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“The Bit That Never Really Worked”: Davidson’s Concept Dualism

All Language Games are The Same?

 Tim Thorton has found the discussion we were having over his (over a beer) interesting thoughts on Davidson’s Conceptual Dualism. Is it true that Davidson held there to be only two conceptual frameworks, two kinds of causal explanations, the physical and the mental? In his recent post “Davidson, McDowell and Conceptual Dualism”  he quotes Rorty against any notional reduction of the realm of reasons to a sui generis, “forms of intelligibility” or even a “space”. Or course Rorty’s game is that he wants to deprive philosophers of any authoritative position in relation to other discourses. Philosophers have no privileged access to something which is affirmatively “meta” to all else. Therefore for Rorty,

“All language games are sui generis. That is, they are irreducible to one another… But this sense of ‘sui generis’… is philosophically sterile.
If we are trying to give philosophy Wittgensteinian peace, we should do what Dewey did: try to make all the philosophical ‘dichotomies’ look like over dramatizations of the banal fact that different tools serve different purposes.”

Wittgenstein of course  is rather fast and loose with the concept of “language game,” which seems to serve as too much mortor with very little brick, so much so Rorty’s claim that all language games are sui generis amounts to little more than any sub-set of human communications is its own kind, certainly not a very helpful claim.

The question is not whether they are all irreducible to each other, but in what specific way this is so for the concepts of the natural and the reasoned (or the physical and the mental). Tim Thornton questions whether Davidson should be called into this debate, mostly it seems because that in Tim’s view, though there is a homology between Davidson’s Anomalous Monism and McDowell’s position, Davidson’s Conceptual Dualism never really worked:

But there is an important distinction between the McDowellian distinction Rorty criticises and the Davidsonian one that Floris and I used to think about. The Davidson of anomalous monism seems to focus on the mental versus the physical whilst McDowell thinks that reason versus nature is the uber distinction what makes mind versus the natural world seem so problematic. So there’s already a sense that the McDowellian distinction is supposed to be more general than the one in play in Davidson’s (perhaps misleading of his own thoughts) writing about the metaphysics of mind.

It’s supposed to capture something general in the way that reasons connect together, distinct from nomological or statistical subsumption: something that might be common to political discussion and appreciation (if that’s what we’re about) of soccer and carpentry. This general logical difference (a difference in the kind of explanation they support) might form the basis of a reply to Rorty’s challenge. Whether one would want to recruit Davidson to this response seems to me to depend on whether one is focusing on his (it’s the same but different) account of the mind (the bit that first prompts a comparison with Spinoza), or whether one thinks that that bit never really worked but that his account of the role of rationality in content ascription was first rate and floats free. (I took this line in my book on Wittgenstein.)

Rationality Without Triangulation?

I am a bit unclear about this idea that the Conceptual Dualism part of Davidson didn’t ever work. Work to do what? I am even more perplexed that Tim seems to ask that we do away with this deadend “bit” of Davidson (only a bit?), the part that puts him in affinity with Spinoza, and to take hold of his theory of rational ascription. The problem is, I cannot imagine how his theory of rational content ascription gets off the ground without his conceptual dualism firmly in place, since for Davidson our ascriptions of mental content stem directly from our triangulation of Knowledges (“Three Varieties of Knowledge”). The Conceptual Dualism is built right into the structure/fabric of our ability to causally interpret events in the world via an interconnection with events read as behaviors (caused by beliefs). And in subversion of a non-Naturalized approach to these questions, Davidson traces this capacity, perhaps somewhat problematically, below the threshold of the linguistic, something that animals regularly do.

I have not read Tim Thornton’s book (too academically expensive), so I cannot comment in depth upon the line of thinking that he follows there, Wittgenstein on Language and Thought : The Philosophy of Content, but I have to say that given Davidson’s commitment to a Triangulation of Knowledges, its principles of coherence and charity, and a categorical intersubjective leg, I cannot see how the rationality of content ascription “floats free” from the entire view. In fact it is precisely in the ascription of mental content that Wittgenstein and Davidson most greatly diverge, in the famed reasons vs. cause dispute; and it is in ascription itself that I find Wittgenstein inconsistently categorical and rhetorical, as I discuss in “The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation”. I have my Spinozist stripes, so perhaps Tim’s dismissal of the Davidson/Spinoza comparision out of hand is something I cannot easily abide, but it seems to me that it is not awayfrom Spinoza, but towards him, if we are to make the most out of the groundwork of Davidson’s Triangulation. That is, human beings do not only triangulate knowledge of mental content in terms of propositional sentence ascription, but clearly such ascriptions depend upon a very rich triangulation of affects, the way in which we feel the world as sensical through the assumption that others are the same as us, and the value of events in the world is based upon how others must be experiencing them. And more than this, it is within Spinoza’s “imitation of the affects” that we best understand what Wittgenstein had to say about knowing and pain.

