning the Brown Bottle, who's a fond memory from my student days (Newcastle, 85-88, just before Viz went national).

    As for Matthen's crass reading of Wittgenstein, it's not too far off par for the course. Well, perhaps that's an overstatement, but it's striking how many extremely clever people seem hell-bent on misreading him. A few suggestions as to why that might be:

    Like you, I've been wrestling with his philosophy for several decades now and the broad outlines of his philosophy are extremely familiar to me. As a result, I tend to forget how shocking and alien his thoughts can be to people used to thinking in a different way (and who assume their way is self-evidently correct). A few years back I had to explain Wittgenstein's views on understanding to a philosophy undergrad who'd never studied him before. He looked at me as if he'd never heard anything so stupid in his whole life. I suspect he wrote off Wittgenstein (and me) as an idiot on the spot. Leaving aside my doubtless poor attempt at explanation, I thought there was something quite significant about the undergrad's response. It showed the powerful grip of the outlook Wittgenstein sought to challenge.

    The same is true, perhaps more so, for those whose whole career (and reputation) has involved a deep investment in this outlook. Naturally that includes many scientists who stray into philosophy. But it also includes many philosophers who instinctively look to science for a paradigm of intellectual respectability and want philosophy to "share in the spoils", so to speak. (And let's not forget that in today's world there are some very good practical reasons for doing exactly that.)

    As a result there's a strong temptation (or pressure) for them to see what they want to see in Wittgenstein's philosophy. Of course, he's too famous to be flatly ignored, and so instead you get otherwise inexplicable misreadings, bad-tempered nit-picking, and condescending cherry-picking.

    Hacker called this being assimilated without being understood. And I think that's exactly right.

    1. Thanks.

      I thought you would take it in the right spirit, and the Newcastle angle was hard to resist.

      Hell-bent on misreading Wittgenstein is right. It reminds me of people with a political prejudice who try to find something they can latch onto as an excuse not to concede anything to the other side. Hillary Clinton spoke here a few years ago and did little if anything wrong, but the conservative students knew they weren't supposed to like her so they were reluctant to say she had given a good speech. As soon as one student came up with a criticism they all eagerly latched onto it as if they had been meaning to say the same thing all along. Liberals do the same thing, of course. Wittgenstein is someone who must be ignored, so now we have to come up with an excuse to ignore him. Almost anything will do.

      What struck me most about Matthen's post was just the kind of thing you describe. He thinks in a completely different way from the way I think, and I think I used to think like that too. Although perhaps it takes philosophy to lead people into those habits fully. (And perhaps I'm not as free of them as I like to think.)

      As for Wittgenstein's being assimilated, I don't know. Doesn't that imply that his ideas have made a difference? If he's treated as a figure in the history of philosophy who had a couple of theories that once seemed plausible (meaning is use, behaviorism) but have now been seen through then I wouldn't call that assimilation. (Checking Wikipedia, though, suggests that 'assimilation' has multiple uses and Hacker's fits at least some of them.)

    2. I think "assimilating" here means something like "finding a way to acknowledge him as an important 20th C philosopher while at the same time either dismissing, ignoring or misrepresenting the radical challenge he offered to the discipline as it is usually practiced."

      There are at least three ways this tends to happen. First, the "positive misreader". Kripke would be a good example. His misreading of Wittgenstein on rule-following is far more astonishing than Matthen's error when you think about it. Kripke was a professional philosopher writing a book on Wittgenstein and being paid for it one the basis that he was an expert in his field. True he acknowledged that he wasn't sure he was faithfully representing Wittgenstein's thought, but viewed in context that's a bit like punching someone in the face and saying "I can't help feeling partly responsible for your pain". In the short-term at least, his book helped obscure Wittgenstein's actual thought while claiming to be taking him seriously as an important philosopher.

      Second: the "dismissive nit-picker". AC Grayling fits the bill here. He clearly has no sympathy for Wittgenstein's philosophy and as a result makes no serious effort to confront him at his strongest. Instead he sets up a straw man and knocks him down. His book on Wittgenstein is basically an extended exercise in intellectual cowardice.

      Thirdly, the "cherry-picker". There are loads of these (Dennett is a materialist/behaviourist example). Basically, they seem to want to name-drop Wittgenstein because they regard him as "cool" or a "maverick" or something of the sort. They wouldn't dream of getting to grips with this whole approach, so they pretend you can just choose bits of it and take it as read that the rest doesn't really work. So materialists love the private language argument and relativists love the idea of language-games. It doesn't even seem to occur to them that (eg) the private language argument might make no sense outside of Wittgenstein's broader approach. Out of this arises an impression that Wittgenstein had a few cool ideas, but his over-all philosophy is not one that needs to be taken seriously. "We've moved on from that" they say.

