One thing that’s become increasingly important to my thinking is the idea of priority in account. As I think of it, the basic idea is just this. In any theory (including any philosophical theory), some terms will be defined in terms of others, while others will be left undefined. The undefined terms aren’t, of course, left unexplained. In particular, in teaching your theory to others, you’ll need to do something to communicate the meanings of the undefined terms. In philosophy, at least, one of the most important ways of communicating the meanings of these terms is to give examples of the phenomena to which the terms apply. But, in principle, anything that successfully communicates those meanings is allowed.
Importantly, the same points apply, not only to the terms of a theory, but also to the phenomena the theory theorizes. Indeed, it’s in its application to the phenomena that the notion of priority in account becomes truly important. The basic idea, however, can be put similarly: we simply transfer the above ideas from their application to conventional definition (the definition of the terms of a theoretical language) to real definition: the definition of the phenomena themselves. The same points will then apply: some of the phenomena are defined in terms of others, while others are left undefined – though, again, the undefined phenomena aren’t left unexplained. (In fact, on my view, the whole theory itself will constitute the final explanation of the undefined phenomena. But that’s a story for another day.) But I don’t want to go into these issues about the undefined phenomena here. What interests me here is what happens if you don’t pay enough attention to priority relations.
In the first part of The Mind’s Construction, Matthew Soteriou spends a lot of time talking about a famous passage of G.E. Moore’s “The Refutation of Idealism,” in which Moore says: “The moment we try to fix our attention upon consciousness and to see what, distinctly, it is, it seems to vanish: it seems as if we had before us a mere emptiness. When we try to introspect the sensation of blue, all we can see is the blue: the other element is as if it were diaphanous.” Before reading Soteriou’s book, I hadn’t thought much about this claim of Moore’s in a very long time. I remember encountering it as an undergraduate, and accepting it as obviously right, and as an interesting and important point about conscious experience. But now I’m not so sure.
When I first read Timothy Williamson’s Knowledge and Its Limits, one thing that struck me, and stuck with me, was the fact that, while Williamson rejects the KK principle:
KK: If you know that p, then you know that you know that p,
he nonetheless admits the possibility of second-order knowledge, and so accepts what I’ll call P2K:
P2K: It’s possible to know that you know that p.
At the time, the difference between these two principles struck me as somehow important. But simply rejecting KK in favor of P2K didn’t seem quite right. True, KK seems too strong—after all, it it’s true, then knowing something requires not only that you know that you know it, but also that you know that you know that you know it, and so on, ad infinitum. But P2K seems somehow too weak. Second-order knowledge seems somehow more important than P2K alone would make it.
In a paper just published online in Erkenntnis, “Intuition Talk is Not Methodologically Cheap: Empirically Testing the ‘Received Wisdom’ About Armchair Philosophy,” Zoe Ashton and Moti Mizrahi mention the following note by Anscombe as an example of an appeal to intuition:
The nerve of Mr. Bennett’s argument is that if A results from your not doing B, then A results from whatever you do instead of doing B. While there may be much to be said for this view, still it does not seem right on the face of it. (Elizabeth Anscombe, “A note on Mr. Bennett,” Analysis, 26(6), 208. Emphasis supplied by Ashton and Mizrahi)
Part of their evidence that this is indeed an appeal to intuition is the fact that the quoted pair of sentences is the entirety of Anscombe’s published note. In other words, the only thing Anscombe has to say against Bennett, in the published note, is that his conclusion “does not seem right on the face of it.”
Ashton and Mizrahi claim, in effect, that Anscombe here provides an argument against Bennett’s view, an argument that has the following form: “It seems to me, Elizabeth Anscombe, that Bennett’s conclusion is false. Therefore, Bennett’s conclusion is false.” This is, it should be said, a terrible argument. And that provides some reason to doubt that it’s the argument Anscombe was giving. And if there’s no other argument she could have been giving, perhaps that’s because she wasn’t giving an argument.
Here’s something that’s been bugging me for a while: when philosophers characterize conscious mental states, they often do so in terms that seem to imply that those states are self-conscious. In other words, they seem to be conflating consciousness and self-consciousness; assuming, in effect, that all conscious states are self-conscious – which, given the plausibility of the view that all self-conscious states are conscious, implies that a state is conscious just in case it’s self-conscious.
