Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Another draft nursing textbook chapter

By its very nature, mental healthcare raises a number of key conceptual questions calling for philosophical, rather than empirical, inquiry. This chapter outlines some of the answers that have been proposed to, perhaps, the most central question: what is a mental illness? We then discuss links between answers to this question and concerns about the justification of coercion in mental healthcare, shared decisions about recovery, and the objectivity, or otherwise, of psychiatric taxonomy.

Mental illness and mental healthcare raise a number of difficult and deep questions. Here are just a few.
·         What is the difference between just being different and having a mental illness?
·         What, if anything, is the justification for detaining people merely because they have a particular kind of illness?
·         Should someone with a mental illness have less say over the nature of their recovery than someone with a physical illness?
·         Can a classification or taxonomy of mental illness, such as the recently published DSM-5, aspire to be as objective as the Periodic Table in chemistry. Or is it more like the Top 40?
Questions such as these seem to arise not just from quirky or accidental features of healthcare in this particular country at this particular time but from something deeper and more general: the very idea of mental health and illness. If that is so, they cannot be answered by empirical means - experiments, questionnaires etc - because such means presuppose that we already know what we mean by ‘mental health’ and ‘mental illness’. Thus trying to answer questions like these calls for a method based on examining our concepts. That method is philosophy. So in thinking about questions such as these, we are researching the philosophy of mental healthcare.
In this chapter, we will examine some recent attempts to answer the first question, starting with Thomas Szasz' suggestion that the answer is ‘nothing’ because there is no such thing as mental illness. We will then trace some connections between accounts of mental illness and answers to the other questions set out above.

Szasz and the myth of mental illness
Thomas Szasz’ attack on the very idea of mental illness is often thought of as belonging to a wider movement, called ‘Anti-Psychiatry’, which began in the 1960s, questioning the legitimacy of psychiatry. Other thinkers grouped under the same label include the French philosophical historian Michel Foucault, who argued that mental healthcare was a form of social control developed to support capitalism, and the radical British psychiatrist RD Laing. In fact, Szasz rejected the label ‘anti-psychiatry’ as firmly as he rejected the idea of mental illness.
The centrepiece of Szasz’ critique is an article and then a book called ‘The Myth of Mental Illness’. A key argument is expressed in this passage:
The concept of illness, whether bodily or mental, implies deviation from some clearly defined norm. In the case of physical illness, the norm is the structural and functional integrity of the human body. Thus, although the desirability of physical health, as such, is an ethical value, what health is can be stated in anatomical and physiological terms. What is the norm, deviation from which is regarded as mental illness? This question cannot be easily answered. But whatever this norm may be, we can be certain of only one thing: namely, that it must be stated in terms of psychological, ethical, and legal concepts…
[W]hen one speaks of mental illness, the norm from which deviation is measured is a psychosocial and ethical standard. Yet the remedy is sought in terms of medical measures that – it is hoped and assumed – are free from wide differences of ethical value. The definition of the disorder and the terms in which its remedy are sought are therefore at serious odds with one another… [Szasz 1972: 15]
The argument here starts from the assumption that mental and physical illness involve deviations from different norms. Medical intervention, however, is capable of addressing only one sort of deviation – that of physical illness – and thus it cannot address the kind of deviation from a norm implicit in mental illness. Since the conception of mental illness involves the idea that it can be so treated, there is something incoherent about the very idea.
Since medical interventions are designed to remedy only medical problems, it is logically absurd to expect that they will help solve problems whose very existence have been defined and established on non-medical grounds. [ibid: 17]
Szasz also develops a shorter argument. If mental illness is a deviation from a psychosocial norm then this leads by itself to an objection of circularity:
Clearly, this is faulty reasoning, for it makes the abstraction ‘mental illness’ into a cause of, even though this abstraction was originally created to serve only as a shorthand expression for, certain types of human behaviour. [ibid: 15]
Critical thinking stop point: think about both these arguments. Are they successful in implying that mental illness could not exist? It might help to summarise them on the back of an envelope. How might one challenge them?
Neither of Szasz’ arguments is compelling. Consider the argument of circularity. We can set it out in logical steps as follows:
1.       Mental illness is an abstraction from a description of deviant behaviour. It is defined in terms of behaviour.
2.       Mental illness is supposed to be a cause of deviant behaviour.
3.       Nothing can cause itself.
4.       So there is no such thing as mental illness.
The argument is driven by a tension between the claims in the first two premises. But on reflection, there is a natural view of mental illness that captures what seems right about the first premiss without leading to the tension with the second. We can concede that mental illnesses are identified via someone’s behaviour (for example, what they say and do) without thinking that the illness is the behaviour. It may be that the illness is the cause of the deviation such that, even though it is picked out by its characteristic effects, it is not identical to them.
Here is an example of this sort of reasoning from a different and clearer context. Lee Harvey Oswald’s action of pulling the trigger on 22nd November 1963 may be described as his mudering president John F Kennedy, the action of the moment described by its slightly later effect. The action of pulling the trigger thus both caused the death of the president but is also labelled using that later event. But no defence lawyer could have argued that, because nothing can cause itself, there could be no such act. If the analogy holds then Szasz’ argument fails. To succeed he would need some independent reason to rule out the idea that the idea of a mental illness is the idea of something that causes characteristic behaviour.
The same objection applies, also, to the argument from different norms. Just because mental illness is identified via divergence from psychological, ethical, and legal norms does not rule out the idea that it comprises some underlying biological cause of such divergence and hence might be subject to medical treatment thus undermining Szasz’ argument.
Despite these objections, however, it may seem that such a defence of mental illness concedes too much in conceding that it is a defined in essentially value-laden terms. After all, that alone suggests that mental illness status cannot be objective. Hence it is worth briefly examining two responses from Christopher Boorse and Robert Kendell which challenged just this point.

