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[Wittrs] A Wittgensteinian Critique of Dennett's Project [message #4992] Wed, 16 June 2010 04:03 Go to next message
Cayuse is currently offline  Cayuse
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Introduction copied from Daniel Hutto's 1995 paper:




Professor Dennett has recently embarked on what he considers a "demystifying philosophical investigation" with respect to the phenomena of consciousness. In essence the strategy he has employed is one of getting us to "trade in" our ordinary intuitions so as to soften us up for the first phases of a full-fledged "scientific" explanation of consciousness in terms of sub-personal systems and their ontogenetic origins. His hope is that, once we are freed from certain misleading metaphors about the mind we will be receptive to such an "explanation."

In concentrating on this first stage of his treatment of conscious phenomena I would like to offer a critique of Dennett's project from a Wittgensteinian perspective. For Wittgenstein was also concerned to "demystify" consciousness but his approach differed remarkably from Dennett's. And this is ironic because in challenging our "everyday" intuitions about consciousness the latter essentially regards himself as working within a Wittgensteinian framework. For example, he tells us that "My debt to Wittgenstein is large and long-standing" and he confesses that "what I am doing [is] a kind of redoing of Wittgenstein's attack on the 'objects' of conscious experience."

I wish here to challenge the idea that the "reductive character" of Dennett's project is in any way Wittgensteinian in spirit. I want to suggest that at a crucial point in their philosophy their views diverge significantly. That is to say, although they are good travelling companions up to an important cross-roads, in the end, their incompatible concerns take them in different directions. Furthermore, by reviewing Dennett's project of "explaining" consciousness, we might begin to see some good reasons for preferring Wittgenstein's "road less travelled." Thus, although Dennett's account of consciousness is often given centre stage in what follows, my ultimate aim is to throw light on the nature of Wittgenstein's philosophical psychology by using Dennett as a foil. This should help us to see precisely how the former's approach differs importantly from those advanced by many of today's philosophers and cognitive scientists.



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[Wittrs] Re: A Wittgensteinian Critique of Dennett's Project [message #4993 is a reply to message #4992] Wed, 16 June 2010 10:01 Go to previous message
SWMirsky is currently offline  SWMirsky
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--- In Wittrs@yahoogroups.com, "Cayuse" <z.z7@...> wrote:
> Introduction copied from Daniel Hutto's 1995 paper:
> https://uhra.herts.ac.uk/dspace/bitstream/2299/538/1/900141.pdf

A useful piece, thanks Cayuse. I think Hutto is pretty good on his Wittgenstein but not so much on his Dennett. His attack on Dennett comes down to this, near the end of the article:

"It is not that Dennett has been more thorough in his application of Wittgenstein's principles, rather it is that he has thoroughly misunderstood those principles. We must correctly describe our psychology by attending to our ordinary psychological talk. We will not escape our philosophical problems by supplanting such talk (or surpassing it) by advancing a superior theory. This reveals the crucial difference in the character of their 'demystifying' investigations. To successfully demystify consciousness Dennett thinks we need to develop a principled, and revisionist, theory of consciousness —- but, if Wittgenstein is right what we require is a rearrangement of facts we have already always known. We need to get a clear view of the nature of our psychological language."

Note that Dennett is not engaged in a project designed to consider or elucidate our usage of language in the sphere of psychology but, rather, in a study aimed at supporting the scientific inquiry into how brains do what they do (produce consciousness in beings that have brains of the right type, of course).

Nothing in Dennett's approach

1) Denies the validity of Wittgenstein's insights into how language misleads us philosophically;

2) Aims to provide a basis for psychological exchanges between language users; or

3) Aims to deny that psychological language is the proper sphere for talking about others' motivations, feelings, beliefs, thoughts, drives, etc.

Rather, Dennett's approach is aimed at providing a way of understanding the psychological phenomena we associate with having a mind (subjective experience of the world) in a scientific way.

By "scientific way" I mean, of course, the offering of objective descriptions of phenomena and their causes with the aim of developing and testing the predictive powers of the resultant explanations (theories).

So it is no argument against Dennett to say that he doesn't simply channel Wittgenstein. The two were aiming at different outcomes, Wittgenstein to resolve (ultimately by dissolving) philosophical quandaries (and show us a better way of tackling philosophical issues), Dennett to provide a way of thinking about minds (building on Wittgenstein's insights) that allows for a physicalist description of mental phenomena consistent with what we know of science and the world.