    3. I think you're wrong re: Dennett. He is not, of course, a Wittgensteinian and does not primarily focus on the issues that intrigued Wittgenstein (e.g., the problems of the business of philosophy and its epistemological concerns). Nor does he follow a Wittgensteinian play book (focusing on linguistic analysis or on elaborating or explicating Wittgenstein's work). His interests move him elsewhere and there is no reason they should not. He does refer to and acknowledge Wittgenstein's influence on his thinking, including citing Wittgensteinian insights which have bearing on his own ideas. That he is not a dyed-in-the-wool Wittgensteinian should not be thought a mark against him. Everyone can't be, nor, I suspect, would Wittgenstein have wanted THAT. My own view is that Dennett gets a lot right and that the influence he ascribes to Wittgenstein is palpable and easily seen. On the other hand he isn't setting himself up as a spokesman for, or interpreter of, Wittgenstein. His philosophical agenda is not Wittgenstein's, even if there are many important points in common.

    4. Yes, those three kinds of assimilation seem exactly right. I can't really comment about Dennett because the only time I tried to read him carefully I found his work just about impossible to understand. Almost every sentence made me think "Really? OK, I'll grant you that, as long as you mean x and not y or z." And then, of course, I couldn't keep track of all the xs, ys, and zs. Perhaps I should try again.

    5. Stuart,

      You're certainly right that Dennett claims to be influenced by Wittgenstein but not a Wittgensteinian philosopher. The problem is making sense of these two claims taken together, since his basic approach and most of his substantive claims are deeply at odds with Wittgenstein's philosophy.

      I don't agree, by the way, that Dennett doesn't focus on issues that interested Wittgenstein. Dennett's main concerns have been consciousness and intentionality. Wittgenstein wrote extensively on both (though what is now called "consciousness" was then called "the philosophy of psychology"). And Wittgenstein's views, both in general and specific terms, are miles away from what you find in Dennett.

      With this in mind, it is to say the least baffling to find Dennett approvingly quoting PI §§307-308 in the appendix to Consciousness Explained since those sections, and the wider argument they're part of, are deeply antithetical to Dennett's own philosophy.

      Dennett prays-in-aid the Private Language Argument (PLA) when it comes to bashing neo-Cartesian notions of the mind, but doesn't seem aware that the PLA is not a stand-alone component. It is founded in Wittgenstein's conception of meaning and his linked conception of philosophy as descriptive rather than theoretical. It cannot be sensibly divorced from those foundations. Yet Dennett, who thinks philosophy is all about theories (and continuous with science) does exactly that.

      Like I say, cherry-picking.

    6. Dennett's earliest work, Content and Consciousness, is quite dense, ponderous even, and very theoretical in a non-Wittgensteinian way. His later work, like Consciousness Explained, is very different, though still theoretical and the fundamental ideas remain. In the later work he has become a very cogent and even breezy writer, sometimes though allowing his penchant for the ordinary turn of phrase to obscure some needed precision.

      On the other hand, the subject matter he takes on, explaining consciousness as a function of brains (a functionalist account), is certainly a challenge to talk about for all the reasons Wittgenstein noted, i.e., language, being publicly domiciled, doesn't work especially well when deployed to this inherently private venue. Mental features on the entirely subjective level just aren't the sorts of "things" we can develop shared uses for. There's nothing to fix on, no shared particulars to point at and discover if we have the same thing in our "sights."

      And yet the whole point of cognitive science, which Dennett hopes to support and advance, is to say useful things about how minds work. It's here that you run into the problem of different uses for words like "understanding". As Wittgenstein pointed out, we don't use THAT word to mean anything like brain processes. It picks out cases where certain kinds of entities show learning and knowledge behaviors when confronted with certain kinds of stimuli (words, symbols, puzzles, etc.). The problem for science, and so for Dennett, but not for us in everyday life, is to relate those kinds of behaviors to something brains do.

      Obviously "understanding" in its usual sense cannot mean the brain processes going on when the understanding behaviors are prompted. The usages that characterize that and related words pre-date by thousands of years any in-depth human knowledge of brains. But there IS a sense in which it's also meaningful to say things like "now I know what understanding is, it's just this and this going on in the brain." That's what a cognitive scientist or an AI researcher, looking to discover the appropriate brain functionalities might say.