Kendell, Boorse and value-free accounts of mental illness
Like Thomas Szasz, RE Kendell was a Professor of Psychiatry but unlike Szasz, he was an establishment figure becoming Chief Medical Officer for Scotland and President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK. In ‘The concept of disease and its implications for psychiatry’ he argues in defence of mental illness or disease by suggesting a method for assessing the status of mental illness:
before we can begin to decide whether mental illnesses are legitimately so called we have first to agree on an adequate definition of illness; to decide if you like what is the defining characteristic or the hallmark of disease. [Kendell 1975a: 306]
Reviewing the history of the debate he comments:
By 1960 the ‘lesion’ concept of disease, and its associated assumptions of a single cause and a qualitative difference between sickness and health had been discredited beyond redemption, but nothing had yet been put in its place. It was clear, though, that its successor would have to be based on a statistical model. [ibid: 309]
But, as Kendell goes on to say, whilst a statistical model may address some of the weaknesses of a single lesion model, statistical abnormality by itself cannot distinguish between ‘deviations from the norm which are harmful, like hypertension, those which are neutral, like great height, and those which are positively beneficial, like superior intelligence’ [ibid: 309]. It cannot distinguish disease from mere difference. Some further criterion is needed to address the fact that illness is a specific kind of deviation from the norm.
Kendell’s preferred solution is based on the work of the British chest physician, JG Scadding.
Scadding was the first to recognise the need for a criterion distinguishing between disease and other deviations from the norm that were not matters for medical concern, and suggested that the crucial issue was whether or not the abnormality placed the individual at a ‘biological disadvantage’... He defines illness not by its antecedents – the aetiological agent or the lesion producing the overt manifestations – but by its consequences. [ibid: 309]
Kendell goes on to argue that ‘biological disadvantage’ must involve increased mortality and reduced fertility, ‘whether it should embrace other impairments as well is less obvious’ [ibid: 310]. Thus he uses this criterion to test the idea of mental illness. Do they produce biological disadvantage by reducing fertility or life expectancy? After some investigation – which turns on empirical facts about the effects of these putative illnesses – he is able to come to a modest, positive conclusion.
Schizophrenia, manic depressive illness, and also some sexual disorders and some forms of drug dependence, carry with them an intrinsic biological disadvantage, and on these grounds are justifiably regarded as illness; but it is not clear whether the same is true of neurotic illness and the ill-defined territory of personality disorder. [ibid: 315]
Two things are worth noting about Kendell’s approach.
  1. His criterion of illness is general. It applies to physical and mental illness. Any condition is an illness if it leads to biological disadvantage of the right sort. That said, it is originally derived from considerations of paradigmatic physical illnesses.
  2. The criterion is purely factual and value-free. It is a matter simply of empirical fact whether a condition increases mortality and reduces fertility. If it does, then it is an illness. If not, then not.
Kendell’s approach faces a dilemma, however. On the one hand, there is ambiguity about what ‘biological disadvantage’ means. Without some further specification, it will not shed light on the nature of mental illness. But on the other, attempting to solve that problem by appeal to the idea of increased mortality and reduced fertility produces a theory of illness or disease which is vulnerable to the objection that it does not articulate what is essential to the idea of all illnesses. Roughly speaking, it seems plausible that one might be genuinely ill without this leading to increased mortality and reduced fertility. Whilst those measures might well address illnesses which, specifically, are life-threatening and undermine reproductive ability, neither risk seems to be an essential feature of everything that we might call ‘illness’ or ‘disease’.
At the same time, the US philosopher Christopher Boorse also attempted to articulate a value-free, purely descriptive account of disease – which he contrasts with illness, although we will ignore that distinction here – but using a conceptually richer notion: biological function. In ‘On the Distinction between Disease and Illness’ Boorse claims that:
The state of an organism is theoretically healthy, i.e. free of disease, insofar as its mode of functioning conforms to the natural design of that kind of organism… the single unifying property of all recognized diseases of plants and animals appears to be this: that they interfere with one or more functions typically performed within members of the species. [Boorse 1975: 57]
More precisely the theory runs:
An organism is healthy at any moment in proportion as it is not diseased; and a disease is a type of internal state of the organism which:
i)             interferes with the performance of some natural function—ie some species-typical contribution to survival and reproduction—characteristic of the organism’s age
ii)            is not simply in the nature of the species, ie is either atypical of the species, or, if typical, mainly due to environmental causes.
[Boorse 1998: 108]
Like Kendell, Boorse suggests that there is more to being diseased than being different. His is not a merely statistical approach. Instead, the sense that there is something wrong about having a disease is captured by the idea that it threatens natural biological functions. But whilst there is a connection between such functions and the contribution they make to an organism’s overall fitness, not every such failure of function need be directly correlated with actual increased mortality and reduced fertility. Biological function is thus a more fine grained approach to the concept disease or illness that Kendell’s appeal to biological disadvantage.
Critical thinking stop point: think about the idea that illness or disease is a failure of biological function. Is this a good definition? Are there any illness that are not such failures and are there any failures that are not illnesses? How well does the idea apply to mental illness?
There are two main difficulties with Boorse’s approach. The first is that failure of biological function seems more widespread than disease. In other words, not every failure of function deserves to be called a disease. For example, the function of sperm is surely to fertilise an egg. That function explains why sperm production continues in populations. But very little sperm actually does this. The benefit is so great that widespread failure can be accommodated without any implication of disease. To cope with this problem, Jerome Wakefield has proposed more recently that disease be restricted to the harmful failures of function. His approach combines biological function and dysfunction with the value: harm [Wakefield 1999]. Although his is perhaps the most famous contemporary account, it faces the second of the objections to Boorse.
The second problem concerns the application of the idea of function and dysfunctions to mental phenomena: to thoughts and experiences. It seems relatively straightforward to describe the function of the eye, for example, but rather less clear what the function is of the profound sadness of bereavement or even whether it is functional – since it is widespread – or the dysfunctional consequence of emotional bonds that are elsewhere functional (see the critical thinking box at the end). In such cases it may be that our assumptions about what is and is not mental illness drives our assumptions about mental functions rather than the other way round. If so, the account does not shed light on what we mean by ‘illness’ or disease’.

Fulford and value-laden accounts of mental illness
So far we have contrasted Szasz’ claim that mental illness is value-laden and Kendell’s and Boorse’s claims that it is value-free. How can we referee their dispute? A useful perspective is provided by the psychiatrist and philosopher Bill Fulford. The significant feature of the debate, he argues, is not so much on what they explicitly disagree but on what they implicitly agree and disagree. Once this is highlighted, a different conclusion can be drawn. Taking Szasz and Kendell to represent the poles of the debate, Fulford argues that:
Both authors assume that mental illness is the target problem: Szasz wants to ‘raise the question, is there such a thing as mental illness’? Kendell, similarly, seeks to ‘decide whether mental illnesses are legitimately so-called’. Both then turn to the concept of physical illness, acknowledging certain difficulties of definition, but suggesting criteria which they take to be self-evidently essential to its meaning: Szasz’ criterion is ‘deviation from the clearly defined norms of the structural and functional integrity of the body’. Kendell’s is ‘biological disadvantage, which must embrace both increased mortality and reduced fertility’. Finally, both return to mental illness. Szasz points out that for mental illness, the relevant norms of bodily structure and functioning are not available: on the contrary, he argues, the norms of mental illness are ‘ethical, legal and social’. Kendell, on the other hand, draws on epidemiological and statistical data to show that many mental illnesses are biologically disadvantageous in his sense, being associated with reduced life and / or reproductive expectations. Hence by Szasz’ criteria of physical illness, mental illness is a myth, whereas by Kendell’s it is not. [Fulford 1999a: 169]
According to Fulford, Szasz and Kendell both agree that mental illness is conceptually difficult and, by contrast, physical illness is straight-forward in part because the latter is value-free. From this they deduce value-free criteria for illness and apply them to mental illness with different results. As described above, Szasz argues that supposed mental illnesses are deviations from value-laden norms and thus do not meet the value-free criteria for illness. Kendell argues that they do fit his preferred criteria of increased mortality and decreased fertility.
Fulford argues, however, that the assumption that Szasz and Kendell, and Boorse for that matter, share is wrong. Physical illness is not value-free. It merely seems that way because we tend to agree on the values that underpin physical health and illness whilst there is much more variation in the values governing mental health and illness. Further, it is a general feature of value judgements that when we agree on underlying values they can become disguised by value-free criteria.