Hutto starts out by reminding us that Wittgenstein exploded the idea that minds (or their various features) are "objects" named by words in a language (invoking his private language "argument" in the Investigations). Instead, on this Wittgensteinian view, language about mental phenomena really consists of instances of different kinds (non-referential) of linguistic uses (e.g., expressive, behavioral, instructive, prescriptive, etc.). But Dennett, Hutto tells us, naively slips back into the referential mode and so misses the Wittgensteinian boat.

In this I think it is Hutto who is being naive. That language plays different roles for us in the psychological realm (a la Wittgenstein) does not preclude it from playing a descriptive/reporting role in some cases, too -- even granting that words about mental phenomena (our experiences) are going to have a much more slippery application than words about shared public events (because language's public provenance makes it most suitable for public phenomena).

I'm reminded of my own efforts to explain a physical sensation I was having to a medical team. My inability to provide an adequate description, one that matched something for which I could find a suitable public word stymied me and I finally settled on a word I considered wrong but adequate for the occasion. (I made a choice based on pragmatic considerations, for the effect I calculated it would have, rather than for the descriptive accuracy it carried.) In doing so, I was under no illusion that the sensation I was referring to was any kind of physical object, of course, with the describable features of such objects (features whose descriptions I could reasonably inferred the members of the medical team would be as familiar with as i was). But clearly the sensation they were asking me about and which I was trying to describe was a kind of object, too. In this case we could call it an object of reference (what they wanted to hear described and which I wanted to describe). But Hutto confuses this notion of "objects".

On page 468 Hutto writes of Wittgenstein's approach:

"What is important, for the terms of our discussion, is that because he attacks the name-object view of language Wittgenstein is led to abandon the 'picture' of inner mental processes. He feels that the name-object view of psychological language is not only ill-founded, it is what prevents us from seeing our psychological situation aright."

Hutto is not wrong to note this but, intriguingly, on page 476, toward the end, he goes on to write this:

"The important thing to notice is that talk of 'our experiences' is not to be treated as analogous to the language we use when talking about physical objects."

Note his introduction of the qualifier "physical". If it were just "objects" that were at issue, there would have been no need for the qualifier nor would the qualifier have added anything to our understanding of what he means. But the fact that he sees a need to introduce it and that it does seem to add something should remind us that "object", like so many of our words, has more than one meaning. And yet Hutto mistakenly takes Wittgenstein's attack on the word-object relation as applied to psychological phenomena as an attack on the idea that we can refer to mental phenomena in an objective, i.e., descriptive way.

Of course that is just what Dennett is endeavoring to do. He is looking closely at our usual notions of consciousness and mind (folk notions, he sometimes calls them) and, in light of Wittgenstein's insights, reminding us that, though we may use similar words for such "objects", such usage doesn't make them the same sort of "objects" nor do the uses play the same role.

Can we refer to our mental "objects" then? Can mental phenomena be objects for us in this Dennettian sense? Hutto seems to be saying that, on Wittgenstein's view, they cannot (even while invoking distinctions like "physical" that show us that "objects" does not only refer to objects with physical features). And yet, when I was telling the doctors whether I had pain, I was doing more than expressing myself, just saying "ouch". If the statement "I have pain" sometimes is little more than a cry of "ouch", it isn't always just that. The doctors were after information to allow them to proceed with a diagnosis and then appropriate treatment. For that "ouch" may not have been enough or, if it were, it would have been so as evidence for the kind of sensation I was having. For me, trying to describe the sensation, I did not feel that "ouch" fit the bill. Finally, though, in deference to the inadequacy of language in this case I made the decision to give them the equivalence of "ouch" which did seem to prove roughly sufficient as I'd anticipated. Still, I can conceive of other circumstances where more would definitely have been needed.

There are innumerable instances in our own experience of the need to provide psychological reports where the fact that the object of reference is not a something, doesn't mean it's therefore a nothing! On this list I once described how I had a moment of incomprehension followed by comprehension in which no overt actions played a part, only certain mental images in my head and a feeling of relaxation following a feeling of confusion as understanding kicked in.

No, the occurrence was certainly not like a red beach ball. I could not point to it in the publicly shared world and say there it is, or point to a picture of it and say this is what it is. Yet, on this list I could describe the occurrence and differentiate it from other occurrences and, to some extent at least, expect that others reading this would have some understanding of what I was saying, what I was describing.