The “moral” Attribute

As Van der Burg points out, Davidson’s difficulty comes from an apparent reduction of the metaphysics of Substance to the phsyical, understanding that scientific materialism itself is a metaphysical position. And as SOH-Dan pointed out in the citation of Davidson in interview, he did not mean to restrict possible Concepts of causation to merely Two. Tim Thornton’s excellent, having-a-beer-inspired suggestion that there may even be a “moral” conceptual causal chain actually points us toward the possibility that Spinoza suppressed the traditional Augustine trinity of ontological attributes, condensing “love” into the conatus and a theory of the affects. What is important about this is that far from the general collapse of all “language games” into family resemblance sui generis  pockets of discussion wherein there is no substantive difference between “talk about soccer or carpentry” and “talk about agreement” is that while talk about the former indeed may exhibit local rules of engagement, talking about the latter actually directs our attention to how agreements between local “language games” can be found, in our experiences and presumptions that others are like us. This does not give philosophers a privileged place above other discourses, but rather gives them a role in the imagination of our solutions, providing architectures that may or may not be built, just as poets write poems that may or may not be sung.

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A River Runs Through it: Scotus, Spinoza and then Davidson

 

 

In recent conversation the connection between contemporary philosopher Donald Davidson and Spinoza has come up, a connection which I have felt runs in several directions. Previously the only thing I had strictly read on this is Davidson and Spinoza: Mind, Matter and Morality by Floris van der Burg, which in my view aside from its conclusions on morality, is very instructive to the matter. Yet today I stumbled upon another source, this one more accessible (only 13 pages): From Duns Scotus to Davidson: Anomalous Monism, Supervenience and the Formal Distinction  Pascal Engel, Conférence, Universita di Verona, 1998, Inédit [or here]

(I am coming to think that in order to fully understand the heritage of Spinoza’s treatment of the attributes they will have to be related not only to Scotus’s formal distinction, but also to the Scotus/Aquinas debate, along with its Neoplatonic influences (both Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius). Here is a thread of Medieval panpsychism which constitutes another story. Spinoza’s treatment of epistemology has strong Augustinian or Pseudo Dionysius principles, in synthesis with Duns Scotus’s univocality of Being, formal treatment of the “names of God”. A synthesis whose ultimate informing sources I have yet to track down.)

In any case, I was looking into the Duns Scotus-Spinoza connection, one written about intriguingly by Deleuze in ’68; I posted some relevant and extensive quotations from Deleuze here:  Spinoza as a Scotist: Formally Distinct and Univocal, for there is very little internet presence of this idea, and not everyone relishes wading through Deleuze.

So it was nice to run into this essay which draws the thread straight through from Duns Scotus to Spinoza’s treatment of the Attributes to Davidson’s distinction between causal relation and a causal explanation. I feel that there are even more important and productive connections between Davidson and Spinoza, mostly found in the homologous order of the Triangulation of Knowledge in Davidson and Spinoza’s grounding of the social within the Imiations of the Affects, but this essay is an excellent source of the armature of Spinoza’s treatment of the same, identity and causation such that it can be effectively read in contemporary terms.

Key to the interpretion is Scotus’s notion of the Formal Distinction, which is something found neither in the intellect, nor even fully in real things, but one could say, in the real of their expression (something that bothered Occam to no end). It is a formal individuating difference, as it is presented here by Engel:

To summarize Scotus claims about distinctions. Entities which are separable by divine power, in the sense that one can exist while the other does not, are “absolutely really” distinct, and those which cannot be so separate are “absolutely really” the same. But within the class of entities which are “absolutely really” the same, we can find pairs of entities which are “qualifiedly” distinct. For example where a and b are absolutely really the same but each is definable independently of the the other, a and b are “formally” distinct. The formal distinction is, as Duns Scotus says, “on the side of things”; it is not a mere conceptual or rational distinction. Thus formal distinction is compatible with real sameness. This is the doctrine which is important for my purposes here: certain things which are true of an entity can be distinct although they belong to the common nature of this entity. The individuating difference is in the individual in question really the same as the common nature that it determines, but nevertheless formally distinct from it (4)

It was just this formal distinction within an identity of Same which allowed Spinoza to make his Attribute distinctions of parallel expressions. For those interested even in one aspect of this trinity of thinkers, Engel does a succinct job of expressing each thinker’s position, and then clearly relates each as a heritage of the next.