What’s the evidence? RM Hare on value terms
Fulford’s account of value terms draws on the work of philosophers such as RM Hare (1919-2002) and JL Austin (1911-1960), writing particularly in the middle decades of the 20th century, in the ‘Oxford school’ of linguistic analytic philosophy. In his Language of Morals, Hare discusses the logical properties of value terms [Hare 1952].
The value judgments expressed by (or implicit in) value terms are made on the basis of criteria that, in themselves, are descriptive (or factual) in nature. The value judgment expressed by ‘this is a good strawberry’, in one of Hare’s examples, is made on the basis that the strawberry in question is, as a matter of fact, ‘sweet, grub-free’. Hare points out that where the descriptive criteria for a given value judgment are widely agreed, the descriptive criteria that may come to dominate the use of the value term as a consequence of repeated association. In the case of strawberries, most people in most contexts prefer or value strawberries that are sweet and grub-free. Hence the use of ‘good strawberry’ comes to be associated with descriptions such as ‘sweet, grub-free, etc’. This contrasts with, say, pictures where there are no settled descriptive criteria for a good picture because there is no general agreement about pictorial aesthetics.
Hare’s general conclusion is this: value terms by which shared values are expressed may come, by a process of simple association, to look like descriptive (or factual) terms, whereas value terms expressing values over which there is disagreement, remain overtly value-laden in use.
Fulford argues that the same contrast applies to mental and physical illness. It is because mental healthcare is concerned with areas of human experience and behaviour, such as emotion, desire, volition, and belief, where people’s values are particularly highly diverse that it seems more value-laden than physical illness.
Fulford’s positive account of the nature of illness draws on the idea of ordinary doing as the kind of action that one ‘gets on and does’ without having to try, without having intentions explicitly in mind [Austin 1957]. A failure to be able to do this kind of thing, in the absence of external constraint, captures, Fulford argues, the character of experiences of illness. As a hypothesis, moreover, it helps to explain a number of the key features of medicine. In particular, the idea that illness comprises an internally generated failure of ordinary doing explains its values-ladenness because the ineliminable concept of failure of ordinary doing itself suggests an ineliminable negative value judgement.
This is true of physical illness as well as of mental illness but because there is much more agreement about the sorts of things we should be able physically or bodily to be able to do, the underlying values can become hidden behind factual criteria for working muscles, hearts and lungs etc. This contrast between divergent values in mental healthcare and shared values in physical medicine explains why there is an Anti-Psychiatry movement but not an Anti-Cardiology one.
Having now sketched some competing views of mental illness, and highlighted the potential connection between illness and values, we can now see what connections there are to the other questions raised at the start.

Applications to other questions?
First, is there a connection between mental illness and a justification for compulsory treatment? Fulford argues that his account sheds light on why psychotic illness justifies coercion. On his account, illness is an internally caused failure of ordinary doing. In the case of other illnesses, the failures concern difficulties in the execution of actions. But psychosis involves a loss of insight. It thus involves a defect in the reasons someone has for acting. And because actions are identified as the actions they are on the basis of why someone did them this leads to a constitutive failure to frame, rather than merely to carry out, an action. However, in general, peoples’ actions can excused when there is a breakdown in intention. If one does something which might normally deserve blame merely by accident, mistake or impaired consciousness, one can be excused because one is not responsible for the act. Illness can also act as an excuse.
All non-psychotic illnesses… involve… instrumental failures of ‘ordinary’ doing, difficulties in doing what one intends to do. And difficulties of this sort often mitigate and, if very severe, may even excuse. But in the case of psychotic illness, the failure of ‘ordinary’ doing … is a failure in the very specification of what is done. The psychotic, therefore… lacks intent… [H]e is thus in the same position as others who lack intent in that he is not responsible for what he does, and, hence, excused. [Fulford 1989: 242-3]
This idea that lack of intent excuses an action can be connected through two links to the problem of justifying compulsory treatment. First, psychotic illness, in which a subject lacks insight into his or her condition, undermines the subject’s capacity to form reasons and thus connects to defective intent. Secondly, a subject whose purported actions can be excused by defective intent, which may undermine their status as actions, is also by that fact the kind of subject whose autonomy can justifiably be overridden.
As Fulford spells out, there is of course a sense in which people with psychotic loss of insight clearly do form intentions, just as there is a sense in which they clearly do have reasons for their actions. The point is rather that, to the extent that their actions reflect psychotic loss of insight, their reasons are defective, in whatever (as yet to be determined) way delusional reasoning is defective. Defective reasons for action imply defective intentions, hence, excuse and hence also a rationale for compulsion by others.
This general approach promises to shed light on the key justification for compulsory treatment. There are, however, still some questions remaining. Do all cases that merit compulsory treatment involve defective intent? Why precisely does such a defect justify treatment? What exactly is the connection between the possibility of excusing purported actions because of some failure of intent and overriding the agent’s remaining autonomy? And what precisely comprises a relevant defect of intent? Is it right to say that there is a lack of intent, or a failure within the specification of intention, or an impaired intention or what? Nevertheless, it suggests that psychiatry carries with it quite specific medical ethical complexities which flow from the fact that it centres on disorders of human agency.
This line of reasoning suggests one factor in an answer to the next question raised at the start, too: should someone with a mental illness have less say over the nature of their recovery than someone with a physical illness? The extent to which mental illness can undermine a capacity to frame decisions has to be addressed in decisions about treatment and management. But there is another factor which pulls in the opposite direction. Just as both Fulford and to a lesser extent Wakefield argue the very idea of mental illness is value-laden, so it seems that recovery in mental healthcare is value-laden. This is because it is not merely a matter of getting batter, or returning to how one was before its onset, or returning to a statistically normal set of mental capacities. Rather it involves the section of a way of living which is right for the person concerned.
The Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health policy paper ‘Making recovery a reality’, begins by summarising some key points of emphasis which, it is suggested, characterise any broadly conceived recovery-based approach. These points include:
Recovery is about building a meaningful and satisfying life, as defined by the person themselves, whether or not there are ongoing or recurring symptoms or problems.
Recovery represents a movement away from pathology, illness and symptoms to health, strengths and wellness.
Hope is central to recovery and can be enhanced by each person seeing how they can have more active control over their lives (‘agency’) and by seeing how others have found a way forward.
Self-management is encouraged and facilitated. The processes of self-management are similar, but what works may be very different for each individual. No ‘one size fits all’…
Recovery is about discovering – or re-discovering – a sense of personal identity, separate from illness or disability.
[Shepherd Boardman and Slade 2008: 0]
The Scottish Recovery Network summarises its views of recovery in similar terms:
Recovery is about living a satisfying and fulfilling life.
Recovery is about more than the absence of the symptoms of illness. Some people describe themselves as being in recovery whilst still experiencing symptoms….
Some people consider recovery as being ‘back to the way things were’ or back to ‘normal’ but for others recovery is more about discovering a new life or a new way of being.
[Scottish Recovery Network 2007: 3]
On this conception, recovery involves a value-rich personal choice. But given, as we have already described, there is a wide divergence of views about the values relevant to mental health and illness, especially to living a good life, this places much greater need for those with mental illnesses to be centrally involved in decisions about their care and there hopes for recovery.
The final question is harder. Can a classification or taxonomy of mental illness, such as the recently published DSM-5, aspire to be as objective as the Periodic Table in chemistry. Or is it more like the Top 40? According to Kendell and Boorse, mental illness (or more precisely disease in Boorse’s case) is a value-free, purely factual notion. But vas we have seen, their accounts face objections. According to Fulford and Wakefield, it is a value-laden notion. For Wakefield, this is a single value: harm. For Fulford, there may be a plethora of values. Indeed, the US psychiatrist John Sadler published a lengthy book on the wide variety of values and even kinds of values in DSM-IV [Sadler **]. If this is the case, what kind of classification or taxonomy can underpin mental healthcare?
First, any value-laden classification will be different from the value-free Periodic Table in chemistry. Even if the criteria for including symptoms or experiences into a particular category are factual and descriptive – like the criteria for a good apple – they will reflect original value judgements which cannot be measured by any instrument.
But second, the issue of the objectivity of a value-laden classification depends on the nature of the values involved. If they are mere expressions of subjective preference, like the Top 40, then they do not answer to anything objective and cannot aspire to being true. On the other hand, they might be thought to be expressions of something independent of any individual’s judgement as moral codes are often thought to be. If so, whilst distinct from the purely descriptive objectivity of the Periodic Table, classifications of mental illnesses would still have a more complex form of objectivity. This raises a key question: what is it to get such judgements right?

