Sunday, February 26, 2017

Winch and relativism, logic and life

I've discussed Peter Winch and relativism before (e.g., here and here). I concluded that, "Winch is probably only a relativist in trivial and misleadingly-called-'relativist' ways." Since then I've read more on the subject, by Winch, Cora Diamond, Jonas Ahlskog and Olli Lagerspetz. So perhaps it's time to revisit the issue.

One question that is relevant to the debate is the relation between logic and human behavior. Ahlskog and Lagerspetz say (in "Language-Games and Relativism: On Cora Diamond's Reading of Peter Winch," p. 294) that "a (or the) central motif in Winch's work" is the idea that, "in order to see what a proposition implies or excludes, we must look into how it enters the life of those who use it; for example, how speakers might react in face of challenges and complexities." 

This doesn't sound quite right if we think about propositions in a language we understand well. Obviously we don't have to look into anything in order to understand a proposition. That is, we might have to on some occasion, but sometimes I know quite well what you are implying without any further investigation. Perhaps that's not fair though. The words "in order to see" might imply a case in which one does not see, and so further investigation is required. The most obvious way to investigate would be to ask you what you are implying, which again does not involve looking at how speakers (plural) might (in general) react. Perhaps this still is not fair. Perhaps if I speak the language I have already done the necessary looking and seeing. This, we might think, is (at least in part) how I learned the language in the first place. But then this sounds uncomfortably like the so-called Augustinian picture of learning a language, as if I already had a language and then did some useful anthropological fieldwork among my elders. Still, I might be being unfair to Winch by treating other people's words as if they were his, and to Ahlskog and Lagerspetz by taking one sentence out of context and making a meal of it. I think there is a potential problem here though, even if I have hardly convicted anyone of anything so far.

One problem, or question apparently worth asking, is whether we should talk about "what a proposition implies or excludes" at all. That is, do propositions imply and exclude, or do people do this (in using propositions)? I think the answer is both. Say my daughter is driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway and, after a pause to watch the sunset, the van won't start. If I ask, "Did you leave the lights on?" then I might be implying that she is often careless and has negligently caused the battery to die. The proposition on its own does not imply this. It might be said, though, to imply that the van has lights that can be left on or not. [Perhaps this should be thought of as implying in a metaphorical sense. A sentence implies things in something like the way that Heidegger or Loos might see a vase as implying things about the lives of the people who use it.] If you don't know English or any language close enough to it to have reliably similar implications and exclusions then you might have to look into how speakers of this language use sentences such as "Did you leave the lights on?" Otherwise you don't, surely. Knowing a language means, in part, knowing the correct standard use of this kind of sentence. And we don't usually learn this kind of thing by doing anthropology. Talk about what propositions mean and how we know what they mean might encourage the adoption of an outside, anthropological, third-person perspective. And this could be problematic.

In "Can We Understand Ourselves?" (CWUO) Winch says that understanding another culture requires studying the behavior of members of the culture in question. And, according to him, we cannot start by finding out their beliefs and desires, because we see these for what they are (p. 197) “only through the behavior in which they are manifested.” He seems to suggest here that knowledge of behavior, or perhaps simply behavior, is somehow prior to psychology. I wonder whether they really come apart like this. That is, perhaps they should be thought of as two sides of the same coin, with no relation of priority or dependency between them. In The Idea of a Social Science he said that "the social relations between men and the ideas which men's actions embody are really the same thing considered from different points of view". That seems better to me. 

On the same page of CWUO on which he implies the contrary of the suggestion that we could understand others' actions by starting with their "internal 'desires and beliefs'," Winch says also that "neither words nor actions have per se any preeminent position." He also notes some peculiarities of the notion of understanding. An anthropologist might understand another culture, or some feature of it, quite well without being able to imagine (seriously or sincerely) engaging in its practices. On the other hand, there is a sense of understanding in which we do not understand people or what they do if we cannot relate to them in a more subjective way than this. If we cannot, that is, 'find ourselves in them,' whether they belong to our culture or another, then we cannot fully understand them. 

This sounds true, but does it amount to anything more than the assertion that we do not understand people that we do not understand? I don't see why, that is, one cannot come to understand liking music, or a certain kind of music, or football, to give some of Winch's examples. Although, of course, one might see nothing in any of these things. Doing so would involve seeing the point of, say, watching football, which involves something like seeing it as having a point, which is like (though perhaps not exactly the same as) wanting to watch football. It might not be possible to want to do everything, or to see every human activity as having a point. But of any given activity I see no reason why one could not come to see its point. One good thing, though, about Winch's emphasis on understanding others as finding oneself in them is that it points away from the kind of problematic third-person perspective that I identified (or gestured towards) above.          