It’s possible that, in my earlier posts (here and here), I run two distinct things together: (i) the “takings” posited by the Taking Condition and (ii) the belief (in the best case, the knowledge)––acquired in any self-conscious inference––that you’ve come to know your conclusion by inferring it from your premises. If I have, that’s because it has seemed to me that the latter sort of belief could do the work that “takings,” otherwise understood, were supposed to do. But it now seems to me that the kind of thing a “taking” is usually* understood to be is importantly distinct from the kind of self-knowledge (knowledge of your own inferences) that I’ve primarily been interested in. So I want to use this post to try to clear things up a bit.
At one point in “Some Remarks on Kant’s Theory of Experience,” Sellars is summarizing some “familiar Kantian theses” (279), and says: “Even our consciousness of what is going on in our own mind is a conceptual response which must be distinguished from that which evokes the response” (280, his emphasis). This fits nicely with the way I want to think about self-consciousness: a self-conscious act, on my view, is one in which, in addition to performing the act, you also come to know that you’ve performed it, and you do so precisley by performing it. So understood, the knowledge that you’ve performed the act is, in Sellars’s terms, a conceptual response to the act itself.
I suggested in an earlier post that any theory of inference needs to be able to distinguish between inferences of the following two forms:
(1) q; r; therefore, p
(2) q; r; <q> and <r> support <p>; therefore, p.
Intuitively, the difference is that, in order to perform an inference of form (1), you need yourself to be able to “see” that <q> and <r> support <p>. To perform an inference of form (2), however, you needn’t yourself be able to “see” this. So you can perform an inference of form (2), but not of form (1), when, for example, your grounds for thinking that <q> and <r> support <p> are merely testimonial, i.e., when someone told you, say, that the former together entail the latter, but you don’t yourself “see” the entailment relation.
I’ve been meaning for years to start blogging about philosophy, mainly with the idea that it would provide me with an outlet for the kinds of small thoughts, ideas, and questions that arise on a weekly basis. So that’s what this will be. Many of the posts (like the first one) will be on issues connected to papers I’m working on (and a related book project, which I’m just beginning). But others will be on issues related to other things I’m reading, many of which aren’t closely (or at all) connected to my research.
At any rate, comments are always welcome (including comments by email, if you’d rather not post in a public forum).
My account of inference (see “Inferring as a Way of Knowing”) involves rejecting the view that, when you infer, you come to believe your conclusion in part because you take your premises to support it. In other words, it involves rejecting the second clause of the increasingly well-known “Taking Condition”:
The Taking Condition: “[i]nferring necessarily involves the thinker taking his premises to support his conclusion and drawing his conclusion because of that fact” (Boghossian 2014: 5, his emphases).
It’s a familiar fact about inference that you can come to know your conclusion by inferring it from your premises only if you already know your premises. But the same thing is arguably true of the sorts of “takings” mentioned in the Taking Condition. That is, arguably, you can come to know your conclusion by inferring it from your premises only if you already know that your premises support your conclusion. In both cases, the qualifier “already” is important. Your knowledge of your premises needs to be prior to your knowledge of your conclusion; otherwise, your knowledge of your premises wouldn’t ground your knowledge of your conclusion. And similarly for your knowledge that your premises support your conclusion.
Part of the idea behind my account of inference is that the second of these claims––that you can come to know your conclusion by inferring it from your premises only if you already know that your premises support your conclusion––is questionable. In fact, my suggestion is that, in the fundamental case, your knowledge that your premises support your conclusion is posterior to your knowledge of your conclusion. (The same is not true of your knowledge of your premises.)
So the difference between the standard view (which accepts the Taking Condition) and my view might be put like this: On the standard view, your knowledge that your premises support your conclusion is both causally and epistemically prior to your knowledge of your conclusion. On my view, by contrast, your knowledge of your conclusion is both causally and epistemically prior to your knowledge that your premises support your conclusion.
It was recently suggested to me that the following example poses a challenge to my view.