By its very nature, mental healthcare raises profound conceptual questions which call for philosophical rather than empirical research aimed at arriving at a clearer understanding of the underpinning ideas guiding healthcare. This chapter has illustrated this by addressing a fundamental question of what, if anything, mental illness is and briefly sketching some of the key ideas advanced over the last fifty years. One question these rival views differ on is whether mental illness, or disease, is a value-laden or value-free concept and, if the former, what kind of values.
Addressing that question, however, suggests connections to others, such as the justification of coercion, the nature of recovery and decisions made about it, and the objectivity of basic psychiatric taxonomy. A full and proper understanding of the nature of mental illness – the very idea of it – connects to other pressing areas. Philosophical understanding of mental healthcare is thus not merely an optional extra but a key guide to and resource for good practice.

Critical debate box: Grief, depression and the bereavement exclusion criterion
[To be added: Brief summary of the debate about the exclusion from DSM-5 of the bereavement exclusion criterion for depression.]

Austin, J.L. (1957) ‘A plea for excuses’ Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 57: 1-30
Boorse, C. (1975) ‘On the distinction between disease and illness’ Philosophy and Public Affairs 5: 49-68
Boorse, C. (1998) ‘What a theory of mental health should be’ in Green, S.A. and Bloch, S. (eds) An Anthology of Psychiatric Ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 108-115
Brown, W. and Kandirikirira, N. (2007) Recovering mental health in Scotland. Report on narrative investigation of mental health recovery. Glasgow: Scottish Recovery Network.
Fulford, K.W.M. (1989) Moral Theory and Medical Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Fulford, K.W.M. (1999a) ‘Analytic philosophy, brain science and the concept of disorder’ in Bloch, S. Chodoff, P. and Green, S.A. (eds) Psychiatric Ethics (third edition) Oxford: Oxford University Press: 161-192
Hare, R.M. (1952) The language of morals, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Kendell, R.E. (1975) ‘The concept of disease and its implications for psychiatry’ British Journal of Psychiatry 127: 305-315
Shepherd, G., Boardman, J. & Slade, M. (2008) Making Recovery a Reality London: Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health
Szasz, T. (1972) The Myth of Mental Illness, London: Paladin
Wakefield, J.C. (1999) ‘Mental disorder as a black box essentialist concept’ Journal of Abnormal Psychology 108: 465-472

Friday, 24 April 2015

Durham IAS Fellowship Recruitment 2016/17

"Dear former IAS Fellow, 

I am delighted to announce that the IAS Fellowship Scheme for 2016/17 is now open for recruitment. The theme for 2016/17 is ‘Scale’ and I would be very grateful if you could alert relevant colleagues in your department, institute or networks about this opportunity and indeed encourage them to apply for a fellowship. 

As ever, the IAS is very keen to attract applications from prominent scholars and non-academics to support our commitment to recruiting fellows from across the world. We think this theme will be of great interest to a wide range of scholars from across the disciplines. The closing date for applications is 05 June 2015. 

All details are available via the IAS website at and 

 Thank you very much for your help with this matter. If you have any queries please do not hesitate to contact me. 

 With best wishes, Linda"

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Mind and Society 2.0 videos

A link to the talks given at Mind & Society 2.0: a conference on philosophy and ethnomethodology held at MMU, Manchester, March 30th and 31st 2015.

The idiot in the first talk keeps walking out of frame.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Bootstrapping conceptual normativity?

Both anti-reductionist and reductionist accounts of linguistic meaning and mental content face challenges accounting for acquiring concepts as part of learning a first language. Anti-reductionists cannot account for a transition from the pre-conceptual to conceptual without threatening to reduce the latter to the former. Reductionists of a representationalist variety face the challenge of Fodor’s argument that language learning is impossible.
This paper examines whether Ginsborg’s account of ‘primitive normativity’ might provide some resources for addressing these issues. I argue that primitive normativity can be understood in either of two ways: a ‘no conception’ version and a ‘local conception’ version. Rejecting the ‘no conception’ account of normativity in favour of a ‘local conception’ of a rule expressed in context-dependent demonstrations and examples provides one response to Fodor’s argument. It also provides anti-reductionism with at least one stepping stone to learning full-blown linguistically articulated concepts based on a more primitive local form of normativity.

The problem of concept learning
One of the challenges for an anti-reductionist account of linguistic meaning and mental content is making space for an account of concept learning. If, following John McDowell for example, one takes the ‘space of reasons’ to answer to a distinct constitutive ideal from that of the ‘realm of law’, it is hard to see how the route from the latter to the former can be described or articulated into steps [McDowell 1994]. Any such description of the steps taken would threaten to provide – what the anti-reductionist denies – a reduction of the concepts of the space of reasons to those of the realm of law.
McDowell himself suggests that Wittgenstein’s phrase ‘light dawns gradually over the whole’ provides a natural metaphor for learning a first language ‘for one’s dealings with language to cease to be blind responses to stimuli: one comes to hear utterances as expressive of thoughts , and to make one’s own utterances as expressive of thoughts’ [McDowell 1998: 333]. But he suggests that this process cannot be limited to a few sentences but involves working one’s way ‘into a conception of the world’. Suggestive though Wittgenstein’s phrase is, it does little to shed light on how the process of language learning might come about so much as summarise, albeit neatly, the fact that some such process does come about.
Whilst anti-reductionists face a principled problem of shedding light on first language learning, the most striking recent philosophical argument about language learning comes from one of their reductionist opponents. In LOT2: The language of thought revisited, Jerry Fodor sets out a specific argument for the difficulty of accounting for concept acquisition [Fodor 2008]. Or rather, he argues that such language learning must be impossible.
Fodor’s argument has four steps:
1.       Concept learning is a rational process.
2.       The only plausible rational process is hypothesis formation and testing.
3.       But that requires the conceptual representation of the hypothesis, which presupposes possession of the concept to be learnt.
4.       So concept learning is impossible.
The first step contrasts learning as a rational process with any form of non-rational process of concept acquisition such as by surgical implantation, swallowing a pill or hitting one’s head against a hard surface. Fodor then argues that the only plausible candidate for such a rational process is a ‘process of projecting and confirming hypotheses about what the things that the concept applies to have in common’ [ibid: 132].
The argument for the third step is couched in the terms of Fodor’s ‘Representational Theory of Mind’ (RTM) and is, initially at least, restricted to primitive, that is non-definable, concepts.
Consider any concept that you’re prepared to accept as primitive, the concept GREEN as it might be. Then ask ‘What is the hypothesis the inductive confirmation of which constitutes the learning of that concept?’ Well, to acquire a concept is at least to know what it’s the concept of ; that is, what’s required of things that the concept applies to. So, maybe learning the concept GREEN is coming to believe that GREEN applies to (all and only) green things; it’s surely plausible that coming to believe that is at least a necessary condition for acquiring GREEN. Notice, however, that (assuming RTM) a token of the concept GREEN is a constituent of the belief that the concept GREEN applies to all and only green things. A fortiori, nobody who lacked the concept GREEN could believe this; nobody who lacked the concept GREEN could so much as contemplate believing this. A fortiori, on pain of circularity, coming to believe this can’t be the process by which GREEN is acquired. [ibid: 137-8]
And hence, he argues, no primitive concepts can be learnt. He goes on to lift this restriction to merely primitive concepts and generalise to all concepts but I will ignore that further step of the argument here.
Fodor’s Representational Theory of Mind is implicit in the way he sets out the third stage: that a token of the concept is a constituent of the belief about the extension of the concept. This reflects his idea that concept possession is explained by inner vehicles of content – mental representations – which have the same degree of internal structure as the content they carry. So complex thoughts are represented by complex mental representations or inner vehicles of content.
But even without RTM, it is possible to frame a version of Fodor’s argument against concept learning. Given the idea, from step 2, that concept learning involves testing a hypothesis, one needs to be capable of entertaining, or thinking, that hypothesis. In this case it is the hypothesis that the concept GREEN applies to (all and only) green things. But even without any speculation – in accord with RTM – about how such a thought is represented by inner mental representations, this seems to raise a problem as holding the hypothesis needed to learn the concept presupposes already possessing the concept one was supposed to be learning. Thus the argument about concept learning floats free of Fodor’s particular views of the nature of mind.
The principled problem of describing a process of concept learning from an anti-reductionist perspective and Fodor’s specific argument that concept learning is impossible present a two-fold challenge. Can Fodor’s argument be blocked and if so can the materials used to do that shed light on concept learning even from an anti-reductionist perspective? In the next section I will set out the ground rules for addressing this question and then set out the structure of the rest of this paper.