      Still it's important to recognize that the uses are not interchangeable and that the one involving designation of brain events cannot be used to replace the other. Dennett does a pretty good job of keeping these distinctions clear in Consciousness Explained though even he cannot avoid meaning slippage at the margins which, unfortunately, often fuels his critics (who seem at times more interested in preserving the uniqueness of the mental than in recognizing the possibilities science presents us with here).

      Anyway, I think Dennett is admirably readable in his later work though often flippant and dismissive of his critics. It's more entertaining than a fault however, at least as I read him.

    7. Philip, it's hardly fair to fault Dennett, who makes no pretensions to being Wittgensteinian in his approach to philosophy, for not being a Wittgensteinian! The fact that he considers himself influenced by (and acknowledges the contributions of) Wittgenstein should not lead anyone to expect more, i.e., that he will therefore follow Wittgenstein to the letter (if that were even possible given the broad abundance of differing interpretations that abound).

      Yes, he is theoretical and metaphysical in the sense that he takes and defends metaphysical positions, all contra Wittgenstein's approach. Nor does he treat philosophy as method only. He has interest in doctrine in the classic philosophical way. But the implications of Wittgenstein's insights, including the matter of private language, are very evident in his work. I can see no grounds for doubting the importance of the influence of Wittgenstein on him just because he does not embrace the entire Wittgenstein agenda.

      And while it is certainly true that Wittgenstein shared with Dennett an interest in the mental, Wittgenstein's focus was on the role of that domain in how we think about the world whereas Dennett's is clearly on how that domain arises in the world (whether by brain operations qua computations or something else). Dennett's interests are scientific and metaphysical while Wittgenstein's are mainly epistemological. There's room for both and neither necessarily undermines or negates the other.

    8. Stuart,

      You say that "neither necessarily undermines or negates the other" and there we certainly disagree. But this is not the place, it seems to me, to debate the correctness or incorrectness of Dennett's views (or, indeed, Wittgenstein's).

      Rather, I've been trying to describe the impact of philosophers like Dennett (ie, those who do not claim to be Wittgensteinian but occasionally pray-in-aid his work) on the general perception of Wittgenstein's philosophy.

      My claim is that, intentionally or not, they have helped foster the mistaken idea that the fundamental aspects of Wittgenstein's philosophy have been "dealt with" and his current relevance is as someone who had a few interesting arguments that can still serve a purpose from time to time.

      I think this perception is wrong on two counts. First, the fundamental aspects have NOT been dealt with. They have been buried under a mountain of misinterpretation and superficial criticism. This was only taken as "dealing with" the issues precisely because philosophers were desperate to cling on to their subject as traditionally conceived. It was a case of "any stick will do to beat a dog".

      Secondly, it was wrong because, as I've said, Wittgenstein's arguments are conceptually related to his methodology. The PLA (for example) relies on the observations already made about rule-following, knowing and understanding. They, in turn, are in part a defence of Wittgenstein's account of meaning. And it is that account of meaning that leads directly to his conception of philosophy as descriptive not theoretical.

      So if you think the PLA is a brilliant insight, but the general thrust of your philosophy is theoretical and/or metaphysical (and I'm by no means only thinking of Dennett here) then at the very least you owe us an explanation as to how the PLA can be cut adrift from its moorings without mangling its message.

      The first of those two points is, of course, highly contentious and as much to do with history as philosophy. The second one, however, is about intellectual consistency.

    9. Well it seems to me we are mostly in agreement and where we disagree, on the place Wittgenstein holds in the philosophical field for instance (I think he's important but not responsible for a total overhaul of the landscape whereas you seem to think the opposite) or in terms of the relatedness of the elements of his philosophical insights, are surely not elements requiring an extensive debate here. I would only want to note that I think there's enough room for interpreting Wittgenstein's actual words to allow for more than one application of his ideas in a wider context.

      For instance, I have often been attacked by self-avowed "Wittgensteinians" for insisting that there IS a place for talk about the features of our mental lives. I don't take the private language "argument," for instance, as denying any possibility of referring to mental phenomena at all. It's just that such talk is different and must be understood differently by its users.

      One particularly vocal "Wittgensteinian" attacked my view on this on the grounds, he said, that Wittgenstein makes explicitly clear that language has no place at all in the private sphere not just that it becomes, as I had put it, harder. I think he was wrong (and I don't know where you stand on that one) but that's how these arguments go. So it really does make sense to just agree to disagree on the areas where we have some disagreement. I certainly don't agree with everything you've said above but I agree with enough of it to feel we are mostly on the same wavelength.

