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Tag Archives: Tim Thornton

Having a Beer with Philosophy

Sometimes I regret that philosophy is not done this way, in conversation (was this not the meaning of the Socrates method before it was formalized and staged in dialogues). Tim Thornton tells of a fond memory he had, when he had the fortune of sitting with Davidson in a pub, passing from intermittent dialogue to Dionysus.

Interestingly, this was a conference when Davidson finally came out and said IT, animals don’t have minds:

It was at a conference in Reading in 1996, a last chance to see Quine in this world, an opportunity to watch Dennett get the better of Searle and to hear Davidson say he was tired of being subtle about the matter and that animals really didn’t have minds.

Its interesting because I find in Davidson’s thinking the roots for a pan-psychic presupposition, founded upon a Spinozist grammar of affects. For me such a momentary lack of subtlety is perhaps less of note, for philosophy at times requires subtlety (here, how “mind” is restrictively defined). In this case Davidson seems merely to have claimed something of the order: beliefs cannot be categorically ascribed to animals, an issue he skirts in “The Three Varieties of Knowledge”. As I have argued elsewhere, such ascription must be context dependent, and as such only is a rational linguistic framework upon an already working triangulation that readily occurs in animals, and in us (as we are animals as well). I do though find it significant how we read philosophers when they just come right out and say something that otherwise in theory they were quite careful to step around, it is something like, “Enough with philosophy, this is what I think!” It says something about the authority we grant to thinkers, perhaps like how we do to painters. You have been there, you have looked at it, what do you think (not, what would you argue)? I think that this is the charm and substance of Tim Thornton’s recollection. We can see ourselves there. 

I often think how nice it would be to sit with philosophers of influence, how disappointing perhaps, the knight without his chainmail and shield, but also, so much more understandable.

“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.

Davidson Fast and Loose With Conceptual Schemes?

 

Daniel over at SOH-Dan picks up on quote from an older post of mine, Spinoza, Davidson and Conceptual Dualism…Only Two?, and provides some interesting information. I had quoted from Davidson and Spinoza: Mind, Matter and Morality  (Floris van der Berg), an comment made by a Wittgensteinian:

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,)

This has bearing of course on any Davidson/Spinoza connection we might foster, so it is of interest that Daniel reports that in Stuart Hampshire “Davidson in Conversation” recordings, Davidson actually quite easily speaks of other conceptual, irreducible frameworks. And Daniel is even kind enough to provide us with an extensive quote from the hard to find material:

I certainly think that we have more than two ways of conceiving reality. I often sound as if I think there are just two, natural science and psychology or something, but, no, there are a lot of natural sciences, and they have different ways of describing things, perhaps irreducibly different…. I don’t know how you’d count potential conceptual schemes, so I don’t see that one should boggle at them [like Spinoza did].

There are some worthwhile exchanges in the comments section, and we certainly see that Davidson has different sense of conceptual scheme than Spinoza had of Attributes (hence where Spinoza “boggles”, Davidson merely muses). More compelling than this is that we touch on the morality issue. Thornton notably points out that all situations might be said to be described morally. Daniel and I both agree that there is a moral or ethical component already buried within Davidson’s notion of psychology. And this is precisely where I find the strongest Davidson/Spinoza connection, the way that mental states as coherent and epistemic expressions necessarily carry with them a triangulating and thus charitable force. My suspicion has been that Spinoza buries in the category of the conatus the traditional Augustinian third form of “amare” (esse, nosse, amare: natural, rational, moral) also expressed as “will”, a third Attribute. The implicate presence of the moral/ethical within Davidson’s and Spinoza’s monism is something that I think Thornton importantly, if accidentally, does touch on.

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?