Ground rules
In what follows, I will make two substantial but related assumptions. First, that concept learning is normative or prescriptive. Second, that it is, in some sense, a rational process.
The assumption that concept learning is normative might be thought to flow from the prior assumption that concept use itself is normative. Such an assumption is shared by a number of philosophers influenced by Wittgenstein. John McDowell, for example, begins his paper ‘Wittgenstein on following a rule’ saying:
We find it natural to think of meaning and understanding in, as it were, contractual terms Our idea is that to learn the meaning of a word is to acquire an understanding that obliges us subsequently - if we have occasion to deploy the concept in question - to judge and speak in certain determinate ways, on pain of failure to obey the dictates of the meaning we have grasped. [McDowell 1984b: 325; 1998b: 221 italics added]
Michael Luntley is even more explicit.
Meaning is normative. That is the starting point to our investigations. The normativity of meaning comes from the fact that the content of our utterance or thought is something assessed as true or false… Without adding anything further about the nature of the concept of truth, this basic fact about meaning forces the following constraint. For any utterance or thought to possess meaning its meaning must be such that it demarcates between those conditions that would render the utterance true and those that would render it a failure in aiming for truth…So, if I utter the words
(1) Grass is blue
with their conventional meaning I am obliged, on being presented with a grass sample, to withdraw my utterance. For in uttering (1) I am bound by the meaning of the utterance to acknowledge that there are conditions which would render the utterance correct and conditions that would render it incorrect. That is just what meaning something with our words is like. We take on obligations. [Luntley 1991: 171-172 original italics]
This passage exemplifies an inference made in a number of normativist accounts of meaning. The meaning of any utterance distinguishes between cases where the utterance would be true and those where it would be false. From this distinction it is argued that meaning itself is normative and imposes prescriptions or obligations concerning word use or utterance.
This inference has, recently, been contested. Anti-normativists such as Anandi Hattiangadi agree that meaning is connected to a notion of correctness and incorrectness but deny that that implies meaning is a normative notion [Hattiangadi 2007]. Correctness itself is not normative. For example if R states a rule for the correct use of a term t which applies in virtue of features f
R             (x)(t applies correctly to x ↔ x is f)
then, Hattiangadi argues, this ‘simply states the correctness conditions of an expression; it does not tell me what to do’ [Hattiangadi 2007: 223]. A mere descriptive sorting of correct from incorrect uses or applications or true from false utterances implies no obligations or prescriptions for use. Correctness conditions do not prescribe that a true (or more broadly correct) use should be made unless also combined with a prescriptive norm that one ought to speak the truth (or more broadly correctly). And that additional norm seems – contra Luntley – too strong for specifically semantic normativity and more like a prudential or a moral norm.
Nevertheless, whether or not meaning is normative, a rational process of concept acquisition or learning does look to be normative. In this context, correctness conditions are not merely a neutral way of sorting subsequent utterances but rather constitute the aim or goal of developing linguistic competence, whether or not linguistic competence itself is thought to have correctness as a goal. If an anti-normativist were to argue that the relevant prescriptive ought applies to concept acquisition not directly in virtue of the rules of correctness of words themselves but an additional adoption of taking those rules as the goal of a distinct activity of concept learning, so be it.
My second assumption is that concept learning is, in some sense, a rational process. McDowell calls the acquisition of a first language a matter of being ‘cajoled’ [McDowell 1998: 333]. It is possible that being the recipient of such cajoling is not so much a rational response as being brutely changed in such a way that one can become a rational subject and make subsequent rational responses. But I will assume that it is possible to say something about rationality of the proto-linguistic responses of a subject in such a position.
My stalking horse will be Hanna Ginsborg’s account of ‘primitive normativity’ [Ginsborg 2011]. Since Ginsborg’s account is developed as a response to Krike’s meaning scepticism, the next section will outline Kripke’s argument. The following section will set out Ginsborg’s strategy to block that argument and the role of primitive normativity in it. I will then argue that primitive normativity can be interpreted in either of two ways: a ‘no conception’ view and a ‘local conception’ view. But I will argue that Ginsborg seems to, and has to, subscribe to the former which, however, is flawed. But, as I will argue in the final section, a ‘local conception’ view sheds light on concept acquisition.

Kripke’s sceptical argument
Ginsborg’s account of primitive normativity is – like many of the anti-normativists she opposes - designed as a response to Saul Kripke’s interpretation of Wittgenstein which Kripke presents as a sceptical argument concerning meaning [Kripke 1982]. His argument aims to cast doubt on what appears, pre-philosophically, to be an everyday ‘metalinguistic’ fact: the fact that one can mean something by a word. He considers the case of meaning addition by the word ‘addition’ and asks: what justifies the claim that answering ‘125’ is the correct response to the question ‘what does 68 + 57 equal?’. Two simplifying assumptions are made:
·         that ‘correct’ means in accordance with the standards of one’s previous usage of the signs involved: what one meant by them; and,
·         that one has never calculated that particular result before. In fact, Kripke assumes that one has ‘added’ no number larger than 57.
Normally if called upon to justify the answer ‘125’ one might give either of two sorts of response. Arithmetically, one might ensure that one had carried out the computation correctly. Metalinguistically, one might assert: ‘that “plus”, as I intended to use that word in the past, denoted a function which, when applied to the numbers I call “68” and “57”, yields the value 125’ [Kripke 1982: 8].
Kripke now introduces the sceptical hypothesis that in the past one might have followed or meant a different mathematical function, the quus function. On the assumption that one has never previously encountered numbers greater than 57, this is defined to agree with the plus function for all pairs of numbers smaller than 57. (Obviously, this number is arbitrary and inessential to the argument.) For numbers greater or equal to 57 the output is 5. Kripke now presses the question: what facts about one’s past performance show that one was calculating in accordance with the plus function rather than the quus function, that one meant plus rather than quus?
Kripke imposes a further condition on any satisfactory answer to the question. It must show why it is correct to respond 125 rather than 5 and, in the dialectic at least, Kripke construes this as supporting normativism. (According to Martin Kusch this assumption is merely part of the reduction ad absurdum, an immanent critique of a package of ideas that includes normativism [Kusch 2006].) A satisfactory answer should show why one ought to answer 125. This precludes citing facts about one’s education or training which now dispose one to answer 125. It may be true that one has such a disposition, but that will not show that one should answer 125. (One may equally be disposed to make mistakes when adding large columns of figures but that does not imply that one should, that that is what one meant to do.)
Kripke then deploys arguments based on Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations paragraphs 139-239 to show, apparently, that no facts about one’s past actions, utterances or dispositions can justify an answer [Kripke 1982: 7-54, Wittgenstein 1953]. Anything one did or said in the past could equally be interpreted as following or meaning the quus rule. For example, perhaps one said allowed that one was adding the numbers and by adding one meant counting up to the first number and then continuing counting by as many steps along the line of integers as the second number. However, as Kripke points out, perhaps the word ‘count’ meant quount which is defined as the same as counting but only as far as the number 57 [ibid: 108]. It appears that nothing that one said or did or thought to oneself can justify the claim that, now, answering ‘125’ is going on correctly in the same way one was before, in accord with what one previously meant.