At the end of CWUO Winch argues that "practical 'being in tune' with others lies right at the very centre of our understanding of other human beings" (p. 203). As Winch admits, his argument here is sketchy. For those who want a fuller treatment of the topic he recommends his paper "Eine Einstellung zur Seele." One thing he does in this paper is to question the philosophical notion (or at least David Wiggins' notion) of a person:
On this view [...] reacting to someone as a person is in the first instance classifying him as belonging to a certain natural kind and this in its turn involves having certain quasi-theoretical beliefs about him. Anything that is peculiar to our attitudes towards and treatment of persons flows from and is justified by the beliefs we hold about what properties persons essentially possess; and what justifies these beliefs is ultimately scientific investigation. [Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 81 (1980 - 1981), pp. 1-15, p. 12]
One thing that Winch objects to is Wiggins' treatment of our reactions or attitudes towards other human beings as requiring justification. Another is that the justification in question is theoretical. I agree. But Winch still seems to want to explain this attitude toward a soul, referring to such things as "my general experience of human life" (p. 13). I think it's fine to try to explain what Wittgenstein means by an attitude (or orientation, perhaps) towards a soul. But explaining where it comes from seems somehow misguided. The explanation doesn't seem very informative, although what's good about it is that it is much less oriented towards theory and justification than Wiggins seems to be. Perhaps that is the main point that Winch wants to make.

Earlier in the paper he says that Wittgenstein wants:
to urge that if we want to be clear what a belief (e.g.) that someone is in pain comes to, we should not allow ourselves to be hypnotized by its verbal expression ("He is in pain"), but should look at the whole range of behaviour, demeanour, facial expression, etc. in which such verbal expressions are embedded, and with which they are continuous, which give the words their particular sense and by some of which indeed the words may often be replaced (p. 3)
This might be true if it means that Wittgenstein thinks it's a good idea to look at behavior (etc.) if one wants to be clear what a belief is and is tempted to think that it must be something purely verbal or intellectual. It seems dodgier if it means that Wittgenstein has an answer to the question 'What is a belief?' and that this answer is: "it's a whole range of behaviour, demeanour, facial expression, etc. in which such verbal expressions are embedded, and with which they are continuous, which give the words their particular sense and by some of which indeed the words may often be replaced." That would make Wittgenstein seem like a kind of behaviorist, and like someone who wanted to answer philosophical questions by putting forward theses.

A problem with Winch is that it is not always clear what he is or isn't saying. This is surely one reason for the very different readings of Winch by Diamond, who sees him, ultimately, as a kind of relativist, and by Ahlskog and Lagerspetz, who defend him against this charge. It is useful to have both readings. Even if Winch is not a relativist, Diamond's criticisms could be helpful discussions of problems that would arise if one were to take his work in a certain way. But it also seems worth trying to work out whether the non-relativist reading of Winch is tenable.

Diamond's Winch thinks like Ilham Dilman, who states that:
[W]hen Dante in his book talked of the spheres of the heavens and put the earth at the centre of the universe, he was not talking about the same universe, the universe of modern astronomy. […] The universe, as conceived of in [the] world [of the Mediaevals], was not the universe of astronomy; it was the universe of their religion. […] Thus the skies of Dante's The Divine Comedy and the sky and the stars of astronomy belong to different universes of discourse. (Wittgenstein's Copernican Revolution, 2002, pp. 48–49, quoted in Ahlskog and Lagerspetz, p. 302.)   
Ahlskog and Lagerspetz say of this (on p. 303):
It seems indeed perfectly proper to say that Dante and we, in an important sense, have been talking of the same object: “that bright thing in the sky”. Winch would hardly have quarrelled with that. [...] [A]ssuming it is agreed (in some sense) that we disagree with Dante about the heavens, it will not be clear that our disagreement translates into “criticism”. For instance, Dante is not someone we would feel the need to refute. 
They are quite right that we would feel no need to refute Dante, partly because he is dead and partly because there is little at stake. But in "Criticizing from 'Outside'," Diamond brings up the example of people being punished for alleged witchcraft, not just in the past but today. If someone is executed for allegedly harming others by supernatural means might we not be tempted to criticize this practice? We might then feel the need to refute belief in witchcraft of this kind. And even if persuasive refutation seems hopeless, we might still insist that any punishment in these cases is unjust because the accused cannot possibly be guilty. Witchcraft isn't real.

I don't think Winch would have quarrelled with that. But whether he could consistently avoid such quarrelling while maintaining everything else he wrote is another matter. Not one I can settle now though.    


  1. Although it would be quite odd to speak of "refuting Dante", there is no reason we might not want to speak about what was right and what was wrong in his astronomical ideas. So we might well comment on the accuracy (for example) of his account of how the sun appears to move in the southern hemisphere, and what stars you see if you are there; and he does apparently take into account the precession of the equinoxes. But if we spoke in that way about what was right in his account, we might also speak about what wasn't. I haven't looked this up just now, but I think it is known what texts he was using.

    1. Yes, that seems quite right. I assumed the idea was not that explaining what Dante got wrong is not possible, but rather that it is unnecessary. I may well have assumed too much though.

      Terry Eagleton, How to Disagree Without Being a Liberal Pluralist

  2. I do think it's important not to simply conflate (often after the fact) speech-acts like justifications with having (being had by?) beliefs, when I hear people reciting the articles of faith in church for instance I generally take it more as a sign of their being good/mannered citizens of that community/institution than anything overtly theological (about the triune nature or such).

    1. Thanks. With regard to the people in church, at least, that sounds right.