      I do wonder, however, why Dennett catches so much hell in so many quarters. Both Wittgensteinians and non-Wittgensteinians (analytic philosophers of a more traditional cut) seem to get exercised over his ideas. I, on the other hand, find them admirably clear and precise (most of the time) and a healthy breath of fresh air in philosophy generally and in the matter of philosophy of mind in particular.

    10. Addendum: I should have been a little clearer. The claim by that fellow was that "referring language has no place at all in the private sphere". Sorry for the lack of specificity which might mislead one as to his actual claim!

    11. Well, obviously Wittgenstein has no objection to talk about features of our mental lives per se. The Investigations itself is full of such talk. His objection was more directed at the way philosophers have tended to talk about them. In particular, he argued that philosophers have turned mental events into occult, irrevocably private objects that we (a) know directly in our own case, and (b) cannot possibly know directly in the case of other people. Wittgenstein felt this misrepresented the role that talk about feelings, thoughts and sensations play in our lives. In other words, he felt both (a) and (b) were wrong. He also felt that this way of representing the mental tends to lead either to idealism/solipsism, on the one hand, or behaviourism/functionalism on the other, and that both are mistakes caused by not questioning deeply enough the picture of the mental that they're reacting against.

      So the problem I have with Dennett is that, for me, his treatment of the mental makes exactly the mistake Wittgenstein warned about. He reacts against the Cartesian conception of mind only to fall into a version of logical behaviourism. His use of "folk psychology" and the idea that ordinary talk about mental events represents a curious kind of "fiction"; his identification of the self with the mind and the mind with the brain; his championing of the thoroughly incoherent notion of memes as "brain-infesting" parasites; - all that is, I believe, deeply antithetical to a Wittgensteinian viewpoint.

      A point of clarification, however. When I first mentioned Dennett as a "cherry picker" I then went on to say that "these" people name-dropped Wittgenstein because he was trendy. I didn't have Dennett in mind when I said that last part (there are many others, however, who do exactly that). His claim to be influenced by Wittgenstein has much more integrity than that - though I still believe it rests on a misunderstanding.

      As far as I can see, Dennett takes Wittgenstein himself to be a logical behaviourist. That was (and perhaps still is) a not uncommon view (it's particularly tempting if you read Wittgenstein via Ryle, which is what Dennett did). But I consider that a mistake that ends up mangling Wittgenstein's thought beyond recognition. And that's precisely what happened in the case of Dennett.

      As to why Dennett gets so much flak, I don't think there's any real mystery. He's a very popular writer whose work is read by educated lay-readers and neuroscientists alike. As such, it provides an obvious, high-profile focus for the surrounding debate.

    12. And having thought it over a bit more, I'd say that Dennett probably isn't a good example of a cherry-picker. He's more like a "positive misreader.

    13. I don't read Dennett as a behaviorist (he explicitly denies that in Content and Consciousness and gives his reasons) nor do I think he imputes behaviorism to Wittgenstein. I do think speaking of "fictions" when thinking about how we treat the elements of our mental lives makes a kind of sense though. There's more than one use for "fiction" too. If your main beef with Dennett is over these issues, I think you're giving him a bad rap. His approach to explaining consciousness is much more nuanced and subtle than you seem to be giving him credit for.

    14. I have read Dennett and I consider his theories deeply incoherent. But, as I've said, this isn't the place for that discussion. The point is that his philosophy - both in terms of its methodology and its substantive theories - clearly goes against Wittgenstein's method and arguments.

      That Dennett sites Wittgenstein as an influence therefore, comes down to one of two things: either it's a very partial and somewhat "skin deep" influence, which would make him a cherry-picker; or it's based on a misreading that Dennett considers roughly in line with his subsequent work - in which case he's a positive misreader.

      Take your pick.

    15. Or it might just mean that Dennett, like Wittgenstein, is aiming to think in a fresh way, while yet recognizing and acknowledging the significance and insightfulness of his predecessor's work. I don't think we can say that only those who are prepared to embrace Wittgenstein in toto can speak for his ideas, that one has to be a fully enrolled "Wittgensteinian" to understand and be influenced by the man. Or for that influence to be an important part of another's work.

      The depth of Wittgenstein's influence on Dennett cannot simply be gauged by the degree to which he embraces the complete corpus. Heck, even Wittgenstein disavowed some of his own thinking and was often unsure, as he proceeded over the years, that he had some things right. You've given us a false choice.