Ginsborg on primitive normativity
In response to Kripke’s sceptical argument, Ginsborg denies the first of his simplifying assumptions. She denies that in order to claim that one ought, now, to say ‘125’ one needs first to establish that one previously meant addition. She argues that the fact that one ought to say ‘125’ is independent of any assumption about one’s past meanings and depends instead on ‘primitive normativity’.
I maintain that there is a sense in which you ought to say ‘125,’ given the finite list of your previous uses, independent of what meaning, if any, those uses expressed. The sense of ‘ought’ I am invoking here expresses what I am going to call ‘primitive normativity’: very roughly, normativity which does not depend on conformity to an antecedently recognized rule. [Ginsborg 2011: 232-3].
‘Primitive normativity’ is a basic form of normativity independent of, and prior to, grasp of meaning. Ginsborg suggests three possible interpretations of the example of a child who is able to recite numerals, has learnt to count up in twos and who, on reaching ‘40’ continues with ‘42’.
A conceptual-normativist account of the child’s saying ‘42’ would be as follows:
[T]he child says ‘42’ after ‘40’ because she recognizes, although without being able to put that recognition into words, that she has been adding two and that 40 plus two is 42. Her sense of the appropriateness of what she is saying thus derives from her recognition that it fits the rule she was following: a rule which she grasps, even though she is unable to articulate it. [ibid: 238]
On this higher level view, the correctness of the move – saying ‘42’ – depends on grasping a rule or a concept governing it although lacking a linguistic label for that concept or rule. Primitive normativity involves less than that. But, at the same time, it involves more than thinking of the child’s behaviour as akin to the reliable dispositional reactions of a suitably trained parrot. By contrast with such a comparison, Ginsborg argues that the child does not respond ‘blindly’ to her circumstances.
Even though she does not say ‘42’ as a result of having grasped the add-two rule, nor a fortiori of having ‘seen’ that 40 plus two is 42, she nonetheless ‘sees’ her utterance of ‘42’ as appropriate to, or fitting, her circumstances. [ibid: 237]
So even though the child lacks full-blown conceptual mastery, Ginsborg claims that she has a sense of appropriatenessfitting or belonging which merits the label ‘normativity’. The parrot lacks any such sense and hence is merely governed by dispositions not norms. I will return to the nature of this sense of appropriateness shortly in the contrast between ‘no conception’ and ‘local conception’ versions of primitive normativity.
Ginsborg gives a second example of the kind of middle level behaviour she has in mind. She describes a child sorting coloured objects but who has not yet acquired determinate colour concepts.
As she puts each green object in the designated box, it is plausible that she does so with a sense that this is the appropriate thing to do. She takes it that the green spoon ‘belongs’ in the box containing the previously sorted green things and that the blue spoon does not, just as the child in the previous example takes 42 and not 43 to ‘belong’ after 40 in the series of numerals. But her sense of the appropriateness of what she is doing does not, at least on the face of it, depend on her taking what she is doing to accord with a rule which she was following, for example, the rule that she is to put all the green things in the same box. For her grasp of such a rule would presuppose that she already possesses the concept green[ibid: 235]
Again, like the child saying ‘42’, Ginsborg’s description is supposed to suggest the prima facie plausibility of a description which, unlike the dispositions of a trained parrot, is genuinely normative but which does not presuppose full conceptual mastery.
In addition to these examples, Ginsborg suggests two further general considerations in support of the idea of primitive normativity. The first concerns her specific dialectical context of responding to Kripke. Neither dispositions nor full-blown conceptual normativity answer Kripke’s sceptical challenge. The former fails to sustain the normativity of meaning. The latter is specifically targeted by the possibility of alternative sceptical hypotheses of what was meant in the past. Primitive normativity, by contrast, promises a novel way to block the argument at the start. By denying that the justification of answering ‘125’ to the question Kripke considers presupposes establishing what one previously meant, the sceptical argument is halted before it gets off the ground.
The second consideration concerns the acquisition of concepts and is thus of relevance to Fodor’s argument described at the start of this paper. Invoking parrot-like dispositions as the basis for concept acquisition seems to leave too much of a gap still to cross to reach conceptual mastery. By contrast, invoking a prior understanding of concepts or rules to characterise the counting child is to provide no answer to the question how basic concepts can be learnt.
There are, however, two options for characterising primitive normativity based on two distinct things Ginsborg says, either of which might fit this second consideration. She says of the counting child both that:
1: ‘she lacked any conception of what her saying “42” after “40” had in common with her having said “40” after “38”’ [ibid: 234 italics added]
but also:
2: ‘it seems plausible to imagine her insisting, with no less conviction than a child who was able to cite the add-two rule, that “42” was the right thing to say after “40”: that it “came next” in the series, or “belonged” after 40, or “fit” what she had been doing previously’ [ibid: 234 italics added]
The former states that the counting child has no conception of what one move has in common with a previous move. The second allows for the possibility of some conception that the next move fits or belongs (ie does have something in common) with the previous one in context. The latter allows for a conception albeit a local one. Which does Ginsborg hold?

