The decisive conjuring trick has been made**

It is very tempting to suppose we can clearly distinguish choosing excellent speakers/philosophy essays and choosing only men’s work.  There are reasons to think we might make some mistakes when we reject a woman’s work or don’t think about women when we think of speakers – our implicit biases – but if we try very hard, we can and do just choose on merit.  Of course, seeing ourselves in this way  means we’ll be inclined to think that if one’s criteria of choice explicitly employ gender, one is not just concentrating on philosophical excellence.

As a student of two Wittgensteinians, I have to wonder if in allowing this, we are missing the decisive conjuring trick, one that has already been worked.  I don’t know that  it has.  I want, however, to try out a line of thought.  Perhaps it won’t be very fruitful.  But also perhaps there’s something worth discussing.

So, what creates agreement  in a philosophical community about what are the promising lines of enquiry?  Do we as a community have a particular ability simply to see philosophical excellence?  I want to use a recent challenge to a long standing view to raise a question about whether our philosophical decisions are as  transparent to us as perhaps we like to think.

Michael Thompson’s recent book, Life and Action: Elementary Structures of Practice and Practical Thought, contains an argument that, if it is correct, seems to count against a very, very pervasive agreement in the analytic philosophical community.  The agreement is that actions are explained – or in Davidson’s sense, rationalized – by a belief-desire pair.  Thus, my going to a store is to be  explained in terms of my desire to buy milk and my belief that in going to the  store I am likely to be able to buy the milk.  (I’m being loose with the  details.)

A  second component is that the belief and the desires are propositional attitudes, and so understandable in terms of “that” clauses.  I believe that such-and-such about going to  the store and I desire that I buy milk.

In this context, Thompson has a stunning argument, which is summarized in a review this way:

When I rationalize my flipping of the switch by pointing out that I want to turn on the light, surely I am appealing to a mental state of mine, an attitude with a non-imperfective propositional content — my want that I turn on the light. Thompson argues, however, that there is not even a plausible space for propositional attitudes of this latter sort. Indeed, if we consider the various acceptable linguistic forms, i.e. ‘that I was turning on the light’, ‘that I turned on the light’, and ‘that I am turning on the light’, we recognize that there is no ‘that I turn on the light’. More precisely, we realize that the only such usage is a habitual usage, as in “I walk to school in the mornings,” or “I turn out the light before leaving.” …  (jj’s stress/also, following relevant considerations in the argument are being left out.)

In short, there isn’t a propositional attitude to be had.  A rough calculation suggests to me that we’re seeing that a dogma that has held for over 30 years is actually highly questionable.  This is also a large issue, since the folk are supposed to belief in this belief-desire psychology, even though one would have  thought the folk probably have too much grammatical sense to buy into it.  Further, much of the impetus toward the recent and pretty ubiquitous, highly linguistic picture of thinking is connected to belief-desire psychology.

So what is happening, if it turns out the account of action explanation  is challengeable in such a straight-forward way?  We might say that what we should realize is that we are operating within a normal science in Kuhn’s sense, and all the dissenting voices are pushed aside and not given much credence.  We all know that science operates that way, and actually in spite of that we do get progress in science.  I’m not sure  that we all think philosophy does or should operate that way, especially since the question of progress in philosophy is so tricky, but ….

(In fact, the attacks on belief-desire psychology may be getting stronger, and we may be coming to the end of a normal science, but we should know that much of  Thompson’s background rests with Elizabeth Anscombe and Philippa Foot and actually precedes Davidson and Fodor.)

So our choices and agreement about what is excellent really do have pretty immense social settings.  And these are social settings in which people get chosen to perform certain roles, to be in certain groups, and  to get certain kinds of encouragement and acceptances.  So perhaps the speakers chosen today were not necessarily the best and the brightest; rather, compared to their female contemporaries, they simply were not as badly handicapped.

 **The quote actually is:  “The decisive movement in the conjuring trick has been made, and it was the very one we thought quite innocent.” (Wittgenstein, PI para.308).  And of course for many the distinction between choosing based on excellence and choosing based on gender has seemed a very innocent distinction.