      Being influenced by, and acknowledging that influence while following one's own path, is not ipso facto "cherry picking" (which has negative connotations because it implies a willful effort to mislead by glossing over other equally important elements) -- nor is a failure to accept everything necessarily misreading. The latter could be, of course, but that hinges on treating the man's work as a unified doctrinal body which surely goes against one of Wittgenstein's own points, that philosophy is not about doctrine but method (though I'd put it differently and call it insight and whatever is needed to achieve it).

      If you truly find Dennett incoherent, I would like to hear more and discuss it further but, clearly, this thread isn't the place for that. Perhaps we can discuss this further off-line or, if you like, we could do it on Sean Wilson's new community blog where I've been posting since he started it up. The site can be found here:


      I have a number of articles on-line there (though I'm thinking of revamping my latest because, on re-reading it yesterday, it struck me as still too abstract and imprecise -- it's part of a series I've been attempting on moral valuing).

      Dennett is often discussed on Sean's site and generally attacked by the other posters. I am probably his lone defender.

      [Note that Sean's site began in reaction to some aggressive anti-Wittgenstein rhetoric by a number of self-described thinkers of the mainstream analytical school. (The smarter ones would argue that they are not anti-Wittgenstein but only anti his deification by people like Sean and myself -- though I can hardly see how anyone could accuse me of deifying him!)]

    16. Ha ha! We've come back to Sean. And so the circle of life is complete... or at least Duncan's post is.

      I'll take a look when I get the chance, but I've a lot on my plate just now so it might not be any time soon.

    17. No rush. No need to, in fact. It's merely that some of your remarks on Dennett strike me as a bit unfair and I'd like to understand where you're coming from a little more before reaching any final conclusion. We don't have to discuss it anywhere on-line or at all if you're not inclined to. I just hope you'd take another look and consider some of the points about Dennett and Wittgenstein I've raised. Thanks.

    18. OK. To be honest I'm slightly loathed to. I spent some time a few years back doing "consciousness studies" and - Christ! - it was awful.I don't just mean Dennett - in fact, at least he was fun to read, despite my deep disagreements with him (same for Nagel, actually). But Chalmers, Putnam... MAKE IT STOP! MAKE IT STOP! :)

    19. Well, consciousness is one of the harder things to talk about (after all, we run into the linguistic problem right off, don't we?). Nevertheless, we do seem able to talk about it to some degree (though agreements are very, very hard to come by). So many of the terms are susceptible to so many different interpretations that it's as if we can never quite get a fix on any of it. And, of course, we really can't. One man's "experience" is another's "qualia" and another's "sense data" or another's "awareness" or "intentionality," etc., etc. And the talking goes on. I'm no fan at all of Chalmers though Dennett once told me he thought him the smartest "dualist" he knows! Personally I don't see much point in the metaphysical stuff about dualism vs. its opposite (what is it they call it, "monism"?), though Dennett takes a position on it. It all seems rather silly to me since we can't know anything about any of that beyond the fictional enterprise of speculation in any event. Of course it can be fun to do, sort of like reading good science fiction, but, incredibly, it seems to generate so much more heat among the "fans" than sci-fi. My only objection to "dualism" is that, it seems to me, we don't have to go there.

    20. You misunderstand my point. The problem stemmed not from the complexity of the phenomenon, nor what they were saying (which was usually surprisingly straightforward once you translated it into English), but from the wretchedness of their prose.

    21. Dense, and thus bad, prose often comes from attempts to write about difficult subjects and what could be more difficult than trying to say things about the subjective side of consciousness? Dennett's first book, Content and Consciousness (his PhD thesis) is turgid and dense to the point of making it nearly unreadable. But he got much better over the years, in part, I think because he came to see things through a more Wittgensteinian sort of lense (although he works to say WHY things are they are which is rather un-Wittgensteinian because such an approach is necessarily theoretical).

  3. "It's easy to think you're making progress just because you keep moving. "

    Perfect. It reminds me of something D Z Phillips says in 'Philosophy's Cool Place' to the effect of people complaining that poor old Phillips wasn't "going anywhere". He wore this as a badge or pride.

  4. Maybe you should send Matthen this piece (found on In Socrates' Wake): http://harvardmagazine.com/2013/11/the-power-of-patience


    1. But what good is patience? Where's the end product? Show me the money. Etc.

      Now that we have a slow food movement perhaps slow thinking and slow living will become acceptable.

    2. can't shop for slow thinking!

    3. You will be able to once I finish (and publish) my book about patience... ;)

    4. (Hilarious Beckett parody, in case it's not quite funny enough for that to be obvious.)

  5. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwbnGqOrAEM
    Dennett on free will as moral competence