Spinoza, Davidson and Conceptual Dualism…Only Two?

Tim Thornton’s Question

In Floris van der Burg’s excellent study of the conceptual similarities between the work of contemporary philosopher Donald Davidson (a favorite of mine) and Baruch Spinoza, in which he fruitfully uses each philosopher to critique the other…Davidson to apply the linguistic turn to Spinoza and Spinoza to re-articulate the largely unstated metaphysical bias of Scientific materialism in Davidson, I found a powerful footnote and it has been tugging on me since I read the book over a year ago.

Van der Burg is exploring Davidson’s un-Spinozist collapse of metaphysical Substance into matter, while retaining a conceptual dualism, the mental and the physical which corresponds to Spinoza’s Attributes of Thought and Extension. Mentioned in passing is a criticism put to Davidson by a Wittgensteinian friend of the author:

Here I want to refer to my friend and former colleague at Warwick University Tim Thornton, a Wittgensteinian. He told me years ago that he never understood why Davidson was a conceptual dualist. Why stop at two conceptual spheres or modes of description? Why is the distinction between the mental and the physical so much more compelling than any other way that we can think of to describe the world? Would it not be sensible to say that all situations can, in some way, be described as moral? Tim Thornton thought that conceptual pluralism made more, Wittgensteinian, sense. (footnote, p. 27, Davidson and Spinoza: Mind, Matter and Morality, Floris van der Berg)

The Hidden Third Attribute?

This remark is I believe far more cutting than it would seem at first glance, for it extends beyond Davidson, revealing the very architecture of Spinoza’s re-division of a Scholastic inheritance. When the question is turned to Spinoza, in light of a comparison to Campanella’s Three Primalities discussed here in my last post, we see that Spinoza has turned one traditional division of Being, what both Campanella and Augustine called Amore, into a conatus driven, epistemologically grounded, expression of power (and not a conceptual Attribute). For Spinoza, modal essences (conatus) are striven in two Attributes, across epistemic states of relative power and Being. Tim Thornton’s Wittgensteian question opens up the very nature of the distinction Spinoza is attempting to make. There is a sense in which Spinoza has taken the third Attribute of Augustine’s esse, nosse, amore [to be, to know, to love] (transfigured in Campanella as potentia, sapientia, amor), and displaced it along a vector which distinguishes the modes. It can be argued that buried in this transfiguration of amore are the distinctions that allow Spinoza to turn his ontology into an Ethica. This is an interesting move from three to two, in particular because Spinoza tells us that there are not only Two Attributes, but an infinite number, only two of which our intellect can discern. What is the result of this transformation, in particular in view of Thornton’s question?

It is my intuition that by restoring the trinity of concepts as primalities of Being, in an analytic maneuver, the full constitutive relationship of rationality and the imagination that we find in Spinoza’s arguments toward sociability (part IV of the Ethics), (and Davidson’s ethical advisment that prescription proceeds description), are recast in a panpsychism of sense (the void of the lower orders implicit in Spinoza’s architecture of Being are made more explicit: is the relative passivity of trees due to their holding of inadequate ideas?). Tim Thornton’s question to Davidson, though designed to point to conceptual pluralism, opens up the possibility of an Attribute of the moral.

Augustine’s esse, nosse, amore, come from the base questions What? How? Why? in The City of God (xi, 26) and corresponding to the classical categories of the Natural, the Logical, and the Moral (vii, 4), in Spinoza and Davidson, are played out through a dualism of concept, in history, for Spinoza in Extension, Thought and Joy. The question remains, what are the metaphysical commitments that lie beneath this play of history, even for Davidson, who wished to shrug off the metaphysical. And does the trinity of concepts then enliven even further Spinoza’s panpsychism of supposedly sensing, imagining, ideating confused bodies, in continual assemblage?