A ‘no conception’ view of primitive normativity
There is a general strategic reason and textual reasons to think that Ginsborg holds the more radical, minimal version of primitive normativity. I will begin with the textual evidence and return to the strategic reason at the end of this and the end of the next section.
One suggestive passage runs:
The utterance, from [the counting child’s] point of view, is not appropriate to the context in virtue of its conforming to a general rule which the context imposed on her, for example, the add-two rule. Rather, she takes it to be appropriate to the context simpliciter, in a way which does not depend for its coherence on the idea of an antecedently applicable rule to which it conforms. [ibid: 234-5]
Now one way to interpret the phrase ‘antecedently applicable rule’ is as a context-independent general specification of a rule. In the case of a mathematical series, that is a plausible way of cashing out full-blown conceptual normativity. What one understands when one understands a series is a rule which is independent of any particular context. And, hence, if what Ginsborg precludes from her definition of primitive normativity is full-blown conceptual normativity this might still allow for a merely demonstratively specified local conception of the demands of a rule to count as primitive normativity. On this view, whilst the child does not have a general conception of what it is to add two, cannot grasp its relation to other aspects of arithmetic for example, she can, nevertheless, recognise in some particular context that saying ‘42’ accords with what she has been doing.
But the phrase ‘antecedently applicable rule’ might equally be taken to mean, and hence to rule out, any conception of a rule. If so, the context imposes what move belongs with previous moves, or what next move is right, brutely, independently of any conception the child herself has of what she is doing. The way the quotation continues supports this latter impression:
This is not to deny that the normativity depends on any facts about the context, since the appropriateness of ‘42’ depends on her having recited that particular sequence of number words. But it is to deny that her claim to the appropriateness of ‘42’ depends on her recognition of a rule imposed by the context in virtue of the relevant facts, or a fortiori on her recognition of ‘42’ as a correct application of the rule. [ibid: 235]
This suggests a picture according to which facts about the context external to the child’s conception (if she has any) of her situation and what she is doing nevertheless make normative demands on her. The context of having counted up to 40 makes saying ‘42’ appropriate independently of her conception of what she is doing. ‘42’ belongs to what has gone before, is thus normatively connected to it, but she does not recognise that this is the demand that the rule, grasped in whatever way, makes in the context. I will call this the ‘no conception’ view of primitive normativity.
A second passage provides a distinct argument for this ‘no conception’ view on the assumption that even a local conception of what the next move is requires some grasp that this is relevantly the same as previous moves.
[T]he child’s recognition of similarity is not sufficient to account for her taking herself to be going on appropriately. She must not merely take herself to be going on the same way; she must also take it that going on the same way is the appropriate thing to do in the context, which is to say that she must grasp a rule with a content like go on the same way or do the same thing you were doing before. We are thus left with the problem of how to account for her grasp of this rule... [ibid: 240]
The argument here is that grasp of sameness is insufficient for knowing how to continue and so no local conception view based on just that idea would work. In addition to understanding what sameness amounts to, the child would also need to understand the further rule that she should go on in the same way, that this is what the relevant normative demand is.
There is something to this worry. There seems little prospect of factoring understanding the demands of following a rule into an understanding of what relevant sameness is and an additional realisation that sameness is what one ought to aim at. Wittgenstein stresses the fact that agreement is internal and relative to the particular rule [cf Wittgenstein 1953 §224]. Thus grasp of the rule, grasp of what agrees with it and hence what is relevantly the same in virtue of according with the rule, go hand in hand.
But this point applies equally to what Ginsborg thinks does occur to the child in her examples. The child thinks that the next number or coloured item, depending on the example, fitsbelongs or is appropriate to the context. But those notions are also insufficient for going on correctly. Again, the child needs also to understand that fitting, belonging or being appropriate is the right characteristic of a ‘move’ in the game she is playing. After all, a rule could dictate that the next move should stand out from, rather than fitting, what has gone before. Thus whilst this passage suggests that Ginsborg favours the ‘no conception’ view, it does not succeed in supporting it.
There is a further reason to think that Ginsborg has to hold the ‘no conception’ rather than the ‘local conception’ view which results from the strategic role of primitive normativity in blocking Kripkean scepticism. The blocking move is the denial that the correctness of answering ‘125’ now, in Kripke’s example, depends on what one meant, the rule one conceived, in the past. The sceptical argument targets knowledge now of that past meaning or conception and hence dodging that argument requires denying that one needs accord with any prior conception. That also rules out a merely local conception. If primitively following a rule requires fidelity to a prior local conception of what one was doing, expressed in local demonstrations and examples, it would be just as vulnerable to Kripke’s alternative sceptical hypotheses as a conception expressed in context-independent general terms. Thus to block the sceptical argument in the way Ginsborg advocates requires the adoption of a ‘no conception’ rather than a ‘local conception’ contrast to full-blown conceptual normativity.
In addition to these arguments, Ginsborg seems not to be alone in this view. In a passage in which she discusses how little may be necessary for rule following, Julia Tanney considers the conceptual possibility of rule following without the ability to cite higher level rules, or to repeat the performance or without training. She comments:
[I]f we agree with the thought that someone might be able to solve Rubik’s Cube even if she had never been trained by anyone, then this gives us a reason to reject the idea that there must be an internal connection between the rules that govern an activity and the individual who makes the moves. We can say that it is sometimes enough to credit someone with playing the game if she acts in accordance with the rules. Knowledge (implicit or otherwise) has dropped out of the picture. To insist that someone cannot solve the puzzle unless she somehow conceives the rules (even if she cannot articulate them, even to herself) and acts in the light of her conception of the rules is simply dogmatic. What would justify such insistence? If this person were suddenly entered in a contest and produced the cube with the colours in the right places, we would not withhold the prize because she merely acted in accordance with, but did not follow, the rules. Acting in accordance with the rules is solving the puzzle in certain cases. [Tanney 2013: 85-6]
On this account, having rejected a number of potentially necessary substantial claims as in fact unnecessary for rule following, Tanney concludes that, in the right context, mere accord with a rule constitutes rule following. Further, this does not seem to be merely a claim about the epistemology of the ascription of rule following – where, indeed, in the right context, apparent accord warrants the further ascription of intentional rule following – since Tanney connects it to the rejection of an internal connection between rules and agent. An epistemological interpretation, by contrast, is consistent with maintaining that accord in performance is evidence for such a connection, amounting to the grasp of the rule by the agent. Instead, and in response to a number of bogus explanations of rule following which fail because they presuppose precisely the abilities they purport to explain, Tanney offers a kind of deflationary approach. The failure of cognitivist explanations of rule following leads to a rejection of cognition.
To insist that someone must conceive the rules somehow – even if what it would be for her to conceive these rules is inaccessible to us – is misguided; it fails to explain anything. [ibid: 86].
Despite this support, the ‘no conception’ version of primitive normativity faces a key objection. It severs the connection between even primitively rule-governed behaviour and intentional action and blurs the distinction between mere accord with a rule and intentionally following it. Unless the child thinks of her actions, whether uttering numbers or physically sorting colours, as expressive of some conception of what she is trying to do, and thus might fail to do, it is hard to see how this can count as even primitively normative. Furthermore, it opens up the possibility of deploying Kripkean arguments about the interpretation of the actual moves made. Without the possibility of invoking the rule – expressed in local demonstrations – that the child’s finite moves expressed there seems no possibility, short of simply imposing some external platonic standards of correctness which has nothing to do with the child’s view of things, for narrowing down the infinite possibility of divergent ways of going on but which happen to accord with the child’s actual moves so far. One needs at least some conception of the rule being followed to uphold the difference in principle between a merely dispositional parrot, whose behaviour may accord with a rule available to a third person description, and a human subject with some sense of her new moves fitting or belonging with what went before, some sense of normative correctness.

A ‘local conception’ view of primitive normativity
There is, however, no need to get into such difficulty if the aim is merely to fit an intuitive description of the phenomenology of the child’s early performance in, as we might say though they cannot, counting in twos or grouping by colour. The middle ground between dispositional accord with a rule and full-blown conceptual normativity is not the primitive normativity of someone with no conception of what she is doing but rather the primitive normativity of someone with a merely local conception. Such a conception is not tied to the local context of counting or sorting objects brutely or merely externally in virtue of an ascription of rule-accord by an observer. Rather, it is expressed by the demonstrative judgements of the child and her capacity to demonstrate and explain by example what fits with what she has been doing.
This idea runs counter to one of Ginsborg’s explicit claims: ‘I maintain that there is a sense in which you ought to say “125,” given the finite list of your previous uses, independent of what meaning, if any, those uses expressed’ [Ibid: 232-3 italics added]. On the ‘local conception’ view, this is wrong. Correctness is tied via a local conception to what a speaker’s past utterances expressed even if the speaker is unable to offer a context-independent linguistic codification of her actions as instances of following the plus-two rule or the sorting of green objects. Her conceiving of her actions might not extend very far up the natural numbers (eg beyond 100) or to cover darker or lighter shades of green (by contrast with the vivid colours of children’s toys). So it is potentially doubly local: expressible only in some particular contexts of practical demonstration (by contrast with context-free linguistic codification) and covering only some particular instances and thus not actually extensionally equivalent to our concepts of plus two, or green but rather a primitive version of them.
I suggested that there is a further strategic reason why this view is unavailable to Ginsborg. She deploys the idea of primitive normativity as a novel response to Kripke’s sceptical argument in contrast, for example, to McDowell’s argument that Kripke’s argument presupposes unargued reductionism [McDowell 1984]. Her aim is to sidestep the arguments Kripke deploys against any justification one can currently offer for knowing what one meant in the past by one’s words which thus seem to undermine a standard of correctness for current use. Primitive normativity must, for those strategic purposes, be independent of any conceptual conception. A local conception is, however, a form of conceptual conception and its expression in a past finite pattern of examples is just as much subject to Kripke’s argument as a full-blown linguistic concept. It cannot be part of a new defence of meaning against Kripke’s argument. Thus a commitment of such a view is that more direct rebuttals of Kripke, such as McDowell’s, can turn aside the sceptical argument without particular appeal to primitive normativity.