Are there mental events then? Mental pictures? Well Wittgenstein certainly thought there were as, in his later years, he frequently referred to having this or that picture in our heads. When I had that bout of whooping cough and fainted from loss of oxygen to my brain and awoke to a kind of dream like experience in which I was looking at my computer screen and trying to type something onto it but could not read what I had already typed, was that not an especially vivid mental picture? And when I recall it now or describe it here to others, do I not also report a mental picture?

Again, it's not a beach ball, with color and shape, extension and texture and certain capabilities (to bounce, float on water, be passed around from hand to hand). But isn't it something that happened at a particular point in time and, being describable, hasn't it got features, too? It's not a something (as in a physical object, a publicly observable phenomenon) but it's not a nothing either (as in a non-occurrence).

I agree with Hutto's rejection of the application of the behaviorist label to Wittgenstein but I think it is equally mistaken to apply it to Dennett, as Hutto does. Now I won't pretend to speak for Dennett here or to suggest that I am an expert on his work. The only major work of his I have ever read is Consciousness Explained, which I found congenial, so I don't know his full philosophy, the full range of his positions. But, based on Consciousness Explained, there is no indication in his thinking of a commitment to behaviorism.

In that book, Dennett repeatedly references consciousness in terms of its many subjective features: how things taste, smell, feel, please us, etc. Yes, he is keen to find a way of explaining all these things in a manner that allows for a physicalist account which enables us to understand how the physical operations of certain entities (like brains) could be fully responsible for subjectness (the condition of being a subject, having a mental life). And, in doing so, he certainly does focus on descriptive language applied to mental phenomena. But that isn't to asssert that there is no such thing as experience or that only talk about behavior is needed in order to account for minds.

Nor is it, by the same token, deny the role of other language games we use for other purposes and in other contexts. That we have ways of speaking to one another that deal with our motivations, desires, beliefs, expectations, etc., or that we have disciplines, such as some forms of psychology, that address themselves to the relations implied by these ways of speaking (in terms of these same ways of speaking), doesn't undermine the possibility that we can also have perfectly intelligible disciplines like neurophysiology, neurobiology, etc., which aim to discover how brains do the things they do. Or that some philosophers may concern themselves with the issues that surround the validity (or lack of validity) of these latter disciplines.

On the Matter of "Processes"

One other quick point. In the quote I gave above Hutto states:

"Wittgenstein is led to abandon the 'picture' of inner mental processes"

Here Hutto leaves us with the distinct impression that Wittgenstein's work is diametrically opposed to the Dennettian thesis that mind is just so many brain processes running together in a certain way, none of which are themselves what we mean by mind (or the features of mind if we prefer to speak of mind as an array of features). But I would suggest that here, too, Hutto is making a mistake because he is using "processes" in a different way or, rather he is taking Wittgenstein's use in that quote and misapplying it to Dennett's usage. Once again it's important to be sensitive to language and word use.

Wittgenstein famously noted that referring to the phenomena of our mental lives was not to assert that there is an inner process going on inside us which we were reporting when we asserted our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, desires, etc. Rather, on this Wittgensteinian view, there just are these things which consist of our behaviors (and, on what I would argue is a properly Wittgensteinian view, of our perceptions of those behaviors, both overt and covert, using Gerardo's distinction, i.e., the feelings of what is going on in ourselves in having these behavior complexes).

But "process" in the Dennettian sense is not THAT "process" at all! Wittgenstein had in mind to deny that we had inner events and outer expressions of them. What he meant us to understand was that every event is coterminous with its expression, it does not stand apart from it in some inner space. But Dennett's reference to process is to the physical operations brains that (and other entities) engage in. To explain mental phenomena as the product of these kinds of processes is NOT to suggest that there are some inner processes that accompany our reports and expressions in the sense that Wittgenstein is concerned to deny. Indeed, the evidence for this is in Dennett's frequent assertion that we have no privileged access to what is happening in our brains, that our conscious minds ride atop an agglomeration of non-conscious physical occurrences.

So Hutto wrongly supposes that Wittgenstein's denial of inner processes sets him apart from Dennett's affirmation of brain processes. Based on a linguistic confusion on Hutto's part, nothing could be further from the truth.


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