A ‘local conception’ view of primitive normativity and language learning
Primitive normativity guided by a local conception of what a speaker is doing promises a partial answer to the initial two-fold challenge of describing language learning. One aspect of Fodor’s challenge was to sketch a rational mechanism for concept acquisition or learning. On the assumptions that a) the only plausible option is hypothesis formation and testing and b) hypothesis formation presupposes the very conceptual mastery in question, no rational mechanism seems possible.
Primitive normativity understood as involving a local – rather than no – conception of a rule or concept is a plausible intermediary between mere dispositional accord with rules and full-blown linguistic mastery. The intermediate stage involves testing the hypothesis that a new linguistic concept either expresses a content previously grasped in some local demonstrative manner or refines and extends it. As suggested above, the grasp of a full-blown linguistic concept may require the piecemeal extension of a more primitive, merely local conception of a rule. But there may be some gradations of understanding between having no and a first language.
Of course, the very idea of an essentially situation-dependent conceptual understanding does not fit within the basic idea of Fodor’s representational theory of mind according to which content always has an inner vehicle. So no such middle ground is available to Fodor himself. Thus for anyone uneasy with Fodor’s innativism, his argument against language learning remains a powerful reductio ad absurdum of his representationalism. But the idea does provide a way to begin, at least, to address the version of his argument against learning, mentioned at the start of this paper, framed in terms of prior concept possession but agnostic about Fodor’s account of inner vehicles of content. Other people’s use of the word ‘green’ – expressing in their case full-blown conceptual mastery – can be compared by the novice with their own prior local conception. Fodor’s charge of circularity – that the same concept is both learnt and presupposed – can thus be avoided.
What of concept acquisition given an anti-reductionist view of meaning? A local conception offers only partial progress here. By contrast with Ginsborg’s own account of primitive normativity, the idea that normativity always presupposes that the subject has some, albeit local, conception according to which she acts provides no middle ground between the ‘space of reasons’ and the ‘realm of law’ or the ‘manifest image of man in the world’ and the ‘scientific image’. Even a local conception belongs in the space of reasons. So it cannot be part of a route into that space from outside. But it does help put a little flesh on the bones of the idea that ‘light dawns gradually over the whole’.
‘The whole’ need not merely be understood to be the gradual acquiring of a world view, as Wittgenstein describes in On Certainty (from where the phrase comes) [Wittgenstein 1969 §141]. It can also include the piecemeal acquisition of particular primitive, albeit still conceptually structured, rules. Acquiring a new linguistic concept can be mediated through the grasp of normative rules picked out by only some instances. The sorting of green objects, in Ginsborg’s example, may express a rule which governs only a subset of green objects leaving the learner baffled or undecided by very dark or light greens or clear green glass or green light. It would then be a further step to a full-blown linguistic concept of green construed, for example, as a property of objects. The primitive local conception would be consistent with a range of possible extensions and developments and serve as just a step, or part of the route, towards full-blown conceptual normativity. On the other hand, however, understanding primitive normativity as expressive of a local conception governing a local standard of correctness already places it within the conceptual realm or the space of reasons. It does not offer an account of how conceptual normativity can be bootstrapped from non-conceptual dispositions but does suggest how more complex and abstract concepts cane be developed from more primitive local forms.

Ginsborg’s account of primitive normativity promises both to underpin a novel response to Kripkean scepticism and also to suggest a halfway house for concept learning. In this paper, I have outlined two possible versions of primitive normativity: a ‘no conception’ and a ‘local conception’ version. Only the former could plausibly be thought to underpin a novel response to Kripkean scepticism but it fails to account for a key aspect of normativity. That is, that an agent acts intentionally under some conception of what he or she is doing. The alternative ‘local conception’ cannot form part of a novel response to Kripkean scepticism because it is as vulnerable to sceptical hypotheses concerning what one meant in the past, or the rule one was following, expressed in either general or context-independent terms. Of course, whether or not it is so vulnerable depends on whether such scepticism can be turned aside by other arguments [eg McDowell 1984]. However, the local conception does suggest at least a partial response to the question of how concept acquisition or language learning is possible. An intermediate step to full-blown conceptual mastery is the acquisition of locally expressed concepts. These both require context-bound demonstrative expression and may, additionally, under-determine the extension of subsequent linguistically codified concepts.

Fodor, J. (2008) LOT2: The language of thought revisited. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Ginsborg, H. (2011) ‘Primitive Normativity and Skepticism about Rules’ The Journal of Philosophy 108: 227-254
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Student experience and the proper aim of a university

My university has launched an admirable initiative to ask its staff what our conception of the University is. One discussion prompted me to think about one specific aspect.

Two initial caveats. UCLan successfully serves a laudable educational and social function. Many of its students are first generation university attenders. They seek out and get a good, and I think life-transforming, education. The contrast between that idea and going to university as a mere upper middle class finishing school is one of the reasons I found being in Durham less inspiring than I had hoped. (I wore a UCLan hoodie out and about when my social hackles rose.)

Interestingly, also, UCLan students enjoy life in the city of Preston which might not seem as obviously lovely as other northern cities such as York. The relation between the university, the city and what the students manage to make of things themselves makes the experience a good one. They report good things about living here and hence enjoy their time at the university.

UCLan prides itself on that last idea. And why not, given the sacrifice that many of our students and their families make to come? Why would we not worry about the nature of their overall experience? We do and this is reflected in careful attention to national student survey results, SSLCs, and committees called Student Experience Committees (on one of which I serve). Nothing to follow, goes against that.

But although I think that the positive nature of our students’ experiences of the university is something to be actively sustained, there is something a little odd first about the way that becomes a kind of singular but general abstract noun: ‘the student experience’. Now one might worry that such a phrase undermines or ignores the variety of student experiences. But I wonder more broadly whether we should make the high quality of student experience – important though it is – our aim.

Here’s the thought. Whilst the outcome of a good ‘student experience’ is to be desired, perhaps we should not aim at it. By aiming at it, we’ll miss. But if we aim at a different target we might get it as well.

So first: there’s a distinction between a description and an aim. Universities might or might not support an outcome. It may or may not be – descriptively – true that their students have a good experience of university life. A distinct question is whether that is an aim. There is then a subtle further prudential issue: even if such an outcome is desirable, should it be the target of university policy? My hunch is that it shouldn’t be the primary policy.

Two problems strike me about taking student experience as the aim. First, it fails to distinguish between a proper aim for a university and for the pubs and clubs that also cater to student life. Since the university’s conception of ‘experience’ is implicitly distinct why not say so. The word ‘experience’ misleads. Second, although that word might be understood to mean ‘overall’ or ‘over time’ or even ‘over a lifetime’, it suggests something both more momentary and concerning which the student him or herself is an authority. Again, although that seems appropriate when thinking about the service a pub or club offers, it doesn’t seem right for a university.

The reason for this is that getting an education should be a profoundly transforming experience, moulding and shaping adult character, affecting one’s capacity for thought, reflection and sensitivity to the demands of whole new tracts of the space of reasons. Given that it changes the subjects who undergo it, there is no reason to think them authoritative about its nature in the short term nor that that it should always seem, at the time, a positive experience. For example, changing one’s mind about something, coming to see that one was wrong, that one weighed the factors hastily or was blind to some important reasons can be an unpleasant experience but no less right for that. But even reading Kant, or Wittgenstein, McDowell or Travis can be less than enjoyable at first, can be a bad experience in one sense of that word.

If we aim to educate our students, they will overall have a positive experience. Surely better to aim at education, in the deepest sense of that word, and let the experience follow than to aim at the experience and hope that the education follows.